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A Better Life

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Jittering flashes of nervous energy ran up and down Hermione’s splayed limbs. Neither witch had yet to comment on their shared moment beside the lake but it was all she could focus on. They hadn’t exchanged vows. Hadn’t pledged love or fealty to the other. Hadn’t even kissed. But she couldn’t help but recognize it as a more intimate moment than she’d ever shared with a previous lover.

It just… had happened. Nothing to look too deeply into.’

She could relax herself by repeating to herself that the jitters and nerves and flutter deep in her abdomen came only from the act of defying rules. Doing something illegal but new and different. That they didn’t stem from the beautiful witch who’d worked her into action with a single word. Bellatrix inspired emotion, she wouldn’t deny that. The witch was gorgeous and smart, witty enough to hold banter and cleverer than their peers by leaps and bounds. She was also conniving, ruthless, and temperamental. Bound by strange familial abuses she wouldn’t share and fed on pure-blood fanaticism and affluence.

She’d never want someone like me.’

The sidelong glances Bellatrix was giving her had to be innocent. She couldn't deny that to an outsider it must have looked intimate. She was laid half on top of Bellatrix as the witch leaned back against the headboard of Hermione's bed, Bella’s fingers and sharp nails rubbing soothing patterns against her scalp and neck. But she was just tired and the mad dash they'd made from the edge of the lake and back to her dormitory had surely worn out Bella as well. Nothing to worry about here. They were clearly just grounding themselves back in reality.

“Em’?” The witch beneath her questioned softly. Her warm voice was still somewhat stilted as she adjusted to speaking around the leaf in her mouth. Before they’d left for the dorms both of them had determined that parseltongue was far easier to speak than English right now but had decided that they’d need to force themselves to speak normally as soon as possible. It wouldn’t do to be found out so early into their trial or risk losing the leaf and needing to restart the entire venture.

Hermione twisted her neck and upper torso around to look the witch in the eyes.

“Yeah Bella?”

“I know what I want. For your half of the trade.” She looked away from Hermione’s eyes before continuing. “Come with me to one of my tutoring sessions. Just one at least.”

What??’

Hermione’s face betrayed the depth of the surprise she found herself awash in at the request. She’d  imagined a multitude of things the witch could request of her but a request to join her hadn’t even crossed her mind.

Bellatrix’s eyes found her again as she continued staring expectantly, clearly awaiting a verbal assent. Screwing up her courage Hermione looked her dead on and nodded her head.

“Sure thing. Just let me know when. I’ll let Slughorn know where I’ll be. He shouldn’t have a reason to disagree with it.”

She was fairly sure she knew exactly who Bella’s tutor actually was. The witch had fought hard to keep any memories pertaining to her lessons away from the school hidden deep and obscured by switchbacks. But it didn’t make much sense for it to be anyone else and the few minuscule peaks she’d gotten in Bella’s head made it clear enough. She knew she’d need to speak with Dumbledore before she left. It was something that he ought to know if for nothing else than to know where she might be if she didn’t return.

“Wicked. You’ll like him, I promise. He’s like an open book. He knows about like, hundreds of topics, all different kinds of magic.” She flashed Hermione a sharp toothed smile. “If you like it I can ask him if you can stick on. I’m sure I could get my father to agree as well.”

When she finished speaking she pushed herself further back into the soft mattress and pillows beneath them. When she’d slid far enough into them Hermione’s body shifted further back into the witch. One arm wrapped around Hermione’s midsection while the other curled protectively across her chest to leave her hand curled around her neck.

“Thanks for agreeing to this Em’. Thank you for doing this with me.”

“No problem Bella... I should be the one thanking you”

Quite against her own wishes Hermione's eyes began to close. Wrapped into the warmth behind her and soothed by the burn in her arm. Her last thoughts before drifting off were loud and clear before dissipating into a soft murmur.

This is definitely not innocent…’

---oo---

“Orange Dragonpop.”

As she spoke the password the gargoyle began to grind and swivel its way clear of the hidden staircase. Soft light drifted down from above as she ascended.

Waking up alone in her bed had been disappointing to say the least. She’d been wrapped up in blankets with a pillow clutched tightly between her legs and arms. No soft witch waiting to greet her. She’d buried her head into the pillows behind her and concentrated until she could still focus on the faintest scent of the witch. As the feelings of safety and security evaporated she’d finally determined that she couldn’t put off meeting with the Headmaster.

And so she found herself here, knocking at his door and hoping he’d have enough time and patience to see her. Even though she didn’t completely trust the manipulative old man she’d felt compelled to make sure he was aware of her situation. The soft sound of slippered feet reached out beyond the door to his office. With a creak and a groan it opened inward until the sleepy face of the Headmaster peeked out. Hermione was surprised at the change in his appearance. He looked far better than when she’d seen him last.

His beard and hair were no longer unkempt and unruly. The bags beneath his eyes had disappeared, and he seemed full of energy. As he smiled down on her he pulled the door until it was fully opened to her. Stepping aside he raised out an arm and directed her towards an open chair facing his oversized desk. Following his direction she took a seat in a plush chair. He followed her closely behind, walking around the desk and sinking languidly into his seat.

“Good morning to you Ms. Grenier.” He smiled gently at her. “I would offer you a lemon drop, but I believe it’s too early for sweets. Now, how can I help you today?”

She took a moment to breathe deeply and settle her nervous jitters.

“Headmaster, how much of the future did you see when you viewed my mind?”

It made her uncomfortable to start off their talk this way but knew that putting it off wouldn’t make it any easier. At least this way she had control of the conversation.

“Hmm…,” Dumble mumbled to himself before leaning back in his chair and tapping his fingers. “To put it bluntly Ms. Grenier I saw enough. Not everything mind you, but the gist of it and some moments that held emotional weight for you. Enough of the broad strokes to give me an inkling of the trials to come.”

“So you’re aware of Voldemort?”

Calm, keep calm…’

“Yes Ms. Grenier. I am aware of the threat that Tom poses to our way of life. If I may ask, why bring this up now?”

Now or never.’

“I’ve struck up a friendship with Bellatrix Black. Not because you brought it to my attention sir. I fell into it quite on accident. Yesterday she asked me to join her for one of her tutoring sessions. I’m not one hundred percent sure but I believe her tutor is Voldemort.”

Later she couldn’t be sure of it but at the moment she finished speaking she could have sworn that his eyes swam with a predatory gleam.

“I’m had suspected as much myself Ms. Grenier. I’ve heard stirrings he had returned to the UK. If it is him, Ms. Black isn’t the only student receiving attention from Tom. But why bring this up to me now? You could have gone to see him without my knowledge or input whatsoever so long as Horace agreed to your leave.”

She knew it was a valid question. She held no allegiance to him beyond what he’d given her since her arrival, and if she’d been someone else she could have brushed the debt off as paid and gone her own way. She broke eye contact with the Headmaster and instead focused her gaze upon the fire blazing cheerily in its hearth at her side. Fawkes was leisurely perched above the fire, preening himself and taking looks at the two of them intermittently.

She didn’t have any better answer than the truth.

“I don’t know. It just figured to be the sort of thing I should bring up.”

The Headmaster looked down at his lap and shifted back and forth before a great sigh made its way through him. She couldn’t help but sheepishly look back at him while he digested her answer.

“Thank you for bring it to my attention Emelia.”

Hermione felt a shiver run unpleasantly down her spine. No matter who called her that name it never truly felt real. She was resigned to never feeling comfortable with it. Bellatrix was the only person that could make it sound natural.

“If you would indulge me, I think attending would be a good idea. I’m not saying you would have to, but quite frankly it could be useful to our cause.”

Our cause? Whose cause? Since bloody when is this our cause?’ It infuriated her that he would just add her to his army like a pawn chessboard. She wouldn’t be his little soldier just because he said it was so. He’d done that with Harry and nearly killed him.

He continued on speaking, not noticing or choosing to ignore the little scowl that she threw his way.

“Any information you glean from the meeting would be beneficial. If nothing else you could get a sense of him in this time. He is a man to be feared, and rightly so. But likely not in the way you might be used to. He is a free man with no accusations against his name. Perfectly willing and able to walk down a street in broad daylight. People may flee from the darkness they feel reaching out from him but there’s currently nothing we can do about it. Learn what you can, and maybe we can change that.”

In the end his request amounted to about what she’d expected. Meet him, satisfy Bellatrix’s request, report back any interesting information she managed to learn. Simple enough. Even if she didn’t enjoy the idea of being conscripted into his cause.

“Thank you Headmaster. Her next session is Tuesday, I’ll report back Wednesday afternoon.”

“Good, good. Now since that’s settled, I have something else I’d like to discuss with you.”

Oh no.’ Her first reaction was worry that he knew about their attempt to become Animagi. Her second was to wonder at how he could even know.

“One of my contacts in the Canadian Ministry has been in touch. When he found out that the last descendant of the Grenier line had shown up here, he requested a quick test to determine your true lineage.”

“But,” she broke in, “I’m not related to them. You’ve told them no, right?”

“Oh Merlin no. I’ve told him we’ll have a sample sent off by this Thursday at the latest.”

Hermione felt herself pale at his nonchalant statement.

“Headmaster I-”

“Don’t worry dear, we’ve got just the thing to take care of it. We’ll just need to perform a small blood ritual,” Hermione wasn’t sure it was possible but her face paled even further at his suggestion. “Once the ritual is completed you’ll show as a true Grenier to any inheritance checks that might come up in the future.”

“But Headmaster, blood magic is-”

“Dark? Well, usually yes. And when used for less savory needs, it’s even more so.”

Hermione let the thought roll around in her head. It was technically Dark magic. But then again, all the literature said that parseltongue was too. And she’d effectively jumped head first into learning that. The more she thought on it the more she was okay with the magic behind it. It was the use case though that bothered her. She would be defrauding whoever administered the test. She’d be lying in the strongest way possible. Permanently altering herself to fit a lie. It wasn’t something she was sure she could handle. Then again when she'd first arrived she wasn't sure she'd handle that transition either.

In the end her fracturing qualms on the subject didn’t matter. It was a protection she was being freely given and a knowledge set she’d yet to acquire. And she couldn’t really complain about the legality of it while going behind both the school and the Ministry to become an Animagus.

“Okay. What do I need to do?”

---oo---

The conversed at length about the magic behind the ritual and the mechanics of what was going to occur. By the time they’d finished and Hermione felt comfortable with it the morning had passed into noon and they adjourned for a quick lunch supplied by house elves. Dumbledore called up Minerva once they were ready to begin and placed her in a position to oversee the ritual. The inclusion of the professor helped settle any remaining nerves she had.

She stood in a runic hexagram painted out of the floor of Dumbledore’s office. The hexagram was stretched out further from top to bottom than side to side, with the inside of each triangular edge portion was filled with a glyph. She assumed it was written in blood, human or otherwise, but declined to ask. Some questions were better left unanswered and blood magic was considered Dark for a reason.

Runes marked the top and bottom portion of the hexagram and matching symbols were painted onto her palms. Minerva began a low chant in a language that Hermione couldn’t recognize once Dumbledore proclaimed them ready to begin. He handed her two ruby colored stones that were nearly the size of golf balls.Their surface felt coarse and grainy as she held onto them tightly. Within a few minutes of taking hold of them a burning sensation began to worm its way through her palms, though the stones remained cool to the touch. The heat traveled her arms and she could swear she felt her own blood singing in the magic.

After a brief flash of amber light it was all over. The stones turned to piles of ash in her hands and the heat was quickly swept away. Her first action was to palm the scar on her arm and feel out if it was altered in any way. After a second or two of not detecting anything different she let go. She could still feel the distant presence of Bella, through a faint pulse.

“Well,” Dumbledore started as cheery as ever, “Now then. WIth that out of the way, who’d like a sweet?”

---oo---

Tuesday came upon her before she had a chance to question the wisdom of her decision. Monday had been quiet, easy classes and nothing to distract them. Neither Bellatrix nor herself had sought to talk about the intimacy they’d shared over the weekend. Hermione couldn’t help but be somewhat disappointed at that.

Up until her last class on Tuesday she felt herself in a rut. Nothing held her attention, and she constantly felt racked by nervous energy that she could feel building up with no release. To appease her overactive mind she’d spent free time drawing out the final look of the runes for their revamped occlumency enchantment.

When the last class of the day was dismissed she grabbed up her parchments and supplies before stuffing them into a satchel and nearly sprinting out the door. A mop of long black curls awaited her outside, leaning up against the opposite wall.

“Ready?”

“As I'll ever be.”

“Good,” Bellatrix left the wall and started walking to the entrance. Hermione glued herself to her side as they passed through the entrance doors and out into the courtyard. No one chose to interrupt them but the few glances she got from the Gryffindor students that saw them were scathing and suspicious.

Bellatrix was unusually quiet as they walked. Her steps were filled with energy and her movements were sharp and quick but nothing was said. As they walked beyond the wards that covered the front gates she turned towards Hermione and held her arm out for her to hold on to.

“So when we get there it'll just be us and my tutor. Cygnus has been barred from attending.” Her eyes gained a distant glean as she informed Hermione. “Don't look him in the eyes, and don't give him lip. He's more temperamental than me.”

Grabbing hold of Bellatrix proffered arm she braced her core muscles as she felt the pull of apparition. One nauseas moment later and she was standing outside of a large wrought iron gate, tall and spiked. In the distance an imposing mansion stood gleaming against the mid-afternoon light. Tall and gleaming white it put the Malfoy estate to shame.

It sat at the end of a hard packed earthen road. The building itself was buttressed on the sides by a deep evergreen forest. Tall oaks and pines stood sentinel amidst shrubs and saplings licking at their heels. The front promenade that led to the entrance was walled in by pear trees, magically enhanced to bear fruit throughout the year. A sparkling fountain stood front and center before gleaming white steps that led into the manor proper. On either side tall columns of marble rose from the first step to support the overhang of the roof.

“Welcome to the Chateau de Mort,” Bellatrix commented dryly as Hermione soaked the view in. “Seat of the Noble and most Ancient House of Black.” As she finished Bellatrix waved her arm in an exaggerated fashion towards the manor.

Hermione couldn't help the small laugh that escaped her at Bellatrix's antics.

“Less than a year and I'll be free of this hellhole. And off to another.”

Hermione observed a dark look that gathered on the witch’s features before she shook it off and offered her arm to Hermione.

“We've dallied enough, best not to keep the Lord waiting. Shall we? ”

With a split-second of hesitation Hermione took hold of the proffered arm and walked with Bellatrix along the winding drive to the manor proper. She could almost convince herself it would be a lovely place to live in, if it wasn't for the heavy presence of Dark magic that lay upon them like summer humidity. No bugs or birds sang with the exception of the ravens flying to and from a corner window of the manor and the further they walked the heaviness increased. How Bellatrix and her sisters could have managed to live here for any length of time was beyond her. Calling the atmosphere oppressive would have been an understatement.

As they reached the front door, ancient looking and massive, they swung upon on their own accord and a diminutive house elf apparated into appearance just beyond the threshold.

“Mistress Bellatrix, the Lord is most displeased. He requests your presence in the back gardens.” The small creature was dressed in what Hermione thought might have once been a potato sack, though it was so old and threadbare it barely covered it. The poor thing was trembling in fright and Hermione couldn't help but feel her heart go out to the poor elf.

“Thank you Naya, please inform Lord Voldemort that we'll be right there, and offer him our apologies.”

The elf began elaborately bowing as it shuffled backwards before mumbling a quick “Yes Mistress” and disapparating.

If Bella noticed the stiffness that Hermione moved with she didn't comment on it. Or maybe she just mistook it for nervousness at meeting someone so narcissistic and we'll bred enough to adopt the title of Lord.

On their way to the back of the manor Hermione took quick but stilted looks around the area. Two winding staircases on either side of the entrance hall wrapped up against the left and right walls to meet at a landing that built the mezzanine for the first floor. The ground floor entrance was otherwise undecorated, hardwood floors and unblemished white paint with a black and gold trim. A double door beneath the stairway landing was opened out to a magnificent parlor room that was larger than the ground floor of Hermione's own home.

Hermione was no stranger to the comforts of a wealthy life, having two dentists as parent’s had ensured that. But still the opulence within view was staggering.

High backed armchairs and plush couches sat ringed around ornate tables that held empty crystal glasses and tumblers. A row of mid height bookshelves lined the walls and held various trinkets and liquors in ornately carved decanters. A single large fireplace held dominance of the right side wall, above which the mantel held a large slate gray broadsword supported on iron hooks. Stuffed heads from a multitude of magical and mundane creatures lined the walls. Rare, endangered, and extinct creatures were all on morbid display.

The only oddity that she'd noticed right off was the lack of portraits or paintings of any kind. Both this parlor and the entrance hall held no pictures, no family portraits. Nothing.

Before she could delve into questioning that discrepancy they reached a pair of glass doors that led to a veranda that wrapped around the backside of the manor. A tall man in a slim black robe was standing beyond the doors, leaning against the short railing that fenced the raised area in.

Almost immediately she could feel something scrabbling around the outside of her mind, seeking entrance. The brazen attempt at reading her with legilimency was more aggravating than terrifying.

The hell does he think he is?’

As they stepped towards him after passing through the doorway he turned around. Hermione's eyes widened in shock, though she schooled her features as soon as she could. He looked normal. Almost.

The pre-death Voldemort stood tall and thin. A gaunt and sickly pallor lent an ethereal look to his complexion. His hair shined with oil, slicked back flat against his pate. His cheeks were sunken in and his nose hooked forward to lend definition to a crooked sneer. His eyes were small and black, his pupils ringed in by bloodshot capillaries. She felt a shiver as they bored into her.

When they came within a few feet of him Bellatrix halted and performed a low curtsy that Hermione had trouble replicating in her haste.

“My lord, apologies for our tardiness. We were delayed in setting out.” Bellatrix kept her eyes firmly forward on Voldemort’s chest as she spoke in a subdued and deferential tone.

“No matter,” he spoke before running his eyes up and down Hermione. “Now that you’re both here, let’s begin.”