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.