"Thanks for coming out with me to the lake today, Bella," said Andie as the two sisters sauntered along the shores of lake Black to look for merfolk scales to use for Andie's project in potioneering. As autumn days in Scotland went, it was a rather pleasant day with the sun out shining over the water. Though the temperature was close to zero, the company was pleasant and she could think of no better person than to spend the afternoon with. The sun would make the shiny scales far more easy to spot, though.
"Ah, it's fine, Andie," Bellatrix shrugged, bending down to pick up a few scales with a pair of tweezers and putting them in the pot. "How much do you need?"
"As many as we can get our hands on," replied Andie, bending down to fetch more scales to put in her own pot.
"We're both already members of the Slug club... why bother with this extraordinarily complex potion?"
"Because I want to get it right and want a high mark, of course," replied Andie. "Besides, you would. Slug club or not."
"Fair point," Bellatrix crossed her arms. "You do realize that Slughorn has only invited us to join because of our family's wealth and influence, right?"
"That's not true," said Andie, moving a bit closer to the forest's edge. "Lestrange wasn't invited and his family is pretty influential. You have to have actual talent too or you won't get in."
"Doesn't mean we're not getting exploited," said Bellatrix as she looked over the lake for a moment. However, the plucky young witch was startled to hear a yelp coming from behind her. Bellatrix spun around, wand in hand, but could only giggle once she saw what had happened.
"How'd you manage that?!" Bellatrix exclaimed when she saw her little sister trapped within a copse of Devil's Snare near the edge of the forest. She had only lost sight of her for half a minute and then this. Thankfully, Andie wasn't in any danger since this plant appeared to be a small and young specimen. She was however, completely and utterly stuck with vines binding her arms, wrists and legs.
"Never mind how I managed this!" Andie hissed. "Get me out of here!"
Bellatrix snorted and raised her wand to free her younger sister, but suddenly changed her mind and gave her a mischievous look. "What will you give me for freeing you?"
"What?!" Andie narrowed her eyes. "I'm your sister, for Merlin's sake!"
"We're both Slytherins, you know how this works," Bellatrix grinned while putting her finger to her lips. "That box of chocolates. The white ones with the creamy filling? I want those."
"No!" Andie pouted. "Those are custom-made Belgians! I waited three weeks for those to be delivered!"
"Well, if you don't want to be free..." Bellatrix grinned, shrugging a little. "I'm Hagrid will come along in an hour or so. Maybe two. Quite nippy out here, wouldn't you say?"
Andie bristled. "Oh, you are such a rotter, Bella! Fine! The chocolates are yours, just get me out of here."
"Deal," Bellatrix said, raising her wand again. Unfortunately, during her negotiations, she had failed to notice the vines creeping towards her along the ground. With a yelp, she found herself hoisted up into the air, dropping her wand in the process. Scant seconds later, Bellatrix found herself just as trapped as Andie was. She looked up to see the smirking face of her younger sister, causing her to bristle.
"Don't look so pleased with yourself!" Bellatrix hissed while Andie laughed. The two sisters hung side by side and both knew better than to struggle. The entire forest was silent, except for the rippling water hitting the shore, the nearby birds and both sisters' calm breathing.
"How long do you think we'll be stuck here?" asked Bellatrix.
"Hagrid knows where we went," said Andie. "Might be a couple of hours before we're missed. He'll come to free us eventually, just like you said."
"Great, just great," sighed Bellatrix.
Andie turned her head towards Bellatrix smiling a bit.
"What?" Bellatrix demanded.
"There's something different about you," said Andie.
"Ever since father announced your engagement, you were never quite a same," said Andie. "Always angry, withdrawn, or sad. It's like the fire you had within you died out."
Bellatrix felt her nostrils flare. "You try being engaged to a bastard like Lestrange and see how you like it! Merlin above, I'm expected to bed him!" she muttered, feeling the familiar tears stinging.
"I know that," Andie spoke softly. "And I know that will be my fate some day if... if I don't choose otherwise."
"We don't get to choose, Andie," Bellatrix chuckled wryly. "We pure-blood paragons don't get to choose and the mudbloods do. They don't know how lucky they are."
Andie pursed her lips. "Bella, you know what I mean. Something's changed. I'm seeing so much of how you used to be again. The fire within you has come back. Bella, are you planning something? What happened?"
Bellatrix closed her eyes and smiled. "Andie? Will you promise not to tell anyone?"
"You know I won't," said Andie. And Bellatrix believed her: she had always maintained that her little sister had been too honest to be a proper Slytherin. She believed she could tell her at least something.
"I met a girl," Bellatrix whispered, almost regretting it.
Andie gave her a sly grin. "Oh. I see."
"Not like that!" Bellatrix retorted quickly. "She's... a friend. Just a friend. An actual honest-to-goodness friend! Not a toady or a social climber or a Slughorn. Just... someone who wants to get to know me for me. We've been chatting for hours."
Andie raised an eyebrow. "Is it someone I know? I would have noticed you chatting for hours with someone at school."
"No, she doesn't go to Hogwarts," Bellatrix shook her head, deliberately omitting the word 'yet'. She decided not to say anything about the Fae Mirror or the fantastical fact that Hermione was yet to be born. Of course, that she was muggle-born would complicate matters further. "I sneak out of the castle to meet with her. I... she understands me. I can talk to her and she to me. I... I always look forward to seeing her."
"Bella?" Andie looked at her, head cocked sideways. "Are you planning something?"
"Am I planning to elope, you wonder?" Bellatrix muttered. "Or escape? If that would be possible... perhaps. But it's not. As it stands, I just want to have one last adventure before..."
"Lestrange," Andie nodded. "I won't blame you if you'd run away, Bella. And I would never turn my back on you, whatever happens. You'll always be my sister. Hell, I'd even help you."
Bellatrix went quiet for a moment. She knew her sister to be sincere, yet she dared not tell her more.
"You could do it, you know?" Andie smiled. "Escape, I mean. Carve your own path. All it takes is a good plan, some preparation. You're a talented witch and you'd have no trouble finding good paying work. And you'd be able to be true to your own self. Sure, mother and father would both get a heart attack, but you'd still have me and Cissy too, I'm sure of it. They won't exile all three of us."
Bellatrix gave her a piercing stare, mulling all of this over, letting it sink in. She had always been taught to put her own wants and needs aside in favour for pure-blood ideals and expectations. But it was a lesson which she had never quite learned as well as her parents had hoped she would.
"I told you," Bellatrix turned away to look over the lake. "Hermione is just a friend."
Andie never stopped smiling as she shook her head briefly. "No," Andie replied softly. "She's not."
Bellatrix snapped her head back to Andie, giving her a glare. Andie, however, was not so easily intimidated. "Bellatrix Black going to a muggle-studies class? And signing up for the next course?"
"What?" Bellatrix shrugged, instantly regretting that when the Devil's Snare pulled tighter around her waist. "I'm just broadening my horizons."
"With muggle-studies?!" Andie raised an eyebrow. "There hasn't been a Black in muggle-studies since... well, ever. And to sign up for a whole course..."
Bellatrix made a face. "I'm simply curious. It is not as if I will suddenly become a muggle-lover. If anything, it'll give me more ways to mock them," Bellatrix replied.
"Lie to yourself all you want, but I know this has to do with that girl you mentioned," Andie winked. "Look, I won't say a thing, but know that people are talking."
Bellatrix scoffed. "People talk about us all the time. We're the infamous Black sisters."
"It's not that," replied Andie. "Bella, when you went to that muggle-studies class, that turned a lot of heads. It's all over the school and there's whispering going on at Slytherin House. Apparently, it's really worried Lestrange too."
"Hah, good!" Bellatrix giggled. "Maybe he'll call off the wedding. If only. I bet he's still upset about me not being impressed by his precious 'Dark Lord' and me embarrassing him at that rally by calling out that naff charlatan for what he is. Honestly, he expected me to 'beg him to be his wife' and did you know that he cornered me in the corridor this morning to yell at me? Yeah, grabbed me by the shoulders and everything. Well, that was one way to get himself hexed."
"Just be careful, hm?" Andie said, face etched with concern. "He's the type of person who will seek revenge."
"Lestrange? He's a talentless coward who wouldn't even dare think about harming me. Let's just say that I won't lose any sleep over it," Bellatrix scoffed again. "Oh, and Andie? I still want those chocolates."
"I still want those chocolates!"
"Uhm, I'm thinking no," replied Andie. "Those chocolates were promised in exchange for a service rendered. The service was never rendered, as is evidenced by the fact I'm still stuck in the Devil's Snare, so you get no chocolates!"
Bellatrix pouted slightly. "So you're not even going to share a few with your big sister?"
"You were going to take the whole lot!"
"I would have shared with you!"
"Oh, that's just mean!"
Andie sighed. "Tell you what," said her sister. "When we get out of here, we'll get fetch Cissy and the three of us will have a good old-fashioned chocolate binge."
"Yesssss," Bellatrix grinned, but her expression quickly turned serious. "Just, don't tell Cissy about Hermione, okay? She never keeps her mouth shut."
Andie nodded in understanding and together they chatted a bit while watching the sunset, waiting for Hagrid to arrive to rescue them from the devil's snare. It did give Bellatrix some time to reflect. Muggle-studies? Madness, certainly, but equally intriguing. Plus, it would give her the opportunity to impress Hermione with some muggle knowledge. Cissy was another subject of conversation, especially after the two of them sat her down for a serious chat about 'Dark Lord Charlatan'. That insipid boyfriend of hers certainly wasn't helping matters, but between the two of them they seemed to have talked some sense into her.
Honestly, Bellatrix didn't really get why Hermione seemed to be so wary about this dork lord, though she supposed he must have some sort of sway considering he managed to wrap so many people around his finger. Best not to think about it.
Regardless of the embarrassment of needing to be rescued by Hagrid in itself, it unfortunately for Bellatrix and Andromeda took him much longer to come and find them than either girl would have liked. Cold as a stone and stiff as a board from hanging around in the freezing cold for so long, Bellatrix found herself sat in McGonagall's office wrapped in a blanket and holding a steaming cup of hot cocoa while Andie had sought the comfort of her warm bed at the dorm. Bellatrix would have joined her there if not for this summons, but the curly-haired witch too the opportunity to shift slightly to sit a bit closer to the roaring fireplace.
"Well," started McGonagall. "You and your sister have managed to get yourselves into quite a predicament, it seems."
With clattering teeth, Bellatrix took a sip from her hot drink before looking McGonagall in the eye. "You have a talent for stating the obvious, professor," she replied, not even bothering to keep the sarcastic edge from her tone.
"I meant no harm," McGonagall said, in a rare admission of what could be conceived as fault. "I would like to take the opportunity to speak with you. The scuttlebutt around the school is that you have signed up for a muggle-studies course. I was indeed surprised to see your name on the roster."
Bellatrix rolled her eyes, almost instinctively. "You too?" asked Bellatrix. "Why is the fact that I'm taking a muggle-studies course world news all of a sudden? Can't a girl broaden her horizons in peace?"
"It simply surprises because it doesn't fit earlier patterns of behaviour," said McGonagall. "In the past you've been quite vocal about your disdain for muggles and muggle-borns."
"I've said a lot of things," said Bellatrix. "Look, if you have any complaints about my academic performance…."
"None whatsoever," McGonagall interrupted. "Your academic performance has always been exemplary and far surpasses that of every single student currently attending Hogwarts, even your own sisters. You are, by all regards, the brightest witch of your age."
Bellatrix fell silent for a moment, letting the words sink in. Praise from McGonagall was rare, especially high praise such as this. A brief smile crossed her features, as well as a nod in thanks. She honestly wasn't quite sure what to say: it wasn't as if she didn't put any special effort into her schoolwork. She just… did her thing as it came to her. "Not bright enough not to get caught by Devil's Snare," said Bellatrix.
"An unfortunate and perhaps sobering incident, miss Black, which can happen to the best of us," said McGonagall. "But what I wanted to discuss was not your academic achievements, but your recent behaviour."
Great. Detention again, it seemed. Bellatrix sighed and pursed her lips. "What have I done now?" she almost groaned.
"It's not what you have done. It's what you have not done. More precisely you haven't been a troublemaker for the last few months," said McGonagall. "You might have noticed me giving you tough assignments, both for your sake to keep your devious mind occupied and for the sake of your fellow students around you. But for the past few months there has been no need for me to do so. At first I considered that your focus on your stories was the cause, but that can't be the entire reason."
Bellatrix said nothing. Of course she wouldn't tell McGonagall about Hermione: their friendship, their relationship was a secret. Something which only belonged to the two of them. Though she had slipped a little to Andromeda, she had spilled none of the finer details and would never do so. And thus, she remained silent.
"Your apparent change of heart has not gone unnoticed," said McGonagall. "I understand mister Lestrange accosted you in the hallway this morning, the reason for it was you taking a muggle-studies course."
"He was pathetic," chuckled Bellatrix. "And I hexed him. I admit it. Give me all the detention in the world, professor, but I refuse to apologize to him."
"Though I do not condone the act of hexing a fellow student, I shall give you no detention," said McGonagall. "I understand the words he spoke to you were quite cruel."
Cruel. Cruel? Unbelievable. Some baseless, stupid insults about her becoming a muggle-lover for not liking his 'Dark Lord' was something McGonagall considered cruel? Rage came bubbling to the surface almost instantly.
"You know what is cruel?!" Bellatrix shot up from her seat, slamming her mug on the desk miraculously without breaking it. "Cruel is having the course of your life set in stone by being forced into a loveless marriage, getting to terms with that and then meeting someone you truly care for! Cruel is knowing there is nothing you can do to change the path you are on no matter how much you want to! Cruel is that you and the person you care for are literally years apart! Don't talk to me about cruelty!"
Bellatrix breathed hard, rage in her eyes and staring the unflappable professor down. But as quickly as it came, it went. Bellatrix sank her to her chair and wrapped the blanket around her again.
Another voice sounded in the room, coming from behind a curtain separating McGonagall's office space from a small private library. The distinct voice of Albus Dumbledore. "Good evening, Bellatrix," the old wizard greeted as he emerged from behind the curtain.
"Head Master?" Bellatrix responded, offering a questioning look at McGonagall.
"I'm afraid we haven't been entirely honest with you," spoke the old Head Master. "Please forgive the deception, but we need to be cautious in this regard. I'm certain you will see why."
Bellatrix gave the both of them a curious look as the Head Master took a seat. A glance at McGonagall showed that the professor was clearly ill at ease.
"It has come to my attention that a large number of students from House Slytherin have recently visited a rally of a... clandestine nature. It has been said that you and your sisters were among these students," Dumbledore spoke calmly.
Bellatrix thought for a moment. Her first instinct was to deny it, but after a second thought this seemed pointless. Dumbledore obviously got his information from somewhere, after all. "I was there," said Bellatrix. "And it was a complete farce."
"I see," replied Dumbledore after sharing a look with McGonagall. "Thank you for your honesty. The man in charge of this rally, I believe him to be a quite dangerous individual."
"You are worried about a charlatan with a circus tent?" asked Bellatrix.
Another look was shared. "Could you describe your experience? Start at the beginning," said the old man, now taking a chair at the desk and tenting his hands.
Bellatrix nodded. "When my sisters and I arrived the rally had already started, so we missed the introduction. We were funnelled through a corridor and were overwhelmed with the flow of magic. Undoubtedly it was meant to impress those entering the tent. But after a bit of an investigation, I detected a cantrip which altered the flow of magic in the air to make it seem as if we were walking towards a great source of power. It was subtle, but it was definitely there."
"What about the people at the rally? How many were there? Did you recognize many attendees?" Dumbledore asked.
"There were about forty people, us included," said Bellatrix, putting a finger to her lips as she tried to recall details. "About half of them were from Hogwarts, mostly seventh or sixth years. All pure-blood. Majority of them were Slytherins, but there were some Ravenclaws there too. I'm guessing you already have a list of names."
Dumbledore gave a brief nod and prompted her to continue.
"There were others there as well. Older people. Most I didn't recognize, though Misters Borgin and Burke were there," shrugged Bellatrix.
"What can you tell me about the man himself?" said Dumbledore. "What was your impression of him?"
Bellatrix thought a moment. "He tried to appear larger than life and was charming, I'll give him that. But there was something off about him. He looked a bit sickly, especially around the eyes. Knew how to work a crowd, though. Talked a lot about the old days, about pure-blood and wizarding power. Fed me a line how I could be the future of the wizarding world if only I were to follow him. How muggle-borns were stealing magic from real wizards. I asked him for proof of this and he tried to shame me in front of the others. I asked for proof again and he just moved on."
Dumbledore and McGonagall shared another look. Bellatrix couldn't help but notice that they were doing that a lot... and that McGonagall was increasingly uncomfortable.
"It speaks of your character and intelligence that you have seen through this man's tricks," said Dumbledore. "Many do not."
Yes, she had seen through this 'Dark Lord'. That Rodolphus hung from his every word like a particularly foolish lemming did not speak wonders of his intelligence.
"So did Andie," replied Bellatrix. "Cissy was a bit too enamoured by him for our tastes, but we'll talk to her some more to make sure she's changed her mind. I can tell you one thing, though: Rodolphus was not happy that we left early and he really doesn't like the fact that I wasn't impressed by his 'Dark Lord'. He proclaimed to 'forbid his future wife' from coming near anything muggle or mudblood. Well, he's welcome to try."
The old wizard got up from his seat and paced the room a little. "Bellatrix," he started. "What I am about to say must remain between the three of us. Share it with no one, not even your sisters. You must promise me this, for I know how close the bond between the three of you is."
Bellatrix gave him a brief nod, curious as she was, she would at least hear him out.
"The man you have met is a former student of ours, one Tom Marvolo Riddle," said Dumbledore. "I believe him to be one of the greatest threats to our world."
"Again, a charlatan with a circus tent?" Bellatrix raised an eyebrow.
"Do not underestimate him," said Dumbledore. "I would ask something of you which will involve a great deal of risk. I would ask you to go back to the rally when it is held next. I would ask you to pretend to have had a change of heart. Your family name alone should be convincing enough. I would ask you to gather information. On the rally. On the attendees. On Riddle himself. I would ask you to be our source on the inside."
Intrigued, Bellatrix shifted forward on her seat in such a way that she almost fell off the edge. "You... want me to be a spy?"
"If you desire to call it that," Dumbledore smiled, a twinkle in his eye. "But don't take any unnecessary risks. Simply observe and report back."
"Albus..." McGonagall muttered briefly. "This is not what we discussed..."
"This is a chance we cannot let slip, Minerva," Dumbledore pressed, a slight amount of force in his voice. McGonagall, for her part, seemed less than pleased and brimmed with... was it worry? Worry for her?
Still, this would be, dare she say it, an adventure! Some excitement! Being a spy sounded quite intriguing and fun. And all she had to do was to keep tab of comings and goings. People who fell in with that charlatan deserved whatever they got: she didn't consider it any form of betrayal.
"Why don't you take some time think about it," said Dumbledore. "We will not think less of you if you decline. There will be risk involved, I won't lie. Keep in mind that you will be performing a service to the greater good in the long run. But there will be benefits for your own sake as well. It is our belief that Rodolphus Lestrange is already deeply involved with Riddle's activities and he will not be able to claim you as his bride if he resides in Azkaban."
"Albus!" McGonagall hissed.
Now that got her full attention. Regardless of McGonagall's protestations, Dumbledore had given her an opportunity which was worth risking anything for: a way out of this loveless marriage looming over her head. Elated didn't even begin to describe her: Dumbledore was right. Her father was sure to pressure her uncle Orion into cancelling their marriage if Lestrange was revealed to be involved in illegal activities and got himself sentenced to Azkaban.
"Remember," said Dumbledore. "Discuss this with no one."
She would discuss this with Hermione tonight, Bellatrix smiled to herself. Certainly her friend would be happy for her now that she had been given this opportunity.
"We will speak again, miss Black," McGonagall said as Bellatrix gathered her blanket and got up from her seat. "Albus, a word in private..." she heard McGonagall speak before she left. Though it was subtle, it was obvious that the professor was absolutely seething. Still, she cared not: a chance to escape from her own wedding was something worth taking a few risks for.
She was certain that Hermione would agree.
When Bellatrix rather animatedly and enthusiastically told Hermione what had happened that afternoon, she had expected her friend to be happy for her. Excited even. Not only would this be an adventure, but an honest-to-goodness chance to escape her impending marriage with her pride intact.
What she absolutely did not expect was for Hermione to grow increasingly pale while listening to her and to see the wild panic... actual panic... in her eyes.
"Hermione?" Bellatrix asked. "What's wrong?"
"Trix, don't go back," Hermione replied, her voice cracking. "He's dangerous. You have no idea just how dangerous."
"But..." Bellatrix swallowed. "All I have to do is simply pay some lip-service, keep my eyes open and report back to Dumbledore. That doesn't sound very dangerous."
Hermione cocked her head sideways, expression brimming with concern. "Trix, the very fact that Dumbledore is involved should be enough of a clue."
"Why?!" Bellatrix demanded. "He's a charlatan with a circus tent! Why is everyone so concerned about him? You told me yourself he's nothing more than a naff cult leader!"
It was then that Hermione went really quiet, averting her eyes and... not looking at her. That made Bellatrix swallow hard: she had never seen her friend act like this. Then it hit her: while they had plenty of conversation normal teen witches would have with either other, it was easy to forget that Hermione was thirty years ahead of her. Bellatrix wasn't insipid: this could only mean one thing.
"Hermie?" asked Bellatrix. "You know something, don't you?"
The little tremor that went through Hermione before she caught herself told the whole story. "No," Bellatrix raised her hand. "Don't tell me, like we discussed."
"I want to," said Hermione, close to tears now. "Believe me, I want to. But I don't know what that will change. And if that change will be good or bad."
She could tell now that Hermione was very upset and frightened... for her, she realized. Flattering, certainly. "Hermie," Bellatrix started, her voice a bit quieter. "I'll be careful. I won't take any risks. But I can't miss this chance. If Lestrange is involved in illegal activities and is caught, that would reason enough for my father to force uncle Orion to cancel our marriage contract. And that alone makes it worth trying. I promise I'll be careful."
Hermione nodded, still upset but somewhat calmer. "Remember," said Hermione. "I'll be here for you every step of the way. I'll help you the best I can."
"Nothing to worry about yet," smiled Bellatrix, giving her friend a sly wink. "This 'Dark Lord' holds rallies only once a month and the last rally was only a few days ago. It'll be a few weeks before the next one is held, so I'll have plenty of time to prepare. You can breathe easily for now."
Hemione bit her lip again. "Trix, I really can't," replied her friend, causing Bellatrix to frown.
They chatted a bit more and the moon continued its journey across the heavens. Thankfully, the other topics were less heavy and involved school, family life and the vagaries of muggle music of past and future, of all things. And as the magic from the pool started to fade, Bellatrix saw Hermione's face morph into her own.
Standing in the dark, Bellatrix was simply left wondering: just why the hell did everyone seem to be so afraid of someone calling himself Lord Voldemort?
Seriously. Lord Voldemort? What kind of a danger could a clown calling himself Lord Voldemort even be?