For the first time in her life, Bellatrix Black raises her wineglass in a toast with the adults. As the lamplight flickers off her hair, hard and smooth like the polished ebony banquet table, shafts of gold off unforgiving black she looks remarkably poised and far older than her seven years.
"To my young cousin – Auriga," Bellatrix says and her voice rings down the table like a breath of icy wind, freezing the ripples of polite applause that are about to begin. She sounds unbelievably hard and cold for a child, even for a child of the House of the Black. Druella Black's ivory-white cheeks are tinged a faint, delicate rose and her eyes flash warningly down the length of the table, fitted for fifty, at her daughter. But Bellatrix does not spare a glance at her mother, and behaves like a model ice sculpture, her steel-blue eyes as bright and hard as diamonds in the golden firelight, throughout the nine-course meal in honor of her new cousin.
Hours later, she weeps stormy tears in the arms of her sisters, behind moss-green velvet drapes in an imposing ivory-and-ebony chamber, which only a Black child would ever consider a bedroom. Tender, angel-fair four-year-old Narcissa whispers, "What's wrong, Bella?" but Andromeda, closer in years and features to their oldest sister, shushes her impatiently.
"Can't you see?" six-year-old Meda asks harshly. "Her heart's broken, that's what."
"Oh, Bella!" Little Cissy squeaks, wrapping her small, almost translucently pale arms around her precious Bella's long, white throat. "Bella, please don't break your heart!"
Bellatrix lets her sisters stroke her hair and neck, and whispers – very, very softly because she's still a Black, even around Cissy and Meda – "Auntie Walburga won't love me anymore. She'll only have time for that… that brat, and we'll never be close together, and I'll die! I'll die, I'll die because nobody loves me like Auntie!"
Regulus is born on a drowsy summer afternoon. Leaning against her mother's legs and listening to the sweetly plaintive strains of the mockingbirds in the ancient magnolia tree, eight-year-old Meda first hears the shrill birth-cries of her newest cousin. Druella shifts her legs, her watered-silk robes crinkling pleasantly over Meda's back. She looks across the parlor at small Ara tugging at giggling Cissy's streaming golden curls and says – states – briefly, "It's a boy, this time."
The four girls – Bella, her dark head bent over her sketchbook, heavy-eyed Meda working listlessly on her sampler, pale, ethereal little Cissy laughing and playing with paler, littler Ara – hear her. "How do you know?" Bella demands, looking up sharply from her sketch of one of Cissy's dolls. "How can you be sure?"
Druella raises her slim, arched golden eyebrows at her daughter's impudent tone and says, "I know. That must suffice for an answer, Bellatrix."
Bella isn't quick enough to suppress the sigh of relief that escapes her. At eight – though she likes to call herself nine, because she will be in a few months – she knows that boys are never any trouble. Boys aren't smothered with love the way girls are – oh no, never – and Bella is happy, knowing that five-year-old Cissy will never consider her newest cousin a real playmate (you can't turn a boy into a living doll the way you can a girl), that Auntie will distance herself from her only son because that's what you have to do to boys to make sure they turn into men.
A boy. She can live with that.
At four, Auriga Black is as pretty as a picture. All silver and black, she's like an unblemished sculpture wrought in cold, immortal marble – the true Black. Andromeda and Narcissa are just as beautiful, but Meda is warm, sun-caressed flesh and blood to Ara's marble and porcelain and Cissy's only a monochrome of shimmering, ethereal whites – ivory, cream, old lace and even silver sometimes but never, never black.
The Black way, they all whisper and all of them are as daunted as they are impressed by this perfect porcelain doll. They smile at her, talk to her, pet her – but they do so as they would to an adult, not to a child of four. Not long for this world, they whisper ominously, behind the backs of her family.
Everyone in the family spoils her shamelessly because rumors have a funny way of coming true and Blacks never do live that long…
Everyone except Bella.
Bella pets and coos and loves and teaches Regulus like an actual child – not a prince, because there are others to cater to the Black prince – because there is nobody else to do that. She watches her sisters adorn Ara from head to toe in ash-grey, lily-white and rose-pink because they're pretty colors and suit her complexion – though she secretly thinks they're colors meant only for a funeral – and spend hours playing dolls, house and dress-up with the child, a tolerant, contemptuous smirk on her face.
She can't abide the pampered brat for too long though, and slips away from the nursery to Reggie's bedchamber and there she reads him stories about pirates and dragons, draws pictures of knights rescuing princesses for him (she's good at drawing, and she's proud of that) and tells him over and over again that he must grow up into a man soon, because he's the Black prince. He's only three, but he giggles and seems to understand, and she lavishes all the love that she won't waste nowadays for her sisters or Auntie on him.
The only thing that Bellatrix, wild with the excitement at finally going to Hogwarts, regrets at Platform Nine-And-Three-Quarters when she's eleven, is that she can't take Reggie with her to school.
Ara Black knows that she's a princess and that one day she'll be a queen. At seven, beautiful, loved and sheltered – and so very, very naïve – she already feels like one. Unchallenged, un-reproved she happily reigns over her kingdom of doting worshippers with a gentle hand because there's no need for the iron rod.
She cannot conceive of the possibility of being disliked, or even talked back to.
And so on her eighth birthday party when James Potter – on a dare from Evangelos Rosier and Albion Mulciber – drops a bowl of punch on her head, she first bursts into tears from sheer shock, because it's just so unexpected. Tendrils of scarlet liquor soak into her glossy black curls, sweet punch mingling with salty tears, staining white skin and whiter lace.
And then she sees the triumphant smirk on his face as he glances across the ballroom at Evan and Al. For the first time in her life, she loses her temper and the notorious Black rage erupts, in true, immutable glory from the slender, delicate figure of eight-year-old Auriga Black. She throws herself on him with a howl of fury, and no words are needed.
"A civilized young lady would slap him!" her mother screams at her hours later while she's still dazed, from shock and the sight of all the bright, red blood. "A slap, from a lady mortally offended to a gentleman – nothing more!"
She shoots an imploring look across the room, where the whole family has congregated after the impromptu end to the party – at Father who only shakes his head balefully because a daughter's upbringing is always a woman's responsibility, not a man's. Uncle Cygnus shoots her a sympathetic look, but even he, the gamesome trickster of the family, knows better than to interfere with his sister's wrath. Aunt Druella, Meda and Cissy fairly huddle close together, frightened at Mother's outburst because it isn't the Rosier way – and Aunt Druella has raised her younger daughters in the Rosier way, not the Black.
"Instead, you chose to engage in a public brawl like some common Cytherean of the streets!" Mother shrieks, her fury unabated even five hours later. Ara wants to crawl into a tiny ball, to sink beneath the floorboards, to dissolve into the mist that hangs so thickly outside. She's frightened, and she can't help but show it and this display of weakness incenses her Mother even more. "How dare you? Your conduct was no better than some harlot's, some coarse fishwife – shameful!"
Fifteen-year-old Bella leans against the black marble fireplace, Regulus by her side, far from her mother and sisters. Diamond pins glitter in her glossy black hair, swept into a Spanish chignon, and her lips are very red in her haughty, white face. Ara expects no help from Bella – she always sides with Reggie, after all – and is more than a little stunned when her oldest cousin suddenly says, "Oh, do let her go now, Auntie. Just this time, please – for my sake." And she smiles her sweetest smile, her cold steel-blue eyes suddenly limpid pools of light.
The whole family eyes her suspiciously, because they're all Blacks – even Aunt Druella, Meda and Cissy are Blacks in temperament, though they've been brought up the Rosier way – and Bella is so very Black too – and Aunt Druella and Meda both arch their eyebrows questioningly – but Bella only spreads her arms innocently.
"What she did was inexcusable," Mother says harshly, but there is a relenting tone in her voice because it is Bella, her pet – so close to her in beauty and spirit – who was spoken. Ara is Mother's princess, the sheltered darling to spoil and show off, but Bella… Bella is more like her. More of her daughter than her own daughter.
"She regrets it sincerely," Bella says, "Do you not, Auriga?"
Ara opens her mouth to gawk – Bella helping her? Paint the sky emerald –, but manages to restrain herself just in time. "I apologize for my uncouth conduct, this evening," she says formally, her slim fingers wrapped tightly around the intricately-carved armrests, "It will not happen again."
Mother's heavy-lidded eyes half-close, as she ponders for a moment, and a frown creases her pale forehead, knotted with wrinkles. "Make sure that it does not," she finally says. "You are dismissed."
Later Ara dances in joy and relief in her bedroom with Cissy. At last, exhausted, they fall down on her bed, white lace nightgowns pooling on green and silver velvet. Golden tresses mingle with ebony as Ara wonders aloud, "Why did she do that for me?"
Twelve-year-old Cissy shrugs helplessly. "Bella's just Bella," she says matter-of-factly, "Maybe we'll be like her when we're fifteen?" She giggles slightly and then, her voice a whisper now, adds, "I can't wait to be, Ara."
And little Ara Black's lips twitch and then spread into a warm, bright smile – she can smile and be herself, now that there's only Cissy around, because you can't be a Black all the time, it's too hard – as she whispers, "You'll be beautiful when you're that old, Cissy – Lucius Malfoy will love you!"
Cissy hugs her, and the two girls fall asleep in one bed – the older weaving rainbow-hued fantasies centering around her crush, the younger wondering what her darling cousin can see in a boy.
Cissy embroiders. Meda writes. Bella paints.
Ara wonders what she's good at and decides that the lion's share of the brains and talent of the family has fallen to her cousins' share. At ten, it seems quite right and correct to her that it should be so because while she may be a half-witted, knuckle-headed tosser – as Bella exasperatedly calls her when she asks too many questions about her eldest cousin's choice of reading material – she is far more attractive, in her way, than all three of them. She doesn't have Bella's diamond-sharp, multi-faceted majesty or Meda's beguiling allure and intrinsic glamour or even Cissy's classical beauty and steely-eyed, touch-me-not brand of queenliness.
But there's just something around her that sets her apart from her cousins and it's not really so strange because although all four of them are beautiful, regal in their bearing and grace they're beautiful in different ways.
Bella spends her sixteenth summer sketching, to the point that she shuns contact with society and it's only after the unremitting efforts of her mother and sisters that she agrees (reluctantly) to descend to the mortal plane to eat, bathe and sleep. She does at least fifty drawings of Reggie who follows her around like a loyal puppy, sepia-tinted, 'artistic' photos of Dromeda and one spectacular oil-painting of Cissy in blue silk, her shining golden ringlets standing out like an aureole around her angelically beautiful face.
And a watercolor of Ara.
Arrayed in white linen, holding a spray of dusky-violet foxglove, Ara 'sits' for Bella. She wonders why it's called sitting when she has to stand so still in the darkened library, illuminated by a single shaft of mellow sunlight, in which dust mites float. But she does stand patiently for many long hours even though her legs ache and she's tired of keeping up the 'dreamy, troubled, mournful' expression that Bella demands of her.
The results pay off though, and even Uncle Cygnus makes no jokes about the watercolor. They hang it proudly in the parlor and when Dorea Potter, Aunt Druella's best friend from childhood, comes calling, a troubled frown creases her soft forehead and she says, "That child is not long for this world."
Aunt Druella laughs it off, but Meda and Cissy glance again at the picture and the roses on their cheeks fade ever so slightly.
"Welcome to Hogwarts, Princess," Lucius Malfoy greets her when she steps on the train and pulls playfully at her hair. And with that benediction from the Prince of Slytherin himself, Ara is whirled into Hogwarts high society. Here, Meda and Cissy aren't the forever-giggling, scatterbrained, impish girls she's grown up with and loved at home. Meda is Andromeda, dazzling one and all with her wit and scorn, mistress of the art of classical seduction which never stoops to use sex as a weapon but relies on the beauty of the mind, while Cissy is elegant, freezingly contemptuous Narcissa, style goddess and Lucius Malfoy's girlfriend.
And Bella… well, Bella was always Bella.
The Sorting Hat screams, "Slytherin!" almost before she puts it on her head and with the self-assured poise of a Black princess, she sweeps the length of the hall to the long table beneath the green-and-silver banner.
The Unholy Trinity, students whisper as the Black girls stroll down the promenades of Hogwarts, laughing, chatting, toying with eachother's hair, their arms wrapped securely around eachother's waists and shoulders – tall, dark Andromeda first, blue-eyed, golden Narcissa next and finally fragile-looking, slight Auriga. Bella, a band of gold-and-black-diamond already glittering on her slender white finger, is no longer a girl and even Ara knows that.
She knows about the things Meda and Cissy discuss in low voices when they think she isn't around to hear – but the walls of Hogwarts have ears, and Ara has her spies, who blend inconspicuously into the scenery – and there's a hard, cold look in seventeen-year-old Bella's eyes now that wasn't there last year, which not even Meda's ingenious fabrications can explain away.
Ara marks the way Bella stares at the Mudbloods – she takes good heed to avoid contact with those abominations – and the way her red lips curl up in something far more sinister than mere disdain or revulsion. And she notes the way Meda looks up from her devilishly complicated N.E.W.T-level homework every once in a while and shoots a guarded look across the Common Room at Bella, enthroned in state between the wild, daredevil Rosier boys and handsome, icy-eyed Lucius Malfoy. She isn't quite as foolish as that red-haired Mudblood crotch-dropping, Evans, assiduously shrieks every time they meet – well, she hopes not – and because she's learnt how to put three-hundred-seventy-one and forty-nine, she follows Cissy's lead in everything, including being extra-careful around Bella.
In December all the windows are frost-tinted and Herbology and Care of Magical Creatures' classes are cancelled for a week. One bitterly cold morning, Cissy takes one look at the Daily Prophet and looks like she wants to throw up on her breakfast – and refuses to let Ara read it. "Fuck," Meda mutters, after glancing at it, and her lips tighten and thin like Aunt Druella's when she's in a towering temper.
"What does 'fuck' mean?" Ara asks innocently, because she's only eleven and the word has a nice sound to it.
Meda opens her mouth and then she looks hard at Cissy – not Ara – and says, very loudly, "It's a Muggle swear word."
Cissy looks down at her breakfast, and for a moment Ara wonders whether those are tear-drops glittering on her white cheeks.
Bella wakes up later than usual, and when she does the sheen of fatigue still hangs heavy on her heavy-lidded eyes, but there is a smug, triumphant smile on her face. Meda stands up when Bella sweeps into the Common Room, her glossy black hair still wet from her bath, and two swift steps, the sisters are face to face. Meda raises her hand and for the first time in nearly ten years slaps her older sister.
The sound seems to ricochet in the stone dungeon, bouncing off the walls with an unnatural amount of noise and intensity like the crack of a whip, only magnified. Cissy starts to rise, but Ara, the instinct of a woman overriding that of a child for the first time in her life, grabs her arm and forces her down, hissing, "You'll only make it worse."
Ara waits for the blow to fall on Meda – who looks so frail and young in comparison to Bella – but it doesn't. A strange smile lights up Bella's face, and her eyes sparkle and dance in the flickering firelight. "You're still so young, little sister," she whispers, and raises a finger to stroke Meda's cheek.
Meda seizes her wrist, her eyes flashing fire, and suddenly she doesn't look so frail and young and Ara can't help but wonder where the carefree, easy-tempered girl she once knew has disappeared. In that instant, she knows that Meda is a woman, that she has left her rose-rippled, stainless childhood behind forever. Cissy can't bear the silence, the loop of infinity that seems to hang like a wreath of black smoke in the shimmering, unsullied air between her sisters and she begins to shiver uncontrollably, supported only by Ara's strong grip.
Meda lets go of Bella's wrist. She says nothing but sweeps past Bella. Ara thinks that it's odd that though they're so close to eachother, their bodies – neither their shoulders, or even the hems of their robes – do not touch eachother. It's only years later, when Bella and Meda are gone forever, that she learns about the Massacre at Newcastle, and the part played in it by the Dark Lord's youngest Death Eaters.
The months slip by like pearls off a necklace, and she learns, midway into her first year, that she loathes the present crop of Gryffindors with the passion of a thousand burning suns. Perhaps it starts when Potter, Pettigrew and Lupin – the Marauders, as they proudly, vaingloriously term themselves – enchant her tie so that it flashes gold and scarlet, in Herbology class one fine day. Perhaps it starts when that banshee of a Lily Evans and her pathetic little groupie, Mary MacDonald, call her a worthless waste of space, a porcelain doll and shower obscenities on her family, the day after Gryffindor loses a Quidditch match (She makes sure Evans' friend, greasy-haired, young Snape, gets payback for it).
All the same, she learns reasonably quickly that Gryffindors and Slytherins can never be allies, and that it isn't undignified of a Black princess to charm someone's textbook to spew frog guts at inopportune moments.
She cheers and hugs Regulus when he joins the Slytherin Table and wipes a speck of dirt off his nose. "I wish Bella was still at school," he murmurs, as soon as she's over with her sisterly ministrations. Meda laughs and reaches out to tousle Reggie's hair, but there's something just, well wrong about her laugh, Ara thinks. But she's thankful and glad, relieved – just like Cissy – that Bella's graduated and won't be home this year – she's on a Grand Tour of Europe –, that she and Meda will be away from eachother.
Ara watches with amusement as Cissy, radiantly beautiful in her fifth year, cheers, louder than she ever has at a Quidditch match (she despises Quidditch and never pretends that she doesn't), as Lucius Malfoy scores goal after goal for Slytherin. And she watches, with less amusement and something like fear and horror, as Meda stares dreamily across the Great Hall at the seventh-year Ravenclaws – at one dark-haired, good-looking boy in particular whom she knows to be a Mudblood.
She can't help but feel forlorn and discarded that Meda has grown-up and that Cissy will grow up quickly and leave her childhood, leave Ara (and all because of Malfoy!) within a few months. So she tries to immerse herself in new activities and pastimes, in building up new alliances and partnerships. The Slytherin girls follow her lead in everything, like dutiful sheep, and Ara discovers that she likes having this sort of power and control over them. It's… arousing.
So is the way Rabastan Lestrange licks his lips and plays with his soft, dark brown hair but she tries not to notice that.
She debuts in crimson velvet and ermine, so white against raven-black hair and blood-red fabric that it glistens almost silver, at a Black Christmas Ball. "You look lovely, darling," Meda murmurs, arranging a white orchid in her streaming dark hair and toying with her fanning ivory moiré skirts. Cissy, her white skin set off to perfection in jade silk, emeralds that make the shafts of light dance woven into the rings of her faded-gold hair, nods her approval and kisses Ara fondly on the cheek.
It's her day, and Ara, flushed with the pleasure of being so pretty, receives compliments she doesn't expect from fastidious Aunt Druella, Reggie who never fails to list her shortcomings and Mother who rarely dispenses praise. She descends down the ballroom on Uncle Cygnus' arm and is greeted by more than just polite applause. She laughs and sips sweet elderflower wine with her friends, feeling like a lady.
She watches her cousins. Cissy is never short of dance partners and the emeralds in her hair glitter and sparkle as she twirls with the grace of a princess, born of Black and Rosier blood, on the parquet. Meda lounges on a divan, her large eyes dark and dreamy, quiet and rather aloof from the revelry and gaiety reigning in the ballroom and Ara wonders what - or who - she's thinking about. Bella disappears for a time in the beginning, but when she returns there's a smug, triumphant smile on her face that mirrors the one she had last winter, the day she and Meda almost quarreled in front of the whole Common Room. She doesn't dance or lounge but sits quietly, the smile plastered on her face the whole night, beside a tall, hooded man who never removes his black cloak.
Ara looks up from her book, at Meda's pale face, tears glimmering at the corners of her steel-hued eyes. She knows instinctively that something bad is going to happen and tries to open her mouth, to forestall the bad news because she doesn't want to hear it, but it's too late.
Bella rushes home from Switzerland but by then, Andromeda Black is already a round, scorch-marked hole on the Black Family Tapestry. Cissy cries until her blue eyes are webbed with crimson, but Aunt Druella slaps Meda and screams (screams for the first time before her daughters), "You are not my daughter," before slamming the front door in her face. Reggie clams up and buries himself in his room under mountains of old issues of Quaffle, Bludger and Snitch – International Quidditch for the Modern Wizard magazines and Uncle Cygnus spends an afternoon burning everything that belonged to Meda – clothes, books, trinkets, even furniture – before locking himself up in his room for a week.
In the grisly silence reigning so bone-chillingly, so stiflingly over the shadowy house, Ara receives sympathetic, commiserating (as if) callers with Cissy because the rest of the family is indisposed. Their words exhale venom and spit out poisoned barbs that dig deep within Ara's almost translucently pale skin, and leave Cissy almost physically weak and strained afterwards, but thirteen-year-old Auriga doesn't let it show. In the dim, over-warm parlor, swathed in black velvet for mourning, where even the shadows are menacing, battling disillusionment, hurt and flame-bright rage, she learns the meaning of hate.
When Carina Lestrange, Hadrian Nott's engagement ring glittering on her finger, asks, eyes shining with malice, how she feels about poor, dear 'Dromeda, Ara spits out, with a diamond-hard contempt and hatred that is beyond her years, "She was a filthy whore, and she deserves no better than the Mudblood she chose." She turns her face forever from the sister – yes, sister, not cousin – who shared her childhood, because it's the Black way, which admits of no Achilles' heel and dying young, it's preternatural beauty intact, takes it's vendettas to the grave.
But it's not Cissy's way or Aunt Druella's – Rosiers, head to heel both of them. Ara knows that Cissy still cries for her sister and though she loves Cissy, she can't help despise her. A gap forms in their love, shaped from Ara's contempt and Cissy's love which is really her strength, not her weakness, and over the months it widens into a rift.
The months pass by and the glamour of autumn and mystery of winter hold no charm for Ara. She lords over the Slytherin girls, throws hexes when she feels like it and sweeps into detention with her head held high, like a queen who's actually proud of what she's done. The boys dance after her because she's beautiful and a Black and she laughs and lets them dance after her – like puppies, she thinks in contempt when she's not laughing and feels serious, which isn't often nowadays – because they amuse her. She crushes girls with her mockery and rumors, and feels no guilt or even uneasiness because it's all just so funny and who cares about ugly, stupid half-blood crotch-droppings anyway?
For thirteen summers, Ara has been a beautiful child. In her fourteenth, over the course of three months, her body grows into a woman's. At first Ara is distraught at the long, seemingly never-ending legs, the curves, the-the… in Bella's forthright, sordid words 'pineapples'. She feels ungainly, inelegant and perfectly hideous – to her, the metamorphosis is like that of a beautiful cygnet into an ugly swan. But then Percival Prewett loses his balance and stumbles down a flight of steps - and not because of horror either, she realizes with a quickening flush of pleasure - when he sees her for the first time in three months, and suddenly she doesn't mind the changes.
She stands in Bella's reception line as a bridesmaid, white rosebuds and a net of pearls woven into her glossy black hair, in a trailing, indigo velvet gown stitched with crystals and tiny glimmering mirrors that flash the light of the afternoon sun. James Potter attends, with his mother Dorea Black Potter, and when he kisses her hand as expected and whispers the anticipated compliment, "You look radiant, Miss Black," his voice rings with a touching sincerity that Ara doesn't expect of him. Later, he claims the lion's share of her dances, frightening off her other partners with his unaccustomed aggressiveness, and when she pouts and raps his knuckles – hard enough to make him wince – with her white silk fan, he smiles and says, "I love you."
"So do I," Ara murmurs, laughter in her voice, and runs her slim, gloved fingers over his arm and smiles as he shivers in pleasure. Later, in the beautiful, somnolent twilight, in the bushes lit by live fairies, she receives her first real kiss – the taps on the lips with the other boys at Hogwarts don't count, she realizes, as he holds her, his legs brushing against hers, his fingers slipping beneath the low bodice of her gown (she permits him, because she's too carried away to check herself, but later thoroughly berates herself for succumbing so easily, so quickly).
Nevertheless they ignore eachother at Hogwarts and Ara is glad that it's so because after all he's a Gryffindor – no matter how divinely he kisses – and even celestial kisses are a poor balm for a relationship that's been sour since she was eight. Severus Snape's eyes follow her just as they have Narcissa a few years ago, just as they will soon Lily Evans, but Ara doesn't notice because the sheer number of admirers she begins to garner over fourth year is mind-boggling and she has no time or interest to pay any attention to a greasy-haired, hook-nosed yob.
Reggie is chosen Seeker for Slytherin and Ara, who openly abhors Quidditch and whose relationship with the game has been limited to a few perfunctory crushes on several international players, finds herself draped in green-and-silver in the stands in all weather screaming herself hoarse for her little brother. Later in the Common Room after their victory, out of sheer force of habit, while curling her eyelashes around her wand she tells him scornfully, "It was simply humiliating watching you play."
She joins the Slug Club like her cousins and smiles sweetly at Slughorn while inwardly laughing at him. The parties he holds are fun – nothing better than dressing up, dancing and commandeering a completely un-adult-supervised cache of liquor to round up one's evening –, but she quickly realizes that she has a rival, in beauty and popularity, in the green-eyed Evans girl. Lily laughs and mocks Ara openly – "Look here girls, there's the Black slut and her bints coming along this way", "Now however did you manage to pass your third year, Black? By bribing the authorities I suppose" – before tossing her long, copper-colored hair over her shoulder and ambling away, her narrow hips swaying in a exaggerated imitation of Ara's more seductive gait.
Ara doesn't like being called a fool.
She throws herself with an earnestness and single-mindedness that astonishes even herself – and thoroughly nonplusses the rest of the school – into her studies and comes out top of the year in Arithmancy, Ancient Runes and Astronomy. Lily Evans carries off the honors in Potions and Charms and hisses malevolently at the Closing Feast, "I bet you slept with all three of the Professors."
Ara allows her cool, disdainful gaze to rake over Evans' curve-less figure, over the wild red hair and the flashing-with-righteous-Gryffindor-indignation cats' eyes and then says sweetly, "At least I'm good-looking enough for someone to want to sleep with me." And then she looks down the length of the Slytherin table at greasy-haired, cross-eyed Snape curled up into an oily ball, trying to evade his housemates' jeers and taunts, loathing on his pale face and adds, "The best you'll ever get is him."
"He's worth twenty of you!" Evans cries fiercely.
Ara smiles and says nothing, veiling her eyes with her long, heavy lashes.
"I never knew you had it in you," Bella informs her. Ara looks up from her embroidery frame – she loves it because Cissy does – at her oldest cousin, sitting cross-legged on the jade silk sheets, her long raven-black hair streaming wildly down her back. She arches her slim, black eyebrows and Bella elaborates, "You were always so… well, mediocre at school. You barely scraped through in Transfiguration and Herbology in third year – what was it, three marks above the pass mark? And now – well, I can't say that I'm not pleased but still it's…"
Ara shrugs noncommittally and returns back to her embroidery frame. Sunlight plays on the wooden floorboards, so polished that they gleam now like slabs of tinted glass. A mesh of vines shade the southwestern oriel of her bedchamber, and from below she can hear Cissy singing Spanish madrigals for her betrothed, Lucius Malfoy.
"Commendable fortitude of mind," Bella finishes. "And strength of purpose too, yes… well, it seems that there's more to you than meets the eye, little Ara."
She's chosen Prefect, like Bella and Meda before her, and instead of sulking at her unwanted badge of honor welcomes it because it gives her the perfect opportunity to retaliate against Evans. Blacks never take insults lying down. They steal and spy and slaughter and seduce, carrying their vendettas with the arrogance of purple royalty to their early graves. Patrolling the halls with Severus Snape late at night, she shoots him her sweetest smiles, glancing at him sideways from under her long lashes, an odd mixture of daring and coyness in her starry grey eyes, calculated to snare the already half-enamored youth and bind him more tightly in her jeweled lattice. Her laughter rings freely and clearly, like an exquisite violin sonata, when he makes the smallest, most trite jokes and she reserves her gayest banter, her sweetest looks and words for him.
She allows him to take her to Hogsmeade one blustery November morning – discarding the offers of five other, almost frantic boys with mocking laughter and disdainfully arched brows –, allows him to wrap his filthy arm (inwardly shuddering) around her narrow wasp-waist and kisses him in full view of the crowd at The Three Broomsticks. She makes sure that Evans gets a particularly good look at them – the stupid Mudblood's mouth falls open – and knows, when he's pulled away his dirty lips from hers that he's her slave for life.
Snape and Evans have a screaming match in the Hall the next morning, complete with slaps, accusations of betrayal, racist insults which almost spirals into a duel before the teachers intervene. Weeks of detention for both combatants result, and before the day is over Evans has burnt every single photograph she owns of Snape. Wounded and furious, Snape turns to Ara for consolation, which she graciously doles out. She winds him around her finger as prettily and effortlessly as a skein of silk and reigns over him – mind, body and soul.
The amount of power she has over him alarms her, because she knows that he'd do anything – short of dying, of course – for her. She tests the limits of his love and loyalty, and unlocks the convoluted, twisted labyrinths of his intricate mind. Unscrupulously, she uses the knowledge and profound resources within it for her own purposes, rapidly mastering spells like Malia potiri (she tests it on rats with truly grotesque results), Delicatus Concrucio (used on unsuspecting students with entertaining, albeit injurious consequences) and even the warped Incruentatus under his tutelage.
On Valentine's Day, in full view of the whole school, she dumps him without guilt or scruple or even a twinge of conscience. The red roses in his hands seem to fade and die, like his pale face which quivers ever so slightly before he walks out - out from the Hall and (she thinks, erraneously) out from her life. A week later, she begins to date Delphinus Travers because he's handsome, rich, and pureblood and loves her to distraction. She's already decided to marry him, and is proud of her impeccable taste in husbands and pleased for his sake that he shall receive the honor of wedding a Black princess. Of course, he doesn't exactly deserve her – in her mind, no one does – but as he's the best one available, she's ready to stoop to his level.
The name doesn't have the strange, dark grandeur of Bellatrix Lestrange or the cool, stately elegance of Narcissa Malfoy, but while comparing it to Andromeda Tonks… Well, Auriga Travers will do.
"Delphinus Travers has made you an offer."
Ara runs her pearl-and-ivory comb through her glossy black hair, still wet from it's washing, and says quite calmly, "Not yet, but he means to. I've chosen well, haven't I, Aunt Druella?"
"Of course," Aunt Druella says, approval shining in her blue eyes. "You always were a good girl, Ara – I'll miss you when you're married, my dear."
"It shan't be for ages," Ara murmurs, "Not for over four years, at the earliest – after all, I can't marry before I'm twenty-one."
"Yes…" Aunt Druella says slowly and takes a seat across her niece. There's a thoughtful look in her eyes and her slim, bejeweled white hands play restlessly as she says slowly, carefully, "Auriga, darling, please don't bring this up with her mother – but I have news of Andromeda."
Ara puts down her comb, and her aunt rushes on, wildly, with none of her usual icy-cool, unruffled dignity now, "She's had a daughter, Nymphadora, and the child's a Metamorphagus and Cissy and I have been down to see them and oh, Ara…"
Ara puts up her hand, struggling to control her temper. Aunt Druella falls silent, a tremulous look in her eyes. "I will refrain from mentioning this to my mother – and Bellatrix, as well," she whispers, voice hard, her shoulders trembling in rage, "But this is the last time. Never mention that filthy blood traitor to me again – she is as good as dead." And then she rises, the long sheet of damp, black hair swinging like a curtain and falling to her knees, and leaves.
She asks Bella about the Death Eaters that summer, a topic she – and Aunt Druella and Cissy – have scrupulously avoided for years. It's enough to know that many people she knows so intimately – Bella, her husband, Cissy's husband – are a part of it, that her parents avidly support it and that her little brother, sweet Reggie who shrinks from casting a Cruciatus on lizards, wants to join it. Good little pureblood girls know that it's enough for them to adorn their father's and husband's mansions, to control their family fortunes from behind the scenes. They don't go around playing with things that don't concern them but now Ara doesn't feel like playing the part of a sweet ice sculpture, a delicate glass doll in some dusty parlor.
She wants to live.
Bella's steel-hued eyes glitter as she speaks about her cause – how good and right it is – about the great man ("more than a man, Ara") whom they call the Dark Lord, about her task as a pruner – and sometimes a purger – of the cankered limbs of the tree of life…
Ara listens and drinks in her words like a thirsty traveler caught in some burning desert.
She receives O's in Astronomy, Ancient Runes and Charms and reasonably good O. in all her other subjects as well. At Hogwarts, she willingly relinquishes the leadership of her clique to pretty, wasp-tongued Lyra Rookwood and spends her time thinking, poring over books in the library – to the horror of most of her old, bird-brained girlfriends – and practicing new spells. She enacts the role of a chaste maiden, the virginal princess in the tower waiting for her knight-in-shining-armor – Delphinus, of course – and relishes the confusion of the boys as she sweetly refuses their offers to squire around to dances and Hogsmeade.
Lily Evans – the brazen Gryffindor whore, as Ara prefers to think of her – chooses to imitate her. Her target is knuckle-brained – though good-looking, as all the Slytherin girls concede – James Potter, with whom she plays hard-to-get. It nauseates Ara to see the way the poor boy runs after her and her acerbic treatment of him – never mind that she, Ara, often toyed with boys in the same way – and she hates Evans even more, now for impersonal reasons, because she knows the girl will get him someday, breed with him and defile his blood.
And to think his mother's a Black.
On her seventeenth birthday, Delphinus Travers visits her on the Hogsmeade weekend and proposes to her. She accepts and as he kisses her, as she sees fortune, power and love (from his side) dancing brightly in her future, she wonders whether this is what she wants. She's tried to be like Cissy since she was a child – beautiful, queenly Narcissa – but now, in a rare flash of clairvoyance, she realizes that she's turned into Bella.
Marry for society, but let your love roam free, wild, untamed over the vastness of life.
She stands, her heavy, black cloak whipping around her slender, delicate frame, in the midst of a circle of hooded figures. Slowly, she kneels, her dark robes fanning around her, and bares her thin, white arm.
"I, Auriga Black, vow my allegiance to you, My Lord, from now unto the end of time," she whispers, and bows her head. It's a simple pledge, the last stage in a ghastly ritual involving blood, burning flesh and ancient rites of magic (vomit-inducing some of them), a ritual which has continued for fifteen nights and has left her pale, circles forming deep bags under her eyes and all but drained of her strength. A wand, more like a brand, presses against her exposed forearm and she bites down hard on her lip – blood oozing from tattered flesh – to keep from screaming.
It's all a nightmare. It'll get better. It has to…
Bella Apparates her home, more dead than alive. "My dear daughters," Mother whispers, emphasizing the word 'daughter', including Bella in the definition too. She meets them in the dark parlor illuminated by a single crimson lantern. She kisses Bella's cheeks and strokes Ara's long, flowing black hair. "I am proud of both of you."
Father – quiet, bookish Father who disapproves of her joining, because she's a woman and it's not a woman's work to fight from the frontlines – and Aunt Druella say nothing, ill or well, to her. Reggie assails her with childish questions that she cannot answer – "How was it like?" "Why do you look so tired?" – so in the end she musses up his hair and calls him a brat, because he's just so young (even though he's a good foot taller than her now) and she wants him to be young for as long as he can. Cissy frets about her health but keeps mum about things that are best left to the shadows, and Ara is grateful, grateful beyond words.
"You're my best friend," Ara whispers to her cousin one scorching summer night, when she's sleeping over at Malfoy Manor. "You always have been – you've always loved me the hardest, Cissy."
Cissy says nothing as she brushes Ara's hair with her emerald-studded, silver brush, but something glitters in the corner of her eyes and Ara knows that her words have touched her sister's – not cousin, Cissy was more than a cousin – heart.
The first time she kills, it's a thin, blond Muggle girl a few years older than herself and the wand promptly falls from her hand in shock. Bella finishes off the girl's parents, mildly rebuking her cousin for losing concentration. "Are there any others?" Rabastan Lestrange demands, a bored look on his handsome face, "Scullery duty, that's what I call this. Fit for a child."
Bella playfully shoves her brother-in-law as Ara sits down, her legs unable to support her now, on a plastic chair. She's facing the door – unlike Bella and Rabastan – and a flash of copper catches at her eye for a second. "Who's there?" she cries, and Bella turns around. "Who's-" she begins again, but in one stride Bella is at the threshold.
"Avada Kedavra!" Bellatrix's voice rings and there's a stifled scream before Ara hears the thud of a body falling to the floor. She rushes out and there she sees the sprawled form of a slim young girl with long, copper-red hair falling over her face. "Kill first, ask questions later," Bella tells Ara quite seriously.
Rabastan saunters over, and kneels down next to the dead girl. His eyes gleam as he moves the hair away from her face, her pretty, dead face. "Sweet," he murmurs, running his fingers down her shirt – and Ara almost throws up as she realizes he's fondling the corpse's breasts. "Sweet," he repeats, "We'll have some fun with her tonight, Bellatrix."
Bella, Ara is glad to see, looks almost as revolted as her. "Necrophiliac," she murmurs, the classic sneer of a Black princess on her face. She tosses her long, black hair out of her face and adds with freezing scorn, "You disgust me."
"I didn't mean that kind of fun," Rabastan said, sounding indignant. "Come here, Auriga and tell me whether you know this girl. I think I've seen her… isn't she that Potter's girlfriend?"
Ara looks closer and practically falls into Bella's arms as she recognizes Lily Evans. "Nerves of porcelain," her cousin murmurs, sounding disgusted with her.
"Ah yes…" Rabastan purrs. "Lovely – I have a few old scores to settle with Potter. And with Snape too, now that I think about it."
In the end they (Ara takes good heed to stay as far away from it all) leave the stripped, desecrated corpse – barely recognizable, save for the copper hair and the emerald-green eyes that have been ripped out of their sockets and pinned, gaping, to the burnt mounds of flesh that were once her breasts – in the village square of Hogsmeade. The picture is in the Daily Prophet the next day and Ara, appalled at what her friends and allies have done with Evans' body (even she doesn't deserve it), spends the day alternately crying and throwing up. Black, is scrawled in blood over the burnt flesh, and it's a mocking, taunting clue – not strong enough to warrant arrest, not for the powerful Blacks – that leads to no justice, no retribution for those who love her.
Red-eyed, grim-faced James Potter meets pale, drawn Severus Snape in a moldy, damp-infested 'house' at Spinner's End and together, they take vengeance into their own hands. They know that they're no match for Bellatrix Lestrange, that Narcissa Malfoy is too heavily guarded, the elders too wary and Regulus Black – still underage – is under too tight a lease to be a viable target… but there's still Auriga Black – weaker, relatively unprotected, too overconfident, too naive about the world really to be wary – left.
She's strolling down a deserted lane in Die Urn Alley with Delphinus, discussing the wedding which won't take place for several years, when, with a flash of green light, his arm slips out of her grip and he falls flat on his face. She opens her mouth to scream – forgetting Bella's advice to always be prepared again – but with another flash of green light, she staggers and crashes onto the cobblestones, mouth still open in a silent scream.
They deliver her corpse, mangled in the same way as that of her schoolmate and enemy by two, implacable, ruthless teenage boys, to the Black country seat where her family always spends the summer.
"That child is not long for this world."
Dorea Black Potter's prophecy has been fulfilled, ironically, by her son. Auriga Black dies when she's eighteen.
The wrought iron on both sides of the tall, foreboding gates was ablaze with thick bracts of showy pink bougainvillea, which seemed to soften and temper their somber rigidity. Banks of blue and white hydrangea bloomed, sheltered by massive jacarandas half-bent under the weight of their paper-thin lavender-blue blossoms. The great ornamental trees of the world graced the sweeping grounds of the traditional Black burial grounds. Poincianas, their branches weighed down by dazzling scarlet wreaths, frangipani trees in a variety of lush colors, Indian laburnums, apple blossom cassias, tulip and silk trees, giant magnolias their huge goblet-shaped creamy flowers rising out of their shiny green leaves. The grounds were splendid with summer fragrance and color.
Masses upon masses of pure white roses hang on the long archway that led to the graves.
What a lovely place to be buried, Andromeda Tonks thinks as she makes her way along the archway, holding the hem of her lavishly-embroidered, aquamarine silk robes high above the verdant grass, treading softly. Nymphadora lags behind her, awed, unbelieving, stopping to trace the soft contours of a flower here and there, not quite brave enough to pluck them. She's ten years old, but this is the first time she's been brought here, and that's odd enough by itself. By right of her lineage, on her mother's side, she should have been a frequent visitor to the Fortress of Lockwind, but she's a halfblood and this is the first – and last – time she will ever be permitted to enter and marvel at the splendors of the nine-hundred-year-old castle.
Druella Black and Narcissa Malfoy stand at the end of the archway. There's a little boy, about four years old, playing with a golden ball next to Narcissa. With his fluffy blond hair and wide mist-grey eyes he looks like a small angel to Andromeda and she smiles, thinking that Draco has grown since the last time she saw him six months ago.
"You look lovely today, Nymphadora," Narcissa says, a rare smile lighting her beautifully Black face, warmth shining in her cold blue eyes. She nods in approval of Dora's forest-green silk robes which make her look older than she really is and at the way Dora's done her hair today – long, glossy black curls that tumble loosely down her shoulders, framing her fine-boned, delicately oval face with it's long-lashed cloud-grey eyes. She looks almost uncannily like Auriga.
"Thank you, ma'am," Dora says politely, as her mother has instructed her to. She offers her grandmother a timid little smile and tugs at the high lace collar of her robes. She's unused to this formality, so alien to her nature, and looks woefully like a little bird in a cage. Any lingering doubts Andromeda might have about leaving her family are eradicated by the half-frightened look in her Dora's eyes – how could she ever have raised her sunbeam, her songbird in the shadowy, stifling, jeweled cages in which she grew up?
Druella leads the way to Auriga's tomb. She doesn't look a day older than thirty, for all the fact that she has two grandchildren but then that's to be expected. Like her eldest daughter and only granddaughter, she's a Metamorphagus, after all.
It's a simple grave – blue-veined marble with a cluster of delicate plaster flowers on one side and her name and dates of birth and death engraved. Next to it is Regulus'. Both dead at eighteen, both under mysterious circumstances, effectively extinguishing the light of the House of Black. Children, Andromeda thinks, kneeling on the grass, an overwhelming sense of sadness sweeping over her. They were nothing but children. And suddenly, in the midst of all this beauty, waves of fragrance borne on the wings of a refreshing southwesterly breeze, she doesn't feel worthy to live, to enjoy life while her beautiful little sister sleeps under the ground in a coffin of gold.
"It doesn't seem fair does it?" Narcissa says quietly, laying a slender, white hand on Andromeda's shoulder. "Bella, Ara, Father, Reggie, Uncle Orion… it seems like we've lost almost everybody sometimes." Her façade crumbles and for a moment she looks almost pitifully like the fragile little girl she once was, in need now of unconditional love, of a sister's empathy and reassurance.
From the depths of Andromeda's soul, Meda stirs and then reaches out to wrap Cissy in a hug. "We still have eachother," she whispers into her sister's ear, stroking the lustrous golden waves. "And no matter what happens, we'll always have eachother." From over Cissy's shoulder, she looks across the grounds, at Dora laughing, free of inhibition, and playing with little Draco and his golden ball. And she smiles and thinks, This is what Ara would have wanted. For us to all be happy.