A/N: Bella breaks down. Warning: Foul language, disturbing concepts, and references to sex.
Chapter 3: Old House

Death was everywhere, this summer. It surrounded Bella, choking her. Here, at Gladrags, she knew it was light outside, light inside, full of people, full of life. It was why she'd decided to come to work today, though she ached inside. Life was here, even if death was stalking her life.

Lunch forced her to go out, to leave the shop. Outside in the cold, Bella remembered leaving the house in a daze, head still full of news of Sirius. That news, so easily displaced by demanding tasks and impertinent customers, now started to creep back again. Bella shook her head slightly and began to walk, heading for the Three Broomsticks with a will. Going home for lunch would mean going home to Severus and more bad news. The Three Broomsticks, though expensive, would be quite free of that sort of thing.

Soon enough, she was inside the place. Half-empty it was— strange, for lunchtime— and it meant Bella could sit where she liked. Or, even better, where she liked best. Her favourite corner table was free, and she lost no time in making for it. The sun's rays fought their way in through the heavy glass of the window on her right, lighting the surface of the table prettily. Bella sat and basked in their spotty warmth, and wished Antares could have been there. He'd always liked the sun.

"We've only shepherd's pie right now," Madam Rosmerta said, startling Bella a little as she came up behind her. "Hasn't been much clamour for food today, so I thought I'd save the elves the trouble of making more than one dish. Will some pie do you?"

"Of course," Bella said, after a moment of hesitation. "Shepherd's pie will be perfect. Some lemonade to go with it, please?"

"We've just the thing. Should be about six and seven, total."

"I'll have it out in a moment," Bella said politely, to Rosmerta's back. She dug in her pockets for some money, and counted out the proper amount. Odd, now, to be able to spend so much on one meal, but Severus' behaviour when she talked about money had largely cleansed her of the urge to say anything about it by now. Antares, Morgana be praised, would never be silent about anything of the sort. He'd seemed sorry when the protection charm on him proved hostile to all but one of the many mind-healing potions Madam Pomfrey had pressed on them free of charge after the disastrous visit to the Claromens. But he'd quickly traded his uneasy look for absorption in one of Pomfrey's odd-looking charts, and had listened impatiently to the rest of the conversation after that.

"It's not that bad," he'd said when they'd got home, in response to Severus' grumbling. "Besides, I owe Pomfrey enough already. Not like I'll die without those awful potions, is it?"

Severus had gone right on grumbling, but Bella hadn't been able to bring herself to blame him. Having a potion forcibly deposited in your mouth or stomach because of some overzealous protection charm wasn't the most pleasant way to spend an afternoon, even if it had produced rather interesting expressions on his face. None of it had seemed quite so amusing when Bella had found that Antares now couldn't keep down so much as a thimbleful of Dreamless Sleep, but that had come later on.

The arrival of the food was a welcome distraction. "Miss Black," Rosmerta said, wafting the plate, cup and bottle down onto the table in fine style. "Call if you need anything," she added, sweeping the coins out of sight.

"It is lunchtime, isn't it?" Bella found herself asking. It was summer, and she faintly remembered that the Three Broomsticks usually had one or two young servers helping with the rush so Rosmerta could deal with the flood of customers. Today, there seemed to be no flood, and no servers, and even as Bella looked around the pub, another party was rising in preparation to leave.

Rosmerta sighed. "You wouldn't know it, would you," she said, with an unhappy look in the direction of the slowly departing group. "Well. Enjoy your meal." For a moment, it looked like she would add more. Then Rosmerta had turned away again, and was heading back towards the bar, hailing another customer as they came in. She stopped to chat with the customer, listening intently as he brandished a newspaper and shook his head.

Then they both glanced at Bella, and her growing bewilderment evaporated. There was a picture she couldn't quite make out on the front page of the man's newspaper; it was what he'd been jabbing at. Most likely, it was Sirius' picture, as the Prophet had yet to stop running articles about him despite the fact that he would be dead by the end of next week. And even after that, Bella knew the stares would continue, that the little silences would still crop up in Gladrags when she entered a room or poked her head around the door to ask for something.

Bella swallowed, and realised belatedly that she'd begun to eat. The thought of her lack of awareness of such a necessary task made a bitter laugh lodge in her throat. "Eat, Maggie," she remembered begging, just days ago. Hours ago. Bella set down her fork and knife and took up the cup and bottle instead. Lemonade washed down what she couldn't seem to swallow, but did nothing for the bitter taste in her mouth. "I won't if you don't," she remembered saying. "Eat something. Anything."

Bella froze, to keep herself calm. Half-empty was just another way of saying half-full; she'd scorned to cry in front of the passengers on the train she'd wearily taken to start the journey back to Severus' house, and she'd be damned if she'd break here.

A minute later, her eyes stopped burning, and her hands became truly steady. Bella began to eat again, quickly and efficiently, trying to keep the thoughts at bay. If she was fast enough, she could have a moment or two to herself, to rage in. Weep in.

Someone paused just beside Bella, their shadow threatening to slow progress towards that goal. Bella prepared her sharpest look and flung it up and at them, not expecting the owner of the shadow to be her sister. Bella stared up at Narcissa, sharpness replaced by shock. That she would come here, and stand so—

"May I sit down," Narcissa said, taking the seat opposite her. Though her tone allowed for no argument, her stiff posture betrayed her nerves. "I trust that you are well?"

"The fact that you feel you can sit down and pretend that we still speak to each other is obviously a sign to the contrary," Bella said, unable to keep the ugly feeling surging up in her chest from leaking into her tone. "Get up and get out of my sight."

"If you'll just listen—"

"I won't."

Narcissa didn't seem to have heard her. "Lucius and I—"

"Are at the devil?" Bella snarled, rising abruptly. "Good."

"My son," Narcissa said, half rising, "is upstairs."

Despite herself, Bella could not keep from asking, "And?"

"Lucius is likely at home," Narcissa said, very quietly, "reading, and, if I'm lucky, signing the divorce papers I had signed and delivered to him." She sat now, slowly, her face blank of everything, her hands too still. "Hear me out?"

Bella sat down, hard. She did not look at her sister as she retrieved her half-empty cup of lemonade. "You have until I finish this."

"I see no future for myself with Lucius," Narcissa said rapidly, under her breath. "I see even less for Draco if things continue as they have been going on. I need allies, and a place to stay." The look in her eyes made Bella drink a little more slowly. "Andromeda offered some of that, and took it back early last night." Her chin raised again. "I have a plan, but I don't think it will work without you."

Bella rolled her eyes, but set down the nearly empty cup. Narcissa looked at her expectantly, but she said nothing.

Bella could hear the strain in her sister's voice as she continued. "Dead men need no money," she said, softly. "Sirius…" She bit her lip. "They'll take everything from him. I know it."


"If Lucius had any influence left, he'd be drawing up the plans for it already," Narcissa said bitterly. "Ministry requisitions are rarely contested."

Glaring at her, Bella took up the cup again. "I think I've heard enough—"

"So you'd really rather that the estate went to Fudge," Narcissa bit out, "instead of to someone who deserves it. Instead of those who have a right to it."

"Oh, spare me—"

Narcissa smiled bitterly. "Who spares our sons?" she asked. "Draco's fees for Hogwarts are paid for the coming year. But after that…"

"If it's help with school fees you want, I'm the last person to talk to," Bella said quietly. "I'm sure that Dumbledore—"

"Don't you dare." Narcissa did not quite spit, but her tone was close enough. "Don't you dare turn round and tell me Dumbledore will do a thing. What did he do for you?"

Bella, for a long moment, could not find any words. "How can you—"

"You slaved," Narcissa said matter-of-factly, "for years. On your own. I don't have years, Bella." Her voice shook a little on the last word. "I don't have them. I have tried to see Sirius, but they just—"

Bella rounded on her. "What makes you think they'll let me see him? Eh?" She did not like the look on her sister's face; it was familiar enough that she could feel her own settling into the expression out of habit. "Talk to Dumbledore."

"I am talking to you." Narcissa was no longer looking at her; her blue eyes seemed closed now. "If you cannot meet me here tonight, letters from your hand will reach me." Narcissa rose quickly, inclined her head, and was halfway across the room in a moment.

Bella acutely recognised the tactic; even more acute was the memory that not letting your target say no was hardest to accomplish when you most needed to do it. When you desperately needed them to say yes, and needed to seize every moment of their thoughts that you could, before, during and after you saw them. And yet she found herself thinking furiously on the whole thing, trying to think of why and how Narcissa had done all this, wondering whether it was all a trap, wondering what Narcissa had done to Andromeda to have herself turned out almost as soon as she'd been welcomed warily into the fold.

Bella, not having had the luxury of either being welcomed or turned out by Andromeda, could only conclude that the argument had been over what it had always revolved around: Andromeda's marriage.

The clock above the bar chimed loudly, enough that Bella gave it a glance. In a moment, she was heading for the door. Narcissa had already ruined lunch; she need not make Bella late in returning to Gladrags on top of it all.

The shop's brightness offered no solace. Neither did the fact that Bella arrived quite on time, or sped through the rest of her tasks for the day with uncanny efficiency. Her head was weighted with thoughts, with the look in her sister's eyes, with the memory of her cousin's words, with the last, tenuous breath of her first true helper.

Someone said it was six o'clock, and everything on Bella's mind coalesced into a single, driving need. Whatever the motivations behind Narcissa's actions were, it was imperative that Bella know what her future actions might be. The meeting could be a trap, of course; it could also be a genuine request for help. There were the usual precautions to be taken, and Bella turned them over in her mind as she prepared to leave Gladrags, only half-aware of the few goodbyes called out to her as she left.

Floo call home; that would be easily done at the Three Broomsticks. And a basic anti-Befuddlement charm would be easy to pull off during the walk to the inn. A Portkey was quite impossible to completely negate, but it would be easier to avoid touching one in public if she chose her own table, and cast surreptitious diagnostic charms on anything Narcissa tried to press on her.

All in all, I've nothing to lose, Bella thought, looking boldly in the direction of the inn. She tightened her grip on her wand, shivering as the wind picked up, and performed the anti-Befuddlement charm under her breath. The door to the Three Broomsticks opened just as she drew near to it, emitting a wizard that eyed her suspiciously as she edged around him and entered inside.

The pub was much busier now, enough that getting through to the large hearth took some manoeuvring. Not that Bella needed to do much— crowds now tended to part for her at a glance or a word. Who they saw asking to be let through was likely just as disconnected from who Bella was as it had been when she'd worn a glamour, but it had its uses. She pinched some powder out of the large pot on the mantelpiece, and knelt quickly as she threw it into the flames. Two words later, she blinking at the living room, and calling loudly for Severus.

He emerged from the kitchen, looking both annoyed and concerned. Bella smiled uneasily at him, deciding instantly that news of who exactly she was meeting could wait until she got home. Severus would only delay her, asking foolish questions and perhaps even suggesting that she shouldn't meet with Narcissa. And she doubted that Narcissa would speak to her again if she didn't meet with her tonight; it was what Bella would have done in her sister's position, and really the most sensible action to take.

"I'm meeting someone at the Three Broomsticks tonight," Bella said carefully. "If I'm not home in an hour or two—"

"Any chance of finding out who this person is?" Severus said, cocking his head to one side. When Bella said nothing, he smiled tightly. "As long as you're not disappearing for days on end—"

"I told you before I left," Bella said, striving to keep the impatience out of her tone. "And besides, I'll tell you when I get home."

Severus gave her a hard look. "Where you went, or who you're meeting with?"

"Both," Bella snapped. "It hardly matters if you know then."

"Ah," Severus said. "I see."

Bella nearly rolled her eyes. "Tell Antares where I am, will you?"

"Of course not," Severus said dryly. "Privileged information, that." The look he gave her then warmed her despite the bitterness beneath. "Of course I'll tell him."

"Thank you," Bella said. She withdrew her head from the flames with some difficulty, and tried not to think of the tense conversation that would follow the even more tense conversation she would be having in a moment.

"An Unbreakable Vow," Severus repeated, the look Bella did not like still firmly present in his eyes. "Bella—"

"You're the only person I trust to be our bonder," she said firmly, just as she had said a moment ago. "I know you can disguise yourself, and besides, Narcissa is hardly in the state of mind to bother to—"

"Tell me what she said about her estrangement from Lucius," Severus said wearily, leaning back in his chair. The dark of the kitchen made him look more tired than he likely was, enough that it made Bella feel guilty for keeping him up so late. But Antares had just kept on talking and talking and talking till he fell asleep in her arms, and— "Bella?"

She shook her head. "She said she saw no future for herself with him, and that—"

"A line," Severus said, in a surprisingly hard tone. "No future, indeed."

Bella persisted. "She mentioned Draco," she said, remembering the edgy way her sister had looked around and striven carefully to keep things short, the way she'd ordered more than she could eat and kept it under one of those cunning little heating dome spells she'd always been good at. "She said—"

"She fed you lies," Severus said, his tone now controlled and calm. "I take it that you didn't actually promise anything—"

"Severus, she has no money!" That had been the one thing that had convinced Bella; that Narcissa found herself obliged to take rooms at places she likely considered beneath her fit with everything else.

"Did you give her any?"

Bella stared at him, and could not be more than slightly mollified when he looked down. He gave her a furtive, apologetic look and stayed blessedly silent, in a way that made Bella decide she did not need to dignify his silly question with an answer. "The least I can do is help her with Sirius," she said instead, crossing her ankles. Her feet hurt, as usual, and she desperately wanted to go to bed. "Especially if it'll help me and Antares. Which it will be sure to do if you help bond us."

Severus did not say no, but he looked it. Bella sighed, readying more persuasive words, but Severus spoke again. "You can't trust her," he said carefully. "You simply cannot afford the risk."

"Which is why I insisted on the vow," Bella pointed out. "I have some terms in mind; meaningful ones. At the very least I mean to be sure that she can't do anything to Antares—"

"And how on earth do you think you'll smuggle her in along with you to see your cousin?" Severus burst out, as if he hadn't heard a word she'd said. "How are you sure you'll be allowed to see him at all?"

Bella took a steadying breath. "That is my affair."

"And Pettigrew? How do you propose to kill him when he is two immensely protected cells down and across from your cousin? And on the lowest floor of the Ministry, and guarded by Aurors—"

"It is," Bella said, through gritted teeth, "the only leverage we can offer Sirius. It's the only thing that makes sense to think of promising!"

Severus rose, startling her. For a moment, he seemed unable to speak. Then he walked around the table, around to just behind the chair Bella was now drooping in. The grip on her shoulder that forced her to look at him hurt. "If she hurts you, I'll kill her."

Bella swallowed, but kept her lover's gaze. "You'll bond us, then?"

Severus snorted in disgust, letting go of her shoulder, but lingered behind her. "Come," he finally said, his voice empty of restraint, "come to bed."

Closing her eyes, Bella rose. Severus' arms around her felt almost as good as the relief coursing through her, relief that he was not saying no, that the first and most impossible-seeming hurdle to her and Narcissa's impossible scheme might be cautiously considered to have been put behind her.

Antares' reaction to the plan stunned Bella in its ferocity. She'd got so used to his calm behaviour and dry acceptance of how things had become, to how softly his magic now seemed to feel when he cast it. The taste of magic in the kitchen now was bitter, making her feel ill.

It was not as bitter as the look in her son's eyes. "I don'tcare if he was being beaten bloody every morning at school," Antares was saying thickly. "I don't care."

Bella shut her eyes, and tried not to remember what this feel of magic, thick on her skin and in her mouth, had once meant. "I know," she ventured. "But if the plan works for us—"

"I can stand Snape," Antares said quickly, his words seeming to roll themselves around in the air between them. "Not her. Nothim—"

"We're hardly going to live with them—"

"You'll be joined to them by a bond that can't break," Antares half-shouted. "It would kill you if they needed help, and you let them die—"

"The vow I'm swearing doesn't necessarily—"

"—and you'd have to let them live with us if there was no one and nowhere else," Antares finished wildly, an unhealthy flush darkening his face. "Mum, she spat on us!"

"She did not—"

"It was close enough, and you know it!" Antares shouted. Something hissed audibly behind them, and he blanched, taking a step forward. "Er—"

Bella did not need to look down to know that there was a snake wound round her leg instead of her right boot; its scales were just as surprisingly soft as they had been the first time this had happened. She kept still, lifting her foot when Antares awkwardly encouraged her to do so, his face still dreadfully pale.

"I didn't mean," he began, but the anger and shame stopped his words, and he just stood there shaking, the soft black snake contentedly winding itself around his arm. "Mum—"

"Put that silly thing down so I can hug you," Bella said, finding her own voice just as shaky as his. She was not surprised that the snake began to revert to its former form even as it dropped to the ground, but was surprised to feel Antares' tears against her neck.

Moments passed. Antares stopped crying, separated himself from Bella, and handed her back her boot, and drew up a chair for her to sit on while she put it on. He watched while she did so, stealing furtive looks at her while he continued to make breakfast, putting to rights what had been going wrong due to her interruption to his morning routine. Their eyes met, and the part of Bella that had ached when she thought of being able to support Antares on her own began to twinge.

He took a deep breath, laying his somewhat redundant wand down near the stove, turning to face her. "I won't—"

"You will never have to see or be near Draco or Narcissa unless it is absolutely necessary," Bella said determinedly, conscious that her tone was a little loud, but unable to help herself from keeping it so. "Antares Perseus Black, I formally declare you free to disobey any vows that I might make to others."

Antares' eyes widened. Then he blinked, and began to look thoughtful in the way that meant something odd was about to happen. "I think…" he blinked again, "I think the protection charm liked that." He gave her a look of confusion. "It— it feels like it's settling, or something." He blinked again, then began to fidget, scratching at one ear. "Feels really odd."

Bella looked at her son, now scratching hard at his ear with a puzzled look on his face, and was very hard put to keep back hysterical laughter. "Ah," she finally said, as calmly as she could manage. "Maybe that's good news? Thank god you go to school next— Poppy can give you a really thorough looking over."

Antares nodded, shooting a quick look in her direction that made her ache again. Then, still scratching at his ear, he turned back to the oatmeal bubbling noisily in the pot. "Is it supposed to bubble this loudly?" he asked, his tone almost level.

"I don't know," Bella said, to the question she saw in the shake of his scratching hand. "But I think it should do just fine."

Antares leaned into the hug she gave him on the way out, and said nothing that did not concern breakfast until she left. And as the squeeze of Apparation took her, Bella found herself thinking grimly of just what she would do to Narcissa if their plans fell through.

Bella sighed. Severus would be here in three hours for the binding, and already Bella was so tired that she began to think of putting off the forging of the Unbreakable Vows until she'd regained her sanity. Today had been one tragedy after another at Gladrags— fabrics lost, patterns wrongly sorted, and ungrateful customers whining copiously and trying to engage Bella in gossip about Sirius. The lunch hour had gone by in all the commotion, leaving Bella nothing to do but run out and purchase a hasty sandwich from the Hog's Head. The wind tore contemptuously at her clothing now as she ducked in through the back entrance of Gladrags, sandwich in hand, as if it had taken it upon itself to add to the annoyance of the day. Bella was still shivering when she decamped to the back cloakroom to eat.

"Tempus," she said, around a mouthful of ham-and-egg. "Oh, fuck this, I know I was only out a moment!" But the irritatingly solid letters of the spell remained where they were, mocking her with the realisation that she only had fifteen more minutes to eat and rest before she'd need to return to the main shop floor. Bella, scowling at the now-fading letters, had nothing to do but to choke down as much of the sandwich as she could stand before hurrying back out; today was one of those days when she would look wrongly absent, and in the most embarrassing and obvious way possible.

Bella was just beginning to eye the last half of the sandwich in distaste when the second door to the cloakroom burst open. Nora Hammond appeared, wringing her hands.

Bella did not let herself sigh, feeling it would be tantamount to admitting defeat. "What is it?"

"The mannequins are fighting upstairs," Nora said, her tone stuck somewhere between disbelief and dismay. "I— I tried to get them to stop, but—"

"They've been needing a thorough purge for weeks," Bella said, already squeezing past the younger woman. "It doesn't surprise me in the least. Where are they?"

"I think—"

"How many are fighting?" Bella said, rounding on Nora. "If it's more than five, we might as well just strip them and let them maul each other till there's time to tackle them—"

"It's just two, Miss Black, but they're in storage room four, and I thought—"

"Room four?" Bella groaned. "Better and better." They were at the stairs now, and Nora was visibly hanging back, obviously eager to be off to sort out whatever other mess was generating itself on the fitting floor. "Two won't take long to respell, thank Merlin. Tell everyone where I am?"

Nora nodded. In a trice, she was heading back the way they came, leaving Bella scowling at everything around her. Gritting her teeth, she started up the stairs, sandwich in one hand, wand already in the other. Storage room four was the largest one, packed with things that ranged from the half-finished robes hanging upon the mannequins to the completed items folded in piles everywhere. If Bella was lucky, the only things the mannequins would spoil was what was spelled in place on their senseless frames.

And if she wasn't—

She heard the thumps and muffled squeaks before she saw anything. And what Bella first saw made her want to scream; there were other mannequins surging into room four, pushing and shoving at their fellows and hopping up and down to see the fight that must be going on within.

For a long moment, Bella just stood and stared. Something ripped loudly— something that could be that decorative shawl she'd been working on for weeks— and Bella raised her wand and cut through the mannequins using a hasty displacement spell, foul curses on the tip of her tongue. The ripping sound, she immediately saw, had probably come from a swathe of nondescript green cloth. Even as she sighed, she noticed what pile it was in— the expensive pile— and one of the curses she'd held back fought free.

"Haurio vitae," Bella spat, not caring to limit the deadening charm in any way. But almost every other mannequin drew back from those fighting within their midst, so neatly and so quickly that only one or two of the onlookers went down with the battered-looking fighters. A few fled from the room— more nuisance in the making— but most of them remained within, wringing their hands and keeping out of Bella's way as she plunged into the room.

Bella rolled her eyes. God but they all needed respelling; if they went any longer without a good purge, they'd soon be trying to speak. Bella couldn't imagine a more annoying development; being in this business, she'd heard of the old, rheumy mannequins that the most honoured Parisian dressmakers kept on, but she rather doubted the mannequins at Gladrags would use their new abilities to do more than spout nonsense and quarrel with each other.

Moments later, she'd gathered the four— no, five fallen mannequins into the centre of the room, well away from any piles of cloth. They were all stiff, if still easy to manoeuvre from the semi-permanent lightening charms that had remained on them. Once Bella had them set in a heap, she stepped back, took a deep breath, and wove her thoughts carefully together; intent was everything with the next charm. "Afflare vitae!"

Nothing happened for a moment. Nothing Bella could see, at any rate. And then there was a slight squeak, and another, and another… She sighed. Now for flexibility; that always seemed to wear off when they were purged. "Fundo mollis." More squeaking followed for a minute. Then the five mannequins all wriggled free of each other, coming gracefully to their feet. Bella eyed them critically before separating the two that had been fighting from the others; they were chipped and scarred enough that they wouldn't be wanted downstairs. A hasty smoothing charm would take care of that. Oiling, however, would just have to wait. Especially if— "Tempus. Oh, good grief."

Bella glared at the two mannequins that had been fighting; they were just standing there, pliant and obedient as only newly re-spelled mannequins could be. Fifteen minutes lost, restoring them. Where had it gone?

The mannequins stayed silent, of course, as did all the rest around her, though the ones that had not been re-spelled twitched and watched her as avidly as anything. Bella could already see two of them shoving discreetly at each other, they were that restless. And stupid.

She smiled unpleasantly. Fifteen minutes had already gone into this; one more wouldn't matter. "Haurio vitae," she snapped, at one of the most violently fidgeting mannequins. The ones around it squeaked and scattered as it clattered to the floor, and the space around Bella grew larger. "You will all return to your rightful rooms," she said confidently. Hearing always came first in the rush of knowledge that seeped into magical objects. And if they did not hear or understand— well. Another minute meting out deadening charms would be fine. "If anyone should find you fighting, they'll call me, and I will drain you and leave you dead for a week. Understood?"

The space around Bella increased, and it made her smile. Guilt rode in hard behind the seething pleasure she felt as the mannequins on her way out of the room gave way. They were only mannequins, true, but it wasn't much of a leap from depriving them of the little life they had to performing the Haurio on someone truly living. Or, at least, it didn't seem much of a leap for Bella. The taste in her mouth afterwards was always the same.

Just now, it should have made her feel sick. Maggie had died under a careful, drawn-out Haurio days ago, and the pleasure had been there, skulking beneath Bella's grief at being the one to— to end things. But perhaps this was how Bella was, how Bella needed to be just now, in the hours before she met Narcissa and entrusted her with more than any sane witch would. Perhaps this was the taste she needed beneath her tongue tonight. It seemed to show, if only to the mannequins.

Perhaps it would show to Narcissa as well, as warning. For there was nothing Bella could think of just now that would be sweeter than watching her sister die, if she proved traitorous once again.

None of the hints Severus had dropped about the disguise he would be using tonight had prepared Bella for this. It felt horribly wrong to walk into the Three Broomsticks so openly with him beside her. The fact that the man beside her was blond, bland of face and ever so slightly shorter than she was did not reassure her at all; the way he moved seemed at odds with how he looked, and something about the way he held himself screamed of all things Snape.

The tight, suspicious look on Narcissa's face rhymed well with how Bella felt about Severus' disguise. "You're late, Bella. And who's this?"

"I work," Bella snapped, in no mood to be condescended to. "If I need to remind you why we need someone else with us tonight—"

Narcissa rose abruptly from her seat, her expression now forcibly calm. "Outside, then?" Her tone, also calm, might have fooled Bella on any other occasion. Tonight, however, Bella could watch Narcissa lead the way out of the pub and marvel at how thoroughly she could dissemble for hours on end. She knew that any front Narcissa could put up would eventually break down in private, but it was still fascinating to watch her smile slightly when Severus opened the door for her, and wait in the street as if she did it every day.

There was a need for dissembling tonight, of course. The main street of Hogsmeade was busy with people making last-minute purchases before going home, just as Bella might be doing on a different night. And some of those people were slowing down quite on purpose, eyeing the three of them as they began to make their way up the road that led to the Shrieking Shack. There was no other obvious, private place to go in Hogsmeade if one needed to perform dangerous bonding spells without half the town looking on, and since Bella had been unable to bring herself to push for a meeting place far from Hogsmeade, she'd grudgingly agreed with Narcissa's choice.

That wasn't quite what she'd told Severus. He, walking ahead of Bella and Narcissa, was firmly under the impression that Bella had suggested the Shrieking Shack herself, and that Narcissa had fought it tooth and nail, wanting instead to meet in her room at the Three Broomsticks. His approval of her choice had made Bella feel both guilty and annoyed, with that mix of emotions leaning more toward guilt when he'd blithely offered to secure the Shack before the meeting without any prompting.

As they approached the Shrieking Shack, the amount of people around them dwindled, until they were walking in uncomfortable silence that suddenly became thicker once they reached the gate. Narcissa's calm expression wavered but held firm, but Bella could see her hands were starting to shake. She disguised it well, giving both Bella and Severus a faint smile as she stopped just in front of the gate. "Here?"

Severus coughed. "You give my masking charms a great compliment," he said, an insincere smile on his face. "The back of the house would be better."

Bella managed not to glare at him; what on earth had happened to his muttering about only having an hour to perform both Vows? "Here is fine," she said. "A little bit of fog will support that charm very nicely."

"But surely it will be safer to—"

"The masking charm, darling," Bella said, giving him a tight smile. When he didn't make a move, she drew out her wand and strengthened the fog that had already been creeping up around them, and told herself that she would let herself slap him when they were done, and away from Narcissa's now openly fearful gaze. A look around them gave Bella adequate reason for the fear in her sister's eyes; Severus had to have done the masking charm nonverbally, for the fog was quickly becoming all that could be seen around them.

"Shall we?" Severus asked, his current tone as whoever the bland blond man whose face he wore sarcastic enough that Bella dearly wanted to slap him right then. She smiled instead, as calmly as she could, and put her wand in her other hand. Narcissa's hand was cold and damp, and smoother than Bella's own. It felt enough like her own that she found herself gripping her wand harder than was necessary, to try and remind herself that this fleeting familiarity changed nothing.

A look into Narcissa's cold eyes was enough; for a moment, Bella could understand Severus' fundamental distrust of this whole situation. I hold a snake by the hand, Bella thought, as they both rehearsed their vows, as Severus stepped close, the mocking look on his face replaced by a solid, unreal calm, and that snake is my sister.

"Bella," Severus said, his voice oddly loud in the calm of the fog that surrounded them. "You first."

"Will you, Narcissa, assist me, Bellatrix, in my pursuit to ensure proper redistribution of the Black family fortune?"

Narcissa's smile was gone now, and her tone a little too calm to be believed. "I will," she said, and her hand twitched in Bella's as the first tongue of flame bound them together.

"And will you, to the best of your ability, do what is needed to ensure that redistribution, freely giving your resources to the cause?"

"I will." The fog was thick about them now, silent, reeking of magic. It would get worse when Narcissa repeated her side of the vows, of course— the elements were always sensitive to such dangerously binding magic.

"Will you equally divide the results of our attempt at this cause, whether they be good, bad or indifferent, as determined by a neutral third party?"

"I will." There was a little too much relief in that for Bella's comfort, but it was quickly drowned out by the burning sensation reaching up her arm. It was an effort to keep still, but she did it anyway, not letting the slightest sound escape as she felt the Vow settle deeply into her. It dug and clawed at her, reaching behind the shields on her mind to probe at her intentions. Narcissa, similarly still, made a small concession to the more violent reaching of the Vow into her mind, closing her eyes.

Severus lifted his wand for a moment, letting both Bella and Narcissa stretch their reddened hands, and then it was time for the second Vow.

Victory gathered in the back of Bella's throat as she spoke. She knew that this next Vow would be supremely binding, for it was as close to the normal form of protector's Unbreakable Vows as she'd been able to wangle. And there was something deeply satisfying in forcing the woman who, as Antares had said, would have spat on them if she could to say these words, to mean them. "Will you, Narcissa, actively protect and defend the welfare of my son, my allies and my loved ones should you be in a position to do so?"

Narcissa tone was stiff. "I will."

"Will you swear not to harm my son, or any of my allies and loved ones should you be in a position to do so?"

"I will."

And now, the most pertinent condition. "Will you swear to submit to dissolution of this vow and other vows we swear to each other in good faith, should our circumstances change?"

"I will." The heat of the Vow bound them together much faster this time, so that Narcissa was soon clearing her throat and preparing to speak the conditions of Bella's only vow.

"Will you, Bellatrix, aid me, Narcissa, in the observance of the vows I have vowed to you?"

"I will."

"Will you treat me with the courtesy and trust that I require to observe them?"

"I will."

"And will you aid me in their dissolution when we agree that there is no longer a need for them?"

"I will."

Bella closed her eyes as this last vow took hold, its fire flowing into every part of her until she had to bite her tongue to keep back a cry of pain. This feeling was what every story of an Unbreakable Vow talked of, an awful heat that burned deep into you to warn you of the death that would come if you broke faith. As the unseen flames retreated, Bella could understand why so few had been broken, including those that had been sworn in bad faith and legally dissolved at the imperative of a high magical authority. It was hard to look this feeling in the face, to choose the awful fire of a thwarted vow over life and compliance.

Narcissa had drawn away now, her artificial calm beginning to come apart. Her hands were shaking again, presenting an odd contrast with the cool sense of achievement in her eyes. Bella found herself wondering, yet again, what Lucius had done to her sister, to push her so thoroughly into the hands of his enemies.

Bella nodded at Narcissa, pushing that thought aside. There would be no answer to that, just as there would be no long, contentious trial for Sirius, if she could help it. She and Narcissa would get in, get the fortune that belonged to them out, and split up as quickly as possible, and that would be that. "Tomorrow, then?"

Narcissa nodded firmly. "See you at lunch." Then, with a stiff nod in Severus' direction, she began to make her way through the fog, heading for the main street of Hogsmeade with a will.

Severus, naturally, took offence. "Presumptuous bitch," he muttered, glaring after her. "Announcing the time, as if you have all the time in the world to meet with her—"

"We agreed on the time when we hammered out the vows," Bella said, tiredly, trying not to smile. The scowl on Severus' face was so very his just now, and it looked very strange. "And really, she did us a favour by leaving rudely. I was starting to think you'd start melting apart before we were done."

"I will not be 'melting apart' for at least a quarter of an hour, thank you," Severus said, still glaring after Narcissa. When he turned to eye her, Bella sighed, certain of what was coming next— "You needn't have sworn a thing to her."

"Everything I know about vows dictates that magical and mental balance is key," Bella said, for what was likely the tenth time since she'd told him she would also be making a Vow to Narcissa. "Even deadly vows depend on mutual trust to function properly."

"Well, I still think—"

"You can ask Dumbledore when you tell him," Bella said, giving him a thin smile. She knew it was a bad idea to bring the Headmaster into it again, but she couldn't help herself. "He'll agree, I'm sure."

Severus snorted. "He'll have a bloody heart attack, more likely," he said. "Have you forgotten that she's still married to Lucius?"

"Property law will automatically consider their union dissolved by tomorrow, if she wasn't lying about when she left him," Bella pointed out. "Can you stop bringing that up? You know the law just as well as I do—"

"I also know Lucius," Severus snapped. "If you think he'll let their marriage lapse just because of one stupid law— one that doesn't protect against kidnapping, if you remember—"

"And she's met me in the open," Bella said. "Spoken civilly to me. He probably even knows we were going to meet tonight. What makes you think he wouldn't have shown up in Hogsmeade if he wanted her back?"

Severus sighed. "Well—"

"Absolutely nothing, and you know it." Bella exhaled loudly, shaking her now truly cold hands. "Is that everything? Because I would like to go home now, where it's warm, and we can continue to beat this dead hippogriff of an argument without fear of being overheard."


"The vows are sworn," Bella said, deliberately. "It'sdone. Can we go home?"

"Home," Severus repeated, scornfully, as if he'd never been seen to perk up when she called his house that. "Fine." He grudgingly took the hand she offered him, then pulled her surprisingly close. "This isn't over."

To that, Bella only offered a smile. "No," she said, amusedly. "Come on."

A/N: Er. Idea of dual vows thanks to furiosity on LJ; a story of hers was the first one in which I came across that. Otherwise, Happy New Year! Hope you enjoyed this chapter, long as it's been in the making.