Chapter 10 : Jack of Clubs
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Somehow, despite his promise to himself that he would give the vial straight to one of his parents when he saw them, it remained tucked away inside his pocket for most of the day. He felt strange about having it, as though it was something he shouldn’t have and couldn’t tell people he had, and kept slipping his hand into his pocket, closing his fingers around it, making sure it was still there. Even now, he can’t help but feel that someone is about to enter, find the vial and confiscate it from him.
He’s not quite sure why that would necessarily be a bad idea – he has no idea what’s inside the vial, after all – but it seems like it would be bad, regardless. Not for the first time, his family’s tendency to ignore him when they don’t have to be around him has played into his hands; he can’t help his heartbeat racing at the thought of getting caught with the vial and is sure guilt is written all over his face, like some kind of weird brand stretching over his forehead and across his cheeks, down to the tip of his chin.
The ridiculous thing is that he’s not even sure what he’s guilty of, just feels it. He supposes turning up to dinner with a vial of something important enough that someone hid it behind a book – or unimportant enough? How can he know which one it is? – in an old, unused part of the library wouldn’t necessarily look good.
Imagine, he thinks to himself, if it turned out to be poison or something, then what –
Freezing, he stares straight ahead. Perhaps, perhaps he’s just being overdramatic. It could be anything, after all; he had no idea what it could be. Then again, by the same logic, it could be poison, could be something important and dangerous.
He takes the vial out of his pocket, looking down at the little glass vial in his hand. Setting it down on his desk, he stares at it, the light from candle on his desk refracting off the smooth, curved side, winking up at him. It seems so innocent, pinkish and sweet, but he can’t shake the thought that it’s not. So he just sits there, watching it, with no idea how to find out what it is. Potions isn’t his best subject.
Startled, he jumps in his seat. His arm flails out wildly and knocks over a bottle of ink, sending a wave of deep orange liquid across the table. Muttering under his breath, he stands up so it doesn’t get on his clothes, moving away from his desk, in search of his wand to clean it up, and turns around.
“Ye – oh, mother,” he stops, surprised, and suddenly unsure of what to do. This is his opportunity to hand the vial over to an adult, to get rid of it and find out what it is in the same blow, but he can’t seem to be able to get the words out.
“Honestly,” Walburga sighs, though even her sigh has bite. “Must you always make a mess? Evanesco.”
A flick of her wand vanishes the ink on the desk, and a second rights the fallen bottle. She spares a moment to give him a disapproving look, before her eyes alight on the vial on his desk, an island in a sea of orange.
“What is that?” she demands, pointing towards it with her wand.
“I don’t know,” he replies truthfully, giving a half-hearted shrug. “I found it in the library.”
“You found it in the library?” Walburga repeats slowly, her tone clearly disbelieving. “Why were you in the library? Where exactly did you find it?”
“By the kids’ stories,” he tells her, picturing it in his mind, and gesturing to the vial. “By the big, velvet armchair. It was behind a book; I just pulled the book out to look at it and I found that.”
“Is it open?”
“No, it’s sealed,” he shakes his head, feeling a little like he’s on trial with the continual questioning. Had he been anywhere else, in any other situation, he might have added ‘your honour’ onto the end, but he leaves it off. It’s not really the best time, perhaps.
His mother nods, moving forwards and snatching the vial up in one hand, slipping it into a pocket.
“I’ll take this to your father,” she informs him. “You should smarten up for dinner, and then come down. Your father and uncle are in the drawing room, so the more people there, the better.”
“Me?” Sirius splutters, searching for words. “What do you think I can do to help?”
“Eyewitness,” Walburga snaps at him, the frown and ire mostly directed towards her husband and brother, despite neither of them being present. The rivalry between the two of them has always annoyed her, even more so than Sirius (which he personally thinks is something of an achievement), so much so that he has to fight for attention when the two of them are in the same room. “They won’t kill each other in front of you; neither of them are that stupid. You don’t even have to say anything.”
“Oh, I see,” Sirius nods, suppressing an amused smirk, still confused as to why she’s given him this order. Surely Regulus would be better – the apple of daddy’s eye, the fulfilment of Uncle Alphard’s Quidditch dreams. Nonetheless, he doesn’t ask ‘why me’, simply promising, “I’ll be down in a minute.”
“Good,” Walburga gives a quick sigh, smoothing the sides of her dress as she gives his room a quick once-over. “And if you see that wretched house-elf – Mipsy or whatever its name is – send it to me. I sent it to clean my robes three hours ago and it hasn’t even touched them.”
Inside the drawing room, the atmosphere is as tense as predicted. Orion and Alphard, sitting almost opposite each other, are refusing to talk to each other – barely even looking at each other or acknowledging the other’s presence – and Lucius Malfoy, caught in between them is being forced to make small talk with both alternately.
It’s almost worth it, he thinks, just to see Lucius looking like a cat in a bath: helpless and completely out of his depth.
His father’s eyes shoot over to him as soon as he enters.
“Ah, Sirius,” Orion greets him, watching him slip inside and claim a seat in the corner. “What have you been doing all day?”
“You know, Lucius,” Alphard drawls, lounging on the sofa. His head is turned towards Lucius, but his gaze and his words are really for Orion. “I’ve always felt being over-controlling of one’s children contributes so much towards the defection and disowning of children as blood traitors, don’t you agree?”
Sirius feels his face burn at the implication – there’s something humiliating and embarrassing about hearing his own uncle (and his favourite uncle, truthfully) label him a blood traitor and imply he’ll be disowned in the future. He can see his father’s jaw tighten and eyes sharpen into a glare, though he manages to restrain himself from replying.
“Now, Alphard,” Sirius hears his grandfather’s rasp coming from the doorway and can’t help but feel relieved to see him. Or hear him, rather. He imagines the feeling is similar to being a soldier and finding out you’ve been sent reinforcements. “It is inadvisable to comment on raising children when you have never done it yourself. In fact, it is inadvisable to comment on anything one does not know about.”
“Of course, father,” Alphard agrees readily, a cheerfully malicious purr in his voice as he shoots a deliberately false, apologetic smile over to Orion. “I meant no offence.”
Sirius notices that Uncle Alphard doesn’t even look at him after that, and a trickle of disappointment in his favourite uncle begins to stew in his stomach. He expected some sort of acknowledgment, some form of apology for making such an insinuation (because the fact that he’s thought about leaving late at night when he’s angry and can’t sleep, and the fact that it’s crossed his mind that he might end up getting disowned is really irrelevant in all this) and it’s a shock not to get anything.
It’s probably naïve of him – he always knew Uncle Alphard wasn’t really as nice as he pretended to be – but it hurts a little regardless.
“Would anyone else like an aperitif?” Lucius breaks the silence, his voice surprisingly steady for a man who five minutes ago had practically been screaming out an S.O.S. His hand hovers over the latch holding the cabinet’s glass-fronted door shut, and he adds hastily, “With your permission, of course.”
Pollux, to whom the question is addressed, nods his consent, taking a seat in the armchair in the corner, resting his cane to one side. In the soft light from the candles and the fireplace, Sirius can’t help but think that his grandfather looks ill: his face is drawn and tired and he seems paler than usual.
“Why don’t you open the vermouth you brought last time you were here,” Pollux requests. “Since our stocks of brandy are beginning to look a little low.”
No one in the room misses the sharp look Pollux directs at Alphard as he says this, though Alphard ignores it easily.
“Certainly,” Lucius murmurs, already pulling the bottle out of the cupboard, the top still sealed. His hand curls around the top of the bottle, fingers gripping, and then twists. The top gives way with a sharp crack and he unscrews it, placing it on the cabinet shelf. “How many should I pour?”
“A double for me, if you don’t mind,” Alphard requests lazily, though his grin fades quickly and his gaze is fixed on the bottle in Lucius’ hand.
“Just a normal, I think,” Pollux tells him, before raising an eyebrow at Orion. “Orion, can I tempt you?”
Sirius sees his father’s lip curl, eyes lingering a little longer on Alphard, who is already eagerly awaiting his glass, with obvious distaste.
“No, not tonight.”
“Sirius?” Pollux offers, and Sirius almost immediately glances up at his father. When the small nod comes, he gives a slight, proud smile and says ‘yes’. It isn’t the first time he’s had alcohol, but the first time he’s been allowed an aperitif with the rest of the family, and he feels a bit like he’s been granted some kind of award.
Sirius watches as Lucius carefully pours out the drinks, the red liquid bubbling and glugging its way out of the bottle, sloshing into the base of the glasses before falling smoothly and steadily. It doesn’t look very appetising, he has to admit, being a deep reddish-brown colour, but it’s too late to refuse and back out – besides which, he’s curious.
With a swish of his wand, Lucius directs the tray carrying the four glasses around the room, stopping by each man in turn, starting with Pollux and finishing with himself. Sirius plucks his glass off the tray, the crystal cold in his hand, and looks down at the liquid filling it half-full. It doesn’t look any more appetising up close, if he’s honest, but it smells interesting and that’s something, at least.
Lifting it up to his lips, he presses the glass to his mouth and takes a small, tentative sip. The taste, bitter and dry with a faint hint of cardamom or some other spice, he thinks, though he really has no idea. Still, it’s not bad and he thinks it’s a taste he could certainly get used to – perhaps after a few more sips.
A cough sounds across the room, and Sirius glances up to see his grandfather frowning, clutching his chest with a frown, his face contorted into a grimace.
“Father?” Alphard notices only a second later, putting his glass down on the table next to him with a clink. “Are you alright?”
“Fine, fine,” Pollux waves him away, though his hand doesn’t leave his chest and the grimace on his face only slips a little. “Just –”
The rest of the sentence never gets out, as he slumps forward in his seat, glass dropping to the floor and cracking, vermouth spilling onto the floor.
“Father?” Alphard repeats uncertainly, staring at his father’s form as though expecting him to sit up at any moment. “What’s going on?”
“Idiot,” Sirius hears his father hiss and the next moment, Orion is across the room and at Pollux’s side, heaving the old man up and back into his seat, head lolling onto his shoulder. Blank eyes bore a hole in the carpet, his jaw hangs slack and it only takes a heartbeat before reality settles on the room.
“Dear god,” Alphard whispers, as Lucius lets out a strangled sound which might have been an attempt at a word – though which one no one knows. “Father.”
Sirius, numb, can only watch as Orion presses two fingers to the side of his grandfather’s throat – an unnecessary move, really, but one he does anyway – and pronounces,
“But how?” Alphard gets out, looking around at the three of them left, seemingly more confused than shocked or upset.
Orion regards his father-in-law’s body once more, studying him for a moment, then looks down at the broken glass and patch of vermouth on the floor.
“Poison,” he states, his tone curt and crisp, his face betraying something of a worry. “In the vermouth. Did you drink it?”
Sirius jerks out of his trance to meet his father’s eyes and shakes his head twice; Orion’s face relaxes ever-so-slightly.
“No – well, not all of it. I only had a sip.”
“Dear god,” Alphard murmurs again, and when they all look at him he’s pale and trembling. “Dear god.” Without another word, he leaps up from the table and races out of the room, wrenching the door open on his way.
Alphard’s glass, Sirius sees, is less than half-full, having started a fingers-width below the brim.
Orion barely watches his brother-in-law leave, his attention now fixed on the last man in the room, his glass resting on the silver tray on the drinks cabinet. Under Orion’s scrutiny, Lucius is ashen from head to toe, wild-eyed and verging on desperate.
“It was a brand new bottle,” he pleads, eyes fixed on Orion as though he could persuade him merely by staring hard enough. “Unopened. I had no idea – how could I possibly -? This is… I don’t understand how this could possibly have happened. You must – I assure you, I –”
“Lucius,” Orion cuts him off, quick and sharp. “No one is accusing you of anything. As you say, the bottle was unopened.”
Lucius swallows once, nods and then retreats back into himself. Sirius doesn’t blame him – he definitely wishes he wasn’t here, that he hadn’t actually listened to his mother and come down when asked. Typical that the one time he did, something like this happened.
“Father?” Regulus’ voice comes from the door, and Sirius turns to see Regulus, smartly dressed in a purple shirt buttoned all the way up, step inside. “Mother sent me to ask you why Uncle Alphard is throwing up in the downstairs toilet.”
Sirius follows Regulus’ gaze as it roams from their father to their grandfather’s body in the armchair, to Lucius in the corner, to himself and then back to their father.
“Father, what’s happened? Is grandfather -”
“Regulus, go and tell your mother that I need her to meet me outside here immediately,” Orion orders, snapping Regulus’ attention away from Pollux’s corpse. “And find your cousins and that friend of yours. If you see the house-elf, send it here.”
Nodding before Orion has even finished speaking, Regulus vanishes out of the doorway; Sirius can hear his brother’s footsteps as he races off up the corridor, heading back into the body of the house.
“Sirius, you and Lucius go to the dining room and wait there. If you see your mother or uncle along the way, take them there with you,” Orion instructs him, and Sirius doesn’t look to see if Lucius is following before leaving the room.
It feels like déjà vu, the walk along to the dining room. Only last time this happened, he was going the other way and it had been Pollux who had been in command. It’s a solemn, heavy idea, but something to focus on other than the replays of his grandfather collapsing, dying in front of him which his mind seems intent on showing him.
Entering the dining room, he pulls out the nearest chair and sits down, resting his forearms on the table. The room is cold and dark, shadows clustering around the edges of the room, on the sides of the curtained windows, in the corners. In the silence, he can hear his own breathing: loud and quick, and holds his breath, counting to four in his head, to try and calm down.
He glances up when Lucius slips inside, and doesn’t say anything when the man takes the seat opposite him. Lucius seems even paler and slighter than he did in the drawing room, the lack of light making him wraith-like, with his wide, haunted eyes and long, silver hair.
“This is insane,” Sirius hears his cousin-in-law mutter, sounding both terrified and awed.
“Yeah,” he sighs in agreement, resting his head in the palm of his hand, waiting for the others to arrive.
It takes just under fifteen minutes for the others to arrive, all sitting down at the end of the table closest to the doors, all watching and waiting for Orion to arrive. Walburga, Sirius notices, is absent, but he suspects his father will allow her and her alone to retreat into their room, close the door and stay there. For the sake of propriety, he can hear his father saying, but he knows it’s mostly because his mother can’t abide crying in public – or anything she deems to be public – and she uses it as a convenient excuse.
“What happened?” Regulus whispers to him, frightened but curious, hungry for the information he’d been starved of in the drawing room. Over his shoulder, Sirius can see Barty, his eyes gleaming in the dim light, making him appear almost happy, and he just shakes his head.
“I’ll tell you later, if you want,” he murmurs back, making sure he talks only to his brother.
Eventually, Orion arrives, looking tall and grim. Glancing around them all, he says nothing about the fact that they’re sitting in the dark, but simply draws his wand from a pocket. A sharp jab and the torches along the walls flare into life with a series of crackling pops.
“Pollux is dead,” Orion begins bluntly – though is there really a softer way to say it? “He collapsed in the drawing room; I believe his heart may have given out. For those who wish to pay their last respects, his body has been moved to the cellar.”
Sirius isn’t surprised to hear no mention of the poison in the vermouth, the shock and the horror they’d all felt when realising it could so easily have been any of the rest of them; he can’t imagine what would happen if it got out. Across the table, he can see Alphard fixing Orion with a hard, narrow look; Lucius, on the other hand, merely looks faintly relieved.
A voice in the back of his head, sounding more like James’ thoughtful, considering tone this time, muses whether or not this could have happened last time, could have happened to Cygnus too, all along, and they all just never knew. It would be possible – easily possible.
“Uncle Orion,” Bellatrix breaks the swollen, grave silence, leaning across the table to talk to him, her dark eyes intense. “Reggie said you were looking for the house-elf.”
“Have you seen it?” Orion asks her. “I have tried calling it, but it didn’t appear.”
“Well, it wouldn’t,” Bella points out in a calm, rational tone. It doesn’t suit her and Sirius feels a little bit uneasy. “It’s dead.”
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