Chapter 8 : Nine of Diamonds
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No one looks at him. Well, that’s not strictly true. Bella’s glaring at him, gaze darting away each time he tries to meet her eyes, and Regulus shoots him sly, calculating little looks every now and then, though they’re tempered with a tinge of terror. His mother, on the other hand, is staring at him. He’s not sure she’s even blinked during the time they’ve been sitting there.
He feels sick.
Isn’t it enough that he still has the red mark on his face from where Bella slapped him, and that his mother screamed at him for half an hour before depositing him in front of his grandfather, who’s coldly shocked and furious diatribe about how he should be less reckless was almost worse than both the others put together. Do they have to treat him like he actually killed her? Like he meant to knock her down the stairs?
He always knew he was something of an outcast, he just never knew it went this far.
Giving a huffy little sigh, he begins kicking his leg backwards and forwards, enjoying the soft squeak of the rubber sole of his shoe on the polished floor. Maybe, he thinks, if he kicks hard enough, he’ll leave a mark there – a dirty, black smear right across the pale brown wood.
“Would you stop?” Pollux snaps at him after what feels like at least ten minutes has passed, throwing an irritated look in his general direction. Even though it’s phrased like one, it isn’t really a request or plea, merely a demand. Glaring back, feeling a spurt of defiance, he raises his foot to kick the floor again.
“Do that again,” his father begins, his voice calm but unmistakeably icy. “And I will lock you in your room for the rest of the day.”
James’ father, he knows, would have added ‘do I make myself clear’ onto the end of it; he supposes most fathers would. His doesn’t; he knows it’s perfectly clear enough, and sees no reason to ask if it is, thus implying that his child is stupid.
It’s not a threat which scares him, though, since he’s spent most holidays since his sorting on his own – by choice or by force – and, frankly, the idea of being in his room on his own sounds like a great idea at the moment. Nonetheless, he stops and slumps in his chair, folding his hands in his lap in a show of mock obedience.
Thankfully he’s spared having to sit still for any longer (twenty-three minutes is quite long enough as it is), as the door opens.
“She’s fine,” Bella reports, wand handle sticking out of the pocket of her dress, blowing a loose curl out of her face. “Lucius is with her – she’s taken a Sleeping Draught and only seems to have concussion, so there’s nothing to worry about.”
“But what about the blood?” Sirius feels rather than hears his voice almost crack, and coughs in an attempt to cover it up. “There was blood on the stairs… how does that work?”
“A small cut on her skull,” she replies, her lips pursing in a subconscious imitation of her sister. “Healed already. She’ll be fine.”
“Don’t think that just because it wasn’t any more severe you’ll be getting off with a lighter punishment,” Walburga barks at him, her eyes fixed on him suspiciously. “You should be grateful we’re not handing you over to the Aurors this minute!”
While inwardly he can’t help but scoff at that – as though any of his family would want to be the one to call the Aurors to their house, stuffed full as it is with poisons and dark objects masquerading as ‘family heirlooms’ and rusting manacles in the cellar – Sirius just nods his head once complacently, looking away, gritting his teeth and pressing his tongue into the roof of his mouth to stop himself from speaking.
“If that is all,” Pollux rises slowly, hands white as he leans heavily on the top of his cane. “I will be returning to my office. I expect to be notified if anything changes, but until then I see no point in sitting outside a door.”
He has a point, and Sirius stands up, trailing after him out of the room. Behind him, he can hear Regulus and Barty whispering to each other – he tries to listen in to their conversation but can’t catch it – as they follow him outside. A part of him, irrational, wonders if they’re talking about him, but it doesn’t last for long and he heads down the hallway, over towards the other side of the house and his bedroom.
His grandfather heads down the staircase, clutching onto one rail, and he can’t help but turn his head, glancing down at it as he passes, scanning the marble for specks of brownish-red. It’s spotless, gleaming, and he isn’t really sure if that makes him feel any better. He could have killed his cousin; surely there should be more evidence, more of a stain to remind him of what could have happened?
Snatching his hand off the bannister, he forces himself to look away. No need to linger so much on it; Cissy’s fine, she’s going to be fine and that’s the important thing, he tells himself.
“Sirius,” he hears his mother call to him and turns to see her, violet robes scrunched up in one hand, standing at the entrance to the small room which guards his cousin’s bedroom. “Would you mind staying in your room until dinner? Or, at least away from the stairs. We don’t want any more accidents.”
She gives him a fake smile and turns away to catch his father by the elbow. Imitating her, he keeps walking, only pausing once he’s sure he’s out of sight to hit the wall hard. Giving a hiss of pain as his hand throbs, a large red mark on his palm, he stops outside his room, noticing that Regulus and Barty have vanished inside Regulus’ room, leaving the door slightly ajar.
He’d be half tempted to join them, but there’s only so many times listening to his brother whine about how badly Puddlemere are doing this year while smugly rubbing it in can be funny.
Shutting the door behind himself, he crosses over to his bed, flinging himself onto it face down. God, but how much he wants this day to be over! He doesn’t think he’s ever experienced a worse day in his life. How could it possibly get worse?
She could have actually died, Remus’ voice reminds him and he groans. Punching a pillow, he swears and rests his chin on top of his mattress, feeling himself sinking into it a little.
At least, he supposes, things can only get better from here.
He wakes up shivering. Regulus is standing over him, wand raised, smirking. For a moment, he’s not sure why, then he pushes himself up on his mattress and finds that his sheets are sopping.
“Bastard,” he bites out at his brother, though there’s no real feeling behind it. “What do you want?”
“I don’t want anything,” Regulus informs him tartly. “Mother told me to fetch you and tell you to come downstairs.”
“What does she want?” he asks, going to run a hand through his hair but catching himself just in time and scowling at his brother again for good measure. Pranks like this are never quite as funny when he’s in the firing line himself.
Regulus just shrugs elegantly, twirling his wand in one hand.
“I don’t know; she didn’t say. Just said we had to be presentable, so I’ll tell her you’ll be down in a while.”
He’s about to burst out that it doesn’t take him that long to become presentable and so he’ll just accompany him down, when he remembers that there are little drops of water falling onto his shoulders, leaving see-through splotches on his shirt.
“Tell her I’ll be down in a minute,” he sighs, slipping off his bed and heading to his cupboard to find a clean, ‘presentable’ shirt.
He can practically feel Regulus’ smirk on his back as his brother chirps,
“Sure. I’ll see you down there in a minute.”
The door has barely shut behind Regulus before he strips off his shirt, tossing it carelessly on the carpet. Grabbing a cream dress shirt his mother can’t complain about, he quickly slips it on, buttoning it up to the collar. He hasn’t worn it in ages, since last year’s Yule party, and the collar is a little smaller than he remembers it, pinching at his neck. Swallowing, he resolves to simply apologise if the button pops off during dinner and leaves his room.
No one else is around as he makes his way down the stairs, feeling hyper aware of everything around him, almost nervous as he goes down each step. He imagines they probably don’t want to be around him on stairs; the idea that they all fled down before him, in a flurry of silk and cufflinks, makes him grin for a moment before he remembers the reason why they would be running away from him.
It’s only when he gets to the bottom of the stairs that he realises Regulus didn’t tell him where the rest of the family were – ‘downstairs’ is helpful, but not really very great when there’s a lot of ‘downstairs’ where they could be.
Shoving his hands in his pockets and wandering towards the drawing room, he decides to check there first, seeing as it seems the most likely place. If they’re not there… well, he supposes he’ll have to call a house-elf and ask, though it sounds much like giving up to him.
Before he gets there, though, he can hear the low buzz and hum of conversation seeping out from underneath the doors. There’s a faint chink of glasses every now and then, and as he gets closer, he can hear individual voices: his father’s smooth tones, his grandfather’s lower voice, and Bellatrix’s loud one. Amongst it all, another voice occasionally breaks in, perhaps responding to something or the other, and he feels himself give a small, reluctant smile.
He can’t really linger outside the door for too long, standing there and barely even attempting to listen to what they’re saying, otherwise his mother might send a house-elf up for him and then things would get complicated, so he grasps the metal handle, turns it and enters.
The room falls silent. It’s as if he cast a wordless, wandless Silencing Charm on the whole room. In fact, if he didn’t know better he’d say that they’d been frozen in time; a eulogy in tableau to the stiff, upper-class remainders of pureblood society.
He doesn’t really hear the door swing shut behind him as he glances round the room, hoping for someone to do something other than look at him.
After a pause, the prodigal son in the corner smiles, blank face transforming in a second into the very picture of delight and happiness at seeing him. Slamming his glass tumbler down on the side table, Alphard springs up out of his seat, moving towards him, already extending a hand to shake.
“Ah, Sirius! I’d been wondering where you were – it’s been such a long time since I’ve seen you, though it can’t be helped, really; business doesn’t stop for any man! Young Regulus was just telling me about how the school Quidditch season was going. Now that you’re here, of course, we can have a less biased version of events, perhaps,” Alphard shakes his hand firmly, giving him a patronising pat on the shoulder. Over his uncle’s shoulder, Sirius can see a sour scowl on his brother’s face, though he’s not sure if it’s more for being referred to as ‘young Regulus’ or for the implication that he’s been lying about the school Quidditch season.
“Er, yeah, sure,” he mumbles somewhat half-heartedly, feeling more than a little overwhelmed. He stumbles gratefully into the nearest free seat when Alphard releases him, exchanging a brief, exasperated look with Regulus.
It only lasts for a moment, and then they go back to ignoring each other, the attention in the room returning to Alphard.
“Well, now you’re here, Sirius, the whole family’s –” Alphard cuts off suddenly, pausing as he picks up his tumbler again, watching the orange-tinted liquid swirling around in the bottom of it. Out of the corner of his eye, Sirius spots his father roll his eyes, downing the rest of his drink. While Uncle Alphard is by far his favourite relative, the most fun and entertaining one he has, it doesn’t mean he disagrees with the sentiment: the pause was carefully planned and staged to suggest a grief they all know is faked.
Uncles Alphard and Cygnus might have been brothers, but that didn’t mean much.
“Alphard,” Pollux speaks up. “How long will you be here?”
“Not long, unfortunately,” Alphard replies, refilling his tumbler without looking; the brandy sloshes into the glass, rocking up towards the rim. A few drops spill over the side, trickling down and pooling about the bottom. “I have a meeting on Wednesday I simply can’t miss. I would cancel, but there’s no other time my client can do.”
“Such a shame,” Orion drawls, just about managing to replace the disdain normally reserved for his brother-in-law with a distinct lack of emotion. Beside him, Walburga gives him a sharp look, her lips pursed, before enquiring,
“So when will you be leaving? Not too soon, I hope.”
Bellatrix, lounging in the corner of the room on a square, tasselled stool, snorts. It teases a slight, quickly suppressed grin from Sirius. When everyone turns to look at her, she simply smiles sweetly in reply, saying nothing at all as she sips from her glass.
“Tuesday evening, before dinner, I think,” Alphard replies easily. “I need some time to prepare for the meeting.”
The lie is so ridiculous that Sirius has to fight back a snort. Alphard has no interest in preparing for a meeting – he doubts the meeting is even real – his uncle just doesn’t want to spend much time with the rest of them. Honestly, Sirius understands that, he really does, but he feels it’s a little bit pointless to persist in a lie they all know is rubbish.
Despite the annoyance, he wishes Alphard would stay a bit longer. Selfishly, it has nothing to do with the rest of the family, since his uncle is hardly the most popular member, and everything to do with himself. He likes his uncle, underneath it all; Alphard has always been the most fun member of the family, the most prone to laughter and jokes, and it’s just as easy to laugh at him as it is to laugh with him, as long as he doesn’t catch you.
Silence falls, tense and thick, and Sirius shifts a little in his seat. He feels like he should say something or do something – ask when dinner will be, maybe – but his mouth seems to be taped shut. Instead, he drums his fingers on his knees, occasionally hearing a faint tap of flesh on fabric, and looks around the room, trying to avoid looking at anyone else.
As the silence stretches on and on, becoming thinner and thinner as they all pull on it, he starts tapping his foot on the ground as well, keeping time with his fingers on his leg. Perhaps, he thinks, he could escape – say he needs to go to the toilet or something – simply mutter out some excuse and dart out, take a minute or two to himself in the hallway. He’s just wondering whether or not it would be worth it, even should one of his family step outside and see him loitering in the corridor, when the handle of the door turns.
Barty peeks his head round the door, uttering a polite,
“Mrs Black? Am I allowed in?”
Watching the younger boy, Sirius is impressed by the neat, combed hair and the childishly innocent expression on his face. He looks like every mother’s dream houseguest – sweet and polite and helpful. His eyes, though, give him away as they jump about the room, flickering between Orion, Walburga and Regulus, lingering a little on the latter.
“Of course,” Walburga approves, and she gives him something which resembles an attempt at a smile, even if she doesn’t succeed.
Murmuring a quiet ‘thank you’, Barty slips inside the room, closing the door softly behind himself. He barely makes any sound as he crosses the floor, taking a seat on the sofa between the two brothers, giving Regulus a quick grin as he does so.
Alphard, in the corner, regards him, a small, amused smile playing around his lips.
“Taking in strays, Wallie?” he asks her, without glancing her way, his eyes roving over Barty, who stares back easily, seemingly completely at ease with such an examination. “He is, I assume, house-trained?”
Walburga shoots her brother a glare which is half-embarrassed and half-furious, but before she can say anything to defend herself, Barty’s already there.
“I am house-trained,” he smiles brightly, but there’s a wild, dark glint in his eyes. “But I do bite sometimes.”
Everyone stops and waits. It’s a bold comment to make, even off-hand, and Sirius half expects his uncle to gather himself, glower and snap something rude in return.
Instead, Alphard simply sits there for a moment, eyebrows raised, his brandy glass dangling in mid-air, fingers gliding around it to grip it better. Then, after a long minute, his eyebrows drop, the tumbler is lowered and he breaks into a smile, allowing a short, harsh laugh to break out of his throat.
“I like him,” he says. “He’s got spirit. What’s your name, house-trained-but-bites?”
“Bartemius Crouch,” the response comes promptly, with a practiced ease. “Junior.”
“I see,” Alphard nods, taking another mouthful of brandy. “Why are you here? I was under the impression this was a family gathering only – not that I was invited, of course – and you, house-trained-but-biting Bartemius Crouch Junior, are not family.”
Barty’s jaw stiffens at the repetition of his full name, but he only slumps back against the cushions of the sofa. Across the room, Sirius’ mother is positively indignant at the treatment of their guest, and Sirius waits for the remonstration he knows is coming.
“He is here,” she begins, her tone crisp and cold. “Because he was invited. Orion and I thought it would be good for Regulus to have some company this holiday – and I think the recent events have proved it a wise enough decision.”
Bellatrix snorts again, louder this time. Sirius is sure the whole room must have heard, but, whether they did or not, no one says anything.
He understands the sentiment, though. The idea of Barty somehow being a great comfort to Regulus in all this is, if true, lost under the swarms of confusion and irritation and distrust he seems to carry around with him and which flare up whenever he opens his mouth. So far this holiday, Sirius hasn’t seen a single moment when Barty has been comforting Regulus; instead, Barty has been fear-mongering, vanishing about the house, and being far too amused by the whole situation.
‘Wise decision’, his arse.
“So,” Alphard drawls with a lecherous smirk. “He and Regulus are ‘keeping company’ together, are they?”
Sirius barely has time to register the intended implications behind his words before Barty is jumping up out of his seat, face flushed and hands clenched into fists. Behind Barty, he can see Regulus, staring steadfastedly at the ground, frozen, pink sprinkling white on his face.
Without thinking, he grabs Barty’s wrist, yanking him down into his seat, ignoring the slight cry of pain the boy gives as his shoulder is wrenched back and down.
Most of the room, it seems, has been shocked into silence. All except Bellatrix, who begins to laugh, bending low over her knees, hand covering her mouth. Even Alphard, who had been smirking smugly at the reaction he’d provoked, turns to stare at her, utterly confused by what’s so funny about it. Bellatrix doesn’t look at any of them, doesn’t seem to care that no one else is laughing, and just laughs and laughs and laughs.
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