Disclaimer: J. K. Rowling is our queen, undisputedly. I'm just a petty thief who enjoys tinkering around in another's world.

Rating: M/NC-17. Graphic femslash in future chapters. Shhhh. Just go along with me and pretend it's permissible on this site. I'm hardly the only one.

Warnings: Sex. Violence. Quite possibly some of both together; I mean, we are talking about Bellatrix Lestrange, here.

Pairing(s): Hermione/Bellatrix, Hermione/Narcissa, Hermione/Andromeda.

Bright and early the following morning, Hermione stood in a mix of nerves and determination outside an ivy-bound wrought-iron gate, the only break in the massive stone wall hiding Black Manor from the surrounding countryside. In one hand, she clutched the small tea-spoon Portkey which Andromeda had charmed for her the previous afternoon. In the other she held a single battered suitcase containing what amounted to her entire life in Diagon. She had told her mum an edited version of the truth – she had a new job, a better paying job, housekeeping for a wealthy family, a private sort of family, and that she would visit when she could. The only response was a pat on the cheek and a whispered, "I'm so proud of you, dear."

The gates swung wide, untouched, as though an unseen hand drew them apart and beckoned her forward. Swallowing against a suddenly dry mouth, she hoisted her case above the pea-gravel drive and took the first cautious steps onto the property.

The drive sloped in a gentle upward curve, flanked on either side by lawns and gardens clearly long gone to seed. The ivy had reached its vines down the walls and into the grass, winding around unidentifiable topiary and crumbling stone benches. A single ancient oak—warped and bent until it grew sideways along the ground—was hung with heavy moss and surrounded by a multitude of its saplings, fighting for sunlight in its all-encompassing shadow. A few shocking splashes of red, pink, orange, and yellow showed where flowers were still fighting the thigh-high grasses and wild oats. On the other side of the drive, what may have once been a glassy pond had been overtaken by cattails and water lilies, fully abloom with beautiful flowers, but each flower forced to grow beyond the water to escape the spread of lily pads.

Entranced by her wild surroundings, Hermione had not heard Andromeda's approach.

"There were birds, before," she spoke, startling Hermione enough to whirl around. "Easy there, it's only me," the witch said with a wry smile.

"Oh! Hello, sorry, I was just, um… looking around."

"I saw," Andromeda replied, her smile widening for a moment, then fading as she continued to speak. "No one cares for the grounds anymore. The gardens belonged to my grandmother… My parents had no care for tending to the landscaping. Even so, we had a gardener for the longest time. When I was eleven, he disappeared. In the next few days, so did all the birds. I haven't seen so much as a swallow fly over those walls since."

Hermione took notice of the odd silence in the area. She felt a chill race up her spine—it was eerie, how quiet the space was. There should be small creatures scurrying in the undergrowth, bullfrogs croaking out a dissonant chorus in the swampy pond, and certainly birdsong amidst the trees and brush. But the only sounds seemed to be a muffled breeze and her own heartbeat, until Andromeda broke the silence once more.

"But enough of that. What sort of welcome am I giving? Hello! Welcome to my not-exactly-humble abode." She snapped her fingers, cueing a pop of displaced air and the appearance of an elderly house-elf. "Atcham, see to it that Miss Granger's bag is placed in her room. I expect everything to be in order by the time we've walked up."

Without a word, the elf was gone again, taking Hermione's things with him.

"Come along; I thought I'd give you the runabout of the place before midday," Andromeda continued with a smile.

"I… Thank you; that would be lovely." Hermione prided herself on forming a sentence with minimal stammering. She was still feeling quite overwhelmed by all of this.

As they fell into step, Andromeda gave her a brief overview of the Manor grounds. "There's nothing of importance out this way, in front of the house. Off to the side there, I'm not sure if you can see it… That's the old stables; empty, now; I haven't ridden since I was a little girl. Farther around the back there's a tool shed with a back room where the gardener lived, as well as the quarters where the house elves stay."

Hermione blinked at the complete indifference with which Andromeda spoke about servants not living in the Manor. Here, in her ancestral home, the older witched seemed even more… daunting, more aristocratic. She also looked more put-together, dressed in the same sort of tailored robes, though a gleaming emerald tone today— it was her hair that made the difference. Where it had seemed unkempt and lackluster the day before, today the sleek curls gleamed with health, the sun-kissed brown holding distinct highlights of auburn and bronze in the morning light. Her eyes still looked tired, though, the dark circles beneath them standing out painfully against her fair skin. It was only when she glanced up slightly further that Hermione found Andromeda's eyes locked into hers, sparkling with amusement and quite aware of the scrutiny she had been under.

Hermione blushed furiously and looked down as Andromeda chuckled. "Is there something on my face?"

Hermione's blush deepened, if at all possible. "N-no! I mean, sorry, I didn't… I didn't mean to stare. It's just…" She trailed off before she could dig herself in any deeper.

"I look like I've not slept in weeks, is that it?" the other woman prompted. Hermione raised her eyes once more. "Don't worry, I'm quite aware. Sleep has been in short supply while getting settled here, but hopefully that should change in the next week. Especially if I have someone else doing the cooking," she added with a wry smile. "Raising Nymphadora may have taught me how to prepare instant dinners, but Cissy won't touch anything that's been made by just flicking a wand."

In another step, they arrived at the stairs leading up to the Manor doorway. While Andromeda continued up, Hermione stood for a moment in the shadow of the imposing building, taking in the stonework that made its base, clearly visible where the hill sloped downwards. The stone melded to dark-hued wood. It seemed as though the house had been cut from some immense tree, for there were no lines to mark places where boards should have come together. Dark iron latticework covered the windows and trimmed the angles of the house. The steps she stood upon were hewn from an effervescent marble; dark greys swirled through with a brown so odd in shade it could have seemed crimson in another light. This gave the house the overall effect of being some large creature, with hair of iron, flesh of wood, and marble veins to give it life. Hermione shuddered.

Andromeda had realized by then that Hermione was still at the base of the steps, and she watched as the aura of the house had its effect on the younger witch. She strode back down and placed a gentle hand upon Hermione's shoulder. "Take a moment, breathe. It is better once you are inside."

Hermione looked up, a question clear in her gaze.

"I've always felt it, too, out here. It's so… oppressive. Another reason I would hardly have chosen to live here. But I promise I've had enough time to leave my mark indoors, despite my sister's protests." She smiled. "I prefer a… kinder atmosphere."

Andromeda's hand slid down Hermione's shoulder to rest in the small of her back. It could have seemed an invasive touch, but Hermione only felt warmth, and a sense of comfort from the familiar gesture. With the faintest of pressure, Andromeda steered Hermione up the steps. As the top, she brought her free hand forward to settle neatly against the crack between the two large doors. A spark shot from each of her fingertips and skittered along the door in a display of light that formed some picture Hermione's vision could not quite grasp, and with the sigh of old entrances, the doors parted.

The atrium was cavernous; dim and windowless, yet what light there was seemed gentle, even warm; suffusing the air itself. The light was an almost physical presence, so it was a bit of a shock when an actual presence spoke from outside the light's reach.

"So this is your idea of hired help, Andromeda?"

Hermione's eyes landed upon the figure of a woman at the far end of the hall, where her face was so fully enclosed in shadows that Hermione could not make out any features. Still, the voice was similar enough to Andromeda's that she could immediately identify Narcissa Malfoy, despite the absolute lack of the warmth that was always present in her sister's voice. This voice was utterly cold, derisive, somehow scathing without even any true emotional inflection.

Narcissa stepped into the light and began a progression towards Hermione and Andromeda. An instinctual reaction to the poise, grace, and power with which the Lady Malfoy carried herself made Hermione bow her head in deference before she could even get a good look at her. Eyes to the ground, Hermione could see a pair of sophisticated black heels stop just before her. A single elegantly manicured hand rose into Hermione's range of vision, holding a sleek ebony wand. Almost going cross-eyed to keep the pale fingers within her sight, she shuddered as the tip of the wand pressed beneath her chin. The pressure increased until she raised her eyes to meet the glacial blue of those before her.

Looking up into this face, Hermione was struck by the paradox of similarities and differences between this woman and her sister. Both had the same patrician beauty; the same curve graced their lips, the same high cheekbones and flawlessly-straight noses highlighted the eyes, the same pale skin stood out so starkly against the dark circles of fatigue. Yet beyond this, Narcissa was different. Her hair was so fair as to be almost white, but her eyelashes were dark and full, drawing the gaze directly into eyes resembling some arctic landscape in their utter coldness and icy blue intensity. The other clear divide between the two sisters lay in their actions. Narcissa's dehumanizing motion of touching her only with the tip of her wand immediately reminded Hermione of Andromeda's gentle touch in the elevator as she had raised Hermione's chin in much the same manner. While Andromeda's motion had been one of gentle insistence and compassion, Narcissa's was a calculated maneuver of distain and contempt.

"Really, Andromeda? A child? What use have we for a girl here. She can hardly be out of school."

Hermione felt exposed, vulnerable, scared, embarrassed… All from only a few words spoken by this haughty witch, and words not even directed at her! She wanted to turn away, run away, but Narcissa's wand and steely gaze held her firmly in place.

Andromeda stepped up to Hermione and pushed Narcissa's wand aside with two fingers. "Now, now, Cissy, be nice. This is Hermione Granger, I quite like her, and I absolutely forbid you from scaring her off."

Hermione was looking at the floor again, but she managed a smooth curtsy and a hesitant, "P-Pleased to make your acquaintance, Lady Malfoy."

Narcissa sniffed dismissively, but her words were less harsh. "Hmmm. Well I suppose something can be said for a servant that knows her place. At least her manners are better than yours, sister."

The heels stepped to the side and Hermione allowed herself to straighten fully and look around once more. Narcissa was moving off towards the far door, but she called over her shoulder, "You know, Bella will eat her alive when she finds out your… guest… is so easily frightened."

Hermione felt indignant, but Narcissa's words still drew a shudder from her.

"And that is why, Cissa darling, I do not intend for the two of them to make any sort of acquaintance," Andromeda said. "But I'm sure we appreciate your concern."

A cold laugh echoed from Narcissa's end of the room. "Andromeda. Really. Don't be so naïve. You know as well as I that Bellatrix perceives absolutely everything that goes on between these walls."

With that, the second Black sister was gone, and the room felt distinctly warmer to Hermione.

Andromeda sighed. "Pardon my sister. She… doesn't take well to strangers."

Hermione shook her head. "That's quite alright."

Andromeda gave a single sharp laugh. "No, it really isn't, but seeing as her… attitude… is unlikely to change, I suppose you have the right idea. Cissa can be… distant, even cold, but she isn't cruel. She's led a different life than the both of us."

"You don't need to tell me any of this, ma'am," Hermione started, feeling somewhat uncomfortable being told private things about their family.

"What did I tell you about calling me Andromeda? And no, Hermione, I do need to tell you this. I want you to be comfortable here, so you need to know what you are going to be caught in the middle of. Whatever things Narcissa might say to you, she honestly means no harm. She is not like my other sister, who might speak to you with a smile in her eyes as she rips you to pieces. That is why I'm going to ask that you stay off of the third floor, at least for a few weeks, until I can… give Bella a chance to adjust to another presence in this house."

"So… I don't have to do the housekeeping there?" Hermione asked, not wanting to sound too eager to get out of work despite her relief at Andromeda's words.

Andromeda shook her head. "Not anytime in the near future," she replied, voice flat and commanding.

Even seeing only the first two floors, the mansion was immense enough for Hermione to feel dreadfully lost and overwhelmed. Luckily, much of the house was unused—a plethora of guest bedrooms, miscellaneous half-baths, and odd little spaces filled with family portraits and mysterious artwork. "You won't have to do anything there; the house-elves take care of dusting and general upkeep in the empty spaces."

It was true. Despite the apparent uselessness of the areas, not a speck of dust or lingering mildew could be found. The house felt old, looked old, but did not smell old or rundown.

And Andromeda had been right. Inside the house, the aura was one of shocking wealth, but it was still tastefully decorated and well-lit, livening up what could have been an oppressive atmosphere.

Also on the first floor was a set of double-doors trimmed with silver vines that Andromeda said marked the entrance to the library. "No one really uses it, as far as I can tell." Andromeda made to walk past, but Hermione lingered, staring at the firmly closed doors.

"Why not?" she asked.

"Hmm? Oh, our family has long forbidden elves from going into places of learning, so the library hasn't been cleaned properly in decades, perhaps centuries. I have my private collection in my bedroom, but I simply can't stand the dust in there. Would you like to see inside?"

"Yes, please!" Hermione said, unable to contain her excitement at the thought of an entire room full of unappreciated books.

Andromeda strode forward and pushed the doors open with a short burst of magic. Hermione felt her eyes go wide in awe.

The room was clearly taller than the rest of the first floor and must have taken up half the width of the house. Bookshelves of varying height stretched out in all directions, filled with more paper and binding than Hermione had set eyes on in her life. The entire far wall was a mass of windowpanes and cloudy glass, filling the space with natural light, despite being grainy with dust. Specks of dust swirled in golden clouds on the eddies of air created by their entrance, and the spines of the books were clearly coated by the same. Towering ladders sped back and forth along the shelves by magic, creaking softly in the otherwise silent room. To Hermione, it was the most perfect place she had seen in her life. "This is beautiful," she whispered, and Andromeda's chuckle shook her from her reverie.

"Well then, if you ever feel the urge to read, or clean, or do anything else you'd like, feel free."

Hermione looked at the elder witch with a look of such utter gratitude that it brought a blush to Andromeda's face.

"Really? You… you mean that? You would let me use your library?"

"Of course!" Andromeda replied. "Nothing here is off limits to you, save the third floor. And if you do some cleaning, I may even join you here another time."

Hermione wanted nothing more than to throw her arms around the other woman, but she resisted the urge, instead simply whispering, "Thank you, thank you so very much."

Andromeda smiled at her before placing her hand once more in the small of her back and guiding her from the room. "As much as I can see you would be content to spend the rest of your day there, we have a bit more yet to see."

Narcissa and Lucius's room bordered Andromeda's and one other guest room on the second floor, which, as they passed, Andromeda identified as, "Narcissa's other bedroom." Hermione's own chamber was slightly farther along the hallway, and they did not enter yet, heading instead to the kitchens. It was there that Narcissa appeared once more, this time with her husband.

They stood at the far end of the elongated kitchen, and from the charged silence that hung in the air, it was clear that Andromeda and Hermione had interrupted something. Narcissa stood with her shoulders pressed into a cabinet, leaning back, wand out and aimed at Lucius. The man's stance was threatening, leaning forward, clearly the reason for Narcissa's defensive position. Still, he straightened immediately when he realized they had company.

Narcissa straightened as well, expression implacable. "Lucius, meet the new help," she said flatly.

As Lucius turned his gaze to Hermione, she took a moment to realize that she intensely disliked this man. He had yet to speak a word, unlike his wife, who had been quite unfriendly, yet Hermione did not instantly dislike Narcissa the way she disliked her husband. Perhaps it was the way his gaze met her eyes for only a moment before straying down her chest, or the way he looked down his nose at his own wife, or even simply the way he flicked his cloak over his shoulder in an overly self-importantly manner. Whatever it was, it was only reinforced when he spoke in a nasally drawl that made Hermione's skin squirm.

"What's this? We've employed a child?"

"Manners, Lucius," Andromeda snapped out.

Hermione's eyes widened; Narcissa had said much the same thing, yet it had not drawn this sort of instant anger from Andromeda.

Narcissa looked right into Hermione's eyes as she replied to her husband. "Yes, Andromeda is fond of her for some reason, so I'd suggest you treat her cordially, if that is even within your realm of ability."

Her voice was utterly scornful as she spoke, seeming to dismiss her husband in every way possible as she flatly insulted him without even meeting his eyes. Hermione found herself unable to break the strange magnetism of that icy stare, until Andromeda placed a firm hand on her shoulder.

"Behave, you. Lucius, if you so much as insult Hermione, I will know about it, and you will not be pleased with the results."

Lucius's eyes darkened with anger and he stepped towards them, advancing across the room until he stood directly before Hermione. She refused to cower from this man; he provoked little true fear from her, only a peculiar hatred she trusted quite well. She met his gaze until it was him that broke it, trailing down her body in a way that made her feel truly angry. He murmured, "Now, perhaps we got off to a hasty start, don't you think, girl? You and I could be friends, could we not?"

He reached a hand out to grab her waist. Hermione, suddenly feeling anxious, stepped back and raised her own hand to halt his motion. Without warning, his hand shot out and slapped her across the cheek. She gasped as her eyes watered and she staggered back a pace. She would have fallen had not Andromeda's waiting arms caught her in a firm but careful hold. She wrapped her arms around Hermione's waist and pulled her back against her, raising a gentle hand to cup the cheek that Lucius had struck.

"Know your place, girl," Lucius snapped out before his eyes suddenly bulged in his head. As Hermione looked on in confusion, he slumped sideways onto the ground. Narcissa stood behind him, wand raised, anger clear on her face. She stepped to him and flipped him over with one heeled foot.

"We may be married in name only, but Merlin help me if I have to watch you touch another woman while under the same roof as me. You will never lay a finger on her, or you will find yourself sleeping on the third floor. Is that clear, dearest?" Narcissa spat out the last word with biting sarcasm, digging her toes harder into the immobilized man's side.

Hermione's cheek stung, but her eyes widened as she heard Narcissa—who had called her a child mere moments before—call her a woman. Andromeda had not yet taken her arms from around her waist, and even though Hermione had quite regained her footing, she did not try to pull herself away. She felt safe, here. As Narcissa lifted the petrifying spell, the arms held her tighter for a moment. Lucius glared daggers at her as he stood and strode from the room with what little dignity he had left.

Narcissa pocketed her wand once more and Andromeda slowly allowed Hermione to pull away, asking, "Are you alright?"

Hermione swallowed, unable to meet either witch's eyes. "I'm fine. But… I don't know if I should be here. I don't want to cause you any trouble, and clearly I'm not wanted here. Perhaps you should hire a real… hire someone different… someone older than—"

Andromeda cut her off. "No. This is not any trouble of your making. I'm terribly sorry that Lucius did that… I had no idea he would even spare you a moment's notice; he has been so withdrawn lately."

Hermione hesitantly addressed Narcissa, "But I don't want to… to affect your marriage, ma'am. I didn't mean to cause any more difficulties here…"

Narcissa gave a dismissive laugh. "You aren't. There is no marriage for you to affect. Besides, we need a cook. I will have a decent meal before tomorrow, and so long as you are willing to make it, you stay."

Hermione was shocked. After her first impression of Narcissa, she had expected her to send her out the front door as soon as possible. Instead, however cold the words, she was still making it clear in some odd way of hers that Hermione was welcome here. So, as years of cautious tact had taught her to do, she changed the subject.

"Very well, ma'am. Now, not that I have any problem cooking for you, but… why do your elves not cook?" Hermione asked tentatively.

It was Narcissa who answered her. "There used to be many more elves in servitude to the Black family, but… Bellatrix killed the last of mine in a fit of anger and 'Dromeda's were set free when she came of age and had… no interest in claiming her inheritance." Narcissa gave a derisive sniff. "The two we still own technically belong to Bellatrix, but the third, which used to do the cooking, died while she was in Azkaban. Did something wrong and punished itself to death without Bellatrix around to tell it 'enough'."

Hermione gasped aloud, covering her mouth with her hand. "That's dreadful!"

Narcissa shrugged. "Well it certainly was a waste."

Hermione's eyes widened, but she withheld the urge to speak again. Still, in her mind, she thought it was even more horrible that this woman clearly didn't see the elves as living beings, merely as a thing to use at her convenience.

Andromeda gently stroked the backs of her fingers against Hermione's reddened cheek. "You sure you're alright," she asked kindly, staring directly into Hermione's eyes. There was a slight sensation of warmth that seemed to emanate from Andromeda's fingers, and the slight pain from Lucius's slap was quickly fading.

Blushing, Hermione nodded.

"Then perhaps you would like some time to get acquainted with the kitchen and your room before lunch? Don't worry; you don't need to cook today."

Despite feeling a moment of utter panic at the thought of Andromeda going away, Hermione managed to nod slightly.

"Very well. I'll send one of the elves to your room at the first hour to fetch you for lunch. Until then, I'd recommend you stick to the kitchen or your chambers." She pulled Hermione into a quick hug, the gesture of affection making Hermione wonder once again at the utter lack of care she seemed to have for Hermione's position in life. Pulling back, the older witch looked into her eyes and said, "I'm so glad you're here."

"Let the girl be, Andromeda," Narcissa said, an odd undercurrent of amusement clear in her voice.

Once the two sisters had left, Hermione rubbed harshly at her eyes with her palms, feeling a shadow of the sting in her cheek lingering in her mind and wondering what in Merlin's name she had gotten herself into.

Andromeda was kind to her, so much kinder than she could have ever expected any pure-blood to be towards… towards someone like her. But she was still so very much a pure-blood. She still made Hermione feel even smaller than she usually felt, but in an almost… comforting way. She made Hermione feel safe, very safe, and that thought scared her. She had worked in a pure-blood household before; she couldn't afford to feel safe.

And Narcissa… Hermione was somewhat frightened of Narcissa, but still oddly drawn to her. She seemed so distant, unaffected by anything, until suddenly she would speak or act and she held such power. Hermione felt guarded towards her. There was clearly more to this woman than a pure-blood trophy wife or a witch with a heart of ice.

And Lucius. Hermione shuddered even thinking the name. There was a man of cowardice and cruelty all wrapped up in one unpleasant package. She had felt the stares of drunken lechery on her before, at the bar, but she knew how to handle sad or lonely drunkards. Even angry drunkards. But a sober, angry man who still looked her with desire was something she had little experience with. Well, none, to be honest. Men who weren't drunk didn't pay her much mind in Diagon. She wasn't pretty; she was worn, tired, and far too undernourished to be pretty, she had always been told. But she guessed Lucius's attentions were more to spite his wife than any real attraction, which only made him more dangerous. Hermione despised creatures like him, people who had no real aura of power, yet who used magical or physical superiority to intimidate those weaker than them.

Still, she needed this work. She needed to help her family. And that library, all that knowledge, Andromeda to teach her, it had to be worth living in this madhouse.

As she finished taking stock of the kitchen, she felt a half-hysterical laugh bubble up from the depths of her chest as she thought, I haven't even met the one who's actually supposed to be insane.

When Hermione entered her chambers for the first time, she wondered if she had gone in the wrong door. Stepping back into the hallway, she reoriented herself, double checked, and still found herself outside the same door, walking into the same rooms. Rooms that couldn't possibly be intended for a servant.

The bedroom was done in shades of cream, bronze, and chestnut, with olive-trimmed rugs and drapery. It was twice the size of the most expensive suite at the inn, and had a full-wall window seat that overlooked the wilderness of the grounds. The bed was a queen at least, and, when she ran tentative fingers across the sheets, they felt softer than anything she had touched in her life, softer than the silk sheets she had been in charge of washing at the home of her last employers. The room was lit by magical torch, to be dimmed or brightened by only a spoken command. A writing desk, two chairs, and a bedside table made up the rest of the furniture.

There were two other doors in the room. One led to a spacious bathroom, with a nicely-sized tub and glass-encased shower. The other was a closet, in which her few garments were already hanging. It was only then that Hermione truly accepted that she was going to be staying here, in the nicest room she had seen in her life. She was hardly able to wrap her mind around the fact that, as of yet, she had not truly been treated like a servant in any way other than the words of the Malfoys, and in Lucius's cruel temper.

Sinking down into the welcoming softness of the bed, she could almost feel the stress of the past weeks fading from her body. It left only wonderful warmth and an overwhelming desire to close her eyes. Giving in for what she thought would be just a moment, the last thoughts to pass through her mind were, I could get very, very used to this. I'm not going to let myself be scared away. So long as I'm wanted, so long as Andromeda wants me here… I can let myself have this. As long as I don't forget how quickly this could end, as long as I don't let my guard down… I can let myself have this.

A/N for the chapter: When I said it would be a while between updates, I didn't truly mean this long, but… excuses are superfluous. Sufficed to say it may well happen again, but I'll do my best to be quicker. Also, I did say this story was going to be a slow build-up, no? So apologies for the long and drawn-out introductions to our housemates and their home, but that's how I do these things. Hmm… am I coming across as grumpy in this author's note? I am, aren't I. Probably too tired to be publishing this… Ah well, hope you're still here!