On the last day of their well-deserved autumn holiday, the three Black sisters decided to do something fun and nostalgic. They would be adventurous, outdoorsy and rugged! They would rough it in the wilds and, like the old days, would pitch their family tent and sleep under the stars in the great outdoors!
On their lawn.
Ten feet from the front door of their manor.
With Sebastian the butler in earshot in case they wanted tea.
After their tent had been set up, Bellatrix had laid out the sleeping bag. There was one sleeping bag for all three of them to fit in, just like they had when they were little girls. Unfortunately, they weren't little girls anymore, a fact which become painfully obvious as the three of them were struggling to all fit inside the single sleeping bag.
"Ow!" Bellatrix swore. "Whose elbow was that?!"
"Sorry!" said Cissy and Andie at the same time.
"Well, whoever is the owner of the elbow, get it out of my side!" Bellatrix muttered as she stretched and moved further to the side, only to find herself being kneed in the back. "OW!"
"Sorry, that was me," said Andie. "Was trying to turn."
"Aaaah, we need a bigger sleeping bag!" Cissy muttered. "My hair's going to look a mess tomorrow."
"Try not to break my spine on your next turn, Andie," Bellatrix said, rolling her eyes.
"Okay, I'll just break your leg instead," Andie giggled.
Bellatrix struggled to get comfortable and lay on her back. Together, the three sisters looked up through the transparent canvas and the clear sky above. Though it was autumn, the tent was enchanted to radiate a room-temperature heat and would keep the sisters comfortable during the night.
"This was easier when we were smaller girls," said Bellatrix. "The tent seemed so much bigger then. The world seemed bigger too."
"We're women now," said Andie. "Well, you and I are, Bella. Cissy's still a baby."
"Hey!" Cissy protested, elbowing Andie for good measure. Unfortunately, this move rippled through the sleeping bag, causing Bellatrix to grimace slightly at the sudden move.
"Okay, stop moving or I'll hex you both into oblivion!" Bellatrix hissed. At least her sisters stopped doing whatever it was they'd been doing for now. The three of them watched the sky for a moment, getting comfortable for the night. The stars were out and bright with nary a cloud overhead.
"This is nice," said Cissy.
"It is," said Andie.
"I might be one of if not the last time we'll get to do this," said Bellatrix with a bit of a melancholic tone.
"Don't say that, Bella," replied Andie. "Whatever happens, we'll always be sisters. The three of us have an unbreakable bond."
Bellatrix bit her lip and kept her eyes pointed skyward. "I hope so," she said. "I doubt my 'future husband' will approve of me sleeping on the lawn with my sisters."
"I wonder who father will pick for me and Cissy," Andie muttered. "I can't say I like the idea of an arranged marriage."
"As long as it's Lucius, I'm fine!" Cissy raved, causing Bellatrix to roll her eyes.
"Playing kissy-face with Lucius behind the dragon statue again, hm?" Bellatrix chuckled. Another ripple was being sent through the sleeping bag as a result.
"Dad should have matched you and Evelyn," said Andie. "You two were great together."
"As girlfriends, sure," replied Bellatrix. "As wives? I don't know. Besides, dad wouldn't have gone for a Greengrass if a Lestrange is available. 'Better pedigree' or rot like that. You know what's worse, though? Black pedigree is considered best pedigree. That's why Uncle Orion and Aunt Walburga were matched as cousins! Maybe I should be happy Sirius is only nine years old or I might have been matched with him!"
"Eeeww!" Cissy made a face.
"Quite," said Bellatrix, letting out a sigh.
"How about we just enjoy ourselves tonight and not think about the future too much," said Andie, apparently not wanting to think about whatever arranged marriage was in store for her. Bellatrix definitely couldn't blame her for that. So they lay there in silence, watching the stars while the crickets in the underbrush sang their song.
Funny how her thoughts kept drifting back towards Hermione: the girl whom had become such a good friend in such short a time. Bellatrix wondered how her friend was doing, if she was enjoying herself back home. Of course, she'd hear all about it tomorrow evening.
Thoughts about Hermione drove her to another point, though. The plucky young Bellatrix knew that Hermione had a tendency to put a brave face on, but couldn't hide the sadness within her: something had happened to Hermione recently. Something bad. Something she had yet to deal with, if even she could.
Perhaps Bellatrix could help her somehow. Perhaps this one last adventure she was having was something of a way to help Hermione too. An adventure they could share together, just the two of them.
As her sisters were drifting off to sleep, Bellatrix was lost in thought once more. It almost frightened her just how forward she looked to talking to Hermione again, to share everything she had found and to see her face again.
Slowly but surely, Bellatrix drifted off to a dreamless sleep, all worries disappearing into a blissful night.
The Burrow was just as Hermione had always experienced it: cozy, homely and with that persistent feeling of magic in the air. Not to mention that there were loads of people around, Weasleys or otherwise, and they were all mulling around the living room chatting rather animatedly.
Perhaps she shouldn't have come. Perhaps she should have stayed a few more hours with her parents. Her father had particularly been against letting her go back to school. But she had to. For Bellatrix if not anything else. She'd fed her parents the same cock and bull story about wanting to finish what she'd started.
Typical. She had promised herself to do better, yet kept feeding her parents the same lies she had always had.
It didn't do much to improve her mood, though through no lack of trying from the Weasley family. The first thing which happened was that Mrs. Weasley showed her no sign of resentment for breaking up with Ron. She expressed this with a fierce hug and subsequently trying to stuff her full of food.
Still, as the party continued on, Hermione felt herself drifting into background. The sounds of the song and cheer became dull and lifeless as she became ever more withdrawn: these days she didn't really care much for being surrounded by happy people. Nursing a drink, she found herself changing position ever so often, gradually moving towards the door almost against her own will… just waiting for a moment to slip away unnoticed.
Unfortunately, her fiendishly clever plan was aptly foiled by the Boy-Who-Lived, who plopped down right next to her and patted her shoulder. Sighing inwardly, she realized this must have been how Voldemort must have felt during his time of defeat, with Harry Potter always turning up when least expected.
"Hey Hermione," greeted Harry.
The dull tone of her of voice surprised even herself. Still Harry kept smiling. "Not enjoying yourself, are you?"
Hermione shook her head. "I've not been enjoying myself for much longer than I'd like," Hermione replied honestly.
"Is it because of a… certain someone?" Harry raised an eyebrow.
Hermione snorted, knowing exactly whom he meant. Sat on the opposite side of the room, being the absolute life of the party, was Pansy Parkinson. Pansy fucking Parkinson.
Ron's new girlfriend.
Seriously, it boggled the mind.
"Yeah," Hermione narrowed her eyes, glaring daggers in Pansy's general direction. Something the other girl undoubtedly noticed, but was putting great effort to ignore. "How did that even happen?"
It had surprised her to learn that Pansy had actually fought in the battle… on their side, no less. Hard to imagine, really. Personally, she hadn't seen her do much of anything, but the battle had been so chaotic and hectic that she could have easily missed it and others confirmed that she, indeed, had been there. This is why Pansy, like many others, had not returned to Hogwarts for her seventh year which was a fact which had given Hermione no end of relief at the time.
"Pansy's been working as a junior analyst for the auror office to help us find some of the Death Eaters who are still at large," said Harry. "Ron and Pansy talked for a bit at first. Then longer. And they started having lunch together. One thing just… led to another."
Hermione glanced over to the girl, now chatting with Ron. She couldn't help but narrow her eyes: not because she was jealous, of course, since that ship had sailed long before. Still, she worried that Pansy, being the manipulative Slytherin that she was, had her hooks in one of her best friends. Harry, however, didn't seem to be in the least concerned. "She's really changed, Hermione. She's not the same person we knew at school. I don't know what it is which changed it. Perhaps the reality of the war, being out of school, not having Slytherins around her all the time."
"She's the girl who wanted to hand you over to Voldemort!"
Harry simply shrugged. "She was just scared, Hermione. A lot of people were. Life's too short to hold grudges."
Life's too short to hold grudges. Now that was something Hermione had become very familiar with. By all rights, she should hate Bellatrix for what she had done to her, for the pain she had put her through and turning her into the emotional wreck she had become. Still, whenever she looked at the younger Bellatrix, talked to her, listened to her hopes and dreams, she couldn't bring herself to hate her. Far from it, in fact. Should… she show Pansy that same courtesy? Perhaps, but she didn't think she was ready for that yet.
Thankfully, she and Pansy had avoided each other like the plague for the entire duration of the party. Pansy had been her gleeful tormentor for the past seven years and things like that weren't easily forgiven, despite her apparent change of heart. It seemed both girls were reluctant to have that conversation right now. A small mercy, that.
"I've been thinking about Bellatrix a lot, Harry," said Hermione. "She's been on my mind ever since I've had time to stop and think."
"I'm not surprised," Harry patted her shoulder for a bit.
"I've been wondering," said Hermione. "How things could have been different. What if she had someone should could rely on during her difficult moments? What if there had been someone she could trust? What if... I mean, how things could have been different if..."
"You'll drive yourself bonkers thinking like that," said Harry. "You can't change the past, Hermione. And you don't know if anything would have been different in the first place."
"Wouldn't it?" Hermione half-smiled. "I've been looking into her past, Harry. When she was my age. And I see nothing bad, nothing evil in the person she used to be. Something happened to her to make her that way, I just know it. What if that could have been prevented? Ah, perhaps it's just idle fantasy and I'm just driving myself crazy."
"I don't think you're crazy, Hermione," said Harry. "I just think you're trying to make sense of what happened to you. I do the same every day."
Hermione and Harry chatted for a while longer, but when she looked at Ron and Pansy looking very much like a couple in the early stages of a developing love affair, Hermione wondered just what the hell she was still doing here. Having to return to London to catch the Hogwarts express was a compelling excuse to leave. Hermione promised herself she'd apologize to Ron for leaving without saying goodbye later, for she simply could not muster the will to deal with Pansy right now.
The young witch fled into a kitchen to fetch herself a drink of water and planned to slip out the back door. After filling a glass by the faucet and taking a long sip, she enjoyed the quiet of the kitchen with the sounds of the party in the other room being more muffled: at least she didn't feel like the walls were moving in on her anymore.
"Are you alright, dear?" asked Mrs Weasley as she entered the kitchen behind her, just a tad fast enough to make Hermione think she had come in to see how she was doing. Hermione looked up and gave the Weasley matriarch a quick smile. "You... don't seem like yourself, dear."
Hermione shook her head. "I'm not," replied Hermione. "I'm glad to be here, don't get me wrong. It's just that... sometimes I feel as if I'm living past other people. As if I'm not in the same universe they live in them. Does that make sense at all?"
"I think it does," replied Mrs. Weasley.
"I... I am not well," replied Hermione, a clear statement. "I haven't been for months. I'm just glad you're not angry with me."
"Whatever made you think that?" Mrs. Weasley smiled.
"You know. Me and... Ron..."
"You and Ron wouldn't have lasted a month and you know it," Mrs. Weasley winked. "Be glad you're still friends, dear."
Hermione laughed in spite of herself. Mrs. Weasley was right, at least there was still the friendship. "Ron and Pansy. That'll take some getting used to. She's actually polite here."
"It's a surprisingly good match," replied Mrs. Weasley. "Pansy will know how to run a household like a tight ship."
"Perhaps," said Hermione. "Mrs Weasley, may I ask you something?"
"Of course, dear."
"What do you think about Bellatrix?" said Hermione.
"Because of your nightmares? Ron told me. She can't hurt you anymore, dear," Nrs. Weasley replied. "Nor anyone else."
"No, I mean..." Hermione paused a moment. "You went to Hogwarts with her, right? You must have met her. What was she like?"
Mrs. Weasley thought a moment. "I honestly don't know. I went to school with her, yes, and I must have been two of three years above her. She was uppity, arrogant and generally not very nice, but she wasn't a bad apple. I remember that she didn't have many friends, if any. That was not to say that she wasn't outgoing. I don't think it was easy for her to trust anyone."
Hermione nodded. Her own assessment of Bellatrix almost completely aligned with that of Mrs. Weasley.
"It's the tragedy of Slytherin, I suppose," Mrs Weasley continued. "Too many people who want to use you for their own gain and stab you in the back at a moment's notice. You bunch up quite a lot of those kind of people into a relatively small space for seven years and it can do quite a bit of damage to someone. You can somewhat see it with Pansy: she's skittish and guarded still, but it used to be a lot worse. But even since she and Ron have been seeing each other, she's been slowly opening up and has become more approachable."
"Are you saying that if Bellatrix would have had a friend. Someone she could trust... things might have been different?" Hermione asked.
"Ah, it's moot," Mrs. Weasley replied. "The past is the past."
"Ron seems to think she must have always been bad," said Hermione.
"Nonsense. That's a young person talking. Someone who doesn't know any better," scoffed Mrs. Weasley. "I don't think so. Sometimes even small things could make a difference. There was no one to help her when she struggled with her inner darkness. She was easy prey for the likes the You-Know-Who."
"Do you regret killing her?" Hermione asked.
For a moment, Mrs Weasley seemed deflated, pursing her lips and seeming miles away. "At the time, no. And I would do it again if I have to, in a heart-beat. But, ending someone's life... for any reason. Let's just say I have plenty of nightmares of my own, dearrie, and leave it at that."
The Weasley matriarch demanded a hug and Hermione had to admit that a motherly hug was just what she needed right now.
She rather hated keeping her chats with Bellatrix a secret from her closest and dearest friends, but for now it was necessary. If she was to save Bellatrix from herself, she would have to do so without interference. Hermione would go back to Hogwarts and see her friend again in secret.
And she very much looked forward to seeing Trix again.
Tomorrow, Bellatrix would see Hermione again. She couldn't wait: in a few hours, she and her sisters would floo to Leeds and catch the Hogwarts Express on the way back. Though she wasn't particularly happy about going back to school, the thought of seeing Hermione again made her more than a little excited: they'd have so much to tell each other.
With her luggage packed and stood at the foot-end of her bed while her sisters still packing theirs in their own rooms, she had some time to kill. On her bed, with pillows in her back, she spent some time working on her latest story.
She was just thinking how best to phrase the act of someone's ribcage being crushed by massive jaws when there was a knock on her door. Bellatrix groaned and tossed down her quill, her flow now ruined. "Go pack your own luggage! It's not my fault you're both slackers!" she shouted from the bed.
"It's not your sisters, Bella," sounded the muffled voice of her father from the other side of the door. "May I come in?"
"Father?" Bellatrix called out. She quickly blew the ink dry and stuffed her notebook underneath her pillow. "Come in."
Bellatrix frowned, still sat on the bed when her father simply sat down on a chair next to it and let out a rather awkward sigh. "Bella, I..." he sighed again. "I wanted to apologize before you left for Hogwarts. Clear the air, as it were."
"Apologize?" asked Bellatrix. "For what?"
Her father gave her a brief stare. "Your uncle Achille and I... have our differences, we've always have. But it's not right that you got caught in the crossfire. Of course there's nothing wrong with you writing your stories. Nothing at all. I was wrong to take your notebook from you."
Bellatrix frowned briefly. "Did maman put you up to this?"
"Hah!" her father chuckled. "No. Though she has plenty to do with it. I would very much like to sleep in my own bed again."
"It's fine, father," replied Bellatrix. "All is forgiven."
"All?" he said, eyes wandering. "I doubt that. But at least one small thing is."
An enigmatic response for sure. "Father?" Bellatrix asked. "Why do you hate oncle Achille so much?"
Her father snorted again. "Because he's a free-spirited bounder who doesn't care about anything important and gets away with everything."
Bellatrix looked at her father intently, studying his distant expression. Then it hit her like a flash of lightning in the darkness. "You..." Bellatrix started, her voice cautious. "You wish you could be more like him."
Her father didn't look her in the eye. Not at first. Instead, he looked towards the far end of the room for a moment, into the embers of a dying fire. Then, he turned his head and smiled. "Perceptive as always, my little witchling. That's going to serve you well in life. As for the answer, well, yes and no. No because if I hadn't done my duties to my family, I wouldn't have met your mother. I wouldn't have had you or your sisters, and my life would have been less of it. Yes, because, well, no duties, no wars to have lived through, not being faced with the tough decisions and…"
Her father shifted uncomfortably, and from his expression Bellatrix could see he was torn. "Bellatrix," she spoke. "Make me a promise. Promise me that what I am about to tell you will never leave this room."
Bellatrix nodded. Judging from her father's tone, this was something quite serious. "I promise."
"Good," said her father. "I know you are a young woman of your word. You know of your uncle Alphard? My older brother?"
"He was exiled from House Black by uncle Orion," said Bellatrix.
"Yes, he was," said her father, taking a moment to pat her on the knee. "Alphard has... a kind soul. He taught me my first spell, you know? We ran around Catterborough Woodhouse always looking for mischief. Oh, the pranks we pulled on your aunt Walburga were epic! One time we replaced her make-up with wartweed powder and it turned her cheeks into a lunar landscape for a week. Heh, if you think she has lung-capacity now, you haven't heard her then!"
Having met aunt Walburga and having been at the receiving end of her lung capacity, Bellatrix mused that her father painted a rather vivid image. Still, he had a wistful, forlorn look about him as he started ahead, glancing away from her. There was a pain in his eyes, that much was clear.
"At Hogwarts, Alphard was always looking out for me and I for him. We had each other's back. We went to war together. WAR! Where were faced life and death together! We were brothers. We are brothers. You don't shut that off, not even when your bastard of a cousin orders him to be cast out of the family and the rest of us to cut off contact with him!"
Bellatrix realized just what her father was trying to tell her. "You... you never cut ties with uncle Alphard."
"Not even your mother knows," chuckled her father. "You have cousins, you know? Their names are Morag and Malcolm. Twins. Nine years old. Morag is thin and athletic, unlike her father. Loves to draw. She's going to be a killer Quidditch player one day. Malcolm is clever and quick of wit."
Her father gave her an intense look. "You will never meet them. And they will never meet any of us."
Her father gave her a harsh look for a moment. "I know you've been thinking about running away. I know you don't want to be married. But I urge you not to run. Because Orion will cast you out if you turn your back on your obligations. I doubt your sisters will give up on you, and neither will I or your mother. But we'd only be able to meet in the deepest of secret. And your children will never be able to see their own family or claim their birthright. Alphard is fine with this, but that is not the life I want for you, my little witchling."
Bellatrix cast her eyes downward, weighing her father's words. Yes, she supposed she saw the wisdom in them, but one question remained. "Why did it have to be him though?" Bellatrix pouted. "Why Lestrange?"
Her father sighed. "If it had been up to Orion, you would have been promised to Cantankerous Nott."
That made Bellatrix' eyes spread wide, knowing full well that wedding contract negotiations had started right after her tenth birthday. "WHAT?!" she exclaimed. "But he's almost seventy years old!"
"Your reaction mirrored mine," said her father. "Orion told me if I could find a marriage candidate of equal or higher status, he would allow contract negotiations. Precious few fit the bill."
"Is there really nobody else?" Bellatrix asked with a small voice. "Anyone?"
"The negotiations with the Lestrange family took over seven years alone," said her father. "Only the head of House Black could break open the contract."
Bellatrix sighed. Orion...
"I might as well try to persuade a cat to bark," sighed her father. "I'm sorry, Bella. But take heart... any husband taking a wife from House Black always learns that the Black women are not easily controlled or suppressed. You least of all. It won't be the end of your life, my little witchling. You will thrive. Of this I have no doubt."
Bellatrix simply closed her eyes and let out a sigh. She had held out some hope that, perhaps, her impending marriage could still be avoided. Perhaps she should focus on beyond, what she would do once married, what tactics she should use to circumvent Rodolphus' undoubtedly harsh demands of her. She supposed it could have been worse: walking down the aisle next to a seventy year old man, for example.
"Bellatrix?" asked her father. "I must admit I am curious. Would you read me one of your stories?"
"You want to hear one?" Bellatrix raised an eyebrow. "Really?"
"I'll have you know the ashtray you made for me when you were five is still on my desk."
"That was a flowerpot," Bellatrix chuckled. "I... just didn't have enough clay."
The curly-haired witch pulled the notebook from under her pillow and flipped through it while her father sat back and settled against the chair.
"Okay," said Bellatrix. "I call this one 'Obsession'."
She told her tale. And her father listened. They shared an embrace.
Bellatrix was quiet and restless the entire trip back to Hogwarts.