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A Better Life

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“So are you going to actually help or…?” Her tone was petulant, even to her own ears, but Hermeione could hardly help the irritation from invading her mannerisms. It was abundantly clear by now that Bella had absolutely no interest in actually helping.

But still. Asking was polite.

“Are you going to actually help?” Her darker haired partner replied with a snide tone and barely even looked up to register the exasperation evident in Hermione’s face.

“Bella…” Hermione used her best, ‘Dealing with Children’ tone.

“Ah come on Em’, it’s been four hours n' we’ve found nothing. We should just start moving things out of here. Or assign me something less boring at least.”

The pile of books that Hermione had bundled against her chest reached the ground with a thump before spilling out over themselves while she cocked her hip and crossed her arms over her chest.

“You,” she pointed a thin finger at Bella, “have been building castles with shrunken books for over an hour at this point. We’d’ve both been done and out of here ages ago if you’d just stuck to the plan and helped, instead of insisting on playing around like an unruly child while wasting our time.”

The dark haired witch squinted, peering up at Hermione, before sighing heavily and rising to her knees. 

“Yes, I’ll agree that we could have been done quicker if I’d made a full effort, but it’s boring.”

“Boring?”

“Yes, boring. We can look at them all later. And besides,” she spread her hands out to show off her miniaturized castle with her as the queen, “I am helping. Look how neat this all is. Blood runes,” she pointed towards the outer wall, “Curse imbibement,” two tall towers standing side by side, “And all the rest. You get the picture.”

She leaned back on her haunches, a lazy smile playing across her face as she observed her meticulously crafted disorder. Inspection complete, she turned back to face Hermione.

And promptly felt her grin tighten in fright.

The witch’s eyes were… well, glaring daggers would be a monstrous understatement at this point.

“Ahem,” she coughed and shrank back, “Well, guess I’ll pack it in then.”

---

Seconds ticked by into minutes that transitioned as slowly as possible into hours while the pair continued their scouring of the library. Hermione was a cruel taskmaster, keeping their pace harsh while she flipped through books at a frightening pace only to turn and toss the miniaturized versions into the extension charmed bag that kept floating along directly behind her. 

The back left quadrant of the library had been dispelled after only a few minutes of wandwork by Bella, glyphs and tainted cones of light splaying out across the bindings to scour the curses from their pages. Most had been spelled to prevent anyone not of Black blood to touch them, but some had gone so far as to relegate safe handling to only one or two specific people. 

It was a process that Hermione had been intensely pleased to watch. Bella had moved with all the grace of a dancer, flipping her wand from side to side; counter clockwise and back, all the while murmuring words of bygone languages in a near constant stream. It was magic that captivated Hermione, pure and simple.

The rest of the room had simply been spelled to ward off touch, either through painful shocks or mild curses that would do no more than inconvenience someone to prevent them from trying again. Those were the easiest to remove from their home, a quick Wingardium floating them up and out of their resting spots to open for Hermione’s casual perusal. 

It was a ridiculously simple workaround to something that should have been much tougher, and Hermione could hardly stop the chuckle that came out when she thought about the lack of protection.

Eventually they had isolated all the books they’d needed into a single bag, weightless and floating open with the expectation for more. It had taken just a swift call to Malbon and the elf had apparated away with their ill-gotten goods. His method of apparition was a mystery to Hermione, able to take inanimate objects but not people, and one that she swore to solve as soon as her world stopped turning on a dime.

When their task in the library had finished both witches set out to the sisters bedrooms, turning to magic to stirp them clean. Everything, from the rugs to the faintest scraps of parchment were transported to Château de Grenier. The stripped bare rooms were an oddity, along with the mostly missing library, that Bella chose to cover up by illusion. Scrap quills, knuts, practically any debris that she could get her hands on were transfigured into lookalikes to pacify whichever family members came by to take their claims. That Bella garnered amusement from the idea of her family members suddenly finding everything empty was just an extra perk to the extensive spellwork.

The last of the items passed to the Château before a rapid tapping at the window alerted them both to a rather regal looking horned owl. 

Tawny and over puffed with an inflated self-importance, the look was both magnificent and far too pompous for a bird. A leg ending in sharp talons was outstretched as soon as Bella opened the window, beak chattering as it impatiently awaited the letter's removal. When she finally untied the delicate knot holding it to the bird, the owl nipped her fingers twice and flew off into the dusky sky with snow kicking up as it raced away.

“Who’s it from?” Hermione peered over her shoulder to get a look at the yellowed envelope.

“Don’t know. Expect we will once I open it. A little late for mail though, isn’t it?” She peered out into the evening beyond the window where snow continued falling steadily from gray clouds backed by a setting sun.

“A little bit. Come on, hurry up.”

Bella nudged Hermione with her elbow before turning around and unpacking the envelope. 

Contained within was a single sheet of folded parchment, colored in a spotless eggshell white and written in black ink that seemed to glitter gold in the flickering light of the room. Turning it further to the light, Bella began to read it aloud.

‘Madam Black,

I am so sorry for your loss. I was immensely worried when the news first reached me and I hope that both you and your sisters are well and unharmed. 

Your Father was an immense supporter of mine, unbending in his adulation of the Cause, and a good man,’ Bella snorted in subdued laughter before continuing, ‘His unexpected passing has brought turmoil to both of our spheres, and I would greatly appreciate a face to face meeting to determine how we’ll go forward from here. If you wouldn’t mind it I would like to meet with you as soon as possible, say three thirty tomorrow? If this time is not amenable to you, please owl back with a recommendation. 

Warmest regards,

Lord Voldemort, Heir to House Slytherin & Gaunt.’

Bella folded the letter in half, dropping it into the fire at her side before sitting down heavily into a worn armchair with a huff.

“Condolences from a Dark Lord, who’d have thought you’d rate so highly?” Hermione said as she walked over to straddle Bella’s waist, peppering kisses across the curve of her neck as they both absorbed the news.

“Should we receive him then?” She asked, before nipping at the curve of Bella’s throat.

“Yes.”

---

The night ran long from there. 

A quick Floo call to Grimmauld place had both Bellatrix and Hermione feeling better. The conversation had avoided the circumstances of the sister's separation but covered what little they could. Words passed quickly under the effects of a Muffliato, plans and promises to keep the two younger witches safe. 

That conversation behind them, Hermione and Bellatrix then turned to their preparations for the coming visit and remainder of their school year, deep within the bowels of the Manor and hidden behind locked doors.

The room was like most others, large, impressively stocked,  with charmed windows that peered into the outside even though they were ensconced in the middle of the Manor. A single fireplace warmed the room, taller than Hermione was and deeper even than her arm span. Heat came roaring out of the space as the great fire sucked in massive amounts of air to pull a warm breeze throughout the room. 

High ceilings were painted in relief with images that hearkened back to Rome and ancient wars, witches and wizards standing side by side during great battles and among rousing groups of senators. The walls were only half wallpapered, the bottom a dark ebony wood and the top half covered in ivory wallpaper that seemed to enhance the size of the room through visuals alone.  

The whole space practically rang with the call of Magic, placed directly in the center of the home to absorb as much runoff as it could. When Hermione first entered she could feel the residual dregs of the recent battle settling in among the years built up energy.

With a flick of their wrists the carpets and rugs were tugged away from the center and the fireplace before they folded themselves into neat piles underneath the enchanted windowsill. All the while different furniture items neatly placed themselves flush to the wall to open up the space.

When they were finished altering the room they both summoned in their tools for the night, a cauldron and heavy stand, eighteen branding irons, and phials beyond measure all packed tightly into an enlarged box.

It was time to start the rituals.

---

“Next rune?” Hermioen’s voice rang hollow with the impassiveness of dealing with her pains, too inured to the pain to be anything but utilitarian at that moment. The cauldron situated over the fire continued bubbling away amid the labored breathing of the duo, oblivious to their pain or discomfort over the past hour. 

“Yes, hurry on with it.” Bella tossed aside the freezing cold rag she’d been using to wash over her new rune marks, the pile of wet cloth landing with a wet splat a few meters away.

She gritted her teeth down over a leather bit, biting back the scream in her throat that sought to tear itself from her when the burning metal met the top of her hand. She’d thought that experiencing multiple applications beforehand would dull the pain to any degree but it had instead seemed to make every subsequent brand hurt even worse. 

The pain seemed to over and float through her body even as the brand was removed only seconds after application. Sizzle and the smell of burnt flesh left behind a crisscross of bright red lines that shimmered across her skin as the magic within them activated and latched onto her soul.

“How are you holding up?” Hermione set the brand aside before wrapping Bella’s shoulders in a rather pitiful hug, squeezing as much as her tired body would allow.

“Bloody well I think, least for now. Gimme a minute?” She rolled off to the side and onto her back with her limbs splayed out and breath panting out in a rush. She fought to focus and remind herself that in the end all this was worth the pain.

‘Fiendfyre,’ she thought, ‘In the palm of my hand, forever…’

The branding proceeded from there, each marking the other in ink stolen from their own blood, magic forced to bind with their essence in a permanent display. Each had hurt them both badly, especially the jagged runes marking their upper chest, searing the flesh beneath and forcing them to lock each other up in a body bind while it was applied. It was worth it though when the runes glowed off neon red and sparked as magic flowed through them.

Their chests had perhaps undergone the worst rune, a mashed up amalgamation of letters and swirls that felt like a pinpoint Cruciatus when applied and still constantly burned on the periphery of their senses. It was necessary though.

A direct portkey stitched into their body, aimed towards Château de Grenier, but programmable with enough effort to land them wherever they wanted, provided they linked the location beforehand.

Hermione hadn’t thought that the runes would be successful at first, and oddly enough, her first instinct after reading through the passage in a worn tome hastily thrust into her hands by a smirking Bella had been to scoff and call it the ravings of a mad man.

It wasn’t exactly what she had wanted. When she’d first thought of making them specific portkeys for returning to the Manor she had zeroed in on using some item of jewelry that couldn’t be spelled off of them, but a few hours in the Black Library and the sing-song lure of dark magic had led her to using themselves as the catalyst instead. And it did have at least one advantage over others. Portkeys were liable to be lost, even ones spelled to remain with them, but a magic bound to their body and soul was not so easily gotten rid of. 

It seemed that necessity, and Bella’s pushes, had become quite the facilitator for dark magics in Hermione’s life. And even with the pain of application still stinging against her breastbone, she couldn’t be happier that she’d agreed to it.

The rune linked up through the occlumency runes on their backs, channeling the magic when they activated the portkey and alerting the other to its use. It would be painful, and something that needed more extensive testing than the quick diagnostics that Hermione had run, but if they worked as advertised and delivered them both from danger and into the warded monstrosity of a Manor that she now owned, it would be worth it.

The binding imprinted on their front was stronger than the multiple runes on their backs, focused and distilled through an honest ritual sacrifice, had led to a crackle of energy and magic that was purpose fed to deliver them from wherever they were to halfway across the world, at any given moment that it could be activated.

The more difficult parts of the application hadn’t been pain based. It had instead been the initial sacrifice and subsequent formation of a Fidelius charm.

The spell was complicated, old and mutated over time as brilliant witches and wizards had added to its effectiveness, and casting it upon a person’s thoughts of a location was as much luck as it was invention. No harder than applying it to a rigid location, but difficult and different nonetheless.

The sacrifice had also gone off without a hitch. One life, that of a goat purchased from a locally sourced farm (as Hermione wouldn’t accept anything less than the best), had been sent below, and after that they had a winding web of gold and red painted out in crushed pyrite and blood. A few soft words, wand waves, and magical diffusion later, and they had spelled the brands to imbibe them with portkeys that could never reveal their destination, even if someone tracked them from where they left.

After their branding the air surrounding them smelled of incense and the iron tang of blood, a hazy mist spread out across the ceiling that swirled and churned with the eddy currents of magic suffusing the room. They were both sat side by side, skin to skin, a variety of shapes and symbols patterned into their skin with blood left dripping off the metal instruments lying around them. 

Shatter resistance, Aguamenti, Expelliarmus, and anti-incarcerous were among the litany of new brands, symbols tracing inwards at specific points on their bodies to maximize the output of magic. Lines and symbols dotted the outside of their forearms, their palms, down their torso the settle above heated cores. One mark, directly under their chin, was pointed and flared enough that the edges wrapped in a Y shape to touch the corners of their lips. Each was unique, though similar motifs peppered each. A single long line, dotted with blank spaces, raced down the inside of their thighs to connect with a mass of right angles burned into their knees.

It was, Hermione thought, beautiful in a way that Muggle tattoos and brands could never be. Beneath the skin, beneath the deep bloodred, swirled more magic than she’d thought she could produce, at least on a casual scale. 

The months of learning with Bella had coupled well with the intensive physical and mental workouts that Voldemort led them through had expanded her abilities and reserves far beyond anything she’d once thought possible. If this was the low end of how people like Voldemort or Dumbledore felt all the time, then she couldn’t stop herself from wanting more of it.

Three runes on the nape of their necks had been the last to be applied. Three curving and stylized R’s with a T that curved out to the right and hooked onto the next in line. The closing efforts of their nighttime session of heat and blood. Devised to cover the rest in a purpose built glamour, these three runes would be the only ones to remain visible, while they worked to cover up all the rest.

They had been devised via a recommendation suggested in a Dark tome on ancient Byzantine warding, and spun out into the beautiful shapes now adorning their bodies. The last thing that the witches wanted was someone noticing the flowing tapestry of their bodies, and even if these were visible, they could be played off as simple tattoos, a story they had agreed to before embarking on their new marks.

To Hermione’s immense satisfaction the runes would also cover up the existence of the scar on her arm, leaving her free and no longer beholden to the application of the fading glamour.

She could feel the magic seeping throughout her body, entering her bones and veins and surging around the newly confining space. It wasn’t so much something that hurt her as it was a rather pleasant feeling of being flush and energetic. Her body sang beneath the sweet reminders of pain in the limelight cast by the new magic.

‘We’ve been doing this all for the right reasons,’ she reminded herself as she looked around the frankly terrifying room. 

The floor was spattered with blood and crushed mineral, a severed goat hoof lay off against the stonework of the fireplace and the remnants of ash dotted the floor space.

The cauldron in front of them still swirled, now filled with a reduced mixture of blood and metal, sparkling chips of energy sparking into nothingness as the concoction churned.

“Time for the last?” Bella’s question was hoarse and soft, hidden by a forearm draped across her face.

“Yes. The Patronus marks. Won’t ward off dementors, but should stop them from sucking out our souls or good memories.”

“I’ll take your word for it, don’t really want to get up close and test that theory.”

Hermione left her position with a pained sigh, standing to grab a box of empty phials and a large cast iron ladle. Careful of the burning mixture she scooped the contents into the glass containers for later use, while setting aside a generous portion for their last task of the night.

Bella stared unabashedly as Hermione strode about in all her glory, her body a series of sharply defined angles hiding under curves and muscle, light leaking out from the brands they’d applied and softly wrapped in an aura of deep magic. She could feel it lingering in the room, mixing with traces that the Manor had picked up over the years, permeating and lingering with Hermione’s scent to form something uniquely distinct and wholly her own.

“Alright,” Hermione grabbed up the last full phial from the cauldron, “Let’s do this.”

The glass glowed a neon blue when she was done, soft light radiating from the phial amid a swirl of neon blue metal, falling and churning like glitter in a bottle.

Hermione grabbed up Bella’s wand from where it sat near the base of the fireplace, twirling the solid wood between her fingers as if it were her own. Ever since she’d been marked by Lestrange the wand had felt… different underneath her control, and it seemed that the feeling extended even into the past. As time had passed she’d found herself more and more proficient at borrowing Bellatrix’s wand, while her own became more stubborn as time went on. She was close to the point of visiting Ollivander again and seeing if any of the other wands strained to be with her, eager and interested in knowing how much she’d changed since the man had last seen her.

With a careful movement, counterclockwise thrice and then flicked sharply to the left and dropped twenty-three degrees, no more and no less, the phial between her fingers exploded outwards into a neon display of glittering silver white as the material within burned with unexpressed magic.

Sitting down beside Bellatrix she took the stopper off and gently ran her fingers down the outside of Bella’s triceps and gently kissed the skin. In a fluid movement she upturned the phial at the top of Bella’s shoulder, allowing all the liquid inside to fall out and cover the pale skin.

The inky blue patch swelled as it coated her arm, flashing at intervals with blue and white as the magic took hold and marked the witch. With a sound of bees and chittering animals the liquid began pulling in on itself into a recognizable pattern, returning from the wide ink blotches to form her soul tattoo.

The magic she was attempting was old, possibly older than the author themselves, who seemed to only be recording something they’d heard rather than seen. It had been written on parchment, near faded and so badly torn in some spots that Hermioen’s eyes had blurred and become bloodshot the more she worked to translate it. Eventually though her persistence had won out, and the information contained therein had bloomed a fascination inside of her that would not be quenched. 

Bella’s first reaction upon learning of it had been to scoff and say that she’d believe it when she’d seen it, to which Hermione had immediately taken as a challenge. And now, sitting together with burning liquid etching a visible outline of Bella’s soul into her arm, she sat in wonderment as her hard work paid off.

Bella was hissing in pain, an expected but undesired side effect, jaw clenched shut as the fluid worked, body flushing red in pain and exertion. When she started shivering Hermione brought a hand to her back, rubbing soothing circles and hoping it would end quickly. And indeed, it was. Instead of the outline she’d been expecting, a crow of similar variety to the Patronus that the witch had formed within the Room of Requirement, she got something similar but not quite so.

It wasn’t a crow.

It was a raven, large and majestic. The massive bird’s outstretched wings wrapped around Bella’s shoulder and tricep, its tail feathers tickling the crook of her elbow. The hooked beak, so distinctly that of a corvid but not a crow, was open as if squawking in greeting. Intricate feathers were etched to outline a brilliantly pale blue mark, dots of silver metal gleaming throughout in the appearance of starshine.

Hermione could only stare in wonderment at what she considered to be one of the most beautiful markings she’d ever seen.

“Well, how’s it look?”

“Amazing,” Hermioen replied in a sing-song whisper, finger grazing the outline of feathers and retracting at the warmth it carried within. “Though, it’s not a crow. Raven, more like.”

Bella screwed her face up in confusion, no doubt wondering the same as Hermione about where her crow had gone.

“Never knew someones Patronus could change, never heard of it.” She brought her hand to the marking, fingers grazing over Hermione’s as she swiped up and down.

“I didn’t either, but I guess it could make some sense? I mean, you’re not a static person your whole life. We all change and grow. If your Patronus is a reflection of your inner self then it stands to reason it could grow and change with you.”

“Well then what defines a Patronus’ form? What qualities? Is it a reflection of known personality characteristics or something that only Magic can interpret?”

“No clue,” Hermione sighed out, “I guess you’d need a large study group to track it over time and keep with them for quite a few years. And usually the spell is only mastered later on in life, not many people our age can conjure one that’s fully formed. Maybe later in life your soul is more fixed, or rigid? Like it’s been bent into shape by all your experiences…” She trailed off, hand grasping Bella’s to twine their fingers together.

“Do mine now?” 

---

Bella performed the ritual this time, hands moving deftly as she turned from phial to subject with the grace and poise of a dancer. As she sat down on crossed legs she dragged Hermione down with her, a warm hand closed around the wrist and tugging at her to hurry up.

This phial was much the same, blue and neon at intervals, swirling with a silvery glitter that spun to its own tune, regardless of how much she shook or twirled the container. When Hermione nodded and bit down on a leather bit, she upturned the container and let the magic spill down.

Sparks danced behind Hermione’s eyelids as the liquid doused her skin, a sucker punch of heat and pain bursting to life all along the now covered muscle of her shoulder and arm. In the manner of a few seconds her teeth had sunk a few more millimeters into the leather as the pain reached a crescendo and plateaued.

Slowly, so much so that drops of sweat beading up on her skin had time to race down the length of her body, the intense pain began morphing into a building heat not dissimilar to the feeling espoused by her scar when Bella was enraptured with strong emotion. The liquid sizzled and danced on her skin as it worked until she could feel the flesh underneath it churn and stretch. Her shoulder and muscles in her arm began cramping in waves, pulsing at the rhythm of her heartbeat before it all, at once, was over.

Air exploded from her lungs, startling the witch at how long she must have held her breath. Spots danced between her vision before the lightheadedness faded to be replaced by clarity. Steadying herself as much as she could she splayed out backwards and landed with her back to Bella’s chest, a warm pair of arms wrapping around her waist.

“Well,” she asked in an exhausted whisper, “How is it?” She conjured the image in her head, an otter dancing somewhere on the meat of her arm in some form of playful fashion, long and bright as the day-

“Um, well… You should just take a look.”

With a flick of her wand Bella conjured a mirror to their side and angled Hermione with her arms so that she could view into it. The witch tensed in her hold, body immediately freezing as the mirror image of her eyes widened and glanced hurriedly up and down.

Hermione could feel her heart begin to stutter at the sight of it, her breath drawing in and hitching in the back of her throat. 

‘That’s not possible’

Her eyes roamed over the surface of her skin, up and down, as she twisted in place to see the extent of it. Winding its way across the skin of her arm from the crook of her elbow to the tip of her shoulder was a snake. The massive serpent was partially coiled, body winding back in on itself as it stretched out and upwards. Its tongue was poking out, fork pointed towards her neck and riding up the curve of her shoulder.

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” she whispered under her breath, eyes continuing to widen at the unwelcome sight etched into her skin.

With a huff she turned away from the mirror and stood up from the ground, grabbing up her own wand and turning towards an empty portion of the room before selecting a memory.

“Expecto Patronum,” a white cloud burst forth from the tip of her wand before it began to coalesce into a fine mist and disappeared. Shaking her head and widening her stance she tried the incantation again, to not better results.

By now her body had begun to shiver in the cold air, shaking more and more each time the Patronus failed to materialize.

Bella walked up behind the panicking witch, wrapping her arms around her torso and pressing close up against Hermione, their bodies sharing the feeble warmth of the room.

“What memory are you thinking of?” She asked in a hushed tone, right hand splaying out across the smooth expanse of Hermione’s stomach while the other held her tighter to her front.

“My,” Hermione casted again, “Fucking,” again, “Family!” She tried one last time, not even a whimper of energy emerging from the tip of her wand.

“Calm down,” Bella whispered between gentle nips along the skin of Hermione’s neck. “Try something else,” she pressed an open-mouthed kiss to the muscle rising up underneath her chin. “It’s okay.”

“I don’t know what to think of,” Hermione leaned back fully into Bella’s ministrations, letting her head and neck recline against the witch’s shoulder as she continued worrying skin with lips and teeth.

“Try something recent then? Might help.”

Hermione mumbled in reply, not even understanding the words herself. The scar on her arm began radiating warm heat and soothing acceptance, working in concert with Bella herself in an effort to ground Hermione.

Taking nearly a full minute she concentrated fully on all her recent happiness. Everything prior to her skip through time was now marred by knowing how far removed from them she was. Divorced through not only by people but time as well, those memories were nearly useless to her. It took a few more seconds, her breathing trying to return to a steady rhythm meanwhile, before she focused inwards and raised her wand, casting forth with vigor and a flush of heat pulsing underneath her skin.

A hollow stream of light, white and then blue, ate up the darkness growing in their corner of the room as it spilled forth from her wand tip. Slowly an animal emerged, tip of its snout poking out before the power of the spell ratcheted up and the animal came fully formed into the world. 

The Patronus, only slightly smaller than Nagini had been at the Final Battle, rose up onto its long body to peer back at Hermione, its body swaying lightly as it kept balance and observed them both.

“She’s beautiful,” Bella spoke against the skin of Hermione’s neck, hands and arms tightening possessively.

“Well, she’s me, or my soul or whatever. So I’d hope you’d say that.”

Hermione’s tone of voice was unsure, still confused and in subsection of denial at the change that had been wrought so unexpectedly upon her.

Instead of the beautiful little otter, sleek and powerful, a massive and winding snake had taken its place. 

She could feel her heart racing again, pulse quickening as she stared the Patronus down.

‘This is not me.’

The beast before her watched back with intelligence behind its unblinking blue gaze that both intrigued and unnerved her in equal measure. Muscles spasmed throughout her body, seizing and releasing just as quickly while she began shuddering in place. Sweat broke out across her body before her knees gave out, colliding softly as Bella let her down gently to the hard floor. A sudden loss of balance and lightheadedness stole at her vision, the snake lowering its gaze to keep level with her own.

“It’s-” Her breath caught again, stomach beginning to roil and clench around nothingness while her mind continued speeding up.

‘This is NOT me.’

Fleeting images passed her mind, lost memories of a zoo, an enclosure, warm air and the smell of earth and water pressing in on her from all sides. Children talking excitedly nearby and the overpowering scent of jasmine weaving through it all as she stood pressed to her mother's side and leaned over the enclosure wall to peer down at the beautiful little animals swimming below her.

Her body shook as quiet sobs began wracking her body, the Patronus slithering forward to wind itself around her body. She was distantly aware of Bella leaving her place behind her, more preoccupied with the outpouring of emotion running through her chest to notice either action.

‘They’re gone…’

“I- I don’t-”

There was nothing else. Nothing tangible. Thirty years in the future, eleven years in her past.

Gone.

‘You have nothing now Muddy,’ a wicked tone spoke up from the depths of her mind, wriggling its way out the back of her skull and into places it should never have been allowed, where it held no right to be.

“You’re dead…” Hermione whispered through the anguish, body shaking and rocking as movement blurred her front and warm hands rose up to cup her face.

‘Oh Pet… and here I thought you were smart for a Mudblood,’ the voice skittered around her skull in whispers as loud as shouts-

“You’re dead-”

‘Gone, but not forgotten-’

A tightness wound its way up her torso, compressing tightly against her skin and bones to bathe her in warmth-

Pale hands grasped at her face, one hand on either cheek, pulling up her gaze from the ghost lying in front of her to the reality seated before her. Onyx eyes as hard chipped as obsidian offered depths for Hermione to swim in and pulled her gently off the ledge she felt herself creeping closer towards. 

The familiar tightness that told her she wasn’t alone in her own head started up, sped along by a gasp of pain and surprise before the burden fell away and was replaced by warm acceptance that mingled with the smooth roughness of the scaled body winding its way across her body.

“You’re-”

She knew it wasn’t the truth.

She knew she wasn’t dead.

She was here. Face to face and so close she could feel warm puffs of air beating against her own lips as the witch breathed in fear and worry.

“I’ve got… you’re… be okay,”

She could hear the words but not place the meaning, air slipping in one ear and out the other as she tried to pull herself back into her own body and evict the unwelcome thoughts plaguing her mind. The blue heat across her skin compressed again as heat flooded her body from three angles.

“I’ve got you… you’ll be okay,”

The whispers lingering on the edges of her peripheries faded away as mist in the morning sun, growing fainter every second that she focused on the Bellatrix in front of herself.

“I’ve got you Hermione, you’re safe, you’ll be okay.” Bella’s words came full force as Hermione felt the distinct feeling of suddenly being herself again. Nude skin, warm and flushed but not clammy. Not uncomfortable. The soft compression of her Patronus, more solid than she’d ever believed they could be, wrapping and squeezing around her body in a grounding manner that kept her tethered to the here and now. And Bella, tears sliding down her pale cheeks, hair and curls askew, lips moving as fast as she could talk while warm fingers worried the skin of Hermione’s cheeks.

“It’s a Thunder Blanket…” Hermione whispered out in a voice so hoarse it hurt her own ears.

“A- a what?” Bella leaned in, confused and worried that she’d misunderstood Hermione, or made things worse somehow.

“It’s a Thunder Blanket. It’s a Muggle thing.”

“Okay? What’re those?”

“Muggles who have pets, well some of them anyways, sometimes they have pets that freak out during storms. Like, they get scared and panic? Thunder, lightning. It can overwhelm them sometimes. Panic attacks for dogs, I think,” Bella nodded absently as she searched Hermione’s eyes, “Anyways, when the animal freaks out like that some Muggles will wrap them up in a warm, weighted blanket. It… It comforts them, you know? It helps them feel safe. Secure.”

“Ah…” Recognition lit up Bella’s eyes as she glanced down at the snake wrapping around Hermione, a barely there smirk plastered to its scaly face. “You feel better now?”

The Patronus wrapped around Hermione raised up to set its weightless head upon her shoulder, tongue flicking languidly in Bella’s direction. Hermione eyed it, vision slightly unfocused and still unsure about the bulky animal, before nodding. What remaining stamina she had fled her as she sank down into the dual embrace, heart finally returning to a normal pace. 

Her body aching with the remnants of magic and emotional whiplash, she gave in.

She collapsed forward, a broken mess of emotion held together by the strength of her lover and the newly born form of her soul, a collection of sharp pieces but held together all the same.

---

“Madam Black, once again I must express my deep sorrow at your loss. Cygnus was an exceptional wizard, one in a generation.”

The face behind the silky smooth voice cracked an awkward frown as if the words tasted off even to him.

“Yes, of course, thank you my Lord.” She led the tall man out through the back and onto the enclosed porch, spelled up so that winter’s harsh chill remained outside where it belonged.

“And how are you sisters faring? I must admit it gave me quite a start to hear that they had been the targets.”

“They are well, thank you. Both are recuperating at my Aunt’s home in the city.”

The echo of sharp heeled Oxford’s clacked against the marble beneath them as walked.

“Good. I’m glad to hear no permanent harm has come to any of you. However,” he paused as he took a seat at the circular table that was dotted with tea cups and crossed one leg over the other, “I must confess that I sought this meeting to offer more than just my condolences.”

Voldemort’s bloodshot eyes narrowed as he peered between the two witches, fingers intertwining as he capped them over his knee.

“What about then?” Bella’s tone was distinctly on edge, still dealing with the ramifications of their experimentation the night prior. Hermione’s feelings mirrored her own, the short haired witch offering nothing more than a greeting while she settled into her seat.

The man, monster, had been tutoring them both for months now, delving into theory and practice rather than indulging in Pureblood fanaticism. Whether his reluctance to address the topic was out of belief that they were already both too inured, or he simply didn’t wish to scare them off, neither witch knew.

Their time spent with him had in many ways been a wonderful boon. The man was a walking repository of ancient knowledge, from ancient curses to medicinal and practical uses for understudied or uncultivated flora and fauna, the man was a walking encyclopedia of dark information.

“Your late Father was a patron to my cause. He believed in it with all his heart, of the good that it could do for the world and all of us. WIth him gone however, that avenue of income and steadfastness has broken.”

Bella kicked back in her chair, looking up and through the glass ceiling to the swirl of gray clouds hovering overhead.

“I’d like to know what else he got from your arrangement as I suppose that tutoring us was likely only a side benefit. Am I right?”

"You’d be correct. He was also receiving the help of my organization in his business dealings, helping to move things about and propose legislation to increase his yields. Again, with his death, those avenues have dried up. Our business dealings have been noticeably less efficient over the past few days.”

Bella tutted in mock sympathy as Voldemort raised a glass of warm tea to his lips. 

“There are however some rather fortunate side effects to this situation as well.” He set the delicate china down on the table with a soft ‘clink’.

“Being?” Bella’s tone was as even as she could muster, her mind already racing ahead to figure out exactly what those effects were.

“I now find myself with two spots to fill. In my inner circle. The inner circle.”

His thin lips upturned in a smirk, confident that both witches at least knew that much.

“And what exactly is this… circle?” Hermione interjected. His dark eyes turned over to her own, piercing in their intensity.

“They’re a group of like-minded individuals, all Pureblood, who strongly oppose the current stance of the Ministry and Society at large. We believe that we’ve kowtowed to Dumbledore and the Minister’s wishes for far too long.”

He sat forward, dropping his crossed legs and leaning against the rim of the table, “I’ll be the first to admit that some of what he’s done has been incredible. But a half-blooded fool is still a Halfblood. His heyday is far behind him and going about while pretending that he and the Minister have our best interests in mind is quite frankly too treasonous against the soul for us to continue.”

Hermione leaned slightly back and opened up her body posture, trying to give off the idea that she was receptive to his words.

“My group and I are preparing, you could say, for the moment that we can retake those positions of authority. For the time to show those who’ve held us at a disadvantage and misused us that we will remain downtrodden no longer. If we don’t throw off their yoke soon, we never will.”

“What benefit do we give you? What benefit do you give us?” Bella slipped into her predetermined role of businesswoman, ready to take up the reins of the conversation and guide it where she needed.

“Straight to the point, I like it. Tell me; what Holiday are you both on right now?”

Bella’s head cocked to the side in confusion before she simply replied, “Yule.”

“By this time next year it will be called a Christmas break. Samhain, these past few months ago? Halloween. Same, again and again for all Wizarding holidays. Salazar’s scales, they’ve already removed Wizarding Tradition from the curricula at Hogwarts. They’ve instituted quotas for the least populous among us. Supplanted fine bred stock with mud to fill out their portfolio and put on the charade that they care.” 

As his voice rose Hermione snuck a glance at Bella, eyes sharp as her lover’s face remained unreadable and gray.

“They’ve removed the power that had once been stable across this region for almost two millennia, since the days that great Merlin rode out across the channel to conquer Brittania. And the worst part of it all is that the Mudbloods don’t even want it! The current secrecy laws keep them as much in the dark as Muggles until they’re first found and introduced. They grow up ignorant of our laws, ignorant of our culture, while we’re told to sit idly by the wayside and see power unheard-of be locked and throttled into submission as the Ministry throws the keys to our inexperienced jailors. 

The slightest crack of Bella’s thin smile brought Hermione’s full attention, eyes shifting over as she struggled to keep her ears open to Voldemort’s words.

“Dumbledore isn’t out there, marching for the uplifting of squibs. He’s not out there lobbying on behalf of the Mudbloods, screaming to raise them from the dirt they were born in, trained and trussed until they could act as our equals. No, no, he’s not doing that. He’s dragging us down instead. Him and his incompetent Ministry. They’re both dragging us down to their level, all the while claiming that we should thank him for it. Well, I say no more. We need to resist. What has he done for the Mudblood? Nothing. What does he want from us? Everything.”

He stopped to sip at the tea before continuing, eyeing the look in both witches eyes with unbridled curiosity, hoping at least one of them got the gist of his words.

“We’re in a leveled playing field where all we have is the dirt of the arena floor and a sharp rock in our hands. He’s sitting off to the side and tells every fighter who enters that they are the one, that true salvation lies right ahead, while all he really does is hand us each the sharpened rock. I want you both, with me. Your potential is enormous and you’ve both excelled in our training. You took on an incredibly skilled wizard that had designs on killing you both, and you succeeded. You’ve both learned a practically dead language-”

“What,” Hermione interrupted his speech and leaned forward in upset and confusion. “How do you know about that last bit?”

::Where do you think Madam Black acquired the potion ingredients, or the ritual instructions for that matter?::

‘Well,’ Hermione thought, ‘That answers that question then.’

“As far as I’m aware, neither one of you has a job lined up, correct? You’ll both be graduating in a few months, top of your class no less. You’ll marry, and then do what? I don’t believe two inquisitive minds such as yours would just sit back on a pile of money and ignore the world.”

Neither witch replied, and he smirked at how right he was.

“Pledge yourself. To me, my cause. Take a full year, say between summer of ‘69 to ‘70. I’ll train you both. I’ll teach you everything I know and give you access to everything I don’t. You can decide where you want to go from there. We could use your strengths in the coming conflicts.”

Bloodshot eyes peered down into brown and then black, soulless and unending in their hunger and drive to consume. If Hermione squinted just right, she could swear that the pupils were slit.

“Can you give us time to think it over? Your offer?

“Of course. I wouldn’t be so presumptuous to assume you’d pledge yourselves right here, right now. Take until the end of your school year. We can continue with our current lesson structure, consider it a boon, my way of honoring Cygnus’s memory. I won’t bring up the offer again until you graduate, or you bring it up to me.”

Bella turned her head to stare at Hermione, both witches thoughts pulling towards the same outcome.

“Ladies, I’ll take my leave. Just remember,” he smirked at them with the icy gaze of a predator moving in for the kill, “Six months.”