Much to Hermione's surprise, Minister Shacklebolt had agreed to her terms without any argument. Although she had managed to use the headmistress' flue to catch him during an impromptu meeting with Elphias Doge, who had just been reappointed as special adviser to the Wisengemot. The two appeared to be arguing over the necessity for a new Chief Warlock, since it was felt by the surviving members that the position should again be impartial, and not automatically go to the Minister, as Fudge had decreed when he originally managed to discredit Dumbledore. Kingsley wanted to retain the present status quo; but nearly a thousand years of history was not on his side, and the deep suspicion with which the whole ministry was currently viewed, did nothing to further his case.
Side issues like Hermione's he could do without and he cut the connection almost as soon as she'd said the words 'we agree', by saying, "excellent, see my secretary in the morning for department vacancies and the Head of the MLE for everything else." Hermione did not argue, in fact she barely contained her squeal of happiness from her former Head of House as she pulled back into the room. She did however send the Minister's secretary a very carefully worded letter, by the second fastest owl she could find in the owlery. The fastest, she'd already sent to Harry before she'd gone to see McGonagall.
"She isn't going to splinch me is she?" he asked worriedly under his breath as he took out his wand.
Hermione fought to keep the smile off her face at his anxiety, "no Harry," she said, "I promise she'll be on her best behaviour," then added, "won't you Bella?"
"Of course," a voice growled from directly behind him, causing him to jump, "the Ministry has always had my welfare at heart after all," she said and grabbed Harry's wand arm as he gulped nervously and clutched his wand more tightly. Hermione turned her head and smiled apprehensively at Mrs Malfoy. The woman had taken her arm with a lot less menace, but she had always disliked side-along apparition, more so since she'd splinched Ron. She made a mental check of her bag, recalling that she'd put the dittany in a special pocket she'd sown near the top for easy access and then they disapparated with a pop.
Steep Holm, it turned out, was a small island in the middle of the Bristol Channel. Closer by distance to the muggle world than the wizarding one, it was nevertheless isolated from it by the brisk tidal currents and the difficult landing. Apart from brief periods, in which a few hardy squibs with substantial ministerial protection, had left it with some Victorian six gun batteries, and the remains of a Second World War air defence post, at the request of muggle prime ministers; the island had been left to the birds and the Blacks for nearly a millennium.
Since that particular family were much less disposed to worrying about muggle welfare than the rest of the wizarding world, they had added wards that not only repelled the majority of the muggles that to this day still arrived, but also altered the memories of a select few, to ones of an enjoyable, if somewhat hazy day out. That occasionally in the past, one or two of these did not make it off the island, was put down to accident, the climb being steep and the winds being strong. Though no more had actually disappeared since an outcry in the 1850's, when several entire parties had vanished without a trace, which had forced the Ministry to get involved and rumours of smugglers to circulate.
The four of them had apparated to a landing stage below cormorant cliffs, Harry and Hermione having some trouble regaining their balance as the wind whipped around them. When she was finally steady, Hermione looked nervously towards the top. "Who lives here?" she thought to ask for the first time.
"Great Aunt Cassiopeia was the last one to live here," Bellatrix said, as she waved them towards the steps up from the landing, all 208 of them. "It's been empty since she crossed the veil."
"You couldn't have apparated us to the top?" Harry grumbled.
Hermione privately agreed but after surreptitiously, and unsuccessfully, attempting to apparate there under her own steam, decided the wards wouldn't allow it and said, "come on Harry," before moving towards them.
"Miss Granger, Mr Potter…" Mrs Malfoy called and they turned turned as Narcissa raised her head and straightened her shoulders, "we never gave you cause, but thank you both for everything you have done for my family," she said formally.
Hermione smiled and Harry nodded, then Narcissa hugged Bella quickly, stepped back, and disapparated.
"Why's she leaving?" Harry asked.
"She probably wants to get back to her husband," Hermione replied, "she only came because Bella couldn't side-apparate us both" then she called out, "are you coming?" to the other woman.
"In a moment, I'm just checking the wards," Bella replied frowning.
Harry looked towards her nervously, "perhaps we should wait?"
"It's fine Harry," Hermione replied, "Bella can't go anywhere without a wand," she looked up, "come on," she said, "this will take a while, and I've just realised that I didn't pack any dinner, so I may have to go back to Hogwarts later and ask the Headmistress if I can raid the kitchen."
"I'm more concerned with what we might find at the top," Harry muttered, wondering why he'd said yes to this when he'd been looking forward to a pleasant evening doing nothing for once.
"I hardly think anything is stupid enough to try and get through the Black family wards uninvited," Hermione replied. "Speaking of which, they haven't incinerated me or thrown me of the steps yet, so I think you're going to be fine. You are a pureblood after all, even if you did grow up a muggle."
Bella had apparated to the top, by the time the other two reached it, and was enjoying the view when Hermione came to stand next to her and still breathing heavily said, "Bella, I thought I made my feelings on pureblood mausoleums clear," as she surveyed the front of the large manor house a hundred feet in front of her.
"There's no portraits," Bellatrix reassured, "despite being a bastion of pureblood values, Cassiopeia loathed company and anyone prying into her business. That included the rest of the family tree. She had most of them removed before she even came here, although she fought a war of attrition with Antares until shortly after Cissy was born. She had to use Fiendfyre in the end, burned down part of the east wing, but wait until you see the library Muddy, it's—" Harry caught up with them at that moment and Bellatrix grew silent.
"How did you—?"
"The wards," Bellatrix said, "although they will only allow those with Black blood in their veins to do that, and don't worry Mr Potter, they don't extend beyond the island."
Harry was more concerned with how pale Hermione had gone, "are you ok?" he asked worriedly.
She nodded and swallowed hard as Bella frowned, "what's the matter?"
Hermione shook her head, "nothing," she said, unconsciously rubbing her arm.
Bellatrix glanced at their escort, then pulled Hermione further away from both him and the house. "I've altered the wards to recognise you," she said, "there is nothing here that will harm you."
"I trust you Bella," Hermione replied quietly, "I just… it will take some getting used to, that's all."
Bella looked over towards Harry, "thank you for your escort Mr Potter," she said.
Harry got the distinct impression he was being dismissed and looked worriedly at Hermione again. As she turned to him and smiled, it didn't reach her eyes, "I'll be fine Harry," she said.
"You said you had no food," he replied, "I've got some muggle money on me, how about we go and do some shopping, you can bring it back here."
Hermione breathed out, "yeah" she said, "gotta eat."
Bellatrix said nothing, but her hands curled in on themselves as her body went ridged. Hermione could feel the tension radiating off of her and put a hand to her arm, "I'll be back soon," she said, "is there anything you want?"
Bella shook her head and watched as the two made their way back to the cliffs, before entering the house. There were things she had to see to before the girl returned.
If the girl returned.
Hermione did return several hours later with tea, milk, eggs, bread and pizza. Both the island and the house were in darkness and she cursed the fact that she'd left Bella with no means of light, and then Harry for almost convincing her to stay at Grimmauld Place. Much as places like this irked her, designed as they were to make her feel inferior, Bella was more defenceless than she was at the moment and she should not have been away for so long. The steps from the landing were steep and the wind buffeted her every step of the way, so that by the time the house came into sight, forbidding though it looked, she welcomed it.
She pushed at the door and was surprised that it opened so readily to her touch, despite Bella's earlier statement that she had altered the wards to recognise her. "Bella?" she called, then said "Lumos" more quietly as the door closed behind her. She wandered through the hall and down a corridor, finding the kitchen, noticing that it was well set up for those with an army of house elves. She turned to the hearth, pointed her wand and said "incendio", the instant light casting shadows on the walls. Putting down her shopping, she located a kettle and filled it with water, but did not set it on the fire, choosing instead to find Bellatrix first.
Picking up the pizza and retracing her steps, she ignored the grand staircase and opened several doors before seeing faint light coming from under one further up the corridor in front of her. "Bella?" Hermione said again as she opened the door, and then stopped in wonder.
The library in front of her was smaller than the one at Hogwarts, but appeared much more grand. Whether this was due to the intricate decoration, the ornately bound books or the glow cast by the magic lanterns, she did not know. Bella was sat in the midst of these, upright in an armchair, a book in her hand and a glass of wine on the table next to her. Hermione focused on the bottle, the neck carefully smashed to bypass the cork without spilling the wine, and came to the conclusion that what ever the situation Bella would never be entirely helpless, and that however much she loved her, she should not under estimate her.
"I brought food," she said as Bella shut her book, and passed her the large box to hold as she moved a chair and another small table over to the one Bella was sitting in. She lit the fire in the hearth in front of them, enjoying the increase in warmth, before turning back to see her lover peering into the pizza box, clearly unsure that what she was looking at was edible.
"It tastes better than it looks" Hermione said, carefully breaking off the top of the box and transfiguring it into a plate, before moving the contents on to it and doing the same with the bottom, and transferring half of the pizza to that. "Honestly," she added as she saw the disbelieving look on Bella's face. She sat, balanced one of the plates on her lap, and took up a slice, moaning with pleasure as she sunk her teeth in to it.
Bella looked at it again, the mess of what appeared to be dough and congealed cheese did not look in the least bit appetising, it certainly did nothing to raise her general opinion of the muggle world. She took up her glass and drank instead, waiting until Hermione had eaten another slice before she said, "it's late, we should sleep."
"Yes," Hermione agreed, "especially as I have to go to the Ministry tomorrow, will you be alright here alone?"
"I'll manage," Bella replied. She rose and held out her hand, Hermione took it and stood, moving close to her lover and kissing her, "we're free," she said as Bella tasted the pizza and congratulated herself on sticking to the wine.
Then the thought struck her, they really were. She kissed Hermione deeply, ignoring the greasy taste and said simply, "bed."
The house was far too cold to stay naked in the open for long, even with the fire that Hermione had lit in the bedroom grate and the desire that had suddenly kindled between them. That didn't stop either of them from enjoying the sight in front of them as they lay next to each other, before Hermione moved closer and pressed her lips the Bella's own.
A few minutes later she pulled at Bella's arm and said, "come here, I want you on top of me." Bella obliged and they spent several minutes entangled in each other until Hermione pulled her mouth away and said, "sit up," her voice heavy with desire. The smirk that appeared on Bella's face however, did not last for long. As soon as she did what was asked, Hermione grabbed her wand and grinned, knowing that she'd probably regret it, even as she pointed at Bella's arms and flicked upwards, "incarcerus" on her lips.
"Muddy" Bellatrix growled in warning.
"Oh no, that stops now, what's my name, Bellatrix?"
Hermione rolled her eyes and removed the pillow from beneath her head. Then looking up once, to check that she was being watched, she shuffled down, until she was between Bella's legs and extended her tongue. were licked up Bella's left leg, starting just beyond her knee before moving over to the right leg and lickin down it, bypassing entirely the area Bellatrix wanted her most. The death eater growled again and tried to grind down, but Hermione laid her head back on the bed, and the ropes kept her out of reach, "what's my name?" she asked again. The body above her was silent, so Hermione wrote it again, this time starting with her right leg. "What's my name?" she asked again patiently, and again there was silence. "Bella, I'm laying down, so I can stay here all night if I have to" she pointed out, tracing a finger through folds of heat, slick with the woman's arousal. Bellatrix groaned. "What's my name?"
"Hermione" the death eater ground out, through locked jaw and bared teeth.
"That's right" Hermione agreed, "now try and remember it, because every time I stop, you are going to say it before I continue." Bella's eyes narrowed but she said nothing, and Hermione took that as agreement enough. Raising her head again, she started to lick and nibble Bella's right thigh, her hands moving to knead the woman's behind as her mouth inched up higher, closer to her need.
She was surprised at how long Bella held out, although the stiff posture, gritted teeth and eyes clamped tightly shut, told her of the concentration it was taking her to do so. Eventually though she got what she wanted, barely able to lick at all between the rising chant of "Hermione, Hermione, Hermione."
Bringing her hand up, she thrust inside though the angle was awkward, and the word changed to "Mione…Mione…Mione," deciding that sounded way too much like the way Ron said it, who she really didn't want to think about right now, she was relieved when lack of breath changed it again to "Mine… Mine… Mine." And then it was incomprehensible, mere babbling as Bellatrix crashed over the edge and Hermione used her wand to end the spell.
"We should sleep," Hermione said some time later when the dead weight on top of her began to stir, "I have to start at the Ministry tomorrow," but then Bellatrix started nipping and licking along her collar bone, and she had the feeling the witch still on top of her was nowhere near finished yet.
Shortly before dawn, when they were both almost too exhausted to move, Bella reached out and took a box from the ornate table by the bed and gave it to Hermione.
"What's this?" Hermione asked.
"A present, open it" Bella replied.
Hermione did, nestled inside was a small phial attached to a chain, she took it out and admired the sparkling golden liquid within, "Felix Felicis?" she asked.
Bellatrix nodded, glad that she had rejected a number of pieces that had been too obviously slytherin in design, to be safe for her mud… mione to wear. "The phial has a protean charm on it, you remember your story about Krum?" Hermione nodded, "good," Bella replied, then spooned into the side of her, said "mine" as she kissed her shoulder possessively and fell asleep, the conversation over before Hermione had thought to question the gift's provenance.
Bella apparated her to the bottom of the cliffs a few hours later, which was fortunate, since she would not have trusted herself on the steep steps on so little sleep. She was also wholly unprepared to deal with the whispering, pointing, and staring in the Ministry lobby, although there was noticeably less than there had been the day of the inauguration when she had been with Harry. She ducked her head and made her way quickly up to level four, not stopping until she was outside a door that said "Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures - Head of Department T. Remora," brushed down her robes, took a deep breath and knocked.
There was no answer.
She knocked again, then turned the handle and stuck her head inside. A small man was sitting at a large desk, writing on a piece of parchment, he did not look up.
"Mr Remora?" she queried, "I'm Hermione Granger."
"Administrative Services is on the 2nd floor," he said, without looking up.
Hermione's jaw tightened and she stepped fully into the room, closing the door behind her. "I'm sorry," she said after regarding him for a moment longer and Remora jumped, "I was sure the Minster said he was going to inform you of my arrival this morning. Perhaps I should go and tell him there's been some sort of mistake?"
The seated wizard peered at her from over the top of his spectacles, "what did you say your name was?"
"Hermione Granger," she replied, attempting to stay polite.
"Ah, I see. Well as it happens the Minister's office did mention it" he said, looking at her for a moment before lowering his head back to his work. "We currently have a vacancy on the Pest Advisory Board, second corridor to the left, report to Mr Theodorus."
"No," Hermione said firmly and watched as he looked up again, his face speaking volumes, "with all due respect sir, I did not agree to the Minister's personal request to join the Ministry, in order to to deal with wizarding infestations, however severe."
He regarded her silently for a few moments before saying, "well then, since you insist, we do have one other position available. It's a new vacancy in a minor sub-department and now that I think of it, I imagine it will be much more to your taste."
Hermione ignored the snideness of the comment and simply said, "new vacancy?"
"Yes," her boss replied, "Werewolf Support Services was shut down several years ago, when the previous holder of the post was careless enough to become a client's dinner. The current Minister has seen fit to reopen it, against my advice, effective immediately."
"I'll take it," Hermione replied.
"Good, good" Remora said, though he looked anything but pleased.
She spent the rest of the morning locating, then cleaning her new office, tucked as it was down a labyrinth of corridors so convoluted, that she thought Daedalus would have been envious, although at least it meant she had some peace. When other employees started to drift passed and out to lunch however, Hermione realised that for the first time in a long time, she had an hour in which to do exactly what she liked. She also realised that she'd had no breakfast, was getting hungry and had absolutely no money. This had not been an unusual occurrence in the last few months, but it did seem particularly galling at the moment.
Leaving the Ministry behind her, she headed to Gringotts, which appeared busier than normal. It was curious too, that every time she got to the front of a queue, something would happen and the Goblin standing there would disappear to attend to something else. It therefore took nearly the whole hour to retrieve money from her vault and get part of it changed into pounds, and this was only after she had marched up to the chief cashier, and summoned a little of the attitude she had had pretending to be Bella. She'd had no time for lunch, no time to browse in Flourish and Botts, and as a supposed war hero, she was beginning to feel very ill used.
At least her hunger had worn off.
Her afternoon was spent reading the somewhat dusty files she had come across, trying to get a feel for what her job would entail. She found it disheartening, though hardly surprising, that her predecessor had clearly been fighting a losing battle, when it came to competing for funding against the werewolf capture sub-department of the beast division. Or that his few clients had come from the same sub-department, since none would enter the Ministry voluntarily and sign the Werewolf Code of Conduct; thereby stigmatising themselves, without even the hope of being able to use the Wolfsbane potion to sustain them. She thought of Professor Lupin and vowed there and then, to find a plentiful supply, even if she had to brew it herself. Then she wondered if the headmistress would let her borrow the portrait of headmaster Snape.
After work, despite being tired, she did not go straight back to Steep Holm, but took off her robes and apparated to a small park near her parent's home, relishing the fact, after being on the run for so long, that she was finally able to go where she liked. She couldn't bring herself to walk down her former street, but there was a row of shops near by, and there were a couple of things she wanted to pick up. Besides, it would be nice not to be stared at for a while, and the evening was sunny and reasonably warm for May. Then she thought of Bella and felt guilty for enjoying it.
What she did not count on however, was old Mr Martin the owner, recognising her from when she used to come in to get bits for her mother. At first he just looked, trying to place her, then he gawped and said, "Hermione? Is that you, I didn't think anyone survived that gas explosion? I know they didn't find any bodies but…? And your parents, are they… did they escape too?"
She smiled at him and said that they were all safe, but then she got out of there as quickly as possible, forgetting about what she had really gone in to buy. Despite being in this place, she did not want to relive the memories of that awful night. Disapparating again, she reappeared in an alleyway near the British Museum and wandered Muggle London until she came across an outlet of Boots, and went in to pick up the chocolates and a bottle of multi-vitamins she had not bought earlier. Then she walked back to the alleyway and apparated again to the only home she currently had, before the light faded too much to make the climb up the cliffs dangerous.
When she reached the house Bella did not appear to be in any of the downstairs rooms, and on entering the kitchen, Hermione got herself a glass of water, opened the bag she had placed on the table and concentrated on opening the bottle, cursing the fiddlyness of childproof tops.
"What's that?" a voice said next to her ear.
Hermione screeched and jumped a little. Looking round she saw Bella standing there with a smirk on her face, "Please don't do that," she said, then added "this is a muggle multi-vitamin, I've been feeling a bit run down. All that time living on barely nothing."
Bella frowned, "why don't you just take a potion?"
"Um" she watched as Bella took the bottle and tipped out a capsule, squeezing it and the liquid inside, a fascinated expression on her face, "I haven't read of one that's exactly for this. I don't need healing, I'm not ill."
"What's in it?" the pureblood asked.
Hermione frowned, "well, er, vitamins and um, minerals." She could see that neither meant anything to Bellatrix and added, "things my body is lacking due to a bad diet and general lack of nutrients the last few months." She swallowed one with some water, and feeling somewhat like an animal in a zoo again, said, "I need to find some way of opening a muggle bank account too, it's ridiculous how long it took me to get some money from Gringotts today. That way, if I want to buy anything like this again I'll have the funds to do it.
Bellatrix did not know why she would want to buy anything muggle, but merely said, "did you take the money from your own vault?"
Hermione coloured, "Of course! We didn't take any money from yours, only the cup… we had to… it was… that reminds me, do you always have shoulder pain like that?"
Bella ignored the question, "you should move your money from Gringotts. Goblins have long memories, they won't ever forget you broke in."
Hermione took that as a yes and resolved to do something about it, but shrugged and said, "I've got to keep my money somewhere," then her stomach rumbled, reminding her that she hadn't yet eaten. "I don't suppose you fancy cold pizza do you?" she asked. The look on Bella's face was not encouraging. "Oh well, at least Bristol is full of takeaways."
There was a tapping at the window and they both turned, frowning. It was an owl with a message attached to it's leg. Bella took Hermione's wand from the waistband of her trousers and pointed it, "Bella, it's just an owl," Hermione said, moving to open the window.
"No one knows we're here," Bella replied.
"Harry does, and Mrs Malfoy, and the Headmistress, the Ministry…" she opened the window and beckoned it inside, "I'm sorry, I don't have any treats for you," she said as she untied the message and fished out a coin. "It's from Harry," she said opening it, she scowled a little, then said, "he says he has a house warming present for us."
Bellatrix took the small piece of parchment from her hand and looked at it, "what does he mean about having tasted your cooking?"
Hermione muttered under her breath, then said, "I'd better go and see what it is, can you take me to the bottom of the cliffs, I really don't want to walk it in the dark."
Bella nodded, took her arm and apparated.
When Hermione returned, Bella felt it in the wards and knew she wasn't alone, yet the signature was one she recognised and was not concerned. She was about to go and get her when the wards shifted again, announcing another arrival, then there was a pop, and a house elf was prostrating his aged bones in front of her, banging his head and saying "Mistress, I had no choice, he ordered me!"
She felt what he meant before she could open her mouth to ask, choosing to disapparate straight to the landing stage instead.
Hermione was already arguing with Kingsley, her wand drawn if not actually pointed at him, "if she'd wanted to leave so badly, she could have done so anytime in the last 24 hours. She didn't, so why do you need to tamper with the wards now?"
"I'm not tampering with the wards, I'm simply laying another one on top. The possibility of her escaping is real Hermione, and don't tell me you didn't think of it when you got Potter to escort you here either, because we both know this is far above his level of charms work."
"With respect Minister, you're the one who told me to arrange things with the head of the MLE."
"And Miss Black has had 24 hours to take advantage of my carelessness, the fact that she hasn't done so, does not negate the fact that she might. I'm sorry Hermione, I have no choice."
"What are you doing?" Bella asked, and they both turned to look at her, Kingsley looking slightly startled as his wand swung towards her. Bellatrix ignored it, and as he realised, the Minister lowered it.
"Overlaying a monitoring charm" he said. "If you go through the wards it sends the aurors to your location."
"I see," she said, then noticed that Hermione was carrying bags, "and what are those?"
"Well we can't expect Kreacher to start dinner now," Hermione said, "even if he is a thoughtful housewarming present, he can't magic food out of thin air. I thought you might like to try an Indian takeaway, and I was just on my way back up the steps when the Minister arrived. Although I'm still not exactly sure how."
They both turned and looked at him again as Bellatrix said, "I am. It seems Mr Potter isn't above ordering a house elf to do his dirty work for him."
Hermione looked momentarily outraged, then said "is Kreacher alright?"
"He's punishing himself."
"Bella! It's not his fault."
"No," Bella replied, "it's not," but she carried on watching the Minister, who was concentrating hard.
He finished what he was doing and then looked at them both, before turning to Hermione and saying, "I know you don't think this is fair, but it is the safest option for everyone. I'll see you at the Ministry Hermione, I understand you're making Remora's life more interesting already. That's good, the department needs a shake up," then he disapparated.
Hermione stamped her foot in frustration, "Arrgh! Pompous ass! I'm sorry Bella, I didn't think Harry would… well, I guess I didn't think."
"No, you didn't" Bellatrix agreed with what Hermione thought was a worrying amount of calm, given her reaction the last time. "Come, I am not eating your dubious idea of food if it is cold, however long it takes Kreacher to prepare something edible."
Hermione looked at her and held up the bags, "don't worry, here you have the best of both the muggle and the wizarding worlds. I put a warming charm on it."
Bella briefly wondered if bezoars worked on muggle food as well as the did on wizarding poisons, before becoming half-heartedly grateful that Potter had sent Kreacher to her, even if it had been a means to trap her once again.