His name echoed down the hall, distorting as the Welsh accent bounced off of the stones, but still recognizable. He seemingly ignored it, lifting the toad in front of him in long fingered hands, closing the ornate lid of the box it had been sitting on, thus concealing the egg it had been incubating from sight, then setting the amphibian gently back down on the polished wood. The toad sat obediently where it was placed.
Egg hidden, he turned, the lamb's wool of his robe swirling heavily about his feet with a low swish, the sound almost lost over the echo from the hall. He walked to the door, pulling the heavy oak back just far enough that his voice, tired and not much louder than the noise from his robes, could carry out into the hall. "I'm here, Helga, in my room." When he turned his back and moved back to his work table, he left the door open.
Less than a minute later, the door swung fully open behind him. "Salazar? What are you doing here? You left the celebration early, we were all worried."
"And yet only you thought to seek me out." That hurt more than he was really ready to admit. He turned, just enough to look over his shoulder at the woman leaning against his doorframe. She was clearly drunk, but that's what wedding feasts were usually all about. "Of course, I suppose Godric and Rowena are a bit occupied, aren't they?"
"It's their wedding, Salazar, of course their busy." With a sigh, Helga Hufflepuff moved away from the support of the door and wove her way across the room to where her friend stood. "And you should be with them. We both should. Why did you leave?" She looked up at him, her red curls falling down around her face, framing it, her grey eyes imploring.
He had to look away. "I had some research I had to do and really wasn't much in the mood for celebrating. I..." He hesitated, his fingers resting on the last page of the book he'd been reading. Without closing his eyes he could see the feast raging in the main hall above. There would still be plenty of food, ale and wine flowing freely. Godric, red cheeked from too many hours of drinking, would be leaning with his arm around his new bride, chatting amiably with whoever happened to be closest about fencing or the latest advance in transfiguration or the best way to catch lake bass or something similar. Rowena would be next to him, the blue of her dress offsetting her eyes and her pale complexion, her hair braided in the fashion of a married woman, the proper, demure English lady. If he were there, he would have to watch. He would have to look at them, sitting there, promised to only each other from this day forward. I didn't feel like I belonged there anymore...
Helga wrapped her arms around him from behind, the soft curve of her breast pressing against his ribs, her cheek resting between his shoulder blades. "The research would have waited, Salazar. You could have stayed."
"No. No, I couldn't. It would have hurt too much."
"I don't understand." She sighed and pushed away from him, walking around the table until she could look at him across the wood and the books and the plethora of herbs. Her dress was simple, homespun flax, its richness shown only in its saffron dye and the silver and amber belt tied around the middle. It suited her personality more than her full, curved figure. "We see less and less of you, Salazar. You teach, you eat at the head table, but that's all. You're barely thirty summers and yet you look as if you have the worries of an old man on your mind. And your insistence that we no longer take students with Muggle blood..."
"Helga, please, I don't wish to talk about it." With a hiss of frustration he turned his back again, running without leaving the room.
"But you feel so passionately about it!" She pressed on, her words earnest, if slightly slurred from the drink. "I've never heard you and Godric quarrel about anything so adamantly! And why? Why are you so against people without magic?"
For a long minute he was silent. He wrapped his arms around himself, stared blankly down at the sallowness of his skin against the black of his robes. He tried to remain calm, to voice his concerns rationally, one more time, not that it had ever helped before. The others continued to ignore him. It hurt. "Why is Rowena wearing her hair in braids now that she's married? That's a Christian tradition, not one of the old ways. The Church is getting stronger and its ways are getting stricter."
"And it harm none, do as thou will. Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. They are the same edict, Salazar. The Christian church champions that same beliefs we do."
"Do they?" He closed his eyes, remembering the rumors, the first whispers of possible threat. Among Wizards and Witches, literacy was quite high, much higher than it was among Muggles, especially the commoners. The clergy, the wealthy, they could afford the luxury of letters. Holy Scripture, however, was relegated to the priests and priests were men. Men were corruptible. "The Muggles believe whatever the local priest tells them and there are passages, not the benign one you just quoted, but others, that speak of hatred and death to Witches. There are Muggles who hate our kind. Who's to say these won't find their way into positions of power? Who's to say they won't convince those under them to follow? And what happens if some fool of a Witch or Wizard, trained in these walls, listens and feels so much remorse for being one of the forbidden that they try to help? The danger is real, Helga. It might take decades, centuries...maybe even millennia to realize, but it's real and we need to prepare for it any way we can." He turned to look at her, willing her to understand, to believe. I'm afraid...for all of us.
"The danger is slim, Salazar." Her voice was soft, but to him it felt like a knife twisted in his rib cage. "Yes, there will always be darkness, dark men..." She looked at the book he'd been holding earlier, a work on curses and their variations, "...dark Wizards."
He looked away.
"But we've always believed...you've always believed...that there was more good and light in the world. With so much good, how could the bad truly have an impact? How could there truly be enough danger to justify excluding such a large part of our population from the very home we've tried to make for all Wizard kind?" Her voice dropped further, his own sense of worry echoed back to him. "It's not like you, Salazar. You're changing...it feels like we're losing you."
/I don't belong here.../He tried to ignore the conviction, to cling to his friend's assertion that he was wanted, but it didn't really work. He felt to out of place, with his worries about evil that might or might not eventually come to pass, his books on darkness, his toads and his eggs and the two adders currently curled by his hearth, watching, hissing their concern at his unhappiness. How had he ever felt like he fit with the others, especially Godric? The other man was so...confident. Care free. Brave. Bright. If he were to pit his own darkness against that brightness, how could he do anything but burn away into nothing? And yet, he knew he was right about the danger. Darkness, after all, has always been the first to recognize more darkness.
Her voice pulled him from his thoughts. Dark eyes focused on grey and while he didn't speak, one eyebrow arched in query.
"Let me stay here tonight, with you." She crossed once more, around the table and to where he stood. Gentle hands, tanned and callused from hard work in the gardens, reached out and twisted in the four braids he wore in his waist length hair. "You...shouldn't be alone. It's really not good for you."
He hesitated, then drew her to him, resting his cheek gently on the top of her head. She smelled of earth and wind and growing things. "Please. I can think of nothing I'd wish more right now."
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