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Chapter 24 : Try and Breathe
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"What are you doing? Do you want them to throw you back in Azkaban?" Remus whispered angrily, walking a little ways into the trees, with Tonks and the dog following. The dog quickly changed into Sirius who followed his friend deeper into the woods.
"Valora hasn't written in weeks. Harry said she spends almost all of her free time in the dungeons practicing her Occlumency with Snivellus. He's worried." Sirius said, glancing up at the castle. Remus raised an eyebrow.
"He's worried or you're worried?" He asked gently.
"Both!" Sirius barked. He set off walking along the edge of the trees, his eyes on the castle. Remus and Tonks followed him, changing the topic.
"It's been quiet lately. No problems." Tonks said softly. Sirius looked over his shoulder at her and smiled. Remus too was looking a Tonks and smiling but for different reasons.
"Voldemort and the Death Eaters are probably waiting for something, rallying force. It's quiet but you can tell that there's a storm brewing." Remus said solemnly. They were all quiet for a little while as they walked. The sun was beginning it's slow descent across the sky, painting the atmosphere in incomparable colors.
"I thought Valora spent all her spare time in the dungeons?" Tonks asked. Remus and Sirius looked at her.
"That's what Harry said. Why?" Sirius asked. Tonks pointed across the grounds where two figures were walking and appeared to be arguing as they walked towards the front doors of the school. Sirius took a step forward. They weren't shouting, but it was definetely tense. Valora was standing close to him, and she seemed to have an grim smile on her face. The man too looked something along the lines of amused, but with the light in his eyes Sirius couldn't tell who it was, until a few moments later when the sun sank slightly lower and he could make out a hooked nose. Valora and Snivellus.
Valora and Severus had decided to forgo Occlumency practice tonight. Severus's idea. He didn't want to over-exert her. They had taken a walk together around the grounds, ignoring the looks from the few students who were out enjoying the pleasant June weather. It had been calm and leisurely until Valora had pressed him for information about Malfoy and Severus had ultimately come clean about the events that transpired between him and Narcissa before term. Even though he had only given her half the story it had probably not been the best thing to tell her.
"I don't understand what made you do that." Valora said for the millionth time that evening.
"How could I possibly have said no?." He whispered heatedly back, for the millionth time.
"Well, it's this thing called 'speaking'-"
"-Oh, very mature Valora." He said ignoring her glare as they walked.
"How can you protect him? How can you possibly protect him from Voldemort? And make an Unbreakable Vow on top of it all! Severus, I could strangle you." Valora said angrily, gripping the air menacingly for emphasis. "How exactly do you plan on protecting him?"
"I can't tell you. You know I've already told you more than I should-"
"So what's a little bit more?" Valora said with a shrug. Severus rolled his eyes.
"I swore to Dumbledore I wouldn't tell you until you've completed your Occlumency lessons." He said soothingly, but Valora wasn't having it.
"Occlumency, schmocclumency!" She said, throwing her hands in the air. "You know I'm as good as done with those lessons anyway. You actually have to try to penetrate my mind now."
"Yes, and I'm very proud of you, but that doesn't negate the fact that you still aren't a full-fledged Occlumens again. Not yet." He said, leaning closer to her and saying it calmly.
"You're lucky I love you." She said grimly, then flashed a wicked smile and took a step closer to him until she saw something move across the grounds out of the corner of her eye. She turned and froze.
"Go inside and act angry at me." She instructed quietly. Severus didn't say another word and obeyed dutifully, sweeping through the great doors. Valora's eyes narrowed at the three figures across the grounds and set off towards them.
When she reached them she didn't stop, merely grabbed Sirius by the arm and dragged him deeper into the forest. He fumbled and tripped a bit as she dragged him but she didn't care, nor did she acknowledge the worried looks of Moony and Tonks. She just kept pulling Sirius until she was sure they were out of sight.
"You had better have a damn good excuse for spying on me Sirius Black." she said, roughly releasing his arm and crossing her own in front of her chest.
"What were you doing with Snivellus?" He demanded angrily.
"Talking." Valora spat.
"About?" He asked, his own arms crossed, his hands balled into fists.
"None of your business! You shouldn't even be here you giant prat! Do you want to go back to prison?"
"None of my business? Harry wrote me that you spend all your time practicing your Occlumency, and it's a good thing he wrote me seeing as I haven't gotten an owl from you in almsot two months and you haven't responded to mine. So yes, I think it is my business to know what you were discussing with that greasy-haired git!" Sirius demanded. He had never truly yelled at Valora like that, and she didn't like it one bit.
"Harry. I was talking with him about Harry's detentions, which he has with Snape for the rest of the year. I assume you know why?"
Sirius didn't respond, but stared, his expression changed from anger to nervousness.
"He used 'sectumsempra' on the Malfoy boy. As you can imagine I'm not exactly thrilled but I'm still trying to see that he doesn't spend all his free time with Severus."
"So, you were discussing-"
"-our godson. Yes, Padfoot. About your letters I'm sorry, I've been busy. I'm not a student who has nothing to do but Quidditch and homework. I have fourteen classes to teach. Fourteen! I don't exactly have a ton of free time, especially since were right near end of term and I need to get everything graded." She said bitterly. Valora didn't wait for a response and walked over to Moony and Tonks who were pretending to haven't have heard the entire thing.
"Can you get him home before he gets himself locked up again?" She asked them, setting back up the path, but Sirius ran up behind her and grabbed her hand, spinning her around before kissing her hard on the mouth. For a moment Valora was too shocked to do anything, then finally she pushed him away.
"What are you doing?" she whispered, shocked. "Sirius, just because we share a godson doesn't mean we're together!" Sirius went to argue but Valora raised a hand to stop him. "This isn't the time or place to have this discussion, alright?" she went to walk again but Sirius's voice stopped her.
"What's wrong with you?" He asked, confused. Valora wheeled around, still stunned by his audacity.
"Nothing is wrong with me, Sirius. I just don't need you hitting on me right now. This isn't a time to play games." She said, tilting her head to the side, confused by his inability to grasp the point. Sirius looked at the ground, before looking back at her, bewildered.
"What makes you think I'm playing games with you?" He asked earnestly. Valora didn't know whether to laugh or scream and found herself looking at him as though he were insane, which at the moment he seemd to be.
"Padfoot, we're don't do things like that. We're not together." Valora said shaking her head. Was this a sick joke? Because to be quite honest it wasn't amusing in the least.
"Did sixteen years really change that between us?"
"Change WHAT?! We were never together Sirius, so please enlighten me as to what the hell you are talking about." Valora asked, throwing her hands up. Sirius's jaw dropped.
"We...I...I love you." He said. Valora sighed and walked closer, rubbing his arm.
"I love you too Padfoot. You're my best friend-"
"No!" He said gripping her wrists tightly and shaking her a little. "I am in love with you! Don't you know that?" He asked with wide eyes and a slight tremor in his voice. Valora stared back with wide eyes, feeling frightened. He looked a little mad.
"I...I can't do this." She said, pushing him gently away, but he didn't let go. Tears filled his big brown eyes as he stared into her golden ones.
"Valora..." Sirius choked out. "Please." He said softly. Valora stared back at him and somehow found the strength to say what she needed to say.
"Let go of me, Sirius." She said softly. Sirius roughly let go of her wrists and apparated on the spot. Valora stared at the place where he had stood before glancing up to the shocked and worried faces of Tonks and Remus. She licked her lips and began to chew on her cheek before walking back up to the castle, cradling her wrists, which hurt. She could still feel his fingers on them, the marks would probably bruise.
Valora had a strange mix of emotions bubbling up in her. Anger, resentment, guilt, fear, and a serious sense of self-loathing. Severus had been saying Sirius was in love with her for years and she had always brushed it aside. He was her brother, her best friend. They didn't care for eachother like that. Now she realized it was all true. Sirius had been in love with her. That kiss before he left for Azkaban hadn't been the last testosterone kick of a man facing life behind bars, it was a desperate man saying 'I love you' to a woman he thought he would never see again. Looking back now at her memories with Sirius she saw how she had led him on. All those moments she spent close to him, tickling him, hugging him, kissing him - Merlin, what a fool she was!
Tears were collecting in her eyes. Sirius was her constant. They rarely fought, and if they did it was always soon resolved. How could they ever go back? She knew from experiance that you couldn't simply 'fall out' of love. On top of all of this they still shared Harry. What would he think? Even he had asked if Sirius and Valora had been together. Had Sirius's feelings really be so obvious to everyone but her?
Valora had never been asked who she was dating or even if she was dating and now she knew why. Everyone had assumed she was with Sirius. All those 'I love you's' had been more than friendship. She felt as though she had been lying and using him her whole life. Not her Sirius, her favorite marauder and best friend in the world. Valora suddenly felt the pressure. The pressure she hadn't felt for months. She leaned against the cool outer wall of the school and took deep breaths, trying to remind her lungs how they worked. Thankfully they obeyed. She couldn't go back to the pain and guilt. She wouldn't.
Valora needed clarity. She needed to hear the truth. She needed to escape all the lies.
Valora was still brushing tears from her eyes when she came across Harry and his friends in the halls. Valora sniffed back the tears and lowered her hands, thankful that her long teaching robes covered the quickly forming bruises on her wrists. Harry, noting her face, seperated from his friends and walked over to her.
"What's happened?" He asked, concerned. Valora smiled and blinked back more tears.
"I was outside and the wind blew dirt or dust into my eye, that's all." She said, wiping again under her eyes. Harry could see she was lying but decided not to press the issue too far.
"You sure you're alright?" He asked again, in a lower tone. Valora squeezed his shoulder and gave him what she hoped was a reassuring smile.
"I'm fine, love. I'm actually on my way to see Dumbledore, so you'll excuse me." She said passing Harry and nodding towards his friends before continuing down the halls until she reached the stone gargoyle.
"Licorice whip." She said quietly. As she climbed the stairs she managed to wipe most of the tears away, so when she knocked on the door she didn't appear to be a blubbering baby. She was stronger than that.
"Come in." Albus said from the other side of the door. Valora pushed it open and walked in. Dumbledore gestured for her to sit and so she settled into a large chair that reminded her of a corn muffin in both color and smell.
"What did you need my dear?" He said, his blue eyes twinkling. Valora twisted the fabric of her robes and didn't meet his eyes as she spoke.
"Sirius was here."
"Here?" Albus said, sounding surprised. "Where?"
"Near the forest, with Tonks and Remus but he left." Valora explained. "He...he kissed me."
"Albus, he said he loved me!" Valora said, tears coming back fresh, but she again forced them back. "All this time, I thought...I didn't realize..." she trailed off as her throat began closing up on her. Dumbledore was silent for a moment before pulling out a box of tissues and offering her one, which she took gratefully.
"Valora, did you really not know?" Albus asked finally. Valora looked at him with wide eyes.
"YOU knew?" She asked, shocked. Dumbledore looked at her sadly.
"That boy has loved you since you went to school together. I think he came to realize it about the time you started seeing Severus. For a long while he was the only man you loved, and you were the only woman he ever truly cared for, he didn't realize he had begun to share you with his worst enemy. I think Sirius assumed it was always going to be the two of you."
Valora's brow was puckered as she processed this. Sirius had really just assumed that she loved him?
"How could he think that?" She asked quietly.
"Well, my dear, he never exactly knew about your relationship with Severus." Dumbledore told her gently.
"I wish I could love Sirius. I wish there was an exact copy of me he could have. If I never had Sev I would be with him, I swear. I wouldn't even think twice." She paused and bit her lip. "But, I do have Severus. He's the only man I can love. Romantically, I mean. Severus and I...what we have is unavoidable and undeniable. Now that I have him I could never give him up. Not for anybody. Not even Sirius." Valora said calmly. She realized now as she spoke the words that she couldn't help what Sirius felt for her. She loved someone else and always would.
"I had hoped by now you and Severus would be able to take your love out of the shadows, but it seems you both will have to wait until-"
"-the war is over. Yes, I know. I knew when I first joined the Death Eaters." Valora said sadly. "I'd like to say that I'm fighting for the greater good, fighting to save my godson, fighting to create a better world, but I'm not. I'm fighitng because winning this war is the only way Severus and I can be together. If I thought Voldemort would let us be together, I'd have easily stayed a Death Eater." she admitted. Dumbledore looked at her curiously.
"You would abandon everything for him?" He asked. Valora nodded.
"If he asked, but he never would, because he knows how much my family means to me." Valora said with a dim smile. Then she settled her gaze intently on Dumbledore. "Albus, I want to know what this big secret is."
"The secret Severus has been keeping from me. I want to know what it is. I need to know what it is. Please." She said, locking her topaz eyes on his twinkling blue ones.
"Have you accomplished your Occlumency yet, Valora?" He asked seriously. Valora sucked in a breath of air.
"Not entirely." She said.
"Then, I'm very sorry, but for the safety of everyone I can't tell you."
"but sir-" Valora protested but was quickly cut off by a wave of Dumbledore's hand. He then leaned forward, trying to communicate something through his eyes.
"Severus is a good man, Valora. Trust him. No matter what may happen. Trust him." He said, stressing it as much as he possibly could. Valora nodded even though she didn't entirely understand. Dumbledore gave her a small smile. "Now I hate to be rude, my dear, but I have an appointment in a few moments."
Valora numbly stood and walked out of the office. She couldn't go to Severus. She didn't want to see the dissapointment on his face. What she needed more time to herself, just to think this through. Figure out how she was going to talk to Sirius about this.
Sirius backed away from Valora and apparated immediatley to Grimmauld Place and grabbing the nearest thing he could reach, threw it agains the wall and didn't pay attention as it shattered. He couldn't believe this. All these years of waiting, of believing that they understood each other. It wasn't real. It had all been in his head. She had never realized. His beautiful, smart, strong, and very best friend was just that: a friend. She didn't love him the way he loved her. He walked into the kitchen and grabbed a bottle of firewhiskey before setting himself down at the table. He drank and drank, trying to sort through the various memories of Valora. Had he really misunderstood everything she had ever said or done?
He fumbled up the stairs to his bedroom and pulled out a box of old photos from their schooldays. Sitting against the wall he began to sort through them. The first one he came across was one of James, Lily and Remus sitting in the common room. In it Remus and Lily were studying and outlining something while James surreptiously studied Lily. This picture usually brought a smile to his face but today it did nothing but remind him of all the times he had stared like that at Valora.
The next was another funny one. Valora and Lily dancing like idiots in the common room. Valora chocolate brown hair whipped around her face as she spun around, sining along with a song he couldn't hear. Her golden eyes were twinkling at she even managed a wink at the camera. He quickly threw that one aside and moved onto the next one. It was one taken during the 6th year Yule Ball. Sirius had been so taken back by her beauty that night he had struggled not to stare at her, instead focusing his eyes on every other girl in the room. He had been so out of it he wound up stepping on her toes half the night. Well, not exactly half the night. Valora hadn't felt well and left soon after arriving. Still in the picture, she had her arms around his neck and his arms were locked around her waist. Now he noticed a distant, almost sad look in her eyes which were trained on the door, as if she were waiting to get away...or for someone else to arrive.
Flipping through more pictures he realized most were from 7th year, when people began to feel nostalgic and wanted to document their last days as a student. This particular picture had been taken during their 7th year potions class. In this one you had a good view of all the marauders. Remus and Sirius had been partners and sat directly behind Lily and James. Peter hadn't qualified for N.E.W.T. level potions and so Valora had been paired with Snivellus, they were in the back corner of the room. In the picture Sirius always focused on Lily, screaming at James for their smoking and bubbling-over cauldron. His younger self was shouting something and waving his hands frantically while Remus laughed and James looked positively terrified. Now his eyes scanned over to Valora who was always wearing a bemused smile. As he watched the picture move he noticed something for the first time. Valora hand sat on the table, almost out of sight, but not completely. Snape slowly inched his hand toward hers and intertwined his fingers with hers. It couldn't have lasted more than two seconds but in that time were they were touching Valora's smile widened from ear to ear. He had just assumed the smiles were for him and their friends, now he realized they had been for Snivellus...maybe they always had been. Maybe they still were. Was that where she had been for sixteen years? With him? Hiding from everyone who loved her for a greasy, vile, Death Eater. The man who helped kill Lily and James, who helped orphan their godson! Sirius angrily threw the picture into the fire and for the briefest of moments wished it was Valora. As the picture began to crackle her lept forward and braved the flames to rescue them. They were now charred and almost ruined. He glanced at one of Valora with her arms around Sirius and James, with Remus peering over her shoulder and Peter standing just to the side. She was flashing the camera a brilliant smile, and mouthing something. Sirius knew what she was saying. He remembered that day perfectly.
It was nearly the end of their 7th year. Valora had gathered everyone out by the lake and tossed Lily the camera. She positioned the marauders around her.
"What's this for?" Remus had asked.
"A memory dummy." Lily had told him, settling back to get them all in the frame. Sirius slipped his arm over Valora's shoulder and James wrapped one around her waist, and she followed suit, wrapping her arms around them and holding them close to her. Peter stood beside James and Remus, taller than Valora, stood just behind her, smiling.
"On the count of three, then." Lily called. "One...Two.."
"Marauders Forever!" Valora had yelled proudly.
"..Three." The camera clicked, and the birght, pride filled faces of the marauders had been captured forever, all of them beaming into the camera.
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