So, uhm, yeah. That took a while. Not giving up, though! Thank you all for still holding fast to this and believing in me and for all the wonderful encouragement. Trust me, it's not the number of reviews, or clicks, or whatever young authors are into these days that keep me writing, it is my own interest in finishing this, so you needn't worry that I will give it up. It just takes a little time. But I am always SO thankful for your kind words!

By the way: This chapter is NSFW. You're welcome.

42. Tide Rising

"I wanted a perfect ending. Now I've learned, the hard way, that some poems don't rhyme, and some stories don't have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what's going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity." ― Gilda Radner

Hermione didn't realize how much she missed the ruckus until the quiet started. Bellatrix's quiet, to be precise. It wasn't fully obvious, as Bella still groused and complained and laughed, but when the eyes went away and the words were said, Hermione could see the quietness suffusing her girlfriend like ink spreading in water until it had darkened every part of her substance.

At first, it scared her. Quiet could become fear, fear could become hate, and hate would rile up the Screams just as easily as oil in a fire. But watching Bellatrix, seeing her stare out the window with what was not a wistful expression but an introspective one, had her slowly withdraw her concerns, yet not fully bury them.

She would watch dark eyes flicker with thought. That line between her eyes, deepened, but not to the point of frustration, lines that would only get more pronounced one day when age visited the rejuvenated witch once more. How will an older Bella look now, without a decade of Azkaban clawing the life from her?

She trusted Bella and gave her space. If there was something to talk about, something that she could help with, Bella would come and tell her about it. There were demons that, despite what Hermione wished, she could not help the other woman defeat until Bella made her own peace with them. And after that trip down memory lane to Azkaban, Hermione remembered how there were a lot of old wounds that needed to be picked open, painfully cleaned and then allowed to heal over properly. It was not her right to pick the battle, but she would stand and lend strength for every smear of darkness that Bella dared face.

Then the paperwork for Bella's job arrived. Despite her groaning and sharp comments, Bellatrix wrote her signature under the contract, right below that of Harry Potter, who would do a lot of supervising while Bellatrix worked in the Ministry. He had even visited the halls of Malfoy Manor once, surprisingly at Draco Malfoy's side and without the old hostility suffusing every interaction between the two young men; there was a lot of hesitance about every word they exchanged, but it now came from a place of grudging understanding and respect.

Harry and Bella exchanged only the most necessary words, otherwise they stayed silent as if that could make them forget the other person even existed. When Harry walked through the green fire with Bellatrix in tow, Hermione feared the worst, even though the fireplace was now connected to a deeper level of the Ministry so that the two could bypass the brunt of the Ministry workers and not cause a ruckus. Hermione had taken the day off to go with them, but Bellatrix had wanted to go alone, had even insisted on it.

So Hermione stayed, and worried, and walked around, tried to read, worried some more and nearly felt her heart leave her chest when the hours had passed by and Bellatrix left the flames without company.

"If I ever contemplate taking a job at the Ministry again that is this boring, kindly hex me into next year," Bellatrix drawled with a grimace, staring with disgust at her ink-stained fingers.

Hermione simply laughed, relieved, and kissed the annoyance from her girlfriend's brow.

Still, she worried, every moment that she was away doing her job at the Ministry. There was talk, of course there was talk, as it had to be announced internally that the former Death Eater was now working for the Ministry and that Harry Potter was there to see things go off without a hitch. She didn't even want to imagine the amount of complaints the responsible department faced for that. Often enough people would stop and stare at Hermione for moments, but no one was willing to take the last step and talk to her openly about it, make the rumor become fact. Ignorance was a bliss and fear still directed most people's movement when it came to Voldemort's once most fanatic follower.

Draco had to endure a similar experience, if not worse. All of them were worried, quietly, that it might boil over one day and that Bellatrix would face accusations and danger from the people around her. Humans, magical or not, were fickle creatures and it took only one rock rolling down the hill to form a violent mob out for vengeance.

But so far, the peace was holding.

Bellatrix would leave for a few hours every other day, then return and complain, vocally, what a drag it was to work your way through age-old records that 'no one in their sane mind would ever touch again anyway'. And threatened to quit out of boredom.

But she went again, the next time. And the next. And suddenly, a routine had established itself.

It was astonishing how... normal the days felt. When would the other shoe drop? When would the farce announce itself as such, dragging back the curtain? When would the first person snap when faced with Bella? Sometimes Hermione would catch an image of herself in a mirrored surface and wondered how nothing showed in her face about the restlessness that churned in her insides, the fear which gnawed and whispered and prodded.

"Miss Granger, if you are not fit for this hearing, then you should have said so. We can always find another day for this appointment," a smarmy, adequately annoyed voice ripped her out of her musings. "There is no trouble admitting to... weakness."

Hermione snapped her head up, becoming aware again of the Ministry's courtroom around her, the endless number of eyes that were glancing at her with unabashed curiosity. That sparked her heart into beating quicker and she took another look at the notes she had gone through before her mind had drifted, but Hermione Granger wouldn't be Hermione Granger if the written words in her hands hadn't already made it into her head in meticulous detail long before the hearing had started.

So she slammed the paper back down on the table, squared her shoulders and glared at her opponent.

"Mister Fidley, while I appreciate your concern, I can assure you that I am in perfect health and well-prepared to go on with the topic at hand. I would ask the court to forgive my moment of distraction, there was simply another point I thought of while browsing my notes."

"Please then, Miss Granger," the judge prompted, perfectly calm in the midst of the heated discussion. She was a warm, friendly woman outside the courtroom, which had led people to underestimate her impartiality during the proceedings – only to wake up to a nasty surprise. "Mister Fidley has just finished his report. If you are ready, you may proceed with your own statement."

Fine then. She was prepared for this, stumbling start or not.

"First then, Mister Fidley," Hermione began, warming herself up by slowly using her roaring anger as kindling, "what you have proposed is against paragraphs 140 and 152 concerning the handling of native creatures."

The other man blinked, took a quick look down at his writing as if not sure of the truth of her statement. He did manage to get his bearings much quicker than she had anticipated and fired back. "The merpeople of that area are not considered native creatures. Also, these are paragraphs from the Bestial Code of Law, which is, as far as I know, not part of your division. I would say that this whole hearing is a mismanagement," he sneared and it was obvious he saw himself in the right, his back ramrod straight so that he could look down his nose at her, "considering that you as representative from the Being Division are not even authorized to handle this problem."

Hermione grinned. It was not a pretty sight, considering the way all the other people listening in tucked their head an inch down between their shoulders. "I hate to set you straight, sir, but I am indeed authorized for this unique problem. The Merpeople may have turned down the Being status in 1811, but it was decided in 1867 that they would be treated as such in the handling of rights of habitation and courtesy, which can be read up in both the Bestial and Being Code of Law."

"That still doesn't mean they can be treated like-..."

"I will thank you not to explain my work to me, Mr. Fidley," Hermione snapped harshly, watching as the man clicked his mouth shut with a glare. It was hard to tame her anger and not start shouting at him, it bristled under her skin and in her veins to do just that. "And if you have an issue with that decision, you may feel free to go to court on another day."

"I have to agree with Miss Granger," the judge said, a small smile playing around her mouth. "We are here concerning whether the rights of habitation at the North coast of Scotland fall to the Merpeople or the humans, not their treatment by our divisions. Please stay on topic."

"Yes, your Honor," Mr. Fidley acquiesced between clenched teeth. His blue eyed stare shot lighting and thunder in Hermione's direction.

"And concerning the problem that the Merfolk at the Northern coast are not seen as native, I fear I have to prove you wrong once again," the younger woman went on, holding up scraps of paper and pictures as she spoke, "as while the Merpeople in general are seen as originating from Greece, deeper research has shown that the split from the Sirens must have happened much longer ago than we expected. The latest state of the art actually assumes that Sirens are the youngest split from the race; a sort of reaction to the human population spreading and to not be cut off from their food source by what was quickly becoming the top of the food chain. Which would make the Merrows the older family and thus strengthen their right to their natural environment, which just happens to be the Northern coast of Scotland."

"There is no proof that the coast is their point of origin. Merpeople of that kind have been found all over the United Kingdom."

He was getting frantic, Hermione could tell. Though he tried to hide it, he shuffled his notes around more and more while she bombarded him with her facts. "And yet there is. A treatise made in 1702 explains that rights of fishing, sailing and other human action would come second to, and I quote, "the native fish-like yet human-acting creatures inhabiting the shores upriver of Allt Rubha Thormaid" as to not provoke attack. There is no reason to see the treatise as not still active today. And, interrupt me if I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure building a harbour for magical ships counts as 'human action'."

A sound ruptured the air filled by the quietness of people spell-bound by the proceedings. Mr. Fidley did not raise his fist from where he had slammed it on the table, baring his teeth at her. "Nonsense! There is no treaty like that around. This is a place of facts, not hearsay-..."

"Just because the treatise about handling Merrows in crisis situations is conveniently missing doesn't mean there aren't copies around," Hermione interrupted him just as angry, slapping down a folder on her table filled with the evidence. Don't hit him, she reminded herself, that is highly unprofessional. "And I made my copies long before you even thought about bringing this up in court. As soon as I heard there were plans made to build this thing, I did my research. Sadly, it seems one cannot expect this from everyone."

"All this from the girl who let a Death Eater run free." There were muffled gasps all around. Hermione froze in shock at the accusation, loosing her mental footing. "Who knows, maybe you falsified that treatise just so you could have the upper hand in this hearing until the original is found and sets things straight. I certainly think the conduct of someone who has made plans with the enemy bears further scrutiny, doesn't it?"

"My conduct?" Hermione gasped, ready to jump the sneering man with bare fists. How dare he? "What right do you have to question my professional image?"

"I have every right as a concerned citizen of this land that allows people like you to be called 'heroes' and 'saviours' when they are basically in bed with the enemy..."

Hermione grabbed the edge of her table in shock. They couldn't have... there is no way they... it couldn't be. They didn't know about Bella and her. There was no way.. Her fury froze, slipped down like a stone and rested in her belly in a blaze of ice-cold panic.

"Mr. Fidley!" the judge roared, slamming her gavel down and ripping the man out of his nearly frothing rant. "Your words are only leading to one thing, and that is making me question your conduct!"

"You cannot be on the side of this... this... traitor! She allowed a known criminal to walk free as if they were friends!"

They don't know. Oh goodness, they don't know, Hermione thought, the relief making her legs weak. It had her grasp the table more strongly to hold herself up and she hoped anyone watching her would put it down to anger and shock at being accused of this madness.

"And even if they were, it has no place in this hearing! There was a trial and a sentence, if you can't accept that, go and talk to someone who cares or order a revision! In the meanwhile, this case is closed, thanks to overwhelming evidence supplied by Miss Granger, it is obvious that this part of the coast is not open to human expansion until new evidence is presented or the Merpeople change their stance. Have a good day."

The gravel hit the wood once more and then there was shuffling all around as everyone gathered their material. Mr. Fidley growled, glaring with unabashed hate in her direction, then stalked out of the court room with his material roughly gathered under one arm. Hermione would have hurried after him to give him a piece of her mind in a screaming match, but the shock of his badly worded accusation still thrummed in her veins and made her light headed.

The win of the day did little to temper that. Numbly she gathered her notes and walked back to her desk to put her things neatly away on autopilot, while slowly shock morphed back into the liquid heat of rage and then into sour frustration. People gave her a wide berth. She was still feeling her heart thud hard and slow behind her ribcage.

Stress, her overactive mind supplied and was ignored.

It was bad today.

The full moon was causing something to howl underneath her skin and her blood ran hot. Putting that sorry excuse for a Ministry worker in his place didn't help either, made what she would have otherwise deemed a successful accomplishment into an almost catastrophe and something her mind could not stop circling around. And to top it off, she couldn't stop thinking about Bella either.

The first snow of the year, just a few flakes that would meld the moment they hit the ground, had fallen a few days before and Hermione was reminded of the times in Hogwarts. A Yule Tide ball that had ended in a near drunken stupor and a memory of how much she had craved a touch from glistening ruby lips. A mindless peck that threw the well-placed stack of cards that was her life into chaos. A New Year's Eve gone by; a glass of wine and a mouth of the same color; a kiss that had crawled so far into her bones and flesh that it had infected her whole system with red-hot desire.

It was impossible to not contrast the normalcy of their current day-to-day life with the agonized back-and-forth from so many months ago, when the very idea of desiring a former Death Eater had nearly split her apart.

But now... now she had something more than that. Bella was not just some unknown equation or entity anymore, no, she was as much part of her life and future as her friends or family. Bella was hers. And maybe they couldn't show it to the world, not yet, maybe not ever, but the thought of them having chosen each other had something hot bloom in her chest that constricted her ribs and made it hard to breathe. Like a rising urge to shout and throw your arms up and turn around and around until the whole universe blurred around you.

So when she walked quickly to the Floo network entrance, not looking left and right but steady forward like a woman with a mission, the thought of finding Bella, seeing her, touching her, beat in time with her heart and cranked louder with every step echoing on the stone floor.

Green flames passed in a blur, the now familiar stone walls of the mansion, a set of doors and, after deciding to look there on a whim, the threshold of the library doors. Here she stopped as if rooted. What her heart had hunted for was presented right before her hungry eyes.

Bella had just taken out a book from its resting place, leisurely strolling back to a spot with better light as she flipped aimlessly through the pages. Hair hung down in front of her eyes and Hermione would never understand how the other woman could deal with the black curls constantly blocking or at least restricting her vision as if she couldn't care less. But it was as much part of her looks as the dark dress, the corset, the boots.

Mine, it rumbled inside of her, pride and satisfaction warring for the first spot. Want followed a close second, quickly gaining traction.

A year ago, kissing this woman would have been reason to run as far to safety as her feet could carry. A year ago, the idea of anyone getting an inkling of her attraction would have waves of shame drowning her.

A year ago, she wouldn't have been allowed to touch, to claim. Now, Hermione knew with utmost conviction that the only one that could stop her with just a word likely wouldn't.

"Bella," Hermione breathed and stepped inside the library, feet carrying her to her lover as if dragged by a magnet, dropping her bag three steps in.

"Oh, you're back, darling. You know, reading these books was a lot more fun when I wasn't assaulted by mountains of useless paperwork every other..." Bellatrix trailed off when Hermione did not stop to listen, just picked the book from her hands, placed it gently on a random shelf without looking at it and spread her hands on Bella's hips. A sharp tug and the soft form, hardened only by the lines of her corset, fell against her, allowing her to easily reach half-open lips with her own.

Bella gave off a surprised grunt when Hermione started kissing her deeply without warning, but from the way she gripped her shoulders and opened her mouth further showed her approval of the situation.

"Mhh, someone's frisky," Bella supplied with heavy amusement coloring her tone once the kiss ended. "Not that you'll hear me complaining."

Hermione had nothing more than a pleased hum for her before she attacked again, dragging out the next kiss so long and so thoroughly that Bella gave off something between a groan and a moan before slipping a hand down her shirt. Nibbling the dark red, bruised lips before her, Hermione pushed the other woman backwards with her hips until a black-clad back hit the bookshelf.

"Feels like you... hmm... had a long day," Bellatrix muttered between kisses, stretching her neck when Hermione kissed a line down her jaw and neck.

It felt like there was no time for more than an affirmative sound as she sucked at the glorious skin presented to her, feeling Bella's voice vibrate up her throat. Talking meant stopping. Stopping meant becoming aware of what she was doing and bloody hell, coming back up to the surface was the last thing she wanted to do right now. Not when her lover was making these sounds.

"Hermione, close the door," was all that made it through her haze.

She grunted in answer to that. In a minute. Busy here. Hermione nibbled at the skin above Bella's pulse point. Her hands rubbed across caged ribs and the only thing she wanted to plan was how to get to them.

"Love, I don't want a repeat of last time."

It seemed Hermione had taken her sweet time turning the spot she was caressing a tad too roughly to purple, because the next thing she knew were two hands encasing her face and dragging it upward until sharp teeth caught her earlobe.

"Close the fucking door," Bella breathed into her ear at such a low register that a whimper crawled up the younger woman's throat.

Hermione, while Bella kept her mouth otherwise occupied, fumbled out her wand from her shirt, pretty thankful for once in her life that she was so dedicated to learning that she could magic the door closed and the room silenced, as her breath had better things to do than form functional words. Moaning was a good option. Bella bit at her lower lip and yes, yes, moaning seemed like a fantasticoption.

As her wand clattered to the ground, her hands had already found the other woman's hips again and how was there so much cloth here?! Corsets and laced up dresses were impossibly impractical for the kind of things Hermione had only vaguely planned out... wait a damn second.

No, rewind that. Dresses were highly practical for that.

Bellatrix was combing her hands through Hermione's shorter hair, fingernails catching sometimes more gently, sometimes more roughly at her scalp, but they were in as constant frantic motion as Hermione herself. Especially when Hermione licked and bit the skin above the cloth lining her cleavage, wondering once again about a time when this had been fantasy, not vivid reality. In cue of those musings she bit down harder, feeling the hair on her body raise up at Bella's breathy whimper. Mine.

Hermione's blood was both rushing and pounding in her ears, yet seemed thick, hot, like magma crawling through her veins, as if everything was trying to burn her up from the inside. The pulsing crawled all along her body and down between her legs when she reached down to hike up Bella's skirt in fistfuls.

Upstairs. They could get upstairs. A stairwell, a hallway, a room, a bed... but she had her lover right here, right now, and Bellatrix was throwing her head back with a groan when Hermione found the smooth flesh of her thigh and drifted her hand up and down the warm skin. No complaint from that direction then.

"I want you so much," Hermione admitted against Bella's pulse point, voice shockingly low. "I've always wanted you so much. I need you."

Bella's hand grasped the back of her dress suit in one hand, bunched the fabric, then slipped a cool hand below to greedily touch Hermione's back and spine up and down. Her leg, mostly freed from the confines of the skirt, slipped around Hermione's hip. "Do something about it then, my dearest." There was a challenge in those breathless words. "Let it out to play."

Hermione released the air against her lover's throat, vocal chords vibrating pleasantly and leaving goosebumps along the pale skin her breath washed across. Skin and blood and tendons, all reacting to her ministrations - so she dug her teeth in above and drove her fingers home below.

There was a stutter of breath, then a deep, wanton moan that had need inflame inside her, melting the ice she hadn't realized was still somewhere in the depth of her stomach. But now it was gone, turned to steam that pressed against her from inside and made her clothes feel much too warm and tight. Hermione wanted a repeat of that sound, so she replicated the movement, used her hand, her arm, her whole weight until Bellatrix's body was hitting the shelf and making the bookcase rattle every time with the force of her thrusts.

But she was well rewarded and the noises, the hands digging into her back and neck, it was worth every second of frustration she had accumulated over the hours, days, weeks. Everything washed away with Bella's voice reaching higher registers and the smell of her filling Hermione's nose until she felt as if every sense was wrapped completely with Bellatrix.

A book crashed down beside them, then another, almost hitting one of their shoulders. It had Hermione stutter in her rhythm and suddenly the nails below her hairline turned from erotic to painful.

"Don't stop," Bella hissed, moving her hips as if to remind Hermione what was more important and she resumed her mission to make her lover shudder from the sensations until she couldn't stand upright anymore.

"Harder," was the next command and really, the bookcase was already rocking, and a little pain with pleasure was all fine and dandy, but if one of the old tomes really caught them on the head...

Hermione leaned back to voice her concerns and caught a glimpse of her lover's face.

Bellatrix, lips drawn back slightly and breathing harshly, had her head thrown back, her eyes open but half-lidded, a sweaty curl sticking to her cheek and lips. A picture of beauty, of pure passion, of spontaneous, unabashed sex realized in motion... but her pupils were pitch black and suddenly Hermione was thrown out of the situation against her own will and back into a past where the taste of wine and an unfamiliar mouth had clung to her tongue and a passionate encounter had ended in tears and pain.

Why it didn't cause her to falter and stop completely she would never know, but suddenly the harsh hands clinging to her turned gentle, one reaching further up to run once more softly, desperately, through her hair in a knee-weakening carress.

"Please," Bellatrix panted against her lips after dragging her head closer, eyes gentle and demanding at the same time, "I need you, too. Right now." And no, that wasn't the same depth of darkness that had been there once before, this was Bellatrix's darker parts unleashed but not untamed, and really, it was her own fault for starting this.

Hermione had known she would not get into bed with a kitten, but with a panther of fully grown proportions and just as wild and rough. That was what Bellatrix had meant when she had promised sweat and blood and more. It was the danger, the crudity, the harshness that were part of the package deal and didn't Hermione love that as well about her?

Hermione almost laughed out loud. It was just like her to have the worry about a stupid book to the head nearly keep her from unleashing all the animal parts that fused them together just as much as their gentleness and love did. Maybe it was time to accept that roughness really was her thing too once in a while, wolf or no wolf.

"Hang on then," Hermione answered and grinned wildly.

Bellatrix's smile was pure teeth as she threw her head back and laughed, while Hermione resumed twice as energetic, driving against and into her lover with an energy that would surely leave bruises and added cries of ecstasy to the delight.

When Bellatrix came with a howl and a clatter of books around them, it was a catharsis for them both.

"Who would have guessed..." the other woman chuckled into her sweat-covered neck after a moment of catching her breath.

"Didn't know I had it in me," Hermione admitted, nosing the dark hair beside her. Her blood rushed pleasantly all through her. Through a stroke of luck, they hadn't been hit by any of the missiles from above.

"Hmm, I did." Teeth nipped at her neck then. "It just needed a little... push."

Hermione simply exhaled in reply, happy with just sticking close to the woman she loved deeply and endlessly, but was surprised when she was suddenly shoved back. "Uh... did I do anything wrong?"

"Oh, to the contrary, my dear... you did everything right," Bellatrix purred, her outstretched arms still pushing against her shoulders and leading her until it was her back that hit the opposite bookcase. "I believe you deserve a reward for that."

The part of Hermione that still wasn't used to all of this blushed deeply, but she couldn't help the smile that slowly stretched on her lips. God, she was excited. "I do?"


And with that word the fly on her skirt was swiftly opened and then the whole thing was dragged to the ground. Hermione could feel the hair on her body start to rise, hunger making her mouth dry.

"And what do you have in mind?" she asked, shocked at her own breathlessness. But Bellatrix, appearance still thoroughly screaming freshly ravished, looked so good in the way she glanced up wickedly from below her lashes.

"How about we start with you stopping your talking," Bellatrix replied with dry humor and covered her lips in a sensual kiss, then inched her way down her jaw, straight to her neck.

"Good luck with that," Hermione couldn't help but quip, then yelped at the harsh reply worked into her skin. That one would certainly leave a mark, but skilled fingers already had her forget the repercussions.

Bellatrix, in what could only be called controlled frenzy, marked her way down and down, of course ripping open her blouse but not removing it or the rest of the dress suit from her torso in her way to her goal. Hermione wondered if someone this young could get a heart attack from how hard her pulse was running - have to look that up - when she watched the woman kneeling at her feet and oh, she had not expected that image to be so arousing.

"I'd hold on, too, if I were you," Bellatrix mentioned offhandedly and a part of Hermione knew it was smart advice, but she was distracted by greedily taking in everything her lover did as two talented hands worked on her underwear and-

"Shit," Hermione shouted out, grabbing the back of Bellatrix's head lighting fast, nearly loosing her footing in shock.

There was a dark chuckle somewhere between her legs and who would have thought that the vibrations traveled so well. Wicked tongue indeed. Actually, all of Bella's mouth was a work of artistry and Hermione had no point of reference, but she was sure something was going very right if she was clutching Bella's shoulder and the wood behind her back in a death grip.

She was distinctly aware of moving, of trying to get more friction, more pressure, more anything for who knew how long, that she was not in full control of what came out of her mouth and was that whining? At this point there was no care for anything except slinging her thigh on Bella's other shoulder and getting closer, closer, closer and everything was so warm and intense and the hard edge of the shelf was a relief in contrast to the soft furnace below and suddenly, teeth, there was a white hot explosion behind her closed eyelids and in her rigid, shivering muscles.

And as the fire washed away, it left behind cool, sweet exhaustion that had her legs shake with the effort of holding her up. She could feel her pulse thunder in every part of her, right down to her very fingertips. Her mind was blissfully blank. She was pretty sure her nails had pierced skin at some point, or come very close.

"God," was all she could say, trying to keep upright. "God."

"Sometimes you make the jokes so easy," Bellatrix commented, standing up and grinning wolfishly. Hermione nearly came again when she realized what was shining on her lover's lips and gulped hard, trying to wet her sandpaper throat.

"If Narcissa finds out about this, she'll kill us both." Hermione's exhausted words were muttered without a care in the world. "Very slowly. Probably in some way involving a bookcase."

"Well, I'm not going to talk," Bellatrix said as if it was an absurd notion and dragged Hermione forward by her ruined blouse to kiss her senseless once more.

It took them quite a while to clean up the mess.

With blissful distraction, the weekend arrived quickly.

"Why are you so nervous?" Bellatrix muttered, sparing a glance in her direction as they walked.

"I'm not nervous. I'm excited." At the dead-pan look thrown her way, Hermione acquiesced. "Fine. I'm a little nervous... I haven't seen her since, you know, and only talked to her through letter. And now she's coming here, to Malfoy Manor itself, to visit us."

"You mean, to visit you."

"No, us," Hermione stressed, hand trailing to Bellatrix's wrist and squeezing it once. "If she had wanted to only meet me, we could have gone to the city or something. She wanted to meet the two of us together. And this way I can prove to at least one person in this world that you've changed."

Bellatrix glanced at her again, brow furrowed with almost a scoff, but eyes thoughtful. The only acknowledgment she made of the words were a non-telling "Hm," not pursuing the topic any further.

It had Hermione wonder. What rung on the ladder that was Bellatrix's interest in people did Ginny stand on? There were few rungs, probably only those diverted to those she loved (Hermione, her sisters and her nephew), those very few she was indifferent to and lastly those that were utterly beneath her interest and pretty much in the disgust and loathing corner at the bottom. With luck Ginny would create a nebulous fourth rung between the former two. The musings gave way to another sad realization. Bellatrix had no friends to speak of, none that could honestly be called that way.

Slipping her hand down into her lover's, she vowed to try her best to make Bellatrix and Ginny warm up to each other, so there would be more people in the corner belonging to both of them.

She walked faster and dragged Bellatrix along, heading to the grand room that housed the fireplace their guest would be arriving in.

"What about you?"

"What 'about' me?" Bellatrix asked, bemused.

"Are you excited?"

The other woman gave her a queer look. "Why would I be excited? She's your friend. She's a Weasley."

Hermione rolled her eyes and sidled closer. "Oh come on, I know you better than that by now."

A sigh. "Fine. She's the Weasley I dislike the least, happy now? Doesn't mean I'm excited for a visit."

Pressing a kiss to Bellatrix's cheek, Hermione smiled brightly. "That's enough for me. I'm sure you'll come around sooner or later, no one can resist Ginny's charm for long. And I have a feeling the two of you will get along great."

"Watch me," Bellatrix muttered under her breath, but Hermione just bumped her hip and let it go for the moment. No need to goad her into actively trying to antagonize the redhead just to prove a point.

It took a few more minutes until the fire in the hearth turned bright green and for a telltale shadow to manifest itself after another moment. Ginny stumbled into the open, cursed slightly and then got herself back upright as she spotted them.

"Hey there! Long time no see!"

Hermione rushed over to her best friend with a large grin, both nearly bowling the other over with the hug they exchanged. It was an expression of I haven't seen you for so long, a you're my best friend and I missed you as well as a thank you for everything all wrapped in one. "I can't believe you're actually here!"

"Neither can I. If you had told me half a year ago I would willingly go to Malfoy Manor and enjoy the idea, I would have kicked them in the shin." Ginny gave a laugh, then chanced a glance over her friend's shoulder and spotted Bellatrix waiting with folded arms and little interest. "Heya, Black."

Bellatrix merely scowled and moved to another spot.

"So," Ginny mused out loud, giving her surroundings a critical once over. "I must admit, I never suspected I'd ever set foot in here as a guest. I was thinking more about chains and handcuffs and such."

"That can still be arranged," Bella drawled from her spot beside the fireplace.

"Uhm, no, but thank you, no. I think that's more your kind of thing." Ginny blinked and lowered her eyes and voice at Hermione. "I am not envying you at all sometimes."

Unable to help a snort, Hermione only shook her head. "You two are the worst. Come on, let me give you the tour... and yes, before you ask, Narcissa gave me her permission."

"Uhhh, you're on first name basis with all of the Malfoys? What are you trying to do, start a harem?"

While Hermione rolled her eyes, a tsk-ing Bellatrix strolled over to stand beside her. "Watch your tone, Weasel, this is my family and my girlfriend you're talking about."

"Weasel? I'm gutted, I thought we were past cliche insults like that," Ginny shot back with a face that was more gleeful than anything else, yet there was a carefully hidden wariness behind the jovial demeanor that only Hermione's year-long experience with the Weasleys allowed her to spot. It made sense to not come fully unprepared, despite how much of a twinge of pain it gave her to see it. "Anything new in your repertoire, grumpy?"

"You're not really worth any creative effort, ginger," was the retort that sounded a lot less biting than it could have been. While Hermione bit back a smile, Ginny barked out a laugh, shoulders relaxing.

"That's what I'm talking about. Come on, Miss Dark and Mighty, please lead the way inside your ridiculously fancy house."

This will either go off without a hitch or end in a disaster, Hermione mused as she allowed Ginny to hook her arm into her own while they followed a grudging Bellatrix out of the entry hall.

"...and their Keeper was the worst, I mean, really? What did he think he was, the Chaser of the team? He kept flying away from the goals to help score and only ended up not being able to properly guard his goals when we found out his shtick and kept luring him away from his spot and Merlin can you believe the size of this hall? And this is just the dining room? You could pack our house in here and have size to spare for a... well, I don't know what would fit in there, but I'm pretty sure I would fit in one of these tables, I mean, look at this, is this real mahogany? Remember the tables in Hogwarts? I mean, consider the state of them and look at this, I actually doubt that anyone has ever eaten at this table, who would allow a drop of tea to even come close to this thing..."

Hermione was happy to just hear her friend talking about anything and everything, but to her left there was a low groan that cut through the constant chatter.

"If I hear one more minute of that, I will be begging to get Cruciated. I'm going to check if the tea room is empty and catch some air not contaminated by Weasley breath."

The two best friends rolled their eyes at the Bellatrix's catty comment, not even watching her get up and move away.

"And the fields outside! Do you know how many perfect Quidditch games you could play out there? Pretty sure the Malfoys have the money to even build their own stadium out there, if not two-... girl, are you aware you have the most giant hickey on your neck?" Ginny sequined smoothly from excited babbling about Quidditch into low-voiced girl talk mode the very second Bellatrix's sauntering form had vanished out of the doorway, staring intently at Hermione in a way that was pretty unnerving.

Hermione meanwhile slapped a hand above the collar of her sweater and blushed hard enough that her skin burned like an oven. How had she missed that one? Oh. Yeah. Distracted and all. That woman was the death of her. "I... well. I forgot."

"So I believe that tells me things are going well between you two." Smiling and propping her head on her closed fist, Ginny slumped across the large table between them. "Spill."

"Uhm. So. What... do you want to know then?"

"Did you already... you know?" A very meaningful eyebrow wiggle was accompanied by Hermione hissing Ginny's name in a way that chased the redness out of her cheeks. "What? I expected you to be more flustered than outraged at that, so I guess I can mark that one off my list." There was a quick flash of a grin, that just as soon turned more serious. "But really now - how is it going?"

Hermione rubbed her elbow and smiled, a light shrug in her shoulders. "It is... going well actually. At least between us. There are days where it is one step forward, two steps back, but she's trying very hard to make progress for us both and for herself. She keeps trying and that is what counts."

"So no more, uhm, psychotic outbreaks?"

She found herself swallowing anger at that comment, but reminded herself Ginny doesn't mean it in a bad way. She was concerned and not truly wrong. "Bella has been stable so far. There are a lot of demons and I doubt they will ever fully go away, but... step by step."

Stretching both her arms across the table, Ginny furrowed her brows as she played with the fancy inlay. "I'm not trying to butt in or anything, but have you ever thought about talking to a Soul Healer?"

"It's too soon," Hermione replied quickly, then realized how it came across. "It crossed my mind, believe me, but Bella does not trust easily. And finding one that can deal with her special sort of, ah, complications... I'm pretty sure that someone pocking around in her head now, magical or not, would have more chances of setting her off than helping her."

"I'm sure you know what's best at this point." There was no hint of sarcasm or doubt, Ginny meant it, her best friend's eyes shining with trust. "I mean, look at how far you've come. Harry always comes home bewildered when he has to escort and watch her."

Hope flickered inside her stomach. "It's working well then?"

"It's the most curious thing. He rants about it every time, but actually it's not bad at all. If and when they talk, they seem to bicker like cats and dogs, but as long as he keeps Bellatrix away from other people, the day goes over so smoothly it's almost too boring. And she only threatened to Fiendfyre the whole paperwork thrice." They shared a grin at that. "Some days he thinks he's an overly glorified babysitter, but he knows what she's capable of. And honestly? I think he likes the quiet days... Auror work isn't the easiest, you know."

Hermione reached out and squeezed her friend's hand with a wry smile and they shared a look of quiet understanding and worry for their friends and loved ones.

"But it seems there is unrest in the Ministry concerning Bellatrix..." Ginny added after a moment, glancing quickly toward the doorway in case the woman in question was returning. "It was made public internally that Harry is her caretaker now, but... some have seen her. It's one thing thing to read it and see for your own that 'Voldemort's famous second' is working in the belly of their workplace." Ginny even added sarcastic air-quotes to Bellatrix's former title, showing Hermione that she at least believed that it was a thing of the past.

"That explains a lot." Hermione groaned and rubbed her brow. "Fidley thought he could get a rise out of me by mentioning her today. His mistake. I was caught on the wrong foot, but by that time I already had him. And it didn't make the judge very happy that he tried the blaming route... ugh, that man makes me so angry."

"And an angry Hermione is a dangerous Hermione, got that from years of experience."

Raising her brow at her best friend had Ginny laughing delightedly, causing her to break into a smile as well.

"What is it with all the hilarity?" The bored voice ripped them from their moment and Hermione perked up.

"We just reminisced about the fact that Hermione can be a firecracker when she wants to be," Ginny piped up before Hermione could open her mouth, grimacing instead.

The dangerous smile that spread across Bella's lips nearly caused her to groan with embarrassment. "Hmmm. Indeed," was all she purred, but the implications swung along.

"Ack, none of that, I want to stay innocent for a bit longer when it comes to my best friend's shenanigans in the bedroom!"

"The bedroom, the bathroom, the library, take your pick," Bellatrix sing-songed.

Hermione buried her face in her hands while Ginny nearly shrieked with glee.

"The library? You? Honestly?! Oh my gosh, Hermione, you didn't!"

"I don't want to talk about this any longer," she mumbled into her palms, cheeks burning. "Can we please forget this talk ever happened?"

"Say that to the scratches on my back, kitten," Bellatrix prompted and pressed a delighted kiss to the top of her head, while her hand played with the hair at the nape of Hermione's neck.

Hermione was pretty sure one could die from the amount of blood that rushed to her face, while Ginny howled with laughter and disbelief for nearly half an hour, once nearly spitting out her tea when she remembered the look on her best friend's face in the middle of drinking it.

Tea time between the three of them though went over surprisingly smooth. Ginny and Bellatrix fell into a light ribbing and bickering every dozen minutes or so, but there were no more low blows coming forth like in old times, where insults had been used to smart and wound. There were not too many topics and interests the two had in common, but they had a similar streak of humor and despite a certain dislike kept up for propriety's sake, both got along surprisingly well.

"How can you not like Quidditch? That has to be some kind of crime in the Wizarding World!"

"Several people on brooms uselessly and chaotically flying around, some catching balls, some throwing them through hoops. Delightful. The only vaguely interesting part is when someone gets hurt by a Bludger. Even though the death rate is tragically low."

"Way to be creepy, Bellatrix," Ginny gave back at the nasty grin the other woman was sporting. "I'm not going to invite you to any of my games if all you do is cheer for the other team to hit me off my broom!"

"Oh, how will I survive," Bellatrix muttered with an eye-roll.

"Well, I'd be delighted to watch your game. We can cheer for you!" Hermione punctuated that sentence with a slight glower at Bellatrix, who just looked disinterestedly at the tips of her fingers.

"Thanks, Hermione, you're the best." Ginny glanced over at the older woman and got a thoughtful look on her face, even going so far as rubbing her chin.

"Why are you looking at me like that, Weasel girl?"

"Would you come if I told you you'd be allowed to scream curses and insults at the other team as much as you wanted?"

"Ginny! Really?"

"It's called tactics, Hermione, don't look at me like that! You can't say they won't be disheartened if she is hollering at them from the sidelines!" she argued back, indicating all of Bellatrix.

Bellatrix paused her examination and lowered her eyes at the redhead. There was a long pause. "Fine. But only if we get VIP seats."


"Merlin, you two are a hazard," Hermione groaned, sinking back in her seat and rubbing her temple.

"Oops," was Ginny's only comment, eyes wide and faux-innocent. "See it this way, we all get what we want out of this!"

Hermione smirked. "Can't remember ever asking for a headache."

"Low blow, my friend, low blow. It's moments like this where I can see why you two seem to fit so well."

"That is the first sensible comment to come out of your mouth this day," Bellatrix remarked, clearly amused, her head supported by her fist.

"Thank you for the vote of confidence." Ginny rolled her eyes and pushed herself out of the love seat. "That was one comment too much. I'm leaving." At the shocked look on her friends' faces - Hermione's being more actual shock while Bella's was more of an Really? That's the one that got to you? - she smirked. "Nah, just kidding. But I do actually really have to leave, there is a freshly cooked meal waiting for me at home, courtesy of the boyfriend."

"You're right, it's been hours already!" Hermione smiled, liking how her stomach still hurt slightly from all the laughter that day and how her lips could not help but turn up whenever she remembered that Bellatrix had actually forgotten to be disgusted by having the youngest of the Weasleys in her home. "Thank you, Ginny, for coming here. It was wonderful."

"We totally need to do this again. Send me an owl?"

"How about a howler?"



"I'd actually prefer the owl," Ginny commented, winking. "Less chance of sending the Aurors of the house into a false alarm."

"Definitely the howler then," Bellatrix decided, unbelievable smug.

"You deal with a frantic Harry then the next time he gets you," Ginny warned, but it was clear she was as amused by the idea as Bella was and really, what had she gotten herself into by trying to build a friendship between the two?

"Now come on, let's get you ready for returning home before Harry bursts a blood vessel or something." Shooing Ginny along in front of her, Hermione dragged the whole crew out the doorway and down the long hallways back to the starting point. By the time they arrived, the fire was already burning green, courtesy of the house elves - not that their guest was aware of that.

"Rats, it's already open!" Ginny shouted out and did a running start, only to slip on her third step. Hermione gave a shout of alarm as she watched her friend drop, already hurrying forward to help her up and inspect her for damage while Bellatrix was cackling in the background.

"Ginny, oh boy, are you okay?!"

"Merlin, what did you do with those stones, rub them with wax? Slippery, little... It's fine, I'm fine, did you actually booby-trap this whole thing, Black?" Ginny groused as Hermione dragged her back to her feet.

"My, very astute, we actually do wax the floor," Bella drawled from the back. "If you fly as good as you run I'm not sure if I see a great future for your Quidditch career."

"Yes, yes, just wait until you actually see it." After a quick check of all body parts proved her to be undamaged, Ginny placed her hands on her hips. "Nothing happened, just some hurt pride. Actually, a lot of hurt pride. That one is never going to let me live this down, is she?"

"Oh, I am pretty sure you have the down part... well, down."

Ginny let out a groan and turned towards the green flames, still in a hurry but now with more careful steps. "Really, that one was bad, even for you!" she threw over her shoulder, then grinned widely and waved at everyone. "I would say I'm down and out then, see you all!" With those words she took a step back and vanished into the flames, only to be completely gone barely a moment later.

"It seems I've created not one but two monsters," Hermione mused out loud with a sigh. As the colors of the flames slowly changed back to their normal hue, she watched a bit wistfully, wondering if there was ever a day when they could all have this easy camaraderie outside of the walls of Malfoy Manor. But this had been a good and rewarding experience, there was little to gain in jumping right back into brooding.

"It seems so," Bellatrix agreed and laid an arm around Hermione's shoulders to draw her back against her body. They stood for this for a short while, quiet and reveling in the other person's warmth, until Bellatrix cleared her throat lightly.

"I suppose today wasn't too much of a bother."

Hermione turned and kissed her girlfriend with the brightest of smiles on her face, aware that this unprompted admission was a reflection of how well the whole visit had actually gone.

It was a relaxed Sunday morning when Hermione rolled herself out of bed, as always far sooner awake, or better yet active, than her girlfriend. That one merely murmured something into the pillow and turned around, tugging herself deeper into the sheets.

Hermione watched it with amusement, but then got herself ready and walked down the stairs to have her breakfast in one of the 'recreational rooms' instead of their own. By now, Bella's room had basically become their room and it had questions and musings gnaw at the edge of her conscience that she pushed down ruthlessly. Those were for another day and not a lazy morning before her first bite of food.

For once her absence functioned like a tether and barely half an hour later quiet footsteps made their way through the doorway to find a reading Hermione sprawled across a love seat.

Hermione glanced up, smiled and said a wordless 'Good morning' with happiness shining in her eyes. Bellatrix looked much softer clad in only her morning robe and lacking her boots, but it was only an appearance, like a stone wrapped in a thin growth of moss and flowers that suggested fragility. Mercy on whoever believed they would not find strength beneath the surface.

While the half-awake newcomer curled up on the couch and picked on her morning meal that magically appeared on the table, they both let their minds drift, silently, enjoying a morning without anything to do but whatever pleased them.

A quiet plop announced a third arrival.

"Mistress, a letter for you," a house elf said, holding up the object high above his head so Bellatrix could reach it comfortably.

"A letter? For me?" Bellatrix snatched up the letter with a wary gesture, then, at Hermione's pointed look, muttered a pointed 'Thank you' in the deliverer's direction. The house elf popped away with an elfin smile.

"Who sent it?"

"Hold your horses, darling, this might be a trap." Producing her wand from the folds of her robe, Bellatrix muttered incantations and spells across the plain paper. After a minute she stopped, dissatisfied.

Hermione closed her book and laid it on her table, all of her attention on the letter. "So?"

"Nothing. Just plain paper. It's almost too boring to be true."

That got a laugh from Hermione. "Really? You would have preferred someone to hex it instead of being nice and saying Hello?"

"Considering that the amount of people that don't want me dead can be counted on two hands and mostly live in this house, yes, a plain letter does have the tendency to make me suspicious, not to say uncomfortable."

"That is... sadly true," Hermione had to admit with a grimace. "Will you open it?"

Bellatrix sighed, then slipped a nail under the flap. "I see no reason why I shouldn't."

While the younger woman watched she could see the emotions play on Bellatrix's face. First there was detached boredom, then the beginning of a frown that morphed into plain disbelief and a hint of... was that longing? She could see dark eyes flick to the beginning and read the letter again, and again, the paper crinkling slightly between long fingers until she only stared at it. "Bella? Is everything..."

"It's... it's from Andromeda."

Hermione gaped. The middle Black sister had not tried to contact her since that faithful day when a letter just like this had found its way into her hand. It seemed to be Andromeda's calling card, sending surprising news or information with the post as if it wasn't the least thing you would expect on a normal day in this time and age. "Will... you tell me what she wrote you?"

Slowly lowering her arms and blinking her confusion away, Bellatrix found her gaze and yet was miles away. In a different place and a different time. "She apologized for not trying to contact me sooner. She wants to talk, so she... invited me. Over. To her house. For tea."

What a foreign concept. Bellatrix Black, invited by a normal person through simple letter for a drink and talk.

The biggest surprise had yet to come though.

Bellatrix glanced down at the writing as if it was out to get her and she couldn't understand why.

"And she... wants me to meet my nephew Teddy."


That was one way to start the day.

Things this chapter taught me:
- bone-melting doesn't sound as sexy when you read across it for the third time
- Writing (not 100% explicit) sex scenes: no problem if the muse is in the mood. Writing court stuff: a bit more trouble, some aimless research, then 'aaah, it's a mage court, I'll wing it' mode. Writing three woman in the room at once: OH MY GOD WHY DID I DO THIS I HATE THIS I HATE WRITING I HATE EVERYTHING
- I really dig Merpeople
- Ginny falling is, in no way, related to any real-life experiences by the author. Absolutely not. Totally, completely made up. (Again: you're welcome. You know who you are!)

That's it for today, folks!