NOTICE: This fic is a sequel to All According to Plan. Reading that — and probably also the interlude, Nothing to do With the Plan — is rather necessary to understand what the hell is going on.
Without further ado...
Everybody had heard of Cherri Black by now. She was that elf.
When a family fell apart, there were a limited number of things the surviving elves could do. Some might make their way to a closely related family, or perhaps just a suitable ally, absorbed into their own elves with a minimum of fanfare. After all, when the humans of families were tied with bonds of blood and friendship, the elves tended to be as well. In cases where this was less feasible — the family had been relatively isolated, or perhaps too well-connected, no one family the obvious new home for the abandoned elves — they often found a temporary place with the Wizengamot or the Ministry. The magics at these public sites had been intentionally designed to allow elves to bind and unbind their magic freely, so they were often the safest places for elves to stay until such time as their dead family's assets were allocated to new heirs. The elves would then usually leave, following these properties into their new homes.
Dira was one of the several Black elves who, after the collapse of the family, had found his way to the Wizengamot. It was a temporary arrangement, still, but they'd stayed here far longer than they'd initially expected — their Lord was alive, but in prison, so the Black estate couldn't be passed to new heirs as it would usually be. But it would be, someday. Lord Sirius would not live forever, nor Mistress Bellatrix, and neither was likely to come home to them. The Family Magic, already broken, grew weak in their absence — the House was fallen, as good as dead. So they had left, moved to the Wizengamot and waited and mourned, knowing that a day would come when the affairs of the House were finally settled, and they would find a new home. They'd moved on.
All of them save two: Kreacher, who lingered at the London townhouse long after Lady Walburga's death, and Cherri, who had refused to abandon the family seat at Ancient House. All the Black elves knew their names, whispered them with a queer mix of admiration and pity.
It was a painfully noble thing, for an elf to choose to remain with the family, even after its death, haunting its grave like a living ghost. Beautiful, in its own way, an expression of absolute duty and overwhelming love, but horribly tragic as well.
Cherri and Kreacher were, they knew, the best of them. While Dira and the rest had all chosen to leave the dying House, these two could not, their dedication proven absolute, but in staying behind and surrendering to their mad devotion they were lost to the rest of them. Not only were the humans of their family gone, but these two exemplary elves were as well, two more to be added to the names of the dead they all carried in their hearts.
Elves like Cherri and Kreacher were the sort their own legends were centred on. Not simply those noble few who chose to die with their family — no, sometimes, sometimes their devotion was rewarded, a previously unknown heir returned or the falsely imprisoned released.
But even though Lord Sirius had been falsely imprisoned, had recently escaped the wizards' prison, this was not, the elves had known, one of those stories. Sirius was a traitor to the House. He had broken the Family Magic, done all he could to abandon them entirely, and even if he had wanted to save them, to pull the House back from the brink of destruction, he could hardly come to them, rebuild the House, not on the run from the wizards as he was.
It was only a matter of time, they had known, until nothing was left of the House of Black but stories. They had come close to dying before, of course, but it would take a miracle, now, to save them. It would take intervention by the gods themselves. In times past, this might not have been too much to hope for — the House of Black was favored by their gods, everyone knew it, elves and humans alike. But Lord Sirius had angered the Dark Powers, rejecting them in a fit of madness. There would be no salvation, no divine intervention. Not this time.
Except there had been.
Against all hope, the Powers had breathed new life into the Family, like something out of the most fanciful of tales — spurred on to compassion, it was said, by Cherri's loyalty and love.
The humans had their own explanation for where Lady Lyra came from, Dira knew that. It was hard not to overhear things, sometimes, wandering the halls of the Wizengamot, the many offices attached to the Hall, he'd heard many interesting rumours over the years. The humans believed she was a secret child of Mistress Bellatrix, or perhaps a wayward metamorph returned to the Family, but no, the elves knew the truth. They'd all felt it, when she'd arrived, the sudden presence of her magic within the greater tapestry of the Family. She hadn't simply appeared in Britain, last summer, no, she'd appeared in this world.
Lady Lyra was from elsewhere.
The Powers Themselves had delivered Lady Lyra to the House of Black — directly to Cherri at Ancient House, or so the story went — in its greatest hour of need, an answer to all their prayers. All the Black elves knew this. The remains of the Family Magic had been destroyed since, but that changed nothing. The Family would go on.
The gods had given Cherri her Lady Lyra. This was known to be so. Like one of those fanciful legends, the sort of thing only heard in stories told to elflings, but it was so.
Cherri Black was that elf.
And she had finally come for them.
When she came to them, Dira didn't need to be told to know who it was. He did recognise her — it had been over a decade since he'd laid eyes on her, but he would know her anyway, one never truly forgets the faces of one's family — but even if he didn't he would know. He would know from how everyone reacted to her presence. Not just the Black elves — everyone.
Cherri had popped into existence, in the middle of an otherwise unremarkable spring day, in the warrens under the Wizengamot Hall, and all the elves — not just the Blacks, all of them — could only stare, awed. Because they'd heard the stories, but it wasn't only that: there was something different about Cherri, now.
It was known that, as intimate as the bond was, an elf was often affected by the character of the magic they bonded themselves to, be it that of a family or an individual. For that reason the Black elves had as complicated a reputation with other elves as the Black humans did with their own kind — the Covenant Onyx and Mela had made with the Dark had affected the elves of the Family as well, if not in quite the same way. Dira hadn't even noticed this until arriving at the Wizengamot, so many years ago now, but they were different. Their magic was more powerful, if colder and sharper, every motion and every word more intense. He couldn't even put words to how, exactly, the other elves just seemed...softer, somehow.
The distinction was lesser than it had been at first, after a decade bound to the far more moderate magics of the Wizengamot Hall, especially with the Black Family Magics dispersed, but it was still there, a subtle barrier, glass walling them off from the rest of their kind.
And Cherri was different. She looked younger than Dira knew she should be — Cherri was his great-aunt — but that needn't mean much, aging in elves varied greatly with the character of the magic they surrounded themselves with. No, she seemed taller, too. The way she stood among them, straight and confident and...almost mocking, really, something in her smile with the feel of a smirk very un-elf-like, though thoroughly Black. And the magic, Dira could feel it from here, dozens of metres away. Elves carried with them an echo of their masters', and Cherri's was...
It was dark, so dark, cold as ice but shifting like fire, like wind. It was powerful, yes, it was death and life all at once, it was change...
It was, in a word, Black.
Cherri spotted them immediately, set off for the exiled Black elves without a second of hesitation. All eyes were fixed on her, the warrens completely silent, elves respectfully ducking out of her way, everyone watching her pass in quiet awe. (She was that elf.) And Cherri seemed to revel in the attention, face bright with a smug smirk, her slow pace across the warrens almost seeming to take on a...well, a swagger, which...
It was very un-elf-like behaviour, but what did they know? If the Powers Themselves had seen fit to reward her, none of them really had any right to say anything. Cherri was justified in a little pride, he thought.
Besides, she couldn't really help it: with the Family Magic gone, she'd be bound to Lady Lyra personally. In those cases, the elf did tend to absorb a bit of their master's personality too, that's just the way it worked. (It was, in fact, part of the reason the custom of elves binding themselves to wards and family magics had started in the first place.) By this point, nobody at all could deny their new Lady Lyra was very much a Black — it wasn't unexpected Cherri might become a little...odd, under her influence.
Soon Cherri was standing before them, they couple dozen remaining Black elves, tall and confident, Black magic heavy and invigorating on the air. For a long moment, she simply looked at them, and they looked back — still, like a calm before the storm, awestruck, waiting.
Whatever it was Cherri was waiting for, whatever she wanted to see, she apparently got it. Nodding, her lips twisted in a sardonic (Black) smirk, she spoke. Her voice was clear and strong, yet matter-of-fact, speaking on behalf of her Lady with every expectation of being heard. "It's time. Our Lady is calling you all back. And we have a lot of work to do."
There was hardly a moment of thought, not even a hint of hesitation. The elves of the House of Black dropped everything, and they followed.
She was, after all, that elf.
Winky read from the book aloud, but she didn't even hear the words she was saying, not really. It wasn't the story that mattered, but the telling of it, the saying more than what was said.
Turning a page she glanced up at her one-person audience. It was an old pain, the one that twisted her heart, but it hurt all the same. The boy he had once been was still bright in her mind's eye, she remembered him so clearly, what he was now hurt to see.
He had been a beautiful boy, a clever boy, a good boy. Winky remembered, when he'd been little, so bright and cheerful and energetic, he'd inherited all of his father's talents and all of his mother's charm, since he'd been a toddler that'd been clear. His voice sparked with magic, words became his playthings before he'd even left the nursery, and he revelled in it, even as a child he'd had the soul of a poet and the swagger of a performer.
She remembered, one day, he would have been seven or so, Little Barty had memorised a passage from one of the stories she so often read to him — such feats had always come easy to him, a side-effect of his and Master Barty's gift with language. The noble hero giving his final, dramatic, inspirational speech, and even at seven he'd been so dynamic and brilliant. (Even that early, Winky had been certain he belonged on a stage somewhere, his natural gifts lent him to drama and theatre, she'd known him and loved him dearly for it.) And Mistress Kathy had smiled and laughed, praised and hugged him, told him what a special and clever boy he was, that she loved him so.
Master Barty had not.
His father hadn't an interest in or the patience for such things.
Winky couldn't blame him for this, not really. Ever since he had been little, Master Barty had been very...focused. He hadn't the attention for poetry or the arts, these weren't concerns of his. And for Little Barty, well, he was a very busy man, he hadn't the time for such things, Master Barty hardly even saw him. No matter how much Little Barty tried to impress him, to show him how clever and poetic and powerful and beautiful he was, no matter how much he tried to make his father see him, be proud of him, Master Barty never did. He hadn't the time for such things.
He hadn't said as much, but Winky didn't have to hear it. Someone had come to give Little Barty what his father hadn't. Who'd seen him and appreciated him for the talented, wonderful boy he was, had given him the appreciation and love his father never had. Someone else.
Master Barty was the one who'd started this whole mess. This was all his fault.
Not that Winky would ever say so aloud. She was a good elf.
Winky trailed off for a moment, her book sitting forgotten in her hands. Little Barty had gone thin and weak, no matter how she tried to care for him, he simply didn't do enough, stuck here in this house. The light had gone out of his eyes, glazed and empty. She didn't even know if he heard her, when she read to him, but she had to, she had to remember that beautiful, brilliant boy he'd been, even if she could hardly see him anymore, even if it hurt to look at him.
This wasn't her Barty anymore, not really. He was gone, replaced with this listless shell of a human being, all his poetry and all his cleverness and all his life locked away. Master Barty had taken him away from her.
Sometimes, Winky hated him for it. She hated him so much.
She didn't want to — Winky was a good elf — but she couldn't help it. And, sometimes, she wondered...
There was a tingle across the magic of the house, one Winky knew the shape of, intimately — the Master would be home soon. Winky folded her storybook closed, put it away. She lingered a moment, stroked her boy's hair, told him she'd be back soon, she'd be back.
He didn't respond. His eyes hardly twitched, he didn't even seem to notice she was there.
Master Barty told him to do nothing, and so he did.
(Winky felt she might cry.)
She popped up to the foyer even as Master Barty stepped out of the floo. By the time the first words were coming from his mouth, Winky was already levitating his cloak onto its hook, the soot already charmed away. "I swear," he grumbled, "this bloody World Cup business is far more trouble than it's worth. I can't imagine what that nreshqal Bagman was thinking when he put in the bid, with his Department in the state it's in, he was simply not prepared to organise an event of this scale. If I get a hint any of the sponsors paid him for their contracts, he'll be out on his arse by end of business. Mother Mercy save me from incompetent, corrupt toadies..."
Winky felt a scowl cross her face, a mirror of Master Barty's. She did not know much about this Bagman — she'd only seen him a small number of times, early during Britain's bid to host the World Cup — but she hadn't any doubts he was just as selfish and fumbling as Master Barty said he was. Say what one would about her master (and there was plenty to say), but he did know the Ministry, and the people who were unsuited to their work.
Master Barty let out a long sigh, eyes tipped to the ceiling. "Sometimes I wonder why I bother," he muttered, low, obviously speaking to himself. Then he turned to Winky, abruptly stern and deathly serious. "Everything quiet here?"
He'd asked that question, it seemed, every day for years now. (And she hated him for it, a little.) "Yes, Master Barty, all is being the same here."
"Good." He sighed, rubbing at his face for a moment. "I have a lot of reading to do tonight, and a report I need to write up for the P.M. — which is not my bloody job, but Muggle Affairs is staffed with bumbling morons, every time I pass these things off they inevitably make it worse..."
She nodded. "If Master is not needing anything else, Winky will be starting on dinner now."
"Yes, Winky, thank you. I'll be in the study all night."
Winky popped away, started in on her work for the night.
It didn't have to be like this.
It was later, spooning soup into Little Barty's unresponsive mouth, that the thought came to her — again, as it had so often, unwillingly, she couldn't control it. It always hovered there, like a shadow, whispering at the edge of hearing. She could feel it at all times, a possibility worked into the texture of the Family Magic, a promise of what could be. It didn't have to be this way, she could—
It was often said that an elf could never act against her master, but this wasn't necessarily true. There were means a clever elf could exploit, to work around direct orders — which was necessary, because sometimes masters didn't know everything, sometimes they were confused or misguided, and elves had to think on their feet, to act in their family's interests whether it was in line with what they were expected to do or not. But, in some cases, when elves were bound to the magic of a family and not just a person, it was more complicated. Their loyalty was, at its heart, to the Family as a whole, not the person at the head of it.
The Family Magic was focused on one person, yes, that was so. The elves in the Family were expected to obey that one person, yes, that was so. But because it was expected did not necessarily mean it was. The Family Magic was meant to be one way, but it hadn't any will of its own, it didn't have loyalty or the ability to choose, it simply was.
Elves could choose. Many didn't realise this, Winky herself hadn't known it either, until she'd heard the story of that elf.
Everyone knew about Cherri Black, now — even Winky, who didn't see other elves very often, even she had heard the rumours. The humans said Lyra Black was the secret child of Bellatrix Lestrange, but the elves knew this was not so. The Black elves insisted she had come from elsewhere, from not this world. That the gods, moved by Cherri's selfless devotion, had gifted her a new Lady, to save her Family from the brink of extinction.
But the House of Black had already had a Lord, and the Family Magics had still been centred around him. Until, it was said, there had come a moment when Cherri had been between them. Sirius had ordered her to do one thing, and Lyra had ordered her to do another. There was no doubt what Cherri had been expected to do — Sirius had been her master, and that was that. But that was not that. When the moment had come, Cherri had chosen who she would obey, she had chosen.
Winky could choose.
But the thought terrified her.
It was not what was done, she was a good elf, but it hurt to see her beautiful boy like this, some days she couldn't stand it, and it was all Master Barty's fault, and sometimes she hated him so much, and she hated herself a little bit for feeling and thinking this way (maybe more than a little), but she couldn't help thinking about it, sometimes it was so tempting — it didn't need to be this way, she could choose, she could...
What Master Barty had done, enslaving his son with forbidden magics, it was wrong, it was not to be done. He'd betrayed the Family — oh, what would Master Cass say, if he could see his son now? This wasn't right, she hated it so much, sometimes she looked at Little Barty, so empty and lifeless, and she felt she might die, split apart from the heart out—
She could choose...
But she didn't choose, not really.
She was standing in front of her beautiful boy — all his brilliance and poetry gone, an empty shell — and she was crying, she hadn't noticed it starting, it just happened. And she rested her forehead against his, and her fingers were running through his hair, and she was so sorry, she told him, her voice shaky with tears, he'd been cursed into still emptiness for a decade now — this wasn't what his mother had wanted, when she'd begged Master Barty to get him out of Azkaban, no matter what it took, no, not this, never this — and she was so sorry, because she'd failed him, she'd failed Mistress Kathy, and she was too weak and useless, she was a bad elf, and she was so sorry she'd let it come to this, gone so long, she couldn't...
She hadn't meant to do it — at least, not consciously. It just happened.
The shimmering veins of will and power that tied her to the Family Magic, they shivered, echoing with her misery, her love for a boy now long gone, and they twitched, and they twisted...
...and they tore...
And she felt the Family Magic shredding in her wake, but she didn't care, she grasped at Little Barty with everything she had — instinctively, desperately. And then she felt him, the gentle pulsing of his soul warm against hers. But it wasn't right, no, there was something tying it down, chains of smoke and hatred, telling him to stay, to do nothing, and he obeyed because he had no choice, they surrounded him, not just on the outside but threading through him, and he couldn't move enough to pick at them himself, no, held too tightly.
Winky pushed against him — instinctively, desperately — the veins of will and power that tied her now to her beautiful boy flaring, channeling fire into his captive mind. It was some kind of spell, she knew, but she couldn't say what, she didn't even know what she was doing, exactly. She simply did it, she pushed, she ripped at the curses enfeebling Little Barty, with everything she had.
As they crumbled under her fury and her love, all the strength went out of her legs, and she collapsed into Little Barty, shivering and sniffling. Dizzy and numb, so tired she could hardly move, she cried into her boy's chest.
And he moved. For the first time in what felt like forever, he moved.
His arms came up around her, weakly and shakily, and he hugged her against him, his chest heaving with unsteady breaths. His voice was all wrong, thin and hoarse and half-forgotten, but Winky didn't care, it was his voice, it was him. "Thank you, Winky," he muttered, low and awestruck, the weight of what she'd done heavy on every syllable. (In Elvish, it'd been so long since she'd heard it, Master Barty hadn't spoken to her with it since he'd been a child.) "I don't know how... Thank you, I— Thank you, thank you, thank you..."
She knew what she'd done — that she'd broken the Family Magic (the stories about Cherri Black hadn't mentioned that part), that she'd betrayed Master Barty, she'd, she...
She didn't care.
Her beautiful little boy was himself again, he was alive, and that was enough. That was more than enough, that was everything.
Winky lay in her new master's arms, weak and exhausted but warm and soft. And she cried, she cried until there was nothing left in her at all and she drifted into sleep, but it was okay. It was good. Her Little Barty was back, and that was all that mattered.
Everything would be okay.
"Hey, Walburga, I don't suppose you've seen a house elf around here, pretending it doesn't exist."
The portrait of Lyra's late aunt hung in the entryway of her former home scowled at her. It was, she thought, her lips twisting into an involuntary smirk, a reasonably good likeness.
"Don't speak to me, imposter!" it snapped.
Lyra rolled her eyes at it. "I don't know who you think I am, but—"
"Line thief!" the thing shrieked. "I don't think it, I know it! You're nothing but a mudblooded squib-spawned liar! Marius was disowned! Disowned! You're nobody, you—"
Right, she amended her previous assessment, it was a good likeness physically, but old Wally must have been a complete bitch to the artist, because the personality was a downright parody of the witch Lyra had known. Honestly, she might have had a sharp tongue and very definite opinions, but compared to...pretty much anyone in the family (aside from Auntie Dorea), she was positively nice. Actually cared about her kids, practically doted on them. Sirius hated her, of course, but Lyra wasn't at all surprised that Bella had arranged for her to foster Narcissa when Andromeda left for Hogwarts.
"Oh, for fuck's sake," she muttered. Apparently the elf-who-did-not-exist had been reading the papers to his late mistress's portrait. She silenced the stupid thing — her usual jinx wouldn't work, of course, that spell required a physical body to affect, and the painting's speech was basically just an animated illusion. A really complex one, portraiture was actually a fascinating subject (though she didn't really have the artistic ability to make it worth studying), but still just magic. And if anything, complex spells were easier to interrupt than simple ones.
When the portrait realised that it could no longer hear itself speaking, it grew even more furious, becoming increasingly red in the face as it railed at her silently, which was...kind of amusing, actually. But Lyra did have other things to do today.
"I'm not an imposter. I'm not actually impersonating anyone, for one thing, and I am a legitimate Black. I would arguably have a better claim on the House than Sirius even if he wasn't disinherited. I mean, not that I actually wanted to be the Head of the House, but I was older, and the House Magic fucking loved me, so." She shrugged. "Not that it really matters, there's only three of us at the moment. So you have Sirius, the son who broke the Family Magic just to spite you and the rest of the House, proud blood traitor and, well...he's not actually a bad candidate to lead the Family, just doesn't want to admit he'd be good at it."
Actually, Lyra had given the subject some consideration over the past few months, and she was kind of starting to think that having Sirius acting as the public Head of the Family was actually a great idea. If the Dark wasn't guaranteeing the continued existence of the House, it would probably pay to have someone in charge of their social relationships who wasn't dedicated to the Dark — and therefore inclined on some level, often one not very far away from the surface, to fuck up and/or destroy everything they touched. She hadn't told him, yet, but she was kind of thinking that if they were really clever about this, they might be able to restore the House to a degree of power and influence they hadn't seen since Henry had died. But he really wasn't suited to carry on the traditions of the House as far as its magic was concerned. If anyone was going to rebuild the Family Magic and retain any sort of continuity with their legacy, it wasn't him.
"Or you have Bella, who's recovering in a fucking veela colony after overcoming the childhood compulsions pressed on her by one Thom de Mort — Riddle, actually, he's not even a pureblood — re-evaluating literally her entire life, and escaping the custody of the Unspeakables."
Bella was... Well, Lyra was kind of annoyed with her, honestly. Granted, she'd never spoken to her directly, but she apparently had decided that Riddle hadn't done anything particularly wrong, turning her into his mind slave, which was just insane — and Lyra didn't use that term nearly as lightly as every other fucking person she'd ever met. (Of course he'd done something wrong, corrupting her very mind to make her believe she wanted to do whatever he wanted her to do, it made Lyra feel vaguely ill just thinking about it. Eris said the compulsions were gone, but some of the effect he'd had on her personality had obviously been retained.) And even if there wasn't still something off about her, Bella couldn't realistically be the Head of the House, anyway. She might be the most competent of the three of them when it came to actually acting as the head of a political organisation like a House, negotiating with outsiders and whatnot, but she was kind of wanted for war crimes, after all. And slaughtering twenty-odd people while making her escape. And generally being terrifying. Not necessarily disqualifying features from the perspective of the House, but she was basically public enemy number one, or would be, if the establishment weren't insisting against all reason that she was dead.
"Or you have me. Lyra Bellatrix, presumed daughter of Bellatrix Druella. Formerly Bellatrix Druella, daughter of Cygnus and Druella. Not your Cygnus," she added, as the portrait, which had begun to calm down, returned to its silent tirade. "I was born in Nineteen Fifty in a timeline which diverged from this one sometime in the Nineteen-Twenties or Thirties. You remember Bella when she was thirteen, right?" she asked, no longer speaking to the portrait. "Do you honestly think it implausible that she — I — could have become a demonic time-traveller at that age? Not that it matters. Should it become necessary, a blood test will reveal my true parentage. The only reasonable explanation, of course, being that Bellatrix created a clone of herself through bioalchemy and had it raised as a proper heir to the House.
"That's the most recent cover story, by the way. I'm surprised anyone believed I could actually have been Marius's granddaughter. I'm shockingly bad at pretending to be muggleborn, you know. I mean, I was raised to be the Heir for six fucking years, and even after Arcturus decided that Sirius was a more attractive alternative, given, you know, not being dedicated to Chaos and therefore effectively exempt from his authority, I was still the First Daughter. It's not like I didn't have a proper education. And it's surprisingly difficult to pretend not to know things.
"For example, I know you're listening to me, Kreacher. I know Cherri came to see you, and you told her I couldn't possibly be real, couldn't possibly have come to save the House from destruction. Which, to be fair, that's not why I came — I meant to start a war, back in the Thirties. My Thirties. Long story. But that doesn't mean I'm not exactly who she says I am. And it certainly doesn't mean I'm not going to revive the House, now that I'm here. I swore it before the Dark Itself," she added, switching to Elvish. "Covenant or no Covenant, we shall not fall. "
There might only be three of them left. Sirius might have shattered the Family Magic and Cherri destroyed the broken pieces by choosing to obey Lyra over Sirius. But it would take a hell of a lot more than that to finish off the House of Black. Last year at this time, two of them had been in Azkaban (and Lyra hadn't even been in this universe), they'd had no political capital at all, and the Family Magic was failing because Bella had married out of the Family, and Sirius had forsaken it. There effectively hadn't been any Blacks. But the House of Black had a history of transforming what appeared to be utter defeat into absolutely devastating victories. The last time they'd been this close to dying out, Mela and Onyx had dedicated the entire bloodline to the Dark, positioning their descendants to not only reclaim their previous stature in society, wiping out the houses which had pushed them to the brink of extinction in the process, but to reach heights of power and influence that those who came before could hardly have imagined.
Sirius might be the Lord, recognised by the other Houses as the one who spoke for the Blacks — or he would be, once his bloody trial concluded — but if he was the head of the House, Lyra was its heart. Even before she'd made her dedication, she had embodied what it meant to be a Black in a way no one had in decades, if not centuries — passionate, irrepressible, and given to extremes (a half-mad little hellion with more curiosity than sense, as Arcturus used to put it) — and the Family Magic had loved her for it. She'd known that as long as she could remember, didn't even remember learning it. If she said they were making a come-back, they were making a come-back, damn it. And anyone who thought otherwise could kiss her fucking arse, up to and including the thrice-cursed Dark Itself. (She'd gotten the impression at Yule that the Dark actually approved of that attitude, so she was just running with it.)
"Regulus is dead, Kreacher. But the House is not. I am your rightful Mistress, and if you are still a Black elf, you will reveal yourself to me. Now."
"Kreacher is still a Black elf," an aged elf croaked, creeping out of the cupboard beneath the staircase behind her. That... That was the same Kreacher who'd been here back in the Sixties, and he had been old then, which made him positively ancient now. Huh. Lyra was kind of surprised the shock of the Family Magic failing hadn't killed him. "And Missy is speaking elf-tongue like Mistress Bella — Miss Dru and Mistress Walburga would be so displeased."
Lyra couldn't help but smirk at the half-suppressed grumbling. He wasn't wrong, and his English was rather good for an elf, but... "Yes, well, I can't say I've ever really cared what Dru or Wally thought of my behavior. Standing order: unless I temporarily countermand this order, you are to address me only in Elvish. Even if there are other humans present. Even if Sirius tells you only to speak English. He may be the legal representative of the House in the outside world, but I am your Mistress. Understood?"
"But Missy is not Kreacher's Mistress," the elf objected, proving his point by doing so in English. "She is not. Kreacher has no Master because Kreacher is a bad elf!"
"No, you have no Master because Sirius and Cherri broke the family magic. You haven't been cut off or cast out. One of the reasons I'm here is to re-bind you. I mean, it'll have to be to the wards of this property until I figure out how to fix the Family Magic — kind of like the public wards at the Ministry. But I am your Mistress.
"Cherri's the new Chief Elf of the House. We've recalled the surviving Black elves. You make thirteen, all bound to different properties — aside from Cherri, who is bound to me. You will be free to act as you please beyond keeping this place up. Which you will do, once you can use your magic again," she added, shooting a dusty, cobweb-filled corner a pointed look. The elf squirmed. "Cherri's establishing a warren at Ancient House, but you're not required to join her there if you prefer your solitude. Fuck, you can keep pretending you don't exist to everyone but me and Cherri, if you like, though I do want to know why."
That was actually the larger part of why she was here, she didn't really care if Kreacher wanted to mope around unbound and risk exploding whilst trying to make a cup of tea, but she was curious. She did kind of want this place fixed up again — if they were going to do political shite, inviting their allies to Meda's offices or the Glass Octopus to discuss strategy just wouldn't do — but she could always bring in another elf to do that, if the resident one was being uncooperative. (Though if he was so determined to remain loyal to the dead before the living, she might just put him out of everyone's misery first.)
"Kreacher is failing Master Regulus! Kreacher is a bad elf, and he is failing in Master Regulus's final order, but Kreacher was ordered to hide and he does. He—"
She cut him off with the usual silencing jinx. "I really must insist that you speak Elvish," she informed him, holding him at wand-point until he dropped his defiant glare. "Good. Continue."
The elf sniffled. "Yes, Mistress. And I am sorry for refusing Cherri's call, so sorry, I am the worst elf, the worst of all elves. But Master Regulus ordered me to hide, that no human might know I still lived, and– and..." It broke off, sobbing and throwing itself to the floor at Lyra's feet. She grimaced. At least it wasn't doing the obnoxiously obsequious thing some elves seemed to think was appropriate whenever they approached their Master, but crying wasn't that much better.
"Kreacher, control yourself."
The wretched thing choked back another sob, returned to intermittent sniffles. "But I failed him! I failed Master Regulus! I tried, Mistress, I did, but...but I couldn't do it! I couldn't— Master Regulus died to take the necklace, to destroy it — and– and my Master ordered me to finish the job for him — to make him drink the evil potion and take the necklace and destroy it — and I couldn't! I tried, but— It was the last thing Master Regulus asked of me, and I failed, Mistress! Master Regulus was so good to me, to all of us, not like his brother — he ordered me to return to him after I did as the Dark Lord required of me — he saved me, healed me — and he drank the potion himself that night instead of making me drink it again — I begged him not to, to let me do it, but he would not. And he– he died, Mistress! I watched him go, dead hands dragging him down, but– but he had ordered me to take the necklace and destroy it and not let any human know I yet lived. And so I did. But I failed, Mistress! I failed him!"
Right. Lyra was definitely going to need the elf to explain that again, from the beginning. But first... "You left him to die and pretended not to exist, as ordered, so how did you fail him, exactly?"
"The necklace! Master Regulus's necklace! The Dark Lord's necklace! I was ordered to destroy it, and I couldn't. I tried, Mistress, but— No matter what I did to it, it would not break. It would not melt. It would not be unmade! And so I failed him!"
"What necklace? If you couldn't destroy it, I suppose you still have it?" The elf nodded. "Bring it to me."
The elf doddered away down the corridor, toward the kitchen, before abruptly vanishing off toward... What was even down that way? Bedrooms and sitting rooms mostly, she thought. She sighed. Might as well follow and have the remainder of this conversation in a more comfortable location. Not to mention, if the thing was squirreled away deep in the maze of expanded rooms and extended corridors that was Grimmauld Place, it might take quite a while for the elf to get to it without magic.
As it turned out, it wasn't. The ancient elf led her up a back staircase to a drawing room on the first floor — the one with Great Aunt Belvina's family tree tapestry on the wall (though that old thing was starting to look a bit worse for wear, damaged by years of exposure to moths and doxies) — muttering very pointedly about Mistresses who insisted on watching their servants' every move and how there were human-sized staircases, did Mistress actually think herself an elf, to be following Kreacher into elf-spaces like the servants' stairs.
She snorted at that, more amused than she probably should be. "No, Zinnie and Lil spent the better part of Nineteen Fifty-Three disabusing me of that notion. You may address your criticisms of me directly in private, and will refrain from doing so even obliquely in front of other humans, regardless of whether I'm there or not."
The elf glared at her. "I am not such a bad elf that I would insult my Mistress behind her back! Though...Mistress earlier referred to the blood traitor Sirius Orion..."
"Oh, go ahead and insult Sirius all you like. Can't promise he won't try to hex you for it, but." She shrugged. Kreacher was a Black elf, and he'd been around for decades. If no one had ever hexed him in immediate punishment for some minor indiscretion, she'd be shocked. After all, she'd been hexed for minor indiscretions all the bloody time, and even Cygnus had treated her better than an actual elf.
"Thank you, Mistress." The elf approached a curio cabinet at the far end of the room — kicking a solid wooden chest which rattled at him as he passed with a slightly ashamed glance back at her. "Boggart. I will get rid of it as soon as possible, Mistress."
"Oh, no, leave it for now. I might know someone who could use it." She'd honestly lost track of which members of her circle were learning occlumency, but Blaise and Harry would know, and chances were at least one of them was at the level to start practicing against a boggart by now. "Is that it?"
The elf had pulled a heavy golden locket from the cabinet. It looked slightly out of place alongside a collection of silver snuff boxes and pyxides, antique potions ingredient gathering equipment, and knives in elaborate (now tarnished) sheathes, but the magic of the knives (every one of them cursed) had masked its aura, she supposed. It wasn't until Kreacher brought it to her, holding it at arm's length, glaring at it as though it was personally responsible for Regulus's death, that she realised exactly how powerful the enchantments on it were. There was an intricate 'S' carved in relief on the front, tiny alchemical emeralds (too perfect to be natural) set into the elaborately engraved neo-Corinthian florets that formed the background of the piece, which was about half the size of Lyra's palm, and...very familiar.
In her own universe, this thing was on display in the Slytherin House library, a fourteenth-century heirloom of the family. Professor Riddle claimed he had found it at fucking Borgin and Burke's back in the early Fifties. He'd donated it to the school when he took up the Defense position. (He was curiously silent on the matter of how he managed to convince old Burke to give it up, given Lyra was pretty sure Riddle had never seen the kind of money he would've wanted for it.)
In this universe... Now that it was in her hand, away from the cursed knives, she could feel the power trapped in the thing. It was strong, but it wasn't particularly dark. Yes, it had clearly been created with dark magic — black magic, even — but the power contained within it, seeping out of it and attempting to find a way through her defenses, wasn't that dark. It wasn't quite the same kind of dark as Lyra's own magic (more dominating than chaotic), so it was still noticeable, but like...Professor Riddle dark, not like Angel Black dark. And the enchantments on the thing, mostly protective, were almost light, the interaction between them and the traces of destructive darkness left over from its creation causing the thing to almost pulse with subtle oscillating interference. Not enough to actually destabilise it or render the protections ineffective, obviously, if Kreacher hadn't been able to destroy it, but enough to make it feel alive, dynamic.
Was this... Did Riddle make the Slytherin Locket into a fucking horcrux?
She meant, it was a bit of a leap, but she was pretty sure Kreacher had referred to it as the Dark Lord's at one point, and she knew Riddle had had it in her own universe, and that sense of dynamic aliveness, she'd never felt anything quite like that before, and the magic it (kind of) contained did remind her of Professor Riddle...
Yes, he did, Eris admitted, hatred burning behind the thought. Disgusting thing. We should burn it.
Eris...we talked about this. Way back when they'd first found out that Not-Professor Riddle had used multiple horcruxes to anchor himself to this plane, they'd decided that if they could get their hands on one, the thing to do would be to use it to track down the others, and maybe the Riddle Wraith as well. As far as Lyra knew, that was still the plan. Eris just really hated Not-Professor Riddle. Besides, she added, on a sudden realisation, it's a locket, there could be something inside it. Other than the horcrux, I mean. Of course, the artefact did have some intrinsic historical value too, but presumably everyone thought it was already lost to history in this timeline, so it wasn't like anyone would be overly vexed about her destroying it.
We should still burn it. Evil, manipulative bastard. There are others. We don't have to use this one to find him.
No. I want to see what's inside. And it's probably warded against fire, anyway. The Professor Riddle she'd known wouldn't have entrusted his soul anchors to anything that could be so easily destroyed, at least. And there were wards against fiendfire and phoenix fire and all sorts of magical damage.
Well then it wouldn't hurt to try, would it?
I'm sure Kreacher already did. "You tried burning it, right?"
Kreacher nodded, face twisted into an overexaggerated mask of misery. "All manner of fires. Even dragon fire could not touch it. I tried crushing it, and dissolving it in alchemists' waters, and unmaking it with magic, but nothing worked, I failed, Mistress! Master Regulus asked this one final thing of me, and I could not give it to him. I could not destroy this– this thing, I could not even break it open!"
"Not through any fault of your own. If I had to guess, since he clearly didn't engrave anything on the outside, he probably put the scripts for the warding on the inside, making it fucking impenatrable once he closed it."
The elf nodded again. "I am certain it must be opened to destroy it, but I could not!"
Lyra shrugged, wandering over to the shelf and inspecting the pyxides. Ah, that one would do. She plucked it off the shelf and turned out the contents — an unusually large black pearl, its surface covered with gold-inlaid geometric designs (which was neat, she'd have to try to figure out what that was meant to do, especially since someone had apparently thought it ought to be kept in a jar spelled to prevent the detection of any magic within it) — and dropped the locket in before shoving it into a shadow pocket.
"Yes, well, it's not your problem anymore."
Kreacher gaped at her, horrified. "But— Mistress, I must, Master Regulus ordered me to— I cannot— Please, I know I can do it! Give it— Please, allow this worthless creature one last chance to—"
"No." The elf flinched, cowering. "I'm relieving you of the obligation. I will destroy it myself when I'm done with it."
"My decision is final, Kreacher."
The elf swallowed hard before looking up to meet her eyes, clearly terrified to say what he was about to say, but determined to do so all the same. "Promise it, Mistress," he demanded. (Well, begged — elves didn't demand things, not with any sense of expectation that they would be obeyed.) "Promise that you will fulfill Master Regulus's final order, to destroy the evil necklace."
Lyra gave the elf a small smile. Unlike (most) humans, house elves took promises very seriously. (Almost as seriously as gods.) That was, in a way, the core principle of elven magic, making a statement to the universe about how things would be. She would call it ironic, because elves weren't really that strong-willed about anything other than magic, but the way they just gave themselves over to the becoming of that state, doing everything in their power to make it so with no thought for themselves, was very elf-like. (And also, she was fairly certain, the reason unbound elves were so likely to blow themselves up, channelling too much magic for their physical bodies to handle.)
"I take on this obligation in your stead. Your master's final command will be fulfilled. I will destroy the evil necklace when I have learned what I wish to know of it. It shall be so," she swore.
The ancient elf's eyes grew large, ears flattening in shock. It wasn't every day one heard a human make a promise to an elf, but she seriously doubted Kreacher had ever even heard of a human making a vow in Elvish. Not about anything important, at least. (She probably had made little promises to Zinnie and Lil before her dedication, when she was still in the nursery, but she'd been a child, they would hardly have been anything of note.) Granted, her vow didn't have quite the same magical significance as that of an elf, but making the promise in Elvish did at least make it clear that she knew the importance of her words. If Kreacher did end up joining the warren at Ancient House, the story of this moment would probably become as legendary as Cherri's account of Lyra's appearance in this universe. She smirked, even as the elf managed a silent nod.
"Oh, come on, we both know how much human promises count for, no?" That earned her a positively scandalised look, but they both knew humans had a certain reputation when it came to following through on their word — history was full of humans lying and making deals in bad faith and double-crossing each other. "So, what say we get you properly bound to the wards, and then you tell me exactly what happened to Regulus, from the beginning." It wasn't as though she'd come here today looking for a horcrux, after all.
The elf nodded again, more eagerly this time. "Yes, Mistress."
"Good. Now, let's see..."
Woo, we're back. With more elf-centric silliness, because why not. —Lysandra
These three scenes take place before the vast majority of the summer scenes. The first and second actually happen before the end of the school year (around Easter and mid-June, respectively). The third would be a week or two into the summer holiday. —Leigha
Next chapter before too long. Hopefully. We'll see. (Waiting a scene of mine, but I'm trying to finish the chapter of Echoes I'm on, goddamn thing just keeps going and going and bluuuuhhhhh) —Lysandra