After an uneventful train-ride, the Black sisters finally arrived at their ancestral home situated in Greater Manchester: Catterborough Woodhouse. Though the name was a bit of a misnomer, as it was a neo-classical English country house consisting of a large three story central building and two sprawling two story wings on either side. Surrounding it were rolling hills and endless lawns. This was the home where Bellatrix and both her sisters had been born and had grown up in.
It was the home and seat of power for the Manchester Blacks, her branch of the Most Noble and Ancient House of Black, and one of the largest private residences in all of Europe. Her family's fortune was based on the ownership of land and property, as well as significant investments in a myriad of businesses, not to mention a lot of old money. Old money responsible for her very lavish and wealthy upbringing: what kid could claim that they had their own zoo attached to their home, after all?
It was very much a generational household, it always having been home to parents, grandparents, children and close relatives, as well as a small army of servants. Sadly, both sets of their grandparents were no longer alive, but her oncle Achille, her mother's brother, had moved into their home as the both of them had come as a package deal. She made a mental note to pay her uncle a visit later.
What did irk her was that she could see party tents having been erected right next to the large indoor botanical garden at the very end of the east wing. Unfortunately, Bellatrix was set to be married at the manor too which also meant Lestrange would be moving in. Something which would forever taint this wonderful place in her eyes.
She didn't want to think about it. Not now, at least.
She and her sisters shared a pleasant look: homecoming was always wonderful for all of them. Broad grins were exchanged and it didn't need to be said that they would race to the steps and the large double doors leading into the entrance hall. Giggling, the three girls dropped their luggage and shot forward, their shoes gripping into the gravelled path and kicking small stones back as they ran.
Andie won the race today and promptly knocked over Sebastian, the family butler whom had opened the door on their approach. As Andie was wont to do, she profusely apologized while Bellatrix and Narcissa had a laugh at her expense. Sebastian himself had been part of their household since before she'd been born. A thin, clean-shaven wizard with greying hair and a perpetual serious expression to his face, he was clad in the traditional black attire butlers were known for. After all, her mother distrusted house-elves and preferred to hire wizarding staff who lived with them in the sizable servant quarters of the house. As far as Bellatrix was concerned, Sebastian had been part of the family in his own way: whenever she had been playing in the garden and scraped her knees, he had been there to heal them. Whenever she had lost something precious, he had been there to help her find it.
"Well," said Sebastian after picking himself up. "With the misses Black back at the house, the manor is bound to become lively again."
Sebastian took care of their luggage as the three girls walked into the cavernous entrance hall lined with marble columns and a double staircase in the back. Bellatrix closed her eyes and took in the pleasant smell of the home she'd grown up in. Despite everything, it was so good to be here again.
"My young ladies," Sebastian called after the three girls as they went up the stairs. "Your mother wishes to see you in the south parlour before you head to your rooms."
The parlour was actually located on the third floor of the central building and it took the girls a few moments actually get there, passing through the upper corridors until they arrived at a luxurious parlour. As with always the case in her ancestral home, the room had a high ceiling and was well-lit through tall and broad windows. Paintings of family members of the distant past hung from the wall, while expensive antique furniture adorned the room. One the velvet settee sat their mother, a petite raven-haired woman with heavily lidded eyes. It was always said that Bellatrix and Andie took after their mother, while Cissy had far more resemblance to their father.
Her mother's mouth curved into a smile, accentuated by her curly hair, the moment she saw her children. "Oh!" she sighed. "Mes belle enfants! I 'ave missed you so!"
Druella Black had always been a caring mother and quickly took her children in a four-way hug. The four of them chatted a bit in the parlour, mostly talking about mundane things such as school, the trip home and what had been happening in the manor. Honestly Bellatrix didn't really care which servant had broken which plate and she found her mind wandering. In her mind, she was already figuring out what that magic pool actually was until she was starkly reminded why she was here when she saw the top of one of the tents through the window. Rodolphus' disgusting little face floated through her mind and ruined whatever good mood she had left. Funnily enough, thoughts of Hermione came to her as well, almost to relieve her of the horrors. She wanted to talk to her again so badly already and it hadn't even been a full day.
By now, Andromeda and Cissy excused themselves to had back to the East wing where their rooms were, but Bellatrix remained seated, lost in thought.
Her mother sat next to her, a hand tapping her on the knee. "Is something wrong, chouchou?" asked Druella. "Are you worried about your grande jour, perhaps?"
Grande jour. What a fucking joke.
"Something like that," Bellatrix muttered.
"Ah, don't be worried, chouchou," said Druella, running a hand through her curly hair. "I'm certain everything will go just swell. It's why we have re'earsals, non? My girls are growing up. Time goes by so fast."
Bellatrix felt the walls coming in at her at that moment, but she closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths. "Maman?" asked Bellatrix. "May I take a look through grand-père's collection in the library? I'm looking for something specific for a... school project."
Grand-père Rosier was a world-renowned unspeakable who amassed a massive library on the history of magic in its many forms. Bellatrix was reasonably sure that if any knowledge on the magic pools existed, grand-père would have knowledge of it in his sizable collection.
"Oh, my studious girl," smiled Druella. "I thought you'd 'ave quite enough of dusty books. Just don't forget to 'ave fun with your sisters, non?"
"Like my sisters would let me forget," Bellatrix chuckled. "They want to go camping."
"On the lawn?" Druella smiled. "Like when you were small, yes? Even though you pitched your tent only ten meters away from the front door, your father was so worried 'e stayed up all night to make sure you three were safe."
"I remember," Bellatrix laughed. "The same loving father who's now selling me to the Lestranges."
Druella squeezed her shoulder slightly. "Don't say that, chouchou. We only want the best for you."
"Why don't I get a say in that?!" Bellatrix bristled, but quickly calmed down. Mother was not at fault here. "I'm sorry, maman. It's... it's been a long trip."
"Why don't you get some rest, chouchou?" her mother patted her knee. "It'll be a long day tomorrow."
"Is father in?" Bellatrix asked.
"Your father will be back from London tomorrow morning," said her mother. "He'll be cutting 'is business trip short to be able to be with the three of you tomorrow. Dinner will be in an 'our. Why don't you get some rest, hm?"
Bellatrix nodded and got up from her chair. After saying goodbye to her mother, Bellatrix made her way to her room on the other side of the estate.
Hermione couldn't help but smile when she had stepped off the bus and walked the streets of Hampstead Heath. Sure, she could have taken the portkey to the park and taken it from there, but there was something deeply cathartic about looking out the window of the bus and seeing familiar places loom in the distance.
Especially when it was the rather nice upper class and leafy part of London and the neighbourhood she'd grown up in.
After a rather uneventful trip of reading all the way down from Scotland to King's Cross on the Hogwarts Express, Hermione decided to take a scenic route stroll through the neighbourhood under the pleasant afternoon sky. It might be getting colder, but there was thankfully no rain. She passed the park she had played in while growing up, the streets she had travelled on the way to her old primary school, the benches where she used to sit outside reading in the summer.
Times seemed so much simpler back then.
She stopped at the corner of her street. Her home was already in sight. It was a very pleasant detached home, small for the area perhaps, but it was a home she still loved to this day. After restoring her parents' memories, it had been a bit of a chore to get everything back in order: she had left the home and its furniture completely intact, but had transferred ownership to a fictitious person and it had been a bit of a bureaucratic nightmare to transfer ownership back. Hermione chuckled which thinking back to this summer: dealing with London municipalities was a good argument in favour of legalizing the imperius curse. In the end, it seemed as if her parents had never even left.
Hermione was stood at the garden gate, regarding the bay windows of their living room and the master bedroom upstairs. Hermione's own room was right above the front door, the single window giving the permanently darkened interior a cozy atmosphere. The young witch closed her eyes, her heart constricting with regret. She had missed so many moments with her parents... all the holidays she had spent studying at school or at the Burrow or simply being on the run. She could count the weeks she had actually spent with her parents the past few years on one hand.
So much time lost. And for what? She told herself it'd been important: for her education, for her friends, for the war. But had it really been? Had her many sacrifices meant anything in the end?
After taking a few deep breaths, Hermione stepped onto the garden path feeling the gravel shift underneath her feet. A few seconds later, she raised a hand to the doorbell to ring it, finding it rather funny that she didn't even have the key to her own childhood home.
She waited a bit until the front door opened and was confronted with the rather shocked expression of her mother. Emma Granger took one look at her and gasped. "H-hermione!"
Hermione smiled. "Hi, mum," she said. Of course, her parents weren't aware that she'd be coming. "May I come in?"
"It's your house too," her mother laughed and embraced her. Hermione closed her eyes and simply enjoyed the moment.
"No studying," replied Hermione. "No magic, no war and no worries. Just the three of us for a week, just like it used to be."
"Jack!" Emma called over her shoulder into the house. "Look who's here!"
A few moments later, her father, a lanky man looking rather bemused with his paper still in is hand, emerged from the living room. The moment he saw Hermione, he dropped his paper and rushed forward. "Puppet!" he exclaimed and was next in turn to embrace her, even more tightly than her mother had. "This is a nice surprise!"
"Hi dad," Hermione smiled. "Mind if I stay here for a week?"
"Mind?!" her father laughed. "Puppet, I might never let you leave again!"
And so Hermione found herself in the living room having a rather animated conversation with her parents. It almost felt like old times again. Almost.
For one week, Hermione could forget all about the vagaries of the wizarding world and all its troubles. Everything could be set aside and she could feel as if she'd be back in easier, simpler times again. And maybe, just maybe, she wouldn't be plagued by nightmares or shades of regret and pain.
Maybe she could feel like the old Hermione again. Just for a moment.
After spending some hours after dinner chin-wagging with her sisters, Bellatrix felt it was time to retire to her bedroom. The three sisters had their own space in the east wing: a spacious common room where all three of them could relax and work which gave access to three private bedrooms. As the eldest sister, Bellatrix had the privilege of having the corner room. High ceilings and tall windows, just like the rest of the estate, the center of a room held a gigantic four poster bed. On the bed lay a small army of animal plushies.
Bellatrix kicked off her boots and let herself fall forward onto the softest mattress. So much softer than that awful bed in her dorm back at Hogwarts. Still, she had done plenty to make this room her own: bookcases lined the wall and wherever was not a bookcase, there were posters of famous witches past. Quidditch players, pioneers, ancestors. Witches whom had made their mark on the world.
On a prominent place in her room, right above the huge fireplace opposite to her bed, hung a framed poster of Eleanore Snowbell, her childhood hero. Eleanore Snowbell was an explorer, adventurer and sometimes monster hunter. The poster itself was from an exhibition about her life and works at the Museum of Magical History a few years back: an exhibition she had begged her mother to bring her to.
Not to mention that she'd had an enormous crush on her during her early teen years,
To Bellatrix, Eleanore Snowbell embodied everything a witch should be: accomplished and daring, magically gifted and adventurous, fiendishly clever and delightfully witty. She had so enjoyed reading about Eleanore's travels and many adventures all over the world. When she'd been younger, she'd wanted to follow in her footsteps: become an explorer, an adventurer and perhaps a monster hunter.
Bellatrix pursed her lips.
That wouldn't be happening.
Bellatrix let out an annoyed grunt and rolled to her back, letting her tiredness wash over her. She'd have to get up and undress, wash up and brush her teeth at the private bathroom attached to her room. But perhaps she wouldn't care and would sleep in her clothes tonight.
She glanced over the glass display case near her bed: it was piling out with the porcelain dragon figurines she collected in her childhood. A smile crossed her features when she remembered once enchanting all of them to move and fly. One of them even breathed fire, as evidenced from the slight scorch mark still visible on the carpet. She'd promised herself she'd continue collecting after her Hogwarts years.
Perhaps that was yet another thing she would never finish.
This wasn't going to well: she'd longed to enjoy going home to get away from it all for a bit and all it did was to remind her of the impending doom hanging over her head. Perhaps she should just go to bed early today.
One thing, however, was foremost on her mind and for once it was not Lestrange or the wedding.
More than anything else, Bellatrix wondered what Hermione was doing right now.
Hermione had spent a lovely evening with her parents. Just chatting and catching up. It had felt... good. In fact, she'd felt better than she'd had in a while. It was good to get away from the wizarding world for a bit, she figured.
Since skipping the brushing of the teeth was considered anathema to a point of heresy in this house, Hermione had spent some time in the bathroom getting ready for bed. After changing into her fluffy pyjamas, she made her way to her old room. And such a relief and joy it was to step inside of it. Unlike her lonely dorm, this room quite literally felt like home.
Funny. It seemed bigger before she'd left for Hogwarts.
The room was cozy and welcoming beyond measure. It only had a single window and thus was quite pleasantly dark on all hours of the day no matter the weather outside. Underneath the window was a well loved writing desk and on opposite sides of the wall were bookcases, all piling out. On top of her bookcases were displayed several fairy figurines from her 'fairy-phase'. Next to a bed was a corner book-case of about waist-height which doubled as a display for photographs. Pictures and paintings of flowers hung from the few free spaces of wall. The entire room was immaculately organized aside from a single messy pinboard.
Hermione chuckled as she picked up Pete, a ratty old bear with button eyes which was almost as old as she was. Pete had been given a prominent place of honour among her photographs, but today she would take Pete to bed like she had always done in her younger years. Hermione decided it was silly to be embarrassed about it and would place Pete where he belonged: on her pillow.
The bed itself was a small but wonderfully soft single bed she was almost too tall for at this point, but the duvet welcomed her as if she were an old friend. With Pete clutched to her chest, she lay on her side and enjoyed the familiar surroundings of home with her parents near.
So why was she crying?
Hermione hadn't even noticed she was crying at first. It had just started. Just like all the other times it had happened when she had gone to bed at Hogwarts at her lonely and cold dorm room. Her body shook as tears kept coming and coming.
Even here. Even at home.
"Why the fuck am I crying?!" Hermione hissed to herself, partly angry, partly sad.
Was there no place left where she could feel safe? Was there no place left where she could feel herself?
Would she ever feel better?
Still sniffing, she clutched Pete to her chest and had a single thought pop in her mind: she wondered how Bellatrix was doing and hoped she was coping with the wedding rehearsals well enough. Talking to Bellatrix, oddly, had become on the highlights of her day: something she always looked forward to.
Curious. She'd stopped crying.
Bellatrix had quickly decided that wedding rehearsals were a complete pain. A wizarding wedding, especially a pure-blood one, was an affair of customs, charms, protocol and precision. There were tons of phrases, rituals and even moves for her to remember, as well as the correct order to do everything in. The wedding guests, and there would be many, would be ranked by relationship for their family and every rank had a different set of rules for treatment attached to them. Now, being the perfectionist Bellatrix was, she would learn it all by heart and execute it immaculately as was expected of her.
But that didn't mean she'd have to like it. Among other things, she was expected to curtsy. Curtsy! HER! It was enough to make her want to run off into the woods, scream her head off and using the trees around her for target practice.
There were tents set up all over the back yard along with hundreds of seats facing the altar. The altar itself was a large platform with a heart-shaped bough lined with white flowers. Heart-shaped… what a hilarious idea.
All their servants would be playing the role of wedding guests and were seemingly having a grand day at it. Her sisters would be the bridesmaids, of course. From the tent where she stood, she could see Cissy and Andie having a whale of a time trying on their dresses and curtsying to each other as if all of this was some sort of fucking joke.
Well, it was a fucking joke. Just not a particularly funny one.
At least the groom wasn't here: Rodolphus was spending time with his own family, so Sebastian would be taking his place for the rehearsal. At least that was a small mercy. Bellatrix actually liked Sebastian, which meant she wouldn't be retching all the way to the altar. Right now, a seamstress was fitting her into her grandmother's wedding dress. The dress itself was a gorgeous, multi-layered pristine white garment, accompanied by a large white cloak which would drag three meters behind her and a traditionally pointed hat. Though the garment itself was heavy and cumbersome, it was enchanted to be feather light and flow around her body like water. It was a dress with history as it had served both her grandmother and her mother quite well, she supposed. But for her it was just the gateway to the end of her carefree existence.
"'old still, chouchou," her mother smiled as the seamstress adjusted the fit of the dress' corset and Bellatrix felt all the air being pushed out of her lungs for a moment. "There," her mother smiled. "Ah, you look gorgeous, Bellatrix."
"I don't feel gorgeous," replied Bellatrix, her curly black hair falling down over her back. "And I am not wearing my hair in a bun!"
"Ah, don't be so difficult, chouchou," said her mother, whom was apparently quite excited about the whole idea: well, at least someone was happy about all this nonsense. A few moments later, her father Cygnus appeared, stepping into the tent with a smile on his face. This was the first time she had seen him this week: though he had been trying to cut his business trip short, things had been popping up which required his attention.
Cygnus Black was a tall and lanky man, dressed in expensive finery, clean-shaven and had a neatly kept head of hair which had gone prematurely grey. The youngest of three siblings, her father was someone who always seemed to be at work in some capacity. While uncle Orion from the London branch of the House Black was officially the head of the family and set all the rules, her own father led the financial backbone of House Black and provided all of the branches of their house with tremendous amounts of income.
Her father gave her a warm smile. "Ah, you look gorgeous, my precious girl," said he. "It's hard to believe you're growing up so fast. You look lovely and radiant in your wedding gown."
Bellatrix pursed her lips, absolutely bristling. Lovely and radiant? Lovely and radiant?! She was miserable and angry! Why didn't her parents see that?! They were supposed to see that!
"Father," Bellatrix greeted, her displeasure clear on her voice, something which did not pass him by unnoticed. Her parents shared a look and Cygnus gave her mother a brief nod.
"Ella? Why don't you try to reel in Andie and Cissy before they accidentally destroy the altar, hm?" Cygnus asked.
Druella agreed, after which Cygnus asked the seamstress to take a brief moment to leave him alone with his daughter. Once they were alone, Bellatrix felt like she could let out what she'd been feeling all day.
"Come here," her father's voice sounded kind and welcoming. Tears burst from her eyes while she flew into his arms. Her father held her tightly, pressing her head against his chest. "I know all of this must feel so terribly unfair."
"All that work at school," Bellatrix sniffed. "Why did I even bother?"
"Don't say that," replied Cygnus. "You were always talented. You were always eager to prove yourself. And you have. Many times over. I've lost count of the many times you have impressed me."
"There's so many things I want to do," Bellatrix felt her lip tremble. "So many things I want to see."
"And you can! You will!" Cygnus smiled. "You're not going to be locked up into a tower for the rest of your life. Have you ever seen me lock up your mother? As if she'd even let me!"
"It's different kind of cage!" Bellatrix bristled. "One of expectations. Mum is expected to run the house and our local holdings as lady of the manor! I don't want that! I want to be an adventurer! An explorer! A writer! An auror!"
"That... will be more difficult," her father admitted.
"Besides, you're not him. He pretends to be a polite and thoughtful man, but he's neither. You don't know him like I do!" Bellatrix returned, still sniffling. "Why him?! Why Rodolphus Lestrange of all people?!"
"Bellatrix," Cygnus replied. "We're proud, pure-blood wizards. Among the last of our kind. We have a duty to the wizarding world to keep magic strong."
Bellatrix grunted in anger. "Are we really so afraid of mudbloods that we do these kinds of things to ourselves?!"
Her father stiffened for a moment, raising his head slightly and giving her an intense stare. "Bella," said her father. "You know I don't want to hear that type of language in this house. I do believe we have had terse words about that term before."
"Excuse me, father," said Bellatrix, her gaze pointed downward. "It was an outburst. Uncle Orion…"
Her father's jaw stiffened. "Your uncle Orion is a gormless fool who should learn to keep his filthy mouth shut long enough to stop making idiotic decisions such as cutting off an entire branch of his own family for the most idiotic of reasons! He should not talk about things he does not understand!" he snarled, but immediately let out a sigh when he saw his daughter's stricken look. "Bella, I'm not angry with you."
"I know, father," Bellatrix looked up and smiled. She'd become good at reading people and, judging from her father's outburst, he had just come out of a meeting with uncle Orion. That always seemed to leave her father exhausted. Her thoughts drifted back to the many family gatherings where uncle Orion would never miss an opportunity to whip up the gathered siblings, cousins and other relations to orate about the foulness of dirty blood and the 'scourge of mudbloods' infesting the noble wizarding world to the cheers of many. Bellatrix would sometimes see her father seething in his chair, blinded with rage.
When she was much younger, Bellatrix had thought that her father simply strongly hated muggle-borns, but as she grew older and more adept at reading people, she could clearly tell that her father's rage was only directed towards one single individual in the room he completely and utterly loathed. Today was the moment he came closest to ever confirming it.
"And I don't believe all muggle-borns are bad," whispered Bellatrix, Hermione's smiling face drifting to her mind.
"Of course not," said Cygnus. "I've met many in the States during the… troublesome times. Decent and well-meaning individuals, all of them and I do not fear them personally. But I do fear what they represent on the whole. Our families take a stand for the continued future of a safe wizarding world. Muggle-borns simply belong with their own kind as much as we belong with ours. And that is why you and your sisters shall marry into strong magical lines and produce strong magical offspring. It is how things are done in this family."
"Is that all I am?!" Bellatrix bristled. "A brood-mare?!"
"Of course not, you're exaggerating now, Bella," her father hugged her again and stroked her curly hair. "You do know that your mother and I hated each other to the core when we first met? Oh, loathing doesn't begin to describe it. And look at us now. Love developed and grew between the two of us. We've both led successful lives and had three wonderful daughters. I want the same for you, Bella. Why can't the same happen between you and Rodolphus?"
"It can't!" Bellatrix hissed. "You can't compare maman to Rodolphus. Maman is clever and kind. He's despicable and rotten!"
"Oh, you say that now, my precious child," said her father. "But give it time."
"Couldn't you at least have found me a girl?" Bellatrix sighed heavily. In the past she had made her taste and preference quite clear.
"Believe it or not, I've tried," Cygnus sighed. "But Rodolphus simply had the best pedigree."
Her father sounded… remorseful? Bellatrix sniffled again. "But father..."
"Tell you what," replied Cygnus. "I can see you're upset. Why don't limit the wedding rehearsals to a single day for now and pick it up again at a later date when you're more used to the idea. Let's spend autumn holiday together as a family, just the five of us. With no weddings or anything like that looming over your head."
"I'd like that," said Bellatrix. She had been given, at least, somewhat of a reprieve. Hermione came to mind again. What she wanted right now more than anything else was to talk to possibility the only true friend she had in the world.
"I worry about your sisters," said Cygnus while he stood in the entry to the tent. Bellatrix stood next to her father as they watched the two of them still flinging some cantrips to each other despite their mother's best efforts to put a stop to it.
"They don't know what's looming over their heads," muttered her father. "And I hope they will never have to."
Bellatrix stiffened for a moment, studying her father's expression for a moment. Cygnus tried to hide it by keeping is expression unreadable, but his eyes betrayed his concern.
"Father?" asked Bellatrix. "What does that mean?"
Cygnus sighed heavily. "F… forget I said anything," he spoke softly before placing his hand on her shoulder and trying his best to offer a comforting smile.
That only worried Bellatrix more.