Title: Russian Roulette Chapter 4—Three of a Kind

Author Name: Soz

Author Email:

Category: Romance/Angst

Keywords: Lucius, Sirius, Narcissa, James, MWPP

Spoilers: all the books

Rating: R

Summary: Sirius/Narcissa/Lucius triangle stretching from the illegal disco dance clubs of Communist-controlled Moscow to the bullrings of Southern Spain. Find what made and broke Sirius Black before he set foot in Azkaban.

Disclaimer: This story is based on characters and situations created and owned by JK Rowling, various publishers including but not limited to Bloomsbury Books, Scholastic Books and Raincoast Books, and Warner Bros., Inc. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.  More disclaiming appears at the end of this chapter as not to spoil the story itself. 

Author's Note: Dedicated to CLS (without you, this would be a veritable bog of SPAG errors :) ) and Katja (who single-handedly saved Lucius's past from being a bad Lord of the Flies rip off)—my two splendiferous betas.  There is no way under the sun I could have gotten this out without the both of you—not only for your insightful comments on the story, but on the encouragement you both give in general.  I can't thank you enough.  Also, the poker scene within is not the cut and dry rules—in fact, it's a rather convoluted version of the five-card draw, doctored to suit the flow of the story.  I apologize to all you card sharks out there.

Previously on Russian Roulette (just because it has been six months): James and Sirius, low-ranking Aurors, travel to Russia under the order of James's father, the Minister of Magic, who has ordered them to uncover a worldwide-Communist-Death-Eater conspiracy.  Unbeknownst to our heroes, James's father has sent them without informing Alastor Moody, Head of the Auror Bureau (who is rather pissed when he discovers they are gone).  Once in Moscow, James and Sirius meet up with the mysterious Vladimir Ulyanov, who claims to be working for the Ministry, but seems to have a hidden agenda of his own.  He takes our heroes to the Russian Roulette, an illegal disco nightclub, where Sirius meets Narcissa, a whore who is also being used by Lucius Malfoy (in Moscow to carry through a diabolical scheme that blows up in his face).  On one of their outings, Malfoy and Narcissa meet up with Ilona, Lucius's tango-dancing chain-smoking sister who seems nearly as screwed up as he is.  Eventually, thorough a series of plot twists, it is revealed that Sirius is married and Ulyanov  turns out to be two-for-the-price-of-one, the Sad Clown, an infamous terrorist who has been bombing buildings all over Moscow for a number of years and Alexander Miriken—an ex-convict who has been assumed dead.  Ulyanov/Miriken is cornered in the Russian Roulette (with the rest of the cast, sans Ilona, Moody, and James's father) by Josef Dzhugashvilli, a KGB agent whose hatred for him amounts to an obsession.  Miriken manages to escape with James as a hostage, but Sirius is shot in the leg during all the brouhaha.  He, Narcissa, and Lucius are arrested by the KGB, while Miriken (dragging James behind him) manages to evade capture—jumping down a ventilation chute onto the desk of Alastor Moody. 

RUSSIAN ROULETTE 4

Three of a Kind

The great events of life often leave one unmoved; they pass out of consciousness, and, when one thinks of them, become unreal.  Even the scarlet flowers of passion grow in the same meadow as the poppies of oblivion. 

—Oscar Wilde, The Portrait of Mr. W.H.

December 31, 1995

Moscow, Russia

"Hallo, Sirius." 

Narcissa's voice was light, little more than the shadow of a whisper.  Hearing it now, after all this time, caused the rolling, boiling, coursing tidal wave of his fury, which had been gathering strength ever since he had beheld her face earlier that evening, to fall and crash upon the wide shoreline of his sentient mind, splattering away into foamy flecks of bewilderment and confusion.  He could not make himself strike her, yet he balled his hand into a fist anyway, slamming it against the iron doorjamb.  She didn't even react, simply standing in the deserted alleyway, her pale eyes luminescent in the dim light seeping out from the interior of the Russian Roulette.  He wished that he could look into the mind hidden behind her cold gaze and her high breadth of forehead, reading her thoughts, dispelling the fear and doubt that hung about him like a suffocating Lethifold; but telepathy was all but impossible, even for a skilled wizard like himself.  She was giving him no clues to help him along his way, standing in the dim club light as if she were chipped of ice.  Then again, she had never been overly demonstrative.  Even back in the winter of '79 he had never really known what she was thinking. 

Maybe that was why his memories of her lingered while those of other girls faded away into the backdrop of his subconscious.  Perhaps it was Narcissa's aura of mystery that had kept her alive for him during those twelve years in Azkaban when so much of the world had grown cold—dead.  Now, even in her current stasis, there was still an esoteric, enigmatical element to her, visible in the curve of her lip, the set of her jaw, and the way her hair hovered about her head, the silver curls like a delicate cloud of ethereal smoke. 

Yet his conscious mind knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that there was nothing especially remarkable about her at all; she was just a poor girl who had been born on the Moscow streets and, until the winter of 1979, seemed destined to die within their gray confines. 

Then she had met Lucius Malfoy. 

The thought of Malfoy brought reality back to Sirius with a smash.  He knew, as he had known all along, the real reason that the memory of Narcissa lingered long after those of his other affairs dissipated.  Ultimately, she had rejected him, choosing, in his stead, the man who hated him with vehemence surpassing even Snape's. 

In Azkaban, he had had a lot of time to ponder.  Sirius thought often on whether or not Malfoy had actually loved Narcissa, or had instead married her on a whim.  He finally concluded neither of these things.  Malfoy's true motive for taking Narcissa in, giving her his name and his legitimacy, had been to exact revenge upon Sirius himself.    It was obvious to Sirius that Malfoy's desire for Narcissa was synonymous with his lust for vengeance; he married her not for her beauty, not for her companionship, and definitely not for her love.  Narcissa was Malfoy's object for retribution, and nothing more.  The sad thing was that Lucius Malfoy was the best thing that ever happened to Narcissa Vabka; considering her options, she was better off being used thus than she would have been in any other situation; and that truth stuck a knife through Sirius's heart.  At least his charity would have been sincere, given to Narcissa for her own sake and not out of a twisted desire for revenge a la Lucius.  But if he wanted to sit down, throw all the cards on the table and be perfectly honest with himself Sirius knew, despite all of his best intentions, he couldn't offer Narcissa half of the comfort and security Malfoy, by virtue of his wealth and position, bestowed upon her without so much as a second thought.  

Sirius had been given a chance at love once, not sweaty one-night love, stolen in the back room of some smoky saloon, forgotten as soon as the taste of the last kiss grows bland upon the mouth, but real lasting love, awakening beside you each morning with a smile and tucking you in at night with a kiss—love as comforting as a warm fire on a rainy day—love that burns with contained, cozy ardor—love that would never splutter away into ashes.  Yet neither he nor she had been lovers of the fireplace sort.  Their romance had leapt instantaneously from the grate to consume any chance they had at a relationship from the foundations up, leaving naught but the smoking remains. 

Azkaban had given Sirius a lot of time to dwell on what-ifs, and although his adolescent naïveté had faded with age, he still believed that he could have given up the sweaty trysts and the stolen kisses for her sake—for her sake he would have regulated himself to a fireplace romance.  She just wouldn't give up her hedonistic life for him.  She was a raging inferno waiting to burn somebody.  What hurt Sirius the most was that she didn't set out to wound him specifically.  Their whirlwind meeting, marriage, and dissociation were not planned, calculated, or fated; it was pure happenstance.  H was just in the right place at the wrong time.  She could have just as easily married the next bloke at the subsequent bar or even the one after that, because in her longtime paradigm he, or any of her hypothetical husbands, meant nothing.  She had humored him; he was no more than her distraction, her amusement, her whore. 

But her fleeting interest had made more of an impact upon him that the genuine emotion that so many women had expressed over the years.  Sirius had had a lot of time to think in Azkaban.  And he still couldn't figure out why.   

Narcissa was waiting for him to speak.  Of course, she gave none of the usual body signs:  sighing impatiently, crossing her arms or tapping her foot.  It was the very stillness of her body that radiated expectation.  He turned his eyes from his fruitless past to gaze at her full on.  Her stasis, which had been utterly indecipherable to him a moment earlier, now seemed to cry, "Speak to me!  Wake me from this trance!  Free me from this prison!"  Maybe he was reading into her silence, but, Sirius told himself, life is full of maybes—and to get anywhere, especially after twelve years had been robbed from him, they must be ignored. 

But resolving to act and the actual doing are two entirely different things.  Although he had played this situation out in his cell countless times, meeting her alone after all these years was a thousand times more overwhelming in reality than it has even been in his desperate fantasies.  In his imaginings, he always knew that everything would turn out all right in the end.  That reassurance was lacking in the real world, so he found himself speechless, unable to dredge up the words to break the spell, to wake his sleeping beauty from her trance, to free her from her prison.  When he next heard words it took him a moment to realize that they came from her lips instead of his.  The wrongness of it stung him like a slap in the face.  "I'm leaving." 

Her declaration left him with a bitter sense of nausea; this wasn't the way it was supposed to happen.  He would speak first and his magic words, his mythic words would somehow break the barrier standing strong between them, reconciling the fifteen years and the old wounds that separated them like oil and water.  He would win her back; she would swoon into his arms and Malfoy would shake his fist but he would be powerless to do anything because in Sirius's fantasies Lucius Malfoy had as much authority as a common garden slug. 

"I'm leaving," she repeated, moving towards the door.  There was a hint of urgency in her voice.  "Do you hear me, Sirius?  I'm leaving." 

Sirius; after all these years she still said that word the same way.  It was a discordant mixture of desperation and hope, a pessimistic expectation:  anticipating the best in spite of itself.  Her sudden use of his Christian name woke him from his trance, freed him from his prison of inaction. 

Do you hear me, Sirius?  I'm leaving. 

If she was really leaving, why did she need to tell him three times?  Unless she didn't really want to go at all, unless what she was really stating was "Say something, Sirius.  Keep me here, Sirius.  I beg you, Sirius, make me stay."  Her forceful statement wasn't an ultimatum; it was a plea.  Sirius had lost twelve years of his life.  He was no longer a young man.  He couldn't afford to live in maybes anymore.  His gut instincts were telling him that she wanted to be swept off her feet, wanted past wrongs to be reconciled, wanted Lucius Malfoy to be reduced to a common garden slug.  She was stalling, and in stalling giving him one more chance. 

His last chance. 

"I'm leaving, Sirius," she repeated, the annoyance in her words not extending to her eyes as she reached for the door leading back into the club. 

He reached forward, slamming the door on the Russian Roulette, blocking her unwilling escape back into comfortable servitude.  "No Narcissa," he said quietly.  "You're not." 

Her reply was surprisingly harsh.  "What do you want with me?" 

"To finish what we started." 

She crossed her arms over her chest, and whether it was because of the cold or on account of inner tension, Sirius couldn't tell.  "That was over fifteen years ago." 

"Maybe for you," he snapped, taking a step closer to her.  The palpable bitterness in his tone nipped any possible reconciliation in the bud.  "You didn't lose twelve years of your life." 

Her jaw tensed.  "Don't try to make me feel guilty for something I had no control over."

"I'm just saying that our last fifteen years aren't comparable," he said, taking a step towards her.  She turned her head away.  "You've spent yours in a palace, living easily, house elves at your beck and call.  You have a loving husband," Sirius sneered, "a son—"

"Don't bring Draco into this," she said, with surprising vehemence. 

So the brat's name was Draco.  Sirius wondered briefly if he looked like Lucius or Narcissa before realizing that it didn't really matter.  The resemblance between the boy's parents was so great they could have easily been brother and sister.  "While you've been doting over Draco," he twisted the name into an explicative, ingraining it with every inch of his own hate, pain, and frustration—not directed so much at the boy he had never encountered as the idea of the child, a bastard combination of two halves that should have never met:  west and east, rich and poor, innocence and experience—all cumulating in the horribly mismatched Narcissa and Lucius.  The child was the physical embodiment of Sirius's biggest mistake, a constant remembrance of the life he had let slip through his fingers.

The boy should have been his son. 

"While you were doting over Draco," he repeated, noticing her flinch when he mentioned the brat's name.  "I was trapped in Azkaban with no family, no house elves, only my memories for company.  Do you know who I thought of?" he whispered, tone strung tight with angry resentment.  Without waiting for her reply he continued, "I thought of you, Narcissa." 

Her voice was quiet.  "You're living in the past." 
 

He ignored her.  "I used to play this meeting out in my head, scripting what I'd say to you and how you'd reply.  I had the ending all worked out; it was just what we said in the interim that always gave me trouble." 

"Maybe the trouble is that there's nothing to say." 

"I used to think that if I would see you just one more time, I would be able to make you understand—"

"I understand everything," she countered angrily, "or at least enough to see that everything else you have to say is just another lie because—"

"Because if I could see you one more time I knew I would be able to make you understand that I meant you no harm." 

"It matters little whether you meant it or not," she said, her cold words turned to ice by the frigid Moscow air. 

"What happened to you?" he broke off from his quasi-scripted speech, staring at her with an expression of confused disgust.  "What has he done to you?" 

"Maybe I was like this all along," she said, her pale face stained red by the merciless cold.  "You never took the time to notice." 

"I cared about you," he snapped, furious to be on the defensive when it was so blatantly obvious that he was the wounded party.  He hadn't left her stranded in the snow, with only the empty wind for company. 

"Yes you cared about me, in the same way you might care about one of your dogs or your damned bike.  I was something for you to have, something for you to play with," she replied viciously.  "Within a week you would have seen a new blonde at another bar and I would have lost my novelty, my appeal." 

"Did he tell you this?"  Sirius cut in, infuriated by her accusations.  "It's one of his lies—"

"You never took the time to get to know me," she cut him off. 

"You never gave me the chance!" he exploded.  "One moment we were together and the next Malfoy—"

"What would you have me do?" she snapped, her voice full of uncharacteristic sarcasm.  "Marry you instead?"

 ----

January 2, 1980

Moscow, USSR

"You're late," Moody hissed, glancing at the brass plated pocket watch he held in his hand. 

Miriken didn't waste a breath.  "No," he corrected smoothly.  "Your watch is fast." 

In his surprise, James lost all trace of propriety, completely forgetting that Moody, Head of the Auror Bureau, was his direct superior.  "What are you doing here?" he asked, nothing short of dumbfounded. 

Moody ignored him.  "Were you given any chase?" he asked hastily, eyes never wavering from Miriken. 

"A Muggle," the doctor answered smoothly, still standing in the middle of Moody's paperwork as if he was king of the hill.  "No one of any importance.  Unfortunately," Miriken continued, "the Sad Clown operation has been compromised." 

Moody's only outward sign of tension was a slight contraction of the eyebrows, "You know that it is not my primary concern, Alexander.  You have to take that up with the DWA." 

"Will that be possible?" Miriken asked sharply. 

"Imminently possible," Moody replied.  "I just received an owl from one of them.  We can be expecting him at any moment." 

"Or so he says," Miriken sneered, sounding more like his familiar sniping self than the mysterious, and as the run in with Dzhugashvilli on the stairs had demonstrated, dangerous doctor.  James felt strangely comforted.  "You can never tell with those Yanks." 

"Yank or not, I have always been able to rely on Robert Laurence," Moody chastened Miriken. 

The doctor raised an eyebrow.  "The kid?" 

"The kid," Moody said, a touch of amusement in his voice, stemming, no doubt, from Miriken's moniker, "delivers your checks."

"I have never paid much notice to messenger boys," Miriken said haughtily. 

For some inexplicable reason, this made Moody smile.  "If only I had done the same at Belsen." 

Miriken shrugged, "That was different." 

"No," Moody replied, still smiling paternally, "I don't think it is, or at least not different in the way that you mean.  Robert Laurence is less of an errand boy than you were." 

Miriken crossed his arms over his chest, gun still dangling from his fingers.  "I fail to grasp the relevance of this conversation." 

"Meaning?" 

"Other than a convoluted nostalgia trip, what is your point?" 

"You tell me, Alexander." 

Miriken smirked like a precocious child, "You don't have one." 

"Maybe," Moody said, but his grin had vanished, Miriken's comments bringing him back to the here and now.  "Did the boy give you trouble?" 

"Of course the boy gave me trouble."  It was only when Miriken glanced down at him that James realized that he was the current topic of discussion.  "His friend had the sense to tell me that he was the Minister's son, as opposed to Mr. Potter here, and I played along in order to throw Malfoy off the scent.  There was only so much, however, that I could do to protect Potter and he didn't make it any easier for me." 

"Wait," James interrupted, glancing up at Miriken.  "You were trying to protect me?"  He turned to Moody, face flushed with anger.  "You can't possibly believe him, he's lying—he's a terrorist, a bomber, an escaped convict, and I'm more than a hundred percent sure that he is at the root of the worldwide Communist-Death-Eater conspiracy.  He's done nothing but cause trouble for me and Sirius ever since we arrived, not five minutes ago he kidnapped me from an underground, and mind you, illegal club that he single-handedly ran—" 

"Potter!" Moody snapped as Miriken smirked, radiating smug amusement.  "Will you desist?" 

James, taken aback at being reprimanded when it was so painfully obvious that Miriken was the guilty party was unable to restrain himself.  "What are you doing here?" James repeated his question, voice colored red by indignant anger.

"I could ask the same of you, Potter," Moody snapped, tearing his eyes away from Miriken, who had leapt easily off the desk and slid into a seat on the Auror's left side.  The Russian placed his now-loaded gun on the boards in front of him, excruciatingly visible to James from his perch atop the table.  "You are here in Moscow," Moody said, drawing Prongs's gaze back to him, "without my sanction." 

"I'm following my father's orders," James protested. 

"Your father," Moody sneered, his words dripping with scorn, "has no authority over my department." 

"My father," James snapped, hardly believing Moody's audacity, "is the Minister of Magic." 

"And the Minister of Magic has no right to meddle in the affairs of the Auror Bureau." 

Under any other circumstances, James would have acquiesced to Moody.  But the Auror's behavior was utterly irrational and he felt it his duty to defend the family honor.  "My father has the right to do whatever he bloody well pleases!"  James yelled, his boyish face red and splotchy with anger.  As soon as the words left his mouth, he realized that he probably shouldn't have said them, for politeness' sake if not because of his career.  However, the Auror chief was insulting his father so he felt that he possessed adequate justification for loosing his temper.  No one talked down on a Potter. 

"Contrary to your belief, Potter," Moody sneered, his voice coated with patronizing disgust, "your family does not have a divine right to rule and your father has no business meddling in my affairs." 

"He just wanted to send the best people for the job," James said icily.  Moody was being utterly irrational, refusing to bend to the will of his superior, the Minister of Magic.  The old man was taking the entire affair far too personally.  As soon as James got home he would recommend that Moody be removed from his post as Head of the Auror Bureau.  The man was obviously unable to differentiate between his own emotions and the good of the Ministry.  Besides, the Auror was getting old.  It was common knowledge that he was well into his second century and in James's opinion, a textbook example of the old adage: "By 122, it's all down the loo."  This applied to every older wizard James knew, with the obvious anomaly of Albus Dumbledore.  Then again, Dumbledore had always been an exception to the rule.   

"If your father truly wished to find the best person for the job," Moody said condescendingly, "he should have spoken with me and I would have been more than happy to direct him to someone remotely qualified."  James was livid.  Bright red, James opened his mouth to protest at this unprovoked insult, but Moody cut him off with a well-placed command.  "Get off your stomach, Potter and sit down," he gestured to his right where there was an empty seat.  "Shut your mouth and try to be as little of a nuisance as possible." 

Silently fuming, James did as he was told. 

"Now, how much does the boy know?" Moody asked Miriken, barely glancing at his young underling. 

"Everything," Miriken said easily, smiling nastily at James as he fiddled with his gun suggestively.  "I tried to tell him last night, but he didn't believe a word, so I wiped his memory." 

"You did no such thing!" James spat, fighting the animal urge to lunge across the table in a fit of rage.  The only thing that held him back was that he couldn't decide whom to leap at first, Moody or Miriken. 

"Shhh."  Moody waved a hand at James, not even bothering to turn around and glance at him.  "Oblivate is a dangerous curse, Alexander." 

Miriken shrugged, acquiescing to Moody.  "Under normal circumstances yes, but he threatened to go to his father." 

Moody spun around, eyes boring holes into James.  "Did you, Potter?" he asked.  His tone could only be described as excruciatingly exasperated.  It was obviously a rhetorical question. 

James chose to answer anyway.  "How should I know?" his gaze snapped to Miriken, voice sounding very much like a spoilt child.  "I don't remember." 

"Jesus Christ," Moody growled, rounding on James.  "Will you keep your mouth closed except in the extremely unlikely event that you have something useful to add?" with that, he turned back to Miriken, an angry set to his aged shoulders. 

James had taken enough.  "No!"  Both men turned around, a look of furious shock on Moody's face while condescending amusement colored Miriken's features.  Moody opened his mouth to undoubtedly reprimand his underling, but James wasn't about to let him get a word in.  "No!" he repeated, his voice rising to an unnaturally loud roar.  "No I will not sit down and be quiet like a good little boy; and no, for the love of God, I will not shut up.  You," he pointed viciously at Miriken, almost knocking over the table in the process, "wiped my memory, drugged me with poisoned vodka, and held me up with an empty gun—if that wasn't enough, you dragged me through the street—not only was it twenty bloody degrees below zero, which would have caused sufficient angst for me, thank you very much, we were shot at all the way!  I can't believe that you're spouting off some cock-and-bull story about trying to protect me, at least give us a plausible lie.  I could have easily been killed multiple times thanks to you.  And now you're sitting here calmly while he," he gestured wildly at Moody, "tells me to shut up?  I don't think so!  And you," he rounded on the Auror chief, "have done nothing but insult me and my family since I arrived here—against my will, might I add," he snapped with a furious glance at Miriken.  "I wouldn't be either of you as soon as we're back in England, you could offer me the world, but that won't stop me from personally making sure that the both of you take an involuntary leave of absence involving the words 'Azkaban' and 'extended stay'.  Your treatment of me has been nothing short of abhorrent from the moment I first set foot in Moscow and I demand," James heaved a breath as he had been taking very fast and very loud and was in dire need of air, "to know what the hell is going on, or I will be serving both of your heads to my father of a silver platter!" 

There was a dead silence. 

There was another. 

And a third. 

Outside their window, a siren whooshed into and then out of earshot, heralding the arrival of a forth void of quiet. 

And then Miriken began to clap, a slightly amused smile on his face.  James couldn't decide if the Russian was mocking him or was actually impressed by his tantrum.  He guessed the former.  Still, a goofy smile crept its way onto his face, lighting up his features that had been contorted in anger mere seconds before.  It felt good to get that all out. 

When Moody spoke, his voice was barely louder than the softest of whispers, but it held all the ferocity of a mad dog's growl.  "Don't you ever speak to me like that again, Potter.  Now sit down, shut your mouth, and do not speak even if you're spoken to, or I will be having your head on a silver platter with relish and a little sliver of lemon.  It's almost midnight and I'm extremely hungry as I haven't yet had dinner.  Do you know why, Potter?"  Without waiting for James's reply he pressed on.  "I've been too busy worrying about your well being, which I can assure you, is not my favorite pastime." 

James felt cheated.  "But—"

"Sit!" Moody's voice rose to a roar. 

James sat. 

"Sorry I'm late," a voice rang out from behind James as the door to the room clicked shut, heralding the arrival of a third man.  "I was held up by a group of Muggle police men.  They're swarming around the streets like flies, searching for an escaped convict named Miriken.  I told them," the man said, shooting a knowing smirk in the direction of Vladimir Ulyanov, "that I had no idea who they were referring to." 

Miriken said nothing, his lips curving upwards, matching the newcomer's almost-smile.  It was obvious to James that these two were old acquaintances and had probably dealt with each other in the past.   Knowing Miriken, these dealings had more than likely been despicably underhand, such as smuggling cocaine from darkest Tegucigalpa disguised as baby dolls or stealing nuns out of Franciscan monasteries to sell as slave labor in the southern sections of Burkina Faso.  Due to such hypotheses, James was not particularly inclined to welcome the visitor with open arms, but drug runner or not, he still had to be better than Moody. 

"Laurence, this is James Potter.  We've discussed James, you remember?"  There was still an underlying current of anger in Moody's voice, but he was obviously trying to but on his best face for the newcomer. 

"Yes, I remember Potter." Laurence extended a hand. 

James was disinclined to take it, considering the fact that this was apparently a friend of Moody's and thus his enemy by default, but he knew better than to air his dirty laundry in front of a stranger.  "James Potter," he said, taking Laurence's hand.  Sirius has always told James that you could tell a great deal about a person by the feel of their handshake.  Although he had initially written off Padfoot's tip as idle blather, the handshake had, over the years, become one of the first things he noticed about a person.  Laurence's grip was surprisingly firm, a sharp contrast to his relaxed manner and easy smile, which held none of Moody's fierce anger or Miriken's calculating manipulation.  The newcomer sported a head of russet brown hair, curling up at the edges to frame his boyish face.  By James's estimation, Laurence couldn't be more than thirty-five, but he held his own around Miriken and Moody, who treated him like an equal.  James was more than a little annoyed.  "Pleasure to meet you," James said, lying a bit, but all for the sake of politeness.  

"Likewise," Laurence replied.  He spoke with the long drawling lilt of an American, drawing out his words as if they had no end, thus taking an obscenely long time to say what a normal person could get out in a matter of seconds.  James couldn't stand American accents. 

The fact that Laurence spoke with such an inflection surprised him, for the British Ministry of Magic hadn't had any ties to its American counterpart, the Department of Wizarding Affairs, since the early 1970s.  In fact, barring any (unlikely) lapses in his memory, James could have sworn that the International Confederation of Wizards had gone as far as to enact economic sanctions against the DWA, outlawing the importation and exportation of goods and services into Wizarding America. 

Quodpot fans all over the world were crushed. 

Although the DWA had done everything in its power to appease the International Confederation of Wizards in hopes that the sanctions would be lifted, the ICW had not relented, and in James's opinion, rightfully so.  The fact that the Head of the Auror Bureau was associating with an American when they were the pariahs of the international wizarding community was more than a bit unnerving, although, James thought with a malicious glance at his superior, like Miriken, Moody wasn't above drug running.   

"I'm Robert Laurence," the American said, rudely breaking into James's thoughts with a broad grin that he was wary to return.  In other circumstances, he may have found himself tempted to like Laurence, but under the current conditions he was hard pressed to take favorably to anyone, or anything for that matter. 

"Laurence is the DWA's deputy ambassador to the SDE," Moody supplied.  "Not the exactly the easiest job on the planet." 

"Being a deputy ambassador is much like being the vice president," Laurence said, his disarming smile never wavering, "you often find yourself doing all the work.  High ranking diplomats usually decided that the best way of serving Uncle Sam is by taking extended vacations in exotic locals; I think the ambassador is currently in Barbados on a fact-finding mission, which of course translates as discovering the best ways to get tanned, drunk, and laid, probably in that order.  The things we do for our country," Laurence smiled at James once again, and it took a great deal of effort from Prong's not to have his mouth curve upwards in a mirroring grin.  "So what it all amounts to is that I'm stuck with all the dirty work." 

When the sounds of Laurence's voice died away, so did the spell of amicability his words had cast over James.  The American was admittedly friendly, but too friendly—it was almost as if he was putting on a performance.  His easy-going chatter seemed scripted, his firm handshake rehearsed, his disheveled, boyish manner cultivated.  There was a coldness in Laurence's eyes that seemed very alien to the warm smile on his face, and James knew that only one of the American's emotions could be genuine.  He wouldn't be surprised if Moody had ordered Robert Laurence to befriend James in an attempt to make him drop his guard and render himself meek, easily manipulated.  And they hadn't expected him to see through their ploy…

With a lurch, James realized that a week ago, he probably wouldn't have sensed anything was amiss, but Miriken's high-stakes game of cat and mouse had given him more than just frozen fingers and a few bruises.  It had wrenched the blinders off of his sense of trust.  He felt horrid, dirty, miserable—just plain wrong—for staring at Laurence and seeing not the warm grin or the amicable countenance or the thousands of other things that made him a man to be trusted.  Instead, he had to zero in on the American's eyes; those cold brown eyes were full of a hard icy intensity that reminded him of Moody—Miriken. 

Eyes were the windows to the soul. 

James snatched his hand from Laurence's grasp, furious not only at the American's faux-friendliness, but at his own inability to control the situation.  He needed answers, and only one man was going to provide them.  Thus resolved, he turned his eyes to Alastor Moody.  "What about Vietnam?" 

----

They called it the Glorious War.   

Splendid, noble, and no need to worry boys, undoubtedly very short. 

They called on young wizards to enlist—to join the brave band of recruits headed by an elite international squadron of Aurors led by Alastor Moody, one of the few men in England whose very aura seemed to shine like a beacon, cutting through the clouds of doubt and despair that hung about the wizarding population like ubiquitous smog.  Moody, the name was on every tongue, causing that particular mouth to curl into a cowlick smile which no amount of combing could wrestle back into a straight line.  And that grin caused the collective face of the wizarding world to light up like a torch, the ever-flickering flame of their hope stoked by Alastor Moody.  Ah yes, within his gnarled hands Alastor Moody held the hope of an entire generation.

Hope can smolder like a final cigarette, the small conciliation it brings burning away to leave nothing but emptiness. 

They called it the Glorious War. 

Come boys, come and take your rightful place in the glorious war, fight side by side with valiant soldiers in our illustrious ranks, capstoned by Alastor Moody, a general worth dying for—Come!  Come and fight for freedom in magnificent battles and emerge victorious like Saint George, the dragon of injustice slain at your feet, sword hoisted high above your head, bright with your reflected glory.  Do not be afraid, boys, for if you shall not conquer, and should instead fall—succumbing to the enemy's charge upon our hallowed battle fields, take one moment and remember dulce et decorum est pro patria mori: it is sweet and fitting to die for your country. 

They called it Vietnam. 

The wizards were the doughboys of the war; magical interest in Vietnam wasn't kindled until very late in the game with regards to the Muggles.  The first batch of wizarding troops rolled in at the very end of the summer of 1971.  Although headed by Moody and composed mainly of British warlocks, they were a strictly multinational force, representing the International Confederation of Wizards.  Besides making pointless decrees that no one bothered to follow, the ICW's main objective was to protect wizarding populations worldwide.  When news of war atrocities directed towards the Vietnamese magical community reached the council, they felt it their solemn duty to act.

The exact story that set them off always varied somewhat, depending on who you heard it from, but its basic facts were essentially the same:  A small isolated pocket of Vietnamese wizards were living if not happily, at least unobtrusively, in a village in the Mekong Delta.  Suddenly, in July of 1971 the settlement was stormed and torched by a platoon of American soldiers with ties to DWA, the Department of Wizarding Affairs for the United States and her Protectorates.  America was thrown out of the International Confederation of Wizards in disgrace, and although economic sanctions were immediately enacted against Uncle Sam, Moody and a few other hard-liners lobbied for military retaliation in Vietnam.  The majority of the council, although agreeing unanimously that the American's actions were completely reprehensible, was adverse to respond aggressively to what was obviously an isolated incident.  They barely had time to take their moderate stance before it was belied; on August 5th, when a second Wizarding settlement was destroyed in much the same fashion as the first, Moody got his chance.  Three days after the second village burned away to ashes, he flew to Hanoi with the Confederation's blessing, and most importantly, his first shipment of troops. 

It was a full three months before he pulled out completely.  

After the war, Lucius tried everything:  Recreational boozing, binging, trippin'…

…Which of course lead to the occasional smack, crack, and THC, blow, shrooms, and LSD. 

When those failed, he picked himself up, dusted himself off, and moved onto the positive remedies: group therapy, sitting in a little circle and saying, "Hello my name is Lucius and I'm more fucked up than you could ever begin to imagine."  Then everyone would clap and the leader would pat him on the back and he'd sit down and begin to simmer and the steam inside him built and built and—

The group therapy didn't work so he moved onto one-on-one counseling at the Diagon Alley offices of Krack, Pott and Spenser.  After Lucius spent about five minutes of lying on a ridiculously uncomfortable couch talking about himself, his doctor (whether Krack, Pott, or Spenser he had never bothered to find out) informed him that he was in love with his mother and if he had gotten that little toy Quidditch set when he was five he would be perfectly sane.  Lucius, for his part, told the psychologist that not only had he gotten multiple toy Quidditch sets by the age of five, his mother had died when he was three.  To which his doctor replied:  "Ah well, screw that prognosis.  For the sake of brevity, let's just say that you're in love with your father." 

It was at that time he started smoking. 

And the steam continued to build. 

His psychologist suggested that he take up knitting to try and alleviate some of his obsessive-compulsive tendencies. 

It was then that he decided that psychoanalysis was a whole crock load of dragon dung and he'd be damned if he was going to continue to pay a bloody wanker five grand monthly to tell him that he wanted to get inside his dad's pants. 

When his father's current mistress, who had gone to Tibet a perfectly normal witch and returned bedecked in orange robes determined to "become one with the Dow" (which confused Lucius to no end as he couldn't possibly comprehend why anyone, as enticing as money was, would want to screw a stock index), suggested meditation, he had laughed her off, blaming her inane recommendation on the high altitudes in the Himalayas.  As the weeks grew into months and the steam inside of him continued to build, he decided to follow her advice, not because he believed it would help, but as a last resort.  He would sit on the floor of a darkened room and stare at the ceiling counting its cracks… one, two, three… until he lost track and forced himself to start over, counting again… fifty-four, fifty-five… and again… six-hundred and sixty-two, six-hundred and sixty-three… futilely trying to bore himself into a apathetic stupor beyond pain… one thousand one-hundred and twenty-one, one thousand one-hundred and twenty-two … beyond memory… one thousand nine-hundred and forty-three, one thousand nine-hundred and forty-four, one thousand nine-hundred and… and… and then he would lose count.  And have to start again.  One… two… three…

His pot began to rattle, steam seeping out of the kettle's nozzle in a thin trickle of liquid gray. 

It was when he started unconsciously ripping tiny holes in the carpet during his meditation sessions that he took up chess, just to give his hands something constructive to do.  Since he only ever played with himself, black and white were always evenly matched, working themselves into a corner, wasting hours, going nowhere.

Then, he exploded.

He realized that the catalyst wasn't the toy Quidditch set, it was the war. 

And the problem wasn't life after Vietnam, but the person he had been before it. 

And the fault lay not with him, but his father, for making him enlist, for cutting him off, for feeding him a lie—a lie that eventually consumed all that had been good and true within him, leaving him empty, heartless, a vessel ready for filling.

So he fled from his memories of the war, cutting ties with English wizards who had known him before 1971, just as he ran from Britain itself, leaving Malfoy Manor, a veritable temple of Neo-Gothic glory, for the Malfé Villa, a shrine to all things gothic and gory.  And finally, he escaped from his father, from the disapproving stare and the wrinkled brow, from the harsh words and the staunch resolve, and from that small, oft-hidden smile, that in spite of everything, believed in him when he could not. 

Lucius left his father in favor of his Spanish ancestors without so much as a goodbye.  The old man did not try to reinitiate contact.  He cancelled any lazy summers he had planned to spend in Cordoba and stayed well away from the continent, giving his son space.  Lucius supposed that it was because the old man supposed that he understood his child's angst.  His antediluvian father, who had been too young for the First World War and too old for the second, still had the audacity to pretend that he understood.  He feigned fathoming Lucius's pain in the same breath that he pronounced the righteousness of war, still having the ingenuous arrogance to toss his only son, as naked and naïve as a sacrificial lamb, into the conflict that he lacked the courage to venture into himself. 

Lucius didn't come home for Christmas that year. 

Or the next.

----

A question was posed.  "Grindelwald=s theories are actually quite interesting, have you read them?"

"Bits and pieces," came the reply, "but never the entire compilation." 

"His treatise defending the theory of Wizarding Superiority is nothing short of enlightening." 

"I had always heard his methods were somewhat... pseudoscientific," a third voice volunteered incredulously. 

"Pseudoscientific?" the first voice scoffed.  "There's nothing pseudo about them.  He was classically trained, Grindelwald, at the Stewart-Chamberlain Institute for Medical Wizardry in Vienna, he took the scientific integrity of his experiments very seriously, repeating each test at least three times before drawing any kind of solid conclusion.  Pseudoscientific?" the voice laughed derisively, "Pseudoscientific... what will we hear from you next, Malfoy?" 

When Malfoy failed to volunteer a reply, the first voice continued, a hint of satisfaction in its tone.  "Grindelwald accomplished what no scientist before him was able to do, he verified over 1000 years of wizarding theory as solid fact: namely that Mudbloods are just that, mud bloods, biologically inferior to even the most magically inept wizards.  And beyond that vital breakthrough, Grindelwald was able to quantify their deficiency, ruling that a Mudblood was exactly one-sixth of a regular human being."

Malfoy's voice was twined with acid strings of sarcasm, "Oh?  And how exactly was Grindelwald able to measure this quantitative inadequacy?" 

The second voice, all but silent until this moment, coolly took up the thread of Malfoy's question.  "Phrenology." 

"Phrenology?"  This failed to impress Malfoy, who sounded nothing but excruciatingly incredulous. 

"A very reliable science," explained the first voice, "operating on the assumption that one's personality and innate biology are displayed in the shape of their skull." 

"Through extensive tests," the second voice continued, "Grindelwald discovered that the skull of the wizard is subtly larger than that of the ordinary Mudblood, demonstrating larger brain development, hence, greater reasoning capacities, thus, an enhanced ability to understand and manipulate the world—"

"Et cetera, et cetera," the first voice accented. 

"But being the scientist that he was," the second voice continued, Grindelwald was not content with that paltry qualitative evidence.  He needed conclusive scientific data, quantitative fact—"

"So in comparing the precisely measured brain mass of live Mudbloods with the estimated capacity of their Wizarding counterparts, Grindelwald was able to arrive at the one-sixth statistic."

"The estimated capacity?" Malfoy's voice was cut with sarcasm.  "Grindelwald was suddenly too squeamish to dive right into their sculls?"

The first voice spoke with conciliatory condescension.  "He didn't want to cause any unnecessary harm to wizards." 

"But Muggles are fair game?" 

"Let me put it to you simply, Malfoy," the first voice said, his tone slow and measured as if he were speaking to a small child.  "Wizards are mentally, physically, and God knows magically superincumbent to the Mudblood.  I could easily argue our right at sovereignty over the Muggles on the basis of such blatant superiority, but if this seems too radical for your taste, I'll even allow you a more moderate stance—demanding only Wizarding-Mudblood equality.  Why is it, Malfoy," the first voice said, his tone pitched lower, the sudden dip in volume heralding a rise in intensity, "that we Wizards are forced down into hiding like common animals while the Mudblood, little more than a beast, rules the world?"

"The Wizards' exile is self-imposed," Malfoy snapped.  "Wizards can go out and visit the Muggle world whenever they wish.  I do often." 

"Risking such atrocities as witch burnings and dunkings?" the first voice countered. 

"That was centuries ago, in the Middle Ages," Malfoy replied scornfully.  "It is no longer an issue." 

But the first voice pressed on, undaunted, "And shootings and muggings and rapes and murders—"

"Which are practiced by Muggles against other Muggles," Malfoy cut him off, "and not exclusively directed towards wizards." 

"You've said it yourself," the second voice interjected quietly.  "This is a race that kills their own, no better than beasts.  We who push for wizarding domination are doing the Mudbloods a favor.  We are saving them from themselves." 

"How can you argue with that?  Once you take a good long look at it, it's so very simple—" the first voice broke off, momentarily distracted from the superiority of the Wizarding race.  "Leaving so early, Malfoy?" 

Pausing by the door, Ilona jerked her cigarette from her mouth sharply.  Her fingers trembled slightly, ash falling from the tip of her fag to lie smoldering upon the parquet floor.  "I've just recalled a previous engagement, Avery," she said through clenched teeth. 

"Oh?" Avery stood up, a falsely warm smile distorting his chiseled good looks.  A forelock of his blue-black hair fell into his dark eyes as he extended a hand to Ilona.  "Give me one more chance, Malfoy, and see if we can't be suitably engaging."

"As delightful as I'm sure that would be—" Ilona began, but Avery cut her off before she could fully reject his offer, reaching forward and gripping her small fingers in his large hand. 

"Perhaps it is our company that you do not find engaging, Malfoy?" he asked, cocking his head slightly to the side.  "No?"

Smiling falsely, Ilona extricated her hand from Avery's, pointedly wiping it down the front of her white mink coat.  "Don't be stupid, Avery.  You know that I love nothing better that your company." 

"Then why the rush?" Avery asked, regaining control of Ilona's hand and pulling her closer to the center of the room.  "Let's see if together we can't make this party engaging, Malfoy."

The second voice, which had been sitting in silence, welcomed Ilona back into the fold with a knowing quip. "I certainly hope it wasn't something I said, sister of mine." 

"Of course not," she said, sinking into a sofa beside Avery, leaning into his chest as he slipped his arm around her shoulders.  She took a drag on her cigarette, smoke coloring her words a pale shade of gray.  "Nothing coming from your mouth could ever upset me, Lucius."

He reclined against the opposite couch with a fluid measured ennui, lifting his cigarette from his lips and then slipping it back into his mouth as if his entire world had narrowed to that tiny cylinder of rolled paper and clipped tobacco.  He raised his eyes, allowing her into his exclusive sphere of existence.  "Likewise, I'm sure." 

Avery was not oblivious to either's sarcasm, so the words issuing from his perfectly sculpted lips were equally colored.  "What a touching portrait of familial love." 

"You should see Christmas," Ilona iterated, reclining against his arm, sinking a little too far into its depths to be spurred by a natural attraction. 

Lucius's shoulders tightened imperceptibly as Avery snickered, the sound of his laughter licking across the surface of the tension strung between the two Malfoys with as much effect as fire upon steel. 

"One day you'll come around, Malfoy," Avery said good-naturedly.  "One day, the two of you will find a happy medium." 

"With Lucius," Ilona said, a bitter twist to the truth in her voice, "there is never a medium, happy or otherwise." 

Avery glanced at the other Malfoy, seeing how he would respond to this sharpened barb.  Lucius, still projecting an air of outward boredom, lowered his cigarette from his lips as he gently raised an eyebrow—wordlessly attacking the veracity of Ilona's statement.  "What good is a medium when one is always right?" 

"Or when one is unable to delineate between what is right and wrong," Ilona added, understated suggestion in her tone. 

"A skill you have yet to master," Lucius said, aware that he had won their brief verbal skirmish.  An equally succinct smile danced across his face as his eyes flickered from hers to focus on some indeterminable spot beyond the ornate walls of Avery's front parlor.

 "Take the Mudblood issue for example," Avery piggybacked, his arm suddenly heavy against Ilona's shoulders.  "That's a case where you are stubbornly refusing to accept the truth.  We possess insurmountable evidence supporting the correct conclusion put forth by Grindelwald, while you have nothing but paltry hearsay supporting your little pet theory," his chiseled Adonis features broke into an indulgent smile, "that Mudbloods are more than just… pets." 

"Ilona has kept a few Mudbloods," Lucius said, exhaling a mouthful of smoke as he spoke, "as pets of sorts." 

Avery immediately picked up on the innuendoes in Lucius's voice.  "Tell me," he said, turning to Ilona, tightening his grip upon her shoulder.  "What is it like to make love to a Mudblood?" 

She felt her chest tighten with offense at this breach of her oft-erstwhile modesty.  "Better than you," she spat.  As much as she hated herself for such a childish retort, it couldn't compare to her disgust at her inability to keep herself from responding to Avery's query.  His question had been formed to evoke such a reaction and she had knowingly walked straight into his trap, unable to help herself.   

Avery, sensing that she was far more uncomfortable than he was, simply brushed off her barb with a biting laugh.  "Is that really so?" he squeezed her hand so tight that it stung, wordlessly voicing an indisputable answer to his question.  Noting the sudden contraction of her shoulders he offered a quick conciliatory comment, "Oh don't beat yourself up, Malfoy.  Mudbloods are alright as a sport, I'd say." 

"I'd sooner sleep with my father's hunting bitch," Lucius sneered, his eyes flickering to Ilona.  The intensity of his gaze caused her fingers to clench white-knuckled around her cigarette, which she raised mechanically to her lips, putting on the pretense of apathy, determined to show her brother than whatever he said, she didn't care. 

"Come, Lucius," Avery said, glancing at Ilona.  "It isn't as if she's married one." 

Sirius…

And as the brother's eyes focused upon the sister's, each one's a mirror image of the other's, a chill crept up the rickety stepladder of her spine, causing it to shudder under the unanticipated weight. 

Sirius!

(January 2, 1980

Moscow, USSR)

"Sirius!"

Slowly, like a whale emerging from the depths of a great ocean he broke through the surface of sleep, its gentle waves lapping along the sides of his conscious mind as he gasped for air, acclimating himself to a rude awakening. 

"Sirius!"

His eyes snapped open to behold a woman bending over him, her silvery-white hair floating about her head like a halo.  For a moment, he thought it was his wife, but then she bent closer and he caught sight of her smile and he knew in an instant that it wasn't the missus.  His wife's smile was never so ingenuous. 

Narcissa. 

With the name, it all came flooding back to him, the Sad Clown, Dzhugashvilli's attempted arrest, their subsequent fight—but none of that seemed to matter when Narcissa bent closer to him, sliding down by his side.  Her warmth was a welcome reprieve from the Moscow chill.  She slid her arms around his torso, allowing him to catch her hands in his own and hold them fast.  He took the opportunity to pull her closer, his sudden need for proximity not just on account of the frigid weather.  "We've been arrested," she said quietly.  "We're being held by the KGB.  A Muggle doctor came in to rewrap your leg about an hour ago, when I first came to.  I think we're being held in a truck, or a transport, but it hasn't moved the entire time I've been awake.  How do you feel?" 

"Alright," Sirius replied, running his hand up and down the side of her arm.  His head hurt somewhat, although the pain wasn't significant enough to be out of the ordinary, and his leg was a bit sore which, considering that he had been shot, was significantly better that he could have theoretically hoped for.  The news of their arrest and confinement, however, failed to elicit any kind of reaction from Sirius, which mildly unnerved him as he felt as if he should be, at the very least, a tad upset.  He wrote off this odd apathy to an all-encroaching sense of lethargy that seemed to invade every facet of his newly wakened mind.  "Tired," he finally iterated, yawning for good measure.  "I'm very tired." 

"The KGB doctor said they had to inject you with a sleeping drug in order to remove your bullet," Narcissa replied.  "That's probably what's making you so tired." 

"Wait," Sirius interrupted her.  The longer he forced himself to remain awake, the more drug-induced lethargy slipped away, allowing him to regain control of his faculties.  The numb apathy was ebbing and he felt slightly amazed at the treatment he was getting from the KGB.  All the stories he had heard about the famed Soviet organization had painted them as less than hospitable hosts.  "They removed the bullet?"

"Fairly easily, according to the doctor."

"Why?"  Sirius asked, utterly bewildered.  This sounded nothing like the KGB of rumor.

"The doctor said they don't usually make visitors so comfortable, but they found your visa in your jacket.  You're a British national," she said quietly, as if this meant everything.  "There are laws, treaties dictating your treatment, and then on the off chance that you return home…" she trailed off, letting Sirius fill in the blank. 

"I'm to make a good report," he said quietly.  Despite the fact that the KGB surgery had probably saved his life, or at least his leg, he felt viscerally offended.  What made him so special?  If it was Narcissa that had been shot, chances were that the Russian organization wouldn't even have lifted a scalpel. The circumstances of his surgery were incongruous with any sense of human propriety.  The inequity between the KGB's treatment of foreigners like himself and Russian nations such as Miriken was a textbook example of Grade A hypocrisy. 

"They found your wands, too," Narcissa said, a touch of amusement in her voice.  Evidently sensing his anger, she was trying to change the subject.  "They couldn't figure out what to do with them though, so they just put them back into your jackets.  The doctor asked me what the two of you wanted with sticks."  Her voice, falsely light, now darkened with sobriety, "They kept both of your visas though." 

"Both of your visas?"  Sirius echoed, interrupting Narcissa for a second time.  "I wasn't aware that there were two of me." 

"Both of you," Narcissa clarified, "you and Lucius." 

Sirius tensed against her, and when he next spoke his voice was strangled, as if he was trying to strain all emotion out of it but had only half succeeded, leaving a mangled mess of a phrase dripping with ill-concealed hate.  "What is Malfoy doing here?" 

His reaction alarmed her, but she fought down her own disconcertion in an effort to quell his.  Tightening her arms around him, she ran her fingers up and down his hand in an attempt to bring some element of relaxation into those unbearable tense muscles, constricted by the memory of some past animosity.  "Lucius is here as well," she said quietly. 

He broke from her arms, sitting up abruptly and gazing about the prison-lorry like a man possessed.  "Where is he?" 

Sitting up beside him, Narcissa pointed to the spot about four meters away where Malfoy lay.  His inert body seemed almost lifeless—Sirius's hopes skyrocketed—until he noticed the gentle rise and fall of the blond's chest, so slight it was almost imperceptible.  "He hasn't woken up yet," Narcissa iterated quietly. 

What she said wasn't strictly true, although she had no way of knowing otherwise.  Lucius lay awake listening to their whispers, body still with the pretense of sleep, eyes wide open under closed lids. 

"Let's get out of here," Sirius whispered to Narcissa, gripping her arm in an attempt to pull her to her feet. 

She shook her head, silver curls incandescent, reflecting the small amount of light that was present in the dim truck.  "We're prisoners, Sirius.  We can't just get up and go; there is only one door and it's bolted from the outside.  This is a truck, they must mean to transport us, but as to where—" her voice quivered, betraying for the first time the fear that she had been trying to quell ever since Sirius had opened his eyes, mere minutes beforehand. 

"Shhh."  Kneeling back down, he reached forward to grip her hand.  His voice was consoling, strong for the both of them.  "It will be alright, Narcissa.  I promise." 

Intellectually, she knew that his promise didn't account for anything.  Sirius could mean it with all sincerity, but in Soviet Russia, this godforsaken proletariat utopia that abided by no laws except the whims of its upper crust rulers, his vow was worth nothing.  Besides, he had made her a promise before, in not so many words, but through his actions, his tender looks, the soft touch of his kiss, completing her and leaving her empty in the same instant.  Last night, Sirius's tacit oath had been shattered.  The proof of his infidelity lay twisted around the ring finger of his left hand:  a narrow band of silver, winking maliciously at her in the dim light of the prison lorry.  She had slept with married men before.  In her line of work, it was near impossible to avoid it.  But she had never lain with one that had the audacity to toy with her emotions, to pretend that he cared, forcing her to believe a lie. 

The worst part about his betrayal was that she couldn't force herself to blame him for it.  Last night, when he had been pierced by Dzhugashvilli's bullet, she would have given anything for one caustic quip, one lopsided smile—a single lying kiss.  It was only through his loss that she could fully grasp how precious he really was to her.  She didn't know if she could bear his absence, even if his company was only a fallacy.  The moments of tenderness that he gave her, be they fact or fancy, were all that she had. 

As if sensing her thoughts, Sirius squeezed her hand tight, the cold metal of his ring brushing against her warm flesh.  She flinched.  "I should have told you that I—"

She cut him off.  "It doesn't matter." 

"It does," he contradicted firmly.  "It does matter and it—"

"Is beyond remedy," she said quietly. 

"What I'm trying to say, Narcissa, is that you don't deserve—"

"Don't," she cut him off. 

"Don't what?" 

"Apologize." 

"No," he replied firmly, meeting her gaze, confusion constricting his eyebrows.  "Why shouldn't I apologize?" 

"You're the customer," she said quietly, hating herself for the bitterness in her voice, but unable, despite her best efforts, to mask it.  "The customer is always right." 

"Shut up."  His voice was hard, angry. 

"You don't owe me anything," she continued, unable to stop herself.  Her voice was raspy with desperation.  "I'm the whore.  You gave me what I asked for." 

"Shut up," he repeated, his voice louder than it had been before. 

"There's no need for an apology."  Her words choked in her throat as she squeezed his fingers so tightly they turned purple.  "No need to tip the bill." 

"Narcissa, please—"

"Don't spare a please on me." 

"Please," he repeated; his tone was guilt ripped raw.  "Please don't talk like this.  Give me some way to fix the situation—something to say, to do, to give," he broke off, desperation ingrained in his every word.  "Let me give you something—"

"You've given me everything I could possibly ask for." 

"I've given you nothing!" he yelled, and she was surprised at the vehemence in his voice.  "Nothing except a bed of lies!" 

"Sirius," she said quietly, running a hand up to his face, tracing the line of his jaw to finally wander to his mouth, drawing it closed with one little finger. 

"Narcissa, I—"

"Be quiet."  She cut him off, lowering her voice to the barest shadow of a whisper.  She dropped her head to confine her words to just the two of them, her shoulders hunched, her manner resigned, as if she was about to reveal something unforgivably shameful.  "I love you." 

He opened his mouth, but she cut him off with a quick shake of her head.  "Don't ruin it." 

"I don't deserve—"

"I know." 

Slowly, as if he didn't really know what to do and was simply making it up as he went hesitantly along, he reached forward to hold her hand.  Her fingers lay limp in his grip like a bird that someone has forgotten to feed, lying dead behind the bars of its rusty cage.  "Let me take you away from here, Narcissa." 

"We're prisoners, Sirius," she replied, smashing his effort at reconciliation. 

 In one word, he resurrected the fantasy:  "Afterwards," he iterated as if the sudden imprisonment was a mere blip in the course of their lives, "when this is all over with." 

"If this ever ends." 

"When," he replied firmly, daring her to hope.  "When this ends let me take you home with me, to England.  After Russia, you'll scarcely believe it." 

"And your wife?" Narcissa cut in. 

His voice was quiet, his underlying tone evasive.  "Doesn't matter."

Her instinct told her that it did matter very much indeed, but she let him continue with his beautiful proposition, a proposition that she wanted to believe in with all of her soul.  She knew, in her heart of hearts, that it would never come to fruition. 

"First, I'll take you to Land's End," he was saying, "at the very tip of the island.  There's an amusement park there, full of rag tag rides with some really excellent mechanical pirates.  We can go on the Ferris wheel, the roller coaster, whatever you want.  I'll buy you cotton candy until you get sick and then some.  Have you ever tasted cotton candy, Narcissa?" 

She shook her head no. 

"Then I'll take you to Wales, to where my friend Remus lives.  You'll like Remus; I know he'll like you as well, and Wales, well Wales is beautiful country, all hills and forests and mountains, mountains like you wouldn't believe, covered in green so vibrant it's almost blinding.  We can go to the seaside too, if you want.  For me, there's nothing like the sea, it's so unbelievably vast, stretching for miles and miles.  There's nothing but water as far as your eye can see.  I grew up in a city, Narcissa, and to be confronted with all that open space is—"

"Frightening," she filled in. 

"Incomprehensible," he amended.  "It makes me feel very small, but part of something bigger at the same time." 

"London," she prompted quietly.  London was all she knew of England; it was a mythic city to her, an El Dorado of neon light and gray buildings.  She imagined it as Moscow, only brighter, light invading every inch of the city from the Queen's own bedroom to the poorest tenement.  Going to London, striding through the El Dorado, would make Sirius idle dream into solid reality.  It was a solid corroboration that all the beaches, mountains, and roller coasters in the world could never confirm. 

"We'll go to London," he said.  "First, if that's what you want." 

"Yes," she replied to his unspoken question.  "That's what I want." 

"There's so much to do in London, I could talk for days and never hit upon it all.  Just walking through the city is a joy all unto itself.  I work in London, live there actually—you will too, when we go to England.  It's just a small apartment, right off Charing Cross Road.  That's not too far from Diagon Alley, the wizarding section of town.  We'll have to go there, buy you a wand—"

"Buy me a wand," she echoed. 

"I'll show you off in the Leaky Cauldron.  I'll be the luckiest man in the bar.  I'm sure you won't have any trouble getting something to drink, every wizard in the pub is going to stand up and offer you a round." 

"The Leaky Cauldron," there was a note of worry in her husky voice, "it's just a bar?" 

"Just a bar," Sirius assured her, "nothing more." 

There was a knot in her throat and when she opened her mouth to speak, her voice was unsteady, a short step away from tears.  "What a beautiful dream." 

"Indeed."  Lucius had been listening to the entire sequence, and he made no attempt to disguise his amusement.  The true root of Black's fantasy was obvious to him, and it wasn't any deep, passionate, star-crossed love for the girl.  It felt guilty for how it had used her and the pathetic sot, with its self-righteous Gryffindor morals, was trying to make some kind of an absolution for the harm that it had done.  Up to its usual standards of insight and compassion, the Mudblood's way of righting his wrong was to create a ridiculous tour of the British Isles.  When Lucius saw the pessimistic gleam of hope on Narcissa's face, wanting to believe in the dream in spite of her common sense, he realized that Black's fantasy was more a catharsis for its own feelings of guilt than conciliation to the whore.  Ultimately, the theoretical trip to England would only mock her with its empty promises, doing far more harm than good. 

Lucius decided to smash Black's dream before it was fully formed, and thus, lessen the pain of its fallacy for the girl.  As worthless as the Mudblood was, he could scarcely believe that it was self-centered enough to delude Narcissa so.  She was like a child, believing any words that held some semblance of tenderness.  Unfortunately for the girl, she had mistaken Black's pity for love, and reciprocated its empty emotion with genuine feeling of her own.  Lucius understood her actions.  What he couldn't grasp was why the Mudblood was encouraging the girl with its hollow fantasies that would never, in a thousand years, become solid truth.  It was ridiculous, hypocritical, self-indulgent, and presented an opportunity he could not bring himself to resist. 

"And where are your tickets to the Heathrow flooport, Black?" he said, an undercurrent of razor-sharp malice slicing neatly through his innocent tone.  "You must let me know where you got them.  I've been meaning to get out of here myself."  

"Back to your empty house," Sirius spat in retaliation.  The tenderness with which had addressed Narcissa was gone without a trace.  "It must be hard when even your own family can't abide your company." 

Lucius grit his teeth.  He knew that Black's insult was groundless; it was he that could not abide the company of his family, not the other way around, but nevertheless, he had the sudden urge to hurt the Mudblood as much as he could.  He knew just where to twist the dagger.  "How old are you, Narcissa?"  The question was deceptively simple, and its answer, if Lucius's suspicions were correct, was yet another log to throw onto to Black's rapidly growing bonfire of guilt. 

"Fuck you, Malfoy," Black spat.  It twisted the last word into more of an explicative than the first two, pleasing Lucius to no end.  He hadn't anticipated getting a reaction out of the Gryffindor so easily.  Narcissa hadn't even opened her mouth yet and it was already spouting off curses.  The only explanation for such a vehement reaction was that Black's suspicions about Narcissa's age mirrored his own, stoking the Mudblood's remorse. 

"It's a perfectly legitimate question, Black," Lucius replied; his tone was the epitome of mocking politeness, an intentional contrast to the Mudblood's curses.  "What," he said innocently, "are you afraid of?" 

He knew very well what Black was afraid of. 

Sirius's hand clenched itself into a fist.  How could the bastard read him so well, know exactly where to strike when to throw salt on open wounds—

It ran in the family. 

He didn't want to know Narcissa's age, didn't want to know because he already had the general idea of her answer.  He didn't want any guilt piled atop his already hunched shoulders.  He should have never entered into the affair in the first place, should have never come to her after their initial night together.  One night is fun and games, but any more than that and an unspoken commitment is enacted—a personal connection that is more than just flesh and sweat and stolen kisses.  That was a commitment Sirius could not uphold.  But every man has his weakness. 

He just couldn't help himself. 

Somehow, he didn't think that this excuse would stand up before Saint Peter and his heavenly choir; hell, it didn't even stand up before his own conscience. 

"Answer us, Narcissa," Lucius said, a note of triumph etched into his words. 

Narcissa hesitated; she sensed Sirius's anguish and though she didn't really understand its source, she did not want to inadvertently cause him any more pain.  But when Lucius crossed the small space of the lorry with his ice-gray gaze, focusing his pale eyes upon her own she couldn't help but remember—

Should I brand you, girl?

And then how he had dropped the cigarette between his fingers, as his lip curled and his eyes rolled shut, words coming from deep inside of him, colored gray by the smoke he had held in his mouth.  "I don't need to brand you, you're already mine…" 

Mine.

"Seventeen." 

Sirius flinched as if he had been slapped. 

"What's your birthday?" Lucius said amicably.  "There's no need to look so glum about it, Black.  I'm just trying to figure what year she would be at Hogwarts." 

"You've made your point, Malfoy," Sirius said, his voice toneless, painfully empty. 

"December twenty-third," Narcissa said quietly, glancing at Black, her face contorted in a mixture of concern and confusion.  She obviously wanted to reach out and touch him, but was afraid of his reaction.  Sirius averted his gaze. 

"You turned seventeen December twenty-third?" Lucius smiled at Narcissa, although his words were meant for Sirius alone.  "When was that?  Eight… no, nine days ago—well, in that case, Happy Birthday," still smirking, he turned his gaze to Padfoot.  "That would make her, what, Black?" he paused, savoring the other man's tension, "a sixth year at Hogwarts?  You've been out of there for how long?  Three years?   Four?" 

"Two," Sirius replied lifelessly. 

"Oh, it's perfectly alright then," Lucius said, the malice that had been running beneath the surface of his words rearing its head, coating the contours of his remark.   "Forgive me." 

"You're older," Sirius snapped, trying unsuccessfully to put Lucius on the defensive. 

"I am aware of that," Lucius replied condescendingly.  "And as the oldest, and most experienced here, I feel it necessary to offer you," he nodded at the girl, "a piece of advice.  I plan to have this suit burned when I return to Cordoba; it's been in such close proximity to a Mudblood for so long than I'm sure that it is beyond repair.  I suggest that you do the same, Narcissa."   

At the word Mudblood, he saw Black flinch.  The anger that had caused him to twitch carried over into his tone, acerbic with raw disgust.  "How do you live with yourself, Malfoy?" 

Lucius smiled vapidly in the face of Sirius's insult.  The Mudblood was only baiting him; anything it said was worthless, not even worthy of a grain of salt.  "I've often wondered the same about you.  You must tell me, Black, what is it like to be one-sixth of a human being?  Not that Mudbloods like yourself have ever experienced full awareness, but I'm sure that you will give us the best explanation you're capable of." 

Remarkably, it was not Sirius, but Narcissa who responded.  "Shut up!" she yelled at him, leaping to her feet.  "He's more of a human being than you will ever be!" 

It surprised Lucius that Narcissa's childish insult hurt him as much as it did, which was slight, but the pain was present nevertheless.  He had supposed that she, and by extension her opinions, meant nothing to him.  He knew that the girl was operating under a delusion, blinded by her love of Black, and though this soothed the bite of her words, it didn't take the full pain away.  He normally brushed other people's comments away, dismissing them as idle babble, so no one had evoked any sort of strong negative reaction from him since… well, since Ilona.  Though the physical resemblance between the two women was uncanny, this skinny, slight whore was definitely not Ilona and the thought that she might wield as much power over him as his sister did, was not only disconcerting, but entirely unwelcome.  He wanted to hurt Narcissa more than she had wounded him, trumping, and somehow neutralizing the pain that he felt.  Narrowing his eyes, he turned to Black.  "Call off your attack bitch."   

----

"Vietnam?"  Laurence laughed, much to James's surprise.  "What about Vietnam?" 

"He doesn't know, Laurence," Moody said.  His gray eyes, full of chronic dislike for James, narrowed to tiny slits.  

James, for his part, felt like a little puffskien dumped into a pit of ravenous manticores, left utterly to his own devices—only to discover that his defenses against the monsters' razor sharp teeth amounted to a cloud of fluffy hair and a little tongue that was useful for picking out children's boogies.  "What's going on?" he asked; his voice sounded very small, even to his own ears. 

Laurence, shooting Moody a quizzical look, answered James's question before the old Auror could object.  "The International Confederation of Wizards needed an excuse to enter into the Vietnam War.  We at the DWA gave them one."

"But the Mekong Massacre…" James began and then trailed off, too confused to finish his thought. 

Moody decided to put his own spin on the facts, sensing that James's discovery was inevitable.  "We needed a way to enter the war; we had received reports that Voldemort had a hand in the fighting already going on in Vietnam." 

James glared at Moody.  How could the Auror chief, who lived through You-Know-Who's rise to power, witnessing a great deal of the Death Eaters' brutality firsthand, be so thoughtless as to refer to the Dark Lord by his true name?  Not only was it careless, it insulted the memory of those who had died in the eight year war against the He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.  Moody, of all people, should know better.  "So why not announce that publicly?" James snapped.  He wasn't sure if he could believe what he was hearing. 

"And alert Voldemort that we were on his tail?" Moody responded, mouth pursing into a severe frown that was eerily reminiscent of Professor McGonagall.  "I don't think so, Potter.  Besides," he continued, "in the early 70s, Voldemort was not the household name he is today.  Ever since Grindelwald want-to-be Dark Lords have come and go like pop singers; very few of them have any staying power—and do you know why, Potter?" 

"Why?" James snapped, crossing his arms over his chest and leaning back into his chair with a pout.  Moody was lecturing him like he was a particularly thick second year back at Hogwarts.  Not only had he graduated from Hogwarts not one, but two years before, he had never been slow at anything, easily gaining the slot of Head Boy and beating out Lily for the top marks in his graduating class. 

"Because we at the Auror Bureau nip them in the bud without alerting the public to the threat.  If your average wizard off the street was owled every time he was in mortal peril, not only would we rack up a huge deficit in postal fees, there would be mass hysteria.  It's much easier to keep the public in the dark." 

"That's not fair," James said, every ounce of him trembling with indignation. 

"Fair has nothing to do with it," Moody snapped.  "You play fair, you end up dead.  Let that be a lesson to you, Potter."  

"I still think you're wrong—" James began. 

Moody cut him off.  "Would it make you feel better, or perhaps quieter, Potter, if I told you the specific reasons for not publicly disclosing Vietnam?" he snapped, shooting James a glare of utter exasperation. 

"Yes," James replied; realizing that he couldn't possibly worsen his relationship with Moody, and therefore may as well try to rectify it as best he could, he added apologetically, "please." 

"Voldemort is not like the other erstwhile Dark Lords," Moody said, leaning across the table towards James.  "He has the virtue of patience.  He didn't come out straight away spouting off Unforgivable Curses and preaching world domination, oh no, quite the contrary, Potter—in his early years, the Dark Lord fashioned himself as an academic of sorts, publishing a number of books and papers that piggybacked on Grindelwald's ideas of Wizarding racial superiority.  He managed to gather quite a following.  You were just a child so you may not remember, but the early 70s were a period of economic upheaval in the wizarding world—a good number of factories shut down and the Ministry of Magic went through a massive restructuring, downsizing from fifteen Departments to seven, laying off a good number of witches and wizards in the process.  What I'm trying to say, Potter, is that it was relatively easy for Voldemort to find an audience, people who needed to feel that they had something going for them, even if it was only their wizarding heritage.  It was this group of discontents that formed the core of Voldemort's support, and carried out a few initial Muggle-baitings and burnings in the name of the Death Eaters.  Voldemort never directly participated, which was very clever of him, you see, because there was never any reliable evidence linking him to these atrocities.  In the public's eye, the Dark Lord looked like an ultra right-wing author who had no intent of taking his beliefs off the page and into solid action." 

"We at the Auror Bureau," he continued, "guessed that there was a direct connection between Voldemort and the sudden rash of violence against Muggles, but we didn't have any solid proof that would stand up to public scrutiny.  When we heard rumors that Voldemort might be in Vietnam drumming up support from both local and American wizards, it looked like the perfect opportunity to nip his dangerous movement in the bud, but we needed an official excuse to send in troops to eliminate him.  We couldn't come clean with the public because we didn't have any facts to lie on the table; everything we knew about Voldemort was just a matter of anecdotal reports and informed conjectures.  If we had announced that we were taking military action against Voldemort a good number of bleeding-heart liberals would have gone berserk, protesting that he had a right to express his opinions, as unsavory as they might be.  It was much easier to keep our true intentions under wraps."  

"The Mekong Massacre was staged to give the International Confederation of Wizards an excuse to send troops into the Vietnam War with the intent of catching Voldemort before he could do any real harm," Laurence explained, slipping into the chair beside James.  "It was the perfect cover; the ICW was founded as an international humanitarian organization, its main purpose is to ensure basic human rights—such as adequate housing, fair trials, et cetera—for wizarding citizens worldwide.  Any member of the ICW is required by international treaty to provide these civil liberties for their citizens.  Most countries belong:  everyone from the USSR to well… us in the US, actually." 

Laurence took a breath before continuing, "We, the DWA that is, were contacted weeks before the mock massacre and asked to take responsibility for the act.  We were an easy scapegoat.  Not only were our Muggle counterparts already involved in Vietnam, we were the only member of the ICW already so isolated from the main bulk of the wizarding world that we could easily withstand the nominal sanctions the Confederation would mount against us.  And of course," he added, his impish smile the polar opposite of Moody's severe frown, "the ICW promised discreet diplomatic and military support in any of our international interests," James noticed that as he spoke, Laurence's gaze meandered across the table to Miriken, still fingering his rusty pistol.  "It was a win-win situation for everyone.  We accepted." 

"Did the troops know?" James asked, his mind flashing back to 1971.  As a boy, he had gazed at the ICW's full-page Daily Prophet ads for hours on end, wanting desperately to join the international peacekeeping force—riding out across the Vietnamese jungle to slay the giant American dragon of injustice, a dragon that, if Laurence and Moody were to be believed, was nothing but a carefully constructed travesty. 

"Not until they arrived in Hanoi," Moody said, his calculating eyes focused on James. 

"But that's… lying," James said.  The utter wrongness of Laurence's story curdled the contours of his conscience, coating the sides of his throat with sour bile, tasting sharply of regurgitated morality. 

"Yes," Laurence replied, without so much as blinking.  The side of his lip twitched upward as if he was fighting back a smile. 

"What about your honor?" James asked, downright offended by the American's devil-may-care reaction. 

"Honor," Moody cut in, his lilting Scottish brogue as hard as steel upon James's ears, "has no place in war." 

James's mind reeled with shocked outrage.  His sense of propriety kept screaming at him, told him that there was no way such a giant conspiracy could have ever been seriously considered by the ICW, let alone brought to fruition.  But he couldn't ignore the doubt taking root inside his own heart, shooting up boughs that bore apples utterly devoid of morality's sweet juice, strung instead, with the bitter liquor of cynicism. 

Did his father know? 

It was entirely too much for him to take in. 

"Once they heard," Moody continued, shooting James a venomous glance, "many of the troops wanted to desert.  We caulked up the fireplaces, killed the owls, and just on the off chance that one of our soldiers knew how to fly a Muggle helicopter, marched the boys to the middle of the jungle, well away from any modes of transportation, wizarding or otherwise." 

"Why?"  James asked, regarding Moody with even a visceral revulsion that far surpassed his previous dislike. 

"The Dark Lord was within our grasp and the stupid boys wanted to go home to their mothers.  One has to make certain sacrifices in a war—all for the greater good.  Think Potter," he said, eyes gleaming with a manic light, "what if Voldemort had been killed in 1971, think all of the lives that would have been saved, the broken families that would be intact, all the hope that would still be alive." 

James's voice was stony accusation incarnate.  "You didn't kill him in 1971." 

"When we finally discovered that the reports saying Voldemort was in Vietnam were nothing but a clever decoy to throw us off the scent, our boys had been in the country for nearly two weeks and had still not eliminated the imaginary American threat that was so important to the wizards back home." 

"Couldn't you have just fabricated another battle?" James sneered, lip curling in disgust. 

"Within a reasonable space of time," Moody replied.  "We sent the boys south towards the Mekong Delta, where the so-called massacre occurred.  No one had bothered to inform the American platoons, both Wizarding and Muggle, of our true mission.  When they saw us coming down from the North they assumed we were communist sympathizers working with the NVAs." 

James was shocked, "Why didn't you just tell them—"

Moody cut him off, "They didn't ask questions, Potter.  We were separated, fragmented—they were boys, not soldiers.  Hell, half of them didn't even know what a gun was, but they learned, and the ones that didn't…" Moody trailed off; there was a deathly silence.  Taking a breath, he began to speak once more, "We had cut off all means of communication with the outside to prevent the boys from deserting, but not even that could stop them now.  They skived off in droves.  Some got so helplessly lost in the jungle they died of thirst, exhaustion, or a thousand other indigenous ailments, but most were picked off by the American curse wizards or their Muggle counterparts.  It was chaos." 

Moody looked down at his hands, as gnarled and scarred as the rest of him.  "When I managed to set up a Hablatus charm to contact the ICW for help I was told that there was nothing they could do.  If we wanted to get out we had to provide the wizarding public with the great victory they so desired." 

"So you did," James said quietly.

"No, Potter," Moody said in a cold voice.  "We died." 

"But we were told—"

"I don't care what you were told," Moody spat.  "By the time the International Confederation of Wizards finally relented I had eleven boys left—eleven, Potter, out of one hundred.  If the ICW hadn't come, I doubt we would have lasted much more than a week.  There were so few of us left the Americans had ceased to pay much notice; it was the boys themselves that were dangerous.  Any of them would have killed his fellow survivor for his jacket, his gun—his bloody socks."

"They told us," James began dazed, "they told us that the rest of the troops wanted to remain in Vietnam as humanitarian workers.  Most of them are still there." 

"All of them are still there," Moody interrupted him.  "Do you know why, Potter?  Because they can't go back." 

"But the families—"

"The ICW forges correspondence; the letters are always hopeful—uplifting.  People love to hear about happy things, especially in times as dark as these." 

"But what about the eleven who survived?" 

"What about them, Potter?  They had been through so much we knew they wouldn't talk, and even if they did," he said quietly, "who would believe them?  The eleven, the eleven boys that pulled through, I still know them all by name:  Wilkes, Dolohov, Pritchard, Rockwood, Warrington, Zabini, Malfoy, Travers, Lestrange, Mulciber, and Rosier." 

James drew a breath.  "Death Eaters." 

"All eleven are today known supporters of the Dark Lord.  The irony of it all is Voldemort did indeed drum up support in Vietnam during the summer of 1971… just not in the way we had anticipated." 

"You're a monster," James snapped, face red with self-righteous fury. 

"And you're too self-absorbed to even begin to make the hard decisions I have to make every day of my life," Moody retorted, managing to looked unruffled in the face of the younger man's disgust.  "Him," the Auror gestured to Laurence, "me, even you Potter—our personal well being, honor included, pales in comparison to the greater good." 

"Then why did you have him," James gestured at Miriken, for there was no longer any doubt in his mind that their meeting with Moody was not an act of random chance, "kidnap me?  Was that a step towards the greater good as well?"  His words were laced with a dangerous sarcasm. 

"I needed an official excuse to come to Moscow and repair the mess that made by two very young, inexperienced excuses for Aurors," Moody replied; his indirect reprimand of James stung Prongs like a slap in the face.  "You gave it to me."

"I didn't give you anything," James snapped.  "And even if I did, I'll be damned if I ever again offer you so much as a Christmas card!"

"I took your visa," Miriken spoke up for the first time.  His thick accent caught James by surprise.  With a lurch, he realized it was the first time he had heard the Doctor speak in English. 

"What?"  James spluttered, hand traveling to the inside pocket of his jacket.  Miriken couldn't possibly have taken his passport; he would have noticed if it were gone. 

"Last night," Miriken repeated, his face cool and expressionless, "I sent it to England with a note of ransom—600,000 Galleons, if your father wishes your safe return." 

"You're going to kill me," James immediately thought of the worse possible outcome. 

"Don't flatter yourself," Moody snapped, and James didn't know whether or not to be relieved or offended.  "That's exactly what I came here to prevent.  The reason you have never been given the foreign assignment that you continually begged me for, Potter, besides the fact that you are not remotely qualified for such an operation, is that by virtue of your father's position, you are at a high risk whenever you are outside of England, where our spells and wards cannot protect you.  Here in Russia, you are a sitting duck.  I needed an excuse to come to Moscow and clean up the mess you'd made.  Your father would never dream of sending me while his precious son was so," Moody smiled condescendingly, "on top of the situation.  So I ordered Miriken, who has been my contact with the Soviet Union for quite a while, to create a situation in which you were at risk.  When he heard his son was in danger, Minister Potter deployed the best Auror at his disposal to play negotiator as," he smirked, "I knew he would." 

"Alastor has managed to talk me down to 300 thousand Galleons," Miriken said sarcastically, shooting a glance to his partner in crime.  "Half of which I am already owed." 

"And the other half belongs to the Auror Bureau in all but name thanks to all the damned budget cuts Potter has been making, reallocating funds from our coffers to the Department of Misinformation.  If you can't win a war, then at least make it look like you have a sporting chance…" he trailed off, muttering angrily to himself. 

James refused to take another snip at his family's honor.  "My father is a very capable leader," he said, visibly bristling. 

"Your father," Moody snapped, not even bothering to turn and look at James, "is a wartime minister with an approval rating of seven percent." 

"Ouch," Laurence added unhelpfully.  "Is that the real statistic?" 

James really couldn't think of anything to say so he sunk into a pout, glowering at the three men around him. 

"Well, there's a five percent margin of error," Moody said, sounding a little annoyed at the sudden interest in Minister Potter, however damning it might be.  "So the actual rating could be as low as two." 

"Or as high as twelve," James said through clenched teeth. 

Moody mocked exuberance.   "Things are really looking up roses, aren't they, Potter?"

James was jolted from indignation into outright panic when the door swung violently open; it smashed against the opposite wall, heavy wood meeting cheap plaster with a horrendous bang.

----

February 12, 1979

The road to Manchester, Cheshire County, United Kingdom

There is a certain thrill in the open road:  whipping down rural lanes disrupting the pastoral peace—an idyllic lull that, in Ilona's opinion, was made to be broken.  The life of the socialite isn't very different from that of a nomad, wandering from casino to casino, resort to resort.  The ability to move at breakneck speeds when traveling from one location to the next was just one of the prerequisites of being a certified expert in the fine art of frivolity.  Yet, the diversion posed by the open highway escapes those summer socialites who laze around until their leaves turn red and they realize it is finally time to set aside the wandering life and commit the mortal sin of growing up. 

Ilona would never understand why Corrow had to go.  One moment he was at her side, playing doubles at squash and wagering mother of pearl chips at the baccarat tables, and then before she even knew it, her hand went bust.  She awoke one morning to find him dressed in a three-piece suit raving some nonsense about the investment possibilities of the diamond mines in his native South Africa, and without further ado… he was gone, his one way ticket to Durban ensuring him a permanent visa into the realm of adult responsibility. 

What a waste. 

She was glad to get the letter summoning her back to Malfoy Manor.  It wasn't that she particularly wanted to travel to Yorkshire, but she needed a distraction from Corrow and his capitulation to maturity.  He had been gone for a week and she still couldn't look at a baccarat table or a squash racquet without thinking of his face, picturing the smooth line of his chin, the dark mess of his hair—the entire package cumulating in the soft terrain of his lips, so often curving into a waxing smile, so often meeting her own…

All thoughts of Corrow vanished from Ilona's mind as a black shape whooshed rudely past her on the road; she pulled her Aston Martin into a sharp turn to avoid being hit.  The wheels of her convertible screamed as she slid dangerously towards the right, traveling so far to the side of the road that the hedge that created the barrier between highway and countryside smacked against her windshield.  Ilona's immediate inclination was to pull out her wand and start cursing everything in sight, but she wasn't in the mood for dealing with the Ministry's damnably dogmatic Improper Use of Magic Squad so she contented herself with narrowing her eyes, staring after the offending black shape.  It was moving too fast to be readily identified, obviously of a mind to infuriate her every chance it got.  Within moments it would round the bend in the winding country road and she would lose sight of it—

It is debatable whether or not curiosity killed the cat but utterly inarguable that it is the ultimate motivator.  Ilona's foot slammed down upon the gas.  Purring, her Aston Martin sprung into top form speeding down the street like a feline in heat. 

The black shape moved, turning around to glance at her.  It, or rather he, for as she got closer she could see that it was indeed a man, was perched atop a motorcycle, a trim ribbon of exhaust streaming out behind him like a banner.  His long hair flew free around his head in lieu of a helmet; in fact, the closest thing to protective headgear on his person was a pair of aviator sunglasses, two squares of brown glass that were currently standing between his gaze and her own.  She couldn't see his face to evaluate his looks, but this seemed utterly irrelevant in lieu of his bearing; there was a certain fire in his manner that caused her to gaze closer, intrigued.  Her stomach flipped excitedly as she realized that she wanted to catch him, not only to teach him a lesson for nearly running her off the road, but to show him a thing or two completely unrelated to punishment.  It didn't matter that she couldn't see his face, in her experience, men who rose motorbikes were either extremely attractive or middle-aged and in denial—and her stranger didn't carry himself like some old fogey trying unsuccessfully prove that it was still 1952.  He had spark, life; he radiated youthful energy that drew her like a moth to flame.  In the extremely unlikely event that her intuition was wrong and motorbike-man's appearance left much to be desired, she could always screw him with her eyes closed.  It had worked in the past.  But she was almost sure she wouldn't have to go to such lengths.  There was no way that her stranger, her fabulous, madcap, carefree stranger could be anything less than insanely handsome, even if it wasn't in the conventional physical way.  His magnetic speed and vitality would more than make up for a harelip or a disfiguring scar.  This man, whisking along helmetless at breakneck speeds, was everything Corrow should have been.  Although his glasses might obscure his appearance they could not mask his unspoken challenge, especially as he pressed his foot down upon the accelerator, causing his engine to growl, garnering the bike a fresh burst of speed. 

This was all the starting gun that Ilona needed.  She pounded her foot to the floor, blonde hair whipping behind her like a flag.  Her hands spun the wheel 180 degrees, her Aston Martin narrowly rounding a sharp turn just seconds after the man on the motor bike.  The Cheshire wind whistled into her ear like a new lover. 

The speedometer's needle moved further to the right:  one hundred twenty-five, one thirty, one forty—and she still was to be barely gaining on her stranger.  His bike's engine trumped every new burst of speed her Aston put forward, eating up the narrow road like a sailor in a whorehouse.  If she didn't know any better she would have guessed that magic greased the gears of his bike, just as it fueled those inside her Aston.  She had thought it impossible for mere oil and pistons to spawn such breakneck speeds.  One hundred forty, one fifty, one fifty-five—everything was a blur, everything except the front end of her car and the back of his bike, rudely slicing its way through the idyllic countryside, its sexy banner of exhaust a cape to her bull. 

Suddenly, he pulled a sharp left, the sudden movement causing Ilona to once again jerk her wheel 180 degrees and hold it there as her wheels moaned.  It took a few seconds for the Aston to render itself perpendicular to its previous position; she jammed her foot down impatiently on the accelerator once her car was ready, not wanting to lose any more time.  Her speed, which had dropped dangerously low in the turn, was now creeping back up, past one hundred to one twenty—one thirty.  It was only then that she realized that she had missed the turn to Manchester, and beyond that city, a quick county over, her father's home.  An instant of indecision gripped her, and she paused to wonder if she should abandon her chase of this elusive stranger on his beautiful bike. 

Then she noticed that her foot was still pressed doggedly to the floorboard, causing her Aston to zoom after the stranger.  She smiled; her subconscious had made up her mind for her and her father would have to wait.  She had come this far; and she'd rather be condemned to eternal purgatory listening to Lucius wax ecstatic about Minotaur fighting (or something equally mind-numbingly boring), than let this man get away with almost running her off the road.  Besides, it wasn't as if the old man was in any state to rage over her tardiness; her presence wasn't absolutely imperative until the fourteenth, which gave her a loose schedule of thirty-six hours to corner, catch, and metaphorically kill her stranger.  She'd bear this hunt through to fruition.  Her eyes narrowed as she focused them upon the man on the motorcycle; she wouldn't let this quarry slip through her fingers. 

The paving under her wheels turned to cobbles as she reached forward to downshift her car.  Her speed had dropped to a respectable eighty when the small whitewashed buildings of a pitiful village rose out of the countryside in front of them.

He slowed as well, although he was still going fast enough to cause a ruckus.  He could have kept to the side of the road and caused relatively little fuss, but instead, he bowled straight down the center, driving right through a gaggle of geese that had been pecking at the cobbles of the road, their goosey logic causing them to hope that solid stone would suddenly transform itself into something edible.  Their angry squawking echoed in Ilona's ears as she followed deliberately in her stranger's path, scattering the gaggle for the second time in a matter of instants.  She paid them no mind; her eyes were still focused on the tail of the stranger's bike. 

Then, without warning, the tail disappeared.  She was so surprised that she jammed her foot down upon the accelerator, zipping past the village church at nearly a hundred kilometers per hour.  By the time her foot had found the brake she had bypassed at least four side streets, any number of which he could have gone down…

…Fifteen minutes later Ilona was almost ready to give up.  She had circled through the tiny hamlet at least five times, and although there seemed to be an overabundance of geese, grass, and, for some inexplicable reason, gardenias, there was no sign of her stranger.  Frowning, she leaned forward to set her foot to the accelerator… and stopped.  Because, there before her, glimmering like the Holy Grail of potential one-night trysts was a silver and black motorbike parked in a space made for a vehicle twice its size.  Ilona was initially surprised to see the lot so full, especially considering that she was in such a miserably small village.  Once she saw the hand painted sign hanging over the door portraying a deck of cards and a discarded lady's stocking, the popularity of the establishment that owned the parking spaces became its popularity became perfectly understandable.  Her stranger was frequenting The Merseyside Gentleman's Bar and Club—she found that amusing beyond belief.  The fact that he visited such a place meant one of two things:  he was either one of those middle-aged fogeys in denial, looking for a quick roll-around without the missus—or he was very, very bored.  Either way, he was a sitting duck, practically screaming for her to swoop in and work her magic.   

She moved her Aston forward to box his motorcycle in.  Unless his bike could fly, her stranger wouldn't be going anywhere anytime soon.  He may have won their little car chase, but she was the front-runner from here on out.  Smiling, Ilona turned off the ignition and slipped the keys into her purse, well aware that the true race had just begun. 

----

February 12, 1979

Just outside Liverpool, United Kingdom

The Merseyside Gentleman's Bar and Club

Jack of diamonds, seven of clubs, five of hearts, ten of spades and the six of clubs. 

Jesus, what a godawful hand.

Sirius stared at his cards, wondering why it was his luck to get not ace, not king, not even queen, but jack high.  Of course, this was only the first go-round. 

 He quickly debated the pros and cons of discarding most of his hand and getting what essentially amounted to a clean slate or keeping a few of his miserable cards and making it appear to the rest of the table that he had something that he did not.  If he took that route, however, it was more than likely that his extra cards would turn into an albatross strung around his neck. 

Eventually, prudence won out over practicality and he tossed everything except for the Jack, which he kept on account of it being his highest card and beyond that, his favorite.  He had always fancied the Jack a bit of a debonair cad and, thus, felt a rather personal connection to the old chap. 

"Four," he said, trying to mold his face into something resembling a knowing smirk.  If he was going to bluff he may as well go all the way. 

He was rewarded with a second six, this time diamonds, two more jacks, which would give him a healthy springboard when paired with the one he already had, and the lone queen of spades. 

For some inexplicable reason, the queen of spades made him think of her.  Very infrequently had Sirius ever seen a woman who played poker; even rarer was a woman who played poker in a "gentleman's bar."  Yet, when she had stepped through the small black door that cut their pub off from the rest of the village, all talk ceased.  Here was a woman—the opposite sex— entering their private sanctum of her own free will.  Smirking, she walked across their room as if she owned the pub, her short black skirt swirling around her hips as she pushed her large Audrey Hepburn sunglasses down the bridge of her nose.  Her thin blonde hair fell into her newly revealed face as she cut her way across the club, completely aware of and to Sirius's eye, rather pleased with the stir that she was causing.  There was no doubt in Sirius's mind that this was the woman from the road.  He had seen very little of her on the highway, except for a flash of blonde hair so it wasn't so much a physical recognition as it was a visceral connection.  They were inextricably linked by the thrill of the chase, animal energy crackling between them like flashes of heat lightning.   He could feel her eyes upon him and he could tell, without looking up, that her gaze was full of recognition.  She had come for him. 

Trying to stay nonchalant, he kept his eyes focused upon the black material of her skirt, which soon proved to be entirely more trouble than it was worth.  She walked with a swivel in her hips that may have seemed contrived on other women; but for her it was as natural as breathing.  Giving up any pretense of apathy, Sirius allowed himself to unabashedly stare at her as she cut her way through the now silent pub towards his table.  Every single pair of eyes in the bar was focused upon her, and she didn't give a damn.  She had the gall to burst into a bloody Gentleman's club and act as if she owned the place.  On top of all that, she drove like a bloody madman.  And she was heading straight for him.

He wasn't the least bit surprised when she arrived at his table, pulled off her sunglasses and spoke three fateful words, "Deal me in." 

That is how she came to be sitting across the table from Sirius, and although all she was holding in her dainty white fingers were five red and white cards, eyes riveted on her hand, face devoid of emotion, she was utterly distracting.  Maybe it was her black lace turtleneck, leaving little to his imagination, or the way her long blonde bangs fell into her eyes, veiling her gaze, but most likely, he mused, it was the way she knew that he was staring at her, knew but gave no sign, except for the way her lips twitched slightly upwards in the barest consideration of a smile. 

"Ante."  The single word jerked Sirius away from his contemplation of the woman and to the logistics of the game.  Besides the woman and the dealer, who abstained from play, there were two other gamblers, Julian, one of Sirius's numerous childhood acquaintances before he went to Hogwarts, who played Poker with as much caution as one would use to cross a fraying rope bridge, and, thus, made an unwanted habit of loosing horribly, and a big burly blond from Norway.  Sirius didn't know the Norwegian's name; in all of his time in Liverpool he had barely heard the man string more than three words together.  But whatever he lacked loquaciously, the Norwegian made up for in his card-playing ability.  Sirius could barely remember a night in which the Norwegian has gone home in the red. 

Reaching into his pocket, he dug out his rumpled wad of bills, all small denominations, and managed to untangle a five-pound note from the mess.  He had never understood the chintzy casinos that required a three or four-hundred pound ante; betting money like that would make him feel godawful about folding.  Not that Sirius ever folded, at least not while he still had some hope of bluffing his way out of whatever grave he had dug himself into.  He felt horrible about giving up, whether the price was five pounds or five hundred. 

Four five-pound notes were pushed into the center of the table and Sirius noted, with a small twinge of pride, that his was by far the most crumpled.  The woman, being on the dealer's immediate left, went first.  Without blinking she pushed another note into the pot. 

Sirius had to stare at it to realize that it was a twenty.  In one fell swoop, she had doubled the pot.  Julian, sitting to the woman's direct left, looked utterly constipated.  He stared at the twenty-pound note, eyes traveling to his hand, then back to the pot, and then to his cards once more.  Julian took a deep breath, fortifying himself, and for the briefest moment, Sirius actually thought that his friend would match the woman's bet, but then he tossed his cards down upon the table and announced in the manner of one more relieved that regretful.  "I fold!" 

Sirius, next in line, didn't even pause to think.  He slid in three fives, four ones and a goulash of assorted coins, effectively, albeit haphazardly, matching the woman's bet.  Digging through his pockets, he managed to find a rather dog-eared five-pound note, which he tossed into the pot.   After the woman's twenty, it lacked the dramatic effect it would have otherwise had, but Sirius wasn't about to wager his life savings. 

Sirius, unlike James and Peter, had never had very much money on hand during his Hogwarts years and now, even though ht had a steady, if relatively unimportant, job at the Auror Bureau, and, thus, cash to spare, he still felt somewhat guilty throwing away money on a game of cards.  He tried to reconcile it to himself, it was only twenty pounds, but then felt all the worse for his troubles because in his youth, twenty pounds had been quite a bit of money. 

But those twenty pounds could return to him threefold, provided that the Norwegian called his bet.  Now was not the time for second thoughts.  Second thoughts lead to nervousness and nervousness was a clear and narrow street towards poor playing, and there was no way in Gryffindor's name that Sirius would allow himself to be beaten by a foreigner or worse yet, a woman.  Taking a deep breath, Sirius pushed his guilt and doubt to the back of his mind.   Julian played with enough trepidation for the both of then.  Poker was meant to be played—and won—on gut instinct.  If there was one thing Sirius trusted, it was his own intuition.   

The Norwegian called, but Sirius noticed, with a knowing smile that he did not raise the bet.  He was playing cautiously, which could mean only one of two things:  the Norwegian was either waiting for the woman to dig her own grave, or he had a really shit hand.  By the pained look on the Norwegian's face, Sirius was willing to bet the latter.

Suddenly, Sirius began to have a bit more faith in his three Jacks. 

The woman had noticed the Norwegian's careful betting as well and she aimed a mocking smile at the blond man as she slid a fiver into pot, matching Sirius's bet, and then another bill, overstepping it.  Sirius glanced at it and his pulse quickened when he realized that it was another twenty. 

This was the point of no return, and she had posed a challenge that he'd look foolish not to answer.  So in one move, moving quickly so he would allow no room for regret, he called her bet.  Reaching for his rapidly dwindling wad of bills he pulled out a ten, which he added to the pot. 

Now everything rested upon the Norwegian, and although he kept his expression blank, Sirius could sense the aura of discomfort radiating out of the man's very pores.  It seemed like a very long time in which the Norwegian's eyes flickered from the pot to his cards and back again; it couldn't have been more than a few seconds however, when he added thirty to the pot, once again refusing to raise the tab. 

The woman was all too willing to take up the Norwegian's slack.  She matched Sirius's ten, as he knew she would, and then, glancing at the pot and pausing for one moment in which Sirius guessed she was doing some quick mental arithmetic, she added a twenty. 

The Norwegian's cards were on the table before Sirius could even glance at his own.  One opponent eliminated, the woman turned her eyes to Sirius, a small smile creeping up the side of her face. 

He called.  It really was too late to back out now.  Sirius was an impulsive player and he knew it; although his famed instinct was urging him on (with his pride bringing up the rear), he couldn't suppress the slightest twinge of doubt.  The woman seemed so self-assured, shelling out money as if it meant nothing to her.  She must have one hell of a hand or one mother of a bank account.  Sirius was hoping for the latter, but all things considered he had neither and, thus, would be unable to hold out like this much longer.  It wasn't every day that he wagered seventy pounds on a poker game.  "Show," he commanded, turning his gaze upwards from the pot to meet hers. 

She looked almost amused.  "You first."  He laid down his hand, the jacks, six and queen in plain sight, glancing up immediately to gauge her reaction, and through that, his fate.  Thanks to her itchy betting fingers, he could have just won himself a boatload of money. 

Whether she was defeated or the winner, she gave no sign as she silently began to lay down her cards, a six, another six, a queen, a queen…

Sirius inhaled sharply.  If she had two pair, then it meant that he took the pot—

…and finally, a third six.

"Full house," she said simply, directing her mocking smile towards him. 

But Sirius was too startled to notice her derisive look, for his mind was instantly whirling down a tangent that could prove to be the key to the entire poker game.  The woman won with three sixes and Sirius had one in his hand, which made four.  But he had possessed another six in his first hand, which he had discarded before betting had even commenced.  Four plus one made five. 

He looked up from the table just in time to see the woman's slinky form working its way through the smoke filled pub towards the bar.  Eyes narrowing, he got up from the card table and began to follow.  There was no deck of cards in the world with five sixes. 

----

"You cheated," Sirius said by way of greeting, sliding into a barstool beside the woman. 

She merely blinked at him.  "Excuse me?" 

He had the feeling that she had caught his accusation the first time around and was merely putting on a pretense of confusion.  Nevertheless, he repeated his salutation.  "You cheated." 

"No," she corrected, raising one blonde eyebrow.  "You lost and whether or not you want to be sore about it is not my affair." 

Sirius saw straight through her scorn.  "In this world," he persisted accenting each word with a jab of his thumb, "there is no deck of cards with five sixes." 

He could have sworn that he saw a glimmer of surprise in her silver eyes, but it passed quickly, glazed over by a sugary sheen of condescending amusement.  "I simply don't know what you are talking about," she said.  The tone of her voice achieved what Sirius would have previously thought impossible, making her confession of ignorance a jab at his own intelligence.

Taking a quick breath, Sirius began.  "You won with a full house, two jacks and three sixes.  Do you agree?" 

"I really don't see what you're getting at."  She raised an eyebrow in aristocratic annoyance, and despite her patronizing attitude, or if he really wanted to be frank with himself, on account of her patronizing attitude, Sirius continued. 

"Do you agree?" he repeated doggedly, purposefully ignoring her over-accentuated sigh of annoyance. 

"Yes."  Her voice was ripe with irritation.  "I won with a full house.  But I still don't see—"

"Yet," he said, cutting her off and enjoying every inch of her exasperated frown.  "I discarded one six and got another in return," Sirius said, ticking off the cards on his fingers.  "That's two.  You can count as well as I—that's five sixes."

Her reply was, if anything, unexpected.  "So?" 

"Five sixes," Sirius persisted, trying to wring a reaction out of her.  He had expected her to let loose a sudden burst of anger, or even a tearful confession, but apathy was the last thing he had anticipated.  "That's impossible."

"You said it yourself," she replied with a patronizing smile, "five sixes are simply impossible.  You must be mistaken." 

"No," Sirius said, dark eyes never wavering from her icy pale face.  "I know when I'm mistaken, whether I admit it or not.  There were five sixes in that deck." 

"How much," she asked carefully, a depreciating smile on her face.  "Have you had to drink?"

"I should have run you off the road," he growled, glowering at her. 

She put on a face of mock offense.  "That's no way to talk to a lady." 

"You're no lady." 

She raised an eyebrow.  "Is that a threat?" 

"It's an insult." 

She smiled at him.  "If it wasn't for the central heating, I'd be shivering." 

A sudden thought hit Sirius, a wild impossibility that was so crazy, so utterly improbable that it had to be the closest thing to the truth.  "Magic," he said, more to himself than to the girl. 

"Come again?" she said, her face a mask of bored amusement.

"Magic," he repeated, now bringing his dark eyes up to meet her elusive gray ones. 

"I repeat," she said, smiling slightly.  "How much have you had to drink?" 

But the strength of his conjecture banished any clouds of doubt her reply may have otherwise thrown upon his theory.  "I don't know of a charm that could have had that effect," he continued, watching the patronizing smile on her face slide into the realm of genuine interest, "an illusion maybe, or perhaps you transfigured the card—but I'm not sure exactly how, especially without a wand," he broke off, the contemplative grin on her face confirming his suspicions.  "However you did it, I'm impressed." 

"As am I," she said, tilting her head slightly to the side, as if trying to get a better look at him.  "You're the only person between here and Monte Carlo to see through that parlor trick." 

"Then you?" he prompted. 

"Transfigured the card," she answered.  "It's relatively easy; you only have to change the print, from spades to hearts or," she added with a smile in his direction, "a nine to a six.  You're not changing the actual material of the card so it's relatively simple magic, not requiring a wand—" she broke off abruptly, gray eyes narrowing.  "How can I trust you?"

"It's a bit late for that," Sirius replied, relishing her shocked expression for one short sadistic moment before dismissing her fears.  "No, I'm just kidding, you don't have to worry.  I want my money back, of course," he added, giving her a stern glance. 

She looked somewhat offended.  "I won it."

"That's debatable." 

Scowling, she reached into the pocket of the white leather jacket she had slung across her knees and pulled out a substantial wad of bills, obviously much more than their meager pot.  Sirius realized that the woman had been pulling her parlor trick on hapless Muggles all the way from Monte Carlo, and been compensated handsomely for the trouble.  The oft-ignored moral part of him felt mildly offended but the wicked Padfoot side of him was thoroughly impressed, and more than a little sore that he hadn't thought of the stunt himself.  He couldn't grudge her a bit of fun, especially when she was willing to reimburse him for it. 

"How much did you put in?" she asked. 

"One hundred pounds," he replied, upping the sum by thirty quid.  She could afford the loss.

Carelessly, she thrust him the amount before slipping the money back into her jacket.  Then she turned to him, a small smile on her face.  "I'm Ilona Malfoy by the way." 

Sirius's head jerked upwards as if he had been slapped.  Malfoy… Malfoy… of course that was familiar, everybody knew the Malfoys, but Ilona specifically…  Oh yes, he remembered Ilona specifically, he thought with vehemence. 

By God, he remembered Ilona specifically. 

…February 12, 1975

Hogwarts Quidditch Pitch

Gryffindor-Slytherin Match

Sirius was trying to watch the Quidditch game, but sandwiched between Peter and Remus that was a formidable task at the very least.  Peter was prattling on incessantly about how Sukie Pickiwiggs, a fellow Gryffindor fourth year, had her eye on him.  It seemed that whenever he looked up she was ogling him with her dreamy mooncalf eyes, and when he glanced back she'd giggle and look away and then, after a few seconds, when she thought it was safe again she'd resume staring.  "Gee whiz, Sirius, it just has to be love!"

Sirius didn't have the heart to tell Peter that he was taking Sukie to the Three Broomsticks the next Hogsmeade Weekend. 

Remus, pressed up against his other side, was not much better company.  Although he was usually bored out of his skull at a Quidditch match, Remus was making a valiant and truly heartfelt effort to enjoy the game, more, Sirius suspected, for James's sake than any genuine love of sport.  However, despite his best intentions, Remus just didn't have it in him.  Less than five minutes after Professor McGonagall, doubling as Transfiguration and Flying Instructor, and, thus, chief coordinator of the Inter-house Quidditch championship, blew the whistle signaling the start of play, Sirius felt a small pressure on his shoulder.  Remus had fallen asleep. 

"Look at Potter, go!  It's hard to believe he's it's just his second year as Chaser; he flies as if he's been on the pitch all his life.  Potter passes the Quaffle to fellow Gryffindor Shikse, who moves towards the Slytherin goalposts and—ooh, that looked like it hurt.  Shikse takes a Bludger from Malfoy—she drops the Quaffle.  I can't believe it, Potter's going into a dive, he's trying to catch it—come on James, come on—no!  Slytherin in possession of the Quaffle.  Luftwaffe passes to Avery, who moves towards the Gryffindor side…"

Sirius sighed; it wasn't as if his own motives for coming to the match were as commendable as Remus's well-intentioned, if somewhat lethargic, support of James.  And on that note, Sirius was of the firm opinion that James had entirely too much moral support already.  Lily Evans had rallied her entire gang of Gryffindor girls into action and now they were a regular bunch of suffragettes with Potter as their platform, screaming loudly and waving all sorts of brightly colored banners enchanted to sing catchy slogans, though this backfired somewhat as whoever had charmed the banners (Lily, Sirius guessed, as she was the only person outside of Slytherin who could match James when it came to Flitwick's class) was utterly tone-deaf and the banners sang in just the wrong keys, creating a discordant clamor utterly devoid of meter and measure to which the only discernable words were "Potter", "James", and "score".  Sirius allowed himself to feel thoroughly embarrassed for his friend's sake.  Although, after he let the humiliation sink in a bit, Sirius supposed that James would take Lily's antics as a compliment.  Stupid noble prat.

"Avery is making headway up the pitch.  He has been an unquestionable asset to the usually talentless Slytherin team, and when he graduates this year he will be sorely missed.  As team captain, Avery has made some very valuable finds, including those two sirens of the Quidditch pitch, fellow seventh years Malfoy and Goyle, Slytherin's Beaters and the only females on the team.  Just this last summer, Avery was ranked in Quidditch International Digest as one of the top amateur players in Europe—I believe he was number four, with one being of course Beauxbaton's legendary Keeper Coco LeBon, and the number two slot going to our very own Chaser James Potter…"

It wasn't that Sirius objected to the idea of giving James moral support; he was rooting his friend on as much as the next Gryffindor; he just had other ulterior motives for attending the match.  See, Sirius had always fancied himself a bit of a bookie. 

"What are the odds?" 

Sirius looked up from Peter, who was still mooning over Sukie, to see a sixth year Hufflepuff he didn't know, which was a very rare occurrence indeed.  Sirius often found that he could walk clear from one end of the great castle to the other and know the names of every single person he came across, from the smallest first years to the most imposing upperclassmen.  "Currently?" he said lazily, appraising the Hufflepuff.  He looked like a rather nervous fellow, with trembling hands and red cheeks.  Sirius decided he would give him the benefit of the doubt and attribute his affectations to the February wind. 

"Yes currently," the Hufflepuff snapped, looking rather annoyed at Sirius's cheek. 

Sirius felt rather surprised that the Hufflepuff was even betting.  Aside from their admittedly undeserved reputation as boring bumps on a log, it was not very often that a Hufflepuff, or a Ravenclaw for that matter, involved themselves in the infamous Gryffindor-Slytherin rivalry, even in something as trivial as betting on a Quidditch match.  The badger and the eagle more often preferred to stay in the dorms and pray that they didn't get swallowed by the lion or stung by the serpent.  "Three to one," he said, continuing as the Hufflepuff dug into the pocket of his robes for a spare Sickle, "but all bets closed when the match started." 

"And Potter is certainly living up to his reputation as he flies in from the side—Avery swerves to miss a Bludger fired by Johnson, oh, he drops the Quaffle!  It's about time—Potter catches it of course and passes to fellow chaser Dewey.  If there's one thing I like about James Potter, it's that he's a team player.  Dewey takes the Quaffle across the field—Oh watch out!  Would you look at that!  Dewey narrowly manages to avoid a Bludger hit by Malfoy by throwing herself into a brilliantly executed starfish-on-a-stick, though I'm not sure it was quite intentional as that is usually a Keeper position…"

"Oh come on," the Hufflepuff protested, his cheeks reddening as his annoyance grew, "from what I've heard you're a reasonable guy.  Cut me some slack." 

"Sure, I'll cut you some slack," Sirius said amiably, "next match." 

"Listen to the man," Peter added unnecessarily, earning himself a disparaging glance from both Sirius and the Hufflepuff. 

The Hufflepuff turned back to Sirius, a pitiable expression on his red face.  "Please, I have a girlfriend—"

Peter muttered something that sounded suspiciously like, "Me too!" 

Sirius allowed himself to feel mildly guilty before turning back to the Hufflepuff, who was continuing with his tale of woe.  "Valentine's Day is next Monday and if I don't get her something expensive, that's it for me."  He drew his finger across his throat to further illustrate the tight situation he was in.  "The only thing is I'm low on coins; see, I don't have the money to buy her something really nice, or really anything at all, and—"

"I'm your last hope," Sirius finished for him, appearing quite sympathetic to the older boy's plight. 

"Exactly!" the Hufflepuff replied, a relieved smile spread across his ruddy face. 

"Next time," Sirius said with a cheeky grin, "choose a more reliable last hope."  He waited for one moment, watching the Hufflepuff's face steadily change from one of relieved pleasure to abject shock before tacking on an epilogue to his referendum.  "Just kidding.  How much to you want to wager?" 

"Six Galleons, fourteen Sickles, and a Knut," a voice belonging to neither the Hufflepuff, Wormtail, or Moony shot from somewhere behind Sirius's left shoulder. 

"Potter in possession of the Quaffle—here come the three Slytherin Chasers in the classic, unimaginative Hawkshead formation; it looks as if Potter is trying to outfly them, come on James—no!  Avery swerves ahead to cut him off while Messerschmitt and Luftwaffe come in from either side—that's blatant stooging!  And would you look at that?  When you think Slytherin can sink no lower—Luftwaffe punches Potter in the nose so Avery can grab the Quaffle—the cheating bastards!"

"No one asked you, Snape," Peter snapped, leaping to his feet, and yipping like an attack Lhasa Apso. 

Sirius's reaction was almost as instantaneous.  Temporarily ignoring the Hufflepuff he leapt to his feet, jarring Remus from the world of sleep to that of the living in the process.  "What are you doing here, Snape?" he snarled, face contorting into any angry sneer. 

"Placing a bet," Snape replied, his offhand manner only serving to infuriate Sirius more. 

"What if we don't want your bet, huh?" Peter snipped. 

Both Snape and Sirius ignored the smaller boy.  "The bets are closed," Sirius said between clenched teeth. 

"I'm not betting on the game, Black," Snape said, smiling his nasty scornful smile and showing all of his already yellowing teeth in the process.  He looked as if Christmas and all of its festive trappings had come early; it's not every day that one manages to thoroughly incense Sirius Black. 

"Then what are you betting on, Snape?"  Sirius spat, twisting the other boy's name into a snarl, with all the raw vehemence of an explicative. 

"I bet six Galleons, Fourteen sickles and a Knut," the Slytherin said, holding up his small pouch of money, "that James Potter falls off of his broom before the end of the match." 

McGonagall blows her whistle; it's about time!  Hopefully Potter will remain in the game—it's only a bloody nose, James.  Ah yes, McGonagall has awarded him a penalty shot, and Potter makes towards the Slytherin goalposts—look who is doing a starfish-on-a-stick now?  Ha, ha, take that Avery!  Potter scores, 10-0 Gryffindor!"

"You're kidding—James would never in a million years fall off of his broom!"  Peter exploded as the Gryffindor stands erupted into cheers above him, celebrating James's goal.  Sirius could hear Lily screaming herself hoarse a few rows above them.  Sirius hadn't seen her that happy since he had given Lily her first kiss two years before behind Herbology Greenhouse One, long before Prongs had even realized that there was more to girls than cooties and pigtails.  "He's the best Chaser Hogwarts has ever seen since—" he stammered, loosing steam mid-proclamation, "since Godric Gryffindor himself!"

"That is somewhat debatable," Snape sneered, shooting Peter an icy stare, "as Gryffindor lived in 900 AD, before the invention of Quidditch."  Wormtail sank back into his seat like a turtle slipping down under the side of his shell, thoroughly chastened. 

"No," Sirius said firmly, remaining staunch under Snape's scorn.

"No what, Black?" Snape snapped.  "Don't want my dirty money?  Why will you take the Hufflepuff's then?  It's a free country, didn't you know?" 

Remus, always the populist, spoke up for the first time.  "He does have a point, Sirius."  Padfoot shot Remus a grateful stare that caused his eyebrows to constrict and his lip to curl into a snarl; Remus shrugged.  "Well he does," he said, with an apologetic note in his voice. 

"Gryffindor in control of the Quaffle.  They're on a roll now as Potter passes it to Dewey who chucks it to Shikse, who drops it to Potter as they head for the Slytherin goalposts, now look at how they move as one cohesive unit.  Do you see that, Avery?  You should be taking notes…"

"If I was to accept your bet," Sirius said between clenched teeth, feeling utterly betrayed, "who else would enter your pool?" 

"Me!" the Hufflepuff chortled.  Sirius felt his heart sink; his last excuse to bar Snape had been stripped away.  "There is no way that James Potter is going to fall off of his broom before the end of the match." 

Snape began, turning to the Hufflepuff.  "If we're in such agreement—"

"Disagreement," Sirius interrupted, determined to be as pugnacious as possible.  "The whole point of a bet is that you disagree." 

"If we are in such agreement," Snape said, over accentuating his last word, "we can avoid Black altogether.  Let's shake on it." 

"Fine by me," the Hufflepuff said, smiling amiably.  But as soon as his hand closed around Snape's a gigantic crack of ball meeting bat was heard and moments later a wild yell swept over the entire stadium. 

"And that was a Bludger from Malfoy—would you look at that, I never thought I'd see the day!  Potter's down, he's falling, he's falling fast—he's off his broom, which continues to fly, straight through the Slytherin goalposts; too bad it isn't a Quaffle…"

"You bastard!" the Hufflepuff yelled, rounding upon Snape.  "You fixed it!  You fixed it with Malfoy!" 

Sirius didn't even wait to hear Snape's reply, for he launched himself upon the other boy and it was only much later that he was extracted from the flurry of flailing limbs, kicking legs, and flying fists by a red-faced Professor McGonagall, who awarded them both a detention for their troubles. 

For the next few weeks, Sirius exclusively blamed Ilona Malfoy for his punishment and James's injury.  He perfected his evil glower and utilized it at every possible opportunity, namely glaring at Malfoy in the halls as she passed.  He spent long hours contemplating exactly what he would like to do to her if he ever got his chance, and for once, his fantasies were far from amorous.  He was on the brink of constructing small wax dolls of Malfoy and poking them periodically with sharp shiny objects when new battles with the forces of Slytherin surfaced.  These distractions steadily turned into full-time diversions and as suddenly as it had appeared, Sirius's adolescent animosity against Malfoy faded fully from the forefront of his mind. 

Until now. 

Not only was Ilona Malfoy far from a common name, she possessed the Beater's cold slate eyes, her thin tow hair, and her trademark derisive smile.  Besides, only a Slytherin would cheat so shamelessly at cards.  There was no way around it.  It had to be her.   

Between the spell cast by those icy gray eyes and that tiniest of smiles that told him, despite their short acquaintance, she knew more about him that he did himself, he couldn't find himself bothered to hold an unjustified grudge about a small misunderstanding over Quidditch. 

"Sirius," smiling broadly he extended a hand, which she took; the strength of her grip matched his own.  "Sirius Black." 

"Well?"  Ilona blinked at him, obviously expectant. 

"Well what?" he replied.

"Now that you've robbed me of my money, aren't you going to buy a poor girl a drink?"

----

By the time her drink had been bought, and drunk, and then bought again, most of the evening had past, left lying unattended in the bottom of almost-drained bar glasses and underlying their careless flirtation.  Even his grasp couldn't keep her from stumbling as she stepped into the nearest puddle, the city lights painting red and yellow stripes across the rain-splattered parking lot. 

He made a wild grasp for her arm, but then stumbled himself, hating to reach out blindly to grip the nearest street lamp for support; her derisive laughter echoed in his ears. 

"You're drunk," she said, still managing to sound accusatory despite the fact that she was as sloshed as he was. 

"And you're a cheat," he retorted automatically, taking a shaky step away from the street lamp to walk straight into the far more welcoming repose of her arms.  "But when I wake up in the morning, I'll be sober." 

"Is that such a good thing?" she mouthed, the city lights staining her face blood-red.  "Have you ever thought that sobriety was just a poor excuse for real life?" 

With those words ringing in their ears they ambled over to her Aston Martin.  She opened the side door with the slight click of a key; she slipped into the wide bucket seat, the chair's soft leather sticking to the naked skin of her lower thigh as she pulled the release lever, pushing the chair down.  He clambered up, on top of her, up atop that petal-soft skin and that hard leather seat, her arms twining about his neck, pulling him close with so much urgency that her fingernails dug into his skin.  The incisive pain was a far cry from the soothing catharsis of conventional romance. 

"I don't think," Sirius muttered his voice husky and breathless.  He spoke into her silver hair; its tangled locks were made red by the harsh light of the street lamps.  "I just do."

"You're like me," she replied, her grip tightening fervently around his waist.  "Sobriety isn't life, this," she squeezed him so tight that her nails dug into the flesh of his flank, "this is.  Real existence happens when there are no limitations—"

"No rules—" he breathed as she laid her hands upon his chest, the rain soaking them both as she hooked her thumb under the neck of his T-shirt and pulled him close. 

"Only then can anything important happen." 

Her heady smell was as intoxicating as the liquor they had consumed hours earlier.  Her lips met his for one instant, two and then three… four, five which stretched into many, and then broke as she turned her head away, sliding his hand under the band of her skirt.  Yet, like the catalyzing drink, the aftertaste of her kiss burned his throat, weakening and fiery at the same time, nullifying the senses and heightening his awareness in one single stretch of instants. 

This isn't life, Sirius. 

Her lips burned a fiery trail down his collarbone as her fingers slid under and up the thin material of his T-shirt, their light touch as biting as the kiss of cigarette butts melting the skin, blazing, burning, branding—but for whom?

Branding her as his?

No.

Him as hers?

And the answer was as clear and as real to him as the touch of her lips against his ears, whispering, whispering wicked somethings in a language he couldn't even recognize, let alone decipher, for when she had learned her foreign ABCs, he had been roaming the deserted warehouses and back alleys of Liverpool, running his fingers across the chain link fence that separated the factories from the world, often knicking himself on a loose piece of metal and then his fingers would bleed, oh how they'd bleed, as red as the light spilling across the pale canvas of her face as she marked him like a bitch hound and he let himself be claimed, hands playing the symphony of desire across her skin, a concerto he thought he had known by heart until she had cheated her way into his with her triple sixes, coupling pleasure with pain, and she—her fingers digging into his back and her lips leaning towards his—was so raw, so intense, so alive that everyone seemed, in comparison, a pale fantasy.  And even as the rain poured down, drenching them both with nature's maternal tears, his lips met hers.  And even as they pulled apart, a bit of her still lingered upon his mouth, like the juice of Adam's forbidden fruit.  And he knew then, like Eve and her consort, their fates were inexorably bound.  For who can doubt the sanctity of original sin?

"Let's get married," she whispered.

His reply was coupled with a breathless laugh.  "Why?"

"Why not?"

Her grin only widened when she saw the mirror image of her intent reflected in his dog-brown eyes.

----

Sirius had grown up in a tenement house on Liverpool's west side.  Most of the apartment belonged to his father, though he had delegated one room to Sirius's Great Aunt who was prematurely senile thanks to tertiary syphilis and therefore not much help to anybody, least of all herself.  The tiny family moved to the tenement from Manchester when Sirius was three just after his mother, his red-haired laughing-eyed mother, ran off with the pastor of Our Lady's Church of the Perpetual Conception after a clandestine affair in the confessional booths.

The tenement was a tiny old place; the filthy windows and chipped brick rarely saw anything but a weak diluted daylight, as they constantly fell under the shadow of an old factory which stood across from the Black's residence, taking up the entire block.  Around the turn of the century, when the mill's walls had been freshly painted and its equipment cutting edge, it must have been state of the art, but those Halcyon days were long gone.  The old factory stood dark and derelict, its whitewash peeling as the numerous machines stood vacant, wanting for a hand.  Still the plant persisted, belching dark clouds of smog into the Liverpool sky, more out of habit than any misplaced faith in the power of progress.  When he was in a pensive mood, which usually happened when he had had too much to drink, Sirius's father would lay a hand on his shoulder and tell him how bloody lucky they were, for fortune had blessed them by giving them solid bodies to go out and work in their solid jobs and the return to their solid home where they sit and could eat their solid food, living out their solid lives one day at a time.  However dirty, however hopeless tenement life seemed, it was stable, unchanging, and certain—the joyless future was simply a continuation of the bleak past.  Sirius's father was a factory worker as was his father before him and his sire as well.  There was little doubt in the elder Black's mind that Sirius would end up working in the mill until he was ransomed from the assembly line by his own son's young body.  Although the future seemed drear, Sirius's father said it was better than Derry, the Black family home before either of them were born, where their forefathers were forced to squat and steal, having nothing to call their own.  Not that the Blacks were currently removed from the world of squatters and thieves:  the house three down from Sirius's own was occupied by a come-and-go band of youngsters with limbs too thin and joints too old and bloodshot eyes as wide as saucers.  None of them ever stayed for too long. 

Sirius had always been the sort of kid who told all the other children the truth about Father Christmas, or the place where babies really came from.  He supposed he had always credited this lack of naïveté to growing up, literally and figuratively, in the shadow of a factory.  Adulthood had always been looming, not only in the derelict building across the street, but in the way his Great Aunt's eyes glazed and rolled back into her head as she gurgled inanely, powerless to control her own movements; reality was present in his father's face, grayish-white from a job that commenced at six in the morning and lasted well into the evening, long after the sun dipped behind the western horizon.  Sirius had never had the luxury of childhood innocence; at a very early age, he had been forced to come to terms with the fact that some people had money and others—example: his father—did not, but the true extent of some individual's wealth had never struck him until the Easter holidays of his second year at Hogwarts when he had first gone home with James.  Up until that moment he had clung to the illogical childlike hypothesis that people with wealth had very nice tenement houses with intact windows, uncracked walls, and water that came on regularly when you turned the tap. 

The Potter's estate was definitely more than just a nice tenement.  In Sirius's best estimation, he could fit his entire neighborhood times three into the front lawn alone.  The mansion itself, taking up a modest 14,937 square meters of the estate's fifteen total acres was a lavish structural confection full of marble friezes, vaulted ceilings, and every other edificial frivolity one could possibly imagine and then some.  The house had no set architectural style; according to James it was a textbook example of the Baroquesqe-Panneoclassical-Mannerist movement, which had been popular sometime between the years of 1901 BC and 1902 AD.  Translated into layman's terms this meant nothing more than that the architect designing the Potter's home had been drunk, stoned, or any combination thereof when he drew up the blueprints and, thus, created a mismatched edificial monstrosity composed completely of the worst aspects of every single architectural school since the day when some old curmudgeon looked down from the clouds and proclaimed, "Let there be flying buttresses!"  Sirius's favorite room was the Neo-Serf Hall of Mirrors, a corridor in the style of Versailles's most famous chamber… with a waddle and daub roof. 

In short, James's home was where old architectural styles went to die. 

Surprisingly, the Potters turned a blind eye to their manor's deficiency, treating it rather like an old uncle who, although admittedly eccentric, was, on the whole, very well loved.  If any visitor was foolhardy enough to make a comment about the mansion that was less than ecstatic, the Potters would treat it as an insult directed towards a member of the family.  Discussing the mansion with any of the Potters was not worth the trouble, especially for Sirius, who had as much tact as a dead fish.  He had learned that a pissed-off Potter was a royal pain in the left metatarsal and, thus, tried to avoid one at all costs. 

Despite its rather haphazard design, Sirius had been absolutely bowled over by the sheer majesty of the Potter's estate upon his first visit.  He remembered when James showed him into the front entry hall:  a grand open-air atrium in the style of Imperial Rome, but with granite gargoyles sitting atop every pillar.  Sirius, who accepted Hogwarts's size and grandeur as institutional, had never though that a personal residence could be so majestic.  Real people weren't allowed to own pillars. 

Architectural frippery aside, he was awed out of his socks by the sheer size of the house.  It seemed to run on for miles upon miles; his own residence could fit into the atrium alone with plenty of room to spare.  Sirius walked over to one of the imposing marble pillars and laid his hand upon it, just to try and prove to himself that it was, indeed, real. 

"What's the matter?" James asked, laughing at his loquacious friend's loss for words.  "Haven't you seen a house before?"

Sirius looked up into the brilliantly blue Devonshire sky before speaking.  The hulking form of one of the numerous gargoyles blocked the midday sun's intense glare.  "Not like this," he replied, breathless with awe.  The gargoyle, sensing a visitor, tilted its stony head and sent Sirius a mischievous wink in greeting. 

As a Muggle-born, not yet completely familiar with the idiosyncrasies of the wizarding world:  namely, inanimate objects that refused to stay stationary, the wink had scared Sirius halfway out of his skin, which he realized, in retrospect, was probably the gargoyle's intent.  He flat-out refused to go into the atrium for days, much to James's amusement. 

But whatever fear the Potter estate had inspired in Sirius seemed benign compared to the gothic monstrosity currently perched on the far horizon like a falcon, ready to swoop in screaming for the kill.  Sirius crossed his arms over his chest, shivering even though he was not cold, "This is where you live?" 

Ilona raised one pale eyebrow as she pulled her white Aston Martin into a tight left turn, wheels just skimming the edge of the dirt road.  "It's just a house." 

Malfoy Manor was defiantly more than just a house.  It was seated at the crest of a small hill, rising out of the moorland like a wave that had just passed its pinnacle, already arching forward to crash upon the shore.  The road that led to the Manor, a slender ribbon of brown in the wash of gray moorland, was so ill-tended that there may as well have not been a road for all the use this one had got.  As they approached Ilona's house the dirt road evolved into a gravel driveway rimmed by hedges that had once been proud and tall but now stood hunched and malformed by years of harsh weather and regular neglect.  A rusty iron fence ran the length the property, and whatever defense it might provide against intruders didn't carry over to the encroaching heath, which had already consumed its wrought iron spikes. 

On either side of the main portcullis stood the statues of two young girls, dressed lightly in the Roman style; their black marble tunics were blown askew by an invisible stone wind.  Lichen coated the angel wings that stood upon their backs while their outstretched hands were chipped, painfully empty in a dual pieta.  They put Sirius in mind of mausoleum angels, statues that stood at the gateways of tombs, the silent guardians of the dead.  He shuddered.  Sirius wasn't particularly afraid of pain, or suffering, or even death; it was burial itself that set him on edge.  He despised the notion of being entombed in a graveyard; he couldn't stand the idea of spending eternity enclosed, whether it be in a coffin under six feet of moldy earth or in a tomb, behind six inches of solid stone.  He loathed the idea of confinement. 

The manor's front gate had rusted open, the swinging doors choked into stasis by a tangle of bracken and thorns.  Welded overtop the portal beyond the reach of the hungry heath was the phrase Dulce et decorum est pro familia mori.  There was little doubt in Sirius's mind that those words, cut from iron to stand for eternity, would outlast the fence itself.   

As Ilona gunned her car up the steep slope at a ridiculously fast speed, Sirius was unable to turn his eyes to anything but the Manor itself, growing ever larger until it took up his entire field of vision, filling it with haphazard spires and arrow-slit windows that were terrible in their gothic splendor.  The home never seemed to end; its gray walls progressed across the heath into eternity.  It appeared to Sirius an ageless house, one that was never built, existing before the dawn of time and continuing long after the inevitable day when the heath would wither to dust and the world crumble down into rubble.  Yet the rational part of his mind knew that this structural immortality was but an idle fantasy, for as they approached the Manor it was easy to see that the "ageless" walls were already covered with a faint splattering of mold, the harbinger of decay.  Ilona pulled the car to a screeching halt. 

Strangely enough, it was the heavy mahogany door, organic, and thus subject to the age-old law:  ashes to ashes, dust to dust, that was holding strong against the encroaching heath, for it bore no mark or blemish.  Sirius got out of the little Aston Martin, the click of his slamming door shattering the silence that hung over the Manor like a burial shroud.  Ilona, flat-out ignoring the somber air, brushed right by him, making for the door.  He could only follow. 

The stone surrounding the portcullis was carved in the same manner as the twin statues at the gates, only these mausoleum angels had their arms stretched high above their heads, effortlessly supporting a banner hewn in polished granite that read:

LUCIUS MALFOY—1801

"Who is Lucius Malfoy?" Sirius asked, gesturing towards the carving. 

"I don't know," Ilona snapped, obviously annoyed with Sirius's awe towards the Manor.  "Someone long dead and buried."  She brushed past him to grab the iron door handle.  Pulling it open viciously, she gestured for him to enter the Manor.  "You would think that you've never seen a house before," she snapped, unknowingly echoing James Potter.

"I haven't," Sirius answered, ignoring his companion's obvious chagrin as he stepped into the entry hall.  "Not like this."  And it was true, for if the Potter's mansion was an eccentric old uncle, Malfoy Manor, despite its derelict appearance, was the unquestioned patriarch ruling over its stretch of desolate moorland with a hard and domineering hand.  He had never before seen a building with such a palpable air of power; James's whimsical home couldn't even begin to compare.  Sirius gazed upwards, feeling awestruck and unnerved all at once.  He had never been in a house that seemed so malevolently alive. 

Ilona, who had neither the patience to tolerate Sirius's amazement towards her home nor the good nature to indulge his curiosity about it, strode towards the stairs, purposefully ignoring his childlike amazement.  "Look around if you're so interested," she snapped, obviously annoyed.  "I'm going to my room to change—hopefully you'll be sentient by the time I return." 

"Alright," Sirius replied, more than a little preoccupied.  Normally, he would be a bit put off by her sudden albeit impending disappearance, but the Manor had enchanted him with its Gothic spires and mysterious air and he could think of little else.

Ilona paused mid-departure, shooting Sirius an appraising glance.  "Is that all you have?" she asked, a scornful tinge to her tone. 

"All I have what?" Sirius tore his eyes away from the Manor to take a cursory glance down at himself, wondering a bit defensively what she was talking about. 

"All you have to wear?"  She was obviously annoyed at not being immediately understood the first time. 

"Er…" Sirius opened his arms, displaying his denim jacket, mismatched jeans, and ratty blue T-shirt.  "Yes.  It wasn't as if I had time to pack a case," he added, a touch of sarcasm in his tone.  It was true, though.  Last night he had just thought that he was going out for a few hands of poker and a round of drinks.  In Ilona he had gotten much more than he had bet initially upon. 

"You have to look decent tomorrow," she said, glowering at him distastefully.  "Maybe you could wear something of Lucius's…"

Sirius's understood that her appraisal was coming off as somewhat of an underhand insult, but he decided to give her the benefit of the doubt instead of responding in kind.  "I looked this way last night," he replied, smirking at her, "and it wasn't too indecent for you then." 

She didn't even crack a smile.  Staring at him with eyes so cold he felt as if they could turn summer rain into stormy hail.  Feeling somewhat guilty despite the fact that, as far as he could tell, he had done nothing wrong, unless a good-natured joke was to be considered a sin, "What's tomorrow?"  He asked, a note of apology in his voice.

"My father's funeral," she said matter-of-factly. 

Sirius felt suitably sobered.  "Oh… you're not kidding, are you?"  

"No," she said tartly, "I'm not.  You think I'd come home for the fun of it?  Yorkshire is nothing short of miserable 365 days a year.  I spend my time in France, which not only has decent weather but good gambling and that is more than I can say for merry old England." 

"I'm sorry," Sirius said, a little taken aback by her sudden tirade. 

"Don't be."  She replied, "England can't help herself." 

"No," Sirius shook his head, even more confused.  "No, I'm sorry about your father." 

"Then you're the only one," she replied, a deep undercurrent of bitterness running through her tone.  Sirius really couldn't think of anything to say to that, so the silence hung uncomfortably until she spun on her heel and strode up the stairs, presumably to change. 

And he was left alone in the entry hall of what was doubtlessly the most impressive home he had even entered.  The floors were solid hardwood, gleaming as if they had just been spit-shone, which, Sirius supposed, they probably had.  He was standing a few meters away from what looked like a genuine Persian rug.  Its black and red fibers were shot with gold, and the whole affair looked no less than six inches thick, running the length of the entire hall.  A rich crimson covering that contrasted impeccably with the colors in the rug coated the walls.  Taking a tentative step forward, Sirius reached upwards, his fingers brushing against the wallpaper.  It was real velvet, a floral design burnt into the heavy maroon folds.  His eye traveling down a line of velvet flowers, Sirius's gaze rested upon a mirror, slightly fogged with age, resting in a solid gold frame that was at least than four centimeters thick.  Catching sight of his reflection he squirmed a bit.  With his long hair, denim jacket, and grubby blue T-shirt (which was further enhanced by several small holes forming along the neckline), he felt more out of place than he had in his entire life.  Entering Malfoy Manor was like entering another world, a world of expensive Persian rugs and white Aston Martins, a world characterized by 15 acre estates where real people did indeed own pillars, a world he had not yet seen eye to eye with.  He doubted that he ever truly could.  Sirius jerked his hand away from the lush velvet wallpaper, eyes flickering up nervously to see if his fingers had left a stain. 

A sudden movement caught his gaze and pulled it back to the gold-framed mirror.  Behind his own grubby appearance, the glass showed a door that was slightly ajar on the far side of the hall.  If he squinted, Sirius could make out the room beyond.  It was a musty sort of parlor, done up in somber black satin.  Sirius couldn't help but wonder if the room was always decorated this way or of the mournful décor was just for the funeral.  Sitting a few paces away from the door on top of a lean mahogany table was an unmistakable coffin, lying in state before the time came to lie forever in the hard Yorkshire earth.  The case could only contain Ilona's father.  The hint of movement in the room, the very thing that had drawn his gaze to it in the first place, came not from the ostentatious black drapes or the slim wooden coffin but from the room's single inhabitant, his silvery blond hair the only patch of light in the dark parlor.  As Sirius watched, the man took a deep drag on the cigarette he was holding carelessly between his fingers.  He exhaled slowly; the smoke drifted up and around his blond hair before dispersing into the silent air.  The man's eyes were focused straight ahead of him at the motionless coffin as he once again raised the cigarette to his lips and then let it drop.  His manner was accusatory and apathetic at the same time, eyes as gray, as empty as the cloud of smoke hovering about his head. 

"I see you've met Lucius."  He felt Ilona's presence behind him before he heard her words, sliding into his ear like the caress of a new lover, sending a shiver down his spine. 

Sirius did not reply, his eyes still riveted upon the blond who either hadn't noticed their presence or chose to ignore it, still staring pointedly at the open coffin.  Sirius had the sense, however, that the man wasn't really looking at the coffin for its own sake as much as it was there, something for his eyes to fix upon.   

Ilona waited for a moment before letting loose one high laugh.  It was impossible to suppose that the man couldn't have heard her but he showed no sign of recognition, remaining stock still, fingers fixed around his rapidly dwindling cigarette. 

Sirius was so surprised by her reaction that he wrenched his eyes away from the man for the first time, and focused his gaze upon her.  She had indeed changed, putting off her black lace shirt in favor of a pearly grey sweater, the long neckline slipping down between her breasts.  Although it was just made of wool, the jumper's quality was obvious; Sirius was willing to bet that it easily cost more than everything he was wearing put together.  Probably paid for with all of the money she had won cheating at cards, he thought, trying to shake off the feeling of inadequacy that had settled over him like a wet blanket ever since he had crossed the Manor's threshold.  Somewhere between changing and returning to the front hall, Ilona had found an ornamental sword.  Judging by the hooks on the hilt, Sirius supposed that she had pulled it off of the wall somewhere.  She was holding it lazily in her right hand, the razor sharp point dangling listlessly in the luxurious carpet.  Still staring at the blond smoker she laughed yet again; her eyes were void of mirth.  "What's so funny?" Sirius snapped, half-surprised by his own intense reaction.  The sight of the man, locked in his own solitary staring contest had somehow set him on edge and this inexplicable reaction disconcerted him even more.  Once again, he was painfully aware of the stench of decay that hung over Ilona's manor like a parent chaperone, holding all of it residents apart with a meter stick, pointed at both ends. 

"Lucius," she replied easily, her eyes traveling over his shoulder to rest upon the blonde man.  A small, depreciating smile crept across her painted lips.  "Good old Lucius."

"Your lover?"  Sirius asked, aware that Ilona was no longer looking at him, but staring over his shoulder.  Her smile slipped off her face like water dripping out between cupped hands, replaced by a look of distressed apathy, a look that disconcerted Sirius more than he cared to let on. 

"My brother," she replied, her eyes flickering back to her guest, the emptiness in their gray depths veiled by a thin hajab of disgust.  Her moment of vulnerability had past. 

Sirius, trapped between a sword-carrying Scylla and a cigarette-smoking Charybdis, was nothing short of uncomfortable.  He decided to fill the void with idle conversation.  "Younger?"

"Younger what?" she said, her expression contorting with annoyance as she dragged the sword through the thick carpet, cutting a half-moon swath.

"Your brother," Sirius said, trying to pick up the slack of the conversation.  This was going significantly worse than he had anticipated.  "Is he younger than you?"

For an instant, deathly silence reigned.  "Why all this talk about my brother?" she snapped, driving the sword into the floor so hard it stuck straight up, vibrating back and forth.  "One would think you're a fucking pouf!"

Sirius felt utterly dumbfounded at this completely irrational response and more than a little bit annoyed.  "I'm sorry if I offended you,

"Older," she cut his apology short. 

"What?" he said, losing his already erratic train of thought. 

"Older," she repeated, viscously pulling the sword out of the floor.  "He's older."

If Sirius had expected anything out of her, the last thing he would have predicted was a straight answer so all he had by way of reply was a rather startled, "Oh." 

"My brother," she started up as if she was going to say something, and then cut herself off, eyes flickering down to look at the carpet, several inches shorter thanks to her slapdash swordplay.  "I have made a mess, haven't I?" she said absently, sounding as if she couldn't care less. 

Sirius, never one for tact, persisted even when it was quite obvious that the matter was closed.  "Your brother what?"

Instead of lashing out as he had anticipated, Ilona raised her eyes from the floor, her gaze traveling over Sirius's shoulder to the room beyond.  An apathetic smile rested upon her lips.  "My brother," she said, a rather bitter note in her voice.  "The famous Lucius Malfoy."

Lucius Malfoy; Sirius recognized the name from the door.  His knowledge of the Malfoy family was nothing short of sketchy.  According to his pureblood friends, the Malfoys had historically been associated with the dark arts, and although rumors abounded about their connection with black magic, there was little solid proof.  It was only very recently that the Malfoys had "reformed", and one of them was a high-ranking Auror, second to only Moody.

"Is your brother the Auror?"  Sirius persisted, feeling rather unnerved by her lack of a response. 

"There are a lot of Aurors."  Sirius jumped as he heard a voice from behind him.  "Too many, I'd say."  He turned around, knowing intuitively that the cigarette-smoking Charybdis had awakened from his slumber. 

He had never seen Lucius Malfoy up close before.  The first thing that struck him was how very like brother was to sister.  Their sharp patrician features and tall svelte frames had obviously been chipped from the same block.  The second thing that he noticed was how different they seemed; while Ilona's derisive smirk consumed her entire face, Lucius's did not extend to his eyes, remaining frozen upon his lips. 

He was wearing a woolen crewneck sweater much like his sister's, bottle green to contrast with her pearly silver.  His blond hair looked as if it had been slicked back from his forehead several days ago, but had since fallen into disrepair, tumbling into a soft fringe just below his ears, which contrasted sharply with the hard angles of his face.

"Don't be difficult, Lucius," she snapped; though Sirius noticed the half-amused grin lingering upon her lips like an afterthought.  "Our father was the Auror," she said, turning to Sirius, and not looking the least bit sorry about the fact she was using the past tense.                                            

Whether she was regretful or not, Sirius felt as if he should yet again put up the pretense of sympathy.  "I'm terribly

She exchanged a look with Lucius, who appeared thoroughly annoyed with the whole affair.  Slowly, she returned her gaze to Sirius, her afterthought grin still lingering about her lips like the residual burn of hard liquor.  "What would you do if I told you that our father was alive, Sirius?"

Sirius, who could befriend a doorknob if he talked to it for five minutes, felt more confused and alienated than he had ever been in his whole life.  "You said he was dead." 

"Maybe I lied," she said flatly, without the slightest trace of compunction.  "I didn't," she said quickly before Sirius could open his mouth to speak.  "He's lying over there in that coffin," she jabbed towards the parlor with her sword.  "You can go over and have a look see if you fancy it.  I'd imagine he's all blue and pinched and cold, though that's no surprise.  I hear pneumonia is a terrible way to go, having the breath slowly sucked out of you bit by bit by bit.  In his letter Moody told me it took him two weeks to go, two weeks of fighting for breath, something any normal human can do naturally, simply."  To illustrate she yawned deeply, the air hissing between her teeth as she exhaled.  "It's almost poetic justice for him to die so helpless and incapacitated—this is Sirius by the way," she added suddenly to Lucius, still hovering silently in the doorway like the horrible travesty of a guardian angel. 

Feeling like the tense atmosphere was somehow his fault, even though he intellectually knew otherwise, Sirius felt obligated to be social in a situation where he would have otherwise been on his guard.  In a desperate attempt to rectify his messy introduction he took a step towards Lucius.  "Sirius Black," he said, putting on a smile that fell short of his eyes and extending an empty hand in greeting to the man in the doorway. 

Lucius didn't even look at him, icy gray eyes traveling over his shoulder to the other side of the doorway, where Ilona stood, leaning upon her sword.  "You should choose your fuck-toys with more care," he snapped. 

That was the first time Sirius had ever met Lucius Malfoy. 

It was also the first time that he began to hate Malfoy on a gut level that transcended any of their petty political differences and found its tinder on the basic, most primal level of what made Ilona's brother who he was. 

----

"I hope you're not upset with me."  Lucius didn't need to turn around to know that it was her, the smooth contours of her voice wrapping around his waist like arms would if-

If circumstances were different. 

"Why would I be upset with you?"  His voice was a valiant attempt at measured even, but the slight quiver in his tone betrayed his anger.  Behind him, he could feel her withdraw slightly, annoyance causing her retraction into her own space. 

"Don't play games with me, Lucius." 

"Why shouldn't I?" he spat viciously, half-tempted to whirl around and grab her by the wrist, preventing any sort of escape.  "You always toy with me." 

"Oh?"  As she was theoretically the epitome of a modern British gentlewoman, she did not rant or scream.  Her voice betrayed nothing but a mild annoyance, which of course, only served to incense Lucius more.  It was easy to deal with a furious opponent, but an adversary who seemed half-bored with the confrontation was a dangerous enemy indeed.  "So now it's about me, Lucius?  That's right, pretend the problem is me-- pretend it's Sirius," she saw him flinch when as she said the name, "pretend it's father, the Manor, anything but you--" 

"You don't know," he whispered, his jaw clenched, teeth gritting together so tightly he was afraid his skull would crack.  "You don't understand." 

He could feel her presence behind him and he realized that she must have used her speech to walk closer, regaining the territory lost between them.  He tried to ignore the way her breath brushed against his throat knowing she would notice his discomfort and that it would only cause her to further narrow the slim distance between them.  "Rosier was in your unit over in Vietnam; he told me everything, everything you've never said." 

She had played this card with him before, even upping the stakes by describing exactly what she had been doing to Avery at the moment of his confession, but thankfully she omitted this unnecessary detail, using the silence in which Lucius chose not to reply to take a step closer to him.  Her hand brushed against his; whether the sudden contact was inadvertent or intentional he didn't know, and it honestly mattered little.  He jerked away as if he had been burned, feeling her laugh into his shoulder.  After a mere moment that seemed like the longest while, she took a breath and continued to speak, low mocking tones wrapping around his neck like the sweetest kind of noose.  "Avery told me how you raped--"

"Avery is a bloody liar!"  He cut her off, knowing deep down that this was the exact reaction she had been expertly coaxing from him since the moment she had first stepped over the Manor's front threshold, a few short hours ago. 

"So you see," she continued as if Lucius had never spoken at all but the pleasure of success in her voice was palpable, "what I'm about to do right now is only fair, tit for tat, Lucius." 

"I don't care what you do," he hissed, feeling her lean closer to him.  For one single instant, his heart stopped. 

"Say that to my face," she replied, body pressed against his back, her corkscrew words twisting themselves into his ear, "and I won't just be able to hear what a liar you are." 

The deathly silence they shared was strung with tension, pregnant with expectation. 

"Turn around, Lucius."  Her voice, strong and domineering a moment earlier, now sounded like the desperate appeal of a small child.  She had dropped her head from whispering to lie upon his shoulder, the hollow of her cheek fitting into the curve of his throat.  When she spoke, her words were smothered by his skin, but he could hear her. 

Yes, by God, he could hear her. 

"Turn around, Lucius," she whispered, raw desperation strung through every word.  "Turn around and look me in the eye and tell me that you don't hate me."

"I don't hate you," he whispered, afraid to stay and too scared to move, the entire world narrowing to the small patch of skin where her flesh met his. 

"I can't see you," her words sounded like little more than a moan.  "I know you're lying."

"You could be lying just as easily," he murmured, both of them knowing the emptiness of the other's taunt.

"Don't bait me," she whispered, lips brushing against his throat as they formed each word.  "I won't be able to help myself." 

Reaching up and fitting his finger underneath her chin, he turned around, facing her for the first time.  She moved forward until her forehead bumped against his and she could move forward no more; he leaned closer, hair falling amongst her locks.  It would have been impossible for a casual observer to discern where one's hair ended and the other's began, so alike was their color. 

"What are you afraid of?" he whispered, his words trapped inside their veil of hair, existing only to the two of them.  He was instantly reminded of when, as small children, they used to play tent, draping an old blanket over two or three chairs from the parlor—they would sit under there for days on end, removed from the rest of creation, the four billion people on earth fading away to leave only two.  The dream was cut short one day when their father, oft-oblivious, dragged them out by the scruffs of their little necks demanding to know why they were so adamant about living under a two meter square piece of ragged blanket when they had the whole of Malfoy Manor to abide in.  At least, that was the excuse that their father has given them then, and at the time Lucius had understood, if not fully accepted, the merit of the old man's reprimand.  As he had grew to adulthood the incident remained in his mind, and he gradually realized that their father had put a stop to the game not because he disapproved of tents, but for the sole fact that when they were hiding under the blanket he was unable to see what they were doing.  Even as children their father didn't trust them together and rightfully so, Lucius thought as Ilona reached up into his hair, wrapping her fingers in the silvery strands and pulling him closer still.  "What are you afraid of?" he repeated, knowing that she could have just as easily turned the question upon its head and sent it straight back at him. 

To his surprise, she answered him.  "Losing you."  Her breath sliding close against his cheek, trapped within the confines of their tent of hair.

"You're pushing me away," he replied, knowing that her sharp outtake of breath was the closest thing to an assent he would ever receive.  Then the moment of affirmation past as she began to work her fingers free from his hair.  Her movements were so painfully slow that it made his heart ache; her hand, weighted down by regret, dropped listlessly to the small of his back. 

She closed her eyes, and when she next spoke, her voice was clipped, even, and death to his ears.  "Goodnight, Lucius." 

"Don't go," he whispered before he could stop himself, hand tightening in her hair-- he hadn't even noticed that he had reached upwards; the movement was unconscious, like a heart beat, a pulse thump, or a life breath. 

She chuckled, but there was no trace of mockery in her voice.  It was a sad sort of laugh, a half step away from a teary moan.  "I'll see you again Lucius-- at breakfast, and then supper, and probably the day after as well." 

"But it won't be—" he began, stopping himself before he let too much out, for the words were running like a flood, if he let it go unchecked they were sure to rupture the dike that separated the world of his imaginings from the reality of his actions.  It was a barrier that he could not allow to break. 

"Like this?" she finished for him. 

He tensed, unwilling to assent to her interpretation of his words, correct as it was. 

Somehow, she understood this and placing her hand upon his own, wrapped in her hair, she loosed his grip, working her locks free from his stranglehold.  Listlessly, he pulled his hand from her own, letting it fall limp-- empty-- by his side.  She pulled her head away from his, breaking their final tent beyond any repair, and for the first time, she met his gaze. 

What he saw there was not the usual derisive mockery or even an all-consuming despair but simply muted, resigned understanding.  "Now kiss me goodnight," she said quietly, "and I'll to my life and you'll to yours." 

He leaned forward, unable to feel anything but empty despair, sure that one rare, tantalizing moment of connection with another human being had been forever snapped, and was now fleeting steadily away before, in the space of a breath, disappearing forever. 

"Kiss me," she whispered, standing only a few inches away from his form, "kiss me goodnight like a good brother should." 

Cupping her face in his hands he bent forward, lips barely grazing the crest of her forehead until her felt her flow into the instant of contact and he was unable to restrain himself, he moved his face lower and he saw his intent reflected in her eyes just as her breath grazed against his lips--

--And the door on the opposite side of the hall flew open with a crash as the Mudblood arrived on the scene, his form accented by the gentle candlelight from the inside of Ilona's room, causing him to glow a bit at the edges. 

Caught red-handed, brother and sister looked up simultaneously, the implications of the scene hitting both of them at the same moment it struck their guest.  He didn't say anything.  He didn't really have to; the look on his face, a cruel bastard mixture of disbelief and disgust, spoke for itself.  Slowly, Ilona detached herself from Lucius and took the few steps across the hallway towards her Mudblood. 

The door slammed shut. 

He sank down against the wall, knees folding up in front of him as he listened in a stupor to the rise and fall of their voices.  The first, the Mudblood, was yelling angrily, and the second, Ilona, was laughing, consoling, smooth and unruffled, shuddering her skeleton back inside its self-contained closet. 

As Lucius wore his on his sleeve. 

He knew what she had to be saying, knew that she was saving her own skin, laying the blame upon him, laughing it off as one of Lucius's irrational obsessions-- Vietnam turned him funny you know; I've never felt safe since he came back.  He always has his gaze on me-- those eyes-- oh, those eyes traveling up my spine, up and around my throat, through my lips, deep, deep inside to a place that only exists within his wildest imaginings...

He could feel her lie just as he could feel the hard paneling pressing up against his back, never as welcome as another human, her warmth meeting his and creating something between the two. 

And eventually, the Mudblood's voice calmed and Ilona's grew smoother and then talking ceased altogether and all he could hear was the gentle creaking of a bed, up and down—its pounding rhythm fitting itself to the beat of his own pulse. 

Still he sat, even after that sound had ceased and nothing lay upon the manor but the all-consuming rhapsody of silence.  Still he sat, eyes focused straight ahead but unseeing, heart beating doggedly, but without definite reason.  So, so still he sat, legs tucked up in front of him, arms wrapped round his knees, pulling them close.  His hair fell into his face, making him look like a very small boy, without mother or father—with nothing but the dark night for company.

At that moment, Lucius started to hate Sirius Black with a passion so deep-set that it seemed like a continual ache, a stitch in his side, a bruise that would never completely heal. 

The silence hung around him like a dead man, swinging blue-lipped from the gallows. 

----

January 2, 1980

Moscow, USSR

Sirius walked over to the corner and punched him. 

Lucius did not reply.  He raised his fingers to his jaw; they came away bloody.  Calmly, he lowered his hand to his side, the red liquid staining his hands, running to the very tips of his fingers, where it hung in droplets for a moment, suspended like ornaments on a tree, before falling, falling hard and fast to splatter upon the aluminum floor, where they broke away so totally it was almost as if it had never been. 

"Don't you ever," Sirius spat, the hot fire of his anger setting his words aflame with fury, "touch her again." 

Lucius's cool and calculated reply was a sharp contrast with Sirius's raw, unadulterated fury.  "Like this?" he iterated coldly, taking a step closer towards Black as he socked him in the jaw. 

The Mudblood gave an angry roar and leapt upon him, the animal force of its fury catching Lucius off guard and off balance as the two men tumbled to the ground, smashing into the metal floor of the truck.  It was Black who ended up on top, the blood from where Lucius hit him dribbling down his chin in tiny rivulets.  Lucius tried to roll out of the way to avoid its blood but the task was impossible as Black had pinned him into immobility.  Some of the blood fell, hitting him on the forehead.  He couldn't see it, but by God he could feel it, sticky and wet and seeping—seeping into his pores, contaminating him like soil on a freshly washed sheet.  He panicked; his heart was beating tremendously fast, he couldn't believe that this was happening, that the Muggle's unclean blood was on his skin—he'd have to scrape it off, scour himself.  If somehow, some terrible how, it sunk deeper than the surface and got into his body, turning him into one of them…

The Mudblood crouched over him, leering.  It had both of his hands pinned to the ground, letting the blood fall freely from its chin to splatter upon Lucius's forehead.  The beast was trying to force its cursed blood into Lucius's veins, contaminating him mind, body, and soul.  He writhed, sheer panic causing him to jerk his legs upward, kicking the Mudblood in the shin before pushing it away with another well-aimed punt to the thigh.  It landed on the floor of the truck with a tremendous clang.  For one beautiful moment, Lucius held his breath, scarcely daring to hope that he had killed it, but then it rolled over, long dark hair falling into its eyes as it growled. 

Lucius, still on his hands and knees, tried to scramble out of the way, but the Mudblood lunged towards him.  In one fluid movement, it wrapped its arm around his throat, forcing him up onto his knees.  Lucius was instantly reminded of the Minotaur, another bastard mixture of man and beast.  The Mudblood, however, was even more of a blot upon nature than the Cretan monster, for its physical resemblance to humanity was a thousand times more conspicuous than the Minotaur's cursory likeness, making it all the more hideous. 

Lucius attacked the only part of the Mudblood readily available to him:  the arm.  Digging his right hand into the beast's flesh, he reached back around his own head with the left to where its hand rested, attempting to choke the life out of him.  Groping blindly, he managed to grab one of Black's fingers; he pulled back hard.  Lucius was rewarded with a snapping sound and a venomous curse from the Mudblood, who jerked its arm lose in surprise.  Lucius didn't waste the opportunity.  He slid under the Mudblood's grasp and leapt lightly to his feet. 

In the Minotaur ring he had never had much use for sheer brawn, relying far more heavily upon speed and agility.  Although he was roughly the same height as the Mudblood, it had a beater's body; its arms and upper body were heavily muscled, while Lucius's strength was in his legs.  If he wanted to beat the Mudblood, he needed to keep it on its feet until it tired. 

He dodged a punch from Black, and then another.  It was beginning to falter, its anger clouding its judgment and dulling its aim.  Lucius, ducking under a particularly wild swing, grabbed it by the knees and pushed it to the floor.  If he was in the arena, he would have run it through with his sword, but as he was in Moscow with no weapons except his two fists he raised his hand high and hit Black under the chin, causing its jaw to snap upward.  Pulling himself on top of the Mudblood so that it would be unable to move, he punched it hard in the face.  When his fist came away, its lips were puffy and broken, as if they'd been kissed too hard and too long, but a kiss is a kiss and a punch is a punch and the way its lips looked were a smack in the face for they reminded Lucius of the last time he had seen them together, the Mudblood in its disgusting denim jacket and Narcissa still wearing his cashmere overcoat, her mouth greedily eating up Black's, and its mouth coming away puffy—overkissed. 

He hit Black again, harder. 

Black was always there, in Moscow with Narcissa, and then back in Yorkshire, ruining his small attempts at happiness.  Stepping into the Russian Roulette and seeing Sirius Black wrapped in the arms of the woman onto which he had established his claim was like walking directly into his past.  The scene had been eerily familiar, a cruel déjà vu.  It wasn't the first time that Black had invaded his life, sacked and pillaged the fortress of his permanence, and then ridden blithely off into the sunset, Lucius's woman perched on its ridiculous bike, her blonde hair blowing in with its brown, creating an unnatural mixture of light and dark.  The Mudblood was a thief, a kleptomaniac; it didn't possess a life of its own, so it he contented itself with stealing Lucius's—carelessly turning the greater whole of Malfoy's existence to shambles.    

Pushing himself one-armed against Black so that it was impossible for the beast to move, Lucius frantically bought his weaker right hand to his lips.  Upon it rested the only one of his father's heirlooms that he wore:  a silver ring bearing an emerald relief of the Malfoy crest.  Gripping the ring between his teeth he wrenched it from his digit, then transferred hands, jamming it urgently down his left forefinger with his tongue.  Spinning the crest outwards, he clenched his hand into a fist, making sure that the sharp edge of the emerald carving was wedged between his fingers where it could do the most damage to Black. 

Black, seeing the ring and sensing Lucius's intent, jerked upwards like a beached whale, trying to throw his assailant off.  It was a futile effort, however; Lucius, who had ridden three hundred pound Minotaurs bareback in the arena too many time to count, had no trouble keeping his balance.  Coldly, Malfoy reached forward and fitted his right hand around its throat, squeezing down on the other the Mudblood's jugular as he slammed its head back into the floor. 

The Mudblood growled like a beast.  In an act of desperation, it tried to snap at Lucius's hand with his teeth, but its reach was too short and Lucius's grip too strong.  Bottled up anger boiled through Malfoy like an overflowing kettle as he raised his left arm, emerald ring winking wickedly in the half light of the truck, and brought it down upon Black's face.  When he pulled his hands away and saw the splendid swath the Malfoy crest had cut into the beast's skin, a wave of satisfaction washed over him, so intense that he couldn't bring himself to mind the Black's blood, which was beginning to pool up at its wound, dripping down the sharp contours of his cheekbone.  The Mudblood moaned; choking on his own yell of pain, which was confined to his throat by Lucius's constrictive hand.  Malfoy raised his arm for another blow, but halfway down, the beast's hand shot out from under him, reaching frantically upward to grab Malfoy's fist mid-punch.  Lucius, furious, tried to wrench his hand from the Mudblood's grip, but it was impossible.  It was like a rabid dog, foaming at the mouth as it gripped Lucius so tight its nails made five slivers of black in Malfoy's pale skin. 

Empowered by his sudden success, Sirius swerved his head sideways, his neck rolling on top of Malfoy's right hand, crushing the other man's slender fingers.  The blond jerked his hand away as if he had been burned and Sirius took the opportunity to fit his right leg over Malfoy's thighs.  Putting all his weight into the movement, he threw himself sideways taking the other man with him.  The blond broke Sirius's fall as the two men rolled completely over, reversing positions.  Sirius wasted no time; reaching forward, he grabbed Malfoy's left hand.  Lucius, sensing the other man's intention, closed his fingers into a fist, but Sirius, possessed by the demon of his fury, was not to be dissuaded.  He forced Lucius's palm open and wrenched the Malfoy crest off of the blond's hand, bending his forefinger back unnaturally far in the process.  Lucius's pale face went white in a bastard mixture of pain and rage as Sirius jammed the ring down upon his own hand, turning the gemstone outwards, just as Malfoy had, so that it could cut into the other man's flesh, amplifying the effects of his punch.  He raised his arm; he brought it down—

Lucius yelled, the physical manifestation of his pain joining his vocal expression of agony as it dripped down his forehead in a tiny river of red.  "How does that feel, Malfoy?"  Sirius spat, his ordinarily attractive face turned into a ghastly mask by the swaths of red smeared across it like visceral war paint.  "How does that bloody feel?" 

Malfoy snapped his head backwards, putting the whole force of his body behind himself as he jerked upwards, spitting into Sirius's face. 

Sirius had to close his eyes to avoid being blinded and Lucius took the opportunity to fit both of his hands around the other man's shoulders, pushing him backwards, slamming him into the far wall of the truck.  As Sirius doubled over, winded, Malfoy scrambled across the aluminum floor to meet him.  Gripping him by the shoulder, he pushed his upwards, smashing him against the side of the vehicle.  The light in the lorry was such that only the bottom half of Lucius's face was visible.  Sirius stared, entranced by the other man's twisted smile, its malevolent contours malformed by the livid bruise that was already forming at the base of his chin.  Hands trembling with adrenaline, Malfoy reached into the pocket of his tuxedo jacket, pulling out a dark strip of wood that could only be his wand. 

"I'd kill you, Black," he hissed, pulling Sirius away from the wall of the truck, only to ram him against it even harder, "but Avada Kedravra would be too quick, the satisfaction fleeting, like just another Minotaur—"

"You're a sick fuck, Malfoy," Sirius hissed through bleeding lips.  He was so close to Lucius that he could whisper into the other man's ear. 

"And you're a quick one," Malfoy spat in retaliation, his breath hot against Sirius's throat.  "She won't mind when I tell her that you're dead.  You're nothing to her, Black," he spat derisively, "nothing." 

"You're a bloody liar—"

Malfoy laughed coldly.  "Too bad you won't be around for her to prove it to you.  Crucio!"

Everything seemed to happen at once.  Narcissa, who had been standing terrified in the corner during most of their fight, finally worked up the nerve to make her move, leaping down upon Lucius and causing his spell to go wide, burning a smoking red hole in the side of the truck.  Sirius barely had time to struggle to his feet before the front door of the lorry smashed open, crashing against the far wall with a resounding bang.  Three men carrying semi-automatic rifles burst in to crash their party. 

Sirius recognized the first one as the KGB agent from the night before.  He looked worse for the wear; there was a nasty bruise upon his left cheek and a swath of white gauze peeked out from under the lip of his beaver hat.  His apparent injuries, however, had caused him to lose none of his authority.  "What is going on here?" he barked angrily in Russian. 

None of them got a chance to reply, for at that moment, no less than twenty wizards Apparated in a tight circle that rimmed the interior of the truck.  All were dressed in high collared robes of dark gray and although Sirius had never seen anything like them before, there was little doubt in his mind as to who they were.  "You are under arrest by order of the Sovjetski Drustvo Earovnik," one of the wizards called from the shadows of the truck, "for unauthorized wand use within sight of the nonmagical proletariat…"  The wizard's words blended away into a dull roar.  Sirius knew that he was in far too deep; he was under arrest.  There was no one to pay his bail, to even inform his friends—and yet, all of this seemed shallow, transitory.  There was only one real thought on his mind.

"Narcissa!" he yelled.  She had just managed to disentangle herself from Malfoy and was standing stock still on the left side of the truck, looking completely overwhelmed.  "Run!" 

The ring of SDE wizards rendered escape essentially impossible for Malfoy and himself; they had been at the epicenter of the spell and were now smack dab in the vertex of the circle of sorcerers.  But Narcissa was at the farthest edge of the ring of warlocks, a few short paces away from the door, still swinging open from the KGB agent's sudden entrance.  Almost immediately, the SDE wizards began to move towards the door in an effort to stop her.  The KGB agents, who had been standing dumbfounded ever since the sudden apparition of twenty full-grown men into their top security prison, began to follow suit, finding consolation in mindless routine.  Sirius was seized by a manic energy.  Reaching frantically into his jacket he pulled out his wand, causing the KGB agents to chuckle and the SDE wizards to balk.  Ignoring everything except the task at hand, he pointed his wand at the wizard nearest to Narcissa, who stood stock still despite his command, paralyzed with terror.  "Stupefy!" he called, a jet of blue-white light shooting from his wand to hit the other man full in the chest.  He crumpled like a rag doll. 

The spell snapped Narcissa out of her stupor.  She began to run, pushing one of the KGB agents out of the way.  But then another moved up behind her, leveling his rifle—Sirius whipped around, yelling the curse, watching the man fall, but even as he crumpled another assailant came up on her other side and he knew there was no way he would be fast enough, it was all over for her then and there—

"Crucio!"  Sirius wheeled around as the curse zipped through the dim truck towards the wizard.  He only had time to stare at Malfoy for a moment, open-mouthed, before the SDE wizard's scream jerked him back to Narcissa.  She paused for an instant as well, staring in shock at the man writhing in agony at her feet, his back arching upward in a half-moon sickle as he screeched like a cat in heat.  But then her survival instinct took over and she turned her eyes away, running towards the open door and the tantalizing glimpse of the world beyond. 

Sirius fell to his knees, ducking a curse from one of the SDE wizards.  He felt Malfoy drop down beside him, but whether he was simply ducking or had been knocked out, Sirius couldn't tell.  He dared not turn his eyes away from Narcissa to see, shooting a Stupefying hex at a wizard approaching her from behind.  It was only when another of Narcissa's assailants fell to the red flame of the Cruciatus curse that Sirius realized that Malfoy was all right. 

Another curse flew over Sirius's head, missing him by inches.  He blindly fired a "Stupefy!" back over his shoulder, desperately hoping it hit the mark, but refusing to turn around and see, because then he would have to rip his eyes from Narcissa, leaving her vulnerable, if only for an instant.  The normal passage of time stretched into endless instants of frantic heartbeats and even more frenetic curses; Sirius reverted to autopilot:  leveling his wand, yelling the spell, watching her pale form dart through the darkness of the truck like a wraith—after an eternity that amounted to ten seconds, the impossible occurred and she reached the door, the pale light of the Moscow morning causing her to glow with reflected dawn.  Slowly, she turned around to gaze at him, a look of sheer terror on her beautiful face.  He knew she didn't want to leave him like this, but she had to understand that there wasn't any other way.  Despite the urgency of the situation, he allowed himself one moment to gaze at her, memorizing the pale contours of her features to call back whenever he deigned, well aware that this might be the last time he saw his Russian whore.  Before long, she would step over the edge of the truck, breaking the barrier between imprisonment and freedom—and in the process, be lost to him forever.  He gazed at her as if he would never look on her again. 

Strangely enough, he suffer sadness, or melancholy, or any of the one thousand other downhearted emotions he expected to feel when faced with her eminent departure.  He was glad, not because she was leaving, but because she could leave.  He had bought her freedom with his own, repaying part of the gross debt he owed her—alleviating a bit of his own guilt.   

It was the least that he could do. 

"Run, bitch!" Malfoy's harsh yell cut through her stupor as his Cruciatus curse whooshed through the air, hitting one of the KGB agents who had leveled his rifle at Narcissa in her instant of indecision.  The man had been seconds away from pulling the trigger, prematurely ending her escape once and for all.  Sirius cursed himself for loosing his focus in the dizzying whirlpool of her gaze, his resolve sucked away by the maelstrom of her allure, because in his moment of weakness it was Malfoy who had prevailed.  With one last pained look at the both of then, she turned and leapt down off the lip of the truck, vanishing into the city beyond. 

Several SDE wizards, evidently fearing a similar escape, ran over to the door and slammed it shut, reducing the truck to a state of semi-darkness, illuminated only by the colored light of flying curses.  An acid green hex whistled past Sirius's ear, singing his hair and missing him by a matter of inches.  He threw himself against the floor, rolling to the left to avoid a similar attack; when suddenly, he collided with a body.  He thought it was one of the SDE wizards felled by his curses until it reached out, gripped him by the arm and asked, "Black?" the familiar voice slicing through the impenetrable darkness. 

A silver curse whistled by, briefly illuminating the harsh lines of Malfoy's face before slamming into the wall of the truck.  It shattered into a thousand silver sparks that fell down upon then like acid rain, burning away at their exposed flesh.  Separate minds operating as one, they rolled out of the way and then struggled to their feet, standing back to back, linked unwillingly by their fierce instinct for survival. 

Sirius went into autopilot, desperately shooting ice-blue stupefying hexes into the ever-encroaching crowd of SDE wizards.  He didn't have time to calculate, to think, only to act as the magic that was his only chance for survival coursed through his body to the tip of his wand where it spiraled away, blue-white and unforgiving, felling all that it touched.  The fiery light of Malfoy's spell illuminated his peripheral vision, rimming his world in constant red. 

But there were too many for them.  As the noose of dark gray drew tighter and tighter around their tiny circle of blue and red light, Sirius was possessed by a steadily infringing despair.  He would have believed that it was all some terrible dream if it wasn't for the weight of Malfoy's back against his own as they futilely shot curses into the tightening ring of wizards, slowly choking the life out of them like a strangler's wire.  But their hands were metaphorically tied and there was no way out—now way in, no way back, front, left, right—no direction except down, down—falling down hard and fast and painlessly, too—his mind too deep in the uncharted wilds of unconsciousness to feel the hard pressure of the ground.  It was pressure, pressure in the form of Malfoy's shoulders that kept Sirius from giving into the Russians' curses and slipping into that vast void of stupefied oblivion.  The feeling was unwelcome, unnatural, and indispensable—a desperate crutch to his incapacitated invalid, a stolen cigarette for his ex-nicotine addict on the rebound, demeaning and indispensable in one single cylinder of rolled paper and clipped tobacco.  If the steadying weight of Malfoy's shoulders burned away, leaving nothing but smoky lungs and a smear of ash, Sirius knew he was as good as gone.  The instants dragged into horrible seconds and still the SDE sorcerers moved ever closer until all he could see was a continuous wall of dark gray.  And after a little while, Sirius felt the firm pressure against his shoulders fall to lie crumpled behind his feet.  In that horribly inevitable moment, he felt more alone that he had in his entire life.

The wall of wizards moved steadily forward, surrounding Sirius on all sides—swallowing him whole. 

----

More Disclaimer: Dulce et Decorum Est is a poem by Wilfred Owen about gas attacks in World War One that can be read here; the actual line is "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" which roughly translates as "how sweet and fitting it is to die for your country".  The names Vladimir Ulyanov and Josef Dzhugashvilli are also not mine, they respectively belong to Lenin and Stalin.  Malfoy Manor and its residents are somewhat inspired by Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights and the "LUCIUS MALFOY—1801" is a direct reference to the novel.  Ilona's "If it wasn't for the central heating" line is filched from "Whatever Happened to George Foster?" a particularly excellent episode of the 1960s television show Secret Agent Man (aired as Danger Man in Britain) starring Patrick McGoohan.  Sirius's "When I wake up in the morning, I'll be sober" line must be credited to Winston Churchill, although he called the woman in question ugly, instead of a cheat.  Avery's "Let's see if we can't make this party engaging," line is paraphrased directly from the book of Kander and Ebb's musical Cabaret.  The Russian Roulette itself is loosely based upon a historical club (which was more a gambling den than an actual dance hall) which operated in 1970s Soviet Moscow by a woman named Elizabeth Miriken. Like the fictional Zvana, Miriken's husband was in a Gulag. So I apologize here for any libel to the Mirikens, and any harm I do to their illegal club.  So now that I've revealed that I've actually written about 1% of this fic…

…UP NEXT: Who is this Laurence guy and why is he privy to Moody's private meeting?  Whatever happened to the Sad Clown brouhaha?  Why does Sirius really want to take Narcissa to the seashore… does he just want to build sandcastles or is there something deeper?  All these questions and more answered in Russian Roulette Chapter 5, tentatively titled Orpheus and Eurydice… in which Narcissa finally takes a stand, James gets a chance to swallow both pride and prejudice, and Sirius and Lucius once again enjoy the pleasure of each other's company. 

Shameless Plug-ness:  Bop on over to HP_Atlantis on Yahoo!Groups to see some wonderful Russian Roulette fanart by Hydy, Belphegor, Jen, and myself and while you're over there check out the other truly excellent fics over there by authors that put me to shame. 

Thanks to all those who reviewed: Rhianna (well Sirius didn't die, but he's not much better off this time… so far, every chapter has ended with Sirius getting either laid or knocked unconscious, let's hope he has better luck next time :) ), Ayla Pascal (Thank you, darlin'—I'm scampering off to read Slytherin Rising), Tabitha82 (I'm sorry you had to wait so long, I promise I'll try to cut the six month break between chapters next time), AVK (those weren't intended to be Bond references, but I'm a big 007 fan  nonetheless), Cybele (Thank you!  And yes, I'm afraid to say that Sirius is indeed married… but Lucius is still single, as Narcissa will soon discover), Melodylemmng (I'm glad to hear you like James, prig or not, after all that he's been through he needs some love), Tess (Thank you very much—I really appreciate the offer for Russian help.  I've tried to shy away from any Russian in this chapter, but if you don't mind, I would like to take you up on that offer if the need arises), Hydy (Where, may I ask is Rosa Croeca?  Not that I should talk, being Ms. Six-Months-Between-Chapters, but I'm very excited for the next bit :) ), IckleRonniekins (who, despite the screen name, is my favorite fellow Lucius fan ::schnoogles::), like a child (Thank you very much for your review, and the con crit in particular—Sirius and James's ages have been a sticking point for me as well), Rezo (Russophiles unite… we should start a club!), Ivy Unpoisoned (Thank you, Ivy—sappy as this sounds, your review meant a tremendous amount to me, and helped me keep writing when I almost gave up on this beast of a fic), jen beckett (Jen, darling, I never got a chance to thank you for your wonderful cover art—which is just perfect for the fic—and thank you also for your (two!) reviews :) ), Christina (Me?  Poke fun?  Why would I do a think like that?  Thank you very much for the note on libel and slander), Unregistered (I'm sorry this chapter took so long, if you're looking for more Sirius/Narcissa there is of course the Draco Trilogy—and Celtic Flame and Calypso both have very excellent S/N fics at FictionAlley), StarwberryRain (Please don't injure me!  I promise I won't take as long next time…), Aurora Hyperion (Another Cabaret fan!  I would actually compare Ilona to Sally more than Narcissa—although the song Mein Herr definitely applies to both of them), Katja (I put you on the Quidditch pitch?  Did you see?  I know it's not quite a Bratwurst Magnet or even Stalin in an Elvis jumpsuit but that's probably for the best), Susan Bones (Thank you very much), kavitha11 (Kudos for picking up on the Sirius/Ilona connection—and thanks for such a great review)

Please read and review, let me know what you thoughts—constrictive criticism is always appreciated, although I won't turn down the occasional compliment.