Andromeda Tonks straightened in her chair, the tingling sensation of a guest crossing the wards drawing her eyes narrowed in an absent frown.
Not that she was particularly concerned by the intrusion — she had left the street entrance unlocked, and the wards would have given her a far more irritating warning if the guest held any harmful intent. She simply hadn't expected anyone to drop in. Most professional offices were closed on the major holidays, and hers was no exception. She wouldn't have ordinarily come in herself, but she had a hearing coming up, had forgotten a volume on the relevant civil precedents she'd meant to review over the weekend. She'd stayed a little later than she'd meant to, but nobody should have expected to find her in here anyway.
Well, it was possible a muggleborn was coming in with some urgent concern. They did have a tendency to lose track, sometimes years after joining magical society — even Ted still forgot the ones too far removed from muggle holidays now and then.
Andromeda sat back in her chair, letting her eyes fall shut with a weary sigh. It was getting quite late, the sky through her window already fiery with approaching darkness, but she really should appropriately deal with...whoever that was out there. Brushing off someone who might be in serious need of help would be rather bad form. She had a reputation to maintain, after all. Pushing herself to her feet, she slipped out from behind her desk, opened the door into reception.
Her pace hitched with surprise, just for a moment: her guest was quite a bit younger than she'd expected. The girl was facing the opposite wall, so Andromeda couldn't tell for sure, but judging by her figure she would guess somewhere between twelve and fifteen, probably weighted toward the younger side. Her age wasn't that odd, really — it wasn't unusual for Andromeda to have younger clients, family law being the serpentine morass it was — but there were plenty more unusual things to be getting on with.
The girl was wearing what looked to be, strange enough, trousers and tunic and heavy boots intended for light duelling, the loose cut not dissimilar to what one would generally see in tournament professionals. The quality of the cloth wasn't quite right, though, composed of fine, glimmering black silk instead of the cotton one would expect. Her hair, thick waves a heavy black, was tied back with a plain silverish ribbon, left to spill nearly down to the small of her back. She hadn't turned to Andromeda, still facing the wall, examining clippings from the Prophet and the Herald hanging there, the few times her exploits had managed to make the papers.
Shaking off her momentary confusion, Andromeda softly cleared her throat. 'Excuse me, Miss, I was—' She cut off abruptly, the rest of the sentence stolen from her throat as the girl turned to look over her shoulder.
Except, no, no, it couldn't be her. For one thing, Bella was in Azkaban, Andromeda would have heard something if she'd been released. Or, more likely, escaped — and what did that say, that she thought Bella escaping Azkaban was more likely than her ever being released? (Of course, Sirius had apparently done it, so it wasn't impossible, but still.) More to the point, Bella was forty-three years old. She supposed she could have altered her appearance somehow, but no, nothing short of polyjuice or serious high magic could create an illusion this perfect. No, it couldn't really be her, it couldn't.
But the girl looked so... No, not similar, identical — she looked exactly like Bella had at that age. That oh-so-familiar narrow face, the Black eyes such a deep grey they seemed to come back around to an unnatural purplish-blue, complete with the dark light that always seemed to flicker half-seen, even down to the exact placement of the thin scar crossing her lower lip, barely visible, she'd had as long as Andromeda could remember. Exactly like her, too similar to be a coincidence.
When she'd been young, before starting Hogwarts, the single person Andromeda had seen more of than anybody else had been Bella. Despite only being a couple years older, she'd been more a parent to her than their actual parents. If anyone in all the world were to recognise Bella at this age, it was Andromeda.
But... But that was impossible. She... She didn't...
The girl's lips pulled into a crooked smile. "All right there, Meda? You look like you've seen a ghost."
The words battered Andromeda over the head, hard enough she was dizzy, had to prop a hand against the doorframe to keep herself from falling. Not so much the words that were said, but the voice that had said them. It was exactly Bella's voice, that same low, almost musical timbre, that same note of dark humour, exactly. "But you... You can't be here, you're not..."
"Honestly, it's like you've never heard of time travel before."
No. Was she supposed to believe this Bella was from decades in the past? No, that was too much.
Was what she would say if it were anybody else. Honestly, the thought that a teenaged Bella might have taken it upon herself to muck about with time didn't even come as a surprise, despite the fact that, so far as she was aware, travel forward through time was considered impossible.
Andromeda wasn't entirely certain "impossible" meant anything to Bellatrix Black.
It took a few long breaths, a few careful swallows, to fully compose herself again. She'd admit her reaction might be a bit much, but she thought it was understandable given how impossible this was. Bella had already turned back to the clippings before she found her voice.
"How far?" It had to be a few decades, Bella couldn't be older than fourteen. Which was a bit...uncomfortable, because, well, things had happened since then.
If that wasn't an understatement. The last time she'd seen Bella, she'd been warning her to leave the country and never return, under threat of one of the other Death Eaters murdering her and her family. Dora hadn't even been born at the time, and she was older than this Bella now. The thought was difficult to wrap her mind around.
Somewhere, less than fully consciously, Andromeda remarked to herself how easily she was, just, accepting that this girl was her teenage sister, inexplicably transplanted from decades in the past. But then, it was Bella.
Bella shrugged. "When I woke up this morning, it was Nineteen Sixty-Three."
Ah. Exactly thirty years, then. In Nineteen Sixty-Three, Andromeda had been ten and preoccupied with keeping Cissy away from their parents, and Bella had been at Hogwarts, but she'd still been Meda's best friend and closest confidant. They had still spoken by mirror at least once a week — more often when Dru and Cygnus were being particularly awful. "But wait, I don't remember you ever being gone. At least, not for very long. And you certainly never mentioned this little adventure to me."
Her sister — unmistakably her sister — smirked. "Aww, baby sister feeling retroactively neglected? Don't worry, you didn't miss anything."
"What?" She could have come back to the exact moment she left from, true, but she hadn't suddenly seemed older either, so if that was the case, this Bella shouldn't be staying here for very long at all. But Andromeda would still argue that even a brief jaunt into the future to have a chat with her thirty-years-older self was deserving of some mention. And she would certainly remember that.
"You don't remember me leaving, I never mentioned it, because I never left."
"What the bloody hell? You never left? But you're here, in Nineteen Ninety-Three!" Andromeda objected, growing snappish with frustration.
With a thin sigh, Bella turned around again, shooting Andromeda a disappointed look, as though to say, How do you not get this, it's obvious. It was a look Meda had received many times before, and it never grew less irritating in its condescension. Just because everyone wasn't a bloody genius when it came to languages and magical theory... "I mean, the me of this timeline never left. This is not my future, and I'm not from your past."
Andromeda blinked. That... Well, she'd heard theories of multiple universes, but it was just that: theory. As far as she knew, it'd never been confirmed one way or the other. Granted, she hardly spent much time researching that sort of thing, but if people from alternative timelines were known to just turn up now and again she was all but certain she would know about it. "You're sure?"
She nodded. "Yep. There are some very distinct differences. Not least of which, I'm pretty sure this Voldemort person didn't exist in my timeline. Been very confusing catching up."
"Er, are you sure? It was pretty early in 'Sixty-Three. I mean, Mister Tom became Voldemort, but I don't think he was using the name back then."
Bella's head tilted a bit, raising a single eyebrow at her. "Mister Tom?"
"Well, that's what you called him all the time. Monsieur Thom de Mort? That was his alias. You're thirteen, right? You'd already been his apprentice for a few years by then."
The confusion on Bella's face only intensified. "What the fuck are you talking about? I would never take an apprenticeship with anyone."
"Well, obviously. I really doubt Eris would appreciate that much."
Andromeda winced — she tried to forget Bella was a black mage if she could help it.
For no obvious reason, Bella flinched nearly in sync with her, annoyance flicking across her face. "Dammit. Is everyone in this timeline a fucking idiot? Because really, that's what it's starting to look like to me."
While Bella shook her head, muttering and cursing under her breath, Andromeda just stared at her. Because there really was no response to that.
"So are you ready to go, then? I can't wait to meet this muggleborn of yours. Mummy must have been so pleased."
Yes, definitely her sister.
"So you're the degenerate mudblood who knocked up my baby sister," Bella said with a grin, offering her hand to shake the way muggleborns always did at Hogwarts. One never got a second chance to make a first impression, after all.
Theodore Tonks, the wizard Meda had chosen to elope with out of Hogwarts — The Scandal of the Decade according to one 1971 Prophet gossip column — wasn't making a terribly good first impression himself. It was a bit difficult to tell, since he was sitting in an armchair, but he seemed to be of average height and build. He had thinning, sandy hair and a moustache, but no beard. His features were, she supposed, fairly well-proportioned, but nothing special. Meda obviously hadn't chosen him for his looks. His response to her greeting was to blink at her for several long seconds with a rather befuddled expression before saying, "I'm sorry, sweetie, but is this some sort of joke? I don't get it."
Bella pouted at him, withdrawing her hand. Meda obviously hadn't chosen him for his wits, either, a conclusion which was only strengthened when he proceeded to ignore her — how long had it been since someone had so blatantly passed her over like that? — instead addressing his wife over her shoulder as she entered the room. "Wotcher, Andi. Find that book you needed?"
"What? Oh, yes. Yes, I did. Have you introduced yourselves?" she asked. Rather warily, Bella thought.
It's almost like she knows me or something.
Eris' presence emanated amusement. You are rather unforgettable, ducky.
Tonks' confusion only intensified. "Er... What?"
"Cunning and articulate," Bella said, derisive humor clear on her voice. "Good choice, Meda. It's so clear why you exiled yourself from the family for this one."
Meda sighed. "Ted, darling, this is... This is Bella, my sister. Bella, this is Ted, my husband. Please do me the favor of at least pretending to respect him while you're under our hospitality."
Bella snorted. Not bloody likely — Bella didn't really make an effort to respect...well, anyone. She started to ask what the point of pretending would be, if they all knew she was only pretending, but Tonks talked over her, now not only confused, but also amusingly alarmed, lurching to his feet. "Your sister Bella? You mean Bellatrix Lestrange? The one who's supposed to be in Azkaban? Andi, I— What? How?"
"Apparently there's time travel involved," Meda said blythely, patting him on the shoulder before shoving him back into the chair. "Do you want a drink? I need a drink," she added, crossing to a cupboard on the other side of the parlor.
Tonks stared up at her, blinking to himself. "Sure?"
"Firewhisky, neat," Bella ordered, before addressing Tonks' concerns. "I'm not her. Lestrange. I'm not even past-her — different timelines, as far as I can tell, diverged...maybe in the Nineteen Thirties? Earlier? Definitely before the Fifties, but I need more time for research to say how and why."
"Oh," the wizard said. Meda handed him a bright green cocktail. He considered it, or perhaps Bella's existence, for a moment, then threw it back and stood to get another.
Bella was given a bottle of butterbeer as her sister sank elegantly onto the chair her husband had vacated, sipping coolly at a Tam Lin. Mother would have been impressed.
Bella wasn't. "What, I'm not good enough for a real drink?"
"You're not old enough for a real drink," Meda corrected her, smirking slightly over her flaming cup. "Stop pacing and sit, would you?"
Bella considered refusing, just to be contrary. She was beginning to find this adult Meda rather irritating, especially since she insisted on treating Bella like a child — side along apparition, bleh. Sure, she was technically younger than Meda's daughter now, but as far as she was concerned Meda was still her baby sister. It was weird, Meda had been ten years old just a handful of hours ago, and now she was suddenly trying to tell Bella what to do (which never did turn out well for anyone). But it had been a rather long day, and she was somewhat tired.
"But Meda, I got lost in time today," she whined instead, flopping onto the sofa and kicking her booted feet up onto the cushions. After throwing back a less-than-modest gulp, she set her butterbeer on an end table, without a coaster, too. Behaving like this would have sent most of the adults she knew up the wall, but Meda just smirked. Perhaps there was hope for her yet, despite her apparent emulation of Auntie Walburga. This room had a decidedly more relaxed atmosphere than any at Grimmauld Place, but Bella hadn't missed how Meda's offices had been distinctly reminiscent of their aunt's favorite parlor, all dark wood and heavy brocades.
"So, you're a time traveller, then?" Tonks said, returning to his armchair. "Any idea when you'll be going back? You're welcome to stay with us as long as you like, of course," he added quickly, glancing toward Meda for approval after the fact, "but I assume you do want to go back." He sounded almost hopeful, saying it — it appeared someone was less than entirely comfortable with the thought of having her around.
But Bella shrugged. She hadn't really been planning to go back. Of course, she'd been planning on going to the past of her own timeline, and disrupting it so thoroughly that the future that produced her would never actually exist. She herself would become what time theorists called a persistent magical anomaly, but Eris had assured her that, with her connection to the Dark to "ground" her, she should be unaffected by the temporal instability which would otherwise result from the paradox.
Since she hadn't managed to go back in time, there was no chance of her destabilizing the past, which meant she had effectively just vanished on her own Meda (and Cissy, Siri and Reggie). Which, on the one hand, stopping to think about it, she did feel rather bad about. Her plan would have likely prevented them from being born in the first place, but abandoning them was something quite else. Taking care of Meda had been her job ever since she could remember, and she had never intended to fail her baby sister like that.
But on the other hand, Meda did just fine taking care of herself when Bella had to go off to school, and in any case she wasn't really sure how she would even begin to try to find her way 'home' from this alternate timeline, anyway. Even if she did try to go back, she'd probably end up in the past of this timeline, which didn't really solve anything anyway.
Time travel was complicated like that.
"Not particularly. I can carry on with my plans here just as well as I would have done in the Nineteen Thirties. Was only ever going to make it up as I went along anyway, so."
Meda gave her a look. "And what plans are those, exactly?"
Bella smirked at her. "Oh, you know. Wreaking havoc and spreading chaos in the name of my Lady."
("Erm—" Tonks started, but Meda whispered, "Don't ask.")
She raised an eyebrow at that little exchange, but went on like she hadn't heard it. "And I might try to do something about the frankly deplorable state you've let the House fall into lately. Track down little Siri and see how he managed to escape from Azkaban. Whatever seems most interesting, really. I haven't quite decided yet where I ought to position myself for the best effect. I don't know enough about the present to say for certain where that would be. Any thoughts?"
The adults' matching expressions of consternation promised an amusing reaction, regardless of what they might think to say to that, but before either of them could answer, they were interrupted by the loud crack of a lazy (or simply inept) apparition.
"Mum? Dad?" a tired voice called.
"We're in the sitting room, hon," Tonks replied, even as Meda reprimanded her daughter: "How many times have I asked you to apparate outside and use the door, Nymphadora?"
"Probably as many times as I've asked you not to call me Nymphadora! Besides, everyone knows doors are for suckers who aren't keyed into the wards!" (Bella smirked — she wasn't wrong.) The girl's voice moved to a different room, and was soon accompanied by the sound of cupboards opening and closing. "Is there any food here? Moody's such a sadist! Penderghast couldn't summon his wand this morning, so he made us practice through lunch. Fucking firsties!"
"No one ever said Auror training would be easy," Tonks answered, a hint of amusement in his tone.
Bella blinked. "Your daughter's an Auror Trainee?"
"She just started the third year of her apprenticeship." Meda was the very picture of a proud mum. And rightly so, it wasn't everyone who could get in with the Aurors straight out of school. "Dora, come in here, please, there's someone I'd like you to meet!"
"Just a— Okay, coming!" A witch who looked to be about fifteen appeared in the doorway a moment later, a hastily constructed sandwich in one hand, an empty plate balanced on the other, and an expression of deepest exhaustion on her face. Her mouth was full — she had obviously misjudged how long it would take for her to walk from the kitchen, or else how long it would take to swallow — and her close-cropped pink hair gave an impression of zero fucks to spare for anyone else's opinion of her.
On seeing Bella, she managed to trip over her own feet and knock over a lamp with her left elbow while trying to save both her dinner and her balance. "Bugger," she muttered. "Sorry, mum. I'll fix it," she added, pulling out her wand to repair the damage, her face glowing red. "Um, hi? I'm Dora. And you must be... Aunt Cassiopeia?"
Tonks was trying very hard not to laugh at the one-woman wrecking crew that was his daughter, while Meda looked nearly as embarrassed as the girl.
"Cassiopeia?" Bella repeated. "The elf at Ancient House told me she's missing."
"Then, who...?" Nymphadora frowned intensely. "I mean, you've got to be a Black, and that bone structure and those eyes, I would say a young Bellatrix, like Mum's sister? But you're way too young, and well, not in Azkaban. I thought I was the only metamorph in Britain—"
Bella felt her own eyes go wide with surprise. Her niece was a metamorph? She hadn't known that. Metamorphs had once been rather common in House Black — more than they were in most other families, at any rate — but they'd become rarer and rarer as the centuries went by. Cassie had been the first in nearly a hundred years. Mulling it over, Bella couldn't help a narrow-eyed glance over at Meda and this Tonks bloke, squeezed tighter together in that armchair than looked entirely comfortable. She'd had doubts about Meda marrying some no-name muggleborn, but if the Powers had seen fit to make their daughter a metamorph, well, Bella didn't really see how she could say anything against it.
She'd still tease Meda about it, of course, but this was Bella.
Anyway, the girl was still talking. "—so Aunt Cassiopeia was a long shot, but there aren't any other Blacks that young, so it's either that or, I don't know, it was really Bellatrix who broke out of prison, not Sirius, and de-aged herself somehow, and is now having drinks with my parents in the middle of Hogsmeade like it's any other Saturday evening. Budge up," she added, nodding pointedly at Bella's feet.
Bella, of course, left them exactly where they were. "Sterling theory, Nymphadora. You should be like, an Auror or something. Best work on those interrogation skills, though. I never said I wasn't Cassie."
"Oh, stop teasing her, Bella," Meda interrupted. Weird, how Meda kept telling her to do things she had to know would never, ever happen. "Nymphadora, you were right, this is my sister Bella, or rather, her time-travelling alter-ego. Bella, this is my daughter, Nymphadora."
"Don't call me Nymphadora," she interjected, scowling at the both of them. It wasn't until after she flopped down onto the couch — directly onto Bella's shins, which honestly was more amusing than anything; she suspected that it was far less comfortable for Nymphadora than herself — that her mother's words registered. "Did you say time travel?"
Tonks nodded. "She did. Drink?"
Nymphadora hesitated. "Well, maybe just one. Moody said we didn't have to come in until eight, but I wouldn't put it past him to ambush me in my bed at five."
Bella smirked. "Is that what the kids are calling it these days?"
The girl sighed. "I wish. He might go easier on me if we were. I mean, probably not, but— Seriously, time travel? That sounds even less likely than Evil Aunt Bellatrix escaping from prison and disguising herself as a twelve-year-old."
"Thirteen," Bella corrected her, "Nymphadora." (The witch in question glared at the sound of her name; Bella smirked.) "And just because it's unlikely doesn't mean it's not true. And, Meda, you've been telling my niece I'm evil? I think I'm hurt."
She couldn't quite muster a proper pout over her smirk, but it hardly mattered: Meda just raised an eyebrow at her. "Your record, or rather, your alter-ego's, speaks for itself."
"Oh? Do tell." She had managed to find some stories about herself in the Prophet, of course — it would have been difficult to miss the coverage of her trial, searching for her own name in the Archives — but the details of her exploits in the war in which she had apparently been an integral player were surprisingly scarce.
"Well, there's the Longbottoms, of course," said Tonks, returning with what Bella thought might have been a Cerridwen's Cauldron for his daughter and another absinthe-looking cocktail for himself, but his wife interrupted him.
"Don't indulge her, Ted."
Bella sighed at her. "Fine, be boring. I'll just find out some other way." She was pretty sure she could ask Eris, if it came down to it. "Besides, I already know the highlights. By the way, any idea why I finally killed Cygnus?"
The temperature in the room seemed to drop about ten degrees, as Tonks froze and Meda's face became a familiar, impenetrable mask of unfeeling neutrality, the one she had always worn around their parents. After several long seconds, she answered. "He... You made me a promise. He crossed the line."
Tonks moved to her side, again cramming too tightly into that single chair, arm slipping around her waist in a visible show of support.
It barely took a second for Bella to put together what she was talking about. It had only been a year ago.
Cygnus had always restrained himself from going quite that far, before. But when she'd come home from her first year at Hogwarts, he'd apparently had enough of...well, something, anyway.
He'd shown up in her bedroom that first night, hitting her with a body bind before she could even reach for her wand. And she'd been moved to her bed, her robes torn away, before she'd realised what was happening.
Somehow, the knowledge of what sex was supposed to be had only made it worse.
He'd left her there, still trapped by his curse. She knew what he'd wanted her to feel. He'd wanted her to be miserable. He'd wanted her to feel helpless, horrified. He'd wanted her to fear him. He hadn't managed what he wanted.
Instead, Bella had spent those minutes alone imagining how he would scream when she murdered him.
She would make it last.
But then Meda had been there. She'd taken Bella's wand from where it sat on the nightstand — in sight but out of reach — and lifted the curse off of her. And she'd crawled into bed with her, snuggling up against her side.
And Bella had known, then, she couldn't do it. If she killed Cygnus, she'd probably have to leave. She couldn't leave Meda, not here. Even with Cygnus gone, she would need her. But she'd made Meda promise her, that she would tell her.
She remembered what she'd said, when Meda had asked why, the exact words. Because if that rotten bastard ever does to you what he just did to me, I'll kill him. I'll kill him without even hesitating, because nobody does that to my baby sisters.
Bella scowled. She knew, without Meda having to say any more than she had, exactly what had happened. Because, when she'd said that, just thirteen months ago, she'd meant every word. "Right, so he was a fucking cunt who deserved everything he got. I hope I made it painful."
Meda's answering grin was positively feral. "Oh, I made sure of it."
"Um...guys?" Nymphadora interrupted hesitantly. "You know I'm supposed to be in Auror training, right? You can't just talk about murdering your father in front of me..."
Bella made a dismissive psh at her. "Come off it, it was forever ago, and it wasn't even really me." Her niece still had a rather doubtful look on her face. "Also, he raped your mum."
The metamorph's hair went white with shock as she stuttered incoherently. Pity, Bella had almost thought this one might be able to keep up.
"Bellatrix," Tonks said firmly, suddenly holding Meda very close. Bella could see her hands shaking, her eyes tightly closed. It even looked like she was having trouble controlling her breathing. "We don't talk about that."
"That doesn't mean it didn't happen," Bella pointed out, rather confused by the sudden change in atmosphere. Hadn't Meda just been enjoying the memory of Cygnus' well-deserved death?
Of course, this was probably just her again. She was sure whatever Eris had done to her head when she'd first dedicated herself, in addition to immunizing her against the Imperius, also prevented her from reacting like a normal person to this sort of thing. A lot of things, actually. It was more than worth it, she thought, but just because she knew it was her brain being funny didn't mean it wasn't very confusing sometimes.
She really didn't understand people.
Meda muttered something to her husband too quietly for Bella to catch. "Are you sure?" he asked. She nodded. "Alright. You can use the spare bedroom," he added, turning to Bella with a glare. "Dora will show you where it is. We'll talk to you tomorrow. Good night, Dora." And with that, he escorted her sister out of the room.
A heavy silence rose in their wake. Bella heard a shower start, somewhere in the depths of the house.
Meda's daughter was still staring in that general direction, color slowly leaching back into her skin and hair. She'd been rather shaken — clearly, Meda hadn't told her about Cygnus. (Not that Bella was surprised. She didn't think she'd ever told anyone herself, and she'd had it worse than Meda for far longer.) She was pulling herself back to the present moment, but it was taking a little while. Finally she shook her head, turning to give Bella an awkward sort of look. "Sooo..."
"I told you not to call me that!" her niece snapped, then admitted, "I dunno. I was trying to think of something to say to change the subject, but... I've got nothing."
People were weird. "Oh. Well, then let's talk about Sirius. Have the Aurors been talking about his escape? Any clue as to where he's likely to go now?"
It was interesting to see the metamorph's reactions reflected in her size and hair color, as well as her expression. She had been rather frail and tired looking, even before shock had turned her hair white, but this question had her taking on a form reminiscent of her mother: taller and older, her hair growing longer and dark, her face stern. She even grew heavier, her weight pressing Bella's feet deeper into the cushions, though she rose and began to pace almost at once. "Black's escape is the subject of an ongoing investigation, even if I knew anything, I wouldn't be able to talk about it. You should know that."
"But. He's a Black. I'm a Black. You're a Black. Well, kind of. You should be, anyway, if Meda hadn't left the family like an idiot. We'll have to do something about that eventually. But that's not the point. Family comes first, I know she would have taught you that. And besides, he's innocent, at least of the murders and the treason. He was a blood traitor, but I'm willing to overlook that — not like there's a lot of options left for reviving the house. Unless you want to go knock up a few witches for me."
Nymphadora looked rather startled at that, as though she had never considered the option before. "What? No. I may be a metamorph, okay, but I don't do party tricks, and I'm not going to be a bloody stud for the House of Black. I know you're all crazy about the Family, even Mum was, and well, you know how that turned out. But, no."
Bella snorted. "I was pretty much joking, didn't think you'd go for it." It was an obvious joke to make, considering the...contributions the last Black metamorph named Nymphadora had made to the Family. But the Seventeenth Century was a long time ago. If Meda's Nymphadora were willing to give the House a few bastards, she'd take them, but she hadn't thought it likely. Modern sensibilities, and all that. "And anyway, I'm a long way from bringing Meda back into the House, let alone you. Point is, I need Sirius, and he couldn't just sit patiently in Azkaban until I was ready to break him out—"
"Auror!" her niece interrupted. "I am an Auror!"
"In training," she said, rolling her eyes.
"Still! You can't just casually talk about committing felonies in front of me! If you actually do anything illegal and they ask me what I know about it, I will be honor-bound to tell them!"
Bella couldn't help but snigger a bit at her glare. "You're kind of adorable, you know. 'I will be honor-bound...' Powers, you're such a Hufflepuff."
The metamorph sank into a body no older than Bella's own, topped with a mess of bright yellow, black-striped hair, glaring down at her over crossed arms. "What's wrong with Hufflepuff?"
"Wait — were you really? I didn't actually think you were."
"Yeah, I was. Dad, too."
"Wait. Meda left the family for a muggleborn Hufflepuff? Mother must have been ecstatic." She grinned, giggling internally at the thought of the explosion that must have ensued when dear old Dru heard the news.
"Hey, no changing the subject! What's wrong with Hufflepuff?"
She shrugged. "Nothing. Just, their whole truth, fairness, upholding the law and external loyalties thing? It's not very House of Black, that's all."
Nymphadora paused for a moment, apparently considering this. "Why do you even care so much about the House of Black?"
The question actually threw Bella for a moment. "I don't understand."
"Well, I mean," her niece elaborated, "It doesn't seem like you liked your family very much and, like it or not, most of them are already dead. Saving the House won't bring them back."
Bella hesitated. In her experience, it was always ridiculously difficult to explain why she did anything to anyone else. She didn't really know why. Her reasons always made perfect sense to her. "It's not about liking the Family. Though you're right, I didn't like most of them, and I wouldn't bring them back if I could. Liking people is kind of a weird concept in general, isn't it? Blacks tend to be more interesting than other people, I'll admit, but that's got nothing to do with reviving the House."
Her niece gave her a very strange look at that, but didn't interrupt with whatever inanity she was thinking.
"'It is the first duty of any scion of the House to ensure its survival,'" she quoted, imitating Arcturus's intonation. "People have been telling me that since before I can remember. I was the heir presumptive for most of my life, you know. Sirius' birth freed me up to do whatever, but until a few years ago... It doesn't matter that you know they're brainwashing you, it still sinks in. And more importantly, you know, I don't really exist at the moment. Not legally. This is one of those situations where it would really be helpful to have the money and power of the House behind me."
Nymphadora's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "What would you do, if you had it? The money and power of the Blacks."
Bella shrugged. It probably wouldn't be a good idea to tell the soon-to-be Auror that she would most likely use the Family's influence to destabilize society and spread chaos and discord through all the land (Bwah ha ha ha!). "I'm not really sure," she answered, equally honestly. "I don't know what's been going on yet, politically speaking, but it would be easier to do...anything, really, with money and the family name to draw on. Maybe a place to sleep other than Meda's spare bed. You know, the basics."
Bella had never been very good at legilimency. She was very, very good at occlumency, one of the many advantages of Eris' presence hovering at the back of her mind, but that couldn't help her figure out what her niece was thinking, staring at her intently, saying nothing, her hair still distractingly badger-themed.
With no other obvious recourse, Bella stared back, her thoughts wandering toward bed. It had been a very long day, and she really should have a talk with her Patron before sleeping. Hadn't she said something about shedding some light on the decisions of Other Bellatrix?
Eventually, Nymphadora broke her silence. "And you're sure he's innocent? How do you know?"
Well, Bella hadn't expected that. "A house elf told me."
"A house elf."
"I showed up at Ancient House, and while I was there, I questioned the elf about the state of the House. She told me that Sirius was innocent. I believe her. You know they can't lie to their masters."
Nymphadora rolled her eyes. "No, but they can be mistaken, and house elves are more likely than most witnesses to have a blind spot for their families."
Bella let out a humorless chuckle. "Not in this case. Look, has Meda told you about the Covenant?"
"Guess not. Not relevant, since you're not really a Black, I guess. Okay, mini family history lesson. Back about five hundred years ago, the House of Black nearly died out. Onyx and Mela, who were twins and the only Blacks left at that point, dedicated the House to the Dark Powers in perpetuity in exchange for power and the continuation of the Family. The Powers agreed, Onyx and Mela had a bunch of incest babies, most of them went insane and killed a bunch of people including themselves and their kids in really creative ways, but eventually the ones that didn't lose their minds or their lives managed to get enough new blood into the House to revive it, regain all the power they had once had and more, blah blah blah. Point is, it was a fundamental part of the Family Magics that as long as the House of Black served the Dark, the House would never fall."
Her niece looked skeptical. Probably didn't really believe in the Powers. There were a lot of people, Bella had found, who said they believed, even superficially called on them, or attended the holiday rituals, but didn't really mean it.
"Okay, say I believe that. What does it have to do with Black?"
"Powers, Nymphadora," she said with a teasing glare, "impatient much? I'm getting there! According to the elf, Sirius broke the Covenant. Blacks are born dedicated to the Dark. He re-dedicated himself to the Light, shattered the foundation of the Family Magic. Trust me, there's no soft spot for him with the elves of Black. But that's kinda irrelevant. There's no way he'd have betrayed the Light for the Dark after that."
"He could have done. There's a difference between magical polarization and politics." Still skeptical, but Bella could see she was wavering, or rather, hear it in her tone.
"There is, but. Okay, I can tell you're not aligned yourself, so I'm guessing you don't know much about dedication rituals. I mean, they're kinda personal, or else family things, so."
Her niece shook her head. "But how can you tell I'm not aligned?"
"Are you telling me you can't tell I'm dark?"
"Well, no, but I learned how to tell from the Aurors."
Bella frowned. Thinking back on it, she supposed that had been one of the things Uncle Orion had taught her, long before school. Had Meda not thought to teach her daughter? Or had she not done so for some specific reason?
"Um, no, learning to recognize the polarization of someone's aura is one of the most basic magic-sensing exercises. I learned when I was, what, four? But that's not the point. Dedicating yourself to the Dark or the Light is... It's about your principles, as much as your magic. It's not just your magic that's aligned, it's you, everything you are. There's a reason shithead Light politicians argue that Dark wizards are inherently bad people: we're more selfish and more controlling, less predictable and sociable. Which aren't necessarily bad traits, and it's not like, deterministic anyway. There's still choice, maybe more for the Dark than the Light. Light-aligned wizards aren't generally keen on disrupting the status quo.
"But Sirius very explicitly rejected those parts of himself. He wouldn't have betrayed his friends after that. And, I don't really know much about the Dark Lord and that whole movement, but I wouldn't think he'd be the sort of recruit they were looking for after that. He would hardly have been able to cast truly dark magic, for one thing, and there would be no political advantage in recruiting a blood traitor to the Blacks."
Bella wasn't sure which point did it, but Nymphadora finally caved: "They say he's headed to Hogwarts. Sirius. That's all I know, you didn't hear it from me, and if you say you did, I'll deny it. But yeah, Hogwarts is your best bet if you really want to find him. You'll have to beat the dementors to him, though. They've granted Emergency Powers to Fudge, that's the Minister, and he's been making noise about letting them loose to recapture him."
"Oh." Bella couldn't really think of anything else to say about dementors. She had never seen one in person, but she couldn't imagine their powers would have much effect on her. Feeling things generally didn't. The same certainly wasn't true of Sirius, though, and there was that whole Kiss thing to worry about. A Lord Black with his soul sucked out was worse than no Lord Black at all. "Why Hogwarts?"
The metamorph groaned, aging herself back up a bit. "Fuck if I know. That's just what I heard."
Huh. Well, Bella supposed that made her next step relatively clear. "Guess I'm going back to school, then." On the one hand, this was fairly disappointing. Hogwarts generally had been, since she'd been well ahead of her peers (and even some of the OWL students) from the beginning — there were advantages to having a god hanging out in the back of her head, not to mention pre-Hogwarts access to the Black Library — and the most interesting person in her class certainly wouldn't be there anymore. But on the other, access to the Hogwarts library and professors could only help to address the question of how her world and this one differed, and why. (Dumbledore, she had read, was now the Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot, as well as the Headmaster? How the fuck had that happened?)
Plus it would give her a place to be other than here. She wasn't great at interpreting other people's reactions to her, but she was fairly certain she had already worn out her welcome with Tonks. Oops.
Nymphadora put on an exaggeratedly skeptical expression. Bella wondered if she'd had to morph her face to do that, it seemed like a bit much. "And how, exactly, are you going to do that? It's not exactly easy to get a transfer in to Hogwarts, especially when you don't technically exist."
Bella shrugged, yawning for effect. "I'll figure it out tomorrow. Your father said something about a spare bed?"
"You mean my bed? I wasn't planning on going back to my flat tonight," the so-called adult groused.
"All the better to avoid being 'ambushed,'" Bella suggested with a smirk.
Nymphadora rolled her eyes. "Well, yeah. But really, the fucking sadist's just been keeping me so busy I haven't got to the shops in ages. I've half a spoilt grapefruit in the fridge, and nothing else."
While Bella would normally take full advantage of that admission to tease her niece about her failures as a competent adult, she felt there was a more pressing concern: "Where am I supposed to sleep, then?"
"Haven't you ever slept on a sofa before?"
Bella gave her niece her best 'you must be joking' look. Did she honestly think Bella ever had slept on a sofa? She could almost understand not having an elf to do the shopping and make regular meals. Andromeda didn't seem to have one, and Bella herself had avoided interacting with the elves of Black for years, there were reasons not to want them around. Privacy, for one, but mostly because they were annoying. But she couldn't quite imagine not having enough beds for everyone. She was fairly certain she had never stayed anywhere with fewer than eight bedrooms. If there were too many cousins over, for a holiday or the like, they simply shared, they didn't start relegating children to parlors. "Of course I've never slept on a bloody sofa. Why would anyone?"
Of course, the idea of sleeping on a sofa was somewhat appealing, given that sofas were most decidedly not for sleeping upon, and this one wasn't terribly uncomfortable, so far as sofas went, but it certainly wasn't as comfortable as a bed. Too lumpy. Besides, unless Meda had changed drastically in the past thirty years — which wasn't outside the realm of possibility, seeing as she had married a muggleborn and did live in a tiny house with no elf to keep it for her — she would have a conniption if she found out a guest had been left to sleep in the sitting room, rather than in a proper bedroom. Even if that guest was only Bella.
Nymphadora gave her a look of complete incomprehension before apparently realizing this. "Ugh, fine, you can share with me, come on."
Bella shrugged. "If you don't want to, we don't have to. I can sleep here."
She didn't hate the idea of sleeping next to Nymphadora. It was somewhat novel, the idea of prolonged physical contact with another person. Meda had stopped being all snuggly and cuddly years ago (with a few particular exceptions). There was Zee, of course — Bella still wasn't sure what to think about that (not that it mattered now). But she didn't want to force herself on her niece if she was genuinely unwelcome.
"No, it's fine. I can't promise I won't change sizes and steal all the covers in my sleep, though."
Bella sniggered. "I can't believe you're supposed to be an adult. Bed, then?"
Nymphadora glared at her, but hopped off the couch, motioning for her to follow. "I'll have you know I'm a highly successful, very competent adult! I can't be held responsible for what this," she gestured at her body, "does when I'm unconscious!"
Any impression that she had full control over herself when she was awake was immediately undermined as she wheeled around to move toward the door, apparently forgetting about the coffee table she had been pacing around for the past twenty minutes. In the space of a second, the same lamp she had already repaired once was in pieces again, and the table it had been sitting on looked like so much firewood. "Shit!" she yelped, from the floor, examining the damage and a spectacular bruise on her left shin. "What did I do with my wand?"
A moment later, however, when the wand came flying through the air from the wreckage of the table, Bella was forced to admit that, all clumsiness and inability to feed herself aside, her niece apparently had a lot of control when it came to magic. But, well, metamorph — she was nearly as much of a cheater as Bella herself was. The bruise, for example, she simply morphed away, healed in a second without a single spell.
"You saw nothing," she said with a fake glare, hauling herself to her feet, carefully repairing the furnishings and levitating them back into place.
Despite herself, Bella couldn't help smiling to herself a little. Not even a smirk either, but a legitimate, almost pleasant smile. Weird. "Nope, nothing. Let's go to bed, before anything else mysteriously and spontaneously shatters in your general vicinity."
Liking people was still a weird concept, though.
It took maybe two seconds for Bella to realize she was dreaming, reliving one of her own less pleasant memories. It took another five for her to realize this wasn't the familiar nightmare.
After all, if Eris had shown up at Bella's fifth birthday party, she was pretty sure somebody would have noticed.
It was more than a little surreal. She was in a half-familiar parlor at Ancient House, surrounded by a couple dozen children around her age, laughing along with most of them at Yaxley. Ponce seemed to have gotten cake smeared all over his face. There did seem to be quite a bit of frosting on Bella's fingers, so she'd probably had something to do with that. She didn't remember this happening, she didn't know why she'd done it, but she didn't think she'd ever met a Yaxley who wasn't a smug little shit — she was sure he'd had it coming.
Her body was moving, talking on its own, she could feel another set of feelings, another set of thoughts, at an odd sort of remove from her. Fuzzy, indistinct, but there. That had to be her memory of...her own mind, which was...weird. But okay. It was odd, observing her five-year-old self from within, but it was far from the oddest thing she'd done.
And there was Eris, standing right there between Nott and Selwyn, laughing at Yaxley with the rest of them. She certainly hadn't actually been there. She looked as she always presented herself to Bella, aged down to match the children. Her short, bright blue hair, set in spikes angled all over the place in a mess, the glimmering piercings through her eyebrow, her lip, multiple places in her ears, the heavy khol about her eyes such an intense black her sclera seemed almost painfully bright, all of it seemed far more strange with her looking like a five-year-old girl than it normally did. Almost obscene. (Not that Bella had a problem with obscenity.) Her eyes all but danced with shifting shadows — though, as always, they couldn't seem to decide what color they should be, glance away and it changed, brown, hazel, violet, red, green, and back again — too-sharp teeth glinting in a wicked, too-wide grin.
Not for the first time, Bella wondered if Eris had anything to do with the existence of metamorphs.
Shifting eyes flicked toward hers, grin tilting into a teasing smirk. "Now now, you know better than that. That would be telling."
Bella tried to pout, but her lips weren't obeying her, too busy saying something to someone she wasn't really paying attention to. Doesn't really matter, I suppose. Just curious.
What are we doing here, anyway? She'd rather not stay here, if she could help it. Her fifth birthday had been... Bad, it had been bad.
"We won't be staying that long." The parlor around her shifted, blurred. The memory-Bella was moving, faster than should be possible, as though time were sliding by far faster than usual. But no matter how their surroundings changed, Eris stayed in the same place relative to her, a few feet ahead, slightly to the side. "I believe you wished to know what happened to you in this timeline."
Oh. So this wasn't her memory of her fifth birthday party — it was the other Bella's. Interesting. It looked virtually the same. She remembered this part, even. She'd caught a glimpse of Abraxas Malfoy, walking down the hall with Cygnus. (For some reason she'd forgotten since, she knew she used to like Abraxas.) She'd scrambled after them, backtracking in this timeline to wipe the frosting off her fingers at the last second. They'd been at the hearth by the time Bella had caught up, and she'd—
Bella was dumbfounded enough she hardly noticed her past self run up to hug Abraxas, spouting off nonsense rapidfire, offering cake and begging for presents. (Powers, she'd been an annoying little kid.) Because Abraxas and Cygnus weren't alone.
What the fuck is Professor Riddle doing at my fifth birthday party?
Eris just stared at her, the usual grin notably absent.
The other Bella shut up long enough for Abraxas, not even bothering to hide his amusement, to make introductions. "Bella, meet Mister Thom. Thom, this wild little heathen is—"
No, seriously, what?! Mister Tom? Like the Mister Tom who became the Dark Lord Mister Tom?
Eris smiled, but it wasn't a pleasant smile. Gazing at the memory of Riddle — tall and thin, blue eyes somehow darker and hair rather neater than Bella had ever seen on him — her smile was hard, sharp, deadly. Her voice light, yet at once oppressive, she said, "The very same."
But... But that was Professor Riddle. Sure, he was a bit more pale than she remembered him being, and he looked...cleaner, she would say, as though he'd put rather more effort into putting himself together. Fine robes sitting just so, hair cut even and held firmly in place, even his expression tight and controlled. That, just... He was definitely her antisocial swot of a Defense Professor, but at the same time...
"Always trust your instincts, little bellatrice. In your timeline, Tom Riddle become an underappreciated magical researcher and Professor of Defense at Hogwarts. In this timeline, he became the Dark Lord Voldemort. They are the same person."
That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard! Really, Riddle? I would have believed anyone, anyone, before Riddle! I just... I can't picture it. I just can't.
She was so distracted by the thought of a Dark Lord Riddle she almost missed it entirely.
It was subtle. The little Bella's thoughts were an energetic jumble, a mix of curiosity and excitement and far too much sugar for a young lady. She was talking to Professor Riddle, who was apparently the bloody Dark Lord, when...
It was hard to describe, exactly. If she weren't inside the other Bella's mind, she might not have noticed. A light touch of magic, so weak it might almost not be there at all. And the other Bella's thoughts changed, bending ever so slightly, shifting themselves into alignment with the foreign magic, focusing on him. So subtle, barely there, but...
If she was reading this right — which admittedly she might not be, it had been years since her own mind had been this noisy — little Bella found him interesting. That's all he had done. But the effect lingered, and her own subconscious thoughts grew around it, wanting his attention, wanting him to want to see her again. Little Bella, the one under his spell, wanted to make a good impression, which Bella herself could honestly say was not a thing she had ever given two shits about before. The five-year-old modified her behavior at once, instantly becoming more subdued.
If that was intentional, it was masterfully done.
"Tom Riddle always did have a gift for compulsion," Eris admitted, her tone heavy with disgust. Bella wasn't surprised — compulsions, bindings, oaths, any such magic that limited a person's freedom, a person's choices, these stood in direct opposition to everything the Chaotic Power was. It was only right her Lady should hate them.
Not that she always agreed. You have to admit, I was an irritating kid. She honestly wasn't sure how long she could have spent with her younger self without wanting to hex her. Even just sitting here in her head was exhausting.
Eris glared at her, eyes gone dark. "Do you know, little bellatrice, why it is so very illegal to use mind altering magics on young children?"
In point of fact, she didn't. She had actually forgotten about that law. She knew it had been covered in her lessons on the Unforgivable Acts, but it wasn't as though she was going to go around casually controlling kids' minds, so she had hardly given it a second thought.
Eris sniffed disapprovingly. "You will see. Now, unless you've changed your mind and want to see the next part again, I suggest we move on."
Bella shuddered slightly. No. She didn't need to relive that particular memory.
But wait, if Abraxas didn't take the cake, why the hell did Cygnus Imperius me? She distinctly recalled that it was supposedly a punishment for acting like a House Elf, running around serving guests herself.
"Apparently seeing you behave properly for someone other than himself was just as 'legitimate' an excuse as your acting like a servant for someone other than himself. Now, hold onto your knickers, ducky."
The scene shifted suddenly, with a dizzying feeling of expanding that Bella had felt only once before. It was somewhat similar to free-fall, but more exhilarating, dropping into the vastness of everything without the safety net of a broom to catch her.
This was what it felt like to be Eris: It was big. Overwhelmingly so. Everything. It wasn't infinite, but the scale of Eris' experience, even just her moment-to-moment existence, was so vast in comparison to Bella and her limited, so very mortal soul, that it might as well have been. Things, events, existed in more dimensions than Bella could process, linked to one another by...she wasn't really sure. Her only point of reference was the suspicion that her goddess moved through time in the same direction as mortals, but there was something weird about the pacing of it, or else her perception of it.
Humans weren't really meant to try to comprehend godhood. She had had a migraine for a week on the one occasion she had dared to ask what it was like in the mind of Chaos. By unspoken agreement, they had never attempted to replicate that particular experiment.
As best Bella could tell — mostly in hindsight, she was in no state to try to analyze anything here — her patron was pulled in many different directions simultaneously, in all of those dimensions Bella couldn't quite grasp, toward confluences of events and people that she held some affinity for. Chaos, strife, war. Social collapse. And the people who could effect them, of course. Her strength lay in them, in their actions, and she could influence them somewhat on the mortal plane, or so Bella thought, she wasn't really sure. Eris perceived this multiplicity of events as equally present and relevant, watching and acting in ways which felt independent to Bella, who could only focus on one at a time, though Eris insisted that she was only one entity, regardless of universe and timeline.
Last time, on her tenth birthday, she had spent hours trying to wrap her mind around Eris's. (Attempting the impossible.) This time, the field of perception narrowed swiftly, Eris limiting Bella's access to something akin to human scale. There was still the sense of vast potential hovering just beyond Bella's...not sight, she didn't seem to have a body here, or eyes, or any sort of senses with which she was familiar, really. Just magic, and the instinctive attempt to translate the unknowable into something she could make sense of on a more rational level, like a metaphor. Everything that Eris was, was still there, but beyond her reach, anyway. She was still intangible, existing in the void-like space the goddess inhabited outside the mortal plane, but instead of being overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of places and times and interactions and choices, there was only one.
One small, miserable, hope-filled soul, calling out to magic and beyond with will and pain and above all potential, resonating with Eris like a bell struck in the darkness. Hers, or at least, she would be.
"Please," the voice called, "Please, magic, Dark Powers, hear me. Help me. Give me the strength I need — save me from my father, and help me save my sister. I need this. I'll do anything. Please."
Eris drew closer, extending herself somewhat into the mortal plane, to watch alongside the other Powers whose attention the girl — Bella, another younger version of herself, attempting her first ever piece of ritual magic — had drawn. She joined in their collective as they spoke, manifesting and recognizing the child, offering her the Choice.
"Little warrior princess of the darkest House," they said, the words not quite entirely physical. The young Bella gasped, a hand rising involuntarily to her head at the intrusion of their magic. "Would you swear your soul, your magic, and your life in service to a single power?"
Her soul answered before she said it aloud. "Yes." She was theirs. She had always been theirs. There was no universe where she would not swear herself to them.
The old agreement, terms dictated by her blood, her humanity for their power, they offered it. They could tell that she knew not whereof she spoke when she agreed, but anything was anything, and that she had promised.
Eris' interest reached a sharp, nearly painful peak as they asked the final question — a formality. It was clear her soul was a reflection of Eris' own, and knowing so little as she did, that would determine her specific loyalty. The other Powers began to recede as they projected themselves onto the world, nearly physical in the same way they had nearly spoken. "In whose name would you serve?" they asked. She asked. It was mostly Eris, now, Bella thought, or at least mostly Chaos. They weren't actually interchangeable. Eris was different from Loki and Coyote and Apep, though they were all aspects of Chaos.
"What aspect of the Dark would you serve, child?" they elaborated when she hesitated, uncertain. "What Power? What goddess? To whom would you dedicate yourself in return for the power that you seek?"
"I get to choose?"
There was something heart-wrenching about that question, even for Eris, who didn't truly have a heart. Even for Bella, who had lived this, who already knew the life this younger version of herself had lived. There wasn't much choice in that life. Just this. Just the stubborn refusal to bow to Cygnus' demands and the expectations of Society. Just taking care of Meda, and she wasn't even sure how much of that had been a choice.
That was it. Permission, or something like it, for the gods to choose amongst themselves, whom she would serve. Bella was somewhat surprised to realize how closely she had come to being a dedicate of Eshu, as he argued (if a wordless contest of strength of similarity and resonance could be called "arguing") that her facility with languages and her desire to protect her sister placed the young Bella closer to him. But at seven, Bella had known nothing of the Yoruba Orisha — in truth, the only one she was even passingly familiar with now was Eshu himself — and she knew nothing of the maturity he favored in his Chosen. Eris won out and the others withdrew, their once-shared form shimmering into a shape entirely foreign to the young supplicant, but not unpleasant.
Fully present, she spoke, carefully (physically), in English stolen from the mind of the child herself. "It has been a long time since a child of the House of Black has made the Choice to declare herself a Black Mage...and longer still since anyone has managed to come so close without knowing. You are an oddity, my little bellatrice...brilliant and strong and full of potential, but so very ignorant...in some ways very much a child, and innocent to the ways of the world, but in others...not. Your soul is called to Chaos, and your heart is full of trouble and spite. You would serve me well, I think, if you are as willing as you seem."
They were the same words Eris had spoken to Bella when she made her own declaration. In fact, she was not entirely certain that this was not her, but Other Bella of the birthday party and the Dark Lord's army. But that would make far more sense than Eris suddenly deciding to show her a memory of her own past. Not that it wasn't interesting to see the experience from Eris' point of view, but.
Yes, an external thought intruded upon her consciousness. This is my memory of the Bella of your new timeline. Now pay attention, we're getting to the important part.
"Might I know my Lady's name?" seven-year-old Bella asked, clearly frightened, but utterly determined to continue.
"They call me Eris, little priestess." She kissed the top of Bella's head, almost maternally, then led her through the ritual phrase to finalize the dedication.
"I offer myself to the Chaotic Power, in the Aspect of Eris. Twice and thrice sworn before the eyes of the Powers of Darkness and the spirits of my ancestors, I dedicate myself. So mote it be."
Eris was pleased, more so than Bella had ever felt before. That, too, was probably the same as her own dedication, she supposed, but she hadn't had the same connection to the goddess then. That had come later, after: "Good girl. Brace yourself."
Bella remembered this part as being unbearably painful, her soul burning and breaking and reshaping to accept Eris into her mind. She had done her best to maintain her willingness, telling herself over and over that this was good, she needed this, but she had certainly lost consciousness at some point, passing out from the pain and waking up in Eris's arms after it was done.
Eris remembered it somewhat differently. She was still staring into the young Bella's eyes, still holding her in place with a single finger beneath her chin. She thrust herself into Bella's mind like a human legilimens, tearing through her like a forest fire, consuming all the softness of her and leaving ashes in her wake. Empathy vanished, along with the vast majority of her capacity for emotional response as the goddess stripped her humanity, leaving only those parts of her being that reflected the attitude of the Powers, in the world but not of it, and Eris herself. There was amusement and anger still, and a sharp, self-destructive joy, but fear was gone, along with sadness and anything approaching remorse. She left Bella's affection for Meda (and the Family in the abstract, by extension) untouched, since she was half the reason Bella had made her Choice in the first place, but all other traces of love, all other loyalties were stripped from her.
What is that? Bella asked, as Eris encountered a... The image that came to mind was a knot, as in a piece of wood, a scar in the regular development of her mind, a twisted, warped area of thoughts and feelings, diffuse and subtle, but deeply rooted.
That, the disembodied, present-tense Eris answered, even as past Eris continued to probe at the thing, is Tom fucking Riddle. His compulsions, twisting your mind, your growth, around him.
She could feel past-Eris's consternation. Disgust. Rage. For a moment it almost seemed as though she would rip this thing out, burn it with the rest of Bella's more human impulses. But she hesitated, following the chain of compulsions and the connections to other thoughts and memories too quickly for Bella to register, let alone comprehend. And then, fury roiling off of her, she moved on, creating a place for herself, an irreversible bond between the two of them.
His corruption was too deeply rooted in your mind to remove it, or even undermine it, without damaging your fundamental sense of self, Eris explained. Your personality had built itself upon certain beliefs and assumptions he had placed: You find Mr. Tom interesting. You like him. You want to please him. You trust him. He built them up, adding one after the next, every time you encountered him for the two years between your first meeting and this. You were already very much his by this point, though you would not have said so at the time. So much you had learned with the underlying thought of impressing him, so much you had done and practiced with the thought in mind of whether he would approve, what he might do in such a situation. I had to leave it, or else risk destroying your memories and your personality entirely.
Bella would have nodded, if she'd had a head. 'Projected a sense of understanding and acceptance' was probably more accurate. She didn't like what she was seeing either, those twisted thoughts so obviously wrong in a mind so very similar to her own. She still wasn't sure she understood the full implications of it, though. She had obviously still been herself. She had still dedicated herself to Eris, still prioritized Meda and her own safety over everything else. And it probably wasn't objectively a bad thing if she had worked harder in her lessons because she had some sort of compulsion-induced crush on not- Professor Riddle.
If Eris had been visibly present, she would have glowered. Bella could feel her disapproval humming through her. One more memory, then. Something later... Oooh, perfect.
Bella was dropped into the mind of her older self, this time as she materialized out of an apparition, her arm tucked into Professor Riddle's.
She could feel the heat of his body through his robes, the swish of her own heavy dress around her ankles as they appeared, smell the perfume of his cologne and beneath that, a dry, almost reptilian scent that was all his own (at least, it felt familiar to Other Bella). They were on a mountain in a grove of trees, their branches nearly blotting out the stars, which were the only source of light. There was a muggle girl lying in the center of a small clearing, bound hand and foot, tears in her eyes. The details were difficult to make out, but Other Bella's eyes quickly adjusted, showing that the girl bore a clear resemblance to herself.
She turned to look up at the not-professor, raising an eyebrow at him in a silent question. Bella was somewhat startled to see the transformation he had undergone since she had first seen him in this timeline. It was still recognizably the same person, but only just. His cheekbones, always one of his most striking features, now dominated his face, so angular he looked almost emaciated. His skin was inhumanly pale, almost glowing in the darkness, and his eyes actually were glowing, as though dim lamps shuttered with red filters set inside his skull. The effect reminded her of a lizard, or some kind of snake, maybe.
Okay, now I can imagine him going full Dark Lord, she thought at Eris.
"This is not the time for levity," her patron chided, manifesting her blue-haired avatar, features contorted in hatred and disgust as she looked upon the pair of them, the not-professor and his...apprentice, she supposed. (It felt wrong even to think it.) "Look! Just look at what he's done to her!"
After a brief moment of confusion — this legilimency thing was harder than it looked, especially second-hand, in a bloody memory — Bella turned inward to examine the mind of her memory-host.
It was obvious, what Eris wanted her to see. It was the first thing she noticed, after fighting past the superficial sensations of apparition sickness and the idea that, as much as she hated the sensation of side-alonging, she apparently didn't hate it when he did it.
The knot she had seen in her seven-year-old counterpart's mind, the corruption of her thoughts leading her to a childish crush on the wizard at her side and a desire to impress him so deep that even Eris hadn't dared destroy it, it had spread. Like a Strangling Kudzu left to its own devices, choking the life out of every tree and creature in its path. There was hardly a part of her mind unaffected, now. She couldn't even identify this Bella's connection to Eris at first, buried as it was behind a thick web of obfuscations. Could they even speak, this Bella and her goddess? How had she allowed this to happen?
"No, I can't speak to her," Eris ground out, every syllable filled with rage, directed toward the man who had dared do this to her dedicate. "And as for why I allowed her to continue to associate with him, you know the answer."
She did. There was really only one reason Eris did anything, ultimately. For chaos. If she had allowed this Bella to become the apprentice of this Dark Lord Riddle, it must have been because she sensed greater opportunities for chaos to ensue should they follow that path.
Is— Was it worth it? she asked, disgusted. Did I, she, at least make a difference in your name?
"It...was. Though she made her mark in his name, rather than mine. Chaos is chaos and that 'civil war' you read so much about would never have grown as it did without her influence on him. It was the best I could have hoped for, with his teeth sunk into her before she called to me. It gets worse from here, though," she added, her own teeth clenched. "Watch."
Bella had lost track of external events, poking about in the mind of the memory. When she turned her attention to the other Bella's actions again, she was...
Is she... Is that an oath of fealty?!
"It is," Eris hissed.
Betrayal. So wrong. Hadn't Bella just been thinking that she had but one Lord, her Lady, to whom her loyalty was absolute? She understood, now, what the house elf had meant, but she still couldn't quite believe it, even as she heard herself speaking: "As my Lord does fulfil our agreement, I am submitted to him, and so choose his will in all things. Twice and thrice-bound, this I swear, before magic, my Patron and my Master."
Eris made an inarticulate sound of rage. "She called me as a witness! Me! Insult upon injury! That little...!"
Bella didn't like seeing her Lady angry at herself, even another version of herself. Maybe she thought that was the most respectful thing to do, making you a part of it.
Her goddess made a visible effort to control herself. "I am not angry with you, my bellatrice. It's him. He has stolen, usurped my dedicate — watch!"
Bella's body was moving, now, toward the girl, still lying bound and crying in the dirt. She was vaguely aware that Riddle had said something like "prove your worth" which wasn't entirely outside the script of the oath of fealty, but asking her to kill a muggle girl in cold blood was... It was kind of a lame challenge, really. After all, she was already all tied up and helpless. Not to mention she didn't really know what "worth" this was supposed to prove. Her willingness to do whatever he told her to, maybe? But what the fuck was his deal with muggles? She had noticed how his people had targeted them, reading about his war, but...
She was rather suddenly and comprehensively distracted as the older, memory Bella straddled the girl, locking her fingers around her neck and squeezing. The body bucked wildly beneath her, pulse pounding at her fingers more frantically with every passing second. It was... well, to be honest, it was strangely arousing, though she probably wouldn't admit that to anyone but Eris, and maybe Zee. The body's limbs wrenched at the ropes, trying to escape, but she rode it out, or rather, memory-Bella rode it out, while Bella rode her, until at last the girl stilled, death settling upon her flesh like dew on the grass beside them.
Memory-Bella giggled, reveling in the rush of exhilaration which apparently came from taking a life — Bella herself hadn't ever killed anyone, she didn't know — and thinking to herself that maybe there is something to be said for the hands-on approach.
If Bella had eyes at the moment, she'd be rolling them. Is she in the habit of making awful puns now? I don't know if I can take that, on top of everything else.
Eris didn't bother responding to that one.
"I present unto my Lord this sacrifice," Other Bella said aloud, "as proof of the virtue of my service."
"I accept the proof of your resolve," Riddle answered, smirking as though he knew exactly how...distracting she had found that whole exercise. "Kneel to receive my Mark."
It almost felt like Eris changing her, this 'marking' — painful on a level that most people were never even aware existed, let alone considered making alterations to. His magic sunk its hooks deep into her own, altering her fundamental identity, putting a stamp on her very soul that said mine, building his own connection between her magic and his which would only be severed by death or the breaking of their vows, as surely as if they were wed. She could feel it settling within memory-Bella, her alter ego refusing the negative associations of the pain of it, reveling in the sensation of him, being so close, being part of her, making her part of himself.
Bella felt sick. This was wrong. This was even more wrong than the vow of fealty. This was... Something clicked. This was all because of what he had done to her mind. If he hadn't made her into...that, she never would have forsaken the loyalty owed to her Patron, never. This— This wasn't her. She, this other Bella, might as well be his puppet, an extension of his will even before she offered him the soul that was not hers to give.
"Yes," Eris hissed. "Now you understand. This is the reason it is so very wrong to do what he did to you. To her. You hate the Imperius, little bellatrice, because it forces you to want what someone else wants for you. But the Imperius you can recognize, fight. Compulsions, too, you might recognize, now, even without my influence, and ignore by an exercise of your own will.
"But when a child is compelled, especially if they are unaware, their thoughts and feelings, their entire personality can grow up around the compulsions, the very shape of their mind twisted and groomed into a shape determined by another. Far more insidious than the Imperius, far more permanent. It cannot be fought or even felt by the victim, who believes their choices to be their own, not recognizing limitations on their perception and reality. It is the vilest of the so-called Unforgivable Acts invented by you mortals, to take away all agency, entirely without the victim's knowledge, to force them to act in service to their shaper's design."
She finally got it. What he had done to her. Her alternate self. Whatever. She got it.
And she was furious. But she couldn't grit her teeth, she couldn't clench her fists, they were too far away from her. Instead it just hurt, a weight of rage overwhelming her.
He made me want whatever he wanted, and did it so subtly I never even realized...
Made me swear loyalty and fealty to him, until death and beyond, of my own free bloody will, if that's even fucking possible.
He used me, made me his creature, his fucking slave, and I thought it was all my own fucking idea.
If this were the present moment, if Bella were actually in control, she'd be smearing the bloody remains of his corpse across half the mountainside about now. But she couldn't. She couldn't fucking move, and she had to, needed to do something. To sit here watching, helplessly, feeling herself gasping, looking up at him adoringly, saying, "Thank you — thank you, Master. Thank you, my Lord," it was agony.
Every fiber of her being revolted against it. She could not, would not —
She jerked herself out of the memory, out of the dream, and found herself sitting bolt upright, the rising sun painting streaks of light on the far wall of the Tonkses' spare bedroom, panting as though she had been running or fighting for hours.
"Alright there, Trixie?"
Nymphadora. She was awake, and herself. Relief flooded through her, and she allowed herself to flop back onto the pillows. "Fine. I'm fine."
Trixie, though? Only Zee was allowed to call her that.
"Nymphadora," she added in retaliation.
She ignored whatever her niece said next in favor of sending a pleading thought to Eris. Please tell me you can fix her — fix that.
Her goddess hesitated. It's worse now than it was then, it's been twenty years since then and... I'll try, my little bellatrice, but...
She knew the unspoken thought there: If Eris hadn't been able to safely risk removing even the tiny knot of those very first compulsions, how could she even begin to reverse the mess Riddle had made of her other self's mind?
I don't care, Eris. Just do it. Whatever you have to do. It's— If it were me, I'd die before I'd want to live like that. If she were in her right mind, she'd want you to do whatever you had to to free her, trust me.
Eris wasn't what Bella would consider highly prone to displays of affection, even for Bella, but she manifested herself at that to pull her into a hug — her presence perceivable only to her dedicate, of course, Nymphadora wouldn't see a thing. But to Bella, she was as real as anything, solid and warm as a person might be, but her presence so much more intense, unadulterated Darkness as ice tingling at her skin, wind tickling at her hair. Strange, perhaps, but not unpleasant. In fact, with each second she sat in her patron's arms, the agonizing rage gradually faded away. Assuring her without words that she had never been violated by Riddle. She had never turned away from her Lady in favor of some false Lord, betraying everything she knew herself to be for him.
Whatever she might have just vicariously experienced, she was still herself.
"I'll fix her," Eris whispered, her tone as full of smoke and mischief as ever, her words even more reassuring than her presence. "It will take time, my little bellatrice, but I'll fix her."
"Yes, Hogwarts." Bella took a slow sip of her tea, eyeing Meda as she fixed herself breakfast.
Watching Meda cook was sort of peculiar. Watching anyone cook was peculiar, really — anyone human, anyway, she'd only ever seen elves do it before. Bella wouldn't have any idea how, she hadn't even known how to use the stove before watching Meda do it. She'd nearly called Cherri to fix her tea before deciding she could just boil the water magically, not hard. It was absurd, really, seeing her sister, a daughter of the House of Black, frying away like a...like a...
Well, like a commoner, she guessed. It was weird.
Shaking herself from her thoughts, she said, "I'm told Sirius will be at Hogwarts. Don't ask me why, apparently there's something or someone there he wants." Come to think of it, since Sirius was innocent, he might be attempting to get himself a moment alone with the Chief Warlock, to plead his case. That was almost even rational. That possibility hadn't occurred to Bella until just now — she still found the fact Dumbledore was Chief Warlock very, very strange. "So, the best way to find him before someone less friendly does would be to place myself at Hogwarts. The most convenient way to do that would be to pose as a third-year student."
Meda turned to look at Bella over her shoulder, temporarily ignoring her sizzling breakfast. She stared at her for a moment, a rather odd look about her. If Bella had to guess, Meda had put together Nymphadora had leaked Auror intelligence to her, and wasn't sure how to feel about that.
Either that, or she was stuck on Bella referring to herself as "friendly" — she had to admit, that was sort of funny.
But what she said was, "Bella, dear, you are a third-year Hogwarts student."
Bella brushed that off with a dismissive flick of her fingers. Calling her a Hogwarts student implied she'd ever actually learned anything there. She'd only ever gone because it was expected of her, and nobody expected anything of people who (technically) didn't exist. It would be more accurate to say she was a part-time Hogwarts resident, that she had reason to reside there again this season. "The point is, I can't exactly turn up as Bellatrix Black now, can I?"
"No, I imagine that would be problematic."
Problematic, that was a word for it. Even if she could, just, explain the whole time travel thing, she doubted that would be a very good idea. From what little she had managed to gather, her alter-ego was almost as thoroughly vilified in the public consciousness of modern Britain as their Dark Lord. Even if she could get people to accept they were not the same person, technically sort of — and that was a rather heavy "if" — it would still make things...complicated. So, "I need a new identity, someone other than myself. A descendant of one of the Blacks inexplicably expelled from the Family would be best."
"Of course." There was a slight shade of humor on her voice, so weak it was barely noticeable.
"Right, well, you know who's who in this time far better than I do — who do we bribe?"
Part way through scraping whatever it was she'd made for herself out onto a plate, Meda froze. "Bribe?" This time, the tone on her voice was far more obvious: incredulity.
Bella blinked. "Yes?"
"With what, and in whose name?"
She opened her mouth to respond with the obvious answer — then she broke off, frowning to herself. Because the answer wasn't obvious. Her original plan, when she was to arrive in 1933, had been to convince the Lord Black of the time to establish her legal personhood by leaning on the proper bureaucrats to legitimize her existence. (Should it come to pass she needed to exist legally, which hadn't been a given.) But, there was no Lord Black now, not really.
She should, theoretically, have access to most of the family wealth, but actually using it might get complicated. While the Family Magics might recognize her as a Black, meaning the wards on their vaults should accept her, convincing the goblins to let her get far enough to prove it might be difficult. (Not to mention gravely irritating.) And even if she could get her hands on a pile of gold to shove at one bureaucrat or another, without the political weight of their name to go with it, that could easily turn out worse than useless. They might just turn her in.
She'd rather not see herself before the Wizengamot on trial for fraud, thanks.
A light clatter dropping directly in front of her startled Bella out of her thoughts. She blinked down at the kitchen table, finding a plate laden with beans, bacon, mushrooms, and fried bread. She blinked, glanced up. Meda was sinking to a seat on the opposite side of the table, an identical plate before her. And she smirked, a thin, self-satisfied, teasing sort of thing, as though daring Bella to comment, it would be so adorable.
So, of course, she kept her bloody mouth shut. She set her tea down, and picked up the plate, held it level against her legs with one hand. Chair still tilted back on its rear legs, her naked heels still planted on the corner of the table, she wordlessly speared a mushroom with her fork, meeting Meda's challenging smirk with a grin.
Some battles, she knew, were better not fought at all.
"Anyway," Bella muttered, the word half-muffled with mushroom. (Trying not to let her surprise show, that it was perfectly fine — not excellent, she could believe elves had been in no way involved, but if it had been Bella attempting to cook it wouldn't even have been edible.) "You wouldn't happen to have any better ideas?"
For a moment, Meda didn't say anything, bean-laden bread halfway to her mouth. Smiling over at Bella. She'd caught her doing this a handful of times, since she'd tracked her down at her office. The expression was oddly... Well, she wasn't sure, exactly. Just, smiling at her, looking all...nostalgic, she guessed was the word. If she had to guess — and she did have to guess, people were confusing — she'd say Meda had missed her.
Or rather, she'd missed Other Bella, more specifically Other Bella when she'd been Bella's age, before she'd been twisted into the mad Dark Lord puppet she now was. Which was just incomprehensible, for a whole host of reasons. Luckily, Meda knew her well enough to avoid drawing attention to it.
Even now the oddly warm smile was slipping away, replaced with a thoughtful frown. "I'm not sure I do, actually." That bit of bread finally disappeared into her mouth, and she chewed in silence for a long moment, narrowed eyes staring sightlessly at the surface of the table. She shrugged. "Assuming there was some reason you didn't want to use Zabini."
Bella frowned. "Zee? What does she have to with anything?"
"I'm sure we've all asked ourselves that question at some point." Meda's expression had shifted to one that looked almost...exasperated, she would say, though the word seemed a bit mild. That Meda was allowing it to show at all meant Zee would have had to have been making quite a nuisance of herself. (Which wasn't really surprising.) "She's well-placed to help you. She's on the Hogwarts Board of Governors, and she was made Director of Education a couple years ago now. Didn't you know? I'd have thought you would have looked her up."
"I meant to. I got distracted." Zee had been one of the people she'd intended to read up on in the Prophet archives. But, before she'd even gotten there, she'd learned Sirius had escaped. She'd been too focused trying to decide how to deal with that to bother with idle curiosities. "Wait, Director of Education? Zee? Really?"
"I didn't entirely understand it myself. I can only assume she bribed or seduced an impressive number of people to even get herself in the running. Oddly enough, though, she's been making a good job of it. Granted, I doubt she would care the slightest bit about the state of magical education in Britain if she hadn't a son of her own, but—"
Unfortunately, when Meda fired off that one, Bella's mouth happened to be full of beans. She inhaled more than a little, the rest dribbling down her chin to plop back onto her plate. And she was coughing, hard and painful and breathless, her breakfast thrown to the table so she didn't drop the bloody thing. And she kept coughing, and coughing, until her eyes were filled and her throat was burning, and she still couldn't get any air, her face was already starting to feel too thick and fuzzy, and—
Bella didn't hear or see the charm cast, but she felt it immediately, cool, soothing magic flooding through her, beans and gravy and mucus vanished away. She drew in a gasp, the heat and tightness instantly banished, though her throat still ached a little. And she lay there, slumped bonelessly back in her chair, and simply breathed for long moments, waiting for her heart to stop pounding at her eardrums.
Well. That had been embarrassing.
Once she was mostly back to normal, Bella flicked out her wand, conjured a napkin to clear away the mess on her face, a backhand wipe at her eyes taking care of that. She blearily frowned over at Meda — who, thankfully, had the grace to sit there calmly eating her breakfast as though she hadn't just stopped Bella from choking to death like a fucking idiot. "A son? Zee has a son?"
Meda nodded. "Blaise. Actually, he'll be a third-year in September as well." At Bella's raised eyebrow, Meda shrugged, abruptly avoiding her eyes. "She writes me. It's uncomfortable."
Right, well, she wasn't touching that. "I just... I can't even imagine it. I really can't." Bella sighed, shaking her head to herself. "Seriously, it's one surprise after another in this timeline. First all the Blacks are gone, then Sirius is breaking the Covenant, I've apparently gone completely insane, my awkward Defense Professor is a Dark Lord, and now Zee is breeding..."
"Well, when you put it like that it does all sound...rather absurd."
That would be because it is rather absurd, Meda.
Eris giggling in the back of her head was by no means at all helpful.
Right, that's the chapter, then. It did sort of get away from us, but we're both wordy bitches, so that should surprise no one.
It occurred to me that, Bella being the main character, and Eris's role being as significant as it is, some explanation of what exactly the Chaotic Power is might be necessary. Problem is, everyone in-universe already knows this, it will be some time before we run into a character in a situation that can be naturally used as an audience surrogate (maybe not even until fourth year at Hogwarts). So, to briefly (ha) hit the points I think most important... —Lysandra
Each Power has traits which might be considered 'good' or 'evil'. For example, the Deceptive Power ("dark") governs wisdom and experience alongside subterfuge and misdirection. The Naïve Power ("light") governs the thoughtlessness of youth as well as its potential. Whether a Power as a whole is considered "light" or "dark" is mostly a matter of social connotation rather than anything inherent in the Power. The "dark" Chaotic Power and "light" Deliberative Power have more in common, for example, than the Chaotic and Binding Powers, which are both "dark", but conceptually opposed. The Chaotic Power is considered "dark" because (among other things) it relates to individuals' freedom of choice causing social conflict. The Deliberative Power is considered "light" because it relates to an individual's ability to make (responsible) choices within a social framework.
Gods and goddesses are manifestations of an aspect of a power. For example, Fortuna (Lady Luck), Eris, Loki, and Coyote are all aspects of the Chaotic Power. They each have slightly different connotations. Eris is more spiteful than Loki, who is not only trickster but scapegoat, and Coyote is more whimsical and concerned with making trouble in the mortal realms, while Eris and Loki were largely troublemakers among the gods, or at a large scale. Fortuna is more serious. She's associated with a make-or-break-you kind of luck. She's tied to Fate, her Orderly ("light") counterpart, more closely than the others. —Leigha
The most important point to get across at the moment, Eris, and Chaos in general, is not inherently evil. (Nor is any Dark Power, really.) We may associate "chaos" with death and destruction, and while Eris's influence may result in death and destruction, they are incidental, not really the point. (Well, sort of, Eris can be a spiteful bitch sometimes.) The Chaotic Power is, fundamentally, all about choice and personal freedom — just, it doesn't recognize limits on freedom, which inevitably leads to conflict and discord. We have laws and social mores for a reason. By extension, Bella herself is not inherently evil. She is basically an artificial psychopath — and she was fucked up before Eris went playing with her brain — but apathy does not necessarily beget malevolence.
After all, one must generally care about someone one way or the other to enjoy seeing them suffer. And if you don't enjoy it, what's the point?
Right. That might be more than strictly necessary, but should hopefully alleviate the concerns of anyone uneasy with the idea of a main character dedicated to a dark god of chaos. And by this point we've rambled way more than enough. Next chapter when we get to it. —Lysandra