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A Better Life

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“I have to read all of this?”

“Yes.”

“I can’t. I’ll die.”

Hermione couldn't take it. This witch was supposed to become the most feared Death Eater of all time. And she was whining. About reading.

“No you won’t. It’s not even a lot.”

“Yes it is. Do you really hate me this much? Is this your plan? Death by paper-cut? Andy will avenge me. You'll be hounded into oblivion.”

“Argh,” Hermione grumbled out. “Are you trying to annoy me into canceling our arrangement?”

“No. Guess not. Teaching you parseltongue will be fun. I'll be a great teacher. Unlike you. You’re not a good teacher.”

“I haven’t even started teaching you yet!”

“And yet you’re giving me homework. Tsk Tsk. I think your lesson plan needs a rework.”

Exasperated to the point of near fuming, Hermione attempted to rein in her temper.

One, two, three, don't hex her, one, two, three…’

Grabbing the books from her hands she stood up from the bed and dropped them back onto the vanity. Turning around she glared the dark haired witch down with an icy stare.

“What would you suggest then?”

Bellatrix’s eyebrow shot up at the suggestion before she turned to observe the never changing view out into the Black Lake.

“Tell me how you do it,” she turned back, a genuine look of interest on her face. “Tell me what you do to keep people out. I don’t want the books, I want to try your methods. Besides, I’ve already read those books. And given my current state, they haven’t helped a bit.”

A frown graced Hermione’s lips at that. She hadn’t been aware the witch had tried on her own already, she’d just assumed Bellatrix knew nothing about the subject and had started her the same way she’d initially learned. It was… arrogant, she realized. She hadn't bothered to ask anything about her knowledge of the subject. Relaxing her posture she leaned back against the wall next to the vanity and sucked in air. Arrogance just wouldn't do.

“Well, if you're familiar on the theory we can run a refresher and I'll go through my variant. There’s a few ways counter legilimens but the most effective are built from three main avenues. One,” she ticked off a finger, “Empty your mind and make it so no one can see anything. Your emotions have to be under absolute control. You’re basically ceding the ability to feel in favor of calm, blank, openness. Personally it’s the hardest one for me.”

“Second,” she ticked off another finger, “Make a wall to keep them away from your mind, like a physical barrier in your mindscape that's high enough to ensure no one could scale it or see over. Or something like a fortification to hide your memories in. It’s a strong method but there are ways around it, and every memory or thought is still in some way available if your defenses are breached.

“Third,” she ticked off a final finger, “Redirection. Split apart or mix and muddle your mind to where no one can piece any of it together. One bit of a memory leads into another, into another, ad infinitum, always keeping what you want to hide unconnected or so pulled apart that it’s unrecognizable. Fabricating memories or hiding them with others of a similar emotional state falls under that. I mainly use a mix of the second and third methods. The easiest way to describe it is a castle made of mirrors. There might be a door or it might be a reflection. No way to know without checking them all, and there's infinite reflections.”

When she finished her explanation she waited for Bellatrix to say something. Anything. Instead, the witch was just staring at her with an inscrutable expression etched into her face.

“Bellatrix?”

“Yes?”

‘She’s not comatose. Thank Merlin .’

“Do you want to try any of the methods in particular?”

“I should have brought a quill. And parchment. I can’t remember a bloody thing you said.”

Oh gods.’

---oo---

The afternoon had continued well enough from there as Hermione described the individual styles in more depth and the blending that could be used to more effectively hide things. Bellatrix adopted a rather attentive mood and seemed more invested. They hadn’t gone far but by the end of their study session she’d gotten Bellatrix to agree to making an honest attempt at meditation and a promise to reread the texts she’d tried giving her earlier.

After they’d exhausted all training both witches had ended up sitting side by side against Hermione’s headboard in a companionable silence. Hermione’s hand moved back and forth as she gently massaged her scarred forearm at intervals, trying to work the warmth rolling off her scar into the muscle beneath it. Despite the objectively poor start to her day it had ended well. She’d gained some trust with Narcissa and by all accounts Bellatrix was committed to keeping friendly relations with her.

She’s nothing like Lestrange. Yet…’

She couldn’t deny that it would be an interesting mystery to uncover. Was it all to do with Voldemort? Had his influence really shaped her that much? The unhappy union with Rodolphus? Or was it the loss of Andy? It wouldn’t take a half-kneazle a minute to see the strength and camaraderie the two near-twins shared.

She remained carefully ensconced in her reverie until a thin hand was laid upon her clenching fist. Turning to look at Bellatrix she relaxed her grip and released her forearm.

Merlin’s beard her hand is warm.’

“What’s up?”

The witch’s hand left her own and she tried to pretend the lost of contact didn’t sting.

“You get lost in your head easy, don’t you?”

“I,” Hermione’s face and throat tinged at an unexpected blush, “Yeah… I guess. It’s a habit I suppose.”

“Well as much as I love sitting in silence while staring at nothing, I can do that in my own bed. So let’s talk.”

“Okay. About…?”

The witch beside her brought her knees-up and hugged them to her chest.

“Why do you have a prefect’s single?”

“No female Slytherin prefects this year, and I got here early. Slughorn didn’t mind.”

“Why’d you get here early?”

“Family issues.”

“Like…?” Bellatrix asked, letting her head loll to the side to look up at Hermione.

“Rather not talk about it if that’s alright.”

Bellatrix squinted her eyes and looked ready to press the question before turning away again and letting out a sigh.

“Favorite animal?”

“Otter. You?”

Bellatrix eyed her again with a warm smile on her face.

“Ravens. Like Harmonia.”

Fitting,’ she thought. ‘ Guess that explains the pendant.’

“Would you want to be an animagus?”

The question caught her off guard, and she took a minute to think it over.

“It would be, I mean… I'd like to but the hassle isn't worth it.”

Bellatrix took the moment after her reply to stretch out on the bed and prop herself up on her elbow.

“Well why not do it as unregistered?”

“Because,” she sputtered, “It's illegal. You could get thrown in Azkaban. And not to mention getting ahold of the ingredients for the potion. And what if it went wrong? You'd be a half animal freak for the rest of your life.”

Bellatrix stared at her with a bemused smile on her face while Hermione listed her reasons.

“You're looking at it too critically. Any git who gets an O in Transfiguration should be able to do it. It's not that dangerous as long as you follow the instructions.”

“But it is illegal,” she replied as sternly as she could. Truth be told she was interested in it. Just not interested in the time investment, privacy loss and possible complications.

“Only if you get caught,” Bellatrix stated plainly.

Hermione rolled her eyes at Bellatrix and crossed her arms over her chest defensively.

“Okay, so even if we had a way around getting caught there's still the ingredients to think of. I don't even know how much it'd all cost, and finding unspoiled dew would be a nightmare in preparation.”

“We, huh?” Bella's eyebrow quirked up in amusement.” Well, since it's we now, I guess we can have another trade. So long as you swear to not speak a word of this to anyone besides Andy or myself.“

“What's Andy have to do with this?”

Bellatrix sat up on the bed and leaned into Hermione, dropping her voice to a conspiratorial whisper.

“Vow to not talk about this to another soul besides Andy and I, then I'll tell you.”

Hermione gave her a once over, wondering if this was in some way or form a trick intended to catch her out for… Something.

‘Gryffindor courage, right?’

She placed her right hand forward, palm up, and waited for Bellatrix to grasp her arm. When she did she gripped down and steeled her gaze.

“I, Emelia Grenier, vow to not speak of this with anyone besides Andromeda Black and yourself.”

With a knowing smile Bellatrix released their linked hands after a warm sensation flowed between the two of them at the contact point.

“Good. Not as good as an Unbreakable, but I'll know if you tell anyone. And with your head so locked up I doubt anyone'll read it off you.” Leaning back against the headboard but still leaning into Hermione, she began. “Andy got me some ingredients for the potion before we returned this year. She got me enough extra that we could both do it. Though I think she just thought I’d fail it a few times first.”

“Andy approves of this?” Hermione interrupted.

“Yep,” the witch replied, popping the ‘P’.” She's known I wanted to do this for awhile now. But she's not interested enough to do it herself.”

The thought was intriguing. Cut through the meters thick red tape. Apply her knowledge. Hide it all from teachers.

“I'm in. One last question. Why me?”

“Like I said, she got me extra. And odd as it sounds coming from me, I think we'd be good friends. It doesn't hurt that we're neck n’ neck in Transfig. And to be honest it would be safer to do this with someone else. I’m not saying that the danger is as bad as we're told, but, yeah. That’s why.”

---oo---

The following week and a half was a relaxing change of pace. No one besides Rodolphus seemed to be actively pitting themselves against her and the monotony of classwork was easy to sink back into. Her afternoons were consumed with helping Bellatrix master Occlumency, ensconced safely in the Room of Requirement. Though her own Legilimency skills were subpar at best she still took pains to test Bellatrix as much as possible. The time and practice allowed both witches to improve significantly in occlumency and legilimency as the days progressed.

Outside of the room she’d attempt to breach her defenses while in classes or eating meals, looking for any and every opportunity to put her new student to the test. The results were surprising. By the end of the week and a half Hermione was completely unable to breach Bellatrix’s walls, regardless of her own increase in legilimency. After some time Bellatrix had finally decided to model her defense after Hermione’s own. A funhouse in the shape of a mansion, tall and imposing, constructed of mirrored thoughts and emotions that drew her in and held her lost, unable to look for anything substantial.

Checking that the coast was clear Hermione entered the seventh floor hallway and silently made her way to the entrance for the Room of Requirement. Focusing on her need she opened the door and walked into the perfect study room.

Tall bookshelves lined the walls flanking her, mahogany and multi tiered they held hundreds of books. It had only taken a little specificity and the contents were now made up of legilimency, occlumency, and other mental magic related works. Two shelves had been devoted to varied language dictionaries, parseltongue, and xenoglossia. A final shelf was filled with information on Animagus related topics from theory to application. Hermione loved it. The rest of the room was furnished according to Bellatrix’s wishes, a single large worn leather couch with an accompanying ottoman and a fireplace taking up nearly three quarters of the far wall. The walls were a rich burgundy color that was devoid of ornamentation.

Dropping her bag she reached the shelf on Xenoglossia and brought out one she’d been reading yesterday. Settling into the far end of the couch her bookmark floated out as she continued on from her last place.

It wasn’t long before Bellatrix flung open the door. Hurrying over to the couch she dropped a large leather satchel onto it and hopped over the back, landing in a heap next to Hermione. Blowing errant curls from her face she looked up at her and grinned.

“You’re unusually chipper today,” Hermione noted.

“Yep!”

Hermione snatched her bookmark from the air in front of her and placed it between pages.

“Any particular reason why?” Hermione questioned, a smile gracing her features at the dark haired witch’s enthusiasm. Bellatrix nodded vigorously, wild black curls flying around her head. “Are you going to tell me the reason or…?”

With an exaggerated sigh Bellatrix stilled and brought her satchel to her lap. Reaching inside she brought out a thin phial that was no taller than her pinky fingers length. Inside was a swirling liquid, deep green with flecks of silver sparkling into and out of existence. The top was shut with a dark black cork and sealed with a wax ring along the edges.

“Is that what I think it is?” She asked.

“Yes!” Bellatrix nearly screamed at the top of her lungs. “I got it two days early! Turns out repeatedly threatening someone when you know they’re futzing about can lead to them magically finding the last ingredient. Lucky me, eh?”

While Hermione wasn’t thrilled with the manner in which Bellatrix had gotten the potion finished she was excited that it was finally here.

“Lucky us you mean. So, what do we do?”

Bellatrix hopped off the couch, a small oval coffee table popping into appearance in front of the fireplace. She dropped her satchel down heavily on the surface and pulled her wand from its holster on her wrist.

“Honestly not much Em’. You down this here little potion, I say some magic words, and then we practice speaking to one another. It shouldn’t take long! Least it didn’t for me. We’ll just have to see how you do.”

Indignant at the veiled bragging, Hermione leaned back into the couch and narrowed her eyes at the witch.

“If it only took you a short while, I’m sure I’ll get the hang of it in half the time.”

Smirking at Hermione the dark witch passed the potion over after breaking the seal.

“Bottoms up,” Hermione whispered, downing the potion immediately after in one gulp. It had a smooth taste that hinted at something  tangy like a fruit but masked by a delightfully earthy aftertaste. Once she’d finished and stoppered the phial Bellatrix placed her wands tip at Hermione’s temple, a look of concentration etched into her face.

Ad Serpentes Dedit Lingua

The words came out almost as a single breath, flitting one right into the other. Hermione felt a warmth settle through her temple. It was almost a headache but filled with warmth instead of pain. The feeling took a minute to settle and Hermione looked up at Bellatrix as the witch placed her wand back and sat down. After a minute of silence between them Hermione became restless.

“Well? How do we know it worked?”

“I’ll try talking to you, let me know if you understand any of it.”

Hermione shifted on the couch to face Bellatrix as the witch began murmuring in a soft hissing tone. She could almost make out syllables in the sound, becoming stronger as Bellatrix continued. After a half hour of the continued hissing Hermione could catch the bare hint of true words. Pulling her legs up on the couch she pulled them cross-legged and propped her chin in her hands to allow her elbows to rest on her knees. Concentration overtook her features as her ears settled into the sounds.

::You definitely…. In the amount…. Me::

“I heard you!” She shouted, throwing up her arms in triumph as Bellatrix jumped back with a flinch.

::So you can… me now?:: Bellatrix mouthed slowly, recovering from her shock. She was smiling as she spoke, clearly pleased her potion and spell had worked appropriately.

“I can mostly understand you. Some parts still come through as more of a ‘hiss’ than anything, but I almost fully understood that last sentence.” She replied, leaning back against the arm of the couch. “How do I speak it? Is it just like ::talking normally?::”

This time it was Bellatrix’s turn to yell excitedly, understanding the last bit of Hermione’s reply.

“Yes!”

---oo---