Black Widow
by Victoria P.

She smoothed back her hair, making sure every strand was in place. Since her husband had died, she'd stopped charming the grey away, and now it made her look ... distinguished. Venerable. Like someone worth listening to.

Her pursed lips were painted red -- startling in her ghostly pale face, but she refused the rouge Kreacher offered -- and her grey eyes were lined lightly with kohl, no trace of red or tears marring their cool clarity.

She nodded at her reflection, the mirror wise enough to keep silent, and took the hat Kreacher had put out for her, pulling the black veil down to cover her face. She looked every inch the matriarch of a powerful, prominent family, ready to face the world.

Bellatrix and her useless husband waited at the bottom of the stairs, flanked by Narcissa and the marginally more useful Lucius Malfoy, called back from their holiday to attend the funeral for her son, her baby boy--

Cassiopeia tightened her grip on the banister, forcing herself to calm down, to tamp down her anger, to appear strong. Public displays of emotion were a sign of weakness -- a sign she couldn't afford these days.

She knew better than most that their whole way of life stood upon the knife's edge; that the madness of Voldemort and Dumbledore, two sides of the same coin, could destroy everything her family had achieved over the last eight hundred years. Voldemort, with his vulgar displays of power and his low-class belief that brute force would triumph over superior breeding and guile; and Dumbledore, with his preposterous, dangerous egalitarianism, his willingness to accept half-bloods and Muggle-borns into their society without a thought as to how inferior breeding would ruin them all in the end.

Not for the first time, she wished Antares were still alive. His quiet support had bolstered her through the years; he'd been her rock when everything else was falling apart -- Sirius being sorted into Gryffindor, Andromeda running off with a Mudblood--

Just thinking about it caused a swell of rage to rise in her breast. She took a deep breath and bit the inside of her cheek to focus.

"Aunt Cassiopeia, are you well?" Narcissa said, breaking the heavy silence.

"Yes, thank you, Narcissa." She descended the stairs and took the arm Lucius offered. Against the black velvet of his robe, her pale fingers looked skeletal. She was surrounded by death. She would have no grandchildren, no one to continue the family name. Regulus's death was the death of hope.

"His murderer will be brought to justice," Bellatrix began in her throaty voice. Cassiopeia itched to slap her, but she refrained, restrained herself from admitting she knew exactly how Regulus had died, and that if Bellatrix hadn't cast the curse herself, she'd certainly been involved. That anger must have shown in Cassiopeia's eyes, because Bellatrix, usually fearless, fell silent at the cold glare directed her way.

Silence reigned on the ride to the cemetery, the line of black cars snaking unseen through Muggle traffic a show of wealth and pride and obeisance by the ruling class of wizarding society to the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black, now bereft of its youngest son.

The ceremony at the gravesite was simple; the committing of Regulus's body to the earth where his father and forefathers lay, powerful.

Cassiopeia noted representatives from most of the important families, and made a mental list of those who'd sent no one to pay their respects. In the old days, there would have been retribution, but things were changing rapidly, and not for the better.

Sirius was there, of course. He was still a Black, despite his petulant protests and her angry removal of his name from the tapestry. Her blood flowed in his veins, and her influence was evident in the stark formality of his robes, the proud set of his shoulders, the proper bearing for a Black. He wore a mulish expression she'd seen far too often during his schooldays, as Andromeda whispered in his ear, her hair wild from the humidity. No one else seemed to notice their presence -- or more likely, everyone else was wise enough to pretend not to see them until and unless she did, and she chose not to at this time. They were gone when the mourners trudged back to the cars through the warm, moist June air. Cassiopeia wondered if she'd imagined the whole thing.

Until Sirius appeared out of nowhere, separating her from the others, who were already seating themselves in the car.

"Mother." His voice was flat, edging into sullen hostility, but his expression was neutral. He was such a handsome lad, she thought helplessly, the perfect blend of her own features and her husband's -- the apotheosis of hundreds of years of superior breeding. It was a shame his personality was so... flawed.

She thought about brushing past him, cutting him completely, or telling him he was no son of hers, but on this day of all days, she couldn't. He was flesh of her flesh, blood of her blood, despite his stupidity. He was the only hope for a continuation of the name, and a futile hope at that. He would no doubt throw his life away in this war, fighting alongside blood traitors and filth.

She stopped. "Sirius."

"I'm sorry for your loss," he said, mouthing the empty condolences he'd learned at her knee.

"Are you?" she replied, giving him the once over. He looked tired. "You're still the heir."

His jaw tightened, and her heart ached. He must have finally learned to hold his tongue, because he said nothing except, "Yes. I'm sorry." And this time it sounded genuine, and as helpless as she felt against the tide of events overwhelming them.

She nodded once and continued to the car without looking back.

"Are you all right?" Narcissa asked. "You're very pale."

"Ask me again after they've put your son in the ground," she snapped. Narcissa ducked her head, no doubt thinking of the squalling brat she'd left in the nursery at Malfoy Manor, while Cassiopeia eyed Lucius and Rodolphus critically. "The line continues," she relented, still displeased with Lucius's unwillingness to take on the family name. Of course, at the time, she'd still had high hopes for Regulus, and hadn't thought it would matter.

"Andromeda's child is tainted," Bellatrix said, with a moue of disgust. "And Sirius is--"

"Enough." Cassiopeia's voice cracked like a whip and Bellatrix again fell silent, though she shot her aunt an insolent look. "Tell me, Lucius, how is your mother? I didn't see her at the gravesite."

Lucius smiled his false politician's smile and murmured something about his mother traveling to Spain for her health.

They passed the rest of the trip in uneasy silence.

Upon arriving home, Cassiopeia was a gracious hostess to those who'd come to gawk at the mourning of their betters, and she developed a headache long before the last guest had gone.

When she finally reached the refuge of her bedroom, she unpinned her hair and let it fall loose around her shoulders, pinching the bridge of her nose and rubbing her temples to soothe the ache behind her eyes. Her makeup was still in place, of course, her lips as red as blood and eyes as grey as stone. After wiping the lipstick away, she stared at herself for a long moment, wondering when she'd become a ghost in her own home.

She allowed Kreacher to help her disrobe and bring her a small glass of firewhisky before she retired, and then dismissed him, grateful to finally be alone.

She took a small framed photograph from her night table drawer, her family in happier times, all so lost to her now. Under the strongest silencing charm she knew, Cassiopeia Black soaked her pillow with tears, and then slept the sleep of the hopeless.


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