Chapter 4

Over the past month, Severus and I have worked out a fairly acceptable relationship balance between what my hearts yearns for and what will, hopefully, keep us both safe. We greet each other politely at meals and will sometimes sit next to one another (not always, because Severus insists that would look suspicious). We still have our weekly treatment sessions, during which we can speak a little more freely thanks to the layers of obscure privacy wards that Severus ensconced the place with, but, much to my chagrin, we still refrain from any sort of romantic topics or actions. I understand why we can't indulge, even in private, as I am certain once I got even the smallest taste of Severus again I could never give him up again, but that doesn't make my withdrawal any easier to cope with. I finally understand what my potions addicted patients were going through in detox because I swear every little bit of exposure I get to Severus just makes me want him more, and I feel like I'm going crazy without him. Still, I am willing to accept the time and attention I am able to get, because having some relationship with Severus is better than none, regardless of the limitations.

Leo has clearly noticed our more cordial relationship, and is apparently satisfied with the change, as Severus informed me once that he was treated to "an approving nod" just after lunch on a day when we had gotten into a fairly spirited discussion of the latest proposed applications of using variants of the Draught of Peace for treating sustained traumatic stress disorder in curse victims. It makes me chuckle to think of my little brother weighing and measuring Severus as if he was a prospective suitor vying for his daughter's hand back in the 1950's. Too bad I can't even date Severus anymore, much less marry him! That is, if he would even want to get married. We never even got close to discussing something like that, so I have no idea if he even believes in the concept of marriage. Personally, I never put much emphasis on it, having seen that marriage doesn't automatically mean happiness, but when I think about being married to Severus, I can't stop my heart from fluttering just a bit.

I sigh and break myself out of my horrifyingly domestic daydream, turning back to my marking, only to be interrupted by a knock on my office door. I get up to answer it, assuming it is Albus or perhaps a student with a question, but the swath of pink and saturation of cheap perfume that meets me once I pry open the wooden door swiftly kills any hope I had of either of those being the source of the interruption. Instead, it is the obnoxious toad herself, Umbridge. I try my best to school my face into a blank look of passivity, but it takes all of my will power not to curl my lip in disgust as I wonder what she could possibly want in the middle of a Saturday.

"Yes?" I ask with barely veiled contempt, trying my best to keep my promise to Severus and not antagonize this imbecile.

Umbridge responds with a wide, self-satisfied smile, which ratchets my alarm up a few degrees. "After my survey of your class last month, I reported my findings to the Minister of Magic himself. Needless to say, he was deeply concerned about your delusional ideas that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named had returned, and was scandalized that you were teaching such violent and destructive spells to impressionable young children," she simpers with false concern.

"The spell I was teaching is neither violent nor destructive!" I object, feeling the tenious grasp I have over my temper fraying at the edges. "The spell I was teaching was to repair and heal wounds, not to cause them!"

"Well, the Minister believes, and I happen to agree, that alluding to such severe injuries will lead the children to curiosity over what could cause such a thing. Then it is really only one step away from embracing Dark Magic of all sorts."

"That 'logic' makes absolutely no sense! That's like saying installing airbags in cars leads to car accidents!" I retort, truly unable to believe the level of stupidity of the current government.

"I'm sorry dear," she coos with fire in her eyes, "I don't know what on Earth you are talking about. As a proper witch, I am unfamiliar with these plebian Muggle references," she sneers, looking as if the mere mention of Muggles makes her sick. "Besides, it doesn't really matter what you think, the decision has already been made."

"What decision?" I ask as a cold chill of dread creeps up my spine.

"Why, the decision to let you go, of course," she smiles as she hands over a piece of parchment. "You've been terminated," she finishes with a little annoying laugh.

I grab the parchment and begin to read it as heavy dread settles over my chest. Sure enough, it is a letter from the Minister ordering my dismissal, per the recommendation of the High Inquisitor, Dolores Umbridge. Anger floods my vision as I crush the parchment in my fist and grind my teeth. I want to yell, and scream, and tell this awful little bint how she is daming innocent children to death, but I know that will only hurt my cause. Deep breaths, deep breaths. Just think about what Severus taught you. Control your emothions, picture yourself in a calm place with a shield keeping out all of the things pissing you off right now. I see myself in a cabin, deep in a lush, green forest, next to a crystal calm lake. The fireplace is roaring and the sun is just setting. Severus is there with me, a blanket wrapped around our shoulders, curled up next to the fire, sipping hot chocolate for me, tea for him. The visualization works, and I can think clearly again.

"I see," I respond flatly, enjoying the anger that burns in her gaze as I neglect to break down in rage or tears. "Well, let me just take this to the Headmaster to see what he as to say about this." I push past her without actively shoving, but only get a few steps before she seems to recover form her shocked disappointment.

"That old fool can't help you, you know," she mocks, hands on her hips as her cocky smile returns to her face. "As High Inquisitor I have absolute authority over faculty decisions."

"Perhaps, but nonetheless, I'm going to see Albus," I reply, barely pausing in my trek to the Headmaster's office. The annoying click clack of stodgy heels echos behind me, letting me know that she intends to follow me up there. Well that's fine, I know for a fact that Albus cant stand this bitch anymore than I can, and I have nothing to hide, so let her come.

I reach the gargoyle and whisper the password that Albus gave me in case of an emergency with Severus, heading up the stairs as soon as the staircase is revealed. I can hear the squat little woman huffing behind me, having purposefully walked briskly the entire way here just to mess with her. As expected, before I have the chance to knock the door swings open and reveals Albus seated at his desk.

"Elle, to what do I owe the pleasure?" he asks brightly, completely ignoring my blush colored diminutive shadow.

"She is being terminated," Umbridge rudely puffs out before I can respond.

"Terminiated?" he asks with false confusion. "This is the first I am hearing of this, and as the Headmaster-"

"As the Headmaster, you are still under the authority of the High Inquisitor, and of the Ministry itself," she butts in before he can finish.

A deadly flash cracks across his usually twinkling blue eyes and I am reminded for a moment that I am standing in front of the man who defeated one of the Wizarding World's most feared villains. The glimpse of fear in Umbridge's eyes shows that she realizes it too. But in a moment she pulls herself together, draped in bureaucratic hauter.

"I am certainly not under your authority, ma'am. I must adhere to certain decisions you and the Ministry make, no matter how vociferously I oppose them, but I am under no one's authority but my own," he asserts, rising from his chair and leaning into Umbridge's space, just a bit. "I will do whatever is necessary to attain what is in the best interests of my students."

"The Ministry knows what is best for the students," she argues, clearly getting agitated. "You have had free reign over this school for too long. These students lack discipline, and structure. They have no respect for authority, they talk back and express contrary opinions. It will stop, Dumbledore, even if it means I have to terminate ever Professor here…including you! Now I suggest you back down, before you force me to call the Minister and report this incident of insubordination, from both of you."

"Please do," I answer confidently before Albus can respond. "I would love to have a discussion with Minister Fudge."

Clearly this has thrown Umbridge for a loop, as she stands there frozen, staring at me with shocked wide eyes. "F-fine, I will. You're going to regret this, missy," she huffs at me as she leans in to use Albus's floo.

Albus looks at me curiously as she throws in the powder and I give a slight nod to let him know I have a plan. In a matter of moments we hear Fudge's voice booming through the floo.

"What is this I hear about insubordination?" he bellows as she takes a victorious step back to reveal his squished frowning face to us.

"I refuse to be terminated," I explain calmly as I move closer to the floo to get a better view of the Minister.

"Ms. Bradford, and Headmaster, may I remind you that Ms. Umbrindge has total control over the hiring and firing of all Professors at the school? She has discussed your case with me," he continues, turning his visage completely on me now, and I wholeheartedly support her decision. The things you are teaching those children and the stories you are telling them about You-Know-Who! It's despicable!"

At this, I smile like the cat that ate the canary. "Oh no, Minister, those stories aren't despicable, though they are true, much like another story that I could tell them. In fact, I could tell the students, the faculty, the Daily Prophet, the Quibbler, and the Wizarding Wireless a truly despicable true story."

"What-what are you talking about?" he asks, a sheen of nervous sweat beginning just on his brow.

"I'm talking about how you were a patient of mine three years ago. Surely you didn't forget, Minister? I know I didn't," I purr as I notice Albus's eyes twinkling like mad.

"I-I don't know what you are talking about," he stutters insecurely, brown eyes darting around as if searching for an escape.

"Oh no? Well, let me refresh your memory. You came in during the middle of the night, in March, I believe it was the 17th, but I could check my patient records to be sure. You reported an unceasing itching and burning sensation in your-"

"That's confidential!" Fudge shouts before I can get to the fun part – revealing exactly what body parts were affected by these symptoms. Based on Albus's soft chuckles, though, I suspect both he and Umbridge can guess which part of the anatomy I am alluding to. "As a Healer you swear an oath of confidentiality! If you say another word, I'll have your license stripped!" he threatens, now fully enraged.

"True," but since I am already being threatened with losing my job, I can't really bring myself to care too much about loosing my license. After all, I am the foremost medical researcher in England, and one doesn't need to be a licensed Healer to conduct research. Besides, if you do strip my license, you will need to reveal why you are having it taken away, so either way your secret comes out. How long do you really think it will take someone, especially an intrepid journalist with money to pay, to dig far enough to find that young, blonde, experienced, witch that so generously shared her affliction- and so much more- with you that night? How long do you think it will take until your wife finds out?" I inquire with a bite to my tone that assures him I am in no way bluffing. " I wonder what the wholesome witches and wizards who voted for you, who put you in charge of overseeing the education of their innocent children, would think if they found out how you spend your evenings?"

The Minister's face is so red now that I fear it might actually explode. He stutters and stammers, but can't seem to get a full word, let alone sentence, out of his mouth. Finally, he pulls himself together and with angry resentment bubbling just below the surface asks "Fine! What do you want?"

"I want to keep my job, and I want everyone else that Albus sees fit to employ here, to keep theirs too," I begin.

"I knew you were involved in this!" Fudge screams at Albus, who is still placedly sitting in his chair. "You're after my position!"

"Oh Cornelius, how many times must we go through this. I have no interest in being Minister. If I did, I would have gone after the position when I was begged, multiple times, to run for it years ago."

"Albus had nothing to do with this, Fudge," I say, giving up on any pretense of respect. "The only ones you can blame for this are your little sycophant here, and yourself, for forcing me to resort to this. I don't like blackmail, but if that is what it takes to keep competent instructors in this school and to help prepare these poor kids for the storm that is coming their way from Voldemort's return, then you can damn well bet I'm going to use it. I don't care if you think his return is a lie; teaching these kids how to be safe is essential regardless of whether of not a psychopath is currently on the loose. The decision really isn't hard; keep me on staff, let the Professors do what they are trained to do and your secret will be safe with me."

"That's all you want?" he asks in utter disbelief.

"Of course not!" I exclaim, reveling in the panic that statement causes, "I want a lot of things; world peace, positive relations between the magical and muggle world, a new state of the art transilluminator, a million galleons, a private vacation in Belize with the man I love…but I'm not going to ask you for any of those things, because that would be either impossible, or selfish. So, in exchange for my silence, all you have to do is let me keep my job, and let Albus decide which professors teach here, and what their curriculums include. Deal?"

"Minister, you can't do this!" Umbridge finally interjects. "No one will believe this bint's manipulative lies! I'll prove that she is lying, just let me terminate her and then-"

"No!" Fudge practically shouts. "Uh, I mean, that's ok. I'd prefer not to open an investigation and draw attention away from important, uh, political matters, uh, at this time. Just-just let her keep her job for now and…and we'll deal with her later."

Umbridge does not look happy, but she grudgingly complies. I take great pleasure in throwing the termination notification into the fire, right on top of Fudge's face, and watching the pink menace storm out of the office, mumbling and cursing under her breath.

"It worked!" I exclaim with glee, relief at being able to keep the job I have come to love mixed with a sense of accomplishment.

"I must say, El," Albus begins with a smirk, "that was positively Slytherin of you."

I shrug, though I can't fully stifle a small smile of my own. "I don't particularly enjoy blackmailing people, well, not usually anyway, but I certainly wasn't about to let them get away with shortchanging these kids out of a proper education when their very lives could be at stake," I explain, still bouncy with triumphant energy.

"Whom have you blackmailed?" a velvety voice that I would recognize anywhere inquires.

I whip around and my heart skips a beat as I see Severus has entered Albus's office, the door presumably left open after Umbridge's hasty retreat. Before I know it, I have rushed towards him and enveloped him in a frenetic hug. Adrenaline rushing through my veins has seemingly pushed all thought out of my brain as I push up onto my toes and lay a smacking quick kiss on his warm, soft, sensuous lips.

I pull back after only a moment, and the weight of what I have just done hits me full force. Oh shite! How could I have been so stupid? I kissed him! I kissed Severus! After I promised him that I would cut all romantic ties to him. Oh Merlin, he begged me, literally begged, and I broke my promise…for what? He is starting at me, speechless, with eyes wide with disbelief and a distinct edge of horror.

"Well, I'm glad to see you two have made some significant progress in establishing a…cordial…relationship," Albus pipes in with an irrepressible twinkle in his eyes.

"Oh bloody hell! As if kissing Severus wasn't bad enough, I had to go do it in front of a witness! Stupid, stupid, girl!"

My internal tirade is interrupted by a jovial chuckle and I turn to see Albus beaming at me with mirth shining in his eyes. "What?" I ask in bewilderment.

"You did it again," Severus answers for him with a small sigh that I have come to learn means he finds something endearing but doesn't want to admit it. It takes a moment for my mystification to clear, but soon it is replaced by mortification.

"Blimey! I said all that out loud, didn't I?" I blurt as I feel a blush burning its way up my cheeks.

"I'm afraid you did, my dear," Albus confirms happily as Severus simply nods. "No need to worry, though. Relationships between faculty members are not forbidden, provided of course you maintain decorum in front of the students."

"We are not in a relationship!" Severus shouts angrily, taking Albus by surprise. "There is nothing between us but the average semi-cordial interactions of colleagues, the same as I have with other members of the staff, like Minerva. There is nothing more significant than that."

Ouch. I know why he is denying that there is anything between us, but comparing our interactions to those of him with Minerva? That stings.

"You have been kissing Minerva?" Albus asks with a sardonic smirk.

Severus literally growls at the Headmaster and I can almost see the smoke rising out of his ears as his temper begins to boil. "You are being purposefully obtuse, Headmaster, and it does not suit you," he bites out through gritted teeth.

"Indeed, Severus, but even you can't deny what I saw with my own eyes. Elle did, in fact, kiss you, and you did not angrily pull away, which leads me to believe this was not the first time this has occurred."

"Albus, please, just drop it," I interject pleadingly. "I just got carried away. I shouldn't have kissed Severus. He is correct when he says we are not in a relationship."

A look of comprehension dawns on Albus's face and I have an awful feeling that his seeming omniscience has kicked in. "You are not in one now, but am I correct in inferring that you were previously?"

"Infuriating old man!" Severus scowls as a look of triumph lights up Albus's face. A moment later, though, it fades into confusion tinged with sadness.

"My dear boy, why on earth are you two not still together? I was certain that once you got out of your own way you two would be perfect together!"

It seems Severus has resigned himself to having to divulge the truth to the Headmaster, as he pinches the bridge of his nose and sits heavily into one of the plush armchairs situated by the fireplace. I tentatively take a seat in the matching chair and instinctively reach out to put my hand on his, as I used to do to comfort him when he would tell me emotional stories of his past.I come to my senses as my hand is hovering over his and I wrench it back as if I have been burned. His deep, dark eyes flash with regret and sadness for a moment, before he directs them back to Albus.

"You know as well as I do, Albus, that I cannot be in a relationship, especially not right now. It is far too dangerous."

Albus sighs, immediately picking up on Severus's meaning. "So before he returned…"

"Yes, we were together before the Dark Lord returned," Severus admits.

"And you were happy?" the Headmaster inquires, eyes searching Severus's. I am immediately fully invested in this conversation, but I try not to let it show just how much I want to know the answer to this question. As much progress as Severus had made in our time together, he still wasn't exactly forthcoming with sharing his feelings, and I was reticent to push him too much. It seems Albus has no such compunction.

"More so than I can ever recall being before," he admits softly, turning me and taking my hand in his. "I know I never told you that, and I should have, but you know I'm not precisely proficient in emotional matters. As much as it concerns me that yet another person now knows about my feelings for you, I am glad that at least that truth has come to light, as a result. I would be regretful if something happened to me and you were left to wonder."

"Severus," I begin, wanting to reassure him that I feel the same, but he squeezes my hand and I realize that, for both of our sakes, I should let it go. Something in his eyes tells me that if I admit out loud to him that he makes me happy as well, he will not have the strength to walk away again. Knowing that, as much as I wish it wasn't the case, that is not an option, I purse my lips with a tearful nod.

To my surprise, I see fire and rage take over Albus's countenance and I am stalwartly reminded of the fact that the kindly old Headmaster in front of me was also the defeater of Grindewald and the one wizard that Voldemort fears.

"We will defeat the soulless bastard, Severus, I promise you," he vows with such ferocity that I can't doubt his assertion. "He has taken far too much from all of us, but none so much as you. We will stop him,"

"My losses are my own fault-"

"NO!" Albus bellows, rising from his chair and pacing the room. "We have been through this. Lily was not your fault. Yes, you made a mistake in joining Tom, but you have paid the reparations for that foolish decision of your youth a hundred times over. You have sacrificed your entire life, my boy, to help bring him down. You have risked your life time and time again, given up your professional aspirations, and now have sacrificed your happiness and the greatest gift of all; love. Your debt is well beyond paid, and when this is all over and he is truly gone for good, I expect you to embrace your life, and accept that you are worthy of love and happiness."

"Albus, you know the chances of me surviving are-" Severus begins to argue, making me break out into a quiet little panic at the thought of him dying.

"They are whatever you make them, Severus. You are a fighter; you always have been. If you go into this believing you will die, then you will die. But if you refuse to die, if you are as stubborn about this as you are about so many other things, then death does not stand a chance. And I will do everything within my power to help you, this I promise, my boy."

"Thank you, Albus," Severus says quietly, but with conviction.

"No thanks are necessary," Albus effuses with a wave of his hand. "Just do me one favor; do not push this wonderful woman away," he asks as he gestures to me, taking me by surprise. "Now I know," he continues before Severus can get out more than a single syllable of protest, "that you can't continue your relationship due to the risk of Voldemort or one of the Death Eaters, or their children, using it as leverage against you, but that does not mean you need to shut her out completely."

"I am well aware of that," Severus says with a haughty edge. "In fact, we have reached a mutual decision to remain friendly colleagues during this time."

"I am very happy to hear that," he replies with a twinkle and a wink in my direction. "And if either of you ever needs to vent, I am always here for you."

"Thank you, Albus," I say with a genuine smile, realizing how much I have come to rely on his man's support.

"Also," he adds with a leading edge, "if restraining yourselves becomes too much to bear, my office is warded for absolute privacy," he finishes with a lascivious wink .

"ALBUS!" Severus bellows as I blush furiously before bursting out into laughter.