A/N: So here I was, desperately fishing for an idea that I could then spin a story around, and floundering about in vain. I wanted to get back to writing... something, anything... and figured I'd fall back upon the old standby - fanfiction. I'm not entirely sure how far this fandom has come, or gone, but I wanted some skin in the game again, even if I never could muster up enough reader count to convince myself I could write well.
And then I stumbled across this story by another author who was about ready to abandon it. He admitted his desire to leave fanfiction, so I kinda begged for his plot notes and he was kind enough to give them to me. So credit where credit is due - I owe this idea, and entire parts of this story, to this upstanding anonymous guy on the interwebs. The only reason I haven't (user-)named him so far was because of his explicit desire to NOT be associated with this story. And for those of you that do recognise the story and are here to clamour for something akin to his old creation, take a gander at my other fics. I'm not THAT sort of writer.
Disclaimer: Harry Potter and associated characters belong to J. and her army of publishers and lawyers.
A Small Victory, An Ominous Escape
A marriage was a bond of convenience that either engendered habitual stagnancy and plodded on forever, or a bond of love that tore itself apart as soon as the initial flood of hormones subsided to leave nothing but cold sobriety in its wake.
Narcissa Malfoy, unfortunately, was a victim of the first kind of marriage; she had not even had an opportunity to enjoy the temporary high that came with young love. Nonetheless, as she sat before her husband, every inch a demure pureblood wife, she wondered when she had snapped out of her rut long enough to pick up her husband's subtle quirks. For instance, at the moment, she knew from his darting eyes that despite his bluster, he was immensely anxious about… something.
"A finger in every pie," Lucius told her, his voice cold, "That may as well be the Malfoy family motto."
Narcissa nodded tiredly. Truth be told, she was apathetic to these catch-phrases and associated idioms her husband associated with the Malfoy name. Obviously, Lucius was attempting to convey a particular piece of information that he thought was damning enough to discuss with her, but she wished he would get to the bloody point without meandering his way through superfluous conversation.
"And so," Lucius continued, his eyes looking everywhere but at her, "I have come across a particularly troubling… rumour. Of dark... things. Disappearances. Murders. And… Draco's tales of the last few years at Hogwarts."
Narcissa raised an eyebrow. Lucius finally glanced at her and winced.
"Granted," he said with a disdainful shrug that was not quite true to form, "One of those tales had to do with… my interference, but the other events…"
Narcissa shuddered inwardly. She did not quite know what Lucius had done - but she knew it involved Arthur Weasley, the Boy-Who-Lived, Albus Dumbledore and... her house-elf. A strange coterie indeed. Nonetheless, she was quite annoyed with her husband for that particular misadventure - she had lost one of her more productive house-elves in the backwash of events set in motion by her husband. And knowing Lucius, that misadventure had probably been sinister in purpose, though his frustration after Draco's second year also betrayed the fact that his plans - whatever they were - had been thwarted.
"Draco's first year had something to do with Nicholas Flamel," Lucius said, stroking his chin, though his hand trembled with each downstroke, "And a Philosopher's Stone. I have no idea how Quirinus Quirrell got mixed up in this business, but the man was declared dead at the end of the year, according to my sources in the Ministry.
"And then there's the business last year," Lucius continued, "A werewolf teaching Defence at Hogwarts…"
Narcissa shuddered - Albus Dumbledore must truly be senile if he exposed his students to such danger in a class that taught defence against dark creatures. And to think of a monster like that in the vicinity of her only son…
"... The capture and subsequent escape of Sirius Black," Lucius said and trailed off as he noticed Narcissa's cold eyes snap back towards him.
"Severus thinks the Potter brat had something to do with your cousin's escape," Lucius said mildly.
Narcissa sighed - she could not muster enough energy to be annoyed at his prodding. "He's not quite my cousin any more," she said in a bored tone, "My dear Aunt struck him off the family tree. Along with my former, now estranged sister Andromeda."
"But do you notice the pattern?" Lucius pressed, "Haven't we seen it before?"
Narcissa's breath escaped her in a sudden hiss and her blood turned to ice. "He's back," she murmured and memories she strove to avoid clambered to the forefront of her mind - a cold marriage, arranged for political expedience. The fearful eyes of a muggleborn her sister had imprisoned in the dungeons of Malfoy Manor. Nails dragging across bare skin as she strove in vain to dislodge Fenrir Greyback from atop her. Her fingers trembled, her muscles seized and she closed her eyes to stave off the helpless anger that rose within her.
She opened her eyes only to see Lucius nod mutely. He pinched his left sleeve with two long fingers and pulled. His pale skin was adorned with a greyish tinge, which, in a few moments, revealed itself to be a faded tattoo of a skull with a snake darting back and forth from its maw.
"It's faint now," Lucius murmured, "But it grows stronger with every passing day."
Narcissa tore her gaze away from the dreadful image to stare at her husband's face. He looked more anxious than ever.
"We… belong on his side," Lucius muttered, but the old conviction had long since fled him, "But if He does… return, we're all going to be drawn in. Me. You. Draco."
Narcissa took a deep breath and her shoulders slumped. "We could beg for forgiveness," she said, "Fall on our knees, offer our family wealth…"
"He'll need more," Lucius grit out, "He'll need much more. We shall need a… tribute, of sorts."
"A tribute?" Narcissa asked.
"It was a wild, stray idea," Lucius admitted, "And not quite the ideal path. But our claims that we stood for His ideals all this time, that we kept to the old ways, that we cherished His name and worked towards His return - these are empty words if they are not backed by… something."
"And that something would be…?" Narcissa pressed.
"Leverage," Lucius said, "Inside information. I can cover the Ministry, but so can others such as Thicknesse. And my pureblood circle is… limited in scope. We need more than just information about a defunct Ministry - we need to convince him we've paved the way towards His resurrection."
"I see," Narcissa said, her mind working furiously, "We need to know the enemy. Dumbledore. The legendary Order."
"And that's something I simply cannot get my hands on," Lucius admitted in a rare display of self-deprecating honesty.
"You will not use Draco," Narcissa said simply, making it both a threat and a statement of fact at the same time.
"No," Lucius said firmly and looked pointedly at her for an entire moment. Narcissa sighed.
"Me," Narcissa said, "You believe I can do this."
Lucius frowned. "I do not believe," he snarled, "But I hope you're competent enough to perform some sort of reconnaissance that we may mine when… if the Dark Lord comes back. While Severus is possibly the most powerful inside source the Dark Lord could call on, if we can supplement his observations with our own… we'd have something more than just money to offer."
"I see," Narcissa said quietly, "And Lucius, I do not appreciate the condescension."
Lucius dismissed her with a casual wave that made her curl her lips in distaste.
"Besides," he added, his voice betraying his disdain, "You have some womanly charm left in that aging body. Use it for something more than just bedding werewolves."
Narcissa's fist curled in anger and she felt her magic shudder around her, but she suppressed it with great effort. Snapping out at him would do her no favours in this life.
"Very well," she snarled through gritted teeth.
"Getting you into Hogwarts should not be too difficult," Lucius said, apparently relieved at the idea that he had a definite goal to work towards, "I have too much pull with the Board for them to deny me. Yes… this should work…"
Lucius got up and walked away from her, still deep in thought. Narcissa merely pursed her lips and glared at her husband's retreating back. She cursed her dead mother thricefold for succumbing to Aunt Wahlburga's efforts to marry her off to the loathsome creature she called a husband.
Lucius Malfoy was irritated and annoyed - granted, his mood had deteriorated ever since he had woken up in the morning and glanced at his left forearm, but he was particularly vexed as he was ushered into a cramped Conference Room within the Ministry, as far away from the Office of the Minister of Magic as the Weasleys were beneath him, only to be stymied by the sight of the King of the Muggle-lovers himself - Albus Dumbledore. And worse, the grandfatherly fool was the only man in the room.
With great effort, Lucius managed to stifle a disgusted sneer and inwardly cursed his decision to arrive at the conference early.
He sat himself down as far away from the Headmaster as possible, but 'as far as possible' was not quite as distant as he would have liked, seeing as how he had been ushered into an ridiculously small and spartan room, fit rather for a jury than a meeting of such import. Then again, Ludovic Bagman had organised the meeting - praise be to the man who could convince Ludo that the best place to hold a Ministry meeting was in a space larger than a Quidditch locker room. Lucius glanced at his timepiece and noticed that the dials were about half an hour away from his lunch time.
He sighed and leaned back in his chair, reminding himself of exactly why he was here - for his son. He was here so that his son, his legacy, would have a chance to compete in an extremely rare tournament that may never be held again if his deductions about the future were correct.
Lucius inhaled and turned to the side, but was relieved to see that the old coot was still humming a disgustingly perky tune to himself and had barely noticed the Malfoy Patriarch's presence.
And to add to his sense of relief, the door burst open and an entourage, comprising of the Minister and other Heads of Ministry, streamed into the Conference Room. Lucius had to make room for Bartemius Crouch and Ludo Bagman to either side, and though he wished he had more space to himself, the two men seemed to be uncomfortable enough to make him feel a bit better about himself.
A brief chat with the Minister later, the conference truly began. The first and only point of order was, of course, the tournament. After Crouch's terse introduction to the tournament, and before Ludo could start on a boring speech about the tasks that the tournament entailed - something Lucius had heard already - he bulldozed his way into the conversation.
"Personally," Lucius said coldly, "I believe this a ludicrous arrangement. This is not a World Cup or a Duelling Championship. It is a Triwizard Tournament, intended for the students to compete in – its very purpose is to encourage a fair and equitable contest among the largest and greatest European schools of magic."
Bartemius Crouch made a sudden movement, as if he were about to cut Lucius off, but the Malfoy Patriarch pressed on.
"Gentlemen," he said, looking around the table imperiously, "You have to admit that this does not make much sense - we cannot hold a magical tournament meant specifically for students and disqualify ninety percent of the very same students because of some flimsy idea of safety. If the tournament is indeed for people of age, why call it a tournament for students at all? Why not just abandon the charade and make it a tournament for adults?"
"I agree," said Pius Thickness, Head of the International Magical Office of Law, and more importantly - a member of the old crowd. He bestowed Lucius with an inscrutable glance. "I suppose it is a little bit like holding a Hogwarts Quidditch Cup and then barring all but Seventh Years."
"And yet," Crouch said irritably, "The Quidditch Cup does disqualify First Years."
"Some First Years," Lucius said, injecting as much contempt as he could into his voice, "The privileged ones, apparently, get away with breaking that rule under Dumbledore's tutelage." Lucius glared at the old coot, but Dumbledore merely gave him a benign stare.
"No one is denying the fact that there cannot be some age barrier," Thickness interjected, attempting to smoothe over the conversation, "The Quidditch Cup does disbar First Years, but First Years are not an overwhelming majority of the student population of Hogwarts. In this case, we're dismissing all but twenty students from a tournament that claims to cater to all students."
"Indeed," Lucius said, "My recommendation is fairly predictable, I'm afraid. But I have never shied away from the old ways - I suggest we go back to the original format of the Tournament. Fourteen was the age limit the founders of the Triwizard Tournament thought appropriate and I see no reason to change that; most Arithmancers agree that fourteen is the age where one's magical ability truly matures and when a man realises his true magical potential.
"In fact, this recent fixation on seventeen as the age bar is truly bewildering, to my eyes, and insultingly… muggle, in its sentiments."
Lucius' voice turned venomous once more; and he smirked as his words had the desired effect. The table seemed to stiffen, and quite a few of the muggle-lovers around the table seemed immensely uncomfortable with the flow of conversation.
"And do not forget the powerful magic that the Goblet is infused with," Thickness added, "It is… unlikely that the Goblet would nominate an unworthy candidate for the tournament."
"Oh please," Crouch spat, "We're not so daft as to believe Lucius is doing this for the vast majority of the student population at Hogwarts, are we? His son turns fourteen this year, does he not?"
Lucius looked down his nose at the Head of International Magical Cooperation. "Yes, he does," Lucius said evenly, "And yes, I would not deny that my son has a lot to do with opening my eyes to the injustice that we seek to inflict upon the students of Hogwarts.
"Then again," Lucius said, his voice growing stronger with every passing word, "I do take an active interest in my son's upbringing. Unlike some… others I can name."
He was rewarded with the sight of an angry flush creeping up Crouch's face.
"Gentlemen," Cornelius Fudge interjected at last and Lucius bestowed him with a beatific smile. Fudge seemed to inflate before his very eyes at Lucius' glance of approval and the Malfoy Patriarch smirked inwardly; the Minister of Magic was nothing more than a blustering fool who sought to surround himself with yes-men - a trait that could easily be exploited by a skilled manipulator.
"I'm afraid I agree with Lucius," Fudge said at last, drawing another smile from Lucius, "Barty… er… Lucius represents both the Board of Governors, as well as the parents of Hogwarts. It is well within his rights to take his son's welfare into consideration for this particular discussion."
Crouch's lips thinned, but the man nodded tightly.
"If I may interject," came the mild voice of Albus Dumbledore, making Lucius gnash his teeth, "I believe I can see where Mister Malfoy is coming from. However, I am still concerned about the safety of all of the students - seventeen and below. The tasks - or at least the draft outlines we all received - are worrisome, to say the least."
Crouch sighed tiredly and Fudge rubbed the rim of his bowler hat with a frown.
"For those of you that missed the previous meeting," Ludo interjected, "Albus had… er… concerns about the possible… exploitation of sentient creatures for the purpose of the Tournament."
Lucius huffed, disgusted - just when he thought the muggle-loving idiot could not sink any lower…
"Sapient beings, Ludo," Dumbledore interjected, "I do not approve of using nesting dragons and live eggs for the First Task. Nor do I believe the Merpeople would think any better of us if we force them to cede territory for what they would no doubt see as a human game. And the third task is mind-boggling in its attempt to alienate the various magical beings that live alongside us. Live acromantula? Trolls?
"These are living, breathing, self-aware beings who could be hurt during the course of the tournament. And beings that could, in turn, inflict injury upon our students. I cannot stress how much I disagree with this strange notion that sapients may be treated as playthings simply because they are not human - it is a strangely anthropocentric point of view that belongs in an entirely different era."
Crouch shrugged wearily; and for once, Lucius could sympathise - Dumbledore had just uttered the most moronic words he had even heard from a grown wizard. If trolls were self-aware, then he was house-elf with a tea cozy wrapped around his neck.
"I take no pleasure in repeating myself," Dumbledore said, and Lucius barely suppressed his snort. "But I would like to remind this committee that we are witches and wizards. We may craft challenging tasks without availing ourselves of the abilities of abused and oft-belittled beings."
Lucius rubbed his forehead tiredly, though he perked up as Dumbledore's idiotic sentiments finally registered in his mind.
"Now there's an idea," Lucius said sharply. Nearly the entire table gaped at him - or perhaps they were shocked by the idea that Lucius Malfoy would ever agree with Albus Dumbledore.
Lucius continued, "I can see a way out. A way to kill two doxies with a single jinx. We may need to go back to the drawing board, but we're perfectly capable of commissioning tasks that do not depend on the unpredictability of… ah, beings." Lucius spat out the last word.
"We could re-draw the tasks and devise them to be more… controlled, while still maintaining the challenge and thrill of the competition. And once the unpredictability, brought on by beasts such as trolls is torn away, I see no reason why we cannot invite everyone above the age of fourteen to participate in the tournament."
Fudge fiddled with his hat again, though he cast a quick glance at his Undersecretary. "Time for a vote, gentlemen," Fudge called out to the table at large. Lucius smirked as Dolores Umbridge's high, shrill voice initiated the voting process.
Grime-coloured walls surrounded the lone woman who braced herself against the dank stone that masqueraded as a floor. The distant roar of sea against shore could barely be heard through the woman's panting; her muscles trembled as she strove to keep herself upright using merely her hands and her legs. A tiny slit in her cell betrayed the presence of an entire world outside, but the woman barely glanced at it.
The woman shoved at the ground, her mind blaring with rage, and her arms propelled her away with the force of her push. With a gesture that betrayed her athletic ability, the woman clapped her arms as her upper torso rose, only to bring them slamming back into the ground as she swung back into position once more.
Another push, clap and then back to the grind.
Her trembling muscles could no longer hold her up - she fell, face-first, into the ground and her chin bounced painfully off the wet, grungy stone with a sharp crack. She let it rest there for a while and reflected upon her past glories - there had once been a time when her lithe, athletic body could handle this task with ease, but her present prison had a way of leeching away at her strength, depriving her of her once intimidating and predatory physical presence. She was a skeletal husk, as far removed from the beauty of her past as her prison was from civilisation.
All she had was hope - hope due to the fact that she still drew breath. And hope due to the fact that she had once served a man who would be God.
And that was when a fell stillness crept through the air, stifling her with its mere presence. The woman stiffened, wondering if the prison patrol was here, ahead of the scheduled time, but she dismissed that possibility. The dementors never did pay her an unscheduled visit - they were on a tight, if figurative, leash held by the human prison guards.
And if the dementors were here on an irregular patrol, it was hardly a good sign. It either meant that their leash was off - which, in retrospect, could be construed as a good sign - or their current masters had decided on an unsavory course of action that she was powerless to stop.
She hated this feeling… this weakness. She edged towards the prison bars and peered into the corridor beyond, her eyes gleaming unnaturally in the light of the lone torch.
The light grew dimmer. The woman braced herself, but the creeping darkness was not accompanied by the horribly familiar wintry sting that the dementors were capable of.
The creeping darkness was unnatural, but not quite the looming cloud of doom that the fell creatures lugged around with them. It crawled across the dank stone and grimy walls, snaking and clawing its way towards her cell.
The woman giggled. The misshapen, clawing darkness was almost… cute. Like a weird, but adorable little spider with skin the shade of a starless night. She cooed at it and her hand snapped out through the bars as she beckoned it closer.
The darkness paused at the soft purr that escaped her mouth and seemed to contract inwards, as if it were a living, breathing thing. After a moment of silence, where she stared awkwardly at the black form, it began to crawl forwards once more.
It paused again, barely five feet away from her cell, and dispersed into cloudy black smoke. The inky wisps snuck into her cell, and began to coalesce into a dark blob. The woman giggled again - the blob looked almost human if she squinted just the right way.
As if the darkness had read her mind, the blob exploded to reveal a striking young man with rather sharp features and scraggly brown her.
Oh, that's just fantastic, the woman thought sardonically to herself, You're imagining things again.
"You're gone," the woman rasped hoarsely, her voice barely above a whisper, "Dead."
The man barely glanced at her; he merely muttered to himself as he slowly removed a very familiar ring from the third finger on his right hand. Despite herself, the woman was annoyed.
Bah, she thought, Insanity is overrated if your hallucinations can't even talk back to you.
She waited for a while for her hallucination to stop mumbling to itself, but her patience frayed and she gave up on it. "Lady Death, Lady Death," she rasped to herself, remembering a little ditty from her childhood, "Catch me while I still draw breath."
"Well," the hallucination said at last, in a voice that was much stronger than she would have have given it credit for, "She didn't quite manage to catch me."
She merely blew a raspberry at it and crouched in a corner, clutching her arms around herself. She had no use for hallucinations that lied, either.
She yelped as she felt a pinch on her left bicep. She glared to the side, only to gape at the man, who was now barely two feet away from her. His arm was extended outward, and he was actually pinching her.
She snarled at him, but the hallucination pulled up her ragged left sleeve, caught her wrist, and turned her forearm up at her.
Blood seemed to spurt through her body once more and a thrill of wild cheer effervesced up from her very gut; hope filled her once more.
He was back. The snake and the skull on her forearm were visible once more.
She looked up at the man piteously. "Where… where is he?" she asked and looked around wildly, as if she expected her Master to emerge from a dark corner of the cell.
"He isn't here," the man said, enunciating every syllable with familiar emphasis, "He has not recovered entirely, I'm afraid. For even a god needs his rest."
The woman slumped, and her eyes must have betrayed her anxiety for the man said, in a reassuring voice, "Even a resting god is powerful. After all, I am standing in the most airtight prison known to man. By His grace."
"How?" she asked plaintively.
The man held out his closed right fist and uncurled his fingers, revealing an ornate golden ring with an enormous, black stone glinting on its crown - it had looked familiar before, and now, she knew its true identity. It seemed to radiate an ominous, powerful tenebrosity.
"He gave it to you," she said, her hoarse voice betraying her wonder… and envy.
"To save you," the man replied, "To reward you for your loyalty. And your faith."
Her heart soared and she knelt upon the ground in religious supplication. Tears of happiness squeezed themselves from her eyes and plopped onto the cold, wet stone beneath her.
She looked up again, eyes shining, and saw the man unfurl a bag from his robe pocket. He pointed his wand at the bag and muttered a few select words - the bag drew in on itself and vanished into ether. An unconscious, extremely skinny brunette dropped from its depths.
"A squib I picked up in Albania," the man said, "Resembled you enough for our purposes. The dementors don't really care about what someone looks like as long as they have something to feast on - a soul was in this cell, and a soul shall remain in this cell."
"A replacement," the woman breathed, "For me."
The man nodded.
"But they'll know," the woman rasped again, "They'll know when they…" She gestured vaguely at the prone brunette.
"An imperius is a wonderful thing," the man said ruefully, "She shall get up tomorrow, and claw at her face until she dies. When she's done, the Ministry won't be able to tell her face apart from mush."
The woman giggled. "But they'll still know," she rasped.
"No," the man said firmly, "You underestimate His reach. And my father's."
The woman flinched violently. "Your father…?" she tried to ask, "But he… was not one of us?"
The man waved her concerns away. "He is now," he said, though his voice betrayed a raw sourness that had not been there before.
He shook his head, as if trying to wash away lingering, unfinished thoughts, looked at her sharply and asked, his voice simmering with passion, "Do you remember the cause? The true cause? Not the front, the purpose?"
She glared at him, incensed that he could even accuse her of a lapse of memory so crucial and fundamental to her very being.
"I do," she snarled, "The last line of defence. For our ways. For our world. And the first line of offence. Towards heaven. Godhood."
Bartemius Crouch, Junior, smiled. "Indeed. Come, Bella," he said gently, holding out his palm, and Bella noticed that the ring was on his finger once more. "Let us go back to where we belong."
Bellatrix Lestrange nodded happily at the man and clasped his hand firmly. The man murmured a select few words. The ring in his hand pulsed and engulfed them in impenetrable, malleable darkness. It cradled them - the most faithful of their order - and hemmed them in protectively as they stepped right through the bars of the cell, and towards salvation.
Bellatrix smiled. Azkaban fell away and the world beckoned, ripe for fun.
Lucius whistled a jaunty, peppy tune as he left the cramped confines of the so-called conference room. Granted, Ludo had looked less than happy at the idea of going back to the drawing board, so to speak, and coming up with a new blueprint for the Triwizard Tournament, but Lucius had achieved his purpose - at the very least, he had succeeded in opening up the Triwizard Tournament to half the student population of magical Europe. And at best, he had created an opportunity for his powerful, handsome heir to come into his own during the course of the oldest inter-school tournament in the world.
The Malfoy bloodline had yet to be spurred to the heights that it deserved to achieve. While the return of his former Master had once again returned to the forefront of his mind, like a dark looming shadow that crept up on him when his mind was idle, the smaller victories were often the ones he savoured most. The effort involved was typically miniscule, and the manipulation almost unseemly for such a small victory, but the feeling of accomplishment - for him and his son - were more than reward enough to bring a smile to his face.