She arrived back at the Manor with tears still streaming down her face. Instead of running into the house, she ran into the gardens that lay behind it and sat down by the fountain. She caught sight of her reflection in the water and smashed her hand into the water. Her reflection rippled and for a second or two completely faded.
"Hermione, aren't you supposed to be at..." Bellatrix's voice trailed off when she realised Hermione was crying. She hurried towards her lover and their hands linked as she sat down beside her. "What happened? Why are you crying?"
Hermione swallowed hard. She felt sick to her stomach and was shaking in anger and frustration. Tear filled hazel eyes looked up to meet the dark orbs of Bellatrix. "We... I... There was an argument"
From the open patio doors Narcissa emerged and she too walked towards Hermione. Bellatrix frowned. "What do you mean – an argument?"
"Harry accused me of being responsible for Ron's death because I married someone from the past" Hermione whispered and briskly brushed the tears from her cheek. She didn't want to cry because of Harry's arrogance. She was too angry to be sad. For the first time in the years she had known Harry Potter, she hated him. "And he told them... he told them I married you"
Narcissa made a sound like an angry cat and Bellatrix looked up to her younger sister. "Potter has been a fool. It would appear the trait has been passed along the family line..."
Bellatrix looked at Hermione. Their hands were still joined and the diamond cores of their rings were pleasantly beating together. She had gotten used to feeling it again. She felt whole once more. "How did this argument start anyway? Surely he did not just say it?"
"Andromeda came to speak to me. Telling me she knows and understands. I forgot she would remember too. When Ginny saw us together she made some harsh comment about me cheating on my wife with her sister. The others overheard the comment, just like she wanted them to, and things just went to hell from there" Hermione spoke angrily and her eyes flickered dangerously "I need a better taste in choosing my friends. I always ending up surrounding myself with those who merely disappoint me"
"Surely that does not go for all of us?"
Hermione, Bellatrix and Narcissa all looked up. The Scottish accent had been very familiar and Hermione's heart leapt up in her chest. Minerva McGonagall had appeared in the gardens. Her green eyes were fixed on Hermione, her lips curled up into a smile. She was accompanied by Andromeda and Nymphadora. A shy little smile lingered on Andromeda's lips now that she was faced with her sisters again. Tonks merely looked curious.
"Minerva..." Hermione sighed and stood up. Bellatrix's hand slipped out of her own and she could sense both Bellatrix and Narcissa suddenly became weary of the unexpected visitors. Both looked at their sister. "Of course that does not include you..." She hesitated. "What is the situation at The Burrow?"
"Harry is just being a total arse" Tonks answered sharply and briefly hugged Hermione. When she let go her eyes fixed on Bellatrix and Hermione and she seemed unsure how to act. Her loyalties lay with her family. The ones she had never known. "He should know better than to attack his friends"
Hermione shrugged at that last comment. The anger she had felt was still there but the sadness quickly faded. She knew Harry was an ignorant prat sometimes and she hadn't quite expected anything less from him any way. The more clever and sophisticated ones were standing around her now. "If he wants to be a lonely miserable git it will be the least of my worries"
There was a silence that lasted for several moments. All those present were lost in their own thoughts. After a few seconds Narcissa curiously eyed up her long lost sister. Andromeda looked well, she realised. The situation was calm and yet intense – leaving them all wondering whether perhaps there had been some part of destiny that brought them all here. The water from the fountain trickled down the grey sandstone. She caught Andromeda's eyes. "You haven't changed..."
"Neither have you, Cissy" Andromeda answered weakly and smiled. Never had she dared to believe she would meet her sister again. Nor would she ever have thought she would welcome her. Narcissa still looked very much like the teenage girl she had left behind when she left her parents' house. She could still remember the tears in her eyes as she begged her not to leave. A few words would not heal so many years lost but it would build a bridge that would lead to a whole new path. She glanced at Bellatrix. Sadness overwhelmed her. "Oh Bella... if I had known..."
"If any of us had known..." Minerva interrupted and reached out a hand to Bellatrix. It was a simple sign of forgiveness and understanding.
Bellatrix took and shook it, her lips now curling up into a smile. The last time she had shook Minerva McGonagall's hand was the night she had begged her to see the Head Master. "Don't blame me for not being in on the secret, Minerva. Blame the silly old coot that was Albus Dumbledore"
Minerva chuckled. "I shall deal with him when I return to Hogwarts"
Hermione sighed and allowed her hand to slip back into Bellatrix's. Bellatrix's fingers brushed against the palm of her hand. All of a sudden she felt tired. It was as if a spell had been lifted and everything just landed on top of her. Her eyes felt heavy and her body ached. "Perhaps we should go inside. There are things we need to talk about. Things that need to be said"
They made their way inside and Narcissa invited them into the dining room instead of the drawing room. House elf magic made their feet feel funny for a moment or two and almost out of nowhere several cups of steaming tea appeared, accompanied by a tray of cakes and biscuits. Hermione slipped in a seat beside Bellatrix, seeking her hand under the table. Minerva sat down at her other side. Narcissa, Andromeda and Tonks sat down across them. For several minutes they indulged themselves in the tea and biscuits before Hermione finally broke the silence.
"Who would ever have thought we would sit around a table like this..." she pointed out the unlikely gathering "I... I owe you all an apology"
"Don't be ridiculous" Bellatrix intervened and looked at her wife. "Hermione, none of this was your fault. I doubt there is anyone to blame"
"Bellatrix is right, Hermione" Minerva said softly "And Dumbledore was right. Nothing about this can be done undone and regardless of the hurt and confusion it has caused, I doubt any of us want to. Clearly there was a good reason why the destinies of so many people were changed. I for one would never have dared hoping to share a table with any of you present"
Narcissa nodded in agreement and caught Hermione's eyes across the table. "This will find its place, Hermione. The timeline is what it is today. From here onwards it is up to us to make out of it whatever we can. And that means that you and Bella will have to come to terms with your differences and the ways in which you are alike"
Hermione sighed. She knew both Narcissa and Minerva were right. She couldn't do anything else now. This was how things were. She was married to Bellatrix and as much as she had once desired a divorce, she knew it could not change anything. And she didn't want to leave her. She wanted to stay with her. They had once been so alike. Now they were so different but she still believed they had a future. She believed they had a chance.
"I owe my daughter's life to you" Andromeda whispered and reached over the table for Bellatrix's other hand. "Hermione told me that – before she changed the timelines- Nymphadora would have died in the Battle. I know you did not make this choice deliberately as it just was something you did, but to know that your love for someone else saved my daughter leaves me eternally grateful"
Bellatrix's eyes filled with tears. "We were raised to hate you, Andy. But nobody is ever raised to stop loving someone. I just forgot..."
Tonks looked from her mother to both her aunts. Narcissa was sitting beside her. Her lips curled up and she pulled a face as if she was thinking really hard. Her bubble gum pink spiky hair suddenly became curly and long, like that of her mother and Bellatrix but it was as blonde as Narcissa's. She chose a light shade of brown eyes and suddenly she looked like the missing link between the three of them. Bellatrix and Narcissa looked in amazement.
Hermione suddenly laughed. The stress fell away. She was still tired but she felt suddenly free. There was something honest and open about them all sitting around the table. It was the first time, but she knew it would not be the last. She could sense the others were relaxing too. "Somehow I think that someone will slap me if I ask you to do that pig snout again... it would only destroy the Black perfection"
The hours began to pass as they talked. The hands on the large clock on the wall moved, silently reminding them how the time past. There were so many years to catch up on. They sat and listened, they laughed and cried and they sometimes just fell silent to allow room for personal thoughts. The mugs of tea were replaced for goblets of pumpkin juice, mead and wine. The biscuits and pies disappeared and made room for a beautifully prepared roast diner. Their voices never died out for the rest of the night and Malfoy Manor was filled with true laughter for the first time. By the time the sun rose over the horizon they had all been up all night but none felt tired or the need to go to bed.
Dawn had broken several hours ago and the sun was shining brightly into the dining room. It had been Andromeda who had yawned first, followed by a bad attempt of Narcissa to suppress her own. However, it was obvious that tiredness had invaded the comfortable situation in the dining room and Minerva suggested it was time people would try and get some sleep.
"There are plenty of bedrooms to accommodate all of us" Narcissa insisted when Andromeda put on her cloak. She watched the look in her sister's eyes change. She weakly smiled as she remembered how she and Andromeda used to sneak into each other's bedroom and she would listen to Andromeda reading her stories. "It has been a long time since this house has known any happiness..." She didn't want them to leave. And so the various bedrooms in Malfoy Manor became occupied for the remainder of the day.
Hermione propped herself up on her elbow and looked at Bellatrix lying beside her. "It's strange, isn't it?"
Bellatrix looked up. She was so much older than she had been when she first fell in love with Hermione yet she still felt so young inside. She smiled. She had learned to smile again since Hermione came back to her. "Strange indeed..."
Hermione sighed. She hadn't slept since everybody retired to bed. Fifteen minutes ago she had heard Andromeda talk to Narcissa right outside their door but their voices had died out a few minutes ago. Bellatrix had been asleep. Hermione had spent her time watching her, thinking how much she loved her and how badly she hoped everything would turn out all right. Her hope was stronger than her fear. "You know, I don't need Harry"
"Do not make such decisions until you have had time to think" Bellatrix whispered and let her fingers run down Hermione's arm
"I do not need to think, Bella" Hermione whispered softly and snuggled herself down in Bellatrix's arms. She felt perfectly at ease here. It was where she belonged. She had somehow managed to bring a family back together and she had learned to see how some of her friends were ignorant and stupid. "Harry has made his choice. And therefore I have made mine"
They lay in silence for awhile as in other parts of the house people began to wake up. Narcissa and Andromeda had been the first ones to be awake and were already enjoying a walk through the gardens by the time Minerva made it down the marble staircase. She entertained herself reading one of the books in the extensive Malfoy library - a place where nobody ever used to come apart from Narcissa. Tonks was the next one to wake and joined her mother and aunt outside.
Hermione and Bella walked around the house, enjoying the sunlight falling through the windows and Bellatrix took Hermione into the music room. They sat in listened as Bellatrix had charmed the piano and let it play one beautiful ballad after the other. Hermione's head rested on Bellatrix's shoulder and her lips curled up into a little smile. She felt comfortable and at home. Being with Bellatrix left her feeling safe. She looked at their hands, lying joined in her lap. Their rings still glistened and sparkled. Their sacrifice had been worth it. They still had each other.
Andromeda, Nymphadora and Minerva stayed at Malfoy Manor for another three days, in which they spent many more hours talking but also quite a few hours going their own way. Tonks discovered her love for reading and became as much of a bookworm like Hermione, spending a lot of time in the library reading some of the novels Narcissa had collected over the years. She would occasionally be joined by any of the others and they would read in silence, enjoying the simple company of no longer being alone.
When the third day came to an end and Hermione and Bellatrix returned from a long walk along the country lanes that surrounded Malfoy Manor they found Minerva just about ready to leave.
"Are you leaving us?" Hermione questioned sadly "When will we see you again?"
"I shall not be away long, Hermione. But in case you have forgotten, I am still the Head Mistress of Hogwarts and though I am sure Professor Flitwick has done an excellent job in covering during my absence, I would like to make sure students are not creating havoc while I am away"
Hermione grinned. And she was convinced Minerva had some things to talk about with Ginny Weasley. "Of course, Minerva. Hogwarts needs you. I suppose I just got used to having everybody around"
Narcissa walked into the hall just at that moment and overheard the last comment. "Though I am sure Minerva has perfectly adequate chambers at Hogwarts I am quite happy to offer one of the rooms here at the Manor"
Minerva kindly accepted and smiled. She patted Hermione's shoulder for a moment. "I am very grateful, Narcissa. Sometimes you can't get away far enough from lousy, rowdy and misbehaving students. I will return in a few days"
She left the Manor and Apparated at the end of the gravel lane leading down to the gates. Hermione sighed and closed the heavy wooden front door. She turned and found Narcissa and Bellatrix standing side by side.
"Andy and Tonks have decided to stay" Narcissa smiled "It is easy access to the Ministry via the Floo Network and Tonks is convinced she can read every book in the library. And Andy... Andy likes the idea of having her sister back" She glanced at Bellatrix. "Both of them"
Bellatrix nodded. "Black Manor was destroyed by Aurors several years ago. It had been a Death Eater hide out for a few months. It was chosen by Voldemort himself. The Aurors came and a battle erupted. It was reduced to a pile of rubble and I feel no desire to rebuild it. However this..." She gestured around "...feels more like home than Black Manor ever has"
Hermione smiled. She knew what her wife was saying. Hazel eyes met dark brown. "Then we shall stay"
She followed Narcissa and Bellatrix into the large lounge and they sat down by the fire. Narcissa pulled up her legs underneath her and picked up the book she had been reading. It had been a gift from Hermione, who had sparked her love for Shakespeare. Bellatrix simply picked up the latest edition of the Daily Prophet.
Hermione glanced from her wife to her sister-in-law. Both were already lost in the world of words they were reading. The picture looked almost unreal, she realised. Narcissa with her legs resting underneath her reading Shakespeare and Bellatrix sprawled over the sofa, reading something as simple as a paper. She had never once dared believe that life could be so simple. So beautiful.
Malfoy Manor had once been the place where she was tortured but those memories no longer lingered between these walls. This was her home now. And she looked forward to starting over. There was a second chance. It hurt to realise that she had to leave things behind. But in order to move ahead, certain things had to be left behind. But so many beautiful things still lay ahead of her.
She did not need Harry. She did not need friendship that was based on dishonesty. She did not need his judgment and his arrogance. What she needed were those who saw her for who she was and who could see beyond everything she ever went through. She twirled the ring around her finger. It had cost her a lot. A lot had been lost. But so much more had been gained. Things that were broken had been restored.
Time had taken things away. But time had also brought things back together.