The Sugar Quill
Author: Olive Hornby (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Penance  Chapter: Default
The distribution of this story is for personal use only. Any other form of distribution is prohibited without the consent of the author.

Disclaimer: The characters and setting in this story are not mine; the story and interpretation are. Thanks go out to J.K. Rowling, for creating such a wonderful world and letting us play in it, and to my beta Yolanda for her suggestions.

Penance
By Olive Hornby


The heavy, cold metal door raised slowly, the chains that lifted it creaking in protest as if they hadn’t been used in years, though she knew that wasn’t true. She pulled her robes tighter around herself and stepped inside, head held high and back straight.

Two looming guards flanked her as she walked down the dark corridor beyond, their dark hoods mercifully hiding their ghastly faces. She clenched her teeth and tried not to react to the moans and occasional screams coming from the cells, even as she herself felt the chill in her soul that eventually drove the prisoners mad. She looked straight ahead and struggled to keep her face impassive.

She bypassed the men’s cells entirely.

She knew some of the male prisoners of course, had even been fairly close to one of them at one point. His betrayal had stung the most though, because she hadn’t expected it. She should have expected it, she supposed. Considering her cousin’s thorough and harsh rejection of his own brother for reasons she still wasn’t entirely sure of, his betrayal of two of the three men he’d considered his brothers should have come as little surprise. She may have betrayed the family she was born to, but he had betrayed both his born and chosen families, dealing a harsh blow to the former and completely destroying the latter. After nine years she still couldn’t face him, and she wasn’t sure that she ever could.

As much as she wanted to though, she couldn’t ignore the prisoner whose cell she now approached. She had passed through to the women’s cells, which were fewer in number but no less dreary. The last one on the left was her destination, and she approached it with all of the empty pride she could muster.

Blacks were nothing if not proud.

Somehow, in this terrifying fortress of shadows and dark memories, pride didn’t seem so important anymore.

She stepped up to the small barred window of the cell door and peered through.

Curled in the far corner of the cell was a grungy human form in drab black prison garb. Long, matted black hair fell in dirty tangles down to the prisoner’s back, and swayed slightly as she rocked back and forth on her heels. Her forehead slapped against the stone wall in a steady rhythm.

“Bellatrix?”

The woman stopped rocking and slowly turned her head toward the barred window. Hollow black eyes met compassionate brown ones.

“Ah. The blood traitor,” Bellatrix said flatly. Her voice sounded hoarse and stilted from disuse.

This was a good day then, Andromeda decided. Some days Bellatrix didn’t recognize her at all. Some days the mere sight of her drove Bellatrix into a raging fit. Even on good days, all she could expect was a dose of verbal abuse and scorn from the other woman.

“How are you?” Andromeda said, with all of the stiff decorum expected of her.

Bellatrix straightened and shifted so that she sat cross-legged, folding her hands in her lap with slow, deliberate movements. She held her chin high and regarded Andromeda through narrowed eyes. In Bellatrix’s hauteur, Andromeda could almost see the girl she had grown up with, the girl she had looked up to for so long.

The girl who had become twisted beyond recognition long before Azkaban had scarred her.

“I am well,” Bellatrix said lightly.

A lie, Andromeda knew. No one who spent any amount of time in Azkaban was well. It was simply part of the same scene they played out every month.

“Nymphadora asked about you. She said she’d like to meet both of her aunts,” Andromeda said. She would never condone her daughter coming here, Auror trainee or not, but it gave her something to say.

Bellatrix raised one eyebrow. “She still hasn’t met Narcissa?”

“No.”

“Does Narcissa speak with you?”

“No.”

“Good for her,” Bellatrix said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

“You speak to me,” Andromeda countered.

“I have little choice in the matter,” Bellatrix snapped.

“Narcissa still hasn’t come to visit you, has she?” Andromeda asked, veering the conversation away from Bellatrix’s disdain for her before she could get carried away with it.

Bellatrix looked away.

“I understand that her son is doing well in school,” Andromeda said.

“Good for him,” Bellatrix replied listlessly. “With any luck, perhaps he’ll represent the family better than his filthy half-blood cousin.”

“I imagine he sees himself as a Malfoy more than a Black,” Andromeda said sharply, firmly tamping down her indignation at the unprovoked verbal jab at her daughter. “Lucius will have seen to that.”

“Malfoy, Black, Lestrange... it’s all the same, really,” Bellatrix said with a languid wave of her hand. “Toujours Pur, any way you look at it. Certain of us would have done well to remember that.”

“There are more important things than blood, Bellatrix.”

“And yet here you are, cornering the one blood relative who can’t turn you away.”

Andromeda paused for a moment. “I can’t just let you rot here alone. I have to do something.”

“How nauseatingly noble of you,” Bellatrix spat. “Rest assured that I would not do anything for you were the situation reversed.”

“I know,” Andromeda said, fighting her anger. Bellatrix simply didn’t understand.

Or maybe she did. They had both made enormous sacrifices for something they believed in, but Bellatrix wasn’t the one crawling back to the shattered remains of what she had left behind. Some deep, repressed, reptilian part of her mind that she was certain was a natural part of being born a Black still held doubts about her decisions. Bellatrix certainly didn’t seem to have that problem. It was a paradox that kept Andromeda awake many nights. Hearing her husband’s laughter or seeing her daughter’s smile, she knew she had made the right decisions, but meeting Bellatrix’s hollow, haunted gaze or having another letter to Narcissa returned unopened, she couldn’t help but wonder.

She had turned her back on them first. Perhaps she deserved their scorn.

Perhaps her monthly ritual of visiting Bellatrix was her penance.

“Anyone who could turn her back on hundreds of years of tradition and snub everything her family stands for deserves a far worse fate than Azkaban,” Bellatrix said, as if reading her mind.

“There is very little in this world worse than Azkaban,” Andromeda said, shivering slightly in the stifling presence of the two dementor guards.

“On the contrary. There are many things worse than Azkaban,” Bellatrix stated with such certainty that Andromeda swallowed nervously.

An image of Alice Longbottom sprang unbidden into her mind: kind, ever-laughing Alice, whom Bellatrix had reduced to an incoherent near-vegetable. She hadn’t been able to face seeing Alice in St. Mungo’s any more than she’d been able to face her cousin Sirius in Azkaban. Of course, if Alice’s aging mother-in-law ever caught her visiting, she would likely end up sharing her sister’s prison cell--the older woman detested Andromeda for her relationship to Bellatrix and would no doubt accuse her of trying to finish what her sister started.

She was damned both by the Blacks and as one.

There were things worse than death, but most of them were simply different forms of death--a living, breathing body did not necessarily make someone alive. She wondered whether Bellatrix considered own expulsion from the family comparable to a life sentence in Azkaban or St. Mungo’s.

Andromeda gave up on the conversation. It was the same one they had every time she came, and she knew it would go nowhere. Neither of them would ever budge.

She reached into the one of the pockets of her robes and pulled out a large bar of chocolate. She stuck it through the bars and wiggled it enticingly. As usual, Bellatrix stared at it for several moments before slowly rising to her feet and walking to the door to retrieve it. She’d had to fight with the prison wardens to be allowed give the chocolate to her sister, and they still insisted on checking it every time before she took it into the prison, but they had grudgingly given in. A little chocolate wouldn’t keep the dementors out of Bellatrix’s head, after all. It offered temporary relief at best. She would suffer regardless.

Bellatrix stepped back from the door and unwrapped the chocolate carefully. She took a small dainty bite, but her hunger quickly overrode her deeply ingrained aristocratic manners. She wolfed down the chocolate, shame shining in her dark eyes as she deliberately looked away from Andromeda.

Bellatrix had no qualms at all about serving the most terrible Dark Lord in recent history, but was ashamed to accept a bar of chocolate from her sister.

Andromeda’s mask broke just a little, and she clutched the bars and leaned in closer.

“Bella...” she whispered.

Bellatrix folded the chocolate wrapper and leaned forward to hand it back through the bars to Andromeda. Andromeda took it wordlessly, and Bellatrix returned to her corner and sat down again, glaring back at Andromeda.

They were silent for a few minutes. Andromeda smoothed the chocolate wrapper and tucked it in her pocket. Another one for the collection.

Bellatrix finally broke the silence. “Why do you keep coming here?”

Andromeda had often wondered that herself. Ever since she had announced her intention to marry Ted Tonks, Bellatrix had treated her like something vile and foul, if she acknowledged her at all. Though Bellatrix had turned a blind eye to her sister dating a Muggleborn wizard, she couldn’t ignore the engagement ring on Andromeda’s finger. Bellatrix had chosen her pride in her Pureblood heritage over her feelings for her sister, and Andromeda had never understood the decision.

Bellatrix had looked straight into her eyes and informed her that she was no longer her sister, and Andromeda cried herself to sleep in Ted’s arms that night and many after.

“Well?” Bellatrix drawled impatiently, drawing Andromeda out of her reverie.

“Because I should,” Andromeda blurted. “Because everyone deserves to have someone care for them.”

“Spare me your misguided pity,” Bellatrix snapped. “Tell me, was it pity that drove you to marry that common low-born cur?”

“It’s not pity. On either count.”

Was it pity though? Love? Duty? Revenge? She honestly couldn’t say. The lines were so blurred where her family was concerned that she doubted she would ever be able to sort it all out.

“I see. And naturally, now that you’ve done your good deed for the month, you will go home to your Mudblood husband and half-breed offspring and think about how wonderful your life is and what could possibly have led your sister astray. You will wonder why I’m not like you, never realizing that it is you who is the freak, you who betrayed us all. You who should be suffering right now,” Bellatrix said in a cold monotone.

“I’m sorry, Bellatrix,” Andromeda said, looking away from her sister. She never had the energy to argue at the end of these visits. The dementors seemed to sap that out of her just as quickly as they sapped away happiness, but Bellatrix had enough rage to keep going even after all these years. Andromeda often wondered where that rage came from, but she knew that Bellatrix would never open up to her.

If she was perfectly honest with herself, Andromeda wasn’t sure that she really wanted to know what made Bellatrix the way she was.

And she would never admit that sometimes she almost understood.

“You should be sorry,” Bellatrix said firmly, her voice full and confident for a change. She sounded so certain, so righteous, as if she could never be wrong; as if Andromeda was the sole cause for Bellatrix’s current plight and everything that was wrong with the world.

Andromeda sighed. “I’ll see you again next month.”

“Don’t bother.”

“It’s no bother,” she said, smoothing her robes. “Goodbye, Bellatrix.”

Bellatrix turned away and stared at the wall.

Andromeda walked away from her sister’s cell, her steps measured and certain in spite of the violent churning of her stomach. She was halfway down the corridor when she thought she heard a soft answering call: “Goodbye, Andromeda.”

She stopped and twisted around to look back, but the only sounds she could hear were the usual moans and screams of the inmates. She shook her head at her own folly--it was only wishful thinking. Bellatrix hadn’t called her by name in over a decade.

She walked away and didn’t even blink when the dementors slammed the heavy iron door behind her.

//
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