Actions

Work Header

A Better Life

Chapter Text

Silence permeated the sitting room as Hermione entered, broken only by the sigh of pain and exhaustion that leached its way past her lips. Charcoal colored cushions supported her weary form as she leaned into Bellatrix, her head resting gently upon her shoulder.

“If you were planning to let this time timeline, dimension, whatever the hell it is, play out in anything close to what it was like where you came from… Well I think you can let go of that plan.”

Bella’s voice was hoarse and tired, half a whisper and half a rush of air as she let herself finally relax.

“I know,” Hermione dug the heels of her palms into her eyes, a kaleidoscope of bright shapes and colors blooming up beneath her lids to dazzle and distract as she fought back the annoyance and upset threatening to leak through her mind. “I think it’s safe to say it’s all buggered up now.”

Bella laid a warm hand on her knee before squeezing gently and keeping their shared silence as they absorbed the admission. Truly their future had been changed the moment Hermione made an effort of getting close with Bella, but the plan had been to cause the least amount of deviation possible. That was now thrown out, unclipped from normality and lost.

Across the hall they could hear the sound of soft voices, medi-witches attending to Narcissa and Andromeda with as much care as they could muster for two young girls who’d only barely survived a crazed man. Hermione could feel the anxiety bubbling its way through Bella and knew it was taking her utmost control to refrain from throwing the healers out to comfort her sisters on her own. She appreciated her patience, even if it was edging towards its limit.

The spell that had torn into Andromeda had cut deeply, carving out a path down to her bones and shattered most of her shoulder into tiny pieces of shrapnel and gritty powder. Her quick patch up in the aftermath would only do so much, and the healer attending to her had told Bellatrix that she was likely in for weeks of recovery. When she’d heard that, Hermione had felt a bolt of guilt ran through her heart, knowing that the younger witch would have been safe if it hadn’t been for her.

Two Aurors stood outside of the room they had chosen, neither talking but merely standing at attention and ensuring the rest of their team ran into no issues. The rest of the Auror group were wandering about the ground floor, from Cygnus Study to the room that Andy and Cissa had hidden themselves in. It was a grisly scene, one Hermione felt would be etched into her mind for quite a long time, and they took their time as a result.

When the Aurors had first appeared Hermione and Bellatrix had been roughly escorted to the opposite side of the Manor and deposited into the first large room they could find without a fireplace. Whether they thought there was a risk of them leaving or not, it was grating on both witches nerves to be treated with such suspicion.

The whole process of the Aurors was more than infuriating for both witches. When Bella had finally secured Cissa and Andy into another room and ensured neither were in immediate danger, she had immediately Floo called the Auror department. That had, unfortunately, not gone over so well.

Her tone was so lacking in emotion that the Auror on duty had initially assumed she was pranking him, laughing in her face and ignoring her request. Only when she’d shouted condemnation and threats to his job had he moved into action, rousing the rest of the on-site staff and moving to help them. When the Auror had passed through the Floo his ears had still been red-hot and his chastisement seemed to have worked considerably.

In the meantime Hermione had descended down the staircase that Lestrange died on, determined to space the gruesome sight and determine for herself whether both men were dead. She’d also felt the need to convince herself that it had actually happened. That she had cast that spell from her wand. It wasn’t a need to see the carnage so much as see what carnage she had wrought.

Lestrange was almost entirely caked in dried blood the color of rust. What parts of him were clean were white with exsanguination and torn to pieces.

Cygnus was a black husk of ash, smoldering slightly in the barest breeze still fluttering throughout the halls. The withdrawal of air from Bellatrix’s spell had been enough to extinguish the open flames but had the aftereffect of making charcoal of whatever had already caught fire.

Neither man was truly recognizable as what they were and Hermione hoped to all the gods that the Aurors would clean the place quickly. Having them there any length of time was already too long. The elves certainly weren’t going to be of help. None had dared show even the faintest hint of their presence after the fighting started and all the doors leading to their quarters were still locked shut and quiet.

The only positive to come from the amalgamation of death at the foot of the stairs was the faintest stirring of ash against ash as something small moved under what had once been Cygnus’s left foot. Hermione had knelt, secure in knowing she could protect herself and brimming with curiosity in an effort to distract herself. Two tiny unblinking eyes, red as garnets, peered up at her amidst a covering of black ash and human charcoal. A small tongue had flicked out from a head no larger than the tip of her pinky finger to scent the air before the piled moved again and the snake slithered out.

Hermione had been nearly beside herself with amazement at the sight. It wasn’t an adult, that much was obvious by its size, but to her knowledge the eggs of Ashwinders were either infertile or erupted into fire before they could ever hatch.

‘Or we freeze them, and inadvertently kill them…,’ she thought to herself.

The little animal had been as inquisitive as Hermione, moving forward with a constantly flickering tongue to rest before her outstretched fingers. Squatting down amidst the death, it was the first thing that brought her a smile that whole afternoon.

---oo---

::Speakers, the tall ones approach,:: a gentle hissing brought both witches back from their introspection and back to their wobbling reality. The black head of the snake was peeking out from beneath the drapery of Bella’s wild curls, its colors meshing with her own to keep it hidden.

The event was a welcome distraction to them both that lifted them from their stupor while they attempted to look more put together than they felt. The snake remained quiet after its announcement, flitting back and forth between peering up at the two and shifting its attention to the doorway. It was clearly eager to see what came of this meeting but not anywhere willing to be seen itself.

Alastor Moody, Auror First Class and assigned Detective to their case was an intimidating man at best and a terrifyingly overburdening personality at worst. Hermione hadn’t felt her nerves settle since the man had first walked into the room hours ago with his ears burning red at the verbal run-through that Bella had unleashed at him. The man was different from what she remembered of him and yet still the same regardless. An enigma and a presence that refused to subtly fade into the background.

He was younger. Vibrant even. It was clear that the trials of the coming war would strip him of the remnants of his youth and harden him into the half mad Auror she remembered. Besides the electric blue eye rolling unsteadily in his eye socket there were no signs of maiming on this version of Moody.

His skin was an agglomeration of overly tanned skin left papery and dry from extensive time in the sun and scars from fights and training that overlaid until it all looked almost natural if one squinted well enough. Scraggly hair fell down to his chin in greasy clumps and bunches while his eye continued to oscillate wildly between piercing their gaze or avoiding them entirely while it spinned to search through walls and doors.

The gruff voice was the same, lilt and all, leading Hermione to visions of chain-smoking and yelling at young recruits. A cold shiver sprinted up her spine as she listened to the man talk and heard both his older and younger selves at the same time. Déjà vu, but magnified.

The upside of meeting him was the lack of his constant vigilance malarkey. And Hermione would take all the upsides she could get.

“Madam Black, Grenier,” he nodded politely in their direction, “We’ve finished with the cleanup and evidence retrieval.” He stared down his nose at both of them with his good eye while the fake continued wandering about, “We’d appreciate it if you both would accompany me back to the Ministry.”

At the startled shift in their posture he placed his hands out in a placating gesture before continuing.

“I’d like to make it clear to you both now that neither one of you are under arrest or a suspect of any wrongdoing. What happened was an attempt to protect yourself and the youngin’s. We would merely like to get a full accounting of the afternoon, from your perspective.”

Hermione settled herself as she turned to look at Bella with breath caught in her throat as she waited.

“What about my sisters?” The dark haired witch questioned him with an edge to her voice.

“Both of your sisters are fine Madam Black. We’ve made arrangements for them to spend the night with your Aunt and Uncle. We’ve gotten their statement and memories of the incident. They’ll be fine.”

Bella heaved in air as she turned to stare at her lap, fingers intertwined and moving with restless energy.

“Alright. Lead the way then, let's just get this over with.”

---oo---

The Ministry was much the same as Hermione remembered it.

Rooms and hallways filled to the brim with witches and wizards or the occasional goblin going about their business as fast as they could. The whole thing reeked of bureaucratic nonsense and red tape in a way that left her squirming and unsettled after her last time walking these halls in someone else's skin.

Moody led the way from the Floo down a flight of stairs and around sharp right angles towards the Aurors Office. Stained glass windows lined the hallway to let in false sunlight to the depths in a manner that left odd shadows and ill-fitting lighting bouncing around the hallway and black marble beneath their feet. After entering behind a frosted glass door her directed them towards the back of what was clearly the office or administration rooms and offered them both a seat in front of a large wooden desk. Hermione had assumed he’d lead them off towards some sort of interrogation room and felt herself unwind slightly at the more relaxed atmosphere.

Moody sat down behind the desk and set his wand on the edge of the table away from himself before clasping his hand and smiling roughly at them both.

“Now, I would like to speak with the both of you together,” he opened his palms towards them both, “and then separately. You might remember things better together, but we don’ want neither of you to affect the other's statement.”

Bella stiffened as he mentioned talking separately, her hand shifting to Hermione’s armrest and seeking a firm grip.

“Then may I call in a lawyer, Auror Moody?”

The comment left Moody with his mouth open and words stripped from his tongue, seemingly flabbergasted that she’d ask for a lawyer.

“Um… Yes, Madam Black. You may call them to be present during your statement. May I remind you thought-”

“It’s just a precaution,” Bella interrupted him. “Just for my peace of mind. Surely you can understand that?”

Moody shifted uncomfortably in his chair before leaning back to cross his arms over his chest and nodding up and down vigorously.

“Yes, yes,” his tone grew rougher, “I’ll show you to the appropriate Floo once we’ve gotten your joint statement. Now, to begin with. You both were outside of the estate when this altercation began, correct?”

They both nodded their heads.

“How did you know, or find out that there was a fight inside of the building?”

“We heard spells going off and loud voices,” Hermione answered. “It was loud enough that we could hear it outside. When we realized what that likely meant we rushed inside.”

Moody nodded before grabbing up a parchment and hastily scrawling onto it with plain quill.

“So you both willingly rushed into an unknown situation, unaware of exactly what could be going on inside or who might be involved, with no thoughts to your own safety?” His eyes narrowed as he finished his question, voice growing gruffer by the syllable.

Bella shot ramrod straight in her chair, “Of course we did. We knew that Andromeda and Narcissa were there, and we weren’t willing to wait around and let them get hurt.” Bella’s face turned from her characteristic bone white shade to a red flush with her temper rising.

Hermione gripped down on the scar on her forearm with her unoccupied hand in an attempt to soothe the pain that began lancing through it at Bella’s upset. She was warily cognizant of Moody’s fake eye swiveling to her arm and felt a block of ice settle down into her stomach.

“How much combat training have either of ya had? Any? None?” He looked incredulously between the two of them. “Two school girls,” Bella huffed at that, “like you shouldn’t be rushing off into dangerous situations without full knowledge of what’s goin’ on.” Hermione felt a twinge of fire lance through her left side and knew this conversation was headed to dangerous territory if it continued like this for much longer.

‘Best nip this…’

“We did what we thought was right at the time. We didn’t want anyone to get hurt and couldn’t just sit back to wait it out.”

Moody remained silent after she spoke, his features visibly softening.

“Aye. And you did well,” he nodded at them, “That’s the kind of daring and initiative that we look for ‘round here. Have either of you lasses given any thought to what you’re doing after Hogwarts? You’re both seventh years, right?” He stopped and stared at the now stunned look on their faces. “Well maybe now isn’t the right time to be going about it. Later then. Madam Black, please feel free to call in your lawyer. You can use the Floo in the Supers Office, it’ll be secure and no one will trouble you in there.”

Bella turned towards Hermione before squeezing her hand tightly and getting to her feet. The sound of her marching off towards the office that Moody was pointing towards echoed in the empty room while the silence continued between Moody and herself.

Only when Bella was safely behind the door to the Supervisors Office did Moody train his eyes on her and begin speaking again.

“You on the other hand, I would like to come with me. Would that be an issue Ms. Grenier? You can also call a lawyer if you’d like.”

Hermione huffed to herself before standing waiting obstinately for the Auror to lead the way.

---oo---

The room she now found herself in was far more reminiscent of a Muggle interrogation room than she’d imagined it would be. Harsh lighting from a single lamp on the ceiling, large table in the center with chairs on opposite ends, and an oppressive gray coloring scheme that could bore someone to tears. The only thing it was missing was a two-way mirror and Hermione was sure that it was simply magic that allowed someone to see through at least one of the walls, though she couldn’t discern which.

“Now then. Let’s begin.” Moody eyed her carefully and fiddled with his parchment and quill while she sat quietly in the chair across from him. “Please state your full name.”

“Emelia Grenier,” Hermione quirked an eyebrow, “I thought we weren’t here to be interrogated?”

“Oh, Ms. Grenier you’re not here for that. This is just standard procedure. I’m sure things might be done differently across the pond, but we can’t all be screwed on right now can we?” He chuckled to himself before continuing. “So, who are your parents?”

“Antoine and Rosalie Grenier.”

“And where are they now?”

“Dead and in the ground.” Hermione let a growl reverberate through her answer in hopes of dissuading him from the line of questioning.

---oo---

Her bristling at the personal questions seemed to work. Instead of focusing on her personal life the interview proceeded to cover the events of the day from her waking, to the lead up to the death of Pierre.

“What spell did you cast, Ms. Grenier?”

They had finally arrived to the question that she had silently been dreading since she’d sat down. Besides the fact that it had yet to be invented, the inventor hadn’t even started Hogwarts yet. He’d only be arriving next year. And if she told him exactly what it was and how she knew it she assumed he’d rightly lock her up in St. Mungo’s.

She couldn’t even lie and just say that she had invented it. Despite spell invention not being a discipline that was frowned upon, dark inventions were. And it honestly didn’t get much darker than a death by a thousand cuts.

“It’s called Sectumsempra.” Moody scribbled on his parchment as she spoke.

“I’ve never heard of that one. What’s it do?”

“It’s designed to incapacitate someone via lacerations.”

“Interesting. And where did you learn this spell? I can’t imagine that it’s in any of Hogwarts curriculum.”

“I read it in a book.”

‘Technically not a lie…’

His fake eye swiveled upwards to stare her dead in the face.

“In a book? What book?”

‘I hope this works.’

“I don’t know. The cover and multiple sections were torn and missing. I assumed it to be a grimoire of some sort. There were sections that covered potion making and spell theory as well.”

“And where is this book now?”

Hermione centered herself  with a strong breath and gripped down on the robs laying bunched in her lap.

“Destroyed in the Fiendfyre that Mr. Lestrange used. When he tried to kill us.”

Here his quill stopped moving entirely and his normal eye came up to level on her face.

“Ah. Convenient, that. Any known counter to it?”

“Yes. Vulnera Sanentur. It only works at the beginning though. Too much damage and it can’t be countered.”

“Could you demonstrate the spell and counter if requested?”

Hermione initially balked at his request until she managed to view it from his side. A rather unknown individual had used an extremely potent spell, extremely dark at that, to make mincemeat of someone that had been considered an exceptional dueler and been far older than her. The man had wielded Fiendfyre with no issue whatsoever and Bellatrix and herself had cut through him. Not without casualty of course, but neither actually had any trouble. And her knowledge was responsible for that. Were she in his shoes, she’d want answers as well.

“Yes. Is that all, Auror Moody?”

“Just one last question.” He set his parchment and quill to the side before steepling his fingers and leaning forward conspiratorially. “And don’t worry, this room is spelled off right now so it’s only the two of us who can hear anything. No one else will know or hear about this.”

She could feel the knot of cold reappearing in her abdomen as his voice continued to lower.

“How long have you been lying to Madam Black? Or is she in on it?”

“Excuse me?” She narrowed her eyes and tried to control her breathing at the venomous hiss that accompanied her angry question.

“Emelia Grenier is a good backing. You almost had me fooled as well. But I have this,” he tapped at his fake eye with one finger, “and this can see through anything. Glamours included. Even the one woven around your arm. Mudblood, eh?”

If blood could boil and freeze at the same time, Hermione’s was doing so as she shifted from side to side in the now harshly uncomfortable chair. Her fingers shook with exertion as she tightened down on the cloth in her lap, fingernails biting through to prod painfully into the meat of her palms. She swallowed through her dry mouth and attempted to keep her breathing even, knowing full well she could do nothing about the angry flush building up her neck and face.

“Excuse me, Auror Moody?”

“Come on lass. Drop the act. I’m not daft and I can see through that glamour quite easily. Though I have to hand it to you, it’s held up quite well. Strong work. So tell me then. You wanted to do what, get one over on her? Climb out of your station? Not that I’m against that mind you,” he spread his palms open and shrugged, “A woman’s gotta do what a woman’s gotta do. But if it had anything to do with what happened today, anything at all to do with why Mr. Lestrange now lays cut up like a pile of old rags, well, I have to pursue it.”

“I was scarred against my will. I am not a mudblood,” the words tasted like ash and her voice shook with rage as she countered his pig-headed questions. “You can go ahead and contact Gringotts. They completed a full inheritance test only a few days ago. Get in touch with Grindhelm, I’m sure they’d be happy to do another on the Ministry’s dime.”

The man across from her chuckled darkly while he leaned back into his chair, hands clasping over one another while his fake eye wobbled from her arm to her face.

“If you say so lass, if you say so.”

He returned to writing on his parchment, silence spreading between them as he worked.

Minutes passed before Hermione found herself calm enough to speak.

“What happened to your eye?”

“Eh?” He looked up at her in confusion.

“What happened to it? Why do you need something that invades so much privacy anyways?”

He finished his scribbling before setting the quill down and taking a much more relaxed position in the chair.

“I lost it in’a fight with some bloke a few months back. Nutter decided he’d try n’ rob some mudbloods living in a bad part of town. He didn’t have the foresight to block their Floo before he did so. He did however have enough foresight to sling curses and ask questions later. Blasted me as soon as I stepped out of the fireplace. Last time I’ll walk into a situation unprepared, I’ll tell you that.”

With his story finished he picked up his paperwork before standing and waving her off towards the exit, a lax farewell and reminder that he’d be in touch being all he left her with.

---oo---

The waiting tore at her patience. Three hours sitting in a chair outside a blank office door until Bella finally strode out with her lawyer in tow.

As soon as they caught sight of one another Bella made a beeline straight for Hermione and scooped her into a tight hug bristling with all her strength. When Hermione felt she could no longer breathe Bella released her and turned to the man standing at her side.

“Hermione, meet Lincoln Fawley. Lincoln, Hermione.”

Lincoln stepped forward to offer his hand out, shaking it gently and offering her a small smile.

The man was tall, nearly two heads taller than Hermione, and stood ramrod straight in deep maroon robes. Blond hair cropped close to his scalp and a noticeable scar under the left side of his cheek were the only bits that stood out. Other than that, Hermione could find nothing remarkable about the man standing before her.

“Lincoln’s the attorney that my father contracted to. Now that he’s dead the contract passed on to me. Let’s go somewhere else to discuss this, shall we?” She offered her arm for Hermione to hold onto and led them both out of the Auror office and towards the rows of communal fireplaces for Floo access.

The quick trip out had Hermione spitting ash and dusting off her clothes as she stepped out from the fireplace and took in the scenery before her.

The office was well decorated, nighttime light spilling through a massive bay window and illuminating the deep sea greens and midnight blue decor. A black leather couch was pressed against a wall and across from it was a massive desk made from ebony wood, stacks of parchments and folders heaped on top in haphazard piles. The walls contained paintings of voyages at sea, a schooner here, a naval armada there. Each was distinctive in its style and beautiful nonetheless. The only odd ring was the lack of any portraiture, though Hermione reasoned it was probably best to leave a lawyer's office without any eavesdroppers.

“Have a seat please, I’m just going to run through these,” Lincoln held up a sheaf of parchments that had been tucked neatly under his arm and shook them in their direction, “Before we really get started.”

Lincoln sat at his desk while Bella led Hermione to the couch and sat down comfortably next to her, the cushions giving way as she practically sat down on top of her, legs propped up on the length of the couch and Hermione’s thighs. The witch wrapped her arms through Hermione’s and clasped their hands together, a rocky shudder of a sigh flowing out of her throat. The passivity and closeness leaked through the scar to radiate outwards in warm pulses.

“We’re definitely getting runes for Fiendfyre and the counter. Sooner rather than later, preferably.” Bella’s voice was muffled into the crook of Hermione’s neck as she sought comfort.

The little snake that had heretofore been hiding with Bella finally shifted into view before sliding gently through the curls bunched on Bella’ shoulders and over to Hermione’s neck, winding its way around her like a living choker. Little pleased hissing sounds emanating from it as it took in the new surroundings and soaked up Hermione’s warmth.

::Speakers are safe?:: The little animal asked them, tongue languidly pushing against the skin of Hermione’s neck.

::Yes,:: Hermione answered in a low hiss to keep Lincoln from noticing the odd conversation, ::We’re safe.::

“Are you going to keep it?” Bella asked quietly as her hands moved to massage Hermione’s sides.

::Maybe, :: came her reply, :: Little snake?::

The ashwinder peered up at her from below her chin, ::Yes?::

::Do you want to stay with us?::

The little snake shook its head up and down in rapid movement, happily agreeing to stick with the duo.

“Looks like you found a familiar then.”

“Does Hogwarts even allow snakes?” Hermione asked, quirking her head to the side as she eyed Bella.

“We’re only going to be there a few more months. I’m sure it’d be fine. Besides, who’d tell you know? Dumblefuck? Just tell people you’re investigating it. I’ve certainly never heard of an ashwinder surviving so long.” Warm puffs of air beat against Hermione’s cheek as Bella spoke, warmth finally rising up to overtake all the anxiety of the day.

::Maybe… I can do that. But speaking of the Headmaster…::

::You think he had something to do with this all?::

Hermione couldn’t say that she hadn’t thought about it. Once she’d found out why Lestrange had been there, and coupled with the words he’d been saying as he chased after Andromeda, it had made a sick sort of sense. Lincoln, however, saved her from responding.

“Ladies, I’ve finished going through the current files.” He stood from his desk and walked over to stand before them before conjuring a chair and taking a seat.

“As of right now the Ministry has nothing on either one of you. So, that should help allay your fears somewhat. But before we go on any further, you don’t have a lawyer, do you Ms. Grenier?”

Hermione disentangled herself from Bella while the little snake dropped down to intertwine with her fingers and wrist.

“Correct. And if nothing else, today has proven that I should have gotten one once I arrived.”

“Yes, you should have.” Lincoln sighed after the admittance. “Being heiress to a massive fortune notwithstanding, it’s always good to have someone dedicated to being at your side, legally speaking. If you’ll allow a verbal agreement, I’ll draw up a contract later and we’ll go more in depth.”

“That’ll be fine then, I think.”

“Alright then. Now, Bellatrix,” He turned his gaze towards the dark haired witch, “Your sisters are both fine. They’re currently with your Aunt-”

“Which one?” She interrupted, “Cass or Walburga?” Her voice was quiet, one hand coming to rest gently on Hermione’s knee.

“Walburga. They’ll be fine there until the Ministry clears them and approves the Manor as being safe for their return.”

“Is someone there right now? I don’t want those rubes messing with anything not directly related to the incident.”

“Yes. An understudy of mine has been overseeing them. He’ll let us know once it’s cleared for your return. Your sisters arrival might be somewhat later though, due to Andromeda’s injuries.”

“So what’s next then?”

“Well at this point you have some decisions to make.” Bella tilted her head back at the ceiling as he spoke, “Your father wasn’t of the main Black line. However, he still has a dearth of items to bequeath you and your sisters. The matter is somewhat complicated because your mother is still alive but since she’s been declared legally incompetent you’ll-”

“I’m sorry,” she leaned forward again to stare at him, “But what the hell does that mean? Cygnus kept us all in the dark about whatever it was that happened to our mother. One day she was in St. Mungo’s, the next, Azkaban. He never kept his story straight. Just the events leading up to it.”

“Oh…” Lincoln looked both embarrassed and perturbed as he took in that information.

“Well, she’s in Bartholomew Burbages Center for Wellbeing. She was committed after her trial last summer. As of now she’s excluded from all inheritance and acceptance until she’s been cleared for readmittance to society. That, as you can probably guess, could take quite a while. Therefore, all titles and duties will fall to you as the firstborn. Your father’s will made no exception for gender, just order of birth.”

Hermione tried to listen patiently but ended up tuning it all out as the conversation continued from there. Honestly trying to understand the ins and outs of the situation was more than she was capable of doing at the time. The main point she was still able to understand by the time they finished talking was that Druella was still alive, and Bellatrix was set to inherit. Any debts would be made up by selling Cygnus’s shares and businesses and whatever remained would be put aside for Bella and her sisters.

“What about marriage contracts?” Hermione perked when she heard Bella ask that question. “Are they null and void?”

“Well, you’re of age. And you no longer have nor do you need a legal guardian. You can break them with no legal repercussions as they all hinged on Cygnus staying alive to see them through. Now that he’s not, you’re free to do as you wish.”

“And what of my sisters?”

“Their contracts are also null and void. It’ll be up to whoever gains custody of them to either rebuild them or leave them be.”

Hermione felt an uncomfortable cold spot form once again in the center of her stomach as she thought of who was likely going to gain custody of the pair.

“And do you know yet who it’ll be that takes over? Orion or…?” She let the question drop off, apprehension striking through her tone at the thought of little Cissa having to grow up under the thumb of Orion and Walburga. Cygnus and Druella might have been… harsh, abusive, and crazy, but their Aunt and Uncle were out on a whole different level.

“That’ll be up to the law to decide. But your Uncle Orion has already expressed interest. Alphard and Cassiopia have both declined, on part of age and social standing, respectively.”

“Of bloody course…” The pit in Hermione’s stomach turned sour as Bella spoke.

“However,” Lincoln started tentatively, “You are of course welcome to apply for guardianship yourself. In the eyes of the law, you’re an adult witch. The possibility is open…”

---oo---

Hours passed in quiet conversation as Lincoln helped them frame a way forward.

Black Manor was Bella’s, usually bequeathed to the first male Heir to the min line, Bellatrix had instead inherited it from Cygnus. At some point in the past Orion and Walburga had both sworn off the property, refusing to take control of it or will it back to their line.

Any items within the Manor were, however, subject to review. Anything not specifically purchased as a gift for the sisters, or purchased by them themselves, were to be brought out and divided between the remaining members. Neither witch were particularly concerned about that, though Hermione made Bella promise to remove the contents of the library before anyone else could do so.

Eventually the candles surrounding them grew dim and Hermione could feel the exhaustion pooling in her bones. Both witches bid goodnight to Lincoln and received stern promises to meet up with them again as the week progressed.

Stepping through the Floo back to Black Manor was a welcome relief and both witches sagged against one another after dusting ashes and dust from their clothes.

As they headed towards Bella’s room the little snake remained securely wrapped around Hermioen’s neck, coiling delicately and running circles against her warm skin.

::What should we call you?:: Hermione asked the ashwinder as it moved down her arm to curl around in imitation of a particularly fanciful bracelet.

::Agathodaemon, speaker.:: The snake peered up at her with its unblinking red eyes.

Hermione and Bella shared a look of confusion at the odd name, but acquiesced as the snake hissed at them happily.

::Is Agath okay? That’s a long name,:: she asked it quietly.

::Yes!:: The snake bumped its head along the underside of Hermione’s thumb as they ascended the stairs and made their way to Bella’s door. As they entered she set Agath down inside of a drawer that was slightly pulled out, the snake dropping from her wrist and curling into a tight little ball.

“We need to talk about what happened today,” Bella brought up in a quiet tone when Hermione finished with the snake.

“There isn’t really anything to talk about though. He brought it all on himself. Now we’re just stuck dealing with it.”

“But how are you dealing with it? Correct me if I’m wrong but I’m pretty sure I was the killer from when you’re from.” Bellatrix’s voice held a hint of a whine and aggression as she bristled from Hermien’s blase attitude.

Hermione’s throat tightened in response while she stripped down to avoid replying straight away. It was… dull, in her mind. It had all just been a split second decision that she’d not even needed to think about.

“Pierre Lestrange brought it on himself. Once he threatened your family-”

“Morgana’s bloody tits, Hermione I’m not asking you why you did it, I’m asking how you’re holding up.”

“I’m fine-” She couldn’t even finish her rebuttal before Bella was pressed tightly against her back and pulled up her left arm in front of her body. Without any pretense she drew her finger down against the skin to release the glamour and placed her palm face down upon it.

All at once Hermione could feel heat pulsing up and through the etched skin to tingle at the underside of the muscle and flow out like running water into her chest. The longer Bella held on the more the magic continued pulsing, electrifying the connection and overriding the gray fog she’d let herself become enveloped in.

“Hermione, what happened. You didn’t need to let him die like that. I know you had time to start the counter, I know it as well as I know I could have killed him instead. I’ve seen you practice it, in your memories. I’ve seen them all. Let me in.”

Hermione felt pressure build amid her sinuses as she released the magic holding onto the runes buried in her back. A single tear trailed downwards across her cheek as Bella turned her around without losing her grip of the forearm, dark onyx eyes coming to pierce steadily into her own.

All at once it was like being two different people stuffed into the same body. She held the awareness of Bella viewing her mind and headspace, sifting through the memories of the afternoon and leftover splashes of emotion lingering within. She felt the same as she dipped into Bella in return, the biting fear and anger at hearing the first cries when they arrived back, the processing that had taken place to accept the shame of her/their sister being harmed.

She could feel Bella focus on the moment she’d struck Lestrange. She hadn’t attacked with practicality or the thought of incapacitation. She’d struck in anger that even she hadn’t recognized at the time. It had been automatic, cutting him to ribbons. Satisfaction at his pain. She hadn’t been happy. But she had been somewhat sick with glee at stepping over his bleeding body.

They both sighed and leaned in to rest forehead against forehead, eyes continuing to pierce, as it came to the forefront. She’d willingly let him expire, painfully, as justice for injuring Andromeda, her friend, her family.

The bulwark of stoic emotion she’d thrown up around herself fell as she closed off the connection fell into Bella’s embrace. Tears leaked messily down her face as Bella led her to the bed, depositing her safely between sheets and pillows before wrapping her up in an embrace. A hand patted down at her short hair, scratching lightly at the base of her neck as Bella whispered soothing words amidst the sobs.

She wasn’t aware of how long she lay there, safely protected by someone she’d once feared more than death, but eventually the tears dried and she felt strong enough to respond. She wrapped her arms around Bella, tight and compressive, holding onto the warmth therein.

“We need to figure out what this scar really is,” Bella voiced after a few minutes of comforting silence. “We should have looked into it awhile ago. We don’t know what curse it was or whether there was a motive to it beyond marking you…”

“Seems obvious enough to me that it was for more than pain,” Hermione’s tear strained voice husked out.

“No shit,” Bella gently laughed, “But for what exactly?” She wound herself tighter around Hermione and dragged the covers over them both. Pressing warm lips to Hermione’s neck she kept the silence.

“I’m going to raid your library tomorrow. If it doesn’t have anything related to it, I’ll continue the search at my Manors. There’s bound to be something somewhere.”

“You think we’ll find it? Even if Mayweather couldn't’?”

Hermione huffed in indignation, “Not to be mean to the man, but I don’t exactly have the highest opinion of anyone who can’t figure out the D.A.D.A. position is cursed.”

Bella joined her in quiet laughter at that before continuing.

“Alright, that’s sorted then. And I’m going to proposition the Ministry for guardianship of Andy and Cissa. I need to do that tomorrow, before Walburga and Orion.”

“What about, well… us?” Hermione asked her in an unsure tone of voice. As she finished speaking a tremble ran through her muscles. Bellatrix constricted her tighter in her hold, nose nuzzling against the side of her cheek before she laid a gentle kiss.

“We can still, you know. Get married. Now that Cygnus is dead I dare say it’ll be a little bit easier. No contract to uphold.”

“Your sisters will be okay with that?”

“I don’t see why they wouldn’t be. They already both consider you family. Now it’ll just be official.”

“Okay. We need to check in with the elves as well. And figure out how Lestrange found out.”

“All problems for the morning. Sleep, Pet.”

Hermione relaxed herself in Bella’s sure grip while a small smile peeked out into the darkness.

---oo---

Morning brought with it a clearing of the last remnants of Bella’s fatigue and nightmares. Bella’s dreams hadn’t been pleasant but also hadn’t been bad enough to wake her or her partner. Extricating herself from Hermine’s grasp was another matter entirely, one that she wasn’t at first sure she could manage.

The witch had turned around their embrace at some point, warm skin pressed tightly against Bella’s while her limbs wrapped around and entangled her completely. As Bella glanced at the sleeping witch she thought briefly about waking her up, but the guilt eventually won out.

Crawling off the side of the bed was embarrassing, but morning waited for no witch, and she had a job to do. The cool air of the room sapped the remaining heat from her skin as she hurried to dress in something warm. A pair of Hermione’s transfigured sweatpants and a low cut shirt were the closest items to her reach, and she dressed quickly before throwing her long tresses of curls into a semi-loose pony-tail.

She caught sight of the small ashwinder peering up above the lip of the drawer that it had been deposited into. Rubies with black slits darted back and forth between Bellatrix standing by the bedside and the sleeping beauty still snoring. Catching its unspoken request, Bella strode forward and scooped the little snake into her palms.

Something about the situation unnerved her, from the unexpected hatchling to the name it had chosen for itself. She’d never once heard about an ashwinder lasting more than a few hours after laying eggs, and not even a single instance of the eggs actually hatching. It was a perplexing mystery, but one that unfortunately took back seat to the priorities of the day.

::Agath? :: she asked, :: I hate to be insensitive, but are you a Lady or a Lord? I’m not versed in snake gender.::

The snake trusted in her hands to peer up at her with impassive eyes before its tongue poked out gently to flick at her thumb.

::Tall speaker, Agath is Lady. What is speaker? ::

Amused at the question and answer, Bella almost snorted in amusement before remembering her still sleeping charge. :: I’m a Lady. And you can call me Bella. That, :: she pointed Agath towards Hermione, :: Is Hermione, or Em’. She’s a lady as well. ::

Bella gently placed the snake down onto Hermione’s chest where it moved to coil up into a ball before turning to look up at her expectantly.

::Agath, when Em’ wakes, tell her I’ve gone downstairs to find elves. Okay?::

::Yes Dark Speaker! Bella! Agath will do.:: The snake replied in a happy hiss before tucking its head back into its own coils, hiding its eyes from the light. Content that Hermione would survive the morning with Agath watching over her, she kissed her cheek and turned to leave the room.

The hallway outside of her room was empty and quiet as she made her way towards the stairwell, her bare feet against wood and carpet the only sounds. The lingering traces of scouring spells stained the air with antiseptic coldness, biting at her nose. Nothing and no one stood to greet her arrival to the ground floor, everything around her still, quiet, and unsettling. Items all around were still knocked over or overturned from where Cygnus and Lestrange had chased after Andy. The doorway to the study was still open and unrepaired, the hinges smashed in and the shattered door swept into a pile opposite of it.

Nothing lined the walls of the study, every painting and item having been stripped and blasted away at some point during the duel. A deep gouge was etched into the center of the desk starting from the direction of the fireplace, letting her assume that Lestrange had entered the room and immediately started fighting. The lingering feel of dark magic flooded the room, smothering her breaths and making her feel lightheaded in its presence. Her pulse quickened and her mind relaxed as she took the space in. However, before she could let it overcome her, she quickly left the space behind and promised it further inspection later, when she was not alone.

When she reached the kitchens she kept her ears open for any sound coming from the elves, any pots or pans clanging, or the distant sound and smell of food frying. It took only a second to reach her conclusion.

Nothing was there.

As she stepped through the space she drew her wand out and headed towards the door at the back that led towards the servants quarters. Again nothing met her as she passed the threshold.

The hall was empty and silent as death.

Each door lining the hall was closed tightly, no signs left out whatsoever to indicate the presence of elves or anyone else for that matter. She took the hall slowly, room by room. Her unease at the situation grew with every step. Door after door held only an empty and filthy space, devoid of any life, and growing filthier as she neared the end.

Cygnus was never one to dictate what his elves did on their time off, he was always much more hands off than that, but it seemed that none of the elves had made any effort whatsoever to make their own quarters livable. Dirty scraps of cloth littered across the floor, cut up kitchen towels and table spreads lay in piles amid newspaper clippings and detritus. It was all a hodgepodge of secondhand filth.

The final door in the hall was as unopened as the rest, right against the back of the hall and adjacent to the pair of doors that led outside.

Bella pushed it open with her free hand while the other clutched at her wand and pointed directly into the interior. As she stepped forward and no spells were sent her way she dropped her wand hand to her side and forced a Lumos wordlessly.

If the other rooms were horrid, then this one took first place prize.

It was scattered and covered in cloth and paper, everything pushed to the side to reveal a ring of dirt in the center and what looked to be nests against the outer corners. As she shuffled through the debris she caught sight of something that seemed just a little out of place.

Kneeling down, she picked up a well-kept piece of parchment, dusting it lightly before reading it.

On it were two names, side by side. Bellatrix drew in her breath in as her muscles tightened in shock.