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House of Cards by Aphoride
Chapter 1: Two of Spades
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Two of Spades
Thick, midnight blue drapes hang either side of the huge, arched windows which line the whole of the wall, metal candelabras standing between each one. The flames flicker gently, a white-hot yellow, illuminating the room, throwing long shadows away towards the painting on the opposite side, obscuring the face of a simpering young girl, her hair done up in ringlets, a fan in hand, twirling along a deserted beach, dress smoothing down the sand around her, leaving footprints, track marks revealing her swaying, dancing path.
The mood of the girl in the painting stands in stark contrast to the aura surrounding the table which fills most of the room. Easily big enough to welcome thirty people, the vast majority of the wood is bare, polished and gleaming underneath the candlelight. Only eleven places are set this evening; only eight of those are filled.
Soft sobs splash into the silence, sending ripples racing out across the room, hitting every person there. A gentle plea, barely loud enough to be heard by anyone, let alone the one it is intended for, slips out of a pair of lips; a kiss is administered to a cold, limp hand.
Pollux Black looks up from where he is kneeling beside his son, his face hard and set, as though it were carved from granite.
Orion Black lowers his head; Narcissa claps a hand in front of her mouth, tears stinging her eyes; even Sirius, apathetic as he is towards his family, looks vaguely upset. Besides Cygnus’ body, a heap on the floor, Druella continues to sob quietly, clutching his hand in both of hers, rocking backwards and forwards. None of them look at her, although whether this aversion is out of respect or embarrassment, it is impossible to say.
Only two people seem completely unaffected: Bellatrix, already tucking a stray black curl behind her ear and preparing to leave, and Barty Crouch who’s regarding the corpse with something akin to curious interest.
Slowly, Pollux raises a hand and brushes his fingers over his son’s open eyes. Dark eyelashes flutter down, hiding his blank, sightless gaze. If someone had walked into the room at that very moment, they would be forgiven for thinking that he was merely sleeping. A slight, watery smile crosses his face and then he rises to his feet, leaning heavily on his cane.
“Well, I should really be going,” Bellatrix announces, standing up, the creak of her chair on the ground loud. A wooden chair leg lands on her back of her mother’s rose-pink robes, pressing a rectangle into the soft fabric.
Heads turn to look at her. Regulus appears stunned, frozen, and he exchanges a brief glance with Sirius, charcoal eyes meeting light grey, before staring back at his cousin. A lace handkerchief dabbing at the tears on her cheeks, Narcissa doesn’t appear to have heard her sister.
“No,” Orion Black’s voice cuts through the shock as easily as a knife moves through butter. Harsh and staccato, the word crashes down into the silence. “You’re not going anywhere.”
Bellatrix stiffens and flicks her gaze up to fix her uncle with a fierce glare.
“You have no right to tell me what to do! If I want to go, then –“
“No one is going anywhere,” Pollux ends the argument, moving to stand next to his empty chair at the head of the table, one hand on the armrest for support.
Although she glares at him in turn, Bellatrix seems to shrink a little before her grandfather and then, a long moment later, dips her head. She refuses to sit back down, though, her hands gripping the side of the table tightly, her knuckles white.
“All of you will go to the drawing room and wait there,” he orders, his gaze flicking over Bellatrix to Orion, then down to Barty Crouch and Sirius. “All of you. Anyone who runs will be brought back, kicking and screaming if necessary.”
They all look at him, none daring to question if they would be brought back – Pollux Black is a man who has means of accomplishing everything he sets out to do and his family all know it well – or how they would be brought back. A pause, pregnant and expectant, and then Sirius pushes his chair back, hands in his pockets, striding off across the hall, heading for the doors. His father follows him, tall and straight-backed; Regulus catches Barty’s eye and the two of them leave next, side-by-side.
In the drawing room, Sirius immediately sinks into an armchair tucked away in a corner of the room, slumping in it, grateful for the momentary relief, the momentary lack of relatives surrounding him. It doesn’t last anywhere near as long as he wishes it would as his father enters a moment later, Regulus flinging himself onto a black leather sofa, Barty falling down next to him. Catching the eye of the somewhat disgraced Black heir, the blond boy gives him a toothy grin which vanishes quickly as Narcissa and Lucius sweep in together, the latter’s arm around his wife’s waist.
“Why has he insisted we all come in here?” Lucius breaks the silence, glancing around the room with a faintly demanding air, as though he expects the answer to be written on one of the walls, or stitched into the cushions.
Regulus shrugs lazily, elegantly; Sirius barely glances at him and Orion moves to speak, but someone else beats him to it.
“It’s obvious, isn’t it?” Barty looks up at the older wizard, his green eyes alight. He doesn’t grin, though, knowing that it would be rude to smile about a man’s death in front of one of his daughters. “Cygnus Black was murdered and one of us did it.”
A fresh wave of shock rolls through the room. Even Sirius, pretending not to be paying attention, looks up at that, watching Barty intently, curiously. In the doorway, Bellatrix halts, regarding the scene, one hand on the doorframe, the other fingering the handle of her wand.
“What do you mean?” Narcissa stares at him, the tear tracks down her face catching the light from the candles overhead and shining, a transparent reminder of the loss their company had just suffered. “What do you mean my father was murdered?”
Sirius rolls his eyes and shakes his head, a pitying smile now gracing his face.
“Oh, come on, Cissy, don’t be so naïve,” he snorts. “Crouch means exactly what he said: Uncle was murdered and one of us lot at dinner did it. It makes sense – he just collapsed didn’t he? Barely any warning at all. We’re the only people in the house, so if he was murdered, then it has to have been one of us who did it. Is that really so hard to believe?”
“No,” Narcissa declares, drawing herself up to her full height, brushing down the front of her dress. “I refuse to believe it. It’s not true.”
In the doorway, Bellatrix gives a slight cough, looking at her sister with a mocking, superior smile curling the corners of her lips. She says nothing, however, merely sustaining her sister’s defiant, blue-and-red gaze before dropping, surrendering. Releasing a faint sigh, she perches on the edge of the sofa, making sure to keep her wand and robes well away from Barty Crouch, a suspicious look rewarded with an innocent, wide-eyed glance.
Footsteps in the corridor, loud and heavy, alert them to the approach of Pollux, the thud of his cane on the floor like the murmur of an extra, fading heartbeat, half a second behind every other step. None of them look at each other, Barty’s insane, terrible proposal still lingering in the air, mixed in with the traces of dust on the tables and the glass and the books. They are all thinking the same thing: if Cygnus Black was murdered and one of us did it, then who is the killer? Who is the murderer? Who, in this family of wolves, has bathed their hands in the blood of one of their own?
Oblivious to the flicked glances and the sense of such heavy, pressing thoughts, Barty swings his legs backwards and forwards, each time stopping an inch before he hits the front of the sofa, and hums to himself inside his mind.
Druella is no longer crying when she enters the room, supported by her sister-in-law, Pollux close behind them. Both women bear signs of tears – a handkerchief pokes its head out of Walburga’s pocket – but they hold their heads up high and simply absorb the gazes of the others. At a sign from his mother, Regulus slips his legs off the sofa, sitting up properly and shuffles along to sit closer to Barty, allowing space for his aunt to settle next to him. She mutters a quiet ‘thank you’ which he does not return.
Pollux Black stands in the centre of the room, three and a half feet away from the door, surveying them all. His gaze passes over each of their expressions, his mouth turned down, the look in his eyes somewhat softened by the watery rims. Both hands resting on the top of his cane, he takes them all in, one by one: Orion, who watches him closely, all business; Sirius who stares at the floor; Narcissa and Lucius, just in front of him, holding onto each other; Bellatrix, her long nails tapping in a sort of nervous fashion against the arm of the sofa.
They are all one family, one blood, one kin. Well, and his gaze lingers for a moment on Lucius, on Barty, almost all.
“Cygnus is dead,” he begins, the words tasting foreign in his mouth. “I have had his body moved to the crypt before burial. All those who wish to say their final goodbyes will have a week while the mediwizards prepare him for the ceremony to do so. As executor of his will, I shall look over it in the next few days and divide up his property as per his wishes. There is no need for any of you to speak to the mediwizards – I will inform them of the incident myself in the next few minutes. Tomorrow morning I will let you all know when they will be coming to conduct their final examinations and of the conclusion they reach as to the cause of death. For now,” he pauses here, allowing a weary sigh to escape, the yellow flames highlighting the grey streaks in his hair. “I suggest you all go and get some sleep.”
It’s a relatively short speech, quick and to the point, delivered in a slight monotone. Pollux watches as Lucius, in a far better state than his wife, gives him a curt nod and gently leads Narcissa from the room. She doesn’t look at any of them as she leaves, fishing for the scrap of lace in a pocket of her dress again and as she walks out, her grandfather sees that her eyes are swelling up again.
Slowly, bit by bit, the Blacks all trickle out of the room, a small procession of people heading for the same, sweeping staircase, the two torches at the bottom of it creating domes of light, the emerald green of the carpet gleaming. The rest of the staircase is dark, the house-elves having put the candles out before dinner had even begun, and those furthest up it look dark and tall. Sirius’ black robes almost blend in, his hands and the back of his neck giving his position away.
It’s on the staircase when they start to remember, to recall the events of the evening in exquisite, perfect detail. In their minds, they hear the clatter of metal as knives and forks fall to the table, a shrill scream and the sound of chairs being pushed back and then the terrible hacking, rattling coughing – the cough of a dying man. A breath, then two. A third never came, drawn in but never blown out, lips parting silently, releasing oxygen which never made it to the blood. The smell of roast lamb waves over them tantalisingly, forgotten about in lieu of the sight of the man on the floor; the taste of rich red wine is replaced by shock, bland fear and the unmistakeable bitter flavour of death.
They see it all, over and over again, a constant reel, playing inside every mind, a film flashing in front of every eye.
“There was no blood,” Druella remarks suddenly.
Regulus glances at his aunt, hand resting lightly on the cool marble bannister, half in shadow; further up, Bellatrix stops on the top step and turns, the gentle swish of robes muffled by the carpet, to listen. Orion averts his eyes from his sister-in-law, squinting in the light.
“There was no blood,” Druella repeats, pale and thin in the harsh torchlight. Her eyes, wide and blue, stare around at them all, although she doesn’t seem to really see any of them. “It was strange. I thought there would be blood – there always is at these things – but there wasn’t. No blood at all. Strange.”
Leaving the remainder of the family behind her in silence, she glides up the stairs, sedate and almost serene, an evening daydream, turning left at the top and disappearing into the bowels of the house. Behind her, glances are exchanged, received, shot from one to another, crossing over and over, mismatching and reserved. None of them had ever considered it before, it was a thought which hadn’t crossed any of their minds, too busy wondering how and where and when and why and who to consider something like that.
There was no blood.
Visibly uneasy, Orion starts up the stairs, taking them two at a time, his pace quicker than his sister-in-law’s. He says nothing to anyone, acknowledges none of them, and slips past Bellatrix. Her gaze follows him into the darkness, beyond sight. She smiles slightly as she watches the night settle down. In her pocket, her fingers are running, restless, over the handle of her wand.
Barty just grins and in his head, the music he’s playing reaches a familiar section. Climbing up the stairs, he falls behind Regulus, marching in time to the music.
Chopin’s Piano Sonata in B Flat Minor, Opus Thirty-Five, Number Two.
The Funeral March.
In a secluded part of the house, at the end of a long corridor lined with portraits of long-dead ancestors, all bearing similar high cheekbones and grey eyes, two men stand inside a study, the lamps stuttering to life as they sense the presence of the men, casting an obnoxiously yellow gauze over the entire room.
“I do not understand why this conversation must be kept in such privacy,” Orion comments, watching as Pollux locked the door with a seemingly innocuous silver key, the lock glowing bright blue for four seconds. “What is it that you know which can’t be revealed to the rest of the family?”
Pollux says nothing for a while, limping over to the chair behind the desk and lowering himself into it, the leather creaking as it takes his weight. In front of him, on the table, lies a round brown case, the top of it sealed shut with a green ribbon, a seal in black wax stamped to hold the two ends together. Running his fingers over the imprints in the wax disc, he takes a moment to organise his thoughts before speaking.
“There is a discrepancy,” he says flatly.
“A discrepancy?” Orion raises his eyebrows, a frown creasing his features and it’s clear he didn’t expect that answer. “A discrepancy in his will? How?”
“A couple of changes to the wording, a few differences in what is to go to his daughters and to his nephews, to his wife and to his sister, to me and to you. Little things – nothing large, I assure you – but enough to make me concerned that someone may have tampered with the latter one. The amount of money moved around is small enough that it might have gone unnoticed but, nevertheless, enough to do damage were it shared out the way it is planned to be,” Pollux explains, his eyes resting on the case containing the wills.
Orion regards him for a moment, silent, the cogs in his head turning, spinning, whirring as he considers what he has just been told.
“Monetary changes?” he presses.
“Mostly,” Pollux nods, glancing up at his son-in-law for the first time throughout the whole conversation. “Some of the jewels and statues were re-assigned as well; two of the family heirlooms I gifted him now intend to go to different owners.”
“I see,” Orion’s voice is quiet, a low hum which buzzes happily in the room, the sibilant hiss of the phrase diluted.
The lamp in the corner flickers, fades, nearly dies. A tinkle of dripping liquid onto metal, a faint splash and then it surges into life again, burning brighter than before, brighter than its companion above the men’s heads.
“Should we be concerned about this?” Orion enquires. “Could it split the family if the changes made were enacted?”
With a heavy sigh, Pollux closes his eyes and nods once. It’s a slow nod, a sure nod, a definite nod. There’s no need for him to say ‘yes’, for him to affirm it out loud; his very reaction has confirmed it.
“So then we keep it quiet,” Orion decides, his fingers brushing the velvet on the chair the wrong way, revealing a deeper, darker green underneath. “We say nothing about it. Try and find a way to reverse the changes – return the will to its original state. That way, we have nothing to worry about. We have time, after all: it would hardly be suspicious if we were to take the full month to find it, look at it and choose to enact it. Other families have done it before.”
“And if it hasn’t been changed? If that is the original will? What do you propose we do then? Destroy it?” Pollux asks. His tone holds a trace of scorn, but it is tempered by the thread of concern and anxiety which betrays him. He is just a man, and he must try and hold his family together through this – lies and secrets and discrepancies do not help such matters.
“Precisely,” Orion confirms. In the torchlight, his eyes are cold and hard.
“We cannot afford another split, another scandal,” Pollux murmurs after a pause, his eyes tracing the grains in the wood. “Not so soon. We have to hold together, no matter what, or we will fall apart and, in the process, be destroyed.”
Orion doesn’t reply to that – what is there to say? He knows Pollux is talking about the elopement and subsequent disowning of his granddaughter, Andromeda, and he wonders, curiously, what could be so terrible, what changes could have been made to the will which would be enough to tear the family apart? They are hardly unified, but Andromeda’s betrayal had pushed them closer together, made it all the more important to show the world they were united, they were one family and one clan and one wand. Now, it looks like that façade might be shattered, could be shattered, for once and for all.
“I must go to my wife,” he says eventually, his gaze not moving from his father-in-law. “And my sons. Will you,” he feels somewhat foolish for making the suggestion, and the hesitation makes it all too clear, “Be all right down here? I can send for a house-elf if you need anything.”
“No, no,” Pollux waves it away, skating over the insinuation that he is incapable of calling a house-elf on his own. “I will be fine, Orion. Go and see Walburga and the boys. I don’t doubt they are upset by the evening’s events.”
With an inclination of his head, Orion rises from his seat, the ancient wood creaking as he shifts, and makes his way over towards the door. His long robes drag themselves reluctantly off the velvet and then tumble to the floor behind him, hanging off his frame as the current style dictates. He has one hand on the door handle, his wand in hand to remove the locking charm, when he halts.
“Barty Crouch thinks Cygnus was murdered,” he tells Pollux, his eyes on the metal handle. In it, he can see the reflection of his wife’s father and enjoys the carefully blank, emotionless expression placed so delicately on his face. He savours it for a moment, before continuing, “And that one of us killed him. All nonsense, of course, pure rumour made up on the spot by a boy. Naturally, I shall ask him not to say anything more on the subject – rumours of murder are almost worse than the act itself, for no one can catch a fictional killer. Regardless, I thought you should be aware. Goodnight, father.”
Pollux Black watches as his son-in-law taps the door handle with his wand and leaves, letting the door swing shut behind him of its own accord. His fingers still rest on the brown case and his eyes are sharp.
It is the first time Orion has ever called him ‘father’. He suspects it will not be the last.
Chapter 2: Three of Hearts
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Three of Hearts
There’s no fire in the grate, just a fine coating of ash in the fireplace, the remainders of last night’s blaze. It sits there, empty, the inside of it stained black from years of use, decades worth of soot and grime having collected there, settling comfortably onto what was once white paint. Fingers, pale and rough, poke at the holes in the metal fireguard sitting in front of it, a purely decorative object, all metal flowers and whirls and ribbons.
“Why are you doing that?”
Sirius doesn’t move his hand, twisting his head to glance over his shoulder at the figure, tall and still bearing the marks of a recent growth spurt, in the doorway.
“Because I want to,” he scowls, turning back to run his eyes over the metal again. His fingers follow the curve of a butterfly’s wing, tracing it round until it joins up with a whirl of black metal which could be a cloud or a leaf or the wing of a bird.
“You’ll get your fingers stuck if you’re not careful,” Barty observes with a smirk, flopping onto a sofa.
“Whatever,” Sirius mutters in response. He frowns, wrapping a hand around the thick metal bar at the end of the fireguard, the top adorned with a small, pointed fleur-de-lys. Tugging, pulling at it, he gives up trying to move it when he realises he’s barely shifted it a centimetre, despite all his efforts.
On the sofa, Barty watches him in silence, regarding him with a curious, bemused air as he tries to pull the fireguard away from the grate. Tilting his head to one side, Barty taps his fingers on the arm of the sofa, a gesture which betrays the pent up energy inside.
“So, did you do it?”
“Do what?” Sirius’ reply is muffled; his head lying on his arms, he’s staring up into the fireplace through the twisting metal in front, up the chimney, stretching his neck as though hoping to see sunlight peeking down the shaft.
“Kill him,” Barty elaborates and now his eyes are focused on the Black heir, sharp and glinting underneath his fringe. “Did you do it?”
Sirius rolls over onto his back to look at the younger boy, his forehead creased in a frown.
“No one killed anyone,” he says shortly. “Uncle just died. It happens every now and again – heart problems no one noticed before, that sort of thing. There’s nothing unusual about it.”
“How do you know?” Barty says softly, his legs stilling. “How do you know if he was murdered or not? Only the killer would know if he was, since they’re the one who did it. So, unless you are the killer and you were lying earlier, you can’t know that.”
Propping himself up on his elbows, releasing a heavy, irritated sigh, Sirius grits his teeth, trying not to glare at his brother’s best friend. His elbows nearly slip in the ash surrounding the fireplace; it clings, grey and thick, to his robes.
“Look, I’m not the killer and Uncle wasn’t murdered, all right?” he repeats, his temper flaring underneath the surface. “Grandfather’s going to have the Healers come over to look at – you know, the body and they’ll be able to tell if he was poisoned or whatever.”
“But do you think if your uncle was poisoned, Mr Black would actually tell you the truth?” Barty muses, seemingly thinking out loud. “It would cause tension in the family, after all – the idea that one of you killed off another one – so, if I were him, I’d probably say something like ‘it was just a heart problem which wasn’t caught early enough or a quick, fatal heart attack or something. That way, no one thinks it was murder, so you cover it up very nicely and there’s no chance of a court case and everything coming out. A murder trial wouldn’t look good.”
Sirius looks at him. It’s not a simple look, not a light or easy look; it’s intense, it’s questioning and it’s just a little bit sceptical about the whole idea.
“Well, no, he wouldn’t,” he admits slowly, reluctantly. “But –”
Barty grins at him: a wild, excited grin, his eyes flashing and his teeth showing.
“Okay,” Sirius sighs, seemingly giving in, sitting up, ash stuck to the back of his robes, small flakes dropping off and falling to the floor. “If he was murdered – which I still don’t think he was – then what do we do? We need to have proof before we can even think about accusing anybody of anything.”
“First, we need to agree to keep this between us,” Barty’s face is serious now, his expression wary, like a cornered beast. “No one else can know what we find out – we have to keep it quiet. We don’t know who the killer is, so we can’t trust anyone. Not even Regulus.”
“Regulus?” Sirius lets out a scoffing laugh. “Don’t be stupid, Crouch. Regulus isn’t a killer – it’s definitely not him.”
“Could have been,” Barty points out thoughtfully. “He was late to dinner yesterday, remember – oh, for god’s sake, I don’t think it was him, I’m just saying that we can’t assume it’s not certain people because of what we think about them. It could just as easily have been Narcissa as your mother.”
“Or my father,” Sirius considers it, rubbing his chin with one hand, bits of ash tumbling into his lap. “Or Bellatrix. There’s a lot of suspects, really, when you think about it.”
“Well, come on, Black,” Barty jumps to his feet, clapping his hands together in a burst of energy. The noise reverberates in the quiet room, bouncing off the walls and the windows and the paintings. “We’ve got a killer to catch.”
A sigh crashing out of his mouth, Sirius pushes himself too his feet, plucking pieces of dust from his robes and dropping them back onto the floor, the wooden flooring visible where he’d been sitting, a hole surrounded on three sides by a sea of grey. Looking up at Barty, reading the impatient look on the younger boy’s face, he rolls his eyes and continues grooming himself.
“Look, I said I’ll come all right? Just wait a moment,” he orders Barty, scowling as a particularly stubborn piece of fluff refuses to leave his fingers.
“Where are you going?” a quiet voice interrupts their conversation, and they both turn quickly, guiltily, Sirius forgetting about the clumps of dust still sticking to his robes and fingers, to see Regulus standing in the doorway. The youngest Black looks between them, taking in the scene, as though he can’t really decide to which one of them his question is addressed.
When neither of them says anything, sharing a darting glance, the question ‘can we, should we tell him’ at the front of both of their minds, he repeats,
“Where are you going? You know grandfather doesn’t want us leaving the house.”
“We won’t leave the house,” Sirius assures him, even though he has no idea where Barty intends to go first or what he intends to do.
With a nod, Regulus accepts that, moving further into the room and settling down on the sofa, leaning back into the soft cushions. The book under his arm falls down onto the sofa with a muffled thump, but he doesn’t seem to have heard it, his gaze still fixed on his brother and his best friend. It’s a curious gaze, not sharp as such but there’s a sort of calculating look, as though he’s cataloguing their moves, their clothes, their hair, and adding it all up inside his mind. Sirius hates that look: it reminds him far too much of their father and so makes him feel distinctly uncomfortable, like he’s in trouble.
“So where are you going?” Regulus asks again.
“I don’t know, ask the idiot over there,” Sirius responds with a slight shrug of his shoulders, gesturing over to Barty.
Regulus’ gaze shifts over to Barty, landing on the blond boy like a scarf settling about his shoulders, wrapping around him. For a moment, Sirius pities Barty. He knows only too well what it’s like to be on the receiving end of his younger brother’s inquisitive stare. With his head tilted slightly to the right, the corners of his mouth turned down just a little, the baby Black looks deceptively innocent, his eyes begging to be told, to be let in on the secret. Sirius knows better, of course, having grown up with him, but Barty…
Sirius watches, noting the muscles in Barty’s face and back relaxing, noting how his shoulders sag and air streams out of his lungs. No, Barty can’t resist, Barty doesn’t know any better.
“We were going to go to the cellar, to see your uncle,” Barty blurts. “Sirius wanted to pay his last respects.”
The look which flashes across Regulus’ face is pure surprise, replaced quickly by disbelief.
“No, he doesn’t,” he scoffs, his fingers idly tracing a vein in the leather of the sofa. “Besides, even if he did, the Healers have already arrived – I saw them get here a couple of minutes ago. Grandfather met them in the hall and took them straight down to the cellar. There’s no way Sirius could pay his respects – even if he had any respects to pay in the first place.”
“Just because I’m not a suck-up like you doesn’t mean I wouldn’t want to pay my respects,” Sirius spits in reply, his hands curling into fists at his sides. Of all his family he hadn’t expected Regulus to attack him like that. “Uncle’s dead, Reg, it’s not as if he’s just got a cold or something.”
For a moment he thinks Regulus is going to apologize, say that he was wrong to snap like that, but instead his brother just gives him a cold look and jumps up from the sofa.
“I’m going to the Library,” he mumbles, darting out of the room before either Sirius or Barty could say anything more.
“Was it me or was Reg a bit twitchy?” Barty muses, glancing at the elder Black.
When Sirius looks back at him, frowning, he’s surprised to see that Barty, for once, seems perfectly sane and somewhat concerned. He’s not sure how he expected Barty to act, but it wasn’t like that. A cynical voice in the back of his head (which, when it shows up, he likes to call ‘Remus’) comments that at least Barty has stopped trying to argue that Regulus is the killer. He can’t help but agree. It’s something.
“Yeah,” he nods, thinking about it. “I should go and talk to him.”
“No, no,” Barty stops him before he’s even taken a single step towards the door, shaking his head quickly. “I’ll go. You go and see if you can pay your respects to your uncle.”
Sirius stares after him as the younger boy slips out of the room, disappearing off down the corridor in seconds. He’s not entirely sure what’s just happened, but he thinks that the result of all of this is that Barty has dumped the whole ‘uncle was murdered’ thing on him, making him go off and do the legwork while Crouch goes off to try and get Regulus to say something about his feelings. Privately, Sirius thinks he might have got the better lot, even if his is beyond ridiculous, really. Crouch would have better luck getting emotion out of a stone.
Nevertheless, he supposes that he might as well make good on his claims and go and see if he can pay his respects to Uncle Cygnus. There was no harm in doing so – no one would fault him for it and it might even gain him some kind of grudging acceptance that he was, you know, still part of the family despite being a Gryffindor and all. Even if he couldn’t, it would look good, and grandfather would probably be more inclined to be lenient since his son had been murdered.
Died, he reminded himself, not murdered. He couldn’t let himself start to be swayed by Barty Crouch’s crazy theories. Who knows would what happen if he did?
Wandering out of the room, he slips his hands into his pockets, turning right just outside and heading for the front of the house. The stairs to the cellar are on the other side of the building, tucked away in a little, stone room, out of sight. Fortunate for him, perhaps, since if he sees anyone on the way (which is all too likely) and they ask him where he’s going, more of his family will know first-hand about his intentions and hopefully believe he might be still in the fold. He might still be worth saving.
Of course, as luck would have it, the only person he passes on the way is Lucius, going the other way, a faint frown on his face and a letter in hand. Briefly, he wonders what could have Mr I-have-peacocks-in-my-garden-didn’t-you-know Malfoy looking like he was sucking a slice of lemon, but forgets it soon enough when the portrait of his great-great-grandfather gives a hacking cough and settles back into his chair, giving Sirius a dirty look as he passes as though the cough is entirely his fault. In reply, he makes a rude hand gesture at the portrait, grinning as the man’s exclamations about the disrespect shown by the youth of the day follow him down the corridor.
The hallway is completely deserted when he gets there, and he takes his time to cross it, jumping up onto the bottom step of the sweeping staircase and traipsing along the thin marble wedge. Pursing his lips, he whistles, the sound low and musical and completely off-key.
“… wasn’t sure what Master wanted Mipsy to do, so Mipsy came straight to find Master,” the squeaking babble of his aunt and uncle’s house-elf catches his ears and he stops whistling, the notes dying away, turning on the stair to look as the little elf came into view, pattering along behind his grandfather.
“You did well, Mipsy,” Pollux replies curtly, the only sign on his face of the recent events the black bags under his eyes. “Open the door and let them in. Direct them straight here to me.”
Sirius stands silently in the background, hoping to go unnoticed. Who is calling? He can’t imagine who it could be – it’s not as if the people in his parents’ social circles are in the habit of making expected house-calls, let alone unannounced ones, and his friends definitely wouldn’t be coming over. Curiosity might have killed the cat, but he is a Gryffindor and lions aren’t really proper cats, are they?
Leaning on his cane, Pollux sighs, one hand running over the smooth wood of the handle.
As the door opens, Sirius shifts to his left to see who’s coming in, his grandfather’s head blocking his view of the doors. The leather of his shoes squeaks softly and he freezes, waiting for Pollux to turn around and scold him, giving him a scathing look as always and send him scampering off upstairs to his room.
“Ah, Mr Black,” a voice calls out and Sirius spots the intruders easily, their mint green robes violently out of place with the dark hallway. They seem far too bright and cheery for coroners, he muses, but frowns after a second’s pause, ignoring the handshakes and exchange of formalities between his grandfather and the healers.
Coroners. Regulus had said they’d already arrived – that they were already in the cellar with their uncle’s… with their uncle. He’d said he’d seen them arrive, seen grandfather escorting them down himself.
Sirius can’t decide if he’s more annoyed with Regulus for lying to him or with himself for believing that his brother would actually tell him the truth. He’d thought they’d been getting on better recently – acting almost friendly with each other, managing to tease and joke in each other’s presence without causing an argument – but obviously not. Obviously not.
It shouldn’t hurt, but it does.
Absently, distracted from paying his respects to his uncle (not that he can now – Regulus was at least right about that), Sirius turns on his heel, enjoying the sharp squeak the new leather makes. His foot catches on the lip of the step and he finds himself crashing to the floor, his knee whacking hard into the edge, hands shooting out to stop himself slamming into it too hard. It hurts, though – bloody hurts like hell – and he bites his lip, feeling a wave of tears prick at his eyes as he gingerly picks himself up, trying to think beyond the pain. So much for his smooth, silent exit.
“Are you all right, kid?”
Taking in a breath, knowing there’s no way out of this situation now – running away won’t help anything – he turns around to face the speaker, giving a curt nod, tilting his head back slightly to hide the fact that his eyes are welling up. He’s sixteen, a Black and a Gryffindor. He shouldn’t be crying.
“I’m fine,” he replies quickly, and, at his grandfather’s stern look, adds, “Thank you for the concern.”
The man smiles at him, a pitying smile, and as Sirius blinks quickly three times in a row to stop his eyes from watering (because he is sixteen and does not cry) it only grows more so. He holds back a scowl. How he loathes sympathy. He doesn’t want it, doesn’t need it – hell, it’s not as if he was exactly close to his uncle. Sirius would much rather he offered a shoulder to cry on and hollow promises of ‘it’ll be all right’ and ‘it’ll get better, you’ll see’ to Aunt Druella or Narcissa or someone else who might actually want them.
How could death get better, anyway?
“It’s fine, kid,” the man assures him, brown eyes almost doe-like. Sirius can’t imagine this man peering over a corpse. Any corpse, really. He seems like he’d be far better suited to sitting behind a desk listening to people moan about their problems, nodding every now and then and, at the end of it all, asking them: ‘so, how did that make you feel?’.
Sirius decides, there and then, that he hates him. He doesn’t know anything about him and will probably never see him again in his life, but he hates him. A small part of him knows that he’s just transferring his frustration with his brother onto the coroner simply because he can, but he doesn’t want to think about Regulus at the moment.
“Mr Weaving, if you could please follow the house-elf, she will take you to where Cy –“ Pollux pauses, checks himself and continues smoothly as though nothing has happened. “Where he is. The house-elf will take you all to my study after you have completed your examination to give me your report. I trust it won’t take too long.”
It’s not a question, and to the man’s credit, he simply nods his head, gives a slight, awkward bow and moves away following Mipsy, his companion trailing behind him silently. Sirius almost doesn’t want them to leave – not because he likes them, but because he knows his grandfather won’t scold him in front of outsiders, no matter how unimportant they are.
They leave quickly, though, and the hallway is silent far sooner than Sirius would have liked. Swallowing, blinking again to hold the tears at bay, he waits for his grandfather to say something. He might as well get it over with, after all. No point in dragging it out.
Pollux sighs and beckons him close with a brief gesture. When Sirius doesn’t move, he gives him a sharp look.
“Sirius, come here.”
Slowly, dragging his feet, he moves down off the step and over to his grandfather. He doesn’t bow his head, though – likely that would only get him in more trouble than he undoubtedly already is in.
“Did you want something?” his grandfather’s voice is surprisingly gentle – almost the antithesis of what Sirius expected.
“Well, I – you know – didn’t mean to eavesdrop or anything, it just happened… it was an accident, I swear, I was just passing through…”
“Spit it out, boy, for Salazar’s sake.”
Now that’s a little more like what he expected.
“I wanted to go and see Uncle before… before the Healers see him and take him away. You know, to say goodbye,” he blurts out. In truth, he doesn’t really know what he wanted to do once he was down there – look for possible signs of poisoning, spew out a heartfelt declaration of love and loss to a family member he vaguely liked on a good day – but it’s easy enough to tell. Grandfather won’t expect him to explain further.
“Of course,” Pollux nods, his gaze dropping to the floor briefly and Sirius finds himself sharply reminded that this man isn’t just his grandfather, isn’t just the man who chewed him out for three hours straight after his sorting into Gryffindor: he’s also a man who’s lost a son. Something about that little dip of his eyes, the slight quiver in his armour, and Sirius feels ever so much like a child again. “Well, I’m sorry, Sirius, but you’re just too late. I can’t go down and send them away – I had to push to get them here as quickly as they did. You missed your chance.”
Sirius stares at the ground, the throbbing of his knee swimming to the forefront of his mind in the silence. Now, faced with the knowledge that he missed his one, last chance to see his uncle, to say or do something if he wanted, he realises that it hurts. Now, he realises that he’s still so young, still so naïve and still in need of his family.
If he were six again, this would be the time where he’d go and find his mother or one of his cousins, tug on their skirts and cling to them for two, three, seven minutes without saying a word. He’s not six, though, and he’s definitely not going to go and ask his cousins or his mother for a hug. They’d probably sneer at him and taunt him for being a big, blood-traitorous baby.
He’d probably agree with them.
“Sirius,” when his grandfather speaks again, he looks up and meets his eyes, so like his own, trying not to let his emotions show. “Why don’t you go and find your brother?”
He checks the library, his brother’s bedroom, the back garden, his cousins’ parlour (Cissy is in there, crying, and throws a carriage clock at him when she sees him, screaming for him to leave. He hears it smash against the door) and the little room on the third floor, in the attic, which used to be their play room – just theirs. Regulus is nowhere.
“Siri, Siri, Siri,” a voice croons at him. There’s no one around in this part of the house – all dusty portraits of long-dead ancestors and covered furniture. Nevertheless, he’s not scared.
“Bella,” he returns easily, turning to see his eldest cousin slipping out of a room he could have sworn was locked shut when he tried the handle just seconds ago. “What are you doing here?”
“I could ask you the same thing, cousin,” she smiles sweetly at him, and it’s too sweet, as always. Bella always did miss the balance between sugar and spice, wildly rocketing backwards and forwards between the two. A chef’s worst nightmare, in culinary terms. “I was just exploring. I had to send an owl and wanted some quiet. Cissy’s crying all over the place at the moment, and mother’s no better. It’s horrendous.”
“You came here to send an owl?” he asks, glancing around himself, eyes stopping briefly on the portrait of Vespasian Black II (1543-1602), who glares back at him, his fingers running slowly over the hilt of the sword strapped to his waist.
“Are you deaf?” Bellatrix snaps at him with a roll of her eyes.
“Whatever,” he just mutters, taking a step to leave. He doesn’t particularly want to be in this part of the house or in the company of this particular relative.
A hand shoots out and grabs his wrist tightly, nails digging into his skin, stopping him from moving anywhere.
“Tell that Crouch boy to shut up,” Bellatrix hisses to him, her breath dancing over the side of his neck and his cheek. “He’s not doing anything helpful and he won’t be able to prove anything even if he was right. Tell him to shut up, or I’ll do it.”
“Will do,” Sirius says automatically, yanking his arm free from her grip and walking off down the corridor, leaving her there, looking after him. Oh, he’ll tell Crouch – after all, there’s quite a lot to tell.
Chapter 3: Four of Clubs
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Four of Clubs
The glass of brandy on the table wobbles dangerously, threatening to spill. In the background, a house-elf hovers, trembling from head to toe, ready to clean it up should a drop go awry. Closing her eyes, she crouches, hidden behind the portrait of the white cliffs of Dover at sunset, supposedly hand-painted by Phineas Nigellus. Kneading the floor delicately between her hands, she remains silent, listening attentively to the conversation taking place.
“The key to understanding this – because the changes themselves are rather simple, if odd – is why he would have done it,” Orion muses idly, one hand toying with the edge of his robes as he gazes at the wall in slow contemplation. “There must have been some reason behind it, some logical explanation. If not, then I think it would be safe to assume it was tampered with by someone else, rather than adjusted by him himself.”
“It is all very well to say such things, but how are we supposed to discover why Cygnus would have made such changes, if, in fact, he did make them at all? It’s not as if we can ask him directly or indirectly, or as if he left any notes or comments on his will about why things were to go to certain people beyond the usual – what man would? It’s a will, not a novel. Apart from that… slight problem, there is also the fact that there doesn’t seem to be anything too odd about the redistribution of items within the will. No one person seems to be gaining more than any other, and no significant increase on the previous will, which leaves few motives for anyone else to change it,” Pollux snaps.
The will lies on the desk in front of him, stretched out between two thick, wooden rods to hold the parchment taut and in place. He has spent several long hours poring over it, comparing it to its predecessor, searching in vain for those all-important changes. Some are obvious – the goblin-made necklace to go to Walburga instead of Druella, three thousand and five hundred galleons in a vault in Geneva to go to Narcissa and not Bellatrix – but others are not. All in all, there are only six red lines jotted down, pairs of numbers referencing particular articles in the wills, and that is hardly a cause for concern.
Pollux could swear – could stake his life on it – that there had been more when he’d first looked.
He looks up as a sigh sounds across the room to see Orion frowning at the floor.
“What is it?” he asks, his tone more composed than before. While he doesn’t particularly like his son-in-law, he has to admit that he respects him, and a part of him is bitterly amused that the other man is so confused by this little problem.
So, he thinks, there is something which can stump the boy wonder.
“There is very little we can do,” Orion admits reluctantly. “Other than rip it up and pretend it was never written. If it is real, then the possibility of destroying the family is too big a thing to leave to chance for the sake of obeying the wishes of a dead man.”
“It would be the easiest solution,” Pollux nods, glancing down at the very end of the stretch of parchment, almost in his lap. “But for one small problem.”
Orion raises an eyebrow, looking sceptical.
“I hardly see a problem with it. Have the house-elves clear away the ash and then no one will ever know that a second will was even written, let alone that there was such a… dilemma over it.”
“The witnesses will know and remember,” Pollux reminds him quietly, although there’s an air of reproach in his tone, like a teacher telling off a pupil who has made a stupid mistake in class. “And they might ask questions.”
To his credit – and Pollux’s mild annoyance, because getting a rise out of his son-in-law has become something of both a challenge and a hobby over the years – Orion simply stares at him, before giving a single, slow nod.
“Ah yes. I had forgotten,” the admission is calm and seemingly easy enough to say, but Pollux has the distinct impression that Orion is gritting his teeth internally, and smiles inwardly at the thought. “What do you suggest we do about them, then? Lie when they wonder about a revision of his will and say it never happened? Or something else?”
The words ‘something else’ drop into the air like a pair of lead weights. They both know what sort of thing he’s referring to, there is no need for translation. It’s difficult and illegal, but once done, if done properly, is nearly impossible to prove. Even Crouch senior himself would hesitate before breaking a Memory Charm in the pursuit of justice.
“We will have to be careful, whichever route we take,” Pollux replies, his fingers idly tapping the parchment where the signatures lie, each one in bright emerald ink. “We cannot afford people thinking –“
There is a knock on the door; timid, almost gentle, but it still pulls everything to a halt. Without glancing at Orion, Pollux calls, subtly shifting a blank piece of parchment over the top of the will:
Regulus slips into the room, closing the door quietly behind himself, glancing between his father and grandfather briefly, before settling on the latter. He looks slight and pale, as always, and he bites the right side of his bottom lip.
“Regulus,” he favours the boy with a slight smile, which is returned, almost imperceptibly, vanishing quickly. “Were you after something? Your father and I are in the middle of business.”
“Yes, sorry,” Regulus apologises instantly. “I was just wondering… well, I know you said you wanted us to stay inside the house so I came to ask you first, if I could go flying this afternoon?”
Pollux looks at him for a moment, feeling faintly flabbergasted. He had expected something a little more… he doesn’t know what, but not a request like that, and so the room is silent for eight seconds too long.
“Of course,” Orion breaks it, barely giving his father-in-law a cursory glance. “Just be careful, Regulus. We don’t need – or want – any more accidents. Your poor aunt’s health could never take it.”
Regulus smiles, briefly, his eyes lighting up.
“Yes, father,” he nods. “I’ll be back for lunch.”
Turning around, he’s out of the room before Pollux can say anything, and Orion turns to face him again as the door clicks shut for the second time.
“So, about the will…” he trails off, leaving the sentence hanging expectantly.
“Perhaps, for now,” Pollux says slowly, choosing his words carefully. “We should leave it be.”
Orion looks stunned, as though he can’t believe what he’s hearing. Pollux always knew his son-in-law was a man who liked to get things done, being rather impatient at times, but he isn’t sure why this is so shocking.
There is, after all, nothing they can do. They don’t know who changed the will – if, indeed, anyone did. Until they know if it was tampered with and, if so, who the culprit was, they cannot do or say anything. Until that point, where they are fully aware of the situation and in command of all the facts, all they can do is wait and try and work it out. Running around flinging false accusations of that nature would only destroy the family quicker than carrying out the second will.
“What? We do nothing?” Orion repeats, his tone sharp, each syllable clipped. “We need to act quickly – the quicker, the better. The sooner we get rid of this will, the sooner we can forget this whole insane situation, put it behind us and focus on the future.”
“We will not do anything just yet,” Pollux confirms, keeping eye contact with his son-in-law as though the force of his stare could make him obey. “We will wait and see what we can find out. One wrong step could prove fatal – and neither you nor I nor anyone else in this family can afford such a mistake to be made.”
He notes that Orion seems displeased with that solution, but, after a moment or two in which he was sure the other would argue further, he just nods, glancing away.
“Very well, you know best.”
It’s a cold, emotionless statement, said reluctantly and with an almost mocking undercurrent running through it. Pollux couldn’t care less, though, about undercurrents and reading too much into it – Orion has agreed, and that is all he wants. That is what is important now, not how much of the lingering resentment in his young cousin’s chest he has stirred up.
After all, he will have all the time in the world to worry about that after this is done with.
“If you will excuse me, there are matters I need to attend to...”
Abruptly, Orion stands up, his hands slipping behind his back. His face is a careful, controlled mask but Pollux doesn’t need to look at him to tell that he’s angry: his voice betrays him as it bites viciously into his skin, snapping and snarling.
“I will see you at dinner,” he adds, and the door swings shut behind him with barely a sound.
Pollux leans back in his chair, resting his head against the cool leather. Normally, he would have felt quite pleased with outcome of that session, but he wonders if he did the right thing. Pandering to his cousin is not something he wants to do or, in fact, has ever done in his life, but perhaps it would have been better to pander and agree to his plan of action rather than to simply enrage him by insisting on having his way.
In the end, he muses idly, time will tell which one of them had the right idea. Time eventually tells everything, one way or another.
The drawing room is still, a sort of manufactured atmosphere hanging over the room. Inside, the five people sitting spaced out look like waxwork dolls, artfully arranged to seem almost real, a still picture of a scene in a play, perhaps, or an opera. Whichever it was, it would probably be something tragic, he thought.
He doesn’t dare look up, doesn’t dare make a sound. For the last minute and a half, he’s even been holding his breath. It’s a game he likes playing, when stuck in silence – how long can he hold his breath for, how long can he last. The ultimate test of endurance, in his mind at least, since you’re willingly cutting off the one thing you need constantly to survive until you simply can’t take it any more.
Narcissa is sewing – small, neat stitches – though he knows she’s biting her lip, teeth digging into the soft skin, and he wonders how hard you have to bite to draw blood. It seems like it would fairly easy, but he knows that sometimes things aren’t what they seem. The prettiest butterfly can be deadly, the innocent snuffbox laced with disease, the rim of the goblet you drink from everyday circled with poison, the boy who you thought was your friend can betray you for a price.
It’s a morbid train of thought and he shakes his head at himself, trying to think of something else – anything which isn’t to do with death or dying or conspiracy theories or family…
“That boy,” his mother announces, flinging the paper down onto the table with an air of absolute disgust. “Is exactly like his father. Useless, fear-mongering worms, the both of them. If it wasn’t that he had such an exceptional lineage, I wouldn’t allow Regulus to associate with him.”
“Crouch senior is an imbecile, Auntie, everyone knows that,” Bellatrix declares, her voice loud and strong, smashing through the quiet of the room like a bull in a china shop.
Then again, he supposes his mother has already killed the silence; Bella is just making absolutely certain that it’s dead, like the sadistic cow that she is.
“Yes, well, his son doesn’t seem to be much better,” Walburga sniffs. “Deluded little fool, who does he think he is – running around spouting off about murders and conspiracies and god knows what. It’s just preposterous. We are respectable family, an old and pure family, and he should not be talking about us that way. If I have to hear him suggesting such… slanderous things again, I shall wring his neck…”
He tuned out, having heard his mother’s rant against Crouch junior, Crouch senior, Dumbledore, her brothers, the Wizangamot, the Ministry in general, many times before. Frankly, he thought he could probably recite it for her – save her the bother. There was no point in volunteering, though, as he had no doubt she’d think he was mocking her (which, in fairness, he would be) and he’d end up getting an earful himself, before being locked up in his room with only a house-elf for company until the next morning.
Even he has to be seriously desperate or angry to want to spend sixteen hours straight in his room; company’s company, though his family tend to be on the bottom of a list of people he’d want to spend large amounts of time with if given a choice.
Well, no, Reg would be all right, but Sirius has no idea where he is – probably living inside the library again, or in his room doing homework like a good little boy. Besides, there isn’t that much he can talk about with his brother without arguing.
They support different Quidditch teams, for god’s sake.
“Theories!” he hears Bellatrix give a screech of derisive laughter. “They’re not theories – they’re the ridiculous stories made up by a boy with a sick mind. Father wasn’t murdered; you’d have to be insane to be believe it. No, father simply had a heart attack and that’s that. Nothing odd about that at all, it happens all the time. Father’s dead and there’s no more to it.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Narcissa flinch, her face pinching slightly as she stares at the embroidery in her hands. He’s pretty sure she’s not doing any more of it, though – she hasn’t moved in the last five minutes, since the discussion about Barty Crouches senior and junior started.
“What’s the matter, Cissy?”
It seems like Bellatrix noticed as well, as she rolls her eyes at her younger sister. Watching her, Sirius wonders how she doesn’t feel anything for her father. It wasn’t as if she never spoke to him or saw him (from what he’d heard his parents saying, she’d been round to visit her parents fairly often in the last few months, sometimes for days at a time, despite being married), so he would have thought she’d feel some kind of emotion less than three days after his death.
A part of him is disgusted; a smaller part of him wonders if he’ll react similarly when his parents die.
“You shouldn’t talk like that,” Narcissa murmurs softly, not looking up from her work, the needle darting in and out of the muslin in her hands. “Not so soon after… not now.”
“Father doesn’t care however I talk,” Bellatrix snorts. “He’s dead. Dead people don’t have opinions on things.”
“It upsets mother,” Cissy responds like she’s pulling out an ace, as though that’s the be all and end all of the matter.
Sirius just stares at her. He’s not entirely sure why she thinks ‘it upsets mother’ will be enough to persuade Bella to stop saying what she wants to – nothing has ever been able to do that, apart from grandfather’s glares, perhaps, since she graduated Hogwarts.
“Everything upsets mother at the moment,” Bellatrix pointed out in a semi-reasonable voice. “She’s like a human water fountain. It’s pathetic.”
“Bella!” Narcissa glances up, her expression scandalised. “How can you say that? Father is… father’s gone; she has every right to be upset. He was her husband, he was our father. You can’t expect all of us to feel nothing like you – we’re not all completely heartless.”
Narcissa’s glaring at her sister now, her hand gripping the needle so tightly her knuckles leer through her taut skin. He can’t help but feel more than a little impressed – which isn’t a usual feeling when it comes to his youngest cousin. Normally Cissy is the calmest, the sweetest and not one to raise her voice or get angry, but there was none of that then and he looks between them, curious as to what’s going to happen now.
Yeah, this is a lot better than being locked in his room, he thinks. Definitely a lot more exciting.
To his surprise, Bella doesn’t retaliate, doesn’t snap back. She doesn’t even look particularly annoyed, as though her sister has just shouted at her. It’s as if they’d been having an ordinary conversation.
“No one is saying that your mother is being pathetic, Narcissa, don’t be silly,” Walburga buts into the conversation, her hands folded neatly on her lap. “And she has every right to mourn for her husband – as his wife, it is her duty. However, I do think she could do with acting with a bit more decorum. Mourning does not excuse bad manners nor a lack of pride.”
Narcissa looks from her aunt to her sister, then at him and he just shrugs slightly (what does she expect him to do? There’s nothing he could say in this situation, even if he wanted to). Then, quickly, curtly, she nods, her gaze lowering back down to her sewing.
In the pause which follows, his mother reaches for the newspaper again, flicking through the pages until she finds one she wants to read, though the unimpressed look on her face suggests that she’s really pretty bored and looking for something new to do. The sly glances she takes at him suggest to him that she’s just waiting for a chance to yell at him. Bellatrix kicks her ankles over the arm of the sofa, sprawling out across it as though she doesn’t have a care in the world. Turning a page of the book she’s reading with one hand, she hums a little ditty to herself, and the small smile on her face tells him all he needs to know about that book.
“Sirius,” he glances up at his the sound of his name being called, meeting Narcissa’s gaze easily, confused, letting out a quiet ‘hm?’. “Where is Regulus?”
For a moment, just a moment, he’d thought that she was going to ask him something else – would he like to leave would have been a good one – but no, she’s asking about Regulus. Precious little Regulus – her favourite. Everyone’s favourite. He should be used to the bitter feeling now, but it bubbles up inside his throat.
He just shrugs again in reply.
“Sirius,” Narcissa persists. “That’s not an answer. Where is he?”
“I don’t bloody know, I’m not his keeper,” he snaps before he can stop himself.
Hurt flashes briefly over his cousin’s pale, beautiful face and he hurriedly looks down and away from her before he can blurt out that he’s sorry or something equally ridiculous.
“Well,” she breathes, standing up, her embroidery clutched tightly in one hand. “I’ll go and find him then – it’s nearly time for afternoon tea.”
Up on the rooftop, she stands on the edge. It’s a long way down – three stories in total – but even from here she can see the soft pink of the camellias glinting up at her, the heads of the yellow roses, only buds now, poking out from the brown of the beds they sit in.
It’s a dull day: grey and bleak, the flowers the only spots of colour in her vision. It’s almost as if, she muses absently, the world itself is mourning for Cygnus. The swan king is dead, dead, dead and gone, destroyed by one of his own, destroyed by one of her own. Her swan king… her beloved swan, and she’ll never see him again.
The tears on her face are drying, whipped away by the wind as it rushes and swirls around her, blowing her hair – long and tangled, for there was little point in making an effort when no one was around to appreciate it – over her face, obscuring her sight.
Like that, the ground didn’t seem so far away.
There’s a whisper on the wind, gentle encouragement and then pressure on her back, and she imagines whorls and ridges painted in ice on her skin, but she swears that as images and colours flash before her, she can see Cygnus, see him smiling, young and handsome again, her swan king, and he calls her name – once, then twice, and she closes her eyes, a small smile tilting her lips upwards.
Then she hears nothing and she feels nothing and she sees nothing.
Chapter 4: Five of Spades
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Five of Spades
The scream tears through the glass of the open windows, thin and high and piercing. Instantly, Bellatrix is on her feet, wand snapping down into her hand. Her lips mouth the word ‘Cissy’ once, releasing a single breath, before she hurtles towards the door, leaving both Sirius and Walburga looking after her in shock, both frozen in place.
Sirius swallows, feeling uneasy. Hadn’t he been desperate for something more interesting, more exciting to happen just twenty minutes ago? Well, now it looks like he’s getting his wish, and he isn’t entirely sure he wants anything exciting to happen anymore. Not if Narcissa is screaming about it; not if anyone is screaming.
His mother glances at him, and for the first time in his life, he can see she’s unsure, perhaps even a little worried. Without saying a word, she rises from the sofa, the newspaper falling to the floor with a ruffled sigh, and makes her way out of the room quickly, hands gripping the folds of her robes.
Less than a beat later, he follows. Someone screamed – and they had screamed loudly, the kind of gasping, hitched, belted scream you don’t just do when someone jumps out at you from behind a pillar. Whoever it was, they’re terrified and probably upset.
Despite everything, he finds himself wishing ‘please don’t let someone else be dead, please don’t let someone else be dead’ as he jogs along after his mother, trying to remember who he hasn’t seen around recently, but there are far too many people he hasn’t seen in the last couple of hours to narrow anything down. It doesn’t help at all, only serving to remind him of all the people he might dislike, might say he hated, but doesn’t really want dead.
They’re down the stairs now, going round to the right, straight through the archway at the back…
Imagine, his mind seems to be taunting him, imagine if it’s Regulus or your father or Narcissa herself - imagine if it’s any of them, dead and gone, body stone cold to touch and limp. Lifeless. What would he do then? He would have lost any chance he ever had, however small, of saying anything to them ever again, of playing Quidditch with his brother again, of apologising.
Cursing under his breath, he speeds up, right on his mother’s heels, hearing a door being slammed open behind them, footsteps in the distance, clacking against the marble steps and he knows that the whole family has heard and now, now they’re all coming to see what has happened now, what new tragedy has broken.
They burst out onto the veranda, feet navigating the small flight of steps onto the garden with ease, running now, having spotted figures ahead.
Walburga is the first to see and the first to reach the scene, letting out a loud gasp, her eyes wide, fixed on the body on the ground.
“Oh my,” she breathes.
Pulling up beside her, he stares too. His eyes are stuck on his aunt’s body, splayed out across the ground, skirts askance, hair loose, limbs bent at unnatural angles. There’s a lot of blood, this time: spreading out in a sick, dark pool around her, it glints in the sunlight, coppery and thick.
If it wasn’t for the blood, she’d look like a broken, life-size doll. Except she’s not, and they all know that all too well.
To one side, Narcissa is crying, holding onto her older sister, tears drenching Bella’s shoulder. Bella doesn’t seem to mind, though, letting her cry, and he thinks for a moment that her eyes seem a little damp, too, though she doesn’t let any of them fall.
Opposite, and on his own, is Regulus, his broom lying on the ground behind him. He’s pale, looking slightly ill, and shaking, biting his bottom lip, seemingly unable to look away from the blood and the satin and the long, blonde hair.
Just as he’s about to go over to his brother (because this isn’t the time to be callous, and if he’s looking after Regulus then at least he has something to do, to take his mind off the picture in front of him), his mother speaks again, and her voice is quieter than normal, but calm.
“Sirius, go and let your father and grandfather know. Bring them straight here,” she instructs him, drawing herself up as though she can simply look over and beyond the scene. “They will need to see.”
“We’re here, Walburga, no need,” his grandfather’s voice comes from behind, sounding forced, as though he’s shouting, and the next moment the two of them stride into view, his grandfather hobbling along as fast as he can with his cane, his father lingering slightly behind, already tucking his wand back into his pocket.
“What has happened? Who screamed?” Pollux demands to know, and Walburga steps out of the way to offer them an unobstructed view, even as she explains.
“Narcissa screamed,” she gestures towards the blonde, still weeping. “And Druella, well, it looks like she fell.”
As one, you all glance up at the top of the house, at the short brick wall which runs along the edge of it. For some, it’s a cursory glance, but others’ eyes linger, running over the stonework, before returning to earth.
“Yes,” his grandfather murmurs and Sirius watches him, leaning heavily on his cane, breathing fast from the exertion of racing out to the garden. He seems old and pained and almost fragile, a complete contrast to how Sirius has always seen him and always known him, and it gives him an odd feeling he can’t describe. “Yes, it certainly seems that way.”
“What should we do?” his mother’s voice is smaller than before and Sirius can’t help but feel a little bit sympathetic. His uncle only died a few days ago, and while his mother and uncle hadn’t been close by any estimation, they had been siblings; and now, now Aunt Druella is dead, falling off the top of the house. If nothing else, it just digs the open wounds deeper.
“We will need to move… move the body,” Pollux replies after a long pause, and Sirius knows he was about to say ‘Druella’ before changing his mind. “And then I think we should all go back inside. We could all do with a stiff drink or two.”
“Or three,” Bellatrix mutters, though everyone hears – and he suspects most people agree.
“Orion, could you –“ Pollux doesn’t need to say what he means, as he turns to go back into the house, offering an arm to Walburga, who takes it hastily, allowing her father to lean on her shoulder as they begin their trek back into the house.
Orion nods, although he glances at Narcissa and Bellatrix, seemingly wanting to wait until the others are all gone before summoning the house-elves to remove the body. Bellatrix gently turns Cissy around, still holding onto her, leading her across the lawn.
“Regulus,” Sirius hears his father breathe and, starting, he quickly steps over to his brother, his father following, annoyed at himself for not having gone over when he meant to.
“Hey, Reg,” he murmurs softly, reaching out and touching his brother’s shoulder. “Are you alright?”
For the last few minutes, Regulus has just been staring, horror-struck, pale and glassy-eyed, at the body on the ground, half-way to a corpse himself. Now, thankfully, he snaps out of it, glancing up at Sirius and giving a single, shaky nod.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” he whispers in reply. “I’m fine, I’m fine.”
Sirius doesn’t believe him for a second and he glances up at Orion, imploring him to take control of the situation somehow, to convince Regulus that he’s really not ‘fine’. He’s pretty sure he won’t be able to do it. From the look his father gives in return, the older man knows Regulus is shaken and upset by the scene in front of him, and swiftly moves round so his body is blocking Regulus’ view of the corpse.
“Regulus,” their father addresses him gently – it’s a tone which used to make Sirius envious, but too much has happened for those feelings to resurface, his emotional landscape already full. “Sirius is going to take you back inside.”
Sliding his fingers round his brother’s wrist, intending to tug him away to get him moving since it doesn’t look like he’ll be moving of his own accord any time soon, Sirius nods, relieved, and goes to leave, but a hand on his shoulder stops him.
“Make sure you stay with him,” his father murmurs, almost silently, into his ear, and he nods. “If you think you can, try and get him to take a Calming Draught.”
Giving a second nod, he tugs Regulus side-ways, shifting so that he’s on the inside, closest to the body. Regulus doesn’t need to look at it any longer, it’s probably already burned on the back of his skull, like Uncle Cygnus’ body, like both are on his own mind, and he feels that really it’s the least he can do. After all, Regulus is his baby brother and he looks like he wants to be sick and faint and cry, or maybe all three at once. It makes the part inside him which winces with every Bludger sent Regulus’ way in school Quidditch matches and which let him crawl into his bed when they were younger and Reg had a nightmare twinge with that small stream of guilt which tells him he should have done better.
As soon as they’re away from the body, Regulus speeds up, and when Sirius catches up to him, opening his mouth to ask what’s wrong, he gets no answer other than a quick look and a shaking head.
Rushing inside, Sirius just tails him as his brother turns left, down a short corridor, then right. The door slams behind him, and Sirius pushes it open just in time to see his brother kneeling down, bending over the toilet bowl. He instantly closes the door again, giving him privacy.
It’s a while before Regulus opens the door – maybe ten minutes or so, but he’s never been good at guessing the time and it feels like it’s been half an hour – and when he does, he’s just as pale and sickly-looking as before, though his eyes are less glassy. Sirius suspects he took advantage of the privacy to cry, alone, but his brother’s face is scrubbed clean, no traces of his sudden dash remaining.
Sirius looks at him carefully, almost assessing him, starting again to ask if he’s alright, if he needs anything, but Regulus just shoulders past him, gazing at the ground, refusing to look at him. Allowing himself a slight sigh at the fact that it seems that even now Regulus isn’t going to just forget everything from the past, he goes after him, walking quickly so that they’re almost level by the time they reach the main hall of the house.
A house-elf snaps into view in front of them, bowing deeply. Sirius rolls his eyes, crossing his arms across his chest. The sudden arrival had surprised him (he and Regulus had both jumped) but he tries to pretend, nonetheless, that it didn’t and he hadn’t.
“Master Sirius and Master Regulus, Master Orion is asking for you to go to the green drawing room immediately. Mistress Walburga is being worried,” the house-elf relays, speaking quickly. There’s a faint splatter of red on his pillowcase and Sirius wonders if he was one of the ones his father would have sent to take away the body.
Then he remembers Regulus and nods sharply.
“Tell them we’re on our way,” he tells the house-elf, wanting it to disappear as quickly as possible before Regulus notices the blood on the cloth. He doubts the other will be ill again, but he doesn’t want to risk the possibility.
The house-elf bows again and disappears with a crack, and they continue on, crossing in front of the marble staircase, and entering the room straight ahead of them.
Inside the drawing room, the mood is solemn and heavy, and even their entrance barely makes a dent in it. Everyone, Sirius can see, is there, and the room feels strangely larger than it did the last time they were in here – after Uncle Cygnus’ death.
As soon as they step inside, though, Walburga jumps up from her seat on the sofa, hurrying over to them – or, rather, hurrying over to Regulus, since she ignores Sirius entirely. He doesn’t really mind, knowing that Regulus needs the attention far more than he does. He’s not the one who just threw up in a toilet, after all.
“My poor baby,” Walburga cries, checking over Regulus closely, taking in everything, as though she’s searching for some sign of what’s wrong with him. “You look dreadful – so pale. Are you alright? Do you feel alright?”
He leaves Regulus to be fussed over by their mother, moving along the wall of the room and hovering by a small table, slightly awkwardly. There’s no respite for him, though, as he barely has time to take a breath before Orion is there, beside him.
“Why did you take so long?” he asks immediately, keeping his voice low so as not to attract attention. He needn’t have bothered, Sirius thinks: Regulus is distracted, trying to convince their mother that he’s ‘fine, really’ and escape from her mollycoddling.
“Reg went to the bathroom,” he whispers back. “He was sick. I didn’t have time to mention a Calming Draught before the house-elf called us here.”
His father just nods, straightening up, and Sirius could swear, though a small part of him believes he imagined it, that as he did he breathed ‘thank you’.
“Walburga,” Orion interrupts his wife’s fretting over their younger son. “Perhaps Regulus could do with a lie down and a Calming Draught? Perhaps an Anti-Nausea Draught as well, if necessary.”
Despite the situation, Sirius feels the corners of his mouth threaten to flick upwards into a smirk. His father, he has to admit, knows exactly how to deal with each member of their family – and especially his sons and wife. He knows just as well as Sirius does that, unless forced to, Regulus will refuse any and all potions offered to him.
It’s a trait most, if not all, of the family possess. At times, his father claims it comes from his mother’s side, and then his mother thinks it’s from his father’s side, but really, it’s all just the same. In the end, whichever one of them Regulus inherited it from, it’s a Black trait nonetheless.
“Hm,” Walburga glances over Regulus once more, looking him up and down before instantly making a decision. “Yes, yes, I think that would be a good idea. He does look very faint, and sickly – and I think we could all do with a good Calming Draught. Come and lie down, Regulus, and I’ll send for that elf to bring the potions.”
He just watches as Regulus is ushered towards the sofa, pushed down onto it so his head rests on the armrest. Regulus doesn’t look too happy about all the fussing and the potions and lying down, but he complies regardless, only too well aware that there’s no way he’s getting out of any of it now that their mother has made up her mind about it all.
Sirius does notice, though, that once he’s lying down, Regulus looks a little less shaky and liable to fall over or collapse at any minute, and he breathes out a faint sigh of relief. Of all the things they don’t need at the moment, one of their number fainting is definitely not on the list.
A snap of her fingers summons an elf, as Walburga settles herself down on the end of the sofa, by Regulus’ feet.
“Fetch me an Anti-Nausea Draught and a Calming Potion,” she orders, before eying Narcissa. The blonde is no longer crying, clutching Lucius’ hand now instead of Bella, but she still sniffles quietly and her eyes are watery, and the look in her gaze is verging on hysterical. “Make that two.”
Once the house-elf vanishes, nose brushing the carpet, Walburga turns her attention back to Regulus, who is staring up at the ceiling, eyes roving over the carved wood and reaches up to pat his hand gently, giving a tiny, pained smile.
“So delicate, my baby boy,” she murmurs. “Always so delicate.”
Sirius can’t help but roll his eyes at that. His mother always thinks Regulus is delicate, no matter what the situation is. Even if Regulus took up muggle weight-lifting, he doubts she’d stop thinking of him as a helpless babe, fragile and innocent. It probably doesn’t help that Regulus hasn’t yet lost the baby fat on his face, which, being also just under average height and slender, gives the impression that he’s much younger than he actually is.
They all sit there in silence, none of them saying anything, the only sound in the room the faint swishing of material as Bella flops down onto the sofa, her teeth biting at her lip. It’s an odd expression on her and Sirius watches her curiously as she studies the carpet resolutely. He has a strange, wild notion that she might be trying not to cry.
Damn it all, he’s gone mad.
He always knew it would happen – and sooner rather than later – but this seems a little quick, even for someone like him.
With a sharp crack, the house-elf returns, carrying a tray with three vials resting on it. Carefully, it proffers the potions to first Walburga and then Narcissa. When Narcissa doesn’t take it, Lucius picks it up instead, nodding curtly at the elf and making a shooing motion with his hand.
“Well,” Pollux’s voice cracks through the air, business-like and sharp, glancing over the assembled crowd. “Now that we are all here –"
“No, we’re not,” Bellatrix whispers, but it snakes throughout the room, malevolent and he doesn’t need to look at his cousin to know she’s glaring, her eyes lit up feverishly.
“Excuse me, Bellatrix?” his grandfather glares straight back, foregoing disinterested apathy for anger; it is the first time in years Sirius has seen him angry and he half wants to glance up at his father, though he has no idea why.
“We are not all here,” Bellatrix repeats slowly, each word heavy and solid. “Where is Crouch?”
Frowning, Sirius looks around, the phrase ‘he’s right there’ on the tip of the tongue. His eyes rake over each individual in turn, from right to left across the room. Bella is right; Barty is missing. He is the only person absent.
He supposes he should have realised: no one had come up with a crazy theory about how the person who killed Uncle Cygnus had killed Druella as well.
“Really, Bella, the boy is probably in the Library or his room or something, it is hardly the thing to be concerned with now,” Pollux drawls, rolling his eyes and adjusting his grip on his cane.
Bella whips around to face him, jumping to her feet, black curls darting over her shoulder with the force of movement. As expected, her eyes blaze and she looks wild, almost deranged. Her hands are clenched into fists by her side. When she speaks, however, her voice is strangely calm, if embellished with a faintly hysterical note that shakes and shudders.
“My mother has just died and Crouch is missing. I want to know where he is and what he was doing while we were all outside, and I want to know now.”
While the others are watching Bellatrix, wary of the seemingly impending explosion, Sirius watches Regulus. His brother is pale, his gaze fixed on Bella and he seems tense, unusually tense. Catching Regulus’ eye, Sirius quickly looks away, pretending to be focusing on Bella like the rest of them.
“Why? Do you think that he killed your mother? Pushed her off the edge, perhaps? Or did he use a curse?” Lucius sneers, his expression incredulous. Narcissa’s exclamation of ‘Lucius!’ goes unnoticed as the attention in the room is being buffeted between Bellatrix and Lucius. “I know you were cursing puppies when you were fifteen, but not all of us are psychotic. I don't think he's capable –“
“Then why isn’t he here with the rest of us? The only two people who were absent when mother died are you and him, Lucius,” Bellatrix snarled at him. “Unless you’re hiding something.”
Lucius swallows heavily and takes a step back away from her, the muscles in his face tightening. Surveying the room once quickly, as though hoping someone would help him, he shakes his head, gaze dropping to the floor.
“No, no, not at all.”
Sirius has to fight the urge to snort at that – this is Lucius Malfoy, for god’s sake, it’s almost certain that he’s hiding something, even if it has nothing to do with this weird situation they’ve found themselves in. He clamps his mouth shut, though, not wanting to get involved. It’s tense enough already without anyone adding to it.
“Bellatrix, be reasonable,” his mother takes over the reins of attempting to placate Bella, her handkerchief lying forgotten in her lap. “Crouch is a child, and he comes from very good stock – his father is a very principled man, and his lineage is excellent, though some of his views are a bit tasteless – I can’t believe he would do such a thing. As to where he is, I’m sure that’s easy enough to discover. Regulus,” she turns to look at him with the air of a poker player who knows he’s holding a winning hand. “Where is Crouch?”
The room falls silent, save for Bellatrix’s harsh breathing, as they all stare at Regulus, waiting impatiently for a response. Regulus just glances at his mother, at his father, at his grandfather, at Bella, and back at his mother.
“I… I think he was going to the Library,” he mutters, though he doesn’t sound very sure.
As Bellatrix opens her mouth once more, Sirius sees his father shift beside him.
“Enough of this!” Orion snaps before another argument can flare up. “There is a simple way to settle this. Wipsy!”
A moment later, the elf appears, flattening herself on the ground in a bow, not daring to look up, her eyes squeezed shut.
“What does Master Orion require?” she squeaked.
“Find Crouch and bring him here,” Orion barked, shooing the elf away with a hand, even as she nodded and vanished with a second sharp crack. “Now everyone can calm down – we will know where the truth soon enough. Panicking and creating ridiculous stories of murder and conspiracies will not help anyone.”
Bellatrix, clearly put out by not getting to have her say, shoots Walburga a glare in lieu of continuing the argument, and crosses her arms over her chest.
“Thank you, Orion,” Pollux inclines his head, his tone stiff. There’s a moment when the two of them are on the same, exchanging faintly exasperated glances, but it passes before anyone can really mark it.
There is not much to do while waiting, not when any second now Wipsy could return with Crouch, dumping him on the floor. Sirius can feel his heartbeat racing, and he wonders whether it’s excitement or fear – but fear for what, exactly? Fear for Barty Crouch would be stupid, fear of Bella would be possibly understandable but he scoffs at that idea (he hasn’t been scared of her, or any of his family for years and he’s not going to start now).
On the mantelpiece, a carriage clock – green-and-white patterned china, inlaid with silver and mother-of-pearl – ticks slowly through the minutes, hours and days, steadily making progress round the circle. Each tock is loud and there’s a half-second drag on the tick, making the rhythm unsteady. It goes tock-tick, tock-tick, tock-tick, like a man with a broken leg shuffling across the floor.
He has counted four-hundred and eighty-one seconds when the house-elf returns. Bella has begun to pace the floor of the room, her wand drawn and tapping against her thigh in a nervous tick; his mother is watching Regulus, who is staring at his hands, the empty potions vials sitting on the coffee table.
Wipsy arrives with a crack and lies prostrate on the floor, her thin body trembling beneath her pillowcase.
She is alone.
“M-m-master Orion,” she stutters, her voice nearly inaudible. “Wipsy has checked the whole house. Crouch is not here, master.”
Chapter 5: Six of Diamonds
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Six of Diamonds
Regulus’ door looms before him the next morning. Despite the fact that it’s made of light brown wood, the handle bronze, it seems oddly imposing, as though he’s about to walk into a throne room or Dumbledore’s office. He feels like a small child about to see the Minister, and hates himself for it.
He’s going to see his brother – his baby brother, no less. He shouldn’t be scared, or worried, or nervous. It’s just a visit, just stopping by, nothing out of the ordinary; other people do it all the time with their siblings, it’s no different.
Except, he knows, it is completely different. Other people talk to their brothers, don’t ignore them at school and exchange a handful of words at best when they have no other option but to talk. Guilt churns around his stomach uncomfortably; it’s not completely his fault, but he can’t blame Regulus for everything, either. The fact that it’s only recently he’s come to grudgingly accept that he can’t simply blame his brother for it all and move on simply sends the guilt whirring faster.
He feels sick and stupid, and isn’t sure which one is worse.
Raising a hand, he hesitates a little, his palm hovering over the door handle, fingers fluttering uselessly. Should he knock? Shaking his head at his own thoughts – knock to enter his brother’s room? What is he thinking? – and summoning his Gryffindor courage, he grasps the handle, turns it in a half-circle to the right and pushes the door open, taking a single step inside the room.
“I’m not… interrupting anything, am I?” he asks slowly, seeing Regulus and Barty sitting on the bed together, quite close. Actually, as he looks again, really close. He can’t see any space between them, their shoulders jostling against each other. It isn’t overly dissimilar to how he and James and Peter and Remus sit, when they all crowd onto one bed with a heap of sweets after Hogsmeade.
Still, he could have sworn that when he’d entered, his brother’s head had been resting on Barty’s shoulder.
“No,” Regulus says simply. “Why?”
The nervousness returns: Barty is watching him, silently, with an amused, expectant look, as though he knows what Sirius is trying to do and why and is just waiting for him to back out and run away. Why does he have to be here? Why couldn’t he be off skulking in the library again, looking at who knows what? Here he is, trying to ask to talk to his brother – ask to talk to him, because they don’t talk often enough for it to be normal for him to just walk in, sit down and start chatting – and getting stared at as though he’s turned into Snape overnight.
“No real reason,” he shrugs, attempting to sound nonchalant about it, sliding his hands into his pockets defensively. “Just wanted to talk. I can come back later, though.”
Regulus looks stunned. He stays there, still and silent, looking at Sirius. His expression is unreadable, and all Sirius can do is stand there, stare back and wait for his brother to come round and make a decision either way. Truthfully, this is a better reaction than the one he expected, but he still glances at the floor, shifting in place. He’s never been any good at waiting.
The sheets on the bed rustle a little.
“I should go – I wanted to look something up in the library,” Barty says, his voice snapping Regulus out of his reverie, but not affecting the atmosphere a jot. “I’ll see you later, Reg – I’ll send you an owl if your mad cousin gets me.”
He grins brightly, as though the idea of being caught roaming the house by Bellatrix is a joke, and then shoulders past Sirius and out of the room.
“What do you want?” Regulus asks, still watching him.
“Can – can I come in?” he ignores the question, aware he’s still hovering in the doorway.
Regulus doesn’t answer, merely shrugs, but Sirius takes it as an affirmation nonetheless. Closing the door behind himself, he wanders across his brother’s room to the bed, glancing about as he goes, for want of something to do.
It’s not technically his brother’s room, of course – not the way his room at Grimmauld Place is – but it’s his often enough that it might as well be. Unlike the other guest rooms (which really are for guests, should any ever come round), it looks lived in: Regulus has tacked up a Puddlemere United poster onto one wall, alongside a poster of the Heidelburg Harrier’s star Seeker Ernst Bachmeier. A stack of books, all thick and leather-bound with embossed spines, tower up from the floor next to a broomstick and thin, light blue, dragon-hide gloves.
His perusal of the room only takes a minute, though, and before he knows it he’s sitting down on the end of Regulus’ bed, with nothing left to look at and at a loss for what to say. Glancing at Regulus once, he simply blurts out,
“How are you?”
It’s a question he guesses Regulus is probably sick of answering – he imagines their mother has been flittering around him like a moth around a light, constantly worrying and fussing and checking his temperature and whatnot – but it’s safe ground.
“Fine,” Regulus frowns, giving him an odd, faintly irritated look. “Why do you care?”
“I’m your brother,” he retorts quickly, the sting of the question hiding behind a flush of anger. Why does he care – isn’t that obvious? He stops himself from going down that line, though, since it never ends well. “And good. I just, you know, thought I’d ask.”
“Fine,” Regulus repeats, drawing his legs up and shifting so he’s sitting cross-legged. “Anything else or is that it?”
He’s half tempted to say yes and just hightail it out of there, back to somewhere which is a little bit less tense and awkward and where he doesn’t have to struggle to find the right things to say (he has letters from James he needs to reply to; he’s been putting them off for a while now), but there’s a tinge of bitterness in his brother’s voice which sticks him to his seat.
“No,” he replies slowly, though the word is out before he’s really had a chance to think it through. “It’s not it.”
Regulus doesn’t say anything about this, simply shifts a little and looks at him patiently, eyebrows raised. It’s a familiar position, this – sitting and talking, and Reg looking at him like that – and he finds he can’t hold his gaze, switching to examine the velvet of the throw on the bed, stroking the material softly, watching as the colour darkens and lightens as he brushes it.
“Look, I,” he begins, haltingly, making an effort not to say anything sappy or stupid and to think before he speaks. “Well, things are weird here, right? With Uncle falling over during dinner, and Aunt… yeah, and I just thought that since we’re, you know, brothers, I’d see how you were and things.”
Shrugging awkwardly, he wiggles one foot idly.
“You can talk to me, you know,” he blurts suddenly, stopping Regulus from speaking. “I know it’s weird… but you can. If there’s anything to talk about, ‘course.”
Regulus still hasn’t said anything, but continues to watch him. He looks confused and pensive and yet the look in his eyes is oddly warm; Sirius suspects he’s veritably blind-sided his little brother with this conversation. This time, though, he doesn’t look away or stare at the floor – he’s serious, for once in his life, and he wants to Regulus to know that as well.
He has no idea what’s going on, but he knows that his baby brother is damn well not being involved in it, no matter what.
After a moment, Regulus glances away, shifting on the bed, pulling his legs closer to himself, looking uncomfortable. He bites his lip and Sirius watches him carefully this time, a frown falling over his face. Regulus’ eyes dart to the door and then back, guarded.
“There’s nothing to talk about, as you said.”
Barty hums to himself as he scans along the shelves, looking for something interesting to read. Of course, most of the books the Blacks own are interesting – they wouldn’t own them if they weren’t – but most of them are old and dull with uninspired titles across the spines. He snorts as he runs his fingers over the gold lettering on one book, privately thinking that it wasn’t a surprise that people like his father had burned hundreds of thousands of copies of similar books if all Dark wizards named their books things like ‘Compendium of Curses to Induce Death’ or ‘Magic Most Vile’.
The sneer is audible; the consonants crunched between his teeth. Turning around, Barty sees Lucius, his infamous cane in his hands as usual, though the bottom of it doesn’t touch the ground, and he simply nods his head amicably in response.
“You’ve caused quite the stir, haven’t you?” Lucius asks casually, looking almost like a statue as he watches the boy. “Prancing around with your silly stories and ludicrous suggestions – crying murder at every turn. I expect you’re delighted with the way things have turned out.”
Barty frowned at that, tilting his head to one side in the perfect picture of childlike confusion.
“Delighted? With the way what things have turned out?”
Lucius’ shoulders stiffen and he glares, taking a step forward, hand shifting on his cane to allow him to point it at Barty, nearly prodding him in the chest.
“Do not make the mistake of playing smart with me, Crouch,” he warns him lowly. “I am not someone you want as an enemy. Now –“
“Are you my enemy?” Barty interrupts, looking at him curiously. The question, simple and forthright, has shocked Lucius into silence and he doesn’t respond for a good long minute.
All the time, Barty waits, patiently, as though waiting to find out if a senior Death Eater is his enemy or not is an everyday occurrence.
“Well, no,” Lucius begins, taking his time, trying to gather himself. “But I might be, should you continue with your little game. I am warning you – and I will only do so once – that –“
“What game? I’m not playing a game,” Barty cuts him off again, and this time Lucius’ face visibly tightens, lips pinching together in fury.
“I know your little secret,” he says eventually, eying Barty with a disgusted, angry look which has absolutely no effect. “I know. Should you keep playing this game of yours I will inform everyone present at dinner of it,” he pauses here, allowing time for his words to sink in. “Now, I understand you like to think you’re cleverer than everyone else, but let me assure you I’m not merely bluffing. Should you wish to take that chance, then by all means, continue as you are, but if not… well, then I think we have an agreement, don’t you?”
There are the beginnings of a smug smirk on his lips and Barty just nods obediently, hands clasped behind his back.
“Of course,” he echoes. “An agreement.”
“Very good,” Lucius comments, pulling his cane close to himself again, his hand stroking the top of the serpent’s head.
Barty watches him leave, his tongue flicking out to lick the right side of his bottom lip nervously, his face betraying his worry. Once he’s sure Lucius is gone, the door swinging shut behind the man with a bang, he turns back to the shelves and continues on his way, examining the titles critically.
After a while, he comes across one which catches his fancy and slides it easily out of its slot from between two thick, blue books. Its cover is scratched and a little faded, but the spine is unbroken and when he opens it, it gives a soft crack. Standing stock still, he greedily drinks in the words on the pale pages, flipping through to get to something more interesting. He’s so engrossed he barely notices the sound of the door opening or the rustle of material.
He’s still there, leaning against the shelves, nose in book, when Walburga finds him, a sour expression on her face, to tell him that his father’s owl has arrived with a letter. As he straightens up, eyes wide, and apologises, she catches a glimpse of the title of the book: Medieval Magic for the Modern Sorcerer, and finds herself compiling a list of similar books in her head, tripping towards the tip of her tongue.
She stays silent, though, and he says nothing as she leads him away out into the corridor.
He forgets to knock as he steps into his grandfather’s study, pushing the door open – in his defence, he thinks, it’s usually locked anyway – and then stopping dead in the doorway. Narcissa is seated in the spare chair and she gives him a cool glance.
“Sirius,” she utters, her hands smoothing down the fabric of her skirt continuously, in long, sweeping motions.
At first look, she seems perfectly put-together, as always, but when he walks into the room and shuts the door behind himself, rather than lingering in the doorway, he notices that there are circles underneath her eyes her make-up can’t hide, and she appears drawn, thinner than usual. The only things about her which are untouched are her lavender dress and the small amethyst pendant about her throat.
“Narcissa,” he says, leaning against his the large, wooden desk. “Why are you here? Where’s grandfather?”
“Grandfather and I were just discussing some things,” she tells him stiffly, holding her head high, barely looking at him and choosing instead to focus on the painting opposite her. “He left for a moment to go and deal with something else – I don’t know what. He should be back in a minute, though if you want to see him you’ll have to wait outside until we’re finished.”
He just shrugs at that, picking up a quill from the desk and beginning to twirl it between three fingers.
“Sure, I don’t mind. Will you be long?”
“I don’t know,” she shakes her head slightly, her hands stilling in her lap. “Maybe. It depends on… well, how long it takes.”
Her smile is weak and a little watery, and he frowns. She may not be his favourite cousin by a country mile, and he can’t count the number of times she’s ratted him out to his parents or their grandfather, but that catches his attention. Narcissa never knows exactly what she’s going to say before she’s going to say it – every word, every pause, every inflection is planned.
“Well, yeah,” he says slowly. “But do you think it will take a long time?”
She glares at him and snaps,
“I don’t know!”
“Okay, okay,” he rolls his eyes at her. “I get it: you don’t know.”
They sit in silence for a minute or so. Narcissa has gone back to staring at the painting, her eyes boring holes into it, and he brushes the feather of the quill he’s holding the wrong way, making it flutter and shudder underneath his fingers. It tickles a little, teasing a smile from him.
Eventually, bored, he puts it back down and it lies flat on the table, as though hoping it would detract attention from itself. Ignoring it, he shoves his hands into his pockets and watches his cousin curiously. He’s never seen Narcissa so out-of-sorts and unsure. Even more than her sisters, she had always appeared so completely assured and confident of her place and her worth. To see her now, with little to none of that left, it makes him curious.
“What were you talking about?” he asks, his voice breaking the silence, swallowing the ‘are you okay?’ he had almost said.
Startled, she jumps and looks at him, her blue eyes flashing wide and scared for a moment.
“What were you talking about? You and grandfather, I mean,” he repeats.
“Oh, oh – nothing,” she says quickly, glancing down at her lap. “It’s nothing. Just something silly.”
He snorts at that; she has no real idea of what ‘silly’ is. To her, it’s something which isn’t normal or as it should be, something which isn’t what a proper pureblood should do or think or feel.
“Really? Probably not as silly as me,” he assures her, not quite sure why he’s saying this to her, but he does anyway. He wants to tell someone, really, wants to know that it’s not as stupid as he thinks it is, and she’s here and they’re talking and it feels like a good time. He stalls, again. “So go ahead. I don’t mind.”
She doesn’t look at him, her gaze fixed on a crease in her dress. Her long fingers move over it, gently adjusting the material to get rid of it, the material barely making a whisper. After a while, just as he’d began to think she wasn’t interested in talking to her little Gryffindor blood-traitor cousin, she starts talking. Her voice is quiet, but the sound fills the room nonetheless.
“I’m worried,” she says softly. “About this whole… situation. It’s changing things – people – no one knows what to do or what’s going on. Lucius is… well, he’s scared, he thinks they’re after me, or that I’m next, or something, and then Bella’s desperate to leave, and I don’t want to think… I can’t think that she would do… something like that – she’s my sister – but she’s changed so much, and I don’t… I don’t know what to do.”
“Yeah, I get it,” he nods, his own voice lowered, as though to avoid people listening in. “It’s weird, to think that Crouch might be right, you know? To think that someone here might be a killer –“
“Might be!” Narcissa gives a derisive, scream of a laugh. “Bella and Lucius are. I know – they told me. She was even proud of it; at least he admitted it was ‘strange’, whatever that means.”
That makes him freeze. It’s different, suspecting something and then being told explicitly that it’s true, that it’s all true. His cousin and cousin-in-law are murderers. They’d killed people before. Perversely, he wonders how many people they’d killed, how many of them have been wizards or witches or children or just muggles in the wrong place at the wrong time…
“I guessed that maybe,” he murmurs, swallowing and gesturing helplessly. “But I never knew.”
“And as if that’s not enough,” she sniffs, her hands gripping each other tightly in her lap, continuing as though he’d said nothing. “There’s that Crouch boy going on about murder and death and how we’re all next or something and people believe it – Bella believes it. Lucius is worried. Then Regulus –“
“You noticed too?” he interrupts her eagerly.
She stares at him for a moment, her blue eyes damp, before nodding.
“I knew it! I knew something was up with him!” he feels victorious, like he’s won something, and he can’t help but grin at her.
Footsteps thump in the corridor, accompanied by the delayed tap of a stick, and they look away from each other. Narcissa’s cheeks blush pale pink, and she returns to looking at the painting. Fighting back a sneer (how can she be embarrassed about talking to him? He’s her cousin! It’s allowed! Is he really that much of an outcast?), he folds his arms over his chest and scowls at the ground, his mood turning dark.
Pollux opens the door less than two seconds later, and if he’s surprised to see Sirius there, he doesn’t show it. He glances between them, taking in the look on Sirius’ face, and the furiously blank expression of Narcissa, and pieces something together. Before he can say anything, though, Sirius pushes himself off the desk.
“Don’t worry – I’ll wait outside,” he says shortly, slipping past his grandfather, taking care not to nudge the old man, and leaving the room. The sound of the door shutting makes him flinch. It had been a stupid thing to want to ask anyway – no need for him to bother his grandfather about it. He’s perfectly capable of deciding for himself if he wants to write to his friends or not.
In the end, though, he forgets that he’d ever wanted to write to them in the first place, and the letters which arrive that evening are tossed into the drawer with all the others.
Chapter 6: Seven of Hearts
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Seven of Hearts
Torches flare into life as he passes them, dousing themselves after he’s gone past. It is late; most of the house are occupied elsewhere, talking over a glass of sherry or port in the drawing room, gathered together in some semblance of safety they all maintain they don’t need.
A tap of his wand against the door, a whispered charm, and the lock clicks open. He pushes the handle down slowly and steps inside. The room beyond is empty, everything in it meticulously neat and tidy; the remains of a fire wither in the fireplace, small specks of ash floating onto the rug. The clock on the mantelpiece reads ten to ten.
He doesn’t wait. Crossing the room quickly, he pulls the desk drawers out, one after another, sending only a cursory glance over each one. He knows what he’s looking for, has seen it before, it is just a question of where the old man has put it.
The drawers are all free of his prey, and he shoves them all shut with a run of soft bangs, the lines in his face tightening in anger. Where could it be? Where would the old man keep it? It is important, yes, but not so important as to warrant it being kept with him at all times – no, he is certain it is in the house, in this room. The question is simply where precisely.
Moving away from the desk, he tries first the drawers of the liquor cabinet in the back corner. Two open, and reveal a selection of bottle openers and napkins and jars of spices; one does not but soon shows him only a pile of age-old receipts for Ogden’s Finest, along with a long, thin goblin-made knife. The bookshelves hold only books behind the glass, and he is beginning to run out of time if he is not going to get caught.
Grasping the metal ring, he tugs at the drawer in the table opposite the fireplace. It doesn’t budge, despite him putting his whole weight behind it. Satisfied that this time it will be here, he draws his wand again and taps it, muttering the spell quietly. Before the blue flash has faded from his sight, he has opened the drawer; the leather of the case gleams up at him, highlighting the faux-snakeskin pattern traced on it.
He slides it out of the drawer, leaving it open, and takes it over to the desk, slipping the ribbon and seal off the end of the case and dropping them on one side. Flicking the lid open, he reaches inside and pulls the scrolls inside out. Unrolling them, he lays them flat on the table, separating it into its individual sheets and placing them side by side, comparing them. It wouldn’t do to mess it up now.
Scanning them quickly, he lets one of them fall onto the table, rolling the other one up with practised ease, sliding it back into the case, shutting it and rewrapping the ribbon and seal around it. Then it goes back in the drawer, shut and locked again.
The other copy he picks up. Holding it up to the light, he studies it silently for a moment or two, as if checking for something. Apparently assured of whatever it was he was looking for, he takes two steps and throws it into the fire. The few remaining sparks seize hold of it and the edges of it start to glow orange, then black as they burn. A flick of his wrist, wandless this time, and the sparks leap a foot high, morphing into crackling flames, lighting the whole room up as they consume the parchment.
He doesn’t wait to see the results of his actions, sweeping out of the room seconds later.
All in all, the whole event has taken less than three minutes – the work of an instant. Seventy-eight seconds after the lock to the office clicks shut, the fireplace is empty again, save for a small pile of ash; all that remains of the parchment.
The white drawing room has always been his favourite place in the whole house. As a child, he loved the way it seemed to shine and shimmer in the darkness, candlelight making it ethereal; as a man (or now, though he considers himself a man), he likes the fact that most of his family disdain the room for the sole fact that it is white and so he’s usually left alone in it.
Sirius is lying sprawled across the sofa, his feet resting on the fluffy white cushion, when Wipsy pops into view. Not bothering to move, he frowns, opening his mouth to ask ‘what?’, but before he can, she has vanished again with another crack. Bemused, he just stays there, deciding not to worry about it, and returns to contemplating the painted whirls and little carved harps and winged cherubs in the corners of the ceiling.
He’s a mess of emotions, with no idea what to think or believe, or what to do. Everywhere he looks there are shadows, and dead bodies with staring eyes. The portraits whisper behind his back but refuse to speak to him directly (‘traitor’, they say, and he tries not to let it bother him), and even the house-elves spit ‘master’ at him, though their tone is always respectful – it’s too ingrained in their consciousness for them to be anything but deferential.
Through it all, he feels nervous, lonely, and a faint thrill of excitement and fear. Every time he thinks about the situation – the insane, ridiculous, brilliant situation – he curses himself for the moments when he almost considers it as entertainment, as some kind of game they’re all playing without knowing the rules. It’s stupid and reckless and cruel, but he can’t help it.
He wonders, in those spaces between self-loathing and boredom, if there’s something wrong with him. It wouldn’t surprise him if there was.
The door opens and he finds his hand straying for his wand without consciously thinking about it, jinxes and curses leaping to the forefront of his mind.
“Don’t be stupid,” she snaps, giving him a contemptuous look. “If I wanted to kill you, you’d be dead already.”
“I don’t think you’re trying to kill me,” he defends himself instantly, his blood firing up as it usually does when he and Bella are in the same room, let alone talking. “It was just instinct.”
As she sits in the armchair opposite, looking no less out of place than she would in a muggle bar, her dress splaying out about herself, Bella rolls her eyes at his comment. With anyone else, it wouldn’t have mattered – he knows it’s a stupid excuse, even if it is true – but this is Bella and he spent half his life trying to impress her and the other half trying to annoy her, and so it does.
“What?” he glowers at her, feeling his irritation rise when she doesn’t look at all bothered by his temper, only strangely calm and composed.
“You don’t think I’m trying to kill you?” she repeats, sounding almost amused. “How sweet.”
“Should I think you’re trying to kill me?” he demands, not in the mood to play games. “Because if you are, go ahead and get on with it.”
“One day, Siri,” she coos at him with a promising smile. “One day. However, I’m not trying to kill you – not that I would be trying.” She gives a haughty sniff as if to say she’s almost disappointed by the killer’s attempts amongst the family.
“Well, that’s comforting,” he drawls sarcastically.
“It should be,” she assures him, before clapping her hands together once. The sound bounces off the walls of the room, making it appear much bigger than it is.
He looks at her for a moment, assessing her. She doesn’t seem to be mocking him or looking for an argument – though it’s become difficult to tell since she’s left school – but he can’t understand why she’s here and what she wants. It’s unusual and that’s enough to put him on edge.
“What do you want?” he asks eventually, making an effort to keep his voice neutral.
Bella regards him in return, studying his face carefully. She seems unsure about something – talking to him, most likely, he thinks sourly – and it reminds him of his conversation with Narcissa the day before, and the way she had refused to speak to him when grandfather had approached the room.
“What do you think about Crouch?” she says after a moment or two, taking a breath before speaking. Her voice is quiet and calm, but her eyes betray her: they flicker to the door once, then twice, and he knows she’s expecting someone to be listening. He wonders who she’s wary of.
“About Crouch?” he’s flummoxed by that question, it seems to have come out of nowhere at all. “Well, he’s a bit creepy, to be honest, and I don’t really like him, but –“
“No, not that,” she cuts him off harshly. “If I wanted a report on his personality I’d ask Reggie. Since you’re obviously failing to understand, I’ll spell it out for you: what do you think about Crouch’s little theory?”
“Theory?” he echoes, no less confused by that.
She glares at him, sudden and fierce, her temper flaring into existence, and hisses,
“Yes, you idiot! His theory! What do you think about it?”
“Oh, right,” something clicks in his mind and he nods hastily, trying to think of an answer. He’s not any surer what he thinks about it than he was at the beginning when Crouch first mentioned it, but he knows she’s expecting some kind of response and he guesses ‘I don’t know’ isn’t going to cut it. “I’m not sure, but he might have a point. Something’s going on, and I don’t think anyone knows what it is. I… I don’t want to think someone here killed uncle and aunt, but maybe – maybe they did.”
He trails off into silence, feeling a little odd. Saying it out loud has made it strangely real. To his eyes the shadows in the room lengthen and grow, and the candles flicker and stutter with pale streams of light. In an instant, his heartbeat races and Bella’s nervousness becomes his own.
“Exactly,” Bella breathes, her eyes alight with a mad gleam. “It’s an odd thing to mention, isn’t it? People die all the time. Something’s happening, something’s going on and I want to know what and who.”
“Yeah,” he agrees faintly. “So, what are you going to do about it?”
“I’m going to find out who it is,” she tells him confidently, with a toss of her head, shaking her hair over her shoulders. “I’m going to find out who is doing this and end it. Nothing else is going to happen.”
“What will you do when you find out who it is?” he asks, feeling more than a little worried about that. Bella’s a killer, that he knows, and he can’t imagine she’d be any more forgiving of her own family killing others than of anyone else. “Kill them?”
She looks thrown by that, her eyes widening at the suggestion, stilling completely. He feels his lips wanting to twitch up into a smirk, but he keeps them down nonetheless; this is not the time for humour, however spiteful or small.
“I’m not sure,” she admits at last. “Maybe. It depends.”
Despite her solemn, composed expression, there’s a look in her eyes which isn’t wholly sane and it twinkles disturbingly at him. While he doesn’t want to believe that she would – because she certainly could, if she can kill others – kill members of her own family, he can’t be sure. The glint in her eyes suggests otherwise, that she both could and would and would not hesitate before doing so if it would seem to her to be best.
“Okay,” he nods slowly, taking that in. “So, why are you telling me? What do you want me to do?”
“Well,” she licks her lips, considering her words before speaking. “I want you to help.”
“Why me?” he asks blankly.
“You mean you don’t want to help?” she gives him a slow, amused smirk, and he knows then that she knows he’s going to help regardless. “You don’t want to know if something is going on, and who is behind it? What about little Reggie? He could be next, you know, the killer could be planning to go after him next, or dear daddy, hm? How would you feel then, if you knew that you could have stopped it?”
His stomach plummets; his breath catches in his throat. In his mind’s eye, he can see Regulus, stretched out on the ground like Aunt Druella, limbs bent at unnatural angles, his face pale and waxy like Cygnus’, cold and still and lifeless. Blood creeping out from under his clothes, spreading out in a pool around his body, thick and red and sickening.
Bella is grinning at him, close to laughter, and he knows he’s pale and frightened, and he knows that she knows she’s got him.
“Fine,” he gets out through gritted teeth. “I’ll help.”
Dinner is all laid out, steam rising from the dishes and curling in the air, tickling their noses, but no one moves an inch. Everyone is waiting for someone to take the first spoonful, to see if the killer would strike again. It is to be expected, Sirius tells himself, since it’s the first time the family (or what’s left of it, at any rate) are all together for a meal since… well, since that night, but the reasoning sounds hollow even inside his own head.
Glancing down the table, he sees Narcissa’s hands twisting anxiously in her lap; his mother watching his grandfather as though looking for guidance, and a joke is on the tip of his tongue, unbidden, but he bites the inside of his cheek harshly and doesn’t dare say it. After all, the killer could be trying to strike again, could have laced the potatoes with arsenic or the venison with wormwood, or perhaps smeared the edge of the goblets with cyanide.
He swallows hard, feeling his heart beating just that bit faster, his palms sweating underneath the table and he wipes them on his robes. As a Gryffindor, he’s not allowed to be scared.
“Are we going to sit here all evening?” his father demands, his gaze sweeping over the table, haughty and faintly mocking.
It’s a challenge, and Sirius knows normally at least half of his family would jump to snatch up the gauntlet and throw it back, angry and defiant, but not tonight. Tonight they all just sit there, glancing nervously at each other, and say nothing in response.
He knows, though, that they’re all scared, too scared of what might happen to take a single bite. Someone will have to be brave and step forward, or they’ll never eat again during the holiday. As he contemplates it, his stomach rumbles – quietly, admittedly, but Bella, to his left, shoots him a look all the same.
Deciding it’s ridiculous (it’s nearly quarter to eight in the evening, he’s annoyed, and he’s hungry), he reaches down and picks up his fork. Regulus, opposite him, gives an involuntary jerk, his mouth falling open as he stares at him. He feels someone kick him, and just gives his brother a grin, twirling his knife in his hand and cutting a slice of meat. The sound of metal along porcelain cuts through the air with a screech.
“Sirius?” Narcissa’s voice is alarmed, nearly a squeak. “What are you doing?”
He looks at her as though she’s stupid; in the background, he can see his father suppressing an amused smile.
“Eating dinner,” he responds, bemused. “Why?”
She just stares at him, and looks so much like Regulus in that instance that he instantly looks down at his plate again, chewing slowly. It tastes fine – warm madeira notes blending into the spices – and he refuses to think about poison, about Uncle Cygnus dying after eating less than half a plate.
Since he doesn’t keel over immediately, others start to follow his lead, picking up cutlery and digging in. Their movements are slow, hesitant, and he suddenly, desperately wishes he were back at Hogwarts with James and Peter and Remus, laughing and lobbing peas at each other in the Great Hall.
He doesn’t look at his family for the rest of dinner, merely watches as more and more of the pattern on the china plate is revealed, feeling more out of place than he has done since his Sorting.
There’s complete silence from start to finish, save for the clinking of cutlery against plates and glasses against the table. It’s an oppressive, heavy silence, one which makes Sirius nervous and jumpy, wanting to leap out of his seat and race around the room.
A sharp cry crashes into the room, and his head shoots up. Bella, her fork on the floor, is clutching her left arm, eyes wide and mouth open in simultaneous pain and delight.
“He is calling me,” she whispers reverently. “I must go.”
Blankly, confused about exactly what just happened, he watches her rise and dash from the room, pulling her wand out of her pocket as she goes, leaving her chair to tumble to the ground behind her. He knows enough, though, to know where she’s going, what she’s going to do and it makes his stomach churn uncomfortably.
He pushes the bowl of profiteroles and cream away from himself, slumping in his chair.
Across the table, Barty starts to hum softly to himself, licking the last remnants of cream off his spoon. His bowl, unlike Sirius’, is empty, and his expression is completely unconcerned. Sirius wonders if he’s aware of the glances being exchanged at the other end of the table, of the whispers behind hands about his father and loyalty and Death Eaters and whether it was a good idea... Regulus, beside Barty, shifts a little uncomfortably, and Barty looks at him, grins and bumps his shoulder.
He knows, Sirius realises. He knows exactly what people say about him, about his father, and what they don’t dare to say. He simply doesn’t care.
His stomach twists again, and this time it’s sour and harsh with jealousy. He wishes he could do that, has spent the last six years trying to do that, but each time hasn’t quite succeeded.
Muttering some kind of excuse to the table at large, not looking to see if anyone is listening, he shoves his chair back and stalks out of the room. He doesn’t notice, but his chair falls back onto the floor beside Bella’s with a boom; he does notice, though, the weight of their gazes on his back as the door swings shut behind him.
In double-quick time, he’s in his room, slamming the door shut because the bang of the door against the frame makes him feel better. Leaning against it, he closes his eyes and runs a hand through his hair. He never expected a family holiday to be easy (and this isn’t even all of them – a bunch of them are dead, and the other bunch weren’t invited), but this is unravelling his nerves faster than he’d ever thought possible.
When he opens his eyes, he frowns. There’s a letter on his pillow, sealed in a neat, white envelope. He turns it over, bounding across the room to get to it, and there’s no seal on it, just a blob of indiscriminate white wax. There’s no name on it either, nothing to suggest it’s meant for him other than the fact it’s on his pillow.
The sheet of parchment inside is mostly blank, save for a few printed letters in handwriting he’s sure he’s never seen before.
He doesn’t know what it means, doesn’t know what it’s implying, but it’s enough to make his mind reel, his heart race and blood pound. Sinking onto his bed, he stares at it until he’s memorized it, plastered it to the back of his skull, frozen.
Because, goddammit, this is not funny.
Chapter 7: Eight of Clubs
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Eight of Clubs
He has never been more relieved to see the light seeping out from underneath his grandfather’s door. Letter crumpled in his hand, he grabs the handle of the door and bursts in without any ceremony.
“Regulus! It’s Regulus!”
His shouts die away into the room, and he freezes, glancing around the scene. They all stare at him in return, not a muscle moving between them. Immediately, he feels foolish and rude, but he refuses to back down, staying exactly where he is.
“Sorry,” he apologises. “I didn’t realise you were busy.”
“You would have known that if you had knocked,” Walburga sniffs, adjusting the teaspoon on the side of her teacup delicately, her mouth set into a hard, thin line.
“Sorry,” he repeats himself, the word slipping out automatically, though he doesn’t look at his mother as he says it, watching his grandfather for a signal – anything – to say he can continue. Patience has never been his forte, though, and when Pollux only frowns, one eyebrows raising slightly, he blurts out,
“It’s Regulus. Something’s going on. I don’t know what, but it’s to do with Regulus.”
“What are you blabbering on about?” his father demands, his eyes narrowing shrewdly. “What has to do with Regulus?”
“I –“ Sirius pauses, feeling foolish all of a sudden. “I don’t know. Not exactly. Something’s going on, though, and it’s something to do with Regulus. That’s why I thought I’d come and tell you – in case you knew anything.”
It’s a crap excuse, but he prides himself on having thought of it last minute nonetheless. Even though he’s pretty sure none of them are convinced by it, former Slytherins all, since they’re all looking at him like he’s turned into a jellyfish without noticing.
“Sirius,” Pollux sighs, adjusting the quill lying on his desk so it is perfectly aligned with the sheet of parchment prepared already. “Do you have any reason to think that something is going on which has to do with Regulus, or is this just pure speculation?”
The tone in which he says it speaks volumes about his belief that Sirius actually has any proof, and Sirius has to swallow a spark of anger that they just don’t get it; can’t they see he’s serious?
“Yes,” he insists, crossing the room and dropping the letter on his grandfather’s desk, picturing his mother’s wrinkled nose at the scrunched paper with a flare of amusement. “There. Someone left it on my pillow yesterday. I don’t know why, but there must be some reason. It doesn’t make sense otherwise.”
Carefully, Pollux picks up the piece of parchment in both hands, slowly smoothing it out and flattening it onto the desk. Sirius doesn’t need to look down to see what the letter says; he already knows it, can see the curve of the individual letters on the page.
“Well?” he hears his mother ask, impatient. “What does it say?”
“‘Regulus’,” he answers for his grandfather. “It just says ‘Regulus’.”
The snort he hears from his mother tells him everything he needs to know about their thoughts on the note and his interpretation of it, though he forces himself to keep looking at his grandfather and not just leave, hoping that he might think differently.
After a moment, Pollux sighs, his hand tapping on the top of his desk once, and then leans back on his chair, glancing up at him.
“This is it?”
He isn’t disappointed, he tells himself, feeling his nails digging into his palm by his sides, hands clenched into fists. He isn’t disappointed because what did he really expect? His parents and grandfather to start jumping around all over the place, squawking about murder and killers because of a note someone left on his pillow? It was a stupid idea in the first place, but a small part of him thought – persisted – that, maybe, given everything that’s been going on, they might just take it seriously.
He hadn’t thought they’d just not even consider it.
“Er,” he flushes, shifting uncomfortably in place. “Well, yeah. That’s it. I just thought… you know, you might like to know. Since I didn’t write it, and someone must have put it there for some reason – it was sealed and everything, I swear. Given what’s been happening I thought, you know, it would be best.”
It’s the most ineloquent thing he’s said in years – even beating the time he’d tried to stammer out a reply to a local muggle girl’s invitation to a ‘seen-ee-mar’ (which sounded to him like some kind of weird freak show or public execution – if they still did those) – and he shoves his hands in his pockets at the end of it, trying to appear nonchalant about it. He has to admit, though, sounding like an idiot is not really going to help him argue his case. Not that he ever had much of a case to argue to begin with.
Pollux closes his eyes for a moment, taking in a slow, deep breath (Sirius can actually see his chest move beneath his shirt and robes), and when he opens them again, he directs the thin, wan smile to the crumpled piece of paper, not Sirius.
“I appreciate your concern for your brother, Sirius – it is most natural,” he says patiently, with the air of one having to talk to a child who simply refuses to stop asking ‘why’. “Particularly at times like these. However, I highly doubt this really means anything. There is no killer, after all, and without a killer Regulus is hardly in danger. Throw it away and forget about it; it’s just rubbish.”
It takes him a little while to do anything other than stand there, staring at his grandfather. Then, he gives a jerky sort of nod and mutters ‘yeah, sure, thanks’. Avoiding the gazes of both his parents, he steps forward and scoops up the piece of parchment, slipping it into his pocket and leaving the office without another word.
In the corridor outside, when he’s sure he’s out of both earshot and sight for anyone just outside it, he swears loudly and bashes the wall twice with his fist. A painting of a woman in a corseted dress with a hat and fur stole gasps and hisses indignantly at his coarse language. He gives her a rude hand gesture in return, not caring if she recognises it or not.
Leaning against the wall, propping himself up facing it with his forearm, the side of his hand red and smarting, he curses again, repeating the word over and over again, like some kind of strange, offensive prayer.
How could he have been so stupid? Of course they wouldn’t care, of course they’d think it was nothing – and, really, he’s not even sure he’s convinced that it is something, if he’s honest with himself. He should have known better than to go to his grandfather, should have kept it to himself. It’s not as if he can’t watch out for Regulus; he’s nearly seventeen, after all.
Behind him, someone clears their throat.
Straightening up, caught between irritation and embarrassment at being found swearing like a sailor (at least, he thinks that’s the phrase Lily likes to use about him and James), he turns around, arm dropping down to by his side, a harsh ‘what’ jumping to the front of his throat, waiting to fire out of his mouth in a heartbeat.
His father merely raises an eyebrow at him, his expression faintly disapproving, and any sound he had intended to make dies before it lives.
“That letter,” Orion asks slowly. “May I see it?”
Of course, before the question has really been asked, his father’s hand is already held out, palm turned up, waiting for it to be handed over. Not really a question then, but Sirius is used to it – it’s been his father’s habit ever since he could remember.
‘Thinking too fast for his mouth’ is what his mother always mutters when it happens.
“Um,” he begins, hesitating just a moment, before taking it out of his pocket and handing it over. “Yeah, sure.”
He stands there, unsure of what to do – if anything – watching as Orion unfolds the piece of parchment and gazes at the word inked into it. His father’s expression doesn’t change as he studies it, eyes sweeping over the curve of the letters, the flicks off the end of the ‘s’ and the tail of the ‘g’.
“Do you recognise the handwriting?” he questions eventually, and Sirius is so ready to answer that he blurts it out almost too fast.
“No,” he shakes his head. “No, I don’t.”
It hadn’t actually been something he’d considered when he’d found it and first read it. He’d been so fixated on who had sent it and why they’d sent it, why it just said ‘Regulus’, that he hadn’t stopped to think about something so obvious as whose handwriting it is. Now it’s occurred to him, it seems strange that he doesn’t. If someone inside the house sent it, surely he should recognise it? Surely someone should recognise it?
Carefully, Orion folds it up, looking pensive. Sirius holds out a hand to take it back, but his father simply tucks it into the breast pocket of his jacket, ignoring him completely.
“I must go back –”
“How did you get out?” Sirius interrupts eagerly, curious.
“It is an office, Sirius,” Orion says coldly. “Not Azkaban. I walked out of the door. Regardless, I must go back and you should go and find something to do. If you want to find your brother, I believe he and the Crouch boy are in your grandmother’s old drawing room.”
It is a dismissal, and a pretty clear one too. He nods, shoves his hands in his pockets and makes his way out of the corridor. While he’s annoyed he doesn’t have the letter any more, his father’s suggestion isn’t a bad one, though he’s not sure whether Regulus will want his company or not.
Too bad for him, he thinks with a smirk as he rounds the corner (and successfully shocks a portrait of his great-grandfather into silence with a polite nod and smile), he’ll just have to put up with it either way.
The rest of the house is silent as he takes the stairs two at a time. Then again, if his parents and grandfather are in the study, Regulus and Barty are in the old drawing room, Uncle and Aunt are… well, dead, and he’s obviously here, that doesn’t really leave many people to be wandering around the house. Still, it’s at times like this he appreciates the warmth and noise of the Gryffindor Common Room – even of the Potters’ house.
His grandmother’s old drawing room – preserved and kept sparklingly clean even after her permanent relocation to the south of France – is on the top floor of the house, for no discernible reason, tucked away between a guest bedroom and a set of stairs. He vaguely remembers reading something as a child which suggested it had used to be a parlour for visiting ladies to use or something similar, but he doesn’t care enough to wonder.
Pushing open the door, he is met by an annoyed look as whatever conversation had been going on before he arrived stops abruptly.
“What?” Regulus demands. “Does mother want me?”
“Don’t be stupid,” he rolls his eyes in response, ignoring every little gesture or sign – from Regulus’ glare to the way Barty's studiously ignoring him – which tell him he’s not needed and should go away. Instead, he soldiers on and sits down on the sofa opposite them, glancing once at Barty. “If mother wanted you for something, she’d send a house-elf. Although I’m sure she wishes I was, I’m not one.”
Regulus glares at him for a moment longer, seemingly about to defend their mother, before he slumps back into the arm of the sofa, head resting on a silver-embroidered cushion, with a mutter of ‘whatever’.
They sit like that for a moment or two: the two brothers opposite each other, separated by a delicate glass and mahogany table laden with books, and Barty Crouch ensconced in a velvet-covered armchair in the corner, immersed in a large, leather-bound volume. On the mantelpiece, a china carriage-clock keeps time slowly.
Despite the open window, the sash for it fluttering loosely in the wind, the room feels stuffy and almost humid. He’s willing to bet no one’s been in here for years – not deliberately, at least, and wonders, briefly, why Regulus had chosen to come here. The idea of sitting in a hot, suffocating room at the top of the house for hours on end when his own room, which is nice and cool and airy, is only a hundred metres down the corridor baffles him.
Then again, he’s never much liked the idea of sitting about reading books, either.
“So,” he tries, sounding casual and almost bored. “What are you doing?”
It’s a stupid question. It’s a stupid, stupid, stupid question, and as soon as he says it he knows he’s in for it now. He waits, therefore, silently, for the first blow to come.
“Reading,” Barty’s voice is quiet, but still sharp and blatantly amused. “Or have you gone blind?”
Regulus sniggers to Barty’s left, playing idly with the end of a window sash in a manner that puts Sirius very much in mind of a kitten with a ball of string.
“No,” he replies easily, forcing himself to give a little light-hearted smile. “Just asking.”
“Oh,” Barty doesn’t look up from his book, but enough of his expression is in his voice that it doesn’t matter. Contemplative, he sounds almost disappointed. “That’s a shame.”
Sirius feels his jaw clench and takes a breath, choosing to look around the room or out of the window – it’s a good view, he has to admit, he can see all the way to the little church in the muggle village not-so-nearby from here – rather than keep trying to make conversation. It’s exhausting and not giving any results; giving up seems the easy, sensible option.
He’s busy tilting his head to better see a little gold statuette of a dog in one of the large, glass-fronted cabinets in the room, when the silence breaks.
“Why are you here?”
When he looks up, Regulus is watching him, his expression somehow simultaneously sporting the same controlled, collected look their father has and a confused frown. The effect is bizarre, but surprisingly intense.
“What do you mean why am I here?” he retorts quickly. “Why can’t I be here?”
Regulus shrugs, looking away and studying the sash as he twines it around his fingers, weaving it in and out of them.
“You can be here,” he acknowledges. “You never were before, though. Why are you here now?”
Sirius doesn’t really know what to make of that – all carefully said in a light tone, one trying too hard to be casual – and feels his forehead crease as he frowns at his brother. He notices that in the corner, Barty has frozen, eyes fixed on the page in front of him.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he demands after a moment in an effort to hide the fact that he really has no idea what Regulus is trying to get at with that comment.
“Nothing,” Regulus assures him quickly, almost before he’s finished asking. “Nothing. Just curious, that’s all.”
Regarding his brother closely, taking in the way he can’t keep his hands still, the concentration he’s putting into playing with a bit of old cord, and the indentations his teeth are making into his bottom lip, Sirius concludes that whatever it is, it’s definitely not ‘nothing’. It obviously means something to Regulus, and it’s meant to mean something to him.
“No, it isn’t,” he says confidently. “What do you mean?”
For a minute, Regulus doesn’t say anything, and Sirius just watches him twirl the end of the sash around his middle finger before letting it slide away again, twisting his wrist round to grab it again. He isn’t sure Regulus is going to reply at all, and is about to repeat himself when the other opens his mouth,
“It’s just that you’ve never been interesting in sitting in the same room as me, and now you want to be all friendly or whatever – trying to hang around all the time, asking me how I am and things. It’s weird. You haven’t wanted to know for ages, so why now?”
Barty hasn’t turned a page in the last two minutes; his hand hovers over the bottom corner, but doesn’t land.
“Well, I –” Sirius begins, but the words (of course I’ve wanted to talk to you – we’re brothers, right? – I’ve always wanted to know, you just haven’t been around) stick in his throat. There’s more than a bit of truth in what Regulus said, after all, and he can feel the guilt starting to swirl around in his stomach, thick and bitter.
“Well what?” Regulus snaps at him, his tone unmistakeably harsh.
“Why can’t I want to know now?” he demands in reply, leaning forwards. “What’s so wrong with that? I’m allowed, right? Besides, you say I haven’t been talking to you, but it’s not like you’ve exactly been friendly with me. You never tried to talk to me either, so don’t blame me for that.”
Regulus’ fingers tighten around the window sash, knuckles white through the skin. Swinging his legs off the sofa, he sits up, giving Sirius a furious, flushed glare. Sirius glowers back in turn, barely aware of Barty, in the corner, having looked up from his book, glancing between the two of them, unsure of what to do.
“Blame you?” Regulus repeats contemptuously. “Why shouldn’t I blame you? It’s your fault. It’s not my fault. I haven’t been ignoring you, no matter what you might like to pretend to yourself. You’ve been ignoring me – you’ve been ignoring me for years. You’re pretty damn good at it, as well, as you’ve proven.”
His fault? His fault? He hadn’t said anything about blaming anyone – definitely hadn’t said he blamed Regulus – and now Regulus is accusing him?
“It’s not my fault! You can’t blame me for you being always too busy swanning around being the favoured son – mummy’s precious baby boy,” Sirius sneers in reply, feeling his temper rising sharply, hands clenching into fists. He’s been itching for a good fight ever since this started, and now it seems like he’s finally getting one. Well, he would be, if he didn’t feel so frustratingly guilty over something this trivial. “Too busy being perfect to come and talk to me, right? Don’t want to associate with your bloodtraitor brother? Or are you really too scared to come and find me?”
He glares at him again for good measure, before adding,
“But, you know what, I’m not the one who still cares about who ignored who – I’m not the one who brought this up. You did. You’re still annoyed about this, even now, and why? I’m going to hold your bloody hand while you wail about how terrible your life is. I’m saying I want to talk to you now and you’re whining about the past like some snivelling little baby. Grow up, for god’s sake, and get over it. It’s as much your fault as mine.”
Jumping up from his seat, Regulus grips the window sash tighter, feeling it start to press into his skin.
“I’m not asking you to hold my hand, you imbecile,” he throws back, voice getting louder. “I’m asking you to actually want to bloody talk to me once in a while, but no, that’s too much for ask for you, isn’t it? You’re not interested in me, you don’t care about me – so stop trying to act like you do. I don’t believe anything you say any more. How can I when everything that comes out of your mouth is trash? Why can’t you just leave me the hell alone for once like you’re so bloody brilliant at doing?”
He doesn’t know whether it would feel better to punch his brother or run out of the room – possibly jump out of the window for a quicker exit.
“You’re a stupid, pathetic, little prick. Why would I care about you? It’s not like you care about me either,” he shouted back, fingers digging into the armrest of the sofa, beginning to push himself up and out of it.
Pausing, taking deep satisfaction in seeing Regulus’ shocked, angry expression, he continues, quieter now, though no less venomous,
“Fine. Have it your way. I’ll leave you to it. If there is a killer, I damn well hope he gets you next! I won’t bloody mind!”
A hiss of breath from the corner, and then Regulus breathes out,
Before he’s really registered it, Regulus is lunging for him, taking the window sash with him. The windowpane creaks, wrenches and then falls to the floor with a crash. Splinters of wood fly everywhere; the smashed glass leaves worthless, miniature diamonds littering the carpet. He turns away, ignoring Regulus’ strangely swollen eyes and pale, furious expression, and runs out of the room.
His feet pound as he races down the corridor, though as fast as he is, his feet can’t go any faster than his heart – beating in double-time. Words, phrases echo in his head, and louder than all of the rest he can hear Regulus’ last, hissed remark.
Shaking his head, hoping desperately that no one else heard their argument, hoping that Regulus isn’t following him to continue it (though he wouldn’t be too worried if he did – he’d love to punch him right in his stupid, pretty, baby face. Break his nose, then maybe he’d stop whining about people ignoring him), he rounds the corner of the landing.
He hears a shout – a warning – a squeal and then a thud and a shrill cry. All he sees is a blur of grey and dark brown, and maybe, maybe a flash of light blonde. There’s the feel of something warm hitting him (or has he hit it? He’s not sure), and he stops, hand reaching, grasping for the bannister.
Mouth open, leaning heavily forwards, each foot on a different step, he freezes, helpless to watch as Narcissa, seemingly unconscious, keeps tumbling down and down and down the stairs until finally she stops at the bottom.
A hand lands on his shoulder, and he jumps as a voice murmurs into his ear.
“Sirius, what have you done?”
Chapter 8: Nine of Diamonds
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Nine of Diamonds
No one looks at him. Well, that’s not strictly true. Bella’s glaring at him, gaze darting away each time he tries to meet her eyes, and Regulus shoots him sly, calculating little looks every now and then, though they’re tempered with a tinge of terror. His mother, on the other hand, is staring at him. He’s not sure she’s even blinked during the time they’ve been sitting there.
He feels sick.
Isn’t it enough that he still has the red mark on his face from where Bella slapped him, and that his mother screamed at him for half an hour before depositing him in front of his grandfather, who’s coldly shocked and furious diatribe about how he should be less reckless was almost worse than both the others put together. Do they have to treat him like he actually killed her? Like he meant to knock her down the stairs?
He always knew he was something of an outcast, he just never knew it went this far.
Giving a huffy little sigh, he begins kicking his leg backwards and forwards, enjoying the soft squeak of the rubber sole of his shoe on the polished floor. Maybe, he thinks, if he kicks hard enough, he’ll leave a mark there – a dirty, black smear right across the pale brown wood.
“Would you stop?” Pollux snaps at him after what feels like at least ten minutes has passed, throwing an irritated look in his general direction. Even though it’s phrased like one, it isn’t really a request or plea, merely a demand. Glaring back, feeling a spurt of defiance, he raises his foot to kick the floor again.
“Do that again,” Orion begins, his voice calm but unmistakeably icy. “And I will lock you in your room for the rest of the day.”
James’ father, he knows, would have added ‘do I make myself clear’ onto the end of it; he supposes most fathers would. His doesn’t; he knows it’s perfectly clear enough, and sees no reason to ask if it is, thus implying that his child is stupid.
It’s not a threat which scares him, though, since he’s spent most holidays since his sorting on his own – by choice or by force – and, frankly, the idea of being in his room on his own sounds like a great idea at the moment. Nonetheless, he stops and slumps in his chair, folding his hands in his lap in a show of mock obedience.
Thankfully he’s spared having to sit still for any longer (twenty-three minutes is quite long enough as it is), as the door opens.
“She’s fine,” Bella reports, wand handle sticking out of the pocket of her dress, blowing a loose curl out of her face. “Lucius is with her – she’s taken a Sleeping Draught and only seems to have concussion, so there’s nothing to worry about.”
“But what about the blood?” Sirius feels rather than hears his voice almost crack, and coughs in an attempt to cover it up. “There was blood on the stairs… how does that work?”
“A small cut on her skull,” she replies, her lips pursing in a subconscious imitation of her sister. “Healed already. She’ll be fine.”
“Don’t think that just because it wasn’t any more severe you’ll be getting off with a lighter punishment,” Walburga barks at him, her eyes fixed on him suspiciously. “You should be grateful we’re not handing you over to the Aurors this minute!”
While inwardly he can’t help but scoff at that – as though any of his family would want to be the one to call the Aurors to their house, stuffed full as it is with poisons and dark objects masquerading as ‘family heirlooms’ and rusting manacles in the cellar – Sirius just nods his head once complacently, looking away, gritting his teeth and pressing his tongue into the roof of his mouth to stop himself from speaking.
“If that is all,” Pollux rises slowly, hands white as he leans heavily on the top of his cane. “I will be returning to my office. I expect to be notified if anything changes, but until then I see no point in sitting outside a door.”
He has a point, and Sirius stands up, trailing after him out of the room. Behind him, he can hear Regulus and Barty whispering to each other – he tries to listen in to their conversation but can’t catch it – as they follow him outside. A part of him, irrational, wonders if they’re talking about him, but it doesn’t last for long and he heads down the hallway, over towards the other side of the house and his bedroom.
His grandfather heads down the staircase, clutching onto one rail, and he can’t help but turn his head, glancing down at it as he passes, scanning the marble for specks of brownish-red. It’s spotless, gleaming, and he isn’t really sure if that makes him feel any better. He could have killed his cousin; surely there should be more evidence, more of a stain to remind him of what could have happened?
Snatching his hand off the bannister, he forces himself to look away. No need to linger so much on it; Cissy’s fine, she’s going to be fine and that’s the important thing, he tells himself.
“Sirius,” he hears his mother call to him and turns to see her, violet robes scrunched up in one hand, standing at the entrance to the small room which guards his cousin’s bedroom. “Would you mind staying in your room until dinner? Or, at least away from the stairs. We don’t want any more accidents.”
She gives him a fake smile and turns away to catch his father by the elbow. Imitating her, he keeps walking, only pausing once he’s sure he’s out of sight to hit the wall hard. Giving a hiss of pain as his hand throbs, a large red mark on his palm, he stops outside his room, noticing that Regulus and Barty have vanished inside Regulus’ room, leaving the door slightly ajar.
He’d be half tempted to join them, but there’s only so many times listening to his brother whine about how badly Puddlemere are doing this year while smugly rubbing it in can be funny.
Shutting the door behind himself, he crosses over to his bed, flinging himself onto it face down. God, but how much he wants this day to be over! He doesn’t think he’s ever experienced a worse day in his life. How could it possibly get worse?
She could have actually died, Remus’ voice reminds him and he groans. Punching a pillow, he swears and rests his chin on top of his mattress, feeling himself sinking into it a little.
At least, he supposes, things can only get better from here.
He wakes up shivering. Regulus is standing over him, wand raised, smirking. For a moment, he’s not sure why, then he pushes himself up on his mattress and finds that his sheets are sopping.
“Bastard,” he bites out at his brother, though there’s no real feeling behind it. “What do you want?”
“I don’t want anything,” Regulus informs him tartly. “Mother told me to fetch you and tell you to come downstairs.”
“What does she want?” he asks, going to run a hand through his hair but catching himself just in time and scowling at his brother again for good measure. Pranks like this are never quite as funny when he’s in the firing line himself.
Regulus just shrugs elegantly, twirling his wand in one hand.
“I don’t know; she didn’t say. Just said we had to be presentable, so I’ll tell her you’ll be down in a while.”
He’s about to burst out that it doesn’t take him that long to become presentable and so he’ll just accompany him down, when he remembers that there are little drops of water falling onto his shoulders, leaving see-through splotches on his shirt.
“Tell her I’ll be down in a minute,” he sighs, slipping off his bed and heading to his cupboard to find a clean, ‘presentable’ shirt.
He can practically feel Regulus’ smirk on his back as his brother chirps,
“Sure. I’ll see you down there in a minute.”
The door has barely shut behind Regulus before he strips off his shirt, tossing it carelessly on the carpet. Grabbing a cream dress shirt his mother can’t complain about, he quickly slips it on, buttoning it up to the collar. He hasn’t worn it in ages, since last year’s Yule party, and the collar is a little smaller than he remembers it, pinching at his neck. Swallowing, he resolves to simply apologise if the button pops off during dinner and leaves his room.
No one else is around as he makes his way down the stairs, feeling hyper aware of everything around him, almost nervous as he goes down each step. He imagines they probably don’t want to be around him on stairs; the idea that they all fled down before him, in a flurry of silk and cufflinks, makes him grin for a moment before he remembers the reason why they would be running away from him.
It’s only when he gets to the bottom of the stairs that he realises Regulus didn’t tell him where the rest of the family were – ‘downstairs’ is helpful, but not really very great when there’s a lot of ‘downstairs’ where they could be.
Shoving his hands in his pockets and wandering towards the drawing room, he decides to check there first, seeing as it seems the most likely place. If they’re not there… well, he supposes he’ll have to call a house-elf and ask, though it sounds much like giving up to him.
Before he gets there, though, he can hear the low buzz and hum of conversation seeping out from underneath the doors. There’s a faint chink of glasses every now and then, and as he gets closer, he can hear individual voices: his father’s smooth tones, his grandfather’s lower voice, and Bellatrix’s loud one. Amongst it all, another voice occasionally breaks in, perhaps responding to something or the other, and he feels himself give a small, reluctant smile.
He can’t really linger outside the door for too long, standing there and barely even attempting to listen to what they’re saying, otherwise his mother might send a house-elf up for him and then things would get complicated, so he grasps the metal handle, turns it and enters.
The room falls silent. It’s as if he cast a wordless, wandless Silencing Charm on the whole room. In fact, if he didn’t know better he’d say that they’d been frozen in time; a eulogy in tableau to the stiff, upper-class remainders of pureblood society.
He doesn’t really hear the door swing shut behind him as he glances round the room, hoping for someone to do something other than look at him.
After a pause, the prodigal son in the corner smiles, blank face transforming in a second into the very picture of delight and happiness at seeing him. Slamming his glass tumbler down on the side table, Alphard springs up out of his seat, moving towards him, already extending a hand to shake.
“Ah, Sirius! I’d been wondering where you were – it’s been such a long time since I’ve seen you, though it can’t be helped, really; business doesn’t stop for any man! Young Regulus was just telling me about how the school Quidditch season was going. Now that you’re here, of course, we can have a less biased version of events, perhaps,” Alphard shakes his hand firmly, giving him a patronising pat on the shoulder. Over his uncle’s shoulder, Sirius can see a sour scowl on his brother’s face, though he’s not sure if it’s more for being referred to as ‘young Regulus’ or for the implication that he’s been lying about the school Quidditch season.
“Er, yeah, sure,” he mumbles somewhat half-heartedly, feeling more than a little overwhelmed. He stumbles gratefully into the nearest free seat when Alphard releases him, exchanging a brief, exasperated look with Regulus.
It only lasts for a moment, and then they go back to ignoring each other, the attention in the room returning to Alphard.
“Well, now you’re here, Sirius, the whole family’s –” Alphard cuts off suddenly, pausing as he picks up his tumbler again, watching the orange-tinted liquid swirling around in the bottom of it. Out of the corner of his eye, Sirius spots his father roll his eyes, downing the rest of his drink. While Uncle Alphard is by far his favourite relative, the most fun and entertaining one he has, it doesn’t mean he disagrees with the sentiment: the pause was carefully planned and staged to suggest a grief they all know is faked.
Uncles Alphard and Cygnus might have been brothers, but that didn’t mean much.
“Alphard,” Pollux speaks up. “How long will you be here?”
“Not long, unfortunately,” Alphard replies, refilling his tumbler without looking; the brandy sloshes into the glass, rocking up towards the rim. A few drops spill over the side, trickling down and pooling about the bottom. “I have a meeting on Wednesday I simply can’t miss. I would cancel, but there’s no other time my client can do.”
“Such a shame,” Orion drawls, just about managing to replace the disdain normally reserved for his brother-in-law with a distinct lack of emotion. Beside him, Walburga gives him a sharp look, her lips pursed, before enquiring,
“So when will you be leaving? Not too soon, I hope.”
Bellatrix, lounging in the corner of the room on a square, tasselled stool, snorts. It teases a slight, quickly suppressed grin from Sirius. When everyone turns to look at her, she simply smiles sweetly in reply, saying nothing at all as she sips from her glass.
“Tuesday evening, before dinner, I think,” Alphard replies easily. “I need some time to prepare for the meeting.”
The lie is so ridiculous that Sirius has to fight back a snort. Alphard has no interest in preparing for a meeting – he doubts the meeting is even real – his uncle just doesn’t want to spend much time with the rest of them. Honestly, Sirius understands that, he really does, but he feels it’s a little bit pointless to persist in a lie they all know is rubbish.
Despite the annoyance, he wishes Alphard would stay a bit longer. Selfishly, it has nothing to do with the rest of the family, since his uncle is hardly the most popular member, and everything to do with himself. He likes his uncle, underneath it all; Alphard has always been the most fun member of the family, the most prone to laughter and jokes, and it’s just as easy to laugh at him as it is to laugh with him, as long as he doesn’t catch you.
Silence falls, tense and thick, and Sirius shifts a little in his seat. He feels like he should say something or do something – ask when dinner will be, maybe – but his mouth seems to be taped shut. Instead, he drums his fingers on his knees, occasionally hearing a faint tap of flesh on fabric, and looks around the room, trying to avoid looking at anyone else.
As the silence stretches on and on, becoming thinner and thinner as they all pull on it, he starts tapping his foot on the ground as well, keeping time with his fingers on his leg. Perhaps, he thinks, he could escape – say he needs to go to the toilet or something – simply mutter out some excuse and dart out, take a minute or two to himself in the hallway. He’s just wondering whether or not it would be worth it, even should one of his family step outside and see him loitering in the corridor, when the handle of the door turns.
Barty peeks his head round the door, uttering a polite,
“Mrs Black? Am I allowed in?”
Watching the younger boy, Sirius is impressed by the neat, combed hair and the childishly innocent expression on his face. He looks like every mother’s dream houseguest – sweet and polite and helpful. His eyes, though, give him away as they jump about the room, flickering between Orion, Walburga and Regulus, lingering a little on the latter.
“Of course,” Walburga approves, and she gives him something which resembles an attempt at a smile, even if she doesn’t succeed.
Murmuring a quiet ‘thank you’, Barty slips inside the room, closing the door softly behind himself. He barely makes any sound as he crosses the floor, taking a seat on the sofa between the two brothers, giving Regulus a quick grin as he does so.
Alphard, in the corner, regards him, a small, amused smile playing around his lips.
“Taking in strays, Wallie?” he asks her, without glancing her way, his eyes roving over Barty, who stares back easily, seemingly completely at ease with such an examination. “He is, I assume, house-trained?”
Walburga shoots her brother a glare which is half-embarrassed and half-furious, but before she can say anything to defend herself, Barty’s already there.
“I am house-trained,” he smiles brightly, but there’s a wild, dark glint in his eyes. “But I do bite sometimes.”
Everyone stops and waits. It’s a bold comment to make, even off-hand, and Sirius half expects his uncle to gather himself, glower and snap something rude in return.
Instead, Alphard simply sits there for a moment, eyebrows raised, his brandy glass dangling in mid-air, fingers gliding around it to grip it better. Then, after a long minute, his eyebrows drop, the tumbler is lowered and he breaks into a smile, allowing a short, harsh laugh to break out of his throat.
“I like him,” he says. “He’s got spirit. What’s your name, house-trained-but-bites?”
“Bartemius Crouch,” the response comes promptly, with a practiced ease. “Junior.”
“I see,” Alphard nods, taking another mouthful of brandy. “Why are you here? I was under the impression this was a family gathering only – not that I was invited, of course – and you, house-trained-but-biting Bartemius Crouch Junior, are not family.”
Barty’s jaw stiffens at the repetition of his full name, but he only slumps back against the cushions of the sofa. Across the room, Sirius’ mother is positively indignant at the treatment of their guest, and Sirius waits for the remonstration he knows is coming.
“He is here,” she begins, her tone crisp and cold. “Because he was invited. Orion and I thought it would be good for Regulus to have some company this holiday – and I think the recent events have proved it a wise enough decision.”
Bellatrix snorts again, louder this time. Sirius is sure the whole room must have heard, but, whether they did or not, no one says anything.
He understands the sentiment, though. The idea of Barty somehow being a great comfort to Regulus in all this is, if true, lost under the swarms of confusion and irritation and distrust he seems to carry around with him and which flare up whenever he opens his mouth. So far this holiday, Sirius hasn’t seen a single moment when Barty has been comforting Regulus; instead, Barty has been fear-mongering, vanishing about the house, and being far too amused by the whole situation.
‘Wise decision’, his arse.
“So,” Alphard drawls with a lecherous smirk. “He and Regulus are ‘keeping company’ together, are they?”
Sirius barely has time to register the intended implications behind his words before Barty is jumping up out of his seat, face flushed and hands clenched into fists. Behind Barty, he can see Regulus, staring steadfastedly at the ground, frozen, pink sprinkling white on his face.
Without thinking, Sirius grabs Barty’s wrist, yanking him down into his seat, ignoring the slight cry of pain the boy gives as his shoulder is wrenched back and down.
Most of the room, it seems, has been shocked into silence. All except Bellatrix, who begins to laugh, bending low over her knees, hand covering her mouth. Even Alphard, who had been smirking smugly at the reaction he’d provoked, turns to stare at her, utterly confused by what’s so funny about it. Bellatrix doesn’t look at any of them, doesn’t seem to care that no one else is laughing, and just laughs and laughs and laughs.
Chapter 9: Ten of Spades
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Ten of Spades
The back door creaks open, allowing a small shadow to slip through. Its hands are empty, but they tremble nonetheless. Large, bulging eyes stare down at them – long, thin fingers, tipped with dirty nails – as though trying to see something which isn’t there. It turns them over once, gazing at its palms, slowly brushing yellow-ish grains out of a line in its skin.
A creak of a floorboard, and the house-elf jumps, bat-like ears catching the faint murmur of voices approaching down the corridor. With a loud, harsh crack, the house-elf vanishes. The yellow grains hover in the air for a second, then flutter to the ground.
Less than a minute later, a black shoe stamps them into the ground, crushing them and flattening them into the gaps in the wood.
“Where are we going?” Barty whispers as they reach the back door, watching as Regulus’ fingers wrap around the handle and tug it downwards. “Are you sure this is fine?”
“Yes, of course I’m sure,” Regulus murmurs back easily, stepping outside and glancing over his shoulder to give Barty an encouraging smile, which doesn’t quite reach his eyes and vanishes as soon as he turns back.
Barty follows him, listening intently for the sharp crackle of the frosted grass under his boots. Giving a delighted grin, he whoops and tramps off into the wide expanse of garden, arms swinging around him. He barely hears Regulus close the door behind them – far too engrossed in watching the twigs and grass snap under his feet.
He’s at least twenty metres away from the house, eyes roving over the trees in the distance, grey-green in the mist, when he hears Regulus call his name and stops, looking back to see the other moving towards him.
Regulus, Barty thinks, is surprisingly pretty in the winter: all pink cheeks and lips, bundled up in scarf and gloves and navy velvet cloak, and his breath precedes him in a small white cloud.
“Don’t go off too far,” Regulus warns him, coming to a halt next to Barty. “Don’t want to lose you. We might never find your body out here – at least, not until the mist lifts.”
Not quite sure of what to say, Barty stays silent for a moment or two, watching as their breaths swirl in front of them, white and cloudlike, floating off into the sky despite the stillness of the air around them. Drawing his wand, he holds it up in front of his lips then breathes. As the wisps of mist fly past his wand, they wind and merge to form a ghostly ship which sails off away from them.
Catching Regulus’ smile out of the side of his eye, he gives a pleased grin, though it’s more for himself than anything. Regulus has been far too down in the last while, and he thinks it’s about time he relaxed, even if only a little.
“So childish,” Regulus sighs, but it’s tempered by the light tone of his voice and teasing look he shoots Barty from under his eyelashes.
A wind starts to pick up, soft fingers playing with the ends of Regulus’ hair, longer than perhaps it should be, and Barty feels his scarf unravelling from around his neck, being stretched out in the space behind him. It bites at his face, surprisingly harsh for such a little breeze, and he shivers, pocketing his wand and flexing his fingers.
He keeps watching Regulus, almost as though he’s studying him, the way he’s standing, shoulders hunched, head tilted towards the floor. He keeps watching, even when Regulus looks up at him, raising an eyebrow as his cheeks darken a little. Barty likes to think it’s because of him, rather than the fault of the wind, and allows a sly smile to flicker over his mouth.
Snatching Regulus’ hand, he surges forwards, off into the mist, tugging the other behind him. It doesn’t take long for Regulus to catch up, in an awkward half-jog, and from then on they walk in silence, side-by-side.
Above them, a crow flies south, its harsh caw seeming to echo. Angling its wing, banking onto a warm stream, it passes by the rising sun, crying out once more.
Barty, far below, stares at the crow as it disappears into the mist, swallowed up by the clouds. Tightening his grip on Regulus’ hand, he stops all of a sudden, and turns to look back the way they came.
He can’t help but admire the way they’ve left a trail behind them. Deep, dark green patches splatter the lawn, footprints cataloguing the path they’d taken. His eyes trace it all the way back to the house, grim and grimy as it sits squat in the distance. They’ve gone a lot further than he’d realised; he’d underestimated how far away the edge of the trees was from the house.
“Why did you stop?” Regulus asks him, his voice sounding loud in the quiet, warm breath sliding over to Barty’s ear.
“I thought you said you didn’t want to go too far away,” Barty nudges him with a smug, cheeky grin. “Just obeying orders.”
“I said I didn’t want you to go too far away,” Regulus points out logically. “Not both of us. Both of us is fine.”
Barty sniggers in response, but bites back the ‘how sweet’ which is pushing at the backs of his lips. Bored by simply standing there and gazing around, he jumps back into one of his previous footsteps, then chooses one of Regulus’, a little further back. Glancing up, he spins around on the spot to turn to face Regulus, only to see the other moving, walking off to his right, not looking back.
Now that won’t do at all.
Licking his lips and humming a single bar of a lullaby to himself, Barty jumps from one footprint to another, hopping about after Regulus. He’s so engrossed in trying to land perfectly on top of the previous marks that he barely notices Regulus has stopped walking and is watching him with the air of one watching a child frolicking, delighted by the appearance of something new and interesting.
He takes one more jump, then a second and looks up just in time, mouth opening to speak, to crash straight into the youngest Black. They tumble onto the ground in a mess of limbs and scarves and cloaks, and Barty’s chin smacks into Regulus’ shoulder, beginning to throb immediately.
For a heartbeat, they lie there, dazed and perhaps a little confused, before Barty starts to laugh. He can’t help it: it bubbles up from inside his stomach, bright and happy, and he can feel Regulus’ chest move as he allows a quiet laugh to slip out. Rolling off Regulus, he just lays there, the frost melting and sinking into his hair, laughing and laughing.
Sitting up with and flashing Regulus an exhilarated grin, he props himself up on his arms.
“That was fun,” he remarks, eyes alight and a little bit breathless. “We should do it again.”
Regulus looks at him, his dark hair turning to oil on the ground. There’s a moment, just one, when Barty thinks he might have overstepped the line, that Regulus might get up and say they need to go back inside now, but then the blank façade crumbles, and he’s laughing again.
“Regulus!” they hear a voice bark – closer than either of them would have thought or expected – and it makes Regulus start and Barty swivel to see who’s speaking.
Bellatrix, hands covered by a fox-fur muffler, cloak swishing about her ankles, stalks up to them. From Barty’s position on the ground, she appears incredibly tall and incredibly irritated, expression pinched and angry as she takes them in, wet and happy on the grass.
The wind picks up again, stronger this time, and it whips at Bella’s curls, sending them flying into her face. Her hat, fox-fur to match her muffler, nearly flies off her head; she manages to grab it before it darts away and scowls at them as though it’s their fault the wind’s returned.
“Reggie, Auntie’s looking for you,” she tells her cousin, favouring him with a vaguely sympathetic look. “She was going spare – seemed to think you’d get lost out here and freeze to death or something equally ridiculous.”
Regulus mutters something almost certainly rude under his breath, pushing himself off the ground and up onto his feet. His hair is wet, sticking to the back of his neck, and he brushes a hand through it, brushing a hand down his clothes afterwards, trying to make himself presentable, as though he hasn’t just been rolling around on the ground outside.
“I should go in,” he says, despite it being unnecessary. His eyes flicker to Barty, who shifts in position, ready to get up and accompany him back in. “Are you going to –“
“No need,” Bellatrix interrupts forcefully, a hand clamping onto Barty’s shoulder and squeezing hard. “I’ll escort little Bartemius inside. You run along now, Reggie, Auntie’s waiting.”
Her voice is sweet and cajoling, but it’s all too clear it’s not a question, and a patronising strain rings discordant in the aftermath.
Glancing once at Barty, a little unsure, Regulus nods and begins to make his way back to the house, a hand darting up to try and pick the stray twigs and blades of grass out of his hair. He doubts he has enough time to get to his room before his mother catches him; it’s just a matter of damage control.
Barty, slipping on an innocent, child-like expression, looks up at Bellatrix.
“Shouldn’t we be following him?” he queries, making sure he sounds polite and not desperate to get away from her.
“We will,” Bellatrix assures him. “In a minute or so. I want to have a chat with you; it seemed like an ideal time to do it.”
“What did you want to talk about?” Barty crosses his legs and stares up at her attentively, like a student in class, and clasps his hands together in his lap.
Behind her, he thinks he can see Regulus, a small moving blob in front of the house, duck inside the back door, letting it swing shut.
Bellatrix regards him, her gaze strangely intense and calculating. It’s not a normal look for her, but Barty just sits there, still and silent, blinking every now and then. They remain like that for a minute, before Bella kneels down to his level, not once looking away from him.
“Tell me, Crouch,” she speaks softly, but her words are all the more malevolent for it. “Why did you immediately assume it was murder?”
“Assume?” Barty repeats blankly. “I didn’t assume anything. I just wondered, that’s all.”
“Answer the question!” Bellatrix snaps at him. “No one had said anything – no one had even supposed anything, but you ‘just wondered’,” the emphasis is exaggerated, deliberately provocative. “And somehow came to that conclusion. I want to know why, and I want to know now.”
“I was just thinking,” Barty explains, seemingly unaffected, giving a shrug. “That’s all. Why? Do you think I said it because I’m the killer?”
The question is sudden enough and unexpected enough that Bellatrix wavers, blinks and stares, before glaring at him. She doesn’t get her voice back quick enough, though, and Barty grins at her – a wild, delighted grin which says he knows he’s caught her out.
“It is, isn’t it?” he pauses and contemplates it for a second. “I could be, but I’m not.”
Bellatrix doesn’t believe him, though, and it’s pretty obvious from the way she glares at him. Inside her muffler, her fingers curl around the base of her wand, her grip tightening slowly but surely.
“I don’t care what you say or what Auntie says about your ‘fine lineage’,” she purrs at him, leaning forwards, almost as if she’s going to reach out and touch him – stroke his hair, maybe, or cup his face – and, for the first time, he draws into himself and away from her. She sees his eyes dart around her face, down to her muffler and back up and fixes him with a wicked, predatory smile. “If I catch you doing anything suspicious, let alone harm another member of my family, I will melt the flesh off your bones.”
It’s not so much a threat as a fervent, honest promise.
Barty only nods at that, giving a little, amused smile as though he’s understood a joke she’s missed completely.
“Okay,” he agrees blithely. “Shall we go in now? I’m getting cold and my socks are wet.”
There’s a fire crackling away in the grate, the occasional spark spitting onto the marble slab in front of it. Orion, in his shirt and jacket, is boiling, and he shifts uncomfortably in his seat, unwilling to let Pollux know that. It’s on the old man’s command that it’s there – it was already blazing when Orion had arrived, and hasn’t so much as dimmed slightly in the time he’s been there.
“So, do you suspect or do you know?” he asks curtly. “We can’t do anything until we are sure, and I would prefer to know now, rather than find out later.”
Pollux keeps his gaze on the spare piece of parchment which always sits on his desk, ready to be written on, his eyes tracing over the thin veins in it.
“Alphard is one of the signatories on the will,” he answers. “If the changes were made by Cygnus and he intended the changed copy to be the final one, then Alphard would almost certainly have seen it and signed it as a witness.”
“But we can’t know if the changed will was the final one, and if the changes were made by Cygnus,” Orion muses, watching the red tips of the flames in the fireplace stretching up towards the bottom of the chimney. “So, in actuality, we know very little. This is all merely guesswork.”
His tone is faintly disgusted at the thought of relying solely on guesses and suppositions, and Pollux can’t help his lip curling a little at the ridiculousness of it.
“In effect,” Pollux agrees. “It is unfortunate, but we can’t change it. We will simply have to proceed as it is, and hope that –”
“Hope?” Orion’s tone is contemptuous now, blatantly so, and his hard, flat gaze bores into his father-in-law. “You would risk everything on something as whimsical as hope?”
“I am not risking anything,” Pollux bites out his reply. “Now, the important thing is of course not to mention any of the –”
He cuts off and for a moment Orion is unsure as to why he’s stopped, but then the knock comes again, louder this time, and Pollux calls out,
Alphard, the silver thread in his waistcoat gleaming in the light of the room, saunters inside. He doesn’t bother to close the door behind himself, just lets it swing shut. Giving his son – his only son, now – a smile, Pollux gestures for him to take the only other seat in the room, opposite Orion. Pollux is well aware of the tight, forced smiles which pass between Orion and Alphard, but ignores them. After forty-odd years of knowing them both, he is quite used to it.
“I brought along the copy of the will,” Alphard announces without any introduction, speaking as though it was a considerable burden on him. “Of course, dealing with it is up to you – though should you need assistance for anything, then I would be of course happy to help.”
Pollux nods once, formulating a reply, but he doesn’t get to say anything as Orion beats him to it.
“I hardly think will be necessary,” he comments coldly. “Besides which, I was under the impression you’re not staying long. Something about a meeting, I believe? In which case, your help will not be much use being communicated by owl.”
“Sorry,” Alphard apologises in a slow drawl, though he doesn’t sound like he means it at all. “I simply thought to offer in case you were busy. After all, you have a family to look after, and I, thankfully, don’t.”
Orion gives a small, brittle smile, and Pollux takes advantage of the quick pause to clear his throat and interject.
“If I could just take the copy of the will, I will make the necessary arrangements,” he informs them both, though his gaze rests mostly on Alphard. “I won’t require any help from either of you, though if it should become necessary, I know who to ask.”
“Of course,” Alphard hurries to assure his father, dipping a hand inside his waistcoat pocket, arm vanishing down up to his mid-forearm. He rummages around, searching for it, while Orion and Pollux sit there watching and waiting, the former’s jaw locked in place. “Ah, here it is!”
Pulling it out, wincing visibly as the edge of his pocket cuts into the back of his hand and fingers, Alphard tosses it carelessly across the room to his father. The leather case smacks down onto the desk and Pollux can only give his son a stern look for throwing things inside his office.
“Thank you,” Pollux says nonetheless, picking the case up and keeping hold of it, almost as though he’s worried one of them might try to take it off him. “Now, don’t let me keep you – I’m sure you both have things to be getting on with, and I have arrangements to make.”
It’s as much of a dismissal as he can really give his son and son-in-law without being overtly rude, and the two men nod, nearly in sync, and then leave, one after the other. Alphard, last out, shuts the door loudly behind him, and Pollux is left alone in the room.
Carefully, he opens the leather casing of the will and slides the roll of parchment inside out of it. Turning it around in his hands, he sees the seal is unbroken; the round blob of wax still holds the two ends of parchment together, the family crest clearly visible on it. He places the case in the drawer, adding it to a pair of identical cases already there, but slips the will itself into his jacket pocket.
He will keep hold of it personally; that way, they will avoid any more pyrotechnical accidents.
Sirius shifts uncomfortably in the chair, yanking a tasselled cushion out from underneath himself with a curse and throwing it onto the floor. It barely makes a sound when it hits, only a sort of dull thump, sending a cloud of dust up into the air like a flock of doves.
He would never normally be caught dead in a library, let alone his family’s library where there are books which bite and scream and make you go blind, but there’s really nowhere else for him to go, other than his room. It’s only now that he regrets not bringing more stuff with him – more of his Muggle magazines and little model motorbikes – to make his room more like his. At least then he might be a little less bored.
Besides, this way he avoids having to see his family.
Browsing the shelves to either side of the chair, he leans in to have a look at some of the titles. At first, he thinks they’re books on the Dark Arts or some of the vast collection of historical texts his paternal grandfather used to collect, and can’t help a twinge of interest when he sees one with a crude drawing of a skull tattooed on the spine. When he plucks it off the shelf and flips it open, however, he finds it’s merely a book of children’s stories. Gruesome, twisted, violent children’s stories, handwriting lovingly on vellum and bound in leather; probably an heirloom passed down through the family from a long-dead ancestor who commissioned it for his children.
He closes the book, feeling a little cheated out of something interesting, and shoves it back into the space left on the shelf. As he does so, there’s the sound of something scraping along wood, and he stops. The sound doesn’t come again.
Grinning to himself, heartbeat picking up, he begins to pull the book out again. The book, he’s sure, has knocked something, something behind it. Maybe, he thinks, maybe he’s found the entrance to one of those secret passages his father had told him and Regulus about when they were young; the ones which were tucked behind busts of ancestors and idols, opened only by passing your hand over a particular stone on the night of a full moon. The ones which had seen duels to the death, murders, fights, innumerable pairs of lovers who should not or could not be together in the light. The ones which his mother had always snorted at and declared that they were poppycock, that they had never existed beyond his father’s imagination.
Once he’s opened it, once he’s worked out where he leads and how to open it again, he’ll run and find Regulus – because this is something he can’t keep to himself – but for now the glory of discovery is his and his alone.
Dropping the book on the chair without glancing at it, he slowly inserts an arm into the space left, his fingers reaching and grasping for something, anything.
There, right at the back, resting on layers upon layers of dust, he feels his fingers touch something cool and glass. He wraps his hand around it and carefully pulls it out, and looks down at it, solid and real in the middle of his palm, ignoring the gobs of dust clinging to his sleeve.
It’s not at all what he expected. Instead of a key or treasure of some kind, it’s a small, teardrop-shaped vial, and made of crystal, not glass as he first thought. Giving it a shake, he can see a clear liquid sloshing around, tinted ever-so-slightly pink. He turns it over in his hands, curious and confused as to why someone would put something like this, in an obviously expensive vial, behind a book in an unused part of the library.
Running his fingers over the top of it, he traces the thin band of white wax round and round it, absently noticing that it looks very much like the type of wax used to seal letters. Slipping the vial into his trouser pocket, he decides he’ll give it to his father or grandfather next time he sees them and explain where he found it.
Who knows, despite his disappointment, he may have found something interesting, after all.
Chapter 10: Jack of Clubs
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Jack of Clubs
Somehow, despite his promise to himself that he would give the vial straight to one of his parents when he saw them, it remained tucked away inside his pocket for most of the day. He felt strange about having it, as though it was something he shouldn’t have and couldn’t tell people he had, and kept slipping his hand into his pocket, closing his fingers around it, making sure it was still there. Even now, he can’t help but feel that someone is about to enter, find the vial and confiscate it from him.
He’s not quite sure why that would necessarily be a bad idea – he has no idea what’s inside the vial, after all – but it seems like it would be bad, regardless. Not for the first time, his family’s tendency to ignore him when they don’t have to be around him has played into his hands; he can’t help his heartbeat racing at the thought of getting caught with the vial and is sure guilt is written all over his face, like some kind of weird brand stretching over his forehead and across his cheeks, down to the tip of his chin.
The ridiculous thing is that he’s not even sure what he’s guilty of, just feels it. He supposes turning up to dinner with a vial of something important enough that someone hid it behind a book – or unimportant enough? How can he know which one it is? – in an old, unused part of the library wouldn’t necessarily look good.
Imagine, he thinks to himself, if it turned out to be poison or something, then what –
Freezing, he stares straight ahead. Perhaps, perhaps he’s just being overdramatic. It could be anything, after all; he had no idea what it could be. Then again, by the same logic, it could be poison, could be something important and dangerous.
He takes the vial out of his pocket, looking down at the little glass vial in his hand. Setting it down on his desk, he stares at it, the light from candle on his desk refracting off the smooth, curved side, winking up at him. It seems so innocent, pinkish and sweet, but he can’t shake the thought that it’s not. So he just sits there, watching it, with no idea how to find out what it is. Potions isn’t his best subject.
Startled, he jumps in his seat. His arm flails out wildly and knocks over a bottle of ink, sending a wave of deep orange liquid across the table. Muttering under his breath, he stands up so it doesn’t get on his clothes, moving away from his desk, in search of his wand to clean it up, and turns around.
“Ye – oh, mother,” he stops, surprised, and suddenly unsure of what to do. This is his opportunity to hand the vial over to an adult, to get rid of it and find out what it is in the same blow, but he can’t seem to be able to get the words out.
“Honestly,” Walburga sighs, though even her sigh has bite. “Must you always make a mess? Evanesco.”
A flick of her wand vanishes the ink on the desk, and a second rights the fallen bottle. She spares a moment to give him a disapproving look, before her eyes alight on the vial on his desk, an island in a sea of orange.
“What is that?” she demands, pointing towards it with her wand.
“I don’t know,” he replies truthfully, giving a half-hearted shrug. “I found it in the library.”
“You found it in the library?” Walburga repeats slowly, her tone clearly disbelieving. “Why were you in the library? Where exactly did you find it?”
“By the kids’ stories,” he tells her, picturing it in his mind, and gesturing to the vial. “By the big, velvet armchair. It was behind a book; I just pulled the book out to look at it and I found that.”
“Is it open?”
“No, it’s sealed,” he shakes his head, feeling a little like he’s on trial with the continual questioning. Had he been anywhere else, in any other situation, he might have added ‘your honour’ onto the end, but he leaves it off. It’s not really the best time, perhaps.
His mother nods, moving forwards and snatching the vial up in one hand, slipping it into a pocket.
“I’ll take this to your father,” she informs him. “You should smarten up for dinner, and then come down. Your father and uncle are in the drawing room, so the more people there, the better.”
“Me?” Sirius splutters, searching for words. “What do you think I can do to help?”
“Eyewitness,” Walburga snaps at him, the frown and ire mostly directed towards her husband and brother, despite neither of them being present. The rivalry between the two of them has always annoyed her, even more so than Sirius (which he personally thinks is something of an achievement), so much so that he has to fight for attention when the two of them are in the same room. “They won’t kill each other in front of you; neither of them are that stupid. You don’t even have to say anything.”
“Oh, I see,” Sirius nods, suppressing an amused smirk, still confused as to why she’s given him this order. Surely Regulus would be better – the apple of daddy’s eye, the fulfilment of Uncle Alphard’s Quidditch dreams. Nonetheless, he doesn’t ask ‘why me’, simply promising, “I’ll be down in a minute.”
“Good,” Walburga gives a quick sigh, smoothing the sides of her dress as she gives his room a quick once-over. “And if you see that wretched house-elf – Mipsy or whatever its name is – send it to me. I sent it to clean my robes three hours ago and it hasn’t even touched them.”
Inside the drawing room, the atmosphere is as tense as predicted. Orion and Alphard, sitting almost opposite each other, are refusing to talk to each other – barely even looking at each other or acknowledging the other’s presence – and Lucius Malfoy, caught in between them is being forced to make small talk with both alternately.
It’s almost worth it, he thinks, just to see Lucius looking like a cat in a bath: helpless and completely out of his depth.
His father’s eyes shoot over to him as soon as he enters.
“Ah, Sirius,” Orion greets him, watching him slip inside and claim a seat in the corner. “What have you been doing all day?”
“You know, Lucius,” Alphard drawls, lounging on the sofa. His head is turned towards Lucius, but his gaze and his words are really for Orion. “I’ve always felt being over-controlling of one’s children contributes so much towards the defection and disowning of children as blood traitors, don’t you agree?”
Sirius feels his face burn at the implication – there’s something humiliating and embarrassing about hearing his own uncle (and his favourite uncle, truthfully) label him a blood traitor and imply he’ll be disowned in the future. He can see his father’s jaw tighten and eyes sharpen into a glare, though he manages to restrain himself from replying.
“Now, Alphard,” Sirius hears his grandfather’s rasp coming from the doorway and can’t help but feel relieved to see him. Or hear him, rather. He imagines the feeling is similar to being a soldier and finding out you’ve been sent reinforcements. “It is inadvisable to comment on raising children when you have never done it yourself. In fact, it is inadvisable to comment on anything one does not know about.”
“Of course, father,” Alphard agrees readily, a cheerfully malicious purr in his voice as he shoots a deliberately false, apologetic smile over to Orion. “I meant no offence.”
Sirius notices that Uncle Alphard doesn’t even look at him after that, and a trickle of disappointment in his favourite uncle begins to stew in his stomach. He expected some sort of acknowledgment, some form of apology for making such an insinuation (because the fact that he’s thought about leaving late at night when he’s angry and can’t sleep, and the fact that it’s crossed his mind that he might end up getting disowned is really irrelevant in all this) and it’s a shock not to get anything.
It’s probably naïve of him – he always knew Uncle Alphard wasn’t really as nice as he pretended to be – but it hurts a little regardless.
“Would anyone else like an aperitif?” Lucius breaks the silence, his voice surprisingly steady for a man who five minutes ago had practically been screaming out an S.O.S. His hand hovers over the latch holding the cabinet’s glass-fronted door shut, and he adds hastily, “With your permission, of course.”
Pollux, to whom the question is addressed, nods his consent, taking a seat in the armchair in the corner, resting his cane to one side. In the soft light from the candles and the fireplace, Sirius can’t help but think that his grandfather looks ill: his face is drawn and tired and he seems paler than usual.
“Why don’t you open the vermouth you brought last time you were here,” Pollux requests. “Since our stocks of brandy are beginning to look a little low.”
No one in the room misses the sharp look Pollux directs at Alphard as he says this, though Alphard ignores it easily.
“Certainly,” Lucius murmurs, already pulling the bottle out of the cupboard, the top still sealed. His hand curls around the top of the bottle, fingers gripping, and then twists. The top gives way with a sharp crack and he unscrews it, placing it on the cabinet shelf. “How many should I pour?”
“A double for me, if you don’t mind,” Alphard requests lazily, though his grin fades quickly and his gaze is fixed on the bottle in Lucius’ hand.
“Just a normal, I think,” Pollux tells him, before raising an eyebrow at Orion. “Orion, can I tempt you?”
Sirius sees his father’s lip curl, eyes lingering a little longer on Alphard, who is already eagerly awaiting his glass, with obvious distaste.
“No, not tonight.”
“Sirius?” Pollux offers, and Sirius almost immediately glances up at his father. When the small nod comes, he gives a slight, proud smile and says ‘yes’. It isn’t the first time he’s had alcohol, but the first time he’s been allowed an aperitif with the rest of the family, and he feels a bit like he’s been granted some kind of award.
Sirius watches as Lucius carefully pours out the drinks, the red liquid bubbling and glugging its way out of the bottle, sloshing into the base of the glasses before falling smoothly and steadily. It doesn’t look very appetising, he has to admit, being a deep reddish-brown colour, but it’s too late to refuse and back out – besides which, he’s curious.
With a swish of his wand, Lucius directs the tray carrying the four glasses around the room, stopping by each man in turn, starting with Pollux and finishing with himself. Sirius plucks his glass off the tray, the crystal cold in his hand, and looks down at the liquid filling it half-full. It doesn’t look any more appetising up close, if he’s honest, but it smells interesting and that’s something, at least.
Lifting it up to his lips, he presses the glass to his mouth and takes a small, tentative sip. The taste, bitter and dry with a faint hint of cardamom or some other spice, he thinks, though he really has no idea. Still, it’s not bad and he thinks it’s a taste he could certainly get used to – perhaps after a few more sips.
A cough sounds across the room, and Sirius glances up to see his grandfather frowning, clutching his chest with a frown, his face contorted into a grimace.
“Father?” Alphard notices only a second later, putting his glass down on the table next to him with a clink. “Are you alright?”
“Fine, fine,” Pollux waves him away, though his hand doesn’t leave his chest and the grimace on his face only slips a little. “Just –”
The rest of the sentence never gets out, as he slumps forward in his seat, glass dropping to the floor and cracking, vermouth spilling onto the floor.
“Father?” Alphard repeats uncertainly, staring at his father’s form as though expecting him to sit up at any moment. “What’s going on?”
“Idiot,” Sirius hears his father hiss and the next moment, Orion is across the room and at Pollux’s side, heaving the old man up and back into his seat, head lolling onto his shoulder. Blank eyes bore a hole in the carpet, his jaw hangs slack and it only takes a heartbeat before reality settles on the room.
“Dear god,” Alphard whispers, as Lucius lets out a strangled sound which might have been an attempt at a word – though which one no one knows. “Father.”
Sirius, numb, can only watch as Orion presses two fingers to the side of his grandfather’s throat – an unnecessary move, really, but one he does anyway – and pronounces,
“But how?” Alphard gets out, looking around at the three of them left, seemingly more confused than shocked or upset.
Orion regards his father-in-law’s body once more, studying him for a moment, then looks down at the broken glass and patch of vermouth on the floor.
“Poison,” he states, his tone curt and crisp, his face betraying something of a worry. “In the vermouth. Did you drink it?”
Sirius jerks out of his trance to meet his father’s eyes and shakes his head twice; Orion’s face relaxes ever-so-slightly.
“No – well, not all of it. I only had a sip.”
“Dear god,” Alphard murmurs again, and when they all look at him he’s pale and trembling. “Dear god.” Without another word, he leaps up from the table and races out of the room, wrenching the door open on his way.
Alphard’s glass, Sirius sees, is less than half-full, having started a fingers-width below the brim.
Orion barely watches his brother-in-law leave, his attention now fixed on the last man in the room, his glass resting on the silver tray on the drinks cabinet. Under Orion’s scrutiny, Lucius is ashen from head to toe, wild-eyed and verging on desperate.
“It was a brand new bottle,” he pleads, eyes fixed on Orion as though he could persuade him merely by staring hard enough. “Unopened. I had no idea – how could I possibly -? This is… I don’t understand how this could possibly have happened. You must – I assure you, I –”
“Lucius,” Orion cuts him off, quick and sharp. “No one is accusing you of anything. As you say, the bottle was unopened.”
Lucius swallows once, nods and then retreats back into himself. Sirius doesn’t blame him – he definitely wishes he wasn’t here, that he hadn’t actually listened to his mother and come down when asked. Typical that the one time he did, something like this happened.
“Father?” Regulus’ voice comes from the door, and Sirius turns to see Regulus, smartly dressed in a purple shirt buttoned all the way up, step inside. “Mother sent me to ask you why Uncle Alphard is throwing up in the downstairs toilet.”
Sirius follows Regulus’ gaze as it roams from their father to their grandfather’s body in the armchair, to Lucius in the corner, to himself and then back to their father.
“Father, what’s happened? Is grandfather -”
“Regulus, go and tell your mother that I need her to meet me outside here immediately,” Orion orders, snapping Regulus’ attention away from Pollux’s corpse. “And find your cousins and that friend of yours. If you see the house-elf, send it here.”
Nodding before Orion has even finished speaking, Regulus vanishes out of the doorway; Sirius can hear his brother’s footsteps as he races off up the corridor, heading back into the body of the house.
“Sirius, you and Lucius go to the dining room and wait there. If you see your mother or uncle along the way, take them there with you,” Orion instructs him, and Sirius doesn’t look to see if Lucius is following before leaving the room.
It feels like déjà vu, the walk along to the dining room. Only last time this happened, he was going the other way and it had been Pollux who had been in command. It’s a solemn, heavy idea, but something to focus on other than the replays of his grandfather collapsing, dying in front of him which his mind seems intent on showing him.
Entering the dining room, he pulls out the nearest chair and sits down, resting his forearms on the table. The room is cold and dark, shadows clustering around the edges of the room, on the sides of the curtained windows, in the corners. In the silence, he can hear his own breathing: loud and quick, and holds his breath, counting to four in his head, to try and calm down.
He glances up when Lucius slips inside, and doesn’t say anything when the man takes the seat opposite him. Lucius seems even paler and slighter than he did in the drawing room, the lack of light making him wraith-like, with his wide, haunted eyes and long, silver hair.
“This is insane,” Sirius hears his cousin-in-law mutter, sounding both terrified and awed.
“Yeah,” he sighs in agreement, resting his head in the palm of his hand, waiting for the others to arrive.
It takes just under fifteen minutes for the others to arrive, all sitting down at the end of the table closest to the doors, all watching and waiting for Orion to arrive. Walburga, Sirius notices, is absent, but he suspects his father will allow her and her alone to retreat into their room, close the door and stay there. For the sake of propriety, he can hear his father saying, but he knows it’s mostly because his mother can’t abide crying in public – or anything she deems to be public – and she uses it as a convenient excuse.
“What happened?” Regulus whispers to him, frightened but curious, hungry for the information he’d been starved of in the drawing room. Over his shoulder, Sirius can see Barty, his eyes gleaming in the dim light, making him appear almost happy, and he just shakes his head.
“I’ll tell you later, if you want,” he murmurs back, making sure he talks only to his brother.
Eventually, Orion arrives, looking tall and grim. Glancing around them all, he says nothing about the fact that they’re sitting in the dark, but simply draws his wand from a pocket. A sharp jab and the torches along the walls flare into life with a series of crackling pops.
“Pollux is dead,” Orion begins bluntly – though is there really a softer way to say it? “He collapsed in the drawing room; I believe his heart may have given out. For those who wish to pay their last respects, his body has been moved to the cellar.”
Sirius isn’t surprised to hear no mention of the poison in the vermouth, the shock and the horror they’d all felt when realising it could so easily have been any of the rest of them; he can’t imagine what would happen if it got out. Across the table, he can see Alphard fixing Orion with a hard, narrow look; Lucius, on the other hand, merely looks faintly relieved.
A voice in the back of his head, sounding more like James’ thoughtful, considering tone this time, muses whether or not this could have happened last time, could have happened to Cygnus too, all along, and they all just never knew. It would be possible – easily possible.
“Uncle Orion,” Bellatrix breaks the swollen, grave silence, leaning across the table to talk to him, her dark eyes intense. “Reggie said you were looking for the house-elf.”
“Have you seen it?” Orion asks her. “I have tried calling it, but it didn’t appear.”
“Well, it wouldn’t,” Bella points out in a calm, rational tone. It doesn’t suit her and Sirius feels a little bit uneasy. “It’s dead.”
Chapter 11: Queen of Diamonds
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Queen of Diamonds
A knock sounds at the door, harsh in the quiet. As a second knock comes, a couple of the portraits on the walls fidget in their frames, though nothing else moves. No one is around to hear the door, and a young woman in a satin dress and tall wig sniffs, muttering something about it being terribly rude to interrupt people at such a time. The boy two frames along nods in agreement, and the man above her roars ‘hear, hear!’, as though hoping the intruders outside would hear him and leave.
The hall is still empty, though, and the intruders keep on knocking.
Eventually, a house-elf shuffles along the corridor into the entrance hall, his pillowcase hanging off his thin frame, and opens the door with a click of his fingers.
“How may Kreacher help?” he croaks, looking up at the visitors with an ugly expression as he takes in their cheap, Ministry-stamped robes and sodden, squelching shoes. Riff-raff – not fit to wipe his master’s boots, let alone enter the house.
“Fetch your master,” Alastor Moody growls, stomping inside the house without waiting for an invitation, water cascading onto the floor off his cloak. “Best get this over with. Get inside, Shacklebolt, or you’ll drown.”
Kreacher eyes the pair of Aurors once more, lips moving as he mutters to himself under his breath, bows and announces,
“Kreacher will fetch master.”
The paintings along the wall are all watching the two in the centre of the room, row after row of curled, haughty expressions fixed on them. Moody merely fumbles with the clasp of his cloak, giving it a shake and sending a few splatters of rain onto the floor; Shacklebolt stares back at the paintings, tall and tense.
They are only waiting a moment or two before Orion sweeps into the hall from the corridor, charcoal robes dragging on the floor behind him. He is careful not to let the expression on his face change as he approaches them, gaze running over them disinterestedly before landing on Moody.
“I hope there is a good reason for disturbing my family at such an hour,” he drawls, coming to a halt a couple of metres away from them, Kreacher hovering behind him.
“We were informed of a death here,” Moody replies shortly. “Autopsy report seemed a bit suspicious, so the Ministry sent us to make sure nothing’s out of the ordinary. Standard procedure.”
Orion simply raises an eyebrow, a frown gracing his face as he considers it.
“I was unaware that was anything amiss in the autopsy report,” he says smoothly. “As far as I had heard, the verdict had been reached and there was no need to, ah, send in the troops, as it were. So unless there has been some sort of change in situation, my house-elf will show you out.”
Giving both men a frosty smile, he turns to leave, grey swirling around his feet. Moody, grim and distinctly unmoved by the cold reception or the dismissal, doesn’t move an inch even as Kreacher patters towards the two Aurors, hand already outstretched to open the doors.
“There was some mention of murder,” Moody informs Orion, pleased when the other man spins around, face blank. “Someone owled the Ministry – saying someone had died, they were scared, something was going on, they didn’t know what to do. Hysterical, most likely, but the Ministry’s insisting on taking it seriously. That enough of a change in the game for you?”
“I see,” Orion pauses. “I assure you I have no idea why anyone would do such a thing, but if this is, as you say, being treated seriously, then perhaps you should come in. If you would follow me, we can talk about this more privately elsewhere.”
As he gestures for the two Aurors to follow him, he murmurs a quick order to Kreacher, who flattens himself on the ground, shoots Moody one last look of disdain and then vanishes. Along the wall, there is a flurry of movement as portraits settle down in their paintings, satisfied that the show is over; an enterprising few slip out of the sides of their frames, following the party down the corridor like a strange honour guard.
After all, gossip is currency.
Nudging Bella with his elbow and ignoring the glare she shoots at him in return, he asks,
“What’s going on?”
When his father had sent Kreacher to tell him to come to the drawing room, he’d expected to be in trouble or at least to be the only one being called. He definitely hadn’t expected that the whole family would be making their way down the corridor, almost forming a procession to the door.
“Why do you think I know?” Bellatrix bites back, one hand slipped inside a pocket and curled, he suspects, around her wand.
“What’s happening?” he hears Barty’s voice from behind him and just rolls his eyes. No one answers; instead, they all file into the room in silence, eyes sweeping over each other as though counting people, seeing who’s there and who isn’t.
His father is there, with Uncle Alphard and his mother ensconced on the sofa, the latter looking haughty, too small red spots appearing in her cheeks. Narcissa and Lucius are in the corner, and all eyes – furious, nervous, wary eyes – are fixed on the two intruders standing in the centre of the room.
Moody he has heard of by reputation, by word-of-mouth from James who considers him something of an idol, and seen in the newspapers, the tagline underneath always something to do with capturing Death Eaters and saving innocent lives. In person, he is even more impressive: tall and broad-shouldered, scars running down his cheek to his neck and disappearing under the collar of his Ministry robes. He desperately wants to ask how he got them, but bites down on his tongue as he follows Bella in and slips onto the sofa.
There’s a tension in the air as the Orion closes the door with a soft click; thick and heavy, it presses down on Sirius’ shoulders, making his tongue feel like lead in his mouth and his heart beat loudly in his chest. Strangely enough, as he looks around he notices that the only two people who don’t look bothered by it are the young Auror – the one Sirius doesn’t know, but remembers seeing around Hogwarts a couple of years back – and Barty, busy picking at a loose thread in the arm of the sofa.
“Well, Auror,” Orion pronounces the title as though it’s a swearword. “We are all here. If you could please not keep us waiting any longer, we would be most grateful.”
A lesser man might have flinched and hurried to start, stumbling over his words, but Moody simply nods and scratches at his chin.
“Alright,” he agrees. “One of you sent out a message to the Ministry saying something about there having been a murder, or a murder going to happen in the future. The Ministry have taken it seriously, and sent us to make sure nothing funny is going on.”
Bella snorts, not bothering to cover it up, and settles back in the sofa, toying with a curl over her shoulder.
“You really expect us to believe that? That one of us here sent a message to you suggesting someone had been murdered? Do you think we’re stupid?” the disbelief in her voice is only matched by the scorn.
She has a point, Sirius thinks to himself. No member of their family in his right mind was going to contact the Aurors over Uncle Cygnus collapsing at dinner, no matter what else happened afterwards, no matter how scared they might feel. It just isn’t what they do, isn’t what they’ve ever done – not to mention downright dangerous to boot, since bringing in Aurors raises the stakes dramatically.
“Well, it wasn’t you, then,” Moody gives a flash of a lopsided, twisted grin, and glances around the room. “But the more important question is why would anyone have cause to say something like that; it’s not something you hear every day, the suggestion from inside that a pureblood family is taking out their own. Not unusual either, but not like this.”
Everyone glances around the room, looking from person to person, from face to face. Sirius notices how his uncle straightens in his seat, Narcissa tilts her chin a little higher, and Regulus’ face adopts a cold, haughty look copied straight off their father, though on Regulus it is less intimidating and more rude. There is a feel in the room, though, of steel shutters descending, of barriers slotting into place. Us and them, it says; they want to divide the house and it’s no longer a conversation to placate the Ministry, now it’s a confrontation. A battle.
Us and them, it says. You’re not welcome.
“Jealousy,” Walburga sniffs in the silence, fixing Moody with a stare. “Many other families are jealous of our reputation, of our place in society. Most likely it was a ruse by one of them to try and bring us down. Such tricks and ploys are not uncommon.”
“Avery,” Bella mutters viciously, though it carries through the room easily. “Or Wilkes. Little climbers. No sense of place…”
“The note came from inside the house itself,” Moody counters. “According to our sources.”
“The day your sources are accurate, Auror, is the day the Founders return,” Alphard drawls from the corner, giving an exaggerated roll of his eyes. “So I think we can skip that part, don’t you?”
“Are you suggesting that someone here is betraying the rest of us?” Regulus pipes us, his best I’m-young-and-innocent-and-inquisitive look fixed on his face: wide-eyed and flicked up from under his eyelashes, bottom lip pressed between rows of teeth. “Because if someone here is saying that someone’s been murdered, then they’re lying to get the rest of us in trouble, and that’s betrayal, right?”
Moody nods, focusing on Regulus for the moment.
“Could be, boy, could be,” he says gravely. “That’s what I’m here to find out.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Regulus informs him, dropping the act and instead returning the Auror’s fixed stare with a calm, steely gaze. “We’re a family. No one here would betray anyone else here. Your sources must be wrong.”
“Very touching but –”
“In omnibus unus, Auror,” Bella purrs, and when Sirius looks at her he’s surprised to see she’s smiling. Not really the reaction you expect from a Death Eater when talking to an Auror. “One for all. Did you think it was just a phrase? It’s a way of life; family sticks together, no matter what. I wouldn’t expect your kind to understand that, but perhaps you can try.”
Moody and Bella stare at each other, both balancing hands on hips and for a moment Sirius thinks there’s going to be a duel – they’re actually going to fight – but then Moody drops his hand and the mood relaxes ever so slightly.
“Well, unless you have any more questions,” Orion cuts in, the faint outline of a triumphant smirk laid over his face. “Then I think your welcome has reached its end. Kreacher will show you out.”
Moody studies him for a moment – they eye each other up in the manner of two male lions looking to sniff out a weakness in the other – and then nods once, slowly. Even he, it seems, can sense that it’s time to leave before things turn ugly, that there’s nothing to be got here other than a whole new raft of enemies. Refusing to leave would be a bad move, particularly when the order has been so thinly veiled with courtesy.
He is outnumbered and out-gunned, as they say in the books Sirius has seen Evans reading in the common room.
Giving a gesture to his junior partner (whose name Sirius still can’t remember, though he thinks it begins with ‘S’ or something like that), Moody doesn’t bother saying the usual pleasantries at the end of it – there’s no mention of ‘thank you for your co-operation’ or ‘thank you for your time’ – and stomps out the room. The younger man follows him, closing the door behind them both just as Kreacher, in a positively gleeful tone, says,
“Kreacher will show Misters Auror out, as master commands.”
Inside the room, however, the tension from before lingers for a moment or two before it lifts, vanishing into thin air. Sirius exchanges a smirk with Regulus; Barty grins, nudging the latter playfully. Bella looks incredibly pleased with herself and the triumphant smirk on Orion’s face is now fully formed as Alphard gives a low laugh.
“Well done, family. That was fun,” he congratulates them.
The house is no less creepy with all the poisonous candles and vials of unicorn’s blood removed, taken out of the house and stored safely in Grimmauld Place, alongside enchanted pendants and whole stacks of ancient, goblin-made weapons which had been wheedled off the creatures in centuries past, cursed and poisoned and ensorcelled so that their edges gleamed red and black in any light.
In fact, Sirius muses as he stops on the landing, glancing at the tall, polished metal candlesticks on the table opposite him, it’s almost worse. There’s something innately weird about empty candlesticks, and spaces where swords should be hung, and gaps in cabinets where bottles have been removed. He couldn’t explain why if anyone asked – not that he thinks anyone will – but it makes him uneasy; makes him so very aware that there are things missing.
Not just things, either – people.
Pushing that thought aside quickly, Sirius continues down the corridor, making as little noise as possible in socks and no shoes. His mother would have a fit if she saw him, but he doesn’t intend to be seen.
Besides, who puts shoes on to go and grab a bunch of warm, soft cookies as they lie cooling from the kitchen at half-past midnight?
There’s a light on up ahead. The flicker of lamplight slips out from underneath a door, throwing shadows across the hall. Someone is still awake; Sirius freezes for a moment, and hopes, desperately hopes, that it isn’t either of his parents. Anyone else, he could just about handle – but his parents were a different league to the rest.
He has to go past the light to get to his room, though, and pads forward slowly (Padfoot on the prowl, he thinks to himself, feeling a slight, excited grin form on his face), hands clutching his prize safe. Here and there he treads on a loose floorboard, the creaks produced muffled by the thick carpet. As he nears the door, he has the wild notion that whoever is inside might hear him breathing – to his own ears, he sounds like he’s panting – and holds his breath as he creeps closer, his heart pounding in his chest.
“- is absurd,” his mother’s voice, in something of an indignant screech, hits his ears and he freezes. In his chest, his heart thuds once and then stops. One false move, and he’s locked in his room without the cookies until tomorrow evening.
“Is it?” Alphard is sceptical, angry, but quieter and Sirius finds himself moving closer to the door to hear better, his curiosity piqued. “Is it absurd because you know differently, or because he’s your sweet, precious child?”
Sirius can feel the cookies cooling in his hands as he stays there, but he lingers nonetheless. This is far more important than cookies. He has never heard his uncle speak to his mother in that tone – sarcastic and caustic, coated with lashings of condescension – and he can’t imagine what would make him start now.
“Whatever he may have become, he is still my child,” Walburga snaps back. “And that is why it is absurd.”
There’s a quiet, humourless chuckle, the clink of a glass on wood, and Sirius wonders, disappointed if it’s all over, if that’s all they’re going to say about it. If it is, he needs to get moving.
He’s only just taken a step when Alphard speak again,
“Admit it, Wallie, it’s nothing to do with him being your child, or whatever other ridiculous attempt at sentiment you’re trying this time. It’s simply because he’s the Black heir – the little chosen one to lead us into the new era,” a pause, and a harsh intake of breath, and then Alphard’s voice is dripping with sugar. “Oh, my apologies – he isn’t. Or won’t be. Perhaps his brother will do better, in the end. He seems more suited to it, after all…”
He trails off, and Sirius can see his mother, stony-faced and furious, fixing his uncle with a glare. Then again, maybe not – he can just as well imagine her wilting, backing down because, really, Regulus is better suited to it, and would do much better at it than he ever could.
Deciding he’s heard enough, Sirius moves away, continuing on down the corridor, concentrating hard on staying silent and opening his door with his elbow. It’s only once he’s inside, cookies dumped unceremoniously onto his bed (he thinks with a smirk of Kreacher’s face when he sees the chocolate stains and crumbs scattered everywhere), that he allows himself to replay the conversation in his head.
They were talking about him. It’s not difficult to guess – not even difficult to know, really. His eyes sting, and he wipes them with the back of his hand, rubbing them with his fingertips, blinking rapidly. It isn’t surprising, isn’t fair and isn’t, really isn’t, making him upset. To be upset at something like that would be stupid. Completely stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Throwing his head back, he gasps, breathing slowly and deeply, and wipes his eyes again. With a sniff, he turns his attention back to the cookies on his bed and grabs one, biting into it. It’s still just about warm, the chocolate gooey, turning to liquid in his mouth, and the flour they’d been sprinkled with sticks to his tongue.
He has to admit, Kreacher may be an annoying little scab, but he does make good cookies.
The single lamp on his bedside table keeps flickering, knocking his concentration as he adjusts the remaining two cards in his hands, fingers sticky from the cookies. If he does this just right… carefully, very carefully, he places one down, then the other. He pauses, checking over it to make sure it seems right, and then lets go. When the inevitable collapse doesn’t happen immediately, he grins, pleased with himself.
It’s taken him over thirty minutes, but he’s finally finished a perfectly balanced house of cards, using the whole deck. In his eyes, that’s an achievement.
If only he had a camera – then he could immortalise it forever.
He hears feet pounding down the corridor, skidding to a halt outside his door, and there’s no knock before the door is flung open.
“Sirius, you’ve got to come,” Narcissa breathes, cheeks pink from running. Her eyes are wide and terrified. “It’s Regulus.”
She doesn’t say any more, but it’s enough. Sirius jumps to his feet, sending the house of cards tumbling down, and runs for the door. Shoving his cousin out of the way, he takes off down the corridor.
He can feel his heartbeat accelerating, can feel a ball of worry, fear, panic beginning to stew in his stomach, and all he can think is not Regulus, not Regulus, no, it shouldn’t be Regulus. Cissy must be lying, has to be lying – but a part of him knows she’s not and that only makes it all the worse. Of all people, all of everybody in the stupid, horrible house, Regulus does not deserve this. Doesn’t deserve anything to do with this.
Not Regulus. Anything, anyone but Regulus.
He reaches Regulus’ door in what feels like minutes. Brushing past Alphard and Lucius, barely registering their pale and wan faces, he flings open the door and rushes inside.
“Regulus?” he hears himself call, but it dies in his throat as he stares, frozen, at the scene in front of him.
Regulus is still, pale and waxy. His breath comes in short, rattling gasps, and his eyes are shut. He looks almost as though he’s sleeping – tucked up in his sheets – but for the pool of red spreading out from his side, soaking into the sheets and mattress, dripping steadily onto the floor.
“No,” Sirius whispers, beginning to back away, a lump settling in his throat. “No, oh god, no.”
“Sirius,” Uncle Alphard’s voice sounds distant, like an echo, and he can’t focus on it, can’t focus on anything other than his brother, oh god, his brother lying there with blood dripping… just dripping, one and then another, slowly and steadily, like a clock ticking down his last few minutes… “I think you should wait outside. Sirius?”
There’s a hand on his arm, attempting to pull him away. He hits it hard, and the brief moment of contact, the flat sound of the slap, is all it takes for something inside him to snap.
“Regulus!” he screams, starting towards the bed, tears welling up in his eyes. “Regulus, please! Regulus!”
He sounds hoarse, deranged; there’s a note of terror in his voice. He feels hands grabbing his upper arms, tugging him backwards, and struggles. He screams again.
“You need to get outside,” Alphard tells him firmly, manhandling him towards the door.
He screams wordlessly, reaching towards the still figure in the bed. In his uncle’s grip, he wriggles, tries to kick and punch and elbow. He doesn’t want to wait outside, he wants to see Regulus. There is nothing in his mind but his brother and the blood and the desperate need to stay with him.
Then, he’s outside and the door is shut in his face. He shouts something at Lucius, who steps away. Alphard finally releases him, and he’s savagely pleased to see his uncle’s cheek is bruised, blooming blue and purple already.
“Let me back in,” he says, almost choking on the words. “Let me in. Please. I won’t… I won’t… just let me in.”
“No, Sirius,” Narcissa tells him gently, and he can see tears glimmering in her eyes. A couple fall as she shakes her head; she wipes them away. “We have to wait outside. They’ll let us know if – if anything happens.”
He has to wait? Outside? He can’t wait. He can’t wait for someone to tell him what’s happened, if his brother’s dead or alive, can’t sit out here doing nothing, saying nothing. The pressure is unbearable. Every second is a weight, stretching out time, tauntingly. Every second, his brother is dying, and they’re not letting him in.
He can’t cope with this.
Without a thought, he turns and runs. He doesn’t think about where – doesn’t want to think about anything. He just knows that he has to get out of here. Somewhere, anywhere is better than waiting around. Dimly, behind him he can hear Narcissa, Alphard shouting for him, calling for him to come back. He ignores them and keeps going, keeps running.
Along the corridor, down the stairs and round the corner; he keeps running until all he can hear is the thud of his feet and the drumbeat of his heart, until all he can feel is the blood running through his veins, the adrenalin surging through his system, until everything around him becomes a blur of familiar walls.
He flings open doors in front of him, one after another, without caring where he’s going, what he’s doing. Somewhere; just away. Just away. He needs to get away.
Then he’s outside, truly outside, and he keeps running. The beat is almost therapeutic now; footsteps in time with his heart. The night air is cold, the wind biting at his skin, whipping away his tears, but he keeps going.
He runs and runs and runs, until his throat is wracked with sobs and his chest aches and he can barely breathe, and then he collapses onto the ground and cries and cries and cries.
A/N: in omnibus unum is Latin for 'one for all'.
Chapter 12: King of Hearts
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King of Hearts
He isn’t sure how long he’s been outside, sitting by the bench with his knees hugged to his chest, fingers digging into his own legs. All he knows is that the cold is strangely comforting, strangely helpful in this situation. As it sinks into his bones, through his skin and flesh, the thought that he’s freezing, the wondering of what is he doing out here, really, spreads, growing larger and larger until it fills his whole mind, until it’s the only thing he can focus on. Gradually, as his shivers increase, and his teeth begin to scream rather than chatter, he feels himself calming down, his breath slowing and evening out, tears left to dry on his cheeks.
“Ah, Sirius,” he looks up, startled by the voice as he hadn't heard anyone approach. His father regards him for a moment, taking in his blue-tinted lips and the slight flakes of frost clinging to his eyelashes. “We’ve been looking for you. No one had any idea where you'd gone.”
“Sorry,” he mutters, though he doesn’t mean it – can’t mean it. Not now, not with everything that’s just happened. Really, in the grand scheme of things, running outside is the last thing anyone’s really going to be worried about.
The appearance of his father has jerked him out of his calm, cold-induced trance, and dumped him unceremoniously back in the real, physical world, where he can feel and think and panic, where people can cry and bleed and die. In his mind’s eye, he sees it again - sees the slow, steady drip onto the floor, hears his brother’s rattling, desperate breaths, as though the air is simply whistling through his ribs, lungs ripped to shreds. He wants to close his eyes, to run away again, but he’s too cold to move. Brought low by his own previous saving grace; how ironic.
He wants to ask, wants to know what’s going on inside the house, whether Reggie... whether his brother’s still alive or not, but the words seem to stick in his throat, bunching up as he tries to force them out. Instead, he just swallows and stays silent, staring fixedly at the ground.
“Regulus is not dead,” Orion tells him, and when Sirius looks up at him, there is nothing in his face other than careful, detached patience, and a sort of understanding Sirius has never seen before. Nonetheless, the force in his father’s voice makes him almost believe it’s true. “He will be fine. Your mother is with him now.”
“Really?” his voice croaks, spluttering on the word. He stares up at Orion, hopeful, relief seeping through him like hot wine through his veins. “He’s going to be fine? He’s alive?”
“Yes,” his father assures him, tossing a cloak – his own cloak, he notices after a moment – at him. “You should put that on and come back inside. Allowing you to freeze out here, whether by your own choice or not, is hardly acceptable; besides, I’m sure you would like to see your brother.”
Scrambling to his feet, Sirius tugs the cloak on, pulling the sides tight around himself. Lost of the adrenaline and fear which had driven him out here, he is so much more aware of the cold and the frost all around him; even with the cloak on, he still shivers, the chill on the air nipping through the velvet, under it and over his skin. Still, it’s a welcome relief from before, and he mutters ‘thank you’ under his breath, having no idea if his father heard it or not, but it seems the right thing to do.
“So,” he asks, his hands curled up into fists inside his pajama sleeves. “How did you know I was out here?”
It’s not anything important, but he finds that he needs to talk, wants to talk about something – anything other than Regulus. Silence has never been his forte, never been something he’s really all that comfortable with, and with his father... well, he has no idea what to say, so the safest option seems to be the best.
“I knew you had gone downstairs – Alphard could tell me that much,” Orion's lips thin as he mentions his brother-in-law, disappointed, irritated and wearily unsurprised. “Once I was downstairs, I tracked you with a charm; not to mention your footprints. It was hardly difficult.”
“Oh,” Sirius utters, looking down at the ground as they begin to walk back to the house. “Right.”
“You should be aware that your brother is very delicate at the moment,” Orion informs him, with a casual tone in his voice as though Regulus has simply had a nasty case of flu, rather than being attacked and nearly dying. “And he obviously needs as much rest as possible, so you mustn’t disturb him or excite him.”
“’Course not!” Sirius replies indignantly. What did his father expect him to do? Jump on Regulus the moment he saw him? Challenge him to a wrestling match? He’s not stupid, he knows Regulus isn’t exactly going to be playing Quidditch again anytime soon – he’s just nearly died, after all; he knows not to do anything which could make him worse.
After that point, the walk to the house seems to vanish in front of him, running by automatically as though he’s floating, until he’s inside. Warm and surrounded by the familiar dark, panelled wood, he feels his throat tighten and his heartbeat race as it seems to sink in that Regulus is alive, Regulus is going to be fine, that he’s waiting just upstairs. His footsteps quicken, his father following suit a moment later.
All too quickly, but far too slowly, he reaches his brother’s bedroom door. His hands are sweaty, constantly clenching and unclenching; he is nervous and anxious, restless, body humming with anticipation.
“Sirius,” Alphard smiles at him as he approaches him from down the corridor, a vial of red-tinted potion in one hand, but Sirius is too wound up to respond in kind. “You’re back. Go on in – he’s awake.”
“Alphard, I think you and I need to talk,” Orion cuts in across Alphard, hands folded behind his back and gaze sharp. Instantly, the breath is knocked out of the room, the air turning sticky and thick.
Alphard doesn’t seem to feel the tension thrumming around them – or if he does, then it doesn’t show – as he nods, the easy-going smile dropping, and shrugs once, gracelessly.
“Of course,” he agrees, slipping the vial of potion into a pocket and winking at Sirius once before moving off down the corridor, leaving Orion to trail behind. “We’ll be talking in father’s office, I assume?”
Sirius watches his father slink off down the hall, his form swallowing up Alphard, until they both disappear. Turning back to look at the door in front of him again, he can see, for a moment, Regulus, swathed in white, his life slowly dripping out of him in tiny, scarlet drops. The fear that his father has lied, that he’s been tricked somehow, is fleeting, but strong enough that there’s a strange, detached worry in the pit of his stomach as he observes his hand as it reaches for the handle.
It touches, curls around, grasps and twists downwards. The door opens.
He stands and stares. In the room beyond, Regulus pulls away from Barty, hand frozen in place on the other boy’s shoulder, resting at the back of his neck. His face, Sirius notes, is sheet white as the brothers stare at each other, shocked into silence.
In between them, Barty, looking over his shoulder, fidgets uncomfortably. The small, twitchy movements break Sirius out of his stupor. His mouth falls open, but he can’t think, can’t find anything to say, doesn’t know what to say. Glaring at Barty when the latter gives him a small, almost frightened smile, he feels his hands curl into fists again; the urge to go over and punch the younger boy is overwhelming.
Regulus is his little brother. Protecting him includes punching boys who want to do things with his little brother; it’s part of the job.
“It’s –” Regulus licks his lips, shooting a quick glance at Barty. “It’s nothing. It’s not what you think.”
A horrible, mocking want to laugh surges up inside him, because it’s so obviously something and the excuse only encourages the sense of it, and Sirius clamps his mouth shut. This isn’t something he should laugh about, because if it is something (which he’s certain it is), then it’s serious. Very serious.
Running a hand through his hair, Sirius opens his mouth, and then shuts it again, finding nothing to say. He knows he should say something – something like ‘it’s cool’, ‘oh, sorry’ or even ‘what’s going on?’ – but nothing quite seems to fit the bill.
“I, er,” he stutters eventually, feeling his face start to burn and getting more and more uncomfortable as Regulus’ face falls. “I’ve got to go.”
Turning on his heel, he darts out of the room abruptly, only to run straight into Alphard. Sirius takes a quick step backwards, his hand fumbling for the door handle behind him to close it before Alphard spots the scene beyond him. As his uncle frowns at him, Sirius jumps in and blurts out,
“I thought you were talking to father?”
“It wasn’t anything important,” Alphard dismisses it casually, waving a hand to gesture Sirius to move out of the doorway. “I need to give Regulus his medicine.”
Sirius doesn’t move, though, racking his brain for an excuse to give his uncle to stop him from finding out about, well, what’s going on with Regulus. However shocked or annoyed at not having been told or angry at Barty for doing inappropriate things with his baby brother he is, letting Alphard find out about Regulus crosses a line in his mind, without him needing to think about it. Nothing springs to mind, though, and he slams the door shut behind his back, wincing at the bang it produces, to buy himself some time.
In the silence, he sees Alphard giving him a strange look. It’s calculating and studying and Sirius can’t read the emotion on his uncle’s face – he hasn’t ever seen it before. The oddity of it makes him curious and nervous in equal measure.
“Sirius, come with me,” Alphard tells him, less of a question than a demand, although it’s delivered in a quiet, secretive tone.
Following his uncle along the corridor and into a disused bedroom a little further down, the nerves double when Alphard closes the door behind them with a soft click, and turns to face him. Something in the way they’re standing ten feet apart and facing each other in a dusty, sheet-covered room sends his senses into overdrive and his heart to race.
He feels like a spy; cunning and creeping and hiding.
Opposite him, Alphard regards him closely, sighs and steps forwards.
“Sirius,” he begins, speaking slowly and firmly, as though to a child. “About what you saw – you must not tell anyone. Your family will not approve of it, as I’m sure you know, and –”
“You knew?” Sirius interrupts him, a hot, jealous anger stirring in his stomach. How could Regulus tell Alphard and not him? He was his brother! That’s supposed to mean something! Brothers should talk about things like that, should talk to each other rather than uncles, however nice and approachable they seem.
“I knew,” Alphard nods once, a tinge of exasperation flitting over his face. “But that’s hardly the –”
“He told you?” he demands, starting to pace a little back and forwards, restless. “Why didn’t he tell me?”
“Regulus didn’t tell me anything,” Alphard tells him, his tone attempting to be soothing, though it sounds patronising to Sirius’ ears. “And I didn’t ask him, I promise you. I simply worked it out – the signs weren’t difficult to see if you know them. I had always wondered about Regulus, far more than you, and when I came here, it was obvious what was going on as soon as I saw them together.”
“What signs? How did you know? Why didn’t I see?” Sirius bursts out, trying to think of something, anything, which could have hinted at Regulus and Barty being, well, boyfriends, he guesses.
“Oh, just little things,” Alphard dismisses it with a wave of his hand. “As for you, I suppose these things are easier to spot when one knows how to spot them – what they look like and so on. I have… experience with this sort of thing, so I could see it more clearly than you could.”
“Experience?” Sirius repeats, aware that he sounds a little stupid, but completely at a loss as to what that means.
“How I know is hardly the point here,” Alphard rolls his eyes, snapping and glaring. “Your parents can’t find out about this – unless they see something, your mother will never suspect anything about Regulus and will refuse to believe anything anyone tells her to the contrary, and your father simply will never consider it. If they find out, he will be in trouble. A lot of trouble.”
“So what do we do?” he asks, swallowing the jealousy that his uncle had known before he had, and trying to look at the situation with a cool, logical mind. He’s never been good at that, though, and the emotions, pushed down, swirl around his stomach, probing and poking, desperate to rise again.
“We make sure your parents don’t find out,” Alphard replies, and his tone is cold and hard.
The door to the drawing room opens with a creak and he winces. It’s unpleasant, sticky and gripping, and he nearly calls for the house-elf to come and oil the hinges before he remembers that there’s no point: it won’t come.
“Finally,” his mother sniffs as he enters the room, looking up from the latest copy of the Daily Prophet to give him a disapproving once-over. “You have been an awful long time, young man. Where were you?”
Opposite his mother, Bellatrix rolls her eyes, laying across a sofa, her feet propped up at one end by a pillow, her head resting on the arm. She would look utterly bored, he thinks, if it weren’t for the tiredness lining her face: he wonders if she helped his mother with Regulus, or what she’s been doing to make herself so tired.
Probably staying up late shooting spells at passing birds.
“I went to check on Regulus,” he says – and though it’s not entirely truthful, it’s not much of a lie either, so he figures he’s pretty safe with that one.
“Yes, poor boy,” Walburga’s face falls into a worried frown, and she refocuses her attention on Sirius, intent. “How was he?”
“He seems fine,” Sirius struggles to find words vague enough to give a satisfying answer without making him sound like he’s lying. It’s a hard balance to find at the best of times, but thinking of Regulus just reminds him of how Barty’s hand had gripped his brother’s waist, how Regulus’ fingers had threaded through the short strands at the back of Barty’s neck and… he tries not to think about it. He doesn’t much want to remember it in detail. It’s his brother. “He was sitting up, and talking – Crouch was with him.”
“Crouch?” that catches Bellatrix’s attention, as she snaps up from the sofa, swinging to face Sirius, her eyes blazing. “Crouch is with Regulus? Alone?”
“Well,” he stutters, almost taking a step back. How did she know? Did she know? How could she possibly know? She must be talking about something else – but he can’t think for the life of him what that ‘something’ would be. “Yeah, why?”
“Idiot,” Bella hisses at him, vaulting up off the sofa, her wand springing into her hand like a dog jumping at its master’s command. “Crouch is the one who attacked him.”
He smiles tiredly up at his father as Orion instructs him to lie down, a flick of his wand spreading the blanket over him again. A pile of bandages lie on the bedside table, spotted with blood and sweat, and is promptly vanished with a second flick, though a faint imprint where they had rested remains behind. The one good thing about his injury, he supposes, is that his father has barely left his side through the whole thing – only vanishing once earlier, a little while before Sirius arrived – hovering and fussing like a stern mother hen.
“Try to get some rest,” Orion admonishes him. “Sleep will help you get better.”
“Father,” Regulus says, his voice coming out thin and weak. “Father, there’s something I have to –”
“Whatever it is you have to do, it can wait,” Orion tells him firmly, giving him a look which normally would quell any kind of disagreement Regulus has, forcing him to bite down on his tongue, but it doesn’t work this time. This is simply too important, too necessary for him to know.
“No, father, you have to… it’s important!” Regulus tries, trying to find the words to convey what he needs to say.
Glancing at the door once, he swallows, one hand reaching up to adjust the new bandages against his skin, and goes again, hypersensitive of the fact that this father is ignoring him, making his way towards the door and that soon he’ll be gone, taking Regulus’ best hope with him.
“Father, I – I’m in trouble,” he begins softly, and, out of the corner of his eye, sees his father stop, listening. “I think… I know I was attacked, and I think that, well, whoever did it, meant to do it. They didn’t mean for me to survive, obviously, but, you know, they meant for me to die. They meant to come after you.”
There’s silence in the room as Orion turns around on his heel, face frozen as he considers that.
“You think you were targeted?” he asks, accepting the quick nod he gets in return, and continuing, “Why would someone target you?”
“Because I know what’s been going on,” Regulus admits, voice even smaller than before, twisting the blanket in between his hands, gaze darting between his father and the door, anxious. To Orion, his son seems doe-like and feverish – wide-eyed and pale, with a growing sense of paranoia twirling around him. “I know things that whoever it is doesn’t want me to tell anyone. That’s why they want me dead.”
Orion stares at him, his expression carefully blank.
Outside in the hallway, there’s a series of shouts, a thud, and then the long, slow shatter of the chandelier falling, crashing and splitting into a thousand and one diamond shards. The noise is loud and hard, making both of them flinch, though Orion seems more annoying by the interruption than anything else.
“I must go and deal with this,” he tells Regulus calmly. “And when I come back, you will tell me everything.”
Cowering underneath his blanket, Regulus can only nod, staring at the door as though expecting someone to burst through it at any moment.
Less than second later, Orion slips out of the room, leaving Regulus alone.
With the curtains closed, his room is dark and it is all too easy to half-close his eyes and imagine it to be as it is in the dead of night: pitch-black, save for the few slivers of moonlight which slide in around the thick, velvet drapes and over towards his bed. A thin line of light from under his door, and then, waiting for a visitor, heart racing in anticipation. The door opens and shuts in a second, admitting only a single, slim figure, dark cloak over bedclothes.
In the memory, he smiles (though in the here and now, he closes his eyes and tries to think of something else, but finds it keeps going, with or without his consent, unstoppable) and reaches out. The first spell pins him to the bed; the second freezes him, trapping the scream in his throat. He can’t move, can’t speak, can’t do anything other than lie there helplessly as the figure pulls a knife, pointed and glittering, out of a sleeve. Fear pounds through his veins, adrenaline surging through him, and he closes his eyes, wishing he could cry.
The figure stops. The knife is raised. The pain comes: sharp and cold, and he knows he is going to die.
“Regulus?” a concerned voice calls to him, and he opens his eyes to find that he’s shivering, his uncle in the doorway staring at him. Tucking a hand under his shirt, he finds that his back is covered in sweat, his bandages damp.
Alphard, the frown not leaving his face, steps further into the room, a hand vanishing inside his jacket pocket to pull out a handkerchief.
“You shouldn’t stress yourself so much,” he chides Regulus, unfolding the handkerchief with a shake. “You’ll rip the wound open again.” Walking forwards, the handkerchief ready to mop the sweat from his nephew’s brow, he pulls a vial of pink-tinted potion out of his pocket, sealed with a thin ring of white wax.
For a moment, there’s no sound save for the shifting of cloth as Alphard walks. Then, Regulus screams.
Chapter 13: Ace of Spades
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Ace of Spades
There’s a flash of bright, bright light and then Alphard falls, toppling gracelessly to the floor in a crumpled heap. The vial in his hand seems almost to hang in mid-air before it smashes on the ground, pink-ish liquid seeping into the thick carpet, soaked up quickly.
Sirius can only stare at his father’s back, his chest aching from where he’d been shoved out of the way in Orion’s race to get to Regulus. He’d never ever have expected that kind of reaction – that much raw fury – from his father, who tended to make sculptures look emotional. Seeing it now, finally, is simultaneously amazing and absolutely, completely terrifying.
For much of his life, Sirius has believed his father could do anything. It’s not until this moment, though, that he really understands what ‘anything’ means.
“What happened? Are you hurt?” Orion demands as he steps over his brother-in-law’s body without looking down to reach Regulus.
Regulus doesn’t have time to answer before Walburga is shoving past Sirius, and then Bellatrix is there, and Narcissa and Lucius, and everyone is asking the same questions, everyone wants to know what happened, is Regulus okay, is everyone okay, what happened to Alphard… the questions whirl around and around, blending into each other until all Sirius can hear is a sort of mess of noise, the odd distinct word leaping out of the fray.
It’s loud and confusing, but it provides cover of Sirius to slip inside the room properly and over to his brother.
“You okay?” he manages to whisper, watching Regulus closely, hands in his pockets for something to do.
“Just…” Regulus begins, before he seems to change his mind about something and nods instead. “Yeah, I’m okay.”
“What happened?” a new voice chimes in, but this time everyone stops fussing and shouting and pushing, and turns to see Barty in the doorway.
There’s something about him, something not quite normal for him, Sirius notices. A slump in his shoulders, a vulnerability in his mouth and eyes that wasn’t there before which almost screams worry. He wouldn’t put it past Crouch to be faking the emotion, to be a good enough actor that he could pretend to care whether or not Regulus is hurt, but the simple strangeness of the expression feels genuine, convinces Sirius that some of it, at least, is real.
Of course, Crouch is still, as far as Sirius is concerned, a complete nutter, which means it’s still possible he was involved, but it becomes harder to believe.
“What are you doing here?” Bellatrix glares at him, her wand in her hand as she starts to stalk towards him. “You were locked in your room. How could you have got out?”
“Someone screamed so I came to find out what happened,” Barty shrugs, the vulnerability wiped from his face in a second and he gives Bellatrix an easy, cocky grin. “And I walked out of the room. It wasn’t hard.”
“Enough,” Orion says quickly, stopping Bellatrix in her tracks even as she appears to go to curse Barty, her wand raised and outstretched, lips peeling back to speak. “If you must kill him, Bella, try not to do it in such an obvious way. He is the son of the Head of Law Enforcement and an inquest would hardly be helpful.”
Bellatrix shoots an irritated glower at Orion, but prowls back away from Crouch, though her wand remains in her hand. Sirius wouldn’t be surprised if she ended up cursing someone out of sheer frustration – cursing frustration or something. It seems like something she’d do, and when she did, he’d just have to duck quickly and hope she didn’t hate him too much.
On the other side of the room, Walburga, having made her way straight to Regulus, grasps her younger son’s hand and asks, in the gentle tone Sirius hates,
“What happened, Regulus? What did Alphard do?”
“I – he –” Regulus stumbles over the beginning of the sentence, licking his lips once and glancing at his uncle’s prone form before continuing, “Nothing. But I thought –”
“Nothing?” Lucius cuts in, his tone scornful. When Sirius glances at him, his eyebrows are raised and his arms crossed over his chest, his expression both disbelieving and displeased. “Your uncle did nothing and you screamed? Surely you should know by now not to scream for no reason. You’re not a child. Dear god, if that was all, I’m going to go to bed.”
Narcissa lets out a breath of ‘Lucius’; her hand scrabbles at his robe but it slips through her fingers. No one else moves as Lucius starts making his way towards the door, the black ribbon tying his hair back bouncing with every step.
“No,” Bellatrix’s arm slaps into his chest with a thud and she fixes him with an intense, stubborn look. “You’re not going anywhere.”
“How dare you – ” Lucius begins, flaring up like a peacock spreading its wings to try and intimidate, but Narcissa gets hold of his robe this time and tugs him backwards, whispering into his ear something Sirius would bet his broom is a command to shut up.
There’s a moment when Lucius glares at Narcissa, furious at being ordered by his own wife, and Narcissa simply stares back, her eyes flitting from Lucius to Bella, over Lucius’ shoulder. Something hovers in the air – the start of a duel, perhaps, or just an argument – before it vanishes, and Lucius gives in, stepping back towards his wife.
“Regulus,” Walburga’s voice is stronger now, less gentle. Sirius suspects she’s trying to force everyone to listen, to drown out the sense of impending fights. It doesn’t really work. “If Alphard did not try to do anything, why did you scream?”
Regulus looks terrified, small pink clouds blooming on his cheeks. He doesn’t look up, watching his own fingers run over each other as he mutters,
“Because I thought he would do something.”
Sirius can only frown at that. It seems, well, strange that Regulus would think Alphard was going to hurt him – of all people in the family, Regulus has always been the most assured about his place, about what he means to the family, individually and as a whole. For him to assume something like that is completely out of character.
“Like what?” he finds himself asking, scepticism ringing in his voice.
“Don’t know,” Regulus’ voice is barely audible, a faint murmur that somehow manages to echo around the room. “Poison, I guess.”
“What are you saying?” Narcissa asks, high and shrill, a note of panic in her voice, and Sirius sees her glance over to Alphard, still unconscious, and step closer to Lucius, as though expecting Alphard to wake up and attack at any moment.
“I don’t know,” Regulus repeats.
Behind Sirius, Orion sighs, a little wind brushing against Sirius’ sleeve, and he holds up a hand to stop anyone else from talking. The frown on Sirius’ face is an enlarged, exaggerated image of the one on his father’s, only Orion doesn’t seem to be confused, merely missing something, as though he’s been confronted with a puzzle and has been given a piece which doesn’t seem to fit.
“Before I left to deal with the chandelier,” Orion says slowly. “You said you had something you wanted to tell me. What was it?”
Regulus glances up at Orion, and for a moment, fear – true, real fear – flashes on his face. His eyes dart across the room, finding someone; Sirius can’t see who. Almost instantly, he looks down again, his mouth opening to say again ‘I don’t know’, but Orion gets there first.
“Regulus, look at me,” he commands, though there’s an undertone of concern written through it. Regulus forces himself to look up and meet his father’s gaze, small and nervous. “Nothing is going to happen if you tell me this, do you understand? No one is going to do anything. Now, tell me what you wanted to say earlier.”
As soon as Orion finishes, Regulus stares down at the sheets covering him. His fingers are still, everything of him is still apart from his chest, which rises and falls quickly, sharply – small, darting sorts of breaths, the kind an animal gets when its backed up against a wall, surrounded by predators.
With an ominous, detached curiosity, Sirius wonders exactly what it is that Regulus knows, that Regulus wants to say, which is so important and so dangerous as to merit this reaction. He wants to ask and ask and push until it the secret comes out, but the weight of the gazes in the room stops him, silence blocking his tongue from moving.
The hush in the room is expected, curious, almost begging with every tick of the clock for Regulus to spill the secret, egging him on to say something – anything. It surrounds him, winding around him, trying to slip inside his mouth and tug it out of him; it dances up his arms playfully, light and caressing, persuading and enticing. None of it works. Fear has shut down Regulus’ throat, freezing him in place, a true rabbit in the face of danger.
Sirius glances at his father, hoping, wondering if and when Orion will prompt Regulus to speak, will repeat the question to try and get the answer. Orion is simply watching Regulus, calm and patient, and Sirius turns away, disappointed that he’s going to have to wait until Regulus is ready.
This far, it looks as though it’s going to be hours.
“I –” Regulus swallows, closing his eyes, his knuckles glaring white through his skin. “I know who killed uncle.”
A chill sweeps through the room. Clothes rustle, eyes scurry around the room, hitting each person in turn. People glance from one to another, all wondering the same thing: who is the killer? Everybody is a suspect, everybody is equally guilty, and Regulus holds all the aces.
Walburga laughs, and the sound is disjointed, harsh, ringing discordant with the rest of the room.
“Don’t be silly, Regulus,” she tells him, sounding utterly confident. “There is no killer. Your uncle was not murdered. It was just an accident – there is nothing more to it.”
“How do you know?” the whisper is soft, malevolent, and Bellatrix’s eyes are gleaming.
“Excuse me?” Walburga asks, indignant, drawing herself up on the bed. The flicker in her eyes, though, the stubborn set of her jaw, both say that she knows what accusations are coming. She’s expecting them.
“How can you know that? No one knows that,” Bellatrix continues, her fingers sliding over the handle of her wand to take a better grip of it, muscles tensing, like a tigress about to leap. “We thought grandfather knew it all, but then he died. Now maybe uncle knows, and Regulus says he knows – but how can you know? You don’t have any part in this.”
Seeing his mother puff herself up, pieces begin to slot together in Sirius’ mind, neatly, assembling themselves before his eyes.
“Reg,” he asks, not looking away from his mother, suddenly seeing something new and frightening in her than he has done before – a kind of monstrous, mad fury no one could have predicted. “This poison you thought uncle Alphard had, was it kind of pink? And in a vial? With white wax?”
Regulus stares at him, and Sirius almost sees the answer in his brother’s eyes before the latter nods.
“I gave that to you,” Sirius whispers, aghast at what he nearly caused – what he’d nearly done, because if she’d succeeded, if Alphard had given it to Regulus, then he would have helped kill his own brother. He would have handed his mother the weapon she needed to do it, without ever thinking about what might happen. “I gave it to you after I found it. You said you’d give it to dad.”
“Gave what? What did you find?” Narcissa is pale, trembling; Lucius’ arm around her waist the only thing keeping her standing.
“This vial,” Sirius explains, frowning as he remembers it – sliding the book off the shelf, reaching back and pulling it out. How it had sat on his desk, catching the light, and then he’d handed it to his mother, feeling so safe in the knowledge that his father would work out what it was, would deal with whatever it was. “It was behind a book in the library – in the children’s section, behind fairy tales. I thought it was nothing – I intended to give it to dad, but mother found me and I gave it to her. I didn’t realise, I didn’t think… I had no idea what it was, I swear!”
“Oh god,” Narcissa gasps, a hand covering her mouth.
“So,” Barty pipes up again; Sirius jumps and swears. He’d forgotten Crouch was even here. “If your mother killed your uncle and your grandfather and wanted to kill Regulus, why did she give it to your uncle? Why didn’t she come and do it herself? She’s his mother – no one would suspect she killed him. Why would you?”
Sirius just glares at him. There’s some logic in it, he thinks – something cool and hard and difficult to argue with – but this isn’t a logical situation, this isn’t something someone can simply sit down and deduce their way through.
“Barty’s right,” Regulus’ voice is a little stronger now, if still timid, still directed at his bedsheets. “It wasn’t mum. None of it was mum.”
“Who was it, Regulus? What do you know?” Orion asks, hands folded behind his back. Sirius can’t understand how he’s so calm, how his tone is still so even – his wife has just been accused of attempting to murder her own son, after killing her own father and brother, and his son is claiming there’s a killer in the room. No one, surely, could be that calm in this situation.
As he watches his father, he remembers something his grandfather used to say about Orion. Sometimes harshly, sometimes with a sort of grudging respect, but most of the time flatly, stating it as fact.
“Orion always knows more than he lets on. He prefers to collect the pieces himself, put them together and then wait for others to reveal them in turn. It makes him feel clever, important, superior. His personal ego trip.” Here, his grandfather’s lips had pursed in distaste, a black bishop being pushed across the board, and then he had added, “Check”, successfully distracting Sirius from the previous statement.
Now, though, it unfurls inside his mind, giving a slow, lazy smile, almost smug, and life doesn’t seem to make sense any more.
“The evening uncle died,” Regulus starts, seeming to shrink in his bed, sounding breathless. “Narcissa put poppy serum in his food. She told the house-elf to do it. She killed him.”
“How do you know? You must be sure about this – it’s a very serious thing to suggest,” Orion presses, keeping half an eye on Narcissa.
He hadn’t have bothered to speak quite so quickly, Sirius thinks. No one can move. No one can even think, really. Shock is plastered across the room; Bellatrix doesn’t look as though she’s breathing. It’s as if time ticks on around Regulus and Orion only, having stopped everywhere else.
In the background, perversely inappropriate, he can hear a bird sing outside Regulus’ window.
“I heard her talking about it,” Regulus licks his lips, unconsciously tugging the sheets further up his body as though they would protect him from something. “With Lucius. They didn’t know I was there. She said… she told Lucius she’d put the serum in his food, that she’d killed him. She was panicking. I didn’t know what to do so I ran away. I wanted to tell you before, but I didn’t think anyone would believe me.”
“He’s lying,” Narcissa whispers, but it sounds less like an assertion and more like a plea. Beside her, Lucius is silent, one hand resting in the pocket of his robes, and Sirius edges closer to Regulus. “He’s lying. I would never… I could never… please. You must believe me! He’s lying!”
She’s hysterical now, tears shining in her eyes, glancing beseechingly around the room, waiting, expecting someone to step up to defend her, to argue for her. Sirius has to be honest: if he had to pick a killer from one of his family, one of them to prey on the others, he would never have even considered Narcissa.
“Cygnus’ autopsy report showed that he died from an overdose of poppy serum, a medication your mother was prescribed for the last three years for anxiety,” Orion tells her, his face as composed as ever. For all his expression said, he could be describing the weather. “The only two people who had access to the drug, who were allowed to collect it and handle it, were your mother and yourself. No one else even knew she was taking it.”
“What?” Bellatrix breathes, staring between her sister and her uncle, her head snapping back and forth. Sirius has never seen her look so lost.
“It wasn’t meant for – it was an accident,” Narcissa almost whimpers, cowering back, away from them all, pressing into Lucius, panic the mistress of her now. Denial doesn’t even get a chance; pleading comes immediately and with it, a sense of terrible, grinding finality.
“Yes, it was,” Orion agrees with a sharp nod. “An accident which drove your mother to kill herself, knowing that you had stolen her medicine from her cupboard, had the house-elf add it to the glass for dinner to make sure she had taken it, and killed your father instead. After that, you simply had to tidy up the loose ends – make sure no one knew what you’d done. So you added the poison to the vermouth –”
“I didn’t mean to kill grandfather,” Narcissa is crying now, openly, and it’s not pretty. Her pale eyes are turning pink and raw, her make-up smudging. The cracks are widening, deepening, and Sirius can’t look away. “I didn’t –”
“No, you meant to kill me,” Orion states easily, too easily for a man who knew he should perhaps have died, that he only survived by the skin of his teeth. “You suspected I knew, so you wanted to remove me. That way, your little accident would go unnoticed.”
“You knew?” Narcissa’s voice doubles, triples in strength, and a strange anger stirs, lighting up her eyes and making her look almost deranged. “You knew what would happen and you let it? Grandfather died because of you! You could have saved him!”
“No, I couldn’t,” Orion shakes his head almost imperceptibly. “I knew you would try to kill me, not how or where or when. There was nothing I could do.”
Narcissa bites her lip and looks down, away. A sense of shame, of fear still lingers in the room, staining Narcissa’s dress and hair, smeared along her collarbone. Guilt has settled in, panic leaving with the knowledge that it’s all out now, it’s all out. There are no secrets now.
“What about Regulus?” Walburga’s voice is loud after the quiet, calm pronouncements from Orion, and heads swing towards her with jerky, twitchy movements. “Did she hurt Regulus too?”
Even though Walburga isn’t addressing her, isn’t even acknowledging she’s there, Narcissa’s head shoots up and she shakes her head furiously, horror scrawled across her face. Orion doesn’t look at her either, as he says, firmly, categorically,
“No, she didn’t. She didn’t know Regulus knew.”
“But then who –” Walburga begins to ask, but Orion cuts her off.
“I am not sure,” his tone is flat, and the jump of a muscle in his jaw speaks of irritation and disappointment at not knowing, at not having the final piece. “But what happened to Regulus was not related to Narcissa’s actions. It was separate.”
“How do you know? How can you be sure she won’t try to kill him again?” Walburga glares at her niece, distrustful, protective, her hand finding its way to Regulus’ shoulder and griping tightly.
“If Narcissa had known Regulus had overheard her conversation, she would have targeted him from the beginning, and she certainly would never have attempted to murder him quite so obviously,” Orion’s lip curls almost mockingly.
“How could you?” Bellatrix bursts out, staring at Narcissa with a strange, half-awed, half-disgusted expression on her face. It seems a bit rich, really, coming from her, but any humour which could have been found is lost by how much worse it makes the situation, that Bella, who supposedly worships a madman and kills for fun, finds Narcissa’s actions repulsive. “You were the sweet one – the nice one… You told me I was insane, and now this?”
“Bella, please, I – Bella! Please!” Narcissa begs, but Bellatrix isn’t interested in hearing protestations of accidents and mistakes, and simply strides out of the room, vanishing down the corridor, with Narcissa on her heels, chasing after her, calling for her to stop, to slow down, to please just listen.
Lucius makes no move to follow, chin tilted up, fixing Orion with a haughty glare.
“You gave her enough rope, and you let her hang,” he says, and there’s no question in his voice, only a colder, sharper version of the disgust Bellatrix had been brimming over with.
“No,” Orion smiles, but it’s a minuscule thing; faintly smug and amused at some private joke. “She made the rope, and hung herself. I simply discovered the body. So to speak.”
Without a word, Lucius storms towards the door, his robes billowing behind him, his face turning into a mask, anger frozen on his face for all the world to see.
“Lucius, if could inform your wife when you find her that she is never to visit my family again, I would be very grateful,” Orion drawls, and this time the glee in his voice is evident. The door slams in response, but the smile doesn’t falter.
Orion moves over to Alphard now, unconscious on the floor, still lying exactly where he fell, not a strand shifted. He regards the other man for a moment, as though trying to see something in his expression, before drawing his wand.
Alphard stirs, groans and sits up, a hand rising to caress the back of his head, but before he can open his eyes fully, before he can ask what happened (and isn’t that just a loaded question, even more so than before?), Orion’s hand is on his chest and inside his waistcoat pocket.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Alphard splutters, attempting to wriggle and hit his brother-in-law’s hands away, but a moment later Orion’s got what he wanted: a fistful of paper, and in the middle, a roll of parchment, bound by a silk ribbon. Dropping all of the other pieces on the floor carelessly, sending them fluttering away, Orion looks at the roll for a moment before pocketing it himself.
“Next time you try to change your brother’s will, do try to get his permission before he dies,” Orion tells him. “It works better that way.”
Alphard stares at him for a moment, before shaking his head with a faintly pitying, overly honest smile and saying,
“You can’t possibly believe it was me, can you? Why would I need it? Wallie will tell you – I have everything I could possibly need.”
“You drank the last of your inheritance away four years ago, and my wife has been giving you charity hand-outs ever since,” Orion rolls his eyes, heaving a bored sigh. “Please don’t waste my time. Just go.”
For a moment – just a moment – it looks like Alphard is about to argue over that, but then he gives up and gets to his feet, unsteady, shaky, clutching a handful of slips of paper and tucking them back into his waistcoat pocket, looking around for the rest.
Spotting one by his foot, Sirius supposes the least he could do would be to hand it to his uncle. It’s a small, insignificant thing, one last piece of charity. Bending down he picks it up, his thumb brushing under the fold and opening it.
It’s in his hands barely a second before Alphard snatches it away, not looking at him, but Sirius has seen enough to know, to recognise the handwriting on it.
“Cancel the money,” Alphard tells Orion, speaking directly to him to the exclusion of everyone else in the room. There’s a tremor in his voice, and something about the way his eyes keep flicking back to the bed, but Sirius can’t pin it down, can’t work out what’s going on. “I won’t be coming back. I won’t be bothering any of you again. I – for what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”
Then, Alphard is gone, almost sprinting from the room. Sirius doesn’t even manage to open his mouth in time, let alone ask why his uncle would send him a note about his brother – what it meant, why him, and now, why he would never be coming back.
Once Alphard has left, there’s a sense of freedom, of lightness in the room there hadn’t been before. Walburga and Orion leave together, Cygnus’ will safe, the interests of the family guarded – but at such a price – and Barty, silent for so long, is ensconced at Regulus’ side before Sirius can even blink, their fingers intertwining and eyes only for each other.
Sirius is left on his own, and he wanders outside, no one around to say anything, or even inclined to do so if they were.
It’s strange, how many secrets come out when one mistake is made. His aunt’s medication, Bella and Lucius being killers, Regulus and Barty’s whole relationship, his mother’s distrust of her entire family, just how much his father knows and how well he knows them all. His own sense of belonging, of worry, of fear – the realisation, even to himself, that he still cares.
Even though they’re fractured, perhaps more so now than they ever were and there’s so many new secrets, so many new mysteries, that he’ll probably never quite understand it all, he knows now, beyond certainty, that they’re still family, and that still means something. The idea of family inspired his father, his mother, even Narcissa to do things they would never have done in any other situation. It made him react in ways he thought he couldn’t any more, feel things he’d thought he’d forgotten how to feel.
Maybe, he wonders, staring out across the garden at the trees and fields beyond, clean and pure in the sunlight, there is something in the idea that blood is thicker than water.
Chapter 14: Joker
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He waits until James has gone to bed, sneaking out of his room in a shuffle, to open the letter. For all James’ loudly proclaimed disgust at Sirius’ situation, and all the promises to let him stay forever, and all the reminders that they’re ‘basically brothers anyway’, he doesn’t think James will quite understand.
It’s not James’ fault, not for a lack of trying, but simply because James is the pampered only child of a lovely, open-minded, generous pair of people, to whom things like ‘family honour’ and ideas of being ‘bound by blood’ mean different things, and, in some cases, nothing at all. To Sirius, it’s a curious, quaint and happy sort of world, but to James it’s all he’s ever known.
Sometimes, Sirius is jealous of him for that. If he’s honest, it’s more often than he’d ever admit.
The letter is thick, heavy in his hands, wrapped in a cream envelope, a black wax disc sealing it shut. On the front is his name – his full name – in his father’s handwriting, and the fact that his father has written it to him is the only reason he doesn’t feel sick.
Having seen so many family members die over the course of a single holiday less than three months ago, he thinks he reserves the right to be paranoid.
Flipping it over, he slides a finger underneath the lip of the envelope, ripping the seal away from the envelope and tearing a long line down the middle of it. He pulls the rest of the envelope off, dropping it on the floor, attempting half-heartedly to read the small, thin writing upside down.
Soon enough, he turns the wad of paper over and unfolds it. The ends of the back sheet curl in a little, as though it had been tightly rolled up beforehand.
It’s just a letter. He’s almost disappointed, but there’s an odd sort of excitement about such a simple thing. His father never wrote to him before – letters were always sent through his mother, even after he left. Regulus, for all his religious correspondence with his friends (Sirius could never help but wonder every time Regulus mentioned one of his ‘friends’ if they were ‘friends’ in the sense that Barty and Regulus had been ‘friends’. Certainly they didn’t seem to stick around very long), had never written to him either. Not even a note during school, or at home.
He scans down the letter quickly, taking in the formal presentation and language, the plain black ink and official-looking signature at the bottom, underneath the almost out-of-place ‘your father’.
The actual message of it, though, knocks the wind out of his chest and sets his stomach to whirling, nausea creeping up his throat.
Alphard Black is dead. Suicide, Orion reports, by drinking a vial of hemlock. There had been no note, but the coroners are certain there was no foul play involved, although why he had chosen to die is unclear. Sirius doesn’t believe for a moment that his father doesn’t at least suspect something about Alphard’s motives, even if the coroners have no idea.
Yet another family secret to add to the pile, he supposes dryly.
The rest of the letter is more complicated but almost as shocking. Alphard’s will had been updated just after that holiday, Orion writes, and he left everything he had – a huge London flat, a few galleons left over, and an extensive brandy collection – to Sirius. Nothing to anyone else, not even Walburga, who had been Alphard’s sister, or Regulus, who Sirius had always thought was Alphard’s favourite.
Moving the letter aside, figuring he’ll have to work out later what on earth he’s going to do with it all and work out how this is going to go, he sees that the last sheet, pushing against his hands to wind back into a roll, is his uncle’s will. Signed and stamped and dated, the signature at the bottom, witnessed by Orion and a name he doesn’t recognise, but assumes is a member of the Wizengamot, who can stand in for people who don’t have enough witnesses. There, in red ink it tells him, quite plainly, really, for a will, that he, Sirius, inherits everything.
In his stomach, there’s a viciously satisfied twist when he sees that the rest of his family aren’t even mentioned, but, really, spite aside, it just makes him more confused. Why him? Out of all of his family, why him and why only him?
It just doesn’t make sense. Then again, not much about Uncle Alphard has ever made any sense, he thinks, as he lays back on the bed, staring up at the painted white ceiling.
He thought he knew Alphard – at least, knew things about him, even if he didn’t know him very well. Alphard was the fun uncle, the one who played games with him and Regulus, bought them brooms, told them horror stories at night to make them scream (and laughed when they did) and gave them sweets after dinner. Sirius had looked up to him, admired him almost, and then seen everything he thought he knew be systematically destroyed within a week.
There’s a slight bitter aftertaste in his mouth when he remembers how Alphard had spoken about him to his mother (though a small part of him can’t help but hope that he’s being too cynical and that it wasn’t about him, and that Alphard isn’t quite as black as he painted himself in the end), but it’s tampered with a hollow, genuine grief.
His uncle is dead, his grandfather is dead, those of the rest of his family who are still alive he doesn’t see, and now, only so recently, he doesn’t think he’ll ever see them again. This time, his mother’s threats of disowning seem serious, and his father seems disinclined to stop her from actually carrying it out. As for Regulus… well, Sirius has lost all hope in his brother actually doing something nice for him.
Regulus always has been too cowardly to put his own neck on the line, he thinks to himself, angry and disappointed.
His eyes land on the letter, the will again, and he closes them tightly, biting his lip and feeling suddenly so very lost and so very small.
He has no family. He has no family, no home, no future. There is just him, and him alone – no one else. Well, he has his friends, but friends aren’t family, are they? It’s not the same, not really, no matter how much you try and pretend they are. James is almost his brother, but an almost-brother isn’t a real brother. There’s always something missing.
It feels so unfair, so cruel and ruthless and utterly ridiculous for his family to have reacted like this. After all their talk about family being bound together, about honour and duty and obligations, they’ve looked at him critically, found him wanting and shut the door in his face. Their own morals be damned – they don’t want him there. He’s not one of them.
If he’s honest with himself, it hurts so much because he didn’t expect it. He didn’t think they’d actually disown him, didn’t think it was actually that serious. When he’d left, he’d thought they’d come after him – that his father would turn up at James’ house, demanding that he comes home, that his mother would have sent him Howler after Howler to return, that Regulus would have written to him and asked, begged to have his older brother back.
They had been close once, hadn’t they?
Apparently, though, he’d been wrong. Completely and utterly wrong. They’d done exactly what he hadn’t expected, throwing him off balance and out of the carriage and into the gutter. Even those who hadn’t, who’d stayed silent or died beforehand, even Uncle Alphard hadn’t been who Sirius thought he was.
In the end, everything he thought he knew about his family, every one of them, was wrong in one way or another. He’d been so sure about things, and one by one they’d cut down what he thought he knew, piece by piece, sometimes without him even noticing, through accidents and lies and taking off masks. They’d built up new expectations, some of them, and then knocked those down too, for good measure.
It’s strange, he thinks, the ways in which people destroy your expectations.
If expectations are a cage, cold and stiff and unyielding, then in destroying them and remaking them, they have locked him outside. They have, in a way, set him free – free of burdens and obligations and duties (because if he doesn’t have a family, then how can he have any of those to them?), free to be simply Sirius and not another Black.
He is free, and he has never been so terrified in his life.
A/N: Hi guys - so this is the first and last author's note in this story, but I needed and wanted to say some things. Firstly, thank you all so much for reading this (yes, you!) and thank you so much to everyone who reviewed it - no matter what chapter or how many times. Each review, each read is so important to me and means so much. You guys have all pushed me so hard to finish this, after I took so long over it in the beginning, so really, it's down to you guys that this is done. I'm so, so grateful to everything you guys have given this story and every encouragement you've written - it's been amazing, seriously! I love you all! <3
Secondly, this is the first story I've ever finished and it was probably the one I never quite thought I would. It was a real challenge for me - a genre I'd never tackled before - and such an intimidating project, involving things I knew I was bad at. It was so hard to write, particularly in the middle and at the end, but I feel like I've grown with this story and learned so much from it and you guys, so I really hope you guys enjoy it, and thank you so much for giving me this opportunity and encouraging me to continue with it. I really couldn't have done it without you all.
Thirdly, there will be a semi-sequel called 'Roll of the Dice' coming soon, but after holiday - I probably need to stop muttering about poison and brothers and wills and murder before my family get too concerned! :P
This has been incredibly long and I'm sorry for that, but, seriously, thank you all so so much! It has been amazing! :)