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A Better Life

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The first true blizzard of December brought with it heaps of snow and a blustery chill that pervaded every corner of the castle from the highest tower to the lowest portion of the dungeon. It also brought with it the second major intervention to Hermione’s new timeline.

The past two weeks had seen Bella follow Hermione back into her room like a lost puppy almost every night. At some point she simply ceased returning to her own bed unless there was an inspection by Slughorn or another Professor. The two other girls that Bella had shared the dorm with hadn’t commented on her lack of appearance at night and seemed willing to leave it as it was. Andy and Narcissa had both learned about her new sleeping arrangements but had yet to comment or question about it specifically. Andy gave them knowing looks while Narcissa simply acknowledged it and moved on.

It helped that they both kept their individual Animagus potions in Hermione’s room, both witches beginning each day and ending each night with wands pointed to their heart and incantations on their lips. Bella had cracked once that it was only efficient to simply stay in the same room as to ensure they both completed it at the same time and Hermione wasn’t one to knock efficiency. If her sleeping partner was as beautiful and alluring as a poisonous flower, then all the better.

The workload for classes had increased before they reached the halfway point to the N.E.W.T.'s and the seventh years were starting to feel the heat. Bella and Hermione’s afternoons after class had become infested with study sessions that could last well into the night unless they were absconding to train under Voldemort instead. Contrary to Hermione’s initial estimation of the man, admittedly stained with her own preconceived notions from her original timeline, he’d proven to be a capable instructor and had weaseled out a course list from both of them.

When he wasn’t pitting them against one another in a duel or teaching them Dark Magic he’d instead quiz and instruct them on deeper portions of their classes that most teachers had deferred and left alone. The knowledge they gleaned from him might not have been intended to end up on their exams but Hermione and Bella at it up regardless. The man might have been a genocidal maniac, but he was also incredibly well read and competent in multiple disciplines. The urge to pick his brain was one that Hermione could never quite complete, always finding he held more knowledge back than what he’d offer. To say it left her frustrated was an understatement.

When spending time along the edges of the Black Lake had become boring they’d moved to diving into the trails and hidden pathways that meandered under the thick canopy of the Forbidden Forest. Though Hagrid wasn’t her direct friend in this timeline he’d still become acquainted enough with the sight of the duo that he simply waved to them in passing let them go on about their way.

The Wednesday before Yule break found both witches tired and irritable, lounging in Hermione’s room while no words passed between them. Their afternoon had been filled with a particularly grueling slog through the Forest and both were happy to finally recuperate from it. Bella had lead them into searching for a particular form of lichen that only grew in the shade of trees where blood had been spilled and for all the hours searching they’d not even gotten half of what they’d hoped. Cuts, bruises, and scraped had been their reward for the effort and all Hermione hoped to do that evening was relax and study for the upcoming Ancient Runes mid-term exam. She knew she needn’t study as hard as she was, having made herself into a miniature expert in order to map out the runes now gracing their backs, but the thought of Bella getting higher marks had won out. The rivalry to exceed one another in all things scholastic or magic related had yet to abate despite the new closeness between them.

Bella lay at an angle to Hermione’s bed while her head and upper torso were left hanging off the side of the soft mattress. Long drapes of black curls lay in a puddle on the floor and for once a good deal of color had seeped into her cheeks as blood rushed to pool at the lowest point. Flash cards hovered at her eye level and swapped back and forth while she quizzed herself. The faint rustle of the cards, flipping pages in a book, and soft breathing were the only sounds in the room. Beyond early grumbling from Bella that Hermione had a striking lack of future knowledge, complete with Hermione’s equally sarcastic responses, no words were spoken.

A warm throw was wrapped around Hermione while she leaned into the headboard and draped her legs across Bella’s thighs. A pair of green woolen socks with multiple moving snakes embroidered upon them were keeping her feet warm while black cotton sweatpants that she’d permanently transfigured from a pair of ratty old jeans kept the rest of her body at a comfortable temperature. The chill of the dungeon had pressed into the room and recent days had proven how hard it was to shirk it.

A rapid and disjointed knocking on the door that led into a familiar voice had both witches startling from their respective studies and glaring at the door.

“Bella? Em’? I know you’re in there. Can I come in?” Andy’s voice filtered in, sounding muffled through the door.

Bella raised herself up until she was seated cross-legged on the bed before looking towards Hermione for her decision. When the short haired witch nodded at her she left the bed and silently padded over to the door.

Andromeda stood in the doorway, the perfect picture of nervous energy. The top buttons of her uniform shirt were undone while her heavy brown curls were frizzed and in disarray, almost as if she’d been running to reach them. Clutched in one hand she held an object about the size of a thin book that was wrapped in brown parchment. Shooting them both a harried smile she stepped into the room and closed the door softly behind her. As the latch clicked shut she pulled a small chair out from Hermione’s vanity and sat down.

As Bella returned to her seat upon the bed Andromeda shoved the brown item into Bella’s chest as she passed.

“That,” she pointed a finger at the item, “Arrived with Harmonica at dinner just a bit ago. She would have delivered it to you but, seeing as you’ve both yet to grace the rest of us with your presence, Narcissa got it instead. When she realized it was for you we both took a look at it.”

“Why are you reading my mail?” Bella’s eyes hardened as she questioned her sister.

“Because you weren’t there. Oh come on,” Bella’s eyes practically spat fire, “It’s not as if you don’t read my mail.”

Bella pulled herself backwards to sit next to Hermione against the headboard while mumbling lowly to herself in a voice that neither Hermione nor Andy could properly hear. The brown paper split down the middle as Bella dragged a sharp fingernail down the front, forgoing unwrapping it in its entirety. A piece of starched white parchment fell into her lap as she grasped for it quickly and began to read it aloud.

“Bellatrix,

Your engagement to Rodolphus Lestrange will be officially announced before midnight at the New Years Gala. Enclosed within you will find a magazine which includes styles of dresses that I have pre-approved for you. Pick two, one for the Gala and one for the wedding. The date will be revealed at the Gala. I expect you to return this magazine along with your indicated choices no later than Friday the 13 th .

-Cygnus Black III”

Despite Hermione thinking it was impossible, Bella’s face continued to pale as she read the letter. Both Bella and herself had been aware that the impending engagement was a task that they needed to conquer within short order but had still managed to let it sink to the back of their mind. The fingers holding the parchment began to shake and shiver while the witch herself started hyperventilating. In a single movement Hermione brought an arm around Bella’s waist to pull her bodily into sitting in her lap and used her free hand to begin rubbing soothing circles into her tensed back. The witch’s eyes had never left the parchment, and she appeared to still be mouthing out the words to herself.

::Fuck! ::, Bella hissed out, anger and venom lacing her tone. Andy was simply nodding her head up and down while staring at a point on Hermione’s wall.

“Well,” Hermione attempted to inject some levity into her voice, “I don’t suppose there're any options as simple as telling him ‘No’, is there?”

Bella groaned heavily before leaning forwards and dropping her head into her hands as the letter and magazine fell to the ground in a heap.

“He’d rather see me dead.”

Hermione knew of Cygnus being… None too pleasant, from her earlier interactions with Andy and Narcissa. She had still vainly hoped that they were over exaggerating his stances. Surely he was just a racist blood supremacist, not someone capable of filicide if his children stood against him. The haunting look in Andy’s eyes and continued tremor running through Bella put that hope to rest.

“Okay, sorry for not being up to snuff but how exactly do arranged pureblood marriages work?” For all her reading in this timeline and the last, pureblood traditions had eluded her. When Andy shot her a confused glance she piped up to cover her lack of knowledge. “In Britain that is. It’s… Different in Canada.”

Andy shifted and the chair she was sitting on creaked while she leaned backwards into the wooden vanity at her back. Hermione counted it a win for her cover as the suspicious glance fell from Andy’s face.

“Well, it’s a huge insult to refuse a marriage proposal, specifically if it’s already been arranged by both individuals parents. Usually there’s a dowry involved. Muggles call it ‘Bride Price’ or something inane like that. Pureblood etiquette maintains that marriages need be between pure lines. In cases where that’s not possible though, second or third cousin incest is generally practiced. Outright sibling incest is frowned upon. The Gaunts practiced it quite a bit, and they’ve all kind of gone… Crazy. Makes for a great display of why not to marry your sis. Second and third cousins are usually okay after proper vetting or no one else turning up that’ll accept you.

“Arranged marriage outside the family is used, generally, to increase one family’s station. There are only twenty-eight pureblood lineages remaining, and each exists on strata. And with each generation having less and less children, well, potency is a driver of marriage. The groom pays the bride’s family both for the benefit to his station and the chance of ensuring his line continues. In this case Rodolphus. Or well, they tried anyways.”

“What do you mean by ‘tried’?” Hermione questioned.

“Well, yeah, tried. Sure doesn’t look like Bella is going to marry that git.”

Bella meekly nodded her head, still cradled as it was in her hands.

“What about you then?” Hermione watched as Andy’s eyes widened. “Who’re they setting you up with?”

“Oh, um. Vance Mulciber. But it’ll be a frozen summer in Hell before I marry that righteous cunt.”

“Who’s he?” Hermione’s gaze swapped between the two witches.

“He left last year. Chose not to pursue a seventh year. Thought he was too good for another year around blood-traitors and mudbloods.” Andy’s voice dripped with contempt as she replied.

“So tell me Andy,” Bella looked up at her sister and pierced her with her eyes. “How’re you going to find a way out of your arrangement if I can’t find one out of mine?”

The unspoken knowledge that Bella had of exactly how Andy would escape her marriage sat heavy between herself and Hermione.

“Well… I don’t know how exactly but I’m not going to marry him. I don’t care if Cygnus decides to disown me or not.”

“I know about Ted, Andy. You don’t need to hide that.”

Andromeda’s eyes widened comically as she stilled at Bella’s statement.

“I’d think I’d need to hide it more, seeing as you eat up Mother and Father’s rubbish.”

“I don’t care that he’s a mudblood-”

“There you go with the slander again.” Andy interjected.

“Oh piss off. I’m not Cygnus, and I’m certainly not Druella. I don’t care that he’s muggleborn . I’m just happy you found someone you want.”

Seconds began to pass while Bella and Andy stared at each other, gazes flickering between blank nothingness and angry heat.

Andy was first to break the silence.

“Who are you. And what’ve you done with my sister?”

Bella rolled her eyes and leaned back heavily into Hermione before letting her head loll back onto Hermione’s shoulder.

“Sod off. I’m still me. Em’s just been… Educating me in all the manners that pureblood society is, quite frankly, complete and utter shite. Besides, you’re family. Family comes first.”

“Really?” Andy’s eyes shifted between Hermione and Bella while she sat still and chewed on her lower lip. “I’ve been dating him for two years now. We’re not planning on breaking it up. I still have at least one year before Cygnus tries to sell me off and I plan on leaving with him before that happens. But,” she held her gaze against Bella again, “We weren’t talking about that. We were talking about you. What are you planning on doing?”

“Um,” Hermione broke into their conversation, “If someone offered him a higher price, would he accept that? Or at least hold off on the engagement?”

“Yes,” the Black duo piped up at the same time, before Bella took the lead.

“It’s likely he would. I’m not the highest catch on House Black, regardless of how Ancient or Noble we are. It’d be a slight to the Lestrange family, but it’s not unheard-of for someone to swoop in at the last second with the promise of a higher price and better status.”

Bella turned to lean her side against Hermione, drawing her legs up and supporting her body with an arm splayed out to the side.

::Are you hinting what I’m thinking you are? :: Bella hissed quietly. Hermione only nodded her head slowly in response.

“You know, it’s highly disconcerting to hear you two talking like that. Like, I know no one else is going to give you anything for it but you sound like a snake. It’s kind of creepy. You know.” Andy sat back with a sarcastic expression painted on her face.

“If I offer your Father a higher price, do you think he would accept and cancel his current arrangement with Lestrange?” Hermione directed her question towards Andy.

During Andy’s explanation the thought had lodged itself into her head and wouldn’t leave. It beat out their previous plan of just ignoring the impending engagement, and would be easy enough to handle if Cygnus accepted. She’d pay him from a vault of money she didn’t really have a stake in, and once Bella was free to leave from Cygnus’s guardianship she could simply cease contact and she’d be free. She didn’t voice her opinion that it would make her feel better as well, to have Rodolphus no longer leering at Bella like he already owned her.

“Maybe? I mean if all you're aiming to do is waste his time it might work. But most of the old families don’t have much of a tolerant view on homosexuality. To put it mildly. Something or other about it being proof that the individual couldn’t bear children or further the line. But at a high enough price? He might just bite.”

“How would Cissa take it?” Hermione shifted Bella until she was seated between her legs again, arms wrapped tightly around her torso. “She’s still arranged for Malfoy, right? Would she be okay with you both getting out like that?”

“Oh bloody Merlin, she loves that dunderhead to hell and back. It’s always, ‘Lucius this, Lucius that’, with her. Even if they weren’t already in an arrangement she’d be head over heels for him.”

---oo---

Nearly two hours passed while the witches cooked up a plan for Cygnus to meet with Hermione. Since the onset of Yule break was only in a week, they planned to send a return letter along with a note of interest from Hermione. They also planned on letting him know none too gently that Hermione would be accompanying Bella to their home over the break. Their time was also spent determining how they would word her letter of interest. They knew they would have to be specific and clarify that she was from a Great House in the America’s. Andy and Bella were sure that If they could trump Hermione up enough and hint to her wealth in a sufficient manner that Cygnus would have almost no choice but to accept.

Neither Bella nor Hermione felt the need to ruminate on the fact that it wasn’t really her name or heritage, so long as it accomplished their mission.

The weeks having passed had clued Hermione into how much of a benefit it was to have a name that could work to her advantage. Using their gold and influence was slowly becoming second nature whenever it could benefit her.

After a particularly long lull in the conversation Hermione sat up slightly against the headboard before broaching another topic.

“If he does decline the offer, how will that go? Especially if you still attempt to call it all off?”

“Well,” the warm body in her lap began, “He can do one of a few different things. Firstly he could decline your offer, hold me against my will, and murder me. Putting the whole ordeal behind him.”

“Would he really do that? Murder one of his own children for declining a marriage?” Hermione’s face grew angry and flushed with righteous heat.

“I wouldn’t put it past him. It’s definitely happened in pureblood families in the past. Easier to deal with a death in the family than a shame that could taint their name for generations. Especially easy considering how many of the right people they usually have in their pockets. Old money and prestige buys you a lot of leeway with Aurors and courts.” Bella took a deep breath before continuing.

“As I was saying, he could murder me. Secondly, he could just Imperius me into accepting my fate. Probably he’d have to move up the ceremony, or at least had me sign the marriage certificate. Once that’s done, the magic binding it would hold me. I’d be screwed, with no way out. Divorce needs the husband’s approval and a reason that’s agreed to be legitimate by an impartial third party. And since almost no third party is impartial where a pureblood is concerned, well suffice to say that'll never happen. Lastly he could just attempt to hurt me physically or mentally enough that sequestering me in St. Mungo’s forever would be my only option. I’d never be seen again, and it’d save face with the other families if he could give them fake reason for my disappearance.”

“Our more likely scenario is that he bites at the upped price and prestige. He’s greedy beyond belief,” Andy broke in.

“So, Em’ , will you marry me?” Bella looked up at Hermione through her raven locks and attempted a look of pure innocence. It served to only get Hermione giggling.

::Yes, :: the witch leaned down to press a chaste kiss to Bella’s forehead.

“Aw, you two are so adorable for not being a couple.” Andy shot them both a cheeky grin before rocking side to side in delight.

---oo---

Before Andy left them alone for the night the trio went over the plan again. When they finally finished Bella was exhausted beyond belief and Hermione was right beside her in that. Neither had thought that planning an escape from the shackles of marriage would be so tiring.

Without any words spoken both witches grabbed what they needed and headed towards the lonely Prefect’s bathroom to soak themselves and unwind. Fluffy towels, warm humid air, and blessed silence met them as they entered.

Hermione left her bag against the alcove built into the room before making her way to the side of the bath and flicking her wrist to fill it with warm water and a cascade of bubbles. The room slowly filled with steam and the warm scent of fresh pine. As she waited for the bath to fill she stripped and turned to throw her clothing back into the alcove and nearly choked on her tongue.

Bella was turned away from her, naked but for the ringlets of black that spilled over her shoulder and down her back. The bright red runemarks were overlaid on her porcelain skin, the only thing to give a color to her otherwise ethereal look. Warmth dropped through her core to leave a heated mess where once stood a stoic and level-headed witch.

She only began to move again once her mind came out of its haze as she realized she’d been staring for an ungodly amount of time at the pale and athletic body in front of her. Turning on her heel she nearly dived into the water and pointedly made her way to a corner to sit and stare at a wall, away from Bella.

Within short order Bella turned and meandered her way to the edge of the batch, hips purposefully swaying and slyly grinning at Hermione. Hermione was quite sure she’d never been so warm before in her entire life and for a single moment she felt like slipping from her skin and disappearing would be a better fate than continuing on in this daze. The water was so warm it nearly burned her skin, the scar on her arm sent out pulsing heat deep into her muscle and up across her arm and shoulder, her cheeks were burning with a flush and this beautiful catastrophe of a witch was the cause of it all.

“So, what do you want in return for helping me with this?”

The question caught Hermione off guard.

‘What do I want? Why would I want anything?’

“Nothing? I don’t need anything in return.” She settled for voicing her thoughts directly instead of asking Bella to clarify or side step the question.

“Well what’s your trade? You’re getting me out of this marriage, what do you want in return?”

“Bella,” an exasperated tone bled into her words, “I don’t want anything. I just want to help you.”

The dark haired witch before her dunked her whole body beneath the water before returning to the surface and settling her hair out of her face to lay down her back. Her eyes narrowed as if she was trying to pierce Hermione.

“Nothing is free. Everyone wants something.”

“Not me.” Hermione leaned back into the tile behind her, drawing her legs up onto the ledge she sat upon and wrapping her arms around them.

“Bull. Everyone does. I’m beset on all sides by those I hate, those who want to control me. Cygnus, for what I’m worth in coin to him. Voldemort, for my use as a weapon. Rodolphus for his ownership of my soul and body. And now Dumbledore, for my worth as a potential spy or piece on his chessboard. So what do you want? What am I worth to you?”

The scar on her arm had abruptly turned from soothing to scathing as pain lanced up the muscle. Her free hand instinctively found its way to massaging the skin in loose grasping motions. Fighting through the pain threatening to break through she stilled her breath while her heart began beating furiously in her chest.

‘Is this how he trapped her? Fueling her broken worldview that any kindness only came in expectation of some trade?’

In a single movement she lunged forward until she was standing toe to toe with Bella, arms wrapped tightly around the witch and body pressed firmly against her own. Resting her forehead against Bella breathed deeply and pressed her forehead lightly against the witch.

::I told you already, I want nothing back. I want to help you. ::

Where Bella had previously stilled within her arms she suddenly reciprocated the position Hermione was in, wrapping her arms around her and pressing her body forwards.

::Okay. ::