Gretchen awoke with a start. Her eyes snapped open, and she found herself looking straight into a pair of dark eyes.
This must have been what Rori was waiting for, because she smiled wide and whispered, "Good morning. Are you hungry?"
Rubbing her eyes and rolling onto her back, Gretchen stretched and groaned. Her body felt stiff, but in a good way. She had tried running and yoga for a while, and that same happy stiffness was in her body now. Also, she was downright famished, and she told Rori so.
Rori practically bounced where she stood at the side of the bed. "Good. Dad's making breakfast right now, and then Papa Albus is coming over to start your practice. Dad said you should wear whatever you would wear to work out." She patted a small pile of clothes at the foot of the bed.
"I need to brush my teeth," Gretchen muttered, grimacing at the taste of morning breath. It seemed so much worse than usual. "How long did I sleep?" she called through the bathroom door after she used the loo.
She was well on her way to giving her teeth a good scrub when Rori replied, "Just three days."
Gretchen found that difficult to believe. She turned and opened the door open. "What?" she asked around her toothbrush.
"You had a lot of magic in you, that's all."
"And I don't now?"
Rori played with the end of the bedspread. "Well, not less, but..."
"But?" Gretchen turned and spat into the sink. A quick rinse of her mouth, and then she had a cool, damp flannel on her face, trying to get three days worth of sleep out of her eyes.
"It's just organised differently, that's all." Rori moved around the bed and leaned on the door frame.
Gretchen looked at the reflection in the mirror. The girl definitely took after her father, with her arms crossed just like his and the same expression on her face. Perhaps it was a non-expression, though. Working in the bookshop had given Gretchen some exposure to children, and she noticed that they usually wore their thoughts plain as day on their faces. Rori, though, looked as pleasantly blank as could be.
Narrowing her eyes, Gretchen wrung out the flannel and draped it over the side of the sink. She turned to Rori. "What?"
Rori shifted her weight to stand equally on both feet, fingers playing together absently and replied, "What do you mean 'what'?"
"I mean, Aurora, that you are being intentionally vague. I can see it in your face."
The girl crossed her arms again, but her face stayed the same. "You can't see anything on my face."
"My point exactly." Gretchen walked past her, back into the bedroom and moved to the pile of clothes. She made quick work of putting them on. The pile included knickers, socks, tracksuit bottoms, and a sports bra. She moved to the wardrobe where her things had been, but Rori darted in front of it, blocking the drawers.
"What are you doing?"
"Getting a shirt."
"You don't need a shirt. You're very fit and pretty. You should go down like that," Rori said with a sweet smile.
"I will be just as fit and pretty with a shirt on. Besides, I'm not going to breakfast half-dressed." Gretchen locked eyes with the girl, and Rori eventually moved to the side. She opened the drawers until she found what she was looking for.
"What is the delay up here?" Severus asked from the doorway, startling the room's occupants.
Gretchen turned around, fumbling to cover up with the still-folded top. Before she could get her other hand around to unfolding it, Rori stepped in and entwined their fingers.
It was obviously a plot to keep Gretchen exposed, she thought, but there was something so right about that tiny hand in hers. She could not pull away.
Just as Rori was about to reply, Severus said, "Mischief, clearly."
"No, Father. Gretchen and I were just talking about clothes. You wouldn't be interested."
Severus smiled, and Gretchen felt her skin prick up. It was not a nice smile. "Fashion is a subject where my knowledge is lacking. Why don't you enlighten me?"
Gretchen looked down at Rori and saw that the girl was not intimidated. After a moment, their hands pulled apart, and Rori moved to stand beside her father. Then she wrapped one arm around him and said, "Gretchen wants to wear that ratty old top to do her practice, and I said that she would look better without it."
"Define 'better'." Severus was looking down at his daughter now, and Gretchen eyed the two. She felt as much like the watcher as the watched.
"Well, I think that Gretchen looks good just as she is. Don't you, Father?"
"So that settles it." Rori smiled and moved away from Severus, her arm already stretched to take the shirt from Gretchen.
However, Severus's hand clamped down on Rori's shoulder and kept her in place. "I think not. When has incomplete attire ever been allowable at the table?"
Finally, Rori's confidence seemed to stutter. "I thought we just decided that her attire was complete."
"Hardly. Furthermore, from the context of your earlier assertion, you are using 'good' to mean 'attractive'. Do you think it is wise for Gretchen to present herself in such a way to... Papa Albus?"
Gretchen watched Rori's face, and it seemed that the other shoe had dropped for Rori. She shook her head rather quickly, her nose scrunching up in distaste. Gretchen felt it was allowable to put the top on at last.
Rori shrugged, smiling genuinely for the first time all morning, and then darted out of the room, shouting, "Better hurry, or I'll eat all the bacon!"
Severus watched, an indulgent smile on his face. "It's true; she will. I encourage you to eat heartily this morning, Gretchen. You have quite the day ahead of you." His arm swept in front of him, indicating that she should exit the room first.
As Gretchen walked by, Severus touched her lower back. At first it was with just his fingertips, but soon his whole hand was pressed against her. She looked up at him, and he was staring down at her. His breathing was slow and steady, and her breath deepened to match.
His voice, when he spoke, was smooth and quiet. "I apologise. I suspect her exposure to Potter and his wife, among other couples, has given her unwarranted expectations about the nature of our relationship. I will speak to her."
By the time he had finished speaking, Gretchen was entranced. His voice had lulled her. All she could do in response was nod dumbly. Then, his hand pulled away from her body, but not before his fingers tickled up her spine. She had never felt anything like it, and she walked down the stairs in a daze. Only the sight of Rori sitting in her chair at the table chewing her bacon could bring Gretchen back to reality. The smells at the table brought her hunger back to the fore, and she dug in as if nothing else mattered in the world.
After breakfast, Severus had Rori clean up the dishes, and he took Gretchen into his study. Albus would be coming soon, and he wanted to talk to Gretchen when they both seemed to be feeling stable. He chose his usual chair, and she chose the two-seater sofa. It occurred to Severus, then, that he would need to buy a chair for Hermione and perhaps also a sofa fit for three.
Those concerns were better saved for later, though. Gretchen was staring at him, and he wanted to take advantage of her complete attention.
"Are you comfortable?" he asked. He had been going over this discussion again and again as he watched and waited for her to wake up. Without his careful plans to keep a measured pace, events had unfurled into chaos. He wouldn't allow it to happen again.
Gretchen nodded and sank back onto the pillows. Severus let the silence embrace them for a moment. He wanted to watch her, to let her feel comfortable in this life he had built with Rori. His study was warm, perhaps even cosy. There were nice windows and bookshelves. The wall colour, where it could be seen, was a shade of blue that Hermione had told him she favoured. It was striking against the polished wood throughout the room. The fabrics in the room were variations on a paisley pattern, large enough to avoid looking busy.
She sighed and asked, "You wanted to talk?"
Severus was tracing the pattern on the arm of his chair. He knew he looked thoughtful, perhaps even concerned. That is what he wanted Gretchen to think, at least. He had so many skills that had served him over his life. He was preparing to employ them all to achieve this goal. He needed to reel her in slowly.
"Sunday and Monday, too were overwhelming, and for that, I must apologise. I felt it, and Rori felt it, and we didn't even experience the world turn on its ear as you did." Severus looked over at Gretchen, as if searching for confirmation from her.
A shrug was his only answer. Severus watched her closely, storing away bits and pieces. He knew she had over-exerted herself on Sunday. After she had been in his mind, she had vented magically, and even though it had only been late afternoon, she had gone to bed and slept through the night. Monday, with Albus and Rori, Rori's summary of events, and then Ollivander's. It was dizzying even to remember.
But Gretchen didn't seem to appreciate that aspect. She just sat there, waiting for him.
He went back to tracing the pattern on his chair for a moment. "What's more, I was glib about your emotional reactions." Severus held up his hand when she started to speak. "I do not mean that you did not get angry at your flat on Sunday, or any of the other reactions we noted prior to visiting Ollivander's. However, I do want to impress upon you that this will not be simple, nor will it be easy.
"What we have accomplished and I can assure you that they are great accomplishments in your situation are the most superficial expressions of human emotion. I want you to know what it feels like to be blind with fury, paralysed by your sadness. I want you to know what fear is and to feel, truly experience, the happiness that life can award."
She stared at him for a moment before nodding. The silence in the room spread out again, and Severus could hear Rori putting the dry dishes away. They clattered together because Rori insisted she was too tall to warrant using the step stool any more. He felt his heart swell at the thought of his daughter.
"Gretchen, do you believe that your life was good enough?"
Looking away from him, Gretchen let her eyes wander about the room. "Better than most, surely. I have a good job, and I make a fair living. I don't have to worry about my safety."
Severus leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and steepling his fingers. "Why did you come here, then?"
There was a long pause before she spoke. "Well, you came for the necklace." She realised she hadn't thought of it since she arrived, and she reached for it at her neck.
Severus smiled at her. "You are very interesting to me, Gretchen. The way you cling to that necklace is... curious." The clock on his desk in the corner chimed. Albus would be arriving in fifteen minutes. "We can discuss this more later. I did not intend to spend so much time on this at all. What I wanted to preface is that Albus will be here to begin your training with your new staff." He opened his hand up to the corner by the door where the staff from Ollivander's rested. It was on the wall in a mounted bracket, as if it had always been there. "It will be your primary tool in the work ahead."
She looked over at the staff and gasped. It was truly a sight to behold, and Severus had spent a fair amount of time this week staring at it. Albus had come by each day to check on Gretchen and Hermione and to give Severus some respite. Severus had used the break to maintain the house and to shower and nap furtively. When he had extra time, he would stare at the beautiful staff, the top twisting and curling around itself.
It reminded Severus of Hermione's hair, particularly one morning, early in her pregnancy. She had been teasing him as she lay in bed, and he had finally given in to her prodding, grabbing her feet as he stood at the foot of the bed and pulling her body towards him. Her hair had trailed down the bed, but curled and turned around itself, golden and chestnut highlights catching the morning light.
Severus had examined the staff thoroughly, finding the thinner branches at the top to be sturdy. Also, though they hadn't been there before Gretchen gripped it, symbols had been burnt around the hand-hold in the moments between her reaching for it and her fainting. Ollivander had said that was not an unusual occurrence when a staff chose a witch or wizard. There was a larger magical core in a staff, and the immediate connection could cause 'spontaneous inscription'.
"The last time I held it, I passed out for three days. What makes you think I'm interested?" she asked, never taking her eyes off it.
Rising to retrieve the staff, Severus didn't speak until he was standing in front of her, angling it towards her in an inviting way. "Your holding of this staff was not the issue. We have a fair idea what the issue is, but we do not have time to discuss it. Albus and I both believe that you and your staff alone will cause no problem. The issue arose when Rori took your hand while you were holding the staff, causing some sort of magical short circuit, if you will.
"For the time being, directly before and after your practice with Albus, Rori will not be present. After you complete your daily practice, you will rest. In the afternoons, when you are feeling up to it, we will work on trying to trigger your memories. We will make a conscious effort not to overdo any of these activities. Agreed?"
Gretchen stood and slid her hand around the smallest section of the staff. "Sounds reasonable."
She didn't say anything about the symbols, which surprised Severus. She had stared at the staff as he outlined her day and not asked about them. Something was not right. As he opened his mouth to speak, the doorbell rang. "And that will be Albus." It would have to wait. Severus led her out of the room to greet the headmaster.
Gretchen wasn't sure what she was doing out in this field, holding her staff in both of her hands in front of her body, obeying the prompts of this impossibly old man. Recite the alphabet from a to z. Recite the alphabet from z to a. Again. From alpha to omega. From omega to alpha. Again. Asch to ziu. Ziu to asch. Again.
She didn't feel as if she was doing anything.
Count to forty-nine. Count down. Count by odds. Count down. Count by evens. Count down. Count by squares. Count down. Count by cubes. Count down. Count to zero.
Open your eyes.
She did. Gretchen opened her eyes to the man. He was smiling. A fog had swept up from the lake and was catching the light as it lifted from the horizon. She swooned, but held herself up with the staff in her hands. She felt empty. She felt clean. It felt so good to see Professor Dumbledore again; she knew he'd know what to do. He always did.
But now he was frowning. He moved his staff to his right side, and although she had been mirroring him before, she moved her staff to her right side.
Count down from one hundred. 'Breathe, Gretchen,' he was saying. She heard a whimper, and that heaviness was growing again inside her body. How had she not noticed it before? And then that dark man was carrying her. He wasn't a nice man, but she trusted him. He smelled good, like home. Why couldn't she remember his name?
And then she was lying on the sofa, and she thought maybe a house-elf could bring her toast. It was all she could keep down some days. But Severus brought her a cup of tea instead. She had had just a couple of swallows when she felt the Calming Draught kick in. She lifted the cup away from her chest, and someone took it away. Gretchen frowned. She had just got up; she shouldn't be napping on the couch. What had they put in her tea? She couldn't remember. Maybe she did need a little more sleep. Curling up under her favourite blanket, she dozed off right away.
Gretchen woke up confused. She was wearing her workout clothes, and she was under a blanket on an unfamiliar green sofa. It was far too nice to be hers. There were voices trailing in from another room. A masculine baritone and the twitter of a little girl. Gretchen stretched, her arms sweeping out to the side. Her fingers tingled, and she shook them out gently.
"She's up!" announced the girl, and Gretchen heard a chair scrape in the other room. The next thing she knew, she had a ten-year-old pressed against her hip on the sofa. Rori asked, "How do you feel?"
"Fine." Gretchen rubbed her eyes and frowned. "Why am I on the sofa? Did I miss the practice?"
"No! Papa Albus came, and after, he said you did a very good job. He also mentioned to tell you that your memory will be questionable, but that it's okay."
Gretchen put her hands over her face. Well, she did remember a little something, but it was very dreamlike. She twisted around, looking for Severus. He was leaning in the doorway and watching her.
"So I just have to believe that I didn't sleep the day away."
Severus said, "Only about forty-five minutes. We have not had lunch yet."
His voice was very soothing and rich. Perhaps it was foolish, but Gretchen felt safe when he spoke, secure even. She turned back to Rori. "Now what?"
"Well, we were playing Cheat in the kitchen while you rested. Do you want to play? We can teach you."
Rubbing her eyes one last time, Gretchen nodded. "I know how to play. It was actually one of the things I did while I was in hospital."
"Play games?" Rori asked, taking Gretchen's hand in hers and pulling her to the kitchen, choosing to sit them in neighbouring chairs at the table.
Severus put a tall mug of tea by Gretchen's hand, and then he picked up the cards and began to shuffle them. He and Rori picked up the conversation they had left off when Gretchen woke, and as she picked up her tea, she closed her eyes just to listen to the sound of them. The steam rose against her cheeks, and she was completely at ease.
They played cards until lunch and then kept at it until dinner. Severus had left for a moment to send an owl to Longbottom, who had tentatively been appointed to start the Pensieve viewings. It would wait until the next day, however. Gretchen and Rori were too engrossed in the game for Severus to disturb them.
He knew that he and Rori were far too good at this particular game for most of their friends. Potter always lost miserably to Rori, and Severus loved to watch him get outwitted by his daughter. They always had a good time, but Potter would rather play other games, like Quidditch. Gretchen was different though. As they played, she watched them like a hawk. All she said about her difficulties was that the doctors had been much easier on her when she was first learning than Rori and Severus were now.
Of course, the doctors would have been looking for data on Gretchen's capacity, and he and Rori were not. Well, not the same sort of data anyway. Severus had to admit, though, that Gretchen had a strong aptitude for card counting and by the end of the afternoon, was beginning to hold her own against Rori, who was quite sly for her age.
The two of them combined were a challenge for Severus, but he had no qualms about pitting them against each other to ensure his own victory every now and again. And while they did that, he watched.
Severus thought that Gretchen was having a pleasant time. She began to speak informally and began to tease Rori when either of them did well on any given round. He couldn't deny that he felt a little jealous of Gretchen's focus on the little girl, but it was nothing he couldn't handle. More importantly, any reactions that Rori could provoke in Gretchen were invaluable. Little eye rolls and conspiratorial glances her way and plenty of quips that had Rori giggling all seemed to accumulate into something momentous for Gretchen.
She, however, never giggled. Severus could see her face smiling, but it didn't reach her eyes. She was well trained in pleasantry, adept in adapting.
No matter. It was only the first real day. They would do the work, slowly and steadily. Seeds were being planted and would need time to grow, so to speak. If Severus was anything, it was patient.