14. Resiliency Of Spirit
Disclaimer: The only thing I own is the plot. Scary.
"One guess why they're called 'Red Caps'!"
Ginny shouted over the raucous noise of the new trainees in the rough wooden building that was the R.C.B.C. [Red Cap Border Control] Headquarters.
The small crowd of young men showed no intentions of listening to her whatsoever. They all looked very comfortable and excited to have been chosen be there, wrapped in their heavy black cloaks and scarves and thick dragon hide gloves. They sat at small round wooden tables, chatting, drinking Butterbeer charmed to stay warm and foaming, faces lit up in the flickering light of lanterns whose flames were slightly tossed by a cold winter draft.
Ginny sighed roughly, from where she was standing up on a low narrow ledge in a corner of the room. She commenced grinding her palm into her aching forehead in impatience, before she unclenched her teeth and snapped, "Sonorous!"
"I SAID, 'ONE GUESS WHY THEY'RE CALLED RED CAPS'!"
The entire building shook from the sound of her magically amplified voice.
There came the sound of ten mugs of butter beer smashing to the floor, as the trainees jumped at the magically amplified voice, and then there was silence, save for the popping of logs in the vast stone fireplace nearby.
Satisfied she at last had their attention, Ginny ended the charm with an expert, impatient flick of her wand, and tucked it away. She tried to ignore the vicious pounding at her temples, and took a deep breath before speaking.
"Now, since you lot were unwise enough to decide that volunteering for this job would be fun, or adventurous, I have been charged with seeing to it that you know exactly what you're getting into. Now, I know – " she continued sternly, over the loud groans that sounded, " – that most of you are thinking that you didn't come here to learn what you already did in school." She met each man's eye in turn. "That you think I would assume that you already know what you need to since you couldn't possibly be stupid enough to volunteer for this job if you didn't. But, I've long since learned to assume nothing, and I'm going to go over the basics again."
"Aw, bugger this - who let the 'girl' in here?" came a loud, complaining voice from the back of the room.
Several low, male voices joined in, sounding resentful.
Ginny rolled her eyes, and clenched her jaw again. There was always one fouling up the mix!
"My name," she said loudly, but careful to keep her voice even, "is Professor Ginny Weasley."
"Professor?" came the rough voice again, snickering. "Shouldn't you be at Hogwarts, or somethin', teachin' the kiddies?"
Laughs came from around the room, and Ginny felt her temper soar through the roof, even as she felt a painful twinge in her chest at the mention of Hogwarts. Severus – a flash of shadowed dark eyes surfaced stubbornly from her memory, and she gave her head a sharp shake, determined to return her attention to the crowd.
Oh, right. The inevitable heckler. Ugh…new guys…
"What's your name, sir?" she asked with deliberate boredom, eyes scanning the back.
"Clive McCrindle," responded the voice challengingly.
"Uh-huh." Ginny paced her makeshift stage, twirling her wand thoughtfully. "Well, Mr. Muckriddle – "
"McCrindle – "
"- yes. Let's see just what you do know about Red Caps, shall we?" She looked out of the corner of her eye, and paused in her step.
"Just why are they called Red Caps?"
"Because they wear red caps," the man answered condescendingly. "Obvious, ain't it?"
"Quite." Ginny smiled tightly. "And whom do they attack?"
Ginny nodded, pacing again. "Why do they attack?"
"Why don't you ask me some real questions, Professor?"
Stopping in her tracks, Ginny straightened her spine, and felt a small, annoyed snarl curl her lips.
"Eh, you lot have gone and done it now," she heard one of last years return volunteers mutter wincingly from nearby.
"In answer to your responses, McCrankle – "
"That's McCrindle – "
"- Of course it is - Red Caps are indeed called Red Caps because they wear…red caps. Secondly, yes, they do attack solitary travelers. You are to be commended on your extensive knowledge, sir." She narrowed her eyes, allowing herself a slightly frosty smile.
"But grant this 'girl' a moment, if you please. Allow me to expound on your doubtless brilliant and endless expertise."
A snicker rose from the crowd.
"Have you ever 'seen' a Red Cap, McCriggle?" she asked him thoughtfully.
"It's McCrindle – and no, I don't reckon I have."
"Ah. Well, permit me to describe them for you. Red Cap's – also called 'bloody caps', or 'red combs'- are evil creatures of the goblin species. Red Cap's have long, gray hair, shiny red eyes, and sharp, protruding teeth. Though they are goblins, they do not, unfortunately, have a goblins restrictive height, which does tend to make them more dangerous." Ginny paused to rub the back of her neck, before she went on. "They haunt the ruins of castles, forests, and the grounds of places where bloody battles have occurred. It's distinctive 'red hat' – listen closely, here, McCrinkle – gains it's color from being soaked…in blood."
There came a distinctive, mass 'gulp' from the suddenly closely attentive crowd.
Mr. McCrindle, Ginny noticed with an almost sadistic glee, did not choose to comment.
"Red Cap's usually carry long walking sticks, tipped with a metal spike. Its usefulness to the Red Cap should be fairly evident. After all, the blood of a fresh victim is just what's needed - to brighten the color of his crimson cap…and what easier way to get said victim, than to stalk the solitary, unwitting - and usually Muggle - travelers and tourists who move through these parts?"
Ginny put her hands her hips after a few more minutes of pointing out the more 'interesting' qualities of the goblins. "Now – are there any questions?"
The crowd stared back at her, pale-faced and wide eyed, Butterbeer forgotten. Three men in the back – including Clive McCrindle – stood up, knocking over chairs in their haste to leave. They made a loud racket that taunted Ginny's temples as they left, and her patience grew much shorter. An unwelcome blast of icy winter air signaled the opening and closing of the main doors at the back of the room.
"All right, you lot," Ginny announced, her tone cool, "that's three of your number gone. Anyone else who wants to leave, kindly make yourselves scarce – the rest of us have got work to do." She swept her eyes over the room, and then nodded after a moment. No one moved. "All right then."
Ginny made a motion with her wand, and a large, glittering gold map formed itself in the air before her.
"This – " she began tiredly, saying things that she'd said fifty times before, "is a map of the perimeters. The borders are outlined in green, the largest knots of Red Cap grouping's in – what else – red…"
"I wish I could tell you Red Cap's are the only danger you'll face on your nightly patrols, but, unhappily, this isn't so. We have, over the past few years, run into some Forest trolls, and even, on the outlying coastal areas, a few Kappas - and yes, before anyone asks, the rumors about them being especially fond of human liver are completely true. You'll all be briefed on how to handle these water spirits should you come across them. Now, moving on…"
Paper work, paper work, paper work.
The numbers on the parchment before her swam together slightly, and Ginny shoved the papers aside with a frustrated sigh. There was nothing to be done about it tonight. She was too distracted, too restless, to work on the boring statistic reports for the Ministry.
She missed Severus. She missed seeing him every day, missed hearing the cool sarcasm in his clever, drawling voice, the quick way he observed the happenings in the school, the way his dark, sharp eyes glinted through the fall of his hair at her…mostly she missed the feel of him, and that funny, wholly uncharacteristic, sunshiny scent his robes had carried.
Ginny waited for tears to rise in her tired, scratchy eyes, but for once, none came, and she was glad. She didn't have the time, or energy, to waste mourning what might have been – what she wished might have been, anyway.
She pushed back from her desk, and rose from her chair, pulling on her heavy black patrol cloak, gloves and scarf, and stashed her wand up her sleeve just as Corson Luddley, a young man of about her age, and one of the new volunteers, came crashing through the roughhewn double wooden doors into her tiny office, looking bloodied and terrified.
"What happened?" She asked, automatically. Luddley had been part of a two man team, sent out to patrol one of the more quiet forest areas, to the south. The new lads were always given the easiest, most boring jobs until they were accustomed to the work, and they had been trained to 'never' separate from their partner, for any reason, unless –
"- bloody Red Cap's – had to be twenty of them, at least! We never knew what hit us – Mitchell's dead, so is Fenten! When they first attacked, we sent up red sparks, and that brought the other three teams nearby – they got Fenten as soon as he and Rinkalby arrived - "
"Twenty? They don't attack in numbers," Ginny muttered under her breath, trying not to feel panicked. "Are you sure they're dead, Mitchell and Fenton?"
Luddley nodded, still gulping in breaths, blood still dripping from long gouges on his cheek. His light blue eyes looked tortured. "I saw it," he swallowed, voice cracking, looking pale and sick. "Merlin, they just tore 'em to – "
"Get in touch with the other eight teams – tell them all to get to the southern point, quickly, and I mean yesterday, understand?"
"Yes ma'am. You – you aren't going out there by yourself, are you?" He swept a shaky hand along his cut and bleeding lower lip.
She gave him a small, stressed smile. "We go where we're needed, remember? Now get out of here - hurry up! And don't forget to take a medic with you!"
The first knock on the chamber door went unanswered, as did the one after that, and the one after that.
Severus sat sprawled in his chair before the fire, staring blindly at the sadly ratty notebook he'd unearthed from the depths of one of his filing cabinets
He had been lying when he'd told Ginny he hadn't kept her 'diary'. He'd never really been sure just 'why', but kept it he had, after rescuing it from the rubbish as if it were some kind of treasure. He'd hated himself for doing it, and he'd tried to prove to himself he didn't care about it at all by tossing it into the bottom drawer of a locked cabinet and walking away from it.
Now it was all he had left of her, and there he sat, re-reading it, feeling utterly pathetic.
" – weird, the things you notice about a person when you watch them from day to day – "
His eyes skimmed the battered, yellowed pages, pausing to read again.
"- that feeling you get when you see something desperately want, and know intuitively that you'll never get it?"
Ha. He knew, all right…
Another annoyingly insistent knock sounded, and he sank lower in his chair, trying to ignore the noise at the same time as he reached for the bottle resting on the floor beside him. He tried – unsuccessfully – to remember how many he'd already gone through, and then gave a careless shrug. The damned knock came again, then.
"Go away, before I curse you," he snarled beneath his breath, raising the bottle and taking a long drink.
That was one thing he couldn't understand about the people in this bloody school – he went to class, every day, without fail, taught the students, attended the required meetings and dinners he did his job to the best of his ability, and all he asked for in return was to be left the hell alone.
When the knock came again, harder this time, Severus threw the now empty bottle in his hand into the fireplace with a shattering crash, and stood up, suddenly in a violent temper.
He stalked to the door, uncaring that he wore only a white shirt, unbuttoned halfway down the front, and his one – and only – pair of black denim jeans, that usually never saw the light of day. His boots thudded loudly against the stone floor as he walked, and an angry, black expression showed on his face as he unlocked the door, and tore it open, nearly ripping it from it's hinges. "What the bloody hell do you want?!" he roared to the people standing outside.
"Oh, that's a fine way to greet an old friend," Sirius Black said, scowling at him. A tired looking, black cloaked Harry Potter stood at his side.
"Jesus, Sev – you look like someone beat you all to shit." Black leaned in slightly and sniffed. "Whew – smell like it, too. What have you been drinking?"
Severus nearly ground his teeth to bits. "I'll kill you, Black, I swear to god – " taking a deep breath, he ran a hand over his face, and closed his bloodshot eyes momentarily. "What the hell is it?" he asked in a quieter voice that shook with the effort of belaying his temper. "Isn't it Saturday? What the bloody are 'you' two doing back here? Correct me if I am mistaken, but I thought we'd gotten rid of you at last."
"That's an awful lot of 'hell's'," Sirius said, looking as if he were keeping count. "You must be really pissed, to be so inarticulate – "
"Sirius," Potter elbowed his Godfather sharply, his voice low and urgent. He looked up at Severus and said flatly, "They've found Ginny."
A physical blow couldn't have hurt any worse.
Severus felt the liquor roil in his stomach, and turned away from the door to hide his expression.
Found her body, finally, is what he really meant.
"I was…sorry to hear of her unfortunate death," he heard himself say with cold deliberation, "but I fail to see why you thought to inform me, personally. I had no claim on her."
"I'm going put off beating the bloody crap out of you, on the grounds that you're sloshed, and probably don't even know what the hell you're saying," Potter returned in a low, strained voice. "We came to tell you – "
Severus drowned out the rest of his words as his mind became conveniently hazy.
He groaned, put his face into his hands, remembering the warmth in Ginny's brown eyes, and that damned constant light of hope. He recalled the healthy pink color in her lightly freckled cheeks, and the cheeky grins she gave him whenever she passed him in the halls, no matter how dark or threatening the scowl he sent in return…
He kicked the door shut, suddenly, and fell against it, ignoring the protests of the two outside, unable to hear anything but his own labored breathing.
It had been three weeks, nearly, since she'd been missing, three weeks since she'd been seen, dead, being dragged away by the Red Cap's during the uprising – he didn't have to imagine what had happened to her between then and when they'd found her. He'd seen Red Cap victim's before, but they'd been nameless, faceless, then -
All he could think of suddenly was the pain she must have endured, the terror…but, no. Ginny wouldn't have given up that easily, stubborn as she was. She would have fought until the last – although, as defeated as she'd looked the last time he'd seen her, and seeing as she 'd been foolish enough to practically hand herself over to the bloody thirsty creatures, he had the sudden thought that just perhaps, she'd done it on purpose…
Pissed as he was, and as guilty as he was feeling, he could almost believe that her death 'had' been entirely his fault. Ginny had only taken to the job because of him, because he'd been so cruel to her that she couldn't even stand to be around him anymore.
Severus felt his heart gave a painful thud, and his stomach lurched threateningly. He felt dangerously lightheaded, suddenly, and he grabbed for anything to steady himself, to use as a handhold, but then his vision started going black around the edges, and slid down the door…
As it happened, Ginny wasn't really dead at all.
However, laying as she was in the Intensive Care ward of St. Mungo's hospital, dangerously thin and weak, and pale as a ghost, she probably could have passed for being dead.
"I certainly feel half-dead, at least," she thought to herself as she barely managed to hold a hand mirror up to see herself.
"Oh, take it away, Mum," she rasped after a long moment of staring at the hideous reflection. She was ugly. Every part of her. "Here, take it," she croaked, and pushed the mirror back at her hovering mother, biting back tears. Even her voice was ugly, now.
"It'll get better, dearest," Mrs. Weasley told her gently. "We'll take it slow, just as the doctor says, and use the potions – "
Severus. Oh, god, what would he think of her if he ever saw her like this?
Panic rose, and her stomach twisted with sudden despair.
"Just leave me alone for a little, Mum," she said softly, raising a hand to the partially healed cut on her throat as she strained her voice just a bit too much. "I'm sorry. I-I'm just very tired," she lied. She was tired, but there was no way she could hope to sleep.
"A-all right, darling. I'll come back later, then." Mrs. Weasley sniffled slightly, and bent to kiss her forehead. "Rest well."
Ginny waited until her mother had left before she again lifted her hands – but she stared at them, instead of using them to feel the rough scars on her face. There were deep, healing red cuts all over them, from having used them to defend her head and body from the pike staff's wielded by the goblins.
She couldn't close her eyes without seeing those nightmarish faces standing over her, bloody, dripping fangs grinning manically as they stained their ratty red caps with rusty cups full of blood drained from her own, gashed throat -
Giving a painful shudder, she dropped her hands, and stared at the ceiling, knowing she should be happy and relieved she was home at last, that she was alive, and had survived the attack, and the ensuing fevers that had rendered her helpless in the long days that had followed.
Her earliest memory, after the attack, had been coming to, alone, seeing the sun rising in the distance, making the sky light enough for her to be able to see her own blood staining the pristine white snow surrounding her…and then it had been the inside of some poor, mute, muggle hermit's cabin.
It was hard to remember anything after that, as she'd been so completely out of it for so long. She didn't even know how the hermit had managed to keep her alive as long as he did, before believing her condition to be stable enough to make the trek to the nearest muggle village and get help.
From the cabin she'd gone to a muggle hospital, where she'd been poked and prodded, and actually 'stitched' up – it had been a horrible experience. To make things even worse, her vocal cords had been slightly damaged by the cut on her throat, and her hands so damaged, she couldn't even let them know who the hell she was, much less who to get in contact with, or how – but at last had come the day where she'd managed to scribble out the 'telephone' number Harry had always insisted she memorize in case of emergencies.
She'd been taken out of the cold, impersonal muggle hospital, and swiftly settled into St. Mungo's, back home in London, all thanks to Harry.
She was back among family and friends, wounds healing, feeling warmth for the first time in weeks – and she wasn't even really sure she was happy to be alive, It all seemed a little pointless now, after first having worked so hard to achieve her goal, and then losing it.
Ginny dropped her eyes from the ceiling, trying to ignore the burning tingle of the healing salve spread across her scars and wounds. She couldn't help but wonder if 'he' even knew what had happened. She kind of hoped he didn't, because she didn't ever want him to see her like this, not that she really thought he'd be interested enough to bother to try.
"How thick can you get? Alcohol poisoning – ugly business," Poppy Pomfrey bustled around Severus's bed in the hospital wing, and he scowled up at her from beneath growing piles of blankets spread over him.
"Poppy, I am telling you, for the last bloody time, I am fine. I have to get up – I have things to do – "
"You aren't going anywhere for a day or two, Severus Snape, so don't even think about it. You're still ill, anyone can see that. Ruddy irresponsible, that, drinking so much – ought to consider a twelve-step programme, you know – "
"Pomfrey – " he growled, making a frustrated, weak movement, as if to slide out from beneath the sheets.
"Try it and I'll hex your toes off," she warned mildly. She paused in smoothing the coverlets of another bed beside his. "Why are you in such an state, trying to get out of here anyway? If it's the students you're worried about, I plan on putting a privacy curtain around you – "
"I'm not concerned about the little rug rats – will you kindly stop coddling me already?" He frowned and batted her hand away as she reached up yet again to tug at the sheets beneath his chin. "Contrary to what the lot of you may think hereabouts, I was not hatched, I did have a mother once, a very charming woman, who was terribly overprotective, and you're reminding me disturbingly of her, so push off!"
Poppy only laughed lightly, apparently unoffended by his sour manner, and turned away, leaving him stewing in his bed, alone with his thoughts.
Ginny was alive. Not well, but alive – and she was in London.
Severus had no intention of staying in bed, as Poppy Pomfrey had insisted. He wanted to go and see Ginny for himself, just to assure that annoying part of him that seemed so determined to care for her, that she was indeed, all right.
His head started a familiar pounding at his temples, and he thought fleetingly of one of the bottles of Ogden's he had stored in his rooms, before his stomach cramped in protest at the mere idea, and he hastily discarded it. He was still suffering from the after-effects of alcohol poisoning, and at that moment, had no true desire to ever see another drop of the stuff again, no matter how badly his head grieved him.
It had to be the stupidest thing he'd ever done, drinking himself into a stupor like that.
Well, no, the stupidest thing he'd ever done was to let Ginny Weasley get under his skin as he had. An infuriating, annoyingly upbeat little scrap of a girl with frizzy red-orange hair and a propensity for making him feel things he'd never even thought he'd be able to feel, before.
As soon as he was sure Pomfrey had left the hospital wing, he sat up, ignoring the vicious pain in his head at the sudden motion, and found his robes and wand.
The room was in near darkness when he arrived, having apparated from the woods outside of the castle. He'd been shown in by one of the head nurses, and thankfully none of her family had been present.
Severus stood just inside the door as the white-robed nurse left, feeling weak and ill from the trip, and actually nervous about seeing Ginny again.
"Harry? Is that you?"
His breath caught at the sound of her voice, coming from beyond a privacy curtain around the bed. It was almost impossible to hear, it was so low and raspy – it barely sounded like Ginny at all.
"Harry, I told you before, I'm not…going back…to Hogwarts. I don't…care if the p-position hasn't…been filled, yet. I won't go back…like this." She coughed feebly, before taking a deep breath.
Severus paused in reaching for the curtain, his black gloved hand curling into a fist. The urge to go to her, and reach out and take her in his arms was so strong he was actually stepping forward when she spoke again, her tone even flatter than before.
"I don't care what you say. The students won't listen to me anymore…don't you understand? They'll…be too busy…staring at my scars to bother listening. You remember Moody…everyone was scared of him. I don't want it…to be like that. And Severus…I couldn't stand for him to see me…this way. Don't…want to be a ugly reminder…"
He swallowed, hearing her silent tears, unsure as to what to do next. She sounded as if she was in so much pain, and it hurt him to hear the hopelessness in her voice…she sounded as if she were slowly giving up, on him, on everything.
"Harry?" her whisper turned uncertain.
Severus abruptly straightened his back, and hardened his features. No. It wasn't going to end this way for her. He wasn't going to let her give up, wasn't going to let her go weak.
He pulled his gloves off, and folded them in his hand, slapping them against the side of his leg as he clenched his jaw and reached out to yank the curtain aside.
Her ragged gasp when she saw him standing there, in the fading dusk coming through the window, made him falter slightly.
She made an odd whimpering sound, and turned her face away from him, letting her hair fall over it to hide it. Her hands, which were heavily scarred, fluttered for a moment before they settled, palms down, on top of the coverlet she was under.
"Ginny." The name escaped his lips with an emotion he hadn't wanted to show.
She kept her head turned away from him, though her hands twisted into the blankets over her lap at the sound of his voice.
"W-what are you doing here?" she asked after a long minute, her voice more timid then he'd ever heard it. "You shouldn't be here, I didn't want you to see this – "
"Why not?" he snapped, feeling a dark frown pull at his brow. "You little fool, sitting here, feeling sorry for yourself. You've been through scars before, Ginny. Scars fade. Stop being so bloody selfish and vain, and maybe you'll begin to recover – "
"Selfish? Vain?" Ginny jerked her head round to look up at him again, flinging her hair out of her face. "It's selfish of me to try and spare you this?" she lifted her small, heart-shaped face into the dying sunlight, and glared at him.
Severus steeled himself against the need to go to her and take her in his arms. The pain she'd suffered, the sorrow she felt, was there in her soft brown eyes – when he looked at her, he could barely see the angry, scarlet slashes arrowing down either side of her freckled cheeks, or the thin, pale pink of the healed scar running from the right side of her upper lip, and down beyond her lower, almost to her little, pointed chin.
"You were incredibly stupid, leaving like you did." He finally said cruelly. "You never should have gone off like that. This never would have happened if you hadn't."
She stared at him, disbelieving. "I'm feeling much better, thanks, I appreciate your concern for my well being!" she snapped back at him, her rough voice laced with heavy sarcasm.
Severus barely kept from smiling in grim satisfaction. There it was, the fire he'd seen in her before – she'd need it, to regain her confidence.
"I always knew you weren't cut out for this sort of work, Weasley," he pressed, allowing a slight sneer to curl his lips as he began pacing thoughtfully before her bed. "Too small, too fragile, too slow – that's the real reason you left Hogwarts, wasn't it? It wasn't because of me, it was because you weren't sure you could handle the job anymore, wasn't it? Prancing off to hide in the wilds seemed a lot easier than teaching, didn't it?"
"I hate you."
Severus paused, but only sneered at her, though his throat went tight at the quiet fury of her words.
"Took you long enough to figure out I'm not the 'lovable' type," he drawled nastily, past his inner despair. He resumed his pacing. It would be easier to continue saying what he must if he didn't have to look her directly in the eyes.
"Really? Well, I have to say Im surprised to see 'you' here, Severus – how long did it take you to crawl out of the bottom of that whiskey bottle in your bedroom?" she returned just as meanly. "I suppose I ought to be flattered!"
Stung, Severus lifted his chin, using his disdain to hide the fact that she'd hit a sore spot.
"Though this is proving to be a most enlightening conversation, Professor, I'm afraid I needs must return to Hogwarts – some of us have jobs to return to in the morning."
His conscience stabbed at him as her face paled, and then he watched Ginny's eyes grow determined. Here was the response he'd sought.
"You may take your leave with my blessings, Severus – and I expect you'll be seeing me soon enough."
Refraining from laughing in triumph, Severus nodded shortly, and then, almost as an afterthought, he stepped forward and produced a small bottle, with he tossed nonchalantly into her lap. "Your treatment – a stronger infusion, you'll be happy to know. You need only take it once a week. I…hope your recovery is rapid. Perhaps that remarkable resiliency of spirit you seem to be possessed of will come in handy."
"Your confidence in me is positively heart-warming." Ginny's hand slowly curled around the vial he'd dropped. "I suppose I should thank you for this."
He snorted. "Thanks are unnecessary. Potter requested that I bring it round," he lied.
Ginny made a great show of carefully placing the bottle on the nightstand beside the bed, but he could see her hand tremble in reaction to his discourteous words.
Severus swung around, cloak swirling as he took his leave before he succumbed to the temptation to touch her.
"I'm sorry, Severus."
He stopped at the edge of the curtain, and then busied himself pulling his gloves back on. "Sorry for what?" he asked in a carefully bored, offhand way.
"I don't really hate you. I didn't…I didn't mean it."
"I know," he said very quietly, and then left, even though he wanted more than anything suddenly, just to stay.