Are you sure this is right?
I know, I know, "It wouldn't be as much fun" if you gave me all the answers but I'm really not sure about that copy of Ptolemy... I thought you wanted this to work as badly as I do.
Fuck it. I've checked and double checked everything as best I can, and I trust you would stop me if I were about to kill myself... Nothing? Okay then, let's do this.
Ancient House, the ancestral seat of the Black family, had grown in a rather haphazard way over the centuries. A decent human enchanter could, of course, bend space to her will without going out and building an entirely new wing onto the house, but that wasn't nearly as visible and visceral a symbol as a proper physical building. So what had once been a simple tower keep had grown generation to generation, as vines spreading year to year, into a sprawling manor house, a display of their wealth and influence for their peers, a memorial ever looming over their descendants. What the great structure lacked in coherent architectural design and elegance, it made up for with the gravity of its history, and that of its people. It was an impressive monument to the continuity and power of the Black family through the ages, and so Cherri thought, as she made her morning rounds, dusting and tidying the disused, long-since-abandoned rooms, it was only appropriate that it was now slowly decaying into a mouldering ruin.
Not that she was pleased about this. It was a house elf's duty and joy to care for the House, both its places and its people, and in this, the elves of the House of Black had failed. She was still trying — she had to try — but that only meant she was still failing. She couldn't keep up. She was only one elf, and with the humans of the House so reduced in number (and quality, though she would never say so aloud), the House Magics had grown fragile, so weak that she dared not use her own magic to maintain the property for fear of entirely losing control of it.
Some days she thought she should just go, like so many of her friends and family had, so long ago now, but she was the only one left, at least here. She had heard rumors that there were still elves at some of the other properties, but it had been years since she had spoken to any of her kith. She knew that they had left her with the House, knew they would tell stories about her — so noble, to die with one's House, to be the last elf, serving out of some mad dedication to memory and honor. So tragic. One did hear such stories, or one used to, when one used to see and speak with others. Cherri had never understood when she was young why anyone would choose to go on like this, forsaking magic and companionship, but somehow she had become that elf, and, equally inexplicably, neither could she bring herself to entirely abandon the once-grand manor and the House for which it stood to the ravages of disorder and time. Even if everyone else had.
Especially since everyone else had, she thought darkly, lovingly wiping dust from an end table.
For a time it would remain a warm, vibrant mahogany, until the dust inevitably returned, dulling the piece to a faded ghost of its true self. The entire house was like that now, little bits and pieces come alive with care, but never all at once, and always fading again before she could return to them. It was a futile cycle, slowly slowing as she aged, drawn out longer and longer each time. In the far off future, she could see it slowing ever more, as she did, until, eventually, they both...just...stopped. She made her way as quickly as she could through the endless rooms, determined to put that day off as long as possible, despite her certainty that it would eventually come.
Until, quite abruptly, something changed.
She didn't hear it, but rather felt it, the arrival of The Girl. The House Magic shuddered, guttered, as a hearth nearly dying before flickering to moody life, no longer the diffuse, placid thing it had become since the beginning of the end, but polarized, no, magnetized, focused and centered upon the anomaly as though some magic-seeking lodestone suddenly at the heart of the House.
Cherri raced from the third floor library down to the Ritual Room which was, she felt, the origin of the disturbance. Its source, she quickly found, was a human girl, perhaps thirteen or fourteen years of age. Her features — hair and eyes and face — could have been a compilation taken from the portraits of the Family in centuries past, wild, dark, and sharp, and her soul burned with a greater intensity than Cherri had felt since...probably since Mistress Bellatrix had gone away. Master Arcturus, even, had never had the same impact on the magic of the House.
There was no question in the elf's mind that The Girl was a Black, or that she had come to revive the House, breathing life back into it like the first warm touch of spring.
There was some question as to whether Cherri might have lost her mind, succumbing to isolation and sorrow at long last and escaping into a fantasy from which she would never return. But upon reflection, she found she didn't much care.
The Girl made her way deliberately from the heart of the Tower, the oldest part of the House, to the Lower East Wing, the most recently inhabited area. It had been favored by the last generation, Cherri recalled, because it was most conveniently organized, with its own auxiliary kitchen and informal dining hall amongst the bedrooms and parlors and baths and studies which populated most of the other wings. The Girl did not seem pleased with it, glaring at the dustcovers and muttering invective under her breath.
Cherri followed, wondering whether she ought to make herself known and listening when The Girl's frustration finally broke the long years of silence. "The fuck is going on? Seriously, it looks like no one's lived here in years! 'Oh, it looks fine, stop fussing.' Well this doesn't look fine to me!" she grumbled, then, several minutes later added, "And of course you're still ignoring me! Answer me you bloody twat!" She stuck her head in the kitchen, shaking it in confusion before proceeding into the living quarters of the wing.
The elf continued to follow her, wondering whom she had so rudely addressed. Certainly there was no one else in the house. The wards had been neglected, but they were still strong enough to keep out anyone who wasn't meant to be there, and the House Magic would react to anyone who was, much like it had when The Girl appeared, however she had done so.
Eventually, having established that there was no one where she clearly expected to find them, The Girl circled back toward the Tower and, casting an amplifying spell on her voice, shouted, "Hello? Uncle Castor? Auntie Nora? Anyone?"
The sound echoed through the empty halls. Cherri, knowing there could be no other response, took this as her cue and stepped out of the shadows. She cleared her throat softly to call attention to herself and, before she could offer a greeting to the strange and unexpected guest, found herself lying on the floor, silenced and bound by conjured ropes from head to toe.
The girl had reacted without thinking, silencing and binding the source of the quiet sound behind her before she had even fully turned to face it. In my defense, I did think something was following me, she thought, justifying her actions to anyone who might have been watching and now secretly laughing at her from another plane of existence. It could have been anything!
As it turned out, however, it was only a house elf, quite possibly the only one on the property — she didn't recognize it, but when it came down to it they were all more or less interchangeable.
"Dark Powers, elf!" she snapped at it, even as she dispelled her charms. "Don't sneak up on me!"
"Yes, Missy," it said, scrambling to its feet and bowing low.
"Miss Bella," she corrected. "I am Bellatrix Black, daughter of Cygnus, son of Pollux. Do you recognize me?"
The elf let out a startled squeak, comically large eyes bulging even larger, and bowed again. "Yes, Mistress Bellatrix, Cherri is recognizing Mistress."
Good. It was infinitely easier to deal with House Elves if they recognized you as part of the Family, and therefore one whom they were meant to obey. Bella had been almost positive that the family magic would accept her as one of its own, but there had always been a chance that, out of time as she was, she wouldn't register properly. After all, assuming she'd gone when she'd meant to, Cygnus would be...what, eleven? She was technically older than her own father right now, so she wouldn't have been entirely surprised if the elf had decided she couldn't possibly exist, and therefore needn't be minded.
But 'Mistress'? Bella had never been called 'mistress' by an elf in her life. She was too young, for one, and not even the heiress presumptive anymore, let alone the head of the house. If the state Ancient House had been allowed to deteriorate into hadn't given it away, that would have been a major clue that she hadn't, in fact, managed to show up when she'd meant to.
So, might as well get the most important question out of the way. "What year is it?"
The elf twitched in surprise, wide eyes staring up at her. With a strangely dumbfounded tone for an elf, it squeaked, "I-it is being Nineteen Ninety-Three, Mistress."
Bella bowed her head a little, rubbing at both temples with her fingers. That...was not what she'd been aiming for. In fact, that was the exact opposite of what she'd been aiming for. She couldn't imagine how that could possibly happen by accident — actually, most theoretical models for temporal mechanics posited travelling forward through time was impossible. A suspicious thought, that.
You did this on purpose, didn't you.
The cold presence at the back of her mind echoed with an amused sort of silence.
Yeah, that's what I thought.
Letting her hands fall again, Bella glared sightlessly up at the ceiling with a heavy sigh. Well...fine, then. Change of plans. She could work with that. Some warning would have been nice but, really, she didn't expect much else from Eris by this point. She had the feeling only letting Bella know half of what was going on was part of the fun.
Not that it made any difference, when it came down to it. She hadn't made much in the way of plans anyway, she'd intended to just sort of...feel it out. She could do that just as well in 1993 as she could have in 1933. Assuming there was something interesting to do with herself in this era, but she assumed Eris wouldn't "accidentally" send her here if there weren't. So far as Eris really planned anything, anyway. This could well be a diversion the goddess had arranged for her own amusement before they got back to the programme, there was really no way to tell for certain.
Really, she wouldn't have minded at all, if sending her into the future didn't present such a disadvantage. She'd learned all she could about the state of things in 1933, but she knew nothing about 1993 — of course she didn't, it hadn't existed yet! She'd have to do a lot of catching up, so, yes, she was slightly annoyed. Not particularly surprised, but annoyed.
"What is Mistress being doing—?"
Bella winced — she'd been avoiding the things for long enough, she'd somehow forgotten how irritating their mangling of English was. "Stop it. Just, speak in elvish."
The elf stared up at her for a few seconds, mouth and eyes so wide with surprise Bella had to hold back a snicker. "You know elf-speak?"
"I know many things." Of course, elvish was technically her first language. Not that she'd ever admit that out loud, and certainly not to an elf. "Now, Cherri, was it? Where the hell is everybody?"
The elf toed the ground awkwardly, tugging at her left ear in agitation. "It has been some time since I have had news from outside this home, but most of the Black humans are gone, and the elves left."
Well that was the epitome of unhelpfulness. "Which humans are still alive, and where are they, to the best of your knowledge?" she asked more specifically.
"Mistress Walburga was keeping at Grimmauld Place the last I heard. House Head Arcturus was keeping at the Keep, but he is gone, now. House Head Sirius is..."
Save her from the pointless dithering of elves. There was a point excessive meekness just got annoying, and elves seemed to exist far beyond it. "Yes?"
It flinched, instinctively pulling away from the ice on her tone. "House Head Sirius is keeping in the wizard prison. He was not able to return to the House and take up his role, and so the magic has faded since House Head Arcturus is gone."
"Okay, so Sirius — that is Orion and Walburga's Sirius, right?" It seemed the most reasonable guess — though when Bella had last seen him he'd been a bloody toddler — but that was one of the names the Family reused every generation or so. There was no telling for sure. But the elf nodded. "Sirius is in Azkaban. Why didn't Walburga take up the Head of House?"
"House Head Arcturus barred Mistress Walburga from Headship because..." The elf fidgeted, eyes sliding away from hers and to the floor.
"Tell me!" the witch demanded, then tisked. "You're allowed to speak ill of whomever you like, you won't be punished for that." If she didn't stop with this hesitant nonsense, though, well...
"Mistress Walburga was ill. She refused to go to human healers and closed herself in Grimmauld with the elf Kreacher. The elf Kreacher has not been seen or spoken to since Nineteen Seventy-Nine, and Mistress Walburga was not fit to care for herself, far less the House. I doubt that she has recovered since I have been here alone."
While it was rather odd and consequently somewhat interesting that there was a family elf pretending not to exist at Grimmauld place, Bella couldn't really see that it was very important. "Very well, who else is left? What happened to my sisters and me?"
More awkward shuffling, more ear-tugging. "Please forgive me for speaking out of turn, but may I ask a question?"
Clenching her teeth, she held in a frustrated sigh. Honestly, getting through a simple conversation with an elf was bloody impossible. "If you're quick about it."
"Mistress... what has happened to you, that you are young again and do not remember what has happened to the House?"
Bella glared at the impertinence, but she supposed it did make a certain sort of sense: the elf couldn't tell her what had happened to the Bellatrix Black of this timeline since it thought it was talking to her, and didn't know why or how she'd suddenly appeared, looking thirty years too young, with no memory of the intervening time. She really couldn't blame it for the confusion. (Unfortunately.)
"I'm not your Mistress. I'm a different Bella, from thirty years ago. I came to this time by accident, and now, if you please, I would like to know what happened to Mistress Bellatrix and Andromeda and Narcissa! And for that matter, Sirius and Regulus, too!"
The elf swallowed hard. "Yes, Miss. Mistress Bellatrix joined the Dark Revolution and became the right hand of the Dark Lord. There was talk that she could have been a Dark Lady in her own right, before he fell and drew her with him into madness. She swore he would return, and awaits him in the wizard prison. Miss Andromeda left the Family to marry a muggleborn. She never returned home from Hogwarts, but broke her tie to the family magic and ran away from the school. We had not heard of her again. Mistress Bellatrix forbade it to discuss her, and it was as though she had never been. Miss Narcissa married into the Family Malfoy and renounced her tie to the Family Black as is the custom. Young Master Sirius...renounced the Dark Powers and damaged the Family Magics, then distanced himself from the House, though he was not cast out, for most of the other Blacks had gone by then. Young Master Regulus followed Mistress Bellatrix into the Dark Lord's forces and now is gone."
Funny, how the elf actually being helpful and finally bloody answering her just left her with more questions than she'd started with. She guessed missing thirty years could be like that. "What Dark Revolution? What Dark Lord did I — Mistress Bellatrix — and Regulus follow?"
The elf shrugged helplessly. "The Dark Lord," it said, as though there had only ever been one. "The humans call him He Who Must Not Be Named. He was Mistress Bellatrix's Lord and Master, but that is all I know."
...Her Lord and Master? What the bloody buggering fuck had the other her done? It was possible the elf was misinterpreting their...relationship, yes, but that she was willfully remaining in Azkaban — Bella didn't doubt she could simply leave if she wanted to — obediently awaiting his return, that certainly suggested something along those lines.
But, but that was wrong. That was just impossible. She could only assume the other Bella was a black mage the same as she was. (The way the elf had reacted to her name, half-ecstatic half-confused and half-terrified, had implied as much.) She recognized but one authority over her, and one authority alone — even Arcturus she only obeyed when it suited her, and that not because she must, but because she chose to. She owed fealty to one Lord, and one Lord alone. Whoever this Dark Lord was, he was not Her.
Even excluding the apparent collapse of the Family, something was very seriously wrong.
She shook her head, adding that problem to her growing mental list of priorities to be addressed soon, but not immediately. She was certain the elf couldn't offer any more useful information on that point anyway, and there were more pressing concerns at the moment.
"And Andromeda— No, I don't suppose you know the name of the muggleborn she married?" The elf shook her head, looking rather despondent at not being able to answer her question. "Never mind, then, I'll track her down later. And Cissy's fine, and Baby Reggie's dead? Well, I can't say I expected that. But how did Sirius end up in Azkaban?"
"House Head Sirius was accused of joining the Dark Lord's forces and betraying his friends of the Light. He was also said to have killed a wizard and twelve muggles. It is not true. House Head Sirius, then only Master Sirius and House Traitor, had no friends to hear him, but he had chosen his side. He renounced the Dark in defiance of the Covenant and shattered the Family Magics. They were never the same after, and for that, perhaps, he should not be forgiven. But he could never have joined the Dark over the Light. Not after that."
Well, I suppose that makes my priorities fairly clear. Sirius, as the proper Head of the House and apparently the only sane Black left, would have to be gotten out of Azkaban and cleared of his crimes. She was less than pleased that Sirius had apparently broken the Covenant but, well, she hadn't a lot of options. And in any case her own covenant with Eris superseded the family Covenant with the Dark; it wasn't as though she — or rather, her alter ego — would have been personally affected. And about that other Bella, she was more hesitant to see her released. She was quite certain she wanted to know a bit more about why she had chosen to follow a bloody Dark Lord — and who even was that, anyway — and the "madness" she had apparently been drawn into with his downfall. Though personally she rather thought she'd've had to've been mad long before that to join any Dark Lord in the first place.
Not to mention, to suborn herself to one that he could be referred to, in any way, as her Lord and Master. That was just...
Eris' voice came as a cool wave of thought, pulsing through Bella's mind. I might be able to shed a bit of light on that, ducky.
Oh, now you decide to talk to me? Well, later. I'm in the middle of something, in case you hadn't noticed. Perhaps it was immature of her, but she conjured a mental image of herself pouting and sticking her tongue out at the form Eris most commonly chose to physically manifest. She was still annoyed with her Patron.
Which of course Eris only found amusing. Whatever.
"Right," she said, addressing the elf again. "What about my parents? Cygnus and Druella?"
"Mistress Bellatrix killed Master Cygnus." Honestly, she couldn't bring herself to even pretend to be surprised. He'd almost certainly done something to deserve it. "It is not meant to be known, but we elves thought she was right to do so. Miss Druella returned to House Rosier after Master Cygnus was gone."
She thought for a moment, smirk pulling at her lips — the elves' apparent approval for her alternate self murdering Cygnus was weirdly funny. Right, obviously Castor and Nora were gone, since Ancient House had been allowed to deteriorate to this state. That left... "Uncle Alphard?"
The elf hesitated. "Mistress Cassiopeia is...missing."
That wasn't entirely surprising. Metamorphs were known to simply vanish on a whim, taking on new names and faces and starting new lives periodically as they eventually outlived all their friends and immediate family. With the Family nearly extinct as it was, she would honestly be more surprised if Cassiopeia were still around. "Arcturus and Regulus? Sirius's sons?"
"Both gone. And Sirius son of Phineas, and Phineas, son of Phineas, and all of the cadets, gone. Miss," the elf added gently, "the House of Black is Fallen. There are no other humans left, and soon there will be no elves, and no House at all."
Bella shot the elf a glare — angry not at the elf, but at the very idea it had voiced, that such a thing would dare come to pass while she still lived. "Not if I have anything to say about it."
For the first time since she had made herself known to Bella, the elf beamed.
While Diagon Alley might have looked a little different than it had in Bella's time, any changes were mostly cosmetic.
There were only a handful of things she noticed, casually strolling toward the Prophet offices from the apparation point near the bank. (Back issues of the Prophet seemed as good a way to catch up as any.) The name of an apothecary was different. A slightly sketchy pub — by the standards of Diagon Alley, that is — had been replaced by an equally dingy pet store. What had been the office of a prolific (and rather talented) wardcrafter was now a shockingly muggle-looking ice cream parlour. Everything else was virtually the same.
Really, she wouldn't be surprised if most of the shopkeeps were still the same people she remembered — thirty years wasn't that long by magical standards, after all.
The geography was mostly unchanged, but that didn't mean it didn't look different. Cleaner, in a word. Charing had always been a messy, noisy place, the varied cultural and social strata that made up Celtic magical society meeting in one place. Such a melting pot could never be as orderly as some of the more rigid-minded would like. It had always been almost violently colourful, posters and leaflets pasting over the relatively drab paint and stone beneath, the streets filled with mages. A fair few of the proper sort going about their business, yes, but also the occasional clump of nonhuman beings of all kinds, unattended children playing and shrieking and running about, animated graffiti defacing wall and cobblestone alike.
Most of that was gone now. The walls were clear and clean, shops shining in a way they hadn't before, crumbling corners touched up and glass polished. The crowd was plenty noisy, but far less chaotic, proper adults properly going about their proper business, occasionally trailed by an obedient child or two. Far more orderly, far more civilized, far more...
...boring. Gods and Powers, it was boring. It made her skin itch, she had to resist the urge to kick over one of the tables in front of Fortescue's and start tossing jinxes around just to make it more...more... She didn't what word she was looking for. More something, anyway.
She could feel Eris giggling at her, but she tried to pretend she didn't notice.
It was only as she was passing that same table she'd nearly overturned that she noticed an abandoned copy of the Prophet folded up in the middle. Bella jerked to a halt when she saw the headline, snatched the thing up sharply enough it ripped at one corner.
ESCAPE FROM AZKABAN!
Ministry Scrambles after Convicted Death Eater Sirius Black
Bella's eyes flew through the article as quickly as she could possibly read, before biting out a frustrated sigh and pitching it back onto the table. Perhaps a little harder than necessary, sending it sliding across the smooth surface to spill onto the bench, from there to the ground. There had been a list of Sirius's crimes — which he apparently hadn't even committed — but most of the article had been tarring the Ministry for its incompetent bumbling in the days since his escape — which wasn't at all surprising. It wasn't the least bit helpful. Not that she had honestly expected the thing to tell her exactly where to find Sirius, but...
Not all of it had even made sense. There had been an oblique reference to something that had happened between this Dark Lord of theirs and someone laughably referred to as Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived. (Aunt Dorea's son? grandson? There weren't that many Potters...) It hadn't explained what the bloody hell had actually happened that Samhain twelve years ago, so it was apparently common knowledge.
Great. Now she had to catch up on the last thirty years of history, and track down her idiot baby cousin before he managed to get himself killed. Perfect. It would have been much simpler if Sirius had just stayed there until she could arrange—
Bella blinked, glanced toward the paper on the ground. Wait a second. Sirius had escaped from Azkaban? Huh. Maybe he wasn't as useless as Bella had been assuming ever since she'd heard he'd broken the Covenant.
No, your instinct was correct. He's useless. Entertaining, but useless.
You think most mortals are useless, Bella thought, rolling her eyes. Putting the article out of her mind for now, she started off for the Prophet offices again.
Hypocrisy doesn't become you, little ducky.
I think it suits me quite well, thank you.
[Charing] — Diagon Alley, because Lysandra does this worldbuilding thing where she changes the things she doesn't like and/or things which are dumb, like naming a town after a pun.
So, this is a thing that exists. (IT LIVES!) Um... I don't usually do ANs... —Leigha
Well, rambling is my thing, okay. This is a random idea LeighaGreene and I (inwardtransience a.k.a. "Wings" a.k.a. Lysandra) had, and decided to run away with it because we are the nerdiest couple on the face of the earth. It's in many ways split from "Coming of Age in the House of Black", which is a LeighaGreene fic, so people who've read that might have an easier time jumping on board. Mostly it's only relevant for Bella's backstory — for example, just what the fuck Eris is, and why her native language is elvish — but it's not necessary to have actually read it. The characters and background and such are mostly canon otherwise, and where it isn't that actually matters will be explained, so.
These first couple chapters are gonna zip by quick with little scenes like this, until we actually sit down to explain exactly what the fuck is going on in chapter three. Yes, exactly chapter three — there's an outline. Leigha is a terrible influence on me. —Lysandra
I am the best influence.
I am also kind of a flake, though, so next chapter whenever it's done. —Leigha