Hermione had taken Bellatrix's advice to eat, and sat on the floor in the corner of the bedroom with some grapes and a sandwich she had made from a surprisingly well stocked kitchen.
Bellatrix had been gone for almost three hours, and the only thing she could really think to do with herself was to take a bath and deliberate on whether or not she was ready to have the looming conversation with the older witch or not.
What had happened with Bellatrix still hadn't hit her yet.
She sighed, peeling her last grape bit by bit as she waited for the water to run.
She should have known something like this would happen.
She hadn't made one single plan since she was eleven that hadn't gone terribly wrong. Apart from Buckbeak, she supposed. That plan went relatively well.
She stopped the water with a flick of her wand and did the same to rid her clothes, trying not to notice the small red marks across her hips as she did so. The bath water rose up all the way under her chin and she let out a long breath. She was still exhausted.
Part of her wondered what she would be doing right now if she hadn't left the boys, but the other half knew it would be something futile, cold, and undoubtably stupid.
When did I become such a cynic?
She lay in the water for as long as she could stand before washing her hair through with what she realised shortly after was probably Bellatrix's shampoo. She desperately hoped it wouldn't be obvious to the other witch if or when she came back.
When she was finished, she wrapped herself in a towel and dressed back in the only clothes she had. She desperately needed to find some more if she was going to stay here; cleaning her clothes magically was effective but it felt odd wearing the same shorts and tee every day, especially in the rainy weather that had rolled in over the course of the day.
She flopped down on her back onto what had been Bellatrix's side of the bed.
The whole bed is Bellatrix's, Hermione.
The thought was surreal. She wondered if the other woman would come back soon or if she would be gone until dark, and if she could get away with napping in the mean time. She swore there was something wrong with her; never in her life had she been so cripplingly and permanently tired.
Well, in for a penny...
Two hours later, Bellatrix appeared in the living room having spent most of the day explaining herself to her sister. Never having been able to lie to the blonde, she had come clean, and been savagely beaten over the shoulder with a folded newspaper for her trouble.
When Narcissa had finally calmed down, she had agreed to stay silent whilst Bellatrix worked out what in hell she was going to do.
The witch listened out for Hermione, not even knowing she would still be there. Silence. Part of her desperately hoped the girl hadn't fled again as she made her way through the house to the bedroom.
She pushed the door open and peeked around to find Hermione fast asleep with her hair still damp on her side of the bed. Another version of herself smiled quietly in the dark of her mind.
Picking her way back to the living room as quietly as she could, Bellatrix sat down on sofa, pulling her legs up under her as she wondered if she should wake Hermione up or let her sleep. Before a decision had been made, she heard the younger witch stir from the next room. Damn.
There was a silence, and then, "...Bellatrix?"
"The one and only."
Bellatrix could almost hear her relief, and wondered who the brunette had been afraid of. There was a rustling, and Hermione padded cautiously in to view from the doorway, her hair slightly muzzed and a blanket still cuddled into her arms. She only looked at Bellatrix for a second before she looked away again, no further forward on what to say to her now than she had been this morning.
"You can sit down, you know."
Hermione huddled her red and black blanket closer but obeyed, mimicking Bellatrix's position on the sofa opposite her.
They stayed quiet for a little while before Bellatrix sighed.
"Alright. I'll answer your questions if you'll answer mine."
Hermione's eyes flashed up to the other witch's. She supposed that was fair. She did have a lot of questions for Bellatrix, namely if she had an evil identical twin because the woman in front of her was jarringly different to what she had been from all previous experiences.
"How old are you, really?"
Hermione paused. That wasn't what she had been expecting.
"I was 18 last august. Why do you ask?"
"Because you've used magic and no one has found you, despite supposedly being under age."
"Oh. I... didn't realise you'd noticed."
Bellatrix took her turn. "How did that come about?"
Hermione shifted her position slightly and her fingers closed a little more tightly around the soft material bundled up in front of her.
"When we went for the locket, I found some papers at the ministry that had my name all over them. Stuffed them in one of my enchanted pockets to look at later and forgot all about them, found them again when we were on the run. They were from the ministry to Umbridge, confirming that the trace on my wand was gone as of the 9th of August last year. Meaning that's when I turned 18."
Bellatrix frowned. "I don't understand why."
"According to the notes attached, I'm McGonnagal's granddaughter. Its why she came to me herself when I was eleven. I think she covered it up because she was afraid I'd be a target in the upcoming war- not sure she planned on me being a target all by own efforts. And that was two questions."
Bellatrix pushed down her intrigue and conceded.
"So it was." She gestured for Hermione to take her turn.
"Are you the same person from Malfoy Manor?"
Something unreadable passed through Bellatrix's expression.
"Yes and no. Are you?"
"Yes and no."
They were both quiet again.
"I'm sorry, Hermione... You were too young. But if I hadn't have done it we both would have been killed. I know that isn't much of an excuse."
Hermione shrugged. "We got caught. We can't be adults one minute and then children the next, we were caught and we paid for it. It was hardly your fault."
"Oddly forgiving considering what I did to you. Even I still have nightmares about it."
"So do I." The Gryffindor was unimaginably surprised to learn that Bellatrix had nightmares about anything, let alone torturing her. In a flash, it made her far more human.
They spent the rest of the day exchanging questions, some causing hour long tangents and others being too difficult to answer without a lot of silence. Hermione found out that Bellatrix loved both of her sisters equally, that she valued loyalty very highly, hated the colour yellow for interior design and, to Hermione's horror, that she had told Mrs Malfoy about what had happened between them and been assaulted with a tabloid soon after. She also found out that behind the scenes Lucius Malfoy was 'actually quite a laugh', something she couldn't begin to understand without seeing it first hand.
"Why were you so fraught when you first came to me?"
It was late in the evening now and both women had started on a bottle of red wine.
"I don't know... it was like not even happiness made me happy. I felt like I was missing something, or that something had been taken away from me and I couldn't get it back and I just lost my mind. I'm not sure I've totally gotten it back, yet, either."
Bellatrix was quiet.
"Do you think I'm mad?"
The dark witch lifted her eyes to the Gryffindor's.
"No. It actually sounds quite familiar."
It was another half an hour before Hermione's constant fatigue got the better of her yet again and she gratefully accepted Bellatrix's offer to just share her bed rather than attempt the sofa because 'what's the worst that could happen now, anyway?'"
Hermione couldn't argue with the logic and if she was truthful with herself, she had kind of liked the feeling of someone sleeping beside her. She liked Bellatrix. She was going to hell, but she liked her.
Little after 2am, Hermione's shadowy figure sat up in the darkness and folded her left arm across her lap and hid her face in her right hand.
She didn't want to cry anymore.
Her friends had treated her so poorly since they had set out on that wild goose chase that she had cried herself out months ago, but now that her latest situation had her hiding in a pureblood safe-house with a death eater she was becoming undeniably fond of, she wasn't sure how to respond if not for tears. Next to her, Bellatrix lay awake and wondering whether she should say something or just leave Hermione to her pseudo-privacy.
Having not yet slept at all, her eyes were adjusted enough to be able to see the Gryffindor relatively well. She looked tense, and even more depressed than she had earlier.
A few minutes drifted by and Hermione didn't seem to be effectively making herself feel better, if she was trying at all.
Bellatrix decided to compromise. She reached out and laced her fingers through Hermione's on the hand that was resting over her hip, not speaking but holding on enough to be of some comfort.
Hermione still couldn't see through the dark enough to see more than a vague outline of the woman lying next to her, but after staring down at the hand in hers for a long few seconds, she lay back down. She wasn't sure anyone had ever held her hand before- not in a meaningful way, anyway.
She closed her eyes and pretended like what she was doing was okay.
The next day, Bellatrix was out for longer and had been gone a good two hours before Hermione had woken. By the time she had come back to the safe house in the evening, Hermione was lying on the living room floor arguing heatedly with the small plant that lived behind her head on the hearth.
"I'm still not pureblood, though. Nope. Dad's a muggle." She raised her arms towards the ceiling. "I. Am. Garbage- NO." She held up a silencing finger and then did a slow rainbow-shaped motion with her palms, starting from the middle and moving outward and down. "Magic garbage."
Bellatrix stared at the girl on the floor in alarm.
"Hermione, how much have you had to drink?"
The girl thrust a hand back into the air with the V for victory.
Hermione shook her head.
"Bottles- okay..." Bellatrix sighed the last word and started the task of picking the girl up off the carpet and taking her to her bed for the third night in a row. Obviously leaving her alone for extended periods of time was still a no.
Hermione didn't put up any kind of fight, and was totally unconscious by the time her head hit the pillow.
Bellatrix could only sit back and wonder what the plant had said to offend her so much.
Hungover like a demon, Hermione watched Bellatrix intently. Under the calm exterior, something was definitely amiss. Something was simmering quietly just below the surface and the Gryffindor was damned if she could work out what it was. Naturally she assumed it must be to do with the war, but having glanced through the morning news paper just a few hours ago there had been nothing that stood out. It had been same old, same old, all quiet on the western front.
She sighed as the dark witch finished whatever she was writing at the table and kicked herself inwardly when it caught her attention.
She awkwardly met the dark eyes that hovered over her questioningly.
"Are you... okay?"
Bellatrix looked down for a moment and then shook her head as she stood.
"Bella..." The brunette trailed off, not sure if she should push her or not and even more unsure when she had started calling the woman 'Bella'.
"It's... Something might happen. Which I always knew might happen but never really thought would and I don't know how I feel about it now."
Well that was cryptic.
Hermione sat back in alarm. "Oh, Jesus, you're not pregnant are you?"
"What- no!" Bellatrix recoiled as if the younger witch had thrown something at her. "Not unless you're the father." She added pointedly.
Hermione blushed but tried to pull a scornful face anyway.
"Well what else is the opposite of death? I mean, sleep is supposedly the cousin and that's the only other guess I have."
"You know, 'sleep is the cousin of death'?" Hermione air quoted with her fingers.
"I don't feel like you're a real doctor." Bellatrix joked, sitting down beside her.
"Ha ha. Well that's all I have. I give up." Something felt far easier between the two of them after agreeing that morning that they were both going to hell and that they probably shouldn't read too far into it for now.
The dark witch made a defeated noise. "If I tell you this and you repeat it to anyone I will kill myself and come back as your very own personal poltergeist."
"Jeez, alright. I'll do my best not to mention anything about my Death Eater friend's drama next time my boundless congregation of friends flock to me."
"Point made." The older witch rolled her sleeve up. "See this?"
Bellatrix narrowed her eyes and Hermione smirked.
"Sorry. Yes, I see it." She answered, running her eyes over the dark mark.
"Well it's not actually designed to be a brand. Actually, if you stand back and think about it with some objectivity it should actually encourage disloyalty it it were. If you're branded then thats it, there's no show of trust at all and you can be disloyal far more easily if you can wave the mark in anyone who questions you's face."
Hermione had never thought of it like that. "Okay, but couldn't it just be used for communication?"
"Well yes, but in the way that you could just use the elder wand as a chopstick."
"Lost me." Hermione was huddled over a green tea, wincing into the light that streamed in through the french doors even though it was grey and drizzling.
As she said it, it began to rain heavily outside and Bellatrix closed the doors doors with her wand, subduing the sound to a dull rumbling.
"It's a... collection of physical magic bound to the individual, in much the same way that you think it is now but with a very different purpose."
"Wait, it's not ink?"
Bellatrix rolled her eyes. "No, Hermione, of course it's not ink. Did you think the Dark Lord hired a tattoo artist?"
"Well when you put it like that it sounds silly." Hermione huffed.
The dark witch laughed. "Anyway, back in the first war, the Dark Lord called his closest to a meeting and asked us to take the mark. Some of us were actually pretty offended, they thought he was implying they were questionable in their loyalties. But then he explained what it really did and needless to say, they weren't quite so offended anymore."
She swept her curls over her shoulder and let her head fall back against the sofa.
"Well, what does it do?"
"It freezes you."
"I- what? Like cryogenics?" Hermione could definitely see why Bellatrix might not be down for that.
"Hermione I have no idea what that is but I'm going to say no anyway because it sounds horribly muggle and so therefore wrong. I meant in time. Everyone took the mark before the war really took off, it was assumed the war would change them immensely in appearance and the Dark Lord decided to use it to an advantage."
Hermione was beginning to feel slightly slow. "I still don't understand."
"When we took the mark it 'saved' us. The magic was very powerful and very rare and it forms under the skin, to show itself, I suppose the creator thought it would stop it being used discreetly. That's also where the 'branding' idea came from, he put it out there to stop people from looking further into it than a fanatic's tyrannical carryings on. There's one 'holder', the caster usually, or some poor unsuspecting fool, and the rest are the bearers. In the event that the holder, dies, the magic cast on the bearer or bearers will dissolve and reverse and..."
"And I'll be 22 again. Exactly as I was when I took the mark. Sans the mark itself, of course."
Hermione gaped. "I- but- that can't be real-"
"Well that's how I felt, but now it's looking far more likely that I'd prefer."
"So... all the Death Eaters with the mark will suddenly be in their 20's again and unrecognisable to the masses?"
"He said it was a gift for us should he ever fail us, bit I think he really thought we could use it to disappear and regroup more effectively after he was gone. Of course it was also, and quite possibly mainly, silent pressure for us to donate more funds to him but..."
"That's how you knew." Some things suddenly made sense. "That's how you knew he wasn't truly dead, in Azkaban. Because you would have changed."
"Winner, winner." Bellatrix stared up at the ceiling.
"It seems a little risky. I mean hasn't he set himself up to be assassinated? That's a hell of a gingerbread house to resist, how have none of the bearers killed him for their own gain?"
"It doesn't work if the bearer is the one to kill the holder. All in one he got money, assurance of loyalty, and ridded the chance of an inside job for something that let's face it, wont really be his problem any more should it actually unfold."
"Not an act of kindness, then."
Bellatrix actually laughed. "You're learning."
"So... you're not keen to be 22 again?"
"Not overly. But it also means I can't kill him."
"Okay, putting a pin in why you would, why can't you? Surely if you don't want to return to your 20's, then killing him would be... efficient?" Hermione guessed, unsure how the older witch would react to the suggestion it would be good for everyone.
"Because Cissy has the mark, too. It's on her back. She was to carry out her role as a mother to Draco to make sure he grew up to be a loyal follower and to keep up appearances for the cause. I suppose you could say she's our PR. So she took the mark but somewhere it would never be seen, to keep the cover. And she deserves another shot at her life without all this war, all she ever wanted was a family and a quiet life and I couldn't live knowing I'd taken such a rare chance away from her. Draco will lose a year or two, as well, but he's become so hollow and gaunt recently that could only do him good."
Hermione sat back and processed what she had been told.
"Is that why killing him came to mind?"
"No... killing him- well, total honesty, killing him came to mind for your sake. If I'm honest, the chances of him winning this war are very slim anyway but should he actually succeed... I suppose it would come down to giving Cissa her life again, the life she deserves, or ensuring you keep the only one you have, after only living such a small amount of it."
Hermione fiddled with her sleeve. She had no idea that in Bellatrix's mind she even came close to being able to compete with Narcissa for anything, let alone life.
"You know I wouldn't ask you to betray your sister, I'm nothing special like that."
Bellatrix opened her mouth to respond but then closed it again.
Am I? Hermione thought. The idea seemed far too naive for her approval. She's just being nice, she's known you three days, it's not like she's in love with you.
Not sure she could handle that train of thought, Hermione diverted the subject.
"You know, if I could tell someone back at Hogwarts where the last Horcrux's are then that would probably be the last nail in the coffin for him."
Bellatrix looked at her for a long time. "Ravenclaw's diadem, Hufflepuff's cup, Nagini. Those are the only ones left."
"Oh." Hermione said dumbly.
The Slytherin raised her brow. "Oh?"
"Sorry, I just... didn't think you'd actually tell me."
"Well, you're right. In lieu of killing him myself I may as well do what I can from the sidelines."
"Like doing whatever is necessary for the people I care about." The dark witch said finally.
"I suppose I should write a letter myself in that case." Hermione declared, standing up and stretching.
"There's only one person I completely trust within Hogwarts not to give me up whilst also getting the job done. They're far smarter than anyone gives them credit for."
"Come on, who?"
"You remember Xenophilius Lovegood?"