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A Better Life

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Hermione’s skin prickled as a slow breeze passed through the Room of Requirement. Naked from the waist up, she pressed her torso further into the warm sand beneath her to escape the oncoming chill.

“So… How bad do you think this’ll hurt exactly?” A tremor ran through her voice as her nervousness mounted.

Across the pit a hand reached out to a long metal rod sitting headfirst into a fire. The branding iron was removed with a flourish as Bella brought the red-hot end close to her face to inspect it.

“Probably a lot. It is a branding after all. Can’t imagine it’ll be a walk in the park. Just bite down and think of Merlin. Or the Queen. Whatever it is mudbloods do.”

The body laying at Bella’s feet chuffed in her direction at the casual slur. Bella might have become more aware of her prejudices after viewing all of Hermione’s memories but had yet to break free from most of her more prickly habits. For her part Hermione no longer minded it so long as it wasn’t directed at someone other than herself. The scrawl on her arm and accompanying curse had diluted the pain of it.

Hermione bit down experimentally after placing the soft leather bit into her mouth. Rolling her shoulders back she tensed up in expectation of the pain.

‘Ow, ow, ow!’

No period of anticipation was enough when the metal made contact with her skin. The lack of warning from Bella prevented her from shying away from the heat as it burned its mark in. Within a full second of it touching her body her back screamed hurt as loud as it could. Tears scattered her vision and all the muscles of her body contracted painfully as they tried to escape the torment. Before a short scream could fully wrangle its way from her throat the heat and pressure disappeared.

Her lungs burning cued her into how she had been holding her breath. Taking as full a breath as she could only ended in her coughing as bits of sand and spittle flew down her throat. Before she knew what hit her all the air was expelled from her as the brand reconnected with her back, just an inch below the first.

‘Fuck fuck fuck NO!’

Courage fled as her mind focused only on one thing, escape. The pain overrode any self control she’d started with and Hermione quickly found her body reacting without her input. Her arms dug into the sand at her sides in an attempt to push her body up and away while her legs tried to push her knees underneath her.

However, before she could fully escape, a quickly whispered spell from behind her zapped into the meat of her hip. With no warning her body fell face down into the sand, chin bumping painfully against tiny rocks, as her arms were pulled back and glued to her sides while her legs shot out ramrod straight before being stuck together.

The heat on her back ramped again as darkness began to tunnel around her vision. Unconsciousness swiftly followed. Her last thought was as to whether it was her body or Bella betraying her.

---oo---

Sand fell down her cheeks when her eyelids finally began to flutter open. The stark brightness of the Room kept them squinted as she adjusted. A simulacrum of pale blue sky lay far above her. As her mind took stock and began ramping up she turned her head side to side to find her dark haired cohort.

When at last she could see with no ill effects she sat forward, stomach falling nauseatingly to the floor.

‘No clothes. No pain…’

When that realization washed over her she quickly covered her bare torso with her arms. Twisting her head about brought Bella into sight. The witch was seated to her left, legs crossed and elbow propped up on a knee to support her chin. She wore a bored smile but vigilant eyes. If Hermione had to guess, she almost looked relieved.

“What,” her throat burned, and she coughed before continuing, “What happened?”

Bella lowered her head and began running her fingers nervously through her hair before replying.

“Well you passed out. Obviously. Don’t know if it was the shock or what exactly, but I’d bound you right before. So I finished the rest of the brands.” The witch shivered in place before looking up to stare Hermione in the eyes. “Don’t think I’ll ever get that smell out of my head. Also don’t think I want any bacon anytime soon. You okay?”

Hermione rolled her shoulders out and twisted side to side to test the skin on her back. When she was satisfied there were no issues she nodded brusquely to her. A quick ‘ Accio’ brought her shirt over from the other side of the sandpit and she wasted no time in putting it back on. Once she was decent she stood and stretched properly.

Nothing had been ill met during her inspection. The tightening and tug of burned skin that followed the scarring around her neck wasn’t present in her back. If anything, she almost felt restored. No pain, limber muscles. A pleasant ache not unlike getting a back massage.

Internally she could understand that she shouldn’t be surprised. She knew that’s how the ritual was supposed to proceed. She’d developed the damn thing after all. Still, the self-satisfied part of her brain was purring in contentment at knowing it had left no lasting marks. Beyond the obvious that was. Or she hoped. Bella hadn’t exactly described how the marks now looked upon her skin.

“No pain at all. Don’t feel different at all really. Did they look okay?”

“Merlin’s balls. Do they look okay? They look bloody fucking awesome!” Bella glanced up at her with a toothy grin and a flash of delighted fire behind her eyes.

“Well then,” Hermione placed her hands upon her hips and widened her stance, “You ready?”

The witch at her feet groaned loudly before tilting her head back to stare up at the false sky.

“As I’ll ever be.”

Bella rose to her knees before turning away from Hermione. A quick flick of her fingers along with a whispered Dysovius and suddenly Bella was nude, her clothing banished to the other side of the sand pit. Her head turned side on to grin lasciviously back at Hermione.

Hermione could feel her face and chest brightening as her eyes lingered. However she’d imagined Bella might disrobe, this hadn’t been it.

‘Bloody hell.’

Bella settled herself face down onto the sand beneath her once she was sure that Hermione had been teased enough. She was sure that if she had one favorite perk that came with knowing this time-hopping mudblood, it was all the beautiful ways in which she could get a rise from her. Short and breathy chuckles blew dust away from her face as she settled in.

Hermione rolled her eyes and bit her lip as Bella quietly took her place in the sand. Striding to the rack holding the numerous brands they needed took only a few paces. She ran her finger to follow the curves of the rune after pulling the first in line from its place. Gleaming silver metal reflected a portion of her face back at her. Each brand had cost her enormously, but it wasn’t like the Grenier’s were spending their vast fortune anymore. And prudent investments would mean the interest would cover her spending in only a few months.

She switched her grip to hold the metal rod by the end before placing it directly into the fire. The heat rose about her wrist but never once touched her fingers. She silently thanked Bella again for planning ahead and casting a quick charm to dispel the heat off and into the air before it could make its way to the grip.

Moving quickly she placed the remaining rods into the fire beside the first. As the minutes passed quick sparks would shoot off the heads of the metal, black, pink, green and amber shot off into the air above the fire as they reached the correct temperature. When each in turn had acclimated she reached over to pull the first from the flames.

Turning about to face the prostrated form of her… Confidant? Lover? … Friend? None of those terms accurately depicted their relationship. They were confidants, but only one way. Bella had yet to truly forgive her lying and had yet to allow her access to her own memories. As for lovers, well, they had yet to do much else beyond tease one another and bond through touching and physical connection. No kissing, no awkward midnight professions of love or adoration. Friend? They were obviously beyond that point, if the naked bodies and secret blood branding ritual didn’t make it clear enough.

The past few weeks had been eye-opening. Hermione was bound to Bella in some form or another due to Lestrange’s curse, but she could feel that same magic flexing and changing in the presence of Bella. Her eyes raked up and down Bella’s naked form, drinking in the sight to stir at something warm and heady in her core.

Their bodies were markedly different. Where Hermione had filled out the last three years, Bella was lithe and compact. Hermione’s body showed off what her experiences had given her whereas Bella hid her abilities from the world. Hermione’s skin was permanently suntanned in a manner that only accentuated the instances when she blushed, freckles dotted her skin in patches with no discernible order while stretchmarks and scars told a story of her history.

The only marking on Bella’s alabaster skin was a single small birthmark in the shape of a squiggling S near her right thigh. The rest of her skin was an expanse that seemed chiseled from marble. Warm and soft, but still marble. If she was being honest with herself she was almost loathe to leave any mark upon her.

Both witches had initially assumed that simply tattooing the runes in a mixture of various enchanted inks would allow the symbols to work their magic upon their bodies. Further investigation however revealed that while it would confer some strengthening of ability to their occlumency, it wouldn’t make it unbreakable or always active unless they pulled the walls down. Instead, their research had led them in search of various dark magics outlined in several large volumes they’d purchased from the small, but ancient, bookstore in Hogsmeade.

The ritual would confer whatever magic that their runes intended directly into their bodies. One text had described it as ‘Branding the Soul’, rather than just the skin. Among the hefty purchase of the metal runes, they’d also needed to procure a rather large amount of their own blood to soak them in first.

Hermione had almost flat out refused when the discovered that bit of the procedure, but insistence on Bella’s part that this was necessary to their long term plans had won out. Their last bit of reading had informed them that although the process could be stopped it was not recommended. In the slightest. Half-assing the ritual and attempting to leave partly through could result in a severely compromised spell that might lash out at them in unexpected and potentially lethal ways.

To that end they’d promised one another that should they attempt to escape the ritual, the other one would cast a body-bind and ensure it was finished. Hermione was slightly dissatisfied in that she’d essentially ‘cheated’ out the ritual by means of unconsciousness, but didn’t let it weigh too heavily on her mind. It was over and done with, and she hadn’t exploded into bits of half formed magic.

Hermione shook herself from internal reflection when the witch below her coughed slightly and turned to look in her direction. Blushing again, this time with embarrassment, Hermione walked to Bella’s side and lined up the rod.

The sizzle and pop of the metal alerted Bella to her movements and the muscles beneath her skin began to tense. She may have held bravado when branding Hermione but internally it was as much of a struggle as it could be.

Hermione moved silently and with one motion, the brand hovering over her back one second and burning the skin in another. It was horrific, both ways. She could see how the skin to the sides of the metal blistered and reddened, darkening against the pale of her skin. When it was ready to be released and she pulled away from Bella a smell rose up and nearly turned her stomach out entirely. There was nothing to be done though as she’d begun the process.

Hermione fought to settle her resolve as she turned the branding into a rote action and quickly moved into a rhythm.

Grab rod.

Press.

Remove.

Repeat.

A keening hiss from Bella was brought louder and louder with every brand. Her muscles were shaking so badly from the pain that Hermione was certain she would miss her mark more than once. Somehow she persevered and landed all the correct positions.

Two lines of brands, four runes each, lay side by side in parallel with Bella’s spine. Each were an ugly raised mound of burnt and scarred flesh, red and bubbling as the heat continued to dissipate into the surrounding skin. As she continued watching the burns seemed to halt. Within seconds it was as if she was watching them come undone. Skin knitted back together, boils sank back down and slowly disappeared. The red of the inflamed skin crystallized into stylized runemarks of a deep and bloody red.

As she knelt down she placed her hands onto Bella’s warm skin. One hand soothed her back, rubbing up and down the new marks, while the other gripped her shoulder, thumb rubbing soothing circles into the skin. Bella’s strength of will was impressive. Beyond her body shaking automatically at the pain she hadn’t attempted to get up or resist in any manner. By the looks of the leather bit sitting in front of her she had hardly used that either.

“Em’,” a voice rough as parchment floated up from the unmoving witch, “I am never letting you talk me into anything like that. Ever. Again.”

The body in her hands lifted to roll onto her side before bringing her knees to her chest and attempting to sit up. Hermione kept her hold and helped Bella into a stable position, keeping her from falling back over. Only when she realized she was staring did Hermione avert her wandering eyes.

‘Don’t look down don’t look down don’t look down.’

“Did it work?” Bella inquired before shifting her arms across her chest.

“The runes took hold. Haven’t checked the spell though.”

Hermione tilted Bella’s head back to look directly into her eyes and began the spell. She could feel herself pull forward as she attempted to break through Bella’s defenses. In contrast to their previous training, a single great wall blocked her ability to read the witch instead of the large and near endless castle of mirrors that Bella had chosen as her main defense. Strong and thick, the wall proffered no access either through or around. A few more seconds of effort, and she was satisfied that it had worked. As she ended the legilimency she sat back onto the sand and broke eye contact.

“Seems like it worked. No entrance. Open up?”

When Bella nodded in acknowledgement Hermione reached out again with her mind. Instead of the wall she found instead a vast field filled with memories and the emotions attached to them. She pulled her mind back quickly before she could get a proper view of anything on display. Bella hadn’t indicated that she was free to peruse and she intended to abide by her wishes, unspoken or not. She hoped Bella would let her in fully someday soon but that trust was more important than trying to take a peak without asking.

“Open and closed on command! Changed your defense out a bit, but solid as it could possibly be. We actually did it!” Hermione raised her arms in triumph at weeks of work finally paying off.

An answering shout of happiness met her ears right before Bella shot herself forward off her seated position. Warm arms wrapped around Hermione’s torso as the impact from Bella pushed her off balance and she fell backwards into the sand. The arms around her midriff squeezed tighter as the witch on top of her let out peals of joyous laughter.

Bella pressed her warm cheek against Hermione’s own as outward enthusiasm died down somewhat. Curly black hair splayed out around Hermione’s head and soothing warmth flowed from her forearm.

“Um, Bella,” Hermione could feel her cheeks and chest warming frighteningly fast once again, “Your uh, your clothes are still over there.”

“True,” the witch whispered in answer, “But do you really want me to let go?”

Hermione’s voice escaped her for a second before she increased her grip on the warm body atop her and whispered, “No.”

Minutes passed quietly between them as their bodies settled in against one another before Hermione quietly spoke up again.

“As much as I’d like to stay likes this, and please believe me when I say I do, we need to head back out at some point.”

Bella pulled herself upwards and off of the witch until she was able to look Hermione in the eyes. Dark curls fell down in a heavy curtain to close them off from the rest of the world. Warm air buffeted Hermione’s lips as Bella softly asked, “Why?” Her eyes burned soulfully into Hermione’s, full of warmth and desire behind the inky darkness.

Neurons were firing in Hermione’s brain, she was sure of it. There were reasons , and perfectly good ones at that, that they needed to leave at some point. But all that came forward in her mind were thoughts of how perfect the face above her looked. Half of her wanted to say screw the consequences and soil this little ritual space that the Room had cooked up for them. And it was a very insistent half. Fiercely insistent even.

The other half, and the part of her will that usually won out, was terrified of being caught. And in this instance her Gryffindor courage wasn’t enough to break free from the mindset of a goody two shoes student that followed the rules and never played around with anything dangerous. Even if the danger in this case was wonderfully beautiful.

“Someone will notice we’re gone,” she replied when she realized what speech was again. “Someone will ask questions we don’t want asked. At best, it’ll just be one of your sisters. At worst, it’ll be Slughorn. Which means Dumbledore will know we’re up to something.”

“Well,” Bella’s head dropped heavily onto Hermione’s chest, “Now that you’ve completely ruined the mood by bringing the old cunts into this…”

Bella slowly released her hold on Hermione’s body and pushed herself up and off of the witch. Hermione wasn’t proud to note that her eyes waited until the very last second to divert their gaze and afford the witch some modesty.

Bella stood and brushed off the loose sand still covering parts of her body as she walked towards the pile of clothes at the edge of the pit. When Hermione felt that enough time had passed for Bella to be decent she turned to look at the witch and stood up.

Breaking down the little bit of equipment they had brought with them was simple enough. The books remained in the Room, as it had supplied them, while the only item they needed to take with them were the long branding irons and Hermione’s own written notes. Each piece of metal had cooled sufficiently enough to be placed inside of a satchel that Hermione had enchanted to be near weightless and bottomless.

When they were finished both witches took their leave and carefully began to make their way back towards the dungeons. The walk was silent and beyond a few seventh years still milling about before curfew, no one noticed or accosted them. As they gave the password to enter the common-room, neither witch noticed a pair of angry brown eyes that watched them from the shadows.

---oo---

The change into November brought cold winds and the beginning of snowfall to Hogwarts. It also signaled the halfway point on their quest to become Animagi.

The first Monday night of November found both Hermione and Bellatrix seated together atop a flat rock near the far edge of the Black Lake. The school-day had been aggravating for both witches and they relished this free moment with each other. Hermione had been run nearly ragged between her mounting classwork and another prankster taking great pains to ruin her day.

As if in repeat of her second week, she found her ink had been switched for disappearing ink, door handles had been hexed to shock her and her alone with nearly painful electricity, and her notes and homework had mysteriously shredded themselves into tiny pieces whenever she looked away. Rodolphus currently topped their short list of suspects as he was the only person to openly show any disdain for the witch. No one else came close in their animosity to Hermione as most had been spurred onward when Bella had been mad at her. Her good graces with Bella had calmed her prior tormentors into leaving her alone and attempting to befriend her.

The only problem with their current theory was that Rodolphus had been actively ignoring her for almost a week before the problems began to arise. He still gave her angry glares but had mostly kept out of her hair after Bella had the fortune of cornering him and persuading him to leave her the hell alone. That her method of persuasion had involved a wand point threat of lopping off his manhood hadn’t seemed to make him any angrier, and now neither witch could pinpoint any particular reason that would have caught his ire.

Bella had steadfastly stood by Hermione’s side once the witches realized that someone was targeting her specifically. Even then she still had no hint of who it might be. By the evening meal Hermione had been near ready to pull out her hair in frustration. In a last ditch effort Bella had poured herself into providing reassurances against the torment and reminders that that night they could finally take the blasted leaves from their mouths.

Bella’s method had worked as the witches now found themselves outside, waiting for the moon to show. Hermione kept a vigilant eye and ear out for any interlopers trying to intrude upon their admittedly illegal activity. Whenever a leaf or a twig would rustle in the wind her eyes would dart in the direction and her breath would still in her throat. Bella found it placed upon herself to ground Hermione and reassure her that everything was alright. In her estimation it was a role she was well suited for and Hermione’s praise was payment enough.

Across the distant expanse of the Lake, candlelight flickered in the high towers of Hogwarts. Cold and persistent winds flew in across the lake at high speed to buffet them and pull at their clothes. Even the warm cloaks they wore and the few heating spells that Hermione had cast before they set out weren’t enough to keep the chill of November at bay.

In search of warmth, Hermione had seated herself into Bella’s lap. Facing the witch, legs wrapped around her torso and handles clutched to rest against Bella’s chest, it was as perfect a position as she could get. Warmth rolled off the witch to keep her front from freezing, though it did little to nothing for the wind at her back. Bella threw numerous heating charms and warming spells around the duo after a particularly violent shiver erupted from Hermione and her teeth chattered together audibly.

Once she was satisfied that the wind would no longer bother them, Bella set her wand back into its holster and began to dig around in a pocket of her cloak. After a moment or two of searching she pulled her hand out to reveal two medium-sized potion phials. Inside of each was a swirling silver liquid and a small hard object tinkling softly against the glass as it sloshed about. Bella passed Hermione a phial before tilting her head to the sky and looking towards the moon.

High above them clouds made from gray puffs of smoke and translucent white wisps passed between the ground and the moon. Silvery shadows slid along the ground at high speeds as the furious wind high above moved their makers. When Bella popped the top off of her phial, Hermione mirrored the action, readier than ever to get this portion of the process over with.

Only a few minutes later the clouds above them dipped away from the moon, lighting the small area they sat in as well as the lake beside them in silver white. Bella tilted her head back towards Hermione and nodded slightly. In tandem, both witches reached to their mouth and removed the bitter leaf still under their tongue. After placing the leaf inside of the vial they stoppered the potions and set down on the rock.

Hermione and Bella mirrored each other as they brought their wands out and placed the tip against their heart. As they recited the incantation, the potion within the bottles began to give off a luminescent aura. On the last word the containers flashed a bright and brilliant neon green before settling back to a dark color beneath the night sky. Bella flicked her wand towards the bottles and with a sizzling sound they were banished to a small drawer inside of the vanity in Hermione’s room.

Hermione practically glowed as she smiled up at the witch she was pressed against.

“Well, now all we need is a lightning storm.”

Bella ran her tongue around her mouth, fidgeting at the feeling of no longer having the leaf inside her mouth.

“Sorry to break it to you,” she tilted her head back towards the sky before shooting Hermione a sarcastic grin, “But I really don’t think that there’s a chance of that happening anytime soon. Winter means snow, not storms.”

As if nature herself wanted to agree with Bella, a strong gust of wind blew in off the lake, carrying snow and chill. As Hermione began to shiver again she huddled her body closer to Bella, who placed a strong arm around her back and shoulder to pull her in closer. Bella rested her head between Hermione’s shoulder and neck once the witch in her lap had settled. The chill of Bella’s nose caused Hermione to flinch before the witch began to nibble at the skin of her neck. Tilting her head slightly to the side she allowed the witch more access to her skin, murmuring happily to herself.

Hermione spent a few minutes relaxing under the witch’s attentions before the analytical side of her brain started up again.

“Do you think that the spell could be tied to a specific location? Like, in the general region where the potion was made?”

“Don’t know,” Bella’s lips tickled at her neck, “Why?”

“Well,” Hermione’s tone adopted a familiar ‘bookworm’ note, “Nothing in any of the literature that we’ve read mentions location as being tied to the spell. Just that you have to wait, however long, for a storm. It’s like everyone who ever tried to become an Animagus just decide to stay in one spot. None ever decided to, I don’t know, go to where a storm could be. They just wait. Gods, some of them must have waited years for a proper storm. Anyone living where it’s drought stricken? Or always too cold? That’s insane.”

“Well maybe they all ended up dead if they tried it somewhere else. Have you thought about that? Maybe no one was able to report on it because they all died, half animal monstrosities left with no way to document it.”

“Why is it every time I try to have a mature conversation with you it somehow ends up being about death?”

“I have to maintain my Gothic image. It enhances the whole, mysterious dark witch dabbling in forbidden magic thing, that I have going on.” Bella leaned back and waved a hand in front of herself, as if that explained everything.

“Sure...” Hermione’s carefully manufactured look of stern seriousness lasted all of two seconds before she fell into laughter.

Bella simply rolled her eyes and nuzzled back against Hermione’s neck once she realized that the witch’s laughter wouldn’t be ending anytime soon. “Just admit it, you love my little eccentricities.”

The witches settled in against one another as the night wore on. Hermione's heart pounded with a feeling of warmth and safety she wouldn’t have thought possible within the arms of Bellatrix.

Eventually though the looming threat of curfew had them both shuffling off the rock and starting the meandering walk back inside.

“What do you think our next lesson is?” Hermione asked as the silence pressed in between them.

“Potions, if I’m remembering our time sheet right.” Bella cheekily knocked her elbow against Hermione after replying.

“Ass,” Hermione softly pushed back against Bella, “I meant with Voldemort.”

“Hopefully that whole, flying as a cloud of mist thing. Merlin’s beard I want that spell.”

“How would we even ask him about that? ‘Hello Mr. Dark Lord, Sir, could you please explain to us the particulars of a magic that we know about from the future? ’”

A snort of laughter escaped Bella at Hermione’s faux innocent tone. She could just about imagine the response they would get with a question like that.

“No, just ask if he knows about any spells that could lead to unsupported flight. If he knows or has made it yet, he’ll tell us. I’ve never met a man so in love with his own voice or lessons. Even more than Slughorn’s droning.”

Linking arm in arm, Bella and Hermione continued up to the Castle proper as laughter flitted between them.