The library was still one of Hermione's favourite places at Hogwarts. Being surrounded by so many books, so much history and the smell of ancient magically preserved paper soothed her and reminded her of a more simpler time in her life. A more innocent time.
But Hermione wasn't here for study or recreation today: she was in an oft overlooked section of the library. The school archive contained records, photographs, yearbooks and accounts of students going as far back as Hogwarts' founding in 993. It had been a bit of a chore to actually find the old records and yearbooks of 1968 as madam Prince had been in the process of optimizing the archive for the past weeks and was only making slow progress. Everything had been put in boxes ready to be sorted into the school archive: unfortunately, the boxes had been rather poorly marked. Sorting through it all had taken her far longer than she would have liked.
Once she did eventually track down the files from 1968, it didn't take her long to find Bellatrix Black's records. From the look of things, Bellatrix had graduated with full honours, having achieved an 'Outstanding' grade on her NEWTs in no less than nine subjects. Two more than the seven Hermione had picked. One of the filed records was actually her final Arithmancy thesis, spread out over three scrolls. She unfurled them and glanced through it, only to be instantly enthralled. In her thesis, Bellatrix postulated that the certainly magical properties of numbers could shape reality of those calculating with them, which could in turn affect the magical properties of said numbers after reality had been reshaped. Hermione was woman enough to admit that the subject almost went over her head, but the calculations Bellatrix provided to prove her thesis all checked out and were stunningly precise.
This thesis was undeniably a work of brilliance, once Hermione had managed to wrap her head about the concept of high density randomness zones and low density void zones. If this was but one of her works, the word prodigy wouldn't even begin to describe Bellatrix.
Then again, unlike Hermione, Bellatrix had a list of reprimands as long as her arm. Mostly minor things such as pranks, general disruptive behaviour or simply not turning up for class at all. She was a troublemaker… a troublemaker who had graduated with full honours. It had all of the hallmarks of a person too clever for the courses and getting bored in class as a result.
Then to the yearbook. She flipped through the yellowed pages until she came to the Slytherin part of the book. First was the photograph of the Slytherin Quidditch team, where Bellatrix was one of the chasers. She stood there, leaning on her broom in her green tunic and leather limb protectors, smiling at the camera. Bellatrix seemed happy in this photograph, vibrant and full of life.
A stark contrast with her end-of-year class photograph, where she and her fellow Slytherins sat for the photo holding their well-earned diploma's. She looked dour, miserable and bereft of any joy.
"What happened to you?" Hermione whispered to herself.
She flipped through more pages and spotted Bellatrix in a few more photographs. Flying broomstick with two others girls, younger. It took her a while to identify them as the Black sisters. Then there was a photograph of her at Herbology... it seemed odd to see someone like Bellatrix, a rich pure-blood aristocrat, sat on her knees digging in the dirt to look for blisterwort roots. Another photograph showed her on top of the Astronomy tower with a few Slytherins. She studied the photograph intently, trying to figure out why Bellatrix was looking so... forlorn.
"Ah, miss Granger. I figured you'd be here," sounded the voice of McGonagall as she stepped into the archive. "Once you go missing, you will turn up in the library sooner rather than later."
"Professor?" Hermione looked up, but instantly closed her eyes and let out a sigh. "We had an appointment..." she muttered to herself. "I'm so sorry, it completely slipped my mind."
"Though I suspect you will be inundated with job offers the moment you graduate," McGonagall said, a slight hint of a smile on her face. "That does not diminish the need for career advice. In fact, it should make it all the more poignant."
"Again, I'm so sorry," replied Hermione. "I completely lost track of time."
McGonagall looked over her shoulder, apparently glancing at the yearbook. Some concern was etched on her face. "Are you having more nightmares, miss Granger?" she asked gently.
Hermione pursed her lips. How to breach the subject? "I... was just wondering," Hermione asked. "Some of her work was in the file. Groundbreaking work, stuff I can barely wrap my head around. She was a genius."
McGonagall's gaze became somewhat distant. "That she was. Undeniably so."
"You knew her when she was a student, right?" asked Hermione. "What was she like back then?"
McGonagall took a seat and sat down at the side of the desk to look Hermione in the eye. "Miss Black was... a regular seventeen year old girl in many regards. Brilliant, certainly. She earned the title Brightest Witch of her Age ten times over, which is probably why You-Know-Who was so interested in recruiting her."
You-Know-Who. Even with Voldemort being confirmed dead, many wizards and witches still referred to him in that way. She supposed some habits were hard to shake.
"However, she was also quite the troublemaker," said McGonagall. "Sometimes smart people are that way when they lack challenge. She was passionate and bold. Even somewhat of a romantic."
"Bellatrix Lestrange? A romantic?" Hermione frowned. "That's the last thing I would describe her as."
"Hm," McGonagall nodded. "There was great sadness within her. However, unlike you, miss Granger, she actually attended her career advice sessions."
"Ouch," Hermione sighed, but smiled when she saw a twinkle in McGonagall's eye.
"Miss Black told me often and passionately about all the things she would love to do with her life," said McGonagall. "She wanted to be an explorer and travel the Earth in search of new lands and new discoveries. At one point, she wanted to be a monster hunter. I admit that was a new one for me and one I haven't heard since. During her later years, she focused on more creative outlets such as painting or writing. Though her interests lay decidedly among the disturbing and macabre, the stories she did show me were certainly well-crafted. And, well, time spent working on her horrific tales was time not spent being setting the Gryffindor house banners on fire. Starting from her seventh year, however..."
"Yes?" Hermione asked.
McGonagall pursed her lips. "It is a terrible thing, being asked to sacrifice one's own happiness and wishes for the sake of a failing ideal. She came in only once and that was basically to tell me that any further appointments would be pointless, as there would be no career for her in her future. This was a day after her impending marriage had been widely announced in the Daily Prophet. I had never seen her so sad and bereft of passion."
Hermione pursed her lips and blew out a sigh through her teeth. "Arranged marriages..."
"I've heard of love growing from an arranged marriage, certainly," replied McGonagall. "But just as often, it does not."
Hermione nodded. "What do you think turned her into the monster she became?" she asked. "Could it be this?"
McGonagall shook her head. "I don't think it was any one thing, miss Granger," she said. "Ultimately, Bellatrix is responsible for her own choices in life. Perhaps it was through You-Know-Who where she hoped to gain the freedom and exciting life she craved. Perhaps having to sacrifice her own wishes embittered her to a point she started to resent others. Perhaps both. Perhaps neither. I have no doubt that, in another life, she could have been a great witch known for exploring the darkest of Africa or weaving the most wondrous of tales."
"But instead it was not to be," said Hermione. "Instead she became known as a dangerous murderer, wielding the darkest of arts."
"Fact remains that she was not so different from you and I at one point. It is a reminder that any one of us can be capable of falling into great darkness. A sobering thought, perhaps."
"I've been thinking of her a lot as of late," said Hermione.
"I don't blame you," replied McGonagall. "But don't forget that she is beyond harming you."
"Is she?" Hermione raised an eyebrow.
McGonagall put a hand on her shoulder. "We've all suffered through this war, miss Granger," she said. "Perhaps it is time to let go, hm? Shall I reschedule our appointment?"
"Please do," said Hermione. "I'm not exactly in the right state of mind for it at the moment."
"Perhaps you should take some time off," said McGonagall. "Spend some time with your family."
"I would like that," said Hermione. "I'll think about it."
After McGonagall left her in the archive, Hermione spent some time watching one last photograph. One of Bellatrix at the duelling club. Though the picture only captured a brief moment of the duel, it was obvious that she was relentless and focused, wiping the floor with her opponent. Even then, it was clear she could be deadly.
Was she playing with fire by talking to the younger Bellatrix? She didn't quite know why she didn't tell McGonagall about the magic pool or her contact with the young Bellatrix. There was something alluring about having a secret and... there was something about young Bellatrix which intrigued her, even though she couldn't lay a finger on it.
Tonight, she would see her again and, to be honest, the idea of sneaking out of the castle in the dead of night felt exciting to her. Almost as exciting as talking to Bellatrix again.
After packing her bag and replacing the books in the archive where she had found them, Hermione exited the library and headed over to her dorm for an exciting afternoon of studying. Unfortunately, she wouldn't get far. A few steps out of the library, she rather absent-mindedly rounded the corner and found her way blocked by an arm stretched from the wall to its owner: Cormac McLaggen.
The boy who wouldn't take 'no' for an answer.
Hermione supposed she was partly to blame for this situation: a year ago, she had asked the boy to accompany him to a gathering of the Slug Club for the sole reason of making Ron jealous. It was one of stupidest soap-opera like ideas she had ever had and was still paying the price for it. He was arrogant, self-absorbed and, unfortunately, rather over-assertive when it came to romantic endeavours. And he quite fancied her, a feeling which was certainly not mutual.
He had been so obsessed with Quidditch that he sacrificed his schoolwork and actually had to be held back a year. Unfortunately, that meant Hermione was forced to spend a lot of classes with him. She'd caught her staring at her from a distance more than once. Though Hermione had little to no romantic attention, the way Cormac was overdoing it was more than a little disturbing.
"Hhhherrrmione," the wire-haired boy grinned his usual grin. "When are you going to stop playing hard to get, hm?"
Hermione let out a sigh. "McLaggen. I am not in the mood for you today. Please let me go on my way."
McLaggen sidled forward, placing his other arm to the wall as well and trapping Hermione between his two arms. The way he bent forward rather disturbed Hermione. "I said 'no'," said Hermione, trying to be assertive, but hearing her voice crack a little. Something about this was way too familiar about the time... the time Bellatrix had her trapped on the floor of Malfoy Manor, pitting her down, leering over her... hurting her.
Hermione looked up at him, anger in her eyes. With all the energy she could muster, she grit her teeth and hissed. "Let... me... go..."
"Come on, Hermione, you don't know what you want," chuckled Cormac. "Let me treat you to a good time. Don't you get it, we're such a good match. You the brains and the beauty, I the brawn and the power."
Hermione bristled. "McLaggen. For the last time. 'NO!'. Is that so hard to understand?!"
"Come on, Hermione," McLaggen showed that toothy grin of his. "You still owe me for the mistletoe at the Slug Club Christmas party."
Hermione was sure that, in his mind, he was a suave and sophisticated Casanova who meant to sweep her off her feet with his witty and clever banter. In reality, McLaggen simply didn't realize that he was being a boorish lout who had been trying to use that mistletoe-fact against her every since they'd both returned to school and, despite having been told off many times before, simply refused to learn. So, she would endeavour to tell him again.
"McLaggen," Hermione sighed. "Enough. Just... enough! I'm not interested! Get it through that thick skull of yours that standing under the mistletoe almost two years ago doesn't give you any legal rights to whatever it is you have on your mind! So stop being so forward and take a hint! NO MEANS NO!"
"Oh, Hermione," Cormac laughed, once again proving that he wasn't able to take a hint. "You just don't know what you want. I'd be happy to help you decide."
What happened next was a flurry of happenings and it went by so fast that it took Hermione a few moments to reconstruct what had happened. In the end, Cormac ended up sprawled on the floor rubbing his painful jaw, giving Hermione a chance to recover from the claustrophobic experience. The person whom had delivered the punch was no other than Ron, now standing over him and glowering. "Hermione told you to leave her alone," Ron snarled.
"What the hell?!" Cormac grunted as he scrambled to his feet. "You've had your chance, Weasley! She rejected you, so step aside for someone else!"
"Get lost, McLaggen!" Ron narrowed his eyes. "Hermione is my friend and if I see you near her again, I swear I'll do more than just punch you out on your arse!"
Apparently, McLaggen finally gained enough understanding of the situation to take the hint and, after a bit of grumbling, took off into the corridor. Ron turned Hermione. "Are you alright?" he asked.
"Yeah," Hermione lied. Honestly, she was quite shaken up from the experience. Not so much because of Cormac's antics, but rather about the flashback it had given her. The flashback of Bellatrix torturing her on the cold floor of Malfoy Manor. Still, she tried to keep a brave face on, more for Ron's sake than for her own. "I'll be fine," she lied.
Together, the two of them walked over to the Great Hall and sat down at on the tables. "What brings you here, Ron?" asked Hermione after pouring them both some drinks.
"Auror stuff," said Ron. "Tagging along with Savage and Proudfoot to the Hog's Head here in Hogsmeade. One of the locals had a potential lead on Rodolphus Lestrange. Found out I'm not really all that good at interrogating people. Savage says I still have a lot to learn, but I'll get there eventually. Figured I'd step in for a visit to see how you were doing."
Hermione gave him a smile and a nod: she was grateful to catch up with an old friend. Truth be told, she missed him and Harry. She missed the friendship and companionship. Her seventh year was shaping up to be a very quiet one without her friends.
"Why did you even even return to this miserable place?" Ron laughed. "You should have become an auror with us. The three of us together at the auror office would have made us unstoppable."
"Ah, you know me," said Hermione. "I hate to leave something unfinished. Besides, I'm not sure being an auror is for me. Honestly, I'm not quite sure what I want to do with my life yet. Been trying to figure out what I want to do."
"I think you can do everything you want to do, Hermione," Ron shrugged.
"I'm more concerned about so many Death Eaters still being at large," said Hermione.
"Eh," Ron shrugged. "We've tracked down quite a few, but others like Dolohov or Lestrange? It seems they've fallen right off the Earth. But don't worry, we'll find them. Without Voldemort, they're just regular run-of-the-mill dark wizards. Are you sure you're alright, Hermione? You do look a bit tired."
"I haven't been sleeping well," Hermione replied.
"Nightmares?" Ron asked. Hah, her friend knew her well.
"Been thinking about Bellatrix a lot lately."
"Bellatrix?! That foul harpy?" Ron snorted. "Though, yeah, I'd say I know why you'd have nightmares then."
"You ever wonder, Ron?" Hermione asked. "You ever wonder what could make someone become someone like her?"
"Sometimes," said Ron. "I don't believe people are born pure evil. But I do think that there must always have been something bad within her. Regular people just don't become... her."
Hermione pursed her lips, losing herself in thought. "Perhaps. I'd like to think that, at some point, Bellatrix was just another teenager, just like us, with hopes and dreams and wants. And then something... I... I don't really know... It just makes me sad."
Ron regarded her for a moment and put her hand on hers. "Hermione, why don't you ask McGonagall to give you a few days off school and come back to the Burrow. You'll be among good company, and enjoy some delicious home cooking and, best of all, just have some time to relax."
"I don't think your mum will like having me around," Hermione gave him a half-smile. "She still thinks I dumped you."
"Nonsense," said Ron. "We all still love you and would enjoy having you around. I'll handle my mum should she get a bit crabby. We both decided to part as friends. Everybody knows that. It was even in the papers thanks to that Skeeter bint."
Hermione bit her lip for a moment. "I don't know..."
Ron laughed. "McLaggen was right about one thing: you really don't know what you want."
The young witch let that statement rattle through her head for a moment, and sighed when she could only agree. "I finally have enough time to stop and think. And I have a tendency to over-think. You're right. I have no idea what I want. Still, I do know what I don't want."
"Having McLaggen slobber all over me like an over-eager Saint Bernard," Hermione chuckled briefly.
"Hah," said Ron. "Comparing McLaggen to a Saint Bernard is an insult to such a noble breed of dogs."
"Yes," Hermione laughed. "At least the dogs are actually cute. Thanks Ron."
"Making me laugh."
"Any time," said Ron before patting Hermione on the hand and getting up to leave. "Remember, my offer stands."
Hermione seemed thoughtful for a moment. "Ron? Could I ask you something?"
"Hm?" Ron turned around, waiting for Hermione to speak.
"Speaking... completely hypothetically, of course," Hermione bit her lip. "Say that you suddenly had the opportunity to... speak to someone in the past. To talk to them. To get to know them. To maybe... change an outcome you know is a bad one. Would you do it?"
Ron frowned at first, mulling it over for a bit. "Hm," he muttered. "Change someone's fate, you mean? But how would you be sure the new outcome would be any better?"
Hermione nodded as she considered that response. As she watched Ron leave, Hermione had definitely been left with some food for thought.
After a rather riveting afternoon of grading transfiguration essays, Minerva McGonagall felt the need to catch some fresh air. Her office, located in the Turris Magnus, was conveniently located near the top of the tower where there was a high parapet looking over the lake before. This was off-limits to students and only she and Filch had the key. Perfect for spending some time alone with her own thoughts before heading back down to the Great Hall for evening meal.
So imagine her surprise when she found that someone was already there.
A girl, seventh year, short in stature, bearing Slytherin colours, was stood staring over the chest-high wall, down at the lake. McGonagall could recognize the girl immediately as Bellatrix Black: the vibrant curly black hair was unmistakable.
Her first reaction was to bristle: Miss Black was being disobedient yet again. This parapet was off-limits to students because it was unsafe and somehow miss Black had found her way through a magically locked door. McGonagall wondered what excuse could she have for this particular transgression.
She was about to rush to the student to give her a piece of a mind and a month's worth of detention until something gave her pause. The way miss Black's shoulders shook… and that sniffing sound she heard when she was close enough to hear it was unmistakable. Miss Black was weeping softly.
She stopped for the moment, wondering what to do. The girl had yet to notice her and McGonagall decided that the best thing to do was to announce herself. A brief cough would do the trick.
And it did. Instantly, the now startled girl whirled around, looking at her with wide, wet and red eyes the moment she did. "Oh… OH!" she exclaimed. "Professor! I… Sorry, I just… I just have something in my eyes."
Ah, her stubborn pride.
"Of course," said McGonagall. "It can be quite windy up here."
The girl nodded.
"Which is exactly the reason why this door is usually locked," said McGonagall. "Care to explain how you found your way onto this parapet, miss Black?"
"Well," miss Black bit her lip, her tears now dried. "The lock obviously is enchanted to shock anyone with no key or the wrong key, correct?"
McGonagall nodded. She had enchanted the lock herself, after all. A few moments later, Miss Black produced a small hand mirror, set in a cold iron frame. "I enchanted this mirror to capture magical discharges on its surface and expel it when the charge gets too high. Because it's set in cold iron, the magic has nowhere else to go but outward. I had to find the right angle, but if you reflect its own magic back unto the lock, it'll open."
McGonagall was about to say something, but closed her mouth just as quickly. A slight semblance of a smile tugged on the corners of her mouth: miss Black was a very clever problem-solver, and had bypassed the lock by using the characteristics of its own charm against it. Not to mention, using cold iron which was a notoriously poor conductor for magic, to direct the flow of magic itself was just the type of solution to a problem miss Black would come up with.
She remembered first seeing miss Black so long ago now: all of eleven years old, arrogant and determined. Miss Black walked into the school with her head held high with intentions of conquest. Truly, miss Black only 'mellowed', as it were, when her two younger sisters also started to attend school.
And yet, young Bellatrix had been the subject of a hatstall during the sorting ceremony. The Sorting Hat had a long deliberation on whether miss Black should be placed in Slytherin or Ravenclaw. Though she was undeniably Slytherin material, McGonagall couldn't help wondering if Ravenclaw could have been a far better environment for miss Black.
"I suppose I should change the charm on the lock, but I have a feeling you will simply break it again," said McGonagall. "So perhaps I should simply give you the key and spare us both the trouble, hm?"
Miss Black gave her a grateful look for a moment, before turning her gaze back to the lake.
"To think. To be alone," she spoke.
"Why I'm here," she said. "That was going to be your next question, right?"
"I would think you should be quite familiar to that feeling," said McGonagall, instantly regretting her words. They had come out much harsher than she had intended: miss Black had no true friends, after all. She was about to apologize when miss Black simply nodded.
"You'd be right," said miss Black. "Now that Evelyn left, I have no one else to talk to than my sisters. Though perhaps… perhaps…"
"Miss Black?" McGonagall frowned as miss Black turned her gaze towards the Forbidden Forest in the distance.
Miss Black said nothing, simply staring off into the distance again. "Do you ever wonder what it's all about, professor? The purpose of it all?"
McGonagall stood next to her, frowning. "Oh dear, miss Black, are you asking me for the meaning of life? If you are, I have no answers for you. Greater wizards than myself have struggled with that question without ever finding an answer."
"Nothing quite so profound," replied miss Black. "I just… I wonder why I bother."
"My family is rich beyond belief. I will never want for anything," said miss Black. "My life is laid out for me. I will marry. I will have children. I will be a pure-blood paragon. I will live a life of luxury… but I will accomplish nothing."
"Miss Black?" asked McGonagall, a soft prodding for her to explain herself.
"I don't need to put in any effort. At all. I could score an outstanding mark or a troll mark and nothing would change my future," said miss Black. "And yet I want to apply myself. I want to succeed. I want to be the best."
"Truth be told," said McGonagall. "You don't need to exert yourself to gain an outstanding mark. Your behaviour not withstanding, miss Black, you have a natural talent for magic."
Miss Black smiled briefly, but it faded quickly. "That's not what I mean, professor. I look out there and I see the Forbidden Forest in the distance. And I think to myself 'I want to go there'."
"Years ago," said McGonagall, getting a bit uncomfortable revealing something of a personal nature. "I had to choose between love and a magical career. To this very day I wonder if I made the right choice. But it is the choice I made and have to live with regardless."
Miss Black seemed to think over her words for a moment. Then, in a voice that was laced with bitterness and eyes that once again turned red with unshed years, miss Black gave a reply. "At least you had a choice."
Miss Black was someone who refused to be pitied, filled with stubborn pride as she was. That day, however, she allowed McGonagall to lay a hand on her shoulder as the two of them stood there in silence, watching over the lake until it was time for evening dinner.