Chapter 8 : Chapter Eight
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The moment I rose from my bed the next morning, I knew that I would be of precious little use to anyone that day. The way my mind was already wandering, it would be a wonder if I could manage any productivity at all. So many unexpected things had materialized before me the previous night; it was all too much to settle in so little time.
With a faint sense of embarrassment, I tried to corral my thoughts. After I had donned my oldest brown dress, combed my hair, and splashed my face with magically chilled water, I closed my eyes and willed my mind to quiet. If I was patient enough, this practice would usually bring me a sense of tranquility and a refreshed mindset. But today my thoughts would not be stilled; they floated out of my grasp, through the halls of Hogwarts, and came to rest in Salazar’s dungeon chambers.
In the light of day, it almost felt as though I was looking back on a dream. Of course I remembered what had been said and done between us, but it all had a surreal quality that blurred the edges of my memory. The emotions of it all, however, were vivid still. The heartbreak of Salazar’s story, and the revulsion I had tried so hard to hide. And the thrill, the soaring happiness that had come with the realization that my feelings for him were shared! Could it all have been real?
In less than an hour, I would see him at breakfast. My stomach clenched at the thought, and it suddenly seemed a very long time to wait. Hoping to regain a normal state of mind, I made my way to the kitchens as I did every morning, trying to curb the bounce in my step. Since I had set my girls to the task of helping me cook, I went there to supervise rather than do much real work. And if our enrollment grew as much as we expected it to over the coming years, soon I would have to go as far as hiring a kitchen staff. It was hard to imagine that I, who had come to Hogwarts owning nothing but the clothing on my back, could have a part in something so grand. So much had changed in only a few months’ time.
Thinking of changes brought Salazar swiftly back to the forefront of my mind, and I had to take a moment to steady myself before entering the kitchen. It would hardly be proper for the girls to see their professor with her head in the clouds, dreaming of some man when she should be working. But if they noticed anything different about my manner when I greeted them, they said nothing of it. They were working dutifully as I entered; the smells of fish and fresh bread mingled together, enveloping me in the distinctive and comforting aroma.
“It will grieve me to lose your help when classes begin, my loves,” I said as I inspected their work. “I don’t know how I ever fed this castle without you.”
“Oh, but you did a wonderful job before, Professor,” said Ameline, a nobleman’s daughter who was surprisingly unpretentious for her station. “If anyone could be fit for such a task, it would surely be you.”
I returned her smile and watched with a flicker of pride as she set about helping a younger girl wield her knife more safely. At fourteen years old, Ameline was one of my oldest students, and I was pleased with the example she set for the other girls. She was reasonably polite and deferential to authority, yet she welcomed any opportunity to make her views known. Outspokenness was a trait I longed to encourage in my female students, and I knew that Rowena valued this quality as well. We were aware that boldness was not a favored attribute in girls—Rowena much more so than I, as a noblewoman herself—but we both felt strongly that young women should be able to make themselves heard. They key would be to teach them to do it strategically, without endangering themselves. Ameline was a natural at this, but I worried for those of my students who seemed afraid of their own voices. They were still young, though, and there was time enough for them to gain confidence. If my girls could leave Hogwarts able to carry themselves with assurance (and if my boys could grow to be strong but not domineering), I would feel that I had done my duty as their teacher.
Although there was still plenty of time left before breakfast would be served, I took my leave of the kitchens after only a few more minutes of talk. Seeing the girls had done much to restore a sense of normalcy to the morning, but I still needed time to prepare before entering the great hall. I took slow steps through the corridor that led to the main staircase, clenching my hands around the fabric of my skirt.
Even with the euphoria of my memories, the thought of actually seeing Salazar face to face at breakfast was suddenly frightening. Everything was different now, that much was obvious. And the light of day could sometimes be harsh. A killer, a murderer, my inner voice chanted, bringing unwanted doubts to the surface. But God, the way he had spoken to me last night—
My thoughts were stopped as a hand closed around my wrist, pulling me into a shadowed corner. I found myself pressed flush against a long, narrow chest, and naturally, I knew whose it was without looking up. Nonetheless, my breath still caught in my chest as soon as I did. There was no smile in his eyes today. But for all the abruptness of my summons, he held me with care.
Now that he had me, though, he seemed unsure of what to do with me. I was reminded that for all his icy sophistication, he had as little knowledge of romance as I, and perhaps even less. I had had a few fleeting dalliances as a girl, so I was familiar with what men and women normally did in dark corners. But those encounters set no precedent for this. Was it passion Salazar wanted now? Did he just want to speak with me privately? His manner gave me no clues, and as usual, I was unwilling to wait.
“Well?” I asked, not quite able to muster the impish smile I liked to wear in his presence. Everything was different now.
Without a word, he pressed his lips gently to my forehead. I exhaled, and the pressure of his fingertips lessened as they slid up to my shoulders and down my arms. Whatever urgency had possessed him, it seemed to be fading. As for me, I suddenly could not imagine why I had felt uncertain about being near Salazar again. His kiss lingered on my forehead, and the chaste touch stirred at something deep within. This was more than mere companionship or cheap passion; in this embrace, I felt treasured. It awed me to think that many women would never, ever experience this, and the sweetness of it threatened to break my heart.
“I wanted to be sure of you,” he whispered, glancing around for passerby. “After last night…”
He trailed off, and I was struck again by how uncertain he seemed. It was a delicious idea—Salazar Slytherin had absolutely no idea what he was doing. The image of the black cat on my kitchen table came to mind, and suddenly I found the jesting spirit I had been looking for.
“Last night?” I asked, feigning innocent confusion. “Did something happen last night? Or…Salazar, are you sure you’re quite well?” I touched the backs of my fingers to his cheek to jokingly check his temperature, but there was tenderness in the gesture as well. He captured my hand in his own.
“How clever you are.” His reply was sardonic, but I could feel his relief. This was safe territory; I was playing with him, and he was torn between amusement and exasperation. The nature of our relationship may have changed, but we could still retain our usual ways. The thought made me smile, and I hoped it reassured Salazar as well.
“I am sure you could find a way to jog my memory, though, if you put your mind to it,” I went on, shifting my arms comfortably around his neck. He laughed and leaned down toward me, the last of his tension sliding away.
We never even thought of telling Godric and Rowena. That morning set the tone for all our future encounters; our involvement was to be carried on in secret, in deserted rooms and corridors. Truthfully, I wasn’t sure how I felt about this. Part of me, the part that enjoyed flouting expectations, had to admit that it was a thrill. This was the kind of secret that I didn’t have to feel guilty about, I reminded myself. It was not as though Salazar or I owed anyone an explanation. But I still had the idea that the other two would not like the idea of our changed relationship. There was the matter of our business partnership to consider, and I felt sure that Rowena, at least, would worry about the complications that a personal entanglement might bring. It was a valid concern, I was forced to admit. But whenever I thought about it, I pushed the foreboding down. Obstinately, I refused to imagine a time when Salazar and I would not be happy; such thoughts would surely tempt a fate that I did not want.
We spent the rest of the summer growing together in the shadows. I still loathed the dungeons, so we did not venture there together. And Salazar was unwilling to meet me by the lake or in the forest, as was my preference. So we sought each other out at odd hours, whenever we could come across a suitable place to be alone. And yes, we did spend a good deal of time in dark corners. But I came to love his visits to the kitchens more than anything else; it was the place he came when he wished to talk, which thrilled me differently and yet just as deeply as any embrace. He would watch me at whatever odd task I was up to, leaning against the table while I tried not to let his presence distract me. Often he would steal bites of whatever I happened to be preparing, trying to get a rise out of me even though he knew full well I did not mind. He had an uncommon fondness for sweets.
It was quite strange to see him there. The Salazar of a year ago had been shamed to appear in such a place, but this Salazar seemed perfectly comfortable among the clutter of the kitchens. He cut an impressive figure—tall, chin held high, clothing immaculate—and the sight would remind me of his wish to appear as a nobleman. But that conversation had happened months ago, when he had been even more tightly coiled and meticulous about his image than he was now. I would not have said it, but I thought he looked much more striking when he wasn’t so conscious of his appearance.
“Do you know,” he commented one day, interrupting my meditation on his form, “that one of your students approached me today?”
“How could I?” I raised my eyebrows, trying to think which student it could be. Not all of the children had stayed at Hogwarts over the summer; the ones from wizarding families who lived reasonably close had spent the season at home with their loved ones. The majority of them did stay on year-round, though, for the sake of convenience. As the only established school of magic for many miles, Hogwarts housed students from the farthest reaches of the country; home visits would be impractical until they finished their schooling.
For those of Muggle heritage, going home was more of a risk than a luxury. To avoid rousing their families’ suspicions, many had been forced to invent stories about their whereabouts; an apprenticeship far away, perhaps, or a desire to stay with distant relatives. It would have been unthinkable to tell the truth—that they were living in a castle concealed from Muggle eyes, learning to harness their magic. I admired these students’ courage, and at the same time pitied them. The act of coming to Hogwarts meant choosing a life of secrecy and hiding, leaving behind everything they had known. I understood their sacrifice in a way that few others—indeed, perhaps only one other—ever could.
My heart went out to them. They were young to make such a choice.
“It was the little Muggle-born girl, with the frightfully large eyes.”
“Mary?” My surprise was evident as I called her face to mind. Only the bravest of students usually dared to approach Salazar, and I would not have placed Mary in this category. “What on earth did she say?”
“She asked me if I would be willing to provide additional help for her in potions and herbology during the upcoming term.” He chewed a slice of dried apple, his face carefully blank.
I chopped quietly for a while, musing. “And are you planning to grant her request?”
“I have not decided yet.”
“Well, I have been told that I’m a very good listener,” I prompted, half-smiling. “Perhaps I can help you in your decision.”
My eagerness was difficult to hide. This, I sensed, could be a turning point for Salazar. He would surely benefit from contact with a known Muggle-born; with any luck, Mary could help him to see the humanity in them.
In us, my mind reminded me. The humanity in us.
“Is she slow?” he asked, skirting deftly around the important issue. “I will not waste my free time on a student that cannot live up to my expectations. Which, as you know, differ from your own.”
“Mary has taken to potions extremely well,” I said, pointedly refusing to answer his jab at my teaching methods. “And she has a great interest in herb lore and the magical properties of plants. Her intellect is not exceptional,” I admitted, looking up at him, “but she more than makes up for that in diligence.”
He creased his brow at that. I found myself eager to plead Mary’s case; I did not know why she wanted potions lessons, but I was proud that she had taken the initiative. If I could help her in any way, I wanted to try.
“She will work hard for you, Salazar, make no mistake about that. And she will hang onto your every word.”
“A quality I appreciate.” He grinned, but it did not quite reach his faraway eyes. “I have no objections to teaching an interested student. But there is…the obvious problem.”
My mouth twisted into a sympathetic slant.
“This could be the first step to freeing yourself, Salazar. What is stopping you?” I pressed. He sighed, and I could practically see his mood turning black.
“I cannot decide which is more uncomfortable,” he muttered, addressing the wood of the table more than me. “Persisting as I am now, or taking on the task of changing. This…this grudge has been my identity for nearly my entire life. If I let that go, then who am I?”
I found it difficult to appreciate his struggle. In my own mind it all seemed so straightforward; developing tolerance for Muggles was clearly the right thing to do, so why should Salazar be conflicted at all? But it only took a moment’s introspection for me to change my mind. When I thought of my own burden, my own lie, I could better understand the part of him that just wanted everything to remain as it was. Change, even for the right reasons, could be a daunting journey. But at least he did not have to make it alone.
“You are Salazar Slytherin,” I said firmly, leaving my cauldron to simmer as I moved to embrace him. “You are the man standing before me today, not the child of years ago. The time for looking backward has long passed.”
“I only wish it were that simple.”
“It is very simple, dear heart.” I lowered my voice and lifted my gaze to meet his. The rare endearment seemed to have startled him, but I did not think it was unwelcome; he blinked, and I could feel a clinging hand at the small of my back. “You know the kind of man you wish to be. A free man. You do not have to forget the past, but there is no reason to remain beholden to it.”
He let out a breath. I could see a softening around his eyes, and I loved seeing a measure of peace in his face.
“You give me courage, I think,” he said quietly.
“And you give me purpose,” I replied. “I want to see you happy, Salazar.”
He let out a shaky breath, and I knew what his next words would be. “Tell Mary,” he began, testing the sound of her given name, “that her lessons will begin at the start of term.”
I pressed a kiss to his knuckles, thanking him wordlessly. There were times when we needed no words at all.
As the start of our second term approached, an air of peace seemed to settle in the very air at Hogwarts. I thought at first that my own giddy happiness was coloring my perception of everything (and everyone) around me. But the signs were difficult to deny.
Elaine was in full bloom; her pregnancy was just barely beginning to show, and impending motherhood made her radiant. She had even started to venture out of her quarters more than usual. I often saw her strolling around the grounds with Gareth running ahead of her, or arm in arm with her husband. The few students that had gone home for the summer were returning, and there were several happy reunions between schoolmates. But the best change of all was the healing between Godric and me. We had addressed the tension and stiffness in our relationship, and it was wonderful to have him back.
After our dispute, we had chosen to act as though nothing was amiss between us. This was the way we normally dealt with quarrels; instead of apologizing, we simply took leave of each other until we could pretend not to be upset anymore. More often than not, we found that the pretending actually helped us to move past any anger. And really, neither of us was the type to hold much of a grudge.
This time had been different, though. I could not ignore the way he had acted, as though I was not even worthy of his full attention. I supposed that we were both still adjusting to my place as Godric’s equal. He had never made a show of his elevated rank, but it had always brought an uncomfortable subtext into our friendship. Before we’d come to Hogwarts, the balance of power had been obvious to us both. He was the son of a lord, while I did not even have a childhood home to call my own. It was a nuance that, despite our current position, lingered still.
Even though I knew Godric would never intentionally treat me badly, old habits were difficult to break. If things continued the way they were, he would always dismiss me and I would always step aside for him. But despite my conviction that something had to change, it was Salazar’s urging that convinced me to actually talk with Godric about it.
We had stolen away to a vacant classroom, and our conversation had turned to serious things. I began to share my discontent with the way things were between Godric and me, and Salazar listened patiently for a time, running silent fingers through my hair. We found it impossible, when we were alone this way, to stand near each other without touching.
His answer to my ranting, when it did come, startled me. “Do you truly deserve his respect, Helga?”
It was a bold question, one that begged for a decisive answer. He continued to wind my curls gently around his fingers, but his eyes were sly.
“What?” I said incredulously, wondering what could be coming. “Salazar, how can you ask such a thing of me? I deserve as much esteem as anyone.”
“Yes, but those words mean very little when they are not accompanied by action. If you truly wanted respect, you would claim it for yourself.” He eyed me. “But you will not. You want Godric’s favor, and nothing more.”
In the face of this challenge I hardly knew what to say. Salazar seized upon my silence like a viper, his voice smooth.
“Sometimes you must choose between being liked and being heard, Helga. Isn’t it time you chose the latter with Godric, for once?”
I gave a halfhearted shrug, angling away from him. Gently, he turned me to face him again.
“You must not be afraid to confront the truth. Ever since you left the gypsies to work with us, your needs have changed. You want the recognition that you deserve.”
He had that look in his eye, the one he always got when he sensed victory. The proud arch of his brow irritated me, and I crossed my arms across my middle. But even more frustrating was the knowledge that he was right. If I wanted any control over the way Godric treated me, I would have to start making my wishes known instead of pressing them down for the sake of peace. The thought made my stomach churn.
“I suppose I could speak to Godric,” I hedged.
“I hope that you do,” Salazar said mildly, more amiable now. “You have power, Helga, more than you realize. But you must learn to seize it.”
I raised my brows. “You seem to be an expert on what I must do.”
He chuckled. “Stand down. I only want to see you happy.” I smiled at the sentiment, quoted from another time.
And so, with my mind full of this encouragement, I had finally summoned the nerve to tell Godric exactly why I had been hurt by his behavior. He’d seemed to understand; indeed, he admitted that the heat of debate often robbed him of civility. We made an agreement; he would take more care to consider my point of view, and I would speak with him right away about anything that troubled me. And with that, everything was all right between us again. This was one of the things I loved about Godric; things were just so easy with him.
We resumed our ventures to the edge of the lake, a place no one else in the caste cared to go. Soon we would be teaching again, and time for these leisurely excursions would be scarce. I had missed talking with Godric; there was nothing so freeing as being in the company of a lifelong friend.
“There is a matter I have been anxious to discuss with you,” he said on one such day. We were seated at the bank of the water, trying to taunt the “monster” by skipping stones across the inky surface. When we were together, we always seemed to revert to childish pastimes. “But I wished to wait for the right time.”
I raised a suspicious brow, belatedly realizing that it was exactly what Salazar would have done. “All right. What matter is this?”
“You and Salazar.”
I probably should not have been surprised. It appeared that, for all the pains we had taken to be discreet, the secret of our relationship was out.
“Me and Salazar?” I asked, feigning ignorance. Godric just rolled his eyes.
“Do I need to remind you that we grew up together? Helga, I know when something is different with you. You have been much too quiet lately, and Salazar has been more…open than usual.”
“Open? What do you mean?” I asked, genuinely curious. I supposed that spending so much time alone with Salazar had given me a much different perspective on him than others might have.
“He spoke to my wife,” Godric said. His eyes were wide, as though the memory still amazed him. “We passed him in the corridor outside the library. Usually he talks with me as though Elaine is not even present, but that day he greeted her, and looked directly at her as he did it. Can you imagine?”
“I believe I can.” I felt a beam of pride cross my face. “He is looking toward tolerance now, just as we have always hoped. I think the process will bring him some measure of peace.”
Godric turned to me, thoughtful. “You are good for him, Helga.”
“How do you know this change is my doing?” I asked, grinning in spite of my efforts to be coy.
“I know a woman’s influence when I see it,” he teased, a wicked look gleaming in his eye. “Something powerful must be happening behind closed doors, I must say.”
I flushed bright red, searching in vain for a retort. But there was really only one natural response; I swept my hand through the tepid lake water and splashed him squarely in the face.
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