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In This Smoke-Filled World (As If It's Hell Down Here)

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Home. They were home at last. Free, they were free, lying there on the cold marble floor of their home’s entrance hall, heavily breathing and so weak, so weary, their bodies so closely intertwined that it seemed sheer impossible to ever let go. Let go… No. No, they would not let go again, would never let go… Home. They were home at last.

Azkaban would haunt them both, perhaps forever, would linger over them like a shadow and deprive them both of sleep, of their strength, physical and emotional… But never their sanity. It had not broken them, the prison had not broken them, would not break them, never… Of course they would struggle, particularly now, now that it seemed so hard to process what had happened, that it was over… But Azkaban would not break them. They were free. They were free, and they were together, reunited, never to be apart again.

It was a struggle already to hold back her tears, here in this moment that Druella found herself so close to her husband, her arms wrapped about his waist and head resting upon his chest, gently, carefully, as not to hurt him. Cygnus… His breathing was weak, ragged, heart palpitating wildly as though it were to burst; she could feel each of his ribs, merely covered by a thin layer of skin as no meat seemed to have remained to surround and protect his bones. How strong he had once been, strong and sheer indestructible, but now? Now… starvation had taken its toll on him.

Hours seemed to have passed, hours or perhaps it had only been minutes, when she rose at last, pulling Cygnus to his feet as well with her remaining strength. He could scarcely stand, could scarcely walk and yet she forced them both, could have collapsed onto the ground once more as she helped him sit on the edge of the bathtub, slowly removing his clothes and cleansing him, cleansing him with all the care in the world. Druella whispered to him as she worked, whispered quiet words of comfort, quiet promises that it would be all right… She whispered to him, would never cease to whisper, never cease to speak to him, to so gently caress his skin, to ensure him that he was safe, that it was over, and that he was no longer alone, would never be alone.

It pained her so to look at him, to see him suffering, eyes closed as though consciousness had long left him and not reacting to her words. It pained her so to hear his quiet moans of agony… But he was not lost. No, Cygnus was not lost, he was still himself, still hers, still her Cygnus… He was not lost, and she knew that he would recover, she knew! He was not lost. It would be all right, everything would be all right… He was not lost, he had recognised her in that moment in the entrance hall, had recognised her, seen her, looked into her eyes and truly seen her… He had spoken her name. Ella. He had spoken her name. He was not lost.

Azkaban would haunt them both, would make her nauseous even at the thought. Azkaban… One year, one year in… He had been innocent. Of course he had been innocent, Druella had always known and never doubted… Her Cygnus had been innocent, betrayed by whom he had once trusted, betrayed in such an unspeakable way. He had been innocent. And yet. Yet it had been a year, a year full of torment, full of toil and uncertainty, full of such fear… It had been a year they both had spent in hell. He had been innocent. He had been innocent…

Azkaban would haunt them both. Druella cleansed him, did not bother washing herself as well, not now, not yet, cared not about herself, least of all her appearance… She cleansed him until there was no trace of the prison left upon his body, sealed the cuts with merely a movement of her wand; once more she helped him rise despite his weak, unspoken protests and lead him to their bedroom, steadying his body as she slipped fresh bedclothes over his shoulders and only then allowed him to lay down at last, supporting his head with additional pillows and kissing his fevered brow so tenderly that her lips scarcely touched his skin.

It was not until hours later that Druella nearly silently slipped out of the room to free her own skin from the stains at last, to allow her body to break down beneath the shower’s hot drizzle for a moment, only a moment. But still, still, she felt dirty, so dirty, still she felt sullied… Only briefly she glanced at the mirror, which she had silently vowed to avoid at any cost, and yet she glanced at the mirror, nearly gasped, nearly stumbled, unable to recognise her own reflection… There was nothing left of her, nothing left at all… This was not Druella Black.

How tired she was. How incredibly tired, how weary, how exhausted… But she would remain strong. Of course she would remain strong, would remain strong for him, her husband whom she adored so beyond belief, whom she loved more than anything else in this world, whom she would always love, no matter what the future were to bring, no matter whether or not he would fully recover. She would always love him, would always be there for him, would do anything for him, anything at all, care for him, gladly, even if it were to become her only purpose, as long as she lived. He was her everything.

Quickly, she turned away. Quickly she turned away, pushing the bathroom door open and nearly stumbling into the corridor, so eager to return to him, to return to her Cygnus, to return and never to leave, never to leave the room unless he would ask her to, unless to bring him whatever he were to desire. She would never leave him behind, never, not for an hour, not for a minute... Never.

*

At first he slept. At first Cygnus would do nothing but sleep, as though sleep alone were capable of healing him, as though sleep alone could soothe his weary mind. At first he slept… Slept for hours, for days, days in which Druella would wake by his side, watching over him, afraid to lose him in the moment she turned away. At first he slept. And perhaps it was for the best. Each noise, no matter how quiet, seemed too loud for his ears that were used to nothing but silence, each gleam of light, no matter how faint, was too bright for his eyes that were so accustomed to the darkness… Each touch, no matter how tender, seemed to cause him pain and yet, yet he would reach out his trembling arms to seek for her, and she would always be there.

Each day was a struggle. It was a struggle to eat, as starvation had made him incapable of stomaching more than the bare necessity that Druella so gently, so carefully, forced upon him as she sat on the edge of his bed and spoon fed him the bowl of soup resting upon her lap, constantly afraid that he could vomit, that his body would reject even the smallest amount of nourishment. It was a struggle to rest, as they both would so constantly be haunted by nightmares, Druella, too, in the rare moments she allowed herself to close her eyes, as he would jolt awake and fall once more into a fitful sleep merely seconds later, as… It was a struggle, each day was a struggle, each day was a torment, to him and to her…

Each day was a struggle, but Cygnus was strong, so strong, grew stronger with every day, improved so quickly… Azkaban seemed to have deprived him of his speech and yet he tried, attempted so despairingly to respond to her, to give her a sign that he could hear her, that he knew…

“Ella…” he murmured, hoarsely, his voice so strange and yet so familiar, faint and yet… Yet… “Cara mia…

His words were everything. They touched Druella, touched her so beyond belief, brought tears to her eyes, tears that she could not always hide from him, tears of such love, of such emotion…

“I am here,” she whispered, holding his hand and caressing his cheek, still so careful not to hurt him, not to frighten him. “I am here, mon coeur…

Each day was a struggle, but he improved, they both improved. At times he would still look at her with that haunted expression upon his face, his blue eyes wide open with terror as he looked at her but did not recognise her, did not see his wife but saw her as who she had pretended to be, the boy who had guarded him in his cell, day by day, night by night, week by week. It frightened her, frightened her more than she would ever admit to him or even to herself, it frightened her…

And yet. Yet when Druella reached for her wand, he would hold her back, would not allow her to heal the wounds on her once-so-tender, once-so-graceful hands, would not allow her to so quickly grow her hair back with the help of magic, her beautiful curls of black silk that she had so gladly sacrificed for him, her Cygnus, cutting them with his dagger to become the boy who would not only watch over him but save his life. He would not allow her.

It is who you have become now, cara mia, his eyes seemed to tell her in his so rare moments of waking. He still slept, slept so much despite his constant improvement… He slept so much… It is who you have become for me. What you have done for me…

What she had done for him… To shed her name, to shed her identity and become a boy, a pale, fragile boy who had neither future nor past, whose only striving, whose only desire she was forced to keep a secret at any cost… What she had done for him… Druella had done the impossible, had invaded Azkaban and begun her toil, all to free him, to free her Cygnus, to save him… She had risked her life and so much more, had risked everything… But she had done it for him. All she had done, it had been for him and for him alone. To guard him, to find him broken in his cell, half conscious and only barely clinging to life, to recognise him and yet to know that he did not recognise her… It had torn her apart, the memory tore her apart still…

But no. No, she would not dwell on memories, would not dwell on the past, not when he was here, not when all that mattered was that he was here and that they were free. It would be all right, it would be all right, it had to be all right… And she would hold on, would not allow herself to succumb to exhaustion or weariness, would hold on. She would hold on. Always.

Druella would always hold on and yet she cried, of course she cried, in the times that her despair seemed to overwhelm her, cried and at times was unable to hide her tears from Cygnus, at times felt that her tears would never cease to flow. Cygnus… Her husband… He had been innocent, he had been innocent! All this suffering, all this endless suffering, had been for nothing… He had been betrayed… He… It had been for nothing.

The owl bearing the message of Abraxas Malfoy’s conviction arrived after a fortnight; the trial had been brief, he had not confessed yet had been found guilty for treason and countless other crimes, crimes too atrocious to speak out, had been sentenced to receive the Dementors’ Kiss within the month. Druella felt no relief that it was over, felt no satisfaction that the man who had done such unspeakable things to them, who had nearly destroyed them, would get at last what he deserved… She felt nothing, nothing at all. How many times had she dreamed of him, of his most foul deeds, how many times had she dreamed of revenge, haunted by the sound of his voice, the memory of his touch upon her skin?

Revenge… Revenge would not undo things that could not possibly be undone, revenge would not heal their wounds, physical, emotional… Revenge would not return the time to them they had lost, revenge would not return their… Revenge would do nothing, nothing at all.

He had been betrayed… Cygnus… He had been betrayed, it had all been for nothing… But it was over. It all was over at last. Druella would tell him, given time, would explain to him what had happened, what in this moment seemed impossible for him to understand, impossible for him to process. She would tell him, of course she would…

He was so strong, so incredibly strong… He would recover. He would recover. Until then she, too, would be strong, strong for him; until then she would force herself to forget about what had happened and focus on her husband, truly, fully, would force herself to keep up her composure and smile at him, always smile even if her heart broke at the imagination that perhaps his own smile had faded forever.

And only months later when the shine returned to his eyes and the colour to his face, only when he finally, finally seemed to wake from his trance-like state, only when the sound of his voice broke the silence with quietly spoken words and his strength returned to him, causing him to rise and to move as though he had never been confined to his bed, only when at last he felt so much like her Cygnus again, did she allow herself to give in, did she break beneath the burden of exhaustion and let the fever come to claim her.

It was Cygnus then who sat by her side, who watched over her as she had done for him, gently dabbing the sweat off her forehead, whispering to her, whispering quiet words of comfort as she had… It was so beautiful to hear the soft melody of his deep, soothing voice, so beautiful… To feel his touch, his gentle hands that were no longer trembling as he so tenderly brushed her hair from her face, hair that had almost grown back to her chin, to feel his lips upon hers… It was like before.

How tired she was, how exhausted… The strain of the past months had taken its toll on her, had nearly broken her and yet she had forced herself to ignore it, had pushed her own weakened condition aside for her husband… How tired she was… But how glad, glad to know that he was all right, recovering still, but all right, nearly fully himself again… How glad she was to be able to look into his eyes and to see him, to see her Cygnus, who held her gaze and would not turn away, would never turn away… There was such love within his expression, such love and such affection… She had never lost him. Druella had known, had always known, had felt that she had never lost him, never… How glad she was…

Of course the memories still haunted him, of course he still dreamed, of course he was still pale, still… But it was all right. He was all right, and wasn’t it all that mattered? Wasn’t it all that mattered, that he was all right, even if… Wasn’t it all that mattered?

“Thank you, cara mia,” he spoke to her one night and, for the first time in what felt like an eternity, crawled into bed beside her, wrapping his arms about her shivering body to hold her, to give her support and to just hold her, as he had not done for months, as he had not done since… Cygnus held her, cared not for her fever but just held her as he had done each night in a life that seemed long past, held her until slowly she faded into sleep within his arms, a dreamless sleep that she had so longed for yet hadn’t been granted in ages.

Druella slept, slept for longer than a day, and when she awoke, she found her husband still there with her, still holding her, tracing his fingers slowly down her skin. When she awoke, she found him smiling.