I awoke a little earlier than normal on Halloween morning and since it was a special day, I chose to wear my royal-blue dress with the gold accents. Blue was always my favorite color since my Grandmother Archer told me when I was a small child that it "complimented my blond hair and brought out my eyes." Admittedly my attire was more than a little impractical for class but Halloween only came around one day a year.
The students had difficulty concentrating on their lessons that day which was perfectly understandable as we were all looking forward to that evening's feast. The Great Hall on Halloween night was always magical, even for those of us who have magic in our daily lives.
Due to the fact that our classrooms were a couple of floors apart, I saw Severus very little throughout the day and I confess, that played a part in the hours dragging out for me. As expected, I was greeted with smirks and whispers by those who saw us entering the Great Hall the evening before. Pretending not to notice, I went about my day as I always did.
At long last the final class of the afternoon arrived. For that day's lesson I continued teaching the candle magic that involved scribing an image on the side of a beeswax pillar. When lit, the candle would manifest whatever had been inscribed. To insure that that the spell would basically be harmless, I had the students inscribing song-birds.
Barely five minutes from the end of class I saw a flash of sparks in the corner of my eye, going from Draco Malfoy's desk into the heart of the image that Neville was hard at work inscribing. The sparks also caught the wick, making the unfinished spell manifest. Following a loud crack, a repulsive, featherless, bat-like creature appeared in the air above the candle, fluttering madly.
Most of the students drew back in disgust, except for Draco and his friends, who were nearly doubled over with laughter. Grabbing my wand I immediately came to Neville's desk and performed a counter spell, making the ugly, half-formed creature disappear.
At that moment the dismissal bell rang. Cocky as always, Draco got up to leave, flanked by his large friends.
"Oh no, not you." I said firmly. Glaring at the students at his sides, I added. "That was not directed at all three of you. Go! Draco will catch up with you later."
Looking sheepish, Draco's followers went on their way along with the rest of the students. Neville stood next to me, looking disheartened at the wax mess on his desk. My class was one subject where he actually thrived and I hated seeing him so discouraged.
Placing my hand on his shoulder I said, "Neville, I saw the lovely image you were working on and I assure you, this...incident...will have no baring on your grade."
Draco demanded, "What are you keeping me for? Neville is a walking disaster! Everybody knows it!"
As much as I hated to, I said, "Ten points from Slythern."
The pale boy was outraged as he protested, "You can't do that!"
"I can and I did."
"That's not fair!" he argued.
Becoming angry, I scowled, "Not fair? Draco, you sent a Blasting Curse into Neville's candle!"
Draco looked at me with a challenging smirk. "You can't prove it."
Before I could respond we all heard a familiar voice say quietly, "Twenty points from Slytherin."
We all looked with surprise at Professor Snape who had silently come into the classroom.
Draco looked wide-eyed at his favorite teacher. "But, Professor Snape!"
"That was for arguing with a teacher." Severus answered coolly. "Do you want detention as well, Mr. Malfoy?"
"Why don't you go join your friends at the feast?" I said quietly to Neville who was standing there looking at Snape in open mouthed amazement. He silently gathered his books and went on his way, looking back over his shoulder once on his way out the door.
"You may go as well." I said to Draco. "I will let you go with only the point deduction this time but if you do anything like that in my class again you'll be forcing me to give you detention."
Giving me an evil glare, Draco also gathered his belongings and left the room. I was sure that before the evening was over he would be complaining about me to his father, not that it would do any good.
Leaning against my desk, I sighed, "I hated doing that. We were so close to the end of the day."
Walking towards me, Severus answered quietly, "You are their teacher, not their friend. You should have given him detention."
"You're right." I agreed. "It's just that it's Halloween."
"Detention doesn't cause long term damage...as I'm sure you remember."
Severus had been a couple of years ahead of me when we were students, but even to those who I didn't go to school with very long, it was well known that the Headmaster's granddaughter had been given detention on more than a few occasions.
"I should have known that you would eventually throw that at me." I laughed softly.
Standing before me, he raised his hands and gently brushed my hair away from my face. "No long term damage," he repeated. "but I'm not sure it did you any good."
"Really? I'm that bad?" I asked playfully.
"Utterly hopeless." he whispered as he tipped my head back and kissed my mouth.
The day behind us, we left the room and went to the Great Hall that was decorated lavishly for Halloween. It was very much the way I had remembered it from years ago. There were countless elaborately carved pumpkins, black and orange streamers plus the annual live bats fluttering around the ceiling. Seated towards the end of the faculty table next to Severus, I was again struck with how happy I was to be back at Hogwarts. There was no other place like it anywhere in the world. Looking at the other end of the table, I noticed how radiant Narya, the Muggle teacher looked as she sat next to Hagrid Hagrid. She had made herself right at home in a world that must have seemed so strange to her. Amused, I saw her watch the resident ghosts sweep through the room in utter amazement. Seeing how well she had adjusted I smiled realizing that my grandfather's experiment was going far better than any of us dreamed it would.
After a number of hours the feast drew to a close and the students dispersed into the common rooms of their Houses. The staff also began to trickle out but not quite ready to call it a night, a few over us moved to the staff room.
Pulling a couple of chairs close to the windows, Severus and I sat down with our goblets of wine and ended up having a long conversation. I'm not saying that the man became talkative, but he did share more with me that night than ever before. There was no telling how long we would have remained there had Professor McGonagall not appeared abruptly in the doorway looking quite distressed.
Obviously our of breath, she said, "Professor Snape, the Headmaster needs our assistance. Something happened upstairs."
Drawing his eyebrows together, Severus replied softly as he rose from his chair, "Of course." Turning his gaze toward me he added, "Please excuse me."
Curious, I only nodded as I too rose from my chair and watched my peers as they hurried from the room. Stepping cautiously into the corridor, I could see Minvera was speaking to Snape as the quickly climbed the stairs but at that point they were out of earshot.
Figuring that I would not be of any assitance to whatever had occurred, I made my way to the staircase with the intent of going upstairs to my room. There, I met the new Muggle Studies teacher who was staring in the direction Severus and Minvera had gone.
Seeing me, she asked hesitantly, "Do you have any idea what all the fuss is about?"
Shaking my head, I replied, "Your guess is as good as mine. Hopefully it's nothing serious."
Appearing nervous, Narya smiled slightly and said, "Probably just the students playing a Halloween prank."
"Yes. I'm sure you're right." I nodded.
After a moment of awkward silence, we wished each other a good evening and continued on our way. As I neared Gryffindor Tower I was still burning with curiosity but figured I would be informed about whatever had occured in the morning.
"Petrified?" I exclaimed over breakfast as I sat next to Severus at the staff table.
Nodding, he replied, "The Headmaster will of course be addressing this at the meeting."
Lowering my eyes to my plate I whispered, "Poor Mrs. Norris...and Filch. You say Harry and his friends were there?"
After taking a swallow of coffee, Severus replied, "Yes, but your grandfather doesn't believe that they were involved."
Needless to say, the entire school was buzzing about what had happened to Mrs. Norris. While I wasn't exactly fond of Filch, I couldn't help but feel sorry for him. For all his faults, it was obvious that he dearly loved his cat. Keeping the minds of the students on their work was difficult as they were all understandably wondering how such a thing could have happened and who was responsible.
As expected, Lucius Malfoy stopped by my office later that day to express his displeasure over his son being reprimanded. It was late in the afternoon when he appeared at the door while I was at my desk going over some paperwork. He walked into the room arrogantly and stopped in front of my desk.
"I would like a word with you, Professor Archer!" he snapped.
"Of course." I said casually as I gestured towards a nearby chair with my swan feather quill. "Have a seat."
Pulling up a chair, that much to his dismay was a bit too low for him, Lucius continued, "I want to speak with you about what happened to my son in your class yesterday!"
"I see...You mean when he destroyed Neville Longbottom's project with a Blasting Curse?"
"How do you know Draco was the one who did it?" Lucius demanded.
"Because I saw him do it, Mr. Malfoy." I answered, trying very hard not to raise my voice. "I saw him point his wand at Neville's candle and send a Blasting Curse at it and such behavior is unacceptable."
Lucius stared at me a moment then said snidely, "So you say...but I understand that you have...shall we say a 'talent' for finding loopholes so that circumstances can be arranged to suit you. That Azkaban patrol horse outside is a perfect example."
I felt my eyebrows draw together. "My horse is not the issue, Mr. Malfoy. The issue is your son was disruptive. He doesn't take this class seriously."
"Well it isn't the most practical course!" Lucius retorted.
"As I told Draco on the first day, with this class still being in an experimental stage, it is elective and that means he can drop the course if he wishes to. I admit my class isn't for everyone. If it isn't to his liking perhaps you as his father can help him transfer to something that it more suitable for him."
Lucius scowled at me. "Are you insulting my son?"
"Not at all." I answered calmly. "But he seems to think that in taking this course he could just coast through the afternoon with little to no work. That is not the case and I will not tolerate disruptions in my class for the students who really want to be here."
Standing, Lucius sneered down at me. "Perhaps I should speak with Professor Dumbledore about this."
"You do that." I said, stroking the swan feather. "I'm sure my grandfather will agree with me. When I was a student he made sure that if I did something I should not have then I, like the other students, had to face the consequences. Draco got off with less than he deserved and if this were any student other than your son you would agree with me."
Lucius narrowed his eyes and glared at me, but said nothing. After a moment he turned his back and went out the door.
"A good afternoon to you too." I said quietly as he disappeared into the hallway.
Surprisingly, I was pleased with that meeting as I sat back in my chair. I hadn't lost my temper and the brief argument went very well. One of the things my grandfather had tried my entire life to teach me is that there are few things more powerful than a softly spoken answer.
"Perhaps there is hope for me yet." I said softly to myself as I finished my paperwork and prepared to go to weekly staff meeting.
Arriving early, I found my grandfather already in the staff room standing at the podium going over some notes.
"Hello, Grandfather." I said brightly. "From what I understand you had a rather tense evening."
Dumbledore raised his eyes and sighed. "Indeed I did."
Walking up to the podium I asked curiously, "Do you have any idea how it happened?."
Looking back down at his notes my grandfather said, "No, I'm afraid not. Hopefully what happened to Mrs. Norris will be an isolated incident." Smiling slightly, he asked, "Prior to Severus being called away, did the two of you enjoy your evening?"
"Yes we did.....We went to the staff room and spent the evening talking..just talking....Nothing to worry about."
"I wasn't worried." Once again raising his eyes to me, he continued. "You and Severus are not children, Gwen. Everyone on the staff is entitled to their privacy. I only ask that discretion be used in front of the students."
I must have had a stunned expression on my face for Dumbledore looked at me and chuckled softly and said, "I may be an old man my dear but I am not ignorant to the ways of the world."
"I didn't....Of course not." I stammered.
I was spared further awkwardness by the remainder of the staff who had begun to file in and take their seats before the podium. Taking a chair along one of the windows I waited for the meeting to begin. When Lucius arrived followed by Narya, he gave me an angry stare, but said nothing as he went to the back of the room. Laughing to myself I thought about how useless it was for anyone to try to intimidate me by glowering after all the times I had been through that with Severus.
No sooner had he entered my thoughts when Severus came silently through the door. With an ever so slight, barely noticeable smile, he took the chair next to mine. The meeting itself went by was somber and was primarily focused on the petrification of Mrs. Norris. Professor Sprout assured us that the cat would be cured once the Mandrakes in her greenhouse had matured. The only other news was a reminder that the first Quidditch match of the year between Sytherin and Gryffindor would be held that weekend.
After an hour, the meeting concluded and the staff began to file out of the room. Again, Lucius gave me an evil glare on his way by but said nothing. Severus, who leaning back in his chair barely gave him a glance. I noticed that he had dark circles under his eyes and seemed reluctant to leave the chair.
"You look tired." I commented softly.
"It was a long night." he replied.
Looking towards the door where Lucius had disappeared into the hallway, I said, "I expected him to make a scene during the meeting. He came by to speak with me a little while ago about Draco and expressed his displeasure over the point deduction."
Severus relaxed even more into the chair and smirked, "I know. He came to speak with me as well. I believe he was trying to goad you into losing your temper so he could paint you as unprofessional."
That comment made me feel even more pleased with myself and I resolved to take my grandfather's advice more often.
Severus continued, "He then implied that my involvement with you was effecting me in ways that have caused me do things that I wouldn't do otherwise," Turning his eyes towards the door, he whispered, "to which I responded that statement was certainly a case of the pot calling the kettle black."
Turning sideways in my chair I asked curiously, "Meaning?"
Lowering his eyes, Severus began to examine his fingernails. "I must speak to the house elves about making sure to keep a fire going down in the dungeon. It's getting rather cold down there even for me."
"Don't change the subject. What did you mean by the 'pot and the kettle'? You can't make a comment like that and then not tell me what you mean!"
That was the worst thing I could have said in an attempt to get him to tell me something. He looked at me out of the corner of his eye and the sides of his mouth turned up slightly and I knew right away that he wouldn't say a word simply to aggravate me.
Once again lowering his eyes, he said snidely, "With it being so cold you really need to stop going outside without your cloak. It would be a shame for you to miss class due to a cold."
Leaning towards him in my chair I said, "Tell me what you meant by the comment to Lucius."
With that annoying smirk, he once again raised his black eyes to mine as he reached over and gently ran his fingers through a lock of my hair. "Have I told you that you look lovely today?"
That put a stop to my questions, at least for the time being.
When the mail arrived, I was delighted to see a group of a dozen owls deliver a large package that I had been waiting for. The moment the final class of the day was over, I carried the box out to Ashlar's pasture.
As always he was happy to see me and extended his head over the fence in greeting. Ducking under the fence, I said to him, "The Slytherin team is going to be so jealous that they don't have a handsome fellow such as yourself showing support for them."
Opening the package I pulled out the custom trappings that I recently had made. All red and gold for Gryffindor, the bit and breast plate were molded in the shape of a lion. The horse nuzzled the bridle and whinnied his approval.
"This is all going to look splendid on you." I told him as I started to braid locks of his long mane with shiny cords of red and gold. Ashlar, who loved nothing more than to be fussed over, arched his neck and swished his heavy tail as I commented, "Red is certainly your color."
"Ah, look at ole Ashlar!" laughed a booming voice.
I turned to see Hagrid, smiling as he approached the paddock accompanied by Fang. Reaching the fence he brought his hand up to give the huge black horse a friendly pat on the neck.
"I placed an order for all of this shortly before the school year began and I was beginning to worry that they wouldn't be here in time for the first Quidditch game." I said as I finished one section of braiding and began another. Glancing at Hagrid, I asked, "Have you ever seen such a vain horse?"
"Aye, he has every right to be vain, don't you boy? He knows how handsome he is."
The horse bobbed his head in agreement then turned to look attentively towards the walkway that led to the castle doors. Looking to see what had caught Ashlar's attention, I felt my heart sink as I watched the Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge rapidly approaching the paddock.
"It'll be all right." Hagrid said quietly as I stepped forward to stand in front of my horse as though my frame could hide the large black animal.
A nervous looking, portly man, Fudge stopped a few feet from the fence. Pointing, he demanded, "What's that?"
I turned towards him and innocently answered, "What's what?"
"That!" he repeated. "That beast behind you!"
As though he resented being referred to as a beast, Ashlar turned and put his head over my shoulder and snorted. Looking up at him as if I hadn't known he was there, I answered, "It's a horse."
"I know it's a horse!" snapped Fudge, obviously annoyed. "It appears to be an Azkaban patrol horse!"
Again, I looked up at the huge black head that was over my shoulder. Turning back to Fudge, I said, "You're right. He does look like one of those doesn't he?"
Narrowing his eyes, Fudge asked, "Where did he come from?"
"He was a gift." I answered.
"Well that's just it, I don't know." I shrugged my shoulders. "He was an anonymous gift that one day appeared outside my house. I would love to know who sent him. Mother always taught me that it was rude to not send an owl with a thank you card right away."
Hagrid made a sound that started like a laugh that he then turned into a cough. Fudge turned his eyes towards the gamekeeper, then looked back at me as he said, "So it didn't seem strange to you that there was a horse like the kind that is used by the Azkaban mounted guards outside your home?"
Smiling I replied, "It's not unheard of for Azkaban to sell some of their stock. Not every foal that is born is cut out to be a patrol horse."
The Minister of Magic studied me a moment longer than said firmly, "Each of the Azkaban horses have a symbol with a series of numbers tattooed on the inside of the ear."
"That makes sense." I nodded, trying to stay calm. "That's an excellent way to keep track of the herd which I understand is rather large."
Take a few steps closer to the fence, Fudge said, "You wouldn't mind if I took a look in this horse's ear would you?"
It was over. I knew Fudge would see that identifying mark and Ashlar would have to go back to that horrible prison. Stepping aside, I allowed the man to reach up and check the inside of the horse's ear. With a smug smile he said, "There it is. The Azkaban breeding mark."
To my surprise, Hagrid spoke up, "Sir, if you send an owl to Azkaban and have them check that set of numbers, they'll tell you that this horse was removed from their mounted guard due to 'excessive friendliness'."
Both Fudge and I looked at the giant with equally puzzled expressions. "Due to what?" asked Fudge.
"Excessive friendliness. Look at him. He doesn't have the right temperament for the mounted guard. He's too fond of wearing red ribbons in his mane and having the students come out here to feed him sugar cubes. Go ahead and check. They'll tell you that Ashlar here isn't the property of Azkaban anymore."
Fudge raised an eyebrow and looked from Hagrid, to me, then back at Hagrid who repeated, "Go ahead and check with them."
"I'm going to do just that!" Fudge snapped and headed off towards the castle.
Ashlar lowered his head and I placed my hand on his soft velvet nose. "Why is he here? Did he make this trip all the way to Hogswarts just because of Ashlar?" I asked.
Hagrid shook his head, "I doubt it. He was likely here on other business, but Ashar's a bit hard to overlook."
Convinced that this horse that I had become so attached to was going to be taken from me, I snapped his lead rope on and brought him out of the paddock. "This is it." I said grimly. "I should have known that sooner or later someone would come looking for him."
"I meant it when I said not to worry, Gwen." Hagrid replied as he walked along with us towards the castle.
"How can I not worry?" I asked as I placed my hand on Ashlar's sleek ebony neck. "I know I shouldn't have kept him...Technically I'm a horse thief but I just couldn't send him back to that awful place, Hagrid. I just couldn't."
"Believe me when I say that Ashlar isn't going anywhere."
For a few minutes we walked along silently. Then Hagrid said, "Gwen, do you mind if I ask you a question?"
"Of course not. What is it?"
"Cornelius made a good point. Didn't you even once ask yourself why there was an Azkaban mounted guard around your house?"
I tried to think of some sort of excuse and then said simply, "No."
Feeling incredibly silly, I stopped walking at the stairs that led to the main entrance. There was no point in running off. Any moment now Cornelius was going to come back out and inform me that guards from Azkaban were on their way to collect their horse. Pulling Ashlar's head down, I pressed my face against his muscular neck. I was about to say something to Hagrid when I saw Cornelius Fudge coming back down the stairs followed by Professor McGonagall.
"Did you send the owl?" asked Hagrid.
"I didn't have to." answered Fudge, looking somewhat deflated. "It appears an owl arrived a few minutes before I got here, with this document from Azkaban." After pausing a moment, he continued. "The numbers match. This horse was deemed unsuitable for the prison due to...excessive friendliness."
"I told ya!" beamed Hagrid. "He wasn't cut out to be a prison horse."
"So it appears." Fudge grumbled. Looking at me, he said, "You appear surprised, Professor Archer."
Finally able to find my voice I said, "Me? No...No I knew he was too friendly. Do you think I would just keep a horse that someone left on my property?" I laughed nervously. "Why, that would be wrong."
"Indeed." agreed the Minister as he looked at me suspiciously. Turning to Professor McGonagall, Fudge added, "Now that this matter had been cleared up I will be on my way."
Watching the Minister of Magic walk away, Hagrid commented, "So he did come out here because of Ashlar."
"Yes. Someone must have sent him an owl." I replied. After a moment I muttered. "Lucius!"
Hagrid laughed softly, "Now now, you don't know that."
"Well who else would it have been? Just yesterday Lucius was in my office and suggested that Ashlar was not legitimately mine!"
The gamekeeper winked, "Well, as far as you knew, he wasn't."
"That's not the point." I exclaimed. Turning to Ashlar, I reached up and pushed his long black forelock away from his face. "Not that any of that matters now. You're not going anywhere. I would love to know who saw to it that you were thrown out."
Ashlar nickered in response.
Professor McGonagall said gently, "Gwen, your grandfather would like to speak to you."
I had nearly forgotten she was there. Sighing, I said, "I suppose I should have seen that coming." Turning to Hagrid I handed him the lead rope and asked, "Would you mind taking him back to the paddock?"
"Why I don't mind at all. It's my pleasure." Hagrid beamed as he took the rope and led the raven-black horse away.
As I walked to the stairwell that led to my grandfather's office, I found myself remembering that mysterious evening when Ashlar and his Rider had shown up outside my house on a dark evening last summer. It was a few weeks before it had been confirmed that I would be teaching at Hogwarts and I had been up late reading when I saw Ashlar and his dark hooded Rider outside my window.
The Rider had extended a black, bony hand from it's cloak and pointed up at me. Then the figure was gone and there was nothing but Ashlar and a dark swirling cloud where the Rider had been. How could I not have questioned why in the world that...thing...had been there?
Dumbledore was at his desk when I finally reached his office. Smiling at me, he gestured for me to come in.
"Close the door behind you."
Doing as he asked, I went over and sat in a chair. For a moment he simply gazed across his desk at me.
Feeling mildly defensive, I said, "Grandfather, I swear I don't know what happened to that mounted guard. One moment he...it...was there and then it was gone."
"That's not why I sent for you." he said grimly. "There are some things you need to be told but I need you to not ask for any details other than the ones I'm going to share with you."
Noting the serious tone in his voice, I straightened in my chair.
Taking a deep breath he said, "I need to speak with you about Narya."
I smiled slightly, and commented, "She isn't a Muggle is she?"
Dumbledore raised his eyebrows and answered, "No, she is not."
"I knew it." I said with a soft laugh. "She has fit in so well that I was beginning to suspect."
"Did you now?"
"I did." I replied. Studying him, I asked, "But why do you look so grave?"
Standing up and coming around to the front of the desk, Dumbledore sighed, "There is more." Taking a seat in the chair next to mine, the old wizard looked at me and said, "Narya is my sister's grandchild."
Sister? For a moment I didn't think I had heard him correctly. As far as I knew the only other relative we had was my grandfather's brother Aberforth.
"Sister?" I repeated.
Dumbledore only nodded.
"Why have you never spoken of her?" I asked.
"There are reasons....That part of the family withdrew from the magical community shortly before you were born and have been passing themselves off as Muggles."
Stunned, I sat there a moment to simply allow what he had told me sink in. Raising my eyes to his I said, "All this time I thought it was just you, me and Aberforth. This is amazing that the woman who was chosen when you decided to add-" I broke off and pondered a moment more before saying, "This isn't a coincidence. There is more going on than wanting to add a Muggle teacher to the staff."
For some reason that made my grandfather look uncomfortable as he replied, "You are correct. That was simply what we told the Ministry."
Now very curious I asked, "Why didn't you tell me? It's wonderful to know we have more family."
Placing his hand on mine, he answered solemnly, "Those are the details that I can't give you because what you don't know cannot be used against you."
That didn't make sense to me at all.
"How could the fact the Narya is a relative and that you have a sister be used against me? Wait! What do you mean 'we?'" I asked, becoming agitated. "Who else knew? Professor McGonagall?"
"Yes, she and the other House Heads knew that we were not simply searching for a Muggle teacher."
There was no denying that I felt hurt at being kept in the dark over this and I realized just how low I was on the Hogswarts' hierarchy, even when there were matters that involved my own family.
Feeling foolish for being kept in the dark, I gripped the arms of the chair tightly and said, "I see...so you didn't see fit to tell me that we had other relatives somewhere."
"It was for your own protection, Gwen."
The memory of the Dark Rider was suddenly foremost in my thoughts and made me speak more sharply than I intended, "Protection? Protection from what?"
"I can't tell you that. Not right now. It's safer for you if you don't know." said Dumbledore firmly.
I exclaimed, "Safer? There was a Dark Rider at my door! How is that safe?" I stood up and paced around the room. "Why would a Dark Rider show up at my house?"
Stopping, I looked at my grandfather who was still seated in his chair and asked, "That isn't why I'm here is it? Is that why a chance to teach at Hogswarts suddenly appeared out of the blue?"
At this point Dumbledore was looking at me with concern and I admit my behavior was becoming irrational. Logically I knew there was no reason to be this upset but still, I kept seeing that figure.
A Dark Rider at my door
Running my fingers through my hair I started ranting, "So Professor McGonagall and the others all knew about this little plot and my mysterious relatives but you decided to leave me, your granddaughter, in the dark!"
Standing up, the old wizard replied, "That's not what I said. They only knew there was more going on than just adding a Muggle teacher to the staff."
For some reason I was hearing but not really comprehending what my grandfather was saying. I just knew that I felt deceived...lied to. Turning on my heel, I opened the door to his office and ran down the stairway. I wanted to get to Ashlar. At the bottom of the stairs I darted past the four House Heads who were at that moment speaking together in hushed tones.
Once outdoors, I ran without stopping to Ashlar's paddock. After opening the gate, I grabbed a fist full of his long black mane and vaulted onto his back. He reared excitedly before we tore out of the paddock and across the grounds.
It was almost completely dark when Ashlar and I reached the ancient temple ruins that were located at the heart of the Forbidden Forest. Very few people knew they were there. Once magnificent, the ground on which the fallen rocks rested still held an mysterious, ancient power.
Ashlar stepped carefully over the fallen stones. Dismounting, I walked quietly to the pool of water that was located near what remained of the western wall. A brilliant blue, the pool was still in a perfect circle and reflected the moon brightly. Kneeling down, I submerged my hands into the water, allowing it's soothing coolness to settle my nerves. I then brought a handful to my mouth and swallowed it slowly, again feeling the effects of what had happened earlier wash away, making me feel calm and centered.
Leaving the pool, I carefully approached the stone, table-like altar that had been built next to what remained of the northern wall. Getting down on my knees, I placed my hands on the stone's carved surface, which had once been etched with elaborate knot-work, now worn and weathered by time. Over the years I had been here many times with my mother, Aislyn and my grandmother, Gabrielle. That night I felt that I needed those maternal figures to guide me, but they were no longer here and would never be with me ever again.
Leaning against the altar, I could feel the heartbeat and rhythm of that powerful place as it cleansed me of my fear and confusion. Finally relaxed and my emotions calm, I began to feel silly for running away. While I had a right to feel hurt that I had family that I didn't know about, that still was not a good reason to become as upset as I did. As far as the House Heaeds knowing something I didn't...well...that was the way it should be. This was only my first year as a teacher at Hogwarts and being the Headmaster's granddaughter did not mean I would be privy to all confidential matters. In fact, I had been the one who had insisted all along that I didn't want any special treatment because of being related to Dumbledore.
For a while I silently knelt there, allowing my eyes to drift closed as I listened to the sounds of the night. Leaves would gently blow across the altar top from time to time. From a nearby tree came the sound of an owl.
The serenity was abruptly interrupted by the sound of someone or something moving behind me and coming towards the ruins. Ashlar had wandered a few yards away as he grazed and was too far for me to reach. Rising to my feet, I turned around and reached for my wand and prepared to raise a barrier which would keep whoever or whatever was approaching, outside the ruins. As I began to raise my arm, I stopped abruptly as I recognized the figure in the black cloak.
Lowering my wand, I turned around and once again dropped to my knees before the altar as I muttered, "Oh wonderful. Here it comes."
A few moments later, Severus got down on his knees next to me and also leaned against the side of the altar stone as he said sarcastically, "You know, if you insist on always running off into the night like this, I may have to rethink our arrangement."
Glancing at him I retorted, "I wasn't in any danger here."
"Really? It looked very much to me like you were not prepared to defend yourself when I stepped into the clearing."
Turning my head slightly, I glared up at him. He was nearly invisible in the dark other than his sharp, white profile. I wished I had an excuse but the fact was I had overlooked my defenses and we both knew it. A wizard like Severus would never be fooled with hastily made up reasons for why something wasn't done. His students all knew that too well.
"Have you come to terms with the fact that your perfect world is not as neat and tidy as you thought it was?" he asked snidely.
Perfect world? I had been here missing my mother and grandmother. My world was far from perfect. I had my share of pain just as every other person did.
I replied, "I know it was childish to run away the way I did. Surely you can understand what a surprise this news was to me...to never have been told of an entire branch of my family."
"Not everything is about you. I know that must come as a shock, especially after the evening you've already had." In a mocking tone he added, "The world is crawling with dark witches and wizards that can invade your thoughts and your grandfather had the audacity to withhold information that you might have unknowingly given them! What was the man thinking?"
I angrily lowered my eyes to the altar surface, concentrating on the faded knot-work in an effort to keep from losing my temper as I asked, "How did you know where to find me? Very few know that these ruins are here."
For nearly a minute, Severus didn't answer. He merely stared towards the broken northern wall as though deep in thought. Finally he answered, "Over the course of my life I ended up being one of those few."
There was no need for him to say more. I understood and would not ask for further details. Severus had been one of the Death Eaters and it was that group of dark witches and wizards who had conducted meetings at similar ruins throughout Great Britian. An awkward silence descended as we both knelt there, lost in our own thoughts.
Hesitantly, I placed my hand over his that was also resting on the stone and whispered, "Thank you for coming to find me."
"If I hadn't that would have made it appear to your grandfather that I didn't take my responsibility seriously." he replied scornfully.
"Responsibility?" I said, once again getting angry. "Is that was I am? A responsibility?"
"Yes you are!" he scowled. "Your grandfather made sure that I understood that I would have a responsibility to you...The same as he had to Gabrielle and as Galen had to Aislyn."
What in the world did that mean? No competent witch needed a wizard to look after her. Neither my father or grandfather had "taken care" of their wives as far as I knew.
"I don't believe anyone has forced you into this." I said defensively. "Why even be here if I am such a burden?"
Looking at me out of the corner of his eye he answered, "The responsibility has its rewards, or so I'm told."
"It does?" I asked looking at him with disbelief.
Seeing my expression he snapped, "I didn't mean that!" He paused a moment then added, "Well, not entirely."
Once again I lowered my gaze to the altar surface. Why did this man always manage to make me feel like I was nothing but a spoiled child that had to be looked after and protected lest I get caught up in trouble of my own making?
After a few minutes of silence he asked, "Shall we return to the castle or do you need more time to pout and lament the fact that you are indeed not the center of the universe?"
Angrily I rose to my feet and glared at him. "Why? Why do you say things like that to me? If you really feel that way then why spend any time with me at all? Perhaps you would be happier down in your cold dark dungeon!"
Also rising to his feet, Snape replied, "Very good. It's best to get your tantrum out of your system now rather than later."
Exasperated I raised my hands as though I was going to lunge forward and grab him by the throat. "I could just....just...."
"Hold your breath until you turn blue? Please don't. While that is your color I doubt it would look very becoming in your skin."
All I could do was glare at Severus in silent outrage. Turning away from me, he took a few steps toward the woods and asked, "Are you finished yet or do you want to take a minute or two to stamp your foot on the stones?"
At that moment I felt like I wanted to throw a rock at his head. I looked up at the stars and pleaded for the strength to deal with his insults. Pointing in the direction of the castle I said, "Go! I was calmed down until you came out here to badger me. Please, just go."
He looked back at me, his face almost entirely hidden in shadows. "You know I won't do that."
"Oh of course not!" I said sarcastically. "Who would you berate and ridicule during the walk back? Silly me!"
"Obviously you aren't finished with your tantrum but I can wait while you get it over with. The night is young." Smirking, he added, "I'm sure there will still be time for us to sit down to dinner."
"Dinner?" I exclaimed.
"Yes, dinner." he said. "That meal we have been sharing in the evenings for the past several nights."
"You've been berating me and now expect us to go to dinner?"
"Yes I do."
"So that you can show everyone that you are living up to your responsibility. Is that it?" I said as I clenched my fists.
"Not entirely." he answered quietly. "As amazing as it sounds, I would miss your companionship."
I started to turn away and said sarcastically, "Oh, is that it? You live and breath just to spend your free moments with me! You eagerly count the hours until you can be at my side!"
Severus unexpectedly came rushing back and pounced on me in the same manner that he did the night we were at the top of the Astronomy Tower. Pulling me tightly against him he hissed, "Yes, Gwen I do! Don't you know that by now?"
Before I could answer, he roughly kissed me. Caught up in the moment, I reached up and put my arms around his shoulders and twined my fingers in his black hair. My cloak slipped from my shoulders as I leaned my head back in surrender to his rough kisses.
This shouldn't be happening here, I thought to myself as the moment intensified. I felt the hard stone of the altar behind us as his fingers dug into my back. For a very brief moment as I clung to him, I worried about the beasts of the forest. Anything could come by at any moment...but nothing did.
There were no interruptions as Severus continued to kiss me or when we lay down together on that ancient table-sized altar. Not quite believing what I was allowing to happen, I eagerly reached up to put my arms around him barely noticing the hard cold stone under my back.
Those ruins in the middle of the woods were certainly not the sort of environment where I had imagined our first time together would take place and I suppose I should have stopped it, but I didn't want to. The part of me which had been repressed and dormant for so long came alive as I lay in Severus' arms, his long black cloak covering us both like large dragon wings.
I don't know how long we lay together on that stone under the stars. Time didn't matter as we clung to each other. Afterward, we continued to lay in each others arms a little while longer as we listened to the sound of our own breathing and the light wind in the trees.
As the morning sunlight filled my room, I sat at my vanity brushing my hair. I studied my reflection and wondered if I looked any different. Would the others look at me and have any idea what had happened? How would Severus treat me when we saw each other? Pondering these questions, I took a little longer to get ready for the day than I usually did.
When I finally worked up the courage to leave my room, the first person I saw was Severus who waiting at the bottom of the stairs that led to the unicorn painting. He looked up at me nervously with a very slight smile. When I reached the landing, he pulled me into his arms for a moment. I gave a deep sigh as I felt his hands in my hair. I had missed him during the past hours that we had been apart.
Looking down at me, Severus said quietly, "Your grandfather is in the staff room. He wanted to speak with you before breakfast."
Nodding I replied, "I wanted to see him as well and apologize for running away."
Severus walked downstairs with me to the staff-room where Dumbledore was waiting. My grandfather looked up when I came through the door and smiled, "There you are!"
"Grandfather." I whispered as I crossed the room and hugged him. "I am so sorry if I had you worried. I should never have run off. Forgive me?"
Dumbledore smiled and looked in my eyes, "When have I ever been able to stay angry with you?"
"Never." I admitted, laughing softly.
Severus had started to leave the room when Dumbledore called him back, "Severus, could you wait a moment? It's alright for you to hear what I need to tell Gwen."
Severus looked a little nervous but remained next to us as my grandfather took my hands and directed his attention to me.
Taking a deep breath, the old wizard said, "Gwendolyn, I know that all of your life you have been accustomed to being able to come and go as you please...but you can't do that right now. It isn't safe...and...you are the only one left." He paused a moment, his voice breaking, then continued. "I had to oversee my Aislyn being entombed. I could not bare to lose you as well. It would be....too much."
My vision blurred a moment when I saw that he too had tears in his eyes. I felt terrible that I had worried him so. He had always been so good to me. The last thing in the world I ever wanted to do was hurt this dear man in any way. He had been my rock for these past long years at a time when my life had been shaken to it's foundations.
Wiping the tears from the corner of my eyes I nodded and said, "It won't happen again. It shouldn't have happened in the first place."
"Well...no real harm done. You're safe and sound." His brilliant blue eyes turned towards the Potions Master as he continued, "As I knew he would, Severus made sure you came home safely."
I don't know what made me do it. Perhaps I wanted to lighten the mood or maybe the sight of Severus looking nervous brought out the mischief in me. Linking my arm through his, I said, "Yes I was in very good hands. The best in fact."
Severus' eyes widened as looked at me in surprise. Dumbledore didn't seem to notice as he began walking towards the doorway. "That doesn't surprise me at all. Severus has always given a lot of effort in everything he does."
"You are absolutely right. He does." I agreed, taking great amusement in Severus' discomfort.
Stopping at the door, Dumbledore turned around and said, "I hope she wasn't too much of a handful when you found her."
Severus swallowed and replied quietly, "Not at all."
"Very well. I will see the two of you at breakfast." my grandfather smiled as he left the room.
Abruptly turning towards me, Severus hissed, "What were you doing? If you make any more comments like that your grandfather might figure out that I....I..."
"Made Dumbledore's Darling a woman?" I asked brightly.
"Shhh!!!" Glancing towards the open door he exclaimed, "Do you want me to be sacked?"
"You are not going to be sacked." I answered.
He paced for a moment and then stopped in front of me. Still looking nervous he said, quietly, "What's done is done but it can't happen again."
"Until the next time."
"Exactly....No!...I mean yes...I mean....Wait!" he resumed pacing, still looking nervous. Running his hand through his hair he whispered, "You should have told me."
"What difference would that have made?" I asked.
Grasping my hands he said haltingly, "I would have stopped."
"I didn't want you to stop." I pointed out.
Lowering his gaze he said softly, "If I had known...Gwen, you deserved better than that. We could have planned it differently."
Smiling, I reached for him and kissed his mouth, then replied, "In case you haven't noticed, I didn't complain. Now let's go to breakfast. I'm feeling hungry."
The subject was dropped once we reached the Great Hall. I immediately offered my apologies to the other three House Heads for the way I had behaved the evening before. Smiling, they all assured me that there were no hard feelings and realized that I had been through a shock and were all relieved that I hadn't been harmed while in the forest.
During the meal I found myself being absorbed by my own thoughts. While I had enjoyed those few minutes of watching Severus look uncomfortable, I felt guilty about what had taken place at that ruins, on the very altar where I had so often knelt with my mother and grandmother.
My thoughts were interrupted by some confusion that was taking place at the other end of the staff-table and I looked up in time to see Narya abruptly leave the Great Hall. No doubt she had her own difficult issues to deal with. The world as she had always known it had changed. Severus got up briefly to speak with Profssor McGongall and the other House Heads, then returned to my side.
"Is something wrong?" I asked.
"Only that your temper tantrums now have competition." he answered sarcastically.
No doubt he was referring to Narya's sudden disappearance. Sighing, I realized that compared to what she had been through I had things relatively easy. At least I was still the same person I had always been. My life had not radically changed its course. There were no serious decisions that needed to be made, at least not at that time.
After breakfast, Severus walked with me to the door of my classroom. For a moment he paused, looking at me with what appeared to be concern. We hadn't really spoken about what had happened between us. When we had returned to the castle we had a late dinner and then he saw me back to my room before retiring to his own. While it pained me to be separated from him, I was grateful to have a few hours to myself while I reflected on what had taken place.
Squeezing my hands, he looked down at me, again with a look of concern before heading for his own classroom in the dungeon.
Other than a few curious stares from the students, my classes were all relatively uneventful. My last class of the day was an hour before the entire school was dismissed for the weekend, giving me time to myself. I had decided I was tired of the unicorn's scornful gaze and wanted a new painting over the portrait hole. Laying out some parchment on the large tilted drawing table next to the row of tall windows, I began to sketch out a preliminary drawing of Ashlar. As I defined the shape of the horse's head my thoughts drifted back the previous evening.
Responsibility was the word Snape had used. Dumbledore and my father, Galen had been "responsible" for Gabrielle and Aislyn. A lot of good it did, I thought grimly. Both witches were dead. Galen Archer, a soft spoken, sensitive man, an artist himself, had been a competent wizard as far as practical magic went but he had certainly not been a fighter.
The sketch finished, I stood up and drew out my wand. I pointed at the drawing then made a sweeping motion towards the large canvas that waited nearby on its easel as I uttered, "You!...There!"
Moments later the outline that had been on the parchment transferred itself to the canvas. The Ashlar drawing tossed its head and began pawing the ground. Amused, I said, "If you are anything like the real Ashlar this project is not going to be an easy task. Be still!" With another wave of the wand the drawing ceased its moving about and held its pose.
As I began work on painting the background, I once again allowed myself to contemplate what had happened to my mother and grandmother. Gabrielle had been a beautiful but intimidating witch. With her bright blue eyes and long wavy, pure white hair there was something unearthly about her. She was a true mistress of magic and could summon lighting from the sky. She radiated power in the way that the sun radiated light....and she too was slain, in spite of being the lover of the greatest wizard in the world.
As the afternoon wore on, I became aware of the sounds of voices in the hallway. It was almost time for classes to be dismissed and as I glanced at the door I caught of glimpse of long red hair. Replacing the paintbrush into the tool tray, I stepped out of the room and saw Narya walking down the corridor. Feeling guilty that I still had not taken any time to speak with my new cousin, I began to follow her and was suddenly detained by Lucius Malfoy.
"I don't think so, Professor Archer." he sneered.
Scowling at him I said, "You don't think so?"
"I am not going to allow you to upset my charge any more than you already have."
"Exactly how have I upset her, Mr. Malfoy?" I asked defensively.
"She was quite distraught about that dramatic show you put on that ended with your wild dash to the forest. I think she has been through enough without having to deal with your spoiled princess routine." he explained smugly.
I exclaimed angrily, "How dare you! That had nothing to do with her! Narya is my cousin. While it is your job to guide and protect her, you do not have the right to say who she may or may not talk to!" Glaring at him, I whispered, "You had better not be poisoning her against her family. That would not reflect well on you."
"Is that a threat, Professor Archer?" Lucius demanded.
"No, it is a statement. I don't make threats." I answered as I crossed my arms. "There is a difference between guiding and influencing, and if you are influencing Narya against her family, that is unethical. How is this poor woman supposed to adjust if she continues to think that you are the only person she can actually trust? She is not a toy that you can cut off from the rest of us as your own personal possession! She is a confused woman who just found out that she is really a witch and she needs to know that she has family who care about her and want to get to know her! The House Heads have already noticed and expressed concern."
Admittedly I didn't know that for a fact. It was only a guess based on the way McGonagall, Flitwick, Sprout and Severus had huddled together that morning. My statement did however have an effect on Lucius who's arrogant sneer had faded slightly.
"How interesting that you have the confidence of the House Heads." he said quietly.
Refusing to be drawn into his game, I retorted, "One does not have to be told inside information to know this. One need only observe how they, along with the Headmaster, were watching the two of you. You are being closely observed, so I strongly suggest you stop behaving like an arrogant rooster being possessive of his favorite chicken!"
Lucius's eyes widened as he glared at me angrily. As the corridor began to fill with students and fellow staff members, he turned on his heel and marched away from me, knowing that despite the "official word" that I was not to be treated differently, he would not be welcome at the school for long if he was seen being overly rude to the Headmaster's granddaughter.
For a moment I stood and watched him stalk down the corridor in the direction Narya had gone before going back into my classroom to return to my painting. Being the end of the week, Severus would take a little longer than normal in his office getting any homework that needed to be graded out of the way so I decided to busy myself with the Ashlar painting. Sitting down at my easel, I studied the horse sketch that suddenly turned its head and snorted at me.
"Why do I get the feeling that everything is going to be made more difficult than it needs to be?" I asked.
The horse drawing obviously didn't have the answers and growing bored with the work I was doing on the background, it galloped and disappeared into the side of the canvas.
Saturday was the first Quidditch game of the school year and in the afternoon Slytherin would be playing against Gryffindor. That morning I had skipped breakfast and was curled up on the window seat in my room trying to read and from time to time would watch the snow flakes that were dancing in the light wind.
I was feeling mildly annoyed at Severus...not because he had insulted me, but because he had not. Ever since the night in the ruins he had been nervous, behaving as though I were something fragile that would break. Any reference at all to what had happened between us made him obviously uncomfortable. It hurt me that he appeared to want to pretend that nothing happened.
Friday night he spent time with me in the staff-room long into the evening. Then, much to my disappointment, he saw me to my door and then retired to his own private quarters. I had wanted him to stay with me but was too shy to ask. The encounter in the ruins had been sudden and abrupt on a hard, cold stone. As I closed my book I realized that what I was wanting was comfort. Warm, intimate comfort...more comfort than a goodnight kiss could give me.
Taking note of the time I realized I should probably start getting dressed and prepare to go out to join the others at the Quidditch pitch. Choosing a dark red dress to show my support for Gryffindor, I got cleaned up, changed, then grabbed my cloak. Leaving my chambers, I headed down to the dungeon to look for Severus.
He was at work at his cauldron brewing a potion. At that time of year much of the staff and students were fighting off colds so he was working on a remedy for the school nurse. He glanced at me as I came in and laid my cloak on one of the nearby tables.
"This is nearly finished." he said quietly.
"There's no hurry." I answered. "I know I'm a little early."
For a little while Severus only stood there and carefully watched the simmering cauldron. Then when it appeared safe for him to leave it for a moment, he approached me and gave me yet another of his careful, chaste kisses.
As he turned to return to his cauldron I asked, "You do realize that I'm not breakable don't you?"
"Why do you say that?" he whispered as he returned his attention to the brewing potion.
Struggling to find the right words I answered, "Because of the way you've...been...lately."
"Been?" he asked as he continued to stare into the cauldron.
"Yes...the way you have been pretending that nothing happened in the ruins."
That got Severus' attention. He anxiously glanced at the door then came back over to me.
"Keep your voice down!" he said with a slight look of panic in his eyes. "That should not have...Your grandfather trusted me to bring you home!"
"And that is what you did, right after we-"
"Shhhh!!!!" he cut me off as he once again glanced at the door.
I exclaimed, "Don't shush me! Don't you realize how much it hurts that you want to just...forget?"
"That's not it at all, Gwen. It's just...you are the Headmaster's granddaughter!"
"My grandfather doesn't care what we do!"
"Of course he does!" he snapped.
"No, he really doesn't." I replied. Feeling awkward, I started to clench the fabric of my robe's flowing sleeves and added, "Last night I was hoping...that you wouldn't go."
Looking agitated, Severus turned back to the bubbling cauldron, saying nothing.
After watching him a moment, I said bitterly, "I think I understand. You've had your way and now you never intend to touch me again."
"That's not true. I do intend to." he said quietly, his eyes still on the fumes.
"What do you mean later?" I demanded.
"Exactly how much later?"
"I don't know!" he answered as he looked towards me. "Just...later."
"Why not now?"
Snape's eyes widened in surprise as he protested, "I have this potion to finish and then...there is the Quidditch match!"
"Alright then....after the game." I said as I started walking towards him.
"Gwen, that...It just wouldn't be right." he replied as he took a couple of steps backwards.
"How much longer do I have to put up with you treating me like an untouchable porcelain doll? You haven't even been insulting me!" I exclaimed as I continued to walk towards him
"Well, you haven't been throwing tantrums." he explained as he backed into a table.
Furious, I leaned forward and jabbed my index finger into his chest as he continued to lean back almost to the point of tipping backward on to the table.
"Oh, there is going to be a tantrum." I said fiercely as I glared into his black eyes. "There is going to be a tantrum unlike anything anyone has ever seen! This tantrum will be echoing off the walls of Hogswarts long after the great grand-children of the present students have graduated....unless you do something about it!"
With that, I turned on my heel and marched towards the door. Before leaving I looked back at him as he watched me with a faintly panicked stare.
"I had better see you later!" I snapped before storming out into the corridor.
I continued to mutter to myself as I climbed the stairs and charged across the Entrance Hall. Most of the staff and students were already crossing the grounds towards the Quidditch pitch and taking their seats. Before joining them, I needed to go meet with Hagrid who had the honor of leading Ashlar around the field before the game with the horse wearing his Gryffindor trappings.
Dumbledore was making his way to the faculty seats along with Professor McGonagall and several of the other staff members. At the sight of me stomping by and muttering out-loud to myself, my grandfather called out with concern, "Gwen, is there a problem?"
I stopped for a moment and looked at him and the other professors.
"Is there a problem? Yes, there's a problem!" I pointed in the direction I had just come from and shrieked, "Professor Severus Snape! That's the problem!"
A loud cheer went up from the Gryffindor section and most of the staff members looked amused and somewhat relieved. Embarrassed that I had said that much louder than I meant to, I went on my way to where Hagrid was waiting with Ashlar.
It didn't take long to get the stallion ready. He looked wonderful with the glittering red and gold cords braided through locks of his long mane and tail. The horse arched his neck and seemed to be particularly proud of wearing the gold lion breast-plate. The finishing touch was the red satin blanket that was embroidered with a gold lion. Hagrid clipped the gold braided lead robe and the two of them went on their way to strut around the field before the beginning of the match.
Watching them go, I wished that I was taking the horse myself rather than going up to the faculty section. Drawing my cloak around me, I lowered my gaze and walked quietly towards the bleacher stairway. Waiting for me at the base of the stairs was Severus. He was glaring at me, but nonetheless, gestured with his hand that he was ready for us to go take our seats with the other teachers.
Ignoring the amused looks from my peers, I took a seat in the front row between Dumbledore and Severus. Noticing that my grandfather was rubbing his hands together, I asked with concern, "You aren't too cold are you?"
"Oh no, dear. I'm fine." he smiled. "But this evening it would be a good idea for the house-elves to have the fires going shortly before the conclusion of the game."
Looking down towards the field, I said, "I should probably have one lit in my room as well." With a snide look at Severus out of the corner of my eye, I added, "It's not as if anything else is keeping me warm!"
I was answered with a silent, angry glare from Severus.
"Ah, look at Ashlar. How splendid he looks!" said Dumbledore abruptly.
Nothing more was said. After a few walks around the field, Ashlar was returned to his paddock and Hagrid joined the rest of the faculty to watch the game. Feeling guilty, I slipped my arm through Severus' and took his hand. His expression softened and he closed his fingers over mine as we turned our attention to the match.
I was by no means an expert when it came to Quidditch but I was fairly certain that the Bludgers were not supposed to target and pursue the players yet, during the game one of the Bludgers appeared to be doing that very thing to Harry. The crowd let out a sympathetic gasp when it finally came in contact with the boy's arm, appearing to break it.
In spite of his injury, Harry somehow managed to capture the golden snitch, winning the game for Gryffindor before crashing to the ground. From the faculty box, we all watched anxiously as a crowd gathered around the injured Seeker who was obviously in pain. I felt a wave of sympathy for the boy as I saw none other than Gilderoy Lockhart aiming his wand at Harry's arm.
A moment later, I gasped, "What did he do? Did he...I don't believe this! He de-boned Harry's arm!"
Severus said nothing as he gazed at the fallen Seeker with a very visible smirk. Scowling, I exclaimed, "This isn't funny!"
Severus continued to say nothing, barely containing his amusement over what Gilderoy had done to Harry. We waited for most of the staff to leave the bleachers before going down the stairs as well. I wanted to check on Ashlar before going in for the night.
Reaching his paddock, I saw the giant black horse was happily grazing, oblivious to the Gryffindor team's victory. He glanced at me as I approached the fence, snorted and returned his attention to the pile of hay that Hagrid had placed along the fence.
Before heading back to the castle, Severus turned me to face him. I braced myself for an argument but it never came. Taking my hands in his own, he seemed to be searching for words.
I felt terrible and wanted to apologize as I began, "Severus, I-"
He said firmly. "Wait. I...I do not want you to think that what happened was not important. It was. And please don't think that I no longer want you...because I do."
He took a deep breath and looked at the sky a moment before returning his gaze to me.
He continued, "Everything I do has been because I care about where this...where we go. Everything from asking for your grandfather's permission to spend time with you to seeing you to your door, is because I want to do this right. I don't want you to regret....me."
I didn't know what to say. Overwhelmed by his emotion and sincerity, I reached up and embraced him. His arms tightened around me as he took another deep breath. For a while we stood that way silently as the sky began to slowly darken.
Finally he drew back slightly and looked down at me. "I don't feel inclined to listen to students in the Great Hall. Shall we again have dinner at Hogsmeade?"
"I would like that." I smiled.
With my hand in his, we walked together towards the Thestral carriages.
Dinner at Hogsmeade was without a doubt, more relaxed than the first evening we had gone there together. Long into the evening we lingered over wine and soft conversation. Perhaps it was my imagination but Severus seemed less nervous and watchful. The incident in the ruins had affected him as well but I had been too caught up in my own confused emotions to see that. He was more insecure than I ever realized and seemed to find it difficult to believe that I, the Headmaster's spoiled granddaughter, found his company enjoyable.
Judging from the position of the moon in the sky, it was nearly midnight when we returned to Hogwarts. The night was clear and the occasional snowflake could be seen in the air. Before much longer the school grounds would be covered in sparkling white.
The castle was quiet and still as we crossed the Entrance Hall. The students had gone to bed long ago and staff members had retired to their personal quarters. Not even Filch was seen or heard when we reached the stairway the led to the unicorn portrait hole.
Before he had a chance to say a word, I firmly took Severus hands and said, "No, we're not saying goodnight yet. Please come inside with me."
His eyes widened as he looked around warily.
"You're not going to be sacked!" I laughed softly. "Now come with me."
Still looking unconvinced, he allowed me to lead him by the hand through the portrait hole. Feeling a little unsure myself, I busied myself with hanging my cloak on one of the wall hooks and then turned around to take Severus'. It was then that I noticed that he was staring with mild amazement at our surroundings. I saw his black eyes pass over the polished mahogany wood paneling along the walls, the cushioned window-seat with its layers of curtains and the ornately carved fireplace in which burned a cozy fire, lit by the house-elves earlier that evening.
"Don't all of the staff quarters look this way?" I asked nervously.
Still looking around, he answered, "No."
Since I had never set foot in another staff member's rooms other than Dumbledore's, I had no way of knowing how my own chambers compared to the others, but judging from Severus' expression, I had not been given just any old hole in the wall.
Turning his eyes towards me, he said quietly, "You're spoiled."
"I know." I whispered nervously as I stepped into his arms. Pressing against him, I asked hesitantly, "Do you want to stay?"
After kissing my forehead, Severus answered softly, "Very much."
Taking my hand, he led me to the four poster. I couldn't help noticing that he raised his eyebrows slightly in reaction to the size of the immense bed. Turning his gaze towards me, he commented, "It's a pity that you've been here alone all this time."
He began to undo the top buttons on his black frock coat as we each stood facing each other along the side of the bed. Smiling slightly, he then took my hands and whispered, "Care to help me?"
My fingers trembled slightly as I reached up and undid the remainder of the buttons. I was surprised at how nervous I was feeling, after all I had already been intimate with this man. What was there to be afraid of?
"So you really do have a neck under that collar." I laughed softly as I began unbuttoning his shirt after the frock coat had been removed.
"Imagine that." Severus replied very softly as he leaned forward and gently kissed me as I finally reached the last button on his white shirt.
My heart fluttering in my chest, I lowered my eyes and said, "To think, I thought all this time that my clothing had a lot of fastenings."
"Where would these fastenings be?" Severus asked as he nuzzled my neck.
"In the back." I whispered.
Stepping behind me, Severus pushed my long hair over my shoulder and proceeded to slowly undo the series of satin buttons. After a moment, he asked in an amused tone, "How do you manage to dress yourself in the morning? I can't image how you reach all of these."
"Some mornings it takes a while." I admitted, trembling as he reached the last button which was slightly below my waist. My heart pounded in my chest as I felt him pushing the now open neck of my robes off my shoulders. Closing my eyes, I allowed the garment to fall to the floor as Severus pressed himself against my back.
Wrapping his arms around my waist, he kissed my neck and murmured, "My lovely princess, are you cold?"
"A little." I admitted, as I stood there in my long satin slip. While the material was hardly warm, I didn't believe that was the reason that I stood there trembling.
"We will take care of that momentarily." said Severus as he reached towards the mattress and pulled down the dark red bed covers. "Let's lie down."
Self conscious about being seen in my under-garments, I climbed onto the bed.
As we lay in each others arms, I wondered if he could feel how rapidly my heart was pounding in my chest, his gentle touches and kisses filling me with a variety of emotions.
"I will never hurt you, Gwen." he whispered as he looked in my eyes.
I tend to consider that night in my bed our true first time together. There was no hurry and no sense of desperation. Later as Severus laid down beside me, I had thought it would feel strange to sleep next to someone after having slept alone my entire life, but the sound of his breathing was soothing and before long I drifted into a restful sleep.
The following Sunday morning was gray and overcast but the weather was unable to dampen my spirits. As I became aware of the daylight coming through my windows I gave a deep sigh and stretched, almost purring like a lazy cat. While the previous day may have gotten off to a rocky start, the evening had ended on a positive note.
Severus' words at Ashlar's paddock the previous night had brought tears to my eyes. After the way I had behaved it was amazing that he was speaking to me at all. None of his insults had ever effected me in such a way. Never before had I taken an honest look at my admittedly bratty behavior. It would have been perfectly understandable if he would have decided to never bother with me again. Fortunately for me, that was not the case. In fact, the emotional bond seemed to be stronger, at least it felt that way for me.
The fire had died during the night but thanks to the layers of curtains on the windows, the room had held the heat. Wondering what time it was, I pulled on my dressing gown and walked quietly to one of the windows and looked down at the school grounds.
Judging from the amount of students that were outdoors, it was safe to say that breakfast was long over and the day was approaching noon. My grandfather was probably expecting me for our usual Sunday afternoon visit over tea, or on a day like this, steaming cups of hot chocolate. As soon as I finished getting cleaned up and dressed I would go up to see him, after my guest had awakened and gone on his way of course.
About an hour later I watched with great amusement as Severus listened for sounds on the other side of the unicorn painting. He was hastily buttoning his frock coat all the way up to his chin and I wondered how he was always able to wear something that looked so uncomfortable.
Crossing my arms I asked, "How many times do I have to tell you that you're not going to be sacked?"
He turned his eyes towards me, looking almost suspicious.
I continued, "We have done nothing wrong. Stop behaving as though at any moment my grandfather is going to jump out from the shadows and cast Blasting Curse at you. I'm telling you, he doesn't care how we spend our time."
"So you say!" he replied.
Somehow I managed to keep from laughing as he carefully stalked through the portrait hole after kissing me goodbye. While I could understand his anxiety, it was comical to see this teacher that most of the students lived in fear of, behaving as though at any moment he would be caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
After seeing Severus on his way, I got dressed and left for my visit with Dumbledore. As always, I was greeted when I entered his office by Fawkes who was looking particularly beautiful that day. The Phoenix's plumage was always at it's best shortly before he began the waning process that would eventually lead to his rebirth.
"Hello there, handsome." I smiled at the charming bird.
The phoenix blinked and puffed out his feathers, almost looking embarrassed.
"Hello?" I called as looked through the back doorway into the sitting room.
"I'm here, Gwen." Dumebledore answered as he came through the office door, looking very grave. "I had matters to see to in the hospital wing."
Alarmed at his serious expression I asked, "What happened?"
Taking a seat at his desk, my grandfather answered, "There has been another attack. This time, a student."
"No!" I exclaimed as I took a seat in one of the chairs opposite his desk. "Who?"
"Colin Creevey. He was found on the stairs last night...petrified."
While I would have felt terrible for any student, there was something endearing about this particular young Gryffindor. He sincerely loved being at Hogwarts and was very curious and inquisitive, always taking photographs to send home to his parents.
Thinking about the camera, I asked, "By any chance was Colin able to photograph who or what did this to him?"
Looking very tired, Dumbledore shook his head and replied, "The camera was melted." With a sigh he added, "As I told Professor McGonagall, it appears the Chamber of Secrets has been opened."
"Colin is Muggle-born isn't he?" I asked as I raised my eyes to my grandfather's.
I suddenly felt terribly guilty for the pleasurable night I had spent with Severus while one of the students, one from my own house no less, had been attacked by something and now lay petrified in the hospital wing.
Turning my gaze toward the window I asked, "Do you have any idea who could have done this?"
Dumbledore answered, "No. There is no evidence pointing to anyone at this time."
Leaning back in the chair I said softly, "What about Lucius? He's here all the time now and everyone knows how he feels about Muggles and Muggle-borns."
"As I said there is no evidence." my grandfather replied. "Besides, he is no longer as hostile towards Narya as he was in the beginning."
I countered, "He now knows that Narya is really a witch. Not only is she not a Muggle, she is from one of the oldest and most well respected pure-blood families. Of course he's much kinder to her now." Crossing my arms, I grumbled, "I wonder if Narcissa is aware of how fond her husband is of our Muggle Studies teacher."
"Gwendolyn." said Dumbledore in a scolding tone.
I replied quickly, "Forgive me, but I'm sure I'm not the only one who finds it odd that all of this is happening when Lucius is now at the school on a regular basis."
With another defeated sigh, my grandfather said firmly, "As I said, right now there is no evidence pointing to anyone."
After a moment of silence I asked, "Will Colin be alright?"
"He, along with Mrs. Norris, will be cured once Professor Sprout's Mandrakes have matured." he answered. Lowering his gaze to his desk, Dumebledore said wearily, "Now, I have some letters to write."
"Of course." I said softly as I rose from my chair. "Is there anything I can do?"
"Simply be watchful." my grandfather replied. With a slight smile he then asked, "Did you and Severus have a pleasant evening?"
Trying very hard not to blush and keep my voice neutral I answered, "Yes, yes we did."
"Good. That pleases me." Dumbledore nodded with approval.
Avoiding his eyes, I walked around to his chair and leaned down to give him a quick kiss before leaving his office. I didn't envy my grandfather at all at that moment, having to deal with a student whose safely had been entrusted to the school having been attacked within Hogwart's very walls. As much as I wanted to ask him some questions I had about my grandmother, I knew he had far more important matters to see to at that time.
Later on that afternoon I slowly walked down the corridor where Mrs. Norris had been attacked on Halloween night and paused near one of the windows. As I gazed out at the grounds, I suddenly became aware of a dark shape moving toward me.
Much to my relief, the shape turned out to be Severus who was silently walking down the corridor. Stepping away from the window, I said, "You startled me."
"I was looking for you." he whispered.
With a smile I replied, "And so you have found me."
"Indeed I have." he said as he placed his arms around my waist and gently kissed me. Gazing into my eyes, he asked, "Did your grandfather tell you what happened?"
As he took my hands, I answered, "Yes. I feel so guilty." When Severus raised his eyebrows slighty, I added quickly, "Not about us...Well, I feel guilty that such a thing could happen while we were...together."
The corners of his mouth turned down slightly as he replied, "No one could have known that something would be on those stairs. In fact, Mr. Creevey should not have been on those stairs at that time of night. It would have happened even if you and I had been alone in our own beds."
"You're right." I agreed. Taking his hand I said softly, "Perhaps we should dine with the others in the Great Hall this evening. I believe it's important to be around the staff and students right now. "
With a slight smile, Severus took my hand and we walked together down the darkened corridor past the sinister, blood red writing on the wall.
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