Chapter 5 : Chapter Five
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Although we did not speak of the incident again for some time, witnessing each other’s greatest fears seemed to change things between Salazar and me. After such an ordeal it felt pointless to keep our distance, to pretend that the experience had not brought down some of the walls between us. As the days passed and became weeks, our cautious partnership became something more akin to friendship.
I learned to understand his ways. This took time; although his words were bold, he still managed to give off the distinct impression that he was hiding something. His face was like the blank stone of the castle walls, his voice like the steady drone of rain on the windows. I had grown up surrounded by people who expressed their feelings freely, so Salazar’s guarded nature had unnerved me from the start. But eventually I grew well accustomed to his tentative emotional displays, and even came to enjoy the challenges that came with reading him.
That near-apology in the dungeons had been a special case; I would have been a fool to expect humility from him all the time. He still took every possible opportunity to correct me, give me unwanted advice, or tease me about the overly familiar way I approached the students, all in that smug tone that I hated so much. I learned to joke and wisecrack in response to his remarks instead of taking them to heart; one could not be sensitive when conversing with Salazar. Being near him seemed to sharpen my tongue as time passed, though I would never be able to match him in a battle of wits.
Through this process of decoding Salazar, I struggled to make sense of my own reactions whenever I was in his presence. It was not uncommon for a fierce blush to spread across my cheeks as he approached, or for me to fidget with my braid for no apparent reason. I tried to school my every word to make me seem more intelligent and capable, but no statement ever came out sounding exactly the way I would have liked. Instead of the accomplished witch that I had become, he made me feel like a flustered young girl much of the time. I had never met a man like him; one who surprised me at every turn, one whose mere presence could make me strive to prove myself.
And he was quite handsome, in his way. I supposed that must play some part in it.
I began to think about my own appearance for the first time in years, and developed the new habit of scrutinizing my reflection before leaving my chambers in the morning. What I saw was not overly inspiring. I had always been plain; I had always known it, but had never given the matter a great deal of thought. But now I despaired of my broad frame and my freckled skin that was such a contrast to Rowena’s fine white complexion. My curls were thin and wispy, and had a faded red-brown hue that no one could quite name. The only beauty I could claim was in my eyes. Everyone had always said it. They were blue as the ocean in summer sun, and they were large and bright against the unremarkable backdrop of my round face. I could only hope that Salazar would choose to see this, and not the parts of me that I was less proud of.
Godric and Rowena both seemed relieved to see the good will between Salazar and me, and the four of us relaxed into a much closer and more comfortable bond. The camaraderie was nice, and I knew Godric enjoyed it as well; his words by the lake about unity had been prophetic, in a way. But I could see the restlessness in his stance whenever he and Salazar spoke. He had held his tongue in the weeks since our disagreement, and our secret was still safe. But I knew it still weighed heavy on his mind. As for me, I could not deny the guilt that came with keeping my blood hidden. Dishonesty was not something I respected in others, and it caused considerable unrest within me. But even so, I was not sure Salazar was ready to hear the truth. Surely I could hold on just a little longer, and wait until the time was right.
Spring turned into summer, and classes ended for a few months. The children welcomed the time off, but the end of term did not lessen the load for the four of us. This was the time to look back on our first term and decide what changes we needed to implement for the second. There were many orders of business to be discussed in the coming weeks; among them was the shape-shifting monster that still loomed large on all of our minds. Rowena had used her uncanny skills at putting names to complex things, and the creature was now known to us as a boggart.
I had hoped to avoid speaking of it for as long as possible. But Rowena, practical soul that she was, would not let me live in denial. As the four of us were enjoying a peaceful morning in the library, she pored over the towering shelves while the rest of us watched her. No one was inclined to get up and help her search.
"Oh, sit down, Rowena," Godric finally called. "Your pacing sets me on edge. And besides, this may be the only time we have to relax for a long while."
"All the more reason to spend this time wisely," she countered, with the slightest of smiles. Godric and I scoffed at her, and even Salazar seemed amused at her tireless search; a faint smile played about his lips as he idly twisted his silver amulet in his hands. Suddenly transfixed by him, I was vaguely aware of Rowena disappearing behind a bookshelf. She did not come out for some time.
"Rowena," I said beseechingly, finally tearing my eyes away from Salazar’s fingers. "Even I know the value of resting every once in a while. Please, come and enjoy the sun with us."
At length she reappeared, trudging toward us empty-handed. “Only because my search has been fruitless. I know of no existing spell that can counteract the boggart’s power,” she concluded with a frustrated huff, moving to sit straight-backed on a cushioned stool.
“I would rather not even think about it,” I groaned. “Can we not just leave the door locked and let it be?”
“You know that would be folly, Helga,” she replied. “We must find a way to master it. But none of these books have any spell that will help.”
“Then we will just have to invent one of our own,” Godric replied with a big grin in my direction. He had yet to sit down, and I noticed that he seemed more energetic than usual. I looked at him curiously but did not comment on it. Knowing Godric, the reason for his high spirits would spill out before long.
“Our specialty,” I replied, returning his smile in spite of my aversion to the subject. His good humor was contagious.
“It should be something that contradicts fear, something that brings confidence instead." He furrowed his brow in thought and looked at me, inviting input.
I thought about it for a moment, vexed. What force had I ever experienced that was stronger than fear? But then I began to recall sun-drenched summer days in another life; a little girl running amid carts and horses and cooking fires, watching the sun set over rolling hills or the wide sea, stamping her feet as fiddlers played and dancers whirled about in a myriad of colors. Each day with the traveling folk had brought something to laugh about, no matter how small. In that place I had felt like nothing could ever hurt me. It was a powerful feeling, one that could surely overtake whatever monsters might lurk in the shadows. In the face of these memories, the answer came with ease.
"Laughter, of course." It fell from my tongue in the most natural way, and from the look on Rowena's face, I could tell she was surprised she had not thought of it. I shrugged at her as if in apology; it was common knowledge among us that Rowena was the solver of puzzles, and I hated to usurp her even in this one instance. Despite her intellect, there was something fragile about Rowena that I could not quite put my finger on. Her brow was a bit furrowed as she looked at me, but her answering shrug was accompanied by a tiny smile and a wave of her delicate hand, as if to let me know she was all right. I grinned at her, relieved but still resolving to be watchful. If she was truly offended, I hoped she would come to me.
“Of course!” Godric said with enthusiasm, diverting my attention. “Helga, I am in awe of your cleverness.”
Salazar snorted at this, and I reached over to swat at his shoulder. He was conveniently seated in a chair close to me, while I perched atop the table. His black-clad elbow rested just inches from my knee, and I found myself glancing at it every few moments.
"Really, Godric, you musn't encourage her," he said, rubbing his arm. "God knows how such words might swell her head.”
“My head!” I cried, feigning affront while Salazar looked up at me with a teasing smirk. “Forgive me, Salazar, but I always thought it was your head in danger of weighing you down.”
He just shrugged at me, deliberately refusing to rise to my bait. I smacked his arm again for good measure, secretly glad of the excuse to touch him.
“And what of the incantation?” I asked Godric, turning pointedly away from Salazar after a playful warning glance. “It must convey a spirit of joy.”
“Tell me what you think of this. Riddikulus,” he cried, flourishing an imaginary wand toward the towering ceiling. He looked so pleased with himself that I couldn’t help but laugh and applaud my approval.
“Both of you are ridiculous,” said Salazar, but he was smiling. I grinned back, really looking at him for the first time that day. I noted with concern the bloodshot look to his eyes. This was the first time he had spoken all morning, and his pallid face bore signs of little sleep. Resolving to ask him about it later, I turned back to Godric, who was still beaming.
“What has you in such good spirits today, Godric?” Rowena inquired.
He laughed as though she had said something terribly funny. “I should have known I could not hide it from you. Friends, I have joyous tidings!”
He was practically bouncing up and down, everything about his posture begging us to ask for elaboration. Rowena tried to hide a smirk, and I suspected that Salazar was doing the same next to me.
“Well, I suppose you must tell us then,” she finally said after a teasing pause.
“Elaine is with child,” he said, words tumbling out in an eager rush. “I am to be a father again.”
All jesting was immediately forgotten, giving way to genuine happiness. Rowena and I gave delighted gasps at the announcement, and I jumped off the table to embrace him, decorum the farthest thing from my mind.
“Oh Godric, congratulations!” Rowena cried, with a smile that rivaled the sun for brightness. “This is wonderful, is it not, Salazar?”
At the sound of his name, I suddenly realized that he had had not said a word, not even to chide me about my coarse gypsy manners. Not even to offer Godric his best wishes. He just sat there, his stillness unsettling.
He looked at Godric for a long moment. The latter looked confused and openly hurt, while Salazar's poorly concealed revulsion chilled me. The heavy silence crushed the lighthearted mood we’d been in moments before.
“I must take my leave,” said Salazar at last, hastily standing as he broke their eye contact. His voice was clipped and hard. “I—I will speak with you later, my friend.”
He practically ran from the room, careful not to look at any of us. We stared at his retreating back, shocked at the display.
As soon as he was gone Godric collapsed into the chair next to the one Salazar had just vacated, with a sigh that nearly broke my heart. Rowena and I exchanged a discreet look over his head.
“I’ll speak with him,” I said, hearing the tightness in my own voice. Salazar had just marred what should have been one of the happiest days of Godric’s life. And no matter what I felt for him, he would answer to me for that.
I stalked from the library, ignoring Rowena’s half-uttered protest. I knew she would rather not be the one to stay behind and soothe Godric; the role of comforter was not entirely natural for her. But I was unwilling to let her confront Salazar in my place; this was my battle to fight.
He had not gone far. I found him in the first corridor I looked down, staring into space.
“You couldn’t have even tried to be happy for him?” I hissed without preamble.
“I did try,” he said mildly, arranging his features to neutrality. But I knew him better now. I could see that his calm was forced. “But I cannot pretend to be comfortable with something that, quite frankly, disgusts me.”
I scowled at him, unable to form words.
“Is this anger, Hufflepuff? Truly?” He was mocking me. “I did not think you capable of it.”
“No, Salazar, I am just frustrated,” I snapped. Perhaps my tone contradicted my words. “Godric is your friend. He shares good news with you and you run away like a child! He deserves more from you than that.”
He sighed, running his long fingers through his hair. A sign of discomfort. “Trust me, I wish Godric nothing but happiness. You may find this difficult to believe, but I truly wish that I could share in his joy. But there are some things that I just cannot support.”
“Like Godric being wed to a Muggle? And having children with one?”
“Exactly. It is disgraceful. That race is disgraceful.”
By now I was adept at shielding my hurt from him, and I took the insult to my family without a word. Meanwhile, he shut his eyes and turned to stare at the ceiling, and I was struck once again by how bone-weary he looked. Tenderness began to crowd out my anger, and I cursed myself for it.
“Why?” I asked, hearing the hard edge disappear from my tone. I should have anticipated this reaction; when faced with those grey eyes, my words and actions were not entirely my own. Deciding that there was little point in trying to resurrect my wrath, I turned my attention to the troubled man before me.
“Why is it a disgrace? Surely I need not explain.”
“No,” I said. “Why this hate, Salazar? I am aware that Muggles have given us reason to be wary, but your attitude goes far beyond caution.” I softened my voice further and thought about reaching for his shoulder, but decided against it at the last moment. “Why do you despise them so?”
He shook his head, as I had known he would. “That story is best left untold.”
“I am not sure I agree,” I said. “Look at you! This obsession cannot be healthy for you, and it is causing unrest. I am sure that if you just confided in someone, it would be easier to bear.”
His gaze turned withering. “I think not.”
“Why not? Humor me, Salazar.”
“No one would understand. Least of all you.”
“What does that mean?” I could not help but be offended, and disappointed that he did not trust me. Meanwhile, Salazar had reached the end of his composure.
“You are too good, Hufflepuff!” he burst out. “How could you know of sorrow, or betrayal, or evil? My story is filled with all those things.” He looked away. “I would not be the one to expose you to such darkness.”
I rolled my eyes. “Your consideration is kind, but I am not a child, Salazar. There is no need to shield me from anything.” He turned back to look at me, and I shrugged. “Perhaps I would understand better than you think.”
He just looked at me, his face disbelieving.
“Although I do think you are being a little dramatic,” I went on with a shaky laugh, in an attempt to lighten the mood. “Surely you cannot be as dark as you think you are.”
I was trying to make him smile, but his face was still unwavering stone. “Your faith in me is astounding.”
“And why should I not have faith in you?” I asked.
“I would be fascinated to hear any positive attribute you see in me, Hufflepuff.” Now he was bitter, a trace of poison slipping into his tone. “It is as I said before. You and I are not the same.”
He meant to close the subject, and normally I would have obliged him. But at that moment, suddenly I was tired of riddles and wordplay. I was tired of looking at him and feeling powerless to help him. Something had to change.
He had turned his back to me, and I stretched my hand out to rest between his shoulder blades. He stiffened under my touch, but did not shake me away. Encouraged by this, I began to speak.
“You are right, Salazar. We are not the same.” Whether he had wanted one or not, he would get a serious answer from me. “You have everything I lack. You have confidence and eloquence, and people acknowledge your authority without even thinking. I would love to have those qualities, and you inspire me to work for them.” I peered up at him from under my lashes, suddenly feeling rather shy. “You challenge me to be better than I am. You must know how much that is worth to me.”
He had not moved a muscle during my little speech, and I worried that I had been too forward. Feeling a blush heat my cheeks, I let my hand drop listlessly to my side. It felt like a long time before he spoke.
“How is it,” he began at length, turning to face me, “that whenever we converse, I leave with a sense of hope that I cannot begin to explain?”
I smiled, blushing under the gift of his praise. “But you still won’t tell me what troubles you? Or why you hate them so?”
He shook his head with a faint grin, amused by my less than subtle prompting. Meanwhile, I had to be content to let the matter rest. I had pushed him far enough.
“You should apologize to Godric,” I reminded him.
“And I mean a true apology, Salazar. None of your half-efforts.”
He gave a faint laugh. “Finally, someone who is willing to keep me on the straight and narrow.”
“You’re lucky to have me,” I said with a grin.
His nod of acknowledgement was enough to set me flying, even after what he had done. I marveled that I could feel fondness and frustration in equal measure where Salazar was concerned. And I was quickly learning that no magic could quite rival the mystery of the human heart.
When I returned to the library to check on Godric, I found him already gone. Rowena sat alone, gazing out at the vibrant green grounds that spread before her. The sun was high, and it cast glittering rays through the window to rest on her lovely face. I started to ask after Godric’s whereabouts when she turned to face me head-on.
“I know what you are hiding.”
That was her greeting. The words, and the disappointment on her face, shocked me into silence for a moment. Rowena could be quite a daunting presence when she put her mind to it, and I had to force myself not to flinch away from her hard gaze.
“Godric told you?” I stammered, struggling to recover my voice.
She nodded, her eyes never leaving me. “He spilled the whole story when you went after Salazar. Once he started talking, it was as though he couldn’t stop.”
“Right.” I could imagine the scene: a distraught Godric pushed to his breaking point, dying to confide in someone. There was no way I could fault him for that. “And…what did you think?”
She looked at me, shaking her head. “I think your blood is of no consequence. I told Godric so, and I thanked him for trusting me. My only disappointment,” she said, her eyes boring into mine, “was that you could not do the same.”
A heavy weight of guilt settled in my stomach. I had agonized so much over keeping the truth hidden from Salazar, but I had not given a thought to the fact that I was lying to Rowena as well. When the four of us had first met, we had guarded our secrets well. But things were different now; Rowena and I were friends, and it felt utterly wrong to deceive a friend. And yet, I had done it with ease. I remembered how hurt I had been that Salazar would not confide in me, and it shamed me to realize that I had caused one of my dearest friends to feel that hurt.
“Why did you keep this from me? Did you think this would change the regard I have for you? Or for Godric? Do you really think so little of me?”
I could have stood there all day and stared at the ground, but Rowena would not have it.
“Answer me, Helga! Why did you lie to me?”
“No one could know,” I whispered, recalling the time when Godric and I had first made the decision. “We thought that if we told you, it would be harder to keep the truth from Salazar. And we feared that if he knew about our heritage he would refuse to work with us, and Hogwarts would never be.” I sighed, feeling like the smallest person in the world. “We only wanted things to be simple.”
But they were not. If anything, our deception had made things infinitely more complicated. I made myself look Rowena in the eyes.
“I am sorry I hurt you, my friend. I see now that you can be trusted with anything. I only wish I would have realized it sooner.”
She gifted me with a tight-lipped smile, and I felt the knot in my stomach loosen just a bit. “I understand why you did it,” she conceded, relaxing her posture. “And if I were in your position, I cannot say I would have acted differently. But I still do not like it. Godric is right; there can be no divisions between the four of us.”
“I know. But the thought of telling Salazar the truth is just—“
I could find no words to encompass the conflict in my heart. For the first time, I was fully aware of how fragile my position was, and how much I stood to lose.
“It would be a risk,” she said, giving voice to my thoughts. “If you tell him the truth, he may very well decide to leave, and I have no wish to run this school without him. Our very existence could be in jeopardy. And if you keep deceiving him, there is always the chance he may find out on his own. I am certain Salazar would not appreciate being lied to.”
The knot in my stomach tightened again.
“And not to mention,” she went on, “the personal consequences for the two of you. Godric could lose a dear friend. And you, Helga…” She trailed off with a knowing look.
“I have feelings for him,” I blurted out, and she did not look surprised in the slightest. “The thought of him hating me just makes me ill. I don’t know if I am strong enough to endure that. Am I selfish, Rowena?”
Her chuckle surprised me. “No, you could never be selfish. You are just dealing with a delicate, complicated matter. Such a problem is never solved perfectly.” She reached out to wrap her soft hand around mine. “There may well be tears before this is over, my friend. But after today, I hope you will remember that we are allies. You may always come to me, and I will do my best to help you.”
Perhaps I had been wrong about Rowena’s ability to give comfort. I smiled gratefully at her, though the sick feeling in my stomach remained.
“Do you have any advice now?” Rowena was the most practical person I knew; surely she could help me navigate this treacherous ground.
“I can tell you one thing.” She was stern again. “You have strong moral standards, Helga, and that is admirable. But remember that you must live by those standards as well. Start by thinking about what you would expect from others, if you were on the other side of this.”
I nodded, overwhelmed by the choice I was faced with. Not only did I have Salazar’s interests to think of, I had a whole castle full of students to take into account. My shoulders practically buckled from the weight of responsibility upon them. And it seemed that there was no way to resolve this without someone getting hurt in the end.
A/N: Phew...I would definitely not want to be in Helga's position right now. How do you think she'll handle this situation? Those of you who are sticking with this story, I can't thank you enough. And as always, I would love it if you left me a quick review with your thoughts; anything is welcome! I just want to know how I'm doing :)
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