It took a terribly long time before Narcissa was able to work up the nerve to see her sister.
Every time she passed by the door to Bellatrix's chamber, she felt the conflicting urges both to go in and to run away. There was guilt, terrible guilt that she was not visiting her after she had been in prison for so long, but that was almost immediately and completely countered by the much stronger guilt that Narcissa felt for sleeping with her husband. Would she even be able to look at Bellatrix without bursting into tears of shame and confessing everything to her?
Narcissa stood outside of Bellatrix's door for a very long time before she took a deep breath, opened the door, and stepped inside.
If she had thought that Rodolphus looked sickly, skeletal and thin, he was nothing in comparison to Bellatrix. He looked positively radiant in comparison to her. Bellatrix, Bellatrix who had once looked such a beauty, was lying still on the pillows, and she looked like a corpse that had been left to rot for a long time before being borne into a funeral home…
Even when Narcissa had seen her sister pass her by and when she had thought that she looked quite dreadful then, Narcissa had not been able to grasp just what a toll Azkaban had taken on Bellatrix.
"Bella?" she said quietly.
Bellatrix's eyes snapped open and she sat up, looking around feverishly. "My Lord?"
"No, Bella, it's me… Cissy…" Narcissa whispered, and Bellatrix seemed profoundly disappointed. She sank back onto the pillows and let out a long, shuddering sigh.
"Where is the Dark Lord, do you suppose?" she asked quietly.
"I don't know," Narcissa said. "But Bella, how are–"
"Oh, I'm wonderful, can't you see?" Bellatrix demanded in a hiss. She sat up and glared. "Don't I look like I'm in an excellent state? For I've certainly never felt better than I do right now–"
"Don't what? I am being earnest, Narcissa, don't you believe me?" Bellatrix drew in a deep breath and let it out in a shuddering sigh. "I can taste the air. Did you know that clean air has a taste, Cissy? It's so different than how things tasted in Azkaban…"
"I'm so sorry, Bella," Narcissa whispered.
"Don't say that. You aren't sorry."
"I am! If I thought that there was any way for me to make it better for you–"
"You wouldn't have done it," Bellatrix said dully. "There were plenty of things that you might have done, and you did none of them. You did nothing to facilitate the rise of the Dark Lord, for example–"
"I have given him my house!" Narcissa said indignantly. "You are in my home right now, Bellatrix – how can you say that I did nothing to help him?"
"You might have done it a long time ago instead of letting him wait for Wormtail's help." The way that Bellatrix said Wormtail's name was so thick with scorn that it frightened Narcissa. Bellatrix seemed all but ready to kill …
"I'm sorry, Bella," Narcissa said timidly. "I did not know that the Dark Lord would rise again – I had every reason to believe he was dead, and it isn't my fault in any case," she added before Bellatrix could snap back at her. "I am not a Death Eater. I had no reason–"
"Your husband is a Death Eater, and your sister is as well," Bellatrix said. "You might have cared."
Lucius had the good sense to keep himself out of Azkaban, Narcissa wanted to say, so don't drag him into this, but she kept her mouth shut.
"It doesn't matter now," she said, hoping that she sounded soothing. "You're free now–"
"I'm free now!" Bellatrix snapped. "But I spend fourteen years in that prison, Narcissa, fourteen years!"
"You know nothing!" Bellatrix hissed. "You know nothing about how things were in there – you know nothing about what it was like to be in there – don't you dare pretend that you do!"
"I never said that I did!" Narcissa shouldn't have come in and talked to her sister at all. She should have stayed away. Bellatrix clearly hated her, so why was she bothering? She ought to just leave and stay away, never talk to her again…
"But you think that you do! You think that you know what it's like because you've been imprisoned too – because being in our manor is nothing like being there – dear God, Narcissa, you act as though you know all about prisons–"
Narcissa was backing away slowly. She didn't want to hear this, not any of it, certainly not from her sister. She had never pretended to know about prisons, and she told herself that fiercely.
"I'm leaving," she said, trying not to let her voice shake too badly.
"Leave, then!" Bellatrix cried. "Leave – go – I don't care!" She grabbed a cup of water that someone had left on her bedside table and flung it at Narcissa, who ducked and cowered.
There was a moment of silence, then Bellatrix broke down into tears. Her whole body heaved with sobbing. "Cissy- Cissy, I've- I'm sorry- I've just missed you so much…" She reached out and tried to grab at Narcissa, who released a breath that she had been holding.
"It's all right, Bella…"
"It's not all right – nothing's all right…"
Narcissa patted her sister's hair tentatively. It felt like the matted coat of a wild animal and Narcissa flinched a little but petted her anyway. Bellatrix's eyes closed and she rubbed her head lightly against her sister's hands, once again, calling to mind an animal, though now Narcissa was thinking more of a tame one than a wild one.
"It was hellish in there, Narcissa," Bellatrix murmured. "You don't know… I can't explain what it's like being with those Dementors all day and all night…"
"Is there- is there anything you want to talk about?" Narcissa asked tentatively, mentally begging Bellatrix to say no, and she sighed with relief when Bellatrix shook her head slowly.
"I won't speak of it anymore," Bellatrix said softly. "It's over – and now the Dark Lord has freed me, he is ready to reward me for my faith."
"Mm," was all that Narcissa could say.
"Have you seen him?" Bellatrix asked. She sat up a little more and caught onto the front of Narcissa's dress, looking up at her with wide, slightly wild eyes. "Has he been here? Has he asked after me?"
"No," Narcissa said, repressing her urge to shove Bellatrix back. It was terrifying to have her clinging to her so…
"Oh…" Bellatrix sank back onto the pillows, burying her face in her hands. "He does not care, then…"
"Of course he cares, don't act like he doesn't, Bella," Narcissa said, touching her sister's arm.
"You will send him to see me when he does come here, will you not, Cissy?" Bellatrix asked in a small and croaking voice, and Narcissa nodded, as if she had any authority over what the Dark Lord did. She could not even speak to him without shaking terribly and stumbling over her words for fear, but it was better that she tell Bellatrix that she would send him up than tell her that she couldn't.
"Thank you," Bellatrix said, then she laid back, closing her eyes. Narcissa watched her for a moment to be sure that she was breathing before she stood up and backed away. Guilt churned in her belly.
Why am I hurting her?
Narcissa didn't want to hurt her – indeed, she had always been able to convince herself that she wasn't hurting Bellatrix at all because Bellatrix didn't want Rodolphus and so the whole matter was insignificant to her. After all, Bellatrix loved the Dark Lord and took no interest in her husband, so Narcissa should not have felt any sort of remorse for stealing her husband away from her…
And it's hardly as though I'm really stealing him at all, as he is not ever going to leave her.
But when Narcissa looked at her sister when she was in this state, she could only feel guilt.
Guilt because everything was so dreadfully unfair.
It will do you well to stop dwelling on how unfair everything is.
Narcissa turned and left her sister's bedroom with all the dignity she could muster, for she didn't want to behave for even a moment longer as if Bellatrix could make her feelbad. It wasn't right to believe so because Bellatrix hadn't done a thing to her. Bellatrix probably didn't care that she was sleeping with Rodolphus…
She went down to the parlour with shaky steps and sank down onto the couch beside Lucius, who was reading the Daily Prophet with a grim expression.
"What news is there?" she asked him, leaning close and resting her chin upon his shoulder.
"None," he said. "I suppose I should be pleased by that, since they're still convinced that the Potter boy is lying and the Dark Lord hasn't risen yet…"
"Why should you be pleased by that?" Narcissa dropped her voice to a whisper and glanced around, praying that they were not being listened to, before she whispered into her husband's ear, "Lucius… as long as the Dark Lord is active, we are going to have to live this way. I want it to end, Lucius, I want it to end."
"When it ends, it will end badly," Lucius said, rather sharply. "And the Dark Lord would not take kindly to you even having such thoughts, Narcissa, you ought to know – it wouldn't matter to him that you are not a Death Eater. Speaking that way would be a sign of lack of faith to his mind. He would have us both killed…"
Narcissa bit down on her lip. "But–"
"When it ends," Lucius whispered, "and I will only assume that it will end with both of us alive, which it may not… but if it does, do you understand what will happen to us? You and I will both be put in Azkaban in a heartbeat – we can tell them that we were under the Imperius curse, but they won't believe us for a moment."
Narcissa felt tears pricking the backs of her eyes. "Surely we could–"
"There would be nothing that we could do, Narcissa." Lucius sounded too firm, harsher and more stubborn than Narcissa was either used to or fond of hearing him. "Do you understand me? It would be the end for both of us!"
"Really?" she asked, her lip quivering. "They wouldn't, surely – you are so close to the Minister…"
"And do you expect he would still be the Minister?" Lucius demanded in a hiss. "Do you expect that the Dark Lord is going to allow him to live once he had taken power from him? Do you think that the next Minister after the war is going to be so terribly fond of former Death Eaters?"
"You don't think the Dark Lord is going to win, then?" Narcissa asked softly.
Lucius fell silent. He looked away from her, staring out one of the windows and over the grounds, then finally turned back to her with a very sombre expression.
"No," he said at last. "And you mustn't tell anyone that I'm telling this to you, Narcissa, because I would be killed for it…"
"I can keep secrets," Narcissa said quietly. If only you knew the secrets I could keep.
"No," Lucius repeated. "I don't think that he is going to win. He didn't win before, but that was by virtue of his own error, and I don't doubt that he will make another such error eventually."
"You don't think he is going to be more careful?" Narcissa asked tentatively.
"Oh no, I'm sure that he will be much more careful." Lucius sounded vaguely bitter. "But it is impossible to not make mistakes, and there will eventually come a time when one mistake will ruin him. Power never lasts forever, Narcissa, and what he wants – immortality and power for every moment that he is alive… that will never work."
"You don't think that people can make things last forever?" Narcissa asked quietly.
I can keep the secret forever – no one is ever going to know that I am lying with my sister's husband, and if I can keep that secret forever, then surely that is not so very different from keeping power forever…
"No, I suppose not," Lucius said. "But power especially does not last forever. Power of the sort that the Dark Lord wants rarely even lasts long."
"I hope it doesn't," Narcissa whispered, then she let out a dry sob. "I just want things to be right again, as they were before the first war–"
"I wish that things could be that way too…" Lucius said softly, then he shook his head. "But then, wishing rarely does us good, does it?"
Wishing has done me far more good than doing anything ever has, Narcissa thought, but she did not say so.