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Those Guilded Chains We Wear

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Heyah! Welcome to the story. Since this is probably my first and only chance to talk about stuff, you will find a lot of semi-useless sentences following before the story begins. But it was hard work and I'm just taking that privilege for myself now, because I'm the author and have aaaall the power in the world! (Yeah, I wish.)

The Idea:
I got the ideas for this in the summer of 2011, when the great and epic Harry Potter DH Part 2 came into the cinemas and I watched a double feature with the first Part. I was sitting there going 'Hey, wait a sec' at one point and went into the film a second time to prove my theory correct (so yeah, I actually spent money on this fic! Somewhat.) You will find a few reoccuring themes like the use of Polyjuice Potion and search for youth, but I promise, the basic story was all born in one night on July '11. Self-esteem issues threw some hurdles at me on the way, which is why we come to...

The Dedication:
This story is dedicated to the lovely artist and wonderful human being Chloé C., who was unknowingly a huge inspiration for me to always get back to this. Her love for the fine arts and life had me often reminded off my own love for the art of the written word and back I was, typing the day away. I actually wanted to finish this first before starting to post, but as a birthday gift to her this is up sooner. Oh, yeah: Happy Birthday, Chloé! Do yourself a favor and go look up her online-comic 'Go Get A Roomie' if you love humor and pretty ladies and great art!

The Story:
Art! That's my cue, Kurai, so thank you, self. (You're welcome.) First, this one is huge. It's way past 100.000 words already and still going. There are great Bellamione stories out there, but god help me if I don't like them big, large and detailed. This is where the selection gets a bit slimmer, so I decided to throw my own work on the market, hopefully pleasing some people who love long stories as much as I do. There are also world literature references, because I just swing that way, but please bear with me. It is mostly written from Hermione's POV, with only a handful scenes from Bella's. I love working with the canon and not against it, so this begins right at the scene where the last movies left of (yes, I did read the books, thanks for asking) and is, I hope, about 90-96% canon. Without enough time to read the whole series again, I abused the Harry Potter Wiki a lot to find out details, so thanks everyone who contributed there. Some research wasn't so nice, which leads me to...

The Warnings:
So, I rate this M even though it might just be a light or hard R. I'm a bit shaky on the rating details, so better safe than sorry. There's sexual content between two grown women and a nice amount of violence as well ('cause we all love us some violence, don't we?). There's also a Hermione-Ron warning, because you will have to suffer through a bit of hetero time before the lady loving. (Dear god, that makes me sound so disparaging. Nothing against heteros, really. But let's be honest, we all know what we come for, when we read 'Hermione', 'Bella' and 'Romance' in one reference, don't we? Eh?) Also, I'm German. (I can already hear you screaming "DEAR GOD, NO!") It means my English will be a bit (lot) shaky at times, so sorry for that, I'm trying my best. It's mostly written in American English, with a bit of British whenever they are talking, so don't be confused.

The Disclaimer:
Everything that doesn't belong to me, doesn't belong to me. Obviously. Everything that does belong to me, though, belongs to me. Still following? Great. I don't own any money from this, quite the other way around, as I spent a lot of dough on delivered food, just so I could get more writing done. Which means I'm actually getting negative money from it. (This is why I fail at math.)

Okay, good, I'm done blabbering. I hope you have fun with the story and if you would leave a small note or critic as a review, I'm as thankful for any kind of feedback as any author.

Those Gilded Chains We Wear

1. The First Part of the Tragedy

"For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation." - Rainer Maria Rilke, Letter Seven

It was over.

The war was won.

They stood on the bridge, exhausted, tired but happy, yet the feeling of victory was soured by the memory of the losses they had suffered. Every single dead wizard, witch and creature on their side was a tragedy they hadn't been able to prevent. Bruises and cuts marred their bodies, but they would have gladly suffered broken bones and losses of limbs if only it brought back each of their lost loved ones.

"I can't believe it's done," Ron mumbled as if far away, his hand warm and clammy in Hermione's .

"But it is. He's gone. We won." Harry's, in her other hand, was colder and dry from all the dust that clung to his skin. "We can go back to our lives. Everyone is safe now."

It still was so unreal. And yet the truth.

It was over.

Hermione felt a smile rise on her face, full of thankful relaxation, like the sudden drooping of shoulders coupled with a deep sigh after a hard overexertion. Months of stress and terror still clung like the darkest shadows to her self, but the sun was rising and chasing them away. Slowly, slowly, and she was confident it would only stay a distant memory in the future.

But then her eyes skirted over the hills encasing Hogwarts, the ones where hundreds of Death Eaters had just stood mere hours before. Now the hills were empty... almost.

She swallowed. Her chest clenched tightly. The skin of her right hand, tightly held in the redhead's, itched. She resisted the urge to snatch it away.

"Guys... I have to tell you something."

"Sure," Ron, now with blooming happiness at their victory, turned slightly to her and squeezed her hand. That hand. "Let's go inside and join the others-.."

"No." Hermione felt her throat close up, but she stayed strong. Sucking a cleansing breath into her constricted ribcage, she added, "please... just listen. I might have done something stupid, but I - I really thought it would help..."

It was Harry this time who squeezed her hand. He looked at her caringly behind his glasses, somehow seeming wise beyond his years. No wonder, after all he had endured in his life.

"All right, don't worry. I'm sure you haven't done anything wrong... just out with it." He smiled and she felt herself slightly reassured. Considering that he had just moments before destroyed the most powerful wand ever created in a split-second decision, the Boy Who Lived (Twice) was surprisingly at ease.

"Good." The young witch swallowed, closing her eyes for a second. "Good."

She looked back at the hills, the morning light making them seem so... peaceful. Hermione still remembered the endless black mass of enemies covering every square inch like a blanket of manifested death. Now a light breeze was causing the lush grass to sway back and forth with no care in the world. There was no point in delaying this further, so she let go of their hands and crossed her arms, taking two steps to stand in front of them.

Deep breath, deep breath. Then Hermione raised her chin again to look at them both. Through them.

"She came to me during the waiting."

She was alone, sitting on the nearly destroyed grand staircase and turning her stolen wand over and over again in her hands. But she cared little about it, her thoughts were occupied. Ron was grieving over poor Fred... and she had decided to give the whole family some space. It was not her place to be there right now, even though she, too, was mourning his death and those of their other friends. Harry was in the tower, using the Pensieve. So she had come here, desperately needing a solitary moment of calm.

That's where she found her.

The whisper seemed to be everywhere, but Hermione was instantly alert. "Mudblood," it murmured all around her in a sing-song voice, "Mudblood."

The young woman jumped up, brandished her wand and tried to find the origin of the dark, hushed tone teasing her. Cold sweat prickled at her back and she knew she was in for it if the owner of the voice found her here alone, unprotected.

"Show yourself. I know you are here," Hermione shouted, trying to make her own words appear firm and strong, despite the fact that she was quivering inside. A loud cackle filled the air and the scar on her arm seemed to burn as if greeting an old, painful memory.

"Ah, look at this... the filthy girl trying to act all brave. How very cute and pathetic." Another, more subdued laugh and then she appeared behind a battered pillar, black smoke still trailing around her. Hermione's insides were completely frozen the second she laid her eyes on the woman, but her body reacted without her mind's consent, throwing a hex that way without second thought.

The Death Eater silently threw it aside almost offhandedly. Despite her actual wand in the younger witch's grasp, Bellatrix was leagues ahead of her in battle prowess, easily able to beat her with a new or stolen wand. Hermione tried not to give into her instinct to run as fast and hard as she could - as far away as her feet could carry.

"Now, that's not a nice welcome, is it?" Bellatrix clucked her tongue in reproach, lazily swaying forward. Her wand tipped against her jaw bone with every step. "Especially since I came bearing an offer. Have your dirty Muggle parents not taught you any respect, girly?"

"What do you want, Lestrange?" the brunette hissed, weapon trained on her foe. Bellatrix smiled at her, almost amused at her antics. As long as the other woman was talking, Hermione had a chance that someone would come and find her.

"Sadly, you weren't my first choice for a chat," she began, as if making small-talk. Her lips caressed every word carefully. "But my little traitor niece went down during the first wave. A pity. So I had to make do with you as my back-up plan."

The dark witch was still walking, now from side to side along an unseen radius around the young woman. Her arrogant gaze never left the brunette, making her feel like prey that would be jumped and dragged to the ground at any moment. With harsh teeth clamping down on her windpipe or ripping open her neck. Hermione tried not to shudder at this. 'She wants you to be fearful, don't give in to her. Stay strong.'

"You see, one could say I'm an... opportunist. A survivor. I may be mad as a hatter, but I'm far from stupid and I see quite clearly how very downhill our cause is going right now. So I want an out... and a chance to get back the 15 years I wasted away in that rotten shamble called Azkaban."

Hermione couldn't help it. She laughed. What Bellatrix had said seemed so absurd, so completely unlikely, that it had to be a fake. And a bad one on top. The most loyal Death Eater in the history of the wars and here she was, wanting an 'out'. It was downright ridiculous.

Not happy about the reaction, the dark witch's face contorted, but Hermione was too amused to take her anger serious. Even if she killed her here and now, the brunette would die with a smile on her face.

"Nice try."

"It's not a 'try', mudblood," the other snapped back. "I am as serious as I'm capable of. There is something I want that will give me these years back and in return for getting it...," the next words seemed as if she had to drag them out syllable for syllable while fighting against her own flesh, "I will not.. join the next attack. I will stay behind... on the hills."

Bellatrix hissed and growled, but her agitation didn't seem to be directed at the girl. Her walk had become irritated, her eyes seeming far away before flitting left and right. It took her a considerate amount of effort to get herself back under control, but she was still pacing. "Think about it. You're supposed to be the smart one, so act like it. I'm the very best duellist you will find in the Wizarding World, second to no one but my Lord, and my involvement will cost many lives. Can you say no to that, Granger?"

Her name hit her like slap and she was reminded of the atrocious strength of charisma this witch could possess if she wanted to. There was no point in denying that this woman's gaze could capture you like a helpless deer, making you quiver in your skin with just one look. While Azkaban had clawed at her for years, now, months after being freed, it was no lie to say that she was still of great, unique beauty, even if it was a dark and twisted one.

But I'm Hermione Granger, aren't I? Hermione thought, trying to bolster her courage. She had received more Outstandings in her years than any other student, surprising both teachers and strangers with her intelligence. That lunatic may be 'the' Bellatrix Lestrange, one of a kind and a force of nature in both her talent and psychotic mind, but Hermione wouldn't be thrown down so easily. She was ready to raise her chin in defiance, trying to pry more out of her enemy...

But a sound of crunching stone and dirt interrupted them.

It was here that the young woman realized how feeble her attempt at bolstering herself was. The echo of the noice had not quite resonated in theirs ears when Bellatrix smoothly turned on her heel, already pointing her wand and wordlessly shooting a bright blue spell, while Hermione was still trying to come to grips with what was going on. There was the subdued sound of the spell hitting with a muffled 'thud' and then the brunette had finally turned enough to see a surprised third or fourth year crumble down to the ground unconsciously.

So quick. So effortless. Cold fear had her shivering in horror at how she could have even imagined for one moment to be up to par with this woman. This monster.

Hermione's throat was as dry as the dusty ground around her and she had to swallow a few times before forcing herself to speak. The Death Eater was inspecting her nails with boredom, twirling the tip of the wooden stick through a few strands of her thick, curly hair.

"Y-You could have killed her," Hermione found herself saying in astonishment.

"Of course. Easily." She snorted. "But it seems you coddled sissies have certain issues with killing, so I guess it would not be the best way to ensure your willingness to negotiate, wouldn't it?" Her dark gaze snapped up to the brunette and the girl clenched her fist around her own, Bellatrix's, wand. "So? How about it? We don't have all day, you know."

It was... stupid. She shouldn't even consider it. But she had just seen Fred's lifeless body moments ago, Tonks and Lupin gone forever right next to him. She had seen so many students, young and older, lying in the floors and knowing they would not stand up again. And how everyone was grieving so deeply over everyone lost to their cause. How she was grieving. 'She will kill so many, without empathy, without care... I could stop that. I could prevent that.'

"I want you to swear by the Unbreakable Vow. I don't accept anything else." Hermione was thinking furiously, could this work? Would she do this? It was the best chance they had, wasn't it? Her mind was already trying to come up with the best phrasing for the spell, to make sure she got the lion share of this deal. A deal with a Death Eater. Their 'poster girl'. Bellatrix Lestrange.

'God, she killed Sirius... she drove Neville's parents mad. She's a murderer, what am I thinking?' She was making sure to cut the most dangerous woman's claws. If she could only get her to make that Unbreakable Vow...

"I suspected it would come down to this. Pity. Well, if you insist on it, which I'm sure you will incessantly..." The other woman snapped her fingers and another Death Eater appeared from behind the pillars. Hermione feared an incoming trap or one snapping shut while she already was in it, but the young man had the glazed eyes and shuffling walk of someone not quite there.

'Imperius', her mind whispered.

"Dear Cory here will make sure the Vow can be made and that... 'I' am there for the next fight so that no one gets suspicious. You don't want my Lord suspicious, believe me. Now, if you could kindly hand over the Polyjuice Potion you made to make sure little, old me could rob my treasury in Gringott's in peace?" She thrust her free hand forward, palm facing up. Her fingers wiggled impatiently. "Get to it, Granger. Some people say I'm a bit... impatient."

Bellatrix mustered her with raised eyebrows and Hermione carefully pushed her hand down into the magic bag. "I'm sure you can offer me more than your absence," the younger witch ventured carefully, knowing she was walking on thin ice. Not surprisingly, Bellatrix scowled.

"Fine. I can make sure a group of Death Eaters will try to get inside through the secret pathway on the northern cliff wall."

Hermione furrowed her brows, confused. "But... there is no secret pathway on the- " she stopped when an evil grin bloomed on blood red lips. "Oh." The northern cliff wall would be a big obstacle. Even experienced mages could fall to their deaths when not stepping correctly or rushing too much. Many of them would be killed just trying to find a non-existing door.

Chewing on the inside of her cheek, she made a split-second decision. Too many lives were at stake and this was war, she couldn't have any qualms about sending Voldemort's goons to their demise.

"All right. Here." There was no harm in giving it to her. Hermione threw over the bottle with the potion, watching how her enemy deftly caught it in her free hand, only to throw it to the imperiused young man.

"Cory, once the Vows are made, you will drink the potion and impersonate me. You will send a group of Death Eaters to the location we just talked about. You will act like me and speak like me, but not tell anyone what happened here. And you will serve your master well." Bellatrix didn't seem happy with her orders and Hermione couldn't wrap her head around why she would want to betray her Lord now, of all times.

"Yes, Mistress," he replied as if talking to himself. The rag-thin man had to be in his mid-twenties, with a pale, east-european heritage and cruel lines around his broad mouth. He seemed like the typical follower of the Dark Lord, with a heedless thirst for power and an abundance of destructiveness. Hermione doubted anyone would miss him.

At least, she tried to tell herself that.

Bellatrix came closer, stretching her hand forward with a haughty backwards throw of her head. Hermione hesitated still. "Why are you doing this? Why do you need my help?"

"Because I obviously can't get what I want and you can. It's as easy as that. And then I'll be out of your bushy hair."

"Where is it hidden?"

The pure-blood came closer, inching the girl back with a dark look on her face and annoyance pouring out of her every pore. "Look, Mudblood, you may think you are oh so clever in leading our sweet chat. But the truth is: I'm indulging you. I gave you every leeway you need to accept my offer. So this is your last chance - take my hand and get on with it, or this is over and for naught. And I swear, deary, if you back out now I will make sure to hunt down each and every last of your little muddy, traitorous friends, do you understand me?"

Hermione was shocked and appalled, but by now, did she have any other chance but to accept? She didn't care about her own life so much in this... but these of her friends? Her not-by-blood family? She couldn't risk it, neither them nor any other student or teacher loosing their life and loved ones to this madwoman.

So she reached forward and slapped her palm into the offered one. Her body revolted at the action of touching a Death Eater, but Hermione overruled it with an iron will. She made sure Bellatrix could see her distaste, her hate and her loathing all clearly reflected in her face, but those long, slender fingers only clasped her own to the point that it was nearly painful. She was assaulted by a relentless gaze, nearly black eyes digging holes and wounds into her opposition.

Hermione had trouble getting enough air into her lungs, when Bellatrix spoke once again. "Two vows. One for making sure I'm holding up my part, one to make sure you will. Clear?"

She nodded, trying to keep the shake of her muscles at bay.

"Cory, your turn."

He stepped forward in a trance, tipping his wand onto their entwined appendages. A glowing band of light sneaked around their skin.

Bellatrix raised a black eyebrow in waiting and Hermione opened her mouth to croak out, "Will you not join Voldemort, his followers or his cause from this moment on ever again?"

The pale hand twitched so violently, the brunette was almost sure the dark witch would break their hold. While Bellatrix's nostrils flared and her gaze burned so harshly, Hermione was ready to raise her wand at any moment's notice, but then the other woman stretched her lips with pure distaste into a thin line.

"I will," she hissed between clenched, rotten teeth and the magical band pulsed brighter.

Sweat made Hermione's clothing cling to her in a very uncomfortable way. But she was already dirty, wounded and sore, so it made no difference to her appearance. The girl opened up her second condition. "Will you not torture anyone with the Cruciatus Curse or kill in anything but self-defense from now on ever again?"

She was ready to be ripped apart by the Death Eater's rage, which she could feel in the now so tightly clenched hand around hers that it hurt. The dark witch was breathing raggedly, red lips pressed together so tightly they were bloodless.

"I. will." Bellatrix surprised her again, but the darkness in her voice had her nearly burst into tears out of fear. The brighter glow of the spell had her skin shimmer like cold, hard porcelain.

Hermione tried to wet her lips, but she had no saliva left. 'She will kill me, I'm sure of it. Or make someone else do it, Death Eater or not.' Proud of it one moment, now she was just frustrated with her own brightness, knowing that she was making herself a personal nemesis of the worst possible person she could have chosen. Her third condition had originally been something else, but now she had no other choice.

"Will you be aware that if I'm killed, so will you?"

The girl didn't know if it would work, if the Unbreakable Vow even accepted such a clause, but even if it was just a small chance, Bellatrix would be too careful to try anything on the off chance that it did, indeed, cause her to die as well. Surprisingly, Hermione could hear her snort with amusement. 'Clever,' her lightless gaze seemed to say, 'but this will bite you in the ass'. Or maybe it was just her own mind making her aware of the stupidity she was enacting here.

Despite her reaction, it took Bellatrix a few moments to reply. The painful grip loosened and Hermione suspected she would let go, running back to her beloved Lord and making their life a living hell in the next hours, but...

"I will."

The band glowed, brightly, then cut into both their skins. Several soft scars formed from it for a second, then it was gone. The deal was sealed. Bellatrix Lestrange was no longer a threat to the world. Hermione felt so faint, she nearly wanted to crumble to the floor in the sudden shock that followed. Was this real? She had done it. She was so relieved she wanted to weep.

"Cory, again."

But it wasn't over, was it? Another touch of the wand on their still connected hands and Bellatrix lost no time to lay down her own conditions for this deal. Hermione's head reared as she remembered that three conditions were needed to make the Vow effective. 'I didn't consider this', she wanted to shout, to drag back her arm and get away from this deal. But Bellatrix was already bound to her word, her life on the line, how could she run away now where the hateful Death Eater couldn't?

'You're a Griffyndor. Be brave. Just be brave.'

"Will you help me get what I want?" Despite her befuddled state, Hermione lowered her eyes at that statement. The way it was worded could mean anything and was easy to exploit, there was no way she would do the Death Eater's dirty deeds. Bellatrix rolled her own pupils, then snapped again, "Will you help me get something from inside the Ministry of Magic?"

"I will," Hermione whispered, satisfied with the rephrasing. 'The Ministry of Magic, eh?' She could only wonder. Still caught in her thoughts of what the heck someone like Bellatrix could want from this place that she couldn't get on her own, she was ripped out by the next words.

"Will you present me and our offer to everyone important gathered here once this is over and do your best to keep me safe and out of Azkaban?"

Fine. Good enough. She could deal with this, there was no reason why she shouldn't. Azkaban would have been a wonderful place to send the dark witch until only her bones were left to rot in the prison cell, but maybe another prison could be created, for her and her only. Hermione set her jaw, accepting.

"I will."

She had not quite ended her last consonant, when Bellatrix shot her last condition at her like a challenge.

"Will you be aware that if I'm killed, so will you?"

Hermione froze.

Of course it came back to bite her in the ass. This was Bellatrix's best bet to make sure she was completely safe, that no trial would sentence her to death. It would make sure no friend of the Order would accidentally let loose a killing curse in her direction after Hermione had told them what she had done. No, they would have to protect her even if they didn't want to loose one of the Golden Trio as well.

'You ruthless, cruel devil,' Hermione wanted to throw into her face, but she held her tongue and glared, causing the other woman to give her a wide grin that showed off rotten teeth. Next to her personality, it was the only other prominent ugly thing on the dark witch's appearance and it caused the brunette to feel nauseous with regret at agreeing to this horrible pact between them.

Because that's what this really was... a devil's pact. A pact with Satan him-... or herself. The brunette felt as if she could have as well presented Harry to Voldemort myself, it would have been not a much bigger betrayal than what she did now. Ensuring that the murderer of Sirius, Fred, Tonks and Lupin and so many others, the torturer of endless innocents, would get away scot-free.

'I am so, so sorry, everyone.' She would pay this price to keep everyone else save. She couldn't run. She had forced Voldemort's right hand into a corner and underestimated her ability to twist herself out of this, dragging her down with her.

"I... I will," Hermione gasped out, not quite sure if she was ashamed or not at the tear that slipped down her cheek. It sealed away her freedom. Not able to hold the cruel gaze anymore, Hermione watched as the second Unbreakable Vow took on its last form, making another impeccable scar line right over the first one before vanishing as well.

They broke apart wordlessly. Hermione didn't know or remember what she did, because she was so immersed in her own thoughts which cruised around and around in her head. Asking herself 'Why' endlessly. Distantly, through the thick wool that had filled her head, she heard the sounds of Cory drinking his potion as told and then vanishing to fulfill his duty.

"Well, it was fun. Not. I will wait on the hills for you, dirty girly, so make sure to come. I guess - your life depends on it." The loud cackle filled her ears like thousands of tiny glass shards and the brunette numbly sat herself back down on the stairs to hide her teary face behind her knees. That... sadistic creature's swirling smoke circled mockingly around her and Hermione made herself smaller to escape it.

When Ron found her crying softly, the enemy hadn't been gone for long. She was thankful the ginger boy thought she was sad because of all those they had lost. She was glad he made no mention of it until Harry came back to them.

Silence.

Hermione didn't glance up from the ground, her left hand covering her right to both hide the invisible evidence of the truth of her retelling and to feel the rough skin dig into her palm. The sun's light warmed her neck, but brought her no comfort. I did the right thing. Or did I?

The sound of footsteps caught her attention and she chanced a look, watching how Harry walked close to a piece of leftover balustrade, placing his arms on it and just... observing the distance. The wind swept through his unruly hair, but the look in his face gave nothing away.

Ron on the other hand, mirrored her stance. He would not look at her.

She sighed, let her head fall back into her neck and then back down. With no one saying anything, the void between them became bigger and bigger. Hermione could still remember his kiss, how happy they had been in that moment to be both alive and well and one step ahead again. They loved each other, didn't they? He would understand. Please, please let him understand. She had done this for him, too.

"Ron... " she began carefully, pleadingly.

He held up a hand, stopping her. Nodding, but not meeting her eyes. "I get it. I get why you did it. I do, I really-... but... it's her. Bellatrix Lestrange. She tricked you, I'm sure of it." Rubbing his fingers across his eyelids, he breathed deeply, clearly upset with the situation. And it was no wonder that he was - who wouldn't.

"Look, I... I need a moment here." He licked his lips and dragged his hands through the ginger on his head, so she nodded. Feeling kind of awkward, Hermione turned half away from him, also glancing into the distance.

She would have to go see the dark witch soon, but she would take these few minutes. Even if it was selfish, the Vow would certainly give her a bit leeway before meeting up with Bellatrix, considering that she didn't plan to put telling the others off forever.

Her chest still hurt. When opening up to them, she had expected her friends to be shocked by this, but not getting any kind of solid reaction felt like being suspended in limbo. What would it mean to their friendship that she was bound to the Death... ex-Death Eater? Would Ron still be able to love her when every time he held her hand he would be reminded of the Vow, the curse, binding her to that woman? Someone who basically represented everything bad that had happened in the last thirty years. But what was much more important than their fledgling relationship was the question of their friendship.

Surprisingly, Hermione realized she could and would deal with it if Ron decided to break it up right now. What she wouldn't be able to deal with was loosing them completely. It had already hurt to much to see Ron walk away from both her and Harry for the first time, but to experience it again, without the influence of the Horcrux, would be ten times worse.

What did that imply? What did that mean for their relationship if Hermione was fine with loosing their love to this, but not their friendship? She felt frustrating doubt crawl up in her spine at that dilemma, wondering if she really cared about the youngest Weasley son as much as she had thought or if she had just told herself so. Clenching her teeth, she grew angry at herself and the situation... wasn't there already enough on her plate?

"Hermione?"

The witch whirled around, nearly jumping back from Harry, who was standing right behind her. She expected the worst. The Boy Who Lived, twice now, was the one who had been affected the most by the dark witch's evil deeds, right next to Neville. If he decided to turn his back to her, then she wouldn't be surprised, probably not even hurt, as he had every right to be angry at her for saving the female Lestrange's life in a roundabout way.

But he didn't seem angry. Calm and weary he watched her turn, even sporting a small, tired smile when he saw her helpless facial expression. He could probably read the apology written on her very skin.

"I understand. I'm not happy with it... but I'm sure your actions saved a lot of people today. You wanted to keep them safe and sacrificed parts of yourself to it." He shrugged slightly. "I was the one who willingly went into the woods to die today, despite all my hate for Voldemort. I at least should get why you did it." Another wry smile and then she couldn't see him anymore, because she was hugging him close.

Hermione felt so incredible thankful. Her inner pain eased when she felt him hugging her back without restraint, without blaming her for anything. When they parted, she was ably to return his smile while wiping away a few tears with her sleeve.

"But she killed Sirius... Dobby... " she couldn't help but say.

Harry surprised her by showing a slight, crooked grin, rubbing the now totally ordinary scar on his forehead. "Yeah... and I won't forgive her for that or anything else. But I can live with it, because I know they are happy where they all are. And I know that I'm not alone, even if I can't see them." He paused, sadly glancing back to Ron, who was slowly pacing a few feet away from them both. "Dumbledore told me not to feel sorry for the dead, but for the living. I will heed that."

Hermione, deeply glad they had talked about this, also looked at Ron with mixed feelings. "He's upset. I understand that, but..."

"But you're scared he can't deal with it. Don't worry, he will... once he comes to the same conclusion as me. You did it to help, that's all. It's the important thing." The young man squeezed her shoulder and stayed with her until their distraught friend noticed they were waiting for him.

Shuffling closer to them both, Ron rubbed his neck in slight embarrassment and silently questioned Harry with his gaze, before looking at Hermione.

"I'm... sure you meant well, 'mione. Sorry... for being a jerk. You know. Again." They shared a wry smile at that. "It will take a while... well... for me to get used to it. If that's okay. Uhm."

"It's fine, Ron," Hermione answered, slightly saddened that he couldn't fully trust her with that decision, but glad nonetheless that he was still her friend. And she was no one to point the finger, who knew how she might have reacted if one of them both had done what she had decided to do. "But I really should get up there now. Meet her and all."

There was an uncomfortable pause as everyone imagined how that might go. The brunette felt a bit faint at what was to come, despite the fact of several safety measures in place. She was protected and her friends were too, but that didn't erase what cruelty Bellatrix herself had still up her sleeve even without throwing Crucio left and right.

"We'll come with you."

"Yeah, we'll... wait, what?" Ron squeaked, blinking at his best friend. Harry looked at him imploringly, raising his eyebrows. So the redhead cleared his throat and added, at least two octaves higher, "uh, sure, yeah. Who, eh, wouldn't want to meet the most famous Death Eater. Great, really." He weakly pumped a fist into the air, looking miserable.

Hermione only shook her head with an affectionate sigh at his weird antics. Well, no reason to put this off any longer then. Here goes nothing. She had brought this on herself and now it was time to deal with it. However much it scared her. She can't really hurt you, don't forget that.

"No. Thank you, both of you, but.. I'd rather like to do this alone. She can't hurt me now and anyway.. it would be much better if you... prepared the rest of the teachers for this." The young witch swallowed, glancing at the damaged structure of the school she loved. It was painful to see the beautiful architecture broken and ripped apart like a cardboard house, with all the royal arcs, towers and high walls turned into rubble. It was as if she saw a good friend struck down, hurt.

She didn't look forward to meeting the school members with Bellatrix Lestrange in tow. It was better if Professor McGonagall and the Order members met her at a more quiet place, away from prying eyes and hurtful accusations. Hermione didn't know how to react once Neville found out about this.

I saved the woman that ruined his parents and childhood. How can he ever look at me again without disgust?

Think about this later. There is work to do.

Squaring her shoulders, she saw her friends exchange a look and then nod, with Ron not hiding the obvious relief on his face now that he didn't have to meet the Death Eater upfront.

"We'll tell them. Wait outside on the schoolyard once you come back, okay?" Despite his words of forgiveness and encouragement, even Harry now seemed reluctant to actually see the woman he hated most. Good intentions were all well and dandy, but it was a long road to accept what Dumbledore had told him about feeling sorry for the living and not the dead. Hermione wondered if he would be able to keep his wand to himself and not spew out random hexes and curses at the dark witch in hate and anger... not that she wouldn't deserve it.

"You really think you'll be okay?" the redhead carefully asked despite his fear and she smiled a brave smile at him that was only half truthful.

"Yeah. Don't worry about me... I'll be fine. I guess I can handle her now. Just make sure the news about this isn't screamed across all of the Great Hall... I don't think I can deal with the backlash right now." The young witch grimaced at the thought, imagining all their dirt- and blood-covered friends and fellow students looking at her with anger, not hiding their feelings of betrayal. No, that was definitely nothing she wanted to experience today on top of everything else that had happened.

Hermione hugged the boys goodbye for the moment, even though she would see them again in at least half an hour, but she felt stronger with the support they conveyed like that.

Time to face the music.

It wasn't easy to spot the dark witch.

Bellatrix stood at the point where the rolling grass turned into the underbrush of the edge of the wood and her dark clothing made it hard to distinguish between her and the dark gaps between the tree trunks. Once Hermione finally saw her standing up there with crossed arms, it was easy to not miss her again. The almost tangible aura of arrogance and self-assuredness took care of that.

Hermione went up the hill without haste. Still a good distance away, Bellatrix tracked her movements with an obvious kind of disinterest and so the younger woman caught a glimpse at the exhausted lines in the dark witch's face, the redness of her eyes and the slightly slumped shoulders. She looked, as the Gryffindor believed, exactly like someone who had spent several days without sleep and only worry and unrest as company. Maybe it hadn't been as easy for the Death Eater to stay behind and away from Voldemort as she had made Hermione believe.

I still can't believe she changed sides at the last moments. What made you do that, Bellatrix? Was it just a spur-of-the-moment decision or have you been pondering about it for a while? Just what's going on in your head?

Once she was close enough though, Bellatrix raised her chin in a haughty way and the fatigue seemed to vanish. There was even a slightly disturbing grin on her face when she watched the brunette draw closer warily.

"Look'it that," she sing-songed, eyeing Hermione up and down as if she were an especially curious specimen of the human race, "you didn't bring me some playthings? No Baby Potty and his ginger doormat? Huh, I can never keep his rabbit family apart - it's tragic."

Hermione glared at her, not deeming those words with an answer or a comment. She hadn't forgotten the terror this woman had made her go through, still remembering the fear and terror she had suffered at the hands of the Death Eater. The scar on her arm proved that she would never be able to forget it either.

"What, no Hello for an old friend? I'm hurt, deeply," Bellatrix went on, meaning no word of it. Raising her left arm, the raven haired woman took a glance at the pale skin. She had dragged back her sleeve and uncovered her forearm, which showed an uneven scar... but no Death Eater mark. The tattoo with the skull and snake had probably been closely connected to Voldemort to vanish after his death like this. His final death. It caused Hermione to wonder if the Dark Mark had been the reason his followers had been so sure he would come back to them. The scars had her curious as well, but she was too far away to see any details.

The way in which Bellatrix's dark gaze eyed the ink-free skin was free of all obvious emotion. "Seems like you managed to save your sorry hides for once. I almost regretted our deal when the little faker did his death number."

"It would have been your loss," Hermione interjected. "Vow is vow."

"And rules are rules. Cut the honorable crap, mudblood, I know what I dragged myself into." Her piercing eyes snapped up to the brunette, who had to fight down the urge to squirm. It only would have amused the eldest Black. "Now then, are we ready for our great opening number? I'm sure there are some people who'd be very happy to see me." Bellatrix chuckled darkly, watching as the younger one's face fell at the reminder.

"Don't remind me.." the brunette muttered, clutching the wand tighter between her fingers. She could see Bellatrix's nearly black eyes linger greedily on the piece of wood, but the older witch was smart enough not to make a sudden move to take it back. Considering they would soon step in front of the Order members, or at least, what was left of it, there was a very good chance the wand would be taken away anyway.

"You better take good care of that, Mudblood. Bad enough to have your dirty hands touching it..."

Hermione snorted, turning halfway back to the castle. Don't worry, it's just as durable as its master. Not that she was in the mood to openly give such a twisted compliment, but considering that the highest ranked of Voldemort's followers was standing here alive and unharmed told of a certain survivability. The young woman wondered how well Lestrange would fare in the coming days and weeks... and also, with a sudden dread, if they would really keep the sought after criminal out of Azkaban to protect her life.

The thought of Azkaban reminded Hermione of the other Death Eaters and mark-less followers who had fled after Voldemort's demise. Considering the masses she had seen during the battle, it was highly possible not even a quarter had found death or injury inside Hogwarts, so where had they gone? Back into hiding? Remembering several reports of the aftermath of the First Wizarding War, she suspected the work of the Ministry and the Order was not even remotely done. They had many restless, dangerous weeks ahead hunting down the Dark Lord's supporters, especially with the losses they had already fared.

Not wanting to dwell on such thoughts any longer, not so close after the victory, Hermione squared her shoulders and nodded her chin at the bridge. The dark witch's presence was already disrupting her concentration uncomfortably and it wouldn't do to stay unfocused next to such a dangerous individual, even if certain protections were in place.

"Come on. No point in further delaying this."

"Oh, none indeed," Bellatrix husked in her usual childish tone, "but maybe you enjoy my presence so much you would like to stay and have another little chit chat, hm?"

"Don't count on it," the younger one snapped back bitterly and turned with wary precaution to begin the walk back. A rustling of a dress told her of her companion's following.

No, she would never enjoy the presence of a crazy, ruthless murderer... and torturer. Hermione remembered all to well: This was the woman who had managed to make her more helpless and weak than anyone or anything ever before in her life. There were still times when she woke up from nightmares, as her mind had not even gotten the chance to process her torture with everything happening so fast after their encounter at Malfoy Manor. There had been no chance for rest, no moment to take a break, even at Shell Cottage they all had been high strung. The horrible scar on her forearm was still red and angry, a constant reminder of what Bellatrix had done to her without any qualm. The brunette had not dared to use the precious little Dittany she owned on such a superficial wound... but with every time she found herself close to tears at night in her bed, the red letters glaring in the moonlight, she wished she had done so.

Now Hermione would wear the derogatory scar until the day she died.

Mudblood.

God, how she hated this woman.

But I saved many by binding myself to her like this. I know I did. She had to tell herself that all the time, so she wouldn't lose her sanity over protecting something so vile. If saving Bellatrix had been a mistake, she wouldn't know how to ever again look into the eyes of all those who had lost someone to the Dark Lord's cause tonight and the years before.

Don't think about it now, just don't think about it.

But Hermione had always been the one with a mind that wouldn't shut up, never had needed to, because its owner had reveled in solving puzzles and acquiring knowledge so she could share it with the world (or, at least, her often clueless friends). How ironic that what she believed was her best quality was now the one she wanted to curse. More bleak scenarios entered her thoughts, giving her a hard time to keep her face straight and her senses sharp, so she wouldn't be surprised if Bellatrix tried anything funny.

But the older woman was busy with skipping after Hermione when she chanced a quick glance back, humming a children's tune in that nerve-wracking high tone and seemingly oblivious to the enemy walking ahead of her.

Scowling, the brunette turned back around and fixed her glare on the bridge. How fitting that the sadist was gleefully looking forward to presenting herself to the Order, knowing that no one would be able to touch her out of fear that the Golden Trio's witch might come to harm. It was the ultimate insult to the light side.

Stop thinking. Just stop.

But Bellatrix began her annoying song anew and the young witch wondered if it was a good idea to rid the world of both her humiliation and the Death Eater by simply throwing herself off the bridge her feet were touching now. The possibility was admittedly tempting.

And the very second they stood in front of the severely damaged Hogwarts and at least a dozen people streamed onto the schoolyard with accusing, unbelieving eyes, Hermione wished she had listened to herself and given in to the suicidal temptation.

Well, as you can see, those two have a long road ahead of them. The title of the chapter is the subtitle to the well-known german work Faust I by J.W. Goethe, which tells the story of the scholar Faust, who enters into a demonic pact with Mephistopheles. Amusingly, it is Faust who demands to have the contract, playing right into the hands of the more cheeky and less evil devil. It reminded me a lot of these first scenes. The work Faust I hints a lot at the human weaknesses and other big topics, is chock full of references and is very well-written, so I can only advice you to take a look at it. (Boy, will you hear me saying that often from now on.)

Every quote at the beginning will mostly have something to do with the chapter itself or, in some cases, are connected to the story as a whole.

I try to update every two to three days, but my personal time is pretty limited, so an apology in advance if there are some waiting times. Thanks for reading so far!

Chapter Text

Huge surprise, the next chapter is up already because for several reasons. One, I hope everyone is happy about it, two, because I just found out my next three days are going to be horribly hectic and three, because I just got some possible bad news about my cousin's health and had to distract myself a bit. Thank you all for reading so far, especially those who were so kind to leave a comment. And because I'm lazy and stupid, I will just reply to them here, so scroll down for the next chap.

Dooby: Thank you! I actually kind of like Ron, because he's funny. Just... not when they are in a relationship, because those two don't really fit at all, in my opinion. But even break-ups take time :)

ABC: Thanks, great to know you like it! And tell me what you think about the book, because literature like that is not for everyone ;) I loved it, though.

iAxel: What nice compliments, thanks! I love the English language and I hope my story conveys that.

Eryk Lestrange: Ha, yeah, I do know. I'm sorry for the big first chapter, but I thought everyone might like a big bite to chew first ;) Most of my chaps will be long, but the first is the biggest.

vienne la nuit: Danke dir vielmals! Schöner Username, übrigens ^^ Allein die Geschichte zu planen ist schon die Hälfte des Spaßes und ich hoffe ich kann das rüberbringen. Keine Sorge, ich bleibe am Ball ;)

2. A Storm Rising

"It is better to be a coward for a minute than dead for the rest of your life." — Irish Proverb

Nearly all of them had come. Professor McGonagall left the Great Hall first, followed by other teachers that Hermione identified as Slughorn, Flitwick and Trelawney. Kingsley came as well, with a more reluctant Weasley family right after him. Harry, Ron and some of their friends joined them, too.

All of them now standing in a half circle around them, with a distance that could be considered rude under any other circumstance. With two steps in front of Bellatrix, Hermione couldn't see the dark witch's reaction to the crowd, but she was too transfixed by everyone looking at them anyway.

Fear. Worry. Hate. Even now the sight of Bellatrix Lestrange caught them like a net of terror.

Their faces were pale, speechless. For a moment, Hermione felt faced with a foreign, unfamiliar crowd, like the one you see in pictures and films, as if suddenly those people were no longer her friends and family, but a group of strangers, who didn't recognize her anymore the second they looked at her - but then her gaze found Harry's and Ginny's, and somehow their eyes managed to send her a silent reassurance. Only then the young woman realized how close to the breaking point she had been, feeling like an accomplice to all the inhuman deeds the Death Eater had done. A scenario in her head had taken over and painted a different picture than reality presented to her.

I trust all of them with my life. They won't shun me without an explanation for my actions.

Then the silence, which had probably only lasted for several heartbeats and yet a lifetime, was ripped apart by McGonagall's voice. The teacher had gathered her robes in her hands and was hurrying towards them with a stern step.

"Miss Granger, what in Merlin's name were you thinking?"

Hermione opened her mouth to stutter out her reasons, getting out a few nonsense sounds while whipping her head around to edge the Death Eater on for help, but to her utter dismay the eldest Black was busy observing her nails, paying no interest to her old, upset teacher.

"I-... I, uh, she came to me... well, and I, that is, we-..."

"Mister Potter told me what happened. But this, young lady? There is a reason the Unbreakable Vow is used so seldomly, if at all! It is still unknown to what extent its power functions. And yet you-... you use it like a common tool to bind your very lifes together! With a Death Eater nonetheless!" Well, 'upset' seemed to be an understatement. The head of Gryffindor was positively livid, staring down both Hermione and Bellatrix, the later in turn who was still hell-bent on ignoring the other woman. "I surely hope you will give us a very reasonable explanation for this, Miss Granger."

Although her cheeks were flaming red from the lecture, Hermione also felt a spark of anger at the words. She respected Professor McGonagall much more than any other teacher in Hogwarts, with the exception of the late Dumbledore, and she could understand the older lady's reaction so very well, but she hadn't done this for selfish reasons or even without thinking about it. Now she had to defend her case like a culprit... despite the fact that Harry and Ron had informed them of the incident beforehand.

"I was trying to help, professor. I tried to save lives by taking Ms. Lestrange out of the equation... and misleading another group of Voldemort's followers on top of it." Feeling herself strengthened by her own words, the young witch stood a bit straighter, knowing fully well she meant what she said. "I was ready to lay my life on the line for our cause. I was ready to die and I have proven it repeatedly. So when you have the chance to make Voldemort's supposedly most loyal follower," at this moment she practically felt Bellatrix glare at her darkly, "stay away from the fight that could kill many innocent people, wouldn't you do everything to make that happen?"

"This isn't about proving your dedication," McGonagall now replied much softer, a silent sadness in her eyes, "this is about the repercussions this deal will have for the Wizarding World and, more importantly, for you personally. You don't know what you have gotten yourself into. Actually, no one can foresee what will come from this."

"But why her, Hermione? Why her?" she could hear Neville ask from behind the teacher, a plea for understanding in his voice. Maybe her best friends hadn't told them all while she was gone. Of all the people, the meek boy had indirectly suffered the longest from Bellatrix's actions.

"Because she came to me, not I to her. I'm sorry, Neville," the brunette said with sadness in her eyes, sounding apologetic, "but it was my life and hers in exchange for dozens on our side. There was little choice."

"Dozens?" Bellatrix cackled behind her. "You should up the number, muddy."

"We will come to you in time, Madame Lestrange," McGonagall interrupted moments before Hermione could snap back at the dark witch. "It would be best if you answered our questions later and be very quiet for the moment." The grim matter-of-fact tone had managed to cause students and adults alike to cower in their shoes since decades, but Bellatrix merely threw her head back haughtily and tsk-ed, contempt radiating off of her black-clad frame.

"Is your life really bound to hers?" Ginny asked her best friend with trepidation. "She killed Tonks, her own niece!"

A disdained sniff was heard behind Hermione's shoulder. "Oh no no, can't blame that one on me. Though I quite adequately hexed the idiot who stole my price."

Once again the reinstated Headmistress waved any further questions of the younger people off, which were sprouting forth like rapid spellfire, while at the same time shutting the whole bunch up with a sharp look. Then she turned back to the former Death Eater. "As it obviously wasn't you in the last battle, who died in your place?"

"Oh, so someone got 'me'?" Bellatrix quipped curiously. "My, what a shame. Their one great moment of glory - lost in a sham." It was followed by a close-mouthed chuckle and a nasty grin.

"Answer the question, Lestrange," Kingsley interjected gruffly.

"Such haste! Fine - some guy named Cory A-something-something. Young, ambitious, dumb as a bludger," the older woman finally offered with a roll of her dark eyes. Each of her thoughtless, restless movements had the crowd twitching.

There was a sound from the teachers and Slughorn rubbed his chin in a distracted way. "Huh, Cory Alleroy. Managed to fail the same class test three times. Never liked him, personally," he murmured to himself, forgetting that he was surrounded by at least a dozen people listening in.

"Who cares. So he's dead, hm? Would be kind of awkward if he weren't. I admit, I'm a little bit curious... who got little old me killed?"

"My Mom," Ron muttered, still giving the witch the worst possible look, while at the same time being completely intimidated by her presence. "Sucks that she only got the wrong one."

Said mother gently cuffed him on his shoulder with the back of her hand. "Ronald, don't speak like that," she reprimanded her sheepish looking son, but there was similar loathing in her gaze when she glanced back at the dark witch. "This is also Hermione's life we're talking about now."

"The ginger hag?" Bellatrix screeched with disbelief, then threw her head back and laughed cruely. "Oh dear, what a blow to the ego! Cory managed to fuck that one up pretty well."

In an instant, insults started to flow towards Voldemort's former right hand, everyone riled up by Bellatrix's arrogance and lack of regret for the dead when faced with so many armed enemies. Despite the slur to his mother, Ron only answered back with a glare and heaps of unhidden contempt, his whole body taut with suppressed anger. Harry was more in control of himself and raised an arm to keep his friend from doing something stupid in this situation.

Yet Hermione, still standing between the two factions, couldn't help but stay quiet and watch the going-ons. She felt strangely numb and out of place, while McGonagall's words still echoed in her head. You don't know what you have gotten yourself into. Oh, she certainly didn't. And while she listened to Bellatrix, who held her ground with nothing more than her head held high and a few well placed choice words against over twelve people all shouting at her in anger, it seemed as if nothing could touch the prideful Death Eater.

The dark witch merely twirled her new wand between her fingers, standing with hips cocked and her free hand resting lazily against her side. And yet the Gryffindor knew, if only one spell would dare fly the criminal's way, she was quite confident the older woman would be able to par with the group as a whole for several moments before going down. There was something in her stance, something restless and unseen, that told her Bellatrix was constantly on her guard.

Thinking back to the dreaded day at Malfoy Manor, where Bellatrix had dispatched a trained group of Snatchers with such ease and delight as if it was child's play, Hermione realized the other woman had to be much smarter and opportunistic than her mad appearance made her out to be.

And if there was one thing more dangerous than a madwoman, it was a smart madwoman.

"Quiet, all of you! This is not the time for anger and insults! Be quiet, I say!" McGonagall shouted, her voice somehow managing to cut through the chaos without actually being louder than some of the younger men's screaming. It was like a hammer on an anvil, thundering through and causing everyone to cool their heated tempers at once. There was a power in the professor's command that only strength of character and years of training could hone.

"We have no choice but to postpone this interrogation to another time. There are still many wounded in Hogwarts that need our immediate attention. Kingsley, I think it is time you take over, if you would please."

Nodding, the imposing Minister walked towards them while the Headmistress shooed the whole, vividly protesting group back inside. Other than the rest, he didn't greet the fugitive with hostility and ire, but instead with the same calm and cautiousness he was known for. When glancing Bellatrix up and down, he merely did so with the simple professionalism of a man who actually had earned his high status due to competence.

"Madame Lestrange, if you would please hand over your wand now," Shacklebolt said, surprisingly managing to make it sound like both a command and a request at the same time. "Once that is done, we have a lot to talk about."

With a look of utter distaste, Bellatrix glared at the dark-skinned man before her. For a second Hermione was worried that a fight for dominance would break out between the two, because the dark witch wouldn't part with the magical wood freely, but then the older woman eased her fears by throwing the wand in Kingsley's direction as if not caring one way or the other. Even the former Auror seemed to let out a small breath.

"Here, have it then," Bellatrix only replied, nothing betraying the thoughts running behind her cruel eyes. "I'm tired of standing around doing nothing."

"Then follow me. We will find a room that will hold you until we can take a closer look at your.. " he lowered his eyes in thoughtful interest, ".. unusual circumstances. Miss Granger, I would also like you to stay close for the moment."

"I understand," the young witch replied with hanging shoulders. Everything was still in chaos, not just at Hogwarts. Until the Ministry of Magic was properly reinstated, weeks could go by, and that didn't even include the hunt for those of the dark side. There probably were many more things to do and plan, which Hermione couldn't even guess at. And all of it after heavy losses to their own side.

With a sigh the brunette wondered how much time she would have to spend at Hogwarts before going back to her own life. If she was ever going back to her own life.

When they moved into a side entrance away from the Great Hall, to bypass the lot of riled up students that wouldn't react favorably to the sight of the Death Eater, Hermione was so deeply immersed in her own thoughts, that the feel of a slender hand grasping her shoulder like an iron claw had her snap back to reality instantly. The grip bordered on painful, but it was the dominance and strength behind it that had her heart thudding suddenly with waves of choking fear.

"Don't forget, my little muddy," the childishly amused voice of the dark witch whispered into her ear so only she could hear it, having Hermione's whole body grow cold when the warm breath touched her, "we both know I'm in no need of a wand to have some fun, right?"

The fingers dug in deeper and the younger woman could swear she would find little marks of the dark red-painted nails forming in the skin underneath her shirt. But the terror in her veins had her stay silent, her throat clicking from the dry swallow she forced herself to make.

As if able to feel her revulsion, Bellatrix let go of her prey and offered a subdued, dark chuckle, while the sound of her high heels clicking on the floor enveloped them all like a harbinger of danger.

Sufficiently reminded why it was a very, very stupid idea not to stay on your toes while in the dark-haired woman's proximity, Hermione dug her nails into her palm to ground herself back in reality. And not let herself be dragged back to the memory where she was lying on an icecold stone floor, hidden by waves of dark curls and caught inbetween the knees of the worst pure-blood you could imagine. All the while feeling so very, very helpless.

Don't let her get to you, Hermione told herself feverishly, but her gaze was already stuck to the floor and she was trying hard to suppress shivers of fear, while praying all the while that Shacklebolt would throw this madwoman away into a small room as quickly as possible.

When they finally were underground, it didn't seem to be soon enough that the Minister stopped and turned to them, while simultaneously opening a door to a smaller classroom. There were no windows inside, but with a flick of his wand a chandelier burst into light and drenched the room in color, carving out seats, desks and sideboards filled with books.

"You will stay in here until we have time to talk to you. I will place wards outside, so you won't be able to flee and will stay safe at the same time."

"So 'talking' is it you're calling it these days, eh?" Bellatrix sneered, but walked inside. Albeit at the speed of a snail, as if she had every time in the world. And yet, what other choice did she have but to comply? Despite not being in a position of power, it seemed as if everything was coming along as expected by the dark witch and she was playing her faithful part of the puppet until she could show them her superior bargaining tool. And Hermione feared that she would play a distinct part in that last act.

Once the door was closed, the young witch watched it with dread. Glancing at Shacklebolt, she hoped he understood her predicament.

"Sir, you know I need her to stay safe, right? The Vow and all that..." she pointed out, just to be sure.

But the broad-shouldered man just nodded at her with reassurance. "Yes, Minerva and I took Harry and Ron aside to be really sure about what you told them. Both of us will make sure neither of you will come to harm." Walking next to her and placing a strong hand on the same shoulder Bellatrix had abused so recently, causing Hermione to twitch unnoticeably, he led her back to the higher floors.

"Go and rest up in the Gryffindor tower, from what I have seen it isn't quite as damaged as the Ravenclaw one. We will speak to you again once everyone is taken care of." A deep sigh escaped him and the brunette was sure he knew as well that a lot of work was lying in front of him in the recent future. Before he turned to leave her, the tall man send her a grateful smile and a respectful nod. "I don't know exactly what happened, but I'm sure it's thanks to you and your friends we can look into a brighter future. Good job, Miss Granger... I won't forget that."

Filled with reassurance at this thanks, Hermione smiled in return and decided to heed his words. The way to the Gryffindor common room was littered with broken floors and staircases, but somehow she found a route that led her to her goal. The painting to the room itself was flung wide open, so she could hear the people in there talking and laughing from far away. Other than the adults, the younger ones were free to party and celebrate their victory without the burden of work to come, so it was no wonder that Hermione managed to slip into the crowded room without notice.

"Hermione! Thank goodness, you're here!" a familiar voice shouted from nearby and the young woman turned only to find herself hugged close by the youngest Weasley. Ginny clutched her good friend close for a moment, then smiled widely and brought her over to the others gathered by the fireplace. It seemed they had celebrated the Golden Trio's victory somewhat fierce, as she could see butterbeer and snacks in most students' hands, even Ron sported a big jug that he gulped from without a care in the world.

"Oh, Hermione!" Harry noticed, raising a glass towards her in happy greeting. "You've come at the right moment!"

Ron placed the jug down with a bright smile, then hugged her close with one arm and made some room for her on the couch. She returned their smiles and felt infected by their happiness over the war, but her mind was too heavy with unknown things to come that she could do so without restraint.

They made smalltalk and Hermione was thankful for the distraction. More than once fellow students came over and congratulated everyone for their efforts in throwing down Voldemort and asking if he really was gone for good. Stories about what had led to the Golden Trio's victory over the Dark Lord were flying high and wide, but neither Harry nor his friends were ready yet to retell the actual search for the Horcruxes and what had happened in truth. Instead they redirected them to Neville's heroic slaying of the snake, with the young man gladly taking over the spotlight for once in his life.

He had not yet looked at Hermione even once.

Hours later, the high spirits had toned down a bit and everyone was either divided into the rooms for some much needed sleep or talking quietly in groups in the common room. Hermione was leaning heavily on Ron's shoulder, fatigued with sleepiness but still too buzzed up to even think about drifting off into dreamland. Finally, Ginny edged closer and glanced at the fellow Gryffindor girl with sadness.

"So, it's really true then?" she said softly and everyone knew what she was hinting at.

Hermione nodded, clutching the deal-making hand close to her body. The lines were probably not visible at all, but Hermione could feel them as if they were wires placed directly beneath her skin. She only had to think about it and it was as if the faint connection binding her to the cursed woman started trembling softly.

Once again she was compelled to tell them what happened. Ron and Harry were silent the whole while just like when she had first told them, staring at their drinks or into the fireplace, but Ginny actually threw in careful questions from time to time to get a clearer grasp of the situation. When she was finished, the other girl grabbed her hands and held them tightly, offering silent support and friendship.

Hermione was glad she was surrounded by the people she loved most. Ginny and Ron were still weighed down by Fred's death and everyone sorely missed Tonks and Remus already. But brighter days lay in front of them and they had to cling to that.

Closing her eyes, the young witch let herself be immersed in the friendship and love she felt for everyone, pushing the day's happenings to the back of her mind. She stayed like that for several minutes.

She might have nodded off, as when Ron gently nudged her shoulder she felt herself blinking rapidly. Ginny had taken a seat next to the Boy Who Lived and they held hands, making no mistake about the current status of their renewed relationship. Hermione wondered if Ron and her looked similarly happy in the presence of one another.

"Sorry to wake you, but McGonagall's here. She wants to speak to you," her boyfriend told her quietly while she rubbed her eyes.

"Oh. Right, thank you."

"See you later?" Ron asked and hopefully squeezed her arm.

She smiled and nodded, then stood up to make her way to the patiently waiting Professor. With her hands firmly clasped in front of her body, McGonagall looked more tired than ever, the deep lines in her face making her appear older than Hermione was used to. She didn't even want to imagine how the older woman must have looked during the time of Voldemort's reign over Hogwarts.

They only exchanged a greeting before they left the room for some more quiet space. Hermione's deed had not yet made the round, but it was only a matter of time, considering how students tended to gossip. Sooner or later someone would ask the right person who knew what Hermione had done and then there would be no stopping anymore.

Soon they found an empty room and both took a seat at the teacher's desk. The brunette kept silent, simply gazing down at her lap while she could feel McGonagall's searching look on her. Hermione didn't look forward to another lecture.

"The 'Golden Girl' is what they call you," the professor suddenly began in a surprisingly light voice and when the younger woman looked up, she could see a smile playing around the Headmistress' thin lips. "It is amazing what you managed to accomplish in the last months. I admit not even I know the details, but I am pretty sure it managed to help defeat Voldemort in no small part. Let me please begin with telling you that I am deeply grateful to both you and your friends for all you have done for the Wizarding World."

Hermione opened and closed her mouth like a fish, taken aback by the unveiled thankfulness. Feeling herself blush, the witch realized she had not yet ever felt to be talked to like a fellow adult... and it felt good. She nodded at her professor, a bit embarrassed at the praise.

"Thank you. Still, we couldn't have done it without the help of our friends or everyone here at school. There are so many people without whom it wouldn't have been possible to win." With a sting of sadness, she remembered the heroic little elf, Dobby, that had managed to save them from the worst possible situation, placing his own life on the line in exchange for theirs. She would never forget his bravery.

At McGonagall's request, Hermione told her about the real reason they had vanished for so many months. Leaving out details of what had happened, as she would have been busy with talking well into the night if she did, she concentrated on the Horcruxes and how they had managed to destroy them. The Headmaster listened with the rapt attention, only interrupting pointedly if something was unclear or the connections were missing.

Once she was finished, McGonagall conjured up a greatly needed glass of water, as Hermione could feel herself spit dust by now. There was silence for a few moments, while the older woman mulled over what she had found out.

"Let me rephrase what I have previously said, Miss Granger," McGonagall then began slowly, "but by what you just told me, I should be more than grateful. Please believe me that I never once doubted you went into the deal with Madame Lestrange without considering the greater good. You managed to make the impossible possible and are one of the most exceptional beings I ever had the pleasure of teaching."

Once again, Hermione blushed hard, fidgeting on her seat. "Professor.."

McGonagall held up a hand, interrupting her wordlessly. "No, please, there has to be credit where credit is due. But, sadly, the problems are not over yet and we still have one sitting in person down in the lower floors. Miss Granger, I would like you to know what we plan to do in the next days. You have more than earned the right and it is your life we are speaking about here."

Feeling a shudder crawl up her spine at the mention of the deal and, with it, the memory of Bellatrix, Hermione had to force herself from grimacing in unrest. She was deeply curious and a bit afraid of what they wanted to do now.

"First, Slughorn and I will question her personally, as we are all puzzled about her decision to go against her Dark Lord. Of all those under Voldemort, I would have expected Bellatrix to be the last one to throw the towel. I wish I could say I smell a betrayal or a dark plot, but your well-formed Vow made sure to exclude any possibility she is doing it for him." There was a small pause as both wondered about the dark-haired witch's reasons. "But as much as it confuses me, I'm much more worried about what she might want from inside the Ministry of Magic."

"She said, she wanted something that gives her those years back she wasted in Azkaban... but other than a timeturner, which I doubt would work, I'm drawing a blank. But then I know next to nothing about what other mysteries could be hidden inside the Ministry."

"What I glean from that, is that Madame Lestrange is highly interested in leading a normal life... as staggering as that sounds. Considering her not so small wealth and with the deal possibly keeping her out of Azkaban, it would seem entire possible that she expects to be left alone."

Hermione grew pale, leaning back in her seat. "'Possibly' keeping her out of Azkaban?... If they send her there, we both die."

Sad, wise eyes lingered on her while McGonagall gently explained further. "The Ministry of Magic is not yet reinstated, but in time it will. And I assure you there will be a hearing then and without doubt a trial, too, for Madame Lestrange has once again committed unspeakable crimes against humanity in this war. And as much as I wish, I cannot tell you who will be sitting in the jury that day and if one girl's life weighs up the penalty they might want her to face."

Her blood turning to ice, the younger witch felt her breath grow shallow and her skin pale. There were so many ways now that she saw how things could go wrong. Hermione had never thought about how maybe sentencing a famous criminal might be more important than protecting the life of an innocent. They would not dare to kill her, would they?

If they sentenced the eldest Black to Azkaban, both of them would die. If they sentenced her to death, both would die. If they threw her into another prison, Bellatrix might grow so unstable in her madness that she would drag them both into the afterlife by doing something to herself.

"Miss Granger," the professor said sharply, snapping her back to the now. "I know what you're thinking and we don't know yet if it really will lead to this worst outcome. You have to take your own position into consideration: The Golden Girl, one of the three people who managed to destroy the Horcruxes, create an army against Voldemort and then defeat the Dark Lord himself in a full scale war. I doubt they or the public would happily have such a prominent, heroic figure come to harm only because she wanted to protect her friends. The truth will make them reconsider, I assure you that."

Still disillusioned about her imminent future, Hermione felt only slightly reassured, but managed a weak smile nonetheless. "Thank you, but I don't see my own position as that important. If I had died, someone else would have taken my place with Harry and Ron."

"I am quite confident Mister Potter and Mister Weasley would argue differently," McGonagall interjected gently, "as would the rest of the school. Be sure that everyone here will speak for your case. As for the situation with Madame Lestrange, I fear we have more pressing matters to consider than a possible trial in the distant future."

"Such as?" Hermione was already weary of dealing with the problem of the Death Eater, still, she didn't think she would decide differently if presented with the same choice. Ginny had reassured her that her and her mother's lives would definitely have been forfeit if it had been the real Bellatrix battling with the Weasley matriarch. The thought of nearly having lost her best friend encased her belief that this was the right way in iron.

"Your personal safety, for example. Both you and her are now prime targets for both sides and if one of you meets death, the other might too. I am pretty sure many of the fugitive supporters of the Dark Lord see Bellatrix Lestrange as a traitor to their cause once the truth gets out and will happily see her die by targeting you. Every enemy of hers is now yours as well." Taking off her glasses, McGonagall rubbed her eyelids tiredly, before cleaning the lenses the old-fashioned way instead of using magic. It seemed to soothe her.

"What does that mean for me?" Hermione inquired carefully, feeling the weight of the situation and what was to come settle heavily on her shoulders. Despite the thoughts whirling in her head, the young woman was quite sure she would fall asleep tonight simply because of sheer exhaustion. A glance outside told her the day was already nearly over, soon marking the first full day of Voldemort's defeat and despite her current predicament, it was something she rejoiced.

Replacing her glasses, McGonagall placed her hand flat on the table's surface. "It would be better if you stayed here for the time being, where the teachers can protect you. For now we have to wait until a Ministry Auror can come to us with a potion of Veritaserum, in the hopes of getting her to talk as quickly as possible. Once I know the further proceedings, I will get back to you."

I'm as much of a prisoner as Bellatrix, but without anyone wanting me to, Hermione thought unhappily. Yes, she really hadn't known what she would get herself into. Thoroughly exhausted, the only thing she wanted to do now was sleep, at least for a day or more. There was no war to fight anymore, no Horcrux to destroy, no person to be saved. She just wanted to lie in bed and not care about anything or anyone until well into the afternoon.

Sensing that the young witch was just as drained as she herself, McGonagall moved out of her seat and patted the brunette's arm. "Now, let's call it a day. I will be present during all the interrogations, so that Madame Lestrange will stay safe and you won't have neglected your deal. I made sure that you all have a room and your own beds to sleep in."

"Thank you, professor. Really, for everything."

"No, I am the one who has to thank you. Now go, I won't have my students drop dead from exhaustion." She smirked slightly, exchanging a smile with the younger woman. Hermione wished her a good night and left the room the same way she had come.

Making her way back to the Gryffindor's common room, Hermione shared the news with her friends and watched their outraged faces at the news that her life might be in much more danger than suspected. That night, they had her sleep in the middle bed of the room, so that if someone got the crazy idea to harm her, they would first have to deal with three angry friends. Although it was ridiculous that news about her connection to Bellatrix or even her survival had traveled so fast to enemy ears, the brunette was warmed by the gesture nonetheless.

As she had suspected, Hermione fell asleep the very second her head hit the pillow.

The next day, everyone was able to either have their breakfast in the common room or the Great Hall, as the latter didn't have room enough for everyone in its current condition. The house elves were dutifully back to work, happy to help whichever way they could, and Hermione prayed they hadn't fared many losses in the fight.

Many young students who weren't hurt too badly were sent back home as soon as possible, while everyone else who stayed behind worked hard to clear the rubble and repair the damage done to the whole building. Despite the fact that everything went much faster with magic, McGonagall told them it would take several months until Hogwarts was in such a condition that teaching could be resumed. Hermione kept herself busy helping wherever she could.

The Weasley's went home as well, so they could prepare a proper burial for their son, as well as Tonks and Lupin. Hermione and Harry stayed behind in Hogwarts; Harry because he had nowhere but the Weasley's home to go for the moment and the young witch because the teachers were still worried for her safety.

During these days, morbid curiosity forced her downstairs to the place Bellatrix was held in several times. She never understood much of the little sound that found its way through the walls. But what she garnered from the defeated looks from those that left the room told her that the interrogations where not going well. Often enough, even the thick stone could not hold back the Death Eater's crazy, amused laugh.

"She is resisting anything we try with ease," McGonagall confided in Hermione in a quiet moment after lunch. "We underestimated her tremendously. Whether it is Veritaserum or Legilimency, her willpower is like iron. Madame Lestrange refuses to say anything of worth and ridicules us along the way without stop."

"You still don't know what she wants from the Ministry then?"

"She says, she wants to only tell a high-ranking official from the Ministry, but Shacklebolt is busy reinstating the order in there and I trust no one else to handle this delicate matter. The Auror they send us is rather... rash. I fear I couldn't stop him from getting violent once. She is getting under his skin, which is not surprising. I banned him from talking to her again until he can control his temper."

That evening, Hermione checked her whole body for a sign of... anything. She knew she was being paranoid. But if the Unbreakable Vow managed to bind them together in life and death, maybe he would also transfer smaller offenses against its purpose. What did 'keep safe' even mean in magical vow properties? Would a beating by an Auror already be considered not safe or would the Vow only react if Bellatrix's life was truly in danger? And what was counted as a danger to her life and what not?

There were so many open questions that Hermione couldn't help but feel restless and afraid, wondering if there were some kind of 'warning marks' that would appear if she didn't do her duty. But there was nothing but the quiet, ignorable buzz in the back of her mind whenever she concentrated on her connection to the former Death Eater.

Not even Madame Pomfrey could give her any help when she asked about what could happen. "I'm sorry, dear," she told Hermione when she went to help out in the infirmary, "but I have no experience with the Unbreakable Vow. I only know it means certain death if you outright betray the clauses."

It was nearly maddening to hang in the unknown with what this could mean for her. How far she could go without dropping dead.

"You poor child," the elderly nurse went on when noticing Hermione's quiet. "Bound to Bellatrix Lestrange, of all people. Besides McGonagall, she might be the most talented witch this world knows and yet she used it for all the wrong reasons. Makes one wonder how she came to this... I pray that you'll stay safe."

Yes, it made one wonder. Most of all one talented brunette bound to the dark witch by magic. But for the moment, more interesting to her was the question: What now?

Twenty-four hours later, Hermione would get an answer that got her close to reconsider the belief of making the same decision if faced with the same choice.

Plot and filler! Yeah! Nothing very important happens other than that we get a few more information about the situation (hey, that even rhymes...somewhat) and some people's reactions. Everything I found about the Unbreakable Vow is shaky at best, so I had to get a bit creative about the repercussions.
I'd like to note that the quote I used for the first chapter is from my favorite poet of all times, Rainer Maria Rilke. It was he who made me love my own language again, but even translated his poems are incredibly beautiful, so if you are curious and interested in this kind of of thing, go look him up =)
Until next week then, everyone!

Chapter Text

Hello everyone! Once again, thank you all very much for your reviews, it's always the best way to bring a smile to an author's face. You are all very kind, so here's the next chapter for you. One of my plot pieces may stretch the suspension of disbelief a bit, but please bear with me :)

LivinBeyondTheHorizon: Vielen Dank für die vielen, lieben Worte! Erstaunlich wieviele Deutsche das lesen :D Ich wünschte ich könnte das, was mir in den Kopf schießt, einfach niederschreiben, dann wäre meine Schreiberei viel weniger zeitaufwendig ;)

ABC: Thanks! Faust I is awesome and I'm one of the few people who liked Faust II as well. But I'm weird like that *g*

OpheliaBlack: Wow, such wonderful compliments from such a great fellow writer! *blushes* Thank you! I really loved Haunted and I totally need to go and review your new story!

Wretched Miss: Special thank you for you and your offer of help! :D

Frogscookie: Thanks! You know, writing the Ronmione stuff was pure torture for me. One chapter was grating on my nerves so much I had a writer's block for a month. They really don't fit as a couple, in my opinion!

3. The Worth in Tears

"In the end it's not the years in your life that count. It's the life in your years." — Abraham Lincoln

It seemed, the news of Ron and her being an item had traveled at a much faster rate than anything else she had done. Whenever the subject of the redhead came up, smirks and knowing looks were thrown her way, causing her to blush and harshly change the subject. Hermione hated to be the center of attention because of something like that.

Of course they never stopped communicating and used the owls to exchange letters about their feelings. For Ron it was hard to talk about his emotions in that way or to express himself properly, but she appreciated his efforts and always was happy when she read carefully written lines like "I miss you more each day" and "I wish everyone was here right now, especially you." It made her feel loved and she took strength from it.

When they had a series of burials for those who had fallen, Hermione stuck close to her boyfriend just as Ginny did to hers, and it was a small comfort to feel Ron hug her close in a protective way when she wept bitter tears for their dead friends. She could feel him clench his jaw tightly when they talked about Fred and she knew she was giving him just as much of a pillar to hold on when he buried his face in her hair to hide his tear-filled eyes. Lupin, Tonks, and so many, many others they would never meet again.

The funeral was of course a very somber affair, and the two only took a small moment for themselves to talk. Standing closely outside of the Burrow, with their shoulders leaning on the wall and their hands clasped tightly, Hermione told him that she didn't know what would come to her in the next days, but that she hoped to return to them soon. Ron and the rest of his family were worried for her safety, but his girlfriend assured him that there still was no better place for her than Hogwarts.

"There might be some heat once the truth comes out about Bellatrix and me. I'm pretty sure they want to have an eye on me until the furor has died down."

"We can protect you as well, here, at the Burrow," Ron argued, but knew that even if they raised the proper defenses, it would still take some time until McGonagall would leave Hermione in their care.

After exchanging a chaste kiss, it was back off to Hogwarts for the brunette accompanied by McGonagall. Now even Harry had left the school to stay with the Weasley family and she already sorely missed his presence once she was back on the school grounds. Despite exchanging daily owls with her friends and being surrounded by several other Gryffindor students who stayed at Hogwarts, Hermione could feel the loneliness creep up on her. She fought it desperately by spending much time in the infirmary, her beloved library and with the house elves.

Two weeks after Voldemort's death, the Headmistress finally sought her out together with another surprising guest: Kingsley Shacklebolt.

"For the time being, I am the Acting Minister of Magic while we clear out the chaos. We lack personnel and the records are a mess, so it will still be some time before everything is back to running smoothly," the former Auror explained at Hermione's inquiry. "On top of that we are also searching for the Death Eaters and other followers of Voldemort. With our few numbers and everyone spread thin, our efforts are inching along at a snail pace."

He seemed just as exhausted as McGonagall appeared to be after the first few days and the young witch realized that for some the real trouble had not found an end yet. So it was all the more shocking that he had taken time to come here and listen to Bellatrix's request.

Sitting in the Headmaster office, which had bouts of nostalgia erupt from Hermione's chest when she let her gaze roam, they talked while drinking deep red, sweet tea from small porcelain cups. Shacklebolt was just leaning back in his chair, when the young witch realized there could only be one good reason why she had been summoned upstairs.

"You found out what Bellatrix wants from the Ministry, didn't you?" she carefully asked the two Order members, trying to hide her fear and curiosity.

The broad-shouldered man nodded with a sober expression. "Indeed. One hour ago, after talking with Madame Lestrange, I sent an owl with a request for more information and it just returned before we summoned you."

"The news explain several theories we had," McGonagall threw in, gently placing her cup down on the saucer.

"So what is it? Am I allowed to know?"

"I am giving you clearance because of your... special condition. But please know that this knowledge is confidential, only known to certain Ministry officials and even then not in detail. You may talk about this with Mister Potter and Mister Weasley, but no one else." He stared at her intently, willing her to understand the importance of this matter.

Hermione nodded earnestly, never would she dare break the trust Kingsley placed in her.

"Very well," he went on while leaning forward, putting the elbows of his arms on his knees, while thinking about how to properly introduce the information. "I suspect you have not heard about the 'Tears of Ixion', have you?"

At the shake of her head, he took a sip from his tea. "During the Middle Ages, the 9th century to be exact, there was a man known as Konrad I., a son of the house of Welf. Not only was he a very prominent figure in history, he was also the first and only known, or at least recorded, animagus with the ability to transform into a unicorn."

Raising her eyebrows at that information, Hermione turned to professor McGonagall. "Animagi can be magical creatures?"

"It is unheard of," the professor explained, "but not impossible, it seems. Though Konrad I. seemed to be the only person with such an unique form."

The former Auror cleared his throat. "We don't know if the records tell the truth, but it seems that this man was very much in love with his wife, Aelis. But by the standards of that time, he was already an old man. Official records tell he died around the year 862, but we know that he simply shed his human body and stayed in his animagus form instead of succumbing to his human age. But his wife was still very young and had to marry again, causing Konrad to weep bitter tears while still transformed. Aelis caught those tears in a bottle, so she would always be reminded of him, bequeathing the bottle to her children and grandchildren."

McGonagall used the break in Kingsley's story telling to point out a crucial information. "As you know, Miss Granger, unicorns are creatures with deeply ingrained, powerful magic. Whether it is their hair, blood or horn, all of it are rare reagents with unique abilities."

"The same applies to Konrad's animagus form and the tears. Due to their unique existence, their value is beyond anything you can imagine. One day, the Tears of Ixion managed to fall into the hands of one Nicolas Flamel, whom you should very well know."

Hermione gasped, seeing where this was going. "The Philosopher's Stone! He was its creator! Does that mean...?"

"Mister Flamel experimented with the Tears and managed to create the Stone, yes. Other than him, the tears were used in other well known projects. Are you familiar with 'The Picture of Dorian Gray'?"

Rubbing her forehead in wonder, the young witch touched her seldom used knowledge of Muggle history. "It's a famous work of Oscar Wilde. Isn't it a story?" She remembered reading it during the holidays, the story of a young, narcissistic man who never wanted to grow old. Instead, a beautiful picture of him grew older, showing his age and all the vices he indulged in. In the end, Dorian Gray grew mad and stabbed his picture... leaving him aged and dead, while his picture had regained its former beauty and youth.

"It's more than a story," Kingsley corrected, "it's real history in the Wizarding World. The surviving picture is hidden within the Department of Mystery, as are the Tears of Ixion. I can only imagine how Madame Lestrange found out about their existence, but I suspect she might have stumbled across it when she and the other Death Eaters created the trap for Mister Potter."

"So... she wants eternal life?" Hermione wondered out loud, puzzled. She never had expected the dark witch to be interested in something like that. But maybe her madness had born some strange interests.

"Not quite. In their undiluted form, the Tears of Ixion merely restore youth. From what our research was able to gather, it's a very interesting, one-time process that seems to place the cells of the body in a reversed time-effect, causing them to grow half as young as before. It can neither give back lost extremities, nor can it heal scars or illnesses, but the body and health of the user regain about half the years they lost already."

"So...that's what Bellatrix meant when she said she wants those years in Azkaban back. She'll be in her twenties again if they give her access to the Tears of Ixion." What wonders they harbored in the Department of Mysteries! The fight in there was very much like a blur, inbetween snapshots of strange devices and curious rooms, but Hermione had never had the chance to sit back and think about all the unusual things they had seen. And even if she could remember, there was no explanation for what they had encountered, as there was a snowball's chance in hell the Unspeakables would explain to them in detail what was going on in their department.

It seemed that youth-restoring unicorn tears were some of the least strange objects one could find between all the other mysteries.

"Yes. If. And that's the crux of the matter. Once everything is back in order, Madame Lestrange will have to justify herself in front of the Wizengamot... while simultaneously pleading for use of the Tears." Shacklebolt interlaced his fingers, pressing his thumbs against his chin. "I can't speak for you, but I can't see that going over well."

The brunette cleared her throat, fiddling with the cuff of her sleeve. Of course he couldn't. No one could. "No, you're right. I guess they will laugh at the very idea. But... I don't know... maybe someone can speak in her defense? Or... maybe I can plead with them? If they won't do this, they will kill me, an innocent."

"I will speak in your defense, once the time comes," her professor explained, calming the agitated girl down a little. "As much as I dislike saving such a vile woman, I will do my best to make sure your deal will be fulfilled. There are enough people here who will speak for you, let's just wait and see until we know further details about the trial."

Having McGonagall on her side was just one step away from having Dumbledore's personal support. There were few people Hermione trusted more than the aged professor, aware that there was a sharp, intelligent mind behind the stern, spectacled eyes. As well as a loyal, brave heart filled with compassion, the very example of a Gryffindor leader. With the Headmistress' and even Shacklebolt's support on her side, Hermione felt her chances to once again make the impossible possible rise tremendously.

"Not thinking about this is easier said than done, but I will try. I guess there are more important matters until then."

"Yes, like the matter of your safety," McGonagall agreed, and as if this was the codeword to some dreaded topic, the older woman suddenly seemed reluctant to go on, a look of unmistakable unhappiness on her features. "I have something to propose to you and I can understand if you are against such measures. But please hear me out first."

Stumped at her professor's sudden turnaround, the girl could do little else. What could be connected to her well-being and yet so unwanted? With little choice but to listen, Hermione tried to find a more comfortable position on her seat, while the former Auror kept silent and helped himself to more tea.

"Surely you remember Shell Cottage, near the coast?" At Hermione's nod, she went on. "I own a similar house, a bit smaller and much older at the northern coast of the Isle of Lewis. It belonged to my great-grandmother and is the perfect safe house for someone who needs to vanish from the face of earth for a short while."

"That sounds quite nice," Hermione commented with a smile, liking the idea of traveling to such a rural part of nature. "I always liked the Scottish isles."

"The island is protected by the Fae, whose magic drenches the earth and forbids, as well as suppresses, any kind of foreign one. The Ministry has a contract with them, proclaiming that no wizard or witch is to use magic of any kind in their realm. In short, we even forbid anyone to enter this place with a wand."

The idea of traveling to a place so far away from civilization without her trusted wand at her side sobered the brunette up pretty quickly. Especially because she would be feeling much more vulnerable than now. But if the Fae magic was as strong as McGonagall told her, then no one else would be able to harm her, wouldn't they? Still, the idea to be so far from the people she cared about without any means to apparate was making her a bit uncomfortable.

Kingsley grimaced over the rim of his cup. "The Seonaidh clan was always a bit... peculiar. One might think the Fae would be happy to met races sharing their gift of magic, but they seem to be a bit touchy on that subject."

"Fine, no wand then. I can deal with that, professor, you don't have to worry about that. As long as I can take a few books with me, the time will pass like a breeze." Hermione tried to ease her teacher's mind, meaning every word. She wouldn't be happy to stay in a lonely place for weeks without magic to help her along, but she would deal. It would only serve to remind her that magic wasn't a given and that you could live just as well without it. Despite growing up in the magicless Muggle world, Hermione was scared to realize how much she had come to depend on the little stick of wood and its powers and it would do well to remind her not everything had to be solved through a flick of her wand.

"There is one other thing..." It was as if McGonagall was forcing the words out. "Miss Granger, you would have to take Madame Lestrange with you."

The young witch stared at the Headmistress with a slack jaw, mouth hanging open in shock, her eyes wide. "W-...what?.." she managed to stutter, not quite believing what she had heard. "That's a joke, right?"

But the professor seemed entirely too earnest for it to be a joke and her severe mien underlined the gravity of the situation. "I wish I were joking, but I am not. I know this is an unwanted situation for both you and Madame Lestrange, but once the Wizarding World makes note of your... connection, I see no choice but to hide you until the trial begins."

"I will not share a home with that... that... lunatic for weeks, wandless or not! I'm not crazy!"

"Which is why I leave the full decision to you," McGonagall gently interjected, knowing she had hit a nerve. "Right now everyone is still oblivious of your condition. But the moment Kingsley will begin to get the trial running, the newspapers will be full with information and gossip about the Unbreakable Vow."

"And once that is out, people will try to cause you harm. Either of you," the Acting Minister added.

"But... can't you just send her to some other place? And me to the cottage? Or I... I'll stay at the Burrow and Bellatrix can go to Lewis..." Feverishly the young woman searched for a way out, despite the fact that McGonagall had left the decision in her hands.

"Miss Granger, you know that the Order is already running thin and we don't have many safe houses left. And despite the overhauls in the Ministry, it is still not clear who can be trusted and who can't. Our options are very, very limited right now."

The logic part of her mind told Hermione that the imposing man was speaking nothing but the truth. And really, the location was perfect. A place far away from the hustle of the mainland, in the middle of nature, with no possibility to act out magic. Known to no one but the inhabitants of this room. Now, with the Horcruxes destroyed and Voldemort dead, there was no need for Hermione to stay in action any longer. But still. Sharing this place with Bellatrix? It was like a scene out of a nightmare. The woman didn't need a wand to be dangerous - lethal even.

"Miss G-... Hermione." The use of her name got her attention, as it was the first time her professor had called her that way. Feeling her heart continue to race at the thought of what staying alone with Bellatrix meant, the young woman had to blink several times to focus back on the other woman. "I wouldn't have presented this offer to you if I didn't think you could handle it. You are a most exceptional young witch - probably the best of your generation. And that isn't due to your magical powers, but because of your strong heart and extraordinary intelligence."

The compliment dripped off her whirling mind like water. "I- I don't know if I can do this. I'm sorry, I don't know." Terror laced her voice.

The Headmistress held up both hands in a soothing gesture. "And that is perfectly fine. It is an option, not a coercion. I can't place you and Madame Lestrange into a train to the shore knowing fully well you are opposed to it with all your will."

"But please remember, you are the only one she can't hurt, contrary to our agents," Shacklebolt added.

Of course she can hurt me, a thousand different ways! her mind screamed, but her throat was closed up. No, no no no. She wouldn't do this, she couldn't. It was as if she could still feel Bellatrix's knees dig into her sides, her sharp nails abusing the skin of her shoulder. Mudblood, it whispered in her head, a perfect replica of the dark witch's voice dripping with viciousness, scratching like spear-points of pure anguish at the walls of her psyche.

"If you wouldn't mind, I'd like to be alone for a while," Hermione gasped out, every word a pale whisper barely making its way past her lips. Without another sound, the young woman jumped up from her seat and left the room, neither of the other occupants stopping her.

In a trance, Hermione found her way back to the Gryffindor rooms and she didn't stop until the door to her bedchamber slammed shut. With so many of the students back home or injured - or dead - there was enough space that she had her own room for much needed privacy after months of sharing a tent with her best friends.

Now it was as if even the solitude of these four walls was encasing her.

The witch hurried to a window, ripped it open and forced herself to take deep breaths of the fresh spring air.

For long minutes, she forced the oxygen into her gasping lungs and calmed down her racing heart and the flickering in front of her eyes.

Dear God, I nearly had a panic attack.

There was a silent calm in front of her window and she let it quiet down her mind. In the nearly cloudless sky the sun was starting to set, drenching the woods in the first hues of gold and deep stayed and watched until the burning plate had slipped halfway behind the horizon, before settling down on her bed and watching the shadows on the floor grow larger.

As if having a mind of its own, her right hand rolled up the sleeve of her left arm. The scars she found unhidden on her pale skin were looking almost innocent, light red lines forming the one word that had and would always haunt her entire existence.

Mudblood.

The scabs had healed and Hermione had almost hoped the red lines would fade as well. But Madam Pomfrey had told her with that horrible, pitying look in her eyes that the red would turn to silver-white in time. She was marked, forever, and it was too late for any kind of potion to clear her of this shame.

How can they expect me to share a house with only her as company when she broke something so precious inside of me? How can they even think I would do so for one single moment?

And yet she knew they only cared about her well-being. "I wouldn't have presented this offer to you if I didn't think you could handle it", McGonagall had told her and Hermione could still remember the conviction with which she had said every word.

I'm much weaker than you think, professor, the young witch admitted silently. Just thinking about the offer again caused her too feel sick. With numb fingers, she trailed the letters of her scars, feeling the slightly harder ridge of the skin with every stroke. Finally, after tracing every letter twice, she let her upper body fall sideways on the bed and cried helpless tears into her pillow.

When dusk had fully settled, Hermione felt drained and exhausted, as if every last ounce of energy had slipped away with her tears. Instead of feeling cleansed, like a good cry should do, there was only an uncomfortable emptiness in her insides, heightened by the fact that she was incredibly hungry.

The young woman managed to down half a plate of hotdish, but the hustle and bustle in the Great Hall caused a headache to torment her already battered head, having her flee the crowd as soon as possible. But once she had crawled through the portrait hole with a thankful puff of air, almost everyone being still downstairs and leaving the common room nearly empty, Hermione found herself face to face with Neville.

"Hi," he offered awkwardly, when she froze at his sight and made no effort to move.

"Uh," she replied quick-thinking, then shook her head to force herself out of her stupor. "Ah, hi."

There was a moment of heavy silence, uncomfortable enough to make them both shift their feet and glance on the floor.

But Neville heaved a long sigh and caught Hermione's gaze with the drooping of his shoulders. "Look, I'm not angry at you if you think that. Not anymore, anyway. I understand why you did it..."

"I'm so sorry, Neville," she interrupted the young man quickly and felt even worse. "I was thinking about you and everyone else who suffered under her hands, everyone she's killed... but I was so afraid what would happen to you all if she joined the fight, I just..."

"Hermione, it's fine," the herbologist calmed her down, letting out a surprised laugh at her babbling. "After thinking about it for a long while, I realized I might have made the same decision. I hate her, I truly do, but I hate it even more if people die. Even... even someone like her," he admitted with an almost shameful lowering of his eyes. "I'm not a killer and will never be. The snake was something else, but..." He shrugged and left the rest of his sentence unsaid.

"You're a really brave man, Neville," Hermione softly replied, seeing him in a different light now after the battle. And yet, despite his bravery and the strength he had shown, she could still see some of the young, bumbling boy in him that he had always been. A naive kid with a heart of gold... and she hoped he would never lose this part of him. "And you're an even better man for saying something like this. Thank you."

He smiled awkwardly at her and shrugged again. "I'm just happy that people won't steal my underwear anymore. Everything else is added bonus."

Gasping at him, Hermione felt her anger at her fellow classmates rise. "What? They used to do that?" Suddenly she felt guilty for hexing him during her youth. But children were and would always be cruel beings, wouldn't they?

He waved her off, even grinning a little by now. "It's fine, it could have been worse. And I always found it the next day, so there was no harm done. Luna had much more trouble finding her lost stuff than I ever did."

A impish look stole it's way on her face and the young witch smirked at him. "So, you and Luna...?"

Neville raised an eyebrow at her, not rising to the bait. It seemed he really had grown a lot. "So, you and Ron...?" he threw back at her in friendly ribbing and she felt herself blush.

"I... I don't want to talk about that," the brunette mumbled, knowing she was caught. But the tall young man just laughed and patted her shoulder.

"Fine, let's change the subject. So, how about a nice, friendly game of Wizard's chess?"

Hermione scrunched up her face. "Ugh, I hate that game... all right. Fine. One round."

It seemed, in all things Hermione was good at, Wizard's chess and Quidditch were the two very critical exceptions. But despite losing horribly, Neville's understanding and offer of continued friendship had lifted a heavy weight from her back and caused her to feel more free again. It cleared her heart and mind enough that she could think about the current situation once again without dropping into another panic attack.

Sitting at her desk, in front of the several opened, old letters of her friends, with the darkness of the evening her only witness, Hermione Granger forced herself to make a decision. Neville had grown beyond himself, showing courage in front of Voldemort when everyone else had suffered in the grip of shock and fear... and yet he still felt like himself. The young witch took strength from this knowledge, confident that if others saw a similar worth in her, she had the potential to be bigger than herself as well.

Ten minutes later, she was standing in front of Bellatrix's prison, hidden under the strongest Disillusionment Charm she could produce and watching silently how McGonagall opened the door to bring the dark witch her supper. If the teacher made note of her presence, she didn't show it.

Hermione only caught a glimpse of the raven haired woman, but the moment seemed to stretch into eternity.

Bellatrix, pale like porcelain in the candle light, was sitting on her stool with a contradictory mix of lax laziness and royal pride that only she could pull off. Her elbow was resting on a table and her closed fist held up her tilted head. A leg was slung over the other, the raised foot trailing restless lines in the air. There was an air of absolute indifference around her, with her blackish eyes cutting through the room like the hottest dragon fire. Hermione guessed that if the Death Eater glanced her way, the only thing left of her would be cold ashes drifting in the wind.

What are you thinking? What is going on in your mad mind that you close it off to the whole world?

There were no tears that night.

The young woman also came the next day. And the day after that. Always touching the scarred skin of her left arm, always wondering where the human being was hidden in that creature of pain.

On the third day, Hermione gave McGonagall her final answer.

Dun dun duuun!
Sorry, I promise next time there will be less crucial plot and some Bellamione interaction :)
By the way, whenever I write this, I can't help imagining Helena Bonham Carter and Emma Watson in their roles. They are both so awesome as Bella and Hermione. And, come on, there is a reason HBC's initials are missing only one letter to HBIC ;)
It was also fun to add another book into this. I know most have probably heard about The Picture of Dorian Gray, but I wrote a small synopsis anyway for those who are drawing a blank or haven't read it (shame on you! :D), but really, it's crazily good.
If you have any questions, feel free to ask away, I will answer gladly unless it's a spoiler. Other than this, thank you all for reading!

Chapter Text

So, I'm kind of in a hurry, so I'll just leave this here for you :) Once again, even at the fear of sounding like a broken record, please let me thank you all for your friendly replies!

iAxel: There is so much lore and fantasy in Harry Potter, I thought adding a Fae clan wouldn't be much of a stretch :)

yamiperv: Yes, why did she see Bella? Maybe curiosity? A strange unexplainable pull? Who knows? ;)

LivinBeyondTheHorizon: Beides hat seine Vor- und Nachteile, denke ich. Ein Hoch auf die Individualität des Schreibens! *g*

imperfectionisunderrated: Thank you very much! I really hoped a new take on the whole topic would be interesting to some, glad to see it is appreciated!

Mephista: Vielen Dank! Ich liebe die englische Sprache einfach so sehr, dass ich mir viel Mühe gebe. Das offensichtliche Bellamione wird noch ein wenig dauern, aber es kommt, verlass dich darauf ;)

4. A Step into the Lion's Den

"I felt despair. Though it seems to me now there's two kinds of it: the sort that causes a person to surrender and then the sort I had which made me take risks and make plans." - Erica Eisdorfer, The Wet Nurse's Tale

"Could you repeat that please?" McGonagall asked her perplexed, the feather in her hand dripping ink spots unnoticed on her parchment.

Hermione had thought about it, very long and very hard. The only topic that had caused her to think harder in her life had been the search for the Horcruxes. But this? This was a very close second.

"I will go. To the cottage in Lewis. With Bellatrix." It sounded like a weird conclusion in Clue.

She had tried to imagine it, going back home to find either her own parents or spend time with her friends at the Burrow, simply leaving this situation behind. But then the first nights would come, with Hermione lying wide awake and wondering when the moment arrived when she would drop dead on the floor. Would they keep Bellatrix safe? Would an angry Auror let his hand slip again one too many times? The dark witch had the tendency to enrage even the most tranquil individuals. There would be a constant worry and fear in the back of her mind, driving her slowly crazy.

On the other hand there was the cottage. A rural home in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by Muggle towns and with Bellatrix wandless and fully out of her comfort zone. Hermione would be the one with the advantage and whatever the Death Eater tried, she would need the younger witch to take care of everyday transactions. She would be away from her friends for a while, but with regular owl exchanges she wouldn't be completely cut off.

But most off all, Hermione would finally have a chance to rise above her terror, her darkest nightmares. Even if Bellatrix managed to terrorize her, there were limits she couldn't cross.

There was a quiet click as McGonagall placed down her quill and interlaced her fingers in a thoughtful gesture. "Miss Granger, I have to admit this change of heart is... surprising. Are you really sure?" She pointed at a seat in front of her desk and Hermione sat down with a sigh.

"To be brutally honest? No. But it really seems like the best choice until the trial is over," the younger witch admitted. "Personal feelings aside, I suppose."

"I'm not sending you there if you're opposed to it," the professor made clear in a lowered voice.

"I didn't say I'm... I... well, yes, I don't feel fully comfortable with this, but if I don't go then my fear will have won. And I'm not the kind of person who let's herself be ruled by fear. Rules, maybe, but not negative emotions like this." Rubbing her hands absently, Hermione tried to make her reasons for choosing this clear, but it was as if the words eluded her.

"Young woman, you should be afraid of Madame Lestrange. She is a very dangerous woman, probably the most dangerous the Wizarding World knows and it would be foolish to underestimate her."

"I know. Believe me, I know." A bit of desperation was inching into her voice at her inability to make herself clear. But how to explain someone the terror of a memory? The choking grips of a nightmare? In Malfoy Manor, Bellatrix had been in the highest position of power one could be and this would never happen again. And even then, Hermione had managed to keep some of her wits about her by lying to her torturer's face. The sadistic woman was the very incarnation of her despair and she had to face it and leave it behind.

Otherwise it would haunt her until the end of her life. The mark on her arm would make sure of that.

"Please trust me when I say that I want to do this," she finally said, placing all her conviction into her voice. "Just... make sure someone checks up on us regularly."

McGonagall mustered her for a while, then, as if Hermione had given a very good answer to a question in class, the teacher nodded once at her. "Very well. You don't have to worry about being completely alone. There is a startling amount of squibs who have chosen to live on the island and a personal friend of mine, Terry Drummond, takes care of the house and will be happy to help you along on the island."

Before McGonagall could further elaborate, the brunette quickly interjected with another question. "What do you think Bellatrix will say to this?" she asked, wondering quietly if the dark witch would make a scene.

"My dear," the Headmistress began with a cheeky grin, "Madame Lestrange won't be even asked in this matter. She is still our prisoner and if she wants to improve her case, she would do well to follow our orders."

From then on, they began planning. With her mind fully focused on this, the young woman didn't get any time to worry about if this really was the right decision or not. Constantly she was shown maps and learned about the local place, so she would have another advantage over the clueless Death Eater, further reducing the chance Bellatrix might run away. But even if she did, where would the criminal go? Who would offer her refuge? Hermione knew that the Ministry had made clear to the older woman that she was a wanted target for both sides of the war and she expected Bellatrix to be smart enough to take the danger serious. Really, who would sell herself to the light side only to run into the next enemy?

Of course it was a given that even her friends couldn't know about her future whereabouts, so the young woman wrote them letters and made clear it would be a while until she could see them in person again, making sure they understood it was because of her 'special deal'.

It was hard knowing she would have to do without them for what could be months. After spending so much time only being surrounded by the boys, camping in nature and overcoming all these obstacles, being on her own would be a huge change. Especially now, after Ron and her had started to begin something so new after circling around each other for so many years.

But there were more important matters to consider for the moment - her life for example - and she had always been someone who fully concentrated on her task instead of drifting off mentally into other realms.

And suddenly, after several days of getting everything in order by day and fretting at night, it was June and Hermione found herself ready to be shipped off to the Isle of Lewis with the woman she hated.

Stupid girl. Stupid stupid stupid, the young witch berated herself when she found herself sitting on the closed toilet seat with the world spinning around her and lungs greedily gasping for air as another panic attack was inching nearer. Why the heck did you agree to this stupid idea?

McGonagall wanted her in her office in ten minutes, where she would apparate them as a group to the train station. The benefits of being Headmistress would give them the chance to slip away unnoticed during the evening, instead of using the front door to leave on foot. From there, the three witches would share a compartment to a small city near the Scottish coastline, where McGonagall would give them over into the care of her friend.

The brunette could do little but sit still, fixing her eyes to a point on the wall and counting her deep breaths. In. Out. In. Out. One, two, three...

Get your ass out there, Hermione. You're a Gryffindor lion, not a Cowardly one.

Somehow managing to appear on time, with a small bag around her shoulder (magic might be forbidden on the isle, but her charmed handbag would go 'under the radar', to quote McGonagall's surprising Muggle reference), she found her teacher and the dark witch more than a respectable distance apart, with Bellatrix rummaging through the contents of a bookshelf with a bored look and under the watchful eyes of the Headmistress.

Considering how McGonagall cherished her tomes, it was no wonder she was gripping her wand tightly enough that Bellatrix probably had no chance to even nick the edge of a side before being hexed into oblivion.

"Ah, finally," the raven-haired woman drawled, slamming her current reading material shut in a way that had McGonagall twitch in annoyance. "And I was just ready to take bets you had bailed out on poor little me."

"Don't count on it," the brunette mumbled back, moving over to her teacher. McGonagall had exchanged her normally pointy wizard hat for one more Muggle compliant, causing her to look like nothing more special than an elegantly dressed older lady. Bellatrix on the other hand had not changed one piece of her outfit, but it seemed she had gotten the chance to clean up regularly, as her clothes and hair were unruly, though spotless. Hermione already had taken care of everything, carrying different simple but black outfits for the other witch in her bag.

The three of them would make quite a curious picture.

"Well, if everyone's ready..?" McGonagall glanced at her traveling companions and both moved closer while gauging each other. It was clear neither in the room was happy with the situation.

They apparated to the train station at Hogsmeade and Bellatrix glanced upwards with a disdained sniff. "So, we're going on a tour? Fine, but if this ends with Azkaban one of you two won't make it back alive. And I think I can predict who it will be."

Hermione forced herself to ignore the painful stare drilling its way through her back at these words. She couldn't stop the sweat pooling at her neck, though.

"If I wanted you in Azkaban, Madame Lestrange, you would already be there. So don't go ahead and make ridiculous assumptions," the Headteacher snapped back, grabbing the Death Eater's shoulder to turn her towards the train doors. Bellatrix freed herself with a ruthless shrug of her arm, glaring daggers at the other woman and daring her to touch her again.

They managed to board the train without further incidents, even though the dark witch used every chance to snap at them. It was not the usual Hogwarts Express but a normal Muggle train, whose passengers didn't even notice they were taking a small side trip from their usual route thanks to magical interference.

Bellatrix's disgusted gaze would have killed several people by the way she was burning holes into the magicless passengers they passed. In a highlight of her spiteful behavior, the dark witch caused a trolley to crash on its side with an 'accidental' twist of her hips. The woman pushing the cart had opened her mouth to berate the stranger for her insolence, but Bellatrix grinned at her with such pure maliciousness that the poor train worker paled and trembled like a caught rabbit, no sound slipping past her lips.

The glance at her destroyed teeth certainly helped her successful attempt at intimidation.

"Why the heck do I have to reside between such filth?" Bellatrix screeched in anger, once the door to their compartment had fallen shut. "We are grown witches, we should apparate instead of traveling with dirt!"

Hermione wisely kept her mouth shut, but raised her chin in defiance. Sooner or later the criminal had to realize that throwing insults left and right when she was her only company might not be the brightest idea.

"Sit down, Madame Lestrange. I plan to spend the rest of this journey in peace and quiet." Pointedly, McGonagall sat down and pulled out a book, ignoring the fuming witch with God-given placidity.

Although looking like the dark witch was ready to kick something, or better, murder a certain someone, McGonagall was still the one with the wand and thus in charge. With an annoyed hiss, Bellatrix turned and loudly stomped down the aisle in her high heels, followed by a loud thump when she threw herself on another seat. Hermione could see the black curls out of the corner of her eye, so there was no need to worry that the dark witch would vanish without them noticing.

"I doubt the Ministry will be happy about you two dragging me off to god knows where," was the last thing Bellatrix snapped at them from several places behind.

"Kingsley Shacklebolt is collecting quite a few favours to make sure when the time is right everyone will know this is happening due to his will and under Ministry regulations. Don't worry, everything is taken care of," the teacher berated her and was spared an answer.

It was surprising, but during the hours they spent in the train there really was uninterrupted silence. Other people tended to avoid their compartment, if thanks to magical means or because of the dangerous looking individual sitting near them, Hermione couldn't tell. She let her mind roam free, not thinking about anything or anyone and watching the landscape rush by, falling into a comforting haze. Her teacher made this possible by acting as a comforting presence.

When they left the train in the dark of the night, McGonagall breathed no word of where they had arrived. But the air was heavy with the smell of fog and sea, so even without a town name it was pretty obvious they had arrived at a port. "The less you both know, the better," the Headmistress only commented, then led them downhill through the small town where they got their first glimpse of the water.

Even after their odyssey through most of England, where she had seen many beautiful parts of nature and even the coast several times, the seemingly endless stretch of water was still a sight to behold. The darkness of the night made the mirror-like sea appear to stretch into oblivion.

"What are you bloody planning? A journey to India?" Bellatrix snapped from behind Hermione's shoulder and the young woman felt herself freeze at the unwanted voice.

"Nothing of that kind, I assure you," McGonagall answered calmly, striding forward with quick steps.

Bellatrix sauntered after her with an unamused snort, leaving the youngest witch to drudge behind with heavy soles. They would have to part soon and then it meant 'Goodbye friends' for what could be weeks, even months. McGonagall had promised to stay in contact with her through Terry, but it was a big difference talking through someone else or actually hearing their voice in person.

At the pier a small fisher boat had docked; in front of the floodlight it sported the silhouette of a slim, lanky man standing behind the railing.

"Heya! Is 'at ye, McGonagall?" a heavily Scottish accented voice called out, then a cap was waved in greeting.

"Terry! How good to see you well, my friend!"

The teacher rushed forward to greet the man and exchange pleasantries with him. Now close enough that the light didn't glare right into her eyes, Hermione got her first good look at Terry Drummond. The man was a lot less tall when standing on the pier, but still slim and lanky. From the lines in his face she would guess him to be in his sixties, but when he smiled she realized they also might stem from years of laughter. Dressed simply and with his silver hair cut short, he appeared like an everyday face at first glance, but there was charisma in his friendly eyes. She liked him from the first moment.

"Nice to meet you, Mister Drummond," she greeted him with a respectful hand shake once the friends had stopped playing catch-up, surprised when he laughed and clapped a strong paw on her shoulder.

"None of 'at Mister, lassie. Call me Terry, I already feel old enough," he replied, changing his heavy accent to a very slight one while shaking her hand. "So, you're the wee one, Hermione?"

Nodding at his guess, he grinned in return. "Nice to met ye. Sure we'll get along bonnie well." With that he turned and his mien changed to a darker one when he took a good look at Bellatrix Lestrange. The woman in question was standing a few steps behind them, her arms crossed and her chin raised defiantly, reminding the young woman immensely of a pose she had tried to copy while being in the woman's skin at Gringott's.

Now she wondered how anyone could have ever believed her to be Voldemort's right hand. Something about Bellatrix was so unique, so intense, it was a wonder they hadn't taken one glance at Hermione and thrown her in prison for being an imposter. No one would be able to impersonate this woman... except, it seemed, a polyjuiced sacrifice under the Imperius curse.

"Can we move this along now? It's late. I want to sleep," the dark witch hissed, emphasizing the last words with bitter annoyance.

"Ain't nae trouble for me..." Terry replied dryly without seeming very intimidated, but even he couldn't meet the eyes of the eldest Black sister for long. "Here, ladies, meet my brother-in-law, Nate."

Another man of nearly the same age waved a hand out of the cabin.

"Is this your boat?" Hermione couldn't help but ask, curious as ever. The vehicle seemed old, but was kept in good shape, as much as an amateur like her could tell.

"Oh, nae, the Mary II belongs tae Nate. I own a hostel on the other side, together with my wife, Shelly." The young witch hid a twitch of her lips. Terry and Shelly. Heh. He turned to McGonagall and the two exchanged a hug. Tipping his head at them, Terry crawled back over the railing and both men started getting things in order so they could start any moment.

The Headmistress turned to them and there was a grim mood drifting around her like the nightly fog.

"Bellatrix," she began in a tone that had ice cubes run down Hermione's spine, making her glad not to be on the receiving end of it, "if I find out that you harmed my best student in any way I am going to personally make sure you're going suffer for it without activating the Unbreakable Vow. And if that won't work, your family is the next place I turn to."

All blood left the already pale Death Eater's face and Hermione could almost count the seconds until the outburst. But then a horrible shriek erupted from her mouth and in a blur of black cloth and lace, the dark witch threw herself at the Headmistress with white-hot rage.

A whispered Protego and a quick flash of blue ended the skirmish quickly. Bellatrix was thrown backwards, but with flailing arms and hurried steps backwards the dark witch managed to stay on her feet, her expression filled with a nearly inhuman amount of hate. Even without Legilimency Hermione could imagine what was running through her head.

'You will pay for this.'

Her mouth dry, the young witch swallowed heavily, knowing that even with the threats in the air, Bellatrix wouldn't hesitate to get her revenge through her former plaything. Sneering at the Headmistress, the Death Eater gathered her dress in one hand and jumped into the boat easily. All the while never letting McGonagall out of her burning eyesight.

"I admit, that might have not been the wisest action of my life," the teacher confessed when Hermione walked closer to say her farewell. The men had taken a look at the trouble on the pier, but when the situation had cleared itself up, quickly went back to work.

"It's all right. Looks like at least the safety of her family is still worth something to her," Hermione replied with a wry smile and a shrug. "That knowledge has to count for something."

"I'm still not fully comfortable sending you away with her. You can still say no," McGonagall advised her, the normally poised woman worried enough that she wrung her hands a little.

"You almost sound like you want me to cancel this," Hermione joked, but quickly grew serious again when McGonagall didn't even crack a smile. "Professor, I'll be fine. I can handle this."

"You know how to reach Terry. If anything gives you second thoughts, or you feel uncomfortable-..."

"Then I will go to him and call you. Thanks to our preparatory work I already know the Isle of Lewis better than the back of my hand... I know where to go if it comes down to that." Forcing a courageous smile on her face, Hermione squared her shoulders and readjusted the slim strap of her bag. "Leave it to me. Maybe I can even get some information out of her in the meanwhile."

Still unsure, McGonagall shook her head a little, her sigh almost drowned out by the motors of the boat.

"Watch over yourself, Miss Granger," the teacher finally said and took the younger woman's hand between her own, squeezing it. "I pray we all made the right decision."

Forcing down bile and telling herself to be strong, the brunette turned around with all her conviction and hopped onto the boat. Now there was no turning back. Bellatrix had moved to the other side with an unspoken interest in privacy; Terry and McGonagall said their Good-Bye's, then everything went very fast as Nate expertly directed the vehicle out of the port and into the dark of the night.

Half an hour later, the lights of the nameless town had vanished, swallowed by blackness and thick fog.

Hermione, hands grabbing the railing and glancing back longingly to the spot where the older woman had watched them go until the last moment, wished for nothing more than the boat to turn around and carry her back home.

She felt like the loneliest person in the world.

When she opened her eyes next, Hermione realized she had fallen asleep next to the railing of the boat, curled up in a blanket Terry must have provided her with. Surprised that she had been able to sleep with the Death Eater on the other side of their transport, she wondered if it had been the constant, smooth up and down of the boat that had let her drift off into dreamland.

There was still heavy fog in the air and the cold bit deeply into every bit not covered by her blanket, but it was low on the ground and gave the morning sun free reign to paint everything in a soft blue hue, creating a scene as if they were driving through a hidden fairy world. When Terry noticed her wakening, he came over with a smile on his face.

"Good time for gettin' up. We're nearly at the coast. " He glanced over his shoulder at the cabin. "Yoo're friend stayed awake durin' the night, didn't seem interested in talkin' either."

"Yeah, that's not surprising," Hermione commented while hiding a yawn behind her hand. Friend. Yeah, sure. "She's the unsocial kind. I fear she might make a few very grave insults to you if she get's the chance, so... I'd like to apologize in advance." Actually, the knowledge of Bellatrix's staying awake caused her to hope that the dark witch was too tired to pull a stupid stunt. On the other hand, the tiredness might only aggravate her. There was only the possibility to wait and see.

"Don't worry, we old jimmies can take a couple hits. I have a thick skin," he replied with a grin and adjusted the cap on his head. "On the isle we go straight tae yer cottage. I have a few snacks in my car and there are fresh groceries in the house, sae you're covered for the day."

"Thanks, Terry. It means a lot to have someone care for us while we're here." The young witch really meant what she said and was happy not to have to endure it all on her own. If being stuck in a small house with Bellatrix grew too much, she would just go and visit the Drummond family.

"Don't mention it. Every friend of McGonagall's is my friend."

True to his words, the fog soon became a bit lighter and revealed the town of Stornoway. Hermione had imagined it to be smaller, but once the initial surprise had faded she welcomed the opportunity to get familiar with the area once the time was right. Once again Nate managed to dock the Mary II like a pro.

When walking to the pier to hop off, shivering a bit at the chill, Hermione got her first glance today at the incredibly unhappy Death Eater. Wearing a look of utter contempt, Bellatrix didn't seem to be any more tired than yesterday, though she appeared to be a bit paler than usual. The young woman was horribly reminded of the Hall of Prophecies when glancing at the other woman in this light.

As Hermione had feared, when the two men tried to help the dark witch out of the boat, her foot connected harshly with Nate's shoulder and he fell backwards with a grunt. Wincing at the display, the brunette knew from personal experience that a high heel to the body hurt. But instead of shouting in anger, both men ignored the incident smoothly, even when the dark witch spat in front of their feet.

So it was Hermione who took over the task of thanking Terry's brother-in-law and apologizing for the trouble, but Nate simply waved it off and joked that 'fish kicked harder than that'. At the comment, Bellatrix looked ready to drown him in the harbor.

Fortunately, Terry used the chance to stir them through the streets and towards his car, when the dark witch got her first glance at a proper harbor shield and started to screech. "Stornoway? You brought me to the fricking Isle of Lewis?"

"Considering it's both our lives on the line, I think it was quite a smart move of McGonagall to make," Hermione snapped back. Despite her nap, she was still tired and only wanted to reach the house.

"You shut your dirty trap, Mudblood. I never remember accepting playing flatmates with the likes of you when making this deal," the raven haired woman growled back.

"Looks like you need to learn to accept that you gave your right for decision making away with your wand," the younger woman replied in an intense but quiet tone. No need for the whole street to hear what they were arguing about. "Maybe you should be thankful McGonagall is going through all this trouble to keep us both safe!"

At the mention of the Headmistress, Bellatrix suddenly calmed down from her rage. But not in a good way. Hermione could see something working behind the dark eyes of her companion and knew that it wasn't of a beneficial nature. "Fine," was the only answer, said so achingly sweet and fake friendly, that Hermione could feel a tendril of terror snake up her shoulder blades when the dark witch turned and walked on without another word.

By the time they sat in the car, which the Death Eater had eyed with an expression as if the vehicle would jump up and dance or fly any second - with the latter being one of the least crazy things the Gryffindor had seen throughout the years - the light of the morning had turned into gold. The peat-colored earth reflected it and Hermione felt like they were driving through an open jar of honey. Even though it felt uncomfortable to sit together in the car with the criminal in the back, she still kept herself transfixed by the raw nature they were driving past.

It took them nearly an hour to get to Port Ness and then another few minutes to leave the normal auto route and travel on a bumpy, small country lane to the cliff side west of the port. Terry explained that she would need two to three hours by bike to get to Stornoway, depending on how quick she drove. The land was flat, with few higher places that could hardly be called hills, but Hermione liked the grassy plains they were surrounded by. Staying so close to the rocky cliff line reminded her vaguely of Shell Cottage, just higher and without the sand.

When they finally reached the house, Hermione felt both elated and dreadful. McGonagall had shown her pictures of the cute, old cottage, similar to Bill Weasley's home but with a flatter roof and an even more rural feel to it. If it weren't for the situation as present, the young woman would have been really happy to spent some time out here away from the stress of the last months.

The car wasn't even standing fully, when Bellatrix had already jumped out the door to take a long glance at their new home. The dark witch did so silently and without any obvious thought on her features, making Hermione wonder if this was a good or a bad sign.

"Take care of yerself," Terry advised her when she got ready to let him drive back, "I'll come by tomorrow before noon, sae we can get whatever ye need from the market."

"Thank you. And greet your wife, I'd love to meet her soon." She grinned at him, took heart and left the vehicle. Once the door slammed shut, Terry touched his cap in farewell and drove off, leaving both women to silently stare at the cottage.

"Open the door, Mudblood," Bellatrix drawled, ripping her out of her thoughts, "I'm not going to stand here waiting patiently until you get your bearings in order."

Hermione shot her a dirty look, but it was a quick, superficial one. In all honesty, she was scared out of her wits. During the battle of Hogwarts, she had been pumped full with adrenaline and thus had managed to go through their encounter and the making of the Unbreakable Vow more or less unharmed. Later, on the hills, she knew her friends were waiting behind in the castle and that she was on safe grounds.

But now? Now she was alone. Alone with only herself and a mad Death Eater as company.

This was the worst idea you ever had. You're going to regret this.

Trying to keep the trembling to a minimum, Hermione fished the key out of her small bag and walked forward. Thanks to Terry's good care, the door opened smoothly and they were presented with the kitchen of the cottage.

A quick overview showed them the interior of the house, which was cleverly structured despite its small size. The kitchen had a row of cooking equipment on one side, a small table for two in the middle and a cupboard with utensils on the opposite wall. Two doors led away, one to the small living room, reminding her of a miniature version of the Burrow's room, but with every wall hidden by bookcases except the one where the fireplace sat. The other door led to a tiny storeroom.

Upstairs, they found two equally spaced bedchambers and a bathroom with the most ancient looking bathtub Hermione had ever seen. Yet the plumbing was working nicely and there was even electricity all over the place. Despite it's ancient look, they wouldn't have to carry water from a well or stumble around at night with candles, destroying their shins or toes in this unfamiliar place.

Bellatrix walked into both bedrooms, turned around to peer into every nook and cranny, then marched into the one with the bigger bed and slammed the door shut. Hermione was left standing behind in wonder, but instead of fuming at the rude gesture, the brunette was just happy a decision had been made without screaming or flying objects. In turn, she didn't mind taking the other room.

Hermione spent the day exploring the house in detail and getting an impression of what books McGonagall hid in this quiet refugee. She was surprised at the amount of Muggle literature, which seemed to outweigh the one from the Wizarding World. A quick look into the storeroom and the fridge caused her to make a quick afternoon snack, before she took a stroll around the house and the nearby land.

There was a disturbing silence in Bellatrix's room, but the young witch didn't dare to take a look or even knock on the door. The more scarce the other woman made herself, the better they would get along. Really, if all the two did for the next month was not talk to one another, then the stay on the isle would be a blast.

Sadly, Hermione created false hopes for herself.

Okay, I lied. Somewhat. There's not so much Bellamione interaction as I predicted, but the real connection between the two will take a while longer. Don't shoot the messe-... eh, writer, please ;)
I've been to the Isle of Lewis myself and it is a wonderful, wonderful place. Still, it didn't keep me from doing loads of research about the island. I hope I can portray the right feeling anyway!
'til next time, my faithful readers!

Chapter Text

And here I am again! Updating at the speed of light, because I'm so, so tireeed... off to bed it is after this. It's wonderful to see people following TGCWW with interest, so thanks again everyone!

imperfectionisunderrated: McGonagall is awesome and won't take anything from dear Bella. I really hoped it would sound (read?) Scottish, I used a lot of resources. Yay! ^^

OpheliaBlack: Oh dear, I fear the whole swearing thing is kind of a 'German' problem I have. You see, swearing in Germany is sort of normal, up to a certain point, so I didn't think anything about it when having Hermione swear in her thoughts. I'm very careful about her speech, though. Bellatrix on the other hand... I had the impression that she would swear occasionally, but not always. I always have the feeling it starts to outwear if I use it too often, and from both the film and the book I got the impression dearest Bella would use other ways to appear crude, more like through a wordplay or the way she insults both openly and between the lines. But that's of course only my personal impression. She swears more in this chapter, I would be curious to hear your thoughts about this :) Thank you for your very insightful replies, I love reading them!

yamiperv: It will be a while before get the full picture. There are glimpses here and there, but it's a very touchy subject for her ;) Nyhaha, I'm the evil author. Cliffhangers are my favorite weapon of choice! *g*

Darkshadow-lord: It's surprising how close you came with your prediction! But Bella being nice? Come oooon... ;)

Mephista: Der schottische Akzent hat sehr viel Spaß gemacht, an wen ich mich aber nicht herantrauen würde ist Hagrid. Irgendwie habe ich kein System gefunden wie sein Akzent/Dialekt/Nuschelei funktioniert *g* Keine Sorge, die kommt da sehr schnell raus ;)

koredaze: Thank you! I feel the same as you (hence, the story). Her betrayal will be explained... in time though :)

Lots of love, hugs and happiness for everyone! 3

5. Sliver of Reality

"Reality is much more complex than any judgment of right and wrong encourages you to believe. When you really understand the ethical, spiritual, social, economic, and psychological forces that shape individuals, you will see that people's choices are not based on a desire to hurt. Instead, they are in accord with what they know and what world views are available to them. Most are doing the best they can, given what information they've received and what problems they are facing." - Michael Lerner

It was eerily quiet. When Hermione opened her eyes, she was disorient and believed herself for a small moment back safe and happy in her Hogwarts bed. She would stand up soon, get ready for the day and move down into the Great Hall, where she would talk and laugh with her fellow Gryffindor students before helping the teachers rebuild the destroyed school parts.

But the mattress underneath her was all wrong and the wind suddenly started howling in front of her window. You didn't hear the wind in Hogwarts unless it was a raging storm.

All energy seeped from her body as reality hit her like a train at full-speed.

You're alone.

No, not quite. It would have been better if she were.

After spending restless minutes beneath the covers, dreading the moment when she would have to peel herself out of the blankets and knowing she couldn't push it away from her forever, the brunette finally heaved herself out of bed with a groan and got dressed.

The house was still quiet when she made her way downstairs to the kitchen. Eyes down at her feet, as not to stumble on the narrow staircase, Hermione was caught off-guard when she spotted Bellatrix sitting on a kitchen chair, feet on the table and crossed at the ankles, while she lazily browsed through a book.

"Oh." It slipped past her lips startled. "Uh, morning," the young woman quickly added as to hide her astonishment.

Bellatrix didn't react outwardly, other than pointedly turning a page. Half of her face was covered by those long, black curls, so the younger witch couldn't take a guess at her current mood. Giving up on making conversation with the Death Eater, Hermione pulled some food from the fridge and tensely began making her breakfast when she remembered something.

"Before I forget," Hermione began before she could lose her nerve, "I had Slughorn make something for you before we left."

"And why would I be interested in that?" Bellatrix questioned as if talking to Hermione was the most tedious action one could imagine. She didn't even glance up from the site.

"It interests me," was the annoyed reply. "You may not care about it, but if we are living together for the next weeks, then I don't want to have to wince every time I look at you."

That made the dark witch look up and Hermione wished she hadn't. She was unsure if humans could be born with black eyes, but if they could, then Bellatrix was one of the few with those dark, lightless irises that could suck the very life from your soul. Feeling like prey ready to be hunted, the younger woman shifted uncomfortably.

"Oh, I know several ways I can make you wince without you having to look at me. Care to try one?" her opposite questioned casually. The Gryffindor could very well imagine what the dark witch was suggesting and pressed her lips together.

"Just drink this. You should know that at least I'm not trying to poison you.." With that, she fished a little bottle out of her bag and placed it convincingly on the wooden surface the other witch had her feet on. With a raised eyebrow Bellatrix took it between two fingers, turning it this way and that.

"Now I know you have to really think me stark raving mad if you expect I will drink this willingly."

"It's for your benefit as well, believe me." Her heart hammered as Hermione tried another tactic. "Or are you really that scared of me?"

Those intense eyes captured her again and her survival instincts screamed at her to run and hide somewhere safe. A laugh bubbled from Bellatrix's throat and her pale red lips stretched across those horribly malnourished teeth. It caused the brunette to wince heavily, being raised by dentists and thus taking care of her own mouth hygiene with corresponding care.

"Aaah, I see what you're trying, dearie. Thinking of poking at the crazy Death Eater's pride, why don't you? I bet you think you're so very clever." Her stretching smirk was infuriating. Lolling her head to the side, Bellatrix dangled the delicate glass in front of her in the air. "I wonder what would happen if I smash this. Would that make you angry, muddy?"

Clenching her jaw, Hermione shrugged one shoulder in a 'I don't care' motion. "Do what you want with it."

"So what's in it? Something to make sure I sleep like a little baby while you prance around the house like you owned it?"

The younger woman snorted. "Yeah, sure. And then I'll have to take care of your death weight while I'm at it. No, thank you, you can stay awake and conscious."

"Fine. You know what? I'll indulge you because I admit that I'm curious what kind of 'gift' a Mudblood might intend for me. And I know of no potion of this color and amount able to harm me in any way." With that she pushed the stopper out with skilled fingers and downed the bottle in one go. Hermione had to bite back a smirk when only one second later the crazy woman's face scrunched up in horror and she placed her feet and front-legs of her chair down on the floor with a loud 'clack',holding a hand to her throat. Still, she swallowed the concoction.

"What in Merlin's name was that piss?" Bellatrix screeched loud enough that the Gryffindor's ears hurt.

"A derivative of Skele-Gro. It should take care of your teeth," Hermione stated, wisely keeping the table between her and the dark witch.

Bellatrix glared daggers at her, but then the effect of the potion started to set in. The younger witch knew how the bone regrowth brew worked, knowing it was an incredible painful experience. She had expected the witch to writhe and howl from the repairing of her teeth.

Instead, Bellatrix merely closed her eyes, placed a hand over her mouth and furrowed her brows in concentration. Her free hand was gripping the table edge, hard enough that the knuckles of her slim fingers turned white. No sound slipped out and Hermione marveled slack-jawed at the immense restraint the witch portrayed. Her pain threshold had to be awfully high.

Something told her this might not have been such a great idea after all.

"I... I'll go b-buy some groceries for us - you... well, I'm sure it'll don't hurt all the time, I just - "

"Get OUT!," Bellatrix hollered at her and the wrath in her voice caused Hermione to flee the room running. The panic hit her like a volley of hexes, piercing her down to the bone more effectively than all the Skele-Gro in the world.

When Hermione had run down the country lane far enough that her lungs burned from the strain, the brunette became aware that she continued to clutch the sandwich she had made for breakfast. Despite her hunger having fled her as she had fled the house, the young woman forced the bites down into her stomach instead of throwing it away. She hated wasting food.

Terry appeared quite confused that he was finding Hermione out here walking alone. When she hopped into the car, she started to explain in halting words what had happened and the older man shared a sympathetic glance with her. "Well, I guess she earned it one way or the other," he said, trying to lift her spirits about the incident.

But seeing the older woman in pain hadn't brought forth the much needed satisfaction for the Gryffindor. Quite the opposite.

Buying the groceries was a nice affair and made the young woman feel surprisingly normal and less stressed, despite the fact that Terry had to translate all the Gaelic words they came across. It had been a while since she felt like a real part of the Muggle world. They decided to meet up once a week, so Terry could transport all the heavy things Hermione wouldn't be able to carry with the bicycle. Afterward, they passed by the hostel and the brunette finally got to know the squib's utterly delightful wife. Shelly, who was five years older than her husband but appeared nearly fifteen years younger than she actually was, turned out to be twice as lively as the jovial Terry.

It pained her to leave the friendly couple so soon and the older man commented on the unhappy look on her face when they returned to the cottage. Giving him a helpless smile, Hermione didn't really know how to explain what would probably await her there, so she kept her mouth shut.

I can still go back home if things get out of hand, she told herself over and over again when they placed everything in front of the door.

"We'll be there when ye need us," Terry reminded her again before driving back home. Well past noon, Hermione found herself standing in the rough wind howling from the coast and too scared to place a foot over the threshold.

Well, here goes nothing, she thought while heaving a breath, opening the door and dragging in all the drinks and bags full of groceries.

She was just finished, when the Death Eater appeared like a specter out of nowhere, standing behind the young woman's back with her hands on her hips and an accompanying grim expression.

"Good. Looks like you can start making dinner. Get to it, muddy, I'm hungry."

Despite the dark witch's intimidating presence, Hermione had to blink twice at the rough tone and stood up from her bowed stance of putting the last container away. "What? Look, I'm not your cook.."

"I'm not going to repeat myself, pet. Move it." The command was hissed grimly and Bellatrix bared her newly repaired teeth.

The action had Hermione so distracted, that she didn't even notice the raven haired witch's temper rising quickly. The brown, rotten spots were gone and the ivories had even gained a bit of color, instead of staying gray and drab. Suddenly Bellatrix looked like an actual human being instead of a monster jumped straight out of a horror story. She gleaned a boost from this unexpected picture and turned halfway to the storeroom door.

"Forget it. You can cook your own meals if you're so hung-...," Hermione began and wanted to add something to it, when a heavy weight pressed her painfully sudden against the wall. The rough stone scratched against her cheek and her shoulder hurt from the impact.

"Now you listen to me, you dirty mongrel," came the heated whisper right next to her ear, flooding her veins with fear when she realized it was the dark witch who had her captured ruthlessly like this. "You think it's easy now to get defiant? To be a little rebellious after successfully shitting the enemy?"

Hermione felt herself be dragged backwards and, before she could utter something or twist away, pushed against the wall again so hard that a groan erupted from her throat. Pain sizzled and exploded all over her ribcage and jaw. The Death Eaters claws were digging into her skin hard enough to bruise.

"Now listen to me, very, very closely. You're dirt. You're less than dirt, you're not even worth more than the most disgusting bug on this earth. And when you try to revolt against your superiors, you will pay a price for it so high you'd wish you were born a spineless worm ready to be crushed beneath my heel."

Breathing hard in her uncomfortable position, the younger witch clenched her jaw. She should have expected something like this, but she hadn't watched out and now she was getting the payment for it. But there was no way in hell she would let herself be subdued quietly once again, not after experiencing hell at this woman's hands. Back then Bellatrix had a wand to enforce her torment, but right now it was only a struggle of power.

"You can insult me all you want, that won't make you anymore right than before," Hermione forced out between her gritted teeth.

"Oh, you know very well that I'm right. And to ensure that, you will cook today and every day afterward and whenever I feel hungry. Is that clear, muddy?"

"Go to hell," she snapped in reply and pushed back against the weight holding her to the wall.

A struggle ensued and the young witch tried to wind herself out of the Death Eater's iron grip, but despite all her conviction and rebelliousness, she hadn't counted on the other woman's merciless brutality.

Before the brunette managed to find a good stance, Bellatrix flung her body forward. Stumbling, the younger witch felt her ankle catch on a stool leg and the next second she was already crashing heavily to the ground. Quicker than she could gather her wits, the dark witch had thrown herself on the brunette's back, holding her down with the sheer force of the careless.

Hermione scrambled on the ground, her palms and fingers trying to find some kind of purchase, anything to be used as a weapon, but an elbow between her shoulder blades caused her efforts to die together with the breath that rushed from her lungs in a pain-filled cry. Bellatrix's cold, high cackling was like a rasp grating across her mind. She struggled with all her might, trying to turn her body left, then right, but either Bellatrix was faster or managed to hit a tender spot that caused Hermione's whole frame to go rigid.

Screaming in helpless frustration, the young woman's temple crashed against the floor when the other witch pressed it down with a free hand without qualms, the thin fingers like a vise around the back of her neck.

"Give up, you filthy bitch, or I will rip you into thousand tiny pieces!"

Something broke in the younger woman. In an instant, she was back in Malfoy Manor, on the cold floor, without hope and filled with fear for her life.

Feeling as small and worthless as then, she went limp, unrestrained sobs tearing out of her. All her courage was helpless in the face of such cruelty and heartlessness. Her bravery fizzled out like the last, fighting flame in a cooling bed of coals. The raven haired witch kept her for a while longer in this degrading position, probably watching with sick glee as the tears slipped down her cheeks unbidden.

"Good, little Mudblood... you'll cook for the big bad evil woman and you'll do it gladly, won't you?" the dark witch purred into her ear and Hermione could do nothing but nod.

She felt ashamed and raw and wanted nothing more than to curl up in a corner, hidden from the world and, most of all, the crazy monster holding her down. Pretty new teeth or not, the Black sister was just as ugly as before inside.

With a constant tremor running through her body, pain drumming through her torso and head, Hermione managed to cook the dinner without breaking down. Her face felt dry and cracked, partly from the residue of the tears she hadn't wiped away. Bellatrix meanwhile was back to her usual self, nearly dancing through the kitchen when she had to cross the room and a new, childish song bursting forth at times. Whenever the raven haired witch moved over to take a curious glance over her shoulder, as if the struggle on the floor had never happened, Hermione's muscles cramped up to the point of aching.

After gulping down a few bites of food, Hermione excused herself from the table and hurried into her room. She nearly slammed the door, putting the latch close and even going so far as propping a heavy chair in front of it, before falling down into her new bed and silently crying herself to sleep.

The next morning welcomed her with a dull ache all over her body.

The mirror revealed a smattering of bruises over her whole ribcage, a small spot on her left temple taking on every color of the rainbow. She suspected her back hadn't fared much better. With a bit of luck, at least her face wouldn't show any more evidence of this shameful encounter when it was time to meet Terry again.

Hermione fixed a simple breakfast for two, leaving Bellatrix's half of the sandwiches standing on the counter, before grabbing a bottle of water, a book and the bicycle from a small shack. Getting away for a while was the only thing she could think about.

At least the weather was well-meaning today, the sky nearly free of clouds. Even the wind, though blowing strong as ever, seemed more refreshing and warm than the days before. Hermione drove around a bit aimlessly, then decided to drive toward the coast, taking a closer look at the Atlantic cliff side.

With her face turned towards the rhythmic sea, the young witch sat on a higher dune and dragged her knees close, wrapping both arms around them for comfort and warmth. It was times like these when she missed her friends terribly, feeling also guilty for telling them she had to go away, but not why and where. They probably were expecting McGonagall to take care of her and not her living alone on a Scottish island with only Voldemort's - previously - most loyal follower as company.

Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong, Hermione thought with a sigh and buried her nose deeper into the cloth of her pants, her back twitching with pain from the bruises. I could as well be her personal slave. Or better yet, her house elf.

She couldn't help but laugh bitterly at that image. Sure. Becoming that what you tried to fight against. Good job, Hermione.

But then her train of thought stopped to a screeching halt, rewinding like a cartridge tape until she hit play again.

House elves. Bellatrix was like royalty, first a Black, then a Lestrange. A pure-blood with probably more money and prestige than half the Wizarding world taken together. The woman probably never had had to lift a finger even once in her life, not at home, not in Hogwarts, not even in Azkaban, from what Hermione knew of the prison. Cleaning, mending, cooking... that's what the house elves were for, working just out of arm's reach so their owners wouldn't even note their presence while they took care of their duties.

She can't cook, can't she? That's what she needs me for. That's why she wacked out so quickly when I refused to do it for her. I bet she can't even fry eggs.

It was almost laughable if it weren't so sad. Still, Hermione couldn't help but put her head in her hands and shake it in a willing suspension of her disbelief. "My god," she whispered to herself, the wind ripping the words away from her lips. "This has to be a joke."

Not only did Bellatrix most likely not know how to cook, wash or prepare a simple meal, on top of that she was even missing her wand to take care of even the simplest workings. The house was filled with Muggle objects. For someone like Hermione, who had grown up normally in the Muggle world, it was just as small matter of adjusting, but the older woman had to feel like she was caught in the twilight zone.

Surprisingly, it made Bellatrix appear more like a normal human being than the worry for her family or the change of her teeth had done. The more the young witch thought about it, the more it made sense and while she certainly would still be horribly afraid of the crazy woman, inside her mind she had found a kind of balance. Violence and domination are her only ways to get what she wants and hide her short-comings at the same time.

No, despite what her scared mind often wanted her to believe, Bellatrix Lestrange was not an incarnated nightmare, but a woman with a past, her own mind, her own dreams and way of seeing things. She was just as real and red-blooded as everyone else Hermione had come to know. Depraved or not.

When she returned to the cottage late, the young witch had found her equilibrium again. Deciding to act out a submissive persona, as to not raise Bellatrix's ire once again, she even managed to make dinner without breaking into a cold sweat, even with the other witch's presence nearby. Afterward, she wordlessly handed the Death Eater two bags of clothes, with everything she needed for at least a week. At Bellatrix's taunting comment that Hermione had to wash the black material with care by hand, the younger woman surprised the dark witch by simply nodding her acceptance.

Over the next few days, Hermione learned a bit about the other woman's workings. They didn't see each other often, as Bellatrix seemed to sleep at very irregular times and otherwise stayed either in her own or the living room. Somehow though, the Death Eater always knew when to show up for dinner, but for breakfast and lunch the brunette would always leave something on the table, which later turned into an empty plate.

Thanks to a few well placed, careful comments and questions, the young witch slowly confirmed her theory that the pure-blood had not the faintest idea of how to do any housework. Not that she dared to mention this revelation with even one syllable. So it fell to Hermione to make sure the cottage stayed clean, but now that the battle lines were clear, she didn't even mind keeping herself busy by doing so. The house was small enough that Hermione still had more than enough free time to use her bicycle, read her books or listen to the radio while writing letters to her friends.

It was the late nights that were the worst. There was an unspoken truce between the inhabitants of the house as long as Hermione didn't 'step out of line', as the dark witch put it, but when the moon was high in the sky, the young witch had taken to barricading her room. Every second or third day, around one or two o'clock, Bellatrix would simply snap either downstairs or up in her own chamber. Then Hermione could hear her shouting and screaming and cursing in the most atrocious sounds, sometimes throwing over chairs and tables in her unhindered rage, the awful howls of madness keeping the younger witch wide awake and trembling in a corner of her bed.

It was then that every reminder of Bellatrix being just another real, human being shattered on the night-colored floor like thin glass into a million pieces of wishful thinking.

And yet, in the morning it all felt like a simple, bad dream.

Terry was worried about the discoloration on her temple one week later, but Hermione was back to feeling confident and voided the importance of the incident. "It had to happen," she told him when they drove back to Stornoway, "we're like cats making sure whose territory it is. I'm just happy I got away with only a bruise or two."

Now that the injuries were fading, the young witch felt her interest in learning new things resurface. Terry taught her some of the heavier differences between English and Scottish, but understanding the islander's accent proved a tough nut to crack. Shelly was delighted when she got the chance to teach the brunette bits and pieces of Gaelic and while it was even harder to grasp than the Scottish, Hermione rose to the challenge. Even during the week she started visiting the friendly couple from time to time.

Two and a half weeks after first setting foot on the Isle of Lewis, Hermione found herself immersed in all the literature in the living room, sitting in one of the comfortable armchairs while reading. She was leafing through Freud's The Superego and the Id, which she had surprisingly found as an original edition between other famous Muggle works.

If I compare his theories to my current situation, it's pretty easy to find a connection, Hermione thought with slight amusement. It's obvious: Bellatrix is my Id and McGonagall my Super-Ego, with poor me as the Ego in the middle.

Turning back to reading a few of the entries and explanations she found herself disturbingly validated in her lose comparison, far to the point that the young woman snapped the book shut and exchanged it for another. McGonagall's choice in Muggle books was quite unexpected, but very pleasing to the young woman. Working her way next through the heavy prose translation of Dante's Divine Comedy caused her to be so concentrated on the pages that she didn't notice Bellatrix's presence until she raised her head to rest her eyes for a moment.

"What shit are you reading?" Bellatrix asked from where she was sprawled unladylike in another armchair. It caused Hermione to wonder how the woman could sit so comfortably with the corset restricting her upper body's movements.

Turning the book to show her the title, the dark witch's eyes glanced at the cover with a distinct lack of interest. Her head was resting heavily on her curled fist.

"It's about a man's journey from hell to heaven," Hermione carefully added, "which translates into themes of theology, philosophy and psychology. Even today it's considered a masterpiece in world literature."

"What, berating me on Mudblood books?" the other witch snapped.

"I thought you might be interested," the younger woman quickly backtracked, closing the tome. "I often see you in here, reading."

"Maybe you should try to think less then, muddy." The Death Eater closed her eyes, shutting out both Hermione and the argument they were having. There was a trace of tiredness on her face, a hint of frustration showing in the lines around her mouth and between her forehead.

Hermione fell silent, not wanting to provoke the witch. On the other hand, she was fed up with the dancing around she had to do, always treading on tiptoes as to not get hurt by the other woman's temper and fists. That couldn't go on for the rest of the time they spend here, could it? I wonder if she feels trapped in here. Maybe this is just like another, fancier prison... What am I thinking, of course it's a cage, as big as a whole island, but a prison nonetheless.

Feeling slight compassion for the pure-blood, Hermione gently cleared her throat. "McGonagall told Terry yesterday that order is slowly returning to the Ministry. She thinks Kingsley might soon notify the newspapers of our situation."

No reaction.

"With a bit of luck, that would mean the trial could begin in maybe a month. Then we could get back home soon, under the protection of the Ministry," Hermione tried further.

Finally, Bellatrix slowly sat up, leaning forward in her seat with both hands resting on the armrests. Her expression was far from happy.

"And where, do you suggest, will home be for me? A tiny, dank cell in their cellar? A fancy four-wall room in a mansion? Hm?"

Taken aback, the young woman searched for an answer. "I... I thought... but you have your manors. Surely you can stay in one of those." Why was the Death Eater so bitter at the thought of getting back? Didn't she want the trial to start as well?

Bellatrix snorted, chuckling darkly. "You have no idea, do you? Black Manor is owned by my dearest head of the family," she spat the word out like poison, "and with the death of my husband, Lestrange Manor and his vault have fallen back into Rabastan's greasy hands. And before anyone can make me share a home again with my sister's snivelling excuse for a spouse, I'd rather jump off a cliff. There is no home for a surviving Death Eater like me."

"But... but you're rich... can't you just buy a house?"

"And how do you expect a criminal to legally buy a shelter? I don't know and have no interest to learn how your filthy Muggle world works, but in this one, you're pretty much lost until the trial is over."

At a loss for words, Hermione couldn't help but wonder. If the future looked so bleak and Bellatrix had already known that things weren't going to be easy, why had she changed sides? Why had she taken the risk to be killed by Voldemort himself in case the Dark Lord had won the war? It was entirely confusing.

"But why did you do it, then? Why make the Unbreakable Vow if you knew your chances were looking so bleak?"

Bellatrix rolled her eyes at this, but the young witch had caught her in an indulging mood instead of being struck with an open palm for the nosiness.

"Merlin's beard, muddy, don't be stupid. I knew you were somehow successful enough to destroy one Horcrux after the other and on top of that, the Elder Wand was clearly killing my-..." Here she stopped, shutting her eyes and taking a deep breath. The mention of her former master clearly caused her pain, but of which origin, the brunette couldn't guess. "... the Dark Lord. Even if he had survived, which was unlikely at the time, he wouldn't have been as strong anymore. He might even have died soon through the Elder Wand. I did the only thing that was sensible when I got the chance: Saving myself. It was that or death on the battlefield."

When Hermione became aware of what Bellatrix had told her, her eyes nearly left her head in sudden shock. "Wait, what, you... you knew of the Horcruxes? H-How?"

"I was his first lieutenant!" Bellatrix screeched in anger, causing the other witch to wince. "I was his most loyal, his most trusted! And right until you stupid children burst into my vault, he had never doubted me in anything!"

"So he told you?" Hermione dared to ask.

"Of course he did! Why the hell do you think I was worried about you having entered my vault? M-.. the Dark Lord trusted me with guarding his most precious possession, a piece of his own soul. I was the only human being to ever receive such an honour, no other Death Eater came close to me," the dark witch recited proudly, sitting up straighter at this fact.

The younger woman bit her lip, realizing how foolish she had been. Of course, now it all made sense. Bellatrix's terror at seeing the sword, why she had tortured Hermione so restlessly for information and most off all, why she had done so without the presence of the rest of her family. They weren't supposed to know that something else of importance like the Gryffindor sword was resting in her vault. Gathering her courage, she dared to ask further about it, now that Bellatrix's tongue seemed to be loosened.

"But... why you?"

"None of your business," Bellatrix growled, shutting down and looking grim.

"I mean, of all the Death Eaters... Lucius Malfoy was just as loyal a a follower-..." Hermione couldn't finish her sentence, as the other witch had broken into a loud, nasty laugh.

"That spineless worm? That incompetent fool was supposed to be as loyal as me? Me? Girly, even if he was just a fraction as devoted as I was, I still could have blasted him into oblivion with my little finger! No one comes even close to my level of expertise! I am gifted with more talent than most of them put together, putting up records in my school times that not even dirty know-it-all Mudbloods like you could ever scratch at." Leaning once more forward in her seat, she sent Hermione a dark grin. "I was invaluable to the Dark Lord's cause."

"I'm pretty sure he would have claimed something else," the brunette dared to say, chiding herself for her big mouth a second later. It wasn't like she wanted to be hurt by the unstable criminal. But yet. Something told her these weren't the core reasons why Bellatrix had been Voldemort's closest.

But Bellatrix didn't explode, as Hermione had feared, instead she stared at a point beyond the younger woman's horizon, eyes lost in memory. "Yes," she admitted bitterly, "at the end he would have."

Hermione relaxed in relief.

Then the dark witch jumped up before the Gryffindor could add another question, her pale features contorting. "And all of that is your fault. Yours and that of that blasted idiot Potter and your moronic boy toy! If it weren't for you stupid children he would still be here and strong! You killed him!"

Hermione could see the slap coming, but she wasn't quick enough to duck. Pain exploded behind her eyes, her cheek nearly in flames from the heat spreading. Acting on instinct, she threw the book at the raging witch, who had once again reached back to hit her again.

The action distracted Bellatrix for the fraction of a second and gave the younger woman the chance to sprint forward. Once again she had underestimated the dark witch's quick reactions and felt how the unforgiving fingers grabbed hold of her cardigan, effectively halting Hermione's escape.

Not able to stand the thought of a repeat performance of what had happened in the kitchen, the brunette frantically kicked back with one foot, pushing all her strength in the other to get closer to the door. Her tactic worked, a pained grunt was followed by a slackening of Bellatrix's grip.

Hermione ripped herself free and ran like the devil was hot on her heels (which she was), taking two steps at a time. Barely managing to slam the door to her room close in her panic, the latch clicked shut the same moment the Death Eater's body collided with the wood.

"Get back here! Come out, you bastard!" she screamed, hitting the barrier with all her might.

Afraid the door wouldn't hold, Hermione dragged the chair in front of it with a whimper. Don't come in, don't come in, don't come in. Please!

It was what she had been afraid of all those nights that Bellatrix had terrorized the house. Now the raging fury was really trying to get her and surely would not stop at a few bruises. Oh God, please let the door hold.

The door held.

Hermione spend several agonizing minutes praying and shivering with fear, her eyes glued to the door and its heavy movements. Soon the witch had spent her energy trying to kick in the door, her screams and shouts toning down to angry hissing. Then she changed her line of attack, talking to the younger woman as if she was a dear friend and that she was sorry and wouldn't the little Mudblood please come back out?

The brunette believed that only madness could cause Bellatrix to believe that her fake sing-song voice would fool anyone into believing her words were even close to the truth. Somehow, the seductive friendliness had the young woman even more shivering than the livid animal from before, clawing away at the nerves of her sanity like the tide relentlessly working at the stone of the coastline.

Finally, after what felt like hours, the Death Eater let out one final, frustrated snarl and marched back to her own room.

Hermione didn't come back out until the afternoon of the next day.

Well, those two have a looong road ahead of them. And guess who knows how it will go along? (Me! Me! Pick me! I know it!)
*puts Bella's and Hermione's head together* NAO KISS. Make up, you two angry birds, you.
Next update will be, hopefully, thursday. And a big, big sorry to Wretched Miss. I'm just too erratic at the moment for a Beta!

Chapter Text

Hey there! Sorry I'm updating so late, but my Beta and I had connection complications. You people are great, thanks for following and reviewing so far! :]

OpheliaBlack: Don't worry, I overthink everything, even the swearing. Seriously, pure-bloods should all weigh a ton because they never do anything, never move without apperating... they are a lazy bunch.

imperfectionisunderrated: We do, actually, at least if you compare it to everyday use and England or America. I have a Beta, because being safe is better than being sorry, but thank you for the compliment ^^

iAxel: If there were three words I would have to pick for Hermione, it would be intelligence, strength and caring. You might not see the strength yet, but you will in time! Thank you 3

Frogscookie: Either the unicorn really wept a looot or it really is just a legend ;) One neeeever knows with those past thingies...

miluvrox: Thanks! What I love about Bellatrix is that she is consistent. She loves violence in all forms and the films showed this so very, very well. Why she went traitor? That answer will take a bit longer :)

Mephista: Danke dir! Einer der Gründe warum ich lange Geschichten liebe, es macht einfach viel mehr Sinn das sich die Dinge entwickeln :) Aber manchmal mag ich auch instant attraction. Also, momentan hat die Geschichte um die 30 Kapitel, mit mindestens 10 Kapiteln für die ich schon Ideen und Füllstoff habe. Allerdings habe ich auch schon das Ende ziemlich genau festgelegt, es wird also keine kaugummiartige Endlosgeschichte werden.

Auraya Kairi Black: Thank you, haha, I'm taking a lot of effort with my English, so I'm glad it's appreciated! And look at this! Ask and you shall receive! ;)

I hope no one minds me replying to the comments in here, but I feel this gives us all a chance to connect better with each other over the story. Please don't hesitate to say if you'd rather have it that I reply to them per PM!

6. The Long Road

"A mind not to be changed by place or time.

The mind is its own place, and in itself

Can make a heav'n of hell, a hell of heav'n." - John Milton, Paradise Lost

Hermione knew she was getting mad, but she couldn't help it. She had left the house after finding the courage to sneak out of her room, not wanting to return before dusk set in. Seeking out the same spot near the coast as before, the young woman sat down to think once again.

She had gained more information about Bellatrix the day before than she had gained through all her school years, albeit she had to pay for it dearly every time. The cursed temper the dark witch sported was the worst of it, the young woman never knew if her question or answer would create another bout of violence or a nasty laugh at her expenses.

Letting herself fall backwards on the grass, she watched the thick, white clouds drifting by languidly.

She was curious.

Despite all the pain she had already received at the hands of the crazy woman, she was incredible curious for more knowledge about the Death Eater: What made her do this? Why had she gone over to the Dark Side, becoming so devoted to a man who had ripped his soul apart? People weren't just born mad and violent, were they?

Obviously, before Voldemort had gone off the deep end, the two had a different relationship than they had at the end of the war. Had they been lovers? Friends? Comrades? Hermione didn't have the slightest idea. At the very least it caused Bellatrix to be incredible upset to be reminded of her former master's death.

What makes you tick? So much was still left in the cold, empty dark.

There was no hint that the dark witch remembered their last unpleasant encounter. Everyday life had returned when they sat at the table during dinner and once again the younger witch wondered how the Death Eater's complicated mind worked.

The thick clouds of that day turned into a gray blanket covering the whole blue sky. The next morning rain started to fall, quickly turning into a violent coastal storm that lasted a whole three days. Every second Hermione expected to stumble across Bellatrix, with the mad woman's rage driving her out into the ice cold rain. But the time passed silently, wearing down Hermione's constant watchfulness.

Deciding to take a long, hot bath while the storm exhausted itself outside their cottage instead of showering down like usual, the brunette found herself once again wondering why it had been so quiet. She feared a repercussion for touching subjects the other woman was wary of.

Sighing, she cleared her mind, washing the shampoo out of her hair. Thick white foam was covering the water, the bubbles clinging to her freshly scrubbed skin. The warmth seeped into her flesh and eased her constantly taut muscles into a state of relaxation.

And then she heard the scratching.

Instantly freezing, all limbs growing ice-cold despite the hot water, Hermione slowly turned her head to the door. What she saw made her ill.

A small blade was sticking between the door and the frame, slowly easing upward and taking with it the latch holding it close. Hermione could only watch with a kind of sick fascination how her most private activities were broken into, knowing that there was no place she could run anymore. These things were supposed to happen in bad horror movies, not here.

Then the door sprang open, slowly pushed to the side by a pale hand. The knife glistened forebodingly in the artificial light.

"Oh, dearie... Mudblood..." Bellatrix sang with a quiet voice, every syllable injecting the young woman with distilled terror, high-heeled boots clicking slowly and menacingly on the hardwood floor. Unable to do more than sling both arms around her nakedness, Hermione stared at the intruder like a trapped deer.

The glistening in her eyes, a mad sheen, told the young witch that the Death Eater was 'not quite here'.

"I guess it's time we have a little... talk," Bellatrix added, flicking the last word from her tongue with ease. "Maybe have a bit of ... bonding time."

Hermione screamed when the other woman threw herself at her, trashing in the bathwater when the pure-blood wrestled her right arm away from her body. When she placed the knife against the younger witch's jugular and dug painfully, not quite enough to break the barrier protecting her life, Hermione could do little but stop and whimper, left arm still slung across her breasts.

"Please," she gasped out desperately, "please, don't do this. You'll kill us both."

"And why would I care?" Bellatrix asked, still in that light-hearted, vomit-inducing tone that spoke of more horrible things. "Why shouldn't I punish you for all you did? For taking my future?"

Confused, the younger woman held herself stock-still, deeply afraid she would nick her own skin and bleed to death. "Huh? Wha-.. Are you talking about V-voldemort?" Her gaze flicked about helplessly, searching for a way out. But there was none. Her right arm was firmly in the Death Eater's merciless, painful grip, as was her life.

The knife-point wandered at that, trailing down her neck with the raven haired woman's gaze following hungrily. "Oh, you are so guilty... it's all your fault, you are to blame for everything."

The dark curls came closer as Bellatrix breathed her words almost directly into her ear. "You took him from me... my Tom, my Marvolo... my Voldemort, my master, my savior." The last name was said with so much reverence, Hermione couldn't help but flick a glance at the crazy criminal. There was a ghost of a smile across her face, her full lips rosy from her elated heartbeat.

"W-what?" was the only thing the Gryffindor could stutter out, her lion heart quivering with fear and puzzlement.

"No no no... you don't understand, you don't understand at all and you never will. No one ever will..." Bellatrix husked, painting white lines across the wet skin with her new toy. "He was so much to me. He freed me. No, you'll never understand." The blade dug deeper at her collarbone, nicking the skin and causing ruby pearls to appear and color the foam pink.

"Why?" Hermione gasped, trying to ignore the stinging pain. There was nothing she could do but follow the lines the Death Eater was giving her.

"Why? Why why why, all they ever ask is why, even in St. Mungo's all their questions were always 'Why!'" Bellatrix suddenly hissed, as some deeper, darker memories seemed to be roused. "But they don't get it! And they never will! Legilimency, Veritaserum, torture, I don't care, they can try whatever they want, I'm never letting anyone in again, no! Never!"

Trying to wet her dry lips and get her revolving mind under control, the young witch tried to find some anchor in the other woman's out of control behavior. But there was the blade to consider, which could sink deeper any second if she didn't watch out, despite the pure-blood's expert handling of it.

"L-look, I-... I don't want to pick your brain apart...or force you to- to anything... p-please, just make me understand." Careful. Tread carefully. You're so close, to both ends of the deep. She couldn't even take deep breaths to get calm for fear of puncturing herself when inhaling too much. The lightheadedness was making her dizzy. "I'll try to get it, I promise."

"Filthy, dirty Mudblood," Bellatrix hissed and the scratch of the tip of her blade left a long white line on the presented ribcage. Hermione twitched violently, closing her eyes to get a grip on her panic. "Why would you care, hm? Big bad Death Eater is doing it again, isn't she? Making you hurt, making you scream? Where are the tears, my muddy, hm? Where are my tears?"

"Please," she whimpered again, the first teardrops squeezing out of the corner of her eyes, translucent pearls this time, which met their fated end in the soapy water. "I promise, I want to understand."

"Why why why? Huh? Why would you? Why, everyone wants a piece of crazy Bella's mind. Everyone's so curious, so greedy. Why you, dirty girl?"

Hermione's captured arm was getting numb, a constant tremor running through her muscles. Her body was shining with both cold sweat and warm bathwater.

Then she felt the sharp side of the ice-cold blade touch her throat.

"Because I care!" Hermione shouted frantically, bowing her head backwards and away from the weapon. This can't be happening. This can't be reality.

"What?" Bellatrix screeched, nearly taking a step backwards from where she was kneeling next to the tub. "You dare lie to me?"

"No!"

"Why? Why? Tell me now!"

Hermione sobbed, ready to feel herself bleeding to death in an ancient bathtub during a storm on the Isle of Lewis. It was a tragedy worth of a book. "Because I care," was the only sentence she could repeat through her tears, feeling drained of everything but the truth. "I care! That's how I am, I can't help it, I care!"

She was ready to die. It would rid the world of two talented witches at once. How curious that of all her faults and weaknesses, it would be her compassion bringing the young woman to her downfall.

But suddenly her arm was freed and she slumped against the side of the tub, sinking half into the water before her shaking legs managed to keep her halfway upright. The young woman nearly went deaf as she heard Bellatrix scream out her frustrations about something while pressing her wrists to her temple, then flung the knife so hard into the wall that the mirror rattled and threatened to crash down. With quick, loud steps that caused the surface of the water to vibrate, the dark witch hurried from the room, not bothering to close the door.

One minute later, there was silence in the house. Hermione heard the harsh downpour of the rain against the house walls, the loud rush of the wind digging into every corner and her own harsh breathing echoing in the bathroom.

Incredibly exhausted, she stayed like this until the bathwater had grown so cold that it drove her out of the tub. Slinging a towel around her body, Hermione staggered back to her room, throwing herself on the sheets and falling asleep the moment her head hit the pillow.

The next morning found Hermione out in the slight drizzle, cycling furiously towards Stornoway with the intention of ending this madness. Halfway to the town, she dismounted, kneed down next to street and cried long and hard into the sleeves of her jacket.

"I can't do this anymore," she sobbed out, rocking back and forth. "I can't. I have to end this. I have to go back home."

God, how she missed her friends and family. How were her parents doing? They wouldn't even miss her, not even knowing she existed, no matter how much she wanted to sink into their arms and forget the world. But Ron, Harry, Ginny, the Weasleys, they all wondered how she fared, didn't they? All her ambiguous letters had traveled to them with the post, but she knew she wouldn't get an answer, for fear of disclosing her position.

"I don't want to be lonely anymore! I'm so sick of being scared!" she screamed at the gray sky, then just shouted until her throat hurt like liquid fire and she felt more childish and alone than ever. Hugging her knees close, the young woman hid her tears from the world.

Just one call. It would take one call and McGonagall would come, place them on the Mary II and send her back to the mainland. And then she would be back home. And Bellatrix? She wouldn't care what happened to this mad murderess.

"There is no home for a surviving Death Eater like me."

"He was so much to me. He freed me."

"Legilimency, Veritaserum, torture, I don't care, they can try whatever they want, I'm never letting anyone in again, no!"

Just that she did. Something about this eldest Black sister had her care enough that she suddenly hesitated to condemn the Death Eater, giving her away into foreign hands that wouldn't handle her daintily. It wasn't just duty binding her to this woman now, it was something different. Despite all the pain, all the terror, Hermione wouldn't want someone to hurt this world of contradictions wrapped into one person. Did she deserve that? Did anyone deserve it?

Maybe it was that which discerned her from the dark side. Her compassion. Maybe she was simply starting to numb to the terror. Causing her to care, to create a second chance, even for someone like Bellatrix, who had suffered enough somewhere along her past that she falsely believed Voldemort to be her savior in life.

Who hurt you so much? Who damaged your mind beyond repair?

Hermione hit her fist on the ground in frustration, once, twice, then a third, harder time. Good god... how much abuse do you have to suffer through before you realize your not invincible, you stupid girl? she berated herself and raised her head to once again look into the calm, gray sky.

Stupid.

And so she drove back to the cottage hours later, reaching it by the time it was dark.

It had always been nerve-wracking, the way Bellatrix ignored what she had done to the Gryffindor. But it turned out to be different this time. There was no haughty demeanor when she walked down the stairs very slowly to silently share dinner with Hermione. There were no snide remarks, no dirty looks, no annoying sniggering.

When her plate was empty, the pure-blood pushed it back, placed her hands flat on the table and asked without emotion: "So, when will we be collected?"

Hermione kept her eyes on the rest of her meal. "I don't know what you're talking about." Although she actually did, quite well so.

"You went to Stornoway and came back without supplies. I can pretty much guess what that means," the older woman elaborated, a hint of bitterness creeping into her voice.

"So? I often visit Terry and his wife. You could do that too, you know."

There was silence as Hermione finished her meal, collected the dirty tableware and started washing it in the sink. When she was ready to dry each piece, a quiet voice posed a question behind her.

"We're not going back?"

"I don't know what makes you think that," the young woman replied, carefully keeping her features schooled. She didn't know what to feel about Bellatrix's obvious shock, even though the lack of nasty answers told her more than anything. Looks like I'm starting to get a feel for her up and downs.

The Death Eater slowly stood up and moved up the stairs, wordlessly, not even slamming her door for once. Down in the kitchen, Hermione couldn't help but smile a little. The mistress of ice and fire had stumbled into a lukewarm zone.

Two days later, Bellatrix threw a book in front of the brunette's face, who was sitting at the kitchen table and looking at an old version of the Draconic History Encyclopedia. Blinking at the tome in front of her, she became aware of the title. Divine Comedy.

"It was okay, I give you that, Mudblood. But if you throw it at me again, I'll have you eat it for dinner, got it?" the dark witch said dismissively.

The young woman could do little but stare at the book, her lip twitching. I'm the one in the Twilight Zone now. "You should read the Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas it is based on. I saw it standing in the left bookcase," she answered a little breathless. Am I... discussing philosophy with a Death Eater? Muggle philosophy?

"Hm," was the only comment. "Maybe I'll do that if I get bored."

Discreetly, the brunette pinched herself on the leg to find out if this was real. Once the raven haired witch had gone upstairs, Hermione's fingers found the scars on her arm and trailed them distractedly.

Maybe I'm puzzling her now as much as she is puzzling me.

They weren't friends, they weren't even acquaintances. Bellatrix still raged unhindered every few nights, keeping the young witch awake and troubled, and the threat of violence still hang in the air whenever they crossed paths.

But with more days passing into weeks, every once in a while they would meet in the living room without the other one fleeing in a haste. Sometimes they sat and read in silence, but occasionally they even exchanged a few harmless words about the texts they were reading. Hermione was astonished that the dark witch browsed through difficult writings with ease, having little problem to wrap her mind even around the more complicated trains of thought. It underlined the fact that the Death Eater wasn't just a creature of instinct and power, but that intelligence was hidden behind those penetrating, black eyes.

Although the Gryffindor had never doubted that Bellatrix was smart, there was a difference between simply having a talent for cunning or actually being able to follow deep and abstract philosophical ideas.

"I'm fine," Hermione told McGonagall one day on the phone, her voice expressing how happy she was to hear a familiar, friendly voice. The call would be short, as it was still a risk for them, but the young woman sucked in every word like a dried out sponge, thanking whoever god listened that at least one magic user knew how to handle this piece of technology.

"Terry told me about your wounds. Miss Granger, if she is hurting you-..." The Headmistress trailed off, her concern evident.

"Professor, really. Trust me." Actually, I'm happy that I got off with only a few bruises. Better not tell her that... "We're even having a bit off civil conversation sometimes. It's all a matter of learning how to deal with her temperament."

There was an unhappy breath of air at the other end, audible even over the crackling of the phone line. "I admire your endurance, but please don't undertake too much, do you hear me?"

"Of course, professor," she replied with a warm smile. The Drummond family was wonderful and nice, but her teacher's concern was still balm to her stressed soul. "How are things going over at your place?"

"The good news is, order seems to be reinstated and voices are getting loud that Kingsley will be appointed permanent Minister for Magic. An article about you and Madame Lestrange will appear in the Daily Prophet at the beginning of August, but it seems people are talking already. All of them whispering behind each others back, as we suspected. It is sad to see Ministry officials gossiping viciously like teenaged blabbermouths."

The young woman couldn't help but laugh at that image. "Please keep me updated. Once the article is out, things will heat up considerably, won't they?"

"I fear so. We'll see once the time is right. Take care, Miss Granger, don't hesitate to notice Terry or me if it gets too stressful."

Hermione thanked her profoundly, sad to set down the phone. But the small conversation had raised her spirits vastly.

They were well into July now, but the days stayed cold to lukewarm. Even if the sun was out, the constant wind tugging at you made sure to cool you down enough. Yet there were two afternoons in succession that caught them unaware, raising the temperatures enough to have them sweat even in the stonewalls of the cottage.

Hermione felt quite comfortable in her t-shirt, but the Death Eater, in her long robe, corset and tightly laced sleeves, had to feel suffocated.

"With today being so warm, why don't you go upstairs and change? I could swear I put a short-sleeved dress in your pack," the younger woman carefully suggested to the dark witch, who, careless as always, had both legs slung over one armrest of her chair while reading.

Bellatrix merely pursed her lips. "I'm perfectly fine." The sheen of sweat of her forehead told a different story, but the pure-blood didn't let on if she minded her smothering clothes.

Hermione made the mistake and snorted. She couldn't help it.

"Got a problem with that, Mudblood?" the other witch hissed, gripping her book tighter. It always got bad when she glanced at the younger woman with this heavy-lidded gaze.

"No, never mind. I just wanted to help," Hermione groused and sank deeper into her seat.

"Maybe I don't want to change, thought about that?"

"I already said it's fine. Geez.."

"No," Bellatrix thoughtfully said after a small pause. Feeling a prickle at the back of her neck at the intense stare, the brunette suddenly felt uneasy. "No, maybe it's a bit too warm. And as we are such good friends," she underlined sarcastically, "I'm sure you won't mind helping me open the laces of my sleeves, so I can wrap them back."

I'm not your slave, Hermione wanted to retort, but thinking back to the last weeks, she obviously was not quite far from that status. Clenching her jaw, she put down her book with no small amount of annoyance, especially because Bellatrix's unwavering stare was riling her up.

"Fine. Put out your arm. I need to take advantage of the fact that you're reasonable for once," the brunette groused and moved over.

Ignoring the smug, somewhat mysterious grin on the older woman's face, she picked at the cords on the inside of Bellatrix's arm. It was easy to loosen them, considering that the dark witch was lacing them up nearly every day herself. She could only wonder how the pure-blood managed to make her corset sit right. Decades of training, I bet.

It was when she pulled up the sleeve that something caught her eye, causing Hermione to interrupt her movements. With shock she stared down at the scarred wrist presented to her, the skin uneven and white. The scars ranged from very old paleness to what was the rosy red of maybe two to four years. It looked horrible.

"Like my little souvenir from Azkaban?" the caustic voice ripped Hermione out of her consternation.

"How...when..." the young woman stuttered.

"That's what fourteen years of wearing heavy iron cuffs does to you, girly. Pretty, isn't it?" Ripping her arm from the younger woman's hands, the raven haired witch licked a trail from the middle of her forearm to the disfigured skin. "Ah, I miss my beautiful mark.. "

"But... how did you get out if you were cuffed?"

"I was lucky it was 'feeding time'. They always loosened them for that, otherwise no one would have been able to reach the grub they called food with their mouths." Bellatrix stretched out her other arm, raising an eyebrow. "I don't believe you're done yet."

By now the brunette knew when a topic was closed and silently repeated the action on the other arm, unveiling a similar marking. No wonder the Death Eater preferred wearing the long sleeves to hide the scars. On the other hand, Bellatrix often seemed contradictory: she was an incredible proud, self-absorbed being, but yet hadn't minded to run around with rotten teeth for nearly two years. Hermione wondered if the dark witch's self-centeredness was grounded in her blood status, not the knowledge of her hard-to-miss presence.

Bellatrix sighed deeply once her arms were free, moving a few dark curls with her puff of breath.

"Can I go back to reading now?" Hermione murmured, sitting back on her haunches.

"Whatever," the dark witch replied without care, waving her hand at the brunette in a dismissive motion. She had already returned to browsing her book.

Rolling her eyes, the young woman went back to her own seat. Pure-bloods. Tch.

While hefting her eyes on the page, Hermione could not concentrate on the words. Her mind was wandering, strolling around old and new paths and contemplating facts and possibilities without her influence.

Fourteen years of Azkaban. She couldn't even begin to comprehend how someone could survive such a long time in a small cell of 2x4 feet at a max. But worse than that... Bellatrix had survived all these years in the constant presence of Dementors penetrating her every single thought. Imagining to spend every waking moment ripped of every happy feeling, memory or thought, your dreams haunted endlessly by depression and apathy... bad food, near starvation, cold and wet iron walls, lack of proper light, the floors filled with screams and cries all day and night.

It was hell on earth.

Hermione felt her breath grow short at trying to envision herself in such a situation. She would have grown mad within weeks, if not days. It was wholly different to only read impersonal facts and numbers about Azkaban than to actually imagine what it represented.

But fourteen years... could anyone blame the Death Eater for being unstable? That she was even able to act like a sane person from time to time was inconceivable. Yet Bellatrix had done despicable deeds even before she had been thrown into prison. Killing needlessly, torturing Neville's parents into insanity, how broken did a human have to be to do such a thing? What drove one to revel in something atrocious like torture and pain?

Curiouser and curiouser.

Bellatrix was like a deviant science project; the more knowledge Hermione acquired about her, the more questions popped up in her mind and nagged at her to dig deeper, to understand more of her. Was it really curiosity, like the dark witch accused her off? Or had her answer been true? Did she actually care what was beneath the dark and abnormal exterior, wrapped in an attractive pure-blood frame?

Hermione chanced a glance to the older woman, wincing at her internal thought.Attractive. A Death Eater. Now you're really growing mad. But as a fellow woman, the brunette had to admit that she would be awfully glad if she was in an equally good shape at the age of nearly fifty years.

That night, she dreamed of black curls, white scars and colorless wonder.

Ah, Paradise Lost ... what a delightful piece of literature. The real important book to mention though is Dante's Divine Comedy, as this book will be closely connected to this story and have a bigger meaning in it. I also slipped a little Alice's Adventures in Wonderland quote in there, cudos to who spots it ;)
FF 13-2 is currently sucking away my life, but I'll try to make sure the next update is ready soon!
Tata!

Chapter Text

Hey there! Sorry for the late, and unbetaed, update, but I was out cold. Because of a cold. Ha, bad wordplay. Because I'm gone for today and tomorrow, I updated now so you have something to read, but I will replace it with the betaed version as soon as possible.
I'm happy so many people read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland! It's a beautiful and crazy children's book and one of my favorites :)
And hello there to all new readers, please make yourself comfortable and take a chocolate cookie!

imperfectionisunderrated: The whole relationship between Bella and Voldi is a can of worms, which will be adressed in the future. But I sure do love throwing some hints out here and there.

OpheliaBlack: I love Paradise Lost, it's like... an old-time fantasy story. Yes, I know, it's meant to be religious, but I'm not a religious person, so it's more like fantasy to me. Which doesn't mean I don't respect religion... gah, I better stop here. And don't say I write Bellatrix better than you, 'cause that's so not true. I love your portrayal of her! Update plz? *puppy dog eyes*

ABC: The Divine Comedy is like the shining beacon of writing for me. It has everything: the complex, compelling story, the fantasy elements, the high quality writing, the thousands of layers... the sheer amount of knowledge and research in there! I could go on for hours. And bringing the references in the story is half the fun :)

Mephista: Ja, kleine Schritte, zwischen den Beiden, kleine Schritte :) Du hast Hermione's Vorgehensweise sehr gut getroffen! Es wird verständlicherweise noch viel Entwicklung und auch Rückschritte zwischen den Beiden geben, aber das wirst du sicherlich in diesem Kapitel selber erfahren ;)

Auraya Kairi Black: Well, I can admit that some people around me are attractive without liking them at all. But it IS a step in the right direction ;) And Bellatrix was supposed to be good-looking, so...

Greyella: I have to admit I haven't read Paradise Found yet, although I have it here. But it doesn't compel me as much as Paradise Lost did. Character studies are fun! ^^

Thanks again, all you faithful reviewers and readers, for sticking with me and the story!

7. Wading In Deeper

"No price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself." - Friedrich Nietzsche

August rolled around. Hermione had notified her 'housemate' about the Prophet's article and the more time went by, the more restlessness could be felt in the air. It was even more quiet than usual in the cottage, both women waiting for a notice about how the Wizarding World was taking the survival of Bellatrix Lestrange, killer, lunatic and most loyal follower of the dark side.

But although the dark witch was more quiet than usual, she had an air of nonchalance about her when the topic came up. "It'll be an uproar whichever way you turn it. Why should I care?"

When an unsettled Terry told her McGonagall's only word of news had been that she was still busy 'calming the waves', Hermione realized with a feeling of dread that the tidings had been absorbed by the people with the negative end of the emotional spectrum. But who could blame them?

Trying not to overthink the information until McGonagall could confirm or deny the situation herself, the Gryffindor slowly made her way back to the cottage. On the way she contemplated buying a radio, but she suspected it wouldn't catch the magical waves the Wizarding world's radio stations worked with, so the Muggle world wouldn't accidentally tune into their programs. And looking at the device still gave her a queer feeling, remembering how Ron had listened night and day to the endless lists of names killed in the Second War...

No. No radio then.

Shuffling slowly through the rooms to tell Bellatrix what had occurred, she couldn't find her downstairs. Furrowing her brows, Hermione walked up the stairs, but the bathroom door was open and the dark witch didn't answer when she knocked on the door to her room. Daring to take a peek, the young woman slowly and with a racing heart opened the door a crack, getting a glimpse at articles of black clothing thrown everywhere, a smashed chair in the corner and an unmade bed... devoid of the Death Eater.

She wouldn't have tried to flee after all this time... would she? Strangely worried, Hermione checked the house again, but there was no trace of the raven haired woman. By chance, the young witch threw a look out of the window of her own room and there, in the distance, she could spot a distinct figure in the direction of the coastline, black curls and skirt trailing everywhere in the strong wind like animated smoke.

Does she want to be alone? Unsure, Hermione stayed and stared at the person outside, but the Death Eater made no further move in any direction. Instead of listening to her rationality, the young woman climbed back down the stairs and moved outside, steadily marching towards Bellatrix.

The woman in question was standing and staring at the horizon. A small movement of her head told the brunette she had been noticed, but that was the only reaction.

"I almost believed you to vanish in a puff of black smoke when I saw you standing outside," Hermione joked lightly behind her, holding back strands of her hair that had been tugged free on the way over.

There was a small sound, much like a 'tsk'. "Even if I wanted to, I wouldn't be able to do that. With the Dark Lord's death, this form of apparition has vanished. Same would apply to the Order, now that Dumbledore's gone... now everyone's back to square one."

"It's connected to a... host?" Hermione remembered the shifting, smoky forms fighting beneath the Ministry of Magic, black and white balls of fog throwing hexes and charms left and right. It had been beautiful and terrifying to look at... but now the ability might be gone forever.

"To a powerful wizard," was the scathing reply.

Filling that away for later, Hermione watched the dark witch standing tall and proud, even with her body turned away the brunette knew that her chin was raised and her arms were crossed easily in front of her abdomen. Always posing. I spend entirely too much time in her presence to know this.

"Why'd you come out here?"

"Here's with the 'why' again," the dark witch noted with annoyance, surprising Hermione with the fact that she remembered quite well what happened when she snapped and went hyper crazy. "I went out here to talk with someone else than goody-two-shoe Mudbloods, so I went out to find a snake."

"You could always converse with Terry and Shelly, you know," the younger woman remarked, smiling slightly.

"I meant someone civilized," Bellatrix threw back.

Hermione rolled her eyes, but then did a double-take. "Wait a second... did you say 'snake'?" A pause. "Are you saying you're a Parselmouth?"

The Death Eater threw a look over her shoulder, mustering the Gryffindor standing behind her with distaste. "Yeah. So?"

"I... well, I just don't remember the Black family being connected to Salazar Slytherin. Or any other known wizard with the ability to speak Parseltongue."

"Parseltongue is a honorable, magical language and it's not just transferred hereditary. It is the second hardest thing I did in my life, but I managed to learn it.. from him." There was wisp of yearning in her voice as she alluded to Voldemort. Then her soft expression transformed into revulsion. "But the only creatures you find here are stupid lizards. It's like talking to a brain-dead Muggle." Bellatrix pointed to a stone next to her and the brunette could see a small, legless creature lingering inbetween the cracks of the surface.

Unable to help the chuckle creeping out if her at the thought of the pure-blood conversing with a confused animal that could say little else in return but food, food, stranger?, ignore, food, nice rock, the young witch ducked her head at the dirty look the other woman shot her.

"So... you could teach it to someone?" Hermione prodded. No answer. "Would you teach it to me?"

"Not over my dead body."

Well, that was direct. Bellatrix Lestrange was a Parselmouth... how interesting. If not very surprising, now that she pondered it for a moment. Voldemort had taught his most loyal her incredible knowledge of the Dark Arts, why not assume that he had shared even more with her than that? Knowing that she was hitting a wall in the road, the young woman decided to change direction. There was still something she had to relay to the Death Eater.

"I got a note from McGonagall... looks like mainland is in quite an uproar."

"I guess I should feel special that everyone's so interested in a single, powerless Death Eater," Bellatrix replied snidely, shifting from one foot to the other without caring about the wind that tugged at her mass of hair.

Hermione was... disquieted. The other woman had still not turned around and that was highly unusual, as she normally preferred to stare down the younger woman with her relentless gaze until the brunette was a pile of shivering, unsettled fragments of fear. For Bellatrix to be so... distanced there had to be something wrong.

The dark witch had known she would drive to Stornoway today to haul in the news about how the article had fared. What had unsettled her so much that she had left the house for what Hermione could only suspect was the first time? Why was she behaving so strangely?

Of course. The answer was pretty obvious.

The mighty Bellatrix Lestrange was afraid.

"You knew things wouldn't go well for you." She didn't even have to make it a question.

"Of course I did! What did you expect, you dumb Mudblood? That the masses would chant in joy that I'm alive and unable to be transferred back to Azkaban directly with a one-way ticket? It's just a matter of time before I land back in there."

"Look, Shacklebolt will be Minister of Magic." Why the heck did she try to ease the murderess' mind? "I'm confident he won't stand behind the inhuman circumstances with which prisons like Azkaban operate-..."

"It doesn't matter if it's Azkaban or a shack in the woods or whatever worse accommodation they can think of," the pure-blood interrupted her harshly. "They will make sure I suffer together with the Dementors until my bones are dry and brittle. And then they will piss and spit on my remains."

Hermione opened and closed her mouth a few times. Something else lay on her tongue, but she was neither the kind of person nor in the mood to throw the dark witch's decade-long misconducts in front of her feet like rotten meat. "Even if that were true, you'd die before that. We'd die."

"You don't know that. No one knows if the Unbreakable Vow is strong enough to bind two people together like this," Bellatrix spat, but there was a tiredness underlining her words that Hermione had never heard before. Sometimes the young woman forgot that the Black sister was the eldest of three and had lived nearly fifty years, half of it in what was a state of constant war and imprisonment. She certainly didn't act, much less look like it, even at her worst after adapting the likeness of a mangled corpse when showing up in the Hall of Prophecies. Sometimes her skull-like face from that night still appeared in the Gryffindor's nightmares.

"We also don't know if he isn't," Hermione pointed out quietly, taking a few steps forward to stand nearly next to the other woman. "And as long as they don't prove it, they can't just lock you away. Bellatrix, we're not the dark side... we don't judge without waging all facts." The Death Eater's name rolled smoothly from her lips and the young witch feared repercussions for speaking it out like this.

But the dark witch didn't react. Her eyes were fixed on the horizon and her features looked gaunt, despite all the regular meals she received each day. Maybe all the calories the Death Eater gained from them was spent during her episodes at night. A lot of energy had to flow into raging like that, not even talking about her irregular sleeping times.

"You're afraid of going back to anything resembling Azkaban, aren't you?" the Gryffindor asked softly, pretty sure she was ripping open old wounds and touching subjects she better left alone.

"You have no idea how it is," Bellatrix answered so quietly that the brunette had to strain her ears, lest the wind carry the words away forever. Her features were completely expressionless. "It's an unspeakable kind of hell. It's eerie how Dante's Inferno fits that horrid place." Her hands were clenching the cape draped around her shoulders as if it was a lifeline. "Those wretched creatures took everything. Not being able to think... to feel anything... you're a stranger to your own mind and have no place left to hide. Vegetating day in and out, unable to kill yourself unless you willingly starve to death. I'm not even scratching the surface... no torture can ever come close to the horrors of Azkaban."

Unable to reply anything to that, the young witch stared at the ground, mute. No, that was definitely no way to handle criminals, it was inhumane to make them suffer through this for years on end. She wouldn't even have wished it for someone like Voldemort, despite all the atrocious things he had done or however much he had distanced himself from his humanity. Hermione prayed that Shacklebolt would change how Azkaban worked, exchanging the unreliable, horrible Dementors for human wardens, especially after they had ignored their duty by joining Voldemort's ranks.

"You were foolish to suggest the Unbreakable Vow, girl. You doomed yourself together with me."

"But there is still a chance you can turn things around at the trial! See, if you show them remorse about what you've done-..."

Bellatrix whirled around, catching the front of Hermione's sweater and making her stumble a step forward. Suddenly the Death Eater was in her face, snarling, scaring the life out of the young woman at her sudden change.

"I regret nothing, do you hear me?" She shook the young witch painfully. "Not one single action or decision! You bloody, little Mudblood, don't you dare think yourself so high above me, you have not the slightest idea about me."

Hermione didn't even try to struggle, knowing it was wasted energy. Or would make the Death Eater only more prone to beating her black and blue. "I'm only trying to help!"

"I don't want help from filth like you!"

"God, why do you pure-bloods all have to be so stubborn?" the young woman shouted, filled to the brim with anger and fed up of being used as a punching bag. With a grunt she hit the dirt as the older witch threw her down. Hermione turned her head away as she felt a mouthful of spit hit her temple; the action had her eyes watering. Her throat closed up with chagrin.

"You'd better think twice before insulting your betters," Bellatrix spat down at her, filled with disgust.

"I wonder why I even bothered," the Gryffindor thought out loud unhappily, wiping the wetness on her skin away with her sleeve as she tried to hide her hiccups. "You deserve every damn torture they sentence you to. Your soul is as black as your name!" It was spiteful and unlike her to say something like that, but god, she was so angry.

"Good thing that's not for you to decide," the dark witch sing-songed, kicking the younger woman's leg for emphasis. "What, no brave reply? Lion got your tongue, Gryffindor brat?" The witch cackled and kicked her again, this time in the ribs.

Hermione knew things would escalate from here on out and scrambled away on all fours, receiving at least two more stomps from the high-heeled boot for her effort. But this time she managed to get away, not even glancing back at the Death Eater, who was jumping up and down in childish glee.

"Run, Muddy, run! Before I come to get you, like I got them all!" Vicious, high laughter followed after the fleeing brunette, hunting her like a predator its fleeing meal.

Throwing the door close behind her, the young woman sank down at the kitchen table, gasping for breath while trying to keep her crying under control. The tears were useless. She should have known that seeing Bellatrix in a vulnerable state was like inviting disaster. Praying that the brutal kicks had not cracked a rib, Hermione gathered some food and drinks and hid once more in her room. The mad pure-blood could see where she would get her dinner from, there was no way the younger witch was willing to cook for her today.

Once again it was one step forward and three backwards.

Lather, rinse, repeat. How many more times would it be like this? When Hermione woke up in the morning, her body stiff and unresponsive, her back muscles aching so much that tears sprung to her eyes, she couldn't help but mentally cry 'Why? Why?' to whoever listened.

First she would manage to get a slight glimpse at the inner workings of the Death Eater, unraveling the tapestry that was Bellatrix Black string for string. But the second she scratched at the surface, the dark witch would pay back every piece of revelation gained by beating the younger witch to a pulp, degrading her as much as possible in the process.

Hermione was close to getting used to the handling, with the small exception called 'excruciating pain'. She was not even close to numbing to the hurt Bellatrix dished out and she had no interest in trying to, thank you very much.

So she stopped spending as much time at the cottage as she had before, instead visiting the several beautiful and mysterious places all around the isle, all easily reached with her bicycle. Whether it was watching the waves crash against the Butt of Lewis, strolling along the sandy beaches found all along the coast or taking a look at the age old Callanish Stones, Hermione felt herself fall a bit in love with the surroundings. Especially in the latter spot she could feel ancient magic vibrate in her hands when she touched the standing monoliths, wondering if they were a door to the infamous Seonaidh clan of the Fae.

When mentioning it to Terry in private, unsure if his wife knew about his existence as a squib, he mused about it for a minute. "We know nary a bits and pieces of them Fae. They protect us and keep out other magic, sae we simply leave them in their beloved seclusion." It had the young woman pondering if those creatures could be distant cousins of the house elves and if those working for the Ministry still had contact to these secluded beings. If yes, then maybe they could work as an example for helping her S.P.E.W. work by showing the world that it needed to deal with elves in a respectful and amicable way.

August crawled along and had Hermione on edge. There was still no news from the professor, but Terry assured her that he knew how to contact her if things with Bellatrix got out of hand. She was confident the Headmistress would come without question, but the young woman's concern was more for the current proceedings in the Ministry of Magic concerning the Death Eater's future and, by proxy, her own.

The waiting was wearing her down.

One afternoon, Hermione couldn't even find the energy to move out of her bed. She had dragged her bag close, pulling letter after old letter out of it, reading every line carefully and misty eyed. It had been nearly three months now and she missed her friends somewhat fiercely, wondering how they were doing right now. When she got to Ron's latest heartfelt letters, she couldn't help the sobs wracking her frame. The young woman missed having someone she knew for so long, especially the two boys who were so much like brothers, and one boyfriend, she added mentally, as well as her best friend Ginny.

Her birthday was etching closer as well. You're of legal drinking age then, she mused and promised herself that if she was still stuck on the Isle of Lewis when she hit eighteen, she would get horribly drunk somewhere out in the planes between grass nodes and sheep. Maybe she would stumble across some kind of magical sheep language in her intoxicated state.

Curled up in an armchair that evening, still drained after feeling homesick the whole day, she knew she was asking for trouble when Bellatrix sauntered in well past dinner time.

"I'm hungry," the Death Eater stated, hands on her hips and nose up in the air. It translated to I am hungry and I want you to cook for me, so get your ass up and into the kitchen.

"I'm not," Hermione replied in a grouchy tone.

Bellatrix sniffed disdainfully. "The Mudblood is crabby? Well, great, I don't care." Squinting her cold eyes, she looked closer. "Aww. Did we mourn and cry all day? Poor touchy pet!"

Slamming her book down, the younger woman glared at the gleeful pure-blood. "Yeah, I did, okay? I'm emotional, I miss my friends and family. I miss my boyfriend. Because I actually care about the people I love, all right?"

"Oh dear, I hit a nerve, did I?" the Death Eater mocked, strolling closer. "Aww, the ickle baby misses her dumb Weasel."

"He's not dumb!"

"They're all dumb," Bellatrix hissed, standing right in front of the enraged Gryffindor. "All those ginger spawns are like lemmings, running down the cliff while guided by their self-righteous Muggle beliefs. I should have thrown the youngest to the dogs the second you came into my sister's house."

Hermione's cheeks flamed red with anger at this. "You won't dare to touch him! Or I swear I-.." she started to shout, but got interrupted when the dark witch straddled her as quick as a snake, one clawed hand grasping the younger woman's throat.

"Swear what?" Bellatrix asked sweetly, gloomy and sharp like personified danger. "How cute... so fiercely protecting the dumb Weasel. Worried you won't be able to trade sickly saccharine kisses with the sorry excuse for a pure-blooded wizard?" Her nails dug into the light skin, leaving it littered with red crescent moons.

"Stop it," Hermione retorted, but her anger was warring with rising embarrassment at the way the Death Eater talked about the man she loved. "Don't talk about Ron like that."

"Oh, I talk about him any way I want," came the amused retort. Those black eyes seemed to look right through her and when the brunette tried to counter her stare, she found herself unable to when a smirk rose on those pale red lips. "Oooh... you're not shy, are you? Come on, you can talk to dear aunty Bella."

Leaning down heavily on the younger woman, the dark witch placed her mouth right next to Hermione's ear, as she loved to do. The Gryffindor found herself nearly suffocated by the weight, the endless curtain of soft curls and the intoxicating smell of cinnamon, pines and freshly fallen rain that was purely Bellatrix.

"Can't help but think about his freckled, sallow body at night, can't you? I bet you're doing so right now... he's probably like a silly, runty pig between the sheets, grunting happily away and totally inept at what he's trying to do."

Furious, Hermione tried to buck the other woman off of her lap. The dark witch was smaller than her, so where did she take that strength and resilience from? Don't talk about him like that, you evil witch! her mind screamed, wanting to keep her image of her puppy dog faced, sweet boyfriend pure. There was no way in hell he would behave like an uncaring animal between the sheets like the other woman implied, and no matter what, she didn't want to think about it like this! Ron and her were not even halfway to that point!

"Just stop it! Get off!" she screamed, pushing against the older witch's shoulders. Bellatrix's free hand sneaked into her hair and tucked, hard, but for once Hermione didn't relent so easily.

"Aww, blushing like a virgin bride! Oh, still untouched then, eh? Caught in the blossoms of first, delicate love!" The Death Eater laughed in her usual inimitable way, the poisonous sound cutting into the younger woman like thousands of vicious daggers. With a cry born from frustration she started swinging her fists, uncaring what part of the witch she would hit.

But Bellatrix didn't stop giving voice to her amusement and caught both of Hermione's wrists in her hands after letting go of the other's hair. They wrestled for several moments and the young woman poured every ounce of energy in trying to either throw her offender off or hurting her enough to find an opening. Yet every thrust and kick that connected was shaken off as if they were annoying flies that didn't matter in the long run until the brunette finally realized that pain was as uninteresting to the dark witch as the wind outside.

It was useless. Once again the grip of the thin, long fingers was like iron shackles. It was like fighting against a mountain or a wave and just as pointless.

After what felt like hours, Hermione fell back into the cushions in powerless rage.

"I hate you," she whispered, wheezing and completely spent. Her not fully healed back and ribs pulsed in time with her racing heart. "I hate you so much."

"Draw a number," the other woman commented with a raised eyebrow. When she clenched her fingers tightly, the younger witch feared the bones of her wrists might break, but Bellatrix was merely trying to make a point as she leaned down. "It would be better for you to get up and do as I tell you. You know, I'm not always as friendly and charitable as I am today."

"You're sick," the brunette retorted with pure malice.

"Among other things. So go and cook before I try out how much a filthy girl like you can endure before falling unconscious."

Suddenly it was very easy to rip herself away from the dark witch and Hermione couldn't get away from the crazy Death Eater fast enough.

"Why do you hate Muggle-borns so much?" the Gryffindor wanted to know the next day, not even caring anymore if she would get beaten for it. Sooner or later she would be one big bruise anyway.

"Because you're the most despicable creatures this world has brought forth. You're vile, useless thieves and should be put out of your misery so that the pure-bloods can live " It sounded like the raven haired woman had said these words many times before, as if she was reciting them purely from memory. Her eyes glowed fanatically when she uttered them.

"You sound like someone from the Third Reich," Hermione threw back and watched how the dark witch furrowed her eyebrows in confusion.

"Like who?" It was unusual that she admitted to not knowing something. Had the wars not reached the ears of the pure-blood families simply because it was a fight between Muggles? It couldn't be, could it?

"The Second World War. The Nazi's had a similar world view under Adolf Hitler." She recited some well-known, despicable beliefs of the Third Reich she had read about, watching how the Death Eater nodded along to many of them.

"A very interesting empire. He would have made a good second-in-command to the Dark Lord. A very smart wizard, this Hitler, by sorting out the impure, ill parts of the race as systematic as that."

"He was as Muggle as they can get and committed suicide after his realm crashed and burned around him, unintentionally making sure that Europe will hopefully never repeat his atrocious actions," the young girl enlightened the fanatic Death Eater scathingly, effectively shutting the pure-blood up for the first time.

This wasn't working for much longer, the Gryffindor realized. Slowly but surely things were going out of control and the day would come when Bellatrix would snap and create some damage beyond repair to her body, maybe even killing them both in the process.

Whether it was the stress, the magic deprivation, the confinement or simply the dark witch's insane mind, the clock was ticking and Hermione made herself ready to call the whole thing off. Maybe an assassin would get one of them both in the end when back on the mainland, but Hermione rather died in the midst her beloved friends and family than here in this cottage where no one but an old married pair cared for her.

On the first of September Hermione stared down at the keys she held in her hand and the small, charmed bag that was packed with everything she owned. It was now or never. She would call McGonagall and end this, finally. Bellatrix could stay here and eat the leftovers in the fridge and storeroom, because the brunette would be staying with Terry and his wife until the Headmistress arrived.

The pain around her ribs strengthened her decision.

After taking a deep breath she walked over to the door, fully prepared to leave the beautiful isle and the bad memories behind. She had tried to fight against her fears and nightmares by confronting them and had failed, but she wouldn't look back once to blame herself.

Pushing down the handle and ripping the door open, she was ready to storm out when a figure blocked her way out of nowhere.

Hermione gasped.

In front of her stood professor McGonagall.

Come on, I can't be the only one who saw the connection between the Third Reich and Voldemort's agenda. I mean, all this talk about 'purifying' and 'blood' and 'supreme'... that rings a bell. I could have deepened that topic, but I doubt anyone is interested in a history lesson ;] The World Wars are both a horrible subject each...
Well, looks like our dear heroine hit a wall. But behold! Unforeseen opportunities have arrived! Whatever will happen noooow?...
I need to stop babbling around my chapters, seriously.

Chapter Text

I'm deeply sorry for the late update. It's completely my fault... and Final Fantasy's. But mostly mine. This is also mostly a filler chapter with a few important aspects, but on the positive side, I have already looked through the next chapter so you won't have to wait long for the next. I will also be doing retroactive beta work for this one once again, so that you won't have to wait any longer :]
The whole Death Eater/Nazi thing is pretty interesting, because I doubt the pure-bloods have much knowledge about what happens in the outside Muggle world. It's a very curious topic... almost makes me want to explore it in another fic. But that's material for another time!

OpheliaBlack: I'm a bit two-sided on the whole Ron bashing. On the one hand, I'm all for it. On the other, I actually like Ron, because he's goofy. And the actor who plays him is like a puppy you don't want to kick. So I'm always pulled between two standpoints! It's maddening, really.

LivinBeyondTheHorizon: Heya! Sie werden sich noch eine Weile im Kreis drehen, fürchte ich. Oder eher, das typische ein Schritt vorwärts, drei zurück... aber sie werden sich annähern, langsam aber sicher ;)

vienne la nuit: And thank you as well! That was a very interesting review to read and I'm glad my writing delivers enjoyment. That's what I'm here for ;) And the politics will only become more important from now on.

koredaze: Yes, if she would have stayed, it would have been a) unbelievable masochism on her side and b) the whole matter would have gone in a circle. So it was time for a change :)

Abba/lottie dee: Well, then Rowling and I have one thing in common: We sure do like our history! :D

Greyella: It's ALL about heat between those two, of whatever kind you can think of ;) Oh my, I made a drug user out of you! Shame on me *grin*

Lifeicovett: Thank you! :) And we will find out more about Bella's past, because I took so much pain and research to fill the gaps Canon left us with. In time!

imperfectionisunderrated:Well, I have to work with what both the films and the books give me. And when I saw that cool-looking, hard-to-explain smoke apparition in the film, I knew I had to work with it somehow. And then I realized only the Death Eaters did the smoky apparition after Dumbledore's death and bam, idea. Let's keep you curious about their relationship a bit longer, shall we? :D

Mephista: Manchmal ist Bellatrix in ihrer Unberechenbarkeit fast ZU berechenbar. Es ist immer eine Gradwanderung wenn ich sie schreibe... aber ich hoffe der Leser ist genauso unsicher wie sie als nächstes reagiert wie Hermione selbst :)

Once again, thank you everyone. It is always very interesting and charming to read your comments and thoughts, no matter what it's about. All that helps a writer grow! :)

8. Time's a-changing

"The greatest minds are capable of the greatest vices as well as of the greatest virtues." - Rene Descartes

"Shacklebolt managed to clear the way for a trial concerning the future condition of Bellatrix Lestrange," McGonagall explained once the young woman had gotten over her shock and she and Hermione were seated at the kitchen table. "I believe he will also raise the matter of Ixion's Tears at that date. We will leave at this instant to prepare everything before the meeting at the Ministry of Magic at the end of the month."

"At the end of September? Really? It will still take this long?"

"The Ministry is shorthanded. Many former officials have either resigned, converted to the dark side or... are dead." The older woman folded her hands on the table, mustering her student over the rim of her glasses. "There are trials almost every day. And those not busy making sure the culprits in the war are cleared of charges or locked away are hunting down the masses of Voldemort's supporters. And then there is the problem of dealing with the connections to the other Ministries, getting the revolting magical creatures under control, dealing with the losses... the list goes on. With Madame Lestrange being contained and currently no threat, she is one of their lesser concerns, especially because everyone already foresees how the trial will go."

"Not well, I suppose," Hermione assumed meekly, watching her teacher nod.

"So it is of utmost importance to move back home quickly and try to find out what we have to expect. We need to plan ahead and see if we can't turn the trial around." The Headmistress glanced at Hermione's bag and her clothes, noting how she was dressed to go out. "I see at least one of you two is ready to go."

"I... was... just getting ready for a quick trip to Stornoway. Buying groceries and all that," Hermione lied feebly, averting her eyes for a moment.

"I see," McGonagall commented, but the meaningful rise of her eyebrows told the young woman that she wasn't fooling anyone. "I will go notice our captive then that we are ready to move out."

The Gryffindor wondered how she could have missed the sound of the car reaching the cottage, but suspected that the constant noise of the rushing air outside drowned out anything else. Then again she had been busy motivating herself to go the last step, so maybe the sound of the motor hadn't been able to reach her busy mind.

It was hard to tell if Bellatrix was elated or dreadful about the prospect of returning back home, as she tended to simply stalk out of the house in her usual haughty way, the boots clicking hard on the wooden floor and sending little pinpricks of chagrin along Hermione's nerves. The young woman on the other hand felt a heavy weight lifted from her back and for the first time since a long while there was a warm, bubbling feeling of happiness coursing through her stomach. There was no point in hiding the relaxed smile that graced her features. Home was mere hours away.

They shared the backseat, leaving McGonagall and Terry to happily chat away. Despite all the time they had spent together inside the four walls, it felt incredible strange to sit next to the Death Eater so calmly and in such close proximity. It was similar to ants running up and down the skin facing the dark witch and Hermione had to keep herself from rubbing her arm or scratching her flesh constantly.

Before they drove to the pier, where Terry's brother-in-law had graciously offered to take them back home so they wouldn't have to present the criminal to the Muggle world on the ferry, they made a short stop at the older man's hostel.

Shelly was incredible sad to hear of Hermione's leaving and hugged the young woman close for a long time. Promising honestly to call them and visit in the future, as they had been wonderful friends and supporting people that she would dearly miss, the group left with a small bag of home-made cookies. Feeling her throat close up at this display of affection from the married pair, Hermione excused herself soon and waited with the brooding pure-blood inside the car until it was time to go.

This time they crossed the waters during daytime and the young witch had a chance to catch up on how everyone was doing. McGonagall ensured her that everyone she knew was well, but worried for her whereabouts.

Hermione suspected they wouldn't be happy if they heard what she had done these last months.

There was still a lot left unsaid, but the professor did not want to talk about the more touchy subjects, claiming there was still time for that later. The young witch relented with her questions, suspecting that the Headmistress refused to talk more about it in close vicinity to someone not knowing about the Muggle world, which Nate was without doubt. Now that she thought about it, the brunette realized that everything they had done and said so far didn't allude to the Wizarding World either, so she kept her mouth shut for the rest of the journey.

It was strange to see different surroundings than those on the Isle of Lewis, once they were at the pier. Amongst thanks and hugs, Hermione said goodbye to the two older men, getting her shoulder patted with a friendly smile by Terry. "Take care of yerself, lassie," he said and shook her hand.

When the trio had reached the train station, the young witch was ready to sit down and wait for their next transport, but McGonagall shook her head and motioned her nearer. "There is no need for secrecy anymore. Come closer, we will apparate."

And just like that they were back in Hogwarts. Hermione wondered if it was a bit too much if she would throw herself down on the ground to kiss the cold stone floor.

"So, why the sudden appearance?" Bellatrix drawled, crossing her arms lazily.

McGonagall proceeded to bring the Death Eater up to date and then pointed to a group of chairs in the corner of her office. Hermione sat down, eager to find out more, but the dark witch kept standing and strolled slowly through the whole room, keeping herself busy to the observer by playing with various trinkets. But the brunette knew Bellatrix was listening like a hawk.

"It seems the Daily Prophet's edition telling your story hit the masses like a bomb," McGonagall began by easing herself into a love seat. "We made sure the writer of the article would only tell the facts and not make up some fancy fantasy story, as well as making note of your extraordinary aid during the war, Miss Granger. Yet the next day the Ministry was flooded with complaints and cries of outrage."

"We guessed that would happen," Hermione noted sadly, trapping her hands between her knees. "It's clear they're not happy that a Death Eater, this special one in particular, gets a special treatment."

"I'm right here, you know," Bellatrix hissed, annoyed at being referred to in third person. They send each other dirty looks.

"You are spot on, Miss Granger," McGonagall quickly interrupted before the two witches could get into an argument. "The people want a scapegoat, and who better than Voldemort's first lieutenant?"

The dark witch looked ready to throw something at the Headmistress for her offhand use of the Dark Lord's name. It took her visible restrain not to do so.

"Does no one care what happens to me?" the young woman asked desperately.

"There are those too, of course," the professor calmed her down. "Right now there are two fractions: The ones crying for a direct delivery to Azkaban, claiming that one of the Golden Trio would gladly give her life for justice," here the young witch snorted and the dark one twitched slightly, "and those who want the Ministry to show mercy in the face of your sacrifices. They believe the time for killing should be over now that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named is gone for good."

"I think it's clear which side we want to scream louder at the Ministry." The brunette cracked a small smile at her teacher.

"Fine. So we know what the useless people think. What about the Wizengamot, whom do they favor?" the Death Eater prodded, turning a curious golden clock with several different dials around in her fingers.

"Be careful with that, it's expens-..." Clink. McGonagall closed her eyes with a sigh. "Never mind then."

"Oops," Bellatrix said giddily, her face a mask of feigned innocence.

"The new members of the Wizengamot keep mostly silent about their opinions. I guess they are smart enough to wait for the actual trial and the presentation of evidence," the professor went on with a miserable glance to the broken golden gadget on the floor, "but a few are arguing openly. Shacklebolt is, as you can guess, on our side. Fudge on the other hand..."

"Fudge? The former Minister? He was reinstated?"

"Yes, Miss Granger, though of course not as Minister. He managed to snatch the job of Head of Department of Magical Accidents and Catastrophes, where he worked when he was young." McGonagall didn't look very happy herself at this change. "He is quite... wordy about his belief what should happen to Madame Lestrange. I prefer not to recount his speech."

"Are there others we should know about?" Hermione wondered out loud. "I mean, can you guess which side their opinion might tilt to?"

"I fear it is looking quite bleak at the moment. Pius Thicknesse and Elphias Doge are known for being very opposed to Voldemort's followers, both tending to vote in favor of the harder sentences. Mafalda Hopkirk, who you should remember well, seems a more reasonable person, but I'm not sure about her. Others either don't stand out in their votings or have kept their opinions to themselves."

The young witch rubbed her temples, not very reassured by these news.

Bellatrix growled. "So, what now? I'm going to sit and wait patiently until the end of the month, knowing my fate is sealed?" The Death Eater sat down an unusual candle holder with enough force to shake the cupboard, turning towards them with discontent.

"Nothing is lost yet, Madame Lestrange," McGonagall corrected. "I will bring you to your sister once our talk is over. Narcissa Black is under surveillance for partaking in the dark side's actions, but will face a light sentence, as she has done no serious crime and because Mister Potter himself has spoken out in her and Draco's favour. She assured me in both written form and verbally of her complete assistance and will have an eye on you and your safety."

"What about her idiot husband?"

"Lucius Malfoy is held for questioning. He is not allowed to return to his home until his fate is decided, which might take a lot longer than your own trial."

Bellatrix relaxed her shoulders, thankful she wouldn't have to spend time with the arrogant, hypocritical man.

They talked a while longer, musing about who could help their problem and who would throw stones into their path. But seeing as the two witches had just returned from their exile on the isle, there was little knowledge they could contribute to the discussion. So McGonagall left with a restless Bellatrix in tow, the catty Death Eater not even offering a word of farewell to the woman she was bound to.

Hermione could hardly believe she was free of the mad woman for at least a whole month. It felt a bit like breathing freely for the first time. She remained in McGonagall's office until the Headmistress returned and brought her to the place she had longed to be at since they had started hiding around Britain.

When the young woman finally saw the Burrow again, she felt her heart beat faster. And when the door opened and the Weasleys streamed out, she burst into tears and ran to them as fast as her feet would carry her.

She was finally home.

Seated between Ron and Ginny one hour later, a big plate of Molly's home-cooked food in her hands, Hermione relayed her story between bites of dinner and gulps of butterbeer. Although she glossed over the more violent encounters, she could see in their faces the anger and frustration at her mistreatment, most off all Ron, who appeared ready to burst a vein. Molly wasn't far off from that either.

"I can't believe it! McGonagall shouldn't have been so irresponsible, sending you away to such a place with only this... this... madwoman as company!" the Weasley mother yelled in outrage once the recount had ended.

"It's not McGonagall's fault," Hermione quickly interjected and placed her empty dish on the table. "She simply gave me the option and I decided to agree to it. It was completely my responsibility to do or don't do it. In the end, the professor regretted even telling me about it at all, I think."

"Still, leaving you completely alone? I could have gone with you. Anyone would have, then we could have protected you from her," Ron added, his protective side coming through somewhat fiercely.

"I can take care of myself, Ron," Hermione calmed him down with a smile, but placed a hand on his arm in thanks. "And you were needed here. I heard how you and Harry helped a lot in finding more of Voldemort's supporters. Good job."

"Well, yeah," he muttered, a blush on his cheeks at the praise. "But I would have been happier by helping you."

"In the end it was a good idea, to be honest," the young witch went on, "keeping us safe on a magicless island. It was a great way to keep us both hidden without raising suspicion."

"Did she hurt you badly, Hermione?" Ginny asked concerned from her left side. It felt good to be cared about by the people you loved. "I think we have some Dittany in the house."

"She managed to score a good kick to my ribs, which still hurts in the morning or when I move too fast. A spell or two should do the trick."

"If she dares to touch you again, she will meet the pointy end of my stick. And this time, it won't be a polyjuiced Bellatrix Lestrange that suffers from it," Molly ranted with the anger of a natural mother bear. It touched Hermione that the Weasley matriarch would fight as much for her as she had done for her daughter in the battle at Hogwarts.

"Come on, I'll take a look at your ribs upstairs," the redheaded daughter offered. "Then we can go and have a big coming home party afterward. Harry will come over later, he'll be ecstatic to see you!"

"Oh, that reminds me... before you go, here." Molly presented her with a very familiar stick and Hermione let out a whoop of joy, happily clutching her wand to herself. "They found it on one of the captured Death Eaters. Beats me how he might have gotten it, but Ollivander has been identifying wands since weeks now."

"Thank you! I'm so, so glad it didn't vanish!" The young woman smiled brightly and hugged everyone again. It was sad to see George standing alone and without his twin, but he was smiling as much as the others in the room.

Hurrying upstairs and closing the door behind them, Hermione wasted little time to get rid of her long-sleeved top so Ginny would know where to aim her spells.

The girl gasped in shock when she got a good look at the brunette's skin. It was littered with bigger and smaller bruises, the freshest one coloring her wrists in blue and violet. Half-healed scratches marred her back and neck where Bellatrix had managed to dig her nails in too deep.

"Merlin, that woman is an animal! Tell me you got her good for that!"

"I wish I could," Hermione admitted with a sigh and sat down while Ginny began healing her up. "Just don't tell your mom about this. She'll march right into Malfoy Manor to hex Bellatrix into tomorrow."

The redhead chuckled slightly. "You might even be right about that." Then she grew somber again. Standing behind Hermione's back, the older Gryffindor couldn't see her best friend's face when she went on. "That's all she did... right? Hitting you?"

"What?" Hermione turned around, confused, then winced when she pulled her sore side. "What are you... that she would.. I mean, no, that's all. Really." She smiled at her friend. "I swear. The beating's weren't fun, but I can deal with that. I'm a grown up girl."

Relieved, Ginny mirrored the smile and went back to work.

To say Harry would be ecstatic on seeing her was an understatement. He equaled Ron's reaction by screaming in surprise and rushing over to hug her close, turning her around in the air several times. Hermione could hardly stop laughing, glad that Ginny had chosen to deal with her injuries beforehand.

Molly managed to present a feast that evening that was even for magical terms surprising and everyone had a wonderful time eating, laughing and catching up. Harry listened quietly to Hermione's retelling of the months she had been away, confirming that they had nearly been worried sick for her.

"McGonagall promised us everything was fine and that we would see you again soon, but then days turned into weeks and weeks into months. We were afraid she was just keeping the truth that something horrible had happened hidden, but then we thought 'this is McGonagall we're talking about!' and went back to worrying."

"She only wanted to keep me safe," Hermione said, expressing her trust in the Headmistress.

The young witch could see that Harry - who now lived at the Burrow - and Ginny were in a secure, happy relationship. They reminded her a bit of the Drummond's when they sat together like this. She would have to take her friends with her to Stornoway some day, showing them all the beautiful places and presenting the older, married couple to them.

When the moon was high in the sky and everyone formed small groups in which several different topics were discussed, Ron and Hermione used the chance to take a stroll through the garden. It was nice to have a moment alone for themselves, both silently reveling in their hand-holding and nearness.

"I still believe that someone should gave gone with you."

"Ron," the young woman began with a clear intent, waiting until his gaze caught hers to make sure he really was listening to her. "I wanted it to be only her and me. After our encounter at Malfoy Manor, I had to do this, to confront her alone, for myself. I needed to know I was stronger than that weak, crying mess she had created of me that day. And in a way, I got some kind of closure... despite the repeat performance."

"I was so close to storming into Hogwarts and confronting McGonagall, y'know," Ron finally said after they had watched the moonlight coloring the plant life white and blue. "And then there came the article in the Prophet. I was so worried you wouldn't come back..."

"Of course I would come back, you dullard," she chided gently, bumping his side with her own. "You knew things were difficult, with me having made the Vow and all... everything will be decided at the end of the month."

At her deep sigh, he loosened their hands and put an arm around her shoulders. She let herself be held close, simply letting herself be enveloped by his comforting warmth and smell, which was so much like the dusty, earthy Burrow itself. She let go of all the bad memories she had gathered during her time in the cottage.

Yes, it was good to be home.

It was at least the fifth time that Bellatrix had to roll her eyes at her sister's fussiness. It wasn't enough that Narcissa offered her a big room, a meal that was more of a feast and made sure that her well-being was looked after, no, she also had to constantly hang around her to make sure the raven haired woman had not suffered during her time on the isle.

"I told you, Cissy. The Mudblood didn't even put up a fight half the time. She was more nosy and annoying than a house elf, but I managed to get her to do what I wanted easily."

"And yet you're so quiet, Bella... that's so uncommon for you," the blonde observed with worry in her light eyes. "You've never been this quiet."

Bellatrix sighed with irritation, grabbing another pillow she could push behind her back. God, it was nice to be back in a proper housing, filled with luxury and space of all kind.

"I just spent three months stuck in a tiny house with that chatty, filthy know-it-all and I can't remember one night where that maddening wind stopped for even a minute. And, on top of that, in nary a month it will be decided by traitorous Ministry puppets if I live or not. And even if I get away with a light sentence, as long as they don't give me what I want from the Department of Mysteries, the Mudblood eats dirt and I probably will too! Can you blame me if I'd like a little peace and quiet?" the dark witch shouted at her sister, having grown louder with every sentence.

"No," Narcissa admitted softly, "I guess not. Forgive me, Bella, I'm sorry."

"Yeah, whatever," her raven haired sister waved off with sudden tiredness in her voice. It was time she cleared her mind of the impure girl. It had been fun to show the Mudblood her proper place by playing with her like a cat did with a mouse, but sometimes it had almost sounded as if the girl's words had made sense at times and that was entirely impossible and unacceptable. Not coming from one of the unforgivable beings who had destroyed her master's wonderful vision of the future. Shaking her head mentally, she glanced at her sibling out of the corner of her eye. "How's the youngster?"

"Draco?" The lady of the house pressed her lips together. "He's... trying to deal with all that happened. He hardly talks, but at least he started eating regularly again. I was out of my mind worrying for him.. "

Scoffing at this display of motherly affection, the dark witch shook her head. "It will make him stronger. You should stop trying to fix his every move and action."

"He's my son," the other woman hissed, showing a bit of her Black temperament. "As long as I'm alive and able to, I will take care of him!"

Yes, of course. Because you know what happens when a mother doesn't care, the Death Eater mused, letting her head fall back on the headrest. Oh, don't go there, Bella. "Do you know what will happen to your sorry excuse for a husband?"

"Bella," the blonde chided.

"Fine. What will happen to Lucius," she corrected. It sounded as if worms were pulled from her nose while saying this name.

"The worst? Azkaban. Other than that I have no idea."

"And I suppose you will see this as a terrible injustice," Bellatrix drawled, lolling her head on the back of the loveseat she was sitting on.

There was a moment of silence as Narcissa contemplated it. "To be brutally honest? No." That caused her dark haired sister to raise her head in surprise. "Not after he managed to get Draco so deeply into this mess. He could have stopped after the first time, but he just had to wind his way back to the Dark Lord's side. It was his own damn fault and I'm not standing behind his excuses for doing this again, not after he nearly sold his own son out," the blonde elaborated in cold anger.

"Cissy, you shock me," Bellatrix murmured with an amused smile on her face. "You even slipped a little cussing in there."

They shared a light chuckle, before the dark witch excused herself. Sometimes she couldn't help but feel her age, especially after a journey through half of Scotland and dealing with a concerned sister the whole day long. She couldn't wait to sink into soft, cool satin sheets after weeks of sleeping in that dirty shack.

But sleep eluded her once again. The Screams and memories were rising in her mind as usual and she knew the next night would be unbearable.

Throwing away her covers and strolling across the thick, fluffy carpet that caressed her bare feet, the dark witch found her way to the manor's library. Aimlessly she searched along the thick, old tomes, trying to find something worth reading. Yet nothing caught her eye and, after starting to get frustrated, she sat down at the working table to flip through a magical book with utter boredom. The literature around her had her... curiously restless.

It took her at least an hour to contemplate an idea before she made the decision and grabbed a fresh piece of parchment and an ink feather. A few minutes later she snapped her fingers two times and a house elf appeared, bowing so deeply that his long nose dragged along the floor.

"You called, Mistress?"

"Here, take this list," she commanded, throwing it before the elves feet. "I want you to get anything on there till tomorrow noon."

The tiny house elf glanced at the top of the parchment, his eyes round with confusion. "Dante Aligheri - Divine Comedy..." He skimmed across several other author's names and their works, all clearly of Muggle origin even to the uneducated mind. "B-but... Mistress... we don't have these books here."

"Which is why I want you to get them from outside, you idiot," the dark witch hissed, barring her teeth. The servant cowered, making himself even smaller. All elves knew the eldest Black to be very respectful and amiable to them, unless she was in one of her moods.

"From...uh... Diagon Alley, Mistress Lestrange?"

"From wherever you can get them - I don't care. Just make it quick... and make sure to keep quiet about who wants them," she added quickly. It would be good a good idea to learn about her blood enemies' way of thinking by indulging in a bit of literary education. Turning away from him, she waved her hand at the elf in dismissal. "Now leave me alone."

The elf bowed again deeply and vanished with a plop.

Her agitation soothed a little, Bellatrix managed to spent the night in quiet contemplation, watching the moon rise and fall through the ceiling high windows of the library.

Maybe it hadn't been the smartest act to get these books.

Well.

She'd let the Screams drown out any of her doubts and insecurities.

Waiting for the final day to come was awful, but Hermione relished the normalcy that had come back to her life.

Staying with the Weasley's proved to be a very distracting diversion, as there was always something going on. Either George had decided to invent a new form of trouble or she would play Quidditch (despite still disliking it) and other games with Ron, Ginny and Harry. Bill and Fleur often visited and the whole group would laugh and share stories. Luna showed up a lot too, as Ginny and her were good friends. It caused Hermione to actually like the time she spend with the airheaded blonde, because Luna's easy, uncomplicated way of seeing things was a nice change to the high maintenance crew that were the Weasleys.

The young woman didn't spend as much time alone with her new boyfriend as she had suspected she would. They were too good of best friends to sneak off for some lovey-dovey time and Hermione loved the easy exchange of affection that had now sprung up between them. Ron had turned into a very caring partner, sometimes overbearingly so, but the brunette was still a person who needed her me-time. But Ron understood and always stepped back a few inches when he realized he was crossing the line. And while he was yet unable to follow half of the conversations Ginny and Hermione had, he made an effort to actually use his brain for a change.

During one of McGonagall's visits, who tried to keep them up to date, Hermione hinted at one of her heart's desires and earned a round of surprised looks.

"Really? You want to go back there?" Ron asked wide-eyed.

"Other than you and Harry, I actually liked learning at Hogwarts. I know you two have more than enough formal invites to join the Ministry work, but I'd like to finish what I've started. And that includes my education."

"Miss Granger, I can only admire your interest in doing this and will fully stand behind your decision, if you want to go through with it," the Headmistress commented with a delighted smile on her face.

"Yeah, that's a stunner," the youngest Weasley son murmured to himself, earning himself an elbow to the side by his sister. "Ow! Man, women are mean..."

"You'd do well to follow this young woman's example, Mister Weasley," McGonagall lectured with a straight back. "Education is an important way to improve and hone your character. Not every country has the chance to relish this gift."

Ron had a retort lying on his tongue, but the second he opened his mouth, he caught the dirty looks the young women were giving him and he snapped it shut just as quickly. Harry chuckled, looking quite sympathetic.

Despite the filled time, things were moving at a snail pace and sometimes Hermione would find herself sitting at the window, biting her lip and wondering if she would get a chance to make her wish come true. As the days moved past, the longer her thoughtful periods became, causing Ginny to send her worried looks whenever they shared a room together.

But then came Hermione's birthday and all bad thoughts vanished like smoke into the air. Molly had organized a giant birthday party and invited all of the Golden Trio's friends and acquaintances over to celebrate this day. It was amusing that Hermione was the first of the three to actually turn eighteen, earning her a lot of friendly jokes about 'dating a younger man'.

Neville surprised them by showing up with a shy-looking Hannah Abbott in tow, not hiding the fact that he had entered into a relationship with her. While happy to see him, it confused Hermione, having thought him to be interested in Luna.

"We've become great friends," the herbologist answered with a shrug, "and we felt it was better like that. Especially because I realized I had stronger feelings for someone else." He smiled at his girlfriend, who blushed happily in return.

Fleur and Bill managed to make the party even more lively by opening up with wonderful news.

"We're going to be parents," the proud father proclaimed, hugging the beautiful half-veela close. Everyone whooped and raised their drinks, grateful for another reason for celebrating after the dark days of war.

Hermione didn't think about the trial even once during the evening.

The Black family, meanwhile, had less reason to celebrate.

Although Narcissa and Draco had really been cleared of all charges but what was a laughable compensation fee for someone as wealthy as the Malfoys, it was clear that Lucius was not getting off so easy. The claims made against him were getting worse every day and it seemed that Azkaban or a similar imprisonment were the likely outcome.

Bellatrix was useless when it came to conveying comfort, but she could at least offer her sister company while she cried as well as frequently refill Narcissa's wine glass. When her mind was restless and sleep wouldn't come, she hid in her room and browsed through the books the house elf had managed to bring her. It was like a guilty pleasure, her dirty, well-hidden secret.

But time would not rest, ticking away slowly but surely.

And then, three days before her trial, the officials finally came to bring Bellatrix in for questioning.

I have to admit, I have no idea about proper court procedure, so I went a bit out the window with it. I tried to find out as much as possible from the HP wiki, but it's not much, so I had to improvise. The next chapter will hopefully be beta read in advance :] Have a nice day/night everyone and see you soon!

Chapter Text

Whew, I'll better stop making assumptions about when I post and when not. Because whenever I think 'I have a free day then or then, yay!', someone comes along and wants something from me. First it's my friends and now my uncle decided to make a surprise visit. Sigh. Seriously, there's a reason why I nary plan a few days ahead... *grumble*

ts morrighan: Thanks! :D Sometimes I have no other choice but to take my time. Or, rather, have others take mine -.- I get the whole problem with having no Harry Potter fans around you... a few of my friends have read it, but that's it. No one I can share my love for it with *sniff*

Berserkeroo: Who knows! Maybe there is more to the Vow... maybe not. I'm being evil and will leave you in the dark ;D

Greyella:Bella ruffling through Snape's things was aaaawesome. I think it's one of my favorite scenes... HBC is awesome as well doing so. As is Snape's reaction to it. Darn, I wish Snape was still alive, I would have loved to write about him... curse you, canon! *cries*

LivinBeyondTheHorizon:Ich wünsche gute Besserung! :) Ja, es ist tatsächlich das erste Mal und es wird auch eine seltene Gelegenheit bleiben. Die Szenen aus Bellas Sicht kann ich an einer Hand abzählen... der Leser soll ja quasi aus Hermiones Sicht 'lernen', daher bleibt Bella eher ein Mysterium ;)

OpheliaBlack:Oh, I think Bella cares quite much about Cissy, but Bella is... Bella. She is more comfortable around her sister, but... as with everything it's also strained. Your point about the Weasley's had me think, though. You are quite right, they should have been more insistent. It's a push and pull between trusting Hermione's competence and their care for her well-being. I will go over the scenes again and see if I make a change or two.

Andu1991:Thank you! Amusingly, I don't think they fit together well either. I like Ron, but... he can be quite infuriating. But all in due time! :D

Mephista:Wie ich schon zu LivinBeyondTheHorizon sagte, Bella wird eher noch ein Geheimnis bleiben. Ab und an nutze ich es aus storytechnischen Gründen oder als Stilmittel, aber der Hauptteil wird definitiv aus Hermione's Sicht sein. Aber schön wenn es gefällt :) Luna und Neville sind suuuuper zusammen, aber... naja, canon. Ich versuche so nah wie möglich am Canon zu bleiben und daher musste ich sie leider, leider trennen :(

lizoftheinfinite:*laughs* Dear goodness, I'm a murderer! Thank you so much! You make valid points when it comes to adverbs. Seems I like them a bit much ;) Though grammar makes me actually go 'Huh?' most of the time, but I promise to take a closer look at that problem. Holy shenanigans, now I know what you mean when you say scene breaks! Evil took them out without my knowledge, thanks for pointing that out! They are now there, terribly sorry. That had to be an awful jarring read without them.

TigerLilly22: Thank you for reading! Chloé's pic had me screaming in joy and giddiness, so I'm glad and thankful it brings you here. I hope you enjoy the rest! :)

I welcome you to another (looong) chapter and hope you have all fun reading :)

9. Memories Heavier than Lead

"We do not grow absolutely, chronologically. We grow sometimes in one dimension, and not in another; unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish in another. The past, present, and future mingle and pull us backward, forward, or fix us in the present. We are made up of layers, cells, constellations." - Anais Nin

It was actually quite impressive how fast the Headmistress could hurry along a floor without actually running, robe firmly held up by both hands. Hermione on the other hand was running next to her, despite being not the smallest person, and looked a lot less elegant by doing so.

"They can do that?" she managed to ask amidst her panting.

"They can, Miss Granger, though I didn't expect it. Actually back then it was a common practice to bring the severely accused here three days prior and you have to forgive me for not clearing you up about the court handlings, as it is not a rule they normally evoke," McGonagall replied, eyes firmly planted forward. "Madame Lestrange will be questioned about her willingness to cooperate and I fear they have even managed to pass a petition for Legilimens surveillance beforehand."

"What does that mean?"

"They will try to get a good look at her memories, maybe for possible use during the trial. Even if she offers to show them past actions through a Pensieve to clear her name, these memories can be falsified on extraction, but not so when a professional Legilimens has seen the true ones previously and can testify their correctness."

Hermione gasped in horror at this. "But... those are private things! How can they just go and sort through someone's head like that? That's outrageous!"

"Normally I would fully comply with your belief, but in the case of Bellatrix Lestrange? I say it's no wonder," McGonagall admitted, chancing a glance at the young woman beside her. "There was no need for it after the First War, as Madame Lestrange admitted readily to anything thrown at her, claiming, truthfully, that her Lord would return. But this time the situation is a lot different. I'm not saying I agree with their methods, but we are unable to counteract them."

"Still, it's inhumane," the Gryffindor argued with a frown.

"See, it is similar to the Muggle doctors' honor code, just stronger. These Legilimens are bound by a magical code, unable to tell anyone about what they have seen inside the accused's head as long as they are alive. They are only able to confirm or deny the truth of the memory in the Pensieve and what exactly has been changed, nothing more."

"And that makes it better?" Hermione replied, going so far as to dare her favorite teacher to say yes to this with a determined lowering off her eyes.

McGonagall couldn't help but smile at this display of righteousness. "No," she replied with emphasis, "I don't believe it does."

Pleased at this answer, the young woman concentrated back on their 'mission'. McGonagall believed it was vital that Hermione and Bellatrix had a chance to talk again about their Unbreakable Vow and maybe find a good reasoning that would work in their favor, until the Aurors had disrupted their plan by escorting the Death Eater away sooner than expected. So they had quickly found their way to the Entrance Hall and were now searching for the officials in the deeper regions of the Ministry.

It didn't take long to find the desk that sat at the entrance to the questioning rooms. Other than those at police stations, the ones in the Law Department were build to hold the accused for several days, complete with bathroom and bunk. Hermione watched with wary interest how several Aurors guarded the floor, while McGonagall got into an argument with the desk clerk.

"What do you mean, only 'those with blood relations or authorized officials from the Ministry' are allowed in? This young woman is bonded to Madame Lestrange on a much deeper cellular level, I can assure you that!"

The woman at the desk shot Hermione a queer look at this strange description and the brunette blushed with embarrassment. She would have loved to join the argument about visiting rights, but even the young woman had to admit that the Headmistress could still talk circles around her if she wanted. Hermione could only hope that she would one day be as smart and persuasive as the former head teacher.

"I am sorry, madam, but those are the rules. You can petition for a special request, but with times as busy as these it might take several days-.." the clerk calmly explained in a tone that only this particular occupational group could manage to pull off. It was equal to listening to a cassette tape repeat itself.

"Then it will be far too late, with my charge either dead or worse! I demand to speak your superior!"

But even a heated dispute with the Department Head managed to be of no avail, each of McGonagall's well placed, understandable arguments slammed down with the repetitive use of the three words 'the law says'. Hermione felt her heart sink, turning away from the unsuccessful argument to take a long glance at the floor with the holding rooms.

Several Aurors stood at the walls, looking bored and uninterested in having to do their watch duty. But as the young witch observed, more and more of them pulled out their watches, regarding the time with furrowed eyebrows and barely contained restlessness. Furrowing her brow, Hermione decided to take a glimpse herself.

It was three o'clock sharp.

Then the mystery was solved when the escalator came rushing in, carrying a two wizards and a big trolley filled with plates and cooked meals. Unhindered they went into the floor and distributed the food along both the gladly accepting watchmen as well as opening one holding room at a time and carrying a meal inside. Something niggled at the back of Hermione's mind as she watched the proceedings.

"I fear we have hit a dead end, Miss Granger," the teacher interrupted her thoughts with a defeated voice. "These thick-headed, incompetent cretins are awfully fond of their rulebooks, with complete disregard for the human life!"

The young desk clerk, catching the openly thrown insults, shot the Headmistress a dirty look.

"You can be sure that your mother will hear from this, Agatha!" McGonagall snapped at the offended woman, watching her grow pale and hastily get back to work with grim satisfaction.

"There's an advantage to having served at Hogwarts for so many years, isn't there?" Hermione couldn't help but say with a grin as they slowly moved back to the elevator.

"I've known that ungrateful chit since she was merely a round-eyed, pimple-faced student, and a terrible one at that, too. No wonder she only made it as far as sitting at a desk the whole day," the Headmistress ranted, clearly upset by the whole situation. "Make sure you don't end up in the lower positions if you ever decide to join the Ministry, it would be an awful waste of talent and intelligence."

The Gryffindor bit her lip, trying to contain her amusement at the close-to-cursing teacher. But then she moved a little closer, lowering her voice. "Professor, I have an idea. Let's go somewhere else."

They left the Ministry quickly and moved back to the Burrow, where Hermione laid down her hastily assembled plan to the professor and her friends. Once the idea had hit her, she couldn't help but not let go of it.

"At three o'clock, the watchmen open the doors to the rooms and let the employees bring the food in. If I borrow Harry's cloak, I could sneak in while they walk inside and get back out with the evening meal, talking to Bellatrix in the meanwhile."

"That's crazily dangerous, 'mione," Ron noted with worry. "What if you stumble or they hear you? If you get caught, there is no way you'll win this hearing."

"While I have to agree with Mister Weasley on the obvious risk of being caught, I fear that the situation is already not looking well. I doubt Miss Granger's exposure would change much at the current time."

"It's the only chance," Hermione pointed out and it was clear she had already decided to do this. "This is my life we are talking about here. If Bellatrix and I can work something out in the last minute, it's worth every risk."

"You can have the cloak whenever you need it, Hermione. Do whatever you have to do, we got your back," Harry promised from the other side of the room.

"Yeah, especially with a plan as reckless as that. We're rubbing off on you!" The three friends shared a laugh at Ron's comment, remembering how many times the young woman had reprimanded them for their crazy ideas in the past.

With the final decision made, McGonagall went to the Ministry again the next day, a cloaked Hermione sticking close to her teacher, who showed a remarkable talent for ventriloquism in her role as direction giver and door opener. With her heart beating as loud as it did, the brunette believed it to be a wonder that no one took a closer look at her spot, everyone ignoring her as if she was another cubic meter of formless air.

In the lower regions, after the horrible experience of trying to use the elevator while staying invisible and ignored, the sat down pointedly near the desk of 'Agatha the clerk', managing to make the pretty woman sweat and tremble with McGonagall's mere presence. Hermione, meanwhile, carefully sneaked down the floor, sticking close to the walls as to not run into any official.

It was here that she noticed the big flaw in her slapdash plan. Faced with twenty similar looking doors, she had not the slightest idea which one could hold the Death Eater and no time to check them all when the food came.

But be it fate or circumstance, life had its own curious ways of working.

Because, just as the Gryffindor was ready to turn around in her moment of distress, an Auror opened one of the door to let out two woman.

Hermione's jaw dropped.

Out of the room stepped Narcissa Malfoy... and, of all people, the third of the Black sisters.

Andromeda Tonks had come to visit her family.

"Bella, please. Be reasonable for a minute."

"Reasonable!" the dark witch flared up, glaring at her sister. "There's nothing 'reasonable' about this situation, Cissy! They're holding me here like a caged animal because they know very well that it won't help my case if I can't even do any last-minute research; banning me from any of the people who would be interested as well to see me cleared off charges. If only so their beloved mudpuppy survives the outcome." Kicking the chair in the corner with all her might, she watched it flying and falling with little satisfaction.

Merlin, how she hated the Ministry!

"But it also won't help you very much if you make kindling out of your cell's interior," Narcissa tried to argue with a hint of frustration. Bellatrix's temper had been flying off the handle since the moment they put her in here and it was a strain to just get a few coherent thoughts out of her.

"Oh, yes, it very much will," the dark witch countered with a mad gleam in her eyes.

"So? And what will it help?"

"I will have made kindling out of my cell's interior."

Narcissa pushed down the sudden urge to either a) strangle her sister, b) throw her hands in the air and scream (because that was certainly not what a lady should do) and c) walk out without comment. Neither option seemed very productive, so she tried to ignore the incoming headache and took a deep breath.

"Bella. We need to work out a way to get you out of here. Just think about it for a minute."

"I don't want to think! I'm done thinking! Whatever we do, those Ministry bastards already have my dismissal to Azkaban written out, just waiting for the Minister to set down his signature so they can send me off the second the ink has dried." Bellatrix was stomping up and down the room like a restless predator, not sitting or standing still even for the blink of an eye. The constant clenching of her fingers spoke volumes about her frustration.

"If that's your impression, then they could as well send you off now without the hassle of the trial, because you're not even making an effort to get yourself out of th-..."

The blonde's rant and Bellatrix's pacing were interrupted by a loud knock on the door. They turned to it as one, watching how it opened and how a rugged looking Auror put his head into the doorway.

"You have more visitors, Lestrange," he grumbled out in a deep baritone.

"Well, send them in then and don't stand there looking dumb," the Death Eater shouted at him, ignoring how annoyed he looked at being insulted and ordered around by his prisoner. The head vanished and in stepped the last person they had expected to see.

"Could you close behind me, please?" Andromeda requested softly of the watchman, not taking her eyes of her two speechless sisters. Once they were alone, a heavy, uncomfortable silence filled the chasm between the family members.

The middle Black cleared her throat self-consciously. "Well... long time no see, I guess."

"Dromeda?" Narcissa whispered unbelievingly, her blue eyes wide. The three eyed each other carefully, noting how age and life had left their marks on each of them. Over twenty years of time sat heavily between the sisters like a bottomless canyon, but it was clearly Bellatrix who had fallen the deepest.

"I thought it would be best to see my eldest sister in case she... you know." Andromeda dragged the shawl around her shoulders closer. "I read the article in the Prophet. I know what will most likely happen if Bella doesn't win the day after tomorrow."

Instead of a happy reunion, which not one of them had ever expected to happen if they ever saw each other again, there was awkward distance. Yet blood, memories and an entire childhood would always bind them together one way or the other, which had prompted Andromeda's sudden visit.

"So you came to pat my head and say 'Goodbye, it wasn't nice'? Throw a little guilt at my feet before you leave me behind forever?" Bellatrix suddenly spat, circling the middle sister with a dangerous air around her.

"No! No, of course not. I-... I don't really know why I came, I didn't make a plan... what to say to you, or do..." Andromeda stuttered helplessly.

"How about blaming me for this or that? Seems like that is all people can do these days when they try to have a 'reasonable' conversation with me." She underlined her spiteful words by throwing a dark look at the blonde. Narcissa glared right back.

"You didn't kill my little girl, Nymphadora, did you? Please, tell me that isn't true, Bella," the middle sister pleaded, daring a small step forward.

"Oh, for the love of..." Bella threw her hands into the air in irritation. "Of course not. I was keeping her busy when Dolohov came around the corner and shot her at a blind angle. Just because I hate you I'm not going to kill off your filthy offspring. But I would have given her a few good scars to be proud off."

Andromeda didn't even wince at the harsh words, only relief showing in her face at knowing her sister had not gone all the way off the deep end. "I believe you. How could I not... You always managed to find the weirdest ways of protecting your family," she finally said with a small, sad smile.

"Wonderful how that worked," Bellatrix screeched, resuming her pacing once again. "And now say your goodbyes or get out, I can't stand to see your traitorous face for another minute!"

"Bella... look, I just..." She wanted to step closer, but caught Narcissa shaking her head no out of the corner of her eye. Pressing her lips together, Andromeda stayed where she was. "I don't agree with your deeds under Voldemort's leadership. You killed, you tortured... but even with all that, you are my sister and I won't forget anything of what you made possible - of the good in you. Thank you. For everything you've done. And I am so, so sorry for having been as selfish as I was. Please... maybe you can forgive me one day."

"Get out! Just leave, leave!" Bellatrix suddenly shrieked, aimlessly throwing a wooden cup in the brunette's direction, spilling water all over the floor in the process. The cup missed the middle Black by miles, but both sisters got the hint and hurried to the door. The Death Eater had managed to drive herself into an episode and the Auror quickly let both of them out, so the mad woman could either cool herself down or spend her energy on the furnishings.

The two siblings sought out a quiet corner in the floor. Here they stood for a moment uncomfortably, facing each other with looks of tentativeness and hunting for the slightest sign of recognition that this was the young girl the other had grown up with. On the other end of the hallway, the trolley with the two wizards came and the distribution of meals began unheeded in the background.

Suddenly Andromeda rushed forward and enveloped her younger sibling in a hug. It took Narcissa a moment, but then she threw her arms around the lost family member, closing her eyes tightly.

"Oh god, Cissy... I can't believe it. After all these years... I can't say how grateful I am. Or how sorry. To the both of you..." There were tears running down the brunette's cheeks and she quickly wiped them away. "She has become even more unstable, hasn't she? If.. if only I hadn't left, she wouldn't be..."

"Dromeda, shush," the blonde replied, talking just as quietly. The Aurors send them intrigued looks, but let them have their privacy. "It's what Azkaban did to her. You are not at fault; even if you had stayed it wouldn't have changed anything."

"It was her idea, wasn't it? To cut all ties?"

"She... yes. It was the only way. Father, he was so furious, he was ready to hunt you down with all his friends and colleagues... but then Bella spoke out and everyone agreed it would simply be a waste of energy to search for you and so much easier to disgrace your name. I was the only one who realized what Bella was trying to do and... I went along."

Andomeda buried her face in her hands, shaking her head all the while. "God. God. I can never thank her enough for keeping me and Ted safe." Her voice was trembling all the while. "I was so scared. So scared they would come and kill us. Or... or take me back." Tears filled her eyes once again.

Narcissa's blue gaze went down to her feet, unsure what she should answer to that.

"Cissy, we need to help her. If we only tell them the truth-..."

"You will not tell them the truth. No one will! That secret died with him and will stay buried." The youngest Black's whisper was heated. Glancing around to make sure no one caught any of the words exchanged, she moved closer to her sister. "Dromeda, I swear, if you do this... we forgave you for running away, but we would never, never forgive you that, do you hear me?"

Andromeda grew pale. "Bu-... fine. I'm... sorry." She licked her dry lips, then lowered her eyes. You know, it's kind of funny."

The blonde blinked at her sister, irritated. "What?"

"In the end, it made me stronger. A lot stronger. When they came and tortured me... I thought 'That's it, that's what you deserve.' But they weren't very creative and didn't even come close to breaking me." Pushing back brown curls, so much like those of her older sibling, yet a lot lighter and more tame, the estranged family member smiled wistfully. "I knew how to deal with situations like that."

"You should have seen Bella when she found out about your torture," Narcissa remembered with a confusing mixture of pride and fear in her voice. "The ones that got you... it took her not even an hour to make the Dark Lord believe they were 'traitors'. When she was given clearance to do whatever she wished with them..."

As the blonde grew silent, Andromeda gently placed a hand on her shoulder. "What did she do? To them?" she asked quietly.

"You don't want to know. By the heavens, I don't want to tell you. Sometimes... sometimes I fear she might be a danger to herself, she has grown so... distant in her head." This time it was Narcissa who had to hold back her tears. "She has become so violent. So shockingly cruel. M-maybe... maybe it would be better... I fear it might be better if she doesn't... if this trial won't end as well as we hope..."

"No, no no no. Cissy, you can't think that! Don't!" The middle Black stepped closer, grabbing her sister's shoulders with both hands and giving her a soft shake. "Bella is strong, much stronger than both of us put together. With Voldemort gone as well, she'll get better, I know it!"

"You weren't there, Dromeda," Narcissa replied bitterly, gaze growing hard. "You haven't seen what she went through. The things she did. All her life she sacrificed everything to keep her family safe... and it has taken its toll."

The two sisters exchanged a glance, then, without words, hugged each other close in a restless search for comfort. It was a tight, desperate hug that managed to even bridge the gap two decades had left behind in their hearts. I missed you, it spelled wordlessly, as well as It's going to be fine.

Taking a shuddering breath, the Malfoy matriarch found her composure again. "No, you're absolutely right, we can't let her down. Not now. There's still a chance. She was always there for us, now we have to return that favor."

Andromeda smiled, nodding her understanding. "Yes. I will come to the trial, just in case they need me to testify as well. Anything to help Bella. No matter what she thinks of me now." For a moment she grew shy again, averting her eyes. "Will... I mean, do you... would you like to keep contact?"

Narcissa seemed taken aback, blinking pretty blue eyes in surprise. "I'll... send you an owl. All right?"

"Yes, uhm, great. Good. Good... I guess I'll hear from you then?" The brunette threw a worried look at Bella's room. "You should probably see if she's calmed down."

"Right. Uh... have a good day then, Andromeda," Narcissa formally replied after clearing her throat, remembering that she was a lady of status and not supposed to exchange hissed whispers with someone in the corner of a floor. Her sister smiled in understanding, then both exchanged a small nod of farewell. It was kind of short and informal and yet oddly appropriate after such a long time of keeping no contact with your beloved family member.

Narcissa returned to the door, waiting patiently until the Auror had opened it once again so she could slip through.

And Hermione had to mentally kick herself out of her aghast stupor to keep close to Draco's mother and not keep standing dumbfounded and invisible in the middle of a hallway.

Suddenly, a whole new universe of questions and mysteries had opened itself up to her.

"I see you have not managed to reach your goal yet," Narcissa dryly commented as she saw the smashed chair, broken table and ripped table cloth. The bunk was untouched though, as well as the door to the small bathroom.

Bellatrix meanwhile sat in the corner of the room with her knees hugged close and shot her sister a vicious look. "If I had a wand, we wouldn't even be talking about this."

The blonde sighed and straightened her back. "About Dromeda..."

"I don't want to talk about it."

"Fine," Narcissa relented scathingly, headache now in full force. "Now that you've cooled yourself down by helping with the kindling production of the Ministry, I hope we can get back to-..."

A soft cough interrupted her. Then there was a crunching sound as something moved across the wooden splinters on the ground.

"What the hell?" Bellatrix hissed and raised herself up with the help of the wall, both sisters glancing unsure at the spot where the sound had come from.

And just like that, Hermione Granger appeared in the middle of the room. "Uhm. Hi."

Narcissa gasped, taking a shocked step backward. "What in Merlin's name...?"

"I'm not getting any me time anywhere soon, am I?" the dark witch muttered sarcastically and sat down on the one piece of furniture that was not destroyed.

When Hermione took a good look at the Death Eater, she realized the last month had not been good to her. Bellatrix had lost weight, despite eating what was probably the most expensive food pure-bloods could buy, and her pallor had turned from porcelain to deadly. Her once so beautiful, luxurious curls had become as disheveled as they had closely after fleeing Azkaban. But it was the hollow, glazed emptiness in her eyes that had the young woman shiver.

"You... you ill-bred brat, you listened to me and Andromeda talking, didn't you?" Narcissa hissed and seemed so enraged and similar to her darker sister, that Hermione was frozen with fear for a second.

"N-no... I mean, I... well..." the brunette stuttered, averting her gaze. God, she was a horrible liar. "Look, at this point it doesn't even matter, does it? And I can't even make sense of what you talked about, so I didn't even get half of it." Well, it was a half-lie, but enough to make her appear more believable.

Draco's mother was still ablaze with cold fury, but before she could give way to her anger, Bellatrix slapped a hand down hard on the wood she sat on.

"I don't care what went on out there. Cissy, do leave us alone for a moment, will you? I guess the Mudblood needs an 'escort' later to get back out," the raven haired woman deducted in an acid tone.

Narcissa was unhappy with this choice, but budged. Throwing another nasty look at Hermione, she waited until the girl had vanished under the cloak before letting herself out.

Once they were alone, Hermione came a bit closer, but maintained a respectful distance. She knew how quick the Death Eater could be and had no interest in being found out because Bellatrix thought it was time for another round of 'humiliating the Mudblood'. Keeping the cloak lightly on her head, so anyone coming in would not be able to see her directly, she turned fully towards the dark witch.

"So, you found a way to make useless smalltalk with me. Congratulations, muddy, you win the idiocy award of the week."

Ignoring the dark witch's sharp tongue, the younger woman got right to the point. "McGonagall and I have an idea. I know you will be opposed to it and we're not really sure it will work, but maybe you can make them believe that you tried to help us in the end, taking the Unbreakable Vow as proof-..."

Bellatrix groaned loudly and placed her head into her hands. "A whole month and you come to me with the shittiest plan you could think of? It's a trial, not a trial and error!"

"I can't see you helping," Hermione accused her cattily.

"Because I'm not."

"So you don't want to be cleared of your charges?" the young woman blurted out confused.

A snort. "Of course I do."

Hermione sighed. "Okay, good, I get it. Plan A is junk. Well, then I can only believe that me testifying for your good behaviour will be enough."

The mass of dark curls moved up as Bellatrix squinted at her with the kind of puzzlement as if the younger witch had just said something stupid. "...What?"

"The months, which we spent on the Isle of Lewis." Comprehension didn't follow, so the Gryffindor elaborated. "I will testify that you showed no unusual or threatening behaviour while we were alone, making sure to point out how very prim and proper you were. Then we will make sure everyone knows you changed and it might be good to reintegrate you into society and yadda yadda yadda." The sarcasm was pretty much dripping from her sentences and creating a lake on the floor.

Hermione could hear the imaginary clock ticking as Bellatrix stared at her with furrowed brows and a scrunched up nose, before replying deadpan, "Girl, I'm not sure if anyone told you lately, but you are probably the worst liar I've ever met in my life. And I met a lot of cuckoo ones."

The young woman coughed lightly, cheeks coloring. "Yeah, well, I'll work on that until the day after tomorrow. It's just like an exam, I simply have to learn my lines beforehand and then everything's fine." Then she grinned cheekily. "I work better under pressure. I managed to fool you into believing me about the Gryffindor sword."

"Bah," the dark witch commented, putting her chin on her closed fist. "Fine. Do what you want. I'm going to sit there nice and pretty while insulting the judges."

"Just make sure you don't insult the wrong ones," Hermione advised, hugging her cloak tighter around her. "It's all we can do to win this stupid hearing. Most of the judges will stay unbiased until the trial and those that already have an opinion probably won't change it anyway."

Bellatrix grunted tiredly, heavy eyelids drooping lower than they usually did. "Huh."

"Maybe we should-..."

"I'm tired," the dark witch interrupted her, swinging her legs up and curling herself into the blanket. "Go sit and do whatever you want until Narcissa comes back. I don't care, as long as you're quiet." She turned her back to the brunette.

Hermione felt suddenly very out of place. "Wha-...but...hey!"

A single forefinger was raised above the black clad shoulder. "Ah ah! Quiet. As in, not making any sound. I don't care how much you love using your tongue, now shush."

Speechless, the young woman stood and watched with a glare how the Death Eater fell asleep, her side rising and falling soon in a calm rhythm. Feeling a bit lost in the halfway destroyed room with a sleeping murderess, Hermione sat down at the wall and stretched out her legs, making sure everything was covered with Harry's useful heirloom.

Here, Hermione couldn't help but chuckle quietly. It was strange, how deeply cautious the older woman made her. Although armed with both the cloak and her wand, she had not trusted the former and forgotten the later, instead trying to stay as far as possible from the volatile eldest Black. And yet she had spoken more freely and flippantly than during the three months away. I'm actually getting used to her. Huh, who would've thought.

Unable to help herself, she took a long glance at the sleeping figure. It was an obvious statement to Hermione that Bellatrix didn't see her as a threat, or she wouldn't be slumbering peacefully like that with her enemy in the same room. Or maybe the Death Eater just didn't care anymore either way. What is it? You getting used to me, too? The young woman shook her head with a smile at that ridiculous thought.

But the amusement faded as Hermione thought about what she had, admittedly unusually nosy, overheard in the hallway. There had been a lot of interesting information that she found even now hard to digest. Bellatrix had helped her sister by cutting her of the family tree? She had been kind of unstable even before meeting Voldemort?... And who was that him they had alluded to? Surely it was not the Dark Lord, was it? No, whoever he was, he had probably been inside the family and had driven Andromeda to the point that she never wanted to return. Or die beforehand.

Letting the back of her head hit the wall with a sigh, the young witch glanced at the ceiling. So many unanswered questions. Hermione had to admit she was deeply intrigued by the Black's family mysteries, even though she had no reason to be enclosed to them. But it most likely held the great mystery of why Bellatrix Lestrange had become the most feared witch in the last three generations, which made her a riddle that the Gryffindor longed to solve. Clever puzzles had always interested her.

Before she could fall asleep for lack of anything useful to do (and maybe because listening to the soft, even breathing kind of relaxed her muscles more than she wanted to admit), the door opened once again. Hermione snapped alert and crawled to her feet, waiting for the right chance to leave the room.

Narcissa's ice cold gaze swept along the destruction, still quite angry at the Granger girl's spying. Finding Bella calm and in the land of dreams pacified her a little, so she grudgingly played her role as escort and stepped between the door and the Auror. "Your furnishings seem to be a little unstable. I request they be changed immediately," she began with the authority only a lady could command.

The Auror blinked at her, then shrugged. At her back, the blonde could feel the tell-tale sign of someone slipping closely by her body and she suspected her job had been done.

"Y'all have to wait till tomorrow. Not my problem when our interior isn't 'mad Death Eater'-proof," he replied gruffly.

"Never mind then," Narcissa quickly snapped, ending the short conversation by returning to the bedside. There was still work to be done until the trial, but she would let her sister find some much needed rest first.

Meanwhile, Hermione hurried back down the corridor as quickly and silently as she could. She could hardly believe that she had managed to work this out and while the dark witch didn't have any great ideas for her coming trial, Hermione had learned more than she had dared to hope. Much, much more. Most of it she would keep to herself, though, considering that it had really been private information and, if she had been the one who had been spied on, she herself wouldn't want her own secrets to be carried around god knows where.

McGonagall was still perched on the visitor bank, a recent edition of the Quibbler opened in front of her. Considering the state of her frown, she didn't seem very impressed by the articles she was reading. Trying not to surprise her too much, the young woman made the slightest sound in the back of her throat, hoping the hustle of the current floor would easily drown it out for other people.

The only reaction that the Headmistress was startled showed in her eyes and could easy put down by observers to her reading one of the few paragraphs of the page that didn't reek of fantastic nonsense. "This is a waste of time," the teacher spat with annoyance, placed the newspaper back where she had taken it from and moved to stand, not once indicating that she had noticed Hermione's presence.

Now that the professor was moving, the Gryffindor had to move quickly to stick close to the older woman. Their exit of the Ministry proved to be much smoother than their entrance.

But the very second they were back in a safe place, Hermione ripped down the cloak and breathed in some much needed, fresh air. "Thank God. It gets so humid under this thing."

"What have you found out?" the professor asked eagerly. "I saw Lady Malfoy and Andromeda Tonks come out and speak on the floor. Quite shocking, after all that happened."

"I think they are trying to make up," was the only fact Hermione alluded too, trying to change the subject. "I got in after that. I don't believe Bellatrix is doing much to help her case," she admitted with chagrin. "She seems pretty unstable at the moment, most likely because she feels caged again. I told her of our plan and hope she will make an effort to show... well, act like she's changed."

"It's a desperate act, but we'll have to try. I on the other hand managed to find out about the Legilimens' appointment tomorrow, which will be around noon. We should show up just in case we can glean some useful information about whoever will have a look at her mind."

"I pity the fool," the young witch mumbled to herself, unable to imagine how chaotic it had to be in the dark witch's skull.

Everyone was happy and thankful they returned successfully, but the graveness of the situation seeped through after a short while. It was clear their time was running out and yet they didn't have any meaningful advantages to turn things around in court. Bellatrix's number of crimes were simply too overwhelming, even scratching off Tonks' death of the list was like dusting snow off the top of the iceberg.

Ron wanted desperately to comfort his girlfriend, but he was unable to help much. Hermione was too restless and worried to be calmed down for longer than an hour or two. They couldn't blame her, as her life was in grave danger if they didn't effectively keep Bellatrix out of prison. Not to talk about the rare object she wanted out of the Department of Mysteries.

Harry offered, with halting words and a lot of overcoming, to speak out in favor of the dark witch despite the fact that she had murdered his godfather. Hermione was nearly moved to tears by his effort, but Shacklebolt himself had seen the green Avada Kedavra thrown by the Death Eater and it wouldn't help their case if they openly lied in court. Then there was the case of Neville's parents and no one dared to even ask the affected son if he would forgive Bellatrix for the atrocious deeds she had done to them. And even at the small, unlikely chance that he would do so in a favor for his friend, it was absolutely impossible that his grandmother would do so as well.

The last day before the trial found Hermione sleepless in her bed. She was starting to feel sick by the pressure and hardly ate, in turn worrying the whole family.

When McGonagall and her charge sat down once again in the visitor part of the hearing room region of the Ministry, the young woman felt ready to crumble with exhaustion. It was less the lack of food or sleep that had her at her limits, but the constant worrying she was nearly buzzing with. She felt even worse when the Headmistress pointed out a man in black robes, the cloth adorned with a copper L above the left half of the torso.

"This would be the official Legilimens. I fear I haven't seen this young man before; we can do little but wait what happens now."

And wait they did. Narcissa was banned from the room while the Ministry official worked, his only companion a veteran looking Auror. Draco's mother stayed on the corridor instead of sitting down in the visitor place, her rigid posture and intense gaze making everyone on the floor highly uncomfortable.

After what seemed like hours, the door was opened and the Legilimens hurried outside. Even though these people tended to have quite blank, stoic expression, there was a line of trouble on his forehead as he, the Auror and the head of the Department put their heads together and exchanged what sounded like unbelieving whispers.

Hermione took a look at her teacher, but McGonagall could only answer back with the same confusion in her eyes. "I suspect something unexpected is going on. But I'm not quite sure what it is... maybe they're having as much trouble entering her mind as we did at Hogwarts."

Her suggestion would prove to be correct, considering that, barely ten minutes later, another Ministry official appeared. This time, McGonagall couldn't hide a small 'Huh' of surprise.

"That would be Master Allondro Pendrake, the Master Legilimens of our time. I believe only Voldemort has surpassed him in his power."

The man was tall and lanky, but with a posture as straight as a rock. His long, thin face was entirely expressionless, with a meticulous cut beard around his jaw and mouth and probing, grey eyes sitting above a hawk nose. A silvery L glittered on the black robe. Pendrake reeked of justified authority and Hermione felt herself shiver in the presence of such force of will. The power of his intensity rivaled that of Bellatrix, there was little one could do but stare and cower when people like them were around.

"He's terrifying," the brunette breathed back, making herself smaller on the seat.

But the Master Legilimens headed straight for the Death Eater's room after exchanging a few words with his subordinate, vanishing behind the door with the same Auror as before. There was a tangible silence in the corridor after the impressive wizard had crossed the floor.

"Quite a hit to their authority if they had to call Master Pendrake himself to deal with a Death Eater," McGonagall mused, making use of her extensive knowledge of the Wizarding World. "I hear the man lacks talent for normal spells, but his mind is sharp enough that he teaches all of the other Legilimens their work down here. He's a pure-blood, but I remember reading he was thrown into prison for not working with Thicknesse after he overthrew Scrimgeour-..."

Suddenly, a bloodcurdling scream filled the whole hall. Hermione felt the liquid in her veins run icecold at recognizing the voice. Aurors at every corner snapped to attention, running down the door that housed both the Legilimens and the Death Eater, but before they could storm inside and see what was wrong, the door crashed open.

The veteran Auror appeared first, quickly followed by the stumbling Master Legilimens, who held his head and cursed up a storm. With the room open to the hall, Bellatrix's nearly endless screech grew in its intensity, until every occupant of the floor either put their hands on their ears in frozen shock or fled in panic filled horror.

Narcissa jumped the chance and hurried inside, together with two other Aurors that quickly closed the door and tried to get the rabid Death Eater under control.

"This.. this woman is crazy!" Pendrake raged when storming past the Department Head. "Whoever authorized this use of Legilimency should be fed to the sharks, and if I have to personally attest to it! I have never encountered such mad resistance, what the hell where they thinking!"

"B-but...Master Pendrake... Fudge said clearly-..." the smaller man stuttered out in protest.

"Go and get in there yourself then, Perkins, ten Voldemort's won't make me go in there and probe that creature's head again! Urk," the tall wizard held a hand to his head as if he was experiencing intense pain. "Willis! Get upstairs and find a headache potion, and make it quick!"

"Yes, Master," the other Legilimens replied quickly and shot into another hallway in direction of the elevators.

"Sir, we need a look at her memories if we want a seamless looking statement-...," Perkins, the Department Head, tried to argue, running after the long strides of the Master Legilimens. They were just around the corner and getting further away, when Hermione could loudly hear a 'Fuck the statement!' echo from the walls.

"Well," McGonagall commented dryly, "and here we had a chance to experience Pendrake's infamous temper. I can't say I mind having had the pleasure. Perkins can be such an infuriating official sometimes."

Hermione had only listened halfway to her teacher's words, eyes riveted to the closed room. By now, the violent screaming had toned down. Despite her words of hate to the dark witch after her last assault on the island, Hermione couldn't help but feel a lump of worry form in her stomach.

"I... I wonder what prompted that," the brunette wondered out, furrowing her brows. But neither did the door open again, nor did any other sound come out of it. She could almost hear Ron's ghostly voice saying 'Beats me' next to her ear, but the Headmistress happened to be a bit more eloquent.

"I fear I can't even begin to form an answer to that question, other than suspecting they won't get a look at her memories for tomorrow" she replied with a frown, pushing up the glasses on her nose. "But it seems we have overstayed our welcome for today. There isn't much we can find out anymore with the whole department in uproar and confusion."

Hermione was almost reluctant to leave, stomping down the sudden need to run to the door and see for herself how te dark witch was faring. She could still feel the mixture of emotion carried on that scream reverberating in her insides. I... hope you're all right, Bellatrix.

So lost in her thoughts was she, that the young woman nearly didn't realize when McGonagall stopped all of a sudden and held an arm in front of her to halt them both. Hermione blinked and looked up, seeing the reason for their pause coming towards them.

"Ah, Master Fudge," McGonagall greeted the former Minister with a respectful, but wary undercurrent in her voice.

"How nice to see you, Professor McGonagall," the Ministry official replied with a sleazy smile, flanked by two of his co-workers. "I must admit, I am surprised to see you here so early."

"We are merely dealing with a few last minute regulations. Nothing of great importance," the Headmistress lied in an easy, offhand way that Hermione envied. "I hope you are well? Congratulations on gaining the highly sought after seat of Head of Department of Magical Accidents and Catastrophes."

"Oh, yes, thank you. It were indeed fortunate circumstances that enabled the position to me." The Minister's unwanted probing gaze wandered over to the brunette. "Here with your charge I see?" A nasty glint lay unhidden in his eyes. "I can only wish you the best of luck for tomorrow, Miss... Granger, was it? Very sad, the whole story, very tragic. It will be a pity to see a young witch of such unique talent dragged down because of the wrong-doings of a notorious Death Eater." He clicked his tongue in fake compassion.

"I am confident the Wizengamot will get its own impression of the situation and make the right, justified decision, seeing as nothing is decided yet," Hermione commented by applying the same respectful, icy tone as her teacher.

"Oh, of course," Fudge backpedaled, inclining his head at her. "We are all interested in serving justice."

The two stared at each other relentlessly for a few moments, Hermione refusing to back down from that antagonizing, lying worm, but the former Minister was a coward at heart and quickly turned back to McGonagall. "I'm sure we'll meet again tomorrow at the court."

"We will. Good day, Master Fudge," the Headmistress cut the conversation short, extracting herself by simply moving on. Hermione stayed beside her, fuming inside.

"That fat, stupid son of a hobbit," Hermione spat once they were out of earshot, "he's more fake than any plastic surgery could ever accomplish."

"And he's ready to wage war in the court room tomorrow," McGonagall confirmed with a raised eyebrow at the younger woman's cursing. "We need to be very, very careful of that Janus-faced snake."

On the last night, the atmosphere was somber. Ron, Harry and Ginny stayed together with Hermione in one room, talking quietly until they fell asleep dead tired well into the night. No one was able to help or do anything but send the young woman sad looks that drove her nearly crazy, so she was happy once she was alone with her friends.

"McGonagall promised me my parents were safe and well," she told them with profound sadness. "If tomorrow goes bad, they at least won't be sad about me."

"But we will," Ron replied quietly and hugged her close. "Everyone here will be. So let's do everything we can so you can win this stupid trial."

Hermione tried to hold on to this promise, but it was futile and not very uplifting. When everyone was asleep, her mind went out to the woman she was so closely connected to. Surprisingly, the only thing that turned out to strengthen her resolve and calm her enough to help her catch a few hours of sleep, was the memory of the pain in Bellatrix's voice and the tired, defeated look in those bottomless, black eyes.

I have to be strong for us both. We can't give up.

So, I went online yesterday, only to come face to face with a pic from Chloé and a link to this fic. I could die happily and in peace now, but I have a story to finish ;) The mighty goddess called and here I charge like the faithful knight I am into battle, armed with a writing feather and carrying the chapter!
Itty bitty preview for next chapter: The trial! Oh noeees! Everyone's nervous, but then things start to look up... only to have something unforeseen happen! Will our heroine survive?...

Chapter Text

A kingdom for a new immune system, I tell ya... I'm sick of being sick. Can someone please tell Germany it's supposed to be spring? Anyone? Hrmpf. And now I constantly try to twist the ring on my finger, only to realize I left it in the kitchen and it's driving me cuh-razyyyy...
Oh, and the chapter title comes from a line in a movie I saw yeeears ago, one I even forgot the name of. It was of Japanese or Chinese origin, I don't know, but there was a mention about Red Lies (those you tell for your own benefit) and White Lies (those you tell to keep others from harm) and I loved the concept. It stuck with me over nearly a decade, which is quite amusing.

imperfectionisunderrated: Aren't ALL clerk women annoying? :) Naaaw, not true, I've meet some nice ones. Allegedly.

Schizzy Godcat: Every new fan is welcomed with open arms, warm hugs and cookies, so... welcome! :D

OpheliaBlack:Yeah, Cissy is not very fond of people outside the family. Like, at all. And I love writing McGonagall, I can basically see her act dry and snarky when writing her lines :) Fudge suffering a sudden heart attack?... Damn, that's tempting to write!

List of Romantics: I know this must sound kind of masochistic, but it's refreshing to hear some absolute contra to my work. So thank you for replying so honestly :) While I can't say much to the Stockholm-Syndrome (it comes up in this chapter very, very briefly, but the whole psychological concept is so badly researched you can hardly call it well-founded), the comparison between Bellatrix and Himmler had me do some research and late night thinking. But I will finish this thought in a PM, if you don't mind. I hope you stick with the story and give it another chance! :)

Mephista:Ich hoffe, das nächste Kapitel ist genauso autentisch, aber das ist als Autor manchmal schwer einzuschätzen ;)

Thank you for sticking with me, everyone! Every review is a welcome piece of thought and brings a smile to my face. (although it had to look pretty awful with a snotty nose and glazed eyes :D) Please, don't hesitate to ask if anything is unclear!

10. Red Lies, White Lies

Scared and sacred are spelled with the same letters. Awful proceeds from the same root word as awesome. Terrify and terrific. Every negative experience holds the seed of transformation. - Alan Cohen

Don't vomit.

It was the only clear thought Hermione could hold on to. But obviously her pallor must have grown a few nuances paler, as suddenly George stood next to her and secretly pushed a small gum into her palm.

"Eat that," he stage-whispered, trying to look inconspicuous. "It's like a reverse Puking Pastille. We had to make them because Fred constantly mistook them for the Jelly Beans."

"Thank you," Hermione replied with no small amount of relief and a genuine smile at his unexpected empathy, quickly chewing the candy until her stomach had settled.

It was half an hour before the hearing would begin and Hermione was not the only one nervous as heck, although probably the worst one. Mrs. Weasley was wringing her hands nonstop, while Mr. Weasley patted her shoulder comfortingly. Ron was pacing like a caged tiger and his older brother as well as Harry were flanking their soon-to-be questioned friend.

The youngest Weasley just turned around the corner, a serene Luna in tow. "Hey," Ginny informed them breathlessly, "it's hell out there. I think every wizard and witch has come to get some brand hot news or find out about the outcome directly."

"I saw my Dad waving at me in the crowd," Luna injected with a distracted smile.

"We haven't even started yet," Molly said with annoyance, using a handkerchief to dry her forehead for the umpteenth time. "Those shameless gossip mongers!"

"I'd make a fortune selling Expendable Ears today," George joked, finding himself with a face full of angry Ronald Weasley.

"Don't you dare!"

"Relax, baby brother, I know where my allegiances lie," he calmed his younger sibling down with held up hands. "I'm clean, I swear. Well, with the exception of my-..."

"George! For god's sake, don't you end that sentence!"

"Sorry, mum."

Another few minutes passed by, until a young, charismatic witch with a trolley came close to them. "There you are," she said with a happy lilt, long blond hair held back in a ponytail. "A bird told me you might want some refreshments before we begin?"

"Must have been McGonagall," Ron muttered, taking a longing glance at the drinks presented on the tray. "That woman is a saint, I swear."

Quickly, everyone gathered round to either get a drink or a small snack, as neither of them was very hungry. Despite George's magical candy, Hermione wasn't sure she could stomach anything, even a cool drink, so she stayed to the side.

"You're Hermione Granger, aren't you?" the nameless witch suddenly asked her out of nowhere. "I saw your picture in the Prophet." She smiled in that friendly way that can make anyone at ease, taking a small cup and filling it with what looked like green tea. "Here, try that. It's a family receipt and always calms my nerves, I'm sure it works for you as well."

The Gryffindor smiled back weakly, muttering a small thanks. But the warm cup and the delicious smell seemed to really hold something to it, so she took a small sip. It was tasty, the right kind of balance between sweet, bitter and fruity. "It's good."

"Told ya," the blonde replied with no small amount of satisfaction.

"Can I have some, too?" Ron wanted to know, glancing into the cup with a curious expression.

The friendly witch shook her head, putting her hands back on the trolley. "Nope, this one's a special gift. I'll be rooting for you, Hermione." The woman winked, and went on, soon vanishing behind the next corner.

"Well, that was nice," Harry commented with a smile, swishing the drink in his can around. "She didn't come during my trial. But that was all pretty last minute anyway, so no wonder."

"No wonder what?" a familiar voice asked from behind him and everyone winced in surprise at McGonagall's sudden appearance.

"Oh, there was a young woman carrying drinks. She came by to give us some - oh, and to tell us she's on our team." Hermione's boyfriend grinned brightly, chocolate clinging to the corner of his mouth.

"You're aware eating and drinking isn't allowed in the dungeons?" McGonagall posed the question with a raised eyebrow, causing everyone to freeze.

"Arthur!" Molly exclaimed, slapping her husband's arm in indignation.

He glanced down at his coffee, guilt written all across his face. "Uhm. Oh. I forgot."

"Well, then it was twice as nice," Ron muttered to Hermione, who pointed at his mouth until he got the hint and wiped away the sweet substance. "She came down against the rules just to help us."

"No matter, just put them over there in the trash can. They are opening the doors in a few minutes, so everyone can take their place before it begins." McGonagall waited until everyone was ready, before leading them over to the room where Hermione's fate would be decided in.

Even sweet, warm tea couldn't stop the anxiety crawling up Hermione's spine like a many-legged, nightmarish horror.

Before she knew it, they were standing in the big, round hall every important trial had been held in. The cool, black stone was smooth and in perfect condition, not giving any hint to the weight of time and history that had seeped into every inch, the structure the very definition of imposing.

The young woman got a glimpse at many more or less familiar faces. Kingsley Shacklebolt nodded at them from where he sat at the seat of the high judge, surrounded by the fifty black and plum-clad wizards of the Wizengamot. All those McGonagall and her had talked about had appeared, but surprising was the appearance of Percy Weasley, who also greeted them before sitting down as the Court Scribe.

Another now well-known figure came inside, causing the Headmistress and Hermione to exchange an unsure glance.

"What?" Harry hissed from behind them, having seen the look. "What is it?"

"That's Allondro Pendrake, the Master Legilimens of the Ministry. It looks like he's.. he's the Chief Warlock in the hearing," Hermione whispered back.

"Is that good or bad?"

Hermione turned to Ginny, but instead of answering she could only shrug her shoulders. The man seemed to relate close to the laws of the Ministry, but it was doubtful where his allegiance lay, especially after his painful Legilimens encounter with the famed culprit.

The hustle and bustle of the room was clamorous and grew even louder when everyone beside the Wizengamot, who had earned their seat for today's trial, filled the rest of the seats. Narcissa, Draco and Andromeda sat in the first line, right across Hermione's own seat. The room was close to bursting and despite the high ceiling the young woman started to feel claustrophobic.

"Please, everyone!" Kingsley's booming voice filled the room, trying to create order. The slam of the judge hammer could be heard in every nook and cranny. "We will begin in a moment. Please, take your seats and stay quiet."

The loud talking turned down to an constant murmur, only vaguely less oppressing than the chatter. Hermione tried to warm her chilled hands, wishing she had another cup of the warm drink.

The seconds were ticking by. Every click of the watch hand echoing them felt like pinprick against the brunette's raw nerves.

Finally, Kingsley used his hammer once again and the noise died down, everyone hanging onto the lips of the broad-shouldered Minister.

"I welcome you today to the hearing of Bellatrix Lestrange, born Black, and a renewed trial of her crimes against humanity." There was a quiet murmur at the mention of her past deeds. "Further we will judge her actions done in the name of the dark wizard Voldemort, born Tom Mavolo Riddle, during the Second Wizarding War."

At his nod, the doors opened and Bellatrix was led in.

It was as Hermione had feared. The dark witch had her head thrown back as haughtily as ever, her black gaze not deigning anyone worthy. At her proud walk, despite the fact that her wrists had once again been bound together, the crowd exchanged hushed whispers, but everyone cowered when the eldest Black threw an acidic glance into their direction.

The second she was seated on the big, wooden chair in the middle of the hall, the dark witch leaned back, the seat her throne and the world mere dirt at her feet.

"Madame Lestrange, you are here today for either the validation or dismissal of your crimes. In front of the law you are bound to speak the truth and only the truth." Although the lines had to have been spoken at least a thousand times, Shacklebolt's eyes were earnest while he waited for her to digest what was spoken. Yet the woman didn't move a muscle, merely looking intense and bored at the same time.

What followed was a long list of crimes the older woman was accused of, both old and new, but a vivid distinction between them, as Bellatrix had already been tried for her past crimes. Subsequent to that came an endless list of laws and paragraphs and numbers representative for the newer crimes that had already been read. It was repitive and dry, so much that the silence in the hall wasn't due to rapt attention but bored stupor.

Even Hermione felt her eyelids drop for a second during the read, but snapped back awake instantly when Kingsley took over again.

"Sought-after verdict?"

"Loss of soul by Dementor's Kiss." There was a shocked hush. "Substituting for that, life-long imprisonment in a prison of adequate choosing."

Kingsley didn't show if he had known that this was the result the victim's or the members of their family wanted to see, instead nodding and waving a hand at another court helper. "Then let's get on with the proceedings. Please read the names of the supposed killings Madame Lestrange is accused of."

Another endless flow of names followed. This time though, the quiet was due to sad commiseration as person after person was read out loud, a small, painful pause following after every dead. It reminded Hermione closely of the hours Ron had spent on the radio, trying to find out if one of their loved ones had fallen or gone missing in the war. They had been fortunate to not hear anything, but every name on the list stood for a devastated family who had.

The atmosphere was somber and the young woman took a long look at Bellatrix. The dark witch didn't react much, no hoped for remorse available on her features. Sometimes though, there was a twitch of her brows in confusion or a slight purse of her lips when she seemed not to agree with the name she heard.

After the last person, one could have heard a pin drop echo throughout the hall.

"To make matters short, are you responsible for the deaths you have just heard?"

"I don't know," Bellatrix answered, disinterested. "Most likely not even half of them. It's not like I stopped and asked the people trying to kill me for their names. And who the hell had the stupid idea to call their brat Sugar Honey Lynette? That girl is better off dead with such a name."

There was an outraged cry at these scathing words in the back of the hall, but the originator was quickly shushed by others. Now that the criminal was talking, everyone wanted to hear what was said.

It went on like that, with the Death Eater being questioned about different accusations, but either Bellatrix could not give a clear answer, mostly in combination with a healthy dose of sarcasm and degrading mocking, or she accused them herself of being ridiculous for even believing that she had done something like this. Although the dark witch didn't act smitten with remorse as Hermione had prayed she would, her smarts and intelligence showed in the way she skillfully twisted the things they blamed her for and made them appear either smaller or invalid without actually saying that she had or hadn't done them.

"Where is the evidence?" one wizard questioned in the middle of the hearing, causing several people to turn their head and whisper, but either the court ignored his interjection or there was no proof the families could bring forth. Either way, Bellatrix's questioning had the whole hall erupt into chaos.

Her dirty mouth earned her several rebukes by Pendrake and egged on the crowd, which was shouting out either in favor of or against the Death Eater. By now the arguments had degraded to name-calling and insults. It didn't matter which side you were on, as long as you effectively drowned out the rest.

"Silence!" the Minister roared at one point when everything dared to fall apart. His voice was magically augmented and thundered as effectively as a lion's roar. Sheepish calm spread along the ranks, but there was no end to the dirty looks thrown around.

"This hearing is influenced by an act not yet mentioned. Madam Professor Minerva McGonagall, Headmistress of Hogwarts, if you would please enlighten us to the Unbreakable Vow Bellatrix Lestrange has entered into," he uttered, giving the word to the teacher.

McGonagall, dressed in her best robes and striking an impressive picture with her straight pose, began telling the Wizengamot and other people assembled in curt words what had occurred during the Battle of Hogwarts. Hearing the exact conditions for the Unbreakable Vow retold word for word by someone else felt strange and Hermione wanted to vanish underneath Harry's Invisible Cloak when she could see everyone's attention turn to her.

"Hermione Jean Granger, as the partner of the Unbreakable Vows, can you attest to the truth of this?"

"Yes," the young woman answered quickly.

"Madame Lestrange?"

"Yes, it's correct," Bellatrix answered with smug satisfaction, ignoring the murmuring behind her. Hermione had a distinct need to slap her for her attitude.

"The Wizengamot today has to take into consideration the fact that if Madame Lestrange will either be imprisoned or doesn't receive what she wants from the Department of Mysteries, Miss Granger, an innocent and hero of the Second Wizarding War, will find death." He let that sink in for a moment. "In return, there is the likely possibility that Madame Lestrange will follow her," Kingsley laid out clearly.

I'm a war hero now?, Hermione mused, wondering if the Minister had overstated her part in the Golden Trio to strengthen her position. Clever. Hopefully, there would be no one contradicting that statement. He had left out the small detail of Azkaban as well, but everyone gathered knew that if the Death Eater would be imprisoned, there was only one place they wanted to see her in.

"We will now call forth the witnesses."

Several survivors of the war came one after the other into the room, questioned by both the members of the Wizengamot and the Chief Warlock. The Gryffindor was pleased to hear that the officials asked very specific, but not condemning questions, and Master Pendrake even seemed to act as a kind of defender for the dark witch, as he often requested details of statements, which had Bellatrix stand in a worse light than she actually deserved to. Fudge was one of those who rallied in an unending tirade of hate against the dark witch.

But every insult the accusers threw at her plummeted off of the dark witch like cotton balls.

All in all, what was made clear was that while the Death Eater had tortured and, most likely, killed during skirmishes with the Ministry and the Order, she had spent most of her time planning and strategizing together with the Dark Lord instead of running around on a destructive spree. Founded without question were only the murder of her cousin, Sirius Black, her escape from Azkaban, her destruction of school property (this one had the dark witch laughing in helpless glee) and other places, her torture of several Aurors and Hermione, as well as helping Voldemort's cause. As she had been already tried for her past actions, the Wizengamot was unable to condemn her for those again.

What made the young woman and her friends furious was the stating of Dobby the house elf as property of Malfoy Manor, causing the whole group to jump up and argue in his favor, until once again the call for silence had them quiet down. That Hermione wasn't helping Bellatrix's and her case by stating Dobby was another victim and not loss of property was clear to her, but she couldn't help the injustice of it.

It was hard to tell what the whole of the Wizengamot thought by now, as it seemed that even the people themselves were divided over Bellatrix. Obviously, everyone thought her mad and a danger to the world, wanting her punished for her wrong-doings, but on the other hand the Unbreakable Vow made sure she would never do so again. And more often than not Hermione felt herself being watched, knowing that many of the listeners now also considered her role in this if the Death Eater were to be condemned.

"Questions?" Kingsley now directed at those responsible for deciding about the dark witch's fate.

There was a moment of contemplation along the ranks of the judges, until one voice raised itself above the others.

"I would like the Wizengamot to question Hermione Granger." Fudge. Of course. Dread spread inside the young woman as she saw his tiny badger eyes stare at her with determination.

"The request is granted. If you would come down please?"

The small hope that Shacklebolt would quash Fudge's wish flickered out and Hermione swallowed, her throat clicking with dryness. Beneath what felt like the weight of a thousand pairs of eyes, the young woman stood up and walked down slowly, sitting down on the stool Bellatrix had occupied some time ago. It was hard and cold and the brunette couldn't help but twist her sleeves in unease.

The heaviest gaze proved to be that of the dark witch herself, who was watching her like a hawk beneath heavy eyelids. I did my part, it seemed to say, now it's your turn. She was seated next to the Minister's high lectern, so that the former Auror and the other judges could look at her as well as the witness.

She had all the lines prepared. McGonagall and her had practiced them over and over and over again until Hermione could easily throw out the half-truths and lies without sounding like a guilty, untrue fidgeter. But saying them into the face of the representatives of the law was a whole different matter.

You can do this. It's a challenge. You don't want to die, so get a grip!

Before Hermione could encourage herself even more, Fudge's annoying voice cut into her thoughts like a hot knife.

"Miss Granger, you spent the last three months in hiding. For your own safety, I guess?"

"Yes," she answered carefully. Well, this was easy enough for the beginning.

"And I suspect correctly when I say you spent it in a cottage on the Isle of Lewis and in the presence of Bellatrix Lestrange?"

Hermione glanced at the whispering people out of the corner of her eyes, taking a deep breath. "Yes, true. We thought it would be best to have us stay at a place that would protect us as well as keep Be-... Madame Lestrange from trying to flee. The Isle seemed the perfect answer."

"So," the former Minister asked further, leaning a bit forward in his seat and tilting his head. "You spent three months on an island... alone with a Death Eater and without magic to protect you. Tell us, Miss Granger, did Madame Lestrange use the chance to attack you?"

No, she only-... Hermione felt the response run down in her head like she was reading it from a paper, but her tongue had another idea.

"Yes, she did."

The young girl nearly coughed in shock, her eyes growing wide and panicked. She had not wanted to say that. There was no way she would have said that.

The whispers around her grew louder, as the atmosphere in the room made a sudden tilt against the Death Eater. Hermione broke out in cold sweat, looking at her shocked teacher, confused friends and the dark witch, who had her hands gripped in claws around the armrests of her chair and glared at her so intensely that the younger witch nearly broke out in sobs.

I didn't betray you! I swear, I didn't, I don't know... don't know what's happening to me... god, I don't want to die...

"How many times did she assault you?"

"At least four times," Hermione found herself answering, groaning helplessly afterward. Closing her eyes in horror, not wanting to watch the train wreck unfold.

"What did she do to you?" Fudge asked relentlessly, a note of glee finding its way into his tone.

"She beat me, with her fists and with kicks. She threatened me and used a knife on my skin." Cue the outcries in the audience. "She degraded me all the time verbally and even spit on me."

"Did you plead for her to stop?"

"Yes." She could feel Bellatrix's burning stare like an iron grip on her soul. The scar on Hermione's arm burned like ice and fire. Mudblood. Mudblood.

"Did she?"

"No."

"Did she force you to work as her slave?"

"Yes."

Mudblood.

"How often?"

"All the time."

"Were you afraid?"

"Yes."

"Did you want her to pay for it?"

"Yes."

"You have once laid your life on the line for justice. Would you do so again?"

Hermione couldn't help the tears that slipped down her cheeks. "Yes."

MUDBLOOD.

"My lords and ladies, I think our case is clear," Fudge spoke out in unhidden triumph to the whole lot gathered, everyone watching him with rapt attention. "Despite the claims that Bellatrix Lestrange may have found enlightenment and had changed her ways by creating the Unbreakable Vow, we have the the evidence right here, in this young woman, that the Death Eater has indeed fooled all of us with her rubbish. Justice has to be served, we cannot let a madwoman like her run free between our children and beloved ones. Her conviction will most likely kill both of them, but Miss Granger herself has claimed in front of all of you that she will gladly give her life so that justice can be served. I say we show mercy and give them both a humane end by changing the verdict to death by Unforgivable Curse through an authorized Auror."

With a flourish he sat back down and applause flooded the hall, everyone beside the Wizengamot whooping and shouting in favor of the speech. The young woman's friends could only look on in voiceless horror.

Veritaserum. That bitch with the trolley drugged me with Veritaserum. This is Fudge's doing.

Hermione opened her eyes and looked at the blurry stone floor, half-heartedly rubbing at the tears on her face. So that's it then. I really wanted to end my studies at Hogwarts. And see my parents again. It was strange how calm one could feel when faced with certain death.

"No!" It was Narcissa, who had jumped up among the crowd. "You can't do this, you traitor!" Draco sat next to her, looking down at his shoes and obviously not wanting to partake in what was happening. Andromeda simply stared, her gaze asking Hermione why.

"Quiet!" shouted the Minister, now raising himself from his seat. His giant frame towered over the crowd, his voice having turned from calm and commanding to angry. And when Kingsley Shacklebolt grew angry, the fun was over. "Nothing is decided yet! Sit down everyone, or I will have you removed from the court!"

That got the message across and silence returned.

"I must admit, Miss Granger, I'm a bit... surprised by these admissions," he then said with a thoughtful frown. "But those were your own words. So you really are in favor of convicting Madame Lestrange, despite the toll on your life?"

"No."

Confusion spread again, everyone exchanging looks with their neighbor at this statement. Interest had everyone eager for her next words.

Kingsley leaned back, just as puzzled as the rest. "Explain yourself please."

Relief flooded Hermione's freezing body at being able to make some things clear. As she had little control over the truth and thus the specifics of her answer, she let her unconsciousness do the talking. "Master Fudge asked me if I would lay my life on the line for justice, and I would. But I don't believe convicting Bellatrix Lestrange is justice."

"Lies! You only want to safe your own life by doing so!" Fudge thundered, pointing an accusing finger at her and earning himself a dirty look from the Minister for the interruption.

"No, I don't," Hermione automatically replied, surprising herself with the answer. Wait. I don't?

"Please go on, Miss Granger," Kingsley edged her on.

"Madame Lestrange has done many horrible things, yes, even to me. But as you already know I have spent a lot of time with her and also saw her... other side." Hermione licked her lips and started to be interested in what her own mouth would form. "I saw the human being beneath the mad exterior and have occasionally talked to her rationally and reasonably. And what I saw both intrigued me and made me sad. There is a whole world of prehistory hidden beneath her devotion to Voldemort and I fear the root won't be found in either her madness or crimes, but her pure-blood family. Her past."

An intrigued hush had filled the whole hall, everyone hanging on her lips.

"Miss Granger, why have you then answered Master Fudge's questions in a way that might suggest you were against Madame Lestrange?" one of the wizard's of the Wizengamot asked, a small man with big glasses on his round face.

"Because I am under the influence of Veritaserum."

Movement came into the listeners, but a quick use of the judge hammer retained order.

"Who gave you the serum?" Thicknesse asked from the front, his expression telling her that he didn't quite believe what she said.

"A young, blonde witch I have never seen before, outside minutes prior to the hearing. I believe it was a very high dosage."

"Use of Veritaserum does not influence the court hearing in any way," Pendrake threw in, his stern voice quoting the law. "There is no need to call for an antidote, whether or not her claim is true. We should proceed."

"I'd like to hear what Miss Granger believes we should do," a middle-aged witch with a bookish air around her suggested from the side of the Wizengamot. "Considering that she is just as affected by the situation."

"Very well. Please give us your opinion," the Minister gently asked her, while Cornelius Fudge turned red with anger.

This, this! This is my chance! Dear god, mind, please, oh please, make something good out of it.

"When I was on the Isle of Lewis, I told Madame Lestrange I hated her," Hermione began, feeling like a story teller in the midst of an arena. "But that wasn't the truth. I was angry, yes, but I don't hate her. During the months we spend together, I started to understand that there is something driving her, making her do this to... to shut something else up. To turn away from something... traumatizing. She always resorted to violence and anger when she either saw no way out or because we went into territories that were deeply painful to her."

It was hard to put her musings and feelings of the last few months into words, especially because she had so little control over herself right now. She knew there were ways to counter the Veritaserum flooding her system, but Hermione was too nervous, too agitated and way too much out of her comfort zone.

The young woman didn't dare to take a glance at Bellatrix in case she blurted out something the other woman didn't want anyone to hear. Instead, while addressing the Wizengamot and the crowd, her mouth went on. "When I realized what Azkaban, this inhumane, awful place, had done to her, I felt pity. I believe that Madame Lestrange never had a choice in joining with Voldemort once again, driven by a desperateness few of us can understand and because, for lack of choices, every other option would have meant a worse fate for both her and her family. Imagine it, just for a moment. People like Bellatrix Lestrange aren't born - they are made. What she needs is not another condemnation, but help."

A few people wondered out loud at this, but were shushed by other spectators. Everyone else was listening quietly, enraptured.

"And now I think Madame Lestrange should be given a second chance, a chance to learn how to live a normal life and not one directed by pure-blood dictations. I am deeply convinced she has the ability to change and overcome her mental problems, in turn maybe becoming able to use her extraordinary abilities for the good of the Wizarding World. And also because she needs this chance to atone for each and every crime she has committed, instead of having her rot away in a cell or bury her beneath the earth. We're not Voldemort or his followers. It's what makes us different from him: Compassion. Caring. Love. The ability to forgive. And we should make an example of showing how much different we are from him, how much better we are by making her a symbol of that, by giving Bellatrix Lestrange not only the help she needs, but what she wants from the Department of Mysteries and reintegrate her into society and accept her as a fellow human being. Why? Because it's the right thing to do."

Hermione found herself in the center of a storm that had suddenly turned silent, her throat aching from the long monologue and finding herself deeply shocked by it. And then she realized she had stood up sometime during her speech and quickly shot back down, seating herself with a bright blush.

And came face to face with an open-mouthed, wide-eyed Death Eater. It was hard to describe the mixture of shock, disbelief and bewilderment that concentrated in Bellatrix's expression, but suffice it to say that it made Hermione blush heavier in embarrassment at having managed to shut the dark witch up so effectively. But there was something else there, something that had the young woman quickly raise her gaze again, questioning the dark, tired flicker in the other witch's eyes.

Understanding hit her with the force of a rock slide.

You never planned on having a chance at winning. You thought they would sentence you to death, no matter what.

You gave up from the second I visited you in your room.

"So. What you say is you learned to... care?... for her during this time, despite her rough behaviour," Kingsley stated into the noiseless air.

The young woman grimaced, ripped out of her bleak realization. "I guess so."

"Stockholm-Syndrome?" Elphias Doge questioned her warily.

"Unfounded psychology has no place in court, Master Doge," Pendrake threw in a bit miffed.

"No, I don't... I don't think so, Sir. I just..." she shrugged, a bit helpless, "started understanding when I got to know her. Or what I guess is the real her." God damn this Veritaserum.

"If there are no further questions, you can sit back down, Miss Granger."

No question came forth. Everyone was busy contemplating her words. Hermione hurried back to her former seat as fast as her feet could carry her, desperate. When she was in the midst of her friends, who stared at her as well as if she had grown not just a second, but also a third and forth head, Ginny leaned over to her with wonder in her eyes.

"Do you really believe all that?"

The brunette answered with a half-nod, half-shrug. "Looks like it. Please, don't ask me anything now. I'd tell you my dirtiest secret."

From behind her, Ron clapped a hand over George's mouth at that prompt.

Everyone was given a few minutes to think about what had been said. Hermione's speech had made an impact, one that wasn't easy to push aside and forget. Both the Wizengamot and the visitors saw things in an altogether different light now and it was seen in the way they talked with grave nods and heavy, thoughtful gazes while glancing at Bellatrix Lestrange... who, for once, in the midst of all the attention, felt uncomfortable and showed it by struggling to keep her face neutral. But she couldn't keep her lips from pressing together into a fine, white line.

"Let's move to the topic of the 'item' from the Department of Mysteries. Master Garald," the Minister interrupted after a proper amount of pause, addressing the Head of said department, "we have spoken about the item in question and have decided that for the trial itself he can disclose a small amount of information, so you have a chance to know what we are dealing with. As we cannot let out any specific details, we will play something remotely like a little game of twenty questions, so feel free to ask Master Garald right away." Shacklebolt couldn't hide a small smirk at his wording.

"Is it dangerous?" someone asked right on cue.

Garald, an earnest looking wizard whose ancestors seemed to originate from India, contemplated the question for a moment. "In the way Madame Lestrange desires it? No."

"Could you hurt or kill someone with it?"

"Again, not in the way she desires it."

"Will it benefit her?"

"Yes, of course."

A few wizards sent the witch who had asked the last question a few annoyed looks and she made herself smaller.

"Will it have repercussions?"

Garald clicked his tongue. "That answer is beyond my scope of knowledge."

A few more questioners tried to wheedle more information out of the Department Head, but Garald was an Unspeakable with every fiber of his being and artfully formed his answers in a way that either confused the questioners or relayed no useful details at all. Hermione, who knew the item in question was Ixion's Tears, followed the 'game' with a tiny smile.

And then Kingsley was suddenly standing again and cleared his throat. "Very well. I will give you five minutes to think about what you have heard today, before I lay down the possible verdicts."

Those minutes were the longest Hermione had ever experienced. She knew her friends were sitting on hot coals and wanted to prod her, but they held themselves back, as she could still feel the high dosage of the potion run through her veins now that she concentrated on it.

All the while she could feel herself being stared at by the dark witch, so she occupied herself instead with dedicated intensity with the cloth of one of her pant legs, scrubbing away at a small spot of dust until the skin below felt raw.

Five hours (or, actually, five minutes) later, the now well-known sound of Kingsley's hammer demanded silence. Now the anxiety and eager expectancy could almost be cut from the air in huge, tangible chunks.

"Ladies and gentlemen, respected members of the Wizengamot, we have to reach a verdict. With the evidence at hand, I have changed the original propositions and adjusted them to what we heard today. Please show your decision by hand sign and choose wisely and justly, as we are commanded by law. The first possible verdict."

Hermione hid her face in her hands, finding herself close to hyperventilating. Pleasepleaseplease...

"Painless death by Unforgiveable Curse for both Madame Bellatrix Lestrange and Hermione Jean Granger at the hand of an authorized Auror. Please vote now."

Pleasepleasepleaseohgodplease...

"Hermione!" Ginny grabbed her shoulder, shaking her painfully. "Oh my goodness, Hermione!"

Behind her, there were gasps and Mrs. Weasley let out a stifled "Oh dear!"

The young woman opened her eyes, her whole body shaking in fear. Then she looked over at the Wizengamot.

About a third of the hands were in the air. Of fifty possible votes, only twenty had decided against her.

"Oh my god," she exclaimed quietly, putting a hand over her mouth. Safe. She was safe. They would live!

"Twenty votes in favor of the first verdict. The possible second verdict." Shacklebolt sent Hermione a short glance that twinkled with happy amusement, before reading on.

"Madame Lestrange will not be sent to prison or killed for her crimes, thus ensuring Miss Granger's safety. She will serve as an example for the permanent end of Voldemort's reign by laying down the family name Lestrange, receive the item from the Department of Mysteries and spend the next year under Miss Granger's and Professor McGonagall's supervision at Hogwarts, then the three years afterward under Ministry approved attention, while also reporting regularly back to the Ministry of Magic for the next ten years. In addition, she will be charged a compensation fee of one million galleons which will then be distributed along the families having suffered from her crimes."

"Leave it to Hermione to make a symbol for the good out of Voldemort's most loyal Death Eater," Ron muttered stunned.

"Please vote now."

All remaining hands snapped up and the hall erupted into loud applause, twice as loud and enthused as after Fudge's speech. But loudest of all were her boys, who jumped up from their seats and screamed in ecstatic glee, hugging each other and pumping their fists in victory. Fudge's face had turned beet red, the man looked ready to burst a vein. Shacklebolt didn't even try to calm everyone down, instead he spoke loud enough that all witnessing the scene knew that the second verdict was final and would become effective with the renewed opening of Hogwarts one month later than usual, at the first of October.

Hermione caught a glance at Andromeda and Narcissa, who, both with tears in their eyes and smiling, held each others' hands and gazed with sisterly love and happiness at their last sibling.

I never would have thought a whole room could erupt with excitement at the fact that Bellatrix Lestrange has been nearly pardoned.

When the young woman found the burning gaze of the former Death Eater, Hermione couldn't look away from the expressionless features of the dark witch. The black irises wrapped her in iron ropes, seeping down into her soul and lodging herself into her very being with black claws. The hustle around her turned to an indistinguishable buzz, droning on while the young woman felt as if her thoughts had turned to syrup, her breath suddenly so loud that she could hear every intake and exhale as if respiring in a small wooden box.

Neither of them blinked.

Hermione stayed caught and held the dark witch's all-consuming gaze until two Aurors grabbed her upper arms and dragged the eldest Black backwards, Bellatrix staring without relenting at the younger witch until the walls cut off their connection.

Which the brunette's head determined was a wonderful time to slip away in a dead faint.

So... I'd like this chance to say something personal. Even though I wrote this chapter and turned and twisted everything around, I still believe it is very unbelievable. Utopian even. But give me a moment to explain why.
My cousin (who, it turns out, seems to be fine, thank goodness) and I, both very interested in philosophy, ethics and psychology, often have deep discussion about literally everything in the world. I remember a time when we discussed the individual versus the many, a topic you will find running like a red string from Heraclitus to modern philosophers. We also have discussions about the good and bad in mankind, or even if there is something like that at all.
It's a topic I find myself struggling with on an almost daily basis. If you'd ask me, seven out of ten times I would say there is more evil than good in humans, because life taught me so. But I find myself wanting to be wrong about this and every time I'm reminded of my faith in humanity, it is more beautiful and heart-warming than anything else. I struggle between pessimism and optimism, landing in an undecided realist field most of the time. But in the end, I still tend to argue in a way that makes humanity stand in a bad light, which is sad. And it also makes this chapter so unrealistic for me. Why? Because tell me of one court in the whole world who would accept Hermione's words, even if they sound right? A criminal should be tried and thrown into prison, because that's justice. Bellatrix gets away more than scot-free. All in the name of 'good'.
But why did I leave it like that then? If I don't believe in my own words? Because I believe Hermione is right, when it comes down to it. It's unrealistic, utopian, and so on, but if I can't believe in the good of mankind in a fantasy story, where three teenagers have defeated a dark enemy nearly by themselves and their faith in what is right, then I don't know anymore. There is too little love going around in this world and this is why I believe Hermione to be such a great character, because I think she is the first who would extend a hand to someone who seems unredeemable, because that's who she is. Compassionate and filled with love for the world around her. And the world would be a better place if we all had a piece of her inside us. I don't know why it's so important for me to tell you that, it just is.

Okay, that was enough heart-to-heart and I'm sorry if all of the above didn't make much sense, but I still hope you enjoyed the chapter :) Let's hope I don't catch the bug again (one of my friends is lying in bed with a fever, I DON'T WANT IT) and that the next update is quicker. See you all lateeers! *runs off to get some food*

Chapter Text

Okay, party people. I would usually add my comments to your comments (all of which I am still unbelievingly greatful about!), but considering the heavy note on which I ended the last chapter and your baffling resonance to it, I will just keep (mostly) quiet and humbly accept your opinions. Which are all true in their own way, seen from different standpoints. It was really interesting to read them and I want to thank you all for sharing your own opinion with me. But the 'comment of the chapter' award goes to imperfectionisunderrated... you always keep me amused, my dear fellow writer ;]

mestisay: I was able to understand everything you wrote very well, so thank you for taking your time to comment! :)

kttykiwi: Your idea is pretty good and I think I will heed it and change the voting a bit around. Good idea!

List of Romantics: I like you, your comments are very interesting and thoughtful. :) Amazingly, your thoughts echo mine to a T, because I was working very close to reality and then had to forcibly remind myself that it is and will always be a fantasy story. Hence my decision to go the 'utopian' way. On the topic of the families seeking revenge... well, let's just say this won't be the last word spoken. ;]

confusion473: If someone writes in German, I write back in German. If someone writes in English, I write back in English. If someone writes in Spanish... I couldn't read it anway XD Thank you for replying in such an in depth way! I guess considering Hermione's involvement in the trial really throws the usual verdict-making for a loop... so I guess my decision to end it the way I did doesn't make it as deus ex as I first believed :)

cyries: Thank you! Very interesting point you made there. I think Bella already finished the Divine Comedy, which is why she is so intrigued by it ;) My health is (thankfully) back in action, so I can finally get back to typing!

Ilyria: I understood all you wanted to say and I feel very honored that you took the time to comment so much. Thank you. I'd love to learn Spanish one day, it such a beautiful language :)

Thanks everyone for taking their time to spend a few moments thinking about it. Reading your thoughts is the most wonderful reward for writing this story. I hope I can keep on entertaining with what I have planned!

11. Embracing Home

"Velvet and satin and dresses so green

Everyone's dancing with Lady Marlene,

Fear is the color of all that they wear,

Mother-of-pearl pallor cold like her heart of stone." - Lady Marlene, Katzenjammer

When Hermione woke up, it was as if she had been reborn. As if all her memories were those of another life, but her body was taking its very first, fresh breath in its reincarnated one. It felt good to be so cleansed, even though more trouble would be laying ahead, but right now, the distinctive feeling of elation was filling every cell of her flesh and bones.

I'm going to live.

She was of the opinion that she had every right to feel so great for a moment.

"Hermione! Are you feeling okay?" a concerned voice asked from the side of her... bed?

Blinking her eyes open, the brunette realized that somehow they had hauled her into the Burrow. She could easily distinguish those beams, ceiling and window from every other house she knew. Ginny was sitting at her bedside with a slightly worried expression and Hermione eased her friend's mind with a bright smile as she sat up.

"Yeah. I'm... actually, I feel wonderful. I guess it was all a bit too much - wait, how long was I out?"

Relieved, the redhead couldn't help but smile in return, seating herself a bit more comfortably. "Since yesterday. The doctor said it was the mixture of excitement and exhaustion and that you would sleep for a while."

"What?... Since yesterday? God, I was really knocked out, wasn't I?" Wincing at the thought of such a long timespan, the brunette rubbed her face.

Ginny grinned and slapped a hand on Hermione's blanketed leg. "A stone would have been envious of your deep sleep. Now, come on. If you're feeling so great, then there's breakfast waiting for you downstairs."

The mention of food had the brunette in the kitchen twice as quick, ready to fill her grumbling stomach with food. The shouts and calls outside told her that the boys were training their Quidditch skills and she left them to it, until she had managed to ensure Mrs. Weasley that she was more than sated and that there was no way another three sausages and eggs would fit into her.

When she stepped outside, Hermione had to laugh when the boys flew around her with loud whoops of victory before setting down beside her.

"You're up! Awesome!" Ron wobbled in her direction, trying to simultaneously step off his broom and hug her close. He didn't really succeed in either and simply threw an arm around her shoulder in a quick squeeze. "Boy, you won't believe what happened after you, well, decided to take your nap."

"Haha," Hermione replied with fake sarcasm and bumped her boyfriend's upper arm. "So, what exactly did happen after I was out?"

"There nearly was a riot outside when they read out the verdict, so Kingsley had to go out there himself and explain the situation. When he reread your speech from Percy's transcript, there was dead silence. Then everyone started arguing with each other. I guess there are now two factions: Those who support the court decision and those who don't." Harry grinned cheekily, adjusting his glasses. "Guess which side outweighs – at least at the moment."

The young witch let out a relieved puff of air. "That's great. I just hope Bellatrix and I won't be an even bigger target after this."

"Seriously, 'mione... I couldn't believe you would say that," Ron commented with an awed stare. "I mean, blimey! What you did in there was absolutely awesome. I have like the coolest girlfriend in the history of magic."

Hermione blushed deeply, crossing her arms in embarrassment and looking down at her shoes. "Yeah, well... it just seemed right. And I was chock full with Veritaserum."

The dark-haired boy's expression clouded over with the mention of that. "I can guess pretty well who send that blasted witch to drug you. But we can't find any connection to Fudge, he learned to hide his tracks very well."

Shrugging, the young witch decided to leave that one behind. "We won, so who cares. Fudge was ridiculed for his opinion in court and that gives me more satisfaction than laying his betrayal out in the open."

Ron pushed his best friends shoulder in his excitement, a big grin on his lips. "Tell her the rest, come on! Tell her!"

"Tell me what?" she asked with a raised eyebrow.

Harry's green eyes sparkled. "Kingsley came to us with a proposition. He plans to have everyone, who is over the age of seventeen and who fought in the last war, able to join the Aurors without having to go through an application process."

"Which means, once Hogwarts starts, we'll be working for the Ministry as Aurors!" Ron cut in, throwing his hands up into the air.

Hermione felt first stunned, then happy for her best friends, then sad that she wouldn't see them in Hogwarts, then extremely happy for them again. She hugged them both with a laugh. "That's incredible! Congratulations, both of you!"

"We're going to be very busy for the next few months with trying to catch Voldemort's followers, but you'll be busy at Hogwarts anyway, won't you?" Ron asked carefully, worried she might be sad they wouldn't be able to keep as much contact as now.

"No no, you're right, it'll be fine. I will be incredibly busy, especially with... with Bellatrix around. I can only hope you're here for the winter holidays?..."

"We wouldn't miss that for the world," Harry assured her with a laugh and the three returned inside to chat about their good fortune these days.

It was still three days until the new school year would begin. Due to the heavy repair work on both the school itself and its magical wardens, the normal school start had to be moved to a later month, but it was a lucky coincidence for Hermione. Now she would be able to return after the trial without having to miss the beginning of her courses. She still could hardly believe that she would go to Hogwarts with Bellatrix in tow, but the prospect didn't scare her very much anymore. McGonagall would be right around the corner if something happened and she was surrounded by wizards and witches nearly the whole day long. The dark witch would have a hard time terrorizing her.

Hermione wondered what the former Death Eater was thinking right now. When she had left (or rather, been forced to leave) the court room, Bellatrix's mien had been uninterpretable. Was she angry about the decision? Relieved? Or rather in a place of indecision, unable to believe what had happened? With the dark witch's constant mood changes it was hard to predict her reaction.

When you expect to die with every fiber of your being and then don't... Hermione couldn't even begin to imagine what would be going on inside the older woman. She had given up. As of now, she had a second chance.

But now that the young woman knew she would be safe in Hogwarts for the next year, it was time to stop worrying about Bellatrix Lestrange and take care of something else she both longed for and feared.

Her family.

Finding out where her parents had gone proved to be much easier than she had thought. A quick trip to the neighbors was all it took to do the deed.

"Oh, I was so worried you and your parents had a disagreement," the old lady next door blabbered when Hermione stood at her patio, "they were quite confused when I asked them about you and repeatedly denied you were their daughter. That's a very, very sad thing to say. And they demanded to be called Wilkins the whole while. Say, was it about a boy, dear?"

"Uh, yeah, kind of," the young woman wormed her way out, feverishly trying to think up an excuse. "We... ah... fought a bit, but it's all right now. I really need to speak to them. To, uh, apologize, I mean."

"Oh, you're such a good girl, Hermina. I always tell Mr. Fibbins from across the street how diligently you go to school and how you help your parents in the holidays. And always so polite... my, if only my own daughter were such a nice, young woman. Oh, you've become so pretty in the last years. How old are you now? Fifteen? Time moves so fast... I can just remember how you were as a tiny toddler, always crawling around the veranda in your diapers..."

"Uhm, the address, Miss Henry?" Hermione pleaded, trying her best to stay rooted to the spot and not run far away from the chatty old woman who could talk for the next two hours without getting to the point.

Once she had her information about where exactly the Granger's had gone in Australia and found a way to escape Miss Henry's verbal clutches, it was a simple call-and-question game until they had found the place the couple was staying at. McGonagall herself took her student to the other country so she could reverse the memory charm.

Unsurprisingly, the Grangers were caught between anger about Hermione's manipulation and happiness that their child was well and healthy. It took a few hours to make them understand why the young woman had tampered with their memory for their own safety and how horrible the times in the Wizarding World had been, and another two to explain the current situation.

"You're bound to a murderer?" Mrs. Granger's voice wavered with unbelief at this dreadful revelation.

"It was important. I didn't have any other choice and I don't regret doing it," was Hermione's short answer before she related the last four months in greater detail. She left out the abuse and torture at Bellatrix's hand on the island though and simply replaced it with 'very violent arguments'. She didn't like lying to her parents like that, but they were already overwhelmed and worried enough at the moment.

Finally the happiness of the reunion overlapped everything else and Hermione spent several minutes just reveling in the feeling of having her parents build a secure cocoon around her, their arms hugging her close in unending parental love and pride. This was what she had fought for: To return to the family she loved so deeply without having to worry about them being endangered in a world filled with hate for Muggles. They were safe.

It would take some time for them to move back to Britain, but Hermione swore to keep constant contact with her parents, now that they were reunited.

On their way back to the Weasley residence, the brunette found herself unable to stop the happy smile spreading across her lips. It was as if only now the knowledge that Voldemort and his cause were gone forever had been driven home, making her feel more relaxed than ever before.

Amused, McGonagall glanced at her charge as they walked the rest of the way to the house. "As it seems, you are having quite a good day, Miss Granger. Maybe it's time to make it even a bit better."

Hermione looked up at the tall witch, surprise on her features. "Really? How?"

"I've decided to make you Head Girl this year." Before the young woman could utter her thanks as her eyes grew large, the Headmistress held up a hand. "I know you will have your hands full already with Madame Lestrange... or Black, as she will soon be called, but I believe it is the only right way. It would be an insult to the work as Head Girl if I chose any other representative to this duty. And it will give you certain... rights, to make dealing with our charge easier. I made sure you and Madame Black will have your own accommodations this year in the Gryffindor tower, as to make sure our protégée won't be able to cause any trouble between the younger students."

"That's... incredible. Thank you, professor," Hermione replied, openly beaming.

"And on the topic of Madame Black, you will accompany her to the Ministry on the second of October, after you have settled down and gotten your timetable for the rest of the year," McGonagall went on, carefully watching where she was stepping while they made their way through the fields.

"Oh. You mean, into the Department of Mysteries?" At her teacher's nod, Hermione was stunned. "Oh, wow."

"Seeing as both of you already know the interior of the department," the older woman explained, sending the Gryffindor a glance over her spectacles that had the young witch sheepish, "the Unspeakables decided it wouldn't be considered a security breach to have you both come along. Madame Black seems to have rummaged through their records before the battle in the Ministry anyway, and even if there is no direct proof, she would not know about the Tears otherwise."

"Well, they had more than enough time to stage the trap for Harry and us, so it's no wonder Bellatrix managed to pass the time with finding out their secrets."

They fell into a comfortable silence, leaving the young woman to imagine how her seventh year would go off. There was little doubt it would be filled to the brim with excitement.

Back at the Burrow, everyone congratulated Hermione on her promotion to Head Girl and Ginny, who would also go back to Hogwarts to finish her seventh year, was ecstatic to find out she had been made Gryffindor Prefect. The girls got ready to pack their trunks for the new school year and everyone went to Diagon Alley to buy what they needed and to spend a wonderful day with their friends and loved ones before they would be parted for several months.

On the morning of the first October, there was a big group breakfast down in the Burrow's kitchen. It was bittersweet to think that this was the first year in school Hermione would spend without her two male best friends by her side, but she was incredibly ancious to start learning again. She knew they would write each other constantly and there were also the holidays she had to consider.

Molly and Arthur personally brought the girls to King's Cross Station, as Hermione's parents were still busy trying to move back from Australia. Still, it was amusing to find yourself on the receiving end of Mrs. Weasley's motherly fussing, which only seemed to stop after they walked onto Platform Nine and Three-Quarters, where they found themselves in the usual hectic crowd of school goers and their families.

It didn't take long to find Bellatrix as McGonagall had told her to do.

Both the dark witch and her sister were standing at nearly the end of the platform, a wide bubble of empty space between them and the rest of the people. Most were looking at the two pure-bloods with morbid curiosity or wary fear. Bellatrix answered those looks either with an angry snarl that scared away several first and second years, or dark smiles, which caused waves of trepidation to run through anyone watching. Narcissa was above such shenanigans, ignoring the chatting masses around her with ice-cold dignity.

"I'll join you in the Prefect compartment later," Hermione told her best friend and hugged the Weasley parents good-bye. Walking over to the Black sisters, Bellatrix spotted her with a look of utter vexation.

"Glad to see you made it," the young woman forced herself to say with politeness. Narcissa nodded slowly at the young witch, but there was not even the slightest form of greeting from Bellatrix, other than the darker sister hissing at a third or fourth year and watching him scramble away in heedless panic.

The blonde Black sniffed disdainfully at the action.

"Uhm," the young woman carefully asked, "everything all right?"

Narcissa surprised her by answering the question in a sarcastic tone that, for once, was not directed at her, but her sibling instead. "I will just be glad when you can take over my dear sister for now. It's like having a new five-year-old in the house. It only took an hour for me to run after her and get her to don her mantle."

Hermione bit back the smile conjured by that image and took a glance at Bellatrix. The older woman was once again dressed in her more elaborate robes, making her appear both striking and intimidating, yet the impression was greatly disturbed by the fact that she had her arms crossed willfully and was pouting like said five-year-old.

"I hate Hogwarts. And now I have to go back there for twelve bloody months."

"It's just a year, Bella," Narcissa sighed and sounded as if she was quite fed up with her current situation. Hermione could only imagine how much of a handful the dark witch had to have been these last days. "And you can come back during the holidays."

"Ugh, who cares. It will at least be two months until then." With that, Bellatrix turned and stalked over to the open carriage door. "Farewell, Cissy." A flick of her wrist above her shoulder seemed to be some kind of wave.

It was obvious both Draco's mother as well as Hermione had expected a more warm good-bye, but Bellatrix was obviously annoyed and not interested in any mushy family scenes. Narcissa rubbed her brow as if trying to stave off a pounding headache and turned to the Gryffindor.

"Look, Bellatrix has not yet been given back her wand and she is livid about it. It seems she won't be given one until she has proven herself to be able to handle it without people getting hurt. You can expect her to make a scene... or a dozen." A sigh. "You never know with her."

Hermione shrugged with a half-smile at that. "Yeah, I know. Considering I have a wand and she doesn't, I'll make sure to get her in line if words don't work anymore."

The conversation was quickly turning uncomfortable and frosty as both realized they had nothing to say to each other anymore. The young witch cleared her throat self-consciously and took a glance at the train.

"Uh, I need to take care of my Head Girl duties now. I'll make sure to take care of your sister... it was nice meeting you, Miss Malfoy." Before she could turn away though, a pale hand sneaked out to grab her arm. Where Bellatrix's fingers were like wrought iron, Narcissa's grasp proved to be just as effective in holding her back by sheer force of will behind the gesture. Hermione shot her a curious glance and found the other woman strangely conflicted.

"I... want... to thank you, Miss Granger. For what you said in the court room. We are in your debt, for what you achieved and... and you are welcome at my house, in exchange for what we did to both you and your friends."

The blonde would have been happier chewing marbles from the look on her face, but Hermione appreciated both the gesture and the offer, considering that they sounded both truthful and earnest. There was probably some valued kind of honor code the old families followed and which was dear to the light haired woman, despite her thinly veiled disgust at dealing with a Muggle-born. "Please... I implore you, do not speak to anyone about the chat with my sister, Andromeda."

"Thank you," Hermione replied, meaning it and hoping that it came across to the older witch. "And I won't. I understand it's very personal to you."

Narcissa nodded and quickly retrieved her hand. Squaring her shoulders she inclined her head once again at the young woman and then left in a quiet walk of poise and grace. The brunette wondered if all the Black sisters had this inherent ability to attract the common eye with the simple matter of walking and moving as if gods had graced them. Even Bellatrix had moments where she exhibited this cold, smooth elegance, but more often than not it was tinted with a raw, animalistic allure found in no one but the dangerous, former Death Eater's motions. Maybe it came from her unstable personality.

When the train's horn trumpeted, Hermione found herself standing alone and lost in thought near the carriage door, staring off into space as if she had all the time in the world. Quickly she moved to the side and boarded, before the Hogwarts Express went off without her.

Bellatrix was standing right behind the door, waiting impatiently.

"Seeing as you are my new leash holder, where to now, Head Mud?" Dark eyes took a mocking glimpse at the badge on Hermione's school robes.

"I better take you with me to the Prefect carriage, before anyone can get the stupid idea to pick a fight with you on the first day," the young witch muttered and turned into the direction they had to go. Bellatrix followed her with the kind of bored indifference that had Hermione on edge and just waiting for the dark witch to snap back into one of her moods.

Once they had found the right place, the Gryffindor jumped right into her duty as Head Girl, introducing both the new and old prefects to their jobs and making sure everyone knew what had to be done. Everyone, even Ginny, was staring at the older woman while Hermione talked, as she would repeatedly retch or groan whenever the other woman mentioned important aspects of 'duty' and 'rules', to the great amusement of the younger Slytherins, who soon snickered along. Especially because every time Hermione would turn around to glare at the dark witch, Bellatrix would throw her a wide-eyed, innocent look that was entirely ridiculous.

Finally the duties for the train ride were delegated, most were patrolling the carriages or sitting together in small groups. Hermione and Bellatrix had their own compartment, which was not surprising to the new Head Girl. She suspected the whole train was abuzz with the news that the infamous lieutenant of Lord Voldemort was sitting with them on the way to Hogwarts.

Now that Hermione thought about it, it did seem kind of ironic and unbelievable. And yet, it was the current situation and would be for the next months. She could only guess what trouble the dark witch would get in once she had her youth back.

The closer they came to Hogwarts, the more something... changed about Bellatrix. It was hard to put into words and was the kind of flickering detail you couldn't quite grasp at the corner of your eye, gone the second you turned your head to it. It was as if a piece of the older woman was starting to brace itself, curling into the cowering motion of a predator ready to jump at any moment's notice. Yet at the same time, there was a calm and thoughtfulness around her, almost like a blanketing aura. The whole impression was curious and only showed in the intense stare the other witch directed at the landscape passing by in meshed swirl of movement and color.

Watching the sinking of the sun was as beautiful as ever and Hermione was glad for the silence lingering between them. While she browsed through her books and school materials, Bellatrix was gone in her own world, watching time and space drift by with her chin propped on her curled hand.

Close to the final station, the Head Girl had all her helpers spread in a way that she and the dark witch could take the last carriage to the school and not be as much of a sensation as when they mingled between the other, normal students.

It proved to be a good idea, as Bellatrix seemed dead set on making things as difficult as possible. She moved in an infuriating, slow crawl, constantly got sidetracked by plants, creatures and other happenings and insisted on spending a minute or two making nice with the Thestral pulling their carriage.

Hermione, who was close to screaming in frustration by the time, was shocked to see the dark witch so intrigued by the black, horse-like creature, which the Gryffindor now saw for the first time in its full glory. The skeletal body with the large, leathery wings was both imposing and disconcerting, even though she knew the creatures living in Hogwarts were tame and gentle beings. But seeing Bellatrix coo to the unsettling magical beast as if it was a little puppy was an even weirder picture.

"You seem to like them," Hermione gently inquired when they were finally on their way to the castle.

"Aren't they beautiful? So strong and majestic. Once I am free of Hogwarts, I will have my own," the former Death Eater answered while looking at the Thestral with obvious longing.

Inside the boat, Bellatrix sprawled herself in the backseat and let her hand drag in the dark waters of the opaque lake, ripping Hermione out of her trance of watching the impressive castle at night, when making low, screeching noises in the back of her throat. Staring at the dark witch in full irritation, the reason for her sudden cacophony of sound became apparent when something long and silvery glittered below the water surface in the light of the moon.

"Merpeople..." Hermione whispered in quiet awe when the sentient beings twirled and swam along with their boat in unsurpassed, graceful talent. A silent, magical escort on their way to the shore. "You... you even speak Mermish?"

"Languages are so under-appreciated," Bellatrix drawled and watched how different sirens touched her hand in what could be a gesture of welcome or friendship, before slipping back into the hidden depths of Black Lake. "No one sees the worth in them. Or the beings speaking them."

Do you feel connected to them? Hermione wondered, silently observing the former Death Eater play with the Merpeople as if they were old acquaintances. Because you're different, too?... Is that why you respect your house elves? Is accepting Muggles so much more difficult than understanding magical creatures? Ah, the questions. Like always, one answer would open up a whole new catalog of mysteries about this strange woman.

Yet instead of daring to raise Bellatrix's ire with the curiosity burning on her tongue, the young woman let herself be immersed in the wonder of being led to the castle by these shy, exotic creatures shimmering more naturally than the most expensive jewelery.

It was surprising that, when they reached the stairs to the Great Hall, McGonagall herself awaited them. "Ah, good. Even the latecomers have finally deigned to arrive."

"Can't remember signing up for this, so I'll take whatever time I want," Bellatrix sing-songed in an easy manner of speaking.

The Headmistress didn't seem interested in butting heads with the Black sister and ignored the thinly veiled decoy for an argument. Instead she turned on the spot to walk back to the closed doors. "I will begin the speech in a minute. You should find a free spot on the end of the Gryffindor table, Miss Granger." With that, she opened the small door set into the larger gate and vanished in the sea of sound that sloshed out of the hall and into the cool night. All the students were laughing, shouting, talking and arguing, luring the two women inside to join the beginning of the school year.

"Yech," the dark witch spat, pulling a face. "The Gryffindor table. Several generations of my family will turn in their graves. Ugh... how absolutely humiliating."

"Don't worry, you won't get sick from sitting with us," Hermione shot back in a sarcastic voice.

"I wouldn't be so sure about that," Bellatrix retaliated with a filthy look, "I might still lose my dinner from your disgusting display of brainless Gryffindor courage." With that, she strolled over to the door and walked inside without another word or a second of hesitation.

It was a display of power and superiority and it worked like a charm. Dressed in most expensive black lace, leather and fabric from head to toe, head raised in narcissistic pride and walking as of nothing short of an apocalypse itself could touch her, Bellatrix Black owned the room the second she appeared on the scene. Glancing at the low life filling the slowly quieting hall beneath half-lidded, uncaring eyes, the dark witch slowly sauntered over to the free spot at the red and golden clad table, each and every click of her sharp-pointed shoes echoing across the hall and capturing attention and awe alike.

Poser, was all the young woman following her could think in that moment, but even she couldn't deny the beguiling swing of Bellatrix's hips moving as if she had no care in the world. A golden shimmer of the thousands upon thousands of candles reflected on each and every black lock curling around the older woman's face, neck and back, setting her pale skin alight and draping her in an almost magical, obscure glow.

Hermione swallowed and tried not to think too much how even she found herself affected by this lover of the Dark Arts. You're just jealous because you wouldn't even be able to capture this much attention if you danced around stark naked. How is it that one human being can command a whole room with her presence?

Shaking her head to clear her thoughts, the young woman quickly sat down next to the witch everyone was staring at. By now the whispering had begun, but it bounced off the haughty witch's exterior like spells of a magical shield. Bellatrix had her elbows placed on the table in an overly done demonstration of boredom.

"Can we eat now?"

"No. Professor McGonagall will greet us and then the new students will be sorted. Come on, it can't be that long ago since you were here as a student," Hermione answered under her breath.

"No, but I don't care shit about what's going on. I'm hungry."

Rolling her eyes in annoyance, she shushed the languid pure-blood once McGonagall came forward. Bellatrix made a disgusted retching noise and Hermione rammed her elbow so suddenly into the former Death Eater's side, that the woman swallowed a surprised grunt.

The raven-haired woman's resulting glare nearly set the brunette's neck aflame, but she was busy watching the Headmistress and praying that Bellatrix would not retaliate right now. For once, her praying turned out successful.

"Welcome to this slightly delayed new term of the school year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry," McGonagall spoke out into the hall; even unmodified her voice easily traveled across the vast expense and drowned out the hushed whisper about the former Death Eater's entry. "Before we begin with the words of notice for this year, I would like to say a thank you to all those who helped return this age-old castle, former and future home to many, to its once known glory. I would like us all to take a moment to think back to those brave ones who lost their lives in a battle for their school and us all."

Out of the corner of her eye Hermione could see Bellatrix getting ready to make a scathing comment, but she only hissed the word 'Tonks' to the other woman and watched as her mouth snapped shut with a slight click.

"Thank you. Now let us start with the Sorting Hat ceremony without delay, so we can begin the feast with our new fellow students sitting alongside us."

Just like every year, Hermione whooped and clapped for every new Gryffindor that joined their ranks, noting with mixed feelings how thinned out the tables of the Slytherins seemed to be. The whole student body was smaller than all the years before, as many parents refused to send their children to Hogwarts after the blood shedding last year and with the most well-known follower of Voldemort residing between the old walls. It was a sad sight, but it was voided by the happy feelings in every student's face. Everyone was glad to be here.

Then, the last child went off to sit beside his new fellow Ravenclaw, where Hermione spotted a pale-haired Luna Lovegood obviously once again lost in reverie. It was nice to know another one of her friends had decided to finish their school education, causing her to be so lost in thought that she nearly missed McGonagall's announcement of the beginning feast.

For once, both the pure-blood and the Muggle-born were in quiet consent while dealing with the food. As they were at the end of the table, they didn't have to pass along any bowls or dishes, allowing them to fully immerse themselves in the task of eating along the sound of clattering and cutlery scratching on plates.

"Now that everyone is sated and filled with the delicious Welcoming Feast," the Headmistress once again addressed them after they were finished to the point of bursting, "a few words about our new teachers for this year."

New and old teachers were introduced to the student body and Hermione couldn't help but wave enthusiastically when Hagrid was once again noted as both gamekeeper and teacher for Care of Magical Creatures (though the latter was admittedly a bit bittersweet to the young witch).

"In addition to that, the Headmasters of Beauxbaton and Durmstrang have agreed to improve the relationships between our countries. As a sign of their agreement, we will be celebrating the Yule Ball sans the Triwizard tournament each year on the 25th of December in a different school, starting with Hogwarts this year in a combined celebration with winning the Second Wizarding War." The hall erupted in loud cheers, many of the younger students remembering the retelling of the great festival celebrated with the other schools.

"The same rules will apply as with every Yule Ball," a combined exclamation of groans followed, "but in exchange for the Triwizard champion we will vote for a school champion representing us to be one of the finest examples of our student body. I trust you to vote well and just when the time is right, as every champion should represent the most valued qualities of each house of Hogwarts. In case you go home during the holidays, you will be able to travel to Hogwarts on the 25th from Hogsmeade and return home on the 26th."

Some other notices followed and everyone was happily chatting and whispering about the Yule Ball, their chosen classes and the first weeks of school, with many sidelong glances at the former Death Eater. Bellatrix was so edgy and restless by now, that she had started to carve runes into the side of the table, handling the sharp blade with the ease of practice.

Hermione could feel her arm twinge in sympathy when looking at the mangled wood, remembering clearly how Bellatrix's talent worked on skin and flesh. Despite her status as Head Girl, her more important duty was taking care of the insane woman and so the students of Hogwarts pushed past them out of the Great Hall without the two in tow.

"Are you quite finished?" the young woman asked with a pointed look at the carved letters.

The dark witch threw the cutlery offhandedly on her plate, rising from the bank they were sitting on. "Sure. I had to entertain myself somehow... god, McGonagall's speeches are even more boring than Dumbledore's. At least they made more bloody sense."

The brunette, now owning two elegantly crafted keys to their new room, led them upstairs and to the Gryffindor tower. Many passages had changed due to the repair work, but Hermione was used to the ever-changing structure of the magical castle and managed to bring them there with only slight delay. They quickly sneaked through the thankfully almost empty common room - everyone seemed to be busy unpacking - and walked up a second set of stairs leading to a lonely door.

"So, we're getting the special treatment?" the dark witch behind her asked with a flick of her tongue.

"McGonagall mentioned that the Head Girl's rooms were better for our... situation. What, you'd rather share a room with some of our fellow Gryffindors?"

"I'd rather strangle them in their sleep if you're asking me."

"Well, I'm not asking you that."

"Which I don't care about, 'cause I talk whenever I want to," Bellatrix snapped back, "and now stop making stupid small-talk and open the bloody door, Mudblood."

Considering the amount of clicking happening when Hermione turned the key, it seemed the door was guarded by more than just clever mechanics. It opened into a small and modest, but pretty living room, who in turn had another three closed doors leading to different rooms. A quick survey unveiled a small bathroom on the right side, and two almost equally spaced bedrooms on the left, their bags already placed at the comfortable looking four-poster beds. To Bellatrix's disapproval, everything was colored in warm red and golden tones.

"Nice, considering that it's a big improvement in contrast to the normal dormitories. I only hope you're able to hold yourself back enough to not smash your lovely bedroom at nighttime," Hermione couldn't help but taunt, remembering the other woman's constant tantrums in the cottage on Lewis.

"You're welcome to try and stop me if you're feeling masochistic," Bellatrix husked into her ear and then sauntered into her own bedroom, slamming the door behind her.

Hermione scoffed and let her head fall back into her neck to take a deep, cleansing lungful of air, breathing in the aroma of the new room and feeling herself relax with memories of nearly seven years. Nearly all of them gathered in these thick, nearly unbreakable stone walls of Hogwarts, where she had met the best of friends and the most dreadful of foes. And now these new, yet eerily similar quarters to the ones she had owned back then... it was nice. And she could easily imagine herself living here comfortably for the next year. This is home. Just like McGonagall said... and no mad witch will destroy this wonderful experience of my last and seventh year at school.

Five seconds later, the door opened again and Bellatrix walked across the space with her suitcases in both hands, vanished in Hermione's chamber and once again slammed the door without care for the erupting loud noise.

The brunette blinked in the direction the pure-blood had gone with puzzlement, before shouting, "Hey, wait a second, that's my ro-..."

The door was opened and Hermione's baggage was thrown unceremoniously out into the living room in one unruly pile of bags and suitcases, along with a dry "This one's bigger," as well as another ear-shattering slam afterward.

Hermione sighed. Deeply. "Yeah. Of course. I should have expected that."

Tired as she was, instead of going to war over the marginally bigger space, the young witch admitted a silent defeat and dragged her stuff into her own chamber, ready to fall asleep at a moment's notice.

Tomorrow was going to be a long, long day.

Aaaand... we're in Hogwarts! *insert fanfare* Fun fun fun...

All right, everyone who doesn't know the band Katzenjammer... shame on you! (kidding ;]) Your homework will be to listen to them. I can recommend the songs 'A Bar In Amsterdam', 'Wading In Deeper' and for the crazies 'Le Pop'. There will be a test next week! (They are awesome.)
For everyone who does know them, they might go 'Huh?' at the lyrics of the song. It seems the four girls of Katzenjammer have changed the lyrics to this song two or three times and I just meshed a few versions together. Because no matter what, the song always reminds me of Bellatrix.
Questions? Comments? Frustrations? Critics? GIVE IT TO ME, BABY! I can take it, don't worry.

Chapter Text

EDIT: Sorry everyone! That's what you get for being tired! XD Right chapter up right now, thanks for the heads up!

I hesitated with this chapter, because on the one hand I'm not entirely happy with it, but on the other I'm not fully sure why. After browsing through it for three days I did a mental shrug and decided to move on. I guess one day this is one of the chapters I might rewrite or add to... but at the moment I just don't have any ideas. Ah well. At least I remember that the research I did for the things displayed in the Ministry of Magic was mucho fun :) I'm awfully tired, so sorry if I don't sound very coherent right now *yawn*

Snapesbloodredneko: Ron and Hermione is ewww... but all in due time :D For the moment, they are still an item *sigh*

imperfectionisunderrated: Awesome review is awesome *grin* By the way, it's 'aber ich bin nur der Leser' ;) You used the plural form. But I'm impressed! :D Writing Bellatrix being annoying, childish and a poser is the most fun eveeeer. Tell me how you liked the songs!

unicorn23: Every review is welcomed with open arms :D So thanks!

idbeinthefollies: Thank you! Bellamione is my crack. The pairing should make no sense at all, but it's soooo addictive. So welcome on board, glad I made you change your mind ;)

Angoisse: Very fitting description, haha! I can totally relate!

List of Romantics: You will hear from my lawyer! Haha, no, sorry, I'm kidding XD You'll get a lengthy reply per PM from me in a sec, that's better than to spam the story with my babbling. :)

OpheliaBlack: McGonagall is pretty happy she can keep an eye on both Bellatrix and Hermione this way. There are several teachers there that are able to control things as well. Hogwarts is and will always be the safest place for both of them, so it's also to protect them from assault, which is why Kingsley made the decision to send them there. McGonagall also saw that Hermione is able to deal with the situation (or rather, deal with Bella) and believes that if anything should happen, Hermione will come to her for help :) I hope that made it clearer. As for what Bella does during the day... I think no one feels responsible to keep her entertained. But more on that later. I love the Thestrals and I think the two fit soo, so well together! *fangirling moment*

Berserkeroo: Well, I probably won't become sick of hearing it! :D

borisinwonderland: Great to hear! Thank you :) I hope to entertain!

Greyella: Thanks! *bow* Writing Bella's shenanigans is incredible fun, I'm glad it comes across! ^^

You guys are aaaawesuuuum. Keep rockin', everybody! :D *double yawn* I forgot what I wanted to say... so I'll just say Thank you!

12. Parting the Veil

"It doesn't matter how long we may have been stuck in a sense of our limitations. If we go into a darkened room and turn on the light, it doesn't matter if the room has been dark for a day, a week, or ten thousand years - we turn on the light and it is illuminated. Once we control our capacity for love and happiness, the light has been turned on." - Sharon Salzberg

Hermione's timetable was, as every year, filled to the brim with lessons of all kinds. Thankfully, there was no need for a time-turner, as there most likely wouldn't have been anyone able to give one to her. There was even enough time on the weekends for browsing the library and visiting Hogsmeade with her friends.

But the young woman was excused from her first day at school during the late afternoon, with her and Bellatrix having an invitation to the marvelous Department of Mysteries. Hermione could feel herself grow giddy with anticipation at visiting the mysterious part of the Ministry without being followed or, well, hunted by Death Eaters.

An anxious Bellatrix and her went to meet McGonagall in the Headmistress' office. The younger woman observed the goblin at the stairs with a touch of sadness, knowing it wouldn't be Dumbledore they would meet. Yet she remembered the talk they had with him closely after the battle, the former Headmaster now framed along the wall, before they had gone to the bridge and watched the destroyed parts of the Elder Wand fall down into the canyon. Her heart eased a little.

"Good day, professor McGonagall," Hermione greeted the Headmistress with a small smile and took a glance at Dumbledore's picture on the wall. The great wizard appeared to be reading a book, but looked up from behind his glasses and winked at her when she passed by. She nodded at him in greeting, quite happy to see him so relaxed.

"Ah, the ones I was waiting for. Are you ready to go? I'm afraid I won't be able to accompany you due to my current duties, but Master Garald will meet you in the Entrance Hall of the Ministry." McGonagall sat up from behind her table, robes and hair sitting as correct and perfect as ever. Even after the battle at Hogwarts it seemed that the older lady was the only one wearing dirt, blood and tattered clothes with a royal dignity not even a Black daughter could pull off.

"We're ready to move out," Hermione confirmed, trying to ignore the passing pure-blood behind her.

"Very well. Here, take the Floo Network, I had them authorize an open connection for today." The Headmistress presented a small bowl with the useful powder and placed it on a table near her fireplace. "I'll await you back in at least two hours."

Hermione hated traveling by Floo Network. It made her sick to the stomach, but after several uses, she had managed to control the urge to have it just be an uncomfortable feeling seeping into her whole intestines, but she doubted she would ever get fully used to it. Taking heart and coloring the flames green with a small dose of the powder, she quickly stepped inside, closed her eyes and voiced her destination.

Stumbling out of the Ministry's fireplace, Hermione shuddered and tried to shake off the queasy twitching of her stomach muscles. Just imagining having to use this connection every day to get to work here was impossible. She'd rather fly by broom than make use of this every single morning.

Bellatrix stepped out after her a mere second later, looking for all the world as if she had just walked through an open doorway. Annoyed envy flared up in the brunette's mind and she gritted her teeth at the portrayed nonchalance.

Once again the appearance of the former Death Eater proved to capture severe attention, if not as strong as in the Great Hall. Here, most people were simply to busy to break their stride and gawp at the raven-haired woman. But in many corners she could see the officials put together their heads, whisper with barely hidden glances in their direction and not hiding their snide faces. She had the feeling it would be best not to linger here too long... before someone had the idea to try something stupid.

"Madame Black. Miss Granger. Please follow me," mentioned a voice to the side and Hermione had to turn around to see the quite small and incredibly impassive Master Garald nod at her in his dark purple robes. Surprised at his out-of-nowhere appearance and the short-clipped sentences, the younger witch could do little but follow him to the next set of elevators in a hurry.

"And good day to you, too, you funny goblin," Bellatrix grumbled from behind her, causing Hermione to quickly hide a laugh behind a cough.

The Head of the Department of Mysteries spend no time wasting and led them down the corridor leading to his realm of command, opening the door at the end with a flick of his wand. Once again Hermione found herself in the eery room with the water-like ground and the identical twelve doors, creating a feeling of unrest in her body. The last time she had been here, her life had been in great danger and Lord Voldemort had been only one step away from assuming unending control over the Wizarding World by killing Harry.

And behind one of these, Bellatrix had killed Sirius Black in cold blood.

Better not think about that now, considering you're so close to help fulfilling her one dream. It would only leave a bitter taste in her mouth.

Aiming at one of the doors with purpose, Master Garald led them through the opening doorway into what Hermione remembered distinctly as the Time Room. While still filled with clocks of all kind and sizes, the spot where the time-turners had rested was understandably empty. The wonderful lights glowing all around them had Hermione walk slower in renewed awe and caused the dark witch to almost bump into her back.

"Stop gawking and move it, muddy." Bellatrix pushed past her and followed the Department Head with a slight spring in her step.

They walked until they could only stop in front of one of the walls, lest they head right in it. But the Master tapped the polished stone with his wand and a doorway peeled itself out of the material. After they had passed this next safety measure, they now entered what seemed to be an ancient depository, filled with trinkets, weapons, things and other odds and ends with a curious or mysterious nature.

Hermione sauntered wide eyed along the displayed glass cases. I guess it's not the best moment to tell him that we kids never came as far as the last room, she thought with barely hidden excitement at this warehouse of treasures.

Bellatrix seemed less impressed, but the young woman suspected that the pure-blood had already snooped in the whole department during the time they had layed the trap. They had imperiused two Unspeakables and probably had made good use of them.

The brunette walked slower and slower while trying to absorb all the wonders laid out around her.

There was Fragarach, identified by an old bronze plaquette at the bottom of the glass case. The sword of the supposedly Irish legend seemed old and simple, but there was a feeling of power emanating from the runes on the blade. The cords wrapped around the hilt were wind-swept by a noiseless breeze caught forever between the thick glass walls. Despite the normally fragile nature of the translucent material, the young woman had no doubt that each of the artifacts was nearly as strongly warded as the walls of Azkaban, making them more than unattractive to the grubby hands of thieves.

Maybe they even have Excalibur hidden away in a dark corner of this incredible room, the brunette wondered with a dash of excitement.

And then she passed Gáe Bulg, another well-known weapon of the Irish mythology. The spear seemed forget from one piece and was as whitish-yellow as bone, with intricate carvings, which seemed to move across the shaft in a flowing pattern reminiscent of water and waves. Amazing. History and mythology, right before my eyes. Inches away from my grasp. The temptations the Unspeakables must face every day...

And over here she saw the Necklace of Harmonia, a heavy golden, jewel-encrusted necklace with two snake heads, whose open mouths formed the clasp, laid upon a pedestal painted with scenes of beautiful women across all ages. Wondering why Bellatrix had not taken this obviously displayed charm for eternal youth and beauty, she realized the reason when finding the big sign with 'Cursed!' written across it on the other side.

Hermione had come to a full stop in front of the Crown of Immortality, the jewelery consisting of a laurel wreath shining like the very stars in heaven, when someone cleared their throat behind her in very emphasized, displeased way.

Caught in the act, the young witch stiffened and slowly turned around. Master Garald pierced her with a cross look and pursed his lips, before pointing into the direction they were going. Guessing that a 'No' or a 'Could I just look for a minute?' wouldn't be well received, the young woman turned and moved on with hanging shoulders.

Well, at least she had seen more than most wizards or witches could ever dare to claim.

Now with both witches watched hawk-like by the small man, they reached their destination quite quickly. It was another glass case, containing a pedestal and a thin vial as tall as Hermione's hand was long, filled with a glittering twirling liquid of immense beauty that couldn't quite decide if it wanted to be golden or silver. Behind it, in all its wonderful glory, the young woman had a long glimpse at the infamous 'Picture of Dorian Gray' and was astonished by the loveliness filling her when regarding the handsome, fair-headed youth on it. It was as if the artistically drawn artwork lit up the whole area, causing colors to appear brighter and forms to be more smooth and sharp in contrast to everything else.

"It's beautiful," Hermione found herself saying in breathless veneration.

"Contrary to what Wilde's book says, the picture seems to have been painted by Mister Gray's corrupter and admirer. Wilde thought it to be more dramatic to make two persons out of him." Master Garald surprised them with this piece of information, seemingly oblivious to the attraction of the young man. Instead, he carefully taped his wand on the case hiding Ixion's Tears several times.

"So what happens now?" Bellatrix asked intrigued once she had ripped her gaze from the artwork. "Will there be a special potion? A ritual? Some kind of blood-letting before the stuff works?"

"No," the man replied, rummaging in a pocket of his robes. What he held up next had both women squint their eyes.

It was a spoon.

"I will put a drop of the liquid on the spoon. You will swallow it. Then you can wait until the magic has done its work. End of story." He shrugged, as if it was no big deal.

Bellatrix sniffed, quite unimpressed. "How anticlimactic. If I had known this sooner, I never would have bothered waiting until after the Hogwarts battle."

"Not everything has to be done with pomp and splendour." He turned to the side to carefully open the glass door and pipette a small droplet from the vial. It was still more than half-full and showed how very careful and sparse the Ministry worked with the substance when researching it. "That you receive the honour to benefit from this artifact should be climatic enough." His voice was neutral, not giving away any hint about what he thought about the recently tried pure-blood. Did he dislike her? Did he simply not care?

Although the dark witch's face was impassive, the Gryffindor could see how her hands clenched and unclenched with a bout of nerves. Here was the one substance able to give her back her youth without repercussions, enabling her to live those lost years once again without fear of old age lurking just behind the corner. Hermione would swear that even the former Death Eater could hardly believe that she was standing here today to receive her wish, especially while officially authorized by the Ministry instead of breaking and entering like a common thief.

Before offering her the spoon, laden with what was probably worth more than all pure-blood vaults put together, the Unspeakable closed and spelled the container with the same care and caution as before. "You will not speak to anyone about what you saw here today. Once we leave this room, I will make you secondary Secret Keepers, so you will not be able to abuse the knowledge gathered here."

The dark witch seemed as is she wanted to protest, but the Master's dark eyes were like walls of iron and left them no other choice. There was no doubt he would protect the secrets with his life and end their lives without any qualms, even justified in his actions by the very laws of the Ministry.

"Fine," Bellatrix conceded, stretching out her hand. "Now give me the damn Tears." A quiver of greed carried in her voice, alongside a note of yearning.

Garald didn't seem happy with the action of giving Voldemort's former closest follower one of his most prized possessions, or better, to give them to anyone, but then he grudgingly handed her the spoon. Hermione watched with rapt attention.

There was a glow of naked desire in the pure-blood's eyes as she gazed at the sparkling liquid on the plain metal spoon. With an almost shuddering breath, she opened her mouth and placed the cutlery between her lips, sucking the Tears of Ixion clear of it. She closed her eyes in a rare moment of relaxed rapture, before pulling the spoon back out with an elated glow coloring her features.

"Is it working?" the dark witch demanded to know immediately.

"It needs some time. At least eight to ten hours. By morning you should see the results," Garald answered as flatly as always.

"Hmpf," Bellatrix remarked and threw the metal somewhere between the priceless artifacts with a flick of her wrist. "And I always thought ancient magic was supposed to be impressive."

The Head of the Department glowered at her, then quickly ushered them back out of the room. Once outside, he held true to his promise and forced them under the magic of the Fidelius Charm and instantly Hermione found it to be harder to think about or analyze what they had seen inside. No word of it would pass from her lips or flow from her fingers from now on, at least as long as it could lead back to this place.

Once again watching the sparkling diamond lights flicker across their heads in the Time Room, the young woman didn't see as the pure-blood grew more and more pale, her pallor turning from porcelain white to nearly translucent. Only in the circle of the twelve doors did the brunette realize that something was wrong when Bellatrix stumbled with an agonized 'Ugh' and only kept upright by placing her hand against one of the doors.

"Bellatrix? Everything all right?" Hermione inquired with a hint of concern, carefully coming closer. Instantly her nose was assaulted by the smell of fresh parchment and toothpaste, along with a hard to place note of freshly fallen rain and squelched pine needles wafting from the direction of the door. Amortentia. This has to be the Love Room, the young witch thought absently while placing a palm on the dark witch's shoulder.

Bellatrix was holding a hand to her head and looked worse by the second, her eyelids closed tight. "Feeling... a bit weak. The... the room's spinning. I need a... small moment."

"Ixion's Tears are absorbing her energy. The process is said to be not painful, but very draining. We should move," Garald commented from behind them.

Now desperate to be back on familiar grounds, the Gryffindor placed one of Bellatrix's arms across her shoulder and dragged her forward. First they were moving quite quickly, but as soon as they stepped out of the elevator, the dark witch was like a dead weight at her side.

"Come on," Hermione forced out between clenched teeth, knowing she would be unable to fully carry the other witch despite being half a head taller, "it's not far. Either you help me or I'll start making jokes about your weight for the rest of the school year."

Jabbing the former Death Eater's pride was a well-working tactic and the raven-haired woman really made an effort to get back to her feet. It was enough that Hermione accomplished to drag the other witch to the nearest Floo Network and get her inside and back to the Headmistress' office without buckling under the burden. She didn't even look back to see if Master Garald was following them or had retreated to his own office.

Wheezing, the young woman helped the drained dark witch sit down on the wooden floor, unable to greet the worried teacher awaiting them.

"Miss Granger, what happened? Are you okay?"

"Master Garald... didn't mention... fatigue from the Tears... had to carry... her back..." Hermione gasped out with her hands on her knees. Damn it, the little twit could've at least helped.

"Oh. Good work then. Please, take a moment while I make sure to bring Madame Black into her room," McGonagall offered while brandishing her wand at the half-asleep pure-blood and muttering an incantation under her breath.

"It's fine, I only need a second." Stretching her back and breathing in deeply, the young woman loosened her muscles. "Okay, let's go."

With McGonagall's spell, the eldest Black was as light as a feather and Hermione had no trouble at all carrying the woman when pulling one arm across her shoulders.

Thankfully, it was dinner time in the Great Hall and the school's corridors were nearly empty. They reached the Head Girl's rooms in record time, with the teacher opening all the doors for Hermione and her load. When finally in Bellatrix's bedroom, the young witch threw the older woman down on the covers, earning herself a muffled grunt from the pure-blood.

"Just go to sleep," Hermione directed and had not yet finished her sentence when the raven haired woman was already deep in the land of dreams. McGonagall reversed her spell and they both left the chamber with grateful relief.

"Now that that's done, I hope for your sake that Madame Black will be a bit more... amiable," the Headmistress suggested with a look back over her shoulder.

Hermione couldn't help but chuckle at that. "I think I'd have to turn into a pure-blood or a rare magical creature overnight for that to happen. But while there's life, there's hope, so let's wait until tomorrow, professor."

McGonagall accompanied her student down to dinner, where the Gryffindor sat between her class mates with a note of beginning exhaustion. The day had been quite long and stressful, so after her grumbling stomach had been satisfied, she longed to crawl into her own bed.

When morning dawned and Hermione got ready for breakfast, there was still no peep from behind Bellatrix's door. So instead of waiting any longer and immensely curious about what had happened, the young witch went down for the morning meal. Wondering about her unfailing, new-found sympathy for the mad woman, Hermione filled another plate with a good amount of food and carried it back upstairs. After the draining display yesterday, she could only imagine how ravenous the other witch had to feel.

Hermione had scarcely closed the door to the living room when a joyful cry echoed from the walls, nearly causing her to drop the food in shock. Quickly placing it down on a table, the young woman walked closer, raising her hand to knock.

But before she could get too close to the room, the door was flung open and in between the framework stood a creature of beauty and legends.

Bellatrix Black had turned young again.

"It worked," the same, high-toned voice sprung from youthfully reddened, full lips, stretching over an enticing, joyful smile that offered a view at white, even teeth. "Look, this is... fabulous! I'm more on the later side of my twenties, but what a change!"

Oh, and look Hermione did. Actually, there was nothing in the world that moment that would have caused her to break her stunned stare at the raven-haired goddess displaying her looks with such exuberant delight.

What had already been enticing on the older witch had been refined even more gloriously; now her skin nearly shone with a light, unblemished pallor devoid of any wrinkles but those created by her alluring smile. Bellatrix had never been heavy set, but her dress and corset didn't seem to fit the more slender and well-proportioned body as snug as before. Thick black hair, once showing signs of brittleness, now fell down in a rich, glamorous waterfall where every curl was more splendid than the next.

She was the very definition of a femme fatale you couldn't help but fall prey to, even knowing she was bringing your doom on beautiful, poisoned lips.

And yet, Hermione was mostly held captive by the fact that she saw Bellatrix's real eye color sparkling beneath the heavy lashes and wide opened lids for the first time. The normally so bottomless black eyes were alive with glee in a melting chocolate brown that had goose bumps erupt all over the younger witch's body.

This... is her first real smile. It's... so beautiful.

...Jealousy. It's just jealousy. - My goodness, what a vision. Good I already set the plate down.

"Uh," Hermione managed to say intelligently.

The moment was disrupted by Bellatrix spinning around and hurrying back to the mirror hanging inside her wardrobe, the dark witch turning from side to side to regard her frame from all sides and touching slender fingers to her sharp jawbones and supple cheeks.

Hermione used the break to turn away and remind herself that breathing was an essential part when one wanted to live. "Oh boy," she murmured quietly, "now the posing will reach whole new heights." No wonder, with those looks. Oh, shut up.

Fanning air to her warm face, the Gryffindor winced when another scream pierced the silence, this time quite in the opposite spectrum of emotions. Now braced for the impressive display of the dark haired woman, she hurried back to the door... to find the dark witch starring with horror at the scars bulging on the skin of her thin wrists.

"But... but what...what's this?" Bellatrix stuttered out in an unbelieving shriek.

Hermione put her side against the door frame, leaning her head against the wood with a sad gaze. "You forgot to read the small print, didn't you?" she asked with compassion for the distraught look on the former Death Eater's plight. "The Tears of Ixion only reverse the age of the cells-..."

"These... horrible marks should be gone! I should be back to my former beauty! Without this... this... cursed memory all over my body!" With a frantic movement, the dark witch ripped the cloth on her left side up her ribs, causing Hermione to blush at the sudden display of naked skin.

Get a grip! It's just a bloody patch of unclothed ribs!

But it wasn't just that. Another set of thick, red scars marked her flesh behind the black cloth, the inconsistency and uneven line making it appear as if created by the fangs of a rabid animal. One with very large teeth and a very large problem in form of a certain raven-haired woman.

Bellatrix let the fabric slip back down with a violent scream and kicked the mirror so hard that the surface rippled and splintered into several large fractures. "I'll kill them! They will suffer for this, these bloody, stunted Ministry lapdogs! I'm going to make them and each of their families regret they were born into this world until they beg and plead for mercy when crawling in their own gore and excrements!"

Uh oh... here we go. New package, same content. The former Death Eater was cursing herself into a rage, already there was the unrestrained glint of madness coloring her eyes black. Hermione drew her wand and slowly inched backwards out the door.

Wrong move.

Bellatrix's livid gaze caught the movement and turned to her, her lips drawn back in a snarl and transforming the beautiful features into a mask of disgusted loathing.

"You," she spat, "this is all your fault, you stupid piece of shit!"

Hermione knew that it was, in fact, not her fault that the eldest (or now youngest?) Black had failed to inform herself properly. But if there was one character trait the brunette couldn't claim for herself, then it was being needlessly suicidal. So she kept her mouth shut, ready to defend herself.

The raven-haired woman didn't fail to deliver and threw herself at the taller witch with a dangerous hiss that could as well have been Parseltongue for all Hermione knew. She kept the frenzied pure-blood away with a Protego, not yet daring to hurt her.

But the action drove the former Death Eater only more wild and with a yelled "Stupefy!" Hermione pointed her wand at the other woman's torso.

She had seen the older Bellatrix moving impossibly quick before. Which was why she misjudged the now young again woman even more severely.

The pure-blood side-stepped the bright blue spell, which fizzled past her and hit the wall, without ever breaking stride, not even stopping to revel in the younger witch's surprised gasp. Before Hermione knew what was happening, a painful blow slapped her only means of defense out of her grip. Yet instead of diving after the weapon, the other woman didn't even spare the wand a second glance.

The stinging hit to her cheek nearly had the brunette keel over from the force. Something tore open inside her mouth and she tasted the disgusting, metallic flavor of blood spreading across her tongue.

A kick to the shin had her howling; still reeling from the blow to the head she couldn't protect herself. A fist, maybe an elbow, slammed against her collarbone and pushed her back. Another hit to the leg. Hermione stumbled and fell backwards onto the carpeted floor, the cushioned ground doing little to ease the pain blossoming at the back of her skull.

Then Bellatrix was upon her like an incarnated fury and rained fisted blows onto her upper body. When the third hit forced her gaze to becoming blurry with tears and dizziness, the Gryffindor did the first thing jumping into her mind to escape the onslaught of hurt.

The pure-blood was bowed across her lying frame and shouting endless obscenities at the younger woman and never saw it coming when Hermione lurched up, wrapped her arms around the slender torso and arms of the former Death Eater and hugged her close to her own body. Trapped in this cage of flesh and bone, the older witch shouted and frenzied even harder, but the constant abuse Hermione had suffered at the other woman's hands turned her fear into strength and her grip into iron.

The young woman shivered in helpless panic at the murderous rage Bellatrix portrayed once again, who seemed so out of her mind that she was probably even ready to kill the other part of her Unbreakable Vow.

The pure-blood's screams, howls, of anger and frustration and madness wreaked havoc on Hermione's nerves, but she didn't let go. Bellatrix's voice nearly burst her eardrums, but she didn't let go. With her fists tugged too close to her own body to lash out, the dark witch used her nails to scratch at Hermione's ribs and kick her shins black and blue, but she still didn't let go.

And Bellatrix screamed on. Until her voice was hoarse and powerless tears ran down her fresh, young cheeks, her body shaking with despair and pitiful crying. Hermione could feel the wetness cling to her neck and collarbone, where the older woman had buried her forehead.

It was the exhausted calm after a storm, sapped of all its terrible, destructive energy.

"I will kill them," the eldest Black croaked out repeatedly, her shaky voice muffled by cloth and skin, "I will kill you. I will resurrect Sirius and make him hurt and then I kill him again and again and again. I hate you all, I hate you!" A weak fist pounded against Hermione's sore ribs.

"Shhh," the younger woman tried to hush the now calmer witch with each shuddering breath, "it's okay. It's okay." What else could she say? The situation was crazy. They were both far out of their comfort zones.

"I'm going... going to make them all hurt..." Bellatrix wailed and simply stopped all struggling by letting her whole body relax.

They stayed like that for a long while. Wordless. Unmoving. Breathing.

Until Hermione dimly realized she would be late to her Potions class. But her whole body ached and her head pounded like a dozen hammers on one anvil. The other witch's warm body was now almost soothing to her forming bruises, although the tight corset was digging a bit too harshly into her mangled skin.

But even Bellatrix slowly became aware of the close positioning and picked herself up with jerky movements. Once standing, she inelegantly wiped her face and nose with the back of her sleeve and, after a short look at the food on the table, grabbed the plate and wordlessly stalked back to her room. For once, she didn't slam the door.

What just happened? It took her a few seconds to snap back out of her daze and back to reality.

Hermione forced herself into an upright position and winced at the twinges and aches informing her of every well-placed hit along her abused flesh. Thankful for being back in Hogwarts and in position of a wand, the young woman crawled over to the wooden stick and healed the worst of her injuries, hiding the rest of them with a glamour. The remaining tears on her neck from the raven-haired woman seemed to burn stronger than any pain the older witch could have inflicted.

Then she hurried as quickly as possible to her class and managed to compensate the ten points taken from Gryffindor for her tardiness with thirty points gained for several correct answers in the first half hour.

Four hours later in Transfiguration she wondered suddenly when she had stopped shivering and hiding after receiving such treatments from the deranged, sadistic witch. Maybe she had finally won against herself. Maybe she had finally lost the deepest fear and weakness Bellatrix had instilled in her that day in Malfoy Manor.

Looks like you can really get used to anything.

I hope you all enjoyed your homework last time :D
In case you are like my friend and are going all "Oh, Hermione starts to like pain!" ZONK. No! No, that's not what I tried to tell here. Yes, she's numbing a bit to the abuse, but really, walking into a door isn't fun either, but after the fifth time you simply go 'Oh, fuck this' instead of running into it a sixth time because it's so great. She's starting to deal. Bellatrix won't change just because she feels prettier. But the time will come when Hermione is SO DONE with being pushed around and you will all be part of the transformation... but that still takes a bit time :)
(Maybe I should have made a drinking game at the beginning... drink every time Hermione cries or gets hurt and everytime Bellatrix is a brat/bitch. Boy, would you be drunk...) DeargodIneedsleep...

Chapter Text

So, considering Mass Effect 3 will be in my grubby, little hands come tomorrow, I will not be reachable by Real Life for the next three days. Which is why it would be smart to update today... so I did! Welcome to the Info Dump chapter! (one of the many) Alas, I hope you like it anyway.

lemon-rind: That, my friend, is a very good question :) Stay tuned!... for a while ;)

Saikoh: Big rooms are a... 'thing' for Bellatrix. The thought amused me, so I'm glad you like it. Writing the story out of Hermione's POV gives the reader the chance to grow the same way as her. I never thought anyone would think Hermione would be into pain, at all. So I just decided to make that clear :)

Berserkeroo: So you're into Vodka, eh? XD Not my thing, but I'll take it as a huge compliment anyway! *g*

imperfectionisunderrated: Haha, sorry, never intended to make it sound like I thought you were a guy! I imagine my reviewers as neutral people XD You can also use the, well, masculine form, even if you are a woman. It makes the statement sound more general that way. Okay, female form would be: 'aber ich bin nur die Leserin'. Now everything's fine! Can you please make everyone write their reviews drunk? I would holler with laughter, it'd be awesome! :D

OpheliaBlack: Yeah, beautiful doesn't mean good, not at all. (But if their evil and hot, you won't hear me complaining, nuh uh). The Tears simply didn't heal her scars, because they only reverse 'cell age' and don't heal damage or sickness. Scarred cells keep being scarred cells. Bellatrix attacked Hermione because she simply snapped and needed an outlet. And seriously, don't give me any ideas! Rewriting Dorian Gray with Bella and Hermione...? Uuuunf.

Tyranny Kassle: First, thank you very much! Second, it's great to see the mighty Chloé (or nana) lead you here :) I have to thank her for at least three fourths of my readers, I'm sure :D I love that you love Katzenjammer! They are simply amazing! Wading In Deeper has, like, thousands of references. And what's most important is what you connect between the song and the story... it might be something else for each listener ;)

In-betweens: Wow, what a detailed reviewer! You have my awe and my greatest thanks. I really like reading your thoughts, some of them echo my own while I was writing it. You are every authors dream, seriously ^^

And after a Thank You So Much for all my lovely reviewers, I welcome you to another chapter of my little tale. *bows*

13. Ghosts of the Past

"Violence can only be concealed by a lie, and the lie can only be maintained by violence." - Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

The aching of her muscles was worse the second day. Hermione tried her best not to wince and hobble when walking down for breakfast, settling herself on the bank with an obvious sign of relief.

"You're walking funny," Ginny commented and squinted her eyes at her best friend. "Everything all right?"

"Yeah, yeah, it's fine," Hermione answered with a half-hearted grin, trying not to make a big deal out of the whole situation.

Not so much luck. "It was that damned witch, wasn't it?" the redhead burst forth with an angry frown, slapping a hand down on the table. "Hermione, you can't let her do that to you any longer! Look, if we go to McGonagall-..."

"Ginny, it's fine. Really, I can handle it," the brunette tried to ease her friend. She was tired of the whole subject already. "It's nice that you're worried, but-..."

"Nice!" The exclamation sounded appalled. "How do you expect us to sleep at night when knowing this... this monster is going to torture you without any qualms?"

"Okay, calling it torture might be going a bit too-..."

"What do you expect me to say to Ron when he finds out about thi-..."

"This is neither Ron's nor your busine-..."

"You shouldn't be so loud in the morning," a serene voice interrupted softly, "it disrupts the sun's energies. And then the faeries will be sad."

The two Gryffindors stopped arguing and turned to the side in confusion, discovering Luna calmly eating a buttered toast. Ginny slowly leaned closer to her.

"Luna... you're at the wrong table."

"Oh, no, you're at the wrong one. But that's okay, I don't mind." Luna smiled in her usual distracted way and went on with creating her breakfast, totally oblivious to the shrug and glance her two friends exchanged.

When deciding to let Luna's eccentric behavior pass without comment, the brunette was glad for the change of topic as Ginny started pointing out to the blonde that the table was decked out in Gryffindor colors. Still, even she couldn't disrupt Luna's bubble of confidence with hard, rational logic. Ginny could as well have tried to talk the wall into joining S.P.E.W. and have more luck with it. Hermione had the feeling that the topic about Bellatrix wasn't fully from the table, but at least she could eat her breakfast in peace.

On top of that, they received their sparse letters of Ron and Harry. Both boys were busy with their Auror training as well as their search for Voldemort's followers, having little to no time to send many details of what they were doing. The only recurring theme in their letter was to be very, very careful, as the search was not going well. The Death Eaters and lackeys were frustratingly slippery and the main portion managed to evade the Ministry's efforts to capture them so far. Harry even wrote down the fear that they might be planning something big and advised them to not leave the school grounds without notifying McGonagall.

But it was Ginny's worry that had struck a chord in the brunette. Of course, they were absolutely right when they were angry and scared about the abuse Hermione constantly fared, she would have been just as outraged if one of her friends was in the same situation. And yet it was hard to just break everything off and plead to the Headmistress for her own rooms.

The young witch was so sure to be scratching more and more at the arrogant surface of the former Death Eater; her breakdown the day before was the indisputable proof. Something about her scars was working deeply in the older woman, forcing her to recall memories and emotions she wanted buried under a deep layer of oblivion, never again to see the light of the day.

How much further to go? I'm so close... so close! I just know it!

It occurred to her that the dark-haired witch had become the task of her life, an enigma and riddle she just had to solve, lest it would haunt her until her dying days. Everyone knew how not solving a puzzle drove her crazy.

But it couldn't go on like this. If Bellatrix managed to just beat the heck out of the younger woman every single time, then there would be little progress in the long-run. She couldn't keep on with being the punching bag, that was no way to work with a bully. So instead, Hermione went and voiced an unusual request to the Headmistress, which was granted after being contemplated with hesitant confusion.

So when Hermione stood outside of the dojo in her sweats, a bag slung over her shoulder, she felt both self-conscious and foolish.

"What do you want to achieve?" asked the middle-aged man, who had let her into the hall, after the greeting. Although he was of Asian heritage, the young woman had expected an old geezer with a long beard, white hair and a tranquil aura similar to that of Luna Lovegood. Probably an image created by too many Muggle kung fu films, but then Hermione had never expected to find herself with the need to learn a martial art.

But Nicholas Inihara was not only tall and broad-shouldered, but with short, iron gray hair and very intense, hard eyes. His calm seemed less that of a stone breaking the surf, but of a Chinese wall holding back whole armies. There was an intriguing seriousness about his demeanor, but he didn't emit aggression, rather she felt a sense of safety beside him that had nothing to do with empathy and everything with a deep-ingrained understanding.

"I'm... not really sure, to be honest. I know I won't be able to throw around men twice my size even if I work hard for the whole year, but I don't believe that's what I'm after."

Inihara nodded his head at her, inclining her to go on despite her hesitation.

"I think... what I'm trying to find is a sense of... knowing and controlling myself. Theoretical material is easy for me. But understanding my body... knowing my limits and how to surpass them... maybe even getting a grip on my fear and panic in dangerous moments, that's something I would like to try to achieve."

Unsure she met his gaze, watching him mustering her from head to toe.

"Miss Granger was it, right?" It was eery to hear the part-Asian speak flawless Scottish English. "You came to me for a reason and I can see you are telling me symptoms if not the cause." He held up a hand to forestall her when she started to grasp for an explanation. "You don't need to tell me the cause. All I demand is for you to be honest with me when you tell me something, but I will never demand an answer you're not willing to give. But." He held up a finger. "You have to be aware that there is no 'would like to try'. Either you come here to give it your all with the firm belief to not stop until I tell you to, or it would be better for you not to come at all."

He was completely serious, leaving no room for argument. It was a fair proposition and he left her more than enough time to think about this offer. But Hermione was tired of always being the one to give way or run or break down. And even if it just gave her a bit of her lost feeling of self-reliance back, it would mean she had already gained more than expected. And her new teacher might not yet know her, but she was a very, very determined person when she wanted to be.

Sealing their working relationship with a surprisingly western styled handshake, Inihara proceeded to start with warm-ups, then showed her a few movements that gave him an impression of her general fitness and which left Hermione sweaty and sore.

When the young woman apparated back outside the school grounds one and a half hours later, muscles she never knew existed in her body ached with every step.

And they hadn't even done anything that had looked very hard or exhausting. It was a statement to the brunette's obvious state of bodily fitness and it was incredibly embarrassing how little she could exert herself before a near-collapse. It had Hermione wondering if every magic user - especially the pure-bloods - was in such a bad shape, considering everything was done with a flick of a wand or other kinds of magic. Maybe the whole Wizarding World was simply not filled with overweight magic users due to some handy potion tricks.

Sadly, there is no convenient potion for making you strong and healthy. With a sigh, Hermione used the special key McGonagall had reluctantly given her so she could visit her lessons twice a week after regular school times had ended. Unsurprisingly, Filch had been the one to protest the most about her absence from school and the fact that she would always return to her room after dark, but, as the Headmistress had abundantly explained, Hermione was over seventeen and also repeating her seventh year voluntarily. She had earned herself a few special treatments.

Bellatrix didn't seem to notice her long disappearances on those two days during the week, but then they rarely (luckily?) saw each other anyway. Considering the dark witch was under her surveillance, Hermione had little knowledge about what the other woman did and where she was at most of the time. The door to her room was always closed and there was nary a sound coming through the thick walls. If Bellatrix was having her raging fits during the night, the young witch either didn't hear them or the room next to hers was empty at night. At least no other students seemed to complain about sudden attacks or bribes from the dark witch.

Whatever the former Death Eater was doing, she was doing it silently and sneakily. Knowledge about her sudden de-aging had spread slowly and was put down more to rumors and figments. The raven haired woman even had stopped eating at the Great Hall after the return from the Ministry and Hermione had the slight suspicion it was due to Bellatrix having a secret deal with the house elves of Hogwarts. It would also explain how she managed to move through Hogwarts wandless and without being seen.

Briefly the Gryffindor had entertained the idea that Bellatrix owned a second Marauder's Map, but then she had dismissed the thought. The map was too unique and also required wand use. Or maybe the other woman simply knew Hogwarts even after all those years so well she simply knew how to vanish when she had to.

October was nearly over and the young witch found herself dealing with a regular stiffness in her whole body, but was becoming used to it. Ginny had given her another lecture, believing 'the freaky sadist' was the reason for Hermione walking funny most of the time, but she had managed to finally appease the protective redhead.

"Hermione, you know I'm worried about you-..." the youngest Weasley began for the fifth time that month and the Head Girl sighed, grabbed her friend by the shoulders and held her gaze.

"Ginny. Do you trust me?"

There was barely a second of hesitation. "Of course, but-..."

"If you trust me... then trust me now. I'm fine. And I know what I'm doing. Okay?"

For a long while, the redhead stayed silent, pupils flickering from one of Hermione's eyes to the other and back. Finally, her whole upper body relaxed. "Okay. ...I guess you're not telling me where you are going all the time?"

For a second, she contemplated telling her best friend. It wasn't a big deal. It would explain a lot and set her mind at ease. But...

"No. Sorry. One day, maybe."

While the brunette didn't want to make a big secret out of her training, she also didn't want to explain the how and why, certainly because in the end it was no one's damned business but her own. This was personal on a level she couldn't quite understand herself. And there was a good chance a pure-blood, even if it was a Weasley, wouldn't understand the meaning of body control and clearing your mind with martial arts anyway.

Of course missing two evenings a week meant more homework at night and less free time, but Hermione didn't mind. She was happy with the regularity and finally having some peace from the frustrating Black sister.

Their last incident still burned like fresh cinder in her memory. Ashes of it clung to her every thought like a shadow did at the edge of her peripheral vision.

Hermione was almost afraid to touch it, to look at it over and over again until she made sense of what had happened. Twice the older woman had shocked her that day: First, because for a small fragment of time the young witch had believed Bellatrix to be as normal and human as everyone else around her when smiling so freely. And a second time by actually breaking down in her very arms. Hermione hadn't actually believed the pure-blood to be capable of tears.

It was... disconcerting. The most vulnerable she had ever seen Bellatrix was during their moment at the coast, when the older witch had spoken about her time in prison, almost showing something akin to fear. But this last event topped even that. It proved how incredibly high-strung Bellatrix had been these last weeks, to let go like that.

But what else did it show? Of course, the scars on her flesh. The older woman seemed to have a strong aversion to these marks and what memories they represented. The scars from the handcuffs in Azkaban held an obvious connotation, maybe a too obvious one... perhaps she was not yet getting the whole point of Bellatrix's despair at them. Maybe she had believed Ixion's Tears would give her a complete fresh and new start - but you can't run away from your past, can you? No matter how hard and fast you run.

Hermione couldn't deny that she was burning with curiosity. Evidently the other woman carried around a whole catalog of issues, all connected to a shady past the Black family kept under wraps. Sadly, digging deeper would mean more pain, hurt and degradation for the Gryffindor herself and she wasn't sure if she could deal with that - or if she wanted to. Yes, she had so far, but she had lost a piece of her self-worth along the way she didn't know how to regain. Thus, the martial arts training.

With a sigh and heavy limbs the young woman once again returned from her trip to Inihara's dojo. After a month, her muscles were finally getting used to the constant exertion and she didn't wake up every morning stiff as a board anymore, but other than that, she had the feeling of making little progress. Whatever the movies told you: You didn't become Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan over the course of a few months. Probably not even five years. Or ten.

What awaited her in front of Hogwarts' gate was a ragtag bunch of about sixty people dressed in thick clothes against the cold wind and bouts of icy rain tormenting Scotland since a few days. They carried signs and banners with changing slogans and accusing sentences.

Ah, not again. Hermione, exasperated, sighed deeply.

"No chance for the murderess! Lestrange belongs to prison! No chance for the murderess! Lestrange belongs in prison!..."

And on and on it droned. They were coming at least twice a week to demonstrate in front of the school doors and revoke the former Death Eater's verdict, as they weren't happy with how things had turned out. Those were people that had either suffered too much during the war or were cold-hearted enough to not believe in either second chances or forgiveness.

Bellatrix and her were probably lucky they had not yet decided to do anything worse than peaceful if annoying protest marches.

Hermione dragged the hood of her jacket deeper into her face and pushed her way through the small crowd and into the school grounds. The only reason those people were still moving around in a marching circle after so many hours was because the low temperature came close to freezing their toes off. The first few times they had tried to swarm the young woman - thankfully not realizing she was the Granger woman they were angry at - and to get with her through the open gate, but a few well placed hexes had taught them quickly not to touch the student again.

Sadly, it did little to stop their annoying chant.

Despite that many had accepted Bellatrix's sentence and just wanted to move on with their lives and leave the war behind as quickly as possible, there was an equally big crowd wanting things to be quite different. And much, much more bloody.

Not going to happen, not with Shacklebolt as Minister of Magic.

With another sigh, this time of relief, the young woman finally found herself in the Great Hall, drying the rain drops on her clothes with a quick spell.

"Ah, I knew you'd come back right now. Good evening, Miss Granger," noted a familiar voice from somewhere beside her.

"Good evening, professor," Hermione replied while dragging down her hood. She felt sweaty and beat, now all she wanted was a nice, long soak in the Prefect bathroom and a good night's rest. "The demonstrators are back outside again."

There was a frustrated exhale of air. "I don't know how many more times I have to deal with this. My hands are bound, as long as they don't officially disrupt the school routine or harass the students. As soon as that happens, I'll have them taken away by the Ministry and charged with an official complaint." McGonagall dragged up her long robe with a steady grip and walked closer. "But that's not why I came to get you."

The Gryffindor raised her eyebrows, the warm glow of the candles reminding her how utterly tired she felt. "Oh? What's wrong? Did Bellatrix do anything-..."

"No, no, thank god, no," the teacher interrupted her calmly. "She's just... being willful. Narcissa Malfoy is here to visit, but Madame Lestrange... pardon, Black, refuses to come out of her room. Lady Malfoy then requested to speak to you for a moment."

Swallowing the frustrated groan crawling up her throat, Hermione let her shoulders droop. Well. Goodbye, beautiful bathtub. I will miss your wonderful, warm waters and bubbles terribly, but alas, it was not meant to be. "Fine. Where is she?"

"In my old office. Follow me." Ignorant of Hermione's weary state, the Headmistress set a brisk pace to her room and the young woman could do little but drudge after her.

Carefully easing herself into the room alone, painfully aware of the poor state she was in with her sticky skin and training clothes, the young woman gingerly cleared her throat once she was standing on the thick carpet. There was no light safe that from the fireplace and a few conveniently placed candles, keeping the whole atmosphere covered in a shroud of flimsy shadows.

Narcissa was sitting on a loveseat and facing the dancing flames, but at the sound she turned with an air of anticipation. Only to deflate when she spied the young witch standing awkwardly in the middle of the floor.

"Oh. I... was hoping my sister had decided to finally come down." A moment of strained silence etched between them, but the youngest Black remembered her manners. "Please. Sit down."

Dressed in green, like a true Slytherin. Fitting. And of course acting like this was her personal chamber. Hermione kept her amusement to herself and simply eased herself down onto the other sofa.

"You wanted to speak to me?"

"Yes. Considering that Bellatrix refuses to come down..." The older witch nervously wrung her hands a moment before remembering her pose. Then she wet her lips. "I wanted to know if... everything is going well. With her."

The brunette blinked hard, slightly leaning back on her seat. The sofa was pretty comfortable. Almost too comfortable, reminding her of how very tempting it would be to lean fully back and simply fall asleep. "Well, uh... it's going fine. I have to admit that I hardly see her, but she's not making any obvious trouble."

"I see. And... her change? Is it working fine?"

The hesitantly worded question had Hermione confused. Then she remembered. Oh. Yeah. She hasn't seen her like this yet. "Oh, it worked. She's looking much, much- " more beautiful "- eh, younger. I had to adjust her clothes a bit, but otherwise..." she's just freaking out about her scars. "O-otherwise it's all fine."

"Ah. Good. Good." Narcissa looked back at the fire, her brow a bit furrowed but face otherwise unreadable.

Wondering about the strange behavior, the young woman dared to take another small step forward. She knew Narcissa never really liked her very much, despite what she had managed to achieve for Bellatrix, but her blood status and her eavesdropping on the personal conversation had earned the brunette several minus points with the youngest Black. And yet, the blonde was struggling with something, she was sure of it.

"Uh, Miss Malfoy... why'd you need me for that? Professor McGonagall could have answered those questions as well." And I could have taken my bath and gone to sleep without having to make nice with someone who doesn't really care about me.

Despite her stoic face, there was a quiet agitation in the other woman, noticeable in the way she softly clenched and unclenched her fingers. There was an internal struggle going on and Hermione had to remind herself to not hold her breath in anticipation.

Yet instead of answering, Narcissa merely bowed down to drag free a bag hidden behind the robe covering her legs. She did so with great reluctance, as if something in there was deeply disturbing the normally poised woman.

Watching curiously how the blonde slowly pulled a large square book free, Hermione found herself faced a second later with a very old edition of Divine Comedy. Puzzled, she reached forward and took a hold of the tome, distractedly taking a glance at the yellowed pages.

"Why...?" the brunette asked confused, unsure how to poise the question. But Narcissa forestalled her.

"It's a Muggle book... as you very well know. I found it in my house." Narcissa's jaw worked for a moment. "I found it in Bella's room, when the elves cleaned it. Along with several others. I never... never would have believed them to be hers, but my house elf confirmed that it happened on her direct orders."

Probably more threats than orders.

Rubbing her brow, Hermione failed to see the significance of this discovery. On the Isle of Lewis they had read several of them, even talking about them more or less in detail several times. "Okay, good. She owns a few Muggle books... very well-known and respected ones, I might add," she commented a bit sourly. "What's the big deal?"

The blonde pressed her lips tightly together as an indication of mounting frustration. "These books, Miss Granger, are a piece of the Muggle world the pure-blood families have fought against spreading in our world since as long as history can tell. If I were as... devoted as my parents had been, if people were to know about this, it would have been an incredible blow to my reputation. To imagine Bella having them on her own free will is... grotesque."

Nearly unable to stop a shrug, Hermione had to admit she couldn't really empathize with the pure-blood's plight. But Bellatrix secretly harbouring forbidden Muggle books?... Well, that was interesting, to say the least.

"So you believe it's my fault?"

"Of course it is! What do you think?" Narcissa shot back, a bit of Black temper slipping through. "That my sister suddenly decided to throw all of her beliefs out of the window and get Muggle literature? On a whim? Miss Granger, don't believe me to be stupid."

"Look," Hermione explained. She tried very hard to stay patient. "First, I doubt the influence of one random Muggle-born could change what Bellatrix has believed and practiced for over forty years. Second, when we were on the island she merely read a few of the books and there were only very few times she had something good to say about them. I never pressured her into anything. It's absurd to believe that I could."

"Then why, why off all the things in the world did she decide to get these? There has to be an explanation!"

"You're her sister, maybe you should have an answer!" The younger witch was finally fed up with everyone accusing her of things she couldn't have influenced even if she wanted to. Some of the crazier Bellatrix haters had even tried to pin some of the former Death Eater's crimes on the brunette, simply to smear her name and reputation and to get Bellatrix into the place 'where she belonged'. She didn't need the added pressure from the other side, too.

Narcissa appeared stumped by this statement and the Gryffindor decided to talk freely, no matter how much worse the other woman's opinion of her could get. "I admit I don't know how troubling this might be for you, but I can understand your worry for Bellatrix. I know she's... mentally fragile. Maybe, who knows, this is a step in the right direction... for her to become better."

At least, that's what I believe. Wow... she really bought these books for herself? The more she thought about it, the more shocked and positively surprised Hermione became.

"Miss Granger, it's- for me it's more than troubling."

Draco's mother looked somehow... defeated. As if someone had pushed something into her hands that was both heavy and complicated and which she didn't understand how to deal with.

"I'm quite sure you remember the day the Master Legilimens was appointed to take a look at her memories?" Narcissa asked softly, her eyes somewhere far away and not directed at the brunette, probably not even registering the younger woman's nod. "I'm not going into detail, but seeing as you are obviously much more of an influence on her than I could have expected, I think you should be aware of it."

Didn't I just tell her that-... oh, forget it. Hermione tried to ignore her heavy eyelids and leaned a bit forward, intrigued. Of course she remembered the horrible scream of that day, the terror in it sometimes haunting the young woman's daydreams if she thought back to it.

"My... my parents and her had always trouble with each other. Butting heads all the time, that's all you need to know. But it's important to note that they always agreed on one thing: Their hate for Mud-, ah, Muggle-borns. Yet my sister has always been... different. Smart - brilliant actually. But also often very far away from reality, far enough that it scared me at times. I always believed Andromeda knows more about what changed her so fundamentally, but if it's true, then she never told me."

As if unsure about her speech, the pure-blood stood up and walked with thoughtful steps up and down the plush carpet. Maybe she was trying to ignore that she was telling all of this to a Mudblood, of all people.

"No Legilimens has ever managed to pierce her mental barriers and anyone who tried was either deeply disturbed or shocked beyond measure. I've noticed it, some hints here and there over the years. Something is constantly going on in her head, which is slowly, constantly, driving her towards the edge." The blonde sneered in disgust. "Voldemort made shameless use of it."

Hermione cautiously swallowed, not trying to interrupt the 'chatty' mood the other woman was in. "Do you... have any idea what it is?"

Cold eyes had the brunette sink deeper into the cushions, but Narcissa chose to answer.

"She's calling it 'the Screams'. She says they protect her from others."

The younger witch frowned. "What? How?"

"If you paid attention, you would notice my sister is not exactly the chatty type. Just make sure to never ever, ever try and use Legilimency on her," Narcissa warned gravely. "I'm not sure she will remember she's not supposed to kill her Unbreakable Vow partner if you do, wandless or not."

Another light bulb went on in Hermione's mind. "You're trying to get me to find out more about this state, aren't you? So I can do what? Tell you? Help her?" It was as hard to read the youngest Black as it was to read Bellatrix. But with the raven haired woman she had a sort of feeling where the borders were she was not supposed to cross, while Narcissa was a complete blank slate to her. But there had to be some kind of agenda, otherwise the other woman would have never brought up the subject.

"This isn't about me," the blonde denied with a shake of her head. "I hate to admit it, but if there is a chance you can help her change for the better, I can't deny I would be relieved." Even if it's a Mudblood who does so, the expression on Narcissa's face seemed to say, mixing subtle disgust, resignation and desperation.

Something about the situation seemed strange to Hermione, causing a slight buzz in the back of her mind. Not as much as a warning bell, as a... it was hard to grasp. A hint?

Seeing her opportunity, the brunette leaned forward even more. It was a dare, but one she was willing to play. Imploringly, she added, "But if I'm supposed to find out more, I have to understand her better. And I can only understand her if I know what made her like this, where she comes from. I need to know more about her past."

Draco's mother had her lips tightly pressed together and her fingers wound around her lower arms. There was a great amount of indecision radiating from her, tormenting her from the inside out. Tell a Mudblood about their family history? Unthinkable! And yet, in exchange for a chance to better her sister's condition?

Hermione's heart pounded hard against her ribcage in anticipation of the answer and when Narcissa lowered her head in a silent submission to her internal debate, the young woman cheered secretly. Finally, now she was making progress! Her curiosity would eventually be satisfied, after all the terror she had to go through with the dark witch.

But before Narcissa could move her mouth to spill the skeletons of the past on the carpeted floor, the door to the office slammed wide open.

In rushed the one and only Bellatrix Black on high-heeled feet and dressed in the blackest, thickest witch robe Hermione had ever seen. The edge reached down to her feet in an elegant slope and the hood on the curly head was wide and elaborate. The dark witch looked like the sudden apparition of death's bride.

"Cissy. I heard you wanted to see me? I was out, so you could have pounded for hours on my door." Silver raindrops glittered on the mantle like a myriad of stars. They became a bunch of shooting stars dying on the floor when the dark witch roughly dragged the hood back.

Narcissa gasped in shock, seeing her newly young sibling for the first time since the start of the school year. Rushing forward and placing pale hands against equally pale skin of a cheek, her blue eyes took in every changed detail. With both women occupied, Hermione quickly slipped the book into her jacket, not wanting to raise a scene in case Bellatrix caught a glimpse of it.

"Merlin... it's as if I've traveled back in time. How incredible! You've become so beautiful, Bella." The happy smile on the blonde's face wasn't shared by her sister, who slipped the appendage touching her away and waved the word's off.

"Yeah, yeah, it's incredible," Bellatrix said offhandedly, as if the topic was closed with this. "Now, I don't expect you only wanted to see me out of curiosity? That's not like you, Cissy." A flicker of her black gaze to the side caught notice of the younger woman sitting nearby and caused her expression to turn snide. "And what is the muddy doing here anyway?"

"I wanted to know how you were doing and Miss Granger seemed like a good chance as any to find out more about it."

"You could have asked McGonagall," the eldest Black shot back indignantly.

My words, Hermione thought with a roll of her eyes. Thanks, Bellatrix, I appreciate the sentiment.

Narcissa sighed, placing a calming hand on her sister's shoulder. "Yes, but she's not living next to you as closely as Miss Granger."

"Huh, fine. Mudblood, you can leave now. You look dreadful by the way," the older pure-blood added with a sly grin.

Hermione shot her a dirty glance, but grabbed her things and stood up. All her muscles protested with more vigor than any demonstrator in front of the school doors ever could and she grimaced her way over to the door. Before she could leave though, the lighter voice of the Lady Malfoy held her back.

"Thank you for coming, Miss Granger." Ice-blue eyes held a deeper meaning than her easy words implied. "I will talk with Andromeda, so she may contact you if she wishes to. I'm sure you'd be... happy to hear what she has to say."

Voicing her good-bye, the Gryffindor slowly made her way over to the Prefect bathroom, glad that she still had time for a quick wash and puzzled over Narcissa's last comment.

Andromeda? Why Andromeda?

But then she remembered Narcissa's words, how she had mused there was something only the middle sister had been privy to.

Oh. Now I get it. Let's hope Tonks' mother sees things the same as her youngest sister... because she needs a damn good reason to tell me something when she doesn't even tell her own sibling about.

But whatever she had found out tonight, it would have to await closer scrutiny until tomorrow. With her body defeated like that, her mind wasn't far behind. Her timetable was just too closely packed for her to waste any of her sleeping time away, so with as much hurry as she could, the young woman rushed to the bathroom and cleaned herself up, then stored the book she had gained in her charmed bag.

When her head had hit the pillow, Hermione was already half-asleep. But even in that state she could hear Bellatrix returning from her meeting, stumbling over a piece in the living room and hurling it against the wall with a hissed curse.

A small part of Hermione wanted to get up and confront her, but before she had finished considering the notion, she was deeply in the land of dreams.

Some questions answered? Maybe. More questions formed? Definitely.
Oooooh, the tangled web I weave... *insert random mad villain cackle*

Chapter Text

Phew... I'm sorry for the big pause, but... I finished Mass Effect 3 two days ago and I was still wrapped up in the whole emotional ride quite a bit. Damn, I even dreamed about it. Seriously, if you love roleplaying games and haven't played it yet... go. Go now. Commander Shepard is my own personal hero from this day on. Well, now that that's out... let's get back to what I'm here for! :D
I remember that I loved writing this chapter. I loved all the banter I could dish out here and it was sooo muuuch fun. I hope I can share that with you!

imperfectionisunderrated: People from other countries writing me in German, however 'bad' or clunky it may or may not be, makes me ridiculous happy. Don't know why. So don't worry :D Considering how little alcohol I consume, it's weird I even made up the drinking game. Maybe I should make a 'eat chocolate' game out of it!

In-betweens: Very interesting thoughts, my friend. Bella will be violent, whatever the situation. Wand or wandless, dishing out pain is her thing. Sadly, Hermione is mostly the one who gets a feel of that... but there will come a time when she doesn't buckle under anymore. It will still take a little while. Martial Arts don't make you superman in one year, but it does something to your self-esteem that is very, very important. I speak from experience and one day Hermione will too ;)

Darkshadow-lord: If there was something against scars, Mad-Eye Moody and Lupin would look very different. So I figured that there is nothing you can do against scars. Of course, it could also be because they all come from magic, but we don't really know that. So I guess I'm pulling the dirty 'author's right' move and say there's no potion :D

OpheliaBlack: The Martial Arts move was about more than physical strength, but it is of course one of the important points. And I see Bella as the kind of witch who will try to hurt in any way, otherwise she wouldn't cary around a dagger to hurt someone. I like your thoughts, but I'll stay quiet, otherwise I would spoiler something ;)

The Blackest of Sins: Thank you for your kind words! And I really like your username, it's very powerful :) Considering the way Narcissa was portrayed in the books/films, she is a Muggle-hater as well, if not as much of a strong one. That doesn't change over night. And I have plaaaans... *evil cackle*

Smayz: Can't help it, I love them books 3 I love literature, period. Glad you like it!

Berserkeroo: Damn it, now I have that song stuck in my head! :p Sorry to cut your gleeful thoughts short, but until Hermione can kick some ass the Jacky Chan way, it will take a loooong, long time. But all the work-out will do wonders to her fitness and, more importantly, her self-esteem! ;)

Ha, it feels great to be back! Now that I'm back at it, I realize I really missed working on this story. Here's a new chapter for youuuuu! *throws heart-shaped confetti on everyone*

14. Water To the Neck

"Passionate hatreds can give meaning and purpose to an empty life. These people haunted by the purposelessness of their lives try to find a new content not only by dedicating themselves to a holy cause but also by nursing a fanatical grievance. A mass movement offers them unlimited opportunities for battle." - Eric Hoffer

Hermione knocked at the door next to her room with a sense of dread and hope. She had tried to get a hold of the other woman since three days and wasn't really sure how she'd react to a breach of her privacy.

"What?" was the rough answer. The young woman wasn't sure if this deserved a sigh of relief.

"Good morning. Eh, you need to get ready for this evening. There's a trip to Hogsmeade and McGonagall wants me to take you with me."

"Well, tell her to stuff her idea where the sun doesn't shine."

Hermione groaned and pressed her forehead against the door frame. Leave it to Bellatrix to make things hard. "I can't and it's an order. If you don't go, I'm supposed to drag you out with force, which means a full body-bind for you. I'd rather have you walk yourself."

"You wouldn't dare."

"Want to test me?" the younger woman growled, twirling her wand despite knowing Bellatrix would not be able to see her. Although their last encounter had shown that the dark witch didn't need a wand to be dangerous, it still gave Hermione a feeling of superiority being armed while Bellatrix wasn't. It was a very good thing the other woman had no wand.

"Fine, you know what? Whatever. I'll come. At least I can pester you along the way... but we're not going with the other students, clear?"

"All right, but make sure you're ready at seven." That had gone suspiciously better than the Gryffindor had expected. Maybe Bellatrix was planning something while they walked to the small town? It would be best to stay alert.

But Hermione didn't want to ruin her anticipation simply because she had to worry about the pure-blood's intentions. The students had been talking about the trip for weeks and everyone was exited. Maybe she could even coax the other witch into drinking a butterbeer - or, in Bellatrix's case, firewhiskey - in the Three Broomsticks Inn and make a small tour to the Shrieking Shack for old times' sake.

Meeting with Ginny and Luna to tell them the news later, Hermione once again found herself on the defending end of the argument.

"I have a wand and she doesn't. I can defend myself, okay?"

"You said that the last time and came down with bruises. She's too violent, at least have us come along!" Ginny pleaded desperately.

"I'm not even going to get her out the door peacefully if she knows you'll come. Bellatrix is still mad your mother managed to kill her double; she's sure everyone believes her duelling skills are inferior."

"Then make her come! Maybe McGonagall can accompany us, then Bellatrix won't dare to stay behind-..."

"Ginny, please," Hermione interjected, feeling a headache coming along. "I know and understand you are worried... but I'll be fine. I think I'm finally making progress with her, I don't want to ruin that, okay?"

Placing a hand on Ginny's tense shoulder, she could see that the redhead wasn't fully convinced, shown by the tense clenching of her teeth. "If something happens because of her..."

"Then you will be right and I'll never say no to your suggestions again. Deal?" The older Gryffindor offered a cheeky smile at that and watched how the redhead finally capitulated.

"You know it might very well be too late then, but... ugh. Good. If you come back with bruises I'm not going to let this go again, you hear me?" Ginny groused.

Hermione laughed and nodded, actually kind of glad her friends were so protective of her. Luna had little to say on the matter, other than advising Hermione to carry a spare wand in case Nargles stole her main one.

From a window in the tower Hermione watched the students stream across the school grounds, all packed tightly with warm clothes and happy feelings. The first snow flakes had shown their face just a day before, promising a white Christmas and even colder temperatures. Even the Great Hall had colored its ceiling a crispy white-gray this morning.

Once the last girl, a hurrying Hufflepuff, had left the school, the brunette made her way to the Gryffindor tower and once again knocked on the dark witch's door. Well, here goes nothing.

"We can leave! You ready?"

Bellatrix appeared suddenly in the doorway, causing the younger woman to take a surprised step backwards. The raven haired witch was once again dressed in her thick winter robe; the cloth and her curls competing for the darkest black. To say Bellatrix was looking forward to the trip was the overstatement of the year.

"Just move before I change my mind," was the murmured answer as she swept past the younger woman in a cloud of billowing cloth.

Their walk towards Hogsmeade was a silent one, with Bellatrix leading the way across the grassy meadows. When Hermione was fed up with the brooding quiet, she took a few steps closer behind the Black sister.

"Where have you been all this time? I've been trying to contact you since days... you weren't even there when your sister came to visit."

"None of your business, muddy," came the caustic reply.

"Uh, actually it is. I'm your supervisor, however crazy that decision was."

Bellatrix shot her a grim look over her shoulder, the large hood almost swallowing her whole features. "Well, since you so insist on knowing, I rarely left the school grounds. I'm simply moving around... visiting the lake, the woods..."

Hermione felt her jaw drop, shocked at the last admission. "You're walking in the Forbidden Forest? Are you crazy? You don't even have a wand to protect yourself!"

"I'm not a nosy little weakling like you are, never mind that I have more life experience than you could ever dream of!" Bellatrix hissed at her. "I know very well how to protect myself. And I know these woods."

"But...it's forbidden! If McGonagall finds out-..."

"My, how smart you are! What gave it away? The title Forbidden Forest? Did you forget the names of your parents to make space for that knowledge?" the pure-blood mocked with annoyance. "The four-eyes won't ever find out if you don't blabber about it, Miss goody two-shoes."

Hermione nearly screamed in frustration at this. Yeah, the woman had to be crazy if she ventured into such dangerous territory on her own and without any means of defense. But try to tell her that face to face. "You know it's not just your life you're endangering with your reckless behaviour?"

An exaggerated shrug in her direction was the only answer. Scowling, the Gryffindor bit back several choice words she had for the other woman. She really didn't want any argument they had to erupt into violence, but on the other hand the younger witch was tired of always stepping back from their differences. It felt as if she was drawing the short stick each time they squabbled.

"Bellatrix, I'd be very grateful if you at least remembered that I'm connected to you when you're feeling suicidal."

"If that shuts up your goddamned lectures, I'll spare a thought to you next time." The former Death Eater waved a hand over her shoulder as if the brunette had to feel privileged.

"You're too kind," Hermione grumbled and crossed her arms in a huff. She almost dared to mention the book hidden in her backpack at Hogwarts, the one Narcissa had placed into her hands with a comment about Bellatrix's hate for the Muggle-born, but she was sure that would make the conversation take a turn for the worse.

When they finally reached Hogsmeade, it was getting darker by the minute. A few white spots showed a recent snow fall, which had not yet managed to win against the undecided weather, but Hermione expected her next visit to happen when the ground was covered in a pale blanket.

"So, where to now? We could stroll around a little if you want," Hermione offered, deciding to be charitable.

Bellatrix merely grunted. "The only reason I'm here is to get a good bottle of firewhiskey in the Hog's Head. So if you want anything, go and make it quick."

Having expected such a comment, the young woman sent a helpless look to the bleak-looking sky and then proceeded to lead them to the sweet's shop. Whether or not Bellatrix was in a stable mood, no duty in the world would keep her from getting some candy from Honeydukes. The dark witch left her the lead and even followed her into the warmer interior of the shop.

Hermione was startled to find Ginny and Luna in the back, where Luna proclaimed that Salt Water Taffy was perfect for any fondue meal.

"Luna, how can that taste good?" the redhead wondered with a wrinkled nose. "I think I'll stick with the chocolate frogs, thank you very much."

"You're missing out on a cultural experience. The Horse-Shoed Banables in Africa use this as a ritual for praising the after-birth of a woman," Luna explained patiently. Ginny, looking a bit green around the gills at that, was saved from more details by Hermione's appearance.

"Hermione! Thank god, you're here. Want some Pixie Puffs?" Ginny quickly hurried to her side, checking her friend over for any new marks or bruises.

"Nice to see you too," she replied with a raised eyebrow, glancing at the box offered to her. "You know we just had them for breakfast? Like every morning?"

"Yeah, and?" Ginny grabbed a handful of puffs and munched them happily. "I like them. It's better than the Blood-flavored lollipops Luna's sucking on."

"They're not Blood-flavored. It's a new sort," Luna added, her face almost vanishing beneath a giant, woolen beanie in Ravenclaw colors. "Oh, you brought a friend. Hello Hermione's friend."

Ginny scowled at the hooded figure, wiping a few crumbs from her mouth. "Ah, Bellatrix followed you in. I can think of few worse things nipping at your heel."

"How pleasant to meet you, Weasel girl," the raven haired woman began in a fake pleasant voice. "I heard Cory had his eye set on you when he was me - what a pity he was such a bad duellist. I'm sure with your big rabbit family you wouldn't have been sorely missed." Bellatrix clucked her tongue and raised her chin in her typical arrogant way.

Sensing a disaster coming along, Hermione wanted to interject quickly, but was saved when both younger women let out a shocked gasp and gaped at the dark witch with slack jaws.

"What the heck?" Ginny pressed out, flabbergasted. "She's young again?"

"Oh, so the rumors were true, then?" Luna added, rare surprise on her features.

"Yes, and if you two know what's good for you, you keep it to yourself, have I made myself clear?" Bellatrix growled out, her pretty features distorting with her threat. "Go and pay for whatever you want, Mudblood. I don't fancy being stared at like a common tourist attraction."

"Yeah, just... wait here a minute. And please don't kill each other in the meanwhile, okay?"

Hermione made sure to pay quickly for what she wanted and returned to the scene where Ginny and Bellatrix were busy throwing dirty looks at each other, with Luna standing serenely in the middle, somehow oblivious to the loathing in the air and sucking calmly on her lollipop.

"They should have taken the dirt out sooner. It spawned." Hermione had forgotten the youngest Weasley could be just as caustic when she wanted to be .

"So, any new incestuous gingers on the way? Or have your brothers not managed to make your Weasel mother pregnant yet?" Bellatrix fought back, causing the brunette to cringe.

Ginny meanwhile turned almost as red as her hair, but despite her obvious outrage, her words stayed calm. "Very clever of you, Death Eater. I always thought you were smarter than reusing old, half-warmed insults. You're not very resourceful without a wand, are you?"

When Hermione grabbed the dark witch's arm to drag her back outside, Bellatrix accomplished to reply in the most mature way possible by sticking out her tongue at Harry's girlfriend. The appointed supervisor pushed the pure-blood in the direction of the door, while hastily shouting over her shoulder.

"See you two, we'll meet at breakfast tomorrow, don't wait up for me later!"

With that she left a fuming Ginny and a lollipop-sucking Luna behind in Honeydukes and thankfully breathed in the cool November air.

"Gods, you're worse than five-year-olds," she commented, glad to be out of the danger zone before things had turned even more nasty.

"What? She started it."

"And you didn't hesitate to retaliate," the brunette hissed back, both of them now walking down the street in the direction of the Hog's Head. "Can't you behave yourself at least once?"

"Are you trying to mother me now?" Bellatrix seemed outraged at the thought, her black eyes flashing dangerously beneath the hood. "Don't lean too far out of the window, muddy. I might be tempted to kick you."

"Try to imagine yourself in my shoes for once, then you'd understand why I'm so frustrated with you."

A snort. "Tch, of course. I have nothing better to do than imagining myself as the dirt of society. Go get a giant to wear drag, you'd be more successful with that goal."

"Oh, just shut up." Hermione clenched her jaw and directed her thoughts at their current destination, trying not to glance longingly at the Three Broomsticks. The Hog's Head might have been the birthplace of Dumbledore's Army and the home of Aberforth, but that didn't mean she had to like the filthy place.

The former Death Eater didn't hesitate to throw open the door and stamp with her usual, menacing clicks over to a free table and sit down on a seat. Hermione stuck close to her, uncomfortable with the looks a few of the shady patrons were throwing her. When she sat down in front of the dark witch, her heart was pounding with sudden unease.

"I hate this place," she mumbled and tried to ignore the lascivious stare the man at the bar shot at her.

"I hate it too, but if I have to chose between this shack and the Three Broomsticks, I'd rather stay in this slough. At least people don't believe themselves to be oh so self-righteous and high above me here."

"Look who's showing up and talking so nicely about my cosy place," a gruff voice interjected. Aberforth came closer, as tall and hard-looking as ever. When he was at their table, he squinted pale eyes at the shadows Bellatrix's face was hidden in. "Madame Lestrange, who would've thought. You're missing a few years under there, old hag."

"It's Madame Black now, you dumb oaf. Don't you read the Prophet or is education a foreign word in this place?"

"That pulpy magazine? I'd rather get my news from more reliable sources than those gossip mongers. So, considering you're in the company of this lady," he nodded friendly at Hermione, who sent him a small smile, "I'll be nice today. What can I bring you two?"

"Firewhiskey. And make sure the glass is cleaner than your usual standard."

"A butterbear, please," the brunette requested feebly.

Aberforth chuckled good-naturedly, tugging at the edges of his long beard. "Ah, the lightweight stuff. I'll see if I can find you a bottle."

He left them to themselves, Hermione placing her elbows on the wooden, well-used table while they waited. "Why are you always hiding behind that mantle? Don't you want people to see the new you?" she asked curiously, placing her chin on her open palm.

"I'm waiting for the right moment. I'm not blind, I saw how the demonstrators come back week after week and what they write in the newspapers. Even Cissy told me to be careful. The less they notice me for a while, the better it will be in the long run." The dark witch leaned back and crossed her arms.

"Huh," Hermione replied, trying to take a look out of the dirty windows. It was a feeble attempt. "I guess you're right."

"Now that you're aware of my whereabouts, where the hell are you slipping off to every week? I saw you leaving through the gate."

Hermione smirked slightly and tugged her shoulders up for a second. "You got your secrets, I got mine."

Bellatrix bared her teeth for a second, not liking the cheekiness, but Aberforth came back with their orders. Two clinks sounded as he put down the bottles on the sticky table.

The dark witch blinked at the firewhiskey bottle. "What's this? What happened to my glass?"

"You're not getting any strong alcohol from me here, Black," the wizard answered roughly, clicking open the butterbeer bottle. "I'm pretty confident you have to walk back with this young woman, and I won't have Hermione dealing with a drunk bitch of your calibre. She can give you the bottle when you're back at the school."

Scowling menacingly at the bar owner, Bellatrix kicked the table leg viciously, almost knocking over the two drinks. "I should have burned down your shitty excuse for a tavern, not Hagrid's dirty cabin."

"Yeah, big words, Black. Now behave yourself or I'll have you thrown out like the creep Fletcher."

Aberforth left them alone after being paid, but kept an eye on the happenings from behind the counter. Hermione was thankful for his care, which she had always been sure of despite his cynical nature. Taking a sip from her butterbeer, she watched how the raven haired woman pouted on the other table side.

"You can have some of my beer if you want," she offered after a few minutes of silence.

"No, thank you," Bellatrix pressed out between clenched teeth. "But you're free to throw a hex his way if you want to do me a favour."

"Sorry, no can do. I don't hex people I like, and I really like Aberforth." Hermione smiled slightly, a tiny bit amused at the fact that the dark witch was treated like a kid by the big man.

"If you're into goats, maybe," Bellatrix snapped, twirling a black curl around her finger. Despite her beautiful appearance and fancy clothes, she sat in the chair as lazy and uncaring as a guy would. It was so typical that Hermione had to shake her head mentally and take another swallow of her drink.

Yet the brunette couldn't get out of her skin and took pity on the frustrated woman, drinking down her butterbeer quickly. Once finished, she waved her farewells to the pub's owner and left the thick, smoky atmosphere of the Hog's Head.

By now it was fully dark and they decided to walk back to the school. Hermione was still not quite sure why McGonagall had forced her to take the eldest Black out 'for a walk' other than trying to make her freshen up her social contacts. All in all, she had told the court that Bellatrix needed to be reintegrated into society and it seemed McGonagall was the only one who remembered that little fact. Today, that had failed brilliantly and she would make sure to tell the Headmistress about it.

Using the brunette's wand as a light source, they for once walked along with a more companionable quiet than usual. After a bit of edging on, she even accomplished to get the dark witch to tell her about the creatures living in Black Lake, liking the way Bellatrix could actually talk about a topic without being overly snide or hurting. It reminded her of their talks in McGonagall's cottage, when they had spoken about philosophy decribed in the books they read.

"So Mermish is also a magical language?"

"Every fool can learn another language with enough trial and error, but magical languages take a complete different level of care and aptitude. Not everyone can learn them."

"Would you teach me how to speak it?" Hermione asked carefully, already knowing the answer.

"You already asked me the same about Parseltongue, what makes you think I changed my mind?"

"Well, I can't help but try. I'm sure I could learn a lot from you," the brunette implied, quite sure that if she played on Bellatrix's superiority and pride, she might get further this time.

The pure-blood merely cackled, seeing right through the attempt. "Nice try, muddy. How about a nice, few spells of the Dark Arts? If you gave me a wand, I'm sure I could show you some tricks."

Hermione rolled her eyes, shaking her head. "Nice try," she parroted, "but no. I'm interested in the languages and how they work, but you're not getting a wand from me... Bellatrix?" The brunette stopped when she realized she was walking on alone. Turning to take a look over her shoulder, she saw the hooded woman staring into the distance.

Her face directed the way the Forbidden Forest lay.

"Did you hear that?" Bellatrix questioned, her voice unusually low.

"Hear? What? What's wrong?"

"The shout."

"Wait, what-..."

"Look."

Bellatrix pointed a slim finger at the wood's edge; Hermione gazed after it and squinted her eyes, but then she saw it as well. There were lights in the distance, small and quick, appearing and vanishing whenever they passed a trunk or bush.

Then they both heard the scream. It was a girl.

"Quick! We have to help," Hermione shouted and started running, gripping her wand tighter.

"Wait, you idiot! We don't know what's in there!"

But the young witch was already determined to help whoever was in trouble, trusting in her abilities to get whoever was afraid or hurt and then hightail the heck out of there. Judging the amount of curses that didn't become quieter behind her, Bellatrix had decided to follow after her. Hermione was very quick on her feet and for once the dark haired witch had a harder time catching up, but considering she was doing so on high-heeled boots, she got points for effort.

The begin of the forest slowed them down considerably, too many sticks and stones were making the way hard to follow. There was no track or trail they could run along, so they simply pushed their way through.

Breathing hard, Hermione crashed through a bunch of low-hanging branches and found the source of the scream lying face down on the mossy floor besides at least three other girls, who where hopefully just knocked unconscious. All of them were Gryffindors.

Alarmed, the brunette took a quick glance around, her wand pointed at wherever she looked. Somewhere next to her Bellatrix found her way to the small clearing.

A flash of light to the side caught Hermione's attention and she whirled around. There was a man there dressed in a ragged leather mantle, pointing his own weapon at her. Yelling a Stupefy at him, he was thrown backwards, but before she could feel victorious, three more came from different sides. Another man joined the first on the ground, but then her wand was ripped out of her grasp by an Expelliarmus from beside her.

Someone screamed "It's them!" and, as Hermione felt panic rise in her gut, two big, paw-like hands clamped down on her wrists and dragged her forward. Out of the darkness came what seemed to be a dozen bedraggled men, all armed with a wand and all of the type you didn't want to meet after dark.

Loud sniffing beside her ear caused her to turn her head to her captor and her blood turned to ice as she came face to face with one grinning Fenrir Greyback. "Hello, girly."

He survived! Shit. Oh shit.

"Don't move, traitor. We'll make short work of you and your little friend," another man shouted at the former Death Eater, who stood proud and unmoving on the clearing and was glancing at the men surrounding her with unveiled contempt.

"Ah, the boot-lickers," Bellatrix drawled, putting a hand on hip in an unimpressed manner. "Want your piece of the lieutenant?"

"Shut up, bitch. It's your fault the Dark Lord failed... you, his most trusted, stabbing him in the back to save your own hide!" The speaker had long, dirty hair that must have once been light brown. He reminded her slightly of a more ambitious and less clever version of Scabior.

"If you weren't so retarded, Gus, you would have realized we were doomed from the beginning of the battle."

Gus, his face distorted, took a step forward with his weapon pointed at her menacingly. "You're going to suffer the most once the Dark Lord comes back, I can tell you that."

"He won't come back. This isn't like last time, you imbecile! God, doesn't anyone read the newspaper?" The dark haired witch raised her hands to the sky in disbelief.

"Ah, who cares about the traitor. I got someone much more important right here." Greyback leered at his prey, presenting sickly, yellow teeth. The teachings of her parents made the sight even more revolting to the brunette.

If she had believed Bellatrix's grip to be like iron, then the werewolf's fingers were like titanium. No matter how much she struggled, he didn't budge an inch, pain racing up and down her creaking bones. "Let go, you scumbag!" she shouted at him, trying to fight back her fear at being caught by the very men Harry and Ron had warned them about. But who could have known they would try to find Bellatrix to get their revenge for her getting a free out-of-jail card?

This was Hogwarts. This was supposed to be safe ground.

Fenrir laughed at her, dragging her back with him like a puppet. His wand, which he pressed against her skin, was digging painfully into her wrist. If she got out of here, she'd have a lot of bruises to present to her friends. Looks like you were right, Ginny. You just didn't get the right perpetrator.

"And whatever are you going to do with me now? Torture me?" Bellatrix threw her head back and laughed cruelly. "You think you can be worse than the Dark Lord? You're just a weakly bunch of helpless sissies." She spat in front of Gus' feet, enraging him further, but Hermione was amazed to notice that they didn't dare yet to come closer to the witch despite her lack of wand.

Even now the former Death Eater's famous reputation kept them cowering.

"What happened to your face, Lestrange?" One of the other men asked, squinting at her in the poor light. "She's different, ain't she?"

"Yeah, but it's her all right. I'd never miss that annoying voice anywhere." A flick of Gus' wand send Bellatrix's hood back, unveiling her scowl.

Whispers and murmurs were passed in the group as everyone took a long look at the dark beauty, obviously shocked at her de-aging. It was a reaction Hermione became more and more used to, as everyone seemed to react the same way when confronted with an uncanny good-looking woman instead of the skull-fazed, crazy lunatic they had come to know.

Greyback licked his lips, sniffing the air. "Once we done them in, I'm gonna take a bite out of that one. But I prefer that young flesh right here." He pulled at Hermione's arms brutally. "How's it, girly? Want to scratch my fur, don't you?" The sour breath of his chuckle raised the bile in the brunette's throat. Whatever Bellatrix had done to her, it would be a stroll in the park against Fenrir's sick intentions.

"You're disgusting," she replied with all the revulsion she could muster.

"Ah, feisty. I like feisty." He growled pleased.

Even if she somehow broke free of this beast's grip, what was she supposed to do? Painfully aware of her lacking duelling skills against the superior numbers, Hermione might be able to take maybe two or three of them down with her before hexed into yesterday. That action would also require a wand, which she currently didn't own.

Think, think, think, the Gryffindor told herself over and over again. Be brave, don't panic. Cold sweat pooled down her back and there was a shiver in her limbs she couldn't suppress.

"Dark Lord or not, we're gonna make you scream, traitor. You'll wish you were never born once we're done with you," Gus growled, hate dripping from every word. She could imagine the envy and frustration a low life like him had to endure when Bellatrix's talented boots stamped all over him.

"You know, that's already what I think every time I'm confronted with your ugly face. I suppose saying you're mother was a troll would be a compliment."

How can she stay so calm? Oh, yes. Insane. Damn it, she's going to rile them up even worse.

Hermione closed her eyes, breathing deep in and out. Greyback was busy following the argument between Gus and the woman that had degraded him in Malfoy Manor, but there was no worry about his prey slipping free.

I can't die here today, not now. Not after the war is over, not after I came so far. There has to be something, a way, something, anything...

Not the short stick again. Not again!

And suddenly the Gryffindor remembered her lessons, the painful training sessions she had endured for nearly a month. Martial arts were less about strength and endurance, and more about how to control both your own body and the enemies' movements. Action and reaction. There were many tricks and motions which aimed at using your opponent's force against him and while Hermione knew not even a fragment of them, Inihara had made sure to show her some basic ones.

Her teacher had been interested in building up her fitness, but he was also aware that a slim, young woman like her had little chance against a big, burly man who wanted to hurt her. So dealing with someone grabbing and holding her wrists like this had been one of the first points on the list.

Feeling a surge of hope, Hermione placed all of it on one chance.

"No, please," she sobbed, giving up all fight and nearly dropping down when the energy left her body. "I'll do anything, just don't hurt me."

The werewolf turned back to her in a flash of surprise, his broad brow furrowed at her change in attitude. Hermione didn't let him get his emotional footing and thrust her hands suddenly forward, then abruptly turned them sideways and to the left of his frame.

Unused to something like that and probably not ever having heard of martial arts, Fenrir failed to adjust his grip accordingly and allowed the young woman thus to get a grip on his thumb. His own strength worked against him. A second later he let go of her arm with a roar when she pushed at the thumb with all her might, winding herself out of his grasp as the werewolf wasn't able to keep a hold of both her and his wand, loosing both of them in the end.

Working on pure adrenaline, the brunette caught the falling weapon out of the air and threw the burly man backwards with a hastily warbled "Stupefy!" when the stick was barely touching three of her fingers.

This was her chance. With the whole group too busy trying to adjust their aggravation to her, she could take a few out with a well-placed Reducto and maybe stun one or two while moving to the side. If she was quick enough, she would even be able to distract them long enough to take her heels and get the hell out of here.

But Hermione wasn't like that. She was someone entirely different.

And so, she took Greyback's wand, which felt incredibly uncomfortable in her own hands as if straining against her orders, turned to the equally surprised pure-blood and threw the weapon to her with the command of catching it.

Bellatrix's eyes widened with sudden greed and rapture and she snatched the wand out of the air.

And then Hermione became privy to the full glory of Bellatrix Black, magical prodigy and duellist extraordinaire.

Quick as lightning three wordless spells flew from the wooden tip, throwing her enemies into the undergrowth with almost artistic synchronization. Two more fell with a scream before the others came to live and threw their own retaliation hexes at the dangerous woman.

But with the pure-blood armed it was already too late for the ragtag bunch. Whether it was two dozen or ten, Bellatrix blocked and parried with an ease born from both talent and years of practice. It was captivating to watch her like this, stepping forward and waving her arm in what appeared like an untamed, elegant dance, all the while accompanied by her unrestrained laughter. It was as wild as it was artistic.

The blue tinted spell erupting from Fenrir's wand was so powerful that Gus, despite a hastily conjured Shield Charm, was thrown back so forcefully he twirled through the air twice with the speed of a targeting bludger and hit one of the tree trunks with the painful sound of bones breaking.

Three more men erupted from the woods to make a futile attempt to engage the joyfully cackling Black in a duel, but Hermione, struck dumb from watching Bellatrix discarding one enemy after the other, was ripped out of her stupor by a clawed hand clutching her jacket and throwing her into the dark of the night.

Flying through the air for barely two seconds, the brunette let out a shout, groaning when she reconnected with planet Earth and her head hit a knotted root. Now her darkness was filled with blinking and fizzling stars, whether she closed her eyes or not. Before Hermione could get her grips, the growling form of the werewolf was on her and pushed her into the cold soil.

No matter how much she strained herself, fighting with teeth, nails and limbs, she couldn't get the heavy body to budge. In this position, one month of training was worth less than a quarter knut. A hard knee crashed down on her ribs, causing pain to erupt all over her upper body. Her shoulder blades dug painfully against a stone protruding from the dirt, ripping open her skin with each motion she made to struggle against Fenrir.

"We're ending this now, little scamp. Say hello to Lupin for me." The smell of his rotten breath told her he had opened his mouth wide to rip her flesh apart.

I don't want to die. Please, help me, please!

Although she was aware Bellatrix was busy with the other followers and didn't care about her fate at all, Hermione closed her eyes tightly and screamed the dark haired witch's name as loud as she could.

The sharp canines touched her neck and ripped open several layers of skin the same moment as a spell hit Greyback and threw him across the forest floor with the force of a rushing train. Close to hyperventilating, the brunette whimpered and crawled a few feet back, before the fire in her torso had her crash back down.

Through a haze of tears, Hermione watched as the werewolf groaned and shook his heavy frame to get rid of the dizziness. As he tried to right himself, the raven haired witch slowly sauntered closer as if born out of the shadows themselves. The haughty way in which she rolled the wand between her fingers, glancing down at Greyback behind heavy-lidded eyes filled with sadistic glee, was familiar and overpowering.

Even the reckless, primal werewolf knew he was in deep shit when he realized who had thrown him aside.

"Bellatrix... we can talk about this..." he growled out with one large paw-like palm placed against the tree behind him. He screamed as a jet of light smashed into his chest, the full body bind having him sink down into leaves and sticks like a falling boulder. But he was still awake, mounting fear having sweat drip down his hairy forehead as he watched his tormentor cluck her tongue.

"My, my, my... Fenrir... that you of all people would deceive me like this, I'm very disappointed. Such a bad puppy." Bellatrix inched closer, the tip of her acquired wand trailing down a sharp jawbone. Hermione used the time to push down her terror and try to drag herself up with the help of a branch.

"It wasn't my idea, Gus, he said it would be a good idea. I- I only wanted the girl, I swear." Greyback coughed and, if he could have, would have held up a reflecting hand.

"For your information, as you all seem to ignore what is going on around you while still trailing after a man who won't come back to life a second time, trying to kill the Mudblood is a very, very stupid idea. And everyone trying to do so is quite high on my hit list, you flea-bitten mongrel." There was a mad glint in Bellatrix's eyes, her pale skin nearly translucent in the ghost-blue light of the wand. It was painful to look at, especially now that she was so much younger than before.

Hermione was reminded of the horrible transformation Dorian Gray's picture had gone through. Beautiful things weren't supposed to become repulsive.

"Bellatrix, were not the only ones after you. See, I can help you, for old times' sake? We'd be a good team." Greyback could do little but pant, the white around his iris clearly visible. He couldn't move more than his lips, caught in both the spell and his terror.

"I don't work with mutts, particularly two-faced ones like you." A grim smile stretched her ruby lips and for a heartbeat Bellatrix's face seemed like a talking skull. Her eyes had stopped reflecting the wand light, now two pools of endless, inky black. "But I guess I can leave you with a nice present. You know, for old times' sake.

The brunette felt her skin crawl. Something was entirely not right with the dark witch.

"Yet my sister has always been... different. Smart, brilliant actually. But also often very far away from reality, far enough that it scared me at times."

Suddenly she was back in the Malfoy Manor, kneeling underneath a crazed Death Eater. A woman whose gaze had been both so far away and scorching her very soul.

What's drove you to do this? What makes you revel so much in other people's pain?

So close. She was so close. Too close.

Hermione threw herself forward with a shouted "No!" the second Bellatrix screamed the incantation to the Cruciatus Curse, probably saving both their lives when her mangled body slammed into the smaller one of the dark witch. No red light erupted from the wand and they hit the ground with a strangled groan.

"Stop it, Bellatrix!" the brunette commanded between harsh gasps for air. "Snap - out of it! God - damn it, you can't - save us both, then - kill us because you're - loosing it right now!"

The former Death Eater hissed at the younger woman, but with a distinct lack of dementedness. "Get off me, Mudblood!" Rolling the taller witch on her back with a shove, Bellatrix raised her upper body up and blew at a strand of her hair dangling right in front of her vision. "And what's with the gasping? You sound like a squirrel."

"Having trouble - breathing," Hermione forced out, trying to fight back the black spots dancing in front of her eyes. "Go put them - in chains. Find - my wand. Need to get - to McGonagall."

"Whatever. Greyback still had it coming." The raven haired woman awkwardly found her way to her feet.

Hermione, glad to be alive and safe from these bastards, couldn't help but roll her eyes at the other woman's quick change of attitude. "Just - go. Talk - later." With that, she only concentrated on keeping the oxygen flowing into her lungs, ignoring the burning and angry gaze of the werewolf mere feet away from her.

A few minutes later every follower of Voldemort was wandless and wrapped in a tight, magical chain, whether awake or unconscious. Some had a few more bruises than before, courtesy of the former Death Eater's healthy kicks of revenge. Many groans filled the clearing and Bellatrix, after finding Hermione's wand, confirmed the Gryffindor girls to be alive and unhurt.

Now in full control of the situation, Bellatrix dragged the gasping, younger witch back to Hogwarts amidst endless complaining and with a terrible crabby mood. Hermione ignored the constant stream of word vomit, too busy trying to stay upright. And if she was completely honest and if one ignored the actual content, then the unique tilt of Bellatrix tongue as well as the familiar sound of her voice was very soothing to her frazzled nerves. How unusual to feel save in the presence of what had once been her personal nemesis. She longed for a quick apparition, but the Hogwarts school didn't permit this kind of magic, so they had to take the long way.

She'd have a lot to explain to her best friends and McGonagall.

But what she couldn't wait for the most was to tell Ginny and Luna of the fact that Bellatrix Black, in whatever roundabout or self-serving way, had saved her life.

I'm pretty sure I wanted to say something, but... I forgot. Well, that's life. My next few days will be pretty busy, but I'll try my best to update Sunday again. No promises though, sorreeee! Have a wonderful weekend, everyone.

Chapter Text

Hoookay... this is kind of the make-or-break chapter and it's huge. And I'm absolutely drained and next week will be sooo stressful and I'm typing this with my fingers freshly burned by the damn oven, so I'm kind of 'Oh my god, will this work? Does this chapter deliver? Should I have written something else?'... so yeah. I guess the authors out there know what I'm talking about. Then again, I'm always thankful for healthy criticism. Nghhh... tired. Don't worry though, I'm fine, just bemoaning my fate ;)

I also need to be in the shower in like *looks at clock* five minutes, so for once I want to thank all you wonderful reviewers for their kind comments, encouragement, jokes and musings. It's pure joy for me to read your feedback, no matter what form, country, gender and everything else I forgot to come up with. I have no idea when I can get a free spot next week to update and reply to your comments more individually again, but be assured that I'll try my best! :)

15. The Last Straw Is Kindling To The Fire

"If family violence teaches children that might makes right at home, how will we hope to cure the futile impulse to solve worldly conflicts with force?" - Letty Cottin Pogrebin

"I can't believe it. I should have gone with you, I knew it! I knew it!" Ginny groaned and hid her grimace behind her fingers.

Hermione smiled, happy that she could breath again without the constricting fear of not getting enough air. She was still stuck in the hospital bed for the next two days, but she could live with it. The only thing that would give her trouble in the future was her little 'gift' from Fenrir Greyback. Even though the werewolf's teeth had hardly pierced her skin, some of his saliva had found its way into her bloodstream and even the quick intervention of Madam Pomfrey hadn't been able to clean out everything.

"You're not going to be a werewolf," the nurse had told her, much to her relief, "the bite wasn't deep enough and thankfully he was in his human form. But you might experience... a bit of restlessness around the full moon from now on. You were luckier than that nice young man William Weasley, that's for sure."

It was unclear how strong exactly the traces of werewolf in her body would act out once a month, but Madam Pomfrey was sure the worst that could happen were a short temper and slightly lowered inhibitions.

Guess I'll be PMS-ing two times a month from now on, Hermione mused silently, glad the outcome hadn't been worse than that. The scars, on the other hand, would stay. Blinking the memory away, she concentrated back on the redhead beside her bed and tried to appease her.

"It's not your fault. Who could guess they would come here? On Hogwarts school grounds? And I had Bellatrix with me, she made sure the two of us were safe."

"Yeah, of course. Because she was worried for her own life," Ginny groused.

"You can't deny she saved not only my, but also four other innocent lifes."

"For her that was collateral damage! They're only not dead because they weren't in the way!"

Hermione smiled again, amused by the redhead's annoyance and excuses. Maybe she was seeing things a bit too positive herself at the moment, but Ginny was exactly the other way around. "And none of the attackers is dead either. Despite the fact that she's allowed to kill in self-defence."

Ginny threw her hands into the air and slumped back in her chair. "Okay, okay. Fine. You win, for once." She rubbed her temple and stretched her mouth wryly. "Maybe she's not quite as bad as I made her out to be, I mean... she even dragged you back here the whole way. But it doesn't change that she continues to be dangerous."

"I know," the brunette admitted with a sigh and huddled deeper into the cushion. "Believe me, I have hands-on experience with that."

"Yeah. So why are you so set out to make her appear better than she is?" Ginny wondered with a frown. "No matter what, she's the Death Eater who happily killed, slaughtered and tortured people into insanity. What makes you think she can change? Or that anything has changed her? You're her regular punching bag."

"I don't know," Hermione replied softly, playing with a loosened thread of the blanket covering her legs. "There are days when I'm so angry at her. Where I think I hate her more than anyone else in the world. But the next moment I believe there is something more to her than what she's letting us see. Yeah, she has her whip-lash moods and I can't count her faults on both hands, but..." Letting out a groan, the older Gryffindor let her head fall back.

"But?" Ginny inquired gently, her chin drapped on her palms.

"There's... there's something in there... deep, deep down. She's been hurt, badly. Hurt and scared. I don't know what and why, but there has to be a bloody reason why someone becomes as unhinged as her," Hermione rambled, causing Ginny to raise an eyebrow at her language. "Look at her sisters: Narcissa may be ice-cold and egoistical, but she cares about her son more than anything. Because of her, Harry is alive. And don't get me started on Andromeda. You can't tell me Bellatrix is a sadistic monster simply because..." She snapped her fingers. "Because just so?"

"Maybe it was Voldemort. I mean, she was devoted to him, wasn't she?" the redhead mused out loud, cleary disgusted by the very idea.

"She was, but in the end she betrayed him. Even though he was her saviour," Hermione imitated with acid in her voice. At Ginny's confused look, she added "Don't ask, there's a lot of weird facts I have accumulated and which I don't get. But Narcissa confirmed that Bellatrix has always been a bit touched in the head. So it can't be Voldemort who made her this way."

"Then perhaps she simply was born like...?" Ginny made a circular motion with her finger next to her temple as an end to her sentence, causing Hermione to shake her head and push against the corners of her eyes with vaulting frustration.

"No, no, I think that's too easy an explanation. I'm so sure it's - something else. Call it a gut instinct."

"Darn it, Hermione. I tried to get along with this because you're my friend and brilliant and I trust you, but now you're actually making me doubt her complete and 100% evilness. I mean, she has yet to make anyone scream and run away in fear this school year." Slapping Hermione's arm with the back of her hand in fake outrage, the redhead slumped over until her upper body was lying on the mattress. "Have I told you lately that you suck?"

"I love you too, Ginny," Hermione answered with a smirk, patting the younger woman's cheek like an old aunt. "And if you start believing the same, I know at least I'm not going crazy."

"It's probably a brain bug. Infecting everyone you fill with your hair-splitting theories."

Snorting at the idea, the brunette pushed weakly against her friend's upper body. "Yeah, sure."

"It's not so far-fetched. There is a small creature in Alaska that crawls into a sleeper's nose and steals their dreams. And gives you a craving for raspberry ice cream."

The women screamed in surprise at the sudden appearance of Luna Lovegood, who had a tendency to pop out of nowhere. Madame Pomfrey put her head through a doorway to check what the ruckus was about, but the situation had calmed down quickly.

"God, Luna! Don't do that!"

"Talk?" The platinum blonde appeared confused.

"No, I mean-... ah, forget it. Why are you here?" Ginny asked while trying to calm her racing heart.

"You wanted me to remind you on the herbology essay you need to write for tomorrow, so I came to collect you."

"The herbolo- oh, snap! I totally forgot that!" The redhead slapped a hand to her forehead, grimacing. "Thanks for reminding me, I wouldn't have remembered in time myself. Hermione, you are so lucky you're lying in the infirmary, you have an excuse for tomorrow."

"My essay is already done," Hermione innocently remarked, watching how Ginny's face fell. "Seriously, sometimes you're as bad as your brother."

"I was so busy with Quidditch practice... and I didn't want to miss the Hogsmeade trip, and with all the worrying I've been doing about you..."

"My room, third drawer on the left. Try not to copy it word for word, okay?" the brunette relented, dragging the blanket higher up her body. "And don't tell Ron I let you do that."

"You're a saint," Ginny breathed with a glimmer of utter devotion in her gaze. "Thank you! Quick, Luna, now I actually get to finish my homework before dinner." Hugging her best friend, the redhead grabbed Luna's hand and dragged the airy girl with her, leaving her just enough time to wave a friendly goodbye at Hermione.

Using the chance to catch up on her sleep, the brunette threw herself right back into work the moment Madame Pomfrey let the young woman out of her care. Potions could be a very useful thing, healing most of her injuries over the course of two nights.

When she was finally ready to leave, the brunette almost bumped face-first into the Headmistress, who rounded the corner around the door frame the same time as her.

"Oh! Professor, I'm sorry."

"No, dear, it's my fault. I have gotten used to crossing these halls in a hurry, even though I don't endorse running." Bespectacled eyes glanced up and down the student. "How are you feeling? I wanted to visit you sooner, but I was busy dealing with the Ministry and the presents you so handily wrapped up for them." Despite her dry words, there was obvious concern in McGonagall's eyes.

"Fine, actually. But you can ask me again during the next full moon," Hermione joked half-heartedly.

"It's atrocious to know something like that happened to you of all people... I don't know what I would have done if he had infected you with full lycanthropy." The older woman shook her head with a quake of terror. Hermione had little interest in thinking about that particular 'what if'. "I really want to say I shouldn't have made you go to Hogsmeade with Madame Black, but if you hadn't been there... who knew what would have happened to those poor girls."

Madam Pomfrey had told Hermione in a lively rendition how furious the Headmistress had been that Death Eaters had found their way on Hogwarts' grounds, daring to attack her students. Now they were hidden away behind magical bars and the Ministry had send Aurors to patrol the borders, ensuring that no second attempt could be made.

"Even if she drives me crazy... you were right, professor. If Bellatrix doesn't interact with others or get out into town once in a while, nothing will change. And I'm pretty sure I can handle her now."

"Careful, Miss Granger," McGonagall warned her. "Just because she acted as planned once doesn't mean she will do so again. Your life is and will always be in danger from now on. It is only because I trust your talent and opinion that I leave you alone with her at all. You will come to me if there is anything that troubles you, won't you?"

"Yes," Hermione slowly replied. She had hidden problems with Bellatrix before... but she knew that if the dark witch crossed a certain line, she'd have no qualms about speaking out to her favorite teacher. "But you have a point. One of our attackers said there will be more after us and it means we are both in grave danger, even with Aurors nearby. I thought long and hard about it while I was lying in the infirmary, but..."

"But?"

The brunette proceeded to lay down her request, causing McGonagall first to frown, then think, then accept reluctantly.

Back in her room, Hermione retrieved something from her charmed bag and marched to Bellatrix's door, knocking politely.

"Go away. I want to sleep," came the muffled answer.

"It's four in the afternoon, don't you think it's better to get up?"

"No. Not even remotely."

"What if I told you I have something for you?"

There was no reply, but the Gryffindor was pretty sure she had piqued the raven haired woman's interest. And indeed, a few moment later the door was opened a few inches, showing a drowsy pure-blood blinking out of the crack with her frame hidden underneath the thick quilt of her bed. "What is it?"

"I heard you gave McGonagall the wand back, claiming you haven't won his allegiance. I believe you handled it awfully well in spite of it."

"Point?" Bellatrix drawled bored, leaning against the door frame.

"I owe you my life, whichever way you turn it and however selfish your actions might have been. And because I know you won't stop your trips to the Forbidden Forest or get any less rash, I want you to take a bit more care about your own health. Here." Hermione thrust her arm forward, presenting a dark wooden stick to the former Death Eater.

Bellatrix's eyes went wide and she picked the wand up almost disbelievingly. "That... that's my old wand. You kept it?"

"No one wanted it back, so I kept it as a kind of crude souvenir," Hermione admitted with a small shrug. "I know the Ministry might not want you to have a wand yet, but... as your supervisor, I believe you should own one and McGonagall is behind my decision. I think you can handle it now."

The raven haired woman didn't answer, staring at the weapon with tightly pressed lips and twirling it slowly between her digits. It was like two puzzle pieces fitting together, the pure-blood and her unique wand. Ollivander was a master when it came to joining wizards or witches with their wands.

"Try not to do anything stupid with it, okay?" the younger witch pleaded awkwardly, not quite sure if this had been the right decision. But if Gus had been speaking the truth and there rally were more Death Eaters hunting after Bellatrix (and soon, maybe her, too), then letting her go wandless was like a death sentence for both of them. "Please. I don't want to answer back to McGonagall if anything goes wrong and... that's it. Eh, you can go back to sleep."

Turning around with burning cheeks and feeling very weird at the other woman's continued silence, something she was entirely unused too, Hermione froze at the sudden sound of Bellatrix clearing her throat.

"The way you disarmed Greyback... it was clever. But you need to work on your duelling skills. You'd be much faster if you didn't think so much during your casting." When Hermione glanced back, she saw the raven haired woman sucking her teeth with a certain sense of indecision, flicking her gaze between the wand and the younger witch.

"I got better during Dumbledore's Army, but... I'm more of a head person, not an action person. There's no one I can properly train with."

"Fine. Before you break your and my neck because you can't duel well enough, it seems I indeed have to teach you myself. You'd better thank me for that," Bellatrix said exasperated, but her words were missing the usual bite. She frowned deeply when noticing Hermione's wide smile at the offer, quickly slamming the door shut.

But she hadn't been able to fully hide the gratefulness.

Hermione had a hard time wiping the smile from her face that day.

The two witches had another, thankfully unharmful, fight about what time they would start the duelling, as Bellatrix demanded things to go her way - and when she wanted attention, she wanted it now. But Hermione didn't want to break off her training with Inihara only because the dark witch was willful and used to getting her way.

It took a while, but the Gryffindor finally put her foot down on the matter, placing Bellatrix's teaching lessons on the weekend. Her week was full enough as it was, trading spells for hours with the former Death Eater was guaranteed to do more harm than good if her sleeping times suffered from it.

"So," the brunette began, not quite sure how to bring up the topic. "Where do you... propose we should do this? Back during the war, we used the Room of Requirements for our training, but... I think it might have been destroyed by Fiendfyre."

"We'd be smarter if we took a closer look, wouldn't we?" Bellatrix replied with raised eyebrows.

So they set out that Saturday evening, with most students busying themselves in the common rooms, and marched through Hogwarts in their search for the room. Not even five minutes later, the shuffling run of a wheezing man was heard, with Filch making a beeline around the corner to where they were walking.

"Stop! Freeze! Students are not allowed to leave the rooms at this time of the ni-..."

One flash of the raven haired woman's wand later, the caretaker stood drooling in the middle of the hallway. Bellatrix had not even taken a look in his direction, waltzing past him without a care in the world.

"Yeah, yeah, tell that to the brats, you useless creature."

Hermione grimaced, wondering if that would have repercussions, but as someone who had been tormented for six years by the annoyance called Argus Filch, she couldn't help the small amount of satisfaction at seeing him like this. Quickly running after the pure-blood, she hoped the incident would be forgotten. Maybe Filch didn't dare to argue against someone like the eldest Black sister.

Reaching their destination point, both women stood in front of the blank wall.

"I guess it's better if you create the room. You know what we might need for the training," the brunette offered and stood to the side.

Bellatrix pursed her lips and twirled her wand between her fingers for a few moments, before she walked three times past the same spot. And there, peeling itself out of the wall, the door to the Room of Requirement appeared from stone and mortar.

Heaving a breath of relief, the younger woman walked closer and pushed her hand against the intricate carved wood. "It's not warm. The Fiendfyre didn't manage to destroy its whole magic."

"I can see that, muddy. Now open it, before my feet take root."

The interior was pure Slytherin style. Black marble floor covered the ground, with elaborate columns crawling up the walls and keeping the ceiling up. Between every column the stone was either covered in expensive, smaragd colored velvet or with antique man-high mirrors. Unlike the DA's training room, there was a big, blazing hearth stoked with a roaring green fire.

"Ah, perfect." Bellatrix smiled, pleased with the design the room had chosen.

Hermione moved her mouth for a second, unsure how to comment. "It's... uh... nice. I kind of expected more... training stuff."

"Who needs these fancy-schmancy machines? You have me, the best duellist currently alive and prospering, there's no need for anything else." Walking into the middle of the gigantic hall, the former Death Eater spread her hands with a suave smile and shot the reluctant Gryffindor an impatient look. "So? Are we doing this or not?"

Mentally resigning herself to the fate - You wanted this, Hermione, now go deal with it - awaiting her, the young woman walked inside and listened to the doors shutting behind her.

Hermione knew the older woman had taught Draco his impressive Occlumency skills, able to fool even Dumbledore about his plans. But teaching a family member was a whole different manner than duelling with someone who belonged to the part of society pure-bloods spat down on.

But the eldest Black astonished her. Bellatrix had a good eye for catching each and every gap in her defenses and had more than enough chances to act out her sadism, but instead of firing nasty spells into the breeches, she harshly called the brunette out on her mistakes. The older woman's spells were powerful enough to propel the other witch a few inches back with every hit.

And she was unrelenting. Two hours later, Hermione was sweat-drenched and the strength she had gained from training with Inihara was the only thing keeping her muscles from screaming in protest at the exertion. Bellatrix looked as exhausted as if she had been simply wandering calmly across the school grounds.

"Why aren't you hitting me with your Stunning spells?" Hermione inquired curiously, bowed down with her hands on her knees to catch her breath. "You had more than enough chances."

"Because if I hit you every time I saw you making a mistake, you'd never leave the hospital wing. I don't have time to wait for you to recover, we need to get you up to par as soon as possible. With the Dark Lord's misguided boot-lickers running after us, we're in constant danger of being attacked." The raven haired witch pointed her weapon at the brunette in an offhand way. "Hogsmeade, Mudblood. You're not going there without me, understood? It's their best chance to deal with us."

"Now who's mothering who?" she replied with a raised eyebrow, loosening her muscles. "Okay, I'm finished for today. We can repeat that next weekend."

"I still think we should do this under the-..."

"Bellatrix... just... don't. Please. I'm not starting this argument again."

The pure-blood huffed, throwing back black curls with a flick of her wrist. "Fine. I'm bored. Let's go back."

Hermione had the distinct impression that the dark witch was liking their duels, maybe even seeing them as a chance to live out her more destructive side without anyone calling her up on it later. Filch left them alone after Bellatrix set his pants aflame during their next visit, which ended with Hermione being called up into McGonagall's office. After explaining the situation, the Headmistress was pleased with the progress the eldest Black was making, actually using her talents for something useful for once. When Hermione left the room, she had clearing to frequent the Room of Requirement whenever they liked. "But if she sets Filch on fire one more time, she can hand in her wand until she makes an official apology," McGonagall had warned, knowing the former Death Eater's pride would most likely keep her in check before she endured the indignity of apologizing to a Squib.

Two weeks later, the Gryffindor had not yet received any comment from either of Bellatrix's younger sisters. It annoyed her, more than it should, and she wondered if the recent full moon had had a hand in her short temper and rising frustration. Resigning herself to the case that no answer would be forthcoming, she took matters into her own hands and resort back to her riddle solver of choice.

She went to the library.

Finding out information about the Black family was not very hard, considering they were one of the most well-known and oldest of all the pure-blood families. Nearly all history books recited the family at least once, but all she gathered was superficial and nearly useless, mostly connected to their work and their achievements in the Wizarding society. The most interesting find was a thick tome dealing with the individual family members by listing their portraits with the date of birth and death, as well as their connection to the overall history line.

The sisters had their cool, aristocratic appearance from their mother, Druella Rosier. A classic beauty with dark hair and pale eyes, there was no movement or reaction from her as she stared at the beholder with a cold look. They could as well have photographed a puppet. Cygnus Black III. on the other hand glanced back at Hermione with a cruel, arrogant gaze, as black as Bellatrix's curls. He had rugged good looks, with shoulder length blond hair and a clean-cut beard, both which he wore with more dignity than Lucius Malfoy could ever dare to hope for.

The only useful thing she gleaned from her read-through was Cygnus' death note, which showed the date of the 28th of December 1979. Druella was still alive, maybe holed up somewhere in Black Manor.

The parents were followed by their children and the brunette spent a solid ten minutes gaping at the picture of a 26-year-old Bellatrix, responding to her gaze with all the hubris festering behind heavy-lidded eyelids the older woman was known for. Her features were just as smooth and young as they were today. Ixion's Tears had performed solid work.

One page later, she came face to face with a thinly smiling Sirius Black. Hermione watched him awkwardly stand in his suit with profound sadness. She hoped that, wherever he was, he had found the calm and peace he deserved. What is it that made you two hate each other so much? You can't be responsible for Bellatrix's madness... you were only a child.

Frustrated with her lack of progress, the young woman slammed the books she had gathered shut and brought them back to where they belonged. For once, her trusted library left her wanting. But what had she expected? To find disreputable Black family secrets hidden somewhere between the sides? If the pure-bloods were as petty as she suspected, then every detail they didn't want to share would be eradicated from the written page, no matter the cost or effort.

Standing at a dead-end, Hermione racked her brain for another way to find out more about what she was dealing with. Unless she knew more about the 'Screams' Narcissa had spoken about, she didn't know where to search for a solution.

So it was the Gryffindor's turn to be reckless for a change.

The first and yet coldest weekend of December found the two witches once again in the Room of Requirement, preparing to spend the next two hours shooting various spells at each other until Hermione admitted an exhausted defeat. Even though she was getting better by leaps and bounds.

Hermione gripped her wand tighter with her clammy palms, heart beating twice its usual rhythm.

"I have a request to make."

Bellatrix mustered the stock-still brunette. "Why, muddy, so formal today? Out with it. But if it begins with Parseltongue and ends with teaching, I'm out of here."

Licking her dry lips, the younger woman took a deep breath. "I want you to teach me Occlumency. Like you taught Draco."

"Oh." The former Death Eater had her brows furrowed, but didn't seem upset in any other way. She was absently tapping one end of her wand into her open hand. "Why?"

Hermione quickly made an excuse up on the spot, not used to the dark witch inquiring after her reasons for doing anything. "When Fenrir attacked me... I remembered how you tortured me, you know, in Malfoy Manor." The mention of that incident brought a glower to the raven haired woman's face and so she went on in a hurry. "And back then you could have used Legilimency on me, but didn't. Maybe with them after you for revenge they will try to capture me and get information about you in a similar way. With knowing Occlumency, I'd be better protected."

"Hm," was Bellatrix's only comment as she steadily walked up and down an invisible track, each step leaving an echo of a click resonating in the wide hall. "I hate to admit it, but that makes sense. Mind you, if they have you in their grasp, it is already halfway too late. But they might keep you alive as long as they need something from you." With a resolute and sudden stop, the pure-blood turned to her part-time student. "Good, we'll start today. Stand over there."

You've spent entirely too much time with Harry and Ron, you idiot, Hermione chastised herself, but walked to the spot the wand pointed at. To be honest, she had no interest whatsoever to learn Occlumency from someone like Bellatrix and have the lunatic crawl around in her most important memories. But if she wanted to satisfy her curiosity and get on with her search for answers, she had to take a first step somewhere. Hopefully, it wasn't her new animalic side that influenced her to be so reckless.

"Good. Now listen attentively," the raven haired woman began and resumed her walk. "Occlumency is a very hard and rare skill, it requires complete emotional and mental control. I have to admit that, for a Mudblood, you're showing remarkable talent, otherwise I wouldn't even attempt to try this with you. Now, the first step is to clear your mind - empty it off all feelings and distracting thoughts."

Distracting thoughts. Hermione blinked harshly when she realized she had let herself get distracted by the unconscious prowling the pure-blood added to every step with a lazy swing of her hips. How does she do that? Why can't I do that? "Yes. Calm and empty, I understand."

Closing her eyes, the young woman concentrated on her breathing rhythm. Making herself calm was doable, but emptying her mind of all thoughts proved to be one of the harder challenges she had faced. Quick and spontan thinking was Hermione's characteristic knack, how could she shut it off as simply as that?

Sooner than she had expected, the other woman reacted. "You better be ready, muddy. Here I come," she sing-songed and suddenly Hermione wasn't alone in her head anymore.

Ron's and her first kiss appeared in her mind. It was trailed by their walk in the moonlight and exchanged just as quick for a scene at the Weasley's breakfast table, with everyone present laughing and talking. She remembered hitting the Horcrux and bending over her Potions homework. Her parents walked into the scene with a big birthday cake, singing for her when she became ten.

"Concentrate," the smooth voice cooed at her, while the foreign presence happily dug deeper through her secrets. "Oh, you don't want me to see this, don't you?"

She was crying on the stairs, Harry close by. Sitting in class and waiting for the teacher to call her up. Running through the middle of students laughing at her, then down on the floor creating what had to be Polyjuice Potion. Hiding underneath her covers and sobbing into her pillow. In the bathtub with a knife digging into her exposed throat.

"Stop!" the younger woman screamed, holding her hands to her head. "Don't! Get out!"

The shadow in her mind drew back and vanished. When she opened her eyes again, she came face to face with a smirking Bellatrix, hips cocked to the side and hands placed on them.

"Can't handle what I'm throwing at you, dearie? Aw, and I'm being so gentle. So much different than what those big baddies might do to you."

Hermione gasped, rubbing her hurting temple. Great. Another ravingly stupid idea. "No, I... only need a bit more time to prepare. I was... I couldn't find my footing. Once I know how to get a hold, I'm going to be fine." She swallowed against the dryness in her throat.

The other woman chuckled darkly. "Ah, footing. How nice that would be, wouldn't it?"

And then, with not even the slightest chance to prepare before-hand, pictures and moments of her past were pulled forward again, with Hermione scrambling to find a way to push out the cackling witch. It was like fingernails scratching against a stone slab, painful and futile.

Bellatrix was everywhere in her head, ruthlessly snooping around in her memories without sense or direction. Childhood recollections were pulled out of nowhere, scenes where she had felt ashamed or humiliated or sad running in clear detail across her inner eye. Now she could understand why Harry had been unwilling to go on with his Occlumency training, having his most personal moments shown to what he believed was one of his strongest enemies.

Now she found herself in the same situation. Unable to do anything but trash and fight and scream mentally.

Helpless. Again.

She despised feeling helpless. If there was one thing in the world she hated, it wasn't Bellatrix Black, no, it was complete and utter defenselessness.

As Hermione prepared herself to scream again at the former Death Eater to stop this madness, there was a violent growl rumbling in her insides, followed by an even louder crack, not far from the sound of glass breaking. A stinging pain erupted between her eyes and threw her forward somewhere, throwing her even more off guard.

Pictures zoomed past her sightless gaze. It took several flashes of her synapses to understand that what she was seeing didn't spring forth from her own mind.

A great oak table, with bleakly dressed people eating their food in solemn silence. Sitting cowered in a dark corner, shivering and breathing hard. On her knees, her own tear-filled screams filling her ears as a livid man - Cygnus? - leaned back to whip her once again with a belt buckle.

Where... these Bellatrix's memories? How had she gotten here? It was all rushing past her so fast.

A young Andromeda lying across her lap, convulsing with sobs. Black, rabid dogs surrounding her on every side, snarling and snapping their foaming jaws at her. Finding herself on black marble floor, scrabbling for purchase, any purchase, to get away from something amidst panic and tears. The Slytherin common room, shrouded in darkness. A man, a shocking and less snake-like Voldemort, smiling at her with thin lips and gently reaching out to her cheek.

From outside her mind Hermione distantly noticed the sound of a animalic howl getting louder, but she was unable to stop whatever was happening. Thrown into events she couldn't control, confronted with memories she wasn't sure she wanted to experience like this. Swimming amidst a sea of reminiscence, the brunette had no idea where to find an exit, surrounded on all side by what should be hidden inside a corner of another being's most private mind.

Narcissa in a dressing gown, her face impassive. Another man - Rodolphus, maybe his brother, - pointing a wand at her with sweat and scratches on his face, mouthing the incantation to the Cruciatus Curse. Cygnus sprawled on the floor, dead, a woman screaming with terror outside the field of vision. The outline of a rugged, dark creature mauling her body in near pitch-black darkness. Voldemort, as they knew him last, with empty, soulless eyes and pointing his wand at her almost distractedly, lips stretching thin as a wordless spell was thrown-

The vision was overshadowed by a brusque rising of noise in her head. Ten, hundred, then what felt like thousand different voices, all of them screaming, striking her head as effective as a dozen daggers stabbing at her skull. The pain was so horrible Hermione could swear her bones were cracking, blood was streaming from her eyes and nose, her brain rupturing apart, but when she grabbed her head, there was nothing wrong.

The screams filled every nook of her existence. She was helpless to do anything but groan and stagger in any direction to get away from it, not even feeling when her shoulder struck the wall. Tears ran unbidden down her cheeks, but she didn't feel them either.

"OUT! GET OUT!" Bellatrix's voice had never before reached such a high-pitched register.

"Don't... how... h-help," Hermione sobbed, trying to keep her sanity under the onslaught.

As quick as it had begun, it was over just as fast. The connection ruptured like a line drawn too taught and both women snapped back into their respective minds. The brunette wanted nothing more than to slip down to the ground and curl up into a ball, but her Vow partner had different ideas. She wasn't offered any respite.

A tight rope curled around her neck, ripping her gaze over to the dark witch.

It was in that moment, that Hermione realized she inadvertently crossed a big, glaring red line.

Bellatrix was not livid. She wasn't enraged, not angry. There was no word strong enough for describing the ice-cold furnace raging in the depth of her wide-open eyes. The witch had been pushed across every possible cliff and was now sticking so deep in her insanity that Hermione burst into panicked tears.

The pure-blood was, without any doubt, in for the kill.

"You're going to suffer for this," came the saccharine sweet words across bloodless lips. The raven haired witch's pallor had turned gray and her skin was drawn so tight across her bones, she gained an uncanny resemblance to Voldemort at his worst times. "I'm going to squeeze the life out of you. Softly. Gently. I'm going to watch you filthy, diseased piece of shit struggle until you give your last fucking breath and then I'm going to rip your dirty flesh with my bare hands before I drag you down to hell with me."

Bellatrix was so close the brunette could feel her sweet, quickened breath against her cheek. Shivering, the young woman weakly tried to ease the pressure of the whip around her neck, but the black material was drawn tighter with a snap. Hermione's breath started to rattle.

"Not... my - fault," she croaked in a last attempt at pleading.

Her adrenaline heated body was pushed against an ice-cold mirror by the dark witch's frame. "Just die, you bloody Mudblood. Die and rot here. Not even the rats are going to want the trash your flesh is made of."

Tighter. No oxygen was passing through her strangled windpipe and her body started to heave, lungs desperately pumping for air. Hermione fought, scratching her nails at whatever uncovered spot of Bellatrix she could reach, her fist even finding purchase in the other woman's ribs. But the former Death Eater was as immune to pain as she was to insults, simply flipping the taller woman's body around and pressing her cheek first against the mirror, holding her there with the strength of a predator.

Black and white spots began dancing in front of Hermione's vision and she was beginning to get desperate.

I don't want to die like this! First you save me, then you kill me yourself. Spit ran down the side of her mouth as she forcefully tried to inhale, again and again. This is crazy! What world am I in?

All the weeks of training. All the effort she had made to understand this lunatic. All those years lost fighting the war. Was it all in vain?

Her wand. Dear god, she still had her wand.

Close to unconsciousness and acting on autopilot, she pressed the weapon with trembling fingers at the mirror and closed her eyes tightly, attempting a non-verbal Reducto.

The glass wall next to her shattered into a million pieces, cutting into her cheeks and clothes, but mostly creating more show than damage. Bellatrix lurched back with a shriek, the whip around Hermione's neck getting lax. Throwing herself forward, the cord left her completely as she crashed to the ground a meter or two to the side, nearly vomiting from how greedily she sucked in the available air.

Once more her training these last weeks proved invaluable as she pushed her shaking legs into motion, running in the general direction of the doors. Behind her, the pure-blood had not yet stopped shrieking atrociously and as the brunette threw a glance over her shoulder, she caught a glimpse of the dark witch conjuring what looked awfully like...

Oh, fff... Fiendfyre.

Running for her life, the roar of the living flames pushed the Gryffindor forward faster. Heat and fire licked at her back when she was only a few steps away from her freedom and with an attempt born out of desperateness, Hermione threw her body against the closed doors, hitting the wood with a dull impact.

They crashed open, spilling her out on the floor where she rolled several feet and tucked in every appendage as the Fiendfyre spit and hissed above her, hungrily searing hair and fabric.

But the doors of the Room of Requirement slammed shut the same way as last time. Effectively saving the young witch from both the awful fire and its creator.

Hermione pushed herself onto her back with a groan and didn't move anymore for several minutes. Maybe it was her imagination, but she would swear she could still hear the high, screeching note of Bellatrix's screams coming through the vanishing door.

She was still alive. That meant Bellatrix was able to control the flames born from dark magic.

Maybe I should permanently switch from my rooms to the infirmary. I think I can rent the bed there by now.

When she felt able to, the Gryffindor dragged herself down the floors. Offering no explanation to Madame Pomfrey was answer enough for the school nurse and she treated the young woman with her usual care. And of course called McGonagall the second she was finished.

"Miss Granger, by Merlin, what happened to you? Your neck..." The Headmistress rushed to her side in distress, taking a closer look at the white bandages around the brunette's neck.

"It's my fault this time, professor," the younger witch croaked out, grimacing at the ache in her throat. "I guess I went too far with Bellatrix."

"Have you looked at yourself, girl? What 'going too far' deserves this kind of treatment?" the teacher asked outraged. "When you said 'I can handle her' I trusted you could! This is unacceptable!"

"Things got personal. Really, really personal. I don't even know what happened..." Hermione explained the accident as best as she could, but left out details of Bellatrix's past, simply mentioning that what she had seen had come from the former Death Eater. The older woman listened patiently to every detail, wondering out loud at one point that the unusual Legilimency reversal had probably something to do with the strong magic of the Unbreakable Vow disrupting the spell.

"And then she... snapped. I was scared to death, but I understand why it happened. Accidentally, I hurt her where she is most vulnerable. She was ready to kill herself with me, it had to hurt her just as deeply." Taking another sip from an ice-cold glass of water soothed the burning in her throat that came from speaking so much.

McGonagall took off her glasses, glancing at her charge with a shake of her head. "Miss Granger... if I didn't know you and your need to help the hapless creatures in this world, one could think you have gone off the deep end, too."

Hermione grinned sheepishly. "I guess I need to be a little mad to attempt something like that."

"Aren't you the least bit angry at Madame Black's attempt to end your life?"

"Angry? Very much." Leaning back against the fluffy cushion, she mulled the situation over in her head. "But... as I said. I can understand her reaction. I... I think I may finally have touched the spot that took away what was once a normal human and created the monster we know today," she offered in a more quiet tone.

There was thoughtful silence for a minute or two, then Hermione felt her teacher lay a gentle hand on her forearm.

"Be careful with what you're trying to achieve. I may be Headmistress, but you are now a grown woman. I know you have your heart at the right place and I know you only want the best, but... be careful. That's all I ask. As a friend, not as a teacher. Today... it was too much of a close call."

Hermione smiled, thankful. Over her need to get to the root of the problem, she had forgotten once again that there were people out there who cared very much for her health and sanity. "Thank you, professor, for your care. I asked Bellatrix to worry about others for once in a while when doing something reckless..." She laughed, then coughed. "I guess I should follow my own advice more often."

"Please. It would have a lot of people sleeping much better these days." McGonagall mirrored her smile, then stood up from her chair. The worry was painting deep lines into her face and the brunette could imagine McGonagall wanted nothing more than to end the whole deal and keep her charge away from the madwoman. "Do you believe you're still in danger from Madame Black?"

"No, I don't think so. I guess she'll hide away for a while, but once she's cooled down, she will realise I had nothing to do with what happened. She's an awful character, but not stupid."

Despite her brave words, Hermione was not even remotely sure she would see the raven haired woman ever again. She could imagine very well that Bellatrix had been driven so far off the deep end she had spit on the Ministry's verdict and run away, going back into hiding from the Aurors.

She wasn't even sure she wanted to see the lunatic again herself. This last one really had been too much of a close call.

The Headmistress made a frustrated noise, rubbing her temple for a second before glancing back at her charge. "The court gave you the authority to make your own decisions about this... but if I'm informed of you landing in the infirmary again even one more time because of Madame Black's boundless temper, she had her last chance. It's already giving me an ulcer right now, this gamble of letting you proceed." The brunette lowered her head, nodding slightly at her teacher's words. One more time and no court in the world would keep Bellatrix out of prison ever again.

"Do you have one good reason why I shouldn't inform the Ministry right now?"

A good reason. A very good reason. Did she have one? She had to be crazy to consider this. "Those memories... you weren't there. What I saw... it will make a difference. I'm sure of it."

Silence.

"One last chance. I will take my leave and let you rest. Get better soon, Miss Granger."

Hermione thanked her teacher, who, in her opinion, had to be one of the most wonderful people this world had ever seen. She prayed to the heavens that she would one day be as poised, wise and understanding as the current Headmistress.

Ginny and Luna wanted to visit her, but after her talk with McGonagall, Madame Pomfrey imposed a strict no-talking ban. To show her distraught friends that she was fine and not on the brink of death, she waved at them from her bed with a bright smile, seeing the relief in their expressions.

The rest of the time Hermione spent thinking and sleeping. Wondering if she had gone too far, not just in pushing Bellatrix, but also in endangering her own health. Was she getting suicidal? Did she not take the danger Bellatrix illustrated serious enough?

Maybe... maybe distancing herself from the dark witch for a while, if she hadn't vanished completely, was the best course of action.

On the next morning, when she was busying herself with a big plate of breakfast, the school nurse brought her a thick letter. "This came for you a short while ago." She left Hermione to her reading and returned to her office.

Curious who might have written her, hoping silently that Ron had found his inner poet and had poured his heart out to his girlfriend, she was presented with an unfamiliar handwriting. Her eyes grew wide when she noted the sender.

Andromeda Tonks.

Hermione had never opened a letter so fast in her life.

'Miss Granger,

or, as I hope you will allow me to call you, Hermione. Nymphadora spoke a lot about you and your friends and I really have to thank you for everything you did for my family. I have had several talks with my younger sister and I know you were present at our reunion. I'm not angry as Narcissa is, I understand the curiosity of youth. I'm sure you didn't mean any harm.

She believes you have a certain connection to my eldest sibling. My dear, fragile Bella. The last few days, and if I'm honest, years, I thought about little else, especially when Narcissa came to me with the idea of telling you more about what made her who she is. Narcissa is right when she believes I know some things she doesn't, she was too young to remember or understand what happened.

I fought a lot with myself over this. If it's really a good idea to tell a stranger to our family about these secrets, but we have to begin somewhere. I saw how Bellatrix is today. I remember how she was before. I know she needs help. Badly. Narcissa and I need to push our pride and shame aside and finally start giving back what Bellatrix has lost for us.

And if there is a chance you can help... I cannot stand by and let it slip away.

Let me begin then with my mother, Druella. She is a very cold and very empty woman. These days, being stronger than I was as a teenager, I can say that she deserves pity for being born and married into the atrocity they call pure-blood families, without any choice in the matter. She was raised as a bargaining chip and asset, kept small all the time, as nearly all of the women are. For all the times she looked away and ignored what was going on, I know she had no other answer for what was happening and clung to the indoctrination given from parent to child since generations.

But it is my father you need to know about. Our father, Cygnus Black III., the son every pure-blood wizard would sell his own soul for. You should know it's Black tradition to birch your children and hold your offspring in line with a hard hand. Father grew up with like that and we were the next generation to suffer from it. What few people know though, is our father's job back then as Legilimens at the Ministry.

He always wanted the power and influence one could gain from becoming Master Legilimens, but he never reached the position, always being passed over for other, more talented colleagues.

But it was the perfect ability to make sure your children grew up as the perfect pure-blood examples. To keep your wife and offspring in perfect line.

I think you can already glean from these information how our childhood must have looked like, but all of this could be won from hints and facts given by other pure families practicing the same traditions. But what you need to understand is Bella's role in all of this.

I was maybe three years old when Bella angered my father. I don't know what brought it on, maybe it had to do with their differences in opinion, but my memory might be hazy. It's not a memory I wanted to think back on often. What I remember without fault is how he dragged her into the courtyard, close to where he kept his prized hounds, while I watched through a window. He whipped my poor sister repeatedly with his belt until she was horse from screaming and drenched in blood and... I don't think I ever felt such terror.

Cygnus was relentless in his parenting, controlling every move we made, even down to our very thoughts. We went along with it because we were children and helpless. Everyone, every family we came into contact with, approved. But the day he gave her this horrible beating, Bella changed and never returned to her old state. Their arguments would become heated every time they disagreed on something and my eldest sister made sure to rile father up as often as possible, as much as she could. My sweet Bella. You cannot possibly imagine the trials of our childhood. By becoming the willful daughter, she successfully kept his attention away from both me and Narcissa. Somehow Bellatrix had managed to find a way to block his Legilimency attempts and would drive him nearly mad with rage, causing him to torture his own daughter with an Unforgivable Curse.

It pains me to write this.

I feel so ashamed for what we did, but I have to admit how Narcissa and I hid behind Bellatrix's back all those years, using her as a willing shield to be left alone from the monster I have to call father. I couldn't stand the pressure and ran the moment my beloved, wonderful Ted offered me his hand, his safety. I paid for all those happy years I shared with my husband and daughter with my sister's own blood. Every day I stood up and looked into the mirror, I cursed myself for my weakness. I can't count how many times I cried out of shame for feeling so happy in my new life while my dearest Bella broke a bit more every day. She should never forgive me.

Hermione, I beg you. As Nymphadora's mother; as a friend you may not know very well. Bella became the monster my father once was, reveling in the pain of others to forget the one she went through. Making other people unhappy, because she never had that spark of hope and light in her life. I know from Cissy's retelling that Voldemort offered Bella a way out of her own hell by showing her his trust and how to adapt to a mindset of violence and killing. How could I blame her for accepting? How can I blame her for trying to pay the world back for all that was taken from her?

Please. Don't give up on her. She will make so many more mistakes and hurt you badly, but we, her own family, have all left her behind already once. You are the only chance she has for a normal life. I'm sorry. It's not fair of me to place this responsibility on the shoulders of a young woman such as you, but I don't see any other possibility to help my dearest strong, weak Bella.

She is the most remarkable woman I have ever known.

I send all my hope and prayers to you with this letter. Maybe, one beautiful day, my little Teddy can be held in my sister's arms without ever learning how much pain her hands can create. I wish you all that is well in the world.

With deepest appreciation,

Andromeda Tonks'

For hours Hermione stared numbly at the lines written by trembling fingers, many letters blurred by the now dry teardrops of their creator. When she finally folded the letter together, her own hands were still shaking.

Yeah. I think we learned a lot in this, uhm, monster of a chapter. I guess it's like opening the mystery jar and getting a glimpse of what might be in it.
Sorry for those who wanted Hermione to go full werewolf ;) Buuuut... this is kind of fodder for my plot bunnies. How about it, party people? Who wants to write a fic where Hermione becomes a werewolf and has to join Voldy (and Bella *purr*) because she feels like a danger to the light side? Or something? Pleaaase? Fics are my crack. I'd write it, but... first this one. Don't want to leave you hanging!

Chapter Text

10 days since the last update! Shame on me. But with one week of friends visiting and me becoming sick (a-freakin-gain...) my muse went into holiday. At least now I know my constant sickness seems to be all due to some underlying infect and the sun is shining brightly these days, soooo... things are looking up!
This is a very short chapter, but it's kind of a mental turning point after the last one. Don't worry, the next one is already revised and should be up soon as well (no 10 day break, at least!). At least I have time to answer you in detail. I wish there was a function that let you reply to your comments without having to put it in the story or into a PM...

silverxdoe: Thank you kindly! You are right, Hermione has experienced the Screams herself. And about that soft spot? Well, only time will tell... ;)

OpheliaBlack: I love exploring the friendship between Ginny and Hermione, it's a complete different level than what Hermione shares with the boys. Oh, Bellatrix's insanity actually does write itself. I imagine she is always, all the time, without pause this close to acting out and it often only needs a little push to make her fall over. There is consistency in madness, just that we don't always see or understand it ourselves. But if you like her that way, I'm entirely pleased 3

imperfectionisunderrated: Yeaaah... what happened in Hermione's mind during the Legilimency? Who knows? (I do, I do! Lalalalaaaa...) I thought Andromeda would call her father by her name to make it easier for Hermione, but my first draft had her not mention his name at all. Then I changed it. And yeah, the father is awful, good catch ;)

lemon-rind: Some like the romance, some like the characters, some like the humor... and you like the conflict. For some reason, I think that's totally awesome *laughs* (I can totally relate, by the way)

chloe: Thanks! Oh, that happens to me sometimes as well! Normally you only have to wait a few hours and the chapter shows up then. I don't really know why it doesn't show :(

iAxel: Oh please, no apologies necessary at all! :) It's the other way around, I need to thank you for being so nice and taking some time to comment! I agree, turning main characters into weres and vamps randomly in the middle of the story is so overdone, I never even considered the route. But woot for sharing head-canon! :D *high fives*

Mell: Writing the scene wasn't easy and had me pondering for a while, but I'm glad you like it! Thanks!

the enigma: And your lovely review is appreciated just as much, thank you! :)

Greyella: Damn, your review is more fascinating and flowing than what I could achieve in a whole story! :D But boy, thank you, I'm blown away by your words.

nyu: I wish I could reply to you per PM, I really do! First of all, thank you so much for the compliments. I'd love to hear what parts you liked most and which parts you thought weren't convincing and why, so I could look out for that in the future :) And yes, I'm not a native speaker. I hold your comment about me becoming a professional writer really dear, because that is a dream I have. I know I can't send in fanfiction and I wouldn't want to, because this is all just my gift to the fandom and a hope to inspire people to write more Bellamione X] But worry not, I have no less than three original stories I'm working on from time to time, so maybe one day... thank you again for your wonderful, sincere review!

CatsEyeShy: Hello dear, you can call me Kurai! And may I please bow down and kiss your feet? No, really, I'm serious. You win the 'most constructive review' award and I'm so glad and thankful to read it. And I would never ignore criticism, especially not one so well-worded. With the pronouns, you hit the nail on the head when addressing one of my biggest problems when writing a long fic, especially one where there are often two, if not three women in the same scene. Personally, I'm annoyed if I read fanfics where there are too many names or 'her/she' in one paragraph, so I'll try to keep diversity. I'm at a point though where even the few substitutes become repetitive X] I guess this is where my grasp of the English language fails me, because I have no good or new ideas. But your suggestions are very good and I will have a closer look at it after this chapter (I corrected this one before I read your review) and maybe I will find more appropriate ways to address them! Thank you for taking your time and doing this long review, it was awesome! :D

Rannon Silverthorne: Yes, a lot of the scars we read about in HP are most likely magically induced... but we don't know for sure. There is a canon gap here I wiggled my way in, so unless I hear about a scar reduction potion, I'll just go with 'Scars can't be healed yet' ;)

mazing: Wow, the excitement! :D Stockholm is a very loose and very badly researched condition, one that might not even really 'exist'. Then again, it also wasn't proven wrong. Maybe Hermione is just a good person who wants to help someone she thinks could be helped, even if her life is endangered that way ;)

Pandora'sMoon: Thank you, for both the comment and the rambling! :D I like reading people ramble, so don't worry! It's so sad when I read awesome stories and they just... stop. Then again, this is the first fanfic I have nearly written to the end and I have another one out there who is frozen at the moment. So I'd kinda be the pot calling the cattle black. Let's just say, I can relate if real life throws you into a loop, leaving you unable to finish your vision :( (Won't happen here, don't panic ;) )

I think the reviews might be longer than the chapter *chuckles* Please don't mind this, I love replying to you and keeping connected with the readers of the story. Thank you for your commitment to this everyone, every review means a smile on my face and a cherry on top for the time and effort I poured into this. I did it gladly! 3

16. Facing Crossroads

"Hitler, Stalin, Mao and other dictators were exposed to severe physical mistreatment in childhood and refused to face up to the fact later. Instead of seeing and feeling what had happened to them, they avenged themselves vicariously by killing millions of people. And millions of others helped them to do so." - Alice Miller

When Hermione was freed from her bed rest two days later and walking down the stairs to meet with her friends for breakfast, she readied herself to do something she hated immensely.

Hiding the truth.

Was it the right decision? Probably not. Hermione was already stuck in her own personal layer of hell, helpless between the two halves of her being who fought against another in this regard. The brunette didn't want to lie to the people trusting her, but she saw no other way to keep the fact of Bellatrix actively trying to kill her under wraps. Ginny would run up the wall with anger and who knew what she told Ron and Harry about it? There was no way her best friend would let things go on like this if she knew what the dark witch had done and how many lines she had crossed.

She would tell them the truth some day... but not now. Not after receiving the last letter hidden save away in her charmed bag.

"Hermione! Are you okay? What happened?" Ginny didn't fail to deliver her worry and Hermione felt even worse for having to betray such freely given caring.

"Our training went a bit... overboard. Looks like I need to get better," she answered with a wry smile and sat down at the table. "But I think I'm already improving a lot. Did I miss much of the schoolwork?" The brunette subtly tried to change the subject.

"No, no, it's all good. I'm sure you'll catch up soon, I took notes for you. Luna did too." Ginny was still eyeing her for signs of unease, but Hermione had effectively covered up the bruises on her neck and cheek.

"Oh, notes. I thought you said nose," Luna mused with a tilt of her head. "I thought it was a curious request, but if you ever need references of the noses of all your classmates, I have them all sketched down in my folder."

The older Gryffindor chuckled helplessly, while the redhead simply sighed deeply. "It's fine, Luna, but thank you anyway for the hard work."

"Good it was only noses," the Ravenclaw went on, skillfully cutting her toast into triangle pieces. "Feet would have been a problem. I don't think they would have wanted to pull of their shoes for me during the lessons."

"Just ask me again next time if my request seems weird to you," Ginny proposed with a smile. "It will leave you with a lot less work to do."

Hermione was happy her incident had been by-passed as easily like that. Unfortunately, her good luck had been depleted with that excuse and karma's answer came in the form of dozens of owls flooding the upper part of the Great Hall to deliver their baggage.

Ginny screeched with happiness when she saw the letter dropped inches from her pumpkin juice. "It's from Harry!"

Seconds later, another one fluttered down on Hermione's thankfully still empty plate and the brunette flushed with exhilaration at spying Ron's messy scrawl on the outside. "Ron send me one, too. Maybe they've found more Death Eaters."

With a smile on her lips, she began reading. Once again he gained points for effort for at least trying to write her like the girlfriend she was and not another good friend you could call 'Man!' every five lines. But the news he had for her were quite disappointing.

'...things are awful busy over here. We got leads everywhere, but those Death Eaters are bloody slippery. Kingsley asked us if we could keep going during the winter holidays, to make Christmas a tiny bit safer for all the folks at home, but said he understood if we wanted to take a break. But Hermione, you got to understand, Harry and me really want to make things better for everyone. We're so close! So we decided not to come home for the holidays. Man, Mom will be furious with us, but I'm sure you understand, don't you? If our efforts save someone from getting hurt, than that's much more important than exchanging embarrassing sweaters in the Burrow. Think about what happened to you! If those bastards weren't already in prison, I'd have set out to give them a lesson myself! I miss you something awful, Hermione, but we're important for this...'

Skipping over the other sentiments, Hermione let the letter sink down with a frown and found her own expression mirrored in the redhead's.

"They're not coming for Christmas," Ginny moaned out loud, slumping down against the table. "Harry wrote whom they are after in more detail. Want to take a look?"

The youngest Weasley had been quite right judging that Ron had left out most of the details and she took a quick read through the dark-haired boy's letter to find out more about the situation. Inadvertently reading over a more personal part of the writing, the young witch's mood got another blow by finding out that Harry had little problems expressing and phrasing his love and longing for his fiery haired girlfriend even in such a hurried note, while Ron literally weaseled himself out of clear statements. Yes, he might not be the most romantic of creatures, but a bit more effort would have been nice. They were together, for crying out loud, not in a platonic if very close relationship barely past the friendship stage.

Passing the parchment back to her best friend, the brunette glowered at the open letter before her.

The problem was, Hermione could understand their boyfriends. Duty was important and if they really caught some of the Death Eaters or other followers before they could dish out some trouble for unsuspecting, celebrating families, then it was a good deed indeed. Yet she had been looking forward to seeing her boyfriend and to getting away from the school for a while. Now the premise seemed incredible bleak to her.

"We could still go and celebrate with your family..." Hermione murmured doubtfully, but Ginny made a sour face.

"I'm not in the mood. Ah, who cares... let's just stay here for the Yule Ball; being Prefects and Head Girl and all will keep us busy enough with the preparations. We could as well stay the whole holidays," the younger Gryffindor grouched and grabbed something to eat from the middle of the table.

With Ginny staying in Hogwarts, the brunette saw no point in leaving for the Burrow. Of course, she could have gone and celebrated with her parents, but with Voldemort's followers still after her and Bellatrix, that wasn't the best choice of action. She didn't want to get her family into any more trouble after making them leave for Australia for nearly a year.

"Looks like we're staying here then. Let's make sure we inform everyone in time," Hermione offered with a sigh, her hunger gone for this morning.

But now she had another open end to deal with, which included finding and surviving a certain raven haired witch.

Bellatrix's room was empty when the brunette tried to find her after class. She also had no luck in the girl's lavatories (used or unused) and the Room of Requirement appeared as well, showing a vacated but scorched duelling room. Deciding on a whim, the young witch dressed herself in some warm clothes and marched out the school doors when night had set in.

While she sat and waited on the chairs in front of the gate leading to the Great Hall, Hermione let her eyes sweep over the darkened area. With some feeling of guilt she noticed that she hadn't visited Hagrid even once outside the normal timetable, only catching up with him whenever they talked before and after the lessons. But considering her free time was already packed full to the brim, he would surely forgive her for her lack of visits. Maybe she could ask the house elves if they would help her bake some Christmas cookies for the broad-shouldered man.

Watching the lights go out in the different towers and rooms was strange to see while sitting out here in the cold, quiet dark. Soon though, the young woman was fascinated with the clear view of the cloudless sky, where millions of stars shone with differing strength in all possible kinds of patterns. It was the sort of impression not even the greatest artist could capture on paper or film; it was a wonder you could only discover for yourself, with your own eyes.

Her gaze wandered a bit, then stuck to the moon.

Weird how an object in the sky can influence your mood and life like this.

The celestial body was beautiful tonight. Intense and shining brightly, then curving into a dark sphere that clung to its whiteness as if to embrace the light it reflected. Silent like this, looming above their world, the young woman could not deny its mysticism.

Captivating. And every werewolf's jailor.

Having no idea what time of the night it was, Hermione's waiting was rewarded when a figure blacker than the darkness around her marched silently up towards the castle.

The brunette was sure Bellatrix had seen her from afar, but the dark witch gave no indication of noticing the younger woman. It was when Hermione realized that the pure-blood was planning on simply passing her without a word, that she decided to intervene.

"Can we talk?"

Her charade of trying to ignore the Muggle-born broken, Bellatrix stopped a short distance away, in the middle of the stairs. She was a nearly formless shape, completely hidden inside her dark mantle with the hood dragged deep into her face.

"I have no idea what on earth we could speak about."

"Oh, now you start playing coy," Hermione retorted, rolling her eyes.

No answer.

"Okay, fine," the Gryffindor went on, slipping her hands around her knees and dragging them close. "If you don't want to talk, then I will."

There was a rustle of cloth as Bellatrix changed her stance. Somehow the former Death Eater accomplished to convey disinterest even without using her expression or body language.

"I'm sorry for what happened," Hermione quickly began, before the other woman could change her mind and vanish, "but I'm sure I'm not responsible for the... incident. Maybe the power of two Unbreakable Vows messed up the connection or... well, who knows. I didn't want anything like that to happen. My point is, I'm not really happy you tried to kill me, but... I forgive you for the try."

"My, aren't we altruistic today," the dark witch snarled. "I'm sure it must do a lot for your ego to feel so self-righteous and high above me."

"Come on, Bellatrix, you're better than that. Don't be so petty," the younger woman countered, not willing to let herself be talked down by the former Death Eater once again. "I know I saw things you didn't want me to see, but what's done is done. I know. And only our deaths can change that."

"I could erase your memories," Bellatrix suggested with a sly undertone, indicating she might already be pointing her wand at the other woman.

Hermione stayed calm. "I took counter measures against that, but considering you're a magic user of remarkable skill, it can be presumed you will achieve your goal in one way or another if you really wish to." She set herself upright a bit more. "But I think in all the months we've been connected so far, I have never given you even once the indication that I'm willing to betray you. That includes the personal knowledge I have of you."

Hesitation. "You... haven't told anyone? Not even your Weasel friends? The Boy-Who-Annoyingly-Can't-Stay-Dead?"

"McGonagall knows I have seen something in your mind, but not what. Or whom."

Bellatrix snorted and once again started pacing along the step she stood on. "I don't trust you. Maybe you're willing to keep the knowledge to yourself now, but in the end you're only waiting for the right moment. The right spot to use it to bring me down. No matter how goody-goody you appear the be, in the end everyone is selfish and egoistic when it comes down to it."

"Can't you muster a bit of trust for me at least this-..."

"No, I can't," the dark witch hissed at her, coming a few steps closer as if to mask the bleeding pain in her tone. "And I won't even try. Because those memories you saw? They are supposed to be mine and mine alone! I never planned on sharing this with anyone. Not any lovers, not my comrades, not even my sisters. You took something of my innermost privacy and I will never get it back, not even if I hex your brain until it's a blubbering vegetable! Wanted or not, you've become the greatest enemy of my lifetime, Mudblood, and I will find a way to make you pay for that, believe me."

"Bellatrix, isn't there anything I can do to prove-..." Hermione started, blood draining from her veins when faced with such hatred, but was interrupted once again.

"You can shut up, filthy girl. Even if you'd never talk to me again it would be too soon. Just keep on reaching out to me, you pathetic crud, it'll be a pleasure for me to beat you down to where you belong every. single. time."

With a loud and final swoosh of her mantle, the former Death Eater turned and marched up the stairs, leaving the younger woman behind in the freezing air.

It's more bark than bite. It has to be. Hermione breathed around the lump in her throat, hugging herself into tight ball. There had been some process since they had began living at Hogwarts. Bellatrix might not have been friendly with the Gryffindor, but they had, in Hermione's opinion, worked out a neutral relationship based on the necessity of both their survival. There had been no hint that the pure-blood would actively work against her after the school year was over and they went their separate way, but now it looked as if she had a dark shadow stuck to her shoulder for the rest of her life.

That frustrating, stupid, awful, narcissistic, egoistical... bitch! She didn't even feel comfortable cursing in her mind all too often, but she had to vent her problems somewhere. And Bellatrix was turning out to be a bigger problem than she had ever imagined, a darned problem she just couldn't let go of. What was compelling her so? Why didn't she reach out for help and make sure she didn't have to see the sadistic pure-blood for the rest of the school year? Or ever again?

The answer was hidden in the letter which she ripped out of her charmed bag once more, reading the elaborate lines and words for what seemed to be the gazillionth time.

Bellatrix had become the monster her father had been.

How many second chances did an individual deserve? How much was too much? Was she really the right person for trying to save Bellatrix from her self-destructive path?

Hermione paused.

When had 'finding out more' about the pure-blood become 'saving her'?

Drawing a shuddering breath, the brunette bowed forward until her nose was buried in the smell of ink and parchment.

Was she ready to make her own life a hell to try and change another one's?

Sometimes, being one of the good guys really, really sucks. Royally.

Maybe it was time for Hermione to understand herself first before beginning with someone else.

While writing this, I'm subjected to the comical way in which my cat runs around like crazy with a plush mouse, doing that amusing 'Death from above!'-attack that's normally reserved for young kittens and meowing because I'm not throwing her toy around for her to catch. So you see, her majesty has demanded my attention, I need to go play. Also, I forgot my original thought *laughs*
Evil preview for next chapter: Things get steamy...

Chapter Text

Another update, already! I'm spoiling you people :) But it was a good day, I nearly completely learned to juggle (which is the reason why every single part of my body huuurts) and I did promise a quicker update after the last long break!

List of Romantics: Hm, little old me can't please everyone it seems :) Sorry for that! I can understand the want for Hermione to hit back, but I actually like her more in the way that she doesn't retaliate fire with fire. Naughty sexy Bella on the other hand...and.. uh... high heels... stripping... *pause*... wait, where was I?

OpheliaBlack: Yeah, looks like Hermione made it to Number One on Bella's hitlist. Thing is, she knows it and that gives her an advantage. She also knows where Bella is vulnerable now. It's like walking through a minefield: She has an idea where the bombs are... but will she cross it or will she turn back around after coming so far?

imperfectionisunderrated: Bella is so creative, isn't she? *g* And the kitty's name is Chani. She is also known as 'Demon kitty', 'Devil Incarnate' and 'Assassin cat'... but she can be pretty cuddly if she wants to be ;)

Saikoh: Me? Evil?... Naaaah ;]

Trahern: Wow, I feel honored! No joke, really. Thank you! I hear the SCC Virtual season is supposed to be very good, so that's a huge compliment. I also remember you from KP Slash Haven :) I hope you like the rest of the story as well, especially since I'm turning to new ground with this chapter!

DoingTrix: Thank you, it's always nice to hear something like that from a fellow writer! I'll take a look at your work once I have the time :)

Ryoshu: I love sharing the few gray cells I own :D Thank you!

You are all so attentive! Your comments are such a nice way of showing care, so I'll try my very best to keep this interesting to you! Have fun with Steamy Chapter Numero Uno :D

17. Intoxication

"Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we often might win, by fearing to attempt." - Jane Addams

Molly Weasley had indeed not been happy that most of her children stayed away from home for Christmas, but, being the good nature she was, she wished them happy holidays anyway and promised they wouldn't be without presents on the 25th of December.

Winter rolled around with thick snow coverings and a chilling cold, which didn't keep the younger students from frolicking in the white frostiness and throwing snowballs at everything moving. The Great Hall's ceiling changed as well as the decorations in Hogwarts and a festival atmosphere rose in every hallway and room.

Hermione ran into Bellatrix seldom and, true to the dark witch's words, the other woman was being especially caustic whenever she and the brunette met by chance in their living room. It grated on the Gryffindor's nerves more than normally, as she didn't even have the festivities in the Burrow and her friends to look forward too.

So it was with no small amount of glee that Hermione caught up on the quickly confirmed rumors of Lucius Malfoy being sent back to his Manor under 'house arrest', because she knew how up the wall it would drive his sister-in-law. For all Lucius had done during the Second War, it was a considerably light sentence: having to stay in his home for the next ten years under constant surveillance unless he gained special allowance to leave for any occasion, as well as paying a hefty fee to the war survivors and the Ministry. Hermione nearly swooned at the amount of zeros the amount contained. To say the Malfoys were filthy rich had been an understatement from the second she met them. On top of that, if Lucius were to ever run guilty of a misconduct again, it would be a straight way to Azkaban for him.

But the knowledge of the blonde Death Eater returning to Malfoy Manor also got through to the dark witch, probably by notice of her delighted sister, and it showed in the frustrated way Bellatrix stomped around every time she left her room. Hermione had the slight hunch she wouldn't get a respite from the pure-blood now.

Instead the brunette threw herself into her workload. Ginny had been right on the spot with her assumption of much coming up and with the Yule Ball only days away, there were preparations to make for the students arriving from Beauxbaton and Durmstrang, as well as beginning the voting for the school representative: the Hogwarts champion.

It was no surprise to anyone in the school but the winner herself that Hermione Granger won with almost more than half of the collected votes. Her best friend jumped up and down in glee and had to force the brunette out of her shocked, flustered stupor so she could accept the congratulations from both students and teachers alike.

With herself kept busy by everything going on, the time went by quickly. McGonagall had the Head Girls and Boys closely working with her to fulfill this year's vision of the festivity. When most students left on the morning of the 23th, she forced a free day on her helpers and advised them to use the chance to deal with their own preparations for the Yule Ball.

Ginny grabbed the chance to drag Hermione with her for a visit to Diagon Alley, where they could take a look at what dresses to wear for the dance. "You're School Champion! You need something much more special than last Yule Ball."

The older Gryffindor was less sure about such a choice. "I liked my dress. I felt pretty."

The redhead rolled her eyes. "Yes, and that's the point. You were pretty. I mean, it looked great and all, but now you're eighteen and Hogwarts' representative and you really need to go make Beauxbaton's girls green with envy."

She chuckled at her friend's sudden and fiery vigor. "What made you so competitive, Ginny?"

"Nothing but the fact that our idiot boyfriends have better things to do than take a free day to go to the Yule Ball with their respective better halves," Ginny grumbled, although she shared Hermione's view of respecting the boys' choice of hunting their enemies. Even more now that her best friend had been attacked on Hogwarts' own school grounds. "When they see us on the photos they will wish for nothing more than turning back time to be with us that night. We'll make them and every other boy in the school drool with desire - just leave it to me!"

Fearing the worst, Hermione complied only with hesitancy. Ginny forced her into one revealing dress after another, getting more outrageous with her choices - as with every garment, the cloth got more sparse and the price went up. Until Hermione snapped, already bright red from the things her best friend suggested. She finally put her foot down when the shopaholic pulled free different sorts of garter belts.

"Okay, stop. No more! Find me a dress that doesn't show more skin than my bathing suit or you can go shopping for the rest of the day on your own!"

Ginny pouted but relented grudgingly. And suddenly her choice in dresses became much more tasteful now that she didn't go overboard anymore. She was even the one who found the beautifully styled attire that Hermione felt comfortable enough to wear, while appearing both decent and still alluring.

When the redhead also found a garb fitting her interests and bought it with her own money, both women sought out suitable accessories and went back to the school with lighter purses and raised excitement for the coming Yule Ball.

With the other schools coming to Britain much later this year than during the Triwizard Tournament, there was an exception to the rule of having to bring a date for the dance as no one had time to really get to know the other students well enough. That sat well with the two friends, as it would have been weird to find someone going with them when they were actually already taken.

On the morning of the fated 25th, Hermione found a load of presents at the end of her bed. There was of course a self-made sweater from Ron's mother, made of red wool and with yellow applications on the cuffs and both other openings of the piece of clothing. A roaring, yellow lion was on the front, finalizing the Gryffindor look the sweater gave off. It was surprisingly beautiful and warm-looking, so she made a mental note to rub it in Ron's face that his mother had quite the talent hidden when creating their Christmas presents. There was some more from her parents, a small gift from Luna and, suprisingly, even souvenirs and flowers from Harry and Ron, as well as other small regards from different friends.

The Great Hall was bursting with anticipation this morning, everyone talking with their schoolmates or the foreign visitors about the coming evening. Hermione was almost sad to note she wouldn't be able to visit the other schools the next year and the year after, as she would be finished with her education.

Finally it was time for the two women to get themselves ready. When the brunette got her things to leave for Ginny's room, where they would help each other with their clothing and hair, she passed by a smirking Bellatrix leaning against her door frame.

"Aw, how cute. The muddy making herself presentable for a bunch of pimple-faced boys. Want to get down and dirty with someone, deary?"

"I'll have you know I'm School Champion," the brunette shot, not in the mood for an argument scratching at her self-esteem. "And as you very well know, I'm already taken."

"Oh, I know all about your pretty, useless title," the dark witch drawled, walking a lazy circle around the younger woman. "And being taken doesn't exclude having some secret... fun on the side."

"Just because you've been unfaithful to your husband doesn't mean I have to follow your example. Actually, you're a great reason why I shouldn't do so," Hermione growled. She turned away, gathering her things while Bellatrix watched on with a chuckle.

"Ah, feisty. Oh, how you wound me." The pure-blood placed both hands theatrically over her heart and faked a look of hurt. "Aren't the young ones supposed to listen to their elders?"

"You're the one famous exception to the rule," Hermione snapped, throwing her packed bag on the sofa and leaning towards the smaller woman. "And believe me, I'm quite sure I'm going to have a wonderful evening without your constant, childish nagging. Have a good night stuck alone in your room, Bellatrix."

With that she left the dark witch behind, only at the last second keeping herself from slamming the door on the way out the same way the other woman tended to do. Then returned five seconds later with a bright red face to snatch up her forgotten bag, wishing for some miracle to wipe the darned smirk of Bellatrix's lips as she hurried outside once more.

Three hours later, Hermione stood in a darker hallway, right in front of the threshold separating her from the Yule Ball. Hesitating, she clutched her bag.

"What's wrong? Come on, let's go," Ginny urged her on, placing a hand on her upper arm. "Don't worry, you really look beautiful."

Did she? Maybe she did.

Stepping forward with a deep breath, Hermione presented herself and her white, tight-hugging dress to the student world.

The cloth was cut similar to a Greek toga, with one shoulder covered and the other left bare. A cut on the skirt reached up to her knees and the neckline was deeper than she was used to, skirting the edge of modesty. Completing the outfit where simple white pumps, a silver chain around her neck and the white bag she held tightly in her fingers. Ginny had forced her hair into obedience, so her brown strands fell in shining waves down her slightly exposed back.

Several young people walking up and down the stairs stopped and stared, some of the boys even forgetting they had jealous dates hanging on their arms. Ginny, dressed in forest green with a shorter skirt than Hermione and with both shoulders covered, giggled next to her as a Slytherin boy unknowingly dribbled fruit punch on his suit while ogling the School Champion.

Almost no one of those present, save a few repeating their seventh year, had seen Hermione during the first Yule Ball, most having been too young during that time to attend. So for the whole student body it came as a shock to see their dutiful, hard-working Head Girl looking like a fashion model and displaying quite a figure.

The teachers and house elves had gone all out in decorating the Great Hall. They had used warm Christmas colors mixed with the snow and ice of the current season. Giant chandeliers colored everything in a golden glow and the floor shone and reflected every motion, as if people were dancing on a well polished plate of gold. It was ingenious and artful, promising every visitor a wonderful evening of song and dance.

After she had gently turned down the fifth boy asking her for the next dance, the Gryffindor felt quite comfortable in her skin. Just like the last time she had appeared on the Yule Ball, the knowledge of being desirable to each and every male object in the Great Hall was a good push for the ego and for once she debauched in the good feeling of being wanted. Her redheaded friend was off in the distance moving on the dance floor with a nice, young man from Beauxbaton. Ginny went through dance partners quicker than some changed their drinks, ensuring that not even one of them got his hopes up when she left them standing behind after the music ended.

Hermione soon found herself drawn into a conversation with two of her class mates, who exchanged pleasantries with a duo of friendly young men from Durmstrang, with both sides asking interest-filled questions about how their school and education differed from the other.

"Is it true you are still teaching the Dark Arts where you come from?" Hermione's school mate, Jessica, asked with big eyes.

"Oh, no, no. It vos done under our last Headmaster, Karkaroff," one of the foreigners answered with a shake of his head. "But now, with Master Stoichkov in charge, it is forbidden for us to learn. Ve are as opposed to them as you are."

"I can't imagine living there," the other girl answered, shuddering. It was one of the Gryffindor girls the former Death Eater and her had saved from Greyback and his consorts some weeks ago. "I heard it's very cold there. I'm sure I'd freeze the whole year long."

"Ah, ve have vays to keep warm," the other Durmstrang boy replied, laughing. He was small and slim, but handsome with a dark shock of hair and friendly eyes. "No girl has to freeze vhere we live."

"Hermione," the other girl, Maria, whispered into her ear as Jennifer giggled at the good-looking boy, "that's Ansgar, Durmstrang's School Champion. Isn't he handsome?"

"Uh...yeah, sure," the brunette answered awkwardly, her presence noted by the two Norwegian looking boys. "Welcome to Hogwarts. I hope you're having a great evening?" Hermione quickly shifted gears, falling back into her role of Head Girl.

"Ah, the famous Hermione Granger, right?" Ansgar moved closer, gently taking her hand and placing a kiss inches above her knuckles. "How beautiful you are. You're pictures in the newspaper don't do you any justice, don't they, Fredrik?" He winked at her with amusement once he was upright again. The red robes of Durmstrang fit him like a glove.

"Not at all, not at all. But all women here in Britain seem to be very pretty," the assumed Fredrik replied, grinning at Hermione's schoolmates. The blonde boy was not as attractive as his friend, but enough to have the two blushing.

"I think it would be wonderful to study in a different country," Jessica mused with a sigh. "But you don't accept Muggle-borns, don't you?"

"We didn't, before the war," Fredrik corrected, smiling at them. "Much changed. I'm sure you vould all be velcome to finish your studies at our vonderful school."

Disinterested in the topic of Muggle-borns, Hermione wanted to excuse herself, but found Ansgar standing right next to her, with a curious, inquisitive expression. Deciding not to be rude, she began a conversation with him and found the other boy to be quite smart and charming, without pushing his interest on her too much.

Ron, please take a leaf out of the book of such men. Please? She had no interest whatsoever in 'having some fun on the side', as Bellatrix had expressed it, but there was also no reason to be rude to a friendly young man like Ansgar. She found herself having fun and the already jealous glances thrown her way intensified tenfold now that she had Durmstrang's handsome Champion hanging on her every word.

Ansgar was telling her about the school grounds and subjects taught outside his school's walls, when he caught a glimpse at something on her arm. "Oh? Is that a scar from the war?... Are those letters?" He turned his head, trying to get a closer look.

The Gryffindor skin felt first too hot, then ice-cold, as she remembered the shameful scar on her arm. Only the werewolf bite was covered by the dress' one shoulder strap. She had once told she was proud of being Muggle-born, a 'dirty Mudblood', but maybe her words had been spoken in a heated moment. Cursing her temperament and pressing her forearm closer against her side, she grinned nervously.

"It's... that's only a small scar, nothing much. Many who fought in the war took something like this from it. One of my schoolmate's even got attacked by a werewolf..."

Before she could go on to try and distract him further, something else had more luck in doing that. Hermione realized there was a rising commotion around them. From one moment to the other people started whispering and murmuring, everyone turning in the direction of the stairs. There were even a few shocked gasps.

Ansgar and Hermione both took a confused look around before following the interested gazes to the point of origin. "Min Gud," the Durmstrang Champion commented in his mother tongue with raised eyebrows.

What she spotted felt like a punch to the brunette's gut.

"This can't be happening..."

On the top of the stairs stood Bellatrix, draped on the arm of a well-dressed, seventh-year Slytherin.

The older witch was like a dark mirror to Hermione's own appearance, showing off an incredible detailed and elaborate black dress with a slit up to the middle of her tights. Her pale shoulders were left free, with a very, very low sash of cloth covering her front and winding around her upper arms. Bellatrix was, of course, wearing her trademark high-heeled boots. Her normally crazy mess of hair was tamed into a waterfall of the most glorious of black curls this world had yet seen, running down the front of one shoulder down to her hips and hiding the Azkaban tattoo on her neck, just as the long, inky black satin gloves hid the scars on her wrists.

Once everyone had turned to see what the ruckus was about, silence started settling across the hall. Even the teachers seemed stumped by the sudden entry, glancing at the former Death Eater with slack jaws.

Hermione, herself unable to breathe in her state of shock, wondered if they were speechless due to the fact of seeing the infamous Bellatrix Black in person... or because the pure-blood was absolutely breath-taking in her attempt of recreating the look of a seductive succubus.

Gossip erupted between the students as Bellatrix and her 'date' walked down the stairs in slow, royal elegance, moving past people without a glance, radiating the kind of dignity that placed them oh so high above everyone else in the room. Ansgar was following their way while blinking dumbly.

"Is... that one of the students?"

"No," Hermione ground out while gnashing her teeth in rising fury. "Absolutely not. Excuse me for a second."

The Head Girl had reached the dark witch almost at the same time as McGonagall, who was already questioning the eldest Black about her decision to come to the Yule Ball.

"Madame Black, this is a student ball. What on earth has driven you to come down here, dressed like this? And going out with a student less than half your age nonetheless!" The Headmistress wasn't any less angry than Hermione and her green eyes sparked like a furnace.

"No one said only students and teachers could attend. I'm currently a visitor of this school, why shouldn't I be allowed to come here?" Bellatrix smiled slyly. "Oh, and this? It's family. What was your name again, honey?"

"Ned, ma'am," the stoic, blond Slytherin replied dryly.

"Ah, yes. Ned. Remind me to write your mother a letter about her choice of names. But to get back on topic, Ned is a distant cousin of the Black family and as a responsible elder member it's my duty to make sure he doesn't get into any trouble. Or would this be a problem, professor?" The dark witch tilted her head and blinked her eyelids, covered in heavy, dark make-up and making her skin appear like the whitest snow in a sweet, innocent way that contradicted everything Bellatrix stood for.

"If I see you raising any kind of trouble, you are out these doors sooner than you can draw your wand, Madame Black, be assured of that. I don't want you ruining the students' evening, have I made myself clear?"

"Oh, rest be assured that I'll be on my best behaviour tonight," the pure-blood replied with a thin smile. "Go on, Ned, go play with your friends. I'm sure they wouldn't want me, an old, boring hag, butting into your conversations."

Despite her reputation, most of the young men in the Great Hall seemed to want quite the opposite of that, never mind that in her current outfit and fresh, young body, there was not one who would combine 'old, boring hag' and 'Bellatrix Black' in the same sentence. McGonagall was unhappy with the events, but couldn't throw the other woman out without a good reason or without making a scene.

So the dark witch stayed. Bellatrix, while sauntering over to the buffet, threw a vicious smirk in Hermione's direction, which had the younger woman clench her fists until her palms hurt from the pressure. Only when Ginny touched her shoulder did she look away.

"This... this stupid cow!" the brunette hissed, unable to calm herself down. "She didn't give any, any impression that she wanted to show up like this! That's why she was waiting so long in her room and hiding away, she wanted to reveal her new self in a big, fancy scene. And, at the same time, ruin my good evening!"

"Calm down, Hermione, before you pop a vein. Look, it's not so bad," the redhead tried to calm her down, though she threw equally dirty looks at the other witch's back. "Just stay in different parts of the room and you'll be fine. The Great Hall is big enough for the two of you."

Ginny proceeded to led her friend back into a sort-of state of tranquility and even coaxed her into keeping her mind of the scene by having a few dances. The first boy trying his luck didn't leave her waiting for long and soon Hermione found herself occupied on the dance floor, trying to loose herself in the music and motions. She even ran into Luna, dressed in all the colors of a Christmas tree and swaying happily to the sound of the music all by herself.

Three dances later, the young woman had managed to calm herself down only partially, as every time she spotted the dark witch she had gathered a crowd of young men around herself, whom she entertained by flirting and talking. Hermione hadn't expected that Bellatrix could be so social if she wanted to be, particularly in a room full of 'pimple-faced' teenagers, to use the dark witch's own description. But the former Death Eater was the attraction of the evening and the final straw had been reached when she saw Ansgar standing close to the raven haired woman, laughing at something she had just commented on.

Hermione wanted to flee the hall when the pair turned their heads to her, making it clear she was the amusing topic of discussion.

Quickly rushing over to the buffet to get something cool to drink and calm her strained nerves, she had a hard time fighting her way over to the fruit punch bowl. When she took a large gulp of the red liquid, it ran down her throat with a weird aftershock of prickly burning.

A hand grabbed her upper arm and dragged her a few feet aside. "Hermione, watch out," Maria whispered into her ear, "someone spiked the punch. The teachers don't know yet."

"Is it anything bad?" she quickly inquired as the blood drained from her face. What if she had swallowed some kind of love potion?

"No, just plain alcohol, but please, please don't tell anyone! We're having so much fun! I don't know who did it, but it's finally loosening the boys' tongues a bit. But don't drink too much, otherwise McGonagall will end the ball right away." The other Gryffindor girl winked at her, then went back to her own group of people, leaving the brunette to stand alone in the crowd.

Someone was watching her. It felt like glowing spikes attacking her neck.

Turning, Hermione found herself caught by Bellatrix's dark gaze, the other witch reclining at the other side of the room. Even from here, the Gryffindor could clearly make out the pure-blood's supercilious grin. Then she mouthed the word 'prude' and the challenge was on the table.

Several thousand warning bells were ringing in Hermione's mind. This was going to end badly. This was against... more rules than she was able to count in her current, distracted condition. And the gulp of punched drink she had taken burned warm and exhilarating in her stomach.

Don't do it. You shouldn't do it. It's a really, really bad idea-... oh, for the love of, I'm done with cowering.

Not taking her eyes away from the other woman, Hermione downed her drink in a few, large swallows. Then raised her chin smugly and licked the last drops from her lips.

Bellatrix threw her head back and disturbed some of her admirers by laughing delightedly.

Half an hour later, the brunette realized dimly it had been one of her more stupid actions. The warm glow in her belly had become a queasy feeling and, not being used to even the slightest doses of alcohol and without having eaten anything beforehand, the toxin had gone straight into her bloodstream to fill her head with wool.

It was so warm. Hermione was unsure if she was only intoxicated or full out drunk, but she was apparently able to walk straight lines, so with a bit of luck it was only the former. Her lips felt slightly numb and the golden light of the chandeliers seemed too bright. All the forms and edges around her looked more sharp and bright and real, too real, as if she was walking wide awake through a dream world.

Afraid of her own state, the Gryffindor tried to find her best friend, but everything was a bit too loud and it was getting harder to make your way through the people, who were loosening more and more as well with every passing minute. Suddenly feeling suffocated with all the chatting and laughing students around her, the young woman felt her heart rate spike with momentary panic.

Away. I have to get away.

She found her way blindly to a quiet, shadowy spot on the side where the column met the corner of the wall. There she placed a hand against the hard surface, quickly followed by her burning forehead. The cool, smooth stone slab drained some of the heat from her skin and she stayed with her back pointing at the students for a few moments until the rushing noise between her ears had calmed down and allowed her to hear her own thoughts again.

In. Out. In. Out. Breathe.

Hermione felt so tired she wanted to become one with the gray wall she was leaning against. The way to the top of the tower seemed like an endless journey in her condition. Please, please, please don't let McGonagall find me like this. I'm going to die with humiliation. And shame. And guilt.

In the end, maybe the Headmistress would have been the better choice.

"Now look at that. Aren't we feeling so well?"

Groaning at that well-known, sickly sweet tone of voice, the brunette slowly rolled herself around until her shoulder blades were flush against the stone, then glared at the raven haired woman.

"This is all your fault. Couldn't get the boys to frolic around with you while they were sober?"

Bellatrix smirked, gloved palms placed on her cocked hips. "Oh, jealous about my appeal to the guys? Why, did you want a little alone time with that pretty boy Ansgar?"

Outraged, Hermione set to give her an angry retort, but the dark witch chuckled and came closer. "Don't be so furious, deary, you should thank me. I thought bringing a bit of spice to the party would loosen them up for you."

"You spiked the punch?"

"Don't be stupid, of course not." Bellatrix waved the accusation off with a flick of her head. "McGonagall has been watching me like a hawk since the last two hours, but luckily she was so distracted by dear old me that Ned could have danced naked on the buffet without catching any notice. But now she's finally given me some space because of the teenagers behaving weirdly."

"Well, thank you for your help," Hermione snapped, "but I'm perfectly fine on my own. Once again, I'm taken. I'm not going to hurt him by making out with another boy."

"Ah, there's the virgin talking." That sat. The brunette pressed her lips together tightly, ashamed and enraged at this topic, but Bellatrix had licked blood and wouldn't let up. "You're so prudish and uptight not even the booze can loosen the stick up your ass. Believe me, it would do wonders for your self-confidence if you'd let someone pop that bookworm cherry of yours."

"Just... shut up. I'm not a whore like you."

The other woman snickered. "How cute, is that all you can throw at me? You're only jealous because as a mature woman I can wrap every guy thrice as easy around my little finger than you can ever hope to achieve."

Hermione turned her head away, glancing unseeing at one of the heavily hung Christmas trees. "I told you, I don't care. Go ahead, take every boy you want. You're the one who has to deal with McGonagall in the end." The alcohol was rearing its head again, strengthening the buzzing behind her eyes and in her veins.

"You don't mean that, my pet," a devious whisper murmured into her ear, causing the younger woman to stiffen. When had the dark witch come so close? Was she starting to get black outs? "What, not even a tiny, icky bit of frustration at my charming ways? Why, one could believe you weren't even interested in doing the dirty with boys."

The brunette's gaze snapped back to the pure-blood. Heat pooled in her insides as she found herself faced with the smooth skin of the other woman's shoulder... and the barely hidden flesh below. Her mouth went dry.

"T-that's a lie... don't be ridiculous. I love Ron," she countered, scared at how meek her voice sounded.

"I love Ron," the dark witch mocked in a too high tone that barely held back the cruel delight the pure-blood was feeling. Bellatrix's left hand found its way to a spot next to Hermione's ear and then she edged even closer.

The Gryffindor could feel the older woman's warm, subtle body press close to her side, effectively trapping her against the wall. Although unseen, the black dress was reinforced with a corset-like, harder part in the middle, which now dug deliciously into Hermione's too hot skin. Her heart pounded in her eardrums like thunder.

"Tsk, tsk... sure you're not talking yourself into a safe corner, my pet? You know, maybe I'm much more open than you think - interested in taking a bite of a forbidden fruit? I'm sure with another woman it's not even cheating... Ronny might even be delighted." By now, Bellatrix was breathing the words alluringly mere inches away from the brunette's mouth.

"N-no," the brunette whispered desperately.

Yes, yes! something in the back of her head screamed frantically.

Hermione had her closest look yet at the former Death Eater. The cool, porcelain skin was without blemish and the free amount of it almost dared the viewer to touch. The make-up enhanced the unique cut of the shape of her face, sharp jawbones, high cheekbones. Her ensnaring dark eyes, heavy-lidded and so, so captivating.

And her mouth. God, that mouth.

Full, ruby red lips, glistening softly in the light of the candles on the Christmas tree. They were half-open and the warm, moist breath slipping free caressed Hermione's own dry lips with every heave of the distracting bust pressing against the brunette's side.

Hermione's small, alcohol-tinted world was filled to the brim with Bellatrix Black, her smell, her warmth, her texture, and right this second she wanted to be nowhere else but here, where every touch seared itself deep into her flesh. Her pulse was so loud it drowned out everything but their own harsh breathing.

She forgot where she was. Who she was. There was only Bellatrix.

Was this arousal? Passion?

One kiss. She only wanted one kiss.

Her muscles braced themselves to lean forward and capture the temptation in front of her. Yet before Hermione could budge an inch, the pure-blood surged back with a cruel laugh and left the sweat-drenched woman's skin to feel like it had been covered in frost.

"So flustered! How very amusing and so, so pathetic... well, you missed your chance, but you know what? I'm not the least interested in touching a Mudblood like you. Now this nice dress has to be burned because you soiled it with your dirty, ramshackle figure." Bellatrix made a show of cleaning the front of the black cloth, then dragged her fingers through the dark mass of hair. "Dirt like you is better left with blood-traitors like the Weasel family."

"Go to hell," Hermione stuttered out, unwilling to leave the last word to Bellatrix once again. But she was drunk and the other woman was a master at mind games. What a foolish battle.

Her enemy surged forward again, pressing her sharp cheeks against Hermione's to hiss into her ear,"I do so love making your life hell. And here I was so looking forward to making fun of your failed, drunken first-time, but, ah well... I had enough amusement for the night."

And with that she left Hermione standing there rigid and miserable, fighting back waves of shame until she had caught herself.

I have to get away from here. Oh god, I-... Ginny. Ginny!

The intoxicated woman was aimlessly making her way through the hall at the same time the teachers found the origin responsible for their students' weird behavior. There was a ruckus at the buffet table, but Hermione was still shouting her best friend's name in distress until the redhead suddenly appeared at her side.

"Hermione, what's wrong? I could hear you from halfway across the... -wait, are you all right?" Worried eyes glanced at her as the redhead grabbed both her upper arms.

"Ginny... I... I'm drunk. Please... get me out of here," Hermione pleaded desperately.

"But... how-... you drank the punch?" Ginny looked like she wanted to ask more, but the distraught state of her friend had her change her attitude to 'actions first, questions later'.

It was clear the Yule Ball was over, as the alerted and angry teachers started to move through the crowd of the students to find the perpetrator of the binge session and began sending students to their respective towers or tents outside. The redhead managed to slip them out silently with the crowd and hurried with a wobbly Hermione up the stairs to the common room of the Gryffindor tower.

The brunette's mind was a scrambled mess and she was unable to form a clear thought; whether due to the alcohol or her stress level was not important. Getting somewhere safe was. The next minutes were a formless blur, the drunk woman not even quite registering how Ginny helped her change into a pyjama top, then placing her safely into her bed. Only when Hermione felt surrounded on all sides by soft, fluffy cloth and the darkness of her room did she relax her tense body, slipping right into a disturbed sleep.

Pain.

That was the first thing that came to her mind when Hermione regained consciousness. A pounding headache had snuck into every corner of her brain, infesting even the smallest crevice to make her morning as horrible as possible.

She felt miserable when she swung her legs out of the bed, slightly sick to the stomach as if she had not eaten well the day before. On the Yule Ball.

What the heck had happened that night?

Hermione remembered feeling angry and annoyed and somehow she must have drunk something to cause the poor state she was in. Otherwise, there was a cut from when she had danced with the boys to... now? On her bedside table, she found a glass of water, a potion and a card with Ginny's handwriting stating "Got you back safely. Get well soon!".

The message eased her agitation tremendously and the brunette thanked all possible gods to have gained such a caring, reliable friend. Downing the foul-tasting potion against her pain (pills in the Muggle world were one thing they had over the Wizarding world) and quickly rinsing with the water, she found herself at least feeling like a human being again.

Still somewhat hungover - and surprised she would ever experience such a condition - she went into the bathroom to freshen up. Getting the make-up off her face would do wonders for her frame of mind.

Whatever I did, it was stupid.

Her body was on automatic while it did the usual cleaning for her, her thoughts somewhere far in the distance as she thought about all and nothing. Was she required to show up early to see the other schools off? Hopefully not, for once she wasn't glad to own the status as Head Girl. Maybe McGonagall would be lenient after the stress of yesterday evening, but considering how the ball had ended, it was more of a shot in the dark.

As she brushed her teeth, the young woman took a distracted look at her face, paler than normal and drained of all available energy. A hint of lipstick clung to the corner of her mouth.

Ruby red lips. Soft, inviting. Warm breath.

Hermione froze.

A pale, lush body, somewhere against her side. A memory off feeling hot - too hot.

Spitting out the tooth paste foam, she quickly rinsed her mouth and sat down on the toilet seat, one hand grabbing her throbbing temple.

Black. So much black. A whole waterfall of blackness. And milky white. The thick smell of candles, too many bodies in one place and the fresh one of... Bellatrix.

Oh. Oh no.

She had been so, so close. An emotion of painful longing clenching in Hermione's stomach. And those gorgeous, cruel lips ready for the tasting, inches away...

No. No no no. She had not wanted to kiss Bellatrix Black, no way, nuh couldn't be, there was no way it was true.

Hermione became aware of her own quick, harsh breathing and leaned forward until her upper body was flush with her legs. Don't hyperventilate. Slow, slow, Hermione, don't panic.

Oh God, she had wanted to kiss Bellatrix. There has to be a rational explanation for this. You love Ron, you really do. This was some kind of mistake, it had to be.

But of course it was. She had been drunk, for the first time in her life. She couldn't deal with the toxin in her blood stream and the dark witch had looked beautiful that night, hadn't she? And there was her werewolf blood, acting out at the strangest times and lowering her inhibitions, with the last full moon not too far ago. Combined with Hermione's sad state and raw nerves, it was only natural she had felt some kind of attraction to the horrible woman. It would have been the same if it had been Ginny. Or one of the boys in the Great Hall. She had been fortunate no one had ruthlessly exploited her condition, though the former Death Eater's actions came quite close to doing so.

A sense of calmness settled on her shoulders, easing her anxiety to the point that she could upright herself and let out a deep, relaxed sigh. Then she laughed, amused at her own ability to be so prone to panic. It didn't even get so far as a kiss, I was just ragingly drunk. Silly girl, she admonished herself with a smile, getting ready for the day. If I ever try alcohol again, there's no way I'll gobble it down like this. Serves me right to be so inattentive.

Seriously. The notion of her being attracted to the crazy pure-blood, the walking nightmare, hell-bent on making her life miserable?

Ridiculous.

Hermione, careful, your hidden inner lesbian is showing :D This was awfully fun to write.
My weekend is packed pretty full, so there won't be any time to update then. I'll try to get the next chapter ready for Monday, buuuut, no promises, darlings ;)
A wonderful weekend to you all!

Chapter Text

Heya everybody! I'm back with a new chapter, even though it's a bit later than I planned to. I hope you're all well and ready to jump back into action ;) But first, review time!

OpheliaBlack: Yeah, I think we can all agree that it wouldn't have gone over well if Hermione had kissed her. It would only have been more fodder for Bella's hate cannon. Hermione's dramatic exit and hilarious re-entrance was more of a coincidence, because I actually had forgotten myself that she had left her stuff behind. When I read across it again, I simply had to add that amusing part in :D

lemon-rind: Ahhh, denial... isn't it a wonderful way to make complicated things even more complicated? Wahaha.

DoingTrix: Thanks! Well, who am I to stand in the way of your joy, so have a new chapter! ^^

Berserkeroo: No! There's pieces now all over the place! *hurridly puts them back together* Rise, my reader! RISE!

CatsEyesShy: Yeah, there's a light in the distance... at the end of the tunnel... uh, no, wait, wrong light. *cough* If you like shy, little Hermione pondering her sexuality, you'll be happy with the next few chapters, I think ;) Let's see if you get any answers to those questions... or not. Wuhahahaaaa...

unicorn33: Aren't we all waiting for that? ;D

Pandora's Moon: I don't think 'personal space' is in Bella's vocabulary :D Yes, what on earth miiiight be happening next?...

unexpected sabotage: Bwahahaha, homo surprise. That's killing me!

Greyella: Boy, I believe Bella is so chock full with defense mechanisms it's a wonder she can walk straight.

hollowwind: Thank you, glad you liked the portrayals of the characters! Here, have a chapter and breathe in deep, can't have you dying on my watch :D The song is fun! And I can TOTALLY see Bella thinking that in regard to Hermione and Ron, for example, because she's just that vain ;)

BrionnaRain14: Hey there and welcome to the show! Thank you! :D

imperfectionisunderrated: Considering she never drank alcohol and gulped down a full glass without eating something... the alcohol had to hit her quite hard. Everyone has a different tolerance level ;) Yeah, drunk Hermione isn't the best at snarky comebacks, isn't she? (My aching muscles had me walking funny for THREE days. So glad that's over...) The old hag comment might earn her a few minus points, though.. XD

Mortania Hottersander: Thank you so much! I really try my best, especially because it's another language. I can relate that the Bellamione pairing might be... uhm... special, but it's my forbidden kink, can't help it ;) I hope it doesn't put you off too much :)

liidg: Thanks so much, I really hope it's compelling until the end and that the achingly slow build-up doesn't put anyone off :) We'll find out more about Bella's backstory along the way, it's not the end yet ;)

0muffin0: Oh wow, it always amazes me so much when people actually come and review for the first time to my story! It makes me feel honored, so thank you for your sweet words! ^^ Oh, and don't worry... I have plans for that dress *eyebrow wiggle* As long as you all have fun reading, it's the greatest compliment I could get :)

Your lovely reviews are amazing, each and everyone of them. You are awesome!
Oh, there's a first time thingy in this chapter. All right, enough teasing for this one!

18. Heart, Mistress of Deception

"I seem to have been like a child playing on the seashore, finding new and then a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay undiscovered before me." - Isaac Newton

School would begin again after the holidays and the two friends found themselves faced with a sheer endless heap of homework until then. Normally Hermione was up to date with her learning before any other student had even spared a thought for it, but the Yule Ball and her other obligations had forced it on a hold. Not daring to repeat a duelling experience with Bellatrix yet, the young woman had her weekends free now to deal with other important things.

Cue Hermione and Ginny sitting in the Gryffindors common room during a raging snow storm and trying to concentrate on their Potions homework.

"Throw it here! Over here!" A fifth year shouted and jumped up and down near their table.

The brunette's eye twitched, as the group of boys went on with their game of fending of boredom by throwing around a less harmful, leather version of a bludger. It was all the rage now with the youth under twenty and had found its way to Hogwarts. It would have been less of a problem if they weren't playing it a such a raised volume.

And adding to it was the fact that since days the only topic of interest seemed to be a certain daughter of the Black family and her oh so impressive entrance. How easily young people forgot about the horrors the witch had done when faced with her new, better-than-average appearance.

"If the little one over there screams one more time when that bloody thing flies towards him, I'm sticking my pencil down his throat," Hermione forced out between clenched teeth and with a murderous look in said teen's direction.

Ginny chuckled and ducked under the catching boy's waving arms. Even without the players the common room would have been filled with endless noise and chatter, as everyone was forced to stay inside due to the abysmal weather.

"You're just annoyed he knocked over your book pile. He even apologized."

"I don't care. He screams like a little girl and I'm getting really, really tired of it."

The redhead couldn't hide the smirk on her face at Hermione's temper. "You're awfully twitchy these last days. It's not because you were drunk, is it?" she asked, lowering her voice. The younger Gryffindor could have shouted it; with the cacophony around her no one would have understood a word anyway. "And it's not full moon either."

Sighing, Hermione rubbed her aching head. "No... I'm... it's... I'm annoyed at being stuck in Hogwarts when I could have had a nice holiday with my boyfriend. He hasn't answered since that last letter and it's almost been three weeks. There was not even a note on the Christmas presents."

"I know, I'm worried too," Ginny admitted and gnawed at the end of her quill. "I'm sure they're going to reply soon. At least to wish us a happy new year in two days."

The boy in the corner screamed again.

Hermione nearly snapped her pen in two.

"Okay, listen, you can not kill your fellow Gryffindors," the redhead lectured her as she saw her best friend nearly releasing steam from her ears. "And you can't go and retract random points from them just because they are forced to play inside. Reign in that inner animal of yours and be nice."

"How are we supposed to finish all this if I can't even hear myself think?" Hermione growled and rolled together her scroll.

Ginny pointed the feathery end of her writing instrument at the other woman, an exited gleam in her eyes. "I know! I have the perfect solution. We go upstairs in your Head Girl dorm and learn there. You told me you have a small living room, don't you?"

"Yeah, and a rowdy, wacky roommate. Bad idea, Ginny, believe me," the brunette tried to talk her out of it with hanging shoulders.

"We won't know until we try it, right?" the youngest Weasley tried to persuade her with a canny smile.

"There's the library..."

"In which we have to be as quiet as mice. I'd say that one is our last resort."

Unable to come up with an effective counter-argument, Hermione relented and got herself ready to lecture her friend with an 'I told you so', packing her things and leaving the loud common room behind. The second she had closed the door behind them, she had to at least admit that they would have the required calm here to get on with their workload.

Unsure if the dark witch was in her room or not, they sprawled themselves out at the table and began. Their efforts went well and when there had been no interruption for almost half an hour, Hermione almost believed they would get done much sooner than anticipated.

Sadly, it was almost as if she had jinxed it.

When Ginny complained about a particularly abstruse paragraph in the book, the door to Bellatrix's chamber slammed open and gave entry to the former Death Eater herself. From the looks of it, she wasn't going to leave them working on in peace.

"What the hell are you doing in here? Who said you could bring someone up here? I want my quiet!" The raven haired woman took a glance at the side and spotted the redhead. "Oh come on, not the ginger," she added exasperated.

"Nice to see you, too. Oh, my week was wonderful, thank you," Ginny interjected dryly.

"The common room is too loud and we have to finish our homework. Can't you show a tiny bit of consideration?" Hermione tried to reason, putting down her quill in expectation of a longer argument.

Bellatrix snorted. "No. And I don't plan to. Go and take yourself and your blood-traitor minion to the library or whatever, I don't care." Placing one hand on her hip, the dark witch pointed the other one at the door in a no-argument manner, successfully ignoring Ginny's presence.

The redhead sighed and got ready to push her working material into one heap.

Pressing her lips together, the brunette felt her anger rising. Always she had to knuckle under to Bellatrix's unpredictable moods and be her helpless plaything whenever the other woman fancied it. The last weeks of constant nerve-racking bickering and the verbal assaults whenever they ran into each other had left the brunette with a back-up amount of frustration. Not to mention the scene at the Yule Ball and getting her drunk. She wouldn't back down once more, not when it came to using a room that was twice as much hers for the year as it was Bellatrix's.

"You know what? I won't. We'll stay right here, at this table, and finish our things. You can go and find some other quiet spot or you'll go back to your damned room and leave us in peace." Hermione found herself standing, hands in fists and chin raised in defiance.

The raven haired woman blinked, then lowered her eyes at the younger witch. "You think you can boss me around, muddy?"

"Merlin's beard, can't we sort this out like regular adults or do you have to knock your heads in?" Ginny wondered out loud, sighing and pushing herself off the table. The two Vow partners glared at each other, Bellatrix's natural menace struggling against the fact that she was a few inches smaller than the equally riled up Muggle-born.

Holding up her hands, the redhead came a few feet closer. "Hello? Earth to squabblers?" She knew about how the two always seemed to rub each other the wrong way since these last weeks, which was especially curious as Hermione had defended the dark witch since the moment they had been forced under the strong magic. And while she was on her best friend's side, she didn't want another bout of violence to erupt. Much less when the pure-blood was armed.

"You go, I stay," Bellatrix hissed haughtily at her opponent.

"Wrong. You go, we stay," Hermione countered with a heated glare.

"How about we work here for the next hour and see we can get everything done we need to talk about and then we vanish quietly into the library for the finishing touches?" the youngest Weasley offered nervously. "Come on, Bellatrix, your next firewhisky even is on me the next time we're in Hogsmeade. How about it?"

With a glance of utterly bored annoyance the pure-blood shifted her stance towards the redhead. "Do you have to add logic into this? I'm trying to annoy someone here in case you can't get the hint, Weasel girl."

Ginny, with a surprisingly thick hide against the dark witch's insults today, merely grinned widely and held up two fingers. "Two firewhisky. Is it working yet?"

Bellatrix huffed at a dark curl, rolled her eyes, crossed her arms, shifted, then finally replied. "Fine. You better don't back down on that promise, Mudblood-lover, no matter how cheap your family really is." She tsk-ed. "Wheedled by a Weasel. My ancestors are rolling in their graves right this instant and it's all your fault, muddy."

The dark witch faced the brunette with a fully pronounced, accusing pout.

A very attractive pout.

Hermione, for less than a second, had a weird out of body experience.

When she came to herself, she found her best friend and Bellatrix staring at her with an unbelieving, shocked gaze, their eyes round as saucers and their jaws half-way on the way to the floor. The pure-blood was even making a strange strangled noise in the back of her throat.

What? Is there something in my face? the brunette contemplated distractedly, looking back and forth between the two witches. They're looking at me as if I...

The sound of a record scratching awfully in the back of her mind threw Hermione back into reality and mercilessly inserted the missing second that had thrown the older Gryffindor so off-guard.

Oh shit. Shit. SHIT.

Out of some unknown, weird, unreal reason, Hermione Granger had just moments ago planted her lips onto those of the former Death Eater without any conscious thought. Blood shot into her face and heat had beads of sweat gather on her skin as she realized her very, very bad mistake.

"W-well," the brunette commented, more embarrassed than ever before in her life and surprised that her voice didn't sound as breathless as she had expected. The words were tumbling out of her mouth without control, her thoughts busy with driving high-speed circles in her overloading brain. "At least now I know how I can shut you up quite effectively."

Then she took her heels and ran out the door.

When Ginny caught up with her two hallways away from the fat lady's portrait, Hermione was pacing right and left while nearly hyperventilating and wringing her hands without stop. "Oh, oh god... oh my god... oh my god, what did I just... I... I- I- oh my god, oh god..."

"Hermione," the redhead tried in a careful and soothing voice. "Calm down, please. Don't panic, okay?"

"Oh god, Ginny, I- I k-k-ki-..." She couldn't get the word out and went back to pacing, tearing at her hair. "Ron! Oh good gracious, what am I going to tell Ron? I don't... I never... th-this isn't..."

In the end, she simply sat down against the wall and burst into tears.

"Hermione, good heavens! Get a hold of yourself, it's all right. Believe me." The younger Gryffindor squatted down before her friend, placing her hands on the other woman's jeans clad knees.

The brunette raised her tear-stained face and stared at the redhead. "W-what?"

"What I mean to say is, I understand," Ginny gently answered with a small smile. "It's was a small peck, nothing more."

Whimpering at the memory, which she couldn't even recall that well (had her lips been soft? Dry or moist? Where they warmer than Ron's?), the brunette shook her head softly. How could the redhead be so calm? So understanding? Ron was her brother, how could she stand that her best friend had been unfaithful to him like this? "But it... I k-kissed her! I kissed Bellatrix," she emphasized, stumbling once more over the word and hurriedly lowering her voice so no one could overhear them.

"Yeah, wow. Do you want me to tell the Prophet?"

"NO!"

"Gosh, Hermione." Ginny couldn't help a small laugh. "I'm kidding. Seriously, it's not that big of a deal. And I told you already, I can understand why you did it."

"But... why, how?" Hermione wondered, puzzled.

"Man, did you look at that woman? I may hate her guts, but even I can't deny that she's drop-dead gorgeous."

The brunette stared at her friend open-mouthed, tears forgotten. "Wait, what?"

"I'm serious," Ginny went on with a thoughtful tilt of her head. "It's amazing how someone so rotten inside can be so pretty on the outside. If I were a guy, I'd be totally into her. So yeah, I can understand how you could feel attracted to her, I mean, there is no denying that she is quite the looker."

Hermione flinched at the mention of her interest and quickly interjected, though secretly she had to admit Ginny was pretty spot-on with her descriptions of the dark witch. "No, no, no no, I'm not attracted to that-... "

"Honey, you're the one who just planted one on her," Ginny interjected with raised eyebrows and a knowing smile.

Groaning, the brunette hid her head back behind her knees. "Oh please let this be a dream..." A pause. "The werewolf blood. It must be the werewolf blood. I would never-..."

"The next full moon is a week away, so no excuse there."

"God. Am... I really attracted to Bellatrix Black? Of all possible people? Her?"

"You've spent the last few months in close proximity with her and even defended her more or less to most of the people around, whether or not it was for your own benefit. Heck, you made even me question if she's as much of a helpless case as I believed initially. And then she goes and turns young and into... well, this," Ginny explained, motioning in the general direction of the Head Girl dorms. "And no offense, but I know my brother is not quite Prince Charming, which I'm allowed to admit as his sister. So, yeah, I can understand how you could grow weak for a short, brainless moment. It's harmless if you don't actively pursue it..."

The redhead shifted her gaze at Hermione, lowering her eyes dramatically. "You're not thinking about that, are you?"

"No!" Hermione retorted with outrage, not in the condition of seeing the humor in this. "God, no! I'm not mad! Yes, okay, I accept she's... attractive and I, I..." Well. Maybe there was no point in denying the inevitable facts any longer, as much as she dreaded it. "I may have fallen for that, a bit, but anything else is crazy. I love Ron!"

Suddenly, all blood drained from her face and she turned rigid. "Ron... he can never, ever know about this. Understand?"

Faced with such an amount of panic from out of nowhere, the younger Gryffindor furrowed her brows. "Why should he? What has you so worried with him?"

Licking her parched lips, the brunette glanced down at her knees. "He... well, he was very happy for me when we won the trial, but... he hates Bellatrix. More than the two of us combined. Whenever I try to talk about him with it, he changes to another topic. When I wrote him about Bellatrix's success of catching Voldemort's followers, he was all like 'I'm so glad your save!' and 'Good job, 'mione!', but he didn't mention Bellatrix with one breath. I don't know if it is because he feels so loyal to Harry, but... she and I are going to be connected for the rest of our lives. He can't pretend it never happened forever," Hermione told her best friend, all of the worries lying on her soul breaking out in a rush. "And now imagining him finding out about this... this slip-up..."

"Oh, now I get it," Ginny replied with compassion at her friend's plight. She sat down next to Hermione, resting her back against the wall. "Now I know why you'll think he'd be furious. He's going to take it ten times worse."

"It's already worse enough," Hermione murmured, drained and unhappy. Attracted to Bellatrix Black. What in the world had she done to deserve such emotions? It would have been better if she had felt some twinges of interest for Ansgar, or his friend or any other boy on the Yule Ball. But Bellatrix? A Death Eater? A woman?

"You know, if you want to talk about it..."

Smiling weakly at her friend, the brunette denied. "Thank you, Ginny, but... no. I'd rather forget the whole thing happened."

"Come on," the redhead then offered, pushing herself off the wall. "I'll get our stuff and we'll go and finish everything in the library. There's nothing better to keep you from worrying."

Ginny returned quickly, their two bags over each shoulder and with the status report of the former Death Eater having vanished. Hermione was thankful for that, as she loathed to run into the dark witch right now, who knew what new kinds of insults she had thought up. Or maybe she was simply furious with the younger woman for daring to touch her in such a way. So instead she filled her head with Potions and Charms, Transfiguration and Care for Magical Creatures in her favorite place in the whole castle.

But the memory of what she had done lingered. And gnawed at her, whenever she couldn't keep herself busy for the moment. It made her think of how little she knew about the pure-blood and how, after being so annoyed with all those chatting excitedly about the dark witch, even her own hormones had betrayed her.

"Ginny," she wondered out loud after a while, watching as the afternoon passed outside. The snow storm was still howling in full force, but inside the walls there was only a slight rustle, as the library took its need for silence serious. Even when concerned with nature's storms. "What do you know about the Black family?"

The redhead raised her head in confusion, then thought for a while. "Next to nothing I guess. Why?"

Hermione haltingly began telling her friend about her efforts to find more about the Black family's past and what could have transpired back then, in a try to get where Bellatrix's madness might origin from. She carefully left out her knowledge of what she had seen in the dark witch's mind, well aware of her promise to the pure-blood to not share her secrets with anyone.

When she listed the books she had sought out, Ginny tapped her wand against her chin in quiet contemplation. "Say, have you checked any of the gossip sheets?"

The brunette frowned. "How am I supposed to check years worth of newspapers with daily editions? I'd be busy for the rest of the school year, if I'm even lucky to stumble across a small notice about their family business or something."

"Well, you said you had the death date of Bellatrix's father. And I remember seeing a complete edition of the mag stuffed somewhere in the back row of the library shelves..."

"What? A whole century of magazines?" the older Gryffindor asked with wide eyes. She knew most of the library layout from memory and had always made a bow around that part of the section, being interested in facts and not crazy, made-up hearsay.

"No, silly. It's charmed magazines, one containing the whole year of news. So, which one do we need?" the redhead asked, pumped to do a different kind of research work than that for boring schoolwork.

Hermione leaned forward, the date jumping back into her memory as is she had read it only yesterday. "The 28th of December in 1979."

"Got it. Be right back," Ginny replied with a smile and vanished like a dervish around the corner of the nearest bookshelf.

Mere five minutes later she returned and sat back down before Hermione, holding a yellowed and old newspaper. Other than the more structured Daily Prophet, this one had nearly as much of a chaotic front cover as the Quibbler. The front read Twiggly Twigs in broad, convoluted letters. Tapping her wand on the paper, the edition suddenly changed under Ginny's hands, the black ink forming new outrageous head lines.

"There. The 28th." They bowed down across the sheets of paper, their eyes roaming for some news.

There was no mention of any Black deaths in this edition, so after browsing through the whole magazine, they changed the date to the 29th.

And there it was.

"Here! I got it!" Hermione pointed her finger at the article in the right corner.

Murder in the the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black

On the night of December the 28th, yet unknown trespassers intruded into the well-protected Manor of the honoured Black family. Cygnus Black III., official Legilimens in the Ministry of Magic, was killed protecting his present wife and two of his children by use of an Unforgivable Curse. He leaves behind three daughters; his wife was placed under professional supervision for the treatment of shock. If the trespassers have taken items of value or if the attack had been planned specifically with Mister Black's death in mind is unknown at this time. Once caught, the culprits will face severe repercussions and Azkaban prison for the use of forbidden curses and murder. Our condolence is with the whole family.

"He was killed?... Do you think it was Voldemort?" Ginny questioned out loud. She quickly changed the edition to the next day, but there was no further mention of the incident. Neither was there several days later. By then, the Black family had most likely reacted successfully and intervened, keeping the newspapers from further releasing indiscriminate and personal information.

"Could be. It was near, if not the high point of the First War, but why he would end the life of a pure-blood patriarch following his beliefs is another mystery."

The redhead shrugged. "Maybe differences in opinion. I mean, we are talking about Voldemort here."

"Yeah," Hermione agreed distractedly, but in truth she wasn't quite satisfied. Something was missing here, but she couldn't quite put her finger on it due to lack of information.

They browsed through three or four more archived magazines, but there wasn't any more gleaned from them either. The news were mostly the same and only worded differently, only telling them that Bellatrix, her sister Narcissa and the mother had been present and that it was unclear how many had attacked the noble family. Now, the brunette was both smarter and less so than before.

The second their homework was done, Hermione threw her quill down on the table and rubbed the skin of her face. "Let's call it a day. I'm done for."

Packing everything together and walking into the hallway, they walked into the general direction of the Great Hall. Evening was crawling nearer and dinner would be served soon. Halfway down a corridor, Ginny froze and slapped her forehead.

"Damn it! I forgot my Charms book, I placed it right next to the table!"

"Go, I'll wait here," Hermione offered with a smile and watched her friend breeze back to the library.

With a sigh, she hunched over a window sill at the side, glancing outside into the wonderland of pure snow. The storm had calmed down, leaving only a slight breeze to rustle the treetops and play with a few drifting snow flakes. Dusk colored the white planes in broad strokes of gray and blue, shooing the tangled clouds away to make space for the stars twinkling high above.

Gaze drifting across nature, she stopped when a dark figure caught her eye, marching slowly in the direction of Black Lake. The black cloak was unmistakable and Hermione had a queasy feeling in her stomach when watching Bellatrix wander. Despite all this space between them, with Bellatrix being little more than a cloaked handspan in the window, the dark witch still wielded a weird power over the brunette, a sort of unwanted pulling.

Off to chatter with the Merpeople? Hermione wondered silently, placing her chin on her palm, her fingertips lazily playing across her betraying lips. Bellatrix's interest in magical languages and creatures was a curious one. The Gryffindor knew that the other woman was even respectful when dealing with her house elves. It didn't fit with her general appearance to be so invested in other living beings, so what made it so different when she dealt with humans?

Because those creatures are different, just like you, the brunette deducted on a whim. They have different mindsets than humans. Do you understand them better because you're mad? Or did you always feel better connected to them?

It looked like Bellatrix would always stay an unsolvable, intriguing mystery.

"I'm back! Let's get downstairs, I'm starving."

Ripped out of her contemplation by the returning redhead, Hermione threw one last glance at the now even smaller form of the former Death Eater and walked away with her friend.

That night, the Gryffindor was kept awake by her actions this day. By the unbelievable and yet... true revelations she had encountered.

I'm attracted to Bellatrix Black. The more she repeated it in her head while staring at the dark ceiling, the more she familiarized herself to the wording, but it continued to be... awkward. Shocking. It was as if she saw into the mirror and spotted a totally unusual piece on her body which was now there and she had to get used to it. There was no way to ignore something that was part of you once your nose was pushed into it, at least not for her.

Bellatrix Black is beautiful. Well, that one was easy, she had thought so before and could do so as a fellow, envious woman. It was perfectly fine to see someone looking attractive and claim them to be so.

I would like to... kiss Bellatrix Black. Okay, this one was a bit more strange. Tendrils of heat crept into Hermione's cheeks, but she pushed the uncomfortable feeling down ruthlessly by nuzzling deeper into her covers. She had kissed Ron enough times that a possibility like that shouldn't make her blush like a little girl anymore.

All right.

I may even want to... I may want to s-sleep w-with... Okay, that did it. Face burning, Hermione pressed her palms against her eyes and groaned with annoyance at herself. It was hard enough to imagine the inevitable with her boyfriend, but only the barest notion of Bellatrix and her in a advanced process of undress, not mentioning the fact she had to envision them doing so at the same time, was driving her pulse into marathon norms and had her squirming above her mattress.

Which was, of course, because the dark witch made her so horribly uncomfortable. There was no other explanation, oh no. It had little to do with the memory of the view Bellatrix had given her unknowingly when pressing so tightly against her during the Yule Ball, not at all.

Roughly turning to the side, the covers twisting around her limbs in soft coils, Hermione forced herself to remember how nice it was to tug her body against Ron's, how sweet it was to be held close by him. How nice their first, chaste kisses had been.

But whenever she tried to get more details into her recollections, pictures of deep red lips snuck into her brain, glimpses of so impossibly white skin, red, fuzzy hair overshadowed by the black perfection of curls. When she remembered how Ron and her had stood beside the Burrow and exchanged a loving kiss, she found herself musing the next second how soft the dark witch's mouth really was and how alluringly fetching she had looked wearing that childish pout.

Hermione grabbed her pillow and released a frustrated scream into the feathers. It was merely a stupid obsession, nothing more. The forbidden was always tantalizing. It didn't mean that Ron was less worthy or that her love for him had diminished. In due time, she would feel the same throbbing of desire when reunited with him as she felt when her thoughts about Bellatrix drifted towards the gutter.

She was only eighteen, barely out of her teenager phase. It wasn't unusual for her hormones to do strange things.

Grabbing her wand, she lit the tip and ripped the drawer to her bedside table open. Moments later, her bed was filled with her boyfriend's letters and she read one after the other with glazed eyes. The words of love and affection soothed her. Bellatrix was only a rough, apathetic creature, made for nothing else but hate and violence. Even if she changed, there would not be an ounce of the softness in her that Ron harbored.

Yes. She loved Ron. There was nothing to fear.

Drowsy, she clutched the last one of the written parchments to her collarbone, too tired to push all of them back inside.

She loved Ron. Bellatrix was a passing fancy.

She loved him.

Only him.

Hermione fell asleep with her wand dangling between her fingers and Andromeda's letter held against her rhythmically beating heart.

Good job, 'mione. Unconsciously grab the one wrong letter in the stack, why don't you. Seriously, sometimes this stuff writes itself.
And because we all know I'm evil and sadistic when it comes to next chapter previews... let's just say we're flirting with the M-rating next time ;D

Chapter Text

Aaaand here we are. Back in the game!
This time, I chose another songtext as an intro to this chapter, because it's that song that I kept on repeat when I wrote this. It kind of inspired me, so I thought it would be fitting. Fanfic . net did some weird things to new chapters and stories yesterday, I hope it's cleared up now.

misswitty: Calm Bella down? Lots of blood and pain and agony I guess ;) And I'm ashamed to admit this, but... damn, you are so right. HBC made Bellatrix not just hot, but incredibly layered and interesting. When I write this story, I can only imagine HBC and Emma Watson play the characters. .

Saikoh: Torture is my fifth middle name ;D

OpheliaBlack: Hehe, thank you! ^^ Awesome to see you're so delighted about it! Believe me, it was quite a ride to get there... and it's still quite a way they need to go :) Because it's not much of a spoiler, I can easily tell you that Andy was already married at the time of her father's dead. She was... 24 or something at that time, so effectively banned from the family.

Pandora's Moon: Ahaha, you're slaying me here! Reviewing chapters LIKE A BOSS.

List of Romantics: Ginny and Bella... mmmh, nice thought there. But not in this story, mwahaha. You know, I might even make a mental note of the whole lingerie shopping idea... ;D

You'reAwesome: (No, you're awesome!) Glad I could offer some boredom relief! :D There are many other awesome Bellamione fics out there, don't worry!... Just not enough. Write, everyone, write!

imperfectionisunderrated: This gets talked about on tumblr? Oh my, I'm so shyyyyy! *blush* My exercise?... Uhm... I juggled. Three hours long. And I had to crouch every time a ball fell down... ouch XD" I wish I could give you a reward for your idea... but go and see for yourself :D

Berserkeroo: Which guy? Ron? Ned? Ansgar? Me confuzzled :D

lemon-rind: Ginny is awesome and I think she's exactly how a best friend should be. Even if you don't 100% accept what your best friend thinks and does, you try to put yourself in their situation and try to help them. She rules!

Ryoshu: Yeah, Hermione needs to practice her delivery of sassy comments *g* But Bella won't go away so fast, so she has lots and lots and looooots of time to practice...

Amaranta316: I know, I'm evil with my spoilers :D Ginny is quite open with her little lesbian, but considering canon, here she is quite happy and in love with Harry ;) But that's what fanfics are for :D I have pretty old neighbors, so I can be as loud as I want whenever I squeal in fanfics... just my flatmate isn't happy about that *cough*

Mortania Hottersander: But guilty pleasures are the most fun! Thanks :D

1Past and Present1: Bwahaha, awesome review is awesome. Considering my, eh, audience asked so nicely, here is a new evil chapter! And of course I don't need any magic gremlins... *annoyed squawking in the background*... be quiet! I'm talking here! Go and write the story, you annoying twits!... Where was I?

Thank you once again for commenting so diligently. Oh. And you will all hate me after this. *ducks and runs*

19. The Point of No Return

"What is in this wine?

the more i drink the more i wander off

into a stranger's eyes

i like the way that they reflect my thoughts." - Maria Mena, Homeless

New Year's Eve rolled around and brought the world a fresh and new 1999. There was a wonderful firework display above the Hogwarts castle, making the students cheer and celebrate in delighted happiness. Hermione found herself surrounded by laughing friends and class mates, all of whom wished her a Happy New Year and she found herself smiling brightly along with them the whole evening.

Her smile stayed when the two friends, true to Ginny's words, received short notes from Harry and Ron on the morning of January the 1st. Each letter contained a picture, where the two boys were standing in front of a small, snowy town surrounded by fellow Aurors and with all of them waving happily at the camera.

In a few days, school would begin once again and Luna would return from the time she spent with her father. Up till then, Ginny and Hermione had to pass their time alone and without the third asset. Unwilling to stay inside for long, the brunette accompanied her friend to Quidditch practice several times and the two would take a few strolls through Hogwarts' school grounds, even participating in a few, magically enhanced snow ball matches with the other houses.

It was an easy, relaxed time and when Hermione went to her room Saturday evening before school would start again, tired from the time she spent keeping her own house mates from going overboard with a new shipment of Weasley's Wizard Wheezes, she nearly turned right back into the common room as she ran into a certain waiting pure-blood.

The woman she had kissed.

Stop thinking about that.

"Bellatrix... please. I'm not in the mood today," Hermione pleaded desperately while closing the door behind her.

The dark witch stood in the middle of the living room in a quite curious pose, upright and with both hands interlocked behind her back. There was something different about her that the brunette couldn't place her finger on.

"As much fun as it is, I'm not here to taunt you," the raven haired woman began in an almost amiable tone of voice, glancing down at a spot beside the younger witch's feet.

Hermione furrowed her brows, wary of what was going on. Bellatrix had not mentioned the peck even once and that alone had the brunette on edge whenever she caught a glimpse of the pure-blood. She tilted her head slightly to the side. "You're not?"

"Naw, not today. Actually, I've been... thinking. Maybe my reaction wasn't quite appropriate... and I know I should apologize," the former Death Eater went on, almost nodding to herself while talking.

Unable to hold back an unbelieving guffaw at this, Hermione crossed her arms and leaned back against the door. "Yeah, sure. So much for not taunting me," she replied with a roll of her eyes. "Very funny, thank you."

"No, I'm serious - as much as that's possible for me," Bellatrix insisted, placing one elbow in her palm and using her free hand to twirl a few strands between her fingers. She didn't look very apologetic, but then, this was Voldemort's favorite they were talking about. "I want to apologize and it would be nice if you spent the evening with me. We could... I don't know, chat. Or something."

Hermione stared at her with incredible disbelief on her features, but when the other woman didn't break into a laugh or attack her out of nowhere, she slowly began to wonder if the pure-bloods proposal was earnest. It was... weird. "This isn't a joke? What, did you make some New Year's resolutions? You should know that's pretty hard to believe."

"Something like that, yeah. I'm simply of the opinion I should start my new life anew somewhere, so why not begin now?" Bellatrix retorted, a small smirk on her lips. Then she shrugged. "As long as you don't start proclaiming it loudly, we might even start being friendly to each other."

Shaking her head while still believing she had slipped into some kind of Twilight Zone, the younger woman took a few careful steps nearer. "Whatever happened to 'I like making your life a living hell'?"

The dark witch shrugged. "I changed my mind. I can do that, you know, from time to time. Insane and all that."

It was a trick. It had to be. But Bellatrix stood there with cocked hips, relaxed shoulders and a bored look on her face while she examined her dark red fingernails, appearing as non-threatening as Hermione had ever seen. There was no overly strong, false friendliness, but there wasn't outright disgust she was used to either. Maybe she could draw her out of this charade somehow. "All right, I'll play. If you are really serious about this, I want you to stop calling me Mudblood."

Waiting for the inevitable stomping of her foot and the first insults to fly, the brunette twitched her hand softly, on guard and ready to grab her wand at a moment's notice.

But the smaller woman simply shot her a dirty look, before relenting. "Fine. If you insist on it... Granger."

With a sudden need to sit down, Hermione cautiously walked over to the table, letting herself fall on the small couch. She had done it. Bellatrix had really foregone the hateful nickname and changed to her last name. Feeling weirdly out of place, the brunette pinched her arm. Ouch. Okay, not dreaming.

"Wow. You are serious." It was... kind of unbelievable.

"I don't remember you being deaf. I already said so several times, didn't I?" the raven haired witch snapped, then forced herself back into calm. "So? Your answer?"

Blinking, Hermione tried to get her mind back in order. "Uh, well, sure. If you'd like to talk, I'll stay. Let me just pack my school bag for tomorrow." And with that, she vanished into her room, still giving a triumphantly smiling Bellatrix strange looks.

Unsure, the brunette traced the hidden letters on her forearm, wondering if it had really come down to this.

What the hell is going on? Why has she become so friendly? If this isn't a hoax, will she really try to take a first step into a normal life? It would be fabulous and relieving, but Hermione forced herself to be on guard, in case the other woman snapped back into her old, sadistic persona. Taking a deep breath to lower her nervousness, the Gryffindor nodded silently to herself and left the chamber to spend the evening with what had once been Voldemort's first lieutenant. This is so, so weird.

Bellatrix had been busy while she was gone, conjuring a plate of cookies from the kitchens and two glasses, as well as a dark bottle of what she could only guess to be one thing: Red wine.

Hermione paled at sighting the alcohol. I'm not drinking this. Not after last time. "Uh... wine?"

"Oh yes, a very expensive Romanée Conti from 1985, one of the best wines in the world. I was lucky my sister had one left in her cellar," the other woman replied with a beam at the innocent looking bottle, which was probably worth more than all of Hermione's belongings together.

It didn't make the young witch feel any better about having to refuse a glass later. Maybe they would be able to refrain from opening it. Was she that serious about apologizing, that she busted out the good wine for a Muggle-born like her? "M-maybe later. How about we sit down?"

It was incredibly awkward for the brunette to make nice with the woman that had not only her heart beat a bit faster every time she took a glance in her direction, but who also was the reason for most of her nightmares and the general carefulness Hermione had adapted into her personality. She was a bit more restrained and calmer than she had been as a teenager and it had all begun during that one horrifying day in Malfoy Manor.

Pressing her folded hands between her knees, the younger woman licked her dry lips. "So... uhm... can I ask you a question?"

Bellatrix, sprawled on the other end of the sofa and with her forearm pressed against the top of the headrest, raised an eyebrow. "As long as I don't have to answer it."

"No, no. It's only something I'm curious about." She watched herself shuffle her feet on the floor. "What has you so interested in magical languages? You speak Mermish, Parseltongue... all very complicated and hard to learn. Why?"

"Oh, I speak more than those," the dark witch waved off with a hand. "But there's an easy explanation. When I went to Hogwarts, I was fascinated with wandless magic and how to learn it. Nowadays I know it's not possible for human beings beyond the age of a child, but back then, I believed if I spoke enough of these special languages, filled my body with the raw magic, then I would stumble across the secret to do so." She shrugged. "I didn't. But my interest in them didn't fade after I realized the truth."

Well, to get that answer out of her had been considerably easy. Normally, every piece of knowledge Hermione gained was answered with retaliation from the former Death Eater, but Bellatrix only leaned forward to snatch a cookie from the plate, seemingly not interested in getting enraged or worked up.

The young woman released a sigh. Maybe this was really working. "I didn't think of that. Maybe you were closer to something there than you think." There was a moment of silence and Hermione played with the cuffs of her sleeves. "So... anything you want to ask me?"

Bellatrix mustered the younger woman while gnawing on her snack, then shrugged. "Not really. But let's see... you can tell me about school."

Hermione blinked at the dark witch. "Really?"

Scowling, the older witch lowered her arm. "Will you ask that every time this evening when I say something unexpected? Because I'm tiring of it very quickly."

"Uh, I, well... I'm sorry. It's still a bit strange." Biting at her lower lip, Hermione thought about what to tell and then just threw herself into it. She began haltingly with her process in the classes, then hesitantly started to talk about the problems she had with a few topics, while Bellatrix interjected whenever she had a comment to make about the subject, thus showing she was actually listening to what was said.

The conversation went on from there and while staying mostly superficial, it was the single, most civilized and longest conversation the young witch had ever had with the other woman. Easing her agitation was the fact that Bellatrix felt just as weirded out by the situation as Hermione, making the Gryffindor feel a lot more calmer and in control. The way the dark witch's eyes sometimes flitted to the side with reluctance and how forced the politeness in her tone often sounded, it reassured Hermione of the fact that Bellatrix had to try as hard as her to get comfortable with the idea of them not arguing all the time. Not that it kept most of her snarky comments at bay.

When an hour had gone by and the light outside had left the stage in favor of darkness and the rising moon, the young woman almost felt comfortable with the emotional and physical close proximity. It was a pleasant variation to their normally abrasive relationship. Maybe, maybe this could really work.

That was, until Bellatrix stood and reached for the wine.

"Ah, look, I don't want to be rude, but I'm not sure I want to drink any alcohol..."

The dark witch turned in her direction, an affronted expression on her face while she held the bottle. "Because you went overboard at the Yule Ball? That's not my fault, you know. I didn't force you to drink anything, did I?"

Okay, yeah, that's actually correct. "Yes, but, I didn't feel very well that day. I don't think alcohol is the right idea. I mean, it's nice you brought a bottle to share with me..."

"For once I'm making an effort here," Bellatrix replied, sounding deeply offended. "I'm not good at apologizing, so I brought a special gift for you and now you tell me you don't want it." Moving around the table, the pure-blood stood on the other side with a sulky frown and crossed arms. "You don't even have to worry about anything here, you're in a save environment and when you feel the alcohol getting to you, you can simply leave for your bed. Do you even know how much a bottle of this costs? This brand isn't what you use for a binge, it's a flavour you have to savour carefully."

"It's not that I don't want your gift," Hermione tried to backpedal, but the dark witch turned away with a huff, causing the brunette to drag a hand through her hair. All had gone so well, why did she have to ruin the situation like this? The bottle didn't seem very big. If they both drank two glasses, it would surely be empty. Two glasses don't get you piss drunk, do they? My parents often drink a glass of wine in the evening, maybe it's not as bad as I make it out to be. Bellatrix is right for once, she has really been making an effort... maybe I should too.

"Fine, I... I drink the wine with you. But I will go to bed when I feel drowsy, okay?" she offered wearily, but relaxed when the raven haired woman turned back to her with a smile.

"Oh, wonderful! You will love it, believe me. It has a full-bodied, cherry tinted flavour, a delight for mouth and nose," the older witch gushed. With a cheeky smirk, she flicked her wand at the top, causing the cork to pop out and land in her hand. Skillfully she filled each glass near to the middle, raising both and walking over to one of the windows. "Come on, these need to breathe first."

Confused, Hermione followed at a slower pace. Together with her Vow partner, she leaned her hip against the large window sill and watched the darkened school grounds, the land only covered in a soft sheen of moonlight.

"I spent a lot of time in the Forbidden Forest," Bellatrix began chattily, her black eyes resting on the wood's edge in the distance. "It's a beautiful and dangerous place. It keeps you on your toes and yet rewards you at every corner with wonderful sights. It's worth every risk."

The younger woman furrowed her brows. "Aren't the centaurs aware of your presence? I don't believe they are happy about someone intruding on their grounds."

"Oh, we are on... neutral grounds, one could say. I conversed with them when I was a student at Hogwarts and obsessed with wandless magic. They still remember me from back then and give me free reign as long as I follow their rules." The eldest Black followed the rim of her glass with her fingertip. "The centaurs are... fascinating. They understand my need to experience the wonders of the Forbidden Forest and they respect it."

"Despite them being 'beasts'?" Hermione couldn't help the jab at Voldemort's beliefs, which he had spread among his followers.

"Despite them being beasts," Bellatrix replied with a sniff, raising her chin. "I'm entitled to my own opinions, you know."

"Yes, of course you are," she confirmed a bit softer, leaning her head against the window sill. "I'm sorry. Again."

"Yeah, whatever." The pure-blood turned back to the wood, inscrutable gaze drawn to the tight conglomerate of trees, bushes and plants. "You were telling me about your school time. Go on with that."

Hermione found herself talk more and freer this time, even going so far as talking about her beginning years. In the meanwhile, Bellatrix urged her to take her first smell and taste of the blood red drink. A world of different impressions crashed onto the younger woman when she sipped the Romanée Conti, experiencing a feeling as if a thousand pleasant flavors exploded on her tongue, caressing every taste bud. She was unsure if it was even allowed for them to taste alcohol on the school grounds, despite them both being of age, but seven years of running around with her law-breaking best friends had eased her worry about being caught. And really, it was just a bit of wine.

Bellatrix kept her talking, obviously much happier with listening and commenting from time to time, as well as filling their glasses whenever the wine threatened to fall below a certain level in them. The young woman felt the warmth in her body only when the dark witch had topped them up for the second time, by now quite happy with the calm setting and the warm glow of the lamps reflecting in the pitch black windows.

I could get used to this, Hermione told herself when Bellatrix explained about how the Slytherins and Gryffindors had played pranks on each other during her school time, her mouth moving above the rim of the raised glass. The drink had given the already red lips an almost blood colored tint.

Finding herself distracted more and more by the older woman's lips whenever she talked and caring less and less about what it meant, the brunette found herself comfortable with the fact that the raven haired witch appeared a lot more at ease around her, nearly jovial in her bearings, in spite of several harsh words she had for the Gryffindors and her general raw, arrogant way of speaking about things. But Bellatrix Black was Bellatrix Black and the young woman knew her conversation partner wouldn't change over the course of one evening. This was the best she could expect so far.

"It's nice," Hermione found herself saying freely, her mouth running before her brain could catch up. Perhaps she was a bit more tipsy than she had thought? "Talking with you like this. I like it."

The pure-blood turned to her, obviously amused her opposite had decided to end a comradely few minutes of quiet like this. "Oh, I counted on that," she replied with a sultry smile and a lowering of her eyelids.

The brunette found herself hard to catch up. "Hm? What do you mean?"

"Ah, nothing," Bellatrix waved off with a laugh, clinking her glass against the younger woman's. "Just talking to myself there. You know, I haven't been able to tell you yet, but you were absolutely gorgeous that evening on the Yule Ball."

Finding herself thrown off-guard at the sudden change in direction and from the blunt compliment, Hermione swallowed and had a hard time returning the piercing stare of those mysterious, black eyes. Which were now fully directed on her, watching her every move. Finding herself faced with Bellatrix's undivided attention had devastating effects on the younger woman's heart rate.

"Ah, t-thank you, I guess. Ginny... she found it for me and I felt, uh, quite... comfortable? In it," Hermione stuttered out, searching for the right words. Ugh. Maybe she had really underestimated this darned wine. But the tingling of alcohol in her veins this time was pleasant, relaxing, not oppressive and hindering like the other night, when it had forced her to feel panicked and out-of-mind.

"Good choice, I have to give the ginger that. I liked the way it was so light and angelic," a single index finger traveled along the fabric of the sweater covering Hermione's forearm, "almost ethereal. You should think about showing more skin more often, dearie, instead of always wearing these prim and proper clothes."

Taking a quick sip of her drink to distract herself, Hermione stared down into the tasteful, cherry depths, trying to not show how Bellatrix's affections got to her. "I, ehm, I'm not pretty enough for that, I think. Wearing that dress was a bit of a shock value that night on the Yule Ball, but normally, the boys tend to ignore me. I don't mind," she hurriedly added. "I feel comfortable the way I am."

"Honey, have you taken a look into the mirror lately? Oh, I remember how you looked as that little kid in the Ministry of Magic," the other woman recalled with a faraway look, now having placed the palm of her free hand fully on the brunette's lower arm. Hermione could feel the heat of it searing down to her bone. "You were so... unruly, a little know-it-all. But considering my appearance of those days, I'm not one to talk, am I?" Bellatrix chuckled, near her ear.

"Well, you were coming right out of Azkaban..." Hermione commented, not daring to glance at her conversation partner.

"A good argument. Well, by now I have regained most of my beauty, but you, Mu... Granger, have certainly grown into it." Fingers played with a strand of her brown hair. "Remarkable... even the bushiness has gone back a great deal. I still wonder why a pretty thing like you gives herself to a git like that dumb Weasel."

"Please, don't insult Ron. He's been one of my best friends since almost eight years now, and he's a good human being." Blushing, the brunette added the most important and almost forgotten fact. "And he's my boyfriend."

"Ah well..." the former Death Eater remarked with a theatrical sigh, taking both of their empty glasses and sauntering over to the table to put them down. "My own fault for bringing him up. So, considering we're already at the chatty women topics, who was your first kiss? Not him, I suspect?" Bellatrix turned back around, a saucy, attractive smile on her lips and an inquisitive tone flowing out of them.

"Do you really want to know that?"

"I'm curious. Humour me, dearie." The raven haired woman walked back to her in a leisure-filled waltz, her smooth movements and tilted head capturing Hermione's attention as easily as someone blew out a candle. Her expressive voice was unusually low and had the brunette's spine tingle most pleasantly with every word she spoke.

It was... it was... who was it... oh. "Krum," Hermione breathed, inhaling deeper to get her spinning thoughts under control. The wine. It's the wine. I shouldn't have drunk so much, whether or not it tasted good. "Viktor Krum, the Quidditch player."

"Ah, that boy. I saw a picture in the Prophet, quite impressive... a handsome catch. Really, you're confusing me with your choice in taste," the pure-blood drawled, stopping barely a foot away. "Good kisser?"

"Uh, yeah. I think." Furrowing her brows, she tried to concentrate. But faced with Bellatrix, she had trouble even remembering the general look of his appearance. "There was Cormac McLaggen, b-but he's not a good comparison for anything."

"Really," Bellatrix commented and the word rolled of her tongue in a honeyed, captivating purr, forcing Hermione's flicking eyes back to the tempting lips. "Poor sweetling, those boys can't make anything right, can they?"

"No. Yes! I- I mean, maybe I just met the wrong ones..." She hastily pressed her eyelids together. "Except Ron, of course! He's great, and ah, very caring and - and surely a b-better kisser than the others."

"Surely," the other woman affirmed and the sudden warm breath on Hermione's cheek forced the younger woman's eyes open so quickly, the world around her unfocused for a moment or two before centering back on two bottomless, black eyes, who reflected the orange sheen in the window. Helplessly caught in that pinning stare, the brunette had trouble getting enough air into her chest, her heart was racing so fast. The other woman was maybe a hair's breadth away from her own frame and Hermione found herself caught between the former Death Eater and the window.

Inching backward and placing her sweating palms on the windowsill behind her back, the young woman tried to divert herself from the heat the other witch emitted. Her throat was as dry as the desert and her joints hurt from trying to suppress the need to reach out and touch the alluring, white skin before her.

Just the wine, just the wine... god, she's... she's so beautiful.

"But maybe you haven't felt the right kind of kiss yet," Bellatrix mused quietly and ignored the brunette's futile try to hide away from her advance by pressing her body close to Hermione's with one, final step, similar to, but more frontal than she had on the Yule Ball. One side of her mouth crawled up in a smirk at seeing the taller woman's erratic heartbeat pulsing in a vein on her neck. "Let's see if we can provide an... instant relief."

The pure-blood moved her head forward at an incredibly slow pace, deliberately leaving Hermione more than enough time to push her away, voice her complaints or do something else to get an out. But the younger witch was transfixed, caught like a deer in the headlights by the tantalizing mouth sending warm air across her own lips and causing her to shudder with...

Desire. Need. Want. Pleasure.

There was no denying anymore that she wanted this.

Hermione's eyes fluttered shut at the first contact of soft lips against her own, her body having turned into a pillar of salt. Nerve-endings screamed in immediate overload at the kiss, her fingers trembling at the gentle press of flesh on flesh.

Bellatrix pushed her mouth closer, moving herself achingly slow against the younger woman's lips.

Heaven. Hell. She wasn't sure what it was, where she was, all Hermione knew was that Bellatrix was kissing her and it drove her mind and hormones into a raging maelstrom of chaotic feelings, centered all around the places she touched the raven haired woman. She had never, not once in her life, felt so wrapped up in a kiss, felt so much fire and life racing at the speed of sonic sound through every part of her. Bellatrix wasn't just against her lips, she was in her blood, in her flesh, in her bones and tendrils. A delicious ache burned low in her stomach.

Then the tip of a hot tongue flicked against her upper lip and Hermione inhaled a shuddering gasp at the sensation.

So sweet. Spicy. More.

Not one to waste a good opportunity, Bellatrix surged forward the instant Hermione opened her mouth. Her hands were placed on the windowsill, right next to the younger woman's, so she could probably feel the death grip with which the brunette held onto the cool stone.

The older woman's tongue slipped as smoothly between Hermione's lips as her frame fit against the younger witch. A weak, mewling sound erupted from the brunette's throat at the invasion, causing her to tilt her head forward and give the pure-blood inadvertently much better access to her mouth.

Far beyond rational thought and filled to the brim with lovely, wonderful need for a longer, deeper taste, yet so far out of her comfort zone that she was unable to move at all, Hermione felt her knees go weak at the deep kiss, deeper than any touch she had ever experienced.

When the other woman sent her tongue in a broad sweep across Hermione's own, it sent electric thrills right down her stomach, deeper yet, to a place no other had ever touched before. Not physically, not even emotionally. Not until now.

A high, breathless moan erupted for the first time from the brunette's throat, filling the tense, charged atmosphere with sound and ripping apart the blanket of silence covering their entwined figures.

And as harsh as ever, reality slammed into her like a high-speed train, ripping apart the fragile understanding weaving its spot into her mind and leaving behind tattered shreds of horror, shame, panic and desperation.

What - what am I doing? Ron. Good gracious, what am I doing to Ron?

Her shaking hands left the stone, grabbing the other woman's shoulders. Her fingers got lost in sheer endless black curls, caressing her skin like the softest silk, before she pushed Bellatrix away from her body and face. The wet sound of their mouths loosening had her cheeks burst into shameful flames. Her bursting lungs sucked in greatly needed air and the unique smell of the raven haired woman, more desirable than any wine could ever be.

For a second there was confusion in her black eyes, but then the pure-blood started smirking, her full lips still glistening with the evidence of Hermione's infidelity. The cruel lines the mouth formed were well-known to the brunette and she felt sick to the stomach for the surging desire the view prompted in her blood.

Cold shock battled with the heat clinging to every place the former Death Eater had touched.

Bellatrix licked her lips, observing with delight how the younger woman shuddered at the action.

"Let's see how you remember that when exchanging sweet, chaste kisses with your boy toy next time," the pure-blood husked in Hermione's direction and gripped her chin between slender fingers. "I'm sure he won't mind that his girlfriend prefers the weaker sex to get her going." An evil grin followed. "Or one bad, bad woman in particular."

"Don't touch me," Hermione growled, scared at her breathless tone and her eyes feeling hot with unshed tears. She tricked me. Once again, she makes me feel like a fool. God damn it, why did I fall for her trap?

WHY?

She slapped her hand against the former Death Eater's, pushing away the appendage grasping her face. Her lips still burned from the kiss, her mouth filled with the taste of wine and Bellatrix. "You... you are despicable."

"Oh, a minute ago I could have sworn you were panting quite a different melody," the older woman purred, cornering the other witch with her mere presence. "Who would've thunk? The Golden Trio's smart little brain has the hots for a female Death Eater. My, what a dirty girl you are."

Hermione wanted to scream in her face, deny those accusations, but the protests in her head sounded weak even to her own ears. It was undeniable. There was no way to blame it on the wine. She was guilty as charged with feeling sexual desire for the other woman and finally the truth had been driven home through her own denial.

She hated herself for this.

"How can you be so twisted? Was it all a game to you, the whole evening? Didn't you care even once how nice it was to talk like this?" Hermione asked in a bitter tone, disgusted by herself for being wrapped around the raven haired woman's finger so easily.

"You should applaud me," the pure-blood laughed at her, feeding of the hurt look in the brunette's features like a parasite. "I kept my disgust for you quite well in check, didn't I? Making you think I care, that I'm oh so attentive." She reached out a hand to glide her knuckles harshly across the Gryffindor's red cheek. Hermione turned her head away. "You're so easy it's sick, Mudblood."

That did it.

Amidst the painful jabs of Bellatrix's high laughter, Hermione pushed herself away from the window and roughly shouldered the other woman out of the way. With hurried steps and a blurring vision - the same, it always ends the fucking same - she ran to her room and slammed the door shut.

A giggling pure-blood leaned against the wood from the other side as Hermione slid down to the floor.

"What's the matter, pet? Can't deal with the truth? Aw, but you are so adorable when you're unfaithful to your puppy-eyed Ronnie... I'm sure he loves it when you get all wet for a woman."

In a desperate need to shut out the world, the brunette grabbed her wand and flicked it, suffocating silence engulfing the whole room. It was so quiet, the rushing blood streaming past her eardrums sounded like the crashing drone of a waterfall, thundering into every nook and reverberating off the walls.

And once more she was the fool.

Throwing herself on the bed with a strangled cry, Hermione buried her heated face into the cool cloth of her pillow. Shame and desire still fought a relentless war in her flesh and even after several minutes of taking deep breaths, the young woman nearly burst into tears at the knowledge that the desire was winning battle after battle.

Turning on her side, she conjured up an image of her boyfriend. She forced herself to imagine red hair, a freckled face, blue eyes, but the picture only wanted to stay for an instant before wavering and turning back into the frame and coloring of the dark witch.

Bellatrix was clinging to her like the wine, buzzing in her blood and getting to her head. It was like a delicious pain crawled along her skin, driving her crazy with the sensation and causing her to grow weaker, weaker, always weaker.

With a helpless sob, Hermione rolled up her shirt, a rogue hand traveling down her quivering stomach and into her pants.

It's just sexual. It's just that, you can deal with it, get it out of your system-...

A touch of her fingers against incredible wetness had her turn her head deeper into the pillow, as if hiding from the whole world, but at the same time her back arched rigidly at the electricity racing up and down her spine at the contact. It flooded her whole body, pressing the air out of her lungs and having her suck it back right in.

The second touch had her tremble forcefully and she bit the knuckle on her right thumb to subdue the heavy whimper. Her cheeks and pillow were wet with tears she didn't remember shedding. And yet it was delicious.

At the third touch, her moan was nearly unrestrained and her lower lip sucked greedily inside her mouth, tasting the other woman on it until her senses nearly exploded with need for another poisonous kiss. Her skin felt so sensitive, the heat and cold around her had her feeling for temperature spinning out of control.

So sensitive, she could feel the scar on her arm rub against her stomach in detail.

Mudblood.

With a despaired cry of protest, Hermione ripped her left hand back out and pushed it beneath her pillow, biting deeper into her hand til the pain drove away the throbbing between her legs. She wouldn't give in, she couldn't give in to something like that. Bellatrix had infected her with a sick and vile thing, driving her equilibrium apart with her cruel seduction.

There would be no satisfaction gained from pleasing herself and even if she went through with this, Bellatrix had gained her victory.

Hermione would not let that happen.

I hate you so much right now, Bellatrix.

But even while crying in the solace of her room, the young woman had to admit that it wasn't all the fault of the dark witch. These feelings were hers and hers alone, not even explicable with the alcohol she had ingested this evening. No, she was to blame just as well, for giving in, for not going away when she had the chance... for all the influence the older woman could invoke in her.

Stay away. Keep your cool head and remember Ron whenever something similar might happen. This was just another lost battle in a grand scale war and Hermione promised herself she would pay the pure-blood back. One day, she would have the upper hand over the sadistic creature.

Forget this evening. You will never be unfaithful like that again.

With a weak flicker of her former strength burning inside her soul, her body finally exhausted from the whirlwind of emotion it had suffered this evening, the brunette slowly but surely drifted off into a much needed sleep.

He. Hehehe. Ehm. I warned I would only flirt with the M-rating!... Seriously, it would be boring and OOC if they jumped into bed right then. Moving along!
I had an awesome day and finally finished a chapter I had lying around for weeks, so I'll be nice about my next preview: Bellatrix will sort-of get some payback. Stay tuuuuned!...

Chapter Text

Oh man, what an awesome resonance this is getting! You rock, people, you do! My reply space is getting bigger and bigger, I hope you don't mind scrolling across it to get to your chapter :)
This chapter seems to have a huge mistake, which seems to be the layout of Hogwarts and Hogsmeade. When I wrote this, I googled the layout and every site said something different... so I went with the most convenient version. But lately, I stumbled across an official map, and it says Black Lake is behind Hogwarts... which is pretty annoying. So please ignore that, I can't help it and changing it would mean a lot of work. Sorry for that huge mistake :(

hollowwind: Nah, I don't want you dead. Dead readers aren't good readers *chuckle* Suffering readers on the other hand... :D Kidding! I know I'm evil when it comes to teasing... didn't think I would get this good with it. But I'm following a bigger plan, so please wait and see!

imperfectionisunderrated: I'm always shy! I'm unused to such a huge amount of attention this is getting ^^ And no, I don't work in a circus, I just wanted to learn juggling because I think it's cool :D I can only manage three balls... because I only own three *g* Sorry for fooling you ;) But it means my plan worked, wuhaha.

Pandora's Moon: The idea of someone actually literally jumping around because of my story is just awesome :D I'm cruel, I know, but as you said, please bid your time! LIKE A BOSS! ;)

unexpected sabotage: Hermione and her guilt keeps cockblocking EVERYTHING! At least she's loyal, you have to give her that :D *waves a friendly wave at your parents*

CadleyLove: *snooooooort*

miss reality: Right you are ;) There is little I can (or want) to say against that statement!

Berserkeroo: *quickly and silently tiptoes out underneath the Invisibility Cloak*

List of Romantics: Sand in... ouch! OUCH! Bad LoR, for giving me THAT image XD Of course, it's just my imagination when writing, because with actors I have much more ease imagining how they would move, how their voices would sound in certain situations... it's easier to describe than with imagining a mere picture. Not that those aren't lovely as well :3

misswitty: Well, you kinda are on the right track, but it will still be a little while :)

Devil Child Vorn: Well, she certainly does deserve a good, healthy slap XD Bwahaha, nice image there! Now I have to picture Bellatrix hunched over a grand organ and punching in random dark notes...

cathandsaraforever55: We get a short look into Bellatrix's mind in this chappy. Bella's problem: She doesn't think too hard about stuff...

OpheliaBlack: Hmmm, good argument. It's been a while since I read the books... Boy, do I know what you are talking about. I may not hate Ron, but writing Ron/Hermione in this story equals excruciating pain... and *purr* Helena Bonham Carter. She's awesome.

lemon-rind: Word! Feelings are feelings. Otherwise they would be called logic :D By the way, the wine exists. It's the most expensive thing I found on the internet...

fracturediamond: Ah, a name to the... nickname? :D I feel absolutely honored! So, what are you calling those paragraph babies? ;D Oh, please, please, please, with sugar sprinkles and cherries on top... pleeeeease write Bellamione! There is nothing that inspires me more than reading other Bellamione! I NEED IT TO BREEEATHE!

CatsEyeShy: Hihi, thank you. Yeah, Bella being nice has probably given everyone a 'Huh?' moment. And how to better make someone confused than by being... truthful to a certain extent? :D

wolfzero7: I certainly would want to take a sneak at those dreams... ;)

Greyella: She's awful. And awesome. And pretty. But mostly awful *chuckle* But I have it all figured out, don't worry :)

Ryoshu: Hermione's blind spot is huge enough to send the world into eternal darkness. Thanks for the nice words! ^^

Bellaminion: Go and write it, I'm still immensely busy with this monster of a story :D But that's a curious idea right there!

Askara: Thank you! There are of course different points of views out there and I totally get that people don't agree with everything written here. It makes for interesting discussions :) But I hope the whole package keeps being interesting enough to follow ;) Thanks for reading and commenting!

iAxel: Clever one, isn't she? :3

In-betweens: Aw, my delightful reviewer is back! *happy dance* Sorry my reply is so short, but I'm still recovering from the swooning I did on reading through your comments. The thing with Ron? Wait and see, dear, wait and see :D

Aaaaand, here we are again! Have a Happy Easter, my lovely readers!

20. Without Thought

"So farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear,

Farewell remorse; all good to me is lost.

Evil, be thou my good." - John Milton, Paradise Lost

There was a tentative kind of cautiousness between the two witches from that evening on. True to the promise to herself, Hermione refused to show fear and let Bellatrix blackmail her with her attraction for the older woman, even if she had been caught by the dark witch at her weakest. The days had cooled her anger and hate, but she was more careful than ever before.

Bellatrix on the other hand seemed less interested in attacking the younger woman and Hermione tried to steer clear of the dark witch whenever possible, which was getting harder, because for some reason the pure-blood chose to linger at Hogwarts instead of taking any 'forbidden' trips. But soon a Hogsmeade weekend came up and the brunette found herself pestered and nagged by the pure-blood that she wanted to go. Bellatrix had been mingling with the students from Slytherin from time to time, now that she had had her grand entrance, and it was clear they had tipped her off about the trip.

"Your friend owes me firewhisky! And I need to get out of this drably walls, there's only so long you can stay in Hogwarts before going bat-shit crazy."

"You're already crazy, how much worse can it get?" Hermione mumbled, sorting her scrolls on the living room table without looking at the former Death Eater.

"Oh, much worse. I could start setting stuff on fire in your room or blast random loud noises while you sleep. There's a whole catalogue of crazy things I could do, but most will include 'smithereens' and 'insomnia' somewhere in them."

The brunette grimaced, not even wanting to imagine what Bellatrix was capable of. So far, all her dreadful actions had been mostly the result of spontaneous rage and after the seduction Hermione had gone through at the hands of the raven haired witch, she had an idea to what lengths the other woman would go when she planned something specifically. She wasn't eager for a repeat performance or, worse, having to be constantly on her guard all day long.

"Fine," she huffed at the pacing witch, "we'll go. But I'm doing this because I want to keep an eye on you, not because I'm scared by your threats. And we take Ginny and Luna with us, no matter what you say. I don't want to experience such an attack again."

"Sheesh, you scaredy-cats. We are both armed and capable, don't you think we're quite sufficiently protected?"

"No." Hermione had her gaze hefted on the scrolls in front of her. As long as you're close, not even an elder wand will keep me safe.

Bellatrix snorted, turning to her room. "Fine, whatever. Bring them. What do I care."

And with that, it was decided. Half a week later, the Gryffindor found herself in a bad mood and decked in the warmest clothes she owned, ready to walk the whole way to Hogsmeade with the frustrating former Death Eater in tow. Hopefully, Ginny and Luna would be able to distract her a bit. Hermione didn't need a full moon to feel enraged by the slightest provocation.

A fresh sheet of frosty white awaited them on the outside, nearly rising up to their shins. Ginny was nearly as unhappy as Hermione about the dark witch's presence and Luna did not seem to care either way. There was mainly short periods of small-talk on the way between the friends, but most of the time they trudged on in silence, Bellatrix following them with a few feet of space between her and the others.

It was getting dark soon these days and when Hermione saw the warm glow of the windows in the distance, dusk was already settling, the receding light hampered even more by the thick clouds covering the sky since days. Longing for a warm butterbeer to chase the cold from her freezing body, her wishful thoughts were interrupted by a hand on her upper arm pulling her around.

"What?" she hissed at the cloaked figure of the dark witch.

"I want to take a look at the water edge. Come on," Bellatrix stated as if it was the most normal thing in the world to divert themselves from the main road.

Hermione wouldn't budge, causing the dark witch to throw her an exasperated look. "No. I'm not going... we're not going. Hogsmeade is right over there, I'm cold and have no interest whatsoever to go alone with you to Black Lake," she hissed back, ripping her arm from Bellatrix's grip.

"What the hell crawled up you ass and died? It's just a small detour!"

Ginny and Luna had stopped a small ways away, exchanging wondering glances about what on earth the two squabblers could be going on about now. Instead of moving on, they waited while hopping from one foot to the other.

"Why must you always, always be so difficult?" Hermione snapped at the other woman, enraged. Her nerves had been pulled taut since quite a while and now her anger seeped through. "First you tell me you want to ruin my life and the next day your pulling me around like your school buddy! Do you really think you can command me around after your last stunt? I've had it to here with you!" She indicated the top of her head with a terse gesture.

Bellatrix glowered at her underneath her hood. "You should be happy I'm so lenient with you," she growled out, leaning forward. "Actually, since finding out about your pathetic infatuation with me, I'm pretty pacified. Now that I have indecent material I can use against you in case you decide to talk about the personal things you know about me, I feel quite reassured. Hell, I'm not even in the mood to torture you; after being stuck with you for six months it looses its taste."

"Looses its-... have you ever listened to yourself?" the Gryffindor nearly screamed back, reminding herself that only a few feet away there where two of her friends who could never, ever find out about what had happened between them. "I told you repeatedly I would not use anything of what I saw against you. You already know I care, as does half the Wizarding World, considering I was forced to say so in the court room!"

"Well, I don't care. And I don't trust a stupid potion. When it comes down to it, everyone is for themselves first and others second, so if it gets you out of a clinch, you will make sure to save your own hide, no matter what rubbish you say about nonsense like trust and understanding."

Unable to do anything but shake her head in outrage at the other woman's views, the Gryffindor clenched her hands into fists. "Gosh, I wonder why I always defended you... Ginny was right from the beginning," Hermione spat with disgust. "For all your beauty, there is only rotten darkness on the inside. You don't even try to change."

Bellatrix smirked, taking a step closer and dragging a finger down the brunette's jawbone away from the waiting women's sight. "I know one person for whom I am quite adequate the way I am, hm?"

"As if that would help me," was the bitter reply, Hermione forcing herself to take a step backward with a racing heart. Just a small touch was enough to have her skin burn and tingle and it feed the flames of anger dancing inside her.

"Correct, my pet. You're nothing to me. Not that a disgusting Mudblood has any chance to land in my bed, but it's so gratifying to watch you squirm after me," Bellatrix purred with a dark chuckle.

The young woman had never held out any hope for anything. She was happy with Ron and even if she had been single, giving in to someone like Bellatrix Black was a big no-no in any possible case. But the unadorned rejection thrown in her face like this - it hurt. Deeply. It shouldn't, the brunette was quite aware of that, but the truth that she was really only the pure-blood's plaything and had never been a possible attraction in spite of her blood status... it was like a punch to the gut.

It was ridiculous. She should have known these were the facts from the beginning.

"Go and fall into the damned lake, you sick person," Hermione forced out in a whisper past the lump in her throat. "Leave me alone. If I see you anywhere near Hogsmeade today, I will personally hex you back to Hogwarts and make sure that you spend the rest of the school year in Filch's chains."

"Aw, the kitten showing it's claws, what a cu-..." Further the eldest Black wasn't able to come, as the younger woman had slapped her harshly across the cheek. It came so sudden, so unexpected, that the dark witch didn't even retaliate, instead staring wide-eyed at the burning brown eyes of her Vow partner.

"Just stay away, Bellatrix, if you know what's good for you. I'm done bowing down to your sadism." The Gryffindor whirled around and, with powerful steps, swept past her dumb-founded friends. There was a visible air of wrath hanging around her shoulders, so Ginny and Luna hurried after her without comment, throwing a few odd looks at the remaining pure-blood.

"Did you just slap her?" the redhead questioned her with wide eyes when they had reached the first lights of the wizard town. "Last time you nearly, you know, and now you-..."

"Don't mention it, okay?" Hermione snapped, heading over to the Three Broomsticks. It was time to divert her attention from the horrible woman they had left behind. No matter if it was dangerous or not to split themselves up. "If anyone mentions her to me again, I'll throw my butterbeer in their lap, got it?"

"Got it," the other women echoed and shrugged at each other. It had been a while since they had been the recipients of the Head Girl's once heated temper and no one had any interest in finding out if she was as retaliating as back then if the mood struck her.

So instead of lingering on the scene, they turned as one to Honeydukes and let the curious tastes scatter their worries for the moment.

Bellatrix tried not to think too hard about how she had missed to make a fitting comeback and rubbed her burning cheek and jaw. The Mudblood had gained quite the strength and it seemed she didn't even know the effect of her own force. Better keep that in mind for our next tussle, she mentally noted, turning away from the inviting lights of Hogsmeade and into the direction of the water surface.

Riling the younger woman up was enormous fun most of the time, but lately it lacked the kick she had gained from it during their months on the Isle of Lewis. Maybe it was the raising familiarity, which started to settle in in spite of however much she strained against it. The more she got to know the young witch, the more she knew how her response to certain stimulus would be. And no matter how much she loved to make others squirm and scream, to see the shock and pain in their eyes mingling with the sweetest emotion of horror, it wasn't the same anymore with the Mudblood.

It's because she's starting to bore me. Yes, that's a very good explanation.

Something in the back of her mind niggled that this excuse didn't quite hit the right spot, but the times where Bellatrix had listened attentively to what was going on inside of there were long past. These days, she was a creature of instant action, all done with no worry and even less regrets. She knew she was smart and her intelligence made itself known even in quick-minute decisions.

And yet she was getting tired of it.

She was getting tired of a lot of things lately.

The pale blue light of her wand peeled the way to the lake out of the darkness for her. It wasn't as dark as the last nights and Lumos wasn't as harsh to the eyes as any other light source. In the distance, she could already see the flat, plain mirror of inky blackness, her intended destination. But as she came closer to the shore, she noted with irritation that this side of the lake had another cliff overhanging the water, similar to Hogwarts, but with merely two or three feet down to the surface.

Damn.

It would mean another side trip and going further away from Hogsmeade, which she hadn't planned on. The last days, whenever she had visited Black Lake, there had been an unwell, stinging feeling rising at the back of her neck and so she had abstained from doing any side trips. This had been her first chance since more than a week.

Well. That sucks. She blew at one of her willful curls, obscuring her vision. There goes my chat with the Merfolk.

Indecisive, she stood a few feet away from the cliff edge. It was incredulous, really, that she even spared a thought to what would happen if she went back to Hogsmeade to warm her fingers on some warm drink or heat her belly with some firewhisky, but every time she considered turning and walking to the town, the Mudblood's hurt expression slipped back into her mind. Soft brown eyes glazing with a sheen of unshed tears, cheeks dotted with angry and cold-induced red, lips pressed into a bloodless, thin line. The very picture of youthful indignation, an almost tragic aura of felt betrayal around her slim, pretty body hidden underneath layers of unflattering, thick cloth. It would have been funny if Bellatrix weren't so damn tired of everything lately.

Hurting the Mudblood was more of a habit now than a pleasure. Her last act risen more out of desperation to have something, anything she could use as a token to ensure the girl wouldn't talk about her carefully hidden memories. All those months away from her Master, away from all the Death Eater dealings after nearly twenty years... it made the normal time spent here almost surreal. Sometimes she caught herself in quiet moments and wondered if it was all a very long, detailed dream. Wondering further if she wanted to wake up or not.

It's hard to stay and think, Bellatrix mused absently as the noise in her mind began to rear it's head again, swallowing every possible answer she might have had to those questions.

But the picture of the young witch lingered and pierced the storm for another long moment as she contemplated going to Hogsmeade once again, even setting her foot in the right direction without taking a further step...

If she hadn't been so preoccupied with her thoughts, she might even have reacted in time. As it was now, the way Bellatrix felt the wand rip itself from her dangling fingers was enough of a surprise to have her eyes follow the wooden stick, still alight, twirl soundlessly through the air and hit the snow several feet away without a noise.

Then a stun hit her back and ripped her from her feet.

Bellatrix hit the cold beneath her, almost numb to the pain prickling her. When she was able to slowly move her body again after a few, agonizing seconds, she pushed herself to hands and feet and spat out a bit of cold water clinging to her lip.

Wary and cautious, but with a rising fury twisting in her insides, she pushed herself to her feet and took a careful look around.

"How easy you make this for me, Bella," a familiar voice quietly commented from the side, it's tone both amused and cold. "It's like you present yourself to me on a silver platter."

"I wouldn't have expected to see you again of all people," she drawled, raising her head higher. "Rabastan." Presenting an outward appearance of calm she shared only partially on the inside, as she didn't know what to expect from her husband's younger brother.

Nothing good, she could guess that much.

"Oh, I'm sure of that. You didn't expect to see any of us again after stabbing us in the back, didn't you?" The man moved nearer, all thin and lanky, even when wreathed in shadows. Then a glow erupted from his wand and the dark witch could see the last months hadn't been kind to him. He was as mangled as he had been when freshly out of Azkaban, with his straggly hair turned ashen from worry and stress and his features so gaunt, one might think his skin would rip at the slightest touch. But his dark eyes were calm, as was the hand holding his wand. She didn't like the intensity of his gaze one bit.

"I stabbed no one in the back. I watched out for myself, you simply weren't smart enough to do the same." Feverishly she tried to remember where her now lightless wand had fallen. But if she made one wrong move, Rabastan would have her on her back sooner than she could take a step.

"Do you tell yourself that every night you fall asleep? Wrapped in your warm comforter and in peace while we struggle through day after day, doing everything to keep free and stay loyal to our one and only Dark Lord?" Rabastan sneered, looking more than ever like his late elder brother with an expression like that.

"Everyone is for himself. It was so after his first death and it is so after his last. You know that very well, my dear ex-brother-in-law, or are you one of those who foolishly believe in a second return?" she questioned him with a lowering of her eyes, carefully and hopefully unnoticed moving in a different direction than the other man, so that they were circling each other.

"Ha! I'm not stupid, Bella. I never was," he shot back with a bark, raising the arm where the Dark Mark had been, yet never lowering his wand. "I can read the signs when I see them... but it doesn't change the fact that you deserve the same fate as each and everyone of us. I know your connection to the hussy and I want to see you suffer for getting away safely. Safe and healthy - while my brother rots away in his grave and I have to live like an animal for the rest of my life. I will make sure to drag you down with the rest of us, betrayer."

The left. It was somewhere to the left. She would have to keep him speaking for her to find her weapon and something about his words struck her memory. Still she moved with cautious care. "You send Gus and the rest here, didn't you?"

"I did. He was too stupid to stay free much longer and it was the perfect opportunity to gauge you. I must say, your new look surprised me as well." He smiled grimly, almost showing a trace of his once youthful handsomeness. "I've been watching you for weeks, always following your steps. It wasn't easy to survive on Hogwarts grounds and I couldn't follow you into the Forbidden Forest... but I saw how you visited the Lake several times."

So that was the strange feeling she had been getting lately. It was her natural suspicion that had warned her of something hostile, watching her, following her.

"Why not attack me then? Why now?"

Rabastan smiled wider and it looked almost grotesque on his pinched face. Like his lips would part his head into two parts, the upper one getting into danger of simply toppling of his neck. "I'm smarter than that, Bella. You never came during the dark hours and never stayed for long. I'm not aware what's going on in that wretched school, but I'm quite sure someone would have missed you... but this chance here I couldn't let pass. You will never be so vulnerable again as now."

His words had gotten more quiet, coarser, and Bellatrix was sure she had outstayed her welcome. With a quick turn, she threw herself around and sprinted through the snow to where she guessed her wand had fallen, but before she had even lifted her foot two times, a well-known spell hit her back and she toppled to the ground with a grunt, her whole body twitching and on fire.

It had been a while since she had known this taste of pain. But a Crucio never got old.

Before she could get her bearings, a harsh hand twisted itself in her thick locks, ripping her up to her knees. Rabastan glanced down at her panting scowl with cruel indifference. His thin lips were dark blue from the cold. "You're getting predictable, sister. But before the night is over, I will hear you scream for mercy."

That had a cackling laugh torn from her throat, which was interrupted, but not ended, by the thin man back-handing her roughly across the temple. Blood trickled warmly down her cheek, but the smirk on her lips didn't die. "How cute, Rabastan. And you think you know me when you believe I will surrender to your efforts? Really, how amusing... considering all the pain I suffered at His hands."

"You forget I was also one of his closest, if maybe not as close to him as you were," he replied with forced nonchalance and the barest hint of jealousy. He threw her backward and kicked her viciously into the side, which only caused a small giggle to erupt from the dark witch's lips. "I know what he did and I know how much you can take. You've got so many screws loose, you'd probably enjoy any violence I dish out." He glanced at her like one would at a curious experiment and Bellatrix kept quiet on the fact that he and his brother also hadn't been quite there anymore after their time in Azkaban.

Another Cruciatus had her shiver from the ache, but nothing more: No screams, no whimper, nothing. Now that she knew what to expect, turning the pain off was easy.

"Yeah, that's what I thought," Rabastan muttered and came closer again, kicking her until she was on her back and he could drag her back upwards by her hair. Blood caked her temple in rivulets, but there was no decrease to the arrogance and superiority in her gaze. The thin man sniffed in distaste.

"But you don't think I came unprepared, do you? If there is one thing I learned in all those years, then it is how to break you. I spent enough time around you, sister, and, as much as I hate to admit it, know that we're quite alike." He kneeled behind her and took the wand pushed against her neck away, to nestle at something behind him. Bellatrix wound herself, but his grip was relentless against the scratches of her nails and he had dragged her hair back so far she feared her neck would snap. Baring her teeth at him in anger, she was helpless to do anything but wait for what he had planned.

I should have held my mouth, she suddenly thought, reminded of her fight with the younger witch. If I had gone with them, I could have downed two firewiskeys already and wouldn't have to put up with this shit.

But life had strange ways and for once Bellatrix was the one who found herself with no escape and without a good plan to change things around. She knew Rabastan and his habit to feel immense envy and jealousy for the people and things he couldn't have. And she was very aware that he wouldn't change his mind, not now, when he was in the position of power he had always desired over her.

"Fuck you," she hissed, when he was keeping himself occupied with something.

"Not now, Bella," he muttered, his attention back to her. "This is a special moment. You know, I was quite envious of Rodolphus when Voldemort introduced you to him and not me, wondering what he had done to deserve such a fine, female specimen when I was actually the smarter one. Later I realized I was lucky, considering the deranged bitch you turned out to be."

He pressed his dirty frame closer to her from behind and the need to claw his eyes out overwhelmed her every sense. But she was in no good position to move, her whole neck, shoulders and back aching from the strained position he had forced her in.

"Now take a good look, sister. I brought you a very special friend." She could see his rotten smile out of the corner of her eyes and how he threw forward a dark, shapeless form... a stone? A bag? With a quick movement he pushed her head forward again and forced her vision in the direction of whatever he had thrown.

It was a bag, not unlike the charmed one she remembered from the Mudblood. But it had opened during its flight and sat with the bottom on top of the snow cover, hardly sunken in. Bellatrix herself hardly felt the wet cold seeping into her dress, still breathing hard in her rage, but transfixed by dark smoke curling around the top of the container.

The crawling darkness slithered higher, became thicker, until Bellatrix realized it was not smoke but gray, tattered fabric looking almost alive in the lifeless light of the moon and Rabastan's wand.

All at once, Bellatrix was freezing. A shiver crawled up her spine and her breath fogged stronger, white and cloudy in the low temperature, her throat feeling as if it was respiring fragments of ice.

A skeleton hand curled around the opening of the container, slowly easing itself out of its confinement.

Something sucked at her mind, the Screams rising higher. Dull pain throbbed behind her forehead. "Be polite and say hello, Bella. Now the real fun begins for us both."

Then the Dementor had freed himself out of the bag, his sightless face glancing only in one direction.

The caught woman.

Terror clouded her last sane thought as Bellatrix filled the night with high-pitched screams.

Hermione was restless.

For the last ten minutes she had stared at the foaming top of her butterbeer and then glanced at the door to the Three Broomsticks. She still felt raw and hurt, but most of her anger had faded so far and she was unable to help the creeping doubt that wondered if Bellatrix had actually listened to her for once and was now out in the cold, shivering and waiting.

It had been stupid of her to forbid the dark witch from entering Hogsmeade, especially when it was the middle of winter and when the whole reason they had come here together had been because they wanted to make sure no one got hurt by staying in a group.

What if Bellatrix caught a cold, or frostbite?

Then it is her own bloody fault. Suits her right for lashing out at the only one that ever cared beside her sisters. Forcing herself to look away from the door and back to her butterbeer, Hermione could feel her frown deepen.

"If you stare at your drink like that for much longer, it will start tasting like your frown," Luna softly interrupted the brunette's thoughts while sipping from her own tankard.

Hermione lifted her head, finding herself face to face with two bored and worried friends. "You know, you haven't said anything in the last half hour. We can't even snap you out of your funk... don't you want to talk about it?" Ginny questioned, carefully leaning closer. The inn was quite full and no one would be able to overhear their conversation with all the bustle going on.

"No, I don't. There's nothing to talk about," Hermione waved off, but her heart was hammering as her mind drifted back to the raven haired woman. When she kissed me, was she really disgusted with me during it? The kiss was so soft. You don't kiss someone like that when you hate them, do you? Bellatrix must have had dozens of lovers, considering her words on unfaithfulness. How could she, a mere young Muggle-born, barely a woman, compete with any of that?

Not that I want to, Hermione quickly fended off, but I don't want to be treated like dirt either. It couldn't have been all an act, our talk that evening. It couldn't.

"She's doing it again," she distinctly heard the redhead sigh with the beginnings of frustration. "Snap, and gone she is."

"Maybe she is having an out-of-body experience. I try to have them too, but it never quite works. I guess I'm just too grounded for that," the blonde mused out loud, earning herself an amused snort from the younger Gryffindor.

"Luna, we need to have a talk about your self-image. I admit I'm very curious about whatever it is that you see in the mirror." There was friendly, fond ribbing in Ginny's voice as she played with her butterbeer.

"Why, me, of course," the Ravenclaw replied, sounding confused. "Do you see something else than yourself?"

And suddenly Hermione was standing and looking down into the shocked expressions of her friends, forcing out out a mumbled "I need to go." She was out the door and moving away from the Three Broomsticks before either of them could move to stand up from their table.

The cold hit her skin like a solid wand, pressing the warm air from her lungs. After all the noise in the tavern room the silence of the night had her heartbeat and harsh breathing sound so much louder than before, encasing her in a bubble of sound and having her feel like a stranger in the world of the living. Walking restlessly down the path and into the darkness, Hermione let the town's warm light guide her way until her eyes had gotten used to the bright shine of the moon.

She had to know, had to get an answer. After all this time, how long could the pure-blood hate her still? Yes, Hermione's desire for her had seemed like a sufficient exchange for the secrets she had garnered from the dark witch's mind, but that couldn't be all, could it? Maybe it was her own pathetic need to believe there was something good in everyone (well, besides Voldemort) and that Bellatrix was able to change the longer she was away from her master and immersed in the normal world.

Had all her words to Ginny that day in the infirmary been a lie, a sham? She had to know the truth.

From afar she could see a small light in the distance, a wand light, and she moved closer to it. Her heart was in her throat again, but she knew she had to confront this or it would drive her crazy.

But then a wail reached her ears, long and full of despair. Something wasn't right. That hadn't been Bellatrix's voice, had it?

Pulse now racing for complete different reasons, Hermione slipped her wand from its pocket and started racing towards the light source. The hammering of her feet on the snow wasn't muffled in the slightest and when she came closer, the young woman knew instantly that whoever was there would hear and see her coming. She didn't care.

Bellatrix. They have her. Stupid, stupid, stupid! We should have never parted!

Then she was close enough that smeared spots became figures and the scene presented itself to her.

Rabastan Lestrange. She almost wouldn't have recognized him beneath that unruly beard and dressed in such drabs, but the lines of his face were unmistakeable. He had his wand turned in her direction, while his free hand was grabbing the neck of the slumped form of his former sister-in-law, the mess of dark curls hiding her features behind a black curtain.

And there was the Dementor. The second Hermione turned her gaze on him, she felt his presence freeze her soul and suck the good emotions from her consciousness, like leech attached to her gaze down to the very core of her being.

"What the hell are you doing here, Mudblood? I hadn't planned on ending my fun and killing you both so soon," Rabastan shouted at her with a sour expression. The horrible creature hovered in place, waiting, ready to devour the dark witch's soul, but something was... off about it.

Hermione turned her own weapon against Rabastan. "Let her go or I'll make you regret it. Your pet doesn't frighten me." It was a pretty bold lie, because she was shivering down to her feet at the thought of the soulless thing coming near, but maybe her convicted tone would fool him.

The thin man tsk-ed, recognizing the same self-importance in his stance she found in every pure-blood. It was only Bellatrix and her sisters who had really mastered it to the point of perfection, making him seem like a little brother trying to imitate his elders. "I'm quite aware of your blasted bond, girl. The second I end her, you're gone to." He smirked, but his eyes were flicking around. Where the student had come from, many more could be mere moments behind.

"The second you try to, I will blast you so hard you'll see stars for the rest of your life," Hermione shot back, etching closer. The Dementor had its attention fixed on the pair, but its presence sent shivers crawling down her spine. "So let her go. Now."

"Let her go? Well... if you are so insistent on it?" Rabastan smirked delightedly and raised the glowing tip of his wand. The brunette gasped as she saw the wretched condition Bellatrix was in, red covering the pale parts of her skin she was able to see from here. But the worst was a large gash across her side, dark red, nearly black blood and open flesh glittering in the cold, blue light. If not for the weak grasp the dark witch had on her captor's arm with one hand, chances had been good she had already gone to meet her maker.

And then there was the dark, pitch black space the older woman was teetering on. Only Rabastan's grip kept her from tumbling over the edge of a cliff and into Black Lake's ice-cold waters.

"Rabas-... NO!" Hermione screamed, but the man had already let go of the handful of dress, watching with sick glee how the young woman's eyes widened in horror.

The brunette caught a short glimpse at empty, dark eyes, then Bellatrix's body was... gone.

Hermione moved on autopilot.

She threw a rapid succession of spells in Rabastan's direction, which he deflected with a laugh that turned into a surprised grunt. Before he could retaliate, the gentle, blue form of an otter darted through the air and rushed at the Dementor with playful ease, pushing the screeching creature back with magnificent twirls and spins.

As the gray-cloaked nightmare shuddered and curled into a ball of smoke, reforming and changing his appearance, a flicker in Hermione's mind told her she had not faced a real Dementor, but a scary good imitation of one. Boggart, it whispered and was gone, because the only thing she concentrated on was how much quicker and faster she could push her legs.

Rabastan saw her coming and raised his wand with a snarl, ready to deflect her incoming hexes, but as he dodged another one of her attacks and got himself ready to engage her into a magical duel, he could only watch dumbfounded when Hermione didn't even spare him a longer glance.

Actually, she wasn't even headed for him.

With a speed and determination that had even the Death Eater frozen for a long, stumped moment, Hermione threw herself off the edge of the cliff without the slightest flicker of hesitation.

Cold wind nipped at the brunette's clothes and skin as she silently fell through the night air, the star-filled darkness below her churned from a recent disturbance. Another body had already hit the water and was sinking deeper by the second.

Bellatrix.

Uhm... cliffhanger?... Hehe...he... *coughs and sneaks out the back door*
By the way, people are still wondering about Hermione's feelings for Bella. There is actually a hint I built into the story, but I can understand very well if no one caught wind of it. It's really just a tiny hint, but I won't reveal it right now... later you will all understand what I mean ;)
Other than that... a future warning:
At the end of the April, I will be gone for three months. Meaning, I'll make a trip to France on my own to improve my French and I don't know if and when I'll have internet access. I'll try to update, but I can't promise anything at this point. I'll take my beloved netbook with me, so at the least I'll have much time to write. Damn, I'm so nervous about this trip... there's still a lot I need to plan *sigh* But just to clear up the confusion, until then there WILL be still regular updates! :)
Have a lovely few Easter days, everyone!

Chapter Text

Sorry everyone, I didn't think I'd be that evil with the cliffhanger, so I'll post this one sooner than planned :) BUT... from here on I won't update as often anymore, because I need to concentrate on dusting off my French and plan my journey. But this will be finished, so don't worry about me abandoning it suddenly on the way ;)
And look at those reviews... darn, I can hardly keep up! *laughs*

List of Romantics: I'd totally try butterbeer. It sounds warm and delicious! Good thing I don't own lube then *snickers*

Devil Child Vorn: I think the only one feeding her chicken soup would be Madam Pomfrey and boy would that be unromantic XD

Antonia23: Sorry, she won't be changing into a doggy ;) Her blood messes with her inhibitions on full moon, though!

YuffeGetsBears: All day? Boy, you're patient :D But I get the feeling, I'm the same. And I'm lucky that France is more or less right next door, otherwise I wouldn't dare to go there on my own for such a long time X]

9OfKasius: Thanks, I really dig your name, too! And thank you first for your awesome review! ^^ (I've never been to France before and I'm equally terrified and brimming with excitement. I can't wait to see the beautiful nature and the cities. The Provence has to be amazing during summer :) ) Waaah, I raised a mob! *flees* And I woke sleeping dragons! What did I dooooo?... (Send me a PM whenever you want, though, I'm always open and happy to chat with the readers! :D)

Bellaminion: Oh no, that sucks! How about a new account? :3

Kitty Murking: Yeah, I think I did a too good job of making everyone frustrated with Bella XD" Now let's see if I can get that to turn around... somehow... *scratches head*

imperfectionisunderrated: Daaaamn, you're more evil than me! I really was sitting there reading and going "Uhm... uh, okay... okay, I guess I understand if someone is frustrated... uhm... hm, can't make everyone like this... hum, you have to accept that, Kurai... hm." But you had every right to have your revenge fun with me XD Well played, dear ;) Seriously, I promise I'll try to do my best with the updates. I first need to find out how I can get mobile internet in France...

fracturediamond: Hehe, sorry there, I guess the cliffhanger hit hard :D Oh, you're busy with other stories, so I can understand ;) More Bellamione is always great, though, so maybe in the future. Good luck with graduating :D

In-betweens: *sniff* Marry me? Please? You're reviews are better than cookies and strawberries. It's awesome to see in detail how someone reacts to the scenes I've written and it's great to understand what works and what doesn't. Hermione's more or less 'coming of age' story is very important to me and I didn't want to rush it at all. I mean, it really is a complicated topic and hard for her to understand and wrap her head around, so it's nice to see it appreciated this much :) Thank yoooou! *hugs*

trang-a-lang: Nooo, don't hurt your phone! You need it to read the updates! :D *high fives back*

Arctic Night 6: Nah, I don't think it was a spoiler. It's not a huge jump to expect her to be afraid of them :)

kisses from Italy: Heya Italy! :D Ha, nice coincidence! Good luck, I hope it leaves a good impression on you :)

OpheliaBlack: Uh... uhm... it's his fault! *points to Rabastan* Really, I'm innocent! It was all his idea! Evil person that he is! *hides quickly*

confusion473: Nooo, no cliffs, I'm afraid of heights ;_; Well, sort of. It's complicated XD And you are quite right, there are actually a lot of hints :)

Pandora's Moon: Sooo true! Rabastan, go fall into a ditch :p Hehe, yeah, one dead, both dead, story END! Would make it easy for me *g*...

Ryoshu: Thanks, writing action is always tricky! I hope you have a lot of fun in Marseille. It's on my own route, but not until July I think :)

hollowwind: Awww :3 The first paragraph is so true for me as well... when you think it's almost too late, that's when turnarounds really get to you the most. When they mean the most. And yeah, I said there would be a 'sort of payback', because 1. Hermione slaps her (but it's just a slap, so it's not really much payback) and 2. she also gets hurt by something unexpected. She gets a taste of her own medicine :) And you are quite right: Not once did Hermione mention her own life or think what it would mean for her if Bellatrix died. She is clearly more focused on the other woman, not the consequences of their connection. Thank you so much for sharing your mind with me :)

TheAnimeKat: Naaah, would I ever torture you? :D

lemon-rind: Harhar, cliffhanger. Literally. Get it? *snort*

Rebecca M Mesecher: Wow, twice? Now that's a compliment! Here, have an update to ease your pain... and pleeease write more Bellamione, I'd be thankful forever! :)

Leah p: Love you, too, dear reviewer! *g* Relation...ship... damn, I feel properly chastised. I'll be good now, promise? :3

Snapesbloodredneko: Thank you for taking time and commenting! :) It seems more and more people use their phone to browse the internet... I feel so retro *laughs*

Sorry, everyone, if some of you didn't get the review they deserve! But with more and more people commenting, my own commentary is slowly in danger of getting longer than the story ^^" It's always a delightful read and I'm absolutely grateful!

21. Verity

"I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain." - James Baldwin

The memory of the slumped, wounded woman was the only thought she had as her own frame hit the reflective surface. It wasn't unequal to a delayed Cruciatus Curse, the Gryffindor thought, as all heat and energy was driven from her with the sickening sensation of hitting something solid, which then gave way and then slammed back together above her with ice-cold force. Her lungs froze and out of instinct she clamped down on her lips to keep her precious oxygen from escaping into the dark waters.

With the low temperature quickly turning her brain into a sluggish, useless mess and her body into a ton of sinking lead, Hermione used more will-power than she had known she owned to force herself into renewed movement. Lighting her wand soundlessly, the nothingness turned into a murky underwater world, reflecting off upset clouds of dirt, pieces of plants... and small, silvery bubbles.

Hermione swam deeper, pushing forward with feverish desperation. Then she finally saw the outline of the dark clad witch, her back turned towards the ground and sinking a bit more with every moment that passed. There was no sign of movement, no obvious struggle against the likely drowning.

With her goal now clear before her eyes, the brunette struggled further, trying to ignore the icy tendrils sneaking into her very flesh and tendons and turning them more useless by the second. She had to get the drowning woman out of here. Nothing counted more than that.

Then her numb fingers grazed smooth cloth, then a soft cloud of black hair and finally she was close enough to drag the pure-blood's body closer, sneaking an arm around her waist and pressing her tight against her.

Bellatrix already felt so cold. Her face looked wraith-like, ethereal, long-lashed eyelids closed to the world.

Don't die, please, don't die here. Panic flooded her veins and filled her with the energy of the distressed.

Pumping her legs against the sucking darkness of the lake's ground, Hermione pushed them upwards. But she was slow, so slow, and her lungs were burning from both the lack of air and the cold. It was wrapping around her like chains, crawling so deep inside her that her eyes felt heavy and only the touch of Bellatrix's icy cheek against her neck had her struggle harder.

They wouldn't make it.

Both were dressed in their thickest winter clothes and twice as heavy as normal. There was no felt movement of the lake's waters, but it seemed as if the very atmosphere itself fought against their ascent, set on keeping them here in its dark, shivering grave.

You should have taught me the Mermish, Hermione thought helplessly, her thoughts already nearly stuck frozen in their synapses and axons. She could have called them to help them both get to the shore, she mused, arms pumping weaker than before. But then again, they hadn't helped Harry during the Triwizard Tournament, had they? But maybe because of the task...

Harry.

Harry.

Pointing her wand down with a resurfacing roar of hope, Hermione held Bellatrix tighter against her and sent an Expulso down into the currents below.

The heatless blast ousted the water into all directions and the young witch found herself and her precious package catapulted upward. The mere, last meters, a whole universe of distance to the surface, were moved past quickly and then they burst out of the lake in a shower of disturbed liquid and gasps. They were still to far away from any dry ground, so Hermione, still greedily sucking in air, pushed them across the surface with several more spells until the cliff sloped down into a lower shore.

Once her feet scrambled on something solid, she dragged the unmoving older witch away from the freezing water and on the snow-covered grass with shaking muscles, shivering violently from head to toe. But before she took care of herself, she cleaned Bellatrix's airway with a quick spell.

The raven haired woman's first, weak gasp was the most beautiful sound to Hermione's ear and she exhaled, shuddering, a weak smile on her lips. The relief of them both being alive and safe on dry ground nearly had her collapse in tears.

Instead she dried their clothes and warmed their bodies with the magic flying from her wand. She didn't know what she would have done without her magic and quickly set that horrible thought aside before the scenario could evoke panic in her head.

Dragging the other woman's body on her knees to hold her close and keep her from getting cold again (and, maybe to convince herself of the fact that Bellatrix was alive), the brunette took a closer look at the pure-blood's condition.

There were bruises and abrasions all over her skin, but the worst was the large wound on her abdomen. Despite her cleared windpipe Bellatrix's breath was shallow and Hermione suspected she had lost a lot of blood. Was still loosing it, when she saw the snow color itself pink near her side.

"Shit," the younger woman muttered, tears clouding her eyes. "Darn it, god damn it... I can't... I-I don't know any good healing spells..." Helplessly, she pointed the shaking tip of her wand at the large gash and muttered the only one she knew to ease small misfortunes, like a bruise, or a split lip...

If there was any change, Hermione didn't see it. She said the spell again and again, but it was becoming clear to her quite quickly that this was way beyond the magic's function. Whimpering, the young witch bowed over the raven haired woman's body, not knowing what to do other than to find someone for help. And to get it quickly.

They were quite a ways away from their original falling point, probably much further away from the village than before. She would have to move as fast as she could, despite the fatigue clawing at her whole frame.

"I'll go and get help," Hermione explained softly, because it seemed Bellatrix was not fully gone. Her eyes were half open and not focusing on anything, but she was sure the older woman heard her somewhere. "I'll be back as soon as I can, just don't... don't give up. Try and fight, okay?"

Hogsmeade wasn't too far away and Rabastan had probably, hopefully, fled the scene. Bellatrix would be safe here for a few minutes if she ran very fast...

But before she could get up to her feet, a hand twisted itself into the front of her clothes, too weak to drag her back down, but not letting go either. "Don't!" Bellatrix pleaded desperately, her eyes wide. "Don't go away. Please."

"I... Bellatrix, I have to get help," Hermione tried again, softer.

"Please. Don't leave me alone, please," the other witch whispered again, her voice hoarse and child-like. Fear was written across her whole expression and when she looked at the brunette, she was both right here and very, very far away. "I can hear them - I can hear the dogs. If you go, they'll come. Please, stay here. Please."

Hermione knew she had to go. She had to get help or Bellatrix would bleed to death right here in her arms. But she had never heard the heavily trembling woman talk with such helpless vulnerability, not even when she had held her in her arms crying and screaming. It tore at the younger witch's heart to see her in such a state.

This is what that bastard Cygnus did to you.

"I know you are afraid, but... if I don't, you'll die." There was no way around it, no matter how much she wanted to stay and keep her safe. With every minute she lost, Bellatrix would grow weaker.

"They all leave," the other woman replied with a bitter sob and turned her head until one side of her face was pressed against Hermione's abdomen. "They all leave me. Don't go. Don't leave me here." And then again, so quiet she almost didn't catch it. "Please."

She couldn't stay. She couldn't go. It felt like the worst dilemma of Hermione's life.

If I stay, she's going to die. We both die. But her muscles made no further effort to stand up and she was aware she had made the decision before consciously acknowledging it.

You're such a fool, Hermione. Such a sad fool.

"I'll stay," Hermione breathed, the whisper of defeat in her voice as she closed her eyes. Bellatrix released a shuddering breath and a 'Thank you', her lower lip quivering. The hunted look in her eyes faded slowly, but there was a shiver in her muscles that didn't seem to come from the recent cold.

"Shh," the young woman hushed, stroking the cloth-covered shoulder beneath her fingers and pulling her closer. She was reminded of the time in their dorm, moments after a newly youthful Bellatrix had dropped into a rage when seeing her scars. But this time, there was no anger, only helplessness and old wounds opened which had nothing to do with the fresh ones covering her skin.

With Bellatrix shivering and occasionally whimpering like an abandoned child, how could she stay mad herself at the raven haired woman? No one should suffer like this.

"We'll be back home soon, I promise," she whispered full of conviction and bowed down again to press a small, compassionate kiss to the raven haired woman's temple, close to where the skin had broken open. Bellatrix felt cold to the touch, much too cold, but it caused the tension in her fist, which still held on to Hermione's clothes, to ease, until the fingers were curled almost gently against the brunette's solar plexus.

There was one last chance to get them out of here.

The young woman prayed with all her might that it would work and not attract vultures like Rabastan. Raising her wand upwards, she shot red sparks into the air, again and again, hoping against hope that someone would get the idea and find them.

Hermione lost all sense of time. But Bellatrix kept breathing and the snow didn't grow any pinker.

And then, after what seemed like years, a ragtag bunch of shouting people crossed the cliff's hill, several with fluttering Hogwarts scarfs, and she knew it then without a doubt in the world.

They were safe.

"Come on, you have to let me inside!" Hermione argued, trying in vein to get past Madame Pomfrey, but couldn't. The old woman was quite agile for her age.

"It is neither visiting hour, nor is anyone else allowed! Miss Granger, there are rules in this house!"

The brunette looked ready to burst into tears any minute, desperation slowly setting in. "She's my Vow partner," she tried once again, spreading her hands helplessly. "This... this is my," her "life we are talking about here!"

Before Madame Pomfrey could slam down her arguments once again and ban her from trying to get into the infirmary, McGonagall stepped closer with a sigh and placed both hands on an agitated Hermione's shoulder.

"Poppy, how about making an exception... for once? You know Miss Granger is a very responsible student. And these are rather special circumstances."

The school nurse still didn't look fully convinced, as this was her realm and not the Headmistress', but after another long look at a lenient McGonagall and a slumped Hermione, she shook her head and stepped aside, waving the brunette inside with an offhand gesture. "Fine. But I'd advise you to be quiet and unobtrusive."

Hermione smiled tearfully and uttered a quiet 'Thank you' at both Madame Pomfrey and her teacher, then dashed inside and next to the quiet form of the former Death Eater.

The light was already low, as it was the middle of the night by now, so Bellatrix's dark figure was shrouded in scraps of darkness. Only a lonely, halfway burned off candle gave off any useful light.

The older woman would survive, so much the young witch knew. The bruises along her body hadn't been so important as the gash on her side, which had cost her a lot of blood. If Hermione had been slightly slower with getting her out of the ice-cold water and into the warmth of magic, there was a good chance she would have died from hypothermia then and there. It caused the brunette to shudder to think of it. It was so close.

Slowly she stepped up to the bed and sat down on an uncomfortable chair, her eyes on the sleeping figure. Hermione guessed her dress had been cut away and replaced with an infirmary gown, but the blanket had been dragged up to the pure-blood's chin and barely showed the outline of her frame. Only a mess of curls was seen, as well as Bellatrix's head tilted slightly to the side, her chin close to her collarbone.

While Hermione sat and watched over her sleep, she realized how awfully soft the raven haired woman's expression was. No tenseness was in her paler than usual features, the lines of her face calm, almost... angelic. The brunette almost didn't dare to move, in case she disturbed the other witch's needed rest.

How come she had never seen Bellatrix sleep before in all those months? Maybe because it caused her to look so incredibly unguarded. It was almost as if presented with a different human being.

Hermione didn't know how much time had already passed, if it had been half-an, one, maybe even two hours she had been sitting here. Despite the horrible chair, she made no move to leave the room, feeling an odd kind of peace by sitting here and knowing the other woman was save and alive.

I should feel that you deserve this. I know I should. She couldn't.

Then Bellatrix exhaled a slow, deep breath, a quiet sigh that turned her head deeper to her collarbone. Was this an comparison to how she had been as a child? Before the Screams and her father and who knew what destroyed her sanity little by little?

Before she realized it, Hermione found her hand reaching forward, gently, to brush away that stubborn, reckless curl that tended to always slip into the other woman's vision. The skin below was soft, warm to the touch, different from when she had held the shivering, panicked figure in her arms down beside Black Lake. Her eyes inadvertently slipped down to those tantalizing ruby lips and the brunette drew her fingers back, self-conscious of her own actions.

Minutes later, the candle flame gave up its last intense, fluttering cough, burning the brightest in the moment of death, then curled into nothingness and vanished into a puff of smoke. The sudden darkness had Hermione blink with disorientation, but the light of the moon came strong and unhidden through the large infirmary windows and soon her eyes had gotten used to the natural lighting. She didn't know how much longer she sat there, listening to Bellatrix's subdued breathing, but when the tiredness in her bones made itself known, she slowly rose up from the unforgiving wood beneath her backside.

Two steps later, a quiet question froze her to the spot.

"Why did you stay? At the lake?"

Hermione turned to confirm the raven haired woman had asked this. When had she woken up? By the time she wanted to leave or much before that? The voice sounded so unusual, much deeper and calmer than the brunette was used from the former Death Eater. But as sure as the day, in the glowing moonlight she could see Bellatrix's eyelids raised, her gaze resting on the younger woman and a stoic lack of expression on her face.

Slowly, the Gryffindor lowered herself back on the chair.

"You sounded so... distressed," Hermione answered just as quiet. There was no point in alerting Madame Pomfrey. "And I thought if I left, we both wouldn't live to see the next day." It was not the full truth, but the young woman herself was unsure on the complete reason. Why had she stayed? It was a hard to grasp concept and had simply seemed right at that moment. Because I wanted to, was the nearest she could get.

"Did you get him?" Still a considerable lack of attachment to what she was saying. Just... tiredness.

"No. But McGonagall contacted the Ministry and they want to create a full search party in the morning."

A slim arm came out from underneath the blanket and Hermione's hospital gown theory was confirmed. Bellatrix rubbed at her eyes, then winced without sound when she moved her side too much.

"It's stupid," she began out of nowhere and the young witch was unsure if the pure-blood was speaking to herself or to her audience. "That bastard brings over one silly Dementor and I'm a shivering wreck."

"It... was a Boggart." There was bit of hesitancy in offering this information. Would Bellatrix feel stupid for being tricked by a fake Dementor? And yet, Hermione herself had been sufficiently scared by the imitation as well, there was no need to feel ashamed for jumping to the wrong conclusion.

"I know," the other woman replied and surprised the younger woman with it. There was a soul-deep fatigue latched on to her words.

Silence covered the atmosphere and the brunette was unsure if she should stay or not, as the former Death Eater wasn't looking at her but at the high ceiling. With the little light it was hard to make out what she was thinking, feeling, if she was at all.

"I gave up, you know," Bellatrix breathed out of nowhere and Hermione found a cold shiver run down her spine. Unable to rip her gaze away from the raven haired woman, she had the slight feeling that she was subjected to more truth, to a more real Bellatrix Black than she had in all those months prior and she almost didn't dare to inhale for all the nervous anticipation building up in her stomach.

"I just gave up. It wasn't supposed to be like this. When I found out about the Tears of Ixion, I thought 'Hey, this is your chance! This is the way you can get back the years you lost!'... A second chance, that was all I could think about. To begin with a blank slate, without all this waste and pollution I carried around with me. If all that was gone, I thought, if my body was young and healthy and unblemished again, then I would be able to change. That I would get out of this nightmare."

The second arm appeared and pale hands placed themselves on the raven haired woman's forehead, covering the band-aid attached to her temple. If the distressed woman felt the pain in her side from moving around so much, she didn't show it.

"I'm scared shitless of little else but those bloody creatures, but Rabastan is stupid when he thinks I can't distinguish a fake Dementor from a real one after all the years in Azkaban. It was mostly because of him that the Boggart turned into a Dementor. But when that bastard had me there on my knees and I saw the Dementor come out of that bag, I knew... I knew nothing had changed. Nothing at all. No matter how much I change my appearance, there is nothing to gain. The Screams won't fade. The memories are still there. The scars remain, on the outside, on the inside... and I gave up, because - what the hell was I struggling for anyway?"

Bellatrix pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes and only then Hermione modestly turned her gaze away, because she was sure the other woman wouldn't want to be watched while trying to hide the tears slipping free.

"It's all a fucking waste of time. I won't... can't change. I don't know anything else, never did. I'm stuck forever where I am and now I have at least another fifty years to regret drinking this shit." Her voice was laced with suppressed crying.

Hermione was at a loss for what to say. Confirming the pure-blood's belief wasn't helping much, but she found herself unable to deny it either. Up till now, Bellatrix had not made any real progress, other than becoming a slight bit tamer and not torturing and killing people left and right. She refused to open up to the brunette's attempts to make nice and mostly hid away from the world, even after presenting herself so splendidly on the Yule Ball. Heck, she had done her best to make sure Hermione was as miserable as she seemed to be. People out there still hated her and would for a long, long time... even her family didn't try and attempt to help their sibling, because... why? Andromeda had her own tragic misfortunes to deal with and Narcissa had placed the responsibility on Hemione's shoulders, as if unable to dig deeper into the mess that was her sister. They cared, in their own way.

But in the end, they all left you. Left you alone with the 'dogs', didn't they? You were right. But the most part of it was your own damn fault.

Or was it? Hermione was reminded again of all the memories in Bellatrix's head... all the horrible moments, the fear, desperation and violence. The hopelessness. It struck her only now that not one single memory had even been completely carefree and happy, with a young Voldemort reaching out and touching her cheek the only remotely neutral fragment.

Have you ever known happiness, Bellatrix? Was Voldemort really the only option in the world coming close to it?

If that was true, then it was a very, very sad reality for the pure-blood. If no one but the Dark Lord had reached out a hand to her, was it any wonder the older woman had devoted her entire existence to him? No. It wasn't. It made a lot of sense and one could only wonder what had caused Bellatrix to turn her back on her master at the last moment.

After thinking about all this, Hermione felt a deep sadness settle into her soul. All the squabbles with Draco Malfoy in her youth, all the pain Hermione had suffered at the older woman's hands, it all seemed like child's play when comparing it with the dreadful reality Bellatrix had lived in since she was a young girl. Hermione had found the torture horrible because she knew the other side of the spectrum, knew how wonderful it was to be loved and cherished by her friends and family. For her, it was the normalcy to smile and find herself in a moderate state of happiness.

For Bellatrix, normalcy meant living in hell. Alone. Every single day.

The bag on her side felt heavy as Hermione dragged it into her lap, her hand blindly searching in the charmed depths. It was a blessing that she had taken precautions against water getting into its precious content. Feeling the spine of what she was looking for, the brunette dragged the tome free of its confinement and held it in between her fingers for a single, long moment.

Then she laid it down next to the quietly weeping woman. Even her crying held something dignified, proud, which Hermione could only marvel at.

Bellatrix turned red-rimmed eyes to the side when feeling her pillow dip, hands slowly settling down on the covers. Almost cautiously she let her fingers touch the book's title. Divine Comedy. It was obvious she recognized the book, but it was a different edition than the one taken from Malfoy Manor: It was Hermione's own, new book, while the old and original edition still resting in the hidden depths of her charmed bag.

"Why...?"

"You know," Hermione interrupted calmly, once again standing up from her seat. "I think one already takes the first step in changing oneself when acknowledging that they haven't. It's not really easy, or something you can do in one day. It takes time." With mixed feelings, most which she couldn't point her finger at, the brunette glanced down at the raven haired woman. "Time which I think you now got. As well as the friend to help you along."

Then she turned, marching to the door to get some much needed sleep and leave Bellatrix to think.

But once again she was held up by a question.

"Why did you stay?" the older woman asked once more and this time, her tone was curious, wondrous. It lacked the profound desolateness from before.

Taking a last look over her shoulder, Hermione found herself watched by wondering, black eyes, set in an almost artistically beautiful face. Brown, she reminded herself of the dark gaze, they are dark brown.

"Because you needed me to," the Gryffindor answered and left without another word.

And that, Hermione realized absent-mindedly, was nothing but the raw truth.

And now I need to hurry, because people in this household demand we go geocashing... while it's raining. This is so not funny -.- Not much to say here, I guess, other than that I hope I don't have at the edge of your seat as much as at the end of the last chapter :)
Don't know when I'll be able to update again, so I'll keep myself from doing evil reviews. You pacified my inherent sadism, I guess ;) Until then, darlings!
*goes and tries to find reasons for staying inside*

Chapter Text

Geez. Seriously. When stuff comes, it comes all at the same effing time. I try to get ready for France, several people including myself have their birthdays and then my aunt gets sick and is now in the hospital (but at least she's finally getting better). I didn't have time to write one single word of this fic, nevermind browsing the internet. And now the 'Ohmygod, in two weeks you're not home for THREE months!' jitters are starting. ANYWAY. Enough whining, time for your lovely, lovely better-than-chocolate comments!
Pressed for time as I am, I can't write everyone back (me so sorry!), but if you have questions or don't get something, you are always welcome to PM me :)

misswitty: I hope your math exam went well :) What Bella's father did or what was alluded to: Beating her with a belt at a young age, controlling his family's thoughts nearly day in day out with Legilimency, using the Cruciatus Curse on her, giving out beatings... and the list goes on. Cygnus is the one human being you never want to meet in a dark alley ^^" If you can still call that human..

Suzako07: Believe me, a trip to Belgium is planned, thanks to the lovely Chloé ;) One day I'll come to you and then, bam, party!

Bellaminion: Aw man, that is really awful. But you can write all your stuff in secret or into notebooks and one day you'll post them all when you have your own PC/Internet, so don't worry ;)

fracturediamond: That's why I now tend to finish a story nearly 70-80% before posting anything, because I tend to loose the golden threat somewhere, like I did with my Legend of the Seeker fic. Which I will finish one day, I swore it! France will give me a lot of time to write :) And you're right, the Vow stipulation is not proven... and it can't be proven. Unless one of them dies... and then there is a good chance the other will as well. I doubt they want to find out ;)

List of Romantics: I like French, but Italian is on my list. Next I'll either learn Italian or Spanish :) And honey, she did use a Warming Spell to keep them warm... :D

CatsEyeShy: *big, loving hug for rough household* Very impressive and very true review, a pleasure to read :) Yes, there is a lot more to Bellamione than just good vs. evil and you nailed it on the head. I wish I could say more, but I neither have the head nor the time for it. Forgive me :(

Tyranny Kassle: Haha, awesome, thank you for taking time to add to 'the growing wall'! Can't be long enough, that wall :D And did someone say fanart...? ! *hugs legs with tears in her eyes*

dormideira: Thanks for the nice words :D No, the dog images have nothing to do with Hobbes (but now that you say it, it's a really interesting, philosophical thought), but the hints for where this comes from have been placed and the answer will come soon. :)

Askara: I can understand that it's all kind of over the place how all of this connects to the person Bellatrix is now. Maybe this chapter will clear things up a bit! I wouldn't have guessed that English is not your first language, good job there! :) And thanks!

Rebecca M Mesecher: Yay for more Bellamione! I don't have time for reading fic at the moment *cries*, but it's on my list for things to read. Good luck to writing! ^^

Mystery Meat: Haha, wow, thank you! No Disneyland for me, sadly ;_; But it would be pretty boring anyway, going there all by myself ;)

Cotton spudpie: What is this plot bunny you are talking about?... Well, let's just say I'm constantly making notes, maybe something like that maaaay pop up... or not! ;) Thanks for the review!

THANK YOU! Seriously, thank you all so much for sticking with this. And I'm sorry for not having the time to give each of you wonderful people a few words. I know three months are going to be a rough time in case I won't be able to update, but this will not be abandoned! I love each and every comment and especially my regulars never fail to make me laugh or smile :)

22. Be Careful What You Wish For

"Man...is a tame or civilized animal; never the less, he requires proper instruction and a fortunate nature, and then of all animals he becomes the most divine and most civilized; but if he be insufficiently or ill- educated he is the most savage of earthly creatures." - Plato

Rabastan Lestrange was gone.

The search party came up fruitless, but they were convinced the former prisoner had left Hogwarts' school grounds and would take measures against a possible return. But if Hermione was honest, she was quite sure the scumbag would find a way to get to them again, he was too resourceful and smart. And he had a score to settle with the former Death Eater.

Bellatrix was from now on forbidden from leaving the castle on her own, for 'her own good', as McGonagall put it. She was aware little could keep the talented witch from slipping out of the castle unnoticed, but the eldest Black was aware that if she was caught or noticed when leaving, the Headmistress would personally cuff her magically to the dormitories and take away her wand.

Hermione made it a point to visit the raven haired woman after her lessons were over, albeit Bellatrix was always very quiet and distanced during their meetings. But she told Hermione that her sisters, both of them, had written letters and inquired about her health. On the second day, Bellatrix even complained about the fact that despite knowing enough magic to clean herself without having to leave the hospital bed, her hair was still getting a tangled mess. "Why didn't anyone invent a spell to keep your hair in shape? One might think at least one witch had gotten the bright idea for it," she whined, obviously bored out of her mind.

And so, on the third afternoon, the brunette brought a comb to tame the other woman's endless mane of curls.

"Turn around," Hermione dictated while rummaging in her bag for the right item.

"What for?" Bellatrix sat cross-legged underneath the covers, slumped and unladylike. Madame Pomfrey complained without end that the willful Black would rip her stitches sooner or later with her careless movements, but so far, everything held. At least now Hermione knew that healing someone magically could sometimes be more of a shock to the hurt one's system than letting things go their natural way, and so the pure-blood would be caught in the infirmary for at least another two days until the wound had healed enough on its own.

"Just trust me for once and do it," the Gryffindor groused without looking up.

There was a grunt and a rustle and when Hermione fished the comb out of its hidden place, she saw Bellatrix had actually listened to her for once. Well, that's a first.

The impressive, black mane had lost a bit off its shine with all the tangles coming from Bellatrix's restless moving. But when the brunette dragged back all of the curls, so they would all fall down her back, the hair was smooth and soft to the touch. The curls gave it its enormous volume, but even brought together the young woman needed both hands to encircle it once.

"I'm going to brush your hair now, so try to keep still. If you do it yourself, Madame Pomfrey will kill me for having you let upset your stitches."

Bellatrix threw an incredulous glance over her shoulder, but Hermione already concentrated on getting the long hair straightened (as much as one could with curls like this). Really, it was a crime against mankind to let beautiful, black hair like this get so mussed up.

But the older woman behaved like a little kid, always moving around and fidgeting. So the Gryffindor randomly grabbed one of her books - Potions, she saw out of the corner of her eye - and dropped it in the former Death Eater's lap to keep her occupied. Bellatrix, of course, complained about it, but the tactic worked and she kept herself entertained by browsing the contents while the younger witch was able to comb her hair in peace.

Hermione liked doing this. The raven mass was like the softest silk over her skin and whenever she grabbed a handful, the hair was warm and pliant. She knew a good deal of women, both from the Muggle and the Wizarding society, who would kill to have even one fraction of Bellatrix's long, glorious curls.

But she was ripped out of her enthusiasm by a bit of red flashing at the edge of her vision. When turning her head, she saw Ginny standing in the entryway, waiting with an impatient look that hid something else beneath it. Quickly, she sat up and placed a hand on the pure-blood's shoulder.

"I'm done, your hair is neat and nice again. You can keep the book until tomorrow, I don't need it."

"Thank you," Bellatrix murmured and the brunette wondered if she detected a hint of embarrassment. If she was gracious because of the book or the action, or maybe, possibly, due to even deeper implications, Hermione would never know.

"See you tomorrow. And try not to drive the nurse crazy."

The raven haired woman shot her a dirty look and Hermione hurried out of the infirmary, Ginny attaching herself to her side. She had almost forgotten she and the youngest Weasley had decided to meet up for lunch.

"What the heck was that? Are you her personal servant now?" the redhead wanted to know with a frown.

"I volunteered, Gin," Hermione replied with a sigh, pulling her school back higher. "She's going nuts in there with nothing to do, so I decided to be nice and help her."

"You seemed awfully content doing so."

The brunette stopped and frowned. "What? Am I not allowed to be friendly to anyone anymore? What's that supposed to mean?"

Realizing her friend didn't move any further, the younger Gryffindor came back and sighed. "I'm sorry. You're right. It's just... I know you hold her in higher esteem than anyone else does, even care about her, but even then - most times I see you together all you do is fight. It's strange to see you so... civil with each other."

"Yeah," Hermione admitted after a moment of thought, "it's strange... then again, everything is strange about this." That, at least, both friends could fully agree on, although she caught a glimpse one and then of the weird looks Ginny was giving her from the side. At least the whole 'attraction' topic was kept under wraps whenever they talked... the redhead wanted to forget about it probably as much as Hermione once wanted to.

Not that she couldn't.

Caught with an inspiration, Hermione requested the Marauder's Map from her best friend, knowing that Harry had given it to his girlfriend before they left for Hogwarts. "It's to make sure we're safe from Rabastan," she had told the younger Gryffindor, but the first thing she did that night when sitting on her bed and activating the map was take a look at and trace Bellatrix's name.

Bellatrix Black.

Even the map acknowledged the name change. Somehow it made the younger witch smile.

What are you so happy about? she questioned herself again and again that night. You should be careful. She hurt you enough times. It didn't stop her from sneaking another look at the map to make sure Bellatrix was all right.

Maybe... just maybe she finally starts trusting me.

When the day came that the pure-blood was ready to leave the infirmary, Hermione headed straight there after her last lesson, only to be told by the nurse that Madame Black had already left an hour ago. Consulting the newly acquired artifact, the brunette saw the other woman's name pop up in the Owlery after searching aimlessly through the halls.

Hermione walked up the stairs slowly, already feeling the cold draft that came from the open room. The sounds of the residing owls drifted on the fresh air, less loud and annoying than during summer, as most of them stayed quietly huddled on their perches to keep themselves warm.

It was impossible to miss Bellatrix's dark figure sitting inside, not caring about the filth around her. Her back was turned to the open door and she had taken a seat on the socket of the big column filling the middle of the floor. And while Hermione had tried not to walk too loudly, she had a feeling that the dark witch already knew about her presence. It was simply something Bellatrix could convey without the slightest twitch.

Trying to stay unobtrusive, the younger woman walked over until she could lean her back against a somewhat clean spot beside one of the large windows somewhere on Bellatrix's left, observing the dark witch out of the corner of her eyes. The other woman appeared thoughtful and downcast, staring out of another window while hugging her legs halfway close to her torso.

"You don't look very happy," Hermione finally dared to comment, wondering if they were past throwing petty insults at each other.

"Do I have a reason to be?" Bellatrix groused back humorlessly. "I'm wandering from prison to prison. This one is the biggest yet if, sadly, not the most luxurious. That attribute goes to my sister's manor."

The brunette shifted, knowing she couldn't talk this fact away. Wherever she went, higher stated people had an eye on what Bellatrix should and shouldn't do, as they would for the next ten years. But other than Lucius, the eldest Black was more or less free to do what she wanted after her time spent at Hogwarts. Or was she?

"You could talk to me," Hermione offered on a whim. "Get your mind off of things and all that. I managed to keep you entertained in the cottage, so why not here?"

The pure-blood rolled her head around and stared at the brunette with a raised eyebrow in way that screamed 'Are you shitting me?'.

The Gryffindor could only shrug. "I'm not kidding. You already know I won't talk about what I hear from you." If you trust me.

Turning her gaze away from the Muggle-born, Bellatrix returned to watching the horizon presented from up here. In spite of the cold, the dark witch seemed comfortable with the place and Hermione wondered if she had come up here often in the last few months. Now she most likely would, banned from the Forbidden Woods as she was.

"I can literally see you brimming with questions about me. Fine. Go ahead, ask whatever you want. Either I'll answer or I won't if the mood catches me," the former Death Eater finally offered in a bored drawl.

Whatever I want. Hermione could feel her heart beat faster with anticipation as thousand different questions and ideas swarmed her mind and filled her mouth with their syllables. What to ask? There was a very good chance Bellatrix would ignore anything she inquired about, but then again, it didn't hurt to ask, did it? In her case? Oh yes, it does.

She could ask about her time as a Death Eater. Or her time as a child. Why had she joined Voldemort's ranks? Why did she hate Muggle-borns so much? Had Bellatrix seduced her only to satisfy her curiosity about Hermione's thoughtless kiss?

"What happened to your father?" the brunette found herself saying the next second, without even having decided on what she wanted to know. But now that it was out in the open, Hermione realized the mystery of what she had found out in the magazines haunted her in the deep recesses of her unconscious mind since the day she had read about it.

Something, a hunch, maybe woman's intuition, caused her to believe the answer to this would make her understand the connections between a lot of random facts. Nevermind that Cygnus seemed to play a special role in the past happenings, a very prominent one.

Bellatrix twitched at the mention of her late parent, but her expression stayed carefully empty. "Why do you want to know that?" she snapped, all protective walls up in an instant.

Hermione tried to ignore her disappointment and gave another half-hearted shrug. "I'm curious, I guess. There is only a tiny mention in the old magazines and they make it out to be like some kind of unholy mystery."

"You were snooping around about me?"

"It's not like you tell me anything," Hermione shot back and watched with satisfaction as the dark witch clenched her jaw, obviously swallowing a nasty retort. "You can't blame me for trying to understand your whip-lash moods a bit bet-..."

"I killed him. That's what happened." The shocking answer was so matter-of-fact, so calm, the brunette almost choked on the cold air in her lungs. The Holyhead Harpies won the national Quidditch cup. That's what happened. We had ten full days of rain during our trip to Spain. That's what happened.

"You..." Hermione opened her mouth, then closed it again. She knew Bellatrix had killed people, had seen it with her own eyes. But her own flesh and blood? Sirius had been her cousin, yes, but her own parent? The whirlwind of her thoughts collided against a mental wall, leaving her stumped. "...killed him?... Your father?" There went her theory that Voldemort had decided to rid himself of a nuisance.

"It's not as if he didn't deserve it," Bellatrix defended herself, but it felt hollow.

"No one deserves to die," Hermione whispered. She felt a chill, deeper than the outside temperature could reach.

"We all deserve to die. Even you, dearest muddy, even I." The dark witch stood up and started pacing, always the restless one. "That day he stepped across all possible lines and he got what was coming to him."

"What happened? Why did you do this?" She had to understand, somehow. "I- I always believed Voldemort had something to do with this... but..."

Bellatrix stopped at another window, once again turned away from the younger woman. Her hand found the stone frame, which had to be twice as cold as the air around them. "Oh, He has everything to do with it, girl. He taught me all I know, from the darkest Arts to the most dreadful secret he held. He knew I was a vessel for his knowledge and his private thoughts, because no one could get to me in any way, his most loyal. I was his impregnable lieutenant: mind, body and soul."

Hermione watched in silence, knowing that the dark witch would most likely speak as long as she wasn't interrupted. Times like this the young woman wondered if Bellatrix was actually speaking to her or to herself, letting go off all these secret thoughts hidden and stewing within her for decades. Letting them fly free into the world and Hermione was only lucky enough to be so close to catch the sound dancing on the air.

"My master knew of the terror I was going through every single day stuck with this bastard and a sorry excuse for a mother. How Dromeda had run away with filth, how Cissy had taken the first chance she could get to marry out of the house. I was left alone and only He knew the depth of my talent, my real worth. I grew into directions I had never known and my father hated it. God, how he hated it." Bellatrix laughed and walked along the wall, halting at the next gap in the wall.

"But my master had told me there was only one way to get rid of my tormentor - only one way to be free of my burden... he believed the Screams would go away once the reason for their existence was wiped out. And when I got sweet daddy so angry that night, telling him how I would go with my master and leave this wretched life in the Manor, he snapped and fired one Cruciatus at me after the other... so I killed him." The pure-blood's eyes were empty as she returned Hermione's wide eyed gaze. Nothing but haughtiness was seen as she moved around the Owlery in circles.

"And Narcissa..." the brunette prompted softly.

"Came when I called her, while the house elves made sure to make it look like as if someone had broken in. My mother, the useless hag, was in hysterics and I needed another 'witness'."

Hermione felt out-of-place, having been told all of this just like that. As if it was a snap of the dark witch's fingers. Without personal investment and as if these happenings were as far away from her as Britain was from Australia. Voldemort may not have killed Cygnus, but he could as well have. He taught Bellatrix, wove her around his fingers and placed the weapon she needed into her hands. Had he planned to make her like him? To have her take away her father as he had done with his own? The relationship between the eldest Black and the Dark Lord seemed so much more complicated and interwoven than one could guess at a first glance.

"But he wasn't right, was he?" the brunette went on, hoping Bellatrix was still willing to disclose her past. "The Screams didn't go away?"

"No," the raven haired woman admitted and sat back down from where she had begun, her fidgety gone within the blink of an eye. "In fact, they grew worse over the years. But my master showed me how to calm them." Bellatrix's mood changes could give her a headache any day. But with those last words, she didn't give any more information about the topic and seemed to retreat back into her own little world.

He never tried to help you. Voldemort knew the Screams would grow worse, would make you a better vessel to hide his secrets in that no Legilimens could breach-...

It caused the Gryffindor to connect a few surprising dots. The Screams. Why didn't I think of it sooner? It makes so much sense now! Cautiously, not quite sure if she wanted to not scare herself or the pure-blood, Hermione took a seat right next to the older woman and put her freezing fingers under her armpits to keep them warm. She hadn't expected to stay up here in the cold for so long.

"All the pain and torture, the killing... it was all to give yourself a moment of peace. To calm your mind. Every Crucio calming the noise the Screams made a bit more before they returned. Am I right?"

Hermione remembered.

Remembered the Screams attacking her in her own head, the terror and despair they had echoed. It was the memory of a small, confused girl screaming, pleading for her father to stop hurting her, of rabid dogs growling and barking nearby for someone to keep the human girl from making the high pitched sounds that drove them crazy. All of it amplified with the wandless magic of a child ten-thousand times until the cacophony of noise and ghastly emotions drove even the most hardened Legilimens intruder to the brink of insanity.

The most sad was, it had driven the harborer mad, too.

"Yes. It worked well, until you chained my release with your Vow." Nothing more, nothing less. It didn't even sound accusing, though the brunette knew it was.

"And there's nothing else that gives you peace, nothing else that calms them down? Will it always have to be pain and despair?" Hermione asked softly, feeling hopelessness rise inside of her heart. How to change someone that had never known anything else but horror and who now used it in return as her only means to find something akin to tranquility? It was a vicious circle that the Gryffindor saw herself unable to break... she couldn't change someone's entire past and beliefs, not with such a big obstacle in the way.

"Something, yes... but I won't find it in this lifetime. There is no hope left for me," Bellatrix answered with a whole life of bitterness covering her words and left the Owlery and Hermione, in her infinite, animalistic grace, without another word behind.

Pain, pain, pain. It's all Bellatrix has ever tasted, understood, known. Whether received or inflicted, all of it always comes down to one conclusion: Pain.

It was so, so sad how the world and its inhabitants could ruin a promising existence as hopelessly and unsalvageable as that.

Was it any wonder the Death Eaters were unable to conjure a Patronus? No, not anymore. The practices in the Black family might have been exceptionally cruel, but it was clear all of the pure-bloods were caught in a vicious circle of a similar kind, bringing them all further and further down in a nightmarish spiral of hate, destruction and violence. There was no place for happiness in a society that thrived from sinfulness.

Is that why Lucius became the man he is today? Why Rabastan and his brother, two pure-bloods nearly as devoted as Bellatrix, had been damaged beyond repair from the beginning? When Sirius had talked about his family, there had been a quiet, disturbed emptiness in his dark eyes, essential enough to gnaw at the warmth of his being. But he had fought it and won, again and again, rising above its swallowing currents. Almost. Because Harry might have shut his eyes away from it, but Hermione knew Azkaban and the times before had ripped festering wounds even into his proud, brave soul.

Andromeda. Sirius. You freed yourself from your families' chains. And I'd put my hand in the fire that even Narcissa tried breaking the irons Lucius was forcing on his son.

Voldemort and his legacy were gone. And if not yet, then they soon would be. Times were changing. But did the world, the new dawn breaking at the horizon, have a place left for broken woman like Bellatrix, who couldn't escape a past that clung to every inch of her existence?

No. Hermione would not accept hopelessness as the only answer. They had made the impossible reality by defeating Voldemort. She was a Gryffindor and a Muggle-born and she would trash and fight for the goodness in all until her last breath left her body. No matter how much hurt it would still mean for her in the long-run.

If you don't believe there is hope left for you, Bellatrix, Hermione decided vehemently and with fiery conviction, then I will believe it for us both. Touching the spot the dark witch had left minutes ago, she could still imagine a trace of warmth clinging to the dirty stone.

It was the first conversation they've had about the eldest Black's past without the raven haired woman resorting to name-calling and violence. If that wasn't a proof for renewed hope, Hermione didn't know what could be.

The next morning the brunette received a letter that had her brow furrow so much it caused Ginny to duck deeper behind her bowl of Pixie Puffs.

'Hermione, why didn't you tell us about Rabastan coming on the school grounds?' her boyfriend began in a messy, hurried scrawl, illustrating the anxiousness with which he had written.

Because it's none of your bloody business, Ronald, and because you couldn't have changed the situation anyway, Hermione thought with a sigh and read on.

'Thank God you weren't hurt. But really, what were you thinking, not telling us about this? We're going to be full Aurors soon and because it's me and Harry, we'll have a big say in where we want to work. I can protect you then from those flipping bastards. But here are some good news: We're going to come home for the holidays! We thought about working in them as well, but Kingsley said we should go home, get a feeling for what we're fighting for. The man's smart, it's so awesome that he went and became Minister of Magic. Well, I sure can't wait now for Easter to come! We'll see you soon, 'mione, let's spend some time together, okay?

Bye, Ron'

Let's spend some time together? Hermione reflected wearily. That's the best you can do? No 'I love you' or 'I care about you'? No 'how's Bellatrix faring'? We're connected in this, damn it.

"Ginny, do I look like I need protecting? A big, strong man to keep me safe?" Hermione asked with rising frustration as she slammed down her letter.

The redhead, cheek full with cereals and with no idea where this was going, took a careful glance left and right before swallowing. "Uh... no?" She offered carefully, hoping to have hit the right answer.

"Exactly!" The brunette slapped her hand down in the table, the sound making several students jump at the unexpected noise. "I'm no damsel in distress! Just because he's an Auror soon, it doesn't mean I wondrously forgot all my spells and my talent! I learn from the best, darn it!"

"I'm sure he means well," Ginny tried again softly, throwing around a quick 'Help me!' glance to an absent Luna. "I know my brother can be a clumsy oaf from time to time, but his heart is in the right place."

"Well, I don't see much of that 'heart'. I don't want him to spew out Shakespeare, but sheesh, would it kill him to write something nice from time to time?" Slumping in her seat and not hungry any more, Hermione gave the paper an angry slap with her hand, causing it to turn around. "Maybe he simply forgot we started a relationship. That would fit him quite well."

"Hermione, no," the younger Gryffindor tried to interject, her expression compassionate. She had known for a while that her best friend suffered from Ron's lack of empathy, but despite the written passive-aggressive answers, he didn't seem to get the hint. Maybe it was time for Harry to give him a gentle shove in the right direction. "You know Ron cares very much about you... his mind is just all over the place, like always. Talk to him in the holidays, will you? If you hammer it into him, he won't forget it again, I'm sure."

Ginny smiled at her and Hermione sighed, nodding softly. Valentine's Day was just around the corner and she had the impression it would fall very flat for her, considering the poor way with which Ron exerted his penmanship. Then again, wasn't he very sweet and caring when they were together? Maybe it was simply the matter of communication, the Weasley boy and written words had never been the closest friends in all the school years.

"Okay... I'll talk to him. But if I don't get something nice on Valentine's Day, there is some serious trouble brewing on the relationship horizon," Hermione swore to herself.

"I thought you didn't like Valentine's Day?" the redhead wondered out loud, returning to her meal.

"I do now," her friend muttered darkly.

But Valentine's Day rolled around and the halls were filled with chirping, golden cherubs, hearts in dozen variations of pink and red and masses of flowers. The last time Hermione had seen the day celebrated in such detail was when Gilderoy Lockhart had been their Defence Against Dark Arts teacher, but obviously some of the new one's in the faculty had been adamant in repeating the action. Even the Great Hall's ceiling was not giving off snow, but tiny glittering hearts.

Two hours later, Hermione was fed up by the music and had a headache from the cherub's tiny, high voices floating in every hallway.

"Thank God this is the last time we have to endure this," the brunette told her friend during the morning. Ginny had her elbows propped up on the table and her palms pushed over her ears, just as fed up with the brouhaha as Hermione.

"What? I can barely hear you over the sound of ear-bleeding annoyance," the redhead retorted dryly. The glower on her face was dark enough to scare off several of the golden winged creatures.

Ron's letter of atonement dropped by the plate only minutes later. It was fastened to a beautiful, red rose, which had suffered a bit from the harsh February weather and flight, but it was sweet nonetheless. The card was a modest red, but when she opened it, another sickly sweet tune started playing and tiny figures threw snowballs at each other, which burst into a shower of miniature hearts when impacting. She would have to close the card soon, as the hearts didn't dissolve and instead kept on coming, surely covering the whole table in glitter within minutes.

Be my Valentine, was written inside in large, printed letters, but below Ron had added himself, 'For the girl I like most. I wish the holidays were already here. Happy Valentine's Day, Hermione'.

The young woman snapped the card shut, but did so with a wry, loving smile.

"You can't say he didn't try," Ginny commented with a chuckle, holding her own Valentine's gift from Harry. It was another rose, but the petals had the same color as her hair.

"I'm pretty impressed, I must say. I can tell he spelled the card himself, which makes it incredible sweet. The card may be tacky and annoying, but I appreciate the sentiment." Hermione smiled brighter and pressed the paper against her collarbone, ignoring the tiny red hearts covering her legs in the process.

"So no storm on the relationship horizon?" Ginny teased and the two shared a laugh.

After repairing the card, which had continued to trickle hearts all over the place, the brunette found a nice place for the worn out flower and tried to ignore the constant noise in the hallways. After her last lesson, she was ready to jump out of the window to make sure no other student would ever have to suffer from the cruel creators of Hogwarts' Valentine's Day.

Knowing there was one great remedy for an overload from exorbitant kitsch, Hermione consulted the Marauder's Map and went off to join Bellatrix.

The dark witch had found refuge in the old boathouse, where she huddled on top of an overturned boat with a thick, black quilt covering her shoulders and watched the gentle lapping of the lake shore.

"I see you had the right idea," Hermione commented with a smile as she came nearer.

Bellatrix threw her a confused look. "How do you manage to find me all the time? All those months I had my peace and quiet."

"I have my ways," Hermione mysteriously answered with a shrug and sat down on a nearby stack of lumber, hiding her hands deep in her pockets. Not that she would ever hint anything about the map to the former Death Eater. "I needed a bit of a contrast program to the craziness in there, so I came and found you."

"Whoever invented that shit needs to have a dozen of these blasted angels nailed to them day and night. I'm serious, who is responsible for that nonsense? And they call me mad!" Bellatrix snorted and Hermione couldn't help a small laugh at the older woman's caustic remarks. It was exactly what she needed today.

They sat in companionable silence for a while, watching the water surface and the gray mass of clouds slip by without haste. Nature had no need for holidays of any kind, it followed its own, personal timetable. The Gryffindor had to admit that the older woman's presence emitted a certain sense of calm. How curious, Hermione mused, considering all she did to me since June. But she could not deny that spending the rest of the day like this wouldn't be so wrong.

"Listen, Granger," Bellatrix began out of nowhere and it was more the use of her name that caused Hermione to turn her head than the sudden words. But the raven haired woman wasn't looking at her. "What you did after Rabastan found me... I mean, I'm aware you wanted to save your own life with this. But you didn't have to stay after it. And yet you did."

The dark witch was clenching her jaw while Hermione watched and waited, curious.

"You didn't tell anyone about my memories and you kept me company in the infirmary. Despite our... past. I guess... my family honour dictates I have to give you my thanks for it." There was the usual haughtiness in her voice and a certain lordliness in which she straightened her shoulders and back. As if getting a Black's thanks was a once-in-a-lifetime privilege that the young woman had to cherish and revere.

Hemione smirked to herself and leaned a bit more back. "So then? I'm listening." It was evil of her to take advantage of the situation, but when did she get to see the older witch uncomfortable or flustered? It was a selfish pleasure and the brunette loved every minute of it.

Bellatrix threw her a dark glance and pursed her lips in distaste. Then she raised her chin and looked back outside, as if all of Black Lake was beneath her dignity, in spite of its name. She cleared her throat pointedly. "Thank you."

"You're welcome," Hermione replied with a chuckle and a shake of her head, watching the heel of her boot tap the old, wooden floor below. Why, one wonder after the other. You're getting spoiled.

"So?"

"So what?"

Bellatrix was watching her insistently, waiting for something the young woman couldn't define. "What do you want? I need to repay you, to clear my name."

"What?" The young woman furrowed her brows. "I don't want anything, it's fine. "

"I can't be indebted to a Mudblood, so think of something," the other woman went on and Hermione sighed inwardly. Well, there goes the good mood. And I was almost daring to hope we were past that. "What do you need? Money? Precious stones? New clothes? I think you'd do really well with a new attire." The raven haired woman eyed her appraisingly, making it clear what she thought of the brunette's style of dressing.

"First, my clothes are perfectly fine, thank you," Hermione snapped back slightly self-conscious and with beginning irritation. "Second, maybe I don't want charity from a pure-blood. Maybe I'm happy with what I own."

"Oh, don't be ridiculous." Rolling her eyes, the former Death Eater slipped from the boat and leaned lazily against it. "There's always something. Look, this is the chance of a lifetime, so do me a favour and choose something so I can forget all of this ever happened."

Hermione wanted to huff and turn around, leaving the abrasive woman behind to deal with the situation herself. But maybe the whole day of pink hearts, endless love songs and a boyfriend residing who knows where had gotten to her head and driven her just a little bit crazy today, causing a ludicrous idea to pop into her head.

God help me. But I swore if you didn't... then I would hope for us both... didn't I?

It was absurd. It was stupid. It caused her heart to race.

"I can wish for anything?" she checked under her breath, painfully aware of her heart beating against her throat. It was becoming a bit too warm in her thick mantle, scarf and woolen cap.

"Well, let's say in a moderate scope. I refuse anything that will ruin me or that is beyond my capability. Oh, and things like running naked through the whole school. The poor boys wouldn't be able to take it," Bellatrix added, flicking long hair pridefully over her shoulder. "So nothing ridiculous either."

You ruined something for me the night you tried to seduce me. I will take that back. I will cover the memory with another and never think of it again, banning you out of my mind. And, well, maybe make you deeply uncomfortable in the progress.

"Okay, I know what I want." Hermione found it hard to breathe as she mulled the idea around in her head, feeling weak beneath Bellatrix's heavy-lidded, expectant gaze.

She inhaled deeply, calling forth her courage. "I want you to kiss me."

"Wait, what?" The raven haired woman did a double-take, appearing dumbfounded. "That's it?"

"No, there are certain conditions." Licking her dry lips, Hermione tried to explain. "I know you're not interested in me like that and that's fine. I shouldn't even react to you the way I do. But you got me drunk... twice. And you hurt me numerous times. So I want to see that you are capable of caring, of gentleness."

Bellatrix still looked at her as if she had grown a second head or had lost all her marbles in an instant.

So she went on. "The conditions are that you have to kiss me, but it has to feel like you mean it. Nothing dirty or over the top. Sweet and tender. If you can manage that, you're free of your 'dept' to me." Hermione raised her head, showing her own brand of stubbornness and pride. "So there."

"That is ridiculous," Bellatrix commented flatly.

"No, it isn't. It's a perfectly valid compensation and I won't change my mind on it." Now the Gryffindor felt in control for the first time. There was little chance a willful pure-blood like the eldest Black would step down from her high resting place to fulfill this duty, because touching a Mudblood like that was so far below her status, it wasn't even debatable. Bellatrix could do hot and passionate and seductive, but caring? No way. And in case she could do nice... nah.

There no chance she has changed that much.

"You're not kidding? Look, I have enough money to-..."

"Don't even try it. You know the conditions and whether you accept or not is all in your hands now." Wearing a triumphant smile, Hermione crossed her arms and felt ten times taller than the brooding raven haired woman. Even with Bellatrix constantly wearing high-heeled boots, Hermione had the feeling she was on top of the situation for once.

That was, until Bellatrix let go of the quilt and grabbed her upper arms.

"Fine," the older woman drawled, making a sour face. "Don't come whining when you realize you just flushed a great chance down the drain."

And then hormones created a big blank in Hermione's head when the beautiful pure-blood slowly leaned forward to capture her lips. The brunette felt the ground snatched from under her feet and before she could swoon, her hands scrambled for purchase on the other woman's trademark corset.

The act was soft. It was unbelievably gentle.

The way Bellatrix moved her full, pliant lips against Hermione's own thin, dry ones had stars erupt behind her eyelids and her knees turn to jelly. When a cold, elegant hand slipped along her cheek to entangle itself into the brown strands tumbling out of her cap, the young woman was sure she had forgotten her name and the purpose of this action.

All her short-circuiting synapses could flash was Bellatrix. Bellatrix. Bellatrix.

It was a kiss stolen right out of a fairytale and fodder for a decade's worth of sappy romance novels, love songs and blooming spring feelings.

It was perfect, it was all-consuming and it had the Gryffindor in confused, trembling pieces.

Then Bellatrix stepped away abruptly and warmth turned back into cold. "There," she said roughly and Hermione was so all over the place that she wondered if she had imagined the older woman swallowing harshly. "We're even."

And then the pure-blood hurriedly grabbed her quilt and fled the scene, like she never did, without any further comment, like she always did. Hermione stayed behind until she knew she could walk without crumbling to the ground in a shaking mess.

From there, she went straight to her room and smelled the red rose until it's fragrance had chased away the cinnamon of Bellatrix's skin. Hermione fell asleep to the sound of Ron's Valentine card, the scratchy, tacky song following her into her dreams and mocking her with images of her boyfriend throwing snowballs at her, which burst into a million fragments mirroring dark, dark eyes and a ruby red mouth.

When she woke up, Hermione swore she could still imagine Bellatrix's taste on her lips.

I think it's pretty official now that Hermione needs to get things 'straight' in her mind (if you know what I mean ;D)...
Let's see how many updates I can still squeeze in before leaving, but in case I'll be too busy... don't lose hope! Stick to it, like Hermione does ;) I'll be back and the fic will be completely finished until then (it's written so far until chapter 32 and I have material for at least chapter 40!)
Love y'all!

Chapter Text

Hello from France! That's right, the long silence was due to me finally starting my journey. It's been pretty fun (if exhausting) so far! And since I have good internet and some time on my hands, what stands in the way of an update?... Right, nothing! So have fun with the chapter! And good job to all who saw the Sweeney Todd reference in part 22, I almost forgot it was there ;)
By the way, the quote from Rilke this time is less about the chapter itself, but speaks about the whole story, the whole journey these two (and we as readers) went through. I found it was quite fitting.

imperfectionisunderrated: Damn, you're absolutely right with the stitches. I need to change that in the future :) Real life? What is that? Is it something I can eat?

hollowwind: So NOT a short review, so thank you awfully much for the praise! *blush* Can I share the cotton candy pool? That sounds wonderful *drool* And by the way, I wouldn't call Bella being 'passive' after that... ;)

Devil Child Vorn: Wahaha, that was awesome! I can't help laugh again when I read it. Thanks for the creative tweaking :D

Amaranta316: Haha, I totally do that as well when I read fics I don't want to end! Thanks! And even though I'm in France, here is a chapter to ease the wait, 'cause I never know when I have internet T_T

Saikoh: Praise from the master makes Kurai a happy cat! It's still a bit until Bella can show real kindness, but we're slowly getting there ;) Not much farther ahead, I can see laaaaand!... *ships on*

Bellaminion: Ah, don't give up on that. Practice makes a master! Everyone started small, don't give up on a budding talent :)

an idea: While that's a really cool idea, I'm awful at writing stuff with pregnancies in it. And first I have to finish this one X_x No plotbunnies for me until then! ;)

alex14andra: Yeah, Valentine's Day can be a big nuisance *g* Thanks for the review!

misswitty: I didn't have a Geburtstagsparty, but the day was nice :) Most amazing was my big surprise party before I left Germany... that one was REALLY awesome! And congratulations on your exam, that's super! :D

DarkMagicWillow: Cool nick, Willow in her bad girl form was awesome! And thank you for the compliment! I'd make longer chapters, but then my update time would be absolutely unacceptable ;)

raevens: Aww, that's so nice, thank you. You're absolutely welcome :3

wild artemis: Maybe, maybe not ;)...

unicorn33: Is it ever an accident with me? *cough* No, this time it's deliberate :D

OpheliaBlack: Oh dear, the good tea. Yeah, it came to me out of nowhere and it fit so well I just had to add it in :) Yeah, our dear Hermione is still a little prude, so sex is not exactly the first thing on her mind. Keep deluding yourself, Hermione, we know where this all leads! *chuckle*

OnlyHers: No need at all to apologize, thank you kindly for the review!

Berserkeroo: Update to the rescue! No more tears!

lemon-rind: Yes, you're right, she is treading the line and I think that drives her even more crazy. On the topic of the Screams... well, they are kind of special. Some more details are in this chapter, but feel free to ask if something is unclear :)

ApollosGirlSunny: Yeah, complications are definitely on the horizon! Good to hear it had you laughing :D

Pandora's Moon: Hermione is not really helping her case, is she? *g* Awww, how sweet :3

the enigma: Word, buddy, word. I like Ron, but not with our heroine! And while I could write another chapter from Bella's point of view, I believe it's much more interesting to be left in the dark about her intentions and feelings... ;)

BrionnaRain14: Hehe, thank yoooou! :D

List of Romantics: So not what I would have wished for either. Dear god, the possibilities! They are endless! *slaps Hermione on the back of her head*

legoiste: Thank you! My aunt most likely won't be better... but that's life. Sorry for killing you, again *g*

Kaede Shinomori: Thanks! I hoped it would feel real if I took my time with it :) I knoooow, it's gonna be GREAT! *squeaky Pinkie Pie voice* Eh... I hope.

smurf: Thank you so much!

Lauren: Thanks for the insightful review! I followed the debate about Anders Breivik in the news and while I didn't first think of Bella, it made me wonder once more about the state of the human mind. It's actually accurate that her insanity should have played a role in this, but wasn't mentioned... I guess there's a lot I have to add and revise once I have the time and energy to do so. Thanks for pointing it out, I agree :) ... wait, what does frolicking about in France lead to? *blink blink*

The Last Poison Apple: Thank you! You don't watch Once upon a time per chance? ;)

RiZeN xvii: Thanks! Can't wait what I'm going to do with it either *rubs chin*

DarkndAngel9: Hehe, thank you so much. Nice to see which scenes you liked! I actually creeped myself out a bit with the knife scene, curse you, active imagination! . And there was a swallow all right! (Oh my, my dirty mind *cough*)

And all my thanks go out to everyone else who reviewed! I hope I don't bore you with my replies. I'm glad I can finally go on with this! *happy dance* I MISSED YOOOOU! *hugs*

23. The Need for Comprehension

"Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day." - Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke

There was a strange habit forming in Hermione's day-to-day life. There was a restlessness in her veins, a constant need to move, to keep herself busy, but with a grave lack of concentration that caused mistakes to pop up here and there. On top of that, being around Bellatrix was keeping her on edge, but when staying away from her for longer periods of time, the young woman easily found herself working to exhaustion to keep the buzzing in her head from forming. It was as if Bellatrix herself was becoming a weird form of drug, you couldn't stand her when too close, but you could not live without it either, both states ruining your health day after day.

Only her visits to Inihara's training sessions were able to give her a sort of calm, the demand on her body and concentration leaving no other space for complicated thoughts. Whenever she left the dojo afterward, her body was tired and her mind was pleasantly sharp and empty.

Sadly, the rules Bellatrix had been forced under also applied to her. She was only allowed to leave the school by Floo Network instead of using the great gate on the school grounds, forcing her to pass through McGonagall's office to do so. Not that she minded visiting her favorite teacher, but it made her feel as if her personal freedom had been restrained. Now she had an inkling how the former Death Eater had to feel, stuck inbetween these walls for most of the time.

The only positive change was Bellatrix's less hostile attitude. She was by no means a happier person or any less nuts than before, but Hermione seemed to have finally made the transition from 'dirt beneath my shoe' to 'nuisance I can tolerate'. Being stuck inside Hogwarts meant spending a lot of time in the library for the pure-blood and chatting with Hermione when boredom threatened to make her crawl up the walls. The young woman even managed to persuade the part-time prisoner to join her and her friends for some of the three meal times down in the Great Hall.

First, Bellatrix's appearance at the table had caused a great deal of staring and whispering from everyone not a Slytherin. But when it became a recurring theme to see the eldest Black sitting with them at the Gryffindor table from time to time, the change became just another oddity to get used to. Not that most stopped giving the former Death Eater a wide berth, but Bellatrix seemed quite content with the fact that she had space around her whenever she sat down.

It just took a little while for Hermione to make the older witch understand that throwing people off the bench only because she wanted to sit right there was not a privilege she owned in this school.

It was never a given that Bellatrix joined them for a meal, because her sleeping habits were still as irregular as the changing weather. But whenever she did, whenever she decided to sit with them, it forced Ginny and by proxy Luna as well to become a bit more used to the dark witch's attitude. And, when the youngest Weasley and Bellatrix had traded about every insult in existence about their families and had entertained half of Hogwarts with their creative taunts and jibes, a silent armistice seemed to have formed between both women. Maybe it was a shared respect about the other one taking as good as they dished out.

Hermione was simply glad she wouldn't have to cringe anymore every time one of them opened their mouth.

But the brunette's unusual unrest began to worry even her best friend. It found it's peak during a Potions lesson, where Professor Slughorn had them create a potion of Amortentia under aggravated conditions as training for their N.E.W.T.s. Everything was working fine and dandy for the prime student, but when it came to adding the final ingredient, Hermione found herself distracted and spaced out, standing next to her cauldron with the last step clenched firmly in her hand. It only took a handful of minutes, but the heat underneath the iron container did its deed and black smoke curled from the once perfect potion.

"Miss Granger! Such a heavy blunder, from you? I am severely disappointed." Slughorn clucked his tongue in shame as he took a glimpse at the mess and Hermione went red with embarrassment. When the lesson was over, she was the first out the door.

"Hermione, what's going on? You make potions like that in your sleep!" Ginny examined her with worry when she had caught up to her friend.

Unable to do anything but shrug, the brunette averted her eyes. "I don't know, I... I'm just having a bit of trouble sleeping. I think it's the anxiety for the coming exams," she quickly half-lied. The exams were still a good while away, but more often than not Hermione woke up in the morning as if she had gone to sleep only minutes before. As if her agitation was even haunting her in her dreams.

"You're over-working yourself again, aren't you? Go and take it a little slower, okay?"

Slow. When everything Hermione wanted to do when sitting down was throw the main gate open and run and scream aimlessly across the school grounds until the world tilted and her throat felt raw.

"I'll try," she answered, her mind on the next subject. Charms. Have to hurry.

When even Bellatrix got fed up with her erratic behavior, the older witch grabbed her flatmate and dragged her out to Black Lake the second the strengthening sun forced the snow to admit surrender and retreat.

And so it came to be that Hermione found herself sitting at the shore, throwing little stones into the dark waters, while Bellatrix lounged on her back on a wide, flat stone somewhere to her left.

"It was nice of you to take me with you," the brunette said while she stretched her legs. The temperatures couldn't be called warm yet, but the sunlight was strong enough to prickle at the skin not packed into thick cloth. It was refreshing and relaxing.

"I had to take someone with me, otherwise they won't let me, or you in that case, out of the house," Bellatrix crabbed, amusing herself with transfigurating a galleon hanging in the air above her. So far, whenever Hermione chanced a look over her shoulder, she had created a peacock feather, a blob of green jelly, a mouse, a glove, a red pen, a glass jar and something reminding her of a CD, which turned out to be a hand-held mirror. But she changed her mind every few seconds, moving on to another form with every flick of her wrist.

The Gryffindor didn't know if she should be envious of or awed by the offhand way in which the older witch used her powers. Transfiguration was hard enough, but the pure-blood switched between forms like a Muggle changed tv channels and did so with a similar bland expression on her face. The younger woman choose neither emotion and went back to flicking pebbles aimlessly across the surface.

"We could go back to duelling, you know," Bellatrix offered out of the blue. "With all those blokes after our lives, it would surely be vital."

Hermione snorted, hefting a small stone in her hand. I should have brought a book. "You forget the last time you tried to teach me something, it ended up with you after my life. No, thank you, but no. I'd like to stay bruise-free for a while."

"Oh, come on, don't be a sissy. We'll keep the Occlumency out of it and everyone's happy," the older woman whined, twirling a red-yellow paper snake in the air. "You can't tell me you didn't like it."

A sigh. "Yes, I liked it. Of course I did, I like learning new things and improving myself... it's even useful in school. I got better."

"Oh yeah, I heard that even the Slytherin boys sing praise when the name Granger is mentioned. How odd, a Mudblood at the head of every school year." Bellatrix, head upside down, grinned cheekily at the younger witch. Incidentally, in that position she also presented deep insights into her cleavage, causing Hermione to blush heavily.

"W-well, I try my best. I love learning," she admitted and rubbed her palms to ease the chill of the cool air, eyes focusing on the task.

"I wonder if you can crack my records. School was so utterly boring... everything was so easy, I breezed through every year. My N.E.W.T.s were all Outstanding." Bellatrix was bragging, so much was clear, but the brunette didn't mind. For one, it was nice to hear the former Slytherin talk about something with a trace of delight and second, honest competition was something Hermione could respect very well. And with her own exams coming up, it would be a great spur to give it her all if only to dangle a perfect certificate in the other woman's face.

How can she be so clever if her head is filled up with noise all the time?

But Bellatrix was already talking again, the galleon now back to its original shape and zooming through the air like a caffeine-addicted bee. "One year, I set the school record for points gained for a house. The same year, I cracked the record for points lost at the same time, for all the detentions I earned. Ah, good times." The pure-blood cackled with glee. "Blowing up the Great Hall - a childhood dream come true."

"How did you do it?"

"Do what?" Bellatrix wanted to know, straining herself again to set her eyes on Hermione. "Blow the Great Hall up? Come on, you can't be that dense, it's child's play."

"No, that's not what I meant. Well, learn and work and all that. With... you know, the Screams." To say it had to be a big distraction was most likely the understatement of the year.

The former Death Eater rolled around, lying on her stomach and pushing herself up on her forearms. With her brows furrowed, she twirled her wand between her fingers. "Guess why I got detention all the time. I think there wasn't a student in my year that I hadn't jinxed, hexed, threatened or scared until they wet their pants. All the terror kept the Screams remotely under control."

Tapping her wand point against her temple, the pure-blood smirked darkly. "Everyone already believed I was cuckoo anyway, so why bother correcting them? And really, it's all a matter of getting used to it."

God, she really needs to wear different dresses if she lies around like that, Hermione thought with frustration, having a hard time glancing in Bellatrix's direction and the amount of pale, subtle flesh visible. Or leave the blasted corsets. Feeling the restlessness resurface, she became aware of her left leg bouncing up and down in a jittery way. All this unrest was starting to wear down her nerves. Stamping her foot firmly on the ground, she forced it to be still once more.

"I guess one can get used to anything," Hermione remarked lamely, not knowing what else to say.

There was a moment of quiet, but the brunette didn't want to let the topic go yet. "Did you speak to anyone about your problem? I mean, didn't anyone try to help?"

"I may have let something slip to my sisters... but only the Dark Lord knew the true extent, otherwise he wouldn't have tried to suggest getting rid of the root of the problem."

"Fat lot of good his advice did," Hermione muttered, wondering if Voldemort had ever had the slightest intention to 'help' Bellatrix when coming up with the plan that she had to kill her father to be rid of the mental agony. Her firm belief was that he had tried to form her into the perfect minion, molding her into a soulless creature just like him. He had seen a prodigy with unique talents and a mental instability and sunk his claws into her before any help could reach her.

"I think you'd do better not to speak about Him like this," Bellatrix hissed insistently. "Otherwise there will be a quick end to your 'bruise-free time'."

The Gryffindor held up a hand in a quiet offer to let the point of argument drop. Not that she thought any better about the monster he had been, but a negative mention of Voldemort was a sure way to rouse the pure-blood's fanaticism and ire. "Fine. So what about it? I'm pretty sure McGonagall would be willing to listen and come up with an idea how to help you.."

"Do I look like I need help?" Bellatrix snapped in outrage. "You will not discuss this with the Head hag, do you hear me? If I find out you breathed any word of this to any living soul-..."

The threat was hanging in the air and Hermione interrupted with no small amount of anger. "Good gracious, calm down! There's a reason I asked you beforehand. We've been over this already!"

"Who knows what particularities you might come up with, running to your precious teacher and blabbering all about it. One can never be sure enough." The dark witch swung her legs down the stone's side and leaned back on her hands, feet dangling from side to side.

The younger woman groaned and rubbed her temple. "Now you're just being paranoid."

"It's called playing it safe, dearie."

Hermione rolled her eyes, not answering anymore. There was little chance she could win an argument, especially a rational one, when the older witch was like this. So she tried to be the bigger person and kept quiet, enjoying the nice day and trying not to care that Bellatrix still disregarded all social importance. Was she looking and praying for a speck of light in the other woman that just wouldn't come?

Was she even capable of feeling anything positive for other humans not her closest family?

Her strength to believe in a change was not yet depleted. So when McGonagall called the brunette up to her office a few days later, Hermione shoved her worrying about Bellatrix into the back of her mind and instead concentrated on why the Headmistress would want to speak with her. She hadn't done anything wrong she would know of and her grades were flawless. Maybe her duties as Head Girl had something to do with it.

Entering the Headmaster tower and not seeing Dumbledore was something the young woman was not entirely used to even now, but talking to McGonagall was always a pleasure and even now the brunette found her teacher welcoming her with a smile forming in warm, green eyes.

"Ah, Miss Granger, good evening. I hope I'm not interrupting anything?"

"Oh, no, professor. All is fine," Hermione answered, taking a seat before the main desk and returning the smile. "You wanted to see me?"

McGonagall interlaced her fingers on the desk, her poster as prim and proper as always. Hermione found she had a strange, mental nagging to sit straighter when around the stern, but kind-hearted woman. "It is about Madame Black, I fear. Oh, don't worry, nothing happened, it is simply the matter of the holidays I'm finding myself concerned with. I believe you want to return home or to the Weasley family this time?"

The Gryffindor nodded, wondering if the older woman had somehow acquired the information or if it only was a guess. Whatever it was, there was no point in hiding anything about her plans.

"Yes. I'd like to stay and celebrate with the Weasley's, but I'm going home to visit my parents for a few days. What's the matter with Bellatrix? She can just go home to her sister's Manor, can't she?"

Glancing at the younger witch over her slim glasses, the Headmistress leaned a tiny bit forward. "Miss Granger, we cannot forget our duty as supervisors, as imposed by the Ministry of Magic. Sending Madame Black away would mean no direct control over her actions, which at this point in her rehabilitation would be a tremendous error on our side. Imagine if she came to harm someone; the legal backlash would be devastating."

"I don't think she's that unstable at the moment," Hermione began slowly. But you wouldn't place your hand into the fire for it either, wouldn't you? "What about checking up on her once a day? Or in the morning and evening? I'm sure Lady Malfoy would accept a regular check-up by Floo Network if we ask her nicely."

That got McGonagall thinking. "Well, it is quite true, despite her possible personal feelings on the matter she has been very cooperative so far. And I'd rather not have Madame Black stay here alone as long as you are away-..."

There was a sound by the door that interrupted their discussion and in rushed a red-faced Pomona Sprout, dabbing a hand-kerchief at her sweaty forehead. "Oh, I'm so sorry, Minerva, but-.. in the Hufflepuff common room," she panted out. "Someone exploded a whole basket of flibbertigibbets and now the students are stuck to the walls and the furniture... we are trying to catch them, but I ran to inform you-..."

"Good gracious... Thank you, Pomona. Please, call Hagrid and see if he hasn't got any Anti-Flibgib in his possession - I will come down this instant." McGonagall had already left her seat while giving these instructions, hurrying to the staircase with her robe lifted in one fist and hurried steps. "Miss Granger, please stay here for the moment. You can leave if I'm not back in fifteen minutes. By all that is holy, I'm getting to old for this, who explodes flibbertigibbets in a common room? If I find out that this is a new Weasley's Wizard Wheezes..." The rest of her muttering was swallowed by the echo of the staircase and the two teachers getting down to fix things.

Hermione sat in her chair, dumb-founded and not quite sure what to do now. The Headmaster's office was kind of intimidating with its large, angular space, hidden corners and side-rooms and its sheer endless number of fascinating gadgets. She could see the cupboard the Pensieve was hidden in and to the side was Fawke's stand, now sadly empty without the magical bird.

Forced to wait and twiddle her thumbs, the brunette let her eyes wander. A few portraits were glancing at her behind their lowered eyelids, most sleeping or at least faking to do so. She felt herself drawn to the picture of the former Headmaster and suddenly had an idea.

Well, she said I was to tell no 'living' soul... Standing up carefully, she walked her way over to Dumbledore's portrait.

"Good evening, sir," she offered in greeting, smiling when she watched him sort something in a little bag on his knees.

"Oh, Miss Granger, how nice of you to say Hello," the amiable man answered in the friendly, peculiar tone, the same she was used of him. "I see you coming and going quite frequently. Busy school year?"

"You could say so. The seventh year is harder than the others..." The brunette spied a curious instrument in the back beside the frame and raised her eyebrows. That hadn't been there before. "Sir, have you been practicing playing... the trumpet?"

"Ah, good eyes, my dear. Yes, now that I have all the time in the world, I have taken a liking to broadening my repertoire of talents... unfortunately, I find myself lacking the artistic streak to get a proper tune out of this instrument. And my practice drove poor Minerva terribly mad with annoyance, I fear. So I decided on another, less invasive type of art."

Hermione folded her arms, incredibly amused by what must have been the best wizard of his time and how the situation with his trumpet lessons must have sounded like. Maybe that was the reason she had seen McGonagall run around with a frustrated twitch in her eye for the past week. "And which one would that be?" she inquired curiously.

He fished out a small brown bean out of the bag, holding it up into the lighting of the canvas. "Guessing Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans by colour. I'm sure it will come in handy someday." The eccentric man surveyed the candy, then harrumphed. "Toffee. This time I'm sure." And he popped it into his mouth.

With a barely hidden grin, the Gryffindor watched as Dumbledore made an unhappy face. "Not toffee, I take it?"

"Decidely un-toffee-like, I must say. But Rome was not built in one day and only practice will make a master out of an ordinary man." He rummaged around in his bag for a short while, then glanced at her with intense, blue eyes. "But I am quite certain you didn't come over to watch me ruin my taste buds and appetite with beans, hm?"

Hermione shifted on her feet, a bit sheepish at her true colors being found out. "Actually... yes, there is something I want to ask you. Which I can't ask Professor McGonagall, because I made a promise to someone."

"Keeping your promises is an important character trait to have, so I can understand your concern. Please, ask away. And old fool like me is always happy to share his knowledge and experience with the young... and the living, in that case." He smiled and the brunette found herself a bit more at ease.

"I'm sure you remember Bellatrix Lestrange - or Black, in this case? I guess Professor McGonagall already told you about our... unique situation." And then she went on to relay in quick words the basic gist of what Hermione had found out and experienced about the older woman's dreadful Screams and also, for the first time, which memory she suspected responsible for causing them. Dumbledore listened patiently, with an occasional nod or a thoughtful stroke of his beard.

"That is a very sad, very pitiable past to have and explains a great deal about Madame Black, as I believe," he finally commented after she was finished, his stern gaze conveying compassion that seemed even graver when one knew his normally joyful and jovial expressions. "She had always been a... special student in this school. A prodigy witch of remarkable, unrivalled talent and yet there was not one single year where other house students wouldn't slink away in fear or appear in the infirmary with magical ailments and a refusal to give any hints about the perpetrator. It is terribly sad to know the family's vicious workings has come full circle."

"Is there anything you know or assume that might help her change this? Not even the death of her father caused it to vanish, if anything, it grew worse afterward," Hermione explained, keeping the murder to herself. There was only so far she was willing to relay Bellatrix's secrets to her former Headmaster, as much as she respected him.

"Considering this happened at the tender age of six, I can only make blind speculations, but I do have a guess. Bellatrix Black was a girl very in tune with her magical side, otherwise she wouldn't have been able to learn even half the magical languages she obtained during her stay at Hogwarts. So I wouldn't be surprised if these... Screams, as you say, or better, the magically distorted memory, is an manifestation of Accidental and Wandless magic that never went away."

The young woman blinked. "So you think magic is involved?"

"I am quite sure it has to be. No normal psychotic illness should have such an devastating effect on a Legilimens, and from what you told me of your experience, it is really aggressive and painful." He picked out another bean, a light blue one. After chewing it, he made a sour face. "Lime. How insidious."

"And do you have any idea how one can help her to... I don't know, reduce the magic? Or make her tone it down? I'm sure it will be a great help in her trying to return to a normal life and being less... crazy," Hermione asked eagerly, hoping Dumbledore would have a good answer to Bellatrix's problem. If one of the causes of her mental instability was gone, there was a good chance the older woman would try to be more kind, because there was no further need to inflict pain and agony on others.

"This is where I have to give rise to all sorts of speculation, Miss Granger," the wise wizard explained to her earnestly. "From what I gather, Madame Black is a lot more damaged from her past than we could ever guess. I fear the problem is rooted very deep... deep enough that a man like Tom Riddle appeared to her as a man of salvation. We can not even begin to comprehend how far away one must have been forced from the light and good to believe a notion like that."

"So you think it's hopeless?" she asked softly, feeling her throat close up at the thought. Is she really lost forever? It can't be, can it? Hermione remembered Bellatrix's beautiful, happy smile the day she had turned young again, her eyes shining with such a warm, brown spark. Or how she had slept in the infirmary bed, so peaceful and fragile. Was this the appearance of a woman who had lost her soul without return?

"Oh, no, not at all," Dumbledore denied with a sparkle in his sky-blue gaze. "But I believe it will be the hardest work one could ever do. Reaching out to her, having her let someone reach so deep that they might be able to touch and sooth the cause... there will be a lot of pain and setbacks on that course. Madame Black doesn't appear to be the kind of woman to make friends, much less good friends, and who else to let in but someone who you like and love? Someone you trust completely?"

But Bellatrix trusts no one. Least of all me, it seems, Hermione thought with a slight droop of her shoulders. There are so many reasons for why the Screams still exist. I have the feeling it's not just something that has to do with the actual memory of her father hurting her, but is connected to it... which runs deeper, emotionally and psychologically... where, just where is the root of all this? Would there come a day when she would understand the raven haired woman?

"Miss Granger, may I ask you a delicate question? Something personal?"

"Of course, sir," the young witch answered distractedly.

"How come you sacrifice so much for a woman you are not obliged to help? Someone who has repeatedly demonstrated to be the opposite of all that we fight for?"

Dumbledore's sharp gaze was inquisitive and for a moment Hermione felt as if the moving picture (just a painted portray, for god's sake!) could look down right to the bottom of her soul, stirring questions she didn't want answered and answers she wasn't ready to receive. But whatever he saw, it was clouded to the brunette and had her thoughts spin in a jumbled mess.

"I... I'm not really sure," Hermione answered hesitatingly, as 'because I care for her' and 'because I want to help' suddenly felt flat and untrue to her own ears. How much of the dead person or their soul was really gone from the world and how much of it stayed with this picture, this eerily similar shadow of their former selves? It was overwhelming. "Maybe it's because I pity her. No one deserves such a treatment and history, whatever they might do in the present or future," she added with a shrug and while she meant her words, they didn't hit quite close to home.

The former Headmaster stared at her for another few seconds, unmoving and all-knowing in the ways of the world, but then from one second to the next a smile eased his stern face and all traces of the mind-boggling intensity were gone from his expression. Now he was just the old, eccentric man again, who played trumpet after his death and tasted his way through a horrible mix of all-flavored beans.

Yet whatever had happened left Hermione slightly disturbed, as if something had been scratched open and wouldn't close as easily. Her restlessness returned, making her whole back itch with anxiety.

"I see," Dumbledore said and leaned back, something in his words making her think he didn't mean her actual answer. "A lucky day for Madame Black then, to have such a smart, young witch care for her well-being."

"Thank you, sir." Hermione smiled wryly, but her need to go and do something was almost painful. "And thank you for listening. You were a great help. But it looks like Professor McGonagall won't come back soon..."

"Surely not, flibbertigibbets are incredible nerve-wracking, little pests. I had one in my favourite ball robe one time and it took me hours simply to get the coat hanger out of my wardrobe. And I'm sure you are a very busy student, with all the courses you have taken this year." He winked at her returned to his little bag. "So please, run along, Miss Granger, and have a nice day. And don't try the brown beans with the yellow dots on them... you will thank me for that one day."

"Of course, sir, I'll try to remember." The brunette laughed and turned away, ready to walk down.

"Oh, Miss Granger?" As she turned, he held up two beans. One was of a dark brown, almost black, while the other was a jolly red. "Pick one for me, would you?"

"The black one," Hermione chose instinctively, her mind already occupied with an essay in Astronomy she hadn't yet finished completely. And there was the homework for Herbology, which she had researched but not written yet, maybe doing that today would give her more time after training tomorrow...

Dumbledore bit into the sweet with cautious slowness, chewed, then nodded with a content look. "Good choice," he commented and went back to sorting the candy. Hermione quickly returned to her room in the Gryffindor tower to get something done before the night.

And then, days were gone in a blur and Hermione found herself faced with packing her trunks.

It was a strange feeling... going home. It hadn't been weird after coming back from the Isle of Lewis, but back then her anxiety to be back with her friends had been almost palpable. Of course, even now she had a giddy feeling in her limbs about meeting all her friends and the Weasleys, but it wasn't as strong as when she had come from the cottage. Possibly because at that point she had actually considered fleeing as the situation with Bellatrix had been getting out of hand...

She did become a lot calmer, the brunette mused, placing a few clothes in her charmed bag. This gadget had become a lot more useful than she had ever guessed, making any use of trunks or heavy backpacks obsolete. Bellatrix's frequency to be violent has been toned down. Maybe because she feels more in control with her wand and youth back...

Blinking and shaking her head free of thoughts about the dark witch, the Gryffindor went to sleep early so she and Ginny would reach the Burrow by noon. Despite Bellatrix's repeated attempts to persuade her, the two woman had not yet resumed their dueling. Hermione told herself it was because of her lack of time (there would be exams in about three months), but if she was honest with herself, a small residue of fear remained when she envisioned another of the mad woman's rages in the Room of Requirement. If Hermione hadn't reacted, Bellatrix could very well have killed them both.

And that's the real problem. There are no limits for her when she snaps. No, it was better to push it away until after the holidays, there was no benefit in rousing sleeping dragons. So she swung her bag over her shoulder and said goodbye to her chamber for the week before leaving it behind.

Only to run into a languidly pacing pure-blood in the living room.

Bellatrix didn't look happy.

"So you're off having fun for a week while I get shipped off to my sister's manor? That's cruel, Granger. Lucius is a pain to be around for longer than a day, you know." There was some forced humor in her tone, but it was obvious the witch didn't want to exchange her Hogwarts prison for another one containing a man she couldn't stand.

"It's just for a few days. And McGonagall will visit you regularly," Hermione tried to soothe her. "Aren't you happy to see your sister?"

"No. Yes. I would be if it wasn't for the slimy baggage stuck at her home."

The brunette could only smile wryly, but for once her own wishes were more important than Bellatrix's whims. She wanted to see Ron and not even the distasteful whining would keep her from executing her plans.

Bellatrix, quite aware that nothing short of putting herself into coma for the holidays would keep her from having to do this visit, huffed and crossed her arms. Then she looked the Gryffindor up and down.

"Oh please... a pink cardigan. Really?" she voiced with an unhidden amount of disbelief and contempt.

"What's wrong with my clothes now?" Hermione wanted to know, rolling her eyes.

"The color, the cut, the thread... this whole piece of fabric is waste." Before the young woman could protest, the former Death Eater flicked her wand at her torso, causing a prickling sensation across the skin of her upper body. When Hermione glanced down in horror, she saw that her cardigan had been exchanged for a hip-long, tight sweater in deep, dull black, the neck curving down in a V far below her collarbone. While still flirting with the line of modest, with that kind of cleavage the whole purpose of wearing a sweater went out of the window.

"Bellatrix! Turn that back right now!" the brunette hissed, fingers curling into fists.

"I don't think so. Dear God, you are trying to impress your boyfriend once in a while, aren't you? Your dress of choice hurts my eyes every time I look at you." Bellatrix tapped her wand against her pouting lips.

"There's nothing wrong with my dress sense!"

"There's everything wrong with your dress sense." Mustering the brunette, the raven haired woman raised an elegant eyebrow. "Now would you look at that... curves. Beneath all these burlap sacks I wouldn't have imagined you to have a figure."

Hermione blushed, folding her arms protectively across her stomach. "You saw me in my Yule Ball getup and didn't complain either," she retorted angrily. "But maybe that was simply another fake compliment to get under my skin, like it always is."

"Aww, puppy, you always get mad so easily when I poke fun at you," Bellatrix answered in her annoying baby talk, sauntering over to Hermione to make a tight circle around her while the heavy-lidded gaze had goosebumps erupt on the younger woman's skin. "You know, I haven't had a woman in my bed yet... mmmh, I wonder, if you weren't a dirty, ickle mudblood..."

Cool fingers traced a fiery line down Hermione's neck and the Gryffindor slapped at the wandering hand. "Don't touch me. You've lost that right long ago," she snapped, trying to ignore the way her heart thundered when Bellatrix was so near and seductive.

"Ah, but you're forgetting something," the other woman husked in her ear, leaning towards the brunette from the side. "You might tell yourself that rubbish about love and trust, but when it comes down to it, I'm the only one who really gets you going. Ironic, isn't it?"

"You have no idea," Hermione argued back, turning her face away from those glistening, poisonous lips. "You're nothing compared to the one I love... this is just a weird fancy."

"Is it now?" Her voice was a dark purr and the younger witch swallowed at the warm breath ghosting past her neck. "I think you're a bad, bad liar, and when you're lying in bed with your boy toy, the only one you will be thinking about is standing - right - here." The last parts had been growled so quietly that Hermione could almost imagine feeling the vibrations shuddering through her flesh. Her heart rate spiked and she broke into a sweat and no, this just wouldn't do.

"I'll forget you the second I'm in his arms," the brunette pressed out and made a move to leave, but a strong, slim arm sneaked around her midriff and stopped her motion. Alarmed, Hermione wanted to struggle for freedom...

Until a warm, wet mouth latched itself to the spot on her neck right below her jawline. She almost groaned at the violently erotic sensation storming through her body, it having turned traitor and freezing her to the spot.

And then Bellatrix sucked, hard, and Hermione felt her legs grow weak. The feeling was close to painful, but the lips attached to her skin and the tongue flicking out to lap at the abused spot had every last trace of discomfort morph into liquid desire. It barely lasted more than ten seconds, yet it felt like a whole world had been created, destroyed and reborn.

"You might cover that up with magic, my pet, but I know it's there and you will know it, too," the older woman whispered harshly into her ear from behind, pushed up breasts pressing perfectly into the spot below Hermione's shoulder plates. "And when Ronny places his sloppy, clumsy kisses all over your pretty body, then you and I know I've been here before and you won't be able to forget that you want someone else more. Me. I don't like being denied anything, whether or not I want you in my bed."

The young woman tried to tell her off and the words Let go off me were right there on her tongue, but when she opened her mouth, her throat was dry and merely managed a croak. Bellatrix's saliva still clung to her skin in that place and felt cool on her heated frame.

"Happy Easter, dearie. Don't forget to send me some chocolate." Freeing the Gryffindor from her loose grasp, the pure-blood went back to her own room and slammed the door, always slamming the bloody door, the echo of her high-heeled clicks haunting Hermione's dazzled state of mind.

Five seconds later, the young witch slapped a hand on her neck, ran out of the Head Girl's dormitory and into the next available bath room, not daring to set a foot into their own. When she spotted the large, already purple hickey below her jaw in the mirror, visible for everyone even barely taking a glance at her, she blanched.

"Damn it," Hermione muttered, ignoring how she frequently swore more and more often. Maybe it was a thing of age. Fishing her wand out of her belt with trembling fingers, she covered it up with a glamour, but even when every trace of color was gone, she could still feel it. Etched into her skin, burning in her flesh, pulsing against her veins.

It was her first hickey and she had the bad feeling it would stay for days. Maybe forever. Marked by a lunatic. Perfect.

She should feel more angry at this, more disturbed. Shouldn't she? But it was late and she had a train to catch and she was feeling so restless again that it covered any other disturbance, so maybe it was better not to think too hard about it. Ron would make it better. It would all be well.

And so Hermione left Hogwarts for Easter with another secret impregnated on her soul.

I'm sure there was anything else I wanted to say, but I can't remember. Probably because Skype is frustrating the hell out of me once more. *grumbles* Damn it, connect, you useless gadget, you!
Next chapter is another important one! Enlightment! Knowledge!
It will be called... *drumroll*... Desiderata! (Meaning: Desired things, and no, it has nothing to do with the poem from Max Ehrmann ;) ) Until then, darlings!

Chapter Text

Hey everyone! Thank you so much for your awesome resonance, even after a month of silence. Over 500 reviews and I cherish each and all of them! :) THANK YOU!
You have to excuse me for not (yet) replying to your comments this time, but it was a hectic, stressful day (I had everyone in Germany crazy because I thought my creditcard was gone, but it wasn't in the end) and now I just want to sleep. But I really wanted to get the chapter out today, too. Okay, technically it's not today anymore, but you know what I mean ;) I'm changing cities and hotels tomorrow, so if everything goes well I'll edit this chapter tomorrow evening to answer your questions! Until then, please have fun with the chapter, even though it's a hard to chew one. Careful, there's Ron-Hermione stuff here... but it had to be done ;)

Edit: Haha, Reims had all of my attention yesterday, I'm sorry XD The belated commentary, NOW!

veritas31: I have to stop at the best bit, otherwise you wouldn't come back for more :p Kidding, kidding! Oh, I like the way you think. This would be exactly how she'd react if Hermione did this. Then again, will she or won't she? ;)

imperfectionisunderrated: Writing Bella and Ginny together makes me crack up myself, simply because I can imagine pretty well how they'd fire off at each other. And no, it's not a real galleon, otherwise money really would be no problem with financing stuff ;) Then again, I could imagine that goblins have some special magic on the hard money to ensure that its credible... I'm thinking too much again. Thanks again for some awesome commentary :D

raevens: Oh, stop it, you *blush* :D

Jughead jimmy: I know, it's a hard wait, but their relationship already changed a lot. And there are hints and mentions all over the place ;)

OpheliaBlack: I love Dumbledore, or at least my image of him. I wish he were still alive -_- As well as Snape, god would I love writing his dry, snarky self... well. That's when you work with canon. As much as I know that people would love Bella's POV, I personally believe it is much more interesting to not know what she's thinking and feeling right now... means where almost in the same pandemonium as Hermione right now :)

chwee: Haha, that made both laugh and smile like a fool, thank you! :D

List of Romantics: Stop spoilering my story, you naughty woman! XD jk *g* You fill my head with naughty stuff when I'm trying to be romantic *giggle*

fracturediamond: Oh, do I know all about how life is hectic, no worries :) Yay, graduation time! And you had you chapter here, didn't you? ;)

DarkndAngel9: Yeah, boy does she have restraint. But then again, this is levelheaded, logic Hermione... Anyway, please do share some of those nice thoughts in your head if you have the time, who knows what future chapters may bring... :D

bluewolf198: Wow, my, you're drowning me in compliments! Thank you! Good to hear the story had you so captivated, that's just great :) I hope you have as much fun with the future chapters! (And don't you love finding out about a huge, long fic you can't tear your eyes away from when it's already way, way into it? I know I do! :D)

lemon-rind: And aren't you right about that statement, my dear ;) Thanks, if I can ever put Dumbi in again, I'd do so in a heartbeat!

hollowwind: Sorry, can't help it, being evil is naughty fun :D And thank you, great to know it all worked ^^ Wohoo, cotton candy pool! Time to burst out the bathing suit! YAY!

eliz0027: Thank you kindly! In case of more Bellamione, there are, sadly, not many long ones out there. MadameCissy is the place you want to go, especially her story 'Promises Beyond The Thunderstorm'. I think her other work is more heavy on the Bella-Hermione-Cissy triangle, which is not my thing, but it might be yours and she is an amazing writer :) If you're going for dark, very dark, but intriguing and awesome, you have to read liidg's work. I haven't had the time to read more than a few chapters yet, but the ideas and writing are very good! OH! And of course, Impossible by PerfectPride, which is just... beyond words. If you read anything, read THAT. I can't think up any others on the top of my head, but I'm sure those will keep you busy for a while! Have fun :)

Kaede Shinomori: Thanks, sugarcube! *hint* ;D

24. Desiderata

"It was the passions about whose origin we deceived ourselves that tyrannised most strongly over us. Our weakest motives were those of whose nature we were conscious." - The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde

Kissing Ron with a hidden hickey imprinted on her neck felt... disturbing. But she pushed the queasy feeling away and slung her arms around his shoulders, hugging him close until the texture of cloth and skin chased away the memory. "I missed you," she mumbled into his shirt and for a moment she forgot Hogwarts and all that happened while in the warmth of his embrace.

Ron was sweet. He was nice and kind and when he looked at her with this puppy-dog expression, she could feel all her annoyance melt away.

"You're not staying long, aren't you?" he asked softly, once the hustle of shifting bags and trunks left and right had died down.

"I'm going to see my parents for two days, then I'll come back here to spend the rest of the holidays with you and your family." That had him smiling happily again and the afternoon meal vanished away in a cloud of hectic laughter, discussions, catch-up and moving about. Before she knew it, Hermione had waved good-bye to her friends for the evening and apparated to her childhood room.

The sudden silence was deafening. It buzzed stronger in her ear than all the Weasleys' voices together.

But despite the pressure in her head, she finally had room to breathe. Closing her eyes and sitting down on the edge of her bed, the brunette found her tilted equilibrium and pushed it back into the right position, before slowly marching down the steps.

Nothing had changed in her home, even though her parents had been gone for nearly a year. Every piece of furniture was still in its place and everything was still as clean as she was used to. Her mother was busy in the kitchen, considering the sounds coming from that direction and Hermione made her way over to it.

"There you are, honey! We were already waiting for you to show up," her mother greeted her with a laugh in her voice, dropping the towel to hold her only daughter close. "It's so good to see you, Hermione," she added fondly.

This was something so natural that Hermione felt a smile blossom on her face when held close by her parent. The smell, the feel, she could have as well been five years old again, hiding in the safety of her mother's arms, because the world would always stay outside. The young witch didn't realize how much she had missed them as she did now, here.

"I'm happy to be here," she answered back. "I'm so sorry I didn't show up during Christmas... but things were so hectic with the Yule Ball..."

"Oh, dear, it's fine. The house was a mess anyway, we had to escape to uncle Benny's house." Before the brunette could open her mouth to apologize for the Memory Charm, which had turned her parents' life upside down for a good while, the older Granger pushed a few of her daughter's strands behind her ear and smiled. "You have to show me a picture of you from that ball. My, our little girl all grown up... I'm dying to know how that dress looked on you."

Hermione chuckled. She was just glad the two dentists weren't mad for the magic she had practiced on them. They knew all their daughter had wanted was for them to be safe and away from harm and considering they had no idea how bad the situation had been in the Wizarding World, they knew it probably had been for the best. "You should know the crazy dresses Ginny picked for me first... you would have died of shame if I had showed up in one of them!"

"Ah, I doubt it. You've become such a pretty, young woman... that reminds me of my own youth, when I was courting your father. The things I wore those days... very salacious, I tell you." Her mother winked cheekily.

"Mom!" the brunette cried out in mock outrage and embarrassment. "That's something I don't need to know, really." Then she dissolved into laughter.

"Oh come on, the concept isn't that bad," the older Granger mumbled, putting her hands on her hips. "Now, I believe you already ate at the Weasleys'? I didn't start yet with dinner, so go say Hi to your father, then you can help me with the preparations."

"Sure." Hermione left the kitchen and found her father in front of the TV, watching some kind of sports event. Some things would just never change. But he interrupted his favorite past time to happily greet his child and ask her about her school work. When he was satisfied she was doing okay, which included both good notes and not overworking herself, the Gryffindor vanished back into the kitchen and helped her mother prepare the meal.

Over dinner the family made small-talk, laughed and shared stories. Her parents told her about the amusing odyssey back home to London, but the young woman knew they all skirted around the serious topic that sat in the room like an elephant.

When the dishes were packed away and everyone sat around the table with tea and dessert biscuits, Mr. Granger made the first foray into the dangerous zone.

"So, honey..." he began tentatively, "what about your - well, 'link' to that criminal? How is that faring?"

Quite aware of the half-truths she had fed her parents when first talking about Bellatrix, they now weighed her down as well. Everything always led back to the dark witch, wherever she went, whatever she did. Her neck burned and she resisted the urge to press her hand over her skin to hide the tell-tale spot, knowing it was already save behind the glamour.

"It's working all right. She's not the nicest person to be around, but... we arranged ourselves."

"But Hermione, she's a murderer, isn't she?" her mother asked full of concern, touching her daughter's cold hand. "How can you live with such a... creature?"

"She's not-..." Hermione snapped a bit louder than intended, then clapped her mouth shut and took a deep breath. It had become natural to defend her position when it came to Bellatrix, but her parents were a whole different matter. They knew much less about the older woman other than the fact that she had done horrible things. Things Muggles were thrown in prison for, if not worse. In our world there is a good chance she would have been sentenced to death. It's only my connection to her that saved her from this fate in the magical world as well... But then, what was worse? Quick death or a lifetime in Azkaban? Sometimes, the end of your life was the lesser evil.

"She encountered a lot of trouble during her life. It's hard to explain how the pure-blood families work, but Bellatrix was subjected to an inhuman treatment from the very moment she was born into her family..." Trying to give her family a rough picture of what Bellatrix had fared when she was young to just before she had ended her allegiance to the Dark Lord without compromising the secrets like she had promised the dark witch, Hermione became aware of how little she knew herself of the whole story.

There were snippets and key events she now was aware of and which had carved the woman Bellatrix was today, but there were huge chunks missing and probably would always be. It was like traveling through a foreign land: With every year you would see more and more of it until you had a good, general feel about the area, but you would never understand every stick and stone and hidden place like someone who had been born on the very land you desired to know.

"It sounds like you are trying to defend her," her father interjected at that point and it was obvious he was not quite comfortable with the idea.

"It seems like she is mentally ill," her mother countered, both to her husband and daughter. "And you heard what that woman went through. It's no wonder she turned out the way she did. Those poor girls... subjected to such a family." Ms. Granger placed a hand over her mouth in heartfelt pity.

"Then she needs a professional to take of her, not our daughter. Hermione has to finish her education without a clinically insane hanging at her side."

"I doubt she would let a professional anyway near her state of mind," the brunette added, voicing her scepsis. "And even her sisters asked me for help. At this point, I'm the only one who cares for her and tries to help her past these problems. Dad, I want to help and I'm too connected to the situation to stop now. Even if I have to admit that it is draining..."

"Honey, I'm worried you put a bit too much on your plate," her father said slowly and leaned towards her, all parental concern. "You're only eighteen."

"Maybe, but I think I saw and lived through enough to handle the situation," Hermione argued back in a level tone, forcing herself to stay calm and not feel offended. Of course the eldest Granger only saw his sweet, little girl and not the grown and experienced young woman she had become. Her mother had less of a nostalgic sheen across her vision, even though she was just as worried as her husband.

Mr. Granger sighed and leaned back, rubbing his eyes. "Well, you're a grown-up now and as much as I want to, I can't forbid you from doing this. I'm not comfortable with this, Hermione, not at all."

"Isn't there someone who can help you?" her mother asked softly.

"I'm not alone in this. McGonagall is always there if I need her and Hogwarts is a very, very safe place for both me and Bellatrix." Well, at least it was, the young woman mentally added, quite sure that an Auror or two were in the neighborhood right now to keep her safe after what happened with Rabastan. "Really, I can handle this. You don't need to worry about me." I hope.

"You know we always will, after what you told us," her father admitted, sounding miserable. "Please keep us updated, okay?"

"I'll send you regular letters, I promise." Smiling to put her parent a bit more at ease, the young woman wondered what they would say if she enclosed her intense attraction for the dark witch. Better keep that one to myself.

"If someone had told me at our wedding that my daughter would become a witch, the hero in a war and then spend the rest of her days connected to a lunatic murderer, I would have walked away from that person without another word. Girl, you're working hard at getting my hair gray, aren't you?" Mr. Granger deadpanned with a raised eyebrow and a try at lightening the situation.

"And here I thought I was subtle," Hermione joked back weakly. Yeah. Definitely, totally keeping that one to myself.

"Sweety, I trust you'll do the right thing," her mother said and squeezed her hand. An equally light brown pair of eyes lingered on her own, imploring her to believe her words. "Whatever you'll decide, okay? Your dad is worried, but we're proud of you and we stand behind you in every decision. Just always remember that."

Feeling herself teetering on the verge of tears, Hermione went to hug her mother close again, whispering a choked 'Thank you', while her father's gentle hand stroked the top of her head lovingly. Yes, she understood that this was home and would always be.

I don't want to disappoint you. I'm sorry. Her secret would stay where it was. There was no need to worry them any further about something that was just a fancy and would pass in time.

Hermione relaxed those next two days, letting herself be filled with memories of her childhood by browsing through the items she found hidden in her shelves and cupboards. Yes, when she had been a little girl of six years, she had never guessed what kind of life would await her. There were crayon drawings in the bottom of a box, full with pictures of family get-togethers and fancy children dreams. There even was even a crude drawing of the mandatory knight on a white horse, which she had drawn after listening to her mother tell about Sleeping Beauty for the first time.

When her powers had shown up after her seventh birthday, the brunette had found it hard to make friends or keep her old ones. So browsing through books and magazines alone in her room had become a normal occurrence and learning her substitute for socializing. Imagining a nice boy coming and carrying her away to a beautiful land where she was accepted had been a wonderful, crazy dream, but then her dream had suddenly come true and she still found herself to be the odd one out. All thanks to her blood.

And where was she now, years later, with a disfiguring mark on her arm and an unhealthy interest in the one human being that was so far from the white knight in the picture that it was laughable? Clutching the picture in her hand while leaning sideways against the door of her wardrobe, Hermione laughed quietly until she felt her cheeks grow wet.

She had a good life. She had wonderful friends, a great family and a perfect education. And yet she always found a way to give a bitter note to her existence. Whoever invented growing up deserves to be shot, the brunette mused with a wry smile and cleaned away the mess she had made of her room.

It was time to end her problems. She had found her knight and though he may not be white and had less of a knightly honor, he would keep her safe in this strange land if she only accepted it.

With a tear and a smile she said goodbye to her parents when it was time, promising to keep a steady contact. Then she went back to the Burrow to face her decision.

"'mione! Come on, I need to show you some new Quidditch tricks, they're awesome!"

And so she smiled and spend the first few hours being back watching Harry and Ron zoom around in the garden and showing off some more and some less fruitful broom acrobatics.

It was only after dinner and in the quiet of the living room when Hermione had the chance to have her boyfriend all to herself and not distracted by his friends or other actions and Ron seemed to appreciate their alone-time, too. They sat in front of the fireplace, cuddled up on the couch and exchanging news about what had happened over the months in detail.

"Look, I'm sorry I've been away for so long..." Ron suddenly threw in with remorse after a moment of silence. "I love doing Auror work, but I shouldn't have been gone all this time, should have visited more often."

"Well," Hermione tentatively began, watching the flames flicker around in the herd, "it would have been nice to see you more. And to get a few more letters from you..." she admitted carefully. "But I can understand it. You were doing important work for the wizard community, I can't blame you for that."

Turning her head to smirk at him and show that forgiveness had been granted, he relaxed a bit behind her.

"Thanks. You're awfully forgiving, 'mione, and I'm not sure I deserve that."

"Ginny is in the same position as I am and she has forgiven Harry as well. How can I blame you for doing the right thing?" She adjusted her position slightly to get more comfortable. It was unusual to hear him speak with such self-awareness about his mistakes, but maybe it was a sign Ron had finally grown up. She wouldn't mind if that was the case. "Besides, I was busy with schoolwork anyway. And other activities... I had hardly time to meet with Ginny and Luna besides the meal-times. How should I have added you in as well?"

"Way to make me sound like a nuisance," Ron grumbled good-naturedly, but he was just as much joking as she had been.

"You know," he went on, fiddling with a loose thread on his sweater, "I think I should spend more time here. And... you see, after Fred died... George has been kind of down, which is understandable. But he hasn't reopened his shop yet and when he asked me if I wanted to help him, I thought it would be a great idea."

"It is a great idea. It will help George get back on his feet. But.. what about your Auror training?"

"Ah, that can wait," Ron answered with a shrug. "They'll keep my spot open, I won't be gone for longer than half a year or so. And we did everything we could to help after the war... Harry is still going after hints like a madman, but I'm pretty sure we smashed them Death Eaters for good."

Hermione sat herself more upright in alarm, turning around to look at him with furrowed brows. "Ron, I got attacked at Hogwarts. Twice. Don't you think it's a bit early to say something like that?"

"It wasn't you they attacked," the Weasley tried to backpedal, hoping to calm her down quickly. "It's no wonder they want to off Bellatrix. But the Ministry's got it under control and one Auror-in-training less won't hinder their work."

"I guess so," she reluctantly admitted, settling against the back of the couch. "But I have to admit, I think Harry is right. They're not done yet."

The young man seemed a bit irked that his girlfriend chose Harry's side instead of his, showing it by turning toward the fireplace with a slight pout on his face. There were a few moments of silence and the little difference in their discussion quickly melted into the calm atmosphere of the room.

"I would be happy to see you more often," Hermione admitted with a soft voice. "I feel really lonely sometimes." And confused.

"Me, too," her boyfriend replied gently and there was that quirky, soft half-smile on his face she had fallen for over the years. The one that told her everything would be fine and eased her worries like a deep exhale cleanses your torso of a weight you didn't know was there.

And when she smiled back at him, Ron slowly leaned forward and engulfed her in his arms. She could feel the scratchy wool of the home-made sweater through her own clothing and felt comforted by the familiarity. Then he kissed her and Hermione felt warm and safe...

And disappointed.

It was romantic, it was beautiful. It was the kind of kiss teenager dreams were made of. They were sitting in front of the fireplace and her boyfriend had just sweetly admitted that he was lonely without her, so there should have been a greater resonance in her body to that kiss, shouldn't there?

But the slight stubble on his chin, which scratched almost as much as the sweater he wore, distracted her to the point of annoyance. So the brunette ended the kiss sooner than expected and at his confused blink, she trailed a hand down his cheek.

"You need to shave."

"Ah blimey, I forgot. I'll do it tomorrow." He bend down again to kiss her again and she let him, but not for long. His growing beard against her cheeks and chin was equal to nails on a chalkboard. At least she had forgotten the slowly fading, hidden hickey on her neck.

Hermione went to bed soon after, knowing that the next day would bring a lot of excitement. Ginny planned a shopping day with her mother and Fleur, who would meet them in Diagon Alley. The pregnant half-veela was in her eighth month and longed for a last chance to move around before the doctors would keep her trapped at home or in bed, so she was happy to spend the day with her new family.

The afternoon proved to be nice and exhausting, especially for Fleur, but everyone came home with a new piece to show their husbands and boyfriends. But before anyone could stop them, Ginny had dragged her best friend outside for a walk around the fields near the Burrow. The country was beautiful at this time of the year, when everything was green and blooming.

"You know, after seeing Fleur today, all happy with a child on the way..." Ginny began when they were sitting in the shade of a large oak tree, "I really understood today that I want the same with Harry. A marriage, a family... I believe he is the right one for that."

"Wow. It's almost strange to envision that. I mean, a few years ago we were those awkward teenagers and now we're thinking about children." Hermione grinned at her friend and hugged her knees close, her mind traveling down the memory lane. So many adventures, so many memories. Had she ever thought Ron could be the father of her children one day? She scoffed at that amusing thought, reminded of their fights and differences as kids.

"Even when I was with Dean, I always knew Harry was the one for me. From the first time I've met him, I always knew I would be in love with him. Dean was wonderful and great... but... Harry was the one person in my life I would have left anyone in a heartbeat for."

The brunette was surprised, turning around on her side to face Ginny. "Really? You knew from the first second?"

"Like in the fairy tales," the redhead admitted with a laugh. "It was the right kind of spark, the one I felt with no one but him. Which turned into fireworks when we had our first time." Ginny's eyes were twinkling and she looked like someone who had found the happiest thing life could offer. Hermione had no trouble at all to conjure up a picture of her two best friends as an old, content couple 60 years from now, with a bunch of children and grand-children forming a wonderful family.

"But I guess everyone's different," Ginny went on, mirroring her friend's pose. "So, as much as I don't want to imagine my brother doing it, how was your first time with Ron?"

Hermione blushed nearly violet and quickly rolled onto her back, eyes capturing the shading canopy of the tree. "W-We-... well, you see... Ron and I, we... uhm..."

"Oh Merlin's beard, Hermione, I'm sorry!" Ginny hastily interjected, registering how flustered the other young woman was. "You two are together for nearly a year now, so I guessed... oh, I shouldn't have assumed. I'm sorry."

"It's fine, Ginny," Hermione calmed her down, though her cheeks were still burning. "It... just wasn't the right time yet. We haven't seen each other for so long and... yeah."

"My brother has huge gaps and spaces where his romantic department should be, I know."

"It's not just him," the brunette went on with a sigh, "it's me, too. I haven't made a big effort and after that... incident with Bellatrix, I felt pretty ashamed. And maybe I'm expecting too much of him."

Feeling a hand on her upper arm, the older Gryffindor turned her head to see warm, brown eyes smile at her. Ginny squeezed her fingers, her head propped up on her free arm. "Don't worry about it too much. I can see you love Ron and he loves you, so I'm sure the right time will come sooner then you expect." Then she laughed. "Really, I can imagine no better sister-in-law than you!"

"Yeah, it would be great," the Muggle-born confirmed and the thought of being part of the Weasley family for many years to come actually had a smile blossom on her face. It was as if spring had sneaked into her veins and loosened all the problems and complications she carried with her from school. The rebirth of nature had infused her senses, making her emotions more vibrant and her heart fonder of the memories it held and would still experience.

Maybe this was the step she had been missing.

And when Ron and Hermione sat together that evening in his room, with the young witch showing off the new summer dress she had bought in the city, there was this look in the young man's eyes that had her heart beat faster.

I'm attractive to him, she realized in that moment, he wants me, he loves me. No one else has ever loved me like this.

"It's pretty, 'mione," he began clumsily, a slight redness on his face. "Just like you. Pretty, I mean. You're pretty."

Maybe this was what would make everything all right. She loved him, he loved her. There was nothing that stood in their way but their own awkward selves.

"Not beautiful?" she whispered softly and in a daring act, slowly sat down on his lap, their gazes never breaking away.

Ron visibly swallowed. "Yes. Of course you are. You're beautiful."

Smiling, she kissed him, delighted when her fingers met smooth skin along his jawbones. Just as eagerly, the young man kissed her back and hugged her close, but after a minute she pushed against his collarbones and then simply looked at him beneath lowered eyelashes. When she didn't move, Ron finally took the hint and lowered the first of the straps of her dress down one shoulder, then the next. He did it carefully, almost with a fearful reverence, and Hermione felt delicate and beautiful.

Then everything sped up and when her dress was gone on the floor, as was Ron's shirt, she found herself lying on his bed sheets mere minutes later. She couldn't remember how she had imagined her first time to be, but she tried to loose herself in the warm skin covering his arms and back, the unskilled lips trailing inexpertly along her lips and face. A big, clammy hand wandered along her ribs and she shivered, closing her eyes.

Love. Love was the only important thing. There was a warmth in her belly and her heart was working faster. With the light dimmed and the room warded against any sound getting outside, Hermione felt the sense of exposure lessen, but not go away completely.

First time jitters, she told herself and reciprocated Ron's heated kiss.

Kissing was something they would have to practice, a nagging voice commented in the back of her distracted mind. Ron was too fast, too hurried and unpracticed in anything relating to a woman's body. But he would be able to learn, she was sure. For a second she found herself grasping for long locks of hair, almost ripped out of her trance when her hand touched the short, ginger one at the back of his neck.

Ron's hand clasped her breast and squeezed, too hard the first time and she gave off a noiseless yelp that told of her pain. There was a hurried 'Sorry' mumbled against her lips, but now he was afraid too touch her too much. But soon he found a comfortable rhythm and the random fumbling became a lover's caress.

It was nice enough that she sighed and leaned her head back into the pillow. A warm mouth sucked at that spot that had been kissed before and she let her hands wander down warm shoulders, down smooth collar bones and a curved torso-... except it was flat.

Confused, Hermione blinked her eyes open, the world around her hazy. The body above her own was heavily built and broad-shouldered and for a moment she wondered why she had expected to find something else. But her active mind offered puzzle pieces when her repression was successfully distracted and for a second the redheaded, freckled pasty frame above her own turned into a slim, well-rounded one, paler and smoother than the moonlight pouring in through the window.

The memory of dark, heavy-lidded eyes devouring her, seducing her in the heat of the moment had such a strong electric jolt run through her body, that a whimpered, high moan slipped from her throat in a voice she wouldn't have recognized as her own. Suddenly, there was a throbbing in a whole other region of her flesh, a never before felt warmth filling the spot behind her breastbone.

Then the swell of Ron's erection pressed against her hip through the material of his jeans and all her arousal was gone in a heartbeat.

"Stop," Hermione coughed out, her voice nearly breaking. "Stop, Ron, please!"

But the young man was busy pressing his lips against the still hidden hickey a certain dark witch had left as her mark and only when she pushed hard against his shoulders did he upright himself. He was dizzy and confused, just as ripped out of the moment as she had been a moment before.

"What? What's wrong? Did I hurt you?" There was so much distraught worry and self-blame in his voice, that Hermione nearly burst into tears at her feeling of shame.

"No, Ron, I... I just... oh god, I can't do this," she told him and then she did start crying. Unable to do anything but hide her face behind her hands and curl on her side while sobs shook her body, Ron was just as helpless, softly petting her hair and dragging the bed's cover across her underwear-clad frame.

"'mione, what is it? Did I do something?... Please, talk to me!"

But she couldn't, as nothing in the world could turn an 'I love you' into an 'I'm in love with you'. There was no spark, no intense physical attraction and while she felt safe, warm and wanted in his arms, now that she had experienced something much, much more intense at the hands of another, she knew her 'puppy love' for Ron would not be enough anymore. One kiss of the damned witch had her nearly bursting at the seams, while the whole act of near-love-making with Ron didn't even compare with what she felt when she saw a patch of the Death Eater's naked skin.

If Bellatrix knew she had indirectly ruined Hermione's first time, just as she had foretold, she would most likely break out into delighted, awful cackles.

The brunette cried and cried and soon Ron gave up on trying to calm her down and simply lay next to her. Defeated. Probably frustrated. She felt even more horrible about the fact that it wasn't even Ron's fault. She was giving him a hard time and he had no idea what had caused it or if he had done something horribly wrong. Yet she couldn't find the energy to appease him.

Even less possible was the possibility of telling him the truth.

"I'm so... " she finally sobbed out and gathered her clothes, "..so sorry... so sorry, Ron. It's not you. I have to go, I'm sorry." She had the feeling a thousand apologies weren't even coming close to the feeling of betrayal that grew in her insides like a festering wound. All the plans about the future Ginny and her had made in Hogwarts and beneath the tree in the fields splintered and fell, breaking apart into a thousand worthless pieces and leaving behind a mocking mess of 'what-could-have-been'.

The walls around her seemed to suffocate her, to press out every last drop of sanity she clung to in her fragile, confused state. She had to get out and fast.

Her boyfriend was left behind, wordless and bewildered, as Hermione stormed down the stairs of the Burrow in her normal clothes. The new dress still lay crumpled and forgotten at the foot of his bed, a vivid reminder of a line that was almost crossed, but now never would.

With her rapid breath almost stuck in her throat, she stumbled out of the front door, but it still wasn't enough. In a split-second decision and knowing she was getting herself in danger by doing this (and effectively ignoring it), Hermione drew her wand and turned on the spot.

Her feet touched down into chaos.

Wind snagged on her clothes and rain poured down in violent torrents, as her shoes threatened to sink down in the soft sand. The place was most likely the same as she remembered, but the weather made it impossible for her to find a focus point. After blindly walking in one direction, the Gryffindor was lucky to find the right way by chance when small lights became visible in the distance.

Shell cottage.

It was the first thing Hermione had thought off when trying to get away. The Wood of Dean had been another possible destination, but it was much stronger connected to Ron and Harry than this place. Here, she remembered mostly Dobby, days of waiting and planning, as well as taking care of the wounds she had garnered from her...

Bellatrix. The woman who had ruined her life.

By now, the young woman was nearly soaked through to the bone, but instead of casting a warming spell, the witch welcomed the cold biting at her skin. The water that fell from the sky relentlessly washed away any possible feeling reminding her of those that had touched her intimately. All that was left was the storm around her and the one in her head. So she marched on.

Dobby's grave looked well cared for, probably by Fleur and Bill, but the wind had thrown debris from the sea across the gravestone. Hermione set out to clear it, to keep herself busy. It took less than a few flicks from her wand and when she was done, the witch crouched down before it, hid her face from the tempest and let everything go.

Good grief, what had she done to deserve this? It shouldn't have been this way. She was supposed to be in love with Ron, to marry him and have children. It would have been a dream come true, a wonderful life with a wonderful family. But now?

Now, all she wanted was to see this damned woman, to touch her skin, press herself close, hear her speak... even if it meant to be insulted. Her cold fingers sneaked beneath the arm of her jacket and outlined again and again the cursed words cut into her skin and which now made her feel so close to the raven haired witch. Even while sitting here, in front of the grave of a good friend the woman had killed in cold blood, it was impossible for her to conjure up the same spite and hate she had felt after leaving Malfoy Manor mere months ago.

But why? Why? Why was it Bellatrix, of all people on this earth, who made her stray from the man she thought she loved? Hermione knew she was no masochist, would never become one, and certainly was not into the pain the other woman dished out, but the memory of every graceful movement, word and look of the former Death Eater seemed suddenly so much more important than any 'I love you' she had shared with her boyfriend.

Was it an infatuation? Was she getting mad? Maybe the double Unbreakable Vow had unforeseen consequences on her emotional balance. Maybe she just had to give herself over to the temptation that was the eldest Black, get it out of her system, then return to the man she loved, but obviously wasn't in love with. But the brunette had the bitter feeling that this wasn't something that would just pass and go away like a sudden storm.

No, this was something integral, something... permanent? If only she could put her finger on it. Lusting after Bellatrix Black was crazy, suicidal and simply laughable, but now this absurd attachment had reached completely new heights.

If only she had never done the Vow. Then she would be none the wiser and happy with Ron. If only she could get rid of this... this... whatever it was. But she was stuck with it.

Hermione knew that under these circumstances, there was no way she could stay with her boyfriend. Maybe someday this would all be just a bad dream and she would fall into his arms and stay with him forever, but for the moment the nightmare in form of Bellatrix clung to her like a waking dream.

And if not?... Oh god, what am I going to tell the others? My friends? What will they think? Just the notion of having them find out about her attraction to the former Death Eater had her nearly become ill. Quickly standing up before the grave of the first free house elf, she slung her arms around her shivering self and started wandering along the dunes, the horrors her mind conjured up keeping her restless despite the spring storm.

It was four o'clock in the morning when she returned to the Burrow, her clothes dry and the circles under her eyes rivaling the color of her dark blue jacket. There was a good chance she would get sick from her thoughtless walk at the coast, but the raw display of elements had calmed her down in a way only the forces of nature could.

Wrapped in a thick quilt, sitting at the wall beside the front door, was Ginny. Once she spotted the wayward Granger, she quickly stood up and waited until Hermione had joined her, watching her come near with a mixture of utter sympathy and worry.

"Oh, thank God you're okay! We heard you leave and Ron has refused to say anything, other than that you didn't want to see anyone... did you two have a fight?"

The brunette pressed her lips together for a moment, her gaze dropping down to her shoes. It was better than to look at a face so similar to that of her boyfriend. "Gin... I... " She didn't know how to say it. "Ron is- I-... we tried to..." Just take a deep breath.

"I realized I'm not in love with Ron, Ginny," she finally admitted in a voice laced with tears, then raised her chin in an effort to stay strong.

There was shock and disbelief in the youngest Weasley's expression, understandably, but it gave way just as quick to compassion and a shared sadness, something only a best friend could produce. Within a second Hermione was engulfed in both arms and quilt and although she had been crying so much the last few hours - or had it been the rain? - she couldn't hold back the fresh tears slipping down her cheeks.

"I'm sorry," she stuttered out between hiccups, "I thought him and I were supposed to be! After all we went through, I thought we would grow old together! B-but... I'm not happy. It just isn't enough. It just isn't the right thing."

"Shhh," Ginny tried to hush her and squeezed her close. "It's okay. You can't force this, don't feel bad about it."

"We were supposed to be a big family," the other woman wailed and buried her head in the redhead's shoulder.

Ginny let her best friend cry until only a few dry sobs were all that were left of the breakdown. Finally Hermione had calmed down enough and pulled back, carefully rubbing her aching eyes. They felt red and puffy, she would take a bet that her appearance had to be downright horrible right now. Better not to look into the mirror for some time.

"What can I do now?" the brunette asked helplessly.

"You break up," her friend simply replied with a shrug. "You and Ron will give a wide berth around each other for some time and it will hurt for a while, but then both of you will realize your friendship is worth more and in twenty years we will all laugh about the fact with your new partners."

Hermione couldn't help but puff out a breath of laughter at this, the slight smile feeling strange on her cold, wet cheeks. "You make it sound so easy."

"I can't speak for Ron's side, but you're tough. You'll deal with it and move on, and that is perfectly fine."

"You're taking this all so well... I'm breaking up with your brother of all people. And what is your family going to say?" Imagining Mrs. Weasley's heartbroken face pained her heart.

"Hermione, I know how it is to be with someone and not love them," Ginny said calmly. "I broke up with Dean because of it. The fights we had were petty, meaningless, but they were a great excuse to make us both not feel bad about going our own ways. It would have been incredible to have you in our family, but really, most of the time I wondered what the heck you saw in my brother. And I mean that in the nicest way possible." Hermione had to chuckle at that again, but the redhead wasn't finished yet.

"And for my parents... Dad will take it in stride, but Mom will probably take it personal for a month or two. You know her... she loves you and she will come around, but for the time being, she has to be solidary to her 'Ronnie'."

At the brunette's defeated look, Ginny petted her arm with a crooked smile. "Come on, you would do the same as a mother. There's only three days of our holidays left, how about you go get some respite at your parents' house? Uh, I mean, I don't want to throw you out of the house!" she quickly added when she realized how that may have sounded.

Hermione held up a hand and smiled when her friend was ready to add more apologies to her words. "No, I get what you mean. You're right. Once I have talked to Ron, I think it would be very uncomfortable to stay here... I guess we both need some space."

For a second, there was heavy silence. The brunette blinked, shaking her head at the situation.

"Wow. This is actually real. Yesterday we were thinking about starting families and now I'm going in there to burn my future plans."

"The Golden Girl, always ready to pull out a new surprise," Ginny joked, receiving a weak punch against the shoulder by her fellow Gryffindor. "Hey, just trying to lighten the mood."

"The mood is too morose to be lightened," she groused, hugging herself. "Could you do me a favour? I... would like to talk to Harry for a moment."

Despite her curiosity, Ginny nodded without question and went inside to get the Boy Who Lived Twice. While waiting, the brunette sat down against the side of the house and watched the cloudy, barely lightened sky move in languid patterns, thanking whoever listened for having such a rare, wonderful best friend in the form of Ginny Weasley. She didn't know what she would have done if the redhead had reacted badly or even pressured her into giving Ron another chance. But instead, Ginny was simply... accepting. Whether it was her attraction to Bellatrix or her upcoming break-up with Ron, she stood beside Hermione and commented everything with a shrug and a smile.

Hermione let her thoughts drift aimlessly, when she heard the sound of a door closing. A few seconds later, Harry slumped down on the ground beside her.

"So... you wanted to talk to me?"

"Harry, I'm so sorry," Hermione burst out, pressing her hand over her lips. The fingers of her free hand clung to the shin of her leg.

The dark haired boy blinked, taken by surprise. Green eyes gazed at their distraught friend, trying to make sense of the apology. "What for? You didn't do anything. The thing with Ron..."

"It's not about Ron," she whispered and looked away, as if he could reproach her. "It's... it's about Bellatrix."

He licked his lips, leaning forward to get a better look at her. "Is she giving you trouble?"

"No. Yes. It's- she... she killed Sirius. She killed Dobby. She murdered and tortured during both wars and is so frustratingly sadistic and... mad! I should hate her, we all should, but... Harry, I can't hate her anymore. I can't." Liquid brown gazed up at the boy she called one of her best friends since over seven years. Trying to find a way to convey the mess in her head.

Harry seemed stumped and reacted by letting himself fall back against the wall, as if not quite sure how he should answer. Or even what to think. "You're bound to her. I guess... after all this time, it's understandable that you get used to even someone like Bellatrix. I mean, she's alive because of you and as long as she's safe you are as well, so it's okay. I can accept that she's alive and well. I told you that's fine..."

He's missing the point. "No, I'm not just accepting her. I did that when I made the Vow. But during the trial..."

"I know," he softly replied, glancing up at the sky. His hair was disheveled as always. Ginny's worrying probably had not earned him much sleep as well. "You told them you care about her, somehow. It's in your nature, Hermione. I tried not to think too hard about it. "

"It's more than my caring nature. I... understand her, a little bit at least. I even like her - when she's behaving like a normal human being. There is so, so much wrong in her life, Harry, so much. I don't know what made her hate Sirius to the point of wanting to kill him, but... I can imagine how she became this way. Imagine that she got broken so much, repeatedly, that even Voldemort seemed like a good alternative to the life she had." Hermione was walking a fine line between disclosing a certain sympathy for Bellatrix without spilling her past secrets, as well as sharing some of her own feelings, her own understanding, without actually unveiling her deep-rooted attraction. Harry might accept humane motives, but not a young woman's lust as a reason for suddenly liking a murderer.

The young man slipped off his glasses and rubbed his eyes, carefully shaking his head. Hermione could see he was having an internal war. "I'm not lying to you, Hermione. Having you talk about her this way, trying to make me feel for her, it's rubbing me in all the wrong ways. It makes me want to be angry, to scream and accuse you of ignoring all the bad she has done. She took my uncle, my friend and she has never shown an ounce of remorse."

That stung. Hermione couldn't blame him, but the admittance felt like a blow to the stomach. It was painful truth and the shame burdened her like a mantle of lead.

"But," he went on, pushing the frame back on his nose and running a hand through his hair, "I remember what Dumbledore said to me. I held the Resurrection Stone in my hand and saw them - they were all peaceful, happy. I'm not the boy I was anymore and however much a part of me wants to... I can't hold on to the hate. Not when I can finally live free for the first time in my life. Not with all the shared love around me."

He slowly turned to her and placed an arm over her shoulders, pulling her closer to his side. He was warm and strong, reminding her of all the times they had sat together during the hunt for the Horcruxes, and it was all so familiar and comforting that she couldn't help a few tears joining the dozen of others already drained into the ground. After her recent breakdown, she already felt so dry and brittle inside, as if a touch could break her apart, but the human contact reminded her once again that she was flesh and bone and had enough tears in her to last a lifetime.

"I trust you, Hermione. You were always at my side and you were always the one I could rely on, no matter what, no matter where. I won't stop that now. It will take time and much effort, but if you believe there is something human to Bellatrix... then I will accept it."

She's beautiful, Harry, the young woman thought as she hugged herself close to him, reveling in the powerful, yet gentle strength of friendship she shared with him. If you could see her smile like I have, sleeping and soft and weak and so, so strong, you would know that she's beautiful. Even somewhere deep inside.

"Thank you." There was little else she could say that could convey her thankfulness.

"No problem. So, what's up with you and Ron?"

"I'm going to break up with him," Hermione mumbled into his shirt, wiping the wetness from beneath her eye.

"Oh. Huh. Well, that sucks. For both of you, I mean," he replied, fumbling for words. "You're really sure about it?"

"Yeah. We're not... it won't work anymore, for me, I mean. And it's not because we fought or something... I just know it has to be like this."

"I'm sorry," was the only thing he was able to reply, but she knew it was genuine.

"Thank you. For all of it."

And she meant it. And he knew she meant it, too, and that was the only thing that counted.

I'm not kidding, this chapter took me nearly three months to write if I remember correctly. It just wouldn't come out, even though I had it planned. But you can see why it had to be done, right? :)
And because I'm not trying to be evil, there will be another update somewhere in the next three days, because next chapter? Our girl finally stops missing the wood for all its trees! FINALLY! The truth! OMG! Stay tuned, everyone!

Chapter Text

Yay, update time! In case anyone missed it, I added my comments to your replies in the last chapter, so go take a look if you asked a question ;) Nothing to say here except... uh... no, actually I have nothing to say. Everything else is below the chapter, so have fun!

imperfectionisunderrated: I can't help it, I like Ron. He's a goofy puppy, a rash one at times, but I don't like to kick him anyway. I'm pretty sure the movies are at fault, because Rupert just makes him kind of adorable _ That, and he's a ginger. Can't hate the gingers. Hope your weather is better now, here it is kind of meh, but warm. Looks like there's a thunderstorm on the way X_x

Asher77: Everytime I sat down to write and thought about the Ronmione scene I would have to write (I had it all planned out), my inspiration went out of the window. It might sound a bit heterophobic, but I just can't get into writing hetero stuff with a character I want in a happy lesbian romance X_x And bam, there it was, three months gone by. :)

List of Romantics: Amen to that, lady :) I mean, canon showed Hermione would have been happy and with kids if she had stayed with Ron... and I needed to convey that. But once you've had a taste of something, well, better for yourself... you just can't deal with the average anymore. No point in making the guy the jerk if it's all on your plate.

Amaranta316: Aye, aye, sir! *salutes* Here is your chapter, sir! :D Thank you, Bella will be back in this one ;)

vienne la nuit: Oh dear, the poor tea! (Uhm, sounds like I would drink it *cough*) I understand, it was a hard road... but it had to be walked :D The finishing line will be all the sweeter with it! Sugary tea sweet!

misswitty: Thank you! You put it right into spot with that last sentence. Yeah, the want-need conflict is tearing at her and will do so for quite a while... :)

Pandora'sMoon: Yeah, can't say Bella wasn't on the right track ;) But then again, she doesn't have the same kind of repression that Hermione is dealing with right now, she can see the truth clearly. Or, at least, what she thinks is the truth... :D

OpheliaBlack: Ginny is an awesome friend. Then again, talking to her about something Hermione hasn't come to terms with even herself... well, just wait and see, the chapter will offer some insight ;) Hermione's parents will make another appearance over the course of the story, as they are too important for Hermione not to, and I already blanch at the idea of writing that out. Coming Out parts are never easy X_x And I'm not even yet sure myself how they will react...

Gandalf the Gay (lol): Oh yes, I've read Impossible! It was mindblowing, so awesome! I don't believe I hold a candle to her talent, but thank you nonetheless for your nice words! :) Happy belated Birthday! ^^ So thank you very much and it's Madam, by the way ;)

Book wormy hermy fan: *laughs* That could be me in Germany, checking the internet whenever I can for updates... thank you and have some more candy, 'cause there can never be enough candy :D

Quladi: Wow, I turned a non-Harry Potter fan! Ohmyguuuud! Now that's amazing :D Thanks! Okay, I'll be really honest here, I never liked the last HP books all too much (and never finished the last one *hides*). I grew up with the series and they will always remind me fondly of my father, but I think it will never be the same again, especially once your grown up. I can really recommend the films though, because they are a very fun fantasy romp and the ones directed by David Yates were just awesome (and then there's Helena freakin' Bonham Carter, so it's a must see!) Anyway, I might be wrong and you might enjoy the books incredibly much, so go find a library and give them a try, you never know ;)

Angoisse: I nearly crash killed my writing with that chapter :D Thanks!

Aaaaand, back to the party! You're reviews are really lightening my kinda lonely stay in France, so thank you for all the love and dedication, you're all awesome :D

25. So Close

"To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly." - Henri Bergson

When Hermione stepped into her old bedroom, charmed bag in hand, she felt somewhere between agonized and empty.

She was single again.

The break-up with Ron was still so fresh and painful in her mind that she could hardly think about it, but whenever she wasn't reminded of the scene, all of her emotions were dulled. Which didn't keep her from once again crying her eyes out at home for the first day and night.

Dear God, was she sick of crying.

But coming home was the smartest move she could have made and the brunette reveled in the chance to feel like an eight-year-old again, with a mother that lovingly took care of her and showed concern and understanding for her situation like only a mother could. When Hermione woke up the second day, her face comfortably buried half in Crookshanks' colorful red fur, she knew she had to get up and face the world again.

The break-up had gone bad. Ron had not understood how she could just call quits to their relationship after everything had been going so well up until that night, so Hermione had been forced to lay down more of her reasons. And things had gotten ugly from there.

She couldn't blame him for not understanding, but the points she had counted off had been pretty harsh and defining. 'I'm not in love with you' had been followed with 'You don't make me feel wanted', which then turned to 'You never made me feel like you ever really cared' and stopped by 'You make me feel more like I'm your sister than your girlfriend'. One hour later, Ron had been sitting in front of her, furious and red-faced, hurt, refusing to say another word and ignoring her completely. Seeing no other chance to turn the fight back around, she had thrown in the towel and left with her packed stuff. There had only been time for a short, worry-filled good-bye to Molly, before Hermione had escaped through the door to break down five minutes later in her mother's arms.

What hurt her most was the possibility of having lost one of her best and oldest friends forever.

But the young witch tried to keep herself busy and found it easier once she left her bed and actually got something done. Sometimes she wondered if she still relapsed, when the shower water ran down her face or when her eyes seemed a bit more red and raw than usual after sleeping, but Hermione had always been a woman of action and knew when to move on after the proper amount of mourning had been done. As heartless as it sounded.

Standing in front of the mirror, glancing at herself, Hermione lifted the glamour hiding the hickey. She feared the worst, but what appeared was a yellow spot where once a deep purple bruise had been formed. The mark was almost gone... almost. When she closed her eyes and lifted her hand, she would still be able to find the place Bellatrix had claimed blindly.

And then Hermione made a decision.

It was only half a day later that when the young woman stared into the same mirror, she felt stranger and yet closer to herself than ever before. Her mother had been shocked at her proposal, but had indulged and driven her daughter into the city. Where the brunette had gotten the shortest haircut of her life.

When she dragged a hand through the now short strands, cut in a manner that was both boyish and elegant, she was astonished at the change. Suddenly, without her bushy mane covering her head anymore, there was nothing distracting the eye from the cut of her face, whose lines and form had become... pretty?

No. Grown up.

The young witch knew she was not the same person she had been when first setting foot into Hogwarts. In those last years she had broken rules, dueled with killers and had given up nearly everything in a quest to save both the ones she loved, as well as hundred thousands of other innocent people. She had been chased, attacked, held prisoner and even tortured. With this new haircut, whether or not she kept it or let it grow out, Hermione finally became aware that she was different, not the nosy Miss Granger anymore who had eagerly stretched her arm out to answer every question in class.

She was a woman now. A strong woman. And as if the veil had been pulled away, she finally became aware of it for the first time.

Despite her break-up, the young witch felt infused with a new kind of energy and the last days of her holiday slipped by in a rush. Sooner than expected she found herself packing for school, accompanied by an affectionate Crookshanks, who strolled around her legs. The smart cat had found a new, comfortable home with her family, cared for and pampered by her animal-friendly parents.

The moment she pushed the last book into her charmed bag, the brunette froze, being reminded of something. Before she could take back her hand, she sent a mental command and felt how the object she sought fitted itself into her palm.

Thoughtfully, she studied the old, classy tome. It was the one Narcissa had given her after their talk, accusing Hermione of having influenced Bellatrix and then begging her indirectly the next second to take care of her estranged sister. Her fingers leafed through the thick, yellow pages, the smell and age of the Divine Comedy exerting a helpless pull onto the book nerd.

What made you buy this, Bellatrix? the young woman wondered. Bowing down, she inhaled the aged fragrance of the pages, but there was nothing there hinting at the dark witch having taken a look yet at this book. Why keep something you should hate with all your being?

But the book gave her no answer. Hermione only realized the truth about how absence makes the heart grow fonder, as she could almost admit to a certain longing of trading barbs with the former Death Eater.

I've changed so much.

When the young woman walked onto Platform Nine and Three Quarters the next day, her gaze sought out the black clad form of her Vow partner almost immediately. The ever impatient witch was standing next to her ever patient sister, twirling a lock of hair around the tip of her wand and oblivious to the fact that this time around most of the looks directed at her were filled with a lot less hate and fear, instead now replaced with curious intrigue and star-struck attraction.

"You're late, Granger," Bellatrix snapped at her the second she came close enough to understand the words above all the noise gathering in the hall.

"Yes, thank you, I had a nice holiday too and I missed you as well," Hermione shot back, but couldn't hide a small, amused smirk at one corner of her mouth. Narcissa and her greeted each other with a short and daintily respectful nod.

"Who are your friends over there?" the young woman wanted to know while she put down her bags, pointing her chin in the direction of three Aurors a few meters to the side. Two of them stood there brooding, but the middle one, a slightly smaller, handsome blond, was sweating and more than a little uncomfortable.

"Oh, those? My watchdogs. Though they can't seem to decide if they want to keep anyone from getting to me, or me from getting to anyone," Bellatrix drawled with a smirk. There was a predatory look in her eyes as she glanced at them. "Probably because I got a little nice and cozy with the pretty one over there."

Hermione froze on her way down to her bag. There was a cold feeling building in her stomach. Jealousy because of my own failed romance? Did she really... She had the feeling she was going to be sick. "Well, how did that go?" she questioned, trying to keep her voice carefully neutral and from trembling and forcing herself to end her movement.

"I kept myself busy and entertained with seducing blondie. And when I had him all worked up and down to his knickers, I called his boys inside. Gosh, were they pissed." The raven haired witch snickered, sending a kiss toward the shameful Auror, who became even smaller and more red at this gesture. Narcissa threw her a reproachful look.

Calming down immediately, Hermione couldn't help the relaxed grin on her lips, however much she tried to keep it down. Normally she would have felt bad for the poor man, but for once she couldn't make herself care, almost glad the Auror had ended up this way. It's his own damn fault. What was he thinking, giving in to someone like Bellatrix Black? "Seems like you had your fun."

"And Lucius and I had to face the music for your prank. Don't think about doing something so thoughtless again in my house, Bella," the Lady Malfoy dictated. "Those Aurors were there for a reason."

"Calm down, you killjoy. Don't tell me you didn't find it funny to find him like that."

Narcissa tongued her cheek, but there was a slight flicker of humor in her eyes. "Well... maybe. For a moment. Then I realized I would have to stand up for it."

Bellatrix rolled her eyes, then suspiciously eyed Hermione up and down for the first time. "Why are you wearing that stupid hat anyway? You look ridiculous."

"Oh, that's just... my mother gave it to me. I'll take it off inside." Knowing she would be stared at enough in Hogwarts, she didn't want to present her new haircut right now on the platform, however interested she was in finding out what the other witch would think about it. And Ginny as well.

Hermione found out about it exactly ten minutes later when she slipped off the hat in the Prefect compartment. Where seconds ago there had been avid talking, now one voice after the other died away until amazed silence filled the air. Ginny looked at her as if she had grown a second head (well, in a way, she had) and Bellatrix was uncannily wide-eyed.

"Oh... my," the redhead softly uttered, totally ripped out of her usual argument with the former Death Eater. "You... cut it off. All of it. Did you get drunk?"

"Was your hair on fire?" Bellatrix added in, skeptic.

"I wanted a change," Hermione defended her decision. "And I think it looks fine."

Ginny squinted, then came nearer, looking at her best friends from all sides with a critical eye. Then she sat back down and said with all seriousness she could muster: "It doesn't look fine. It looks absolutely awesome. Merlin, add a business suit and I would vote for you as the next Minister of Magic."

"Me, too!" a Hufflepuff prefect added from another bank.

"Me, three," another called from the back.

Hermione blushed and smiled, wanting to bashfully push some hair behind her hair, but finding none. Instead she flattened the short hair next to her temple and looked stealthily at Bellatrix out of the corner of her eye.

The dark witch was still staring at her critically out of half-lidded eyes, her expression hard to read. When she became aware of Hermione looking at her, she shrugged half-heartedly. "It's fine. Looks like I won't be able to make any more jokes about your bushy hair. If only you would get rid of all the pink in your wardrobe now, I would have a lot less to complain about." With that, she turned her head away and watched the outside world pass by in a blur.

Hermione's smile widened and she glanced down at her shoes to hide the arising giddy feeling at the unexpected compliment.

At Hogwarts, the second the young woman stepped into her dormitory it was as if she had never left. Strange how such an eventful week could be gone so fast. After finishing her unpacking, she stepped into the living room and found Bellatrix pacing restlessly up and down the small chamber.

Deciding to be polite, Hermione put her hands behind her back and tried not to be amused at the way the other witch shot her a look, paused, then went on as if nothing had been wrong. Seems as if she actually has to get used to my new look. "So... how was your week?"

"Ugh!" The raven haired woman grunted loudly in pure annoyance, throwing her arms into the air. "It was enough to drive you up the wall! Lucius has been a snivelling nuisance before, but obviously he has gone and lost that last, tiny bit of spine he owned. He is unbearable. If he ever gets that shameful, defeated look up from where it seems tacked to the floor, it's to glance at me with that mice face, as if I would go and rip him to pieces at any moment. Gosh, he was afraid of me before, but at least he had the decency and arrogance to hide it then."

"Sounds like the four of you were perfect company."

"Funny, Granger, really," Bellatrix directed at her in an acidic voice, still prowling around the room. "Cissy treated me like a porcelain doll and always watched me out of the corner of her eyes when she thought I wasn't looking. Draco was barely home or locked up in his chamber. No wonder I had only the Aurors to play with. It was such a freak show, I nearly longed for McGonagall's daily visit to loosen the boredom."

Smiling at that, the brunette sat down on one of the sofas to watch Bellatrix calmy, head propped up on both hands. "Say, how's Draco doing anyway? He didn't come back to Hogwarts, so I'm wondering..."

"Doing apprentice work at the Ministry. It's a shame, a pure-blooded boy like him doing such second-hand work, but people remember he was a Death Eater. He has to lay low for a few months before he can start working for real." Frustration spoke out of Bellatrix's words and when the older woman stopped to rub her eyes in an unusual, tired gesture, Hermione got worried.

"Did anything else happen?"

"Just the same old bullshit." A sigh. "The Malfoys' business has run dry at the moment, with Lucius stuck at home and their reputation run into the ground. They will get through for the next years, but paying for both my and Lucius' trial, the compensation fees the Ministry charged us with, along with other failed investments after loosing the war - it put a noticeable dent into their fortune."

"And you're worried about your sister's future?" the young woman carefully inquired. It was hard to imagine a wealthy, pure-blooded family like the Malfoys slowly going bankrupt. Well, bankrupt was probably exaggerated... yet connecting them with money troubles didn't fit.

"Of course, I am!" Bellatrix shouted at her. "She's my sister, for God's sake! And I'm completely incapable to help her - how could the pure-blood families have sunken so low? This is... outrageous."

"What about your own money? You're a daughter of the house of Black, you should have more than enough."

The other woman snorted, pushing her hands on her hips. "Yeah, sure. Believe whatever you want. The Lestranges are a small French family, their blood isn't anywhere near as noble as the Blacks or the Malfoys. And they have become so paranoid after my forced divorce from my dead husband, they have made sure I won't be able to lay one finger on their money... and the Black's fortune is now handled by my mother, who will rather burn the whole bank safe than give me one knut."

"Wait, your mother is still alive?" Hermione coughed out, almost slipping from the sofa in shock.

"Why the heck wouldn't she?"

"I thought... I just- uhm... I was just surprised. Sorry." Of course she is. You read it yourself, stupid. The young woman fought the blush from appearing on her face and scratched the back of her head. It was so much easier without masses of hair in the way. "So, it means you're kind of broke, too?"

"To say I was broke would be a bit harsh. I still have my own vault, which is filled with all the goods and money Rodolphus and I shared by law. Well, minus one," she added, sending the sheepish young woman a dirty look. "But it's not enough to significantly support my sister's family and businesses. Not that I want to be the one to feed that bleached rat Lucius anyway."

"So... it sounds like none of you is able to keep up the same life standard somewhere in the future as before," the brunette commented, trying to keep her tone neutral as not to affront the easily annoyed woman.

"Looks like it," Bellatrix confirmed, but she sounded as if she the words tasted dreadful. "Wait, how did we come to discuss my finances? That's still personal. Go, get out, braid the Weasley's hair or whatever, I want to revel in the first alone time I have since a week." The dark witch made a kind of shushing noise and motion that had Hermione smirk, but comply, since she had wanted to go take a look into Hogwarts' library anyway.

"And stop looking at me like that!" Bellatrix shouted after her, causing the brunette to wonder what the older witch was talking about about. Sheesh, I just smiled.

While walking the halls, everyone stopped and stared in awe and shock at her new hairdo. The bolder ones came over and complimented her, so that Hermione grew more and more comfortable with the decision to have a change. By the time the Gryffindor was already nose deep in a book, sitting at her favorite place by the window, two hands slammed down on the table in front of her and only her iron will kept her from flinging her book into the air in shock.

"Hermione! I was searching for you!"

"Ginny, a bit louder please. I think the last corner of the library didn't hear you yet," Hermione hissed, gently closing the book in her hand.

"Yeah, sorry. Madam Pince hates me anyway, so no love lost there. Hey, can you help me with a potion I need to make for tomorrow? It's pretty urgent."

Blinking, the brunette opened and closed her mouth dumbfounded. "Ginny... you had a whole seven days to make it! This isn't like you."

The redhead had at least the decency to appear ashamed. "Yes, I know... but... I was so happy to see Harry, and then there was your break-up and... the days just slipped away."

With the mention of her and Ron's drama, Hermione felt contrite and slumped back into her seat. She knew that it wasn't just a thing between them two, no, others were also affected by her decision to end their relationship. And Ginny wouldn't ask if she didn't know she wouldn't be able to manage it alone.

"Of course, I'll help you. You're lucky I'm Head Girl, otherwise we wouldn't be able to get into the Potion classroom at all."

"You're the best, 'mione," the youngest Weasley chirped with a smile, causing the other witch to wince at the memories the nickname stirred. It will still hurt a while... but it's your own damn fault.

Instructing her best friend while the fire was heated below the cauldron, Hermione wasn't aware of the small smile as she watched Ginny dutifully begin making her Skele-Gro.

"What are you smiling about?" the redhead wanted to know while she slowly kept the potion in motion, watching how her friend glanced at the mixture with an almost fond smile.

"Oh, was I?" Hermione shock her head, becoming aware of her smile. "The Skele-Gro reminds me of the first days I was stuck with Bellatrix. I kind of tricked her into taking a slightly altered potion, to repair her teeth. I quickly learned not to do anything like that again." She chuckled, reminded of the glare the woman had sent her when the potion had taken effect.

Ginny stared at her blankly. "You think it's funny she beat you up? Darn, Hermione, sometimes you're really weird."

The brunette shrugged, leaning against a table behind her. "Go and add the next ingredient - oh, and lower the heat. Well, back then I thought Bellatrix was the worst thing that could happen to me... and now? I'm followed by both Voldemort's followers and people not happy with how the trial went, all of who would love to get me alone in a dark alleyway. I have more to worry about than a woman with a violent temper."

"A year ago that ' woman with a violent temper' was the worst thing we could imagine happening to us, right after Voldemort himself. And now you're even fond of her." Ginny shock her head and thoughtfully leaned on the big wooden spoon, yet quickly went back to stirring when Hermione hurriedly waved her hand at the cauldron. "It's funny how things can change."

"I'm not fond of her," Hermione gave back irritatedly, crossing her arms. "I just care, because I care about nearly all human and non-human beings."

"Oh, please. You have the hots for her, which is no surprise considering the way she now looks. But you should have seen yourself the day after she got hurt. I mean, I know you long enough and you were definitely not worried about your own life that day. And when I came to get you a few days later? You should have seen your face when you were combing her hair." The redhead's exaggerated expression had very little to do with 'fondness' and much more with 'utter, boundless devotion'. "You can admit it, Hermione. You have a crush on her."

Starring at her best friend with an open mouth and a bloodless face, Hermione had no idea what to give back. For a second, she could only splutter with indignation. "W-wha... what? I'm not crushing on her! That's ridiculous!"

"Come on. Seriously. You're not that dense normally. The first thing you did when you arrived at the train station was run right at her, right past me, even though I was barely three feet away from you."

"It was crowded! I could barely find my own feet in that chaos!"

"Then why did you run right back to her after the two of you had that fight in front of Hogsmeade? You didn't look like you wanted to shout her into the next day, with that worried face," Ginny, countered, pointing the dripping spoon at the brunette with raised eyebrows.

"I... I was worried something might happen. It wouldn't have been the first time and I was right, wasn't I?"

"Yeah, sure." Considering that smug look on Ginny's face, it was obvious the young woman was anything but admiting defeat to Hermione's superior reasoning.

Forcing herself to keep from erupting, the irritated woman took a deep breath. "Look," she began, "I don't know where you got that completely absurd notion from, but if this is about Ron-..."

"This isn't about Ron," Ginny interrupted. "You broke up, I know why and that's fine. I'm surprised you made it this far if I'm honest, 'cause most of the time you were ready to rip any of his letters apart. And you weren't really lovey-dovey when together, nine out of ten times you were mostly irritated."

"That doesn't mean I'm going for the next person of interest!" Hermione burst out.

"I never said you're doing that," the redhead added with a look of confusion. "I'm only saying you-..."

"No, stop. Forget the whole topic. It's useless to talk about something that isn't there... yes, I admitted I'm a-attracted to her on a physical level, but that's it." Hermione pushed herself away from the table, taking two steps toward Ginny and pushing a finger into her best (annoying) friend's collarbone. "That's it. Got it? And by the way: You ruined your potion."

Instead of a retort, the younger witch let out a scream and hastened to save her mixture, but the liquid had already turned an ugly shade of mud brown. Hermione allowed her to use the room until she had created a new one, but as a punishment left Ginny to fend for herself. Hurt, angry and confused, the brunette went back to her room to let off some steam.

"Sorry to cut your me-time short, but I have things to do for tomorrow..." Hermione made herself known as she came back into their shared dormitory. She was greeted with silence. Stuck with a deep need to prove her best friend wrong, the young woman was annoyed at Bellatrix's lack of reply. "Bellatrix? Are you there?" No reply.

Probably asleep again, Hermione thought, reminding herself of the other witch's crazy bedtimes. Marching to the second chamber door without thought, she quickly pulled down the handle and chanced a glance inside.

Empty.

Bellatrix's chamber was dark, but light from the living room glinted off of something on the floor. Cursing her own curiosity and knowing that it wasn't very nice to be so nosy, she nonetheless opened the door a bit wider. It were the shards of the broken mirror, put together into a lazy heap, something the former Death Eater had not deemed worthy enough to repair. It was curious that the house elf hadn't taken care of it after all this time. Blowing out a puff of breath between her lips, Hermione slowly stepped forward to clean up the mess.

The air in the room was thick and stuffy, as if no one had gotten the idea to open a window for weeks. Yet the sheets on the bed were clean and untouched, causing the young woman to wonder once more if the dark witch had a special agreement with the local house elves. There were already two fragments of the mirror in her hand when Hermione realized it wasn't the brightest idea to make note of her breach of trust, as Bellatrix would surely know someone had been in here if the mirror was suddenly repaired.

Letting the shards fall back down with a deep sigh, Hermione became instantly aware of the heavy fragrance invading her nostrils. Unconsciously, the brunette closed her eyes and took another deep breath, wondering if it was a perfume, or a shampoo that smelled so strongly... the odor reminded her of something...

No. No perfume. This was...

It was purely and thoroughly Bellatrix herself who smelled like that.

Memories assaulted Hermione's mind and she started shaking, blinking helplessly and unseeingly into the near darkness. It couldn't be. It simply couldn't be.

In an instant, the young woman was back on her feet and had slammed the door behind her. After running down the stairs to the dormitories, two dozen Gryffindors could only watch in wonder how their Head Girl ran through the portrait hole as if possessed by the devil himself. Other students of all towers could only wonder the same as Hermione breezed past them, breaking at least half a dozen rules while doing so.

When she had reached her goal, the brunette hammered on the wood as if her life depended on it. There was a mumbled voice, then the sound of shuffling feet and a perplexed Slughorn who opened the door. "Miss Granger? Oh, how nice to see you, but don't you think it's a bit earl-..."

"Professor Slughorn! !"

"Merlin's beard, slow down, young lady!" The Potions professor adjusted his glasses and glanced down at his red-faced, panting student. "If I heard that right, you have a request for me?"

"Professor, you own a bottle of Amortentia, don't you? Please, I need to take a look at it. It's really important."

"Well, yes, I do. But don't you think..." The young woman looked at him with such utter despair and desperation, that he swallowed his doubts right back down. She was the Golden Girl after all, and giving it to her while he was present couldn't hurt anyone, could it? "All right, get in. But please keep this between ourselves."

"Thank you. Thank you so much." Hermione quietly slipped inside and sat on hot coals while the portly teacher browsed his materials. After what seemed like hours, he presented a beautiful, pearl-colored potion to her. Snatching the bottle from his hands, she quickly popped out the stopper and... froze.

This could change everything. It would change everything.

But I can't live without the full truth. I can't. Not anymore.

Taking a leap of faith, she took a deep whiff of the fragrance.

Parchment. Tooth Paste. Cinnamon, freshly fallen rain, crushed pine needles.

The potion smelled so strongly of Bellatrix Black, it almost swallowed the other scents trailing out of the bottle's opening.

She remembered how the woman sat above her in the love seat, hidden in a room on the Isle of Lewis. They fought, they struggled and she breathed the hated woman's scent in deeply. She remembered the trip to the Ministry of Magic, how Bellatrix had buckled under the effect of the Tears of Ixion. Hermione had been to distracted to notice that the older woman had smelled exactly like the fragrance wafting out of the Love Chamber. She remembered the kiss on Valentine's Day, how she had been surrounded by Bellatrix in all possible ways and how her smell had clung to her even when the woman herself was not nearby.

"Oh... oh God." Hermione started trembling, the potion shaking dangerously between her clenched fingers.

"Dear, careful with that!" Slughorn uttered worriedly, taking a surprisingly quick leap to take the bottle into safety. Once it was closed and a safe distance away from the distraught woman, the professor finally took the time to take a look at his white-faced student. "Miss Granger, is everything all right? You look a bit... troubled."

Swallowing once, twice, not even registering the man next to her, Hermione pressed her hands against her temples in shock. "Ginny. She was right. Oh god... more than right."

Now rightfully concerned, the Potions teacher laid down a hand on her shoulder. "Miss Granger, maybe you should visit Madam Pomfrey... you really don't look too well..."

"I- I need to go. I'm sorry." Everything was pure chaos in her mind and she barely managed to find the door. This was a complete and utter mess. Only when she was out of Hogwarts' main gates did she become aware of her dizziness, leading back to severe lack of oxygen due to hyperventilation. Sitting down on the stairs in a hurry, she placed her head between her knees and took deep, calming breaths.

Why is this always happening to me? Relax, Hermione. You can deal with this. It's all okay. It's fine. Just relax. It really isn't such a big deal if you think about it.

I'm in love with Bellatrix.

And, as nature would have it, as if the world tried to prove no human could shed enough of them, she promptly burst into tears again.

Okay, time to address stuff! I'm pretty sure you're all tired of Hermione breaking down, but seriously, coming to terms with the fact that you're in love with your mortal enemy is kind of the equivalent of being hit with a brick, I think. But we've finally passed a treshold! And would you look at that? It took only 25 chapters to do so! X_x

Hermione's haircut was something I decided on not because Emma Watson looks absolutely hawt with it (boy, she does, doesn't she?), but because it's something I experienced myself. All those years Hermione ran around with that mane of hair, never changing it with the exception of the Yule Ball. But seriously? When you need change and when you need it badly, you go to the hairdresser. And I really think Hermione needed that step for herself. Then again, this is really a rare place where I speak from personal experience...

One other concern I want to mention is the Malfoy-Money problem. I had a discussion with a reader about this issue and nearly decided to axe this whole side-side-side-story, but then I thought long and hard about it and decided to go through with it. Yes, the Malfoys and Blacks are most likely the Wizarding Worlds Rockefellers, but there is a limit to even their fortune. When all your incoming resources are breaking away because no one buys from you anymore (actually, we have no idea what the Malfoys do, beside the fact that they are old money), your reputation is ruined and you have to pay huge ass fees on top of it... well, the negatives just pile up after the war. They won't be living in a cottage any time soon, but it should at least be enough to give them a few troubles, considering they never had to care about this ever before. I just thought it would be interesting to follow.

Well, I'm changing locations tomorrow once again, so let's hope the youth hostel has sufficient internet. Wish me luck, everyone, and have a great week :)

Chapter Text

I'm on a ROLL! No, seriously, go thank Chloé for this one, she was so eager and happy about a new chapter I couldn't say No. And it's a Thank You for an awesome meet-up, so be nice everyone and pay her amazing art a visit (batlesbo on deviantArt, go, go!). :)
I'm quite fond of this chapter, can't really pinpoint why. Ah well, here goes nothing.

veritas31: Yeah, so not her usual self... she isn't getting used to Hermione, is she? ;) You are quite right, right now they are nowhere near any kind of bankruptcy (what a weird word), but it has them at least worrying. And about lending money... well, nearly all of the pure-blood families are in kind of a bad place right now. They are either fleeing the law, in Azkaban or added their funds to the (failed) war efforts. Hrm, should have made that clearer. *notes it down*

bluewolf198: Thank you so much and you aren't annoying me at all! Quite the opposite! It's wonderful for a writer to see what works in a scene and what doesn't :)

imperfectionisunderrated: Redhead is not an automatic 'I like' for me, but IF I like someone, being a redhead is a plus. It's weird Xp Good it's not that cold where you are... because, apparently, there is snow in Germany. In May. Not kidding XD Good god, the praise, I'm burning up here! Thank you! I'm much to shy for this, really, I can't take it! SO, instead, moving on! Oh boy, I didn't know English wasn't your first language, but taking a look at your profile now... doy, way to go, Kurai. Go get yourself a cat, there is NO substitute for a cat. ;) Haha, 100 chapters? I'm sorry, but I already know how it's going to end... I don't think I'll make 100 :D And just for the record... DON'T EVER TONE IT DOWN! Your reviews, I mean. It's always awesome and such a fun read! Thank you for that! (In case you still have questions about the Amortentia or the whole scene after this chapter, write me, I'll clear it up for you :) )

Gandalf the gay Lol: Ha! Great song! I think she can ponder it for a while ;) And don't knock anything wet into your keys D:

Booky wormy hermy fan: God, I love that song. That's one good reason why one shouldn't live in the Wizarding World: You might not know Disney!

Crystalised serpent: Oh my, don't say that! Impossible is a legacy in it's own right, as is Promises Beyond The Thunderstorm. But still, thank you so very, very much for the compliment, it's crazy to hear something like that. :)

Tybalt - why Just because: Haha, that's amazing, thanks for reading and re-reading :D Hehe, that sounds quite a lot like high school. If it comes to this, I'll owe you an update, foo shoo ;)

Dawsen: In case you haven't heard of Amortentia, it's a love potion, which makes you fall in love with the person who gave it to you when you drink it. BUT, you can also simply smell it: The smell will remind you of the things you love. Unconsciously, Hermione was aware of her love of Bella, but refused to see it. But the smell of Bellatrix in the room and confirming it with the Amortentia told her: Yes, I love Bella, even the smell in the potion says it. The smell was kind of jostling her memory, or rather, pushing over the last barriers that the discussion with Ginny had already weakened. She couldn't keep pretending of not loving Bella after all these obvious hints. Fire away if you still have questions :)

CookiesFTW: Thanks! ;) Oh please, no zombies! I don't want to be responsible for the zombie apocalypse! o_o

chwee: Okay, my poison is cake. But shhh - don't tell anyone.

sugarspiceandnotsonice: Cutting off your hair is awesome. You feel so free after it!

DoubleMMia: Haha, I can relate, I'm sorry for putting you in that state! And the little evil part of me is happy you are addicted ^^ Fanfics have a tendency to do that with me! :D I turned you over? WOHO! OH GOD, please! WRITE! There is not enough Bellamione in this world!

OpheliaBlack: Whoa, pink. I went black once, that was already a big step (though people seemed to like it). Yes, it clearly gave her a sense of control and most importantly, it was a change she really needed.

lemon-rind: I think I would as well. Like, imagining falling in love with the family hates the most... uh, nah, better not go there, it would feel awful _o

yamiperv: No, Bella wasn't there. It's just that the room was really stuffy and lived in for quite a while, so Bella's smell was quite overwhelming, you were unable to miss it. And specific smells jog our memory... and H. was reminded of the time when she smelled the Amortentia in the Department of Mystery. And she smelled Bellatrix in the Amortentia, but she only realizes it in that moment. That's why she ran to Slughorn to confirm her theory :)

misswitty: I don't think Hermione even realizes she was snooping *g* Bella will have other problems to deal with soon then wonder who looked inside her room.. ;)

Are you Dobby: (No, I'm not Dobby :p) Who knows what Bella feels. Her range of emotions is cuh-reeeazy, I tell ya ;)

Keeks: Oh, wow. Don't put me to tears here! When I re-read what you wrote it... I- I don't know. I really don't know what to say. It's amazing praise to get such wonderful feedback. Thank YOU so much!

Snapesbloodredneko: I'm glad it's believable, it was a long way :) Well, you called, I answer, have a chapter!

Angoisse: Seems you caught on to my hints :D Love is in theeee aaaair!

Churnabog: Well, at least that's how I imagine them, I can't help it. But everyone can feel free to imagine them however they want :D And yes, it was in the books. But it's not what Hermione smelled like, it's what she smelled in the Amortentia. Hermione smelled some stuff she liked and Ron's hair, at least that's what the HP wiki says, and the wiki NEVER lies XD

dormideira: You're welcome, and thank you, I'm having fun :)

kisses from italy: Oh boy, are you okay? I hope nothing happened!

Pandora'sMoon: Cinderblock is about right, I think XD Haha, that would've been a twist, eh? Hermione under the effect of love potion! I tend to laugh at my cousin too... and I don't even need Twister for that XD

DarkndAngel9: Nice image, eh? :D Being hit with a brick continously can NOT be fun, but I think Hermione will deal with it ;) The love, not the brick. You know *g*

Bellaminion: Had my hair almost that short once, it's fun. Not anyone can work it, though. I don't think I'll go that short again, it looked a bit weird. But on Emma Watson? Hell yes *drool*

Haha, okay, the commentary is getting longer than the chapter and the chapter is huge! But I DON'T CARE. I LUV you all, people, seriously, and I will not NOT write back to you! Even though it took me an hour. And who cares about word count anyway? Right, NO ONE. Sorry, kinda hyped right now. HERE. TAKE THIS CHAPTER. It's dangerous to go alone!

26. And Worlds End With A Whimper

"Love isn't finding a perfect person. It's seeing an imperfect person perfectly." - Sam Keen

In my next life, I'm going to be something that doesn't own tear ducts.

Thanks to a miracle or some godly intervention, Hermione was able to convince Madam Pomfrey she was feeling ill and suffering from a serious headache. The nurse, who had never seen the Head Girl come to her out of her own free will, even less complaining about not feeling good, promptly ordered the student to a few days of bedrest after seeing her with eyes red from crying. It was only the second day of school and Hermione felt bad instantly about abusing the nurse's trust like this, but she simply needed some time for herself.

Amortentia, the potion of love. Whose smell reminded you of the things you love most. The last time she had taken a whiff of it, during school, she had smelled parchment, tooth paste and Ron's hair in it, but this time? The smell of Bellatrix had been so strong, so intense that the other fragrances where nearly swallowed by its strength. There was only one conclusion to what that meant and it had taken Ginny's unsubtle ribbing to finally make her see the truth.

Love.

How on earth had she managed to fall for Bellatrix Black? If the Amortentia was any indication to go on, then it had all started already with Bellatrix Lestrange, the crazy woman wanted for murder and torture. Some - many - still wanted to see her pay for it, despite the trial.

But this wasn't just about others anymore, was it? This was about her own feelings, her own - albeit twisted - view of the former Death Eater.

So intense. So strong. And oh so beautiful. But that was all a right basis for attraction, yes, but why love? Why the strongest and purest of all emotions for someone like her?

When she thought back to it, their times in McGonagall's living room in the cottage had been wonderful. Bellatrix had astonished her again and again with her quick uptake and her understanding of the literature Hermione dared her to read, be it of Muggle or Wizard origin. Of course the woman had been nasty, degrading her the entire time, but despite that their talks had been the first glimpse at a wonderful, intelligent human being.

And then there was the memory of them standing at the coast, with Bellatrix mentioning her time in Azkaban. It was the first time she had felt a fraction of the older woman's vulnerability... it was there, deep inside her, hidden beneath layers and layers of anger, sadism and arrogance. It had changed something for Hermione, something she would never get back. Something that would lead to this day, this realization.

Hermione knew only a fraction of what had made the dark witch the way she was - forced her to, actually. Who knew: if anyone else of their Golden Trio had been raised in such a way, might they have ended up the same way? If they would have even survived the experience. One fact she learned from all of this was that all the Black sisters were incredibly strong personalities, whether or not they had been born with them or had been forced to build them up was of little importance.

Who knows... maybe, if things had been different, Draco would be our third best friend, not Ron. The thought had her first laugh, but the reminder of Ron brought back a wave of melancholy.

It was undeniable that Bellatrix made her feel things Ron didn't. All those months her unconsciousness had forced her to deny the deeper attractions she held for the former Death Eater, because it had been safer that way for her sanity. But it wasn't all just a physical pull, as she had made herself try to believe. No, if the raven haired woman was in a good mood, Hermione preferred her company to all others, finding herself often amused by the sharp humor and no-nonsense attitude. But there was another side to Bellatrix, a softer, weaker one she had barely managed to lay her eyes on...

Bellatrix breaking down in her arms, crying for the first time since Hermione could remember. Seconds after coming out of the room with a startling happiness and a dazzling smile that had the brunette in awe-filled stupor. Whether or not the dark witch had became younger, her eyes were still the same.

And it was something in them, something in the older witch's expressions and depth, that had Hermione drawn to her. So much that even after several times of abuse on the Isle of Lewis, she always had come back running to fix things. To prove herself?... Oh no. To get to the bottom of this madness and change Bellatrix herself for the better.

Hermione could, finally, see it clearly for the first time and acknowledge it.

I love her. I love Bellatrix. Bella.

Bella. How unfitting and yet so spot-on a nickname. It gave the mad woman a side of vulnerability, of humanity, that one wouldn't expect coming from just a shortened name.

Sadly, it wasn't just a problem between Hermione and Bellatrix. There was a whole society out there to consider, not to mention her own surroundings - friends and family. And that was the real crux. She was going crazy, keeping this locked up in herself. Whom could she tell? Whom could she trust not to turn their back on her for these feelings? Her best friends were a no go, as much as it pained her to say it. Harry was willing to accept Bellatrix might change, but this was a bit too much to take even for him. Ron... was definitely out. Ginny?

The redhead had always been beside her, keeping her grounded and lifting her up when needed. But the youngest Weasley already considered Hermione's attraction to the older woman 'weird and crazy', whether or not she tried to goad her into accepting her interest in Bellatrix. A crush, as the redhead had put it, was still ten times a different thing than falling in love with someone. No, as much as she wanted to trust Ginny, her fear of losing her best friend's friendship sat too deep in her bones for her to consider it now. This might just be the one little thing over the top their friendship couldn't survive.

Family? Hey, Mom, Dad, I've fallen for a murderer! But don't worry, she's just a bit violent. Good gracious, no way! The Weasleys? Yeah, sure... no. McGonagall? Well, wouldn't that be awkward.

Then someone popped into her head she wouldn't have ever guessed at three years ago. Funny, how things can change.

"Hey Hermione! I'm sorry to hear you're sick. I brought you a dreamcatcher, it makes the alps tangle themselves in it. That way, they won't nag you at night."

"But isn't a dreamcatcher for... nevermind. Nice to see you, Luna," Hermione greeted her, scooting upright in her bed with a sigh. I hope this was a good idea.

Luna, breezy and light as always, fastened the beautifully crafted dreamcatcher at the wood of her bed's ceiling with a calm that one could only envy. The structure of the gift was held in dark and light blue tones, with softly glittering, pastel-colored stones fastened expertly into the light blue net. Gray feathers danced in the gust of wind finding its way through her open window.

"It's wonderful. Where did you get it?" the brunette asked with awe, touching the newest addition to her bedroom carefully.

"Oh, I made it myself. I wanted to make a bigger one, but I didn't have enough materials," Luna answered offhandedly and sat down on a free spot of mattress beside the Head Girl.

Hermione blinked in shock, almost ashamed she had invited the girl for ulterior motives after she had brought such a unique gift. "That's... I... uhm, it's incredible. Thank you."

"You're welcome." The blonde smiled sweetly and looked at Hermione with that gaze that was never quite there, but so entirely inviting and friendly at the same time. How could she have ever talked badly about her friend?

"I'm sorry for all the times I gave you a hard time or said stupid things about you, Luna. They were all untrue. I guess I was just envious of your own unique talents and character. I... you're a wonderful person, I wanted you to know that." Hermione blurted all of this out quickly, lowering her head in an obvious feeling of shame for what she had done.

"That's fine, I already don't remember it anymore. I was always pretty impressed by you, so I'm just happy all worked out for the best." Luna smiled brighter and swung her feet back and forth. "You wanted to talk to me? How can I help you?"

"How did you-... I never said..."

"You sent Ginny away with a complaint about a headache, but now you just had a secret note delivered to me. So I guessed you wanted to see me for something specific," the blonde deducted correctly.

The Gryffindor smiled lopsidedly and fiddled with the cover of her bed. It was now or never. "You know, I always wondered how you could be so above... everything, really. Your family has its own, pardon me for saying it, unconventional way of seeing things and you never let anything really faze you. You stick to it and that's admirable. I'm at a point where I could use some of that strength. A lot of it." She sighed and leaned back against the headboard.

"What for? Did something happen?"

Licking her dry lips to gather courage, Hermione closed her eyes and hastily said it out loud for the first time. "I've fallen in love with... someone. And they are... unconventional, so you could say I've fallen for the wrong person."

Luna placed a finger against her chin, tilting her head in a distracted way. "It's not Harry, is it?"

Nearly jumping up in shock, the Gryffindor quickly leaned forward and stared at Luna with wide eyes. "What? No! No no no, not Harry, he's my best friend!... Well, one of them. But it's not him, not at all!"

"Oh, well, then everything's fine. I mean, Harry would have been a big problem. Ginny, too, in that case." Smiling at Hermione, Luna placed her hands in her own lap. "As long as they are available, I don't believe it's any trouble. As long as the two of you love each other, no one should dictate who you are with."

Feeling the adrenaline still coursing its way through her veins, Hermione gripped the covering tighter, until the knuckles of her fists were white. "Look, it's... it's Bellatrix. Black. I've fallen for her."

"Congratulations then! Wait, is that right? Do you say congratulations to that? Or maybe 'Happy New Love' or something?"

It were moments like these that drove the brunette up the wall, because Luna actually meant this from the bottom of her heart, without ulterior motives. How could she be so... accepting of this? No one else would! But wasn't this exactly why she had sought Luna out, to make herself believe she was not a bad person for the way she felt? "Luna, it's Bellatrix. Of all possible people I chose a former Death Eater! She tortured you!"

"To be honest, she didn't. I think I wasn't very interesting to her. I got that blue eye from my capture... during all that running around and trying to flee, someone's elbow landed in my face accidentally."

"Okay, fine, but..."

The Ravenclaw pushed a platinum-colored strand of hair behind her ear, looking at Hermione in all the earnestness she was capable of. "I really don't see any problem, other than that Bellatrix might not be interested in you. But things like that happen in life. If someone wants to shoot their mouth off about you for loving someone for who they truly are, then you have to ignore it. You can't make everyone happy, not without sacrificing your own happiness for it."

"Seems like you speak from experience," Hermione inquired softly, wondering if she was capable of such an act. When she had been younger, other peoples' opinion hadn't mattered so much, but then she had gained friends and had to fight to show everyone she was more than just a 'Mudblood'.

"My mom and dad always told me to be what I want to be, otherwise I wouldn't be happy. 'Only the ones who really care about you will accept you the way you are', they told me. And he was right." There was a happy expression on her face. "I have the best friends I could wish for and I am happy."

The brunette was silent for a moment, deeply immersed in her thoughts and what Luna had told her. Bellatrix became a Death Eater because she felt accepted with them. If only someone had shown her the same acceptance, the same trust... or shows it now... maybe. One day. But would she herself be able to stand for it? There was a good chance the dark witch would scoff at her feelings and even if she didn't, Hermione was terrified of the reactions of those close to her. Yet she herself had changed over the years... to the point where she was in love with a former enemy. Maybe others would change their views too, once they understood where Bellatrix was coming from.

"So you're really in love with her then?" Luna asked with a touch of innocent curiosity.

"I think so. Yes. Yes, I'm in love with her." It felt freeing to say it out loud and be accepted for it. She smiled at her friend, grateful to have found such a friendship. Teaches you to be less judgmental about people. "But it's one-sided, I fear. Bellatrix doesn't care about anyone but herself and her sisters, she merely tolerates me out of necessity."

"You never know what could happen if you don't try it," Luna wisely added, then got distracted by the way the curtains billowed in the wind and launched into a theory about Nargles. Hermione indulged her patiently until she had the feeling her head might split open.

Although she wasn't happy with the revelation, which she now acknowledged to having pushed away from her unconsciously for weeks, if not months, it at least cleared up a lot. It was an explanation for the restlessness that had plagued her before the holidays, but now that she had accepted it, Hermione believed she was a bit more in tune with herself. A sense of peace came with this acceptance, or better, with coming to terms with what had churned inside of her.

Now she just had to find a way of living with it.

Bellatrix didn't check in with her at least once, so when the brunette came out of her 'cave' on the third day, the dark witch was lounging on the sofa, feet on the table with her legs crossed at the ankles and a newspaper in her hands.

"Good," the other witch commented, not even looking up from her browsing, "it was time you got your ass back up."

"Yes, thank you, Bellatrix, I'm feeling fine. No, I don't need anything. How nice of you to ask," Hermione spoke to herself in a feigned happy voice.

The older witch snapped the top of the newspaper down to show her an unimpressed face and a raised eyebrow, then she snapped it back up. "Whatever. Point is, you need to do something. McGonagall has banned me from going to Hogsmeade and you need to change her mind."

"Wait, what? How can I change her mind? And why should I?" How exactly did I fall for her again?

"Well, since you two are so chummy with each other, I'm sure there is a way. Oh, and it has to be something good, because you're banned, too."

"What?"

"Seems like the attacks on us made the Ministry a bit edgy and although it's their job to keep things in order, McGonagall decided to keep us a bit safer by locking us into the castle for the rest of the year. Which I believe is complete bollocks, because if those men want to get in, they will get in."

Rubbing the bridge of her nose, Hermione tried to make sense of all this after barely getting out of bed. "This is Hogwarts, it's not that easy to get inside. Believe me, I would know."

There was a rustle as the paper was thrown on the top of the table. "And I'm the one who planned the whole attack on Hogwarts castle. Draco's idea with the Vanishing Cabinet was a fortunate coincidence, but there were other ways. Some more, some less dangerous."

"Which would be?"

Bellatrix grinned cheekily, as always dark and charming. "I'm not going to show all my cards, honey. You go and get that admission for us."

Hermione didn't get it.

The Headmistress steadily refused to let them leave for Hogsmeade, even in the close proximity of several Aurors, because of the attacks they had already suffered from. Hermione wasn't even allowed to have her bi-weekly training sessions anymore. "I simply cannot have you both exposed to such danger again. It already could have gone wrong twice, I don't need another warning."

Frustrated and yet not entirely able to diffuse her trusted teacher's concerns, the Gryffindor admitted defeat and went down to get some supper to lighten her heavy mood. Ginny welcomed her with a close-lipped smile, as she had already shoveled a wagonload of food into her mouth.

"Wha' up?" the redhead managed to get out around a mouthful of potatoes.

Hermione told her what had transpired and was gifted with a sad look from her best friend. "That sucks. I'm sorry... but I'll get you whatever you want when we go there, I promise."

"Thanks, Gin, but it's not the same. I fear I'm going to get cabin fever, because Bellatrix will be getting cabin fever, which in turn means she's going to drive me crazy." Sighing, the brunette speared a poor carrot with her fork, poking around listlessly in her meal. "Say... how's Ron been doing since I left?"

"Ah, you know... sulking and being annoying. He's hurt, but that was to be expected. George was worried he might scare away all his customers with his brooding face." Ginny grinned, leaning forward on the table. "But don't worry, one day this will be water under the bridge. Mom is the one you need to be careful about."

"Why?" Hermione asked, suddenly filled with dread. "Does she hate me? Is she that angry?"

"She said, you don't have to expect a present to this year's anniversary of Voldemort's death," Ginny began, watching how Hermione groaned in horror. No present was a very, very bad sign. "But," the redhead then added with delight, "one sentence later, she forced me to promise I would make sure you'd be safe until the end of the school year and that if you needed anything, anything at all, she would take care of it."

The brunette took the hand she had covered her eyes with away and chanced a glance at her best friend. "No hate then?"

"Come on, you know my Mom. The only thing you have to expect is a bit bitterness in the next years and some badly veiled hints at what beautiful children you two would have been getting. I mean, you were the perfect daughter-in-law, now Ron needs to bring home someone who's as good as you. Which is damn near impossible." The redhead winked, causing the brunette to chuckle at her.

"I'm glad. I can take the side blows, but I couldn't take her eternal ire."

"Soo..." Ginny began, glancing pointedly down at her plate, "about Bellatrix..."

"Just don't go there," Hermione interrupted, tired of the whole topic. All this secret keeping had her weary.

Ginny appeared to be unhappy with that, almost looking as if she wanted to retort something anyway, but then she shrugged her shoulders and went back to eating. The brunette left the table a bit later in silence, getting back to her room to keep her mind busy with homework and school. Overthinking was her specialty and she didn't want to conjure up another breakdown.

But her mind couldn't let go of Bellatrix so easily and now Hermione didn't even wonder why. The next days she found her mind drifting off from time to time, musing what the dark witch was doing right now, what she was thinking, how she would react to certain things. Bellatrix had her own problems to deal with, some that she couldn't help the eldest Black with no matter how much she wanted to and it frustrated her. The only way she could help the woman was to dig up forgotten complications of her past and that was the surest way to rile the former Death Eater up.

But her discussion with Harry also lingered at the edge of her mind and Hermione had to admit, she was equally interested in what had made Bellatrix do something drastic as kill her own cousin.

So when the Hogsmeade weekend came up one week before the end of April, the Head Girl abused the Marauder's Map with a slightly bad conscience and found her other Vow partner hidden away once more in the Owlery. With the weather being very mild today, Hermione made her way up the tower, because she wouldn't have dared climbing it with the winds howling in a spring storm.

To her surprise, the dark witch wasn't sitting still and brooding like last time, but actually standing upright and feeding corn to the residing owls that weren't asleep at this time of the day. Bellatrix looked up in alarm when she heard the sound of steps, but relaxed at finding only the younger woman standing behind her with an easy smile and a hand raised slightly in greeting.

"Hey. Thought I would find you here."

"You seem to have a knack for that," Bellatrix replied with some suspicion, returning to her task of interacting with the hungry animals.

"Do you want to be alone?" Hermione pushed her hands into her robe's pockets, hoping the former Death Eater wouldn't mind her presence.

"I wouldn't be here if that wasn't the case, dimwit," the other woman answered with her back turned and a note of annoyance.

"Uhm, well, then I'll leave you to... whatever you're doing." She tried not to let her disappointment show after seeing that Bellatrix would have been in quite a calm, normal mood, despite being caged in Hogwarts.

"Go, stay, I don't care. But if you stay, at least make yourself useful and give me some of the bird feed over there." The dark witch nodded her head in the general direction and the younger woman let out a breath of relief. Which turned into disgust when she realized the 'corn' in Bellatrix's hands wasn't actually that, but bits and pieces of dried meat. Should have known that myself.

"So, I was wondering... would you like to talk a bit?" she began, feeling quite unsubtle while doing so. Scrunching her nose, the brunette took a handful of the feed and brought the smelly stuff over to the older woman, who obviously had little problems handling it. When she gave it to Bellatrix, Hermione felt that the other woman's hand was as cold as ice, but very soft to the touch. Looks like porcelain, feels like porcelain, she marveled, realizing too late that the dark witch was staring at her strangely and had answered her question. "Uh, pardon?"

"I said, whatever you want to talk about better not be any of the school gossip. What's up with you? I hate it when someone spaces out on me."

"Uh, sorry... it's the lack of sleep," Hermione lied hastily, cleaning her hand on her jeans. "Don't worry, no school gossip. There is something I was curious about and I thought..."

"What is it, Granger?" Bellatrix demanded, as impatient as ever.

"I wondered if you might want to talk about Sirius."

The feed fell down to the ground in a shower of red, while Hermione felt subjected to a harsh glare. The former Death Eater hissed and turned and for a second the younger woman feared she was going to simply leave her standing here, but Bellatrix simply went over to the other side and stared out of a large, glassless window. "I do not want to talk about Sirius." The last name was spat out in clear revulsion. That the air didn't fill up with bile was a wonder.

"Why not? I think there's a lot of unresolved memories connected to him, and I think it would help if you-..."

"Tell me one good reason why I should talk with you of all possible people about my secrets?" Bellatrix growled out, throwing her a dangerous glance above her shoulder.

Fascinated with the play of those endless, dark curls spiraling down the older woman's back, Hermione lost her train of thought for a second and had to shake her head free. Is it always going to be like this from now on? "Look, I already know quite a lot about you and your past, maybe even more in some topics than any of your sisters. I never betrayed your trust and I'm the only one here you can talk to," she logically concluded, spreading her arms to engulf the whole school into her point. "I only want to help. Okay, and find out why the heck you did this to your own cousin. It's also kind of a personal issue."

"Watch out, Granger, you're getting awfully close to developing a potty mouth," Bellatrix warned with a compelling gaze while leaning against the side of the window. "So you want me to bare my soul to you in return for... what? I'm not a charitable person, deary, as you might remember."

"A secret for..." Hermione grasped for an idea, "... a secret?" she finished lamely.

There was a bark of laughter. "What secret could you have that might be of any interest to me?"

Instantly, Andromeda's letter came to the forefront of Hermione's mind. It wasn't good taste and certainly not nice to betray the Black sisters' trust in her by telling Bellatrix about it, but certainly the raven haired woman would want to know what her family planned behind her back? The brunette was sure she was able to make the eldest sibling understand that it was concern and love for their sister that had Andromeda and Narcissa turn to a stranger and, at least in the Lady Malfoy's case, a Mudblood for help.

"I know something you don't. Something connected to you which I'm pretty sure you would want to find out about," Hermione cryptically answered, crossing her arms. "Do we have a deal?"

It appeared the pure-blood's interest had been raised, as she didn't immediately say No. The Gryffindor could see in the way the other woman clenched and unclenched the hand on her hip that she was contemplating the offer, although her face was directed at the school grounds.

"Fine," Bellatrix finally decided, turning to Hermione with a distasteful expression. "It's a deal. What is it you want to know?"

Feeling an entire mountain of tension fall from her shoulders, the brunette stepped to the side to sit down on a clean spot and tried not to ask too eagerly, "I want to know why you hate him so much."

Tsk-ing in that arrogant way only the former Death Eater was capable off, she puffed at the irritating strand of hair dangling before her eyes. "Ugh, because he's a bloody bastard and a blood-traitor. That it?"

Hermione raised her eyebrows reproachfully in a 'No, really?' way at the other woman and the older witch waved her off before the brunette could complain about her answer. Starting to pace around the Owlery, Bellatrix began a more elaborate explanation. It looked like talking about it was to her the equivalent of getting her teeth pulled out.

"That little imbecile was about... eight or nine years younger than me. I remember the time when he was born and what a painful change it was for my family, because my father was annoyed with having three useless daughters while his sister had a baby boy at her first try. He was such a pest and nuisance throughout his first years and got worse as he grew older, but everyone was putting it down to him having a 'strong, hot-blooded character'," the older witch imitated, using air quotes and clearly getting agitated just by remembering those times.

"Sounds like he was a handful," Hermione calmly commented, remembering some of Sirius' own stories and knowing that the other woman's retelling was tinted by her own hate.

"A handful? He was a bloody frustration on two legs, that's what he was. Even during the family outings he was constantly doing shit to make us angry. Only when he was sorted into the loser house Gryffindor-..."

"Hey!"

"Shut your mouth, I'm talking. As I was saying, when he was sorted into Gryffindor, the praise and talk about him stopped abruptly. Everyone was finally seeing what I had from the beginning, namely that Sirius was the worst pure-blood since several generations. Which in turn made my father even more controlling and temperamental, because now he became obsessed with keeping us three in line. It grew so bad that Andy didn't come back home the next year."

The former Death Eater froze, a troubled look on her features. She had a hand in front of her mouth and whispered something to herself, before resuming her walk jerkingly into the other direction. Hermione felt bad for ripping open old wounds, but she prayed it would help cleanse some of Bellatrix's purulent burdens in the end.

"Father was... furious. Livid. Those years... they weren't a walk in the park. It never was. But Cissy and I managed to keep him from dragging her back home by pushing Andy out of the family," she elaborated haltingly, not aware of Hermione's knowledge of her good deed. "We had several family meetings during the next years, as it is custom in most pure-blood families, especially the Blacks. I was twenty-two when we had one at our own home. That damned brat was there as well and he constantly mocked me, because I was the only one in the family actually confronting him and his stupid beliefs."

The brunette could almost see it in front of her: tall and dark Sirius as a youthful rebel and proud, arrogant Bellatrix hissing and spitting at each other. It was a dislike fueled over a decade, but she had the bad feeling that there was more coming. She remembered the shadows, the sad, haunted look in Sirius' face when he talked about his past and all the mistakes he finally acknowledged of having made.

"After the party, I was sleepless and wandering through the house... Sirius saw me and decided to be a brat again by riling me up and I had nothing better to do than chase him down the hallway and into the grounds." There was a visible nervousness rising in the dark witch, as she constantly tapped her left hand's fingers onto her elbow and playing with her bird skull necklace with the other. "That idiot... he thought it would be funny to let my father's hounds free. Thought they would chase me around a bit and scare me, because everyone knew I hated those mongrels. Didn't think they would be that aggressive. By the time they had seen me, I was already too far away from the house."

"Oh God... Bellatrix, I'm so sorry," the younger witch gasped out quietly in horror, placing a hand over her mouth. She knew that the Screams in the older woman's head were the reflection of the memory of her father beating her bloody next to the dog's kennel, so the trauma was already existing and deeply ingrained. She could only imagine how it must have felt to actually relive the horrible vision.

"Don't be so shocked. As you can see, I survived; it takes more than a few rabid mutts to take me down. And I can hardly blame the animals for being the way they were, considering the man my father was and how he treated every living being," Bellatrix groused, once more covering her anxiety with raw anger. "What I gained from that was a useful piece of knowledge. Considering I was surrounded by six dogs, when my father only owned five."

Hermione gaped at her. She knew? "You- you knew all the time..."

"...that Sirius was an Animagus, yes. Fat lot of good it did me. I was too hurt and traumatized for the next weeks to hurt him and a few months later he left the family on his own, so my weapon against him was useless. I didn't want to care about him anymore, even though Cissy told me the bastard actually felt bad for what he had done. I was too busy getting involved in the war and my Lord."

Pressing her lips together, the younger woman took a deep breath. "I... can understand why you hate him. But, you found out he was sorry. What he did was awful, but killing him over a mistake-..."

"Did I say I was finished?" Bellatrix hissed, standing over Hermione so quickly and menacingly, that the brunette pressed herself against the pillar behind her back. "Be quiet. You were the one who wanted to know."

"S-sorry," she hastily replied, wondering if the pounding of her heart was due to the older witch's proximity or the danger radiating off of her.

After shooting her another dark glance, the raven haired woman resumed her pacing, this time slower and more thoughtful than before. The threatening aura didn't leave her.

"The war went on and I heard Sirius joined the Order. We didn't run into each other or we would have ended this feud a long time ago, as neither of us is keen on backing down from a fight. The Dark Lord vanished, but I knew for certain he would come back, was put on trial, went to Azkaban and, nasty surprise, weeks later my cousin appears in prison as well. They said we were held in 'solitary confinement', but it was actually twice a month when we would be sent down into the courtyard for inspection. They never cared if we fought and killed each other down there, but most were already so loopy they stayed huddled in their corners and ignored the rest of the world."

"I doubt you two did."

"Of course we didn't. Cursed and shouted at each other the whole time down there and if it weren't for the shackles, we would have ripped each other apart. By the tenth year we had pulled out every old and new insult possible, attacked each other so many times it wasn't worth the effort anymore. Azkaban... was getting to us." Eyes clouded over with unwanted recollections, there was a quiver in her breath as Bellatrix spoke about the prison. The younger woman couldn't blame her. "We knew we might be trapped in hell forever, slowly going crazy. Or crazier. I was taking it better than he was, being used to constant mental abuse, but I was growing afraid, too. But I had a feeling he was planning something and offered him a truce."

Hermione leaned forward, intrigued. Armistice between two people who had known only hatred for the other? The description of Azkaban made her sick to the stomach, but she kept quiet, afraid of yanking the older woman out of her reminiscence.

"It had something to do with his Animagus form, I was sure of it. And when I saw his reaction, I knew I was right. So I vowed to keep quiet about it to any of the human jailors... in return for a promise." Bellatrix's eyes were coal black as she said this, her voice nearly a whisper. The younger woman had to strain her ears to catch every word spoken above the rustling of the owls. "I would keep quiet about his ability. But if he ever managed to break free of his cell and had a chance to flee, I wanted him to kill me first."

Feeling the blood drain from her face, Hermione could only stare at the raven haired woman with unhidden pity. To know someone as strong, proud and unwavering as Voldemort's second-in-command wanted nothing more than the sweet embrace of eternity was... disquieting. More than that. She felt her heart break at imagining the older woman at the end of her rope.

"I was getting desperate... losing hope the Dark Lord would ever come back. I didn't want to rot in there, to feel myself slowly grow truly and irrevocably mad. Getting a quick death was the last broken hope I had." Hermione was shocked to see Bellatrix's eyes glistening, glazed over, as if tears would fall at any moment. The older witch had stopped moving, even blinking, and was staring at nothing with an expression of such despondency, it took the brunette all her willpower to not go over and pull the other woman close. "But do you know what he did? Do you know what happened the night he broke free?"

The younger witch wasn't so sure she wanted to know the answer anymore, but forced herself to nod anyway. But the other woman needed to get this off her chest and, in turn, Hermione had no chance but to listen if she wanted this to happen. Bellatrix faced her and Hermione nearly recoiled at the amount of hate, fury and bitterness gathered in her gaze.

"He mauled me. That... that abomination of a man came to me in his Grim-like form, stood in front of my cell and looked at me with such arrogance and victory, I knew he wouldn't hold our deal." A pale, shaking hand, whether from anger or terror, wandered up the corset and stayed on the spot above her ribs, where Hermione had seen the horrible scars covering her skin. "He bit and teared at me, but he left me alive and in pain, on purpose. I shouted at him to end it, to hold onto his promise, to remember our family bonds, but he just stared and left. And I vowed to kill him. I screamed it after him until my voice was gone and even when they found me lying in my own blood."

There was a pause and the former Death Eater's ragged breath could be heard in the confinement of the Owlery.

"And I did. And it felt good."

Silence rose between them. Hermione wanted to say something, anything, but every time she opened her mouth, a lump formed in her throat and she felt utterly helpless. Bellatrix had drawn back to one of the windows, one hand clutching her side, while the other clawed against the stone frame. There was tenseness in her frame, a coiled spring ready to erupt into violence, but for once the brunette wasn't afraid of being attacked.

Even her mind was mostly blank, safe for the repeating of How can one human survive all this?

I wish I could have saved you from it. I wish I could have saved you from becoming like your father.

"Say it."

Jerking up at the rough command, the Gryffindor blinked confusedly. "W-what?"

"A secret for a secret. It's your turn, so say it!"

Oh. Of course. Trying to gather her scrambled thoughts and remembering what she had bargained with, Hermione slowly formed her own retelling. This piece of Bellatrix's past had left her beside herself and it wasn't easy to form the sentences and find the facts in her head, because her overactive brain was still occupied with trying to process what she had heard.

Oh god, Bella, I'm so sorry. All of this... all those years... Compassion had her throat clog up.

It was probably best to start with Narcissa. It was she who had come first to her, the letter Andromeda had sent had been later. It would also be necessary to mention the book and that the eldest Black's sister knew about her interest in Muggle literature-...

"I love you."

That... had not quite been part of the plan.

Hermione felt her body turn to ice and her mind stumble, fall and crash into several thousand pieces of Oh SHIT, while her tongue became lead. She started to shake. Why why why had that fallen from her lips?

Bellatrix hadn't heard it. The brunette had said it quietly, gently, it had perished between the owl's noise and the rustle of the hay and the howl of the wind...

"What?" Every flicker of Hermione's hope died instantly when Bellatrix turned with a look of utter incredulousness, staring at her as if she had become a pink elephant with several heads. Although that would have been preferable to what had actually transpired.

"I... I..." Deny it. Say it was a joke. Tell a lie. Play it down. SAY SOMETHING. But the young woman couldn't. She simply couldn't. It was like watching your car head straight for the chasm and no amount of pushing the break would stop you from falling down to your doom. Like a moth flying to the flame, fully aware of its demise. Hermione couldn't be anything else but mute and filled with trepidation.

The sound of laughter reached her ears, ripping her out of her frozen state. First it was a quiet chuckle, then it grew louder and then she could see the dark witch with one hand on her stomach, slightly doubled over from her cackling. It was hurtful and it had a desperately needed feeling of anger start in the brunette's stomach, causing her to stand upright. Anger was good. Anger meant protection. She understood why Bellatrix would resort to it so easily.

"You what? You love me?" More laughter; the older woman actually had to lay her back against the wall. Sadistic black eyes gleamed at Hermione, watching her like a hawk. "Tell me this is a joke. You really can't be this stupid."

"It's not a joke," Hermione breathed out dangerously low, clenching her hands into fists. The amusement was almost worse than the blows and hurt almost twice as much. Because it reached a softer place, a more vulnerable one, a spot she had thoughtlessly opened up to the former Death Eater and now she payed the price.

The laughter ceased instantly and gave way to severity. There was that ugly, twisted expression back on the dark witch's face, one she remembered so vividly well from her time in Malfoy Manor, causing her to fear the situation was about to get lethal. "This isn't funny, Mudblood. Stop saying such shit."

Mudblood. Again. If the laughter had been painful, this was a knife to the chest with a good twist on top, for Hermione had not realized how used she had become to Bellatrix calling her by her last name until the respect was once more gone in an instant.

"It's not shit, it's the truth. I never intended it to be funny. I can't help it, it just... is."

"It's ridiculous!" Bellatrix thundered back, taking a menacing step forward. "You? In love with me? I was wondering why you were looking at me so strangely these past weeks, but this just takes the cake. Did you mix up lust with love now? Did I give any indication that you're anything else but property for me? Did the Weasel not fuck you enough on Easter?"

"Stop it," Hermione growled, turning her head to the side at this crude language. The sharp words were like razorblades on open nerves.

"For a whole, bloody year you're blistering my ears with all that talk about him and how much you love him until I'm ready to be sick, when all your skinny body says is 'Fuck me' whenever I touch you, and now it's suddenly love?" Fingers touched her temple and pushed forcefully against her head until Hermione stumbled back, almost tripping over the foot of the pillar. "And they say I'm touched in the head. You're bloody mental, muddy, you are!"

"Don't talk to me that way!" the brunette shouted back, finally finding some footing. "I told you I can't help it, okay? I tried to forget it, tried to ignore it, but it became worse and worse until I couldn't even stay with Ron! I thought I was going to spend my life with him, be happy, grow old with the Weasley family, but then you had to happen!" It made her sick to talk of her feelings like they were an illness. She was so angry by now that there wasn't even a danger of getting choked up over the hurt.

"Go and get off this fancy, I don't want a lovesick puppy running after me," Bellatrix spat, a nasty grin on her lips. "This is so pathetic I don't even know if to laugh or be furious."

"It's not a fancy, damn it! You know what I smell in the Amortentia? You! What I think of first when I wake up? You! What I wonder about when I'm away from you? You, you, you! You're everywhere in my head and in my chest and I don't understand it, I might not even want it, but I can't help that I've fallen in love with you!" Hermione nearly screamed, feeling her vocal cords protest strongly at the noise level.

They stared at each other, breathing hard, fuming, light and dark, love and hate, black and white. A pure contradiction at first glance, but with a myriad of semblances when one dug deeper below the first layer. Connected against their will, yet not just magically. It was a recipe for disaster and a road leading only to sorrow and bitterness if they refused to learn.

Suddenly Bellatrix surged forward and the younger woman felt how the cloth above her shoulder got pulled aside, before sharp teeth buried themselves into the flesh of her collarbone. Hermione let out a shriek at the pain and pushed hard against the other woman's shoulder, breaking free the second she felt her skin tear. Wrenching herself away, she stared down at the bleeding bite wound with utter shock. "Are you crazy? Why the hell did you do that?"

Bellatrix grinned, the smeared blood on her teeth giving them a horrible yellowish color, not unlike the one they had after Azkaban. The mad woman carefully licked the tip of her tongue across of them. "Well, you love me, don't you? Then you love this, too, don't you?" It was clear the older witch was mocking her, clearly not believing her own words.

Hermione started to deny, because if there was one thing she wasn't into, then it was pain. And she clearly didn't love the raven haired woman's violent side. Bellatrix came at her once again, intending to do more damage, but the brunette quickly latched onto the other woman's wrist and began grappling with her to keep her away. She remembered with desperation how strong Bellatrix was.

"Come on, dearie, how about a romp here in the Owlery? Dirty and kinky, right on the floor," the dark witch husked at her, pushing her body closer while they struggled. "I never wanted sex with a Mudblood, but I'll give in for once. It'll be fun to defile your white, pristine skin with bruises and bite marks; let us free some of that muddy blood below it. You know you want it, because only I can give it to you, can't I? You get your fuck, right here, right now."

"No! No, not like this, never like this," Hermione pressed out, trying block out the small spark of arousal flickering in her stomach at the thought of Bellatrix pressed against her, taking her, ravishing her. But the bigger part of her mind, the rational part, the part that wanted to love and be loved back, shouted in utter rage at this degrading act. "I don't want to be taken like a dog! Get away from me!"

"My, such denial! Aren't we already past that, my pet?" The older witch stretched her head until it was right next to the brunette's, then she opened her mouth and licked a wet trail from Hermione's chin up to her cheek bone, chuckling darkly all the while.

Something snapped in the Gryffindor and a low, dangerous growl erupted from her throat. Feeling a surge of strength and confidence rise up in her, she pushed against the pure-blood until Bellatrix began stumbling back with a look of utter surprise on her features. They moved backward until the raven haired woman hit the wall with a quiet grunt, struggling against the hold the younger witch had on her with all her might, but unable to make her budge an inch.

And Hermione finally found out that her month-long training, all the sweat and aching muscles and lack of time, finally bore fruit.

"Now you listen to me," she hissed at the glaring Bellatrix, using her superior height to her advantage, "you might not understand it, but despite all the shit you give me, all of the hurtful words and actions, I care about you. I care about you so much it's going to ruin my life. And you know what? I'm not going to do anything to stop it, because what I'm feeling is something good and wonderful. It's love. Love. And no amount of hate you direct at me out of fear will change that, because I've seen your worst and you can't throw any more at me than you already did. So stop hurting me. It has never worked and it will never work. I'm not going away. Got it?"

"Get your filthy hands of me, Mudblood," was the only thing Bellatrix growled back, black, proud eyes like a fortress against the world and chin raised in protective haughtiness.

For several more seconds they had this struggle of wills before the pure-blood turned her head away, not wanting to see much more of what she could read in the Gryffindor's gaze. Was it fear? Maybe. Only then did Hermione let go of her arms, slowly, gently, quite unlike the anger still evident on her face. Without another word, Bellatrix stepped around her, high-heeled boots making sharp, harsh clicks on the stone ground as she hurried out of the tower.

Fleeing. For the first time.

And Hermione wondered if she had just won or lost the battle.

Sorry, no flowers and rainbows and kittens yet!
In case anyone is still wondering about the Amortentia and Hermione's sudden realization, please ask away and I'll try to clear it up in case this chapter didn't help :) Or browse the above comments, I replied to two people who were asking, maybe that answers your question as well. For other questions... feel free to ask those, too! :D

Well, I'm getting some nap time, my roommates are all kind of half asleep already. See you next time... when I'll be posting from Lyon! :D

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I was (kind of) prodded (roped? Lured? Tempted?) into updating again and I really wanted to reply to all your comments right now, but 1. the internet here is horrible and 2. there is kind of a party going on downstairs and I meet some nice people, so I'll just leave you with this ;)
If you have some time and you don't know it yet, kindly take a look at the wonderful comic 'Go Get a Roomie' by the wonderful and only Chloé C.. You will have fun, trust me! There's beer, boobs and... b... b... buffonery. If that is a word. Oh, and there is this great new Bellamione