Upon returning to the castle, I find that Severus still isn't in his rooms, or his office. Where the bloody Hell could he be? He lives here, for Merlin's sake! Is he really trying to avoid me? Shite, he probably regrets everything that happened and wants nothing to do with me anymore. Even if that's true, though, and I hope its not, it isn't like Severus to hide. Oh fuck…what if he was called? That's the only thing I can think of that would have him away so long with no communication. What if someone, somehow, saw us together? If one of the Death Eaters' kids saw, they might have told their parents!
Just as I am working myself up into a full panic, I get a Patronus from Madame Pomfrey requesting my urgent assistance. My heart freezes as I imagine all the horrific things that could cause such a summons. Of course, I immediately think it is Severus, but that is just my own fears manifesting. I reassert this as I race down the hallways up to the infirmary.
Bursting through the doors, relief washes over me as I see a distinct lack of long black hair on any of the pillows. The relief is short-lived, though, and is replaced by dismay as I notice not one, or even two patients, but seven people in the hospital beds! Even worse, six of them are students, many of whom seem to have fairly serious injuries.
"Oh, thank goodness you're here," Madame Pomfrey sighs as she bustles between the patients. "Can you please take care of Mr. Longbottom and Mr. Weasley? They are both suffering curse damage," she quickly explains as she turns her attention to Ginny Weasley, who looks like she has a broken ankle.
"Curse damage?" I exclaim, "What in the world happened?" As far as I know, all of the patients here are friends, so I doubt it was a duel. Did Umbridge curse them? She's the only one here who doesn't really fit.
"It's a long story, but suffice to say these foolish children went up against a bunch of Death Eaters, and You Know Who himself!"
For a moment, I am paralyzed. Did she just say these children fought Death Eaters, AND Voldemort? Sweet Merlin, they are lucky to be alive!
I shake off my disbelief and buckle down into Healer mode, approaching Neville first since he is looking worse than Ron at the moment. As I approach him, I notice the trademark tremors of the Cruciatus curse and I can feel my blood beginning to boil. Those fucking monsters! How dare they use that curse on a child! Cowardly, no-good, pieces of filthy scum! I rage internally when an even more horrifying realization hits; this is Neville! His parents were tortured into madness with this very same curse, and now he has suffered it as well! The poor boy must be distraught!
"Hey Neville," I begin soothingly as I reach his bedside, sitting down next to him so he doesn't have to strain to move his neck to look up at me. "I know this hurts, but I'm going to take care of you and before you know it, you'll be just fine again." He looks at me with tear filled eyes, but they are also filled with determination.
"Thanks El," he eeks out, slipping into our more familiar vernacular despite being in the school. I have to bite down on my outrage as I look upon his sweet, pain-filled face and just like that…I realize my decision has been made. I have to join the Order and try to help stop these sadistic arseholes from hurting any more kids. I know this might cost me the love of my life, but I can't selfishly put my own chance at happiness above the lives of innocent kids. As I start treating Neville, I feel a wave of certainty wash over me and I know that, for better or for worse, I am doing the right thing. Now I just have to figure out a way to tell Severus…if I ever get him to talk to me.
After a very harrowing few hours of treating Neville, Ron, and Hermione for their curse damage, I am just settling in to grade the first round of exams when my floo flares to life. To my combined relief and concern, I see the face of my beloved looking blankly back at me.
"Do you have time to talk?" he asks me in the most monotonous voice I have ever heard. That's probably not a good sign.
"Of course," I reply, trying my best to quell the ball of nerves building up inside me. It flares up as he steps through and I try to memorize his every feature in case this is the last time I get to gaze upon them without a vicious sneer meeting my gaze. As I am drinking him in, though, I notice resignation mixed with despondence seeping through his mask of stoicism.
"Are you alright?" I can't help but ask.
"Honestly, no," he replies with an acquiescent sigh, taking a seat on the sofa in my office.
"What's going on?" I ask as I take the seat next to him.
"First, allow me to apologize for missing our discussion after the exams. I was…called away…and was indisposed until just a few moments ago."
"Shite," I hiss, knowing that he means he was called to a Death Eater gathering. I don't see any tremors, though, so hopefully that means he was not tortured by the evil son of a bitch, this time. "Do you need any treatment?" I ask, knowing better than to ask if he is ok.
"No, the Dark Lord was quite angry about the way the 'mission' went today, but his wrath was directed elsewhere," Severus explains.
"Were you at the Department of Mysteries?" I ask when it seems he isn't going to continue speaking.
"How do you know about that?" he exclaims with wide, concerned eyes.
"Madame Pomfrey called me to help with treat the students who were there. A few of them suffered some curse damage," I explain.
"Fuck!" Severus suddenly shouts, grabbing his hair at this temples and pulling it as he stands and begins to pace.
"Hey, hey, stop that," I softly plea, gently taking his hands out of his hair and enveloping them with mine.
"I tried to protect them," he bemoans, "I swear I did, but I had to maintain my cover too. I got there late and there was only so much I could do."
"I know, Severus," I try to reassure him, making sure he looks me in the eye so he knows I am being truthful. "You protect these kids everyday, even when they annoy you, and I know you would rather die then let any of them be harmed."
"Yet I failed," he seethes.
"No you didn't. Every one of them is alive, and even the ones who were cursed will recover. They may have a few scars, but otherwise they will be fine. You, of all people, have to know what an accomplishment that is when facing off against Death Eaters and the Dark Lord himself!"
"They shouldn't have had to face him at all!" he seethes. "I swear, I don't know what goes through Dumbledore's mind sometimes! He lets these kids run wild, Potter especially! It's like no one cares if the obnoxious little prat lives or dies except me!"
Despite the seriousness of the situation, I can't help but smile at that. "Yes, it's clear you care for him deeply," I say with heavy amusement.
"Oh shut up," he says with a roll of his eyes, but I can tell my retort has at least calmed him a bit. "You know very well I hate the boy, but that doesn't mean I want him to be killed. I promised Lily I would protect him," he explains sadly, "Even if I hadn't, I am not so much of a monster that I wish for any child to die."
"Severus," I begin soothingly, gently leading him to the armchair in front of the fire, "you aren't a monster at all." I can see him open his mouth to contradict me, but I quickly continue before we can launch into this old argument again. "I know how much it eats you up every time he calls you, and I have no doubt that you did everything you could to protect those kids, and many others who have been caught in the crossfire of this awful war. You put your life on the line every single day, facing evil that few can even mention, let alone stand in front of and lie to! I know you don't believe it, but you are a hero, Sev, and the bravest man I have ever known."
"Nonsense. I'm only doing what must be done," he retorts sensibly.
"I suppose that's as good of a segue way as any," I murmur, knowing it is the moment of truth.
"What was that?"
"Severus, I know this isn't the optimum time, but…we have to talk," I sigh. I see his eyes widen momentarily before shuttering behind his customary mask.
"Yes, you are correct, of course. Our discussion is long overdue."
"It is, but I'm afraid it might be moot once I tell you what I have to tell you."
"What?" he asks with obvious suspicion.
"After we…you know…I was informed that Minerva was in hospital. She had been hit with stunners meant for Hagrid. She's alright, but when I went to visit her, she had a proposition for me. She…she asked me to join a group that Dumbledore leads that opposes-"
"The Order?! She asked you to join the Order?" Severus suddenly shouts, nearly leaping out of his seat.
"I thought you might be a member," I reply, knowing his initial reaction is not exactly promising.
"Tell me you didn't accept," he implores, clutching my arms almost painfully.
"I didn't…yet," I answer truthfully.
"But you're going to," he states sadly, rather than questions.
"Severus, please, you have to understand. I can't just sit back and let innocent children get hurt like they did today. You are doing everything you can to save them, and I need to do the same. I couldn't live with myself otherwise," I plead, searching his dark eyes for any hint of understanding.
"This will put you right at the top of the Dark Lord's hitlist. Do you know how many members of the Order were killed in the first war?"
"I know," I acknowledge sadly. "And I also know that making this choice may mean losing you, which is far worse than any torture the Dark Lord could launch against me, but I can't be selfish. I can't let my love for you stop me from doing the right thing."
"I understand," Severus acknowledges, "but I honestly don't know how I would survive if I lose you."
"Then you'll just have to do everything in your power to help make sure I survive – without blowing your cover, of course," I answer with a small, questioning smile.
He sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose as he does when faced with a particularly trying student. "I can see you're going to be stubborn about this, so I suppose we'd better start with Occlumency."
"Seriously?" I ask with excitement, thrilled that he hasn't exploded and cast me out forever. "Thank you!" I can't help but launch myself at him, hugging him tightly and reveling in his spicy scent.
"Try to maintain some dignity," he chastises in his best professorial tone, but his body betrays him and I can tell that he is pleased with my embrace.
"Sorry," I smirk, not being sorry at all. "So…once I master Occlumency, can we…be together again?"
"Master it? Someone's awfully confident," he sneers haughtily.
"Of course. I have the best teacher there is," I reply with my own hauteur. Instead of a rejoinder, Severus scoops me up into his arms and kisses me with fiery passion. I can almost feel myself melting. "If this is how all our lessons start, I am going to be a most judicious student!"
"You're incorrigible," he chastises, but the light in his eyes gives him away and, for the first time in a long time, I have hope.