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A Better Life

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The first faint stirrings of consciousness brought with it the reminder of how unpleasant a lack of sleep could be. Her head was pounding and her throat and mouth were dry as bone. She’d had her fair share of late nights studying during her early years and her time on the run with Harry and Ron had been filled with a lack of sleep. But it never did seem to get easier. Promising herself to get at least eight hours of sleep going forward she collected the feeling of her limbs and assessed the foreign weight on her body.

She was surrounded by warmth in a tight grip. She dimly registered lying flat against the mattress while her head was pressed into a corner beneath a soft pillow. The grip on her tightened in reaction to her mild movement, crushing her more in security than a threat. Scents of pine and fresh ground after a rain floated through her head. Soft black curls were splayed out against her face to tickle her nose and cheeks. Rounding it all up she decided it was heaven even with the lack of proper rest.

The gears in her sleep addled mind began to turn.

‘Long hair?’

Her mind shot to full consciousness as she finally recognized the other presence that had become tightly wound around her. Brown eyes fluttered open in short bursts as she brought her free hand up to brush away the hair covering her face. The curls fell softly to the side before stopping against the sleeping form on top of her. Her cheeks flushed with warmth and heat as she looked down upon the snoring form of Bellatrix. At some point in the night the witch had abandoned her chosen side of the bed and instead found Hermione to be a much more comfortable spot. Not that Hermione was complaining in the slightest. It wasn’t every day she’d wake with a beauty nestled against her.

Across the room an enchanted silver bell began to ring as it sat upon her vanity. The soft tinkling sound was usually all she’d need as an alarm. Unfortunately she’d placed it across the room so it would force her to get up. And now it would force her from this wonderful heat.

Cursing her eternally too rational mind she twisted herself sideways until her head and neck were hanging off the bed. Scooting forward and pushing back against Bella’s shoulder she slowly slid away from her clutches and off the bed. When her grip gave way she landed unceremoniously onto the cold floor, shivering at the sudden loss of heat. Once she regained control of her limbs she stumbled over to the bell and reset it with two gentle taps.

Once free of the sound she stood to her tiptoes and stretched her body out. Kinks rolled out of her shoulders and her back popped while a deep yawn came out. Her eyes wandered helplessly to the witch currently snoring into her bed.

‘She’s beautiful.’

Hermione found that no other words could quite encompass her thoughts. Bella’s wild and untamed curls framed her face in a dark halo. Her body rose gently as she snored and occasionally her eyes darted back and forth beneath heavy lids. Her bathrobe had ridden down her body at some point in the night to leave her cream colored shoulders and part of her back exposed. Hermione’s chest warmed at the contrasting sight of the soft skin against her dark bedspread. Gathering her courage she stepped lightly to the side of the bed and laid a hand against the witches bare shoulder. Shaking her lightly she began calling her name.

“Bella, classes start in two hours. Time to wake up.”

After a few more moments of pestering the witch began to stir beneath her hand. An unintelligible grunt met her ears and the witch attempted to burrow further into the bed.

“Come on Bella.”

Planting her hand more firmly against her should she continued shaking her until dark black eyes opened up beneath a wave of curls and stared her down.

“Sod off.”

“Can’t,” Hermione smiled to herself, “You’re in my bed. In my room.”

“Well, that’s stupid. It’s mine now,” Bellatrix grumbled as she twisted among the sheets to look at Hermione head on.

Squinting her eyes and crossing her arms over her chest, Hermione sat down on the edge of the bed and pinned the witch with a stare.

“And how does that work exactly? This now being your room?”

“Because I’m in it. Possession is nine tenths and all that. And I was born this generation. I’ve the stronger claim to it. Time traveling mudbloods not allowed.”

Hermione’s face and neck heated up in warm indignation at the slur and dismissive comment. Letting the silence between them deepened she fought to maintain control of her usual reaction. When calming breaths eventually helped her relax Bella finally realized she wasn’t going to get the reaction she’d been looking for. Pulling herself up to sit against the headboard she shifted her robe back on properly to hide her shoulders and chest.

“What?”

“I won’t stoop to reply to that. On other topics, do you have any input? From last night?”

“Not particularly,” Bella turned an empty stare towards the door to the room. “Nothing formed anyways. I mean you did kind of just like, throw me into an existential crisis. I haven’t even begun to wrap myself around it. Not to mention the additional benefit of having to deal with the few things that actually involve me now, here, and not in twenty odd years. I’m being used by Cygnus for a dowry to Rodolphus, by Voldemort until he can train me into a good obedient slave to his ideals. My sister is dating a mudblood that she'll marry sometime soon only to be chased off the family name. Oh, and before I forget under the mountain of a million other things, you’ve been lying to me for weeks and come from a future where I tortured you and then died. Forgive me to taking some time to reassess the entirety of my reality.”

When she finished Hermione’s face had gone pale and blank as a white sheet. She inwardly thanked the gods she’d set up dozens of silencing charms to stop any errant eavesdroppers.

“Well, if it helps at all…,” Hermione settled into the bed to lean against Bella, “ You didn’t torture me. Sorry for being a pest about it. I’ll give you as much time as you need to adjust.”

“Thank you. Just, for the moment, leave it. Give me some space to reorient myself. We’ll meet back up in the Room after classes.”

“Alright,” she replied softly, eyes downcast.

Bella nodded in her direction before standing from the bed and transfiguring her robe into a less revealing matching pair of soft long pants and black shirt. Heading towards the door she took hold of the knob and turned back to face Hermione. Her mouth opened and closed before she simply slipped through the door and out to the hallway.

The lack of any pain in her scar was small comfort as the pounding in her head continued unabated.

---oo---

One large sized Pepper-Up Potion later and Hermione was comfortably, if a bit jittery, walking into the Great Hall for a late breakfast. She strode over to the Slytherin tables and took an open seat near the entrance. After setting her satchel underneath the bench she began to pile a plate high with soft and easy to chew food. Her mandrake leaf was still in place and the few days she’d had it in had given her ample time to figure out how to eat somewhat normally. Most students at the table ignored her with the exception of Narcissa who waved and smiled politely in greeting before delving back into an animated discussion with Lucius.

Andy was absent and though she’d correctly assumed that Bella would be as well it was still sore not to have the company of her friend. She knew it was pointless to try and imagine how Bella might change their day to day interactions after she digested all the new information and consoled herself by focusing on telling herself that she’d done the right thing. After a few quiet moments of eating the bench besides her dipped lower as the weight of a student settled.

“Heya Em’,” the gravelly voice of Rabastan rumbled up from beside her.

“Hey Rab,” she flashed him a smile, “How’re you?” She resumed eating while he set his own plate and replied.

“I’m alright. Beautiful morning n’ all that. I’d stay away from Rod though, I was you.”

She shot him a quizzical look. She already made her best efforts to avoid the bastard whenever she could.

“Some Ravenclaw with a death wish hexed his shoes. Made the laces turn into tiny snakes that slither undone afore going back to being laces. Apparently in places far from his shoes. Happens every time he finds em’ and laces back up.”

Hermione couldn’t help the laughter that she belted out nor the crooked grin that took up most her face. The look on Rab indicated he didn’t appreciate it, but the thought of the horrid boy running around searching for laces that constantly disappeared from him was too much.

“What,” she asked between giggles, “You have to admit it’s pretty funny.”

His gaze remained expressionless and unreadable until a small smile crooked the corner of his mouth and he shook his head in exasperation.

“Yeah, I’ll admit it’s a hoot of a situation. And he’d have more luck finding the bloke who did it if he could finish countering the hex. He gets about ten meters before the buggers slither off again.”

At that Hermione was fully set off and couldn’t contain any of the loud laughter that shook its way out of her. The exhaustion she was under, even after liberal application of a potion and coffee, was more than enough to loosen up some of her inhibitions against acting too jovially around her new schoolmates.

After a few more minutes of peaceful eating with Rab as company a uniformed body sat down primly across from her. Andy’s face jovial and warm in a way that reminded her again of Bellatrix.

“Mornin’ Andy. How’re you?”

“Oh, I’m fine Em’. Was wondering if I could talk to you.”

“Sure thing,” Hermione took a last sip of her coffee before setting it down and settling her full attention upon the younger witch in front of her.

“Um, alone?” The witch wrung her fingers together before shifting her eyes nervously between Rabastan and Hermione. To her credit Hermione didn’t immediately react out of the norm despite the now incessant worry that Bella had told Andy something of what she’d seen.

“Yeah, give me a sec, I'll meet you in the courtyard.”

As Andy took off Hermione gulped down her last fried egg and gulped the last of her too hot coffee. Pushing herself from the bench she leaned down to pick up her satchel before shooting Rab a small wave.

“See you later Rab!”

His only response was a small wave goodbye as he returned to his food.

The heels of her shoes clicked sharply against the stone floor as she exited the Great Hall. Numerous students of other Houses moved to the opposite side of the hall as she approached. A few brave, or more likely bravely stupid, Gryffindor students would shoot her wide-eyed angry glares when she passed them. It seemed that her association with the Black trio and Rabastan had begun to make its way through the rumor mill.

It was one of the few instances where she could empathize with the other Houses that were perennially unamused with the Gryffindor style of ‘bravery’, and the adjoining tendency to judge first and ask questions later if at all.

As she exited to the courtyard she filled her lungs and reveled in the clean autumnal air. She spotted Andy sitting alone on a far mid height wall as her feet dangled off and her wand intermittently twirled about her fingers.

“Hey Andy. What’s up?”

The young witch swung her head back and forth to check that no one was near them before casting a far too neutral expression as Hermione.

“Are you and Bella dating?”

“What…?” The sudden question threw Hermione off her loop. It was the last question she would have expected from her.

“Look, I’ve seen how you two look at each other. All, furtive glance here, furtive glance there. Neither of you are as subtle as you seem to think. Not to mention you both hide away for hours after classes end. And I know she didn’t come back to the dorms to sleep last night. She only showed up around seven, and she looked exhausted as hell.

“I mean, I’m not going to complain if you are. She’s been loads more calm and well-behaved since meeting you. Not to mention she only hexes people that really annoy her now. And don’t think I have anything against you two being ladies, no judgment here. But so help me Salazar, if you hurt her whatsoever they’ll never find the pieces of your body. So do right by her, yeah?”

Hermione could only continue staring at the witch with a deeply confused expression on her startled face as she continued gaping and trying to form words.

“So, whatever you did to make her all melancholy last night, fix it. Before it becomes my, and by extension your, problem. Yeah?”

Hermione continued practicing her ‘startled fish’ routine.

Andy hopped off the wall and clapped her twice about the shoulder before heading back towards the castle interior.

“Well then, good talk Em’. And good luck. She could use someone like you in her life.”

---oo---

Rather than cut into any time after classes had ended that she could spend with Bella, Hermione opted instead to visit Dumbledore as soon as she had her first free period. She knew he expected a debriefing on her lesson with Voldemort and though she felt like indulging him some information she was wary about the full story. She couldn’t be sure whether he would stop her if he knew exactly what had happened. The free time and doubts she’d started having about his morality in the face of the ‘Greater Good’ led her to feel even more cautious than she already was. She could review in her own memories how her life had progressed from being a First Year to now and in her estimation it hadn’t painted a very rosy picture of his methodology in achieving his objectives.

No longer did she look at him as the kindly old teacher that had given her friends and herself answers and help with their adventures. He had been reduced to a manipulative wizard, incredibly powerful in his position and with no qualms against using people as his pawn. As she entered the room she resolved to get this over with as fast as possible.

“Ah, Ms. Grenier. How lovely it is to see you on this fine morning. I trust your outing yesterday went well?” He ambled over to behind his desk. After he’d taken his seat Fawkes flew down from his normal perch to sit upon his shoulder.

Hermione couldn’t help a small laugh when the image reminded her of pirates with parrots on their shoulders. When her laughter finally subsided she settled deeply into a plush armchair that had taken residence in front of his massive desk.

“Yes Headmaster. Bellatrix and I arrived on time and Voldemort was there to greet us. He ran us both through some rather simple spellwork for most of the afternoon, stupefy and protego mostly.”

“Mostly?” His eyes sharpened questioningly.

“We also went over Rennervate. He assessed how proficient I was and then extended an offer to continue tutelage under him, alongside Bellatrix.”

As the old wizard sat backwards in his chair a distinct creaking filled the room and Fawkes flapped his wide wings in annoyance. He sat and began stroking his beard while looking off towards the fireplace, face unreadable. When he finally deigned to reply to her after almost a minute of silence his eyes held a conspiratorial twinkle and the corner of his mouth was upturned in a smirk.

“Well, I must say that’s wonderful. Learning under him will give you ample opportunity to ingratiate yourself to his cause. It will be all the easier for our next steps to take place if we already have you on the inside.”

His immediate jump at using her as a spy was slightly disconcerting. She’d assumed he would ask her eventually after she struck up a friendship with Bellatrix but hadn’t dreamt he would go after it so soon.

“Are you sure sir,” she put as much worry into her face as she dared, hoping he would believe her reluctance. “If he finds out…”

“Yes, yes. You’ll be fine Emelia, he won’t dare suspect anything untoward from you. You’ll be well-placed to observe and report if he brings you into the fold. Now mind you, I didn’t see into the full depths of the future but this is the best chance we could get, unless we want to wait many more years and waste many more lives.”

She had to hand it to him. If she wasn’t already nervous and suspicious of his machinations she’d be jumping at the bit at that last line.

“I’ll inform Horace that you’ll be accompanying Bellatrix on her tutoring sessions for the foreseeable future. Speaking of Ms. Black, how has she been, by the by?”

The sudden change of direction had her shoring up her mind even further. She was eminently grateful that Bella had picked up on their occlumency lessons so quickly. She couldn’t help but feel he’d be after Bella as soon as it was convenient for him.

‘I need to finish those runes.’

“She’s quite fine Headmaster. We’re getting along well and I’m sure the lessons together will help enforce that. We’re no longer at one another’s throat, and she seems relaxed and comfortable in my presence.”

A clock hidden away somewhere amidst the clutter of the office began to chime off tune to signal the turn of the hour. Grateful for the distraction Hermione stood from her chair and picked up her satchel.

“If that’s all Headmaster, I’ll inform Bellatrix of my desire to continue the lessons and go from there. I’ll keep you informed of any relevant information.”

He merely nodded his acquiescence and limply waved her out. Fawkes took to squawking lowly as she made her exit. Before the door shut behind her she could swear she felt eyes boring into her back.

---oo---

As Hermione shut the door behind her Albus let out a loud sigh and stood sharply from his chair. Meandering to the large fireplace he grabbed a handful of Floo Powder and made his way to his secure connection in the Department of Mysteries. He loosened his shoulders and reminded himself to relax now that his revamped plans were now in motion. As he stepped from the fireplace a pair of sharp eyes glanced over at him from across a wide wooden table.

“Mr. Bode. How good to see you.” He walked sharply to stand opposite the seated Unspeakable.

Bode was sitting on a thin wooden folding chair and leaning over what looked to be a larger version of a Time Turner. He had on a single monocle that worked as an enchanted magnifying glass and a pair of white silken gloves. The device set in front of him was plated in silver instead of the usual gold and the sand instead was a deep scarlet color. Incredibly thin strands of silver wire wrapped around the twin bases of the device and a long silver chain made of individual interlocking silver blocks only a centimeter in length and thickness were clamped onto both ends. The individual blocks of the chain were all engraved with runes that Albus had trouble making out as they sat loosely. The whole device hummed with energy and Albus was almost sure he could see a shimmering mirage effect roiling off of it.

“Albus. Glad you stopped by so quickly. Minister Leach is beginning to ask questions that I’d rather avoid. The sooner the girl is gone, the better.”

Albus picked up the Time Turner by the chained loop and left it to dangle from his fingertips, swinging back and forth slightly from the movement. He watched interestedly as the sand within remained motionless to the movement.

“You’re sure that this will work?”

“Not completely but it’s the best that you’ll get. I based it off of the information she gave us about the original and a few schematics and prototypes that we picked up during a raid a few years ago. Of course, my standard contract rules will apply. Give it to her but explain nothing about origin or design. Set the turns, loop her, and it’ll send her back. Or forward, however you like to see it. For the highest chance of recover she’ll need to leave from wherever it was she arrived. Once she makes it back the chain will break and the Turner will automatically return. I expect it back as soon as it’s done.”

The light from multiple well enchanted candles made the individual rune work on the chain stand out brilliantly. Taking a prim nail Albus followed the designs upon the chain and wracked his mind to see if he recognized them. Some were familiar but twisted so far as to be unreadable. After a minute or two to see if his memory jogged he sighed and wrapped the chain tightly around the glass before setting the whole device into one of his voluminous pockets.

“If you don’t mind me asking,” he kept his voice even and wizened, “Who else knows about this?”

Bode scoffed at him before lifting his legs to settle on the table and crossing his ankles.

“No one. My superiors know I’ve been working on a private matter, the Minister believes I’m fulfilling a favor to you. Anyone involved in the research process or initial prototyping has been obliviated after each stage. Standard operating protocol. Some of my colleagues might be lax, but I like to do things by the book around here.”

A warm and throaty chuckle left Albus’s chest at the clear pride that Bode put into his work. The young man’s work ethic would be needed across the board once his plans were in place.

“Well then,” Albus brought his wand from its holster with surprising speed, “Imperio, Obliviate.”

The twin spells shot soundlessly from his wand and pounded Bode straight into his chest. Remaining unmoving his eyes clouded with a dusty film as the twin spells took hold. Albus settled himself into taking a seat upon the large table and languidly placed his wand back.

“Mr. Bode, you tried your very hardest but in the end the Turner didn’t work out. You will, however, inform any who ask that your independent experiment has been completed. You will destroy the remaining evidence that you hold of the device and prevent any others from duplicating it. You have never met Ms. Grenier. Any correspondence you may have from her is to be destroyed, and any future correspondence is to be destroyed without opening. You shall treat the matter as though you were receiving correspondence that was sent to the wrong recipient. After I leave this room you will go back to your normal work schedule.”

After giving the spells a minute or two to sink in Albus determined that they had taken hold and were more than strong enough to hold his chain. He wandered back into the fireplace to return to his office all the while chuckling merrily to himself.

---oo---

Upon Hermione’s arrival in the Room she found Bella relaxedly awaiting her. Instead of the study space that she had become used to over the past weeks the room had been cleared of all bookcases and now only held a few minor furniture settings, a couch, and a rather large fireplace.

The floor had been replaced with a rich mahogany that stretched from wall to wall except in a semi-circle around the fireplace that was built from white marble. The large couch was settled into the middle of the room and facing the fireplace. It was some form of soft leather or something similar that Hermione couldn’t identify. The color was all Bella though, black from the fabric to the legs and stitching. Bella was laying crookedly in the couch with her head and neck propped up by the arm and her arms crossed against her chest. She didn’t stir as Hermione entered and instead stared off into nothing silently.

Hermione dropped her satchel onto the floor behind the couch before strolling over to the fireplace and stoking it higher with a bit of wordless magic. She’d felt herself unusually cold the past few days and wasn’t yet sure as to if it was illness coming down or the onset of Autumn. She stood before the flames for a minute before gathering the courage to turn around and face Bella. The witch’s eyes followed her as she walked to the couch and lifted her legs to sit down. Resituating Bella’s legs onto her lap she counted a victory when the witch didn’t pull away. Letting out an over dramatic sigh she turned towards her friend.

“So. What’s on your mind?” Her voice come out far closer to a whisper than the confident tone she’d intended.

“Oh,” the witch started up, “Not much. Just wondering what to do about a particular not-yet-Dark-Lord Dark Lord. And my impending sale to the Lestrange family. And my sisters. And the Headmaster. So, you know. The usual.”

Bella’s flippant attitude brought Hermione a small laugh as she began passing her hand along the warmth of Bella’s leg.

“Yeah, the usual… I met with Dumbledore earlier. I’ll be joining you for your tutoring going forward. He thinks it’s a good idea to keep an eye on Him. And probably you, now that I think about it.”

Bella shifted her body lower into the couch as her neck and head slid off the arm.

“When are Dumble’s ideas good? Here,” she sat up at the waist and leaned up against Hermione, “Let me see it again, please. There are some things I’d like to check.”

Soft air puffed warmly against Hermione’s cheek as the witch spoke. Their eyes locked together and she tried to pierce the dark depths. When no answers were forthcoming she took ahold of Bella’s proffered hand and led her index finger up until it was pressing against her temple. Dropping her walls she smiled at the witch on her lap.

“Go ahead.”

Again the feeling of Bella’s entrance into her mind was pleasant and calming. She could feel herself relax as the witch began to steer herself around. She relaxed into the couch and let her own thoughts wander as the witch on her thighs murmured softly to herself. Occasionally she would ask questions and Hermione would pull up from her internal reverie to answer, but mostly the witch refrained from speaking.

When an hour had passed and Bella slowly pulled away from her mind she felt the loss like a warm hand leaving her own. Her breath was steady and deep from where she’d nearly relaxed into a stupor.

“Well,” the dark haired witch began, “We can’t trust Dumble. I think that much is pretty clear. I’ve no desire to be used as a pawn.”

“Yeah,” Hermione started hesitantly, “I’d come to that conclusion as well.”

:He’s scheming something. :

The warm hiss from Bella flitted against her ear as the witch entwined herself around Hermione is a loose hug.

:I’m worried. I don’t know yet if I can forgive you for lying to me, but I know why you did it. I want to forgive you. :

Hermione shivered against the closeness of the witch, wrapping her arms around Bella’s back and holding her tightly to her body.

:I’m sorry Bella. :

Pulling away Bella moved her hands until they were holding onto Hermione’s shoulders.

“What do we do?” Her voice came out in more of a hushed whisper that Hermione suspected was close to her true state of mind on all that now lay before them. Hushed, worried, and hurt for the future she’d seen and Hermione had lived.

Her question was honest and Hermione took her time to formulate an answer. There wasn't much they could do right away, as far as she could see. Dumbledore and Voldemort were both powerful Kings on their respective sides of a chessboard. Neither had qualms about sacrificing pawns if it furthered their agenda. Bellatrix Lestrange’s mental deterioration and Sirius’s illegal imprisonment were testaments to that. As well as Dumbledore’s grooming of Harry into a figure that would rush to kill himself at the slightest mention of it helping a greater cause.

Her mind spun round in circles until she finally centered on a reply. If both Kings were already set and chosen, then they would be the Queens.

“What do you know about Wizard’s Chess?”