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.