Author's Note: This one-shot was first begun a few years ago, I don't even know how long now, but it sat unfinished until, when cleaning up my files, I came across it and decided, why not? Thanks to those who contributed to the forum discussions on Peter - they were a great help in the production of this story.
The story still doesn't feel quite right to me, so if you have any suggestions, please let me know! As of April 8th, I've rewritten the ending, making the torture scene a bit more explicit, hence the higher rating - however, it does mean that the ending makes more sense. ;)
Survival of the Fittest
It was supposed to be an easy mission. To infiltrate the Manor in disguise was a simple thing for him now: nose around a bit, listen to the right conversations, catch sight of the right visitors, then get out and report to the Order before anyone knew he’d even been there. He had performed similar missions before, often – no always – great success. Yet with this success, he had failed to become one of the most trusted spies of the Order, perhaps because of his chosen disguise, though he never knew for certain.
A rat didn’t have to worry about getting caught, did he? Slipping between cracks in the walls, knotholes in the floorboards, and crouching beneath the furniture in the Malfoy’s sitting room, taking in all that he could with his sensitive ears and beady eyes, wearing the most prefect of disguises, he thought himself the best spy of all.
That is, unless he let himself get caught, perfection shattering to pieces along with everything else, all those little things he had grasped with fingers and claws alike, anxious for the moment they would slip away – his parents, his friends, his meagre powers – always threatened by those who could never understand what it was like to have nothing worth the price of redemption.
That day he sat himself beneath the chair of Bellatrix Lestrange, but it was like she could smell him, the musty fur, the cheese-dusted nose. He curled against one of the legs, whiskers quivering with the news he heard about the Death Eaters, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, and... something else... there was always something else.
“Whatever is that smell, Cissy?” The voice was silky, velvet-like, almost hypnotising if one did not know the kind of woman whose voice it was. “Do you have rats?”
Narcissa Malfoy gasped, a slender hand rising to clutch at her bejewelled throat. She rose from her chair in a single, graceful, movement, reaching for the servants’ bell. “Dobby! Come here!” Her voice rang through the room, echoing the sound of the clanging bell.
Paws over his face, Peter irrationally hoped that he was well-camouflaged against the dark green rug with its swirling patterns of rust and gold.
With a pop, the house elf appeared, adjusting the greying pillowcase that stood for his uniform. Peter crouched back further, ready to scurry away, wondering if apparition could work in his current state. Did he have the strength after going so long without food, without sleep, without anything? He could not remember–
“There’s a rat in this room, or has been.” Narcissa’s voice had climbed from tinkling bells to screeching sirens. “Find it now!” She raised her hand in threat, but the elf backed away, eyes downcast, shoulders slumped.
“Yes, mistress. Dobby will do as he’s bid, mistress.”
A small broom and box appeared in the elf’s hands and he crept around the room, peeking into corners and pushing aside cushions with anxious fingers, keeping his trained eyes well away from the two witches in the centre of the room.
Narcissa looked towards her sister. “Would it please you to move, Bella? The garden should be pleasant now.”
Bellatrix shifted in her chair, booted feet coming perilously close to where the rat cowered. He swallowed a squeak, burying his nose in the thick pile of the rug. Rat-sized tears dripped down his furry cheeks as he knew what fate lay in store, as though he knew that this was the end, that there was no escape. He had no backup plan – they were just not supposed to notice him – and no one to come rescue him if trouble ensued. The others were all busy: James and Lily with their newborn son, Remus negotiating with the werewolves, Sirius off on another, more distant mission, more unknown than anyone else’s. The others in the Order, he could not trust them, knew that they looked down upon him, that silly rat-faced boy who was nothing without his friends. He was very much alone, as though betrayed by their very absence, by his utter isolation in the house of the enemy.
It was a game of survival of the fittest, and he was the furthest from "fittest" that one could get.
Rats were never high upon the chain of life. Their tails dragged in the slime beneath the dangling chain, despised, derided.
“I am fine where I am, Cissy. You know that the sun never agrees with me.”
Narcissa bowed her head. “Of course. Forgive me.”
Dobby was on the other side of the room, balancing on the edge of the couch with his dirty feet up in the air as he rested on his stomach, sweeping the broom along the floor. All he had found thus far were dust bunnies, cottony tails wiggling as they leapt beyond his reach.
The witches ignored him.
The rat shook his head, wondering at his fear, or would terror be more accurate? How great it had been to have received this mission, and all for what? To be doomed to capture, to death?
He would do anything to avoid death.
His heart was still racing, but he felt himself relax, the muscles unfurling, his claws releasing their hold on the rug. He must be careful not to leave any holes. His bladder screamed for mercy, but he could not leave yet, not when the sisters’ conversation was so close to becoming useful, not the usual dither about the baby or other domestic concerns that meant nothing to him but failure. There was danger here with Bellatrix’s senses and the house elf’s magic, but Peter knew that he must stay, no matter the cost. There was still a chance, that chance of survival and success together that would prove to them all that he was as worthy and deserving as the rest, if not more. He could be missed, he could blend right in, disappear like the Cheshire Cat of lore, only his ears remaining to finish the job. If only it could be that easy!
But then everyone would be a hero. Some people could never be heroes, no matter how hard they tried.
He could not back out now. He may not be a hero, but he certainly was no coward.
“Lucius was saying that you are planning something new against those blood traitors.”
Bellatrix laughed. “You shouldn’t worry your head over such things. Watch over your son, he’s the future of our cause.”
“I’d rather he not be involved.” A dark tone entered Narcissa’s voice, but it only heightened her sister’s laughter.
“Come now, sister. You will not need to forsake your infant quite yet. He can’t receive the Mark until he’s at least....” Bellatrix let the sentence hang, and Peter could guess that she was smiling that diabolical grin of hers, taking enjoyment from the torture of her own sister.
He could not understand how two siblings could be so different. One dark, the other light. One without feeling, the other with the slightest spark. One willing to forsake all for a great cause, the other hesitant, constantly testing the cause in which she was to believe. Narcissa had, in many ways, little choice in the course of her life, living entirely beneath the will of her husband, her sister, and thus also the will of the Dark Lord, Voldemort himself.
But it was Bellatrix who fascinated Peter most, she who had chosen who and what to believe in, throwing herself into the Dark Lord’s service, her adoration of him sickeningly obvious. She had chosen a husband out of mere convenience, and their childless state was no accident. Should the Dark Lord have deigned himself in need of a wife, Bellatrix would allow there to be only one contender: herself.
Peter had never known of such a loyalty. Perhaps it was because he had never known love, or at least the obsessive sort of emotion that flowed through Bellatrix Lestrange’s blackened veins. All he possessed were memories of a white-faced mother lying shrouded on a bed, the place at the table where his father had never sat, the sight of his friends divided, each gone their separate ways, busied by their own problems, never seeing the problem in their midst, the problem that was Peter Pettigrew, the boy they had befriended only to toss away like an unwanted glove.
Dobby shook the curtains, snapping his fingers to straighten the creases, before continuing to the curio cabinet near the door, the articles within rattling in fear of his dust cloths and cleaning solutions as though the act of cleaning tarnished metal could clean away the sins of each object, the suffering they had caused these last long centuries.
“It’s hardly funny, Bella. It’s dangerous enough with Lucius, but my son....”
“Will do his duty once he’s of age, Cissy.” Bella’s voice was snapping with electricity. “It would be blasphemous to think of not allowing him to follow his father’s footsteps.”
“It’s still far too early to–”
“Many youth have joined us. You forget how the Dark Lord learned his own power.”
“I know. I’ve heard the stories.” There was a rustle of silk. “It’s still upsetting. You wouldn’t understand, Bella.”
Bellatrix waved an impatient hand. From behind, Dobby scrubbed at a tiny black spot on a giant silver platter, glancing over his shoulder in case they should witness his pause.
“That can’t be helped, Cissy. You must be the one to uphold the Noble House of Black with your offspring.”
“Why must I be kept in the dark about the Dark Lord’s work? Lucius tells me little, and now my own sister will tell me nothing?” Narcissa’s voice grew in pitch, almost a whine. “Do you all think me some traitor, not to be trusted?”
Bellatrix recrossed her legs, long-nailed hands smoothing down her robes, far plainer than her sister’s, but perhaps more elegant in their austerity. The rat caught himself imaging how those hands would caress the graceful curves of her body, how solid and strong they would be in every action, every touch. Even Narcissa, with all her delicacy and lightness, could not match her sister’s majesty, her burning passions–
“You were always too close to Snape for the Dark Lord’s, and your husband’s, liking.”
The rat took in a sharp breath – it would have been a gasp had he been in human form – and slunk forward, his stomach rubbing against the ground.
“That was nothing, you know that better than I do, Bella. Severus was too much enamoured with the mudblood to notice any proper witch.”
The mudblood? There was only one mudblood in Peter’s mind, blood-red hair and serpent-green eyes flashing across his rat’s vision, mingling with the swirling, mesmerising designs of the Persian rug. He could remember the day that had changed everything for her, for Snivellus, for Prongs, that ringing word bursting from Snivelly’s thin lips. He would not forget the sight of the fire dying in Snape’s eyes, knowing that, had the tables been turned, Peter could have been that boy, despised and bullied and spat upon.
He had been lucky, if only for a little while. Now....
Bellatrix let forth a mocking laugh. “You sound jealous, Cissy. Very dangerous indeed. He is a half-blood, you know. Quite a disgrace that the Dark Lord allowed him into our ranks at all, even with his connection to the Princes.”
“He is much trusted by the Dark Lord, in case you’ve forgotten, Bella.”
Narcissa’s response bit at the air as she held her head high, not willing to accept defeat at the hands of her spiteful sister, thinking only of her own pride. She found it too easy to forget that, while she spent her days in leisure at the Manor, her sister rushed through dark, stinking streets after equally-stinking Muggles and blood-traitors, coming home to a dull husband and his even duller brother. Bellatrix could never forget their differing circumstances, however much she made herself out to be the better of the two, the one whom the Dark Lord trusted most.
Until Severus Snape had come between them, or so it seemed. Peter leaned forward, still mindful enough to keep to the shadows left by the folds of Bellatrix’s robes.
“Yes, I’ve heard of that. He and Regulus will soon be sitting on each side of him, while the rest of you go out on your missions, doing all of that – what is the saying? – ‘dirty work’.” Narcissa laughed, cruelty falling from each sparking note. She found her revenge and took it with relish.
Bellatrix half-rose from her chair, the very air crackling with her rage, and Peter imagined how those eyes of hers would burn holes through all they glared upon. What would he do if they lighted upon him? Would it be enough to change him back into a human, unwillingly... or would it be a willing change? No. Never. She would never look at him, would never see one such as him. No girl ever did. No boy, either. No one. Even in human form, he was no more than a rat that no one cared to see. He was too hideous.
His head drooped, his tail curling around his body.
He could not hear her reply. Even with his rodent ears, he could not hear Dobby’s footsteps, so light upon the carpet, creeping up behind him with a great, almost painful deliberation, his fingers stretched forward, little nails, stopping just short of claws, gleaming in the light as they drew nearer, nearer. His thoughts were too loud, those old depreciating remarks resounding through that tiny rat’s brain, more than deafening in their power.
What chance did a rat have?
Rats were not made to be this way, not to be trusted as spies.
“Dobby has caught it, mistress!”
Bellatrix leapt away from her chair with the grace of a dancer, the hem of her robes sweeping around her legs, the long snaky curls of her hair whipping back with a toss of her head. The wand in her hand glowed green, her eyes triumphant. Yes, she had been correct. There had been a rat, a spy, an intruder in the house.
The rat squealed as Dobby held it aloft by the tail. It struggled to claw at the house elf’s hands, its tiny eyes bulging as animal instinct took over. Escape, that was all that mattered. Escape and freedom and the air outside filling its lungs. The pain in its tail was excruciating, the weight that he carried as a human plaguing his rodent self, gravity taking its toll on the bones and muscles, his head throbbing.
There was only one thing he could do to stop the pain, but he could not, must not, do it.
Transformation. It would save him, but it would also damn him. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, as they said. How he had mocked such sayings, thinking himself, a Marauder, above those silly old wives’ tales. Sirius and James never needed to worry, why would they? They would never be caught, and if they were... if they... if–
“Something is wrong with it.”
Bellatrix’s eyes narrowed as she approached, her wand still glowing bright, blinding the rat’s eyes. It shut them tight to hide the man within.
Her hair and wild eyes could turn him to stone.
“Put it down, Dobby.”
The house elf retreated, disappearing into the tapestried wall behind a landscape of emerald woods and strange, long-forgotten creatures whose eyes mesmerised and slackened jaws salivated, tensing to pounce, waiting for the kill.
The rat took gasping breaths, on the verge of self-extinction as his human self nearly burst through the flesh and fur that entrapped his soul, his magic. If only he had his wand, his magic, he could fight, he could do something, anything other than hanging by the tail from the fingers of a Death Eater, every nerve of his unnatural body screaming for release.
He felt it coming, the change. There it was, that speck of humanity growing within his chest, the memories of this and that, the rodent feelings draining away as his claws retracted into finger nails, growing, growing, the fur on his nose that always itched becoming once more a dusky shadow of stubble to match the filth that covered his slowly-exposing body, his tail shrinking as, with a victorious cry, Bellatrix released him, shoving back her sister with a wary arm.
She needn’t have worried.
With clenched eyes and fists he fought the change. Fought and fought and lost. There was not enough, never enough strength.
He knew then already what was to come.
His eyes still shut, he braced his human form for the curse, the multitude of curses that would tear him limb from limb, sinew from bone. It would only be with the greatest of luck that a green light would blind him. But he must not relent. He must not think–
No. She would not kill him. She would know better than that, however hungry she was for a taste of death, a cat-like grin across her face. He knew too much, all the things about the Order that her kind were starving to learn, their drooling mouths hanging over his head, prepared to devour his brains, if need be. And she, the cat, would sit back and smile while he screamed in terror between her paws.
He waited, cowering, the silence more painful than the nastiest curse, the bitterest poison. The ticking of the clock tantalised his ears, still half-rodent in their sensitivity, picking up the slightest rustlings of fabric, the chilling cackles that emerged from the witch who stepped toward him, the toes of one boot nudging his side.
“It’s Pettigrew. One of Sirius’s friends.” Narcissa’s pitchy voice entered his conscious, the words swirling and whirling together with all the smells and sounds in the room.
The sounds of his own thoughts loudest of all.
When would the spell hit? If only he could.... If only he had....
If only he was someone else.
Not Peter Pettigrew. Not a rat.
Bellatrix raised her wand, eyes glittering with all the fires of hell, her lips parted with the satisfied smile of the demon, the gaping grin of the Dementor before it knelt to suck out his soul.
Only the strong survive.
One spell, then another hit and he writhed in pain, all the agonies of the transformation meaningless compared to this torture, the death of his mind, his soul, his body. Another. An–
Only the strong–
"Speak, filthy blood traitor!"
How long would it take until he broke, until his rodent mind snapped, taking the human along with it? How long would it take her to dissect his thoughts and reveal the whisperings of his mind? How much longer? How much further must he go? How many lies must he tell? How many truths? All joined the whirl in his head as a booted foot nudged his twitching leg, testing, measuring.
"You know your true master, rat. Answer his command!"
Surrounded by the sounds of curses and laughter and strangled breaths, he squeezed his eyes more tightly shut and wondered, would he–? Could he break? To shatter like glass and disappear forever from the light, to break or to suffer a fate worse than death. Sirius would have the strength. James would have the strength. Even Remus would be strong. They would survive. They must. Because he– he- no more than a rat. He could not.
Only– If only–
A withered breath escapes his gnashed lips.