It was the funerals that bothered her the most. Narcissa Malfoy had always despised funerals; had always despised watching others being forced to remain strong in their weakest moments, had always despised being forced to remain strong herself. She had never allowed herself to shed a single tear in anyone else's presence; not even when she'd buried her mother. She would only stand there, motionless as though she had turned into stone, staring straight ahead. She would have fallen, had her husband not held her, gently and yet with a firm grip.
Narcissa had always despised funerals, despised the exchange of empty phrases, spoken out as if they had a meaning. How sorry they were for her loss, in case there was anything they could do… It was ridiculous. She'd be a fool to believe they had come for support rather than to delight themselves in other people's grief.
Narcissa had always despised funerals, yet she'd found herself obliged to attend too many of them in the past and even more so in the present. The war had shown her things she never wanted to see, made her grow used to what she had once feared more than anything else.
They brought the bodies to Malfoy Manor if they could, in order to prepare them for the funeral and grant their families a chance to say good-bye. How many times had Narcissa heard screams of sorrow resounding within her home's walls? How many times had she looked into blind eyes, still wide open long after everything was over? And how many times had she prayed that it wouldn't be Lucius she found lying there one day?
"Lay him down here," she said, sighing quietly as the door to the drawing room opened once again, giving her only a small glimpse of the man who carried another lifeless body in his arms. Narcissa rose from her chair, wanted to leave without deigning to look at whom they had just brought to her home, not at this very moment. Soon enough she'd find herself kneeling on the floor, tending to another victim the war had come to claim, silently praying for this madness to come to an end.
It was madness indeed; senseless fighting for a cause they had all long forgotten. Narcissa had once believed it to be right to go into war; now her only desire was to know those she loved were safe. She worried too much, they said, but who didn't worry in times like these? Sometimes it seemed sheer impossible to keep up her composure, but she had sworn herself to always remain strong, under any circumstances. Wasn't she a Black after all? A Black would never allow weakness to assume control. And still, the war took its toll on all of them, even on her, even on Lucius, no matter how much he would deny it.
Sometimes she wondered how long they would still be able to go on. How long they would still have the strength to fight, how long it would take until everything came crumbling down on them... How many people would they still have to lose, how many would be left behind invalid until…
Narcissa nearly screamed when a hand suddenly touched her shoulder, interrupting her thoughts; she couldn't suppress a wince.
"Cissy," his dark, quiet voice whispered, causing her to sigh once more, this time with relief. Slowly, Narcissa turned around to look at him, wrapping her arms around his neck when her lips came to touch his. Lucius wouldn't return her kiss. Instead he only stood there, his deep grey eyes resting on her with an expression she was unable to read.
"Cissy…" he repeated, pulling her further into his arms for a firm yet gentle embrace. "I'm so sorry, my love…"
Only slowly she began to realise. She opened her mouth to speak, but her words seemed to have dried out as she turned her head to look down to the floor, to look at whom they had brought here. Even her scream was silent when she recognised...
Someone had already closed her eyes, but Narcissa could still see the fierce determination in Bella's face, almost felt her body's warmth beneath her palms when she sank to her knees, carefully brushing away her sister's dark, thick locks with her fingers.
"You don't have to do this," Lucius said behind her back. "I'll have someone…"
Narcissa only shook her head. "I do," she replied hoarsely. "It's my duty."
She took a deep breath as she rose, reaching out her hand for her wand on the table, briefly closing her eyes to get her thoughts in order, at least for a moment. By the time she regained her composure she was alone in the room, only with Lucius standing right by her side, still looking at her, his facial expression full of concern.
All of a sudden, Narcissa lost control over her body.
"I'm so tired, Lucius," Narcissa whispered, sinking down to the chair in their bedroom only to rise a second later. She was still dizzy, her eyes still wet, still red and swollen even hours later. She was so ashamed of her weakness, so ashamed of her tears but she couldn't hold them back any longer. For once she couldn't remain strong, not tonight, not under these circumstances. She had always held back her emotions even towards her husband, the man she loved and trusted more than anyone else in this world; now they came bursting out of her like a waterfall. Again she sobbed, flung herself into his arms, her body trembling like it had trembled in the moment she had broken down in the drawing room.
"I can't go on anymore," she breathed against his shoulder, desperately clinging to him as though she would fall apart in the second he let go of her. "I just can't… I…"
She broke off, unable to finish her sentence, unable even to finish her thought. How tired she was, how incredibly tired… Tired of the war, tired of being strong, tired of worrying! If only she could put an end to this, if only she could run away, far away from everything.
"I'm so afraid, Lucius…"
"You're grieving," he muttered, tightening the grip around her body to prevent her from falling. "You're grieving, Cissy, but you are stronger than this. You can go on. You must go on."
Narcissa looked up for a moment, looked deeply into his eyes before once again everything began to blur right before her. "Grieving…" she repeated, quietly, barely audible even to herself. It felt strange to speak out the word. "Grief… Fear… Where is the difference? No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. But who could have told me? Who would have told me if they knew? I'm alone, and I've always been."
Lucius gave a quiet sigh. "Narcissa…"
She shook her head, freeing herself from his arms. She began to pace around the room, restless until exhaustion forced her to sit down on their bed. For a moment, silence filled the room, as though they both had lost their speech. Again Narcissa shook her head, bit her lip in order to suppress another sob. No matter how desperately she tried to hold back, no matter how desperately she tried to regain what her sister's death had made her lose so suddenly, she failed.
"Don't tell me it's not true," she said, her tone of voice harsher than intended. But anger seemed to overwhelm her, all of a sudden, anger and disappointment. She knew that it wasn't her husband's fault, knew that he, too, was a victim of the cruel games played by a man whose words they had all once been fool enough to believe. It wasn't his fault… It wasn't his fault! And yet…
"Don't tell me it's not true, Lucius, when you know just as well as I do that it is. Don't tell me you will be here for me when you won't! Don't tell me that you have no choice when you've made it long ago, don't promise me to return when…"
Narcissa broke off, covering her face with her shaking hands. The tears had long found their way back into her eyes, were now streaming down her face in a sheer unstoppable manner, but this time she wouldn't bother brushing them away. She could hear Lucius take a step forward, heard him sigh, a deep and quiet sigh. His hand found her knee, but even his mere touch caused her to wince.
Again he sighed. Again he touched her, wrapping his arms tightly around her waist, not letting go of her no matter how much she attempted to refuse. Narcissa had no other choice than to look at him. Slowly she turned her head, allowing their gazes to cross, for no longer than a second. How sad he looked at this moment, how vulnerable, nothing like the man she had wed all those years ago. They had been so happy once, she thought, but those times were long gone. Scarcely anything seemed to be left of them now, only worry and sheer despair that would slowly come to destroy them.
"You are not alone," he whispered into her ear, placing a gentle kiss on her forehead. "And you will never be, do you understand me? I promise you, you…"
"Don't," she replied coldly, pushing him away from her as far as her remaining strength would allow. "Don't speak it out, don't make promises you cannot keep."
Again she rose, ready to leave the room, ready to get away, away from Lucius, away from everything. How much Narcissa wanted to be alone at this moment, and yet she stayed, remaining motionless as though she were paralyzed.
"You don't know what it feels like," she muttered, desperately attempting to regain control over her breathing. "You don't understand what it's like to be alone all day, alone with your thoughts, with your worries, alone with yourself! You were never forced to remain calm while listening to a widow's screams, to watch her cradle her dead husband in her arms and not lose your composure while praying that one night it wouldn't be you! Night by night it's the same, night by night I lay waking, waiting for you to show a single sign of life, wishing it would be me out there in battle, wishing I could go in your stead only to know that you and our son are safe!"
"Narcissa, don't be foolish…"
"Foolish?" she cried. "You are calling me a fool? I just lost my sister, and before long I am going to lose you as well! You are a fool, Lucius Malfoy, if you continue to deny the obvious."
Narcissa could see anger flaring up in his eyes now, but she couldn't care less. She couldn't care less if he were to yell at her, to raise his voice against her like she had; she couldn't care less if he were to leave her at this moment, not to return until the morrow, even if he were to hit her, despite never having laid a hand on her before.
"Do you think I don't know the truth?" he hissed instead. "Do you really think I'm not as afraid as you are, that I don't worry for you every minute of my life? When I leave you alone, when he forces you to fight, when one night they brought you home, covered in your own blood, scarcely able to stand? You were bedridden for a week because the Healers did not know whatever poison had soaked the dagger's blade that hit you! Do you think I didn't pray for your life day by day, night by night?"
"I would rather have died that night."
Narcissa would never forget the expression in his eyes. Quickly, silently, he turned around, leaving the room before she had a chance to speak, before she had a chance to reach out her arm and touch his shoulder in an attempt to hold him back.
They hadn't spoken for days. Narcissa barely dared to look into his eyes, would always turn away from him when for a moment his face softened. It was the truth. Of course it was the truth; why should she still care about her own life now? Now that she was about to lose everything she had ever valued, now that the war had become an inherent part of their lives, aiming to slowly destroy them.
How long would she still be able to go on? How long would it take until she fell apart, until…
Narcissa didn't dare finish her thought. She had no choice. She had no other choice than to go on, and she would. Of course she would go on, even though she seemed to lose hold more and more with every day passing.
She was exhausted, more than she liked to admit, scarcely came to any rest, finding sleep even less than usual. It was easy to fool her husband into believing she was asleep when he entered their bedroom late at night, sometimes merely an hour before dawn. Narcissa did not have to open her eyes to feel his gaze resting on her, bit her tongue in order to suppress a sob when his fingers softly brushed through her hair. A part of her wanted nothing more than to reach out her arm, to touch him and rest her head against his shoulder; a part of her wanted nothing more than to finally break the excruciating silence, and yet she didn't. Yet, she remained still, feeling a single tear slowly roll down her cheek.
The sun had long risen on the horizon when sleep came for her at last and with it, it brought nightmares that once more brought her back into the terrible reality she so desperately longed to escape from, even if it were only for an hour.
It had felt like one of her dreams when they disarmed her, made her one of their toys before she had a chance to realise what happened. There would be another battle soon, they'd told her hours before, and the Dark Lord himself had ordered her to join them at her husband's side.
Narcissa had not asked them why, knew that even if there were a reason she'd never be able to refuse. He had forced her to fight more than once before, whether for his own amusement or to meet his needs she did not know, but she had proven to be strong; stronger than anybody would have assumed.
She would never speak out her wish to go alone, to leave in Lucius' stead, ensuring his safety for at least another night, knew that she'd never be granted such a favour. It broke her heart to look at him, to see the sadness in his eyes, the same sadness that had overcome him in the night she had lost her sister. It broke her heart to hear his quiet sigh when she opened her mouth to speak only to remain silent once more, when she reached out her hand only to pull it back a second later, too proud and too afraid to take the first step, even days later. It broke her heart to know that nothing was like before.
How much she loved him… How much she had hurt him with her words, how much she had wished to be left alone at this moment… He had given her what she desired so foolishly, had turned away from her, leaving her behind when she needed him more than anything else.
And yet he caught her when she fell.
The pain in her abdomen was excruciating, seemed to go beyond her endurance, but still she forced herself to remain calm, would have risen if her husband had not carefully pushed her back to the floor. She looked down on her body, down to Lucius' shaking hand on her stomach, reddened by her blood that came billowing from the wound unstoppably.
"Cissy," he whispered. "I…"
He wasn't granted the chance to speak out the words.
"Your weakness disgusts me, Narcissa," a cold, cruel voice suddenly sounded from behind, strange to her and yet familiar. She couldn't suppress a wince, gasped for breath when he forcefully pulled her to her feet, firmly pushing Lucius away from her. Instinctively, Narcissa's hands began to feel for her wand… Nothing.
Her legs wouldn't carry her for longer than a second when he let go of her, and again she fell, screaming in pain as her head hardly hit the floor. She recognised Dolohov now, recognised his horrible laugh, recognised his dark and terrifying voice…
"So weak, just like your husband…" he hissed. "Get up! Get up and fight! The Dark Lord has ordered you to fight and if you don't obey the next curse will slit your throat!"
Finally, Narcissa began to understand. Was this her punishment? Was this her punishment for allowing herself to feel, for allowing herself to worry? Was this her punishment for constantly suppressing her doubts, enduring what seemed impossible to endure, for paying her last respect to those who had fallen in the war? Was this her punishment for grieving the loss of those she loved?
For a moment she seemed to regain her strength, rose, stumbled forward until she stood eye to eye with him, until she could feel his breath on her skin. For a moment, anger seemed to make her forget about anything around her. How could she have been so blind?
"Do it, then," she whispered. "Slit my throat, Antonin! Or deliver me up to the Dark Lord for him to perform the deed, because I couldn't care less if it were you to kill me or if it were he. I lost everything possible in the war already, so what should I still be afraid of? I'm not afraid of you, I'm not afraid of him… I'm not afraid of dying. Not anymore. Not since I saw my mother weep over my father's dead body and slit her wrists barely a month later; not since I had to prepare my own sister's mortal remains for her funeral; not since I found my husband and son slipping away from me more and more with every day passing, watching them go to their certain deaths with their eyes open! Do you really think I value my own life enough not to pray to be in their stead, not to have longed for death more than once? So kill me, because here I am, right before you, weak, injured, defenceless. You will be hailed as a hero if you present my body to the Dark Lord, for having murdered a traitor…"
Narcissa could see him smile beneath his mask. "Oh no…" he replied, his voice dangerously quiet." There is no need for me to kill you anymore…"
"No!" Lucius cried out from behind, his voice full of despair, full of panic. His own mask had fallen long ago; only briefly she caught a glimpse on his face, his eyes, wide open with horror… Tears came streaming down his cheeks incessantly. Quickly, firmly, he took her wrist, nearly dropped his wand while preparing to flee, to Disapparate, but it was too late.
Their hands were still connected when they fell.