Hermione was relieved that there was no grand entrance to the Ball for her this year. She and Bellatrix would still likely be the center of attention, but at least she didn't have to try not to fall down the stairs. She watched enraptured as her beautiful wife got ready for the event. The effortless ease with which the woman oozed sensuality never failed to amaze her. Watching her prepare to seduce the masses was delightful. Not to mention that Hermione was on the receiving end of several mischievous and alluring smirks as the corset was laced and eye makeup was applied. Before lipstick was applied, Bella pushed her up against the cabinet and kissed her breathless. The teasing smile promised more after work was done.

The young witch walked arm in arm with her wife into the decorated hall. She knew they made a beautiful pair, a fact driven home by the number of eyes on them. The stars she hung from the ceiling glittered beautifully in the candle light. Once again, Narcissa had outdone herself. Hermione did a quick scan of the room and found the potions professor looking a bit out of place. With a quick tug, she pulled her wife in his direction. She wanted to successfully complete the task set out before her, so that she could enjoy the fringe benefits of being a Black before the night was over.

"Professor Slughorn," Hermione said brightly.

"Madames Black." He smiled in awe, but couldn't take his eyes off of the dark witch.

"Professor," she purred indulgently. "It's been far too long."

"Indeed it has, Bellatrix. You look well."

"As do you, sir. But I am honored that you remember me. You've taught so many over the years at Hogwarts."

"So I have." He grinned at the fond memories. "But I've never been one to forget the extraordinary ones."

"Even when they are disgraced and sent to prison?" To her credit the dark witch did manage to sound remorseful, though Hermione knew the only regret she carried was getting caught.

"Some of us have never lost faith in you. And the truth did out, did it not?" His eyes sparkled in spite of the serious tone.

"So it did," Hermione answered leaning adoringly into her wife, attempting to move the conversation in another direction. She was grateful that the woman caught on immediately.

"I've heard that you are even more inspirational now, Professor," Bellatrix said.

He nodded in false modesty. "Well there is a certain advantage to age, wouldn't you agree?"

"Yes, indeed," she beamed back.

"But your wife, while rather disadvantaged by age, seems to have no other weaknesses. You must know that she is incredibly bright."

"I do," the older witch said looking fondly at the beautiful woman at her side. "I also know that we've just barely begun to scratch the surface of her abilities. She will need all of us to become the witch she is meant to be."

"That sounds like something I wouldn't miss for the world," he answered in a voice full of affection.

"I am terribly sorry," Bellatrix said breaking the moment of adoration. "But my sister is beckoning me over. May I trust you with the most precious thing in my life?" She looked directly at the old wizard with a look so serious most would cower from her.

He straightened his back and said in a deadly calm voice, "It would be my honor and pleasure."

The dark witch nodded firmly and turned to go. Hermione watched her back, attempting not to leer at how the fabric clung to her curves in a most delicious manner.

"Thank you," she said returning her attention to man in front of her. "There are not many who can see her for who she is. Even fewer still who accept her. The way you see her means a great deal to me, Professor."

"You are quite welcome, Madame Black. I, too, know what it is like to be perceived as something other than what you are. It is why I left Hogwarts to begin with, why I lived in hiding for years."

"Why is the Order so intent on you, sir? It's more than for your skill at potions, I can tell. And if that is all they wanted, I can't imagine you being so resistant."

He chuckled and looked down at his glass apparently trying to decide his course of action. Seeing his hesitation, Hermione pressed forward gently.

"I didn't mean to offend, Professor. I simply wanted to reciprocate. You have offered my wife and myself great understanding and kindness. As a friend, I had hoped to supply the same. No one deserves to be so isolated. But if you prefer your solitude, I will not take it from you."

"No no, Madame Black. Please do not mistake my pause to look for words as rejection." He rubbed his neck as he searched his brain for language. "As you say, it's been many years like this. I've been hiding so long it is quite foreign to be seen, as you put it. What they want is a secret I have kept for many years. One from when he," the elderly wizard gestured to the Dark Lord, "was just a student. But it is the key to many things."

"That makes perfect sense. The Order does seem to always be playing catch up when it comes to information. But why go it alone?"

"Ah well, you are so like your wife at times. Always asking the most cutting and pertinent questions. Like all things, it is complicated. In the years when your wife was imprisoned, the world on the surface seemed safer, but in reality it was more dangerous. Without clear leadership on either side, treachery and betrayal were common place. To survive, one learned not to trust."

Hermione nodded. She was not surprised that this was the case. After what had been done to her biological family, there was little about those years that shocked her. "But it's different now?" she asked hopefully.

"It seems with your emergence and wedding that things have changed," the potions professor conceded. "The followers of the Dark Lord," he stumbled slightly over the title but managed to say it. "The Death Eaters are strong and focused again. Capable of protecting themselves and their family."

"Then will you join my family? Allow us to protect you?"

"It would be nice to not have to bear the secret alone," he said wistfully.

"The months to come will be hard enough. Let me make it easier." She reached out her hand to him in offering.

He chuckled, but took her hand and tucked it into the crook of his arm. "You are incredibly convincing, Madame Black. You are also quite right. So tell me, my dear, which one of these rooms will we be meeting in?"

Hermione smiled warmly. "Up the stairs and to the left. Would you like to go and take our seats early? It will allow us more privacy."

"It would be my honor to escort you, but I must tell you that I cannot give up his secret even to you."

"Oh, my dear Professor. You must understand that I would never ask you to. We all carry his secrets. We guard the keys to our freedom. You will find nothing but understanding. We will without question help you protect what we do not know."

"Then why the need for privacy?" he asked in amusement.

"So you can tell me stories of my wife during her time at Hogwarts, of course."

"Well in that case, let me tell you my dear, she was one of the most notorious pranksters to have ever walked through the castle gates."

Bellatrix watched with pride as her wife led the elderly wizard up the stairs. She could think of no one else she had ever met who could have done what she'd just seen the young witch do. In just a few minutes she apparently gained the man's trust. Of course, Hermione would set her sights on gaining the confidence of one of the most guarded men on the planet. Whatever the young witch had done was clearly effective, from the way the two walked together conspiratorially. The dark witch resisted the urge to follow them up the stairs and listen in on the conversation. But she would not break Hermione's trust with such an intrusion. She had sworn to only intervene if there was danger her witch could not handle on her own. Going after them would only be to satisfy her own curiosity. Shaking her head she looked around the room searching for her Lord. She strode quickly towards him, but stopped behind him and waited for him to acknowledge her. He finally turned to her after dismissing some lesser Death Eaters.

"I take it you have news, Bellatrix."

"Of course, my Lord," she said bowing dramatically. "It is done. They are waiting for us upstairs."

"Well that was remarkably quick. Your young wife is quite the revelation."

"That she is, my Lord. Shall I gather the others? I believe an induction ceremony is in order."

"Yes, Bellatrix. Be quick about it. I don't want to delay dinner, but you are right. We will all feel better with my mark on his skin."