The young woman standing in front of Albus Dumbledore did not look chastened. Nor chagrined, nor desperate, nor hunted and frightened, as were typically his experiences with the turncoats. Instead she stood, her weight on one hip, as insouciantly confident as ever. Whatever her reasons were for defecting, she had chosen to present herself as an asset, not a supplicant.
Her raven hair was caught up in a long plait. She had worn her dueling gear to the meeting, the dragon-hide corselet, sensibly cut jodhpurs, and fingerless gloves as much a reminder of what it was she had to offer as the wand hanging at her side. Albus could see, at a glance, nearly as much magic in the sheath as in the wand itself: a quick-draw style, hanging at an angle from her belt, embroidered with runes and protective charms. He wondered if she’d done the work herself -- and after a moment, decided that of course she would have. However incongruous the idea of someone like her having the patience for delicate handcraft, she would never have trusted something that important to any other hands.
She was freshly nineteen years old, out of school, and thus perhaps considered herself no longer bound by formal niceties. He elected not to comment on it. “Please.” He gestured to a chair. Bellatrix hooked an ankle around it to yank it out, then dropped herself down with a panther’s casual grace. Somehow her sprawl managed to look utterly careless without seeming even a bit sloppy. Aristocratic insolence, written in every muscle.
Albus regarded her over his spectacles for a long moment. One thing gave the lie to her air of indifference: the first and middle fingers of her left hand, twitching. She wanted to be twirling her wand, a youthful habit she’d not yet outgrown.
“Forgive me if I appear a bit startled at your request to see me,” he said. “I had rather thought that your alliance -- and personal inclinations -- lay elsewhere.”
“They made me an offer,” she said. “I considered, and… refused.”
“Impertinent as the question may be, I must ask, before I could consider taking you on as one of our number.” He spread his hands out in an open gesture. “Why? Considering your background, considering what I assume they were offering you, why turn that down?”
Albus saw a flurry of emotions flit over her face before she settled on one as a response. If he’d been expecting more glib indifference, she disappointed him. “As it turned out,” she said, and he could hear the ring of a faraway note in her voice, “he was just a man after all. Not a god, and not a savior.” And then it was back, the insolence, accented with a flip of her dark plait. “I’ve certainly never had that impression of you, so there’s no risk of disillusionment here.”
“And I should be the last person to call myself so.”
She gave a disbelieving snort. “The point is, they are not, as I’m sure you know, people who take rejection well. Having said no to them, my options are somewhat limited. I can emigrate to the A.W.C. and hope that’s far enough to protect me -- or I can align myself with other interested parties.”
“And you would set yourself against your old school-fellows?” Albus asked. “Against old friends, old lovers?”
One dark eyebrow arched. “You know little of Slytherin House if you think I’ve never contemplated that possibility before.”
A valid point, he supposed. “Would you be willing to act as a double agent? To return, beg forgiveness, and--”
“No,” she said, cutting him off. “No, I couldn’t do that.” Her lips twitched slightly, as though she were restraining a smile. “I’ve no talent for deception. From what I gather, such a role would require rather more subtlety than I can claim.”
“Not perhaps.” Bellatrix laughed -- a wild sound that seemed to war with the quiet atmosphere of his office. “It is so . However little you think of me, Albus, you must credit me with one thing: I have always been honest.” Her shoulders moved in a shrug. “Anyway, I wouldn’t be able to muster the conviction for such subterfuge, and it would be a waste of resources in any case. You don’t want me as a spy. You want me as a duelist. Put me on the battlefield, and you’ll never lose another engagement.”
Arrogance, but not unearned. Allbus had seen the girl fight, and he suspected anything she had done at school, within the potential notice of the professors, would be a pallid imitation of her true skills. She was strong, fast, and savage. An instrument of value to put on the board, indeed.
“The rules are different here,” Albus said, smoothing his beard a bit. “You’d be working with--”
“Mudbloods. I know.”
Albus frowned. “Yes. Which is why that sort of language will need to stop.” Bellatrix shrugged in a way that indicated he could alter her words if not her thoughts. “And I know you’ve put a great deal of study into Dark magics, but there are things we don’t do.”
“That’s not what I hear.” Her lips twisted in a mocking smile -- mocking, and too knowing. Too clever, the Blacks, with their cruel intuition, a danger that lurked in the whole brood. “There are things some of you don’t do, and there are things that you, Albus Dumbledore, are just as grateful to have done on your behalf.” Her voice took on an air of feigned graciousness, too light and airy for so direct an individual. “I don’t judge you for it. Well, for the hypocrisy, perhaps, but any Slytherin would understand: All options need be on the table to secure victory. So don’t worry. I’ll be more than happy to take on the messier tasks, and your hands may remain as spotlessly clean as ever.”
It was another unexpected parry. Albus wanted, very much, to refute the accusation -- but the truth was, he did prefer his plausible deniability. When conveniences arranged themselves, he did not always trouble to ask how they had come about. “I do not say that your assessment is correct,” he said, carefully, “but where did you come by such a notion?”
“Who do you think recruited me?” Bellatrix said. “Surely you’re not that daft that you’ve missed it.”
“Miss Black, I really must insist on some modicum of respect if you’re going to--”
She leapt from her chair, swift as a pouncing cat, to lean over his table, palms flat against the smooth, shining wood. “Don’t think to play me the way you play your darling Gryffindor sycophants,” she said. “I know what I’m offering you. And frankly, this is as lovely a chance as I’ll get to have my cake and eat it too. It was Andromeda who arranged this meeting, yes, and darling Andromeda who is covering my tracks in the meantime, but it was not she who first broached the topic, nor she who changed the configuration of the leopard’s spots.” Her eyes were so dark that iris and pupil were nearly indistinguishable, and Albus could see that half-mad flicker in them, so vital and yet half a death wish at the same time. “So think , Albus, who else might have proffered me the chance, who convinced me to change the shelter of the Dark Lord for the protective cloak of Albus the White -- and then think if you really want to know any more about it.”
Albus did think. He thought of Sirius Black’s dark charm, of the vicious instincts he knew the young man barely kept under control. He thought of the way Sirius fought, ruthless and unrestrained. He thought of a similar conversation months earlier, another obsidian-sharp scion willing to take on the less decorous tasks of war, and of the streak of madness that did not so much run as gallop in the House of Black.
And he thought of the decision he had made then: that if there were to be demons loosed on the battlefield, it was better to have them on your side.
“You’ll have to be watched at first, you know,” he said, rising from his seat. “I’m afraid we simply can’t trust to your newfound better nature to guide you appropriately.”
“Then you’re not as stupid as I’d feared,” Bellatrix replied, straightening, “and I may live longer for it.” Another saucy smile. “But if you’re truly as wise as you like everyone to believe, you’ll put me in battle alongside Sirius.” She purred her cousin’s name, and Albus wondered just how much he was going to have to feign ignorance of. “I know who will be fighting on their side, and I say without exaggeration that they have no one to rival my cousin and me. You wanted intelligence on the other side. Would you care to hear the assessment?” She did not wait for him to respond. “Lucius Malfoy is a coward; if forced to make the choice between attacking and protecting himself, he will always choose to shield. Antonin Dolohov is easily distracted; he falls for feints. Nott and Crabbe have brute force, but they’re easy to stun. Isoldt Raed is no duelist at all, but she whips out potions on the field that can play their part, so look out for her. Magdalena Warrington is quite good; I taught her everything she knows -- but not everything I know. Rodolphus Lestrange is the best they have. Quick and powerful and unflinching, as a duelist should be. But his weakness is in his shields. He forgets to reinforce them if he gets angry.“ Another spark in those dark eyes, almost mischievous, and pride in the lift of her chin. “And I am very good at making him angry. Two or three of them together might stand a chance at taking dow me or Sirius individually, but place us back-to-back, and a dozen of them couldn’t do it if they tried for a week.”
Albus filed each bit of information away, carefully slotted into his mind. “That’s a… quite thorough assessment, Miss Black.”
“Hardly,” Bellatrix quipped, “but I’d be happy to provide a complete catalogue of your opponents’ strengths and weaknesses. And your own, for that matter, if you’d care to acknowledge the chinks in your armor. All I ask is this: that you send me and Sirius into battle together and give us a free hand.”
Albus stood, smoothing his robes, and came around the edge of the table. It was easy to forget how small Bellatrix Black was: the force of her presence made her seem much taller. A dangerous woman offering a dangerous bargain.
Albus extended his hand. “Welcome to the Order of the Phoenix, Miss Black.”
She strode out of the office as proud and unshaken as she had entered. She was a few steps down the hallway before she heard loping footsteps coming up behind her. “Were you eavesdropping, cousin?” she cast over her shoulder.
“Well, I would’ve liked to,” Sirius said, “but Albus keeps that damn door well-charmed against such things.” He grabbed her wrist, turning her to face him. “So?”
She stared at him a moment, reading the eagerness in his grey eyes -- and the worry. ‘This is what I gain,’ she reminded herself. ‘However much I might lose...’
She nodded. “He’ll have me.”
Sirius’s shoulders sagged with relief for a brief moment, before his hands came up to clasp either side of her face and his lips descended to hers, catching her up in a kiss that expressed all the anxiety he refused to give voice to.
When he pulled away, it was only to press his forehead against hers. “Well, this’ll be a helluva thing to explain to the lads.”
Bellatrix grinned. “I think you shouldn’t explain a thing. Let’s just saunter in there like nothing’s strange at all.”
“James’ll hex you on sight.”
“He’s welcome to try,” Bella laughed. “I don’t recall it doing him much good in school.” She went up on her toes -- it was damned unfair, how much taller than her he’d gotten -- and nipped playfully at his neck. “Which will bother them more, that I’m a defector or that I’m your cousin?”
“That is a very good question. I imagine they’ll be in a right fix sorting the answer to that out themselves.” His fingers smoothed back her hair, tucking away a lock that had fallen loose of her plait. “And you’re sure?”
“Wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t,” Bella said, more certainly than she felt, in truth. However cavalier she passed it off, the choice had not been easy. The weight of centuries crowded down upon her shoulders, urging, pushing, trying to steer her onto one path. No one knew the energy it took to fight that better than Sirius. But however little she liked the idea of glorifying Mudbloods and ceding the privilege of her family’s position to newcomers and upstarts, she could see the way the world was moving -- and she did not intend to be left behind.
And there was Sirius: her mirror, her match. This was certainly not what their parents had intended, match-making in the cradle, not how they had meant to hold the House of Black together for future generations. The thought of their fury threatened to put a sob and a laugh in her throat at the same time.
‘Perhaps they will have to forgive,’ she thought, ‘rather than lose a third scion.’ If the tapestry had to bear many more holes, the whole damn thing might unravel.
A problem for another day.
“He did insist,” Bella said, trailing a finger along Sirius’s jawline, “that I be watched very closely at first, lest I should relapse into sinful ways.”
Sirius grinned, that wicked-promising twist that sent a thrill coursing through her blood. “I’ll volunteer. Often.”