Once again, I apologize for the delay. A big thank you to Mel and Kitty for encouraging me to get going on this again. I couldn't have done it without you. Thank you to Uniquely Named for betaing. And welcome to all of the new and very kind followers who have joined us.
Hermione woke in a good mood, but it was to be truly short lived. The soft winter light of the morning in Scotland reminded her of southern Ireland. But the cold small bed was nothing like home. With a deep sigh she forced herself from the warm sheets. It was early yet, just barely dawn, if she hurried she would have time to bathe in the prefect's bathroom without interruption. She reasoned that it would be a safe enough journey as few were out of their beds so early and those that were would also be preparing for the day. She gathered her clothes for the day and cast a notice-me-not spell before slipping through the door of her room. She moved as quickly and quietly as she would in the middle of combat. Her wand remained securely in her hand, though she was as likely not to need it for defense as she was to need the wood to act as conduit for her magic. Unlike the day before, she was alert and had full control of her mental shields.
She arrived without incident and felt slightly foolish for the precautions she took. There were moments when she thought it utterly ridiculous that she had to regard her school as enemy territory. The tubs filled quickly at the command of her wand. The fast flow of water was deafening in the silence of the early morning hours. Wandlessly, she banished her clothes before stepping into the warm soapy water. It was the closest to heaven she could find so far from her wife. The near silence of the bathroom was soothing and she began the process of centering herself.
Bella had been right about their bond growing. It had never been easy to be apart from the witch, but this was worse. This was causing her to be disorganized. She wasn't fully in control of her magic and its growth was still staggering. At the very least she needed to shore up her mental defences before she started the day. Hermione sunk lower in the water until the bubbles brushed against her chin. She leaned her head back against the wall and closed her eyes. Beneath the gentle waves of the tub, she closed her fingers around the crest on her neck. She allowed her mind to settle on her wife. She let the happy memories fill her up and draw her magic to the surface. She could feel it swirling over her skin and wrapping over her limbs in an intimate embrace. The taste of Bella's magic lingered on her tongue, a concrete reminder that her own magic had been fundamentally changed with their bonding.
For both of their sakes, she knew she had to regain control. Everything was at stake and much of it hinged on her ability in the following months to execute high level magic secretly. She hadn't realized how much weight had been put on her shoulders. Without her wife as a buffer, she felt the strain of it acutely. But Hermione had every intention of living up to her legacy as a Black. They were a proud and strong family. She could endure the separation for a few months to accomplish their goals. She thought of the dark eyes and wild curls. What would she not endure for such beauty?
She opened her eyes to find the light of dawn streaming in the tall stained glass windows. She knew that she needed to climb out and start the day lest she be missed by her classmates. She stepped into the cool air and assembled her clothes with efficiency. She pulled her hair up and out of the way for a long day. She put on the tie what once was Bella's and tied it by hand not wanting to damage the fabric. Pulling on her outer robes, she shrunk and stowed the things she brought with her before quietly leaving the bathroom. As she stepped out of the heavy wooden door she caught sight of a tabby tail darting around a corner. Well. She was clearly being monitored. She pulled her mental barriers even tighter around her as she moved quickly back to the dungeons.
"Well well well, Madame Black. So nice to see you this morning. Though I must say that is rather not the direction I expected you to emerge from," Draco said rising from a chair.
"Please don't tell your mum," Hermione responded quietly looking acceptably contrite.
"I won't, but you should. We both know it is better if you are just honest with her. She has an uncanny ability to get information even when she is not present."
"I know. I know," the witch responded sullenly.
"You know I would have escorted you," Draco offered gently.
"Of course you would have, but I can more than defend myself. Even against professors if need be. I have magic far beyond…."
He silenced her with a hand on her arm. "Of course you do, but we have a charade to keep up. If they knew, they would never give you the space to get the work done that you must. The Dark Lord and the infamous Black sisters were quite clear in their instructions. I know that you may not think much of their ability to punish, but I would prefer to steer clear of it altogether."
"I just miss home and Bella. This is misery being apart."
"I can only imagine. Talk to Severus after lunch today. I am certain he can help. Now, everyone will be up soon. We should head to breakfast and get a fast start. I'm hoping to have time for the library and a long walk today."
Hermione nodded her agreement and went to retrieve her books. She was grateful that it would be a notes day in potions. She would be able to pen a letter to Narcissa hopefully before the information reached her any other way. As the months had turned, she learned to no longer fear Narcissa for her power. The blonde was not without her skills. But it was the emotional string that tethered them that Hermione so deeply feared the loss of. She still craved the woman's approval.
Thankfully breakfast had been uneventful. McGonagall and Dumbledore were both absent, which both relaxed and concerned Hermione. Not being watched was a reprieve, but there was something eerie about having been tracked well before dawn. It was clear to Hermione that they were plotting something meant to injure or disarm her. Sitting in the potions classroom was one of the few places she felt secure. Though Professor Slughorn was not within the inner circle, he provided a safe space. He knew who she was and appreciated her for it. He wanted nothing more than for her to be a brilliant witch married to one of his favorite students. She suspected that she would not have felt so secure in writing a personal letter during class in any other class. But under his protection and with a few simple spells, she would be able to keep its contents private and be able to send the letter off before lunch. Pulling out a clean parchment as they were instructed to take notes, the calm of feeling close to the Black sisters settled over her once again.
I am sure that you will agree that it seems far too soon for me to be writing this sort of letter. And yet I find myself in need of council the first day back to Hogwarts. I will tell Bella in time, but I need a more objective perspective and advice.
This morning I couldn't sleep. There is a chance that Bella may be similarly suffering. It would mean a great deal if you could alleviate her suffering in that way. I went to take a bath in the prefect bathroom. I thought that it would be a place with sufficient privacy that I could gather my thoughts and magic again. Being back has been more trying than I imagined. The bath was sufficiently relaxing and I did find my center again, so you needn't worry about that.
But as I was exiting, I saw the very familiar tail of a feline. I get the sense that I am being watched more than ever before. I strongly suspect that some plan against me will be launched imminently. How do you think I should handle this?
I will not go wandering the castle unaccompanied again. I will find other means of coping. I cannot beg your forgiveness for my actions, as I still believe they were a necessity. I will not manufacture remorse when I feel none. I will not lie to you, for I believe that is a far greater affront. I will settle this debt when I see you next. I am sorry that it will be far too long a wait.
She magically sealed the letter as the class was packing up. She met Draco at the doorway and he accompanied her to the common room. They had agreed over the winter break that she would be provided food from Malfoy manor at lunch. It would be delivered by an elf to her room every day at 12:15. The plan would also give Draco the opportunity to beef up his reputation as a dark loner, which was proving challenging when attached at the hip to Hermione.
They arrived with a few minutes to spare. Hermione waved Draco off, before settling in to her room and opening a book. She had every intention of reading through some of the rare texts she brought with her during her private lunch times. She didn't dare take them out of the wards of her room, they were too valuable and would tip off the Order as to how much they knew. She was only a few pages in when one of Narcissa's elved popped into the room brandishing a silver platter.
"Here is your lunch, Madam Black," the creature said quietly.
"Yes. Thank you. Please take this back to your mistress immediately," Hermione said, taking the plate from him. She settled into her bed nibbling and turning pages as she absorbed the information. She certainly would not be losing weight like she did in the fall if Narcissa insisted on sending her favorite foods. Once she finished the plate, she set it to the side and laid back contemplating one of the spells needed to replicate a horcrux. Her ruminations were interrupted by another small pop of the elf returning. She opened her eyes to offer a word of thanks for the servant and one to be delivered to the blonde Black sister. Instead an agitated Narcissa stood before her in the flesh.
"Are you really here?" Hermione choked out rising from the bed and reaching out to her.
"Your letter was concerning enough that I came immediately. Bella, of course, wanted to come herself, but that is far too risky. The Order is unlikely to be protecting the castle against Lucius Malfoy's housewife," the woman answered with a smirk.
"Oh Cissy," the young witch said throwing herself into the woman's arms and sighing when they tightened around her.
"Little witch. You are a bit of a mess aren't you?"
Hermione nodded into the pale neck unwilling to meet the blue eyes yet.
"I am not pleased with you," Narcissa continued.
"I know. I am coping the best I can."
"This is impossibly difficult," the blonde said sympathetically. "And your life has changed so much in the last year. A few more months and you can have everything you want. Oh yes, Hermione. The desire to start a family with Bella is practically rolling off of you. I would not be surprised if the more powerful in the castle have picked up on it too."
"But how do I hide it from them?" the young witch asked panicking vaguely.
"Perhaps you do not. There are a select number of ways that they could try and keep that from happening. They are bound by a set of morals that I believe will keep you from grave physical harm. The Order still wants you intact and powerful. They are far more likely to still try to woo you or slip you something that would prevent a pregnancy." Narcissa ran her hands gently over the clothed witch lovingly, hoping that she would derive comfort.
"And what should I do?" Hermione asked uncertainly.
"Allow them to a point. Trust your instincts. You will know here," she placed a hand over Hermione's heart, "when they attempt to get someone who is not Bella close to you. Remember your particular magic. Let this be their focus instead of the real work you are doing. If you are nothing more than a woman to be won over, then they will miss how brilliant of a witch you are."
"I can do that."
"Yes, of course you can." Narcissa released her so she could see the warm brown eyes. "Don't think that I have forgotten your transgression. I promise that you will pay, but I will not add to your suffering now. You have several months to devise a way to apologize that I will find sufficient."
"Yes, Narcissa," Hermione said with a bit more confidence. "I won't go out alone again."
"Summon an elf if you are so desperate. So long as we don't meet too frequently, I can come to you and calm you down."
"Can you transport others?"
"Not without arousing suspicions. No one will think to track my magical signature, I am such a minor player in their eyes that no one is tracking me according to our spies. In order to maintain our edge of surprise we still need to carry out the plan as agreed."
Hermione nodded acknowledging that the witch was right. The unfettered access to the castle would be important.
"Now we can't have you being late to Severus' class, little witch. I would hate for others to notice your absence during lunch." Soft fingers traced down Hermione's face and a gentle kiss pressed into her lips. "We love you, Hermione. Stay strong for us all."
"I will try," the witch said releasing the older woman. She watched as the blonde took the hand of the elf and nodded knowingly. With a pop they were gone and she was alone again in her room. But the short visit had calmed her more than she had anticipated. She could see more clearly the plan forming in her head than it had been since she returned. With a renewed sense of purpose she gathered her things and left for her next lesson with Snape.