If it be love indeed, tell me how much - Antony and Cleopatra, by William Shakespeare.
They don’t understand, he thinks, as he watches her lounging on the sofa in the Slytherin Common Room. They can’t understand - never have and never will. The rest of them, hyenas and jackals all, stroll around the room as though they own the place, talking loudly about who their fathers had dinner with the other day, comparing the cost of birthday presents, lavishing gifts on one another in order to seem better. Richer. Better connected. Superior. It is a game they all play - inevitable, unavoidable. An inherent need for attention, to prove your own self worth.
Previously, he had thought himself the only one who didn’t bother; the only one who could see the pathetic little game for what it was: a childish attempt at pretending to hold power, to feel it, to taste it. They’re all children: small, ignorant and whiny, constantly trying to emulate their mothers and fathers, with no ambition in life other than to become them - to follow them. Sometimes, he wonders how half of them got into Slytherin House in the first place.
Except her. He’d never really noticed before - of course he’d noticed her, who hadn’t? But he’d never noticed like this - that she didn’t bother playing these games. While all the others were busy recounting for the fifth time that week that their father had lunch with the Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement the other day (did you know?), she simply lay on the sofa by the fire with her two sisters on either side of her.
He watches her silently, happily ignored by everyone around them - they’re all too caught up in their socialite lives to notice. He notices how she turns her head slowly, lazily, how she lies on her side, not on her back like so many of the other girls and how she gives their competing peers a look of haughty disdain. He knows that look well - it’s the same one he wears whenever he looks at them.
Her sister, the blonde one - Narcissa, he thinks, is her name - has noticed him. She bends down from her seated position and whispers to her sister. She’s not very subtle, he muses, throwing her a smirk. As expected, she tosses her head, a sheet of blonde hair swinging over her shoulder as she looks away from him, the message clear: you’re not worth my time.
That’s fine. She’s not the one who’s attention he wants. Vaguely aware of the eyes of the second sister - the brains behind the trio, he has heard - he still keeps his gaze fixed on Bellatrix Black. He doesn’t bother to hide his interest (why should he? He’s perfectly allowed to look, after all) and allows his eyes to wander over her appreciatively. He likes what he sees: he’s liked her appearance for a while now, but he’s never had the chance to enjoy such a view before. He’s willing to bet not many people have, either. She doesn’t let people get that comfortable.
When he finally raises his eyes back to look at her face, she’s watching him back. He gives her a smirk and she merely raises an eyebrow at him. Not quite the reaction he’s used to - but he supposes he should have remembered that Bellatrix is hardly your average brain-dead Slytherin girl. After all, she’s the only girl who’s ever dared to silence Lucius Malfoy. She slapped him. Hard. He had a red mark on his cheek for days, and a bruised ego ever since. Now, most men don’t go near her - she’s unattainable in their eyes. In simpler language, too difficult.
He likes challenges.
As he watches, she murmurs something softly to her sisters. Narcissa nods immediately, sickeningly obedient and he’s reminded forcibly of a small dog that’s just begging to be kicked; rising, she makes her way out of the room, exchanging polite goodnights with others who cross her path. A flash of a smile towards a watching Lucius Malfoy and she vanishes up the stairs.
The other sister doesn’t go so easily. Instead she stays; her refusal to leave instigates a furious, whispered argument between her and her sister. He can’t hear any of it, something which mildly disappoints him. Bellatrix doesn’t seem the type to just let people disobey her and her sister is doing exactly that.
Eventually, as the Common Room gradually quietens down, she stands up, the light from the fire throwing the harsh, threatening look she gives him into sharp relief. He almost laughs. Does she think she can scare him, with her warning glare and pursed lips? Does she think he doesn’t know what he’s doing? If she was more observant she would have noticed that they’re playing his game - he’s the master, not her and not Bellatrix Black. He supposes she’ll find out soon enough.
Patiently he waits for the last couple of stubborn sixth years to stop their muted conversation and saunter upstairs to bed. It doesn’t take long, though - the couple are well aware of the two seventh years watching them, and they cave soon enough under the pressure.
A small, satisfied smile flickers across his lips. Excellent. Just how he wanted it to be. Silently, he swings his head back to regard Bellatrix. She’s playing with a black curl, her fingers winding the hair round and round, twisting and turning it without pause. It’s a single, continuous movement that has him entranced; he can’t take his eyes off her pale skin being swallowed by the ebony locks.
Too late, he realises she’s looking at him. Too late, he realises that he’s been caught. Too late, he realises she’s amused.
“Why are you watching me?” she asks. For a moment he doesn’t reply, giving her a measuring glance. She’s thrown him off guard, he’ll admit that one readily. Maybe she does know how to play his game, after all.
“I don’t know what you mean,” he claims in a drawl, his slight French accent echoing in the empty room.
“You’ve been watching me all evening,” so she had noticed. “I want to know why,” her black eyes meet his green ones across the room. It’s not a question: there’s no lilt upwards at the end of the sentence, no unspoken question mark hanging in the air between them - it’s a statement, punctuated only by the demand for him to tell her.
A demand. No one has demanded anything of him for years. Not since his first year, when a fifth year demanded that he move. He refused calmly and advised him on several other free places to sit. The fifth year had moved.
More than being a demand, it was laced with sheer, pure confidence. She expected him to tell her. She expected that she would get her way, that he would obey her. In her mind, there was no doubt about that. In her mind, she was the Queen and he was merely a pawn on her chessboard, waiting to be ordered, to be given the chance to serve.
He wasn’t a pawn. He’d never been a lowly pawn - that was their supporting cast of idiotic peers, fawning over the latest fashions and gossiping loudly about who was courting who. Silly, trivial, powerless additions to their stage. His stage.
“What if,” he chooses his words carefully, delivering them slowly, his head tilting slightly to the right. “I don’t want to tell you?”
It surprises her. His refusal shocks her - he guesses she’s rarely been refused anything and certainly not by one of their age group. She glances at him: a quick glance, filled with confusion, annoyance and a faint shimmering of anger. Now she realises that he’s not a pawn, now she’s beginning to recognise that he might - just might - be on a par with her. He suspects he still has more to do to convince her.
“If you don’t want to tell me, I’ll simply make my own conclusions about why you’re staring at me. Be aware, Lestrange, they might not be particularly flattering to you,” she replies, her voice kept light, almost too light to be real, and she flicks him a glance from under her eyelashes. It’s teasing, playful and just the right side of seductive. She knows what she’s doing.
“You’re assuming, Black,” if she’s going to use surnames, so will he. “that I am concerned about what you think of me.”
“And you’re not, I take it?” she’s almost laughing, he notices with a faint flash of anger.
“Would you like it if I was?” he retorts immediately, his voice lowering to a purr.
Now she’s amused, shifting position slightly. He wonders if he’s made her uncomfortable or if she’s just getting stiff. Already he can guess that if he asked, she’d be getting stiff.
“Why should I want your attention?” she replies and it’s genuine laughter that laces her voice this time. Her black eyes are sparkling, the light from the fire dancing. “If I wanted attention I could get it very easily.”
He gives a polite cough, poorly disguising a laugh. Normally he would be shocked at his own behaviour; at his own forwardness, but she’s already been just as forward, if not more so, by implying that he’s been looking at her because he wants her. He does, but she doesn’t need to know that. Not yet, anyway.
“Attention? If you want attention from a bunch of overindulged, whiny children you’d do better finding a crèche. At least they would have greater brainpower,” he scoffs.
“What makes you think you’re better than them?” Bellatrix asks, one eyebrow raised.
He raises one back, “Nothing,” he says simply.
“Oh, let me guess: you don’t think you’re better, you know you’re better,” Bellatrix rolls her eyes with a sigh.
“Wrong,” he tells her and it’s his turn to be amused. She was so sure she’d got it, that she’d pinned him down, that her mouth falls into a pout when he delivers his judgement. “Would you like to try again?” his statement is deliberately teasing, deliberately patronising and he’s rewarded by a faint blush across her cheeks.
Nevertheless, she still isn’t put off and she regards him curiously for a moment. “You just are better,” she says, after a couple of moments of silence.
“Well done,” he tells her. In truth, he is quite impressed by her. People rarely manage to guess correctly, and he prefers it that way. For some reason, with her he’s pleased that she’s got it right. It only cements his belief that she is his equal.
They sit there for a couple of moments in silence. Originally, his eyes are on her, lingering on her dark form and hers on the fire, watching the flames with a blank expression. Gradually, so slowly he almost misses it, her eyes slip over to him. He meets her gaze confidently, calmly and says nothing. Neither of them really needs to say anything - internally, he wonders if any of them actually has anything to say.
She breaks it first, tearing her eyes away.
“You never answered my question,” she reminds him and he smirks to himself. No, he didn’t, did he? “Are you going to?”
“It depends,” he draws the words out, elongating them.
“On what?” in contrasts, hers are short and clipped. He’s annoying her and he can tell. Impatience is such an ugly trait.
“On how I think you’ll react,” he replies casually. He’s met by a raised eyebrow from the girl lying on the sofa, her impatience vanished.
“Oh, tell me, how do you think I’ll react?” her tone is mocking, no longer light and playful.
“I’m still working it out,” he is forced to admit. She smiles at him: a slow, smouldering smile that makes his breath stick in his throat. For a second, he forgets how to breathe. The firelight reflects in her eyes, running down the length of her body, disappearing along her calves. She looks fabulously exotic.
“If you tell me, I could help you,” she offers. He’s tempted - he’ll give her that - he’s tempted to cave, but he won’t. His pride won’t allow him.
“Who said I was going to tell you?” he shoots back.
“You did,” she smirks.
“Ah, ah, ah,” he wags a finger at her, enjoying the flames which spurt upwards in her eyes. “I never said that, Bellatrix. I believe that I implied I might. So, really, I don’t have to tell you anything.” He leans back into the chair he’s sitting in, enjoying the flash of anger which darts across her face.
She studies him for a moment longer. A glance at the clock tells him that it’s half past eleven. It’s a Thursday evening and he has double Transfiguration first thing in the morning - he really should sleep. Deciding that he won’t get any more out of Bellatrix Black that evening, he rises, intending to go upstairs. She stops him.
“What do you want from me?” the sentence is blunt, clear and sharp; it cuts through the air like a knife. The shock of her speaking has frozen him to the spot and so she stands up as well, the movement sinuous, like a cat, and he can’t help but watch. She saunters over to him, casual, sensual and simply radiating confidence. He smiles.
When she’s close enough, he takes the chance and raises a hand, running his fingers lightly down the side of her face and down her neck, brushing a waterfall of black curls over her shoulder. She doesn’t move, holding his gaze easily.
“What do you think I want from you?” he asks in return, his voice soft for the first time in their conversation.
“Sex,” the answer is just as blunt as her question and he has to choke back a laugh. He takes a step closer to her, sliding an arm around her waist, surprised at how well she fits in his arms.
“Wrong,” he purrs into her ear, enjoying the feel of her shivering as his warm breath hits her neck. “Would you like to try again?”
“Why don’t you tell me?” she murmurs in reply, turning her head to force him to look at her. They’re dangerously close now, he notices. Only an inch stands between their lips. It’s almost too much for him to handle.
“You,” he says simply. But then, it really is that simple. “I want you.”
This confuses her and, while her hands, subconsciously he’s sure, come to rest lightly on his shoulders, she frowns.
He just shakes his head. Marriage is for those who only think about power - he doesn’t need power, he already has it. With a chuckle, he leans forwards and kisses her lips ever so gently - a butterfly kiss, barely there, fleeting.
“No,” he corrects her, resting one hand on the small of her back, making absolutely sure she can’t flit away like a shadow, or a dream. He’s not quite sure which she is at the moment. He doesn’t think she knows either. Regardless of what she is, he’s not taking chances - he’s heard the stories just like everyone else and he has no intention of being the next in a long line of broken-hearted, failed suitors. “I want you. All of you.”
“Love?” this time, it is a question. This time, he’s going to answer.
“What would we be without it?” he asks, raising an eyebrow at her. She doesn’t answer and she doesn’t need to: they both know the answer. They’ve both seen it often enough, it’s almost a staple of their society: two people, married solely for the purpose of creating a bond there or a union here. It never works; time after time these marriages fade and crumble, shattering under the strength of the restrictions of society. To succeed something as inane, as childish and seemingly worthless as love is necessary: there has to be something to fuel the fire, after all.
“How much?” she asks, and he knows, without a doubt, that she’s working it all out in her head, weighing up the benefits and the disadvantages. She’ll come to a positive score - he knows because he’s made the same calculations.
He just chuckles at her question.
“If it be love indeed, tell me how much,” he quotes softly, holding her gaze firmly, intensely. She matches his intensity, biting her lower lip briefly.
He can’t resist the temptation any longer, but, just when he considers kissing her, considers whether or not it would be worth the hex he’d undoubtedly get for it, she leans in, stealing the initiative from him. She’s surprised him and she knows it, the little minx, but he takes charge swiftly, tugging her towards him, tightening his arms around her.
The kiss is oddly gentle to begin with - gentleness is, after all, hardly something associated with Bellatrix Black - but when her arms slide around his neck, forcefully pulling him closer, he responds by slipping a hand into her hair, holding her head in place as he deepens the kiss (she lets him, something which later confuses him when he goes over the scene). One of her hands vanishes into his hair, trailing through the strands and he is forced to swallow a groan. His hair is his weakness and it seems she knows that.
Over time, his hand in her hair loosens and falls down until he’s merely cupping the back of her head, his fingers brushing the top of the back of her neck. Every time he does, she shivers.
The clock on the mantelpiece hits midnight. Despite it being a quiet chime, it rings out in the huge, underwater room and they pull apart, startled by the sound.
He looks at her, pleased to see that she’s not her usual, perfectly-groomed self. Her hair is mussed, her cheeks flushed and her lips bright red. He’s sure he’s in a similar state, but he’s not interested in comparing.
“What are you going to tell your sisters?” he asks - not because he needs to know, or even because he wants to know, the answer but because he’s curious. He hasn’t been this curious in years.
“I’ll think of something,” she smirks. “What are you going to tell your brother?”
“Nothing,” he replies simply. “He probably won’t notice.”
She laughs quietly. “I wouldn’t be so sure.”
“They won’t notice, Bellatrix,” he tells her, utterly sure of what he’s saying. “The others, there so caught up in their busy lives, they won’t care. It’s irrelevant to them unless it involves power and money and gossip. When it’s all too late, when they realise that the power’s not theirs, then they’ll look for us, but we won’t be there.”
“It’s already too late,” Bellatrix smiles, playing with his hair idly. “And it only takes two sparks to make a fire.”
“Fires burn brighter in the dark,” he adds smoothly.
“We’ve always been in the dark,” she tells him and he wonders, briefly, if she’s been watching him all along, just as he’s been watching her.
“I like the dark,” he comments, watching as she licks her lips lightly, making them glisten in the light of the dying fire.
“Me too,” she whispers just before the fire goes out. An idle flick of his hand sends flames crashing into the grate, a writhing ball of yellow and orange and red. She’s impressed; her black eyes gleam as she looks at him.
He just smirks at her and kisses her lips once more, ever-so-sweetly, before murmuring in her ear, “Goodnight, Bellatrix.” As he walks over to the stairs to the Boys’ Dorms he can feel her eyes on his back. In his mind, a pale finger runs across her parted red lips. He nearly turns around.
“Rodolphus?” the sound of his name makes him turn around, much against his will. “You never answered my question.”
He’s surprised she remembers - he barely does. Hiding that fact, he merely smiles at her, admiring the way she looks there, the light flickering over her skin and clothes. Once again, she looks strangely exotic, almost mysterious. She holds her head high, like a queen or an empress. Once again, she’s demanding the answer.
“I’ll tell you in due time,” he tells her as she approaches him, hips swaying gently.
“I suppose that’s the best I’ll get out of you,” she sighs, leaning in to kiss his cheek but he turns his head quickly so that she kisses his mouth fully. He lets her take charge this time and she deepens the kiss softly, teasingly. His hands grip her waist, her arms around his neck, holding him close, and, just when he moves to push her against the wall, fully intending to continue, thinking that maybe she might let him, she lets him go.
“Goodnight, Rodolphus,” she purrs to him, kissing his lips lightly one last time before retreating up the stairs to the Girls’ dormitories. He watches after her for a moment, a smile playing on his face. She’s definitely his equal - and he knows that he’ll have her. No one else can keep up, after all. They’re all just pawns and he’s the King.