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Whitley Bay. The hotel was called the Royal, but the restaurant and bar were modest, and the finest thing about it really was the absolutely superb view of the seafront. Of course, it was winter, but it being winter never stopped British people from going to the sea. There was a car park, where they'd left the Vauxhall.

Yet, for all that, it was a bit unusual of a date, nearly Christmas, the Winter Solstice upon them. Most people were traveling to visit family at this point in time, if they were traveling at all. Hermione and Narcissa were on a mission, and it was one that had steadily carried them away from their own families.

So it was just the two of them, sharing a single hotel room. Hermione was not sure what she thought about that, as she followed the blonde witch up to the hotel desk, and stepped forward to deal with the minutiae of the muggle world. "The reservation should be under Hermione Granger..."

"For two?"

"For two," Hermione confirmed, not thinking any more of it. She gave them the plate number on her car, the usual registration information, and suffered through the usual wait for some old dot-matrix printer to finish printing the receipt. The woman behind the desk returned. "Here you go, Miss Granger."

"Thank you." She turned away to Narcissa's side, and brushed her sleeve gently to get her attention, where she was staring out to the rainy street.

"Hmm? Oh, thank you..."

"Do you suppose they're a couple?" The woman at the desk was saying to someone else in the office, slightly. Hermione just barely caught it. A flush touched her cheeks, she remained dignified and bit down the impulse to say something, and then looked to Narcissa. Narcissa said nothing, showed nothing in her expression. Perhaps she had not heard.

To the bedroom with their bags, then. They were featherweighted, but it was not a particularly fancy hotel, and they carried the luggage on their own. By a sort of mutual concurrence, both witches had also eschewed the lift. Climbing the stairs, Hermione was still trying to process what the women behind the counter had gossiped about, and was getting no further in the task.

Soon enough they were there and safely in private, away from prying muggle eyes. Good enough. A chance to settle into the second story room with the little balcony, windows splattered with rain. It was just days before Christmas, but it was still raining, and the forecasts were dubious on the chance for snow for the holiday, as much as all the meteorologists hyped it. That cold rain along the sea staying rain was much more likely.

The millennium would be ending in a little more than a week, Hermione knew, and instead of being with friends and family, she was in a hotel room in Whitley Bay with Narcissa Malfoy. For a moment, her gaze lingered. Narcissa was uncomfortable in muggle clothes, but she carried them well, a slender, pretty and tall witch with blonde hair still perfectly youthful, and those vivid grey eyes of the House of Black.

She turned away hastily to look out to sea, wondering exactly what was going wrong with her.

Narcissa got her coat squared away, and insisted with a few flicks of her wand in settling their clothes out into the drawers and getting the excess into a suitcase properly sitting on the stand. She didn't ask for Hermione to help; the younger woman assumed it was because she'd been driving for hours. Instead, she filled up the kettle and set it boiling. It was barely big enough for two cups of tea, but it would have to do. Then, Narcissa stood in front of the dresser and sorted out the tea they'd had in their luggage.

Hermione couldn't help but look. She was thankful her dusky skin could hide the blush a bit. Is this really happening? Hints, hints, nothing definite. The Brightest Witch of Her Age was wondering if she was falling in love with Narcissa Malfoy.

She felt embarrassed as Narcissa busied herself. Embarrassed that she hadn't managed to help Narcissa succeed in her quest yet. They thought the girl was in the north, they thought she was close, but nothing at the ministry would help localise her. And here they were, walking into a funhouse of connections between the muggle criminal world and Death Eater remnants who held the muggles in contempt, but were still trying to use them to wound the wizarding world, with just enough hints... that she couldn't doubt that Narcissa was right.

Bellatrix's daughter was out there, somewhere. And when Narcissa turned around with their tea and clucked gently that Hermione hadn't really made herself comfortable, just flopped into her chair, Hermione could tell just from one look at her that she was thinking about that.

About Christmas--and family.

"You know I want to do everything I can to help you find her, Narcissa. I... I'm not throwing this, you're getting all of my abilities, all of my help. There's just something we're missing."

Narcissa froze for a moment, over the steam wafting up from her cup of tea. She stared hard, grey eyes looking into brown. "I do trust you, Hermione Granger," she allowed at last. "After the last encounter, I had enough evidence."

"But not until then." A wry smile.

"You are dealing with a Slytherin, you little Lioness." Narcissa's lips curled in bemusement for a moment before she raised her cup. "Odd, really, that our society has trained itself to put so much import into House symbols. We all use them without thinking, even as adults. It's one of the constants of Wizarding society that we all share, even you and I."

"I realise now, after some years of wisdom, that the meaning of the Houses has intentionally been distorted, played up, to heighten rivalries, to serve the objectives of class warfare and politics," Hermione replied. She had her own cup, now. "But you know that, don't you. The way that Dumbledore was leading a kulturkampf against your people."

"Culture struggle," Narcissa murmured, tasting the words, thinking about their meaning, deciding it fit very well, indeed. "The triumph of a Christian and Victorian Wizarding Britain, you mean."

"For all the crimes your families have committed, you have the right to your language and your religion," Hermione answered, levelly. Narcissa did not flinch at the woman's blunt assessment, but she did meet the gaze head-on, and refuse to blink.

"Your crimes, too. I..." A hesitant breath. "You would not imagine what she looked like when she got out of Azkaban, Hermione." She let the shudder out, let herself be vulnerable around Hermione, at least in that way. "It terrified me to the very bone. If there is any reason why I fought so hard to save my son from Voldemort, the first and foremost is so that I never once had to look upon him as I looked upon Bella that night."

"Like as not she was as bad off as a concentration camp victim," Hermione muttered, her eyes distant. She had taught Narcissa enough to appreciate the reference. Narcissa still wished she didn't. But, it was true, in both senses. So she just nodded once, the flash, the searing memory of that night, of the matted hair of her sister, of her dank and pale skin hanging from her bones like flesh on a corpse, all rushing back to her. Her teacup shook in her hand.

Hermione sat her own down, rose, stepped over to Narcissa's side... And gave her a hug. "You didn't deserve to see that, and Bellatrix didn't deserve to suffer. You are right, that was a moral crime that our side was complicit in."

Narcissa shook her head softly. "It was too late for Bellatrix, long ago. But..."

"Not like that, never like that." Narcissa looked up. "It shouldn't have been like that. Well. The Solstice, and here it is, just the two of us. It was all Bella's favourite holiday."

The mere fact they could talk so openly about Bellatrix, about her preferences, mattered so much to Hermione. It was her triumph as much as Narcissa's, facing the ghosts of the past. So, she made an offer to Narcissa, feeling giddy that she did. "Can we celebrate together?"

Narcissa looked surprised. "Aren't you a Christian?" She said the word, Hermione thought, in the same tone she might have once said mudblood.

"I was raised Anglican, but it doesn't matter much to me," Hermione replied. "It's important to you. It's an important night of magic. It's part of magical culture in Britain and especially important for Purebloods. I know that. It's clearly important to you. It may only be the two of us, but let's celebrate it."

"You can't have a solstice celebration without food," Narcissa barely more than murmured, like it was a weak-willed protest, a half-hearted attempt to get out of it.

"We'll have a full feast brought up from the hotel restaurant."

"It's normal to get quite drunk on the Solstice."

"They have a liquor licence."

"I'll... I'll prepare the ceremony," Narcissa allowed at last--and then reached out and gently put a hand on Hermione's. "Hermione, it customarily requires a knife. The Solstice is the holiday of reaching out to the Darkness, to beg it return the Sun; it is the holiday of the Old Gods, and the Dark Ones too. Will that bother you? It is a joyous event, but a bit fearful too; it must be, because if the sun does not turn, the world ends."

Hermione didn't initially think anything of it, and was surprised, for all that the tender gestures had increased over the past four months, that Narcissa would take her hand. Then she figured out what knife really meant, and she blankly worked her mouth once, and then again. It's her culture. It's her religion. You can't be afraid of that. You'd be a lesser woman than you want to be, if you're afraid of that, she said to herself firmly. She's not Bellatrix.


"Each of us was given an enchanted, goblin-forged dagger at our menarche, to defend our honour with. I was. Andromeda was." She mentioned her sister's name without flinching, but there was real emotion in her voice; "and, of course, Bellatrix was."

To defend our honour. It sounded so grim, like the kind of culture that killed women for such things. Where a woman very much was responsible for her own body, help it or not, and yet also liberating, that capability was assumed, and means provided, for defence. Hermione's throat felt dry and raspy, and she swallowed three times before she could speak. It was not a fear of the blade that made her feel that way. She had her own secret about blades; she was warring on whether or not to reveal it, and with the idea of starting to understand Bellatrix more. To understand Narcissa more, so much more... "None of you ever had a choice. Even Bellatrix was just a woman in your society. She made her own choices to respond to those social pressures with evil and murder. You..."

"I buried myself, Hermione. I buried all that I felt, and all that I wanted, and I became The Good Wife."

"Are you?"

"I love Lucius," she answered automatically. "But I wasn't given the choice of loving anyone else. It's not the kind of love which -- It's not romantic love. It's not like that."

If you don't love Lucius romantically, then who do you love? Hermione wanted to ask, but the Gryffindor impulse was battered down by a stern sense of propriety and the feeling that perhaps they'd both gone too far already, and yet the night had barely begun. "I... I respect that," she made herself say. And then it was time to get on with the bigger looming issue. "I... I actually have a confession."

"What's that, Hermione?" Real compassion traced into Narcissa's face, halted mid-stride from beginning to speak words that Hermione was sure would have been her declaration of how no, we're not going to do a traditional Pureblood Solstice Ceremony, I won't hurt you like that, etc, etc.

But in fact, it finally gave Hermione some peace to understand the background of the dagger. The dagger that, to remove its power over her, she carried in her own coat.

So, she reached for it, and pulled it out.

Narcissa froze.

Hermione smiled quietly. "I don't let others hold power over me. I cannot remove the scar Bellatrix put in my arm. But I carry her dagger now, actually. I think it's only fair. She killed Dobby with it. She tortured me with it. But; she died, and it's mine, as a symbol that I won't allow myself to be ruled by the fears created by others. I... I hope this doesn't upset you." Her look, though, was a bit of a challenge. If you truly appreciate me, Narcissa, it won't upset you.

For a few moments the silence lingered, the blonde staring at her, and at the dagger. Then she reached down, and drew her own from the folds of her jacket and dress. Set it gently on the table. Smiled sadly.

"Forgive me for saying this, but, Bellatrix would actually approve." Grey eyes met brown. Neither pair flinched or yielded.

Hermione smiled. She could have gotten upset at being compared to the woman who had tortured her, but in fact, it was a gesture of respect from Narcissa, and a benediction, a blessing, for Hermione to carry the dagger. A rationalisation, if you were being unkind.

Hermione didn't want to be unkind to Narcissa. She rose, took a step over, and gave Narcissa a short, quick hug. "Thank you. I'm going to get us our dinner and drinks whilst you get ready for the ceremony."

For a moment, the older witch leaned into the embrace. "But of course." The warmth was real, and she added: "Actually, I am thankful that you are willing. Scrying tonight may help us break through, so I can get some more information on where she is."

Business and pleasure, hmm, Narcissa? The thought flipped through her brain, and the word pleasure nearly turned it off. What's happening to me? Hermione wondered as she placed the orders, stepped into the bath to change into something a bit more comfortable, met the room-service staff at the door to keep them from seeing what Narcissa was doing, and brought the food around to the little table, small enough their knees would be knocking together when they ate.

She rather liked the thought of that.

"The food is here, Narcissa." She glanced toward the balcony, the door open, the chill getting in, Narcissa just turning back from setting up in the clear air.

"Oh, splendid." The door rolled closed behind her, with just a little whisk of Narcissa's wand. The only thing between the two witches was the set of double beds, with red vine prints on the white blankets and pillowcases. "Roast topside and pork loin? Well, that is certainly traditional for a Solstice feast."

"I wanted to try my best," Hermione's smile came so easy. "Considering we are in a seaside hotel, and not the fanciest."

"We'd just attract more attention in a better one, don't worry, Hermione," she answered, and stepped around the bed, blonde locks trailing off her back, the dim light seeming to hide her as a ghost, or an angel. "And the wine?"

"Well," Hermione hesitated for a moment. "A Malbec, it's twelve years old only, I'm sorry; but, it will do for the beef. For the pork, I thought a four-pack of cider would be a better choice. And, I got sorbet for the palate cleanser," she said, mildly cursing when she then remembered she needed to put it in the in-room refrigerator to keep it from melting long enough to get to mid-meal. I hope she thinks that I managed well enough...

Narcissa's mouth formed into an O of delight for a moment and leaned forward, gently clapping her hands on her thighs. "Hermione, that is a brilliant bit of improvisation. In fact, a Solstice feast need not be so fancy. It is a feast from old dark days like these, when the only light was from a fire--" and then, she waved her wand at one of the lights, and transfigurated it into a magical living fire... "And there was certainly no sorbet, or really any fine wine in Britain, just whatever sort the Romans let the Colonials have, you know."

"Oh, I..."

"No, you don't understand," she was grinning. "It's perfect. Magic is intent. The Solstice is sacrifice. We are far from our home-hearths, and far from our family. In a pinch, the money and the uncomfortable formality are sacrifices and gestures of intent. It's the perfect Solstice feast for tonight, Hermione."

It was the most emotion that Hermione had ever seen from her. Of course, it was supposed to be an emotional night, exactly as Narcissa had warned, a night where you get drunk and get rather close to the Gods of Night and the Gods of Death. Hermione's face twitched until her lips were a smile, and she reached out and pulled out the chair for Narcissa, and it felt good to do. "Well, then. You're happy. That's all that matters to me tonight, Narcissa."

"The magic of this night will make any good Black a bit ebullient," she answered but didn't really answer, swinging down into the chair, and crossing her legs at a jaunty angle. Even unspoken, what was between them was real, immediate, they both knew it, but by mutual consensus didn't say it, lest it vanish like a dream.

When Hermione sat, their knees did indeed touch, and the blonde witch did not complain. She had a hunting, almost wolfish look as she continued.

"Let me explain to you the ceremonies of a witch on the solstice--a witch from Yr Hen Ogledd. And let us see how well these muggle restaurateurs managed--and, Hermione, let's get a little drunk. Vinotonus will loosen the way for us to see the other Gods, tonight."