"I still don't like him. I can't see why you can't just go to the Dance with someone else - anyone else!"

"Because Ted is the one who asked," Andromeda replied simply. The excitement of the Headmaster was to have the treat of a Hogsmeade Dance had been only slightly dulled by her younger sister's complaints about her choice of partner. She stepped back, eyeing her younger sister's dress speculatively. "I think that's all the stains out. See any more?"

Narcissa shook her head, swinging her legs as she sat on the bed, face sulky. "It's not like you're not pretty enough for a million others to ask you if you waited. He just happened to ask first."

The implication was of course that she should have higher standards somehow rather than appear so desperate to take the first offer that came her way.

"Yes, dear. And considering how you and Bella would have reacted if he'd asked you, I thought that was very brave of him," Andromeda said calmly. The dark-haired girl seemed supremely unbothered by her sister's irritation, smoothing the silk of the dress. "I think that'll do just nicely. Next time, do try not to pack your ink right next to your best dress and you won't have such problems. Now, let me see your hair."

The younger girl's frown didn't lift as she unpinned her hair, letting the long fair locks fall freely. "Well, of course we'd have told him where to go. He's a filthy Mudblood, and we're ... "

For the first time, Andromeda turned to face her, raising her eyebrows at her sister. "Don't use that word, dear. It's not a very nice word, especially not for a lady."

"Bella does."

"Well, you're not Bella," Andromeda returned calmly, privately glad that her older sister had by now moved on from Hogwarts. If Cissy was sulky and awkward about her choice for the Dance, Bellatrix would have been five times as difficult to deal with.

"It's going to be so embarrassing. You'll be there with him, and everyone will know you're my sister." Narcissa glared at her, squirming as Andromeda started to work on her hair with gentle fingers.

"And do you suppose they'll be thinking about that? No, they'll be thinking 'There's Narcissa Black, isn't she beautiful with her lovely dress and her hair all done up like that. I surely wish I'd asked her to the Dance, instead of … '" Andromeda paused. "Who is it you're going with again?"

"Lucius Malfoy." Narcissa gave the answer sulkily, stubbornly resisting her sister's attempts to cheer her out of her mood.

"That boy with the long blond hair? Year above you?" Andromeda asked, and Narcissa nodded. "Good choice. Very … elegant."

"And totally unlike your Ted," Narcissa shot back, unwilling to give up the argument. "Do you even know what his parents do in the Muggle world? They're probably farmers or miners or something horrible and smelly like that."

"His father is a postman, I believe," Andromeda said mildly. "And his mother works in an office – something to do with imports and exports. Nothing very exciting, but both respectable enough professions among Muggles."

"Postman?" Narcissa sneered. "How stupid do you have to be to get stuck doing the job an owl could do?"

Andromeda raised her eyebrows again, this time setting the hairbrush down. "If you're going to be nasty and spiteful about it, Cissy, I'll leave you to do your own hair," she threatened. "See how much Lucius likes you when you've got a bird's nest sitting on top of your head. And I could make that literal you know."

"Fine. I'm sorry." The apology was given reluctantly, and Narcissa squirmed on the bed. "Come on, Andromeda, no-one does a Curling Charm as well as you do."

"I still don't know why you want curls in the first place." But Andromeda relented with a sigh, picking up the brush again. For a moment she considered a bird's nest with a host of chirping baby birds would be an interesting transfiguration to perform. Still, best not to upset Narcissa like that. "Fair hair Bella and I would kill for, and you crave ringlets of all things." She tapped her sister's head lightly with the wand, watching as the locks of hair twisted under her touch.

"Curls are sophisticated," Narcissa pronounced firmly, relaxing and finally allowing the subject to drop. "Also, Lucius likes them."

As if that was the only reason to do anything. Andromeda managed to smile anyway – there was more to life than impressing boys. But there was little point suggesting that to her vain little sister.

"And this is my little sister, Narcissa, and Lucius Malfoy." Despite Narcissa's determination to stay far away from her sister if she insisted on going to the Dance with that boy, the room was only so big and sooner or later it was going to be impossible to avoid bumping into each other.

"Pleased to meet you, I'm sure." Ted's tone was polite, but something about the expressions of the younger couple made his lips twitch, struggling to hide his amusement. "Oh, I'm sorry. Did you step in something bad?" he asked mildly.

Narcissa's stare was icy, blue eyes flickering accusingly to her sister. If Andromeda must accompany someone like that to the dance, the very least she could do was to keep him away from people she was trying to impress. "I don't think so," she said frostily.

Lucius' eyes were flickering up and down Ted, lips settling into a studied smirk as he weighed the other boy up. "Fascinating," he said, as though Ted were a particularly interesting specimen of some rare animal. "Tell me, is it true that you Muggle-borns actually have to do your own housework, because you can't afford house-elves to do it?"

"More or less, yes," Ted agreed calmly. "Is it true that you Malfoys have got so inbred over the years that you all have seven toes? I've always wondered about that."

Narcissa gave a thin hiss of outrage, and Lucius flushed red, his fingers twitching towards his wand.

"Mind you, your shoes don't look big enough to hold seven toes," Ted went on in that same mild tone, glancing down. "Of course, you know what they say about men with small feet …"

Andromeda felt her lips twitch treacherously and swallowed the desire to laugh, grabbing Ted hastily by the arm and pulling him away. Her parents would probably not be pleased if her dance partner and Lucius managed to get into a duel right in the middle of the dance floor.

Ted winked once at Narcissa, much to the girl's outrage, and allowed himself to be tugged away, following Andromeda to the edge of the dance.

"I hate to point this out to you, Andromeda," he remarked, once they were safely away, "but your little sister is something of a snob. And she's dancing with a worse one."

Andromeda turned to him, struggling to look annoyed, and mostly failing. "Do you always try to seek out the most powerful person in the room to insult, or do you sometimes settle for the second most powerful?"

"Oh, I never settle for second-best," he assured her of that gravely, his eyes resting on Andromeda this time. He gave her a slow, lazy smile, and she felt herself blush. "Not in anything."

"Don't tease Cissy," she warned, before the scolding could go out of her head, even as she tried to dismiss the compliment as nonsense. "And really, don't mess with Lucius. His family …"

"I'll be good," Ted promised, though his words were said with a twinkle that said that promise just might be broken. "And let's not deal with family tonight. Come and dance."

He grinned at Andromeda again, and slipped his arm around her waist, twirling her back into the whirl of laughter, lights and music, dancing with bright eyes, warm smiles and thistledown steps until she decided breathlessly that if it were a choice between elegance and this, Narcissa could keep elegant.

"So girls, how was school?"

The first meal back at home was always something to be tolerated and endured rather than enjoyed. Later on there would be private welcoming backs, little one-on-one catch-ups on news, but that first dinner always had so many people that it was simply impossible to please all of them.

"Fine." Andromeda swallowed her mouthful quickly, glancing towards her father. "Just … normal, you know?"

"Cissy?" Cygnus Black pushed gently when his youngest daughter failed to answer. "How are your Potions marks going? Better, I hope."

Narcissa flushed guiltily red, taking sudden intense interest in the contents of her plate. "Uh … "

"Does that interpret as a 'no'?" Cygnus asked astutely, and sighed. "You know, Narcissa, you're not a stupid girl. If you would only apply yourself …"

"I do!" Narcissa protested at that, looking up indignantly. "I told you. I work hard!"

"If you work hard, then where are the results?" It was her mother's turn to chip in now, and Andromeda darted a sympathetic look at her sister. It was always the same – it always had to be one of them getting it in the neck. Just Narcissa's bad luck that it was her turn.

"Your sister was getting awards in Potions at your age." And that was Aunt Walburga, feeling the urge to add in her two pennies as always.

Narcissa glanced at Bellatrix resentfully, her voice falling into a sulky whine, and a frown that spoiled her appearance. "Yes, well, we can't all be workaholic geniuses."

"I'm not asking you to be a genius, I'm asking you to try studying now and then." Cygnus' voice was severe. "You have your O.W.L.s coming up, young lady, and you can't afford to keep just messing around with your studies."

"I don't mess around!" Narcissa glanced about the table, surrounded by unsympathetic faces. "For Merlin's sake, it's not like I'm failing! I'm just not brilliant…"

"Mind your language!" Cygnus could be unrelenting at times. "We pay good money to send you to that school, Narcissa, and you persist on wasting it by spending your time worrying more about your hair and boys than you do about your grades."

"My grades are fine!" Narcissa's voice was rising now, angry and upset. "And I don't see why I get picked on for being obsessed with boys when she … " she jabbed a finger angrily in Bellatrix's direction, "is obsessed with some awful old guy who looks like he's made of wax, and she … " a finger-stab towards Andromeda this time, "is seeing a Mudblood of all things."

Andromeda froze, her fork halfway to her mouth. It was Bellatrix who reacted first, turning to give her fair-haired little sister a resounding slap across her face, her expression dark with anger. "How dare you!"

"Well, it's true!" Narcissa shoved back at her. "At least Lucius is a normal person who looks like he's human …"

"That's quite enough of that, I think." Aunt Walburga's voice was crisp. "Cygnus, it would reflect better on you if you could teach your daughters not to behave like little animals at the dinner table. What kind of manners they're teaching at Hogwarts these days, I don't know. Narcissa, go to your room as you are clearly incapable of conducting yourself in a proper manner in public. Bellatrix, calm yourself or you can do the same."

As Narcissa turned and flounced away in a tearful teenage huff, Andromeda made to follow her. "I'll just check she's okay."

"You, young lady, will sit right back in that chair and tell us what your sister meant by that remark." Getting away easily, it seemed, was too much to hope for. Walburga directed a glare at her that was made all the more formidable by the decades of practice spent perfecting it. "And I should hope it's a good explanation."

It was another hour before Andromeda was allowed to get away, and then she too was sent to her room in disgrace. She flopped onto the bed, trying to gather the energy to unpack, resisting the urge to figure out just how many hours it was before Christmas break would be over and she could return to Hogwarts.

There was a tap on the door.

"Come i-" Andromeda began, and then couldn't resist smiling as the door opened and a small figure stepped in. "You know, you're meant to wait until I tell you to come in."

"Much less interesting that way," Sirius retorted cheerfully. He took a deep breath, and then began, "Narcissa's crying in her room, Bellatrix is threatening to curse her hair into falling out if she ever dares to speak of You-Know-Who like that again, and to curse whoever you're seeing with the pox. Your parents are despairing of all three of you, and Mother says that you're a disgrace and a waste of every opportunity you've ever been given. Oh, and Regulus is howling." He grinned at his cousin, face so bright that it was hard to resist laughing. "Merry Christmas?"

"Sounds like life as usual in the House of Black." Andromeda found herself chuckling despite her determination to stay angry at her family for at least the rest of the evening. "Why is Regulus crying?"

"Probably because I punched him for calling you a filthy blood traitor," Sirius explained, his tone unrepentant as he eyed Andromeda's trunks, and moved towards them at a speed only given to the young and greedy. "Did you bring me any good presents?"

"There's something from Honeydukes in one of the trunks. I don't remember which." It was enough encouragement for her to get up, frowning as she opened the first trunk, sorting through neatly folded clothes. "And you shouldn't punch your brother."

"He's an annoying little know-it-all." Sirius was less patient about unpacking, and Andromeda clicked her tongue a little disapprovingly as the ten-year-old dug through the second trunk, crumpling clothes as he sought for something bearing the Honeydukes' label.

"That's all part of being a younger sibling, sadly. Don't mess those up, it took ages to pack them right." Andromeda twitched her wand, sorting the things Sirius had dumped onto the floor into neat piles. "And he's smaller than you."

"He's still an annoying little know-it-all." Finally locating the desired bag at the bottom of the trunk, Sirius cheered quietly to himself, tugging it out. "When I go to Hogwarts, I'm going to learn how to turn him into a frog."

"No, you are not. And you aren't meant to have those until Christmas Day, strictly speaking." Andromeda held out her hand. "Give it here."

The boy's face fell, and he clutched the bag tightly with both hands, "Aw, come on, Andromeda. You know anything we open on Christmas Day we'll have to share, and by the time it's gone around the whole family, there's never anything left."

"You are a greedy little pig, and it would do you no harm at all to share a little more," Andromeda told her small cousin without malice. "Also, that bag's not all for you. Give it here."

Reluctantly, Sirius passed the bag to her, only to break into a grin again, as Andromeda tossed a chocolate frog in his direction. "Catch!"

"Thanks, Andromeda!" The frog croaked, squirmed, and tried to escape from his grasp, but Sirius' hands had already closed firmly around it.

Andromeda laughed, and glanced down at the bag in her hand thoughtfully, "How long do you think it'll be before I can get away with sneaking out to see Narcissa?"

"Depends if Kreacher's sneaking around. I can distract him if you like?" Sirius offered, happily pulling a leg off the frog.

She shook her head. "No, Sirius. It's not kind to torment the house-elves."

"Oh," the boy considered, idly dismembering his unlucky sweet. "Probably another hour then. By then I should think Mother will have found something else to annoy her."

In the end, Andromeda gave it two hours before she slipped along to see her sister. It seemed better to play it safe.

"Go away!" The voice that shouted through the door was sullen and tearful still, but Andromeda ignored it, pushing the door open.

"If you come in, I'll curse you, and I don't care if it is under-aged mag- oh, it's you." The face that looked up from the pillow was not Narcissa's best. Tear-stains and swollen eyes didn't tend to work well with fair skin. "I thought it was Bella again."

"Lucky for you it wasn't. Try that on Bella, and she really will curse your hair into falling out," Andromeda said placidly, moving to sit on the bed. "You'll have to work on your curses if you want that to actually sound frightening, Cissy, love." She gestured to the bag. "I come bearing peace-offerings of chocolate."

"I hate this whole family, and I wish I was dead," The younger girl declared passionately, before sitting up and pushing her hair out of her face. "What sort of chocolate?"

"Honeydukes' finest." Andromeda tossed her a bar, and pulled a bar out for herself. Chocolate might not cure all ills - just minor afflictions and after effects of the Dark Arts, but it could certainly help a little. "And there's no need to be so melodramatic, Miss I-Hate-Everybody. For that matter, I should be the one in a snit, not you."

"Yeah. Uh, sorry about that," Narcissa apologised grudgingly, peeling the foil off her bar carefully. "But you know they would have found out sooner or later anyway. "

"I suppose so." Andromeda didn't look up at her younger sister, focusing on the chocolate. It was hard to blame Narcissa for what she knew had been said in no more than a moment's temper, but still. She had been well and truly dropped in it from an exceptionally great height.

"And it's not as if you were going to go on seeing him much longer, was it?" Narcissa went on. "I mean, I'm sure he was fun to mess around with and stuff, and you certainly managed to shock practically the whole of Slytherin, but you've done that now. You've got the attention, and you know, 'my family says no' is actually a really good way to let him drop if you don't want to feel mean." She glanced over at Andromeda. "Not that he doesn't deserve a bit of meanness after what he said to Lucius, but you've never been good at that."

Andromeda's lips twitched at that, trying not to grin at the memory of Lucius' outrage. "You have to admit, Lucius pretty much asked for it though."

"Andromeda!" Narcissa looked a little shocked. "Lucius is a Malfoy! He oughtn't to have to put up with insults from sons of Muggles who've got all above themselves!"

"Lucius is very pretty, and very rich, but he takes himself too seriously sometimes," Andromeda allowed, calmly. "It'll probably do him good to be taken down a peg or two. He shouldn't start with the comments if he can't take them in return."

Narcissa's pretty face set into a scowl, not quite agreeing with that sentiment. "Ted ought to be careful," she warned. "Lucius won't forgive that in a hurry."

"I'll warn him," Andromeda promised. "And you, dearest, need to go apologise to Bella at some point this evening."

"Do I have to?" The younger girl's voice fell back into a whine. "She started it."

"No, she didn't," Andromeda corrected calmly. "Aunt Walburga started it by comparing the two of you. It's hardly Bella's fault if she's terrifyingly smart." And powerful. She was under no illusions about who was the strongest of them all – at least in terms of magic. Or perhaps it was more the case that Bella was fearless in her use of magic; she never hesitated or doubted and that went a long way in achieving the correct end result.

"I suppose," Narcissa admitted grudgingly. "I still don't see why I should apologise after she slapped me though."

"You insulted the Dark Lord, so I'd say you two are pretty much even. You know how she feels about him." Andromeda's voice turned coaxing, gentle. "Come on, Cissy. We're only home for a few weeks, and it's going to be a miserable Christmas if you two are sniping at each other all the time."

"Fine," Narcissa conceded with a huff of breath. "Later, though?"

"Later," Andromeda agreed. "I'll go to speak to her first, make sure she's calmed down and won't actually curse you." She leaned to kiss her sister's forehead lightly, leaving a chocolaty smudge against the fair skin, and stood up. "Feeling better now?"

"A bit better. Chocolate helped."

Andromeda laughed. "Chocolate usually does," she said lightly, before moving to push the door open.

Narcissa had been easy to talk out of her huff, but then Narcissa usually was. Bellatrix might be a touch harder.

"GO AWAY!" The door knob on Bellatrix's door ordered, and when Andromeda reached to grasp it, formed itself into the shape of a mouth, sharp teeth snapping at the girl's fingers. "NOTHING GOOD AWAITS YOU HERE!"

Andromeda sighed, and tapped it calmly with her wand, waiting until it had returned to plain cool metal before she pushed the door open.

"You know, I thought Cissy was indulging in teenage melodrama, but you seem to have her beat," she remarked, shutting it behind her.

"I hate this stupid family," Bellatrix scowled at her, refusing to be drawn into a smile, "And if you keep ignoring my keep out signs, I'm going to get a Boggart to guard my door."

"No, you're not," Andromeda contradicted. "The sight of yourself as a Squib every time you had to pass it would creep you out too much." She sat down on the bed without waiting for an invitation, reaching to straighten Bellatrix's pillows. "Come on, Bella. You know Cissy didn't mean it. Walburga just has a talent for getting people worked up like that, and Father wasn't helping."

"She's a vacuous little twerp," Bellatrix maintained, dark features set into an angry frown.

"Well, yes, she can be," Andromeda admitted. "But she's fifteen; most kids are at that age. She's got time to grow out of that yet."

"Fifteen's more than enough time to start taking an interest in the world around her!"

"She's a kid, Bella." It was easy to dismiss fifteen years old as being 'just a kid' once you had reached the mighty age of seventeen. "And yes, I know you had Voldemort poster-portraits on your wall from when you were thirteen onwards, but you have to admit, at least half of that was because he was so good-looking when he was younger."

"It was not!" Bellatrix protested.

Andromeda snickered, not bothering to hide her laughter. "Oh, come on! Cissy and I used to hide and watch you talking to them! How many times did you practise your acceptance for the day he would unexpectedly turn up at our door and ask Father for permission to marry you again?"

"Insufferable brats, the pair of you." Bellatrix made a face at her sister, but seemed to relax a little. "Fine, Cissy's excuse is that she's fifteen. What's your excuse for the Mudblood?"

Andromeda winced. "I wish you wouldn't use that word. I caught Cissy using it the other day, and Regulus will be using it next. You know how he looks up to you. You're his favourite role-model."

"So you're denying he's a -"

"I'm not denying anything – it's just not a very nice word to hear coming out the mouth of a nine-year-old!" And for once it was Andromeda who snapped, patience straining a little. "He's Muggle-born. It's not a big deal, whatever Aunt Walburga says."

"Not a big deal?" Bellatrix opened her dark eyes wide. "Is your next statement going to be to tell be that fire isn't really all that hot? You're a Black girl, Andromeda. Do at least try to act like one."

"It was only a dance. It's not like I'm going to marry him!"

"I should hope not!" Bellatrix snapped, back into her bad temper by now. "But you might try to remember, Andromeda, that when you fool around like that, it does reflect on us too. Imagine the scandal it would cause if one of the papers heard of it!"

"It was a dance," Andromeda said wearily. "Just a silly school dance, that no-one who isn't actually at Hogwarts will likely give more than two minutes thought to. He asked me, and I could see him getting all ready to come back at him with some sarcastic remark when I said no. So I thought 'I'll show you', and I said yes. That's all."

Bellatrix blinked at her for a minute, running behind this rather confusing chain of logic.

"And I'm glad I did," Andromeda went on, "because he makes me laugh. And I'm not going to marry him, or do anything serious with him, but I just thought it would be nice to play around like that for a little. Just for a while, just until I leave school, and have to go all serious when Mother and Walburga start lining up prospective husbands for me. I can't see how it's hurting anyone for me to have a little fun."

Bellatrix shook her head at her. "You don't know what you're playing with," she said more quietly. "If you want to have some fun, Andromeda, pick someone a bit more suitable to do it with. Otherwise, you might find that when they start looking for husbands for you, no-one will want you."

"I don't see that anyone's going to pay any attention to school – "

"Yes, they will pay attention to school! Don't you listen? Have you lost your senses entirely? Do you really think anyone from any of the good families – the Lestranges, the Malfoys, the Crouches – can you see any of them wanting something a Mudblood's discarded?" Bellatrix rubbed her head with the palm of her hand, then glared at her sister. "Get out. You're giving me a headache."

"But - "

"Out!" Bellatrix made a shooing gesture towards her door. "If this house has to be filled with stupid kids, I can at least keep my room free of them."

Andromeda sighed, and did as she was told, before Bellatrix started threatening to throw curses again. It seemed that this was one sister who wouldn't be won over by something so small as chocolate.

"Are you awake, sweetheart?" Andromeda had just finally settled down to sleep when a light tap came on the door. Her mother pushed it open without waiting for an answer, and came to sit down by the bed. She was followed by a house-elf, struggling a little with a rather large tray.

The conversation with Bellatrix had been an awkward one, and Andromeda hesitated a second before answering with a mumbled "I'm awake," and sitting up again in bed.

"I thought you might be." Druella tapped the wall with her wand, and lit the room with a soft light. "You didn't eat much at dinner. I thought you might be hungry."

The truth was that the chocolate shared with Narcissa had quelled most of the hunger pangs. Still, it was a kind thought of her mother's, and there were some very good smells drifting from the house-elf's tray. "Thank you."

"Don't tell your aunt." Druella's smile was conspiratorial as she gestured to the elf. "I dare say she wouldn't approve. Still, you're my daughter, not hers." There was a fierce possessiveness in that statement, and she sat down on the bed, smoothing the blankets that pooled around Andromeda as the girl sat up.

It was a kindness that served to rid Andromeda of any remnant of anger and resentment that the girl had been hanging on to. It was easy to fight when people gave you something to fight against, something to defy. It was much harder to be angry with someone who loved you enough to come and make sure that you were okay.

"Mother – about earlier, I'm sorry," she blurted. "I didn't mean – I wasn't really thinking that me dancing with Ted would mean anything. I didn't mean to cause trouble."

Druella sighed. "Well, we've had better homecomings," she admitted. "Still, what's done is done, and there's no point in crying about it now." She slipped an arm around her daughter's shoulders, giving Andromeda a warm hug. "I dare say that it'll be forgotten soon enough."

After her father's disappointment, Aunt Walburga's scolding, Narcissa's sulks and Bellatrix's disgust, it was a relief to have at least one person brush the whole affair away as no more than a minor misdemeanour. Andromeda leaned against her mother gratefully. "Do you really think so?"

"Dearest, regardless of what your aunt may tell you when she's in a temper, regardless of how big and how bad things may ever seem to you, there is very little you could ever do wrong that we cannot fix, as long as you tell us." Druella soothed. "Except pregnancy of course." She paused a moment, rethinking that statement, blue eyes narrowing a little. "Are you pregnant?"

Andromeda flushed, her own eyes widening in shock. "Mother!"

"Well, dear, it's hardly unknown in a seventeen-year-old," Druella said calmly. "And some of the stories you girls bring home about that school sometimes, I do wonder. Promise me you haven't done anything silly?"

"It was a dance!" Andromeda insisted. "Unless you can get pregnant from dancing – and I don't think anyone's written that charm yet – then no, I've done nothing like that."

Druella scrutinised her daughter's face a little longer, and then nodded, seeming relieved. "Well, I'm glad to hear it." She patted Andromeda's hand lightly. "You mustn't take all the shouting too seriously, dear. You three girls are very precious to us all, and we simply want to ensure that all three of you end up with someone who is worthy of you."

"I know. I'm sorry," Andromeda apologised again. "It just didn't seem such a big deal at the time. It was a dance, and he made me laugh and … " She shrugged dark shoulders helplessly. "I didn't think it would hurt anyone!"

"I know," her mother said sympathetically. "But Andromeda, sweetheart, I also know that at seventeen a good-looking young man or someone who makes you laugh can so easily make you do more than you ever intended to. I want to see you grown up and happy, not stuck in a marriage to some awful Muggle-born wizard who can't afford to take care of you, or popping out Squibs who are neither use nor ornament to anybody."

"Mother, I swear we weren't going to do anything!" Andromeda was flushed again. This was not a comfortable discussion to be having with a parent. That was a universal truth of being a teenager.

Druella laughed softly. "I believe you, Andromeda, I do, but if you only had any idea how many marriages and pregnancies began with the words 'I didn't mean to!' then you would understand why we all worry so much. Nobody ever means these things to happen, and yet it only takes one exciting night, one little slip, and it's too late to go back." She hesitated a moment, before adding, "And even if you don't do anything, you should know, Andromeda, that there are some nasty people in the world, boys who will lie and say that you did. That's not a nice thing for a young girl to have on her reputation, deserved or not."

"I understand, Mother." Andromeda nodded obediently, mostly wanting nothing more than for this conversation to be over and willing to agree to pretty much anything to make that happen. "I won't let it happen again."

"There's my good girl." That seemed to satisfy Druella, and she squeezed her daughter's hand before standing up, "And if that boy gives you any trouble, don't be afraid to write and tell us, do you understand? We'll soon deal with him, if we have to." However they had to. The Black family had its own connections, and its own way of working after all. It would be a very foolish Muggle who tried to besmirch a Black girl's reputation.

"I will. I … I don't think he will though, Mother," Andromeda ventured cautiously, "I know he's got Muggle parents, but he did seem like a nice boy. I don't think he'd do anything bad."

"Oh, dear." Again, the laugh in her mother's voice. "When you're a little older, you'll discover that they're all nice boys until they're not." She leant to drop a kiss onto her daughter's curls. "Sleep well, dearest. Leave the tray outside your room when you're done with it. The elves will take it."

"I will. Good night, mother."

And that, it seemed, was the last that would be said of that matter.

There are some routines followed, almost without exception, by almost all families with children, no matter whether those children are magically inclined or not.

It was roughly 6 am on Christmas morning that Sirius and Regulus were awake. It was not quite ten minutes before the rest of the house awoke, whether they liked it or not.

Andromeda lay in bed, eyes still shut, listening to the pair as they worked from door to door.

"Mother? Mother, please, we've been awake and waited patiently for ages, can't we get up now? Please? Father's awake already, aren't you, Father? Father, wake up. Please?"

"Uncle Alphard? Mother says we can get up and start opening things now. Won't you get up, only she says no-one can start until everyone's awake."

"Bella? We can – ow! It is not that early! That hurt! I hope you don't even get anything then, you big meanie!"

That was Sirius by the sound of it, and Andromeda wondered sleepily what Bellatrix had done to him – and what he'd done to try and wake her up that deserved it.

The quiet knock on her door made her sit up, and she rubbed at her eyes, expecting to have her room invaded by a rambunctious pair of youngsters. "Come in!"

Instead, it was her mother that pushed the door open. "Either the children are awake, or the house has been invaded by some particularly noisy savages," she noted, smiling. Andromeda suspected her mother sometimes felt a little sad that her daughters were not also still at the age where Christmas morning meant whoops and shrieks of delight. Adulthood and dignity meant leaving some things behind. "I'd suggest you get up and dressed quickly."

Andromeda laughed, shaking off the last of her drowsiness and pushing back the sheets. "What did they do to Bella?"

"I'm not sure, but I think it involved water, the scamps." Druella shook her head. "One day, those two will push their luck too far. Hurry now, everyone's meeting downstairs."

Indeed, Christmas made the house even busier than usual. House-elves scuttled here and there, hurrying to bring coffee to the bleary-eyed adults. The actual gifts had been sorted by the elves the night before, a pile for each person. Regulus and Sirius were bouncing about it the middle of it all, for once too excited to quarrel, well aware that as the youngest of all present this was their day and loving every moment of it.

Andromeda smiled to herself as she spotted her sisters off to the side – Bellatrix looking surly and sleepy-headed, Narcissa looking as though she were trying not to show her own glee, feeling that by now she should have "outgrown" Christmas and yet still greedily eyeing her own pile of gifts.

"This is ridiculous," Bellatrix muttered under her breath as she approached. "Surely those kids should have been trained by now to allow us all to sleep until a decent hour? Little hooligans, the pair of them."

"They're excited," Andromeda returned mildly. "Besides, it's only one morning a year."

"If Sirius wakes me next year the way he did this morning, I'll … I'll set fire to his pyjamas," Bellatrix said fiercely. "I mean it!"

"By next Christmas, they'll probably have you married and not even living here any more," Narcissa pointed out. The younger girl was poking at her pile, trying to feel through the gifts through the paper. "What do you think this is?"

"I don't know, but be careful," Andromeda advised. "Remember that year Aunt Walburga spelled all the gifts so that anything peeked at early automatically transfigured into a few lumps of coal? That never makes for a good Christmas."

It was enough of a warning for Narcissa to hastily snatch her hands back, clutching them behind her back as though to avoid temptation. She had not waited all this time for Christmas just to get coal!

Aunt Walburga's voice cut clearly through the bustle and chatter that filled the room. "If we can all settle down, and act like civilised human beings," she directed a pointed glare at her two sons, currently engaged in placing bets on who could eat the most chocolate without getting sick, "then we can begin opening the gifts."

Opening was done in a civilised manner of course. The Black family was big on being civilised. None of the allowing everybody to dive in and tear everything open at once, the way some families did – no, even the boys had to be patient, waiting their turn to open one gift at a time, thanking the giver and allowing the rest of the family to comment on it before handing on to the next person.

It wasn't as though Sirius and Regulus minded that however. Once it was officially Christmas Day, the Christmas chocolate stores were opened and handed out. Between stuffing their faces and commenting on other people's gifts, the two boys were more than happy to occupy the time between opening their own.

One of Bellatrix's gifts drew particular attention. She had been asking for a new broomstick since leaving Hogwarts a year ago – her own had become worn and tattered through years of school use and storage. And now … it looked as though she'd got what she'd been asking for. She drew the long slender package from her pile carefully, slowly peeling the wrapping paper back.

"Just tear it!" Sirius encouraged eagerly, fidgeting with impatience as her slowness.

"I'll help!" And Regulus actually reached forward to do so, agonized by the wait.

"Hush." And for once Bellatrix didn't scold them, only batting Regulus' fingers away lightly, her full attention on the broom in her hands.

"We thought it was time that you had a good broom," her father said quietly. "Now mind, that was expensive – it's not like the schoolgirl's one you've got at the minute. We expect you to take good care of it. No going too fast except in emergencies, no drinking and flying, do you understand?"

"I know the Tornado's not a racing broom," Druella agreed, "but we thought at your age you'd prefer something produced for endurance and, well, looks than for silly sports. And you won't find a broom that gives you a much smoother ride than that one."

"I know." Bellatrix's earlier scorn about Christmas seemed to have vanished now. Her fingers moved almost reverentially over the broom, stroking gently over the oiled beech handle. "I'll take good care of it, I swear I will."

Cygnus cleared his throat, resting a hand lightly on his daughter's shoulder. "We thought that as it's likely you'll be leaving us shortly, it might be wise to give you a reliable way to get home."

Never a demonstrative man, this was perhaps the closest he would ever come to saying 'we'll miss you.'

"You're an adult now," Druella agreed. "But don't forget, Bella, even when you've left, even when you're married, you're still a Black. If you ever need to come home – for anything – don't hesitate."

"I will." Prickly about her independence as Bellatrix could be sometimes, today she set the broom down on the floor and stood to hug first her father, than her mother. "Thank you."

It was Christmas after all.

Unsurprisingly, the two youngest members of the family were untouched by the sentiment, however. They were more interested in inspecting the broom.

"It said in Which Broomstick these could get up to a speed of 120mph in 7.8 seconds," Sirius commented, clearly impressed. "I bet you could race on it, even if it's not meant to, really."

"Will you take me for a ride on it, Bella?" Regulus reached to touch the handle wonderingly. "Will you, please, please, please?"

"I most certainly will not!" It took all of two seconds for Bellatrix to return to her normal self, and snatch the stick out of their hands. "Get your horrible, chocolaty fingers off it! You'll leave marks!"

"Mother says it's nice to share," Sirius cajoled hopefully.


It seemed that some miracles not even Christmas could bring about, and Bellatrix consenting to share her new broom was one of them. It had at least been worth a try, and the boys only sulked about it until someone reminded them it was their turn to open something else. And then for some reason, the matter seemed completely forgotten.

All in all, it hadn't been a bad Christmas break. A few squabbles, a few scoldings, but nothing more than could be expected as a natural result of cramming too many people into one house. There had been no great scandal other than Andromeda's dalliance with the Muggle-born, and that had died down after the first night when she showed no signs of melodramatically storming off to her room while declaring her great and undying adoration and writing letters full of bad poetry and unrequited love. However, she had caught Sirius looking for some just in case, more for blackmail material than anything else.

Really, as long as you didn't get stupidly defiant about things, the family usually moved on to the next piece of gossip and fuss relatively quickly.

The time had flown by, and Andromeda was neatly and methodically packing her things back into her trunks ready for the return to school when she heard quick footsteps outside her room, and the sound of two young voices raised in argument.

"You're going to get in so much trouble, Sirius Black."

"Well, I'm not if no-one finds out, am I? I'll only be a minute."

"You oughtn't, though. I'll tell!"

"Aw, stop being such a little tattler."

The boys again, squabbling as usual. Andromeda hesitated a minute. She should go and separate them of course, before the argument turned to scuffling again, or before Sirius completed whatever mischief he was planning this time.

There was packing to do though, and amusing though they were, her young cousins seemed to positively eat free time. The two continued on, out of hearing range, and after considering it for a moment Andromeda went back to folding her clothes. Whatever it was, it was likely to be harmless enough. Somebody else could sort it out.

She had almost forgotten the incident ten minutes later when a man's bellow came from underneath her window

"Young man, I suggest you get down from there right now!"

Glancing out to see just what was happening, Andromeda was quite surprised to find that most of the household – house-elves included – were gathered out there, faces turned to the sky.

She craned her head out of the window, trying to see just what it was they were actually looking at. She pulled it in only a moment later when a small figure, clutching a high powered and rather obviously Tornado broomstick shaft with a desperate grip, came perilously close to hitting her.

Well, that explained what they had been arguing about at least.

"Sirius, get down!" Uncle Orion, his father, repeated sharply. Beside him, Walburga stood, her expression furious as she watched her son's movements.

Looking towards the crowd that had gathered, Andromeda made out other faces. Regulus was snivelling quietly near his parents – she wondered if he had, after all, told or simply been caught and held responsible once his older brother took off. Her parents were shifting, looking upwards anxiously, eyes fixed on the small boy in the sky. Her sisters were there, too – Narcissa looking scandalised by the whole thing, Bellatrix seeming ready to explode with rage.

The broomstick whizzed past again. Andromeda winced, seeing it skim a little two close to the wall. Several twigs clattered down to the ground below.

"Young man," Orion bellowed again, "if you don't come down off your cousin's broom right this instant …"

"You'll do what? Shout some more?" And that was Bellatrix, crimson with rage as she interrupted, "Is anyone going to do anything but shout, or are you just intending to wait until my broom falls to pieces underneath him?"

"Bella …" Cygnus' tone held gentle warning for his eldest daughter, but Bellatrix ignored him, striding forward, drawing her wand before anyone could stop her.

"Stupefy!" she commanded, and Andromeda glanced up as the small figure on the broom seemed suddenly to lose his grip and fall, tumbling helplessly towards the ground.

Somebody screamed. Andromeda wasn't sure who. Possibly Aunt Walburga.

It was Uncle Alphard who strode forward when everybody else seemed frozen, strong arms reaching for the boy, catching his young nephew before he could smash to the ground, pulling him in to his chest.

"Now then. Might want to wait until you've got your own broom before you try that again," he commented, gently lowering Sirius to the ground. He tapped the boy lightly with his wand. "Ennervate!"

It was only a moment before Sirius opened his eyes and scrambled to his feet.The boy was white, and shaken by his fall, but he was alive and in one piece.

And possibly in more trouble than he'd ever been in his life before. Passengerless, the broom had returned to Bellatrix's hand, but that didn't seem to lessen the girl's fury. She strode forward to slap Sirius' face hard, the force of her blow leaving pink lines against the boy's cheek.

"You little brat!" Her voice was a shriek, face wild with anger. "If you ever touch anything of mine again, I swear to Merlin, it won't be Stupefy I'll use on you. I'll …"

"Now then." Alphard said it a little more forcefully this time, dropping a hand onto Sirius' shoulder. "No harm done, hey? Might be a case of least said, soonest mended, don't you think?"

"No harm done?" Bellatrix turned her temper onto her uncle just as easily. "Have you any idea how much this broom is worth? It's brand-new, and that worthless little horror just decides he wants to jump on and have a joyride, and you think that's just fine?"

"That's enough, Bellatrix." Up at her window, Andromeda breathed a sigh of relief as Walburga finally cut in. "Sirius, go to your room immediately, please. I'll deal with you myself later."

From the way the youngster's shoulders drooped as he turned to obey, he didn't view that as much gentler a punishment than being left to face Bellatrix. Andromeda wondered for a moment just what Sirius had thought would happen. One day, the boy really did have to learn that his pranks carried consequences.

"The rest of you – I don't believe there's any real need for you to be here, is there? I'm sure you all have work to be doing." One by one, still looking a little shocked by the day's events, the watchers scurried away.

Bellatrix waited, her face flushed still. From her expression, she expected to be pulled up for her actions towards the boy – was waiting for her chance to argue when scolded, to complain about why it was justified.

But she never got the chance. When there was no-one else left, her aunt simply looked at her for a moment and turned away, dismissing the matter as though it were of no consequence.

And despite what her aunt had said, watching at the window Andromeda knew it wasn't enough, and knew that everyone wandering away knew it also. The fall could have killed the boy; it was sheer luck that Alphard had been quick enough to prevent it. Bellatrix should have been at least scolded for that; in any usual quarrel would have been.

The problem was that Bellatrix was right also. Bellatrix shouldn't have used Stupefy certainly, and yet, neither should it have got to a point where she should have got the chance. Walburga herself should have dealt with her son before things got anywhere near that point.

She should have punished her son and brought him down. She should have punished Bellatrix for her actions. But she hadn't, there was no way Black pride would ever allow her to admit to a mistake, and who would tell the family matriarch that her actions had been wrong?

Still watching out of the window, Andromeda shivered a little at the expression on her sister's face as Bellatrix picked up her broom and moved to return inside.

Enough was enough. But too much was not enough, and for a moment, Bella had been allowed far, far too much and a disturbing precedent had been set.

As far as Andromeda was aware, no-one ever did speak to Bellatrix about the incident afterwards. From the way their parents looked at her that night at dinner, it seemed as though perhaps they might have liked to reprimand her for her behaviour, but with Walburga having let the matter drop, it was difficult.

Andromeda thought of saying something herself, perhaps of going to have one of those quiet little talks with her older sister that could sometimes calm Bellatrix's wilder spurts of temper. But Sirius was unhurt, if a little subdued, and it wouldn't be so long before Bellatrix would be moving in any case, married to some pure-blood or another. That should put an end to any problems, taking her out from where the boys could annoy her.

Sometimes it was just easier to ignore a problem than to talk about it at all.

The holidays were nearly over at any rate. It was no time at all before Andromeda and Narcissa found themselves back at platform nine and three-quarters, once more waiting for the train to arrive. Not that Narcissa was happy about that.

"Really," she grumbled, shifting from foot to foot and hugging herself to shield against the January chill, "it's too bad that we have to get public transport along with everybody else to get to school. You'd think Aunt Walburga could arrange for something more private. Even Muggle-borns get this thing."

"You want to try asking her, you be my guest." The wind was biting, and Andromeda rubbed her arms, trying to get some warmth into them. "You might end up with a long lecture on how she's spending good money already to send you to a school where you fail to study, though."

Narcissa grimaced. "I bet she will next year though," she suggested hopefully. "What with Sirius starting in September. She's hardly going to let the precious Heir of the House of Black travel on a train, is she?"

"I wouldn't bet on it. Sirius would probably love every minute of train travel, and then get his head cut off by sticking it out just before we hit a bridge or something," Andromeda predicted. "The conductors are going to hate him, but I can't see him begging for a chance to get off the train." She stamped her feet, trying to huff her breath upwards to warm her face. "You know, if my nose gets any colder, I think it may actually fall off."

"Narcissa!" Andromeda glanced up, and sighed to herself at the sight of the smart young man walking briskly towards them. Lucius didn't run to greet them, of course – that would be far too undignified for a Malfoy. He did hug the girl briefly however, a quick, light embrace, released before it could be said to be too intimate, despite the fact that Narcissa would clearly have been happy to hang on for much, much longer. It was a sad realisation that her sister was most correctly described as "smitten", a word that in Andromeda's opinion should stay firmly locked between the covers of tawdry romance novels.

"Did you have a good holiday? Merlin, my little cousins were awful. Isn't the weather horrible?" Narcissa spoke in an excited rush, her whole face lighting up as she clutched at Lucius' arm, hanging on as though afraid he might wander off again at any moment.

Even a Black daughter wasn't immune to the fear that a boy might leave her.

Lucius neither encouraged her nor shrugged her off, taking the attention with a slightly amused smile, seeming almost bored by it. "Andromeda," he greeted courteously.

"Lucius," Andromeda returned, biting back the words that wanted to come, that he should hug Cissy properly for Merlin's sake and stop being so annoyingly casual about it. If he hurt her little sister … well. Bellatrix wasn't the only one who knew a few good curses when needed.

"Your Mudblood hasn't come to meet you then, I see? " Lucius drawled the words lazily. "Perhaps he's learnt where he's not wanted."

Andromeda felt herself flush in reaction. Certainly, she'd been ordered to deal with the boy, certainly she was intending to do so as soon as she saw him, but still …

No-one liked someone implying they'd been dumped. Not even – perhaps especially not - by someone so beneath their station as Ted Tonks.

"We arranged to meet on the train, thank you," she snapped, lifting her chin. "Much better than greeting each other on the station, don't you think? Public displays of affection can look so common."

She saw Narcissa's eyes open wide at the bluff, and sighed to herself. She'd just have to speak to the girl later.

The words worked like a charm on Lucius though. The boy straightened his back quickly, pulling his arm from Narcissa's grasp. "I barely think you'd care about looking common when you're seeing a Mudblood of all things. I didn't think you were the type to like a bit of rough, Andromeda, but I suppose there's no accounting for taste with some girls."

He smiled that annoying smug little smile again and Andromeda wondered briefly whether Bellatrix's baldness curse worked on males as well as females.

"Well, you know," she replied instead, keeping her voice sickly-sweet, "I might have picked someone of a better pedigree, but some of the pure-blood males can be such a disappointment." She smiled sharply back at Lucius. "After all, isn't that why so many of your line have only one child? It must be a terrible shame to your father that your mother wouldn't sleep with him more than the once required to produce an heir… "

Much to her delight, her words had the intended effect, two red spots appearing high on Lucius' cheeks.

Narcissa was also looking rather shocked. "Andromeda!"

"Now, see here!" Lucius clearly had not expected such rudeness.

Andromeda pretended not to hear, glancing off over to the track. "Whoops, it looks like the train will be here soon. I'd better go – don't want to miss getting a good seat, after all."

She hurried away, dodging through the crowd of assembled students, ignoring her sister's shouts for her to come back right this minute. Once out of sight, she leaned against the station wall, trying to control her giggles.

"Your sister's boyfriend looks like he swallowed a toad." The voice at her side made her jump, and there was Ted Tonks, grinning down at her, his expression deeply amused. "I take it you have something to do with that?"

"Maybe." It was difficult to stop laughing, even when she knew she should be serious, should step away now. "I may have just accidentally insulted him a little."

"Accidentally?" Ted raised his eyebrows at her. "What exactly did you say?"

And that look made Andromeda dissolve into laughter again, an explosion of giggles that made her lean over and clutch her stomach, trying to catch her breath. "I … may have implied that the Malfoy family is so small because they're so bad in bed …"

Ted's bellow of laughter in response to that had people looking around to see just what the joke was. "And here I thought you were a lady. I think I'm a bad influence on you."

"Hey, I'm a Black lady, and he insulted me first!" Andromeda protested. "Frankly, if someone does that to a Black, they should consider themselves lucky to be able to walk afterwards."

"I'll remember that." It was hard to tell whether Ted was serious or teasing when he said that, but he slipped an arm around Andromeda's shoulders without waiting for permission, pulling her closer. "You look frozen. Didn't you use a warming spell? You are old enough now to do magic out of school, aren't you?"

"Well … yes." And she felt foolish of not thinking of something so obvious, but Ted had already pulled his wand out, murmuring lightly. A moment later, she felt a pleasant warm glow spread down her body. "Oh! Thank you!"

"You're welcome. My mum insisted on going carol-singing over Christmas. You'd be amazed by how many of those I've had to use. Only thing worse than standing on some stranger's doorstep while they glare and wish you would go away is doing the same thing while suffering frostbite," Ted said dryly. "But it's for charity, so we don't complain. Look, the train's in."

Indeed, the Hogwarts Express was just pulling into the station, and the gathered students thronged towards it, anxious for a place out of the cold air.

Andromeda knew of course that she should shake Ted Tonks' arm from around her shoulders before they got on. People would see, people would talk, and it would do no good whatsoever to her reputation. Still, Lucius' words lingered in her mind, and there was always the chance he would be watching them climb on. There was no way she was going to give him a chance to smirk at her like that again if she could help it.

She could always speak to Ted about the situation once they were at school. Let him down gently, that kind of thing. After all, there could be no way he could be taking this thing seriously, could there?

Mind made up, she smiled up at Ted for a moment, reaching to squeeze his hand with gloved fingers. "We'd better hurry then, else we'll never get a carriage to ourselves."

Turning to help push their way through the crowd, she quite missed Ted's look – smiling, and yet bemused as he glanced down at her – before, quite as though he were a proper pure-blood gentleman, he moved to help her onto the train.