Literatti: Fiction By Deslea
Deslea R. Judd
Summary: What they have isn't loving, but it isn't loveless, either. Bella's first night home from Azkaban.
Word Count: Approx 3200
More Fic: On AO3 or my fic site.
Feedback: Love the stuff. On AO3 or at deslea at deslea dot com.
Bellatrix lands in a heap on her bed at Malfoy Manor.
It is an unceremonious landing, thrust there by the man who plucked her from the remains of her cell in Azkaban, his robes rippling in the sea breeze as it swirled up through walls ripped asunder.
He has not identified himself; there is no need. Only her brother-in-law can pass through the wards of this house unimpeded. She doesn't need to look at his mask to know it, and she hasn't tried. She is a wraith, a fragile little wreck of a thing, and she will not bear his scrutiny. For now, her hair is all she will willingly let him see.
Lucius rubs his palms together, a little compulsively. "You should wash up," he says grimly, nodding his head towards her ensuite. A wrinkle of distaste flits across his features as he charms himself clean of the worst of Azkaban's grime. "I'll send the elves to help you."
"You will not," comes a familiar voice from the threshold that separates her room from her Lord's, and Lucius starts visibly, revulsion and dread flickering across his features. "Your wife will attend to her."
Bella draws in her breath in a rush. Turns, instinctively towards his voice, but he is a mere shadow in the darkness. "My Lord," she whispers.
"My Lord, my wife is not a nursemaid," Lucius protests. "The elves are fully-capable -"
"Silence," her Lord rebukes. "Your sister-in-law is a martyr to the Cause, which is more than I can say for you. How long did you wait after my injury to begin to feign the Imperius, Lucius? An hour? Two?"
"Not to mention that she is my consort, which alone should command your respect."
Lucius says hurriedly, "I do respect her, and you both, my Lord, you must know this. You are both guests in my home, as you have always been. Rodolphus, too. We protect him as you and she have protected him. What you honour, we honour. That is our loyalty and our way."
Bella speaks, and it pleases her that her voice, at least, is strong. "As I recall, Lucius, the reason so many in our circle knew of Rodolphus' preferences, and our resulting estrangement, was that you were incapable of keeping your mouth shut."
Lucius shoots her a look that seems to suggest that if he had not, she would not have been free to become her Lord's wife-in-all-but-name when the politically expedient moment had presented itself. However, perhaps discerning that bickering with a visibly-exhausted prisoner of war would not paint him in the best of lights, he remains wisely silent.
"Your wife, Lucius," her Lord says again, more severely. "Go."
She sits there in silence, looking on his silhouette, feeling warring joy and discomfort. Painfully aware of the way the years have ravaged her.
Perhaps sensing her discomfort, he crosses over the threshold separating their bedchambers, and passes her wordlessly by. He goes to the tallboy, and leans forward on it, inspecting his reflection in the mirror above in the light of the candles there. She can see only shadows and shapes in the darkened room, but he is without hair, she can see that much. She realises that like her, he has paid a heavy price for his survival.
"Indeed," he says mirthlessly, catching the thought from across the room.
She wants to come closer, to look closer. To look into his eyes after so long.
The lines of him seem to tense, but he nods. "You may do so."
She hesitates, just a fraction. "I'm filthy."
"If that mattered, I would not have said it."
There is no answer to that, so she falls silent and rises to her feet.
Tentatively, she approaches him from behind. His reflection gradually reveals itself to her as she draws closer and the candles draw nearer.
It is strange, seeing his face flipped around in his reflection like that. She absorbs that stupidly mundane thought even before she absorbs the changes in him, the dead-white skin, the wiry sinew clinging to bone where once it had been wrapped around muscle, the way parts of his face have atrophied. The eyes are still him, but so much else is not.
"My snake, Nagini, kept me alive," he murmurs, "but at a price. A snake's milk does not fully nourish the things that her young do not need. The rebirthing ritual is not perfect at the best of times, and it relies on one's cellular makeup. If it has been altered..."
She stares at them in the mirror, him in his new form, her in a wretched facsimile of her old one. Absorbing this. There is a reason he made Lucius bring her home rather than do it himself. There is a reason he has shown himself in this darkened room. Her next words will decide everything. For their ever-fragile, ever-awkward relationship, and perhaps for him as well. The look of unconscious revulsion Lucius had shot him had not been lost on her.
She says slowly, "I never lost faith. But not even I could have imagined your determination. Your strength." Tentatively, she places a hand on his shoulder. He tenses a moment, and then relaxes into her palm. She strokes his cheek with the backs of her fingers. "Such a gift she gave you. Such a gift."
He relaxes into her a little more. Says awkwardly, grudgingly, "And a - a gift, to have you home again, too, Bella."
She has missed this, the way he hoards every tiny bit of fondness like gold, and yields them just as stingily. He is a greedy man, greedy for her and greedy with himself, and every concession is precious.
Something wry enters his voice. "I had forgotten, Bella, how very well you know me. It's rather disconcerting." There is warmth there, too, that belies his words, and she offers a tentative smile in return.
She is filthy, so she doesn't kiss him, but she wants to.
He relaxes all the way then, and gently, he pulls away and withdraws to his chamber.
"Bella, we need to cut these out and start again."
Narcissa says this from her seat beside the bathtub, where she is working painstakingly on the knots in her hair. She has been doing so for the better part of an hour. Bella is onto her third tub of water. The first had turned black; the second light brown. The third is blessedly clear.
For the first time since her release, Bella feels stinging tears rise up. Her chest grows tight. "No. Cissy, no, not that. They took so much, I'm not giving them my hair as well-"
Her Lord appears in the doorway, lightning fast. As though he had been sitting in her bedchamber, waiting. "You will not," he says to Narcissa, severely. "If she wants her hair, she will have it."
"My Lord, these braids have been growing and matting into each other for months. Maybe years. It's impossible."
The lines of his mouth tighten, almost imperceptibly, and he makes a sound of irritation. "Do I look like a woman to you? Must I do everything myself?" He strides into the room and sits down at Bella's side. Takes up one of her braids and begins separating out strands, one by one with his fingernails, and holds the results out for Narcissa's inspection. "That is how it is done. All it takes is devotion and patience. Things your sister knows more about than you."
"Yes, my Lord," Narcissa says meekly, and continues with her labours. An uncomfortable silence falls.
Bella breaks the moment. "How is Rodolphus?"
"Quiet," Narcissa says curtly. "The Healer says he'll be all right with time. His bones are brittle, though. He's unlikely to lead in battle again."
Bella nods. "He wouldn't go near the windows. He was afraid of the Dementors. I did, though. I wanted to stay strong."
"Of course you did," her Lord says, with something in his voice that almost hints at warmth.
"He said you looked after him," Narcissa says, shooting her Lord a curious look.
"Up to a point. We looked after each other, really. Like the rest of our marriage, it was an arrangement of convenience." This is mostly true. In fact, for the first time since his wretched admission that he could not be a husband to her, or to any woman, Bella has come to regard Rodolphus with a certain grudging warmth. His compulsion to make amends had not waned with the years, and she had needed his protection in Azkaban more than she cared to admit.
Her Lord says sharply, "Why did you need protection?"
Damn, she thinks, closing her eyes for a long moment. He'd heard the thought. She'd taught herself not to censor her thoughts with him - that was one of the fragile ties that bound them - but this one she would have buried if she could.
She feels the slide of him into her mind, and reluctantly, she guides him to the memory he seeks.
His lips tighten into a thin line. "They called you my whore, and they hurt you." It wasn't a question.
Reluctantly, she nods. "Frank Longbottom was one of our kind. He knew our secrets. He knew about Rodolphus, and he knew of our...our arrangement. He'd shared the intelligence with the Aurors. They came for me in Azkaban."
"What did they do?" Narcissa asks with dread.
"They force-fed me herbs," she says, conceding some of the truth to her sister, but not all. "They said they weren't risking the Dark Lord's bastard coming into the world."
She doesn't say that they took turns with her, so that even if she did bring forth a child, no one would ever know for sure whose it was. She doesn't say that they'd done it in front of the other prisoners, which was as good as giving them carte blanche to do the same after they were gone. Rodolphus and Rabastan and Barty had protected her as much as they could, but they were all weakened, and none of them could stop it all the time.
Finally, she had lured one of her assailants close to a window, and sent forth her thoughts until the Dementors hovered devastatingly near. At the very last second, she had turned her attacker's face to them, and scrambled out from beneath him and away. There were no more violations after that.
That was when she had taken to sitting by the window. The Dementors were a comfort. They protected her. They made her strong.
Something in her Lord's face flickers as the memory fades. "Who?"
Wordlessly, she gives him the names. Aurors and prisoners both.
"Very well," he says grimly, and, rising, he strides from the room.
A few minutes later, he returns. He pauses in the doorway, and says, "The five who still live will be in the dungeon by sunrise. You will dispose of them as you see fit."
She gives a single incline of her head. "Thank you, my Lord."
Nodding, he turns and leaves them.
"He doesn't love you, you know."
Narcissa says this softly some time later, her fingers still delicately parting the knots in Bella's hair.
There are so many ways she could answer that, most of them verboten. The hardest part about loving him, she thinks, is not the ways in which he is damaged, but that she cannot speak of them to another. To do so, to reveal his flaws to those he led, would be the greatest betrayal of all.
She is fiercely protective of the little boy he had been, mother stolen by death, able to harm those who harmed him without proportion, suspected by those who were supposed to care for him as a result. And then released into the care of a new home where he was suspected too, without regard for the ways he had been made into what he was and without effort to help him heal. She blames that damned school for the emotional scars he bears, his inability to return her love. If Dumbledore hasn't paid by the time this war is done, she will hunt him down and see to it herself.
That beloved, hungry boy is her deepest secret, hidden even from his adult self. She will take him to her grave.
In the absence of a usable and meaningful answer, she settles for a neutral, "Why do you say so?"
Narcissa gives a little puff of exasperation. "He left you there for six months after his return. He wants you to punish the people who hurt you, and yet he let it happen!"
Bella gives a rather wry sound. "Do you imagine I would be any less maimed had I been there six months less? One reaches a point of no return, you know." She goes on, "He came for me when the time was right."
"Right for him," Narcissa snaps. "When he needed you for the Cause, and no earlier."
She can't suppress a laugh. "Is that what you think?"
After a long pause, Bella says, "Imagine that Lucius had paid such a price for survival as our Lord has done. Imagine him looking in the mirror, and no longer seeing himself. Would you begrudge him a little time to...to hope for being restored? Before he came and showed himself to you?"
Narcissa's hands still. "Vanity?" she says, thunderstruck. "You're saying it was vanity?"
Something so much deeper than vanity, she wants to say, but that would be going too far. She would defend him, yes, but not expose his chasms and his grief. Not to people who saw him as a monster.
She says only, "He does not have to earn my love. That you think he does says more about you than him."
Narcissa's fingers begin to move once more. They are tense now, picking hard where they had previously been gentle. "What happened to you, Bella? You had so much strength and fire. Where did you go?"
"What happened to me? Rodolphus didn't want me. I had to find other things to live for. I found the Cause, and it gave me purpose. It made me stronger. Then I found him." She says coldly, "You underestimate the strength it takes to love without need of love in return."
"Strength? Don't you mean obsession, and a lack of self-respect?"
"How much self-respect do you think it takes to be self-sufficient? To rely on no one but yourself?"
Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Narcissa's head shaking from side to side. "You really believe all this, don't you? That there's some twisted sort of virtue in this wreck of a relationship? Tell me, Bella, did he plant all this in your head? Or did you come up with it yourself, to rationalise it all away?"
That hits a nerve. Just a little. Just enough.
"You know, Narcissa, I think I would like the elves to look after me after all."
Narcissa thrusts her hair down with an exasperated sigh, and rising, she leaves her.
It is hours before her hair is done.
Clean at last, she gets up from the bath and moves to the bed, dozing a little as the elves move around her, mostly in blessed silence. Her aunt Walburga's elf Kreacher is there - she doesn't know how or why - and he mutters indignantly about the terrible people who hurt her so and how one day they will pay. This she finds oddly soothing.
Finally, as the grey light of dawn begins to streak across the sky, it is done, her hair baby-soft and fragile like a child's. The elves place a soft, cream-coloured silk robe around her shoulders. It feels like heaven.
She crosses the room to the connecting door, and pauses on the threshold. His bed has not been slept in. His room mirrors hers, and he stands there at his own mirror atop his own tallboy, looking. Just looking.
She wonders how long he has stood there, and how often he does so.
She pads into the room, loudly enough to announce her presence, softly to allow him his peace. Reaches him, and rests her cheek against his shoulder.
They take in their reflections together.
"We are not what we were," he murmurs. There is a greyness in his voice as he says it.
"No," she says grimly. "We are more."
He turns to look at her, whiplash-fast, his eyes suddenly glittering in the dim light. Takes her face firmly between his hands.
He still wants me, she thinks in a rush of relief. Thank Merlin.
Then his mouth is upon her, feeding on her, all greed and possession. She gulps down fresh air between deep, dark kisses, love and need making her molten and boneless against him.
"They thought they could take you away from me," he murmurs into her cheek. "They were wrong."
She closes her eyes then, knowing he has found, tucked away beneath her memories, her deepest fear - that he would reject her for what they have done to her.
He lifts her face to look at him, and she opens them again. "They were wrong," he says again. "I do not forgive the theft of what is mine. I take it back."
Fleetingly, it occurs to her that Narcissa would disapprove. Disapprove of her being an it, a thing to be stolen. But Narcissa doesn't understand, has never understood. She can live without his love, but to live without belonging? No. Not that.
He is nodding. He understands this about her. He always has.
"Then take me back," she says. She says it urgently, her hands on his shoulders. "I want you to."
She wills him to understand. She loves what he has become as much as what he has been. Theirs has always been a relationship built on what she doesn't say, things he cannot hear fall from her lips, left instead as fragments for him in her mind. She wills him to find them now.
He finds them. She sees it in the relief in his eyes.
"Take me back," she says again, and his mouth is on her once more, his body guiding her back to the bed.
What they have isn't loving, exactly, she thinks as they settle into the bed together, but it isn't loveless either. It is the greed of drinking each other in, the need of join and release. It is the way he eclipses her with his body, blocking out everything but him. It is the way he eclipses her mind, driving out every hurt. It is finding unpleasant changes, hollows and ridges of bones, and finding each other beneath them. It is hesitation, then liberation, as they try out their bodies in the dark, parts of him new, parts of her long closed.
There is dark beauty in this, she thinks, despite everything. Despite that they had found each other by chance and expediency. Despite the things they both have lost, or never had to start with.
He will never love her, she knows. Never hold her as she holds him. But he will value her, her presence, her devotion. He will let her love him. He will be a home for her. He will keep her close, where she belongs, and woe betide anyone who tries to take her away.
They are not what they were, but she still has that.
END OF NOT LOVELESS