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Before the Stars Break

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November 1, 1981

Arcturus, at the start of the war, had decided that it would be in his and Melania's best interests to take an extended vacation to Spain until everything boiled over. Uncle Cygnus had spent an exorbitant amount of his potions fortune on houses and hideaways across the continent — before whatever poison he'd been slipped finally succeeded in eating through his remaining rationality and left a stuttering, paranoid husk where a once great potions master had been. Arcturus had always suspected Aunt Violetta because despite how kindly she seemed, he swore he'd seen flowers wilt in her presence.

Of course, such thoughts were neither here nor there. Both of them were many years dead, as were his parents and both his siblings. But he lived. He was still made of flesh and blood, and he would continue to live, for many more decades if fate was kind.

He sighed as he got to his feet wondering just when his skin started to wrinkle and his bones began to creak. It felt like just yesterday he'd been twenty and traveling through the Schwarzwald with Pollux, searching for magic that Hogwarts wouldn't teach (and, not that Pollux would ever admit it, something to gift young Irma Crabbe to initiate a courtship). His cousin and him had to have spent a fortnight free from the family's expectations; free to be messy and uncouth and recklessly young. Merlin and Morgana, those were the days.

He missed his cousin like he would miss a limb. Pollux and Irma had declined his invitation to stay at the coastal villa, instead choosing to take refuge at an ancestral Crabbe estate in Germany that Irma had somehow managed to strongarm from her young nephew — the current Head of House Crabbe and marked follower of the newest Dark Lord — and he hadn't heard from them in close to three years.

Really, he hadn't heard from anyone in three years.

He'd left his children and grandchildren behind in England, and fled with only Melania and three of their house-elves.

Orion, he knew, was dead. His only son and heir — once ruthless and calculating and so, so careful — was dead. He'd had a heart attack, or so Walburga had written. If his daughter-in-law had a hand in his son's unbecoming muggle death, he wouldn't have been very surprised. Walburga, while never someone he'd call gentle, had only become more unhinged as the years went on, and Orion's disinterest and constant dalliances certainly hadn't helped. For all his faults though, and Arcturus was well aware that there were numerous having spent most of the boy's childhood pointing them out, Orion was still his son, and if Walburga had a hand in his death he would kill her.

Lucretia had married a Prewett of all people and was friends with all sorts of blood-traitors and filth. Not for the first time he lamented letting Melania have the final say in Lucretia's marriage. He had wanted to betroth her to Oren Greengrass, but his wife had huffed and shrieked and slept away from their bed for close to a month. So he relented and listened to what his wife had to say and gave the choice to his daughter. Hardly a week later and she was promised to Ignatius Prewett.

"You see," he'd told Melania, seething and a bit drunk, "You see what a choice gave her. She's disgraced us. She'll turn away from our traditions and values at her first chance. You act tolerant now but what will you say when she breaks this engagement and slips into some mudbloods bed—"

She'd slapped him. "This choice will bind her to us. Even when she doubts us and our ways, she'll remember this kindness. She may be a Black, but before that she is my daughter, and she knows how to pay her debts. Now get out of my sight before I do something I'll very much regret."

Melania, like with most things, was right. Lucretia may have married a Prewett and had two borderline blood-traitor children and socialized with mudbloods and, if the rumors were correct, squibs, but she'd never ran from tradition. She kept the Old Ways and accepted the family magic and raised her children properly, even when her husband complained. It was a good choice, he reflected now, as Oren Greengrass was married to one of the many Burke girls, and all of his sons were pledged to and marked by the upstart Dark Lord. Lucretia's children, in contrast, would never follow another, especially one so undeserving.

If only his grandchildren had been as manageable as his daughter.

He'd spent years blaming Walburga and her brother for what had become of the male heirs of the family. Now, after years of self-reflection and the liberal use of a pensieve that Melania somehow acquired, he blamed himself. Of course, he wasn't one for needless self-sacrifice, and he still blamed Walburga and Cygnus and Orion, though he highly doubted his son was overly involved in his children's lives, but he couldn't shy away from his own faults in the matter, not when it could mean the destruction of his House.

Arcturus had been so pleased when Sirius was born. He was a small thing, with wrinkly skin and wild limbs and little tufts of dark, downy hair. He was the future of the House. The first male child of the generation, and, if how explosive Walburga's magic had been when carrying him was to be taken into account, a soon-to-be powerful wizard. He'd taken the newborn into his arms and rocked him gently, Melania cooing softly down on him from over his shoulder, and felt something warm stirring in him. He hadn't been a good father, far from it in fact, but, he thought looking down at his grandson, he could be a good grandfather.

It was an idea that was doomed from the start, it seemed. He and Melania had been waiting in one of the parlors — the only one connected to Floo — for Pollux and Irma to arrive. They'd been in Liechtenstein attending a soirée hosted by one of Irma's students and looked appropriately extravagant when they stepped out of the hearth. He'd complimented Irma on her dress and hugged Pollux and said something, he can't remember exactly, about Sirius being the heir to the House.

And in response, Pollux had said, "Unless Cygnus has a son."

Those words, even now more than a decade later, made his blood boil. Arcturus was the Head of House, and Orion was his immediate heir, and Sirius was his. Pollux was the son of a second son, and would never be in charge of the House, Cygnus would never be in charge, and if Cygnus ever managed to have a son — which he doubted — his son would never be in charge. It was blasphemous for Pollux to even suggest such a thing.

From there matters escalated, and then escalated some more, and wands were drawn. The duel itself he hated to think of, shame bubbling in the pit of his stomach no matter how much he denied it, but the damage afterward was immense. At the time Orion and Walburga had been staying at the manor in Norfolk, often gifted to the heir of the House to live in before they were given the ancestral property as Head, but once Walburga had seen what became of the parlor she'd raged and screamed and little Sirius cried, still clenched in his mother's arms, and they were given leave to move into Grimmauld Place with Lycoris, who would surely enjoy the company.

Orion managed to calm his wife and return her to bed after a new place of living was secured, and Irma patched up Pollux as well as she could before dragging him to the mostly standing fireplace and Floo-ing away, offering only a glare in goodbye.

Melania was able to coax him away as well, deciding that it would be best to take a vacation for a few weeks — "Perhaps the château in France? Or somewhere warmer. Australia has a number of researchers I'd love to speak to, what do you say, darling?" — and, as regret weighed down on him, weeks turned to months and then years, until he finally returned four years later, roused to action by a howler his daughter sent him, letting him know that Lycoris was dying and, as he'd already missed the birth of three of his grandchildren, he was not allowed to let his sister die alone.

Pollux and him reconciled easily enough, but any hope of a relationship with his grandsons seemed lost. Sirius, who had once been so small and delicate and loud, was mirroring a young Cygnus too much for comfort, far too vindictive and sarcastic and brash. Not at all like he'd envisioned his House's heir. Regulus was too soft and spoiled and shy. Even Lucretia's twins, a boy and a girl, Edmund and Melladora, were unnervingly precocious and, without a doubt, going to become blood-traitors.

Time went on.

Sirius managed to do what he feared from Lucretia all those years ago, turning his back on their values and ways. Supporting and living with blood-traitors and mudbloods and, from what Regulus said when he'd given the boy a glass too many of wine, half-breeds. Thank Merlin for Cousin Dorea and all the information she brought him or he would have done something unbecoming of a Black — something rash and poorly thought out, all anger and force, no finesse.

Walburga and Orion were both frustrated by his continued concern for the boy they'd deemed as unfit and unworthy, especially since his daughter-in-law tried to disown him. He didn't have the strength of will to tell Walburga, still brimming with pride over her son's recent inauguration into the Death Eaters (which Arcturus had once remarked to Pollux over Ogden's finest was a truly ridiculous name), that he'd never allow someone sworn to some upstart Dark Lord control his House.

He had a plan. He'd confine Walburga to Grimmauld Place, as his father had once done to Lycoris, and then convince his son who, seemingly, had become more weak-willed as the years dragged on, that it would be in the House's best interest to make Sirius heir once more. How he was to convince his wayward grandson he never figured out.

Very shortly after Regulus was marked, the war took a shift and Pureblood's were being murdered by the Dark Lord, as well. They may have been blood-traitors, but it was just not the way things were done. If you want to take out a House you do it politically or socially. You do not murder whole families worth of people. It was unheard of. And, Arcturus and Melania had decided shortly after reading about the third such occasion in the Prophet, if that was how this Dark Lord was handling dissent, it would be in their best interest to leave the island until things blew over.

Three years and there was no sign of an end to the affair. Three years and he had no idea what had become of his family. They did not receive news in the villa, or letters. They allowed one of their elves, Vally, to leave each night to discover the state of things in Britain, and gave her permission to interrupt them if the Dark Lord was defeated.

Melania and him had both assumed, somewhat naively he reflected, that with Dumbledore opposing him, the war would be finished soon. Neither was fond of the man, but there was no denying his talent was great and his power nearly unchallenged. He could be dead for all Arcturus knew. Three years and Vally hadn't once interrupted them with good news, though, sometimes when he saw the elf cleaning, he swore she looked morose.

His hands shook with tremors and he felt a wave of horrible sadness crash over him. He wondered if it would be selfish to grieve for people who may have still lived. Three years. He was an old man, not a terribly old one, just shy of eighty-one, but an old man nonetheless. He was used to death now, but there was something in the not knowing that ate on him. It made him think, perhaps I should have tried harder, been better.

He thought of Lucretia, once a little girl with blonde hair that would darken as the years went on, and how she'd sit on his lap on the rare occasion he'd allow her to, and watch as he'd fill out form after form, in an endless string of bureaucratic showmanship. He thought of Orion lisping through his family history lessons when he'd lost his two front teeth and Melania refused to grow the adult ones in with magic. He thought of Sirius and Regulus both so small as children, filled with a sharpness they were too young to have, who treated him politely but distantly as if he were a stranger — which he very nearly was.

Arcturus braced himself on the balcony railing. Around him, there was only white sand and cerulean water, and it was so different from home he couldn't help but see their tenure at the villa as less of a vacation and more of a self-imposed imprisonment. He missed his family desperately, not only the ones he left behind, but the dream of a family he'd viewed when he first held Sirius, a rose-tinted fantasy that would never come to be, but haunted him even after all these years.

From behind him, he heard the familiar sound of Melania's kitten heels on the tiled floors before the sound stopped. She must have been waiting by the doorway, wondering how to interrupt his brooding. They'd both been easily worked up lately, the length of their time in Spain weighing on them heavily, but Melania was able to push her worries aside with far more ease than he was. He felt a familiar pang of fondness for his wife, wondering where he'd be if he married Hannalise Parkinson like his father had wanted.

Eventually, she said, "I was wondering where you ran off to. I was hoping you'd indulge me in a game of bridge."

His wife was terrible at bridge, and he laughed despite himself, "And deal with your anger the rest of the night?"

"Perhaps I will win this time." Melania sighed, coming up behind him and resting an arm across his back. "It's no matter what we do, truly, I only need a break from my research. Your Uncle Castor was brilliant but in an annoyingly nonlinear way. If I spend too long reading his journals, I find my patience drifting. In some ways, I believe him to be worse than Toulouse Lovegood, which I never thought would be possible."

"Us Black's are very good at the impossible." Arcturus took a deep breath, "A distraction would be most welcome, but not bridge. Something more juvenile, maybe?"

She smiled. "Exploding snap? My, imagine what your father would say if he found out you were to play such an uncultured game."

"I would assume he'd have more pressing questions, as he's been dead for nearly thirty years. Though, I would hardly consider bridge the heart of refinement."

Melania hummed, before offering her arm to him."It would be a matter of perspective, I imagine. I seem to recall your mother playing the game religiously. Do you remember when I'd come to the manor when we were newly engaged, and the women in your family would whisk me away? Well, we'd knit and have tea and play bridge. It was a matter of pride, and, as the one who always lost, mine took quite a hit. I think my lack of talent also convinced your mother that I was too philistine and unsuited for her darling boy."

"The world of women is undeniably cutthroat," he said.

She looked amused. "Indeed."

They made their way to the main parlor leisurely, and Arcturus was happy to let the presence of his wife soothe away his melancholy. He was grateful that she didn't ask what had him in such a state. He had no desire to add to her worries, and even after all these years, he had trouble when it came to letting any softness show. He loved his wife, and she loved him, but it just was not proper for a man of his standing to appear weak in any way.

Melania pulled him from his thoughts. "This is odd. Usually, those elves are better about getting things done. Have we been too permissive with them lately?"

He saw what she meant. The parlor, which should have been heated with a fire and lit up by candles, was dark and untouched. No game table was set up, and the drapes were still pulled firmly closed. Anger stirred within him. House-elves, he'd learned from a young age, had to be dealt with by a firm hand or they'd take advantage of any kindness, not that such crass creatures deserve anything more than what they were given. This, he glared out at the unattended room, was unacceptable.

"Elf!" he shouted.

There was no response.

"ELF!" he tried again.

There was still no response.

Melania had a pensive look on her face. "It is nighttime. Perhaps—"

Whatever his wife was considering was interrupted by the familiar CRACK of apparation. Vally was a dreadful creature, with long, twisted fingers, creased ears, and a grimy, brown apron that she wore tied tightly around her shriveled form. For the first time years, the elf was showing an emotion other than dismay, and that fact alone is all that kept him from cursing her.

"Master! Mistress!" Vally cried in her high voice, jumping in place, "Vally is sorry for missing orders. Vally was in Britain!"

Melania was clasping her hands together tightly, her knuckles turning white. "What of Britain? Elf, what did you learn?"

"Vally was confused, Mistress. Vally appeared in a crowd of peoples and—"

Arcturus felt faint, but through ground teeth managed to snap, "The Dark Lord. Elf what happened to the Dark Lord?"

The elf shrunk into herself as much as possible, but still squeaked out, "He-who-must-not-be-named is dead! Vally heard it from many peoples. He-who-must-not-be-named was killed by little Harry Potter! He survived the killing curse, Masters! The Boy Who Lived saved us!"

Melania fell heavily against him, and he could scarcely breathe.

. . . . . . . . . .

Once Melania and him were back at Black Manor, safely nestled behind hundreds of years worth of wards, Arcturus felt like he was at peace for the first time since the news of Orion's death. The familiar pressure of the family magic, which was embedded in the very walls of the manor, draped itself over him like a well-loved cloak. As comforting as the magic was, there was a warning in it as well: Do not fail your House, Arcturus Sirius Black.

He wouldn't. After they got into the rhythm of being home once again after nearly three years away, Melania and him would call a family Council. There he would broach the subject of making Sirius his direct heir, and how to handle Regulus seeing as his master was no more — killed by a child, his elf had said, which he could hardly bring himself to believe. Surely there was something else afoot.

For now, though, they had to get caught up on the goings of the world, both as it related to their family and otherwise. He did not trust Vally to give them a clear description of the years they were abroad, so instead, he ordered all the letters they'd missed and the past month's worth of Daily Prophets to be delivered to his study, where his wife and him would peruse them. He'd also requested tea and biscuits to be ready upon their entry, and a bottle of vintage, for when they encountered an unavoidable tragedy.

It was not going to be a pleasant experience, he predicted.

He was correct.

The first letter he opened was from Walburga. It was a pain to read, filled with her usual winding thoughts and threats — something he long believed to be a defense mechanism, as who gave much thought to the cries of a madwoman — but there was a new bite to her words. The edge of something darker, something more painful revealing itself through her rant. 

Most of it was unimportant drivel, but there were a few highlights, that read as such: 

My sweet, darling son has been missing since before my Orion's death —  may he find peace in death that he couldn't in life — and I can't help but fear the worst. You and Melania have avoided the responsibilities of the House for far too long, running off and hiding from the opportunities the Dark Lord is affording our family, crowing over that wretched first-born of mine, with his infected, traitorous blood. I am not a woman easily frightened, as you well know, but I fear a great many things now.

Mostly I fear that through the folly you and Melania weaved, purporting the stain of my womb as Heir still and turning your nose up to sweet Regulus, convincing others of our House to do the same — and do not think me unaware of the schemes you concocted with dear Alphard and Dorea. I am no fool — that you convinced him to seek his brother out, a childish mistake as he should have known to do such is to welcome death, especially when contacting such deplorable beings. 

The tapestry remains unchanged for now, as I would welcome your counsel on how to deal with this abominable tragedy, though, with a coward such as you, I shall not hold my breath. I alone must be the only one left to care for our House, for even Bellatrix, when I convince her to stop by for tea, avoids the questions I ask her of Regulus, and I know how close they've grown over the past years after my first-born disgraced us. 

What followed was three pages more of threats and theories, and after he finished reading it he poured himself a well-deserved glass of wine. 

Melania set down the letter she was reading and raised an eyebrow at him. "We've been at it for less than ten minutes. Surely, it's too early to be drinking."

Wordlessly, he handed her the letter. He watched as her brow creased and her mouth pinched, and silently poured her a glass as well. She took it from him moments later, when she set it on the desk.

"Well," she said, after taking a long drink, "Walburga always seemed to be a few lines short of an incantation, but I don't suppose either of us expected her to be so irrational. I particularly liked the part where she threatened to feed you your own liver. Quite inspired." 

He nodded. "I'd always assumed she'd be like Lycoris, but she reminds me more of Elladora."

Melania snorted. "Lycoris was willing to believe what any of us said and take it as gospel. She was also much too fond of the family to wish anyone harm. Walburga would have to be put under numerous personality charms and sedatives to be anywhere near that docile, and even then I wouldn't trust her to be alone with anyone."

"I see that now," Arcturus agreed, "Elladora, from what I remember, was very near-deranged. Father put her in the east wing of the manor and warded it to bar her from exiting. I think she tried to bludgeon Belvina, but I'm not positive."

"I won't have her here," she said.

He sighed, "No, of course not. I still think keeping her confined to Grimmauld Place would be the best plan. At least then none of us would have to deal with her."

She hummed, "And what of Regulus? Is she to be believed?"

Arcturus let out a harsh laugh despite himself. "She thinks Sirius killed him, or, at the very least had a hand in his death. We both know that that boy would sooner find a way to cruciate himself than permanently harm his brother. He always doted on him, perhaps more than he deserved." He sighed, "Especially near the end."

"You think it was the Dark Lord," Melania said, narrowing her eyes. "What reason would he have for killing him? He was always so eager, so devout."

Arcturus took another sip of wine. "Who could say why a Dark Lord does anything. Regulus, though, he was young when he'd joined, not even out of Hogwarts. Perhaps the realities of service weren't what he expected. Perhaps he'd found fault with what his master was doing once he started spilling true magical blood."

She set her glass down. "What a shame. He was always a sweet boy. He picked me flowers from Druella's garden once. Made them into a bouquet. He handed them to me, as serious as a ten-year-old can be, and told me they paled in comparison to my beauty, but he had tried his best. I thought Druella was going to hex him... the look on her face." 

That was as close to mourning as Melania would ever be, he knew. She missed the boy he was, and the boy he could have been before he'd made a stupid choice and ended up dead. Arcturus felt a pinch of something ugly clawing in his chest but refused to acknowledge it. Instead, he finished his glass of wine, reached out and squeezed his wife's hand, and grabbed another letter.

Time passed slowly after that. Walburga had sent eleven more letters over the years, each one more and more depraved, each one blaming him for Regulus's death. It grew trivial after the fourth, so he just burned the rest. There were statements from Gringotts bimonthly — which may have been dry, but they were to the point and toneless, both of which were welcome after dealing with Walburga's winding thoughts and endless rants.

They'd almost made their way through the pile when Melania reached out and grabbed his arm.

Her eyes were sad, and he was not expecting good news. "Arcturus, I'm sorry. Dorea contracted dragon pox this summer. She died early September."

He closed his eyes. Dorea was the youngest of all his cousins, nearly twenty years younger than him. He'd been terribly fond of her, and she'd grown up next to Lucretia, treating her as a younger sister. This hurt him far more than Regulus's death. He'd cared for Regulus, of course, but he couldn't say he knew the boy. Dorea he had helped raise, he loved that girl like she was one of his own children.

He would have to write to Lucretia, he thought dimly from under a cloud of grief, he'd have to invite her over for tea. She would be missing Dorea in the same way he was. And Pollux and Cassiopeia — Merlin and Morgana be kind — he hated to think of how they would take their younger sister's death. Pollux, Cassiopeia, and Dorea had a special relationship, sometimes messy, but they would have burnt the world to the ground for each other. He realized faintly with no small amount of dread that Cassiopeia probably already knew, and when she was upset things tended to die.

"Do you want to take some time?"

"No," he snapped, harsher than he meant to be. "No, we've taken enough time as it is. Three years worth. We knew that things wouldn't be perfect when we returned, but we must carry on. There will be time for," he faltered, "this later. Dorea would understand."

She nodded, moving away to sort through the Daily Prophet's. Arcturus gave himself a moment. His body felt heavy and, not for the first, he felt older than his years. His eyes stung, but he was too old, too unfeeling for tears. Dorea deserved more than some harsh old man who had barricaded his heart, mourning for her.

The warning from earlier rang in his head: Do not fail your House, Arcturus Sirius Black.

For little Regulus, he wouldn't.

For Dorea, too kind and too clever and dead far too early, he wouldn't.

He steeled himself but picked up the notice from Gringotts he'd been reading. It seemed that before he died, Regulus had accessed the Family vault, removing several books he'd apparently taken an interest in. They'd never been returned, and Arcturus assumed they were still at Grimmauld Place.

He was curious as to why Regulus needed books from the vault. The library at Grimmauld Place, while moldy and dimly lit, was a treasure trove of knowledge, especially if one was interested in the Dark Arts. Elladora, the home's first owner, had guaranteed that. The books in the vault, by contrast, were mostly journals or grimoires, family magic and, at times, magic darker than he'd permit a member of his House to practice without explicit permission. It was slightly worrying, but, like most things he'd discovered, it was a thought for another time.

It took almost half an hour for their silence to be broken, and Arcturus had been hoping that perhaps fate was out of tragedies to curse his family with. That hope was shattered with a gasp from his wife. He feared that it would be especially terrible given her response. Maybe a bastard child of Orion's had appeared, demanding a place in the family and causing a media circus. Maybe Callidora had finally succeeded in murdering her sister. While she was a blood-traitor, Cedrella still somehow managed to be respected in society, so he sincerely hoped that his cousin did not commit sororicide — he had no idea how they'd manage to clean that up.

Melania noticed the look he was giving her and rolled her eyes. "It's not bad news, darling. It seems that elf wasn't lying after all. The Ministry is indeed crediting the Dark Lord's defeat to an act of magic performed by Harry Potter."

"I don't seem to recall ever meeting a Harry Potter?"

"No, you wouldn't." She shook her head in amazement. "He's the one-year-old child of James and Lily Potter. He defeated him last night. Apparently, he deflected a killing curse. The people are calling him the Boy Who Lived."

Arcturus scoffed, "Distasteful. I can't remember much about the Potter boy, but Sirius was friends with him. Who did he end up marrying?"

"A mudblood from Wolverhampton it seems."

He grabbed the edge of his desk. "A Half-blood defeated the Dark Lord as a babe, and survived a killing curse? That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. Though, I suppose, his parents are confirming everything, enjoying their time in the limelight."

"They're both dead. It says that the Dark Lord arrived at their home on Halloween, and killed James Potter, before moving to the nursery to kill Lily Potter and the boy. He killed the mother, but when he tried to curse the boy the spell rebounded, and it hit him instead. Dumbledore apparently confirmed this in a public statement at the Ministry today." She looked at him in bewilderment. "What kind of ward scheme would they have had to use to rebound a killing curse? I've never heard of that happening."

"I don't think it ever has happened," he said absently.

The mudblood girl he didn't care much about, as years went on she'd become nothing but a footnote in the history books, but the boy, James Potter, his death was troubling. Sirius, he knew, cared deeply for the Potter boy. He'd known it since he'd been twelve and every other word he spoke was about James. At the time he'd thought nothing of it, accepting it as a childhood friendship. In fact, he'd been rather pleased with it, seeing as Sirius could have done much worse than the Potter boy when it came to his connections.

Then the years went on, and he was calling the boy his brother. While not positive, he's suspected that Walburga had not taken kindly to that at all. The Potter's may have been Pureblood's but they were blood-traitors through and through. All of them, bar Charlus and Dorea, constantly surrounded themselves in filth. He may have been allowed to be friends with him, but a closer bond was unbecoming.

More time passed, and eventually, Orion spent hardly any time at home with his wife and children, and Sirius, he assumed, was bearing most of his mother's increasingly short temper — at least he was before he ran away. That had certainly caught everyone's attention, even the blood-traitors in the family, like Cedrella, who had the nerve to write a letter offering her condolences.

And where did the boy go in the end, when he had no blood relation to turn to?

To James Potter.

Now, the Potter boy was dead. His wife as well. Though Arcturus supposed his grandson must have also cared for the mudblood girl if she'd married his closest friend.

Sirius would be alone now. His self-proclaimed brother would become nothing more than memories, another casualty in the war. His true brother was also lost to him, though he might not have even been aware of Regulus's death. He might have other friends, he could hazily recall him mentioning other boys from his dormitory, but surely none of them were as important to him as the Potter boy was. Surely, he would see it would benefit him to join the family again.

Looking to his wife, he said, "Sirius must be in a state."

"He was always quite fond of the Potter's," she mused. "Wouldn't it be terribly remiss of us to forget to send our condolences?"

"Let it not be said that House Black ignored the sacrifice of those who brought our savior into this world," Arcturus said with no small amount of disdain.

Melania tittered slightly, before composing herself. She set the edition of the Prophet she'd been reading down, and picked up the last one. While he'd never admit it, he was growing tired — dealing with the news of his grandson and cousins death, Walburga's heightened instability, and the knowledge that a Half-blood babe defeated the Dark Lord was, unsurprisingly, exhausting — and he looked forward to sleeping in his own bed for the first time in three years, and pushing all of his problems aside to deal with in the morning.

His wife, he noticed with slight worry, was very close to ripping the copy of the Prophet she was holding. Her eyes had gone wide, and her lips were pinched as if she were holding in any number of expletives. She let out a shaky breath, looking at him with more anger than he'd seen her possess in nearly a decade. The last time she looked this furious was when his brother Regulus had died in a competitive dueling accident, and the Ministry refused to sentence his killer to Azkaban.

Now, if possible, she looked angrier.

"What is it?" he asked quietly as if she were a frightened animal.

To answer, she held the newspaper out, so that he could read what it said. It was a special evening edition of the Prophet, he noticed, taking in the reverse coloring. Then he read the headline — "YOU-KNOW-WHO'S RIGHT HAND MAN IN AZKABAN" — which he could scarcely believe. Because below the headline, there was a photograph of "You-Know-Who's Right Hand Man."

And Arcturus could only stare in incomprehension at the news article, understanding his wife's anger with much more clarity.

Because the man in the photograph, the man who was supposedly You-Know-Who's Right Hand Man, was Sirius.

. . . . . . . . . .

"I'm going to rip that man's throat out," Melania promised, pacing in front of the grandest fireplace in Black Manor, a giant structure made out of marble and obsidian with a portrait of Arcturus' Aunt Misopinoa adorning the space above the mantle.

Arcturus made a soft hum to let her know he was listening but didn't look up from the wrinkled photograph of his grandson. Sirius looked deranged, laughing mindlessly with tears streaming down his faces, as he sat in what looked like a crater. In the left corner of the image, partially obscured by smoke, he could make out a pair of feet sticking out, unmoving.

"Condemning my grandson to Azkaban," she continued. "Condemning the heir to House Black to that, that dreadfort. Of all the over-reach I've seen the Ministry allow over the years, this has to be the most abominable."

"Feed him to the crows!" Misopinoa cried, looking delighted.

His wife hadn't slept last night, instead choosing to read all she could about their wayward grandson's exploits in the years they were abroad, and he had slept fitfully, haunted by disembodied voices and Dorea, pale as snow until she opened her eyes and stained the dream red, screaming at him for abandoning her. Melania had shaken him awake as soon as the first pitiful strands of daylight broke nighttime, and had been ranting about the Ministry and Dumbledore ever since.

"There was no trial," she had said as soon as his eyes opened, "No evidence."

Arcturus set the newspaper down, incinerating it with a sweep of his hand. He couldn't stand to look at it. The family magic was coiling itself tightly around his neck, hanging around him like a noose. The warning from last night ringing loud and clear. He would not fail his House. He would not fail Sirius.

Melania still ranted, "That Barty Crouch was always a rotten boy. To think that a woman from this House raised him. And the Minister! Who does she think she is to send Purebloods off to Azkaban without a trial — all these liberals in office would have us return to the days of Spencer-Moon's administration. Or worse, Nobby Leach's!"

Misopinoa added, unhelpfully from her frame, "Mudblood and half-breed lovers! All of them should be thrown in a vat and boiled! Crusade! CRUSADE!"

They both ignored her, too used to the ravings of long dead and half-mad family portraits to really pay them any mind. He leaned back in his chair, the leather creaking, and resisted the urge to call an elf to ask for a drink. It was barely sunrise, and he was sure the upcoming days would give him more than enough reasons to indulge his vices. Thinking about Sirius made him feel incredibly old, in a hopeless and helpless way he'd rarely, if ever, experienced.

The thought of Azkaban was enough to make him shudder. He'd been to the prison only once in his lifetime, for only a few short hours, to visit his Uncle Cygnus when he'd been incarcerated for the attempted poisoning of the Minister. He hadn't been anywhere near the dementors, waiting in the sparse and dreary visitors area, but their presence left a mark everywhere on the island, not just in the sections they were allowed. The energy was heavy and dismal, leaving a feeling of severe hopelessness that only a hot bath and half a bottle of wine was able to wash away when he'd left.

And his grandson, his heir, had been there for days now, locked in a high-security cell where no human guards ventured. His only company was the dementors that would feed on his misery and despair, and the sounds the other prisoners that surrounded him made. Someone would pay for this.

He folded his hands together, anxious as he waited for whoever Melania had called — she hadn't deemed to tell him, far to embroiled with her own anger — and asked, "Did none of his friends speak out about this? The other members of that gang he was a part of? Surely they know…"

Melania's hands bunched into her trousers, wrinkling the wool. "No one has spoken out about this injustice. None of his classmates, none of Dumbledore's gang, not even Dumbledore himself has mentioned Sirius, and he's been in and out of the Ministry since Halloween. That's as clear as any damnation has to be to the public."

Across the room, a vase exploded.

"No one's said anything?"

His wife smiled, but it was little more than a cruel twist of her lips. "Oh, people have had plenty to say. About the inevitability, the warning signs. They say that Sirius was always, clearly rotten to the core, just look at his family they say."

Another vase exploded.

Misopina made a noise that was a cross between a wail and a snarl. "Boil them!"

Arcturus closed his eyes and cursed under his breath.

"It seems all that loyalty and goodness he'd rant about during Christmas dinners was a construct of his imagination. They let him go to Azkaban without a trail, they damn him in the Prophet, and they say he's the rotten one." Melania shook slightly and he wasn't sure if it was the exhaustion or grief catching up with her. "I'm going to turn their organs to rot and put maggots in their eyes. I'm going to destroy all of them. We've been lenient for far too long. The world may be changing, but it won't forget House Black."

Grief it seemed. When she was at her saddest, she was at her most vicious.

Before he could do or say anything to ease her vengeance, the fireplace roared to life with green flames, a quick swirl of color, before they receded back into nothing, residual ash falling in limp piles to the bottom of the hearth. For a moment Arcturus could only blink, not sure exactly if his eyes were working properly, because glowering out at him in a silk robe and pointed hat, which was catching ash around the rim, was his daughter — the daughter he hadn't spoken to outside of mandatory family gatherings in many, many years.

Lucretia was aging into a beautiful woman. Her dark hair showed no sign of greying, while her eyes and mouth had a few lines beginning to edge around them. Unlike many of the women in the family, she had a kind disposition, which reflected in her look, saving her from the scowls and pinched lips of many Black's past. And when her eyes landed on Melania, and she smiled, wide and honest, his heart stuttered for a moment, because that was Dorea's smile.

"Mother it's good to see you again." Lucretia stepped out of the fireplace, taking her hat off and turning her gaze onto him. "Father you've gotten tan. I suppose an extended vacation abroad would do that to you, but I thought cowardice might subterfuge beauty eventually."

His wife spoke up before he could reply. "Do you know why I asked for you?"

Lucretia tilted her head, her hair fanning out behind her, and narrowed her eyes. "I would never presume to guess what you would consider important."

Usually, such a comment would get a small titter from his wife, who had always indulged their daughter's precocious nature, but now Melania only glared. "What I consider important? I consider the survival of our House important. Sit down, Lucretia."

His daughter did as she was told, looking mildly put-upon as she settled into the armchair beside him. She kept her silence, looking over both of them in contemplation as she tried to work out whatever trap they had sprung for her.

Melania resumed her pacing. "As you've doubtless heard, Sirius is in Azkaban."

She nodded in acknowledgment. "The news was… troubling."

"More troubling than his imprisonment is the absence of his trial," Melania continued, "Dumbledore and his Ministry lackeys and that gang of his have buried him so thoroughly under rumors and allegations and circumstantial evidence that they don't believe anyone would think to look deeper. They're ineptitude and arrogance knows no bounds."

Lucretia blinked. "He never had a trial?"

"There are no reports of one. You'd think that being the Dark Lord's Right Hand would warrant a look at his case, but the Ministry doesn't seem to think so."

Lucretia leaned back in her seat, a look of horror etching across her face. She was always very fond of her nephews, Arcturus recalled. Unlike Cygnus and Druella who always sneered at the attention of children, his daughter had sought it out. She'd hunt for salamanders in the gardens with Sirius and Regulus, despite Walburga's complaints that it was too plebeian an activity, and when Sirius was fifteen and orchestrating himself from everyone in the family she alone would swoop down and seek his company out.

Arcturus took a deep breath, "Sirius is the heir to House Black. The survival of our House rests on his shoulders, and he is locked in Azkaban for crimes he was never tried for. The world has forgotten the power of House Black, and that cannot stand. The issue, however, is how we are to get Sirius out of Azkaban."

"That's why I've called for you," Melania said, looking towards Lucretia. "You were trained in law. And, more importantly, you are family. What can we do?"

His daughter was silent for a long moment. "The most obvious route would be to bring awareness to the Ministry's illegal imprisonment of him. It would certainly rouse public interest, and cast doubt upon the case and the current administration." She sighed, "But if Sirius really did commit those crimes, and was tried he may end up worse off. There's also the risk that the Ministry itself would interfere with the proceedings, to help clear up their own mistakes at the expense of Sirius."

Melania ground her teeth. "Wonderful."

"So then there's nothing we can do for him." Arcturus sat back heavily.

"There may be a second option," Lucretia said. "I would have to look more closely into the case, and see if there are any loopholes we could exploit, but, assuming that there are none, there is a chance I could use a policy from the time before Azkaban."

"What do you mean?"

She clicked her tongue nervously, a habit she had since she was a girl, and said, "Independently, I've been working with a few people from my practice to review some of the obsolete, archaic, and, occasionally, barbaric laws that are still on the books despite their disuse. There's one I can remember that was initiated in the fourteen-hundreds by the Wizard's Council that transferred to the Ministry once it was established.

"Essentially, it was used by prominent families to give the Council thirty days of leeway between an imprisonment and a trial. In the case of Heads of Houses and their heirs, if they were imprisoned, but not tried in those thirty days, then the case would be dissolved, the charges dropped, and the imprisoned would be released from jail."

Melania nodded slowly, before asking, "Why hasn't this been used more? There are a number of people I know who would jump at such an opportunity."

Lucretia pursed her lips. "When Azkaban was first utilized as a prison, and not as a fortress, the Ministry was very careful in trying suspects quickly. No one was sent to Azkaban for holding until the 20's, with Grindelwald's rise, and even then it was only in cases where guilt was ensured. I don't think there's been much use for the law. Until Sirius, that is, and with Sirius, it's only an option because of Ministry oversight."

"But you could use this to get him out?" his wife pressed, clenching her hands tightly in front of her.

"If the Ministry doesn't notice or rectify their mistake, then yes, I'm fairly certain I could use it with enough backing from prominent sponsors. Minister Bagnold will not take kindly to this."

Arcturus felt anger curl desperately through him. "I think she will find that House Black does not take kindly to the unjust imprisonment of their heir."

"And," Melania added, "If she tries to do anything to keep Sirius in that dreadfort, I will find a way to rot her body from the inside out."

From the wall, Misopina cackled, "Feed her liver to the crows!"

Lucretia sighed, "Sweet Nimueh. And you two wonder why I don't visit." She stood, smoothing down her dress, and adjusting the brim of her pointed hat before she put it back on. "Before you say anything else about torture, I should leave. I'll send you owl either this evening or tomorrow morning about the course of action."

Arcturus stood too, as his daughter made her way to the fireplace. "Your doing us a great service, Lucretia. Thank you."

She reached into the urn that held their Floo powder. "I'm not doing this for you. Sirius is more than just the heir to this House. He's my only remaining nephew." She paused, before turning to look at him, and he was startled by the intensity of her gaze, so reminiscent of Dorea's. "And if your schemes to reestablish this House harm him in any way you'll wish that you never returned home."

Unbidden — and perhaps inappropriately, given she was threatening him — he felt a flash of affection for his daughter. She may be a Prewett now, but her sharpness was just like his, just like Dorea's and Cassiopeia's and Orion's and Sirius'.

As she stepped into the hearth, Melania smiled. "Darling, don't worry about sending any owls. I expect we'll see you back here in two days time."

"And why is that?" his daughter asked, raising an eyebrow.

"We'll be holding a Council for the first time in a decade. I can't imagine you want to miss that."

Lucretia nodded slowly, her eyes wide. "Yes… Of course, I'll be in attendance." Then she dropped the powder from her hand, and cried out, "Elspeth's Cottage!" before disappearing in a flurry of green flames.

As the ashes started to settle, Arcturus turned towards his wife, "I don't think I've seen her lost for words since she was a fourth year. What made you decide to hold a Council so soon?"

Melania was still smiling, and like all her smiles today it promised nothing good. "The family has become negligent. I have questions that I expect to get answers for. And, now more than ever, we must present a united front. The world has grown complacent in how they regard us. It's time that changed, don't you think?"