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A Better Life

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The harsh white light of the infirmary blinded Hermione as she finally awoke from her impromptu sleeping session. Her body had been laid out and stretched beneath a thin and coarsely woven white sheet, same as when she had first awoken in the past. Her head and neck were supported by the lump of down that the school chose to call a pillow and a steady ache from the odd angle was straining in pain as she moved about. Her body shifted and a loud groan escaped her chest before she could help herself, right arm throwing out at unbending the stuff joint as she threw the offending sheet off of her body.

Someone had changed her out of her school uniform and into the standard white hospital gown at some point while she’d been unconscious and the thought of someone openly seeing her scars was sending her heartbeat into a frenzy. The length of her body from her toes to her head were burning as if a fire had been lit beneath her skin, cooled only by the thin sheen of sweat that clung to her body. The nearly paper thin gown that she was wearing was plastered directly to her skin as sweat ran through, every harsh outline and soft curve visible to the eye. She couldn’t tell if the shudders wracking her body were from pain and heat or revulsion at the state of herself.

The worst feeling by far though was the pain lancing throughout her scarred arm. It was bone deep and stifling, both a heat and an itch that commanded she scratch and dig and remove the offending flesh. The dull pressure on the forearm was foreign though and as loathe as she was to even look at it she still pushed herself further up the bed to figure out exactly what was going on with it.

Pure, white gauze was wrapped tightly around the arm and held on by either magic or spellotape, she couldn’t see the edge of the wrap enough to tell, and ran the full length of her arm from the wrist to the crook of her elbow. As comforting as it was to her that someone, Pomfrey most likely, had thought to bandage that particular issue right up, it did nothing to hide the shock and fair bit of horror at seeing exactly why they had done so.

Crimson, bright and strong, definitely not mud, had stained the portion of gauze directly above her scar. It was still colorful enough that she could tell it had only finished bleeding recently, the gauze not the rusty color of blood left to settle. The flesh beneath the gauze was still ringing out in pain and hurt as if the words had only just been etched into her.

Releasing her gaze she dropped her body back down and forced herself to still as she sank back into the mercifully soft bed beneath her. She wasn’t sure what she’d do if even that had some unwelcome edge to it, though screaming in rage and frustration was what came to mind.

All told her mind and body felt like she’d been trampled by several centaurs and lit up with Fiendfyre for good measure. The distant acknowledgement that she would be the one held accountable for attacking another student was also weighing heavily upon her mind, the final unwelcome addition to everything that she was going through.

‘Two weeks. I didn’t even last two bloody weeks!’

The agitated sound of Hermione shuffling on the bed finally caught the attention of Madam Pomfrey, who to this point, had still been ensconced in her work at her desk. Hermione’s attention was brought to her approach as the medi-witch’s heels echoed off the floor, her head swiveling to view her as much as the pain in her neck would allow.

‘Circe’s tits, that smarts.’

The movement also brought into view the lined up forms of her Professors sitting silently against the far wall. Slughorn was sleeping in a high backed chair with his head lolling off to the side and a thin line of drool shining in the harsh lighting. Minerva was off and to the side of Slughorn, embroiled in what looked to be quite the heated discussion with Albus.

In one swift movement Pomfrey reached down into her robes and brought out a small phial as she came to a stop beside Hermione’s prone form while her other arm shot out to rest the back of her hand against Hermione’s forehead. Hermione’s eyes tracked the phial as Pomfrey held it out for her, seafoam green swirling around the tube while specks of silver intermittently appeared and disappeared.

“Emelia, it’s good to see you awake. Here,” she uncorked the phial after removing her other hand from Hermione’s forehead and brought the rim of the glass to her lips. “Take this, it will help the residual pain and unpleasantness. I’m sorry about the temperature but it’s a side effect of the treatment we were using to stabilize you.”

Hermione sat up further in the bed before taking hold of the phial and tilting it back to down the potion in one go. The taste of honey and something smokey coated the inside of her mouth as a tingle started up as the liquid traveled down her throat. Almost immediately the sensation of cold menthol shot through her body, filling her up and caressing every muscle and nerve ending. She could feel the tension in her muscles release, the crick in her neck evaporating, and the scar on her arm losing much of its near paralyzing potency.

“Ms. Grenier,” Albus approached her swiftly, his robes sashaying back and forth in his hurry, with Minerva following directly on his heels. Slughorn was, however, still asleep and had begun to snore softly in his chair.

“It’s so good to see you doing better dear,” Minerva spoke up as she silently accio’d a chair to Hermione’s bedside and sat down. “You wouldn’t believe the scare you gave us with that little stunt against Ms. Black.”

The color in Hermione’s cheeks drained out as bile rose up the back of her throat, the enormity of exactly what she’d done finally crashing down onto her.

“Bellatrix!, Is Bellatrix alright?” Hermione pushed herself forwards and into a sitting position as Pomfrey moved an arm across her chest and back to steady her. “I didn’t hurt her to badly, did I?”

Albus shook his head and turned around to eye the still sleeping form of Slughorn.

“Ms. Black is fine my dear. You simply sent her a well aimed stupefy. She was released from Poppy’s care quite some time ago. But, as you’ve brought it up, would you mind enlightening us as to exactly what happened, and why? Ms. Black has been quite terribly tight-lipped about the whole incident.”

Hermione stilled her movement and leaned forward to prop herself up with her elbows on her knees. A sheepish look was all she could muster as she eyed the sleeping form of Slughorn to keep her eyes as far from the worried stare of Pomfrey as she could.

“It, um…” Hermione looked up to Albus and looked him in the eyes before nodding slightly to snoring lump of a professor, “It might better if we had this conversation in private, Headmaster.”

“Oh,” He turned to look behind himself, “Don’t worry about Horace my dear. I’ve slipped him a sleeping draught. We won’t be disturbed, he’ll have a good night’s rest, and I’ll inform him tomorrow of any relevant information.”

Hermione could have sworn his eyes twinkled in delight as he revealed he’d dosed her Head of House. As she conceded his point she still nervously eyed Pomfrey before turning her eyes back towards Albus. Pomfrey got the hint though, and politely left the group before anyone else spoke up.

“Okay,” she turned towards Minerva, “I accidentally referred to Bellatrix as ‘Lestrange’, last Friday. The whole week prior we’d been sort of trying to outdo one another during classes and with our assigned work. She wanted help on a paper but insulted me even as she asked. I shot back, but I used her last name. Future last name. I think she assumed that I was mocking her. She hates Rodolphus and I wasn’t aware of that. Or that no one else was supposed to know that they were set to be engaged. Since then, well, she’s up and rallied most of the other Slytherin’s into agitating against me and tried to turn our shared classes into her own personal brand of hell.”

“Emelia dear,” Minerva interjected, “If this was going on, why didn’t you come to Horace or one of us when this began?”

“I didn’t think-”

“You must understand Ms. Grenier, this was absolutely not the way to handle this situation. It was in no way appropriate.”

‘How was I supposed to handle it then?!’

“I know that, Professor. But-”

“And did you take the time to even try explaining your miswording to Bellatrix?”

‘Let me finish!’

“I tried to, Professor. And I spoke to Andromeda-”

“Why does Andromeda know about this incident? How did you explain your apparent knowledge about her engagement with Rodolphus?

“She knows because I-”

“Ms. Grenier, you simply could have had-”

‘Enough!!’

The bedspread pooled around Hermione’s waist ruffled under the force of Hermione’s inner anger coming unleashed. She could taste ozone and iron as her frustration finally boiled over and the dam inside her broke.

“I didn’t know what to do! I tried to explain it to her,” ragged breaths shook Hermione as her face and neck flushed red, the volume of her voice suddenly hard to control. “I didn’t know how to handle it at the time, I don’t know how to handle any of this! I just finished living through a war to having to live right before another! I’M STUCK HERE!! I have no friends, I have no family, I have no idea when or even if I’m ever going to be able to go home. This past week has been hell and it’s all because I insulted her on accident!”

When she finally ran out of breath and finished her tirade the room had begun to spin before her eyes.

‘I’m hyperventilating,’ she realized abstractly, unsure if it was really herself that she was feeling. The muscles al throughout her body were shaking with exertion and distantly she could feel the scar on her forearm pulsing again, brought back to life with heat and pain and venom. Minerva’s face was openly shocked, her mouth hanging agape and an embarrassed flush in her cheeks. Albus for his part seemed to have turned away some time ago and appeared to be doing his level best to not look down at her. She wasn’t sure why but his refusal to meet her gaze was bringing life back into her residual rage. Her lungs burned as she fought to regain control of her breathing.

“I’m sorry for the way I acted,” she grit out, teeth clamped so hard she could practically hear her parents scolding from all the way in the future. “I didn’t mean, or want, to hurt Bellatrix. I had even thought we might be able to get along together with no issues. I tried, I did, it’s just that this is all so…” Hermione trailed off as wet hot tears began to well up and over the lip of her eyes to run down over her face. She pulled herself inwards and curled in on herself, arms wrapped tightly over her knees as she let heavy sobs shake their way through her body.

In a flash Minerva hid her distraught look and shuffled over to Hermione’s bedside to comfort the distraught witch, murmuring soothing words and rubbing a warm spot into Hermione’s back with her hand. Albus took his eyes off the pair to give Poppy an emphatic look before nodding his head. At his wordless request Poppy strode over from her desk with another phial clutched tightly between her fingers. When she arrived she took ahold of Hermione’s left hand and gently pried it off of her knee before slipping the phial into her grasp. After she was sure that her charge wouldn’t drop or let go of the phial she let her know it was a calming draught before helping to guide it up to her lips to tip over and down her throat.

---oo---

It took nearly a half an hour for Hermione to finally calm down enough and open back up to continuing the conversation. Minerva had sat down at some point, content to stew in her shame and allow Albus the chance to steer the conversation from there on out.

“Emelia, we’ve spoken to Bellatrix. While she’s been reticent to talk about the incident when you stupified her, she has instead admitted to burning your parchment and generally conspiring to spoil the week for you. She’s also asked us to apologize on her behalf for the rude behavior that she engaged in. She would have admitted that herself, but felt you would prefer it better if she wasn’t present. Undoubtedly she will make that up to you the next time she sees you but for now please rest assured that she bears you no ill will. She, of course, will be punished for the transgressions she’s admitted to. Unfortunately I must now also look to administer punishment for your own. I understand the stresses that you’ve been laboring under-”

‘No you don’t,’ Hermione thought darkly as she awaited his sentencing.

“-But regardless, rules are rules. You will have an afternoon of detention that will be doled out as Horace and I see fit. In this particular instance we have both come to an agreement that both Ms. Black and yourself will accompany our Gameskeeper, Mr. Rubeus Hagrid, in his duties on the coming Monday afternoon. You will both report to him immediately following the end of your classes that day.”

‘Hagrid? And Bellatrix? Well. My death will be interesting at least.’

“I understand, Headmaster. I’ll report to him right away on Monday.”

“Good, good. Now, onto the real reason for my inclusion in this incident as well as the real reason for your visit to the infirmary today.”

“I believe I can help explain at least a part of that, if you wouldn’t mind, Albus.” Pomfrey stood from her desk and walked over to Hermione’s left side. Leaning down she gently grabbed ahold of Hermione’s arm and began to unwrap the bandages tightly bound around it.

“Over the afternoon, while you were unconscious, I managed to sidle some information out of Professor Mayweather. In particular, the information was about cursed wounds. After comparing it with the limited information that we’ve been able to note, well, we have a theory.”

The scar was still such an ugly sight that Hermione couldn’t bring herself to stare at it for any length of time. The rawness of the wound gave it the appearance that it had only just been inflicted and Hermione could swear that it felt like that too.

“Before now we’ve been operating under the assumption that the wound was cursed, but we couldn’t tell the extent of it. We knew that it wouldn’t heal with potions, time, or magic. Have you been having any pains in it before this afternoon?”

Hermione looked down at her lap bashfully before responding.

“Yes. It would start to hurt whenever I was near Bellatrix. It lessened though as the first week of classes went on. It only started to hurt again after she was angry at me. And it hurt more, this time, if that makes sense.”

“It would appear that the curse is tied directly with Bellatrix, even if it’s only reacting to a version of her younger self. In that manner, it might be soul tied. It would also appear that it’s connected directly with her mood state and whether you’re attempting to harm her. From what we’ve gathered it would appear that the moment you knocked her with the stupefy it sent a delayed reaction out and knocked you out as well. Almost like a punishment for the action. You knocked her out, it knocked you out.

“However, that’s really the extent of our knowledge. We won’t know more unless we take the time to actively test,” Minerva short the inquisitive medi-witch a glare that could peel paint, “Which we won’t attempt for fairly obvious reasons. Whether Bellatrix herself could remove the curse is also something that we’re not sure about.”

“Great,” Hermione spoke up in a cheerfully sarcastic tone, “Just one more reason to not get on her bad side.”

---oo---

Hermione was only allowed to leave the infirmary and make her way back off to the common-room after a final check in with the medi-witch and a rather sleepy conversation with Professor Slughorn. Her path back to the dungeons had been mostly deserted and only a few Prefects had been hanging out in any of the hallways. Most seemed in more than a hurry to disappear as quickly as she found them, wanting clearly to avoid her as much as they could.

Weariness clung all around Hermione like a warm and heavy cloak as every movement and step felt heavier than normal. All she wanted to do was to curl herself up into an undisturbed ball of limbs and sadness and sleep for days. Eventually she found herself before the statue that guarded the common-room and blearily gave it the password while her mind remained elsewhere.

Halfway to the hall that would lead to the girls' dormitory section a loud cough that sounded muffled by a hand caught her attention. Her eyes shot off into the darkness of the common-room as she took in whoever was waiting around.

Sitting deeply into a leather couch that was pressed right up against the far wall were Andromeda and Narcissa, an open tome sandwiched between them. Two pairs of eyes looked up and spotted Hermione as her body came to an automatic halt. She could feel her heart freezing solid in her chest as Andromeda’s eyes bore down into her own. She had wanted to talk with Andy at a more neutral time but seeming to have lucked into the two witches and no one else was more than enough of an invitation for Hermione. Turning on her heel she strode over to the seated pair who still had their eyes glued to her and their mouths shut.

Before she could even begin talking, Andromeda was up and out from her seat on the cough and was striding towards her with long and sharp paces that seemed counter to the rather short stature of the witch. Her eyes were unreadable dark pools that brought a shiver to Hermione’s spine.

“Andromeda-”

CRACK!

Andromeda had moved herself so quickly that Hermione hadn’t even seen her arm begin to move before the flat of Andy’s palm connected with her cheek. Her head was turned violently at the impact and pain flushed up immediately to take residence in her cheek.

“If you ever dare to attack or hurt my sister again, I will personally bury the little pieces of your body that remain. Is that understood?”

Shame flushed Hermione’s face and neck until the remaining cheek and hollow of her throat were the same color as the still stinging cheek. Her breath hitched as her mind came to terms with the fact that Andy, Andy of all people, had slapped her.

“Andromeda, I-”

“I asked. If you. UNDERSTOOD!” Andy’s voice was so loud that Hermione couldn’t help but wonder why there wasn’t a gaggle of students alerted to their altercation and swarming the common-room.

Hermione could do naught but stare into the pitch black orbs that reminded her so much of Bellatrix and tried to calm her breathing down enough to talk without stuttering or passing out.

“Y-Yes Andy. I understand. And for what it’s worth I’m sorry for attacking her like that.” Hermione inhaled deeply to settle the remaining tremors running through her body.

“Good.”

Before Hermione could reply or make any sense of what exactly had transpired, Andromeda rushed forward through the space between them and wrapped Hermione into a bone crushing hug.

“I’m sorry that Bella forced you into doing that. I just needed you to know that she’s my sister and I love her dearly. I know you’re sorry about what happened. It doesn’t change anything, you’re still our friend. And I’m sure that Bella is sorry too, even though you’ll have a hell of a time wringing that admission from her. She’s been under a ton of pressure lately and she took it all out on you. Doesn’t excuse her behavior, like, at all, but it wasn’t just a case of her not liking you.”

When Andromeda finally released her from the hug and air began flooding Hermione’s tightly wound chest, Narcissa silently walked up towards them. Narcissa finally caught Hermione’s eye after glancing worriedly between both witches and began to speak.

“Is it true that you managed to hit her before she even blocked?”

A frown tilted Hermione’s face at the oddness of the question. “Um… Yes?”

“Well,” Narcissa gave her the most piercing gaze that a twelve year old could, “That’s pretty cool. No one’s beat Bella in a duel yet, even when fighting underhanded.”

The young witch flashed Hermione an oddly warm smile before turning around and walking out towards to dormitories, leaving Hermione standing confusedly in her wake.

“So then,” Andy spoke up in a chipper tone, “That’s Cissa for you. I’ll let you go now. You probably won’t see Bella for a little while yet, she’s in a mood. Night Em’!”

Andy practically skipped past Hermione and left to the dorms after she finished speaking, leaving a confused and exhausted Hermione to parse her thoughts and attempt some sort of recovery.

---oo---

Numbness was setting in all over Bella’s body. Coming out from a Cruciatus curse had always left her nerve endings empty and unfocused in the minutes after application. It was a bit like have every muscle in her body fall asleep, except spread across every single nerve and blanketing her.

When she had been finally allowed out of the castle to attend her private ‘Tutoring Lesson’ on Friday, she’d been expecting some harsh words. Cygnus and Lord Voldemort had supplied those in spades. She’d even been expecting some form of a physical punishment. A slap maybe, or if Cygnus was feeling particularly nasty that day, a punch to her gut and a swift kick to her ribs.

What had ended up awaiting her was worse. Cygnus had waited, hidden among the background of the manor, while her new tutor took it upon himself to admonish her lack of ability.

“To think,” he said in a snarled whisper that was raspy with rage, “That such a promising young witch would be bested by the last scion of an extinct House. I mean really, you must admit that it’s a disgrace.”

The disappointed tone riding up beneath his words was like a knife dug into her skin. He was supposed to be her ticket out from becoming a subservient house-witch to a man with more testicles than brain cells, even if Cygnus was loath to admit it. Voldemort wanted her, Her, and she’d failed a simple request. Do not lose.

The sting of the first crucio was an unexpected pain but entirely out of the spectrum of her experiences. It lashed at her body like knives tearing into flesh and pulling the muscle and gristle off her bones. Her body had cramped and she’d almost missed his soft but angered words when he released the curse.

“We will have to correct this deficiency. Get up, we’ll cover something simple, something even you can handle. Dueling agility. Up!”

And they had. Voldemort slung piercing hexes and stinging jinxes at a rate almost faster than her eyes could keep up with. Her chest burned with exertion as she fought for breath and the dizzying pace that she was forced to dodge at took a toll on her generally enormous stamina pool. She scraped her body raw against cold stone as she flung her body every which way in an effort to avoid him.

Whenever she was caught somewhere she knew she couldn’t dodge, she instead threw up simple Protego wards, taking the brunt of the attack in her arms and legs as she pushed against the incoming force.

Finally, a hex flew past her defenses and smashed its way into the meat of her thigh and sending her sprawling forward as the leg was blasted out from under her. Her nose collided painfully and stars washed out beneath her eyelids. She could taste blood sliding down her throat and her tongue burned painfully where she’d nearly bitten it off.

She wasn’t even able to get to her hands and knees before a roaring “Crucio!” reached her ears. The pain was again immediate, lasting several seconds before being relinquished.

“Get up. Reset, we go again.”

On trembling limbs she pushed herself up and squared her stance when she reached her feet. And then he was on her again.

---oo---

And so they had sparred. Bellatrix pushing her body to its utter limits in an effort to dodge and protect herself. Every failure had meant suffering an increasingly long-lasting Cruciatus. It was more than enough of an incentive for her to try her absolute hardest. By the time she’d been allowed to apparate back to the gates of Hogwarts, she’d been a trembling mess.

Muscles were strained and unwieldy even if she couldn’t directly feel the pain settling in, numbness still blanketing most of her body. The walk back to the common-room had been fraught with moments when she was sure that she would just give in and collapse.

When she’d finally arrived back safely into her own bed she’d thrown herself forward without removing any of her blood and sweat stained clothing, preferring instead to curl into a ball and retreat into her mind as she waited for the pain to set in and overcome her.

For what felt like the first time in ages, tears accompanied her as she drifted off to a fitful and terrified sleep.