The table was now invisible beneath an impressive layer of dishes, goblets, silverware and delicious looking assortments of meats, salads and puddings, two bottles of champagne and the snake-shaped cake in the center. Their aunt Walburga was visible just inside the kitchen, talking to their mother, Druella. Narcissa was telling Kreacher where to place a large jug of pumpkin juice. Regulus was chatting with Bellatrix about school, his jet black hair now reaching his shoulders. He glanced over at Ambrosia and grinned at her. She walked over to the pair of them and gave Regulus a one-armed hug. “I feel like I haven’t spoken to you properly in ages. How are you?”
“Ah, I’m great.” He assured her, waving a hand dismissively. I was just telling Bella about the last Quidditch Cup and the O.W.L.s…. Do the teachers always start talking about them while you’re still in your fourth year, or did we just get lucky?”
“Oh yes. It’s a dreadful year, the fifth. I seem to remember mum having a shouting match with Cissy because she failed Herbology. Half of my year ended up in the hospital wing in need of a Calming Draught at one point or another.” Ambrosia told him conversationally, halfheartedly trying to keep a straight face and failing.
“Yeah, well at least at the end of this year I can give up on Care of Magical Creatures and Charms.”
“I don’t think you’ll want to be doing that.” Bellatrix interjected. “Charms is dead useful, it’s at the base of loads of things. Gets a lot more impressive in the sixth year too.”
“There aren’t any interesting or Dark charms.” Regulus complained.
“Yeah, there are.” Ambrosia countered. “Bella’s right, there’s never anything to regret about taking Charms. And besides, in the sixth year, they teach you how to turn vinegar into wine!”
Before Regulus could offer a retort, Narcissa decided to stick her head out of the kitchen doorway. Kreacher edged his way past her to put a large platter of Cauldron Cakes on the table.
“Where have you two been? Most of this stuff is starting to get cold; Mum was expecting you a quarter of an hour ago….”
“We’ve been here Cissy. In the sitting room having tea and catching up.” Bellatrix said, grinning at her rather pinched expression. She withdrew huffily and set to handing Regulus a large dish of pudding to carry out of the kitchen.
“If she ever has a son, I hope for his sake that he’s never late to dinner.” Bellatrix muttered under her breath, forcing Ambrosia to stifle a giggle under her hand.
They followed Narcissa and Regulus into the sitting room and dug into Ambrosia’s graduation dinner, complementing Kreacher’s cooking occasionally. Regulus had not been able to prevent himself from giving his aunt Druella a play-by-play run through of the past school year’s Quidditch final, which he had gloriously ended by catching the Snitch while Gryffindor were forty points behind.
“But then, see, their Seeker, Flynn, was on my tail. So I sped up, you know, and when I pulled out of the dive, I had the Snitch in my hand, and he’d only been able to scratch right thumb!. And that was that!”
Narcissa, who had also been listening, caught Ambrosia’s eye and grinned. She rolled her eyes toward Regulus, who was now waving his half-healed thumb in front of the room at large.
“That’ll be the only damned thing he talks about all summer. Merlin help us if he’s ever made Quidditch Captain….”
“Ah, it’ll happen.” Said Ambrosia with mock resignation. “I’d say that when it does, keep away from him till the novelty wears off a bit.”
“We couldn’t.” Bella countered, mockingly mournful. “We’d never speak to him again!”
Kreacher was making his typical rounds about the table, refilling drinks and clearing away any plate whose contents had been exhausted. Most of the meats were gone, and Regulus was on his third biscuit. Druella and Walburga were now involved in a serious discussion about the most recent misdeeds of Regulus’s brother Sirius, the only Gryffindor in the entire Black family.
“With these great awful banners all over his room, and the pictures! Muggle pictures!” Walburga fumed, gesticulating violently as if to illustrate the breadth of the ruined walls, while Druella looked on sympathetically. “Not an ounce of proper Wizarding pride, and already sixteen! Absolutely intolerable leanings, and if we’ve failed, over sixteen years, to make him recognize what is due the name of Black, I doubt he will ever live up to the dignity of his birth….”
Ambrosia glanced around to the other end of the table again, toward where Narcissa and Bellatrix sat. Narcissa had noticed the conversation about Sirius, and showed every sign of interrupting to present her own opinion on the matter. Bellatrix was the only one who was conspicuously not listening. Upon catching Ambrosia’s eye, she made the smallest nod toward the stairs that led up to their bedrooms. She then rose up from her seat without a word and headed upstairs.
Ambrosia waited several minutes, and when no one commented on Bellatrix’s absence, stood up as well. No one but Regulus took notice. Tired of the discussion about his brother, he had taken her departure from the table as a cue to get up himself, grab his broomstick, and head out the back door of the house toward the forest. He stopped only to look back at Ambrosia and press a finger to his lips surreptitiously, making him look very much like a mischievous child who had been caught with forbidden sweets. Trying hard not to laugh, she nodded at him and followed her elder sister up the stairs.
There were only three rooms on the upper floor of the house, one belonging to each Bellatrix, Narcissa and Ambrosia. Andromeda, the youngest, slept on the lower floor, across the house from their parents. Ambrosia made her way up to her sister’s room, the carpet emitting small puffs of dust as her feet fell upon it. With Bellatrix living elsewhere, and both Ambrosia and Narcissa away at Hogwarts the past year, no one had tended the upper floor in quite some time. She entered the last, largest room to find Bellatrix lounging on the leather sofa opposite the bed.
“Took you long enough. What kept you?”
“Well I couldn’t follow right behind you, could I? Regulus has gone too; he’s flying in the woods.”
She made a noise of comprehension and indicated the place beside her on the couch. Ambrosia took it and they simply sat for a minute or so, both taking in the long-vacant appearance of the room. The stillness of it felt odd to her after the heated conversation she had just left. She rather thought she heard Narcissa’s angry voice below, muted by the floor between them.
“So,” Bellatrix began slowly. Ambrosia turned to look at her. Her face was hard to read, but Ambrosia knew her well enough to sense some strong emotion in her demeanor.
“You’re done with Hogwarts…. Have you given any thought to what you might do next? I mean” -Her voice dropped, her tone almost cautious- “I’d be happy to help you out. I can give you advice if you need it; answer any questions you might have….” She trailed off, and she was looking expectantly at Ambrosia; who was relatively certain that she was being given permission to ask her favorite sister those questions that would never have gotten real answers before now. Including the ones that had been on her mind all night, and so many nights before….
“So if I wanted, then…. I could ask you for real details about the Dark Lord? The Death Eaters?”
“Anything at all.” Answered Bellatrix. Her voice no longer held any trace of hesitation. She waited expectantly.
“Well, what if I was interested in assisting the cause directly? What would it require?” Ambrosia asked, carefully keeping her tone as casual as possible.
“I would be able to help you do it. He’d be delighted to have you, I’m sure of that.”
There was a short silence during which Ambrosia shifted on the sofa to better face her sister. Her face was lit up with pride, and Ambrosia, who had imagined this conversation before, found it to be more difficult than she had anticipated. Her mind, however, was made up. She was about to open her mouth to say so when Bellatrix’s self-control ran out.
“Do you want to join us?” She asked in a rush.
Ambrosia hesitated for the space of a heartbeat before answering.
“I knew it!” Bellatrix yelled, abandoning restraint and throwing an arm across Ambrosia’s shoulders. “I knew you would, I knew you’d make me proud. Oh, it will be good to finally have someone else in the family…. You’re going to be great, you know. I really meant it when I said he’d be glad to have you.” She added conversationally. “You’ve really become skilled, especially after that business with the Duelling Club you and Wesley started.”
Ambrosia laughed. “You mean the one that was nearly shut down because of Madam Pomfrey’s complaining?”
Bellatrix grinned. “The very same. All of us have to be at least decent at Duelling. When I joined, I had to duel Travers on the spot so the Dark Lord could see how I did, because he’d heard I was good….” She inflated herself with pride. “I ended it with a Stunner, and I got the Mark next to his unconscious body.”
Ambrosia laughed, feeling her face split in a smile that rivaled Bellatrix’s. The pressure was gone now.
“So where was that? I figured that Death Eaters would need to hold meetings, but where exactly is it possible….”
“Usually in forests and such. The occasional old graveyard or abandoned building. We want to spend our time constructively, not be constantly chasing intruders out of our space. That’s why it’s a real issue if people show up too late, they could be cursed by mistake. We don’t usually meet in the same place twice, just as an added precaution.”
“Well then how do you know where to go?” Asked Ambrosia, perplexed.
“The Marks. If we are going to meet somewhere, he can touch any one of ours to send the rest of us a Summons. Then we are to Apparate to him. You don’t think of a physical destination like you would normally, you just focus on being at his side. And the next time I go to him, I will bring you with me if you feel you’re ready.”
“I will. I would go right now if I had the choice.”
“I would expect nothing less. Be careful what you wish for though. It could be any time at all, and if I burst into your bedroom at three in the morning,” Bellatrix said brightly, clapping her sister on the back, “I am going to expect you to live up to those words.”
Ambrosia smiled indulgently. There were sounds downstairs now, it seemed that people had gotten up and were talking in the sitting room. They could hear their aunt Walburga shouting, and Ambrosia figured that she must have noticed Regulus’s absence from the house at last. The formerly torrential storm had slowed to a slight pattering tempo that played against the roof and in the trees. The pair of them sat and listened to this for a few minutes before Ambrosia sighed heavily.
“We ought to go downstairs. They’ll be looking for us next after Regulus gets chewed out.” She said without enthusiasm. She was anxious to hear more about the Dark Lord, or simply to think to the sound of the rain for a while, and so the idea of being around other people was not a pleasant one at the moment. That was one of the great things about her sister; Bellatrix never felt obligated to fill even a long silence, but allowed it to pass without disturbance. She stood up unwillingly, and Bellatrix followed suit.
“Wait just a minute.” She said, and Ambrosia paused, lowering her hand from the doorknob. “I think I can improve your mood a bit before we go back.”
“How so?” She didn’t ask how her sister knew how she felt; they had always been adept at reading each other.
“I can show you the Mark. If you’re interested.”
Ambrosia smiled in spite of herself. “Really Bella? I’ve just finished telling you that I’m interested.”
Bella laughed and began pushing up the left sleeve of her robes, angled so that what she was doing wasn’t visible. Ambrosia propped a foot up against the wall and waited for the few seconds it took. Bellatrix turned around and stuck her arm out in front of her sister.
“There you go.”
The skull and snake emblem was plainly visible on Bella’s forearm, a dark, blackish emerald, and more intricate and detailed by far than Ambrosia had ever seen it in the sky or in pictures. The snake was twisted into a shape that vaguely resembled a figure eight, its mouth open in a hiss. She traced it with a finger. There was no difference in its texture from that of her sister’s skin.
She looked up from the sign and saw, as she expected, a delighted grin illuminating her sister’s features. “It’s absolutely brilliant.”
“Thank you.” Bellatrix said, now yanking her sleeve back into place. “I thought you might appreciate it.” She marched past Ambrosia and held open the door. “Shall we?”