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Author's Note Just when you think I've given up, I come back. I am not through with this story yet, and I do intend to complete it. Thank you all for staying with me for so long.





HEART OF DARKNESS



It was past midnight when Andromeda returned. The lesser House of Black, the stately country manor so far removed from the centre of civilisation, cut a genteel silhouette into the night sky. The defences around its edges would not dissipate for her, but she knew them well, and slipped back into the safety beyond the boundaries with little problem. She made a mental note to increase security here; if even Narcissa could break the wards, it surely would not hold up in the case of an actual emergency.

She crossed the grounds with wide weary strides, her feet aching and her head throbbing, but she kept her pace towards the house. Though it seemed grander than Grimmauld Place, this had always been the lesser house, the consolation prize for whichever sibling had had the misfortune of being born second. It would have been Alphard’s, but he had refused it in favour of his adventures, so it had passed to the least of the siblings. Andromeda never liked it. It was too big and too empty, full of vacant little rooms and furniture from decades long gone, but she couldn’t leave it. The antiquated, cobwebbed ballroom and the echoing antechamber would likely swallow her up if she tried to leave.

It certainly did feel like that, as she reached the front door and turned the bronze knob. Her hand melted into the metal and then it yielded, leaving the cavernous foyer open to engulf her. The antechamber was wallpapered with mirrors, reflected light falling on the floor as she strode whisper-footed through the house. This was another thing she didn’t like about the lesser house; it was too bright in some places, like the foyer. She never could get a decent night’s sleep with the thin curtains and the abundance of windows. The darkness of the house proper served an awkward, blinding contrast.

But… but tonight…

“F–Father?”

There he was. Right there, squatting on the bottom step.

“There you are, Andromeda.” Cygnus’ voice sounded much like his brother’s, with the same deep, rich quality, but this was a slowly dripping gold. Perhaps it was beginning to tarnish. He looked nothing like Alphard, though, for his face was his sister’s.

Andromeda didn’t say anything.

“I’m going to bed,” he said. He was looking at his middle daughter. Her skin was pooled with red. Embarrassment, excitement, heat. He rather suspected something of all three, but did not ask. He knew he hadn’t the right to ask.

“Oh. Well, err, good night, Father.”

But he didn’t get up. He put his hands on the step, as if to ready himself for one last push, but he didn’t heave his considerable mass to his feet. He remained seated and stared up at Andromeda as if he had never seen her before. This was certainly a lie, as he had seen her before. But never from this vantage point, and never in this lighting. There were new shadows passing over her face, new silhouettes in her eyes.

The newness, the darkness, he saw in her spurred him to ask. He never would have ordinarily, but he thought he had a chance. “Why aren’t you doing the same?”

“I was out.”

Cygnus was not the type to respond with sarcasm. He had not dripped to that level. But the way he appraised her was almost worse than anything else. Almost. “Did you enjoy yourself?”

She thought about this for a moment, and said, “Not really.”

He suspected that this was the truth. To reward her, he would have to reciprocate the gesture. Demonstrate some connection between them, some appreciation for her sincerity. “I don’t know that this is what you should be doing, Andromeda.”

She had nothing to say to that, either, and began twisting a lock of her hair around her finger. In the mirror light, he saw it tightening there into a great, nervous coil, and he wondered what would happen if she let go.

“I mean,” he sighed, with what seemed like infinite weariness (though of what no one could be sure), “that you are not like your sisters. You needn’t steal away in the night. You’ve nothing to hide. You…” He smiled, wryly, though his lips had not moved that way in what seemed like years. “You seem better than that.”

This was a surprise. “I… er, I… thank you.” If she were the type, she would have blushed, but instead she looked at her father’s feet, abashed.

Cygnus heaved himself up at last. “Good night, Andromeda,” he said. But he did not troop upstairs; he walked on into the impenetrable darkness of the great lesser house.

Even as her father’s footsteps rang in her ears, she took the stairs at a run. She didn’t care how often she tripped or how deep her scrapes were. She had to get out.

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