Actions

Work Header

Our Mercurial Selves

Chapter Text

Chapter One

 

The moon rose high and bright above the wintery night. Wind whipped through the trees, rattling any remaining leaves from their branches.

Malfoy Manor, known for its stately appearance and opulent decor, rose high and cold above the glittering night. A single person trudged up the muddy path towards the front door, their body bent and bracing against the frozen wind.

In the study Narcissa Malfoy stood at the window and watched the approaching figure with narrowed eyes.

"He's here," she announced, spitting the words out as if they tasted sour. "It had better be worth it for him to come to the manor. Even at night- I hope he realizes the risk he's putting us at.

Her husband stood from his desk, and adjusted his robes. "Don't sound so menacing, Cissy," he teased, trying to lighten the mood. "We're doing this for Draco. Didn't we decide it was in his best interest?"

She did not answer him, but internally acknowledged the truth in his words.

"Besides," Lucius leaned in to peck her cheek, "It was your idea." He did not give her time to respond as he bounded toward the door, "I will go fetch our guest."

A few minutes later he was back, leading a grinning Albus Dumbledore.

"Narcissa, so nice to see you tonight. I hope you're staying warm," he greeted her warmly.

She stiffly responded with a polite "Good evening, Professor Dumbledore."

He made no mention of the last time he had seen Narcissa. The witch had thrown herself at his feet and begged him to save her newborn son from Lord Voldemort. She did not regret the decision, but her cheeks burned with shame at the memory of how she had behaved that evening.

Tea was poured, and polite-if strained- pleasantries were exchanged. All along Narcissa watched him for any hint of why he might have requested a meeting. There had been three months of agonizing silence after she last spoke with the man, and then this morning there had been an owl stating that he had urgent business to discuss.

But the man in front of her was merrily discussing the benefits of woolly slippers. She watched him chuckle into his tea and curled her fingers into the arm of the chair. I'm going to curse him if he doesn't get to the point soon , she vowed.

Finally, Dumbledore set his teacup down. "I suppose you are wondering why I came here tonight?"

It took all of Narcissa's training to prevent herself from screaming at the irritating man. Instead, she simply nodded.

"I assume you are familiar with Tiberius Lester?"

Lucius let out a derisive hiss, "Who isn't? That madman makes himself known to every Pureblood in Magical Europe!"

"Then you are aware of his plan involving the muggleborn children?" Dumbledore's gaze was heavy as he studied the two Malfoys. All trace of his earlier cheer was gone now.

"Well, yes," said Lucius carefully. "I have heard the plan. The Dark Lord determined it was too foolhardy-"

"Indeed it was. The plan was haphazard and poorly executed. Lester did nothing to cover his tracks, and the Aurors caught him at the first home-"

Narcissa's voice cut across Dumbledore's, "Wait, what plan?"

Lucius' eyes never left Dumbledore's. "Lester had the insane idea that if he kidnapped all of the muggleborn children in Britain he could build a slave army and destroy the muggle world. It was completely ridiculous- Dumbledore, you can't mean that he actually infiltrated the Ministry and found the list-"

"-and found the list of Magical Children born to Muggles? Yes, Lucius. I'm afraid he did."

"But he was stopped. So why are we speaking about him?" There was a deep frown on Narcissa's face, and her fingernails dug into the edge of her chair.

Dumbledore cleared his throat. "I'm afraid that the Aurors arrived too late. Lester had already murdered the parents of the child he intended to steal."

"There was nothing in the Prophet-"

"Of course not, Cissa, the Ministry would never want to admit such a thing. Imagine the scandal."

"Lucius is right. The Ministry shut the whole thing down immediately. Lester received the Dementor's Kiss on the spot. I'm afraid there won't even be an investigation."

Narcissa sniffed in disbelief, "Surely you don't expect us to open up an investigation, Dumbledore?" The idiot had been dealt with, surely there was nothing else that needed to be done. 

Something crossed the older wizard's face, and for a moment it seemed as if he was disappointed in the two sitting across from him. He exhaled slowly, and turned his head to look through the rain-stricken glass.

"The child was-remarkably- unharmed in the attack. She has been transported to a Muggle orphanage."

Neither Malfoy appeared to be particularly moved by this comment.

"She will remain there until a suitable family can be found to raise her."

The only sound in the room following Dumbledore's statement was that of the fire crackling.

Comprehension slowly dawned in Narcissa's eyes. "You can't mean… Surely you don't intend for us to raise the muggleborn?"

"You said that you wanted me to protect your son. This is how we will do it."

"By bringing a diseased brat into the home?" Lucius spat the words, "We might as well hand Draco over to be raised by the Dark Lord. He'd be far safer."

Narcissa shot her husband a dirty look, then turned to Dumbledore with a somewhat more diplomatic answer. "The child would be happier among her own kind."

Dumbledore smiled, but there was something hard glittering in his eyes. "You are 'her own kind'. She is magical, just as magical as your son. And I am certain that she is healthy and disease-free. She will do no harm to young Draco."

"There must be another way," Lucius stood from his seat, and moved to grip the back of Narcissa's chair. "I'm sure you can find something more useful than raising a child for us to do- I have Ministry access, I can find you any information you would like."

Dumbledore sat back in his seat, "I'm sure you could Lucius, and I am grateful for that. However, at this point the most useful thing you could do would be to raise the child. Listen," his voice hardened a bit when Lucius opened his mouth to interject, "The child's parents were just brutally murdered by a blood supremacist. She is going to have that knowledge for the rest of her life. At this moment, if I leave her where she is, she has the chance to be adopted into a loving family."

He took a deep breath, "But there is also the possibility that she will not be adopted. That she will grow up filled with hatred for the society that allowed her parents to be slaughtered. If we aren't careful we may have another Dark Lord on our hands- one bent on the destruction of all Purebloods."

It was an extreme possibility, but it had captured the attention of the Malfoys.

"But why, in Merlin's name, would you want us to be the ones to raise her?" Lucius asked. "Surely another family wouldn't mind- the Weasleys would barely notice the extra child in their brood."

Dumbledore inclined his head, "The Weasleys are an excellent choice-" he continued without acknowledging Lucius' snort of disbelief," -but I believe that the girl would have a better purpose here."

Narcissa cocked her head to the side, and stared intently as she waited for him to continue.

"If a child were to be raised by the Dark Lord's inner circle- with all the advantages that come with being part of the Pureblood elite-"

Lucius' chest seemed to visibly inflate.

"-Then it is highly likely that Voldemort would want to include that child among his closest companions."

"You want the child to be a Death Eater?" Lucius asked.

Dumbledore shook his head, "Not exactly. Not fully, at least." He reached up to adjust his glasses,

"I intend for the child to be raised to fit in with Pureblood society while also maintaining the knowledge of her true ancestry. In the end I trust that the child's loyalties will lie with those who would not have murdered her parents for the simple fact that they were Muggles. It would not be easy to raise such a child, but I'm certain that you two will be more than up to the task."

He fixed them with another expectant look, and took an irritating slurp of tea.

Once again it was Narcissa who figured it out first.

"So," she said, "you want us to raise you a spy."

 

XX

 

The Badger was one of the most respected pubs in Wizarding Britain. It was established by Hufflepuffs, as the name indicated, and therefore had all of the tell-tale symbols of their House. Yellow and black banners hung from every wall, the image of badgers was everywhere- from the stamped cutlery to the tapestries on the wall. As if the patrons were not already informed of the association with Hogwarts' friendliest house, a giant portrait of Helga Hufflepuff hung above the mantle.

Inside, the atmosphere was always cheery. Large copper birds perched in the rafters and sang raucously while stamping out a rhythm. A fiddle with no musician played itself in the corner, and hundreds of glittering candles twinkled above the tables. On many nights, the scrubbed wooden tables were pushed back to create a makeshift dance-floor. Everyone who passed through the round door left happier. It was the most welcoming place in Diagon Alley…

Which is why it was the perfect place for Lord Voldemort to meet the inner circle of his Death Eaters.

The snow crunched below Lucius' feet as he passed the front entrance of The Badger, and made his way up the rickety staircase at the back of the building. He hoped that the Dark Lord was in a good mood this evening.

Apparently, he was. As soon as the blonde man stepped into the low ceilinged room, Voldemort grinned and shouted, "Lucius! Join us, we were just about to finish up here."

Were it not for his red eyes and sickly complexion, Voldemort might have been handsome. He sat on a squashy yellow armchair before the fireplace, and beckoned to Lucius as an eager mentor might to his prize pupil.

It struck Lucius for the first time how wrong it felt to be here in this little room with some of the most despicable people he had ever met. Granted, he counted himself among those despicable people. But the room was cozy, and homey. There were soft chairs, and the floorboards vibrated from the merriment below. They might have been schoolboys in a meeting of their secret society.

But they were not.

Lucius plastered an interested look on his face, and accepted a tin of cauldron cakes and a glass of firewhisky.

"May I beg an audience with you my lord?" The words he had once so dutifully spoken sounded ridiculous and childish.

Voldemort's eyes glinted with curiosity, "But of course," he set aside the evening Prophet, and leaned closer to Lucius, his face a mask of concern. "What troubles you, Lucius?"

Lucius thought back to the words Dumbledore wrote for him the night before.

"My lord you know that my wife, Narcissa, prides herself on her many charitable contributions."

Voldemort nodded, but behind him Lucius' sister-in-law, Bellatrix Lestrange, stiffened, and drew closer so that she could hear the conversation. Lucius ignored her.

"She has been spending quite a it of time at one of the orphanages, and this past weekend I learned why. It appears that she has fallen in love with one of the children there, a girl named Hermione. She has asked me to consider adopting this child."

Voldemort nodded, but his expression was uninterested. "Why should this trouble you, Lucius?"

"My Lord, the girl is a half-blood." Dumbledore had insisted that he inform Voldemort that the girl was a half-blood, the headmaster seemed to be of the opinion that the entire success of their plan rested on this fact.

Apparently, he knew what he was talking about. Voldemort sat up a little straighter, his expression interested. "A half-blood?"

"Yes, My Lord, I'm afraid my wife had already fallen in love with the girl before she knew."

"Well, she would not be the first half-blood in our society. Many of them can be molded into respectable witches or wizards. I'm sure that, with the right guidance, she would be a credit to the Malfoy name."

"I'm sure you are right, but there's more." Lucius swallowed, his eyes never leaving Voldemort's,

"Draco is a sickly baby, we're…" he let out a shuddering breath, his skin burning from the heat of Bellatrix's stare, "we're afraid that he might not make it through the winter. If he does, well, the

Healers have hinted that he may never have the strength to follow in my footsteps. Naturally he will still be my heir, but I'm afraid that he'll never have the strength to participate in politics, or to be a credit in your inner circle." There was a flicker in Voldemort's eyes, so Lucius continued quickly,

"What I'm saying is that Narcissa hopes that the girl will take over the political responsibilities, and that she will follow me into your inner circle. I told her that you might not accept a half-blood, but she begged me to ask."

Lucius watched the Dark Lord consider his words. For a moment he was certain that Dumbledore had been a fool, had put his entire family at risk.

Then…

"Well, I could never break Narcissa's heart." There was a rough scrape of laughter, and Voldemort smiled in what he surely thought was a fatherly grin, "And if Draco is weak it makes sense that you would want to provide another Malfoy to follow in your footsteps. The girl is young, and will be living under the guidance of one of the most distinguished Pureblood families. I'm sure that you can counteract any damage that her Muggle side would have on her character."

Relief washed through Lucius, far stronger than the outrage he felt when Voldemort called his son 'weak'.

"There is one final thing, My Lord. This girl is related to Albus Dumbledore. A niece, or cousin. It's not quite clear to me. You know how all of his answers are vague."

Voldemort's eyes widened in surprise, but he did not interrupt.

"He requests that her adopted family allow him to visit once a week. I can, of course refuse-"

"No." Voldemort said, just as Dumbledore predicted he would, "Allow the girl to cultivate that relationship, it could prove useful in the future." He leaned forward, "Bring her tomorrow evening. I would like to meet this child."

"I will, My Lord. I will," promised Lucius, his breathing much easier now.

Voldemort waved a hand, "Now go, tell your wife the good news."

Lucius stood, eager to leave. He was aware of Bellatrix walking behind him as he crossed to the door.

"Give Cissy my love," she drawled quietly so that only he could hear, "And tell her I'll be by for a visit soon. I would like to check in on dear, sick little Draco."

He held her gaze for a long moment. She knew that something was going on, something deeper than what he had told the Dark Lord. 

"I'll do that," he said curtly. Then he swept out into the night, and disappeared.

Chapter Text

Chapter Two

 

The Muggle orphanage smelled of disinfectant, dried spit, and urine. The Malfoys in their tailored robes looked very out of place among the sickly yellow walls that were covered in children's drawings.

Unsurprisingly, Dumbledore looked right at home.

"I've taken the liberty of having Anne bring out little Hermione," he said as the Malfoy's approached him. "Delightful woman."

"Does she know about, er- us?" Lucius asked, shaking his head when Dumbledore held out a peppermint stick.

The headmaster nodded, "Anne's mother was a witch. She noticed the signs in Hermione almost immediately. Peppermint, Narcissa?"

"No, thank you."

Narcissa felt a twinge of pity as she studied the drawings on the wall. Most were of stick figure children, but there were quite a few animals depicted as well. There were a few blobs that were striped orange-and-black that she assumed were meant to be tigers, and she internally decided to enroll Draco in art classes as soon as he was old enough to hold a crayon.

"Ah!" Dumbledore's pleased voice cut across her thoughts, "Here we are. Lucius, Narcissa, allow me to introduce your daughter- Hermione."

Narcissa thought it was awfully presumptive of Dumbledore to call the girl their daughter when they had not even met the child yet, but she nonetheless found herself drawing closer to the woman who had brought Hermione through the double doors behind Dumbledore. The woman was thin and sour-faced with colorless hair that clung to her skull. Had the Malfoys bothered to look at her, they might have been unnerved by the glare of open hostility that was upon her face.

Fortunately for them, they were much too interested in the little girl to notice the woman carrying her.

At least she's pretty , Narcissa thought as she examined the child.

The girl had soft, golden brown curls that fell in ringlets around her ears. Her face was pretty, with a button nose and a frowning mouth. Large honey brown eyes watched Narcissa gravely, and then flicked over to Lucius.

Narcissa stole a glance at her husband, and was surprised to see the soft smile that had crept across his face.

"Hello, Hermione," Dumbledore said, reaching out to take the toddler's hand. Narcissa bit back a laugh as the girl slid her fingers out his grasp, and fixed him with a reproachful look.

"Mama?" She looked expectantly around the room, "Mama come?"

Something ached in her chest as she watched the girl look around for her dead mother, and she wished that she had brought Draco.

Dumbledore let out a sigh, "No, Hermione. She is not coming. But your new Mama is here. Narcissa, perhaps you could take the child?"

She looked at him as if he had asked her to go waltz with a Hippogriff. "I don't know if that's appropriate yet, Dumbledore, she doesn't even know who we are."

Lucius, who had always been one to tackle a problem head-on, took the situation into his own hands.

"Hello, Hermione," he gave a little bow, and held out his arms, "May I hold you?"

The girl eyed him uncertainly, but raised her arms in consent.

"That's a good girl," a grin stretched across his face as he lifted the girl away from the woman, and settled her into his arms. "I'm going to be your new Papa, and my wife," he nodded at Narcissa, "will be your new Mother. How does that sound?"

Narcissa watched the girl look over at her with the same serious expression, and then back at Lucius. "Mama come?"

Lucius shook his head gently, "No, your Mama is gone. But Papa is here." He smiled, "And your little brother is waiting at home to meet you."

From the corner of her eye, Narcissa saw Dumbledore's grin.

"We've got a room decorated just for you, I think you're going to like it, it's got your name above to door-"

While Lucius told the girl all about the wonders of Malfoy Manor, Narcissa followed Anne and Dumbledore into a cramped office and signed the papers. Anne said nothing, but jabbed her finger towards the signature line on each of the forms, and left it at that.

"Has she seen a Healer recently?" Narcissa asked as she signed what felt like the 90th form.

Dumbledore sucked his peppermint and nodded, "She saw a Healer the night of the attack, and she's also seen a Doctor- a Muggle Healer," he explained when Narcissa's face scrunched up in confusion. "Both gave her a clean bill of health."

Narcissa looked around the dingy office and privately wondered if her clean bill of health had been compromised during her stay.

"Done!" Anne announced in a high, shrill voice. She fished around the drawers of her desk and pulled a large grubby envelope free. After stuffing a fistful of papers into it she passed it to Narcissa. "You may take her now."

"Ah, there's one last thing," Dumbledore said. He pulled a scroll from his sleeve, and unrolled it.

"This will officially make Hermione a part of the Malfoy family for the purposes of our world. Lucius, would you come in here for a moment?"

Narcissa was surprised to find that there was still room in the tiny office for Lucius and the child.

"You may wish to change her middle name as well," suggested Dumbledore with a meaningful look, "Something that might speak of her purer roots."

Narcissa glared at the infuriating old man, "Doesn't she have a middle name already?"

Dumbledore shrugged, "I was simply suggesting that you pick out something a little more connected."

" Perhaps we could have a few moments to speak alone," Lucius cut in. "This is a delicate subject, and we might have an easier time picking the perfect name if we had some privacy."

Anne did not look thrilled about leaving the three alone in her office, but she nonetheless allowed Dumbledore to lead her into the corridor. As soon as the door was shut, Narcissa rounded on her husband.

"You know he's only doing this to force us to bond with the child!"

"It's not that big of a deal," Lucius was gently bouncing Hermione in his arms, "we'll pick a name to shut up Dumbledore-"

"We didn't agree to this!"

Lucius slowly met her gaze, "Cissy, in the scheme of things this is nothing. We knew we would be raising her, taking her into our lives as a member of our family. You know how important names can be, don't you want to have some part in picking hers?"

"No," she looked away from his penetrating gaze. How could she put into words how wrong this f elt? "Draco is our child."

"And once this paper has been signed, Hermione will be our child as well."

She flinched as if she had been struck, "You can't mean that?" Her eyes flicked over his face, searching for some sign that he was joking. She found none. "Lucius, this is a muggleborn , do you realize what we're doing to our family by taking her in?" She barely registered the child shrinking away from her harsh tone, burrowing into Lucius' robes.

"We are saving our family. If accepting a mud-muggleborn into our house will save our son I will embrace a dozen new children. The Dark Lord thinks she is going to be my heir in all but name, if we are going to pull this off we need to at least attempt to care for the child."

"I agreed to raise her. I agreed to make sure that she is fed, clothed, schooled, taken care of. I never agreed to name her."

"Cissy, it's a small thing-"

Narcissa interrupted him, "Name her what you want. I'll have no part of it."

His gaze darkened. Keeping one arm firmly around Hermione, he jerked the parchment towards him and used the quill Dumbledore had left to complete the form. Then, without looking at her, he shoved the form towards her and stormed out of the office.

Her eyes sought out the name that he had written, and her lip curled in distaste.

Hermione Narcissa Malfoy

She was half-tempted to scratch the name out and write in a new one. Her only assumption was that by naming the child after her Lucius hoped to endear her to the girl. Well, he could try all he wanted. The child was not her daughter, and she never would be.

Then, with a scowl, she scrawled her signature over the line marked "Mother".

Chapter Text

Chapter Three

The afternoon sunlight painted the room they had set up for Hermione gold. It was a generic room, void of the toys and decorations that personalized Draco's bedroom. Lucius looked around the bare walls and determined to fix that. The only furnishing aside from the crib was a high wooden chair that Narcissa had set Hermione on so that she could dress her.

He stood in the doorway with a very sleepy Draco. His son had been curious about the new addition to their family, but the two babies had thus far done little more than stare at each other.

Narcissa finished tying a grass green ribbon in Hermione's short hair. Her face was expressionless as she finished tying the sash of Hermione's matching dress. "I think that's fine," she said without looking at him. "As long as she doesn't cry the Dark Lord will find no fault with her."

"Do you think she'll cry?"

Narcissa shot him an irritated look, "She's a baby, Lucius, it's what they do."

Lucius sincerely hoped that the girl would have more sense than to cry in front of the Dark Lord. He stepped into the room, "And how do I look, would the Dark Lord find fault with me?"

"Don't joke about that," admonished Narcissa, "The entire plan rests on this meeting. We can only hope that the Dark Lord takes one look at the child, gets bored, and sends you both home immediately." She reached for Draco, and held him close, pressing a kiss to his head. "I can't wait for this day to be over."

"It will be over soon," Lucius grinned, hoping that she had forgiven him for the naming incident at the orphanage.

He moved over to the chair, "Alright, sweetheart, it's time to go," he scooped her into his arms, keeping his voice light and cheerful. "Does she need a cloak?"

"If you wear your black one it will be large enough to shield her. Besides, I thought you were going to use the Floo?"

"I've never used the Floo with a baby, I didn't know if I needed to take extra precautions. We wouldn't want little Hermione to get hurt."

"Wear the black cloak and hold it over her face so that she doesn't accidentally inhale any soot. She'll be fine."

She followed him into his study, and helped him fix the cloak over Hermione. "If there's any trouble, come back immediately. I can have the Floo disconnected in seconds."

"I love it when you worry about me," he teased, pecking her on the lips. "I'll be home shortly, have a good evening. Goodnight Draco," he smoothed his hand over his son's head, then grabbed a fistful of Floo Powder from the special bowl they kept over the mantle. Then He stepped into the emerald flames.

"The Badger's kitchen!"

A few seconds later he stepped into the bustling kitchen. It was a low-ceilinged room that gave the impression of being very deep underground. Several copper gas lamps illuminated the large wooden table that sat in the middle of the room, but most of the light came from a hearth that was so big he could roast a giant in it. A dozen house-elves paused momentarily to gawk at him, before turning back to their tasks.

"Mr. Malfoy!" A heavily muscled woman glided across the kitchen with a tray of fresh-baked rolls. "Everyone's upstairs- who's this?"

Lucius had just pulled the cloak away from Hermione, who was looking around with wonder.

"This is my daughter, Hermione." Lucius said, gently pushing her bow back in place.

The woman set the rolls on the table and pulled a large red handkerchief from her pocket, "I didn't know you have a daughter," she said, mopping her brow.

Irritation flared in his throat. He did not care to explain his situation to the woman, in his opinion it was none of her business. Luckily, he was saved from having to answer by Hermione.

"Puppy!" She pointed eagerly at the nearest house-elf, her face glowing with excitement. "Puppy!"

The woman broke into a harsh giggle that made Hermione shrink against him. "That's not a puppy, love, that's a house-elf. Has she never seen one before? I always thought Malfoy Manor was full of 'em."

He forced his face to stay neutral. "Our elves like to stay out of sight. Well, forgive me but I had better go upstairs."

"Puppy?" Hermione said as Lucius took her through the back door and up the staircase.

"You can see another one when we get home," Lucius promised, "He's much better than those ones. You can see him whenever you want." He shifted the cloak so that it covered all but her face.

The sun was just starting to dip below the skyline of Diagon Alley, and he took a moment at the top of the stairs to take a few deep breaths. "We'll get through this," he murmured, more for his own benefit that for Hermione's, "And if you don't cry I will buy you as many toys as you want. Your room will be so crowded we'll have to use ten expansion charms."

She let out a little sigh, and rested her head against his chest. The wind ruffled the top of her hair, and it was his concern that she might be too cold that finally drove him towards the door.

"Lucius! Come in, come in!"

Of all the days that Voldemort decided to play the gracious benefactor, Lucius was glad that he had chosen that day. The room was full of the usual faces. He caught a glimpse of Bellatrix scowling at him from a table laden with maps and charts. Ignoring her, he focused in on the man sitting next to the fireplace.

"Is this the girl? Move, Avery, let Lucius sit."

Avery gave Lucius a small frown as he vacated the chair directly next to the Dark Lord. Lucius sat quickly, shedding his cloak as he did so.

"Yes, my Lord, this is Hermione. Hermione, this is the Dark Lord."

"Let me see her."

Lucius almost fell out of his chair when Voldemort held out his arms expectantly.

Please don't cry, please don't cry, Lucius thought, carefully passing Hermione to Voldemort, and helping her sit on his lap. He had known grown men who had cried merely by glimpsing the red eyes that gazed unblinkingly down at the baby. He held his breath as Hermione stared gravely back.

Then, miraculously, Hermione smiled.

"Pretty," she said, reaching for the silver buttons on Voldemort's robes.

Lucius leaned forward, "Hermione, no! My Lord, I apologize-"

"Leave her, Lucius, it's quite alright. She'll do no harm."

It took all of his willpower to keep his mouth from falling open.

Voldemort appeared to not notice, "We were discussing the recent attack on-"

Lucius barely registered anything that was discussed that night. Throughout everything his eyes were pinned on the baby. She stayed in high spirits, pulling on the buttons, giggling as Voldemort spread a map in front of him and pointed locations out to her. Finally she fell into a peaceful slumber, and he allowed her to sleep in his lap while he finished discussing his plans with the members of his inner circle.

Slowly, the fire died down, and people began returning home to their families, until at last only he, Bellatrix, and the Dark Lord remained.

"You may take her now Lucius," Voldemort said, giving the girl a pat on the head as if she were a dog. "Bring her the next time you come, I think she gives me a more domestic look. We are doing this for the children, after all. So that they can have a brighter future."

Lucius looked into the evil grin as he lifted Hermione into his arms, and had to suppress a shudder. "Of course, my Lord. I'm sure Hermione would be delighted to see you again. She seems to have taken to you."

"I'm sure that she will be an excellent addition to our forces when she comes of age," Voldemort turned to look at Bellatrix, who was glaring darkly at her charts. "And who better to train the girl than her aunt? Bellatrix, have you had the pleasure of meeting your new niece?"

"We've only brought Hermione home today," Lucius rushed to explain, "You are the first person, other than myself and Narcissa, to meet her."

"Well who am I to stand in the way of this family reunion? Bellatrix, come meet Hermione."

Moving as if every step hurt, Bellatrix stalked over. "Hello," she growled.

Voldemort laughed, an ugly sound, and smoothed his robes, "One day, Hermione, Bellatrix is going to turn you into the best Death Eater I've ever had the pleasure of meeting. Isn't that right, Bella?"

"Yes, my Lord," she ground, her eyes burning into Lucius. "I look forward to it."

"I should take her home," Lucius said, pulling his cloak on and securing it around the sleeping baby.

Voldemort nodded, "Do that. I look forward to seeing you both again soon. "You're excused as well, Bellatrix."

Lucius cursed his bad luck as his sister-in-law followed him to the door.

"It's a shame I wasn't invited to the party," she drawled once they had stepped through the door and closed it behind them. The night was dark, and the only light came from the yellow street lamps below.

His brow wrinkled, "What party?"

"The party Narcissa threw to welcome Hermione into the family. The one she threw for Draco must've had a thousand guests. I'm sure that this one was equally as large."

"You know that you would have been invited had there been a party."

"Aha!" She jabbed a finger towards him, "Cissy loves parties! Tell me, Lucius, why wouldn't she throw one for this very happy occasion?"

"Because we don't want to overwhelm Hermione while she settles in. Her second birthday will be in September, I am sure that there will be a party then."

"This is going too far, the Dark Lord has taken an interest in the girl!"

He allowed a slow smile to spread across his face, "Jealous, Bellatrix?"

Her wand arm gave a weird spasm, but she did not attempt to curse him. "When the Dark Lord discovers whatever plot you've dragged my sister into, I will not save you from the aftermath."

"There is no plot, Bellatrix. You're just upset that the Dark Lord approves of something I've done."

The lamp cast most of her face in shadow, and made her furrowed brow look a lot more severe than it must have been. "I'm going to figure out what you're up to," she hissed, "I only hope that it's not too late to save my sister when I do."

He opened his mouth to retort, but before he could she spun on her heel and vanished into thin air.

He sighed, and repositioned the girl sleeping against his shoulder. "Come, Hermione. Let's go home before crazy aunt Bellatrix comes back."

Chapter Text

Chapter Four

People often supposed that Bellatrix's fanaticism meant that she was an idiot. Their underestimation often worked in her favor, and many a skilled witch or wizard had lost a duel (or worse) by assuming that they had the upperhand.

Unfortunately, her sister knew her too well. She greeted Bellatrix several days later with a bright smile and ushered her into Malfoy Manor.

"It's been too long, Bella," she chided gently, taking her sister's cloak. "Lucius informed me that you know about our happy news!"

Bellatrix narrowed her eyes suspiciously as she took in her sister's glowing face, and allowed herself to be pulled into one of Narcissa's rare embraces.

"Yes… Shame I had to find out second hand from Lucius…"

Narcissa apparently missed the bitter note in her words, "I wanted to tell you, Bella, really, but I didn't dare hope that we might- that the Dark Lord would-"

"The Dark Lord is very generous," drawled Bellatrix coldly, "you should have given him more credit."

"I know that now," Narcissa twined her arm around Bellatrix's, and strolled her into the sitting room. "Would you like to meet her properly?"

Bellatrix had no interest in meeting babies. She had scarcely noticed her own nephew's presence in this world. "Maybe later- oh good, you've brought them both out."

Her nephew, with his blond fluffy hair was strapped into some chair that had a plethora of brightly colored parts that could be twirled, strummed, pulled, pressed and chewed. It looked like he had melted the contents of his toybox into the chair, and he delightedly pulled a purple star that rattled as he touched it.

The girl had been placed on one of the ivory chairs, and though she was impeccably dressed, Bellatrix immediately noticed the lack of toys surrounding the toddler. She also noted the way Narcissa sat in a chair on the other side of the coffee table, situating Draco firmly between herself and the child.

Good show, Cissy , thought Bellatrix, I almost believed you for a moment .

She sat down beside the child, and made a point to grasp a chubby hand in her own, "It's very nice to meet you, Hermione."

The girl stared up at her in astonishment, and then a slow grin stretched across her face. Bellatrix felt the corners of her mouth twitch in response. The girl was charming, she could acknowledge that.

But a swift look in her sister's direction confirmed her suspicions. Narcissa watched the girl with a cool, calculating look. The same look entered her eyes when she played wizard's chess. Bellatrix looked back at the child with new curiosity.

Why are you here, little one?

She intended to find out. She had to find out. Maybe the girl was Lucius' bastard (it would certainly explain Narcissa's coolness) in which case she could relax and let her sister maintain her reputation through this one insignificant lie.

But part of her was convinced that there was something deeper going on here. Something told her that there was more at stake than a simple reputation. If they had lied to the Dark Lord… Bellatrix could care less what happened to Lucius, but despite her devotion to her leader she could not allow anything to happen to her sister.

Which was why she needed answers.

"So this is the baby you've become infatuated with? You must be so happy to have her home."

Narcissa hummed in agreement, and reached to wipe drool from Draco's chin. "We've been ecstatic. I can't imagine our lives without her here."

Again, her tone was warm and genuine, but Bellatrix noted that her sister did not so much as glance at the child.

"Are you going to tell me the real reason that you've brought this child into your life?" She asked, suddenly very irritated with her sister.

Narcissa's blue eyes were wide with feigned innocence, "Whatever do you mean?"

She rolled her eyes, and plucked the girl into her arms. "I mean that if I were to kill her right now I doubt you'd even shed a tear." It was an extreme threat, but one that got her sister's attention.

Hermione, completely oblivious, cooed delightedly and reached for one of Bellatrix's curls.

"So let's try this again. Why do you really have this child?"

XX

Somehow the sight of her sister holding the muggleborn child made Narcissa's chest constrict with fear.

"The Dark Lord has instructed me to take a special interest in this child," Bellatrix cooed, twirling her little finger through one of Hermione's curls, "I think he intends me to mold her into, well…" a vicious smile curved her mouth, "me."

Her voice softened, so that Narcissa could barely hear her, "But there's something off about this child. You, my dear sister, are no philanthropist. I would sooner believe that Albus Dumbledore intends to become a Death Eater than that you fell in love with that child while visiting an orphanage." She cradled Hermione against her shoulder, and fixed her sister with an undecipherable look. "So what is so special about this girl?"

"I can't tell you." Narcissa said, hoping that her voice sounded surer than she felt.

"That's what I thought. Well…" Bellatrix's wand was up and pointing at her before she had time to react, " Legilimens! "

Narcissa had never been good at keeping her sister out of her head. She struggled to raise her Occlumency shields, but by the time they were up Bellatrix had seen everything. She withdrew from her mind so quickly that Narcissa had to grip the nearest chair to prevent herself from falling over.

"You went to Dumbledore ?" Bellatrix hissed, he face a mask of shock, confusion, and betrayal. "What, in Merlin's name would possess you to do such a thing?"

"I will not allow my son to become a Death Eater," Narcissa vowed, her eyes flashing like blue flames, "He will not risk his life for your Dark Lord. He won't."

"The Dark Lord would never force-"

"Wouldn't he?" Narcissa scathed. "He killed Albert Thurston for telling him that his son would not join."

"Thurston was an imbecile! His whole family is a disgrace, and now you are trying to betray the Dark Lord." She said each word slowly, deliberately, "I have killed men for less than this."

A thrill of fear raced down Narcissa's spine. "I'm your sister, Bella. You wouldn't-"

"No," Bellatrix spat the word as if it were poison. "I wouldn't. Despite my better judgement, I love you, and I could never hurt you." A crazed gleam entered her eye, "But I can make this right."

Narcissa's mouth formed the question how? but before she could speak it she watched her sister slip a knife from her sleeve.

"Bellatrix," her mouth dry with fear, Narcissa found herself edging closer. "What are you doing?"

There was a flash of light from Bellatrix's wand, and the blonde sister fell to the ground, her limbs trapped in the body-bind spell. All she could do was watch as Bellatrix pulled the blade across her own arm, and grinned maniacally at the little girl.

"You see this blood, little one? This blood is pure . Your blood is filthy. You've got muddy blood ." She said this last part in a singsong voice, and bounced Hermione so that the child let out a squeal of laughter. "We've got to fix that haven't we?" She bobbed her head in an exaggerated nod, and Hermione, who was still mesmerized by the dark witch, mimicked her actions.

"Very good! Such a clever girl." Bellatrix pressed a kiss to Hermione's head.

Narcissa's eyes were glued to the rivulet of blood that was oozing from the cut on her sister's arm. She strained to move her arms or her legs, but the spell prevented her from moving.

"You see, little one, my little sister has gotten herself into trouble again, hasn't she?" Again, Hermione burst into giggles as Bellatrix pressed their foreheads together and continued to speak in that strange voice. "And now, Bella has to fix it."

Bellatrix shot Narcissa a dark look, and Narcissa shivered at the glint in her eyes. Please don't hurt her , Narcissa thought, as if her sister could hear what she was thinking.

"The Dark Lord expects a half-blood, so I'm going to make her a half-blood."

Narcissa's heart gave an unpleasant lurch as she realized that her sister wasn't joking. Stop, Bella, please. She doubled her efforts in vain to get free of the spell.

"Don't worry, little one, you'll be getting the purest blood there has ever been." Bellatrix lifted the knife, the silver tip slick with her own blood, and pressed the tip to Hermione's arm.

Whoosh!

There was a pulse of blinding light, and Narcissa was up on her feet without realizing that no one had removed the curse. She ripped Hermione away from her sister, and pressed the tip of her wand to her sister's throat.

"Have you gone completely mad?" She hissed. Hermione had begun to cry, and she clutched the child closer. "You planned on making her a half-blood . That's insane, Bellatrix! Even for you!"

"I'm trying to protect us, Cissy, what do you think the Dark Lord is going to do when he finds out you lied-"

" I don't intend for him to find out !"

Bellatrix blinked in surprise, "Cissy…"

Narcissa stepped back, "Get out of here, Bellatrix. You are not allowed back in this house until I determine that you are safe for my family to be around."

"You're not serious?"

"I am."

"Cissy-"

"You're lucky I don't turn you in to the Aurors! I would be well within my rights, but somehow I doubt that the Dark Lord would take kindly to me having his favorite pet imprisoned."

"Cissy be reasonable. I'm sorry, I was acting rashly. We can find another way-"

Hermione's cries were getting progressively louder, but Narcissa did not back down. "Leave now."

Bellatrix's pleading expression was replaced by one of pure indignation. "Fine, but when the Dark Lord discovers your lie don't expect me to save you. As far as I'm concerned the whole lot of you can-" she did not finish her sentence, instead she stomped across the room and vanished through the door.

"Dobby!" Narcissa cried, trying to keep the panic from her voice.

The young house-elf appeared before her with a CRACK! "Yes Mistress?"

"Ward the room. I don't want anyone to come in or out until Lucius returns."

XX

Narcissa did not try to contact her sister until Halloween, when Lucius stormed home white as a sheet and gasped-

"The Dark Lord has fallen!"

But by the time she tracked her sister down it was too late. Bellatrix had already tortured the Aurors Frank and Alice Longbottom, she had already been captured, and Barty Crouch was already beginning his onslaught of sentencing Death Eaters to Azkaban.

On the night of her sentencing, Hermione woke the house with a scream unlike anything she had ever heard from the girl before.

"Lucius, she's going to wake Draco!" Narcissa said, gliding into Hermione's room with her wand drawn. "What's wrong?"

Lucius, who had lifted Hermione into his arms, turned wide eyed to her, "I don't know," he confessed, gently rocking the howling toddler. "She doesn't appear to be injured…"

Narcissa stepped closer, and was immediately seized with concern for the child.

Hermione's face was bright red, and scrunched up with pain or fear. Big tears coursed from her bloodshot eyes, and she clung to Lucius as if he was about to vanish into thin air. "Papa…" she wailed, "hurts!"

"What hurts, sweetheart? Tell Papa what hurts."

But her only answer was to bury her face in his nightshirt and let out another bone-chilling scream.

And her husband, her clam, calculating husband was staring at her in panic. "Call a Healer, immediately."

She shivered, and nodded. She was through the door in a heartbeat, and though it felt like hours for St. Mungo's to respond and finally send a Healer, it must have only been a few minutes.

It was a long night. The first Healer could find nothing wrong, so Lucius ordered a new Healer to come. The second was just as perplexed as the first had been, so Lucius banished him as well. Finally, the third dosed the child with dreamless sleep, and they all breathed a little more easily as Hermione rested at last.

"There is nothing physically wrong with the girl," the Healer said briskly as he re-packed his medical case.

"There's something wrong," Lucius said from the chair where he had collapsed, Hermione still cradled against his chest. "You heard her-"

Narcissa walked over and leaned against the chair. To her surprise, she found herself gently stroking Hermione's hair.

The Healer sighed, "As I said, there's nothing physically wrong with the child. However, I noticed in her chart that she was adopted. Sometimes, if the circumstances in which the child lived were less than ordeal , or if the child has witnessed something particularly distressing, the memories can be… unpleasant."

"But Hermione is too young to remember," Narcissa cut in.

The Healer smirked a little, and Narcissa decided that she disliked the man immensely. "Memory is often underrated. I assure you that she is not too young, especially if the event has taken place recently."

"So what do you propose we do?" Lucius asked.

"Be understanding, be gentle-" his smirk had not gone away, and Narcissa desperately wanted to hex him, "and when she is old enough allow her to visit a professional so that she can explore these memories in a safe environment."

Lucius' hand on her arm was the only thing preventing her from jumping at him.

"We understand, thank you."

The Healer left a bottle of Dreamless Sleep with Lucius, and strode imperiously through the door. "I shall allow you to see me out, Madam Malfoy," he sneered.

"We can't hex him, Cissy," Lucius murmured as she moved to follow to infuriating man, "but the less people who know about Hermione's… memories … the better."

Narcissa flashed him a brilliant smile, and sauntered through the door.

The man was successfully Obliviated , and Hermione was put back to bed without further incident.

"She'll get through this," Narcissa assured Lucius as they finished checking on Draco (the boy had, thankfully, slept through the whole ordeal) "we'll discuss this with Dumbledore, surely he'll know of a discrete Healer who can give us a second opinion."

Lucius smiled tiredly, and pressed a kiss to her head. "I'm sure you're right."

"I am," she teased.

The thought never crossed their minds that the child's distress might have something to do with the thin, silvery white scar that slashed across her left forearm.

Chapter Text

Chapter Five

 

Lucius hid his grin behind the Daily Prophet as he listened to Narcissa explain once again to to Hermione that she could not leave the manor in her nightgown.

" Please Mother," begged the girl, "I promise to wear my cloak the whole time. I won't take it off!"

"Absolutely not. You will go upstairs and change this instant. No child of mine is going to leave the house without clothes on."

Lucius' grin stretched wider. While he now considered Hermione to be very much his daughter, Narcissa tended to view the child more as a ward than an actual member of the family. The only time she dropped her stoic demeanor was when the two were arguing.

"I wouldn't be going out without clothes on! Nightgowns are clothes!"

And at five years old Hermione was quite the debater.

"Hermione Malfoy, if you do not get dressed- in proper clothes - you will not leave the house at all!"

There was a sharp inhale of breath, and then the sound of tiny feet running out of the room.

Lucius peered at his wife over the top of the newspaper, "Perhaps we should just put a wrinkle-resistant charm on her robes and let her sleep in those. It would certainly make our mornings smoother."

There was a pink flush in Narcissa's cheeks as she joined him at the table. "I'm not going to encourage this kind of behavior, Lucius." She jerked the teapot towards her, and sloshed the tea into her cup, "I blame you for this. Ever since you let her sit in on that Wizengamot hearing she's been trying to argue her way out of everything."

He could not help feeling pleased, "She's going to be quite the politician one day."

His wife shot him an irritated look, "No hearings for Draco. Ever. I don't think I could handle two of them."

"No hearings for Draco," he agreed. Draco did not seem to care much for the Ministry anyway. He was far more interested in Quidditch. So Lucius reserved his Saturdays for playing a modified version of Quidditch in the makeshift pitch he had set up on their lawn.

But while his Saturdays belonged to Draco, his Wednesdays belonged to Hermione. Every week he took her to the Ministry, where she drank in everything with a refreshing eagerness.

He glanced again at Narcissa, who was moodily nursing her tea.

"Has Draco woken up yet?" He asked mildly, trying to distract her from her thoughts.

She shook her head, "He wasn't feeling well last night, so I figured I'd let him sleep for a few extra hours."

"I told him not to eat that third piece of cake."

She smiled fondly, "He's a little boy, Lucius. What do you expect?"

"Well, I hope he feels better."

There was a bang as Hermione threw open the dining room door and ran towards him. Her cheeks were bright pink and she panted as she stood in front of him.

"Papa!" pant "can't reach-" pant "buttons! Would you-" pant "please!?" She turned around so that he could button up the back of her green dress.

"Hold still, Mione," he laughed, bending to button the dress. "There! All done."

"Thank you!" She flashed him a wide grin, which he returned.

Narcissa cleared her throat, "Let me see."

Hermione obediently moved to stand in front of Narcissa, and clasped her hands behind her back as the blonde examined her.

"Much better," approved Narcissa, "It just needs-" she waved her wand, and conjured a sage green ribbon the exact color of Hermione's dress. With expert hands she tied the ribbon into Hermione's hair. It had taken her months to master Hermione's bushy mane, but she had finally found the right concoction of hair potions so that the unruly mess had been tamed into ringlets.

"Perfect," her hand rested briefly on Hermione's shoulder, and then she gave the girl a gentle push. "Don't forget your cloak."

Lucius watched the interaction closely, and then glanced down quickly at the Prophet when Narcissa looked back over to him.

"Are you ready Papa?" Hermione chirped, looking over expectantly.

"Of course, sweetheart," he folded the Prophet, and laid it beside his empty teacup, "Would you like to fetch to Floo box? I'll meet you in the study."

The little girl nodded eagerly, and took off.

"Don't let her eat too many sweets," Narcissa commented with a knowing look. "Last week she was talking to herself in her room for hours after her bedtime."

"She was just excited. She's a little girl, Cissy." He slid his hand through his hair with a sigh, "But I'll keep the sweets to a minimum."

"I just don't want her to get sick again. She needs a regular sleep schedule."

There was something in her eyes that made him soften, "The nightmares are over, Cissy. They won't be coming back."

Her smile did not quite reach her eyes. "And if you see Severus remind him that he agreed to come for Sunday dinner."

"I will, dear. Is there anything else, or do you want me to make Hermione wait even longer?"

"That's all, have a nice day."

He stooped to kiss the top of her head, "Tell Draco we said good-morning," Then he headed upstairs to his study, where an eager five year old paced.

He held her close as they used the Floo, and laughed as she squirmed to get down once they arrived.

"Papa can I have a sickle for the fountain, please?" She darted across the atrium, and leaned over the fountain's edge to look into the water. "I want to make a wish!" she chirped unnecessarily.

He fished one out of his pocket, and tried not to laugh out loud as she clutched it to her chest and screwed up her face in concentration.

A moment later the coin plopped almost anticlimactically into the water a moment later, and she turned to beam up at him.

"And what did you wish for?" He asked, taking her hand and steering her towards the lifts.

She narrowed her eyes, but her smile did not fade, "You know I can't tell you, Papa! It only counts if it's a secret!" She shook a finger, as if she were the parent and he the child, "One should never speak a wish out loud if they want it to come true."

He did laugh then, and squeezed her hand in his. "My apologies, then. I stand corrected."

She giggled, and swung their hands as made their rounds. They visited the courtrooms first. Lucius, as promised, did not take Hermione into one of the cavernous rooms. He did, however, allow her to peer curiously in through a cracked doorway while he spoke to one of his acquaintances.

"Papa," she asked once he had finished conversing, "what's counter-fitting?"

"Do you mean counterfeiting?"

"That's what I said!" She said in exasperation. "What is it?"

"It's when you make something fake that looks like something valuable."

Her little brow furrowed in confusion, "Like what?"

"Well, like if I gave you a twig and told you it was a wand."

"Wouldn't I know it was a twig when I tried to do a spell?"

"Maybe," he shrugged, "but suppose I was a very talented counterfeiter who charmed the twig to shoot sparks. I could sell it to some unsuspecting schoolboy for a fortune, and then disappear before he realized it was useless. Or suppose I made toy money feel like a real Galleon. By the time the charm wore off I could have run away to France-"

"But wouldn't the Aurors catch you?"

Lucius smiled, "I don't think they could catch your dear Papa, do you?"

She chewed her lip for a moment, and then shook her head. "No, you're much too clever Papa."

"I'm glad you think so. Let's keep that to ourselves, sweetheart. A good Slytherin never brags about their talents in public." He winked at her, and she scrunched up half her face in an attempt to wink back.

"Lucius!"

Lucius turned to see a tall, smiling man wave from the doorway of one of the offices.

"Andrew! I thought you were in Belgium until Monday." Lucius steered Hermione towards his old school friend,

"I decided to come home early," Andrew ushered them into his large office. The enchanted windows were bright and sunny this morning, and they illuminated the wall opposite Andrew's desk, which shone with plaques commemorating his service to the Department of Magical Law Enforcement.

It always unnerved Lucius that he was so close to a high-ranking official in the DMLE. He and Andrew had been school friends, and then it had been Andrew who defended Lucius during the investigations following Voldemort's fall. He had been among the few Purebloods who were neither blood traitors or supporters of Voldemort's cause, and that made him an invaluable friend.

The man had no idea that Lucius had not been under the influence of the Imperius Curse during his service to the Dark Lord, and his unwavering trust always made Lucius feel a bit guilty.

Hermione instantly shot over to the typewriter that clacked away independently in the corner. Lucius knew that it typed a summary of the Auror Department's arrests and investigations, and he looked over to Andrew.

"It's fine," the man waved a hand, and moved to lean against his desk. "Nothing that Narcissa would disapprove of, I think Moody's investigating a rabbit smuggling operation."

Lucius arched a brow, but decided he did not want to know. If it was interesting Hermione would tell him all about it.

They spoke for a few moments, catching up on each other's family. Lucius was happy to brag about Draco's flying lessons, and Hermione's aptitude for learning, and Andrew shared a few anecdotes on his three daughters.

"You know," he said thoughtfully, his gaze fixed on Hermione. "My youngest is about Hermione's age. I'm sure she'd love a playmate- her sisters are always telling her she's too young to play with them. Perhaps we should set something up."

Lucius nodded carefully, considering this. "It might do Hermione some good to have a girl to play with. She and Draco are very close, of course- the boy worships her."

"Well then it would be good for her to have an equal!" Andrew laughed, and Lucius felt a twitch or annoyance.

"Hermione!" yelled the man, motioning for her to come over. "How would you like a new friend?"

Her little eyes widened in curiosity, and she listened as Andrew described his youngest.

"-she's a little boisterous, but I'm sure the two of you would be close as sisters in no time. I hear you love to read-"

"Oh yes!" gushed Hermione, "Papa just got me all the 'Tales of Young Morgana' books!" She glowed at the mention of the picture books that she loved so much.

"Lottie loves those books! And she has all the dolls and toys that go along with it. Including Percival the Pegasus."

"Percival isn't supposed to come out for months," Lucius said over Hermione's squeal. He had been hearing about that pegasus for weeks, and he had intended to pick one up as a birthday present for Hermione.

"A friend sent one over as a thank-you for helping her get out of a little trouble. Would you like to see it sometime?" He asked Hermione.

The girl seemed to be mute with surprise, and she nodded so vigorously that Lucius was certain her head was about to pop off. He could not help but feel irritated that Andrew had not allowed him to speak to Narcissa about it, and then bring the subject up on his own, but there was nothing to be done about it now.

"I'll have Anne owl Narcissa about the details," Andrew promised a few minutes later when they left his office. "We'll see you soon!"

"Give my regards to your family," Lucius nodded, hoping that his smile looked a lot more genuine than it felt.

They continued along, but now Lucius was much quieter than before. This was his least favorite part of their visits. He could already feel the headache pulsing behind his eyes, but Dumbledore thought this was a good idea. And what Dumbledore wants…

"Arthur!" Hermione practically sang as she ran down the corridor. "Arthur!"

A familiar redhead stuck his head out one of the doors, and smiled broadly, "Hermione! What a surprise."

Lucius stood near enough to keep an eye on them, and pulled the prophet from an inside pocket in his robes.

Dumbledore had encouraged the interactions between Hermione and Mr. Weasley with the reminder that it was a way for Hermione to learn about her Muggle heritage without Lucius needing to "completely recover from his prejudices."

So Lucius grudgingly allowed his daughter to visit Weasley every week and ask endless questions about the various trinkets he kept in his office.

He could hear snippets of their conversation as he skimmed the Prophet, Hermione was asking about a photo, and Weasley was jabbering on about his brood.

" -first Weasley daughter in generations-"

The Holyhead Harpies were getting a new chaser.

" -I've never seen Molly so angry, I thought she would spit fire!"

Someone had been caught using the Imperius curse on a Muggle. Apparently the idiot had tried to make the poor Muggle attempt to rob Gringotts.

" -I have two brothers, and Molly had two brothers, unfortunately-"

There was a group of youths who were breaking into homes and stealing everything. Lucius actually read this article, as it was noted that they "targeted noble houses". He decided that they would visit the Aurors next and see what protections they recommended. Hermione would probably love learning about warding charms.

" -the Death Eaters, who followed a very bad wizard. The worst wizard to ever hold a wand, I'd say."

Lucius dropped the paper, his blood boiling. Then, before he could move to ask Weasley what in Merlin's name had possessed him to tell a five year old about the Dark Lord , he heard Hermione cry out.

"No, don't say that. Don't say that!"

"Hermione," he gasped, running into the office, and nearly trampling his daughter, who had come sobbing out to find him.

He scooped her into his arms, and felt her arms tighten around his neck. She was sobbing uncontrollably, and whimpering "Stop, stop!" into his neck.

He looked up into the eyes of a very pale Arthur Weasley, "What did you do ?" He seethed.

"Nothing, I swear!" He held up his hands, "All I did was say-"

"I heard what you said," scathed Lucius, "and I don't think you should repeat it, do you?" Without waiting for an answer, he turned and swept away.

Hermione did not calm down when they got home. Lucius tried everything he could to calm her down, but to his surprise it wasn't until Narcissa took over with a lullaby from her childhood that the girl stopped crying. She looked up at them with her miserable eyes, and whimpered, "I'm not, Papa, I'm not."

"Of course not, sweetheart." He kissed her on the forehead, and stood, "We'll be right outside the door."

Narcissa followed him into the corridor, "What was that about?"

"I don't know. She was talking to Weasley, and she was fine. Then he…" Lucius exhaled and slammed his fist against the wall, making the portraits that lined the corridor rattle and let out little screams. " Damn him! He started talking about the Dark Lord-"

When the story was done, Narcissa peeked into Hermione's room and sighed. "She's sleeping. Let's go downstairs and write Dumbledore. We're going to find another way for Hermione to learn about Muggles. She's never going to speak to that man again!"

The afternoon was spent writing letters. Several went to Dumbledore, one to Weasley's supervisor, and then Narcissa sent a particularly vicious Howler to Weasley himself.

"We should do something to traumatize his child," she hissed as she watched the owl fly away.

He laughed mirthlessly, "I think their lives must be traumatizing enough," he swirled the contents of his wine glass, and stared contemplatively at the burgundy liquid.

"You're probably right," she came over and sat beside him, laying her head against his in a rare show of affection.

The sky was darkening through the window, and the fire was crackling so merrily that he felt the tension begin to drain from his shoulder. Maybe the rest of the night would be peaceful. Perhaps after a night of sleep Hermione would be the same cheerful girl he knew, and they could put this whole incident behind them.

Then Draco burst into the room. "Mamma! Mione's hurt!"

Lucius was vaguely aware of Narcissa's voice saying, "Alright, Darling. You stay here and have a biscuit while we go check on your sister."

He had never moved so quickly in his life. He burst into her room, only to find it empty. A quick check in Draco's room revealed that it was empty as well.

"Lucius, in here!"

He sped down the corridor towards Narcissa's voice, and found her in their bedroom. She was cradling Hermione in her lap.

He sucked in a breath as he took in the cut on her arm, just under the scar Bellatrix had left years earlier. A pair of silver scissors lay open on the rug beside them, and he kicked them away.

" Episkey! " He sighed in relief as the cut vanished, leaving no trace.

"Sweetheart, what has gotten into you?"

She mumbled something incoherent, pressing her face against Narcissa.

"What's wrong, darling?" Narcissa crooned, stroking Hermione's hair. "Is it what that man said? Because-"

Hermione's shoulders shook, and she wailed louder, "I want to be a Malfoy!"

Lucius shared a shocked look with Narcissa. "You are a Malfoy, sweetheart."

"Not by blood!" She wrenched away from Narcissa, her face red, and scrunched up with tears. "I'm only a Malfoy by name. It doesn't count. I want to be a real Malfoy."

It would have been almost funny to see her throw such an uncharacteristic tantrum, except that it was terrifying. She let out another cry, and kicked her heels against the rug.

Then, Lucius had to blink to make sure he was seeing correctly.

Hermione's hair was turning a familiar platinum blonde, and when she looked up at him her eyes were the exact shade of blue as Narcissa's. In a moment she looked exactly like Draco would if he were female.

Her sobs quieted, and she asked in a broken whisper, "Why can't I be a real Malfoy?"

He opened his mouth to contradict this, but to his immense surprise his wife got there first.

"Darling, you are already a real Malfoy." She scooted closer, and pulled a slightly hesitant Hermione into her lap. "You don't need blonde hair," she tapped Hermione's head with her wand, and the chestnut color flooded back into her hair, "or blue eyes-" she passed her wand in front of Hermione's eyes so that they became their usual honey brown, "to be our daughter."

"My real parents-"

"Are in this room," Narcissa said in a firm voice. "You are Hermione Malfoy, our daughter, and nothing can change that, right?" She looked up at Lucius expectantly.

His chest was so full of pride and love that it hurt to speak. "Right."

"Promise?" Hermione asked meekly.

"We promise," he assured her, pressing a kiss to her forehead. The warmth of her skin concerned him, and he decided to floo Severus once they were done, to see if he had some fever-reducing potions.

Narcissa sighed, "We'll go downstairs now, you've scared Draco half to death. But know that tomorrow we will be having a very long talk about safety. It is not ok to play with scissors. You could have seriously injured yourself."

Lucius was pretty certain that she was not playing , but he decided to talk to Narcissa about that later.

"I'm sorry," Hermione said, tears starting again.

"Hush, it will be fine. But first we need to get you out of this nightgown. Look, you've stained it."

Hermione looked down at the small red splotch on her skirt, and a triumphant smile came over her features.

Her next words chilled Lucius to the bone.

"See, Bella? I told you it wasn't mud."

Chapter Text

Chapter Six

 

"Sit down, Lucius, I'm certain that Hermione is in no danger."

There were few things as infuriating as being told to sit in your own home. Lucius raked a hand through his hair, and muttered a sticking charm to ensure that the door did not swing shut. When he was certain it would remain open, he stalked over to join Narcissa and Dumbledore at Hermione's tea table. He refused to have this meeting in his study, or Narcissa's sitting room, as both were too far away to hear if Hermione cried out.

Only Albus Dumbledore could make his children's playroom look like a headmaster's office. He was sitting sidesaddle on an enlarged rocking horse, and looked much more at home than Narcissa, who was sitting on a stool designed to look like a pink rabbit.

Lucius enlarged one of Draco's chairs (designed to make the young wizard feel as if he were riding a dragon) and drummed his fingers on the table.

Narcissa's cool hand reached out and wrapped around his, stilling it.

"Albus," Lucius wondered when she started using Dumbledore's first name, "what's going on?"

"I can't know for sure," Dumbledore pulled something small and yellow from his pocket, and popped it into his mouth. "You said that she injured herself?"

"Apparently to prove a point," said Lucius, his voice strained.

"You don't think that my sister has-has found a way to possess Hermione, do you?"

Dumbledore shook his head, "She bears none of the classic symptoms of possession, Narcissa. I think we would have known about this a lot sooner had that been the case."

"So then how did she speak to Hermione?" Narcissa asked, her hand squeezing Lucius' just a little too tightly.

"I have a theory-" Dumbledore stroked the cotton horse mane, "She was upset this morning after speaking to Arthur Weasley?"

"We told you that already!" Burst Lucius, "Everything we know, you know, so stop talking without saying anything, or else I'll-"

There was a crash behind him, and he broke off abruptly. Worry clenched him, and he turned, half expecting to see Hermione standing there covered in blood-

He relaxed as his eyes landed on a crop of sleep-tousled blonde hair.

"Mione's sick?" Draco asked, pronouncing her name so that it sounded more like "Miney." He rubbed his eyes tiredly, "She's still in bed."

"Yes," Narcissa said, getting up and stroking his hair back into place. "She's not feeling well, darling, so you'll have to play by yourself today."

"m'kay," Draco yawned.

Lucius watched her fuss with Draco's robes and knew that she was reassuring herself that their son was ok.

"Can I take her Colin?" Draco asked, blinking up at Narcissa.

Dumbledore's delighted voice asked, "Colin?"

The boy nodded eagerly, "When I'm not feeling well, Mamma brings me Colin 'cause he makes me feel better."

"Yes, Darling," Narcissa kissed him on top of his head, "that's very sweet. Why don't you go get him, and then we'll go give him to her?"

"Why don't we all go give him to her?"

Lucius turned to look at Dumbledore incredulously.

"I want to speak to her," explained the Headmaster. He was already getting to his feet.

Draco ran to his bedroom to find Colin- a green velvet hound- and the adults allowed him to fuss over Hermione for a few minutes.

Lucius busied himself by straightening the dolls on top of Hermione's bookshelf. Last year they had painted her room to look like the Enchanted Forest from the Young Morgana books. It was done in purple and green, with trees that fluttered peacefully in the painted wind. Several unicorns flitted in and out of the foliage.

The dark wooden floor was polished to a high shine, and cut in half with a blue rug that was enchanted to look like a flowing river. The "river" led to Hermione's bed, a tall, silver four-poster with dark green hangings.

He listened to Draco chatter on about how much better Hermione would feel once she spent some time with Colin. Lucius took in the girl's tired countenance, and hoped that they could get the conversation with Dumbledore over as soon as possible, before she passed out from exhaustion.

Fortunately Draco, though devoted to his sister, had a very short attention span. Narcissa convinced him to go back to the playroom and draw Hermione a "get well soon" card.

"I'll be back soon, Mione!" he promised, pushing Colin into her side and bouncing off of the bed.

Dumbledore chuckled as he watched Draco zoom out of the room. "You are a very lucky girl to have such a brother," he told her, easing into a chair by her bedside.

Hermione, who looked so small beneath her blankets, stared up at him with apprehension. "Am I in trouble, Uncle Albus?"

"No, my dear," soothed Dumbledore, "but we need to have a serious conversation about your friend."

Hermione paled, "Which one?"

"Hermione!" Narcissa admonished from the foot of the bed, "You know very well which one."

The girl sat up immediately, her face coloring, "No! We can't talk about her! I won't!"

Lucius sighed, and moved to sit beside his wife. "Sweetheart, if your friend won't let you tell anyone about her than she might not be the best friend for you to have. People only tell others not to speak about them if they have something to hide."

"Please, Papa," Hermione cried, her eyes welling with tears, "She didn't mean it! She just lost her temper a little bit. She already apologized."

"Apologized for what?"

She clapped a hand over her mouth.

"Come here, Sweetheart." Lucius pulled her into his lap, and tucked her blankets around her so that she would feel safe. The last thing he wanted was for his daughter to feel as if she was facing off against all three of them.

"Now," he said, wrapping his arms around her, "what did she apologize for?"

Hermione still seemed unsure, and he was grateful when Narcissa spoke up.

"You won't get in trouble, Darling, as long as you don't lie."

He felt Hermione take a few deep breaths. "Bella apologized for yelling at me when I told her it wasn't nice to call Arthur a…" She twisted to look up at him, "Do I have to say what she called him, Papa? It wasn't nice."

"No, sweetheart. Not if you don't want to."

"Why was she so mad at Arthur?" the Headmaster leaned closer, his expression intent.

Hermione swallowed, "He said something bad about the Dark Lord."

Dumbledore nodded, "And does she speak to you about the Dark Lord?"

"Oh yes!"

"And what does she say?"

Lucius felt as if his insides had turned to ice as his daughter launched into a description of how warm and wonderful Voldemort was.

"-When he rises he's going to train me to be the best witch ever! Well, almost. Bella says I can't possibly be as good as she is-"

"Does 'Bella' know when he's going to rise?"

"Soon, I hope. Bella says he just needs a little time, but he'll be back. And when he comes back Bella will be able to come and play dolls with me for real."

"Tell me why you hurt yourself."

Lucius could have kicked Dumbledore for his tactlessness. Luckily, Hermione did not seem to care. She sat up a little straighter, and her voice was impassioned as she answered the question.

"Bella called me a bad word. She said I had mud in my veins and I wanted to prove that she was lying." she sat up a little straighter, "But I don't have blood in my veins. It's all blood!"

Narcissa gave a twitch, and he felt as if she must feel as disturbed by this conversation as he.

"That's what she apologized for. She feels bad for upsetting me. She says she never meant any of it."

Dumbledore folded his hands over his stomach. "Can she hear what we're saying right now?"

Hermione shrank into him, and he tightened his hold in reassurance, "Yes." Her head bobbed up and down. "She doesn't like it."

"Why not?"

"She thinks you're going to do something bad."

"Oh? What does she think I'm going to do?"

"Make her go away... But you won't, will you uncle Albus?"

Lucius had to hand it to Dumbledore, the man's smile never dimmed as he said "Well, there's nothing for you to worry about, Hermione. You've done nothing wrong."

His sweet, overly-trusting girl took that as confirmation that 'Bella' would not be going away. She sighed contentedly, and allowed him to move her off of his lap so that he, Narcissa, and Dumbledore could converse in the corridor.

"Albus, what is going on!" Narcissa hissed as soon as they stepped out of Hermione's room.

"Keep your voice down Cissy, she'll hear you." Lucius craned his neck to make sure Hermione was still tucked into bed.

Dumbledore tugged off his spectacles and used his sleeve to clean them. "Does she still have that scar from the incident with Bellatrix?"

"The one from when she was a baby?" confirmed Narcissa. "Yes… do you think it's cursed? Did Bellatrix-"

"I don't think Bellatrix intended for the bond to happen." Dumbledore began, but he was cut off almost immediately by Lucius.

"Bond? What Bond?"

Dumbledore settled his glasses back on his nose. "When Hermione was a baby Bellatrix came and attacked her with a knife-"

"You don't need to speak to me like I'm a child, I already know-"

The older man continued as if Lucius hadn't spoken, "If Bellatrix's blood was on the knife Hermione's magic might have binded it to her magical core-creating a bond. The night terrors she experienced when she was younger… I think those were caused by Bellatrix's incarceration at Azkaban. The timeline adds up, and they started without warning, correct?"

"Yes," Narcissa breathed.

Lucius looked at her, and then narrowed his eyes at Dumbledore, "So how do we break the bond?"

"We don't."

Narcissa crossed her arms over her chest. "What do you mean we don't ?"

"I believe that there is nothing to be done. The bond exists, there has never been a successful separation in the history of accidental bindings. To try and cut Bellatrix out would be like slicing out a part of Hermione. The damage would be catastrophic."

Lucius was going to be sick. His eyes focused on one of the photographs that lined the walls. In it, a three year old Hermione held Draco on her lap, and waved happily at Lucius. "So there's nothing to be done?"

"No," said Dumbledore carefully, "I wouldn't say that."

Lucius flexed his hand in an effort to keep it from wrapping around Dumbledore's throat. "Then what would you say?"

"We can put in a barrier to keep Bellatrix from speaking to Hermione."

Narcissa shifted closer, "Will that work?" Her eyes fixed, unblinking, on Dumbledore's face.

"Not forever," the old wizard warned, "Eventually- around puberty, I'd say- Hermione's magic will attack the barrier and remove it because it should not be in place. But by that time we'll have taught Hermione how to be an Occlumens-"

"She's too young," Lucius said dismissively. "Only skilled witches and wizards are taught-"

"There have been numerous children who have become very successful Occlumens. We will teach her the basics, and slowly build from there. As long as we continue to emphasize the importance of her practicing her skills there is no reason why she shouldn't succeed."

Narcissa seemed more optimistic than Lucius felt about this plan. "And it will block Bellatrix completely?"

"Not completely," sighed Dumbledore, "Bellatrix will not be able to speak, or communicate with Hermione directly, but the bond will remain intact. Hermione will still be able to feel her emotions, and Bellatrix will be able to feel Hermione's as well."

"Then what's the point?"

Narcissa shot him a dirty look, "If Bellatrix can't speak to Hermione, she can't tell her how wonderful the Dark Lord is! She can't tell her to kill us all in our sleep."

"If she's feeling Bellatrix's emotions then she's going to- Cissy we can't let that happen! She's too young to feel the effects of Azkaban all the time. For whatever reason, Bellatrix has found a way to keep her emotions to herself. Would you agree, Dumbledore?" He spat, feeling as if he was dangling above a pool of Grindylows.

"That would make sense."

Somehow that didn't make him feel better.

"Then maybe we should just, leave things as they are." Did he really just suggest that they leave the raging, psychopathic maniac in his daughter's head?

His wife scoffed, "Absolutely not, Hermione's just as endangered with Bellatrix there anyway."

The headmaster stroked his beard thoughtfully. "I may have a solution."

Both of them stared at him for a few moments, waiting for him to elaborate. When he remained silent, Lucius prompted, "Would you care to share the solution?"

"I'd rather not say anything until I know for sure." Dumbledore began striding down the corridor with long, purposeful steps, and the two Malfoy's had to hurry to keep up with him.

"I'll look into it at once. When I learn more I'll be in contact. Keep her calm, and don't say anything about our conversation. The less Bellatrix knows, the better."

"Is it safe though?" asked Narcissa, "What about Draco, could he be in danger?"

They had come to the staircase, and Dumbledore stopped short, causing Lucius to bump into him.

"My apologies Lucius, I sometimes forget that I'm not as fast as I used to be," the Headmaster said, turning to smile at Narcissa. His eyes did not have their trademark twinkle. "I understand your fears, Narcissa. But Hermione has been connected with Bellatrix for years without incident. Keep an eye on her, of course, but I have no reason to believe that Bellatrix is a danger to you or your family."

"But she's a danger to Hermione!" Lucius spat.

"A moment ago you were prepared for Hermione to face that danger if it meant sparing her from the effects of the Dementors," retorted Dumbledore cooly. "I am trying to find a solution that will suit us all, and keep Hermione from both dangers. Believe me, Lucius. I have the child's best interests at heart."

Lucius did not particularly believe these words, "You just want to keep your spy as intact as possible."

Something shifted in the air, and Dumbledore pulled himself up to his full height. The smile was still in place, but his eyes were a blaze of blue fire.

"I can see that you are upset, and so I won't take up anymore of your time," he said softly. "Narcissa, I will come when I find a solution. Look for my owl."

"O-of course," Narcissa said, eyes wide as she looked back and forth between the two men.

Dumbledore gave a stiff nod, turned on his heel, and trotted down the stairs. A minute later the ornate front door slammed shut behind him.

"Sometimes," Lucius swallowed the lump in his throat, "I think that man is worse than the Dark Lord."

Narcissa turned sharply to him, "Lucius! You can't mean that?"

He glared darkly at the closed door. "I don't know anymore. I just don't know."

XX

Ronald Weasley was used to being the target of his brother's pranks. He had been locked in more cupboards than he could count, tricked into swallowing all sorts of household items, and put in harm's way so many times that his mother automatically said Episkey every time he walked into the room.

So when he found himself stuck to the bottom of the kitchen table with his lips sealed shut from joke taffy he was not surprised. In a few hours, when his mother checked on each of her children to make sure they were asleep she would find his bed empty. He hoped she would let him stay in the room when she punished Fred and George.

The dark kitchen was suddenly thrown into bright light, and he heard his parents bustle into the kitchen.

"-what you were thinking, Arthur! Did you really talk about-"

"To be fair, Molly, any normal child would have already known that You-know-who is a bad sort. There's something going on. The way he manhandled her out of the office-"

"He didn't?!"

"It certainly seemed that way. The poor girl was screaming and kicking. It was obvious she didn't want to go with him, so naturally I filed a report-"

"You don't think he would ever hurt one of his own children?"

There was a scrape of chairs, and his father's worn woolen slippers came into view.

"Remember what I told you, about the file I accidentally found in the family records?"

His mother's voice grew irritated, "Yes, and I still think you shouldn't have looked. It's none of your business if the child was ado-"

"But it would make sense that Malfoy wouldn't have the same qualms about mistreating someone he viewed as a charity case."

Ron's nose scrunched up in confusion. Why couldn't adults talk about things that made sense? Like Quidditch, or sweets?

"But there was a picture of them in the Prophet last winter, when they attended the Father-Daughter luncheon at the Ministry. They looked very close."

"Pictures lie , Molly."

There was a thunk! as his mother slammed something down on the table, and Ron thought for a brief moment that he might become unstuck. Sadly for him, whatever the twins used held true, and he glowered at his father's feet.

"I don't think Narcissa Malfoy would have sent that nasty howler if she did not care for the child."

"More like she cared about her image. No one likes it when a child makes a scene in public."

"I think that you're determined to think the worst of them. Oh Arthur, did you really file a report?"

"I did." His father's voice, usually so cheerful, was surprisingly harsh. "There's something off about that family, and I will not stand by as an innocent is punished."

"Poor dear. It sounds like she was upset."

"It was… unsettling. Believe me, Molly. If you had been there you would understand.

There was a sudden rap on the kitchen door, and Ron's ears perked in excitement. Both of his parents leapt to their feet.

"Who could- No one's used that door since…"

"Stay there, Molly."

There was a creak of the lock sliding out of place, and his father shouted-

"Dumbledore!"

Ron's eyes widened, and for the first time he was glad to have been a victim of Fred and George's pranks.

"Hello, Arthur, Molly. I hope you can forgive me for the late hour, but there was something I had to tend to this evening, and I'm afraid this discussion cannot wait until morning. I promise to be brief."

"Of course, Albus," his mother said, "come in, come in, tea?"

"No, thank you. I'm afraid that my night is far from over. I really do mean to be brief."

"What is it?" Asked his father.

"I came across a report filed this afternoon, and I wanted to address it in person. I understand that you are concerned about the safety of young Miss Malfoy?"

"I am," his father affirmed.

"Your fears are unfounded. I came here to assure you that Miss Malfoy is very well taken care of by parents who love and adore her-"

"With all due respect, Dumbledore, today Hermione was-"

"-overwhelmed and exhausted. I checked in on her myself, and she is perfectly well. I understand your concern, Arthur. It is commendable that you care so deeply, but in this particular case I believe your prejudices are clouding your judgement. I, myself, visit regularly with Hermione- we are related, after all- and I am content with the fact that few children have ever been as well looked after as she and her brother."

"Did you say related?" his mother asked.

There was a light chuckle, "I am aware that you found yourself with access to the Malfoy family file, Arthur- No need to look alarmed, Molly, I am not here to judge. Sometimes we cannot help ourselves- yes, I am a related to Hermione, and given the circumstances I decided to take a special interest in her upbringing. I had a mind to adopt her once, myself! But when I got to witness the special bond she has with her parents- Lucius in particular, I knew that she was in a better home than I could ever provide."

There was a deep breath, and the old man continued.

"Which is why I have destroyed your report."

His mother gasped, and his father exclaimed, "Surely and investigation is in order!"

"I think an investigation would do more harm than good. Like I said, I am monitoring the situation, I have deemed it safe, and I hope you will bring any future concerns to me. The Malfoy's are not the people you think them to be, Arthur."

Had Ron been a little older he might have caught the hint in Dumbledore's voice. As it was, he had grown very bored, and was counting the cracks on one of the floorboards.

"I'm afraid I must be going. Think about what I've said. If you are not convinced you may owl to arrange a meeting where we can discuss this further. Thank you for your time."

Strained goodbyes were exchanged, there was a groan as the door opened, closed, and then the sound of the lock sliding back into place.

"Well, I hope you're satisfied," His mother said, and there was a sound of tea pouring into a cup.

"I don't know," his father admitted, "I trust Dumbledore, but he wasn't there! We need to keep an eye on the girl. Look out for her, let her know that she's not alone-"

"Oh Arthur, she's going to be fine."

"Maybe. But that family never does anything without a reason. Why take in another child when they already have an heir? Something is going on."

"Or she's just incredibly lucky, and Dumbledore might have been correct when he said that they aren't the people we think they are."

"No," something in his father's tone made Ron listen. And the next words would be the only thing he remembered of this conversation. "You can never trust a Malfoy because everything they do is for themselves. They'll make an allegiance with you one moment, and then turn around and curse you the next. If Dumbledore believes them, that means he's been fooled."

"Arthur, what exactly are you saying?"

"I don't know," there was a tired chuckle, "I've been awake too long, I think. Don't mind me, Molly dear, I'm sure a good night's sleep and a proper conversation with Dumbledore will clear this whole thing up. How was your day?"

"Oh, you'll never guess what word Fred taught Ginny today…"

And as they switched to the lighter conversation of their children, both Weasley's were unaware that their youngest son was staring wide eyed at the floor as he came to a conclusion about a family he had never met.

The Malfoy's were evil. So evil that they had tricked the only person who could stop them, Dumbledore, into believing they were good. You can never trust a Malfoy.

And without Dumbledore, who would stop this tyrannical family from taking over the entire Wizarding World?

XX

Three days later, Narcissa paced anxiously up and down the corridor between her children's bedrooms. She had not slept since her last conversation with Dumbledore, and finally the Headmaster had written that he had found a solution.

I will arrive tonight after 10 , the letter had read , Make sure she is asleep .

There had been a healthy dose of sleeping potion in Hermione's bedtime snack. Now the girl slept peacefully, her arms clasped around Colin.

Narcissa leaned against the doorframe and watched Hermione sleep, her chest a flutter of emotions.

As Hermione had been drifting off to to sleep she had called out " Mother?"

" Yes, Hermione?"

" I didn't know that you and... Bella were friends."

" What makes you think that."

" Because Bella said to tell you that she loves you…. and that… she didn't mean..."

Narcissa had tried to get Hermione to finish her sentence, but the girl had already fallen asleep.

Now, several hours later, she studied her daughter's face and wondered-briefly-if it would have been so bad…

She shook her head to clear those thoughts. Of course they were doing the right thing. Hermione had enough to worry about without Bellatrix's voice in her head all of the time.

Narcissa looked around at the sound of footsteps, and stared as she took in Dumbledore's acid green rubber gloves that stretched up to his elbows. Lucius, wearing a similar pair of gloves, carried a sack made from the same material.

Her eyes were immediately drawn to the moving lump at the bottom of the sack. "What's this?"

"The solution to our problems," sighed Dumbledore. "Lucius, if you'll just hold it still- yes, like that. Here we are."

He reached into the sack and gently pulled out a small, white puppy.

"You've brought Hermione a pet?" Narcissa tried to keep the skepticism from her voice.

Dumbledore looked mildly amused, "Yes, but it's not just any pet. I've brought her a Wubble!"

Apparently he had expected her to be more excited by this proclamation, but she found herself unable to respond to his unhelpful statement.

Lucius, apparently, knew more about strange dog breeds than she did. He leant closer to the animal and whispered, "The Nursery dog? I thought they were extinct."

"Not extinct, but almost. There is only one breeding pair in existence right now. Luckily, the owner owed me a favor."

"I'm sorry," Narcissa stepped a little closer, noting the way Dumbledore drew the puppy away from her, "but what exactly is a Wubble?"

"A Wubble, or Nursery dog, as they are sometimes called, is a dog that was developed to help children who had been exposed to trauma of some kind. They were mostly given to Royal and noble children who had witnessed the murder of their loved ones. It's a way to track Hermione's moods- just Hermione's, not Bellatrix's.

"When Hermione touches this puppy, it will bond to her emotions. Somehow-I must admit, I'm not entirely sure- it will convey what Hermione is feeling. That way if Hermione is scared, or distressed, you will be alerted if Hermione herself can't tell you. Additionally, Wubbles have a calming effect on the person they're bonded to. I hope that it will help her sleep soundly."

"So you want to create another bond?" Narcissa scoffed, "How many things do you want in Hermione's head? Let's just bind her to all of us!"

"Cissa," protested Lucius, "This isn't the same. The pup will be bonded to Hermione, but Hermione will not be bonded to it. It's a pet, a pet with calming properties, nothing more."

"And the gloves? Are we to wear gloves for the rest of our lives?"

Dumbledore chuckled, "Not at all. Once the Wubble has bonded with a human, it will stay bonded for life- her life. After she touches him and the bond is complete the gloves will no longer be necessary."

"Him?"

Lucius smirked, "Surely you won't hold that against him, Cissa."

She opened her mouth to retort, and promptly closed it. "Fine." Exhaling slowly, she stepped back towards Hermione's room. "Let's get this over with. I don't want to worry about it anymore."

The dog was placed back in the sack, and the three adults entered Hermione's room.

Narcissa felt slightly sick as she peered down at Hermione. "How are you going to do this?"

"First we will have her bond with the Wubble, that way she can be shielded as much as possible from Bellatrix when we put in the barrier."

They watched as he gently set the puppy down by Hermione. He gently pressed it against the bare skin of Hermione's forearm.

There was a flash of light that sent had all three adults recoiling. The puppy, who had been snow white, was now a light blue. Narcissa held her breath as she watched the puppy circle around Hermione, and finally curl up against the curve of her neck.

She exhaled shakily, and watched Dumbledore begin placing the barrier. A thin silver mist flowed from the tip of his wand. It twisted over itself rapidly, until it resembled a very tight net. With a twitch of his wand, the barrier seemed to melt into Hermione's skin.

"This is the difficult part," whispered Dumbledore, a shine of sweat on his brow. "I need to place the barrier."

Hermione's brow furrowed, and the puppy let out a whine and rolled closer.

It was faster than she expected. There was a moment when the puppy's coat darkened, and then his snout glowed golden, and his color returned to the light blue.

" Occlumens!" Dumbledore whispered.

Hermione shifted in her sleep, and let out a faint whine. Both Narcissa and Lucius reached to stroke her hair.

"It's done." Dumbledore smiled tiredly. "Bellatrix is no longer in her head." He pulled out a snowy handkerchief and mopped his brow with a sigh.

Lucius gently tucked the blankets around his daughter, "What should we do now?" He straightened, and began stripping off the gloves. "Should we Obliviate her? Get rid of the memories?"

"I don't think that's necessary," Dumbledore threw his gloves into the sack, and held it open to that Lucius could do the same. "Young children are often able to rationalize things that no one else can, and the imaginary friends of our childhood are often forgotten."

Narcissa did not feel like pointing out that Bellatrix was not an imaginary friend, but she was very ready for the Headmaster to leave their home. The last few days had been a blur of emotions, and she needed some time to process what had happened.

Dumbledore lingered for only a few more moments. He left with a promise to stop by in a few days.

Narcissa watched him go from Hermione's window. Once he had disappeared through the gates she moved to join Lucius by Hermione's bed.

His arm snaked around her shoulders, and she leaned against him, savoring the warmth.

"It's ok, Cissa. It's over. Hermione is ok."

His reassurance did not soothe her tension. "For now it's over. But Dumbledore said that Hermione's magic will break down the barrier on it's own. We're going to be dealing with this again in a few years."

"Not necessarily," argued Lucius gently, "She's a smart girl. We'll teach her Occlumency… She'll be prepared next time."

Narcissa wished that she could have as much faith in a six year old as her husband did. She reached out and picked up Colin, who had been pushed out of Hermione's arms by the snoring puppy, and hugged him to her chest. Inhaling deeply, she was surrounded by the peppermint scent of Hermione and Draco's soap.

"If Bellatrix mentions any of this to-"

"I know," said Lucius, his gaze fixed on their daughter. "I've been thinking the same thing. We've just got to hope that by the time she's reunited with the Dark Lord we've come up with a very good excuse. After all," he swallowed thickly, "Hermione's going to need all the help she can get if she's going to be…"

He trailed off, and Narcissa glanced up at him. His eyes glistened in the candlelight, and a bolt of guilt struck through her body.

She hugged Colin tighter. Hermione will get through this, she thought, she's got three highly skilled teachers, and more nerve than any child I've ever met. Yes, she was certain that if anyone could handle being a spy for Dumbledore-

But the thick lump in her throat had her pressing closer into Lucius' side.

What had they gotten themselves into?

Chapter Text

Hermione felt an ache in her chest as she walked down the corridors of the Ministry with her father. This would be the last time she visited for months, and though she was certain her father would be happy to resume their weekly visit during the Holidays, she could not help but feel as if something were ending.

She snuck a sideways look at him, and smiled when she realized he was doing the same.

"I don't know what I'm going to do with my Wednesdays once you've left," he said, offering a small smile that did not quite chase the sadness from his eyes.

"I'm not going away forever," she reminded him, "I'll be back for Christmas, and Easter, and then next summer we can spend the first week at the Ministry to make up for lost time."

"It's a deal," he sighed dramatically, "I suppose I'll just have to wait until then to come back. Pity, I think I was just beginning to talk some sense into Cornelius."

"Nonesense, Papa. You're a wizard, not a miracle granter."

He laughed at that. It was a loud, booming sound that drew the attention of several administrators who looked around curiously, and smiled at the familiar pair.

"But seriously Papa," she said a few minutes later, "You have to keep me updated about everything that happens. I don't want to be surprised when I come back."

"Of course I will, Mione," he promised. He wrapped an arm around her and tugged her into his side. "I'll write you every day. Twice a day on Wednesdays if you like."

"Ok." She felt a strange lump in her throat, and suddenly wished that Turnip was allowed to come to the Ministry with them.

He tugged a tendril of her hair gently, "You're going to love Hogwarts, sweetheart. When December comes you'll be disappointed to leave."

Shaking her head stubbornly, she whispered out "No I won't."

There was no response, but he hugged her a little tighter to his side.

"Well," he said a few moments later as they came to the stairway, "I need to check on some paperwork. I suppose you'll want to visit him ?"

She rolled her eyes, "You can say his name, Papa. It's not going to kill you."

"It just might," he retorted, but he smiled anyway. "You go on. I'll be along in a bit."

Although he had trusted her to make her way through the Ministry on her own for several years, she always felt a sense of pride as she did so. With her head held high she navigated her way down the stairs and through the corridors. Each person she came across was greeted politely, as Narcissa had instructed her, and she smiled as each congratulated her on her acceptance to Hogwarts.

Finally, she came to the office that she was looking for.

"Hermione! Come in, come in, I just received something I think you'll enjoy. I think it works with eclecticity, but I can't be sure."

Arthur Weasley's office was the only place besides the Manor that Hermione felt safe to be herself. She broke into a broad grin and practically ran over to his desk. There was a strange, pear shaped glass bulb with metal strings inside. "Can I touch it?" she asked, peering at the object.

"Of course, it won't hurt you." He laughed, and waved his wand to move a stack of papers off of a second chair.

"It's cold!" she said, taking her seat. She settled back in her chair, the object clutched in her hand. The familiar smell of dust and burnt toast filled her nose. The walls were covered in charts, graphs, and drawings of various Muggle appliances.

Arthur nodded, "And fragile, so be careful not to drop it. I broke one this morning."

"How does it work?"

"Well, I believe that-"

He launched into an explanation of 'eclecticity' that any Muggle could have immediately informed him was incorrect. Fortunately, there was no one who knew any better, so the girl listened in full captivation. Then, when he finished explaining the significance of spinning wool into steel (another incorrect hypothesis) he changed the conversation.

"So, are you ready for Hogwarts?"

She could not help but feel slightly disappointed that he would ask the only question anyone else had asked for the last year. "Yes," she sounded far more confident than she felt. She did not add that her answer had not changed since last week, not the week before.

"And have you given any thought to which House you'll be in?"

She spoke without thought, "Slytherin!"

Arthur cleared his throat, and if she hadn't known any better she would have sworn that he winced a little. "Are you- are you sure that you want to be in Slytherin?"

"Oh yes," she said, not noticing his tone, "Everyone in my family in in Slytherin, and it's the best House! Did you know that it's in the dungeons? And there are windows that show the Black Lake- you can see the giant Squid sometimes! And Merlin was in Slytherin!"

"Yes," Arthur gently interrupted the girl, "but have you given any consideration to the other Houses?"

A frown settled over her features. "Why would I do that?"

"Well it's not really fair to disregard them entirely. Each House has it's merits. I myself was in Gryffindor-"

Hermione's nose wrinkled in distaste.

"None of that now," chided Arthur gently, "Gryffindor was a great house. You'll never have any closer friends. Unless you're in Hufflepuff, of course. And Ravenclaw puts loads of emphasis on learning. I know you love to read-"

"But I don't want to be a reader when I grow up," she groaned, "I want to be the Minister!"

"You can be the Minister without being sorted into Slytherin."

She took a deep breath, and then spoke in an air that suggested she was explaining something very simple to a small child. "I'm a Malfoy, Arthur. Slytherin is in my bones. I'm cunning, ambitious, resourceful, clever, proud, and I have a thirst for power."

"Really, a thirst?"

"Arthur," she whined slightly, "You know what I mean. I'm going to be the most powerful witch in the entire world!"

This time his wince was unmistakable.

She narrowed her eyes and set the object back on his desk before folding her arms across her chest. "You don't think I can do it?"

"No, no, I didn't say that," Arthur placated. He ran his hand through his thinning hair, "It's just that you… Good people can be twisted under the right circumstances, and every person who has gone into Slytherin-"

"I hope you aren't filling my daughter's head with lies, Weasley."

The cold voice of her father made Hermione start. She looked around, and immediately noticed the furious expression on his face.

"Everything I've said is the truth," Arthur shot back, flushing a dark red. He was gripping a piece of parchment so tightly that it was now crumpled beyond repair.

Her father chuckled mirthlessly, "I know you believe that the brief meetings you have had with my daughter have given you a sufficient knowledge of her character, but I assure you that you are incorrect. Hermione will shine in any House she belongs to- and, as her father, I know that her character would not be twisted by anything."

Arthur glowered at him, "I suppose that's true, given that she's spent her entire life living with you ."

An uncomfortable weight settled on Hermione's chest. The only sound in the room was Arthur's heavy breathing. Slowly, she settled her hands on the arms of her chair, and stood.

"Papa is the greatest father I could ever ask for," she lifted her chin, hoping that the shakiness of her voice wasn't noticeable.

"That doesn't mean he's a good man," said the redhead.

Hermione expected her father to protest then, to shout, or even shoot a hex at Arthur. But when she looked at him he just stood there, his eyes staring at nothing.

"Papa," she walked over to him and gingerly reached for his hand.

As soon as their hands touched, Lucius gave a start. "It's fine, sweetheart. I wouldn't expect a man who can't feed his family properly to know what a good father looks like." The words lacked their usual bite.

Hermione decided not to point out that Arthur had said "man", not "father". Instead, she tightened her hold on him. Together, they walked from the cluttered office.

"I'm sorry Papa," she whispered past the lump in her throat as they entered the Atrium.

He looked down at her in surprise, "Why are you sorry sweetheart?"

She sighed, and looked away. "I knew that Arthur didn't like you, but I kept going back to talk to him anyway. I'm sorry." She felt as if no one in the entire world had ever felt as small as she did in that moment.

She heard her father sigh, and pull her over to one of the Floo fireplaces. He called out "Malfoy Manor!" and pulled her into the green flames.

Seconds later, she trudged glumly into the familiar surroundings of her father's study.

"Alright, now we can talk without risk of being overheard," sighed her father as he slung his cloak over a chair. "You know that while I do not… approve of Weasley, he is the only one in the Ministry who is dense enough to answer your questions about the Muggle world without wondering about your motives."

"But he doesn't like you," she said, her eyes locking on the Malfoy family tree tapestry that hung behind his desk. The name "Hermione Narcissa Malfoy" curled elegantly next to Draco's in her father's handwriting. The lump in her throat grew, and she struggled to hold back her tears.

"Sweetheart, you're going to find that many people will treat us differently because we're Malfoys. Sometimes they treat you better, sometimes worse. It's not always fair, but sometimes… sometimes it's deserved. In the case of Arthur Weasley- well, let's just say I deserve his contempt."

She looked up in shock, and her eyes widened at the expression on her father's face. "Papa?"

He tried to smile, "I'm not proud of my past, Hermione. But you should know, before you go to school, that you're going to hear things- and some of them will be true. I'm- I haven't been a very nice person, sweetheart."

She had never seen her father look so… unsure. His fingers tapped restlessly on top of the desk. He looked almost afraid of her response.

Without a second thought, she crossed the room and threw her arms around him. " I think you're nice, Papa. I think you're the best person in the entire world, and I love you."

His arms closed tightly around her, "I love you too."

XX

"I wish you would have let me throw a proper party," lamented Narcissa several days later as she and Hermione waited in the drawing room with Draco.

"Mione hates parties," chirped Draco as he admired his reflection in the darkened window, "She'd probably spend all of her time hiding under the table with a book-"

"That was one time!" interrupted Hermione.

Draco laughed under the heat of her glare, "Only because Father caught you last year."

"We could have invited Lottie," suggested their mother, "Or Theodore, or even the Changs. I hear their daughter was sorted into Ravenclaw-"

Hermione smiled, "It's fine, Mother. Dinner is much better."

"But perhaps a few friends your own age-"

"Cissa, I thought we agreed to let Hermione have the celebration she wanted."

Hermione had never felt more grateful for her father than at that moment. He strode into the room, leading Severus Snape behind him.

"Uncle Sev!" she squealed, running to throw her arms around the tall, thin man.

Severus grunted at the force of her impact, and gave a few awkward pats to her back. "Lucius, I thought you said that you would talk to her about the hugging."

"Sorry, Sev. I guess I forgot," he shrugged.

There were only two people in the world that her parents trusted with the knowledge of Hermione's "unexplainables." Or at least, that's what Hermione called them. They were the strange, often frightening feelings that came and went without warning. The reason that Uncle Albus had given her Thimble and worked so hard to teach her Occlumency; and the reason that Severus was often called to the manor in the middle of the night to administer calmings draughts and make sure that there was no physical harm done.

While she loved Albus, there was something familiar about Severus that made her feel safe. Like he was an overly large teddy bear who pretended to be grumpy all of the time.

"Thank you for coming to my early birthday party, Uncle Sev!"

"You are very welcome," he said, gently extracting himself from her embrace.

"Thank you for coming on such short notice," Narcissa added, "we wanted to do something special because Hermione's real birthday will be happening while she's at school."

"It was no trouble at all."

Dumbledore arrived a few minutes later, his pockets stuffed with Muggle sweets, and his arms locked around a large, lumpy parcel wrapped in bright yellow paper.

"Draco, we're about to eat dinner," warned Narcissa as the boy instinctively headed towards Dumbledore.

Dumbledore chuckled, "There will be plenty left after dinner, young man. Plenty."

At Narcissa's insistence, Dumbledore's gift was left on the table with the gifts from Hermione's parents. As the rest of them headed towards the dining room Hermione spotted Severus pulling a tiny item from his pocket, enlarging it, and placing it next to the other gifts. She hid her smile and followed the others to the table.

"Uncle Severus, what's the Slytherin password?" She asked, sliding into the chair next to his once he'd sat down.

He quirked an eyebrow, "You know I can only tell you that if you are sorted into Slytherin."

She dismissed that statement immediately, "I will be. I want to make sure that I can go back to the dormitory without a prefect if Turnip is too overwhelmed at the feast."

The animal in question was currently salivating over Severus' lap, and had never been overwhelmed by any crowd, but Hermione refused to buckle under the potion master's gaze.

"I do not know," said Severus carefully. "The password will be set on the morning of the sorting."

Hermione's shoulders slumped as the plates and platters before them filled with food.

"You shouldn't be so set on Slytherin, Hermione," said Dumbledore good naturedly as he piled his plate high with roast potatoes. "The other houses might feel jealous."

"Well, they should!" Proclaimed Hermione as she selected a piece of rosemary chicken, "None of them are half as good as Slytherin."

Lucius snickered into his glass of pumpkin juice, ignoring the dirty looks that Narcissa shot him.

"What if we get sorted into Hufflepuff?" Asked Draco, his eyes widening as if the idea had just occurred to him.

Dumbledore opened his mouth to reply, but Severus was faster-

"Then you will be very lucky. Hufflepuffs are loyal, kind, hardworking- it would be as if you were gaining a family instead of a House. And, Professor Sprout tries to do something special for her student's at least once a week."

Hermione, Lucius, and Narcissa remained unimpressed by this statement, but a thoughtful look had replaced Draco's horror.

"Well said, Severus. Of course, the same could be said for any of Hogwarts' Houses, I'm sure."

"Indeed. Well, Lucius tells me that the four of you recently visited Australia on Holiday-"

The children immediately launched into a vivid description of each of the eleven days they spent there. The conversation took them all the way through dessert.

The night was very nearly perfect. The gifts were opened, Dumbledore regaled them all with a story about his own sorting- and then it happened.

Turnip, whose fur had been a rosy gold all evening, changed color in an instant. It was as if someone dipped the wubble in ink.

Hermione felt the icy cold envelop her body, and her breathing began to accelerate. She felt as if she was beginning to drift away from the room. Fuzzy voices drifted lazily to her ears.

" Lucius! Turnip's fur!"

" It must be the Dementors. Mardie!"

There was a pop, and Hermione was vaguely aware of someone lifting her up. The smell of her father's cologne calmed her somewhat.

" Bring some chocolate to Hermione's room. Severus-"

" I can Floo back to my quarters and collect some potions."

" Is Hermione going to be ok?"

" Yes, of course, Draco. Stay with Uncle Albus."

The next thing she knew she was being tucked into her bed.

" Turnip ," her mother's voice called out, and Hermione felt the bed dip. Soft fur brushed against her neck as the dog snuggled against her, and she felt her breathing slow back to it's regular pace.

The voices became much clearer after that.

"I've brought the calming draught," Severus' voice said. "Open her mouth."

She allowed someone to gently prise open her mouth, and the cold potion was poured in. It was like being wrapped in a warm, cozy blanket. She hadn't realized that she had been shivering until she stopped.

Her mother's worried voice said, "It's never been that fast before. We've always had warning."

"The barrier must be breaking," sighed Severus.

Hermione's brow wrinkled, and she wondered What barrier?

"So soon?" now it was her father's voice.

"I'm not going to pretend to know much about it. Albus didn't elaborate. But Hermione is nearly twelve, and the excitement of going to school must be accelerating her magic somehow. Frankly, knowing how advanced she is, I'm surprised the barrier has lasted this long."

"Should we tell her about B-"

"I don't think it's necessary. She is very good about practicing her Occlumency. I myself have covertly tested her shields. And while she has… extreme emotions, I believe that Hermione is rational enough that her shields should remain intact."

"This shouldn't be happening to her," sighed her mother.

Severus let out a growl, "No, it shouldn't. But this is what happens when anyone becomes involved in one of Albus' schemes-"

"Mother! I brought Hermione's chocolate! Mardie couldn't find any, so Uncle Albus aparated to Honeyduke's. He's stocking the pantry right now."

Hermione opened her eyes in time to see Draco drop a small mountain of chocolate at the foot of her bed. Her brother's eyes were worried, but he smiled at her and thrust a chocolate frog at her. "Happy early birthday," he said in an overly cheerful voice.

Hermione ate the chocolate, and felt some of the strange depression subside.

"Can I have some, Mother?" Draco asked.

Narcissa smiled thinly, "Of course, darling. Of course you can. You two enjoy, and if Hermione feels better maybe we can finish the party."

The three adults went into the corridor, where they whispered urgently amongst themselves. Every once in a while they looked over at Hermione, and the girl pulled Turnip closer.

"Do you ever get the feeling they're hiding something from us?" whispered Draco.

"Yeah," Hermione's brow furrowed as she thought back to the conversation she'd heard. "I really do."

Chapter Text

Platform 9 ¾ was full of people. The family of four stood together in the mass of moving people as the two children stared in awe at the scarlet steam engine.

The moment was made a little less special by the wailing child beside them. The boy, who looked to be about four, appeared to be upset by the fact that he was not allowed to go with his siblings. He pointed at his sister as she vanished onto the train, threw his head back, and howled.

Lucius, who was watching this display with a curled lip, muttered something about "children in his day…"

Narcissa plastered a grin on her face, and turned to smooth Hermione's travelling cloak. "Remember, darling, Turnip is not allowed in the Great Hall, or in classrooms."

Turnip, who was chewing something he'd found on the ground, smiled his doggish grin up at them. He was freshly groomed, and sporting a new leather collar and lead.

Smiling patiently at the unnecessary reminder, Hermione nodded, "Yes Mother."

"If you have an 'unexplainable' go straight to Severus or Albus."

"I will." Hermione felt uncomfortable at the mention of those strange emotions that overpowered her without warning. She carefully cast a glance around to make sure no one had overheard.

"And look out for your brother. Even if you aren't in the same house."

Draco looked affronted at the idea that he might need 'looking after', but Hermione laughed.

"Of course I will. Someone needs to."

Draco scowled at her, and scuffed the toe of his show against the ground. A faint pink blush was visible on his cheeks. His hair was freshly shorn, and it lacked it's shiny layer of hair gel. As a result it fluffed out around his head like a soft layer of down.

Lucius clapped him on the shoulder, "And you look out for your sister."

The boy looked up gratefully, "I will."

"That's my brave boy," gushed Narcissa. She pulled Draco to her, and kissed him all over his face in a rare public display of affection.

Turnip's sky blue ears darkened slightly, and Hermione felt her father's arm wrap around her shoulder.

"Try not to argue too much with your teachers, sweetheart. I wouldn't want you to spend all of your time in detention."

She rolled her eyes, but didn't pull away. Now Turnip was several shades darker than he was when they entered the platform. "I love you, Papa."

She felt him kiss the top of her head, "I love you too. Now come on, we'd better get Turnip's basket into your compartment." He released his hold on Hermione, and went to grab Turnip's basket. "Come on, Cissa, let the boy breathe."

They settled the children in an empty compartment, and said their final goodbyes. Hermione struggled not to cry when she saw her mother wipe away a tear. Even her father's eyes seemed unusually bright as he hugged Draco goodbye.

"We'll see you at Christmas," Narcissa promised as Lucius tugged her from the compartment, "Don't forget to write!"

The compartment seemed much smaller without their parents. Hermione, who had been sitting across from Draco, moved to sit beside him. "At least we're together," she sighed.

He nodded, and stroked Turnip's ears. There was a smudge of their mother's lipstick on his cheek, and she reached to rub it off.

"Leave it," he whispered, his voice strangely hoarse. "I'll take care of it later."

She lowered her hand, and let her eyes wander to the open door of the compartment. Several other parents were helping the younger students get settled, but for the most part the students ran wild. There were shouts of greeting, and bursts of laughter- both on the train and from the platform. For the first time, Hermione wondered if she should have been more social with the children her mother kept inviting to the Manor.

"That's the boy," Draco said suddenly, sitting up straight. "The boy from Madam Malkins," he lowered his voice to a whisper, " the muggleborn . You should invite him to sit with us so that he doesn't get lost."

Hermione jumped to her feet and looked out into the corridor, "Hey, boy!" she felt a little silly for not knowing his name, "From the robe shop!"

The boy looked around, his green eyes wide and unsure. He looked about as overwhelmed as Hermione felt. "Come sit with us?" She asked, opening her compartment door.

"Thanks," he said, lugging his trunk and owl back down towards their compartment. There was a small struggle as Hermione and Draco helped him secure his trunk, and then the boy collapsed, red-faced and sweating, into the seat opposite them.

"I'm Hermione Malfoy," she said, holding out her hand.

The boy took it, and panted out "Harry Potter."

The siblings exchanged looks, as if deciding not to over-react to this news. Draco smiled, and reached out, "And I'm Draco Malfoy."

"Pleasure to meet you," the boy said, reaching up to pat his hair down. "I didn't know that we're allowed to bring dogs to school."

"Hermione is," smiled Draco, "Uncle Albus gave her special permission because Turnip is… special."

Turnip chose this moment to scratch lazily at his ear. His tail thumped loudly in the compartment.

"I can see that," Harry grinned.

Draco apparently wanted to impress upon their new friend just how special the wubble was, "He changes colors! It's really rare, but Turnip does it whenever-"

Deciding that he had said too much, Hermione elbowed him in the ribs.

"Ow! Hermione! What's- oh." Draco flushed, and quickly changed the subject, "D-do you have a dog?"

"No," said Harry wistfully, "But I have Hedwig. She was a gift from Hagrid." He smiled fondly at the owl, and Hermione got the impression that he had not been given many gifts before.

"She's very pretty," she said, noting how Harry flushed at the compliment.

"Our owls aren't nearly as pretty," added Draco. "And they're mean. Whenever we climb up to the owlery-"

"Owlery?"

The next hour was spent comparing Muggle and Wizarding houses. Both Malfoys were particularly impressed by muggle lighting, and Harry had a captivated audience as he explained how to use a light switch. He gently corrected Hermione's mispronunciation of "electricity", and gave a fascinating anecdote about a Muggle, a kite, and a lightning storm.

I have to tell Arthur , she thought, momentarily forgetting that she was angry with him. She smiled at the idea of the balding redhead running outside with a lightbulb in the the middle of a storm. It sounds just like him .

They were momentarily interrupted by a witch with a food trolley, and the three bought a mountain of sweets to eat while the siblings explained that their Manor was lit by torches and floating candles. Harry asked lots of questions about their parents, which they answered happily.

The conversation drifted to Hogwarts, and Hermione and Draco eagerly shared everything they knew about the castle.

"There's really a Giant Squid?" Harry gaped at them as he worked his way through his fifth chocolate frog. One of the chicken sandwiches that Narcissa (or, more accurately, Mardie) had packed lay half-eaten on his lap. "In the lake!?"

"Yep," confirmed Hermione with a smug expression. "Her name is Dottie."

Draco nodded solemnly, "Hermione named her when-"

He trailed off as the door to their compartment slid open, and a round-faced boy with an anxious expression looked in.

"Excuse me, sorry to interrupt. Have you seen a toad?"

There was a chorus of "No", and the boy's face crumpled. "Oh."

"We'll help you look though," volunteered Hermione. She dusted the crumbs from her lap, and got to her feet. "Turnip is really good at finding things."

"You don't want their help," said a grudging voice from behind Neville.

Neville looked back in surprise, and in doing so he moved enough for Hermione to see the redhaired boy who had spoken. To her surprise, the boy was glaring at her with so much venom that it made the hairs on the back of her neck stick up. There was a smudge of dirt on his nose, and his clothes were worn and patched.

"I'm sorry," she said, forcing a polite tone, "I don't think we've met. I'm Hermione Malfoy-"

"I know who you are," spat the boy. "And I know that you can never trust a Malfoy." He pushed his way past Neville, who was now grimacing apologetically at the other three, and made a show of looking all over the compartment.

Hermione noted with some satisfaction that the boy did not appear to know who Harry was. She was certain that if he had known he would not have tapped impatiently at his feet, as if Trevor were being held hostage behind Harry's muggle shoes.

Turnip growled irritably when the boy made to push him aside- presumably to check that the wubble was not sitting on the poor toad. The dog was now changing swiftly to orange-red as Hermione felt her anger broil inside of her.

"You've got something on your face," the boy remarked as he glared cooly at Draco, who scrubbed at the lipstick stain quickly.

"Satisfied?" she snapped when, at last, the boy had finished snooping through the compartment. "Or would you like to examine our trunks as well?"

For a moment she thought that the boy would take her up on the sarcastic offer, but Neville's anxious call of "Ron!" seemed to make him change his mind.

"That toad had better be unharmed when we find it," he growled, staring menacingly at her.

Draco, who had up until this point remained silent, jumped to his feet. "Are you threatening my sister?" Two spots of pink appeared on either of his cheeks, and his eyes were shiny with fury. He reached for his wand, and Hermione felt a jolt of surprise as Harry did the same.

Neville now had a hand around Ron's elbow, and was doing his best to pull the boy from the compartment.

"S-sorry!" He muttered, blushing furiously as he pushed Ron away from them.

The silence that permeated the compartment once Neville and Ron had left was suffocating. Hermione could feel her cheeks burning from embarrassment and confusion. She had never met the boy before, and she was certain that she had never done anything to cause the hateful look in his eyes.

Her thoughts were interrupted by Draco's voice.

"- I'll bet he's a Weasley. All the Weasley's have red hair, and Father says they're, well, a bit different from the rest of the old families."

"Old families?" Harry leaned closer, his face practically glowing with curiosity.

The boys became engrossed in a conversation about wizarding family trees- something Hermione would normally love to talk about, except that she was too surprised to think about anything other than the boy.

Could that awful, rude boy be one of Arthur's children? There was a resemblance, but she could never imagine Arthur looking at her like that. She pulled Turnip close, resting her chin on his soft head, and glowered at nothing in particular.

Slowly, the sky darkened, and the three changed into their school robes. The uneasiness ebbed, and was replaced by excitement. Soon she would be sitting at the Slytherin table with Draco, and maybe even Harry. Her parents would be so proud of her, and she knew she would help Slytherin win the House Cup at the end of the year.

With these thoughts running through her head she kissed Turnip goodbye (Uncle Albus had already warned her that Turnip was not allowed in the sorting) and promised to see her in a few hours.

"You'll see the Slytherin common room and dormitories before I do," she whispered, feeling as if Turnip could understand every word, "If there's a bed by a window will you claim it for us? Uncle Severus says that we can see the Giant Squid from the windows sometimes."

Turnip gave a little bark, which Hermione took to be a 'yes'. With a huge smile on her face, she joined Harry and Draco in the crowd of first-years that followed Hagrid. They shared a boat across the lake- joined by Theodore Nott, who looked as if he would be sick the whole ride.

"It's beautiful," breathed Harry when the castle came into view. Draco nodded his agreement, his mouth hanging open.

"You've seen it before," teased Hermione, giving her brother a nudge.

He grinned at her, "Yes, but never at night!"

She laughed, but had to agree that the effect was stunning. The castle looked equal parts stately, spooky, and inviting. The candlelit windows were reflected in the lake water, and when they clambered out of the boats Hermione was struck by how big the castle seemed.

Hagrid led them to a tall, strict-looking woman who introduced herself as Professor McGonagall. As McGonagall gave an impressive speech about rules and House points, Hermione could feel someone looking at her. She turned to see Ron's eyes glinting in the candlelight, a scowl on his face.

Unconsciously, she edged closer to her brother. Some part of her understood that this boy had decided that she was the enemy, and while she itched to put him in his place ( how DARE he judge her before he even knew her! ) she was keenly aware that she needed to make a good impression on her first day. Besides, Slytherins take care of their own, as Uncle Severus alway said. When she was safely settled in Slytherin no one would harm her. Especially not a dirty-faced brat.

Then the first-years were being led through the Great Hall, and all of Hermione's being was rapt with attention. While the other students 'ooh'-ed over the Sorting hat, she drank in the starry ceiling. Of all the rooms in Hogwarts that she had been privileged with entering, this was her favorite. The candles flickered excitedly over the long tables, and hundreds of eyes shimmered back at her.

She listened to the Sorting Hat's song with a strange delight. It wasn't everyday that she was in the presence of talking garments. The line "You'll make your real friends" resonated with her. While she was very close to her brother and her parents, she had never been the sort of girl who surrounded herself with friends. The idea of having someone else to talk to was welcomed, and she glanced hopefully at the prestigious table of Slytherins.

At the staff table she saw Dumbledore grin at her. There was a strange twinkling in his eye, as if she were a prize pig he had spent years fattening up- and market day had finally come. It made an uncomfortable feeling grow between her stomach and her throat. She gave an involuntary shiver, and decided that her imagination was running wild again.

Then the ceremony began.

Hermione felt a tingle of excitement as the first student walked nervously to the stool and allowed the battered hat to be placed upon her head.

When the hat gave a great cry of "HUFFLEPUFF!" Hermione could not help but smile at the enthusiastic claps and grins that met the student as she joined their table.

Her eyes wandered over to the Slytherin table, where the much more subdued student clapped politely- their expressions bored. Would they be excited when she joined their table?

She decided that it didn't matter. Draco would be there with her, and she knew nearly everyone in Slytherin anyway- their parents had forced them to socialize since their infancy. Severus would be glad, even if he didn't show it outwardly she knew that the man was fond of her.

Looking sideways up at him, she was surprised to see that he was looking back at her. Only his gaze wasn't warm or encouraging, as she had expected. He was watching her as if he expected her to burst into tears at any moment.

But why? She puzzled over this, feeling as if he knew something that she didn't know.

She was pulled out of her thoughts, however, as Draco clasped her hand.

"I'm next!" He whispered excitedly, his face glowing.

McGonagall's voice cried high across the hall, "Draco Malfoy!"

He strode towards the stool proudly, flashing a smile at her as he took a seat. The hat barely brushed the top off his head when it shouted out-

"HUFFLEPUFF!"

For a moment, Hermione thought that she had misheard. But the look of shock on her brother's face told her that she had not.

McGonagall gently pushed the boy towards the Hufflepuff table, who were greeting him just as enthusiastically as they had the other new Hufflepuffs.

As he sat down, his eyes met hers, and she felt a pang as she noticed how worried he looked. She forced herself to grin broadly at him, and made a show of clapping loudly.

This seemed to comfort him somewhat, and he gave a small smile as an older boy clapped him on the back.

"Hermione Malfoy!"

This was it. The moment she had been waiting for. She felt as if she were floating towards the stool as she took a seat on the stool and waited for the hat to put her in the only house she had ever dreamed of being sorted into.

Hermione Malfoy. Hmm. Interesting… Very interesting.

Hermione's brows knitted together as the hat mused in it's strange, drawling voice.

Of all the students I've sorted in the last few decades, few have been as steadfastly assured as you about their placement. Even the Slytherins have their doubts- though most forget the moment I shout- Curious. Very curious. You have the pride- oh ho! I can see that plainly. Shrewd, yes, very. Cunning, yes. Traditional- well I think so. Resourceful, anyone can see that. Ambitious… well, I would be surprised if you weren't Minister one day…

So why is it taking so long? Thought Hermione. If the hat was so certain that she held all of the qualities, why didn't it say that she belonged in Slytherin?

Ravenclaw would be an excellent fit. You certainly are intelligent, and I think that it would provide the perfect atmosphere for you- but you don't like that, do you? No, I can see that wouldn't work. You would be far too restless in Ravenclaw. Knowledge for you is more a tool than a prize-

Nor would you be a good fit for Hufflepuff. Your brother, now he was a perfect fit. Very family-oriented, that boy. But others have great plans for you, Hermione Malfoy, and I can see that their scheming has already left an imprint on your mind. No, Hufflepuff is not correct.

But Gryffindor…

The hat grew silent, and for a moment Hermione was convinced that she had broken it. A cold trickle of sweat was crawling down her spine.

Finally, the hat spoke again. Bravery suits you. You are very stubborn, and you've got nerve. I think your friend will be annoyed when she finds out- which suits me just fine. She said some rather nasty things during her own sorting-

Hermione was too panicked by the implication that she might not be placed in Slytherin that she did not register the last part of that statement. "I'm going to be a Slytherin!" She said out loud, clenching her hands into fists.

And you would be an excellent fit in Slytherin. But I am forced to maintain the strict regulations that the founders placed on their houses, and Salazar Slytherin was adamant that only the Pureblood children should be allowed in his house.

Bile filled Hermione's throat.

Unfortunately, your drop of purity does not negate the fact that your birth parents were Muggles-

"I'm a Malfoy," she whispered, "My parents are Lucius and Narcissa-" her voice broke, and she felt the hot sting of tears in the corners of her eyes.

I can see very well who your parents are. I have no doubt that you're a Malfoy- And you will be the first Malfoy that I've ever placed in-

" GRYFFINDOR! "

He shouted the last word, and the hall burst into applause. The hat was pulled from her head, and she looked up into McGonagall's approving face.

"Th-there's been a mistake," she squeaked, trying very hard not to cry.

McGonagall shook her head, and said gently, "There are no mistakes. Welcome to Gryffindor, Miss Malfoy."

Hermione felt as if the floor were about to fall from below her feet as she staggered to the Gryffindor table. A tall redheaded boy wearing a Prefect badge smiled encouragingly at her as she took a seat. She was too ashamed to look at her brother. Instead, she stared at the cutlery in front of her, her vision clouding with tears.

She was vaguely aware of Harry taking a seat beside her, and of a snide voice whispering " I can't believe that she's in Gryffindor! " She didn't need to look up to know that the voice belonged to Ron.

She sat in misery as food appeared on the golden plates before her. The smell was delicious, but her stomach churned at the thought of eating. This should have been the happiest night of her life. She should have been sitting with her fellow Slytherins, sharing a knowing smile with Uncle Severus, and teasing Draco about who would earn more House points.

Instead, she was surrounded by strangers. Loud strangers who had no qualms about spilling pumpkin juice all over the table.

It was a relief when the Prefect- Percy- led them all up the ever-changing stairs to Gryffindor tower.

There was a party planned, but Hermione headed straight up the stairs to the girl's dormitory. She had no desire to spend any more time than was absolutely necessary with her house-mates.

Pushing past the door that read "First Years" she was instantly met with a dark blue-almost black- flash of fur. Turnip gave a little whine as he jumped at her, licking her hands and pawing at her knees excitedly.

"Hello," she rasped. Her voice was thick with emotion, and she struggled not to cry as she looked around her new home.

The room was spacious and circular. There were three four poster beds with scarlet hangings, and she sighed in relief when she found that hers was next to the window. She undressed quickly, and crawled into bed. After making sure that the hangings were pulled tightly shut, she snuggled down into the soft covers.

The smell of the freshly laundered bed linens filed her nose as she buried her face against the pillow. Turnip, who always sensed when she was distressed, stretched out beside her. Gently, he licked the back of her hand.

In the safety of her new bed, the misery of the evening poured out. It started silently- with hot tears coursing down her cheeks. Her eyes, wide and unblinking, cast frantically around for something to focus on. Then they landed on the

Then the sobs began. Sometimes short and shallow, sometimes long and wrenching from somewhere deep inside, her cries filled the dormitory. She felt as if she couldn't catch her breath. How could this have happened? She would have understood if she hadn't had the traits, if she wouldn't have been a proper fit… but hadn't the hat said she did? To be rejected because her birth parents were muggles…

She felt a flash of hatred for them then- those muggles who brought her into the world and cursed her with their blood. Her real parents were pureblood, and absolutely perfect. If she had the power she would-

The hatred faded just as suddenly as it had come, and Hermione was left feeling worse than before. Her throat ached and burned. She heard Turnip give a low, mournful whine, and felt something in her break.

"I'm sorry!" she cried, wrapping her arms around Turnip and pulling him closer. Her tears fell faster than ever, and she sobbed uncontrollably. Nothing would ever be ok again, she was sure of it!

Then, a soft voice from deep in her mind purred, " Hush, little dove. I'm here. you're going to be alright."

Chapter Text

There was no moon that night. The windows of Malfoy Manor were dark save for one. In the uppermost room a single candle shivered violently in the wind.

The occupants of the room sat motionless, staring expectantly at the open window. Two empty bottles of elf made wine sat on the table between them, and a third lay half-empty on its side. A pool had formed below it, and the only sound was the steady dripping of the wine onto the floor. Narcissa Malfoy, who had once punished an elf for tracking soot into the garden-the garden!- did not care that the deep burgundy liquid was staining her white rug. She was too intent on watching the dark sky for any sign of movement.

Her husband was staring at the four boxes on the floor. The first was full of shimmering green things- A fresh set of Slytherin robes for each child, scarves and mittens emblazoned with their names, sweets in silver and green, and two "shifting quills" that turned into silver snakes when not in use.

The second box was full of the same things- but in bronze and blue for Ravenclaw. Hufflepuff yellow poked out of the third box, and a bright eyed quill-turned-badger peered over the edge at them.

The fourth box remained sealed. Lucius was certain that it would not be needed, but he had agreed to be prepared for anything.

"It should have come by now," whispered Narcissa, her eyes finding his in the near-darkness. "You don't suppose something happened on the train?"

"No," Lucius quashed that line of thinking before it had time to take flight. "We would have been notified. Severus must be busy- it is the first night, after all. I'm sure some of his new students are homesick."

He picked up his wine glass and swirled the contents.

They were in "The Lookout", a favorite room of Hermione and Draco's. When they were younger they would hole up for hours in the tiny room- pretending that they were Clothilde and Harris- the two legendary generals from the first Goblin Rebellion. Of course, then Hermione decided that Goblins should be treated as equals (Merlin, where did the child get these ideas?) and the room became less a replica of the front lines and more of a clubhouse.

Several overlarge bookshelves were crowded with books and various projects. A model ship from Draco's pirate obsession, a miniature Sphinx from when Hermione decided that she would be a curse-breaker, books of every shape, size and subject.

There was a poster of Young Morgana- Hermione's favorite childhood book character. Lucius was really quite impressed by how much the franchise had been able to pry out of him. And of course Draco had to have an equally impressive poster of Young Merlin. The two legendary figures smiled challengingly at each other from opposite sides of the room.

But Lucius eyes kept wandering to the silk Slytherin banner Hermione had discovered in the attic. It had been his grandfather's, and his daughter had loved it ever since she had first laid eyes on it nine years earlier. He remembered how she had run excitedly into his study, interrupting an important meeting.

Papa! Papa! Look what I found! Can I have Papa? Oh please say yes!

He hoped she would get in! More than anything he hoped his little girl would be given the one thing she had hoped for years. He raked his hand through his hair, and gave an impatient sigh.

"Stop fidgeting," commanded Narcissa, her eyes fixed on the window. "You're as bad as Draco."

"Draco's as bad as me," he retorted, smiling teasingly at her.

She made no move to indicate that she had heard him, and he marvelled at her ability to stare at one spot without blinking for so long.

It was her nervousness that made him feel so on edge. Her face, though beautiful as ever, was tense and eerie. The candle cast strange shadows across her pale skin, and the wine left burgundy stains across her lips. The effect was vampiric.

Suddenly, she reached out and grasped his arm so tightly that the resulting bruise lasted for more than a week.

"There!"

He saw it too. A dark shape moving speedily across the sky. "Thank Merlin," he breathed in relief. At least the knowing would be less anxious than the last few hours.

Severus' owl swooped in gracefully, deposited the letter in Narcissa's lap, and hopped back through the window before they could so much as thank it.

Not that they cared.

There was a sound of ripping parchment as Narcissa tore through the envelope. Her hands shook as she held up the parchment and read it. Then, her eyes drifted shut. Wordlessly, she thrust the letter at Lucius.

In Severus' neat handwriting were the words:

Draco is in Hufflepuff.

Hermione is is Gryffindor.

"He might've at least written a greeting," grumbled Lucius, trying to break the tension that had spread between them.

Narcissa's eyes opened, and found his. "How could this happen?" she asked, her eyes glossy with unshed tears. "After everything-"

"Well, we knew something like this might happen," he said grimly. "I can't say that I'm thrilled, but there was always something a little too… shiny , about Draco. I think we need to force ourselves to come to terms with it as best we can."

There was a moment of silence, wherein she fixed him with a look of mingled shock and disgust. "You think this is about Draco?!" She growled.

Surprise etched across his features, and he suddenly felt as if he should be speaking in careful, calm tones. "It isn't?"

The look on her face suggested that he must be quite the idiot. "Lucius, Draco has hosted a secret birthday party for Mardie every year since he was four."

"Hermione-"

"Doesn't keep anything she does for social justice a secret. She would do something like that as a demonstration, Draco does it because he loves Mardie and thinks it's unfair that elves don't have birthday parties. That, and his lifelong ambition is to be a Healer." She smiled tolerantly at him, "I can't believe you didn't see this coming."

Her face lost all mirth, "But Hermione is Slytherin to the core. There is absolutely no reason why she shouldn't be sorted- oh!"

Feeling as if he was missing something, Lucius leaned closer, "What is it?"

Her brows furrowed, "He wouldn't."

"Darling, if you don't share what you're thinking I can't follow your train of thought."

Her eyes shot to his, "What if Dumbledore tampered with the hat? Made it so that she couldn't get into Slytherin?"

"That would make sense," he mused, running his palm over the worn arm of his chair. "If she's in Gryffindor there's less of a chance for her to decide that the Dark Lord's cause is the better one."

"And he's alienated her from her peers so that she'll be more pliable to his offer of mentorship!" Narcissa spat the words as if they tasted sour. "The Slytherins will mistrust her because she's in Gryffindor, and her House-mates will turn on her because she's a Malfoy."

He considered her for a moment, "That might not be true. Hermione is very intelligent, and genuinely likeable. She'll make friends. There are certainly several Pureblood Gryffindor families that would accept her."

"Such as?"

"Well, none come to mind right now, but I'm certain they exist!"

She shot him a look full of contempt. "We should have sent her to Beauxbatons."

He picked an imaginary piece of lint from his sleeve. "Dumbledore would never have allowed that. He would have stepped in and taken her out of our custody as soon as we sent the owl."

It started to rain, and the drops spattered onto them with a soft plink!

"We should never have taken her."

Lucius flinched at her tone, and felt something twist inside of him at the thought of never having known his daughter. Without thinking, his eyes returned to the Slytherin banner. "Do you really mean that?"

Her voice was strained, "Of course not. I love Hermione almost as much as I love Draco, and we both know that Draco would have been Dumbledore's pawn if we hadn't adopted…" She picked up the wine bottle and smashed it against the window pane.

Tiny fragments of glass scattered over the floor, coated in the burgundy liquid.

Narcissa's voice rose hollow and deadly above the rain, "I think it's time to play a bigger part in this war."

XX

Hermione jolted out of bed so quickly that she got tangled in the bed hangings. She gave a yelp as she landed hard on one knee, and tumbled gracelessly to the ground.

The next thing she knew, she was staring up at Turnip's puzzled face while the sound of laughter filled her… head?

" This is too delicious," purred the voice. " I'd nearly forgotten what fun you are."

I've gone mad , thought Hermione, her heart thumping in panic.

The voice, it seemed, found this even more hilarious than Hermione's fall. There was another burst of laughter.

New tears filled Hermione's eyes as she imagined herself being locked away in St. Mungo's for the rest of her life. She'd had such dreams! She was going to be Minister, and now…

" Oh don't start that," sniffed the voice in a less jovial tone, " That's no fun at all. If I wanted self-pity I could stay in my own head."

But I've gone mad , thought Hermione bleakly. She figured she might as well talk to the voice that heralded the fall of her hopes and dreams.

There was a snort, " You're not mad , Doveling. Far from it, I'd say."

Then why am I talking to myself?

" You're not. You're talking to me."

Hermione sat up, rubbing her aching knee. Isn't it the same thing?

" Not at all. You're you, and I'm me."

That sounds an awful lot like something I'd tell myself to convince myself that I'm not mad.

The voice was getting impatient with this line of thinking, it seemed. " Fine, you're mad. Happy?"

Hermione frowned, and reached up to stroke Turnip's ear.

" I always imagined that you'd be slightly happier to hear me again." the voice sulked, " It's been nearly six years. I know you can't be the same girl I spoke to last, but you must have missed me a little bit."

Feeling somewhat embarrassed, as if she had unintentionally shunned a friend of her parents, Hermione asked, I'm sorry, have we met before?

There was a long silence, in which the only sound that could be heard was Turnip's panting.

" Yes. We've met before. We used to be great friends."

There was something vaguely familiar about the voice. Something almost soothing. It was as if Hermione were looking at something through a thick fog- something she was trying to identify.

Bella?

There was a jolt of emotion not her own- something tingly and excited that made the hair on her arms stand on end.

" You know me?"

Hermione felt a stab of regret, No. Not really. But I know of you. I overheard my parents talking about you when I was younger.

" Nothing good, I imagine."

I don't know, I didn't hear much beyond my name- and then yours. Papa saw me and changed the subject.

The voice, Bella, seemed disappointed by this. Hermione could not help feeling as if she had let down whoever the voice belonged to.

I'm sorry.

" Don't be sorry, Dove. It's not your doing. You didn't see it coming, but if you had I imagine you would have felt as poorly as I did. You were quite attached to me."

See what coming?

There was another rush of emotions, but this time Hermione recognized the anger that boiled deep in her stomach.

I've felt that before.

" Felt what?"

That feeling. The anger that wasn't mine. My parents call it the 'unexplainables.'

There was another snort, this one much more derisive than the other. " Liars. They've been trying to keep you from me. They, and that crackpot old fool Dumbledore took you away from me-"

Why?

" Why what?"

Why would they try to keep you away from me?

But already Hermione felt as if she knew the answer. She felt as if she had been caught doing something very naughty. Turnip's fur was changing before her eyes from blue to orange, and she summoned up the energy to say the words-

I'm not supposed to know about you.

" But you already do," came the hot retort. " And besides, none of that matters. We've been tied together- nothing can change that. Nothing at all."

The way she said those words, Nothing at all , made Hermione feel very small. Her throat grew thick and painful, and fresh tears poured down her cheeks. Turnip's fur was now a swirl of orange, blue and black. He looked as if someone had chucked several cans of paint at him.

" Stop that! You're ruining everything!"

Hermione made no reply, she simply sobbed into the velvet hangings.

" Don't you realize that I've been dreaming of this moment for years. You're supposed to tell me that you've missed me terribly, and that you hate old Dumbledore for what he did. I had a revenge plan and everything!"

Nothing could be said to that. Hermione wanted to apologize for not remembering, but fear overrode all of her other emotions.

" Why were you crying?"

Wh-what?

There was a sigh, " I asked why you were crying before you went into hysterics about me?"

Oh , Hermione wiped her eyes, and tried to focus on the conversation. If she ignored the fact that there was no one else in the room, it was almost the same as speaking to any other adult. The- the hat put me in Gryffindor.

" No!"

Yes , she affirmed miserably. The hat said that Slytherin wouldn't take me because my birth parents were Muggles. Should she be telling that to the strange voice in her head?

" Did it now? Well, well. I didn't know old Dumbly… But why are you crying, this is great news!"

It is?

There was an affirmative hum. " Do you really want to be pampered and adored in Slytherin? It'll make you lazy and overly confident. No, the little girl I knew did her best when something was working against her. You're a fighter- and this is the best practice to get you ready for what's coming!"

I don't want to fight anymore.

" That's why I'm here. To help keep you up until you find your footing."

Hermione frowned. But I'm not supposed to-

Let's make a deal then. We'll do everything on your terms. I won't talk to you about anything you don't want me to, and I promise that I'll never lie to you. Only please don't shut me out again. I've missed you terribly these past few years.

These words were like a balm to the lonely, heartbroken little girl. And you won't ask me to do anything… bad? Her entire body told her this was a terrible idea. She should be heading straight to Uncle Alb- to Professor Dumbledore to tell him. But that voice- it was like being wrapped in a warm blanket after a long walk in the rain.

When the answer came, Bella's voice was strained, as if she were trying very hard not to laugh. " No, I won't ask you to do anything bad. I'll be the sweetest, goodest, most virtuous friend you've ever had."

...Ok.

There was that strange tingling once again. And for a moment Hermione could have sworn she felt her stomach begin to warm, but the feeling was gone in a flash.

" Now, get ready for bed before your fellow firsties come in and think you're the kind of girl who sobs into her bedding."

Hermione did so immediately. She tucked her wand beneath her pillow, and pulled the now-grey Turnip to her as she slid beneath the covers. Exhaustion weighed heavily on her, and for a moment she wondered if she had hallucinated the last few minutes.

Then, the voice poured into her head once more. " Now, my little doveling, have I ever told you the story of how your Mother nearly died trying to catch a pixie in our garden?"

No, Hermione's thoughts came sluggishly as she tried to stay awake.

" She somehow got it into her mind that a pixie would make an excellent pet- idiot. And there was a nest of them in the woods behind our childhood home. Have you ever- well, nevermind that now, we have plenty of time to catch up. Anyway, one night she snuck out of our room…"

Bellatrix continued to speak until she was certain Hermione was sleeping. Then, with a contented sigh, she watched Hermione's dreams float through the girl's mind. For the first time in years she felt as if she could breathe.

And this time, my little dove, she vowed, I am not going anywhere.

Chapter Text

The gardens of Malfoy Manor were considered the finest in Wizarding Britain. This was partially due to Narcissa Malfoy's keen eye for beauty, color, and expensive florals; and partially due to the team of "garden elves" that Lucius gave her on their first anniversary. The three house elves had been specially trained in the gardening arts, and could do anything with a plot of land and a few seeds.
It was no surprise that it was a favorite spot for weddings. At least once a year some relation of the Malfoys showered Narcissa with gifts and casually requested to hold the ceremony in the gardens. Narcissa rarely approved, but every once in a while a lucky couple were permitted to use the gardens furthest from the house for the event.
Hermione, who was nearing the end of her second year in school, grinned as smoothed the silver dress robe. It was customary to wear your family colors to Pureblood Societal events, so she, Draco, and her father were all dressed in Malfoy silver.
Her mother, dressed in stunning robes of Malfoy silver and her original Black black, tied a green sash firmly around Hermione's waist.
"You're growing up so quickly," she said, smiling over Hermione's shoulder at their reflection in the mirror. "Stop that."
Grinning back, Hermione rested her cheek against her mother's, "Sorry, can't."
Her mother kissed her cheek gently, and then pulled away. "If anyone asks you why you haven't been at school-"
"I'll tell them it's because Father doesn't trust Professor Dumbledore to keep us safe." Hermione frowned at her reflection, "I wish you would let me go back," she sighed, "I'm going to fail my exams at this rate-"
"You won't," shot her mother, now working two goblin-made hair combs into Hermione's thick mane, "It's better to have you here, knowing you're safe. When the attacks on Muggleborns stop you can go back."
"Draco should go back, at the very least."
"That would raise questions too. You're safer here, away from that mess." Narcissa summoned a jar from an open chest on Hermione's bed, and began to spread something thick and sweet-smelling on Hermione's hair. Ringlets formed instantly.
I look like a doll, she thought.
"You look very pretty," countered the familiar voice in her head. A voice that was supposed to stay silent when they weren't alone.
"Stop that," Hermione growled.
Narcissa sighed, "I'm not pulling at all, darling. Just one more- there. All done." She closed the jar, and raked Hermione with an appraising eye. "Perfect," she said finally, breaking into a smile. "If we don't get five betrothal requests before day's end I'll be surprised."
A furious blush spread across Hermione's features, as Bellatrix howled with laughter in her head.
"Now, let's go find Draco and your father. Our guests will be arriving shortly."
The wedding of Priscilla Drew to Anthony Burke was lovely, traditional, and utterly boring. Hermione reflected later that she would have hated to be Priscilla. Instead of the focus being on the bride, it was on the hosts. All through the ceremony the guests twittered about the flowers- especially the softly glowing cherry blossoms that rained down on them from the glorious pink canopy above.
During the reception, more toasts were made to the host than the couple, and people kept coming up to them to say thank you.
"Why do they keep telling me I'm next?" whispered Hermione to her father.
He chuckled, and wrapped an arm around her, "Because they think my little lioness is going to settle for the first proposal she hears."
"Ugh. Why is it that when a girl grows breasts they think the only thing she cares about is marriage?"
Hermione privately thought that Bellatrix was right.
Draco, who was sitting on her other side, sighed audibly. Like Hermione, he too had been subjected to the contents of Narcissa's store of beauty products. His hair had been slicked against his head. There was so much gel in his hair that Hermione was grateful the day was cloudy. Had the sun been out, she was certain they would all surely have been blinded.
Glancing at him from the corner of her eye, Hermione smiled. She had missed being close to him. They spent as much time as they could together at Hogwarts, but unfortunately their schedules were so different that "as much time as they could" turned out to be a few hours during the weekend.
Since their forced absence from Hogwarts, Draco and Hermione had been each other's constant companions. They studied together (Narcissa had marched into Hogwarts right after they returned home and demanded copies of the Professors' lesson plans), played together, devised plans for their futures together… It was nearly like old times. Except that when they built a blanket fort in the corner of The Lookout- thus creating their customary 'secret-sharing hideaway'- Hermione found herself holding back the biggest secret she had. True, when she shared how lonely she was in Gryffindor, especially now that Harry was spending most of his time with the Weasley's, Draco felt it was a just trade for his confession of the crush he had on Professor McGonagall.
But guilt washed over Hermione every time she decided to keep her secret a little longer.
"He can't know," came the cool response. "Not yet. He'll tell Cissy."
Indignation caused Hermione's cheeks to pinken, and she forced a smile as her father glanced over to smile knowingly at her. She must have missed something that was said. We don't know that he would tell Mother, she contradicted. And stop reading my mind!
"I can't help it. Your thoughts are very loud today. Here I am, trying to sleep, and all you can do is angst."
They were still figuring out what Bellatrix could and could not 'see' in Hermione's mind. Most of her thoughts and memories were protected, especially if she used Occlumency (much to Bellatrix's disapproval). But her dreams could be very easily read, as could any train of thought that Hermione didn't shield first.
Of course, not even Occlumency could keep Bellatrix out completely. Although the imprisoned witch was incapable of reading Hermione's thoughts, she was still quite able to speak. On her more impatient days she was prone to singing obnoxious songs over and over until Hermione started 'talking' to her again.
Angst isn't a verb.
"It is when it's applied to teenagers."
Rolling her eyes, Hermione turned her eyes to the bride and groom. They were clasping hands for the binding ceremony, each was shooting ribbons from their wand to wrap over their joined hands.
Were you ever married? It was a tricky question, Hermione knew. While Bellatrix was perfectly happy to tell humiliating stories about Narcissa, and wax poetic about the glory of Lord Voldemort, she loathed talking about herself. Most conversations in that area lasted a few minutes before Hermione felt the same rolling unease in her stomach.
Apparently, Bellatrix was in a talkative mood today. "Yes. I think I still am."
Think?
"I was a much prettier bride though. They put my picture in the Prophet. Should have kept it, now that I think about it."
Who did you marry?
Bellatrix's annoyance shot through Hermione so unexpectedly that the brunette gasped. Her father glanced over questioningly, and she flashed him a smile. "Pretty," she whispered, nodding to where the ribbons around the bride and groom had begun to glow with golden light. Luckily, her father bought it, and turned his attention back to the ceremony.
Bellatrix's voice was edged with something hard when she finally answered the question. "Rodolphus LeStrange. What an idiot. It's thanks to that stupid halfwit that we got caught."
And sent to Azkaban? Asked Hermione carefully.
Bellatrix ignored her, "But I rarely saw him. He prefered the company of whores- oh, get over it, they exist- to his wife, and I would rather-" Apparently she decided that it was better not to finish that sentence, "Let's just say that the marriage was fruitless, and one day I intend to have it annulled."
Oh.
A laugh sounded in her head, "Not everything is romance and fluff, little dove. Most of life is vinegar. So it would be better to build up your tolerance now."
I have a pretty high tolerance now.
There was a fleeting feeling of warmth, and then it vanished. In its wake grew a frigid cold that raised goosebumps all over Hermione's skin.
I'm sorry.
There was a sigh, "Don't be, it's not your fault. It's never your fault."
XX
Bellatrix was always shivering, it seemed. It was the worst part of this place, the biting cold that stung but never numbed. Her bed, thankfully, had a warming charm. As did the thin woolen blanket that she wore as a cloak.
She sat on the foot of her bed in the tiny cell, feet tucked under her body for warmth. The steel door had a small circular window at the top, just large enough for someone to stick their wand-hand through. Maybe a ladle full of porridge or watery stew. On christmas they received a splash of weak tea and a hunk of dry fruitcake.
The walls were so close together that if she sat on her bed she could rest her shoulders against one wall, and press her feet flat against the other. the space between the edge of her bed and the wall was so small that she had to turn sideways to walk.
Today, she sat facing the barred window. There was no glass, so whenever it rained the water came pouring in. As a result, her cell was almost always damp, the foot of her bed nearly always soaked through. Mold had bloomed across the walls and ceiling. The sickly-sweet musk of mildew tainted the air and made her wheeze.
A red metal bowl sat on the windowsill, collecting drinking water. This was her most prized possession. It held her porridge in the morning, her stew in the evening, the daily rations of water they gave out at noon and at bedtime. It also collected rainwater for drinking during the day, because no person could live off of the splash of water twice a day that they received. When the stench of a life without bathing became too much she dunked a corner of her uniform in it and did her best to scrub herself clean. On her birthday each year she used it to wash her hair. When she lost her temper she threw it across the room, but always lamented the chips and scrapes in the enamel afterwards.
Slowly, she unfolded her legs and stood. The icy stone beneath her feet made her wince, but she was grateful to stand and shake the pins and needles from her limbs.
With shaking hands she pulled the red bowl to her, and drank thirstily from it. The water was cold and tasted of mold, but it soothed the itch of throat in her throat.
The movements caused the chapped skin of her hands to stretch painfully. Cracks that had recently scabbed over re-opened, and she hissed as new beads of blood pebbled across her knuckles.
Is everything ok?
She cursed privately. Although Hermione had not yet learned how to enter Bellatrix's mind (she was constantly grateful for that-the girl was scandalised far too easily) she was keenly aware of Bellatrix's emotions. "I'm fine, doveling. Just a little sore."
I'm sorry.
The corners of her lips quirked up into something resembling a smile. "Nevermind me. How is the wedding?"
Dull. Draco is chatting with some Quidditch player, Father is talking to the groom, and Mother hasn't left Mr. Gibbon's side for the last-
Head cocked to the side, Bellatrix interrupted, "The elder Gibbon or the younger?"
I'm not sure…
"Show me."
It was always a strange sensation to look through Hermione's eyes. It was very simple, but after years of imprisonment in the North Sea, surrounded by the mists and fog that came hand in hand with Dementors, Hermione's vibrant world seemed too… bright.
As Hermione twisted her head to take in the guests, Bellatrix zeroed in on her sister and her companion.
"The elder then. Hmm." What was Narcissa playing at? Edwin Gibbon had been one of the 'Grey Families' in the last war. Those who refused to side with either the Dark Lord or the Order of the Phoenix. It was well known that many of the Grey Families gave their allegience to Gibbon, and whomever he chose to ally with they surely would as well.
Something's happening, isn't it?
"Of course it is. Something's always happening. But this something is important to us."
Why?
"I don't know yet."
But for the first time since the charismatic Lord Voldemort kissed her hand and invited her to join his legion she felt her convinction waver. It happened so quickly that later that night, while Hermione dreamt of horseback riding through the woods, she denied it had ever happened. She was loyal to her lord. She would always be loyal.
But that did not change the fact that it had wavered.

Chapter Text

"I wish we could have stayed overnight," grumbled Draco as he and Hermione followed their parents into Cornelius Fudge's tent.
"I will not have my children sleeping amongst common criminals and thieves," Narcissa said sternly, reaching over to brush back some of Draco's hair.
"Oh ho, Narcissa!" Chuckled Fudge, "These 'criminals and thieves' are just your average Ministry Employees."
He turned his back before he could see the mocking smirk cross Narcissa's face. "That's exactly what I meant," she said quietly to Lucius.
"Play nice," he returned. "If you push, he might insist to host us overnight."
The two adults shared a look, and Hermione felt her brow knit in irritation. She hated it when they left her out of things.
They leave Draco out of these schemes too, pointed out Bellatrix. She had been in a much better mood since the end of the past school year, and it could be heard in her voice.
Sniffing, Hermione forced her face to return to its neutral state. "Draco doesn't care about the bigger picture," she retorted acidly, "the only things he cares about are Quidditch and his stupid Hufflepuff pride," the moment the words were out of her mouth she felt guilty. "And his family," she added hastily, cheeks pinking in shame.
As if her guilt was not bad enough, Draco chose that moment to nudge her affectionately. "Do you think Mrs. Fudge likes the color lavender?" he asked, waggling his brows at her.
They had come into the main sitting area of the Fudge's tent. Everything, from the shag carpet, to the tea cosy, to the hideous brooch at Mrs. Fudge's throat, was lavender.
Narcissa blinked, as if in shock, though the sugary smile never left her face.
"Your choice of decor is sublime," purred Lucius, kissing Mrs. Fudge's hand. Unsurprisingly, the older woman let out a shrill giggle and blushed.
"Oh, Lord Malfoy, you are too kind." She was seated at a table full of scones, sandwiches, and several plates of intricately molded chocolates.
Fudge pulled out a chair for Narcissa, and then for Hermione. Lucius and Draco took their seats as well, and Fudge sat down beside his wife. "Narcissa was just suggesting that our camp is full of criminals," he smiled at his wife, "She refuses to stay overnight."
"Why that's ridiculous!" Gushed the woman, using her wand to levitate the teapot over their cups. "We're safer than anywhere in Britain!" she said over the sound of pouring tea, "And Britain is the safest place in the world!"
"Ooh, she's in for it now," cackled Bellatrix, "Cissy hates when people tell her she's ridiculous."
Narcissa pulled herself up to her full height, and took a delicate sip of her tea. "Has anyone caught Sirius Black yet?"
Fudge, who had just taken a deep gulp of tea, choked and sputtered while his wife blushed a deep crimson.
Draco and Hermione exchanged glances. There were only four people who knew what she and Harry had done that night. Draco, because he was Hermione and Harry's best friend, Ron Weasley, because he had been present when Sirius and Pettigrew told their story, Dumbledore, because he had orchestrated the whole thing, and Bellatrix.
Mrs. Fudge decided to change the subject, "So, Draco, I hear that you are a chaser for Hufflepuff?"
"The best chaser in the school!" affirmed Hermione.
Draco shook his head, "Not yet, but I will be."
"And our Hermione is the top in her year, every year," boasted Lucius. He winked at Hermione over his scone.
"That's what I hear. What's it like to be the first Malfoy in Gryffindor?"
"Tell him you hate it."
I don't.
"Yes you do. Every day you wish you had been sorted into Slytherin."
But I don't hate it. At least I have Harry.
Bellatrix was silent at that. And a strange, hot feeling filled Hermione's ears.
"It's a wonderful house, and I'm proud to be a part of it." She pulled the jar of strawberry preserves closer to her, and selected a scone from one of the platters. Hopefully no one would talk to her is her mouth was full.
Her brother piped up, "Hermione's not the first Malfoy in Gryffindor. She's the third."
This is why I love him, Hermione told Bellatrix, unable to stop the grin that crossed her face.
Bellatrix was silent.
"Narcissa, you must try these chocolates. The Mexican Ambassador brought them to us."
Mrs. Fudge spent the better part of an hour telling the Malfoy's all about her experiences in Mexico. Her stories might have been interesting, were they told by someone else. But Mrs. Fudge punctuated every story with a shrill laugh, and after the third or fourth of such a laugh, Hermione felt as if she should do the world a service and rip Mrs. Fudge's vocal cords out herself.
Know any good silencing spells? She asked. When Bellatrix didn't answer, she felt a flicker of irritation. Are you going to be angry for the rest of the day?
Silence.
Hermione let out a growl of frustration, and all five heads turned to look at her.
"Sorry," she said, blushing furiously, "It just occurred to me that Bulgaria might have a chance of winning with Viktor Krum on their side."
The adults laughed at that, and talk turned to Quidditch and the upcoming match.
Half an hour later, Mrs. Fudge insisted that "The children" be allowed to take in the sights of their camp.
"Afterall," she added as she summoned a crystal decanter from what Hermione assumed was the kitchen of the tent, "It's not every day that you can take in the eccentricities of lesser cultures."
Draco's hand digging into her arm was the only thing that kept Hermione from asking what, exactly, Mrs. Fudge meant by that remark.
The siblings escaped from the tent into the fresh air of the field. Tents of every shape and color surrounded them, and Draco happily pulled her through the chaos. Most of the older witches and wizards had decided that now was the perfect time to pull out the firewhiskey and butterbeer. Laughter roared around them, and frazzled Ministry officials darted here and there.
"You cannot sell those!" shouted a particularly pale-looking official to one of the vendors. A large purple bruise was sprouting over his jawline, and he shook a handful of pamphlets at the woman.
The sour-faced woman was carrying a box of shackled garden gnomes. The poor creatures had been painted green, and wore miniature uniforms in the style of the Ireland team. The sign on the box read:
"Lucy's Lucky Leprechauns! Guaranteed luck enhancers- 15 Galleons."
Her eyes roamed over the creatures, and one of them scowled unhappily at her. Scrunching up his face, he blew a raspberry at her.
As if he sensed Hermione's outrage at the situation, Draco tugged at her elbow, "The Ministry will take care of it," he said from the corner of his mouth.
Would they really? Hermione had her doubts that "Lucy" would be punished with more than a slap on the wrist and confiscation of the gnomes. She opened her mouth to tell him so, but to her surprise he let go of her.
"But I forgot, you're a headstrong Gryffindor now. There's no telling you what to do."
It wasn't fair. Her cheeks pinked slightly as she scowled at him. "I am not a headstrong Gryffindor." She spat, straightening her summer robes. They were soft blue with small pink roses. She did not consider herself the type who enjoyed floral patterns, but her mother had designed it herself, and Hermione had to admit that it looked good on her. Much better than red or gold.
As Draco pulled her to watch several fire-dancers, she scowled at his socks. Their mother would never allow him to wear his badger pride in an outrageous, flamboyant way (he had once asked for yellow robes that had flying badgers on them- Narcissa had been scandalized) but she had never explicitly forbidden him from wearing the socks Mrs. Weasley knit for him every holiday. Today they had badgers that frolicked happily across his ankles. How he had been able to acclimate so readily to a house that wasn't Slytherin was beyond her. Had Mrs. Weasley ever sent her Gryffindor socks (not that she had- and Hermione refused to feel left out because of that) Hermione would have sent them promptly back.
Twelve years of being best friends and siblings had made Draco extra aware to Hermione's bad moods, and he spent a large part of the afternoon cheering her up. They found a Honeydukes employee selling ice mice and a frozen drink that changed colors. It was called "Bertie Botts Glacier Extract", and despite Hermione's misgivings Draco purchased two and insisted she try it.
It turned out to be quite good. They quickly found that it changed flavors along with the color. Draco took delight in calling out each of the new flavors, drawing interested glances from the witches and wizards around them.
"Rose!" He chirped, sucking down some of the vibrant pink liquid as they moved past a group of young children chasing a charmed dragon puppet. Every few steps it would stop and roar- showering the children with chocolates and brightly wrapped sweets.
"Hello Draco!" A pretty blonde girl Hermione vaguely recognized waved happily at them.
He smiled, and waved back, "Hi Hannah. Cheering for Ireland?"
Nodding so hard Hermione was certain her head would fly off, Hannah tapped the shamrock pinned to her robes, "My sister has a potion that will make our hair turn green. Would you like some?"
He shook his head, "No thanks, I don't want 'Mione to feel left out." He elbowed her playfully.
Hannah drew closer, her smile never dimming, "We have plenty for everyone," she offered. Giving Hermione's hair a calculating look, she added, "We might need to use extra, because your hair is darker, but there's enough for all of us."
"Thank you," Hermione tried not to laugh, "but I must refuse."
"Mother would kill her," said Draco, slurping his now blue drink, "Peppermint!"
"She considers my hair to be her personal battle in life," sighed Hermione. She took a drink of the now-orange liquid, and smiled as the taste of mango filled her mouth.
Giving the glossy brown curls a significant look, Hannah responded, "But your hair is so pretty!"
"Only because Mother has sacrificed half of her soul to Morgana to make it that way," Hermione stated seriously. She could have lived for a year on what Narcissa had spent so far this summer on hair care products.
Hannah patted her own hair, which was slightly frizzy from the heat, "Oh."
The Dragon chose that moment to spew chocolates and sweets all over the three teenagers, saving Hermione from having to recover their awkward conversation.
"We'd better be getting back," said Draco, tugging on Hermione's elbow. "We're supposed to have dinner with the Minister, we don't want to be late."
"Oh, er. See you later then," said Hannah, patting her hair again. "It was really nice to see you."
"Pepper." Said Draco as the drink turned red. "Bye, Hannah!"
They left her there, patting her hair and staring forlornly after them.
"She likes you," whispered Hermione as they made their way back to the Fudge's tent.
Draco shrugged, "Hufflepuff's a nicer House than most. We're all friends."
Incredulously, Hermione arched an eyebrow, "I think she likes you as more than a friend."
"What, Hannah? No, she doesn't."
Hermione let the subject drop, but suddenly felt as if she should have allowed Hannah to dye her hair green.
XX
Dinner was an exciting affair. In their absence both the Bulgarian Minister and Ludo Bagman had arrived. Barty Crouch was there for a time, but he ducked out halfway through the soup course, and did not return until dessert was nearly over.
Fudge personally escorted the party to the top box, where Hermione's stomach dropped as soon as she saw who she was sharing it with.
There, in the front row, was Ronald Weasley.
Although the Weasleys had all accepted Draco (even Ron had decided that the boy was trustworthy, on account of his Hufflepuffness) most were still quite suspicious of Hermione. Ron went as far as to verbally accuse Hermione both of being the Heir of Slytherin in their second year, and of hand-delivering Neville's list of passwords in their third. The fact that Hermione had been ushered away midway through the second year did nothing to stop his suspicions.
Doing her best to ignore him, she gave polite greetings to the rest of the Weasleys, and beamed when she saw Harry. She made a point to sit directly behind the messy-haired wizard, and smiled smugly when Ron scowled in her direction.
"Hello Harry, having a nice summer?"
He grinned, "It's getting better. Why are you here? I thought you hated Quidditch?"
Resisting the urge to roll her eyes, she lowered her voice, "Politics," she jerked her head towards Cornelius Fudge, "When the Minister invites you, it would be rude to stay home."
"I see. Well I hope you don't find it too boring."
"Of course she will," Draco joined the conversation. "I'm surprised she didn't bring a book."
Turning red, Hermione whispered, "Mother wouldn't let me." Her face burned darker as the boys burst into laughter.
"Nice to hear children having a good time," remarked Fudge in a fatherly voice.
The talk turned to Quidditch, and with Hermione out of the conversation Ron felt comfortable enough to engage in some friendly banter with Draco about whose House team would win the Quidditch cup this year.
Do you care about Quidditch? She asked out of boredom. She was not surprised when no response came, but she could not help feeling annoyed.
The event began, and when it came time for Bulgaria to display their mascots, Hermione could not help but gasp.
The most beautiful women she had ever seen were dancing on the pitch. She felt as if her lungs had collapsed as she watched them spin and dance. Their hair was so lovely, and she felt certain that if she were to draw nearer they would smell like fresh strawberries. She had to do it, she had to get closer-
"Boys, no!"
Hermione blinked, feeling as if she were being snapped back into her body. The Weasley boys and Harry were all in various stages of climbing over the edge of the box. Ron had one leg over, and was gazing mournfully below as Mr. Weasley yanked them back into their seats.
Draco laughed openly at them.
And Bellatrix snickered in Hermione's head.
"Your welcome," whispered Draco.
Still feeling slightly dazed, Hermione asked, "For what?"
"For saving your reputation. Halfway through that little spectacle you started to rise along with that lot, and I pulled you back down. Imagine how embarrassed you would feel if you had been caught climbing over the cage like some uncontrollable-" he could not seem to find something shocking enough, so he dissolved into laughter again. Luckily, it drowned out the next Veela display.
A strange feeling entered Hermione's stomach. She felt a blush spread over her face, and was so distracted by her inner thoughts that she missed the entire match. The next thing she knew, everyone in the box was standing up, clapping and cheering as the Irish team's Leprechauns flew overhead.
She started to get to her feet, but fell heavily back down. There was a strange pulsing in her veins, and she felt as if she was being pulled backwards.
"Hermione, love, are you feeling alright?"
Hermione tried to tell him that she was fine, but suddenly the world was spinning around her, and everything went black.
A woman was shrieking, Hermione couldn't see anything, but she knew that the woman was shrieking because of her.
"Tell me where he is!" a desperate voice barked.
The shrieking stopped. "I already told you," the woman rasped in a voice far too defiant for Hermione's liking. "He's gone! Can't you feel it? That hideous mark on your arm is gone, isn't it? Your Master is never going to threaten us again!"
Pure terror raced beneath Hermione's skin, and she knew she wanted to hurt this stupid woman. She was going to make her pay for those words…
"You shouldn't be here." Bellatrix's voice cut through her thoughts. Her tone was gentle, soft, and Hermione felt as if it was a splash of cold water bringing her to her senses.
Bella, what's happening?
There was a sigh, "Dementors, doveling. This is what happens when the dementors come close to my cell."
But… I've never heard-
"I know. And I hope you never do again. Wake up now, your parents are worried."
Now, different voices filled Hermione's ears.
"We need to get her home, now."
"Come now, Lucius, she's perfectly fine here. I've sent someone to fetch a medic."
"I would feel more comfortable if our family healer examined her."
Hermione's brows knit together, it sounded as if the voices were coming from the bottom of a very deep well. Something cold was on her forehead, and when she moved to take it off she found that her arms were trapped beneath something.
"Cornelius, really. We've already taken up too much of your hospitality-"
"Nonsense, Narcissa. It's nothing, really. I'm sure you'd do the same for me."
Hermione wrenched her eyes open. She was lying in the middle of the Fudge's tent. There was a thick, purple blanket wrapped around her, and she struggled to free her arms from it.
"Oh, darling. Let me help you."
Her mother came to her aid, pulling the damp cloth from her forehead, and pulling Hermione into a sitting position. She plucked the blanket from her daughter with her thumb and index finger.
"What happened?" asked Hermione tiredly.
Narcissa stroked the hair away from Hermione's forehead, and peered into her eyes. "We need to get you home," she said.
"I agree. Draco, grab Hermione's cloak." Lucius scraped his chair back and stood. Draco hurried to fetch the light cloak from Mrs. Fudge.
Fudge looked like he was a small child finding out that Christmas would not be coming this year. "It would be better if the child were not moved. You could make the damage worse."
Hermione was certain that was not an actual thing, but she was very tired. She leaned against her mother, letting her head rest on Narcissa's shoulder.
But her mother was not about to let her rest. Carefully, she pulled Hermione to her feet, and took the cloak from Draco to drape it around the brunette's shoulders.
"Cornelius, Mrs. Fudge, thank you very much for your hospitality."
The Fudge's bade them a polite goodnight, and soon the four Malfoys were making their way through the camp.
All around them people were laughing, shouting, drinking. Songs were shouted from all directions, their lyrics slurred. A headache bloomed behind Hermione's eyes, and she decided to ask for a pain potion as soon as they got home.
Then her parents stopped walking abruptly. "We're too late!" breathed Narcissa.
Looking up, Hermione's eyes widened.
A little way the path marched a group of masked, hooded wizards. They held their wands straight up, and marched in bone chilling rhythm. Dangling in the air above them were four muggles.
"Lucius, the children-"
"I'll take care of it, Cissa. Go."
Draco and Hermione exchanged a confused glance as Narcissa darted across the tents in the opposite direction. She disappeared from sight.
There was a flash of green light, and Lucius took both of his children by the arm, steering them from the path.
"I need to make sure that the Minister sees me," he explained, apparently the severity of the situation made him more frank than usual. "They won't mess with magical children, but I want you two to go to the woods. Stay there until I send for you."
"Why can't we go with you?" asked Draco.
Hermione looked at the lines on her father's face, and wondered if she had ever noticed them before.
"During these demonstrations, things can get a little… out of control. I don't want to take chances. Go behind the tents, don't let them see you."
There was a fresh wave of screams, and they all peered around in time to see a dozen silvery animals spring from the campsite towards the masked figures.
"Patronuses," breathed Lucius, pulling his wand out.
Draco's hand reached for hers, and he pulled her towards the treeline. Children of every age were racing among the trees.
"I see the Weasleys," he panted. "If we join them-"
"I don't want to!" Hermione struggled from his grasp, "We should have stayed with Papa!"
"He'll be fine!"
But they lost sight of the Weasleys shortly after that. The woods were dark, and though Hermione was not afraid, she was grateful that her brother was with her. They walked into the trees for a while, and then started heading closer to the treeline so that they would be easier to find.
"I think I see Harry," said Draco, pointing to two figures ahead of them. One was carrying a lantern, and by its light Hermione could see the messy black-haired boy, and his redheaded shadow. They appeared to be scanning the ground for something.
She rolled her eyes, "Figures that of all the Weasleys…"
"He's not so bad when you get to know him," defended Draco. He was helping Hermione climb over a tall tree root. She still felt a little woozy, but the adrenaline was helping her move.
"You don't spend every class with him," grumbled Hermione. "I basically live with him during the school year. Believe me, he's awful."
"Maybe it's not hate that you feel," teased Draco, winking at her.
She smacked the back of his head.
"Ow! Hey, I was just kidding!" He laughed at the expression on her face, "Besides, I saw you when those Veela-"
But his sentence was cut off as a strange voice cried out "Morsmordre!"
A green stream of light shot into the sky, twisting to create the image of a skull with a snake coming from its mouth.
Instinctively, she moved closer to Draco. They were so shocked from the emergence of the Dark Mark that they didn't see the caster until he was standing right in front of him.
He was a thin, younger man with sandy blonde hair and a manic grin on his face. He waved his wand, and the two teenagers had their feet wept from beneath them. She gave a cry as she landed heavily on her hip.
There was a flash of silver, and soon a shining silver bear took shape above them, it's teeth bared at the strange man. Comfort swept over her, as if she knew the bear would keep them safe.
"Alright, I concede," the man let out a strange laugh that raised the hair on the back of her neck. There was a pop! And he was gone. Hermione stood, her hand clutching Draco's, as a voice in her head snarled:
"Run, you stupid girl! Run!"
She did not need to be told twice. Grasping Draco, she bolted through the forest. The bear clambered alongside them, disappearing as she crashed into someone. The scent of her father's cologne filled her nose.
"Mione? Draco? Thank Merlin!"
She was clinging to Lucius tighter than she had in years, and she felt her brother do the same.
"Fudge gave me a Portkey, come on now, everyone grab on-"
Hermione clutched the item without looking, and felt the familiar tug of the Portkey. She had never been so happy to feel the swirl of nausea as she crashed into the lawn of Malfoy Manor.
Lucius wasted no time in marching his children into their home. They agreed to change into their pajamas and meet in his study.
Shortly after, Hermione padded into her father's study wearing blue pajamas with little purple pegasus' flying across it. It had been a christmas present from her father- a nod to her childhood obsession with Percival the pegasus. Draco was wearing an almost matching pair- only his were adorned with flying broomsticks.
Lucius plunked two steaming mugs of hot chocolate in front of them, and then added a potion bottle for Hermione. She drank the potion first, and felt the headache and weariness drain from her body.
"Where's mother?" Draco asked, "Is she…"
Lucius smiled, "She's fine. She had something that she needed to take care of, but she will be home later tonight." He sighed, and picked up his glass of firewhiskey. "I wanted to tell you… You need to be prepared-"
Something was very wrong. "Papa, what is it?"
He inhaled sharply. "The Dark Lord will rise again. Dumbledore's always claimed that he would, but I don't think he expected-" He cleared his throat, "We all have parts to play in the upcoming war, and I wanted you to know that no matter what- no matter who we pretend to be," he made eye contact with Draco, and then Hermione, and the witch was surprised to see the fierceness of his gaze, "we are Malfoys. And in the Malfoy family, we are loyal to our own first."
They finished their drinks in silence, and then he said goodnight to his children. They left him there, glaring furiously into his glass.
Although she was tired she could not sleep. She tossed and turned in her bed, finally giving up and going to her window seat. It was the best place in the Manor to see the front gates and the lawn. She leaned her forehead against the glass and peered intently at the gate.
A few minutes later there was a tentative knock on her door. A few seconds later it creaked open, splashing light from the corridor across her floor.
"Mione, can I come sit with you?" Draco sounded younger than he had in years.
She smiled, and nodded. "Bring that throw blanket," she pointed to a plush silver blanket that lay tangled at the foot of her bed. The manor had always been cold at night, and the worry made it feel much colder than usual.
He brought it, and the two cuddled under it, their faces pressed against the window. They kept their vigil for hours, but at some point right before dawn, they drifted off to sleep.
That was how Narcissa found them in the early morning hours. She felt her chest swell with love for her children, and knew that she was doing the right thing.
"We're going to get them through this," she whispered to Lucius, who looked as if he had aged ten years overnight.
"Yes, but will they be the same?"
She knew they were thinking the same thing as they took in the sight of them sitting side by side. Draco's head resting against Hermione's shoulder.
Probably not.

Chapter Text

"It's always good to be back at school," Harry said, stretching as he and Hermione walked along the shore of the lake. The dying sun cast a golden hue to the front lawn, chasing off the chill of evening.

Inside her head, Bellatrix's voice dripped with sarcasm, " Where everybody thinks he's cool ."

She remained quiet. She could see how someone like Harry might miss Hogwarts during the holidays- but every September when she climbed the spiral staircase to her dormitories she felt as if a great chasm of loneliness opened up within her chest.

" It's not as if he has anything to miss," put in Bellatrix. She typically stayed silent during Hermione's interactions with Harry. Every once in a while she would insert some snide comment and then dissolve into silence when she felt Hermione's irritation.

This time it was true. Despite the many near-death experiences Harry had encountered while at school, it was still far homier than his relatives' place.

" Stop feeling sorry for him," Bellatrix snapped. " He probably brought it on himself, the git. Do you know what the Dark Lord had to endure because of this boy?"

Do you? countered Hermione.

She would never admit it, but sometimes she felt like she could understand Bellatrix's jealousy over her friendship with Harry. Mainly because she felt the same things whenever Bellatrix spoke about the Dark Lord. Her words bounced around in Hermione's skull.

The Dark Lord was a wonderful wizard, the most powerful ever, in fact. He could kill Dumbledore with one flick if he wanted. Was he fair? Certainly, he just knew that the universe had a proper hierarchy to it, and why wouldn't it? Every pack had an alpha, didn't it? Didn't he try to be a teacher at Hogwarts? Why, that showed his dedication to learning! And to children! Merlin, he loved children- he used to hold Hermione on his knee when she was just a baby-

She didn't realize she had been kicking rocks into the lake until she felt Harry's cool hand on her arm.

"Everything ok, Mione?" His green eyes were concerned, and he stuffed his hands into the pockets of his robes as he waited for her to answer.

Bellatrix said at once, " You shouldn't let him call you that. It's much too familiar."

Ignoring her, Hermione forced a smile, "Yeah, everything's great." She just wished she were home with her family.

He plucked a stone from the grass and tossed it as far as he could over the water. "It's a shame about Quidditch." The stone fell with a heavy plunk!

"I would have thought you'd be happy, Harry." A new voice flowed over them, and Hermione grinned as her brother loped towards them. His House tie hung loose around his neck, and it bobbed absurdly along to his stride.

Harry grinned, "Well, I suppose it's a good thing that we won't need to see your sad faces when Gryffindor won the Quidditch cup."

Shrugging, a slow smile spread across Draco's face. "Wish we were old enough to compete," he said.

She knew immediately what they were talking about, and rolled her eyes. "As if either one of you needs more gold," she groused.

They turned to look at her with shocked expressions.

"It's not about the gold Hermione," sputtered Harry. His cheeks darkened.

Draco nodded, pulling an apple from the pocket of his robes, "It's about the glory!" He tossed the apple at Harry, who snatched it from the air and tossed it back, "The thrill!"

"The excitement!"

"Isn't that the same as thrill?" She scoffed. They ignored her.

The boys kept tossing the apple back and forth, laughing at they twisted and dived. She wondered if they realized how idiotic they looked.

" Come on, Doveling, there are more important things to do."

"I'm going to the Library," she told the boys, who promptly groaned that lessons had barely started and flatly refused to accompany her.

It was better that way. They wouldn't ask uncomfortable questions when they saw what she was reading.

She climbed the stairs to the library, feeling Bellatrix's growing excitement as she went. The corridor, as she expected, was deserted. Madam Pince merely sniffed when she passed in front of the librarian's desk, and did not follow her as she ducked behind a large bookcase.

As soon as she reached the tall, musty shelves of the Restricted section she felt her muscles relax. This was her favorite place in the entire school. No one ever bothered her here, especially not the Weasley boy.

And, as an added perk, she had not needed to sneak into the section since she found Madam Pince and Argus Filch in a very compromising situation behind the Herbology section in her third year. Now she was free to browse to her heart's content.

Her fingers skimmed the edges of the old tomes, and a smile quirked the corners of her lips.

" Merlin's left sock, you should have been in Ravenclaw."

She pulled out a velvet-covered book. The title was in gold lettering, and read "The Art of Expert Transfiguration". She flipped through it, settling back against the shelves as she looked for the last passage she had read.

" There," Bellatrix said, " That's where we left off. "

Hermione examined the drawing of a wizard who appeared to be in the throes of agony. His skin was peeling, his eyes scrunched in pain. It was captioned, "The unsuccessful Animagus."

Hermione's eyes trailed to the text on the following page. She read:

Not all wizards are capable of becoming an Animagus. While all have the potential, those who cannot truly commit to changing shape will find themselves in unbearable pain as their body rejects the change. It is for this reason that the Ministry decided to regulate the training of new Animagus' in 1653, after three young witches were found dead, their skin blistered and flayed from the ordeal.

Gruesome, remarked Hermione.

Bellatrix shushed her. " Keep reading."

The incantation is simple enough once the potential Animagus has mastered the wandwork. -The following page had a diagram that charted the complicated wand pattern- Once the initial wandwork has been successfully completed the individual will be able to utilize wandless magic to transform from then on-

" Fuck!"

The word was said so violently that it startled Hermione into dropping the book. It fell with a heavy thud! on the floor, and Hermione bent to pick it up. What was that for?

" I haven't got a wand here." Bellatrix's irritation prickled in Hermione's throat.

We knew when we started out that it might be impossible. Well, Hermione had known, but Bellatrix had refused to listen to reason. Ever since she had found out that Sirius had escaped from Azkaban in his Animagus form, Bellatrix had been obsessed. All summer she had begged Hermione to research, and the brunette had scoured every book in the Malfoy library. While she was able to find plenty of information about Animagus' and their exploits, she had not been able to find anything telling her how to actually transform until now.

Small dust motes floated in the candlelight, and Hermione worried her bottom lip between her teeth as she watched them drift. Bellatrix was apparently having an internal struggle, as numerous emotions stabbed through Hermione- primarily disappointment and tension.

Finally, the older witch gritted out, " I… think… that you should perform the spell anyway."

Immediately Hermione protested, I never wanted to do it in the first place!

" If you do it I will learn how to do it myself. That way if some halfwit comes too near with a wand I can escape right away!"

She had never been so happy to be gifted in Occlumency. Truth was, Hermione was never quite sure if she wanted Bellatrix to escape or not. She had never looked into the court records, but she was certain that her friend deserved to be in prison. On the other hand she did care about the older witch, and she did desperately want to meet her in real life. Sometimes she felt as if she would do anything to free Bellatrix, and then she felt the familiar rage- the rage that was not her own- and something told her that things were better as they were.

Not to mention that this way she had Bellatrix all to herself.

" And," continued Bellatrix, her voice pleading, " Think how such a skill will help the Dark Lord, he'll be so pleased that you've made an effort to be useful."

She was almost certain that she wanted nothing to do with the Dark Lord as well. He sounded like a horrible maniac who was unworthy of Bellatrix's devotion. Every day she hoped desperately that he would not rise again.

Another reason to keep Bellatrix to herself. This way she didn't have to worry about The Dark Bore soaking up all of Bella's attention.

I'll think about it, she sighed, tracing patterns on the floor with her foot. The velvet covered book was soft in her hands, and she stroked it absentmindedly.

Bellatrix huffed. " Don't think too long, we haven't got much time-"

The witch cut herself off as a loud Pop! filled Hermione's ears. She gaped as a small form materialized in front of her.

"Miss Hermione! Dobby has been looking all over for you!"

" Dobby? " A slow grin crossed her face as she blinked at the small elf. He was dressed in an over-large blue shirt with green shorts and orange suspenders. One sock was pulled up over his knee, the other pooled around his ankle. She suspected that the "hat" tilting perilously atop his head was once a tea cozy, and she resolved to buy him a proper hat when she could.

"Miss Hermione needs to come with Dobby now!" insisted the elf, reaching out his hand.

Ignoring Bellatrix's offended snort, Hermione took the proffered hand, and let out a squeak of surprise as they disappeared.

A half second later they reappeared with a Crack! in what appeared to be the Hogwarts Kitchens. Hundreds of elves scuttled around, peering at them curiously as they performed various tasks.

"Winky, I've brought Miss Hermione!"

Dobby pulled her over to where a thin, female elf lay slumped over a large stainless steel bowl. Several empty bottles of Butterbeer lay on the table around her. As she stepped closer, Hermione had to fight the urge to hold her sleeve over her nose. The smell emanating from the elf was foul, and her eyes watered as she struggled to stay still.

"This is the kind mistress I told you about, Winky. The one who set Dobby free when he was working for the Malfoys."

Two fat tears squeezed out of Winky's eyes and rolled down her cheeks. She said nothing.

Wringing his hands fretfully, Dobby squeaked, "She'll be the best mistress to Winky too, Dobby knows it-"

"Wha-?" Hermione suddenly realized what was happening, "I never agreed to that!"

But her words were drowned out by a shrill cry. Winky twisted around so quickly that Hermione flinched back. Several nearby elves tutted, but went back to their work without further comment.

"Miss would really take on Winky, even after she's been sacked?" She looked up at Hermione with wide, dilated eyes. Her skin was dry, and Hermione felt a stab of pity for the creature.

"Don't you like your freedom?"

Something akin to defiance flared in Winky's eyes, "Winky is a proper elf miss! Not like Dobby, who has turned his back on the proper order of things. Winky loved serving her family!" she let out a sob, but did not begin crying again, "And Winky hates this-" she gestured around at the empty bottles and the bowl- which Hermione had just noticed was not empty, and was in fact contributing to the horrendous smell.

"Some elves is not as, er, progressive as Dobby is. But maybe with time Miss Hermione can convince Winky that freedom is not so terrible." His eyes filled with pity as he stared at his friend.

"Please, Miss! Winky is needing to be a proper house elf again. Winky can't belong to no one!" Her eyes glistened as they stared into Hermione's.

Bellatrix's voice was mocking, " Poor little elf, doesn't even know when she's not wanted. I'll enjoy watching her cry when you say 'no'."

"Yes."

The word surprised Hermione just as much as it did Bellatrix and the little elf. Dobby, on the other hand, beamed proudly up at her.

" I thought you were against the slavery of the House Elves!"

I am, she sighed, But Winky is clearly in need of… direction. Papa says that change must be made slowly, starting at the top. Maybe if I model how elves should be treated-

She broke off as Bellatrix burst into laugher.

Squaring her shoulders, Hermione steeled herself against the internal mockery, and plastered what she hoped was a comforting smile on her face.

"Winky, was it?"

The elf had burst into a fresh wave of tears. She slid off of her bench and collapsed in a heap at Hermione's feet. With shaking hands, she pulled the hem of Hermione's robes to her face, and kissed them.

"Mistress has accepted Winky! Mistress is truly the best, most benevolent of witches!"

Hermione stepped back, pulling her robes out of Winky's grasp. She resolved to change immediately as soon as she returned to her common room.

"Why don't you, er- clean up?" She suggested, hoping her tone was mild. Her nose was still very much offended by the unwashed creature, "It, wouldn't do to have… anyone else think that I let my elves go about unkempt."

As soon as she said it a jolt pulsed through her body. She had heard her mother utter nearly the same words about her children more times than she could count.

The elf seemed to feel something from those words as well, as she stared up at Hermione with growing horror.

"Winky will straighten up Mistress, right away!" Without another word, the elf disappeared. Thankfully, she took the smell with her.

XX

Having a personal elf turned out to be better than Hermione thought. Winky (who now walked around in a neatly pressed pillowcase bearing the Malfoy Crest- "With a Silver lioness, Mistress- so everyone knows Winky belongs to Miss Hermione!") was extremely conscious of Hermione's needs. Every morning Hermione was roused gently from slumber and presented with a cup of strong tea. Her homework was always put away, bag neatly packed so that Hermione did not need to worry about making sure she had the correct books. She walked Turnip, and cleaned up after him so that Hermione had more time to study, and she somehow always sensed when the girl would want the wubble near.

Winky also apparently had the power to pop in and out of the Hogsmeade shops to gather sweets and butterbeer for Hermione and her friends. While she did not use this skill overly much, she did enjoy the fact that it seemed to garner her favor with the Weasley twins. Their old nickname "evil Malfoy" fell out of use, and she found herself relieved.

Of course, Ron flatly refused to eat anything Winky brought back (not that anyone invited him to).

"She's probably had it poisoned," he commented loudly one morning as he and the other fourth year Gryffindors climbed to Divination.

" I wish you had," remarked Bellatrix, her irritation prickling Hermione's neck. " That boy is the most useless creature I have ever encountered."

He's Harry's friend.

As usual, Hermione's mention of Harry made Bellatrix's irritation flare into something stronger. " All the more reason!" she snapped.

Because it was Divination next Bellatrix did not fall into her usual sullen silence. In most lessons she was bored. She would sarcastically answer any question directed at Hermione if she was particularly peeved, but otherwise she was uninvolved.

That wasn't the case for Divination. From the moment Trelawney first predicted Harry's death Bellatrix was committed. She spent hours giggling in Hermione's head, filling her mind with terrible scenarios- all of which predicted the boy's death. When Hermione began playing along Bellatrix only grew more interested.

They took a seat at their usual table. Harry, and Neville on either side of Hermione, and Ron scowling across the table at her.

"I hope you have all been practising the relaxation exercises I taught you," came the airy, mystical voice of Professor Trelawney. She stepped from behind a screen, and drifted in their direction. "The goal is to open your mind's eye to the truths beyond the mundane."

" I wonder what's in this incense," there was an insinuating smirk in Bellatrix's words.

The rings on Professor Trelawney's glinted in the candlelight. "Perhaps one of you would like to share your dream predictions?"

Bellatrix's eager voice cut through Hermione's mind, " Raise your hand, Dove!"

It turned out that Hermione did not need to take any further action. Professor Trelawney glanced at Hermione from the corner of her eye, and pounced on the neat stack of parchment in front of her.

"Shall we start with Miss Malfoy's? It's always a good omen to begin with someone who has a touch of the sight."

This is ridiculous, thought Hermione impatiently. I don't know why I let you talk me into these things.

" Because you know how few pleasures I have in this life, Doveling."

"Monday, gulls flying over the castle. Parvati's hair will be unusually unmanageable."

Parvati gave a little squeal and ran her hands over her hair as the room erupted into laughter.

Trelawney continued, "Tuesday, the Greenhouses in a rainstorm. Neville will fall down."

"Probably right," mumbled Neville, giving her a good-natured grin.

I hate this , sighed Hermione internally. Outwardly, her face was stoic and unchanged. It feels so mean.

" They love it." Bellatrix, as always, was enjoying herself. She laughed particularly loud as Trelawney read that on Wednesday Hermione dreamt that the giant squid learned how to play the guitar- obviously that meant that Seamus would lose hearing in one ear. " And I think you love it too."

I do not.

" Do too. Shhh, this is my favorite one."

"Wednesday," Trelawney sighed, "seven apples in a row- the sixth one rots at an accelerated speed. An ill omen for the sixth Weaseley child." She turned her eyes to Hermione, "I think, my dear, that you are absolutely correct. Young Mr. Weasley should be very careful in the future." She turned her pitying gaze on Ron, "Or perhaps, it should be the rest of us who are careful."

Parvati gave Ron a particularly nasty look as the rest of the class disguised their laughter by coughing. Ron's face turned beet red.

" Serves him right."

As if he needed another reason to hate me.

" Would you rather have put down your real dreams? You and a certain Beauxbatons Veela-"

Bella! Shut up!

" I think it's rather sweet. I was beginning to worry that you were never going to have your first se-"

Shut up!

Bellatrix laughed crudely, and Hermione felt her cheeks burn.

" You know, you could always ask her to the Yule Ball! I'm sure Narcissa would be really happy to hear that her daughter prefers the fairer sex."

Bellatrix! Shut up or I'll-

"Miss Malfoy?"

Hermione's head jerked up as a new voice entered the tower. A Ravenclaw Prefect stood on the ladder beneath the trapdoor. "The Headmaster wants to see you."

"Now?" Professor Trelawney looked disappointed, but she took the note and read it quickly. "Yes now. Well, I'm sure that your inner eye is far more attuned to the truths of the universe than the rest of your peers. You are excused."

Hermione could not help feeling relieved as she climbed down the ladder after the Prefect.

Throughout her years at Hogwarts she had maintained her visits with "Uncle" Dumbledore. They were less frequent than they had been when she had been a child. Her Occlumency was nearly perfect, so there was no pressing reason for them to meet more than once or twice a month.

And though she was always excited to see him, she could not help but feel nervous as she gave the password ("Acid Pops") to the Griffin, and climbed the spiral staircase. He did not know about Bella, could not know , but whenever his piercing blue eyes met hers she felt instinctively that he was trying to see if she was the only person inside her head.

Between his gaze and Bellatrix's boiling resentment, Hermione found these meetings to be somewhat… stressful.

Nevertheless, she could not help but feel a rush of affection as she entered his office and took a seat on her favorite overstuffed chair. A selection of Honeydukes sweets littered the table, and he conjured a tea set immediately for them.

The first half of their conversations always went the same.

"How are your lessons?"

"Do you really need to ask?" She took a drink of her tea, and watched a chocolate frog spring to freedom beneath his desk.

He chuckled, "No, I suppose not. I thought of you the other day as I was reading the newest installment of the Young Morgana books-"

"You're still reading those?!"

"Aren't you?"

She shook her head, hiding her smile with another drink. "I think I might be too old at this point, Uncle Albus. I'm fifteen."

"My grandmother used to say that those who feel old betray their youth." He smacked his hand down on another chocolate frog.

"I didn't say I felt old," she said. "You really shouldn't open those until you plan to eat them."

"Where's the fun in that?"

He smiled at her, and for a moment she felt as if she were seven again, and he was telling her that the strict etiquette her mother believed in would never be enforced in his office.

Then, as always, the talk became more serious.

"I haven't heard from your mother in a while."

She did not need Bellatrix's warning hiss to know that they had entered dangerous territory. Her mother's feelings had inexplicably soured towards Dumbledore at some point in the past few years. With an impressively calm tone she said, "Oh? Neither have I, come to think of it." Lies. "Maybe it's her gardening club. She gets a little obsessed sometimes." More lies. She took a bite of lemon scone, and closed her eyes in pretend bliss. "This is delicious!"

"I'm glad you like them. I personally find them to be a little too tart for my tastes." His tone was light, but his eyes were grave. She decided to take the Hippogriff by the beak.

"Something's happening, isn't it?"

He looked startled for a moment, then his expression melted into fondness. "Always perceptive, Hermione. Yes, something is happening." Folding his hands over his lap, he fixed her with an expectant look.

"Does it involve my parents?" She picked up a small silver spoon and swirled it needlessly through her tea.

"It involves all of us."

Tea sloshed over the edge of her cup, splattering across a pile of blood pops. "It's about him , isn't it?"

He gazed at her for a long moment. "Yes."

The only sound in the room was the soft whirring of the silver instruments. She put the spoon down.

"Hermione, the time is going to come when I will ask you to do something for me. Something that is very important. No, I won't tell you what it is now," he spoke quickly when she opened her mouth. "But I want you to think, think very carefully, about what is most important to you."

She could feel Bellatrix's resentment flare into hate, and it burned the back of her throat horribly.

"Ok," she rasped. Her mouth felt dry in spite of the tea.

He picked up a chocolate frog and examined it. "How is your Occlumency these days?"

She stared at him, "As good as ever."

"You're still practicing daily?" She nodded, and he seemed to relax.

"Good… Good." He bit into the chocolate frog, and for the first time she noticed the way the frog stiffened and fell limp as soon as a bite had been taken out of it.

He turned the conversation back to school, but she found that she had lost her appetite.

Chapter Text

Christmas was always a festive occasion in the Malfoy household. The elves swapped their drab pillowcases for brightly-colored tree skirts, and whistled carols as they whisked from room to room, decorating and getting ready. Narcissa whisked in and out of the home at all hours of the day, bringing back oddly shaped parcels and grinning secretively whenever anyone asked her about it. Lucius would begin carrying sweets in his pockets, and would pull each member of the family aside to ask what the others might like as presents. Malfoy Manor was just about the happiest place on earth during the winter holidays.

Which was why Hermione could not wait to finish this Yule Ball nonsense and go home.

She sat in her favorite chair in the the common room, dressed in her plain school robes. The room was empty, as everyone else was busy getting ready for the ball. Turnip, his fur a lonely dark blue, lay sleepily at her feet.

Her mother's letter sat in her lap, and Hermione lifted it up to read the last paragraph again.

...I know you'd rather be at home, darling. But this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Make sure to wear your new dress robes, and the pearls I sent- they were your Grandmother Black's. I'm sure you'll have more fun than you realize, even if your dance partner is not as appropriate as one might hope.

Hermione rolled her eyes, and kept reading.

And besides, your father has arranged to collect you and Draco from Hogwarts tomorrow morning, so we'll still get to celebrate together. I'll see you in the morning, please make sure your brother socializes tonight. Don't let him stand in a corner by himself.

Love,

Mother

" If she thinks your dance partner is inappropriate now, she should know who you wanted to ask out-"

I didn't want to ask her out, Bellatrix! I merely thought that anyone besides that Weasley boy would be a better choice.

" You know what they say about she who doth protest too much…"

Cheeks burning, Hermione glared into the empty fireplace. "It was one dream," she grumbled darkly. Turnip, who was now a light pink, looked up at her. Her hands dug into the arms of the chair as Bellatrix laughed mockingly in her head.

" More like four , dove. But it's nothing to be ashamed of. It runs in the family."

Hermione's eyes widened at that, and she wanted to ask more, but she was interrupted as Neville climbed through the portrait hole.

Recognizing a friend, Turnip leapt to his feet and trotted over to say hello.

"Hullo, Hermione. Is that what you're wearing to the Yule ball?" he asked, kneeling down to pat Turnip. The wubble's rump wiggled in excitement.

She laughed at the expression on her mother's face if she found out Hermione had attended a social event in school robes .

"No, I was just about to change."

He grinned, "Cutting it rather close, aren't you?"

Hermione's eyebrows raised slightly. She had never known Neville to joke before. "I could say the same about you."

He nodded sheepishly, and held up a parcel that had been tucked under his arm. "Gran had to send me new dress robes, I er-" he gave a cough, "accidentally burned a hole through the last ones."

"Oh Neville," she could not help the smile that spread across her face, "I hope these ones stay intact."

" Oh Neville," mimicked Bellatrix, " That's going to be written on his tombstone." But she said no more. For some reason, Bellatrix was never quite as cruel to Neville as she was to the rest of Hermione's friends. When the girl asked why a couple of years earlier Bellatrix had snapped that it was none of her business- and Hermione had left it at that.

When Neville finally left to get changed, Hermione realized that it was time for her to get ready too.

As soon as she started up the spiral staircase that led to her dormitory her ears were assaulted by giggling. The sound got louder as she headed to her room.

The door was open, and clothes lay everywhere. Hermione had never seen so many ghastly dresses at once. Cheap jewelry studded the floor, and she picked her way over to her (thankfully) untouched bed.

Turnip slid into the cozy basket at the foot of her bed, curled up, and went to sleep. Later, Winky would feed him dinner and take him for a walk, but for now he was content to nap.

"Oh, Hermione. We were beginning to think that you had forgotten!" Lavender laughed obnoxiously, and fastened an awful orange bow to her hair, and smoothed down her matching robes. The multi-colored bracelets on her wrists clinked together as she moved her hands.

Parvati, looking much nicer in robes of crimson, adjusted her golden earrings and smiled warmly at Hermione.

Clearly, their parents are nothing like Mother, snorted Hermione. She was so used to "dressing up" for unexpected events, that she could make herself look flawlessly put together in minutes. She had already prepared her outfit the night before, so it was ready the moment she opened her wardrobe.

The robes were light and breezy, and as soon as she uttered the spell to button it up she examined herself in the mirror next to her wardrobe.

Powder blue was not her favorite color, but she had to admit that she looked good in it. The top was fitted, and embroidered with tiny flowers. The skirt swished alluringly as she spun to make sure the back looked ok. A swish of her wand twisted her hair into a becoming updo, and then she dug through the box of makeup her mother sent. She swept a shimmering silver eyeshadow over her lids, and followed that with black eyeliner and mascara. She followed up with lipstick a shade pinker than her natural lip color. Her reflection smiled gracefully back at her, and the mirror (a gift from her mother) called out "No outfit is complete without the proper accessories!"

She pulled out the velvet bag that held Grandmother Black's pearls. Gently, she slid the contents into her hand. Fastening the drop earrings into her ears, she felt a calm spread over her. A moment later the necklace settled comfortingly across her throat, and she didn't have to force her smile this time as she glanced in the mirror.

" It's an old family secret that the heirlooms are charmed," Bellatrix's voice floated gently through her mind, " Great, Great Grandmother Rosier had a horrible temper, and her husband had to charm her to keep her from losing her cool. No one took the charms off because they found that it helped them keep the edge in conversation."

Hermione could see why. She was naturally a confident person, but with the pearls on she felt as if she could not go wrong.

"Lovely," commented the mirror, "mind you don't smudge your makeup, dear."

"I won't," grinned Hermione.

She floated out of the room as Parvati and Lavender squealed that they weren't nearly ready. A few fifth-years scurried down the stairs in front of her, their whispers excited. The smell of cheap perfume floated towards her, and she wrinkled her nose.

" Sorry Princess. Not everyone can afford to have Daddy bring them back custom scents from Italy and France."

At the very least they could pick something that doesn't smell like fake sweets, shot Hermione. The back of her throat was on fire, she was certain.

" Snob."

Hermione rolled her eyes.

If she thought the girl's perfume was bad, it was nothing compared to the boys'. An empty bottle sat on a nearby table, it's label reading: Witch's Woe: Fragrance that will make her swoon .

Hermione's eyebrow arched, Interesting word choice.

" I think the warning is in the name. Stupid boys."

The smell was worse than the name. It was so thick that Hermione had to hold her hand over her nose as she climbed through the portrait hole.

Waiting for her in bottle green robes was Harry.

"Thanks again, Mione." he said, smiling awkwardly as the hole closed behind her.

"Of course. We couldn't let Hogwarts' real champion embarrass himself, now could we?"

" Yes." came the petulant voice inside of her head.

They walked down to the Entrance Hall together, and as they entered the crowded area in front of the Great Hall, Hermione was intensely aware of all the eyes that were upon her. She smiled, lifting her chin as a group of sixth-year Gryffindor girls glared at her. This must be what fame felt like. She felt a smug satisfaction as Harry steered her towards where the Champions were lining up, and reflected that she was made for the spotlight-

And then she caught sight of Fleur.

The half-veela (helpfully confirmed by Harry after the Weighing of the Wands) was dressed in flowing grey dress robes. Her hair shone in the candlelight, and she smirked as she caught Hermione's eye. A dark flush spread across the brunette's face.

" Should have asked her," taunted Bellatrix.

Hermione snapped back, You know I can't do that! The Prophet would be alerted within the hour. What would Mother think?

" She'd be horrified!" there was an unpleasant laugh in her ear.

Harry's hand rested on her shoulder. "Nerves?"

If it weren't for her current predicament, Hermione would have been offended. Instead, she offered him a small smile. "Guess so."

She caught something sparkly in the corner of her eye, and turned to examine the person coming up to them.

The first thing she noticed was the fabric. At first glance it was silver, but it shone with so many different colors that Hermione felt a little dazed. Her eyes trailed up the slim figure, and her mouth opened in shock.

"Draco?!"

Her brother grinned sheepishly at her. His hair was gelled up into something resembling a pompadour. A gold bauble hung from one ear, and he wore a yellow and black striped bowtie. The ensemble was horribly clashing, but she could not help but feel that it suited him.

"That's not the black velvet that mother picked out." she commented mildly.

Bellatrix roared with laughter in her head.

"Oh, it's the black velvet," Draco smoothed his hand down the front of his robes, "I improved it, that's all."

"I like it," said Harry. Hermione fought the urge to roll her eyes.

She scowled at the pair of them, "What are you going to do if someone from the Ministry reports back to Father?"

"Oh, Mione," she felt her insides boil as he fixed her with a pitying look, "you need to learn not to care so much."

"I tell her that all the time," Harry said, and the two boys gave each other knowing looks.

Another couple stepped up behind them, and Draco pinked slightly. "Hello Cedric," he said.

The Hufflepuff champion gave Draco a kind smile, "Hello Draco. Who're you here with?"

"Just myself tonight," laughed Draco, and Hermione noted that his laugh was oddly shrill.

" Definitely runs in the family." remarked Bellatrix.

Thankfully, McGonagall chose that moment to herd the students into the Great Hall. Most who passed gave her an admiring look, and she felt her complexion return to its normal shade. The one exception was Ron Weasley, who predictably scowled at her as he stomped past. Hermione felt a strange thrill as she realized there was no one with him.

Once the other students had entered, the Champions followed, and took their seats at the Head Table. Dumbledore winked at her as she took her seat next to Harry, and she grinned back.

Dinner went smoothly, though she spent most of it casting covert looks at the Beauxbatons champion. Harry would nudge her from time to time whenever anyone said something funny, and Krum's date (a mousy-haired Hufflepuff girl who called her "Drake's Sister") shared several amusing anecdotes about her housemates.

Throughout the meal she felt the Durmstrang Headmaster watching her.

" Don't trust him," advised Bellatrix, her voice scathing. " He's like an ill-bred dog. You can never tell if he's going to bite or not."

"You look very pretty this evening, Miss Malfoy," said Karkaroff, his eyes cold.

She thanked him, and felt the hairs stand on the back of her neck as he fixed her with a long, considering look.

Dumbledore stepped into the conversation, delicately re-routing the attention back to Hogwarts. He shared a story about finding a room of chamber pots in the middle of the night, but Hermione barely heard him speak. Karkaroff's eyes trailed back to her, and she felt as if he were a jeweler, trying to determine her worth.

She breathed a sigh of relief when dinner was over and it was time to dance. There were pictures galore as she spun around the room with Harry on her arm. She plastered her best smile onto her face, and tried not to grimace when Harry stepped down hard on her little toe.

"Sorry! Sorry!" He whispered, and she laughed it off.

When the first dance was over, Harry went to sit with Ron- the latter looking extremely put out as he scowled at the dancers, and Hermione joined Draco.

Her brother was dancing with a blond Beauxbatons boy who shook her hand, and introduced himself as Felix. He looked like a cherub, with plump cheeks, curling hair, and brown laughing eyes. She liked him at once, and apparently so did Draco. After two or three songs, her brother and his new friend decided to go examine the rose garden.

She watched him go with a strange feeling of relief and envy.

" Don't start feeling sorry for yourself ," chided Bellatrix, " you had plenty of chances to ask that girl to the Ball."

Annoyance swept through Hermione, You don't understand anything. It's alright for Draco- she smiled as someone offered her a Butterbeer, and accepted it. He's never been invested in the family name-

" You're right, you could never have actually taken a witch to the Ball. But that doesn't mean you can't have any little flings on the side. Once Cissy marries you off you'll be free to do whatever you like, with whomever you like, so long as…"

A feeling of absolute loneliness settled over Hermione as she listened to Bellatrix talk about the wonders of Pureblood marriage. She knew her friend was trying to be helpful, but it seemed to be making things so much worse.

I just want to have that feeling of freedom, she said suddenly, looking at a couple who wore identical looks of rapture on their faces.

There was a silence, and then- " Tell you what, when I get out I'll take you back to my place and we'll have our own Yule Ball. You can pick the music, and I'll provide the Firewhiskey, and you can be free to your heart's content."

She smiled softly at the earnestness in Bellatrix's voice, Ok.

"Awful lonely over here, Miss Malfoy."

She had not even realized that she had left the dance floor until Moody's voice rushed over her.

"I guess I'm just a little tired," she said, unable to help from glancing at his magical eye. It was pointed directly at her.

"Busy night?"

She nodded, noting that he was examining her in the same way Karkaroff had earlier. Only while Karkaroff's eyes made her feel as if she should take a bath in scalding water, Moody's made her feel as if she should order some Dragonskin armor immediately.

"I've noticed that you spend quite a bit of time with Harry Potter. A bit odd for a Malfoy."

Alarm bells were going off in her head, and Bellatrix seemed to be going through a range of negative emotions that left her unable to speak.

"Harry's triumph is Gryffindor's triumph," she said carefully. "I'm doing what any good friend would."

"Hmph." He licked his lips, "and what do your parents think of your good friendship with Harry Potter."

She drew herself up to her full height, and fixed him with a level stare. "I am fully capable of choosing my own friends."

"Oh, you are, are you?" He took a step closer, and she cast her eyes around in hopes that someone would see them. No one did. "And what if your parents asked you to kill your "good friend", hm? What would you say to them. What would you say if the one who had your best interests at heart commanded you?"

Bellatrix's emotions drained away at once, and Hermione felt something she had never felt from the witch before. Something warm and bright.

" Tell him it's not your place to kill the boy."

Bella, that's crazy! I'd sound like a sociopath.

" Do it! Do it Hermione. NOW!"

Hermione drew her eyes to his magical one, and swallowed. "I'd say… it's not my place to kill the boy."

A grin split his face, making him look more terrifying than usual. "I'd say your memory is a lot keener than I expected, Miss Malfoy. You keep helping Mr. Potter. I think between the two of us we may be able to get him through the final task in one piece."

Hermione gulped, and nodded as he walked away. She could feel Bellatrix's giddiness in her stomach, and it made her feel sick.

Quietly, she slipped out of the Great Hall and padded up the stairs to Gryffindor House. A scalding bath and two cups of tea later, she lay on her bed with Turnip pulled close. The wubble's white fur glowed in the moonlight.

Something bad just happened, didn't it?

Bellatrix's answer came at once, " No, Mione. That was something great!"

Chapter Text

A steel panel slid slowly back from the door, and a tray was levitated through the resulting gap. It floated over to Bellatrix's bed, and the smell of chicken soup drifted up to her nostrils.

Apparently the guards had decided to stretch their Christmas kindness an extra day. The roll next to her bowl was stale, the tea in her rusty cup weak, but to Bellatrix it tasted better than anything had before.

The Dark Lord was coming.

Bellatrix's lip curled as she watched the little girl play at the Dark Lord's feet. She held a toy wand- bright pink and out of place in their private room at The Badger .

" My Lord," she said, stepping closer to him. "Send me out! I would be more than happy-"

" We've been through this already, Bellatrix." His voice was hard, his eyes unreadable as they bore into hers. "I will go alone. This is something only I can do."

" I would kill anyone for you!"

He looked ready to say something, but then a thoughtful look spread over his features.

" And you, little one?" He reached down and pulled Hermione onto his knee. "What would you do if you came across someone I told you I would take care of?"

There was a flash of thick, green smoke, and a small baby doll appeared in his hand. "What would you do if you knew I didn't want it alive?" he shook the doll back and forth.

Hermione, grinning gummily, pointed her wand at the doll. "'Vada Kava!" she squealed, breaking out into giggles.

Lucius shifted beside her, and she caught a glimpse of his ashen face before turning back to her lord.

" No, no, no," ha admonished playfully, his tone light as he pushed her wand down. "It's not your place to kill it, Hermione. You see, when I give an order," his eyes slid up to Bellatrix's, and the playfulness gave way to iciness, "I expect it to be followed. I know what I'm doing, believe it or not."

" My lord, I never meant-"

His voice barked out, "Silence! I've heard enough of your voice tonight, Bellatrix! I'm busy teachingthe next generation." He smiled down at the child in his lap, and Bellatrix felt a stab of jealousy as she watched the girl smile adoringly up at him, her chubby fingers wrapped around his robe.

His voice turned to velvet, "Who will be my bravest, most loyal soldier?"

" Me!" Hermione shouted, collapsing in a fit of giggles.

" I do believe you're right," he said, gently caressing her curls. "You will have all of Bellatrix's skills, without any of her insubordination. Isn't that correct, Bellatrix?"

Were it anyone else she would have reacted in anger, but she was powerless to do so against him. Instead, she gave a tight nod, and stepped back to the shadows…

She replayed this memory over and over in her head. Once upon a time she had remembered this with bitterness, perhaps even sorrow. But now she smiled as she thought about it. He was back. He would be coming for her.

And soon.

XX

Laughter roared through the manor as Hermione's Bishop took out Lucius' king. Narcissa smiled, enjoying the sound of her children at home again.

"I told you I could win with my Bishop!" She grinned cheekily at him, shaking his king in her hand. "My kingdom prevails!"

"Three times in a row. Cissa, she's getting too good."

They were in Narcissa's sitting room, playing with the new chess set some foreign ambassador had given Lucius. Turnip, a cheerful yellow, lay at their feet, his snores providing background noise. Narcissa sat writing thank you notes at her desk, while Draco cared for his Nimbus 2001 with his new broom servicing kit.

"Well, maybe she needs a better opponent," Narcissa teased. "If I recall correctly, I am the undefeated champion around here."

Hermione giggled, "I guess all of those lessons with Miffly played off, eh, Mother?"

Narcissa's brows knitted gently, and she looked over to where Hermione was prodding her pieces back onto the board.

"I suppose so," she said, folding the letter she had just finished. She slid it into it's envelope, and warmed up her sealing wax.

"I think my pieces need a little rest," sighed Lucius. His pieces trudged wearily onto the board, his knight dragging itself by the shield.

She smirked, "It's for the best. We all have thank you letters to write." She pressed her signet ring into the cooling wax, and smirked as she felt three pairs of eyes snap to her.

Lucius groaned playfully, but conjured his own writing parchment.

Hermione dropped down beside him, conjuring a neat little writing station that contained her parchment, wax, ink, and quill.

The sofa dipped as Draco slid beside her, and soon all four were quietly writing.

She finished ages before the rest of her family, and she quietly sat back to watch the rest of her family.

Draco wrote carefully and diligently. His handwriting sloppy but legible, and she sighed inwardly. She had spent a small fortune trying to improve his writing, but it seemed absolutely unchangeable.

She watched him run his thumb over something in the hand that was not writing. It was the gift he had received from his Beauxbatons friend- Felix was it?- and she wondered if her son knew that the silver dove was something French wizards traditionally gave their paramours.

Judging by the blush that had spread across his face, he did. She sighed, I hope he decides to tell us sooner, rather than later , she thought. She had no idea how Lucius was going to react, but she knew that he would come around. Draco had always been a little eccentric, especially for a Malfoy, but he was still their son.

Her eyes slid to Hermione, and she watched her daughter quietly for a few minutes. Every once in a while, the girl would grin at something, as if she was laughing at a private joke.

Narcissa felt something tighten in her chest, and she wanted more than anything to go to her daughter, wrap her arms around her, and beg her to tell her none of her suspicions were true.

There was a jingle as Turnip jumped up beside her, and for once she did not scold him for jumping onto her furniture. Instead, she allowed him to settle into her lap. His ears were pink.

Pink . She didn't see that color often. Mostly when Hermione was embarrassed by something. But the girl didn't look embarrassed now. Her eyes slid over her daughter's face again. Hermione looked happy .

She slid her fingers through the soft fur on Turnip's neck, thinking.

A short while later, Draco threw his quill down. "Finished!"

"Me too," Hermione reached for the family seal- she and Draco would get their own signet rings on their Seventeenth birthdays. She pressed it into the cooling silver wax on her letter, and then stacked it neatly on the mountain of letters beside her.

"Well, I suppose it's time for Mardie's rum cake. Someone will have to fetch it. Shame though, I hear there's only one more chocolate orange-"

"It's mine!" Draco said, leaping to his feet and scrambling towards the door.

"Draco!" the mountain of letters toppled to the floor as Hermione chased him, "That's not fair, you had two this morning! Two! "

They disappeared through the open doorway, their shouts filling the manor.

"Still such children," she said, smiling fondly as she stroked Turnip's ears. The pink was fading away to the usual sky blue.

"Not for long though," said Lucius, bending to pick up the fallen letters. "I can feel him getting stronger, Cissa. Every day the mark burns stronger. Soon-"

He broke off, staring down at the stack of letters in his hand. "I think that Hermione suspects. I saw her staring at my arm-"

"She couldn't possibly have seen it-"

"No, but I caught her eye once, right before she looked away." He set the letters down, "She knows , Cissa?"

Narcissa gulped. "But… how?" A small voice in the back of her head told her that she already knew how . She ignored it.

"I don't know, but she's always been the cleverest one of us all. Sometimes I really think we can get through this, Cissa. Sometimes I think Hermione can get us all through this."

He was trying so hard to be convincing. She could hear it in his voice, see it in his overly bright eyes. Unable to stand it, she stood, leaving Turnip on the sofa, and went to him.

"Of course she can, darling." She sat on his lap, wrapping her arms around her neck. "She's our daughter. The brightest witch there ever was, save for me." She pressed her forehead against his, and breathed in the smell of his cologne. "We're going to make it through this, and come out on top, because we are the Malfoys."

He laughed, and reached up to play with her hair. "What would I do without you?"

"You'll never have to find out," she promised, drawing him into a kiss.

"Ergh! They can't even wait until we're asleep!"

Draco's voice broke them apart, and Narcissa laughed, moving off of Lucius' lap to sit beside him. "Come, both of you," she said, patting the space between her and her her husband.

"We won't all fit," protested Hermione. She set the cake she was holding down on the table, only to be pulled onto the couch by Lucius. Narcissa wrapped her arms around Draco and pulled him down next to his sister.

"What's gotten into you two?" he asked. The four of them were squished together tightly. It was not exactly comfortable, but Narcissa did not mind.

She kissed the top of his head, wrapping her fingers around Hermione's hand and squeezing. "We missed you."

The rest of the evening passed in laughter. It was well past midnight when Hermione and Draco trudged sleepily to bed, their arms full of gifts.

"I wish they didn't have to leave again so soon," she sighed, leaning against her husband in the now quiet room.

Playing with the ends of her hair, he gave a dark chuckle. "I think it might be safer for them to be as near to Dumbledore as possible right now."

Clearly, he did not share her feelings about the man. She pursed her lips, fingers instinctively seeking out the oval locket she wore around her neck.

"I hope you're right."

Chapter Text

The Dark Lord was back.

Hermione picked at a loose thread on her robes as the Hogwarts Express zoomed towards London. Across from her, Draco and Harry were half-heartedly looking through a Quidditch magazine.

For the past few days Harry had been isolating himself from everyone except Draco and Ron. She had tried to speak to him several times since the Third Task, and each time he had managed to slink away without glancing up from the floor.

She realized, of course, that he was going through quite a lot. But then, so was she. Professor Moody, who had been pushing her harder than anyone else these last few months- as if he was trying to figure out what she was capable of- was a Death Eater .

Bile rose in her throat, and she struggled to take deep breaths in order to calm herself. Bellatrix had been silent. She could feel her friends joy-which seemed the be impervious to the Dementors right now- but she had not tried to speak to Hermione at all since that night.

Hermione scowled at the boys. She did not like being ignored. Not by Bellatrix, and certainly not by the Boy-Who-Lived.

"Are you going to tell me why you won't look me in the eye?" she snapped suddenly, causing both boys to jump. A chocolate frog fell onto the floor and made a bid for freedom through the cracked compartment door.

"I don't know what you're talking about," Harry said, idly flipping the page. She noticed that he seemed to be staring at the exact same spot on the page.

Unlike those around her, who had spent the last few days in melancholia (Harry and Draco) or euphoria (Bellatrix), Hermione had been in a constant state of irritation. She was constantly cold, despite the summer warmth- this she figured was the result of Dementors feeding on Bellatrix's never-ending joy. And not even Turnip could alleviate her bad mood. He lay with his head on her lap, his fur a mottled grey and black, and stared mournfully at the wall.

"Don't lie to me, Potter," she snarled, her tone harsher than she intended.

Both boys gaped at her.

"Who spat in your pumpkin juice?" asked Draco, closing the magazine slowly. Harry looked sorry to see it go.

She inhaled sharply, "He hasn't been able to look at me since the night of the Third Task!" she hissed. "It's not my fault that I want to know why ." She raked her fingers through the fur on Turnip's head, causing the wubble to huff.

"Maybe's he's trying to cope with the fact that he saw someone die!" shot back Draco.

"Maybe he should let his friends know how he's feeling, so that we can help!" Hermione hissed.

Her brother glared at her, and shook his head, "He obviously doesn't want to talk about it."

"If he just felt sad because of Diggory, he'd be able to look at me."

"You're imagining things!"

"I am not!"

"She's not," Harry said softly. He looked like he'd rather be anywhere else at that moment. "I… I didn't know how to tell you…"

She drew herself up, and fixed her gaze on him. "Tell me what."

The sunlight streamed golden through the window, seeming out of place in the tense compartment. Harry pulled his glasses off, and carefully began cleaning them with a corner of his shirt. "He was there. Your father- Mr. Malfoy was there , and he didn't do anything ."

Both siblings grew still, their eyes meeting. And both came to different conclusions.

"Coward."

" Draco ! He is not!"

"Then what is he, Hermione? What kind of a man stands there while someone tortures a kid. A kid who happens to be the best friend of his children?" Draco looked furious.

"He was surrounded by Death Eaters! What would have happened if he had-"

But Draco cut her off, "Surrounded by Death Eaters. Hermione, he is a Death Eater!"

Turnip was now sitting up, his gaze firmly fixed on Hermione. To her surprise, the grey spots were changing rapidly to a deep sapphire blue. She could feel tears forming in her eyes, and she fixed her gaze decidedly out the window.

The boys went back to their Quidditch magazine, awkwardly making conversation as they struggled to forget the last five minutes. Turnip clambered into Hermione's lap, rested his chin on her chest, and gazed lovingly up at her. She felt the familiar calming warmth spread over her, taking away the panicky feeling in her chest.

She did not speak to either of them until they arrived at King's Cross.

"I hope you have a good summer, Harry," she said stiffly, pulling down her trunk. Draco was already out of the compartment.

"You too," he said, tracing the pattern in the carpet with the toe of his worn muggle shoe. "I hope you know that I still… you're still my friend, Hermione. It wasn't your fault." He looked up at her, green eyes earnest, "I'm sorry."

Something thawed inside of her, and she threw her arms around him. "You're still my friend too, Harry. Owl me if the muggles try to starve you, I'll send food."

They grinned at each other, and she followed him off the train. She could not help but feel relieved that her mother had decided to come alone.

While she could see the point behind her father's actions, it was evident that Draco could not. They took a portkey back to the Manor with their mother, landing on the plush grass in the front garden. Lucius, dressed in light silver summer robes, advanced to greet his children-

And was pushed away instantly by Draco.

"Don't touch me!" he cried, cheeks burning. "How could you stand by and watch that- that man torture Harry? What's wrong with you?"

Narcissa moved to touch his arm, and he jerked away. "Don't make excuses for him, mother."

Lucius looked as if Draco's words had been a slap. "Draco-"

"Don't bother," Draco grabbed his trunk and stormed towards the Manor, scattering peacocks as he went.

Lucius looked after him, a pained expression on his face. In the six months since she had last seen him, he appeared to have aged ten years.

She stepped closer to him, and slipped her arm through his. "Hello Papa," she smiled up at him.

The sadness remained in his eyes as he turned to look at her. Reaching out to tug on one of her curls, he whispered, "Hello sweetheart."

"Did something happen on the train?" Narcissa tapped Hermione's trunk and Turnip's basket with her wand, banishing them to her room.

Hermione watched her brother disappear into the Manor. "No," she lied, trying to sound casual. The tone of her voice was unconvincing, but Narcissa decided to let it go.

The rest of the day was tense. Draco came down from his room for dinner, but spent it scowling at his father and using as few words as possible to answer his mother's questions. When his father quietly asked him to pass the salt, Draco threw it at him and stormed from the table.

He had never behaved this way before. Hermione gaped at his retreating back, worry sinking her stomach. I'll have to speak to him after dinner , she thought. Hopefully she could make him realize that if Lucius had not remained passive he could not have come home from that… ordeal.

Unfortunately, that talk was not going to happen.

Midway through an uncomfortably silent main course, an elf appeared and whispered urgently in Lucius' ear. He nodded wide-eyed at Narcissa, "He's here." To the elf, he added, "Please take him to the Drawing Room."

Both of her parents turned to look at her, and she felt a current of fear jolt through her as she took in the identical worried expressions.

"Hermione, darling…" her mother took a deep breath, and plastered a smile onto her face. "Professor Dumbledore is here to meet with us. Have you had enough dinner?"

Confused, she nodded.

"Well, we won't keep him waiting then." her voice was unnaturally high. "Come along then. Lucius, tell the elf to bring tea."

Her mother's cool hand slipped into hers, squeezing reassuringly as she led her towards the Drawing Room. Her father followed behind, his breathing ragged, and she turned to look at him questioningly, but Narcissa was walking too quickly for her to do anything but try to keep pace.

Dumbledore's orange and cobalt robes looked very out of place among her mother's decor, yet he seemed as comfortable as ever. "Good evening Narcissa, Lucius," he nodded to each, and then smiled broadly at Hermione, "and Hermione. Come, have a seat."

It was strange to be told to sit in your own home, but Hermione obediently sat in one of the white velvet chairs. Her parents pulled up chairs on either side of her, as if they were trying to buffer her against something.

The elf brought in tea-along with lemon scones, raspberry jam, and shortbread in the shape of lions- something Mardie only made on Hermione's birthday. In the bustle of everyone taking their tea, she found herself staring at the little lions, a small frown working it's way over her face.

"Now then, Hermione. The time has come for certain revelations to be made-"

That did not sound good. He sounded as if he were regaling her with a tale from his glory days, but her parents stiffened on either side of her.

"You know that few in our world know that you have been adopted."

She did not like this topic. Surely he knew that? Nevertheless, she nodded.

"And you know that those who knew you were adopted believed you to be a Halfblood."

Again, she gave a tight nod.

"The Dark Lord himself is a Halfblood."

This she did not know, and she felt a small stab of surprise.

"Voldemort-" he did not appear to realize that both of her parents flinched at the use of his name, "was born Tom Marvolo Riddle. His mother was a witch, his father was a Muggle. He was raised in a Muggle orphanage, where he learned to hate them."

A strange expression grew over his face, and when he continued, his voice had saddened somehow.

"When your parents came to me, asking to save their newborn son from the Dark Lord I saw an opportunity to create something the Dark Lord would be automatically invested in. A Halfblood orphan raised into Pureblood society. A child, like him, but with the opposite upbringing. The upbringing he wanted, because he thought that he had a hand in creating it. I showed him what he could have been had he been raised in his ideal life. Naturally, he feels connected to you somehow. We can use that connection-"

Her father's arm wrapped around her shoulders, pulling her into him.

"It's too dangerous." he hoarsed. He was deathly pale, and he gazed wide-eyed at Narcissa.

She took Hermione's hand, "I agree. Hermione is too young-"

"That's precisely why it's perfect! Voldemort will never suspect her! He will view her as his student, his protegee, and he will have no inkling that she is secretly working with the Order!"

She had never seen him like this. Had never seen any of them like this. Lucius looked like he was about to collapse, Narcissa had half-risen from her chair, and looked like a cat about to spring at an enemy. Dumbledore's face was red, his eyes boring into Narcissa's.

"This is lunacy."

Dumbledore did not blink as he took in Narcissa's words. "You did not think so when you agreed to it fourteen and a half years ago."

Her mother fell back into her seat, dropping Hermione's hand.

For the first time in her life, Hermione felt a stab of anger towards the man she thought of as her uncle. "You say that the Dark Lord and I have a connection -" she spat the word, "but he doesn't even remember that I exist!"

"They haven't told you then?"

Hermione scowled back at him, "Told me what?"

Lucius cleared his throat, "The Dark Lord has requested a... meeting... with you." He slowly dragged his eyes up from his lap.

"Tonight."

Chapter Text

The night was chilly, and she was thankful for the cloak that her mother had draped across her before she left. It smelled of her mother's perfume- like orange blossoms and cream. She was dressed in her favorite robes. The fabric looked green at first, but silver silk had been woven through each thread, so that it subtly glittered when the light struck it.

She was following her father up a stone walkway, towards a towering Manor. Unlike Malfoy Manor, Riddle Manor could never be considered 'pretty.' It was stately and intimidating, sure- but the hard edges and uniform grass was hardly a place where she could imagine growing up.

The ground around her was covered in brown, dead grass. A lonely pear tree stood nearby, it's leaves ragged. She quickened her pace so that she could stay close to her father.

Just as they reached the front door Lucius whirled around to face her.

"You don't have to do this." His eyes were wild with fear, "We can run. We can go home, get your mother and brother, and hide until this all blows over." He reached to take her hands. "I won't ask you to do this."

She swallowed the lump in her throat. "And then what, Papa?" Her brown eyes searched his grey ones, "Wouldn't we be in more danger that way? And can you really imagine Draco hiding ? He'd run back to England before the end of the first hour."

She was right, and they both knew it.

His eyes closed slowly, and he leaned forward to kiss her forehead. "Then you must promise me something, sweetheart."

"Anything."

"If the Dark Lord asks you to do something to me, you must do it."

"Papa?"

A strange look had entered his eyes when he pulled away to look at her. Licking his lips, he said, "He wants to know that you value him above all else. If anything happens to me, I want you to keep that in mind."

Horror was growing in her stomach, but she nodded anyway.

"That's my girl," he sighed. He turned and knocked sharply on the door.

A moment later the door opened, revealing a pathetic-looking man with balding hair and a round, drooping face.

"You!" He squeaked, clearly remembering the time Hermione helped Harry save Sirius.

She lifted her chin, and stared coolly back at him.

Lucius scowled at him, "Is that the way you address our lord's honored guest?"

Honored guest? She personally thought that was laying it on a bit thick, but she followed her father into the cold manor.

They climbed a large staircase, and Hermione felt as if she were walking through a dense fog. Snatches of details came to her- the plush green rug in the upper corridor, the sound of a violin playing, someone laughing loudly.

Then they were walking through an open door, and her father was addressing a pale, red-eyed man who sat in a tall wingback chair before the fire.

"Allow me to introduce my daughter, Hermione."

A hush fell over the room. All eyes were on her as she sank into a curtsey. Voldemort sat before the fire like a king on a throne. There were chairs beside him, but only one was occupied. All the other occupants of the room were crowded against the opposite wall.

A table sat in one corner, piled high with meats and cheeses. Several bottles of spirits were laid out as well, and most of the men had glasses in their hands.

There was a scurrying sound behind them, and then a breathless- "My lord, Lucius and Miss Malfoy-"

"Thank you Wormtail, that will be all."

His voice was cold, and higher pitched than she had expected. Those red eyes were burning into her, and- wait, was she smiling? Yes, she could feel it pulling at her cheeks. Why was she smiling?!

"There's the smile, do you remember me then, little one?"

No, she did not, but it was as if she had no control over her body. She nodded, "Yes, my lord."

A thin, snake-like smile stretched across his face, "So polite. Lucius, you've done well."

"Thank you, my lord."

"Come, child. Sit." A glance at the person beside him sent the man scurrying across the room, and Hermione took a seat on the vacated chair nearest him. "I apologize for the lateness of the hour. We've been busy today, haven't we?"

There was a chorus of "Yes!" and Hermione found herself still smiling, as if she wasn't urging her dinner to stay in her stomach. "I don't mind."

The room was full of faces she had seen before. Crabbe senior, Goyle senior, Mulciber- all friends of her father's, who gave her friendly nods as she looked around. Aside from the chairs and the table there was nothing else in the room. No portraits hung on the wall, no carpet adorned the bare floorboards. It was a lonely little room, crammed full of people used to living in luxury.

And yet, it didn't feel sparse. All eyes were on the pale man in front of her. He seemed to be more than enough to fill the space.

"They tell me you were sorted into Gryffindor."

It didn't feel like a question, but she nodded, "Yes. I've just finished my fourth year."

"And you are friends with Harry Potter?"

Someone coughed in the corner, and she twined her fingers together to try and keep them from shaking. "Yes."

Her father fidgeted beside her, "As I said the night you returned, my lord, we felt that such a friendship would be useful in the future. In the event of your return-"

What? She glanced sharply at her father. They had talked about her on the eve of the Dark Lord's return? Had Harry heard? She briefly replayed his behavior on the train- could it be that he-

No. She was not going to think about it. She closed off those thoughts and retrained her attention to the man in front of her.

"I see." he blinked slowly, his long fingers caressing the carved arms of his chair. "I agree. It could be beneficial to our cause. Tell me," he leaned forward, "Do you like being in Gryffindor."

It was as if he had found the one thing that could override the fear. "No!" she spat, drawing a surprised gasp from somewhere in the room. "I hate it there."

Lucius gave an affectionate chuckle, "Hermione has been covering her walls in green and silver since she was little. It came as a shock to all of us when she was sorted into Gryffindor."

"Is that so?" He regarded her thoughtfully. "Perhaps Dumbledore did not like that she was so inclined towards greatness. He always was the one to clip the wings of greatness- I think he has a hard time believing anyone can soar as high as he." He smirked, "But he will be blindsided, will he not?"

This last statement was addressed to the entire room, and the obligatory laughs followed.

"Still," he continued, "There is use in having a lion among our ranks. The last one proved to be somewhat of a disappointment," Wormtail let out a pathetic squeak as his master shot him a derisive look. "But then, it is the lionesses that hold the real power. Or so I hear. Wouldn't you agree Severus?"

A familiar face had appeared in the doorway, and she met the expressionless eyes of the potion's master. He nodded in greeting, "I believe that's how it works, my lord. Potter certainly does not have the capabilities necessary."

"So I hear."

There was a quiet pause, in which Snape was offered a drink by Avery. His eyes continued to linger on her, even as he took a seat on the other side of the room. For a moment, she wondered if they would be leaving soon. It had been a very long day, and her head was beginning to pound.

But someone handed her father a glass of firewhiskey, hesitating as if they were thinking about giving her some as well.

"Would you like to try some of mine?" Lucius asked, adding "Don't tell your mother," when she took a drink, and immediately began coughing. It burned the back of her throat, and seemed to sizzle as it slid towards her stomach.

Voldemort laughed, "I never cared for the stuff either. Avery, do you still have some of the elf-made wine? I think Miss Malfoy might prefer that."

She did, and she found that she enjoyed listening to him recount some of his adventures in Slytherin. He was truly a gifted storyteller, and she found herself completely captivated by his account of how he located "all of the hidden passageways" in Hogwarts.

"Oh, but look at the time," he said, sitting back at last. "Half past one in the morning. You must be getting her home, Lucius."

She started, looking around to realize that all the others had left, save for Wormtail, Snape, and her father.

"I believe you're right," said Lucius, standing.

"It was very nice to meet you," she said, smiling voluntarily this time. "I liked hearing your stories."

When he smiled back, it seemed a little less creepy than before. "I enjoyed your company as well, Miss Malfoy. Next time perhaps I'll get to hear some of your stories."

"I should be getting back as well, my lord. I have a potion-"

"That's fine, Severus. Go tend to your brews. Goodnight Lucius, Hermione."

They all offered their goodbyes, and exited the Manor in silence. Lucius' face was pale, but thoughtful. Snape looked as stoic as ever, and Hermione was lost in thought, her mind replaying the last few hours.

They used side-along appartation to return to Malfoy Manor, but to her surprise, Snape joined them.

The mask of stoicism was gone the instant their feet touched the plush lawn of Malfoy Manor.

"What are you thinking, Lucius?" Snape hissed, shoving the pale-haired man against the brick wall that surrounded the Manor. "Bringing her there? Of all places? Why don't you just slip poison in her soup, or shove her in front of a herd of acromantula?"

"He didn't seem that bad," she said, surprising herself. It was true. He had been a perfect gentleman. She could see why Bellatrix lov-

Horror shone in Lucius' eyes. "Don't be fooled, Hermione." Her father's words were slow, deliberate.

Snape released him, and stepped closer to her, sneering. "That's how he gains his followers, Hermione. He charms them. You have never been a stupid girl , now would be a terrible time to start-"

"He wants you to like him, sweetheart. That's why he was so nice. Remember that this is the man who killed your friend's parents, who tried to kill your friend-"

"He does what he must to gain followers, but it's only because he needs them. What could possess you to take her there?"

"He asked me to-"

Snape looked as if he had just confessed to setting kittens on fire for the fun of it, "Are you insane? Next time tell him that she's staying at a friends, that she's gone abroad."

"I can't-"

"Tell him that she came down with dragon pox-"

"I CAN'T Severus!" He yelled. His hair was in his face, and Hermione could not remember her father ever looking so helpless. She did not like it. "Dumbledore has ordered it as well. He wants her to get close to him. If I refuse he'll take her from us!"

Hermione felt as if something hard had struck her in the chest.

Snape straightened, his eyes widening. "Dumbledore would never-"

"He would. He's said as much." He let out a strangled sob, and Hermione moved closer, wrapping her arms around him. She buried her face in his chest, letting him pull her close.

"I'm not going to lose her, Severus." The whisper was hoarse, ragged. "She'll be in danger either way, but Dumbledore could never love her as I do. He doesn't have her best interest at heart. I do!" A broken sob escaped from him, and he doubled over, whispering, "I can't lose her."

"Oh Lucius," disdain sounded in Snape's voice. He looked much paler in the moonlight, and he did not move to comfort his friend. "If Dumbledore's involved then you already have."

That's not true! She thought, holding tighter. She was kneeling on the grass now, and she could feel her knees growing damp. Her mother was going to kill her if she got grass stains on her robes.

But that was not important now. She glared angrily up at Snape- her father's best friend, her other uncle.

"I can handle this," she spat, wishing that she could hex him and actually get away with it.

Black eyes filled with pity. "There's the Gryffindor in you. I guess you aren't quite the embodiment of Slytherin after all."

There was pop as Snape disapparated, and Hermione helped her father back to the Manor. Her face burned scarlet as she thought about his words.

She lay in bed an hour later- after she had explained to her mother why her father was so distraught. Lucius had seemed reluctant to let her leave his side, but he finally relented when Narcissa pointed out how tired she must be.

" To bed then," he said, eyes lingering on her face. "And sweetheart… What Dumbledore said- about why we adopted you-"

" There's no need, Papa." She insisted, unwilling to explore that discovery at this particular moment. Then added, after a brief pause, "I love you."

He evidently heard the question in her voice, because he stood, and wrapped her in his arms. "I love you too, Hermione. Don't ever forget that."

His grip was so tight that it sort of hurt, but she could not help but feel as if a heavy weight had been lifted from her. It was just as comforting as it had been a decade ago, when she would crawl into her arms to escape the bone-chilling fear that came from the Dementors. As long as she still had her father she could deal with anything.

She felt him kiss the top of her head, and smiled. Then she climbed up to her room, got into bed, and let her thoughts fill her head.

Dumbledore had threatened to take her away . She could not believe it. All her life Uncle Albus had been supportive. The jolly presence in her life, bringing sweets and offering a listening ear. Her father had to have been mistaken. He was just overtired.

She rolled over, pulling her pillow into a new position as she tried to get comfortable.

And the Dark Lord had not seemed as bad as everyone thought. Had that been the most dangerous man in the world? Everyone seemed terrified of him. Dumbledore, her father, Snape, Avery… but he had not seemed terrible. A little narcissistic perhaps, but not scary .

But he was! He had killed Harry's parents. And her parents were clearly afraid of him. They had never been afraid of anything...

Her parents… Her eyes stung, and she wiped at them irritably. Her father loved her, that she had no doubt of. But he hadn't at one point. He probably hadn't even wanted her. She had been forced upon them. Did that change things?

Her stomach churned violently, and she could taste the bile in her throat. She shoved those thoughts down, down as deep as they could go. It didn't matter that she wasn't wanted at first. They wanted her now didn't the? And even if they didn't really, it didn't matter. She was a Malfoy. Nothing could take that away from her. Not the Dark Lord, not even Dumbledore.

A dry sob wrenched itself from her throat, and she buried her face in her pillow. The whole room felt as if it was spinning.

Had Dumbledore interfered with the hat? Of course not. It was ludicrous. Voldemort was just a very skilled actor. That had to be it.

" Well Doveling, what have you been up to lately?"

A burning anger took root in her stomach as Bellatrix's cheerful voice popped into her head. Who was she to ignore Hermione for so long and then waltz in without a care in the world while she was so conflicted?

Go away.

" There's no need to be rude. Especially not when the Dark Lord-"

I SAID GO AWAY!

Turnip let out a surprised bark as her pillow soared across the room and smacked against her door.

She threw up her Occlumency shields, and tuned out Bellatrix's angry shouts.

There was a jingle as Turnip jumped onto the bed and wriggled into her lap. He licked her hand fervently, whining a little as she struggled to slow her breathing. It was too dark to see what color he was, but she knew it wasn't the usual sky blue.

Eventually the wubble's calming magic worked its magic, and she fell back against her remaining pillows.

All she wanted to do was sleep, but her mind was a jumble of Hogwarts passages, lemon drops, and her father's terrified voice.

And no matter what she did, her thoughts kept drifting back to that damn hat.

Chapter Text

Muggles were disgusting.

Granted, she was looking at a child muggle, so she supposed that it could be the child's age, and not the lack of magical ability, that caused it to giggle shrilly while shoving dirt in it's mouth. It's mother sat on a nearby bench, scolding a slightly taller version of the muggle in front of her.

"Cute, aren't they?" chuckled Dumbledore.

In previous years, when she met with Dumbledore, they always met in Diagon Alley or in his cottage near Godric's Hollow, but this summer he had been taking her to muggle parks instead.

They sat on a wooden bench near the play structure, both looking extremely out of place. She wore her silver summer robes, and he was wearing blinding magenta robe with orange polka dots and a matching hat. Passing muggles kept giving them dirty looks, and she returned them easily.

"Shouldn't we be practicing, I don't know, spells or something?" She scowled at the child, who beamed back at her, drool spilling down it's chin.

Dumbledore smiled mildly. "Whatever for? The sun is out, there's a light breeze, it seems like a perfect day for a nice chat, doesn't it?"

She didn't answer him. There had been a strange tension in their relationship since the summer began. He had thankfully chosen to pretend that nothing had changed, but sometimes she could feel him watching her, as if he were studying her every move.

He looked over at her, and his eyes flickered in something like disappointment. "There was a time when you would have loved to be brought to a Muggle park."

Yes, when she was five. The little muggle reached for her boot, and she drew it back in disgust. "I thought we'd be working on something that had to do with, you know-" she looked around, as if to check that no one could overhear her. "spying on the Dark Lord."

"You really should try to call him by his name sometime. Voldemort is only a man. A talented man, true, but that does not make him superior."

Calling him anything besides "The Dark Lord" seemed wrong, somehow, but she nodded.

"You could very easily be his equal, Hermione."

She nodded, not really believing him. The muggle mother was calling to the child in front of her. It rose to it's feet and toddled back, giggling.

"What do you talk about?"

She swallowed. "Hogwarts, mostly. He tells me about his school days, and I tell him about mine." Her voice was strange, it sounded oddly forced, and she realized that she did not like telling him these things.

"Do you tell him about Harry?"

Nodding, "Mostly about how he does in classes. I don't tell him about… other stuff." Like his crush on Cho, the way he missed his parents, how he once spent an afternoon singing Celestina Warbeck to her in an attempt to cheer her up.

"Good. Good…" He patted his shoulder. "It's always a surprise how fast children grow. I half expect to find a little girl in pigtails with chocolate all over your face. It's so strange to find a young woman instead of my little Hermione."

A small part of her melted a little at her words, and she scooted closer to him, nudging him affectionately, "I haven't changed that much, Uncle Albus."

"There's nothing wrong with change. In fact, many believe it's a good thing. The caterpillar turns into a butterfly, the fledgling learns to fly-" he paused, pursing his lips in thought as he watched a family pack up their picnic. "But sometimes I think you forget."

She frowned, "Forget what?"

"Your parents."

"Oh, I don't think I could ever forget them." laughed Hermione. "Papa is my best friend, and Mother-"

"Not your wizard parents," he interrupted, "your muggle parents." Blue eyes met hers, and a piercing chill shot through her.

She shifted her feet a little, using the opportunity to put some distance between them. "I haven't forgotten them." Not for lack of trying though.

"Ian and Jean."

"What?"

"Those were their names. Ian and Jean Granger. They lived near here, in a little house down the road. We can go see it if you'd like."

Her voice shook a little. It felt like the bench was being shaken beneath her. "I'd rather not."

His smile never faltered, "Perhaps another time, then."

They sat in silence while the park bustled around them. Parents chatted together while their children climbed on the colorful playground equipment. Several children started up a game that involved one child running around to push the others. Her lips curled as one shoved a smaller child to the ground and ran away laughing.

"I imagine you might have played here, in your other life."

Couldn't he tell she didn't want to talk about it? But she just nodded, "Yeah, maybe."

"You would have gone to sleep safe and sound in your bed. With parents who loved you and wanted you."

It felt like something was pushing on her chest, making it difficult to breathe. She bit down on the inside of her cheek, willing her eyes to stop stinging.

"I found a photograph of your parents through a lovely librarian in the village. Your mother looked like you. Same brown hair, same smile. I can show you sometime."

She didn't trust herself to respond. She bit down harder, her mouth filling with the coppery tang of blood.

"You've got your father's nose though."

No, it was her own nose. She was not comprised of dead people's body parts.

"They died to protect you. At the hands of a blood purist with the intent to make you a slave. Do not forget them."

She nodded, hoping it would make him stop talking. Luckily, it worked. Dumbledore sat back and whistled some insane, repetitive tune.

She had never been more grateful to return home in her life. She murmured a quiet "Goodbye" to Dumbledore, and disappeared inside without inviting him in.

Her feet moved instinctively, carrying her up the stairs quickly. The word came first as a whisper, "Papa?" Then merged into a shout when she found his study empty, "PAPA!"

Panic gripped her chest, twisting it painfully so that she was certain she would collapse. "Papa! Papa!" she whirled around, running down the corridor, "Papa!" She was deaf to the slight jingle of Turnip's collar as he joined her in her search.

Where was he? She checked the library, and then raced down to the drawing room, not caring if any unexpected guests were there to witness her in this state. "Papa! PAPA!"

But he wasn't there. The drawing room, was deserted. She lingered in the doorway, clutching onto the brass handle as if it were the only thing keeping the ground from swallowing her whole.

"Hermione?"

A soft, cool hand wrapped around hers, and she was engulfed in the orange blossom scent of her mother's perfume. "Darling, you're crying. What's happened?" Her eyes flicked down to the black mass of fur at Hermione's feet.

"I need-" it felt like her tongue was sticking to the roof of her mouth, and so the words were slightly garbled, "to speak to Papa. Where is he?"

Concern filled the light blue orbs as Narcissa gently turned her daughter around. "He's gone out for the day. I don't expect him to return for hours. Did something happen with Dumbledore?"

Her cheeks burned suddenly, as if they had been slapped. Papa would have understood her, but her mother? "It's stupid," she said, forcing herself to smile. "Just something silly. I was just overreacting for a moment."

Then she was being pulled into the drawing room. Her mother sat down on the sofa, and pulled her down so close that she was practically in her lap. She felt two slim, but strong, arms wrap around her and pull her close so that their heads were pressed together. She could not ever remember being held like this by her mother. Turnip jumped up beside them and laid his head on her lap, but she could not feel the familiar soothing magic that usually came from him when she was like this.

"Now, you listen to me," her mother's voice was gentle but firm, "if someone has hurt you I deserve to know. I don't care if that man is the supposed savior of our kind, I will separate him into thousands of tiny pieces and scatter him across the globe before I allow him to get away with hurting you."

The words made the hair on the back of her neck stand on end, but she found herself melting into the hold. "N-nothing happened. I mean, he did-didn't hurt me. He just t-t-t-talked!"

Narcissa rocked her slowly back and forth, making soothing noises under her breath. "What did you talk about?"

"The G-Granger," sniffled Hermione, allowing her mother to pull her closer. A hand began stroking her hair, and she found her breaths returning to normal.

"What about about the Grangers?"

"Their names were Ian and Jean, and they looked like me." She tried to hold back a sob, and failed. "He told me not to forget that they died to protect me."

She felt her mother nod. "Anything else?"

"He took me to a park by their house, and…"

"And?"

She licked her lips, "He said that they wanted me." As soon as it was out she hoped that she had spoken too quietly for her mother to hear.

The sharp intake of breath told her she had.

"Oh, darling…"

Cheeks burning with shame, Hermione burst into tears. "I'm sorry-"

"No. No, my darling, there's nothing to be sorry for." She slid a finger beneath Hermione's chin and gently tilted it up. "Of course they wanted you. You are a good, clever, beautiful girl. Even muggles can see that. But believe me," her eyes searched Hermione's, and the girl held her breath as she waited for her mother to finish speaking, "We want you more. You are ours , not theirs."

Warmth spread throughout her entire body, and she held her mother's gaze.

"Dumbledore was right that we were hesitant to take in a muggleborn, but your father has loved you from the moment that he met you, and I'm sorry that it took me a little longer-" she reached to wipe the tears from Hermione's cheek, "but I got over myself, and I love you just as much as I would have if I had carried you for nine months. You are my daughter, and I will never die to protect you-" a smile curved her lips, "because I am going to protect you forever ."

From the corner of her eye she could see Turnip's fur gleaming a buttery yellow. "I love you, Mother."

Narcissa laughed, and pressed a kiss to her forehead, "I love you too, darling. More than you will ever know."

"He's going to make me go to their old home."

"Let him." Her fingers tapped against Hermione's skull, "I'm going to tell you something that my mother told me before I left for Hogwarts."

Hermione nodded, drinking in every word.

"People in our world are going to want to use you. They are going to do anything to manipulate you into who they want you to be, but we are not the pawns. We are the Queens." She tapped Hermione playfully on the nose, "Play your parts for the old fools, but don't forget that you are a Malfoy. We have no superiors."

Hermione nodded, and laid her head back down against her mother's chest. The hand resumed stroking her hair, and between that and her mother's steady, comforting heartbeat she was soon asleep.

XX

Hermione slept for the rest of the day, and Narcissa was content to lay on the sofa with her daughter in her arms, thinking about the situation they had found themselves in. It was one thing to feign composure in front of a distraught teenager, but quite another to keep her anger under control as she thought about what Dumbledore had tried to pull today.

It was obvious that he was trying to drive a wedge between Hermione and her family. But it also seemed to her that he was trying to make her feel guilty that the muggles had done what any parent would have in order to save their child.

She was so angry, she could spit. But she didn't, she swallowed her rage, and concentrated on holding Hermione tight- the way she should have the first night the girl had come to them.

That was how Lucius found them. He strolled into room after Turnip let out a greeting bark, smelling like fresh night air and pipe smoke.

"Is everything ok?" he asked, bending to pet the wubble.

She shook her head. "I need to go out. Can you put her to bed? She'll probably sleep through the night. She was very upset." She could feel her eyes flashing dangerously as he examined her.

"Dumbledore?"

She nodded. "He told her that her muggle parents wanted her."

"Oh." Understanding dawned on his face. "Where's Draco, did he hear her-"

"He's at the Macmillan place."

He exhaled slowly, and moved to draw Hermione into his arms. "Not as easy as it used to be," he commented, laughing quietly as he stood. "I remember when she was so small I could do this with one arm."

"Mhmm," she stood slowly, wincing as she blood rush back into her legs. With a wave of her wand, she changed Hermione's robes into a blue nightgown with purple pegasus' flying cheerfully.

"I thought she threw this away years ago."

Narcissa arched a brow and tapped her wand against her chin. "She did, but we couldn't get rid of Percival, could we?"

He grinned in response, and moved to take their daughter to bed. Pausing at the door, he called back over his shoulder, "Stay safe."

"I always do."

As much as she would love to go to Dumbledore's residence and remove him from their lives, she knew that they still needed him.

Instead, she apparated to a muggle street. The night was still young, and the windows of the houses lining either side were lit, their inhabitants settling in for the night.

She scanned the shining letters by each door, looking for number twenty. Half an hour was passed this way, with her stalking down the street trying to find number twenty.

Finally, she found it. Or at least, she assumed that she found it. Nestled between numbers nineteen and twenty one was a cozy little house without a number. A shady willow tree arched over the side, and the front garden was neat and organized.

Heart in her throat, she opened the gate. It clanged noisily shut behind her, and she swore under her breath as the light above the front door switched on.

She took a deep breath and marched to the door, raising her hand to knock-

But it opened before she could touch it. An angry face peered out through a crack in the door, it's voice snarling-

"What are you doing here?"

She had an eloquent speech planned. Really, she had spent months perfecting it. But when she opened her mouth what came out was-

"I came to ask if you would help me save my children."

Brown eyes narrowed in suspicion, and Narcissa felt her pulse quicken.

"Please," she pleaded, not caring that she was begging, "I know I don't deserve your help, but I didn't know where else to go."

"Where's your wand?"

Narcissa quickly pulled it from her sleeve and held it up.

"Hand it over, I'm not letting you into my house if you're armed."

"I wouldn't hurt you," said Narcissa, but she passed it over anyway.

There was a disbelieving scoff, but the door was opened wider anyway. "You have thirty minutes."

Narcissa sighed in relief, "Thank you, Andromeda. You won't regret this."

Her sister's eyes did not soften. "I better not."

Chapter Text

Autumn wind rippled through the treetops and sent a shower of orange foliage fluttering down. Hermione, cozy inside her new cloak, broke away from the crowd of Hogwarts students heading towards Honeyduke's, and made her way towards the Owl Post office.

Pushing open the door, she was surrounded in the must that came from hundreds of birds roosting together. The rafters were full of feathered bodies, some staring at her with glittering eyes, others emitting soft hoo-ing noises as they dozed.

"Can I help you, love?" Said the witch behind the counter. She was a few years older than Hermione, with a cheery smile and short black curls.

Stepping up to the counter, Hermione offered a smile in return. "I believe there's a letter here for me."

"Name?" called the witch, twisting to the door that sat behind her.

"Hermione Malfoy," Hermione called as the witch disappeared into the back, she emerged a few seconds later with a slim black envelope.

"Arrived this morning. I would've thought that the Malfoys had enough gold to own their own owls-"

Hermione's eyes narrowed at the girl, and she snatched the letter from her. "What the Malfoys spend their gold on is none of your business." she said in her coldest voice.

The witch's smile vanished, "I didn't mean anything by it," she protested, but Hermione was already gliding through the doorway, tucking the letter into her schoolbag as she went.

Since it was early, the Three Broomsticks was still relatively empty. She slid into a booth, ordering lunch from Madam Rosmerta as she did so.

She pulled the black envelope out of her bag and stared at the silver letters that formed her name. Hermione Malfoy . She recognized the smooth, curling lines immediately, and knew who it was from.

The Dark Lord. Of course, they decided to use the code name "Your Friend" instead, just in case the letter fell into the wrong hands.

Ripping open the envelope, she pulled out the parchment and read:

Dear Hermione,

Thank you for your letters. It is a refreshing change to hear from someone with more intelligence than a House Elf. You cannot imagine how tedious my conversations with Wormtail can be. Yesterday I asked his opinion of Merlin's Allegory of the Thestral. You have never heard such a blithering attempt of an apology, I assure you.

To answer your question: no, I never cared for Hogsmeade weekends. Nor do I have a favorite sweet from Honeydukes.

How has Potter seemed to you? Is he losing spirit now that the entire wizarding world is turning against him? Has Dumbledore coddled the boy into a false sense of security yet?

Have you given any further thought to my offer? Your father tells me that you'd like to be Minister one day. Such ambition is praised, certainly, but you will need the proper support if you want to get there. Think about it some more. I will hear your answer at Christmas.

Fondly,

Your Friend

Dumbledore had been the one to suggest that she begin writing to the Dark Lord weekly.

"He has only ever had blind loyalists," he had explained, "but maybe knowing the affection of a child will help him open up more. Perhaps it will even save your life one day, Hermione."

She had not pointed out that she was no longer a child.

As Madam Rosmerta brought over a steaming bowl of stew, a basket of rolls, and a steaming mug of Butterbeer, Hermione thought about what she would say.

"Ahh," said Madam Rosmerta with a wink, "Writing love letters then? I remember that age."

Pink bloomed on each of Hermione's cheeks, but she could not stammer the words before Madam Rosmerta let out a mirthful chuckle, and swept away to help a new wave of students.

"It's not a love letter," said Hermione feebly a few seconds later. She half expected to hear the familiar teasing in her head about this most recent blunder, but a crash of loneliness swept over her when none came. Bellatrix was still ignoring her.

She picked up her spoon and scooped some of the savory stew into her mouth, burning her tongue a little in the process. With her other hand, she fished a self-inking quill and some parchment from her bag.

Forcing Bellatrix from her mind, she wrote:

Dear Friend,

Potter is not doing well. Our conversations are always short, so I don't know specifically what's wrong, but he's much paler than usual. I don't think he's getting any support from Uncle Albus, in fact, I think my uncle is avoiding him altogether. He's definitely not getting any support from the staff. Our new Defense teacher, in particular, has taken a strong dislike to him, and seems to enjoy tarnishing his reputation. She's absolutely worthless as a professor, I think the Ministry wants us to be unable to defend ourselves.

If you don't have a favorite sweet, that just means you haven't tried hard enough to find one. I'm sending you one of Honeyduke's sampler hampers, hopefully you'll find something you like. Please don't share with Wormtail.

I look forward to seeing you at Christmas, and I assure you that I will have an answer for you then.

Affectionately,

Hermione

She scowled at her writing. This was not the way she should be addressing the Dark Lord- as if he were a beloved family member- but Dumbledore seemed to think it would work. She finished her stew, and several rolls, and downed the Butterbeer in a gulp that would have made her mother scold.

If she were being completely honest, she would rather he view her as an adult. Someone to be respected. Not someone who sent chocolate and signed off with "Affectionately". She might as well spray perfume on the parchment, and draw several hearts on the envelope.

She stuffed her letter into an envelope, and (after a trip to Honeyduke's for the sampler hamper) returned to the Owl Post office.

"Back again, then?" Said the same witch from earlier. Her smile was not quite as bright as before. "Listen, about before-"

"I'd like an owl to deliver this to Malfoy Manor at once," demanded Hermione, setting the hamper on the counter. She tucked the letter in amongst the chocolates and sweets, and then levelled her gaze on the witch. "Will it be two owls, or three?"

"I think two ought to do it," said the witch, her cheeks scarlet. "But I'll only charge you for one."

It was a silly thing to be angry about, Hermione knew, and she willed herself to smile at the girl, put her at ease. Instead, what came out of her mouth was, "Charge for two. The Malfoy gold will cover it, I guarantee it."

"Y-yes miss," the poor girl looked as if she were about to cry, but Hermione threw a handful of galleons down on the counter.

"I trust this will cover it?"

"Yes! Of course, I'll just get your change-"

"There's no need. Just make sure it's sent at once."

Without pausing to hear more from the witch, Hermione turned on her heel and stormed back through the door-

-and collided with someone on the sidewalk.

"Oof!"

"I'm so sorry," sputtered Hermione, blushing as she drew stares from students on the street. "I didn't see-"

"It's alright," said a female voice.

Hermione blinked as she took in the appearance of the woman- girl really- who she had just run into.

Her short, spiky hair was bubblegum pink. One eye was brilliant turquoise, the other yellow. She wore a purple leather jacket, and a long black-and-yellow scarf that reached down to her knees despite being wrapped several times around her neck.

"Tonks," the girl said, offering her hand to the gaping Hermione.

She closed her mouth at once. "Hermione Malfoy," she jumped to shake the other witch's hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you."

"Malfoy?" eyebrows raised in surprise, "Are your parents Narcissa and Lucius?"

"Yes."

A bright smile stretched across the girl's face, "That makes us cousins then!"

"It- It does?"

"Yep! Our mothers were sisters. Are sisters, more like. I knew I had two cousins, but I didn't know when I would meet you!"

Hermione found herself with the girl's arm over her shoulder, being steered back towards the Three Broomsticks.

She knew, of course, that she had an estranged aunt somewhere. But it had never occurred to her that said aunt (or her offspring) would ever enter Hermione's life.

"Rosmerta!" bellowed the girl as they strode into the Three Broomsticks. "Two Butterbeers please, one for me, and one for my dear cousin! Oh, bless her, I think she's embarrassed."

'She' was in fact more mortified than she had ever been in her entire life. Nevertheless, she allowed herself to be pushed onto a barstool, and dutifully took a gulp from the frosty bottle that the barmaid passed to her with a smirk.

"So, what's Aunt Narcissa like?" asked Tonks. She looked perfectly at ease, as if she ran into estranged family members all the time.

"Erm…"

There was a warm chuckle. "Not very talkative, are you? Is Draco the same?"

"Is Draco the same as what?"

Hermione felt as if she were part of an elaborate joke as Draco came up from behind them.

"Are you Draco?"

All he did was nod, and she turned to pull him into a hug. "Draco!"

His surprised eyes found hers over the leather clad shoulder.

"She's our cousin," said Hermione feebly.

"Tonks," corrected the witch, pulling back to order another Butterbeer.

Draco was pushed into a seat, but unlike Hermione he seemed to be delighted with the turn of events. "Which one is your mother?"

Hermione rolled her eyes. You would have loved this conversation , she told the brick wall of silence in her head. Then again, she'd probably be pissed that Draco wasn't smart enough to come to the correct conclusion on his own.

"Andromeda. And Ted Tonks is my father."

"Wait, your parents named you Tonks Tonks?"

Hermione rolled her eyes as Tonks laughed out, "No! Mother named me Nymphadora, but would you allow people to call you that?"

Draco laughed into his Butterbeer.

"Anyway, I heard it was a Hogsmeade weekend, and I wanted to come invite you personally."

"To what?" asked Hermione. Her fingers pressed against the icy bottle, as if she was bracing herself.

Tonks grinned at her. "To Christmas dinner. Mum had proper invitations, but I forgot them." she shrugged, as if to say What can you do?

"Christmas dinner? With blood traitors?" the words were out before Hermione could stop them.

Tonks' smile never dimmed, but something like pity grew in her eyes. "Well, technically it would be Christmas dinner with a Blood traitor, a Muggleborn, and a Half-blood."

"Of course we'll go," Draco said, giving Hermione a hard look. "Ignore her, she's dehydrated."

"I am no-"

"Is that a Hufflepuff scarf?" Draco plowed on, shaking his head slightly at her. "Were you in Hufflepuff?"

The older girl's gaze softened as it slid to the boy. "Yeah," she said. "You a 'Puff too?"

He nodded proudly, "First Malfoy ever," he crowed. "And Hermione's the first Gryffindor."

"Is she?" Tonks' eyebrows raised in surprise, "I would have thought-"

"Slytherin? Me too! I'm still convinced that the Sorting Hat was drunk."

"Draco!" Hermione screeched, standing up. "That's not funny!" The two continued laughing. "Right. Well, I've got a lot of homework to finish, so-"

Tonks' laugh died in her throat.

"Oh, come on Mione. We were just kidding."

Apparently she was the only one who did not find the worst day of her life funny. Angry tears pricked at the corner of her eyes.

"Hey," now Tonks' smile was gone, replaced by a gentle kindness that hurt worse, somehow. "I'm sorry. It's not every day you meet your long lost relatives." She reached out to squeeze Hermione's hand. "It was very, very nice to meet you. I look forward to getting to know you better."

Not trusting herself to speak, Hermione nodded.

"I'll see you at Christmas?"

She nodded again, and turned. Ignoring Draco's cry of "Mione!" she fled through the door, and into the frigid wind.

Chapter Text

There was no snow, but her breath came in puffs of white as she followed her mother up the street. Beside her, Draco gawked at the Muggles who passed them.

"Do you think they can tell that we're not Muggles?' He whispered.

She looked at their strange clothing, and then looked down at theirs. She was wearing her new red silk cloak, and he was similarly dressed in black. "Possibly," she said, feeling unsure. "But maybe they just think we're embracing the Christmas spirit."

Behind her, her father made a noise that was half scoff, half laugh. He was not happy to be in a Muggle village. Earlier he had tried to stay home, but Narcissa threatened to cast the Imperius curse on him. After that he dutifully donned his fourth best dress robe (we mustn't make them feel bad for not having as much money as us, Narcissa explained), carried the sack with the presents, and promised not to say anything rude to Mr. Tonks.

"This is the one," said their mother, stopping at a front gate. There was a large wreath on it, tied with a shiny silver ribbon. "Deep breaths now," she forced a smile that looked painful, and Hermione instantly felt sorry for her.

She had been surprised when her mother confirmed that they had been invited to Christmas dinner at her estranged aunt's home. She had been even more surprised when Narcissa insisted that they go.

The house was small. She was certain that Malfoy Manor was at least ten times the size of the little green house that sat before her. It was pretty enough, though. Several hardy herbs still flourished in the garden, in spite of the chill. A white cat sat in the front window, sleeping in the winter sunlight. It looked up at them as they crowded in front of the door, and Hermione offered it a small smile.

At Narcissa's knock, a cheerful-looking man opened the door. "Happy Christmas!" he roared, ushering the three Malfoys inside. "You're right on time! Dromeda is nearly done with dinner. Can I take your cloaks?"

A muggleborn home. Hermione's eyes scanned the walls, taking everything in. It looked like any other home, she supposed. Not as nice as hers, she decided, but that was understandable. There was a stairwell to her left, and the wall above it was full of family portraits. She noted that some of the pictures were frozen, as if their inhabitants had been pertrified. To her left was a small sitting room, full of comfotable-looking furniture and a strange black box. It was much cleaner than she expected. Everything was tidy, though she doubted that they could afford a house elf.

Her attention was pulled away as the man reached to take her cloak.

He was a slim, tall man with warm brown eyes, thick gray hair, and an easy-going laugh. He was dressed in muggle clothes, jeans and a buttoned shirt. A purple bow tie was at his throat. He beamed at them, hanging their cloaks on hooks by the door. "I'm Ted, by the way. It's very nice to meet you all."

One by one, he shook hands with each of them (though for a moment it seemed like her father would refuse) then pushed his wire-rimmed spectacles up his nose. "Would you like something to drink?'

Steaming mugs of hot-buttered rum was fetched for each of them, and they were ushered into a warm kitchen.

A woman, who Hermione suspected to be Andromeda, stood at the stove, stirring something in a pot.

"Hello," she said in a rich voice, "You must be Draco and Hermione." Like her husband, she shook hands with them, and smiled down at them. "I'm very glad you've come." Her eyes hardened a bit when they landed on Lucius, though she gave him a tight nod, which he returned.

Something about her was familiar, and it took Hermione a moment to realize that she sounded exactly like Bellatrix did when she spoke. Except softer, somehow. Gentler.

"Ted, would you finish the potatoes, please?"

Having never actually seen anyone cook their own food, Hermione's eyes watched with interest as the man pulled a strange instrument from a drawer, and began pounding it into a bowl.

"Cool!" chimed Draco, apparently thinking the same thing. "Can I try?"

"Of course!" The man moved over so that Draco could join him at the stove, and began explaining to him, "All you need to do is mash the potatoes until they're smooth…"

Hermione exchanged a glance with her mother, who smiled back at her.

"I'm here!" cried a voice from the front door, startling Hermione.

Tonks strode into the kitchen, to the great delight of her parents. Today her hair was a mess of red and green curls. She had flashing silver eyes, and a wide grin. Hermione moved closer to her mother as Andromeda and Ted stormed to envelop the young woman in their arms.

"I hope my sister is a better cook than she was as a girl," whispered Narcissa, "otherwise we'll all be horrifically ill!"

"I heard that!"

Luckily for them all, the food was delicious. A few minutes after Tonks arrived they all piled into the small dining room. Hermione say between her father and Draco, and breathed in deeply as the food was loaded onto the table. Andromeda had prepared a roast goose, green beans, brussel sprouts, rosemary dinner rolls, mashed potatoes with gravy, baked brie, and Hermione's favorite- dinner rolls that were filled with melted gruyere.

Hermione watched Andromeda throughout the meal as she recounted all of her childhood misadventures with Narcissa. Her voice was soothing, and Hermione felt a stab of embarrassment as she found herself hanging on to every word.

I wouldn't feel this way if you'd actually speak to me , she thought irritably.

Nothing but silence.

Still, Andromeda was good at putting the Malfoys at ease. Or, most of them, as Lucius ate little and remained silent throughout the dinner. Andromeda ignored him completely, a grinned warmly, asking about their interests, and recounting numerous stories about a younger Narcissa.

"Narcissa used to insist that everyone call her Princess Cissy!" Laughed Andromeda a couple hours later as she sliced an enormous chocolate cake.

Her mother giggled, clutching her fifth glass of champagne to her chest. "I was three Andie!"

"You were six, and you insisted that Mother find a tiara that properly suited you."

"Do you still have it?" gasped Tonks, knocking her glass over as she leaned forward.

A flash of light shot from Andromeda's wand, pushing the glass back into place before anything could spill from it.

"Yes! It's in my vault at Gringotts."

"She would-" Andromeda broke off, laughing as she remembered something. "She would go about asking random men to dance with her, and after each one she would ask if they wanted to marry her. Mother was scandalized."

Hermione and Draco exchanged delighted looks. Their mother had never been one to share stories, nor had they ever seen her become so… giggly. She looked years younger.

"She put a stop to that soon enough. Remember that she threatened to actually betroth you to the next one you asked?"

"Yes! And it worked too. That's when I decided that the next man I proposed to would be my husband." She grinned over at Lucius, who gave a grim smile in return.

"As I recall, I did the proposing."

She winked (to Hermione and Draco's further amusement) and whispered loudly, "Only because I let you."

"Dromeda proposed to me," chimed Ted, reaching fill Draco's glass with pumpkin juice. "On the grounds of Hogwarts. Obviously I said yes," he tilted a forkful of cake towards Lucius, "You can never say 'no' to a Black, eh Lucius?"

Something akin to a smile twitched across Lucius' mouth, but his eyes were annoyed, "Indeed."

Hermione nudged her father with her elbow, and he nudged her back.

"Were your parents alright with you marrying a witch?" asked Draco.

Ted smiled, "It was just my dad, but yes. He was very fond of Dromeda. Still is, in fact."

"You might get to meet him, in fact," said Andromeda, to the uncomfortable surprise of three of the Malfoys.

The fourth, however, was thrilled.

"Cool!" crowed Draco. "You still know a Muggle?"

"'Course we do," nodded Tonks. "We live in a Muggle neighborhood, so we see them everyday. And Grandad comes over once a week for dinner."

Hermione glanced at her father. He was clearly struggling to maintain a neutral expression. Narcissa, on the other hand, smiled tentatively.

"Well, I'm sure we'll be delighted to meet him. Isn't that right, Lucius?"

The ghost of a grimace crossed his face, "Indeed."

It turned out that they did not have to wait long for the senior Mr. Tonks to arrive. He came in, smelling of woodsmoke and turkey, and greeted each of the Malfoy's warmly.

"I've always hoped to meet some of Andie's family," he grinned, slapping Draco on the back, and embracing Narcissa, "I see that good looks run in the family!"

Narcissa laughed some more, and hugged him back.

"And this must be Hermione. You're as pretty as your mum!"

Lucius wrapped an arm around Hermione, as if afraid this man would want to hug her as well. "And I'm Lucius," he said smoothly, shaking the older man's hand. "Narcissa's husband."

The man, who looked exactly like an older Ted with his spectacles and bow tie, clapped him on the shoulder. "You've got a lovely family. A really lovely family."

"I like to think so," said her father, wiping his hand on his robes when the man turned away.

He was nothing like what Hermione thought a Muggle would be like. She had always thought that most Muggles would be boring and slightly dim. Instead, Mr. Tonks- or "Grandad", as he told the Malfoys to call him, was full of interesting stories. He was a green grocer, and he told tales of all sorts of Muggle mishaps.

"-so she says to me, 'I'm sorry sir, but I demand a full refund. The fruit is moldy,' and I say, 'When you can show me a moldy fruit, I'll give it to you!' and she turns beet red, and shouts, 'What do you call this?' and I say, cool as ice, 'a rat.' She was holding a dead rat the whole time!"

There was a roar of laughter (mostly from Andromeda and Narcissa). They were all sitting in the living room. Narcissa and Andromeda shared a loveseat, while Hermione, Lucius, and Draco sat on the couch. Ted and Mr. Tonks sat in chairs they'd brought in from the dining room, and Tonks sprawled across the carpet.

"Enough about me though, how is Hogwarts these days? Ever since this one," Mr. Tonks nodded at Tonks, "left I've been missing the stories."

"Nothing interesting happens there now that the Ministry is involved," grumbled Hermione. "That awful Umbridge woman-"

"Has she mistreated you?" asked Lucius sharply. He looked as if he would love to take his frustration out on something.

"No," she was almost sad for it. "She's just stupid. I'm not learning anything this year!"

"I thought Harry started a study group?" Tonks asked from where she sat on the floor.

Draco laughed, "He did, but Hermione's upset that someone her own age is better at something than she is."

"I am not!" protested Hermione. "I'm glad that Harry has his strengths."

"Then why did you stop coming after you couldn't cast a patronus?"

She felt her cheeks burn, and her eyes dropped to her lap. That stupid charm. She had practiced later, too. Even when she was alone she couldn't produce anything more than a thin mist.

"You're learning how to cast the patronus charm?" asked Tonks, her eyebrows raising. "That's amazing! I didn't learn that until my Auror training, when I did my mandatory month at Azkaban."

Hermione's head shot up.

"Azkaban?" asked Draco.

"Mhmm," Tonks nodded as she took a drink from her mug. She wiped her mouth on her sleeve when she finished, "All Aurors are required to spend a month guarding at Azkaban." She gave a shudder, "That place still gives me the creeps. The things prisoners say…"

Every hair on Hermione's body stood on edge as she stared hungrily at Tonks. Was there a way to ask about... No. She stole a glance at her mother, then darted her eyes towards her father. She was certain that they would find it alarming if she asked about the aunt who was supposedly blocked from her mind.

The giggles that had been coming steadily from the loveseat ceased.

"Bellatrix is there," whispered Andromeda. She gazed solemnly into the distance, as if recalling a distant memory.

Hermione stared at her, willing her to continue.

It was Tonks who spoke next. "I saw her a few times. She heard them call me by name once, and she used to come to the door when I was patrolling by her cell." She shivered, "Gave me the creeps."

"What did she look like?" asked Hermione without thinking. She felt her cheeks burn even brighter as every eye moved to look at her.

"Like every other prisoner." Shrugged Tonks. "They don't really get baths all that often, so they're all dirty and matted. The smell is horrible, I used to come home and douse myself in perfume in order to mask the stench."

Hermione felt her stomach flip flop.

Draco leaned forward, his eyes grave, "Did she say anything."

The curls bobbed wildly as Tonks shook her head, "Not really. Every once in a while she'd mutter something about filthy half bloods, but for the most part she just stared at me."

"Were you scared?" Draco asked.

Tonks appeared to think about it for a moment. Her face softened, "Not really. I was more scared of the Dementors, I think. The prisoner's are more pathetic than anything. The sounds they make-" she shuddered again. "There is this scream that goes out at night, like a fox cry. And most of the prisoners end of joining in, screaming out over and over again. It lasts for hours most nights."

She felt sick. "And no one does anything?" she could feel her parents looking at her, but she could not hold back the question.

Tonks shook her head again, "There's nothing that can be done."

"That's so sad," Draco sighed.

"No it's not." Narcissa sniffed, her face serious again. "Those prisoners are there because they deserve to be." Her eyes found Hermione's, "Every one of them."

They did not stay too long after that. Tonks had agreed to meet other friends, and Lucius and Hermione had other arrangements as well (not that they divulged that to the Tonks'). There were kisses, and promises to see each other again soon.

"That went better than expected," admitted Narcissa as they walked down the street so that they could find a safe place to Portkey home.

"Did you know that there would be a muggle there?" asked Lucius in a carefully neutral voice.

"No."

Draco stuffed his hands into his pockets. "I thought he was really nice."

She chanced a look at her father, only to find him looking at her. There was a careful, considering look on his face. Then he smiled at Draco. "Very nice. But I hope I don't have to explain the importance of no one in our world finding out-"

"Lucius, calm down," her mother was still a little drunk, and her words were ever so slightly slurred. "The children are clever enough to know not to say anything. They won't mention it."

They found a quiet area behind a large hedge, and portkeyed home using an old teaspoon.

"We're late," hissed Lucius as he checked his pocket watch.

Draco said nothing, but climbed the stairs to his room.

"You can take the drawing room floo," suggested Narcissa, reaching out to smooth Hermione's hair back. "Just don't take be home too late."

Hermione inwardly smiled, as Lucius began to plunge towards the drawing room. "I'm sure it will be a quick visit, there will be too many people there for the attention to be on us for long."

As it turned out, Riddle Manor was nearly empty.

The two Malfoys strode into the Dark Lord's study to find that the only one there was the Dark Lord himself. He sat in his favorite wingback chair, Nagini wrapped around his shoulders like a protective cloak.

"Ah, Lucius, Hermione. It's so nice to see you." He did not look up from where he was staring into the fire.

"Happy Christmas, my lord," she said, summoning up the cheerful smile and tone that Dumbledore thought Voldemort would like. She dropped into a curtsey, and then pulled a chair close to the pale man.

"Happy Christmas," Lucius echoed, doing the same. Before they had left, he had summoned a basket from the kitchen. "We've brought you some of our best elf made wine, in addition to some cakes our kitchen elf made this morning."

"Thank you," said the cold, unaffected voice. He did not look up from the fire.

The two of them exchanged looks, and Hermione reached to pull a bright red envelope from the basket. "I also made you this," she said, passing it to Voldmort.

He took it, and ripped the envelope open, shaking out a photograph. It was Hermione, in a fur lined cloak and her new red dress, smiling from beside a rather large Christmas tree. The words "Happy Holidays- Love, Hermione" were neatly inked in silver across the tree. The photographic Hermione smiled and waved up from the photo. It was something every Malfoy did during the Holidays. Narcissa felt it was more personable than traditional Christmas cards.

There was also a portrait of Draco, and another of both Lucius and Narcissa, but Voldemort left them in the envelope, and propped Hermione's up against an empty glass on the table beside him.

"I'm sorry we're late," Hermione said softly.

At last, Voldemort turned to look at her, "Do try to be on time in the future. I don't like to be kept waiting."

Not for the first time, Hermione wondered if the man in front of her could feel the immense cloud of loneliness that seemed to hang around him. It was always cold when he was in the room. She shivered and pulled her cloak tighter around herself. "I am sorry. We lost track of time. It won't happen again."

His red eyes bore into hers, "Well, we won't let it ruin the night. Have you had a good day?"

She nodded, smiling over at Lucius, "The best."

"Children like presents, I hear?"

She almost chuckled at that, but she managed to hold it in. "I think everyone likes presents. But yes, I do too."

He smiled a smile that did not reach his eyes, but it no longer made her hair stand on end. "I am still working on your present, but first I want to show you something."

He stood, Nagini still clutching his shoulders, and headed towards a low door in the corner of the room. She moved to follow, but to her surprise her father stayed seated.

"Go on," he whispered when she looked unsure. "It's fine."

So she followed the Dark Lord into a low-ceilinged room that held hundreds of mirrors. Every surface was glittering, even the obsidian floor was polished to show their reflections. When she looked up, she saw herself gazing back at her in surprise.

There was a click as the door was pulled shut. The only light came from a single candle that floated above them, but it shone in the numerous reflective surfaces.

" Cor Volumus! " shouted the Dark Lord. A black dart shot from the tip of his wand and into the nearest mirror. It hit the reflection of Hermione, and the real Hermione felt a strange trickling sensation in her chest.

Suddenly, she wasn't looking at herself in the mirrors. Or rather, not herself, herself. The Hermione looking back at her had Draco's blonde hair, and Narcissa's blue eyes. She looked out coolly from her seat on the Wizengamot, smirking a little as her eyes met Hermione's brown ones.

Laughter met her ears, and she twisted to see her parents waving proudly at her. Narcissa had tears in her eyes, and Lucius called out, "We're so proud of you, sweetheart!"

In another mirror a young, blonde Hermione sat in the Great Hall, waiting patiently as the Sorting Hat was set on her head. It barely brushed her hair before it screamed out "Slytherin!"

Tears pricked at Hermione's eyes. "Wh-what is this?" she asked, unable to look away as the blonde Hermione joined a cheering Slytherin table. Snape nodded down from the Head table, a genuine smile on his face.

"This is my room of truth. I was inspired by a certain mirror I ran into a few years ago. A good leader should know what lies in his subject's heart," he paused, watching another blonde Hermione twirl around the Great Hall with a certain part-veela. Mid-twirl, Fleur's silvery hair became dark and curly, her face blurring. Two words flowed out from the scene, "My dove…" and Hermione hoped that he couldn't hear the whisper over the cheering that still came from the Slytherin table.

"When you know what they want," Voldemort continued, "You can help them achieve it."

Hermione swallowed. "You… it's not possible for this to happen," she indicated the cheering Slytherins.

"Maybe not," smirked Voldemort. "But that," he nodded to the Wizengamot Hermione, "and that," he nodded to her parents, "and this," he ran a hand over the dancing figures, "are still within your reach. I can make it happen. With me, you can make it happen."

Something flickered across the floor, and Hermione looked down to see herself, blonde again, roaring with laughter as she ran away from another blurry-faced woman. Another roar of laughter joined hers, and she recognized the voice.

Bellatrix .

"And so, Hermione Malfoy, I will ask the most important question you will ever be asked in your life. Would you like to join me? Would you like all of this?"

Hermione couldn't tear her eyes away from what was happening beneath her feet. Her cheeks burned crimson as the darker lady caught up to her, spun her around…

"Hermione?"

"Yes."

"What was that?"

She wrenched her gaze up, meeting his red eyes. "I said yes. I'll do it."

A mirthless chuckle filled the room as one by one the blonde Hermione's disappeared. They were replaced by glowing red eyes.

"Then we'd better find you a suitable tutor."

Chapter Text

Severus walked back to his quarters at Hogwarts. It had been a long day, and he felt as if he could sleep for days.

He let out a groan as he spotted the strip of light that slid from under his door into the dark passageway. Fantastic. Dumbledore was waiting for him.

On some days, Severus was unbothered by the headmaster's ignorance of the basic idea of common courtesy. Most days it filled him with blistering irritation.

He pushed open the door, and did not respond to the cheery "Hello, Severus!" As expected, Dumbledore was sitting at his desk, a dusty bottle of butterbeer in hand.

Without so much as glancing at the other man, he slung off his cloak, hung it on the hook by the door, and slid his wand up his sleeve. Then, he scoured the contents of a nearby cabinet, and poured himself a glass of firewhiskey.

"What do you want, Albus?" He asked tiredly, dropping into the chair across from the older wizard.

"I wanted to check in." Came the friendly reply, as if they were two old friends who had been too busy to catch up, "It's been a while."

He could feel a migraine forming between his eyes. Taking a deep breath, he massaged the bridge of his nose. "Well, where should we start? With Miss Malfoy's recent promise to become a Death Eater, or with the Dark Lord's plan to break into Azkaban?"

The sharp intake of breath almost made him smile.

"He's invited Hermione to become a Death Eater? So soon?"

"Isn't that what you wanted?"

"I thought that perhaps he would wait until Hermione was older. Or even that she was more of a-"

"A what? A pet?" Severus made a disgusted noise in the back of his throat. "He only has one pet, and you've seen what he makes her do. She has been spared the Dark Mark for now. I think he intends to give it to her as a sort of coming of age present."

"I can't image Lucius and Narcissa are happy about this."

Severus took a drink, barely noticing the burn as it slid down his throat. "Well, Lucius has been affected, that's for sure." His friend had replaced eating with drinking. To the point where Snape had taken to carrying bottles of sobering potions with him whenever he felt the Dark Lord's call.

"And Narcissa?" Albus' eyes glittered intently in the light from the oil lamp.

"She was not pleased." He did not add that Lucius told him she threw a candlestick at his head, smashing the window behind him. There was a new ward against him entering their bedroom or her personal sitting room, so Lucius had been spending his nights in one of the guest bedrooms. He did not envy Lucius. Narcissa's temper was nothing to be trifled with. Perhaps he should give his friend a bezoar next time he saw him. Just in case.

"I imagine not." Albus sighed. "She hasn't been responding to my letters."

"She's probably decided that it's better not to be involved in your little schemes."

There was a sigh. "Everything I do is for the greater good, Severus. We knew this was going to happen," he took a deep breath, "but I had no idea it would be so soon-"

"Didn't you?" Snarled Snape. His eyes were full of repulsion. "You've been grooming her to be the perfect asset for the Dark Lord, Albus. Ever since you found out there was a muggleborn orphan who you could manipulate and mold into your ideal spy. I doubt you've even considered the damage it's done to her. Damage that won't be reversible."

"Severus," Dumbledore's blue eyes were full of shock, he looked saddened by the lack of faith in him, "You can't possibly believe that? Every measure has been taken to maintain her safety-"

"Like you maintained Potter's safety?" ice dripped from Snape's voice, and he picked imaginary lint from his robes. "The second you encouraged Lucius to introduce her to the Dark Lord you sealed her fate. As far as I'm concerned, all of the horrors she will be exposed to- that she will commit. Those are on your hands."

"It is my hope that she will be kept safe-"

"Then you are an ignorant old fool!" Snape scathed. He rose from his chair. "You have no idea what he is capable of-"

"Sit down Severus," the whisper was soft, "I, more than anyone, know what he is capable of. I also know Hermione. She will not fail us."

He sat down, breathing hard. He was not so certain that Dumbledore could possibly fathom what the Dark Lord was capable of. He had never been to the meetings, to the muggle-hunting parties. He had sat on his clean white throne high above, while Severus came home with blood dried on his robes and under his fingernails.

Dumbledore didn't hold back Lucius' hair while the man retched into a toilet and sobbed about his little girl. The night had left Severus feeling shaken. Lucius had always been cool and calculating. To see him in such a state was unnatural.

Nor had Dumbledore seen inside Potter's mind. He disliked the boy, but he dislike those muggles even more. It was worse that it didn't need to be that way. Any other family would have been thrilled to raise the boy who lived. And he was pretty certain that if Albus had tried harder, he might have found a decent muggle family to take him in.

"What about the Azkaban plan. Should we alert the Ministry?"

Dumbledore thought about this, peering into his bottle as if it held the answers. "No," he said slowly, "This may be the thing that finally brings them around. The world has to has to wake up sometime." He wearily got to his feet, "I hope you realize that I take no pleasure from this, Severus."

He knew that well enough. He could see the regret dripping from every pore of the older wizard. And yet he felt with every inch of his being, that the old fool's avarice prevented him from realizing that there may be other ways to win the war.

Ways that didn't involve ruining the lives of everyone he cared for.

"Everything I do," continued Dumbledore, "Is for the greater good."

He nodded, and stood. "Goodnight, Albus."

Dumbledore looked at him for a long moment, and then smiled. "Good night, my boy. Sleep well."

Severus nodded, but now he was certain that he would not be able to sleep. All night long he would be seeing Lucius' desperate eyes, hearing his sobs. Thinking about the girl who should have been in his house.

He sat back down, pulling a stack of unexamined essays towards him. Then, with a scowl, he pulled out a quill. He almost felt a stab of pity for the Third Year Ravenclaws and their essays on antidotes. But as he slashed the first "T" across an essay he felt a calm settle over him. On most days he felt like a toy being tossed back and forth between two spoiled children. He was seldomly in charge of his own life, and there were days that he forgot which side he was on. What his personal beliefs actually were .

And then he came back here, to the slightly damp chambers that had been his home for the last fourteen years, and read the drivel some arrogant little toad tried to dress up in large words, and he knew exactly who he was.

He dipped his quill in a fresh bottle of red ink, sneered down his nose at the pile of parchment, and moved on to the next one.

XX

Healer Nancy Pine followed the Auror through a twisting corridor in the heart of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. Her heels clicked reassuringly on the polished floor, and she tugged at the sleeves of her uniform.

"This your first time to Azkaban?" The Auror asked. He carried an unlit lantern in his hand, and it made an unpleasant squeak as he swung it.

Nancy held her head up high, "Yes." She had meant to sound calm and sure of herself, but her voice came out high and wavery. She suddenly wished that she had not allowed her mother to shear her hair off that weekend. At the time she had thought that the short, glossy cut had made her look older and more sophisticated.

Now she wished she had something to hide her face behind as she felt her face burn.

The Auror smiled kindly at her. "It's not as bad as they say. You'll have your patronus, and most of the prisoners will be delighted to see you. The one's that aren't-" he made a violent gesture with his wand, "I'll take care of right quick."

Comforted by his words, she returned his smile. "Sorry, I didn't catch your name-"

He snorted, as if that was somehow funny. "It's Rasper, Jim Rasper if you want the whole of it. Here we are!"

They had come to a little, plain door. Rasper placed his wand against the doorknob, and let out a low sigh as it sprang open with a popping noise.

Her eyes widened as the smell of seawater flooded her senses. In the middle of the tiny room was a pool. An ancient-looking rowboat bobbed in the water, looking as though it might capsize at any moment.

Sneaking a look at her, he grinned, "You didn't think we were walking to Azkaban, did you?"

"No." She thought they would use the Floo Network. But now, as she thought about it, she realized how silly that idea was.

There was a lot of splashing as the two clambered into the rickety vessel. The wood was mildewed and slippery, and she clutched the sides in fear of falling as she took a seat on one of the two wooden slats. A single oar lay on the bottom of the boat.

As soon as she was seated Rasper handed her the lantern.

"Better that you hold on to this," he murmured, retrieving a box of matches from his pocket and bending to light the wick. The flame caught instantly, and burned red. It cast an eerie, sinister light around them.

He stooped to pick up the oar, and sighed as he straightened. "You might want to brace yourself, Healer." Then, gripping the oar firmly with both hands, he thrust it into the water.

She opened her mouth to ask why, but was cut off as the boat gave a lurch, and began to spin. Water sprung up on either side of them, whirling up in a great arc over their heads, until she could see nothing but seawater.

Not that she would want to. The boat was spinning so rapidly that it flung her against the side of the boat, and the had to grip with both hands to prevent herself from being flung overboard. The lantern she kept pinned between her stomach and the boat, praying that the jostling wouldn't knock it loose.

All the while, Rasper stood tall and steady with his hands on the oar. She had to admire his ability to stay upright, especially when a particularly hard wave pushed the boat up so that it looked like it was being pulled bow first out of the water.

Then the spinning slowed, and finally stopped. She slowly loosened her grip, and perched back on her seat.

When she had entered the Ministry some thirty minutes before, the noon sky had shone happily above. Now though, the clouds rolled black and ominous above them. She could make out the faint outline of the fortress through the soupy fog.

"Now would be the time to cast your Patronus, Healer Pine." Rasper called over his shoulder. There was an old, frayed rope tied around the stern, and he used this to fasten the oar in place. They were moving steadily forward, and Nancy figured that the oar was what helped them navigate the choppy waters.

Taking the lantern from her, he held it high over his head.

With the practice that had come from endless drills during her training, she cast the Patronus charm, and smiled as the shaggy pony blossomed from the tip of her wand and pranced in a graceful circle around the boat.

There was another flash of light, and a great, shaggy wolf sprang in front of the pony, running large circles around it.

The prison came into view slowly. It was a tall, black structure that seemed to rise straight out of the sea. Waves crashed against the sides, sending water sluicing up the rock and into the barred, glass-less windows.

Nancy pulled her cloak tighter around herself, like her uniform it was white, and bore the St. Mungo's name across the breast. It smelled faintly of vinegar, and somehow the scent gave her the courage to stay on course, rather than beg the Auror to take her back.

There was a small cavern near the base of the rock, and Rasper steered them into this. It turned out to be a sort of docking area, with a low ceiling and a set of stairs carved into the foundation. The red light from Rasper's lantern made the wet walls look as though they were dripping with blood. She was grateful for the swan patronus, who continued to swoop around them.

"Where are the… guards?" she whispered.

He steered the boat towards the dock, "They keep their distance when the Healers come."

Getting out of the boat was just as difficult a feat as getting in. And the slipperiness of the stairs made her feel that this task was deliberately made to break the spirit of those trying to enter the prison.

She was so grateful to be on solid ground, that she forgot for a moment where she was. Then a long, mournful cry pierced through her thoughts, setting her hair on end. It sounded like something between a moan and a scream. Inhuman. Her patronus pressed closer to her, offering some form of comfort.

"Come on, Healer. The sooner we get started, the sooner we can leave."

She found it odd that they did not run into another human guard as they did their rounds, but Auror Rasper seemed unconcerned. She found his presence comforting as she slid into the first cell.

The stench was unbelievable. A mix of unwashed body, dirty hair, mildew, and sickness. The person on the small bed was curled into a fetal position. Their skin was taut over their bones, and Nancy suppressed a shiver as the figure looked up and stared at her with wide, unfocused eyes.

"M-my name is Healer Pine," she said, trying to force cheerfulness back into her voice. Her patronus swept close to her, and she felt a slight warmth press against her side. Taking a deep breath, she continued. "I'm here to give you your exam, do you mind standing up for me?"

The person nodded, and Nancy suddenly realized why she had been advised to only look for blatant signs of disease. There was no way anyone could live like this and be healthy.

"What's your name?" she asked, pulling her wand out to perform the diagnostic charms.

The figure stared without blinking. Then rasped, "Annie."

Nancy smiled, and reached to check Annie's pulse.

"Don't get any ideas about taking the Healer's wand, now," warned Rasper. He stood in the doorway with his wand aimed at the prisoner. Annie did not blink, or show any signs of hearing him. Nancy was willing to bet that even if she did attempt to the take the wand, it would take no more than a push to overpower her. Especially when Annie began to cough wretchedly.

"I think you've got the lung rot," said Nancy, setting her medical case on the floor, and opening it. Like all of the St. Mungos Healer bags, it was charmed to hold thousands of bottles, a store of potions, and the equipment to collect samples.

"Spit into this, please," ordered Nancy as she held a bottle with a teaspoon of clear liquid in the bottom.

Annie obliged, and the liquid smoked immediately, turning a dark orange. Nancy pulled it back and stoppered it, labelling it with Annie's name and prisoner id.

"We're going to run some tests to make sure that it's actually lung rot," she explained, "but in the meantime I'll give you a potion to ease the coughing. I'll leave instructions with the guards that you're to have that twice a day."

There was no response, but the green potion was downed instantly.

They were all like that. Nancy had never seen such a horrible collection of untreated illness in one place.

"I don't understand," she said after seeing a prisoner with skin that was grey and blistered with tiny pustules. "Healer Allan was here two months ago. Surely he prescribed something for that! It doesn't get that bad for months!"

"He probably did," Rasper rubbed his hands together for more warmth. His patronus wolf loped up and down the corridor, it's ears pricked. She was grateful that her own pony stood close by. "But that doesn't mean that the orders were actually carried out."

"But that's illegal!"

"That's Azkaban," he sighed. "It's part of-" he paused.

"Part of what?"

"Shh!" He held up his wand. "Do you hear that?"

She tensed, listening intently. At first, she could hear nothing. Then, as if it was coming from the bottom of a very deep well, she could hear it.

Cheering.

"Something's happened," he said. The look on his face was enough to make her heart stop beating for a moment. Slowly, he straightened. With a flick of his wand, his wolf sprang towards them.

"Go back to the Ministry," he ordered it. "Everyone to Azkaban, now!"

The wolf darted away in a flash of silver.

"Get back to the boat," he hissed. "Go now, don't look back."

"But what about you?" She shivered for reasons other than the cold.

He pulled himself up to his fullest height, and winked at her, "Don't worry about me. Get yourself to safety. Go, before they catch up to you!" He took off down the corridor, disappearing around a bend.

The cheering was growing louder now, picking up speed as the prisoners in the cells around them began to cheer as well. They pulled themselves to the steel doors, cheering through the barred window at the top, banging their cups and bowls on the door.

Her legs refused to run. They moved as if they were wooden, plunking along awkwardly as she hugged the walls of the corridor. She did not know where she was on the first floor, or how to get back to the boat, but she pressed forward.

Her patronus stayed near, it's silvery form growing dim as her fear grew stronger. She had been trained to sustain a patronus for hours, it was a requirement to be able to go to the prison.

There was a clatter of footsteps on the brick floor. Her heart leapt to her throat. If she couldn't find the boat then she needed to find a place to hide.

As if Merlin himself were listening, she found a dusty broom closet, and clambered inside, pushing herself behind a tangle of brooms. The pony stood in front of her.

The cheering grew louder, and louder, and she saw flashes of light beneath the door.

Someone was screaming. She hugged her knees to her chest and listened hard. Her heart thumped in her ears, making it difficult. Where were the Aurors? Had the wolf made it to the Ministry?

A tin bucket was jammed into her side, no doubt bruising her, but she barely felt it. Her wide eyes were fixed on the crack between the door and the floor.

BANG!

The door burst open, and a body fell in, crashing into the brooms. It landed on it's back, eyes unseeing and pointed towards her, mouth open in a silent scream. Nancy let out a whimper of fear. It was Rasper.

"Well, well, well." A raspy female voice said. "What do we have in here."

Nancy looked up from her spot, trembling with pure terror. The woman who stood before her was covered in grime, and had long, matted black hair. Her mouth was twisted in a horrifying grin.

The pony patronus flickered once. Twice. Then extinguished. Nancy felt as if she had been encased in ice. She was unable to move, unable to speak. Her wand was completely forgotten as she stared into the flashing eyes above her.

"I really should kill you," purred the woman, "it sends a good message. But, you haven't hurt me…" She twirled a dirty lock around her finger, and stared at Nancy. "Oh, come now. No tears."

Nancy couldn't stop them if she tried. They were rolling down her cheeks unchecked.

"Oh, I know!" The woman crept closer, propping one foot on Rasper's chest so that she could lean close to Nancy. "I'm going to make you my little pet." Her breath was foul. Nancy let out a sob, and shook her head.

"N-n-no!"

"It's a shame I didn't ask your opinion," cooed the woman. Her hand moved so quickly that Nancy had no time to react-

" Reformabit! " There was a flash of yellow light.

It felt like she was being squeezed on all sides. There was a sharp pulling sensation, and the woman grew taller, bigger. She was falling, and then everything was dark. Her heart thumped in her ribcage, and she felt her tail twitch to fight free of the material surrounding her.

Wait, tail?

Nancy tried to cry out for help, but all that came out was a squeak of surprise.

Then something clasped tightly around her middle, and she was being lifted.

"Well, this is a surprise," the soft voice sounded like a megaphone in her ears, "I expected a mouse, or maybe a dog. But this-" a grimy finger ran down her fuzzy nose, "I'm not entirely sure I know what you are…" A bright grin flashed across her face, "No matter. I like it. I think you'll suit me just fine."

For some reason, the words filled Nancy with panic. But for the life of her, she could not remember why.

"Now," Nancy felt herself being tucked into a pocket, and she burrowed into the darkness, so that only her ears were poking out, "let's go celebrate."

XX

Hermione was at breakfast the next morning when a large owl swooped down and dropped the morning Prophet down on her plate of eggs.

The headline read "MASS BREAKOUT IN AZKABAN"

Hermione dropped her spoon, and scooped up the paper, unfolding it. Her stomach felt as if it were doing somersaults. All around her distressed cries went up. Harry and Ron were talking urgently, but she ignored them.

Her hands shook as she opened to a list of the escapees, and nearly dropped the paper.

Bellatrix was listed among the escaped, but her face was obscured by thick, red letters that read:

I hope you like your Christmas present.

Chapter Text

The Manor was silent, still save for a single candle that flickered in a draft. In her study, Narcissa sat upright in her chair, watching the flame whip back and forth as if it was the most interesting thing she had ever seen.

She missed her children. They hadn't even been gone a month, and already she wanted them back where she could see them.

The flame sputtered, and extinguished, shrouding the room in black. Narcissa did not move. Did not blink. She continued to stare at the unlit candle with her unwavering blue eyes.

Something flickered in the corner of her eye, and she shifted her gaze to look at it-

-and nearly fell out of her chair.

Grinning at her through the window was her eldest sister. Icy fear slid down her spine as she took in the feral smirk. Bellatrix tapped a single finger against the glass, and waved.

Fishing her wand out from between the cushion and the arm of her chair, Narcissa made the curtains slide over her sister's face. This was the last thing she wanted to deal with today.

There was a shattering sound a moment later, and Narcissa glared as her sister flew in on a broomstick.

"Fix that," she snapped.

There was a heavy sigh, but the glass from the broken window flew up and repaired itself a moment later.

"You do realize that we have a front door?" asked Narcissa without looking up. She heard the broom drop to the ground.

Bellatrix's voice was laced with irritation, "I tried that already, no one answered."

"Generally that means the person you are trying to reach is not available."

Bellatrix stooped down to peer into her eyes. "Have you been drinking?"

Narcissa scowled, "Not that it's any of your business, but no. I have not."

Her sister let out a breath of relief, "Good. I'd hate to think you'd devel0ped bad habits while I was away."

"My habits are fine."

There was a prickle at her scalp, and she realized too late that Bellatrix was using Occlumency.

"So Lucius has turned to the bottle, then?" she sounded oddly pleased, and Narcissa's exhale came as a hiss. She forced her mind to go blank.

"It's none of your business."

"Oh, baby sister. Everything you do is my business. I love you."

"Wonderful." The words came out as a drawl.

"Oh, stop that. You know it's true."

Bellatrix conjured a red, overstuffed armchair, and pushed it up against Narcissa's chair. With a flick of her wrist she re-lit the candle. "Well, if it comes down to it, you can always live with me at Thestral's Catch. Rod's going to be staying with his brother in the city, so it's very peaceful."

Narcissa thought of the old hunting lodge where her sister lived, and snorted, "I don't think it's come to that yet."

Bellatrix shrugged, unoffended, "Well, the offer stands. For you and the children. I would love to get to know them."

Narcissa peered over at her, examining the toll that years of imprisonment had taken from Bellatrix's beauty. Her hair was still thick, but it was shot through with streaks of grey. Her skin was sallow. It clung too tightly to her skull, and deep circles were carved beneath each eye. Fine lines were etched at the corners of her eyes and mouth. She looked like she was recovering from a long illness. And yet something about her was off.

Narcissa had seen Azkaban prisoners before. Her uncle had been imprisoned for 5 years for Muggle torture, and he had returned a snarling, shaking mess.

Bellatrix was remarkably stable. Her eyes, though tired, were clear as they looked up at her.

"I won't let them come to any harm, Cissy," she whispered. Her voice was probably the most changed thing about her. It used to be almost musical, now it sounded as if it had been raked across razor wire.

Narcissa shifted slightly, so that she was facing her. "I don't think you should make any promises you can't keep."

"I'm not!"

She closed her eyes slowly. "If the Dark Lord asked you to kill one of my children right now you would do it in a heartbeat." She opened her eyes, and blinked in surprise at the hurt that flashed across Bellatrix's face.

"How could you say that?" she whispered.

"How could I say that?" something hot flared to life within Narcissa. "You've already threatened my daughter's life-"

"I thought I was helping," Bellatrix shrugged. She shifted so that she could prop her feet up on the arm of her chair.

"You…" Narcissa took a deep breath, "You cut my child in an attempt to make her a half-blood! You performed blood magic! Do you not see how insane that was?"

She was met with a blank expression. "She was healed instantly Cissy. It's not a big deal."

Silence enveloped the room as the two sisters stared at each other.

"Not a big deal?" Narcissa's voice came out as a shrill whisper. She knocked her sister's feet down, "Bellatrix, I'm not an idiot. I know what happened!"

Nothing twitched on Bellatrix's face. Her gaze remained steady. "What are you talking about?"

For a moment, Narcissa considered cursing her sister. Her fingers twitched around her wand, and she ran her thumb along a groove in the polished wood. "You know exactly what I'm talking about."

"I don't think I do."

"You were in her head, Bellatrix!" Before she could register what was happening, she was on her feet. "Do you know what it's like to wonder why your three year old is having horrific nightmares every time she closes her eyes? To explain to a six year old that she's cold all of the time? You can't really say it's because she has a psychic link to someone who is constantly surrounded by Dementors!" She swallowed hard. "I watched her shatter every window in the house once because she felt angry , and she spent the entire evening crying because she didn't know why. But I knew why, and so do you."

Bellatrix stared at her. Then her gaze wavered, and she looked back down at her nails. "It was an accident."

It came so low, that Narcissa almost missed it. "What?"

Bellatrix sighed, her eyes rolling up to meet her sister's. "It. Was. An. Accident! Merlin, Cissy, do you really think I meant for that to happen?" She made a disgusted face, "Do you really think that low of me?"

"Yes."

Hurt flashed in her eyes, and then disappeared behind an impassive mask. "That's a shame. You're going to have to get over that."

She did not like the sound of that. "Why?"

"Well," she smirked at her, straightening up, "The Dark Lord has decided that I am going to train your precious daughter. Apparently he thinks very highly of her, wants her to have the best," she winked, and Narcissa felt her stomach drop.

"Congratulations. Is that all?"

"I have been in Azkaban for more than a decade, Cissy. Aren't you a little happy to find out that I'm free?" There was a tinge of hurt in her voice.

Narcissa sighed. Against her better judgement she crouched in front of the chair, and took one of Bellatrix's hands in her own. It was too thin, and she could feel the bones beneath her sister's skin. It occurred to her how easy it would be to twist and crush those bones, making it impossible for her sister to ever hold a wand again. She had to swallow down the bile that rose with that thought.

"Of course I am, Bella. I never wanted you to go there. We were supposed to raise our children together- to have them be as close as we were when we were girls."

"It didn't quite work out like that."

She shook her head, "No. You took a different path. And as much as I love you, I can't help but resent that."

Bellatrix slowly pulled her hand free. "Lucius made the same choice as I did. Is he privy to these little speeches? Perhaps that's why he's decided to drink so muc-"

"Leave now."

All gentleness has slipped from Narcissa's voice. She stood stiffly, and flicked her wand. The windows banged open, letting in the wind.

"Fine," Bellatrix snapped, getting to her feet. "I'll go. But keep in mind that I am the one who is going to teach that girl how to keep herself alive in the service of the Dark Lord. A little gratitude would be nice."

Forcing as much sarcasm as she could into the words, Narcissa hissed " Thank you. "

Bellatrix sneered at her, retrieved the broom, and left.

She allowed the windows to flap in the frigid night air. On shaky legs, she walked to the desk and pulled open the drawer. She pulled out two pieces of parchment and her quill. Her hands shook so badly that when she unstoppered her ink she spilled half the bottle over her desk. Ignoring the plink of ink dripping onto the floor, she penned two identical messages:

Stay at Hogwarts for Easter.

Chapter Text

On most Sundays, Hermione took breakfast early and then spent the morning in the Astronomy tower. There were nooks carved into the wall where she could sit and write a letter to her parents. Or she could just think. The only sound was the wind whistling through the staircase. The cold stone was soothing, and she felt more at home here than she did amongst the chatter of Gryffindor Tower. It was the perfect hiding place. Unless someone deliberately searched the gloomy walls, there was no way that they would be able to see her.

On this morning, she sat with her right sleeve pulled as high as it could eyes were fixed on a thin, silvery line across the crease of her elbow.

Did Bellatrix have a scar too? She hoped so. She pulled her sleeve over the mark, and leaned her head back against the stone.

It had been a lonely year. She had heard nothing from Bellatrix, very little from her parents, and she had seen very little of Harry since he had revealed her Father as a Death Eater in the Quibbler. Her relationship with her brother was strained as well, as Draco was of the opinion that their father deserved the notoriety.

She was so lost in thought that she missed the click clack of high heels on stone steps.

A high, girlish noise somewhere between a giggle and a whimper pulled her out of her thoughts, and she nearly jumped out of her skin as she looked up into Dolores Umbridge's toad-like smile.

"Good Morning, Professor!" She said, disguising her discomfort with a cheerful tone. "Is there something I can help you with?"

Umbridge's grin stretched wider, "As a matter of fact, Miss Malfoy, there is. I've been giving a lot of thought to your careers advice session with Professor McGonagall."

Hermione's neck prickled uncomfortably. The session had been remarkably straightforward. It was no secret that she wanted to work for the Ministry, and her family's money practically ensured that she would be guaranteed a position. Surely Umbridge couldn't argue that she should look for different employment options?

"You see, one thing that your Head of House forgot to point out is that the Minister likes to hire those with a demonstrated ability to work well with others."

She did not like where this was going.

"Teamwork-" continued Umbridge, "and the ability to problem solve within a group, is a highly coveted skill. You are not part of any student clubs, is that correct?"

She nodded, and stiffened as Umbridge stepped closer. There was a strange glint in the older woman's eyes.

"I believe I have the solution to your problems, Miss Malfoy. I'm starting a little squad for the elite students in this school. Those who have shown a dedication to the Ministry's cause." She placed a plump hand on Hermione's shoulder. "I believe you would be an excellent addition to the Inquisitorial Squad. As part of my group you will have the chance to get closer to your peers, as well as work to enforce the school rules. In addition, I will personally write a letter of recommendation to Cornelius Fudge, suggesting that he hire you on when you leave Hogwarts."

She didn't need it. She had been to more dinners at Fudge's home than any other student in the school. She opened her mouth to point this out when Umbridge sat down next to her. She smelled sickly sweet, like perfume that had gone rancid. Hermione struggled to keep her face neutral.

"To be perfectly frank, dear, we know who your brother runs around with." Umbridge shook her head, as if she were responsible for letting this happen. "Sooner or later he's bound to get into trouble. When the time comes, wouldn't it be better to be close to the situation? To be able to control it? After all, it doesn't take much to tarnish a family name, does it? Even one as illustrious as Malfoy."

It was rubbish. She knew that. The Malfoys could talk their way out of anything. But part of her, the part that cringed whenever Draco was outspoken about his opposition to the Dark Lord, listened. The Malfoys would be fine. But Draco? Maybe it would be a good idea to keep an eye on him.

"Ok," she said. Her voice sounded very far off.

The hand on her shoulder squeezed too tightly. "Very good, dear, very good! I'll get you a badge immediately!" She hopped to her feet, and let out a strangely high-pitched giggle. "I'm sure you'll enjoy yourself immensely."

Hermione watched her waddle down the spiral staircase, and wondered if she had just done something incredibly stupid.

Two months later she was certain that she had.

She stood in front of her mirror, and smoothed her hair into a slick bun at the base of her skull.

"Very sharp," commented the mirror.

In her opinion, she looked nothing like herself. She looked… severe . Her skin looked very pale in the Inquisitorial Squad uniform of black on black Someone had decided the month before that they should all dress alike. Umbridge had loved the idea.

Her Inquisitorial Squad hat sat next to her regular school hat on top of the wardrobe. It was short and squat, and it reminded Hermione of Umbridge herself. She hated it. Nevertheless, she lifted it onto her head, stowed her wand up her sleeve,

"Wish me luck," she said to a grey Turnip. The wubble gave a huff in response, and jumped up onto her bed to make himself at home.

A hush fell over the common room as she entered the common room. She kept her back very straight, and tried to ignore the blatant looks of disgust. She was well aware that they thought of her as a traitor. It stung a little, especially when she caught the look in Neville's eyes.

You've never fit in here though , she reminded herself. Drawing her cloak tighter around her shoulders, she sped through the portrait hole.

"Hermione!"

A warm voice greeted her from in front of the library. A seventh year, decked out in Inquisitorial Squad robes, grinned at her as she drew nearer.

"Hello Terence," she said, stepping closer to him. "Where are we starting the patrol tonight?"

He rolled his eyes. "Umbridge wants us to 'skirt the perimeter of the forest'" he made a face. Terence Higgs was a Slytherin, and had been in her social circle ever since she could remember. Over the past few weeks he had become more of a friend than an acquaintance. He was intelligent, and more compassionate than most. Also he hated Umbridge just as much as she did.

"Two points from Ravenclaw for running in the corridors," she drawled lazily as they passed a pair of racing students on their way down the stairs. She smirked a little as they groaned. She never took away an unfair amount of points (she had once overheard Crabbe take 50 points from a Gryffindor third-year for breathing too loud), but every once in awhile it was fun to throw her power around.

"Exams going well?" He asked as they reached the front doors of the Entrance Hall.

She smirked at him when he held the door open. "Thank you. I think I did rather well." She was certain she'd be getting O's in everything. Her spellwork had been perfect, and there was no one who could write a better essay. Then she remembered Harry's patronus, and her grin faded. Try as she might, she was never able to produce more than a thin mist. The examiners hadn't asked her to perform the patronus charm, of course, but it still irritated her that Harry could do something better than she could.

Especially when she had many more happy memories than he.

"My N.E.W.T.s are going well too, thanks." She looked up at Terence's playful tone, and blushed.

"Sorry, I- I was distracted for a moment."

He laughed, and she smiled. He was the first friend she had made at Hogwarts who wasn't a Gryffindor, and while she loved Neville and Harry, she couldn't help but feel more comfortable around Terence.

"I wonder if the Dark Lord cares about exam scores."

Especially when he said things like that.

The Higgs family was prominent in Pureblood society. His Father had been killed by Aurors during the first war, and now his uncles were persuading Terence to join the Dark Lord's cause. They were not Death Eaters, but Hermione had a sneaking suspicion that they hoped Terence would be.

"Didn't you know? You're supposed to provide all exam scores and three letters of reference." She kicked a pebble, and watched it roll down towards the lake. There were a few students outside, but the light rain had driven most indoors. The grass was soggy beneath her feet, and she apologized silently to Winky, who she knew would be cleaning them later.

"Do you think it hurts?" He asked.

"Hm?" She looked up at him, "Do I think what hurts?"

His pale green eyes stared solemnly at the water. He was quiet for a few minutes, and then he whispered, "The Dark Mark."

A breeze rattled through the treetops, and threatened to pull her hat off. "I… I don't know." She answered truthfully, holding on to the edge of the hat. She had never given it much thought. Now that she thought about it, she had never really seen one properly before either. Her father had worn long sleeves the summer before.

"Has your father said anything about…" he swallowed, and colored. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to be rude-"

"It's ok," she said, feeling a little awkward. "He doesn't speak much about it."

"Oh. But he speaks about the Dark Lord?"

Actually no. He had been strangely quiet about that particular subject. Even when he took Hermione to the meetings he had never wanted to discuss it afterwards.

"Yeah, sometimes."

Terence nodded. "My uncles think he's the best thing since Merlin. They think he's going to turn our whole society around."

She watched a group of younger girls chase each other over the lawn. Their clothes were muddy, and they shrieked with laughter.

"Do you think, I mean, I understand if you can't, but do you think you could ask your father if there's anything special-"

"Yes," she said at once. "I'll ask him this summer."

A broad smile stretched across his face. "You're the best." He looked out across the lawn, eyes shining. "I can just imagine the look on the old toad's face when he makes his return public." He threw his head back, and said in a high, shrill voice, " Oh dear! Oh dear! What will the Minister say! Oh! Oh no! "

Hermione laughed along with him, and they finished their patrol.

"Thirty minutes early," she sighed, checking her pocket watch. "I suppose we should go ask what she wants us to do next."

"She'll probably ask us to patrol the library," he said, waggling his eyebrows. "You know how much she loves it when we catch students in compromising situations ."

She gaped at him, "Not in the library?!"

He chuckled, "You'd be surprised. It's unfortunate that Umbridge doesn't send you out on the night patrols. There's a lot that we see on those."

"But in the library!"

She shook her head as she followed him to Umbridge's office. Her mind was full of thoughts about the upcoming summer. She was excited to see her parents again, and to spend time with Draco outside of their friend group. But there was also a current of anxiety surrounding Bellatrix. She was certain they were going to finally meet in person.

Would Bellatrix like her?

It was a silly thought, and she could feel her cheeks burn. She had been friends with Bellatrix forever- Well, with the exception of the past year.

She was snapped out of her thoughts as they walked closer to Umbridge's office. A loud, abrasive voice was screeching about Half-breeds and Dumbledore.

"Looks like Old Toadie caught something." Terence rolled his eyes. Hermione, on the other hand, heard Harry's defiant voice, and felt her stomach drop. She pushed past Terence, and burst into the cramped office.

Wrapped tightly in Crabbe's grasp was Harry, his head jerked back by Umbridge. She had her wand at his throat, and her face was purple with rage.

The other members of the Inquisitorial Squad were there as well, each restraining a different member of the D.A. Neville was caught in a chokehold by Goyle. Bulstrode had Ginny's arms pinned behind her back. Ron was lying facedown on the floor with Montague's knee in the middle of his back. In the corner, Pansy Parkinson had her wand pointed at Luna Lovegood, but both looked bored by the whole situation.

Then her eyes slid over to the person in Warrington's grasp, and she felt sick. Her brother stared angrily back at her. A bruise was already forming under his right eye.

"Miss Malfoy, good!" Umbridge tightened her hold on Harry's hair. "Run and fetch Professor Snape immediately."

Her feet moved before she could process the words. Brushing past Terence, she sped towards the dungeon. It was as if her entire head was encased in fog. She didn't remember tripping down stairwells, or sprinting through the gloomy tunnels beneath the school.

When she reached the familiar door that led to Snape's personal chambers, she knocked in loud staccato.

The door sprang open at once, and the annoyed look on Snape's face slid away immediately as he took in her state. "Hermione? What's happened?" His face paled, "What's wrong?"

,She gasped for air, "She has Draco!" Without meaning to, she grasped the front of his robes, and swayed.

Snape looked alarmed, but he gently reached out to steady her. "Hermione," he said in a soothing voice, "who has Draco?"

She took in a deep, shuddering breath. "Um-Umbridge," had breathing always been this difficult? "She's got the whole D.A. in there too." She swayed again, and he pulled her into his chambers.

"I want you to take a calming drought," he said, moving to a shelf that held dozens of potion bottles. Their contents shimmered in the torch-light.

"There's no time," she protested, only to have him give her a stern look.

"There's time enough. Here, drink this down." A small vial containing a deep blue liquid was pushed into her hands. "It's my own improved recipe."

Seeing no point in arguing, she tipped the contents down her throat. It tasted like strawberries, and she felt as if she had been wrapped in a warm, cozy blanket. Her breathing instantly became easier, and the room stopped spinning. A dreamy calm settled over her.

"Better?" There was a glimmer of concern in his eyes, and she forced a smile.

"Much better, thank you Uncle Sev." Her voice sounded distant, like it was coming from far away. She moved to the door, "But we have to go back. Something must've happened, it's not like Draco to get into trouble like this."

Snape's expression darkened, and he hissed something that sounded like "Stupid boy!" under his breath. He swooped through the halls, his robes billowing behind them, and she struggled to keep up with his long strides.

The next few minutes passed quickly. Snape stormed into the office with Hermione on his heels, and coldly informed Umbridge that she had already used his complete store of Veritaserum. She screeched for a few minutes, and then bellowed that she would inform the Minister of his lack of help.

Hermione rolled her eyes behind Snape's back. The woman was a complete idiot if she thought Fudge would take her side in this.

Snape moved to leave, but a yell from Harry stopped him.

"Padfoot's been taken!" Harry struggled against Crabbe's grip, his green eyes fixed desperately on Snape's back. "He's been taken to the place where it's hidden! "

Snape froze, and turned slowly to look at Harry.

"Ah! Ah!" Umbridge gave an excited jump, her face a hideous mottled red. "What's he on about, Severus?"

Hermione, on the other hand, started. Sirius? Her eyes found Draco's, and he gave an almost imperceptible nod.

Snape arched an eyebrow, "I have no idea. I've never given much thought to Potter's ramblings. I suggest you do the same." On that note, he turned, and swooped through the door.

Hermione blinked. She had expected him to stay, to help her get Draco out of this mess.

"Well!" Umbridge toddled forward to push the door closed. "There's more than one way to discover what you were doing with my fireplace, boy!" She rounded on him, holding her stubby wand high. "A little taste of the cruciatus curse should do it."

"No!" Draco tried in vain to free himself. "You can't, it's illegal!"

"I'm sure that I'll be forgiven, given the circumstances."

Draco shifted his gaze to meet hers, "Hermione…"

The stubby wand was pointed at Harry, " Cruci- "

"Hermione!"

"Stop." Her voice, though soft, was effective. Umbridge did not look at her, but nor did she finish the incantation.

"My father would be very displeased to learn that a Headmistress he endorsed knowingly used an unforgiveable on a student." She put every ounce of haughtiness she possessed into the words, and drew herself up to her full height. "Especially given the rumors that are circulating around him at the moment."

"The Ministry is more important than your family's reputation, Miss Malfoy."

Hermione felt her face burn, How dare she? "Do you think the Ministry will recover from this once word hits the press? The Minister-"

"Will never know. Cornelius is quite happy to cover his ears when faced with certain truths. Especially when it's for the good of the Ministry. The Dementors I sent to Potter's house last summer, for instance-"

"That was you?" gasped Harry.

"Yes!" Umbridge's gleeful face was a terrifying thing to see. "Yes it was me! Not everyone has the foresight to see what threat you pose to the Ministry. You are a menace! If only the Wizengamot could have seen! Well, now they will. You'll tell me where the weapon is, Potter-"

Weapon? Hermione flicked her eye's to Draco's, and he gave a tiny shake of his head.

"and once I've exposed you and Dumbledore, the whole Wizarding world will know what you've done. No one will take the Boy-Who-Lived seriously after that!" Her face morphed into a snarl, " Cruc- "

"No!" I won't let you drag my father's name through the muck!" Hermione took a deep breath, and forced her face to crumple. "I… I know where the weapon is."

Someone gasped, and she heard Ron's confused voice say "What?"

Umbridge turned to stare incredulously at her, and Hermione let her chin drop to her chest. She had never been a very good actress, but she did her best to sound miserable.

"I… I heard Harry and Draco talking about it one night." she said, pleased when she noticed her voice waver a little bit.

"Why didn't you mention anything?" Umbridge said, her voice a mix of delight and exasperation.

"I-I didn't w-want Draco to get in trouble!" she gave a sniff, and moved to rub her eyes a little. "H-H-Harry already accused father of being a Death Eater, I d-d-didn't want Draco's name to start any more rumours about our f-family."

She heard Umbridge groan. "You stupid girl! Did you not realize that by coming to me, I could keep the Malfoy name far away from the press?"

Hermione pretended to gasp in shock, but kept her head down. "You… could?"

"Of course I could have!" Umbridge's saccharine voice was nearer now, and Hermione saw two pink shoes come into her field of vision. "Help me find the weapon, and we will preserve the Malfoy honor together."

Hermione believed her about as much as she could throw her, but she bobbed her head up and down. "Ok," she said quietly. "Th-thank you Professor!"

"Potter, you're coming with us!" There was a scuffling noise. "Oh, pull yourself together, Miss Malfoy! We don't have all day."

Fighting the urge to grin, Hermione bit the inside of her cheek hard enough to bring tears to her eyes, and glanced up.

With the exception of Ron, who was still face-down on the floor, every eye was on her. She sniffled a little bit for emphasis, and lifted her chin in an attempt to make it seem like she was steeling herself.

"Where did you say the weapon was, Miss Malfoy?" Umbridge's wand was pressing between Harry's shoulder blades. "Forward Potter!" she barked.

Harry shuffled forward his eyes burning into hers.

Think, Hermione, Think ! She scoured her mind for somewhere that she could take Umbridge. If something had happened to Sirius…

And then an idea formed in her head. A smile threatened to spread across her face, but she forced it back.

"It's in the forest."

Chapter Text

It had been years since her last trek through the Forbidden Forest. Hermione's mouth quirked as she realized that her purpose for entering the forest that time was also to save Sirius. She held her wand lazily at her side, and smirked secretly to herself as she felt Harry's wand up her left sleeve. She had discretely nicked it from Umbridge's desk before they left the office.

Unlike last time, Harry was in the grasp of a stout woman who greatly resembled a toad. Umbridge kept one hand knotted in the robes between Harry's shoulder blades. Her other brandished her wand as she cackled about how much she was going to enjoy Dumbledore's trial and inevitable conviction.

"And then that filthy, half-breed loving traitor can spend the rest of his days rotting in the dankest cell in Azkaban!"

Hermione rolled her eyes behind Umbridge's back, but kept her tone cheery. "I think it must be a bit further ahead, I heard them say 'deep in the forest', but it can't be too much deeper. Surely Dumbledore wouldn't risk his students going so deeply into the forest."

"On the contrary, Miss Malfoy, I believe that Dumbledore has no qualms about risking his students. You see, people like him have no regard for the sanctity of the Wizarding World. If it were up to him we'd all be running amok with the beasts of the forest."

She heard a twig snap in the undergrowth, and a smirk spread across her face.

"Surely they can't be all that bad, Headmistress?" she asked, watching something dark move amidst the trees.

Umbridge gave a high, girlish hmph "Indeed they can. The half-breed is incapable of basic human reasoning or knowledge. When the Ministry controls Hogwarts completely I intend to personally oversee the purification of this wretched forest."

Harry gave a little jerk, outrage burning in his eyes. His eyes slid over to Hermione's, and she fought the urge to wink.

"Purification?" Hermione asked, a cruel glee rising in her. She could see the shadows moving among the trees, and she recognized the silhouettes easily.

"Oh yes. There should be no 'Forbidden' Forests on school grounds. Once we clear out the dangerous monsters, we'll be able to keep proper, child-appropriate animals on site. How would you like to hike amongst unicorns, and picnic with the fairies, Miss Malfoy."

Biting her lip to keep from smirking, Hermione asked carefully, "But what about the Centaurs? Won't they be upset that the order of their forest has been corrupted?"

Umbridge snorted, " Their Forest? Dear girl, the forest is not theirs. By definition, a non-human being cannot own land. The very idea! This land is part of the school, and soon it will be part of the Ministry-"

"I think not," said a rough voice.

A heavily muscled centaur emerged from the trees, his face enraged. He had a roan body, pale grizzled hair, and very large hooves. His tail swished angrily.

Umbridge jumped back, nearly losing her hold on Harry. "I am Dolores Umbridge, Senior Undersecretary to the Minister of Magic, and Headmistress of Hogwarts! I order you to clear out- all of you!"

Hermione noted with interest that dozens of centaurs had appeared behind the first one, their eyes glinting in the pale light. Covertly, she slid her wand up her sleeve.

"We do not answer to the Ministry, nor do we answer to a false Headmistress."

The words were deceptively calm, but the centaur took a step forward. "Take the foals and leave."

"I will not!" Umbridge screeched. "There is a weapon in this forest, and I intend to find it!" Her eyes narrowed, "Are you working for Dumbledore? Are you hiding him?"

"We do not work for any wizard," the centaur said, his chin jerking up scornfully. "This is our land, and you have trespassed far enough!"

Evidently, Umbridge did not take kindly to his words. "These are Ministry lands, and by refusing to do as I say you are in violation of the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures! I have no choice but to lodge a formal complaint, and I will ensure that this herd is disbanded-"

"I don't think you will," sneered the centaur. He took another step closer, and Umbridge whipped up her wand.

" Incarcerous! " She screamed, sending a jet of ropes from the end of her wand. They wrappped around the roan centaur, twisting tightly so that he cried out in pain.

"No!" A black-haired centaur shoved his way to the front, and Hermione pulled Harry away from Umbridge quickly. The woman was shaking in fear, her wand still pointed towards the roan centaur.

"Do not help him," advised Umbridge in a shaking voice. "He will be managed by the Department for the Regula-"

"You have harmed a member of the Black Lake Clan!" hissed the centaur. "By rights you shall be judged by the Clan!"

He swooped forward, picking up Umbridge as if she weighed no more than a sack of potatoes.

"You can't do this!" She shrieked, kicking and slapping him. Her face was bright red. "I am the senior undersecretary-I am the Headmistress! Malfoy, Malfoy, use your wand!"

Hermione pretended to gape after her, watching her be carried away by the Clan. Harry was breathing heavily next to her, his eyes wide behind his glasses.

Two centaurs, a red-headed female and an old, grey male turned towards the two students.

"Please don't hurt us!" Hermione cried, holding up her arms. "She forced us to come!" She was rather proud of the shakiness in her voice. If she weren't so determined to become Minister she could go into Theatre.

The female stalked close, her eyes narrowed in distaste, "We are not the monsters your Ministry thinks," she spat. "A true centaur would never hurt a foal, no matter what their parentage may be."

"She didn't mean to offend you," Harry said quietly.

The female straightened. "I am not offended." Her tone directly contradicted her words, "Go now, leave the way you came. The forest will not bother you."

Harry seized her hand and pulled her quickly up the path. She could still hear the faint sounds of Umbridge's screams, as well as the clop of hooves. Shuddering, she retrieved her wand, and passed Harry his.

This is Umbridge , she reminded herself, thinking of the blood quill and Harry's hand. She deserves this .

While they walked, Harry filled her in about Sirius. He told her about the dream he had, and how Voldemort had something hidden in the Ministry. Hermione's frown deepened as he spoke.

"You should have told me," she said when he'd stopped. "I could have asked about the weapon."

Harry didn't look at her, "We haven't exactly been on speaking terms."

"Well, you did tell the entire world that my father is a Death Eater." she said waspishly.

He stopped dead, and whirled to face her. His eyes flashed angrily, "He is a Death Eater!" he scathed, hands balled into fists. "He was there, Hermione, he saw what happened! And-" the anger fled from his eyes, draining as suddenly as it had come, "he didn't do anything. He just let Voldemort try to kill me."

Looking at the hurt in his eyes, Hermione decided she preferred the anger.

"I know I've never really met him, and he doesn't know me," whispered Harry hoarsely, "but you and Draco are my best friends. I thought- What kind of man lets someone kill his children's friends?"

Something painful dug into Hermione's mind as she absorbed his words. She hadn't thought about how her father's actions would impact Harry . It was always Voldemort versus Harry, and separately, her father as the shield between her family and Voldemort. She had never truly considered how the two overlapped.

And she was going to be a Death Eater.

It was as if she had been tossed into a pool of icy water. Harry was standing there, raw and open, and it hit her that he trusted her .

When he found out, he was going to be devastated. It felt like there was a knot in her stomach, hard and wretched.

"I'm sorry," she whispered, real tears pricking her eyes.

Thankfully, he mistook her meaning. "It's not your fault," he said, smiling broadly at her. "You're not your father. For what it's worth, I am sorry that I told Rita Skeeter about him. I was just so angry, you know? I didn't think abou-"

"It's fine," she said, forcing all other thoughts away. She affected a cheerful smile. "I understand why you did it. Let's not dwell on it." Her smile darkened to a smirk, "We've got a dog to save."

He smiled, and the two took off again through the trees.

XX

It had been too long since she had stepped foot in the Ministry.

As soon as she entered the Atrium she was met with the familiar smells of ink, parchment, and the metallic tang of fountain water. Harry, Draco, Neville, Luna, Ginny and (to her extreme disappointment) Ron hurried behind her.

"The Department of Mysteries is on the eleventh floor," she said, heading towards the lifts. She heard Harry mumble something like "I know," and smirked when she heard her brother's reply.

"Better let her have this, mate. She practically grew up here."

A single paper memo flapped miserably in the dark lift. Luna smiled mildly at it, "What a beautiful little Snipledragon. I think they make lovely pets, don't you?" She blinked slowly at Hermione.

"Er, sure…" she said. She had never quite gotten used to the odd things Luna said. But the girl was friendly enough, and Draco thought highly of her.

Her brother stood behind her, his bruised face making him look more serious than she'd ever seen him. Harry stood beside her, bouncing on the tips of his toes.

"Before I forget," she said, taking out two purple chains. "Weasley's Instant Disguises," she explained, draping a chain around Draco's neck. "If there are in fact Death Eaters here, we can't risk them noticing us."

"Where did you get these?" Draco asked in awe. His hair was now a swirling mess of red curls, and he had a very impressively hooked nose.

"Terence and I took them off of some third years," she said nonchalantly. She slipped the second one over her head and sighed as her hair ballooned outwards in a mass of red curls. She could feel her own nose bulge. "Pity they don't have more than one necklace," she sighed. "I have a third if anyone wants it."

No one took her up on the offer. The lift dissolved into anxious silence, broken a moment later.

"Maybe Malfoy should wait here," grumbled Ron.

Inwardly, she smirked, outwardly, she forced her eyes to go wide.

"Watch it," growled Draco.

"I'm not talking about you ," said Ron, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. "You're one of us, but where has she been this year? Merlin, she's still wearing her uniform!"

Though the hat had fallen off, the cloak was still draped around her. She opened her mouth to point out that she had been the one to save them all, but to her surprise the youngest Weasley broke in.

"Hermione helped Harry save Sirius the first time," said the redhead, "she has more right than any of us to be here. Except maybe Harry."

At this, Harry squared his shoulders, and said without looking back, "Hermione stays. She cares about Sirius just as much as we do. I trust her completely."

Warmth filled her, and she smiled fondly at the black-haired boy. Her brother nudged her playfully with his shoulder. This was the happiest she had been all year.

"It's at the end of this hallway," Harry said when they flooded out of the lift.

Hermione had been to the door, but had never been allowed into the actual Department. She had the strange urge to laugh as she crossed into the circular room

Without warning, the door to the corridor slammed shut, and the floor rotated. She braced herself as the doors spun. Draco jumped, and grasped her arm quickly. On her other side, Luna's expression remained serene, as if they were riding a mildly amusing carousel.

"It must be to keep us from knowing which door we went through," she murmured, her eyes blinded by the eerie blue torches.

Harry pushed forward, "We don't have time for this," he ripped open the door, "Let's go!"

"Should we split up?" asked Ginny.

"Only if we want to get eaten by whiffles." said Luna, for once her tone was serious.

Draco let go of Hermione's arm. "I agree with Luna," he said. "We should stick together."

Looking older than she'd ever seen him, Harry nodded. "Alright then, let's go. Wands out everyone."

That was a little redundant, as everyone was already grasping their wand tightly.

As they crept through the rooms, Hermione decided that the Department of Mysteries was the coolest place she had ever been. She was going to ask her father to arrange for her to visit this summer.

She stopped in front of a glass sphere that was half-filled with water. A waterspout rose out from the middle of the orb, stretching from the tumultuous water to the black clouds at the top of the sphere.

Papa would love this , she thought. A nudge from Ginny helped her recollect her thoughts, and she resumed her search.

There was a large tank that held brains, a shelf full of time-turners, and a room with a strange veil that she and Ron had to drag Harry away from. But each time they crept through a room, Harry shook his head and sighed, "Not this one."

They must have returned to the circular room a half-dozen times before Harry whispered triumphantly, "This is it!"

It was a vast warehouse-like room, filled with towering shelves. Thousands of silvery orbs filled the shelves, dusty tags hanging from them. They glimmered in the blue light of the torches.

Their breaths came in puffs of white mist, and Hermione shivered, drawing her cloak tighter around herself.

"What are they?" whispered Neville, looking at the swirling contents in a nearby orb. "There's a name here! Helena Jones, April 4th, 1873."

"This one's got a name on it too," said Ron, reaching out towards the one nearest him.

"Don't touch it, idiot!" she snapped, pushing his arm down. "This is the Department of Mysteries, do you have any idea what's going to happen if you pick that up?"

"Do you?" he challenged.

"No!" she jerked her hand away from him. "That's precisely the point. We have no idea what happens if you touch them!"

"The weapon has to be here somewhere. Spread out, and give a shout if you see anything odd."

They moved carefully between the shelves, each of them looking around for something out of place. Her eyes scanned the shelves, it felt strange in here. Like something was trying to shake her. Every hair on her body was on end.

"Harry-" called out a dreamy voice, "this prophecy's got your name on it."

Hermione's head jerked around, and she took off towards Luna's voice.

"And look, it's also got You-Know-Who's name. Do you think that's what this is about?"

She rounded a bend at the same time as Ginny, and the two nearly crashed into each other. Draco and Neville were already crowded around Harry and Luna, and she saw Ron coming in from the opposite side. Hermione pushed forward, looking for the orb with Harry's name on it.

The strange feeling grew stronger, and she looked over her shoulder nervously. She felt as if they were being watched, but could see nothing in the gloom.

"Is this the weapon?" asked Draco.

Harry looked unsure. "It-it must be." He took it down and held it gingerly in his hand. The contents swirled a little faster, as if excited to be off that dusty shelf.

"What would You-Know-Who want with a ball of glowy stuff?" asked Ron, squinting at it.

"Just like a Weasley," purred a silken voice that Hermione knew all too well. "You're so used to filth that you'd look at gold and think it was brass."

Feeling sick, she turned around.

Standing in the eerie blue light was her father, backed by half a dozen of hooded figures. There was a cruel sneer on his face, and he twirled his wand idly between his fingers.

For the first time, she wondered if her father would ever willingly kill a teenager. On top of the strange thruming that had seized her body, she was now certain that she was going to be sick. Blood rushed in her ears, making her miss Ron's retort. She could faintly hear Harry and her father shooting words back and forth.

"Where's Sirius!?"

"He's not here, Potter."

"He is! I know he is, I saw it!"

And then the slim figure beside her father lowered their hood, and her blood turned to ice.

She would know Bellatrix anywhere. Even with the gaunt features, the bedraggled curls, the distaste etched across her face, she was recognizable.

Everything else faded away. Hermione had only ever seen Bellatrix in photographs, but the woman before her was nearly unrecognizable from the girl with the sparkling eyes who had smirked into the camera.

Bella?

The woman blinked, and stiffened. Her dark eyes roamed over the collected students, but Hermione could not read the expression there. Still, it was enough to prove that Bellatrix had heard.

Then their eyes locked. Everything else faded away as she stared into the dark orbs.

Bellatrix's emotions roared through her so quickly and so abundantly that it was impossible to grasp any of them. The older witch wrenched her eyes away, and Hermione blinked as she came back to reality.

Swaying where she stood, she grabbed at her brother's arm. Harry was making a strange motion with his hands, and Hermione squinted in confusion.

But the rest of them seemed to know what it meant. At Harry's shout of "NOW!" they began to shoot charms at the glowing spheres, knocking them to the ground. Each time one of them smashed, a ghostly figure rose up, and began speaking in a strange, hollow voice.

After a few seconds, nothing could be heard over the din of haunting voices.

Hermione dutifully smashed a good dozen, before Draco seized her arm and yanked her after the rest of the D.A.

"Get to the exit!" Harry bellowed when they reached the aisle.

Unfortunately, that was easier said than done. the Death Eaters were fast in their heels, shooting curses at them. She heard Draco cry out beside her, and reached instinctively for his hand.

Bella, she tried again, Draco and I are here, with Harry. He's been hit.

She felt a sudden stab of anger, that prickled out into irritation.

" You little idiot!" Bellatrix's hissed in Hermione's head, " In what world did you think it would be appropriate to come face the Dark Lord's forces-your own forces, if the Dark Lord was not mistaken-alongside that half-blood brat?!"

Hermione shot a stinging hex at one of the masked Death Eaters, and yelled "Ginny, behind you!"

The redhead jumped aside just in time to avoid Montague's curse.

Inwardly, Hermione explained, " Sirius was in trouble, Bella. I couldn't turn my back on him."

Bellatrix's growl seemed louder than the crashes that came from all sides of her, " Stupid… Sirius was never in any danger. It was a trap! We needed The boy to retrieve his prophecy!"

She pulled Draco along as Luna, Ginny and Ron disappeared from sight. "Colloportus!" She said, sealing the door she and Draco had just come through shut. Her brother had a dazed look in his eyes, and a rash of green pustules was beginning to spread over his neck and jaw. She gritted her teeth and gave his hand a reassuring squeeze.

Then, the door she had just locked was thrown open, and two Death Eaters stormed in. One was thrown into a stand of time turners, knocking them all to the floor. Hermione grimaced as he let out a scream of pain, and vanished.

The other, a man she recognized from the Prophet as Antonin Dolohov sent Neville flying into a display of eggs, and turned on Harry.

"I HAVE POTTER!" He screamed, a terrible grin on his face, "He's over by the-"

"No- Silencio!" She spat, aiming her wand at the man.

His eyes burned, and he flicked his wand back at her. A streak of purple flame barrelled towards her, and struck her in the chest.

Stumbling, she released Draco's hand, and grasped at the nearest chair.

" What happened?" Roared the voice in her head, and she smiled faintly.

Worried, Bella?

She was certain that she had never been in such pain. It felt as if her skin was being ripped apart. A burning sensation was spreading across her torso, and it was becoming difficult to breathe.

"Petrificus Totalus!" Shouted Harry.

"Hermione!" Whispered Neville, standing shakily from where he had been thrown. "Are you ok?"

She forced a smile, "Yeah, I'm fine, Nev. But Draco-"

Her brother was dry heaving onto the floor. "M'fine!" he said, looking up at them. The pustules had now covered his cheeks as well.

"We have to move!" Harry said, coming over to help pull Draco to his feet. "Hermione, we're almost to the exit. If you and Draco go through you can bring back help! Neville, you can find the others and get them-"

Both Hermione and Neville began to protest at once. And it was made abundantly clear to Harry that no one would be leaving his side. The three pushed on, entering the room that contained the strange archway with the veil. Every step sent a flare of pain up Hermione's side, and she bit her lip in an effort not to cry out.

"I really don't like this room," said Neville, who had Draco's arm flung around his shoulders. "It feels wrong."

"Jus' needs a little nightlight," said Draco. His head lolled against Neville's shoulder.

Hermione and Harry glanced quickly at each other. If she weren't so worried she might have laughed out loud.

"Don't worry, we're halfway through," said Harry.

"Always so sure, aren't you Mr. Potter."

Swallowing hard at her father's voice, Hermione scooted closer to her brother.

Lucius and Bellatrix glided from the shadows in front of them, and two more masked figures shot out from behind the teenagers.

"Stupefy!" Hermione growled to the masked figure who crept closest to them. It dodged, and shot a green spark of a curse soaring over her head.

"Hand over the Prophecy, and your friends can leave," her father called out, "we wouldn't want them to meet the same fate as your other friend. What was his name?"

"You leave Cedric out of this!" Spat Harry.

"I do believe you've struck a nerve," drawled Bellatrix. Hermione cringed at the raspiness of her voice. "I'm thinking that Cedric was more than a friend. Perhaps Potter hasn't quite gotten over the loss of his boyfriend."

"Stop it!" Ignoring the man creeping up on him, Harry spun to aim his wand at Bellatrix. "Stop it!"

"Harry!" The Death Eater closest to Harry was mouthing an incantation, and as Neville fumbled for his wand, Hermione jerked her wand over and roared "STUPEFY!"

The man toppled over instantly, but Hermione had let down her guard. The Death Eater she had been watching disarmed her, and she felt as if two invisible arms had wrapped around her middle, pulling her back rapidly. She let out a yelp as the spot where the curse hit her was pressed, and then she smacked against something solid.

Her vision went blurry, and it took every ounce of willpower to stay conscious. Something pointy was thrust under her chin, and her head was jerked up. An arm snaked around her waist, brushing dangerously close to the spot where the curse had hit.

"Another Weasley?" Purred her father in her ear. "Your father clearly has no self control." To Harry he yelled, "I'm tired of these games Potter, hand over the Prophecy now or your friend will pay for her loyalty."

She felt Bellatrix's anger boiling beneath her skin.

" He doesn't realize he's holding his own daughter? What kind of a man-"

Smirking in spite of herself, Hermione responded, I'm wearing an appearance charm. So's Draco.

"Lucius," hissed the older woman. Hermione could barely see her. The pain from Dolohov's curse was so bad that she could not stop the tears from filling her eyes. "You're hurting her."

Ignoring Bellatrix, Her father laughed coldly, "Your little friend is crying now, Potter. Not so brave after all, it seems."

"Let her go!" Harry said, "You can have the Prophecy, just don't-"

" Hermione, the charm-"

" It's around my neck."

"Bring it here, quickly now!" Her father shifted his hold on her, causing her to cry out again as his arm squeezed the spot where the curse had hit.

"Stop," she whimpered, she smacked weakly at his arm, but he ignored her.

"Lucius!" She heard Bellatrix hiss. "Let her go now!"

"Once we have the Prophecy."

" We need that Prophecy, Dove. Hold on a little longer."

He did not loosen his hold. Harry was moving towards them, but now the room was spinning. She was going to be sick. And then she was going to faint. She saw the soft glow of the Prophecy as her father reached out to take it.

Bella, it really hurts.

She could feel Bellatrix's growl of irritation, but didn't know if it was aimed at her or her father.

"I think i'll hold on to her a little longer to make sure you come quietly," her father's voice sounded like it was coming from the bottom of a deep well. She leaned her head against his chest.

"Lucius!"

There was a strange tugging on her neck, and the appearance charm broke off. Her face felt tingly for a moment, and there was a strange coldness that spread across her scalp, and then her father gasped.

"Hermione!"

She heard a cry, the sound of shattering glass, and then fell into darkness.

Chapter Text

The first thing she was aware of was the uncomfortable warmth. Her side, where the curse had hit, was throbbing painfully.

Cracking her eyes open, she took in the mountain of mismatched blankets that had been heaped on top of her.

" Are you awake?"

Hermione struggled to move the blankets off herself. It felt like her arms were made of lead.

Yes.

"Leave them."

It took her a moment to realize that the last sentence had not been from Bellatrix. She looked up into the hard gaze of her potions' professor, and groaned.

" Finally! Do you have any idea how close we came!? Of all the stupid-"

"You've been shivering on and off all night. Leave them alone, you'll want them in a minute."

"Where am I?"

"You are in the headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix."

Snape walked nearer, taking the vacant chair by Hermione's bedside. She was in a tiny room, barely big enough for the bed and the chair. A tall window at the foot of her bed filled the room with blinding light. The walls were covered in yellowing wallpaper that sported tiny pink flowers. A thick crack wrapped around two of the walls, splitting the paper open to reveal the plaster and wood beneath. The floor was scuffed and worn, and a threadbare blanket had been thrown in a corner.

Bellatrix was still going. "- reckless, self-indulgent-"

"Does your wound hurt?" Snape asked silkily.

She gulped. This was the tone he used when he was particularly upset. The last time he had used this tone on her had been when she was nine and had blown up his favorite cauldron.

She shook her head.

" One can only hope that it was the result of an intelligence reducing potion-"

"Good, drink this."

He handed her a mug filled with an oozing yellow liquid. It tasted sickly sweet, and she had to hold her breath to get it down.

"All done? Good." He took the mug from her, and banished it. "Now, I do hope that you realize that your foolish actions nearly jeopardized over a decade of hard work and planning. What, pray tell, were you planning to tell the Dark Lord when he showed up?"

" Oh yes, please enlighten us with your brilliant plan." Spat Bellatrix, who had stopped her litany to listen to Snape. Hermione didn't have the strength to block the conversation from Bellatrix with Occlumency.

"He was there?"

Yes, idiot!

Snape nodded, "After your father had successfully cast a glamor charm on you. He does not know you were there."

" And he won't find out. I've obliviated the other Death Eaters who were in the room. I suggest you do the same to your friends."

"But it was a very close call. Do you know what he would have done to you had he found out? To your family?"

Snape always had a way of letting the words sink in so that they really hurt.

"Mercy is not a concept that our Lord is acquainted with."

" You would have been lucky if he killed you in a blind rage."

Hermione gulped, grateful now for the blankets.

Something in Snape's gaze softened.

"You are very young, still." He said, "You will learn. The glamor was a good start. When you've healed we will work on charms that only you can remove. Rest now."

He stood, and moved to the door.

"Professor?"

"Hm?"

"What happened, er… after I...?"

He sighed, and massaged his temples. "The other members of your little rescue mission were taken to St. Mungo's, with the exception of Mr. Potter. The Headmaster thought it prudent to keep you here in case the Dark Lord decides to raid St. Mungo's." His tone informed her that he did not think that was necessary.

"Is everyone… I mean did anyone…" she seemed unable to form the words.

"Your friends are safe. They were treated at St. Mungo's and released within a few hours. The Order arrived quickly and captured most of the Death Eaters." He watched her carefully. "The only casualty was Sirius Black."

"Sirius is dead?" She felt the blood drain from her face, and pulled the blankets closer around herself. Tears pricked the corners of her eyes. "How?" Harry will be devastated.

"He underestimated his opponent."

It was a very Snape comment, she thought. Part of her wanted to throw something at him for his calm tone. The other part of her noticed the look in his eye. A look that was much gentler than she was used to seeing. A look she knew had nothing to do with Sirius.

"What aren't you telling me?"

"When I say that the Death Eaters were captured, I mean that all of them were captured, save for Bellatrix."

She was still trying to wrap her head around the idea that Sirius , who had always been so kind to her- who had teased her about how much his mother would have loved her- was dead . "I understand."

"Hermione-" she jerked at the sound of her name, "Your father has been arrested as a Death Eater."

Realization dawned on her. "He'll get out of it." She said immediately. "He'll renounce them. He can say he was under the Imperius curse or something."

"No, Hermione. Not this time. The Dark Lord is not dead anymore. Who is more of a threat to your Father, the Ministry, or the Dark Lord?"

Lucius would be an idiot to renounce the Dark Lord now. pointed out Bellatrix. Don't worry Doveling, we'll get him out soon enough.

Her words calmed Hermione somewhat, but the girl was unable to stop the tears that spilled down her cheeks.

Something was held to her lips, and then she was drinking a new potion. This one tasted strongly of Lavender.

"It's almost time for your next potion anyway. This one will make you sleep as it works to heal your body. Should I have Molly bring something up for you?"

For the briefest of moments, she felt his cool hand against her brow. It vanished so quickly that she would always wonder if it was real or not.

Mother. She tried to speak, but her mouth was too heavy to form words. Where's my mother?

" Hush now. I'll get her."

XX

The last person Narcissa wanted to see was her sister. She had spent most of the night speaking with an Auror about her husband's connections with the "newly re-emergent He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named." Luckily he left before Bellatrix showed up, but he had promised that he would return.

But when her sister showed up hissing that Dumbledore had kidnapped her child and whisked her away to the Headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix , Narcissa did not ask how she came about this information, she merely thanked her, donned her cloak, and left.

Moments later she strode through the Hogwarts corridors with her wand out and sparking.

They really need to work on their security , she mused as she strode up to the stone gargoyle that she knew led to the Headmaster's office. Not a single staff member had noticed her.

"Liquorice wands," she snapped to the creature. It sprang back instantly, and she stalked up the stairs.

"DUMBLEDORE!" she roared, pounding on the door. "Where are my children!?"

The door opened slowly, and she was met with calm blue eyes and a polite smile. "Hello Narcissa. To what do I owe this pleasure?"

"Why was I not informed that my children were involved in a dangerous altercation with fully trained Death Eaters? Where are they!?"

"Draco is in the Hufflepuff common room-"

"I'm taking him home now. Where's Hermione?"

At that, his smile became a little more forced. "She is safe-"

"I'll determine that once I've had a chance to get her home."

"Now, Narcissa, we really should discuss-"

"Discuss what , Dumbledore? How you've withheld important information involving the safety of my children?"

"Actually, that's exactly what I wanted to discuss. With Lucius gone it seems entirely likely that the Dark Lord will seek to punish him by filling your home with Death Eaters. If that is the case… well, would it really be the best environment for Hermione and Draco?"

Anyone else would have cringed from the look Narcissa gave him, but Albus merely twiddled his thumbs and gazed placidly back at her.

"Are you insinuating that I cannot keep my children safe?"

He had the nerve to crack a smile, "Not at all, my dear. I'm merely suggesting that we discuss all of our options."

Bristling, she squeezed her wand tighter, and sparks shot out, singing the edge of his desk. "I will take my son and daughter home today Albus, and if the Dark Lord decides to pay us a visit my children and I will visit our holiday home in Brittany. I've half a mind to enroll them in Beauxbatons anyway-"

"Now Narcissa, let's not be rash," he said, a hard glint entering his eyes. "Our agreement was that-"

"I've had enough of your agreement old man!" She was breathing hard through her nose, and she could feel her face burning a furious red. She wanted nothing more than to hex him. "I agreed to allow you to train Hermione. You have done so. I agreed to let you use her to spy on the Dark Lord. She is doing so. I did not agree to having you keep secrets about my children from me!"

"It is because of me that you have Hermione in your life at all."

The moment he said that he looked abashed. "Forgive me. I'm overtired, I didn't mean-"

"You did." Her grip relaxed on the wand. All the anger drained from her voice. "I know that I was not ecstatic to accept Hermione into our family. But things have changed." She flicked her wand, repairing the singe marks. "Regardless of my feelings at first, Hermione is my daughter, not yours. I will be taking her home, and if you do anything to stop me I will take my case to the Wizengamot and make it so that you will never see her again."

And then, for what she believed to be the first time, she saw him. Not the merry, twinkling eyed headmaster that people loved or hated, but the true Albus Dumbledore. All at once the weariness of his years of plotting was evident on his face. He let out a long breath.

"The Headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix is at Number 12, Grimmauld Place." He opened a drawer and removed a quill, a bottle of crimson ink, and two sheets of parchment.

Scribbling a quick note on the first, he explained "This is a note to Draco's head of house, explaining that he is to be released early." He tapped it with his wand, banishing it. "He'll meet you in the Entrance Hall. I'll have an elf send Hermione's things to Malfoy Manor."

"And this," he pulled the second piece of parchment towards him, "will inform the Order that you are taking Hermione with you. I will have it sent promptly, so they should be expecting your arrival."

She nodded stiffly. Seeing no reason to remain, she moved to the door.

"Narcissa."

She turned to look at him, and was struck by how old he looked in the pale light of the window. His office, though filled with numerous shiny trinkets, was void of any personal photos. Had she been feeling slightly kinder towards him she might have pitied the lonely picture he presented.

"I want you to know that I care deeply for Hermione as well."

Few would have caught the slightly pleading note in his tone, but Narcissa heard it clearly.

"My father raced horses," she said, "and he claimed to love them all. One in particular, Black's Gold. He would brush him every day, feed him from the palm of him hand. Once he spent a night in the stables during a storm because poor Goldie was terrified of thunder." She smiled mirthlessly. "Then Goldie broke his leg." She curled her lip and sneered at the headmaster. "He could have been healed, but he'd never run the same again. My father told the stable boy to burn it, and fetch another.'"

Albums watched her carefully, not speaking.

"You see, he cared for the horse deeply. But once it lost its usefulness to him he lost all feeling for it."

Dumbledore worked his jaw. "I would never-"

"I know. Hermione is not a horse. And you-" she let out a bitter laugh, "are not my father. But I wonder who you would choose given the choice between defeating the Dark Lord and saving Hermione."

He opened and closed his mouth a few times. And then forced out the words "For the sake of the greater good-"

But Narcissa was already through the door.

XX

The ancestral home of the Black family had seen better days.

She took in the peeling paint, the tarnished door knob, and the empty flower beds. The once regal home was now shabby.

"This used to be the finest house in Britain," she told Draco, who had eagerly stated that he would go with her to get his sister.

Luckily, Nymphadora answered the door.

"Hi Aunt Cissy, Draco," she said, her tone more subdued than usual. Her hair was lacking it's usual color, and instead was a mousy brown. "Hermione's over in the room by the kitchen. You've come just in time. Dumbledore just sent a note that Grimmauld Place had been compromised."

Narcissa gripped her wand steadily. "Compromised how?"

Her niece scowled, "The house elf is working with the Death Eaters."

Narcissa's stomach clenched guiltily. She knew about Bellatrix's plans for the Elf, but she never dreamed…

Thankfully, her thoughts vanished as soon as she entered the dingy servant's room.

Looking very pale, Hermione lay beneath a mountain of blankets. Her chest was rising and falling quickly, and there were deep purple circles beneath her eyes.

"Narcissa," Severus sat in one corner, a leather potion's kit next to him on the floor. He stood, and approached the bed.

"What happened?" Narcissa asked, eyes wide as she reached to stroke Hermione's feverish brow.

Draco answered, "Hermione used a silencing charm on Dolohov, and he hit her with a curse."

Nodding, Severus elaborated, "A particularly nasty one, which would have been fatal if he had been able to speak at the time."

Peeling back the blankets, he lifted the edge of Hermione's hospital gown and showed her the wound. It was a horrible, violent red-and-green roughly the size of a plum. The area around it was blistered, but so heavily poulticed that Narcissa could not see how bad it was.

She was going to kill Dolohov. Not sweetly, with the killing curse, but in the most violent, festering way she could imagine.

"She is on a strict potion regimen." He briefly laid out the details of said regimen, promising to come twice a day for the next fortnight to administer the potions and check on the progress of the healing.

With slight hesitation, he asked, "Will you be at the Manor?"

She nodded. "For now. At least until she's healed. She should be in her own bed."

He nodded. "Would you like help transporting her?"

"We brought a Portkey," Draco held up one of Hermione's old books. "Mother did something so that it would take Hermione straight to her bed."

Appreciation gleamed in Severus' eyes. "The Healer's Portkey. Well done."

She smirked, "You're not the only one who keeps their abilities close, Severus."

Gently, she took the book and placed it beneath Hermione's arm.

"Thank you," she said to the potion's master.

He nodded, "I'll be by around six this evening."

She smiled, and took Draco's hand. Tapping gently on the book with her wand she said "Take us home."

There was a pop, and they appeared in Hermione's bedroom at the Manor.

"Absolutely not." The pile of multicolored blankets had travelled with them, and Narcissa banished them immediately. "Dollop!"

A thin elf appeared with a crack, his arms full of fresh, clean blankets. "MIstress called? Dollop has the blankets ready."

"Put them on the bed and tell Mardie to send up some soup and water. Then bring the bathtub up here. There's no telling what kinds of infections she was exposed to in that place."

"It's pretty clean, Mum." Draco said, "Uncle Sev would never let her be in a dirty place."

She had to admit that was true. She did not know that Molly Weasley herself had attacked that room with all manners of cleansing charms.

"Still, she should have a bath if she wants it." She combed Hermione's hair away from her face, and winced as she felt how warm she was. "And bring me a pan with cool water, and a cloth."

The elf disappeared.

"Draco, would you like me to have Mardie bring some food for you as well?"

He shrugged, "I'm not really hungry right now. I think I'll go find Turnip. She'd like to see him when she wakes."

Narcissa nodded. "Dumbledore said he's send Hermione's things over. Though with him behind it you'd better check the gardens first"

With Draco gone, the room seemed smaller. A kitchen elf appeared with a tray that was set on the bedside table.

She spread the blankets over Hermione, gently tucking them around her form. Her daughter shivered in her sleep, brow knitted. "Hush darling, it's alright." She sat on the edge of the bed, and stroked her cheek. "You're home now."

Hermione's eyelids fluttered, and cracked open to reveal bloodshot eyes. "Mother?"

"I'm here darling."

The girl licked her lips, "Papa- they took him to-"

"Shhh," crooned Narcissa. She held the glass of water to Hermione's lips, encouraging her to drink. "I know. It's ok."

It wasn't really, but she would figure it out. Truth be told, she was so angry at her husband that she could not bring herself to go to him.

She spent the rest of the day tending to Hermione. Draco darted in and out, reading aloud for a bit, or explaining what had happened in hushed tones to his mother. Turnip lay at Hermione's feet while they spoke, his eyes gazing dolefully up at Hermione. His fur was white.

"I hope he feels terrible," groused Draco after a small period of silence.

Narcissa blinked, "Your father?"

He nodded. "He should. Aiming a wand at teenagers . What kind of man-"

"I'm sure the guilt is killing him." She had no doubt that he would have cursed Potter without second thought, and any other child that raised their wands against him. Except for his children. He loved them more than his own life, and she just hoped that he didn't try to do something stupid in Azkaban that would prevent him from coming home and apologizing properly.

"I'm glad he's gone," Draco glared at the hangings of Hermione's four-poster. "He deserves to rot in prison."

Before she could react, a high squeal filled the room.

"Mistress! Master Snape is here to see you!" Dollop ran into the room, his ears flapping wildly. He was followed by Severus.

"Severus, thank you for coming." She stood, offering her seat.

"No need, Narcissa," He set his potions kit on Hermione's bed. "Has she been sleeping this whole time?"

Narcissa nodded, "She drifts in and out of consciousness."

He nodded. "That should continue for a few days." He waved his wand over Hermione. There was a flash of green light, and then a shower of black sparks.

"Hm."

"What does that mean?" asked Draco.

"It means that she is stable." He waved his wand again, and this time Hermione glowed a dark blue momentarily. "But dehydrated. Draco, could you go instruct the cook to send up more water, some broth for Hermione, and perhaps some tea for the rest of us?" He seemed to remember where he was, and turned to Narcissa, "That is, if-"

She waved her hand, "That's fine, Severus."

Draco nodded, and hurried off.

As soon as he had gone, Severus turned to her.

"The Dark Lord is not happy. He intends to leave Lucius and the others to rot in Azkaban for a time. And-" he sighed, opening his potions' kit, "he's scheduled Bellatrix's punishment for this evening."

Her eyes flicked to Hermione. "He schedules punishments?"

Nodding, Severus explained, "He feels the… anticipation is an essential part of the punishment. I expect he'll use the cruciatus curse. I'm dosing Hermione with dreamless sleep, just in case the occlumency shields have been compromised by the curse."

Narcissa shivered, remembering how Bellatrix had known exactly where Hermione had been. "They have been," she said.

He glanced up at her, the contents of his bag clinking as he rummaged around for the potions. "You're certain?"

Mutely, she nodded.

He pulled out another bottle, and set it a little further apart than the others. "Then that's a calming draught."

"Can she take that along with the Dreamless Sleep?" Narcissa leaned over and ruffled her fingers through Turnip's pale fur. The wubble was gazing mournfully up at Hermione,

Severus did not look at her. "It's not ideal, but it will not harm her." He fastened his case, tapped his wand to it, and opened it again. Now, instead of the case being filled with potions it was full of bandages and medical supplies."Dumbledore wants to see her."

Immediately she snarled, "If that man thinks he's coming within a-"

"I have, of course," he drawled on as if she hadn't spoke, "convinced him that he should stay away for now. But he does expect to have access to meeting with her. He has also stepped in with the Ministry. There was a raid planned on the Manor this afternoon, but Albus convinced them to issue a formal notice and follow standard protocol. " He gently lifted the blankets away from Hermione, and begin to change the bandages on her wound.

Never before had she felt so helpless. "Should we move her?" The idea of Bellatrix's hunting lodge flashed through her mind. It was far from ideal..,

"I don't think that's necessary."

Turnip whined a little, and shifted to a more comfortable position.

"She deserves a normal childhood, Severus. They both do. Draco should be out playing Quidditch until Dusk, and Hermione should be-"

"Following Lucius to the Ministry every day?" Severus cut in, smirking.

She nodded,

"It just happens that the Dark Lord may help her have the closest thing to a 'normal' summer she could get. All things considered."

Frowning, she leaned closer. "What do you mean, Severus?"

His smirk never wavered as he told her the Dark Lord's plan for Hermione's summer.

XX

Two days later, a dark figure stole across the grounds of Malfoy Manor. The sun was not yet up, so the sky was plum-colored with a promising streak of lavender on the horizon. Dew shone in the light from her wand, sparkling as she brushed by.

It had been a rough few days from Bellatrix. The Dark Lord had saved her, yes, but there were several moments yesterday when she wondered if Azkaban would really be worse that his wrath. She really should have gone home to dip into a scalding bath.

Instead she was breaking into her sister's home.

She should not be doing this. Part of her screamed that it was weakness to care so deeply about the child. That the best thing to do would be to go home, recoup, and determine the best way to tackle the girl's training. The Dark Lord had insinuated more than once that he expected the girl to exceed the other Death Eaters in skill, and based on what she saw at the Ministry, they had a long way to go. If the Dark Lord was disappointed, she did not want to know what would happen to them.

But another part of her could not relax. Hermione's silence in her head had been unnerving. Even during periods where they had not been speaking she had felt the girl's emotions race through her, had heard her loudest thoughts like a voice from the other end of a deep well. She needed to see her with her own eyes.

The wards let her through with only a minimal groan. She smirked, and then winced. She had bitten through her lip last night, and she hadn't been able to properly heal it yet.

Though she had never physically walked to Hermione's room, she was certain she could find it with her eyes closed.

She walked through the portrait-lined corridor, and frowned at the streak of light that poured from the crack beneath Draco's door. The last thing she needed right now was to run into her Potter-loving nephew.

But Draco did not come to the door. Nor did he burst into the corridor after she glided into Hermione's room.

The strange tingling sensation she had felt in the Ministry began the second she entered the room. It was subtler, but very noticeable.

Hermione lay in the middle of an enormous bed. She was pale, but her breathing was clear and even. Beside the bed, in a comfortable recliner, slept Narcissa. Her head was shoved at an awkward angle against the arm of the chair, and Bellatrix wished that she had a camera.

In order to assure that her sister remained sleeping during their visit, Bellatrix pointed her wand at her and whispered " Somnum ." It would only last for a quarter of an hour, but it would be enough.

There was a jingle, and she saw a pale dog raise his head from where he lay at Hermione's side. He stared at her for a long moment, and then wagged his tail slowly.

"Hello Turnip," she said, holding out her hand to let him sniff her.

A warm tongue lapped at her hand, and she grinned outright, ignoring the stab of pain in her lip.

"That's a good boy," she said, reaching to scratch beneath his chin. "You guard your mistress well." She settled on the bed, making sure that Hermione was between her and Narcissa. Turnip crawled up so that he was pressed against her, and she gave him a few affectionate pats.

Her eyes trailed up the bed, landing on the sleeping face.

She was real.

Ever since the first time she had heard Hermione in her head she had harbored the secret fear that she had gone mad. She hadn't cared while she was in Azkaban. She had figured that being mad and having refuge in a hallucination was better than being sane and alone in that hellhole.

She was relieved, of course, that Hermione hadn't been a hallucination. But then, to have someone alive who knew so much about her…

She studied the curves of Hermione's face. She hadn't expected her to be so… Grown up. The Hermione she pictured was still a little girl.

But the person lying on the bed was practically a woman. A woman she had been tasked with training for a life of service to the Dark Lord.

There was no better life, she tried to convince herself. Hermione would be happy restoring true order to the world. But even as she thought it, she knew it was a lie. And that bothered her.

Frowning, she reached out to brush the hair away from Hermione's face.

And gasped.

The moment her fingers brushed against Hermione's skin the thrumming beneath her skin stopped.

She jerked her fingers away, and glanced at Turnip. The wubble thumped his tail in approval, his eyes gazing back at her in adoration.

Slowly, she placed her hand against Hermione's cheek.

It was like being wrapped in a warm blanket. A strange feeling of contented was settled over her, easing the sheer exhaustion that came from the Dark Lord's punishment. warmth spread from her palm, up her arm and throughout her body. She blinked in wonderment.

Bella?

Like a child caught doing something wrong, she snatched her hand away. " I'm here." But she was smiling again.

Hermione's eyes fluttered open, then closed. I'm sorry… Her voice inside Bellatrix's head was faint, and Bellatrix could feel the exhaustion rolling off of her. I'm trying… To keep them… Open.

Images flashed through Bellatrix's mind. A woman in a white dress laughing, racing through an ornate ballroom. It took her a moment to realize that Hermione was still dreaming. Or trying to wake up from a dream. Either way, neither of them were appropriately rested enough for a proper reunion.

" Sleep, Dove. I just wanted to make sure you were ok."

Hermione did not respond, and Bellatrix could see her dream more clearly now. The woman in white was still evading her, her glossy curls bouncing as she ducked around a marble column.

A soft smile spread across Bellatrix's face. She wanted nothing more than to touch Hermione again. To figure out what was happening- how deep their connection went. But she couldn't bring herself to do so. Instead she gave Turnip another scratch, noting that his pale fur was beginning to turn the lightest of blues, his ears tinged a rosy pink.

"Sleep well," Bellatrix whispered.

Neither of the sleeping occupants so much as twitched, but Turnip watched the woman leave with a doggish grin on his face. Then he dropped his head to his paws and slept peacefully for the first time in days.

Chapter Text

The Department of Work and Welfare for Magical Beings (DoWWMB) was located in the basement of the Ministry of Magic. There were two entrances; one that led to the "Front Desk" and one that led to the "Help Desk."

The "Front Desk" was a large room filled with shabby chairs. A sad corner was filled with children's toys and patched picture books. One wall was charmed to look like an aquarium, with tropical fish swimming gaily across the blue waters.

Against the opposite wall sat a long counter with four windows. The windows were small, and charmed to prevent anyone from overhearing what was discussed. The department officials assisted visitors with employment, social services, and general well-being. When a situation could not be handled at the desk, a tall, steel door would appear beside the counter, and the visitor would be ushered into the labyrinth of cubicles behind the windows to speak to a specialist.

The "Help Desk" was a tiny room, with one large open window and two stations. There were no chairs, and the windows had the distinction of being the only windows in the Ministry that were consistently partly-cloudy.

On the other side of the desk was another small room with three doors. One was marked "Specialists", one "Management," and the other "George E. Grubber- Desk Supervisor."

George E. Grubber was a small man, with slim, rectangular glasses and yellow teeth that were bared in a smile.

"Welcome to the Department of Work and Welfare for Magical Beings, Miss Malfoy," he said, peering at Hermione from the other side of a rather large desk. "I must say, when my superior informed me that one of our summer program participants was..." he let out a rehearsed laugh, "Well, let's just say I was surprised that someone of your status would be interested in the program." His lips peeled back in a smile, revealing yellow teeth.

Hermione, who had been offended at the start by the leering once-over he had given her, affected a smile. "Well, I've always been interested in joining the Ministry," she said, "and when I found out about this internship I simply had to apply. It's an honor to be chosen."

Actually, this was not at all what she had pictured when Severus told her the Dark Lord had arranged for her to take a summer job at the Ministry.

"We need as many bodies there as possible," he had explained. "And we don't have enough people in that Department."

Grubber reached out to adjust one of the three potted cacti on his desk. "You know," he said slyly, glancing at her from the corner of his eye, "there aren't many people who would be willing to take on the daughter of a Death Eater. Oh, I don't hold that against you," he said when Hermione opened her mouth, "I think that a person should be judged separately from their sire. It's not your fault that your father is a corrupt, despicable, traitor."

Beneath the desk, Hermione's hands curled into fists. Luckily, he changed the topic.

"Your job here is to greet visitors and help them navigate the Department. Those who have appointments will need to be ushered to the correct office. Those who do not will need to be redirected in a graceful fashion."

She wondered if he had ever done anything gracefully in his life.

"You will be here every morning from eight o'clock, that's eight o'clock sharp , Miss Malfoy, until noon. At noon you may go. Samar is returning this year, and she will be working at the same time as you. If you have any questions, ask Samar first. If she does not know the answer you can always ask me."

He waited for her nod, and then continued, "I expect you to be well-groomed at all times," as if her mother would allow anything less, "your robes should be modest and professional, and your wand should be hidden at all times." He gazed unblinkingly at her, "Believe me, you do not want to give a visitor the opportunity to grab your wand. Especially the Goblins." He gave a little shiver. "Which reminds me, I will not tolerate any sort of discrimination. The… beings that pass through this door have led difficult lives. I'm sure you can't even begin to imagine what it's like to have to work for a living. These are not the pampered upper crust. No, the ones who walk through this door are the ones who have had to fight for everything they have. I would hope that it has a humbling effect of you."

Hermione nodded, "Thank you sir. I really appreciate the opportunity." She felt as if she were going to burst into tears. She couldn't remember ever feeling so humiliated in her life.

"We open in ten, Miss Malfoy. You should go become acquainted with Samar."

Hermione nodded, and stood. She winced slightly as she turned. It had been two weeks since the night at the Ministry, and though she was "out of danger," as Severus put it, she was still incredibly sore.

She left the dark little room, and blinked in the bright light of the charmed windows. The Help Desk, which had been empty when she arrived, was now occupied by a pretty girl around Hermione's age. She had dark, curly hair, and a brilliant smile.

"Good of him to introduce you himself." The girl shot a scornful look at the closed office door. "You must be Hermione," she said in a rich, deep voice. "I'm Samar. You can take that side," she pointed to the right side, where there was a chair and a typewriter.

"Thank you." Hermione sat down, and as she did, the typewriter sprang to life, typing out:

Good Morning Miss Malfoy

Today's Updates:

  1. The Werewolf Clinic has been moved to 3:00 pm, and will be located in the Smythe Conference Room.
  2. Level 9 is closed for maintenance
  3. Specialist Nguyen is out on Vacation Leave All Week
  4. Specialist Dawson is running late and will be in by 9:00 am

Hermione blinked, and re-read "Level 9 is closed for maintenance."

"It's always a jolt the first time," said Samar good naturedly. She slid a quill over to Hermione, "You might need that. Sometimes we need to write out directions."

Samar rolled her chair over, "I don't know how much he told you..." she looked expectant.

"Not much," said Hermione. "Just that we give directions and show visitors where their appointments are."

Samar rolled her eyes. "Figures," she muttered. "We also make appointments, keep the literature in order, and- oh yeah!" She rolled her chair over to a tall filing cabinet, and rummaged around inside the bottom drawer. Seconds later, she emerged with a bright pink slip of paper.

"This is your clearance as a Summer Ministry Student!" She slapped it down in front of Hermione. "This gives you permission to use your wand at work only, even though you're not at school." She tapped a signature line, "You must have already had the training. It took me three weeks to get the clearance last year!"

Hermione was absolutely certain that she had not received the training, but she knew better than to point that out. Instead, she scrawled her name on the line.

"Excellent," Samar tapped the form with her wand, "Memo to Internal Administration!" she said, overly enunciating her words. "They have a tendency to be lazy if you don't pronounce clearly," she explained.

The form folded itself into a paper airplane, shook itself, and flapped away. Hermione watched it flatten itself to slide through the crack at the top of the door.

"Are you at Hogwarts, then?" asked Samar as she found a memo pad for Hermione.

"Yes. I haven't seen you there though. Which House are you in?"

There was a peal of laughter, and Samar tossed her hair over her shoulder. "Oh no, I'm not at Hogwarts. My Dad would be furious! He's from Beauxbatons, one of the original families-"

Hermione nodded sagely, as if this information meant anything to her.

"-so Hogwarts was never even an option for us. He nearly had a teaching position there- he's a poet- but Mum has never left London, so when he asked if she'd like to move to France she burst into tears. "

"Did your Mother go to Hogwarts?"

Shrugging, Samar shook her head, "No."

"Oh!" A faint blush crept up Hermione's cheeks. "Is your Mother a Muggle?"

Although Hermione's tone had been polite, Samar's eyes flashed in annoyance. "I'm just as Pure as you are!" she scoffed, lifting her chin haughtily. She crossed her arms over her chest and stared challengingly at Hermione.

Purer, Hermione thought, "I didn't mean to offend you!" she said quickly, eyes widening. "I don't think there's anything wrong with being a Muggle, but if it was rude I apologize."

Samar studied her for a long moment, and then her face softened. "No, I'm sorry," she said. "When I heard that I'd be working with a Malfoy I expected-"

Hermione arched a brow, "A snob?"

Now it was Samar's turn to blush. "Maybe a little," she confessed. She dropped into her seat at the Help Desk, "Will you forgive me? I promise I won't make any future assumptions!" She clasped her hands together in front of her as if begging Hermione.

A genuine smile spread across Hermione's face, "Yes, of course."

Relief washed over Samar's face, and she let out a little laugh, "Good. We have to stick together. Especially with him ," she jabbed a finger towards Grubber's door.

Suddenly a cool voice boomed over the room: "Good morning. The time is now 9am. The Help Desk is open now."

"Here we go," murmured Samar as the door sprang open, revealing a pale man in a long winter cloak. "Listen to me for a bit- you'll catch on quick." Pointing a bright smile at the newcomer, Samar called out, "Welcome to the Department of Work and Welfare for Magical Beings, how can we help you?"

"I am here for the, er, Vampire Employment, er, Workshop," he said. He swayed a little on his feet.

"Perfect," Samar reached beneath the desk and pulled out a purple pamphlet, and Hermione noticed that there were dozens of brightly colored pamphlets down there. "Have you ever been to the Smythe conference room before?..."

By the time noon rolled around and the cool voice boomed: "Good Afternoon. The time is now twelve o'clock pm. The Help Desk will be closed until 1pm for lunch." Hermione was sure of three things:

First, Samar was an angel.

Second, Grubber was a horrible, despicable man who deserved to be crucioed into oblivion.

And finally, the Dark Lord was punishing her.

She had been yelled at three times by visitors for not knowing things off the top of her head. Each time, Samar had calmly taken over, and then assured Hermione that it was all "Part of the job."

Even worse was the time a woman had looked down her nose at her and asked to speak to someone competent.

Grubber had taken her around to the officials who manned the "Front Desk" and the Specialists and introduced her as, "Miss Malfoy, daughter of, you know, the Death Eater." Each time he had given her a cruel little smirk. Most of the others had greeted her indifferently, but a few flat out refused to shake her hand. After each of these encounters, Grubber shook his head sympathetically and sighed, "Some people have so much prejudice. I'm sure you know better than anyone, growing up in the home that you did..."

"Bastard," Samar had muttered when she overheard him say it, "Just last week he was telling me that Muggleborns have a lower intelligence than the average Witch or Wizard." She grimaced, "It's because of the high percentage of Muggleborns in the Ministry's Housing Program."

The Ministry Housing Program, Samar had explained, was a place the magical community could turn to if they could not afford housing on their own. The program would "re-home" the family in one of their buildings, and provide labor opportunities for those who were able to work. Judging by Samar's expressions, the Ministry Housing Program was the worst thing a person could go through. Hermione personally thought it was good of the Ministry to come up with housing options for the homeless and destitute. When she said as much Samar had simply raised an eyebrow.

After her shift, Hermione felt as if her head was being attacked by bludgers. She trudged up to the lift in the atrium marked "Knight Bus stop" and let out a sigh as it rose.

The lift had been charmed to look like an ordinary telephone box, much like the normal entrance, and she shifted from foot to foot as she waited for the Knight Bus to appear.

" All right!"

Bellatrix's voice inside her mind was so loud that she jumped. Don't do that! she gasped out loud, looking around to make sure no one had seen her. The lift had taken her up to a narrow alley.

" Don't worry so much, Doveling. There's no one else here."

Here? She could feel a headache press against her skull. Oh Bella. Tell me you didn't come out in public!? Even as she asked the question, she knew Bellatrix was there. She could feel the strange thrumming beneath her skin- gentler now than it had been at the Department of Mysteries, but there nonetheless.

" I've taken the appropriate precautions."

Are you serious!? Where are you? Do you realize that there are posters of you everywhere? What if someone from the Ministry comes back up-

There was a dismissive snort. " They wouldn't see me. You don't even see me, and I'm right in front of you."

Hermione jumped again, and scanned her eyes over the alley. Are you wearing an Invisibility Cloak? she asked, thinking of Harry's cloak.

" Nope. And I'll save us a few minutes by pointing out that I have no invisibility or disillusionment charms on either."

Impossible. The alley was deserted, save for a handful of pigeons and a black dog. Scowling, Hermione turned to examine the telephone box, and then slowly ran her eyes back down the alley.

The dog barked, and Hermione's eyes flicked to it in irritation- and widened. You're not-?

The dog, wearing the canine version off a smirk, stood and approached the girl, " That took you long enough." She sat down in front of Hermione and stared up at her. She made a very pretty dog, with a dark, glossy black coat, Pricked ears, and a long snout that twitched in amusement.

Hermione gaped, You did it! You actually did it!

The dog snorted , "If my half-wit cousin can do this as a schoolboy, it's hardly a stretch of the imagination that I can as well. "

At the mention of Sirius, Hermione felt her smile slip.

" Oh, don't be like that. Be happy! I was half worried I would end up as a toad or something. But no!"

Bellatrix, leapt up, and waved her banner-like tail playfully, and Hermione couldn't help but smile at her antics.

" Now I can come pick you up every day after work. I'll just be a loyal pet-nothing to worry about at all. The Ministry won't know what hit them."

Every day?

Bellatrix nodded (and Hermione thought it was odd to see a dog using human gestures), " You didn't think I would let you spend your whole summer lazing about the house, drawing pictures of that Veela girl, did you?"

Blushing, Hermione protested, I don't-

" No, you spend your morning getting cozy in the Ministry, and your afternoons learning how to be an effective member of the cause."

But Mother thinks I'm coming home, said Hermione. The dog gave her a look that made her feel very small.

" Our lord sent Snape to explain things to Cissy this morning. Do you think you can handle being away from Mummy for a few more hours?"

Yes! Her face was burning scarlet.

" Good. I do not like it when my plans are interrupted. Grab onto my collar."

For the first time, Hermione noticed the sleek green collar that was fastened around the dog's neck.

" It will allow me to take you on a side-along apparation."

Oh, Hermione gently clasped her hand around the leather strap, noting that Bellatrix's fur was curly at the tips. She felt her knuckles brush against Bellatrix's neck, and a strange, peaceful sensation washed over her.

" Hold on tight, I haven't done this in ages."

Feeling as if a hook were tugging right behind her navel, Hermione scrunched her eyes shut and grimaced as the feeling of being squished through a too-tight tube pressed over her. Luckily, it was over as soon as it began, and she found herself on her hands and knees in the middle of the woods, her fingers still tight around the collar.

Bellatrix pulled free, and transformed in the blink of an eye.

" Not used to apparating, are you?" she asked, eyeing Hermione with a smirk. " You'll have to get over that. How do you think we'll be doing the majority of our travel?"

Floo? Shot Hermione, glowering at the older witch as she pulled herself up.

Bellatrix laughed, " We'll have to work on your broom skills too. Our lord likes the imposing cloud we create when we ride together."

Groaning, Hermione dusted her robes off.

" Hurry up, I'm starving."

Bellatrix strode through the trees easily, picking her way through the undergrowth. Hermione clambered after her. It took her a few minutes to realize that they were following a path. She could see the red bricks beneath the undergrowth.

" I put up a forest growth charm before I was arrested," explained Bellatrix as she held a branch aside so that Hermione could step by, " Apparently it was effective."

Hermione thought so. The trees grew close together, their trunks blanketed in moss. Ferns and other plants sprouted between the tangles of blackberry bushes. Squirrels, and birds filled the canopies, and Hermione saw a sleepy-eyed doe watch her from afar.

Soon, they came upon a baroque hunting lodge. Hermione stared wide-eyed as Bellatrix opened a rusty iron gate.

At one point it had been beautiful. It was made from grey stone, with tall windows, and a domed, slate-grey roof. Gargoyles perched on the edge of the roof, their faces carved in horrible grimaces. The formidable door was flanked by two marble statues. One, a skeleton holding an axe, the other a blindfolded woman holding a goblet. The windows were cracked, but whole, and the whole structure was swathed in ivy.

Bellatrix led Hermione up the cracked stone steps, and pushed through the door with the air of an Empress returning to her palace.

A rasping voice called out "Darling, we've returned!"

They had entered a long entrance hall. High above them, the domed ceiling was painted with a group of brightly dressed riders, their horses chasing a red fox round and round. They shouted greetings to Hermione and Bellatrix, but did not slow their mounts.

A worn velvet carpet stretched the length of the hall. The walls were washed in gold, and decorated with the heads of hundreds of creatures. Bucks, and Hippogriffs, and even- Hermione's stomach coiled- a preserved Muggle. His face was frozen in fear.

It took Hermione a moment to realize that the voice was Bellatrix's, and then the words sank in.

The last person she wanted to see was Bellatrix's husband. She had done her best not to think about him at all, and most of the time she was able to successfully convince herself that he did not exist at all. It had never occurred to her that Bellatrix might be living with him.

She doesn't even like him , she thought stormily, unaware of the curious glance Bellatrix cast in her direction.

"Bells?" The answering voice was just as rasping as Bellatrix's "out loud" voice, but it was somehow higher. More child-like.

A dark shape appeared in one of the doorways, and Hermione unconsciously inched closer to Bellatrix.

The man was dressed in an expensive robe that would have been in the height of fashion twenty years ago. It was massive on him though, and hung awkwardly from his frame. His hair had been shorn recently, and was growing back in patchy black clumps. Blue eyes peered from a gaunt face, but the expression was one of rapturous joy.

"Rab, I've brought my trainee, Hermione Malfoy."

Rab? Hermione's brows knitted in confusion. She had always thought Bellatrix was married to Rodolphus .

" I am, idiot." Bellatrix rolled her eyes, and "Rab's" face brightened.

"Oooh," he said, pressing his fists into his chin, "is this the one, then? The tiny birdie?"

Tiny. Birdie.

"Yes, Rab. This is Hermione. And Rab," Bellatrix said, her lips curling at the edges, "Is my brother-in-law."

He lives with you ? Hermione's eyebrows rose.

"Yes, he lives with me," Bellatrix said out loud. She let out a snicker as Hermione turned bright red.

"Well, it's not like I'd live with Rodolphus," said Rabastan, breaking out into a child-like grin. He shoved his sleeves up to his elbows, and hooked an elbow around Hermione's arm.

This revelation raised more questions than it did answers, and Hermione allowed him to pull her into a disarrayed dining room. Bellatrix followed, an amused expression on her face.

"Have you ever had jam foam?" asked Rabastan, plopping down into the chair beside Bellatrix. They sat at a round table, it's glossy surface the only thing in the room that wasn't covered in dust. Hermione shook her head and sat on Bellatrix's other side.

"You HAVE to try it," he gushed, jumping to his feet and running from the room.

Eyes wide, Hermione turned to look at Bellatrix.

" It's delicious. The elves always serve it to him when they make jam. He's been ordering them to make jam every day since we returned."

Oh.

Rabastan returned a moment later, holding a stone crock that was filled with pink foam. The steam that rose from it smelled delicious, and Hermione's stomach rumbled in response.

An elf, clad in an old flour sack, trotted in holding a tray piled with soft slices of white bread. It set this on the table and trotted back out.

"Raspberry foam," Rabastan said, placing the crock in front of Bellatrix.

She smiled indulgently at him, and Hermione felt a little stab of jealousy.

After conjuring plates, Bellatrix spread the foam over three pieces of bread and passed both Rabastan and Hermione their portions. Rabastan took a bite immediately, and watched for Hermione's reaction.

It was delicious. The Elves certainly had a gift for making jam, and she happily ate four slices of bread while Rabastan filled her in on how the Elves made it. His smile never dimmed as he slid the crock towards him and finished off the lot.

They ate in silence, with Hermione casting looks at Bellatrix throughout the meal. It was the first time they had really had a chance to interact, and she couldn't help but hope that Bellatrix would see her as more than a silly girl who collapsed during battle.

She noticed Bellatrix smirking at her, and blushed red.

" There's no need to be so nervous, Dove. I'm not going to bite."

I'm not nervous! She protested, frowning as the hand holding her bread wavered. It's just anticipation .

Snickering, Bellatrix passed her another piece of bread.

"S'good, no?" asked Rabastan, a smear of pink on his chin. His blue eyes sparkled when she nodded, "Good birdie. It's nice to like sweet things. It makes it easier to cope with the sour. Right Bells?"

The older witch hummed her agreement, and Rabastan leaned his head against hers for a moment, reminding Hermione of a cat nuzzling his owner. Another stab of jealousy poked through her.

He went back to his bread, scooping mounds of the pink foam atop it before shoveling it into his mouth.

It was awkward, sitting there with the best friend she had only just met in person, and a man who had been imprisoned for more than a decade. Bellatrix seemed unaffected by Hermione's tension, but Hermione noticed that she did not eat. Instead, she took tiny sips from her teacup, her dark eyes studying Hermione.

Finally, Bellatrix stood. "If you are done, I think it's best to begin. Why don't you go feed Puffle?" she suggested when Rabastan looked dejectedly after them.

His face brightened, and he happily scooped up the remaining bread.

Who's Puffle?

She felt Bellatrix's glee as the older witch grinned, " Family pet."

They walked into a large ballroom. A large landscape of a wedding scene took up most of one wall, and the bride giggled loudly as they walked in. It was lit by a dozen or so silver orbs, which lazily twirled around the ceiling.

He said you didn't live with… with…

Bellatrix closed the door behind her, and said out loud, "With Rodolphus?"

Hermione nodded.

"I will never share living quarters with that man. He's quite possibly the cruelest wizard I've ever met." She raked her hair up into a messy bun.

Then why does his brother live here ? Hermione fixed her gaze on her shoes.

"Didn't I just say Rodolphus was the cruelest wizard I've ever met?" There was a long exhale. "Their parents died shortly after we were married. Rab was still in school, and there was no way that I could leave that sweet boy to be raised by the Lestranges ."

So he's like your adopted… She couldn't bring herself to say the word "son," but Bellatrix heard it anyway, and shook her head.

"Rab is my brother. I'm not really the maternal type. Now," she waved her wand dismissively, "I assume you know the basics of duelling?"

Hermione smiled, You know that I was part of the duelling club. And uncle Albus has been teaching me how to-

Bellatrix made a gagging noise.

Stop that!

"I will not. That fancy footwork Dumbledore has you doing is absolute rubbish! He's teaching you how to flee, not how to fight." She twisted her wand between her hands, knuckles growing white, "The last thing you want to be in a fight is the prey."

"I'm not the prey!" Hermione shouted, stomping her foot. She blushed when she realized she'd done it, but held her chin up, levelling Bellatrix with a glare. "I'm not prey."

A feral grin settled over Bellatrix's features, and she raised her wand. "Prove it then."

There was no time to react before a stinging hex hit Hermione's hip. It was mild, but enough to make Hermione hiss in discomfort. "That's not fair!" she shouted, digging into her sleeve for her wand, "I wasn't prepared-"

"That's not good enough!" another stinging hex hit Hermione in the shoulder, "What was it that Moody was so fond of saying? Constant vigilance?" She ducked as Hermione shot her own stinging hex, cackling as it missed. "We need to work on your aim too."

Huffing, Hermione glowered at Bellatrix, "Stupefy!" she yelled, sending the spell at Bellatrix's feet this time. She recoiled as another stinging hex landed on her hip.

"And non-verbal spells. Tsk, Dumbledore must be the worst tutor in existence."

"He is not," she could feel Bellatrix's amusement, and it only served to make her angrier. She was panting as she tried to dodge Bellatrix's hexes and fire off several of her own. While Bellatrix stuck to stinging hexes, Hermione tried every hex, jinx and curse she could remember. The older witch dodged each fluidly.

"Endurance as well. What exactly does Dumbledore do during your trainings? Talk?"

She was not about to admit that that was exactly what they did during their trainings. She lashed out with a cutting curse, and let out a groan of frustration when Bellatrix stepped aside. "If you'll just stand still," she gritted, pushing her hair out of her face.

"Oh, would that make it better?" Bellatrix stilled, and held her palms up, "Why don't you try a stinging hex though? There's no need to knock me unconscious on your first lesson."

First lesson? Hermione's pride welled up, making her bite her bottom lip in anger and concentration. How dare she talk to her like that? Like she was a First Year barely capable of holding a wand? Hermione had been the top of her class since their first lesson- without even trying .

She missed the knowing smirk on Bellatrix's face as she shot the strongest stinging hex she could muster across the ballroom. The red light bounced off an invisible shield, and ricocheted back towards Hermione, hitting her square in the chest, exactly where Dolohov's curse had hit. A burning sensation zipped across her chest, bringing tears to her eyes. She doubled over, "S-stop!"

Bellatrix was at her side in an instant, her wand held ready. "Let go," she said softly, trying to pull Hermione's hands away from where they were clutched at her chest. "Doveling, let go."

Her fingers slackened enough for Bellatrix to pull them away, and a stream of purple light spouted from the tip of Bellatrix's wand. A cool, tingling sensation spread across Hermione's chest. Slowly, the pain ebbed.

"Better?" rasped Bellatrix.

Shakily, Hermione nodded. Bellatrix's hands were warm and reassuring on hers, but she found herself unable to stop her tears.

"I shouldn't have pushed so hard," began Bellatrix awkwardly. "Does it still hurt that badly?"

Hermione shook her head, embarrassed. "N-no," she stuttered. Her eyes stared unblinking at her shoes. Stop crying, she told herself. Stop it!

Then she let out a squeak as Bellatrix dropped her hands and wrapped her arms around the shaking girl. Her voice, soft as velvet, poured into Hermione's mind.

" It's just me Doveling." Her arms tightened, and Hermione was certain she had never felt safer than she did in that moment.

They're all going to hate me! She thought, letting out a sob. Her breath was coming in quick staccato, and she tried unsuccessfully to breathe deeply. Gentle hands began to rub soothing circles on her back.

" Who will hate you?"

Everyone! Hermione squeezed her eyes shut. I'm a fraud! Every part of me is a fraud! The Dark Lord will hate me when he finds out I'm just a stupid mudblood. Papa and Mother will hate me for sullying the Malfoy name when the news spreads a scandal, uncle Albus will hate me for failing to be a good spy- she coughed wetly, and sniffled- Harry will hate me when he finds out that I've been training to be a Death Eater, and Draco! She buried her face in Bellatrix's robes, When Draco finds out that I actually enjoyed the Dark Lord's company… he's never going to speak to me again!

"Shhhhhhh…" crooned Bellatrix, rocking her gently. " Breathe, Dove. You're going to make yourself sick." She fumbled around in her pockets, and thrust a snowy handkerchief beneath Hermione's nose. "You're ruining my robes." She rasped playfully.

Hermione fought to catch her breath, and turned watery eyes up towards Bellatrix. "I'm sorry," she cried. "I didn't mean to-"

Bellatrix pressed a finger to her lips, "Let me talk right now, you concentrate on breathing. Got it?" She smiled when Hermione nodded, "Good girl. Now, noone is going to hate you. The Dark Lord will not find out that you are a muggleborn, and your parents would attack anyone who tried to shame you. Believe me, Narcissa thrives on pointing out how she could ruin people for trying to connect her to a scandal. She won't let anything happen to you, or to the Malfoy name." She added under her breath, "Not that it's as illustrious as her maiden name, but we can re-visit that later."

Hermione actually let out a strained giggle at that, and pressed her cheek against the coarse fabric of Bellatrix's robe.

"Draco is a teenager, he's just as moody and stupid as you are, so even if he does pretend to hate you for a bit… well, he'll get over it. Dumbledore is a complete fool, so we won't even worry about him."

Harry?

Bellatrix stiffened a little, "If he ever finds out that you're a Death Eater Potter will fight to convince you to give up the Dark Lord and return to him."

And if I do that… Hermione squeezed her eyes shut again, If I decide to leave the Death Eaters… You would hate me.

She heard the sharp inhale, and the extended silence that followed, and tensed. Of course Bellatrix would hate her if she chose Harry over the Dark Lord. What had she been thinking?! She opened her mouth to take it back, to reassure her that she would never -

" Of course I wouldn't."

No four words had ever sounded so sweet. No?

" No. I wouldn't let you join Potter, of course. That would be a certain death sentence. But I could never hate you. You're mine. My little dove."

And, for the first time since the battle in the Department of Mysteries, Hermione felt like everything would be ok.

Chapter Text

Riddle Manor was more intimidating in the day. It rose powerful and grey against the backdrop of what might have once been an impressive wood. Now the trees stood naked and grey in the chilled mist that surrounded the Manor. The scene was impressively gloomy, and she was grateful that Bellatrix has insisted she bring a cloak along.

She clutched at the navy blue wool of her cloak, remembering Dumbledore's warning that this was the first time she would be seeing the Dark Lord since her father's imprisonment. He had warned her to expect some sort of repercussion for her father's "weakness".

A frown settled over her features. Her father wasn't weak.

Bellatrix, looking very regal in ruby robes that accentuated the paleness of her skin and the black lustre of her curls, shot Hermione a calculated glance as they neared the front door.

Following Dumbledore's advice that she emphasize her youth whenever in the Dark Lord's presence, Hermione had dressed in robes of rosy pink, her hair pulled into a long braid that draped over her shoulder.

"You look like a porcelain doll," drawled Bellatrix, arching an eyebrow as she reached out to pluck a stray hair from Hermione's shoulder.

Hermione pinked, and purposefully ignored her.

The door creaked open to reveal a cringing Wormtail.

"B-B-Bellatrix!" He squeaked, "and Hermione-"

"That's Miss Malfoy to you," corrected Bellatrix. She tossed her curls over her shoulder, and slid past the balding man. "Come Hermione," she commanded without looking back.

Something mutinous churned in Hermione's stomach, but she followed the dark witch anyway. I'm not a dog , she said internally, you don't need to give me commands .

The sound of Bellatrix's laugh made her blush deeper, and all earlier nervousness was chased away by her irritation.

Instead of their usual meeting place in the upstairs study, Bellatrix led her to a large conservatory that had French doors opening into what was once a garden.

A long table held pitchers of pumpkin juice and various fruit tarts. At the head sat the Dark Lord, looking very out of place amongst the brightly colored strawberries that filled his plate. Nagini sat coiled around his shoulders.

"Hermione!" He called out, opening his arms, "Bella. So nice of you to come. Please, sit."

The only other person in attendance was Snape, who offered Bellatrix a terse nod of acknowledgement, and gave Hermione a brief smile.

"My Lord," Bellatrix gushed, sliding into the seat to his right. "It is, as always, the greatest honor to see you." She took one of his cold, white hands and pressed her lips to his knuckles.

A mirthless chuckle escaped his lips. "It is my pleasure to see you as well, Bella."

Jealousy stabbed through Hermione as she took in the look of pure adoration on Bellatrix's face. The older witch had never looked more radiant than she did at that moment, and Hermione thought that she might have done anything to have Bellatrix look at her like that .

Then those red eyes slid over to her, "Hermione, child. I heard you were unwell. Are you better now?"

She nodded, "Yes my Lord. Thank you."

His eyes studied her for a moment, then- "Slide over Severus, and give the girl your seat."

Snape obeyed at once, and Hermione sat in the chair to the left of him. At once Nagini lifted her dark head and moved to examine her, prompting her to giggle a bit as the snake's nose prodded her ear.

A wide grin stretched Voldemort's face, and he hissed something to the snake. Slowly, Nagini slithered to the floor and coiled at Hermione's feet, resting her head in Hermione's lap like a dog.

"Bellatrix tells me that you're lessons with her are coming along quite nicely," he said.

That's funny, Hermione said to Bellatrix, you said just the opposite yesterday. What was it you called me? A 'clumsy oaf with cheese for brains'?

Ignoring her, Bellatrix purred, "She has a gift for dueling, and a keen mind."

Snape, who had just filled Hermione's glass with pumpkin juice, slid a healthy slice of blueberry tart onto Hermione's plate. She took a bite, eyes widening at how delicious it was.

"That's high praise, coming from you Bella."

"It's the truth. I have no doubt that she'll be an excellent addition to our forces."

"There's time for that yet," interjected Snape. "She's not even of age yet."

Bellatrix shot him a glare, "She'll be of age in September!"

"Keeping track, are you?" asked Snape frostily.

"Severus, Bellatrix, cease."

The words were spoken softly, but the tone made the hair on the back of Hermione's neck stand on edge.

"I have no intention of making Hermione a mindless soldier, Severus. Calm yourself."

Snape stabbed a raspberry onto the end of his fork with more force than was necessary.

"A strategist then?" Asked Bellatrix eagerly. "Or perhaps you'll use her to replace certain weaker links," she gave Snape a significant look.

"I've asked you here today because we are in the midst of forming a better future." The Dark Lord sat straighter, and swirled his hand idly around the rim of his goblet. "We have, up till now, been a force to be feared. Grown men glance over their shoulders on well lit streets, mothers warn their children about us, everywhere we go we are a symbol of terror."

Bellatrix looked proud, Snape looked impassive, Hermione felt a little sick.

"But, to what end?" Voldemort sighed, the picture of the careworn leader. "When we finally achieve our goal, who will we rule? Terrified mice who beg for mercy in one light and spit hate with the other?"

He picked up a strawberry and twisted it back and forth in his fingers.

"I don't want to rule a nation of terrified cowards," he continued. "I want to lead the world into a better future. A world free from hiding. We shouldn't just be snuffing out the opposition, we should be inspiring our future citizens. Showing them the glorious future that awaits them!"

"Yes!" Bellatrix looked as if she might burst into tears, and Hermione felt that stab of jealousy again, "What do you have in mind?"

The red eyes met hers again, and she fought the shiver that trickled down her spine. "We shall give them a heroine."

Bellatrix's eyes found hers across the table, and Hermione was surprised to see that they were brimming with pride. She could feel the other witch's happiness, but it did little to ease her nerves.

The Dark Lord continued, "The masses need to be entertained to be content. While the fools under Dumbledore promote mass hysteria, we will promote the dawn of a new age. After all, we are doing this for our children, our young families ushering in an era of enlightenment and progress."

He tightened his fingers, crushing the strawberry so that the sticky red juice trickled down his stark white hand.

"Who better to arouse the adoration of the public than a young, elite daughter of the revolution? You will be the embodiment of our people. Legends will be passed on about your triumphs, and ballads sung in your honor about how you helped bring the wizarding world out of shadows and into the bright new future under my rule."

Hermione felt her stomach flip.

"And of course," he said, laying his clammy palm atop Hermione's, "when they've fallen for you they will have no choice but to fall for me. The whole world will be ripe for the plucking, and at the head of it will be the Dark Lord, and his little lioness.

Beneath the table, she saw Snape's hand clench into a fist.

XX

By the time she got home, her head was buzzing with information. Bellatrix and the Dark Lord had spent hours discussing the importance of a "Romantic Figure" to "Inspire the heart and soul" of the new society.

Hermione stumbled up the stairs, and ran blindly to her room. She was so caught up that she did not notice the dark shadow that followed her, moving swiftly after her and pressing the door shut behind her as she flung herself onto her bed.

She felt sick. Her stomach was churning, threatening to toss up the blueberry tart. She squeezed her eyes shut, and gulped in air, trying to stop her head from spinning.

She did not feel the bed dip, and she barely registered the warmth at her back as someone curled around her. She did, however, register the two arms that wrapped soothingly around her.

The scent of Bellatrix's perfume- dark and woodsy, surrounded her.

"Doveling, Doveling," crooned Bellatrix in her rasping voice. "What's wrong?"

Hermione felt as if something heavy was pressing on her lungs, preventing her from taking a deep breath. "E-Ev-ery-thing." she gasped.

Bellatrix wrapped her tighter. "Was it the meeting?"

Hermione jerked her head in a nod, and felt Bellatrix's cheek against her own.

"Do you realize the honor that he is giving you?" Bellatrix asked. "He wants you by his side. To help bring about a glorious new age."

"I can't..." Hermione whined. She thought of Harry and Draco. Of her parents. Of Uncle Severus.

Bellatrix was still, and Hermione could feel the dark witch's worry. "Doveling. You can . You have to."

"He-He-He's going to k-k-kill me when he finds out."

"Nothing will happen to you."

"He's going to k-kill Harry," she whispered, unable to stop the tears from pouring down her face. "And Draco is going to hate m-m-me forever!"

"Forever is an awfully long time," came the gentle response.

"Bella- I can't do this!"

The other witch said nothing, but began to stroke her fingers down the length of Hermione's arm. Slowly, bit by bit, the brunette's breathing returned to normal.

Then, swiping away the tears on Hermione's cheeks, she whispered, "Nothing's going to happen to you, Doveling. I won't let it."

And Hermione believed it.

XX

Summer break had never been this lonely for the youngest Malfoy. His father was in prison. His sister spent all of her time either at the ministry or "training", and his mother disappeared at all hours of the day and night on mysterious outings.

Ernie Macmillan's parents were reluctant to host the son of a Death Eater, the Weasley's were busy with their own efforts to stop Voldemort, and Harry's letters were becoming more and more infrequent.

To top it all off, he had been ordered to remain on the Manor grounds, where his mother was certain that the wards would protect him.

He hated the part of himself that was grateful to be behind the wards. Safely tucked away with nothing to do but fly his Nimbus 2001 in lazy circles above the pond.

He watched the sun slowly dip beneath the treeline, leaving great streaks of orange and pink across the sky. The wind ruffled his hair as he swooped to the ground.

Although he felt distinctly un-Malfoyish at times, he could not help but feel a certain fondness whenever he entered the Manor. Everything from the plush carpets to the dark, wooden bannisters felt like it was a part of him. He used to lay on the landing of the first floor, his cheek pressed against the smooth wood of the top stair, and listen .

Listen to the elves chatter away when they thought no one was near.

Listen to his parents fight and then make up.

Listen to Hermione's fits of temper when she thought no one could hear.

It was moments like this that made him feel the most connected to his family. He could close his eyes and feel that he was part of each of them.

He bounded up the stairs, smiling to himself as he noted a new photograph on the wall. This one was of Hermione in her dress robes from the Yule Ball, with Draco beside her, making a ridiculous face at the camera, his hand held up in "bunny ears" behind her head. She was trying to discreetly elbow him in the side, her perfect "newspaper smile" threatening to crack into a real grin. After a moment, the photograph-Hermione burst out laughing, prompting the real Draco to chuckle.

A pang of longing tore through him, and he rubbed his fingertips over the polished wooden frame. He and his sister had been best friends their entire lives, yet he had barely seen her this summer.

Struck with inspiration, he headed towards her bedroom.

"Mione!" He called, "Let's go take our dinner on one of the rowboats!" He reached the door and twisted the handle, "The twins taught me this awesome spell that makes fireworks-"

Horror cut him off.

His sister was lying in the middle of her bed, trapped in the embrace of-

"Lestrange!" he snarled, twisting his hand inside of his robes in search of his wand. "Get off of my sister!"

Hermione shot up, her voice frantic, "Draco-"

"So this is my illustrious nephew…" Drawled Bellatrix, slowly sitting up. A smirk stretched across her face, and her eyes glittered with sarcastic mirth, "The...Hufflepuff." She was still pressed up against Hermione, and his brows knitted in confusion as he took in their proximity. Hermione did not appear to be shrinking away from the older witch.

His wand was now out, and he pointed it without hesitation at his aunt. "Better a Hufflepuff than a murderer!" he spat. "Hermione, get away from there!"

"No, Mione," said Bellatrix, resting her chin on the brunette's shoulder, "stay with me." It would have been almost sweet had it not been obvious that she was taunting him.

Prickling, Hermione shot Bellatrix an exasperated look, and then turned pleading eyes to her brother. "Draco, put it down. She's not going to hurt you."

He tightened his grip, feeling ready to scream. "Say that to Sirius! Oh wait, you can't because SHE KILLED HIM!"

His sister stiffened, her eyes widening. Something deep in his mind reminded him that they had never actually spoken about Sirius' death. "She didn't tell you that, did she?!" He shot, though he was losing steam as he watched a cascade of emotions cross his sister's face.

Curiously, he noted Bellatrix's reaction. She stiffened as well, and then ran her hand down Hermione's shoulder. His sister shrugged it off, her cheeks glowing crimson, and when she turned to glare at Bellatrix he could have sworn that the older witch flinched .

"What's happening?" he demanded, feeling suddenly unsure.

Their eyes were still locked, and Bellatrix shook her head ever so slightly.

His voice shook a little as he stepped closer, "What's going on?"

Still no answer, but Bellatrix shook her head again, her eyes narrowing.

"What are you doing to my sister?!" he yelled, stomping across the room, "Tell me now, or i'll-"

A new voice entered the room, "Draco, no!"

But a shot of red light was already flowing, unbidden, from his wand. It hit the darkwitch square in the chest, and she fell back onto the bed. His attention, however, was on Hermione. When Bellatrix fell back Hermione clutched her chest and hissed .

He barely had time to register this, however, as his mother was already wrestling his wand away. "Draco," she said urgently, "stop this. Stop ." She cupped his chin gently in her smooth palm, but he jerked away.

"Something's not right," he said, feeling his face burn. "Did you see that? They- I don't even-"

A low cackling laugh sounded from the bed as Bellatrix heaved herself up. "Well I'll give you this, boy. You're curses are sound." She winced, but a broad grin stretched across her face.

Anger simmered in his throat, "Don't you talk to me!"

"Draco," there was a warning in his mother's voice, and she stepped so that she was half in front of him. "Calm down. We will sort this out."

He found it unlikely that whatever "this" was could be sorted out. But still, he quieted.

"Bellatrix," a hard edge entered her voice. "What are you doing here?"

"I'm checking on my trainee," she said smugly. "We had a difficult session today, and I wanted to make sure she was ok."

"You had a meeting today," his mother said.

He could feel his anger rising again, "You knew -" but with a quick look she silenced him.

Bellatrix shrugged, "It was a difficult meeting then."

Narcissa crossed to Hermione, and gently ran her fingers through her hair, "Are you ok, darling?"

He noticed his sister hesitate, and then nod.

"I'm glad of it," Narcissa said, running her thumb over Hermione's cheek. He wasn't so sure his sister was fine. She looked paler than usual, and there was something desperate in her eyes as she looked up at their mother. Bile rose in his throat as Bellatrix discreetly hooked her arm through his sister's.

Then, she looked at her sister, and stiffened. "Thank you for checking on Hermione," she said in a hard tone, "But in the future, I would appreciate it if you did not antagonize my son."

Bellatrix cackled again, and Draco wished he had his wand.

"Now, I think Hermione could use some rest," Naricssa said diplomatically. She kissed the top of Hermione's head, and then looked pointedly at Bellatrix, "Draco and I will see you out."

Draco would rather have kissed a hippogriff, but nonetheless he accompanied his mother and Bellatrix to the front door.

"You didn't see them, Mother," he hissed as they reached the bottom of the staircase. "She was lying in bed with Mione, it was-"

Bellatrix arched an eyebrow at him, looking thoroughly amused. "Who knew my little nephew could be such a prude? I've certainly never seen this side of you."

"You've never seen any side of me!" said a very frustrated Draco, "and I'd be happy if you never saw me again!"

Bellatrix clucked, shaking her head back and forth. "Tell me, love, how is Felix these days?"

He felt like he had been struck. Though he opened his mouth, no words came out. How did she know?

His mother, who had been wearing a thoughtful expression, snapped, "Stop it Bellatrix."

" Stop it Bellatrix ," mimicked the dark witch. "Oh Cissy, still so protective. Tell me, do you still cut his meat for him as well?"

"Shut up," growled his mother, and he blinked at her in shock. He had never heard her use that phrase. "Just shut up, Bellatrix. Haven't you done enough?"

Bellatrix drew herself up to her full height, and looked earnestly into Narcissa's gaze. "And I'd do it again if I had the choice. You don't understand Cissy, how could you?"

"How could you?!" His mother's voice cracked at the end of her words, and her eyes shone overly bright. "If you weren't my sister I would cut you down where you stand! I wish I could regardless."

Feeling more than a little alarmed, he stepped closer to his mother and wrapped his arm around her shoulder.

"Oh Cissy, it's ok."

She shook her head, and said in a broken whisper, "It will never be ok. My girl… Merlin, Bellatrix, I can see where this is going…I'm not stupid."

"You've never been stupid," replied Bellatrix solemnly. She stepped closer, raising her hand as if to touch Narcissa, but then let it drop. "But in this… You couldn't possibly understand."

"I need you to leave."

"Ok…" but she made no move to leave.

Wordlessly And without looking at her sister, Narcissa moved to open the door. The dark witch moved slowly through the door, looking as if it took every ounce of willpower to do so.

"Mother?"

She shut the door behind Bellatrix, and rested her forehead against the dark wood. A sob escaped her lips.

"Mum!" He leapt to her side, and placed a hand on her back.

"I hate her," she gasped, gasping in a breath and turning her head to the ceiling. "Merlin, I do!"

But there was more to it than that. Draco had been reading people his whole life, and he knew his mother. Her hatred was freezing and composed. This was different.

"She's going to come back, isn't she?" He asked softly.

His mother nodded, sniffing. "I'd be surprised if she wasn't back tomorrow. Hermione is supposed to have her training session in the morning."

"You're not going to put a stop to that?"

She shook her head, and turned to face him. "I'm sorry darling, I shouldn't have lost my composure like that."

It was so absurd he felt like laughing and crying at once. His mother stood there, her hair still immaculate in the dimming light, with only a slight red tinge around her eyes to hint that she had been upset at all.

"We could take Hermione and run," he said. "Father is fine in Azkaban, and Hermione will be safer away from Britain."

"It's too late for that," She whispered. "Hermione has decided to stay and play out Dumbledore's scheme. Nothing on Earth could stop her. And even if we cursed her and forced her to go it wouldn't be too long before Bellatrix found us."

"Why?" Demanded Draco. "What is going on? Please don't lie to me, mum," he said softly.

A soft smile twitched at her lips, and she reached out to ruffle his hair. "Never, my darling." She straightened up, smoothing her hands over her robes, "but it's a long story. Let's see if we can get Mardie to make us some tea."

He nodded, and followed her gratefully to the kitchen.

Chapter Text

December, 1981

The freezing wind tore through the front hall as the lord of Malfoy Manor flung the front door open. "Maman!" Lucius greeted his mother, the dignified former Lady Malfoy. "I'm so glad you could make it!" He stooped to kiss her cheek.

Melanippe Malfoy stood a full head shorter than her son, and she was so dainty she looked to be more elfin than human. The years had been kind to her, and she was still considered to be a great beauty. Her hair, silvery white and with a faint curl, was chin-length. Her eyes were so blue they were startling to look at, and they sparkled as they looked up at him.

He had not seen his mother since his wedding day. She had returned to France after his father's death, and had not been able to return while Voldemort was active.

"You look so thin, mon lapin ," she cupped his face with her palm. "Are the Aurors still here?"

He shook his head, "I've been formally cleared of all charges."

She hummed under her breath, "And your wife? Where is she?"

He winced slightly at her tone. His mother and Narcissa had never gotten along. While his father had been attracted by the Black pedigree, his mother was prone to throwing around terms like "inbred" and "lunacy".

A cool voice floated across the gardens, "Melanippe. How wonderful it is to see you again."

Dressed in robes of black with her hair piled high atop her head, his wife looked more ready to fight dragons than have a cosy afternoon in with her family.

"Narcissa." She gave a curt nod, and let her hands settle on Lucius' shoulders. "Where are my grandchildren?"

"In the nursery, with our nanny elf."

"Hmmm," sniffed Melanippe. "In my day we didn't leave the children alone with the elves . It's not good to let them become too comfortable around the inferior beings. I suppose you have a Centaur nursemaid as well?"

Seeing his wife bristle, Lucius hastily wrapped an arm around his mother, "Why don't we introduce you to the children, Maman?"

Upstairs, Hermione and Draco played with brightly colored blocks under the watchful eye of the wrinkled elf.

"Mama!" Cried Draco the second they walked into the room. He held two chubby arms up to Narcissa and let out a laugh as she scooped him up.

Melanippe rushed forward, "Hello Draco," she said softly, tracing an elegant finger down his face. Draco peered curiously up at her, and shrank back against Narcissa. Lucius couldn't be sure, but he thought he saw a satisfied glimmer in his wife's eyes.

Something tugged at the hem of his robes, and he looked down into the smiling face of his daughter.

"Papa, up?" She asked in her high voice.

He stooped to lift her, grinning himself as she let out a peal of giggles.

"And this must be Hermione!"

The girl stilled as Melanippe drew close, but did not shrink away as Draco had done. Instead, she pointed at the string of pearls around the older woman's throat and cooed, "Pretty!"

"What a precious girl," said Melanippe, reaching to stroke Hermione's cheek. "Do you know who I am?"

Hermione scrunched up her face, as if trying to remember. "Hmmmmm?" She looked up at Lucius questioningly.

Melanippe leaned forward, "I'm your mémère," she said conspiratorially.

Hermione leaned forward, "Memmy."

She chuckled, "Good enough for me. May I?" She asked, holding open her arms,

Hermione slid over to Melanippe, and clutched the pearls happily. "Pretty Memmy," she said, giggling again.

Relief spread through his chest at his mother's apparent delight with the girl. He was worried that she would be disinterested in the "orphan" he had adopted, but she spent the rest of the day cooing over the children equally.

He found out why that evening, when the two of them settled into his study.

"I'm very happy that Draco inherited the Malfoy coloring."

He hummed noncommittally, and swirled the contents of his glass. The wine was making him feel warm and sleepy.

"But Hermione is the spitting image of your Great-Aunt Lucie. Such a beautiful child. Everyone was devastated when she drowned."

Resisting the urge to roll his eyes, he drawled, "That's a remarkable coincidence."

Something hard flashed in her eyes. "When will you stop lying to me Lucius? I am your mother, not some common rabble looking for gossip."

Blinking in surprise, he set his glass down. "I'm not sure I know what you mean."

Two red spots appeared in her cheeks, "I know that she isn't some foundling you decided to take in out of the goodness of your heart. Anyone with half a brain can see how much you adore the child, and how much she adores you. I can also see Narcissa's coldness. I'm not judging you, mon lapin ," she reached for his hand, and grasped it firmly. "I won't even ask about the mother, though I can't imagine why she would be willing to let such a darling girl slip from her life."

He let out a deep breath, "Hermione's mother is dead." It suddenly seemed easier to let his mother believe that Hermione was his . The thought made him happy. Unfortunately, his mother noticed the smile tugging at his lips.

"You are not the first Malfoy to love your bastard more than your heir-"

"I love them equally!" he protested, a curious guilt churning in his stomach. Of course he loved his children equally. Draco was his heir , for Merlin's sake! But Hermione… He downed the contents of his glass.

"I am pleased that Narcissa has agreed to the adoption." his mother continued as if he had not spoken. "It makes it easier for everyone. Half of our peers have forgotten that she is not Narcissa's, the other are too well bred to bring it up. In a few years Hermione will be considered just as much a Malfoy as Draco."

"Because she is," groused Lucius.

"Oh, I know," Melanippe's eyes sparkled, "She's not a timid one, is she? I see the same spark in her you had. It's a pity that Draco is so timid, but I suppose that's the Black in him."

He repressed the urge to chuckle. No one in British society would ever dare to call a Black timid.

" PAPA!"

A heart wrenching scream interrupted them, and Lucius was on his feet in an instant. Running down the corridor from his study to Hermione's bedroom had, unfortunately, become a normal part of his evening routine. He barely registered that his mother was following him as he tore into his daughter's bedroom.

"Nooooooooo!"

He had her in his arms in an instant, "Sweetheart," he crooned, swaying her back and forth, "Sweetheart, wake up."

"Cold," she whimpered, burrowing into his shirt. Her face was pale, and when she slowly blinked open her eyes they were tinged red from exhaustion. "Papa, cold."

"Oh, ma petite ," Melanippe pulled flicked her wand, and a large, dusky rose shawl appeared. She draped this around the little girl, who was still sniffling into Lucius' chest. "Does this happen every night?"

He hesitated, then nodded. "The… circumstances in which her mother died were unpleasant," he explained, cuddling Hermione nearer. "Hermione was there when it happened."

Horror filled his mother's eyes, "Poor child." Drawing closer, she tucked the soft shawl firmer around Hermione, and placed her cool hand on Lucius' arm.

Footsteps were heard in the corridor.

"How is she?" whispered Narcissa, leaning against the doorway. "I heard her call out."

Melanippe gave her a hard look, which thankfully went unnoticed.

"She's fine. Draco?"

"Fine." Narcissa looked as if she would like to say something, but her eyes flicked to Melanippe, and she changed her mind. "I have some letters to finish-"

"Go," he said gently, offering up a smile. "I'll take care of this."

She nodded, and padded away.

It was not long before Hermione was slumbering in his arms, but he found himself reluctant to place her back in his bed. Instead, he wrapped her snuggly in his mother's shawl, and took her back to his study.

"It's good that she has you," his mother said softly, settling next to him on the leather sofa opposite his desk. She stroked an elegant hand through Hermione's unruly curls. "Every child should know that their parent will protect them."

"And I will," Lucius said, feeling more sure than he ever had in his life. He held her closer, smiling at her soft snores. "Always."

Always.

[Early July, 1996]

Lucius jerked out of his thoughts as a clang filled the small dungeon beneath the Ministry. His trial had been moved forward, and so he had been unceremoniously hauled from Azkaban to the Ministry building that morning.

The cells at the Ministry were warmer than those at Azkaban, and for this he was grateful. He had never felt anything like the bone-aching cold of the North Sea fortress.

His eyes strained as a bright light filled the dungeon, and he heard an authoritative voice say, "I've got a visitor for Malfoy."

The portly wizard who had been sitting outside his cell eased to his feet, "There've been no notifications that he was allowed-"

"Do you dare question me Billond?"

The man came into view, and though his jaw was set in determination, his eyes were strangely hollow. It was the sight of an unpolished Imperius curse, before the caster had fully mastered the art of unforgivable curses.

The Auror named Billond did not notice, however, and after a few grumbles about "lack of respect" he trudged to let the newcomers in.

Lucius crept closer to the bars, his eyes straining in the flickering light. They landed upon the person following the new Auror, and widened-

"Hermione!" he rasped. His hands curled around the rough bars, and he leaned his forehead against the iron, his eyes feasting on the most precious thing in the world. "Sweetheart, how did you-"

"Oh Papa," her chestnut eyes swam with unshed tears as she pressed against the cell. Soft, warm fingers wrapped around his chilled ones, and she leaned her head so that their foreheads almost touched.

A grubby voice cried out "You're not allowed to get that close-"

"Shut up Billond," rasped the new Auror. "Go find Lord Malfoy some lunch."

Billond grumbled again, but shuffled down the long line of cells so that he was out of sight.

"Is that your handiwork?" Lucius asked softly.

She nodded, "Bella's been teaching me."

Icy concern dripped through his veins, but he managed to shove that down. "So Bellatrix has been tutoring you then?"

She nodded, and when she glanced back up at him he noticed the deep purple bruises beneath her eyes.

"Have you been sleeping?" he asked, reaching his fingers through the bars to brush against her cheek.

She smiled, and his heart ached at the maturity he saw in her expression, "You don't need to worry about me Papa."

Something fierce gripped him, and the hand not touching her curled tightly around one of the bars. "I will always worry," he promised.

"I know," she said, reaching up to wrap her fingers around his.

"How's your Mother?" he asked softly, "And Draco? Does he- has he said…"

"Everyone's fine," she assured him. She looked consideringly at him for a moment, as if she was debating telling him something. "We're going to be staying in the Forest Cottage for the rest of the summer," she blurted. "I think Mother intends to stay there after we've gone back to Hogwarts, too. The elves have been frantically packing all week."

He nodded. "That's a clever idea. The Forest Cottage has the strongest wards. And it's unplottable."

Hermione's gaze dropped. "And it's not protected by blood wards," she groused, "so Bellatrix can't get in."

Ah . So many questions bubbled up, but he suppressed them, choosing to smile gently instead. "Perhaps it will do you three some good to spend some alone time together."

Hermione snorted, "I'm not going to be trapped there, Papa. I still have my Ministry position, and Bellatrix trains me in the afternoon-"

He felt sick at the thought of that woman training his little girl to be the perfect Death Eater.

A loud clanging noise interrupted her, and she tensed.

"They'll be coming for me soon," he said, trying to sound cheerful but failing miserably. "Listen, sweetheart, before you go… I want you to promise me that no matter what happens, no matter what Dumbledore or the Dark Lord tell you, I want you to protect-"

"I'll protect Draco and Mother," she cut in, laughing a little.

"I want you to protect yourself ," he finished. Chucking her gently under the chin. "Draco is just as old as you are, and quite a capable wizard. And we both know your Mother is more than capable of taking care of herself. But you on the other hand…" He couldn't kiss her forehead, so he seized her fingers and kissed them instead. "If anything ever happened to you…" his voice broke, and the thoughts that had consumed him every moment at Azkaban pressed forward, threatening to overwhelm him.

"Papa," she whispered, keeping her tone light in spite of the suspicious glisten in her eyes, "nothing's going to happen to me. I'm perfectly fine, I promise. And you will be too. I'm going to get you out of here soon. The Dark Lord has promised me that you will be released as soon as we can overthrow the Ministry."

He nodded, and smiled, raking his eyes over her face as if he was trying to memorize her.

A rasping voice barked, "It's time, Miss Malfoy."

She pressed her eyes closed, and then squeezed his fingers. "Stay strong, Papa," she whispered, "I'll get you out."

"I love you," he gasped, struggling to maintain his composure, "more than anything."

Her eyes shone with unshed tears, "I love you too Papa, more than anything."

And then she was being ushered out, and he felt the last hold on his emotions shatter.

Chapter Text

"I don't want to go back to Hogwarts," Hermione groused as she followed Bellatrix through the woods behind the hunting lodge.

The older witch snorted in amusement as she plunged through the undergrowth. Twigs snapped or whipped back to hit Hermione as Bellatrix quickened her steps. "Not even now that you have finally made friends ?" Her voice dripped with sarcasm. She was referring to the regular letters she exchanged with Harry, and the polite notes Ginny, Luna, and Neville had sent her over the summer break.

Too gloomy for a sharp retort, Hermione trodded along. Her eyes barely left the ground.

"It won't be long before Christmas," said Bellatrix gently.

Hermione hummed noncommittally. In the warmth of summer it was very difficult to think of Christmas.

She gasped in pain as a shot of red sparks hit her in the shoulder. "Bella!" Stopping, she inspected the singed hole in her summer robes, and the blistering welt that lay beneath it. "What was that for!?" She glared up at her friend.

There was no remorse in Bellatrix's grin. "You should always be on alert, Doveling. What if we had walked into a trap?"

Rubbing her shoulder, Hermione scowled. "I suppose I'd die right there on the spot?"

"Probably," Bellatrix nodded. "But that's what I'm here for. To make sure that doesn't happen." She gave Hermione a smile that made something flutter in the younger girl's stomach. "The rules are no maiming, no killing, or knocking the other person unconscious."

Blinking slowly, Hermione opened her mouth to ask "What?" but then doubled over as another stinging hex hit her in the thigh. "Argh, Bella!"

Her only answer was a long cackle, and when she looked up she spotted the other witch dashing away through the trees at top speed.

Without thinking, Hermione plunged after her, her wand clasped tightly in her hand.

It was probably the best training session of the summer. In the indoor training room Hermione was at a disadvantage because her dueling skills were nowhere near as strong as Bellatrix's. But out here she had the advantage of being in better shape. Years of malnutrition and limited exercise made Bellatrix slower, but the older witch was surprisingly agile as she blasted stinger after stinger at Hermione.

The sun was beginning to dip it's golden head behind the trees when Hermione finally tripped over a tree root and fell flat on her face. She lay there panting, her veins purring with contentedness. For once, the constant flood of thoughts was gone. There was no trace of her father, Harry, or the Dark Lord in her mind. Only the steady thump of her pulse, the cool kiss of the breeze, and the itch of dirt under her collar.

A crack of twigs made her look up at long last, and she rolled over onto her side as Bellatrix settled on the tall root that had tripped her.

"I think that's good enough for one day," said Bellatrix. There was a softness in her features that Hermione hadn't seen before. Her lips were curved gently, her eyes shining with something that made the younger girl's stomach curl. "You did very well."

"Thank- you," gasped Hermione between breaths. She pushed herself into a sitting position, and eagerly accepted the flask of water that Bellatrix produced from one of her pockets. The cool liquid seemed to revive her, and she pushed the stray curls from her eyes, grinning up at Bellatrix. "I could have gone all night if it weren't for that tree."

"I'm sure you could have," said Bellatrix good-naturedly, accepting the flask and taking a swig herself. Her hair had been forced into a knot at the back of her head, and damp strands clung to her face and neck. A red flush had spread across her neck and cheeks, but she was otherwise composed as she finished her drink and slid the flask back into a pocket.

If only it could always be like this , Hermione thought dreamily.

" You'd be bored stiff within a week" retorted Bellatrix, and Hermione gave her a lazy grin.

"Sometimes I think it would be nice though," said Hermione quietly.

Bellatrix cocked her head to the side, "You think what would be nice?"

The girl said nothing, instead she chewed on her bottom lip and stared at a pebble on the ground. Something heavy formed in her chest. More than anything she envied those like Samar who had no part of the brewing war. Beautiful Samar, with her doting parents and her playful older brother. She never had to worry that her best friend would be killed, or that her family would tear itself apart. She didn't have to worry about winning over a Dark Lord who could very well kill her if he discovered her true lineage.

Two warm arms twined around her, drawing her gently from her thoughts. Bellatrix had lowered herself to the ground behind her, and she half-pulled Hermione into her lap, humming gently as their skin met and the deep sense of calm washed over the both of them.

"Stop thinking, Doveling. Just stop," she whispered.

Hermione wiped at her eyes, and tried to nod.

"I said to stop," chided Bellatrix gently as Hermione's shoulders shook with a sob.

The younger girl felt Bellatrix in her mind, drifting through the thoughts that seemed impossible to stop. She did nothing to shield herself. She was too tired to keep Bellatrix out, and if she were being completely honest, she wanted someone else to know what kept her up at night.

"Worrying about them does nothing," Bellatrix said finally, combing her fingers through Hermione's fallen curls. "Be here with me now." Her other hand found Hermione's, and she twined her fingers together. "It's just you and me in our little woods. You and me."

Hermione shifted, leaning her head against Bellatrix's shoulder and breathing in deeply.

"I won't let anything happen to you, I promise."

Hermione closed her eyes, and pushed her nose into the curve where Bellatrix's neck met her shoulder. Bellatrix smelled like grass and parchment. "I won't let anything happen to you either, Bella."

A chuckle rocked her body, and Bellatrix tightened her arms a little, "That's my dove."

Chapter Text

The scarlet steam engine roared merrily to life as Hermione followed her mother and brother onto Platform 9 3/4. The scene was just as hectic as usual, with students shouting greetings at each other, and the sound of animals complaining as their cages were bustled about.

Yet there was a somber note that had never been there as well. Parents stuck closer to their students, their eyes scanning the crowd fretfully. Aurors flanked either side of the Platform, stopping people periodically to ask questions, or pass them a pamphlet on safety. And then there was the presence of the black armband- a signal that a loved one was missing, maimed, or murdered.

One woman glared openly at the Malfoys as they passed. "Death Eater whore," she spat, a claw like hand tightening around the shoulder of her daughter.

"What did you call my mother?" asked Hermione hotly, stopping to face the woman. Several people around them had stopped to watch them, and she felt like cursing every single one of them. Turnip, who had been trotting at her ankles, flashed an angry red and growled.

The woman's eyes never left Narcissa. "I called her what she deserved," she said in a hoarse voice. "My Billy never hurt nobody," her voice cracked, and Hermione noticed the strip of black fabric knotted too tightly around her left arm. "He didn't deserve that- he didn't deserve that ."

Her daughter, a younger Ravenclaw girl, was blushing furiously. She too sported the black armband, but it was more of a ribbon. "Mum," she whispered, shrinking into her robes as far as she could go, but her mother ignored her.

"How dare you come out into public with decent people!?"

By now Hermione could see several Aurors making their way over, but she didn't care. "You shut your mouth, you filthy, stinking-"

"Hermione, darling," interjected her mother smoothly, "Don't engage with the rabble, it only encourages them."

Oh, but she wanted to. Something itched in the back of her throat, like a caged animal dying to be released. It was only when Draco slid his arm through hers that she reluctantly broke her gaze and followed her mother.

"That poor woman," he murmured, even as said woman began another volley of insults.

Hermione shot him a glare, "She has no right insulting our mother like that. If it weren't for all the witnesses I would-"

"Would what, exactly?" he asked coolly. She didn't like the ice in his gaze, or the was his arm stiffened.

"Nothing," she said quickly.

There was a new tension in their relationship ever since she had begun training with Bellatrix. Draco had not said anything to her yet, but she could feel him watching her carefully and judging some of the things that came out of her mouth. She was certain he still trusted her, but for the first time in her life she wasn't certain that his trust would last. Or that she deserved his trust.

"Now, I've had Mardie pack lunches for both of you," their mother said once they had loaded their trunks into a compartment. "Hermione, I've had to special order your hair potions from Paris, so they will be owled directly to you by the end of the week. Let me know if they are delayed."

Hermione nodded, and felt a lump growing in her throat. Her mother had decided to remain at the Forest Cottage through the school year, and the thought of her in that tiny, lonely little patch of land…

" I'll keep an eye on her," promised Bellatrix quietly. Though her animagus form could not penetrate the wards around the cottage she could still keep an eye from afar.

Thanks , thought Hermione miserably.

The smell of orange blossom surrounded her as her mother wrapped her in an embrace. "Be careful, my darling," she whispered. "I want you to focus on your studies this year. If Severus wants you to take an extra class with him that's fine, but I've made it very clear to both Dumbledore and Severus that you are to have as normal a school year as possible."

Hermione nodded, wishing for the thousandth time that she could remain at home.

Her mother kissed her forehead, and turned to Draco. "I do wish you would let me have some proper robes sent for you," she sighed.

Flashing her an easy smile, Draco folded her into a hug. He was now taller than both his mother and his sister, and Hermione found herself wondering when that had happened.

"I'll be wearing my school robes most of the time anyway, Mum," he said, laughing. "And my badger robes are my favorite. You wouldn't want to deprive me the chance for individuality, would you?"

Hermione thought privately that his style was beginning to mirror Dumbledore's a little too much for true "individuality," and the pained expression on her mother's face told her that she agreed.

There was another round of goodbyes, and more hugs, and then Hermione and Draco boarded the train.

Narcissa remained on the platform, given a large berth by the other family members, and waved until the train had pulled out of sight.

"I wish she would go back to the Manor," Hermione sighed quietly once their mother was out of sight. "I hate the thought of her being all alone in the middle of nowhere." Turnip rested his dark blue head on her lap, and gave a low whine. Gently, she ruffled the fur behind his ears.

"It's better than her being alone in the Manor," said Draco, "where any Death Eater could come traipsing in without a moment's notice."

There was an uncharacteristic note of venom in his voice, and she looked sharply up at him. "You're not talking about any Death Eater are you?" she challenged, feeling heat rise in her face. "There's only one Death Eater who has access to the manor, and she would never do anything to hurt mother. Never ."

Turnip's ears were turning a brilliant red, but the wubble merely whined and snuggled closer to her.

Draco's cheeks were burning pink as he glared at her from across the compartment. "You don't know that, Mione. You don't know anything about her. Just because you spent the summer being trained as another mindless soldier-"

"Mindless soldier? Is that really what you think?" she scoffed, drawing herself up to her full height, "You don't know anything about my training-"

"I know that you're being stupid!" he burst. He ran an agitated hand through his hair and leaned forward. "I saw the way you looked at her, Mione. And you're too smart to fall for someone like her. She's a ruthless murderer!"

"Bella is not -"

A triumphant gleam appeared in his eye, "So it's "Bella" now, is it?"

A low, gentle voice sounded in the back of her mind, the first sign that Bellatrix was witnessing this interaction. " Careful, Dove. He's got a right to his opinion about me."

Not if this is his opinion, thought Hermione angrily. To him, she snapped, "You don't know anything about it, Draco!"

He sat back, looking more like their mother than he ever had, "I know that you're letting your feelings get in the way of your rational thought."

"My feelings have nothing to do with anything!" she spat.

"I don't believe you," he said quietly. His grey eyes were cold and accusatory, and it hurt her to look at them. She had never seen anything but love shining back from him. "Hermione…"

"I'm only doing what Dumbledore wants me to do," she protested, knowing it was a lie. "He wants me to infiltrate the Dark Lord's ranks, and that's what i'm doing."

"Does he want you to fall head over heels for a psychopath?" shot back Draco. "Don't pretend to be shocked, anyone who saw her escort you back to the cottage boundaries would know how you really feel. Holding her hand . Laughing and joking about with that- that creature. Like she was a dear friend instead of a monster-"

Something bitter filled the back of her throat. "Don't you talk about her like that!" she growled. "Don't ever call her that. You don't know anything! How dare you?! "

" Hermione, you need to calm down right now. Before you do something you regret."

It was only then that she noticed that Turnip was entirely red, and that she had drawn her wand from it's regular place up her sleeve, and was pointing it at him. With an anguished cry, she dropped it, and stared wide eyed into his shocked gaze.

"You don't know anything about it Draco." Her voice broke on the last word, and she felt shame as she had never experienced boil in her stomach. How could she raise her wand to him? Her little brother? A sob clawed it's way from her throat.

He licked his lips, and reached out to gently grasp her hand. "You can tell me anything, Mione. You're my sister, and I will always love you. Even if I don't…"

This was it. The moment she had been looking for since her first night in Gryffindor Tower. She could finally tell him about the connection that tied her to Bellatrix. How she knew Bellatrix better than anyone, and how it made her position more difficult than he could imagine.

Yes, she could come clean. His eyes were warming up as she gazed at him. He had always accepted her…

But she let the moment pass.

"Just, don't talk about her, Drake. Please."

He gave her hand a friendly squeeze, "Alright. We don't need to talk about her right now." There was something in the way he said the words that indicated that they would be talking about it at some point. But she did not care.

He left shortly after to go say hello to his friends, and she curled up on her seat, with Turnip pressed tightly against her, and wished she were back in the woods.

XX

"Miss Malfoy!"

Hermione groaned internally a few days later as Professor Snape called her back to his desk after his first Defense Against the Dark Arts class.

She slowly made her way to the front of the class, and tried not to flinch when he flicked his wand and slammed the door shut behind the last pupil. She had not been sleeping well the last few days, and it was beginning to take it's toll.

"The Headmaster will be busier this year than usual, and he has asked me to step in and continue your extra lessons."

"I don't need extra lessons," she said sullenly.

His black eyes regarded her, and she knew what he must be seeing. Though her clothes were impeccably pressed, and her hair neat and orderly, her skin was much paler than usual. Deep purple bruises had bloomed beneath each eye from lack of sleep. Her lips were chapped and bruised from near-constant chewing. During the summer she had been a thriving girl in the full bloom of youth, and the contrast to her current depressed appearance was stark.

"It's a difficult thing," he said in the gentle tone she had only heard him use with her and Draco at the Manor, "to find yourself pulled in two directions. Don't forget that I myself have been in your position for more than a decade."

"Not exactly in my position," she groused.

He blinked slowly, and folded his hands, "You are correct. I do not have a mental and physical connection to Bellatrix Lestrange. I'm sure that complicates your position enormously."

She gaped at him. How did he… When-? Horror filled her as she opened and closed her mouth several times.

"Please sit, Hermione," he said silkily.

As if invisible hands were guiding her, she sat in the chair that materialized in front of his desk.

"The Headmaster is not entirely convinced that you are aware of the connection," Snape continued, "and your father has convinced himself that you grew out of it. Your mother and I, however…" He pinched the bridge of her nose, "we are aware that both you and Bellatrix are aware of the connection."

"I'm not apologizing," she said suddenly. "I still use occlumency regularly, but I'm not closing her out entirely. You can't make me!"

He held up a hand, "There's no need to be so defensive," he said, his voice expressionless. "I'm not asking you to do anything you're not comfortable with. If you are amenable I would like to test your occlumency shields. I also believe that I promised you that I would teach you proper glamour charms."

She nodded, feeling somewhat uncomfortable.

"What is wrong?"

She shifted in her seat, and slowly dragged her gaze up to his. "I don't… I don't know if I'm capable of being who Uncle Albus wants me to be."

He blinked. "To be quite honest, I don't care much about Albus' plans. Nor do I care for the Dark Lord's. Neither of them have any business involving you in the war. Yet here you are." He sighed. "I am not a family man, you know that. But your father made me the godfather to you and Draco, and I take that very seriously. If there's one thing you can be sure of, it's that my interest in training you is to get you through this mess alive. That's all I want for you, no matter how it happens."

She could feel her eyes glistening with unshed tears.

"Will you allow me to give you weekly lessons?"

She nodded mutely, swiping at her eyes with the back of her hand. There was a creak of his chair, and then he was leaning over his desk, offering a snowy handkerchief to her.

"Th-thank you."

"Of course. I've reserved our sessions for Wednesdays after dinner. We can begin next week. I'll have a syllabus drawn up, and I have to order a few books…"

She slowly pulled herself together as he continued to tell her about his plans for their lessons. She could not help but feel a flutter of excitement at the subject matter. Eventually, she felt grounded enough to stand. Her free period was halfway over, but she had enough time to get a decent start on her first essay of the term.

Before she could stop herself she was on her feet and moving around the desk to hug him.

He let out a sigh that lacked it's usual bite. "What have I told you about personal space?"

She laughed, and hugged him tighter. "Sorry, Uncle Sev."

He patted her on the back gently, "I'll overlook it this time, considering the circumstances."

Chapter Text

By early October, the summer's warmth was slowly submitting to the chill in the air. Hermione smiled to herself as she felt the wind ruffle her curls. She had just come from the quill shop, and was more than pleased with her new silver eagle-feather quill. It was a late birthday gift from Uncle Severus, who had shortly told her to stop by the shop and pick it up at the end of their previous lesson.

A few fat clouds floated by, and she blinked affectionately up at them as she decided where to go next. Perhaps she should go to Honeyduke's...

"Hermione!"

She groaned internally as she heard two familiar voices shout her name, but plastered on a smile. Turning, she gave a half-hearted wave to Neville and Ginny.

"We're going to meet Luna at the Three Broomsticks," Ginny said excitedly, "Won't you come?"

The word "No" was on the tip of her tongue, but something softened inside of her as she took in their expectant faces.

"Just for a little while," she found herself saying.

"Excellent," Neville said, beaming at her. "Let's go then."

For the first time in her life, Hermione found herself part of a group of friends. Neville, Ginny, and Luna had gravitated to her during the first week of classes, and she found herself unable to shake them.

Not that she necessarily wanted to. As the three Gryffindor's joined Luna at a highly polished table in the three Broomsticks, she felt a surge of affection for the three of them.

"Has Harry been avoiding you too?" groused Ginny as she carried over their butterbeers.

Hermione watched the golden liquid slosh over the redhead's sleeves, and felt herself cringe as she thought of what her mother would say if she allowed such a thing to happen to her robes.

"Oh, come off it, princess," teased Ginny as she set the four mugs down with a thunk.

Hermione wrinkled her nose at the nickname, "I've told you not to call me that," she growled.

Luna peered mildly over the top of her mug, "But you don't really mind, Hermione. That's why she keeps doing it."

Neville and Ginny laughed as Hermione colored and muttered "Thanks, Luna."

The blonde grinned, "Of course." Rather than lift the mug of butterbeer, she stooped her head to slurp happily at the sweet beverage. Again, Hermione heard her mother's voice in her head, admonishing the lack of table manners.

"I think you should give Harry a break," said Neville thoughtfully. "He's under a lot of pressure lately, and it can't be easy-"

"You know what's good for relieving pressure?" asked Ginny hotly, "Talking to your friends!" She angrily snatched up her mug and held it to her lips, hissing as she burned her tongue.

Neville shook his head, "I think there's more going on. He seems more withdrawn than usual."

Hermione shifted in her seat, and hid her discomfort by drinking her butterbeer. She had the creeping sensation that Draco was trying to keep Harry away from her. It was subtle, but it seemed like whenever she joined them Draco invited Harry to go race on their broomsticks, or to visit Hagrid. And when they did stick around her brother was careful to keep the conversation light.

After two weeks of this uncomfortable treatment, Hermione had taken to avoiding both boys.

Luna hummed, and straightened. Foam clung to her chin and lips, and she licked it off happily, reminding Hermione of a kitten who had been given a bowl of cream. "Harry's always been a bit withdrawn," the blonde said, "he's got a silver shackle that weighs him down."

Hermione exchanged glances with Neville and Ginny, as they always did when the blonde said something strange. A small grin played on her lips, and she took an easier drink.

"Then again," Luna said placidly, "we all have our shackles. Some of ours are bigger than others." Her cobalt eyes slid up to Hermione's, and the brunette felt a jolt go through her.

" What's wrong?"

Bellatrix's voice flowed like liquid velvet into her head, and Hermione could not stop the sigh of relief.

Luna… I think she might suspect something. She expected to be laughed at, or even ignored, but instead Bellatrix gave a thoughtful hum.

" Sometimes I think that girl might be a seer."

Hermione shivered, I hope not, she thought, aware that Neville and Ginny had switched their conversation to the subject of dueling. If Luna knows anything, and she says anything-

" Your friends will laugh at her ," said Bellatrix simply.

Guilt flooded Hermione's body. It was true. Neville and Ginny seemed to have complete faith in her after the Battle at the Ministry. As did Harry. None of them would believe that she was a Death Eater in training.

Except Draco .

She didn't realize that the thought had slipped through her Occlumency shields until Bellatrix sighed, " It's better he know now. Betraying those you're friendly with is one thing. Betraying family…"

A sharp bolt of anguish that was not her own shot through Hermione, and she briefly wondered at it.

" Enough melancholy," snapped Bellatrix, " It's your birthday."

My birthday was two weeks ago, Bella.

" And I missed it, so we're going to make up for it today."

The meaning of the words sank into Hermione, and she gasped out loud. "Stomachache," she said quickly as three pairs of eyes looked at her in concern.

Bellatrix was chuckling inside her head.

You can't Bella, there's Aurors guarding the village.

" Not the entire village," She sounded very pleased with herself. " The Hog's Head is still very accomodating. Won't you join me?"

Hermione squeezed her eyes shut. She already knew she was not going to refuse. Her stomach was churning with anxiety, but it was nothing compared to the warmth that had spread across her chest.

"Are you ok, Hermione?" asked Neville.

She grimaced, "I think I ate something that disagrees with me," she said, forcing a whimper into her voice. "I'm sorry, I think I have to excuse myself."

There was a chorus of reassurances, and when Hermione pulled out a galleon to pay for her butterbeer Ginny arched a brow and said, "Don't even think about it, Princess. You can get the next round."

She smiled, and bid her friends goodbye, and then walked faster than she thought possible to the Hog's Head.

" Go upstairs, don't look anyone in the eye."

Hermione did as she was bade, and climbed the dusty staircase. The wooden stairs were stained with dark fluids, and she curled her lip as she tried to hold her robes above the mess. A single sputtering candle illuminated the blistered wallpaper. It might have once been pretty, but the floral pattern was nearly inscrutable beneath decades of oily dust.

" Second floor, room 6B ."

She panted slightly as she emerged in a dim corridor. Like everything else in the Hog's Head, the single round window at the end of the corridor was caked in dust. Several panes were missing their glass, and a breeze lessened the smell of stale bodies and spilled beer.

The floorboards creaked as she made her way down the corridor, her eyes scanning the bronze plates affixed to each. It turned out that 6B was the one located closest to the window.

She reached for the handle, and then paused, feeling awkward. Should she knock?

Thankfully, the door opened before she could become too wrapped up in her thoughts.

"Happy Birthday Doveling!" laughed Bellatrix, throwing the door wide.

Hermione's breath caught in her throat at the sight of the dark witch. Bellatrix was dressed in deep red robes, the material as shimmering and multi-faceted as a ruby. The neck plunged, showing off the ample curve of her breasts. Multiple strings of black pearls were clasped around her throat, accentuating the milkiness of her skin. Her dark curls had been pulled back in a ponytail, a look which seemed too informal for the dress robes, but also made her look younger than Hermione had ever seen her.

She was… beautiful .

And the smirk she shot at Hermione informed her that she was very aware of the thoughts that were racing through the brunette's mind. "Come in before the rabble get wind that we're here."

Unable to form a coherent reply, Hermione entered the room. It was cleaner than the corridor had been, if somewhat spartan. There was a small bed in an iron frame, a rickety table with two mismatched chairs, and a desk that looked like it would collapse if anything was placed upon it.

The saving grace of the room was the enormous window that overlooked the Forbidden Forest. And in front of it Bellatrix had spread out a small picnic. There was a large chocolate cake, a bottle of something that Hermione guessed was elf wine, and two glasses.

"Oh!" Hermione gasped, grinning as she took everything in.

Warm breath tickled her ear, "I figured this was the closest we could get to an actual picnic."

A shiver traced it's way down Hermione's back, and she was very aware of how close Bellatrix was to her. The strange tingling that had begun as soon as Bellatrix opened the door pulsed beneath her skin. "Th-thank you, Bella," she said, trying to gain control over her body's reaction.

A low chuckle tickled her ear. "It's the least I could do. I'm not about to miss another birthday."

She moved away, and Hermione found herself missing the closeness.

"Sit," commanded the older witch, summoning a velvet cushion for Hermione to recline against.

Kicking off her shoes, Hermione primly sat on the blanket. She watched Bellatrix move around the room, performing basic silencing and warding spells.

" You should never be too comfortable ," she told Hermione " Enemies lurk everywhere ."

"You won't let anything happen to me," said Hermione out loud, feeling warm at the thought.

She was rewarded with a fond smile, "I think I need to increase the surprise attacks," purred Bellatrix. "You're becoming too complacent."

Hermione opened her mouth to retort something, but snapped it closed when Bellatrix sauntered over to where she was and sat close enough that their legs were pressed together. "Not today though?"

She pressed a finger to her lips as if in thought, and then let out an affected sigh. "I suppose I can let it pass this once," she said, "since it's a special occasion and all."

For some reason, Hermione felt her cheeks burn as Bellatrix grinned at her, and it took her a moment to realize that the fluttering feeling in the pit of her belly was not entirely her own.

"Cake?" asked Bellatrix in a far too innocent voice.

Hermione nodded, still flushing.

"My mother would be so proud to know that I remember all of my domestic training," said Bellatrix, clicking the "c" on the end of "domestic" a little too hard. She swirled her wand in a graceful series of arches, and the cake sliced itself and plated two pieces. Another series of swirls uncorked the wine and poured two glasses of the deep burgundy liquid.

"Thanks," murmured Hermione, catching her plate and glass from where they floated in the air. She grinned as she noticed the red compote between the cake layers. "You remembered!"

There was a gentle laugh. "Chocolate and raspberry," husked Bellatrix, "The only cake you ever ask for. How was I to forget?" She summoned a pair of forks and gave one to Hermione.

It was the most delicious thing Hermione had ever eaten. The tart compote melded perfectly with the chocolate, and she couldn't help the groan of satisfaction that escaped her lips as she finished her first bite.

Bellatrix watched her with a smile. "I'll tell Rab that you like it then."

"Rab made this?!" asked Hermione, blushing as she realized her mouth was full.

"He enjoys cooking. He only does it for special people though, so consider yourself lucky."

"Tell him I said thank you!"

Bellatrix watched her in amusement as she finished her first piece, and then most of a second. The wine was delicious as well, though she refused when Bellatrix offered to pour another glass.

"I have to go back soon," she said, sobering immediately. She could feel the dark witch's stab of disappointment, but Bellatrix plastered a large smile over her face.

"No matter. When Christmas comes we'll have all the reveling in the world." She threw herself back on the cushion, and grinned up at Hermione. "I'll show you what a real celebration looks like. None of that stuffy nonsense that Cissy calls a party."

"Mother's parties are the event of the season," said Hermione quietly. She thought of the woman at King's Cross, and wondered if they would even have a party this year. The number of black armbands grew every day, and though she was protected by her associated with Harry, she knew her mother (and the Malfoy family in general) had no such protections.

An arm snaked around her waist and pulled until the younger witch was laying on top of Bellatrix.

"Bella!" gasped Hermione. All thoughts of her mother and their social situation flew from her mind as she realized that her body was pressed flush against Bellatrix's. The older witch seemed to be both firm and soft at once, and Hermione hurried to push herself up before Bellatrix wrapped her arms around the younger woman and hugged her tight. "I'm going to hurt you," she said.

"Relax," whispered Bellatrix, "You won't hurt me."

She was so deliciously warm beneath Hermione. More than anything she wanted to move her hands from where they were braced against the floor and explore-

"Do it then," purred Bellatrix, "I don't mind."

Hermione let out a squeak as she realized that she had let those thoughts past her occlumency shields, and buried her burning face in Bellatrix's neck.

I'm so, so sorry , she babbled internally. I don't know what's come over me.

" I have a few ideas ," the tone was so teasing that the fluttering in the pit of Hermione's stomach ignited. She could feel Bellatrix stroking her fingers up and down her back, and even that seemingly innocent gesture made her skin feel like it was on fire.

"Bella," she whispered hoarsely. She could feel the older witch's breath increase against her ear, and she knew she wasn't the only one who felt this way. Something tightened in her, and she turned her head instinctively to capture Bellatrix's lips in her own.

She tasted like chocolate and wine. Lips that were softer than she expected pressed firmly back against hers, and she felt her breath hitch.

She had always prided herself on not being as innocent as her brother teasingly claimed she was. She had read after all, and as a member of the Inquisitorial Squad she had stumbled across one too many awkward fumblings.

But when Bellatrix curled her fingers through her hair and pulled her closer she felt so raw and new that she wondered if everything she'd ever supposed about relationships was wrong.

Her hand hesitantly slid up Bellatrix's side to cup her breast, and she squeezed tentatively. Bellatrix's responding moan caused her to tingle from navel to core, and she broke away from their kiss with a gasp.

"Bella," she whined, feeling both excited and terrified at her feelings. She wanted to make the older witch make that noise again.

"I know, Doveling," purred Bellatrix, leaning up to pepper light kisses across Hermione's jawline. "I feel it too."

And she did. Hermione could feel the other witch's arousal mixing with her own. Squeezing her eyes tightly shut, she clung to Bellatrix as the older witch sat up and helped settle Hermione in her lap. A searing kiss was pressed against the girl's temple, and then Bellatrix rested her cheek against the top of Hermione's curls.

"Don't stop," Hermione practically sobbed. Every inch of her skin was on fire, and she felt that the only thing that would make it stop was if Bellatrix continued.

A low laugh vibrated against her head. "Not here, Doveling. Not like this."

"I don't mind," gasped Hermione, her eyes still shut. She nuzzled into Bellatrix's neck, and gave the soft skin an experimental kiss.

A sharp hiss sounded from above her, and Bellatrix's hold on her tightened. "I mind."

It was like someone had slapped her. Hermione went rigid, and her eyes flew open, hurt. "You… You don't want me?"

Bellatrix's pupils were blown wide as she slid agile fingers beneath Hermione's chin and forced her to look up. "Of course I do," she said, her voice raspy with lust. "Merlin, Dove!" She pressed her eyes tightly shut, and Hermione could feel her struggling to control her breathing. "But not like this. Not here ."

"Ok," she said, feeling very small. She felt Bellatrix's fingers caress her cheeks, and then a gentler kiss was pressed to her lips again.

"Hey," Bellatrix tapped a warm finger against Hermione's cheekbone, and pressed her forehead against the girl's, "I know you can feel it." There was no question in Hermione's mind that "it" was the burning passion- both hers and Bellatrix's- that swirled through her core. The dark witch continued, "There's no one else I would ever do this for," she gestured towards the empty glasses and that half-eaten cake. "Only you. You know why?"

Because we share a mental bond that lets us know each other's secrets? Thought Hermione insecurely.

Her answer was a low laugh that made her blush all over again. "Not all of each other's secrets, Dove." Her eyes sparkled. Out loud she rasped.

"Because you're mine ."

Hermione searched her eyes, looking for any hint of insincerity, but knew she would find none.

"We are inevitable," continued Bellatrix, one arm firmly wrapped around Hermione's waist while the other stroked through the unruly curls.

"You make it sound like we don't have a choice."

"Maybe we don't."

Chapter Text

A red hex sailed overhead as Hermione ducked behind an empty desk. She should have known really, when she agreed to let Uncle Sev teach her, that he would be nearly as demanding as Bellatrix.

"You are behind desk sixteen," he drawled. She could picture him twirling his wand between his fingers, looking bored as he scanned the room.

The "exercise" as he called it, was for her to reach the classroom door without being hit by his stinging hex. She was also supposed to be doing it without being seen or heard, but clearly she was failing in that department.

A few curls had broken free from where she had knotted her hair at the base of her neck, and they clung uncomfortably to her neck. She panted, and tried to map out the room in her mind.

"You're staying in one spot too long." His voice was coming from a new direction, and she swore internally. If he was moving she didn't have a chance.

" Why are you upset?"

She pressed her eyes closed for a moment, soaking in Bella's words. I'm not allowed to tell you. A pang of regret vibrated through her body, and she felt Bellatrix's answering reassurance.

" Snape then?"

It was one of his rules that she not discuss any of their lessons with Bellatrix. At the beginning of every lesson he tested her Occlumency shields, and reiterated the importance of keeping their lessons a secret.

" Don't worry, Doveling, he's not about to kill his favorite pupil."

She knew that, of course. But she also didn't want to disappoint him by failing... again. In the two months that he had been running her through this exercise she had yet to reach the door without being hexed.

Keeping her head down, she scampered to another desk just as the one she had been hiding behind flew into the air.

"Better," said Snape, his voice far too close for her liking. It seemed to echo off the walls, so she could not pinpoint his exact location. "You're still not moving fast enough however. If I had a scenthound you would have been caught before we began. As it is-"

There was the familiar feeling of a rope settling around her ankle and she let out a yelp as she was lifted into the air by an invisible hook.

"Nooooo," she groaned. A furious blush settled over her cheeks as her hands flew to her skirt to prevent it from falling. She needn't have bothered, he was already releasing her. She fell to the ground with a grunt.

"Water?" he asked, his tone deceptively genial.

She lay panting on the ground for a moment, willing her cheeks to stop burning. When she did sit up, she grudgingly accepted the bottle he was holding out to her.

Pulling out a chair, he sat and studied her. "You were doing well," he said finally. "Then you became distracted. Why?"

Already she knew he would be disappointed in her. Unbidden, thoughts of Bellatrix few through her mind, their summer of training, the gentle voice that she used in their minds, the husky one that she spoke with, and the soft feel of her lips against…

"Stop it!" she growled once she recognized the brush of Occlumency against her mind.

Was she imagining it, or was there a faint trace of pink in his cheeks? She was too angry to dwell on in though.

"Do you really think that the Dark Lord is going to ask your permission before he tries to invade your mind?" asked Snape, "Will Professor Dumbledore? Does Bellatrix?"

"She doesn't need to!" she retorted angrily.

His eyes became eerily cold. "Take a few deep breaths and calm yourself. I want you to think about what I said."

Just like that she was six again, struggling to learn the basics of Occlumency while her beloved Uncle Sev sighed and watched her fail yet again .

Tears sprang to her eyes as she struggled to even out her breathing. A moment later something soft brushed against her cheek. She looked up to see him holding out a snowy handkerchief. Gratefully, she accepted it and swiped it across her eyes.

"P-p-please don't tell Mother," she said, guilt churning within her stomach.

He sighed. "I will not. Nor will I suggest that the Headmaster expel you for entertaining a wanted criminal so close to school grounds. You are of age now, and your decisions are your own- no matter how foolish they may be ," he grumbled in an undertone. She could not help but smile a little at that. His grumblings always came from a place of affection.

"Nevertheless," he continued, adopting his stern demeanor once again, "You are supposed to block her from our lessons-"

"I did!" she burst, wringing the handkerchief in her hands. "But she can still sense when I'm upset! And I was frustrated-"

"Then you need to tell her to hold her tongue during those moments. What if she had distracted you during a real fight, hm? If she cares about you the way you think she does-

"She does!"

He continued without noting her words, "-then you need to have these conversations with her. If she is a distraction she is a danger. I caught you Hermione. Do you realize what that means out there?" he gestured to the windows, "Out where there are no rules and you will be seen as a Death Eater by the light and a traitor by the dark if you are caught? Do you think it will be doing Bellatrix a service to know she is the reason you have been murdered?"

Every one of his words made Hermione feel smaller, and she was suddenly very conscious of the fact that she was sitting on the floor of an abandoned classroom, covered in dust and sweat. Never had she felt less worthy of the Malfoy name.

" What's happening?"

Hermione winced as Bellatrix's voice cut through her mind, but she could not stop the warmth that spread through her belly at the worry behind the other's witch's words.

Then she caught his knowing look, and felt as if she had been doused in ice water.

I'll tell you about it later , she thought miserably. She was waiting for his reprimand again, but he merely stood, and flicked his wand.

A painful screech filled the room as all of the desks slid against the walls.

"We need to work on your agility," he said gently, reaching down to help her up. "I want you to run up and down the classroom until I tell you to stop."

Perhaps he realized that she needed to talk about anything other than Bellatrix, for they spent the next twenty minutes with her running up and down, accelerating or slowing down at his command, until she was exhausted. She felt much better taking the water this time, and she flung herself into the empty chair next to his to guzzle it down.

"You'll make yourself sick," he commented, arching a brow in amusement.

She took a break, gasping for air as she realized how long she had been drinking.

"I need to speak with you about something." there was a hesitant edge to his voice that had her examine him closely. He did not meet her eye.

"What is it, Uncle Sev?"

He sighed. "The Dark Lord has decided to renew the Slytherin Ball on Christmas Eve this year."

She wrinkled her nose, "I've never heard of it."

He laughed mirthlessly, "Yes, well, I think we all hoped you never would. It's part society ball- much like your mother's parties, with a little more emphasis on the Slytherin family's customs. And it's part revel." He pursed his lips in distaste. "It is my hope that you will not be required to stay for that part."

"I'm going?" she asked curiously.

There was a disgusted sigh. "The Dark Lord wishes it." At last he raised his eyes to hers. "Traditionally an unmarried witch is accompanied by her father. As he is currently unable to attend, your mother hoped that I could step in. It will be perfectly innocent, mind you," he said quickly, and again she thought she could see the faintest tint of red in his cheeks. "As your godfather no one will assume anything untoward."

She chewed on her bottom lip, "Is it like the Yule Ball?"

"Yes and no. There will be dancing, but it will mostly be networking. Socializing and gossiping with the height of society." His lip curled in disgust. "You can, of course, say no. The Dark Lord will understand if you desire to stay at school for the holidays."

But he wouldn't like it.

"Of course I'll go," she said quickly. It sounded fun. It had been many years since she had attended a proper society event. And even then she had been so young that her mother had sent her to bed before the majority of the guests had arrived.

He sighed, and she had the distinct impression that he had been hoping she would say no.

He hid it quickly though. "I think that will be it for today. I want you to practice your Occlumency twice as much over the holiday. See if you can make any progress shielding your emotions as well as your thoughts. I'll write your mother to make arrangements for the ball."

She nodded, and bade him goodnight.

She bathed in record speed, and pounded up the stairs to her dormitory, ignoring the cheerful greetings of her house mates.

Bella? She sent out her thoughts the moment she reached her bed. Turnip jumped onto her bed just as she drew the hangings shut, enclosing them both in darkness. Bella?

" I'm here ," came the distracted response. " Let me go to another room. Rab is trying to play the violin."

Hermione bounced a little on her bed as she waited for Bellatrix.

" Alright Doveling, I'm all yours."

Hermione grinned stupidly at the warm tingly feeling that was spreading under her skin. You never told me about the Slytherin Ball.

" So that was what had Severus in a sour mood all week. He didn't want to share you with the rest of us."

I hear there's revelling?

She felt a sharp pull from Bellatrix and grinned as she scratched Turnip's ears in the dark. I'll take that as a yes.

" The… 'revelling' is more of a drunken after party that occurs after the real ball. But if you'd like, I can arrange for us to have our own private revel afterwards?"

Oh?

Bellatrix laughed, " Oh."

Hermione sucked in a breath, and felt herself flush. O-oh. Erm, yes. Yes, I'd like that very much.

" It's a date then."

Chapter Text

"We're not going back to the Manor for Christmas?" Hermione's voice sounded dangerously close to a whine, but she didn't care. As usual, her mother had met them at King's Cross and side-apparated them home. Except home wasn't home.

Instead of the Manor, she was looking upon the Forest Cottage. The distinctly un-Christmasy cottage with its slate shingled roof and it's red stone walls. From the outside, it looked so small that it might only house a single room. Luckily, her parents had added an extra two rooms, living room, and a bathroom.

Still, it was a far cry off from the lavish comforts of home . Turnip wore his fur a midnight blue as he whined at Hermione's feet, trying to get her attention.

"It's still not safe at the Manor," her mother said placidly, though there was a set to her jaw that warned Hermione from arguing.

Draco grinned impishly, "I like it," he said. "My room overlooks the brook. At home all I can see are hills."

She glared at him, and shook her head slightly. His grin widened.

"It's already decided," said their mother as she opened the front door. "I've already had the elves decorate."

And Hermione reluctantly agreed that the cottage looked cozy and inviting inside. The decor, which was normally done in greens, reds, and browns, was now redone in silver and white. Sparkling snow fell from the ceiling, evaporating before it hit the people below, and the inviting scent of cinnamon filled the room. The kitchen was through a door on the left, and a spiral staircase stood against the right wall that would take the occupant to whichever of the three bedrooms they wanted.

"I like the tree," said Draco, smiling at the lush fir in the corner.

"I thought we could decorate it tonight," said Narcissa, striding over to the fireplace on the opposite wall so that she could straighten the garland on its mantle. Above the mantle, a painting hung in a silver frame of a white stag bounding over a snow-filled landscape. "Come on, darling," she coaxed, catching Hermione's unenthusiastic expression, "Isn't it pretty? Won't it be nice to have a change this year?"

She swallowed the lump in her throat, and nodded. "I'm sure it will be wonderful," she said, forcing a smile. "I'm just going to head up to my room."

Her mother searched her eyes for a moment, and then nodded. "Don't take too long, darling. Mardie will have dinner ready before too long."

She nodded, and headed up to her bedroom. She left Turnip to settle happily into one of the plush chairs.

Admittedly, the room was significantly more grown up than her room at home. Her bed sat in a shining silver frame, piled high with white silks and furs. Sheepskin rugs protected her feet from the frigid floorboards, and a silver chair was pushed up against the window, overlooking the brook Draco had been so excited about. There was a vanity against one wall, and a large fireplace against the other. A wardrobe sat beside the vanity, and she knew her mother had charmed it so that the door would open to her wardrobe at the manor.

In honor of the holidays, her walls had been re-papered to resemble an evergreen forest. Reindeer flitted and and out of the trees, their harnesses jingling.

She watched them for a moment, and then let out a sigh as she sank into the chair. Her travelling cloak was still on, and she buried her face in the soft fur of her hood.

" What's wrong now?"

Hermione pressed her eyes shut, and pretended she was back at the lodge with her mentor.

We're at the Forest Cottage .

She didn't feel any surprise from Bellatrix, and it made her sit up straighter.

You knew this would happen, didn't you?

" Cissy hasn't returned to the manor since summer. I didn't think it was likely that she'd go back just for Christmas."

I don't understand why! We've never left the manor for so long before. Father would be heartbroken-

" Do you really want to spend Christmas at the manor without him? Do you really?"

Hermione scowled. Of course she didn't. But that didn't mean she wanted to have Christmas anywhere else either.

Maybe we should have just skipped Christmas this year.

There was a low, husky laugh that made her feel like there were butterflies in her stomach.

" I think you're going to love Christmas this year," Bellatrix promised.

A blush bloomed over Hermione's cheeks. I can't wait to see you . She smiled, and opened her eyes to look down at the frosty brook. Snow had not come to the Forest Cottage yet, but there were lightened blooms of frost over the rocks and underbrush, signalling how cold it was.

" Good."

XX

Draco draped himself over the back of a chair and glowered as he watched their kneeling mother put the final touches on Hermione.

"If it's so innocent, I don't know why we're not all going." he griped.

Hermione rolled her eyes, "Do you really think you could hold your tongue in a room of Death Eaters?" she challenged, "In a room with him ?"

"The Dark Lord believes you are too ill to attend," Narcissa said sharply. "And that I will be staying home to tend to you." She pulled the edges of the juniper silk gown, and nodded in satisfaction at the eveness of the hem.

His frown deepened. "If Mione gets to go, shouldn't I?"

"No!" Both Hermione and Narcissa shouted at the same time. Turnip, who had been sleeping in his usual chair looked up and let out a sharp bark.

Narcissa stood, and ran her fingers over the matching silk ribbon that held most of Hermione's hair up in an elegant updo. A few curls had been allowed to escape, and they framed Hermione's face becomingly. "Your makeup shouldn't smudge at all until you come home and use that balm I got you to remove it," she said, her fingers sliding beneath Hermione's chin so that she could tip her face this way and that.

"Do I pass inspection?" Hermione teased.

Narcissa carefully removed her hand, and rested it on Hermione's shoulder. "You look beautiful. I only wish it were a proper first ball," she said sadly, but there was a fondness in her eyes that made Hermione feel warm all over.

There was a rap at the door.

"Draco, darling, would you let Severus in?"

He stalked over and yanked the door open, letting in a gust of chilly wind along with the imposing Potion's Master.

Snape wore a slightly shinier version of his usual black outfit, though he had pulled his hair back with a black silk ribbon. "Hello, Narcissa," he said stoically, "Hermione," and then he arched a brow at Draco, "I don't suppose you care to explain why you're sulking?"

"No, I don't," snapped Draco, pointing his glower towards the floor.

"Good," said Snape, sniffing as he turned back to Hermione and Narcissa, "You both look lovely, as usual."

"I just don't understand why we're still letting her do this!" Growled Draco. "It should be me ."

Her throat felt hot as she whirled around to face him, "What is that supposed to mean?" she spat.

"Children!" their mother stepped between them and gave both a stern look. "Control yourselves this instant. Darling, you need to calm down so you can keep your Occlumency shields up," she said, stroking Hermione's shoulder comfortingly, "And you ," she turned to her son, "Neither of you should be going! It's bad enough that Hermione is forced to endure this evening without you making it harder on her."

Draco had the grace to look ashamed, and he stayed quiet as he watched his mother fuss over Hermione again. A white cloak was summoned from the coat closet, and then Hermione took Snape's arm. He noted the nervous expression his sister wore and felt guilt begin to claw at his stomach.

"I'll have her home by Midnight," Snape promised. He swept Hermione towards the door.

"Wait," Hermione turned and stepped quickly back to her mother, flinging her arms around her.

Draco tried to offer her a smile when her brown eyes looked over to him, "You look beautiful," he said, his voice sounding slightly off.

She grinned in response, and flashed him a wink. When had she started winking?

After another moment, in which Narcissa whispered something in her ear, she gave their mother one last hug and then returned to Snape.

"Goodnight!" She called.

Snape exchanged one last look with their mother, and then ushered Hermione through the door.

The moment the door shut the energy in the room changed. Narcissa looked at Draco and then at the clock on the mantle, "Draco, get dressed in your best black robes," she said absentmindedly.

"Why?"

But she was already at the staircase. "Hurry darling, we don't have much time."

His brow furrowed, but he did as he was told and climbed to his room to put on his best black robes. After a moment, he put on his nicest dragonhide boots as well, the ones he kept shined so bright he could see his reflection in them.

When he returned, his mother was dressed in robes that resembled Snape's more than her usual ones. The collar was high, and buttoned all the way up to her throat. The sleeves were similarly buttoned close at the wrists, and her hair was curled in a gleaming bun at the nape of her neck. It was a stark contrast, one that made her look very formidable.

"What are we doing?" he asked quietly, as if she were a wild animal he didn't want to startle.

"Mardie!" she barked, "The sandwiches!"

The round elf hurried in, carrying a platter of sandwiches.

"Eat Draco, we don't have time for a proper dinner."

Not wanting to argue, he snatched half a sandwich and wolfed it down as Narcissa attached a wand holster to her arm. It didn't quite feel real to be watching her slide her wand into the holster and whip it out experimentally.

She grabbed her own sandwich and took a bite as she went back to the clothes closet and dug through it. He had never seen her eat without a plate before. She looked so...casual.

Passing him a black cloak, she paused. "Do you have your wand?"

He nodded, "Mum, what are we doing?"

She swallowed the bite she had just taken. "You're right."

He blinked. "I...am?"

She nodded, and took another bite, shimmying into her own cloak. "I'm not going to allow you to become involved with the Death Eaters, and joining the Order is out of the question. Out. of the question," she repeated when he opened his mouth in protest. "I'm not going to lose another child to the manipulations of Dumbledore." She took a deep breath. "But it's not fair to expect you to sit idly by while the rest of your family risks their lives."

"Mum… what are you saying?"

She set her sandwich down on the tray, and fastened his cloak. "I think it's time for you to see what I've been working on. Are you ready?"

He nodded, feeling his excitement stir, "I am."

XX

Though she was perfectly capable of apparating herself, Hermione was grateful for Snape and his insistence that she save her strength for "fending off would-be suitors".

She shivered as he escorted her up the lantern lit pathway towards Riddle Manor.

"Master Snape!" chirped a house elf as they entered the manor. It was painted a glittery red, and wore a crown of holly leaves. "Miss Malfoy! Welcome, Hirk will take your cloaks!"

The normally quiet manor was bursting with noise. Hermione took a moment to center herself, and straightened her shoulders before allowing Snape to take her into the ballroom.

"Remember that even with your father in prison you are still part of one of the most prestigious families in Wizarding Britain. Everyone here will will be thinking it, and wondering if they can use you for that reason." He whispered into her ear as they entered the glittering room.

Everything, the walls, the table that lined the far wall, the glittering floor, was gold. It was nearly blinding under the sparkling candles that floated high above the dancers.

It seemed, in that moment, that every member of Pureblood society was in the room. She knew rationally that only those the Dark Lord trusted were there.

"Uncle Sev," she whispered, trying to maintain her calm composure as she took in the dozens of twirling couples.

He patted her hand, and gently tugged her towards the northern end of the ballroom. "We must pay our respects to the Dark Lord," he whispered. "Since it's your first time here, I will formally present you to him."

She nodded, grateful that he was with her.

The Dark Lord sat in a throne-like chair on a dais of gold and emerald. A small line of people stood waiting to greet him, and Snape steered them to the end of the line.

"This isn't like Mother's balls at all," she whispered, looking around. The colors were too garish, and nothing was done to hide the barrels of wine that took up the southern wall. Glittery elves bobbed in and out of the crowd, serving drinks. A string quartet stood next to the wine, playing music with slightly glazed eyes. She suspected at once that they had been put under the imperius curse.

Are you here?

There was a stab of regret, " Not yet, doveling. I'll be arriving later, after I finish rounding up the entertainment ."

Hermione would have frowned had she not felt Snape's probing eyes on her. Instead, she looked up at him and offered him a tentative smile.

"We're next," he said lowly.

She straightened even more, and immediately fought to clear her mind of thoughts of Bellatrix. Then Snape boomed out-

"My Lord! Allow me to present Hermione Malfoy."

The Dark Lord was dressed in deep green robes, his red eyes in starker contrast than usual as he offered them a benevolent grin. "Severus! And Hermione! Two of my favorite people. Welcome. Will you be playing the part of Lucius tonight, Severus?"

Snape bent at the waist in a bow, "Indeed, my lord. I will be the one to intercept all dance requests."

There was a snake-like laugh. "Then I pity the young men. And you, Hermione? Will you be joining in tonight's entertainment?"

She opened her mouth to ask what that might be, when Snape jumped in, "I promised Narcissa that I would get her home before midnight, my lord."

"So early? She's not a baby anymore now, Severus. She's recently come of age. Isn't that right?"

It took Hermione a moment to realize he was speaking to her, but she quickly chimed in, "Yes, my lord. I turned Seventeen in September."

"Nevertheless, my lord, a mother's worry defeats us all in this, I'm afraid."

"Pity." The dark red eyes flashed in annoyance. "Next year, then. Once you are through with school your mother will have no claim over your activities."

Snape bowed again, "Thank you for having us here tonight, my lord."

The smile was back in full force, "Yes, of course. Enjoy what little time you have here."

He waved them off genially, and Hermione felt as if a vise around her chest loosened.

"Perhaps I should have just stayed," she said.

He shook his head, "If I can spare you another year of Muggle Hunting I will."

"That's what they're going to do?" She blinked in surprise, then thought of Bellatrix. "Do you…?"

He looked at her sharply, "All Death Eaters are expected to participate in the Hunts. But there's a difference between participating and hunting . If I can give you another year to learn that difference then I will be very happy."

She followed him silently as he led her to the scattered tables that surrounded the feasting table.

"Hermione!"

Both Hermione and Snape looked around at the sound.

Terence Higgs, looking handsome in blue silk robes, hurried through the dancers towards them.

She smiled at the sight of her friend. "Terence! You're here!" She ignored the twittering whispers that erupted on either side of them

He grinned as he reached her, and grasped both of her elbows, "I hoped you'd be here! It would have been terribly boring without you. Did you see that we're the only ones under thirty here right now? Though Uncle says that Pansy might come, and Gregory and Vincent of course."

"Try not to become too comfortable with us elders," droned Snape, "I'm positive that there will be more students coming. Unfortunately, the youth of our time don't seem to understand punctuality."

"Professor! I heard you might be escorting Hermione tonight. May I please have permission to dance with her, I might die of boredom otherwise."

"We wouldn't want that," said Snape, arching a brow. He always had a soft spot for his students, but Hermione rarely got to see it.

She nudged him playfully with her elbow, "Please, Uncle Sev?" She'd rather get permission to dance with her friend than have one of the older attendees take an interest. She noticed a man old enough to be her father's father eye her appreciatively, and repressed a shudder.

He pretended to think it over, and then sighed, "Alright. But mind what I told you earlier."

She nodded, and allowed Terence to whisk her onto the dancefloor.

"The Dark Lord has decided to give me the mark," he whispered excitedly as they copied the steps of the others surrounding them.

She didn't know how to respond, so she smiled back at him, "That's fantastic!" It wasn't. She looked up at his grinning face and suddenly felt as if she had been invited to his funeral. "When?"

"Tonight, after the hunts. I'm going to catch one, you see, and when I present it to the Dark Lord at the end he will honor me above all else?" His hands were warm against hers.

"And if you don't? If they're too fast for you?" she teased, feeling sick to her stomach. She thought of Ian and Jean, her muggle parents, and wished for the thousandth time that she was not connected to the muggle world at all.

I shouldn't care , she thought irritably.

He laughed out loud, and spun her around, "They won't be! Mother had our fastest horse sent up. The muggles don't stand a chance against me!"

She felt eyes on her, and looked over her shoulder to see the Dark Lord staring at her. She smiled wider at him, and offered a wave, earning a nod in return.

"Ahh, perhaps you'll be next," Terence said, looking around to see what held her attention.

She looked back at him, "Next for what?"

"The mark. Everyone knows that you'll get it. Do you know what they say about you?"

She shook her head, brows furrowing.

Pale green eyes sparkled at her, "They say you're going to be his next favorite. That you'll replace the old guards and bring the new generation up in his esteem. They say you're special!"

She swallowed hard, "Who says that?"

"Everyone. My Uncles mention it once a week. Everyone knows you're going to be special one day."

She quirked a brow at him, "One day? I'm not special now?" Her heart was thumping so hard she felt as if it would pop out of her chest.

His smile softened, "Of course you are."

The dancing was slowing, and his grip on her was becoming too soft.

"I think I want some wine," she said quickly, breaking from his grip. He followed her, and when they both had glasses of the burgundy liquid he changed the subject to his training as a Death Eater, and his new position at the Daily Prophet. Both were interesting to Hermione, and she felt herself relax around him once again.

She danced three more times with Terence- all of them quick paced and fun, and then reluctantly agreed (at the request of Uncle Sev) to dance with others.

She was dancing with a middle-aged, bumbling man who kept stepping on her toes when she felt a familiar tingle start racing up and down her spine. A hot feeling that wasn't her own burned in her belly.

The man spun her around, and she looked anxiously towards the door. As soon as she did her breath caught in her throat.

Bellatrix stood in the doorway with Rabastan, dressed in glittering white. Small braids pulled the hair away from either side of her face, but her hair was otherwise left to hang around her shoulders in masses of gleaming curls.

All she could do was gape openly as Bellatrix smirked in her direction, and then glided off towards the Dark Lord.

Rabastan, who had been behind her, strode towards her.

"May I cut in?" he asked the wizard holding Hermione. There was a steely aimed at him, but he continued grinning broadly as she was reluctantly released.

"Got you to myself now," he said, chuckling as he took her hand and gripped her waist.

She smiled back at him, "Aren't you supposed to be presenting yourself to the Dark Lord?"

He shrugged, "He doesn't care about me much, and I think it's been made very clear to all that I lost my mind in Azkaban for him," still, his smile did not fade, "besides, Bellatrix can't dance with you while we're here, so she thought I should get the chance."

"Shouldn't you have asked my escort for permission?" she asked, glancing over to a scowling Snape.

"Why?" He was surprisingly graceful as he led her through a series of complicated steps, completely ignoring the dance the others were doing. "You're the one I'm dancing with, not him."

She laughed at him, earning a grin in return, and allowed him to lead her until her head was spinning and her throat burned with thirst.

"You shouldn't be consorting with him," grumbled her uncle as she slid into the seat beside his and eagerly drank from the wine goblet that waited for her.

"I like him," she gasped once she had drunk her fill.

He gave her a look, and summoned a glass of water for her, which she drank with gusto. "There are eyes on you."

"Those eyes are drunk," she said, nodding at the women closest to them, who promptly burst into giggles. "Why haven't you danced with anyone, Uncle Sev?"

His lip curled in distaste, "The time for me to court has long gone."

She smirked, "Dancing isn't courting," she said, "It's just dancing."

Black eyes turned to study her, "You know better than that. I know you do."

She did. Of course she did. But it was more fun to pretend that her actions didn't carry such weight.

"For what it's worth," he continued after a moment's silence, "I think Terence would be a fine match. He's always been very studious, and he defends those weaker than him. He might be more at home with a Gryffindor than any of us are willing to admit." There was a twitch under one eye, but he gave her a slight smile. "He's a good boy."

Was that what people thought of them? That they were going to…

"I have to use the loo," she said quickly, trying to keep herself steady as she stood and pushed past the dozens of silk-clad bodies.

The corridor that led to the toilets was deserted, and she was thankful for that as she spent a few minutes trying to get her roiling stomach under control. As she washed her hands she stared at herself in the mirror. She looked more grown up than she ever had.

The corridor was still deserted as she left the bright light of the toilet. She smoothed her robes as she walked, and then let out a yelp as an arm wrapped around her waist and pulled her into the shadows.

"Let go of me at once!" She hissed, squirming as her back was pressed against a wall. She ceased at once as she looked up into Bellatrix's smirking face. "Bella!" she gasped.

"Miss me?" the older woman chuckled, and captured Hermione's lips in a kiss. She tasted of amaretto and chocolate.

When they broke apart, Hermione rested her forehead against Bellatrix's and felt her body hum in approval. "Always," she said, not caring about the whine in her voice.

"How would you like to go somewhere more… intimate?"

It took a moment for Hermione to register the words, and then she pulled back, blinking in confusion. "But.. Uncle Severus…"

Dark brown eyes sparkled with glee, "Won't be able to stay mad at you forever."

"And the hunt?"

Bellatrix caught one of Hermione's hands in her own, "Perhaps it's time I let the others have a chance at winning."

"Won't the Dark Lord be mad?"

"I've already told him you're not feeling well, and that I'm going to take you back home," she caressed the back of Hermione's hand with her thumb, sending shivers up the brunette's back. "He understands that this happens to youths at their first party sometimes. Too much wine," she kissed the spot beneath Hermione's ear and whispered, "Too much excitement."

Hermione jerked in response, and felt Bellatrix's smile against her neck.

"Now, doveling, would you like to go somewhere with me?"

Hermione couldn't think beyond the feeling of those lips against her skin. Somehow she struggled out, "Y-yessss."

"Alright then," Bellatrix pulled away at once, a wicked grin spreading across her features, "Let's go."

Chapter Text

Draco's winter cloak did little to fend off the penetrating chill as he followed his mother down a long, stone tunnel. Moisture collected into little puddles that caught the light of his mother's wand as she strode confidently through the dark.

It all felt so surreal, he reflected as he struggled to keep up with the brisk pace. They had entered the tunnels through a secret entrance in a mausoleum. Though it was a muggle cemetery, he had recognized the name carved into the stone. Gibbon . One of the grey families that had branches in both the light and the dark.

His ears pricked, and his head shot up, his eyes trying to peer through the darkness. The sound was so faint he could scarcely hear it over the sound of their footsteps, but as they drew closer, the noise became more obvious.

Voices.

His heart sped with excitement, and he saw his mother reach into her sleeve and pull out a small glinting sickle. She pressed it to her forehead without breaking stride, and it expanded at once into a shining bear mask.

"They will only see your face once," she whispered to him, reaching out to clasp his sweating hand in her cool, dry one. She gave him a reassuring squeeze, and then stepped ahead once again.

There was a silver glow coming from the end of the tunnel now, and he could see where the tunnel curved.

The voices stopped as they drew near. Before Draco could ready himself, they rounded the bend, and entered a round chamber.

He squinted immediately at the brightness as dozens of bright wand tips were aimed at them. A man's voice boomed out, "Authenticate yourselves!"

What did they mean? He turned to his mother, but she was already pointing her wand at the man. A shining mist poured from it's tip, reshaping itself into a silver bear patronus. In his mother's voice, the bear said, "Ursula has arrived with a new addition to our ranks."

At once, the lights dimmed, and the chamber took on a more ghostly appearance. The walls were lined with tunnels. The stone walls were damp, and so shone in the light. Each person wore a shining silver mask in the shape of an animal, and Draco guessed that they reflected the witch or wizard's patronus.

His mother made her rounds, greeting each person by their code name. A pleasant hum of conversation arose as the other masked figures resumed their conversations. He stuck close to her, trying to figure out what exactly they were doing. It was clear they had been waiting for her, as they all watched her expectantly.

"We have information that the Order is meeting tonight."

He watched her back stiffen almost imperceptibly as a man wearing an eagle mask stepped forward. Her voice was steady, however. "Are there any reports that they plan to attack the Ball?"

He shook his head, "Not yet."

She hummed under her breath, her eyes scanning over the others. "Thorn, Hazel!"

A witch in a cat mask, and a wizard in a boar mask pushed their way forward. Both looked excited.

His mother eyed them both, "I want you to station yourselves at Little Hangleton once we are done with the new additions. Observe only, but report at once if there is any disturbance. Do you understand?"

The wizard nodded immediately, "We do."

"Wait, you spy on the Order?" Draco's brow furrowed in confusion.

With a last nod to the witch and wizard, his mother turned to look at him. Her eyes, which gleamed sharply behind the silver mask, met his and he felt himself straighten under her gaze. He knew his mother was a strong witch, but it was one thing to know that, and quite another to be standing in front of her as she radiated sheer power. For a moment, he wondered what she could have been had she not chosen to get married to his father.

"Rook?" She called to a tall man wearing a bird mask, "Are there any other new additions?"

The tall man known as Rook nodded his head. "Three more."

Her arm shot into the air, and a shower of white sparks erupted from the tip of her wand. "If there are no objections," she said calmly, "I will begin the meeting."

The floor immediately cleared as those assembled formed a circle.

Draco stood with his back to the tunnel he and his mother had come from, acutely aware of the curious gazes that showered him as his mother stood composed beside him.

"Thank you all for coming tonight," she began, her voice sounding clearly throughout the chamber despite the mask. "I know we are all busy with the holidays, and with your families," she shared a look with Rook, who stood on her other side, "but do not forget that we are here because of those that we love."

She stepped into the center of the circle. "The Patroni have existed for as long as written history has existed. Some say it has existed for as long as war itself has existed. We exist not to take sides," she moved constantly so that she could address all of them equally, "but to protect . The Patronus was invented as a protector, to save one's very soul from death. Most think that it can only be used as a defense against Dementors."

Draco stared unblinking as she wordlessly cast a patronus charm. The great silver bear looked at her for a moment, and then began circling her.

"We can use it to send messages," she continued, "to create distractions, some can even use them to shield others from minor curses and hexes. When the original Patroni figured this out they went to the battlefields to try and save the ones they loved. They went to the villages to try and rescue innocents from being caught in the crossfire. You've been asked here today because someone saw potential in you." Now she only looked at those who were unmasked, and Draco clenched his fist around his wand in anticipation as he soaked in her words. "If you can commit to staying neutral, to working together with your fellows to protect the innocent bystanders as well as those who have been dragged into either side of this war without full consent or understanding, then we welcome you. If you cannot commit, or if you do not feel safe doing so, we will obliviate this meeting from your mind and no one will think any less of you."

He swallowed heavily. He already knew he could commit, but it was difficult to release his hope of joining the Order. Of working together with Dumbledore and Harry to bring down the Death Eaters…

Hermione was a Death Eater. Or at least, she would be. His father… he stopped himself before he could finish that thought. His pale eyes slid upwards until they reached his mother's gaze, and she gave him the tiniest smile that made him think she might know what was going on inside his mind.

"If you're ready, step forward and declare your decision."

He stepped forward, along with two witches and a wizard.

The first witch looked shaken, and she flinched as his mother stepped forward. "I-i'd like to go home please."

His mother's voice was warm, "Of course. Rook will see that you get home safely."

Rook stepped forward and held out his arm, which the witch gratefully took. The circle parted so that they could pass, and then closed again.

"And you?" Narcissa addressed the second witch. "What is your decision."

The witch grinned, "I'll stay." She was only a few years older than Draco, and he was pretty certain she had been a Ravenclaw. Her brown curls bobbed around her chin as she looked up at his mother.

Narcissa nodded approvingly, "And who do you fight for?"

The witch looked over her shoulder at someone, and then back at his mother, "Who do I fight for?"

"Yes. Each one of us is here because someone we love is involved in the war. When we become frightened, or unsure, we ask ourselves who we do this for. Do you have someone in the Order or with the Dark Lord? Someone you worry for?"

There was a pause, and then the witch said in a barely audible tone, "My brother… he-"

"You don't have to explain," Narcissa cut in kindly. "Now, think of your brother and conjure a patronus charm."

The girl's chin was back up, and she nodded, readying her wand. "Expecto patronum!"

The mist that sifted from her wand was nowhere near as bright as Narcissa's had been, but the hound that emerged was recognizable, and it made Draco smile a bit as it wiggled around the witch.

Narcissa placed her hand on the girl's shoulder. "Welcome," she looked around at the assembled witches and wizards, "And who will train her?"

A plump witch wearing a mouse mask stepped forward, "I will."

Narcissa nodded, "Go to Fidget then. I look forward to learning your name the next time we meet."

The girl nodded, her grin back in full force as she walked over to the woman his mother had called Fidget. The woman wrapped an arm around her while those on either side whispered words of congratulations.

Draco tried to keep his composure calm as the man next to him took his turn. He was slightly older than Narcissa, and fought for his son, daughter, and cousin. A porpoise patronus bloomed from his wand and swam elegantly around him as the congregation welcomed him.

And then it was his turn. His mother's warm eyes met his, as if she already knew his answer.

"And what is your decision?"

He gripped his wand. "I'll stay."

"And who do you fight for?"

"My sister, and my friend." Hermione and Harry. He pushed away the thoughts of his father.

If she was disappointed that he did not mention Lucius she hid it well. "Think of them, then, and conjure a patronus."

He already knew the memory he'd use. It was the same one he used whenever he cast the charm. He remembered the feeling of exhilaration after he, Harry and Hermione had rescued Sirius and Buckbeak.

" We did it!" Harry had whispered as the three of them sat around Ron's bed in the Infirmary. The redhead snored softly between them. "We actually did it!"

" Of course we did!" said Hermione haughtily, tossing her slightly mussed curls over her shoulder. "The three of us can do anything." She caught Draco's eye and winked.

He started laughing first, then Harry, and finally his sister. They laughed so loud it was a wonder Madam Pomfrey didn't kick them out. He had never felt so at ease and free in his life.

" We can do anything."

With his sister's words thundering in his ears he shouted, "Expecto patronum!" and grinned triumphantly as his silver badger barrelled from his wand.

His mother's eyes were shining with pride as she clasped both of his shoulders. "Welcome." Addressing the room, she called out, "I will be training this one, and I expect great things from all three of our new friends!"

Cheers erupted from all sides of the chamber, and he beamed upwards as a slew of silver animals rocketed skyward. Something inside of him that had been hollow since the DA meetings had ceased filled. He was a part of something again, something that mattered.

XX

Bellatrix must have been carrying a portkey, for Hermione felt the familiar pulling behind her navel, and then the two were deposited in the middle of a dark room.

Hermione had never seen the inside of Bellatrix's room before, but as she looked around she thought that it suited her.

The walls were covered in dark wallpaper. Tiny balls of light floated around the room, lazily moving in a circle. There was a writing desk in one corner and a gleaming ebony wardrobe in another. The wooden floorboards were highly polished. A bed piled high with pillows dominated the room, and Bellatrix walked over to it and flopped down, kicking off her heels in the process.

"Join me?" she husked.

Hermione swallowed. She could feel the fire of Bellatrix's desire melding with her own. Slowly, she walked over to the bed and eased onto it, her shoes joining Bellatrix's on the floor.

Bellatrix lay back against the pillows, gazing appreciatively up at the younger witch. Her dark curls sprawled around her face and down over her neck. They were a stark contrast against her pale skin and the white of her dress.

"You're so beautiful," Hermione whispered, resting her palm against the velvet of Bellatrix's bodice. The plush fabric was warm against her fingers, and she stroked her thumb over the space beneath the other witch's breast.

Bellatrix inhaled sharply, her hooded eyes darkening. "So are you."

A pink blush stole across Hermione's cheeks, and she worried her lip between her teeth.

"Come here," Bellatrix wove her fingers through Hermione's hair and pulled her down for a kiss. It started out gently, and then deepened. Bellatrix arched up into the kiss, her tongue slipping between Hermione's lips to trace the tip of Hermione's. “Is this ok?” she asked huskily, “It’s not too soon?”

Hermione shook her head fervently, “Not too soon,” she promised, pulling Bellatrix closer.

They broke apart with a gasp, and then Hermione let out a giggle as Bellatrix wrapped her arms around her waist and pulled her all the way down.

"Bella," Hermione whined as Bellatrix began pressing hot, open-mouthed kisses against her neck. The older witch's fingers made short work of the buttons down Hermione's back.

Then the top of her dress was being pushed down, bunched around her waist as Bellatrix's kisses followed it's path.

"Take it off," Bellatrix commanded, pulling impatiently at Hermione's bra.

The brunette complied immediately, sitting up a little and unclasping it. Bellatrix helped her pull it the rest of the way off and flung it across the room, then gently pushed her back against the pillows.

Bella! Hermione gasped loudly as Bellatrix pressed a kiss to her sternum, one hand reaching over a breast, kneading it gently as she kissed lower still. Her whole body arched upwards when Bellatrix kissed the spot beneath her belly button.

"Up," Bellatrix tapped Hermione's hips breathlessly, and the brunette lifted them so that she could pull the dress (and her underwear) down over her hips and off.

Hermione was completely undressed. She panted in anticipation as Bellatrix sat back on her heels and looked at her, her eyes dark with lust.

"You're wearing too many clothes," she said, her fingers tangling in the blankets when Bellatrix settled between her legs.

Smirking, the dark witch pulled her dress over her head and dropped it over the side of the bed.

Hermione swallowed as her eyes roamed over the pale figure in front of her. Desire sang through her veins as Bellatrix divested herself of her bra, and then shimmied free of her underwear and stockings. "Better now?" she asked in a raspy voice, crawling back up the bed so that she could kiss Hermione again.

Hermione moaned into the kiss. Every inch of her skin tingled with electricity, and she felt like she needed to be closer .

Sliding the last few centimeters between them, she allowed her fingers to explore the slope of Bellatrix's spine, and then the curve of her hip. Her fingers dug into the skin there, trying to pull her even closer. Her other hand moved to the swell of Bellatrix's breast, and her fingers rolled and tugged at the older witch's nipple, a smug grin crossing her face at the noises it pulled from the other witch.

And then Bellatrix was moving on top of her, her hand stroking down the length of her thigh and then coming up to rest at the apex of her things. She sought Hermione's gaze, asking permission, which she gave immediately with a frantic nod.

She gave a shaky breath as a single finger slipped inside. It was quickly joined by another, and she dug her nails into Bellatrix's arm as the older witch's thumb found the small bundle of nerves.

The brunette threw her head back, her breath coming in ragged gasps as Bellatrix pressed into her.

Bellatrix kissed the column of her throat, grinning as Hermione bucked into her fingers. "That's it, Doveling." She straddled one of the girl's thighs and rocked lazily against it.

"Bellaaaaaa," Hermione whined again. She pressed her face into the pillows her thoughts came in broken fragments. So wet-Don't-Don't stop-I didn't know- I can feel her- Merlin, Bella!- I can feel

There was a rush of affection, and Bellatrix once again began kissing a trail down the length of Hermione's body.

"Wha-?" Her head snapped up when Bellatrix removed her fingers.

"Easy, Dove," Bellatrix grinned wolfishly as she moved between Hermione's thighs, her fingers playing with the neat curls she found there.

Bella… please! I need you.

Hermione let out a low whine as Bellatrix settled and gave her a long, experimental lick. Her hands flew down to tangle in the black curls as she parted Hermione's folds and swirled her tongue around the bundle of nerves hidden there. Two fingers slid back inside, twisting and rubbing deep inside.

Hermione was a mess. Her legs seemed to move on their own, pressing against Bellatrix and sliding up and down the witch's body as she continued lapping her tongue in just the right way. "Yessssss, oh Bella," she whined, her breaths coming fast and shallow. She could feel something rising inside of her, swirling and pressing insistently. Bella , she struggled to form her own thoughts, Bella, something's happening. I, I don't…

" Shhhhh, Doveling ," Bellatrix's voice was gentle inside her mind, even though she continued licking and thrusting her fingers in that steady, quick pace. " It's ok. You're about to come. "

Hermione's mouth had gone dry, and she could feel Bellatrix's excitement behind her own pleasure.

It was too much. She was going to explode. But something still held her back.

And then Bellatrix spoke inside her mind, " Come for me, Dove."

The pressure burst. Her hips jerked uncontrollably against Bellatrix's unyielding tongue. She could feel herself spasm repeatedly around the curling of her fingers. Wave after wave of pleasure hit her, making her back arch and her breath come in sharp pants.

Bellatrix slowed as Hermione's back softened, her body still shaking from aftershocks as she gently withdrew her fingers and moved back up the bed.

Hermione barely moved as Bellatrix pulled her into her arms. Her eyelids felt too heavy to keep holding open. "Should I…?"

Bellatrix's laugh was low and gentle. "No, my little dove. You should rest."

Hermione hummed in response and nuzzled closer, resting her head beneath Bellatrix's chin. I love you , she thought sleepily.

A kiss was pressed to her head. " I love you too."

Chapter Text

Bellatrix woke early to an urgent tapping noise. The sky outside the curtains was still inky. Gently disentangling herself from Hermione, she rose and crossed to where a ruffled-looking barn owl was pecking at the glass.

When she opened the window the gust of wind chilled her to the bone. Necessity made her seek out the dressing gown she had haphazardly thrown over a chair the morning before, and she slid into it as the owl hopped into the room, hooting in annoyance.

“If you wake her, you’ll regret it,” Bellatrix warned sleepily. She sank into the chair, and patted the arm in invitation.

Paying no heed to her words, the owl fluttered up to join her. A slim roll of parchment was attached to it’s leg, and she removed it. Her eyebrows rose in amusement as she took in Severus’ irritated scrawl.

I know you have her there. Allow me to enter through your wards so that I may escort her home. She was to be home hours ago, and I do not want to cause unnecessary worry for Narcissa. -S

Rolling her eyes, Bellatrix rose and crossed to her desk, rifling through until she found a self-inking quill.

I’ll take her home myself. -B

She was not looking forward to facing Narcissa, but she certainly did not want to put Hermione through the awkwardness of being escorted home by her professor after…

A rare blush warmed her cheeks, and she busied herself with tying her response to the owl’s leg. The animal hooted in alarm as she practically threw him from the window, and flapped away as quickly as his wings could take him.

Securing the window, Bellatrix padded back to the bed and eased herself down with her back to the headboard. A grin tugged at her lips as Hermione snuggled up to her at once, throwing an arm over her legs and resting her cheek atop Bellatrix’s thigh. The only noises in the room were Hermione’s soft breaths, and the quiet shuffling of the furry creature in the birdcage on Bellatrix’s desk.

Never in her life had she cared so deeply for another person. She had loved her sisters, yes, and she was devoted to her lord, but the fierce love that Hermione evoked in her was surprising. She rested a hand in the unruly brown curls, and smoothed them away from the girl’s face. For a moment she ran her eyes over the curve of her nose, the swell of her cheek, the dark of her lash against the milkiness of her skin. The makeup from last night had survived, looking as if it had been applied only moments ago. She had always expected to die in service for her lord, but Hermione unearthed something deep within her that she hadn’t felt since her girlhood.

She wanted to live .

Sitting there, in the quiet stillness, she could imagine that the world was at peace. That she wasn’t a wanted criminal. That Hermione wasn’t a pawn in Dumbledore’s game. She swallowed, forcing herself not to think about the role she was about to play in the Dark Lord’s game. He would keep Hermione safe, of that she was certain.

And yet there was a nagging feeling in the back of her mind. Perhaps it was the same thing that kept her from revealing the bond to her lord. She had tried, to be sure. More than once she had envisioned herself seeking a private audience and admitting the whole thing. She never could. She told herself it was to protect her sister. To keep Narcissa safe from the Dark Lord’s wrath. But it was more than that. She could not be sure that Hermione would be safe if her status as a muggleborn was made public.

And Hermione would be safe. Even if Bellatrix could not make it through the war, Hermione would. Bellatrix would make sure of it.

The sky faded from black to plum, and then to lavender, and the brunette began to stir.

“Good morning, Dove,” Bellatrix said softly as brown eyes fluttered open.

“Where are we?” came the groggy response.

Fondness flooded Bellatrix’s entire being as she stroked the brown curls. “You’re in my bed.”

There was a tiny affirming hum, and then Hermione seemed to register the words. “Oh!” She sat up quickly, and Bellatrix missed the warmth immediately. “ Oh .”

Bellatrix didn’t need a psychic link to know that Hermione was remembering the night before. The girl’s cheeks were painted crimson, her arms crossed over her bare chest. She reached out for those emotions that were not her own, a smirk playing on her lips as she registered Hermione’s lust. Then it fell as she felt...embarrassment?

Concern laced her voice, “You’re not... “ she searched her mind for the right word, “regretting it, are you?”

Confusion filled the eyes she loved so much, then cleared. “No. No , of course not, Bella. I just… I wanted it to be special, and I didn’t even… I mean, I fell asleep right after! And we…”

Understanding filled the older witch, and she quickly smothered a laugh. Forcing her face to be as serious as possible, she slid her fingers beneath Hermione’s chin and stroked her thumb along her jaw. “It was special to me.”

She meant it honestly, but Hermione looked at her with growing horror. “Merlin, you’re laughing at me!”

“I am not!” She had been very successful in holding it in.

Hermione’s brow furrowed, “I can feel you Bellatrix!” she snapped, her cheeks growing even darker. She bent to snatch up one of the pillows, and buried her face in it. Her shame felt so strong that Bellatrix wasted no time in sliding forward and wrapping her arms around the girl.

“I’m not laughing at you, doveling,” she purred into the curls by Hermione’s ear. “Or our perfect night, because that’s what it was. It was absolutely perfect.”

There came a muffled, “Then what are you so amused by?”

“The fact that you think I didn’t have a great night.” She grinned ferally, “and, if the noises you made were any indication, I’m pretty sure you had a great night as well.”

Hermione let out an embarrassed squeak, and Bellatrix did laugh then, rocking them back and forth.

I won’t fall asleep next time , Hermione promised silently. Not before you… you know. Before I reciprocate.

Bellatrix pressed a kiss to her head, “I wouldn’t mind if you did,” she said truthfully. Then she looked at the ever lightening window and groaned, “But we won’t be testing your stamina today.” Letting go of the brunette she slid from the bed and gathered up their discarded clothes from the night before.

Hermione’s disappointment was so palpable she swore she could taste it. Still, she dutifully accepted her clothes and hurried into them.

“I wish we could take Vercingetorix,” Hermione said wistfully, knowing that it would take too long.

Bellatrix flashed her a toothy smile, “Next time, yeah?”

A few spells were hurriedly cast to make them look presentable, and then Bellatrix apparated them to the edge of the gate that marked the edge of the Forest Cottage’s wards.

The sun had not yet made an appearance, but it was light enough to see the stone path that led up to the Forest Cottage…

And the blonde perched on the wall beside the gate.

“Shit.” Bellatrix spat, loosening her hold on Hermione.

“Good Morning,” Narcissa said calmly, looking only at Hermione. “Severus owled me that you would be later than expected.”

“Mother, I-”

Narcissa raised a hand. “Darling, you look tired. Why don’t you head up to the cottage and get some more sleep. I’ve had the elves prepare a bath for you.”

Hermione clamped her mouth shut, and nodded.

“Don’t worry about me Dove, get some more rest.

Casting her an unsure look, Hermione gingerly opened the gate and stepped through. You’ll call me if she gets too angry?

Bellatrix had no intention of doing so, but she promised anyway. In silence, she and Narcissa watched Hermione climb the path and disappear through the front door.

Then cold blue eyes were staring her down. “Let’s take a walk, shall we?” her little sister asked in a tone that allowed no dissent.

All Bellatrix wanted was a warm bath of her own, but she obediently followed her sister down a hidden little path in the forest that gave the cottage it’s name. The snow made the path slippery, but Narcissa did not stumble as she picked her way through the trees. At last she stopped at a spot where the trail widened into a little clearing. The blonde did not turn around at first. She continued facing away as the wind roared through the trees above their heads.

With a thought that she should have worn a thicker cloak, Bellatrix stood there waiting for her sister to begin yelling.

Without warning, Narcissa turned and shot a particularly nasty stinging hex at her. She doubled over, growling as the pain shot through her entire torso.

“My daughter?” Narcissa’s icy facade was gone. Pure rage etched across her face as she shot another stinging hex, this one hit Bellatrix in the shoulder. “My daughter ?!”

Another hex hit her in the leg, and she stumbled, landing on her knees in the snow. “Narcissa!” she hissed. Her hand itched to draw her own wand, but she knew doing so would make things much worse.

“You’re lucky it’s only a hex , Bellatrix,” Narcissa spat. Her hair was coming loose as she stalked across the snow towards the darker witch. “I’m well within my rights to do so much more!”

“She’s not a child anymore,” Bellatrix shot back, “She’s of age! There’s nothing wrong with-”

Another stinging hex hit her in the cheek, and it was as if a thousand bees were stabbing her over and over again. “Argh!!!”

“Tell me nothing happened!” Narcissa commanded, reaching down and grabbing a fistful of her sister’s hair. She jerked Bellatrix’s head back and glared into her eyes, “Tell me my suspicions are wrong!”

Bellatrix’s voice was hard, “You want me to lie to you?”

Narcissa froze. Bellatrix could feel the tell-tale prickle of legilimency at her mind, and she let her sister in. Snapshots of the night before were summoned, and it only took a brief glance for Narcissa to wrench out of Bellatrix’s thoughts with a snarl.

The older witch barely had a second to recover before she found a wand jammed under her chin.

“The only reason I’m not ending your miserable life right now,” Narcissa scathed through gritted teeth, “is because I don’t know how your bond will affect Hermione. But mark my words,” the wand jabbed harder into the soft skin of Bellatrix’s chin, “if I could I would do it in a flash.” Her eyes were like pools of blue fire.

Bellatrix scoffed, “I’m your sister.”

Nothing wavered in Narcissa’s gaze, “And she’s my daughter. She deserves so much more than you .”

For the first time, Bellatrix felt a very real stab of fear. She had never seen her sister so angry. Not when she got the mark, not when her husband got one. Not even the night Draco was born and she had commented on what a fine warrior he’d make for the Dark Lord. “Cissy,” she said quietly, placatingly, “I love her.”

Her sister let out a bark of a laugh. “You don’t even know what love is,” she snarled. “The only thing you’ve ever loved is your master , and that’s not even really-”

“I know,” Bellatrix whispered. “I know, and that’s not the kind of love I’m talking about.” Without realizing it, her hands had wrapped around Narcissa’s wand arm. “You don’t know what it was like to go to Azkaban,” she said. “I hope you never will. It’s like nothing on earth but a dark, suffocating chamber of pain. And I was there, suffocating inside of it. And then she was there, and I wasn’t alone anymore. She saved me, Cissy. She kept me from losing myself. I’ve never felt that connection with anyone, I don’t even know if it can exist outside of what we have.”

“She was a child,” Narcissa spat.

“I didn’t feel this way about her then,” Bellatrix shot back, horror dripping from her words. “I didn’t feel this way until I saw her in the Department of Mysteries-”

“I don’t care,” but the pressure from her wand had eased enough for Bellatrix to feel comfortable continuing.

“For years she was all I had, Cissy. She was my whole world. Is my whole world. It’s like she’s part of me. I can always feel her. Even when we couldn’t speak I could still feel her.”

“And she could feel you.”

The wand had dropped completely now. Slowly, the rage drained from Narcissa’s face, replaced by something closer to despair.

Leaning closer, Bellatrix reached to grasp Narcissa’s robes. “I won’t let anything happen to her, Cissy. I’d never let anything happen to her. There’s nothing in this world more precious to me. She’ll be safe, I promise.”

“You can’t promise that,” Narcissa said, her voice tired. “No one can promise that. Not even I can promise that.” Her voice rose, ringing through the trees, “I have worked tirelessly to try and protect my children, and I can’t even guarantee that they will survive the end of the year. Neither of us can. But I can guarantee that I will die trying.”

“And so will I,” Bellatrix said quickly.

“Is that so?” Blue eyes examined her, weighing the sincerity of her words. Narcissa shook her head. “Don’t make promises you don’t intend to keep.”

That offended her. “I absolutely intend to keep it!” She clambered to her feet, hissing at the pain. “I will burn this whole miserable world to the ground if it means she will be safe!” Her curls flew wildly around her face as she leaned close enough that their noses almost touched. Her eyes bored into her sister’s, daring her to hear the truth of her words.

Narcissa didn’t flinch, “Would you burn your Dark Lord to the ground?”

“It won’t come to that.”

“If you don’t realize that it’s very swiftly coming to that then you are a fool!” It was snowing now, but neither sister reacted to the great fluffy flakes. “Hermione’s best friend is Harry Potter, Draco’s best friend is Harry Potter. When that boy faces off against the Dark Lord my son will fight to protect him because he lacks self-preservation. When that happens, do you really think Hermione is going to stand by and allow the Dark Lord to kill her own brother?”

The answer was no. Hermione was about as likely to allow harm to come to Draco as Bellatrix was to allow Narcissa to throw herself in harm’s way. That’s what had started this whole mess to begin with.

But Narcissa wasn’t done.

“And do you think the Dark Lord would be understanding if he realized who Hermione’s birth parents were? Do you think he’d have the same creepy designs towards her-”

“He doesn’t have any designs towards her!” Bellatrix protested, her eyes widening with shock. The very idea of it was repulsive.

Narcissa let out a harsh laugh, “Don’t be stupid,” she spat. “Severus told me all about his obsession with the Song of Lothar-”

Her brow wrinkled, “The old legend?”

“- and it doesn’t take a Ravenclaw to put two and two together. I don’t know what his motives are, but his intention is pretty clear.”

“You’re wrong,” Bellatrix insisted. Her arms were crossed over her chest as she stared into Narcissa’s unflinching gaze. “He has far more important things to worry about than-”

Romancing a teenager?” The blonde’s jaw hardened, “Careful, Bella, you’re starting to sound like a hypocrite.”

But she would not believe it. It couldn’t be true, it just couldn’t.

They stood there in the falling snow in silence, neither one of them breaking eye contact, and then Narcissa sighed.

“I have to go prepare for Christmas,” she gave her sister a once over, “but while you’re out enjoying whatever revelries the Dark Lord has prepared I want you to think. Think very carefully. If you had to kill him to be able to save her... would you do it?”

She left without another word, leaving Bellatrix alone with the falling snow.

XX

Christmas was a subdued affair. Their mother tried to be as cheerful as possible, but neither of her children were fooled.

Hermione didn’t comment on how exhausted Draco looked, and in turn he didn’t comment on watching her climb back into the house at the break of dawn. There was an unspoken agreement that they would pretend everything was as normal as possible. They sant carols and gorged on Mardie’s roast duck, and when Narcissa drank too much of the spiced wine and began recounting stories of the christmases of her youth both of her children listened attentively.

Later, when Narcissa urged them both to get some rest, they padded sleepily up to their rooms.

Hermione was at her door when she felt two sturdy arms wrap around her middle and catch her in a strong embrace. “Oof, Draco!” she laughed as he hugged harder.

“I love you, you know?” he whispered softly.

She patted his arm, “I never doubted it.”

Reluctantly, his arms loosened, and he stepped back as she turned. “I just… I don’t want you to ever doubt that.”

She smiled softly and reached out to squeeze his arm, “And I love you too. You’re the best little brother a girl could ask for.”

His smile was blinding, “Well. Er, that’s all I wanted to say. Goodnight!”

Giggling a little, she reached out and ruffled his hair, “Sweet dreams, Draco.”

“Oh they will be,” he winked.

Her giggle turned into a laugh as he ducked into his room. That night she fell asleep with a smile on her face.

XX

“-did he say why?”

“I’m sorry Narcissa, he did not. All he said was that he was called away unexpectedly and he wants to see her before he goes.”

Hermione frowned as she went down the stairs into the living room. “Uncle Sev!” she greeted, rushing over to hug him.

He allowed her embrace, but frown disapprovingly at her, “Don’t think I’ve forgotten your little little escape. That’s the last time I let you out of my sight. Do you have any idea how worried I was?”

She squirmed under his gaze, “I’m sorry, Uncle Sev, I didn’t think-”

“That much is evident. I’m very disappointed, I expected better of you” he said sternly, but his gaze was softer than she expected it to be. “I didn’t come here to lecture you,” he said with a sigh. “The Dark Lord has summoned you-”

“Me?” Hermione looked quickly to the worried expression on her mother’s face.

He nodded, “I’m to escort you there immediately. That is,” he looked to Narcissa, “if you have no objections?”

She looked very much like she would object, but she merely nodded. She strode purposefully to the cupboard and pulled out Hermione’s cloak, securing it around her daughter herself.

“I’ll see you soon,” Hermione promised, kissing her mother’s cheek.

Riddle Manor was trashed. She and Snape picked their way through the empty bottles, broken glasses, and various other debris as they headed up to the study on the second floor. The carpet was smeared with red stains, and she stepped closer to her uncle, threading her arm through his.

“Have courage,” he said in low tones, reaching over to squeeze her hand reassuringly. “No matter what he wants you will get through it.”

She felt a wave of anxiety, “He might not ask anything of me.” It came out more like a question. They were slowing down as they drew nearer to the door. “He might only want to wish me a happy…” but she knew in her gut that she was wrong.

“Are your occlumency shields up?”

They were now. Her mouth was suddenly very dry.

With one last squeeze, Snape dropped her arm and knocked on the door.

“You may enter.”

He was in the high wing-backed chair before the fire, Nagini curled around his shoulders. His red eyes glowed eerily in the firelight. A dark figure sat on the ottoman before him, and her stomach relaxed as she took in Bellatrix’s composed figure.

Thank Merlin you’re here .

Bellatrix gave her a warm look. “He says he plans to build your reputation.

How?

“I don’t know, he wanted to tell us together .”

She didn’t need to wait long.

“Hermione, Severus! I’m so happy you could join us.”

She bowed her head respectfully, and she and Snape chorused “My lord,” together, prompting an amused chuckle.

Chairs were conjured, and the Dark Lord had an elf bring tea.

“It must have been a difficult holiday without your father.”

Hermione stiffened, but caught Bellatrix’s warning glance and forced herself to relax. “It was, my lord.”

“I hope he will be with us next Christmas.”

Hermione nodded quietly, and took a hurried sip of tea. “Me too.”

He gave what he must have thought was a warm chuckle, “If all goes to plan, we will have control of the prison by midsummer. All of my followers would be freed, your father included.”

She blinked, and breathed out, “That would be wonderful!”

“I want to give you the honor of being the one to free him.”

Now it was Bellatrix’s anxiety that hit Hermione, and she blinked under the weight. “O-oh.”

“That is, of course, an honor reserved for my inner circle.” He leaned forward, his eyes boring into hers. “When your father first approached me about adopting you, he expressed your mother’s desire that you follow in his footsteps. Did you know that?”

She shook her head. She had no idea they had spoken to him about her adoption. She caught her uncle’s carefully blank look out of the corner of her eye, and steeled herself. “They didn’t tell me, my lord.”

He hummed noncommittally, “I think you would be a good addition to our circle. Breathe a little life into it. What do you think, Severus?”

His voice was steady, “I think she’s a little young, my lord.”

“We were all young once, Severus. I don’t care about her age, I care about her ability! Speak to that!”

Her uncle looked to her, his eyes unreadable as he examined her. She would have given anything in that moment to be able to read his mind. Finally, he said in a calm voice, “I think she’s the most capable student I’ve ever had. Undoubtedly she will be invaluable to your ranks.”

“Just as I thought, and Bella, you’ve made no secret of your enthusiasm.”

She didn’t like the way her name sounded in his mouth, nor the way Bellatrix brightened under his gaze. She could still feel the anxiety, but it was flooded with a rush of warmth that Hermione had begun to associate with their interactions alone.

“I think she’ll be everything you hope for and more, my lord!” Bellatrix gushed.

Those red eyes turned back. He ran an appraising look over her. “Your father has been a loyal asset to me all of these years, and I have no doubt that you would be as well. What do you say, hmm? Would you like to be a part of my inner circle, Hermione?”

There was nothing else to say. Every meeting with Dumbledore, every training with Uncle Severus and Bellatrix had led to this moment. The weight of their expectations crashed heavily around her. She licked her lips and tried to put as much excitement as she could into her words. “Yes, my lord!”

A victorious smirk curled his thin lips. “Good. Of course, I couldn’t just let you in could I? The others would accuse me of favoritism.”

Bellatrix’s anxiety coiled tighter inside her, and she found herself wishing that Turnip were there somehow. “I wouldn’t want that.”

“No, I’m sure you wouldn’t. Every member of my inner circle has proven themselves to me. Their loyalty, their dedication to the cause. The task I’ve picked for you will demonstrate both your loyalty and dedication. In fact, it  will be the second-greatest act in assuring our victory in the coming war.”

All three of them were frozen, each gazing unblinkingly at him. But he had eyes only for Hermione.

“Fail me, and I will make sure your father rots in Azkaban until the end of his days.”

It took every inch of willpower not to flinch at the sudden venom in his voice.

“But succeed, and I will honor you above all else. Will you do this for me?”

Her father’s face swam in her mind. She would do whatever she could to free him. Her next words came out breathlessly, “Anything, my lord.”

He sat back, and stroked Nagini’s head. “Your task is to kill your uncle. Albus Dumbledore.”

Chapter Text

“Your task is to kill your uncle, Albus Dumbledore.”

She couldn’t have heard right. Surely he didn’t mean-

“My Lord?” her voice came out eerily calm. As if she hadn’t just been asked to kill one of her family members.

His red eyes glittered in the firelight. “I have chosen to give you the greatest honor there is. Once you have eliminated their leader the Order of the Phoenix will lose control, and we will be there to snap them up. You will be the second most powerful being in the Wizarding World. Endless possibilities will lay at your feet! Severus, Bellatrix, what do you think? Have I not paved the way for Hermione’s success?”

“You are most gracious,” gushed Bellatrix, and Hermione struggled to keep the frown from sliding over her features. The other witch was on the edge of her seat, her hands within touching distance of his.

“And you, Severus?”

Her uncle was as stoic as ever. He wove his fingers together and rested them on his knees. “It would certainly send the Order reeling. I don’t think there’s another force in the Order who has the capability and finesse that Dumbledore does.”

Bellatrix snorted, “In love with old Dumbledore, are we?”

Severus stared coldly at her, “It would be foolish to deny his accomplishments.”

“Severus is correct,” Voldemort chuckled darkly, sending chills up and down Hermione’s back. “Dumbledore is a worthy opponent. He is skilled, and powerful. But not all-powerful. The world forgets that he has his weaknesses, and when his murderer is revealed to be a sixth year at Hogwarts… well, no one will think of him as indestructible after that. And when they start to doubt him they will start to doubt his opposition to me.”

She was going to be sick. Between the thought of doing that to her uncle, and the sheer adoration that was dripping from Bellatrix it was a wonder she could keep her stomach under control.

“Is there a timeline you wish Hermione to keep?” she envied how calm her uncle could keep his voice.

“I think it should be accomplished before the summer holidays. That should give you plenty of time to come up with a good strategy. Too much time, perhaps.” He said this in what might have been a teasing tone.

“That will be more than enough time,” Bellatrix promised, “We’ll start strategizing right away.”

Will we?

Bellatrix’s eyes flicked to her in surprise, and Hermione looked down. She felt that if she met Bellatrix’s gaze she would be unable to mask her feelings. The last thing she needed was to have the Dark Lord question her loyalties.

She thought of her mother and Draco at home in the Forest Cottage and forced herself to stay calm. She ignored Bellatrix’s questioning presence in her mind, and threw up her Occlumency shields so that the other witch couldn’t get through.

“I look forward to seeing you succeed,” the Dark Lord smiled at her.

There was nothing more that Hermione could absorb after that. Luckily, it seemed the Dark Lord was as eager for them to leave as she was.

“Goodbye Severus, Hermione.” A satisfied smirk crossed his features, “I hope you have a very good term.”

Her goodbye was barely audible.

“Severus, I want you to report to me one last time before you return to Hogwarts. There are things we need to discuss.”

Her uncle nodded, and said his own goodbye before sweeping into the hallway. Hermione lingered at the door, however. It was as if some unknown force demanded she not leave Bellatrix alone with Voldemort. The other witch stood reluctantly, but stepped closer to him.

“She won’t disappoint you,” Bellatrix promised.

Hermione’s stomach lurched as she watched him grin fondly at Bellatrix. He reached up and stroked a finger down Bellatrix’s cheek, “With you there to guide her, I’m certain she won’t.”

“You are too kind, my lord.” Bellatrix whispered.

It was impossible to watch. She wrenched her eyes away and stalked after her uncle. She could hear Bellatrix enter the corridor and hurry after her. When they exited the front door the dark witch moved to take her arm.

“No,” Hermione said, moving closer to her uncle. Snow crunched underfoot, and she pulled her cloak tighter around herself to ward off the chill.

“We should return to the lodge and strategize,” Bellatrix said, confusion and concern showing on her face.

Severus looked between the two witches. His eyes lingered on Hermione’s, and she stared tiredly back at him. “I think that’s enough for one day,” he said, holding out his arm for Hermione to take.

She refused to meet Bellatrix’s eyes as she grasped his forearm.

“Are you serious? We’ve just learned what your first task is, Dove! We have so much to do! You can’t possibly-”

“I’m taking her home,” he said in a firmer tone. “You can do your training later.”

There was an uncomfortable silence, and then she ground out, “Tomorrow then. After lunch.”

Still not meeting her eyes, Hermione nodded, and then sighed with relief as the pull of apparation took her away.

Unlike Bellatrix, Severus was allowed within the wards, so he took her straight to the front door of Forest Cottage.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

He nodded. “I think it’s best to train with a clear mind.” He studied her, neither of them moving towards the door handle. “I know the two of you are close-”

She almost snorted at that term, close. Almost.

“-but you should remember that she is, first and foremost, a Death Eater. If you are having any misgivings about your task-”

“Don’t bring it up to her.” Hermione’s voice was hoarse, as if she had been yelling for an extended period of time. She felt very tired all of a sudden. She didn’t know if it was possible to hide her misgivings, regardless of whether or not it was the right thing to do. But she didn’t want him to worry about her. Especially not when it came to Bellatrix.

He looked as if he wanted to say more, but nodded instead. “I think I’ll say hello to your mother.”

She pushed open the door, sighing a little at the comfortable warmth that enveloped her. Turnip gave a little yap of welcome, and waddled over to inspect Severus. His fur was dark grey, with the faintest trace of red.

“You’ve just missed Draco,” her mother said warmly from her chair by the hearth. Her hair was loose around her shoulders, and she marked the spot in the book she was reading with a silk ribbon, setting it on the table beside her. “He’s gone off to play Quidditch at the Macmillan residence.”

“That’s fine,” Severus said, “I was hoping to have a private word with you.”

Her mother instantly looked at her. “Hermione?”

But Hermione knew that if she stayed in that room and let her mother fuss over her she would start crying. And if she started crying she would tell her everything.

“I’m feeling a bit tired,” she said, trying to smile. “I thought I’d take a nap.”

She wasn’t fooling her mother. She knew that. But Narcissa merely nodded, “Alright darling. I’ll check on you in a bit.”

She nodded, “Bye, Uncle Sev.” She impulsively hugged him as she said it.

Surprisingly, he hugged her back. “Goodbye, Hermione. I hope the rest of your holiday is rather uneventful.” Releasing her, he gave a tiny smile, “But don’t hesitate to owl me if there’s anything you need.”

She nodded, and gave his arm one last squeeze before she headed up the stairs, Turnip at her heels.

Her room was cold. The moment she walked in a cheery fire roared to life, but it would take a while for it to heat the room. She left the lights off, and dragged her chair in front of the window.

“Mardie, I’d like some water please,” she whispered. A moment later a glass of water appeared on her nightstand. She took a deep breath and drank thirstily, draining the contents in short order. Kicking off her boots, she threw her cloak onto the bed and grabbed the soft woolen throw from the foot of it.

“Your task is to kill your uncle, Albus Dumbledore.”

With wooden steps, she lurched towards the chair. As soon as she sat down Turnip was in her lap, whining and nosing at her hands, his snout glowing the calming gold that came from his magic.

But not even Wubble magic could breach the unbearable ache in her chest. She stroked his glossy head more to soothe him than herself, and stared broodingly out the window.

She couldn’t let her father rot in Azkaban. But could she really kill her uncle?

Her brother would never speak to her again. Not if she…

Horror filled her as the image of her Uncle Albus’s lifeless body filled her mind. She pictured herself standing above him, wand pointed at his throat.

Turnip yawned, and moved his head so that it rested over her chest. She welcomed the distraction.

She couldn’t think about it. Not that. She cast around for something else to focus on, and a scowl settled over her features as she remembered how Bellatrix had fawned over the Dark Lord. Like a puppy with eyes only for it’s master.

She could feel Bellatrix now, pressed against her Occlumency shields, trying to get her attention. She wanted nothing more than to be with her at that moment. Wrapped in her arms, assured that everything would be ok.

But a sour taste filled her mouth and she could not shake the image of the Dark Lord running a finger down Bellatrix’s cheek.

She settled into her chair and stroked Turnip. Tomorrow she would talk to Bellatrix. Today…

Today all she wanted to do was sleep.

XX

Narcissa believed in the importance of one-on-one time with her children. It was no surprise when she announced the next morning that she would be taking Hermione shopping, and the brunette was grateful for anything that would keep her mind off the Dark Lord and Bellatrix.

Diagon Alley was livelier than it had been in months. Pink-cheeked customers darted in and out of the shops, their parcels rustling cheerily. Snow fell from great, fluffy clouds, transforming the alley into a cheerful winter wonderland. Along with the protection charms, potions, and amulets there were all manner of items being sold for the new year. Amulets to bring love, potions that promised luck and fortune- One witch sold seedlings of a vine that was supposed to “trap misfortune at the door.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s Devil’s Snare,” her mother whispered cordially into her ear as they passed. “I’m sure it will trap far more than anyone’s misfortunes.”

They hit all the high end shops, where the shopkeepers knew better than to refer to Lucius’ whereabouts.

“I’m so glad you take my advice,” Narcissa sighed as she took in the Slytherin-green dress Hermione had agreed to try on. “I do love Draco very much, but lately his taste in clothing is so…”

“Hideous?” Hermione suggested. She grinned as her mother burst into laughter.

They bought the dress, and matching shoes, and then spent an hour trying on makeup. Her mother really did have impeccable taste. And Hermione felt a little thrill of pride whenever she held up something and received a nod of approval.

“We’ll stop at Thistle for lunch,” Narcissa said finally as they made their usual stop for Hermione’s hair potions. “I know you have a training this afternoon.”

Hermione made a face at the reminder, but followed her mother into the restaurant.

Thistle was full of light. It had a high, glass ceiling that was enchanted to show blue skies all the time.

They were led to a white booth.

“Would you like your usual, Madam Malfoy?” Asked the server.

“Yes, please. And the same for my daughter.”

“With tea?”

“Butterbeer for me,” said Hermione, sliding out of her cloak as she took a seat and handing it to the server.

“I would like tea, thank you.”

The server inclined her head and disappeared.

It was only a few moments before Hermione’s butterbeer popped onto the table. It was warm and fragrant, and she took an eager drink of it as her lunch popped onto the table beside it. It was a deep golden broth and a small platter of fish and roasted vegetables.

“Fresh caught this morning,” her mother said, grinning as she tucked her napkin onto her lap. “This always reminds me of the summer your father and I spent on the Mediterranean. It was right after our wedding.”

It was delicious. The broth was rich and warming, the fish tender, and the vegetables practically buzzed with spices.

“Your father used to joke that if we sent you to Beauxbatons instead of Hogwarts we could have lived on the French Riviera.” She smiled. “I nearly took him up on it.”

Hermione listened to her mother’s stories about her adventures in the Mediterranean. She was a good storyteller, and Hermione could easily have listened to her voice for day.

It was over dessert (chocolate cheesecake with an orange glaze) that her mother grew serious. She cast a privacy bubble over their booth, and cleared her throat.

“Severus told me you have been given your first task.”

Hermione froze with her fork halfway to her mouth. “Did he tell you what it was?”

“No. But he said it was… devastating.”

Hermione set her fork down.

“I just want you to know that you don’t have to do it.” Her mother continued. “I have the means to hide you if you don’t want to. There’s no shame in it.”

But she couldn’t hide. She couldn’t sit idly by and wonder what was happening to her friends. To her home.

She also didn’t know if she could kill her uncle, but she would deal with that later.

“If I succeed,” she said at last, “He’ll let me free Papa.”

Understanding filled her mother’s face. She slid her plate out of the way and reached for Hermione’s hands, taking them in her warm ones. “We all want him to come home, darling.”

“Not Draco,” Hermione shook her head.

Her mother sighed. “Draco does, I’m sure. He’s just having trouble reconciling your father’s actions with the man he knows.”

“That’s a poor excuse.”

“Please,” her mother’s hand tightened around hers, “Please don’t do something you’re going to regret just to free your father.”

Hermione swallowed heavily. “I would do anything for Papa,” she whispered. “I wouldn’t- I haven’t made up my mind yet,” she admitted.

Her mother looked relieved, and for some reason it made guilt churn in her stomach. “Good. That’s, that’s good. Just… don’t make any decisions lightly.”

Hermione could have laughed. “Don’t worry mother, I won’t.” Then, to change the subject, she forced a sigh, “Bellatrix is probably waiting.”

“Ah yes, my beloved sister.” she released Hermione, and stabbed the last bite of her cheesecake with her fork. “If she’s pressuring you to do anything-”

“Mother!” Her face was burning.

Narcissa blinked, and then a faint smear of pink bloomed in her cheeks. “Not that! I mean, yes that. That too. If she’s pressuring you to do anything you don’t want to do all you have to do is tell me, and I’ll make sure that she never bothers you again.”

“She’s not pressuring me!” Hermione said quickly. “I… everything was consensual.”

“Good.” Narcissa took a quick drink of tea. “Good. But nevertheless, if that changes, you can always tell me.” Her blue eyes blazed. “You are my daughter, and you will always come before her.”

She couldn’t help but feel a little glow of happiness at that.

They paid their bill, and moved to the restaurant’s Floo point.

“I’ll put your things away,” Narcissa promised once they emerged safely into the Forest Cottage’s living room. She glanced through the window, “I can see her out there. Do you have your wand?”

“Yes!” Hermione said breathlessly as she flew to the door. “I’ll be back by dinner!” She said, disappearing through the door before her mother could reply.

Though she was annoyed with Bellatrix, she couldn’t help the flood of warmth that filled her the moment her eyes locked on the pacing figure. A smile tugged at her lips before she recalled the image of her hanging onto every word the Dark Lord said.

“There you are!” Bellatrix yelled once she reached the gate. “Why are you keeping me out?” She wore her practical black training robes, and her hair was pinned up in a knot. “I’ve been so worried-”

“Not here,” Hermione shook her head, “Mother might hear.”

Bellatrix rolled her eyes and stalked forward. Her grasp on Hermione’s elbow was a little too tight for comfort, but a moment later she was pulled into Bellatrix’s apparation.

They were deposited on the floor of Bellatrix’s sitting room.

“There,” Bellatrix stood up and pulled off her cloak, tossing it over the back of the couch. “No more mother. Now tell me why you’ve been keeping me out.” Her dark brows were furrowed as she glared down at the younger witch.

Hermione didn’t move from her spot on the floor. Before she could stop them, tears were springing to her eyes.

“Oh no you don’t,” Bellatrix said, crossing her arms over her chest. “You can’t shut me out without an explanation and then look for comfort!”

“I’m not looking for comfort!” Hermione shot, swiping the back of her hand over her eyes. Though part of her admitted that was a lie. She wanted nothing more than to be wrapped in Bellatrix’s arms.

“You can’t do that to me again,” Bellatrix said, and this time Hermione caught the note of desperation in her voice.

She looked up, and studied the older witch. Bellatrix was paler than usual, and her eyes were red and shinier than usual. She looked like she hadn’t slept at all. And it was then that it occurred to Hermione that it might be Bellatrix who was looking for comfort.

Slowly, she eased away from her Occlumency shield.

He touched you.

Bellatrix blinked. “What?”

Hermione scowled up at her. “The Dark Lord. He touched you.”

“That was jealousy?” Bellatrix looked as if she might start laughing. “Doveling, are you actually jealous of-”

“He doesn’t have the right to touch you,” barked Hermione, “You’re not his. You’re mine!” If it weren’t for how strongly she felt she would be embarrassed to be sitting on the floor like a small child throwing a tantrum.

“Rab touches me all the time,” Bellatrix said snippily, “You’ve never had a problem with it before.”

“You’re not wearing Rab’s brand on your arm!” The tears were pouring hotly over her cheeks now, and she was ashamed of them. You’ve already given yourself to him, Bellatrix, don’t you see?

“I’d pledged myself to him long before you were born,” the dark witch said in an emotionless tone.

Flinching as if she’d been struck, Hermione let out a low sob. It was like all of her fight had been snapped out of her, and all that was left was the pain. She buried her face in her hands and cried openly.

“Stop.” There was a brush at the top of her head, and then the pleasant tingling that happened whenever Bellatrix touched her. Her hands were pulled away from her face, and she peered miserably up at the older witch.

“You l-l-love him.” She whispered brokenly.

Bellatrix sighed, “I do- no, stop that,” she said hurriedly when Hermione cried out, “- I do love him. But not the same way that I love you. You’re my everything, Doveling. You’re my whole world.”

“A-a-and you’re m-mine.” Hermione wheezed, “But I can’t stand it. The way you look at him, Bellatrix. It’s like he means everything to you. I can’t compete with that. I’m not the Dark Lord.”

“You don’t have to compete with him.”

Hermione’s cheeks were scalding, “I don’t want to share you.”

Bellatrix arched an eyebrow, “And you won’t. The Dark Lord rewards his followers with caresses sometimes, but it’s never more than a touch here or there. It never goes beyond that, Doveling, I promise you. Not even my husband is allowed to touch me. Only you.”

“I don’t like that you have a husband either,” Hermione grumbled. “I just want you to myself, Bella. Why can’t you just be mine?”

Eyes softening, Bellatrix smoothed the brunette’s curls away from her face, and cradled her head in her hands. “I am yours. Completely.” Her thumb swiped away one of Hermione’s tears.

“If the Dark Lord ordered you to kill me, would you do it?”

“That would never happen,” Bellatrix said it with so much vehemence that Hermione recoiled.

Still, she persisted, “But if he did. If he said it was the only way to win the war… would you do it?”

“Of course not,” Bellatrix snapped.

Something eased inside Hermione. She relaxed into Bellatrix’s hold. “And if I decided not to kill Uncle Albus?” she continued. “If I decided to fight with the Order of the Phoenix. Would you still love me?”

For a moment she thought she had pushed too far. She could feel Bellatrix’s emotions war within her own stomach. Anger, helplessness, something else she couldn’t even name.

“I will always love you,” Bellatrix said at last, her dark eyes bore unblinkingly into Hermione’s brown ones. “No matter what foolish thing you do. Because as much as I am yours,” she slid one hand down to grasp Hermione’s chin gently, “you are mine.”

Hermione felt a current of need go through her, “Yours,” she promised.

“And you can’t shut me out without an explanation anymore,” Bellatrix said then. Her eyes growing uncertain, “I can’t stand it. Do you know what it’s like to not be able to feel you? To hear you? To know that you’re doing it voluntarily?”

She was shaking, Hermione realized. Guilt flooded her as she realized what effect she had on the other witch. Slowly, she eased up onto her knees, and wrapped her arms around Bellatrix.

I won’t, she promised the other witch internally. Not like that, not again. I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking...

Bellatrix relaxed into her hold, letting out the smallest cry as she rested her cheek against Hermione’s shoulder.

“I can’t live without you, Dove,” her thoughts were raw and desperate, “I won’t!” Her arms wrapped around Hermione’s waist, holding tightly as if afraid that Hermione would leave her right then and there.

She felt even guiltier as she felt a stab of satisfaction go through her. No matter how loyal Bellatrix was to him, she was bound to Hermione. And that was something no one could take away from them.

You won’t have to, Hermione promised. We’ll figure it out. She rested her chin on Bellatrix’s head, breathing in the scent of her shampoo. It always amazed her how complete she felt when she was with the other witch. “I love you so much,” she said, hugging her tighter.

Bellatrix squeezed back, “I love you so much,” she said in a broken whisper. “I’ll never betray you, I promise, no matter what. Please… please don’t-”

“I won’t,” Hermione vowed again. “We’ll figure this out.”

Bellatrix nodded, her relief flooding both of them.

Hermione rocked a little, trying to calm both of them. It was hard to discern which emotions were hers and which were Bellatrix’s.

I don’t know if I can do it.

“Do what?”

She bit her lip, Kill him.

Bellatrix was quiet, but she kept her arms locked around the younger girl.

He’s my uncle. I love him, and I know he loves me.

She leaned her head back and gazed up into Hermione’s eyes. Whatever she found there seemed to satisfy her. “Whatever you decide, I’ll help you.”

Hermione smirked, “Even if I decide to go on the run?” She didn’t want to push too hard by suggesting anything else. Not yet.

The dark witch nodded seriously. “Then I’ll be your secret keeper. There’s no one else I’d trust to keep you safe.”

Hermione let out a sad laugh, and bent to kiss her.

They never did get around to training.

Chapter Text

Hermione reclined in her favorite chair in the Gryffindor Common Room, a bored expression on her face as she re-read the paragraph in front of her. She was re-reading “The Art of Expert Transfiguration” because Bellatrix had decided at some point during the last week that it was absolutely essential for Hermione to become an animagus.

 “If you decide to do your task you might need a discrete escape method,” she had said, and if not, well… you might need a good disguise.

Hermione had refrained from asking how discrete she would be if her animagus form were to be a bear, or perhaps a whale. Instead, she had dutifully promised to keep a Mandrake leaf under her tongue for the next month, and be as prepared as possible for the transformation during the Easter Holidays.

She shifted the soggy leaf to the other side of her mouth, wincing a little as the sharp flavor bit her tongue, and turned the page. In addition to becoming an Animagi, she was also taking the Ministry lessons on apparation every weekend. She was tired of having to rely on others to travel.

“Doing some research for your Transfiguration essay?” Seamus’ voice cut into her thoughts, and she looked up to see him standing in front of her, a shy smile on his face.

“Something like that,” she said, giving him a kind smile. She liked Seamus well enough. He was always stopping by to say hi, or to ask her questions. She also made it a point to ignore when his cheeks turned pink, or when he stammered over a simple phrase.

“Did you have a nice holiday?” he asked, stuffing his hands into his pockets.

“Yeah. Did you?”

He nodded. “I was wondering-”

He was interrupted by loud laughter from the portrait hole. Ginny and Ron clambered in, followed closely by Harry and Neville.

Ever since the news of the Dark Lord’s return became official, those four (as well as Luna) had become legendary. The entire room shifted as all attention was redirected to them, and Hermione felt a sliver of jealousy at how easily they commanded the room.

“Hey Seamus, we were just about to start a game of gobstones. You in?” Ron called, his clothing still wet from what Hermione assumed was a trek through the snow.

Seamus cast an apologetic look at her, which she returned with a cheery grin. “Maybe in a minute-”

“Oh, hold on!” Harry said, walking over to Hermione. “Professor Dumbledore asked me to give this to you.”

Her heart sank before she even accepted the slip of paper. “Thanks Harry,” she murmured, flashing him a tiny smile.

His green eyes were kind, “No problem. If you want to take a break from that-” he nodded to her book, “you could play gobstones with us.”

“That’s alright,” she said quickly, noticing the flush that had spread across Ron’s cheeks. “I’m in the middle of an interesting part.” It sounded lame, even to her, but he bought it.

“If you change your mind you’re welcome anytime.”

“What would Dumbledore want with Hermione?” asked Seamus, his nose wrinkling, “You never get into trouble.”

“He’s her uncle, remember?” said Ron, his tone hard.

She looked at him in surprise, and his blue eyes fell immediately to the floor. Resisting the urge to roll her eyes at him, she unfolded the note.

Her uncle’s elegant script read:

Hermione,

I would like to see you when you have a spare moment. I think you’ll find I like ice mice this time of year.

Uncle Albus

It was better to get it over with, she decided, standing up.

“You’re leaving?” Disappointment shone clear on Seamus’ face, and she added it to her list of things to feel guilty about.

“My uncle wants to see me,” she said, forcing her voice to sound light. “I’ll see you later!”

“Yeah, ok!” He called out after her.

Harry, Neville and Ginny joined in a chorus of “Bye”, and she waved absentmindedly to them as she climbed the stairway to her dormitory.

She dropped her book off on her bed, and then traced the familiar path to the stone gargoyle. After muttering the password she climbed the stairs, and felt her stomach grow leaden with each step.

“Come in!” he called once she’d knocked on his door.

The Headmaster’s office was warm. His silver instruments clicked gently, filling the room with the sound of a couple dozen clocks.

“Hermione!” he said warmly, his blue eyes twinkling behind his spectacles. “Just who I was hoping to see.” He indicated a tray before him, “I even had the kitchen send up tea, in case you visited.”

Fawkes let out a gentle trill as she took a seat. “Hello, Uncle Albus,” she said softly. Her chest felt very full as she watched him arrange a teacup in front of her, his blackened hand sitting uselessly to the side. There was a tray of her favorite hazelnut and chocolate tarts, and she smiled as he pushed it closer to her.

“I hear you made quite the impression at the Slytherin Ball,” he said, chuckling a little as he poured her tea. “Did you enjoy it?”

“Most of it,” she said, trying not to blush as she thought of what she had done after .

“Apparently there’s quite a lot of talk about you and Terence Higgs,” his blue eyes were caught somewhere between teasing and serious.

She blinked back at him, “Terence is a friend,” she said slowly. “We were just dancing.”

He gave a low chuckle, “Marriages have been promised on much less,” he pointed out.  

As the daughter of an elite pureblood family she had been teased about her marriage since she was old enough to walk, but she was tired of having to defend her friendship with Terence. “I’m not marrying Terence,” she said shortly, blushing when her uncle fixed her with an amused glance.

“Have you tried the tarts? They’re quite delicious.”

Of course they were. She had been eating the same ones for the last six years. Still, she took a bite to appease him. Even the mandrake root couldn’t dampen the rich, buttery deliciousness of Hogwarts’ hazelnut tarts.

“Was the ball well attended?” he asked, brushing bits of pastry from his beard.

She nodded. “Oh yes. I didn’t know there were so many Death Eaters.”

“Oh yes, I expect there are.”

“And I’d say about a third of them were Ministry employees. They didn’t look imperiused or anything.”

“Did you learn anything?” He asked mildly, peering at her as he took a sip of his tea.

Her fingers played with the gilded edge of her saucer. “He likes his pageantries,” she said slowly. “It felt very much like a scene from one of the storybooks Mother used to read us when we were children. It wasn’t like Mother’s parties at all.” It was louder, and there was a frenzied current that made it feel more dangerous- though not in an unpleasant way.

“Slytherin was known for his grandiose galas,” he said, “I expect he was trying to emulate his ancestor.”

She nodded thoughtfully, and took a bite of treacle tart. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she made a decision. He would know what to do. He always knew what to do.

“Uncle Albus,” she said hesitantly. “The Dark Lord gave me my first task.”

He broke off a piece of tart and held it out to Fawkes. “Oh?” The scarlet bird nibbled at it, letting out a delighted coo.

She licked her lips, “Yes. He.. he told me that he would let me free Papa if I did it.”

“Then you must feel very strongly about it.”

That was one way to put it. She took a deep breath, steeling herself. Her voice came out as a hoarse whisper. “He told me to kill you.”

He looked at her then, his eyes so blue and kind that she almost started weeping.

“He thinks I’m going to do it,” she said, speaking quickly, “but I won’t. I can’t. I promise you I won’t!”

He said nothing.

“Mother can arrange for us to go into hiding,” she said quickly. “Or we can fake your death. I know you could! You’re the greatest wizard of all time! He wouldn’t have to know, and we could continue to do everything just as we are.” When he still said nothing she balled her hands into fists. “Please say something. Don’t you believe me?”

“I believe you.” He reached out and stroked Fawkes’ head. The bird looked back at him, and it seemed as if they were having an internal discussion.

At last, he looked back at her said, “Do you know what the Headmaster’s Choice is, Hermione?”

She shook her head, confused at why he wasn’t focusing on the important thing.

“Every Headmaster has the power to influence the sorting of one child in their career.”

Dread filled her. She did not want to hear what this was about. “Please, if you focused on planning what we’re going to do-”

“Most Headmaster’s use it on their own family. To ensure that an errant grandson follows the family legacy, or soothe the fears of one worried they’ll get sorted into the wrong house.” He sighed, and finally turned his blue gaze back to her. “I was worried that if you were sorted into Slytherin you would become seduced by the promise of prestige. That you would align your views with your Slytherin friends, and become too cloistered to make your own decision about who you are. In Gryffindor you would be exposed to so many more viewpoints. I hoped that eventually your friendships there would compensate the fact that you didn’t really fit the traditional Gryffindor image.”

She felt very cold as he continued. As if she had been doused in ice water.

“The fact that you came here today, and admitted the Dark Lord’s plan, proves that I made the right decision six years ago.”

“So the reason- the reason I’m not a Slytherin was you ?’ She was shaking with suppressed anger.

He nodded. “A decision I stand by.”

“The hat told me it was because I was muggleborn!” she spat, “Do you know what it was like, knowing that the House I belonged in was out of reach because I was born to Muggles?! I’ve been miserable in Gryffindor. The only person who liked me before this year was Harry-”

“I regret that I was not able to allow you to be in your true house,” he said softly. “But I needed to make sure that you grew up with the right loyalties.”

She scoffed. “How do you know you haven’t just ruined that?” she asked, unable to keep the scowl from sliding over her features.

“I’m willing to take that risk.” His voice was still gentle. “You’ve been honest with me, and so I am going to reward you by being honest with you. We don’t have very much time left. It’s time for us to speak not as mentor and student, but as equals in a fight for the greater good. Can you do that for me?”

Despite her anger, she found herself unable to deny him. “Yes.”

There was a flash of relief, but it was quickly snuffed away by his mask of sincerity. “You have grown into a capable young witch. I have never been more honored to call myself your uncle.” He took a breath, “Which is why you are going to fulfill Lord Voldemort’s task.”

For a moment all she could do was gape at him. “Surely you’re joking?” she said, letting out a shrill laugh.

He shook his head, “Never about something so serious.”

“But I..I can’t,” she felt very real fear then. All along she had known instinctively that he would take care of this for her. Prevent this.

“I’m dying anyway,” he said softly. “This-” he jerked the blackened hand, “This will kill me by midsummer. It will be a gruesome, wasting death if I let it happen. You will be doing me a kindness, in addition to ensuring your spot at Voldemort’s side.”

“I don’t want to!” She cried. Meaning it with every fiber of her being.

His voice was grave, “Then you will take away the greatest shot the wizarding world has at defeating him.”

“The wizarding world has Harry!” she shot back. “The Wizarding world has you.”

But not for long. Her eyes fell on the blackened hand and she swallowed heavily. He was dying. He would be dead by midsummer anyway. He said it would be a kindness...

She shivered.

“Is your tea cold?” he asked. He picked up his wand and waved it over her cup until a little puff of steam popped up. “There. All better.”

“It’s not,” she said brokenly. Still, she took a sip of the tea to appease him. She felt him sizing her up, waiting for her to say anything else. Slowly, she dragged her eyes up to his gaze. How could anything so gentle be so piercing? He looked so sure, and so understanding. Like he always did. He had always had all the answers, hadn’t he?

And then it clicked.

“You knew he was going to ask me to do this, didn’t you?”

He smiled sadly, “I knew that if we were successful. If he truly believed you were on his side, that it was a great possibility.”  

She exhaled a long, shaky breath. “How do you know I won’t give myself over to him completely afterwards? You don’t just kill someone and then walk away unscathed!” Especially not family members.

His eyes continued to twinkle back at her, “I know you won’t.” he said simply.

It was over. She had the distinct feeling that she never had a choice to begin with, and it frustrated her endlessly.

“I’ll… I’ll do it.” She felt as if someone had scooped out her insides. Hollow and dusty.

“Thank you,” he said sincerely. “I will ask you to give me some more time, if you would be so kind. There’s more I need to do before I go.”

She let out a bark of a laugh, “I’m not in a hurry.”

“No, I suspect you’re not. There’s so much more we need to talk about. I would like it if we could strike up our weekly meetings again.”

“Yeah,” she said, suddenly needing air. “Yeah, anything you want.” She slid back her chair and stood. “I have to… I need-” The room seemed as if it was tilting on it’s axis. As if she was miles above her feet, watching them spin helplessly beneath her. “I can’t be here right now,” she whispered.

“I understand.” For the first time a flicker of sadness entered his eyes. “I’ll see you soon. How about Saturday?.”

 She nodded, and fled.



Chapter Text

The Black sisters were drunk.

Or at least two of them were. Narcissa and Andromeda shared the sofa in Andromeda’s home on the Muggle street. Their third bottle of elf made wine sat precariously on the edge of the coffee table. Three of the walls were made up of windows, which looked out on the darkened snowy street. The glass was foggy from the heat of the radiator, which spat and sizzled in the corner.

“I couldn’t even imagine,” Andromeda’s cheeks were rosy, her hair caught up in a loose knot at the back of her head, “if Nymphadora came home and said she was dating Bellatrix… well, I would probably check myself into St. Mungo’s. That or find our sister and kill her.”

“I was tempted to,” grumbled Narcissa, who sat cross legged on the blue velvet cushions. She had pulled her hair from it’s bun, and it flowed loose and golden over her shoulders. No grey dared to creep over her skull, not even given the enormous amount of stress she had been under lately. The sleeves of her robes had been buttoned up, and her wand lay beside her wineglass on the table. “I nearly cursed her into oblivion. But alas-” she made a face, “They are in love.”

“Because of the blood binding thingy?”

Narcissa snorted to hear it called that, “Probably.”

“Well.” Andromeda sat back, a struck look on her face. She had long ago switched her robes out for a pair of red and black flannel pajamas, and she wore thick, purple, woolen socks. She bounced a foot up and down as she thought.

Narcissa sighed, and reached for her glass. Swirling the crimson liquid, she said, “I don’t know how I’m going to tell Lucius. He loathes Bellatrix.” She refused to entertain the idea that Lucius might not be released from Azkaban. He had to be. For a moment she considered blurting that Hermione had been given her first task by the Dark Lord. She quickly stifled that thought with a drink from her wineglass.

“Don’t you loathe Bellatrix?”

The blonde grimaced, but was thankful for a distraction from her thoughts. “I want to. I don’t know what I hate more, the fact that she’s involved with my teenaged daughter, or the fact that I still love her.” She let out a frenzied giggle, “It would be so much easier if I could just hate her!”

Andromeda nodded sagely, sipping at her own glass. “Merlin,” she said suddenly. She sat up, her eyes wide.

“What? What?!”

“I just thought… Could you imagine dating a teenager?”

This prompted a round of giggles from both sisters.

“I really couldn’t!” Narcissa gasped, falling backwards so that her head rested on the arm of the sofa. “Oh Merlin, no! The drama!”

“The hysterics!”

“The angst!” Narcissa struggled to take a drink from her glass, and wiped away a rivulet of wine that headed down her cheek. “Speaking of which, Poor Draco has been mooning over some boy in his House. I had to take him to five different stores to find the right Christmas present for him. Five!”

“Did he ever tell you why he broke things off with Felix?”

She shook her head, “Not a word about it. He gets so upset whenever Felix is mentioned that I haven’t wanted to bring him up.”

“Hmm. That doesn’t get better, you know. I had to find out from Ted that Nymphadora is in love with that Lupin boy.”

It took Narcissa a moment to figure out who that was, and then she let out a gasp. “The werewolf?”

“We’re not allowed to call him that,” said the brunette with an arched brow. “If father had any idea that his granddaughter- though I suppose he wouldn’t much care, what with us being blown off the tapestry and all.”

“It would have been hilarious to see Aunt Walburga’s face,” prompted Narcissa, chuckling to herself at the idea. She gave her sister a sideways glance. “You know,” she said carefully- or, as carefully as one could be when they are slurring their words, “when this is all over I’m going to restore your branch to the family.”

Andromeda stilled. “Really?” her eyes had gone wide and glassy.

Nodding, Narcissa swirled her glass again, “I’ve been thinking about it for a while, and I think it’s time.”

“Even with a werewolf?”

Narcissa snorted. “Even with a werewolf.”

“Well, you’re going to have a hard time convincing Bellatrix.”

A sly smile crept over her face. “Oh, Bella owes me one. More than one, really. Especially if she makes it through the war unscathed.”

A funny look came over Andromeda. “Cissy, you don’t- you realize that Bellatrix is going straight back to Azkaban if we win, don’t you?”

“Of course I do!” but her heart clenched at the thought. As much as she sometimes loathed her eldest sister she didn’t want her to go back to that place.

She made a point not to think about the impact that would have on her daughter.

The front door opened, letting in a blast of cold air. “I’ve brought second dinner!” Ted’s cheery voice rang into the room.

“My husband is home!” cheered Andromeda, giggling as she rolled off the sofa and clambered to her feet. She rushed at the man and threw her arms around him, pecking him on the cheeks.

“When we told you we wanted second dinner I didn’t think you’d actually go out and fetch some,” said Narcissa, finishing off her drink. She managed to pour another glass without spilling anything.

He gave a little bow as he struggled to pull off his muggle coat. “Whatever my ladies ask for they shall receive!” He hung his coat up on a hook beside the door, next to Andromeda’s cloak, and took the bag from Andromeda. “Wait till you try this,” he pulled a white box from the bag and passed it to Narcissa, “it’s the best pad thai in the world!”

It was delicious, and Narcissa relished the feeling of sitting in a well-loved room, sharing a meal with her family. There was a certain lived-in feeling here that the Forest Cottage lacked.

She watched Ted tease her sister and felt a pang of longing for Lucius and their manor.

“Are you cold, Cissy?” Andromeda asked, noticing her shiver.

She shook her head, and forced a smile. “Merely tired.”

Andromeda threw back her head, “Noooooo!” on a woman half her age it would have been called whining. “You can’t be tired. Tired means going home!”

“Don’t listen to her,” said Ted good naturedly. “You’re welcome to come back whenever you’d like.”

She stifled a yawn, and thanked him.

“You can’t apparate drunk!” cried Andromeda, watching her pick up her wand.

“Relax Mum, I just don’t want to forget it.”

Ted was already at the fireplace with the pot of floo powder. His kind eyes met hers a little too knowingly. “You’re welcome to spend the night,” he whispered.

She shook her head. “Thanks, but I’d rather sleep in my own bed tonight.”

He nodded, and she threw a fistful of powder into the fire, crying out “Forest Cottage!”

Spe was spat out into the dark cottage. Not even an elf stirred as the wind howled against the windows. She walked to the nearest one and laid her flushed forehead against the cold glass. Outside, the trees shook and shivered, rustling angrily.

Her sister’s words about Bellatrix rang in her mind.

She didn’t want her sister to return to prison. That was certain. In spite of everything Bellatrix had done, she was still Narcissa’s sister.

Beyond that- from the outside there was nothing to distinguish Bellatrix from Lucius. At least, not in terms of the second war. She had nothing to prove that she and Lucius had been working with Dumbledore. If-Merlin forbid- something happened to Dumbledore no one would know that the Malfoys had been working for the Order.

Not that she had been completely on the Order’s side. However she certainly wasn’t a Death Eater. Surely that was good enough.

They needed something to safeguard them. Something to prove their participation against the Dark Lord…

She straightened abruptly and headed off to her room. She had a letter to write.

XX

Once again the castle was covered in fluffy pink and red hearts for Valentine’s Day. The younger students seemed more excitable than usual. The giggling was getting out of control, Hermione decided as she stalked towards the library.

She had just come from lunch with Uncle Albus. True to his word, he had been more open with her the past few weeks. Unfortunately, he still expected her to put the majority of the pieces together herself.

I’m not a Ravenclaw, she thought to herself sullenly.

That afternoon she had asked him about the task he had given Harry- to procure Slughorn’s intact memory, and he had stubbornly insisted that he could not tell her any more than he had already told Harry.

“I need to confirm that my suspicions are correct before I explain further,” he had said with that infuriating smile.

“But could you at least tell me what a Horcrux is?” she had tried.

On this he was still unyielding. For some reason it was important to him that Hermione find out after Harry learned what they were. She could not fathom why, after all she had demonstrated her ability to keep things to herself…

Though she was unwilling to admit it to herself, part of her bad mood stemmed from the fact that it was the Valentine’s Day Hogsmeade weekend, and instead of coming to visit her Bellatrix had been called away on an errand for the Dark Lord.

Stupid Dark Lord, she thought, kicking at a fallen heart. She felt a tug of satisfaction as she watched it skitter across the floor.

She had been in a terrible mood for the past few weeks. It was as if every little thing annoyed her. Even Bellatrix had become very careful when communicating with her. She huffed a little as she thought about the careful way Bellatrix has bidden her good night the day before. It wasn’t as if she wanted to be angry all the time. She couldn’t help it. It was as if her blood was always boiling beneath her skin, clawing at everything sweet and good she came across-

She was startled out of her thoughts as a first year Hufflepuff rounded the corner and knocked into her.

“Watch it!” she screeched, “You do have eyes, don’t you? Maybe you should learn to use them!”

The little Hufflepuff boy looked up at her in sheer terror, “S-s-s-sorry!” he shrieked, looking as if he was about to cry.

“Sorry doesn’t bring people back from the dead,” she spat.

“Miss Malfoy.”

It was the first time a Hufflepuff ever looked relieved to be in the same place as Professor Snape. He gave a squeak of thanks and disappeared in the same direction he had come from.

Her uncle glided around the same corner, his expression unreadable. “I wonder if you would have a word with me.”

She bristled, unable to keep the glare from her face, “I’m busy.” She was tired of speaking to people. Nothing productive seemed to come from it.

“Then I’m afraid it’s not a request.” He said, his voice deadly calm.

Her anger quelled to a simmer under the force of his gaze and she nodded. Silently, she followed him to the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom.

He closed the door behind her, and summoned a chair to place before his desk.

It was unusually drafty in his classroom, and she shivered as she took her seat. There were only a few candles lit around the room, and it made her feel smaller somehow.

His impassive mask slipped as he took his seat, and Professor Snape was replaced with Uncle Sev, who looked full of concern as he regarded the pale form in front of him. “Albus told me what he asked you to do,” he said slowly. “I want you to know that no one will force you to do anything. You can say no.”

She snorted, “I can’t. I can’t and you know it.”

“You can always say no.”

“Then I choose to say yes,” she crossed her arms over her chest, “Uncle Albus says it will be for the greater good if I do. What’s more noble than that? Shouldn’t I embrace what little Gryffindor there is in me?” Her words sounded forced and sarcastic, but she didn’t know how else to say them.

He sighed. “If you insist on following through with Albus’ plan then at least allow me to remind you that I am here for you.”

She said nothing, but only continued to glare at him.

“Hermione, please,” he sounded dangerously close to pleading. “You are dealing with a lot right now. No one would expect a seventeen year old girl to handle being asked to kill their uncle. It’s perfectly acceptable-”

“Is that all you think it is?” she asked hotly, sitting up straighter in her chair. “My father is in prison. Everyone I love is either under the control of the Dark Lord, or a target of the Dark Lord. I’m not allowed to make my own decisions. Did you know that? I have to stay this perfect little doll for the Dark Lord, and still be the devoted niece who champions the greater good! No one ever asked me what I want! No one ever bothered to ask if I care that my own brother is going to hate me after I kill our uncle. Because he is! He’s going to…”

She didn’t even notice that her cheeks were wet until he passed a green linen handkerchief to her, his mouth in a hard line.

“It’s a hard thing,” he said at last,”to feel trapped.”

Trapped. It was the perfect word for how she felt, and she looked up at him sharply.

She twisted the handkerchief in her hands. “Did you know that he asked the Sorting Hat to put me in Gryffindor?” she asked, her voice thick.

Surprise shone in his black eyes. “I did not.”

She nodded. “And the worst part is that I can’t even hate him for it,” she said, dabbing at her eyes again. “Because he’s going to die soon. I can’t even be mad at him!”

“You can,” he said severely. “You can absolutely be mad at him.” He was leaning over the desk, his fists tight on the wooden surface. “He doesn’t get a free pass just because he’s asked the impossible of you.”

She was crying harder then. She buried her face in the handkerchief and sobbed, barely aware of the scrape of his chair against the stone floor.

A shuffle of drawers, and then a crystalline plink, and a moment later a vial was being pressed into her hand.

“Wh-what’s-”

“Calming drought,” he said gently. The tone he always used whenever she cried. “I suggest you drink it, and when we’re done here perhaps you could take a walk. The fresh air will do you some good.”

She drank the cool liquid down, barely registering it’s taste, and passed the vial back to him.

He waited for her breathing to slow, rubbing soothing circles on her shoulder.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered when the tears had finally stopped.

He stood, “There is nothing to apologize for,” he said seriously as he returned to his seat. “But I’m serious, I think you should call that elf of your and have her bring Turnip, then take him for a long walk. It will do you good to get out of the castle.”

She blinked in surprise. Then felt a sliver of guilt. She had almost forgotten Winky. She had certainly forgotten confessing to him that she now owned Winky. She had never gotten over the prickling discomfort of owning another sentient being, however, and it was this that she clung onto in that moment. When everything else about her seemed to be slipping away at least she had this one thing.

She called for Winky, and the elf happily brought Turnip, his leash, and Hermione’s best cloak.

“Winky is happy to help!” the elf crowed delightedly before disappearing with a crack.

“Please remember that I am here for you,” he said as he watched her fasten her cloak around herself. “My loyalties are to you and Draco first and foremost.”

For the first time in weeks she smiled. “Oh Uncle Sev,” she rounded the desk and threw her arms around him, kissing him on the cheek. “I don’t know what I’d do without you!”

For a moment she could have sworn he was blushing, but it must have been a trick of her eye.

“Off you go then,” he said gently. “And no more terrorizing little Hufflepuff’s,” he added, “That’s my job.”

Turnip, who wore navy fur that day, gave an excited yip as she picked up his leash. “Love you, Uncle Sev,” she said, feeling lighter than she had been earlier.

He smiled and nodded, “You too.”

Knowing that was the best she ever got she flashed him another smile, and then made her way out of the castle.

The snow had mostly melted, and she let Turnip lead her towards Hagrid’s hut. The half-giant was in his garden, wrestling with something in a crate a half-head taller than Hermione. A broad grin stretched over his face when he spotted her and he waved cheerily with a bandaged hand.

“Takin’ Turnip out?” he called.

She nodded, and found her smile easier to force than usual, “That’s right!” she called back.

“Keep an eye out then, there may be unicorn foals about!”

She promised she would, and shook her head in quiet bemusement as Turnip led her closer to the edge of the forest. Unicorns were far too smart to bring their foals this close to the school, but that didn’t stop Hagrid from suggesting she keep an eye out for them every year.

Turnip’s black coat was lightening to a dark grey, and the faintest smudge of sky blue could be seen at the edges of his ears and nose as he looked back at her and flashed a doggy grin. They had reached the edge of the forest, and they ambled along the edge, Turnip snuffling along the undergrowth, and Hermione lost in thought.

She didn’t notice when he stopped dead in his tracks until she tripped over him. In a clumsy heap she fell to the ground, her knees burning as she looked around at him.

“Turnip?”

He let out an inquisitive bark, his eyes peering deep into the forest. His little stub tail wagged furiously.

She got to her feet quickly, baffled at his behavior. For years they had walked the edge of the forest without him taking any notice, but here he was, whining and pulling at his leash, trying to tug her into the forest.

There was a quick internal debate, and she looked cautiously around to see if anyone could see her. There was no one. Slowly she slid her wand from her sleeve and eased her resistance on the leash.

The wubble tugged her a few yards into the cover of the forest and stopped as a dark shape came hurtling through the underbrush.

Hermione tensed, the incantation for the stunning spell springing to her lips before she recognized the black dog in front of her.

“Bella?” she asked wonderingly.

But the dog was already transforming into the beautiful witch. She was dressed in black robes and a soft grey cloak, her hair pulled back in a ponytail that cascaded down her back, and her eyes crinkled playfully as she closed the distance between them and kissed Hermione soundly.

“You didn’t think I’d miss Valentine’s Day, did you?” she teased, her cool fingers playing with the fine hairs at the base of Hermione’s neck. The younger witch shivered.

“You told me you would.” She tried to sound haughty, but the words came out breathless and soft. Her fingers tugged at the collar of Bellatrix’s cloak-pulling the other witch close enough for their forehead’s to rest against each other. Still, she didn’t let go.

Bellatrix’s voice was equally soft, “I’ve missed you.”

For the second time that day Hermione found herself crying. Her tears fell in dark spatters against the wool of Bellatrix’s cloak.

“Hermione? Oh, Dove, what’s the matter? Was the surprise too much?” The other witch cursed slightly under her breath, “I knew I should have told you I was coming from the start. I just didn’t know if I would finish my task on time-”

“It’s not that,” said Hermione in watery tones.

“Oh.” Silence. “Then what is it?”

“Everything.” The words came out in a hoarse whisper. She let out a squeak at the blast of cold against her face as Bellatrix pulled away, but the dark witch pulled her to a cluster of boulders and cast a series of warming spells on the stone, then hoisted Hermione up onto one, pulling herself up after. Turnip found a good stick and curled up at the base of their boulder, chewing contentedly.

She wrapped her arms around Hermione, and rested her chin against her shoulder. “Tell me about it,” she said softly.

So Hermione did.

She told her everything she had told Severus, and then more. She cried about her task, and whispered her fears about her father-

“You had me, Bella, but Papa… what if he’s not as strong as you? Draco said that Ernie’s Uncle was only in for six months and he lost his mind. What if Papa…”

For the most part, Bellatrix was quiet save for a sympathetic noise every here and there. That was until Hermione confessed that she didn’t know what to do about Seamus.

“Tell him you’re taken,” Bellatrix whispered defiantly, snorting at Hermione’s retelling of his most recent attempt to ask her out. “A good Gryffindor will leave you alone after that.” She pressed her palm against Hermione’s, twining their fingers together.

“And Uncle Albus keeps cheerfully referring to his impending death like it’s a tea party he’s looking forward to,” Hermione said darkly. “I think he thinks talking about it will make it easier. But it doesn’t. And he still treats me like a child! He won’t even tell me what a horcrux is.”

Bellatrix stiffened. “Where did you hear that word?”

Hermione’s brow furrowed, “It’s the project Uncle Albus has Harry working on. Some sort of memory from when the Dark Lord was younger,” she said, twisting to face the other witch. Her stomach twisted as she noticed how white Bellatrix had become. “Bella, what’s wrong?”

“Dumbledore thinks that the Dark Lord has made one?” Bellatrix demanded, her eyes searching Hermione’s.

The brunette shook her head, “I don’t know,” she whispered, licking her lips. “No one will tell me until Harry gets an uncorrupted memory or something. Why? Bella, what’s a horcrux?”

But Bellatrix was lost in thought, her eyes flicked back and forth on something in the distance.

Hermione took a deep breath and reached out with her mind, gasping at the images of the Dark Lord that crossed through her mind. Horrible images of him… doing things to helpless witches and wizards, some of them younger than Hermione. She could also feel Bellatrix’s horror and confusion. There were snatches of thoughts as Bellatrix tried to justify his actions.

Bella, what’s this? She didn’t have to tell the other witch that she was scared. Bellatrix’s arms tightened around her, pulling her back into her chest. But Hermione didn’t feel like the gesture was meant to comfort her as much as it was meant to comfort the older witch.

“Memories.”

A cold high laugh- his laugh- vibrated through her mind, setting her hair on edge.

“I always wondered how he was able to… how he could do things that even I thought crossed a line. If he’s made a horcrux it makes sense…”

Hermione nearly growled out in frustration. “But what is a horcrux?” she snapped.

The memories faded abruptly. “A horcrux is an object that houses a piece of your soul,” said Bellatrix, her voice shaken.

Hermione frowned. That sounded weird, certainly, but nothing to make Bellatrix seem so freaked out.

Reading her thoughts, Bellatrix shook her head. “No, Doveling. In order to move your soul you must first split it. You have to do something so terrible that it breaks your soul in two. It’s very old, very dark magic.”

“But why would anyone do that?” Hermione shivered, despite the numerous warming charms that fended off the chill.

Bellatrix blew out a long breath. “That’s how he survived that night,” she said wonderingly to herself. Then, as if she realized Hermione was waiting for an answer, she continued. “It’s supposed to give you immortality. Or at least, a form of it. Your soul survives for as long as the object that hold it does. If it’s in a magical body you might get two hundred- two hundred fifty years. If it’s in a rock it could last forever.”

Hermione’s stomach dropped as something occurred to her. “Am I a horcrux?” she whispered.

“What? No!” Bellatrix shook her head fervently, “Not at all, Doveling. How could you even think-”

“Our bond-”

“Is the work of blood magic,” said Bellatrix, a little sharply. “It’s just as old, but not nearly as dark. Nothing you do could be dark,” she added, pressing a fierce kiss to Hermione’s curls.

Not yet, thought Hermione, and Bellatrix’s hold tightened as they both thought of her upcoming task.

“You’ll get through this,” Bellatrix promised. “I won’t let anything happen to you.”

Hermione closed her eyes, unable to relax. As much as she wanted to believe Bellatrix, she knew that in this case there was little the older witch could do to protect her. Oh, she would survive killing her Uncle. She knew that much.

But would her soul?

Chapter Text

The days blurred by in a rush of secret meetings and lessons. Before long, the Easter Holidays were upon them. The Forest Cottage was as lovely as ever, and Hermione found herself resenting it a tad less as she joined her family in a sunroom that definitely hadn’t been there the last time.

Like the manor’s sunroom, it overlooked the (comparably tiny) garden, the back gate separating the manicured cottage from the lush forest beyond.

“I thought we’d spend the afternoon in London,” Narcissa said to Draco as the brunette entered the room. “There’s a new tailor I want to try. It’s time you got some more appropriate robes. You won’t be a schoolboy forever.”

Hermione kissed her mother’s cheek in greeting, and ruffled Draco’s hair as she took the seat beside him.

“Hermione is going to be bored if we spend all afternoon at the tailor,” Draco commented, passing a plate of sausages to his sister.

“I actually have a…” she didn’t actually know what her plans were for the day, but she knew she would be spending them with Bellatrix, “previous engagement.”

Her mother looked at her sharply, “I agreed to let you go for the entire day, but Bellatrix knows to bring you home this evening. If you are not home by ten I will not be happy.”

“I know.” It accidentally came out as a grumble.

Her mother narrowed her eyes warningly, “Hermione Narcissa, I will not bend on this.”

“I’ll be home by ten,” Hermione said quickly, spearing two sausages and smiling as her brother tipped two fried eggs onto her plate. Her mother nodded in satisfaction and relaxed.

For once, Draco’s expression did not darken at the mention of his eldest aunt. Instead, he looked curiously at her. “What are you going to be doing all day?” He slipped a piece of sausage to Turnip, who was sitting attentively just underneath the tablecloth.

“Advanced transfiguration,” she said cheerily, accepting toast from her mother, and selecting a handful of grapes from the fruit bowl. “Bellatrix wants to work on my hiding skills.”

From the look on her face, Narcissa knew exactly what the day entailed. She kept her daughter’s gaze as she took a sip of her tea.

“That sounds cool,” said Draco evenly.

The sound of chimes filled the room, and the two teenagers looked up at their mother in surprise.

“I added that charm while you were at school,” she said, dabbing at her mouth with a napkin and standing. “It must be Bellatrix.”

“She can get through the wards now?” Draco asked Hermione, who shrugged.

“Apparently.” She was curious about that, and a strangled hope fluttered in her chest. If her mother was taking steps to accept Bellatrix again…

There was the sound of hushed voices in the hallway, and then Narcissa returned with the dark witch in tow.

“Good morning doveling!” she cried gaily over the sound of Turnip’s excited yips. The wubble tripped over himself in excitement as he ran to greet the witch, and she happily scratched behind one ear. A moment later she straightened, taking a seat directly across from Draco. “Draco,” she flashed the boy a grin, “How’s school?”

To Hermione’s surprise, Draco did not react negatively to her presence. He did not smile back, but he didn’t scowl at her either. Instead, he answered levelly, “It’s going well.”

Narcissa reclaimed her seat, and conjured a plate and teacup for Bellatrix. “Draco’s top of his class in charms,” she said fondly.

“Only because Hermione refuses to do the extra credit,” he snorted. He elbowed his sister in the ribs, and she shot him an affectionate glare.

“I’ve been busy,” she said, aware that Bellatrix was watching her closely. “I’m top of my class in everything else anyway,” she added, shaking her head as he burst into laughter.

“There she is! I was worried something had happened to my sister.” He stabbed a piece of sausage on his fork and took a triumphant bite.

Narcissa spared them both an indulgent smile as she poured tea into Bellatrix’s cup. “Hermione says you’re going to practice Transfiguration.” She arched a perfectly manicured eyebrow. “I hope I don’t have to stress to you how displeased I will be if my daughter returns home in pieces?”

“Mother!” Hermione squeaked. “I’m not going to return in pieces.”

“We’ve been preparing for months,” Bellatrix waved off her sister’s concerns with a smile, and winked at Hermione. “Nothing will happen to your precious daughter.”

“That had better be the case.” To Hermione she said, “Have a little more, darling. I don’t want you to get hungry while you’re practicing.”

Bellatrix rolled her eyes, “I have food, Cissy.”

Humming noncommittally, Narcissa tipped some more fruit onto Hermione’s place and refilled her teacup.

Hermione felt a blush spread over her cheeks at being treated like a child in front of Bellatrix, but she knew better than to argue with her mother.

“Where do you go for Hermione’s lessons?” Draco asked his aunt. He twirled his fork in his fingers, and it was a testament to how relaxed their mother was at the Forest Cottage that he was not reprimanded.

She paused, considering him for a moment. “We practice at my hunting lodge,” she said slowly, as if making up her mind right then and there to trust him. “It’s a favorite residence of mine. There’s plenty of room to maneuver.”

“Is it in Britain?” he pressed.  

“No, France. It was a wedding gift from the Rosier side of the family.”

This seemed to satisfy him, and he shared a look with his mother.

Catching this, Hermione narrowed her eyes, “Why are you so interested, Draco?”

He shrugged, “I want to make sure that you are outside of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement’s jurisdiction. It would be a pity if you were arrested for practicing Transfiguration, dear sister.” He flashed her one of his adorable grins, and she felt her brows knit together.

“No one is going to be arrested,” said Bellatrix hastily, as if afraid that Narcissa was going to change her mind. “The lodge is unplottable, and no one- not even magical folk- can get beyond my wards.”

Draco shrugged, as if he wasn’t bothered either way, and polished off his breakfast. Hermione wanted nothing more than to kick him.

Luckily, their mother just hummed, and took another sip of her tea.

Hermione finished her breakfast as fast as she was able to without breaking one of her mother’s table rules and hurriedly fetched her wand and her spring cloak.

“Remind me to get her a new cloak,” Narcissa said idly to Draco when Hermione returned. “This one is starting to look shabby.”

Bellatrix rolled her eyes, “No one but you would call it that, Cissy.”

“Anyone with eyes would, Bella dear.”

Hermione shared a look with her brother, who looked as amused as she felt. The cloak was impeccable, of course. It was two years old, and so the spring green of it was not as shiny as it had been when it was first brought home, but she had spent enough time around the Weasley and Professor Lupin to know that it was still a much better quality than most.

“At least she won’t be in public,” Narcissa sighed, standing to hug her daughter. She had been more affectionate since Lucius had been sent to Azkaban. “What color would you like, green again?”

“Surprise me,” Hermione grinned as she stopped to say goodbye to Turnip, and then, with a wave to her brother, they were at the door.

“Oh- and Bellatrix-” her mother called out just as Bellatrix turned the handle.

The dark witch looked up, her eyes sparkling with amusement, “I’ll have her home by ten, Cissy, don’t worry!”

“See that you do!”

Hermione grabbed her hand and pulled her outside before another word could be spoken. “When did that happen?” she asked quietly as she led Bellatrix down to the apparation point by the gate.

“When did what happen?”

Giving her a pointed look, she elaborated, “You’re not barred from the Forest Cottage anymore.”

With an extremely smug smile, Bellatrx wrapped an arm around Hermione’s shoulders, “I guess her sense of family duty finally won out.”

It could not be that simple, but Hermione was willing to drop it for the moment.

XX

It was the strangest feeling in the world, becoming an animagus.

A cool, tingling sensation, like being washed with peppermint water, spread all over her skin, seeping in and making her bones quiver and bend in shape. It seemed to happen in slow motion. She shrank, her skin sprouting fur as her body shifted and rearranged itself. It could not be called painful, but nor was it pleasant. She felt a grinding sensation in her joints, and a popping sensation in her spine.

Then, just as quickly as it had started it was over, and she was looking up into Bellatrix’s beaming face. They were in Bellatrix’s bedroom, standing before the full-length mirror that Bellatrix had leaned against her wardrobe. Hermione could hear the steady tha-thump of Bellatrix’s pulse, and her ears pricked as she picked up the tiny tha-thump-tha-thump-tha-thump that came from the cage on Bellatrix’s desk. She looked around, towards the mysterious creature, and then looked back at Bellatrix’s laugh.

Well? Is it everything you hoped for?

“Better than,” Bellatrix moved aside so that Hermione could get closer to the mirror. “See for yourself .”

On slightly unsteady legs, Hermione moved forward. A russet face looked back at her, with shining brown eyes and glossy black ears. A bushy tail swing behind her, and she looked back over her shoulder to admire it. I’m a fox.

“It’s perfect, isn’t it? ” Bellatrix laughed again. “I was hoping you’d be something that blends in well. Walk around! Get used to your legs. It’s a little disorienting at first.”

It really was. She was reminded of the rowboat she and Draco used to take out on the pond at Malfoy Manor. The ground lurched and churned under her as she walked a loose circle around Bellatrix.

She must have looked silly, because Bellatrix’s laugh was a tad more sympathetic, “It helps if you focus on something. Maybe pick something to walk to?”

She settled immediately on the tiny heartbeat coming from the wire birdcage on the desk. Tripping a bit over her feet, she moved closer, noting how the plush carpet turned to smooth wooden floorboards under her feet.

Bellatrix moved to sit on the bed as she watched Hermione sniff around the chair and desk legs.

With a leap that was easier than she thought it would be, Hermione was on the chair. There was a moment of careful maneuvering to face the correct way, and then she planted her front paws on the parchment-littered desk and peered into the cage.

The first thing that hit her was a burning scent that it took her a moment to identify as dust. Her delicate nose twitched, and she let out a little sneeze that made the fluffy creature skitter to the back of the cage.

It was grey, with large round ears and wary eyes. A bristly tail hooked over it’s back, and it sat back on it’s hind legs to regard Hermione. A slim paw wiped across it’s nose.

“That’s Dust Mouse,” Bellatrix said in a low voice from the bed.

Hermione had never seen anything like it in her life, She’s a mouse?

“Rab says she’s a chinchilla. Apparently they live in South America.”

Where did you get her?

For some reason, this question amused Bellatrix highly. If Hermione had been in her human form she would have smiled from the weight of Bellatrix’s mirth.

“I found her right after I was freed.”

There was more to it than that, but as Hermione looked into the grave eyes of the little creature, she decided that she’d rather not know. She gave the creature one last look, and jumped down.

“Try changing back. Just picture your human form in your mind and concentrate.”

Hermione took a deep breath, and did as she was told. This time, her bones steadily grew hotter and hotter, until she thought she could not take it anymore. Then, with a popping sensation she was herself again.

“Ergh!” She blinked a few times and shook herself. Her skin crawled uncomfortably for a few moments after the fur had receded. “Does that feeling ever go away?”

“You get used to it,” there was a teasing note in Bellatrix’s voice, and she stepped forward to wrap an arm around Hermione’s waist. There was something serious shrouding her though. She could feel it in the way Bellatrix held her tightly.

“Bella?” Hermione turned in her arms to face her. “Bella, what’s wrong?”

The older witch tried to play it off with one of her dazzling smiles. “Wrong, doveling? Who says anything is wrong?” She tried to kiss her, but Hermione pulled away.

“You can’t lie to me, Bellatrix. I know . I can feel it.”

There was a heavy sigh, and Bellatrix reached to cup Hermione’s face in both of her hands. “Please let it go, Doveling,” she pleaded, her voice losing all of it’s playful quality. “I can’t… I don’t want to spoil it. Can’t we just have our perfect day? Please?” Her voice shook a little as it dropped to a whisper, “Just for today?”

She looked into Hermione’s eyes, and the brunette sucked in a gasp at the raw vulnerability she saw there.

“Of course,” she breathed, moving closer so that their bodies were flush against each other. She reached up and caught Bellatrix’s hands, tangling their fingers together. “I won’t make you do anything,” she promised, kissing the older witch gently.

Bellatrix pulled her backwards, until they fell onto the bed in a mess of wandering hands and hot, fervent kissing.

“This wasn’t part of the plan,” moaned Bellatrix as Hermione fumbled with the buttons on her robe.

Hermione smirked, “Funny, it was always part of mine.” She squeezed one of Bellatrix’s breasts, tugging her bra down so that she could press hot, open mouthed kisses to the hardened nub she found there.

Bellatrix hissed, arching into the brunette as she sucked her nipple into her mouth. Her fingers clutched distractedly at the cloth of Hermione’s still-buttoned robe, tugging sporadically.

Hermione’s smirk grew as she felt Bellatrix’s arousal hit her. “Did you want something?” she whispered wickedly, her hand trailed down the gentle curve of Bellatrix’s belly, and letting it rest lightly atop the knickers she found at the apex of her thighs. She tapped a single finger and chuckled when Bellatrix jumped. She had learned over the holidays that she liked teasing Bellatrix. She liked it a lot.

“Don’t tease me,” Bellatrix growled, her forehead was damp, and several fine curls clung to it.

Hermione tapped her finger again, making Bellatrix keen, “But it’s so fun,” she whispered, feeling her own skin flush in the cool air.

There was a pulse of magic, and Hermione’s jaw dropped open as she found herself completely naked atop the dark witch.

Was that wandless magic?

“Don’t overthink it ,” Bellatrix let out a high whine and reached down in frustration to wiggle out of her underwear. She flung them across the room, her bra following shortly afterward, and reached up to tangle her fingers through Hermione’s curly mane. “I need you to-” she broke off as Hermione’s fingers stroked gently, teasingly between her legs. “Ooooh, yes.”

“Need me to what, Bella?”

The dark witch parted her legs, but Hermione kept up the gentle stroking on the outer lips. Her fingertips slowly lightened their pressure, until they were barely grazing the sensitive skin.

“Nooo,” Bellatrix groaned, throwing her head back. Her cheeks burned bright red, and her pupils were blown. “Merlin, Doveling, please! Just fuck me already!”

Grinning in satisfaction, Hermione moved so that she was straddling one of Bellatrix’s thighs, and lowered herself to kiss Bellatrix’s burning forehead, “All you had to do was ask,” she whispered, thrusting two fingers as deep as they could go inside Bellatrix.

“Yessss!” Bellatrix panted, pressing her face up into the crook of Hermione’s neck as the brunette stroked up a steady rhythm.

Hermione bit her lip as she felt tension coil deliciously in her lower abdomen. “Is this ok, Bella?” When she received no answer she slowed her hand, beginning to second guess herself.

Dark eyes flew open, as Bellatrix pulled back to glare at her. “Don’t you dare stop!” Her own hips began to jerk, trying to fall back into the rhythm that Hermione started.

With a laugh, Hermione began her ministrations again, and she was rewarded with the sight of Bellatrix falling back against the pillows, her head thrown back in ecstasy. “Hermione!” it was more of a gasp than a shout.

It was amazing to watch the witch she loved fall apart in her arms. It made Hermione feel older, somehow. Protective. She quickened her strokes, feeling the slick heat tighten around her fingers. She added another, and felt herself twitch in response to Bellatrix’s moans. Slowly, she began rocking against the thigh she straddled, gasping as the friction built.

“My Bella,” she whispered, her soft voice at odds with her rough thrusts. She swept her thumb over Bellatrix’s clit, and then again and again, relishing the way the older witch wiggled and jerked with each pass.

Eyes dark enough to be called black flew open, fastened on her. “Yours,” Bellatrix gasped.

“Only mine?” Hermione asked. She didn’t know where the question came from, she had told herself she wouldn’t make Bellatrix do this over and over again-

“Only yours,” Bellatrix swore, clinging to Hermione. “Doveling, please. I’m so close!”

The time for teasing had passed. Hermione’s fingers sped up, and in a fluid motion she moved herself down between Bellatrix’s legs so that she could capture her clit between her lips. Her tongue moved like it had a life of it’s own, pressing and swirling as Bellatrix bucked and shouted her release.

“Dove!”

Hermione kept going as Bellatrix shook, gently easing up until she was pressing tender kisses to the oversensitive flesh.

“My Bella,” she cooed between kisses, her mouth moving to her belly as Bellatrix finally stilled. She kissed her way up her lover’s body, taking the witch in her arms. “My Bella.”

Bellatrix panted, exhausted as she lay her head over Hermione’s breast and sighed.

“Wh-where did you learn how to do that ?”

Smirking, Hermione rested her chin on Bellatrix’s curls, “Books.”

“I don’t recall coming across anything like that when I was at Hogwarts.”

“Not from Hogwarts, I had to order them. But there’s a whole market for them if you know where to look.”

Bellatrix chuckled, “Well, I’m grateful.” She let out a contented sigh and relaxed fully in Hermione’s arms.

For a few blissful moments the only sound was Dust Mouse scratching around in her cage. Then Bellatrix’s fingers began their slow descent south.

“Now, Doveling,” she said, her breath hot against Hermione’s cooling skin, “I think it’s my turn…”

As Bellatrix promised, it was the perfect day. When they were done in the bedroom they took to the woods in their animagus forms, Hermione’s steps becoming more sure and steady as she raced through the trees. Their “training” was more like playing as they leapt out at each other, taking turns tracking the other. Bellatrix was stronger in her dog form, but Hermione was faster, and she thoroughly enjoyed popping up and surprising the other witch. It was a blissful afternoon.

They returned to the lodge dirty and tired, but utterly happy just as the sun was beginning to dip below the roof.

“You’re just in time!” Rabastan sang out to them as they trudged through the kitchen entrance. He stood next to a lanky elf at the stove, “Dinner should be ready in an hour!” He made a shoo-ing motion with his hands, “Go clean up!” His overly large red and white checkered apron flapped in the breeze from the open door as he bustled around the stove.

The elf wrung its hands as Bellatrix swooped over and pulled the lid off the nearest pot.

“Noooooo!” cried Rabastan, reminding Hermione once again that though his body was much older than hers, his mind was not. He grabbed the lid and slammed it back down on the pot, glowering at his cackling sister-in-law. “You smell terrible,” he said snippily.

Bellatrix made a show of throwing her arms around him, and he let out an indignant squawk.

Watching them made Hermione miss Draco. She stood by the doorway, looking on as Bellatrix planted a sloppy kiss on his cheek and then leap away.

“Why can’t you be more respectful?” groused Rabastan, scrubbing angrily at his cheek. Underneath his apron were dress robes that would have been the height of fashion a century earlier.

Bellatrix hummed happily as she returned to Hermione. “It’s in my blood, I suppose. Come on,” she said, gripping Hermione’s hand and pulling her towards the staircase, “I’ll show you the guest room.”

“Why?” asked Hermione curiously.

“We’re playing pretend tonight, it seems. Can’t have you going to dinner dressed like a common Weasley, can I?” There was a playful sparkle in Bellatrix’s dark eyes as she peered down at the younger witch from the step above. “No,” she said softly, running her thumb down the curve of Hermione’s cheek, “can’t have that at all.”

The moment was ruined by the pop of an elf, and a high squeaky voice said, “Master Lestrange wishes Brickle to inform you that he has picked out the outfits for tonight. They have been laid out on the bed of your respective rooms.”

“I don’t have a room,” Hermione informed it, and felt guilty as the little creature squirmed uncomfortably. It seized the fabric of the pillowcase it wore and tightened it around the neck.

“Brickle forgot to tell Miss Malfoy- that the spare room in the east hall-” it’s lips were beginning to turn a nasty blue, “is from now on, Miss Malfoy’s. Bricken is very sorry, he is-”

“Oh, Bella!” cried Hermione, “Stop him!”

Bellatrix regarded the pathetic scene in front of her, and let out a long suffering sigh. "Fine. Elf! Stop that at once!"

It was like watching the strings of a puppet be cut. He relaxed at once, color flooding into his pale skin. "Thank...you Mistress...Lestrange!" he gasped, wiping a shaky hand over his face. "Bricken is very sorry! So very sorry."

Disregarding this, Bellatrix commanded in a bored expression, "From now on, whenever Miss Malfoy is present you are to act as her own personal elf. Obey all her orders as you would mine, and attend to her every need as you would my own. Is that clear?"

The elf straightened, and nodded immediately, "Yes Mistress! Bricken will do just that!"

"I already have an elf, Bella," protested Hermione lightly. Inwardly she thought that maybe it was time to start showing off Winky more. A young lady with a personal elf of her own made an impression...

But Bellatrix was not to be dissuaded. "Not one that knows the Lodge," she insisted. "And it never hurts to have two." To Bricken, she barked, "Go draw a bath immediately!"

The elf flinched, and disappeared with another pop .

“Come,” Bellatrix ordered, grabbing her hand and pulling her up the steps. “I’ll show you where your room is. Rab and I thought you should have a place of your own now, since I’m hoping we’ll see a lot more of you after you’re done at Hogwarts.” She gave her a suggestive glance, and for some reason Hermione felt her cheeks burn.

“It’s right next to mine,” Bellatrix continued, pulling her down the darkened hall. “I’ve never permitted anyone to actually sleep there before you. Ah! Here it is-”

She pushed open the door, and Hermione stepped inside, glancing curiously around. It was large, nearly as large as Bellatrix’s own. Unlike Bellatrix’s dark room, however, this one was bright and opulent. The furniture- from the screen that separated the clawfoot bathtub to the sofa-was gilded the walls were lines in tapestries of ruby silk. The gold-and-red color scheme carried over to the bed, which was so pristine that Hermione wondered if anyone was ever meant to sleep in it.

She shook herself a little at that thought. Of course she was meant to sleep in it, she was a Malfoy! Her mother’s room was at least as grandiose as the one she was in.

True to his word, Rabastan had laid out a beautiful green and silver striped dress that looked as if it had been plucked from the Victorian era.

“Where does he come up with these things?” sighed Bellatrix in mock bewilderment. She squeezed Hermione’s arm, “I’ll leave you to it, Dove. I’ve got half an inch of muck to scrub off, no thanks to you!”

“You should have been faster!” Hermione shot back.  

In a show of maturity, Bellatrix stuck out her tongue and pulled the door closed.

The spearmint scented water was just what Hermione needed after her day of running about in a foreign body. The warm water seeped into her muscles, easing away the aches and pains.

She was not allowed to rest too long, however, as the elf apparently had a schedule to keep. She was wrapped in a silk dressing gown as the elf painstakingly styled her hair into an elegant updo. With gentle hands, Bricken applied makeup. Before the dress could go on there were petticoats and and a corset, and Hermione gasped aloud as the strings were pulled tight. Finally, she was buttoned into the dress, and Bricken gave her a quivering smile.

“Mistress Malfoy looks very pretty,” he chirped.

She did. Regarding herself in the full-length mirror she decided that however strange and outdated, Rabastan’ tastes were good. She looked very grown up in her striped gown. Her hair curled alluringly around her face, her eyes were dark, and the thick lashes made them stand out over her pretty nose and curved lips. She gave her reflection a slow smile, and felt a thrill of satisfaction.  

“It is almost dinner time,” said Bricken haltingly.

Hermione stepped into the heeled shoes that Rabastan had slid beneath the bed, and made her way down to the dining room.

Rabastan, his hair slicked back, stood as she entered. “Beautiful!” He said appreciatively. “I knew that would suit you. It’s been a favorite of mine since I was a boy. My grandmother kept all of her mother’s dresses and things, and she used to make them parade around the room for me.” His eyes gazed dreamily at a spot on the wall.

“You picked the right one,” she said gently. “How did you know green and silver are my favorite colors?”

He blinked, and looked at her, his smile making dimples appear in his cheeks. “Why, Bellatrix has told me all about you. She can’t seem to stop talking about you, you know? I think she’s fairly possessed.”

“The word you’re looking for is obsessed,” said a cool voice from the doorway.

Without looking away from her, Rabastan shook his head. “I don’t think so.”

Hermione looked up, and felt her breath catch in her throat.  

Bellatrix was clad in white, her neckline significantly deeper than Hermione’s. Her hair was pulled into a knot at the base of her skull, and pins with star-shaped diamonds dotted her hair.

With catlike elegance she took the seat opposite Hermione, with Rabastan between them.

You look wonderful , thought Hermione, her eyes drinking the other witch in.

She was rewarded with a smirk. Heat pooled low in Hermione’s belly, and she began to plan what she would do with their remaining time after dinner.

Their meal was goose glazed in an orange sauce, with brussels sprouts, potatoes, and four kinds of elf-made wine.

“You don’t need to drink it all, my lady,” said Rabastan as he poured her four tiny glasses. “My mother used to give hers to the kneazle.”

They spent a merry dinner talking about redecorating the Lodge, Vercingetorix’s new friendship with the local deer, and what plants Rabastan was going to grow in the garden.

“Roses, of course,” he said happily as Bricken brought out a cake, “And peonies, and violets!”

Bellatrix watched him fondly as she swallowed the last of her wine, and winked at Hermione. “No Devil’s Snare?”

“Of course not!” he said indignantly as he snatched the knife from the shaking elf and began to carve out impossibly large slices of the chocolate cake. “We can’t have Devil’s Snare in the garden, have you lost your- oh!”

The knife clattered to the ground as he seized his arm.

“Rab?” Hermione asked in concern, rising from her chair. She felt Bellatrix’s distress, but it took her a moment to realize that the older witch had also grasped her arm.

“No…” Rab moaned, “He hasn’t called me since the first-”

Bellatrix cut in, “I know.” She gave Hermione a pained look, “But he knows that we have Hermione tonight, which must mean that he wants to see her.”

Fat tears were rolling down Rabastan’s’ cheeks, and he shook his head. “I can’t Bells, I can’t!”

“You have to!” Bellatrix reached out and grasped his hand. “Be strong now, Rab. For me. Can you do it?”  

He stared at her for a long moment, and then slowly nodded.

Bellatrix breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank Merlin,” she said, getting up. To Hermione, “I’ll side apparate you. It will be the fastest way.”

“Shouldn’t I change?”

The dark witch shook her head, “We’ve taken too long already.”

With a last sob, Rabastan spun on his heel and disappeared.

Looking at her closely, the older witch offered a hand, which Hermione took without thinking.

The familiar squeezing feeling pressed all around her, and a moment later she emerged in a cold room full of raucous laughter. She recognized it dimly as Riddle Manor.

“And- and here they are! All dressed up like Rabastan, eh?” Hermione blinked stupidly in an attempt to make out the face of the man speaking. “Wanted to play your little games?”

Anger and hatred such as Hermione had never felt hit her square in the stomach, and she nearly doubled over from the force of it.

The speaker came into view, and she recognized him immediately. He looked like Rabastan, but while Rab had soft, gentle eyes, and a sweet, roguish smile, his brother had hard, cruel eyes, and a manic grin that made her want to shrink in fear as she recognized who he was.

Rodolphus Lestrange, Bellatrix’s husband.

“Playing with babies now, are we?” He said as he bared his yellow teeth at Hermione. A dirty hand came up to clutch at her cheek, and Bellatrix sprang into motion.

A stinging hex zapped his hand, “Don’t touch her!”

He yelped, and brought his own wand up, “You stupid bi-”

“Come now, let’s all play nicely.”

At Voldemort’s soft voice everyone froze.  

“Hermione, child. Welcome back. Please, have a seat here with me.”

The crowd of Death Eaters parted, allowing her to move towards the slim ottoman he patted. With a hateful look at Rodolphus, Bellatrix took Rabastan’s arm and brought him forward.

“Well, don’t you look lovely?” Drawled Voldemort, his red eyes tracing the lines of her gown appreciatively. “Do you have your wand?”

The weight of it in her sleeve was the only thing keeping her from clinging to Bellatrix. “Always, my lord.” The assembled men all wore their hoods up, so that it was impossible to tell who was who. It gave her a strange claustrophobic feeling.

“Excellent, Excellent. Rabastan,” the name was as soft as a caress, “Why do you look so troubled?”

Her heart ached for her friend, who was pale as a ghost. “N-n-n-no reason, my lord,” he gasped.

“The half-wit is scared of his own shadow!” growled Rodolphus. “What a pathetic excuse of a man!”

“That’s enough Rodolphus,” said Voldemort in the same gentle tones. He stood, and moved towards the shrinking Rabastan. Clasping his arms, he said “You are safe here. No harm can come to you. Look at me. No, look at me!”

Rabastan, who had been about to bury his face in Bellatrix’s neck, reluctantly met Voldemort’s gaze.

“I see.” The Dark Lord looked sharply at Rodolphus, “Go check on tonight’s festivities.”

For a moment, he looked as if he would argue, then he gave a jerky nod and swept off.

The Dark Lord looked down at Rabastan, “He will not harm you here,” he said gently.

“Th-th-thank you my lord!” gasped Rabastan.

“We do not exploit the weakness of our own!” Voldemort called out to the murmuring crowd. “We solidify ourselves if an effort to strengthen our forces.” He released Rabastan, “This is not why we are here today. Hermione, come. You may come too, Bella.”

He led them into the corridor, and Hermione breathed a sigh of relief to be away from so many hooded figures.

"Thank you both for coming on such short notice," he said this with the air of someone who was used to having people at his beck and call. "I'm sure you're wondering why I've brought you here?"

Bellatrix hastened to keep up with his long strides. "We would have come no matter what the reason, my lord."

Hermione swallowed down her jealousy at the fawning tone in Bellatrix's voice. They descended a dark stairwell, and soon it became evident that they were entering the basement.

"The time for completing your task is running out," he said softly.

She shivered. Bellatrix looked worriedly back at her.

Voldemort continued his brisk pace even as the stairwell grew darker and darker. "There's only a few months before the school year ends, is there not?"

It took her a moment to realize he was waiting for an answer. "There is, my lord."

He stopped abruptly at the foot of the stairs, just below a gas lamp. In the dim light his features were more skull-like than ever. Red eyes bore fiercely into hers.

"I expect much of you, Hermione. I will be very disappointed if you fail me. I can assure you your father will be as well. I doubt he's adapted to life in Azkaban. They tell me it's difficult to keep your sanity after the first few months. Isn't that so, Bellatrix?"

"It... yes, my lord. It is."

"Or perhaps you've changed your mind? Perhaps you would rather live a cushioned life like the rest of your contented little family? Perhaps I made a mistake?"

"No my lord!" She reached out and clutched his robes without thinking. He had never spoken to her like this. His voice and his eyes were so cold as they stared at her- into her, and she found herself thinking desperately of what might happen should he lose interest in her. "Please! I will complete my task, I promise it! A Malfoy never goes back on their word!"

"But you aren't exactly a Malfoy, are you?" He asked softly.

She flinched. It was like he had poured icy water over her. She tightened her hold on his robes and felt her eyes pool with tears. She didn't dare break eye contact, even though she wanted nothing more than to be far away from him in that moment.

After a few minutes of this, she pulled together all of her strength and gritted out, "I will not fail you, my lord."

Fingers as cold as ice cupped her cheek. "My dear girl," he said in the same soothing voice he had used on Rabastan, "For your sake, you had better not."

His gaze upon hers was intense, and she felt something dark and foreboding pound within her chest. All of her instincts told her to pull away.

And then he released her, and the moment passed so quickly that afterwards she would question whether or not she had imagined the dark intensity. All she wanted was to collapse into Bellatrix, but she knew that if she so much as touched the other witch that she would be unable to keep from sobbing.

"We won't have another chance for training before your task," he said quietly, turning and walking (at a much slower pace) down the darkened corridor. "I'll begin your proper training this summer, of course, but I thought one session could be helpful to you."

He came to a stop before a door.

"We're ready, my lord." whispered Bellatrix.

He reached out a white hand, and turned the handle.

The sound of crying reached Hermione, and her stomach plummeted.

"Noooo, please! Please take me home! I promise I won't tell anyone!"

They entered into a damp, dark room. Rodolphus sat in one corner, holding onto a chain that lead to a heavy iron collar around the neck of a girl about sixteen or seventeen. Her eyes were covered with a rough blindfold, and her hands were bound in front of her. Dirty blonde hair hung in waves around her head.

"Stay strong, Doveling. No matter what he asks."

Hermione could feel Bellatrix's fear- fear for her - cloak them both. There was no way out of whatever he would ask them to do.

"Tell me, Hermione. Have you ever used an unforgiveable?"

The caressing tone of his voice made the hair on the back of her neck stand on end. She shook her head.

In the corner, Rodolphus sniggered.

"Leave us!" Voldemort snapped, turning angry red eyes to the other man. "Wait in the corridor. You can clean up after."

For some reason that promise made his face light up, and Hermione felt as if she would be sick.

Once the door clicked shut the girl spoke again, "My father has money. He'll give you anything you ask for! Just please don't-"

"Get your wand."

Hermione hurried to obey, and slid her wand from her sleeve. It was a source of warmth in the frigid room, and her fingers curled gratefully around it.

"We'll deal with Imperius this summer," he said, as if promising a special treat. "Let's dive right on in with the Cruciatus Curse. Bellatrix? Surely you've been dying to teach her?"

She didn't realize she was shaking until Bellatrix stepped behind her and put her warm, steady hand around Hermione's wand hand. The girl continued pleading and crying on the floor in front of them.

"You have to mean it," she said low and gentle into the brunette's ear. "The more you mean it the more it will hurt." Mentally she added, "Tune her out, Doveling. Pretend she's a training dummy."

Hermione took a deep breath. " Cru-Crucio!"

The girl let out a shriek as a ball of red light hit her square in the stomach. "Oh!"

"Good!" Praised Voldemort, "Good enough for a first try. Try to make it last a little longer this time. Again!"

Hermione licked her lips, " Crucio! "

The girl let out a scream this time, but stayed upright.

"She's just a meaningless Muggle, Hermione," he said.

"You need to get angry, Dove. Think of something that made you hurt. That made you want to hurt someone."

She couldn't. There was nothing that came to mind.

"Crucio! "

This time when the girl shrieked Voldemort made an impatient sound, "Bellatrix!"

"You have to want to hurt them, Hermione!"

"Please! Please don't hurt me again!" The girl sobbed.

Bellatrix brushed the curls back away from her ear, "You need to get angry, Dove. Find something!"

She thought of her Uncle Albus telling her he rigged the sorting.

" Crucio!"

The girl threw her head back, and let out a real scream.

"Better, but think of something worse."

Using their connection, Bellatrix was remembering instances where Hermione had been truly angry. When Ron had insisted she was a Death Eater-

" Crucio!" The girl fell to her side, and struggled to sit up.

-When Umbridge had punished Draco-

" Crucio!" The girl twitched for a full two seconds.

-When she was a child and Penny Andrews called her a charity case-

" Crucio! " The girl flopped around on the ground, begging her in a high pitched scream to stop. To let her go- to-

"Much Better,"  he praised. "More."

Bellatrix squeezed her wrist, " Remember when Dumbledore told you that you looked like Ian and Jean?"  

Her muggle parents. She opened her mouth to use them, but remembered something else. The fawning way Bellatrix spoke to the Dark Lord, the admiration in her eyes. The way he owned a piece of her soul. The way he'd marked her.

The thoughts mingled in Hermione's mind and she growled out a sharp:

" CRUCIO!"

The girl's back arched off the floor as she opened her mouth in a scream that cut off halfway through. Hermione trained her wand, imagining the girl to be Voldemort, thinking of all the things she would rather do to him if she'd only had the nerve. Did Bellatrix love him more? In that moment it seemed as if she did. And why shouldn't she? When Hermione's own blood was tainted and stained by her muggle parents? The girl writhed in agony, but still Hermione kept on. It was suddenly so easy. She could feel her own hurt and pain feeding the curse, making it stronger and more powerful. For a moment it seemed as if it could go on forever.

And then she realized what she had done.

Her wand hit the floor with a clack, and the girl gasped, rolled over to her side and emptied the contents of her stomach.

A slow clap sounded over the girl. "Very well done," Voldemort praised softly. "I think you have an affinity. Just like Bellatrix."

Hermione was too stunned to process the quiet internal reassurances Bellatrix was offering.

"Pick up your wand. There's one more to learn tonight."

She moved woodenly, knowing exactly which one he was referring to.

"Move aside Bellatrix. No one is better suited to teach this than I."

His cold hand slithered over her shoulder. "Summon that anger again. But this time you don't want to hurt the Muggle. You want to kill it."

She aimed her wand, not caring how badly it shook.

"You know the incantation?"

She nodded, and swallowed. Her mouth was so dry that her tongue seemed to stick to the roof of her mouth.

"A-avada Kedavra."

Nothing happened.

"Take a deep breath," he instructed. His voice was a croon. "Good. Now another. Clear out all other thoughts and focus on the anger that you felt a minute ago."

She could still feel it boiling beneath her skin.

"Pull it up, concentrate it in the center of your magical core, and then kill her."

She tried to do what he said, and this time when she gasped out the incantation a sickly green light shot out and hit the girl. Her body jumped, and she let out a pained rattle.

"Almost. Almost. Now, finish it."

The girl would die anyway, she told herself. Rodolphus had been promised... she certainly didn't want the girl to suffer through whatever he had planned. She took a deep breath and spoke again in a clearer voice-

" Avada Kedavra!"

The green light that shot towards the girl was bright and lively. She knew before the body had fully relaxed that it had worked.

"Bellatrix," he ordered, "Check it."

Bellatrix stooped low over the body and then straightened triumphantly, "Dead! It's dead, my lord."

He clapped her shoulder in congratulations, and she fought hard not to flinch.

"I'm proud of you," he said into her ear.

She felt a strange mixture of revulsion and pride, and managed to give him a shaky smile.

The only thing that kept her upright as she followed him out of that terrible room and back up the stairs was Bellatrix's arm around her middle.

A moment later she was back on the ottoman in the room full of hooded figures, with no recollection of actually getting there. Bellatrix was trying to talk to her, but she seemed incapable of actually processing the words that flowed through their connection.

The Dark Lord said some things, and the room exploded into boisterous applause. One by one the hooded figures came up to congratulate her, but she didn't register anything until a dark figure appeared in the doorway.

The pale face of her uncle Severus swam in her vision, and she blinked to clear it.

As soon as their eyes met she knew that he understood what had happened. His eyes widened with subtle horror, and somehow that made things so much worse.

She didn't remember leaving Riddle Manor. The next thing she knew they were stumbling into her room at Forest Cottage.

"Your mother and brother are still out," Bellatrix groused as she hunted through Hermione's wardrobe for a nightgown. "Hypocrites."

Privately, Hermione was glad. If her mother saw her face she would know in an instant what had happened, just like uncle Sev. She allowed Bellatrix to dress her and tuck her in like a doll, but reached out and grasped her dress when she made to leave.

"Don't go!" she cried hoarsely. "Please Bella, don't leave me alone!"

Bellatrix’s worried eyes peered into her own. She stooped, and brushed the hair from Hermione’s forehead. “What do you need me to do, Doveling?”

“Hold me?”

A gentle smile curved the plump lips. “I can do that.”

The bed rustled as Bellatrix crawled in, “If your mother finds us and murders me I blame you,” Bellatrix said teasingly.

Hermione shivered, and continued shivering even when Bellatrix scooted closer and wrapped her in her arms.

“I should have run you a bath,” murmured Bellatrix, “you’re chilled to the bone.”

Hermione swallowed, and pressed back against Bellatrix. “It wouldn’t have made a difference.” She whispered. She felt like she’d never be clean again. She was stained now. Broken.

But so was Bellatrix. And Bellatrix was the most beautiful person in the whole world.

She twisted in the older witch’s hold, moving so that she could face her. She grasped her arm and gently pulled it between them, her fingers tracing over the dark mark that lay emblazoned across the milky skin. She could feel her own hot tears pour over her cheeks to soak the pillow beneath her head.

“I’m sorry.” the older witch whispered. “It’s never easy… the first time.”

But as hard as the first time was, Hermione knew that the next time would be far worse.

Chapter Text

The late May sunlight streamed golden and inviting through the open window of the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom. Though Snape was lecturing that day, Hermione found herself unable to pay attention. Instead, she ran the tip of her quill over her lips and gazed unseeing through the window.

Bellatrix was happy about something. She could feel the dark witch’s glee racing under her skin, but it did little to alleviate  the heavy cloud that had hung over her since the Easter Holiday.

Her mind conjured forth the image of the muggle girl’s terrified eyes. She had thought about them so often over the past two months that they no longer brought forth the same feeling of horror. Instead, the dull shame churned in her stomach, and she let out the tiniest sigh.

“Hermione.”

An elbow pressed gently into her side, and she blinked. Beside her, Harry looked urgently at her, then down to the open page of his textbook. It took her a moment to realize the entire classroom, as well as Snape, was looking at her.

“Er, I’m sorry. Could you repeat the question?” To her credit, her voice remained smooth and authoritative.

She knew that were she any other student (with the exception of Draco) she would have received a cutting remark or snide comment. Instead, her uncle arched a brow and repeated himself. “What is the best defense against the Oblito curse?

Harry discreetly pointed to a word he had circled in his notes, but she had luckily already covered this subject with her uncle in their private lessons.

“A shield charm should deflect it, but if it’s already hit you then you’ll need to administer  a sight restoring potion immediately.” 

He nodded slowly, “And how soon should you administer the potion?”

She could not remember. “Within a day?” she tried. 

Hip lips pressed tightly together, and she knew she was wrong. “Potter! Perhaps you know the answer?” 

Harry straightened slightly. “Within four hours.” As an afterthought he added, “ Sir .”

Her uncle’s lips tightened again, and he turned away to face the blackboard. “You have four hours from the moment the spell hits you to seek the sight restoring potion or else it will be too late. Blindness will be permanent from that point on. This curse has been outlawed since-”

She looked over at Harry, and whispered, “Thanks.”

“You’d do the same for me,” he smiled back.

“Ten points from Gryffindor, Potter, for speaking in class! Perhaps you would like to share what’s so important with the rest of us?”

Harry shook his head, and Snape sneered, but whatever he had planned to say was cut off as the door banged open and Parvati strolled through.

“Sorry I’m late, Professor!” Her voice was breathy as she handed him a note. “I had my meeting with Professor McGonagall.”

He read the note, and looked up at Hermione. “Miss Malfoy, Professor McGonagall requests your presence in her office. You may pack up and go. I expect you to read chapter thirty four before the next lesson. Potter will bring you the homework assignment.”

She stoppered her ink bottle, and swept her belongings into her bag. Harry gave her a discreet wave as she passed, which she returned.

On her way, she passed a  group of second-year Hufflepuffs singing the school song. Jealousy stabbed at her insides as she watched them walk off with their arms slung over each other’s shoulders. Didn’t they realize what was happening in the world outside Hogwarts? Couldn’t they feel that now was not the time to sing and laugh loudly?

But it was as if Hogwarts had been hit with a cheering charm. Every student who passed her looked content, even Professor McGonagall’s smile was warm and friendly when she opened the door.

“Yes, Miss Malfoy. Come in!” 

The room smelled of parchment and tea. She took her seat on the little wooden chair across from McGonagall’s. Her Head of House pulled out a slim file from a stack beside her, and opened it. She ran the feathered end of her green quill over the notes, and looked back up. “We’re here today to discuss your plans for your final year at Hogwarts.”

Hermione’s insides twisted. She would rather think about anything besides the future. Everything was moving too quickly. For a moment, she thought she would be sick across the highly polished surface of McGonagall’s desk. Then her Slytherin side kicked in and a cool smile plastered across her face. She curved her fingers around the edge of her seat and squeezed tightly as she nodded.

McGonagall gave her an appraising look, but thankfully returned her focus to the file. “Last year we discussed your desire to have a career in the Ministry. Is that still your plan?” 

The thought of working in the Ministry did not give her the same thrill of excitement and satisfaction that it should have. In a calm voice she affirmed, “Yes.”

“I see that you’re planning on taking your N.E.W.T.s in Defense Against the Dark Arts, Charms, Arithmancy, Herbology, History, Ancient Runes, Potions, and Transfiguration.” McGonagall looked up, her green eyes calculating. “That’s a heavy workload for your final year. 

Her mouth was incredibly dry. “I will be up to the task, I’m sure.” 

A gentle look crossed McGonagall’s features, “I’m sure you are. I’ve never met anyone as determined as you are, Miss Malfoy. The Ministry will be lucky to have you.”

Hermione watched her make a a few new notes, and tried to keep her face calm. 

What will you think of me after I’ve killed Uncle Albus? She wondered. As soon as it came into her mind she tried to force that thought down. She could not bear to think of it. Not today. Not while McGonagall looked at her like she was another success story.

“Do you know which department you’d like to work for?”

“The Department of Magical Law Enforcement,” she heard herself say.

“I’m not surprised,” said McGonagall, and had she been Slughorn she would have let out a chuckle. Instead, she gave her a look that could almost be described as fond. “Most offices within the Department of Magical Law Enforcement only require five N.E.W.T.s, but I’m sure you already know that.”

She did. “I want to be the best,” she said seriously. If the Dark Lord- No, when the Dark Lord took control of the Ministry she did not want anyone to say that favoritism had gotten her to the top.

“Well, if you change your mind you have until the examinations themselves to lighten your load a little.” McGonagall made another note, “I’m glad I talked you out of Astronomy, at least,” she muttered under her breath.

A real smile tugged on Hermione’s lips, and she felt her shoulders relax the tiniest bit.

“Thank you professor.”

“We’re not quite done,” McGonagall said quickly when Hermione made the motion to rise. “There’s one last thing I wanted to speak to you about. 

Hermione sat heavily, and tried not to look disappointed.

McGonagall closed the file, and shuffled it back into the stack beside her. She reached up and straightened her spectacles. When it came, her voice was gentler than Hermione had ever heard it. “I’ve been receiving reports that you are not as… enthusiastic as you usually are. Professor Sprout, in particular, feels that you have fallen into a depression since the Holiday.” She folded her hands atop the desk, “Is there anything that is distressing you? Has anything happened?” 

Where to begin? Thought Hermione. Out loud, she said quickly, “No.”

But McGonagall’s eyes were too knowing. “There’s nothing wrong with asking for help, Miss Malfoy,” she said kindly. “Even the strongest of us-”

“I said no,” said Hermione firmly. “Nothing has happened, and I don’t need anything.” She could not bear to sit there and see McGonagall’s face wrinkle with concern over her . “May I go now, Professor?”

It looked as if McGonagall would have given anything to say no. She exhaled slowly, and nodded. “Yes, Miss Malfoy. You may leave. But I want you to know that if you ever need anything- anything at all- I’m here for you.”

You say that now , thought Hermione darkly. She forced a polite smile, and left with as much dignity as she could muster.

For a moment she wished she were back in fifth year, in her Inquisitorial Squad uniform. At least she didn’t feel like a wolf in sheep’s clothing when she wore her uniform. Everyone had known who she was and where her alliances lay. At least, as far as school went.

There was a rustling of feathers, and she realized with a start that she’d wandered up to the Owlery. Hundreds of glittering eyes peered sleepily at her, and she found a clean seat by the window that overlooked the lake.

A sweet breeze played with her hair, and she inhaled the scent of fresh grass and lake water. Several students shouted to each other below, their words too faint to make out.

“Hermione?” 

Her stomach dropped at the sound of Harry’s voice. The last thing she wanted to do was pretend to be ok.

So don’t . Said a little voice in her head. “Hi Harry.” She didn’t look up as he shuffled into the tower.

“How was your meeting with McGonagall?”

She swallowed past the lump in her throat. “Fine." 

He let out a small laugh, “That bad, huh?”

She tore her eyes away from the students below and looked over to him. “Not really. I just…” she let out a deep breath, “I’m not really in the mood to discuss the future.”

He held out his arm, and Hedwig fluttered down to it. “Hi girl,” Stroking her snowy breast, he made his way over to where Hermione was, and sat beside her. “I know what you mean,” he said softly.

Hermione reached up and stroked the back of her finger down the curve of Hedwig’s wing.

“It’s hard to plan for your life when you have no idea if you’re going to be alive for it.”

She looked over at him in surprise. His green eyes were hard, and his mouth was a thin line. Hedwig nipped at his fingers, and he blinked.

“I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the Prophecy,” he admitted.

She continued to stroke Hedwig. Every part of her wanted to tell him that it wasn’t real, that he shouldn’t worry too much over it. But she also knew that The Dark Lord wouldn’t stop until he had killed Harry. Keeping Harry alive gave the Order, and therefore those who resisted him, hope. And hope gave people a cause. “I don’t know what I’d do if the prophecy had been about me,” she said in a low voice. 

He let out a dark laugh, “You’d probably have a better shot than me,” he said.

“Harry, that’s not true.”

“It is. You’re the most brilliant witch there ever was, Hermione. Voldemort wouldn’t stand a chance against you.”

Her fingers shook at the thought of having those red eyes turn cruel when they looked at her. She hated how much she wanted his approval. Wouldn’t it be easier if she could hate him the way Harry did? Then everything Uncle Albus had prepared her for…

But at the same time a part of her wished she could say the same for Harry. It would be so much easier if she could forget the messy-haired urchin who had crept his way into her heart. He had never doubted her. Not even when she was on the Inquisitorial Squad had he lost complete faith in her. She had always seen a glimmer of something when he looked at her, like he was waiting for her to come to her senses. 

As if he could read her thoughts, he cleared his throat. “Thanks for always being there for me, Hermione.” His cheeks pinkened. “For, er, all the adventures we’ve gone on, and the food parcels you sent during the summer, and the letters. And for… well, everything. You and Draco are my oldest friends. I don’t know what I would’ve done without you two…”

Impulsively, she threw an arm around his shoulders and pressed her head to his. Hedwig batted her wings to keep her balance as she pulled him close.

“What’s this for?” he asked, his voice higher than usual.

“Can’t a girl hug her best friend?” 

He let out a surprised chuckle. “Yeah… thanks.”

They stayed like that for a while, until Hedwig grew tired of them and flew away. Then they went down to dinner together. She felt lighter than she had in months. Not even Ron’s ever-present glare could bring her down. She sat and laughed with Harry and Neville over something Peeves had done. 

After dinner, they met Draco in the corridor, and the four of them decided to go spar in the Room of Requirement for the evening. It wasn’t the vigorous workout that Bellatrix, or even her Uncle Severus gave her. Instead, it turned into a kind of game as they shot color-changing charms at each other.

“We should have invited Ginny and Luna,” said Neville breathlessly when Harry called them to a stop. His skin was a mottled red (Harry’s Color) and blue (Hermione’s color). “They would’ve loved this. Oh thank Merlin,” he reached for the water Draco offered him, and guzzled it down. 

“We can do it again next week,” offered Harry. Like Hermione, he seemed to be in better condition than the other two boys, and she wondered if he had been practicing in his spare time. She noted with satisfaction that he was nearly entirely red. One arm was green (Neville’s color) and she herself was splotched with red, but she noted with dismay that none of them bore Draco’s yellow. 

How is he going to survive the war if he can’t even get a shot in against a bunch of his friends? Thought Hermione later as she sat on her bed. The hangings were drawn, but she could still hear Lavender and Parvati giggling amongst themselves. Turnip slept on his back, his grey fur rumpled.

It was rarer and rarer for Bellatrix to be free in the evenings, Hermione could feel that whatever the older witch was doing, it was getting more and more dangerous. Twice she’d woken up covered in bruises that should not have been there, and she could feel when the other witch was hurt more and more often. Bellatrix always shrugged off her concern, and assured her she was fine, but the girl missed having her all to herself. Tonight she was thankfully able to focus on Hermione. “He might not need to fight,” she said soothingly in Hermione’s mind. “We might be able to protect him.”   

Hermione unscrewed the lid of a jar marked “Periwether’s Potions: Hair Balm, for curls” and noted with relief that it smelled like lemon balm. After reading the instructions, she spread a fair amount on her hands and began working it through her hair. I don’t know what I’ll do if Father tries to involve Draco in the cause.

Bellatrix hummed, “Well he won’t have much choice in the matter, Dove. If the Dark Lord wants Draco involved, he won’t ask for anyone’s opinion.”    

And then Draco will resist, and get himself killed . Turnip sneezed, and startled himself awake. She reached out to ruffle the fur atop his head, and he gave her hand a warm lick.

“Perhaps it would be best if he did not return to the Manor.”

Frowning, Hermione closed the jar of hair balm, and reached through her hangings to set it on the nightstand. But how can we keep him safe if he’s not near us? 

“I told Cissy that the best thing she could do was send him to one of the hospitals in the Alps. She wouldn’t listen to me, of course, but it really would be safest for him if he were out of the way.” 

He’d never agree to that , thought Hermione glumly. He wants to protect Harry. Despite the warmth of the evening, she shivered, and decided to change the subject. When did you speak to Mother?

“Last night. She’s been allowing me to take her down to the Rusty Cauldron once a week for some sisterly bonding time. I don’t think she realizes that’s what it’s for though, all she does is talk about you and Draco’s academic accomplishments.” Her voice was light and amused, but there was a pang of loneliness that Hermione pretended she didn’t feel.

I’ve never heard of the Rusty Cauldron.

“I’ll have to take you sometime. It’s a great little pub. I’d go there every night, but the neighborhood is Muggle, so…” 

It sounds fun. She sighed. I wish I were with you. 

The rush of affection she felt in response was almost enough to make her feel better. Almost.

“I miss you too, Doveling. Don’t worry, we’ll see each other soon.” She felt a flash of excitement, “The Dark Lord has asked me to visit him tonight. He says it’s about you and your task.” 

Hermione would rather think about anything else.

It seemed Bellatrix could feel it. “Don’t worry. Everything will be fine, I promise. Did I tell you that Rab has Vercingetorix on a new exercise regime? He thinks it will stimulate him more…” 

Hermione leaned back, and listened to Bellatrix’s soothing voice. Slowly, Turnip inched his way up the bed, until he lay warm and comforting across her stomach. She ran her fingers through his soft fur, and nearly fell asleep.

“-I have to go, Dove ,” Bellatrix said at last. “I’m at the manor, and I have to occlude my mind.” 

It always made Hermione feel slightly panic when she said that, even though she knew it was to keep their bond safe and secret. “Ok…” 

“I love you. Get some sleep.” 

I love you too, Bella. 

There was another rush of affection, and then she felt the strange feeling of being gently pushed out of Bellatrix’s mind. She could still feel the older witch’s feelings race beneath her skin. Elation, expectation, concern. Jealousy rose up in response, and she wished that she were there to listen to whatever the Dark Lord had to say about her.

She rolled over onto her side, and pulled Turnip to her chest. He allowed her to hold him there, and gave a little huff as he settled his head on her pillow. Over the sound of his breathing she could hear Lavender and Parvati’s soft voices.

“-you have to come this summer. Mum has been looking forward to this trip for months.” Lavender’s voice was high and expectant.

Parvati laughed, “Ok, ok! I’ll ask my Dad, he might say yes. Oooh, look at this one Lav, that would be a good color for me.”

“Oh he has to! I don’t know what I’d do without you there! No, I like the red better for you.” 

Didn’t Lavender realize that there was a war going on? Hermione rolled her eyes, and wondered if that’s what she would be doing if it weren’t for Dumbledore. Would she be flipping through Witch Weekly and planning a summer trip?

“No,” she whispered to Turnip, “Surely not.”

“Did you say something, Hermione?” Parvati called.

She froze, and squeezed Turnip tighter, “Just reviewing my notes!” she called.

Lavender giggled, and Parvati said kindly, “If you get tired with that I’ve got the new Witch Weekly out here. We’re going to do the quizzes next!”

“Thank you,” she licked her dry lips, “but I’d better keep on with this. Exams are coming up, you know.”

More giggles from Lavender, but Parvati’s voice was sincere, “Alright, but if you change your mind…”

“Yeah. Thanks!”

Lavender whispered something, and Parvati shushed her. 

Dislike filled her. She had no problem with Parvati, but ever since Lavender had begun to date Ron she had been nothing but condescending to Hermione.

If only you knew , Hermione thought. She pictured herself cursing Lavender over and over again, running through the list of all the non-lethal ways she could make the other girl suffer. A grin tugged at her lips, and she instantly felt guilty about it. Not guilty enough to stop, however. There was a teeth enlarging charm her father had told her about that would look hilarious... 

At some point she must have fallen asleep, as the next thing she knew she woke with a gasp. For a moment she wondered what had roused her, and then it became apparent.

“WAKE UP!”  

Delight that was not her own bubbled inside her so strongly that she could not help the grin that spread over her face. Bella? What is it? 

There was a jingle as Turnip, who was curled into her side, looked up.

“The Dark Lord has decided to use your mission as an excuse to take control of Hogwarts.” 

Hermione’s heart thumped in response, and she sat up. What? 

“He’s asked me to lead a team of our most trusted to secure the castle and establish Severus as the Headmaster.” 

Bellatrix’s glee bubbled inside her, but Hermione’s tension overpowered it. But… The students… Harry. She meant Harry.

“When are you going to do it?”   

Now her heart was pounding so rapidly that she could barely feel anything else. Turnip whined, and there was the soft golden glow of his calming magic. I… I don’t… 

“Doveling. Breathe! There’s no cause to get so worked up!” 

She struggled to get control over her breathing. I-I don’t know. Uncle Albus has to do something first. He asked me to give him more time… 

“Hmm… That’s ok. We’ll put all the pieces in place and then I’ll make everyone ready to go. You’ll have to send an owl though. We can’t have the team wondering how you alerted me.” 

Hermione was now wide awake, and she shook from nerves as she pulled Turnip close. The wubble let out a soft whine and gave her chin a lick. This is actually going to happen…

Bellatrix’s voice was gentle, “It is. I think we’ll apparate to the Shrieking Shack and use that tunnel-” 

What if the teachers see you? Hogwarts is nearly impenetrable from the outside. As soon as she said it, a wave of guilt crashed over her. Perhaps it was a bad idea to work with them… But she was them! This was who she was raised to be.

“Stop it.” 

Stop what? 

“Whatever’s making you feel like that. You have no reason to feel poorly.” 

In Hermione’s eyes, she had every reason to feel poorly.

“Focus on the task. If you don’t want me to come from outside how do you propose to get us inside?”   

Turnip’s breath was hot on her cheek as she struggled to focus on Bellatrix and not her own thoughts. Er… I don’t know… Maybe… Maybe the Honeydukes passage? 

Bellatrix’s pride welled up in her chest, and she felt her cheeks burn in response.

“I always knew you were meant for greatness,” came Bellatrix’s fond voice.

Do you remember what Harry said about it? 

“Every bit of it. I’ll go down to Hogsmeade tomorrow and try it out.” 

You’ll come to Hogwarts?

There was a pang of regret, “I’m sorry, Dove. I’d better not enter Hogwarts fully. I’ll go as far as the witch’s statue, but I don’t want to risk having the passage discovered.” 

Hermione nodded, and felt a lump grow in her throat. She was more grateful than ever that their link was psychic, for she knew that she would not be able to speak without crying.

“It’s only a few more weeks, my love. Then this will all be over.”   

Hermione shivered again. Will you stay with me a little longer? 

“Of course. The Dark Lord thinks I’ve gone home to compose a letter to you.” 

You’re not at home? 

“No.”   

Hermione scooted so that her back was to the headboard. Where are you? 

“On a broom over the coast of the North Sea.” There was a quiet pause, then, “Would you like to see?”

When she had been incarcerated, Bellatrix used to use Hermione’s eyes all the time. But Hermione had never done it herself. Is it hard? 

“Not as hard as becoming an Animagus.” Bellatrix was smiling, Hermione could feel it. “Close your eyes and push your mind to mine, like Legilimency.” 

They had practiced Legilimency in their trainings, so it was easy for Hermione to find the border that separated her from Bellatrix. Now what? 

“Push yourself in like you’re dipping your face into a pensieve.”   

Hermione tried, and felt foolish at once. Nothing’s happening. 

There was a fond laugh. “Push harder. You have to let your mind leave your own body for it to work.”   

Hermione ground her teeth together in frustration when it still didn’t work. Bella! 

“Come to me Doveling, and leave yourself.” 

She could feel Bellatrix’s thoughts pushing forward, running past her in a flurry of memories and feelings. Taking a deep breath, she pushed herself forward, and felt the strange sensation of falling.

The first thing that hit her was the feeling of icy wind against her cheeks and neck. The smell of salt and fish washed over her, and she let out a startled laugh- 

Or tried to. No sound came from her.

“See, not hard at all.”  

Where are we?  

The crescent moon hung low over the rocky cliffs, making the velvety grass look dark blue. The dark handle of the broom gleamed in the moonlight. Waves crashed violently below. 

“Somewhere over Scotland, I think.” 

It was strange to be able to feel the body she was in, but have no control over it.

“Now you know how I felt all those years,” said Bellatrix, her raspy laugh floated around them.  

Then it faded away, and Hermione felt the curious sensation of being pulled back. 

A moment later she was in her warm bed, with Turnip slumbering heavily on her lap.

I’m back, she thought with disappointment.

“You lasted longer than I did the first time ,” Said Bellatrix proudly. “Then again I was malnourished and dehydrated…” 

Sleep pulled heavily on Hermione’s mind, and she shifted so that she could lay back against her pillows. I’m so tired, she thought, I’m sorry, Bella, I’m… trying to…  

A gentle laugh soothed her, “Hush now, Dove. It takes a lot out of you the first couple times. I’ll be here when you wake.”   

Hermione’s eyes drifted shut, and she tumbled into a dream about crashing waves and secret tunnels.
 
 

Chapter Text

When the owl landed in front of her she knew it was time. Something cold settled in her stomach as she pulled the scroll of parchment free from the owl’s leg. Her fingers trembled as she unrolled it.

Please join me for tea in my office. -Uncle Albus

For a moment, she considered ignoring it. She could easily pretend that the owl had not found her, or that she had been in a hurry and had decided to read it at a later time.

Then, her father’s image floated into her mind. What would happen to him if she failed? What would happen to Draco? To her mother? She swallowed heavily, and pulled herself to her feet.

Ron entered through the portrait hole just as she left, and she felt almost grateful for the glare he gave her. It seemed fitting.

After a quickly muttered “Candy Floss,” to the stone gargoyle, she climbed the winding stairway to her uncle’s door.

“Come in,” he called at her knock.

She took a deep breath, and pushed her way in.

Bowls containing every type of sweet she could imagine filled his desk. Ice mice chittered in their bowl, chocolate frogs jumped frantically across the room, hunks of chocolate and mountains of taffy. Several dishes filled with lemon drops were visible.There was barely enough room for a tall purple teapot and two matching teacups.

“Hermione! Please, sit.” He smiled broadly at her from across the desk, and she noted that he looked tired. His blue eyes twinkled as merrily as ever as he poured her tea.

“Dash of milk, two sugars,” he said to himself as the tiny milk jug tottered out from behind a pile of acid pops. Once her tea was prepared, he passed it to her and sat back.

“My Hermione.” He set his good hand on his chest, and smiled.

The teacup shook in her grasp. “It’s happening today, isn’t it?” Her voice was little more than a croak.

His smile never dimmed, “Let’s not talk about that now. For just a moment I want us to pretend that you are my carefree niece, about to start her final summer holiday, and I am the uncle you deserved.”

Her eyes stung, and she blinked rapidly. “You are-” she began.

“There’s no need,” he said gently, “I know who I am, and what I’ve done. I do not need protection from the truth.”  He lifted a lemon drop and popped it into his mouth. “Now, tell me how your exams went.”

“Fine,” she said, her voice wavered. “They were fine.”

“All of them? I hear that the Defense Exams were harder than ever. ‘Unfairly rigged’, I believe is the rumor going around.”

How could he sit there and act like nothing was happening? He wants to pretend , she told herself. After everything, I can do that much . She sniffed, and forced a smile, “It wasn’t unfairly rigged at all. If you’ve read the text and the supplemental reading like Uncle Sev told us to, you would clearly understand what the questions asked.” Lifting her chin a little, she added, “I found it easy.”

He gave her a knowing look, his blue eyes sparkling, “Easy? Perhaps Severus was too soft on you?”

She rolled her eyes, “Ok, maybe not easy, but I still expect to receive full marks!”

That earned her a light chuckle, “I would expect no less.” He caught the milk jug just as it was about to run off the table and opened a drawer to set it inside. It continued to run against the wooden sides of the drawer, setting off a series of Thunk! Thunk! “How is Draco these days? It’s been awhile since I’ve seen him.”

“He’s trying to figure out a way to spend the summer with the Weasleys,” she could barely hide the distaste in her words. Draco and Ginny had become close friends in the last few years, and he had even been granted one of Molly Weasley's notorious sweaters for Christmas. He wore it often, to her chagrin. If her mother knew about it… She shook her head, and raised her teacup to her lips, “He wants to pretend he’s spending the summer with the Macmillans again.”

“Much more respectable than spending it with the Weasleys,” teased Uncle Albus. He selected another lemon drop, and smiled happily as he popped it into his mouth. “And you, do you plan to sneak away to the Weasley’s this summer?”

“Certainly not,” she arched a brow at him. “I think Ron might have set up special wards against me.” She wouldn’t put it past him. It had become a regular joke with Ginny that she was going to sneak Hermione into the Burrow.

Dumbledore hummed to himself. “Some of us never set aside our childhood rivalries. Your father and Mr. Weasley, for instance.”

She perked up at the mention of her father. “Papa and Arthur were rivals?”

“Merlin’s Beard, yes!” He laughed, and stirred another sugar cube into his tea. “In Lucius’ sixth year and Arthur’s seventh I think I handed out ten detentions apiece for duelling. That’s just duelling, mind you! And only the ones I caught! Professor Crabtree- the Herbology professor before Professor Sprout- once came to my office in tears because they’d knocked over a whole row of glowing orchid seedlings once. I had to promise that I’d never put Slytherin and Gryffindor together in a greenhouse again!” He shook his head, “Arthur wasn’t even in the N.E.W.T.-level Herbology class, he was just there to escort one of the students.” He gave her a broad grin, “At least you and young Mr. Weasley have never destroyed anything in your rivallry.”

She smiled back, and then sobered immediately. A chocolate frog leapt into a pile of brightly wrapped muggle sweets, and sent them rolling across the desk. She took a sip of the tea and stared contemplatively into the steam. “I can’t do it.”

The only sound was the soft clicking of the silver instruments on the shelf behind her and the steady thunk of the milk jug.

“Do you remember our first Occlumency lesson?” He asked softly.

She shook her head, and blinked back tears. A heavy feeling grew in the pit of her stomach.

“You were mad at me for sending your friend away,” he said softly.

It was the first time he had ever referenced her bond with Bellatrix in front of her. She looked up sharply and waited for him to continue.

“You told me you would never forgive me unless I brought her back.” Blue eyes peered solemnly into hers, “You must understand now why I did what I did. But I wonder...Have you forgiven me?”

Her breath caught in her throat. “Y-yes?” She wrapped both hands around her teacup, and tried to focus on the warmth seeping through the wall of the cup. She could not look away.

There was a soft “Hmph.” And then he cleared his throat. “The shields. Your shields. Can she get through them?”

Hermione’s mouth felt dry, but she did not raise her cup. “No.”

Relief flashed through his face-through his entire body. “Good!” The weariness that dragged at his eyes seemed to lessen. “Good. And you keep them up? At all times?” He leaned forward and did not seem to notice when tea sloshed over his ruined hand.

She read the hope in his gaze and realized that she could not tell him the truth. That Bellatrix was inside her everyday shields, that she only pushed her out when she was with him, or Uncle Severus. That she did not want to keep Bellatrix out.

Instead, she found herself flashing him an easy grin, “Of course, Uncle Albus. They’re always up.”

Were she not so attuned to her shields she would have missed the mild pressure on the edge of her mind. He was testing her.

Apparently, he was satisfied with what he found. He leaned back, and stroked his good hand down the length of his beard. His hand was steady when he raised his cup to drink. And when he spoke, his voice was light.

“It will happen tonight.”

It was as if he had given her a blow to the chest. She jerked back, and dropped her teacup to the ground. Tea splashed against her feet and his desk, but she didn’t acknowledge it. Her heart beat steadily in her ears. Tears pricked at the corners of her eyes.

“I want it to be you,” he said calmly. “It will cement Voldemort’s trust in your capabilities, and ensure your position as one of his most trusted.” He hesitated, “Severus will try to spare you, I think. But you must try to resist him.” He rolled his hand into a fist, and tapped it gently on the wood, “I will be taking Harry on an errand after dinner. I expect we’ll be gone a few hours, and then you can find me. I know you will not be alone. Severus has informed me that the castle will be invaded.”  

How could he be so calm? She felt as if the room was growing darker, and her breath came fast and shallow in her throat.

“The killing curse is painless, I hear.” He gave her a gentle smile, “And it will be a merciful end compared to letting this curse-” he raised his shrivelled, black hand, “-consume me.”

“I-I can’t,” she whined.

His blue gaze was gentle, “You must. There is one final task I must give to you. One that I cannot entrust to anyone else.”

“W-why me?”

Nothing wavered in his gaze. “Because there is no one else who is strong enough to do this.”

She had never seen the look on his face before. The raw pleading. She swallowed, “Do what?”

He stared at her a moment longer. “Harry has told you of the Horcruxes?”

She felt herself nod.

“Voldemort made six of them consciously,” his chest rose and fell in a deep breath, “and one unconsciously. There are seven Horcruxes, I believe. If Voldemort should ever be made aware of the seventh, I need you to make sure it is destroyed.”

That was it? “Ok.”

Something in his gaze shifted to sadness, and she grew suspicious. “What’s the seventh Horcrux?”

“Not what,” he said gently. “ Who .”

“There can be living Horcruxes?” She asked in surprise. “But I thought- Wouldn’t he want them to be something indestructible?” She tried not to acknowledge that he was asking her to kill someone else.

“He didn’t realize that night,” said Dumbledore, and he took another lemon drop in his hand, but did not put it in his mouth. He ran his thumb over it. “That night, when the killing curse rebounded on him, his soul was split. One disappeared into the night, to eventually attach to Nagini and grow into the Voldemort we know today.”

Her breathing stopped.

“And the other attached to the only living thing remaining in the room. Harry is the other Horcrux. The Unknown Horcrux.”

She stared at him in shock. Was he really- Could he truly mean- For a long moment all she could do was sit there. Until her lungs burned from lack of oxygen and she gasped in a great shuddering breath.

She shook her head, and curled her fists around the fabric of her school robes. “I won’t!” Something burst to life in her chest, and spread warm and hateful through her body. Her teeth bared when she looked up and snapped, “How could you ask this of me?”

It was as if she was wearing someone else’s face, she could feel her brow wrinkle, her nose scrunched in anger, her jaw stretched out. For a moment, she thought she would be able to carry out her task then and there. Then, in the glass cabinet behind him she caught a glimpse of the hatred shining through her eyes, and a stab of fear shot through her.

A shallow wail rose out, and it took her a moment to realize that it was her. Her hands shot to her face, and her nails dug into the soft skin there. “N-no!”

Her wand was heavy up her sleeve, and she felt the urge to pull it out and cast it far away from her.

“Hermione. Hermione.”

She looked at him, and let out a wet sob. Tears ran freely down her cheeks, and she shook her head. “Ask someone else. Ask Uncle Sev-”

“It has to be you,” he said firmly. He stood, and moved to her. His good hand pulled one of her hands away from her face and held it. “Severus could not do it. There is no one else I trust to do this.”

“Harry is my friend,” she shook her head. “I can’t. Not to him. Not him.”

“Hermione,” He gave a sigh, and lowered himself until he knelt next to her chair. It was something he used to do when he tried to explain a difficult concept to her. “In order to defeat Voldemort we must destroy the Horcruxes. It’s what Harry would want, were he to know-”

“So tell him,” she snapped. She didn’t know which emotion was stronger, her sorrow or her anger. Bellatrix was alarmed, but she could focus on nothing other than his blue eyes. The eyes that had looked at her with pride and affection, and occasionally disappointment. They looked at her now with determination.

“He will find out eventually,” he said. His voice was soft. “I worry that the knowledge will be too much for him. Eventually he’ll know. Severus will tell him-”

“Uncle Sev knows?” Then it was all the more reason for him to complete this task. She could not understand…

Dumbledore moved his shriveled hand to wipe at her tears, and she shivered.

“I have told him. But I cannot ask him to harm Harry. I have done many things to him over the years, but I will not do that.”

“But you’d do it to me?”

He said nothing, but she could read the answer in his eyes. Someone had to do it. And for whatever reason he had chosen her.

“Severus will find a way to explain to him when the time is right,” he continued. “He will protect the school as best as he is able. And after tonight Harry will begin his hunt to destroy the Horcruxes. In the end I trust he will do what is right and present himself before Voldemort. I believe that you will never have to harm him.” His hold on her hand tightened. “But if Voldemort finds out- if he suspects and chooses to protect Harry, I need you to finish it.” His voice hardened. “Voldemort must be stopped. At all cost.”

And she understood then that she was his sacrifice to the greater good. She opened her mouth to tell him, but something else came out. “You’ve killed me.”

He blinked, and frowned. “Hermione-”

“I did everything you wanted me to. I’ve cosied up to the Dark Lord, I’m becoming a Death Eater, I’ve alienated my brother- all at your request. And when this is over, if the Dark Lord falls, do you know what they’re going to do to me?” She wrenched her hand away from him, and watched him clutch at his robes in surprise. “They’re going to toss me to the Dementors. Or worse! They’ll lock me up in Azkaban for the rest of my life!”

The chair scraped back and she stood. “My life is over!”

On his knees, he shook his head, “I have memories in place. Letters. Fawkes will take them to the Ministry when this is all over-”

“I’m sure they’ll take a bird seriously,” she scoffed.

It took him several tries to rise into a standing position. She had never seen him look so pale, or so desperate. “Hermione, I won’t let anything happen to you.”

“Like nothing’s going to happen to Harry?”

As soon as she said it she could tell that it hurt him. He stumbled into his chair and buried his face in his good hand.

After a moment of watching him, she bent and picked up her fallen cup. A wave of her wand dried the spilled tea and her shoes, and she set the cup back on it’s saucer.

“You will be taken care of,” he said. He looked up at her, “I promise you. I won’t let them villainize you.” He took a deep breath, “I will make them understand. You have sacrificed so much for the cause, and you will be rewarded.”

His promises didn’t sound as confident as the Dark Lord’s. He sounded desperate. She nodded, “Ok.”

He held her gaze for a moment. “Then you’ll do it?”

She nodded, and ran her thumb over the smooth dip in the handle of her wand.

Relief filled his face, and he staggered to his feet. On stumbling legs he crossed to her, and drew her into his arms.

Though she would have preferred to be anywhere else, she hugged him back. It was as if she had been dipped in an icy pool. All of her emotions felt like they were at arm’s length, except for the anger that flickered and snapped in her chest.

“My Hermione,” he whispered. He drew back, and clapped her shoulder with his good hand. “I could not be prouder of you than if you had been my own daughter.”

Had he said that to her an hour earlier she would have glowed with pride. Instead, she nodded and felt a calm mask slip over her features.  

“I haven’t been the uncle you deserve,” he continued. The soft light seemed to catch on every wrinkle on his face, making him look ancient. “But you have been so much more than I ever could have imagined. I promise I will make sure you get through this.”

It took her a moment to realize he was waiting for her to do something, and she forced a smile. All she wanted to do was curse him, and the thought terrified her.

“I’d better go… prepare.”

He nodded slowly, and stepped back. “I’ll see you tonight then.”

She could not look at him anymore. “Yeah. Tonight.”

She did not remember walking to the owlery. It wasn’t until she watched the owl fly off that she realized where she was.

It’s tonight , she thought to Bellatrix.

There was a ripple of excitement, then concern. “When should I be there?”

There was a soft hoot from above her, and she looked up into Hedwig’s glittering eyes. The room seemed to swim around them, and she bit her lip to keep from crying out.

Ten-ish? He’s going out with Harry .

“Doveling, what’s wrong?”

If she told her what she had just promised Dumbledore she knew she would start crying. And if she started crying she might not have the nerve to complete her task. She thought of her father and forced her feelings down.

We can talk about it later, she promised, not now.

Bellatrix seemed more worried by this, but did not push her.

She walked blindly to the Gryffindor Common Room. Nothing would feel better than sliding into bed and letting the covers consume her, but she knew that she could not fail tonight. Instead, she took up residence in her favorite wingback chair by the window.

Never had she felt as focused as she did that night. A cold calm settled over her, and she focused on nothing else but waiting. The dinner bell came and went, and she waited in the deserted common room.

Slowly, her peers trickled back in. A few confused looks were shot her way, but she ignored them.

And then Harry pushed his way in, his face pale but determined. She watched him dart into the passage to the boy’s dormitories, and then emerge a few moments later with his schoolbag and… a pair of socks?

“Ron, could you join me a moment?” He called to the youngest Weasley boy.

The redhead was at his side in an instant, and Hermione realized with horror that the were walking towards her. There was nowhere to go, however, and she forced herself to stay calm as harry pulled the other boy towards her.

“It’s time,” Harry whispered. “Dumbledore thinks he’s found the next Horcrux-”

Ron’s face morphed into horror as Harry explained where he would be going that night. Hermione tried to make her face look similar.

“Harry, it’s going to be dangerous,” she said. “You know that- that He wouldn’t hide them just anywhere. There’s got to be traps set up around it or something.”

This did nothing to deter him. “I need you both to keep an eye out,” he said urgently. “I have a bad feeling about tonight. The castle will be vulnerable without Dumbledore. If anything happens-” He thrust the socks into Hermione’s hands. “I want you to use that when I leave.”

“You want us to use a pair of socks?” She exchanged a look with Ron, and for once there was confusion instead of animosity in his eyes.

Harry let out a strangled laugh. “It’s not- it’s inside the socks, Hermione! It’s the rest of the Felix Felicis. I want you to split it amongst the two of you, and Draco and Ginny. Maybe Neville and Luna if there’s enough. We need to be vigilant tonight. I need you to have all the luck you can get.” His green eyes darkened, “We must protect Hogwarts.”

Ron clapped a hand over his shoulder. “We will, Harry. Leave it to me and Malfoy-”

Hermione looked up at him in surprise. Never before had he said her name without sneering it.

“-we’ll keep her safe.”

Luckily, Harry did not look to her for reassurance. She did not know if she could lie to anyone at that moment.

“I have to go,” he said, “Dumbledore’s waiting. Good luck!” He sped to the portrait hole and darted out.

Ron had already fished out his D.A. coin, and quickly changed the date and time, “I’m having them meet us in ten,” he explained to Hermione. “Does the Room of Requirement sound good to you?”

Again, his voice lacked all animosity. She felt as if she were in a dream. “Yeah, sounds good.”

“I’m going to put on a different robe,” when he looked at her, there was a look that could almost be described as friendly. “I’ll meet you there.”

She nodded, and after a moment, decided to change as well. She did not want to be wearing school robes when… She shook the thought out of her head as she changed into her favorite green robes. Her mother said they were her best robes, and she always felt a bit more put together when she wore them. With quick motions she knotted her hair at the back of her head, and pinned it securely.

“Very smart,” crooned the mirror.

She reached into the sock and pulled out the little gold bottle of Felix Felicis. It sparkled alluringly in her hand, and she wondered if it would indeed help them. Hiding it in her fist, she made her way to the room of requirement.

The others were already assembled by the time she got there, and Draco ran to hug her, “Hermione! What’s happening?”

Without mentioning the Horcruxes, as Neville, Luna, and Ginny knew nothing about them, Hermione explained that Harry and Dumbledore had gone to investigate something that might help them defeat Voldemort.

Ron took over, “It’s up to us to protect the castle,” he said. “At least until we have concrete evidence that there is an attack.”

“Only a few hours now,” said Luna in her dreamy voice.

Hermione’s skin prickled, and she wondered just how much Luna knew. If she could really be a seer.

“We have the coins,” Ron said, switch the location to wherever you are if you see anything out of the ordinary, and we’ll all meet there. He looked to her, “Hermione, do you have the Felix Felicis?”

It was the first time he had ever used her name. She tried not to stare at him as she held out the little bottle.

The bottle was passed around the circle, with each taking a small swallow. When it came to Hermione’s turn she ignored the guilty pang in her chest and downed the rest.

Warmth spread throughout her chest. It was almost like Turnip’s magic, but it was also as if she had just received a pep talk from her parents. All of her guilt eased, and was replaced with the resolution that she could complete her task. That she would.

They broke off individually, and she took off towards the corridor that contained the witch’s statue.

Curfew came and went, and she managed to avoid Filch twice as he patrolled the corridor she occupied.

Something shifted as the clocks chimed eleven. Something inside her decided it would be better to find the highest tower. Something far away from the other students, a place where they would not be interrupted. And she needed a way to signal to Dumbledore that she was there.

As if driven by another force, her feet took off. It took her a few moments to realize that she was headed for the Astronomy Tower. The shadows pressed heavily around her as she muttered the unlocking charm and climbed the stone steps to the highest room. Without thinking she darted to the nearest window and stuck her wand out.

“Morsmordre!” Green smoke blossomed from the tip of her wand, and she stared at it in surprise as it slowly formed the gaping skull and the curling serpent of the Dark Mark. She felt the smallest tinge of fear slip past the self assurance that the Felix Felicis gave her. Dumbledore would never be able to resist the Dark Mark. She was certain it would bring him.

She stared up at the ghostly image, and steeled herself. There was no room for fear. Not while she had the task to complete.

Just as she began to grow impatient, a warm voice slid through her mind.

“I’m here, Doveling.”

Good , she thought. Satisfaction wrapped around her. At least part of the plan had begun. Dumbledore’s Army is patrolling the castle. Can you distract them while I wait for Dumbledore?

“Of course.”

Then all I have to wait for is Dumbledore.

“Where are you?”

The Astronomy Tower

There was a flash of pain across her arm, and she knew that Bellatrix had come across someone. “I’ll be there.”

In the warm evening breeze Hermione swallowed, and sent up a half-formed prayer that no one was seriously injured that night. No one except…

A movement caught her eye at the gates, and she watched two figures on broomsticks dart towards the castle. She knew before she could make out their features who they were.

This is it , she told herself. She was more grateful than ever for the luck potion, as a cool wave of confidence washed over her. She pushed all thoughts of Harry from her mind.

She watched their approach, and let out a small growl of frustration when they reached the tower. They did not aim for the highest room, as she had anticipated. Instead, they landed somewhere below her. Tightening her fist around her wand, she twisted away and stalked towards the door.

There were cries below her, and the flash of spells, but she ignored them. The only sensation that registered was the electric pulse across her skin that signalled that Bellatrix was near.

She nearly tripped at the next landing, and wrenched open the door. Nothing. Had they gone farther down than she thought? The room next to it was empty as well, and she practically flew down the stairs to the next lowest landing. The fighting was right below her, and she gasped as a stunner flew by her, narrowly avoiding her nose.

But as soon as the door opened all thoughts of the battle slipped away. There, standing in the middle of the room, was her uncle.

“Ah, Hermione. The time has come.”

He looked smaller than he should. As if he had shrunk in the hours that he had been away. His voice was hoarse. His hair disheveled. 

All trace of the Felix Felicis potion faded away.

“What’s happened to you?” She whispered. His appearance rattled her. “Where did you go?”

He gave her a faint smile, “Nevermind that now. You have a task to carry out, isn’t that right?”

Why did he phrase it like that? She tightened her grip on her wand and eyed him. Though she had been ready to do it ten minutes earlier, she found herself unable to open her mouth.

“Hermione,” he said gently, “Please-”

A metallic scrape clanged through the room, and the door behind her burst open. For a moment her heart caught in her throat and she thought the Order had managed to break through…

And then the pleasant buzz over her skin intensified, and she relaxed.

Bella.

“I’m here, Dove,” came the raspy voice. Nothing had ever sounded more beautiful to her.

Another voice joined her, “Hermione…” Snape stepped into view, his face starkly white as he took in the scene.

Dumbledore shook his head slightly, “Severus, no-”

“Shut up, old man!” Spat Bellatrix.  Her arm was warm as it wrapped around Hermione’s waist, and she leaned protectively over her. “Are you hurt? Has he done anything?”

Hermione felt her eyes sting as she forced her eyes to meet Bellatrix’s gaze. No, I’m just… having trouble.

A pale hand pushed the curls away from her forehead, “It happens to the best of us,” she purred. “Take a deep breath, and focus. This is your task.”

“You don’t need to do anything,” protested Snape. “You shouldn’t have to-”

“It’s my task,” said Hermione in a slightly stronger voice. Bellatrix’s arm was still around her. “I have to do it, or my father…” she swallowed, and turned her gaze back to Dumbledore.

Where there had been warmth in those twinkling blue eyes there now was fear. “You were speaking to her,” he said. “But, the Occlumency shields should have-”

“Kept me out?” shot Bellatrix. She pulled Hermione tighter against her, so that their heads nearly touched. “You stupid fool. Nothing could separate us! Not even your barrier kept me out for long!”

“I see,” and once again his expression was unreadable as he gazed at Hermione. “And how long have you been communicating?”

Bella, don’t-

“Since you rigged the hat to sort her into Gryffindor!” Bellatrix’s wand shot off a series of silver sparks.

He looked between them, and then at Snape. “You knew about this, Severus?”

The younger man said nothing.

“I see.” Was it sadness or fear that crept into his gaze? “Well, Hermione, I must say I’m disappointed-”

She cringed.

“-in myself. I should have been the person you trusted the most.”

“Well you’re not.” Bellatrix’s wand sparked again. “You’ve done nothing but antagonize Hermione from the beginning. Forcing her into Gryffindor, trying to guilt her into caring for Muggles, keeping me away!” Her voice broke on the last word, and she made a motion as if to hex him, but Hermione quickly put her hand on her arm.

“Don’t,” she said, “I need to do it.”

She stepped out of Bellatrix’s hold, and Dumbledore backed up so that his back was to the open window.

“Hermione,” he said gently, “My dear Hermione. You should have trusted me.”

“Why?” She could barely speak past the lump in her throat, “So you could take her away again?” It was easier to focus on her anger than on the dim look in his eye, the crumpled mess of his robes.

“It’s not too late,” he said gravely. “The promise you made me? You must keep it.”

Blood roared in her ears, and she raised her wand. When she spoke, her voice was clear and calm. “Goodbye Uncle Albus.”

He shook his head, “Hermione, no. Please!”

“Avada Kedavra!”

His eyes widened as the green light hit him square in the chest, and she watched him fall as if in slow motion through the window. She knew without looking that he was gone. She had done it.

He was gone.

The door behind them burst open, and Alecto Carrow stuck her brad head in and gasped out, “The whole Auror Department is here! We have to retreat!”

Bellatrix leapt forward and grabbed her arm, pulling her through the door. Severus followed close behind.

They stepped over a body at the foot of the staircase, but Hermione was too dazed to look.

“There’s a passage over here that leads to the entrance hall,” said Severus gravely, running ahead of them.

“I know that!” Bellatrix snapped. “This was my school too!"

“Focus on guiding Hermione,” he said in scathing tones. “We need to get her out of here.”

She did not even question that she was leaving Hogwarts. Her fingers gripped the fabric of Bellatrix’s robes so tightly she was surprised they did not tear it. She kept her hold even as they trampled down the narrow passageway.

They reached the Entrance Hall, and she felt relief wash over her. The door hung open, the fresh night air filled the hall. They were going to make it. She wouldn’t have to see-

“Hermione?”

The last person she wanted to see was her brother. She felt as if she would be sick as he ran across the Entrance Hall. His robes were in tatters, and his face was streaked with dirt and sweat. “Hermione, what are you doing?”

It was Snape who opened his mouth to answer, but he was cut off.

“NO!” A voice shot out from above them.

She looked up into a pair of enraged green eyes. Where had Harry come from?

“I saw you!” He spat. He closed the distance between them, his wand raised.

“Harry-” said Draco, his voice attempting to soothe their friend.

But Harry shook him off, his eyes bore hatefully into Hermione’s, “She killed Dumbledore!”

Snape’s hand was cold on the back of her neck, “Go to the gates, Bellatrix,” he commanded in a low voice. “Go now, do not look back.”

For once, Bellatrix obeyed. Her arm tightened around Hermione and she pulled the brunette forward.  

Tearing her eyes away from Harry, Hermione did as she was bidden. Snape was right behind her, his hand never left her back.

A moment later a stunner shot past them.

“NOOOOO!” Harry screamed. “HERMIONE!”

“I’ll take care of this,” her uncle promised, “Get her to the Manor.”

Home? Was she finally going home?

Bellatrix pulled her towards the gates, and broke into an all-out run.

She could hear Hagrid’s voice join the others behind her, but Bellatrix refused to allow her to look back. “Keep going, Dove. Keep on.”

At last they reached the gates, and she had no time to react as Bellatrix pulled her into a side-along apparation.

Chapter Text

She landed unsteadily on the wide lawn, and fell gracelessly onto her side. For a moment, all she could do was reel as the world spun around her.

“Sorry, Dove,” Bellatrix’s hands slid beneath her arms and hoisted her to her feet.

Hermione looked up, expecting to see the beautiful baroque Malfoy Manor, and felt her stomach drop as she gazed instead upon Riddle Manor.

“I can’t,” she said, shrinking against Bellatrix. “Not tonight, Bella.”

“Shhh,” Bellatrix wrapped an arm around her, “Just for a little while, it’s what we do after tasks, you see? And then I’m taking you home with me.”

Hermione let out a shaky breath, and nodded. As much as she wanted her mother, she also knew she would not be able to bear looking into her eyes when she found out what Hermione had done.

Her legs shook with exhaustion as she climbed to the now-familiar room where Voldemort waited for his followers.

Wormtail answered the door at her knock, and brushed to the side to allow her entrance.

“Hermione!” Red eyes glinted in the dim light of the fire, and a cushioned stool was conjured for her. The smell of decay filled the room, and Hermione took shallow breaths through her mouth to lessen the impact. Bellatrix’s gaze was proud as she dropped into the chair beside Voldemort’s.

“Tell me, is it done?”

Hermione nodded. Her gaze fell to her lap.

The other witch took over. “We were forced to retreat before we could take Hogwarts, my lord. The whole Auror Department-”

“But Dumbledore is dead?”

Bellatrix’s voice was proud, “Yes, my lord.”

“Then Hogwarts is of little consequence. We’ll take it over when we get control of the Ministry.”

Bellatrix’s relief flooded into Hermione, “Thank you!”

He hummed, and looked over to her. “You don’t look happy, child.”

Of course she didn’t. She realized with a start that Dumbledore had never told her how to act after his death. The script was entirely up to her now. “I… I’m happy that my father will be free, my lord.”

There was a warm chuckle, “Ah, yes. He will be, thanks to you. In fact, the whole of Magical Britain is free now thanks to you. Wormtail! Fetch me the best wine we have! And three glasses- alright, four. Even you have cause to celebrate tonight, Wormtail!”

After a few minutes she felt calmer, and it took her a moment to realize that it came from Bellatrix. The dark witch gave her a warm smile, and took it upon herself to tell the story of how the great Albus Dumbledore had been killed by his own student.

The story was finished by the time Wormtail huffed his way back into the room. His breathing was the only sound in the room as he poured the burgundy liquid and fetched a chair for himself.

“No, leave us,” Voldemort said when he had dragged a chair up beside Bellatrix’s. “I’d like only untainted Death Eaters in the room for this.”

Hermione sat up straighter. What more could he possibly ask of her that night?

The door snapped shut none too gently, and the three gazed at each other. Two in confusion, and one in merriment.

“Hermione, my child. You have made me prouder than I could say on this day.”

A pale hand stroked through her messy curls, and she barely suppressed a shudder.

“My Lord?” Bellatrix scooted to the edge of her chair.

“Hermione, your arm.”

Numbly, Hermione held out her left arm. She knew what was coming, had known that it would come, but somehow she had hoped to get out of it. Now, she had no fight left in her.

“You have done me the greatest service anyone could have done for me.” For a moment, she wondered what it would have been like to be Bellatrix, and to have a handsome Dark Lord say those words to her. Despite her misgivings, pride curled around her. “I grant you the greatest honor I can give. With this mark, you will become one of my most trusted, none but me will have more power than you. Will you accept it?”

There was nothing else she could say. “Yes.”

He held her wrist firmly in his grasp, and pressed the tip of his wand to the unblemished skin of her inner forearm.

She let out a hiss as something pushed into her skin. It burned, Merlin it burned! But it also took her breath away and left her panting as the strangest sensation washed over her. It was like she was floating miles above herself. All the pain and exhaustion of the evening washed away, and she was left with a strange exhilaration. The pain was delicious, the pain was necessary, but it was nothing like the sensation of belonging that filled her. Giddiness filled her, and she reached for Bellatrix’s hand.

Can you feel that?

“Yes, Doveling. I feel it.”

I-I can’t-I don’t know what to do!

“Just relax, it will last for a few hours.”

Hermione wished he were not there. Her body felt as if it were on fire- but also as if she had been hit with a thousand cheering charms. She could feel every sensation keenly, and it all pulsed around the glowing fire that raced across her left arm.

He released her, and she let out a breath she had not realized she had been holding. She wanted to laugh and scream at the same time.

She downed the rest of her wine, and he let out a laugh that scraped across her ears as he refilled it.

“It’s a shame young Higgs could not be here for this,” he said in his high voice. Too high. “He called for her during his own marking. It’s always heartwarming when young lovers get marked together.”

A new sensation settled heavily across her chest, and it took her a moment to realize it was Bellatrix’s jealousy. Why was she jealous? Hermione frowned, and stood on shaky legs, “Bella.” She had to be nearer to her. There was nothing else on Earth that could keep her from the dark witch. Not even the Dark Lord.

Bellatrix let out a concerned squawk as Hermione climbed onto her lap and curled her head against her chest. The pleasant feeling that always washed over her when she touched Bellatrix was magnified tenfold, and she felt drunk from it.

My Bella. She nuzzled her cheek against the smooth skin of Bellatrix’s neck. The high cold laugh sounded behind her.

“Doveling, be careful.”

There was another cold laugh, “Then again, some of them just seek out the comfort of family.”

What was he talking about?

“I think she’s over-tired, my lord. May I take her home?”

“Of course, of course. I expect- Ah, here they are!”

Suddenly, the room was full of people, and Hermione shrank against Bellatrix as too many voices filled the room.

“Ah! Someone’s been marked!”

“-The Malfoy girl? Lucius will be proud-”

“-was just as bad when I was marked. I found a corner and-”

Voldemort’s voice cried out, “Ah! Severus! You should be proud of your pupil today. She has taken the mark!”

Despite the haze of her thoughts, Hermione pulled her head up to meet her uncle’s black gaze.

“I’m glad you’re ok,” she whispered. There was a smattering of laughs around her, and she realized that were it not for the strange fog the mark had put her in she would have been embarrassed.

Snape did not laugh. His gaze was serious as he took her in. “I’m glad you are ok too, Hermione.”

And then she was on her feet, and Bellatrix said something about the floo. She could barely pull up an argument against the floo before Bellatrix shouted something and tossed her into the green flames.

She was spit out onto the floor of Bellatrix’s bedroom. The sheepskin rug was soft beneath her, and she buried her face in it. A moment later Bellatrix herself came through the floo, and she let out a gentle laugh as she hoisted Hermione onto the bed.

“Bella!” Hermione whined, “It doesn’t feel good.” She let out a heavy laugh, “I mean it does, but it doesn’t! I hate it!”

Kneeling on the wooden floor before her, Bellatrix clucked in sympathy, “It’s never going to be as strong as it is right now.” she promised.

Hermione’s eyes widened, “You mean it does this a lot?” She had to move, her body practically screamed at her to move, so she began rocking back and forth. Her hands raked back and forth across Bellatrix’s skin, and the sensation was so powerful that she could hardly bear it.

“Only when he wants it to,” Bellatrix said softly. “When you do something right, he can make you feel more pleasure then you’ve ever felt in your life.” Her gaze darkened, “And when you fail him he can put you in incredible pain without a curse. But it never lasts long, and he almost always prefers the curse. More control.”

Hermione reached for her, lust coiling inside her until it felt as if it would tear her apart. She tugged Bellatrix close and pressed her lips hungrily against hers.

Gentle hands pushed her back. “Not like this.”

A noise halfway between a wail and a scream ripped itself from her throat, and she shook as her hands fisted into Bellatrix’s robes. “Please!”

“It won’t help.” Her eyes were apologetic, but firm. “And I’m not going to do anything while you are like this. It wouldn’t be right.”

Something clicked into place. “He’s done this to you?” Hermione asked, her eyes wide. “He’s made you feel like this? Wh-when you were marked?”

She didn’t need to say anything, her eyes confirmed it.

The Dark Lord’s red eyes flew through her mind, and she remembered what he said about lovers. She felt as if she would be sick. “Has he ever…”

Bellatrix shook her head, “I promise you, I’ve never slept with the Dark Lord.” There was something else though, a hesitation that Hermione picked up on.

“Someone else then?”

Shame, heavy and painful and not hers, washed over Hermione. She reached out and tangled her fingers a little too tightly in Bellatrix’s curls. “When did you get the mark, Bella?”

There was a faraway look in her eyes that Hermione wanted to chase away. Bellatrix swallowed, and said in a hushed tone, “On my wedding night.” Her mouth twisted in a grim smile, “It was his gift to us. I was going to call it off, but the Dark Lord saw the marriage as advantageous and promised me that I would earn the mark if I followed through.”

“And… the magic from the mark…”

Bellatrix’s nod confirmed it.

“But you… you hate him.” She felt her own desire diminidh, and the elation that sang through her veins was dampened by the realization of what Bellatrix had gone through.

There was a sigh, and the bed dipped as Bellatrix climbed onto the sheets beside her. Hermione leaned into her, inhaling deeply. She smelled like spices and night air. Crisp and deep.

“You don’t need to worry about this in your state.”

Hermione’s eyes shot open, and she studied the sharp curve of Bellatrix’s jaw. She wanted to reassure her that she could be there for her in any state. “I hate him. The Dark Lord. He shouldn’t do this to people.”

“He didn’t know how cruel Rodolphus would be,” Bellatrix said quietly. “He apologized, afterwards, and permitted me to find my own living quarters.” She swallowed. “When he tried to follow me, the Dark Lord made it clear that I was to be left alone. Annulments are difficult, you see- but our Lord promised that when he has control over the ministry he’ll push it through.”

Hermione opened her mouth to ask why he pushed so hard for them to be married in the first place, but stopped. Bellatrix’s distress flooded into her, and she knew it was time to stop talking about this. At that moment, a flare of pain came from her arm, and she hissed.

Immediately, Bellatrix lifted the cursed arm to her chest and stroked cool fingers down the mark. The act in itself did little to soothe Hermione, but she swallowed heavily and pulled her arm away so she could twine her fingers through Bellatrix’s.

“I’ll kill him, Bella.” she promised. She wasn’t entirely sure if she was speaking about the Dark Lord or Rodolphus, and from the look in her eye, Bellatrix wasn’t either.

“Be careful, Dove. If anything happens to you-”

“Nothing will happen to either of us.” She had to be closer to Bellatrix, and she scooted forward so that her body was flush against the older witch’s. This time, she wrapped her arms around Bellatrix, and felt the other witch take a deep, shuddering breath.

They stayed like that for a long while. Hermione felt waves of joy and sorrow wash over her in quick succession, and buried her face in the tangle of dark curls before her. Her body shook, as if trying to rattle out the strange poison that scalded the veins of her left arm.

After a long while, Bellatrix twisted in her arms and studied her. She must have decided something, for she stood, and summoned a House Elf. Hermione laid her cheek against the cool cotton sheets and shivered in the warm air. After a few minutes of watching the elf build a fire and conjure a large bathtub, she began to giggle.

“What’s so funny?” asked Bellatrix, her lips quirked in a half-smile.

“I k-killed Uncle Albus,” giggled Hermione helplessly. Her fingers plucked restlessly at the fabric of her robes. “And now I’m a Marked Death Eater.”

Neither one of them acknowledged the sorrow that drenched through their bond.

“Let’s get you into the bath,” Bellatrix said. She pulled Hermione gently to her feet, and helped her shrug off the soiled robes.

The water was warm and calming, and Hermione let out a shaking breath as she leaned against the porcelain edge. “Everyone’s going to hate me,” she whispered.

“Nonsense,” Bellatrix pulled a stool close, and rested her elbows on the side of the tub. “No one will hate you.”

Something trickled down her cheek, and Hermione brushed it away. “I hate myself,” she confessed.

Bellatrix’s warm hand slid into hers, and she clung to it with all she had.

“You are more dear to me than anything else in this world,” Bellatrix swore. She ran her lips over Hermione’s knuckles, and the girl felt the sensation up her whole arm.

“I’m never going to be able to look Mother in the eye again,” she moaned.

The water sloshed as Bellatrix poured an herbal solution into it, and Hermione felt the fire in her veins lessen the slightest bit. She sighed, and leaned her head back.

“It will get better, my doveling. Your mother will understand. She will, I promise.”

“But Draco won’t.”

A warm hand rested against her cheek. “Don’t think about it for now. Think of something else. Have I ever told you about the time I was sent to be the Dark Lord’s emissary to the werewolves?”

Listless, Hermione shook her head.

“Well, it didn’t go as well as he hoped. They had a campground of sorts- and I forgot that I was supposed to bring an ox as tribute, so I showed up empty handed…”

Her insides were tangled, pleasure and pain fighting for dominance, but she found that the story helped to distract her a little from the overwhelming sensations. She lay in the tub, shivering and twitching, and tried to lose herself in Bellatrix’s voice.

Chapter Text

 

Lucius Malfoy lay curled on his tiny bed. The cell was damp, and filled with the stench of urine and the sickly sweet musk of mildew. Daily rain poured through the glassless slit of the window, soaking his pillow and hair, but he never moved. The only times he moved was to relieve himself, or to consume the twice daily ration of water, stew, and stale bread. A chipped enamel bowl sat on the stone floor beneath the narrow bed, and his fingers reached down to brush across it.

“Cissa,” he whispered into the empty cell. “Hermione. Draco.” He blinked, and swallowed. “Cissa. Hermione. Draco.” A wet cough bubbled up from his chest, and he sputtered and choked until it stopped. Drawing in deep breaths, he ignored the burn in his nose from the mildew and other spores residing in the cell. He shifted the too-small blanket so that it covered his shoulders better, and tried not to notice how cold his feet were.

“Cissa. Hermione. Draco.”

The happiness that came from their memories had faded long ago, when he learned that happiness only brought the freezing agony of the dementors. It had been a long time- how long he could not guess, for it felt like years- since he had felt the warmth of happiness.

But it kept him from slipping into complete madness. When he spoke to them, he knew they were not really there. He could see them sometimes- his darling, beautiful wife. So clean and pressed, and laughing her radiant laugh. Or his boy, with his mussed hair and his slow smile.

Or his girl. His wonderful girl with her passionate love of politics and her bright eyes. The same eyes that had been clouded in pain when he held her in the Ministry.

He let out a low groan and squeezed his eyes shut. “Cissa. Hermione. Draco.” The words were softer now, more a plea than a chant. “Cissa. Hermione. Draco.”

She had visited him in his cell at the Ministry. His wonderful girl. Could she have forgiven him? Could she truly?

You do not deserve to be forgiven , a scabby voice growled in the back of his mind.

“I know,” he said out loud. “I know!”

Where were they now? Had the Dark Lord punished them after his failures? Narcissa would survive, he told himself. She would make it. Hermione too. Draco-

The last time he had spoken to his son the boy had barely said two words to him. He knew Draco hated him, he hated himself for what he had done to his family.

His family. What had happened to them? They were better off without him, he had convinced himself of that months earlier, but would they be able to survive..?

Yes. The answer was yes. It had to be. If nothing else, Dumbledore would keep them safe. He had sworn it. Dumbledore would protect his family.

The rain trickled harder down the window, and he blinked as it splattered across his face, but made no motion to wipe it away. Another wet cough seized him, making him shake and shudder for a long minute, until his throat burned and he tasted blood in the back of his throat.

“Papa!”

She was not there. How could she be? But when her smooth hand wrapped around his, a strange hope seized him.

Worried brown eyes swam in his vision- which was suddenly obscured by his tears. “Papa? I’ve come to take you home.”

She smelled like mint toothpaste and floo powder. Nothing had ever smelled so wonderful to him, and he brought his hand up to scrape against her soft cheek. “My girl…”

“Let’s get you home, hmm?” Her voice was too soft, as if he were an invalid. He opened his mouth to tell her not to worry, and lost himself in another coughing fit.

A male voice sounded. “Hermione, I’ve arranged for the others to be led to the boats. Do you need help in here?”

Her hand on his tightened, “No thank you, Terence. I can manage.” To him, she said, “Come on, Papa, we don’t have much time before the new guards come.”

Perhaps it wasn’t a dream after all. Could she really be there?

And then she conjured a blanket, “We won’t let them see you like this,” she whispered, throwing it over his shoulders. He must have looked a fright for her to be so tender with him.

His stiff muscles cried out in pain as he heaved himself to his feet, but her arm was steady around him, bracing him throughout the long walk through the prison. The last time he had seen these corridors his stride had been proud, confident. Now he shuffled through them, a broken old man.

“Hurry, Hermione!” the male voice cried out when they finally reached the docks. He blinked in surprise as he recognized the speaker. So, young Higgs had grown up. Behind the boy, the battered, feeble forms of his fellow Death Eaters waited. And it hit him.

He was going home.

Warmth spread through his chest, unchecked and pure. He didn’t even care when he stumbled in front of them all. Hermione’s arms flew out to catch him, and he beamed up at her. His girl.

The sleeve of her robes had ridden up, and something dark caught the corner of his eye. He turned his head, and the warmth rushed out of him as quickly as if he had been doused in ice water. The twisted skull-and-snake glared back at him from what should have been unmarred skin.

He let out a low moan and realized that he was not in a dream at all.

He was in a nightmare.

 

XX

 

Malfoy Manor had seen better days. In the chaos that surrounded the days following Dumbledore’s death, Hermione had stayed at Bellatrix’s lodge. With Lucius’ return, the Dark Lord decided that it was time for the Malfoy’s to go home. In addition, the Dark Lord himself began holding court at the Manor. Malfoy Manor was closer to the woods where Greyback’s werewolf clan presided, and was far grander than Riddle Manor.

Hermione slipped down the darkened corridor to her parent’s room. Below her, the raucous laughter of the Dark Lord’s guests sounded, and she rolled her eyes. They were not Death Eaters, she knew that, and so she had not been forced to greet them. Instead, she stepped through her mother’s empty sitting room, and knocked on the door that led to the bedroom.

“Come in,” came the soft reply.

The door squeaked open, and Hermione blinked for a few moments as her eyes adjusted to the gloom. “Is he awake?”

Her mother sat in a chair by the bed, and she nodded. “He is.” She closed the book she had been reading, and called out in a softer voice, “Hermione is here, darling.”

There was no answer except for a low groan. Her father had burned with fever for the first week that he’d been home, and he still seemed to be in a state of delirium. Uncle Severus had been by twice a day to check on him, and had decided that they would try wit-sharpening potions once his cough went away.

“Has he been coughing?” Hermione whispered.

Narcissa bent to smooth the blankets around him, and shook her head, “Not once. I think Severus will be administering the first restorative draught today.”

Relief flooded her. She did not like seeing her father in such a state. She sat down on the edge of the bed and forced a cheery smile. “Hello Papa!”

He shook his head, “It’s not real, It can’t be.”

She shared a look with her mother, and kept her voice light, “What’s not real?”

There was a noise like a sob, and she felt her heart sink.

“He’s not getting any better, is he?” she asked her mother.

Her mother sighed, “Yes, he is. The infection is gone, and his lungs are finally clear, I think. It’s a massive improvement over two weeks ago.”

She shook her head, “Not his sickness, his mind. He doesn’t know he’s home.”

“It takes time to recover from Azkaban. We knew it would take time. He’ll know where he is soon enough.”

“Maybe if Draco were here-”

Her mother cut in sharply, “You know perfectly well that Draco cannot be here.”

Hermione sat back immediately. Her mother had returned the same night that Hermione brought her father home, but had passed on her regrets to the Dark Lord that Draco’s condition had worsened, and he had been sent to the alps to recuperate.

“Maybe we can take Papa to see him,” pleaded Hermione. “Just for a little bit.”

Her mother did not meet her eyes, “You know perfectly well that your father isn’t fit to travel. He barely survived the trip home, let alone a visit to the continent-”

“I know Draco’s not in the alps!” Hermione snapped.

Silence. Her mother’s cold stare made her blush in embarrassment.

“I’m sorry,” she began again, “But I deserve to know where he is. I can keep him safe.”

Her mother’s eyes flickered, and for a moment they looked incredibly sad. “He’s perfectly safe in the alps,” she said finally.

That stung more than her father’s delirium. She sat there for a moment, her cheeks hotter than ever, and then forced herself to her feet. “I’m sorry,” she said in a heavy voice, “I’ve just remembered that I’ve got a- I need to-”

“I’ll let you know when Severus arrives,” said her mother gently.

Hermione nodded, and fled.

She ran blindly down the corridor to the wing where her and Draco’s rooms were housed. Again, the laughter from the drawing room floated obnoxiously upwards, but she ignored it.

“Winky!” She cried out when her bedroom door was safely closed. It had been redecorated shortly before her father’s arrest, and it did not quite feel the same. It was the room of a grown witch, not the child who had schemed and daydreamed. The only thing that was the same was the four poster bed that still looked as if it belonged to a princess. A Slytherin princess.

The house elf appeared with a loud pop, “Mistress called Winky?”

Hermione went to her new vanity and sat, “Is he still at the Weasley’s?”

Winky nodded so emphatically that her ears flopped against her head. “Mistress’ brother is still with the Weasleys,” she said in a worried tone. “He has dyed his hair red, Mistress! And they are planning to call him Dan when the relatives is coming.”

She looked up at that, “Relatives?”

“Oh yes! There is to be a great wedding, Mistress! And Mistress’ brother will be hidden with his red hair. Old Weasley says they are going to do the same thing to Mr. Harry Potter too.”

She thought about that as she touched up her makeup. Winky happily pulled out a fresh summer robe-light pink with sleeves short enough to reveal her mark. In a few hours the Dark Lord would invite the inner circle to the Manor, and she would be expected to play the part of hostess.

“Really it should be mother,” she told Winky, who was giving a last polish to her soft leather shoes. “But Bellatrix says that since she’s not marked she can’t come to our inner circle meetings.”

Unlike Dobby, who was always very fidgety whenever Hermione spoke about personal matters, Winky proved to be a good listener. She made sympathetic noises as she helped Hermione dress, and proved to have a fiery temper when it came to things that upset Hermione.

“Mistress’ mother should know that Mistress can be trusted,” Winky said, scowling as she watched Hermione pin her hair up. “Mistress should tell her that we know where young Malfoy is, and that we would never harm him!”

Hermione smiled at her in the mirror, and turned around, “We can’t let mother know that we know,” she said as lightly as she could, “or anyone else for that matter.”

A horrified look crossed Winky’s face. “Winky would never tell! Winky is a good elf!” She scowled at the hem of her towel, and added in an undertone, “But Mistress’ mother should know better than to think that Mistress would ever put young Malfoy in danger.”

Warmth crept into Hermione’s chest, and she grinned fondly at the little creature. “I’m glad you’re my elf, Winky.”

“And Winky is glad to be Mistress’ elf!” cried the little elf. Tears welled in her eyes, and she hastily turned away.

Nothing exciting happened during the first part of the meeting. She flitted about, filling goblets of wine and passing out canapes. Neither Bellatrix nor Uncle Severus were there, and even Terence was busy on another assignment.

Instead, she listened to Lord Crabbe regale her with stories of how the Crabbe fortune (which was less than a quarter of the Malfoy fortune) had bought copious amounts of land that belonged to older Muggleborns. He was one of the few who had wormed his way out of an Azkaban sentence at the end of the Department of Mysteries fiasco, and she deeply resented how breezy his tone was.

“They’ll have to leave,” he said with a boorish snicker. “And they won’t have anywhere to go but the Muggle world soon! Our Lord will soon be overturning the ministry, and the retirement communities will be strictly regulated, I expect!”

Her stomach roiled at the thought of turning older witches and wizards away from the magical retirement communities. Surely they couldn’t be safe in the muggle world? Her father used to tell tales of his great-great-grandfather Mortimer, who had spouts of accidental magic several times a day. He had been kept safe by the house elves.

She smiled prettily, and excused herself to refresh the drinks.

“Hermione!” A warm voice called out.

She grinned at the sight of her friend. “Hello Terence,” she tapped her wand to an empty goblet, “Wine?”

He accepted the glass, and looked around. “He hasn’t had much luck with the younger generation, has he?”

Hermione looked around. Aside from her and Terence, the only other “new” Death Eater was Silas Furge, and he was twice their age. “I would have expected Vincent and Greg to join by now,” she said under her breath.

He snorted, “Don’t be silly, they’re both too soft for this line of work. They’d never make it past their first task, and their father’s know it!” His hand drifted over to his left sleeve and scratched irritably.

“Hermione, dear!” A sudden hush fell over the room as the Dark Lord cried out her name. “Won’t you join me? Let a house elf take over that!”

She smiled gratefully at him, and called for one of Mardie’s kitchen elves.

“I think we’ll have an elf play hostess from now on,” he said as she took the vacated seat by his side. “I hate to see you toil.”

It was hardly a ‘toil’, but she detested it anyway, and she hoped her smile relayed her gratitude. “I can’t thank you enough, my lord.”

“Nonsense, the woman who slayed Albus Dumbledore should serve no one,” he said with a grin of his own. “I noticed your two nannies are out,” she knew he meant Uncle Severus and Bellatrix, “and I wanted to take this opportunity to discuss your next assignment with you.”

Finally! Something to distract her from her family. She sat a bit closer to him, “I’m ready, my Lord.”

This earned her a laugh, and he patted her hand with his chilly fingers, “I’m sure you are. I recognize that eager spark in your eyes, I looked the same when I was your age.”

She couldn’t help but warm at the comparison. She had learned not to allow guilt to sink in during his presence. Instead, she allowed herself to be the Hermione Malfoy who was completely devoted to the cause and the Dark Lord. Sometimes she wondered if that was how Severus survived as well.

He continued, “You visited the Ministry Housing systems last summer, did you not?”

The shudder was barely repressed. “Yes, my lord. I did.” She and Samar had visited the squalid buildings that housed the less fortunate families many times. And each time she wondered at how the Ministry had not reformed their systems before.

“We will be taking over the Ministry at the beginning of August,” he said, his red eyes intent on hers. “Half the Auror department will be away at a conference, and once we are in control they will either fall in line or disappear.” He smiled, revealing slightly greyed teeth. “When we invade the Ministry I want to have a strong force behind us. A secret army, if you will. One that they will not see coming.”

She put the pieces together. “You want to convince the witches and wizards in Ministry Housing to join the cause.”

“No, my dear, I want you to convince the witches and wizards in Ministry Housing to join the cause.”

A mix of excitement and anxiety settled in her stomach, “But the muggleborns, my lord. Surely they won’t want to join?”

His grin stretched, “Even the greatest Empire must have some riff raff,” he sat back and gestured widely, “They will be forgiven for their unpleasing heritage, and will enter society on the same footing as any other witch or wizard of their status.” his expression grew serious, “As long as they pledge their allegiance to me.” His cold hands wrapped around hers, “Imagine the look on their faces when you crash down in the middle of their courtyards on Vercingetorix! The Dark Lord’s right hand, come to offer sanctuary and progress.”

She did shiver then, “We don’t have much time,” she pointed out. There was barely four weeks before the beginning of August.

He released her, “Then you had better start soon. Ah yes, Severus! What is it?”

She had not noticed her uncle come up beside them. He gave a short bow, “I wanted greet you, my lord, and ask if you’d permit me to examine Lucius?”

“Ah yes, see to Lucius, Severus. We don’t want him to take too long in recovery, do we?” He looked at her, “I suppose you’d like to accompany him?”

“If you’re agreeable, my lord?”

He nodded, “I am. Go to your father.”

She stood up and followed Uncle Severus to her father’s rooms.

“How is he?” Severus asked in low tones.

Hermione sighed, “The same. Mother says that he’s physically healed, but he’s still delirious.”

The room was cooler than before, and the smell of menthol and rosemary filled the air. Her mother smiled a genuine smile when Severus walked in, and Hermione could not help but feel a little hurt by it. Hadn’t she helped tend to him every day since she brought him back?

“Hello Narcissa, Lucius,” Severus pulled his shrunken leather potion’s kit from his pocket and enlarged it. “I want to run my own diagnostics, and then we’ll proceed with the wit sharpening potion.”

Hermione sank down on the edge of the bed and watched the healing blue light spout from Severus’ wand and envelop her father. It pulsed around him like a cocoon for a moment, and then shot up and gave a great flash. When her eyes cleared, there was a slip of parchment hanging in the air over her father. Severus snatched it and looked over it critically.

“Hmm… Well, the infection is clear, which is what we wanted. He’s still severely malnourished- Narcissa, I expect you’re taking care of that?”

“I am,” confirmed her mother.

He made a note with his quill, and looked over it again, “We need to strengthen his bones as well. It appears… but that’s not something we can’t fix. And a few good restorative potions for his organs. His heart has taken a beating too, from the stress. But I can owl the draught for that in the morning. I’ll make a list of what he needs to take and when.”

“Thank you,” whispered her mother.

Hermione looked between them, “But what about the wit sharpening potion?” she asked. “Can he take that tonight?”

Her uncle thought it over, “I see no reason to delay it,” he said. He rummaged through his bag and thrust a fiery red potion into her hands. “This is my own improvement on the Pepper Up potion, give that to him first.”

She carefully moved to the head of the bed and tipped it down her father’s throat.

“And this next,” he gave her the silver wit sharpening potion, and she poured it down.

“It may take a few minutes.”

No few minutes ever dragged on as long as those did. Her mother’s hand came down upon her shoulder and squeezed, and she felt a moment of hope. They had not discussed Dumbledore yet, but perhaps her mother wouldn’t hate her for what she did…

And then her thoughts vanished as her father coughed and stirred.

“Cissa?”

Her mother leaned over and reached for his face, “I’m here, darling.”

“Cissa, it’s not true. It can’t be true!”

Her mother stroked his face, “What’s not true, Lucius? What’s troubling you?”

“Hermione. Where is Hermione?”

She inched closer, “I’m here, Papa.”

In a violent jerk, he sat up and seized her left arm. Then let out a howl that raised every hair on the back of her neck and arms.

“Not my daughter! Not my daughter!”

“Lucius,” her mother soothed, gently prying Hermione’s arm from his grasp, “Calm down, you’ll hurt yourself.”

Severus walked closer and waved his wand. The sound of glass clinking together came, and a round bottle with blue contents shot into his hand. “Drink this, Lucius.”

But her father was struggling to rise from the bed. “I have to fix this. Where’s Dumbledore! We have to take her to Dumbledore! He can remove it!”

A new voice cut across the room. “Shut up you fool! Do you want your family to be crucioed into oblivion?” Bellatrix slammed the door behind her and stalked over to Hermione.

Hermione could not look away from the horrified snarl on her father’s face as he watched Bellatrix wrap an arm around her.

“What are you- Get away from her, Black!”

“Technically it’s still Lestrange,” said Bellatrix coolly, “But I expect it will be Black again soon enough, so I forgive you.”

Her mother was now crouched on the bed beside her father, her arms wrapped around his chest as she tried to pull him back down on the bed. “Bellatrix, you’re not helping!”

Severus sighed, “Maybe we should clear the room. Narcissa, I’ll need you, but-” a meaningful look passed between them.

Her father gave another jerk, “Hermione! Get away from her! We have to get her to Dumbledore! We have to-”

“Hermione!” Her mother looked pleadingly at her, “It would be best if you two left for a bit. Let us get him used to the idea after he’s fully come to his senses.”

“I am fully in my senses!” barked her father, “Where’s my wand!?”

“Hermione! Please!”

In the end, Hermione was half carried out by Bellatrix, and the door slammed tight behind them.

“I can’t believe he… he just…” Hermione was so angry that her throat felt heavy and swollen. Hot tears began to pour from her lids, and she swiped at them irritably.

“Don’t say anything out here ,” thought Bellatrix to her, “ It’s too exposed. Let’s go to your room.”

Hermione led her down the corridor and stalked angrily to her room. Bellatrix murmured a locking and silencing charm to her door, and turned slowly to look at her.

“Oh, Dove.”

“Don’t,” said Hermione angrily. “I don’t want pity right now, Bella. I can’t- not even from you.”

Bellatrix sat beside her on the bed and laid a comforting hand on her shoulder.

“She hates me,” said Hermione in a heavy voice.

Bellatrix made a tsk-ing sound. “Your mother? Why would she hate you?”

The tears flowed faster. “Because I killed Dumbledore? Because I ran away and hid from her for a week, and only returned when I had Papa with me? Because Papa is devastated-”

“He knew it was coming,” said Bellatrix soothingly. “He’s only upset because he’s out of his element. He knew the moment he took you to your first meeting that this was where it was going.” She held open her arms and this time Hermione sank into them. “And your mother doesn’t hate you. She could never hate you.”

“She won’t tell me the truth about Draco!” Came Hermione’s slightly muffled voice.

Bellatrix hummed in amusement, “Don’t you already know the truth about Draco? No- don’t tell me. If our lord gets suspicious I want to tell him that you have no idea.”

Hermione sighed, and snuggled closer to Bellatrix. The comforting smell of forest and spices enveloped her. “You smell like winter,” she said.

Bellatrix let out a surprised laugh. “Well, I’m taking that as a compliment.” She hugged her tighter for a moment, and then slid back. “Come now. We don’t want him to get suspicious of our absence. Call your elf to clean you up, and meet me downstairs.”

Hermione missed her as soon as she was out of the room. Obediently, she called for Winky and let the elf fix her makeup and mussed hair.

“Winky, when I go downstairs will you pop over to the lodge and ask Rab to prepare Vercingetorix’s things?”

Winky nodded, “Should Winky bring over Mistress’ pegasus?”

Hermione nodded. “I think it’s time for him to come home. We’ve got some work to do.”

“Of course, Mistress.”

Hermione squared her shoulders and rose from the bed. She wasn’t entirely sure how it was going to be accomplished, but she knew that she was going to win over the magical beings in the Ministry Housing program. If she couldn’t make her parents proud, she would do everything in her power to make the Dark Lord proud.










Chapter Text

The wind whipped Hermione’s hair and stung her cheeks pink as she circled Vercingetorix above the narrow courtyard. In the past week she had been to no less than five Ministry Housing buildings, and each time they had told her flatly that they would not speak to her unless Ma Griesly told them it was beneficial. It had taken a bit of work on her part, but she had finally figured out exactly who Ma Griesly was, and where she lived.

As soon as Vercingetorix touched down the smell hit her. Like warm garbage and urine. Sharp and eye watering. This particular courtyard was cleaner than the last few. It was well-swept, and the inward-facing balconies were strewn with fresh laundry. The well situated in the middle of the courtyard was whole and tidy, and the shack with four doors that she understood to be their toilets was marked with a sign that read “Wash Hands After Using or M. G. Will Know!” A metal basin for washing up sat next to it, the bar of soap still fluffy with bubbles.

A group of four children sat playing gobstones nearby, and they stared open-mouthed at her.

Hermione plastered on a warm smile, “Hello, can one of you point me to Ma Griesly’s home?”

Three of the children ran off, leaving behind a boy of twelve or so. His black hair was cropped so close to the skull that she could see the white of his scalp. His robes were old and patched, but clean. Dark brown eyes glared suspiciously at her. “You with the Ministry?”

She had been asked that question at each building, and she shook her head. “No, I’m not.”

He squinted, and got to his feet. “She doesn’t usually accept visitors,” he said, scowling.

“It’s important that I meet with her,” Hermione said, dropping her smile. Perhaps the boy would be more receptive if he saw that she was serious.

Apparently he was, for he shrugged and muttered, “Wait here!” before scampering up a rickety flight of stairs. He disappeared through a door.

“Hopefully we have more luck here,” whispered Hermione to Vercingetorix. “I don’t want to know what the Dark Lord will say if I fail.”

The pegasus tossed his silver mane and pawed the stones at his feet.

“Hey! She says you can come up!”

Hermione jerked around to where the voice came from. The boy was on the opposite side of the courtyard from the door he had originally entered, and he flashed her a toothy smile before waving. “Come up!”

With a quick brush of her robes, Hermione climbed the rickety staircase.She had never been in one of the homes before, she and Samar had only ever passed out food and supplies in the courtyard, and earlier this week the adults had always come out to speak to her. She found the door he had come out of and knocked firmly.

It burst open with a blast of air that smelled of lemon cleaner. “Hello?” She called into the gloom. The room was so dark that she could hardly see the pile of shoes beside the door.

“Come in,” called an imperious voice.

Hermione held up her wand and muttered “Lumos!” and a gasp came in response. She held up her wand, and tried not to gasp at the group of witches and wizards that clustered around a table. They were all pale and tired-looking, even the children that stood behind them.

“She’s a wandie,” cried a little girl, “Mummy, doesn’t that mean she’s with the Ministry?”

“No, stupid,” said the boy beside her. “Lots of rich people have their own wands.”

“Hush,” said the woman in the chair in front of them.

The imperious voice spoke again, “My grandson Coram says you’re not with the Ministry. Is that true?” The voice belonged to the oldest woman Hermione had ever seen in her life. She was stooped and so heavily wrinkled that resembled a raisin.

Hermione nodded, “That’s true. I’ve come on behalf of the Dark Lord.”

There were whispers at that, and Ma Griesly’s brow dropped. “What does the,” she paused and sneered, “Dark Lord want with us?”

“He wants to offer progress!” Hermione said, settling back down into the role she was playing. “Your cooperation and participation in exchange for better living arrangements, better education, and more of a voice in the upcoming restructure of our society!” She beamed at the old woman for a moment, and felt her smile slip at the silence that greeted her.

“So he wants soldiers,” drawled Ma Griesly. “I don’t think so.”

She hadn’t expected to be written off so easily.

“Don’t you want better housing?” She asked in confusion. True, Ma Griesly’s building wasn’t so bad, but some of the others had been so terrible that she had bathed Vercingetorix twice after stepping foot among the refuse and filth.

A man on Ma Griesly’s left spoke up, “We’ve lived here our whole lives- most of us. You get used to it!” The others laughed at that.

“Then education!” Said Hermione. “The Dark Lord is prepared to build schools for the younger children so they don’t have to learn at home-”

“You saying that we’re not smart enough?” Asked a witch. She pounded a fist on the table in front of her, “I taught all three of my boys, and they’re smarter than anything!”

“And you don’t need book-learning to work at the factories,” said a man with a bristling moustache. “My girl could’ve done it before she was toilet-trained!”

“And isn’t Voldemort going to banish all the muggleborn?” Asked the woman again. “My husband is muggleborn! No one gets to banish him but me!”

Hermione stared. She had only heard Dumbledore and Harry speak the Dark Lord’s name so openly. Yet no one even flinched when she said it. It took her a moment to wrap her mind around the second part of the statement.

“The Dark Lord is prepared to allow all muggleborn who join him a fresh slate. You’ll be reassigned as half-bloods-”

“Reassigned? Listen to her!” Said a voice in the back.

“-and you’ll be treated as full citizens.”

Now Ma Griesly sat up straighter and seemed to be listening with more interest. While the rest of the room erupted into angry chattering, she stared at Hermione.

“Don’t you all want wands?” Hermione said desperately. This got their attention. “The Dark Lord has seized control of Ollivander’s stock. He’s prepared to give all of his followers their own wand, free of charge!”

The man with the bristling mustache leaned forward, “He would give us all wands? Just like that?”

Hermione had not dared to question the Dark Lord when he told her to offer wands to the untrained witches and wizards. She did think that every magical witch and wizard deserved to have a wand-, but she also knew that most of them had never had a proper magical education.

“Yes,” she said carefully. “We would arrange for training, of course-”

“When?” asked the boy who had called his sister stupid. “Do we all get one?”

“Every witch or wizard who has come of age,” said Hermione, watching the boy’s face fall.

“So that’s how you’ll buy our lives?” Said the old woman. Her eyes glittered dangerously. “With a handful of firewood.”

The boy who had spoken to her first- Coram, piped up, “It’s not firewood, Granny, it’s a wand!” His eyes shone with eagerness. “When I’m of age will I get a wand to?”

It would be at least five years before he came of age, and Hermione had no idea what the world would look like then. Nevertheless she smiled cheerily down at him, “Of course,” she promised. “All of his followers will get a wand when they come of age and join his forces.”

“Hmph,” Ma Griesly crossed her bony arms over her stout chest and levelled a glare at Hermione. “Tomorrow is the full moon. We’ll discuss it then, at our monthly gathering.”

A dozen voices rose in protest, and the old lady barked over them, “With such an important request, I’m sure you can understand the need for us to deliberate, Miss…”

“Malfoy,” supplied Hermione. Hope bloomed in her chest as she took in the eager eyes of the faces around the elder. Surely they would convince her.

Ma Griesly’s button-like eyes gleamed back at her, “Malfoy, is it? Well, Miss Malfoy, I’ll give you your answer in two days. Coram will show you out.”

The boy emerged from the shadows and jerked his chin towards the door. With a hastily murmured, “Nox,” Hermione followed him.

She rode home and spent the afternoon brushing Vercingetorix until he gleamed. She would never admit to herself that she was avoiding her parents, but she leapt at the invitation Terence’s elf made to her on her way back to the manor.

“Master Higgs is wanting Miss Malfoy to join him at the Owl and Saucer for tea.” The creature was mottled with scars, but it smiled toothlessly up at her in expectation. “Miss Malfoy is not needing to change or anything!”

Hermione looked up the path at the window of her parent’s bedroom. Her mother stared down at her, her face unreadable. Something sparked to life in Hermione’s chest, and she felt her face flame as she barked out, “I’ll go at once!”

The words were barely spoken before the elf grasped her wrist and aparated her with a pop. She was still staring furiously at the spot where her mother had been when she noticed that she was glaring at a carved wooden owl.

“Hermione!” said a warm voice.

She twisted, and smoothed her robes as she took in the sight of Terence. Suddenly she wished she had showered or at least washed her face before coming. She smelled like horse sweat and hay, and her hair was frizzy and falling out of the elegant knot she had tamed it into for Ma Griesly.

But if he noticed he did not seem to care. His green eyes flashed with something, and he beamed at her. “I’m so glad you could make it.”

She slid into the booth across from him and felt herself relax beneath his smile. “I’m glad you asked me. To be honest I could use the distraction.”

“You found the lady in charge today?” he asked. He knew all about her task, as he had been in regular attendance at the Manor. Their friendship was stronger than ever, and she was doubly grateful for him now that she was distanced from Draco and Harry.

She poured tea out of the plain teapot. “I did, and I’m pretty sure that she hates me!”

“You?” He laughed, and dunked his biscuit into his tea, “Never. Have a biscuit.”

She selected one from the mountain in front of him, and nibbled at it miserably. “You didn't see her face. I think the rest of her clan will convince her though.”

“How is your father?”

She could not say. She had avoided her father for the last few days while she focused on finding Ma Griesly. “He’s doing better. I think Uncle Sev’s potions are helping.”

Terence shook his head, “It’s hard to think of Professor Snape as anyone’s uncle.”

She rolled her eyes, “Not this again!”

“If you had been in his House you would understand better! He’s about as cuddly as a rabid bat! The homesick firsties had to come to the prefects for comfort.”

“That’s only because he likes his sleep,” she sipped her tea, and shook her head at him.

“You don’t have to tell me! Did I ever tell you about the time I had to wake him up because a third-year tried brewing the blood replenishing potion in their dorm?”

“They didn’t?” Horror laced her words.

He nodded, “Set the whole room on fire! I thought the Professor would kill them all! It was the only time I saw him take points! Points!”

She laughed, and listened to him recount several stories of the hardship of being a prefect for Snape. His hands moved as he talked, and a faint pink glow entered his cheeks. It occurred to her that in another life she might have found him attractive.

His smile slowly dimmed. “I’ve been assigned my next task.”

Her cup rattled when she set it back onto it’s saucer. “That’s great!” but they both heard the tinge of anxiety behind her words. “What is it?”

He raked a hand through his dark hair and looked around to make sure they weren’t overheard. “The goal for the end of the summer,” he whispered.

It took her a moment to realize he was speaking about the Dark Lord’s desire to take over the Ministry. “Oh!” She leaned closer. “You’re taking part?”

“Yes, I-” he broke off as a server passed them, and then bent nearer to her, “He’s entrusted me with securing the Department of Magical Law Enforcement.”

“But that’s so-” she broke off before she could say ‘dangerous’, she knew that Terence prided himself on his courage. Instead, she said, “You’re really making a name for yourself.”

An easy grin tugged at his lips, and he ran his hand over his hair again. “I’m glad you think so. It turns out I’ve got a knack for the Imperius, I’ve got several higher administrators under my control now.”

“I hope you’re being careful.” She didn’t want him to become over-confident.

His eyes shone, “As careful as anything,” he assured her. “No one expects little Terry the assistant. No one will catch me!”

“Shh,” she looked around again, but couldn’t help but return his grin. “Soon you’ll be his most trusted.”

“Oh, no one could take that title from you,” but it was admiration and not jealousy that shone in his eyes when he looked at her. “I’m rising in his esteem though. Soon I’ll-” a light flush came to his cheeks, “Well, soon enough my name will mean something. The Higgs family will be restored to its former glory, and I’ll be the head of it all!”

She indulged him with a smile. The Higgs family was old, but it had never been considered in the same way that the Malfoys had. Still, his enthusiasm was infectious.

“You’ll be practically royalty,” she teased.

He gave her a considering look, “And so will my wife,” he said softly.

Years of attending society functions with her mother had taught her to control her surprise, and she barely blinked. Surely he wasn’t implying that she- he didn’t think of her like that , did he? She had never been more grateful that Bellatrix was busy with the war effort. “Terence-”

“You don’t need to say anything,” he said suddenly. His cheeks were even pinker, but his eyes still shone as he took a final sip of tea. “I shouldn’t have sprung this on you, but I- well, you’re my best friend.”

She reached out and patted his hand, “And you’re mine too,” she didn’t add the now .

He reached up and squeezed her fingers, and then stood. “I’ll see you tomorrow at the meeting?”

As if she had any other choice. “Of course!”

They dropped a handful of knuts and sickles on the table, and made their way to the apparation point.

He winked before he spun on his heel and disappeared, and she felt her chest relax.

She paused a moment before she spun on her heel.

She landed in the middle of a grassy field, and began the transformation immediately. The golden stalks stretched up around her, and she fell forward onto her front legs. Lately, she had found that the easiest way to unwind was to disappear for a few hours in her fox form.

The ground was soft beneath her paws, and she raced through the hilly countryside. A few trees dotted the field, and she chased a few rodents along her run. The day was mild, and the breeze that ruffled her fur was lovely.

Her steps finally slowed when she reached the top of a massive hill. A lone tree provided shade, and she sat between its roots. Overhead, a family of squirrels chattered happily in the hollow of the tree.

Her eyes drifted closed, and she opened her mouth to taste the scents around her.

“Ginny! Don’t use my broom!”

Hermione’s eyes snapped open. The field at the bottom of the hill backed up to a garden wall. Two redheaded teenagers ran through the gate, and Hermione watched the gate to see who would come out next.

“Harry!” Ronald Weasley yelled, “Do you have the balls?”

Hermione’s tail wiggled as a familiar blonde jerked through the gate, his arms full of quidditch balls. “Harry’s bringing our brooms.”

“I hope he’s bringing Ginny’s broom as well,” growled Ron. He said something else, but Hermione was too busy watching her brother.

He looked… happy. Even dressed in muggle clothes and living with the blood traitors. His cheeks were flushed and rosy, his hair mussed. Ron spat something at his sister, and Draco laughed at the pair of them. It had been years since he had looked so carefree.

Hermione remained motionless amidst the roots of the tree throughout the entire game. Her amber eyes drank in the sight of her brother, and for a few hours she pretended that he would go home with her afterwards.

Her keen ears picked up the woman’s voice first.

“Dinner!”

The four teenagers remained aloft, their focus on getting the battered quaffle through one of the makeshift hoops.

A short and stout  woman appeared at the gate, her apron large and ruffled. “Come in now, dears! I’ve got dinner on the table.”

At once Harry and Draco landed, and the Weasley children followed suit after a short tussle over the ball.

Her heart clenched as the woman wrapped a motherly arm around Draco, and she let out a deep sigh when he laid his head against her red curls.

For long minutes after the gate shut she sat there, her eyes pinned to the spot where her brother had disappeared.

Bellatrix had taught her the trick of Apparating in her animagus form, and it was second nature to her. She twisted on her hind leg and emerged in front of the gates to Malfoy Manor.

Violin music drifted across the front gardens, and a few of her father’s white peacocks cried out at the sight of her. She ignored the impulse to chase them, and instead transformed back into her own form.

She lingered in the front hall. Every part of her wanted to run upstairs and check on her father. She wanted nothing more than to be small again so she could climb into his lap and let him hold her. She wanted her mother to reassure her that she was safe.

Instead, she followed the sound of the music. It was better to let her father heal in peace.

The windows in the drawing room were open, and the Dark Lord sat in an upholstered chair wearing light grey robes and a contemplative expression. The only other occupant of the room was Alecto Carrow, and she lowered her violin when she spied Hermione.

“Hermione, child. Come in.” He raised his hand, “No, Alecto, keep playing.” He drew his wand, and moved another chair closer to him.

“My Lord,” Hermione greeted, “Madam Carrow.” The blonde woman gave her the ghost of a smile, and struck up a mournful tune.

The Dark Lord’s elbow rested on the back of his chair, and he rested his head against his hand. “Listen, Hermione. Alecto has a gift, does she not?”

Hermione sat, and offered a shy smile, “She does.” The breeze from the open window ruffled her curls, and she felt herself relax.

“One day I’ll have an entire orchestra at my disposal,” he said, “but my favorite will always be the violin.” Red eyes flicked to hers, “What about you, my little lioness? Do you have a favorite instrument.”

She blinked. “I’ve never really thought about it. I suppose it would be the cello.”

Approval shone in the Dark Lord’s eyes. “A good choice.”

They sat in silence for a time, his eyes carefully watching her. “You are sad.”

She flinched, “N-no, my lord. I-I, I’m not-”

He shook his head, and raised a hand to silence her. “There is nothing wrong with being sad, Hermione.” He tilted his head, and leaned in closer, as if sharing a secret, “I’d like to distract you from it, if I may?”

Unsure, she nodded.

“Play something livelier, Alecto,” he commanded, sitting up. “It’s a beautiful evening, and we are in fine company.”

Despite herself, Hermione blushed.

Alecto changed the tune to a bright, cheerful song. The Dark Lord smiled appreciatively, and held out a hand to her. “Allow me to show you how we celebrated warm nights in my time.”

Had someone told her two years ago that she would be dancing merrily in the arms of the Dark Lord, she would have laughed in their face.

It was not the dignified show of grace that she had learned in her mother’s lessons. He held her close, but not so close as to be improper, and galloped her around the room. Soon she was flushed and laughing, and he grinned charmingly at her.

Alecto played a series of lighthearted songs, each one fast-paced and cheery. He laughed first, and-after a moment of surprise- she joined in.

It was so easy to despise him for holding so much power over Bellatrix, that she was surprised when she felt affection creep into her thoughts. Guilt clutched at her, and she chased it away. For the moment, she wanted to pretend that he was not the most evil man she knew. After all, he had decided to try and cheer her up, hadn’t he? Surely such a man couldn’t be completely evil?

But he was . She had seen his ruthlessness at close hand. Everyone she loved suffered because of him. Though at that moment it was difficult to reconcile the man who had taught her the killing curse in a shadowy room with the man who let out a whoop as they rounded a corner of the room.

His hold tightened, and he called out, “Faster Alecto!”

Hermione squealed as he spun her around, and burst into giggles. All other thoughts fled her mind, and for a moment she was happy.

Her heart raced steadily in her ribcage when he finally twirled them to a stop, and she jumped at the sound of applause.

While they were dancing, several members of the inner circle had arrived. Immediately she recognized Goyle and Crabbe, and Blaise’s great-uncle Marcus Zabini.

The Dark Lord chuckled, and for once it sounded natural and human. “It seems I’ve lost track of time. Forgive me, Hermione.”

She blinked in surprise, but smiled back at him. “No, forgive me my lord. I didn’t mean to distract you.”

“I welcome such distractions,” he told her. He looked around to address the whole group, “Without such moments how are we to remember what we are working for?” He squeezed her hand and released her.

Zabini grinned, “Well said, my lord.”

They all inclined their heads to her as she bade them farewell, and she felt a thrill at being treated with such respect. Even the Dark Lord bent his head to her, and flashed her a smile, “Goodnight, my lioness.”

The music ceased as she left, and she heard the room rearrange itself as a table and chairs were summoned. She sighed when she reached the bottom of the stairs, and realized that she wanted nothing more than to go back to the room filled with Death Eaters. She liked who she was to them.

And the thought terrified her.

XX

Two days later, she woke to a rigorous shake.

“Mistress!”

“Wha-?” She lifted her head from her warm pillows long enough to look at the grey windows. Turnip wriggled closer. “Winky! S’not even light yet!” She pulled the blanket back over her head, only to have it pulled down again.

“An owl came, Mistress, and you said to wake you if it happened while you slept!”

The words took a moment to filter through the fuzziness of her brain. “Owl?”

There was a heavy sigh, “Yes, Mistress. An owl . A rented owl from the Ministry Housing Buil-”

Hermione’s eyes shot open. “Ma Griesly!” She was out of the bed before Winky had finished sighing “Yes, Mistress.”

The letter sat on her vanity, and she snatched it up. The envelope tore beneath her fingers, but she didn’t pay any attention to the fluttering bits of parchment. The parchment was cheap, and the letter was splotched with ink, but the writing was clear.

Miss Malfoy,

Weve thought about your request, but Ive decided that we will not be joining your lord at this time.

The letter was not signed, but there was no doubt who had sent it. She sat down in her chair, and stared at her reflection.

“What am I going to do, Winky?” Her voice was a broken whisper. “If I can’t keep my place in the Dark Lord’s esteem…”

There was a jingle as Turnip jumped out of bed and came to her. His weight was soft and reassuring against her leg, and she lowered a hand to tug at his ears.

“Maybe it’s not so bad,” said Winky, guessing at the letter’s contents. “Mistress said that the others wanted to join. Maybe they can be persuaded-”

“No,” said Hermione. “They’re loyal to her. If she says no they’ll all listen.” She imagined the look of disappointment on the Dark Lord’s face and felt her chest tighten. Maybe she could warn her parents ahead of time. Perhaps they could flee to the Forest Cottage, or one of the other properties. It would be easier if she knew he wouldn’t be able to punish her by hurting them.

But her father was still weak, and he needed Uncle Sev’s potions to help regain his strength. She trusted her uncle, but she didn’t want to put him in that position.

For hours she sat in her chair, wondering what she could do. Winky tried in vain to get her to eat breakfast, and then lunch. She and Turnip stayed with her, and Hermione was grateful that her parents were too wrapped up in her father’s care to check on her.

The afternoon sun had lent her room a golden glow, when Bellatrix’s voice asked, “What’s wrong?”

She swiped a tear away, I’m about to disgrace myself in the eyes of the Dark Lord .

“I think that will be harder than you think, ” there was more than a touch of amusement in the words. “What tragedy has befallen you now?”

See for yourself , thought Hermione Glumly as she held up the parchment. Bellatrix’s presence in her mind intensified, until Hermione was sure that she could see the letter.

To her surprise, Bellatrix laughed at her. “Silly girl! The task’s not lost yet.”

Hermione glowered at her reflection, and hoped that Bellatrix could see it. She said ‘no’ Bella, that’s about as lost as it can be.

“Oh, come now. You’re smarter than that! What else does the letter say?”

That they’ve thought about the request, and they’ve denied it.

“It says ‘at this time’, Dove! That’s practically an invitation! All it means is that you didn’t find the right motivation to persuade the old lady!”

Hermione scanned the letter again. Hope began to bloom in her chest, and Turnip’s dark coat lightened around the ears and muzzle. You really think there’s still a chance?

“I know there’s still a chance. What’s gotten into you? You’ve never been so quick to accept defeat before.”

Hermione could not stop the tears that pricked at her eyes. Wordlessly, she pushed a bunch of images at Bellatrix. The look in her mother’s eyes every time she regarded Hermione, her father’s sickly face staring horrified at her, her uncle Albus as the killing curse hit him… image after image of the last few weeks was shoved at the older witch, until Hermione dropped her head onto her arms and gave in to her sobs.

“Doveling, go to your floo, and come to the lodge.”

With a mumbled explanation to Winky, Hermione slunk down the corridor to her father’s study, and followed Bellatrix’s orders.

She stumbled from the hearth in the kitchen of the lodge, and breathed in the sticky smell of warm raspberry jam. Three wide-eyed house elves stared at her as she fell into a heap on the soot stained stones.

“Get out of the way you stupid creatures!”

Two strong arms lifted her, and Bellatrix pulled her into an embrace. “I’m sorry I didn’t realize what state you were in sooner,” she said softly. “I’ve been pouring over the plans for the Ministry.”

Hermione sniffed, “It’s fine, Bella. You shouldn’t have to notice-”

“I absolutely should.” Soft lips pressed against her forehead in a kiss, “You’re everything to me, Doveling. You come first.”

Hermione cried harder at the gentle words, and allowed herself to be lead to the table. Bellatrix sat, and pulled Hermione down on her lap.

“I feel like I’m doing everything wrong!” she cried, burying her face in the soft black curls.

Bellatrix traced soothing patterns on her back, “There is no right way, Hermione.”

“There must be.” Hermione hiccuped. “Draco hasn’t made our parents hate him.”

“Your parents don’t hate you,” said Bellatrix firmly. “They just don’t know what to do with you at the moment, it’s completely different.”  She sifted her fingers through Hermione’s curls and let out a sigh. “You’ve been working too hard. You need a break.”

“I can’t afford to take a break,” protested Hermione. “If you’re right- if there’s really a chance- then I have to go back to the Ministry Housing Buildings tomorrow.”

Bellatrix took her hand in her own, and laced their fingers together. “Then you have tonight.”

“Bella…”

Bellatrix sighed. “Then do it for me. I need a break. Let me have a night just to ourselves.” She pressed her forehead to Hermione’s , and grinned, “We can start with a chase through the woods. I haven’t been in my animagus form for ages. Then we’ll eat chocolate cake and sip champagne until we’re bursting.” She kissed Hermione gently, “I’ll send Rab away and then we’ll sleep in the garden under the stars.”

“It’ll be cold.”

Bellatrix laughed, and hugged her tight. “That’s a yes, then?”

“Yes.” A loud grumble startled her, and her cheeks pinkened. “But apparently I had better have something to eat first.”

Bellatrix smirked, and called for a late lunch.

The elves scurried into motion, and Hermione moved to her own chair. She watched the older witch bark out orders to the elves, before ultimately stalking over to show them exactly how she wanted things prepared, and Hermione hid her smirk at the sight of the great and powerful Bellatrix Lestrange making a sandwich.

What would I do without you? She asked.

Bellatrix’s brown eyes danced when she looked up. “You’ll never find out.”








Chapter Text

It was the end of her fifth visit to Ma Griesly that Hermione noticed. She passed Coram on the stairs and reached out to tug his sleeve.