Ronald Weasley stepped inside the Three Broomsticks. By now it was some almost eleven o'clock and most of the inn's usual bustle had died down. Rosmerta was still at the bar, as per usual, and was tending to the few quiet patrons who had yet to go home or up to their rooms.
"Ah, good evening mister Weasley," greeted Rosmerta. "I'd offer a pint, but we're close to time. Making a late night call?"
"Yeah, I suppose so," said Ron as he took a stool near the bar. "Investigating rumours of sightings up North. Didn't lead to anything."
"Escaped Death Eater?" she asked while cleaning glasses.
"Rodolphus Lestrange," said Ron. "One of the last ones still on the loose. Rotter is about as slippery as an oiled-up eel in a pool of green soap."
"Thank you for that lovely mental image," said Rosmerta. "He can't keep running, though. You'll catch him one day."
Ron nodded in thanks. "I know it's late, but I'm hoping to see Hermione. How's she doing?"
"Hermione?" asked Rosmerta. "Why, she's been a model guest of the most part. Room's paid up for the month, she makes no fuss or noise and on the rare occasions I do catch her, she's always up for a bit of friendly chatter. She does keep irregular hours, I've noticed, so I've given her the key to the front door so she can come and go as she pleases and I know she can be trusted the lock the door behind her. Very responsible young woman."
"Irregular hours?" Ron frowned. "She goes out at night?"
"Quite often, yes," said Rosmerta. "For a research project, she says. Likes keeping busy, that one."
It did sound like Hermione to want to keep her mind occupied. However, that didn't explain why Hermione hadn't been returning any of his owls. Granted, Hermione could be obsessive at the best of times, but considering she had no school work to focus on, he would think she'd have plenty of time to respond. This did not sit well with him at all.
"When did you last see her?" asked Ron.
Rosmerta thought a moment. "About... four days ago. Or was it five? Yes, I think it was five."
"Five days?!" Ron blinked.
"Oh, I know she's been in," said Rosmerta. "She has had dinner brought up to her room on a serving tray which she always left in perfect condition afterwards. Like I said, a model guest. Why don't you go up to her room? She's likely there if you want to pay a visit. She usually doesn't go out until much later."
"I believe I will do that," said Ron, standing up and headed towards the stairs.
Hermione's room was in the nicer part of the inn, just above the common room at the end of the hall. He took note of the 'do not disturb'-sign hung from a hook on the door to her room. Judging from the dust on the top, it had been a permanent fixture for weeks on end.
He knocked. No answer. He knocked again, more urgently.
As Ron wasn't here in any official capacity, he couldn't ask Rosmerta to open the door for him. Not that that would stop him, of course. His auror training had given him means to enter a room discreetly, after all. After flick of the wand, the lock opened with a satisfying 'snick'.
"Hermione," he spoke to the door. "I'm coming in. Hope you're decent!"
He grabbed hold of the doorknob and gently pushed it as he stepped inside. The moment he did, his jaw dropped to the floor. Hermione, of course, was nowhere in sight, but it was the state of the room which troubled him: stacks of books and papers were strewn about the room in a meticulously organized fashion and the walls were completely covered with notes, papers and even the occasional photographs. Red ribbons connected most of the notes, but even so, whatever subject matter Hermione was researching, he had to admit it was way over his head. He saw schematics of what looked to be magical vortices, but he had never really paid attention in Theory of Magic. There were some bits of folklore here and there, some fragments of rituals and a few newspaper clippings from... 1968?
"What the bloody hell happened in 1968?" Ron whispered to himself. "What is this?!"
Ron cursed to himself when he saw the name 'Bellatrix' in some notes. It was obvious that Hermione had never completely recovered from her experience at Malfoy Manor and from the war in general. In a way, none of them had. He had his own nightmares quite often. But all this was starting to worry him more and more.
The next batch of papers made his blood run cold: his nan was a Black. Cedrella Black had turned her back on her family and was subsequently disowned when she married his grandfather on her father's side. His nan had always ever been kind, but she had made sure to make her family well aware how to recognize the dark arts and to warn them to stay away from it. Among the worst of the dark arts were blood rites. Blood magic drained the life-force of the caster or leeched a victim to give a caster amazing amounts of power, but the cost could be great.
Though blood rites were banned by the Ministry, he knew that many of the pure-blood families knew how to perform them as part of their 'birth right' and often did so in secret.
"Blimey," he muttered. "What have you gotten yourself into, Hermione?"
Ron steeled himself: someone like Hermione would be well aware of the dangers and dark sides of blood magic and he couldn't bring himself to think that the friend he knew would actually perform a blood rite willingly.
Someone had to be making her do this.
And he was determined to find out who so he could drop-kick him or her straight to Azkaban. Still, he'd need to be careful and leave the entire room as undisturbed as possible. If Hermione got clued in that someone had been in her room, she might end up doing something drastic or even flee and that was not what he wanted right now.
Still, he needed clues and he found it after another search through the notes on the wall: it was a map of magical lay-lines running through the Forbidden Forest and he was just willing to bet that it was significant. There was a central point where all the lay-lines intersected and the flow of magic was at its strongest. Of course, it did helped that Hermione had circled the point of intersection with a red marker.
He took out a notebook and made a copy of the map as good as he could. Afterwards, he locked the door and hurried back downstairs.
"Is she not in?" asked Rosmerta. "Curious. I didn't see her leave today."
"You said five days ago was the last time you saw her?" asked Ron. "Did something appear off? Might she have been nervous? Or acting queer in any way? Any detail might help."
Rosmerta put her fingers to her lips. "Well, no," she said, squinting her eyes as she thought.
"Anything might be of use, even if it seems small."
"She seemed to be preparing for some kind of trip," Rosmerta snapped her fingers. "It was one of those rare days when she was having her dinner in the common room and when I brought her her fish 'n chips, she was so concentrated on the list she was working on that I actually startled her. I couldn't help but notice that she was writing down all manner of different tinned food items. But that was all I saw."
That made Ron's blood run cold: was Hermione going to flee the wizarding world? What on Earth would she be needing supplies for? And how could this be related to the blood ritual she had been working on? So many questions.
"Right," said Ron. "Keep Hermione's room under lock and key. No one goes in! If you see Hermione, try to keep her from leaving the inn and discretely send me an owl as quickly as possible."
"What is this about?" asked Rosmerta, concern etched on her face. "Is Hermione is trouble?"
"I hope to Merlin she's not," Ron muttered before taking his leave. Stood in front of the Three Broomsticks, he examined the map he had drawn. It was the only clue he had so far of Hermione's location. More was undoubtedly buried in the myriad of notes and drawings on the walls of her room, but he didn't have the time or the knowledge to sort through all of that. No, that place in the forest would be her best option.
If he even managed to bloody find it, of course.
Once again, Andromeda found herself in the middle of the woods, in the dead of night in the depths of winter. But this time, she was not alone. A rather petulant muttering sounded next to her as she had convinced Cissy to come along with her tonight. Her little sister was hugging herself and had clattering teeth despite the thick fur coat she wore. She had been desperate to have Cissy join her tonight, but after all the trouble she had getting her out of bed and with her she slowing them down during their trip through the woods, Andromeda wondered if it had been a good idea.
In fact, they had already lost sight of Bella and if they didn't get to the glen quickly, they could possibly miss vital clues.
Thankfully, when they arrived, they found Bellatrix waiting by the pool in the middle of the glen. They stopped short at a fallen tree and could see Bellatrix pacing back and forth, apparently waiting for the pool to become active.
"There she is," said Cissy, making Andie wince at the loudness of her voice. But when Cissy stood up and leaned over the tree to get a better look, she quickly yanked on her cloak to pull her back down.
"Watch it!" Andie hissed. "You want to get caught? I swear, you're about as stealthy as a mountain troll!"
Cissy huffed and made a face. "Well, if you're going to be rude about it... why am I here anyway?"
"Because Bella's been acting strangely as of late," said Andie. "She's been going out at night into the woods for weeks now and it's probably been on a daily basis. How she even manages with so little sleep, I'll never know. And she's meeting someone here."
"Really?" Cissy thought for a moment. "I don't see anyone else."
Andie checked her pocket watch. "Just a few seconds more."
She heard a gasp besides her when a powerful magical blue glow bathed the glen. From a distance, they could see Bellatrix kneeling besides the pool. "Whoa," Cissy finally exclaimed. "What is that?"
"I don't know," said Andie. "But whomever Bellatrix is talking to, she's inside that thing."
"Inside?" Cissy frowned. "That... doesn't sound good. What if it's some kind of siren or kelpie?"
"Doubtful," said Andie. "Sirens or kelpies wouldn't have strung along Bella for months. They would have struck at the first opportunity."
Cissy scoffed. "This is Bella we're talking about. She's no fool and there's nobody quite as suspicious as she is. She won't fall for any old charlatan's tricks."
"That's what worries me. Listen to Bella's voice," Andie said and gave Cissy a magical bronze horn. Once put at her ear and aimed at the conversation Bella was having, she would hear it as if she was stood right next to them.
Cissy listened to the conversation and as soon as her eyes grew wide, Andie know that Cissy had realized what she had already concluded. "Andie. Bella. She's... she's in love."
Andie nodded grimly.
"If Bella's in love with you, you can make her do anything!" Cissy exclaimed, almost a bit too loudly again. "Remember when Evelyn challenged her to jump a bridge into the water even though it was way too high and..."
"... she jumped down anyway without a second thought even though she knew better and broke both her legs," Andie said. Even though Evelyn was appropriately horrified that Bella had actually done it, the older Slytherin had never apologized for it. And even after her recovery, Bellatrix refused to see reason. Truth be told, the thing Bellatrix and Evelyn had was the very epitome of a toxic relationship where either girl used each other. Andromeda knew that. Cissy knew that. But Bella always refused to see reason.
"You see my dilemma," spoke Andromeda. "What do you make of this Hermione?"
Cissy listened for a little while, and her eyes narrowed a bit. "That's just it, I can't tell anything about her. She sounds perfectly normal, nothing out of the ordinary. And that worries me."
"Me too," said Andie. And that was the point, really. All three of them were in Slytherin and all three were trained to both see and find hidden meanings behind everything and anything. This girl in the pool had to be up to no good.
"Wait..." Cissy hissed suddenly. "It's... subtle. But it's there. It's in her tone, her hesitation, her... choice of words. She's hiding something."
"Noticed that too, hm?" Andie chuckled. "Yeah, Bella doesn't."
"She's in love," Cissy repeated, switching out her horn for a pair of omniculars. "That critical part of her brain is shut down now and... oh, Merlin's sake, what is she wearing?! And that pack. Is... it that our tent?!"
Curious herself now, Andie picked up her own pair of omniculars and took a peek. Indeed, Bella seemed anything but dressed for the cold weather. Underneath her long coat, she wore a cotton... safari outfit? Was that a pith helmet sat on the root next to her? The pack to her side definitely looked like one that housed the family tent. "Is it," said Andie. "Bella had Sebastian deliver her some things from the manor last weekend and she's been acting really mysterious about it."
"Looks like they're getting ready for the blood-rite," said Cissy. Both she and Andie looked and listened as she and the mysterious Hermione inside the pool started their chanting after taking out their daggers and running it across the palm of their hands. Or, at least, Andie presumed that Hermione was doing the same.
"Not a chant I recognize," said Cissy, dead serious now. "Though the pattern of the intonation suggests opening a gateway."
"Yeah, I got that too," said Andie. A few moments later, Bellatrix disappeared in a flash of light.
"That happened before?"
"Yes," said Andie. "I've been looking into who the other person could be, but I've found no record of Hogwarts students or Hogsmeade inhabitants named 'Hermione'. I've been using father's connections to search through Ministry records, but they haven't turned up anything yet. Somehow, I doubt we'll find something. Still, Bellatrix should reappear very soon."
So they waited.
"How soon?" Cissy asked after a few minutes had passed.
Andie, now very worried, stepped out from her hiding spot. "Something is wrong."
Inland, the jungle had become noticeably thicker and the ground noticeably more uneven and rocky. Thankfully, the air was cool, though with the non-existent sun apparently setting and with the thick canopy above, it was darker than it should be. They would have to find a place to set camp soon.
And that was a problem. It was obvious that they were being stalked by a massive apex predator out to eat their flesh. As thick as this jungle was, it was difficult to see far ahead. And she had seen just how stealthy the black unicorn could be, especially for a creature that size. Hermione glanced around nervously every so often, looking for odd movements in the underbrush or stopping to listen for odd sounds in the distance. So far, the jungle was quiet.
Aside from the occasional insect chirp or the tweet of a bird in the distance, all that could be heard were their own footsteps or the breeze through the treetops.
Another worry was that Bellatrix hadn't said a word to her ever since they had left the beach. Where Bellatrix had always been surprisingly chatty during their travels, she was now quiet and contemplative. Where Bellatrix was always snapping pictures, her camera now hung unused from her neck by its strap.
Granted, there wasn't much to take pictures of here, but it still worried Hermione: had she nipped their relationship in the bud? Well, she had come here to set out to save Bellatrix. Preferably, she would have liked to have saved Trix and have a relationship with her, but if she had to sacrifice their relationship to be able to take her with her to 1998, that was how it would have to be. Still, romantic feelings weren't just gone... perhaps... perhaps it could be salvaged...
Hermione hoped beyond hope, but felt a sting in her heart regardless.
God, she was such an abject failure. Everything she touched withered and died. Useless, pathetic, pitiable. Here was a girl who unmistakingly loved her to bits and yet Hermione had found a way to bugger it up. She closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths. Not even here, in a different reality, could she escape these feelings, these thoughts. There was no hope. No way out.
Then, as if Bellatrix had been listening to her thoughts, the curly-haired witch turned her head to smile at her. A smile filled with warmth and... dare she think it? Love? Then, Bellatrix turned her head again and continued walking in silence.
A great relief washed over Hermione: they were still okay. They were still in love. But, she supposed, it was simply a lot to take in for her. She let out a breath she didn't know she'd been holding. That meant the only immediate concern was about being suddenly rushed, pierced and torn to ribbons by the stealthy black unicorn.
So there was that.
By now, there'd been a steady upward slope they had been following. This floating island was shaped much like an uneven bowl: the sea water in the middle, the beach as a ring around it and, in turn, a jungle around the beach with hilly mountain-like terrain on one side. And it seemed as if they had found the mountains. Traversing this bit of the floating island would turn into a bit of a scramble soon.
"Hermie?" sounded the voice of Bellatrix, first words spoken since the beach. Its appearance was so sudden that it almost startled Hermione.
"Hm?" asked Hermione, trying to keep the immense dread building up in the pit of her stomach from spilling out. She was so certain that the next words out of Bellatrix' mouth would be to reject her.
"We should probably look for a good place to set up the tent," said Bellatrix. "I'm thinking a ridge or, if we get lucky, a cave. We can set up a magical shield at the mouth of the cave, like we did back on the foggy island. Or on a ridge, we can at least cloak the tent with an invisibility spell."
"Or both," said Hermione, looking around her nervously. Again, relieved by the lack of rejection and increasingly worried about being eaten alive.
"You're really worried, aren't you?"
"And you're not?!"
"Sure," said Bellatrix. "But I know we're smarter than it. And we've defeated it once before."
"Because we got lucky!"
"Nonsense," Bellatrix smirked. "Skill! And willpower."
"You're more optimistic than I am," said Hermione. "Where did our wasp friend go?"
On cue, the wasp now named Zipper came flying back from ahead, apparently having found a path the two girls could follow. The wasp hovered and turned in circles towards the path, urging them forward.
"Hermie," said Bellatrix while stepped towards the pointed out path. "We're alright. Really."
Before Hermione could get another word in, Bellatrix simply turned around, grabbed her hands and gently kissed her on the lips. "Hermie. Just how long have you been sitting on that secret? How long have you been wanting to warn me about what was to be my future?"
Hermione lowered her gaze briefly. "Almost from the moment we met," said Hermione, softly.
Bellatrix let go of her hands. "That's the thing," said Bellatrix. "I've been thinking back to a lot of our conversations. You kept your promise until today, but you've also been subtly trying to warn me. A lot of the things we talked about during our nights at the Fae Mirror are making so much sense now."
Hermione could only nod. Bellatrix gave her another smile, raising her hand to lay it on her cheek.
"And that... that... that is why I will go with you. To 1998," said Bellatrix, while Hermione stiffened. Was she really hearing this? However, Bellatrix' eyes grew watery until tears ran over her cheeks. "I'm going to have to leave a lot of things... people... behind. There... there are those who I'll want to say goodbye to. My oncle Achille, though I think he will understand. Perhaps maman, though it would likely be better to just leave her and father a letter. But... Andie and Cissy... I'll have to explain to them... need to explain to them... why... why I won't be there for them in the coming years..."
A sob came and Hermione could see that Bellatrix was close to breaking down. She stepped forward, wrapped her arms around her and hugged her tightly. "I'm sorry," Hermione whispered. "I'm so sorry."
"I want a future..." Bellatrix sniffed. "And... one for my sisters. A good one. Even if that means I'm not in it..."
"There'll time for goodbyes," said Hermione. "And, if it's any consolation, both of them are still alive in 1998. I don't mind spilling the beans on that."
"So, I'll still have them," smiled Bellatrix. "And, I'll have you. Sounds like... a good deal, no?"
Hermione realized that she was still trying to convince herself and only needed to give a little push.
"You'll always have me," Hermione smiled back, right before kissing her on the lips.
After she broke the kiss, she found Bellatrix had lain a gentle hand on her cheek. "I'd better," Bellatrix told her with a smirk.
Hermione felt like a great weight had fallen off her shoulders. After months of trying to save her from a dire fate, an ugly future, she had finally done it. Where first she had set out to keep an unexpected friend from walking down a path leading to self-destruction, Hermione had now convinced Bellatrix to avoid the path altogether. Better yet, Trix would be in her future too now. There would be a future which the two of them would forge... together.
Hermione felt happier than she had ever been since the end of war. And before. The mere idea of having Trix in her life, with her, building something with her. So many possibilities.
"Trix," Hermione whispered. "You… you make me feel my life is worth living again."
For a moment, the curly-haired witch seemed shocked and at a loss for words. An incredulous stare soon morphed into a cheeky and somewhat sultry grin. "Well," said Bellatrix. "I suppose we should start looking for a secure place to set up camp. No point in all of this if we both get eaten by a murder-unicorn."
"It would at that," said Hermione as she pushed herself forward through the heavy underbrush. By now, there's been a steady upwards slope. Hopefully, they would be able to find a better spot on the high ground, where they could be above the treeline to have a good vantage point while they hid their tent with magic.
After all, especially after what just happened, Hermione was very much in the mood to make love again. Preferably undisturbed by murder-unicorns, as Trix had put it.
The overgrowth appeared to be clearing up after a more steeper climb, though the surface of the rocky hills were still very much covered with vines. So much so, that Hermione almost missed it. But when she saw it, she paused after stopping dead in her tracks. Hermione simply stared in disbelief. Bellatrix first gave her a questioning look, until she followed her gaze and let out a gasp. "Hermie. Tell me you see that."
"I see it," Hermione swallowed hard.
Though it was almost completely obscured by encroaching vines, Hermione could still make out an obviously carved out stone stairway.