“Severus?” Gretchen asked as they settled in for the evening.
Rori was in bed, and as the weeks fell away, Gretchen and Severus had taken to moving directly to their bedroom and reading by the fire once Rori was tucked in. Severus was just selecting a book from his shelf when she interrupted him. He thought that she sounded nervous, if Gretchen was even capable of such a thing.
“Yes?” he answered, feeling whole awareness taking in the moment. Severus didn’t have to look at her to gather information.
In fact, looking at her could prove to be distracting, especially after she had readied herself for bed. Breasts untethered beneath an over-sized top, hair loosely collected away from her face, her quiet sighs and hums as she decompressed from her day: all made Severus impatient to have Hermione back.
“When Malfoy was here...”
Severus smiled, then. It had taken her a long time to move to calling Draco ‘Malfoy’, as if the idea of ‘Draco Malfoy’ had had to be woven into her consciousness. Having found a book, Severus turned and sat in his chair across from Gretchen.
She was staring into the fire which blazed in the hearth. He cleared his throat and Gretchen looked up at him and said, “Stupid Mudblood.”
Adjusting his position in his chair, Severus put his book on the table.
“You wouldn’t let me say that in front of Rori. The one is obviously a slur of some sort, but I don’t understand about ‘stupid’.”
“Really?” Severus sat back and placed his elbows on the armrests, pushing his fingertips together.
Gretchen wriggled in her chair as though she were uncomfortable under his scrutiny. Severus watched, letting the time unfold before them. She marked her page and closed her book, setting it on the table next to his. Then she sat forward, her elbows on her knees, her wrists loose. Her eyes turned up at him, beseeching.
“I would prefer that you remember on your own.”
“Damn it, Severus! I can’t remember it all! Just tell me!”
Then she was standing in front of him. Her chin jutted out, her frustration and impatience were evident, and Severus was taken back to a time when she was so desperate for information, to be validated in his class.
“I’ll tell you about one. The other, you will have to figure out for yourself. Which will it be?”
In front of him, Gretchen fumed. Severus wasn’t certain if he should let her do that without her staff in hand, but she couldn’t use it as a crutch. She would have to stretch her legs, emotionally speaking.
“Fine. ‘Stupid.’ It seems like a stupid rule to have in the house.”
Severus watched her hair in the firelight bouncing softly as she gesticulated. “Hermione and I agreed that some words would be taboo in the house. She felt, based on her time as my student, that if our child heard me even imply that she was stupid, she would be demoralised.”
“Because you are so smart.” Gretchen turned to look at the fire.
Nodding, Severus watched as she worked to take in the information. “Hermione was clearly unaware of how condescending and cold she could seem at times when other students did not catch on as readily as she did.”
“What?” Gretchen exclaimed, looking back at him as if he had called her condescending and cold.
Like a shark smelling blood, Severus pressed on. “Oh, surely, Gretchen, you’ve spent enough time with Ronald Weasley to know how easy it is to become impatient with him, never mind Longbottom.”
“Are you calling my friends stupid?”
“I wouldn’t dream of it. I’m sure you are capable of making them feel inadequate without my assistance.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well, maybe, just maybe Mr Longbottom could have managed his own potions if you had kept your mouth shut and let him work on them by himself.”
“I was just trying to help!”
“And of course, it’s no wonder Weasley passed you over for someone who could manage to get her face out of a book and into a mirror long enough to see what she had to offer a young wizard.”
“So now you’re saying that I should be more like Lavender Brown? Is this what you’ve been teaching our daughter, Severus?”
Lavender Brown, who had gone to the continent to attend university and had not come back, had never been mentioned in Gretchen’s hearing, so Severus found himself, for the very first time, eager to hear that name. “It is quite obvious that Rori has no need to waste time in front of a mirror, not that she has any care to.”
“What has this got to do with our promise?”
“About certain words in the house! Why are we even talking about this? I thought it was all settled.”
Severus looked at the woman across from him very closely. “What’s your name?”
She looked at him, frozen as if she’d been hexed.
Immediately, Severus felt as though he’d botched it. He imagined Hermione’s consciousness being sucked back into the core of this person as Gretchen struggled to hold on. “What are the other words?” he demanded, using his most impatient professor’s voice.
“Perfect. Stupid. Hate. Mudblood.” She put her fingers to her temples, bending over. She didn’t look like she was in pain, only as if she was listening for the smallest noise. “Severus, what’s happening?”
“Relax, it’s just a little episode. Breathe. Just breathe.”
Severus was on his feet, but instead of wrapping his arms around her, he moved toward her staff. “You just need this.”
“No!” She reached for him and grabbed his arm. “Hold me, please, Severus. I don’t understand what’s happening. I’m scared.”
Her fingers were like talons on his arm, and Severus wasn’t sure he could get away without losing any flesh. He did as she asked, pulling her body against his. One arm wrapped completely around her ribs under her arms. She was now clutching his old sleep shirt with both hands and holding her face against his chest. Severus wrapped his other arm around her shoulders, bending his wrist up until his fingers were in her hair.
“What have you to be scared of?” he whispered, hoping that his voice was as smooth as he wanted it to be.
“I don’t know. I don’t know what there is.” Her head dropped, rolling so she could press her other cheek against him. “Who am I?” she asked.
“You are a brave, intelligent woman. You’re indomitable.”
“Please, just hold me.”
Severus stood there, his arms full of this witch, and felt simultaneously thrilled and terrified. He could feel her heart hammering in her chest, although it was slowing now. After a long while, the tension in her body changed, and her weight sank into the floor. Severus began to pull his arms away, tilting his head to look down upon her.
Her head was tilted up, and her face was pink. Severus clamped down on the internal parts of him who asserted that this was his wife. One year of wedded ‘bliss’ did not make this witch his to have.
Unfortunately, she seemed to have read his mind. “Why don’t you kiss me? Why do we sleep in separate beds? How can you touch me and be unaffected?”
These in-between moments were torture for Severus. If she were Hermione, if she still wanted him, he would know what to do. If she were Gretchen – if she were not his wife, he would know what to do.
“This has nothing to do with me.” He pulled his arms back, finally, and took a step away from her. He took another step, twisting his body so he could reach her staff. “I will leave you to meditate while I check on Aurora. It has been a very long day.”
Her hand touched his as she moved to grip her staff. Severus looked up and their eyes met for just a moment before he moved from the room. When he returned nearly a half hour later, she was sound asleep... in his bed.