A snowball went whizzing past Sirius' ear, so close he could just feel it scraping his cheek. He turned around, mouth opening lopsidedly in the shape of a retaliation, when a gentle hand caught his arm.
"Don't worry about it, they just missed," Andromeda said, ruffling her little cousin's hair with a scarlet mitten. He smiled up at her, then turned back and continued patting down the torso of their snowman. They'd been at it for quite awhile now, longer than it should've taken to make two thirds of a snowman. The extended time was on account of Regulus butting in. He'd just turned seven, and thought he was especially important because it was a special magical number.
Meanwhile, Bellatrix, Rabastan and Rodulphus continued to flit about in the snow behind them, shrieking and laughing as they engaged in a ferocious snowball fight. The snowball in question had been aimed at Bellatrix, but Rabastan's aim was poor, and thus it had gone for Sirius.
Sirius peeked back over his shoulder while Andromeda packed snow to start the head. Rabastan had flattened himself up against an old oak tree, arms overflowing with snowballs. Rodolphus had finally remembered he was a wizard, brilliantly, and used his wand to send a chunk of ice chasing Bellatrix all over her backyard.
Rabastan stumbled out from his hiding place and flung his arsenal at Rodolphus, but the older brother was pursuing Bellatrix on foot now and all the snowballs failed to get near him.
"Here, Sirius, you can roll it up now," Andromeda said. Sirius beamed at her and began nudging the snowball forward over the ground to give it some size. Andromeda didn't glance up when Bellatrix's penetrating laughter strung through the air, but instead went to hunt for suitable snowman limbs.
Bellatrix's wild black was dark against the stony sky, piercing it just as the to the oak tree's old, creaky branches did. They reached high up but always fell short, and that fact was sharply outlined on a day as bleak and white as this one. Bellatrix too tried to claw her way up, and only time would tell if she made it.
"That's looking good, Sirius," Andromeda called, approaching with her two chosen branches. "Keep it up. This is going to be the biggest snowman we've ever made!"
Sirius shoved the head further along with the heels of his palms and put all his weight behind it. His scarlet gloves, magically enhanced to keep out the cold, had been a Christmas gift from Andromeda last year. She wore her matching ones now. He undid two buttons of his coat, getting warmer with each step.
"Oh no you don't!" Bellatrix cried, voice cutting over the snow. Sirius turned, saw her painted red lips grinning, parted over teeth whiter than the flakes drifting down. Those lips, along with Sirius and Andromeda's gloves, were the only color alive and breathing outside the Black Manor. Even the wreath hanging over the front door had been bled of all life.
Her wand was poised high and arched slightly down, aimed right above Rodolphus' forehead. She'd charmed an old, dead bough from the oak tree to hover above him. He raised his eyebrows and smiled, as if to say, Really, you would? But he let his armful of snowballs tumble to the ground.
Bellatrix lowered the oak branch and smirked, but Rodolphus' wand came out of nowhere and with a whoosh a pile of snow barreled into her stomach and felled her. A similar sound escaped her lips.
Her hair was splayed out on the snow and the two Lestrange brothers crouched over her. Andromeda made as if to do the same, but in the next moment a laugh clawed its way out Bellatrix's throat and she grabbed Rodolphus' dark robes, pulling him down on the snow next to her.
Smiling softly to herself, Andromeda turned back to Sirius and helped him heft the snowman's head on top of the torso. It was now as tall as Andromeda herself, more than three times her width, and Sirius was proud of their work. They each stuck a branch into the middle section of the snowman.
"Hmm," Andromeda said. She tugged Sirius closer to her so that they were standing hip to hip. Or rather, her hip to his stomach. "He needs some clothing."
"He's naked," Sirius snickered.
"Here," Andromeda said, and she unwound her scarf and draped it around the snowman. She then removed her hat, allowing her hair to escape. It was graceful, compared to Bellatrix's snarl of a forest. Andromeda propped her hat on the snowman's head, and, after Sirius had stuck his mittens on the branches, the snowman looked far more cheerful. They stuck bits of bark on for eyes and nose, and a flimsy, curved twig for a mouth.
Behind them, the snowball fight had started up again, but Rabastan had quit and was trudging towards the door. Bellatrix and Rodolphus continued to go at it without him, chucking snowballs at each other with both hands and magic.
"Can I help?" a small voice asked, and Sirius turned and saw Regulus bounding forward in the snow, half-tripping with every step. His unruly hair spilled out from under his hat, and his skin looked pallid compared to the glowing snow he trampled.
"Go back and play with Narcissa," Sirius said. "We just finished."
"But I want to play outside," Regulus said. He plopped himself on the ground and began balling up some snow.
"Where is Narcissa, anyway?" Andromeda asked. She peered over towards the house, where lights glowed in the windows and Rabastan had just slammed the door shut.
"I dunno," Regulus said, absorbed in his snowball.
"Ha!" Bellatrix cried, and Sirius turned once more, tired of being distracted but unable to keep his eyes from glancing over. His bland curiosity turned to horror as he saw his snowman's head go hurtling at Rodolphus' handsome young face.
The snowman's head exploded like a Christmas cracker over Rodolphus, white on dark and dark mingling with white. When he looked up, his hair was white as St. Nicholas's and he had a beard to match. Droplets of icy water dripped down his face as his charm and warmth melted the snow.
Sirius cried out, unable to form words that he could hurl at Bellatrix. He could see nothing of his snowman's head but a lonely, damp piece of bark. The rest had already been lost in the snow blanketing the yard.
But Rodolphus still smiled, in a way Sirius had never seen before. It was fiery and alive, that smile, but hid a cold as the frigid air they stood in. Before Sirius could react, Rodolphus' wand cracked like a whip and the snowman's torso went flying into Bellatrix, buried her as the freshly-packed snow as she lost her footing.
"Stop! Stop!" Sirius cried, running for the two of them. He wasn't sure whom he was heading for, but it didn't matter; both were covered in the debris of Andromeda's hard work and his eager, boyish care.
Before Sirius could go two steps, Andromeda had snagged him around his flimsy chest and restrained him. "Shh," she murmured in his ear, her breath warm on his face. He melted a bit, and she let go. "Was that really necessary, Bellatrix?" Andromeda called. She straightened up, leaving Sirius to cling to her sleeve. "Rodolphus? We've been out here even longer than you, and it took us all that time to put the snowman together. How could you ruin it?"
"It's just a snowman," Bellatrix scoffed, shaking her head ferociously to rid it of snow. Icy clumps still clung to it, despite her best attempts. She wiped the remainder from her face and reached over to brush some snow from Rodolphus's as well. "Honestly, it's nothing to make a fuss over."
"Try telling that to Sirius," Andromeda said. “You and your boyfriend aren't exactly endearing yourselves to him.”
"He's not my boyfriend," Bellatrix said, glancing at Rodolphus as if it were all a big joke. But he slung an arm around her and pulled her close, and Sirius realized that was exactly what he looked like. Good. She can marry him and then I'll be rid of her forever. He got a firmer hold on Andromeda's sleeve and buried his white fist in it, now painful from the cold. His mittens lay buried somewhere beneath the carnage of his snowman.
"Either way, you should love your cousin more than you love him, and apologize," Andromeda said. Bellatrix stiffened, then her scarlet lips spread in a dangerous grin.
"C'mon, Andromeda. We all know you're more in love with that Mudblood than the cousin you pretend to adore."
Sirius glanced up at Andromeda, drew back his icy hand. It felt as though the sharp cold in his fingers was seeping down his arms, dripping down his sides, pooling in the small of his back. "What? Who do you love?" he asked.
Andromeda's face was white, like the snow and the sky and the icicles hanging ominously from the house and everything else in this cold, cold winter. She crouched down by Sirius, a pleading look on her face. "Don't listen to her, Sirius, I love you..."
"You're going to run off and leave me here?" Sirius asked. How could she do that, how could she go off and leave him alone, alone with just his imposing parents and whiny brother and too-perfect cousins? Who would build snowmen with him, or drink hot chocolate in early in the morning, or lift their tongue up the sky to try and catch a snowflake, a dream, a hope?
"Of course not, don't be silly," Andromeda said brusquely. She'd stripped off her mittens and placed his hands inside them, and now buttoned up his coat with trembling, breakable fingers, delicate as icicles.
"You thought she was perfect, did you Sirius?" Bellatrix said. "You thought she'd be yours forever? Did she promise you that?"
It was as if Bellatrix had read his mind. Sirius could see it all clearly: the balmy summer night, wind just kissing the old oak tree, he and Andromeda splayed out beneath it. There were only a few stars, and no moon to be seen, but the candlelight in the house twinkled merrily all the same. Two hands clasped together, small wrapped in big, her hair tickling his nose, their breath mixing and pirouetting together before drifting up into the sky. He'd asked playfully, but she'd answered in all seriousness. And he'd held her to her word ever since.
"She's a blood traitor, Sirius. She's as bad as the Muggles. Don't expect her to keep any of her promises," Bellatrix said, and the last of the warmth from that far-off night vanished. Sirius looked up at his two cousins, one kneeling in front of him with summer in her forgiving eyes and rosy cheeks, the other colder than his poor snowman.
"C'mon, let's go inside," Rodolphus said to Bellatrix, with a secret grin intended only for her. Sirius felt more hatred bubbling up in him, warming him all the way to the tips of his fingers inside Andromeda's mittens.
"What's the matter, Sirius? Are you upset?" Bellatrix pouted. "Don't worry. The feeling wears off after awhile, once you're away from the blood-traitor stench. Then your head will clear."
"Shut up," Sirius snapped.
"Pardon?" Bellatrix said, eyes wide and daring. She raised a slender hand in front of Rodolphus, who'd tensed. The side of her pristine red mouth twitched into a half-smile. "What did you say?"
"Shut up," Sirius repeated. He didn't know when the enemy had switched from Bellatrix to Andromeda and back again; perhaps it had been Bellatrix from the start. With her commanding, icy voice, arched eyebrows, and lips the color of blood, she struck quite the picture. Andromeda, on the other hand, was gentle: more like the soft powdery snow that piled up right after a snowfall.
Sirius couldn't put into words why his hatred was directed at Bellatrix, so he went with the easiest reason: "You ruined my snowman," he said, then added, "You hurt Andromeda's feelings." Then he remembered the reason for all his pain, and knew exactly what he wanted to blame: love. "It doesn't matter that you love Rodolphus, or that she loves... someone. You're supposed to love us all." He glanced back at Regulus, who sat in the snow, tossing his snowball up and down, watching the performance. "Except Regulus."
"Hey!" Regulus cried, and tossed his snowball pathetically at Sirius. Laughing, Sirius dodged it and snatched up some snow to make his own. There was a flash of silvery blonde hair, and Narcissa was there, chucking snowballs at Andromeda, and Andromeda threw more back while trying to stifle her giggles.
Sirius wasn't even aware of Rodolphus offering his arm to Bellatrix, nor of the two stalking back to the house. They would probably end up sipping tea and making small talk with the adults, while the good ones stayed outside and played. They knew that while the cold cousins fought their way to the top, it was perfectly acceptable to sit at the foot of the old oak and wait for the snow to melt away before they climbed, one branch at a time, careful not to snap off a single twig.