Bellatrix stood in the hallway outside of the Dark Lord's study, her feet together, her back straight, her eyes fixed on the shiny oak of the door. She took a deep breath, before reaching out her left hand and giving three short raps. In her other hand, she held a small wrapped gift for the Dark Lord. It was Christmas Day, and the festivities were in full swing in the dining room, but the Dark Lord had not been seen for the entire day. In fact, the Dark Lord had seldom been seen in the last few weeks, and his temper only seemed to be getting worse. Two Death Eaters and a house elf had been killed in the past year, having displeased him in one way or another, and for this reason it was growing increasingly more difficult to recruit new members. On top of that, the war appeared to have halted to a complete standstill. There had been no direct conflicts in the past three months, and the Dark Lord didn't seem to have come any closer to taking over at the Ministry.
After a few moments of waiting, the door opened a fraction and Bellatrix stepped into the room. The Dark Lord was sitting by the fireplace, his booted feet propped up on the grate, his eyes focused intently on the flame. Bellatrix approached carefully and quietly, kneeling by the side of his chair as she had always done; it seemed such a long time since she had been close to him, and now the very idea of it frightened her a little. The Dark Lord put his hand gently atop Bellatrix's head, and her heart gave a gentle flutter. She sighed a little.
"Merry Christmas, my Lord. We were disappointed that you did not join us for dinner."
"I have been immersed deep in thought, Bella." Voldemort replied darkly, his eyes still fixed firmly on the fireplace, his hand gently ruffling her hair. "I have been reflecting on the past year and what has happened, and what I hope shall happen in the next year."
"It has been a year of great successes, my Lord." Bellatrix said. "You are still the most powerful man in the Wizarding World; your followers are devoted to you, my Lord..."
"But they are not always devoted, are they? I know that they whisper doubts about me, I know that they think I grow weaker every day. Perhaps they are right...perhaps I am not the wizard I used to be."
"That is not true, my Lord." Bellatrix said frantically, moving to kneel opposite him. She reached up and took his face between her hands, bring her face closer to his and looking deep into his eyes. He looked weaker, it was impossible to deny it. His eye sockets seemed hollower, his skin had a greyish tinge of death, and there was an atmosphere about him...an atmosphere of rot, of decay. Bellatrix found it hard to reconcile her memories of the Dark Lord as a passionate lover, of the charming man who seduced her all of those years ago, with the shell of a man who sat before her. She closed her eyes and summoned the image to the forefront of her mind, her heart pounding as she did so. When she opened them again, she felt shaken as if she had met him for the first time once again. She smiled. "I have never met a man with such prowess as you, my Lord. Those who doubt you deserve to be killed, and they shall be when you achieve all that you deserve. It will not be long before you are Lord of everything, I can feel it in my gut."
The Dark Lord gave a small smile, revealing yellowing, crooked teeth. He reached out and dragged a fingernail along the edge of her cheek, cupping her chin in his hand. Bellatrix gave a breathy sigh, her eyelids fluttering closed – despite her repulsion to his looks, he still succeeded in creating physical sensations that Bellatrix had never experienced elsewhere. The Dark Lord brushed his lips against Bellatrix's earlobe, sending a shiver down her spine.
"I had forgotten how truly beautiful you are, Bella. It has been too long since you have been in my company."
"I have missed you terribly, my Lord." She whispered, her voice shaky as he planted biting kisses down her neck. "You have grown distant and lonely...you don't even have time for me anymore, my Lord."
"You are insolent, Bellatrix." He hissed, a tone of warning lacing his words. Bellatrix gave a yelp of pain as, suddenly, the Dark Lord buried his hands in the hair at the nape of her neck, before roughly yanking her head backwards.
"I only say it because I am devoted to you, my Lord! I mean no disrespect, my Lord, I swear."
"Tell me, Bella." He spat, leaning his face so that it was inches from hers. "Tell me that you are still mine. Tell me that nothing I could ever do, nothing I could order you to do, would ever stop you from being devoted to me."
"Of course I am still yours. I shall be yours until the moment I die, my Lord. " Bellatrix sobbed. "The whole world knows me as the Dark Lord's most loyal servant, I am your best lieutenant, my Lord, and I live only to be yours. What else do I have?"
The Dark Lord lunged forwards and pressed his lips against hers, leaving her head reeling and her heart thumping wildly in her chest. When he pulled away, she gave a deep sigh and a wide smile, before opening her eyes to see that the Dark Lord was beckoning for someone, or something, to come forwards.
"I am glad to hear of your loyalty, Bellatrix." The Dark Lord said quietly. "There is someone, now, that I would like you to meet."
Bellatrix frowned as she heard a strange sliding or scraping noise approaching her; her eyes narrowed as she looked at the floor, giving a loud gasp as a large snake appeared from behind the Dark Lord's chair. He gave a low hiss, and the snake came to a stop just before Bellatrix, rising up its head towards her. Bellatrix turned to look at her master quizzically.
"It...It's a snake." She uttered dumbly. "Is it a pet, my Lord?"
"Indeed. I procured her on my most recent travels. She is beautiful, do not you think?"
"Yes...yes, my Lord." Bellatrix reached out, as if to pet the snake's head, but she snatched her hand away when it gave a menacing hiss. "What is her name?"
"She does not yet have one. This is my gift to you, Bella; a reward for my most loyal pet...the naming of a new one." He gave a deep chuckle. "Choose any name you like."
Bellatrix winced slightly as the snake slithered across her lap and up onto the Dark Lord's chair, settling over his shoulders. She had always had a dislike of snakes, in spite of her Slytherin loyalties. The very idea of choosing a name for this disgusting creature repulsed her; it did not seem like a gift or a reward at all. She thought for a moment, before giving a small sigh.
"What about the name Nagini, my Lord? It seems fitting for such a beautiful snake..."
"Nagini...what do you think of that?" The snake gave a small hiss, and the Dark Lord chuckled again. "She likes it, Nagini it is."
They fell into silence for a long moment, Bellatrix watching as the Dark Lord stroked the head of his new pet. Bellatrix felt uncomfortable and cold; she could hear the distant sound of the party and longed to return, to join the conversation with Barty and the others once more, to dance and to drink, to laugh and enjoy herself. She gave a small sigh, and the Dark Lord suddenly spoke once more.
"Tell me, Bella, have you heard from you cousin Regulus recently?"
Bellatrix looked up with wide eyes of surprise. After taking the Dark Mark a year earlier, Regulus had initially settled into life amongst the Death Eaters with ease. He was confident and keen, volunteering to take part in every mission that he was offered, and his abilities in the Dark Arts soon became well-known at Headquarters, eventually reaching the Dark Lord. About three months after Regulus had joined, the Dark Lord called him into his study to give him a personal mission. Regulus went abroad, and returned a month later looking shaken and frail. His usual loud, boisterous personality was gone, and it had been replaced by a boy more diminished and timid than Bellatrix had ever seen. A month earlier, Regulus had left the Headquarters for the weekend to visit his mother, but he did not return. No one had seen or heard from him since. Bellatrix swallowed nervously, contemplating how best to answer this question.
"No, my Lord. I have heard as little from him as any other Death Eater. Do you have knowledge of his whereabouts?"
"No." He replied darkly. "I am beginning to grow concerned, Bellatrix. It seems a great possibility that your cousin has defected entirely."
"He would never do such a thing, my Lord!" Bellatrix responded, apprehension churning in her stomach. "My cousin Regulus is devoted; he is supportive of our cause, and has been for as long as I can remember. There must be a reason why he has not returned."
"Then I wish you to learn of it." He stated. "Go to your Aunt Walburga's house, see what information you can find. Take Rodolphus with you to witness what you might hear. This must seem casual and friendly, Bellatrix – if he has defected, your aunt will strive to protect him if she thinks you are coming on my behalf. Do you understand?"
"Yes, my Lord." Bellatrix replied. "Of course, my Lord. I will do as you ask."
The next day, Bellatrix and Rodolphus went to Grimmauld Place bearing Christmas gifts. It was unusual, standing on the doorstep of the place that she had once called home, waiting to be let in and nervous that her own family would refuse her. The door opened a moment later, and Rodolphus put his arm around Bellatrix, giving a wide grin to her aunt Walburga. Bellatrix was taken aback by her aunt's appearance. She looked shrunken and withered, a suspicious frown on her face, her back hunched as if she were trying to hide.
"Bellatrix? What do you want?" She barked loudly, her eyes darting around the square behind them.
"I thought I would pay you a long overdue visit, aunt Walburga." Bellatrix replied, a smile on her face. "You've yet to meet my husband, Rodolphus, and if you cannot visit your relatives at Christmas, when can you?" Her aunt narrowed her eyes.
"I suppose you'll want to come in..."
"Well, I would certainly like to get to know you better, Mrs Black." Rodolphus replied, holding out his hand. Walburga looked at it, before giving a disgusted sniff and opening the door.
Bellatrix and Rodolphus followed Walburga to the parlour, where they sat on the familiar stiff-backed sofa. Bellatrix was taken aback by the disrepair in which she now found the house; it was as if the house elf had simply forgotten to clean, and that her aunt no longer cared. Walburga stared at Bellatrix and Rodolphus, her eyes wide and afraid.
"What do you want? What do you really want?"
"As I said, aunt Walburga, I'd like to introduce you to my husband: this is Rodolphus Lestrange."
"Lestrange?" Walburga frowned. "Are you Ralph Lestrange's boy?"
"Indeed I am, madam."
"He comes from good stock." Walburga muttered, her eyes analysing him closely. "A fine pureblood family, a perfect match for you, Bellatrix."
"Rodolphus and I have brought a gift for you, aunt Walburga." Bellatrix said loudly, passing the large parcel to her aunt. The older woman scrutinised it for a moment, before tearing open the paper to reveal a purple cashmere scarf. Her aunt stroked it gently, a small smile upon her face.
"It is beautiful. Thank you. I do not have anything for you, however, for I did not know that you would come." Walburga narrowed her eyes suddenly, spotting the other parcel that sat in Bellatrix's lap. "Who is that gift for?"
"It is for Regulus." Bellatrix replied quickly. "We hoped that we would be able to see him. Is he at home...?"
"I knew it!" Walburga hissed, jumping to her feet and beginning to pace the room. "I knew you were here to pry! That is all you think we are good for, Bellatrix, squeezing information from us for the benefit of your master! You are here to kill him, aren't you? You want to kill him!"
"No, Mrs Black." Rodolphus said. "I promise that we are not here to kill your son..."
"Good! Not that it would make a difference; he is already dead! I know it, I can feel it in my heart that he is gone, and the pain is unbearable." She covered her eyes with her hands, letting out a long, painful wail. Bellatrix stepped forwards, gently placing her hand on Walburga's shoulder.
"We are worried about him...he hasn't been at Headquarters in weeks...I've written to him, but there's been no reply. We hoped that he would be here, safe, with you."
Walburga suddenly pushed Bellatrix' hand away, letting out a loud cry of rage and despair. Her eyes were wild and bloodshot, her face red and swollen. She pointed a gnarled finger at Bellatrix, baring her crooked teeth.
"You don't care for him at all! Neither of you do! Regulus is no doubt lying dead in a ditch somewhere, killed by that precious master of yours. The master who you killed your own family to follow, Bellatrix, or have you forgotten that so quickly?" She yelled madly. "You are nothing but a cheap whore, who is trying to claw her way back in here to cause only more pain and more destruction."
"How dare you speak to her like that?" Both Bellatrix and Walburga gasped in shock at the sound of Rodolphus' booming voice. Bellatrix turned to look at him, and was taken aback to see the look of unbridled rage upon his face. He stepped forwards, towering over both Walburga and Bellatrix menacingly. "Bellatrix cares about Regulus, and she is far more than a whore. She has the guts to do what you would never dare; you spout your pureblood superiority, your loyalty to the Dark Lord's cause, but what are you doing to support it? You are a hypocrite, madam, which is a crime far worse than any of which you accuse your own niece. We are leaving now. Bellatrix, come along now, leave you aunt alone to stew in her bitterness."
Bellatrix jumped slightly when Rodolphus slipped his hand into hers. She looked at him, her mouth slightly ajar and her heart hammering wildly. It was such an unusual comfort, to have someone holding her hand so tenderly – she had never experienced it before. Rodolphus kept his hand in hers as he led her from the house, and he still did not let go as they disapparated from the square. They arrived moments later on a stretch of stony beach by the sea, the waves roaring and crashing, the wind howling. This was the second part of the task that the Dark Lord had given them. Neither Bellatrix nor Rodolphus knew why, but they had been sent to inspect a cave on the west coast of Wales. The Dark Lord had been cryptic about its importance, but it was vital to him that they completed several diagnostic tests on the location, and that the task was to be kept an absolute secret. Rodolphus kept hold of Bellatrix's hand as they approached the entrance of the cave.
"What are the diagnostic spells we had to complete?" Rodolphus shouted, struggling to make his voice heard above the waves.
"We need to test for presence of human life inside, if anything has been disrupted and..." Bellatrix frowned slightly, "a count of the dead."
Rodolphus spread his hands wide and looked up at the cave, before waving his wand in a conical shape. The cave gave a off a slight amber glow and, after a moment, Rodolphus staggered clumsily backwards. He turned to Bellatrix, who was watching him with some concern, and shook his head slightly.
"There's no human life in there, it's empty." Bellatrix gave a nod, before doing exactly what Rodolphus had done. Moments later, the cave flashed a pale red.
"Something has been moved but, from what I can detect, only slightly."
"I do not think that will satisfy the Dark Lord." Rodolphus replied with a sigh. He repeated he process for a third time, causing the cave to give a greenish glow. Bellatrix frowned slightly as his face seemed to pale, and he turned slowly to face her. "From...from what the charm tells me...there are around 210 dead within."
Bellatrix looked at the cave. It was nothing special, just a simple natural cave, but it did have a distinct air of magic about it. She could not conceive what the purpose of it was, why it was so important that they check it for the Dark Lord. Bellatrix felt sick to her stomach at the death count in there. She must have been staring at it for a long time, for she jumped suddenly at the sensation of Rodolphus' arm around her shoulders.
"Do you think Regulus...?" Bellatrix mumbled, covering her mouth with her hand.
"Of course not." Rodolphus interjected, squeezing her shoulder tightly. "Regulus is safe; he certainly isn't in there..."
"I can only say that I hope that's true." Bellatrix gave a sigh and turned to look at Rodolphus. "Shall we go back to Headquarters?"
"I think we have time to go on a little diversion first." Rodolphus replied. "Hold tight."
They disapparated. Seconds later, Bellatrix's feet landed upon a thick carpet, and she looked around to see that they were in the entrance hall of a grand country house. She turned and looked quizzically at Rodolphus, who was smirking rather smugly at her.
"Where on earth are we?" Bellatrix asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Welcome to my ancestral home! The house which, should I bite the dust, you shall inherit!"
"All of it?" Bellatrix replied with a similar smirk, walking over to a nearby table and writing her initials in the dust. "You shall have to keep it in better condition then."
"Well, as my wife, that is technically supposed to be your area of expertise. Come through to the sitting room, I believe my liquor cabinet is still as well-stocked as it ever was."
Bellatrix followed Rodolphus, her head turning from left to right to take in the surroundings. The living room was luxuriously decorated, if not a little filthy from lack of use; Bellatrix gave a flick of her wand, clearing the dust, and flashed a smirk at Rodolphus. She sat down on a wing-backed chair and watched as Rodolphus poured two large measures of scotch. Bellatrix took a small sip and gave a sigh as warmth flooded her body. Her eyes rested on a large painting that hung above the fireplace, which showed a severe looking man and a soft looking woman sat behind two young boys.
"Are those your parents?"
"Yes." Rodolphus replied. "Ralph and Dorothea Lestrange, and Rabastan and I aged five and two."
"You look like your father."
"Yes, but I don't have his temperament, thank goodness." Rodolphus swilled his drink around his glass. "My mother and father had an arranged marriage, you know."
"Really?" Bellatrix asked, surprised.
"My mother was eighteen, fresh out of Hogwarts, and my father was twenty seven. The marriage was made to boost my father's family's fortune, of course, but it was amicable. They were friends to begin with but I think, by the time they grew old, they loved one another. My father died when I was ten, my mother when I was twenty."
"What would they have thought of you now, if they had been here?"
"They would have been happy about my alliance with the Dark Lord and my position amongst his ranks; we are, and have always been of course, a family of pureblood pride. As for my wife..." He gave a small smile, "my mother would have liked you very much, but I'm sure she would have wished that we were closer."
Rodolphus was looking at her so earnestly, his eyes so intense, that it made Bellatrix blush. She turned her head from him, standing up and smoothing down her dress. Just as she made to leave, Rodolphus leapt up and stood in her way, gripping onto her arms to stop her.
"Let me go, Rodolphus." Bellatrix mumbled, squirming slightly in a bid to get free. Rodolphus simply dug his fingers into her flesh, causing her to give a slight hiss of pain.
"Is this what it will take to get you to listen to me, to pay any attention to me for more than a minute? Do I have to be as cruel as he is?" Rodolphus demanded, his face full of a pain that Bellatrix could not bear to see. He shook her. "Why is my kindness never good enough for you? I have tried everything I can, Bellatrix, but – "
"Because I don't deserve it!" She cried, standing still for a moment, her breathing deep and uneven. "I gave up any hope of kindness, of tenderness, when I devoted my life to the Dark Lord. I killed my own father, I am distanced from all of my family, my own cousin disappeared before my very eyes...I don't deserve your compassion, Rodolphus, or your pity or anything else."
Bellatrix's breath hitched in her throat as Rodolphus reached out and gently placed a hand on her cheek. His hand was slightly calloused, but it was comforting and warm. Her heart pounded as she inspected his face; his eyes crinkled at the corners, they were kind and warm, and his lip curled slightly making his smile lopsided. There was a smattering of pale facial hair across his jaw, and a small scar on the cleft of his chin, Bellatrix longed to ask him how he got it. She gave a breathy sigh, as he licked his lips and spoke.
"This isn't pity, Bellatrix, nor is it compassion really; it isn't even kindness. I think, if given half a chance, I could really l – "
"Don't." Bellatrix said, firmly pushing Rodolphus away and stepping back from him. "Of all the things you mustn't say to me, mustn't show to me, it is that. We were thrown together to further the Dark Lord's plans – friendship wasn't required from us, or expected, let alone..."
"Don't you feel anything anymore?" Rodolphus shouted, shaking his head furiously. "If you just opened your mind Bellatrix, if you stepped away from the Dark Lord for just one moment and learnt how to feel again, you would see the sense in this."
"I don't feel." Bellatrix replied, her voice empty of any kind of feeling or tone. "And when I do, I feel only for the Dark Lord, and only what he bids me to. You need to learn that it is dangerous to feel anything for anyone, Rodolphus; I learnt that the hard way, and that's how I ended up married to you."
Bellatrix left the house, her feet moving as quickly as they could, before she changed her mind.