Gretchen sat in a bath and spread her toes around the faucet. She felt lost, timid, and thrilled in both the best and worst ways.
She could see the steam floating up around her, and the only light in the room was a few candles. She wished it was the mist of her mind swirling around the room, but it had been weeks since New Year’s and the fog neither came in nor out.
Gretchen stroked her beautiful staff where it rested across the tub. She was trying to read it again and again, only she didn’t see all the runes all the time. She was teetering back and forth, sometimes retreating into herself, and sometimes retreating into herself.
No. That couldn’t be right.
It was thoughts like those that were putting everyone on edge these days. They were all cooped up together, Severus was jealous of her and Rori all the time now, although she couldn’t always tell whether he wanted Rori back or Hermione.
Gretchen had caught him gazing at her when he thought her distracted. She knew Rori was feeling that, too, in addition to being ten, pre-pubescent, trapped in the house in the middle of a cold Scottish winter, and caught between one woman and one man and one memory that couldn’t seem to hold water.
Gretchen’s feet dropped into the water.
Severus and Rori were off visiting Draco and Scorpius and the wife… Wisteria?
Something. These people and their names. Although… Hermione… She rolled her eyes.
Gretchen was enjoying the large bath in the dark in the small room, really. The world outside the bath didn’t matter at the moment, and she was putting her mind to other places.
Her secret place. Sometimes she felt the watchful eye of Severus, could imagine him an unmoving vulture, and she wanted to do something without him. She didn’t like the idea of sneaking around, but she liked to try this idea she had, and…
She imagined she was toeing the tide between where she was Gretchen and where she was Hermione. She felt drunk and a bit dizzy. Her black-lacquered toenails, courtesy of Rori, blurred and then came back into focus.
In her imagination, Severus’s words drifted through her thoughts.
I’ve come for my necklace.
Gretchen’s eyes flashed open, and she reached for the phoenix charm on her neck. When she felt the warm silver, her hand brushed the phoenix on her pelvis, and she sank lower in the water. She reached for the charm, a tangible thing, and with one hand on her staff and the phoenix between her fingers, she could feel grounded again.
An image of a sooty, sweating Neville came to mind. He was much younger, and he presented his creation shyly.
When he had come for Christmas, he had given her a well-worn book of photographs, mostly from their school days. They moved as the ones from the mantel did. She had looked and looked. Rori had told her about some of the people from the pictures, but she only really knew the obvious ones.
Gretchen had been more interested in puzzling out who was not anyone she had already met.
Rolling in the tub, she held her breath under water as long as she could. Thinking about that day made her feel trapped in place, in a way, as though she had lead shoes and they got heavier with each step. Her hair drifted in front of her face, tangling in itself when she finally gasped for air, water splashing over the side.
She coughed, remembering she was in Severus’s cottage, in the bath, in reality. Gretchen flinched, and looked over the side of the tub: the floor was dry. That couldn’t be right. She wished it was brighter in the room, and the candles pulled apart until they were doubled, the wicks and flames appearing out of nowhere.
Gretchen reached for a cloth and dried her face.
Neville was a good friend. He was… well, he had become sort of handsome, and he loved her, she could tell, but he was completely prepared to take her for who she had become, and not who she had been. He was the only one. Everyone, herself included, was waiting for something more. Neville was astonishing in his way with her.
Gretchen wondered how he’d got so good at this.
Her staff rolled a bit as she shifted her knees. The wood shone in the damp, and the twisting tendrils at the top looked a bit like fire in the candle light.
I was once a very bad man.
A chill ran down her spine as Severus’s early words trotted through her imagination. Gretchen thought of the man she had seen in Severus’s imagination, in the Legilimens. He certainly looked very bad. Gretchen thought about Harry’s mum and Severus and Rori, and she tried to imagine what a spurned Severus would do.
Imagining what Severus could do, would do was one of Gretchen’s favourite pastimes, although it was usually when she was alone that she gave herself the license to do so. She remembered, time and again, how he had just dipped into her mind on the first day.
He could do the Legilimens any time he liked.
It was terrifying and thrilling.
Gretchen closed her eyes, trying to meditate.
She was on a beach, after dusk. There was a bit of sea foam on the tide when it brushed over her toes. She was waiting for someone. She knew better than to look. Looking would just keep her away. She felt the water on her toes.
Then a hand, the mirror of hers, entwined her fingers. She felt as if she were falling into sleep, but she fought to keep in the meditative place.
Her heart pounded in her chest. She was there. They were together.
This was not the first time she had tried this. Dozens of trials and dozens of failures. Tonight, though, she felt the strong grip on her fingers, and it anchored her.
This was terrifying and exhilarating.
She hadn’t told anyone of her little experiments. She hadn’t told anyone about the potions she’d been brewing. She hadn’t told anyone, just like the headmaster wanted.
Hermione opened her eyes, expecting to see her toes lacquered pink like Lavender liked, but they were black. Was this from the time turner? This wasn’t the prefects’ bath…
She swore to herself as she realised her mistake. It was ruined now. She could feel the magic unwinding itself. The tide was carrying her out again.
She clutched at the fingers as they pulled away. She grabbed at her wand, but couldn’t find it. Like dawn on the sea, the lit fog swept in. She used to love the fog, but now she knew it kept them apart.
Swearing again, Hermione pounded her fists, not that it mattered. She swore in her mind and fought to calm herself. She had lost it, though, and she pursed her lips and blinked back the tears. When she was calm again, feeling as dry as if she’d been stranded on an island and not caught on a raft, she noticed she still felt the touch of the other hand.
That was a new phenomenon. Not for the first time, Hermione put her trust in something she couldn’t fathom, and began to wonder again about her husband and daughter. She worried less about what she was missing. She was there now, the memories were in her somewhere.
She worried about the toll on them: the toll of not having a mother, the toll of being close to what Severus wanted but was denying himself. There was a cost in having what you chose when it wasn’t what you wanted. There would always be a sadness, a grief for what might have been.
To unwind their story, though, would be to unravel the whole world. What sent her away was also what had brought them together, what had borne Aurora into the world.
Better to have it done, than suffer something much worse.
Hermione moved to sit in the shallows of the tide. The sand and mud held her into place as the tide lowered. She looked again at her black toes, at her naked body with the phoenix brand, and then her staff.
The bath was empty now. Gretchen flicked her fingers at the window, and winter cold air came in where the warm steam rushed out. She wrapped herself in a towel and her dressing gown, slid her feet into the warm slippers Hermione’s – her parents had given her, and shook her fingers through her loosely cropped curls.
A cuppa was in order. Mechanically, she took her staff and walked downstairs, prepared a quick sandwich while the kettle brewed. Once everything was on a tray, she moved to carry it back to her bedroom, but her eye was caught by a beam of light.
On the mantel in a glass box was her wand. Gretchen remembered frantically grabbing for it during her dream in the bath. She hadn’t thought about it in weeks, months; she had her staff, and wands were really more theoretical for her anyway. Setting the tray on the table in front of the couch, she remembered her first day.
Again, it captivated her. Again she moved for it without thinking. On the first day, Gretchen had been sure it was a bad idea to wrap her hand around the wooden wand, but now it seemed like one of those perfectly reasonable ideas that so frequently got her in trouble at school. She lifted the glass box away, and once again the wand began to shake and sizzle.
This time, though, Gretchen had her staff at hand, and after securing the case on the mantel, she withdrew just far enough from the wand to bring her staff in front of her. She didn’t notice when her towel dropped to the floor, only starting the sequence that she had first learned with Albus. Once she was centred, she moved her staff to the side with her left hand, and stroked the fingertips of her right hand from the base of the now-trembling wand to the tip. When her fingers met the end, a spark cracked.
Gretchen turned to look at her staff. At the top, in the twisting tendrils that had always reminded her of fire, a blue ball of flame hovered. It didn’t seem to burn the wood of her staff, luckily. Smiling, she drew her finger away from the wand, and watched as the staff stayed alight. It burned softly until she drew her palm away.
It shrank into nothingness. Gretchen’s lip curled up, and she stroked her wand again, feeling now the gently curved carvings at the handle. When she again reached the tip of her wand, there was a quiet crack. She was unsurprised to look up and see her staff on fire once more.
She watched it, a small smile forming, until the clock struck. Gretchen jumped, and looked between the time clock and the location clock, and found that the hour was late and Severus would be coming home soon enough – his arm of the clock read ‘smoking’, which Gretchen knew came always at the end of his time with Draco.
She dropped her staff just long enough to put out the flame. Confident that it had gone out, she replaced the glass case over her wand, trying her best to leave no evidence of tampering.
Then, she turned and took up her tray again. She took the stairs in a hurry, and arriving in the study area of their room, Gretchen sat and devoured the sandwich. After, she felt her heart and breathing slow. She could only guess that this is what people felt when they rode roller coasters. Or when a rabbit was sure it was being hunted by a fox.
Gretchen reached for her tea and began to sip, ears tuned to the sound of Severus bringing Rori home. At the end of the cup, her eyes began to burn, and her chest felt tight. She stood, slung her staff across her back in the silken, soft harness, and crawled on top of Severus’s bed.
Sleep came quickly, curled around blankets gathered beneath her body, and she was deep asleep long before the pillow was soaked with silent tears.
One week later, standing in front of the full-length mirror next to his wardrobe, Severus felt Gretchen's eyes on his back. He had donned his teaching robes and was now working each of the buttons through their holes by hand. He remembered, now, why he used to use magic for this bit, but now was not the time for that.
It was a week after he'd found a wet towel in front of his mantel where Hermione's wand was kept, and she had been watching him carefully ever since. Even now, she was in a reading posture, but he could see in the mirror that she watching him and not the turning pages.
In some ways she hadn't changed at all.
Severus had married a hoodlum. She'd been twelve years old when she'd landed in a bed of Devil's Snare and then gotten herself out again. That wasn’t even the worst thing she’d done that year. Hermione Granger was a ne’er do well.
Unfortunately for her, she was complete shit at sneaking about, even now.
Severus found it a bit amusing, really. He had known something had transpired with Hermione's wand before he'd even gotten all the way through the front door last week. He had spent years surrounded by students expanding their magic at Hogwarts, and he'd watched Rori's whole magical life develop before his eyes.
Then, when he'd woken her to move from his bed to her own, he had been reminded of so much of Hermione's youth. The slope of her eyebrows and her too-still mouth had spoken volumes to him. She might as well have been pinching from his stores that night. What Gretchen or Hermione might be up to, he could not imagine.
Gretchen must have been in a true state, forgetting the obvious: the towel on the floor.
In turn, though, he had his own plans, and now, as he had done so many times, he was about to take this hoodlum to see her Head of House.
Minerva McGonagall had long since retired from her role at Hogwarts, and now lived in London where she could easily get to and from St. Mungo's where she consulted on Transfiguration accidents, and chatted with some of the long term patients of the wizarding hospital.
Though some of them could remember very little, many of them always remembered her.
Severus knew he would never forget his years as a student with her, the hard purse of her mouth as he failed, or the shallow nod of approval, mouth still pursed, when he succeeded. He had skipped breakfast, his stomach was in such knots over what he was about to do. It was as though he had spent weeks and months working on a Transfiguration project due today, and he could not guess if he was to be successful.
Of course, Gretchen knew nothing. Gretchen never knew anything. This was the greatest struggle of the house at present: getting Gretchen up to speed.
Severus licked his lips and took a short inhale. "Gretchen, we need to talk," he said, exhaling his short breath and hearing his voice turn to a sigh.
As he turned, he watched her body stiffen, alert to all threats. "Do we?"
"You've been performing magic without supervision, young lady." Severus took a long step toward her. The whip of his robes caught her attention, and her eye darted to it, even as her body stayed still.
Gretchen was sitting in his armchair, reading a much outdated Hogwarts: A History. She looked up at him as he approached, and Severus loomed over her. He watched her pupils go wide, the too-wide look that sometimes meant that she was not her whole self.
Or, perhaps, it meant she was.
"I have the evidence in my office." This much was true. He'd had the towel washed, and it now sat in one of the drawers behind his desk. Severus was hoping she'd realise her mistake, but to date she had not.
"I don't know what you mean," Gretchen said.
Her words were measured, slow, and quiet. This was likely true. Severus pressed on. "If you refuse to admit what you have done, young lady, we'll simply have to see what your Head of House has to say about it."
Grabbing her arm, he pulled her to her feet. Severus plucked her staff from its resting spot and hurried them down the stairs. He did not stop for cloaks, as they were both in robes, and Severus needed this to go smoothly. Once they were out the door, he grabbed Gretchen around the waist, pulling her to his body, and Apparated them away.
As the ground solidified beneath his feet, Severus turned and rested his hands on Gretchen's shoulders. "Take half a step back, and to the right, I think,” he insisted, guiding her.
She looked up a bit, but her eyes were caught by the long row of shiny black buttons. "My right?" Gretchen asked as she moved. She was obviously dizzy, and she held his arms as she got herself settled.
Severus looked between her and the door and nodded.
Then, without intending to, he straightened the shoulders of her robes. His hands automatically adjusted the seams of his robes, as well. Finally, Severus moved to stand between Gretchen and the door, blocking her view of what was to come. Gripping the handle of the copper knocker, he rapped three times with some force.
It took a long moment for the door to swing open. Behind it, a spry old bird stood. She was smiling, looking intently for Rori. When the girl was not there, she narrowed her gaze at Severus.
Just as she opened her mouth, Severus cleared his throat. "Good morning, Professor McGonagall," Severus droned as he tried to keep the sudden spike of adrenaline in his body under control. He kept his voice monotone. Along with his demeanour, it became very condescending. "I have something here I think you should see."
Minerva’s eyes looked him over, quick as she was forty years ago. "What’s this, then, Snape? I thought you said someone wanted to see me."
"Why don't you just ask her yourself!" Severus demanded, stepping to the side as he pulled Gretchen forward.
Gretchen, like so many students before her, met Minerva's eyes with abject horror. "Please, Professor McGonagall, don't expel me!"
Minerva gasped, pulling one hand into a fist over her heart as the other clutched the door frame. Her face was white at first, and then shone red across her cheeks. "Severus Snape, what is the meaning of this!" Her lips were drawn so tightly together her mouth had nearly disappeared.
Severus did not answer. He just waited as the two women watched each other.
Gretchen, losing the momentum of being pushed and pulled by him, leaned heavily on her staff, holding it with both hands. She sank into a meditation, but her eyes never broke from Minerva's. Around them, a softly lit mist grew at their ankles.
"Professor?" Gretchen asked, disbelieving.
"Miss Granger?" Minerva croaked. She leaned forward, her hand unfolding over her heart as she began to reach out. "It can't be. Where have you been?"
"Oh, here and there, I suppose." She released one hand from her staff and moved toward Minerva. She had all of the grace of someone who was well pissed. Unready to move as she liked just yet, her body lurched forward.
Fearing a fall, Minerva stepped forward to catch her hand in a withered but strong grasp. The two then pulled close, Gretchen's free arm over Minerva's shoulder as she held her staff away, never breaking the connection.
Minerva's arms came around her back, and they stayed that way for a long, quiet minute. It wouldn’t last. When Minerva buried her eyes in the younger witch’s robes, Severus looked away. His listened hard for breathing, hearing a quiet catch as the matron fought for composure.
When she collected herself, Minerva brusquely announced needing to put the kettle on, and nearly dragged the young woman across the threshold. She did not let go of her hand until she was firmly sat at the kitchen table.
After plucking up a short stack of biscuits and his cup of tea, Severus excused himself from the table. He sat in the window seat and covertly watch the proceedings from the side-lines.
He’d observed a healthy drop of whisky temper Minerva's tea cup before she poured the others full to the brim. He might as well be invisible for all of the notice Gretchen and Minerva were giving him. He also watched as the bloody fog followed in through the cracks in the door frame, the only one noticing it settle around the well-worn furnishings.
As he sat back, chewing his bite of biscuit, Severus began to unbutton the first, very high buttons of his old teaching robes. He let his thoughts roll out as he half-listened. Gretchen had said nothing about his dress, had only just watched him, as if he were a cauldron or a thestral. She had mentioned to him before Christmas that she sometimes hallucinated that he was a vulture or crow.
Nothing seemed to boil over for her in this ruse, though. It was lucky, a win after a slight gamble. The women chuckled from across the room, and Minerva got up to refill her cup. As she brought the teapot to the table, Gretchen spared a glance in Severus's direction.
Her eyes were watery, and she smiled. That was watery, as well. Odd, since the meeting with her parents had been less emotional for her. Perhaps not odd, given all that Gretchen had seen and done in the intervening months. Minerva had always had a way with the Muggle-borns, too, and when Hermione had become his bride…
Minerva freshened Gretchen's cup, and as though a lesson had been called to begin, Gretchen straightened, engaged once again.
Severus let his eye wander toward the clock, seeing that the morning was nearly over. Minerva had laid out cheese and crackers, biscuits and little cakes, jam and bread. Gretchen’s plate was never empty for very long.
He looked Gretchen over for any sign of tiredness. As if on cue, she stretched and yawned, excusing herself to the loo. As she walked down a short hall, the fog wafted after her.
This was his opportunity to draw Minerva's attention to the magic that followed Gretchen, and Severus stood, moving to take a seat at the table.
"You nearly gave an old witch a coronary event, Severus," Minerva scolded. She sounded tired, but not terribly angry. “I was looking forward to seeing Rori! And you show up in this costume and act like a miserable sod!”
Severus watched as more and more of the fog disappeared behind the door to the loo. "Regrettable, but necessary, Minerva."
"I hate hearing you say that. So reminiscent of dark days."
A sad smile skittered across Severus's face. "As she is, perhaps." He grabbed another biscuit before saying, "Rori says 'hello', of course. She loves her Christmas books."
Minerva sniffed. "Her mother loved them, as well, if I recall correctly. Although, that, now, seems to be moot."
"Not at all. You received at your door this morning a positively primed, dizzy woman who you might recognise to be Hermione Granger. I will warn you now that she is rarely ever the woman you met this morning. Even now, I think, you will see a change," Severus said, his voice lowering as door to the loo opened.
When Gretchen appeared at the end of the hallway, she was sheepish. She yawned, turning away as her mouth opened wider and wider. To Severus, it was obvious that Hermione was back behind the mists.
Minerva turned to look and frowned. "Come and sit, dear.”
Dark curls tumbled as Gretchen's chin dropped, perhaps feeling again like a girl called before her teacher. Before she sat, she touched the side of the table.
"She's¬ – if she was here, Hermione has gone. I'm sorry."
"Have some tea, dear." Minerva patted the place in front of where Gretchen had been sitting. Her tone brooked no argument, and Severus watched Gretchen obey, even taking a sip of tea. Minerva stood and got the whisky from the cabinet. She topped off everyone's cup. "You'll find, dear, as I have found these 83 years, that you lose and find yourself more often than you think. That's just life."
Severus watched as the idea sunk in, and then tucked a curl behind Gretchen's ear. She started, but smiled at him, still shy. As she looked at him, he made a point to look at her face, at her shoulders, to let her look at him while he looked at her.
Across the table, Minerva cleared her throat. "Cups up," she directed. "To sneaking snakes and courageous lions."
Minerva’s put her tea back the fastest. Sniffing, she filled her cup again, foregoing any show of adding tea, and took a long, slow swallow from her cup. Her gaze turned away from the two and out the window, where cold winter afternoon was shining through.
Severus tipped his cup back, taking the rest of his in one go, as well. He set his cup on the tray and sent the tea things to the kitchen with a twist of his wand. The activity caught Minerva’s eye, and she watched Gretchen raise her cup to her lips.
Under the full focus of the others in the room, Gretchen’s cheeks grew warm, and she took a large pull from her cup. She coughed a bit as she swallowed, cheeks glowing ever pinker.
Looking between the women, Severus thought they were silently communicating something. For a moment, he wished he’d paid better attention to their chat.
“Stay as long as you’d like, but I’m afraid you’ll have to see yourselves out. I don’t normally have my tea so early in the day.”
Severus’s lip curled. “We certainly wouldn’t want you to break a hip, Minerva.”
“Nor I you, Severus. Isn’t that right, girl?”
At that, Gretchen drank her tea to the bottom, properly embarrassed from the whole affair. Minerva’s deep Scottish accent was beginning to show, and she chuckled to herself a fair bit. Severus was reminded of far too many a late night in the staff lounge, and knew to call it a day.
He stood and helped Gretchen to her feet. Despite the implication that she was sauced, Minerva stood, too, pulling Gretchen close to her once more. She whispered something to her and then, pulled away. Severus handed Gretchen’s staff to her and let her walk ahead of him, leaving Minerva in her flat.
Once they were beyond the door, Gretchen stepped close to his body, preparing for Apparation as she always had, with her arms tight around his body.
He returned the gesture, and took them home.
In the house, Gretchen was slow to release him. Instead, she began to touch the buttons of his robes.
They stood just inside the door, and with the whisky on their breath, it felt like the conclusion of a very nice date.
Severus stood, his arms loose at his sides, as Gretchen touched the buttons at her eye level.
“Professor– Minerva recommended I try to seduce you. She said that, erm…”
“Minerva is a vulgar lech if ever there was one. I’ve heard stories that would curl your toes.”
Gretchen looked up at him, shock written on every feature. “She did say she hasn’t always been 83 years old.” Returning her eyes to his buttons, her face turned more thoughtful.
“You children never seem to understand that adults have been at this all much longer than you have.” Severus lifted his hand, smoothing curls away from her face.
She froze, her eyes turning up to meet his. “Do you think I’m attractive?” she blurted out. Her eyes squeezed shut, as if catching up to what her mouth had just said. Gretchen tried to pull away from him, but he moved a hand out to her, just under her ribs at the side, which stopped her.
Severus licked his lips, and put them by her ear. “You are more than adequately symmetrical, and rather lithe, I’ve noticed.”
That caused her to swallow, and her skin grew quite warm.
“But not until you are my wife, Gretchen.”
“What if I can’t be her?” she whispered back.
“You already are in so many ways.”
Severus felt her fingers press the buttons again. “What if it might help?” she asked, daring to look up at him again.
“What if it might hinder? Who is to say?”
“We are. We are to say. She’s in here, I know, and she misses you. I miss you, and we’ve never even…”
“You spend more time in my bed than I do.”
At that, she pulled a face. Sticking her tongue out at him, Gretchen curled her lip at him. “I find these robes very attractive.”
“And you have a very lovely timber in your voice when you choose to use it.”
“I’m also aware of that.”
“And I like your nose.”
“Jones, flattery will get you positively nowhere.”
At last, she shoved him away from her at his shoulders. “I’ll have a bath, then!”
“If you must.”
Her only reply was to stick her tongue out once more. She turned, grumbling as she tromped up the stairs and away from him. Severus watched her every step, and when she disappeared, touched the buttons where her fingers had just been.