A/N: Aaaand…welcome! Can't believe I'm actually here now – writing this and all. It's a beautiful feeling, this – this feeling of being that much closer to The Good Stuff, quite a bit of which will feature highly in this year. Thanks for all of your reviews (I treasure them, even when I can't always reply) and encouragement – it's been a big help.
For new readers: Turn back! Read A Surreal Tale, or much of this will mean nothing to you, and will spoil you horribly for the action in its prequel.
And now, the moment we've all been waiting for…the new year. Or, rather, the new summer…
Chapter 1: The First Problem
"Morning, mum," a familiar voice whispered giddily in Bella's ear. Hoisting a tired smile onto her face, Bella blindly reached out for her son to tickle him as she'd been doing for the last three weeks of the summer holiday – an old routine she'd found herself unable to let go of once she began to regularly share a bed with Antares again. Antares didn't fight back this time, more interested in wriggling out of her arms and rolling off the bed with a thump. "You don't work today anymore, do you?"
Bella stifled a sigh, shaking her head as she did so. The summer balls had just gone by, and Madame Malkin had consequently announced that none of them needed to come in to the shop on Sundays or Mondays. It obviously made for an extremely pleasant weekend, even if she couldn't spend all of her free time exactly as she liked.
"I think I'll just sleep in a little," Bella said, yawning slightly between each word. Antares rolled his eyes at that, but let her alone, and it wasn't long after the sound of him thumping down the stairs before the door to his room opened again to reveal a furtive, slightly sleepy-looking Severus.
"About time you woke up," he said quietly. "Any chance that –"
"No, Severus," Bella said immediately, a rueful smile accompanying her near-silent words. "You know how he runs around in the morning. And you do remember our lessons together, don't you? Because –"
But Severus was already sighing and beating a quick retreat. "You can't blame a man for asking," she heard him mutter as he closed the door, and it made her sigh. She truly couldn't blame him – it was almost a week since the last time they'd been intimate, and she didn't think she herself could go on much longer like that. Oh, it was lovely to have Antares close by, and to be able to talk to him and teach him, but Bella also wanted Severus' warm arms and Severus' even warmer hands on her at night, and she was starting to dream of the one lucky chance they'd had to be together in his bed so far.
Bella sighed, turning over in her own empty, unsatisfying bed. Of course, that encounter, though exciting, hadn't been nearly enough – she was starting to think she'd go mad always having him so close by and being unable to drag him into bed when she felt like it. The news about Quirrell's strange death and the Dark Lord's reappearance made it even worse, really – the hours and hours of frantic conversation over it should really have been balanced by equally frantic lovemaking, and had not.
Now, Bella knew just about everything there was that she could know about what had happened at Hogwarts almost a month ago. She still worried about finding some hidden effect that the Dark Lord's presence had had on Antares, and, more so, on Severus, and knew what she wanted – no, what she needed to do was spend a day or two just touching him and feeling him. If she could only find time to do that – but really, it was impossible! Antares seemed to be everywhere nowadays, waiting impatiently in the parlour so they could go out into the tiny, frighteningly overgrown garden or up into the boxy little attic and practice spells, or bustling about the kitchen burning bacon, or curled up on the living room sofa writing letters or reading one of the books he technically wasn't allowed to read. Sometimes –
Right, enough of that, Bella told herself firmly. Out of bed with you – brooding isn't going to solve anything, so just have breakfast and do the best you can. Something'll turn up… Unfortunately, that barely even dimmed her longing for a man's body in her bed. It was very well saying that something would turn up. Bella knew very well that it, that is, a solid hour to pin Severus to the wall with, hadn't come up in a week, and by the way Severus' study downstairs was starting to smell, he was unable to keep himself from starting to brew basic sleeping potions. Bella rolled her eyes and began to crawl out of bed – it was hard enough not just Stupefying Antares sometimes, when he was prancing about because of something or when his spells were all over the place. Thankfully, Severus didn't seem to have finished any of the batches he'd started, unless Bella would eventually make some excuse to go into his room and poach some, and maybe –
She closed her eyes, and yet her mind continued to mercilessly betray her, supplying her with unhelpful thoughts about how eager Severus would be to please, and how long he'd probably last in his state, and how his mouth would taste –
Bella sighed. It was useless – there had to be some way they could be alone, if just for half an hour. If there was not, she would either go mad or grab hold of Severus and shag him on the kitchen table, and then there would be hell to pay. Sighing again at herself, Bella began to undress, doing so as quickly as possible so that she wouldn't need to think about how taut her nipples were in the cool air of the room. The shower was lukewarm but really approaching cold – something she needed, so she wouldn't distract herself and make Antares worry – and Bella was finished in minutes, and blindly raking through her hair with a comb and a hasty drying spell just so she could look presentable.
Although she did think Severus was past caring about how her hair felt; if they had a spare moment, they spent it kissing or touching each other. If they had more than that –
Get. Downstairs. Now. Bella obeyed her self-command reluctantly, muttering under her breath.
Antares was in fine form, tossing hash browns in the skillet and already clumsily levitating bacon onto what looked like Bella's plate. "Toast or hash browns?" he asked companionably, and a now-familiar guilt pierced Bella even as she smiled and pointed to the loaf of bread that was lying idle on the counter. A knife hopped over to it and began to slice, and though Bella still felt distracted by the thought of time with Severus, she managed to turn her attention to helping her son finish off breakfast and keeping up a steady conversation about why he was so bad at keeping up a steady stream of spells when it was needed.
"I'm starting to think I should show you what a barrage looks like," Bella said decisively, rising and stretching slowly, having finished the food on her plate. "You react much more than you act, that's the problem. How on earth did you get through fighting that troll?"
"Mum, I can't just fire off six spells without watching what the other person is doing," Antares replied impatiently. "The troll was easy because it was slow – you're really fast, and you never move where you look like you're going –"
Bella rolled her eyes. "That's the point, Antares – a barrage tips things slightly in your favour, because the person dodging can't dodge forever, and they'll be too busy avoiding your curses to let off more than one of their own – which you can dodge easily – which is when you take them down." She barely registered how the plates and breakfast things were floating into the sink of their own accord, so determined was she that her son took this in properly. "Come on into the garden, I'll show you."
"Don't set fire to the fence," Severus said dryly from behind them. Bella stifled the urge to jump and stifled the other, stronger urge to press a kiss to his cheek as she herded Antares out of the kitchen, through the dirty back door and into the tiny garden. After a quick wave of her wand, the sky shimmered above them, and the air seemed to become thicker – splendid. Now, no one would see them, even if they looked right over the fence.
"Now, what's going to happen is this," Bella said determinedly, her lips twitching with approval when she saw that Antares was drawing his wand from his sleeve – she did love how he carried it with him all the time. "I'll curse you, and you'll dodge. Try to disarm me, will you? Mordeo." Antares dodged that easily, but almost didn't dodge the next stinging hex, and the next and the next after that. Bella was gratified to see a streak of light come back at her at least twice, but it was soon clear that Antares was tiring, as she hit him three times in a row. He grimaced on the third strike, tripping over a rather aggressive begonia and stumbling to the ground. Bella allowed him a moment to catch his breath, but no more.
"Mordeo! Mordeo – mordeo – mordeo –"
"Adimo!" The cry faltered – Bella knew her stinging hexes were never easy to bear – but it did deflect the last one right back at her, so she had to dodge. And then an unusually bright streak of a stinging hex had hit her, and hurt –
A minute later, her wand slipped out of her hand, and Antares was half on his feet, wand pointed resolutely in her direction. Her wand.
"Accio," Bella said coolly, but she knew her eyes were shining as Antares let go of her shaking wand, letting it fly into her hand. "You didn't verbalise, Antares. You know that's a dangerous habit to develop now –"
"I did, Mum, you just didn't hear me," Antares said diffidently, getting to his feet with a smug look on his face. "I think I understand now, about barras."
"Barrages," Bella said, smiling. "That's enough about them, for now – how are your locking spells? We didn't do them yesterday."
Antares fidgeted, coming closer with a nervous look on his face. "I know just the one," he said, sounding a little too offhand. "It's not very –"
Bella waved the back door closed behind them. "Show me anyway." The moment Antares flicked his wand, pausing before enunciating, she knew who had taught him that spell.
"Offirmo," Antares said firmly, and the door seemed to expand a little in its frame as the lock clicked. "D'you want to try the door, to see if I did it all right? Sometimes, when we – when I did it, it'd just expand a bit, but not actually lock –"
"Quirrell taught you that spell," Bella said, her grip tightening on her wand, "didn't he?"
Antares was still for too long, and didn't quite look her in the eye as he replied. "Mum – no."
"Do you know why the door expands when you lock it?" Bella demanded, memories starting to rise to the front of her mind, so fast that she could not turn all of them away. "It's because it seals the room – completely. Nothing can get out, or in – even air."
Antares went white as he realised the meaning of that, but still spoke. "Mum, I don't think he meant –"
"And I don't think you realise just how much Quirrell was tainted," Bella said angrily. "It would have been a great joke to him, teaching a child that sort of spell and encouraging them to use it to lock their door if they needed privacy – Antares, Quirrell held the Dark Lord in his head. Don't you see what that means?"
"Everything he said," Bella continued, ignoring Antares' weak protests, "everything he did, everything he did for you – everything was tainted, Antares." Further ignoring, Antares' visible discomfort. "Don't use that spell again."
"Mum, it's the only locking spell I know," Antares complained angrily. "How was I supposed to know it could –"
"Is it the only locking spell on the planet? I'll teach you another one," Bella snapped. "Just don't use it, you hear me? And all those other spells he taught you – I'll need to see them and hear them one by one. There's no telling what he could've taught you; Merlin, but I should have known to check."
But somehow Antares was still arguing, still stubborn. "Mum, almost all the spells he taught me were standard! I looked them all up, after – after – I swear I did, Mum, and Offirmo was the only one I couldn't find…" Horror began to show on his face, a horror that Bella did not know the roots of. It was terrifying to see. "I checked, Mum, I swear –"
"What did he teach you?" Bella demanded, watching his eyes as he turned slightly away, fidgeting agitatedly with his wand. "Antares –"
"The stinging hex," he said quickly. "The – disarming charm. Um – also the Impedimenta, and the Jelly-legs jinx, the Locomotor and Locomotor mortis – I can't remember all of them, but –"
"Did you ever write them down?" Bella asked, not too distracted by the thought of Quirrell teaching the Dark Arts to her son to notice the way he blanched at that. "Or did he?"
"He did," Antares said haltingly. "I – I still have –"
"You'll show me, then," Bella said, trying not to squeeze her wand any harder. That that – that filth had actually – "And Antares? If you remember anything extra, anything at all that he did not write down, you must tell me, understood?"
"Yes, mum," Antares mumbled, eyes downcast, his posture the very picture of unwillingness. Bella nodded, pointing the way to the door, hoping that perhaps, Quirrell wouldn't have – "Aperio." – taught him the counterspell. "Um – shall I –"
"Yes," Bella managed to say, unable to see more than a dark little room and a pregnant muggle woman, and what had been done to her. "Yes, please."
Unsurprisingly, the rest of the lesson did not go well. Antares was nervous now, and hesitated to put his all into every spell Bella made him perform from the grubby list he'd fetched, even the ones that she had quickly designated as suitable for him to continue using. What was worse was how unhappy he looked whenever she crossed another spell resolutely off – Bella did not like to think it, but she couldn't help drawing certain conclusions about her son when he almost protested at not being able to use several rather nasty jinxes.
"You don't need them, Antares," Bella said over and over again, but the only thing she could see on her son's face in response to that was stubborn mutiny. It hurt – she hadn't set out to raise him like this, like herself – "Antares, using any jinxes in Hogwarts is close to breaking school laws; using these against the wrong person could get you on probation, for goodness' sake!"
Somehow, that was the worst thing to say. "You don't trust my judgment anymore, do you Mum?" Antares accused, anger colouring his cheeks. "It's not fair! It's not like I go round hexing cousins of the Minister or anything –"
"But you do go around behind my back," Bella said, through gritted teeth, "associating with people I expressly told you to keep away from –"
"How was I supposed to know –"
"How weren't you?" Bella demanded, trying and failing to prevent herself from raising her voice. "I told you; Severus told you, and yet Severus told me it took Quirrell trying to harvest your blood for you to see that anything about him was out of the ordinary!" Antares fell silent at that, but Bella could tell it was a stubborn silence, and it infuriated her – "How am I supposed to 'trust your judgment' if you won't bother listening to simple advice?"
Antares drew in a sharp breath. "Mum, you never even saw Quirrell – it just – he just seemed –"
"Seems, he says," Bella hissed angrily. "Oh, Quirrell must have seemed good – he had to! How many times must I tell you that things aren't always what they seem? Did I raise you to think like a fool, Antares?" Her son stayed angrily silent, biting his lip. "Did I?"
Someone cleared their throat behind her uncomfortably. Bella looked backward to see Severus' whole delicious frame emerging from within the house, the expression on his face one of exaggerated neutrality.
"So sorry – just wanted to inform you that I'll be going to Hogsmeade instead of Diagon Alley," he said lowly, ignoring the way Antares glared at him. "Don't delay lunch or even tea for me, as I may be back only just before dinner." With that, he withdrew back into the house and shut the door, firmly, as if that would keep him from hearing any more. It made Bella's cheeks burn with embarrassment – how loud had she been, just now, that he could have heard –
Bella's train of thought was cut off, then, by the startling exit of Antares, who made for the back door with the sort of single-minded intensity that made Bella think twice of stopping his progress. Seconds later, she was following him into the house and placing a stout Silencing Charm on the back door after closing it – it would be embarrassing if someone could eavesdrop on conversations in the garden so easily again.
After she and Antares re-entered the house, they both proceeded to the kitchen as if on some sort of mutual agreement, and there Bella continued her instruction of her son.
More like my shouting at his stupid head, Bella thought to herself, glaring at him as he went about the task of making lunch, which he was somehow managing to do while throwing every argument back into her face as if she was the one that needed instruction. It had been fifteen minutes now of them almost shouting back and forth, and Bella was beginning to fear how frighteningly stubborn Antares was being about the whole thing. He still refused to say that his choice to stick with Quirrell even after being warned against him had been more than a little misguided, despite everything Bella tried to say.
"You don't understand, Mum! He was the last person you'd think of, for having…something like that, hanging around him," Antares was earnestly repeating for what seemed like the fourth time. "If he hadn't taught me anything, I wouldn't have survived the troll – you keep forgetting that –"
Bella huffed indignantly – no matter how many times she said and said this, he still didn't seem to understand! "Antares, anyone else could have taught you the same thing –"
"Who, then?" Antares said, maddeningly. But it was his next statement that would really bother her: "No one cared enough to bother, then – and you said I couldn't practice with you at home until you got some permit –"
"– so we wouldn't be breaking the law, for fuck's sake!" Bella stared at her son's back, willing him to turn around, willing him to understand – she'd known she'd done the right thing in terms of the permit. She still knew that – why couldn't he understand that she only wanted the best for him, that she wasn't just restricting him out of irritation, or –
"Well fine, so you couldn't teach me – so he did, so what?"
"Everything he ever did for you was based on a selfish reason, Antares," Bella said, trying hard to keep her voice level and hoping that she was succeeding. "You don't know how those men think, you don't know how the Dark Lord thinks, and when I try to tell you –"
But instead of letting her finish, Antares slammed down the pan he was currently meddling with, his limbs agitated with an amount irritation that surprised her. "All you ever say is that I don't know this and I don't know that, Mum! You've never come out and said –"
"I should have thought that was obvious, for goodness' sake!" Bella snapped, though her eyes watched and marvelled at how Antares slowed and quieted his movements as he checked carefully on the greens that were cooking in another pan. "When people act selfishly in everything, they don't care about anyone else unless it affects them! You should be able to understand how that would –"
Antares, who had turned around to face her by this point, rolled his eyes. "Then why did he bother teaching me?"
"Obviously, he thought it would benefit him!"
"How?" Antares practically shouted. "Everything he wanted was obvious, Mum – I knew where I stood, that's why I got out when I did –"
It was at that statement that Bella lost her temper. "And what about next time? What about when you can't get out? It's never going to be the same way, you don't understand, I thought this way, I lived this way, AND LOOK WHERE IT GOT ME!"
Antares stayed stock still after that, his frame turned firmly away from her, his hand gripping the handle of a pan as if it were a lifeline. Bella couldn't stand to be in the kitchen anymore, not with her son working so hard not to look at her or listen to her. Not with her son edging down the same path as she had, the same path that had led her through hell and fire and self-loathing and despair –
Bella stood up, shakily, and left. It was the smartest thing to do, at that point – her magic felt like a noose tightening around her own neck, and her eyes brimmed with angry, despairing tears. She rubbed angrily at them, hating the feeling of helplessness that was starting to settle into her gut.
Behind her, through the kitchen door, she could hear pots and pans starting to be moved around again, and somehow it hurt more to know that Antares would still finish making and serving lunch while she was clearly unprepared to do anything but scream at him than anything else. It made her decision easier, because to retreat from this was to protect herself from the twisting pain in her heart –
"Antares?" Bella called out, trying to steady her voice. Failing. "Don't bother with lunch, not for me." Even as she hurried up the stairs, she heard Antares calling after her.
She did not let herself answer.
It seemed a long time before Antares thought to look for her in Severus' room, but at least it left Bella time to cry herself out properly. It left her time to burrow deep between these familiar sheets. It was good.
Antares sounded unhappy, but still stubborn. "Mum…?"
"Please don't," Bella found herself saying. "Don't lie that you've listened, please – I know you haven't –"
Antares' footsteps came closer. "Won't you even let me say anything?"
"There is no point," Bella insisted. "Anyway, it's your choice to make. I can't – can't tell you what to believe, can I?"
Antares seemed unsure of how to answer that. "Mum –"
"Just come here," Bella said, sitting up slowly. It hurt to see how reluctantly he came over to her side of the bed, but Bella ignored it, seizing him in what was probably a painful hug. It felt horribly good to not hear Antares complain about it, enough to make her want to cry again –
"Mum," Antares said, sounding a little strangled, "why did you come here?" Instead of my room, Bella could clearly hear. Instead of our room –
"No reason," she said, and hoped he would believe it. It seemed like he did, because he shut his eyes and hugged her harder, and that was the end of the argument.
Of course, being reconciled to Antares after their horrid argument didn't help make the day any less boring. Bella, after having allowed Antares to coax her into eating lunch and into practicing a few more spells with him, was soon left to her own devices, which, sadly enough, comprised adjustments to more dresses from the shop. It didn't help that Severus was gone – though he'd have distracted her greatly, it would have served to cheer her a bit, what with the dreariness of her current task.
Said task included responding occasionally to Antares' demanding questions about a book on Charms that he'd probably lifted from one of Severus' shelves without permission (Severus tended to be rather forbidding about lending Antares anything), and amending a rather boring set of blue robes that was due to be handed back to Madame Malkin tomorrow morning. Bella did hate doing these – there was never anything challenging about resizing garments or mending rips that the stupidest house elf could fix with little difficulty – but knew very well that it was part of the warranty offered with many of Malkin's more expensive robes, and therefore a fairly important, if also fairly dull task.
Bella had just finished re-checking the stupid thing for anything needing mending that she or the owner might have missed when the fire in the hearth flared green. Bella tried to temper her excitement at seeing Severus step back into their living room, but she couldn't help giving him a welcoming smile anyway – he looked like he needed it, really, and she didn't think Antares would notice.
"Please tell me there's still Firewhiskey in the pantry," was the first thing he said. Antares snorted at that, but was ignored when Bella nodded reassuringly in Severus' direction. He wasted no time in setting off for the kitchen, sloughing off his hat on the way and running impatient fingers through his – Bella's heart skipped a beat – fairly clean hair.
It was somehow inevitable that Antares should choose that moment to make a snide comment. "Please don't overdo it, Professor! That stuff's not good for anyone's health –"
"Antares, please," Bella said immediately, but she couldn't prevent Severus from shooting a poisonous glare over his shoulder in Antares' direction, and she certainly couldn't prevent herself from watching him all the way into the kitchen and hoping hard that Antares would go to bed early without coaxing just this once –
"Mum! Are you listening?"
"Of course, dear," Bella said automatically, stifling a sigh. It was really best not to hope.
Perhaps it was that attitude that caused it, perhaps not. All Bella knew to do was to stop the surprise and delight from showing on her face as Antares soon announced tiredly that he was going to bed.
Of course, she could not resist asking why. "So early? What –"
"Didn't sleep too well last night," Antares said, yawning as he stood, the Charms book dangling precariously in his loose grip. "There was this dream that…never mind."
"What? What dream?" Bella asked, partly against her will. She did want to know, but that would entail him staying and telling her, and that would delay being able to do something about the freedom she would certainly have tonight.
"Nah, it's nothing," Antares said, still sounding legitimately tired. It was the way he avoided her eye – almost effortlessly enough that she didn't notice – that signalled that he was lying. "Night, Mum."
"Night, Antares," Bella said, using the 'Don't think I'll forget this' tone to placate her scolding conscience. "Close the door after you, will you? And check the back door – I think it's letting in a draft." Antares nodded sleepily and did as he was told, and in what seemed like seconds Severus was sliding into the room, his face relaxed enough for her to tell he'd been drinking, yet still alert enough that Bella could tell he'd probably eavesdropped on the whole exchange.
"Wait," she said quickly, as sternly as she could. Severus continued to advance, but made no attempt to embrace her even once he was close enough. "I didn't know you washed your hair this morning –"
That seemed to encourage him, for his arms were around her in an instant. "There are many places I washed this morning – care to explore?"
"Morgana, Severus, set up some wards first," Bella whispered heatedly, gulping as his arms tightened around her. He was so close that she could feel –
"Silencio…Praedicere." Bella's only warning, then, was the sound of Severus' wand clattering onto the centre table, and then he was kissing her, and she actually could not think –
"…join me on the couch," Severus was whispering, his breath hot against her neck and ear. "Come on –"
After that, it was a veritable whirlwind of kisses and moans. It was only gradually that Bella became aware of the hard-edged lump of her sewing-case that was sticking into her back, and even after digging that out, she only paused to help Severus' shaking fingers unbutton her robes and help him start struggle out of his own, which were getting in the way –
"Oh, for – Scindo!" The stupid row of buttons that had been tormenting her slit open with nearly no sound, and the only thing Bella could hear for a while was Severus chuckling in her ear about how much she wanted him. That was, until she'd peeled the irritating garment off him and flung it as far away as she could –
Something squealed, and they froze. Severus sighed, obviously unwilling to check. "I don't think that was –"
The thing squealed again, and the rustling of fabric could be heard. Despite Severus' grumbling, Bella struggled out from under him, only to see the stupid mannequin in the corner, fighting to get Severus' robe off itself. Bella swore at the mannequin, at its makers, at its distributors and at Severus' robe as she tried to strip it of both Severus' robe and the one she'd been working on earlier. The silly thing seemed to quiet after that, and Bella soon found herself returning to Severus' side.
"Sorry," she said, starting to peel off her own robes, trying not to be distracted by the mannequin again, whom she could see beginning to preen out of the corner of her eye. "I thought –"
"I don't mind," Severus said, drawing her down to him, and they were soon kissing again, drinking greedily of one another because it had been very long since they'd had this, had this time –
Something moved, and Bella stilled confusedly, trying to see what it was. It was only the mannequin again, bending over something, only it had looked like it was – but she was being silly, and wasting time. She tried hard to suppress her instinctive response, which was to reach for her wand, which was too far away for her to simply call it into her hand if she wanted to –
"Bella?" Severus whispered, stilling against her. "Look, if you're so distracted –"
Bella sighed. "It's that bloody mannequin," she muttered, going limp in his arms in partial defeat. "I just – it just feels like someone's –"
"It's an inanimate object," Severus said, closing his eyes momentarily. "There is no one here – I set a ward, I would know." Despite the knowledge that he had set one on the doors leading into the room (and at her request, no less) it was hard for Bella to spot the movements of the mannequin out of the corner of her eye and not feel as if it was someone spying on them.
"They can almost speak, Severus, I'd rather not –"
Severus sighed, his hands finally ceasing to caress her. "Bella, what are they charmed to do?"
Bella rolled her eyes, feeling a little irritated that he'd ask such a question. "Severus, I'm just not comfortable doing this while one of them's in here –"
Severus snorted. "One of them, as if it's really alive –"
"– and I would appreciate it," Bella continued, giving him a sharp look, "if you'd respect that." Severus shifted on top of her impatiently, and she was rather firmly reminded of why she'd called this impromptu session at all. They had hardly had a chance to do this all week, and this was a golden opportunity to thoroughly enjoy themselves together without interruption. Now, if Severus would just be sensible and agree to move so she could put the damned mannequin elsewhere like she should have in the first place –
"I just don't see why you're so bloody conscious of it," he muttered. "It's not like it's alive –"
"Well, Severus, when I see something moving out of the corner of my eye, I usually assume it's alive!" Bella snapped. "It's stood me in good stead for ten years, that habit, and it's not one I can just put away at the drop of a hat –"
"So," Severus interrupted, his expression darkening, "you're saying you feel nervous in my house?"
Oh dear – oh please let this not turn into that, Bella prayed, her thoughts racing as she replied, her tone purposely light and exasperated. "Oh, for – you feel nervous in your own bloody kitchen, and you take issue with me feeling –"
"Of course I bloody well take issue, when you'd assured me that you felt safe here," Severus said indignantly, making Bella's face fall. He was so sensitive about this that it was annoying – "The Dark Lord –"
That did it. That really did it. "Why must you always assume –"
"– because it's all you've talked about for the past few weeks!" Severus said, through gritted teeth. "Bella, if he returns to the British Isles, I'll be able to tell you –"
"I didn't say anything about him coming back!" Bella argued hotly, but her irritatingly traitorous brain was readily supplying her with how fervently she'd shouted at Antares, and what exactly had driven her to do that and to train him. Severus was right, and it just made her more defensive than anything. "I don't know why you persist on saying that I –"
"Fine," Severus said, in that half-angry, half-mollifying tone of voice she soon understood as the one he adopted when he didn't want to displease her. "Fine, I accept that you didn't." Bella sighed irritably, trying not to feel even more annoyed that he was trying to apologise for what they both knew was a fairly serious concern of his – "Please can we just enjoy this? It's been days since we –"
She shut him up with a kiss, hoping it would melt the defensive irritation she could still feel in her calming body, in his slightly stiffened arms. For a while, it did, goading Severus' hands into returning to their nefarious activities. One had just begun its usual journey up the inside of her thigh when the sound of something bumping loudly into something jolted Bella from her renewed haze of arousal.
Bella looked, and that was it. "Wait," she mumbled, struggling out from under Severus' pleasant weight. He groaned in reproach as she slid out from under him, but Bella was too determined to listen, immediately calling her wand to her. She had the bloody right to fuck without a bloody mannequin spying on her and making her nervous when she had no need to be –
"Bella, please –"
"Wingardium Leviosa!" Bella hissed, and soon the stupid mannequin was squealing as it was levitated past the sofa and through the kitchen door, where it squealed yet again as it bumped into something. Bella let the spell go then, immediately slamming the door after it so that the stupid thing wouldn't hobble its stupid way back into the living room while they were finishing what they'd started. Or, from the look of Severus, who was dispiritedly sitting up from his prone position on the sofa, began afresh.
"Bella, for goodness' sake –"
"I'm fine, Severus," she said hastily, tossing her wand onto the centre table and making to sit down beside him. "We can do this now, that thing's too stupid to do anything with the stove…"
But Severus seemed to have reached the final straw. "Look, either you take this seriously, or –"
"I am taking it seriously!"
"You were before," Severus allowed, his tone extremely grudging. "But now…this just isn't working."
Bella began to be alarmed – he didn't sound in the least bit conciliatory, which meant that this might be their first real argument. It was somehow frightening, and in that strained moment of silence that hung between them, Bella began to understand why Severus was so eager to please, sometimes. "Oh, Severus, it's just that –"
"You don't even trust me," he said then, so quietly that Bella stilled too.
"Severus, you know that's –"
"Be honest, for once," he demanded, turning to face her with an expression hurtful in its intensity. "No, really – what does it say about us that you don't even feel safe in my home, safe while we're –"
"It's a habit," Bella said fiercely, hoping her fervour would convince him. "It has nothing to do with trust –"
Severus' eyes hardened, enough that she suddenly felt nervous. "Then let me see –"
"No," she snapped, even before he could finish articulating his request. For a moment, she couldn't even look at him, until she realised that he might be talking about something other than peering into her mind. But when she looked back into his eyes, the intention was there, clear enough that she could see it. "No, Severus." She snatched her hands out of his encroaching grip, and tried to pretend they weren't shaking. He didn't understand how hard won this peace was, how much she'd striven to put every memory in its proper place, some out of sight, some not. And with his principles and his skills at Legilimency, he could just go blundering about and eradicate the mental order that kept her sane – it would be unthinkable to give him the chance –
"What do you fear so much?" Severus was whispering, now, his tone about as determined as it was possible for a whispered entreaty to be. "Why won't you just let me look?"
"You'll – you'll ruin it," was the only reason Bella seemed able to articulate. His hands caressed hers, and it felt good, but that would soon change if he – "Severus, don't –"
"Relax," he commanded, pulling her close to him, and somehow it was easier to breathe, then, with his voice so close to her ear, with his firm chest behind her as a warm anchor for her to discreetly cling to. "Please, Bella – I'll only look. We don't even have to speak about it again, if you –"
"Fine," Bella said, wishing she didn't sound so cross. But really, he'd be able to tell, wouldn't he? From the way his hands were rubbing soothingly at her stomach and carefully stroking her hair, he already knew how tense she was. How unwilling. Still – "Just do it, for goodness' sake."
Severus made no reply, simply raising one hand and silently calling his wand into it. With some adjustment on his part, Bella found herself looking up into his worried eyes, and then – "Legilimens…"
She was out of practice – she knew that from the moment she felt Severus' direct, impatient touch on what seemed like five threads of association at once – but she still managed to highlight what she thought he wanted to see, still managed to guide him away from the things she had no intention of him seeing. When Severus surged off the path she'd hastily planned out for him, Bella could almost feel the headache she was surely going to have after this get worse as she drove him back, as she refused to remember certain things in detail.
Eventually, Severus grudgingly let go of the associations that linked her memories of the year after she had been cast out by Rodolphus and the Dark Lord, and let himself be guided instead to the years after that – the long years of Bella constantly looking over her shoulder, constantly planning, constantly thinking of what she could do to make her and her son's existence better. In the process of keeping Severus viewing those memories and old thoughts, Bella let slip a few that she had wanted confined, but overall felt that she had done all she could.
It was an effort to speak, but she managed it. "Do you understand?" Her mouth felt dry, and her head was already pounding, but it felt important that he knew, that he didn't feel she'd held back from him, that she'd put up some sort of smokescreen of an answer before him so he would leave her alone.
"I think so," Severus muttered easily, easily enough that Bella wanted to roll her eyes and say something tart about his bloody over-proficiency at this art, but in the next moment she was too occupied in masking the memory of adopting Antares by blood to think of anything else. For a brief moment, that day shivered before her eyes, full of harsh sunlight and thirst and desperation, and in the next Bella had somehow shoved it deep down, and was yanking threads of association away from Severus' grasping mind. A minute later she'd slapped him and broken eye contact, and was thinking very angrily about slapping him again when Severus blushed and began to retreat from her with an embarrassed look on his face.
"If you try that again," she began, the memory hitting her now. It made her eyes itch with tears, and made her want to thwack Severus over the head with her wand again and again. "Severus, I told you –"
"I'm sorry," was all he said, his voice still with meaning. "I – I thought it might amuse you, or…"
"Idiot," Bella spat, but she was already reaching for him again, feeling almost as if she could kiss the idiocy from him somehow. Despite her aching head, it felt intoxicating, kissing him now. She could still feel the way he had felt within her mind, could still feel the imprint the sharp edges of his consciousness had made in hers, and soon all she could think of was getting as close to him as she physically could.
It was only a matter of time before they had rolled accidentally off the sofa. Bella laughed as quietly as she could – which was to say, not very quietly at all, and Severus cursed colourfully at the couch and the floor and the centre table, on which he'd half fallen.
"This is useless," he muttered, as they tried to get back on the couch and disrobe at the same time. "Antares – isn't he asleep?"
"Why are you still talking?" Bella demanded hazily, tugging at his hand so it could get back to worming its way into her underthings.
But Severus didn't let himself be budged – much. "We can do this in my room," he suggested, his voice low and rough. "We can lock the door –"
"Suspicious," was all Bella could think to say, but the lure of being able to thoroughly wear him out in the privacy of his bedroom was too much. "Oh, fine – no dawdling, understand?" A quick smile from Severus as he got shakily to his feet was the only indication of his intention before he was suddenly gathering her into his arms and staggering over to the door that led to the stairs with her. Bella tried to fight back a giggle and failed when a highly distracted Severus ended up lowering her to the bottom stair, being thoroughly out of breath. "Is that all?" she teased. "I'm not moving one step from here – I absolutely demand that you have your way with me in your bed, not on the stairs like some common hussy –"
"On the stairs, you say?" Severus whispered, kissing her with a mischievous glint in his eyes that only meant trouble. Hot, hard trouble – "Are you averse to against the wall?" He didn't even wait for her answer, heaving her to her feet with an enthusiasm that was contagious and backing her against the nearest wall.
"Someone's in a hurry," was all she could think to whisper tauntingly in reply, and then he was kissing her so hard it hurt, and his hands and hips were too busy against hers for her to be coherent any longer. All Bella could do was feel, moaning unashamedly, hoping fuzzily that they wouldn't be heard –
A clatter was all the indication they had, and Bella didn't even pay attention to what it could mean until ropes were suddenly bristling around Severus, some blindly groping at her own hands, and she would have toppled over with him if she hadn't thought to wrench her hands free of the tightening ropes at the last moment. Her mind was still overheated from arousal, so she almost did not understand what Antares was doing halfway down the stairs, looking as frightened as she'd ever seen him, until he'd thrown her a wand – Severus' wand – and was yelling frantically at her to move.
Bella moved then, shock exploding in the pit of her stomach like an ugly cloud as she stepped over Severus' wriggling form. She hoped against hope that she wasn't completely indecent. She almost dropped Severus' wand at the earnest, angry look on Antares' face. She realised, with the immediacy and the panic fitting for the situation, that she and Severus had been found out.
His words began to penetrate her brain, just as suddenly as his ropes had appeared. "– it won't take me long to pack!" And then Antares was turning and bounding up the stairs, and Bella sprang into motion, dreading this. She caught him almost too easily, wand forgotten, and tried not to be too rough in prying his wand from his shaking hand.
"No," he moaned, the desperation of it tearing at her, "no, no, he can't have – I should've known –"
"Antares, calm down," Bella insisted, trying to keep him in her arms without restricting him too much – he was so frightened, and of what, she couldn't – "Antares, be still, please –"
But he wasn't even listening. "He's got you under the Imperius, hasn't he?" Antares babbled, his struggles suddenly ceasing. "I knew it –"
"Severus, I'll handle this," Bella said quickly, guilt weighing heavily in her stomach as she watched Antares' eyes widen in fear and felt him stiffen as Severus, no longer constrained by those ropes, began to limp up towards them. "Go upstairs."
"But wouldn't a calming potion –"
"Upstairs, Severus. Now." Antares almost seemed to relax at that, at how commanding Bella's tone was just then, and it gave her hope. "I'm sorry you had to find out this way –"
"But Mum, he was –"
"I know," Bella said, fighting a blush of shame. "I – I've been wanting to tell you. I knew it wouldn't make you happy –"
"What if he's making you say this?" Antares demanded. Bella's heart sank – if there was ever a time when she was sorry to have made sure he knew what the Unforgivables were, it was now. "He could just be listening, and making you say –"
"Imperturbatus," Bella said quickly, pointing up at the door at the top of the stairs. Antares watched it squelch itself shut with disbelief in his eyes, making her heart sink further – this was obviously going to be difficult. "You know he can't hear us through that door now, don't you?"
"He could have planned this," Antares muttered. "Told you what to say –"
"Severus can be a paranoid fool, but he's not that paranoid," Bella snapped. "You're making far too much of this, and all I'm trying to do –"
"Well if you weren't under Imperius, why didn't you tell me?" That stopped Bella short, as did the hurt look on her son's face. "You would've told me, if you weren't –"
"It's not that simple –"
"Then why?" Antares half-shouted, struggling out of her arms. "You never want to tell me anything!"
"Antares, I didn't want to upset you!"
"You're lying!" Antares yelled, his voice cracking as he did so. "You don't even care –"
Bella tried to reach out to him, but he slapped her hands away. "Leave me alone!" Antares ran up the stairs, then, banging into the shut door hard enough that it started Bella running up after him, unable to watch her son bang himself bloody against the…suddenly open door. Antares bolted through it before Bella could reach him and was running into his room and slamming the door after him before she, breathing hard from confusion and guilt and bewilderment, could do anything else. A minute later, she saw the door expand to fit into its frame, closer than she'd seen downstairs, and that was all that was needed to send her crying again.
The next few minutes were a haze. Severus' door opened as she went past it, but Bella could bring herself to pay no more attention to it than she would to a house elf. She was far too focused on trying the door, trying to get in, trying to keep herself from begging or crying or –
"You're only encouraging him," Severus whispered into her ear, as his warm hands pried her away from the door. "Bella, please, calm down –"
"Did you hear him?" Bella demanded, instead. "He thinks you – he thinks I'm –"
"He's hysterical, Bella," Severus said firmly, drawing her into his room and forcing her to sit down on something soft. "And, sad to say, so are you. You need to calm down before you speak to him again."
"Not here –"
"Why not here?" Severus insisted, sitting close to her and squeezing her shoulder. "He already knows –"
"He doesn't understand –"
"You can make him do so later," Severus snapped. "Look, it was inevitable that he find out – you said so yourself. He'll adjust. We'll adjust. Stop worrying." His voice had lowered by now, becoming more soothing as both his hands set to kneading her shoulders. "Please, Bella."
Bella sniffed, and subsided, finally. It felt good to hear this from someone, good in a way that made her long to be close to Severus again though she knew it was unwise, and she knew she should be going after Antares again. But Severus was closer, nearer, and the way his breathing hitched as she shifted nearer to his side made her feel as if this was the most important thing she could be doing right now. When she gave in and let herself kiss him, that feeling only increased, despite the screaming of her conscience, and by the time Severus asked haltingly about Antares, Bella found it easy to tell him that Antares could wait.
And wait he did. This time, there were no disturbances, no interruptions, and nothing to remind her that her son was still upset, still waiting, except for the hazy thought that she was drifting off to sleep in the wrong place, in the wrong bed, beside the wrong person. And that thought soon drifted away too, with all other thoughts, because Bella had fallen asleep.
Funnily enough, Bella didn't remember what had happened until while in the shower, rushing through her morning preparations so she could get to Diagon Alley well in time to browse at Quality Quidditch before going to work. Suddenly, she remembered why she needed to browse there at all, and was out of the shower and scrabbling for her wand in minutes.
"Bella?" That was Severus, and it made Bella want to slap herself. Instead she began to perform some very hasty drying spells, praying inwardly that everything – "Bella, are you…?"
"I have to go," Bella muttered, pushing past him to get back into his bedroom. The messy, debauched state of the sheets struck guilt into her like a knife – how could she have forgotten so –
"Bella, wait," Severus said hastily, sounding sleepy and alarmed in a way that made her want to slap herself again because she wanted to reassure him with a kiss, needed to turn round and let herself be caught hold of – "I should have woken you, I'm sorry, I fell aslee –"
"I'm going now," Bella said, quietly, but she knew she wasn't moving, and he wasn't moving. Perhaps it was because of the way the skin of his back felt under her fingers – warm, alive. Hers, somehow.
Morgana, but I'm stupid –
Severus blinked, then kissed her softly on the cheek, and somehow that made her feel even worse –
Then the door opened, and Bella knew the raw, massive panic of yesterday evening yet again. She tried to step away from Severus, to cover herself, to cover him, as if it could explain anything.
By the look on Antares' face, it did not. Bella hadn't even spoken a word before he left, not bothering to close the door. Severus sighed behind her, and tried to take hold of her, and despite her guilt, Bella accepted his comfort. She had a feeling she would need it.
She did. Antares' door was locked again, the frame practically bulging with the over-expanded door, the hinges looking distinctly stressed. When Bella touched it, she could have sworn it shocked her. Somehow, she found the determination to open the door anyway – there was no point running away from this, was there? Antares was her son – hers too. She just couldn't see how she was going to manage him now, along with Severus, and it –
"Go away," Antares said, slowly, and it hurt Bella to pretend that she hadn't heard it. But she had to, to speak rationally, to not demand that he recognise her as his mother and turn and face her instead of –
Bella cut herself off. She had to do this, to apologise for herself. "I shouldn't have given up on our conversation, I know –"
"I don't know why you're even bothering now," Antares spat. "You don't want to be with me now, anyway – you just want him –"
"That's not –"
"You're such a fucking liar when it suits you!" Antares said angrily, whipping round to face her, the result of the action almost worse than when he'd refused to look at her at all. "If you really want me, then why –"
"Don't use that tone with me," Bella found herself saying. "Don't you dare. I love you, and my relationship with Severus does not change that –"
"You don't care about me," Antares insisted, turning away again, his small form looking even smaller as he did so. "Leave me –"
"Don't be silly," Bella whispered, advancing on his bed – their bed – as if drawn by some magnetic force. "Antares, you're my son. I love you, and I always will." Antares twitched as if in answer, and Bella took that as a sign, sitting down on the bed as closely as possible to him and encircling him with her arms. "I'm sorry if I ever gave you…another impression, Antares. Please."
Antares gave the smallest of nods, relaxing in Bella's arms only slightly, but that was enough to make her want to smile around her frustration and panic, enough to make her press a wistful kiss into his hair. He sagged into her arms then, and Bella sighed with relief, tightening her arms around him and stroking his hair possessively, hoping he was listening to the murmured words of guilt and love.
It was painful to have to pry herself from her son's grip, after a while, but Bella did it anyway. Her visit to Quality Quidditch might have to wait, but work could not.
The best part of leaving the house, though, was Antares creeping down by her side, silently making her meal, and, in a tone that was somehow too careless, asking when she would be back.
Bella paused, then, unable to stop herself from smiling. "Five-ish, if Malkin's isn't too busy. With a catalogue, too – the one from Quality Quidditch, remember?" From the surprised look on his face, he didn't. "Severus said the school might pay a little towards your broom, since you'll be on the Quidditch team, so I'll be able to get you something nicer than I planned." Crossing over to where he stood stock still by the stove, Bella pressed a quick kiss to his cheek, and Apparated away feeling like the sun was pouring slowly into her veins. Antares had looked – hopeful, just as she'd left. Not angry, and certainly not despairing like he'd been in his – in their room. They would be all right, she just knew it.
They would be all right.
A/N: Of course, whether Bella, Severus and Antares will be all right is debateable, but I'll leave you to ponder that.
Speaking of pondering, I'm really glad I'm done – I'm done! Like, really! I nearly can't believe it, but I'm done with this chapter, and can't wait to do the next one. Hope you liked it (please DO tell me so, whether you did or didn't – all comments are welcome), and hope you like the next one!
Oh, and I found a way around the horizontal rule issue - I'm just copying them in, now. Blasted grumbles faintly off into the distance