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A Better Life

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After nearly eighty-eight years wandering around the world in one capacity or another, Albus Dumbledore was hard to surprise. That was why, after some discrete inquiries, it was such a shock to his system to realize exactly how much the current generations disregarded or outright ignored breaches amidst their security and livelihood. Most of, if not all, witches and wizards seemed to have forgotten about the tiny little security flaws in waiting, skulking about their homes and places of business with no sense of security or accountability.

It seemed to him that most, if not every one, that owned a House Elf were perfectly fine with allowing the little creatures to exist around them and protect their secrets and interests through a millennia old magical bond that most didn’t have even the faintest hope of understanding.

The elves themselves were generally regarded as little more than chattel, barely intelligent slaves that served no more purpose in life than to be servile little animals with just enough wit and ability to serve their betters without being considered a liability. Pitiable little things that were only meant to serve a House or a Master. They had existed for so long inside the homes of Wizarding society that unless they failed egregiously at their respective tasks that they simply faded off into the background until their services or abilities were needed.

This realization shocked Albus, and he kept it to himself all the same.

The seemingly simple creatures were far more than simple servants. They were sentient creatures capable of a level of foresight and knowledge that fell far, far beyond their capabilities as mere servants. They were able and willing to work far outside of their duties and responsibilities so long as their actions never once contradicted an order. It was also a relatively unrecognized reality that elves had friends. Families. Scattered though they were, no elf was ever truly alone.

An elf serving in one House might be directly related through blood or marriages to the elves serving faithfully in another House. The Houses might even be considered mortal enemies and it wouldn’t matter to the bonds the elves wove between each other. They held friendships as well, stretched out long and thin by their service but unbreakable nonetheless. The elves knew no animosity between one another no matter the petty squabbles of their sloven overlords.

The multitude of elves in service to Hogwarts were no different. They had lives and experiences that touched far outside of the physical spaces that they were permitted to work and live in. They even had time off, another fact that most Houses seemed to have forgotten. Waiting around after chores were completed, spending their break outside and away form the hustle and bustle of Wizardkind was not an unusual action for the elves once they finished their duties.

They didn’t just hide in a closet and remain still as an unworn pair of shoes or sleep when their services weren’t needed.

And Albus knew this.

Yes, there were a handful of elves that were forbidden or removed from their own society via codes and words of Honor, never even once permitted to interact with another of their own kind. But most were not restricted in such a fashion and many who were had loopholes that they wouldn’t hesitate to use. And more still were simply left to their own devices with no one else's say in the matter.

But then again, most wizards were useless.

And Albus prided himself on not being of those feckless dunces.

After years of peace between Wizardkind, barring the mildly significant blip that was Gellert, they had grown complacent and fat in their contentment. They had forgotten the old ways. The Oaths that had once served them well in times when secrecy and security were paramount had faded into the background, relegated to old books and senile old wizards.

But Albus hadn’t forgotten.

Each and every elf working and living inside of Hogwarts were sworn until death to serve the Headmaster above all others. An Oath, that once struck was much like the Unbreakable Vow, superseded any and all other instructions or bindings. Any order could be countermanded, any secret revealed, all confidence twisted inwards to the select benefit of the Headmaster. It was a strong Oath. So much so that the blood flowing through their tiny bodies practically hummed with the background effects of the latent magic. Heaped upon by runework that had been etched deeply into the Keystones that supported Hogwarts, the bond was as infallible as the castle itself.

Phineus had been the first to implement such a bond. He had been a paranoid old man, crazy even, but incredibly smart. Paranoia and backup plans made up nearly half of the man's thoughts and it was mindset that Albus could deeply appreciate.

The elves had a hold on a magic far different from the type wielded by Wizardkind. Far older and more incomprehensible than what their current mundane existences would lead one to suspect. They had not always been House Elves. And their kind still carried the markers of their hallowed past, however diluted and subdued in the intervening years. A magic more primal, unfocused, sparked through them and was brought into existence by only a thought and willpower.

It was, again, something that Albus had not forgotten.

It was why, when he called for Chief House Elf Bolin to report to his office, the elf was able to describe the murky and ofttimes haphazardly built chain that linked himself to multitudes of other elves. From Twiffle, and elf under House Goyle and Bolin’s sister, to Twiffle’s father Gormin, serving under House Nott, whose cousin served under House Potter, whose sister served House Longbottom. And whose father served House Black.

Tinan.

This chain, tenuous and long and invisible to Wizardkind, but still a link, allowed one such as Albus an immediate and ready-made form of access into the home of his current star pupils.

A link that Orion and Cygnus had not managed to break.

After discovering that the link existed, and understanding the level of familiarity between the elves, it was only a matter of asking a few requests of Bolin.

And the elf was only too eager to serve.

---oo---

Narcissa’s body shook as she jigged her leg up and down in a decidedly unladylike fashion as she waited for Hermione to exit the study next door. Up and down, up and down, again and again and again. The restless energy flowing through her body was pent-up to a near maddening level while she waited for them to finish.

She had finally left the sitting room behind with Andromeda sleeping peacefully in her corner when the waiting and anxiety behind the outcome of Hermione’s appeal to Cygnus finally grew to be too much. She’d instead returned to the ground floor and found herself a quiet spot in the lounge that pressed up alongside the Study. Fading echoes of her time spent in here while learning the piano accompanied her while she sat down upon a lonely settee, her feet planted firmly and stubbornly on the floor while her leg continued to jig.

It was in this room that she had first learned about the perceived value that her blood held over others. Druella had been far too enthusiastic to show her pieces of music that had been authored by famous wizarding composers, purebloods only of course. She had taken to showing off muggle and half-blood music as a form of denigration. For every note from a muggleborn or a half-blood she had played ten times more from a pureblood, busily pointing out the differences. Narcissa had never been able to hear what supposedly set the artists apart from one another even when she listened to covers of famous songs. Her mother had never noticed though, deciding instead to lecture her on how much more sophisticated and regal the pureblood works were.

The lessons and mindset had been something that Narcissa had only half listened to. An eight-year old could only understand and imbibe so much, and the venom that dripped from her mother’s voice had been off-putting and heavy-handed for her younger self.

After Druella had tired of mincing out harsh words and hour long lessons Narcissa had taken to inhabiting the room whenever her mother wasn’t around. She’d surround herself with music from a variety of composers in an effort to understand whatever differences that her mother had been spouting. Nothing more than a deep respect for those who made music and a deep appreciation for music made in centuries past.

It was a win in her book.

And now, as she sat rigidly upon the settee with her leg bouncing at a blurry pace while her mind was caught up in hope for Bella, she found that she couldn’t relax for the life of her.

She could hear a gentle murmur coming over from the room next door but couldn’t make out any individual words or speakers. The room was warded in such a way that understanding their conversation was likely impossible, but she hadn’t come down to the room to eavesdrop. She’d only come here to await Hermione’s exit and subsequent news. Not that she couldn’t eavesdrop if she wanted to. Druella had quickly clued her youngest daughter into a secret only she knew, that a single corner of the room had been heavily enchanted to allow words and sound to pass freely between the two rooms. As paranoid as she was, she’d never once let Cygnus have the study all to himself, even when he was the only one in the room. She’d chosen instead to listen in on each and every conversation he’d had.

Narcissa kept herself purposefully away from that location. It had crossed her mind for a split second that she could betray Hermione’s confidence, take up that spot, and listen to every word that was said. In the end it had been her desire to maintain trust and friendship that kept her away, finding it more important than hearing the explicit details of Hermione's maneuvering.

Bella was still somewhere outside of Manor, likely to remain there until Hermione came to find her. Knee-deep in snow and probably covered in the fine debris of her favorite form of stress relief. The woods surrounding the Manor would eat it all up and return again with an even hardier shell to take in and absorb her abuse. Bella’s choice to obstinately avoid the root of her anxieties was familiar to Narcissa and although she was worried about the pending outcome she had still wanted to be the first person in the Manor to know.

Her eldest sister had been so despondent when she’d first learned the news of her arrangement to Lestrange that the black pit she’d thrown herself into had been both physically nauseating and horribly saddening to Narcissa. To see her protector, fierce Bella, thrown down so far into herself that she’d become a magnet that only attracted danger and rage had been a deeply worrying development. No one else besides Andromeda had been able to see how far she had fallen into constant aggression since the announcement and the fact that it had been compounded by their mother being led away in chains certainly hadn’t been helpful to the situation.

The change in her sister had been immediate once Hermione had found a way to work herself beneath Bella’s hardened exterior. Rage and anger had dissipated into a simmering aggression that she was now able to reign in more often than not, warm smiles on her face instead of a constantly pissed off scowl.

Click.

The door to the study opened and shut with a soft click that alerted Narcissa to Hermione’s exit. Within the span of a second she was off of the settee and charging out into the hallway, standing before a stock still Hermione and shifting side to side

The older witch was standing stock still in front of the closed door, her hair a ruffled mess and sweat clear against her brow. A large packet of parchments were tucked up under her arm while her free hand rubbed incessantly against the words that Narcissa knew to be carved into her skin. Throughout the intervening seconds she continued staring off ahead of herself with a far away glint in her eyes.

The older witch’s lips began moving as she mumbled something softly under her breath.

“What?” Narcissa tried to focus her hearing.

Within a few seconds Hermione seemed to come back to herself and peered down at the young witch standing before her, her unfocused eyes sharpening up and finding the piercing blue of Narcissa’s.

“I did it. He’s… He’s dropped Lestrange. I… We’re… Betrothed.”

A giddy feeling flew up and spread throughout Narcissa’s chest in tandem with an increased beating of her heart as she heard the good news. The carefully maintained facade of calmness evaporated from her face.

“Is my father still in there?”

“No,” Hermione gently shook her head from side to side, “No. He’s left. Said he’d be returning again tomorrow. Someone by the name of Gregor Ivanov will be by tomorrow for a meeting with him.”

Hermione’s voice had quieted again as she spoke until Narcissa had trouble even making out the words that comprised her whispers.

“You okay Em’?”

A deep breath shook through Hermione before she responded. “Yeah, yeah… Just tired is all. I didn’t think it’d take that long. And it got kind of weird before the end.”

With that said the witch stretched herself out, arms raising as the parchments fell onto the floor and joints popping audibly in the preternatural stillness of the Manor.

“I’m going to go and find Bella. Feel free to let Andy know if you want, otherwise I’ll just let her know when we have dinner.”

Before she could think better of it, and before Hermione could start to walk away, Narcissa had thrown herself forward and into a crushing hug around the older witch, a smile etched deeply on her face in reflection of her happiness at the outcome.

---oo---

Since Hermione’s exit from the pit of Tartarus, hours had passed and now the quartet found themselves ensconced within a sitting room on the second floor while a bottle of wine passed between the hands of the three eldest. It was an old vintage, rare and worth far more than any of them found reasonable, that Cygnus had left to collect dust in the disused wine cellar deep beneath the Manor.

Narcissa had been politely denied when she’d asked for a glass, her older sisters hurrying to claim that it wasn’t healthy for one so young as her to drink. Hermione had sat quietly while trying, and failing, to hide a smile behind her wine glass. Narcissa wasn’t too hard-pressed to be upset over it, the air of freedom and fresh air waving away other concerns after the news had broken through the Manor.

“So then. What’s next?” Andy quietly spoke up over the rim of her glass.

“Well, I guess we’ll start getting to work on your marriage next. Not sure yet how we’ll be able to spin it though.” Hermione’s voice was still muted and dull from her exhaustion but she’d been making an effort to engage with the trio as much as she could manage.

“Don’t really think that we can,” Andy said disdainfully. “Burga will just strike me from the tree for living Ted, not to say even marrying him. Which I’m looking closer and closer to. Cygnus can’t Imperius me into marrying if I’m already taken. No one will officiate something as sacrilegious as that. I’ll be spoiled blood by that point, too worthless to waste his time on.”

“Still, don’t rush off into something if you can help it. We might figure something out.” Hermione shot Andy a sympathetic look as she finished talking.

Bella leaned back into her seat on the settee before leaning heavily to the side to press her body up against Hermione. “Em’s right, we’ve got a year to work on it. We can figure something out.”

“True.” Andy’s subdued look spoke volumes as to her true thoughts on that matter.

A weariness had settled between them all following the bottle of wine from glass to glass as each witch unwound from the tightly packed stresses of the day.

“So what about Voldemort?” Narcissa could swear she’d be able to hear a pin drop after that particular question. The trio had turned to look at her with worry in their eyes and silence speaking volumes through their closed lips. A shuffling of glasses took place before any of them were willing to respond.

“How much do you know about him?” Hermione asked quietly.

“Well, I know he’s not just your tutor. Andy and Bella met with him and Cygnus before term started. And whenever you two show up after a lesson you’re bone tired and beat near half to death. I know healing charms and potion work when I see it. I’m young, not stupid.”

Bella’s glass clinked against the table as she set it down before fixing Narcissa with a steely eyed look and a frown twisting at the corner of her mouth.

“He’s got nothing to do with anything for the time being. Just ignore him.” Her voice brokered no room for disagreement, eyes pinning down on Narcissa while she mutely nodded. “Keep your focus on Lucius. Keep his leash tight and it’ll all be fine. You’ll both know more once you’ve reined in your occlumency. We can’t take the risk of anything we tell you getting out to anyone else.”

“Well how am I supposed to do that if you won’t tell me what he needs to avoid? And we’ve been practically occlumency for days, when are we supposed to be good enough?”

“When we tell you that you’re good enough, then you can know. And not a single second before then.”

Hermione finally seemed to acknowledge the conversation happening in front her her when Bella finished speaking. When she looked up and connected her eyes to Narcissa’s the young witch could painfully feel the breath catch in her throat.

Hermione looked tired. Far more so than could ever be explained by just sitting around throughout the day with Cygnus. Her eyes radiated a bone deep exhaustion that spoke to the length she’d been carrying it far more than words alone could. It wasn’t a defeated look, far from it, but one of someone who’d lived through horrors and now simply saw through them.

“Cissa. If anyone, anyone at all, starts a club or anything that includes only purebloods, keep Lucius away from it.” Hermione twisted in her seat upon the settee before pulling away from Bella and leaning forward, her elbows sitting up on her knees as she propped her chin on a raised fist. “Keep him from radicalizing. That’s the entirety of your objective for now. Keep him from being blinded by prejudice and from joining any others that believe in the idiocy of blood supremacy. Keep him from pledging support, monetary or otherwise, to groups that espouse blood supremacy. Collar him. Control his leash. He’s eager enough to please from what you’ve told us of him. So make it as painfully obvious as you can without putting yourself in danger. Make sure he understands that you expect him to forgo those types of behaviors and that sort of company.”

As she finished speaking the witch’s words had a sharp edge to them that cut further than the petty squabbling that she’d been prepared for with Bella ever could. It stung to be told that her position in this was to simply be used as a way to police Lucius. The edge that Hermione spoke with and the glint of something horrible in her eyes were the only things that kept her tongue from lashing out and prompting a fight between the three of them.

She wasn’t completely comfortable using Lucius like this. She wasn’t comfortable being held away from the secrets that her sisters were, or would, be privy to. She was many things though, but not dense. The witch seated before her needed this done to protect something and had already gone so far as to promise herself to her sister in hopes of removing Lestrange from the equation.

She bit down her lip hard enough to draw blood before nodding her head in acquiescence and leaning back into her chair. Pent up air exploded outwards from her lungs in a sigh that carried with it all the tension that had been building between them in the past few minutes.

Andy chose that moment to hiccup from her leaned back position in a high backed armchair before throwing her own thoughts into the ring.

“So. If Cissa will be doing that, what’ll you two be doing?”

Bella snorted out a laugh, “Playing at both sides and hoping we don’t get caught out by anyone.”

“Do you think you can manage it?”

Bella’s face and demeanor turned grim before she sighed deeply and held her tongue. In the end it was Hermione that was left to answer.

“Hopefully.”

---oo---

THUMP.

THUMP.

THUMP.

Pain lanced up and into arcs throughout Hermione’s head as the pound of her headache beat steadily into her temple. The slow moving heat and sparks of pain had been migrating all throughout her head from the moment she’d woken up. First it had struck in the back of her skull and had now moved forward to settle deep behind her eyes to the point where wincing in bright light was all she could do to save herself.

Hangover potions, or whatever swamp water could pass for them in this time period, had yet to be fully perfected. Or understood in any real manner. She knew that they were supposed to be cure-all potions but none had the efficiency or potency of a true hangover potion from her own timeline. The last few months before her unexpected tumble through time had given her ample opportunity to get well acquainted with the numbing feeling and slightly garlic aftertaste that they left her with.

Since her rather rude awakening with the blinds being ripped open to reveal the stark light of winter she had downed three potions that Bella had thrust into her hands, popping off the cork stoppers and downing them without the slightest hint of hesitancy or wariness to be found.

‘Fat lot of good they did,’ she opined while stuck on her knees on the floor, legs spread out and a porcelain bowl blocking all of her vision. The biting chill of cold tiles pressed up against her knees and shins was uncomfortable and barely enough to throw off the throbbing heat worming its way throughout her body. Bile and acrid pools of saliva choked at the back of her throat while her empty stomach made its distress known with cramps and a steady nausea.

The single uplifting thought that she could muster was thanks to herself for her new choice in hairstyles. With all the bushy mane having been shorn away she no longer needed anyone to stand beside her and hold it up and out of the way of her regrets made manifest. It was a poor consolation but amidst the suffering of her body she would take any that she could get.

Bella was sat beside her with a cool hand on her naked back that rubbed half circles into the stiff muscles beneath her skin while sending out cooling charms with practiced efficiency every few minutes. She was trying her hardest to keep Hermione from completely succumbing to the poor results of drinking an entire bottle of Centaur produced wine, but thought it likely that her ministrations were an exercise in futility.

“You need me to get you anything else?” Bella’s words were soft against her skin as the kept her voice low enough to not cause any undue discomfort.

“Yeah, a new brain. And stomach. You know,” her voice rasped out, “The usual.”

---oo---

An unfortunate hiccup in Hermione’s plans, but shopping for new organs was not on the agenda for her outing today.

Side along Apparition had run her stomach through the ringer again but passing up on breakfast in favor of life giving water had been enough to stave off any further expulsion. The last thing that she wanted to do for the day was prowl around three gigantic Manors but time wouldn’t wait and Bella had been asking her for this since they’d first been informed that the estates were hers to claim.

And creating a disappointed Bella was something that she sorely wished to avoid.

Passage to the first Manor on their list had come via a quick pit stop at a slightly less than reputable portkey station to take them over to mainland Canada, before a series of short hops of Apparition brought them to stand before the front gates. Hermione resolved that before the week was over she would get personal portkey’s for herself and the trio. The long travel was arduous and could prove deadly if speed and efficiency were necessary.

Standing tall before them was a massive wrought iron gate that barred any further passage onto the property. The design of the gate was massive with bars nearly as thick as her forearm and a height almost five times her own size. Not that that really amounted to much, short as she was, but the oppressive feeling she had gotten from standing in front of it had her feeling even more minuscule than normal.

The cobblestones leading through the gates were old and weathered into a near uniformity with a layer of dirty snow and detritus built up over them all. The thin layer of snow on the ground led Hermione to assume that the ground had been at least mildly charmed to resist snow buildup but whether it was a heating charm or something more exotic she couldn’t tell and didn’t have time to figure out.

Hedges rose tall and prominent on either side of the path to wall them inside, cut out of Privet bushes and shaped to match the tall brick walls that ran the outside perimeter of the estate. Green and tall, the hedges sat peacefully while long dead vines and evidence of past grown wrapped themselves up and through the dense foliage in patterns and whirls that seemed both purposeful and random in equal measure. It was a style that bespoke of a lack of maintenance and one which Hermione planned to change out as soon as she was able.

As they followed the winding path to the front door of the Manor Hermione couldn’t help but be impressed by the massive structure. It was only the first of three estates that they planned to visit that day, but Château de Grenier was the largest of the three and only one with a location that was public knowledge. The other two estates were side properties that served uses as a summer home and a hideaway from the world, respectively.

The building by itself was as impressive as Black Manor even if it wasn’t nearly quite so beautiful to look at. The outside of the massive estate was clad in red clay bricks all along the outside with only the trim on the windows and door frames left to stand out in a stark white against the oppressive ochre coloring. The building rose four stories tall and stuck up out of the land like some form of monstrous outgrowth, the Manor curving in on itself in the shape of a massively over-stylized C.

Only about thirty paces before the front door and stuck in the middle of a snow covered island that was surrounded on all sides by cobblestone road was a large and rather ornate fountain. Cold as it was the water had either been turned off or frozen itself shut as either way there was no water to flow and brighten it up with even the tiniest bit of life. Full sized depictions of Sirens surrounded a large center obelisk that was nearly three meters tall and carved from the same cold marble as the Sirens themselves. They were situated against the sides of the obelisk, leaning back in an uncaring manner to rest against the surface of the obelisk while their carved faces turned up into a staring contest with the sky. It was beautiful in an ephemeral way that left Hermione speechless as she stared.

“Hey,” Bella crowed up beside her before elbowing her gently in her ribs, “Eyes off.”

“Oh sod off,” came Hermione’s reply, head turning slightly to smile over at her girlfriend.

“Come on,” Bella flashed her a grin, “Let’s go. I’m freezing my tits off out here.”

Their footsteps crunched against the thin lay of snow and ice that had built up on the cobblestones as they made their way towards the center of the Manor, a large wooden door staring back at them with disapproval as they carried forward.

As Hermione reached out to grasp onto the handle of the door, assured beforehand by the Canadian Ministry that it would open immediately to her touch, the door pulled itself open unexpectedly. Glancing over at Bellatrix with a small amount of trepidation in her eyes, ‘This is how people die in horror films!’, the tiniest of voices spoke up from behind the door.

“Halt!”

The order, unexpected as it was, would have been far more imposing and shocking to the two witches if it hadn’t been uttered by the single smallest and wrinkliest house elf that Hermione had ever seen in her life. The elf had plodded around the door to stand in front of it and start the duo down, snow melting on the raggedy towel that it had draped around itself and closed shut with a golden pin.

“This is the Manor of the House of Grenier, presided over by Lord and Lady Grenier. State your business.”

Hermione looked back and forth between the elf and Bella for what seemed like an eternity before shoring up her surprise and responding to the geriatric elf.

“I am Lady Emelia Grenier, of the House Grenier. This is my Manor.” Her voice brimmed with confidence and authority that she couldn’t feel resonating inside of her, thoughts turning instead to the fraudulency of her statement.

‘Well, it was fraudulent. I am a Grenier now, in blood and status…’

“By order of the Claimant Law of the Canadian Ministry, I have inherited this land and the accompanying Manors as the last surviving member of House Grenier.”

The little elf kept its crooked mouth closed and seemed to be wavering back and forth between shutting the door in their faces or allowing them entrance. Hermione finally tired of waiting on the little thing to make a decision and made it for him. Reaching out and grasping the door handle she pierced the elf with a sharp stare.

“There. Now, If I wasn’t of House Grenier, I’d have been burned by now. Will you please let us in already? It’s bloody freezing out here.”

The elf seemed shocked to have been talked back to in such a manner, eyebrows rising high on its sloped face, before taking her words at face value. It shuffled back behind the door to pull it open from the handle on its side, allowing them both to enter. As Hermione and Bella stepped into the foyer, the heat of the Manor pushed down at them both while snow and ice that had accumulated on their clothing began to weep and melt away, dripping down to dissolve completely into steam before it even managed to touch the beautiful carpet under their feet.

“Thank you. Now, what’s your name?”

“Malbon, Lady Grenier. I’ve been in service to your family for generations and waited many years for someone to come back to the Manor. Malbon is quite pleased to meet you Lady Grenier.”

The diminutive elf clasped its hands behind its back before bowing down so low that its nose scraped against the ground.

“Least it knows its place,” Bella growled out lowly before a swift elbow into her side cut off her comment.

“Would the Lady Grenier and her… associate,” the elf looked upon Bella with obvious disdain, “Like Malbon to give them a tour? Malbon has kept the estate in proper shape in your absence, truly Malbon has.”

“Yes, I’d like that. Thank you Malbon.” Hermione linked her arm with Bella before the witch could get out another insult and practically dragged her girlfriend off to follow the elf further into the foyer.

Above them the ceiling rose high up into the air, capped off at the top with a single chandelier that sported well over one hundred everlasting candles and seemed to be draped with anchor chains forged in gold. Wax dripped off and into nothingness while the candles burned, shining a golden light onto every inch of the room. Up and in front of them were mezzanines for each level above them, the first floor being the only one with a staircase that led down and into the foyer itself. Hardwood flooring extended past the carpet they had originally trudged in on and branched out into three paths.

One path led up to the staircase and the first floor while the other two split off at the sides to run parallel to the front of the Manor. Malbon led them off and to the right side first, passing into an overly warm sitting room where a fireplace roared cheerily in the corner and multiple expensive looking black settee’s sat undisturbed with tables carved out from massive trees parked in front of them. The walls held decorations of all stripes but most notably instruments that related to sea faring as far as Hermione could tell.

They passed forward and without comment into another room that was far more suited to spending an evening in quiet company. Massive easy chairs with plush leather and end tables at their side to support whatever was needed there while the far wall held a row of bookcases stacked and littered from top to bottom with books and nearly no free space whatsoever.

Hermione could feel her heart lurch up and into her throat as they passed through room after room, her mind resolving to find the library and sit herself down for an inventory as soon as was feasible. The remainder of their tour encompassed much of the same, Malbon leading them from room to room while describing the name and function in exhausting detail. He seemed to put no further importance on pleasantries or questions of where she’d been, opting instead to reluctantly give them history lessons. The elf seemed either reluctant to talk about Hermione being the last Grenier, or simply didn’t care enough for small talk as they wandered about the hold home.

Two kitchens, five sitting rooms, ten bedrooms and accompanying bathrooms, a room dedicated towards the appreciation and collection of music, one large study, one smaller study, a dining hall and ballroom, and even more rooms that Hermione simply couldn’t keep straight in her head made up the bulk of the interior of the estate. The tour was exhausting and wandering from room to room was taking its toll on her patience and energy. By the time they had finished over two hours had passed by. Her head pounded with the residual of her hangover and her stomach had begun clenching in the absence of food before she finally relented to her body’s need and asked Malbon to take them to the nearest kitchen in order to prepare something to eat.

“Lady Grenier, not to impose, but Malbon will take you to the dining room and bring out food. Malbon has kept the late Master’s charms on the food, nothing has spoiled. Please, please, come this way.”

The sound of footsteps echoing across the rooms as they trudged from the conservatory and down two flights of stairs to the dining room contained within. Malbon seated them both before promising to return right away with food for the both of them.

“So. You happen to remember that time that I said you were rich and you didn’t believe me?” Bella flashed her a sharp toothed grin as she ribbed her.

“Yes, I seem to remember a conversation that seemed something like that… You were right.” Hermione settled down into her seat before laying her palm out across the table for Bella to hold, both witches tired and enjoying the brief respite from walking.

“And you still have two more to visit, right?”

“I do. But we don’t have to go to them today. Honestly I’m not even feeling up to finishing this one. I need to get portkey’s made and this all seems far more tiring than its worth right now. I’ll ask Malbon to get an inventory together of all the items in the Manor. More likely than not I’ll just donate a good portion of it and sell whatever isn’t fit for donation. Probably end up selling one of the other estates as well.”

“Keeping this one then?”

“Unfortunately yes. In order for the Canadian Ministry to qualify the Grenier name as a House, I need to keep at least one home on the mainland and ensure that its location is known to them. The other two aren’t on mainland and while I don’t particularly feel a need to occupy this monstrosity, it’ll have to stay. I’ll clean it out though and still likely buy a plot somewhere in England. And a few more to keep things discrete. Leave this as a last resort if we ever need to use it.”

“Well whatever you can’t end up selling or donating, I call first on destruction. I could use some target practice once we’ve got hand held Fiendfyre.”

Hermione’s features cooled into sharp lines as Bella brought up the subject of Fiendfyre, her eyes narrowing slightly at the thought of the dark haired witch holding so much power literally in the palm of her hand.

The grin plastered onto Bella’s face began to slip as she waited for Hermione to speak up, the witch instead favoring to continue staring at her without saying a word. Brown eyes held fast to the thoughts she was leaving unspoken.

“What?”

---oo---

The lunch hour passed by them as a quiet affair. Plates of sandwiches and bowls of steaming hot soup had appeared into existence in front of them as Malbon worked his magic in one of the faraway kitchens. By the time they had finished up Hermione was feeling far better than she had all morning. Her feet were rested up and stomach settled into something resembling normal. Her headache had even finally faded into the deeper recesses of her memory. Unfortunately it still did nothing for the deep-set fatigue that continued to linger on in her bones and after she finished up with her food she sought out Malbon and relayed her requests for an inventory to him.

Soon enough they were both set out again, apparating first back to the portkey hub they had entered from and through there setting back out on a nauseating spin back to mainland England.

The scar etched into her forearm was humming pleasantly along with Bella’s mood, warm and comforting and lacing her mind and body with the familiar comfort of home. It was a new feeling but one that had forced its way into her body once she had given Bella the good news of her new marriage contract, springing out and into existence in enough of a fountain that she’d been nearly knocked to her knees from the warmth of it all.

And now that feeling thrummed along with her heartbeat as Bella brought her back to Black Manor via side along apparition, her thoughts churning away towards the remainder of their break together and the multitude of plains they still had waiting to begin. Most of what was to come would be hard and certainly not for the faint of heart, but the determination she felt shared between them would help to keep they buoyed against any despair or worry.

Their steps crunched in tandem across the snow covered walkway while a light dusting that fell from the clouded sky above landed on their shoulders. Cool, clean winter air filtered throughout their lungs as they slowly ambled back to the front door.

As they made their way closer to the entrance the soft sound of pops and irregular sharp sounds filtered out and across the walls and grounds towards their ears. Snow muffled what they heard to the point of it being nearly unnoticeable, but a small pit had begun to form in the bottom of Hermione’s stomach as they grew in volume the closer they came. With each step closer they could hear more and more definition, their pace quickening at the sudden turn to sour fear. When the scar on her arm abruptly switched to feelings of worry and anxiety she looked over to Bella’s face and tried to read the witch. Her features had closed off, a question in her eyes and lips parted slightly as she panted with the increased exertion of their pace.

Their steps sped up again, nearly into a sprint as snow crunched loudly beneath their feet and in the distance the distinct POP sound of spellwork became easily discernible.

“NO!”

A shout made its way through the walls of the manor and caution was thrown to the wind. Bella released Hermione’s arm and flat out sprinted forward, her boots digging into the snow in an effort to gain traction and speed while Hermione took off right on her heels. With each stride her heart leaped up in her throat, worry and fear gnawing at her insides. When the duo reached the front door Bella’s pace refused to slow as she withdrew her wand and twisted it in a complex pattern, releasing the lock on the door and opening it wide for her to sprint through.

The angry sound of offensive spells blasted out through the now opened door while screams of terror followed. One voice rose up above the cacophony though, a male voice shouting-

“ -kill you!”