A/N: This one hurt to do, at a lot of levels. I felt like this plot arc was bogging down, and there are a lot of characters from whom we haven't heard in a very long time. I intend on using this chapter as a kind of catalyst for developing some of them ( yes, including Snape). It's a bit short, but I wanted to focus on something besides pervasive angst ( well, at least not as totally as here).

If any of you have characters you're wondering about, do let me know. I can't promise you a whole installment ( or a happy ending) but I will mention them, if possible.

Reviews are things of great beauty.

As always, love to my betas Visitkarte and Angels Broken Shadow.


It was custom and custom must not be denied, or so she told herself, shivering, as she eyed the corpse sitting on the table. She'd died like she would have wanted. No slow fading for Bellatrix, no decline, no sentimental weeping and wailing. Standing, straight as always, giving orders to an elf, and then crumpling as though Avada'd. Hermione felt a moment of gratitude; she'd died on her feet as befits a warrior. She had not yielded to time's scythe.

Laid out in state, Bellatrix looked much as she had in life. Perhaps more peaceful; the dark gleam of madness barely controlled was gone from her face. They had dressed her in a formal robe, hair carefully brushed back and held with a thin silver band. She held a small wooden twig of ebony in one stiff hand. Not her wand, of course; she would have no need of it in the Distant Lands.

The house elves, weeping, heaped the bier with flowers; garlands of bay leaves and apple blossoms, bluebells, caldendula and pink camellias. There would be more tomorrow, of course; Bellatrix would begin her journey heaped with their love and blessings, fragrant with their sorrow.

The house was too silent. She wanted to scream, to yell and make noise. The children would arrive tomorrow, of course, with the Malfoys and that would stop the silence, but for tonight…

If she looked closely enough, she could almost see Bellatrix's chest moving. Any second now her eyes would fly open, she would sit up and say something…

She realized she was starving. She debated calling for an elf and decided against it. She would endure; it would keep her awake.

"Hermione? Pet, are you all right? You're shivering."

" I'm fine, Rudolphus."

He shook his head. "You won't be if you keep this up. You ought to go to bed." His voice held the old note of command and Hermione was startled to find herself reacting to it, standing a little. Resolutely, she shook her head and sat back down.

"Please, I can't…I'd rather not try to sleep."

He didn't push, for the nonce. " All right then, pet. Shall I stay with you?"

A long silent moment passed. The house creaked slightly. They could hear the elves in the kitchen, talking softly. The rest of the family would be coming tomorrow, of course, but for tonight, it was the three of them.

Rudolphus felt old and unsure and tired. Thought Bellatrix had never loved him in the usual sense, they were used to one another, and her sudden absence has given him a certain amount of ---pause. The house still rang with her. Rudolphus wondered to himself whether he would be caught forever more in stasis; always a step behind her ghost.

Hermione was sitting rigid, hardly breathing. The last time he had seen her like this, he'd simply turned her over his knee to help her express her grief; this time he couldn't do it for her. His hand reached for her and he held it gently.

"Is there anything you'd like to say? It's customary that we share our thoughts with her…for the last time."

Yes, she thought, I want to tell her to get up and stop this cruel trick. She tried to think of something that would sum up what they had been to one another. He began to rub her shoulder lightly. "Take your time, darling. She'll wait for you."

She would, wouldn't she? She's always hurried, scolded dawdling. Now she had time enough; Hermione could compose an elegy none but her foster parents would ever hear.

" When I first… came here… I had nightmares …she'd come in and help me fall asleep." Rudolphus nodded encouragingly. "What would she do?"

" She was…there. She'd make me roll on my stomach and she'd rub my back. I told her so much…she never said anything, just listened."

She was beginning to loosen. "She got my Mum's pendant back for me. Mallow took it to give Ron that letter. I don't know how—she made him give it back." Hermione clutched almost convulsively at the pendant under her robes. He said nothing. She would talk herself out.

"She stayed with me while I had my children. She hated watching but she stayed every time. When Antlia was born and they almost couldn't stop the bleeding, she wouldn't let me die."

He raised his eyebrow slightly. " I wanted to let go, but she slapped me and called me a coward. I wasn't going to prove her right…"

He chuckled. "That was Bellatrix. Even in Azkaban, she was brave. The others cried, or howled, but she was strong. Even when they…hurt her, she didn't make a sound. I used to fear she would die of despair, when He didn't come for us, but it only made her more sure."

Rudolphus stopped, overcome. He would never tell her the whole truth of it; the horrors of Azkaban, the thrill of escape, the reunion. Fourteen years he'd waited to see his wife again, and when he had? He'd been met by a raving madwoman, desperate for blood, laughing and capering madly. A wife from whom Azkaban had burned any love she might once have had for him.

A tear trickled down his face, seamed by the years and the bloody endless battles. He'd been afraid she would hurt the girl, at first. He might have quietly suggested a more suitable guardian, had things not happened as quickly as they did. The McNairs, perhaps, or even the Malfoys. As things stood he decided against it; looking back, he was glad. Bellatrix had adjusted and more than adjusted. He'd noticed a change in her the night they helped the girl get over the death of her parents; she'd actually tried to comfort the girl.

The parents. He hadn't given them any real thought in years. In his mind, Hermione was theirs; the muggles had simply planted the seed they had carefully nurtured. They were her parents longer than the muggles, after all. They'd done more for her.

"Do you remember, pet, when you and she got into that argument about Crucio?"

Hermione nodded. It was a less than pleasant memory, actually. Bellatrix had one idea about how one treats a house elf and Hermione had another. It had been quite the clash of wills, but even as they fought, each knew who would win.

"She told me that night, after you were asleep, how proud she was of you."

"Proud? She was livid I dared question her."

"Of course she was. You were quite willful about the whole thing, as I recall." He fixed her with a jaundiced eye and then smiled. "But she was proud you had the nerve to defy her, knowing what would happen." He squeezed her arm lightly.

"She loved you, you know. We both do."

"Oh, don't. Please…"

"She was so beautiful. Eyes like wells, so deep and dark. On our wedding day, all in cream and gold…we were so young…" Rudolphus tried to control the inelegant tears that jostled to fall. He wanted her to understand how it had been for them.

" Then the Dark Lord---Hermione, my God, it was---so alive, we were. And she was the best of them. Even after Potter—after—she was the best, the most loyal. Then Azkaban. She changed so in that time…we all did. And then there was you…"

Hermione swallowed hard. "Rudolphus, I--"

" Right from the start, she wanted you to stay with us. She was so happy when the Dark Lord gave you to us. So proud of you…such a good girl, she used to say."

" I can't believe she's…I mean, it doesn't seem right. I thought she'd--"

"Live forever? I did too, pet. She was so vital…I remember, at out trial, she was the only one who looked unafraid. She was a challenge to them. The Crouch boy was there… cried for his mother the whole time…but she would not move. She never once recanted it, any of it."

Hermione felt a faint swell of horror. They'd tortured the Longbottoms to insanity, but Rudolphus didn't spare them a thought. She was struck again by the hidden depths humans possess, the small dark oubliettes of the soul.

"You know what you have to do? Tomorrow?"

She nodded. Narcissa had briefed her about it. Rudolphus stood.

"Talk to her, darling. Don't let her go into the dark without knowing how you felt. For myself, I will take a little meal in the kitchen. Then you will do the same, and go to bed."

"I can't possibly--"

He stood up very straight and glared down at her. "You can and shall. Would she want you to tire yourself? Make yourself sick?" She winced at his tone.

"No, Rudolphus."

He lightly stroked her hair. "Besides, pet, I should like some time alone with her."

Hermione blushed. "I didn't even think of that. I'm so sorry."

"There's nothing to be sorry for, darling."

He swept out. She, or rather they, were alone again. It was the last time she'd ever speak privately with Bellatrix. She would tell her, tell her everything, but how to start.

"I hated you. At first. You were cruel… frightening. You were frightening. I thought you hated me, too. Perhaps you did." She felt supremely stupid. She would have hated this, Hermione thought. Then she pressed forward, because as much as Bellatrix hated sentiment, she hated shirkers more.

" Then we moved here and it was…different. You were different. I was sad all the time. I missed them all so much! But when I woke at night, you were there. They were gone and you were here, you and Rudolphus. And after a time, it seemed right."

She got up and paced. She had never said anything aloud, but it had always been there, just under the skin. The air was still, too cold. Cold, cold…

"I still think he killed them. But it almost didn't matter, did it? We were here. And I needed you. I needed you both. But it was never the same. As much I as needed you, you weren't them. They were my parents and you let him kill them." Tears were running down her cheeks but she didn't notice, didn't care. Her voice rose shrilly and she faced the dead woman, wanting her to sit up and hear it, hear all of it.

"I hated you for it! I still hate you for it! You took everything from me, everything. How could you? I didn't ask to be born." She gasped, overcome with sobs, unable to move. The terrible pain of it came back, the wound cut open again. She keened, finally free to let it go.

"Except I couldn't hate you. Because you were…always…there. And their faces faded in my mind. It all seemed like a dream, and this the real world. Hogwarts, Ron, Neville, my parents…all just a dream. This was real; you were real."

She choked back her sobs and tried to speak normally. " Even when I hated you, I…needed you. All those nights you stayed up with me rubbing my back, drying my eyes. I needed you. I loved you."

She went to where Bella lay. Hermione reached out and hesitantly touched her cheek. It was warm. The house elves had carefully warded it to give every semblance of life. She pressed her face to Bellatrix's shoulder and wept.

"Then one night, I woke up and I…I wanted my Mother. And I realized I meant you. And when Rudolphus hugged me and called me his best girl, I liked it, didn't I? It felt good to be someone's best girl again. It felt less of a betrayal to love people who were so kind to me."

Bellatrix said nothing, of course. Hermione was still crying. She inhaled. " I wish I'd told you. I wish I'd thanked you, even once." The door opened and Rudolphus quietly walked in. She was crying so hard she didn't realize until he put his arms about her and pulled her into an embrace.

"Oh, pet, she knew." He said nothing else for a long time, simply hushing and murmuring comforting nonsense. The whole thing was so familiar. Rudolphus had the impression that time had not passed, not a day. Any moment the door would open and Bellatrix would come in and start patting Hermione in the stiff way she had, and humming that damned song…he hated that song. Fourteen years in Azkaban, and all he'd had of Bella was that fucking song through the walls, over and over again like Hell's own metronome.

Hermione was fading. He firmly took her shoulders and led her to the kitchen. House elves, as a rule, are protective in the extreme of their owners, a thousand time more so if they knew them as children, or even young adults. Lemmy, even more wizened and stooped than she had been, took immediate charge of the woman, fussing and scolding. The other elves were nearby, weeping softly. Considering how much Bella had abused the elves, it was almost…touching.

Leaving Hermione, plate piled high with chicken and bread and potatoes, he walked quietly to the room and closed the door. It would be a long, cold night, but he felt ready for it.