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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.
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.
Four of Clubs
The glass of brandy on the table wobbled dangerously, threatening to spill. In the background, a house-elf hovered, trembling from head to toe, ready to clean it up should a drop go awry. Closing her eyes, she crouched, 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 remained 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 mused idly, one hand toying with the edge of his robes as he gazed 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 snapped.
The will lay on the desk in front of him, stretched out between two thick, wooden rods to hold the parchment taut and in place. He had spent several long hours poring over it, comparing it to its predecessor, searching in vain for those all-important changes. Some were 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 were not. All in all, there were only six red lines jotted down, pairs of numbers referencing particular articles in the wills, and that was 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 book. “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.
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.”
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.
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.