Chapter 12 : King of Hearts
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He isn’t sure how long he’s been outside, sitting by the bench with his knees hugged to his chest, fingers digging into his own legs. All he knows is that the cold is strangely comforting, strangely helpful in this situation. As it sinks into his bones, through his skin and flesh, the thought that he’s freezing, the wondering of what is he doing out here, really, spreads, growing larger and larger until it fills his whole mind, until it’s the only thing he can focus on. Gradually, as his shivers increase, and his teeth begin to scream rather than chatter, he feels himself calming down, his breath slowing and evening out, tears left to dry on his cheeks.
“Ah, Sirius,” he looks up, startled by the voice as he hadn't heard anyone approach. His father regards him for a moment, taking in his blue-tinted lips and the slight flakes of frost clinging to his eyelashes. “We’ve been looking for you. No one had any idea where you'd gone.”
“Sorry,” he mutters, though he doesn’t mean it – can’t mean it. Not now, not with everything that’s just happened. Really, in the grand scheme of things, running outside is the last thing anyone’s really going to be worried about.
The appearance of his father has jerked him out of his calm, cold-induced trance, and dumped him unceremoniously back in the real, physical world, where he can feel and think and panic, where people can cry and bleed and die. In his mind’s eye, he sees it again - sees the slow, steady drip onto the floor, hears his brother’s rattling, desperate breaths, as though the air is simply whistling through his ribs, lungs ripped to shreds. He wants to close his eyes, to run away again, but he’s too cold to move. Brought low by his own previous saving grace; how ironic.
He wants to ask, wants to know what’s going on inside the house, whether Reggie... whether his brother’s still alive or not, but the words seem to stick in his throat, bunching up as he tries to force them out. Instead, he just swallows and stays silent, staring fixedly at the ground.
“Regulus is not dead,” Orion tells him, and when Sirius looks up at him, there is nothing in his face other than careful, detached patience, and a sort of understanding Sirius has never seen before. Nonetheless, the force in his father’s voice makes him almost believe it’s true. “He will be fine. Your mother is with him now.”
“Really?” his voice croaks, spluttering on the word. He stares up at Orion, hopeful, relief seeping through him like hot wine through his veins. “He’s going to be fine? He’s alive?”
“Yes,” his father assures him, tossing a cloak – his own cloak, he notices after a moment – at him. “You should put that on and come back inside. Allowing you to freeze out here, whether by your own choice or not, is hardly acceptable; besides, I’m sure you would like to see your brother.”
Scrambling to his feet, Sirius tugs the cloak on, pulling the sides tight around himself. Lost of the adrenaline and fear which had driven him out here, he is so much more aware of the cold and the frost all around him; even with the cloak on, he still shivers, the chill on the air nipping through the velvet, under it and over his skin. Still, it’s a welcome relief from before, and he mutters ‘thank you’ under his breath, having no idea if his father heard it or not, but it seems the right thing to do.
“So,” he asks, his hands curled up into fists inside his pajama sleeves. “How did you know I was out here?”
It’s not anything important, but he finds that he needs to talk, wants to talk about something – anything other than Regulus. Silence has never been his forte, never been something he’s really all that comfortable with, and with his father... well, he has no idea what to say, so the safest option seems to be the best.
“I knew you had gone downstairs – Alphard could tell me that much,” Orion's lips thin as he mentions his brother-in-law, disappointed, irritated and wearily unsurprised. “Once I was downstairs, I tracked you with a charm; not to mention your footprints. It was hardly difficult.”
“Oh,” Sirius utters, looking down at the ground as they begin to walk back to the house. “Right.”
“You should be aware that your brother is very delicate at the moment,” Orion informs him, with a casual tone in his voice as though Regulus has simply had a nasty case of flu, rather than being attacked and nearly dying. “And he obviously needs as much rest as possible, so you mustn’t disturb him or excite him.”
“’Course not!” Sirius replies indignantly. What did his father expect him to do? Jump on Regulus the moment he saw him? Challenge him to a wrestling match? He’s not stupid, he knows Regulus isn’t exactly going to be playing Quidditch again anytime soon – he’s just nearly died, after all; he knows not to do anything which could make him worse.
After that point, the walk to the house seems to vanish in front of him, running by automatically as though he’s floating, until he’s inside. Warm and surrounded by the familiar dark, panelled wood, he feels his throat tighten and his heartbeat race as it seems to sink in that Regulus is alive, Regulus is going to be fine, that he’s waiting just upstairs. His footsteps quicken, his father following suit a moment later.
All too quickly, but far too slowly, he reaches his brother’s bedroom door. His hands are sweaty, constantly clenching and unclenching; he is nervous and anxious, restless, body humming with anticipation.
“Sirius,” Alphard smiles at him as he approaches him from down the corridor, a vial of red-tinted potion in one hand, but Sirius is too wound up to respond in kind. “You’re back. Go on in – he’s awake.”
“Alphard, I think you and I need to talk,” Orion cuts in across Alphard, hands folded behind his back and gaze sharp. Instantly, the breath is knocked out of the room, the air turning sticky and thick.
Alphard doesn’t seem to feel the tension thrumming around them – or if he does, then it doesn’t show – as he nods, the easy-going smile dropping, and shrugs once, gracelessly.
“Of course,” he agrees, slipping the vial of potion into a pocket and winking at Sirius once before moving off down the corridor, leaving Orion to trail behind. “We’ll be talking in father’s office, I assume?”
Sirius watches his father slink off down the hall, his form swallowing up Alphard, until they both disappear. Turning back to look at the door in front of him again, he can see, for a moment, Regulus, swathed in white, his life slowly dripping out of him in tiny, scarlet drops. The fear that his father has lied, that he’s been tricked somehow, is fleeting, but strong enough that there’s a strange, detached worry in the pit of his stomach as he observes his hand as it reaches for the handle.
It touches, curls around, grasps and twists downwards. The door opens.
He stands and stares. In the room beyond, Regulus pulls away from Barty, hand frozen in place on the other boy’s shoulder, resting at the back of his neck. His face, Sirius notes, is sheet white as the brothers stare at each other, shocked into silence.
In between them, Barty, looking over his shoulder, fidgets uncomfortably. The small, twitchy movements break Sirius out of his stupor. His mouth falls open, but he can’t think, can’t find anything to say, doesn’t know what to say. Glaring at Barty when the latter gives him a small, almost frightened smile, he feels his hands curl into fists again; the urge to go over and punch the younger boy is overwhelming.
Regulus is his little brother. Protecting him includes punching boys who want to do things with his little brother; it’s part of the job.
“It’s –” Regulus licks his lips, shooting a quick glance at Barty. “It’s nothing. It’s not what you think.”
A horrible, mocking want to laugh surges up inside him, because it’s so obviously something and the excuse only encourages the sense of it, and Sirius clamps his mouth shut. This isn’t something he should laugh about, because if it is something (which he’s certain it is), then it’s serious. Very serious.
Running a hand through his hair, Sirius opens his mouth, and then shuts it again, finding nothing to say. He knows he should say something – something like ‘it’s cool’, ‘oh, sorry’ or even ‘what’s going on?’ – but nothing quite seems to fit the bill.
“I, er,” he stutters eventually, feeling his face start to burn and getting more and more uncomfortable as Regulus’ face falls. “I’ve got to go.”
Turning on his heel, he darts out of the room abruptly, only to run straight into Alphard. Sirius takes a quick step backwards, his hand fumbling for the door handle behind him to close it before Alphard spots the scene beyond him. As his uncle frowns at him, Sirius jumps in and blurts out,
“I thought you were talking to father?”
“It wasn’t anything important,” Alphard dismisses it casually, waving a hand to gesture Sirius to move out of the doorway. “I need to give Regulus his medicine.”
Sirius doesn’t move, though, racking his brain for an excuse to give his uncle to stop him from finding out about, well, what’s going on with Regulus. However shocked or annoyed at not having been told or angry at Barty for doing inappropriate things with his baby brother he is, letting Alphard find out about Regulus crosses a line in his mind, without him needing to think about it. Nothing springs to mind, though, and he slams the door shut behind his back, wincing at the bang it produces, to buy himself some time.
In the silence, he sees Alphard giving him a strange look. It’s calculating and studying and Sirius can’t read the emotion on his uncle’s face – he hasn’t ever seen it before. The oddity of it makes him curious and nervous in equal measure.
“Sirius, come with me,” Alphard tells him, less of a question than a demand, although it’s delivered in a quiet, secretive tone.
Following his uncle along the corridor and into a disused bedroom a little further down, the nerves double when Alphard closes the door behind them with a soft click, and turns to face him. Something in the way they’re standing ten feet apart and facing each other in a dusty, sheet-covered room sends his senses into overdrive and his heart to race.
He feels like a spy; cunning and creeping and hiding.
Opposite him, Alphard regards him closely, sighs and steps forwards.
“Sirius,” he begins, speaking slowly and firmly, as though to a child. “About what you saw – you must not tell anyone. Your family will not approve of it, as I’m sure you know, and –”
“You knew?” Sirius interrupts him, a hot, jealous anger stirring in his stomach. How could Regulus tell Alphard and not him? He was his brother! That’s supposed to mean something! Brothers should talk about things like that, should talk to each other rather than uncles, however nice and approachable they seem.
“I knew,” Alphard nods once, a tinge of exasperation flitting over his face. “But that’s hardly the –”
“He told you?” he demands, starting to pace a little back and forwards, restless. “Why didn’t he tell me?”
“Regulus didn’t tell me anything,” Alphard tells him, his tone attempting to be soothing, though it sounds patronising to Sirius’ ears. “And I didn’t ask him, I promise you. I simply worked it out – the signs weren’t difficult to see if you know them. I had always wondered about Regulus, far more than you, and when I came here, it was obvious what was going on as soon as I saw them together.”
“What signs? How did you know? Why didn’t I see?” Sirius bursts out, trying to think of something, anything, which could have hinted at Regulus and Barty being, well, boyfriends, he guesses.
“Oh, just little things,” Alphard dismisses it with a wave of his hand. “As for you, I suppose these things are easier to spot when one knows how to spot them – what they look like and so on. I have… experience with this sort of thing, so I could see it more clearly than you could.”
“Experience?” Sirius repeats, aware that he sounds a little stupid, but completely at a loss as to what that means.
“How I know is hardly the point here,” Alphard rolls his eyes, snapping and glaring. “Your parents can’t find out about this – unless they see something, your mother will never suspect anything about Regulus and will refuse to believe anything anyone tells her to the contrary, and your father simply will never consider it. If they find out, he will be in trouble. A lot of trouble.”
“So what do we do?” he asks, swallowing the jealousy that his uncle had known before he had, and trying to look at the situation with a cool, logical mind. He’s never been good at that, though, and the emotions, pushed down, swirl around his stomach, probing and poking, desperate to rise again.
“We make sure your parents don’t find out,” Alphard replies, and his tone is cold and hard.
The door to the drawing room opens with a creak and he winces. It’s unpleasant, sticky and gripping, and he nearly calls for the house-elf to come and oil the hinges before he remembers that there’s no point: it won’t come.
“Finally,” his mother sniffs as he enters the room, looking up from the latest copy of the Daily Prophet to give him a disapproving once-over. “You have been an awful long time, young man. Where were you?”
Opposite his mother, Bellatrix rolls her eyes, laying across a sofa, her feet propped up at one end by a pillow, her head resting on the arm. She would look utterly bored, he thinks, if it weren’t for the tiredness lining her face: he wonders if she helped his mother with Regulus, or what she’s been doing to make herself so tired.
Probably staying up late shooting spells at passing birds.
“I went to check on Regulus,” he says – and though it’s not entirely truthful, it’s not much of a lie either, so he figures he’s pretty safe with that one.
“Yes, poor boy,” Walburga’s face falls into a worried frown, and she refocuses her attention on Sirius, intent. “How was he?”
“He seems fine,” Sirius struggles to find words vague enough to give a satisfying answer without making him sound like he’s lying. It’s a hard balance to find at the best of times, but thinking of Regulus just reminds him of how Barty’s hand had gripped his brother’s waist, how Regulus’ fingers had threaded through the short strands at the back of Barty’s neck and… he tries not to think about it. He doesn’t much want to remember it in detail. It’s his brother. “He was sitting up, and talking – Crouch was with him.”
“Crouch?” that catches Bellatrix’s attention, as she snaps up from the sofa, swinging to face Sirius, her eyes blazing. “Crouch is with Regulus? Alone?”
“Well,” he stutters, almost taking a step back. How did she know? Did she know? How could she possibly know? She must be talking about something else – but he can’t think for the life of him what that ‘something’ would be. “Yeah, why?”
“Idiot,” Bella hisses at him, vaulting up off the sofa, her wand springing into her hand like a dog jumping at its master’s command. “Crouch is the one who attacked him.”
He smiles tiredly up at his father as Orion instructs him to lie down, a flick of his wand spreading the blanket over him again. A pile of bandages lie on the bedside table, spotted with blood and sweat, and is promptly vanished with a second flick, though a faint imprint where they had rested remains behind. The one good thing about his injury, he supposes, is that his father has barely left his side through the whole thing – only vanishing once earlier, a little while before Sirius arrived – hovering and fussing like a stern mother hen.
“Try to get some rest,” Orion admonishes him. “Sleep will help you get better.”
“Father,” Regulus says, his voice coming out thin and weak. “Father, there’s something I have to –”
“Whatever it is you have to do, it can wait,” Orion tells him firmly, giving him a look which normally would quell any kind of disagreement Regulus has, forcing him to bite down on his tongue, but it doesn’t work this time. This is simply too important, too necessary for him to know.
“No, father, you have to… it’s important!” Regulus tries, trying to find the words to convey what he needs to say.
Glancing at the door once, he swallows, one hand reaching up to adjust the new bandages against his skin, and goes again, hypersensitive of the fact that this father is ignoring him, making his way towards the door and that soon he’ll be gone, taking Regulus’ best hope with him.
“Father, I – I’m in trouble,” he begins softly, and, out of the corner of his eye, sees his father stop, listening. “I think… I know I was attacked, and I think that, well, whoever did it, meant to do it. They didn’t mean for me to survive, obviously, but, you know, they meant for me to die. They meant to come after you.”
There’s silence in the room as Orion turns around on his heel, face frozen as he considers that.
“You think you were targeted?” he asks, accepting the quick nod he gets in return, and continuing, “Why would someone target you?”
“Because I know what’s been going on,” Regulus admits, voice even smaller than before, twisting the blanket in between his hands, gaze darting between his father and the door, anxious. To Orion, his son seems doe-like and feverish – wide-eyed and pale, with a growing sense of paranoia twirling around him. “I know things that whoever it is doesn’t want me to tell anyone. That’s why they want me dead.”
Orion stares at him, his expression carefully blank.
Outside in the hallway, there’s a series of shouts, a thud, and then the long, slow shatter of the chandelier falling, crashing and splitting into a thousand and one diamond shards. The noise is loud and hard, making both of them flinch, though Orion seems more annoying by the interruption than anything else.
“I must go and deal with this,” he tells Regulus calmly. “And when I come back, you will tell me everything.”
Cowering underneath his blanket, Regulus can only nod, staring at the door as though expecting someone to burst through it at any moment.
Less than second later, Orion slips out of the room, leaving Regulus alone.
With the curtains closed, his room is dark and it is all too easy to half-close his eyes and imagine it to be as it is in the dead of night: pitch-black, save for the few slivers of moonlight which slide in around the thick, velvet drapes and over towards his bed. A thin line of light from under his door, and then, waiting for a visitor, heart racing in anticipation. The door opens and shuts in a second, admitting only a single, slim figure, dark cloak over bedclothes.
In the memory, he smiles (though in the here and now, he closes his eyes and tries to think of something else, but finds it keeps going, with or without his consent, unstoppable) and reaches out. The first spell pins him to the bed; the second freezes him, trapping the scream in his throat. He can’t move, can’t speak, can’t do anything other than lie there helplessly as the figure pulls a knife, pointed and glittering, out of a sleeve. Fear pounds through his veins, adrenaline surging through him, and he closes his eyes, wishing he could cry.
The figure stops. The knife is raised. The pain comes: sharp and cold, and he knows he is going to die.
“Regulus?” a concerned voice calls to him, and he opens his eyes to find that he’s shivering, his uncle in the doorway staring at him. Tucking a hand under his shirt, he finds that his back is covered in sweat, his bandages damp.
Alphard, the frown not leaving his face, steps further into the room, a hand vanishing inside his jacket pocket to pull out a handkerchief.
“You shouldn’t stress yourself so much,” he chides Regulus, unfolding the handkerchief with a shake. “You’ll rip the wound open again.” Walking forwards, the handkerchief ready to mop the sweat from his nephew’s brow, he pulls a vial of pink-tinted potion out of his pocket, sealed with a thin ring of white wax.
For a moment, there’s no sound save for the shifting of cloth as Alphard walks. Then, Regulus screams.
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