The next day after lunch, Severus let Neville Longbottom into the house, nodding to the man as he walked through the door. Longbottom’s visits were regular but infrequent. He and Severus had established a very delicate peace, and neither wanted to risk it by invoking Longbottom's curious ability to be a complete dunderhead.
When Rori poked her head out of the kitchen and saw who was there, she squealed and ran into the room. "Uncle Nev!"
Longbottom scooped her up and squeezed until Rori groaned. "You can't be that excited to see me. Seems like I just saw you a week ago, at some party or other."
Back on her feet, Rori stuck her tongue out at Longbottom. "You said you'd show me the new Chinese Chomping Cabbages!"
"And you said you'd come and visit me in the greenhouse." Longbottom sniffed and pouted. Rori began to pull faces at him, and then Longbottom was tickling her, and her gales of laughter filled the room.
Severus looked up to see Gretchen standing near the bottom of the steps, one foot lifted as she stared at Longbottom and Rori. Her jaw was slack, and one small tear ran down the side of her cheek. Severus cleared his throat, and the noise broke up the scene in the room. Gretchen moved forward, wiping her face with one hand and then wiping her hand on her denims.
As if he were her anchor, Gretchen moved to stand besides Severus. Neville and Rori stood opposite from them, Rori squirming each time Neville poked her in the side. Severus watched Gretchen from the corner of his eye. This was to be a control test of what Weasley had done on Sunday. Trevor, Longbottom's adventurous amphibian from his first years at school, was a loaded name, and if Gretchen held true to form, Hermione would get the first reaction.
Severus turned his body toward Gretchen and placed his hand on the small of her back. "Gretchen, I'd like you to meet Neville Longbottom."
She leaned forward and shook his hand.
After the pleasantries, Longbottom asked, "Have you seen Trevor yet?"
Gretchen frowned. "I don't know whom you are talking about. I've never met a Trevor."
Rori frowned, but Longbottom seemed only to take it as a challenge. He reached out and took Gretchen’s hand, leading her into the kitchen, where the Pensieve was set out. Longbottom, in that inane, prattling way of his, was telling Gretchen all about Trevor, and how he had got loose all the time.
It was at this point that Gretchen said, "Well, I hope Malfoy doesn't find him before we do."
There was the marker they had been waiting for! "Rori," Severus whispered, "Go and invite Draco to Sunday dinner. Quick now, and then stay in your room until someone comes for you."
And then Rori was off up the stairs to the top of the house where their owl roosted. Once she was gone, Severus moved into the kitchen, where Gretchen and Longbottom were already in the Pensieve. He started up the kettle for tea and then sat at the head of the table, waiting for them to return from Longbottom's memories.
Nearly half an hour later, Gretchen found herself staring into her tea mug, trying to keep dizziness at bay.
Longbottom stirred his tea with slow, silent rotations. He hadn't put anything in it, but he stirred it nonetheless. “I came to the bookshop more times than you knew," Neville said.
Gretchen, who had had to vomit after coming out of the Pensieve, and had then destroyed another lovely silk pillow that Severus had provided for her, shifted in her chair. "Why didn't you ever say anything?"
"Well, you're not her, are you? You don't know me. You don't even know what Potions is, let alone how many points you lost for helping me through it."
Severus snorted, and Gretchen's head snapped round to look at him a moment. He seemed ... just a bit irritated. Then she turned back to Neville and put her hands around her teacup. "Still ..."
Neville scowled at her. "What 'still'? This is a two-way street, Gretchen. If we were so easy to pick out of the crowd, why didn't you ever say anything to us? Hermione would have."
Confronted with the hurt and anger on Neville's face, Gretchen felt short of breath. She tried to speak, but nothing would come out; her jaw just worked as if she were a fish trying to breathe air. Something slimy stretched into her gut, and she felt her skin crawl.
"And that necklace! Do you know I drew that phoenix? It was something Ron and I worked out just before our lot joined the Order. We had it made from goblin-wrought silver, and then we each put the phoenix on our skin with a spell." Neville was rolling up his sleeve, now, and on the inside of his forearm, just below his elbow, was a phoenix. It was larger than hers by a good deal, but it was the same pink as the scar she had. "I would see that necklace on you, and I knew it was a Portkey, and you were so close, Gretchen, so close!" His fist hit the table. Then he pulled a cloth from his pocket and wiped his eyes.
Gretchen's fingers fiddled with the charm, with a definite sense of something uncomfortable happening. The atmosphere in the room was thick, and she was staring at this man, completely befuddled by what he'd told her and what he'd shown her. She didn't know what to do with herself, so she reviewed the day so far, attempting to feel grounded again. She decided right off that the Pensieve was not as nice as ‘Legilimens’, whatever that was. But Neville had been so disarming, charming even, with his nice face and warm smile, why should she not follow him into the magic salad bowl? Then, as she'd watched the little girl they all thought her to have been, she had felt more detached than ever.
Had that been a sign that they were close? Did she lose interest the closer they got? Her eyes were tracing the wood grain of the table top, when Neville finally pushed away from the table.
"I should go. I'm sorry. I had no intention of saying any of these things tonight. I just ..." His head fell back, and he sighed. It was loud and tired.
Severus stood and Gretchen followed. Neville moved toward the door, and she went to see him out. Once the two of them were standing before it, Neville, with his hand on the doorknob, toed the floor and said, "Gretchen, it's good to have you here. It's weird but very good. I don't want you to think that ... well, it's not like you are intentionally doing any of this. I'm sure once you get your magic in hand, even if you don't regain your memory, that you can have a good life here, with us."
Then she was surrounded by one of his bear hugs. Just as she had watched happen to Rori, Gretchen was now feeling the strong arms cradle her, squeezing just a bit much. She didn't really go for hugging, hadn't really understood the appeal. Now, however, she felt like she could relax into him, and she even dared to return it. It was quite nice, in fact, and she didn't even realise when she lost consciousness again.
When she passed out this time, Severus did not hesitate to cast the Rennervate. He had seen the magical pulse that happened before Gretchen's body went slack, and it was nothing more than a run-of-the-mill moment of magical flux. Much as rising too quickly after being stationary for an extended period could cause rapid blood shift, so could Gretchen's magic sweep in and out like an angry tide.
This would have to be accounted for as they proceeded.
Longbottom held Gretchen in his arms when her body went slack. He hefted her up under her knees and shoulders after Severus cast the spell. Gretchen was blinking, her eyes unfocused as her head lolled forward.
Severus muttered something about careless Gryffindors but decided action was the best course now. "To my bedroom, upstairs on the left, just past Rori's." He followed Longbottom, barely registering that Rori's door was open as they passed by.
Longbottom lay Gretchen down on top of the covers. Too bad he had chosen Severus's bed instead of the one Gretchen had been using. Severus was just about to move her when she stretched out, smelling the pillow and then sighing in satisfaction.
The two men met at the door, and Severus spoke low as he said, "Thank you for coming. Please compare your thoughts with the Headmaster’s."
With one last look at the woman in bed, Longbottom loped out the door. Severus listened to him knock at Rori's and then say his goodbyes. After, Rori came and took his hand.
"Is it okay that she keeps passing out, Dad?"
"I'm awake, Rori," Gretchen announced, rolling over, although she pulled the blanket around her as she went. She burrowed beneath it, sniffing it as if it were the most pleasant scent.
Severus stroked Rori's hair, an absent-minded pastime. "Yes, I woke her back up. Sometimes it will be viable to do so, although we must keep our pace moderate and try to avoid over-doing it to begin with."
Rori sighed, sounding disappointed. "So that's it for the day?" She walked to where Gretchen lay in bed and took her hand. Their fingers interlocked, and Gretchen let go of the blanket to stroke Rori's hair.
"As far as visitors with memories in Pensieve silver are concerned, yes. However, I suspect we can find something to while away the hours." Severus watched from the doorway as Gretchen poured all of her attention onto Rori, as if memorising her. "Perhaps Gretchen would like to sit with her staff after she has rested and do the breathing Albus recommended. You could show her how you learned to meditate while we were in Japan, if you like."
Rori bounced a couple of times and turned to Gretchen. "Would that be okay?"
Gretchen smiled, and Severus felt a pang of loss as her face took on one of Hermione's old expressions. After Rori was born, Hermione had spent hours staring at their baby, stroking her hair, and all the time she had worn a secret smile. Long after she'd rocked her daughter to sleep, sometimes even forgetting to tuck her breast away after a feeding, Hermione had watched Aurora. He didn't hear Gretchen's response, but from the way Rori clapped her hands, the answer must have been a 'yes'.
The two were enchanted with each other, so Severus stepped from the room to the bathroom, being as quiet as he could be, to get himself together.
Gretchen saw Severus leave from the corner of her eye, and she saw the strange non-expression on his face just before he went. She didn't stop watching Rori, though. "You know that you and I and the staff aren't allowed to be together, right?" Gretchen asked.
Rori was swinging their clasped hands back and forth in gentle time. "I know. I don't like it, but it's better that way. I was really scared when you fainted in Ollivander's."
The little girl's face fell, and their hands stopped swinging. Gretchen moved back on the bed, stretched out on her side. She patted one hand on the bed beside her, and Rori crawled up. Sitting with her legs folded, she fiddled with the ends of her hair.
"You didn't do anything wrong, Rori." Gretchen looked up at the girl. "You understand that, right?"
She nodded. "Dad explained it to me. It's just..."
Silence stretched out, and then Rori flopped on her back, pushing herself until her head was on the pillow.
Gretchen took up one of Rori's curls, so familiar and yet so different. "It's a lot. A lot of pressure and a lot of change." Rori looked at her, and Gretchen felt the unbelievable weight of her attention. Also, the unbelievable lightness of it. "I'm glad I'm here, though, with you and Severus."
Rori budged up closer, pulling the blanket over her so they were under it together. They both took a deep breath and sighed.
After a few moments of twisting the near-black curl around her finger, Gretchen was jarred when Rori asked, "Do you want to kiss my Dad?"
The air left Gretchen's lungs in a loud 'puff'. She recovered her breath and said, "I don't even know your Dad, and I'm not about to go snogging strange men just because they happen to claim to be my long-lost husband."
Rori smiled. "You're bad at lying. You do want to snog him!"
"What are you talking about? I'm not lying." Gretchen pursed her lips at Rori, and then moved to sit up. She also tried to keep the blanket around the pair of them, and soon Rori was sitting again as well. The blanket was wrapped around their shoulders, and their knees brushed against each other.
"Yes. Yes you are. If you didn't want to snog him you would make a face or something and just say no."
Gretchen stared down at the girl: she was looking quite pleased with herself. "You're only saying that because you want me to want to." The look on Rori's face was all the answer she needed. Rori was embarrassed enough from talking about her father snogging that she couldn't hide the truth.
Then Rori switched tack. "He hasn't ever had a girlfriend my whole life."
"I can't have a girlfriend when I have an impertinent daughter like you in my life."
Gretchen’s body startled at the sound of Severus's voice, and Gretchen just barely kept herself from swearing loudly. "Must you always creep in like that?"
"Yes," he said.
Then Rori smiled. "That's how he catches all the trouble-makers."
"Curly-headed ones in particular. Dinner is downstairs, ladies."
"That was quick. You couldn't have been gone for more than a few minutes."
Rori hopped off the bed and said. "House-elves."
Severus, frowning at Rori for some reason, said, "Take-away. It just arrived. I thought that, since you got little benefit from lunch, you might be hungry now."
"I am, thanks." Gretchen felt the sides of her mouth turn up just a little. It felt odd, and she rubbed the side of her cheek a moment. However, Severus was talking about something as he led them into the kitchen, and Gretchen soon forgot about it as she tried to follow along.
Severus had been a solitary man for much of his life. He had had one friend as a child, and by the time he left Hogwarts, he'd had none. Fellow Death Eaters could hardly be considered friends. Comrades might be a better word, but he would never have turned to one of them in a vulnerable moment. He liked to think that Albus was his friend, and some of the other staff from his time teaching, but those people could be counted on his fingers, and none of those relationships were a simple acquaintanceship that had taken root and flourished. Further, it had been his assignment to drive people away, as a good double-agent should.
When he had married, Severus had felt for the first time since he was very small what it was like to be taken care of. At first it had scoured his nerves. Hermione would set out his socks and boots when he was a few minutes late or some such thing. He had grumbled and griped, sneering at her even if she wasn't present.
She wore him down. Hermione was excellent at caring for other people, particularly if they didn't want her to. It seemed as if she liked the challenge. Their marriage had lasted barely over a year before the Dark Lord's demise, but it was all the time she needed to break through Severus's walls.
Thus, he knew what signs to look for when a person was coming to rely on someone else.
What's more, Hermione, the true spirit of Gretchen’s body, obviously wanted out and back into her life. Why else would she be so moved by seeing Longbottom play with Rori or be so entranced by her daughter? If this were any other child, she would have lost interest long ago.
Severus was keeping a tally of all the little bits he'd seen over the week, and for such a short time, there was rapid growth. He would not be announcing her progress, though, or congratulating her every move. Little smiles over such considerations were best unnoted.
At least, that's how Hermione had managed to make him feel safe enough to be taken care of all those years ago.
When Gretchen had arrived in the world, the state had provided for her welfare while she was in their care and had provided her with an education to get her on her feet, and after that she'd been on her own. Their care hadn't been such a warm affair that she’d stayed with any of her counsellors for any length of time; she had been alone for all the life she could remember. She had done well for herself, all things considered.
However, those times were over. Severus had every resource Gretchen needed in order to feel at home and cared for, and he would not refrain from doing anything if it furthered his agenda. Asking Hogwarts's house-elves to bring over some of Hermione's favourite foods was hardly an inconvenience. Gretchen's gasp of surprise and furrowed eyebrows were well worth it.
Severus watched Gretchen as she enjoyed her meal, feeling safe and relaxed with him and Rori. The conversation ebbed and flowed, and although he and Rori didn't eat much, Gretchen did. When at last she pushed her plate away, both sides of her mouth turned up just so.
They retired to the living room, each taking a spot on the green couch.
"So, Neville was the first wizard I met?" Gretchen asked, twisting her body so she could look at Severus.
Shaking his head, he said, "He was the first student you met on the train to Hogwarts. You would have gone shopping for your supplies, books, and your wand in Diagon Alley first. He was your first friend on the train and your only friend for some time."
"But I thought Harry and Ronald..."
"Oh, they became your best friends, but not at first. You were quite insufferable. Always waving your hand about and regurgitating unwanted information onto innocent bystanders."
Gretchen's eyes narrowed. "That's not very nice, Severus."
He mimicked her position on the couch, and Rori took her usual position at his side, her head pillowed on his chest.
"I am not nice, Gretchen. Furthermore, it's true. Tell me, what was it like when you first got to university? Did you do all your reading well in advance? Did you have every answer to every question ready with which to assault your poor professors?"
"I did the work. I was prepared. It's not my fault the others stayed out drinking and couldn't be bothered."
"As I suspected." Severus smiled, baring his teeth.
"I was a very good student! The best you ever had!"
Beside him, Rori twitched, but Severus just wrapped his arm around her, holding her secure against his body. He hummed and turned his attention to the hearth. A flick of his wand and it was blazing.
Gretchen looked between them for a moment and then stared off into space. The conversation in the room was replaced by the ticking of the clock and a gentle wind rustling through the trees outside. With a start, Gretchen jumped up from the couch.
"My job! I can't believe I forgot about my work! I have to ring my boss. Where's the phone?"
Severus looked at her and said, "There is no phone, Gretchen. I've taken care of all that."
"What do you mean? I just came, and I didn't call or anything."
Leaning forward, Severus withdrew his body from under Rori and stood in front of Gretchen. He rested his hands on her shoulders and spoke in a calm voice. "Gretchen, I took care of it. If you want to go back, everything will be waiting for you."
"Don't go!" Rori exclaimed from her spot in the centre of the couch. "You can't go yet!"
"I don't want to go. I just-- I just remembered about my job, this second. How could I forget something like that? All my work?"
Severus looked over her face; her brow was pulled down, and she looked a bit sour. "Apart from being unconscious for half the week, I would posit that Rori and I have kept you on your toes, so to speak." He slid his hands over her shoulders and down her to her arms. "When I contacted your supervisor, she was adamant that you pursue this lead on your memories. I know it may be hard to believe, but the people in your life are not as apathetic towards your situation as you are towards them."
On the mantel, a picture frame cracked.
"I don't choose to be apathetic! I didn't choose any of this!"
The sounds of glass cracking around the room sent Severus into action mode. "Rori, go to your room at once. Accio Gretchen's staff." As Rori's footsteps pounded up the stairs, Severus reached out and caught the long staff as it sailed in from his office. He stood it in front of Gretchen and moved her hands to the thinnest part.
Once she had a grip of the thing, her head fell back, and she gasped aloud. The pressure in the room changed, and the air seemed to glow just a bit.
Severus's heart pounded. It was the same glow that had surrounded Rori's crib the night Hermione vanished and after the first morning of practice with Albus. They were in it together, standing in a luminescent fog.
"Severus? Severus, what's happening?" Gretchen's head rolled forward on her shoulders. When she tried to lift it, she looked drunk, her pupils wide and glassy.
"I'm not sure. You're doing fine. You're okay. Rori's okay. It was just a bit of broken glass. Slow your breathing. There's a girl."
As her breathing slowed and her panic diminished, Severus thought he could almost see the fog sweeping back into her, through her nose, soaking into her pores. The more that she absorbed, the more stable she became.
Feeling the pressure of the crisis was over, he rolled his shoulders back.
Gretchen looked up at him from around her staff. "What happened?"
"What do you remember?"
"Everything. Flipping out over my job, the accidental magic, the fog. What is that fog?"
Severus sank onto the couch. "That appears to be a very important question. We will have to investigate."
"I scared Rori." Gretchen sat beside him, then, and rested her head on her wrists. Her head was cradled where her hands met at the centre part of her staff, and Severus noticed there were more inscriptions than there had been before.
"No, I scared Rori. She rarely causes me to raise my voice, so hearing any sense of command or urgency causes her... distress."
"I want to see her. I do not want to let go of this. It feels like the only thing anchoring me to the world right now."
Severus turned and observed Gretchen and her staff. "Perhaps we will try a controlled run to discover what it means for you and Rori and that staff to be in the same place at the same time?"
Gretchen nodded. "Will you go and talk to her first? She's probably very confused right now. I know I am."
He let his eyes rest on Gretchen's bowed head for a moment before he agreed, ascending the stairs to Rori's room.
Gretchen sat on the couch, trying yet again to get her body under control. She had never anticipated that any of these things would happen if she were to activate the necklace. The most, she had thought, was that the word would activate a beacon, and someone would come and get her, perhaps, as they did on the television.
She reached for her necklace with her left hand, securing the staff in her right. No wonder the doctors, the Muggle doctors, as Rori had called them, didn't understand and couldn't fix her. All of the things that had happened so far were beyond imagination, let alone science.
Severus called to her from upstairs, and Gretchen rose, eager, so oddly eager to see Rori again. Navigating the room with the staff wasn't difficult, but it was longer and heavier than a mop or broom, so it wasn't exactly easy, either. Up the stairs and around the corner to Rori's room where the little girl stood holding her father's hand.
"How are you?" Rori asked as if nothing had happened.
"Not having kittens about my boring old work anymore. That's something, right?" Gretchen turned her lips up to smile, but her forehead felt heavy with the seriousness of the moment.
Rori smiled back at her in just the same way. "Dad says we should hold hands."
"Your dad is a very clever man." Gretchen extended her left arm and flexed her fingers a bit, encouraging Rori to come over.
The little girl's smile faded, and her face turned down. "He's not always right, you know."
"Well, what do you think we should do, then?"
Her only answer was to shrug. Gretchen licked her lips and curled her fingers, beckoning Rori her way. She looked like she was tempted, and soon Gretchen was feeling that peace she could only find when Rori was near, was touching her. They blinked at each other, waiting for something, anything, but nothing happened.
Severus nodded. "Very well. The new arrangement is that Gretchen keeps the staff with her at all times."
"I seriously do not want to carry this with me all the time. Is that absolutely necessary?"
He stuck out his hand and said, "Accio Ollivander's package."
Gretchen watched as a paper package sailed into the room from who knew where. It landed in Severus's hand, and he presented to her.
"What's this?" She dropped Rori's hand to take the package, moving to the bed to sit down. Rori moved with her though, and Gretchen laid the staff across both their laps so she could unwrap the package.
Inside were two harnesses. One was of thick leather; the other was brushed satin. Rori reached for the satin one, which shone softly, a deep blue colour that was uniform throughout. A page fluttered to the floor from the packaging, and Severus bent to pick it up.
Gretchen was investigating the leather harness, finding it adjustable, with two circle loops on one side. Looking up, she saw that Severus had read the note. "Well?"
"Take care around doors." He flipped it so she could see.
"I'm to strap it to my back? Well that's something, I suppose."
Severus lifted the leather harness from her lap. "Shall we try it?"
Gretchen stood, holding the staff in her right hand as Severus put the large loop of the harness over her head and one shoulder. He moved to stand behind her and smoothed the leather between her shoulder blades and down over her left hip, adjusting the loops for the staff to be toward the top of her back. Then he stepped in front of her, ensuring that the leather lay flat over her collar and between her breasts.
He did not seem to notice how close his hands were to her... body, but Gretchen felt her heart rate rise when his fingers ensured size and fit. She knew for certain that she was attracted to him now but kept it to herself. She had gone years without seeking attentions of a man; she could certainly go without now. This seemed the wisest plan, what with her life turned upside down and inside out.
"How am I to put it in there? The loops are solid."
Severus, letting his eyes drift up her body without hurry, smirked. "Magic, Gretchen. Just place the staff behind your back."
She tried first to lift her hand up, but the bottom of her staff hit the stump of Rori's bed. It startled her, and Gretchen jumped. "Sorry," she muttered and bent her elbow so that the tip of staff moved from her hip up toward her shoulders. As if feeding something down the Hoover tube, the staff was sucked into the harness, and Gretchen caressed the staff as it left her hand.
Looking between Rori and Severus, she asked, "Yes? Is it in there?"
Severus nodded, moving behind her again to make some final adjustments.
Rori bounced a bit with excitement. "Do this one next, Dad. I think it's for inside anyway."
They repeated the process for the finer harness, Rori smiling at her the whole time. Once it was set, Gretchen reached out for Rori again. It was delightful how the girl gained confidence now that the staff was in its place.
"Can I show you the breathing now?" Rori asked, stroking the smooth fabric of the harness.
"I think that is a very good idea, indeed."
Rori turned, then, to her father, and said, "Witches only, please."
Looking up, Gretchen saw Severus smile down at his daughter. His eyes were truly sparkling as he said, "As if I want to sit around and watch you breathe. I think I'd rather have each of my arm hairs pulled out one by one."
"That could be arranged." Rori waved at him, pulling Gretchen to the mossy floor in the centre of the room to begin their lesson.