A/N: Thank you for your reviews. Sorry for the delay. August was a beast. Suffice it to say, when it rains, it pours.
Delenda Est – Rebooted
Chapter Fourteen: Valentine's Day
By following a grueling schedule and drawing on what he had learned during the war in his timeline, Harry was able to complete the bulk of his basic Auror training by the end of January. Amelia Bones had then proctored Harry's certification tests, which Harry had passed handily. With all that done, Harry needed only to shadow other Aurors before becoming qualified to work as an independent Auror. However, his progress did not mean his learning was done.
After passing his tests, Harry had received an owl from newly appointed Head Auror Gideon Prewett. In it, Gideon had offered brief congratulations before curtly advising Harry to devote any downtime to supplemental training. Gideon had enclosed a list of optional certifications available to Aurors through the Ministry.
Harry had begun the extra training, except he was now proceeding at a more relaxed pace. Harry was quick to acknowledge that extra certifications would open more doors to him at the Ministry, but he was trying to balance extra training with his duties as a professor and his battle against Voldemort.
Harry's enthusiasm for the extra training varied by topic. For example, he found security spells, incarceration protocol, and prisoner transport to be fascinating. On the other hand, command structure and internal budgeting were so dry that Harry would frequently fall asleep mid-paragraph.
One evening early in February, Harry had finished his lesson planning. He was tempted to tackle another training, but changed his mind when he saw that his next lesson was about internal Ministry audits. So, he made his way to the Great Hall where members of the dueling club were practicing for the Salem tournament. He found Pythia supervising the dueling practice from a bench on the side of the room.
"The Auror emerges from his cocoon," Pythia said, giving Harry a brief smile before turning her watchful eyes back to the students.
Harry chuckled. "How's the club going?"
"Good," Pythia replied. "We have the squad rosters ironed out. Going forward, the hard part will be picking who will compete in Salem. They are all working hard."
Pythia shrugged noncommittally, but then nodded over to where Frank Longbottom was putting his team through some drills. "Longbottom is well regimented. His squad's inherent weakness, though, is his self-importance. He did tryouts where he should have done recruiting. However, Longbottom's squad has discipline, and that alone may carry them."
Harry nodded as he reflected on the differences between Frank Longbottom and his future son, Neville, and wondered what Neville would have been like if his parents had raised him instead of his grandmother.
Pythia then gestured over to the far corner of the Great Hall. "Our most talented students are over there with Miss Black as their squad captain. They appear to be doing well. My only qualm is that she has not had them engage in practice matches with other squads."
"Curious," Harry mused as he suddenly realized that Bellatrix might still be recovering from her ordeal at Voldemort's hands. Over the past weeks, each time he had gone to meet her in the Chamber of Secrets for a dueling practice, they had ended up discussing and negotiating her hotel plans. Pondering this possibility, Harry gave Pythia a quick grin before beginning his rounds.
"Should we practice against one of the other squads?" James asked.
"Why?" Bellatrix asked dismissively. She was sitting on the floor in the corner of the Great Hall as she thumbed through the latest edition of the squad's playbook. Occasionally, she would scribble an edit or critique in the margin.
"Well, all these other squads are doing matchups against each other," James pointed out as Sirius and Remus nodded in agreement. They looked pointedly over to where a couple of squads were squaring up for a practice.
Lily and Peter were watching the discussion quietly. Neither wanted to draw Bellatrix's ire. Privately, Lily was beginning to suspect that Bellatrix was deliberately avoiding fights. However, she had no way to confirm that suspicion.
"Yeah, we've got to practice with them to keep our skills sharp," Sirius pointed out.
"We're a lot better than them," Bellatrix said, a hint of derision in her voice. "Why bother?"
"Maybe we could do a practice with another squad and use Peter in your place while you work on our strategy," Remus proposed.
"You'll learn the wrong reflexes," Bellatrix sighed. "I would rather you do the one-on-one drills I assigned."
James and Sirius were beginning to look mutinous just as Professor Ashworth walked up and inquired about their progress.
Lily was quick to jump up and report on everything except the ongoing disagreement. James and Sirius looked like they wanted to chip in, but they deferred to Lily. When Harry told them they were doing well and was beginning to walk away, Lily asked him if she could speak in private for a moment.
"Of course," Harry said, smiling at Lily. He gestured for her to follow him to a spot along the wall of the Great Hall where nobody would hear. When they were out of everyone's earshot, he asked Lily what she wanted to talk about.
"I don't mean to meddle," Lily said quietly. "It is just that I wonder if you and Professor Greengrass have noticed that Bellatrix seems a little hesitant to duel. I am wondering if maybe she is still traumatized from … over the holiday." She glanced over to Bellatrix in the corner of the Great Hall and inadvertently made eye contact. Quickly, Lily diverted her gaze back to Harry.
"That could be," Harry said, nodding thoughtfully. "I'll mention it to those who can help. Thank you for being mindful of your classmate."
"Of course," Lily said, smiling brightly at Harry.
As Harry left to continue on his rounds, Lily, with some trepidation, made her way back toward the squad. Bellatrix stood and came to meet Lily halfway. "What did you say to him?" Bellatrix hissed, her violet eye boring into Lily's green eyes.
Lily winced. She was trying to think of a fib, but decided honesty was the better policy. "I told him that I am worried about you. It's been a rough couple of months, hasn't it?"
Bellatrix scowled. "That's none of your business."
Lily shrugged. "That's why I told a professor. Now I can rest easy."
Bellatrix whirled on her heels and stalked back to the rest of the squad with Lily followingly meekly. Bellatrix resumed her position in the corner with the playbook, apparently intending to review it for the rest of that evening's practice.
"If you really want to have a fight against one of these teams, you can set one or two up for the next practice," she told James, her voice overly casual.
"Do you want any team in particular?" James asked, sharing a grin with Sirius and Remus.
"It doesn't matter," Bellatrix mumbled.
That night, Harry had gone down to the Chamber of Secrets for a dueling practice he had assumed would become a planning session for Bellatrix's hotel. However, he had been surprised when, on his arrival, Bellatrix had insisted that they were going to do a practice duel.
Her tone had been adamant, with a small hint of what Harry thought might be fright. Mentally, Harry had debated whether he should decline to duel until there had been more time for Bellatrix to emotionally heal from her trauma. However, he had concluded it would be best to cooperate with her stated preferences. Without much discussion, he had agreed to the duel, and it had begun.
Now, Harry was in one of the dark reaches of the Chamber, leaning against a stone pillar as he tried to quiet his breathing. So far, he thought he had been stealthy. But his every movement, no matter how quiet, had drawn a volley of attack spells from Bellatrix.
I wonder, Harry mused quietly as he cast a non-verbal ward detection spell. His eyebrows raised as the spell revealed to him dozens of wards interspersed between the pillars of the Chamber. Anytime Harry passed between two pillars, he would be triggering a ward. Harry shook his head, feeling both amused and annoyed. It seemed Bellatrix had prepared the Chamber ahead of time and given herself a home court advantage.
Harry felt around in his pockets and found a few candies that he could spare. They were not much with which to work. He placed the candies on the ground and then removed his outer robe to add to the pile. From there, he cast several transfiguration spells on the items until he had a dummy that might pass for him as long as he kept it away from any bright lighting.
With a swish and flick, Harry sent his dummy blundering through one of the wards. As expected, Bellatrix hurled a barrage of spells its way. Harry danced it back and forth in the air, dodging many of Bellatrix's spells. Other spells hit, but Harry's levitation charm was able to hold all the pieces together so that it looked like the dummy was absorbing the spell damage without harm.
Mischievously, Harry moved the dummy to another sector of the Chamber, again passing through Bellatrix's wards. The expected barrage of spells came, and again, Harry moved the dummy. He could tell from the pace of the spells that Bellatrix was becoming frustrated. So, instead of moving the dummy, he moved the dummy close to his location and kept it dancing back and forth in the same place to see if he could lure Bellatrix out from the dark columns of the Chamber.
Harry's ploy worked. From his hiding place behind one of the columns, he spotted Bellatrix sneaking toward the dummy. Feeling overly pleased with himself, Harry crept up on Bellatrix as she passed through his sector, working her way toward the dummy. Just as she was about to unleash a spell, he tapped her on the shoulder.
Bellatrix whirled and lashed out with her fist, punching Harry in the stomach. Wheezing, Harry stumbled back against the nearest column, and Bellatrix dropped her wand as she began trying to punch and hit Harry, who was trying to use his arms to block her attacks.
"You win," Harry said, surrendering. He had no desire to go visit Madam Pomfrey with a made up excuse for physical injuries.
However, Bellatrix, who was busy lashing out irrationally, did not hear. She continued to attempt to pummel Harry, who was barely managing to keep up his efforts to fend her off. As it became apparent she was not going to overwhelm Harry, Bellatrix began making a high-pitched keening noise that was not quite crying or yelling.
Eventually, Bellatrix ran out of steam, and she was soon sitting next to Harry, trying to catch her breath. Harry was not sure what to say, and Bellatrix was too embarrassed to speak. Finally, it was Harry who broke the awkward silence.
"It's hard to jump on the broomstick after getting knocked off," Harry said as he grasped for something intelligent to say. "I wish I could tell you to just avoid fights and relax. However, the Dark Lord is going to come for you unless you flee the country. Even then, I am not sure you could run far enough. You're too valuable. And there is fate. I don't know what fate intends for you. But for me, I don't think I can escape."
"I know," Bellatrix said, her voice surprisingly crisp and composed.
Not believing that she was okay, Harry continued to share his wisdom. "You will find that it will become both easier and harder. You'll bounce back quicker. But the nightmares will never leave you. At least, they have not for me. Practice and preparation can help."
"No, really, I'm fine," Bellatrix insisted, her voice forceful.
Having used that phrase himself many times, Harry was able to decipher and respect the true meaning of that comment. "I'm sure you are," he said.
There was another awkward pause, before Harry attempted a change of subject. "Would you like to talk about the hotel?"
"There's no need," Bellatrix said, her voice casual. "The next step is to send my final revisions to Gringotts. They'll coordinate with the solicitors, loan officers, and property agents. I'll have some final papers ready for signature soon. Before I sign, I'll have to sneak off to Scarborough for a few weekends and evenings."
"That sounds exciting," Harry said, injecting some cheerfulness into his voice and standing up. "Perhaps I'll call it a night, then."
After Harry departed from the Chamber, Bellatrix lingered, walking among the columns as she pondered her situation. Something about Slytherin's secret chamber gave her comfort. She thought perhaps it was the isolation and cool underground air. The atmosphere in the Chamber was the closest thing to her Slytherin dorm, from which she was effectively exiled.
On some level, Bellatrix knew that trying to hide her trauma from Harry was silly. After all, he had just admitted to having his own nightmares. However, Bellatrix was not accustomed to sharing her feelings with anyone. She was also focused on showing Harry a mature face, as per the counsel she had received from her uncle Orion Black and his friend Abraxas Malfoy at the Ministry luncheon.
Bellatrix figured that she could always tell Harry later, if needed. For now, she was content to work through things on her own. Now that she had fought Harry, who was the only person who could truly match the Dark Lord in power, she was feeling more confident about her emotional ability to face other duels. In her mind, if she could go toe to toe with Harry, as she had done many times, including tonight, there was no student who could hope to come close to beating her in a fight.
Saturday was not only Valentine's Day, but also a Hogsmeade weekend, and Lily entered the Great Hall for breakfast with some trepidation. Although she was happy to receive well wishes from classmates and have some holiday fun, she did not want to engage in or be the target of serious romantic behavior.
Unfortunately, Lily was all too aware that some of her classmates had already entered that stage of life. Alice had already abandoned Lily in favor of spending the day with Frank, and Lily had no doubt that James Potter would be taking every opportunity to stare at her. There was also the problem of Severus Snape. He was a dear childhood friend. But, over the years, on each successive Valentine's Day, his behavior had become increasingly uncomfortable for Lily.
Lily found a potential source of refuge in the form of Bellatrix Black, who was sitting at the Gryffindor Table in her accustomed spot in the midst of where James, Lily, and their respective friends typically sat.
Since returning to Hogwarts, Bellatrix had opted to sit with the Gryffindors on a regular basis, often eyeing the Slytherin table with a mixture of longing and suspicion. However, Lily had observed that Bellatrix was never without some sort of symbol to assert her Slytherin status and distinguish herself from the Gryffindors. Today, it was a fashionable green jumper. Lily was not sure, but she thought the silver bracelet around Bellatrix's wrist might also be a nod to Slytherin's colors.
"Mind if I sit here?" Lily asked as she walked up to take a seat across the table from Bellatrix.
Bellatrix, who had dark circles under her eyes, shrugged noncommittally. Most would have been intimidated by a shrug like that from Bellatrix, but Lily knew that Bellatrix would have vocalized a negative response. Lily sat, and the two witches ate their breakfasts in companionable silence until James, Sirius, Remus, and Peter wandered into the Great Hall and noisily commenced their own breakfasts as they discussed their plans for Hogsmeade and chatted with classmates.
Not long after, a wave of owls swooped into the Great Hall with the post. Given the holiday, there were a lot more than usual. Most of the letters and packages were from family back home, though there were some exceptions that triggered teasing as the lucky and blushing recipients examined their hauls.
While James and his friends had received a large package from the Potters, Lily and Bellatrix had not been so lucky. Instead of a package, they had each received identical parchment envelopes.
Recognizing the stationery, Lily quickly guessed that the sender was Professor Slughorn. She was about to congratulate Bellatrix on being added to the Slug Club. However, she stopped when she saw that the blood had drained from Bellatrix's face.
Confused and a little frightened, Lily followed Bellatrix's gaze and saw that it was focused on Professor Ashworth. Resting on the table in front of Professor Ashworth was a large, pink box. From it, Ashworth had just taken out a biscuit and was showing Professor Greengrass who was reaching into the box for a biscuit of her own while gesturing for Ashworth to open the card that had come with the box.
"Who sent Ashworth that?" Sirius asked as others suddenly noticed the biscuit box.
"Does he have a girlfriend?" James asked, also staring curiously.
Lily was eager to speculate, but she was also concerned for Bellatrix. The seventeen-year-old witch's face was still pale, and Lily thought she could hear her quietly hyperventilating as Professor Ashworth opened and read the card that had come with the biscuit box.
Professor Ashworth was nodding happily as he read the card. Professor Greengrass, who was reading the card over Ashworth's shoulder, seemed puzzled. But then abruptly, her face brightened. She looked straight to where Lily, Bellatrix, James, Sirius, Remus, and Peter were sitting and winked mischievously.
Bellatrix groaned and buried her head in her arms.
"Are you ill?" James asked.
Bellatrix did not answer.
"I think she's ill," Remus opined.
Speculation was cut off when Professor Ashworth and Professor Greengrass arrived at the table, the pink biscuit box hovering in the air next to them.
"Anyone want a biscuit?" Greengrass asked brightly.
"Where did they come from?" Lily asked, alternating her gaze between the biscuits and Bellatrix.
"They're from Minister Black," Greengrass said brightly. "He says it is a belated congratulations from the Ministry for the Hogwarts team doing so well at the Paris and Cape Town tournaments. Of course, there's a lot of high praise for us, as your coaches, but I am sure they meant for us to share the biscuits with all the team members."
"Oh, neat!" Peter exclaimed, grabbing a cookie as everyone else glanced at the card Ashworth and Greengrass were showing around.
"Is it really signed by my uncle?" Sirius asked cynically, glancing at Bellatrix as James passed him a biscuit and offered one to Lily. "Did the high and mighty Minister for Magic really pause his day to write a nice letter?"
Bellatrix, who had made a sudden recovery from her malaise, looked at the handwritten card and shook her head.
"Well, shucks," Sirius said sardonically, feigning disappointment.
"I wonder who writes that sort of thing for the Minister," Peter wondered as he grabbed a second biscuit.
"I have some ideas," Bellatrix said curtly as Professor Greengrass dropped a biscuit on her breakfast plate.
"A secretary, I'm sure," Lily opined. "But I'm sure it was at least Minister Black's idea."
Bellatrix let out a noise that sounded like a snort.
After the professors had moved on to offer biscuits to other students, the students settled down. The boys were focused on eating. Lily was done with eating breakfast and had examined the letter from Professor Slughorn. Bellatrix was nearly done but had not reviewed Slughorn's missive.
Lily lingered as she tried to muster the courage to present an idea to Bellatrix that the invitations from Slughorn had given her.
"Are you going to read what Slughorn sent?" Lily asked.
Bellatrix sneered. "Is he going to say that I am suddenly worthy of his silly club?"
"It is an invitation," Lily confirmed. "He has scheduled the get together for tonight. Since it is themed around the holiday, there is a plus one."
"What if we went together?" Lily pressed, trying to keep her voice low. She did not need James or someone else trying to volunteer. "Neither of us are in relationships, and as far as I know, we're not angling for anything."
"You're assuming I want to go in the first place," Bellatrix said evenly.
"Isn't it a good opportunity to network?"
"Maybe just to try it once?" Lily suggested.
Later that evening, a cheerful Lily and sullen Bellatrix made their appearance at Professor Slughorn's Valentine's Day soiree. Naturally, it was themed around Valentine's Day, and some of the invitees had brought dates or asked other Slug Club members to be their date or escort for the evening.
The soiree began with an hour or so of mingling and eating refreshments before coffee was served and Professor Slughorn invited select students to sit at the main table with him. Bellatrix and Lily were given the dubious honor of sitting immediately to his right.
As far as Bellatrix could tell, this honor was a first for Lily, and she was paying rapt attention to Professor Slughorn as he led the conversation. On the other hand, Bellatrix was preoccupied with her own thoughts and was ignoring the discussion.
In the past, Bellatrix had not paid much heed to Valentine's Day. But today, she was feeling unusually grouchy about the entire thing. She had always considered public displays of affection to be silly and even disgusting. But this year, catching glimpses of stolen kisses had left Bellatrix extra irate. A small voice in her head suggested that she was jealous, but Bellatrix had chosen to ignore that opportunity for introspection.
The box of cookies delivered to Harry had not helped her mood. Apparently, Abraxas had linked the cookies to Bellatrix in only a minor way. But the fright Bellatrix had felt as Harry had read the note from the box had taken the wind out of her. In the back of her mind, she was planning ways to murder Abraxas Malfoy.
The only thing that had cheered her up that day was slipping away from Hogsmeade to Diagon Alley. There she had been able to work on finalizing papers for her hotel purchase. However, any joy about her hotel had dissipated upon Bellatrix returning to Hogwarts for an evening with Professor Slughorn.
"My dear," Professor Slughorn said, tapping Bellatrix on the shoulder, "perhaps you could tell me why you are stirring a brownie into your coffee."
Having been pulled out of her thoughts, Bellatrix looked back at Slughorn with a flat stare. Normally, she would have explained, but she felt like she had already answered too many of Slughorn's inane questions about her and her father. She was saved from responding when a young Ravenclaw used the silence to pose a question about Slug Club members who had made it into the Ministry's diplomatic corps.
As the conversation continued without Bellatrix's participation, Bellatrix leaned back in her chair at the table and observed the group as if she was an outsider. They were all ridiculous. Even Lily was acting ridiculous. Bellatrix did not dwell on Lily, though. A part of her understood that poor Lily, a Muggleborn with no connections, was using Slughorn's parties to scramble for a foothold in the magical world.
Eventually, the evening with Professor Slughorn drew to an end. Bellatrix and Lily were walking back to Gryffindor Tower together. Lily was silent while Bellatrix ruminated on whether future Slug Club meetings had any potential benefit. As they approached the portrait hole leading into Gryffindor Tower, Lily piped up and thanked Bellatrix.
"I know that was not something you wanted to do. So, I am grateful you came with me," Lily said.
"Professor Slughorn is …" Bellatrix began saying.
"I know," Lily said. "It's just that he's the only professor who does this outreach and networking with students. If another professor did it, I might be less interested in Slug Club. Maybe we could petition the other professors to do something similar."
Bellatrix stopped walking as her mind quickly grasped that Harry could do his own Slug Club. There would be networking for Harry, and Bellatrix could help. She could demonstrate her ability to host social events. Plus, it would be an opportunity for her to showcase her maturity compared to other students, as she had discussed with her uncle and Abraxas Malfoy.
"You think it's a good idea, don't you?" Lily asked, sounding eager. "Do you want to help me put a petition together?"
"No," Bellatrix said, "I was just thinking that instead of a petition, maybe we could approach professors directly."
"Should we approach Professor Ashworth?"
"Maybe," Bellatrix said, trying to sound casual as she resumed walking.
Further discussion was cut off as they arrived at the portrait hole and entered Gryffindor Tower. Bellatrix quickly took sanctuary in her private bedroom while Lily went her own way up to her shared dormitory.
Sunday afternoon found Harry grading essays and snacking on biscuits from Valentine's Day. Even after giving every member of the dueling club and even other students multiple biscuits, Harry and Pythia had a lot of leftovers on their hands.
A peremptory knock on the door to his office heralded Bellatrix's arrival.
Harry shot Bellatrix a genial smile as she let herself in, helped herself to a chair, and sat down. Harry could not quite put his finger on it, but she seemed different today. Perhaps it was her robes being more business-like than he would have expected from a seventeen-year-old. On the other hand, maybe it was her posture or the way she had done her hair.
"Normally, I would ask what brings you here," Harry said, grinning cleverly as he scribbled a grade on the essay he had been reviewing. "But I think I have an idea."
"Oh?" Bellatrix said, arching an eyebrow and leaning back casually.
"Yes. Miss Evans was up here this morning to talk about the possibility of me hosting dinners with students."
"What? Already?" Bellatrix demanded angrily, suddenly leaning forward and letting her reserve drop. "It was my idea, too!"
"She gave you credit," Harry said, holding back a chuckle at Bellatrix's outrage. He could not help but enjoy her annoyance. "You will be pleased to know that since she came late in the morning, I was able to fib and tell her that you had already been here."
"Really?" Bellatrix asked, her face lighting up. "You told her that?"
"Yes. I told her it was a good idea, that you had given her credit, and that you would be taking charge of setting things up. I also promised that you would involve her," Harry said, wondering why Bellatrix seemed so excited about him fibbing to Lily. She looked as giddy as some of the students from the day prior who had received gifts in the owl post.
"I don't know that it is a two-person job," Bellatrix pushed back, albeit in a strangely cheerful tone.
"Involve her," Harry said firmly as he picked up another essay and frowned at the length and lack of paragraph divisions. It looked like he was going to be in for a long walk down a short path.
"Fine," Bellatrix said. "Who should I invite and how many dinners are you willing to host?"
"Let's try to focus on dueling club members," Harry said. "I'll let you know of anyone else once we get going. Try to keep it to maybe one dinner every seven or ten days. Let me approve the major details, like dates, in advance."
"I'll do that," Bellatrix said. She then produced a piece of parchment from within her robes. "Now, I need you to do me just one little favor."
"Oh, really?" Harry said as he tried to both participate in the conversation and skim the essay in front of him.
"I need to buy some house elves using your name."
Harry stopped reading and cringed as a vision of Hermione scolding him appeared in his head. By rationalizing that the house elves would have a good life and truly seemed to prefer serving as they did, Harry had come to grips with the idea of Bellatrix buying house elves for the hotel. However, he had hoped to not be directly responsible for any house elf transactions.
"I thought that was going to be your responsibility," Harry said.
"Yes, well, on reflection, I have concluded that me buying the house elves in my name is problematic," Bellatrix explained. "We are buying directly from pureblood families. These families are going to be wondering why I am buying house elves, and they will gossip. They will resist selling if I try to be anonymous. After all, these snobs do not want to see house elves in the hands of … some people."
"Muggleborns," Harry concluded aloud. He narrowed his eyes suspiciously. "Are you really saying, though, that the same families that are going to be embarrassed about having to sell their house elves are going to gossip about it?"
"They'll be unable to resist gossiping and will pass off the transaction as being due to a surplus," Bellatrix countered. "That is what the people who are really selling because of a surplus will do. Besides, if it gets out that you are purchasing house elves, that will give you extra status."
"Blast, you're right," Harry conceded. Having house elves would build his status among the power structure into which he was attempting to infiltrate.
Bellatrix presented the parchment to Harry. "Just sign here, and I'll make arrangements. If anyone asks you about your new house elves, just say they're working out fine."
A few days later, Professor Dumbledore had finished dinner and was departing from the Great Hall when he found Alastor Moody waiting for him just outside the doors. Although an unannounced visit from his friend was welcome, Dumbledore knew there would be a reason.
"To what do we owe your presence tonight?" Dumbledore asked, hoping that Moody was not serving as the harbinger of bad news.
"To whom, actually," Moody responded. "Minister Black and his entourage are en route. I'm the advance guard, sent to ensure there are no hazards." He rolled his eyes, conveying to Dumbledore that he knew there were no hazards.
"I can assure you that everything is in ship shape," Dumbledore said, carefully hiding his annoyance that the Ministry would question whether the Minister of Magic was safe while at Hogwarts. "Do you know the purpose of the visit?"
"I think he wants to observe and visit with the dueling club," Moody said.
"You mean Professor Ashworth's army?" Dumbledore asked, giving Moody a teasing smile.
"I haven't ruled out the risk," Moody insisted.
"Yes, well, Professor Ashworth has not been very devoted to his dueling club ever since the Auror Office poached him from my staff."
"It may have saved his life," Moody quipped. "You would have needed a new professor next year, regardless."
"Perhaps I should go with Professor Greengrass as a replacement," Dumbledore mused. "She has taken over the dueling club and seems in better health than ever. I think she is tired of teaching Divination and is planning to quit at the end of this year. A change of scenery might convince her to stay one more year."
Not really interested in who would replace Ashworth and even less interested in Pythia Greengrass, Moody shrugged dismissively. Dumbledore gestured toward a quiet corner where they could have some more privacy from the traffic of students entering and leaving the Great Hall. Moody followed Dumbledore toward the corner.
"Is there news from the Ministry on the Dark Lord?" Dumbledore asked.
"Yes, and no," Moody responded. "They're investigating, but quietly. Money is being funneled into the DMLE. Prewett is sulking about being unable to get his hands on the young wizards who are suspected of being in the graveyard when Bellatrix Black was assaulted. He thinks it would be easier if Abraxas Malfoy was not constantly whispering in Minister Black's ear."
"I don't blame him for being irritated," Dumbledore said. "As for Malfoy, I agree it is peculiar. I would have thought the Black and Malfoy families would be at each other's throats."
Dumbledore changed the subject. "You'll be pleased to know that on my end, I have been able to approach several like-minded friends. Of course, not all of them have as many connections as you and me. In time, though, we will have a substantial network that can help counter this Dark Lord."
"Everything helps," Moody said as they launched into a discussion of Dumbledore's plans.
The two wizards continued their conversation as dinner concluded and the Great Hall cleared out. After members of the dueling club began arriving, Dumbledore and Moody moved to the Great Hall to observe the club meeting and wait for Minister Black's arrival. Not too long after the practice had commenced, Minister Black arrived, accompanied by Orion Black, Abraxas Malfoy, and a security detail.
Dumbledore was about to make his way over to greet Minister Black when he and Moody saw that Bellatrix was stalking toward the group of dignitaries with her fists clenched and face pale. Moody let out a low whistle.
"This ought to be good," Abraxas Malfoy chortled as he watched Bellatrix make a beeline toward them.
"What do you mean?" Orion asked, his tone of voice indicating he was not in the mood for nonsense.
Abraxas did not have a chance to answer because Bellatrix was already in front of him, shaking her finger in his face. "You cretin!" Bellatrix hissed. "You told me you wouldn't make biscuits."
"Well, of course I wouldn't make biscuits!" Abraxas exclaimed, gesticulating with his hands. "That's what my house elves are for! Besides, you should know by now that the note I wrote your dearly beloved was completely harmless. Your secret is safe with me." He winked.
Bellatrix did not have a good retort. She contented herself with silently directing an angry gesture toward Abraxas before wheeling on her heels and striding back to rejoin her group.
"What did you do?" Cygnus demanded, turning to Malfoy and frowning.
"I sent that Ashworth fellow some biscuits for Valentine's Day," Abraxas said, holding up his hand to cover a yawn. "For some reason, she feared that I put her name on the card. However, I made it look like a gift from you to the entire dueling club."
"Was that really necessary?" Cygnus asked, his voice strained. "Aren't you a little old to be tormenting a teenage witch?"
"I was testing her," Abraxas defended. "Did you see how angry she was? Thanks to my effort, we now all know that she is personally fond of Ashworth. Otherwise, she would not be so mad. You've got a good match on your hands, assuming Ashworth likes her. I am not sure how to test that theory. I'll try to think of something."
Cygnus sighed and shook his head while Orion nodded thoughtfully. Any further discussion about matchmaking was curtailed as Professor Dumbledore approached with Moody in tow and greeted them.
"To what do we owe this honor, Minister?" Dumbledore asked.
Cygnus glanced around furtively and then in a low voice whispered his response to the headmaster. "We need to talk to you alone."
"Should we adjourn to my office?" Dumbledore asked, his voice sounding concerned.
"Not yet," Cygnus said, his voice returning to normal volume. "We also want to see the dueling club in action. In fact, I will be announcing tonight that, going forward, the Ministry will be providing funding for this dueling club."
"Will there be strings tied to this support?" Dumbledore asked, arching an eyebrow as he turned, nodded, and gestured for Harry and Pythia to join them.
"Nothing unreasonable," Orion said reassuringly as Harry and Pythia joined the group. "We just want to ensure the club continues as is. The Ministry may ask for access to do some recruiting, though."
"It sounds like a good deal for both sides," Dumbledore said, the emotion behind his smile indecipherable. He smiled more genuinely at Harry and Pythia and passed on the good news that the Ministry would be funding the dueling club.
As Pythia lit up and chattered with Cygnus, Abraxas smiled broadly and greeted Harry. "How are you this evening, Professor? Or should I say Auror?"
"Both at the moment," Harry said cordially.
"You've done good work here. I am sure you'll do good work at the Ministry when you're there full time," Abraxas declared.
"You're very kind," Harry said.
"Perhaps we should go out to dinner or have a friendly game one of these nights," Abraxas said casually, hoping that if he could get Ashworth alone, he might be able to suss out Ashworth's unguarded opinion of Bellatrix. He turned his head ever so slightly, and saw that Bellatrix was scowling at him. He grinned broadly as Harry responded positively to the invitation.
As Moody, Cygnus, Orion, and Abraxas took seats in his office, Dumbledore reflected on the situation. He would not have expected Cygnus Black and his cronies to creep into Hogwarts to ask for help from him. Although he did not dislike Cygnus Black, the fact remained that the Black and Malfoy patriarchs were dyed in the wool purebloods with matching sentiments and sympathies.
However, the Black and Malfoy patriarchs were tamer than their progenitors and more casual than their contemporaries. It appeared they possessed the redeeming quality of recognizing the Dark Lord as a threat to both purebloods and muggleborns. Dumbledore acknowledged that as being a good start, but it was unlikely that the Blacks and Malfoy had undergone a transformation akin to the one Dumbledore had experienced when he went from being Grindelwald's closest ally to working for the downfall of Grindelwald.
So, as he smiled and proffered lemon drops, Dumbledore wondered what exactly the Blacks and Malfoy would request of him. He also wondered why they had insisted on Moody's attendance yet had excluded Minister Black's own Auror bodyguards.
What can I do for you tonight, Minister?" Dumbledore asked once everyone was settled in and relaxed.
"We seem to have a Dark Lord on our hands," Cygnus said, awkwardly launching the conversation.
"Yes, it would seem so," Dumbledore confirmed, helping himself to a lemon drop and leaning back in his chair.
"It is well known that you were instrumental in the fall of Grindelwald," Orion said, taking over the conversation.
"I was merely one of many who showed courage. Others made greater sacrifices than I," Dumbedore demurred.
"Yes, we and everyone else have heard that humble homily from you many times," Abraxas said drily.
Dumbledore smiled and shrugged.
"We would like to ask for your cooperation and even assistance," Orion said. "We think the Dark Lord is directing his recruitment efforts toward our youth. Obviously, as Headmaster of Hogwarts, you have unique access to and influence over the young witches and wizards of our nation."
"I am aware that certain former students were involved with the incident over the holidays," Dumbledore said, tactfully not mentioning that Lucius Malfoy had been one of the perpetrators. "But I would be interested to know more about your theory and more about how you think Auror Moody fits into the picture."
Orion did not seem pleased with Dumbleodre's tone. He leaned back in his own chair and studied Dumbledore from behind cold eyes for a moment before speaking. "What if I told you that Reinhard Lestrange was murdered? And what if I also told you that Abraxas, here, fears for his own life? And what if Bellatrix had joined the Dark Lord? How long do you think Cygnus and I would have remained alive?"
Instantly, Dumbledore felt like a fool. Ignoring Moody's reactions, he leaned forward and engaged fully with Orion. "Are you sure Lestrange was murdered?"
"I saw the body before the French authorities became involved," Orion said. "He did not die in his sleep. He did not even sleep in the bed that night. Somebody put him there after he died."
Dumbledore took a moment to absorb this information and then looked at Abraxas and arched an eyebrow. "Have there been threats against you?"
"Not really," Abraxas said, the tone of his voice at odds with his denial.
"He has changed his will and and has been making extensive contingency plans for what happens if he's murdered." Orion said bluntly. "The point is, the Dark Lord, or maybe just his followers, have begun signaling that purebloods had better fall in line."
"Of course," Dumbledore sighed. It was only natural that events would resemble those surrounding Grindelwald's rise to power. "And what about Auror Moody?"
"We are told he is the Ministry's most paranoid, anti-Dark Auror," Orion replied. He looked directly at Moody. "So, we are going to informally assign you to coordinate with the headmaster as necessary and nose around. We are also going to ask you to keep your investigation quiet. Discreetly report any findings to us."
"If that's what the Minister wants," Moody said, looking firmly at Cygnus, who was already nodding his agreement with Orion.
At Durmstrang, the Lestrange brothers and Lucius Malfoy had been assimilated into the general student body. The students had been accepting of their new comrades, which is to say, they had been as cold and indifferent as the Slytherins at Hogwarts would have been had the situation been reversed. Despite the chilly social situation, the Lestranges had enjoyed a small amount of notoriety since Rodolophus was the head of the British branch of the Lestrange family and had control of its wealth.
Initially, Lucius had been left out in the cold. It was widely known that he had no access to the Malfoy money and might ultimately be disinherited. However, he had been endeavoring to establish connections with his classmates any way he could, even if all he could do was learn about the backgrounds of them and their families. He knew that his ability to connect the Dark Lord to more families could restore him to the Dark Lord's good graces.
As far as their loyalty to the Dark Lord went, Lucius and the Lestranges had been instructed to keep their heads down. Their ability to stay at Durmstrang depended on local government authorities being able to maintain plausible deniability. If they so much as breathed a word about the Dark Lord to the wrong person at Durmstrang, they risked extradition into the hands of Minister Black and Director Prewett.
Given the moratorium on Dark activity, Lucius was surprised to learn that Voldemort was the reason Professor Karkaroff had pulled them out of potions class one Monday afternoon and invited them to attend a dueling team practice.
At Durmstrang, the dueling team was considered too elite for common classes. While other students got up early and maintained a normal schedule, the dueling team enjoyed a relaxed morning and then an afternoon of drilling and training with Professor Karkaroff.
"I thought Karkaroff was against us joining the dueling team mid-school year," Lucius whispered as they followed the student Karkaroff had sent to fetch them.
"Circumstances have changed," Rodolphus smirked.
"In what way?"
"Karkaroff has ambitions," Rabastan whispered. "He has been informed that if he wants to be the headmaster of this school, he needs to ensure that Hogwarts is defeated at the Salem tournament."
"Why?" Lucius asked as he tried to hide his anger at yet again being left out of the loop. Once again, he would be playing catch up.
"Minister Black is sponsoring the Hogwarts team. Either he or another high-ranking Ministry official will be in Salem. If the team is thrashed at the tournament, it will be seen as a defeat for him," Rodolphus explained as if he was talking to a child. "Our assignment is to help coach."
"I see," Lucius said. "I'm surprised that Bellatrix isn't the target."
"There are other plans for her," Rodolphus whispered as they arrived at Durmstrang's indoor dueling arena.