Chapter 11 : Queen of Diamonds
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A knock sounds at the door, harsh in the quiet. As a second knock comes, a couple of the portraits on the walls fidget in their frames, though nothing else moves. No one is around to hear the door, and a young woman in a satin dress and tall wig sniffs, muttering something about it being terribly rude to interrupt people at such a time. The boy two frames along nods in agreement, and the man above her roars ‘hear, hear!’, as though hoping the intruders outside would hear him and leave.
The hall is still empty, though, and the intruders keep on knocking.
Eventually, a house-elf shuffles along the corridor into the entrance hall, his pillowcase hanging off his thin frame, and opens the door with a click of his fingers.
“How may Kreacher help?” he croaks, looking up at the visitors with an ugly expression as he takes in their cheap, Ministry-stamped robes and sodden, squelching shoes. Riff-raff – not fit to wipe his master’s boots, let alone enter the house.
“Fetch your master,” Alastor Moody growls, stomping inside the house without waiting for an invitation, water cascading onto the floor off his cloak. “Best get this over with. Get inside, Shacklebolt, or you’ll drown.”
Kreacher eyes the pair of Aurors once more, lips moving as he mutters to himself under his breath, bows and announces,
“Kreacher will fetch master.”
The paintings along the wall are all watching the two in the centre of the room, row after row of curled, haughty expressions fixed on them. Moody merely fumbles with the clasp of his cloak, giving it a shake and sending a few splatters of rain onto the floor; Shacklebolt stares back at the paintings, tall and tense.
They are only waiting a moment or two before Orion sweeps into the hall from the corridor, charcoal robes dragging on the floor behind him. He is careful not to let the expression on his face change as he approaches them, gaze running over them disinterestedly before landing on Moody.
“I hope there is a good reason for disturbing my family at such an hour,” he drawls, coming to a halt a couple of metres away from them, Kreacher hovering behind him.
“We were informed of a death here,” Moody replies shortly. “Autopsy report seemed a bit suspicious, so the Ministry sent us to make sure nothing’s out of the ordinary. Standard procedure.”
Orion simply raises an eyebrow, a frown gracing his face as he considers it.
“I was unaware that was anything amiss in the autopsy report,” he says smoothly. “As far as I had heard, the verdict had been reached and there was no need to, ah, send in the troops, as it were. So unless there has been some sort of change in situation, my house-elf will show you out.”
Giving both men a frosty smile, he turns to leave, grey swirling around his feet. Moody, grim and distinctly unmoved by the cold reception or the dismissal, doesn’t move an inch even as Kreacher patters towards the two Aurors, hand already outstretched to open the doors.
“There was some mention of murder,” Moody informs Orion, pleased when the other man spins around, face blank. “Someone owled the Ministry – saying someone had died, they were scared, something was going on, they didn’t know what to do. Hysterical, most likely, but the Ministry’s insisting on taking it seriously. That enough of a change in the game for you?”
“I see,” Orion pauses. “I assure you I have no idea why anyone would do such a thing, but if this is, as you say, being treated seriously, then perhaps you should come in. If you would follow me, we can talk about this more privately elsewhere.”
As he gestures for the two Aurors to follow him, he murmurs a quick order to Kreacher, who flattens himself on the ground, shoots Moody one last look of disdain and then vanishes. Along the wall, there is a flurry of movement as portraits settle down in their paintings, satisfied that the show is over; an enterprising few slip out of the sides of their frames, following the party down the corridor like a strange honour guard.
After all, gossip is currency.
Nudging Bella with his elbow and ignoring the glare she shoots at him in return, he asks,
“What’s going on?”
When his father had sent Kreacher to tell him to come to the drawing room, he’d expected to be in trouble or at least to be the only one being called. He definitely hadn’t expected that the whole family would be making their way down the corridor, almost forming a procession to the door.
“Why do you think I know?” Bellatrix bites back, one hand slipped inside a pocket and curled, he suspects, around her wand.
“What’s happening?” he hears Barty’s voice from behind him and just rolls his eyes. No one answers; instead, they all file into the room in silence, eyes sweeping over each other as though counting people, seeing who’s there and who isn’t.
His father is there, with Uncle Alphard and his mother ensconced on the sofa, the latter looking haughty, too small red spots appearing in her cheeks. Narcissa and Lucius are in the corner, and all eyes – furious, nervous, wary eyes – are fixed on the two intruders standing in the centre of the room.
Moody he has heard of by reputation, by word-of-mouth from James who considers him something of an idol, and seen in the newspapers, the tagline underneath always something to do with capturing Death Eaters and saving innocent lives. In person, he is even more impressive: tall and broad-shouldered, scars running down his cheek to his neck and disappearing under the collar of his Ministry robes. He desperately wants to ask how he got them, but bites down on his tongue as he follows Bella in and slips onto the sofa.
There’s a tension in the air as the Orion closes the door with a soft click; thick and heavy, it presses down on Sirius’ shoulders, making his tongue feel like lead in his mouth and his heart beat loudly in his chest. Strangely enough, as he looks around he notices that the only two people who don’t look bothered by it are the young Auror – the one Sirius doesn’t know, but remembers seeing around Hogwarts a couple of years back – and Barty, busy picking at a loose thread in the arm of the sofa.
“Well, Auror,” Orion pronounces the title as though it’s a swearword. “We are all here. If you could please not keep us waiting any longer, we would be most grateful.”
A lesser man might have flinched and hurried to start, stumbling over his words, but Moody simply nods and scratches at his chin.
“Alright,” he agrees. “One of you sent out a message to the Ministry saying something about there having been a murder, or a murder going to happen in the future. The Ministry have taken it seriously, and sent us to make sure nothing funny is going on.”
Bella snorts, not bothering to cover it up, and settles back in the sofa, toying with a curl over her shoulder.
“You really expect us to believe that? That one of us here sent a message to you suggesting someone had been murdered? Do you think we’re stupid?” the disbelief in her voice is only matched by the scorn.
She has a point, Sirius thinks to himself. No member of their family in his right mind was going to contact the Aurors over Uncle Cygnus collapsing at dinner, no matter what else happened afterwards, no matter how scared they might feel. It just isn’t what they do, isn’t what they’ve ever done – not to mention downright dangerous to boot, since bringing in Aurors raises the stakes dramatically.
“Well, it wasn’t you, then,” Moody gives a flash of a lopsided, twisted grin, and glances around the room. “But the more important question is why would anyone have cause to say something like that; it’s not something you hear every day, the suggestion from inside that a pureblood family is taking out their own. Not unusual either, but not like this.”
Everyone glances around the room, looking from person to person, from face to face. Sirius notices how his uncle straightens in his seat, Narcissa tilts her chin a little higher, and Regulus’ face adopts a cold, haughty look copied straight off their father, though on Regulus it is less intimidating and more rude. There is a feel in the room, though, of steel shutters descending, of barriers slotting into place. Us and them, it says; they want to divide the house and it’s no longer a conversation to placate the Ministry, now it’s a confrontation. A battle.
Us and them, it says. You’re not welcome.
“Jealousy,” Walburga sniffs in the silence, fixing Moody with a stare. “Many other families are jealous of our reputation, of our place in society. Most likely it was a ruse by one of them to try and bring us down. Such tricks and ploys are not uncommon.”
“Avery,” Bella mutters viciously, though it carries through the room easily. “Or Wilkes. Little climbers. No sense of place…”
“The note came from inside the house itself,” Moody counters. “According to our sources.”
“The day your sources are accurate, Auror, is the day the Founders return,” Alphard drawls from the corner, giving an exaggerated roll of his eyes. “So I think we can skip that part, don’t you?”
“Are you suggesting that someone here is betraying the rest of us?” Regulus pipes us, his best I’m-young-and-innocent-and-inquisitive look fixed on his face: wide-eyed and flicked up from under his eyelashes, bottom lip pressed between rows of teeth. “Because if someone here is saying that someone’s been murdered, then they’re lying to get the rest of us in trouble, and that’s betrayal, right?”
Moody nods, focusing on Regulus for the moment.
“Could be, boy, could be,” he says gravely. “That’s what I’m here to find out.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Regulus informs him, dropping the act and instead returning the Auror’s fixed stare with a calm, steely gaze. “We’re a family. No one here would betray anyone else here. Your sources must be wrong.”
“Very touching but –”
“In omnibus unus, Auror,” Bella purrs, and when Sirius looks at her he’s surprised to see she’s smiling. Not really the reaction you expect from a Death Eater when talking to an Auror. “One for all. Did you think it was just a phrase? It’s a way of life; family sticks together, no matter what. I wouldn’t expect your kind to understand that, but perhaps you can try.”
Moody and Bella stare at each other, both balancing hands on hips and for a moment Sirius thinks there’s going to be a duel – they’re actually going to fight – but then Moody drops his hand and the mood relaxes ever so slightly.
“Well, unless you have any more questions,” Orion cuts in, the faint outline of a triumphant smirk laid over his face. “Then I think your welcome has reached its end. Kreacher will show you out.”
Moody studies him for a moment – they eye each other up in the manner of two male lions looking to sniff out a weakness in the other – and then nods once, slowly. Even he, it seems, can sense that it’s time to leave before things turn ugly, that there’s nothing to be got here other than a whole new raft of enemies. Refusing to leave would be a bad move, particularly when the order has been so thinly veiled with courtesy.
He is outnumbered and out-gunned, as they say in the books Sirius has seen Evans reading in the common room.
Giving a gesture to his junior partner (whose name Sirius still can’t remember, though he thinks it begins with ‘S’ or something like that), Moody doesn’t bother saying the usual pleasantries at the end of it – there’s no mention of ‘thank you for your co-operation’ or ‘thank you for your time’ – and stomps out the room. The younger man follows him, closing the door behind them both just as Kreacher, in a positively gleeful tone, says,
“Kreacher will show Misters Auror out, as master commands.”
Inside the room, however, the tension from before lingers for a moment or two before it lifts, vanishing into thin air. Sirius exchanges a smirk with Regulus; Barty grins, nudging the latter playfully. Bella looks incredibly pleased with herself and the triumphant smirk on Orion’s face is now fully formed as Alphard gives a low laugh.
“Well done, family. That was fun,” he congratulates them.
The house is no less creepy with all the poisonous candles and vials of unicorn’s blood removed, taken out of the house and stored safely in Grimmauld Place, alongside enchanted pendants and whole stacks of ancient, goblin-made weapons which had been wheedled off the creatures in centuries past, cursed and poisoned and ensorcelled so that their edges gleamed red and black in any light.
In fact, Sirius muses as he stops on the landing, glancing at the tall, polished metal candlesticks on the table opposite him, it’s almost worse. There’s something innately weird about empty candlesticks, and spaces where swords should be hung, and gaps in cabinets where bottles have been removed. He couldn’t explain why if anyone asked – not that he thinks anyone will – but it makes him uneasy; makes him so very aware that there are things missing.
Not just things, either – people.
Pushing that thought aside quickly, Sirius continues down the corridor, making as little noise as possible in socks and no shoes. His mother would have a fit if she saw him, but he doesn’t intend to be seen.
Besides, who puts shoes on to go and grab a bunch of warm, soft cookies as they lie cooling from the kitchen at half-past midnight?
There’s a light on up ahead. The flicker of lamplight slips out from underneath a door, throwing shadows across the hall. Someone is still awake; Sirius freezes for a moment, and hopes, desperately hopes, that it isn’t either of his parents. Anyone else, he could just about handle – but his parents were a different league to the rest.
He has to go past the light to get to his room, though, and pads forward slowly (Padfoot on the prowl, he thinks to himself, feeling a slight, excited grin form on his face), hands clutching his prize safe. Here and there he treads on a loose floorboard, the creaks produced muffled by the thick carpet. As he nears the door, he has the wild notion that whoever is inside might hear him breathing – to his own ears, he sounds like he’s panting – and holds his breath as he creeps closer, his heart pounding in his chest.
“- is absurd,” his mother’s voice, in something of an indignant screech, hits his ears and he freezes. In his chest, his heart thuds once and then stops. One false move, and he’s locked in his room without the cookies until tomorrow evening.
“Is it?” Alphard is sceptical, angry, but quieter and Sirius finds himself moving closer to the door to hear better, his curiosity piqued. “Is it absurd because you know differently, or because he’s your sweet, precious child?”
Sirius can feel the cookies cooling in his hands as he stays there, but he lingers nonetheless. This is far more important than cookies. He has never heard his uncle speak to his mother in that tone – sarcastic and caustic, coated with lashings of condescension – and he can’t imagine what would make him start now.
“Whatever he may have become, he is still my child,” Walburga snaps back. “And that is why it is absurd.”
There’s a quiet, humourless chuckle, the clink of a glass on wood, and Sirius wonders, disappointed if it’s all over, if that’s all they’re going to say about it. If it is, he needs to get moving.
He’s only just taken a step when Alphard speak again,
“Admit it, Wallie, it’s nothing to do with him being your child, or whatever other ridiculous attempt at sentiment you’re trying this time. It’s simply because he’s the Black heir – the little chosen one to lead us into the new era,” a pause, and a harsh intake of breath, and then Alphard’s voice is dripping with sugar. “Oh, my apologies – he isn’t. Or won’t be. Perhaps his brother will do better, in the end. He seems more suited to it, after all…”
He trails off, and Sirius can see his mother, stony-faced and furious, fixing his uncle with a glare. Then again, maybe not – he can just as well imagine her wilting, backing down because, really, Regulus is better suited to it, and would do much better at it than he ever could.
Deciding he’s heard enough, Sirius moves away, continuing on down the corridor, concentrating hard on staying silent and opening his door with his elbow. It’s only once he’s inside, cookies dumped unceremoniously onto his bed (he thinks with a smirk of Kreacher’s face when he sees the chocolate stains and crumbs scattered everywhere), that he allows himself to replay the conversation in his head.
They were talking about him. It’s not difficult to guess – not even difficult to know, really. His eyes sting, and he wipes them with the back of his hand, rubbing them with his fingertips, blinking rapidly. It isn’t surprising, isn’t fair and isn’t, really isn’t, making him upset. To be upset at something like that would be stupid. Completely stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Throwing his head back, he gasps, breathing slowly and deeply, and wipes his eyes again. With a sniff, he turns his attention back to the cookies on his bed and grabs one, biting into it. It’s still just about warm, the chocolate gooey, turning to liquid in his mouth, and the flour they’d been sprinkled with sticks to his tongue.
He has to admit, Kreacher may be an annoying little scab, but he does make good cookies.
The single lamp on his bedside table keeps flickering, knocking his concentration as he adjusts the remaining two cards in his hands, fingers sticky from the cookies. If he does this just right… carefully, very carefully, he places one down, then the other. He pauses, checking over it to make sure it seems right, and then lets go. When the inevitable collapse doesn’t happen immediately, he grins, pleased with himself.
It’s taken him over thirty minutes, but he’s finally finished a perfectly balanced house of cards, using the whole deck. In his eyes, that’s an achievement.
If only he had a camera – then he could immortalise it forever.
He hears feet pounding down the corridor, skidding to a halt outside his door, and there’s no knock before the door is flung open.
“Sirius, you’ve got to come,” Narcissa breathes, cheeks pink from running. Her eyes are wide and terrified. “It’s Regulus.”
She doesn’t say any more, but it’s enough. Sirius jumps to his feet, sending the house of cards tumbling down, and runs for the door. Shoving his cousin out of the way, he takes off down the corridor.
He can feel his heartbeat accelerating, can feel a ball of worry, fear, panic beginning to stew in his stomach, and all he can think is not Regulus, not Regulus, no, it shouldn’t be Regulus. Cissy must be lying, has to be lying – but a part of him knows she’s not and that only makes it all the worse. Of all people, all of everybody in the stupid, horrible house, Regulus does not deserve this. Doesn’t deserve anything to do with this.
Not Regulus. Anything, anyone but Regulus.
He reaches Regulus’ door in what feels like minutes. Brushing past Alphard and Lucius, barely registering their pale and wan faces, he flings open the door and rushes inside.
“Regulus?” he hears himself call, but it dies in his throat as he stares, frozen, at the scene in front of him.
Regulus is still, pale and waxy. His breath comes in short, rattling gasps, and his eyes are shut. He looks almost as though he’s sleeping – tucked up in his sheets – but for the pool of red spreading out from his side, soaking into the sheets and mattress, dripping steadily onto the floor.
“No,” Sirius whispers, beginning to back away, a lump settling in his throat. “No, oh god, no.”
“Sirius,” Uncle Alphard’s voice sounds distant, like an echo, and he can’t focus on it, can’t focus on anything other than his brother, oh god, his brother lying there with blood dripping… just dripping, one and then another, slowly and steadily, like a clock ticking down his last few minutes… “I think you should wait outside. Sirius?”
There’s a hand on his arm, attempting to pull him away. He hits it hard, and the brief moment of contact, the flat sound of the slap, is all it takes for something inside him to snap.
“Regulus!” he screams, starting towards the bed, tears welling up in his eyes. “Regulus, please! Regulus!”
He sounds hoarse, deranged; there’s a note of terror in his voice. He feels hands grabbing his upper arms, tugging him backwards, and struggles. He screams again.
“You need to get outside,” Alphard tells him firmly, manhandling him towards the door.
He screams wordlessly, reaching towards the still figure in the bed. In his uncle’s grip, he wriggles, tries to kick and punch and elbow. He doesn’t want to wait outside, he wants to see Regulus. There is nothing in his mind but his brother and the blood and the desperate need to stay with him.
Then, he’s outside and the door is shut in his face. He shouts something at Lucius, who steps away. Alphard finally releases him, and he’s savagely pleased to see his uncle’s cheek is bruised, blooming blue and purple already.
“Let me back in,” he says, almost choking on the words. “Let me in. Please. I won’t… I won’t… just let me in.”
“No, Sirius,” Narcissa tells him gently, and he can see tears glimmering in her eyes. A couple fall as she shakes her head; she wipes them away. “We have to wait outside. They’ll let us know if – if anything happens.”
He has to wait? Outside? He can’t wait. He can’t wait for someone to tell him what’s happened, if his brother’s dead or alive, can’t sit out here doing nothing, saying nothing. The pressure is unbearable. Every second is a weight, stretching out time, tauntingly. Every second, his brother is dying, and they’re not letting him in.
He can’t cope with this.
Without a thought, he turns and runs. He doesn’t think about where – doesn’t want to think about anything. He just knows that he has to get out of here. Somewhere, anywhere is better than waiting around. Dimly, behind him he can hear Narcissa, Alphard shouting for him, calling for him to come back. He ignores them and keeps going, keeps running.
Along the corridor, down the stairs and round the corner; he keeps running until all he can hear is the thud of his feet and the drumbeat of his heart, until all he can feel is the blood running through his veins, the adrenalin surging through his system, until everything around him becomes a blur of familiar walls.
He flings open doors in front of him, one after another, without caring where he’s going, what he’s doing. Somewhere; just away. Just away. He needs to get away.
Then he’s outside, truly outside, and he keeps running. The beat is almost therapeutic now; footsteps in time with his heart. The night air is cold, the wind biting at his skin, whipping away his tears, but he keeps going.
He runs and runs and runs, until his throat is wracked with sobs and his chest aches and he can barely breathe, and then he collapses onto the ground and cries and cries and cries.
A/N: in omnibus unum is Latin for 'one for all'.
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