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Before the Storm

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-----PROLOGUE-----

Consider the world in the pause before a thunderstorm. The air goes still as clouds slowly creep across the sky, throwing shadows along treetops and across the grass. The sun still shines, teasingly bright, on one edge of the blue expanse even as the other half is swallowed up by ominous grey. The crickets sing their symphony, alone in the stillness and silence as the air thickens and the heat condenses. Somewhere in the distance, breaking through the anticipation, rolls and rumbles a wave of thunder, broiling and brawling like a hungry giant. It crawls closer as more and more of the silky blue sky is conquered by the grey mass of cloud and the electric tension of the world continues to thicken. The colors brighten, glowing neon, hypersaturated in the last rays of a surrendering sun, then darken and smoothen out as the sun disappears. In moments, the wind will begin to blow, rushing powerful gusts rustling through the foliage and sapping twigs. The lightening will flash purple across the ash-covered sky and just before the tidal wave of thunder crashes down, the rain will fall. But that is still a few moments away. In the minutes before a thunderstorm, the world is bright and clear, electrified and sharp, beautiful in its awed suspense. Waiting.

 

-----PART I-----

Three ladies hats sit daintily on a hat wrack, soaking in bright sunlight that streams through a gap in the light, white curtains of the large windows overlooking a garden in full bloom. The hats – one powder blue, one foliage green and one forget-me-not violate – watch their mistresses twirl in front of the full length mirrors and help each other with the lacing, clasps and skirts of their dresses.

The powder blue hat belongs to the youngest girl, Narcissa. At seventeen she is only a year out in society but already with a prospective beau. Narcissa resembles a doll. An angelic porcelain doll, much like the ones she collects. Her hair falls over her shoulders and coils on her neck in soft, blonde ringlets that glitter gold in the sun. She has large blue eyes and full pink lips, lips that spend most of their time in a childishly sweet smile of elusive rapture. She is petite and slim, a perfect little statuette that floats with graceful steps across the room in a pretend waltz, skipping between her two sisters, flaring out the skirts of her sky-blue dress.

The violet hat belongs to the middle sister, Andromeda. Andromeda just out of Hogwarts, is perhaps the most serious and reserved out of the three sisters. She is more like her older sister than Narcissa, with dark brown, almost black, hair that she twists up in an elegant braid that rings around the back of her head and out of her face and dark, seemingly bottomless eyes. She stands patiently fixing the ribbon on her corset that has come undone, re-tying the knot and bow with long, nimble fingers. Her eyes are locked squarely with her twin in the mirror, as though challenging the girl reflected there to tell her something, but the reflection merely stares back.

The third, green, hat belongs to the eldest sister, Bellatrix. Bella, perhaps the most desired bride of wizarding Britain, is in a lot of ways the opposite of Narcissa. Although both girls are beautiful and seem to glow from within, they are vastly different. Where Narcissa is light and angelic, Bella is dark and fiery. Her dark ringlets and bright features seem to suck in the surrounding light and saturate her with it. Where Narcissa glows and glitters like a sun bunny, Bella seems to burn like a flame, a flame that burns brighter and hotter with every breath of life she takes. As Andromeda finishes tying her bow and continues to seriously examine herself in the mirror, Bellatrix turns to Narcissa and grabs her hands. The two girls twirl across the room, giggling with excitement.

Narcissa lets go of her sister and picks up her hat. She puts it on her head and turns back to Bella. “So? Do you think he will like it?”

Bella laughs. “I think he likes everything about you.”

“Meddy?”

Andromeda breaks her staring match with the mirror and glances over her shoulder at Narcissa. “Cissy, you’re lovely.”

Narcissa and Bella exchange knowing looks. Andromeda doesn’t like visiting days much. She has been promised, and every fiber of her being seems to revolt against the idea. Her sisters both begin to answer, Narcissa to offer encouragement, Bella to put things sharply in perspective, but they are interrupted by a house elf.

“Mistresses,” the creature squeals in his high-pitch soprano. “The Messieurs Malfoy, Lestrange and Dolohov are here.”

Andromeda purses her lips and walks across the chamber to take both her sisters’ hands. “It’s time.”

*

Druella holds visiting days on Tuesdays and Saturdays, much like her mother once had. Lately, these dates have become of extreme interest to her. Her daughters, the three blooming flowers of the Black Family, are now all of marriageable age and Druella keeps an eye out for possible suitors with the watchful vigilance of a spider that weaves its web and waits for a foolish fly or two to get caught up in its intricate design.

Today she is expecting all three young suitors and her best china has been set out for tea. She is in the drawing room at ten till the hour, sitting primly on the embroidered sofa, stiff and focused, attempting to envision in her mind how the afternoon will run its course. Most likely, they will walk in the garden first, given the good weather, splitting off into pairs. She can imagine Andromeda and Rodolphus not bothering to go further than the benches and sitting down to chess or some other activity. Druella can imagine Narcissa with her flighty, girlish smile, flitting between the flowerbeds, luring Lucius further and further from the house like a nymph lures a lad into the depths of the enchanted forest. What Bellatrix and Antonin would do, Druella has a hard time imagining, but she doesn’t think she would want to. It isn’t that there is anything very wrong with Dolohov – he is Pureblood, well mannered, handsome, talented and perspective, after all. The fact that he is not an Englishman would not count against him were he wealthy, but the Dolohovs had always been a family of modest means by Pureblood standards and had lost their landed estates in the immigration. Yet, Bellatrix is set on marrying him, him or no one at all and Druella, knowing her oldest daughter’s fiery temper, has tactfully retreated. Better a respectable marriage to Dolohov than a disgrace.

Next, it will be time for tea and they would all sit in the drawing room and make polite conversation, Cygnus will talk to the young men of politics and affairs. Druella can already predict the bored look on Narcissa face, the strange expression of being choked that Andromeda seems to get every time the issues of the day come up, and the warning looks she will have to shoot at Bella, like an archer at an apple, for the girl’s inappropriate involvement in something that is clearly a men’s topic. Once she has had enough and taken pity on Narcissa, Druella will ask the girls to sing. Andromeda will play the piano, running her long fingers lightly over the heavy oak lid, opening it slowly and trying out a couple of chords before plunging into a romance, and Bella and Cissy will sing duet as they have always done since they began their singing lessons in the golden days of their childhood.

Lastly, there will be kind words and polite excuses before the men depart. Druella has gone through this routine before and she cannot foresee any problem. Unless Rodolphus forgets himself and shows favor to Bella too openly. Or Antonin, the audacious boy that he is, stays too long, talking to Bellatrix, making the girl blush and laugh, allowing her to slap his arm playfully with her fan. Or Andromeda decides to introduce one of her “progressive thinking” ideas into the conversation. Perhaps the last is the most troubling, but Druella tries to hope for a smooth afternoon. The large grandfather clock in the corner strikes one in the afternoon. “Cooooo,” draws out the little clock bird, then disappears again inside its wooden prison.

Cygnus appears in the doorway, twirling one of his long, bushy whiskers. “Is it time, dear?”

“Any minute now,” Druella says quietly, unfolding her fan and flourishing it for effect. “I’d see one of our flowers in white, walking down the isle this time next year.”

Cygnus laughs the hardy laugh of an old, good-natured fool. “Of course dear, of course. I’ve just talked to the Lestranges the other day. They are quite satisfied with the match. They want their heir married.”

Druella sighs and waves tiredly at her husband. “Your daughter is impossible sometimes. I just hope she sees sense.”

“Meddy is as much my daughter as yours, Dee,” Cygnus chortles. Clearly, he is not worried one bit. “They’re fine ladies,” he continues more seriously. “Andromeda is a very smart girl. In fact, I am least worried about her out of the three. Cissy is too pliant and Bella too fiery, carried away too easily on the tidal wave of her own passion. But Meddy? Meddy will do what is best.”

Druella purses her lips and doesn’t answer. She hopes he is right.

*

Antonin hates the small talk part of calling most of all. If he had to only deal with Cygnus, that would have been half the problem, but Druella never fails to play the part of the good hostess, going on and on about silly, empty things. All Antonin can do is nod, smile and pretend to listen. He often finds himself studying Druella’s face unceremoniously in search of Rosier traits. She has Rosier eyes and the soft curve of the Rosier mouth and chin, the delicate bone structure. All of these traits Druella has transferred smoothly to Narcissa.

Actually, Druella can be quite frightening. Antonin’s own mother was always soft spoken. He has tender childhood memories of Maria Dolohov in a salad-green dress and white apron, standing in the doorway to the kitchen, with a smile on her face and an apple pie in her warm hands. She took his little sister out on walks in the neighborhood park and always gave treats to the incoming owls. Before his father disappeared, Antonin would often find his parents dancing in the sitting room, or even on the terrace on warm summer nights, to tunes they hummed in unison. He honestly can not imagine Druella Black doing any of these things. She is the sort of woman who should be feared most of all – an aging, wealthy socialite with too many daughters to marry and no sons to give her peace of mind. Antonin often compares her to an owl out on a hunt, swooping silently over fields until the prey is located, and then a dizzying dive downwards. The poor field mouse never stood a chance. Therefore, the rustle of skirts in the hall and Cygnus’ pleasant, “Ah, my daughters, gentlemen,” are a relief.

Antonin looks up toward the door and feels a fluttering in the bottom of his stomach that is silly and unnecessary. He never felt this way at school. At Hogwarts the rules were much less stringent. He and Bella could run across the grounds chasing each other, her hair flying behind her in the playful breeze. There, they could roll in the grass or fly on one broom without a thought, floating high in the darkening sky, watching the twilight fade. At Hogwarts, Bella’s knee length skirt and light blouse, her House scarf and uniform robes, were so simple and undemanding, that Antonin could pretend that there is no dance that must be done around her and her family, that there are no rules binding them. Sometimes he wondered if, perhaps, he could simply sweep her up in his embrace one evening, after a victorious Quidditch match, and carry her off to the stars.

But this is their reality. Here in Druella Black’s drawing room, under her old hag’s watchful eye and Cygnus Black’s nose. Etiquette and formality first, everything else last. As the three sisters enter, Antonin has a vague association with watching a parade of expensive enchanted dolls, the lewder variety of which are sold in Knockturn Alley under the slogan “For a Witch-less Wizard’s Needs…” Despite the difference in the color of their hair, eyes, dresses, the Black sisters seem to all be molded in the same standardized way in which antiflu potions are made for medishops. The dresses are similar in style as are the hats that bob attractively and enticingly on their heads. Their expressions are the same – carefully pleasant. Their steps seem to almost be choreographed – float to the middle of the room, curtsey to their father, take three more steps, curtsey again to the guests. Bella had once told him that Druella calls her and her sisters “my flowers.” Antonin can honestly say that Druella has the right to be proud of her garden, then, for it blooms and behaves perfectly, not a weed in sight.

Bella meets his eyes and offers a small quirk of a smile, her eyes promising Merlin only knows what. A hot spark flies between them, burning them both so that Antonin can hardly stand in one place. He feels Rodolphus’ eyes on him and keeps still. Poor Roddy. Antonin was never Lestrange’s best friend but they were classmates and Antonin always feels a little guilty, a little uncomfortable, when he, Roddy and Bella are in the same room together outside of Hogwarts. It is a secret to no one that Rodolphus wants to marry Bellatrix and not Andromeda.

Poor Andromeda, for that matter. She doesn’t even get a choice.

“Mr. Dolohov, it’s such a pleasant surprise,” Bella draws out liltingly, tipping her head to the side so that it’s a wonder her hat doesn’t fall off. His appearance here is certainly not a surprise but Bella uses it as an excuse to offer him her hand.

“A walk in the garden, perhaps?” Narcissa asks in her ringing, girlish voice, looking rapturously at Lucius who suddenly gets the most unusual glint in his eyes, like he’s back in second year and about to play his first prank on a professor.

Andromeda and Rodolphus merely stand before one another for a long time without even acknowledging each other. Rodolphus has his eyes fixed on Bella, on her lips and the low, generous cut of her gown. Andromeda is looking down, not wanting to see the man who is to be her intended, if thing’s work out Druella’s way, devouring her sister with lustful eyes. Finally, Rodolphus takes Andromeda’s hand and kisses it, then gestures to the garden.

“Are you sure it is wise, Dee?” Cygnus asks quietly as the three couples make their way outside. “Rodolphus loves our Bella and Meddy obviously cares nothing for the boy either.”

Druella sighs and gives her husband a good smack with her fan. “Cygnus, marriage and love do not have to go hand in hand. A tie with the Lestranges is very advantages. I would have Bella marry the boy, but she’s…” Druella pauses, searching for the right word. Finally, floundering, she admits, “Bella is very hard to control, you know that. Besides, how am I supposed to argue with her on the matter? Simply because Dolohov is not quite her social equal doesn’t outweigh the fact that he is both eligible, strictly speaking, and her chosen match. I don’t exactly want to make my daughters unhappy.” There is another reason that Druella is not quite honest about. She wants Andromeda married – quickly. The girl is too quiet, too separatist in thinking, too unlike her sisters. She has begun to keep secrets, Druella knows, and she fears what the nature of these secrets might be. Society still talks of Lola Greengrass in whispers, though it has been many, many years since her elopement.

*

Bella’s dress is the color of thick foliage. This is convenient, because between her green dress and Antonin’s dark robes they can easily melt in the depths of the garden, unobserved and undisturbed. Here the carefully pruned rose beds give way to large exotic lilies and poppies and the neat lawns with their intertwining white and peach stone paths that wind and intersect like ribbons on a silken petticoat are replaced by shady trees and thick groves of berry-bearing bushes. In the isolated corners of the garden, the sunlight seeps through lush foliage and large, bright leaves, bending and twisting into sun bunnies and blotches of light that fall onto Bella’s face and Antonin’s hair, bringing out the copper strands in the thick chestnut mass. The warm summer day welcomes in colorful, vibrant butterflies of all colors and the songs of shrill, trilling birds.

In the quiet, they are finally alone.

Antonin stops, watching an ant scurry between the cover of a bush and a mound of dirt, lost in a moment, feeling her presence with his back. She watches him carefully, dark eyes catching every tensing of his shoulders, every small movement of his hands.

“Touch me,” she says suddenly, almost breathlessly.

Antonin jumps, startled by such a brash request. He turns and looks at her, clasping both hands behind his back to not lunge at her in the most unseemly manner. “Ms. Bella—“

“Merlin! Don’t call me that. Not when we’re alone.” Bella takes off her hat and tosses it aside. It lands neatly atop a lily, scaring the resident butterfly into a soaring flight. “A month, Tony,” she breathes, her eyes bright. “Where have you been, damn you? When Lucius disappears for a month, even Narcissa doesn’t think to worry. Everything about those two just screams propriety. But us—“

Antonin cuts her off, finally losing his self control and pulling her into him, his lips descending on hers with all the force of a tidal wave, sucking her in with his heat. Bella’s eyes fall closed, long thick lashes fluttering as her hands find his strong wide shoulders and she digs her fingernails into the soft fabric of his robes. He cradles the back of her head with one hand, the other woven securely around her waist. The hand at the back of her neck finds her curls and tugs at them gently. Antonin wishes her hair was down now as she often wore it at Hogwarts so he could run his hands through its inky depths, burry his face in the ebony coils that smell of expensive French perfume and never surface again.

“Bella,” he mutters against her mouth, nipping gently at her lower lip and smiling at the way her body lurches forward, her breasts pressing against his lower chest. “I’m sorry. I should have at least written. I was busy; there has been so much work. You mentioned Lucius—“

“Oh, not now!” she cries, still clinging to him. “We can talk politics later, with my father.”

“But you must know, Bella.” He suddenly seems very serious, tilting her head up so that she must look at him. Bella wants to not listen, to simply drown in the misty grey of his eyes, lose herself behind his veil. “The elections this fall, the campaign, everything seems to be coming to a standstill. I think Lucius is in a hurry to marry your sister and I think that is because he knows something is brewing. Something is brewing, Bella, can’t you feel it?”

She can, sometimes. In the evening, just after the sun has set and the cold has begun to seep into the air. Sometimes she will sit in the garden or stand on the balcony and watch the sun disappear, and in that moment of change from daylight to dusk, the feeling of inevitability, of something beyond her comes to her, grips her around the shoulder, constricts her throat so that she can’t breathe. She hates that feeling, that sudden unsettled peace of her idyllic, youthful world. “Tony,” she pleads helplessly, the fire in her eyes melting. “Why is everything spoken in whispers now? Why is Lucius jumpy?”

“I’m not part of their party or, rather, Organization, as Augustus and Lucius call it. Riddle’s party, you know? They say the right things and want the right things but how will they get them?” Antonin has a vague idea, in fact. It is the things he hears from his closest friends that put him in the loop and simultaneously keep him on the defensive. They don’t tell him everything because he’s not in the Organization, not part of this Inner Circle that they have formed around Riddle. Antonin feels a strange duality in his behavior, in his desires. On one hand, he feels like Riddle has the right idea – muggleborns pollute wizarding society with the muggle customs they bring into the pure world of magic, the power of Old Magic is being reduced because of the invasion of muggles and muggleborns and dilution of the bloodlines, the definition the of Dark Arts needs to be re-evaluated so that powerful magic, now restricted, can be used for the good of science and society, academic research should not be subject to such tight censure, the Aurors department – as well as certain other departments – should be restructured and purged of their inherent corruption and so on and so forth. The only division in the ranks, and one that Antonin considers significant, seems to be the way the party wants to handle the outside muggle world. Some are for the “liberation of magic,” which includes the repeal of the Statutes and consequent, necessary, subjugation of muggles. Which also would mean massive warfare. The other half of the party wishes for complete isolation. Antonin, personally, sees this as a more achievable platform, practically and politically. After all, it is much more reasonably to stop accepting muggleborns into their world than to wage war against a population that outnumbers them significantly, even if they are only muggles. Riddle’s answer seems to be a sort of middle way – focus on the latter platform as a starting point, a way to reorganize everything in their world first, and then think about the outside muggle population later. But either way, the movement is radical, separatist even, and brave, from what Antonin has seen, and will likely meet with harsh opposition everywhere. He wonders, sometimes, though, if his forebodings of war are merely a paranoia developed from being not quite on the inside but just deep enough to catch snippets of ideas and plans, ripped carelessly out of context. This is why he poses the question to Bella, in a sneaky rhetorical form, yes, but he is certain she will answer it.

Bella locks her hands behind his neck and considers the question carefully. Her mind is slowly returning to its normal sharpness after the retreat into mush while they said, what she considers to be, a proper hello after almost a month of separation. “I don’t know. I’ve heard whispers of war. But do you think that’s possible?” Her eyes flicker to his face and them away. “Do you think Riddle will risk civil war? You know, my father has been thinking of holding a ball and inviting him as a guest of honor of sorts.”

“That’s why I’m not in the Organization. I’m…I don’t wish to go to war. With all of my support for their Cause, I simply don’t want to get caught up in something where I will be in over my head. The ideology I agree with, but I’m not about to risk my family or throw away my life. Our life.”

“Our life?” Bella tightens her grip on him a little, her whole body tensing as her heartbeat speeds up. In the distance, she can make out Cissy’s joyous laughter and the splashing of a fountain. Bella can almost see the glittering droplets of water, how they fall around Narcissa, painting her into the perfect summer picture, and she can also imagine the adoring smile that lingers on Lucius’ face for long minutes after the precious moment passes.

Antonin suddenly looks very uncomfortable. “Yes,” he says finally after a long, heated, pregnant pause. He speaks firmly, as though having made an important decision. “Our life.”

Bella laughs. She laughs with joy and amusement. She laughs because in the golden rays of the sun, tinted the slightest shade of green by the leaves, her world suddenly becomes crystal clear, painted in bright, vivid colors. Within those colors, that change and flow and meld with one another, she can, faintly, make out the outlines of her wedding day.

*~*

The rain drizzles lightly over downtown London, dripping down in a light sprinkling of drops, like confetti trickling from a hole in a just barely ruptured piñata. The water trickles down windows and over cobblestone in the alleyways and pavement on the muggle streets, blurring softly lit windows and obscuring the sharper edges of objects, making everything seem fuzzy. A young woman in a dark dress and a thin, lacy, purple veil that obstructs her face, stops at the entry to a bleak apartment building with peeling pain and graphite decorating the alley-side wall, beside the large trash bins. She looks around nervously, as though expecting to be watched or followed, then disappears in the dark depths of the lobby. She climbs the stairs after throwing a cautious, suspicious look at the elevators and stops on the landing of the fifth floor, rings the bell and waits.

“Coming, coming!” a young man’s voice calls from the inside a moment before the door flies open and a slightly disheveled Ted Tonks appears in the doorway.

The young woman lifts her veil and smiles weekly, tucking a lose strand of hair behind her ear. “Hi, Ted.”

“Meddy… Come in, quickly. Before the food burns.” He ushers her in and closes the door behind her. “Take off your shoes, that damned veil – scared me with it – and, ah, do you need a blow dryer or something?”

Andromeda laughs with unconcealed amusement, kicking off her shoes and taking off the veil. “No, I’ll manage,” she says softly, taking out her wand and sweeping it down her body once, then again. Her dress lightens in color as it dries. “Those waterproof charms are no good when I do them. But I forgot my umbrella.”

Ten nods. “I still forget sometimes,” he says, flushing with embarrassment. He waves for her to follow him and walks into the kitchen.

“You really should put some of those housekeeping charms to use. Perhaps get a place in a wizarding area of town?” Andromeda follows Ted into the kitchen. He has all sorts of muggle things in his apartment, from electric lighting to a television, the concept of which still baffles and delights Andromeda. They really need something like that in the wizarding world. Another thing she likes about Ted’s apartment is how it always smells of food, of honey muffins and strawberry pancakes, mushroom pies and spiced meatballs. Ted likes to cook and he especially likes to cook for her, but today she has come on a whim.

“Maybe I will,” Ted answers thoughtfully, flipping something over on a frying pan. “My mum isn’t big on the whole wizarding thing, though. Didn’t want to send me to Hogwarts to begin with, thought it was all a bunch of hogwash. But she wants to move to America… Maybe once she’s done that, I will.”

Andromeda sits at the small kitchen table and stares a bit dazedly at the yellow lamp hung in the corner and the empty, crystal vase on the windowsill. She wants to put some colorful flowers in it, like the ones on the wallpaper. “I’m not intruding, am I?” she thinks to ask after a few minutes of silence.

“You’re never intruding, Meddy.” Ted closes the lid on the frying pan and begins to make tea for them.

“My mother had one of her visiting days today,” she says softly, not looking up at him. She can feel Ted tense practically from across the kitchen. “Rodolphus was there,” she continues in the same flat tone. “My sisters will be married soon.”

“And you?”

Andromeda looks up. Ted has pressed himself into a corner between the counter and the wall. He is glaring fiercely at the teapot that gurgles and bubbles happily in response. “Ted. You know my situation.”

He gives a disdainful snort. “Yes, I know your situation, Meddy. You made it very clear to me when we were at Hogwarts, that I was never to mention your visits, that everything between us was to remain in complete secrecy. As though we could really live our lives like that, always hiding and lying, always afraid. What good is it really?” He shrugs, still giving more attention to the teapot than to her. It comes to a boil and whistles mournfully, as though to echo Ted’s listless expression. “I suppose your sisters will marry who they are told. “

“My sisters will marry who they love.”

“And you?”

“I will marry who I am told.”

Finally, Ted looks up. His expression is dangerously blank. Behind him the teapot is threatening to explode with exertion. “Then why the hell are you here?”

Andromeda slams her hand hard against the tabletop. The cups on it jingle and clatter in protest. “Why do you think I am here, Ted?” she chokes out, dark eyes flashing with pain and anger. How dare he doubt her when she risks so much every time she comes to see him?

He doesn’t answer, instead turns and rescues the poor teapot. “You want black tea?”

Andromeda looks down, blinking away traitorous tears. She begins to play with her silver bracelet, watching her distorted reflection in the polished buckles. “Yes, please.”

Ted pours their tea and brings it over in two large mugs, so unlike her mother’s dainty cups that are pretty but hardly practical. Andromeda measures out a single teaspoon of sugar into her cup and begins to slowly steer it in, not looking up at Ted. “I love you, Meddy. I’m not trying to make your life hard. I’m just tired of coming home to an empty apartment, of seeing you only in secret, of feeling like a thief, like your dirty little secret.”

Andromeda keeps her eyes lowered. She doesn’t want to tell him that he is her dirty little secret and that he is a thief. After all, he did shamelessly steal her heart. She doesn’t want to goad Ted because she knows how it infuriates him, that feeling of inferiority from being a muggleborn. That is not something she can help, just like she can’t help her own pure blood. Just like she can’t help her feelings for him. She didn’t think she would ever find a man like Ted, someone soft spoken and yet with character, someone charming and decent, someone smart and funny, someone who understands her own tendencies. If there is something Ted doesn’t seem capable, or willing, of understanding, it is her traditions, her attachment to the society she grew up in. It’s hypocritical, she thinks. After all, he keeps a muggle television, so why can’t he understand her natural inclination to respect her place as a Pureblood daughter, now a half-baked Pureblood bride? “I love you too,” is all she can say, looking up to peer into his face with desperate honestly. “You and only you.”

“I’m sorry, Meddy,” Ted says with a heavy sight, rubbing a large hand over his forehead. “But you need to understand how I feel too. I was hoping…” he breaks off, as though afraid of the words themselves.

“Don’t say it,” Andromeda advises. “Why torture ourselves?”

“Because it’s reality.”

She laughs. It’s a cheerless sound. “Sometimes my life seems hardly real, Ted. I’m like some princess, caught in a tower. I have everything I need, it seems. Except for the freedom right outside my window and that hole, that gap in my existence burns.”

He reaches out and takes her hand, intertwining their fingers. “Let me be the one to save you.”

She smiles sadly, looking down at their hands and gives Ted’s a small squeeze. “If only life was a fairytale.”

*~*

Andromeda is burning incense on the windowsill when Bellatrix and Narcissa come running into their large, shared dressing room. Frankincense, myrrh, rosemary, cedar and juniper make the perfect Samhain incense. She readjusts the charcoal blocks that make the foundation for the black and orange candles and stands to greet her sisters.

Narcissa twirls around, already undoing the ribbons on her black corset. “I’m so glad the formal rituals are over with, now we can prepare for the masque!” She stops in front of a mirror and picks out a straw that had blown into her hair from the altar during the formal rituals.

“We must honor our ancestors, sister,” Andromeda admonishes softly, picking up Narcissa’s masque dress and laying it out in front of her sister.

“Says the girl who has a hard time with the family tree more than three generations back,” Bellatrix teases, easily unlacing her own black gown and allowing it to drop to the floor. Her masque dress is also black but of a much finer, silkier material and the cleavage is far more generous.

“Besides,” Narcissa adds, donning her pink dress – she is to be a flamingo – and starting to lace up the corset with nimble, long fingers. “What is the use of a holiday without a ball?”

“Better yet,” Bellatrix adds, smoothing down her skirt and reaching for the small cat ears head piece, “this is the one party where we will be allowed to run wild!” She laughs happily and spins across the room. “Andromeda, get dressed, we’ll be late.”

Andromeda nods and begins to dress. She is to be a ladybug. The amorphous black spots on her red gown shimmer as the fabric of the skirt folds and unfolds. When she is done, she helps Narcissa pin the pink flamingo feather into her hair.

“You and Lucius will made quite a couple,” Bella teases Narcissa, looking at herself in the full length mirror from one side then the other. “Two birds! I’m ready to bet anything he will be a peacock!”

“They do fit each other very nicely, don’t they?” Andromeda agrees. “You’re so lovely, Cissy.”

Narcissa giggles. “I would have died if I had to have stayed at Hogwarts for Samhain, it’s so terribly boring. What do you think Antonin will be, Bella?”

She shrugs. “Oh, I don’t know. I heard him saying something about a wolf? I think his patronus is a wolf.” She straps on her black mask which covers the upper half of her face watches as Narcissa and Andromeda do the same. Narcissa’s mask is pink with white glitter and Andromeda’s is satin-red with large black dots to match the ones on her dress. “Come ladies,” Bellatrix declares happily, holding her hands out to her sisters. “Let us go dancing and scrying!” The three girls hold hands as they apparate.

They land in a large field, strewn with colorful autumn leaves and peppered by bonfires around which girls dance with their chosen lads. Enchanted pumpkins and candles float through the air, circling the dancers overhead. On the edges of the festivities, older witches and wizards sell allspice berries, catnip, mountain ash berries, mugwort, mullein, rosemary, and other herbs. Divination professionals use cards and crystals, rune stones and special spells to try and predict the futures of young women and men. Most wish to know the name of their intended.

The three girls, still holding hands, approach the bonfires, smiling and laughing. They buy a cider each from the witches selling herbs and refreshments and watch the dancing. Suddenly, Narcissa lets out a joyous laugh and waves to someone in a group of young men.

Lucius’ peacock mask is stunning – gold, green and royal blue. “It suits him,” Bella comments. “He’s just like a peacock every day.”

Andromeda laughs and Narcissa giggles despite trying to look displeased. Another figure dethatches himself from the group – a grey wolf in silver robes with charcoal accents and a charming wolf mask – and follows Lucius toward the three sisters. Bellatrix’s smile grows.

The wolf and the peacock exchange glances, then run to the three girls and drag Bellartix and Narcissa away with them toward the nearest bonfire. Andromeda laughs, watching as her sisters giggle and squeal with glee. They join the circle around the bonfire and a new round of dancing begins.

Lucius has one arm around Narcissa’s waist from behind and holds her hand with his free one. Narcissa flares out the skirt of her pink-and-white gown with her free hand and allows the light fabric to fly on the breeze as they dance in a circle around the fire.

Antonin leads Bellatrix around and she tilts her head back until it is almost resting on his shoulder. "Shining bright against the sky, they never seem to fade or die. And as they glow throughout the night, round the world they go in flight!” they half-sing, half-shout with the rest of the group. On the last word, the men pick their partners up and twirl them around thrice. Narcissa clings to Lucius’ shoulders. Bella spreads out her arms as though they were wings and as though she might truly fly away in that very moment.

*

Andromeda watches the dancing, wondering if she should join the group as the pairs break up and everyone holds hands in a single circle around the fire.

“Might I tell your fortune dear?”

Andromeda jumps, startled by the gravely voice behind her. She turns to see an old witch with graying hair standing behind her. She is wearing the traditional black Samhain dress and holding a scrying mirror. Her black, beady eyes watch Andromeda carefully. “No, thank you,” Andromeda says, feeling a strange coldness wash over her. “I don’t believe in divination much. It is a very…slippery form of magic.”

“Ah yes,” the old woman hums. “But on Samhain the veil between the living and the Otherworld is thinnest. There hasn’t been a single Samhain prediction that has not come true.” ‘

For some reason, Andromeda finds that she cannot say no. “Alright,” she says and hears her own voice as though from a distance.

The woman calls two candles to her and has them hover behind Andromeda at eye level. She holds up the scrying mirror and whispers an incantation. “The mirror will show you...” she rasps out.

For a moment, nothing happens and Andromeda only sees her own reflection in the mirror. Then, the candles flicker and a cold breeze blows through her hair. She sees flashes of her two sisters dancing by the bonfire, though they are too far away to be reflected in the mirror. Then the mirror fogs. Andromeda’s lips part slightly as the sounds around her dim and blur. She can hear echoes of laughter all around her and the mist in the mirror seems to grow. She can see hazy outlines in the mirror that morph into resemblances of people she knows.

She is in Ted’s arms as he kisses her. Rodolphus and Bellatrix dancing. Bellatrix, wand drawn, screaming something. Screaming at her? Bright flashes of green and red. She is standing in a field of ash and fog—

The mirror goes black and Andromeda looks away, gasping for breath. When she looks back, there is, once again, nothing in the mirror except for her own reflection and the steady burn of the candles behind her. Andromeda looks over the top of the mirror at the old witch who is smiling thoughtfully and humming to herself. The old woman sends the candles on their floating way and apparates before Andromeda can get in a word.

“Meddy! Meddy, come dance with us!” Andromeda turns to see her sisters waving to her. She runs to them and grabs their hands. She looks between them and smiles, then loses herself in the swirling, wild Samhain dance around the bonfire.

*~*

“Why can’t I go with you?” Curious brown eyes watch Antonin from a corner of the room where the old, plush armchair resides, hidden away in its snug alcove.

“Because you’re not out in society yet, Nina,” Antonin says patiently, holding up his dress robes and examining them critically. “This is a ball.”

“But when can I go to balls?” Nina jumps up on the armchair and balances on the soft, somewhat rounded cushion.

“When you come out into society,” Antonin replies, smirking in amusement, watching his sister’s antics in the full length mirror

“When I’m sixteen?”

“Yes.” He puts on the robes and begins to close the inner golden clasps, watching himself all the while. The new hairstyle looks well on him and Antonin can feel that bubble of anticipation growing in his stomach. The one he always gets when he knows he will be seeing Bella soon. Dancing with her. Holding her. Maybe even kissing, if they can get a moment alone. Merlin knows the Ministry of Magic isn’t the most romantic place, but they’ll manage.

“But that’s an entire year,” Nina nearly howls with frustration. She plops down in the armchair and watches him mournful. Antonin picks up the broach with the family crest and latches it onto the top clasp of his robes. He’s been head of the family since his father went missing – died, according to the family tapestry – but he still feels that strange weight on his chest every time he bears the family crest on formal occasions. He didn’t wear the crest until he came of age, since his mother was technically head of the family until then, acting in his name, but Antonin has always known his role as heir and head, long before it was official. “Will I have a coming out ball?” Nina asks after a long pause.

Antonin turns and considers his sister for a moment, then smiles tenderly at her. “Of course you will.” He beckons her to him and she flits from the armchair straight into his arms. Antonin holds her close, her small frame fitting perfectly into his arms. She is so fragile, he thinks, that sometimes Antonin is almost afraid to hold her too tightly for fear of breaking her. Maybe it’s her lack of magic. Nina may not be a squib but some birth defect, some illness, had affected her spell casting abilities. She has access to magic, she can even use a wand for very simple spells, but he and their mother had decided, when the Hogwarts letter came, that it would be better if Nina was to remain homeschooled. She cried, of course, when they told her. She’d cried and he’d held her and promised her that she was still the best witch in all of wizarding Europe as well as some other nonsense, none of which he could recall the morning after. “You will have a stunning debutante ball next year,” Antonin promises. “You’ll buy a new, bright yellow gown and I will escort you down the grand staircase and you will be the most beautiful and desirable witch there.” It would be the first formal Dolohov ball since the family’s immigration.

Nina giggles and presses closer into him. “It’s too bad Papa won’t be able to see me,” she muses more seriously after a moment.

Antonin nods mutely, his mouth suddenly going dry. He wonders if Nina even remembers their father but doesn’t ask. He thinks she does, even if vaguely. She was about nine then, after all. Antonin steps back from her, both hands still on her shoulders, and pears into the young girl’s face with his usual smirk. “Do I look good, Nina?”

She giggles again and makes him turn around once, then again before declaring in her most proper voice, “Charming. This is all for Ms. Black, yes?”

Antonin laughs and swipes at her playfully. “Maybe it is. Now, you be good, alright? I will be late and Mama is at the Sokolovskis so she may be late or not even until tomorrow morning.”

Nina sticks her tongue out, skipping along beside him as Antonin heads for the floo. “I’m not a little girl, Tony, I’ll be fine.”

He turns to reply and meets her eyes. For a moment, something constricts painfully in Antonin’s chest but he can’t put a name or a meaning to it. Suddenly, he wants to take her with him, to not leave her alone. But that’s silly, Antonin tells himself, and takes a pinch of floo powder. “Just be good, Nina. Till tonight.”

“Have fun!”

Antonin throws the powder into the flames and steps into the mass of writhing green tongues. “Ministry of Magic.”

*~*

The Ministry lobby is unusually still and quiet when Antonin arrives. After the day’s bustle, the lack of people and dimmed light seems like a terrible anomaly. From a distance, music carries through the halls and into the open space, just barely distinguishable over the gurgling of the fountain. They are playing a waltz. Antonin tugs somewhat nervously on the sleeve of his robes, fidgeting with the white cuff of the undershirt. Several people arrive, popping inconspicuously out of fireplaces and heading down the hall toward the music. They don’t pay him any head accept for the couple who recognize him and nod. Antonin prefers it that way. He isn’t the socially awkward sort, but formal events always make him feel slightly out of sorts. He isn’t Lucius; this is Malfoy’s environment, not Antonin’s.

Antonin runs a hand through his hair, hoping that Bella has already arrived despite the fact that it is rather early. He peers into the basin of the fountain on his way toward the music, catching a flash of his own reflection. The water distorts his face, making it wrinkly and his hair far curlier and more unruly than it actually is. Antonin sighs and continues down the dimly lit corridor, his steps echoing slightly, the sound becoming less obvious as he nears the music.

“Tony! There you are.”

Antonin looks to his left where the corridor branches off into another one. Lucius stands leisurely sliding his wand between his fingers. Antonin doesn’t think he wants to know the answer to why Lucius has it out at all. “Hello. Are you stalking Narcissa?” He grins at his friend, noting the slightly smug look on Lucius’ face.

“No, no, I wouldn’t,” Lucius purrs but his eyes are dancing. Antonin supposes he fancies the idea. “Come have a drink with us, Tony. Get your spirits up before the dancing. You’ll be lighter on your feet.”

“Us?” Antonin asks uncertainly, but takes a step toward Lucius anyways. He wouldn’t mind a drink. Or two. Perhaps three, even. But that is it – three and no more.

“Augustus and I and Roddy. Edward, Theodore, Andre…must I list everyone?”

“Riddle?” Antonin asks with eyebrows arched slightly, but he is already walking toward Lucius.

“Perhaps.” Malfoy is smirking in the most frustrating manner, but it makes Antonin smile fondly.

“Alright, lets have drinks,” he gives in finally, taking Lucius’ arm and half-dragging him toward the door that stands ajar at the end of the hall.

*

“What do you think, Rafe?”

“I don’t think anything, Malfoy and Dolohov are friends, everyone knows that.” The older Auror shrugs and, conjuring up two glasses, begins to pour the whisky.

“Yes, but, did you hear all those names? And Riddle? You know Riddle’s up to something, everyone knows Riddle’s up to something. What with the whole Lord Voldemort stage act.” He younger Auror takes his glass and gulps down half of it in one go. “I think it’s shady, all of it.”

Rafe sighs and drinks from his own glass, coughing when the burning liquid hits the back of his throat. “It’s a free country, Robbie. If they want to make a party and spout bullshit, no one’s going to stop them.”

“Not if it’s illegal bullshit – pour me another? – Riddle could win the elections. Then what?”

“Then…I don’t know. As long as I can keep my job I don’t care.”

Robbie downs his second glass and rubs a hand over his eyes. Two years out of the academy and he is already chafing on all the indifference around the Auror Department. Did no one care that Riddle and Co. where spouting racist belligerent hogwash? It’s like World War II never happened. Although, for all he knows, it didn’t in the wizarding world. But what about Grindelwald? Everyone has to remember that, and yet no one is doing a thing about it. “Listen, Rafe, you don’t get it, do you? They need to be stopped.” Or perhaps the problem is that most of the people he works with don’t have two muggle parents. Rafe is a half-blood, so of course Riddle’s rhetoric interests him little.

“How do you plan on doing it then?”

“I’m going to get information,” Robbie vows over another glass of whisky, drinking it to seal the oath. “I’m going to find out what these bastards are up to. Especially now that they have Dolohov with them. Maybe they’re in league with the commies.”

“The who?”

“Communists. You know? The Russians?”

“Ah-hah. You mean except the fact that the communists are all for equality, right?”

“No, seriously!” The younger man feels heat rising and spreading through his body as he remembers and the realization comes, falling upon him like a hippopotamus accelerated with a blasting hex. He can hardly stand still now. “Dolohov’s father knew Riddle. Then he disappeared, and now his son is finishing what his father started!”

Rafe looks at him with an expression of exasperated boredom. “Robbie, why aren’t we in the ball room twirling the lasses but are out here, in a dark hallway, getting drunk, doing hell knows what?”

Robbie sighs. Rafe is an idiot for a squad leader. “Did you hear anything I just said?”

“Yes. You want to get information about Riddle and his party and what they are up to. But how?”

Robbie smirks with utter self-satisfaction. “Dolohov has a younger sister.”

“Oh, Merlin, don’t go there, Robert. Moody will have my head if you get into trouble. You know what a pain he can be.”

“Relax, mate. I can handle myself.” The young Auror smirks and pats his partner’s shoulder before stalking down the hall, a plan brewing in the back of his head. If he is correct, if his suspicions come to be not nonsensical babblings, well, then he would be worthy of all sort of praise and promotion. That would show certain stuck-up colleagues who wave their heritage around as though a pile of dusty bones has any influence on one’s abilities and wit. Besides, it is proper that a muggle-born should stop the party of the elitists.

*

The room Lucius shows Antonin into is a spacious office with a long oak table in the center and a blazing fireplace. The room is warm and the bottle changing hands is attractive. Antonin looks around, marking the familiar faces of friends and acquaintances. This could be an evening at Malfoy Manor, all except for the rather business-like manner in which most of the room’s occupants are studying the strips and squares of parchment laid spread out before them. Antonin says his hellos and moves away from Lucius before the latter can make some sort of awkward formal introduction. Antonin moves to the fire and claps for an elf who quickly provided him with a glass of brandy. The thick, brown liquid reflects the firelight, glowing an inviting orange. Antonin drinks and feels himself relax. He begins to listen to the conversation, leaning lazily against the wall beside the fireplace.

Tom Riddle sits at the head of the table, his eyes narrowed in concentration, although the rest of his body drapes leisurely over the armchair. He leans on one hand, knuckles firmly under his chin, dark eyes sharp and watchful.

Augustus Rookwood, Edward Parkinson, Brutus Greengrass, Andre Rosier and Theodore Mulciber hover on both sides of the table, pointing out different locations and naming various defensive spells. Lucius and Rodolphus, as well as a few others, hang back, drinking their alcohol and not bothering with the logistics of whatever project is being discussed. Antonin finds his curiosity peeked and he moves cautiously forward, edging in between Augustus and Andre to get a better look at the documents. They are maps of a building, blueprints with colored dots – red, black and green – representing types of people, that can be moved around with the tip of one’s wand.

“If we set three lookouts here, here and here,” Andre says, moving three black dots into various positions, “we can guarantee that we will be covered on all sides.”

“Yes, but I want more men on site, not less,” Riddle remarks in his low, thick tone that carried across the room without, seemingly, any effort from the man to make himself heard.

“But efficiency, sir?” Brutus puts in. “We don’t want to look like we have something to fear, either. We need to pretend to be wide open.”

“What is this?” Antonin asks suddenly, looking specifically at Rookwood, though he doesn’t really care who answers him.

“They’re strategy maps. This is our headquarters in Liverpool. We’re trying to figure out how to remain best protected. The Aurors have their own headquarters there. We don’t want… raids.” Augustus throws him a meaningful look.

Antonin gifts him with a suspicious glance, then looks back down at the blueprints. “These don’t look like defensive maps.”

“What?”

“These aren’t defensive maps. They’re…the circle is all wrong. More men on site but spread out in a manner where they cannot be easily detected? Why? We’re not at war, this is a political headquarters. Surely defensive wards and a couple of lookouts would suffice.” He outlines two circles with his wand, one on the outer perimeter of the building and one inside, around the offices. “This is a double tire system. Either you’re really expecting an attack or… you mean to provoke one and set an ambush.” Antonin looks back up at Augustus in askance. His friend looks lost for what to tell him. Behind them, Lucius makes a move toward Antonin but Riddle quietly raises a hand. His dark, heavy eyes are now boring into Antonin.

“What if we are expecting an attack?” Riddle ventures, the words falling from his lips like bundles of dark velvet.

“Then,” Antonin says, leaning back and focusing a heavy, searching gaze on Riddle, “then I would suggest you get rid of the outside tire and use warning and warding spells instead. Move the front tire back, give the enemy time to think they are not going to run into difficulties, then surprise them as you will have been forewarned.” The silence is heavy and Antonin has a nagging feeling that he had spoken out of turn. Finishing off his glass, he sets it down on the table resolutely and backs up toward the door. “Now if you’ll excuse me gentlemen, I think I will join the dancing. Good evening.”

The room is quiet until the door closes behind Antonin. “Who is he?” Riddle asks, looking at Lucius.

“Antonin Dolohov, sir.”

Riddle’s eyes spark with something inherently predatory. “I want him.”

*~*

The Ministry Christmas Ball proceeds with the same festive, grandiose air as always, with the high walls decorated with enchanted dancing angels and twinkling fairy lights. Mistletoe hangs there and here, confusing and embarrassing couples both young and old, both likely and unlikely. Champagne is passed around and Father Christmas, perched beside the ceiling-high tree, chortles happily, if somewhat idiotically, offering passers by champagne glasses and apple tarts instead of presents. The music flares and flits around the room, echoing from corner to corner, lifting couples into soaring, light steps across the polished floor.

Antonin spots the Blacks as they arrive, Druella on Cygnus’ arm, her graying hair pulled up into a tight swirl on the top of her head, feeling quite in place with her strict dark gown. Cygnus is beaming as though all the men in the room were his cohorts. Of course this earns him a smack from Druella’s fan and Antonin, who watches them from across the room, snorts into his glass, making champagne bubbles creep up his throat and tickle his nose.

Druella’s daughters are dressed much more lightly then their mother. Except, perhaps, Andromeda, whose burgundy, velvet gown and large earrings seem to way her down. Narcissa is much like the soft, charmed snowflakes that float across the room, sometimes falling on top of the heads of the dancing couples or peppering the floor under their feet. Her silver gown and the matching tiara that holds up part of her hairstyle, glisten and seem to glow. Antonin is unsurprised that Lucius wastes no time to offer her his hand. She takes it, white glove falling on white glove, and they are instantly swirling across the floor, two snowflakes joined together with smiles warm enough to melt them. They’re a blinding sight, and Antonin is earnestly happy for Lucius.

Bellatrix’s gown is dark like Andromeda – except it is green and black – but the wide layered skirt, the laces on her gloves and neckline and the frills on the sleeves and skirts render her perfectly girlish. Their eyes meet and Antonin finds himself gliding across the floor toward her. He is stopped by Druella’s firm gaze and can’t help but feel a sting of indignation. Lucius was allowed Narcissa’s attention without the added formalities.

“Mrs. Black, good evening,” Antonin kisses Druella’s hand. “Mr. Black,” he says, turning to Cygnus. He can feel Bella’s smile behind him and her eyes on the nape of his neck and he can’t help the shivers that cover his chest and arms.

“You are looking quite flushed, Antonin,” Cygnus tells him with a thoughtful smile and a knowing twinkle in his eyes. “All that dancing.”

“Surely, it can’t be drink with the night still so young,” Druella adds, regarding him over her lacy, black fan. Antonin does his best to not scowl at her provocation. Instead, he ignores the comment completely.

“May I dance with your daughter?” he asks Cygnus.

The man nods and smiles good naturedly. Antonin waits no longer; he turns and offers Bellatrix his arm just as the round of quadrilles finish and a languid, slow waltz begins. Bella allows him to lead her out onto the dance floor before sliding her free hand, the one he’s not holding, over his shoulder. He can swear her eyes are laughing at him.

“So is it the dancing or the drink that have you so flushed?” she asks as they begin to sway, unable to keep the laughter from her voice.

“You,” he answers simply, but she only laughs more. A snowflake lands on her nose and glistens there for a moment before falling off. The music rises in a crescendo, then drops into low, staggering notes and Antonin switches their direction. “You don’t believe me?”

She shakes her head, laughing. “No.” A curl falls onto her face and he wants to reach out to brush it out of the way but his hands are busy. Her hand tightens on his shoulder as they continue to dance. The whole world is them. They are light and music, feeling and laughter. Bellatrix dances until she can hardly breathe anymore from the exertion. Here she is allowed what she cannot have in her father’s house – the right to drown in his eyes, to laugh, to feel, to be free in a wild whirlwind of dance steps and touches that no one can distinguish.

“Are you happy?”

“Very.”

*

Rodolphus dances a courtesy dance with Andromeda before retreating to the sidelines during the period of which they hardly said enough to each other to account for polite small talk. If Rodolphus tries, he can almost pretend she is Bellatrix – the two certainly look alike – but almost is never good enough. Andromeda does not have Bella’s dazzling smile, her lithe movements, her fiery eyes. Andromeda is cool and collected, proud and reserved. He supposes she could be warm with others, with her sisters and friends, perhaps a man she loves, but Rodolphus knows he is not that man. He also knows that their wedding is inevitable. His father cannot wait to have the family heir married and a Black girl is a brilliant match. Rodolphus can’t argue, of course, and he wouldn’t even care so much for the lack of love in their relationship – he was brought up with the idea that marriage was about politics – if it wasn’t for Bellatrix.

Every time he sees the eldest Black girl, something within him yearns to touch her. He is drawn to her as though with a sticking charm. Rodolphus can’t remember ever being drawn like that to any other woman, no matter how beautiful. Seeing her in Dolohov’s arms is unbearable. It simply is not fair. He knows, of course, that Bella and Antonin will be married, there is no other way. Even Dolohov has enough honor to not compromise a lady in such a way.

He breathes a sigh of hope when, after a particular dance, Bellatrix and Antonin make their bows. It seems they are ready for a break and Rodolphus sets aside his glass, meaning to draw Bellatrix away when the next dance begins. The champagne flute is almost knocked out of his hand by a curvy, short girl who has flounced off to the sidelines, waving a lewdly coquettish goodbye to the man who had just partnered her. Rodolphus is surprised to recognize her as Alecto Carrow. She is too young – only fifteen – to be at the ball. The Carrows had lost all shame apparently.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Lestrange,” she sings out, nodding at his glass.

“Don’t worry about it,” Rodolphus mutters distractedly, his eyes still fixed on Bellatrix as she makes her way toward him on Antonin’s arm.

Alecto fidgets with the skirt of her gaudy, shimmering dress, plump arms outlined with bright aquamarine gloves. She follows Rodolphus’ gaze and her smile fades. “Oh,” she murmurs to no one in particular, mousy-brown eyes blinking rapidly to hide Merlin knows what emotions. “They have been dancing all night haven’t they?”

“Yes,” Rodolphus answers automatically, not really thinking about what he’s saying.

“Do say, Mr. Lestrange,” Alecto says in a girlishly pleading tone, suddenly quiet and timorous. “How could I make your friend, Mr. Dolohov, notice me?” Her voice fades as Antonin and Bellatrix come into earshot.

Rodolphus glances over at her and tries to not laugh. Stupid little girl has harbored a crush on Antonin since her first year at Hogwarts. Jealousy is burning him up as well, and even though he could more likely relate to Alecto’s feelings than not, what comes out is more cruel than he could have even intended. “Kiss him under the mistletoe,” Rodolphus remarks lightly, and steps away from her to greet Bellatrix. “Ms. Black, a dance?”

Bella shakes her head. “I need a break,” she says simply, offering him a pleasant smile.

“A drink then?” She nods and Rodolphus offers her his arm. “Antonin,” he says, turning to Tony who is doing his best to not look too displeased. “Ms. Carrow would like a dance. Do oblige the poor girl.”

Antonin sighs, watching Rodolphus lead Bellatrix away. He turns to encounter the burning gaze of Alecto Carrow. Antonin can’t decide if he should pity her or not. He doesn’t say a word, merely offers her his hand and she takes it, trembling visibly, the glove wrinkling from the clamminess of her palm on the inside.

Alecto is nowhere near as light on her feet as Bella. She is awkward and heavy, her young age, nervousness and bad genetics getting in the way of grace, but Antonin has to give her credit for sheer audacity. She is a girl of unfortunate looks, a bloodline not nearly as pure as the Carrows would like to believe, with a bumbling fool of a brother for a family heir, and a sweet disposition that allows her to not notice just how socially awkward she or those around her can be. The combination is pitiful if slightly endearing. As it is, Antonin is in too good a mood to be sharp with her and he treats her as he would treat a child of a girl as they dance.

“I feel you must find it very dull here with all the old Ministry loons,” Antonin quips, twirling Alecto around.

“Oh no,” she says breathily, eyes alight with something between childish excitement and youthful infatuation. “I enjoy the dancing. Especially when I’m dancing with you.”

Antonin laughs, wondering at her nerve. “Ms. Carrow, is that a compliment?”

She tilts her head to the side and gives him a dopy smile and he gives her another turn before the music ends. Alecto seems to freeze for a moment, then takes a step back from him, then another. Antonin, a little uncertain as to what she is doing, follows her, offering her his arm pointedly. He needs to take the girl to her brother or father. Someone who would keep an eye on her.

“Mr. Dolohov,” she says, taking his arm but not moving, peering up into his face with an unexpectedly shy smile. “You are a man of honor, true?” She looks up to somewhere above them and her smile widens.

Cautiously, feeling like he had just stepped into a trap, Antonin looks up and can barely hold back his frustration. A bright green mistletoe hangs above them. It glints in the bright light of hundreds of candles and sways slowly, seemingly laughing at the victims below it. Or, rather, one victim, as Alecto looks very satisfied with herself. “Yes, of course,” Antonin says, a little stiffly. He leans down, his hand still holding hers, and kisses her fleetingly. She is more audacious than he had thought however, tugging on his arm hard enough to make him practically fall forward into their kiss. When Antonin finally manages to free himself of her grip and look up, his eyes meet dark, fiery ones and his heart skips a beat.

Bella is watching him from the refreshment table. Rodolphus is beside her, but he is now distracted by Lucius and Edward. Bella’s eyes seem to burn into him, everything from hurt to shame to anger seems to writhe and burn within their depths. Then, slowly, deliberately, she picks up her fan and walks for the door, only breaking into a run when she reaches the first shadows of the hallway.

Antonin wrenches his arm away from Alecto. He suddenly hates her with her childish tricks, social inadequacies and poorly bred manners. He bows stiffly and sharply to her before turning and taking off after Bellatrix in long strides, then breaking into a run himself once he reaches the hallway.

He catches up to her around the corner where she has stopped to take long, ragged breaths that could almost be sobs. Antonin grabs her arm and turns her to face him.

“Let go of me!” she hisses, trying to pull her arm away. “I’m ashamed to have…you…in front of everyone, how could you?” The red blotches on her cheeks seem to be pulsating in the unsure light of the hallway.

“Bella, listen to me, you saw there was mistletoe. I couldn’t do anything!” he whispers back vehemently, pushing her against the wall, both her wrists caught in his hands.

She shakes her head, black curls flying out of their bun, hitting him in the face. They feel like soft, silken ribbons, much like the ones tying the front of her corset. “Why should I believe you?”

“Why shouldn’t you?” Antonin tries hard to not sound exasperated, or desperate. He could be either at this point. “She means nothing to me, Bella. She or any other woman.” He releases her wrists and slides both hands up her sides, from the waist to her shoulders. She is looking at him with wide eyes, mouth open slightly, her breath hitting his lips and nose. He throws himself forward, devouring her mouth with his. Antonin presses his body against hers and moves to kiss her chin and neck. She whimpers and growls into his hair, clutching at his shoulders.

“Stop.”

“No.”

“We must not.”

“I love you.” He looks up and finds her baffled eyes. They brim with anticipation and as soon as he speaks again, they overflow with triumph. “Will you marry me?”

Antonin can feel her hands on his shoulders tighten even as she smiles. “Tomorrow. Ask my father for my hand.”

“Then yes?”

“Yes, Merlin, Tony. Yes!” She laughs, an echoing ringing sound like the clinking of thousands of pieces of fine china. He picks her up and twirls her around. Her arms are locked around his neck, then cupping his face, and she is kissing him. Rapturously.

*~*

Antonin floos home in high spirits. His intoxicated brain is fixated on that first round of waltzes, on her delighted “yes,” repeating it over and over again in his head. The warmth from the champagne he had consumed and the lingering sensation of Bella in his arms makes his fingertips tingle and he finds himself grinning lopsidedly even as he steps out of his home fireplace into a darkened room. Antonin thinks of the next morning, imagining how he will go to the Blacks and ask Cygnus for his eldest daughter’s hand in marriage and Druella’s sharp but satisfied look that she will drill him with. But it won’t matter once Cygnus says yes and Bella says yes and they go running like bratty children through her garden to their small alcove in its very depths.

Antonin takes off his already unfastened dress robe, remaining in a tailcoat, and reaches for his wand to light the candles, his mind wondering briefly if Nina has already gone to bed. What stops him is a noise that sounds like something between a whimper and a cry. Then a gruff voice making a demand. Antonin freezes, listening. His heart speeds up, and his mind races. Nina, Nina, Nina!

Antonin begins to quietly make his way toward the voice, locating it around the dinning room. A man is demanding someone – Nina, who the hell else! – tell him something. Antonin can’t hear her voice and his heart jumps up into his throat. No one else is home. His mother is out, the elves were given a holiday night…

Antonin bursts through the double doors, wand drawn. In one sweeping look he takes in the room. The chamber is dimply lit by the remaining candles. Broken glass is strewn across the floor and peaces of china plates and cups are scattered over the table and chairs. The table is stood at a strange angle, as though it had been purposefully but sporadically moved and some of the chairs have been overturned. Nina lies on the hardwood floor, her body twitching. Her mouth seems to have frozen in a scream, eyes scrunched shut, bright red blotches on her cheeks, limbs at awkward angles. A man in a crimson, Auror robe stands over her, his wand drawn and pointed, a fierce expression on his face. The Auror looks up when Antonin bursts in and his wand droops. He’s surprised.

Antonin’s vision goes red and he can’t think. His whole attention if focused on Nina. The green light around her body flickers and fades. She twitches spasmicly several more times, then her body stills and she lies limp and lifeless on the floor at the Auror’s feet. Antonin wants to scream but nothing comes out. Somehow he knows she is dead and that bastard, that fucking bastard, has used the Cruciatus curse on her.

The Auror comes out of his stupor and lifts his wand but Antonin is faster. Rage and grief guide his hand and before he knows what he’s doing, Antonin casts the first spell that his railing, raging mind lands on. “Avada Kedavra!”

*

When the Aurors come for him in the early hours of the morning, they find Antonin as he had been for the past several hours, sat on the floor in the middle of the ransacked dining room, with Nina’s body cradled in his arms and the Auror’s crumpled form lying several feet away. When they read the arrest warrant, Antonin does not protest. He hardly says a word at all, except for a hoarse, helpless whisper, “Nina…”

*~*

In the mist of the early morning, the docks from which prisoners’ boats are to sail several miles north to Azkaban are slowly emptying as they release the mournful vessels docked their into sea, one by one. There are three small ones that morning and they sail away in ten minute intervals from each other. There is a certain fear associated with putting too many convicts in one enclosed space for any extended period of time.

The grey sand beach is teeming with red cloaked guards, most of them Aurors, who oversee the dispatch of the boats. Among the red cloaked figures, relatives and close friends of the convicts are dispersed. Antonin’s mother is there with Augustus Rookwood standing beside her, one arm awkwardly around her shoulders. Tony had asked him to look out for her, to make sure she didn’t go into despair. How could she not, having lost both of her children? One to death and the other to the Wizengamont. Andre Rosier and Theodore Mulciber stand a step back, stoic and silent, as though at a funeral. Lucius is beside them, muttering sentiments along the lines of, “The Wizengamot isn’t a trial court, it’s a damn tribunal,” and, “The bastards don’t issue fair judgments, they issue death sentences.” Narcissa, wrapped up in a long, warm robe with a fur color, has one hand comfortingly and steadying on Lucius’ arm. Her eyes are fixed ahead, however, on her sister, who has gone as far as the barrier and is attracting more looks than necessary from the Aurors.

Bella stands at the magical barrier that separates the grey sand beach from the icy water. Her eyes are locked on a single shape on deck of the last boat. Wandless, already in the prisoner’s garb, still grief stricken by the death of his sister and blind Wizengamot conviction, Antonin looks like a ghost. He holds one hand out, as though reaching for her, and she presses her hands against the barrier, longing to feel his touch. She still cannot believe this is happening. The trial had all been a hopeless blur to her. The Aurors always protect their own and the Wizengamot has long since answered to the Aurors. It’s a disturbingly corrupted connection, but no one can reasonably do anything about it. Riddle is trying, but the party has still to make gains. After the lost election – stolen election, some say, implying that the Ministry rigged the results to not allow through Riddle’s candidacy, considering him too dangerously radical – nothing has gone right.

Lucius had provided the best solicitors, who had filed detailed reports and argued eloquently. The problem was that they could not prove direct self-defense and the Aurors’ representatives claimed that there were plenty of other, non-illegal, ways to stop an attack. Antonin himself had been in too much shock. He recounted the evening as he remembered it – honestly, without embellishments. That, in the end, had played against him. He was in for fifteen years, and that was with the crime degree lowered due to “mitigating circumstances of shock.” Bella had wanted to stand up and shout that the entire trial was a pompous farce, but her father’s iron grip on her arm had kept her in her seat.

The mist grows and condenses, slowly swallowing the boat as it drifts on toward the horizon. Bella does not hear a thing, she hardly can see for the tears clouding her vision, but she forces herself to stare past them, to viciously blink them out of her eyes so that she can peer into the distance and make out Antonin’s fading silhouette. Watching him fade away is like ripping her own heart out one heartstring at a time. His eyes are locked on her face as he seems to try to memorize every line of her face and body. Soon she can’t make out the features of his face anymore as he becomes a single, dark shape against the lifeless white mass of the mist. Several seconds later the mist has swallowed the boat entirely and there is nothing to make out except for the charcoal, brawling waters and the thick white mist.

Bella lets out a high-pitched, hysterical sob and sinks to the ground, hands fisting in the sand. Moments later, a pair of arms fold around her and she knows it’s Narcissa. They stay like that for an immeasurable time as Bella cries silently against her sister’s shoulder.

Finally, Lucius comes and apparates them both home.

*~*

The winter is a bleak time and the Black household is unusually quiet these days. Druella mourns such a scandalous end to what could have been an acceptable match for her eldest daughter. Cygnus is worried about Bella’s fierce determination to not give up intermixed with moments of utter despair that she tries to hide but rarely succeeds. Narcissa has gone back to Hogwarts. Bellatrix spends half her time locked up in her room and half the time out Merlin knows where. As for Andromeda, she contemplates the strange uselessness of her life. Even Bella’s grief seems fulfilling to her. At least she can go through an intensely emotional process. Andromeda can’t seem to focus on a single thing. Her entire life seems to drift on without a certain end or purpose. She feels torn up and more a commodity than a person. Rodolphus’ visits are painfully boring and her own rendezvous with Ted have become increasingly filled with a frustration that bleeds into everything they say and do so that she is unable to enjoy even those moments that they have together.

As she sits, watching the sky slowly turn lighter in the East, she thinks that perhaps if she had been someone else, she would be happier. Bella had been crying again and Andromeda knows to not bother her but she still cannot sleep. So she sites on the wide windowsill in her bedroom and tries to count the stars that fade slowly as the day draws closer.

Andromeda wonders if she could possibly feel as happy as Bella or as miserable as her. She wonders if something could lift the thick layer of ice that had settled over her soul some time so long ago that she cannot quite remember what it felt like to live without it, to be exposed to emotion and feeling. She thinks she knows a way; she remembers how it feels when Ted’s lips meet hers and when his hands run down her body and slowly lift the dress of her skirt… Andromeda wonders if she could really have that joy or if perhaps she is meant to be stuck in a gilded ice castle. Perhaps that is the meaning of her life. She drifts off to sleep without realizing it, heavy eyelids falling closed and her thoughts jumbling up into a warm cocoon around her soar mind…

*

Andromeda wakes with a start, her stomach turning and a sick feeling of bile rising up in her throat. She rushes to the washroom as the nausea takes its toll. She emerges several minutes later, shaken and burning from the inside. Tears sting her eyes because she knows. She has known for perhaps a couple of weeks now, ever since the visit to the Mediwitch, but dear Merlin, she is deadly certain and she wishes that she could mold that certainty into a weapon.

Andromeda glides silently, barefoot, across her bedroom to the writing desk and stops, hands locked behind her neck. She watches the cold, watery winter sun wobble and waver over the far off horizon of trees. The first rays of light fall into the room and streak across the wooden floor, stopping at her feet. It is like the rays of sun are attempting to guide her, guide her away from her ice castle. She was wrong; she does know what it is like to feel utter joy and pitiful misery. Except she does not want to be miserable like Bellatrix, she doesn’t want to run from her happiness. Bella had her love taken away from her, while Andromeda punishes herself.

She grabs a piece of parchment and a quill. Her hand shakes slightly as she writes out her short letter, her heart beating faster with every sentence she commits to parchment.

My dear Ted,
I love you with all my heart, I am sure you know this. You have told me countless times that there will come a time when I will have to decide between which two of my lives I want to lead. I want to lead my life with you, Ted. You and always you. I want to be your wife.
Don’t hurry back when you get this. I know this trip is important to you and our love can be patient for a little longer. Besides, I cannot leave Bella and the rest of my family right now. I must wait over at least another month or so before abandoning them to more losses. Please understand.
Always yours,
Meddy

She summons an elf and instructs him to send her an owl from the owlry. As soon as the creature disappears, Andromeda seals and addresses the envelope. She opens the window, allowing the winter air to flood her warm room, and waits. Soon, an owl perches on her outstretched hand and she attaches the letter to his leg and sends him off.

Andromeda watches the owl fly away, both hands folded over her stomach. The cold air bites at her face, turning her cheeks rosy and the sunrays of a new morning flood her room, promising a new beginning.

 

-----PART II-----

The dying rays of the evening sun fall over the grounds of Malfoy Manor, bathing the park paths, gardens, meadows and surrounding woods in a fiery glow. The dying sun halts at the horizon, bouncing on the line as though a slowly drowning child’s ball sinking beneath the glassy surface of a lake. Above the manor grounds, boldly outlined against the orange-painted sky, tinged with magenta and patched with navy, soars a majestic hippogriff. Lucius’ favorite glides over the manor park, turning smoothly at the guide of his master’s hand on the reins. It – or rather he – turns in a wide, sweeping arch and heads for the woods, large wings propelling him over the meadows to the delight of the two riders on his back.

Lucius sits holding the reins, his long, blond hair tied into a long, smooth ponytail with a dark green ribbon. He has one hand on the reins and the other firmly wound around the slight female figure in front of him. Narcissa sits in front of Lucius, hands gripping at the hippogriff’s neck for balance. She laughs brightly as they dip into a tern and head first into the sun, then away from it. She had never enjoyed flying on a broom, but the feeling of the warm creature below her and Lucius’ welcome presents behind her as he steers the hippogriff with a firm, sure hand, makes her shiver and believe that she is free, incorporeal. Like they are part of some other world, where all is light and feeling and love.

They fly over the trees and to a clearing in the wood. Lucius carefully sets down the hippogriff and waits for him to calm before sliding off and handing Narcissa his hand. She takes it as she slides off, the rustling of her skirts blending in with the whispering of the fresh spring leaves. Her blonde curls glow in the evening sun and she is dazzling in her white dress, the color of the snow which has just recently given way to new life. The fur collar of her dress brushes against her chin, tickling her cheeks and her smile seems especially soft then.

Lucius attempts not to stare. He turns away and feeds a treat to his faithful hippogriff, then takes the reins and begins to walk toward the hippogriff stables. Narcissa follows, the smile lingering on her face. “Thank you for taking me for a ride, Lucius,” she says liltingly, touching his arm lightly with her fingertips.

“Of course, Ms. Narcissa.” They walk for a moment in silence as Lucius seems to gather himself for something, Finally, he says softly, “I know politics bore you, but you must know that we are in preparation for war.” He looks over at her, expression unreadable, but she thinks there is something in his silver eyes that begs her to understand.

Narcissa nods, plucking a young leaf from a tree branch and twirling it between her fingers listlessly. “I’ve heard there is talk of making your Organization illegal.”

“If that were so, would you be angry with me if I were to continue within its ranks?”

She stops and grabs Lucius’ hand, making him turn toward her. The hippogriff lets out a moaning sound but occupies itself with burrowing its snout in the dirt. Narcissa looks into Lucius’ eyes, studying his face, her lips pursed. Unable to look for her answers further she drops her eyes and releases him, folding her hands before her. “If I were yours I would feel it my…duty to be beside you whatever your choices. You are a man of honor, Lucius Malfoy, and I would not expect you to give up your principles.”

Lucius smiles gently at her. He loves her when she is like this – soft and pliant, his for the taking. Just as Antonin could never understand Lucius’ preference for Narcissa’s placidness, so Lucius could not understand Antonin’s and Rodolphus’ desire for Bellatrix’s fiery nerve and temperament. For all Lucius is concerned, his friends are mad. A woman was most desirable in her delicate, subdued beauty. Like a lovely doll which is also warm and compassionate but still his own.

Lucius puts a hand underneath Narcissa’s chin and forces her to look up at him. The sun has set and the shadows begin to lengthen, turning Narcissa’s curls from golden to platinum. “You are beautiful. Would you be mine? Would you marry me?”

Somewhere in the depths of the wood, a songbird begins to trill a lullaby as Narcissa carefully wraps her hand around Lucius’ and brings it to her lips. “Yes, I am yours.”

*~*

Lucius instantly senses that something is wrong at the Blacks when he and Narcissa arrive hand in hand. She could not wait to tell her parents the news and insisted that Lucius go immediately to ask for her hand, forgetting that the hour may be indecent. He could not deny her despite his reservations as to what her parents might think of their impatience. After all, she was going back to Hogwarts the next day and may not have a chance to come home for a while. The school did not appreciate its students taking frequent trips home.

The house is strangely dark and quiet, something ominous and heavy hanging in the air. Narcissa doesn’t feel it. She is too preoccupied with her thoughts and feelings, the excitement rushing through her like a young stream. Lucius grabs her wrist and pulls her into his arms. She reminds him of a fairy pixie – fleeting and light, never in one place, a golden sun bunny on a hardwood floor. “Dear Cissy, perhaps we should wait. It is quite late,” he says calmly, casting around for any sign of a house elf, a sister or any living being at all. But all is still and Lucius is acutely aware of his intuition screaming at him to not be there.

“Nonsense, they will only be too pleased!” Narcissa protests. She tiptoes to subdue him with a kiss, before tugging on his hand and making him follow her into the sitting room. “Mama, Papa! I have wonderful news!” Narcissa sings happily as she flounces into the room, lets go of Lucius’ hand and twirls around, spreading out the skirts of her dress. When she looks up, her smile instantly fades. Lucius had stopped dead in the doorway moments earlier. “What…?”

The room is dimly lit, the several candles that burn, flicker and sputter in their effort. Druella sits straight-backed on the sofa in a black gown that could almost be fit for mourning. She is pale and her expression is mournfully stoic. Cygnus is beside her, holding her hand. His large black whiskers tremble and his eyes move shiftily from Narcissa to Lucius. Bellatrix is stood at the window with her back turned to the rest of the room. Her eyes are fixed at a point far beyond anything she could reasonably make out in the dark. Her shoulders are tense and her hands on the windowsill are white at the knuckles.

“Tell her, Cygnus,” Druella says stiffly.

“Dee, perhaps Mr. Malfoy should not—“

“Tell her,” Druella repeats, her voice breaking.

“Your sister…she…these papers…” Cygnus nods to two pieces of parchment on the tea table. He opens his mouth once again but nothing comes out.

Bellatrix turns slowly and catches Narcissa’s gaze. For the first time since the younger girl can remember, there are pieces of ice floating in the black lakes of her sister’s eyes. She speaks slowly and firmly, each word a hammer blow. “Andromeda has eloped. With a mudblood.”

“W-what?” Narcissa stammers, her voice rising to a a hysterical squick. She begins to tremble. Lucius rushes forward and takes her hand. “What do you mean eloped? Meddy wouldn’t…” Her knees begin to give out and she hurries to sink into an armchair, eyes wide and bewildered, fixed on Bellatrix who is smiling viciously. Narcissa squeezes Lucius’ hand, her fingers digging into the soft skin of his palm. He doesn’t let go despite the discomfort.

“It’s true,” Bellatrix says, just as evenly and icily as before. “His name is Theodore Tonks. Or Ted as she calls him.” Bella spits the name and turns back to the window.

“Mother?” Narcissa’s eyes shift to Druella.

Druella reaches forward and picks up one of the pieces of parchment and holds it out to Narcissa. Lucius is the one to take it instead. He reads it over with a scornful expression. “She talks about it all in that letter. Something about not being able to live without the man she loves. I always knew she was—oh.” Druella lets out a wheezing noise and reaches for her handkerchief, dabbing with it at her eyes.

“Then we have to stop her! We have to talk her out of it,” Narcissa says, her eyes shifting pleadingly from her mother to her father to her sister. She finds solace in none of them.

“It’s too late,” Lucius says, showing her the letter. He is still holding her hand. “She is already married.”

Narcissa grabs at the parchment, reads it quickly, holding her breath. When she is finished, it drops lifelessly from her hand. “This is the marriage certificate,” Cygnus says, nodding at the thin roll of parchment remaining on the table.

“Do tell us your good news, dear,” Druella says finally around a sob. “I think I need some right now.”

Narcissa looks up at Lucius and he meets her eyes before clearing his throat and addressing Cygnus. “I wish to ask for your daughter’s hand…in marriage.”

Druella begins to cry and Narcissa jumps to her feet. She lets go of Lucius’ hand and runs to kneel on the floor beside her mother, hugging Druella around the waist as she use to do as a little girl.

Cygnus walks to Lucius and puts a hand on his shoulder. “I lost a daughter today, Mr. Malfoy. But I have also gained a son-in-law.”

Bellatrix continues to peer into the darkness of the garden. Her emotions are drained and desaturated, too jumbled up to distinguish one from the other. Mostly, she wishes Antonin could be there to hold her and make everything else in life irrelevant.

*~*

“Well you should have kept a better eye on her then.” Priscilla Lestrange opens her fan and lifts her chin to peer down her long nose at Druella. “Dear, I understand you are very shaken right now, but that is very little of my business. You must understand how badly this reflects on my family and on my son.”

“I am sure there are other brides Rodolphus could consider,” Druella replies with a bite in her tone for the first time all afternoon. She sits besides Cygnus on one of the sofas of their sitting room; across the tea table from them sit the Lestranges. They are taking the news of Andromeda’s elopement calmly but with little understanding. Druella thinks of all the times she had received Priscilla on her visiting days and how many afternoons they had shared, sipping tea and gossiping. Now, Priscilla is as cold as the forgotten tea in the white-blue cups.

“You must understand,” Rodbertus Lestrange puts in. “It is time for Rodolphus to consider marriage, especially in these tumultuous times. We want to secure a future for our son and our family name no less than you do. I am certain you understand. Of course, Rodolphus can look elsewhere for a bride but we want you to understand what position you have left us in. This is a downright scandal and, although, nothing had been officially announced, everyone was well aware that Andromeda was Rodolphus’ intended. Society does not forget easily, I am afraid.”

“The poor boy is brokenhearted,” Priscilla simpers and sighs theatrically. Druella wants to strangle the woman. It is no secret to anyone, not to mention Mrs. Lestrange herself, that Rodolphus was no more eager to be joined with Andromeda in matrimony than she was. Before, Druella had always been indignant at how obvious Rodolphus made his feelings for Bellatrix, but now she is in no position to speak. Rodolphus had respected his duties, regardless. Andromeda had not.

“I wish there was some way we could amend this situation,” Cygnus says in his most diplomatic tone. He hopes Rodbertus can be reasonable. “This alliance was as desirable to us as it was to you.”

Lestrange sits back, looking thoughtful. “You are in quite a fix, Cygnus. This is not the first scandal surrounding your family as of late,” he says pointedly. Of course everyone knew of Bellatrix’s and Antonin’s courtship as well. “Of course, Narcissa’ engagement has softened this blow, but I think you and I would be well advised to proceed with our intended alliance. Our three families would make the perfect core for the new Pureblood movement. It would only be proper.”

Cygnus makes a helpless gesture, spreading both hands in front of him. “I agree, but how could we possibly do that? We’ve lost Andromeda. Narcissa is engaged…” He stops as realization dawns slowly and his eyes widen almost comically.

“You do have a third daughter, Cygnus,” Rodbertus draws out, a note of condescension slipping through in his voice. “Who is, as of late, not spoken for.”

“Bellatrix.”

Priscilla smiles cloyingly. “Rodolphus is very fond of her. You have always said, Druella, that she is a fierce supporter of Mr. Riddle’s movement, therefore she must be a fierce supporter of our traditions. I suppose we can put our trust in her and in your word once more. After all, a tragedy can happen to anyone.” She pauses for seemingly dramatic effect, her fan fluttering listlessly in her hand. “She is a little…feisty. But I think that can be taken care of.”

Druella is unsure what she should be feeling. She hates Priscilla in that moment but she is utterly relieved that Bellatrix will be married and that the family name can be redeemed from all of its recent scandals. Her sister-in-law has been unbearable with her reproaches. Walburga seems to take every opportunity lately to remind Druella of her failings. Of course, Druella is well aware of the hypocrisy behind those words. Sirius is far from the perfect heir and Cygnus often says that Orion and Walburga worry endlessly about the direction in which the boy is headed. “More tea? Or pie, perhaps?” she offers finally in lieu of an answer.

“Do we have an understanding?” Rodbertus presses, looking mainly at Cygnus.

“Well, ah…” He hesitates and looks at Druella. “This is an important decision, you cannot just expect us to…to not give it any thought.”

“What is there to think of, man?” Rodbertus exclaims, frustration seeping into his voice. Priscilla touches his arm with her fan lightly and he backs down.

“I have always wanted this match, if I am to be honest,” Druella acquiesces quietly. Cygnus looks over at her and she gives him a barely perceptible nod.

Cygnus clears his throat and rises. Druella stands as well and the Lestranges are forced to follow their lead. Cygnus holds out his hand to Rodbertus. “I believe we have an understanding.”

*~*

The unsteady light of the after-hours ministry hallway bathes the faces of two young wizards in deep grey shadows, partially obscuring their expressions. The dark haired man grabs the hand of his blond companion, making him turn around.

“Listen to me, Lucius. You know I am right. Our parents have reached an agreement. She will marry me.”

“Rodolphus, I do not understand what—“

“Of course you do, Lucius. Your appeal did not go through, did it?”

Lucius pushes Rodolphus back and regards him with a heavy look. “There are other ways than appeals to get what you want.”

Rodolphus rolls his eyes and steps in front of Malfoy before he can walk away. “And mar the family name? What would your father say?”

Don’t bring my father into this,” Lucius hisses venomously.

“I am your friend, Lucius.”

“So is Antonin. What do you expect me to do? Nothing?”

“No.” Rodolphus practically spits the word.

“Besides, the Lord wants Tony in the Organization.”

“As do you.”

“That is beside the point.” The two men look around and drop their voices and the hoods on their robes just in case.

“It is not beside the point, it is the point. This way everyone will be happy. Antonin will be free and with us. I will be married and you, my friend, will still be held in high favor for the Lord can only do so much without us and you will have your opportunity to shine without the possibility of a disastrous scandal to your name.”

“You think she will go to him?” A confirming silence is Lucius’ answer. Finally, Lucius says quietly. “I can’t make you any promises, Roddy. But make sure the Lord knows what to ask of her if she does go. We need to make sure to play our cards right. All of us. And not a word to anyone else. Rookwood would have my head, the fool that he is.”

Rodolphus nods seriously. “Thank you, Lucius.”

The blond sniffs and pushes past his friend. “Don’t thank me yet.”

*~*

Bellatrix finds herself seated in her father’s study the evening after her parents spoke with the Lestranges about Andromeda’s elopement. Narcissa is still in shock. She did not come down from school for the Disownment ritual, claiming that she and her housemates could suffer for it, as they did not take kindly to frequent trips home at Hogwarts and Narcissa was already forced to take these to oversee preparations for her engagement ball. Of course it’s all excuses. When she does come home, Narcissa stays far away from the family tapestries, unable and unwilling to see the black scorch mark where Andromeda’s name used to be. Their father calls it a process of mourning, but Bella doesn’t think that Narcissa has managed to move even remotely past the stage of denial. Instead, she runs around worrying about the preparations for her engagement party, and her classes and upcoming NEWTS, keeping herself occupied so she does not have to face the reality. Her letters home are always hectic and as far away in subject from anything remotely related to Andromeda or the Disownment scandal as she can possibly manage. Bellatrix is not quite so willing to sink into delusion; she is not quite as sensitive as Narcissa. Perhaps this has something to do with being the eldest daughter. She had always felt the keen weight of the responsibilities that came with being the first born. Of course, it is nothing compared to those of an eldest son, but she is still expected to set an example for her sisters.

As she sits waiting for her parents to speak, she feels a growing feeling of foreboding. Everything about the atmosphere of this meeting seems off to her – the formality of the occasion, her mother’s primness, her father’s white gloves which he never wears, barring formal occasions. When Cygnus begins, haltingly, his tone awkwardly cold, Bellatrix’s intuition screams in terror.

“Daughter, you understand, of course, the responsibilities that come with being the eldest of your sisters. I am sure you are also aware of the proper traditions that this family upholds and that you seem to aspire to given your faithful support of Mr. Riddle.”

Bellatrix nods, stiffly. “Yes, Father.”

“Bellatrix, this family has recently been rocked by a great tragedy. You and Narcissa have done very well in helping each other cope with this great grief. Now, you also have the chance to help this family save its honor and also affirm its alliances with other noble Pureblood families.”

Bellatrix stiffens at the mention of alliances. She clasps her hands in her lap, fixing her father with a searching glare. “I don’t understand.”

“We have arranged for you to be married.” Druella braces herself for the backlash.

For a moment, Bellatrix is silent. Her head spins and she searches frantically for some clue in her father’s face that might tell her that this is a joke. Or that, perhaps, they are merely suggesting that she consider a match. “Married?” she gasps, eyes sparking with indignation. “You have arranged for me to be married?” Bellatrix jumps from the sofa and takes a step forward before regaining control over herself enough to stop in the middle of the room and not charge at her parents like a rabid lioness.

Cygnus begins to speak but Druella cuts him off, her tone icy and uncompromising. “Yes. Married. You, Bellatrix, are far too involved in politics for a proper lady, you are too willful, too… What you need is a good husband. What we all need, including you, is to bring some honor back to this family. A brilliant match will help with that.”

Bellatrix feels like the floor is sinking beneath her feet and she is falling, wandless, into a pit of fire. Fire that burns her up from the inside and spouts from every possible opening in her body. “But I am spoken for!”

“Don’t be a fool, girl. Your Antonin is stowed away in Azkaban and will be for many years.”

“You just never liked him, Mother. You were overjoyed when he was sentenced, weren’t you?” Bellatrix gulps down tears and forces herself to stand straight and dry-eyed before her parents. “Well, it’s not over yet! Lucius’ solicitors are working on an appeal, these bastards—“

“Language, girl!”

“—have to see reason!” Bellatrix can hear her own voice rise to an impossible pitch but she can’t help it. Panic swallows her whole.

“Now, Bella, your mother is right. It is very unlikely that Lucius’ appeals will find willing ears. Even if they do, our people are not as strong as in Wizengamot as we would like them to be…”

“Please, Papa,” Bellatrix says, her voice falling into a more acceptable range. She looks at Cygnus, knowing that he is her only hope. “Can this not wait? At least until the appeals go through. I should know any day now. Even if-if…if nothing can be done, I do not wish to marry at the moment. Narcissa’s wedding will be enough to occupy idle tongues.” She beseeches her father with her eyes, pleading for him to see her desperation and help her. Take pity on her.

Cygnus merely shakes his head. “We cannot wait. This match needs to be made now.”

“Who on Earth could be so impatient?” Even before she finishes asking the question, Bellatrix knows the answer.

“Rodolphus Lestrange. He would have you give an answer within the week.”

“My answer is no!”

…Druella is shouting something, something about how Bellatrix, too, wants to humiliate their family, how she in ungrateful and disrespectful. By the time Cygnus has come around his desk to embrace her, Bellatrix can’t feel a single thing other than rage. And despair. But then, Druella begins to wail about the imminent loss of her second daughter and how only Narcissa seems to be capable of carrying out her duties.

Bellatrix fights against Cygnus’ firm hold on her, pushing her father away and taking a step back. She gives him a look of utter betrayal, than fixes her burning gaze on her mother. There is utter contempt in that look. “You are wrong, Mother. I know my place and I-I know my duties.” She swallows hard as tears begin to run down her face. “I will bend to your will and marry Mr. Lestrange but…” She swallows again and begins to take faltering, unsteady steps toward the door. “But I do hate you both so!” She turns and runs from the room, dashing through the halls and taking the stairs blindly two at a time, risking to trip and fall over the skirts of her dress.

Once safely in her room, she shuts and bolts the door, throwing several locking and silencing jinxes at it for good measure, then collapses onto the carpeted floor and cries like she hadn’t done since she was a little girl.

*

Bellatrix is brought back to reality out of her wildly spinning thoughts by a knocking sound, like a pebble continuously hitting glass. She looks up, brushing thick strands of black, mussed hair from her face, and glances around the room. A flash of white by the window catches her attention. She stands slowly, brushing down the skirt of her gown and wiping the tears of her hot, flushed face, and walks to the window where a large white owl hoots at her from the other side of the windowpane. Recognizing the bird as Lucius’, Bellatrix scrambles to unlock the window, eyes already locked to the envelope on the owl’s paw. Her hands are shaking so badly that she cannot get them around the latches. She grabs her wand and throws a spell and then another at the window until the latches fly off and the window swings open, allowing in a cold breeze of night air along with the owl.

The large bird perches on her shoulder and hoots expectantly but Bella has no desire to waste time feeding it. She sweeps her wand around the room to light the candles and rummages around on the writing desk, allowing papers and quills to fall onto the floor. She finally finds the letter knife, detaches the envelope from the owl’s leg and opens it. Her hands are still shaking as she unfolds the parchment inside. On it, in slytherin-green ink, Lucius’ short letter is written out in his usual precise cursive, as though he were writing an official document and not a note to his future sister-in-law whom he had known for the majority of his adult life. Bella holds her breath as she reads.

Bellatrix,
I’m sorry. They’ve declined my solicitors’ appeals and I’ve tried speaking to a few other people but I am afraid there is not much more I can do for Antonin as this point. All my attempts have met dead ends and I am at a loss of what more to do. After all, my father will not lend me his direct support. In fact, he has decided this would be the opportune time to leave the country. The power resources of the Malfoy name, as you must know, are diminished in my hands until I am head of the family. I wish there was more I could do; Antonin is my friend too. But I am afraid I am out of options.
Sincerely,
Lucius Malfoy

Bellatrix crumples up the letter, watching it shrivel in her tightening fist, and allows it to fall lifelessly to the floor. She evicts the pitifully hooting owl from her room and allows herself the pause to replace the latches onto the window with a couple of spells. She stands in the middle of the brightly lit room for several moments, all of her grief condensing and gathering up in one festering ball of rage.

She hates Andromeda. She will always hate Andromeda.

*~*

Andromeda has just left the cozy, bright coffee shop at the end of Diagon Alley where she always liked going for coffee. She thinks she will go home and cuddle with Ted on the couch, lay her head in his lap and he will put one large, warm hand on her stomach and they will be a family. Like she had always wanted. She thought the choice she had made would kill her but it was the most exhilarating freedom she had ever felt. She doesn’t know she is being watched.

Bellatrix had not lost time or energy on anger that wasn’t going to find an outlet. She found people and ways and figured out where she might find her wayward sister. Former sister, rather. The Tonks weren’t in hiding after all. Yet. She watches Andromeda from the shadows as she leaves the coffee shop and begins to stride down the half-empty street, her plum robes streaming out behind her. Andromeda seems perfects content with herself and her life. No thought at all, it seems, to the broken ones she’d left behind. As soon as Andromeda begins to merge with the evening shadows, Bellatrix moves toward her, lithely, almost silently.

“Meddy.”

Andromeda turns around at the sound of her name and the familiar voice. She searches for a moment for the speaker and tenses when her eyes stop on Bellatrix. She tries to relax as Bella walks toward her slowly. Just to be safe, she carefully shifts her hand closer to her wand. “Bella.”

Bellatrix comes to stand straight before her and just looks at her with an unreadable expression. Suddenly, before Andromeda can react, Bellatrix grabs her arm and they are apparating.

They land in a dark, silent courtyard, the windows of the building around them are shuttered. Andromeda has no clue where they possibly could be. She had not been prepared for the apparition and it takes her several moments to regain her footing and composure. That is enough time for Bellatrix to disarm her. Andromeda throws her hands up and watches her sister carefully as the older woman points a wand at her. “Bella, what are you doing?” Andromeda asks, trying to sound as calm as she possibly can, which is much calmer than she feels, to her credit. “Where are we?”

“This is all your fault,” Bellatrix hisses, the wand in her hand trembling from the strain. “Do you hear me, you dirty little blood traitor? This is all your fucking fault!”

“I don’t understand.” She does, but she would rather Bellatrix explain exactly what she is being accused of other than marrying a muggle and breaking her “proper” engagement.

“As though you don’t know!” Bellatrix’ voice begins to rise and the ends of her phrases become frayed and nearly hysterical. “As though you don’t know how you have shamed our family. As though you don’t know how you have hurt Papa and Narcissa and in what position you have forced Mama.”

Andromeda frowns, lowering her arms carefully. Bella brandishes the wand at her but Andromeda still manages to put her hands down all the way and fold them over her stomach. There is a fierce, desperate rage in Bella’s face, in her voice. Something must have happened that Andromeda had not foreseen and it touched Bellatrix personally. “That’s not why you’ve just kidnapped me is it?”

Bella seems taken aback. She pauses, still glaring at her sister as though she thinks she might produce the Killing Curse with willpower alone. “No,” she growls finally, “it’s not. I have to marry him because of you.”

“You have to marry who?”

“Rodolphus Lestrange. I have to marry him because you ran away and abandoned us! You betrayed us but now you are running around perfectly happy with your life and I have to pay for your poor choices! Do you understand, you bitch? I have to pay when it is you who had betrayed us!”

Shock is what Andromeda feels first, then anger and despair, the memories of her betrothal sting and eat away at her. Every feeling of betrayal and hurt and desolation she had ever felt come flooding back. “I betrayed you? Bella, you are out of your mind. Do you think you are the only one who has had to suffer for our family and these idiotic traditionalist views? What about my betrothal? You were perfectly happy to stand by and watch me get sold off like a mare to a rich Pureblood heir for the price of a family alliance. A man whom not only did I not love but who did not love me! But no one cared, including you and Narcissa! You were perfectly happy to marry who you chose and let me be the ones to suffer for the family pride!”

“That wasn’t my fault, someone has to suffer! Why does it have to be me?”

“Well, why me?”

“You didn’t bother to make a proper match for yourself!” Bellatrix is screaming now. They both are. Their voices rise and fall like the shrieks of sirens. Bella’s wand is still pointed at Andromeda’s face.

“I love Ted! You, at least, Bella, support these traditions, you want them! Then suffer for them! I didn’t want any of them! I just wanted to live my life! As though anyone would let me!” Andromeda has to duck to avoid the curse Bella throws at her. It is sheer luck and intuition that saves her. She tries to run but Bellatrix nocks her down with a curse. Suddenly, as pain spreads through her body, Andromeda begins to feel acutely afraid. She had somehow managed, until now, to believe that all would end well, but Bellatrix’s restraint has obviously snapped. Andromeda gets up, blood running down her chin from where she had bitten into her lip. Bellatrix backs her up against the wall of a building and traces the side of her face with the tip of her wand.

“Give me a good reason for why I should let you go alive?”

Andromeda begins to shake, her hands find her abdomen and she wraps around herself. “Bella, please,” she whispers vehemently. “I’m your sister.”

“Not anymore. You forfeited that right.”

“Please, I didn’t mean for you to end up stuck with Rodolphus. I didn’t think that would happen, I didn’t elope to hurt anyone.”

“No, you eloped because you are a selfish traitor!” Bella gives her a hard shove against the wall, the tip of her wand pressing into the hallow between Andromeda’s collarbones, making it harder to breath.

“I couldn’t live like that anymore, Bella. And I didn’t have a choice, I didn’t!” Tears begin to well up in Andromeda’s eyes. “I didn’t have a choice anymore,” she repeats desperately. “Please, if you kill me you will be committing two murders, not one.”

“I don’t give a damn if your mudblood dies of heartbreak,” Bellatrix spits, her pupils dilating by the second. She wants to strangle Andromeda, make her suffer as much as she, Bella, is suffering.

“You don’t understand,” Andromeda gasps, the tears now flowing freely down her face. “I’m pregnant.”

For a moment, they are both completely still. The wind howls as it rushes through the gaps between the buildings. Finally, Bellatrix lets go, showing Andromeda away vehemently. She throws her sister’s wand aside and the hollow sound of it hitting the stones underfoot echoes piercingly in the enclosed space of the courtyard. Bellatrix apparates without another word, only a last look full of icy hatred aimed at Andromeda’s face.

Andromeda remains standing for another moment, then crumbles, sliding down the dirty wall with its peeling paint and rotten patches. In the dark emptiness of this unknown courtyard, she cries until there are no more tears left to wash away the remnants of what used to be her life.

*~*

Narcissa’s engagement ball finds Bellatrix straining to keep a straight face. She is incredibly jealous of her sister’s happiness but also very happy for her. Lucius and Cissy fit each other so perfectly that any other match would have been vastly inferior in all respects.

Narcissa seems to float as she dances with her fiancé, her silver gown spreading out in a wave of shimmering, soft fabric. Her blonde curls frame her face and she could almost be an angel. Lucius can’t take his eyes off of her. She is everything he had ever wanted and now she will be his. They are to be married not a week after Narcissa graduates from Hogwarts.

Bellatrix stands to the side, watching her sister light up the Malfoy ballroom and wonders at how at home Narcissa seems already, as though she had assumed her mistress-of-the-house duties before they had begun. Everything about her radiance during the ceremony wherein her necklace with the Black’s gemstone was exchanged for an identical necklace but with the Malfoy gemstone, spoke of how desirable this betrothal was to her and how Narcissa had no doubts about where and with whom she wanted to belong.

“Wine, Ms. Bella?” Rodolphus’ voice breaks through Bellatrix’s hazy introversion. She wants to tell him to go away but that would be beyond rude and she is forced into even tighter boundaries now that she had agreed to marry him. Rodolphus was impatient to make the announcement but Bella had managed to hold of the announcement, pleading that she did not want to steal Narcissa’s thunder. “Her engagement is the happier one after all,” Bellatrix had said, earning her disapproving looks from her parents but Rodolphus had acquiesced.

Bellatrix turns toward him and eyes the two glasses of red wine Rodolphus is holding with a mixture of longing and uncertainty. Finally, she reaches for one of them. “Thank you.” As Rodolphus remains standing beside her, Bella waits for the inevitable invitation to dance. It is a pity really: before she had never felt any animosity toward Rodolphus. In fact, she had found him sensible, perhaps even pleasant. He is certainly attractive. But she could not forgive him this, the way he had used her family’s vulnerable position to gain what he had always wanted.

The invitation to dance never comes. Instead Rodolphus draws out, “What did you make out of the Prophet today?”

Surprised, Bella glances at him, before continuing to watch the dancing. “What do you mean?” He does not say anything and Bella continues, unable to constrain herself. “The prophet spouts horrible foolishness most of the time. It’s a pity how controlled they are by the government.”

“You are very involved in the political situation for a woman,” Rodolphus remarks, sipping at his wine.

The bright candlelight dances off of the glasses and the wine turns the sort of ominous red that could easily give one shivers if the imagination was to be applied. Bella stares down into her glass, musing on the fine color, before replying. “We are on the brink of war, Rodolphus, I cannot possibly not be interested in the fate of my country. In the fate of our world. I think what Mr. Riddle is trying to do is very honorable.”

“The Lord is also a powerful wizard,” Rodolphus adds. “I think he could make great changes. His powers are...incomparable. I, and some of my colleagues who are privy to these matters, have witness but a fraction of what the Lord can do but that is enough to be convincing. He could well be the leader and messiah we have been waiting for.”

“You call him your Lord, some The Lord,” Bellatrix muses, twirling her glass one way then the other between her fingers.

“The Dark Lord,” Rodolphus puts in quickly.

“I honestly think Dark Magic should be re-defined. Magic is neither Dark nor Light. It is merely magic. Only mudbloods and such filth could possibly split it up into such primitive categories. That is why they are so dangerous – they do not understand our world, our history and traditions, as well as Merlin’s gift which they so pursue to suppress.”

“I wholehearted agree with you. We should be free to use our power as we please. How do you feel about the domination of wizards over muggles?”

Bellatrix shrugs, finishing off her glass and setting it aside. “Positive. Although, I’m not in a rush to have any contact with muggles, whether that involves dominating them or not.”

“Focus on our own society first, cleanse it, yes.” A silence falls between them, It is no longer awkward but one of understanding and comfort, the sort that comes with a knowledge that you are in the company of a person who shares one’s views and values. “A dance, perhaps?” Rodolphus ventures eventually.

Bellatrix is still watching Narcissa as she laughs, leaning into Lucius and clinging onto his shoulder. Bellatrix wants to dance and be happy like that, too. She looks over at Rodolphus, eyes slightly narrowed with uncertainty, but their political consensus has made her soften toward him and she curtsies to show her acceptance.

They dance a quadrille. Not a waltz, thank Merlin, Bellatrix doesn’t think she could handle that quite yet. Rodolphus is smooth on his feet, without Antonin’s sincerity in feeling, but with an extra flourish that Bella’s own dancing lessons had taught her to accommodate and compliment. She can’t help but smile at the end of it.

Another glass of wine and she thinks she and Rodolphus might not end up killing each other in their sleep. She also starts to think that, perhaps, if he really does care for her, he might help her. Bella leads her intended aside to where they would not be overheard, given the music, and looks up at him searchingly. “Rodolphus, I must ask you…to help me.”

Rodolphus watches her curiously and nods. “With what, Ms. Bella?”

She can see hesitation in his eyes but it doesn’t stop her. “I’m sure you know that Antonin was accused unfairly. The Wizengamot is as corrupt a system as can be. They are not a court of law, they are a tribunal.” She stops to see his reaction. Rodolphus is tense, his eyes no longer meeting hers as he has realized where she is going with the tirade. The rest of what Bella has to say comes out in a rush. “Please, I know you are close to Riddle because of your father; they are school friends. I know that you may have access to resources that Lucius was not able to tap into. After all, the more ways that are attempted, the more chance there is that one of them will work. I’m lost for what to do.” She hopes he can tell how earnest and desperate she is without her having to resort to humiliating tears and pathetic pleas.

Rodolphus puts his half-empty glass down and regards her coldly. “I don’t think there is anything I can do that Lucius has not tried.”

“Please. Your father…Mr. Riddle…”

“Bellatrix, even if I could influence my father or the Dark Lord, do you honestly think I would risk…anything…to free the man you were going to marry?”

Bella pushes down the instant bubble of acidic anger that threatens to explode, and says quietly, instead, “That is awfully cruel. I have no intention of breaking my word, I simply want to free someone I care about. He was your classmate, Rodolphus, you have the same friends… Does that mean nothing to you?”

“Not as much as you.”

She huffs indignant at him, with just a hint of contempt slipping through. “You claim to love me, but you prove yourself to be incapable of thinking of anything but yourself.”

“There is nothing I can do, Bellatrix!” Rodolphus insists, his voice rising to dangerous tones and Bellatrix looks around to make sure they are not being observed.

“You haven’t even tried! Admit it, you are just a selfish coward who thinks only of himself and is incapable of anything but using the vulnerability of other people’s situations. At least Tony had – has – some honor.” She turns and walks from him as fast as she can without running. Bellatrix hardly manages to reach the hallway before Rodolphus catches up to her and grabs her wrist, turning her around sharply.

“Wait, Bella. You’re right, I don’t wish to help Antonin. He and I were never exactly friends, and you have always stood between us. I would not resort to dishonorable means to get rid of my competition but I will not bring it back. I understand you are upset right now, but you and I – we’re alike. We could be very happy together. I am not, despite what you claim, I coward. And if I am selfish… I think you and I can find common ground there as well.”

“Should I be insulted?” Bella asks, tugging her hand out of his hold and taking a step back.

“Never. Bellatrix…I do hope you can come to love me. Or at least that we can find friendship and partnership in our marriage.”

She looks at him wordlessly for a moment, then shakes her head and walks away briskly, hoping that he would not follow her. He doesn’t. Instead he watches her stalk off with mournful and longing eyes, standing still in the middle of a dimly lit hallway of Malfoy Manor. Her heart belongs to another and that he cannot change. Rodolphus also has the nagging feeling that Bella is not the sort of girl to have already given up.

 

*~*

Desperation can drive a woman to do crazy things, things she had never thought she would do. Perhaps because they are too dangerous or too unthinkable or too humiliating. That is not quite as important as that what she is willing to do because of desperation far exceeds her typical limits. Love can do the same. Bellatrix Black is both in love and desperate.

She goes to Tom Riddle, uncertain what she should expect. She has heard that he can do things, knows people, that others cannot do and do not know. Under such circumstances his defeat in the campaign last autumn is puzzling, but something tells Bella that Riddle is her last hope. She seeks him out and ends up going to his private office in London which is connected to his private rooms where he stays sometimes when work makes it necessary. Where Riddle’s permanent residence is, no one can be certain.

The large dark building looms before her as she approaches. The halls are dim and her footsteps echo. Bella looks around, trying to orient herself in the maze. The soft, silky voice behind her is startling and she clamps a hand to her mouth to not scream.

“Ms. Black, were you looking for me?”

She turns slowly to see Riddle standing in the middle of the hallway, a strange, expectant expression on his face, nothing close to surprise.

“Yes,” she says softly, trying to not stammer. “I needed to speak with you. I’m sorry to disturb you so late—“

“I’ve been expecting you. Come.” His manner is regal but it is so befitting him that Bella couldn’t imagine Riddle acting in any other manner. She follows him through the halls until he leads her into a large room with a fireplace, a long table and large, strange pictures on the walls. There is no where to sit except for at the table but Riddle does not offer her a seat so she remains standing. She cannot be sure if this is his office or one of his private rooms.

Riddle flicks his wand at the hearth and fire roars to life. The room is instantly bathed with orange light and long, deep shadows. However, despite the fire, something cold and hard still clings to the atmosphere of the place, making Bella draw into herself.

“I had a feeling that you may come to me for help, Ms. Black. I have heard much about your plight recently. But, what exactly is it that I can do for you?”

“Mr. Riddle, please, I come to you because I feel deep within me that you are the only person who can help me now. Every other means I have access to has fallen short. But I have…I have heard great things of your power and your connections. I believe that you are, also, a man who would not leave a Pureblood and a good man to suffer at the hands of mudbloods and blood traitors.”

“Your words are most flattering. You are right to assume that my powers are such that I can do quite impressive things. I am a Lord of Dark Magic, Ms. Black. Speaking of which, I would prefer to be addressed in a manner befitting my accomplishments.” Riddle turns to face her and gives her a long, searching look, something ominous gleaming in his eyes and hiding in the shadows of his face.

“Of course, …my Lord.” The words give her pause but they come easier that Bellatrix had expected. Riddle has an incredible presence, his entire manner, his entire being emanates power. “I have come to…to plead with you to help a dear friend of mine. Antonin Dolohov is his name. He was sentenced to fifteen years in Azkaban for killing a mudblood Auror who was torturing his sister. He—“

“I am familiar with the case,” Riddle says casually, waving his hand in a bored gesture. “A very unfortunate case. Such a bright young man, I had hopes that perhaps he would join my ranks. Alas…” Riddle steps forward and peers into her face, his deep eyes swallow her and Bella shivers as he seems to be attempting to sink into her soul. “And you think that I can help you secure his freedom. By force, Ms. Black?”

“I…I do not know. I was hoping that…something that might allow us – him – to continue his life but…Please, if there is anything you can do…”

“Perhaps there is,” Riddle interrupts, his eyes rolling upward slightly as he seems to consider his own thoughts carefully. “Perhaps I do know the right people and the right methods. After all, I am not alone. There are influential people around me and I lead them. That is also a power, Ms. Black.”

Bellatrix nods, watching him like a mouse watches a cat from a safe, small crack in the wall, afraid that the cat might find a way to pry the plaster away and devour it.

“But why should I go through all the trouble to free Dolohov? It will not be an easy task and it would take quite some time… Perhaps, I find him interesting and possibly valuable to my ranks. But do you have any other reasons to give me, Ms. Black?” Riddle speaks as though the conversation is of nothing more than a question of where to take a vacation or hold the next political rally.

Bellatrix begins to shake. She wrings folds of her dark cloak in her hands as she begins to feel her last chance slip away. “What-what sort of reason do you require, Mist—My Lord?” she manages to force out as her head begins to spin.

Riddle steeps his fingers under his chin and thinks. His eyes roam over Bellatrix and then rise slowly to her face. He turns away and paces to the fireplace, leaning against the mantel. Still facing away from her, Riddle continues in the same heave, velvety voice that carries across the room effortlessly. “I would need some sort of…repayment. Or, some other benefit, other that your gratitude and the possibility of Antonin joining me, to take on such a task.”

Bellatrix breathes out and the words come in a rush of air as she struggles to breathe against the walls that are quickly closing in on her. “I will do anything you want.”

“Anything?” Riddle turns around a little too sharply, his voice practically a hiss, and Bellatrix takes a half-step away from him. “You will do anything I ask to ensure the freedom of your…beau?” He stretches out the last word as though it were something lewdly comical or abnormally interesting.

“Yes.” She practically gasps it. Somewhere deep inside she knows he must be playing with her but she is powerless against the magnetism of his eyes and voice, the hope that he plants in her heart that she might see Antonin again, soon. That life may regain some of its former colors. He takes a step back from her shaking his head and something deep inside Bella snaps. She runs forward and collapses onto her knees before Riddle, the thick skirts of her dark dress spread out around her and the cloak slips off her shoulders. “I beg you to help us. I will do anything you ask of me.” She is looking down at the cold, blue-grey marble floor on which the reflection of the fire wavers and shimmers like a ghost in the dark.

Riddle begins to pace slowly before her, several steps to the right, several steps to the left, never leaving her sight of vision. She is looking down so she can only see the hem of his robes and flashes of his shoes. “I may be able to help you, Ms. Black,” he says slowly, a slight sibilance fraying the edges of his words. “However, if I am successful in freeing Dolohov, you must bring him into the fold, have him agree to serve me. I am sure your charms are ample enough to achieve this.” Riddle thinks for a moment, then says thoughtfully. “And your engagement to Mr. Lestrange must stand.”

Bella shudders as though she had been slapped. “But why!” She tosses her head up, a look of defiance of on her face despite the fact that she continues to kneel.

“Because it is my wish,” Riddle says sharply, ice gathering in his bottomless eyes. “You will marry Rodolphus Lestrange either way if you are to remain with your family unlike your blood traitor sister, but if you leave here now you will marry him and never see Antonin again. Is that what you want?”

“No,” Bella breathes, looking down again, the word barely audible even in the dead silence of the room.

“Then,” Riddle continues in the same regal manner. “You will do both of these things. Your engagement to Mr. Lestrange may stay secret for the purposes of your other task for me. I shall inform Rodolphus and his father of this development myself.”

“Thank you, my Lord.” Her voice sounds hoarse and there is a lump growing steadily in her throat but she forces herself to remain still and silent, unmoved and invulnerable, even under Riddle’s piercing stare.

Riddle smiles in satisfaction as she looks back down. This marriage will serve him well. For him, the alliances of the Pureblood families are only marginally important. But he has been gathering some information on Dolohov and his knowledge of people tells him that Antonin would be much more likely to, not only stay loyal to the Organization, but to invest his heart in the Cause if there is nothing to distract him. His little sister is dead and if the prospect of a future family with Bellatrix were to be taken away, he would be all Riddle’s for the taking. Also, Rodolphus would feel highly indebted to his Lord on a personal level, as Riddle has every intention of making the young Lestrange believe that he, Riddle, was the one who convinced Bellatrix to accept the engagement and see it in a new light. After all, it would hardly even be a lie. Finally – Bellatrix. She would be inevitably bound to the Inner Circle through this marriage and to someone who was always eager to serve the Cause, unlike Antonin, who, obviously, was slightly less susceptible to the mainstream propaganda and had strong opinions of his own. He also wants the girl’s vengeful vigor to be put to use and a marriage to Rodolphus would ensure that she would fight. A woman as fiery as Bellatrix Black would not want to sit at home and play housewife, especially for a husband she does not love.

Riddle stops before her and bends down just enough to put two long, almost feminine, fingers under her jaw. He lifts her face up so she is looking at him and smiles predatorily. “Such a beautiful young lass. Such a shame for you to go to waste as a housewife. I have one more request for you. I wish for you to join my ranks.”

Bellatrix looks up into his face, trying to seem calm and collected eve if inside her everything is tumbling and broiling. “I am not a politician, my Lord.”

“You will not have to be one soon,” Riddle remarks and lets go of her face but Bella continues to look up.

“You wish for me to fight with the men?”

“I wish for you to serve the cause you so avidly support, Ms. Black. Or am I assuming too much?”

She swallows past the fear and nods. “No, my Lord.”

“Good. You have my word that I will free Mr. Dolohov as soon as possible. Do I have your word that you will abide by my requests?”

She nods and meets his eyes boldly. “You have my word, that of a Pureblood witch and a daughter of the Ancient and Most Noble House of Black. Must I make the Unbreakable Vow as well?”

“No, but I would have you Marked tonight.”

“Tonight?” Fear and confusion flood Bella’s eyes, fighting for control. “But is the Marking not a ceremony…a ritual?”

Riddle leers. “Yes, Ms. Black, it is a ritual. Typically a ceremony. But the guidelines are special for beautiful young flowers such as yourself.” He offers her his hand. “Come.”

Bellatrix freezes. She shakes her head sharply. “But I…I could not…” The words do not come out. She cannot force them out. They are too terrifying to say allowed and she hopes that she has misunderstood.

“Anything, you said?”

Trembling, Bella takes Riddle’s hand and rises, watching him open a set of double doors with a light flick of his wand. Beyond the doors, there is blackness. His cold fingers close over hers and he begins to walk.

Bellatrix follows him into the swallowing dark.

 

-----PART III-----

Riddle keeps his word. It takes time, but finally, in late November, Bella stands on the same grey sand beach where she had once watched the prisoners’ boat sail away, bearing her love away with it, and waits with baited breath.

A boat appears in the distance, breaking through the perpetual mist, and sails slowly, lazily toward shore. It docks and several men step off the boat. Most of them are guards in red cloaks, but one is in a prison robe. Bellatrix feels her breath catch and her heart miss a beat as the guards step aside and allow Antonin to pass between them. She longs to run to him but forces herself to wait until he has been reunited with his mother. Finally, Antonin looks up at her. There is something in his expression that makes her feel like he had not expected to see her and the smile he gives her is cautious and a little bashful.

Antonin steps away from his mother and Bella runs, almost tripping over the hem of her cloak as her shoes sink into the sand. She throws her arms around him and buries her face in his shoulder, disregarding the grime that has eaten into the fabric and the smell of Azkaban that lingers on his skin and in his hair. At that moment, she doesn’t care about anything but that Antonin has wrapped his arms around her and is holding her close to him, pressing her against his chest and whispering loving nonsense against her ear in a voice filled with awe.

She’d waited for him. He pulls away just enough to look into her face. She swipes a long strand of hair out of his eyes. He’s pale and thin and there’s a certain scraggliness to his appearance. “We need to get you cleaned up,” she says with a smile, her voice dipping into a fond teasing tone he can easily recognize.

Antonin laughs softly, returning her blissful smile. Had it really been hardly a year since he last saw her? Time is immeasurable in Azkaban; it flies and crawls all at once. He breathes in the smell of her hair and runs his hand along her soft cheek. Her frame fits perfectly into his arms and he wants her. Then and there. He kisses her, deeply, without a single thought, hoping to drown in her. He owes Tom Riddle a life debt just for making this single moment possible again. “I’ve missed you so much, Bella. Needed you…”

She buries her face into his robes so that he would not catch any stray emotion that might flicker across her face. “Oh, Tony…”

*~*

The fist snow falls early that year, sprinkling down across the fields and treetops in early December, promising that perhaps there will be snow on Christmas. Bella likes to stand on the edge of the thinly frozen lake of the Dolohov estate, wrapped up in a warm fur coat, with Antonin hugging her from behind as she watches the snowflakes tumble listlessly to the ground against a darkening sky.

“It’s beautiful,” she says one snowy evening, leaning back against Antonin.

He nods, resting his chin on her shoulder, and stares across the glassy surface of the lake.

“What are you thinking about?” Bella asks after a pause. “You’re quiet today.”

“Augustus came to talk to me. About joining the Organization.”

She turns slightly in his arms so she can steal small glances at his face. “And what did you tell him?”

“I told him that I’m not sure.”

She sighs and leans her head back against his shoulder. “You really owe Riddle. We owe him your freedom.”

“I know.” Antonin nuzzles the top of her head. “With him I will have a lot of opportunities. Besides, he fights for the right things, I know all this.”

“It’s a noble cause, Antonin.” She turns her head back and kisses his neck, slowly, languidly, tracing her lips up and down his warm skin.

“I know.” He pauses and seems to turn her words over in his mind. “Do you wish for me to fight?”

She looks up into his face and bites her lip. “Darling, I won’t hide that I would like you to become one of us.”

“Of us?” He’s surprised and turns her over in his arms so that he can get a better look at her face. “Are you…?”

Bella slowly rolls up the left sleeve of her coat and robes. The black snake tattooed onto her arm is a burning contrast against her fair skin. Its eyes seem to glisten in the wavering evening light.

Antonin gently reaches out and rolls the sleeves back down. For a long moment he does not look at her, then, finally, meets her eyes. “Is it really that bad that women must fight?”

She shrugs. “You know me, Tony. I can’t sit still while the fate of my world is decided. Can you?”

He slowly shakes his head. “I don’t know. It’s not cowardice, I just—“

She puts a finger against his lips. “I know. But think about it? I would be proud to fight along side you. For our future, Tony. One that we can build together. You and I.”

He leans down and kisses her. She tastes like snow and, for some reason, strawberries. He likes the idea of building a future with her. Together.

*~*

When Lucius asks Antonin for brandy, quietly, during a dinner, noting that Narcissa will be away that night, Antonin instantly knows that there is a reason behind the invitation that has nothing to do with simply a friendly talk by the fire. Lucius has been in the political field since he graduated Hogwarts and his father may or may not approve of his son’s illicit activities in Riddle’s Organization but he turns a blind eye either way. Now with the war, Lucius is recruiting. They all are. Augustus had already told him that he would be very well settled in the Organization. “I’m not a politician, Augus,” Antonin had answered. “You don’t need to be anymore,” was the answer he’d received. Antonin feels stuck, torn in both directions. His mother is still alive, even if Nina had been sacrificed to the ambition of the Auror scum, and, Antonin is afraid, would not be able to bear the death of her last child, who also happened to be the family heir. But something tears at Antonin from the inside, lures him to Riddle and the entire war. The need to fight, to avenge his sister, perhaps. He knows he owes Riddle and as cloyingly irritating as the feeling is, it is also the truth. Lucius doesn’t waist any time to remind him of this.

“You owe Riddle now,” Malfoy says with a slight shake of his head as they settle before the fire in high-backed armchairs with glasses of brandy brought in by the house elves.

“I know,” Antonin replies smoothly, taking a long drink and wondering if Lucius will be as forward as Augustus had been. It’s unlikely.

“You know, even before your… incident, the Lord was always very aware of your talents. He’d asked me and Roddy if you were considering Auror training.”

“How foolish, who in their right mind would be an Auror?”

Lucius shrugs noncommittally. “A lot of people. Not everyone has the knack or social standing for politics and on the other hand, Aurors have flashy careers the department is important and influential, you can get away with a lot, the pay is good, the adventures are many, as are the opportunities to study combat and deeper magic than most other professions allow.”

Antonin considers this and nods slowly. “He didn’t know I was a Pureblood Slytherin did he?”

Lucius smirks. “Because no Pureblood Slytherins become Aurors? Well observed my friend, but I don’t think the Lord was being serious with the question.”

Antonin shifts uncomfortably. He thinks for a long moment, taking another long drink of his brandy and watching the fire. “I don’t know, Lucius. Sometimes I feel like you’re following this man and yet what you fight for he doesn’t embody. You don’t honestly think he’s a Pureblood do you? I’ve never heard of a Riddle family.”

Lucius shrugs. “That’s irrelevant, Tony. So there was a muggle or two in his lineage. We’re not excluding halfbloods. If Wizards breed wizards that’s for the better of all of us. We just prefer they did so with other wizards but some people have no brains, we can’t help that. I’ve seen him do amazing magic…” Lucius’ voice drops a notch, so that Antonin has to lean in slightly to hear him clearly over the crackling of the flames. “He speaks Parselmouth, Tony. That’s something.”

Antonin shivers. There is something foreboding here, in the long shadows that streak over the rich carpet of the Malfoy sitting room and the orange tingle of Lucius’ face, his low and deadly serious tone and the words… Speaking with snakes is a sinister gift, or so the prophesies say. And yet, with every second, Antonin wants more and more to get a closer look at this Riddle, to fight for an understanding he doesn’t think anyone would grant a curious wizard in the currently regime and certainly not in the world where it is headed. “So you’re for halfbloods now?” Antonin asks teasingly, hoping to shift the mood.

Lucius makes an irritated face. “Merlin, Tony, you’re being dense on purpose. Of course I’m not counting halfbloods as equals, but they do have wizarding blood, they usually are raised in wizarding families… at the very least they are much less likely to pollute our world with muggle ideas and filth. It all has to do with sanctions and policing, basically a regime that isn’t corrupt, that is all together and knows what it’s doing. To get to such a regime, we need to overthrow the current one, to begin with.”

“How can you follow a man you consider your inferior, Lucius? How can you call him ‘Lord?’”

Lucius seems to consider this for a moment, choosing his words carefully. “I don’t think Lord Voldemort – Riddle, alright, don’t get picky – can be measured in the typical terms of mudblood, halfblood and Pureblood. He has incredible talent, incredible ability, incredible potential.”

Antonin snorts derisively. “Listen to yourself, Lucius! Everyone can be sorted into those categories.”

“Again, you are missing the point. He is a leader, a man of power and will, someone who can lead us to the victory we want. His blood lineage interests me only very slightly in this case, and I’m not about to go digging around in it. For all we know, Riddle could be his taken name for political reasons. He could be of a German family, for example.”

“Unlikely. Doesn’t he claim to be heir to the Slytherin line?”

Lucius nods, “Yes, but the Slytherin line has failed in its male heirs. Most likely that bloodline runs in his mother’s or a grandmother’s side of the family.”

Antonin waits out a pause, staring into the dark brown liquid in his glass, twirling it around thoughtfully. “Has it really come to war then? Can we not wait, take another coarse? I’m sympathetic to the cause, Lucius, I’m no politician but…”

Lucius stands and walks to the mantel. He sets down his glass and speaks in a tone deeper than his usual voice, facing the wall, away from Antonin. “Tony, the Auror who killed your sister was a mudblood.”

Antonin freezes. Lucius isn’t exactly hitting him over the head with new information but every mention of Nina, of that night, of the scumbag who had tortured her to death still makes everything inside him burn. “I know,” he forces out and downs the last of the brandy.

“He was a career climbing, self-assured, Gryffindor graduate mudblood. Do you think, do you honestly think, Tony, that a Pureblood or even a respectable halfblood would have ever done such a thing? Would have tortured a young girl for information about her obviously long deceased father whom she only vaguely remembers and her respectable older brother who has never given any sign of participating heavily in the political movement he so opposes. Do you think anyone with an inkling of honor would have done that?”

Antonin watches the floor, studies the fuzzy outline of the shadow his leg casts. He can’t answer. He doesn’t want to. Lucius had hit a sore spot with something that could almost be a low blow if it wasn’t the truth and if they weren’t friends.

Lucius turns to face him and his expression is sober and serious. “Here’s how it is, Tony. The war is coming. In truth, it is already here. We have been declared illegal, the first curses have been cast. Roddy and I, as well as those of us who remain in the political field, remain in a very precarious position. We form a political block but we can not show an alliance further than sympathy toward what is now the Organization. We are gathering recruits, an Academy. You know our views and I know you agree with them. You have every reason to fight, Tony. The Lord wants you, we, your friends, want and need you, our Cause needs you. If you think that you can stay away, not chose sides, not participate, you are wrong. Everyone will have to choose now. Are you for the mudbloods or for the purity of our world?”

“You know how I feel.”

“Come train at the Academy, Tony. At your age you already know so much. You will have all the opportunities to study that you need. You’ll get a chance to avenge your sister, to help us build this world. You always told me you wanted to be someone.”

“I was going to marry Bella before Azkaban.” Antonin hardly recognizes his own voice, it sounds hollow to him. “But now she’s head over heals for the Cause. And I’m head over heals for her.” Something flickers across Lucius’ face but Antonin doesn’t catch it. “She told me…she told me that she wants me to fight, that every self respecting gentleman needs to fight. I hate Aurors, Lucius. I hate mudbloods.”

“Then why are you hesitating, Antonin?”

“Honestly? …I don’t know.”

*~*

Antonin had expected it to burn. He had expected the inky lines of the Dark Mark engraved into his skin and soul to burn and sting. Instead, the point of Riddle’s wand seems to be saturating his skin, his whole being, with ice. It is like the ice is seeping deep into his system, into his very blood, coloring it a snowy, numb hue of cold. The cold attaches itself in icicles to his nerves, freezes every coherent thought. There is a frozen glint to the fresh, black tattoo on his arm.

“I’m glad you decided to join us, Antonin,” Riddle says calmly, slowly lifting his wand. “I need good officers now, good, loyal, brave men. Those are hard to come by these days. It would have been such a pity if you had so unfairly remained locked away in that abomination of a prison.”

Antonin swallows and looks up, trying to break through the snowy haze of his vision as the ritual ends. He is still kneeling but he doesn’t dare get up. He has accepted this man’s help, his leadership, and now his lordship. He has no other choice now and Antonin isn’t certain he ever did. “Did you know? When you got me out of Azkaban did you know I would come to you?”

Riddle seems to think this over for a moment. “No. But I know people, Antonin, and I know a good man with sense when I see one. Enough for now.” Riddle’s voice takes on a commanding edge. “Rise.”

Antonin slowly stands, his feet feel uncertain for a moment, but then he adjusts. But something, something has changed within him. Something on a level that his mind cannot reach, cannot fully grasp. He had knelt one man and has risen another.

*~*

Bella is waiting for him when he emerges from the Marking just as she had promised. She had told him, “I’ll be here when you come back a real man” and Antonin had gone, head held high with all the power of his love carrying him forward to a destiny that would bring… something. Hopefully, something that would keep her beside him. Now, she stands waiting on the bridge, framed against the sky. But there are no stars, no more moon. Only ominous clouds. Bella holds out her hand to him, her breath catching as the wind whips her hair over her eyes and she tosses it back so she can focus on Antonin’s arm. “Show me.” Antonin rolls up the sleeve of his robes and she gasps in awe. “Tony…”

He doesn’t let her finish but grabs her and pulls her flush against him, their dark robes mingling as his hands slide around her waist and wrap her up into an embrace. She throws her head back exposing her face and Antonin captures her lips into a long, fiery kiss. She moans into it, then pulls back and smiles blissfully. “I was afraid.”

“Of what?”

“That you would turn on me, that you would…that you wouldn’t fight. That you didn’t believe like we all do.” Her eyes are sparkling, glistening with tears. Antonin thinks they must be tears of joy but Bella knows otherwise. They are tears of the overwhelming feeling of loss. Tony had done everything she ever could have wanted – he had chosen to fight for her, for their Cause, for their world. But she had lost him now. Soon, very soon, she will be forced to announce her engagement to Rodolphus and then all will be lost. Antonin will be gone from her, he will hate her. She has sacrificed her love, in the end. But she has done the right thing, she has to have. Bellatrix hates Narcissa right now. Because Cissy can have everything – honor, family approval and love. But she hates Andromeda even more, far, far beyond any possibility of forgiveness, because Andromeda had not only secured her happiness but she had allowed herself to abandon her duty and Bella had to pay the consequences, and Bella had to buy her honor at the price of her happiness. “Take me,” she whispers hoarsely into Antonin hair. He murmurs something about waiting and she huffs, bristling. He can’t deny her, not now. “I don’t care! Please, Tony. I want to be yours.” I want to be completely happy at least once.

Antonin wraps his arms tighter around her waist, a wave of heat washing over him as his body strains toward hers. His doubts are gone in that moment. His flesh is hot against hers and she is pliant in his arms. He knows, of course he knows, that now she will be his. Now that he has it she will love him forever.

They apparate.

*~*

Bella lies with her head on Antonin’s bare chest. She can feel his heart beating and the warmth of his body sooths her. Her breathing has evened out after the orgasm they had shared. She had given herself fully to that feeling of being whole, of being complete. She isn’t worried about her wedding night, about Rodolphus discovering that she is no longer a maiden. Because he won’t. The Lord had taught her well that there are ways to hide what you don’t want others to know. The candles burn low and the shadows in the room are dark. The sky in the far East begins to lighten slowly. It is overcast again, as it usually is in the mornings of early winter and the room seems especially comfortable when compared to the murky world outside.

Antonin runs a hand through her hair and plays languidly with her curls. His left arm still hurts slightly from the Marking but he ignores it. He is in awe of her, of how the world has changed around him. But he knows that he is willing to follow her to the end of the universe, not to mention the ranks of Riddle’s Organization. “I love you,” he says quietly, the words slipping out of their own accord. He doesn’t think there is any more reason to hide them.

Bella looks up and shifts so she is face to face with him. She kisses him fully, some of their earlier passion seeping into that kiss. “I love you too. I always have and always will,” she murmurs against his lips. She knows she will have to tell him. Now. Rodolphus will not wait a single day more.

Antonin must have sensed her unease, the hesitation in her body language. “Bella, what’s wrong?” he asks, sliding one hand down her cheek.

“It’s…it’s nothing,” she stutters, not wanting to tell him. “It’s not important right now.” She wants a few more hours with him, at least until the sun comes up and she has to wake up from this dream that she wishes so badly was her reality.

“Don’t be like that, Bella,” Antonin says softly, still playing with her hair. “I know you, I can sense your moods. What is it?”

She can’t tell him like this, lying in his arms, in the bed they had just shared, as he plays with her hair. She untangles herself from him and slides from under the blankets. Bella throws on her cloak without bothering to get fully dressed and walks to the window. She looks outside at the unfamiliar night landscape, wondering if, in another life, it could have become as familiar as the view out the window of her room at home. If home could have become this house, Antonin’s house. But she will never know. “You’re right. There is something I have to tell you. But it’s not easy to say.”

Antonin sits up, anticipating, intuitively, a hard conversation, and summons a shirt. He pulls it on, waiting for Bellatrix to continue.

“I only hope,” Bella says, wrapping herself as tightly as she can in the cloak, as though it could offer her comfort. “I only hope that you can understand why I did what I did and that it was for you, because I love you.”

“What are you talking about?” Antonin asks. He finishes pulling on basic articles of clothing and walks across the room to where she stands. He wraps his arms around her and pulls her back against him, nuzzling her thick, curly hair. “I don’t understand, Bella.”

She turns in his arms and looks up into his face, trying to memorize it, to remember how exactly he looked while he still harbored love for her instead of hatred. “I’m engaged, Tony,” she whispers, barely managing to form the painful words.

He stares at her like she has gone mad, then shakes his head. “I don’t understand. What do you mean, you’re engaged?”

She shakes her head sadly, her eyes pleading for him to at least listen. “I’m engaged to Rodolphus. I—“

“You’re engaged to Rodolphus?” He lets go of her and takes a step back. His hair is mussed and strands of it fall in his eyes but Antonin doesn’t seem to notice. He’s staring at her as though he does not know her. It’s the most bewildered and disbelieving expression she has ever seen.

“Please, Tony, listen to me. It’s not that simple.”

He lets out a sharp, dark laugh, shaking his head. “Not that simple? How can that possibly be complicated?” He shakes his head at her. “Please, tell me that this is some sort of joke, Bella.” A note of pleading slips into his tone and her heart threatens to shatter at any moment.

“It’s true,” she says flatly, forcing herself to look at him. “It will be announced formally today. Rodolphus is not willing to wait any longer.”

Antonin opens his mouth to say something, then closes it. He makes a helpless, frustrated gesture and turns away from her. She takes a frantic step toward him but he cuts her off, “Don’t come near me.” Bella stops in her tracks, shock vibrating through her. He had never been abrasive with her before. Antonin claps for an elf and orders the creature to bring a bottle of vodka. Bella looks down.

“Can you let me explain?”

Antonin glances at her, then away again. He sinks heavily onto the edge of the bed and puts his head in his hands. “I don’t see what you could possibly explain unless you wish to say that you will break the engagement off.” There is just enough hope in his voice to make Bella’s already broken heart shatter irreparably.

“I can’t. I’ve given my word and to more than just Rodolphus. Our Lord expects this marriage.”

“Our Lord,” Antonin scoffs. “What matter is it of his whom you marry? Your word! Did you not give me your word that you love me?” His voice rises but not quite enough to morph into yelling.

“It’s not the same and you know it,” she says as calmly as she can. “I did this because I love you.”

Antonin looks away and shakes his head. “You’ve become engaged to another man while I was in Azkaban for trying to protect my sister and you did this because you love me?” He sounds so disbelieving that Bella could almost doubt her own feelings if they weren’t so strong that they threaten to overcome her at any moment.

“Tony, you were in for fifteen years and served not a year. Our Lord helped get you out. Have you considered why he would work so hard for you?”

“I-I don’t know. What does this have to do with anything, Bella? He wanted me to be in the Organization so—“ Realization seems to dawn over him and he begins to laugh. It’s a strange, strangled sound and Bella backs away until her back hits the windowsill. “I’m an idiot,” he mutters. The elf pops back in with the vodka and shot glasses, then disappears. Antonin ignores the bottle. He is too preoccupied with his own mournful thoughts. “Merlin, how could I be so stupid? You didn’t tell me about the engagement because you were afraid that I would not listen to a single word if I knew the truth.” He turns and glares at her. “Is that right?”

“Yes,” she admits softly.

“Fantastic. You and Riddle plot to get me into the Organization. How long, Bella? Has it been a lie all along?”

“No!” She screams it and runs across the room, grabbing his arms before he can push her away or get to his wand which he’d left on the bedside table. “No! It’s never been a lie! Listen to me, please! My parents were forcing me to marry Rodolphus after Andromeda eloped. Lucius and the others had run out of options. I was desperate so I went to Riddle. He told me that he would help you if I promised to bring you into the Organization and if I would accept my betrothal to Rodolphus. I don’t want to marry him, Tony! I don’t want to be with him, I never wanted this but my parents are making me and now I have sworn to our Lord that I will keep my word. I have no regrets for convincing you to join us because I know you believe in what we believe. But I could… I wish I hadn’t had to have…” Her voice breaks off and she lets out a sob. She brings his hands to her face and presses them to her lips. “Believe me.”

He looks at her, confused and hurt and uncertain where the truth ends and lies begin or if any of it is a lie or the truth in the first place. He can hardly believe that this is happening. A large part of Antonin still hopes that he will wake up the next morning and discover that this had been a dream and that Bella is sleeping peacefully beside him and she is his and no one else’s. “Bella,” Antonin forces himself to say finally. “Break the engagement. I will talk to the Lord. Who cares about Rodolphus and what society thinks? We’re both Purebloods, we can marry if we wish without marring our wizarding purity.”

Bella lowers his hands but down not let go. She shakes her head slowly, not daring to look up at him. “The ritual is done. All that’s left is the announcement but the ritual has been completed. We are to be married next month.”

“Forget the ritual!” he shouts in frustration, then lowers his voice to a more suitable tone. “Let’s just get married. Lets forget about all of this and run away…Somewhere, I don’t know where. I don’t care. I want to be with you.”

“Oh yes, Tony, that would really work. An elopement.” She laughs bitterly, finally looking up into his face. “I cannot abandon my family, Antonin. I am not Andromeda.” The name still burns. “Besides, we serve the Lord now. He does not take resignation letters, Tony. Think of your mother.”

He understands her correctly and shudders. Antonin wrenches his hands out of her grasp and pushes her away. “So there is nothing we can do?” he asks flatly, opening the bottle. It’s more of a statement than a question.

“Nothing without sacrificing everyone we love, everything we stand for and possibly our lives.”

For a very long time, Antonin does not answer her. He throws back a shot then another. After what feels like forever, he turns toward her, his expression completely blank. Antonin walks to her and cups her face in his hands. He stares into her eyes, searching for something there. Perhaps the truth. Among the shattered pieces of his heart a raw feeling of betrayal still lingers like an aftertaste.

Bella looks up at him, dropping her head back so she is looking directly up into his eyes. “I love you, Antonin.”

He closes his eyes and shoves her away from him. Antonin turns away from her with a finality in his movements that allow for no arguments. “Go, Bellatrix.”

She summons the missing articles of her clothing into her arms and apparates away, knowing that she will never be allowed to return.

*~*

“You knew, didn’t you? You knew she was engaged and you didn’t bother to tell me a damned thing!” Antonin is too furious to abide by etiquette. He arrives at Malfoy Manor fairly sober but absolutely furious. Kicking the elf who had come to greet him aside, he runs into Lucius’ sitting room, shouting accusations without even first looking if anyone is there to hear him.

Lucius is, in fact, there, as is Augustus. They both jump to their feet as Antonin burst in and exchange looks. “Good thing Parkinson has already left,” Lucius drawls out to Augustus. “Tony, sit down and stop trying to imitate a bull.”

Antonin stalks closer to Lucius. Malfoy stubbornly meets his eyes. “You knew that Bellatrix was engaged to Rodolphus. You must have known.”

“Bellatrix is engaged to Rodolphus?” Augustus asks, eyes widening. “Why? When?”

“It’s a long story,” Lucius says, in the same infuriatingly calm voice. “She didn’t have much of a choice,” he adds pointedly. “And yes, I knew of the engagement. I was Roddy’s witness at the ceremony.”

Antonin stops dead in his tracks. Obviously, he had not expected Lucius to admit to the fact so easily, “So. You knew and you said nothing to me? Despite our friendship?”

Lucius sighs theatrically and sits back in his favorite armchair. “Tony, will you sit down already? I hope you didn’t damage my elf too much on your way in, by the way. We could hear him squalling from here. I don’t exactly want to spend the money on replacing servants at the moment.”

Lucius’ even tone throws Antonin off kilter so much that he even allows Augustus to push him down onto the sofa. For a moment, the three sit in silence. “Do you want to explain to me, Lucius?” Antonin asks finally.

Lucius makes an indulgent gesture and smirks slightly. “What would you like me to explain, Tony? That I had orders from the Lord to not say a thing? That Rodolphus is also a friend and I do not particularly want him dead? That I knew you would be better off with us than somewhere under a rock, licking your wounds and drowning your sorrows in vodka without a direction of allegiance to keep you together? I think these are all fairly obvious.”

Antonin sucks in a breath. He gets up and begins to pace. “Damned Rodolphus. You know, it is so like him to use someone’s weakness to his own advantage. He would never let Bella go even if he knows that this is making her unhappy.” Antonin makes a fist and slams it hard into the palm of his other hand with pure frustration. Suddenly, he stops and turns sharply to face his friends. “I’m going to challenge him.”

“What!” Augustus jumps to his feet.

Lucius’ eyebrows go up. “You’re going to challenge Rodolphus to a duel?”

“Yes, yes I am. Because, unlike him, I have some honor and I will not let this go!”

“You must be mad, you’ll kill him. Rodolphus was never a good dueler.”

“Does that upset you, Malfoy?” Antonin sneers.

Lucius makes a dismissive gesture. “Dolohov, you’re an idiot when you stop thinking. And every time something concerns Bellatrix – you stop thinking.”

Antonin looks confused so Augustus explains. “Tony, the Lord will not tolerate this. There cannot be any disagreements in our ranks. We cannot seriously duel each other.”

“He wants us to forgo our honor? And after that we are expected to follow him into battle?” Antonin’s voice rises in disbelief.

“Antonin, the Lord wishes for this marriage, you have chosen to serve him,” Lucius says forcefully. He doesn’t make the effort to stand, but he leans forward, trying to find Antonin’s eyes and hold them. He needs his friend to understand.

“There is nothing you can do, Tony,” Augustus says, voicing what Lucius has not yet said. “The situation is against you. Bella has made her choice.”

“I can’t just give up! I can’t just let this insult go. You both are mad.” Antonin looks around at his friends, searching for some understanding, but they merely shake their heads.

“Sometimes the most honorable thing you can do is to do nothing,” Lucius says finally, leaning back into his armchair. “Why cause a scandal for Bella? Why mar her reputation and risk your position in the Lord’s favor?”

Antonin seems to think this over. Finally, he collapses onto the sofa and stares into the fire for several minutes, lost in his own thoughts. Finally, he looks up to meet Augustus’ eyes. “So what do I do?”

Rookwood takes a step forward and slowly comes to kneel before Antonin. He takes Antonin’s hands in his and looks at him earnestly. “You pull yourself together and move on, my friend.”

“Move on where?”

“Forward.”

*~*

For a month, Antonin studies intensively, like he had rarely studied before at Hogwarts. Riddle’s resources provide him with the books and documents he had lacked before. He plans and makes up strategies and methodologies. For another month, he watches Brutus Greengrass train rows of boys in their teens how to fly formation, how to properly hold a wand for complicated combinations, how to perform offensive spells, how to run cover for each other, and other things they will need in battle.

On the third month, he stands between Andre Rosier and Augustus Rookwood on a balcony overlooking a new training polygon which is mean to be home to the Young Guard. This is meant to be the upcoming generation of elite fighters, all of whom would be Pureblood with exceptions possibly made for a rare, properly minded and highly talented halfblood. Lucius says he has an upcoming boy who fits the bill. But he is still only thirteen now and the Academy accepts boys after fourteen.

Antonin looks over the profiles of all five of his new trainees. He’s been promised at least three more by summertime. Tallis twins, Rabastan Lestrange – thank Merlin he is nothing like his brother – Ashley Mulciber – Theodore’s little brother – and Angelus Wilkes. They line up in a single row, holding their wands at salute position as they wait for Antonin to begin the session.

“They’re all fourteen. Only the Tallis’ have turned fifteen,” Antonin says quietly, looking over at his two friends.

“The sooner they start structured training the better,” Andre says with a shrug.

Antonin nods. “Of course.” He is a little nervous. The boys are young and he doesn’t feel himself experienced enough. But perhaps… “Good morning, gentlemen,” Antonin says evenly as he walks from the balcony down to the training floor.

“Good morning, sir!” they chorus enthusiastically.

“I am pleased to see you have decided to spend your spring holidays wish us.” Antonin paces up and down the row, looking over the childishly serious faces of the boys before him. Slowly, the fear drains away and a calmness settles over him. A determination. “Wands at the ready. Take offensive stances…”

*

“Do you think he’ll manage?” Andre asks, as he and Rookwood watch from the balcony as Antonin begins his first training session with the Young Guard.

Augustus thinks it over for a moment, then replies somberly, “I think so. If he makes these boys his own they will become his new purpose in life. Perhaps that’s a good thing. I think Tony needs that now, after everything that happened with Bellatrix.”

Andre nods with understanding. He puts a hand on Rookwood’s shoulder and nods at the door. They walk out together, their departure unnoticed.

Below, on the polygon floor, Antonin is busy demonstrating the Dementia curse.

-----EPILOGUE-----

Antonin feels himself to be some kind of god of disaster as he watches the scene before him. The burning and twisted remains of buildings, the mutilated bodies of witches and wizards, the bright red stains of blood on the ground, all symbolize the battle that has taken places here.

This is the first large raid Antonin was put in charge of. Now that it is over, he is allowed to take in the full scale of the destruction his offensive has caused. They had won this battle, and now Antonin’s people are busy securing the perimeter and burning bodies of dead enemies. The reek of blood and burned flesh, of healing and sedating potions, of smoke and dirt, is thick in the air. Their own medical team that had been summoned works to relocated the wounded and bring home bodies of the dead. Antonin notices some familiar faces among the dead boys and tries to not allow the memories of those people to crowd his mind. His job isn’t done yet. His boys are all safe, that is all he needs to know. Wilkes has a bad burn, but that will heal in a day or two. Antonin closes his eyes so he does not have to watch two mediwizards walk by, levitating behind them a stretcher with a blonde haired boy, hardly sixteen, whose limbs have been badly mutilated and his chest covered with boils.

A presence beside him makes Antonin look up. Bellatrix comes to stand alongside him, dropping the hood of her black robe. They stand in silence, watching the scene unfold before them. Antonin is starting to learn that the battle is only half the job. Cleaning up after is often many times harder.

“This is hell,” he says quietly to Bella, feeling his conscious drown in the flaming red tongues of the fires that burn the bodies of the dead.

Bellatrix wants to tell him that this is the price they must pay; this is horribly beautiful because it is the start, the building, of the future for their world, but she cannot find the right words, so she merely lets them slip out as they will. “This is our future.”

Antonin looks over at her, watches her entranced expression, lit up with the yellow-orange light of the fires. He opens his mouth as though to say something but understands there is nothing he can say. He has lost her. And now, he thinks, he has lost her in more ways than one.

Antonin turns away from her and continues to watch his self-created Armageddon in silence.