As Severus had foreshadowed, Lucius indeed returned a few days later. I did not know what to expect of the encounter. I was feeling anxious one minute, and curious the next. Sometimes I felt downright terrified. Still, nothing could have prepared me for what eventually came. I expected Lucius, and everything I had learned to associate with him. But the man that walked through the door was as different from my husband as black is from white. Instead of the arrogant and haughty persona from one year ago I now saw a broken man, quiet and indrawn. Gone was his imperious manner, gone was his indifferent treatment of Draco and me. He actually seemed to look to me for support, as if I were the stronger one. It was almost impossible to believe that a person could change so much in just one year. And yet I knew what the Dementors, now almost entirely under the Dark Lord's command, were capable of. They could not hurt Bella, who was half mad already. They could not hurt Sirius, who kept himself sane with thoughts of revenge. But Lucius? Lucius had lost everything. He had lost his position at the Ministry. He had lost his place in the inner circle of the Dark Lord's supporters, as after the fiasco at the Ministry the Dark Lord naturally thought him incompetent. He was, in short, a nobody. Do this to a proud man and you will break his spirit completely. I could easily imagine what thoughts plagued him with the Dementors all around. It must have been virtually unbearable.
As if all this was not enough, the Dark Lord had chosen our house as his headquarters. He could have had any other place, I am certain of that, but he went and picked us, as if he wanted to emphasize that the best our family could offer him now was a house. Lucius, of course, did not miss the taunt, and felt all the worse for it.
The worst blow, however, was still to come. A meeting was called in the middle of July to discuss the strategy of capturing Harry Potter. All the Death Eaters were there, which naturally included our whole family, though I suspect each of us would rather have been anywhere else. Lucius looked as if he had not slept for several nights. Poor Draco was cringing in his chair, as if hoping not to be noticed. And I, I was staring determinedly at my hands, doing my best to block out Severus's voice as he gave his report. The voice brought back memories. The last night we had together. The touches. The kisses. The sex. The final kiss as we said goodbye.
I quickly checked myself, before I could get too far. It did not do to dwell on such memories. It would bring me nothing but pain. It was a closed chapter. I had Lucius now, and that was where my loyalties lay. He needed my support, he needed me to take care of him.
As the meeting progressed, I was shown just how true that was. The Dark Lord realized that his wand could not kill Harry Potter, and so he took Lucius's. He could not have humiliated him more if he tried. It was as if he had told him he was no good as a wizard. I saw Lucius's expression as he handed it over; he was ready to cry. Whatever wrongs he had done me, I felt genuinely sorry for him now. Not even he deserved to be punished so cruelly. I took his hand under the table and stroked it, hoping to transfer some of my strength to him. I did not let go all evening. It even made me completely forget about Severus, I was happy to observe.
Forgetting about Severus in the long run was not so easy, however. It was not so bad during the holidays, while I still had Draco to look after. Whenever my thoughts strayed to Severus, I immediately sought out my son and poured out all my affection on him. Unlike ever before, he actually seemed grateful for it now, I was delighted to see. Perhaps it was the terror he had been through. Perhaps it was because Lucius was no longer the strong one, the idol on a pedestal to look up to. Either way, during the summer my son and I had become closer than we had ever been before. He poured out all his fears to me, all his heartaches. He followed me around like a dog. He let me pamper him to my heart's content. That is why we both nearly cried when the time for him to leave for Hogwarts eventually arrived, but all we could do was promise to write each other often, and then say a gloomy goodbye.
I finally let the tears fall as Lucius and I left King's Cross station, now that Draco was not there to see them. Lucius did not see them either; he was too wrapped up in his own depressing thoughts to notice. But even if he did notice, I was sure he would not care anyway. That was one thing that had not changed about him – just as he had disregarded my feelings before, he disregarded them now. He and his problems always came first, but still, there was a difference. The Lucius I used to know would never ever show that he was a vulnerable human being like any other. He would rather die than admit his weaknesses. Instead, he took it out on me and Draco when things were not going his way. Now, however, he was an open book. Not that he talked much, but I could easily tell when his demons got the better of him. At these times he always came to sit with me and let me stroke his hand or hair. Sometimes he would recall his memories of Azkaban, in short, incoherent sentences. Sometimes he would lay his head in my lap, like a baby. Yes, that was what I now saw him as, a baby. And though I did like this new Lucius infinitely more than the old one, it was still not the kind of marriage I would have wished for. I felt sorry for Lucius, but I did not love him. I had a baby, but I needed a man. And now that I had experienced what a man could be like...
Yes, it was definitely not easy to forget Severus. After Draco had gone and I was left with only Lucius for company, my resolution to suppress all thoughts of him became almost impossible to keep. Yes, I had always known I would miss him. Yes, I had expected the memories of our times together to come back every now and then. After all, one could not forget sleeping with somebody for half a year with a mere swish of a wand. But I had naively thought that since there was no love involved, the memories would eventually fade out. How wrong I was...
It started with little things. A visit to the library, making me remember my late night chat there with Severus. A letter from Draco, telling me Severus was now Headmaster of Hogwarts. A sentence uttered by Lucius, reminding me of something similar Severus had said months earlier.
However, little things soon turned into bigger things. When I was holding Lucius's hand, I sometimes caught myself imagining that I was holding Severus instead. When Lucius and I kissed, my mind often wandered back to my kisses with Severus. Worst of all, when it came to sex, it took all of my willpower not to imagine that it was Severus who was inside me.
I did try to stop the thoughts from coming, I swear I did. It was not fair towards Lucius, it was hurting me. What good was it to recall the past? It was over. Over. Over.
Still, my brain thought otherwise. For every thought I banished, three more would take its place. It was as if there was poison spreading through my every cell, and I could do nothing about it. It was not long before Severus was the only thing I could think about most of the time. I wanted to feel his touch again. I longed for him to crush his lips against mine. I craved to have him inside me, to dig my fingernails into his skin. It was as if a weight had settled in my chest, and would not go away until I got what I wanted. And it hurt, oh, it hurt. Every thought of him was like driving a knife into my breast. I was constantly on the verge of tears. Sometimes I cried for hours, when Lucius was not there to see me.
I had never felt this way before. At first I did not know what to make of it. I had experienced loneliness. I had felt desire. But this? What was this? The horrible pain in my chest? The tears that came out of nowhere? The feeling that wherever I turned, Severus was there with me?
I suppose the answer had been before my eyes all along, but I stubbornly refused to acknowledge it. I decided to play deaf and blind and pretend that it was just a passing thing, something that would go away in time if I only persevered. And so I cried, and I ached, and all the while I tried to fool myself into believing that all this suffering was like a bitter pill one had to swallow to ultimately feel better. Which was all fine and well ... if it were not for the Death Eater meetings. Whatever resolutions I had made, they all shattered to pieces whenever I saw Severus in person. We never spoke, of course, but merely being in the same room with him was enough to drive me insane. If my heart ached when I was alone, Crucio was nothing compared to the pain I experienced when I looked at him. It was as if somebody were trying to tear me apart from the inside.
I do not know how I made it through the meetings without giving myself away. However, as soon as they were over I wasted no time. Dashing to the bathroom, I locked myself in and cried and cried until there were no more tears to spill. By the time I finished I was usually trembling with cold, and my arms and legs felt as heavy as lead. Facing Lucius in this state was not an option, so I fell into the habit of feigning a headache to give me an excuse to escape to my room. There I would fall onto my bed in a heap, and soon be asleep from pure exhaustion.
Perhaps it would have been easier to bear if I had somebody to confide in. But who was there? Draco? Despite the recent change in Lucius, he still adored him too much to understand. Bella? She would only laugh at my weakness and sentiment, and then go blabbing to the Dark Lord. Lucius? Definitely not.
That left only one person. Severus himself. However, I would rather lose my wand like Lucius than tell him how he made me feel. I could easily imagine his reaction. He would remind me of the agreement we had made, and then send me on my way. In case I wanted to feel even worse, this was certainly the route to take.
I was at my wits' end. I could not go on like this for much longer. Feeling the way I did I did not have enough strength left to give Lucius the attention he needed. And despite his preoccupation with his own problems, he was starting to notice. He noticed my frequent headaches. He noticed how much time I spent alone in my room. He noticed the shadows under my eyes, the pallor of my skin. He was past reproaching me, however. That was what the old Lucius would have done. The new Lucius blamed himself, and took to drinking instead. I knew that if I wanted to save him, and myself, I would have to act, fast. But how?
And thus the next Death Eater meeting arrived. I still had no plan, and seeing Severus definitely did not help me to think any clearer. As usual, I tried to block him out as if he were not there at all, but, also as usual, with little success. I dug my fingernails into my palms and took a painful breath; it was as if my chest were about to explode. I could take it no longer. For all those months I had been doing my best to avoid looking at Severus unless it was absolutely necessary, and what good did it do me? It only got worse. So what harm would there be in gazing at him until my eyes hurt? None at all. Perhaps it would even make some of the pain go away... And so for the rest of the meeting I drank in the familiar features whenever he spoke, remembering every line, every curve, hoping to etch them into my memory to recall them at will, in the solitude of my room. Such a beautiful face, even more beautiful than I remembered it ... perfect. It was almost impossible to tear my eyes away from it when the meeting eventually ended, but in order not to arouse suspicion I had to rise from my chair along with the others and walk to the door with Lucius at my side. Nevertheless, as Lucius stopped to say goodbye to one of his friends I did risk one final glance behind me ... and almost flinched as my eyes met Severus's. What was more, he was wearing an expression I had never seen on his face before. There was sadness, and longing, and ... and then it was gone as he inclined his head to me and turned away, leaving me to wonder if I had merely imagined it.
For once, I did not spend the time after the meeting crying in the bathroom. My mind was too preoccupied by what I had seen. The more I thought about it, the more certain I was that the look on Severus's face had been real. But if it had, would that mean that... No, it would do me no good to jump to conclusions, to get my hopes up only to have them torn down again. There had to be another explanation. Perhaps the look was not meant for me. Perhaps Severus was just sad because something else had gone wrong. Perhaps... But it was no good. The hope had been seeded, and it would not go away now. No matter what I tried to fool myself with, my mind always returned to the same conclusion. Severus missed me, too.
Once this belief had settled itself in my brain, there was nothing that could keep me at home. At the first possible opportunity I told Lucius that I was going to Hogsmeade to do some shopping, and then fled the house as if it were on fire.
It took a huge amount of self-restraint not to break into a run once I reached the village. However, I told myself to calm down. If I had managed to survive without Severus for so long, surely a few more minutes would not kill me. Still, by the time I arrived at Hogwarts I was virtually trembling with anticipation. I just could not help it. After all those months of despair, of tears I thought would never cease, I would finally get a chance to fight for what I so craved for. It was almost too good to be true.
Looking up at the castle, seemingly nothing had changed since my nightly visits that now seemed like an eternity ago. There were still two guards at the entrance, but upon closer inspection I recognized them as fellow Death Eaters. It was as Draco had been writing in his letters, then; the school was entirely in the Dark Lord's hands now.
I approached the two men, and upon being asked for the purpose of my visit, I told them that I had come to visit my son. It had been all right to tell Aurors who I was truly visiting, but here I was walking on thin ice. I could never be certain what might reach the Dark Lord's or Lucius's ears.
After being allowed to enter, I nearly headed straight to the dungeons, but at the last moment I realized that as the new Headmaster Severus would probably now be dwelling in Dumbledore's old office, and so I directed my steps there. Strangely enough, there was nobody about. It was late afternoon, but there were no children laughing and running down the corridors. Draco had told me in his letters that the discipline was now strict, but to me the atmosphere in the castle seemed downright ominous. I would have to ask Severus what was going on if I got the chance.
However, as I neared my destination my musings slowly took a different turn. After all, arguing about how the school was run was not what I had come for. No, my task would be much more demanding. I was not so naive as to believe that Severus would welcome me with open arms. I knew him too well to expect that. Even if he missed me, as I was convinced he did, he would put up a fight. And I knew I would only get one chance to make him see things my way. It was not a very positive prospect, I was aware of that. But it gave me hope, however small, which was more than I could have claimed having a few days before.
Even so, with every step I took my heart was beating faster and faster, which had nothing to do with the number of stairs I had already climbed. A weight had settled in the pit of my stomach, and would not go away. Blood was pounding in my temples. Black spots were dancing before my eyes. I may have convinced myself that I had hope, but the possibility of rejection was still hanging above me like a guillotine. I dared not imagine what my life would become if worst came to worst. It was simply too horrible.
Lost in my self-destructive thoughts, I finally reached the Headmaster's office. Clutching at my breast, I took a deep breath and was just about to approach the gargoyle guarding the spiral staircase when I caught the sound of approaching footsteps. As quick as lightning, I dived into the shadows of the nearest niche just as two figures emerged from behind the corner. Peering from my hiding place, I recognized them as two Death Eaters I had never particularly liked, the Carrows.
"Pure-blood," said Amycus Carrow to the gargoyle, which immediately slid aside to let him and his sister pass. As they disappeared from view I finally let out the breath I did not know I had been holding. It had been a close call. Now that I had told the guards at the entrance that I had come to see Draco, it was imperative that nobody saw where I had really gone. Of course I planned to visit Draco after my business here was finished, just to make certain. Ever since he left I had missed him terribly. But for once there was something my heart yearned to do more.
I was shaking like an aspen leaf by the time the Carrows finally came out. I had so wanted to get the matter over and done with, because the more time I spent thinking about it, the less confident I became. And now that I had had another fifteen minutes to elaborate on the worst possible scenarios, I was feeling more certain of failure than ever before. My whole life had been a failure, so why should it be any different now? Why could I simply not stay content with the half a year of happiness I had already had? Surely it was too much to ask for more?
No! That was how Lucius had taught me to think. That I had no right to live my own life. That I was only alive to obey his wishes. That I was nothing but a woman, an inferior being. But Severus had made me see differently. He told me that women were no worse than men; I only had to look into history at how many witches had been famous. He told me that I had exactly the same right to pursue happiness as any man. He told me that I could do anything I wanted; the only thing that dragged me down was my own lack of self-confidence. Well, I would show him that I was not afraid! I would throw his own words into his face if it came to the point. I would fight for my happiness, or die trying. How could I have even thought of backing out once I had come this far?
Clenching my fists, I uttered the password (perhaps it was lucky that I had overheard it from the Carrows, though I doubt I would have had much trouble thinking of it myself) and determinedly stepped onto the spiral staircase. It immediately sprang into motion, taking me up and up, and then suddenly I was at the door, giving it a quick rap before my determination could wane.
"Enter," came Severus's voice from the inside, and my heart skipped several beats. However, I did my best to ignore it; instead I took a deep breath and pushed open the door.
Severus was sitting at Dumbledore's old desk, studying a mass of papers spread out pell-mell in front of him. He glanced up as I entered, and a number of emotions crossed his face before he finally settled for a mask of neutral politeness.
"Narcissa," he said, rising. "What a pleasant surprise. Do come and sit down." He pointed towards a sofa and several armchairs off to the side of the room, which I could not remember being there while Dumbledore still occupied the office. I wondered whether it had anything to do with the kind of guests Severus now entertained, who would not take well to being left standing, as Dumbledore had often had his visitors do, regardless of their position. Be it as it may, however, I took the offered seat and sank down onto the sofa, while Severus claimed the armchair beside me.
"Would you like something to drink?" he asked. "Tea? Wine?"
"A glass of wine would be nice, thank you," I said, and watched as Severus conjured two glasses out of thin air and handed one to me. We both took a sip before Severus put his glass down and asked, "So to what do I owe the pleasure of your visit today?"
I flinched at the words; it was as if he were talking to a stranger. I resisted the urge to shout at him. Or kiss him. Or both. Instead I said, "Well, since you so ask, I shall not beat about the bush. I have come because my life has become so unbearable I simply cannot go on anymore. It ... it all started when we stopped seeing each other. I wanted to forget you and be a good wife to Lucius as I had promised, both to myself and to you. You know I never meant otherwise. But ... something went wrong. No matter what I told myself, I couldn't get you out of my head. I tried everything, I really did. But it only got worse. The more I tried to forget you, the more I missed you. Eventually I could think of nothing else; it was like an ever present nightmare. It was hurting me, and it was hurting Lucius. And I knew then that I really could not afford to delude myself any longer, that it would be the death of me - and Lucius - if I did. I suppose I had known the truth all along, I just didn't want to admit it. But I ... I love you, Severus, no matter how wrong it may be. That's the reason I came to see you today, because I really didn't know what else I could do." With this final declaration I slowly raised my eyes, my heart beating like mad. Severus, however, did not meet my gaze. He was staring at his wine glass, looking thoughtful. I watched him with mounting dread. Now that it came to the point, I was not sure if I really wanted to hear his reaction.
"I had feared this might happen," he said after what seemed like an eternity, finally looking up from his glass. His expression was serious, but otherwise unreadable. "So what is it you expect from me? I hope you remember what I have told you about love."
I sighed. "How could I forget? But no, I do not expect you to love me back. I just want to ask if ... if we could continue seeing each other, like we did before."
"And Lucius?" Severus's voice came like a whiplash.
"That's exactly the point," I countered, ignoring the stab of pain in my chest his cold tone had induced. "This is as much about him as it is about me. He returned from Azkaban a wreck. As if that wasn't enough, the Dark Lord has taken his wand. He turns to me for support, but how can I give it to him when I am a walking shadow myself? He has started drinking, Severus! I know I could stop him, but not without your help."
"And you believe having an affair will help him? Do you think he will be a happy man if he ever finds out about this?"
"Well, now he's an unhappy man for certain," I said, Severus's uncompromising tone grating on my nerves more and more. "If we take extra precautions, the risk will be minimal. And if it helps him..."
Severus, however, shook his head. "Narcissa, this is different from last time. Have you not been listening at the Dark Lord's gatherings? He is preparing for war, he has spies everywhere. Nothing escapes his attention now."
"I still think we should risk it," I said stubbornly. "Of course I don't expect to meet every night like we used to. Once every two weeks will do just fine. I just ... need something to look forward to, something to replenish my energy. I've been giving Lucius my all, but now I'm empty. I have nothing left to give, Lucius has taken everything. He is a changed man, that is true, but he still hasn't learned to give back. You, on the other hand-"
But Severus cut me off. "Narcissa, stop. This is not a good idea. These are dark times; it is no place for romantic affairs. Emotions do not belong in war. They only make people weak and vulnerable. They subvert their rational thinking. In short, they make them easy targets."
"Well, I don't think I can become much more vulnerable than I am now," I said defiantly. "So I'm willing to take the risk."
"I shall let you do no such thing," retorted Severus heatedly, no longer sounding like his usual composed self. Perhaps if I persevered, I would eventually manage to discompose him even more. Now, however, I was furious.
"What do you mean, you shall not let me?" I bristled. "Why should you care? You have no feelings for me, you've said so yourself. So what's it to you if anything happens to me or not?"
To my surprise, Severus did not answer. He merely looked at me, and there was such pain in his eyes that one would have thought I had hurt him. But ... that did not make sense. He may have missed me, yes, but surely it was not possible that...
"You ... you do care," I breathed.
He flinched at the words, as if they had stung him, and averted his gaze. He looked, if possible, even more dejected, as he ran a shaky hand over his cheek. I could take it no longer. Before I could realize what I was doing, I had caught the hand and started stroking the long fingers soothingly. To my relief, Severus did not pull away. I guessed he was past protesting now. And so I edged as close to him as I could on the sofa, and whispered, "Don't fight it, Severus. Fighting it is what will make you weaker, more vulnerable. But if you give it a chance, it will make you stronger, happier. Even the world won't seem like such a desolate place to live in anymore." I sighed, then quickly went on in the unlikely case Severus chose to interfere. "Still, you are right that these are dangerous times. It may happen that one or even both of us will perish in the war. But would you rather die regretting what you had missed? Or would you prefer dying with the memories of the good times we had had? Think about it."
Severus finally looked up at me then, and it was as if his whole life was reflected in his eyes, the mistakes he had made, the chances he had missed. And then he was no longer gazing at me but past me, looking as though he was reliving each memory in its painful details, suffering just as he had all those years ago, his dark eyes glistening with unshed tears ... until, after what seemed like a millenium to me, he must have reached a decision of some sort, for his eyes were focused on me again and there was an air of determination about him that had not been there before. And suddenly, before I even had a chance to start worrying about the result of his musings, he was kissing me, kissing me like he had never kissed me before; it was hungry and somehow desperate, as if he would never get another chance again. And I was kissing back, my hand caressing his face, over and over, pressing on his skin as if trying to etch it into my palm, tears streaming down my cheeks, for it was too overwhelming to believe that after all those months I was in his arms once more.
When we finally broke apart I was crying like a child, and so Severus, who seemed in no way disconcerted by this reaction, having already been subjected to it before, pulled me onto his lap and stroked my hair until the tears subsided, taking all the pain of the last few months with them.