There was another woman. Narcissa knew this before Voldemort taunted her with it.
Mistresses were tolerated in her world. For some, they were seen as a welcome relief, diverting their husbands' unwanted intrusions elsewhere. For others, they were a source of rancour and envy. Among the loving but practical (and Slytherins were almost always practical), they were a means of managing mismatched urges and capability during illness, pregnancy, and ageing.
No matter how they were viewed by their wifely counterparts, mistresses were tolerated - so long as they knew their place. They must remain invisible, and if they bore bastards, they must consent to the most private of settlements.
If these conditions were met, if the husband behaved with appropriate respect and discretion, if the primacy of the family was maintained, then it was the obligation of the wife to accept. To turn a blind eye, and to behave graciously in times of crisis. In times of illness, the mistress was welcomed; or, if the mistress was ill, the wife must ask no questions about her husband's whereabouts. If the mistress died in childbed, the wife must accept the child into the household. In return, the husband honoured his wife as the greatest of friends, with the highest loyalty, and did not take her to task for any indiscretions of her own.
These were the rules by which Narcissa had lived; had counselled her younger peers as society matrons were wont to do. They were simple rules, methodical, governed by familiar principles such as etiquette, reciprocation, generosity, and dignity. Aristocratic society did not distinguish between sexual and other behaviours as the proletariat were so appallingly and sentimentally prone to do. Ladies and gentlemen were called to behave well, whatever the heart felt.
Narcissa believed these things. She was not a victim of conditioning, as Andromeda would no doubt claim (and thinking this, she felt a familiar, tangled pang of disgust and hurt at her sister's desertion). She was not worn down by her husband's affairs; so far as she knew, Lucius had never had one before. She was not a victim of sexism; she was as free to make her own arrangements as he, provided she ensured there were no wrongful claimants on his estate.
Narcissa's belief was unshaken, even now. But Narcissa herself was very shaken indeed.
She was an unsentimental woman, practical, and so she examined her discomfort. Trying to make sense of it, to get a grip on it, put a shape to it and put handles on it so she could put it neatly away.
It bothered her that she didn't know who, and it bothered her that it bothered her. Surely if he was discreet enough that she knew not even that, then that alone was proof of his regard for her; his intention to abide by the rules of their world.
It bothered her that she didn't know why. They'd been as passionate for one another as ever before it began. That was a minor miracle when you considered that their home had become a house of horrors, occupied by a dictator with a more-than-passing resemblance to a snake.
She had theorised that he had turned to someone completely removed from their world - a pretty little thing, perhaps, tinkling laughter and lightness, far removed from their hell. A means of escape. That, she could have understood, could have accepted. She might even have been grudgingly grateful for it.
But in her heart of hearts, she didn't believe it.
His other woman, whoever she was, was not a source of joy for him. She didn't know much else, but she knew that. It was etched into the slump of his shoulders as he sat morosely in his chair. It was outlined in the sloping lines of his back, silhouetted as he stared out the window of his bedchamber long after he thought she had gone to sleep. It was shadows beneath his ribs and deeper ones beneath his eyes.
Draco knew something, she thought. The way he looked at his father had changed. There was revilement in his eyes, she thought, though he had been raised to embrace the same rules as them all.
Whatever it was, it was complicated, fraught, and it was happening here, under her nose.
Her sister? she wondered. Could Bellatrix have pressured him into some sort of liaison? She supposed it was possible; Lucius was repulsed by her, and she had long viewed him as a conquest denied. Lucius' powerlessness might have been the opening she'd been waiting for.
But Lucius wouldn't be so beaten down by that, she thought. Disgusted, yes, and he might wash himself compulsively after. Who wouldn't? Hygiene had become optional for Bella since Azkaban, and the way she mooned over the Dark Lord, who knew where her mouth had been. But not this.
He hadn't made love to her since it began. That was how she knew. Never - never - had he failed to want her before. Once her initial fear of the marriage bed had subsided, they had been ardent and frequent lovers. Neither the war, nor fear for their lives had cut their desire off. If anything, it had made it stronger. They had clung to each other and clung to life the further into hell they had fallen.
Perversely, she had drawn closer to him the further away he pulled. They maintained separate bedchambers, of course - even Lucius, the most fastidious of men, was too uncivilised to share with all the time - but normally they would come to one another in the night, staying til dawn drew its fingers across the sky.
But he had stopped coming to her. She supposed she would have stopped coming to him if he had ever turned her away, but he hadn't done that. He lifted his bedcovers and let her crawl in beside him, kissed her hair. Touched her cheek with gentle, guilt-soaked fingertips. But he never touched her anywhere else, now, and Narcissa didn't know how to ask. She'd not been raised to. She'd never needed to.
So she would lay there in his arms, her mind warring. There was something rather lovely about his chaste fondness, but it was a wall rather than a gift. His absence hurt, and so did her body, especially with him so close and yet so far, declaring love yet utterly shut off from her. Some days she was so wound up with need that she thought she was going to lose her mind.
She searched for similes for what she felt and none quite fit. It was like needing to scream until she was hoarse. Like needing to draw blood until the tightness released and drained harmlessly away. She would try to empty herself, not eating, voiding, seeking utter emptiness to mirror what she felt. She would try to fill herself, eating too much (and Narcissa had never over-indulged before - a lady didn't!). Touching herself over and over like it was a compulsion, trying desperately to replace him. Nothing helped. She was used to being joined and now part of her was missing.
Who? she thought in despair. Who?
She pressed her hands to her forehead, and turned away from his moon-lit silhouette, and pressed her face into the pillow, in search of sleep that would not come.
The morning brought resolve and determination.
He'd been spending longer and longer in his ensuite, and of late, that was her cue to go to her own bedchamber and attend to her toilet there. But not today.
She stayed in his bed, waiting. Presently, she heard a crack, sound of an elf Apparating, and another crack just as quickly. Lucius emerged from the ensuite, looking well-groomed and confident to the untrained eye, but his movements were slow and pensive.
"Darling?" she murmured, stretching artistically, as though just beginning to emerge from sleep.
"Narcissa," he said gently. That was the other clue - he'd become so gentle with her, so loving. Her peers would speak of guilt and the mileage that could be gained from it. A shrewd wife could get land in her own name if she played her cards right. But this felt different from that and she couldn't put her finger on why. "It isn't like you to sleep in."
"I'm a little unwell," she said, letting her eyelids drift in a noncommittal gesture that may have been indicative of a headache, exhaustion, vertigo, or any combination of these.
"Stay here a while," he said, bending to drop a kiss on her forehead. "Get some sleep."
She nodded. Grasped his hand. "I love you, Lucius."
The tendon in his neck flickered as he looked away. "I don't deserve you, Narcissa."
It hurt her beyond measure that her love had become something with which to wound.
His ensuite, like the rest of him, was neat and well-organised.
She had already observed the lack of perfumes on him when he kissed her brow. His extra time in the bathroom was not due to extra preparation for his paramour. He was as well-groomed as ever, no more and no less.
His mortar and pestle drew her interest; there were beads of water on both. They had been freshly cleaned. His cauldron, not much bigger than a vase, was warm to the touch. It had been used that morning. She supposed he could be making hair potions or tooth powder, standard bathroom preparations, but that didn't explain the daily ritual, or the comings and goings of the elves.
Frowning, Narcissa opened the cupboard overhead. Inspected the ingredients there. Most were dusty. A handful were clean and new, and they sat side-by-side with new, sparkling blue vials, rows and rows of them.
Careful not to touch, she got up on her tiptoes, and inspected the ingredients, one by one in turn.
Silphium, she thought grimly. A contraceptive. Well, that confirmed the affair, at least, though why the woman couldn't brew her own was another question altogether. Women didn't normally trust such tasks to men. Young witches were taught to brew for their own requirements in school, factoring in the variables of their cycle.
St John's Wort and Passion Flower. An antidepressant and an anti-anxiety agent. Narcissa frowned. A picture was forming in her mind, one that filled her with unwilling sadness. A woman who couldn't brew for herself, a woman at risk of depression. A woman for whom Lucius felt misery that kept him awake at night.
A prisoner? she thought. Someone he felt for. Maybe even someone he loved. She felt pangs of hurt and compassion, warring with each other as they came over her in waves.
She passed on.
Cayenne Pepper and Devil's Claw. Relaxant. Numbing agent. Pain relief.
Narcissa felt the blood drain from her face. Slammed the door of the cabinet and leaned her brow against it.
A draught on their wedding night. "It will help," he'd said kindly. "The first time hurts for some, they say. It will get better. All you have to do is breathe. Trust me." And she had trusted him, had been touched by his obvious research, his diligence and consideration. She'd asked what was in it, and it had been-
A virgin? she thought abruptly, setting aside the memory. She flipped mentally over what she knew of their prisoners. She didn't know all of them, but she knew there had been Luna Lovegood and Hermione Granger. She wasn't even sure if they were still here; there had been a breakout, and that had made the Dark Lord furious, muttering about halfbloods and traitors and whores and making an example of someone. (Come to think of it, that had been just before Lucius had...had changed). She didn't know who had escaped and was afraid to ask.
Even if they were here, it wouldn't be Granger. Lucius' commitment to the cause had waned considerably over the years, but he was still a Purist. He could, perhaps, fall for a halfblood if circumstances forced them together, but all other factors being equal, he would be attracted to a woman of Pure blood.
Lovegood? she wondered. It was possible; the girl was blue-eyed and blonde, quintessentially Pure. She was seventeen, but a young seventeen. Almost certainly untouched.
But that thought, almost comforting, was just a way of distracting herself from the leisurely-growing dread that was pooling in her stomach, wasn't it? She was putting it together, and oh dear Merlin, she wished she hadn't. Wished she'd never asked the question at all.
It had been going on for six weeks. A virgin wouldn't need the potion anymore.
An unwilling woman would.
Narcissa gave a shaking sound of horror as her knees gave way beneath her. Slid down onto the floor, her back against the wall. The tiles were cold through the thin fabric of her robe, and that was a relief, somehow. It melded with the chills running over her flesh.
Don't panic, she counselled herself. Be sure.
Methodically, horrified part of her held just barely at bay, she ticked it over. The escape. The Dark Lord's fury, his lashing out, his insistence that someone should pay. The changes in Lucius. The sleeplessness and guilt. He wouldn't touch her; said he didn't deserve her. Draco's terrible disillusionment.
It all fit.
"Lucius," she whispered.
She tried to reconcile this with the man who had urged her to breathe; had taken his time with her, pressing carefully against her, not too hard, not too soft, touching her until her longing rose up and her body guided him, her maidenhead giving way.
Years later, he'd told her that, before their wedding, he'd hired a courtesan for advice. (She suspected he'd taken his pleasure while he was there, but she had never challenged his account of events). He'd wanted to know more than his father and cousins could tell him. He'd seen her as unchartered territory, territory over which he had responsibility and stewardship as well as rights. Lucius could be a hard man, she knew, but he was conscientious and diligent, too, and that was as true of their marriage as it was in his work.
She thought about the years between the wars. Lucius had been the only one of the Dark Lord's followers to integrate, to build a life of any substance (with the possible exception of Severus, if one considered perpetual adolescence at school a life; Narcissa didn't). The others had lingered on the fringes of society, self-imposed outcasts. He had prospered in business. He could negotiate and influence. He could adapt, which was really the key to the whole thing, wasn't it? He favoured his kind and those who shared his values, found those who didn't distasteful, but left to his own devices, he could coexist perfectly well. He was different from them, damn it, and that wasn't a wife speaking. It was the society matron who gauged people's character and worth, assessed them and categorised them like breathing.
How could she put this man into the same sentence, the same picture, as a man who committed rape at the Dark Lord's bidding?
It wasn't just the way he could be gentle, though that was part of it. He could also be demanding, taking her hard, stretching her out, holding her down with his hands. But whatever he did, he did it by reading her cues. He knew what she wanted and gave it to her. At the end of the day, Lucius liked women. He took his pleasure in giving it, in watching her come undone for him. That was the part she simply couldn't reconcile, no matter what pressure, what threats had been brought to bear.
She knew he could behave cruelly. She'd never experienced it, but she'd seen it. And yet she sensed that he was different to Greyback or Bella. Greyback and Bella were cruel by default. Lucius was only cruel when cornered.
But Merlin knew, they were all cornered now.
Her mind clung to the potion, evidence of his effort to make some miserable sort of amends. Did the woman know she was taking it? Was it added to her food? Devil's Claw was bitter; it was difficult to conceal. Or perhaps she was made to take it, told only that it was a contraceptive.
This, at least, she could answer.
She snapped her fingers, and Letty appeared. Letty was her own elf; she had come with Narcissa into the marriage. If Letty thought her mistress looked strange, sitting on the floor of the bathroom, she didn't say so.
"My husband makes potions of a morning," she said. "Tell me who they're for."
"Letty takes them to Nymphadora Tonks, Ma'am."
Her niece? Narcissa hadn't even known she was here. And why was Lucius sending her elf and not one of his own?
She must have voiced this thought out loud, because Letty said, "If Letty is caught, Letty is to say she did it on her own. Letty helped Miss Tonks because she is of the House Of Black."
Narcissa nodded slowly. "Does she know what it is? Does she know it's to...to help her?"
Letty nodded. "Letty thinks so, Ma'am. Miss Tonks always thanks Letty nicely. A lot of the prisoners are mean to Letty. Letty didn't put them there, it was the Dark Lord, not Letty, but-"
Narcissa held up her hand, stemming the flow of rising recriminations. "Do you ever see Miss Tonks and my husband together?"
Letty nodded again. "The Dark Lord makes Sir hurt Miss Tonks. But some nights when Letty is changing her water and her hay, he goes to her cell and just pretends to hurt her. Mister Rookwood is not getting too close because he is liking wizards, not witches. Sir talks to her then."
"What does he say?"
"Letty can't hear them, Ma'am."
Narcissa sat there a while, absorbing this.
Her niece, she thought again. She had never met Andromeda's daughter - the estrangement, after Andromeda's elopement, had been total - but she was still blood. And even if she wasn't, it wasn't something any woman would wish on another.
And Lucius...how to make sense of the man who raped her niece in one moment, and risked his life to look after her in another? How could Nymphadora make any sense of that? How could she?
"How is she?" Narcissa wondered at last. "Miss Tonks, I mean?"
"Sometimes Miss Tonks is crying. Sometimes she is angry." Letty made a disapproving face. "She says things not befitting a lady, Ma'am. Especially to Sir and the Dark Lord. It isn't nice."
She was still fighting, then. It hadn't broken her spirit.
Narcissa thought there was a decent chance it had broken her own.
Narcissa didn't go to Lucius that night.
She'd pleaded ill, and stayed in her bedchamber. He stopped in on her, just once, and dropped a gentle kiss on her brow. She'd pretended to be asleep, but when he was gone, she'd sat up, shivering. Her flesh was crawling with horror. She imagined him shoving her down, forcing his way in, invader, slaughterer.
She slumped down on her pillows, staring up at the ceiling. Shaking her head over and over, denial and negation, everything she knew torn asunder. Breaths shallow and quick as she ran her hands through her hair and pulled at it desperately. Tearing her hair out.
She'd thought that was just a turn of phrase before now.
Tears rose, hurting her eyes, and streaked down her temples into her hair. She thought desperately:
Who are you?
She woke in the early hours of the morning, eyes hurting and sore.
Her muscles were aching. She had been clenching them in her sleep, curling over herself in search of protection and shelter. She felt tired and wrung out.
She went to the ensuite and stared at her reflection. Stared at the opulent room reflected behind her. Warm water. Faucets. Towels.
Then she pictured Nymphadora, asleep on hay somewhere beneath her feet. She didn't think about the prisoners much - couldn't bring herself to - but the image rose with ease. Narcissa had lived her whole adult life in this house, after all; she knew its history. Knew of the relationship between master and feudal ward; the kindness that could be given, but taken away just as quickly for the most minor of offenses. And the Malfoys had owned most of Salisbury. The corridors of dungeons running beneath the Manor were long and wide, built for a city's worth of offenders.
Her chin trembled. She saw it in the mirror before she felt it, uncontrollable tremors in her jaw.
"Muffliato," she blurted, just before the spasms overtook her, not quite sobs, more convulsions of horror.
She whirled around, grabbed the towels and dragged them off their racks. Grabbed soaps and threw them wildly at the mirror. She screamed out over and over. Sank to the floor with her arms over her head. Collapsed onto the tiles, clutching at her throat. She was unravelling at the seams.
She thought she would never be whole again.
She woke in Lucius' bed.
"Cissa," he said gently as her eyelids fluttered. "Oh, Cissa."
She felt her face crumple. Felt the tears rise up.
"You had some sort of seizure. The bathroom was a mess - you must have been trying to pull yourself up."
She closed her arms over her head as he drew her into his arms.
"The Mediwitch is coming," he soothed. "I've been worried."
She gave in then. Let him hold her. She was too tired, too wretched to fight him. She clung to him, even as she wondered if he'd done it yet that day, wondered if Nymphadora was already nursing her wounds.
It was going to send her mad. Completely and utterly mad. She was sure of it.
"I love you, Lucius," she said mechanically.
"I don't deserve you, Narcissa," he said into her hair, and no, she thought, he really didn't.
The next time she woke, it was the middle of the night.
The Mediwitch had been and gone, declaring Narcissa the victim of a mysterious but fleeting malady, plying her with all sorts of generic potions - which just went to show that Purebloods weren't necessarily better at everything. Personally, she'd liked it better when St Mungo's had staff qualified by training and not by blood status.
One of the potions had been a sleeping tonic, though, and she had taken it gratefully, gulping it down and succumbing to darkness. Now, sixteen hours later, a lot of the madness had subsided.
She didn't feel better, but she felt more in command. The grasping horror clawing at her mind had fallen away. She was battlesore, but she could think again. For that alone she was profoundly grateful.
Her first thought was what would a lady do?
She could have laughed, if she weren't so close to tears. A lady would not find herself in a house full of killers. A lady would not find herself entangled with a dictator who used rape as a weapon of war.
It occurred to her that there was no precedent for this situation, no certainty for her to fall back on. The one person she had always counted on had no idea of her turmoil. She was in freefall, in the wilderness, and there was no one to lead her out.
Then she looked at Lucius, standing as usual by the window, shoulders thin and hard through the deep blue silk of his robe, and she realised the same was true of him.
She felt it then. The unwilling compassion she'd grappled with, a lifetime ago it seemed, back when she'd believed he had a lover. She felt the blinkers falling from her eyes, and she didn't know whether it was to reveal the truth or to reveal what she needed to believe, but she felt the tension, the horror, the oppressive darkness lift from her, all at once.
He was her husband, and he was hurting. And she didn't know what a lady would do, but a wife would go to him. No matter what he'd done.
The tears rose up then. They weren't the first she'd shed, but they were the first that were just for him, his guilt, his horror, his pain. They streamed down her cheeks in tiny, relentless little torrents. There were aches in her face, from holding it tight and letting go at last, and silent, shuddering breaths of release.
When they had been and gone, when she was calm again, she gathered up her resolve.
She rose. Slipped into her robe, tying it at her waist.
Tentatively, cautiously, she approached him, much as you would a frightened animal. "Lucius?" she whispered.
"Cissa," he said colourlessly. Still staring out over the lawn. "How are you feeling?"
"Better." She ran her hands over his shoulders, sliding them over silk. Trying to inject as much tenderness into the gesture as she could, and gentleness to her voice. "I'm worried about you. Come back to bed."
She must have gotten through, because he slipped then, just a little. "You wouldn't be so good to me if-"
She snorted. "Do you think me entirely stupid?" she wondered. "Do you think I don't know what kind of monsters we live with? Did you think I thought you'd somehow miraculously managed to stay immune?"
It was true, and yet this was different from all he'd done before. It was different because it was ongoing. Relentless. Because it took the only comfort they had left and twisted it into a knife to wound him, day after day.
They were far, far into the wilds of survival at all costs; far beyond where morality could help. And when it came to the toll on him, this was worst of all.
"It's not the same," he murmured distantly. As though he'd read her mind.
She tried again. Came around him, standing beside him, hands cradling his shoulder. "Whatever you've done. Did you do it to survive?"
He turned to look at her for the first time, leaning on the windowsill. "Yes."
"Then -" she swallowed bile at this, but it had to be said, or their family would unravel right before her eyes "- you did it for me. I expect you to survive, Lucius. Don't you dare leave me in this hell alone. Don't you dare."
His face was working. Struggling for composure.
She took his hand. "Your sins are mine, Lucius. If you did them to survive, you did them for me. That's enough."
He would never know the desperation behind those calm, soothing words. That beneath them she was grasping onto his hand in a sandstorm, convinced it would take only one gust of wind, one blinding spray of sand to part them forever. That she could feel him slipping away, and thought this was her last chance to pull him back.
Lucius' eyes were soft and wet, gleaming in the moonlight.
"I love you, Lucius," she said, and she meant it.
"I don't deserve you, Narcissa." It had become his mantra, she thought; the only thing he was sure of anymore.
It came to her then. The right thing to say, perhaps the only thing that could bring them back together.
"If you had to earn it, it wouldn't be love."
"Oh," he whispered, breathing it out as a little puff of air. Closed his eyes for a long moment.
She was a Slytherin beneath it all, and she saw her moment, and took it. Leaned in and kissed him gently, chastely, sliding her hands into his robe, over his shoulders. "Come back," she said against his lips. "I miss you. I need you. Please."
He hesitated; she could feel it in his hands, comforting yet unmoving on her waist. In the set of his shoulders beneath her palms. In the way he leaned his head into her, inhaling her scent but not quite bringing himself to taste and to touch.
What would he want to do? she wondered. What would he need to do? Would he need to redeem his atrocities by re-enacting them with someone willing? Who knew what damage had been done, to him, and to their marriage?
She steeled herself. Murmured against his lips, "Any way you want. Just come back."
That did it, made his lips tremble beneath hers, letting her in. Letting her press into him. His hands rose, tentatively, up to her shoulders, the base of her neck. He stayed like that for long moments, drinking her in, receiving but unable to give. It dawned on her that he needed her to lead - needed it to be sure of her willingness, her desire.
She searched inside herself for understanding. Not the bed, she thought; not him on top of her. It might trigger things in him; might trigger them in her. Not against the wall. Somewhere they could be close, but where she could lead.
Her gaze fell on the armchair behind him. Low and deep and wide.
"Lucius," she murmured. Urged him back.
He stepped back; sank down, settling into the chair. Shifted into one corner, making room for her. She dropped down across his lap, nestling into the other, leaning forward to kiss him urgently.
That seemed to release him from his bonds - something about the way she moved in his lap, demanding, adoring. His hands found the planes of her back and pressed her closer, kissing her too, the taste of salt on his lips. Suddenly unleashed, fingers threading into her hair, cradling her head as she sank back for him, splayed out for him over the arm of the chair. He leaned forward to kiss her throat, the hollows at the base of her neck, his palm grazing her breastbone.
"Yes," she whispered, hooking her arm around his neck to draw him close, "like that." Ground against him through silk; he was as hard and insistent as she was, and that was a fresh wave of relief washing over her. She'd feared that he couldn't - or she couldn't -
Don't think don't think don't think
She fumbled with the tie on her robe. Unknotted it feverishly. Parted folds of silk, dragged them out from under her, pressing herself against him.
"Fuck," he muttered against her lips as her flesh nestled around his. Ran his fingertips through the soft curls between her thighs, teasing, tingling. She choked out a moan, parting for him, pressing against deliciously probing fingers. Pushed up to kiss him again, touching him feverishly. He rocked beneath her, searching for her, and she ground down impatiently, making way for him.
"Please," she whispered, "oh, please-"
"You want me?" he demanded roughly. Hand firm on her jaw, making her look him in the eye.
"Yes," she choked out, and saw the relief there.
He gave a low groan and jerked up into her, sheathing himself deep inside her in a single stroke. She gasped out his name as he found his place inside her, as he found a rhythm that suited them both. She moved against him, grinding and shivering. Not so much stroking as rocking, holding him close inside her.
"Narcissa..." he dragged out her name on long, long syllables, holding them as he held inside her. Dipped his head in to capture her mouth. Kissing her hard. He couldn't seem to kiss her enough.
Well, she supposed, he didn't kiss-
Don't think don't think don't think
"I love you," she whispered into his mouth. Fumbled for his neck, his hair.
He was tugging her closer. Rasping out rough endearments into her hair. "Love you, love you so fucking much," he growled, unravelled, incoherent, and that turned her on more than anything he'd ever done to her in her life. She gasped, shivered, shuddered urgently in his lap. "Come for me," he urged, and that pushed her over the brink; he followed, crashing against her, holding her hard against him, touching her everywhere.
They came to rest at last, not all at once but in staccato, fading rhythm as his body slipped free of hers. Pulling apart, just a little, just enough to let the cool air settle over their flesh, but still close. Clinging to each other.
He bowed his head to her shoulder. "Narcissa," he murmured, returning to his mantra. "I don't deserve-"
"Stop it," she said, firmly but gently. "It doesn't help." Kissed his hair and stroked it.
They said no more, and they slept there that night.
Strange as it seemed, they returned to some crazy sort of normal.
By day, Lucius would disappear into the ensuite to make his potions. The elves came and went. Lucius went about his business - some of it Nymphadora; all of it terrible, terrifying, or both. By night, Narcissa shut out the images - don't think don't think don't think - and drew him into her arms.
She marvelled at the capacity of the human mind to bend almost infinitely to accommodate the horrors inflicted upon it. Marvelled at its ability to approximate normal from murder and the constant threat of it, from a husband who committed rape and suffered it in the same instant, from drawing that same husband into her bed and healing him, night after night.
They continued like this for more than three months; might have done it indefinitely, she supposed, except that you couldn't do anything like that indefinitely. She feared that sooner or later Lucius might snap, might say no; and that would be the last thing he would ever say.
She hoped to heaven that she could hold him together enough to prevent that from happening.
It ended with the Dark Lord; he fell to the wretched Potter boy (by this point Narcissa loathed them equally) and took their house with him, torching it along the way. Lucius and Draco found her in a panic; Apparated with her to the forest on the northern edge of the property, far from the fighting to the west.
Lucius was looking back at the house. He was pale and trembling.
He was thinking of her, she thought; only there was no reason he could offer for why he would want to go back.
She didn't want him to go back in there, Merlin knew, but could he live with the guilt if Nymphadora died?
Swallowing the bile, the fear rising in her throat, she grasped his arm. "Lucius," she said. "Nymphadora's in there."
Lucius froze. Turned to look at her, outlined by the glow of the fire. Wary. Stricken.
She could have done it then, could have laid her hand on his arm and said gently, I know, but if she did, he might very well go into the flames and never come out.
"She's my niece," she insisted, all wide-eyed innocence. "Andromeda would never forgive me if-"
"I'll go," he said quickly. "Stay here."
She nodded. "Just be safe." Shivered with cold, hard terror that maybe she had sent him to his death, watching as he Apparated away. Please Merlin please let him come back please-
Draco was staring at her.
"Come on," Narcissa said, avoiding his gaze. "Let's get further under cover. We've given enough to this godforsaken war."
He was still staring. "You know."
She didn't look at him. Fumbled for her wand and cast a Disillusioning charm over them both. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"You'd never let him go back in there if you didn't."
"I don't know what you're talking about," she said again. "She's blood."
"Stop," she said harshly, looking up at him suddenly. "We're Malfoys. We survive. Together. There can be no division, no judgment between us. None, do you hear?"
Draco's chin trembled, but he nodded, jerking his head, and they left it at that.
They made it out. All of them.
They were quickly arrested, and while she and Draco were let go, Lucius was charged. The list of charges was short and on the middle of the scale of seriousness, and mitigated by Potter's testimony. He had been captured briefly, along with Granger and Lovegood, and he testified that Lucius had been humiliated and threatened in their presence.
Being the Dark Lord's punching bag apparently had some advantages after all.
Nymphadora didn't come forward with her story. If she'd been a Gryffindor, she'd likely have been stupid enough to think the whole story would help Lucius. Cast him as a three-dimensional person whose good outweighed the bad, or some such rot, never mind that the Wizengamot had a ten-century track record of rejecting shades of grey.
But Nymphadora was a Hufflepuff, steady and quiet and loyal, so she kept her head down and volunteered nothing. When she was called as a witness, she said only that she had been well fed, and kept in sanitary conditions under the care of the Malfoy elves.
Lucius went to Azkaban, of course, but Azkaban was not the hell it once was. It was no picnic, but there were no Dementors, and visits were permitted. He was released after three years; he would spend the rest of his life on probation.
It could have been much, much worse.
Life returned to some sort of normal. She and Draco built a life, and it was a good one. They rebuilt the Manor to some degree, though full restoration would take years and more funds than she had access to while Lucius was away.
They were snubbed by many, but Narcissa had friends - good ones, like the Greengrasses, ones who saw her as graciousness under fire rather than something sullied. She and Draco were active in the post-war efforts, taking on the dirty jobs no one wanted, and gradually, they built up enough goodwill that they could move comfortably in society once more. They could walk the streets without fear of being accosted, could enter shops and know they would be served, and they had a reduced but reasonable range of social options. All things considered, it was enough.
If there was any shadow, it was that Draco was perpetually pale and unwell. He had never completely recovered from the abuses and excesses of Bellatrix and Rodolphus, let alone the Dark Lord himself. But he pottered about, doted on her, worked side by side with her. He seemed content to do that for now. One day he would find himself a wife and a life, she thought, but there was plenty of time.
It was into this world that Lucius was released, a physical wreck, but mentally well. It occurred to her that perhaps the years of crashing waves outside his window might have soothed him and healed him, just a little. And his body recovered soon enough.
Nymphadora rebuilt too, she heard, marrying Remus Lupin (a werewolf, honestly!), and bearing him a daughter and twin boys in quick succession. She passed them occasionally in Diagon Alley, happy couple and three children with a riot of multi-coloured hair. It seemed that Nymphadora, too, had begun to put the shadows behind her.
So they rebuilt - their home, their marriage, and their lives.
She thought that it was over, but she was wrong.
"Lucius, I demand that you come and speak with me in the library. Right now."
This was said by Abraxas Malfoy from his temporary position in a painting of a lake in the drawing room; his own portrait was in the library. He looked ridiculous standing on the boat dock in full top hat and tails, and even more so from the slight charring around his nose, legacy of the fire. Narcissa winced; the man was no less aggravating in death than in life. Why in Merlin's name hadn't the fire taken him?
"You'd better go, darling," she sighed, looking up from her book, "else he'll never shut up."
"I heard that, girl."
Lucius snorted; it was a wry sound, and the first sound of any colour that he'd made all evening. "I rather think you were meant to." He rose from his position by the fire. "I'm coming, don't start."
Abraxas gave one last scathing look at Narcissa, and walked off the dock, into the boatshed, and out of sight.
Narcissa watched Lucius step out, closing the door quietly behind him, and bent her head to her book once more.
Presently, faintly, she heard another door shut in the distance. "All right, old man, what is it?"
Narcissa glanced up at the picture of the lake. The boatshed door was open, just a crack. Abraxas had a bad habit of leaving doors and windows open between paintings, and she often heard more of his irritating nonsense than she liked.
"I'm ashamed of you, Lucius. Really. A half-blood?"
All the warmth fell out of Lucius' voice. "Stay out of it."
"Stay out of it? You take your pleasure right there in your office, right there in front of the portraits, and you expect me to just ignore it? If you don't want talk, you take it to the whores in Knockturn Alley. That's what you pay them for."
Narcissa stifled a pang of hurt; swallowed down sudden tears, and grimaced as they ran back down her throat, all salty and warm.
It was inevitable, she supposed. She was getting older, less attractive, and now Lucius had found himself someone on the side, someone beautiful. It had to be that; they were still as compatible, as sexual together as ever, but men were visual creatures.
What else could it be?
"And Nymphadora Tonks, of all people. A blood traitor! Of all the-"
Narcissa didn't hear any more after that. She dropped her book. Flinched. Tried to draw in her breath and failed. The wind was knocked out of her as sure as if she'd taken a hit to the belly.
How? How was that even possible, after what had gone on between them? How, when he'd hurt her? How, when - completely blamelessly - she'd hurt him?
Nightmarish scenarios occurred to her. Sick ones, where they'd gotten off on what had happened. Gotten off on brutality and being watched and being ordered. Secret, domineering desires he'd never told her about, that he'd acted out with her.
But in her heart of hearts, she didn't believe it. He'd been devastated. Miserable. Guilt-stricken. It had been etched in every line of him, and even now, it had never completely left him.
But then how? Why?
She didn't sleep that night.
Life went back to normal. Again.
There was no more portrait-gossip. No telltale signs - no perfume, no late nights at the office, nothing. Lucius was devoted, as much or more than usual.
Whatever sick, bizarre thing it had been, it had been only once. She held on to that.
She passed them on the street, Nymphadora and Remus, and their happiness was gone. They didn't hold hands, didn't speak to one another. Their smiles were reserved for their babies, and they didn't look one another in the eye.
And Nymphadora was pregnant again.
Narcissa wondered, but too much time had passed. She didn't know exactly when it had happened, and had no way of finding out. She wouldn't know until the child was older, and maybe not even then. Nymphadora's Metamorphagus genes were strong, and they were likely to mask the father's contribution completely.
Besides, she had other things to worry about, Draco chief among them. She was sure, absolutely sure that something was wrong with him, and that nagged at her far more than the matter of Nymphadora's baby. It wasn't natural to be that pale and thin, not the way the elves fed him, and every time she looked at him, the shadows of his cheeks and his neck seemed darker and deeper. Her fear for him was a crawling thing in her stomach, like some horrid insect burrowing away at her insides.
Inexplicably, Lucius insisted that she should leave the boy alone (not that he was a boy anymore; he was twenty-two). As long as he was happy, why not let him be?
"Because something's wrong," she insisted, furious, slamming her palms down on the tabletop. She wasn't sure if she was furious about Draco or Nymphadora or both. "A mother knows, Lucius. Why won't you listen to me?"
"Nothing's wrong, Mum," Draco said softly. "Really. I know you think it's too bad that I'm not well, but honestly, I'm happy just living my life. I don't need Healers and Mediwitches bombarding me with potions and things. Just let me potter at home. If I need anything, I'll ask."
"But darling," she said gently, "you have to start to build a life. You need a career. You'll want a family one day." She looked to Lucius to back her; they had never tolerated immaturity or self-indulgence. And Draco's had gone on long enough.
But Lucius was looking at Draco with an expression she had never seen before. Something terribly gentle. "Leave it alone, Cissa."
Draco looked away. "Mum, please. I can't talk about getting married right now."
She should have put it together then, but she didn't. She felt abandoned, turned upon, and like a child, she got to her feet and stormed away.
She would wish later that she had stayed that day, and cherished it, because there were oh so few days left to them.
Lucius was seeing Nymphadora again, and this time it was ongoing.
It started when her child (their child?) was six weeks old; probably before she'd admitted her own husband back into her bed, assuming she had admitted him at all.
The portraits were agog, and Narcissa heard more than she wanted. This new development was the latest piece of theatre in the portrait world, and until it became old news, every morsel would be examined in detail.
He'd taken her on his desk once (how very cliche, she'd have chided if they were talking about it at all) but that wasn't the part that got the portraits whispering. It was things they'd said. Fragments. From before, and from now.
It was You never let them look at me if you could help it and I should have done more and forgive me, over and over.
It was you only want me because the Dark Lord made you rely on me. He's doing it to you all over again.
It was Remus won't look at me. He thinks I'm something soiled.
It was I have demons to purge. That was from Lucius, and he'd never said exactly what he meant. Oh, how the portraits puzzled over that one. They'd liked it the way an old lady likes the Sunday crossword.
She hated how much she knew. She knew enough to feel reluctant, grudging pity, and she didn't want to. She'd been patient and loving and gentle and she'd carried this burden without him even knowing it, and she was tired and battlesore. She wanted to hate him, wanted to hate them both.
But she couldn't do that. Not then, and not now either.
He was damaged, fumbling for understanding, Narcissa thought, and she was too. It wasn't fair, but perhaps that was the price they had to pay for getting out with their lives.
Just once in a while, though, she wished the price would finally be paid in full.
"We need to talk."
Lucius' expression was tender when he said this. Tender, and filled with terrible, terrible guilt.
Narcissa felt the bottom fall out of her stomach. Was he about to tell her about the child? Worse - was he about to ask for a divorce? He'd been as loving and attentive as ever, but that didn't always indicate, she supposed.
Coldly, numbly, she nodded. Set her book aside and rose. Followed him into the drawing room.
Draco was there.
The child, then. He wouldn't humiliate her by asking for a divorce in front of their son. He wouldn't do that to her.
He fussed over her. Escorted her to her seat like a newlywed. She wanted to scream at him to just get it over with.
He sat down beside her on the Chesterfield. Gently, he took her hand in his.
"There's something you need to know," he said quietly. "I didn't want you to find out like this, but Rita Skeeter's gotten hold of it. It will be in the papers tomorrow. You have to know."
The papers? her mind echoed in horror. How much did they know?
Her mind raced as she stared at him. Perhaps Remus was divorcing Nymphadora. It might all be public domain within the week. And Lucius was on probation - if Remus testified to the assaults on her, then Lucius might go back to Azkaban for life.
But what came next made Narcissa forget about Nymphadora and Azkaban entirely.
"Mum," Draco said gently, "I'm dying."
It took a few moments. A moment for the words to break through her thoughts and blow them away like dried-out, crumbling petals. A moment more for comprehension. Another moment, where her world shattered, and she groped blindly for the pieces of her life and tried to make them accommodate this new development. Finally, the moment she realised her life would never fit together properly again. All of it a hollowing out in her belly, like a void threatening to pull her in and swallow her whole.
"It's the Dark Mark," Lucius said gently. His hand was still around hers. Gently rubbing the back of her hand with his thumb. "As it fades, it releases a cancer."
She hadn't thought she could be more destroyed, but there it was, all over again, her heart tripping at double-speed, too much shock, too much grief all at once. "That means you-"
He nodded. "Yes. But my Mark is older than Draco's. Stronger. I have time."
She heard the tightness in his voice. Understood that however much time he had, he was still staring down a death sentence, and the staring was hard.
She tore her gaze from her dying husband to her dying son. Tried to figure out how that word, dying, had come to apply to the two most important things in her world in the space of seconds.
"Draco," she whispered. "Oh, Draco."
He only shone her a smile, gentle and sad.
"How long have you known?" she whispered. She was putting it together. Lucius and his sad, quiet acceptance of Draco's wish to quietly live out his life. Draco's refusal to see the Healer.
Lucius said reluctantly, "A year. I've seen it before. When Draco got it, I knew what it was. The Healers confirmed it."
"You didn't tell me," she said, turning on him in a low, hurting voice. Her head was a blood-red fog of pain, visceral, pounding.
That pierced Lucius' gentle, soothing exterior that she supposed he'd been schooling for a year. Suddenly his jaw was trembling; his fingers shook as he stroked them back through her hair, over her ear. "Draco wanted to hold off a while. And I had my own soul-searching to do. Demons to purge. These things are...difficult...when you have blood on your hands."
He meant Nymphadora, she thought. Suddenly she understood what had driven him to her. A need to reach some sort of understanding with her. A desperate need to make amends.
"Mum?" Draco said. "Say something." He sounded very young.
She stared up at him, her son, always precious, and now even more. Stared at Lucius. She opened her mouth, with no idea of what she was about to say.
What she said - no, wept - was, "I can't be the strong one. Not for this." It came out in a whisper, her body collapsing in on itself. It was the most shameful admission of her married life. A dying husband, dying son, and she had nothing left to give.
Lucius made a grieving sound, tugging her hard against him. Said only:
"You don't have to."
Later, after the tears had been and gone, and she had regained some sort of self-control, and her breathing was beginning to return to normal speed, she looked over to where Lucius was standing, in his familiar place by the window.
She sat up gingerly. Her stomach hurt, too much doubling over, to scream, to cry.
"Lucius?" she whispered.
He turned. "Narcissa," he said. Came over to her, slipped into bed beside her. Drew her close. "You were exhausted."
She leaned into him gratefully. "How's Draco?"
"Worried about you. He's all right, Narcissa - at least as much as you can be. He's found peace."
She held his gaze, gleaming in the moonlight. "And you, Lucius? Have you found peace?"
His expression was grim. "Some," he said. "More than I had a right to hope for."
Narcissa nodded, slowly.
"I want you to promise me something," she said. At his querying look, she went on, "No more secrets. Not about this. I don't want there to be things unsaid. When - when -"
"Shh," he said, kissing her brow. "I know. I promise."
Did he? Did he know? Or did he plan to take her to his grave?
She drew her knees up beside him and wrapped her arms around them. Hunched over. She felt tired and sore and wrung out. Dry like a husk, empty of tears.
They were on different paths now, she realised; hers towards life, his towards death, and she couldn't begin to grasp what that meant. She'd been promised to him as a child; she knew no other destiny than him.
She supposed in a way they'd been on different paths since the war, since the lies began, but that was different. That was survival, for him, and helping him to survive, for her. The end goal was still each other. Now, that goal had been taken cruelly away.
They were fundamentally parted now, and she didn't know how to live with that.
She said in a low, raw voice, "I just can't imagine my life without you in it. Either of you."
Lucius gave a wretched sigh, composure slipping. "Oh, Cissa. Oh, God." Fumbling, shaking, he reached for her. Leaned in, his mouth on her. Demanding and urgent.
She drew in her breath. He hadn't done that in years, just taken without seeking some sort of tacit consent from her. Hadn't let go of his ghosts enough to just lose himself in her.
Maybe he had found peace after all.
The thought evaporated, leaving only his lips and hers, and the dance of join and release. Life passing between them, holding death at bay.
For a while.
Draco died nearly three years later.
It was longer than they'd said, but not long enough. Nowhere near enough.
He had a wife in the end, after all; that was something. Astoria Greengrass had been kind in Draco's final year, and when Draco asked for her hand, she said yes.
Narcissa didn't know whether Astoria loved him, or just felt sorry for him, and in the circumstances, she didn't care either way. They were married only weeks; Draco died in Astoria's arms on a Transfigured daybed in the grounds, bathed in warmth and light. Narcissa thought that was somehow fitting.
At last, he had found light and rest.
They buried him in the family plot in the grounds the very same day. The three of them prepared his body together, father and mother and wife; and the last thing, the very last thing she saw as she folded his hands together was his wrist, unblemished as the day he was born.
In death, at least, he was theirs alone. The Dark Lord had relinquished his grip at last.
Nymphadora said this, tripping over her own damn feet as she clattered down the grand staircase at the Manor.
Narcissa was appalled.
She'd left; that much was true. Gone to Calais and told Lucius she didn't know when she'd return. It had been too hard to look around her after Draco had passed; too hard to look at him. She'd told Draco there could be no judgment between them, but she had lied. It had taken losing him to Lucius' quest for her to realise that she had lied.
But had he really brought her into their house? Before their bed was even cold?
Narcissa had thought better of the leaving, and returned, but the first thing she'd heard was Nymphadora, and she'd sank down into a chair, Disillusioning herself. Trembling with betrayal, with horror.
"Are you all right?" Lucius called from up the stairs.
Nymphadora called over her shoulder, "I'm fine. I tripped."
"Of course you did."
"That wasn't necessary." Then, more quietly, "Arse."
Behind her, Abraxas harrumphed in his portrait. "Filthy, uncouth little half-blood."
Nymphadora whirled around, and advanced on his painting. "Fuck you, Malfoy. I remember the last time you called me that. Did you like seeing what they did to me in here? Did it make that painted prick of yours hard, watching them hurt me? Did you like seeing my blood, that you so despise, staining your fucking table?"
"And now you whore yourself out to my son of your own free will," Abraxas taunted. "Clearly, they didn't hurt you enough."
Calmly, Nymphadora gave a little shake of her hair. Narcissa recognised the gesture; she and Andromeda did it, too. It was taught to them by their mother. Buy a moment, take a breath, and never, ever let the enemy see they'd scored a hit.
Nymphadora stepped closer to the portrait. Snapped her fingers. A little flame rose up between them, like a candle.
"And the Dark Lord didn't hurt you enough on his way to his richly deserved demise," she said coolly. Waved the little flame back and forth, close to the canvas. Abraxas watched it, ashen. She snapped her fingers again, and the flame died.
There was a clattering sound on the stairs, and then Lucius burst into the room. "Get out," he snapped to his father's portrait. His gaze was fixed firmly on Nymphadora. "Now."
Abraxas opened his mouth to protest, then, catching Lucius' eye, apparently thought better of it. He strode out of his frame in a huff.
"And shut the bloody door, you miserable old man," Lucius called.
The door in the portrait slammed with a thud, but not before the words blood traitor could be heard.
Lucius turned to Nymphadora. His look was contrite. "Shit, Nymphadora, I'm sorry. I should never have asked you to come back here."
"It doesn't matter," she shrugged. The facade was brittle. Unconvincing.
"I just - I couldn't be here on my own. I see them everywhere." Just for a moment, Lucius' gaze drifted around them. "But it wasn't fair to you. Forgive me."
She nodded. Gave a rather sad little smile. It made Narcissa feel a terrible pang; it spoke of shared sadness, shared fatigue. "Forgive me too."
"As usual, my sin surpasses yours. What am I forgiving you for this time?"
Her lips curled up at the corners. She said grimly, "For threatening to burn your father, for one thing."
"That," he said scathingly, "would be doing a good deed."
Her smile turned genuine - faint, but genuine, tinged with reluctant humour. It faded just as quickly. She took his hand. "Lucius. I'm glad you're going to Calais."
Oh, Merlin, Narcissa thought, marriage counselling? From his mistress? She wasn't sure whether to be touched or appalled.
Lucius looked away. Gave a noncommittal shrug. "I'm not sure she's going to want me there. What happened to Draco -" his breath seemed to catch a little "- well. It wouldn't have happened if-"
"Don't," she urged. "He got to see peace. To marry. You gave him that. You and Narcissa both."
Lucius shook his head. "I don't know if I believe that. I don't know if she does, either." He looked at her head-on; held her gaze. "What if I lose her, Dora?" He went on, in a lower voice, "I love her. More than anything." He said it in that awkward way of a man not much used to making confessionals.
Narcissa felt warmth and salt rise up in her face, swooning relief. A stab of triumph, too. Whatever Nymphadora was to him - whatever strange, bittersweet bond they shared - she was still first.
It had taken this for her to really believe it.
Nymphadora said kindly, "I know." She squeezed his fingers; went on, "You have to go to her. You have to try."
His gaze held hers, for a long, long moment, but then he nodded. Jerking little gesture of concession.
She said matter-of-factly, "I shan't be in touch for a while. You're needed here. Owl me when you want."
Lucius nodded. "All right." He bridged the gap between them and chastely kissed her cheek. "Thank you," he murmured against her. "Especially for coming back here. I know it cost you."
It had cost her too, Narcissa thought later; but if it hadn't happened, she didn't think they'd have come through it at all.
Life did not return to normal.
It never did, Narcissa supposed, after the death of a child. But it did return to a kind of pseudo-normal, one where there were good days and bad days and days in between, and where the Draco-shaped hole inside her simply existed rather than eating her alive.
Often, it was possible to forget that Lucius was dying too. He was a vibrant man in his early fifties, still young for a wizard. He was dying slowly, minutely, in years rather than months. He might make it to seventy. Still young, but it was a decent-sized life, she supposed.
Nymphadora was still in the picture. She was suitably invisible. The perfect mistress; surprisingly so, for one not of their world. Narcissa wouldn't have known she was there, if not for the damn portraits (and she was sorely tempted to set fire to Abraxas herself). But she was there; would be there for whatever time Lucius had left, by the looks.
But Narcissa had come to some sort of peace about that. She had been raised to tolerate mistresses; had never needed to be the One And Only. What she needed, desperately, was to be First And Foremost - and that question, at least, was settled at last.
So she lived with it, and in time, she came to embrace it. Speculated that there were horrors their marriage had been spared, precisely because he could share them with another.
He was their shared love, Narcissa thought, and their shared burden too.
"What do you want me to do about Nymphadora?"
Narcissa said this casually one day, at the beginning of the end. They had been talking about logistics. Pain relief. Where he wanted to die. Funeral arrangements. Any outstanding affairs to be put in order.
Lucius froze. Lifted his head to face her fully. All the blood had drained from his features.
"Oh, Narcissa," he said. His voice was low and raw.
She looked down at her desk, saying briskly, "That's not necessary. I just need to know your wishes." She shuffled papers around; drew parchment and quill towards her. Positioned herself to write. "Do you want her to have visitation? She is, technically, family. St Mungo's won't question it, if I instruct them to admit her."
Lucius found his voice. Nodded jerkily. "Yes. If she wants it, yes." Then, more softly, "I owe her that much."
Dutifully, Narcissa wrote it down. "Bequests?"
He looked away. "Just mementoes. I'll take care of it."
Narcissa nodded. Did not look up from her parchment. "Is there any need for a settlement?"
"Settlement?" he echoed. "What are you talking about?"
"For Caroline Lupin," she prompted. "Her youngest. She was born after it started."
Terrible sadness came over his expression. "Oh," he whispered. "No. She was already pregnant when - oh, Cissa. You haven't been thinking - all these years -"
"No," she said. "Not really. She doesn't take after you. But she doesn't really take after Remus either. I had to be sure."
Lucius nodded. Fell silent.
At last, hesitantly, she said, "Lucius. What about reparations?"
He stiffened in his chair. Gripped the ends of the arms tightly. His jaw began to tremble. "Reparations?"
Narcissa said matter-of-factly, "She only testified to imprisonment, and she said she was well-treated. She got virtually nothing from the Reparations Fund. I checked." More gently, meeting his gaze fully, she added, "I dare say she was trying to protect you."
Lucius' breath came in short, sharp gasps. He fumbled awkwardly to his feet and went to the window. Leaned on it heavily and stared out onto the lawn. His shoulder blades pushed out against the brocade of his waistcoat.
"You knew. Oh, dear God, you knew."
She felt it then, rising salt and hurt. "Please just tell me your wishes."
He bowed his head. Still shaking. Said after a long, long moment, "I haven't any heirs. And she's your nearest descendant anyway."
Narcissa's brow puckered. "What are you saying, Lucius?"
He turned his head to look at her. Expression ablaze with fury and shame.
"When you pass on, leave her the Manor. And tell her to burn it all."
It was nightfall before she allowed him to discuss it, and only then because they were in bed, tired and wrung out.
Some things in life, she thought, were just too heavy a burden to talk about standing up.
"How long have you known?" he said softly. He was staring up at the ceiling morosely.
She didn't think he meant the affair.
"I've always known. I know you, Lucius."
He turned to look at her. "But you stayed. How could you stay?"
"How does she?" she countered.
"That's different," he said. "She's...damaged...by what happened. I'm the only one she knows how to trust anymore. Her husband's a good man, really, but she can't let him in. She doesn't have a choice, not even now. That's the damnable thing about it."
It dawned on her that part of why he stayed with Nymphadora all those years was a sense of responsibility for her. It wasn't the only part - he wasn't that selfless - but it was a part, just the same.
"Do you love her?"
That gave him pause. His brow puckered as he thought it over. "Yes," he said at last, "and no. I was never in love with her. It was something else."
"Sympathy?" she said gently. "Understanding?"
"Those, and things like them."
She nodded, and they fell silent a while.
"You're what I lived for, Narcissa," he said presently. "I want you to know that."
"I know that," she said in a low voice, and she did. "Remember when I told you I expected you to survive? That your sins were mine?"
He nodded. "I needed to hear that right then. You don't know how much." Then, suddenly, realisation dawned; she saw it in his hand, raised to his mouth, and the sudden flush of red in his nose and his cheeks. "Oh, Cissa. You knew then. Didn't you?"
She nodded. She felt all the lines in her face let go. Years of facade falling away. It had been a benevolent facade, but a facade just the same, and in its own blameless way, it had helped to keep them apart.
For the first time in nearly thirty years, she was naked before him again, and it was like swooning, a heady rush of relief. Eyes growing soft and hands reaching out for him even as he tugged her hard to his chest. She sank in even deeper, gasping out desperate, sighing breaths like she could breathe again at last. She clutched at his shoulders, kneading them compulsively. She couldn't get close enough.
"You pulled us through," he whispered. Low and grieving. "You pulled us through and I never even knew."
His mouth was on her before she could say more, urgent and breathless. Wet and salty. Only this time his tears were for her, for them, and finally, she let him taste her own.
It had taken half a lifetime, but the loving falsehoods between them had finally fallen away.
He was weak these days, but somehow, somehow he found enough to be strong for her. Found enough to celebrate her, to celebrate them. Them, and the life they'd had together, despite it all. Cherished her, over and over, mouth and throat and breasts and kneading hands and inside, joining and holding and waiting and doing it all over again, releasing her from her bonds and making her fly.
It was their last time, and deep in her flesh, it etched the story of their lifetime.
"I'm sorry for your loss."
Nymphadora's husband said this as she came down the stairs into the reception room. Nymphadora was upstairs, saying her goodbyes.
Narcissa didn't want to say hers until they had gone. Lucius had started out hers, and he would end that way, whatever had happened along the way.
She had been as gracious as she could, as generous and kind and understanding as she could. She was a good person, damn it, no matter what people liked to think of her, ugly blood Purist with airs and graces.
But this - this one thing she would keep for herself.
"Thank you, Remus," she said, joining him where he stood by the mantle. "I'm glad you came. I wouldn't like her to be alone."
"Thank you for sending for me. You've been very good to her about all this. Better than I have," he added with a grimace.
"It's been difficult for you, I'm sure," she said. She knew it better than anyone.
"Mmm," he said noncommittally. His gaze slid sideways off her. "How much do you know?"
He meant did she know about the war, she supposed. "All of it." She said it with emphasis, so her meaning couldn't be mistaken.
He nodded slowly. "How did you live with it?"
Narcissa shrugged artlessly. "It's the price we pay, isn't it? Loving someone who's been damaged like that?"
"I suppose." He didn't look convinced.
"Survival isn't just something you do when your life is in danger. It's something you keep on doing after." She looked away. "Lucius isn't – wasn't – a philanderer. He wouldn't have turned to her if there wasn't something they needed from each other. And I don't think she would, either."
"No," he said slowly. "She wouldn't."
There was a hesitant look on his face. He opened his mouth and closed it again. There was something on the tip of his tongue, something he wanted to say, and suddenly she knew what it was.
"He paid," she said softly. "Whatever you think he should have paid for what he did, he paid it. And he never thought he'd paid enough."
Something flickered over his face then – some sort of peace, or at least the seeds of it. "We all did. Perhaps you most of all."
Narcissa really doubted he believed that, but she took the concession at face value, and offered one of her own. "No. Malfoys and Blacks, we've always valued survival, above everything. We can reconcile almost anything for it if we have to. And your Nymphadora – she's a Black, too." Remus' brow puckered. "But you, Remus. Can you reconcile it? Because you won't be able to reconcile her if you can't."
Remus' brow was puckered. Like he'd never thought of it like that before. "I don't know."
"Perhaps you should try to figure it out before she comes down."
At the prospect of a new beginning for them, her belly began to crawl with envy and terrible, grasping loss. Even her hospitality and graciousness had limits, and they were looming, grey clouds of grief beginning to take hold.
So with her remaining composure, she said, "You may wait here. The elves will show you out."
Remus bowed his head. "Of course. Thank you."
She only just made it into the next room before her grief broke forth and drove her to her knees.
Losing Lucius hurt - oh, how it had hurt. But Narcissa was a Malfoy, and it was not in the nature of a Malfoy to be on her knees for long.
She thought this as she looked around her home, trying to see it through her guest's eyes. She'd been here a year, but even now, she felt a little thrill of satisfaction when she did so. Like she'd thrown open the doors for the very first time.
The penthouse in West Alley was everything the Manor was not. Bright and light and white; air fresh and clean. She had loved Lucius, loved the home they had made together, but oh, she loved this place too. She had her memories of her husband and son, without the sadness and the ghosts.
It was a good place to begin again.
"It's lovely, Narcissa," Nymphadora said, looking around her. "It's perfect."
Narcissa felt welling pride.
"How's Dromeda?" she said gently as she took the younger woman's coat.
She and Nymphadora had dropped out of touch after Lucius' death, but two years on, they drew close again when Andromeda became ill. Andromeda's husband was long dead; sister and daughter reunited to care for her.
Nymphadora smirked. "You know Mum. Doesn't make anything easy on anyone. That's got to be a good sign, I suppose."
"I suppose it is." Narcissa motioned towards the drawing room.
Nymphadora went ahead, and sat down on the pale green couch. Letty appeared with tea.
"Hello, Letty," Nymphadora said kindly.
"Miss Tonks remembers Letty?" Letty said in astonishment.
"Of course I do. You used to bring me my potions."
This reduced Letty to such spasms of delight that she was still trembling when she left.
Narcissa sat down before her. "How's the family?" she asked cautiously. She understood from Andromeda that Nymphadora's rather rocky marriage appeared to be on the mend. Andromeda, of course, knew nothing of why it had struggled, nor why it had begun to recover.
"Pretty good," Nymphadora said. Just that. But there were no shadows to cross her face when she said it, and Narcissa believed her.
"And the Foundation?"
Nymphadora's face lit up. "It's brilliant. St Mungo's have agreed to open a sexual assault clinic. Merlin. If you'd told me a year ago that they would do that-" and once she'd started talking, Narcissa thought with an interior smirk, there was no stopping her.
The Foundation had been a watershed in the Wizarding world. Nymphadora had come forward publicly as a survivor of wartime rape six months after Lucius died, with Remus at her side.
At first this was treated as an oddity, and a rather embarrassing act on her part. After all, everyone knew such atrocities happened - rarely - but they were considered intensely private. It was considered frankly vulgar for her to discuss it in public. Not shameful, exactly - more like discussing diarrhoea or a nasty attack of phlegm. Blameless, but ugly; unnecessary in polite company.
Narcissa was ashamed to admit that she had shared this opinion, too. She had simply not been raised to discuss unpleasant things. She had been raised with a ethic of hospitality, to maintain the comfort and pleasantries of those around her, and that was a hard thing to break.
That was until others came forward, as well.
The list was long, and longer still because it represented several generations' worth of silence. Hermione Granger had been raped by Scabior during the war. Pansy Parkinson as a young woman by her father's best friend. St Mungo's admitted that several patients had been assaulted by staff; identities were withheld, but it was rumoured Alice Longbottom was among them.
Blaise Zabini caused a scandal by not only accusing his seventh stepfather - who still lived - but also prosecuting him. The man in question may have outwitted (or just bloody-mindedly outlasted) Blaise's murderous mother, but he would spend the rest of his life in Azkaban. That had sent shudders through their world. Blaise was the first, and one of few men to come forward, and he had defied the victim image with an open and ferocious desire for vengeance. Every image of abusers and meekly damaged victims and silence was turned squarely on its head.
That was about the time the press adopted Nymphadora's preferred terminology of survivor; Blaise and victim didn't seem to fit into the same sentence.
Shortly after, the Wizengamot had commissioned an inquiry into the problem, and Headmistress McGonagall's testimony was explosive. She and the other teachers at Hogwarts had supported students out of their own purses after they had refused to return to abusive homes, at a rate of about one a year. They had supplied contraception, ended pregnancies, treated violent and intimate injuries on both boys and girls. Professor Snape had once retrieved a girl and her Familiar from her home, after the Familiar was threatened as a means of ensuring her silence. She'd sent a Patronus and he'd been there within minutes, duelling her father into submission.
As the scale of the problem became clear, it slowly dawned on the Wizarding world that the culture of silence had protected the abusers, far more than the survivors.
As for Nymphadora, she was frequently asked to identify her attacker. She maintained that she was assaulted on Voldemort's orders, and that was where responsibility lay; that her attacker was a survivor too, and he had as much right to silence as she had to speak. She was accused occasionally of hypocrisy, of contributing to the problem, but she maintained her stance. Narcissa was grateful for that.
At last, her enthusiastic account of the Foundation's activities tapered off. Narcissa drew a breath.
The younger woman flushed. "I'm sorry, Narcissa. I'm rambling here."
Narcissa waved this aside. "I want to talk to you about the Manor."
"The Manor?" Nymphadora echoed. Supremely surprised.
Narcissa said gently, "Lucius and I agreed to leave it to you."
All the colour drained from her face - and her hair. "What?" she demanded. Aghast.
"He rather thought you might like to burn it," Narcissa said dryly. "It's not as though we have any living heirs. You're my nearest relative, besides Andromeda. You'd probably have gotten it anyway."
"I don't - Narcissa -"
"I'm well provided for," Narcissa said peremptorily, "and I have a home. I thought...perhaps you'd like it now. For the Foundation. It would be fitting, don't you think?"
Nymphadora's face was a battleground of emotions, horror and revulsion among them. But slowly, her expression began to change and open up as she saw the possibilities. A refuge for fleeing teenagers and spouses. A place for the injured and traumatised to recover. A place of safety for the rare ones who chose to continue their pregnancies. A place for fundraisers that could make more money than they'd ever dreamed.
"I have only one condition," Narcissa went on.
Nymphadora's brow puckered. "What is it?"
"The dungeons," Narcissa said sharply. "I want them filled in. There's no good that can come of having them. And enough of my family have been prisoners in that house."
Nymphadora swallowed hard. Narcissa wondered if she was thinking of herself, Lucius, or both. She would never know that Nymphadora was thinking of her just as much.
"I will. I promise." Her eyes were red and soft. "Thank you, Narcissa. I'll use it well."
Narcissa looked on her, her sister's daughter, her husband's desolation and redemption, her strange counterpart and comfort. Marvelled, just for a second, that they had come to any sort of healing, any common ground. It filled her with hope. And hope was something she'd thought, so many times along the way, that she would never feel again.
Narcissa said only, "I know you will."