There was something strange afoot in Black Manor. Of course, most people would say that wasn't anything unusual, but it was a different sort of strange for the Black girls. They arrived home from Hogwarts expecting the usual pomp and circumstance that they were used to, for their parents – especially their father, though their mother grudgingly felt the same way – were extremely proud of their two young scholars. Nothing seemed amiss at first, as their father lifted the demanding Bellatrix into his arms and allowed the more stoic Andromeda to shake his hand. Their mother kissed them both on the top of the head, not spending more time with either of the girls than she had with the other. Narcissa – the youngest Black girl, not yet old enough to attend Hogwarts – waited patiently for Andromeda to pay attention to her while Bellatrix chattered excitedly with their father.
The first sign that the winds of change might be blowing came when Bellatrix began to look for their carriage that was usually parked in the back entrance of Platform 9 ¾ so they could leave directly without having to deal with the Muggles who crowded the standard platforms. She was informing her father that she was now old enough to ride in the front of the carriage with him, but he put his large hand on top of her head in a quieting gesture.
"Oh, good," Andromeda said, who was walking behind the rest of the family, leading her youngest sister by the hand, "I hate riding in the carriage. I always get motion sickness."
She didn’t pay attention to her sister, her unnerving grey eyes focused on the patriarch of their family, "You’ve always said that apparating is the poor man’s form of travel."
"Sometimes it is . . ." he glanced at his wife who looked away from him, "necessary. So you should probably experience it at least once. Just look at it as an adventure, okay girls?"
Always eager to please, Bellatrix quickly grabbed her father's hand, and the other girls, knowing that was the oldest girl's rightful place, took their mother's hand. Andromeda had a thoughtful look on her face that worried their mother who knew her daughter to make a quick study of adult matters. Even as a baby, Druella couldn't help but think that her middle child had an uncanny understanding of the world around her. She placed a hand on her head as her husband had done to Bellatrix, but the younger girl appeared to take no notice, caught in her own thoughts. Even the little Ravenclaw, however, would lose her train of thought during the rough form of travel. Druella had to go through the process of focusing her energy as she had when she was first learning -- it had been so long since she'd done this.
The three sisters were so thrilled by the prospect on not having to help store the carriage that they forgot to ask any questions about the matter. Competitive as always, and falling back into the dynamic she shared with Andromeda at home rather than the one of solidarity they experienced at school, Bellatrix tagged her sister to chase her and began to run toward the house. With the knowledge that she would lose -- but no less enthusiasm than her older sister -- she joined the race, their mother calling after them half-heartedly to slow down.
Such a race would usually end in the kitchen where the houselves would desperately yell for their two young mistresses to slow down before they knocked something over. The race was cut short, however, by the appearance of an intimidating looking woman standing in the doorway with her arms folded. Andromeda slowed several paces back, recognizing an authority figure, but Bellatrix naturally expected the woman to get out of her way like everyone else. Bellatrix probably would have ran directly into their visitor had the woman not picked her up by the collar of her robes and deposited her directly on her rear.
With an indignant look, Bellatrix stood up and unceremoniously rubbed the area where she had landed, "What did you do that for?"
"If one does not act like a lady, one can hardly be expected to be treated like one."
Usually prepared with a cutting comment, the eldest girl was too shocked that someone had spoken to her like that to say anything. Andromeda therefore replied in her usual sensible tone, "Yes, and it seems to me that if one does not act like a guest, then they should not expect to be treated like one either."
Lips twisting into a smug smile their professors usually used when they had some sort of secret victory over their students, "Druella, your daughters are as charming as I remember you at that age."
Druella bowed her head to the older women, though her lips pulled down at the edges, making ugly frown lines appear in the corners of her mouth that weren't usually there. The woman snapped, "Well? Why don't you introduce me to these girls?" Before she had a chance to answer, the woman continued harshly, "I am Walburga Black. I'm your father's sister and therefore your blood aunt. I will be staying here for a few weeks as a favor to your parents. For the duration of those weeks you will be directly under my authority and I expect you to listen to me as you would your parents."
Looks were exchanged between the three girls, and Bellatrix opened her mouth to say something before Andromeda encouraged her with a sharp look to practice some decorum and raise a discussion later. Walburga didn't notice the rebellion in her midst and turned to their father, holding out her hands in what she clearly meant to be a warm gesture, "Cygnus. It's been so long."
"Yes, too long," he agreed, taking her hands and kissing her on each of her cheeks, "I did not think you would come. The letter I sent you must have arrived weeks ago and I received no reply."
With the subdued smile of a martyr, she said, "Well, Orion didn't want me to come here. With him so busy working, we can't really afford this sort of disruption to our own lives. I told him that I couldn't turn my back on my only brother, though, no matter how ill-advised his choices have been in the past."
Her tone lost even the fake warmth she had affected it with, and she said, "You've all been living far beyond your means. I've taken the liberty of looking around the house and I was amazed by the expensive and garish choices in furniture and art. I know you never had a fondness for such things, so they must have been the choice of your wife," the word was said in a way that implied it was hardly better than the title mistress, "And we'll have to get rid of those immediately if you intend to keep this house. I know that you've turned your back on many of the values of our family, but I assume that you wouldn't so easily do away with something of such importance to our ancestors."
"Many of those," Druella said, her frail voice possessing an unusual amount of venom, "are heirlooms of my family."
"Then perhaps they belong in your family home," even the children knew that she was implying that was also where their mother belonged. Briskly, she turned and walked toward the house, "And now we will eat a light dinner before the children go to have some quiet time and go to bed. I, myself, need to retire soon as today has been rather trying and I still need to draw out a schedule for the children and make some firecalls for the two of you."
"I'm starving," exclaimed Bellatrix, throwing herself dramatically on the bed, placing both hands on her stomach.
Andromeda smirked, and pleasantly replied, "A few light meals won't hurt you, dear sister." She patted her sister's stomach that had grown a bit in the past year as she approached puberty. Meanwhile, Andie was still lanky with a smooth, boyish figure, and she rather enjoyed teasing her sister about her changing physique.
Scowling, the dark-haired girl pulled hard on a strand of her sister's hair, causing the other girl to let out a sound of protest and jump off the bed. Bellatrix could get away with things like that, though, and with an annoyed sigh Andromeda walked over to her trunk and pulled out a left-over box of chocolate frogs.
With a happy smile but no thanks, the eldest child sprawled out on the bed as her sisters found places for themselves around her. This was an easy task for little Narcissa, but Andromeda had trouble folding her tall frame around the girl. Giving up, she flopped on top of Bellatrix, who simply moved the box of candy out of reach. Into her sister's shoulder, Andromeda said, "We cannot all share this one little room. Even the dorms at Hogwarts are more comfortable than this."
"Our dear aunt," her tone suggested the woman was anything but, "doesn't think it's prudent for three girls of our age to have our own rooms. Maybe Narcissa can sleep outside in the stables."
Narcissa stuck her lounge out and said, "I've seen your table manners, and I think you would fit in much better out in the stables than me."
Neither of them took it seriously; the object of Bellatrix's hatred wasn't in the room, so her sisters were receiving the brunt of her anger, and Narcissa wasn't old enough yet to know that was her right. Andromeda nudged the younger girl with her foot and Narcissa shrieked in false outrage and moved down toward the end of the bed, "What I don't understand is why Mother and Father are letting her stay here. I've been watching them and it's clear that neither of them like her very much. And if they want our cooperation, why don't they just tell us what's going on?"
"Oh!" Bellatrix sat up, causing her sister who had been lounging on her to roll on top of the youngest member of their family. Her eyes were gleaming with a light that only appeared there when there were rules to be broken, "Father told us to do everything we can to cooperate, right? Well, we know that we won't be able to get along with this woman unless we know why she is here . . ."
"I knew there was a reason that you were in Slytherin," Andromeda said, and then squashed the pride shining in her sister's eyes over that fact by saying, "And I knew there was a reason that Slytherin never wins the House Cup. We'll get caught eavesdropping and get into trouble."
"I'll take the blame if we get caught," Bellatrix said, already on the other side of the room, looking for some matches to light one of the candles so that they could see out in the hallway.
"No you won't!" Andromeda exclaimed and glared at her sister when she gave her a wounded look, "I know you. I've been down this road with you before. You'll say that it was my idea and that I made you do it and even though that idea is ridiculous, you'll flutter your eyelashes and pout and then I'll be the one in trouble. I'm not coming."
The three girls walked down the hallway in an odd procession. The eldest leading in her pajama bottoms and top that she had insisted on instead of the frilly nightgowns that her mother liked to dress her in; the middle child in a shirt that she had stolen from her father's room, unwilling to hurt her mother's feelings; and Narcissa following up in the back, reaching out a hand to grip the back of Andromeda's shirt lest she get lost in the dark hallway. Andromeda did the same to her older sister when they reached the east wing of the house where they weren't supposed to venture as it was their parents' private space. Soft voices drifted down from one of the inner chambers and Bellatrix threw a look at her sister just in case she didn't realize that the eldest girl had been right.
Without flinching, Bellatrix put her hand over the flame to dim the light as they approached the bedroom door. She held up an unnecessary finger to keep her sisters quiet and pressed her ear against the wooden door. Andromeda elbowed her to the side so she could listen as well, wanting to have all of her facts for when they inevitably got into an argument about what they heard tonight. Narcissa comfortably knelt between them and listened, unsure of what they were listening for but not wanting to be left out.
"I don't like this," it was their mother's voice, stronger than they were used to hearing it in public, "She doesn't have our best intentions at heart, Cygnus. You can be sure that the reason she is helping us has to do with her benefitting."
"And you think the Ministry has our best interests at heart? Those new bloods who run the government would like nothing more than to see an old pureblood family at their mercy. I won't lose my dignity like that, Druella! And you can't ask that of me!"
Her voice came out in a hiss, "And you think that woman will let you keep your dignity? You'll be lucky if she leaves you with anything, let alone something that precious."
"Druella," he murmured, sounding very tired, "I don't have the money to send the girls to Hogwarts next year. Who's mercy would you see them at? I don't have money to contribute my part to the export company. I don't have the money to pay for your social season this year. There really isn't much of a choice, and I'm sorry if you disapprove of the one I made, but this discussion is closed."
"Poor!" Bellatrix ranted before Andromeda could even get the door of their bedroom shut. Narcissa squeezed through just as she pushed it shut and listened carefully for sounds in other parts of the house, "I've never been so embarrassed in my life."
"No one even knows. We didn't even know until we went poking around where we don't belong." Andromeda took off her slippers and sat down on the bed, swinging her legs in to the laying position on top of the blankets in the summer heat and spreading her hair across the pillow.
"Besides," Narcissa added, resuming her position at the bottom of the bed, "it can't be nearly as embarrassing as that time that you got into a duel with Samuel Castron and he tried to stun you and ended up making your clothes disappear instead."
Bellatrix leaned close to her younger sister, her long hair falling forward and nearly brushing the cheek of the blonde girl. She found it easier to bore into the eyes of the youngest sister because they were not grey like hers and Andromeda's but a pale blue. Despite a good effort to not be intimidated, eventually she averted her eyes, "Do you know what if it means if we don't have any money? It means Mother and Father can't send Andie and me back to school. And that means they won't send you to school. And that means that all of us will end up cleaning floors. Probably for that old hag that Father calls a sister."
"Yes. Because there is a direct connection there," drawled Andromeda, nervous despite herself at Bellatrix's intensity. The sarcasm had the desired effect and Bellatrix's face softened, planting a kiss on the blonde's cheek who flinched as though she had been bitten. She then shifted and climbed up the large bed so that she was next to her other sister and wrapped her arm around her, a small half-smile gracing her lips. Both girls watched her wearily at the unusual affectionate actions.
"Well, there's only one sensible action, then," Bellatrix said softly, her eyes gleaming in the low light from the candle on the bedside table that they had left burning. "We'll just have to get married, Andie, and then we'll inherit all the money of the family and that old hag will be at our mercy. And we will show none."
Disentangling herself, Andromeda replied, "You are aware that if something is sensible only to you then it isn't really sensible at all?"
"Why isn't it sensible?" Bellatrix asked, defensive of her inane idea, "We'd both be getting married anyway once we graduate. And since they said we might not be able to go back, this might be our only chance to get married! No man is going to want a woman who's hands are wrinkled from doing dishes and knees are warped from scrubbing the floor."
Andromeda stared for a moment and then stated, "I'm going to bed."
Bellatrix hit her with one of the oversized feather pillows and said, "You're just afraid that no one will marry your pitiful self."
"Because you're a know-it-all. Guys don't like that and no one is going to put up with it for a lifetime."
"Intelligence happens to be a very attractive quality, for your information," Andromeda snapped, sounding, indeed, like a know-it-all, "And it's much better than being bossy. Who on earth wants a bossy wife? If they wanted that they could just stay home with their mothers."
"I wouldn't be so bossy if anyone else knew what they were talking about."
"I wouldn't be such a know-it-all if everyone else wasn't so stupid!"
"Why don't you both work on finding a husband together?" Narcissa suggested, who had been watching the fireworks cautiously, knowing that is was not wise to get involved.
"We can't both have the same husband!" Andromeda exclaimed.
"You are such a child, Narcissa," Bellatrix added, rolling her eyes impatiently, "I say that there's no point in talking about this. Let's see who can find the best husband to help get our inheritance."
"Fine. Though I think we should figure out exactly what you have to do to win, so you can't cheat when you lose."
Taking the lead, as was her natural position, Bellatrix tipped her head thoughtfully, and said, "Okay, well, you have to find a boy. And he has to be older than you are, and that should actually be easier for you, Andie, so don't you dare call me a cheater. You have to kiss him for the marriage to be official."
"Mother married Father and she didn't get the inheritance," Narcissa commented.
"That's because Aunt Walburga had a son and she only had daughters," Andromeda agreed, glancing at Bellatrix to see what her answer would be to this predicament.
"Okay, well, then to be the winner you have to find a boy to be your heir. And he has to be younger than you are."
Andromeda nodded solemnly, but Narcissa began giggling at the prospect of marriage and boys. Still, she wasn't going to be left out of such a grand adventure, "Can I play?"
"It's not a game," Bellatrix snapped, blowing out the candle on the bedside table and settling into the bed for the night.
"You can keep score," Andromeda said kindly.
"Keep score of what?" Narcissa asked in a confused tone, but her only answer was the measured breathing of the two older sisters.