Gretchen was standing alone in the field where she did her daily practice with Albus. Her staff was out, gripped in her left hand as had become her habit. A few days had passed since Draco Malfoy had been to the house, and Severus had kept things calm and quiet for her since then. No guests had come by, and they had done little around the house besides read and play cards, taking the occasional walk around the lake when they were feeling restless.
Severus had said that today they would be adding a new link to the chain. Gretchen wasn’t sure what this meant, but here she was, out in the middle of nowhere as the cold wind blew past her.
It was only a few minutes later when Gretchen spotted something coming from within the forest. It was tall and grey and loped forward with a heavy gait. As it approached, she saw Harry and Ron walking beside it. When they noticed her, they waved their arms over their heads.
When they were closer, she could see them smiling at her, as if they were truly excited to see her. That was not something that Gretchen had experienced much of. People were nice to her, but she had never really felt wanted. It was clear that Harry and Ron wanted to see her. She decided that she liked being wanted and she hoped they would continue to want to see her in the future.
The beast walking beside them paused a short distance before her. It was huge! The head of an eagle was turning and looking at her. It snapped its beak a couple of times, and the front... talons, it seemed, dug at the grass.
"Buckbeak?" Gretchen asked, head bowing forward as she tried to look him over.
"Right in one," Ron said. He smiled at her with unrestrained pride.
Gretchen stared at Ron for a moment, wondering what the man saw when he looked at her. Compared to Harry, he was clearly excited. His body leaned forward a bit every so often. What had Ron been like when he was her friend?
Her attention was pulled back to Buckbeak who was walking forward towards Gretchen. Her heart began to pound in her chest. She couldn't guess what he was about to do, and something in her brain was setting off an alarm. The closer Buckbeak came, the larger he appeared. The slope of his beak seemed sharper every moment. Gretchen was scared. She was absolutely frightened. She was just about to turn and run when Buckbeak stopped in front of her and moved to sit on the ground.
It was not a graceful landing, by any means. Soon the horse-ish back legs were tucked under his body, and the talon-like claws were bent in front of him. Then he blinked at Gretchen and his head dipped forward as if he meant to nuzzle her.
"Go ahead, give him a rub," Harry said as he and Ron moved around Buckbeak toward her. They appeared to be giving his hind legs a wide berth.
So Gretchen stepped forward, letting her staff move beside her left foot as she extended her right hand. Soon it was sliding over the rock-hard beak and through silken feathers. In front of her, Buckbeak let out a quiet coo, and soon he was rubbing his face against the front of her cloak.
"I've never seen him do that before," Harry said, his voice quiet.
"She saved his life; of course he knows her," Ron said as he came around behind Gretchen.
"I did save his life." Gretchen was now wrapping her arms around Buckbeak’s neck. She loved the feel of his feathers stroking her arms, tickling her until it felt as if all her hair was standing on end. "It was terrifying." She missed the look the men shared, having moved to slide her cheek along the smooth beak. Even Buckbeak's breath was tolerable, if only for a moment.
"Oh, really?" Harry asked.
"Of course, Harry, you remember. We crept out to the pumpkin patch behind Hagrid's and undid the chain just in the nick of time. And then we got on his back and flew away."
"Right. I do remember that. I can't even believe what happened next."
Gretchen blinked. She didn't remember anything after that. Clearly, they must have done something. She looked up at Harry and shook her head. Watching his face fall as he gathered her meaning, Gretchen turned back to Buckbeak, rubbing her cheek, now, on the feathers on his neck.
"'S nothing to worry about, Gretchen," Ron said, setting his hand on her back. "You got the first part, and that's something." Then he rubbed his hand over her back. Before she knew it, there were tears streaming down her cheeks.
Gretchen froze and then buried her face in Buckbeak's feathers. For some reason she didn't want Harry or Ron to see that she was crying. She had no idea why she was crying, only that being with them like this seemed to wring her out.
"Sh, sh..." Ron said, and Gretchen felt the hand on her back press harder, flat except when it passed over her staff's harness. "There's a lot in there that's got to come out. It can't all come out at once."
Then Gretchen felt a hand stroking her hair, and Harry was sitting closer on her other side. She felt enclosed by them but in a safe way. It wasn't much longer before her tears slowed, but Gretchen longed to stretch the moment out as long as she could.
There was something about being here with them that was settling. Harry passed her a handkerchief and she mopped up her face a bit. "Thanks. Sorry."
Harry sprang to his feet, then. "Sorry for what? Anyway, I have an idea about how we can help you remember. Want to go for a ride?"
"What, you mean on him?" Gretchen pushed away from Buckbeak; she was not interested in that proposition.
"Of course, on him. As long as you don't kick him too hard or pull his feathers, he's happy to. For you, especially."
"Well, I ... I just couldn't. That's hardly safe, there's not even a saddle or anything."
Ron leaned over to her, then, and said, "You aren't afraid, are you?"
"Well, I -"
By then Harry was already climbing onto Buckbeak, legs straddling his back just behind his wings. "Come on, I'll hold you."
Ron was urging Gretchen up from behind, her arms in his hands. "I'll ride in front; you can hold onto me."
The next moment Gretchen found herself sandwiched between Ron and Harry, Harry having to hold her staff still to keep it from knocking against his chin while in its harness. Her arms were tight around Ron, and Harry was holding her around her belly with his free hand. Then she felt the jerky motion of Buckbeak rising to his feet and jostling back and forth. He walked forward, increasing in speed as his wings flapped faster and faster, and then Gretchen was shrieking as they flew into the sky, higher and higher as Harry and Ron screamed and laughed around her.
Gretchen wasn't sure if it was hours or minutes later, but Buckbeak had done enough laps around the castle, which Harry reminded her was called Hogwarts, for her to pry her eyes open and look at the scene. It took her breath away, all of it did, and then Buckbeak landed in front of Severus's cottage where he was waiting for them on the steps. Severus looked rather put out.
"You're late. Get inside before we have to wait for you any longer, Potter."
Gretchen turned back to look at Harry, who was scowling at Snape. Gretchen turned back to Snape, and he looked just like he always had: lank black hair, sallow skin, black teaching robes buttoned from right under his chin all the way down.
"I'm going to inform the headmaster about this, Potter, and you and your little friends will be facing a good deal more trouble than detention."
Stepping forward, Harry said, "Hagrid's a professor, too, Snape."
Lunging forward, Gretchen grabbed Harry's hand. "Don't, Harry. It'll only make it worse."
"What could be worse than detention?" Harry asked as he turned.
"I don't know! He could take away Hogsmeade visits or something," she replied with hushed urgency.
Harry smiled then and took Gretchen up in his arms. As he spun her, Gretchen realised she had been remembering, and she laughed and tightened her arms around Harry's shoulders. Harry set her down after a moment, and she stepped towards Ron. He had to bend down a bit, but he took her into his arms as well, lifting her straight up off her toes.
They held each other for a moment, and then Ron set her back down. "Very impressive day, I think."
Gretchen looked between Harry and Ron and smiled. "Thanks, boys. And you too Buckbeak." She bowed to him, watching as his head dropped down a bit. It made her heart skip, but she hoped she would learn to deal with it. Finally, she turned towards Severus, who looked very different now. He was wearing the same robes, of course, but his skin had lost its yellow pallor, and his cheeks had filled in. His hair looked soft again, not at all greasy.
He walked forward and put his hand on her shoulder. "How are you feeling?"
Opening her mouth to reply, Gretchen couldn't stop the yawn that came from nowhere. It was quite big, and her elbows lifted and stretched out beside her.
"I think that's enough for the day," Severus said.
A quick look to Harry and Ron and Gretchen could see that they were disappointed. She felt something like that, too, she thought.
As if hearing her thoughts, Severus said, "Well, tomorrow is another day. Perhaps if you are up to it, Potter and Weasley can return tomorrow."
That seemed to cheer the boys, and Gretchen felt better. They said their good-byes, and Gretchen and Severus went inside the cottage.
"What are the odds that you are feeling studious, Gretchen?"
Severus watched as her chin lifted away from where she'd been staring into space. A bit of tea and fruit had refreshed her, and now he wanted to get to the bottom to something that had been bothering him.
She smiled and said, "I'm always ready for that."
"Quite right." Severus then presented her with a rune lexicon, and a long sheet of runes. Last night, after she'd gone to bed, Severus had taken a rubbing of her staff. She still did not seem to notice the inscriptions there, and it niggled at his senses whenever he thought about it. "I have some translation work I'd like you to do. You may use the kitchen table or my desk if you like."
Her hands were around the book before he'd even finished speaking, and she leaned back on the couch, tucking her legs beneath her as she went.
"Don't you want the work?" Severus asked, extending his arm to show her the parchment.
She just shook her head and said, "I will want to have a base knowledge first, to avoid false starts."
She didn't even look interested in the length of runes he held out. Part of him thought that her response was reasonable, but Severus was curious about how little she seemed to care about it, let alone that she had yet to remark on the changes on her staff. He set the sheet on the coffee table and excused himself, although Gretchen was already focused on the book in her hands.
Mounting the stairs, Severus went to check on Rori. She had been tasked with putting her clean laundry in her wardrobe, her least favourite chore. Severus shook his head, thinking about how quickly she could have it done if she simply did it. However, true to form, when Severus got up to her room, Rori was lying on her bed with some of her folded clothes right by her elbow.
Her feet bounced back and forth as she turned the page of a book. Severus cleared his throat, announcing his presence before leaning against the door jamb. "You have ninety seconds to finish your chore." Then he conjured an hourglass and turned it so the sands began to fall.
"What? Dad! That's not fair!"
"Time is passing, Aurora."
Quick as a flash, she was up and hanging blouses in her wardrobe. Then, trousers disappeared inside drawers, and her bed was clear. When she finished, she turned and glared at him, hands on her hips. It was a position Hermione had taken on many an occasion, and as always, he had to keep himself calm when Rori did it. "Thank you."
"I can do it myself, Dad."
Severus crossed the threshold and took a seat on Rori's bed. "Clearly not. It should not take two hours to put away two weeks' worth of laundry."
"Well, it's my laundry to put away. Also, I can't see why it's okay to have house-elves wash our clothes, only for them to leave half the job and not put them away."
"It's about personal responsibility." Severus turned toward her as she mimicked his words 'personal responsibility'. He took a deep breath. He loved his daughter and knew her to be an exceptional young girl. Still, she could be as tedious and arrogant as any of the spiteful little tossers he'd had the misfortune of educating over the years. Luckily, she was clever enough to realise when she over-stepped. Severus held her gaze for a moment.
"Sorry," Rori said, ducking her head as she moved to sit beside him.
"Thank you." Severus looked around Rori's room. "You can see the runes on Gretchen's staff, correct?"
Severus rubbed his forehead. "Gretchen is completely unaware of them. It makes no sense."
"Maybe it's Mum trying to tell us something."
Rori lay down, her head moving to Severus's thigh, and she looked up at him. "You're frowning a lot."
"If you are inverted, does it not look like a smile?"
At that, Rori stuck out her tongue. Severus applied his fingertips to her belly and began tickling. "Impertinent scoundrel!"
Gales of laughter surrounded him, and Rori wriggled on her bed, trying to get away. He kept up for a few seconds but relented as her breathing became laboured. They smiled at each other for a few moments.
Then, Gretchen appeared at the door. Severus looked up at her, still smiling. Gretchen hesitated, and her eyebrows were turned up in confusion and perhaps something more.
"Come in," Severus said and waved her over.
Gretchen followed his command. She walked around the bed and sat besides Rori, who quickly worked herself so that she could put her head on Gretchen's thigh and have her legs on Severus's.
"It sounded as if I was missing something." Gretchen spoke quietly, working her fingers through some of the loose hair on Rori's forehead.
Severus's heart pounded. She had been missing something, the most important thing in the world. He was thrilled that she had answered the siren's call of Rori's laughter without hesitation. But, as all things were, this was a tenuous thread. Could it be spun? Could it be woven?
"Aurora managed to tidy up after only two hours. I think it was the quickest go on record."
"Dad!" Rori whined and pushed her feet away from him. This put Rori just where Severus wanted her, closer to Gretchen, closer to the target.
"Most importantly, I think, is that we should now, as a group, decide about Hogsmeade."
"Right!" Rori sat up and turned toward Gretchen. "It's not nearly as neat as Diagon Alley, but it'll be interesting for you to go back.
Severus watched as Gretchen became entranced once more. She was still pushing Rori's hair back from her face, and that smile was back, although much more subtle now.
"Hogsmeade is a treat when you are experiencing it for the first time. However, it is also small enough that odd behaviour would be noticed by the townspeople at once. We would not be able to use Polyjuice again. It would not do to have your Aunt Ginny remarking about Honeydukes, now would it?"
Rori groaned and fell forward. It was a stealthy move that put her arms around Gretchen's middle with her shoulders now in Gretchen's lap.
Gretchen flattened her legs on the bed and said, "What have you got in mind, then?"
"If you can be especially patient, I know of a place we can go when there is a requirement."
With a shrug and nod, Gretchen agreed. Severus smiled and nodded back before getting up to send an owl to the headmaster.