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Chapter 6 : Seven of Hearts
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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.
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