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Chapter 9 : Ten of Spades
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The back door creaks open, allowing a small shadow to slip through. Its hands are empty, but they tremble nonetheless. Large, bulging eyes stare down at them – long, thin fingers, tipped with dirty nails – as though trying to see something which isn’t there. It turns them over once, gazing at its palms, slowly brushing yellow-ish grains out of a line in its skin.
A creak of a floorboard, and the house-elf jumps, bat-like ears catching the faint murmur of voices approaching down the corridor. With a loud, harsh crack, the house-elf vanishes. The yellow grains hover in the air for a second, then flutter to the ground.
Less than a minute later, a black shoe stamps them into the ground, crushing them and flattening them into the gaps in the wood.
“Where are we going?” Barty whispers as they reach the back door, watching as Regulus’ fingers wrap around the handle and tug it downwards. “Are you sure this is fine?”
“Yes, of course I’m sure,” Regulus murmurs back easily, stepping outside and glancing over his shoulder to give Barty an encouraging smile, which doesn’t quite reach his eyes and vanishes as soon as he turns back.
Barty follows him, listening intently for the sharp crackle of the frosted grass under his boots. Giving a delighted grin, he whoops and tramps off into the wide expanse of garden, arms swinging around him. He barely hears Regulus close the door behind them – far too engrossed in watching the twigs and grass snap under his feet.
He’s at least twenty metres away from the house, eyes roving over the trees in the distance, grey-green in the mist, when he hears Regulus call his name and stops, looking back to see the other moving towards him.
Regulus, Barty thinks, is surprisingly pretty in the winter: all pink cheeks and lips, bundled up in scarf and gloves and navy velvet cloak, and his breath precedes him in a small white cloud.
“Don’t go off too far,” Regulus warns him, coming to a halt next to Barty. “Don’t want to lose you. We might never find your body out here – at least, not until the mist lifts.”
Not quite sure of what to say, Barty stays silent for a moment or two, watching as their breaths swirl in front of them, white and cloudlike, floating off into the sky despite the stillness of the air around them. Drawing his wand, he holds it up in front of his lips then breathes. As the wisps of mist fly past his wand, they wind and merge to form a ghostly ship which sails off away from them.
Catching Regulus’ smile out of the side of his eye, he gives a pleased grin, though it’s more for himself than anything. Regulus has been far too down in the last while, and he thinks it’s about time he relaxed, even if only a little.
“So childish,” Regulus sighs, but it’s tempered by the light tone of his voice and teasing look he shoots Barty from under his eyelashes.
A wind starts to pick up, soft fingers playing with the ends of Regulus’ hair, longer than perhaps it should be, and Barty feels his scarf unravelling from around his neck, being stretched out in the space behind him. It bites at his face, surprisingly harsh for such a little breeze, and he shivers, pocketing his wand and flexing his fingers.
He keeps watching Regulus, almost as though he’s studying him, the way he’s standing, shoulders hunched, head tilted towards the floor. He keeps watching, even when Regulus looks up at him, raising an eyebrow as his cheeks darken a little. Barty likes to think it’s because of him, rather than the fault of the wind, and allows a sly smile to flicker over his mouth.
Snatching Regulus’ hand, he surges forwards, off into the mist, tugging the other behind him. It doesn’t take long for Regulus to catch up, in an awkward half-jog, and from then on they walk in silence, side-by-side.
Above them, a crow flies south, its harsh caw seeming to echo. Angling its wing, banking onto a warm stream, it passes by the rising sun, crying out once more.
Barty, far below, stares at the crow as it disappears into the mist, swallowed up by the clouds. Tightening his grip on Regulus’ hand, he stops all of a sudden, and turns to look back the way they came.
He can’t help but admire the way they’ve left a trail behind them. Deep, dark green patches splatter the lawn, footprints cataloguing the path they’d taken. His eyes trace it all the way back to the house, grim and grimy as it sits squat in the distance. They’ve gone a lot further than he’d realised; he’d underestimated how far away the edge of the trees was from the house.
“Why did you stop?” Regulus asks him, his voice sounding loud in the quiet, warm breath sliding over to Barty’s ear.
“I thought you said you didn’t want to go too far away,” Barty nudges him with a smug, cheeky grin. “Just obeying orders.”
“I said I didn’t want you to go too far away,” Regulus points out logically. “Not both of us. Both of us is fine.”
Barty sniggers in response, but bites back the ‘how sweet’ which is pushing at the backs of his lips. Bored by simply standing there and gazing around, he jumps back into one of his previous footsteps, then chooses one of Regulus’, a little further back. Glancing up, he spins around on the spot to turn to face Regulus, only to see the other moving, walking off to his right, not looking back.
Now that won’t do at all.
Licking his lips and humming a single bar of a lullaby to himself, Barty jumps from one footprint to another, hopping about after Regulus. He’s so engrossed in trying to land perfectly on top of the previous marks that he barely notices Regulus has stopped walking and is watching him with the air of one watching a child frolicking, delighted by the appearance of something new and interesting.
He takes one more jump, then a second and looks up just in time, mouth opening to speak, to crash straight into the youngest Black. They tumble onto the ground in a mess of limbs and scarves and cloaks, and Barty’s chin smacks into Regulus’ shoulder, beginning to throb immediately.
For a heartbeat, they lie there, dazed and perhaps a little confused, before Barty starts to laugh. He can’t help it: it bubbles up from inside his stomach, bright and happy, and he can feel Regulus’ chest move as he allows a quiet laugh to slip out. Rolling off Regulus, he just lays there, the frost melting and sinking into his hair, laughing and laughing.
Sitting up with and flashing Regulus an exhilarated grin, he props himself up on his arms.
“That was fun,” he remarks, eyes alight and a little bit breathless. “We should do it again.”
Regulus looks at him, his dark hair turning to oil on the ground. There’s a moment, just one, when Barty thinks he might have overstepped the line, that Regulus might get up and say they need to go back inside now, but then the blank façade crumbles, and he’s laughing again.
“Regulus!” they hear a voice bark – closer than either of them would have thought or expected – and it makes Regulus start and Barty swivel to see who’s speaking.
Bellatrix, hands covered by a fox-fur muffler, cloak swishing about her ankles, stalks up to them. From Barty’s position on the ground, she appears incredibly tall and incredibly irritated, expression pinched and angry as she takes them in, wet and happy on the grass.
The wind picks up again, stronger this time, and it whips at Bella’s curls, sending them flying into her face. Her hat, fox-fur to match her muffler, nearly flies off her head; she manages to grab it before it darts away and scowls at them as though it’s their fault the wind’s returned.
“Reggie, Auntie’s looking for you,” she tells her cousin, favouring him with a vaguely sympathetic look. “She was going spare – seemed to think you’d get lost out here and freeze to death or something equally ridiculous.”
Regulus mutters something almost certainly rude under his breath, pushing himself off the ground and up onto his feet. His hair is wet, sticking to the back of his neck, and he brushes a hand through it, brushing a hand down his clothes afterwards, trying to make himself presentable, as though he hasn’t just been rolling around on the ground outside.
“I should go in,” he says, despite it being unnecessary. His eyes flicker to Barty, who shifts in position, ready to get up and accompany him back in. “Are you going to –“
“No need,” Bellatrix interrupts forcefully, a hand clamping onto Barty’s shoulder and squeezing hard. “I’ll escort little Bartemius inside. You run along now, Reggie, Auntie’s waiting.”
Her voice is sweet and cajoling, but it’s all too clear it’s not a question, and a patronising strain rings discordant in the aftermath.
Glancing once at Barty, a little unsure, Regulus nods and begins to make his way back to the house, a hand darting up to try and pick the stray twigs and blades of grass out of his hair. He doubts he has enough time to get to his room before his mother catches him; it’s just a matter of damage control.
Barty, slipping on an innocent, child-like expression, looks up at Bellatrix.
“Shouldn’t we be following him?” he queries, making sure he sounds polite and not desperate to get away from her.
“We will,” Bellatrix assures him. “In a minute or so. I want to have a chat with you; it seemed like an ideal time to do it.”
“What did you want to talk about?” Barty crosses his legs and stares up at her attentively, like a student in class, and clasps his hands together in his lap.
Behind her, he thinks he can see Regulus, a small moving blob in front of the house, duck inside the back door, letting it swing shut.
Bellatrix regards him, her gaze strangely intense and calculating. It’s not a normal look for her, but Barty just sits there, still and silent, blinking every now and then. They remain like that for a minute, before Bella kneels down to his level, not once looking away from him.
“Tell me, Crouch,” she speaks softly, but her words are all the more malevolent for it. “Why did you immediately assume it was murder?”
“Assume?” Barty repeats blankly. “I didn’t assume anything. I just wondered, that’s all.”
“Answer the question!” Bellatrix snaps at him. “No one had said anything – no one had even supposed anything, but you ‘just wondered’,” the emphasis is exaggerated, deliberately provocative. “And somehow came to that conclusion. I want to know why, and I want to know now.”
“I was just thinking,” Barty explains, seemingly unaffected, giving a shrug. “That’s all. Why? Do you think I said it because I’m the killer?”
The question is sudden enough and unexpected enough that Bellatrix wavers, blinks and stares, before glaring at him. She doesn’t get her voice back quick enough, though, and Barty grins at her – a wild, delighted grin which says he knows he’s caught her out.
“It is, isn’t it?” he pauses and contemplates it for a second. “I could be, but I’m not.”
Bellatrix doesn’t believe him, though, and it’s pretty obvious from the way she glares at him. Inside her muffler, her fingers curl around the base of her wand, her grip tightening slowly but surely.
“I don’t care what you say or what Auntie says about your ‘fine lineage’,” she purrs at him, leaning forwards, almost as if she’s going to reach out and touch him – stroke his hair, maybe, or cup his face – and, for the first time, he draws into himself and away from her. She sees his eyes dart around her face, down to her muffler and back up and fixes him with a wicked, predatory smile. “If I catch you doing anything suspicious, let alone harm another member of my family, I will melt the flesh off your bones.”
It’s not so much a threat as a fervent, honest promise.
Barty only nods at that, giving a little, amused smile as though he’s understood a joke she’s missed completely.
“Okay,” he agrees blithely. “Shall we go in now? I’m getting cold and my socks are wet.”
There’s a fire crackling away in the grate, the occasional spark spitting onto the marble slab in front of it. Orion, in his shirt and jacket, is boiling, and he shifts uncomfortably in his seat, unwilling to let Pollux know that. It’s on the old man’s command that it’s there – it was already blazing when Orion had arrived, and hasn’t so much as dimmed slightly in the time he’s been there.
“So, do you suspect or do you know?” he asks curtly. “We can’t do anything until we are sure, and I would prefer to know now, rather than find out later.”
Pollux keeps his gaze on the spare piece of parchment which always sits on his desk, ready to be written on, his eyes tracing over the thin veins in it.
“Alphard is one of the signatories on the will,” he answers. “If the changes were made by Cygnus and he intended the changed copy to be the final one, then Alphard would almost certainly have seen it and signed it as a witness.”
“But we can’t know if the changed will was the final one, and if the changes were made by Cygnus,” Orion muses, watching the red tips of the flames in the fireplace stretching up towards the bottom of the chimney. “So, in actuality, we know very little. This is all merely guesswork.”
His tone is faintly disgusted at the thought of relying solely on guesses and suppositions, and Pollux can’t help his lip curling a little at the ridiculousness of it.
“In effect,” Pollux agrees. “It is unfortunate, but we can’t change it. We will simply have to proceed as it is, and hope that –”
“Hope?” Orion’s tone is contemptuous now, blatantly so, and his hard, flat gaze bores into his father-in-law. “You would risk everything on something as whimsical as hope?”
“I am not risking anything,” Pollux bites out his reply. “Now, the important thing is of course not to mention any of the –”
He cuts off and for a moment Orion is unsure as to why he’s stopped, but then the knock comes again, louder this time, and Pollux calls out,
Alphard, the silver thread in his waistcoat gleaming in the light of the room, saunters inside. He doesn’t bother to close the door behind himself, just lets it swing shut. Giving his son – his only son, now – a smile, Pollux gestures for him to take the only other seat in the room, opposite Orion. Pollux is well aware of the tight, forced smiles which pass between Orion and Alphard, but ignores them. After forty-odd years of knowing them both, he is quite used to it.
“I brought along the copy of the will,” Alphard announces without any introduction, speaking as though it was a considerable burden on him. “Of course, dealing with it is up to you – though should you need assistance for anything, then I would be of course happy to help.”
Pollux nods once, formulating a reply, but he doesn’t get to say anything as Orion beats him to it.
“I hardly think will be necessary,” he comments coldly. “Besides which, I was under the impression you’re not staying long. Something about a meeting, I believe? In which case, your help will not be much use being communicated by owl.”
“Sorry,” Alphard apologises in a slow drawl, though he doesn’t sound like he means it at all. “I simply thought to offer in case you were busy. After all, you have a family to look after, and I, thankfully, don’t.”
Orion gives a small, brittle smile, and Pollux takes advantage of the quick pause to clear his throat and interject.
“If I could just take the copy of the will, I will make the necessary arrangements,” he informs them both, though his gaze rests mostly on Alphard. “I won’t require any help from either of you, though if it should become necessary, I know who to ask.”
“Of course,” Alphard hurries to assure his father, dipping a hand inside his waistcoat pocket, arm vanishing down up to his mid-forearm. He rummages around, searching for it, while Orion and Pollux sit there watching and waiting, the former’s jaw locked in place. “Ah, here it is!”
Pulling it out, wincing visibly as the edge of his pocket cuts into the back of his hand and fingers, Alphard tosses it carelessly across the room to his father. The leather case smacks down onto the desk and Pollux can only give his son a stern look for throwing things inside his office.
“Thank you,” Pollux says nonetheless, picking the case up and keeping hold of it, almost as though he’s worried one of them might try to take it off him. “Now, don’t let me keep you – I’m sure you both have things to be getting on with, and I have arrangements to make.”
It’s as much of a dismissal as he can really give his son and son-in-law without being overtly rude, and the two men nod, nearly in sync, and then leave, one after the other. Alphard, last out, shuts the door loudly behind him, and Pollux is left alone in the room.
Carefully, he opens the leather casing of the will and slides the roll of parchment inside out of it. Turning it around in his hands, he sees the seal is unbroken; the round blob of wax still holds the two ends of parchment together, the family crest clearly visible on it. He places the case in the drawer, adding it to a pair of identical cases already there, but slips the will itself into his jacket pocket.
He will keep hold of it personally; that way, they will avoid any more pyrotechnical accidents.
Sirius shifts uncomfortably in the chair, yanking a tasselled cushion out from underneath himself with a curse and throwing it onto the floor. It barely makes a sound when it hits, only a sort of dull thump, sending a cloud of dust up into the air like a flock of doves.
He would never normally be caught dead in a library, let alone his family’s library where there are books which bite and scream and make you go blind, but there’s really nowhere else for him to go, other than his room. It’s only now that he regrets not bringing more stuff with him – more of his Muggle magazines and little model motorbikes – to make his room more like his. At least then he might be a little less bored.
Besides, this way he avoids having to see his family.
Browsing the shelves to either side of the chair, he leans in to have a look at some of the titles. At first, he thinks they’re books on the Dark Arts or some of the vast collection of historical texts his paternal grandfather used to collect, and can’t help a twinge of interest when he sees one with a crude drawing of a skull tattooed on the spine. When he plucks it off the shelf and flips it open, however, he finds it’s merely a book of children’s stories. Gruesome, twisted, violent children’s stories, handwriting lovingly on vellum and bound in leather; probably an heirloom passed down through the family from a long-dead ancestor who commissioned it for his children.
He closes the book, feeling a little cheated out of something interesting, and shoves it back into the space left on the shelf. As he does so, there’s the sound of something scraping along wood, and he stops. The sound doesn’t come again.
Grinning to himself, heartbeat picking up, he begins to pull the book out again. The book, he’s sure, has knocked something, something behind it. Maybe, he thinks, maybe he’s found the entrance to one of those secret passages his father had told him and Regulus about when they were young; the ones which were tucked behind busts of ancestors and idols, opened only by passing your hand over a particular stone on the night of a full moon. The ones which had seen duels to the death, murders, fights, innumerable pairs of lovers who should not or could not be together in the light. The ones which his mother had always snorted at and declared that they were poppycock, that they had never existed beyond his father’s imagination.
Once he’s opened it, once he’s worked out where he leads and how to open it again, he’ll run and find Regulus – because this is something he can’t keep to himself – but for now the glory of discovery is his and his alone.
Dropping the book on the chair without glancing at it, he slowly inserts an arm into the space left, his fingers reaching and grasping for something, anything.
There, right at the back, resting on layers upon layers of dust, he feels his fingers touch something cool and glass. He wraps his hand around it and carefully pulls it out, and looks down at it, solid and real in the middle of his palm, ignoring the gobs of dust clinging to his sleeve.
It’s not at all what he expected. Instead of a key or treasure of some kind, it’s a small, teardrop-shaped vial, and made of crystal, not glass as he first thought. Giving it a shake, he can see a clear liquid sloshing around, tinted ever-so-slightly pink. He turns it over in his hands, curious and confused as to why someone would put something like this, in an obviously expensive vial, behind a book in an unused part of the library.
Running his fingers over the top of it, he traces the thin band of white wax round and round it, absently noticing that it looks very much like the type of wax used to seal letters. Slipping the vial into his trouser pocket, he decides he’ll give it to his father or grandfather next time he sees them and explain where he found it.
Who knows, despite his disappointment, he may have found something interesting, after all.
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