Unknown Date, 1955
Walburga Black marched up the steps to her childhood home, barely pausing in her strut as the doors to the manor flew open by themselves in welcome. She came to a halt only when her closed-toed heels felt the plush of the doormat beneath them and she spread her arms slightly away from her body, letting her cloak slide off her shoulders. It hovered off to the side for the barest of moments before a soft pitter-patter of bare feet reached her ears and an unseen elf hurriedly took hold of it.
Sniffing in disdain that she wouldn't have too much of an excuse to taunt her little brother's bride in matters of housekeeping, she walked forward, up the staircase and towards the birthing quarters. A portrait she had purposefully left behind had come to her just hours ago, carrying the news that the morning silence in Black Country House had been broken by the cries of a new-born babe. She had wasted no time in readying herself and had appeared at the manor as fast as she could. The walls of the birthing chamber were bare, and her portrait had been unable to determine the gender of the child—the very reason why she had come with haste herself.
Walburga hid a smile as she reached the top of the stairs, seeing the empty halls around her. Not a single person was standing around in celebration... which could only mean that she still might have the satisfaction of seeing Druella Black's proud eyes lowered in submission.
Reaching the quarters, she paused with her long, well-kept fingers on the doorknob, running her thumb over the snake and egg engraved on it as she listened for any sounds coming from inside. No cooing sounds of a babe or a mother came from within, but Walburga knew that the rooms weren't empty. Placing a pleasant smile on her face that hid her previous smirk, she twisted the knob with a click and threw open the doors.
Calm brown eyes looked up at her entrance, but Walburga had eyes only for the bundle of blankets within the woman's arms, the baby apparently asleep. She looked around the room, stalling another smirk when she saw that her brother wasn't present. Finally, the dark eyes native to the Blacks met the brown ones, and Walburga stepped forward with a wider smile.
"Druella!" she exclaimed in a falsely pleasant voice, spreading her arms wide as if to embrace the woman.
"Walburga," Druella said with a nod, not returning the smile. "I did not know the news of the birth had reached you already. It's been only two hours."
Walburga raised a finely crafted brow, shaking her head slightly as if to reprimand a foolish child. "The birth of Cygnus Black's third child is not something to be kept under wraps, my dear. Soon everybody will be here, yearning to learn more about the child and potential heir."
Walburga did not miss the tightening around Druella's drawn face, and her heart leapt with glee. Innocently, she continued, "It is a worthy heir, isn't it?"
"It is not."
Both witches looked up as the smooth voice of a man made itself known from behind Walburga, announcing the entrance of Cygnus. He was dressed in black robes ornamented with only a thin chain around his waist, and a cold look was radiating off his features. Walburga Black's smirk could no longer be kept in check.
To others, the towering figure of Cygnus Black was intimidating... the pure form of someone meant to sit as the head of the Black Family. What Walburga saw instead was a boy, the annoying little boy that she had tried to keep under her hand for the past two decades.
"You're not serious, are you, Cygnus?" Walburga exclaimed, letting her own cold voice permeate her words. "Are you telling me that the child is a girl?"
His hands clasped behind his back, Cygnus nodded. "That is indeed what I am telling you, Walburga. The child is a girl... just like you are one yourself."
Walburga stepped closer to her brother, his wife and child behind her entirely forgotten. "Ah, but see here, Cygnus. I was the first child of our parents... and I had two brothers who came after me to take up the mantle of continuing our legacy. This child, on the other hand... she is the third of three girls, Cygnus."
Cygnus' blue eyes flashed as he looked at her, his mouth set in a hard line. "I am well aware of the fact, Walburga; you need not remind me."
He made to step to the side towards the bed, but Walburga caught hold of his arm, forcing him to face her. "Need not remind you?" she hissed in apparent anger, though no one in the room was fooled in regards to how much she was actually enjoying herself. "Our house lacks an heir, Cygnus. It is no trivial matter."
Years might have passed since the wedding, but Cygnus had crossed the line when he had stated that as far as he was concerned, she might as well have died. Walburga had vowed to poison his life as much as she possibly could, even though her own life hadn't gone down an entirely smooth road either.
Cygnus's blue eyes, cool and steely, flew to meet her black ones, and the look on Cygnus' face was openly mocking. Apparently, he wasn't ready to bury the battle wand either.
"Our house may lack an heir presently, Sister," he said, "but I'm sure the condition could be changed, could it not? Why, you yourself are still a Black... I'm sure if I were unworthy of producing the Black Family's next heir, surely you wouldn't be."
Walburga's clawed hand dropped immediately from the sleeve of Cygnus's robes. Her eyes narrowed in fury. Cygnus had hit a nerve. Before she could open her mouth to retort, however, Cygnus continued impassively. "How many years has it been since the day you and Orion fled our family home and secretly scrawled your names on the Ministry's registrar? Five?"
Walburga looked away from him, willing herself to calm down; Cygnus was playing low.
"Go appease your husband enough to have him at least touch you before you march in here to taunt me, Walburga."
"You dare—" Walburga began, the look on her face crazed with fury. At that very moment, though, the bundle in Druella's arms stirred and began to cry. The woman lifted the infant closer to her face, murmuring softly to it.
The child's cries ceased, and Walburga tore her eyes away from it to stare into Cygnus' bright ones. The cold look on his face had toned down a notch, and he looked tired, the tension of the past few days leaking through his mask.
"Go home, Walburga. Tend to your own hearth before you wreck another's," Cygnus sighed.
Walburga gave a small scoff, snapping her fingers to have a house-elf appear with her cloak.
Wrapping the elegant folds of the cloth tighter about herself, she allowed herself a final sneer. "You may shut me up, Cygnus, but our whole world will not hesitate to pelt you with the very taunts you find so displeasing from my mouth. Surely you realise that?"
Cygnus didn't answer, but Druella's pained expression said it all.
"I wish you both well," Walburga said mock-pleasantly.
She nodded towards Druella's frail form and stalked out of the room, not stopping until she reached the hall.
A little dark-haired girl peeked out of her room. It was Bellatrix, her little niece and Cygnus's pride and joy.
As if sensing that her visit had caused trouble, the brat was positively glaring at her with those heavily-lidded eyes of hers—eyes that she had inherited from her mother. On her immediate right, there was another little girl—Andromeda. A more timid one, although that might have only been her tender age.
At that moment, Walburga hated both of them. She hated them because they were a vivid reminder of the fact that she herself did not have any children. Of the fact that her marriage was a failure. Of the fact that to her husband, she was as well as non-existent. Of the fact that she spent most of her days staring out of the window, observing a Muggle street because there was nothing left for her to do. A reminder of her misery.
As fast as she could, Walburga carried herself outside the manor's doors, which closed behind her with a resonating finality.
It had been her intention to walk straight through the doors of the house she had grown up in and Apparate back to Grimmauld Place. She would have too, had it not been for the picture that met her as she stepped outside, one that she had ignored before in her hurry to see her brother's child.
It was autumn at Black Country House with the winding path leading to the house nearly covered in shrivelled leaves from the tall trees that lined it. A chilly but calm wind blew from the North, and Walburga, who was warm enough in her Charmed cloak, decided it couldn't hurt to walk at least until the gates before Disapparating.
She could use this time to gather her thoughts before she was once again encaged in the house that was now supposed to be her home.
Having always been taught by her father that the circumstances that one found themselves in were never something to be bemoaned but instead taken by the reins and forced to change, Walburga had always avoided the path of the spiralling thoughts that seemed to hover at the edge of her mind, always wanting to draw her in. Today they seemed to gather especially close, and she didn't have the strength to avoid them as per usual.
It really was hard not to wonder why things had gone as they had. Why, after having been Pollux Black's eldest child with all the wealth and name that came along with it, her life was the living hell that it was.
Her father hadn't spoken to her since the day she and Orion had announced their intention to marry—something that still hurt—but today, in the face of the sudden despair that had gripped her, she found herself thinking not of him but her mother instead.
Walking amidst the decaying leaves, she remembered her mother's one and only visit to her house... and the dire warnings she had left with.
"I would say I'm pleased to see you too, dear, except you don't look all that pleased to begin with."
Irma Black's raised brow and shrewd expression quickly wiped the astonished look from Walburga's face, and she opened the door wider, gesturing for her mother to come inside.
"Not at all, Mother. You merely took me by surprise."
Walburga tried not to squirm under her mother's scrutinizing gaze, which still hadn't wavered from her face as she stepped inside. Closing the door, Walburga led her to the living room she had been occupying before, carefully picking up the book she had been reading and placing it on the side table. The Goblin wars of the seventeenth century weren't the most interesting of topics but it helped pass the time well enough.
Her quiet offer for refreshments was declined by Irma, whether only out of courtesy or something else, she was unsure. The house came with no house-elves, and Kreacher had always been tied to Black Country House, not her specifically. Had Irma wanted the refreshments, she would have been forced to go and fetch them herself.
"Sit down, Walburga. You're making me nervous, standing there like that."
Walburga blinked at her mother—she had never been the one to adhere to formalities when it came to her children—and took a seat on the sofa opposite her, subconsciously mirroring her mother as she folded her hands in her lap. The two women simply gazed at each other for a while, one taking in the sight of what had become of her child, and the other too proud to look away.
"Walburga... I want to know everything. Including what transpired at your brother's wedding a week ago. Will you tell me?"
Woodenly, Walburga nodded and began her tale. Whatever little satisfaction her unwavering voice would have brought her was taken away by the deepening sadness in her mother's eyes. Walburga didn't understand it. Her tale wasn't all that much different from what she and Orion had told her father before.
A silence lay heavy in the room when Walburga finished, her eyes now idly tracing the patterns on the carpet. She started when she felt the sofa dip beside her and Irma's hand came to rest on her shoulder.
"What you've told me is no different from what I heard from your father and Cygnus. I just thought... coming from you..."
"That there would be something more?" Walburga asked.
"Yes," Irma replied, sounding nearly hesitant. "They told me you considered your relationship with Orion platonic... I didn't think that was the whole truth."
Walburga struggled to cover her surprise. This was what her mother was worried about?
"It is the truth, Mother," said Walburga, letting some confusion leak into her voice. "What Orion and I have is simply an alliance... A union that exists for the betterment of our family. It seemed to me no different from what Father had intended by marrying me off to Bogdan."
The hand on her shoulder slipped, and Irma heaved a heavy sigh. It was Walburga who was looking at her now, and Irma who was gazing off into the distance.
"My poor child," she said softly after a few minutes. "What you've decided for yourself is nothing like what your father intended for you."
It was the insinuation in her words, the blatantly apparent meaning that in taking this decision, she and Orion had done something wrong, that sparked her anger.
"Then pray tell, how is it so different?" Walburga asked, standing up from the sofa to pace around the room. "What is it exactly about our relationship that irks our family so? Is it only because we are closely related? Inter-familial marriages have never garnered this much scorn in the past—"
"That is not it, Walburga," Irma interrupted firmly. "While the fact that Orion and you are cousins before anything else is... perhaps not the best of circumstances, it is not the reason why I'm worried."
"What about Father, then?" Walburga asked. "Is the nature of his anger with me also the same as your worry? Or is it something else?"
Irma sighed. "I think what has hurt your Father—and yes, Walburga, he is hurt—was your insolence and outright disrespect... especially in front of Arcturus. Your father expected you to know better, as did I. The fact that you also chose to drop such news on us on the day of your brother's wedding... It was downright immature. On both your and Orion's parts."
While a part of her seethed, there was little Walburga could do to express it. She could care less about her brother—had she ever cared about him to begin with?—but hearing the cause behind her father's anger left an uneasy feeling in her stomach. To this day, Walburga had yet to see a man she could measure up to her father. Bogdan, Orion... even that sly bastard, Riddle, had never come close to commanding the same respect, reverence and even fear as Pollux Black did. To hear that he had been hurt... by her...
"But it is unwise to brood on what has already been done," Irma said briskly, halting Walburga's thoughts. "Your father needs time to come to amends with what has happened, and all you can do at this point is to give him what he needs."
Walburga nodded, a little grateful for her mother's easily dismissive nature. It was not like her to harangue her children.
"What is your worry then, Mother?" asked Walburga, finally addressing that which she had almost been afraid of. Of all people, she had always expected her mother to be the most accepting of her and Orion's relationship. She had always spoken well of Orion as a child, and he, of course, had never treated her with anything less than utmost respect. It had also helped that he and Cygnus had been as thick as thieves whilst young.
"You asked me before as to what was so different about your Orion's relationship when compared to other arranged marriages," said Irma. "The difference is simple: Orion did not properly court you, Walburga."
Walburga made no efforts to hide her expression this time around, letting the confusion and disbelief show plainly on her face. "Did not court me?" she repeated, aghast. "That is your worry?"
Irma, seeming to have expected this reaction, nodded solemnly from her place on the sofa, the hands in her lap clenched. "Yes, that is indeed my worry. You may scoff now, my dear, but the truth is that in this alliance of yours, you have neglected letting yourself see Orion as your husband and letting him see you as his wife."
"But what difference does it make? We may not see each other as that now, but in the years to come—"
"Marriages are foundations, Walburga," Irma said, overriding her. "They are the base upon which structures of families are built. But more than that, it is the coming together of two people who have to live together, make decisions together and support each other. I will not speak of love and other such frivolous things, but tell me: even between Bogdan and you, was there no affection? Did you not come to see him as someone you could trust, be protected by, and he as someone who knew he held a duty towards you?"
Reeling from her mother's heated speech, Walburga was astonished to find her eyes prickling at the mention of what she'd had with Bogdan. She had never loved him, that much was true. And yet, so were all the answers to her mother's questions.
"That is what your father and I had intended in your marriage to him, Walburga," Irma continued, getting up from the sofa and looking at her with pained eyes. "Instead, this abomination of a marriage you have with Orion is the decision of two schoolchildren, who have failed to ensure the necessary steps in order for it to succeed. Orion is young and bold, Walburga, full of hopes and dreams about changing the Ministry to his will. If he is too blind to see the duty he has towards you, then it is you who must make him see it. I have only ever expected the world to see your marriage as an alliance, but to see that you yourself see it as nothing more? I am afraid for you, my child."
The meeting had ended as it could only have been expected to end. Walburga, unable to face the truth in her mother's words, had lashed out. Irma had taken it all with quiet dignity and then had left. To say that Walburga regretted her actions that day would have been an understatement.
Unwilling and unable to bow down enough to show Orion that she cared for him as for more than a cousin, their growing distance had become palpable after their first year together. Orion had started to spend hours upon hours outside the house, either within the Ministry or in the houses of those connected to it. Walburga had by then been re-introduced into the social circles by a willing Lucretia, and the two of them would spend their time either attending luncheons or hosting them and enjoying the vat of worldly gossip that came from them.
For all the world to see, things were as fine as they could be within the Black family. Then Cygnus, holding the hand of a flushing Druella with obvious affection, had announced that they were going to be having their first-born at a family function. Walburga considered that day to be the one that had started her life's descent into hell.
The interested, if infrequent, conversations between her and Orion had slowly grown sparser and sparser as time passed. Bitterness, coming into them out of her dissatisfaction with her life and his apparent obliviousness to it, had crept into their relationship like a slow poison, and before long, their conversations had morphed into cold fights that stung like the edge of a steel sword.
Little things like the glint of a new Goblin-made necklace on Lucretia's pale neck or the passing touches she had started to notice even her mother was able to bestow on her father to calm him down, had soon started to pile up into a mound of hurt that she kept neatly covered behind layers of scorn, arrogance and pride. No matter how adept she was at hiding it, though, it did not take too much for it to seep through.
The evidence, as her brother so easily pointed out today, was incriminating. The truth of it was that five years had indeed passed since the day she and Orion had gottem married, and they had never so much as shared a lovers' kiss. And now, what with them having reached a point where they could barely speak two sentences without them dissolving into a back-and-forth of thinly veiled insults, she was unsure if they ever would.
A truly cold breeze, stirring the flaps of her coat and making the leaves stir around her feet, brought her back to the present. She spotted the gates a few steps ahead, but she'd had enough of this walk. Whatever little pleasure she may have derived from Cygnus being unable to provide the family with an heir had long since been stolen by the brooding thoughts her brother had roused in her.
With one last look at the house, she tightened the folds of her cloak around her and Disapparated.
Author's note: Years have passed, many things have changed. The Black siblings have arranged their family lives, or lack thereof. Be sure to follow the story as the time-line steadily shifts towards another era—the era of influenced by none other than the Dark Lord himself.