The Black sisters were drunk.

Or at least two of them were. Narcissa and Andromeda shared the sofa in Andromeda's home on the Muggle street. Their third bottle of elf made wine sat precariously on the edge of the coffee table. Three of the walls were made up of windows, which looked out on the darkened snowy street. The glass was foggy from the heat of the radiator, which spat and sizzled in the corner.

"I couldn't even imagine," Andromeda's cheeks were rosy, her hair caught up in a loose knot at the back of her head, "if Nymphadora came home and said she was dating Bellatrix… well, I would probably check myself into St. Mungo's. That or find our sister and kill her."

"I was tempted to," grumbled Narcissa, who sat cross legged on the blue velvet cushions. She had pulled her hair from it's bun, and it flowed loose and golden over her shoulders. No grey dared to creep over her skull, not even given the enormous amount of stress she had been under lately. The sleeves of her robes had been buttoned up, and her wand lay beside her wineglass on the table. "I nearly cursed her into oblivion. But alas-" she made a face, "They are in love."

"Because of the blood binding thingy?"

Narcissa snorted to hear it called that, "Probably."

"Well." Andromeda sat back, a struck look on her face. She had long ago switched her robes out for a pair of red and black flannel pajamas, and she wore thick, purple, woolen socks. She bounced a foot up and down as she thought.

Narcissa sighed, and reached for her glass. Swirling the crimson liquid, she said, "I don't know how I'm going to tell Lucius. He loathes Bellatrix." She refused to entertain the idea that Lucius might not be released from Azkaban. He had to be. For a moment she considered blurting that Hermione had been given her first task by the Dark Lord. She quickly stifled that thought with a drink from her wineglass.

"Don't you loathe Bellatrix?"

The blonde grimaced, but was thankful for a distraction from her thoughts. "I want to. I don't know what I hate more, the fact that she's involved with my teenaged daughter, or the fact that I still love her." She let out a frenzied giggle, "It would be so much easier if I could just hate her!"

Andromeda nodded sagely, sipping at her own glass. "Merlin," she said suddenly. She sat up, her eyes wide.

"What? What?!"

"I just thought… Could you imagine dating a teenager?"

This prompted a round of giggles from both sisters.

"I really couldn't!" Narcissa gasped, falling backwards so that her head rested on the arm of the sofa. "Oh Merlin, no! The drama!"

"The hysterics!"

"The angst!" Narcissa struggled to take a drink from her glass, and wiped away a rivulet of wine that headed down her cheek. "Speaking of which, Poor Draco has been mooning over some boy in his House. I had to take him to five different stores to find the right Christmas present for him. Five!"

"Did he ever tell you why he broke things off with Felix?"

She shook her head, "Not a word about it. He gets so upset whenever Felix is mentioned that I haven't wanted to bring him up."

"Hmm. That doesn't get better, you know. I had to find out from Ted that Nymphadora is in love with that Lupin boy."

It took Narcissa a moment to figure out who that was, and then she let out a gasp. "The werewolf?"

"We're not allowed to call him that," said the brunette with an arched brow. "If father had any idea that his granddaughter- though I suppose he wouldn't much care, what with us being blown off the tapestry and all."

"It would have been hilarious to see Aunt Walburga's face," prompted Narcissa, chuckling to herself at the idea. She gave her sister a sideways glance. "You know," she said carefully- or, as carefully as one could be when they are slurring their words, "when this is all over I'm going to restore your branch to the family."

Andromeda stilled. "Really?" her eyes had gone wide and glassy.

Nodding, Narcissa swirled her glass again, "I've been thinking about it for a while, and I think it's time."

"Even with a werewolf?"

Narcissa snorted. "Even with a werewolf."

"Well, you're going to have a hard time convincing Bellatrix."

A sly smile crept over her face. "Oh, Bella owes me one. More than one, really. Especially if she makes it through the war unscathed."

A funny look came over Andromeda. "Cissy, you don't- you realize that Bellatrix is going straight back to Azkaban if we win, don't you?"

"Of course I do!" but her heart clenched at the thought. As much as she sometimes loathed her eldest sister she didn't want her to go back to that place.

She made a point not to think about the impact that would have on her daughter.

The front door opened, letting in a blast of cold air. "I've brought second dinner!" Ted's cheery voice rang into the room.

"My husband is home!" cheered Andromeda, giggling as she rolled off the sofa and clambered to her feet. She rushed at the man and threw her arms around him, pecking him on the cheeks.

"When we told you we wanted second dinner I didn't think you'd actually go out and fetch some," said Narcissa, finishing off her drink. She managed to pour another glass without spilling anything.

He gave a little bow as he struggled to pull off his muggle coat. "Whatever my ladies ask for they shall receive!" He hung his coat up on a hook beside the door, next to Andromeda's cloak, and took the bag from Andromeda. "Wait till you try this," he pulled a white box from the bag and passed it to Narcissa, "it's the best pad thai in the world!"

It was delicious, and Narcissa relished the feeling of sitting in a well-loved room, sharing a meal with her family. There was a certain lived-in feeling here that the Forest Cottage lacked.

She watched Ted tease her sister and felt a pang of longing for Lucius and their manor.

"Are you cold, Cissy?" Andromeda asked, noticing her shiver.

She shook her head, and forced a smile. "Merely tired."

Andromeda threw back her head, "Noooooo!" on a woman half her age it would have been called whining. "You can't be tired. Tired means going home!"

"Don't listen to her," said Ted good naturedly. "You're welcome to come back whenever you'd like."

She stifled a yawn, and thanked him.

"You can't apparate drunk!" cried Andromeda, watching her pick up her wand.

"Relax Mum, I just don't want to forget it."

Ted was already at the fireplace with the pot of floo powder. His kind eyes met hers a little too knowingly. "You're welcome to spend the night," he whispered.

She shook her head. "Thanks, but I'd rather sleep in my own bed tonight."

He nodded, and she threw a fistful of powder into the fire, crying out "Forest Cottage!"

Spe was spat out into the dark cottage. Not even an elf stirred as the wind howled against the windows. She walked to the nearest one and laid her flushed forehead against the cold glass. Outside, the trees shook and shivered, rustling angrily.

Her sister's words about Bellatrix rang in her mind.

She didn't want her sister to return to prison. That was certain. In spite of everything Bellatrix had done, she was still Narcissa's sister.

Beyond that- from the outside there was nothing to distinguish Bellatrix from Lucius. At least, not in terms of the second war. She had nothing to prove that she and Lucius had been working with Dumbledore. If-Merlin forbid- something happened to Dumbledore no one would know that the Malfoys had been working for the Order.

Not that she had been completely on the Order's side. However she certainly wasn't a Death Eater. Surely that was good enough.

They needed something to safeguard them. Something to prove their participation against the Dark Lord…

She straightened abruptly and headed off to her room. She had a letter to write.

XX

Once again the castle was covered in fluffy pink and red hearts for Valentine's Day. The younger students seemed more excitable than usual. The giggling was getting out of control, Hermione decided as she stalked towards the library.

She had just come from lunch with Uncle Albus. True to his word, he had been more open with her the past few weeks. Unfortunately, he still expected her to put the majority of the pieces together herself.

I'm not a Ravenclaw, she thought to herself sullenly.

That afternoon she had asked him about the task he had given Harry- to procure Slughorn's intact memory, and he had stubbornly insisted that he could not tell her any more than he had already told Harry.

"I need to confirm that my suspicions are correct before I explain further," he had said with that infuriating smile.

"But could you at least tell me what a Horcrux is?" she had tried.

On this he was still unyielding. For some reason it was important to him that Hermione find out after Harry learned what they were. She could not fathom why, after all she had demonstrated her ability to keep things to herself…

Though she was unwilling to admit it to herself, part of her bad mood stemmed from the fact that it was the Valentine's Day Hogsmeade weekend, and instead of coming to visit her Bellatrix had been called away on an errand for the Dark Lord.

Stupid Dark Lord, she thought, kicking at a fallen heart. She felt a tug of satisfaction as she watched it skitter across the floor.

She had been in a terrible mood for the past few weeks. It was as if every little thing annoyed her. Even Bellatrix had become very careful when communicating with her. She huffed a little as she thought about the careful way Bellatrix has bidden her good night the day before. It wasn't as if she wanted to be angry all the time. She couldn't help it. It was as if her blood was always boiling beneath her skin, clawing at everything sweet and good she came across-

She was startled out of her thoughts as a first year Hufflepuff rounded the corner and knocked into her.

"Watch it!" she screeched, "You do have eyes, don't you? Maybe you should learn to use them!"

The little Hufflepuff boy looked up at her in sheer terror, "S-s-s-sorry!" he shrieked, looking as if he was about to cry.

"Sorry doesn't bring people back from the dead," she spat.

"Miss Malfoy."

It was the first time a Hufflepuff ever looked relieved to be in the same place as Professor Snape. He gave a squeak of thanks and disappeared in the same direction he had come from.

Her uncle glided around the same corner, his expression unreadable. "I wonder if you would have a word with me."

She bristled, unable to keep the glare from her face, "I'm busy." She was tired of speaking to people. Nothing productive seemed to come from it.

"Then I'm afraid it's not a request." He said, his voice deadly calm.

Her anger quelled to a simmer under the force of his gaze and she nodded. Silently, she followed him to the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom.

He closed the door behind her, and summoned a chair to place before his desk.

It was unusually drafty in his classroom, and she shivered as she took her seat. There were only a few candles lit around the room, and it made her feel smaller somehow.

His impassive mask slipped as he took his seat, and Professor Snape was replaced with Uncle Sev, who looked full of concern as he regarded the pale form in front of him. "Albus told me what he asked you to do," he said slowly. "I want you to know that no one will force you to do anything. You can say no."

She snorted, "I can't. I can't and you know it."

"You can always say no."

"Then I choose to say yes," she crossed her arms over her chest, "Uncle Albus says it will be for the greater good if I do. What's more noble than that? Shouldn't I embrace what little Gryffindor there is in me?" Her words sounded forced and sarcastic, but she didn't know how else to say them.

He sighed. "If you insist on following through with Albus' plan then at least allow me to remind you that I am here for you."

She said nothing, but only continued to glare at him.

"Hermione, please," he sounded dangerously close to pleading. "You are dealing with a lot right now. No one would expect a seventeen year old girl to handle being asked to kill their uncle. It's perfectly acceptable-"

"Is that all you think it is?" she asked hotly, sitting up straighter in her chair. "My father is in prison. Everyone I love is either under the control of the Dark Lord, or a target of the Dark Lord. I'm not allowed to make my own decisions. Did you know that? I have to stay this perfect little doll for the Dark Lord, and still be the devoted niece who champions the greater good! No one ever asked me what I want! No one ever bothered to ask if I care that my own brother is going to hate me after I kill our uncle. Because he is! He's going to…"

She didn't even notice that her cheeks were wet until he passed a green linen handkerchief to her, his mouth in a hard line.

"It's a hard thing," he said at last,"to feel trapped."

Trapped. It was the perfect word for how she felt, and she looked up at him sharply.

She twisted the handkerchief in her hands. "Did you know that he asked the Sorting Hat to put me in Gryffindor?" she asked, her voice thick.

Surprise shone in his black eyes. "I did not."

She nodded. "And the worst part is that I can't even hate him for it," she said, dabbing at her eyes again. "Because he's going to die soon. I can't even be mad at him!"

"You can," he said severely. "You can absolutely be mad at him." He was leaning over the desk, his fists tight on the wooden surface. "He doesn't get a free pass just because he's asked the impossible of you."

She was crying harder then. She buried her face in the handkerchief and sobbed, barely aware of the scrape of his chair against the stone floor.

A shuffle of drawers, and then a crystalline plink, and a moment later a vial was being pressed into her hand.

"Wh-what's-"

"Calming drought," he said gently. The tone he always used whenever she cried. "I suggest you drink it, and when we're done here perhaps you could take a walk. The fresh air will do you some good."

She drank the cool liquid down, barely registering it's taste, and passed the vial back to him.

He waited for her breathing to slow, rubbing soothing circles on her shoulder.

"I'm sorry," she whispered when the tears had finally stopped.

He stood, "There is nothing to apologize for," he said seriously as he returned to his seat. "But I'm serious, I think you should call that elf of your and have her bring Turnip, then take him for a long walk. It will do you good to get out of the castle."

She blinked in surprise. Then felt a sliver of guilt. She had almost forgotten Winky. She had certainly forgotten confessing to him that she now owned Winky. She had never gotten over the prickling discomfort of owning another sentient being, however, and it was this that she clung onto in that moment. When everything else about her seemed to be slipping away at least she had this one thing.

She called for Winky, and the elf happily brought Turnip, his leash, and Hermione's best cloak.

"Winky is happy to help!" the elf crowed delightedly before disappearing with a crack.

"Please remember that I am here for you," he said as he watched her fasten her cloak around herself. "My loyalties are to you and Draco first and foremost."

For the first time in weeks she smiled. "Oh Uncle Sev," she rounded the desk and threw her arms around him, kissing him on the cheek. "I don't know what I'd do without you!"

For a moment she could have sworn he was blushing, but it must have been a trick of her eye.

"Off you go then," he said gently. "And no more terrorizing little Hufflepuff's," he added, "That's my job."

Turnip, who wore navy fur that day, gave an excited yip as she picked up his leash. "Love you, Uncle Sev," she said, feeling lighter than she had been earlier.

He smiled and nodded, "You too."

Knowing that was the best she ever got she flashed him another smile, and then made her way out of the castle.

The snow had mostly melted, and she let Turnip lead her towards Hagrid's hut. The half-giant was in his garden, wrestling with something in a crate a half-head taller than Hermione. A broad grin stretched over his face when he spotted her and he waved cheerily with a bandaged hand.

"Takin' Turnip out?" he called.

She nodded, and found her smile easier to force than usual, "That's right!" she called back.

"Keep an eye out then, there may be unicorn foals about!"

She promised she would, and shook her head in quiet bemusement as Turnip led her closer to the edge of the forest. Unicorns were far too smart to bring their foals this close to the school, but that didn't stop Hagrid from suggesting she keep an eye out for them every year.

Turnip's black coat was lightening to a dark grey, and the faintest smudge of sky blue could be seen at the edges of his ears and nose as he looked back at her and flashed a doggy grin. They had reached the edge of the forest, and they ambled along the edge, Turnip snuffling along the undergrowth, and Hermione lost in thought.

She didn't notice when he stopped dead in his tracks until she tripped over him. In a clumsy heap she fell to the ground, her knees burning as she looked around at him.

"Turnip?"

He let out an inquisitive bark, his eyes peering deep into the forest. His little stub tail wagged furiously.

She got to her feet quickly, baffled at his behavior. For years they had walked the edge of the forest without him taking any notice, but here he was, whining and pulling at his leash, trying to tug her into the forest.

There was a quick internal debate, and she looked cautiously around to see if anyone could see her. There was no one. Slowly she slid her wand from her sleeve and eased her resistance on the leash.

The wubble tugged her a few yards into the cover of the forest and stopped as a dark shape came hurtling through the underbrush.

Hermione tensed, the incantation for the stunning spell springing to her lips before she recognized the black dog in front of her.

"Bella?" she asked wonderingly.

But the dog was already transforming into the beautiful witch. She was dressed in black robes and a soft grey cloak, her hair pulled back in a ponytail that cascaded down her back, and her eyes crinkled playfully as she closed the distance between them and kissed Hermione soundly.

"You didn't think I'd miss Valentine's Day, did you?" she teased, her cool fingers playing with the fine hairs at the base of Hermione's neck. The younger witch shivered.

"You told me you would." She tried to sound haughty, but the words came out breathless and soft. Her fingers tugged at the collar of Bellatrix's cloak-pulling the other witch close enough for their forehead's to rest against each other. Still, she didn't let go.

Bellatrix's voice was equally soft, "I've missed you."

For the second time that day Hermione found herself crying. Her tears fell in dark spatters against the wool of Bellatrix's cloak.

"Hermione? Oh, Dove, what's the matter? Was the surprise too much?" The other witch cursed slightly under her breath, "I knew I should have told you I was coming from the start. I just didn't know if I would finish my task on time-"

"It's not that," said Hermione in watery tones.

"Oh." Silence. "Then what is it?"

"Everything." The words came out in a hoarse whisper. She let out a squeak at the blast of cold against her face as Bellatrix pulled away, but the dark witch pulled her to a cluster of boulders and cast a series of warming spells on the stone, then hoisted Hermione up onto one, pulling herself up after. Turnip found a good stick and curled up at the base of their boulder, chewing contentedly.

She wrapped her arms around Hermione, and rested her chin against her shoulder. "Tell me about it," she said softly.

So Hermione did.

She told her everything she had told Severus, and then more. She cried about her task, and whispered her fears about her father-

"You had me, Bella, but Papa… what if he's not as strong as you? Draco said that Ernie's Uncle was only in for six months and he lost his mind. What if Papa…"

For the most part, Bellatrix was quiet save for a sympathetic noise every here and there. That was until Hermione confessed that she didn't know what to do about Seamus.

"Tell him you're taken," Bellatrix whispered defiantly, snorting at Hermione's retelling of his most recent attempt to ask her out. "A good Gryffindor will leave you alone after that." She pressed her palm against Hermione's, twining their fingers together.

"And Uncle Albus keeps cheerfully referring to his impending death like it's a tea party he's looking forward to," Hermione said darkly. "I think he thinks talking about it will make it easier. But it doesn't. And he still treats me like a child! He won't even tell me what a horcrux is."

Bellatrix stiffened. "Where did you hear that word?"

Hermione's brow furrowed, "It's the project Uncle Albus has Harry working on. Some sort of memory from when the Dark Lord was younger," she said, twisting to face the other witch. Her stomach twisted as she noticed how white Bellatrix had become. "Bella, what's wrong?"

"Dumbledore thinks that the Dark Lord has made one?" Bellatrix demanded, her eyes searching Hermione's.

The brunette shook her head, "I don't know," she whispered, licking her lips. "No one will tell me until Harry gets an uncorrupted memory or something. Why? Bella, what's a horcrux?"

But Bellatrix was lost in thought, her eyes flicked back and forth on something in the distance.

Hermione took a deep breath and reached out with her mind, gasping at the images of the Dark Lord that crossed through her mind. Horrible images of him… doing things to helpless witches and wizards, some of them younger than Hermione. She could also feel Bellatrix's horror and confusion. There were snatches of thoughts as Bellatrix tried to justify his actions.

Bella, what's this? She didn't have to tell the other witch that she was scared. Bellatrix's arms tightened around her, pulling her back into her chest. But Hermione didn't feel like the gesture was meant to comfort her as much as it was meant to comfort the older witch.

"Memories."

A cold high laugh- his laugh- vibrated through her mind, setting her hair on edge.

"I always wondered how he was able to… how he could do things that even I thought crossed a line. If he's made a horcrux it makes sense…"

Hermione nearly growled out in frustration. "But what is a horcrux?" she snapped.

The memories faded abruptly. "A horcrux is an object that houses a piece of your soul," said Bellatrix, her voice shaken.

Hermione frowned. That sounded weird, certainly, but nothing to make Bellatrix seem so freaked out.

Reading her thoughts, Bellatrix shook her head. "No, Doveling. In order to move your soul you must first split it. You have to do something so terrible that it breaks your soul in two. It's very old, very dark magic."

"But why would anyone do that?" Hermione shivered, despite the numerous warming charms that fended off the chill.

Bellatrix blew out a long breath. "That's how he survived that night," she said wonderingly to herself. Then, as if she realized Hermione was waiting for an answer, she continued. "It's supposed to give you immortality. Or at least, a form of it. Your soul survives for as long as the object that hold it does. If it's in a magical body you might get two hundred- two hundred fifty years. If it's in a rock it could last forever."

Hermione's stomach dropped as something occurred to her. "Am I a horcrux?" she whispered.

"What? No!" Bellatrix shook her head fervently, "Not at all, Doveling. How could you even think-"

"Our bond-"

"Is the work of blood magic," said Bellatrix, a little sharply. "It's just as old, but not nearly as dark. Nothing you do could be dark," she added, pressing a fierce kiss to Hermione's curls.

Not yet, thought Hermione, and Bellatrix's hold tightened as they both thought of her upcoming task.

"You'll get through this," Bellatrix promised. "I won't let anything happen to you."

Hermione closed her eyes, unable to relax. As much as she wanted to believe Bellatrix, she knew that in this case there was little the older witch could do to protect her. Oh, she would survive killing her Uncle. She knew that much.

But would her soul?