By the end of the week Hermione could proudly proclaim that it indeed could get worse.
So much worse.
That first Transfiguration lesson had proven a few things to Hermione. Sitting at the forefront was the knowledge that the label of ‘ Smartest Witch of her Age’ was unequivocally not an exaggeration. Order members in her time might have used the phrase to be condescending but it was accurate to a T. They weren’t exaggerations and Bellatrix seemed to revel in proving it.
McGonagall would ask a question of the class and two hands were assured to rise as fast as humanly possible. They were evenly matched in terms of theory and both sought to outdo the other when it came to answering correctly. As the class had worn on it seemed apparent that the remainder of the students were willing to leave any and all questions up to them. A few Ravenclaw students would also attempt to answer but were never quite as fast or accurate as the duo.
While McGonagall continued to drone on ad nauseam about proper wrist movement during wordless transfiguration Hermione would lean back into her chair and try to surreptitiously catch a glimpse of the dark haired witch. When she had finally got a clear enough view it was apparent that Bellatrix was doing much the same. She wore a small wry grin that looked to be part amusement and part surprise at how much Hermione knew. Her own face was lit up with a similar smirk. While the lesson continued a giddiness had begun to slowly infect Hermione as she came to the realization that Bellatrix, in this class at least, was her equal.
Between the two of them they had managed to win 30 points for Slytherin by the time the practical application portion of the lesson was to begin. Though the effort wasn’t for the House she was familiar with it gave Hermione a sense of accomplishment to put her knowledge to work and have it recognized among her peers. The effort to outdo each other mounted as the class continued. By the end of the lesson they were silently racing one another to transfigure a wooden block into a rather fancifully colored wind chime with no words and minimal wand movement.
They’d practically flown through the lesson and by the time McGonagall had released them the pain in Hermione’s scar had faded into the back of her mind. It was still present but no longer a focus of attention. As their class had filed out neither Bellatrix nor Hermione spoke of the obvious academic rivalry that seemed to have grown in just one class. As Bellatrix left with a group of seventh year Slytherin’s heading for the courtyard Hermione stared off after her and leaned back against the ancient stone walls flanking the hallway. A soft hand on her shoulder pulled her free from her thoughts. Glancing to her right she noticed Andromeda standing next to her with a hand out, a quizzical expression written on her face.
“Hey Em’.” Hermione was struck by how quickly Andromeda had come to nickname her and offer some small measure of support.
“If you’re done for the day, want me to show you around now?”
Reminded of the promised ‘tour’, Hermione smiled and nodded in return.
“Sure. Just let me just drop off my bag, then we’ll head out.”
Shoulder to shoulder they headed down to the Dungeons.
The rest of the school week had consisted of Hermione excelling at her courses, walking the castle grounds after classes had finished with Andromeda, and trying to beat out Bellatrix whenever they had class together. They’d both settled into a routine where they would sit at the same table and work to beat each other at some arbitrary notion of ‘excellence’ in class.
The dark witch seemed to acknowledge that they were on an even playing field in the theoretical portions of their classwork. To counter it she actively sought to work out problems, potions, new spells and other classwork at a pace that almost managed to leave Hermione choking on her dust. The unintentional gap that the war created in Hermione’s schooling was beginning to show. By the time she knew the answer to a question Bellatrix had already had her arm raised. To her teachers and classmates it would seem she had just as much of an edge as Bellatrix; but she knew she was lagging behind even if it was almost imperceptible to others.
The smirks she received when Bellatrix was chosen to answer and not her were particularly grating. It wasn’t a mean smirk. It wasn’t ugly. Hermione wasn’t truly convinced that Bellatrix could even look anything other than radiantly smug. She could admit Bellatrix was pretty. She could admit she was beautiful, even. But her heart and head protested at thinking on that subject any further than skin deep. The angry voice in her head thought otherwise.
‘You like how pretty she is…’
Hermione had been trying as hard as she could to keep that little voice quiet. But it wasn't working.
The only edge up on Bellatrix that she had was in Arithmancy and even that was a hard won battle. If it hadn’t been her favorite subject she was sure she’d be behind instead. As the week progressed the scar on her arm became a constant source of sensation. After the second class together the pain had begun to fade into the background of her consciousness. It was just as warm and angry as before but rather than being distracting it was now mundane and easy to ignore, whereas before it had been a constant draw to her attention.
As Friday came she was no longer hiding herself behind stacks of parchment and books in the library or spending the evenings holed up in her dorm room. She opted to instead join Andromeda in the common room to go work on her own homework and help Andromeda when asked. The young witch was bright but having trouble in multiple courses. Rather than filling her with annoyance as it had when Harry or Ron had asked for help, helping Andromeda was a welcome time sink. The witch waited with bated breath as Hermione would explain a concept or spell that she’d been stuck on. The open gratitude for helping was warming and the chance to repay Andromeda for taking the time to walk with her in the evening before dinner was welcomed. Though they were usually never the only ones present it seemed majority of students worked elsewhere.
After walking the castle with Andromeda they would retire in the common room to work through classwork while waiting to leave for dinner and return to their books and work the moment they returned. Bellatrix seemed to be avoiding her when outside of classrooms and they hadn’t yet been together in the common room. Narcissa would occasionally break off from her young friend group and take time to sit with her sister and Hermione, absorbing their words with quiet contemplation and occasional questions. Hermione had decided early on that these moments were a good time to get to know Narcissa.
The youngest Black sister was a welcome deviation from the older version Hermione had come to know all too well. Whereas Narcissa Malfoy constantly reeked of superiority and put off an air of hostility and veiled contempt, Cissa Black was as open and warm as any other twelve year old. Sometimes their conversations would leech over to the subject of blood-purity and the status of muggleborns and half-bloods. At the casual dropping of mudblood in conversation Hermione would be instantly reminded that the young girl was the daughter of an incredibly discriminatory pureblood house.
Those moments would always coincide with Hermione distancing herself as she remembered exactly who Narcissa and Bellatrix would grow into. Andy and Cissa would quietly share a look with one another as Hermione retreated into her shell and move the topic of conversation elsewhere. Both witches seemed acutely attuned to the emotions of those around them and sought to keep things warm at best and neutral at worst. They might not have known the cause of Hermione’s distress but both wanted to lessen it whenever possible.
It was during one of these introspective moments that Bellatrix found them all sitting on the warm leather couch in the common room. Narcissa occupied the far right corner of the couch and was sitting with her feet tucked beneath her and a Potions textbook open on her lap. Andromeda was propped up in the middle with a stack of parchments she’d been shuffling through and revising with Hermione’s help. Hermione herself sat staring off into the fireplace after getting lost in her own memories. Unnoticed the scar began to pulse with heat. The telltale warning sign that Bellatrix was near was only a blip in her mindscape as she lost herself in thought and reflection. Eventually the pain was at full strength and still Hermione was tuning out the world.
Andromeda’s eyes flitted between Hermione and her older sister.
Bellatrix walked closer as Hermione remained lost and oblivious to the outside world.
“Grenier!” Bellatrix finally shouted alarmingly close to Hermione’s ear.
‘Shite,’ Hermione startled at the noise and jumped backwards in surprise, ‘That’s me. ’
“Yeah, yeah, sorry. What do you want Bellatrix?” Hermione shook her head and turned to stare the witch in the eyes. Bellatrix took a step back and crossed her arms around her front, shifting back onto her right foot.
“I was going to ask you for help on the Arithmancy essay but if you’re so dense as to not notice your own name, I’m not so sure about asking you now.”
The look of disdain etched into Bellatrix’s features could have withered stone. Hermione took a second to collect her scattered thoughts before responding to the insult.
“If you’re so behind that you need help on that little thing, I’m not sure anyone can help you, LeStrange.”
An intake of breath to her right was her only warning.
The reaction was immediate.
‘Did I just call her…’
Bella’s eyes widened in a mixture of fear and anger while her face settled into a mask of rage.
“How dare you,” Bellatrix spat as her words dripped icy venom. Hermione’s scar burst forth in burning pain as a low growling sound began to emanate from Bellatrix. The air surrounding them took on a sudden cloying heat as a crystal goblet on a shelf near them shattered into thousands of shards. No one moved at the sudden spray of glass, too caught up in Bellatrix’s reaction.
“I, I didn’t mean-” Hermione tried to stutter out an apology but before she could Bellatrix had turned heel and stormed off out the entrance to the common room. Mouth gaping like a fish Hermione turned towards Narcissa and Andromeda who were looking at her with a mixture of pity and confusion. Andromeda was the first to break the ongoing tension.
“Um, Em’. How’d you know about Rodolphus? I mean, they aren’t even engaged yet…?”
Cissa shared a look with Andy before standing up from the couch and heading out to follow Bellatrix.
“I, I… I heard a rumor floating around from some of the boys. I didn’t mean to bring it up, I didn’t know she’d react like that.”
Andy leaned back and shook her head slightly before looking back to Hermione.
“Stupid git.” Hermione winced at her words and turned to stare at her hands in her lap.
“Oh, no no, not you Emelia. Rodolphus. Bellatrix hates Rodolphus, and I doubt she thought it’d get out this soon. She’s only marrying because it was arranged.”
Hermione relaxed at Andromeda’s words and tried to uncurl the shame that had wrapped around her stomach. She’d known the couple wasn’t particularly close in her timeline but wasn’t aware that Bellatrix had hated her intended.
“If she doesn’t like him,” Hermione began, “Why doesn’t she just call it off? Marry someone she actually likes?”
Andy physically scoffed at Hermione’s suggestion and wore a sad grin on her face.
“Because, she’d be disowned. And maybe end up dead somewhere no one’d find…”
Hermione blanched at that.
“Yeah,” Andy nodded, “Tell me about it.”
After the unintended exchange Hermione’s days went down like a hippogriff plummeting from the sky. Bellatrix never outwardly said anything to Hermione but the disdain she now held for her was evident in her actions. The pair no longer sat near one another as Bellatrix opted to stay as far away as she physically could during lectures. She would find herself tripping in hallways while snickering laughter could be heard around corners. Inkpots would randomly spill onto her work. Her standard quills had been switched out for disappearing ink quills three times. At random intervals during the night loud blaring sirens would throw her from sleep while guilty footsteps ran away from her door. Water would leak and form a puddle in front of her dormitory door every morning. Her scar had been hurting more intensely all week, and she’d been unable to put it out of her mind. The prefect bathroom she’d taken too was almost constantly occupied by a certain witch who set her scar blazing. Stinging jinx’s would hit her whenever she seemed alone and the vast majority of Slytherin students were suddenly ignoring her.
She wouldn’t have minded that last one as the likes of LeStrange brothers and their attending cronies never interested her, but now Narcissa was attempting to avoid her completely. The only person left in the dungeons who seemed to still have her back was Andromeda and even that friendship was increasingly strained as Bellatrix bore down and Hermione withdrew.
It came to a head the Thursday after the incident with Bellatrix. Irritated and sleep deprived Hermione had sat in her chair only to find a sticking jinx applied to the seat. After muttering the counter-jinx and fuming for a few seconds she looked back and caught a glare from Bellatrix. Her History of Magic block for that day was devoted to a test, and she could hardly pay attention.
Halfway through the period she’d felt the eyes of Bellatrix boring into her back as the pain in her arm spiked up a notch. When she stood up from her desk to turn in her parchment she could hear the scraping of another chair in the back of the classroom. Hurried footsteps followed up behind her and as they moved to pass Hermione looked to her left.
Bellatrix was glaring her down with her eyes as black as night. It was a visceral change. Her eyes no longer held the hint of warm brown tones but were instead deep and black, filled with visible anger churning beneath the surface. As Bellatrix stepped to pass her she brought up her crooked wand unexpectedly and touched the parchment clutched within Hermione’s fingers. Hermione’s mouth opened in shock as it suddenly burst into flame and crumbled as she let go.
“Ah!” Hermione screamed in alarm and stepped to the side as the entire class turned to look. Bellatrix continued walking on, her head turned slightly to glare down Hermione as she walked away with a savage grin on her face. It was the last straw.
As Bellatrix turned her head towards the front of the class Hermione drew her wand from its holster. She understood abstractly that there would be repercussions for this action but couldn’t seem to find it within herself to care. That tiny little angry voice had come into its own and was egging her on at a screaming volume in an effort to drown out her conscience. A rising gasp from the classmates around her alerted Bellatrix that danger was coming and she started to turn back around.
“Stupefy !” Hermione let out the spell as fast as she could, hoping to catch Bellatrix before she could notice the wand in her hand.
It worked. Bellatrix dropped into a crouch and turned towards Hermione while throwing out a Protego , but it came too late. Hermione’s spell found its mark as Bellatrix bowled over backwards. At the same moment the scar on her arm flared up in pain so intense she was forced to double over and fall to her knees, wand dropping to the ground as she cried out in pain.
All around her her classmates were tearing up from their desks in confusion and shock at the duel while Professor Binns looked on with a bored expression filled his ethereal face. Tears began clouding Hermione’s vision as the intensity of the pain notched up again. After what felt like hours she felt her world closing in as her vision tunneled. Her last waking thought rattled around her brain.
‘Merlin, I am so fucked.’
“What are we going to do about this Albus?” Minerva’s questioning gaze sought out Albus as he peered at the parchment laying on his desk.
“No need to worry Minerva. What they did can be rectified through internal punishment. Horace will have them in detention for a week, and we’ll all move on from this incident.”
She walked up in front of his desk and lay her palms flat atop the table, a scowl breaking through her features.
“Are you sure, Albus?” She needed to know. The troubling lack of surprise when he’d been told of the incident was honestly worrisome.
He looked up at her through his glasses and sighed deeply. As the seconds ticked onward he leaned backwards in his chair and clasped his hands together while resting them on top of the desk.
“Of course I am Minerva. It’s all for the greater good.”