Chapter 10 : HIDDEN PLACES
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A reliable method of solace was work and isolation. Occlumency helped restoring all control, locking the hurtful feelings deep inside. A visit to Francesco’s had been cancelled; Maria’s proximity and questioning looks too difficult to answer without lying. Instead Leonor worked frantically finishing the thesis. It was completed thirty minutes before the Quidditch Final; neatly stapled on the desk. Leonor stepped tense into the back yard leaving London. She scowled at the stadium searching the way in. The stands behind one goal post were decorated in silver and green. A stray dog followed Leonor to the stadium. He had escaped from the trees of the nearby forest and run playfully along the path. The dog looked like searching for company and it seemed he silently suggested every now and then an entrance. But Leonor headed further taking the first narrow stair to the Slytherin stands. The big black dog barked and growled. Leonor couldn't believe it, as if even animals despised her decision. Leonor followed a narrow staircase upwards, determined to never support any Hogwarts House again. The stands were crowded to the brim. Every living soul of Hogwarts had found the way down. Madam Hooch talked to the players on the pitch, the game ready to kick off. The weather summoning it’s best of April, sunshine and a mild breezy wind below a blue sky; it honoured the importance of the day.
It was a sea of noise, an ocean of green and silver, flags and banners danced cheeringly in the wind. Leonor stood on the top row of seats, but the voices of the Slytherins hardly drowned much of the Gryffindor supporters. The presence of the snake was nothing compared to the red and gold lions dominating the circle. Leonor's carefully maintained composure crumbled into support for the Slytherins; a person more dressed in green velvet wouldn’t make a difference to the crimson robes and rosettes. Before ending the thought, Leonor had been taken into a seat, warmly welcomed and excitedly introduced to the recent winning history. The kids absorbed the match proudly. Leonor found it difficult following the fast moves, the commentator and observing the general mood in the stands at once. With Gryffindor leading the score, tension and nerves grew and suddenly it was over. Potter caught the snitch catapulting the lions to victory. Reality settled quickly. The sudden silence on the silvery-green mass oppressive against the jubilation of the winners. The stand emptied noiseless, nothing eased the pain of the defeated. Leonor marked her respect silently. The players exited the changing room when Leonor was about to walk to the gates and escape Hogwarts. She embraced Draco first. He was still sweaty in the Quidditch robes, pale with an unmistakeable wet glance in his eyes. He didn't let go as if Leonor could take the weight of losing against Potter from his shoulders. Leonor hugged the other boys too until they started skulking back to the castle. Leonor was grateful the winners celebrated inside; giving the hurt egos time to process the event.
Moving back to the path Leonor saw Severus standing in the shadows of the wooden framework below the stands; dark, tall and imposing. She swallowed the thrill of the unexpected, recognizing some concern in the unfathomable expression. The dark eyes pleaded almost for approval to speak. Leonor said nothing. She didn’t know what to say, just waited to regain self-control.
“Can we talk?”, he said quietly.
“Do you like to be comforted as well?”, Leonor snapped. It was all what was left of her resistance.
“No”, Severus answered nonchalantly.
“You avoid me. You understand that?” This wasn’t about Quidditch. The fear to experience another disaster balanced out the wish to talk to Severus. Daniel had made her move to New York, settle into a new office, integrate with other colleagues. Disgrace at Hogwarts meant leaving England. Leonor protected her vulnerable self carefully.
Severus retreated from the dark taking Leonor’s arm unceremoniously. He dragged Leonor towards the edge of the forest and later swiftly along the lawn, to the lake, glancing backwards occasionally. The pebbles crunched below Severus’ steps, his cloak billowed in the breeze. Leonor followed still, a little breathless and nervous. The little waves smacked evenly to the shore. The sunlight dipped the lake into dazzling white and silver. It was quiet and peaceful. He stopped at the water behind an embankment shielding them from view.
“I have a job to do and a role to play. I don’t need you. It is dangerous. Dumbledore is right; leave me alone, Leonor.” Severus spoke quietly, gazing at Leonor intently, as if planting consent to her mind.
“How can you know Dumbledore told me about you?”
“Dumbledore is always right.” Severus looked away, surrendering.
“Is he?” Leonor demanded, stepping closer.
“You don’t know me.” Severus looked pale, mentally worn-out, torn. He had hoped she would simply agree and leave. He was unnerved, hardly hiding the grief and despair.
Leonor spoke softly. “These are almost Dumbledore’s words - I don’t know you! But I knew you were involved with the Dark Lord, you remember? Severus, I won’t understand if you don’t talk to me. I’ve been fighting dark wizards almost all my life, Severus. I’ve been working with unpleasant, unfair and mean people. But it’s not all of you. Do you believe I cannot deal with an Ex-Death Eater?”
Severus jerked, fury blushed his cheeks. A threatening calm voice answered her question. “Let it go and nobody will be harmed.”
Leonor felt intimidated. He meant his words, though he didn’t like the choice to be made. She looked through Severus’ armour of Occlumency as if it was feeble. In return, he broke all her defences without using any magic. An endless number of painful feelings had reflected in his eyes in the past moments. All of them together formed the mask of indifference and bitterness, like overlaying oscillations.
Leonor’s disappointment had gone, only the sadness about the inevitable remained. She transfigured a leaf into a piece of paper and added her address with a flick of the wand.
“Take it! It’s where I live. It’s save. Apparate to the backyard. Any time you like. Nobody does know.” Severus took the piece slowly and in disbelief. “I have never guests”, added Leonor sadly. Severus folded the paper carefully and nodded, but Leonor knew it wasn’t a promise.
“I’ll hand in the thesis and the antidotes next week. I got some task at Gringotts and I’ll travel a little, but will return home in the evenings. I thought you should know.”
They stood in silence. The wooded hills touched the water gently in the warm and bright sunlight.
“Maybe you’ve been more valuable than the Quidditch cup today. The whispers of your arrival carried through the seats as if nothing was more important. Slytherin lost the game, but you’ve marked your respect. It will soothe the pain”, said Severus restrained.
“Respect is the start of every relationship. People tend to forget”, answered Leonor.
They both turned in different directions, all had been said.
Leonor walked pensively through the small sitting room. The fire place was carefully cleaned out, a vase of peonies on the mantelpiece. The rain was pouring down the windows, dishevelled grey clouds gliding hurriedly above the small house and garden, carried by the strong wind and sending more downpour towards the earth. It was the first cool day in early summer.
Officially looking letters laid open on the coffee table. Leonor returned from the tiny kitchen unit in the hall with a hot mug of black coffee. She took the letter of the ministry and put it back to the envelope. Her examination in practical work started at 1st of July. Thirty days working at St. Mungo’s together with the other two candidates lay ahead, fighting through the competition of finding the best treatments, healing the injuries selected by the Magical Medical Committee. One fellow in the trial was a steadfast lad from Eastern Europe. His father run a surgery in Poland. He’d return proud with the official title. Leonor was sure of that, liked him much better than the pompous ‘advisory’ healer from St. Mungo’s. She had to be watchful; the bloke was after the same job as Leonor. He didn’t know Leonor had made other plans in the meantime and she couldn’t tell yet. He’d pull all strings to put himself into play. The small meeting at the ministry to discuss the rules and organization of the trial period showed his hostile manner. Her thesis had hit a nerve at the ministry and even permission was given for the advisory services contract. St. Mungo’s was now officially authorized to call for Leonor’s consultation if needed and paid a fee for the work. The apothecary in Hogsmeade was still for sale. Jackson’s daughter had confided in Leonor to inform her as soon as there were other applicants, it had not happened yet. Leonor grinned satisfied; all was well on the front of becoming an independent healer in Britain.
A light blue page with official stamps attracted her attention next. A small crease appeared on her forehead and she sent it with a wave of her wand into a folder. The folder sat on a high shelf together with some others, a photo album and ancient looking books. The search of her grandmother’s house had led nowhere. Some new acquaintances at the ministry confirmed name and birthplace of Eleanor Smith. She lived in the countryside in middle England, near Cambridge and left Britain at the age of 18, soon after graduation at Hogwarts. She never possessed a cottage nor worked in a job. Her parents had died soon after her departure and the house in middle England was sold to a family. None of them remembered her grandmother, the sale had been completed by an agency. The trace was a death end, the blue letter a copy of the sales certificate. Leonor loathed herself for the imprecise and vague memories. Maybe she had only pictured to life at the coast in the house called “Above the Cliffs” and she followed a wish rather than reality. She sighed, she’d continue the quest later; hope was still alive.
She turned the remaining letter written on thick white paper, doubting its contents. The Dark Magic on some silver ornaments of a family heirloom had already been removed, except for one small object. Gringotts relocated the task; kept changing the dates to continue. It was foul. Leonor held her breath uneasily. She was obliged to do at least one more trial breaking the curses on a treasure chest. Leonor had wasted six trials fruitless. The failure was tolerable, but the strong magical presence emitting from the chest increased the tension. The object itself wasn’t bigger than a dictionary. It could be touched, moved and everything, but didn’t open. The content didn’t make any noise or movement. Leonor yawned and snuggled in the edge of the armchair. The little treasure chest remained a mystery today.
She switched on the television searching distraction. Her thoughts wandered to Hogwarts. Remus wanted her to assist with the exams before the full moon, afterwards she was released. All in all, a successful job. She had found a way to get along with most of the Professors, but without forming closer bonds. Remus spent every meal with her except those on the full moon. Severus never spoke, but didn't flee the Great Hall either. Leonor supposed he was still observant contrary to his outward indifference. Likely it was childish, but Leonor noticed secretly looks, greedy and passionate. It always resolved into a mocking smirk or sardonic remark towards Lupin. It made her often smile. Leonor maintained contact with two girls, a Slytherin tormented by monthly migraine headaches and a Hufflepuff suffering from pimples. Leonor yawned again and drifted lightly into a nap.
She woke with a noise near the backdoor, striding towards it, raising the wand instinctively and glancing curiously around the small lawn framed with high hedges. A cloaked figure spun disapparating, but stopped noticing the open door.
The backyard was tiny. Nobody could deny - it was a perfect apparition spot in crowded London. The muggle residences looked well maintained and expensive, most certainly larger than Leonor's house. She stood in the doorframe, gazing sleepily, red creases across face and neck.
"Thought you wouldn't let me in", Severus said in a mocking tone.
"Sorry, I must have been more asleep than I realized", she said not fully awake yet.
"Take your wand down, I am not here to curse you, or I had done so already."
Leonor admitted him inside. Some rain dribbled from the cloak to the floor. She didn’t care and pointed to a hook, walking directly to the sitting room. Severus took some time with a drying spell, glancing curiously round before following. She said nothing, just sat in one of the armchairs rubbing her eyes. It was a nice place, small, but so much different from Spinner’s End. The peonies were charmed to bloom still in June. A letter on the coffee table caught Severus’ attention. Leonor followed his gaze and he doomed himself for being too obvious. Every small talk was blown off his mind. He endured it quietly, relieved when Leonor handed him the letter and asked to sit.
"You couldn't have come at a better moment. I'd like to talk about this with somebody."
"Another Gringotts assignment?" Severus snorted. The goblins wouldn't care what happened to the curse breaker if they had the money.
"No, still the same bloody treasure chest."
"Then stop it", he replied rough.
"The contract allows seven attempts opening the box. They pay out after success or ..."
"I am aware", he snarled, "I've applied myself years ago, but ... I hadn’t the right political attitude." His voice trailed off.
"The fee would pay the apothecary in Hogsmeade even after a seventh unsuccessful attempt. I could keep this house, it could come in handy. The royalties are more generous. I will make at least the seventh trial, even if I faint again."
Severus scoffed about the enthusiasm. She was risking her live for some rich prats to buy Jackson's. Should he convince her to end the assignment? The conversation was much better then inquiring the reasons of his visit. He had none. He met Malfoy and Nott at lunch, both celebrating the soon execution if the Hippogriff. He excused himself early and checked quickly the wards at Spinners End. The afternoon provided a rare occasion to be free in deciding a place to go. He used to randomly apparate to the sea, but a sudden memory of Leonor’s address changed the direction of his apparition with an uncontrollable force. The salty air had filled his lungs already, when he landed abruptly in London. He had felt like vomiting into the backyard before knocking.
"You fainted?", he asked inquisitively.
Leonor spoke much too eagerly, explaining all the trials. The magic had taken possession of her mind until her body collapsed.
"Severus, I watched an unfamiliar woman with a beautiful dress wearing gemstones. I was her. Her distress painful. She may have lost a lover, a child, locking the jewellery away in the aftermath?"
"Are you sure, it's not your own memory?"
Leonor paced the small room and snapped: "There's no gemstones and no lover. She was a blonde." Severus leaned forward, putting the letter back to the table and asking solemnly: "Who's the client?"
"Greengrass. The chest has an inscription at the bottom. It says ‘Cathy’. The employed curse breakers were not successful. Gringotts ordered a few back from Egypt, also Bill Weasley, but nothing."
"Be careful. The family suffered from blood curses in history, especially the women. It may not cost your life, but destroy it forever. Do I make myself plain?"
Leonor shivered and felt suddenly cold. He looked gravely. Maybe she only realized the danger after being treated like a daft student. Despite the embarrassment, she grinned and pictured the children; the timid would pass out at his expression.
"Is there a time limit?" Severus tried to sound reasonable again.
"No, but doing the last attempt in June would be appropriate. I can simulate something, take the money and leave."
"Promise me to do nothing before the full moon. I do some research. You need to fake well, cheating the goblins might harm you too. They are likely watching your moves?"
"They do. Thanks." Leonor felt sheepish changing deliberately the topic.
"I'll be at Hogwarts in the exam week, leaving right after full moon."
"Assisting Lupin with his steeplechase?", Severus responded scornfully. Leonor looked puzzled.
"He plans kind of various obstacles to be dealt with. Most teachers are excited, inventing more funny ideas. What's he talking to you all the time if not about classes?" A jealous undertone carried the question through to the kitchen. Leonor returned smiling and handed Severus a glass of white wine.
"Mainly small talk, explanations of Hogwarts, his adventures; Dumbledore's good deeds, praising Harry and the Weasley's ... What else did you expect?" Leonor’s voice played with him and he answered with a question: "What about the conversation with the headmaster in February?"
"It was private." Leonor grinned, leaning against the mantelpiece, but continued after a short hush. "He wanted to learn about my alliance in case of the Dark Lord’s return." Leonor circulated the wine in the glass watching Severus downing it in one go.
“What did you tell him? Your visits at Knockturn Alley?” They stared at each other. He wanted her to keep out of the dark business, likewise for the Order of Phoenix. Lucius eyed her already, gathering information. Leonor choked overwhelmed, but answered defiantly.
“The wizarding world in Britain is small, isn’t it? The old quack at one of the side streets pulled me to his ‘surgery’, to a mother and father wailing at their unconscious son. The father had cursed the boy with a stray hex and the mother tried to fix it with a potion. The quack had no clue, but the father threatened to kill the quack if he wouldn’t find help. The father was a huge man and the coward of a quack run literally for his life. The boy was poised by the potion. I had to use Legilimency to find out what had really happened. The mother couldn’t speak at all and the father shattered the surgery violently. I hexed him unconscious. The boy’s alive and well. Does the explanation satisfy you?”
Severus had listened carefully. Leonor’s skill had already spread. It matched Lucius’s information. He put the empty glass back to the table walking to the hall. Leonor had left the room with a stubborn expression. He watched her from the doorframe with a little grin. The tousled hair framed the beautiful face tenderly. A washed-out sweater hung limply over her sexy backside and the creased t-shirt had slipped out from underneath. How could he have failed to notice her beauty initially? A low groan wriggled itself free and Leonor looked at him angrily before concentrating again on a pot of boiling water.
“I’m hungry. Do you stay for dinner?” It was dark outside in the meantime. Severus felt suddenly awkward. He had lingered far too long. In a loss of words, he snorted only.
“My lab is in the attic. The pasta will take a short while.”
The friendlier invite to the lab pushed Severus nosily up the stairs. All doors stood open. A narrow spiral staircase led from the upper floor to the attic. The cage of the eagle owl was empty. Pauline sat stiffly on the king size bed like a guardian of the room, eying him suspiciously. Leonor’s study was magically enlarged. Some ingredients listings were pinned to a blackboard. A cauldron with a black liquid simmered, stirred slowly by a hexed whisk. A strong-smelling ointment was filled into a nice container of muggle anti-aging cream. The rain had stopped. The cool nightly air crept chilly through the round window and Severus took a deep composed breath.
Leonor heated a pan with garlic, olive oil and herbs. She’d add tomato later. The rigatoni boiled slowly. The snooze had expertly disguised the pleasure about the visitor until she regained her composure. The TV was on stand-by, she must have dozed off for more than an hour. She put deliberately no efforts into hospitality. Severus had never been so straightforward. It was almost as if he belonged into the armchair across the fireplace. He had walked up the stairs with a relaxed expression on the so often tough features. An impish grin curled her lips. Severus was still here.
Leonor glanced into the large mirror in the hall and put the strands of the unkempt hair to a bun and the t-shirt back into the leggings. She felt slightly messy in the outfit, but couldn’t change anymore. It had to do for tonight. She decided at least to serve a better wine and sent the bottle and glasses magically upstairs. Leonor balanced the pasta à la Napoli garnished with parmesan cheese and basil easily up to the attic. From the landing, she noticed the closed window and a pleasing warmth. The red wine had already been poured to the glasses, it felt encouraging courteous. Another conversation was in her mind, but the words got stuck in her throat. Severus took the plate with a quiet thank you. His frock coat laid casually across a small stool in the edge. Leonor leaned her back to the workbench staring confused about the change to her feet. Severus was a formidable man. The black dress pants and the precisely fitting white business shirt made him look handsome. Silver cufflinks and a matching belt gave a hint of expensive elegance. An indefinable powerful magic filled the small room. Leonor’s imagination got away with some indecent reflexions. What if Severus would roll up his sleeves and lift her passionately to the workbench? She almost felt his hands on her body and the thin lips on the skin. Daniel had always pushed, and Leonor had felt often uncomfortable by it. She had never relaxed in his presence and often eluded him with an excuse, until the relationship ended. Leonor sensed she couldn’t withstand the wizard.
“Leonor, your dinner is getting cold”, said Severus amused. He had likely watched, and Leonor was shocked by the idea that he may have read her mind. His plate was half-finished.
“You wanted to say something, when you walked in? Are you alright?”, asked Severus with a worried tone.
Leonor was pale-faced, but blushed vigorously when he spoke. She had to go through it now and started to eat without tasting anything.
“Dumbledore asked me if I would like a regular job at Hogwarts.”
“What subject?”, Severus looked up in surprise.
“Defence against the Dark Arts.”
“He’ll never let Lupin leave, whatever he has promised. Anyway, would you?”
“I won’t apply, it’s certain. But do you really think Lupin will be able to return in September?”
Severus shrugged thoughtfully.
“I bet Lupin will quit. How many years do you teach and how many teachers remained more than one year? Nobody, not even couple of years before you. Be happy to teach potions. Dumbledore knows something about the post and he doesn’t divulge it.”
Leonor returned her attention back to dinner after a derisive snort of Severus. She didn’t notice his alert gaze. After a short while he took the plate from Leonor and shoved the wine into her hands.
“What are we betting for?”
“A dinner, the winner will select the restaurant! Cheers!”
Both sipped the wine and grinned mischievously.
“I want something in addition”, said Severus earnestly. He nervously swallowed more wine and pulled a sour face. “I want it now and then I’m leaving.”
He moved threateningly close and his hand put a strand of Leonor’s hair back into the bun. Leonor heart pounded intensely, but she forced herself to lock eyes with him and answer calmly.
“What do I get in return?”
“Similar information”, he said shyly.
“Go ahead”, responded Leonor more self-confident.
“1963, January 18th.”
“1960, January 9th. The grey hair is a result of the rape, but it’s getting less. You feel well in England, do you? The apothecary is important?”
Leonor only nodded, and Severus exited the room down the stairs. She followed slowly. He was already at the backdoor wrapped in the travelling cloak. Leonor was unsure what to do next, but Severus already stepped close and bent low whispering into Leonor’s ear: “Vengeance!” His lips touched her cheek, dry and hot.
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