“Come on Arella. It’s bad enough I’ve got to attend this ruddy gathering without you prolonging the agony. What’s taking you so long?”
I turned the rusty brown handle of her bedroom door but she had locked it and I was shut out and made to wait which I do not do well. As I leaned backwards I banged my head against the door and rolled my eyes in bored splendour. I was nervous, I admit: my palms were already sticky with sweat and I could feel the beads of perspiration build around my hairline. This was the moment of truth we had waited for: to be accepted publicly back into the very bosom of my adorable family.
It had seemed all so simple when I first formulated my plan but over the past few weeks, I had seen the machinations of the Black family and I remembered just what I would be walking into tonight. The plan was far from simple now. After much effort and persuasion I had finally managed to convince my parents and sibling that I was a changed man and though at first I had struggled I was now a regular visitor and my mother almost seemed pleased when I called. I had also gained a little valuable information for the Order from my Father, though he was still cagey and suspicious around me and I hoped tonight I would be able to do the same. They would all be there tonight, at least those who had married well, which discounted my favourite cousin, Andromeda. The rest of the clan were expected to make an appearance, as well as some notable others, most of which would be formally introduced to Arella. I would have to keep an eye on Bellatrix and Narcissa, as they had always disliked Arella, though I hoped they would have reached a certain level of maturity by now, though I knew there were no guarantees. I hoped perhaps their respective marriages would have mellowed them a little.
My heart leapt into my mouth as the door handle moved slightly and I stood upright to face her, adjusting my suit as I did and checking the cufflinks were all in place: my Mother had insisted on formality. Arella stepped out of the room looking radiant that night. Her skin had a little colour to it, enhanced by the minimal amount of makeup she wore and her whole appearance looked heavenly to me. Her scarlet dress was floor length, skimmed her ample curves and shimmered in the light, highlighting her best features and making her hair appear to shine. I proudly took her arm, mesmerised into silence by her unwavering duty and determination for she was far calmer than I. Had it been any other woman I would have complemented on her appearance and told her she was beautiful but this was a business arrangement and nothing more: I had to remain professional for both our sakes, though I was sorely tempted more than once to sweep her off her feet.
Minutes later we walked the long, sweeping drive as silent as the clear summer night, and upon seeing the lights of the Black country mansion, which had been our summer retreat, she clung to my arm like a frightened child, her eyes wider now with a sense of foreboding.
“Are you ok with this, Sirius? If they were to ever find out the truth…”
I gently took her hand in mine and squeezed it for reassurance.
“I know the risks. This was my idea, remember? I’ve been working on them for weeks and it’s normal for them to want to invite you to this sort of gathering, and for me to introduce them all. Mother has been so enthusiastic at the thought of the possibility I may marry a Ravenclaw pureblood she’s almost been maternal towards me, Merlin forbid! Are you ready for this?”
She smiled a little reluctantly and swallowed her fears.
“Yes. Come on, I’ve always wondered what your parents were like. Hideous, obviously, to have bred you, but I often wondered just the same!”
I slapped her playfully on the backside and put my arm around her waist to complete our journey into the jaws of evil. Mother and Father stood on the porch to greet us; Mother being sickeningly sweet while checking Arella over with a fine toothed comb for any faults or defects that may render her shoddy breeding stock. Yes, I knew how her mind worked. The fact we had been honest about Arella’s profession had riled my father somewhat, but he remained rigidly guarded and polite, and once we had formally greeted my parents they beckoned us into the drawing room for drinks.
As I looked around me I saw the room was full of elitist, pureblood loving dignitaries who could only appear here, in the safety of my parents manor, for if they let their beliefs be known outside they may lose everything that they had gained. A sickening feeling rose up from the pit of my stomach as I looked at them all. I despised these people: my friends fought daily against their hypocrisy, and yet here I was socialising with them all. I had to remind myself it was all a game; it wasn’t real, but as I saw my brother Regulus talking fervently in the corner I wondered if this is what I could have become without my experiences of Hogwarts to save me. Without James, Lily, Peter or Remus would I have fitted in here? Would I have been at my brother’s side for real? I glanced across at Arella who was now speaking to some of Mothers friends: and here was the real reason for my Mothers generosity - allegiances.
Mother and Father were far too Slytherin to outwardly devote any time effort or money to Voldemort, but secretly I was sure there would be some involvement there and I planned to prove it and expose them. And here I was returning to the fold with an apparent change of heart, a pureblood girlfriend and potential access to all the Aurors movements before they happen. Mother must have felt her Christmases had all come at once.
I gathered my thoughts and continued my assessment of the room. The Macnairs, the Rosiers, the Lestranges, with their son Rabastan, but no Rodolphus or his fiancée Bellatrix. I wondered which poor soul was meeting their fate tonight. Narcissa was there, and her new husband, Lucius Malfoy, who I noticed had already wormed his way into the circle of people now speaking animatedly to Arella. The Fowles and the Petersons were deep in conversation, and as I stared at them I barely noticed the tall dark figure apparently listening to Regulus, though staring out in the direction of Malfoy and the now cornered and unaccompanied Arella. Snape: he was here. He must have come as a guest with Lucius, surely, or perhaps he was a friend of Regulus now. Whatever or whoever, the intensity of his stare sent me striding to her side to shield her from his gaze. He was the last person she would want to see here tonight, and as her companion I had a duty to protect her. I always protected her as far as he was concerned. I touched her shoulder gently as I finally made the journey across the room to join her, and now Lucius, in the centre of the room. Narcissa sidled up to her husband’s side, with a sickly smile plastering her pale, pointed face and there we all stood, like pieces on a chessboard, waiting for the other to make the first move. Lucius took control of the silence.
“Well now Arella, I must declare I am a little surprised to see an Auror of such renown here, amongst such ‘distinguished’ guests. Are you not a little out of place here, my dear?”
Arella smiled sweetly, though I could feel her body tensing just by standing next to her with my hand rested in the small of her back. She loathed the couple opposite us.
“One should always keep an open mind in times such as these, would you not say Lucius? My darling Sirius here has shown me there are…other avenues to pursue rather than the one I was sworn to.”
Lucius narrowed his soul piercing eyes and stared directly at me. I did not dare to flinch.
“Have you indeed, Sirius? Have you indeed? Tell me, as I am intrigued, what exactly brought on this sudden change of heart? At what point did a true Gryffindor like yourself come back into the fold of the Black family? It must have been such a terrible wrench for you to leave it all behind you…all your mud blood loving, half breed friends.”
Lucius’ sneer and look of utter contempt made my stomach lurch inwardly. Oh how I would have loved to wipe that smug smile off his oh so perfect face, but now was not the time: I had to swallow this bitter pill and play along in this foolish game they played in front of me.
“I merely saw opportunities arise for others that were not there for me, and I felt aggrieved. The Black family can be traced back to the Norman conquest, possibly even before that, and I find it irritating that a true Wizarding family such as ours is being overlooked in favour of less desirable families.”
Narcissa spoke as soon as I had said those words, her shrill voice aggravating Arella from the moment she opened her narrow lipped mouth. “And yet you always had less desirable friends, didn’t you, Sirius. It did not worry you then.”
“That was then; this is now.”
Again Lucius narrowed his eyes as if searching me for the truth, and Arella sensed my apprehension as he made to speak, but we had an unlikely saviour in the form of my Mother, who sauntered over behind Lucius and Narcissa, placing a hand on the shoulder of Narcissa. Her tone was abrupt and to the point, even to the great Lucius Malfoy.
“Do you question my son’s loyalties, Lucius? Do you wonder at his faith in the cause just because he does not bear the mark like his brother? I do not blame you, for we were just as unconvinced at first, but he has proved his worth and sees his childish errors. It is intended for him to follow in his footsteps of his father, now he has seen the light at long last, and be discreet in his beliefs. Sirius has many very important contacts in high places, and his return to us could be crucial. I for one am delighted to see my own flesh and blood return to the bosom of his family and bring with him a very worthy companion. Perhaps Sirius may be able to assist you in your endeavours, Lucius and in doing so the Dark Lord will provide for the Black family and give them their rightful rewards. After all we are all family now and soon we may be able to include the lovely Arella in that family too, wouldn’t you say, Sirius?”
I absorbed the glee in my mother’s eyes and felt the bile rise within my stomach. Oh yes, the prodigal son had returned, and with a valuable prize for them all: an Auror. An Auror with connections and access to plans and relations with senior Ministry personnel. And a son who had friends in high and low places who could convince them all for Voldemorts needs and whims. Mother could not contain her pride, and yet I felt nothing in return, only bitterness and a true belief that I could never really call myself a Black.
I was so anti everything these people stood for that her joy that evening just made me even more determined to destroy everything they stood for and they brought home to me the reality of the war that James and Arella were trying to fight while I had up until now been somewhat blinkered to it. My parents could be assisting in the plans to destroy my friends and I could never sleep at night until I helped to stop the rot of Voldemort. Of course, being the true Slytherins they were, my parents would never swear allegiance to Voldemort outside of these four walls, for above the devotion to the Dark Lord stood their own need for self preservation. But they were deep enough in to be talking to the likes of Malfoy and inviting those other families who had more evident links. Regulus had become a Death Eater and my parents couldn’t be more proud, but the minute his actions brought any problems he would be ostracised just as I had for being a Gryffindor, and seeing their ways as anything but right all those years ago. Mother’s sons were just pawns in her game, and if necessary we were expendable: she would shed no tears over either of us if we brought shame to the family name. Though she feigned affection here, I had never felt any Mother’s love from her in my life: she had never given it and in the end, when I realised all that they were, in my formative years at Hogwarts, I learned never to seek it from her again.
So, as I looked at them through clearer eyes I saw all that they were and I despised them still, all though they treated me like a welcome guest of honour. A distant echo of soothing music broke my thoughts and Mother smiled at me in her unnerving way once again.
“Ah, Father has commenced the dance, Sirius. You and Arella must lead us all off. Do not keep us waiting.”
Had I not been doing a job I could have walked out of the room there and then and not turned back, but Arella placed her hand on my shoulder, smiled at my mother in an amazingly genuine way and made to leave for the dance, waiting for me to follow. Lucius, in his gentlemanly way rose and kissed Arella’s hand, much to the disgust of Narcissa. My dearest cousin always failed to hide her contempt towards Arella, and to see her newlywed husband fawning and flirting over my dear friend was too much for her jealous mind to take. If looks could kill then Lucius and Arella would not draw breath again. Lucius turned to me and sensed my rising anger too, feeding on it, giving him some sadistic pleasure as he still held Arella’s hand in his own, stroking it seductively. I bit my lip in anger.
“Sirius, you must allow me to dance with your beautiful partner later on. We have so much to talk about, Arella.”
“Indeed we do, Lucius. I’m sure I can be prized away from Sirius at some point this evening, if that is what you desire.”
I moved to Arella’s side to protect her from the glint in his eye and the sinister leer creeping across his face, but she needed no assistance. She was reeling in Lucius and taking enormous pleasure at making Narcissa angry at the same time, especially when she lingered just a little longer and closer to Lucius in an unspoken seduction between them. I pulled her away before Narcissa made a scene.
Leading her into the large foreboding hall, I remembered so well lazy summers past when Regulus and I would open the large French doors and run in and out, pretending to be great wizards, but only if our parents were away, which for much of the day they were. It was a rare chance of freedom from strict governesses and the constant knowledge that once our parents returned the military regime of our childhood would return with them. I looked at the dark oak panelling, carved with the Black crest and emblem and the sadness of a lost youth overwhelmed me as I stared at my brother, still engrossed in conversation with Snape in the shadows of the room. We were both lost in our own unique ways; products of the years of pressure and expectation of parents obsessed by wealth and position and blood - pureblood traditions.
The bitter taste returned to my mouth as we found our way to the middle of the room while a hundred hungry eyes watched as the future Mr and Mrs Black (or at least so my Mother had told them) took their place for a slow dance. As Arella and I did our best to look the part, my mind wandered back to just a few years hence, when I had danced with her at Hogwarts to give her some support in her hour of need. She was lending me her hand now, as she held me tight to her body and whispered into my ear.
“How are you doing, darling?”
Still playing our game, I brushed back the hair from her face and traced a finger down her jaw line, staring into those deep dark eyes of hers and smiling just as a lover should, loving every minute of this intimate charade.
“I’m fine, my darling. I see we have quite an audience.”
She smiled and raised an eyebrow as she placed a hand to cup my face and hold me closer still.
“I always think actors should give the audience what they require, don’t you, Sirius?”
I smirked at her devilish glare and winked at her. She loved every single minute of the pure headiness of the deception and danger we were entangled in right there and then, and I saw now why she was an effective Auror. She was turned on by the risks, not frightened or hesitant. She lived for this sort of night and just being with her, watching the adrenalin course through her veins and making those eyes sparkle with pure delight made me play my part with confidence too. I took her hint and as the music finished and the room broke into applause I slid my hands around her face and kissed her like I had never kissed her before. Was it the moment that made that kiss so delicious, or the fact she responded to it with passion radiating from her body I had never felt within her. Arella and I had never shared a passion: we only dated as friends and nothing more, but this was a glimpse of something forbidden and exquisite and for a moment we forgot where we were and lost ourselves within the depth of the kiss.
There was another reason that kiss was so electric: he was there watching on the outside, looking in. With Mother now talking to Regulus I could clearly see his face as I withdrew from our embrace and walked to the sidelines and it was riddled with disgust and loathing. My heart skipped as I realised that despite all he was, and all he had become he still adored Arella. After the years apart, Severus Snape still loved her and he confirmed my suspicions by leaving the room to take in the cool summer night outside and get away from the happy couple.
As we parted, Arella was taken by the arm by Lucius and I watched closely as she graciously danced with him, playing him and teasing him like I had seen her do with other men from time to time, but never me. Mother, Father and Aunt Venella (Narcissa and Bellatrix mother) cornered me and broke my concentration.
“Now Sirius, doesn’t she make a beautiful prospect for a young man like you? I’ll grant you she is not a patch on my daughters, but with a little persuasion and grooming she will be good for the family, I feel. The Auror thing is a nuisance but we can soon show her it would be better to lose all that nonsense. Yes, she is a good choice. You should take her soon, Sirius.”
My father spoke to me for the first time that evening, a look of determination in his eyes that even now I still feared. He had planned my life before and I had run away from his disgusting ideas but now I was allowing him to do it all over again. His words chilled me to the bone.
“Marry her, dear boy, marry her! The Ravenclaws are an excellent pureblood family: perhaps a little questionable in their beliefs recently but she is young and impressionable. She can be controlled. Your mother and I could see to that.”
Loathing filled my very being as I heard how my parents had viewed Arella like some thoroughbred horse at a race meeting. She was a witch, a clever, intelligent witch who would never turn to their way of thinking despite what they all had planned for her in this unreal world of theirs. I decided to humour them nevertheless.
“ I am living with her though, is that not good enough?”
My Mother rounded on me instantly. “No it is not, and for once in your life you will do the right and proper thing, and once you are married she will do as you ask. I still do not approve of this modern way of living but if you must cohabit then I suppose I shall have to swallow my pride on this occasion. But make sure you are engaged and married these next few months and then with child as soon as possible. It will make her more submissive and loyal but she will still be of use to us.
I blinked as I thought of this heady prospect. They knew so little of Arella. No marriage would ever make her so submissive, even the fantasy one they were suggesting, and to tie her to me in such a way would be a heinous crime. An image of an exquisite bird of prey caged and forlorn came to me and I shivered to think of the life they were suggesting for her, even though I knew it would never be. I was a fool to return here amongst such vile company, but that night I grew up out of adolescence and into adulthood as I saw the whole situation so clearly now. I had escaped this controlling madness in which I had the misfortune to be born and they were recommending I inflict their methods on someone I cared about more deeply than I had ever realised. Was this contempt for my family giving me the ideas of passion and love towards the woman who was still in Malfoy’s arms? Or in truth had they always been there, forming slowly under the surface? I looked at her all in red and looking radiant and as the music stopped she bid Lucius farewell and left to go through the French doors and out of my view.
Once I found her again I would know the truth about our feelings, and things would never be the same between us again.