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/Andromeda, Hermione/Narcissa.
Staring uncomprehending from her place amid the rubble, Hermione feared Andromeda had Apparated them into an impressionist painting, so surreal was the view.
There was soot in the air and charcoal all along the ground, yet even in places where the walls had burned away completely, paintings hung in midair, vases and sculptures perched on missing, ashen tables, a flickering blue haze of magic enclosing them, protecting them from the floating swirls of smoke. "At least the insurance paid off," Andromeda muttered, scuffing one foot into a heap of some blackened belonging. "Everything worth anything was protected when the flames appeared, though we'll still need to ship most of it somewhere else until we can clear away this rubble."
Even entire rooms of the house had been given their own shielding; Andromeda's study, half of the dining hall, the library. All of the family's most valuable possessions and heirlooms remained untouched. Unfortunately, it appeared that things like beds, couches, tables and chairs had been concessions of a more modern—less valued—nature, and sat forlornly covered in soot and char marks, if the fire had not consumed them entirely.
Andromeda sighed, coughing and waving her arm before her eyes. "Well. Nothing too serious; maintenance should have it fixed by tomorrow morning." Just then, a large support beam crashed to the ground, followed by a shower of rubble, leaving it obvious that the entire third floor was floating unsupported above them. "Perhaps a day or two," Andromeda amended, glowering up at what had once been a ceiling.
Hermione arched an eyebrow behind Andromeda's back. This much damage could take weeks, months to repair, though Hermione supposed something could be said for hiring expensive staff and paying some exorbitant amount of money to hasten the process.
She kept pace behind Andromeda, walking across the ruin of the main hallway, glancing up warily at the hovering floor above their heads. Soon, she could make out Narcissa amid a cluster of people Hermione didn't recognize.
"With the house in ruins, is there any chance of Bellatrix Lestrange getting loose in the community once more?"
Some nosey reporter had cornered Narcissa as she attempted to speak to the Ministry law enforcement officials who had arrived on the scene. She was bussing about the space, asking pointed questions and peering slyly over the top of rhinestone-encrusted spectacles, a shockingly green quill hovering in the air by her head, turning this way and that, as though taking in the scene, before darting down and scratching unaided at the parchment in the her hands.
"No," Narcissa snapped, clearly at wit's end.
"I find that hard to believe," the woman needled. "What other possible motive could your sister have for committing arson in her own home?"
"Why don't you scuttle on upstairs and ask her, Rita?" Narcissa remarked, finally giving up her attempts to speak with the officer in charge and devoting her full, furious attention to the irritating reporter. "After all, I'm dying to find that out for myself, and you two were always such good friends."
The woman visibly blanched, taking a quick step back.
Narcissa's eyes glinted. "Yes, that's what I'd thought. You haven't changed since Hogwarts. If you've nothing better to do than pester me about my sister, I suggest you leave." She started to turn away, but the reporter made a small, squeaking noise of protest, so she spun back. "Actually, that wasn't a suggestion. Get out of my home."
Clearly at a loss for words, she was helpless to stop Narcissa from turning her attention back to the matter at hand. When the reporter realized she was likely to be ignored at best, physically evicted at worst, she reluctantly meandered across the lawn to try to speak to the two befuddled house-elves staring in wide-eyed shock over the hedging between their quarters and the main lawn.
Some of the tension went out of Narcissa's posture when she realized Andromeda had arrived. "She swears it was an accident," said Narcissa in a clipped voice. "Yet the entire third floor was charmed against smoke and Fiendfyre."
Andromeda kicked a hunk of charred wood. "That little shit."
"What in Merlin's name did you say to her last night?" Narcissa asked, something angry flashing in the depths of her eyes despite the unflinching chill she put forward. "She's been perfectly manageable until now."
Andromeda shook her head. "Don't try and pin this on me, Cissa."
"You can't actually think—"
"—No." Andromeda held up a hand. "Bella would be thrilled to see us fighting now. It isn't worth it. Let's focus on fixing this as quickly as possible and you can lecture me all you want later."
Narcissa's scowl only deepened, but she nodded reluctantly. "Very well."
A flurry of activity just outside the blackened outline of the manor's foundation drew the attention of all three witches. Hermione recognized the man who was approaching from his frequent appearances on the cover of the Daily Prophet; it was the tall, dark, somewhat imposing figure of the recently appointed Minister of Magic. He'd been approached by that same irksome reporter as he neared, and his brisk words carried through the chilly air to where Hermione was standing. "This is not a public matter, Ms. Skeeter, and should I find one word about any of this in your column before our official press release, I can assure you that you will not find your stay in prison a pleasant one. Good day."
Looking almost comically affronted, she scanned the space around her before apparently deciding this story was more hassle than it was worth and scurrying off down the drive.
Meanwhile, Kingsley Shacklebolt, interim Minister and likely candidate to hold the position more permanently, came to a halt before the trio of women, shaking his head, an expression of distant annoyance on his face.
There was a pregnant pause before he finally spoke. "You do realize what a difficult situation your sister is putting the Ministry in, don't you?"
Narcissa let out a derisive snort but said nothing. Andromeda merely shrugged. "Not an insurmountable one. The house will be fixed in a matter of days."
He glanced around skeptically. "Perhaps. Convenient, though, isn't it? Her quarters remain untouched."
"Not really," Narcissa muttered. "Not even Bellatrix would burn herself alive just to make a point."
"Are you saying this wasn't an escape attempt?"
Kingsley blinked, apparently unconvinced.
When Narcissa didn't seem inclined to elaborate, turning her attention instead to flicking away some sort of beetle buzzing around her head, Andromeda took over, voice placatingly matter-of-fact. "You of all people should know that Bellatrix is not a fool. This was a fit of anger, a… temper tantrum, if you will, and a matter for me and my sister to deal with, nothing more than that. Your Trace is still viable, the grounds are untouched, and she hasn't even tried to so much as walk down the stairs. If she planned an escape, it wouldn't be nearly this dramatic."
"Perhaps," the Minister said again, "but there are more practical concerns to deal with."
"Such as?" Narcissa asked dryly, sounding almost bored.
"The Ministry wants nothing to do with this… mess. You sister cannot be allowed to stay here unsupervised, not with the parts of her containment spells potentially weakened by the state of your household wards. You two are going to have to deal with this. Until the manor is fully rebuilt and my committee has time to re-lay the limits Bellatrix is under, neither you, nor your sister may leave the grounds. Starting at dusk, only one of you may leave the third floor at a time."
Narcissa bristled. "Unacceptable. Even if the fire was on the lower floors, Bellatrix made the third unlivable months ago. I—"
Andromeda laid a restraining hand on her sister's arm, squeezing gently to get her attention and shaking her head before addressing Kingsley. "As long as you extend the binding spells to the third floor for a few days," she started, voice pleasant, upbeat, "we'll make do."
Glancing suspiciously back and forth, Kingsley reluctantly nodded. "I'll see to it, but see that you do. This whole arrangement is skating on thin ice with the Wizengamot; one more incident and you could all stand trial again."
He turned and headed for the Apparation point just beyond the gates, cloak stirring up clouds of ash behind him.
Hermione did little but stand silently throughout these conversations and the many which followed, watching as Lucius stormed out from behind one of the few standing walls, lamenting loudly at the loss of his liquor collection and cursing Bellatrix's name in every other breath. A parade of official figures meandered about the space, some speaking to Andromeda about the state of her insurance claim, others negotiating with Narcissa over the price of reconstruction, the potential for restoration. Both sisters repeatedly turned away the Aurors who arrived to investigate the source of the fire, insisting that Bellatrix wasn't fit to talk to anyone and, besides, everyone with half a mind knew just what had happened here.
Hermione did her best to stay out of the way and to keep from being underfoot, eventually joining the house elves across the lawn and attempting to reassure them that everything would be back to normal in a matter of days. While Rommie and Atcham attempted to be their usual deferent, professional selves, Hermione could tell by the gradual relaxation of their nervously twitching ears that they secretly appreciated her presence.
Andromeda joined her just as the sun was beginning to set, and the elves faded away without a word.
She sat beside the younger witch on the low stone bench, sighing deeply before running an agitated, soot-stained hand through her hair. "Not exactly how I pictured this afternoon ending," she muttered, attempting a strained smile.
Hermione shivered as a gust of wind sent a flurry of crimson leaves to stain the ground at their feet. She clutched her cloak more tightly about her. No, it certainly isn't, she thought, trying to summon the light, airy mood that had accompanied their earlier brunch. Yet the morning seemed as distant as last summer, every moment of peace she'd had in the past two days shattered by Bellatrix's presence. She found herself missing the time when her only awareness of the oldest sister had been of an invisible presence somewhere above her head, but she'd entered Hermione's life with all the subtlety of a Bludger to a broomstick, and there was no way to lock her back out again.
Andromeda's head came to rest against Hermione's shoulder, drawing her out of her musings. It was the most vulnerable she had seen the older woman, eyes closed, forehead streaked with black powder from the path her hand had taken, breath shallow and strained. As if with a mind of its own, her hand raised to stroke through Andromeda's tangled hair, drawing a slower, more contended breath from her lips. Eyes still closed, she spoke so softly Hermione could hardly hear. "Don't leave."
"Leave?" Hermione asked, hand stilling, genuinely confused.
She could feel Andromeda nod her head. "I… Don't let her chase you away. Please."
Hermione stiffened, finally realizing what Andromeda meant. Before she could find words, Andromeda had raised her head, pulling Hermione closer and finding her hands, clasping them tightly between her own. "I'll keep you safe. I promise. I swear it." Her eyes were exhausted, wild. She sounded close to tears.
Hermione tried to sort through her own emotions, but everything felt strangely deadened. There was a mild sort of dread, an ever-present twinge of fear, but it was less than even the surprise she felt that she hadn't even considered leaving. It hadn't so much as crossed her mind.
She met Andromeda's eyes, feeling lost. When had this become what she wanted? When had the feelings she had for this woman become the only thing she could ever imagine herself needing? When had this safety—and the inescapable desire that lingered even in a moment like this—replaced all of her common sense? When had she stopped holding hope for all the childhood dreams of white weddings and two perfect children and handsome grooms without psychotic sisters? Had she ever wanted that? Had she ever wanted anything besides this, besides the woman pressed to her side, besides the long, slender fingers claiming her own, besides this glimpse of beautiful, poignant vulnerability in those deep, dangerous eyes?
"Andy," she whispered out, shortening her name for the first time, despite the permission she had been granted so many times before. "I'm not going anywhere."
A strangled sound escaped from Andromeda's throat, and she pulled Hermione closer, burying her face in the younger woman's throat and wrapping her arms about her tightly. Hermione's arms hung uselessly in the air for a moment before slowly returning the embrace. Even through the sharp scent of burning that lingered over the both of them, Hermione could smell that delicate scent she associated with Andromeda. It triggered a wellspring of emotions in her, and she couldn't help but whisper, "Even now, I feel safe with you."
She felt Andromeda stiffen, hands forming claws against her back. Andromeda's shoulders started shaking a moment before she felt dampness against her neck, and she realized the other witch was crying.
No knowing what else to do, she held still, not sure what level of comfort to offer when she wasn't sure exactly what sort of tears were being shed. The tears only lasted a moment before Andromeda pulled back, a pained expression on her face, wiping frantically at her eyes. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I—I've made you all these promises and I…" Her voice seemed to fail her for a moment, and her eyes were blinking rapidly, clearly trying to press back more tears. In a visible effort of will, she composed herself. "I'm afraid I'm a bit of a fraud," she said, voice oddly empty. "I haven't always been able to protect the people I… care about… from Bellatrix."
Hermione's eyes widened a fraction, and she started to ask what had happened, what had left such emotional scarring behind, but Andromeda wasn't finished. "It's going to be different this time," she said, voice hard.
The tone brooked no further discussion, and though Hermione felt an almost desperate curiosity, Andromeda was standing, the light was fading, and her questions could wait until tomorrow.
Two figures approached, silhouetted against the last rays of sunlight. They met halfway, Lucius looking quite as disheveled as Andromeda, while Narcissa had somehow retained a semblance of cleanliness, only the distinctly dulled glint of the metal buckles on her shoes illustrating that the soot affected even her. "We'd best get upstairs and sort out just where we're staying tonight," Narcissa said, pointedly ignoring her sister's red-rimmed eyes.
In silent agreement, the four trekked across the lawn, Hermione staying as far from Lucius as possible, as this was the most she'd been around him since her first day. Some sort of white tarp had been hung over the floating paintings, artwork, and other valuables to protect them from the ashes, giving the peculiar maze of half-burnt walls a ghostly appearance in the dying light. The implications of the damages began to sink into Hermione's exhausted brain as she realized that none of the three or four fully-insured rooms had been anything suitable for sleeping in.
A single stairway had been reconstructed in a manner clearly designed for functionality, not aesthetics, but it led them safely up to one corner of the eerily floating third floor. Hermione hesitated at the threshold, but Andromeda was behind her, and slipped a comforting arm about her waist before gently pressing her forward into the dark.
"Lumos!" Narcissa muttered, summoning light to the tip of her wand before flicking the ball of illumination at one of the sconces on the walls. Hermione watched in detached wonder as the light spread from one light fixture to another, until each of the main halls had been lit up. She'd never seen the traditionally simple spell do that before.
A glance about revealed Bellatrix standing at the far end of the left corridor, leaning against a wall, a distinctly amused smirk on her lips. "Welcome to my most humble abode," she called out mockingly, spreading her hands wide in a gesture of pseudo-invitation, voice crude and unnecessarily loud in the empty space.
Hermione felt herself flinch reflexively just from seeing the eldest Black again, and Andromeda drew her into the circle of her arms. "Remember," she whispered, lips against Hermione's ear, "The Ministry's keeping her magic suppressed completely until we've finished repairs. She can't hurt you."
So that's what she was asking for; the binding, Hermione realized. It left her feeling… marginally safer. The key word being marginally. Then, it occurred to her that it hadn't been Bellatrix's choice to stand creepily at the end of the darkened hall; rather, without magic, many of the manor's most basic functions were denied her, including light.
Narcissa hadn't stopped with the rest of them, continuing down the corridor to stand before Bellatrix instead.
"So sorry I didn't invite you to the bonfire, Cissy. We could've toasted marshmallows."
Hermione startled at the sound, Narcissa's motion so quick she hadn't even seen her raise her hand, and had Bellatrix's cheek not flushed an angry red, she wouldn't have quite believed the slap to have happened. "If you ever do something as idiotic as this again I can guarantee I will personally welcome the Dementors into the house myself, am I understood?"
Bellatrix stroked her cheek, a thoughtful expression on her face. She hadn't even flinched when her sister had struck her. "Hmmm," she started, contemplative. "I can't say that threat works quite the way it used to, Cissy. I know you hate the creatures as much as I do. Might even say you fear them more." She spoke softly, yet there was a hint of taunting challenge in her tone.
Narcissa twitched, but didn't step back. "You forget. If they come here, it isn't me they'll feed from."
Bellatrix shrugged. "Pity. You'd be a tastier soul." She brushed past her sister and started towards the space where Hermione, Andromeda, and Lucius stood. "Lucky for the both of us, I tire quickly of even my own games," she called over her shoulder. "Don't worry, the fire and I have had our fun." She laughed, a shrill, affected sound, echoing behind her as she turned down the middle hall. "For now."
Though all of the sisters often seemed larger-than-life to Hermione, there was a degree of presence to Bellatrix that the others didn't quite have. Whenever Bellatrix was in a room, she may well have been the only one there, so thoroughly did she command attention. It reminded Hermione a bit of the theatre; the over exaggerated lines, the sprawling, space-consuming postures, the way she seemed to type-cast herself in her own role, dressing the part of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named's closest servant, even after his death… Acting the part of madness? While the thought occurred to her, Hermione dismissed it immediately, ignoring the niggling voice at the back of her mind that wondered if, perhaps, this home was merely the stage upon which Bellatrix was putting on her latest show.
Regardless of its origin, the presence Bellatrix possessed left the hallway feeling distinctly larger, emptier, once she had moved on.
It took Hermione a moment to realize Lucius was staring at her… at her and Andromeda… and she quickly tugged herself out of the little safe-haven Andromeda's arms had offered her. While Andromeda seemed quite content to act as though there wasn't a thing wrong with her many-faceted interactions with the younger woman, Hermione knew there was a line between courage and stupidity, and antagonizing Lucius needlessly certainly fell closer to the latter.
He sniffed dismissively, turning his attention to his wife. "Where are we sleeping?" he groused, peering intently down the two visible corridors.
Narcissa bark of laughter was near glacial. "We aren't sleeping anywhere. I will be taking the eastern guest chambers, and you can do what you will."
And she was gone, disappearing down the same hallway Bellatrix had taken before the sound of a doorknob turning signaled that she had claimed her space.
Lucius was livid, his pale skin a distinctly unflattering shade of angry puce. As he made to follow his wife, Andromeda intervened, noting, "There's another set of rooms at the end of the other hall."
He stopped walking, but seemed snared by indecision, unable to choose between pursuing his wife to regain a semblance of his pride or cutting his losses and sleeping peacefully alone. He turned, and Hermione breathed a sigh of relief, but it was misguided. His eyes strayed from the direction Andromeda had indicated and landed on Hermione. "Where's the girl sleeping?" he asked pointedly, eyes glinting.
Hermione could sense Andromeda tensing up behind her, but wasn't sure how to defuse the situation.
"Once I know you're settled," Andromeda started, voice low, cautionary, "I'll be sorting that out with her."
He stepped closer, but something he saw in Andromeda's face made him hesitate. "Fine," he snapped, spinning on his heel and storming down the hall, door slamming shut behind him.
This left Hermione alone with Andromeda and her thoughts.
"Where exactly am I sleeping?" she asked warily, echoing Lucius's inquiry.
"With me," Andromeda said.
Hermione's eyes widened almost comically, and Andromeda flushed, hastening to add, "Ah, that is, there's only one other bedroom on this floor, and even if there were two, I… well… I wouldn't leave you alone up here."
Slowly, Hermione nodded, trying not to think too hard about the emotional responses those words had triggered. "I… thanks. But… I don't want to cause trouble… I could always… stay back at home. Just for a few days."
"No!" Andromeda snapped. Hermione flinched. Immediately, the older witch's eyes softened. She hastened to add, "You don't need to do that; it's no trouble." Seeing the uncertainty in Hermione's expression, she amended, "If… if you feel uncomfortable staying with me—"
"—Oh, I didn't mean… I wasn't implying… Oh, never mind," Hermione stammered, finally laughing a bit at the absurdity of the whole thing. "This is ridiculous."
Andromeda's lips quirked at the younger woman's mirth. "It is a bit." She gestured down the only hallway none of the others had taken. "Shall we?"
Much like the rest of the floor, Bellatrix seemed to have made a royal mess of the bedroom Andromeda led her into. Both witches stood in the door for a moment, each staring at the senseless destruction, wondering where they would find the energy to repair it into something livable. "Damn Bellatrix," Andromeda muttered. "Damn her and damn Kingsley and damn the Wizengamot. Here," she added, apparently non sequitur, digging around in the small bag she'd been carrying all day. "I meant to give this to you this morning, but I'm afraid, with all the insanity, I forgot."
She finally found what she was looking for, presenting Hermione with slender stick of pale, polished wood. "Vine," Andromeda said, handing it over. "Dragon heartstring, ten and three-quarters inches." Hermione held it reverently. The wand had no obvious handle, yet the delicate spiral clearly tapered at the casting end, and it fit near perfectly in her hand, her first and second fingers locked on either side of the subtle ridging. It felt sturdier, too, despite its delicate nature. "It's a bit old," Andromeda continued. "When I brought in your broken one, the charm the apprentice used to activate your magical signature and attract a new wand didn't seem to work at all, but Ollivander himself came out of the storage room with a shaking box." She looked into Hermione's eyes. "He made it eight years ago."
Hermione was momentarily stunned by the implications, only just managing to say, "Thank you. Thank you so much." Her voice nearly trembled with gratitude. The wand meant so much more to her than merely a replacement for something broken. It meant protection in a way Andromeda herself could never provide. In this world, it meant self-sufficiency, independence, and the ability to stare Bellatrix Black in the eyes down in the kitchens without fearing for her life. It also put her that much more into Andromeda's debt, but the warmth in that smile made it impossible to feel regret.
"As always, you're quite welcome," Andromeda replied, and the heated glint Hermione saw in the other witch's eyes brought a flush to her cheeks.
They began working side-by-side, charming away dust and repairing the abused furniture. "Why did your sister do this?" Hermione asked at one point. "Target practice?"
Andromeda chuckled. "Quite possible, actually."
Another pile of clutter was banished.
"And… the fire?" Hermione asked hesitantly.
Andromeda stopped cleaning for a moment, clearly weighing her words. "The fire… was many things. But in the end, all of them merely come down to one."
When Andromeda didn't immediately elaborate, Hermione spoke again. "What sort of one?"
"She's Bellatrix. She doesn't need a reason to do anything."
The simmering anger in Andromeda's voice made Hermione shiver.
Soon enough, the room resembled a bedroom rather than a warzone, though they had ignored the various gouges in the floor and walls in favor of repairing the essentials.
The essentials included one chair, one bed, and one table, as well as the bathroom Andromeda had disappeared to take care of while Hermione finished up in the main chambers.
Andromeda only popped back in long enough to say she was taking a quick shower, and Hermione was trying to not think about the etiquette required to ask whether she should be attempting to transfigure something into a second bed or just summon a blanket and pass out on the floor. Instead, she summoned up a particular shade of cleansing charm in her mind and cast it on herself, unwilling to remain this filthy even long enough to wait for a real shower. A second charm took care of the state of her clothes, and she hung her cloak over the back of the single chair. Glancing mournfully at the state of the dress she had worn on their date, even as charmed-clean as it was, she proceeded to slump backwards onto the bed, planning to just shut her eyes for a moment… just until Andromeda finished up… just for a moment… just a few… just…
She was woken by the feeling of another person sliding into the bed from the far side. She rolled over slowly, blinking heavily at Andromeda's sleep-blurred face. She started to sit up, clearing her throat to apologize, but Andromeda gently tugged her back down. "Shhh," she whispered. "It's alright. Go back to sleep."
Hermione was too exhausted to resist as those gentle hands steered her back onto her side, facing the wall. Andromeda tugged up the covers, and the last thing Hermione felt before passing out once again was a warm body settling along the curve of her spine, an arm pulling taut about her waist, and the rhythmic pulse of calm, even breath against the back of her neck.
A/N for the chapter: Alright then. I'm sure you're all rather tired of my apologies; I am too. Every bit it hurts you guys when I don't update, it hurts me just as much that I haven't been able to write. When my life is hectic to the point of being unable to do my absolute favorite thing, I am not a happy camper.
I may appear to abandon you, but I haven't! I swear it! I'm still here, seeing all your beautiful reviews, reading as your PMs go from excited, to worried, to desperate. I completely understand if you would rather not keep following this story: I'm sure I wouldn't. I as a writer am a prime example of why I as a reader can't stand reading works-in-progress. Updates are going to be infrequent at best, but I'll do the best I can, and that's the best I can offer.
This chapter is rather shorter than my usual minimum, and quite possibly disappointing, as I wrote it all in a single afternoon, and quite certainly disappointing after waiting four months for it, but I was dying for a little escapism and I missed you all terribly, so here, my meager offering.
Finally, a quick shout-out to laxbabe3, a fellow fanfiction connoisseur and the very first person I've ever told in real life about my… writing hobby. I wanted to thank her for being so wonderfully supportive about it, and let her know that she ought to publish her fic already! We've got to hang out in Panera soon.
All of my readers are wonderful, and I adore each and every one of you who hasn't given up on me.
All the best,