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A Better Life

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Apparition pulled like a hook through her navel, squeezed and bent in unnatural directions until her body righted itself with a sickening POP!

As she stepped from Minerva’s side the nauseous feeling faded to be replaced with labored breathing and splayed hands on her knees as she fought to keep herself righted. A small house elf stood off to the side waiting for her settle down before announcing that he’d been ordered to drag them off to meet with Albus. With a weary sigh she collected her scattered thoughts and allowed the elf to whisk them off via apparition.

“Oh Gods…” Hermione’s world shook back and forth when she arrived in the Headmaster’s office. House elf apparition might have been different from the normal form but to her tired body it was too much of the same. In a manner of sympathy Minerva placed a hand gently on Hermione’s back and waited for her composure to settle before taking a seat in front of Albus’s desk.

“Headmaster,” Hermione shook her head in lieu of a more formal greeting as she sank down heavily into the padded chair to Minerva’s right. Her eyes roved his face in a questioning manner as the old man simply smiled back, seemingly oblivious to her earlier distress.

“Ms. Grenier. I hope your earlier tumble wasn’t enough to cause you any harm,” his eyes shone with some form of hidden amusement as he set aside a crystal tumbler and steepled his fingers on top of the desk. “How was your trip? I trust everything was in order at Gringotts?”

“Yes sir, everything was fine.” Her voice was level and tame but inside she burned with questions.

‘How did he know I fell? And why address it so coyly?’

“Good, good. I’d say that that was to be expected but the goblins can be so fickle when dealing with newcomers. But, I didn’t ask you here just to inquire about that.”

Hermione shot a look at her mentor when he finished speaking. Minerva was tight-lipped, looking down at her hands in her lap and seemed to be avoiding looking at either one of them. Whatever the cause was for this meeting she at least seemed to have some foreknowledge about it. A long and rumbled sigh from Albus brought her back to his presence in the room as a frown twisted his features.

“It is... Unfortunate, but I believe that I have no choice but to address this directly. I hope that it won’t add to your distress but skirting the issue will do no one any justice.”

Hermione’s eyes widened at his admission as her mind went to the unexpected encounter with Bellatrix Lestrange. She couldn’t help but wonder if Minerva had witnessed the confrontation and had gone ahead to let him know. She’d not seen anyone else looking at them in particular but she couldn’t put it out of mind entirely. With a man like him, who played chess with people’s lives, it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that he had her under surveillance even when his right hand was with her. But even that made no sense, why would he bother bringing that up if Bellatrix had no idea who she even was?

Albus had been waiting while she looked at Minerva and coughed gently to bring her attention back on himself.

“After successive talks with, shall we say, knowledgeable, sources regarding the topic of Time Magic, we’ve come to a tentative conclusion regarding your current predicament.”

Hermione’s eyes widened as she leaned forward slightly, ears hanging on his weary old voice.

‘This isn’t good. Is it?’

“While it’s only been a few days we’ve still gone through a very large amount of theory and prior practical applications of Time Magic, Time Turners specifically.” He hesitated to continue as his mouth opened and closed like a drowning fish. It was one of the first times she’d ever seen him at a loss for words.

“Ms. Grenier, Hermione, what I’m trying to say is-”

‘No, this is not good at all.’

“-We don’t have a way to send you back. Not yet at least, though please don’t lose hope. We will continue to look-”

‘Oh Muddy. You’re stuck,’ the voice in the back of her mind spoke up. ‘You’re fucked.’

She could swear there was something funny about this, why else would someone be laughing? Cackling even? She hoped they’d let her in on whatever this joke was. It certainly wasn’t funny to her.

“-and I will be the first to let you know as soon as we find something. Please take this to mean your, hmm, vacation, will be extended slightly.”

‘Extended. Vacation. Oh. Lovely.’

Somewhere far away she was still aware that Albus hadn’t stopped talking. He’d apparently not seen her eyes dip down and shrink as she folded inwards. His voice droned on and one about not losing hope and maybe there was an answer or something of the sort that could help her. It all went in one ear and out Hermione’s other. Her vision had begun sharply tunneling, and she couldn’t help but squeak indignantly when she realized she hadn’t noticed it was happening.

She had a sudden and strange taste of ashes in her mouth before her body capitulated to the shock the day had brought and she pitched forward, limbs loose and mind receding.

‘I can’t go home.’

Her nose was only millimeters from crashing into the floor when Minerva finally caught her.

---oo---

Unconsciousness raced forward into wakefulness in a rush. Deep lungfuls of air forced their way into her chest as she shot up from lying prone on her bed. Her eyes flicked from wall to wall as her mind tried to reorient herself in the haze of it all.

‘Green, cold, my room?’

Bits and pieces came back to her as her mind reorientated. When she could think without feeling her head was full of cotton she collapsed backwards into the soft pillows.

‘At least it’s not the infirmary…’

Truth be told she was ecstatic at finding herself in her own room. She’d practically lived inside that infirmary during her first six years and had had enough of it to last lifetimes over. Her eyes stilled their constant roaming and feeling of loneliness dug into her chest as she realized that no one else was here to greet her return from unconsciousness. At least that was, until she realized with a mildly perturbed feeling that Albus had tucked himself away into the corner to her right. Hidden in the angles and lack of firelight she’d first thought him just a shadow until he moved slightly.

The chair he sat in was more akin to a throne than a simple easy chair, or even the wooden boards that made up her own furniture. His eyes twinkled in the darkness, ‘Is that normal?’ , before he sat forward with an odd sort of smile on his face.

“It’s good to see you awake Ms. Grenier. You wouldn’t believe the fright that you gave Minerva. I thought for sure she was about to burst into hysterics.” He chuckled airily at whatever he found funny in her mentors distress. “I only just managed to calm her down and even then it only worked after I swore to keep watch until you awoke.”

He tilted his head to the side and that eerie smile seemed to grow as distant firelight illuminated him. Hermione took the pause in his speech to truly look at him.

He looked kindly enough, even with the odd form his grin had taken. No malice peeked out from his eyes and he wasn’t shaking in either tiredness nor rage. Even though he was thirty years younger than the old man she’d known before, he still wore the obvious signs of aging. Wrinkled skin, sunken eyes. Even the gray wisps of his beard seemed exhausted just by existing. His exhaustion was a cloak, one worn long and well adapted.

“I do however have an ulterior motive for being here, which I’m sure you’ve suspected.”

She honestly had. As soon as the feeling of being prey washed over her upon noticing him sitting there, she’d been wondering exactly why it was him that had pushed to stay with her. Surely Minerva could do just as fine a job. A faint feeling of itchiness and the sensation that someone had cradled her head was slowly building. When she brought her mind inwards she could feel the telltale signs that someone had either been in or that something had leaked out. Where once there was a flat wall was now a wall with what had at some point been a door.

Her chest tightened as she realized what had happened.

I don’t mean to pry Emelia-”

“Hermione,” she interrupted. The beginnings of warm embers were stirring up to flow through her chest. “For one more day at least. Headmaster Dumbledore, I don’t appreciate being read like that. At least not without explicit permission.”

When she finished she brought her eyes back to his as he looked down upon her and for a second she could swear she saw them harden in displeasure. It was like looking at angry animal before it was covered up almost immediately with grandfatherly concern.

“Of course Hermione,” his voice seemed to have aged years in the span it took him to begin talking again, “My apologies. You are such a unique case, one I’ve never had the pleasure of studying. My interest in your situation overcame my restraint. You’ve been so closed off since you arrived, even when you first got here. My mind outpaced my conscience.” He leaned back in his chair and stared distantly to the green tinted window.

While Hermione waited on him to continue speaking she began to finger and worry the looping scar lashed across her neck with scratching and irritating strokes.

Seemingly satisfied that he’d swept his intrusion under the rug he began to speak again.

“We’ve tried all we can for now. With the lack of anything or anyone from your own future reaching back for you, along with the woefully inadequate information we have on the specific Time Turner that you used, well, we’re in quite the predicament.”

“So what do you suggest Headmaster?” She stared off into the space above her door and the ceiling, refusing to let herself fall apart as she had back in his office.

“You live your life.”

Her eyes snapped back to his own. Whatever she’d imagined him saying, something to lift her spirits surely, it hadn’t been that.

“Live your new life. Embody Emelia Grenier. We won’t give up on searching for a way to send you back but you shouldn’t put your life on hold while waiting on an answer that may never come.”

Her skin prickled with anger as the fingers on her scar began to drive her nails down painfully into the skin.

‘I want to live my life, MY life! It’s just thirty bloody fucking years in the future!!’

“What… What about,” her jaw set painfully into a grimace as she stared into his eyes, “Wouldn’t that…” She took a breath to recenter herself before her anger could infect her voice. “You know. Wouldn’t that interfere with the future? Don’t I risk erasing myself? Or my friends? Family?”

‘I can’t wait to see how he spins this…’

“If I’m to be honest with you… The fact that you’re still here seems to disprove you ever doing anything that would remove yourself from the timeline. Whether accidentally or not. Some of those we’ve contacted on your behalf are tirelessly looking into that question specifically. The short of it is that we’re not sure if your case is special.” He spat the last word out as if it was something distasteful sticking to his tongue. “If it is different, you are different, you’ll be safe. And to be honest there’s a lot of good you could do here. For more people than just yourself.”

Her eyes narrowed down and anger flared through her again. The voice in her mind was practically giddy and breathless as it spat out There is the catch. Didn’t take him long…’

“Forgive my bluntness sir,” she leveled the most withering stare she was capable of, “But are you trying to recruit me?”

Dumbledore sighed deeply and fidgeted in his seat before replying.

“You are here. Right here, right now. In the right spot in history to do some honest good,” he steeled her with a piercing gaze all ice and strength. It only reminded her of a predator looking at dying prey. “You have the chance to influence a lot of people. People like Ms. Black. Someone thirty years from now may be spared the pain of your scars.”

‘He saw!’

Her face drained of color and her knuckles did the same as her fingers gripped the bedspread beneath her in a death grip. One of the absolute last memories she’d ever wanted anyone seeing, the one that had prompted her to begin Occlumency training to begin with, had been viewed so carelessly that the doddering fool now thought her could use it against her.

‘Against me!’

The realization infuriated and scared her in equal measure.

“If you won’t mind Headmaster,” she spoke, voice hoarse and clipped, “I’ve had a very long day and I’d very much like some privacy.” The last word was practically dripping with venom as she remained in her clenched position, heat flowing through her body in unbound measure.

With a nod and a sigh he stood from his spot and twirled a finger. The chair beneath him disappeared into nothingness as he headed towards the door to the room. Hermione could barely hear herself think with her mind so torn on anger sharpened thoughts. The pain from his attempted guilt trip and despair at the knowledge of being stuck in this time was an ache she wanted to peel out from her heart.

‘Oh Muddy…’

As Dumbledore reached the door he grasped the knob and turned around to look at her again. He seemed to pause, wondering whether it was worth it to speak again, before looking down at his slippered feet and simply wishing her a pleasant night.

The door clicked shut behind him and Hermione counted to fifty. When she was sure he was far enough away she practically leaped up from her position on the bed and began to cast layered and complex silencing charms all over the room. With the door bolted and secure she took aim with her wand and unleashed the full weight of the hurt locked inside her chest.

A flurry of spells tore at the room in a rising crescendo timed to the frustration leaking from her heart.

---oo---

One of the few spots within Black Manor that Bellatrix could securely hide away from Cygnus with any surety in the matter was the rookery.

The large attic was unfinished, bare boards and slats lacking any form of insulation. Old trunks and broken furniture littered the room as much as bird droppings and dead animal carcasses. With the ferocity of the horde of ravens that had infested the room it was no wonder why the house elves simply let the place be and warded the smells and rot from encroaching into the Manor.

Once, when she was very little, this attic had been intended to house the Black Family owls. Now the owls were gone and the space had become Bellatrix’s sanctuary. Sawdust and straw littered the far end where the open bay windows lay uncovered. Birds roosted on every available surface, piling into huddled masses during winter and squawking and pecking during summer months.

The owls had eventually had a single shed built further out on the grounds that elves serviced, bring in mail and ensuring the owls were kept comfortable until their flight back out. Bellatrix was quite pleased that the black masses had taken the room, affording her two comforts in one.

Cycnus hated the incessant clawing and caws that entering the room would bring him and did his best to avoid the room at any and all costs. Bellatrix instead found their company pleasant, taking time from her day to wander among them and see to their needs, little as they were.

Over the years they had come to view her presence comfortably enough that they would bring her shiny trinkets and other bright things whenever she visited. The birds were cunning little thieves and she’d built a loyalty to them that couldn’t be faulted. Spending time to get to know each and every individual had taken hard effort on her part but was rewarded by their acceptance of her. She was even starting to amass a small fortune in silver buttons and lost sickles.

Each and every bird that roosted in the attic was given equal care and attention with the exception of one bird. The undeniable queen of the roost was Harmonia. She was both the largest raven that Bellatrix had ever seen as well as the smartest one she’d ever known. A familiarity had grown between the two until she was her unofficial familiar and mail carrier and silent friend. Well, silent except for the loud cawing.

The raven would dance upon her shoulder and tussle her curls with its beak while she spoke softly to it or played with its midnight black feathers. Harmonia was a silent companion as she spoke of her worries or troubles, and she’d spent many hours regaling the bird with tales of her physical and mental health whenever they were together.

She would describe the aches and pains of being the eldest Black. From living through Cygnus and Druella’s cruelty to painting a picture with words of her new baby cousins smiling face. The comfort she placed in the bird might have seemed odd to her if she hadn’t started trusting it so early in life.

At Hogwarts Harmonia would arrive long before she had even left for the Express. She would arrive to school to find the bird had cleared a corner of the owlery as her roost while staying to take care of any of her mail.

Bellatrix was keenly aware that Harmonia did not belong to her, not in the way that someone would own an owl. They kept to each other by choice. The raven was free and Bellatrix envied her for it. If the raven chose to leave she would be broken-hearted but not upset. The little relationship of theirs was unique, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.

That night Bellatrix was far too absorbed into her time with Harmonia to notice the entrance of her sister into the room. When the witch snuck up behind her to poke her back with a sharp fingernail she nearly shrieked.

“Bloody Merlin!” She whirled around and brought her wand level to the intruders face at the same time. When her mind recognized it was only Andy she lowered the wand and rushed forward to embrace her younger sister in a bone-crushing hug.

“Okay, okay,” Andromeda pulled and pushed herself out of Bellatrix’s tight grip, “I can’t breathe when you do that.”

She stepped backwards and dropped her arms as her eyes slid over her sister to check for any sign of injury. When none made themselves readily apparent she brushed her wand lengthwise across the young witch and banished the multiple glamours.

Dark purple and yellow splotches blossomed onto her sister’s face and arms as she stepped backwards from her.

“Merlin I swear I’ll kill him,” Bellatrix said through clenched teeth as rage and hate boiled up inside her.

“No you won’t Bella. I won’t have you follow mother out to Azkaban. I can handle this,” Andy pulled her wand out and reapplied the glamours. “I convinced him I don’t need a personal tutor, so that’s what counts. You should do the same…”

“I can’t,” she replied, stepping backwards and turning towards the beam that Harmonia was perched on. “If it gets me out of marrying that walking pig Rodolphus I’ll take all the lessons I can.”

“It won’t and you know it.” Andy refused to give any ground, her eyes following Bellatrix’s nervous posture. “Just refuse. We’ll be at school tomorrow, he can’t get us there.”

With a practiced movement Bella turned towards her sister and poked a finger angrily into her sister’s chest. “I said I can’t, now drop it.”

When Andromeda shrank backwards from her sister she dropped her finger and bit back a frustrated sigh at her actions. Andy sighed to herself before walking forward to join her sister next to Harmonia and began running her fingers lightly down the bird’s neck feathers.

Andy reached down into a small pocket of her dress to remove a miniature box and enlarged it with a quick wave of her wand. When she was finished the box had enlarged to sit comfortably on her hand. Deep cherry and black walnut comprised the item while silver engraving in the shape of the Black Family crest sat inset upon the lid.

“These are for you Bella. I went shopping after I left that meeting,” she held the box out for her sister to take. “I figured you could use it more than me.”

Bella looked at her quizzically before accepting the box and lifting the lid. Reaching inside she pulled out two vials, one filled with dried leaves and the other holding preserved cocoons.

“You think I won’t get it right on the first try?” Bellatrix asked while throwing her sister a happy and lopsided grin.

“Well, ya never know.” Andy smiled back at the obvious giddiness that Bellatrix projected before throwing an arm around her sister in a light hug. “You’ll need to get the other ingredient, I couldn’t figure out a way to keep it fresh. But it’s all you’ll need.”

After hugging back at Andromeda she shrank the box back down before throwing a last look at Harmonia and heading back for the door.

The raven gave one last look as the witches left the room before flying out the window at a breakneck speed.

---oo---

The morning after the outing to Diagon Alley left Hermione feeling strangely at ease. It seemed that the unleashing of her rage and frustration the night before had helped her come to terms with the situation. The abstract terror that she’d experienced while staring up at Bellatrix Lestrange’s face had faded into memory beneath the background anxiety of the prospect of the coming months. Even still, she couldn’t help but focus on the peculiarity of meeting here there.

Against her better judgment she released a long sigh and admitted that it was more than just the anxiety and terror that her mind was coming back to. This new version of the witch was beautiful. Even with her features having been twisted into a scowl of hate and tears hanging unshed in her eyes, she’d still been entrancing. Having experienced the woman she was to become she was a hard fact for Hermione to reconcile. Knowing they were one and the same just didn’t seem to want to click for her. The anger and the hate was the same but the witch had lacked the maniacal grin. Her body wasn’t worn down by years of constant malnutrition and neglect. Her hair wasn’t yet wispy and dry from constant exposure to the elements.

Thick black ringlets of hair had cascaded down the young witches shoulders and Hermione had found it beautiful. She wasn’t quite sure what to make of her reaction.

Resolving to deal with the matter at a later date she lazily dressed and headed out into the new morning.