The following week, Stark and I return to the forest several times. I had to be certain of what I had seen, and Stark kept a protective eye on me. The perimeter defences had been strengthened, and the snake didn’t leave the nest often. The wards surrounding the cave were impenetrable, and Stark had to pull me to safety when I got too close. One thing was assured, my empathic powers picked up an overwhelming feeling of success and newly generating energy. It was frightening. However, instead of allowing the oppressive wards to diminish my abilities, I pushed myself into research mode to analyse the situation. How could this have come to be? What elements were used to regain a physical body? Thinking back, the unicorn blood had given Voldemort a half-life, sustaining him as he fed off of Quirrell. Did this snake provide some sort of ingredient to enhance that? Remembering that the serpent had bitten the newborn moments after the birth, maybe there was something in the venom. I could only speculate.
The month was coming to an end, and I had learned all that I could for the moment. Albus needed to know what was going on, and I needed to return to Rome. Sighing as I glanced around the shabby hotel room while packing my meagre belongings into a small rucksack, I thought to myself, I really need a vacation!
The third floor corridor was full of activity as I stepped from the lift and headed for the lab. My stay in Rome had been short lived as my supervisor and the new Administrative Head of Experimental and Medicinal Potions made life very easy for me. My post had been divided into two, each with equal authority but handling different aspects of the job. My former assistant would now oversee the political end of things while I focused on what I did best – research and potion creations. Everyone was satisfied, and I returned to England with a huge weight lifted from my shoulders.
“The results are in!” one of the lab technicians beamed, waving at me as I entered the lab. “You came back just in time!”
He handed me a folder containing notes from the head Healer of the Janus Thickey Ward at St. Mungo’s. It contained a progress report on several patients who were trying the experimental potion made with the Magpie mushroom. Each of the cases was a reasonably mild form of brain damage caused by misused spells, and it showed improvements in body function and in some cases memory. I was elated with the results. Things were looking up.
I was kept very busy until the holiday season. A new lecture series was scheduled at Oxford for the new year, progress meetings at John Radcliff solidified my standing that the intracellular transmission system study was making headway, eliminating some minor forms of carcinogenic elements and reducing mutations in certain types of lymph node cancer, and the successful testing at St. Mungo’s of the Magpie Potion gave us the encouragement to step up the testing to more serious cases.
As the month progressed, I half-heartedly welcomed the festive season with its multitude of social events. Granted, I needed a mental diversion, but I was not looking forward to spending it alone.
There was a wonderful glint in Adam Kurtz’s eyes when I attended the faculty party at the Biochem building in mid-December. He seemed to be less sharp with people and a bit more social as he awkwardly mingled with Miss Pratt clinging to his arm. She had a remarkably soothing effect on him, and it was good to see him smile, although it was more like a pained smirk. As I approached, the glitter on her finger caught my eye, and I broke into a wide grin. Offering my congratulations to the newly engaged couple, I gave Adam a quick peck on the cheek and reached out warmly to Miss Pratt, who pulled her fiancé protectively closer and away from me. He frowned, and I had to smile again. She had no reason to be jealous.
The Yule celebration at the Society’s Manor House was splendid, as usual, but I definitely wasn’t in the mood to be there. I hadn’t heard from Severus in months, and the last communiqué I had from Albus was distressing. Sirius Black had somehow infiltrated the castle and attacked a portrait in an attempt to gain entrance to the Gryffindor Common Room. The figure in the portrait had denied him access and had fled after the attack. It was puzzling, and something that needed further investigation. Albus was keeping his allies as close as possible.
At the celebration, I made my obligatory rounds, chatting pleasantly and playing my role well. Pinky had spent the past couple of days helping the Society elves prepare and was presently collecting cloaks from arriving guests. She looked forward to the festivities and revisiting her friends every year and positively beamed.
As I moved toward the spindly chairs on the far side of the room, a voice cheerily called out. “Mistress Di Marco, it’s so good to see you.” Master Whitherling approached looking dashing in black formal robes, his silver hair glistening against the dark cloth.
“I didn’t see you earlier,” I smiled at my old colleague, reaching my hand to amiably clasp his. “I would have come to pay my respects sooner.”
He waved his hand, silencing me. “My wife was slow in preparing herself. We arrived late,” he said in hushed tones as he leaned a bit closer. “I keep telling her she’s beautiful, but I think she’s a bit self-conscious right now.”
I gave him a quizzical look, and then understood as I saw his wife waddle toward us, very pregnant. I smiled broadly and started to giggle. “You old dog!” I playfully slapped at his arm. “Congratulations! I hadn’t heard.”
“Thank you, my dear,” he beamed as he affectionately wrapped his arm around his mate.
“When is the baby due?” I asked curiously. She looked like she could drop at any moment.
“Would you believe, not until February,” she sighed heavily, placing her hand at the base of her back, stretching slightly.
I was no Healer, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she was carrying twins.
As the evening wore on, I danced with a few of my contemporaries, even relenting to dancing with that horrid Master who was always so obnoxious. I had learned how to deal with his leering grin and foul breath over the years, and as he returned me to the edge of the dance floor, I spied an imposing figure in the entrance way. My heart thudded in my chest as Severus stepped into the reception hall. Dressed in classic black robes with Slytherin green and silver trim, his lank hair curtained his face; dark rings under his eyes extenuated his sallow skin, telling a story of late nights and much stress. He looked too tired to scowl, but managed anyway. Guests raised their heads as he entered. His imposing six-foot frame towering over most of them. I stood on the opposite side of the room, staring. I had missed him so much.
“Look what the cat dragged in,” the leering wizard sneered as he released my arm, “and coughed up,” he added as he abandoned me to join his companions near the bar.
Severus strode into the room and relieved a house elf of two shots of Firewhiskey, downing them one after another.
Ouch, I sent, doesn’t that burn?
His head slowly rose, scanning the room until he located me.
Welcome to the party. I’m glad you made it. I twitched a smile as we made eye contact.
He tipped his head almost imperceptibly in acknowledgement then turned to greet Chairwizard Castwell and a few of the senior Masters that were standing near by. His comments were curt but reasonably polite, and he stood talking with the men for a few moments before moving deeper into the room.
I waited, watching from the sidelines, as the crowd parted to admit the new arrival.
How have you been? I sent as he stopped at the refreshment table.
It’s not easy, he replied, picking at a plate of cheese and finding a comfortable spot against the far wall. Albus felt that I should make an appearance.
I’m glad you did. I’ve missed you, I replied before plunging forward. I’ve heard things, mostly from the Ministry. Did the Dementors really attack the Potter boy?
Severus’ head tipped slightly forward.
That’s insane! They’re not supposed to be on the grounds. What is the Ministry thinking?
Severus’ scowl intensified, and I could see his jaw tighten. There was something more. Our eyes met for a split second, then diverted.
I heard that Black got into the castle. Oh, now that was the wrong thing to say. I didn’t think that his scowl could possible get any deeper, but it did. He looked positively furious. At that inopportune moment, an ancient colleague approached and clapped Severus on the shoulder, demanding his attention.
“Snap out of it, my boy. It’s the holiday season. Lighten up a little.” He handed Severus another Firewhiskey from a passing elf and watched him gulp it down. The old wizard grinned a toothy grin and continued to wander aimlessly through the crowd.
Sorry, I sent. I didn’t mean to upset you.
I’ll live…but I don’t know if Black will, Severus replied, his bitterness was evident.
We wandered our separate ways for a while, keeping our distance but keeping an unassuming eye on each other from opposite sides of the room. Eventually, I lost track of him and turned abruptly when long fingers grasped my elbow.
“Dance?” a deep voice asked as I was roughly pulled to the dance floor.
The mellow waltz had already begun when we assumed the formal stance and began to gracefully move to the music.
“Isn’t this opposed to your character?” I whispered as I slowly spun under Severus’ arm.
“Yes, but I danced with you once last year, as well,” he replied, expertly manoeuvring us around the floor.
“Is this another dare?” I asked, not sure whether to be insulted or elated.
“No,” he said shortly, his head tipping to meet mine, a small twitch playing at the corners of his mouth.
When the music stopped, we noticed several people whispering and watching. Severus backed to a safe distance, making a miniscule bow, turning sharply on his heel and retreating to the bar. I made a quick curtsey in return and made my way to the refreshment table before the next piece of music could commence.
About half an hour later, a squeal erupted from a small gathering of aging witches and cackles rippled through the crowd. The annual mistletoe had arrived and heads turned to follow the flitting greenery, which seemed to be on a mission. It didn’t make its customary random stops but seemed to be in search of someone in particular. Curiously, that someone was Severus. The foliage quickly found its target and planted itself over his head, refusing to move and doubling in size when Severus attempted to blast it out of the air. His fury grew as many of the Masters and Mistresses, as well as their companions, openly laughed at his predicament. Abruptly turning, his robes dramatically flaring as he spun, he fumed his way to the entrance hall. Another poof of wand fire and an infuriated groan was heard, and the laughter increased, as everyone knew that he had tried unsuccessfully to blast it away again. I listened to comments and reactions, as I sat alone in the row of frail chairs.
“He deserves it,” one witch said waving her hand toward the door.
“I wonder how he’ll get rid of it?” her companion laughed.
“He’ll have a bush over his head if he keeps trying to get rid of it that way,” an old wizard wiped the tears from his eyes with the back of his hand as laughter overcame him again.
I shook my head in annoyance and quickly made my way across the floor to the exit.
Severus had been pacing the marble entranceway and had stopped by the fireplace as if considering leaving. His left arm leaned across the mantle, his right hand on his hip, a slight flush crept up his neck as his jaw set tight, and I could tell that he was gritting his teeth.
“Unless you’ve got someone at home to help you get rid of that,” I pointed to the hedge-like bush above his head, “you’d best stay around.” If looks could kill, I thought as I received an icy glare.
“Oh, for heavens sake,” an elderly witch exclaimed from across the hall. “It’s not the end of the world. All you need is a kiss.” And she marched up to Severus and planted a soggy kiss on his cheek before he could pull back. Surprisingly, the mistletoe remained.
The leering wizard and his compatriots arrived at the entranceway with a possible explanation delivered through difficultly restrained laughter. “I think he has to initiate it. After all, it’s over his head.” A scoff rose from his chest before he finished his sentence, and Severus narrowed his eyes at the menace.
“No one deserves this kind of humiliation,” I defended, “regardless of their disposition. This isn’t right.” I paused and turned toward Severus who had his back to the growing crowd. “Master Snape…” I began kindly as I took a step forward. “Master Snape…” I repeated and reached out when I didn’t receive a reply.
“I don’t need your defence,” he barked to the mantle, “nor your pity.”
“You have my defence as I would defend anyone treated badly, but you don’t have my pity, you’re far too foul-tempered for that,” I shot back, to the muffled chuckles of the gathering. “As I said, no one deserves to be humiliated like this. You may not have the best temperament, but you are a brilliant Potions Master, the youngest in Wizarding history,” I turned to remind the group sharply. I reached out tenderly, touching his shoulder, making him turn toward me. Our eyes locked for a moment, and then I raised my chin to place a kiss on his cheek. As I was about to make contact, his head turned and our lips met, to the gasp of the witnesses. It was sweet and tender, a feeling that I had missed, but before I had time to respond, he pulled way and looked up. The mistletoe had diminished in size but still lingered. With a frustrated huff, he grabbed my hand and abruptly pulled me out of the entrance and up the stairs to a quiet alcove on the second floor. The crowd buzzed behind us as I feigned resistance but went willingly along. Reaching an isolated corner, Severus cast several wards to keep people away and urgently backed me into the wall, lowering his head to mine and running his magnificent nose along my jaw line. I involuntarily shivered. The tip of his tongue reached out, tasting an earlobe, making its way to my mouth. My knees felt like water. His tongue danced along the edge of my lips before he hungrily assaulted them, pressing his entire body against mine. I responded instantly to the rising desire to be with the man I loved.
“How are we going to explain this?” I asked, panting through small, desperate kisses that I placed on the underside of his jaw.
“The mistletoe,” he grunted as my thigh pushed against the bulge in his trousers while his hands roamed to the lacings on my black silk bodice.
“They’re not going to believe that,” I tried to reason when reason was quickly vanishing.
“We’ll think of something,” Severus moaned as he pushed me backward along the wall and opened one of the heavy wooden doors. Backing me into a book-lined study, the assault renewed as he nipped at the crook of my neck, grabbing my buttocks, and lifting me to sit on the edge of the large oak desk in the middle of the room. His lips were so sweet, so tender, yet contained the passion of months of suppression. It was pure energy needing release, and a fiery red aura began to emanate from us. It drove us on. He finally released the ties of the dress and hesitantly pushed the fabric over my shoulders. It was a wanton sight, and his eyes gazed hungrily as I hauled the full black satin skirt onto my lap. Pulling him between my knees and pushing his robe aside, my hand reached for the bulge that needed liberation. His head tipped back as he hissed to the ceiling. I stroked the twitching appendage, grasping through the fabric that was pulled taunt.
“Do it,” I whispered, watching his face contort with pleasure. “Just do it.” My head tipped back as his lips moved to my collarbone, his hands roaming under the fabric pushing the edge of my knickers aside. I could feel him struggle to adjust himself and then… Yes! Sweet ecstasy. The motion was sharp and frantic, but oh, so, needed. I clung to him, my legs wrapped around his thighs as my climax rose almost instantly. His was close behind. It didn’t take long. Clinging to each other and breathing heavily, our hearts pounded a strong rhythm as our bodies exploded together. Then, resting in each other’s arms, we relaxed, leaning against the desk, feeling utterly spent.
Severus raised his head and looked up, a smirk and snort went through him. “Well, the mistletoe is gone.”
I looked up, my legs still wrapped around him. “A simple kiss would have gotten rid of it, but I liked this better,” I added as I seductively moved against him again.
He pulled his head back slightly and looked at me suspiciously. “How would you know what would have ridded it?”
“Umm,” I tipped my head away with a slight smirk.
“You didn’t!” he expelled, his eyes wide, still holding on.
“Sorry, caro, but I thought it would be a good excuse for you to kiss me and keep your cover. I didn’t realize it would go this far…not that I’m complaining, mind you.” I raised my eyes through my lashes and batted them innocently, while trying unsuccessfully to suppress an impish grin.
His eyes rolled as he pulled me close. “And they call me bad!” he chuckled lightly.
After regaining our composure and casting a good cleaning charm, we straightened ourselves and sat in two, dark leather, wing-backed chairs in the masculine study. Severus said little that I hadn’t already heard, but was more intent on hearing about my adventure in Albania. His concern was great, and he strongly suspected Black of finding a way to return to the Dark Lord, but Black was on a mission first, to kill Potter. Albus and the others hadn’t yet found a way to get close to Black to lure him out. It seemed that he was quite mad, totally unpredictable, yet brilliant in eluding capture. It was still a mystery how he had escaped Azkaban.
After about half an hour, we felt that we had caused enough scandal by isolating ourselves, so Severus devised a plan to save my reputation. The large bay window of the study overlooked the Apparition Garden, which appeared vacant. We called Pinky to assist us. She would Apparated to the garden first and signal if the coast was clear. I would, then, Apparated to a small alcove at the side of the garden and would ventured back into the manor through the main entranceway where several people were mingling, thus appearing as if I had slipped out for some fresh air.
It worked like a charm, and as I entered, heads turned in surprise and several witches approached looking concerned.
“Are you alright, dear?” they questioned noticing my slightly swollen lips and lack of cloak on a bitterly cold night.
“I’m fine,” I assured avoiding their eyes. “I just needed a bit of fresh air.”
They nodded understandingly at each other and lifted their heads as Severus leisurely made his way down the spiral staircase, mistletoe free. They turned again to eye me with interest.
“So,” one venture curiously, “how does he kiss?” she finished with a smirk.
I bit my lips together to suppress the chuckle attempting to rise. “As well as he dances,” I coyly replied as I casually walked away, the twitter of astonishment following in my wake.
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