It was the end of her fifth visit to Ma Griesly that Hermione noticed. She passed Coram on the stairs and reached out to tug his sleeve.
"Where are all the young people?"
In the gloom of the courtyard, Coram's brown eyes glittered with something dark. "I suspect most of them are having lunch at home right now."
She shook her head, "Not the children, the people my age." Coram was the oldest child she had seen. The next youngest person was a woman a few years older than Hermione. "Where do the teenagers go?"
Coram swallowed and looked around. When his eyes met Hermione's again they were wide. "They take them."
She leaned closer, "Who takes them?" A fly buzzed around their heads, and she swiped it away from her face. "The Ministry?"
He nodded, his eyes wider. "When the magic comes more often they take them away."
A shrug. "The older folks don't like to talk about it, but they take them to centers where they can keep an eye on them while their magic matures. When they get older they put a bind on them and send them out into the world." His eyes dropped, "Most of them end up back here, or in Gryphon Rook."
Hermione nodded, understanding. Gryphon Rook was a magical neighborhood on the other side of Knockturn Alley. Most of its inhabitants worked in the factories- same as the inhabitants of the Ministry Housing Program- but it was known to be a dark and dismal place. Full of crime and poverty. Hermione had strayed too close to the street that lead to Gryphon Rook in her second year, and her father had given her the longest lecture of her life that night.
Then she remembered the other thing he had said, "They bind you?" The bind was saved for those who were incapable of learning to control their magical urges. It was the cruellest thing that could happen to a witch or wizard, in her opinion.
Coram shrugged, "Not all the way. Gran says we still have enough to make a difference. It's so we don't have too many accidents, I suppose." His foot traced a pattern in the dirt. "We can't afford proper wands, or fancy schools, so they want to make sure we can't do too much else. Gran says they'll be coming for me before too much longer. She tried to scrape up enough to send me to school, but..." His dark eyes shone with longing when he raised them up to hers, "I'd do anything to go to school."
Something sparked within her, and she settled a hand on his shoulder. "Don't give up just yet."
"-and then they bind the children!"
Hermione stood in the drawing room at Malfoy Manor. Seated in front of her were the Dark Lord, Crabbe, the Carrows, Uncle Sev and Bellatrix. Her father sat in the last chair, looking pale but alert. He had surprised them at the beginning of the meeting, and though Amycus had made several comments about the "delicate constitution of the Malfoy line" the rest of them seemed happy to see him. Hermione was certainly grateful that he was there, she did not want to make her proposal without his full understanding.
"I have two proposals," she continued, passing the parchment she carried to the Dark Lord. "First, to release the children in custody and begin unbinding them-"
Murmurs from Crabbe and Amycus Carrow shot up, and the Dark Lord made a sharp gesture to shut them up. "Go on, Hermione."
Reassured by his interested expression, she swallowed. "With proper guidance they can establish control over their magic again. I've been reading Corson's theory on bindings-"
"Of course you have," said Bellatrix with a fond smile.
"-and as long as the bind is less than a decade old removing it will not injure the witch or wizard. It's a simple potion, any third year could brew it!"
The Dark Lord held up a hand to stop her, "This says you want to establish a school in Gryhpon's Rook?"
"Terence Higgs has already found a way to reallocate Ministry funds to support it once we have control," Hermione explained. "He says he has a few people in mind to staff it as well." She didn't add that they were people who had slighted him.
"Has he?" Luckily, the Dark Lord looked amused and not annoyed. "Well, it would certainly be better to have trained wizards and witches at our side. I approve, Hermione. Offer it to Griesley. What is your second proposal."
She took a deep breath, and avoided her father's eye. "I want to offer the alterrum fratrum to Coram Griesly."
Again, Crabbe and Amycus protested, and the Dark Lord shifted so that he leaned on his right elbow. "I'm unfamiliar with this. Severus?"
Her uncle folded his hands in front of him. "It is an agreement to establish trust between a vassal house and their subordinate, my lord." His black eyes scrutinized her. "It was often used to silence a lesser house on the verge of rebellion. The vassal house would take their youngest heir and make them an honorary member of the family during their youth. If he accepts, the boy will receive room and board with the family- clothes, toys, that sort of thing- and be educated alongside the vassal's heir. The boy will be essentially a Malfoy during his time at Hogwarts, and when he leaves Hogwarts he will be given the opportunity to participate in the Malfoy family business, or to strike out on his own."
"What else? Surely there is a reason Crabbe and Carrow don't approve?"
Severus sighed, "It would make the boy part of the nobility, my lord. He would not have a seat on the wizengamot, but to insult him after he accepts would be to insult the Malfoy family. Any progeny of his would be afforded the same entitlements. His branch of the Griesly family would forever be tied with the house of Malfoy."
"I understand." The Dark Lord turned his gaze back to her. "And you've considered this?"
"I have, my lord. Ma Griesly loves Coram, she would never turn down an opportunity to better his life. It ensures his education at Hogwarts, and his future as an elite member of our new society."
Crabbe growled out, "It does no good to indulge her, my lord. She can't make the offer. Only the Malfoy heir can, and Draco is an invalid-"
"Hermione can make the offer."
Her father's soft voice silenced Crabbe, and every eye in the room turned to him.
"I made Hermione Heir Argent when we adopted her," he said softly. "She is afforded the same rights and responsibilities as Draco."
Warmth spread across her chest, and she was unable to speak. She had assumed that her father could authorize her to make the offer under the guise of Draco's illness, but she had never assumed that he had actually made her Heir Argent. The little-known title was usually reserved for the second-born twin in instances where the first-born would be made heir.
Her father's blue eyes found hers, and there was the trace of a smile in them. "We meant to tell you on your seventeenth birthday, but your mother wanted to wait until I was here for it."
She willed herself not to cry in front of Crabbe and the Carrows.
The Dark Lord cleared his throat. "Excellent. I approve heartily. And what do you think of your heir's idea, Lucius?"
His blue eyes didn't leave hers. "I think we do whatever we need to to survive the war."
She grinned at him.
"I think he's come around to the idea of you're taking the mark." Observed Bellatrix.
She laughed, and was grateful that no one mentioned the glint in her eye.
"Go tonight then," said the Dark Lord. "If we can secure their alliance we may still be able to train them in restraining spells and general nuisance spells this weekend. We need bodies more than skill for this."
Hermione nodded, and with a last smile at her father she strode from the room.
It turned out that Ma Griesly could not turn down her grandson's happiness. Coram was an orphan, and seized upon the idea of being part of a family with such vehemence that Hermione had to hide her surprise. She and Hermione listened to the boy rant for the good part of an hour before Ma Griesly interrupted with "Calm your tongue boy, I'm not about to keep you from it!" There were misgivings in her eyes, but she waited until Coram had run off to tell his friends before interrogating Hermione about every aspect of alterrum fraternum. Coram returned near the end, and sat with shining eyes as Hermione described what his new place in the world would look like.
"Well," said Ma Griesly at last, "I won't keep him from it. It's not often that a person gets to change their lot in life, and if anyone deserves this it's my Coram."
Hermione spent the remainder of July equipping the Ministry Housing inhabitants with wands. Both Uncle Severus and Bellatrix offered to help her train them in simple blasting spells that would create more noise and chaos than anything else.
On Harry's birthday she stood before a mixture of the Dark Lord's inner circle and those closest to Ma Griesly with her hand clasped in Coram's, and performed the simple ceremony that linked him to her and the Malfoy family. The Dark Lord stood before them and performed the magical aspect of the ceremony, which linked Coram's magic to the Malfoy's family magic. There was a binding flash that made Hermione see stars, and then all she could see was the boy's brilliant smile. He launched himself at her and hugged her so tightly that she had to push him off in order to breathe again.
"It's a little bit like our binding," said Bellatrix, and for a half hour Hermione was concerned that she would have a mental bond with Coram as well.
Luckily, there was no such thing.
"With him, you have our allegiance," said Ma Griesly during the following festivities at Malfoy Manor. "But our allegiance is to you, and not your lord."
Prickles rippled across the hair on Hermione's neck, but she nodded as she poured a glass of punch for herself. "I understand." She had not expected this. She only hoped that Ma Griesly and the others weren't too open with this information.
"Coram's the best of us. If I find out you've hurt him, or allowed anyone-"
"I won't!" Hermione put her hand on the shorter woman's shoulder, "I'll treat him as my own brother. You have my word."
The woman humphed, "Well, he'll love you for it. There's no doubt about it. It's best he's coming to live with you, the rest of us are sick of him singing your praises."
Hermione blushed, and was grateful when someone distracted the old woman. She moved through the crowd, and members of Coram's family and friends stopped her along the way to shake her hand and offer advice about things the boy liked, and things she'd have trouble with. They danced with her, and called her "Little sister", and she laughed and allowed herself to be teased. It was a different atmosphere than the usual formal events at Malfoy Manor. She had been surprised that her mother agreed to host the party at all, but she was grateful.
Night had fallen when a very sleepy Coram found her again. "You won't regret it! I'll be the best brother you'd ever had!"
She laughed even as her heart clenched. She had been to see Draco in her fox form that morning, and he had sported red hair (according to Winky the dye had trouble staying in, and he woke every morning as a blonde). He had been happily erecting a tent in the yard behind the Weasley's rickety old house. She swore to herself to keep Coram safer than she had kept Draco. "I'm sure you will," she assured him.
Her mother appeared behind them, and wrapped an arm around the boy's shoulders. "Let's get you to bed," she whispered. "I'll take you to Diagon Alley in the morning."
"No doubt she wants to get him better clothes," said an amused Bellatrix, who walked up behind Narcissa.
"Yes, Madam Malfoy," He smothered a yawn, but allowed Narcissa to lead him off.
"None of that now," her mother's voice floated back to them, "you can call me Aunt Cissa. We're never so formal among family."
"She needs the distraction," whispered Bellatrix as she watched them walk off. "I bet he has her wrapped around his finger by lunch tomorrow."
Hermione tried to push down her jealousy. It was good for her mother to have a distraction. Now that her father was on the mend, she had little to occupy her time. Or so Hermione thought.
Bellatrix smirked at her, and flicked one of Hermione's stray curls behind her ear. "The Dark Lord is impressed," she purred. "That rarely happens anymore."
Ma Griesly's people were beginning to take the Floo back to their homes, and slowly the party dwindled down to the remaining Death Eaters. The House Elves tidies around them as they finished off the remaining food and swapped stories from their youth. Hermione sat between Bellatrix and Terence. Someone had spiked the punch after the children had been taken home, and it warmed her belly as she listened.
"It's the beginning," said Alecto from her spot across the table. Hermione had never before considered Alecto to be particularly beautiful, but that night she wore her hair down and had applied a bit of eye makeup and lipstick. In her proper lavender robes she looked years younger. "In two days we take the Ministry, and then we'll be in control!"
There was a lively murmur of agreement throughout the table, and the Dark Lord raised his glass, "To new beginnings!"
Everyone at the table took a long drink, and Hermione sat and smiled lazily at them all. Alecto and Bellatrix challenged each other to a friendly duel "Hexes only," said Alecto with shining eyes, "I'm not about to miss the big event!" And as the rest of the group moved to watch them a warm hand fell on her shoulder.
"Would you take a walk with me?" Her father asked.
She nodded, "Of course, Papa."
Lucius leaned heavily on his snake-headed cane, but offered her his other arm as he headed into the labyrinth in the middle of the gardens. Fairies flickered overhead, glowing brilliantly as they danced above the two. "You've done well, Hermione."
She ducked her head and blushed. "I worry about Mother," she admitted. "I should have consulted her before I spoke to the Dark Lord."
He waved his hand, "She understands. She told me this morning that it's better to take a boy than a band of werewolves. Did you know the Dark Lord was thinking of opening up the manor to Greyback's pack?"
He nodded, "As it is, the Dark Lord has decided it's safer for the boy if Greyback remain away from the manor. Even while he's at school. Your mother is thrilled."
"And you? You don't mind tying the Malfoy name to a-" she broke off, unsure of what exactly to say.
He smiled, "Coram is a Malfoy now. He is elevated by association. Our name has survived far worse. Did I tell you my great-great Aunt married a Centaur?"
Hermione's eyes widened. "No!"
A faraway look entered his eye, "My father inherited their honeymoon cottage, and it housed a portrait of the man. I'll spare you the details, but most of my more colorful vocabulary was learned from him."
They chuckled together, and he stopped in front of her mother's favorite rosebush. The soft pink petals glowed softly in the dim light of the fairies. "I never wanted this life for you," he said quietly. "Nor for Draco. I hoped we could put an end to it before it got this far." His eyes flicked to the mark on her arm. She always wore short sleeves in the presence of the Dark Lord.
"I don't think Mother has forgiven me," she watched a pair of fairies dance over her head.
"Oh Hermione. It's not you she doesn't forgive." He reached for her hand and clasped it tightly. "She could never blame you. She blames Dumbledore, and the Dark Lord, and…" he swallowed, "and she blames me. But never you. Never you." He stepped forward, and wrapped his arms around her. "Oh, my girl. You're the best part of my life. I wish I had kept you from them."
Her throat felt tight. "There was nothing you could have done, Papa."
He gave her another squeeze, and for a moment they stood there in silence. The fairies glittered around them, and the warm breeze tugged her curls. She felt safer than she had felt in a long time. "Papa… Today, during the ceremony."
He turned to regard her. "Yes?
Hermione ran her fingertips over the petals of a rose. "I felt the Malfoy magic move through me when it accepted Coram."
A smile tugged at her father's lips, and his eyes softened. "And you were surprised." He let out a gentle chuckle, and wrapped an arm around her. "How many times have I told you that you're as much Malfoy as I am?"
To her surprise, her eyes grew damp. "I-I only… We've never done a formal ceremony or anything-"
"Magic doesn't always have to be so formal," he said. "You are my daughter, and I love you. You live here at the Manor, the seat of Malfoy power for generations. You've been raised as a Malfoy. Tell me, could you truly belong to another family the way you belong to ours?"
Wordless, she shook her head.
Lucius smoothed his hand over her hair. "Then how can it be a surprise that the Malfoy family magic is tied to you?" He leaned forward to kiss her forehead, and let his lips rest against her skin for a moment. "You're stuck with us, I'm afraid."
Something deep inside her eased, and she flung herself into his arms. His heartbeat thumped against her ears, and she grinned as he wrapped his arms around her.
They stayed like that for a long time. The night was warm, but she basked in the safety and love of his embrace.
"We'd better head back," he said at last. His arms loosened. "But before I do, I wanted to ask you something."
She cleared her throat, "Yes?"
"Your mother- she says that- that you and Bellatrix…" He sighed, "Tell me she's mistaken?"
Heat flared across her cheeks, but she lifted her chin and met his gaze straight on. "There's no mistake."
Blue eyes searched hers, and his brows drew together. "Then it's true?"
"I've done a lot of things lately that I feel terribly for, but not that. I won't apologize for that!"
He raised his hands, "I'm not asking you to apologize. I only…" to her surprise, his own cheeks pinked. "Who you spend your time with is your own business," he said at last. "I only hoped that it would be someone more suitable." He caught her expression, and quickly reached to squeeze her shoulder, "Someone closer to your own age," he said quickly, "and not involved in the war."
She swallowed. "I love her, Papa."
He searched her eyes, and sighed. "The Dark Lord thinks that you and Young Higgs are an item."
"Terence is my friend, Papa. Nothing more."
"Well, I won't be the one to correct the Dark Lord. Does she treat you well?"
"Better than well."
"Well…" He leaned forward and kissed her forehead. "You're a grown witch, I trust your judgement."
Affection rushed through her, and she launched forward to kiss his cheek. "Thank you, Papa!"
Cheering surrounded them as they exited the labyrinth, and Bellatrix's shining eyes met hers from across the gardens.
"You've missed my victory," she thought, looking down to where Alecto struggled under the weight of three dancing pigs.
Hermione shook her head fondly, I could say the same for you.
Bellatrix licked her lips. "Maybe we both deserve to celebrate, then?"
A smirk stretched her lips, My room in half an hour?
"It's a date."
Hermione giggled out loud, and bade goodnight to everyone.
Lucius was the only one to notice Bellatrix enter the Manor after she said goodnight. He stared at the door for a full minute afterwards, before helping a drunken Goyle reach the apparation point.
The Dark Lord left moments later, and, after a moment of watching the House Elves tidy up, he finally headed up to his wife's sitting room.
"You're home tonight." he observed quietly.
Narcissa looked up from the letter she was writing. "I wanted to be on hand in case I was needed here," she said. "I'm afraid I'll be away for most of tomorrow."
"Where?" He smiled grimly as she opened her mouth, "No, I know you can't tell me." He flopped down next to her on the sofa, and pretended not to care when she vanished her letter and the writing desk. "So, our family is one member larger tonight."
Narcissa hummed, "He shows a lot of promise. He's clever enough, and he is anxious to learn. Did you notice that he copied Hermione's actions at dinner?"
"No. Did he?"
She nodded. "And I looked into his ancestry. He's a descendant of a McKinnon. If we play our cards right we may be able to reinstate an Ancient House."
"Oh? I suppose he just had a family tree lying around?"
"Of course not. I used an inheritance potion after I put him to bed. It may be enough for Gringotts, especially with a formal education."
Lucius chuckled, "You're taking him to Gringotts tomorrow aren't you?"
"Why shouldn't I?" Narcissa gave him a look. "I agree that Hermione made the right choice, but wouldn't it be better to have a noble ward, rather than a common one?"
He couldn't help but agree. "She's good at making alliances," he said softly.
Narcissa rested her hand on his knee, and leaned her head against his. "We always knew she would be."
"The Dark Lord is impressed with her."
"He should be. She's our daughter."
He wanted to ask how they were going to get out of this mess. If anyone had a plan, it would have been his wife, but somehow he knew she could not tell him. Instead, he focused on the other issue. "Bellatrix is in our daughter's room."
She arched a brow, "Again?"
"What do you mean, again? Cissa, there have to be ground rules, we should have a talk with her-"
"If she's not in her room she'll only go to Bellatrix's. I feel better when she's nearby."
He stared. "You can't be serious? Cissa, she's a child!"
"She's of age," corrected Narcissa. "And what did you expect?"
"They're not even engaged!"
"Lucius, I'm surprised at you. You've never cared before. I thought we agreed that we trusted them to make their own decisions about things like this."
"That was before I found out that she's in love with Bellatrix!"
His wife rolled her eyes. "And Bellatrix is in love with her."
"Didn't you think that was something you should have told me?!"
"It slipped my mind," she said drily.
"Our daughter is in love with a Death Eater, Cissa! Why aren't you more worked up!?"
"I've had time to get used to it," she said with a shrug. "I was just as upset as you were. More in fact-"
"Oh, I highly doubt that!"
"Really?" She tossed her heavy golden locks over one shoulder and gave him a sly grin, "As soon as I found out I threatened to kill Bellatrix. Nearly did too. The moment you found out you came up here to talk to me."
His mouth flopped open.
"Ah, you see? I was certainly more upset than you are. But Hermione is of age. She loves Bellatrix, Bellatrix loves her, and frankly, I feel better having one more person looking out for our daughter."
"Bellatrix is obsessed with the Dark Lord. When she finds out that Hermione works for Dumbledore-"
"They've had a mental bond that's been open since Hermione started at Hogwarts," Narcissa said, giving him a look. "She knows, Lucius. She's not an idiot." She summoned a pot of tea, and poured him a glass, "Here, it's mint, it will calm your nerves."
His hands shook as he accepted the cup, and he stared at her while he drank.
"Trust her, Lucius," she said.
"What happens when the Dark Lord finds out?" He shuddered, "He may think it's delightful, or he may use them to test each other. I don't like it, Cissa."
"He's not going to find out." Narcissa's eyes flashed dangerously. "Neither of them will let him know, and the only other people who know are us."
He nodded, then cringed. "You know what this means?"
"Dumbledore said he had a way to save us. But there's no way he accounted for Bellatrix. If we want to ensure Hermione's happiness we have to figure out how to save Bellatrix if Harry Potter is successful."
Narcissa's eyes shone. "Don't worry, my love. I've been working on it ever since I found out."
If he didn't feel better, at least he felt calmer. He sat by his wife and sipped his tea, then smiled wryly.
"The next thing I know, you'll be telling me Draco is falling for Harry Potter," he said.
"Oh, I don't know, I think they'd make a cute couple."
He choked, and spat tea all over his robes.
A/N: I'm sorry that this is taking so long, but I hope you like the new update! It may be a few weeks before the next one is out, but it will come.
Thank you so much for all of your reviews! I love your reviews so much, and I could not keep going with my stories if it weren't for them. But if I could make one request, please please do not ask me if I'm dead, or if I died. I'm having a rough time right now and comments like that only make me spiral. I promise I will finish this story, I won't abandon it. I know it seems silly, and I'm pretty frustrated about it, but I really appreciate you all.
Anyway, I hope you're all having a fantastic week! Love ya!