"'It's easy to make a decision if you already know what the outcome will be." - Armin, Attack on Titan
"Belle, dear, come here; you must tell me everything."
Belvina Black offered her most coquettish smile to a group of Ministry officials her parents had been sure to invite to the party and glared at her sister-in-law, who had attached herself to her arm, nudging her side.
"Hush!" Belvina whispered, maneuvering them through the crowd at the entrance of the ballroom and glancing over her shoulder at the tall, imposing figure of her mother—Mrs. Ursula Black—who was greeting guests with a regal nod of her heavily adorned head. "Mother is in a foul mood. It shan't do for us to be overheard."
Lysandra looked around them as inconspicuously as she could, fanning herself with a black lace fan. Over the edge of it, not for the first time that night, Belvina caught sight of Herbert Burke, quietly conversing with another gentleman. He met her gaze, and she looked away immediately.
No, such nonsense would not do.
They managed to escape the more densely packed area and find seats beside a pillar, a solitary candle-flame wavering over a small table. Guests continued to pour into the ballroom, each gown more lavish than the one before. Music played from the far end of the room.
Lysandra, primly arranging her curled golden locks with one gloved hand, tugged on her arm again. "Well?" she asked. "I have heard the most scandalous rumors. And although I know Phineas is quite a character, they cannot possibly all be true."
"You'd be surprised, Lysa. Arcturus, go away. This is a private conversation."
For Arcturus had appeared suddenly, taking a seat beside his wife and cheekily sipping from a glass of wine. He scowled stubbornly at Belvina. "I am no more informed than Lysa, darling sister—and do not pretend that this is about anything other than Phineas; I can tell by the looks on your faces."
Lysandra rolled her eyes and intensified her fanning. "Oh, now you have a rudimentary understanding of women."
Arcturus glared at her. "Don't do this in front of my family. It's most unseemly."
"Do get on with it," Lysandra said pointedly to Belvina, ignoring her husband.
"If you two are done with your fighting—" Belvina, in turn, glared at them both. "It all has Mother and Father in quite a mood. Father returned from Hogwarts yesterday, more upset than I have ever seen him."
"He left immediately, of course," Arcturus put in, gulping down more wine.
"Of course. He can never manage in a crisis." Belvina waved a hand. "We all know Phineas. He has always been a cause of distress to them. It was nearly the last straw some months ago when Mother became aware that he was close friends with—"
She fell silent suddenly as a witch in a turquoise gown glided towards them, the long train dragging behind her. Herbert was now by a pillar on the opposite side of the room, looking towards the source of music, his expression almost wistful. Belvina snapped her attention back to Aunt Elladora, who, she now realized, was followed by a younger woman.
"Belvina! Child, do welcome your new sister, Violetta." Elladora drew closer and leaned down to hiss in Belvina's ear, gripping her upper arm tightly. "You'd do well to cease your gossiping and show some measure of interest in the affairs of this family. Do you know how hard your mother pushed to get the Bulstrodes to marry off their daughter? And poor Cygnus' sacrifice—a girl with a face like that." This all being said nearly in one breath and out of earshot of the woman in question, Elladora straightened and pursed her lips in a smile, looking towards the girl who had followed her. "Violetta, darling, you have met Belvina before—your husband's younger sister?"
"We have met often. But I would not presume to impose—"
"Oh, you're not imposing at all upon these silly creatures." Elladora turned her critical eye to the only man among them. "Arcturus, are you really intending to keep to the company of women? Are there not enough rumors already?"
Arcturus flashed her a violent grin. "Dear Aunt Elladora, Lysandra is my wife; do my vows not state that I am to care for her in sickness? Does she not look rather sick to you?" He reached out and yanked Lysandra against him. Lysandra promptly attempted to fight him off. "Mentally ill, indeed," he muttered against her hair.
"You disgust me," Lysandra hissed.
As Aunt Elladora disappeared into the crowd once more, Belvina turned her eyes towards Violetta and surveyed her critically. It was true that the poor girl had drawn the shorter straw in the Bulstrode bloodline when it came to looks… Although now that she considered it, she remembered seeing some of the paintings of the Bulstrode ancestors, and it did seem that each generation was improving, however minimally. With a resigned sigh, she waved her wand towards a chair from another table, pulling it towards them. "Join us, will you? Quickly—I was in the middle of a story."
The girl came over meekly. After all, she had only married Cygnus a week ago. There was still some advantage to being a member of the family that its new addition so desperately wished to impress.
Lysandra was glaring at Violetta. "Not a word to our darling mother-in-law, understood? I've no interest in making her hate me even more."
"I— I won't tell."
With matters straightened out, Belvina returned to her story. "All right, so he has been friends with one Norvel Twonk—"
"Is he not the Mudblood?" Arcturus inquired, eyebrows raised.
"Half-blood, he insists, but it really is all the same, isn't it?" Belvina sniffed. Blood was either pure or not—the degree of impurity mattered little. "Phineas was travelling with him on the weekends, going off to investigate one magical creature after another. Most undignified, really. Nearly gave Mother a conniption when she heard. And here we were all thinking he was working at the Ministry!"
"He's always had a wild streak," Arcturus remarked.
Lysandra snorted, most unladylike. "Don't get me started, you hypocrite. What's this about your dealings with goblins?"
Belvina gritted her teeth, glancing at Violetta. She might now be a part of the family, but she did not trust her. Turning slightly so as to block out the sight of Herbert, still lingering just beyond the crowd, she glared at everyone again.
"As I was saying," she stated, interrupting Arcturus' protests, "it now seems that about a month ago they went off to the moors on an expedition. There were rumors of a Manticore roaming about, and this Twonk individual was set on discovering it. And Phineas, of course, can never help himself.
"When they finally found the Manticore, it was much larger than anyone had surmised, and it was in a Muggle house—some woman living alone in the middle of the moor, honestly, she ought to have known—and it had her child cornered. But Phineas was well-trained at Hogwarts, of course, and Twonk had done all manner of studies. So they rescued the child. Twonk died, of course."
They all turned to see Violetta staring, wide-eyed.
"Of course he died; do you think a Mudblood could defeat a Manticore and come out unscathed?" Belvina shook her head. "Mother would have been pleased with the turn of events, but it became clear that the pair was purposefully going after the Manticore to protect Muggles, not out of curiosity for the creature itself. And it was all made worse by Phineas falling in love with the Muggle girl whose son he saved."
Lysandra pressed a hand to her forehead with a sigh. "Oh, dear. Did he want to elope?"
"He was adamant that he would get Mother's approval for the marriage. As if Mother would let him marry a woman who already has a child, much less a Muggle!"
Arcturus was frowning. "So he is involved in the Muggle Rights crusade."
"They have been protesting at the Ministry for some months now," Lysandra remarked. "It's absolute madness."
"And Sirius spotted Phineas there last week on his way to work—he was in the crowds."
Lysandra gasped. "No."
"Yes. Mother sent word that if he did not return home at once he was to be disowned." The thrill of the story was beginning to make Belvina enjoy herself, in spite of her niggling awareness of Herbert's proximity. "So Phineas came home this weekend, walked up to Mother and told him that he's to go and marry his Muggle-loving girl whether she approves or not."
"He always has been," Belvina said, almost proudly. "You should have seen him. He walked in with his robes all caked in mud and went up to the sitting room while the Elves shrieked about the state of the carpet. Then he stood in the very center of the sitting room in front of Mother and said 'I'm informing you that I'm to marry my fair girl from the moors, and be a father to her son.'"
Lysandra let out an incredulous laugh. "What did she say?"
"First, she tried to get Sirius to pin him down, but Phineas is much better with hexes than Sirius." Belvina lowered her voice. Ursula stood far from them and could not possibly hear, but even speaking about her behind her back caused her an involuntary wave of fear. "So Mother finally dealt the blows herself. She nearly broke his nose—there was blood everywhere."
They fell into shocked silence for a moment. Belvina had seen a lot of blood in her lifetime—the respect the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black commanded was not for nothing—but the memory of her mother springing so violently upon her brother still brought a shiver down her spine.
Lysandra was fanning herself rather wildly, as if she were trying to dispel the mental image as well. "But where will he live? With the Muggles?"
"So he said. He said that he could never really hold with London, to begin with, and that Mother was deluded if she believed he had any interest in 'being a part of this backstabbing and greedy society'. And Mother told him that none of us would ever speak to him again if he left, that she would burn him off the Tapestry. And Phineas said that the Tapestry means nothing anyway, that Mother is so obsessed with purity that she's simply perpetuating her same twisted genes down into the pool."
The others were gaping at her. As one, their eyes seemed to move towards Ursula Black. The thought of someone speaking such words at the matriarch of the Black family, feared even by the Minister of Magic himself—and not to mention her own husband, the Headmaster of Hogwarts—was unimaginable.
"Merlin. And she didn't kill him?"
Belvina shrugged lightly and opted to not answer the question. "Phineas left. And I swear as he left the house I believe I heard him whistling." He had also smirked at her; he had always been her favorite brother. "The Ministry broke the news yesterday that Twonk's to be awarded an Order of Merlin, First Class award from the Manticore debacle. Father is to be present at the ceremony. I've never seen Mother so furious."
Arcturus muttered something about wishing he were still living at home.
Lysandra was rubbing her temples, still processing the information. "And all this for a girl."
Belvina could not help herself. She looked up again, towards the pillars, where Herbert stood, an untouched drink in his hand. He was staring at some point in the distance, utterly unaware of her presence. It was as if he did not care at all. Had they not sent letters back and forth, each word of his an ardent prayer that he must have her for his own? Yet months had passed and he had not even dared to be seen in public with her. He had done nothing. Nothing.
It was true that Ursula Black looked down upon his family for their scarce means and shabby reputation. But perhaps if he tried… Mother was so desperate to have her children married off, and Belvina had been of age for three years already.
But Herbert Burke was Herbert Burke; a wiry man who stood silent in the corner, never daring to take control, never doing anything out of the ordinary. Never taking a risk… not even for the girl he claimed he loved so desperately.
And Phineas had smirked at her. Phineas, who had always disrupted family dinners with his antics, whose wild tales of exploring distant lands Belvina herself could never hope to visit would make her dream of exciting adventures. Phineas, who had been the only exciting person in her life.
Now she was only Belvina, likely doomed to remain with her dull family forever until she managed to marry an equally dull man with no feelings for her at all.
Arcturus snorted. "A Muggle, and from the moor. Stupid fool."
"What a senseless decision to make."
"I think he's brave," Belvina said stubbornly, trying to mask the disappointment she felt at Herbert. "He knew exactly what the outcome would be. I don't think it was even much of a decision for him."
"He's thrown away all hope of ever being successful."
"Now he'll have no chance at ever coming back into society," Lysandra added. She and Arcturus always functioned surprisingly smoothly when it came to being disparaging. "Belle, dear, I think you ought to think clearly on this situation and not let the romance of it all fool you. Phineas did something terribly exciting… but it was terribly stupid. Has he contacted you?"
Belle shook her head. "No."
"Well, don't go on and offer him help when he inevitably comes knocking; the last thing we need is you leaving us too. Oh, finally some refreshments, what a relief." Lysandra reached over and took a glass of wine from a silver platter, which had finally come to hover near them. She took a sip and sighed, leaning back gracefully. "I never could hold with these romantic types. Marriage is a matter of politics, either way—all Phineas is doing is ensuring poverty for himself, and now he's shunned by his own family, as well."
"Phineas never cared for such things. He's always been rather wild."
"Perhaps," Lysandra replied dismissively. "Oh, he's awfully exciting to have around, that's for sure. I think it's impossible not to like him. But we must remain objective. It's different for us women." She looked at Belvina meaningfully. Perhaps Phineas could survive with no family or fortune of his own, but a woman would be dead within a week. Belvina wondered how Aunt Isla had ever managed it.
"I think it was rather heroic," she found herself saying softly, thinking of Herbert, and her mother's long, vicious rants about the shameful state of the Burke estate as of late. "To stand up for what you believe in."
Arcturus let out a laugh. "Go on, then: try and stand up to Mother—I shall purchase a coffin in the meantime."
As one, they all turned to look at Ursula, who had now moved to the very center of the ballroom, surrounded by witches so elegantly dressed that it was evident their only intention was to impress the matriarch. Even from here, her very posture was frightening. She had a talent to make the air around her uneasy. Belvina watched one of the witches surreptitiously wipe sweat from her neck.
"Is that… Herbert Burke?"
Apprehension gripped Belvina immediately. She turned, wild-eyed, to see Herbert, finally leaving his post by the pillars and unmistakably making his way over to Belvina's mother.
"Oh, that buffoon," Lysandra groaned. "He'll only succeed in spilling wine on her skirts. Mother has not cared to speak to a Burke in years, and nothing that slow-minded man can say will change that."
"He ought to know better," Violetta whispered from where she sat, almost as if she had forgotten they were there.
"Belle, do you know something about this?"
But Belvina could only watch in horror.
Herbert was most certainly making his way towards Ursula, his glass of wine still treacherously poised between his fingers. He was red in the face, his jaw clenching like it always did when he was nervous, and he looked thinner and wirier than ever. Belvina had a sudden horrified vision of her mother pounding upon Herbert's face in the same manner she had done with Phineas…
But Herbert would not dare, he could not possibly…
Lysandra and Arcturus were thoroughly enjoying themselves. "Is he bowing—? Oh, I can't watch."
"What an idiot. Mother will hex him, for sure—she'll make him fly. Burke has such terrible timing..."
"Is he saying—Belvina! Why are they looking at us?"
"Lysa, I think they're looking at her."
"Belle—Belle! Belvina! Don't be an idiot! Come back!"
Lysandra's frantic whispers fell to deaf ears. Belvina, as if led by mere instinct, found herself leaving her seat and striding purposefully towards where Herbert stood, bowed before Ursula, red in the face and still shaking slightly.
And although the entire room was looking at them, and her mother's furious glare was bent upon Herbert's smaller form, Belvina remembered Phineas' smirk and felt a surge of energy run through her. Because Herbert's eyes were steely with purpose, his form tense with courage that bordered on madness. And Belvina's life was suddenly anything but dull.
I wish to marry your daughter.
She reached for Herbert's hand and took it in hers. And although her mother had not yet said anything, she already knew that they had won.