After the initial pleasure of being free from Azkaban passed, things changed – things changed and began to drag on endlessly. The first few days were miraculous enough that Bellatrix could be entertained simply by rediscovering the things that she had forgotten while in Azkaban – how tall she was, for example. In Azkaban, she had been perpetually hunched or curled over, but now, she was able to stand tall and straight, and it was nothing if not enjoyable to be able to straighten her spine and look down on others. But enjoyment of the simple miracles of life could only last for a finite amount of time, and there was nothing to be done in the church, save praying – which Bellatrix did near constantly – and reading and re-reading the battered old Gospels that lay upon each pew. She tried to do that, for she knew that many of the men were finding the stories a suitable way to pass their time, but the words swam before her eyes when Bellatrix tried to look at them, and, unlike the Bibles that her family – and Rodolphus's – had always kept, these ones had no illustrations that she could amuse herself with. There were no woodcut devils or watercolour angels decorating the pages, no simple little ink sketches, even, just page upon page upon page of endless, tiny text.
And so she gave up and allowed herself to devote every moment of her time to prayer and to thought of the Dark Lord.
With every sunrise that lit the church, Bellatrix hoped that that day would be the day that he would come and take them to some new hiding place. Perhaps a hiding place where others could visit them. Bellatrix so missed Narcissa – it felt as though a thousand years had passed since she had last seen her, and now that she was freed, she felt her sister's absence all the more strongly. Why did the Dark Lord not bring her to see her?
Perhaps Narcissa no longer supports our cause.
She must have said something to stay out of Azkaban and Bellatrix did not begrudge her little sister that – Narcissa did not have the strength of will to stay faithful to their Lord when she could believe him to be dead and when the option was Azkaban. She would have broken and that would have been a thousand times worse than her simply being a mild traitor. But as Bellatrix sat in the church and stewed over the matter, she wondered whether, perhaps, the Dark Lord did begrudge her… whether she, Narcissa, was no longer good enough to be allowed to know that he had risen again… whether even Lucius might not be good enough for that…
The very idea sickened Bellatrix. Could it be that her sister was so much of a traitor in the Dark Lord's eyes that he had not so much as told her that Bellatrix had been freed and was safe?
Or perhaps it was simply not the Dark Lord's priority to tell a woman who had not even been a Death Eater that her sister was free. Perhaps the Dark Lord was simply waiting for a more opportune time, a better and safer time to tell those who had escaped Azkaban that their more faithful compatriots had been freed.
That was what she tried to tell herself.
Bellatrix sat up from the pew upon which she had been lying, wringing her hands nervously. She had had no word from her sister in years – not since she had been sent to Azkaban. Narcissa had never visited, surely thinking the prison beneath her, and thinking that seeing her sister would reflect poorly on her. After all, she was supposed to shun her after she had been accused of being a Death Eater. She, Bellatrix, was not the sort to beg for copies of the Daily Prophet from the few people who did visit, and she had had little news from the outside world… was it possible that something had happened to Narcissa years ago and she had never heard? Perhaps she – the only relative Bellatrix had left who she was willing to call a relative – had died somehow, and no one had ever thought to tell Bellatrix. Perhaps Narcissa had died without a second thought for her sister and laid cold in the ground now and Bellatrix had never known…
How could Bellatrix be sure if she had? There was no one to ask – even now that she was no longer in Azkaban, she was as good as imprisoned. She had still had no contact with the rest of the world, not even with the Dark Lord, and for all she knew, there was no outside world left, except for the church…
Bellatrix's heart pounded beneath her ribs, and her breath came in short, panicked gasps. Deprived of air, her mind became foggy and stars popped before her eyes. She dragged herself to the alter, stumbling over the bodies of the people who lay between her and it, her feet catching in their dirty robes and the Bibles and hymn books that they left stacked upon the floor. She threw herself down before the pulpit and all she could whisper, over and over, was "Oh, please, God, let my sister be safe," for she could not remember the words to any real prayer.
"Bellatrix," she heard Rodolphus say from a great distance away, but Bellatrix could scarcely hear for the pounding of blood in her ears. Sweat poured off her skin and she let out tiny, whimpering moans that mingled with her praying.
Please, let her be safe, God, please, she never did anything wrong and I need her, I need her, God…
Bellatrix whirled around. "Have you never been taught that it is a sin to interrupt one who is praying?" she demanded of Rodolphus, who was hovering a step behind her, looking worried.
"I only wanted you to stop before you made yourself ill… you look ill…"
"I am not ill!" she snapped viciously at him, scuttling backwards across the stones to get away from him. He was leaning close and she did not like it – it made her nervous. "I was only praying…"
"What were you praying for?"
At the sound of the all but unfamiliar voice, both Bellatrix and Rodolphus turned around. Standing several steps away, gripping a pew to stay upright and looking ashen but determined…
Bellatrix squinted at him and tilted her head. There were ten of them in the church, but Bellatrix avoided the others, and had not exchanged glances, much less words, with anyone save for Rodolphus and Rabastan. She was not entirely sure she recognized this man either… though surely she must have, if he had been a Death Eater.
He had a thin, pointed face, not altogether different from Rabastan's, but his hair was ashy blonde instead of the dark reddish brown that both Lestranges possessed. It was so caked with dirt that it looked more like fabric than hair, and hung over his eyes, framing them – shielding them, rather, for they were small and beady and seemed to retreat into his skull.
"It isn't your concern, Antonin," Rodolphus told him.
Bellatrix thought that she could hear a female voice, a voice vaguely familiar, though she could not have named it. She was whispering his name, Bellatrix could just hear, but she had to strain her ears…
Bellatrix hovered a few steps away from a gossiping pair of women. She leaned casually against the wall to try to listen in without drawing attention to herself because listening to gossip was the only thing worth doing at parties. The women were turned away from her, and she could only see their elaborate hair and the backs of their fine gowns, but their whispers carried.
"Antonin Dolohov, he is called. I can hardly believe – my sons, joining up with that poor excuse for a boy…"
If Bellatrix was not mistaken, it was the woman with the darker hair who said that. Bellatrix would not have been able to tell, save for the fact that her voice was slurred and she had observed the darker woman drinking several glasses of wine over the course of the evening. The other woman, the blonde, glanced back over her shoulder, and though Bellatrix looked away quickly, she thought that she had been caught staring.
"Be quiet, Maria, Bellatrix is listening again", she murmured,
Bellatrix fluttered away quickly, before anything more could be said, but the name echoed in her mind, growing softer each time, but still – always – present.
The words sounded different from her lips than they had in the lower, richer voice of the woman she remembered, but Antonin nodded. He looked at her suspiciously… or perhaps it was not suspicion, and that was simply how he looked at everyone, with those odd, dark eyes.
"What were you praying for?" he asked her again.
"I said that it was none of–" Rodolphus began, but Antonin cut him off.
"It is for her to say whether it is my concern of not, not for you."
Rodolphus snarled under his breath, sounding very like a mad dog, Bellatrix thought. Yes, very like a mad dog indeed…
"I was praying for…" Bellatrix had to think for a minute to recall, for everything she had seemed to remember had deserted her. Other memories and thoughts had clouded what she had been thinking before. She touched her throat absently while she tried to recall, scratching at the skin with light, delicate touches of her fingernails. If she had only scratched herself just a little harder, she might have been able to cut beautiful, jagged zigzags into her flesh, but as it was, she barely even made herself register pain.
If only she could have. If only she could have felt something like a self-inflicted wound, maybe it would have brought her down to Earth, maybe it would have cleared her mind…
"My sister," she said at last, when the memory returned to her. "I was praying for my sister."
"What of your sister?" asked Rodolphus, but Antonin interrupted him with a sneer.
"Which?" Bellatrix blinked slowly and chewed on the inside of her bottom lip.
Cissy is my sister, what other sister…
The bed was empty, and made up as it had never been before. Andromeda had always left her covers in a mess, rumpled and pushed to the foot of the bed. Bellatrix and Narcissa had teased her, sometimes, that she didn't think that it was worth her time to make the bed when she would be ruining it with some boy later in the evening. Andromeda had always laughed when they said this.
But now it was made so neatly, and there was a note upon the pillow that Bellatrix would never read. She did not want to read it. She never, ever wanted to think about her sister again.
"Narcissa," she told Antonin, her voice lowering to a venomous hiss. "Do you think I would ever pray for the other one? She is a blood traitor – a whore! She is no sister of mine, not any longer!"
Antonin said nothing, and Bellatrix broke off, her chest heaving and every breath clawing at her throat. She stood up slowly, steadying herself upon the alter (her hand left a grimy smear upon the white fabric that made anger at herself clench in her throat), and then backed away, giving Antonin the harshest glare that she could manage.
He watched her as she went, and only when she was sitting upon her pew again, teeth bared slightly, did he turn away and retreat to whatever dark corner of the church he had taken to inhabiting for long enough that she had not seen him until now.
Rodolphus scowled as he went, even more fiercely than Bellatrix had.
"Bastard," he hissed beneath his breath, then turned to Bellatrix. "What did you pray for about your sister Narcissa?"
She did not tell him. She did not tell him how afraid she was that Narcissa was dead, and she did not tell him that she would have given near anything at that moment to know that she was safe. She did not say how badly it strained her to know so little about what was happening in the world around her.
She did not say her fear, unspoken even to herself in anything more than the quietest and most mutinous whisper at the very back of her mind, that the Dark Lord might not be returning for them.
That was what she feared most.
If something had happened to Narcissa – even something so terrible as being deemed a traitor by the Dark Lord and killed at his hands – Bellatrix might still find the will to go on. She would still have her cause, the cause that she had devoted all her adult life to. If Narcissa were dead, as much as it would hurt, Bellatrix would still have something within her that gave her strength.
But if the Dark Lord were dead, then that would disappear.
If the Dark Lord were dead, then Bellatrix would have nothing. She would be nothing. She could not expect – did not expect – any other wizard to take his place, either as the leader of the Death Eaters, or as the man – the person much greater than a man – that he was to her. She could not expect anyone else to be able to fill such a position.
But the Dark Lord cannot die. He did not die before, he only fell, and now he is risen again.
The mark still burned shone upon her arm – it did not fade as it had when he had fallen. Surely if the Dark Lord were dead, then she would know…
It was such a warm night. There was barely a bite in the air to indicate that winter might be approaching, even with the glass doors thrown wide. A slight breeze shifted the diaphanous white curtains, making them whisper. The moon hung bright and as golden as the sun over the skeletal trees, which had some leaves still clinging to them, and everything was still, absolutely still…
And then agony.
Bellatrix's body convulsed – she had not been expecting the pain and it was a thousand times worse than any Cruciatus curse could ever be. Her heart was being torn out, her brain bashed to pieces against her skull, and her arm – oh God, her arm!
Lying at her side, Rodolphus screamed, his own body shaking and twisting in the sheets, but Bellatrix's pain was beyond screams. She could not draw breath. She was dying, she thought, surely nothing except death could feel this way.
But it subsided at last, and when it did, Bellatrix lay in a pool of sweat – that of her and that of her husband – and she could barely conjure up the energy to raise one still-burning arm to look at it.
She had expected the flesh to be all carved away from the bone, she had expected it to be blackened like the skin of that Mudblood girl whom she had pushed into a fire during a mission not so very long ago, but no. Her arm was all silk smooth white skin, perfect and pristine as freshly fallen snow.
Too perfect and pristine.
Rodolphus… she whispered, terror in her tremulous voice, my mark is gone.
The mark had not been gone, not entirely, only reduced to a faint, scar-like shadow. But in the dark, with her eyes all filled with tears of pain, Bellatrix had not been able to see it.
Rodolphus had not been able to respond. His chest heaved, and it seemed to be all he could do to stop his screams, even now that the pain had ceased. Bellatrix grasped at him, her fingers scrabbling and slipping over his sweat-soaked sink.
Rodolphus, something's happened! Something's gone wrong!
The Dark Lord, Rodolphus! Something's become of the Dark Lord!
Oh, she had had so little idea of what might have become of him, only that it was terrible. She had been more afraid then than she had thought possible…
But no such thing had happened now. Bellatrix looked at her arm and the mark blazed there as clearly as ever, stinging a little at her touch. The Dark Lord could not be dead, for if he were, then there would have been agony like she had experienced that night.
But he had not come for them.
Since that first night, Bellatrix had not heard of him, and he had not come to the church. What then?
He has abandoned you, he has left you all here to rot.
Dear God, no… Bellatrix had not allowed herself to consider the prospect, and it made her ill. No, the Dark Lord could not have left us. He couldn't, he hasn't! God, no…
But if he has?
"No…" she whispered out loud, rocking back and forth. No, no, no, no, no! No, please, no…
She staggered to her feet again, this time moving not in the direction of the alter, but of the doors. She had not been outside since that first night, and desperately needed to get out of the church, if only for seconds. The very building seemed to be glaring down upon her, taunting her with threats of a Lord who had abandoned her.
He would not, he could not abandon me, I am his most faithful, his most faithful, his most faithful…
Oh, but he could abandon you.
She grasped at the door handles, but could not make the doors come open. Tears spilled down her cheeks as she wrenched at them.
It was so very like being in prison again.
The first and second weeks had gone by easily. Bellatrix had woken every morning expecting the mark to be reappearing on her arm, but she did not lose faith or hope when it did not. Not much time had passed – she could not expect the Dark Lord to rise again within weeks when all the people who could have assisted him were in Azkaban or hiding like the cowards that they were. No matter, he would rise soon.
By the third week, Azkaban had begun to sting. Boredom had never been an emotion that Bellatrix found easy to endure, and it had become a staple of her life now that she was imprisoned. She had no one with whom to speak, no books to read or parchment to write upon, and she could do nothing but sit upon her plank of a bed and try to fight the overwhelming misery that surrounded the Dementors – and her – every second.
But still she stayed stoic, strong. Not much longer now before the Dark Lord shall rise again, she told herself. And then she would be rewarded…
But he did not rise.
And with every day that went by, every endlessly long day, the tiny, gnawing fear in the corner of Bellatrix's stomach that he would not rise again became a little stronger. She tried to fight it down, but it was there, always there.
It was the fifth week that marked her loss of control.
It was as a Dementor glided past, slow and almost lazy in its movements, that she flung herself against the bars with a great and terrible scream, worthy of the souls flung into Hell.
She was a soul flung into Hell.
She screamed and clawed at it with ragged fingernails, though it glided past her without second thought. Her screams meant nothing to such a creature. A human, even the cruellest and coldest of humans, would have paused – to enjoy her torment, if nothing else. But the Dementor did not care…
Bellatrix had beaten herself half to death against the bars when she fell unconscious, and she knew not how long she lay upon the ground, unable to move or even to think, before she managed to draw herself back up and collapse upon what passed as a bed for her.
She could still feel the imprints of the bars upon her skin, after so many years. Had she not hit her temple against one rusty bar and slipped unconscious, Bellatrix had no doubt that she would have killed herself by those bars. Thoughts of remaining strong for the Dark Lord had disappeared entirely then, and she had been able to think nothing save free me, free me now.
And now she felt the same, beating herself against the church doors. But this time, someone took her by her shoulders and pulled her back.
She did not fight. It seemed to be Rodolphus's self-imposed duty to protect her now – why should she stop him? She went limp in his arms as he dragged her away from the doors, and into a niche where once she expected a statue – or even two – might have stood. It was empty now, save for a scratchy, knitted shawl wrapped around Rabastan's thin body. He moved backwards, making room as Rodolphus lay her down beside him.
Rodolphus moved away after that, leaving his wife and his brother curled in the niche, and Bellatrix drew her knees up to her chest, occasionally casting Rabastan suspicious glances.
He was rocking slowly back and forth, lips parted and eyes focussed somewhere high up and far away. Bellatrix followed his gaze, wondering if perhaps there was some stained glass window or perhaps a bat hanging from the rafters that he was looking at, but no, he was merely staring at a corner of the ceiling.
Staring off as though that corner held all the answers to every mystery of the universe.
"What are you looking at?" she demanded of him, much more harshly than she had intended. Rabastan jumped, shrinking back from her.
He had a nervous look about him, even more than all the other men. Even more than Bellatrix.
He had always had a nervous look about him.
Rodolphus was at her hand at the dinner table, his leg occasionally brushing against hers beneath it. The rather coarse fabric of his trousers scratched slightly against her, and sent tingling thrills up her legs, into her lower belly. She glanced at him through lowered eyelashes, only for a second, then let her eyes rest once more upon her plate.
A soft hiss from across the table, and she raised her eyes. Directly opposite her, a thin, sickly man – boy – glaring at her out of sunken eyes that were cloudy with illness. His lips were twisted into a frown, peppered with red, and as she watched, he sank his teeth into them again, biting down hard. Blood pooled around the bite marks, and when he released his lip, a droplet ran down the centre, dripping onto his chin.
Bellatrix could not restrain the tiniest of titters, and he wiped it away swiftly, hollow cheeks colouring.
Jealous? she mouthed at him.
He flinched as though he had been slapped and looked away, and Bellatrix cast her eyes once more upon Rodolphus, who met them with a cruel little smirk at his brother's expense.
Poor Rabastan, he breathed in her ear.
Rabastan – sickly, weak, poor little Rabastan – looked away, fixing his eyes on the ceiling so that he need not look at Bellatrix or Rodolphus.