Chapter 30 : 29 - Conflict
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Severus stood in the doorway between the kitchen and hall, arms folded across his black-clad chest, a scowl deeply etched on his face. His pale cheeks were slightly flushed, and it looked as if he had just arrived.
“Pinky came to the castle this morning, frantic, because you left early yesterday and had not yet returned. Luckily, she was unseen, but her concern was so great that she sought me out. Care to explain? Where have you been?” His demand was one he would use with an errant student.
“Excuse me?” I blinked, surprised at his tone. “You didn’t have the courtesy to send a note, to tell me that your plans had changed and that you would not be meeting me? I haven’t heard from you in weeks and was looking forward to seeing you. How dare you question my whereabouts when you don’t explain your own!”
Pinky cautiously backed away from the scene that was about to play out. Neither of us noticed as our jaws set for the battle.
“You know I have duties, that I cannot simply disappear. My presence was required,” he snarled as he took a threatening step into the kitchen.
“I understand your duties, but it wouldn’t have been impossible to send some sort of message to let me know not to expect you,” I growled back.
“This place is unplottable. I couldn’t send an owl,” was his defence.
“And you couldn’t send a message to the Society making your excuses?” I questioned curtly.
“Would that be within my “character”?” he sneered. “Oh yes, please excuse me, Sirs, but something has come up, and my plans had changed. I won’t be able to attend the festivities tonight.” The sarcasm dripped from his lips as he glared at me.
“There’s always a way,” I retorted, not letting his demeanour affect me but understanding his point.
We stood for a few moments glowering at each other.
“So, what was so important that kept you away?” I asked harshly.
“Where were you?” he countered, obsidian eyes narrowing.
“Oxford, the Botanical Gardens. I ran into an old friend, and we went to dinner,” I answered defiantly, chin slightly raised.
“Long dinner, or was it “dessert” that took so long?” His jealousy was evident.
“We hadn’t seen each other in a long time and talked late into the night. As we obviously couldn’t return here and I still had quarters at Oxford, and we went there,” I explained defensively.
I could see his jaw flex as he ground his teeth. His upper lip began to curl as he asked, “Who was it?”
I inhaled deeply, preparing for the explosion, but held myself firmly, “Remus Lupin.”
His back shot straight like I had struck him, and his eyes narrowed as he measured through gritted teeth, “You spent the night with Lupin?”
“We talked until dawn, then he fell asleep on the sofa, and I collapsed onto the bed. Nothing happened, except that I convinced him to start taking the Wolfsbane again. Belby cut him off.”
Severus stared at me like a bull eyeing a red cloak. It steam could come out of his ears, I’m sure it would have. He spun on his heel, strode through the hall and into the study to gather his cloak to leave. I stepped into the doorway, blocking his path.
“What was so important that you stood me up and couldn’t let me know?” I asked again, this time demanding an answer.
Severus tried to angrily bypass me, but I wouldn’t budge. The air fairly crackled with static.
Relenting slightly, he uttered through a snarl. “Several Muggle-born students are Petrified.”
My brows creased in puzzlement, and I cocked my head faintly to the side. “Petrified? Of course, some would be frightened by Hogwarts. It’s a completely different environment from what they’re used to…”
Severus held his hand up to stop me. “Let me rephrase that.” His lips twisted in irritation. “There is a force present in the school, hidden a thousand years ago by Salazar Slytherin, in a secret chamber that no one knows the location of, not even the Headmaster. A creature has been unleashed and has targeted the Muggle-born students. Yes, they are frightened but some have been Petrified…as in, turned to stone.” He watched as my expression changed from puzzled to shock. “As you can see, I was rather busy. The Headmaster has his own troubles to deal with, and I didn’t want to impose on him with sending you a note simply to appease your delicate sensitivities.”
I had begun to soften, but my hackles rose again with his final comment. “My delicate sensitivities?! I was worried about you! I was concerned that something was wrong and, obviously, I was right. I was expecting you and was hurt when you didn’t show up and didn’t let me know.”
“So you sought out…other company,” he hissed.
As I roared with exasperated anger, he pushed past me and headed for the kitchen. I stood in the study, listening to his heels retreat on the wooden floor, too angry to consider going after him. But, my ears perked up at the following scene.
As Severus reached the kitchen, Pinky blocked his path, using an elf’s special magic to hold him in place.
“Pinky is sorry,” she apologized for restraining him, “but Master needs to know,” she added timidly. “Mistress loves Master. Mistress asked Pinky to tell her when Master arrived at the celebration. When Master didn’t show up, Mistress was very sad and went home. Mistress doesn’t know, but Pinky listened as Mistress cried herself to sleep. Mistress wouldn’t eat breakfast, and Pinky made her favourite.” The little elf rung her hands as her chin began to quiver. “Mistress stayed at the house waiting. So sad. So sad,” she shook her head, ears flopping sideways. “Then, Mistress tells Pinky that she’s going out. When Mistress didn’t come back, Pinky went for Master, because Pinky was worried and knows that Master loves Mistress, too. Oh Master, you shouldn’t fight. Pinky knows what it costs you two to love.”
Severus began to visibly soften as the protective little elf spoke. His shoulders slumped slightly, but his back remained rigid. I stood in the doorway of the kitchen listening to Pinky’s confession and concern, but when she saw me, she hastily removed the restraint, and lowered her head in shame. Severus, feeling the magic let go, drew back his shoulders, pulled on his cloak and strode out the backdoor without looking back. Pinky buried her face in her hands and howled, holding herself back from the natural instinct of self-punishment. I closed my eyes and turned to the wall, resting my head on the frame. In time, I numbly walked back down the hallway to the study and slumped into the large armchair in front of the fireplace. To drained to move, I remained there, silently staring into the flames, until the dusk cast shadows on the old tomes on the bookcase and day turned into night.
I returned to Italy the following morning and did what I do best when life deals out its difficulties. I buried myself in work. Long days turned into late nights, and January’s chill turned into February’s mild breezes. The one letter that I had sent to Severus, via Stark, had been returned unopened. My heart was broken, and work became all-consuming, and although I hadn’t discussed my troubles with anyone, I think my supervisor and Carmen guessed that it was a problem of the heart. Both were sympathetic but never broached the subject.
The team’s work with the Magpie mushrooms had turned into quite the project as the mushroom’s effect on regenerating damaged brain cells became more evident. However, the hospital in Rome didn’t have the sorts of injuries required for the type research and experimentation that needed to be done. There was only one alternative, one place that had these maladies – St. Mungo’s in London. I had no desire to return to England anytime soon, but St. Mungo’s, with its wide variety of war-induced injuries, was the perfect place to be. My supervisor noted my reluctance and told me to consider it a “humanitarian mission”. With a little political negotiation between the Italian and British Ministries and a promise to share results, if or when, a treatment was created, I found myself back in England with a small team of research assistants, both British and Italian. The assistant director happily resumed the post as director in my absence, agreeing to continue the study from his end.
The lift was slow this morning. Standing in the lobby, facing the gilded bars, I waited patiently listening to the arrival of witches and wizards heading to work. In time, a smooth drawl sounded behind me, obviously talking to someone else. The voice made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.
“It’s about time that old man was out of office. Even though it’s only a suspension, the governors will see that he is incapable of holding such a post. You know…my only concern is for the students. Those poor children. Attacked at their own school. Tsk, tsk. Should never have happened.”
“Old man…out of office…students…school…” The words swam through my head. What had happened? I casually glanced over my shoulder and instantly felt ill. Il Biondo. The Blonde. Malfoy. The monster of my nightmares that had haunted me for years. My head began to spin, and I reached out instinctively to steady myself only to have a well-manicured hand grip my upper arm. I jumped.
“Are you alright? You look quite pale,” the cold voice belied the considerate action.
“Thank you,” I forced a polite smile. “I’ve been waiting so long…I’m not certain what happened,” I lied.
I received a twitch of an uninterested smile as the lift door opened, and we moved forward. Slowing inching our way up, the elevator stopped at the next floor to pick up another passenger.
“Good Morning, Mistress Di Marco,” Minister Fudge greeted cheerily, “Mr. Malfoy, Mr Crabbe,” he nodded tolerantly to the other occupants. “How have you been managing in our little laboratory?” he directed toward me, round face anxious for a reply.
“Fine, thank you, Sir,” I answered politely. I didn’t really like the Minister very much. He reminded me of an ostrich who buried his head in the sand whenever things didn’t go smoothly. “We’ve spent the past week selecting some possible candidates for the experiments, but I fear it may take some time.” I shook my head, glancing briefly at Malfoy who stood pretending not to listen. “I’ve never seen such atrocities of humans toward humans.”
“Mmm, yes, horrible things happened,” the Minister agreed absently. “You didn’t have to deal with our war in Italy. Lucky. Nothing bad happened over there.”
The lift doors opened on level three, and I disembarked, leaving the three men silently eyeing each other. “Nothing bad happened over there” echoed in my mind. What did he know? Irritated, I shifted my brief case in my hand and headed for the lab. I had work to do.
Throughout the day, Malfoy’s comments kept coming back to me. Something horrible must have happened at the school for Albus to be suspended from his position. I hadn’t heard from him in months, and with the Severus’ silence, I felt completely cut off. Maybe it was time for me to make a move. Sitting at the borrowed desk in a corner of the small lab, I penned a note to my grandfather.
What’s going on?
Sealing the parchment well, I took a quick trip to Diagon Alley, to the Wizard Post, and sent the letter by public owl, hoping that the owl would be able to find him. I chose this method as I knew, it would be difficult to trace, and I knew that Albus questioned some of the loyalties and certainly the integrity of some of the Ministry officials. I hoped to hear from him soon.
Days turned into weeks, and it was late-April before I heard from the old man.
St. Mungo’s was quiet, and the Healers and mediwitches were making their scheduled rounds in the Janus Thickey Ward, also called Ward 49. I spoke with the head Healer on duty and checked in with a few patients that we had selected for the research. The team had decided to start with the simple and eventually work its way up to the more serious injuries, as the potion was still very much experimental. I walked the antiseptic hallway and peered into the occasional chamber, observing the patients and examining their charts. It was sad to see the sort of spell damage that people had inflicted on each other.
By the time I returned the large desk at the end of the corridor, I was completely engrossed by one particular case and had a feeling that it would become my next “red file folder”: a horrible circumstance of a tortured couple that resulted in both being severely brain damaged. “Crucio” had been the curse of choice, and having felt the bite of such a cruel weapon, my heart went out to this pair and their family. Closing the file and placing it pensively on the desk with the attending mediwitch, I glanced up to find a long bearded, old man in a brown brocade robe standing in front of me patiently waiting for my attention. His faded blue eyes didn’t hold their customary twinkle, and he said nothing as he stood watching me, but I felt his message clearly. Safe house, tomorrow night. I nodded almost imperceptibly as he turned to meander down the hall, looking as if he were a long-time resident in this ward.
Draconus Filiastus, Dragon Weed, grew against the back wall of the fenced-in garden of the Cumberland safe house. The tiny purple flowers glowed with a violet hue, emitting a Protective Shield around the house and its occupants. It’s light, musky scent floated gently on the spring breeze with an almost narcotic effect. I trudged up the path, not really wanting to be here, but needing to know what had been going on. The back door creaked open, and my grandfather sat sedately at the old kitchen table, waiting. Slipping my cloak from my shoulders, I hung it on the wrought iron hook behind the door and sat in the chair opposite the old man. We both sighed, and then smiled despondently at each other.
“Welcome to the British Ministry,” he tried to lighten the mood.
My eyebrows rose as I flickered a weak smile. Cutting to the chase, I asked, “Suspended? What on earth happened?”
“Mr. Malfoy happened,” he said with a shrug, taking my cue and avoiding small-talk. “He managed to convince the other school governors that I was unfit to oversee the safety of the students.” I shook my head in disbelief. “Ahh, fear not,” he reassure, blue eyes twinkling behind half moon glasses. “Though it may seem that I am out of the school, it has given me some freedom to…investigate…other issues. Your information regarding Voldemort’s whereabouts has been helpful. Back in Albania? Interesting. I assumed that what was going on at the school involved him.”
“Aren’t the others in danger with you gone?” My concern was evident.
“I trust those left in charge to continue their vigilance,” he stated confidently.
“What is going on?” I asked. “I hear nothing, and what I did hear, I overheard from Malfoy himself at the Ministry.”
“Malfoy saw you?” Albus asked alarmed.
“Yes, but he didn’t recognise me. I keep my Vagueness Charm on almost constantly.”
Albus nodded slowly. “And Severus hasn’t contacted you?”
I shook my head. “I haven’t heard from him in months.” The disappointment in my voice was clear. “Is he alright? Is he one that you left in charge?”
“Professor McGonagall is acting Headmistress, and she knows to trust Severus, but Severus is doing his own investigations into the chamber incident.”
“So, he’s been busy,” I said sadly.
“Very, but he should not continue this rift with you. I am not one to get involved in other people’s affairs, but I would advise that this not continue.” He sat with his hands folded neatly on his lap talking as if he were gently reprimanding a student.
“The letter I sent was returned unopened.”
“Severus can be a hard-headed, difficult man, but he loves you. Whatever the situation, I’m sure that you two will work it out somehow. You need each other and will need each other in the future.” He shifted, then stood. “I must go. I have another appointment.”
“Is there anything that I can do to help?” I asked hopefully.
He nodded slightly and replied, “Just do as I have asked.” Then, he abruptly exited through the back door, leaving me standing in the middle of the kitchen, baffled.
What did he ask me to do? I thought. Confused, I decided to return to my Ministry-owned quarters in London. Lifting my cloak from the hook, I swung it around my shoulders and pulled the door handle to leave. It wouldn’t open. I tried again, tugging the knob. It wouldn’t budge. Puzzled, I moved to the never-used front door and found it sealed as well. Then, the realization hit me. The old goat had locked me in! Removing my cloak, I settled at the kitchen table to think. What did he ask me to do??
I’m not sure how long I sat there, but eventually the back door swung open and a flurry of black cloak swirled inside. Seeing me sitting at the table, the figure turned to leave, but the door had slammed shut behind him, a loud click, indicating that it had been locked. Grabbing the handle and shaking it hard, Severus swore under his breath, then spun toward me.
“Unlock the door!” he growled.
“I can’t,” I replied to a scowl. “I didn’t cast the spell.”
“Then who did?” his eyes narrowed.
“Who invited you here?” I asked trying to refrain from chuckling.
“Albus,” Severus exhaled as he rolled his eyes and tipped his head back. “That’s what he meant. Subtle.”
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing,” he turned to shake the handle again, and then headed for the front door.
“That one’s sealed, too,” I called from my seat.
Returning to the kitchen, he removed his cloak and tossed it over the back of a chair, flopping open-kneed into another, and glaring at me from across the table.
I raised my left eyebrow at him and twitched a smile. So this was Albus’ way of “not getting involved in other people’s affairs”? He lured both of us here and locked us in. “What did he tell you?” I asked curiously.
Severus sat, fuming, saying nothing.
“He told me that this couldn’t continue, that we need each other, now and in the future. I agree. Severus, this has gone on long enough. We’ve been through too much to end things this way. We need to work things out.”
“I had a feeling that there was something between you and Lupin, but I didn’t think that it was still going on,” he abruptly huffed.
“I confess that long ago, when you wouldn’t have anything to do with me, while I was working on the Wolfsbane, Remus and I got, um…close, but it didn’t last long as I couldn’t get you out of my system.”
Severus closed his eyes and gritted his teeth, steadying his breathing. “You admit that you two were lovers.”
“What do you want me to say? It was something that shouldn’t have happened but did.”
“You just admitted that you were lovers,” Severus reiterated, nostrils flaring.
“Yes,” I conceded, keeping my voice as stable as I could but seeing that this was not going well.
“And you spent a night with him at Christmas to retaliate for my not contacting you,” he said firmly, staring at me with cold, black eyes.
“No,” I defended, “I was hurt and went to the Gardens. I’m always soothed by the power of the plants. He showed up, and we talked. Nothing more. I didn’t plan to meet him.”
“Do you still care for him?”
“I’d be lying if I said “no”, but I don’t love him and have no intention of rekindling any sort of relationship with him. Severus, what happened happened many years ago when we were not together. I would never betray you.”
“But you have,” he glowered.
I began to grit my own teeth. He was infuriating! What did he expect me to do after he left and refused to speak with me for nearly three years? Finally, I began to think of the events surrounding this particular situation. “And you have never cared for anyone else other than me? I would have to be stupid to think that there has been no one else in your past,” I shot back. “You know, I think this goes beyond Remus,” I began to analyse the situation to a stony glare, “I think something is going on and you’re transferring your frustration onto me. The Severus I know would have found a way to inform me that he would not show up, so that I wouldn’t worry. Instead you jumped all over me, angry, when I went off on my own. Severus, I’ve always supported you, had faith in you, even when you didn’t want me to. Whatever it is, talk to me. What are you afraid of?” I beseeched.
The old mantel clock in the sitting room could be heard through the silence, the steady tick of minutes passing by. He sat there, glowering at the tabletop, unwilling to share his thoughts, no explanations forthcoming. As the silence continued, my determination to let him speak next solidified, however long it took. Finally, recognising that we were at an impasse, his shoulders began to slump, and his head tipped slightly forward. With a slow, deep sigh, he crisply began in a measured voice.
“I’ve been investigating Malfoy’s renewed activity in Dark circles,” he finally confessed. “It would appear that he is leading a former group of the Dark Lord’s followers, meeting regularly and increasing forces. Malfoy is a powerful man, quite skilled at coercion and blackmail. I have been ingratiating myself to gain his confidence and believe that whatever is happening at the school, Malfoy, somehow, has a hand in it. I didn’t want any outside contact I made be traced back to you. That is why I didn’t contact you.”
“I understand,” I nodded slowly, “But as selfish as this may sound, do you realise how hurt I was? We hadn’t seen each other in so long, and I was so looking forward to that night. I’d made plans, and when you didn’t show, I was crushed.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t make plans that involve me anymore,” he stated dejectedly.
“Maybe we should learn how to communicate better,” I replied softly.
“What plans did you have?” Severus’ lank hair had fallen into his face, and he brushed it aside with long, elegant fingers.
“Plans that would have made your toes curl,” I grinned mischievously.
His right eyebrow rose, and a smile hesitantly twitched on the corners of his mouth. “Care to share those plans?”
I shook my head slowly, my smile drooping. “In all honesty, caro, I’d rather just be held right now, a reassurance that we’re all right. I love you, and I’ve missed you. I just want our hearts to beat in comfort, together.”
Gracefully rising from the stiff, wooden chair, Severus slowly strode around the table and tentatively held out his hand, pulling my to my feet, encompassing me in his strong, lean arms. I quickly wrapped my arms around his waist and buried my face into his chest, holding on tight. I had no intention of letting go, and I wanted him to realize that.
“I once told you that I don’t share well, and the past will always be there,” he sighed. “But I will admit, I’ve missed you, too,” he whispered into my hair.
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