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A Better Life

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Dec’ 29, 1968

A Wizarding funeral, in light of Hermione’s admitted lack of experience, wasn't very different from the Muggle equivalent. Of course there were differences and many of them were quite important distinctions but beyond the application of magic the structure of the event was much the same. Her own experiences had been colored by the distinct lack of funerals in her own life, something which could honestly be seen as a good thing despite the actual number of people she’d been close to that had died. First had been her grandparents on her mother’s side, dead before she was even seven years of age. Her mother had ended up forbidding Hermione’s attendance in a bid to preserve her already fragile sense of innocence and left her instead in the care of a babysitter. It had worked, somewhat. Instead of understanding why the event had mattered she’d instead ended up only questioning why her mother left with tears in her eyes and came back with even more.

Beyond that experience in her early childhood the only major event had been the death of her late Headmaster, Dumbledore. His service had been relatively plain and simple even with the great number of people who had shown up to speak on the dead man’s behalf. After that there were the numerous funerals she’d attended in the immediate wake of the war. The bereaved families had opted for plain and simple instead of grand gestures in the wake of the war. Horror still lingered in the back of people's minds and rather than spread opulence they had sought out comfort and immediate family. Wooden boxes, slowly entering the ground as families fell to their knees with grief. Extravagance just hadn’t been a luxury that many could emotionally afford.

But at this particular point in time? WIth the horrors of the last war so far away in people's memory and the death of so significant a Black?

Extravagance was in abundance and seemed to be inflated with the remnants of aristocratic abundance that would have been shed at the New Years Gala. Cygnus’s family might have spared him no love but they did put stock in societal appearances. Within a few days of his passing Walburga had stepped forth as the only one interested in planning and orchestrating her brother’s funeral. The speed at which it was accomplished shocked Hermione until she learned the action was sparked by ages old superstition, stories passed down from generation to generation as a way of controlling the presentation surrounding their demise. Any Black who died needed to be buried as soon as possible, and at the very least they needed to be buried before the turn to a new year. If the action was not taken with due haste then the spirit would wander restlessly for all eternity as a non-corporeal shade of their past self, always hurting, always wanting, searching and reaching for a rest they could not have.

Bella and Hermione had both professed that that would have been the preferable outcome for the abusive man’s soul but they weren’t in charge of the planning and had become too involved with playing as the grieving and traumatized survivors. It simply wouldn’t do to make their opinions known and instead had left Walburga to her planning.

The day of Cygnus’s entombment began early enough that even the sun had yet to make an appearance off the horizon, the world around them shrouded by listless snow and gray clouds. The viewing was to be held in Black Manor and was expected to be fit near to bursting with guests, well-wishers, and relatives from within and without the Black family tree.

The first arrivals that day had been Narcissa and Andromeda, both practically leaping from the entrance Floo and straight into their sister’s arms. It brought a lightness to Hermione’s chest to see the sister’s reunited so enthusiastically and without any animosity. The feeling grew tenfold when she was included in the warm hugs of greeting. It had been far too long since the trio had seen one another in person and while intermittent Floo calls were nice they couldn’t make up for the distance and separation forced upon them by Walburga sheltering them.

Hermione had wrapped her arms tightly around Andromeda when she turned to pull her into a hug, the wound on her shoulder causing Andromeda to favor her right side. When they had pulled away Hermione had dropped into her mother-hen mode, inquiring about the injury and bombarding the younger witch with questions and concerns. The witch avoided the conversation for a moment before opening up to reveal the damage, pulling aside her dress to show the true damage caused by Lestrange’s curse. The skin around the strike had been darkened considerably as it healed into a large Starburst shaped scar, edges harshly meeting with the natural paleness of her skin.

“I’ve been told it’ll never truly heal back to normal,” Andromeda said with a sad smile, “I’ll be stuck with the scar and reduced range of movement. Potions help, but the scar tissue went too deep.”

Hermione pulled the witch in again for a hug after hearing that as no words were available to her to convey how harshly that knowledge twisted her up inside. By the time she let go Bella had released Narcissa and stepped up instead to pull Andromeda aside for a hug and quiet conversation, one pale hand smoothing down the auburn curls of Andromeda’s hair as the other soothed her back. It was quiet and intimate in a way that had Hermione looking away to give them privacy. It brought up memories of a future hopefully rewritten, questions popping into the plane of her mind as she wondered how such a close bond had been severed irreparably in the future she’d come from. The thoughts lingered on her periphery as she opened her arms for Narcissa.

Agath had wrapped herself up around Hermione’s neck until her tail swished back and forth against the skin covering Hermione’s pulse point. The little snake kept up a colorful little commentary as Hermione greeted the sisters while her tongue flicked up and out as she scented and peered up at the new arrivals.

:: Friends? ::, Agath had asked with a soft hiss in her ear. The curiosity of the young snake was evident in her tone in a way that Hermione couldn’t explain, choosing instead to simply acknowledge that she knew it to be that. Questions could be had at a later date.

:: Yes, Lady Narcissa and Lady Andromeda. They’re not speakers though. ::, she’d replied as she let the Ashwinder crawl down her arm to get a closer look at the duo. 

Narcissa had immediately taken a shine to the young snake as it darted down Hermione’s arm to offer herself up for Narcissa’s hesitant hand to pet her scales. When she seemed more confident Agath had climbed up Narcissa’s hand to wrap herself about her wrist, tongue flickering happily at the attention. Excited whispers flew from Narcissa as she talked to the snake, uncaring if she couldn’t understand any replies. Andy had passed on interacting with Agath, opting instead for a polite wave as the snake peered up unblinkingly at her and running a single finger down her dorsal scales before turning back to her sisters.

Introductions had completed from there and Agath made her way from Narcissa’s arm and up Bella’s, wrapping and hiding herself amid the curtain of black falling down her shoulders and back.

The next flash from the Floo offered up an ashy looking Walburga who set to immediately pushing them all out of the entrance room and into the hallway, loudly informing them that their place was to be seen and not heard. The older woman looked as well as she had in future version of Grimmauld place. Tall, rigid, and wearing an unyielding stare that sent shivers down Hermione’s spine, the woman was intimidation bound up in corporeal form. A few colorfully distasteful comments about Hermione’s choice of hairstyle later, and the woman had wandered off to attend to something elsewhere. 

Orion came through next in a puff of smoke and ash, lazy smile forming as he left his wife to her devices, avoiding the young witches entirely. The angry hiss that Agath let out at the sight of the man brought a smile to Hermione’s face as he walked past them to follow his wife.

Alphard and Cassiopeia had both been wrangled into attending and arrived in short order after Orion had stepped through. Each had been bribed into attending with promises of first dibs at the contents within the Manor after Cygnus was securely in the ground, greed spurring them more than familial obligation. Hermione did a double take as Alphard stepped through the Floo, her mind spinning up and wondering whether Sirius had actually been Alphard’s clone.

Chestnut colored hair fell down in lazy waves upon his shoulders while a thin mustache wrapped around his top lip and fell down his jaw in a chisel cut. Gray eyes, luminous and energetic, jumped about the room at a frenetic pace. A wry grin filled his face with cheer and amusement as he read the room. His sonorous voice boomed out a greeting as he scooped Andy and Narcissa into a wide armed hug. When he released them and spotted Bella he stopped and stared, Bella returning the look just as well. Seconds passed in silence as tension grew in the room until Bella’s composure finally cracked, a smile breaking out  as she ran up to him. Alphard picked her up with ease to twirl her around the room as he laughed deeply. The sight brought a smile to Hermione’s face as she felt the love Bella was basking in flow up and through her scarred flesh.

Hermione stepped forward after he let Bella down, her hand out professionally and a thin lipped smile showing as she raised her chin in imitation of pureblood aristocracy. The man stared back at her with eyes gray and unreadable as he left her hand hanging in mid-air.

“Come on now girlie, you’re to be my nieces intended. Not an enemy. ‘Least, not yet anyways.”

His expression softened in her direction as he finished speaking and he opened his arms wide in clear invitation. Hermione froze for only a moment before stepping forward to indulge herself. It had been far too long since someone, anyone, had taken a position of familiarity with her that wasn’t one of the Trio. The warm hug and kind words that followed brought her nerves down and settled her into a warm perch as they talked at length about one another.

When she mentioned all that she’d heard about him through Bella, Alphard turned to give his niece a glare and chuckled darkly to himself. 

“Nothing too scandalous then, I hope. We’ll save those stories for when there aren’t any innocents about!” His remakes finished with a wink towards the younger two witches who merely groaned at his play acting with feigned indifference.

The camaraderie of Alphard couldn’t last, and Hermione’s next introduction to a Black family member was decidedly more hostile.

Cassiopeia Black, the Great Aunt of the trio and favored relative of Andromeda, stepped out through the Floo and immediately sent her niece Walburga a glare that could have shriveled a tree. Hermione had been briefed before her arrival and was well aware of the woman’s rather duplicitous and meddlesome nature. Gray hair, gray eyes, a stooped back and wrinkles beyond measure all lent themselves to giving her a visual age that was far beyond her mere fifty-four years. Hermione would have likened her to being more than a century old if she hadn’t been aware of the woman’s actual age. She stood as a direct counterpoint to the youth that Bellatrix Lestrange had been able to maintain even through her stint in Azkaban, fifty-four being still young by wizarding standards and genetics. 

Cassiopeia was a crone in body and mind who delighted in interfering wherever she was least wanted. The woman was an expert at pushing herself into situations and conversation that allowed her to mingle at the periphery of people's minds. All the while she would absorb everything she heard and saw until she could put it to use at a later date. She was dressed in only the finest garments, black of course, and threaded through with silver thread that gave her a shine as mourning runes sparkled and shone in the soft light of the Manor. An oversized black bonnet completed the look, never mind the fact that it was the middle of winter, perched atop her head like a gaudy ornament.

In contrast to her visible age and degradation the eyes she sported were sharp as they could be. Dagger like and enlarged by square spectacles, they seemed to see everything as they swiveled about in a head that sat unmoving on her hunched shoulders. The silvery orbs peered about and roved from one family member to the next until she landed on Bella and Hermione.

“So then. You’re the French twat that my dear Trixie is marrying,” she croaked out in a horrid voice that physically grated on Hermione’s ears, “It’s a fitting accomplishment for Cygnus I suppose, a cock up even when he’s in the grave.”

“Auntie Cass, how lovely to see you,” Bella broke in before the old hag could continue to disparage Hermione or Cygnus’s memory. An arm wrapped loosely around the woman in a hug as Bella whispered sweet words and guided the older woman away. It worked, eventually, but not before she got out a series of rather rude questions involving fertility tests and an unexpected offer for tea later that week.

Before Hermione could accept the offer Andromeda had swooped in to save her, pulling her away by the arm and informing her of the truth to the offer. If she’d have accepted and actually shown up then she’d have likely been dosed with veritaserum and subjected to whatever questions the old woman could come up with. Not that it would work, Hermione noted with a wry smile, but she appreciated Andy stepping in and informing her regardless. All in all it was a meeting that Hermione was eager to never repeat.

Dorea Potter, née Black, had sent through the Floo a lowly Potter cousin along with her deepest sympathies for her lack of attendance. The news that she was still alive was a shock to Bella after she’d assumed that the woman had likely died. That had been far from the truth, however, as the cousin explained that instead she was still alive and kicking somewhere distant within a care-home.

The last of the family to arrive had been the children, Sirius and Regulus, herded through the Floo by an elderly elf that immediately apparated away as soon as both boys were on solid ground. Regulus, tiny and barely seven years old, waddled along with his brother at his side. The little boys eyes were wide and saucer shaped as he took in the surrounding landscape and people milling about. He was charming, as young children of his age tended to be, filled with endless questions about one thing or another as his mind and attention span kicked about at a rapid pace.

Sandy colored hair that had yet to turn dark was draped about his shoulders and down to the nape of his neck in ringlets and waves that were purposefully left mussy. When he’d spotted Hermione with her rather unconventional hairstyle he’d immediately asked the witch if he could pet it. She’d acquiesced and knelt down to his side as he oohed and awed at the softly tamed curls. After that moment had ended the young boy had followed Hermione around as she made her way about the Manor, determined little smile on his face as he accompanied his new friend.

Sirius, by and large, was another matter entirely.

Only just turned eleven and set to join Howarts for his first semester in the coming year, the young boy walked around aware of both the money lining his family’s pockets and the good looks that he would one day grow into. A pair of steel silver eyes peered out into the world through a curtain of curly brown hair. His gaze seemed to inhale everything that surrounded him as he darted about from one thing to the next. He stood apart from his family like a sore thumb in more than just mannerisms though. He had eschewed the formal attire of black mourning garb and had opted instead for cream colored dress robes atop a similarly colored suit. Cassiopeia and Walburga both glared at the young boy as he passed by, voices muttering lowly at the disrespectful coloring. He carried himself about with a haughty indifference and aristocratic posturing that Hermione could already tell would one day break a few paramours hearts. 

In some words, he was just as she knew him, and nothing like it. 

A few others had arrived to make a token appearance at the funeral. Some families offered up cousins or daughters, son-in-law’s and estranged family to represent the great houses that had intermingled with the Blacks at some point in the past. The remainder of the attendees, and by far the majority, were businessmen and prior paramours, Ministry workers and acquaintances who’d risen the ranks of society through Cygnus’s lining of their pockets or his silvered words being placed into ears. Only a few noble purebloods filtered in, followed by a displeased looking Voldemort, shaking hands with one another and networking instead of comforting the family or paying their respects.

---oo---

After all the attendee’s had filtered into the Manor, they rejoined into the largest room on the ground floor. It had been cleared out in advance of the event, floors cleared and furniture moved to other rooms to make way. The group in the room were dressed as dark and posh as they could be with the exception of Sirius, and presided over a closed walnut casket holding Cygnus’s cinder remains. A brazier of simmering coals stood off to the side of the casket, burning and available to accept small parchments filled with well wishes for his afterlife. Ash and powder in the brazier grew as the morning continued until they collapse inwards and billowed up to tint the room in smokey haze.

The Black trio stood in attendance at the corner of the room to pass out thanks and aristocratic gossip to those who stepped forward to view the casket or put parchment into the brazier. As minutes ticked into hours the haze about the room increased until ashes had permanently smudged themselves onto the oppressive black garments of the attendees. Sirius seemed to regret his choice in snubbing the event as the ash tinged his robes and suit a chalky gray. Bella chuckled lowly to herself whenever she caught sight of the young boy, drawing glares from her Aunt whenever the woman caught her in the act. Eventually the smokey interior even got to Hermione, causing her to cough at random intervals as it became harder and harder to breath.

Agath, now wrapped around Hermione’s neck in clear view of the attendee’s, licked gently at the scar emblazoned around her neck and hidden underneath her glamours. The young snake was quite pleased with the ash filled atmosphere as she preened and hissed happily whenever a new plume of ash would shoot towards the ceiling. It brought a smile to Hermione’s face to see her familiar enjoying herself and helped to push back the overwhelming thoughts of how much she despised the majority of the attendees.

Not to say that some weren’t good people, she knew quite well that not all purebloods were evil supremacists, but the gathering here seemed to be a collection of the worst of the worst. Only a few redeeming members had made an appearance and they seemed to only be here out of obligation rather than emotional support for any family members.

---oo---

As the hours passed the estate was finally shrouded in darkness as clouds continued lazily dropping snow across the land. The viewing had taken hours and Walburga had presided over it in its entirety until the time had come to complete the funeral. As one the group moved from the room and out through the double doors at the front entrance and out into the snowy night.

Everyone in attendance drew their wands and softly released a Lumos as they organized themselves into two distinct lines. Cygnus’s casket levitated between the group until it reached the head of the lines and drew them forward into a march towards the Black Crypts.

Deep within the sprawl of the forest surrounding Black Manor lay the Black Crypts, hidden deep and cold within the land that had sheltered the family for centuries. The twin lines passed beneath bowed trees that lay heavy with snow and swerved around logs and puddles of ice as they forged a trail deep into the wilderness. No one spoke as the march continued to drag on and the only sound to accompany them was the crunching of feet in snow and the whistle of wind as it threaded through the land.

After what felt like hours the group finally reached a large clearing hidden deeply into the forest. It was wide and smooth with all the trees surrounding it preened back in a way that seemed as purposeful as it was unintentional. The center was unburdened by snow and surrounded on all sides by a low wall that seemed built from stone that was as old as the earth itself, lending an eerie quality to the already dark night.

The casket continued forward as the lines halted in their place until it passed to the middle of the circle and halted. The ground underneath it seemed to shimmer and shine before disappearing entirely and leaving a black void where dirt once lay. Obsidian obelisks rose on either side of the hole as Bella and her sisters walked forward with Hermione in tow and Walburga at their side. Hermione threaded her fingers through Bella’s as a chill crept up her spine that couldn’t be attributed to the chilly environment surrounding them. 

As the casket dropped into the newly opened space the procession behind them began moving again, soft footsteps following in the pathway made by those in front. A flight of stairs had appeared in the hole and the casket preceded them down into the space as the dark of night gave way to the artificial darkness of the underground Crypt. The air that surrounded Hermione began warming as they descended further into the ground while a damp draft pushed back up the passage they were traveling through. Hermione’s hand clutched tighter at Bella’s as the angle increased and chills wormed their way over her skin.

Warmth and heat began pumping out of her cursed scar as Bella sought to calm them both down as they descended. The runes that adorned her skin itched and began pulsing as they continued onwards, old magic recognizing old magic and the proximity sending the hair on Hermione’s arms to stand at attention. The three runes emblazoned on her neck seemed to be the most affected as they tingled and burned with every step she took. Her tongue darted out to lick the corner of her lip as the newly applied rune on her throat and chin began heating and pulsing in a rhythmic fashion.

Minutes of descent passed by until the space surrounding them slowly opened up. Eventually the staircase ran out as the ground leveled and a hallway presented itself to them. The casket continued moving until it reached a space as open and large as the Great Hall and just as High, if Hermione’s judgement was correct. Open passageways were interspersed at regular intervals along the outer rim of the room but remained pitch black even in the face of increased illumination. Warm air passed through and up to ruffle at hair and clothing as the space seemed to breathe around the interlopers. The crowd behind them continued to filter in slowly as attendees took up spots along the wall to allow everyone fair entrance. The casket moved towards the center of the room , silent and still as it floated in place.

Orion strode forward until he stood next to the casket and placed a wavering hand upon its lid. Weary eyes reflecting the light from their wands turned to face the crowd as he gave last rites to Cygnus. His voice carried a melodic quality as he spoke in a language that Hermione couldn’t recognize, golden runes spreading out from his hand upon the wood and etching themselves into the casket in a haphazard pattern to seal it for eternity. The crowd remained reverent and silent as Orion continued, never once reacting even as Orion finished and stood back to let the casket continue on its way.

Bella turned to Hermione and gently kissed her cheek before squeezing her hand one last time and turning to follow the casket. Andromeda and Narcissa joined her as the casket made its way deeper into the Crypt and towards its final resting place.

---oo---

Hermione ended that night, after returning to the surface and seeing all the guests off the estate, in her guest bed with Bellatrix draped across her weary form. Soft hands and nipping teeth joined gently hissed words of reverence as both witches sought out comfort in one another.

---oo---

Jan’ 2, 1969

The last three days before their return to Hogwarts had been no less than hectic for both Hermione and Bella. Their current errand at the Ministry, deep down where most sane visitors would never treat, was currently the foremost cause of Hermione’s nervous energy. She stood tightly pressed to Bella’s side while a weary looking desk clerk sat in front of them as he continued only just barely going through the motions of assisting them. A clock situated upon his desk continued to tick and tock annoyingly towards the end of the business day and Hermione found herself eyeing it with every second that continued to pass. Both witches were aware that their meeting was last minute and had no reassurances that what they needed done would actually happen that day. Still, neither were bothered with the timing enough to wait and come back at a later date.

A stack of paperwork that was much the same as the one she’d initially given to Cygnus sat upon the desk as the clerk blearily perused through it, a bored look etched upon his face. It had been like this for so long that Hermione had had time to average how long it took him to read a page. Forty-five seconds, flip the page, forty-five more seconds of reading. Forty-five seconds longer than should have been necessary to read the information presented within. As the page flipped to the next Hermione could feel a flush of heat rise to her cheeks and chest as her nerves and impatience rose to ever higher levels. She’d never once been one to deal well with lax authority or those who would purposefully hinder those in need, and that attitude was quickly leading her to a breaking point.

The Ministry was so full of these incompetent paper-pushers that Hermione could nearly feel her blood boil as she stood here awaiting something to happen. She’d known that her experiences at the hands of Fudge’s incompetent Ministry would color her perception of the institution but she’d not truly believed it could affect her this much. Unfortunately, she was wrong. And that now left Bella to attempt to be the level-headed one of the pair which honestly was a task she was distinctly unsuited for. It was a wonder neither witch had blown up in his face at this point.

Both witches had found it best to attack the problem of custody for Andromeda and Narcissa as soon as possible. And now that Cygnus was in his grave and the one day Holiday for the Ministry had ended, they’d found no better time than the present. Even though the process was shaping up to be laborious at best and convoluted at worst both witches felt it appropriate to put in appearances and start the process before Orion and Walburga could step in to claim the right.

And so they stood at the desk of one Austin Peagrave, as his brass nameplate pronounced him, while the man continued to flick absentmindedly through their stacks of parchments with an artificial slowness. The only sounds came from him as he hemmed and hawed at each little bit of inconsistency within the stacks. Hermione was having none of it though and had made it a point to refute each error with and answer in duplicate. This usually resulted with her turning the pages of parchment herself or dutifully reciting exactly which page the information was located on, all the while slowly growing angrier and angrier at his incompetence.

If there was anyone in the entire world that a bureaucrat shouldn’t mess with, it was Hermione.

Over time and snide comments while she corrected him the man finally admitted defeat and prepared the stack of parchments for further review by his superiors. Hermione could physically feel the stress and anger melt away as he bundled each sheet back up and sent it on its way.

“Well then, we’ll see to it that Mr. Carlyle receives those tomorrow, wouldn’t do to have all your,” he squinted heavily at Hermione’s still red form, “exhaustive work end up lost somewhere. I’ll send you an owl when he has it. Now, will that be all for today?”

“Yes,” Bella replied with saccharine sweetness and an edge that could cut glass, “It wouldn’t do at all for any of this to get lost somewhere. We Black’s have long memories after all, and you’ve made quite the impression Mr. Peagrave.” Agath appeared and peeked out through the curtain of Bella’s hair to hiss angrily in his direction as the witches turned on their heels and exited the cramped room.

Finally relieved from their task of the day the witches set about leaving the depressing confines of the Ministry. The lift was thankfully empty as they approached, scissor gates sliding open gently as they came forward to board.

Just before the gates could close back up a single hand shot forward to bar them open as a man stepped in with them. He was only just a smidgen taller than Hermione, young and deeply tanned despite his robes proclaiming him as one who worked within the Ministry. Hermione tried to let him fade into the background until he turned to the side after pressing a button. There, on the side of his shoulder, was the embossed logo of the D.o.M., standing brightly out over his rather drab work robes. Bella backed up to give the man space which allowed Hermione the room to maneuver and view him from another angle. Agath peered out from Behind Bella’s neck to begin hissing at the new arrival, causing him to turn and allowing Hermione to get a full view of his face. Memory caught up with reality as Hermione finally realized who it was.

Bode. Broderick Bode. The Unspeakable who’d been roped into helping Hermione with the task of returning to her reality and had instead subsequently ghosted her. Her eyes widened as he peered back at her before turning around without even the barest hint of recognition or even a hello.

“Mr. Bode,” Hermione started off in an unsure tone, “What a surprise to see you here. Or I suppose not, since you work here…” Her tone softened as he turned around again and shot her a quizzical look.

“I’m sorry Miss, but do we know each other?”

Hermione could feel her heart still within her chest as her lips fell open in disbelief. The hand holding onto Bella’s forearm dug sharp nails down painfully into her skin as her body tensed.

“Oh, um, we met a few months ago? With Professor Dumbledore? You were working on tracking something down for me…” Hermione’s head tilted to the side as she peered up at him, not a spark of recognition behind his pale eyes.

“I’m sorry, but I’m afraid that I have no clue as to what you’re referencing, Miss…?”

“Gra-Grenier,” she almost faltered, “Emelia Grenier.”

His pupils contracted slightly and his head tilted to the side, almost as if he was remembering something, before the dull look overtook his features again and he shook his head weakly.

“I’m sorry sir, I must have gotten you confused with someone else. Sorry to bother you.” Hermione lied out through her apology while putting in just the right amount of feigned embarrassment to make it appear somewhat genuine.

In a stroke of good luck the lift doors opened up upon the Atrium and both witches made a hasty exit away from the still confused man.

“What the fuck was that about?” Bella whisper-shouted as the made their way out, feet pounding on the marble floor in their haste to reach the apparition point.

---oo---

Jan’ 3rd, 1969

The train whistle of the Hogwarts Express rang out merrily as students boarded from the platform and sought out refuge inside brightly furnished compartments. Hermione and the Black siblings had arrived with no issues, apparating into the platform with Andy on Bella’s arm and Narcissa tucked securely against Hermione’s side. The only grievance they’d been dealt as they passed by the throngs of returning students and parents had been wide-eyed stares and murmured gossip as they passed.

The Prewett clan of redheads had worn sulking eyes and terse stares, peering out at the group from a compartment as they passed by. Though no one exchanged any words Hermione couldn’t help but stoke the fire building in her breast as they passed, memories of their last encounter with Fabian clouding her mind.

The worst part of boarding however had been passing by a compartment near the back that had been filled to bursting with Slytherin students. It was a group of seventh years only two compartments down from their own and close enough to remain within earshot during the trip.

The Lestrange brothers, Corrigan Goyle, Aldalus Crabbe, and Laureli Parkinson were all sitting huddled with one another and glaring angrily towards anyone that passed. Their stares turned to daggers as Bella and Hermione had passed by with the two younger witches securely between them. Hermione had so far had little to no interaction whatsoever with Laureli, something she was quite happy for after finding out that common gossip about the witch was that she was as prim and proper as a pureblood could come, with a stuck up attitude to match.

Rudolphus himself wore a pinched expression to his face as he glared down his nose to the group of witches when they passed by. His dark eyes were filled with wrath that sent a shiver of fear lancing down Hermione’s back. She could already tell that he would be trouble at some point this year. Rabastan was a different story however. Instead of anger or resentment in his eyes he’d instead looked at her with what seemed like sadness and pity. As soon as they’d locked eyes he’d turned to find something else more interesting on the floor of their compartment, leaving Hermione confused and determined to find out the reason for his peculiar attitude.

---oo---

As the sun began to set across the hillside and the train ride had only reached tis midpoint, the door to the shared compartment slid open. In a flash of movement Agath was awoken, hissing out a warning and winding her body around Hermione’s neck in an effort to wake her. When the movement finally brought the dozing witch out of her dreams she reacted by sitting up out of Bella’s grasp and slipping her wand from its holder to point in the face of the intruder. The movement startled Bella awake, who only took a half second before mirroring the actions of Hermione.

Standing before them at wandpoint was a young woman with a lovely tanned complexion that reminded Hermione of holidays spent in Italy and Greece, with eyes of deep amber that were as inviting as they were hidden. Long ochre colored that was streaked with black hung down at the witch’s side in an intricate braid that left the tip reaching past her waist to swing back and forth as she flinched back from Hermine’s hostile greeting.

Her hands raised slowly into a surrender pose as she attempted to make herself seem like less of a threat and Hermione replied in kind by dropping her wand to point at the floor. As the moment stretched out Hermione could feel her panting breath still back into a normal rhythm while her mind was struck with an odd sort of familiarity.

“I don’t mean you any harm,” the mystery girl spoke after flashing them all a brilliantly white but too sharp smile, “I just wanted to talk.”

Bella leaned forward from her position against the window to nudge at her sisters with a foot and at the same time gestured towards a space at the end of the bench for the witch to sit.

As she did so, Narcissa awoke, eyes blinking slowly as she rubbed sleep away and peered about their compartment. When she settled her gaze upon the girl she gave a slight smile before speaking.

“Hey Allesa.”

“Hey Issa, Andy,” the witch bowed slightly in her seat towards Bella and Hermione. “Madam’s Black, Grenier. Pleasure to meet you.”

Hermione straightened her back as she sat up further and inched her body backwards until she was pressed securely against Bella’s front.

“Hi. And you are…?”

“Allesandra Zabini, third year,” she replied with only the barest hint of an accent, “I’ve seen you both around.”

“Nice to meet you then Alesandra.” Hermione relaxed fully into Bella as she placed her wand back inside the holster strapped to her forearm.

“Please, feel free to call me Allesa. But pleasantries and first meetings aren’t why I’m here.”

Hermione’s head cocked to the side and her eyes narrowed as the witch finished speaking.

“How’d you do it?”

“...Do what?” Hermione replied as Bella moved to wrap her arms around Hermione’s waist and pull her closer still.

“How’d you manage to take out Old Man Lestrange? Everyone on the train is talking about it, they have been since we boarded. But no one seems to know exactly what happened.”

Narcissa turned away from the conversation while Andy wrapped an arm around her shoulders, preferring to avoid the topic of something that had so recently affected her.

Seconds passed by in silence as the group of witches stared at one another while Hermione contemplated on whether she should answer or ask Allesa to leave. The witch seemed to notice the hesitation in her gaze and so saved her the chance to make a decision.

“That might have come across as inappropriate. I’m not trying to be a gossip, if that’s what you’re worried about. I’m just interested in knowing how you did it. What spell you used. Whatever it was, I want it.” Her voice reached a sinister inflection as she finished and shot them a smile filled with sharp teeth.

“Why?” Bella asked quietly.

“Because,” Allesa shrugged, “Why not? What if someone makes an untoward advance on me? I’d need some way to protect myself from assault and we all know exactly how useless Mayweather is.”

Hermione cleared her throat softly before speaking up in reply, “I can’t tell you. Even if I wanted to, I’m bound by the Ministry in regards to the spells that were used.”

While not exactly untrue, it wasn’t the full truth either. It was however just enough of both to ease Hermione’s conscience. She’d needed to sign a multitude of forms and documents before leaving the Ministry after Lestrange’s attack and among the group had been a single page that bound her from teaching or informing anyone of the particular spell that she’d used to end his life. Hermione hadn’t given the document much thought at the time but looking back on it she realized how little it meant. Bella had such easy access to her mind and already possessed a copy of the memory. If someone really wanted to learn the spell then all they would need to do is ask the dark haired witch instead. Not that she’d tell that to Allesa. Hermione was also quite sure that if someone did ask Bella that the witch would almost assuredly say yes just to get a kick out of whatever happened to the intended target.

A defeated look crossed Allesa’s face at that, before she turned the conversation into other subjects.

---oo---

The return feast, as lovely as ever and filled with as much food and drink as the students could inhale, had filled Hermione back up with nervous energy instead of mirth. Nothing but glares awaited her from many of the other Slytherin’s, and even Bella’s rather prestigious standing among them did nothing to tone it down. Andy and Cissa were mostly spared, instead shot pitying looks from many that grew into sad frowns at how much less movement Andy had in her arm.

Rudolphus was by far the worst of the lot, sending Hermione hate filled glares and even sneering down on the younger witches as he stuck his knife deep into a portion of roast something on his plate. As the merriment surrounding them wore on his glare morphed into a predatory smile, glinting in the candlelight at some unknown thought. Hermione could feel her runes reacting to her emotional state at that, tightening the skin beneath them and tingling with unexpressed energy.

Rabastan threw her a few pitiable looks, glancing back to his plate as soon as he caught her eye. Hermione reminded herself again to get some time alone with him at some point soon to see where his heart lay on the matter, before the hope of his intervention could pass them by.

The Prewett trio sat across the Hall with Gryffindor, purposefully seated against the wall so as to get a clear look at Hermione and Bellatrix, eyes radiating maliciousness and anger beneath their mops of unruly red hair.

‘This is shaping up to be a fun few months…’, she thought wearily to herself as the rattle of dishware and hum of voices continued on around her, oblivious to the stench of wrath wrapping around them all.

---oo---

The walk back to the dungeons was simple enough, Hermione trailing off behind the greater group of students while Andy hovered protectively over Narcissa, Lucius at her side. When they came down the last staircase and stood before the statue guarding entrance, a shadow departed from a nearby dark hallway to advance upon them. As it entered the light the form of Professor Slughorn materialized from the darkness, done up in his winter robes and hair askew. His cheeks were a ruddy red color, the same as his blotchy nose, and his gait somewhat unsteady. The smell of firewhiskey rolled off him as he pointed towards Hermione and Bella, motioning them out of the greater group of students and off into a separate hallway.

“Ah, ladies, I’m so glad I managed to catch you before you turned in.”

“Professor Slughorn, good evening,” Bella replied in a tone of forced delight. She barely managed to keep herself from rolling her eyes at the overbearing professor, wishing instead that he’d bothered anyone but them.

“I do hope you two managed to have a pleasant break despite the, er, difficulties. I was quite relieved to hear that you both made it out in one piece. Shame about your father though, I do feel so deeply for your loss.”

“Thank you Professor,” Bella’s voice dropped into an obviously tired and annoyed tone, “Did you need anything Professor?”

“Ah, yes, yes. The Headmaster would like to speak with the two of you in his office before you head off for the night, something about ensuring you are both well enough to continue for the year after that bit of… unpleasantness. The password is Cream Shakes, he’s expecting you.”

Both witches thanked the professor before turning back to head up the stairs they had only just so recently descended, heading up in silence towards Dumbledore’s office.

Agath, at least, appeared to enjoy their trip. Her tongue flicked out persistently as the snake took in its new surrounds and the smells of so many people. Tucked up as she was into the folds of Hermione’s robes, the animal could only peer out occasionally, otherwise remaining tightly bound around her wrist. Hermione ran a finger down the scales of Agath’s back as they neared the stonework hiding the entrance to Dumbledore’s office, worried about keeping the little snake hidden and away from his view. She still wasn’t sure what his stance would be upon seeing a creature that technically shouldn’t have been born like it was and had been determined during the trip back to keep Agath a secret for as long as possible.

When they reached the gargoyle she uttered the phrase and the statue ground of out of the way, revealing the spiraling staircase behind it. Taking hold of Bella’s proffered hand to thread their fingers together, they ascended up into the office.

“Ah,” Dumbledore exclaimed as they opened the door and stepped through, “How good to see the both of you. I can’t tell you how worried we all were when we heard the news, I’m so glad to see you’ve both come out of it well.”

“We didn’t all come out of it well,” Bellatrix answered with an edge to her tone, “My sister was almost killed as a result of that fool’s attack.” Dumbledore nodded minutely at her words, spreading his hands out in invitation for them to sit.

“Be that as it may, you are all well enough and with no permanent harm, correct?” His old eyes twinkled at some hidden knowledge as they sat down in the empty chairs before his desk. Bella immediately sought out everything and anything to look at except Dumbledore, eventually settling upon a staring contest with Fawkes. The phoenix was surprisingly young looking, startling Hermione who hadn’t expected him to resurrect so soon.

“You wanted to speak with us sir?” Hermione asked as the silence continued on around them. Agath was rustling beneath her robe, tightening and coiling around her wrist and forearm as she climbed.

“Yes, yes. I’ve a few questions that I’d like to go over with the two of you. Are you both still attending lessons with Tom Riddle?”

Bella immediately clenched up and hissed out through her teeth when Dumbledore said Voldemort’s real name, something that wasn’t missed by the quick eyes of Dumbledore or Hermione.

“Yes. He’s extended his offer for tutelage in light of the recent tragedy the Black’s have suffered, and included me as well for the part I played in its end.”

Dumbledore nodded before replying, “I see. Then please ask him for the approximate times and dates, and give them to Horace as soon as you can. Has anything else come up during your break?”

“Nothing yet sir,” Bella started before Hermione could even get a chance to reply.

“We would however like to make it known that Rudolphus Lestrange has made overtures in the past against my health with regard to my courting of Bellatrix. Now that the… situation, has spiraled out so much, we’d like it to be made a matter of record that we will retaliate should he conspire to harm us, or Bellatrix’s sisters.” The words were out of Hermione’s mouth before she knew it, hoping to make at least some part of this known so that the younger witches would be safe from any retaliation. 

“I’ll have Horace speak with the brothers then, and should anything come to light, please don’t hesitate to let myself or Horace know. We’ll deal with it as soon as possible.”

Something in the way his eyes seemed to grow darker as he said that made Hermione extremely suspicious that he would follow up with that assurance.

---oo---

The scar on Hermione’s forearm was pounding in displeasure as the duo made their way down to the dungeons. The statue guarding entrance slid away silently and the common room was mercifully empty as they made their way forward and down the hall to Hermione’s single. Hermione had only a moment to smile at the two trunks side by side in the middle of the room before the door behind her slammed shut and Bella rounded on her.

“We shouldn’t tell him anything, I don’t trust the old bat.” Her words were hurried and through a mixture of slight anger Hermione could detect an undercurrent of fear.

“We should. I don’t trust him either, but we’ll need him if we’re to play on both sides and still come out ahead. We can’t count on Voldemort not to use us and discard us at the soonest opportunity, or whenever we end up displeasing him. We’ll need allies, even if we’re not on their side.” Hermione backed up towards the bed, pushing the trunk out of the way and eyeing Bella as the witch paced back and forth.

“But we’ve got no idea what’s going on with him though, you saw the parchment, it had your name, both of your names,” she raised her hands in exasperation before clenching them at her side, “We only know of three people with that information right now.”

“Well what do you suggest then?” Hermione began to disrobe and tossed aside her uniform, “We need allies. We can’t do this with just us, and we can’t just stick to Voldemort’s side.”

“We wait, we figure out what Dumblefuck might want from us, and then, only then, do we propose anything to him or give him any information.”

“Fine,” Hermione could feel the beginning of a headache bloom into existence at the base of her skull, “But we’ll need to give something to him. Anything at all to keep his peace. I’ve already made a deal with him regarding information from our study sessions, so we’ll need to come up with something else.”

Bella stood next to the door, head turned up and eyes blankly staring up to the ceiling and chest moving steadily as she fought to calm herself.

“We can take care of the Basilisk. Remove the curse or jinx or whatever it is on the D.A.D.A. position. But first things first, we need to kill that snake,” she turned towards Agath, “No offense to your kind little one, but that Basilisk has got to go.”

Hermione sat down wearily on the bed, arm out for Agath to climb off and onto the nearby nightstand, before opening her arms up wide and beckoning Bella to join her. When the witch was within her grasp Hermione set about removing her clothing, fingers taking their time with each button and lace until the witch was nude and calmed down into passivity. Releasing her glamours, Hermione scooted back into the bed and dragged Bella along with her, arms and legs wrapping around the witch as she sighed deeply into the mess of curls atop Bella’s head.

“Okay then. We’ll take care of the Basilisk first. Then the jinx. Then gather whatever information we can on both sides, as much as we can. Then we do what?”

“We make him an offer he won’t be able to refuse,” Bella murmured in a small voice, “The war will start in what, two years? Maybe less, maybe more, depending on how my father’s death changes things. Voldemort will accept us into his ranks if we agree to his year of on-boarding. Once we’ve got that set up, we give it to Dumbledore. Offer to spy for them both.”

Hermione tensed at the suggestion. She’d seen how that affected Snape, how torn he’d been between what he wanted to do and what was right for the war effort. He’d led a hollow existence, constantly pulled between warring titans that in the end cared very little for him beyond how he could be used.

“Are you sure about that,” she asked, “I’ve seen what being a spy for them is like, it nearly killed, or I guess will nearly kill, Severus.”

“Yes. We’ll be in the perfect spot to ferry whatever information we want. We’ll have easy access to them both.”

Hermione sunk further into the bed, wrapped securely around Bella and tired beyond measure as sleep lured her in. Bella dispelled her own glamours, turning to embrace Hermione. Her fingernails scratched gently against the outline of the snake patronus on her lover’s arm, tracing up and down the wild pattern of curls and coils on the neon inked reptile.

“I’m worried,” Hermione breathed out against Bella’s neck, punctuating the end of her sentence with a kiss on warm skin.

“Me too. But we’ve got this.” The dark witch scratched patterns into Hermione’s back as she pulled her closer.

“We need to plan this out, get some assurances in place. And still find a way to retain usefulness to Voldemort that doesn’t hinge on us murdering people. Something that won’t put us on the line.”

“We can run some arithmantic predictions tomorrow, the Room of Requirement should suffice. Then work out occlumency with Cissa and Andy.”

Hermione perked up as a thought flashed through her mind, hand stilling and fingernails diffing lighting into Bella’s skin. She knew it was hard, that they might not make it, but it could work.

“We should stay at the castle after term is up. Find a way to keep ourselves close to Dumbledore. Something that will let us pass information. I can imagine that Voldemort would be pleased to have someone constantly in the loop.”

“How would we do that though? We’re a little young and inexperienced for a professorship.”

“After our year with Voldemort we can apply for Masteries. I don’t know about you but after getting all this ink, I could go for a Runes Mastery. Maybe Arithmancy as well, or Transfig.”

“That would work,” Bella smiled into Hermione’s temple, “Apply for professorship after we get Masteries, or one of us can look for employment in the Ministry. It’ll put us both somewhere that’s useful for each of them.”

Their talk continued, working plans and coming up with theories on how to accomplish them, until finally the night caught up to them both. As they drifted off, secure in one another’s arms, smiles graced their faces at the first bit of good news for the year.