Severus sat at his desk, rolling an uninked quill between his fingers and thinking about Gretchen Jones. She had been in his house, had been home, for some time now and while there had certainly been progress, it was not enough.
What was holding her back?
He closed his eyes and sighed. Impatience would not help them right now.
Honestly, for someone who had had no recollections for nearly a decade, she was doing quite well. The little bits and whole scenes all added up to immense achievements.
She was getting on with Rori, too, which was good. Rori was the key, of course. She could charm a snake out of its skin. Granted, Gretchen hesitated when it came to more parental obligations, but she had a sense of what was appropriate for a child like Rori.
Let her fall in love, first. There were some undeniable bits of Hermione in Rori. The curls, to start, and her facial structure. Rori was in that in-between phase where she certainly didn’t look like a small child, but she had yet to get swept up in the hormones of puberty.
Their temperaments were similar, as well. Gretchen and Rori had been known to sit on the couch for hours, each immersed in a book. Severus had caught them cuddling and whispering when they thought he wasn’t looking. Gretchen would stroke Rori’s hair, and Rori would gently explore Gretchen’s face with her fingers.
Severus hadn’t known what to do about that. Nothing, ultimately, since Gretchen seemed to like it. It was far below Rori’s developmental stage, but she had never had the opportunity to explore her mother as she had her father. Perhaps Gretchen did the same, exploring Rori as well.
Remembering Rori’s tiny fingertips on his own hooked nose made Severus smile, ever so slightly, to himself.
Severus looked over at the door to his study, where Rori was poking her head through. “Yes, Aurora?”
“I’ve been thinking.”
“I will be the judge of that,” he teased, watching his daughter shove the door open. It was amazing that she didn’t trip over her feet, as she was rolling her eyes quite dramatically. Compared to the little witch he’d been remembering, this Rori was an entirely different creature.
She flopped onto the chair on the opposite side of his desk, her heels kicking a moment before she settled. As always, she ran her fingers over the print of the chair until she found her favourite spot.
Since she was in his reading chair, she wasn’t quite facing him, but that never seemed to bother her. If she wanted to look at him, she would turn, resting her head on one arm of the chair and her knees over the other.
“I was thinking about Mum.”
Severus folded his hands and rested his forearms on his desktop. “Please be more specific.”
“Mum who is inside.”
Nodding, Severus forced himself to be patient. Honestly, the hardest part of all of this was keeping Rori’s fantasies from running away with her. Severus needed her to be practical and level-headed in a way that no child could be.
If she had been ‘thinking’, it could just as easily have been a fantasy or a mad plot for getting Hermione out, if that were even possible. On the other hand, how could he force Rori just to pretend that her mother wasn’t in there when there had been so many instances that screamed that she was?
“You know how, when you’ve been bad, how it can be worse to tell?”
She was nervous, her heels kicking up again and bouncing against the underside of her seat. Severus swallowed, trying to hear a meaning beyond what Rori was trying to verbalise. “You mean the anticipation of consequences or embarrassment?”
“Yeah. That stuff.”
Rori’s feet moved faster still, and her finger moved so fast over its mark that she had to pull it away and lace her fingers together with her own frustration. “It’s like, well, it’s bad, and you know it, but you could live with it, if it was just you knowing, but as soon as you try to say it, it’s harder; it’s worse.” Having got it all out, she froze for a moment, staring at her knees as she waited.
Severus pushed back from his desk and walked around to his reading chair. Despite some concern for his knees, he squatted in front of Rori and took her hands between his. “Are you suggesting that it is more comfortable for her to stay as she is, or that she is wary of trying to... come out because it is, at the very least, unpleasant for her?”
She didn’t look at him, but her feet bounced a couple of times. “I don’t know. Maybe both?”
“You are a very bright girl, Aurora.” Severus, levering himself up with the corner of the chair, kissed her forehead. “That is a very interesting idea, and now I want you to go and play.”
Rori hesitated, then, said, “I was planning to read.”
“Muggle books are fine, as long as they are relaxing.” Severus ruffled her hair and perched on the edge of his desk. Rori had a habit of getting lost in a book in the most intense way. She could immerse herself in a subject until it took over her entire world view. Whether it was toadstools or computers or, heaven forbid, anything about television, the entire house would be sucked into it like a rowing boat in a whirlpool.
“Yes, Dad.” Rori slid out of the chair, and waved goodbye.
However, Severus grabbed her wrist when it came near, pulling her in to an embrace before he allowed her to leave the room.
It was shortly before dinner when Gretchen found Rori lingering in the door to her and Severus’s bedroom. Gretchen had been restless all day, and when she felt like that, she found that being near Severus’s things was the best way to find calm.
“Hello, miss,” Gretchen smiled, setting her book down on the table beside her chair. Well, Severus’s chair. She loved the way his places smelled, even going as far as to make sure he showered before she did, so she could enjoy the after effects of his routine.
“Come to my room for a bit?” Rori asked. “I’m practicing with some of the make-up my Aunt Ginny gave me, and I don’t think I’m doing it right.”
Gretchen’s first inclination was to say that she probably wasn’t going to be very much help, but instead she nodded and followed Rori to her room. She brought her staff with her.
Once they were there, Rori sat Gretchen down on the bed and said, “First I want to practice on you, all right? Aunt Ginny said it’s easier to learn that way.”
“What are you going to do?” Gretchen asked. She didn’t usually let people bring pointed pencils or wands or things near her face as she valued her eyes very highly.
Rori dumped a bag between them on the bed. “Just... practice.” She didn’t look up at Gretchen, but started looking through the pile for what she wanted.
Gretchen picked up a couple of things to investigate what Rori had. She didn’t recognise any of the brand names, but they were clearly high end. “Ginny gave you this stuff?” She hadn’t met Ginny yet, since Severus hadn’t worked out what sort of link or trigger such a meeting would be.
“She came over for my birthday and did my make-up, and then she left all this here. She said that she knew I wouldn’t waste it. She also said that my dad needed to be eased into me becoming a young woman.”
“And your father let you go to the party with your face all done up?”
“Well, none of the colours are too brash. Ginny said she’d give Dad a break, for now. She did it so it was subtle, and told me that if I practiced, I’d get it too. But it’s hard to see what I’m doing when I’m trying to look at me and what I’m doing.”
“So you want me to be the guinea pig.”
“Is that okay?”
Finally, Gretchen voiced her concerns. “I’m not one for make-up, really, so I can’t give you any tips, but you can try on me. There’s time before dinner.”
Rori smiled. It was the sort of smile she wore sometimes when she was trying to convince Severus of something.
Gretchen was quite sure she didn’t know the whole plot. It didn’t stop her from letting Rori paint her face though. Gretchen was surprised at how much preparation Rori insisted on. First, a towelette to clear her skin, then a lotion. Then, lip colour, with exaggerated smashing together of her lips.
“Your skin is nice, so I won’t use any foundation.”
“Thank Merlin! Ginny always insisted I use it. As if I could use hers and not look pale as a ghost.”
Smiling, Gretchen said, “Oh, she used to pester me sometimes, Rori! I would be at the Weasleys’, and Ginny was sort of desperate for another girl in the house. Her mum was always busy. Sometimes I thought she’d drive me mad. Then, Tonks started coming round, and she would do all this stuff with Ginny.”
“Who is Tonks?” Rori sat on her heels, watching with surprise plain on her face.
Looking at the little girl, she realised she was remembering. “I don’t know. Teddy’s mum.”
“What is your name?” Rori was sharpening one of her pencils and looking at her hands.
After a long hesitation, the woman on the bed said, “I don’t know. Is that bad?”
The little girl looked up and said, “No. Close your eyes so I can do this.” She lifted up the pencil liner and nodded.
“Oh, good. I’m not very good at that,” she said and she closed her eyes.
“Ginny says my mum was rubbish at all this girl stuff. She talks about my mum a lot, and sometimes she cries.”
Opening one eye, the woman said, “It’s okay to cry when you miss someone. I think your aunt just wants you to know about your mum.”
“Do you miss her?” Rori asked, her voice wobbling a bit. She was carefully drawing a line, and most of her focus was on that.
“Very much. Sometimes it’s so hard to put up with Harry and Ron. Ginny knows what it’s like.”
“But you don’t cry.”
“Why would I cry?” Gretchen asked, pulling away from Rori as she moved to draw on her other eye.
“Because you miss my aunt.”
Gretchen frowned. “Did I say that?”
Rori nodded and sighed loudly. She sank down on the pillows. “You don’t remember.”
With a sigh, Gretchen scratched the back of her head with both hands. “Pretty hard to have a conversation with someone who doesn’t remember half of what they say. Did I upset you?”
“Do you remember anything?”
“Do I remember how Ginny used to save me from Lavender Brown’s make-up brushes only to turn her own upon me? Yes, I do. But that’s about it.” Gretchen reached forward and patted Rori’s knee. “C’mon, can’t leave me half done.”
That seemed to pull Rori out of her sulk, and Gretchen let her do full eye make-up. When they looked in the mirror, Gretchen was quite impressed with the little cat’s eye details. “Very nice. I don’t think you need any help from me. Not that I should be surprised. Your drawings are also very nice.”
Rori was putting all the tubes and things back in their case when Severus knocked, poking his head into the room. “Dinner, ladies.”
“You can go ahead. I need a minute to pick up my things.”
Gretchen, somewhat surprised that she’d been dismissed, grabbed her staff stepped toward the door. “Severus, I remembered something about Ginny.”
“Shall we invite her round for tea?”
“Yes, please.” Gretchen grabbed the banister and started downstairs. “But not for a couple of days, I think.”
“Very well,” Severus said as they reached the bottom of the stairs. He glanced back to check that Rori wasn’t following him. “You look lovely.”
“Really? Rori was just practising.” Gretchen smiled and blinked. Severus didn’t usually pay her compliments or go out of his way to be nice. His way was much more subtle.
“Yes, practising for Slytherin House. What did she say to you?”
“That Ginny had given her make-up for her birthday and she needed to practice. It’s nice of you to let Ginny do those things.”
“When have you known me to be nice? I asked Ginevra to attend to those things Rori should learn from a witch.”
“Oh.” Gretchen looked at him and realised she was put off by the way he had out-sourced the role of ‘mother’.
“I suspect she is hoping that one of us will be seduced.”
Gretchen felt his gaze as his eyes drew down her body and up again. She blushed, unsure of what to do. Thoughts were roiling inside her; Severus had become a lot of things to her, some of which were not so easily defined.
Severus stepped closer and his chin dropped so that his mouth was not too far from her face. “I won’t lie and say I don’t want that, because I very much would. However, I feel it would complicate an already intricate situation.”
“What do you mean?” Gretchen asked. She angled her face up toward his, so they were almost cheek to cheek.
“You will realise, very soon I hope, something very important. When this realisation hits, it will test you. It will test your trust in me. It will test your emotional resilience. It will test your very self.”
“What? Why?” Gretchen froze for a moment. Part of her wanted to step back and demand that he just tell her now. The other part wanted to step into his body, pull his shirt between her fingers, and demand that he just tell her now. She wasn’t sure what to do.
“That is for you to work out on your own, Gretchen. I wouldn’t rob you of such an accomplishment. More importantly, though, is what we shall do about Rori. I suspect she will continue to try to ensnare us in this... romantic hope.”
“Should we act as though it is working?” Gretchen asked, half-hoping he would say yes. She suspected she wouldn’t have to do too much pretending.
“I believe it would be best to act naturally, but to be aware of the fact that she is trying to set us up.”
Gretchen nodded, and they heard the door to Rori’s room open. Severus gestured for Gretchen to proceed into the kitchen, which she did. As she sat down at the table and hooked her staff’s harness over the chair, she imagined that gears were clicking into place deep inside of her, and yet, there were still elements that weren’t moving together. Spreading her napkin over her lap, she tried to shake off the ominous tone of Severus’s comments. Looking up, she found that both he and Rori were watching her, wolfish anticipation evident on their faces.