Sliding her staff back into its harness, Gretchen braced herself to spend the day with Draco Malfoy and his son, Scorpius, who would both be arriving shortly for a so-called 'play date.' Apart from the slide of satin over smooth, polished wood, the house was quiet. Severus was gone for the day on some vague business he was being quite mysterious about. Meanwhile, Rori had spent the time after her father's departure in her room, leaving Gretchen to rattle about the kitchen and sitting room without aim. She attempted to tidy up, but it was all for naught.
She wished she was as quiet inside of herself as the house around her. When she finally lost patience, Gretchen stopped in the sitting room and worked to find a meditative place. She used the pits and valleys in her staff to change her focus, and her fingertips moving from the base to the handle to the top. She caressed the twisting tendrils where the fire had been. They were pristine.
Gretchen smoothed the palm of her hand back to the middle of her staff. The body was not pristine. They had recently taken a fourth rubbing of the runes, and Gretchen had given up trying to make sense of them. Now, too, there were vines coiling up from the bottom. Rori had noticed the similarities to Hermione’s wand.
If her staff was transforming to reflect her wand, no one dared remark on it.
A strong knock at the front door jerked Gretchen from her reverie. She called out, and then slid the harness across her body. When the strap rested against her smoothly, she took a deep breath and moved to the door.
She could not hide her surprise when she opened the door. While Gretchen had intellectually understood that Scorpius, age three-but-nearly-four, was joining his father today, she had not been ready for the reality of it. That Draco Malfoy was someone's father did not make sense to her. That she opened the door to him and found a miniature Malfoy bundled in his arms could not be explained.
Something inside of her rattled, a soft crackle of warning deep within her. Gretchen had no buffer from Draco Malfoy and his ways.
As Gretchen let Draco and Scorpius into the house, Rori ran to hug Draco. It was as though she appeared out of nowhere. In the blink of an eye, Gretchen found herself holding Scorpius so that Draco could lift Rori into the air.
Gretchen, as a rule, didn't hold children. It was one of those curiosities about her that made other people wary. Rori had been the only child that she had ever... cared for. Scorpius was in her hands though, wriggling and leaning ever closer and reaching for one of her thicker curls. In her confusion, she shook her head, which only enticed Scorpius more. He reached again and again for her.
Rori squeezed Draco tightly, and Draco looked over to Gretchen with that horrid smirk of his that stuck out in her memory. What a bittersweet thing to be able to recall that.
As Draco set Rori on the floor again, he held back a laugh. The two pairs were a strange reflection of each other.
While Gretchen was distracted, Scorpius suddenly lunged for her hair, grabbing it in his pale fist. Making sure not to drop him, Gretchen wrapped her arms around his fat little body. He was as secure in her hold as her hair was in his hand.
"He’s shy, but he loves curly hair,” Draco said, laughing in earnest.
Gretchen tried to extract her hair from Scorpius’s little fingers, pulling her head away as gently as she could. Fortunately, Rori was excited to play with the 'baby' today, and Scorpius was soon distracted by her snapping fingers, smiles, and coos.
Scorpius lunged for her after a moment, and Rori caught him up with practiced ease. She removed his cloak with one hand, passing it to Draco. She whirled the little boy to and fro until he was giggling riotously, and then took him to the couch. Rori pretended to toss him on the cushions.
It must have been a much-loved game, but each time Rori reached to catch the baby, Gretchen gasped.
“I’d never have guessed you to be so nervous around small kids…”
Draco’s voice slithered into her ear, and Gretchen nearly jumped out of her skin. Turning back to Draco, she found he had hung up his and Scorpius's cloaks, and now had a small rucksack on his shoulder. He set it on the table, pulling out a plush dragon, a very small toy broom, and a blanket. Then, he picked up the broom and tapped it with his wand.
Gretchen marvelled as it floated between Rori and Scorpius. It wasn’t long before he was reaching out to grab it. He began to bounce and laugh. Each time Scorpius’s little hand came close to the broom, it would fly just out of reach. Soon, he was climbing all over the sofa trying to reach it.
For Gretchen, it was as if she were watching a daredevil. Every step that Scorpius took was riddled with danger. The last straw was when he nearly leapt off the sofa trying to catch the damned broom. Before she knew it, she was moving to catch him.
As was Draco. He scooped the boy up and spun him through the air. Scorpius, oblivious to any danger, let out gales of laughter. Meanwhile, Rori reached out and nabbed the broom.
In her hand, the little toy seemed to settle down.
Draco smiled at Rori. “That’s my little Seeker.”
Gretchen flinched. “Wha–? What do you mean, ‘Seeker’?”
Rori let the little broom go again, working it up so that it was flying just beyond her reach, and said, “In Quidditch, it’s the position that chases the Snitch.”
Draco snorted, but Rori just grabbed the broom again and said, “It’s a game, well, a sport really. Kind of like footie, but with an extra speedy ball that one player from each side tries to catch. That usually wins the game.”
“All while riding flying brooms, Jones. Isn’t that lovely?”
“Flying brooms? Absolutely not. You’re not riding a broom in the sky chasing a ball. You’ll kill yourself.”
Rori looked at Gretchen as though she’d stolen Christmas. “But Draco and I play all the time. And Uncle Harry and I do!” Then, pleading, she looked to Draco. It was equal parts betrayed, for letting the bit about the brooms ‘slip,’ but also as a child seeking vindication from an adult.
Draco tossed Scorpius a couple times before pulling him close and kissing him. “Everyone learns to ride a broom, Jones. She can’t be a witch if she doesn’t.”
“That’s not true,” Gretchen said with certainty. She was having a sense of déjà vu, though, as if Draco had lorded this over her before.
“Well, where do you learn, then?”
“At Hogwarts, of course.” Draco sneered at her and reached out to stroke Rori’s hair. “But she rides my broom, and I sit behind her. Potter, too, I presume.”
Rori, the traitor, stepped close to Draco, and asked, "Can I take Scorpius to my room, please, Draco?"
He passed the boy to Rori without a second thought. "If you like, but leave the door open, please."
Gretchen watched as Rori bounced the boy on her hip and smiled and waved her fingers at him. With no obvious effort, she disappeared up the stairs without even a glance at Gretchen.
Gretchen stared after her for a while after she disappeared.
"Why, yes, I would love a cup of tea, Jones. You're a marvellous hostess."
"Piss off," Gretchen grumbled, leaving him by the door as she moved to the kitchen to make tea. Luck was not with her, though, as Draco followed her and sat at the table in the chair closest to the doorway. He was turned so that he could listen upstairs.
Putting the kettle on, she pursed her lips. He was in the chair Gretchen usually took. She was feeling particularly off balance. She’d never been summarily dismissed by Rori. It made Gretchen feel… unsafe.
Draco didn't speak again until the tea was on the table and Gretchen had moved to sit in Severus's chair at the head of the table.
"Tell me, Jones, have you ever considered motherhood?"
Gretchen looked up from her cup, her lip curling at the git.
"What a Malfoy thing to say."
"You don't know anything about being a Malfoy, Jones. You didn't even know there were Malfoys this time last year." Draco leaned forward, sneering at her.
She sneered back at him. "Congratulations on surpassing my extremely low expectations for the day. I thought you'd at least say more than four sentences to me before acting like an arse."
Draco smiled. "You know who was an excellent mother? Hermione Granger. Now, there was a real mum."
"All things considered, you sound like a loon."
"Did you know, Jones, that the first time I ever held a baby, it was Granger's? Can you imagine?"
Gretchen didn't respond. She just stared at him through the steam from her tea.
"Why don't you try, just try to imagine that moment when Hermione Granger let me hold her precious little Aurora. I’m rather partial to my Scorpius, of course, but Aurora was an absolute poppet when she was new."
"Do you think you're helping? Do you think this is what I need to... integrate?"
Setting his teacup down, Draco smiled an evil, Buckbeak-condemning smile. "Unlike some fools, Jones, I don't think it can be done," he whispered. "You don't know anything about being a mum. You don't know anything about Hermione Granger. You're a husk, hiding in your little Muggle flat."
His words cut her. Cuts upon cuts that she could nearly remember but not quite. She reached behind her where her staff was hooked on the chair with the harness.
"I have to say, though, you are very fit, Jones. My wife never was the same after her pregnancy. Her hips got wider. Her waist did, too. Her breasts hang now... You, however, look freshly hatched."
Gretchen held her staff upright in her hand, striking it on the floor beside her kitchen chair. When she looked across the table again, Draco was staring back at her, much older than she remembered. It was her turn to smirk.
"Your staff's alight," he whispered, now in awe.
She didn't say anything, didn't move. She heard footsteps far away. She dared not even blink. She looked at Draco as he looked at her. In the kitchen, the smell of steam coming off their teacups was gone. In its place was the scent of fog on a campfire.
Time slowed for her.
In her imagination, she reached out for a hand to hold. She was not on the island, now, like she had been before. Instead, they were standing back to back in the fog. Fingers clasped. More footsteps came from far away, and a child was crying.
The mist had grown into a rain, and it sizzled and snapped in the fire. Then, the snapping was in front of her face.
She looked up, and Draco, older and looking panicked, held a red-faced child, as he leaned over her.
"It's about bloody time, Jones," he said as her eyes blinked open. “I was starting to question my Charms work.” He brushed her hair away from her forehead and tears from her cheeks.
Then he turned and did the same to the little boy at his side.
She was laying on the kitchen floor. "Aurora?" she croaked.
"Through the floo to Hogwarts. You seemed to be listening to his cries, so I kept him here. You gave everyone quite the scare."
Her arms felt like lead, but she managed to lift her hand to her face. "I remember everything that ever happened between us. Your threats about the basilisk. The slap. You letting me into the boys' loo when I was so pregnant. You coming into our quarters to hold Rori while she cried so I could just eat a bloody sandwich."
"Don't get up." Draco stood, hiking Scorpius onto his hip while he went to the living room for a cushion. When he came back, he set Scorpius to stand on the floor. Draco lifted her head and slid the pillow below. "You remember being petrified?"
"Petrified? No. I remember you in the hallway telling everyone you hoped the basilisk would kill me. It was terrifying, but not ‘petrifying’."
Draco frowned. "You only remember the parts of the story that I am in for you."
Before she could answer, Severus strode into the kitchen. He was preceded by a cold gust of air that chilled her, and the click of his boots rattled in her head. It was as though she was experiencing those senses for the first time. His scent with the cool winter air was clean and refreshing but everything was too loud.
Draco stepped away, pulling Scorpius with him to stand by the counter. Severus scooped her up into his arms. Her body rolled toward his, and she took a deep breath of him.
After a moment, he lowered her legs, helping her to stand. He inspected her carefully, his eyes flitting over every inch of her. His hands stroked her hair, at last, and came to rest over her ears.
"Why must you always be so brash?" he asked in a quiet voice.
Gretchen snorted softly, feeling her blood settle back into her body. A pale hand passed a biscuit under her nose. Severus took it, breaking away a small piece. She opened her mouth just a bit, and soon the sugars were melting onto her tongue. When she had swallowed the morsel, she said, "Draco started it."
"Then he can brew a fresh pot of tea." Behind her, Draco began to bustle around the kitchen.
Severus led her to the sofa, where she sat, waiting for fresh, hot tea. They were followed by Scorpius who toddled around, looking at his surroundings with wonder. When he came around the sofa, he gripped the sides of her denims and tried to pull himself up.
Draco lifted Scorpius and sat him on his own lap at the opposite end of the sofa. Scorpius had no time for his father, though, and walked the short distance to Gretchen. He pushed his way into her arms, resting his head on her shoulder before falling fast asleep.
Gretchen stared first at the blond boy and then out into the room. She didn’t want to look at Draco or Severus. They, however, seemed to be focused exclusively on her.
“You will explain,” Severus said after Gretchen had finished her tea. It was a strong command, and she could hear the restraint in his voice.
Without thinking, she stroked her fingers through Scorpius’ hair. “We hold hands sometimes.”
Severus’s raised eyebrow spurred her forward.
“If Hermione is my core self, I find my inner space and I reach… in. She’s reaching for me as well.”
“And your staff.”
“Well, I don’t bloody know about staves, do I!”
“Draco says it was on fire, but there’s no sign of burning.”
“That’s been my observation, as well.”
“Do not play coy with me, Gretchen Jones.”
Severus’s voice had gone dangerously soft. She looked up at him. He was terrifying, a vulture of a man. She whispered as much.
Tension was thick in the room, until Albus’s voice came through the Floo.
“Severus? I have a young lady here who is very curious and even more worried for her… home.”
The vulture turned his head to one side and then looked again at Gretchen. “Is it safe for my daughter to be near… you?”
Gretchen nodded, suddenly desperate to run her fingers through dark curls instead of platinum corn silk. She moved the sleeping child into her lap, his head more against the side of the sofa to make room for Rori.
When she came back through the floo, she started toward Gretchen but stopped short. Her eyes were full of tears, and she looked at Scorpius with a jealous sneer.
Gretchen beckoned Rori to her with complete urgency. Rori climbed on the sofa between Gretchen and Draco, and Gretchen pulled her close. She put her lips to Rori’s temple and then she brushed her cheek on Rori’s soft, dark curls.
Rori rubbed her eyes and looked up at Gretchen. “I’m sorry. I won’t play Quidditch. I won’t be a Seeker. Please, don’t be angry.”
Everyone pause to look at Rori, puzzled by her announcement.
Luckily, Albus had followed her through the floo, announcing his presence by clearing his throat. “When Aurora was attempting to explain what happened, she said that Draco and Gretchen were having a row over Quidditch, and then there was a loud ‘bang.’ Scorpius began to cry, and she brought him downstairs, and she found Draco trying to revive Gretchen.”
“Aurora,” Severus began, but Gretchen broke in.
“Rori, I’m not angry over brooms. You can be a Seeker. You can be anything you like.”
“But, I was cross, and I didn’t say anything to you before I went upstairs, and then there was a bang, and–” Rori stopped to rub her eyes again. She pressed her body into Gretchen’s shoulder, curling up where she could find space around Scorpius. Then her arms went around Gretchen’s neck, and although she was trying very hard not to cry, she was not succeeding.
Gretchen rubbed her back and took a deep breath. The intensity of events was not dissipating, and that uncomfortable rattle seemed to be coming back. Clearing her throat, Gretchen began again. “If… your mum is my core self, I want to find her. Sometimes, I look for her deep inside me. I find my inner space and I reach out to her. She’s reaching for me, as well.
“When I first thought of it, I could barely reach her, no matter how much I wanted to. But, I imagined reaching my hand out for her, and I started to feel fingertips on mine. And, ever since we went to see Harry and Ginny the first time, it’s almost as though I can hold hands with her. We don’t always do it, but more and more.”
On Gretchen’s shoulder, Rori was relaxing, and her sobs were natural and slowing. She seemed to be calming down. Gretchen looked back into the room, and the great, black vulture was gone, but Severus was looming in the centre of the room, a study of black on black.
“When you and your dad went to see Scorpius and Draco last time, your mum and I… met. We were able to hold on for a long time, in a way, and then, I – or we, I suppose – came downstairs, and I tried to touch her wand again, and when I did, my staff caught fire at the top.”
Gretchen was now looking at Severus. In return, he looked at her as though she were increasingly problematic. Albus had moved to look carefully at Hermione’s wand. Draco sat perfectly still, letting the story unfold.
“After you went upstairs, I felt very… tumultuous because Draco was saying things that he thought might get under my skin. He always knows just how to do that, you know.”
“Are you cross with Draco?” Rori asked, turning to look at him, rubbing her now dry eyes.
Gretchen turned her head and looked at him with Rori. “Well, I don’t think ‘cross’ is the right word. Draco and your mom always challenged each other, and, I think, she came out to meet his challenge today.
“Instead of just holding her hand, I imagined we were back to back, supporting each other. And then I planted my staff on the floor, and ‘bang’!”
From across the room, Albus leaned closer to the glass case holding Hermione’s wand. “Draco, what did she look like?”
Draco swallowed. “Well. I dare say we’ve all seen Hermione in full force. This was like that, but… doubled? Her eyes were deeper, brighter, wider. She stared at me, and I…” Draco shook his head. “Then, ‘bang’! She was here, staring at me, like a… cresting tide! And the staff was on fire. Then, the tide broke. She crumpled to the floor. ‘Ennervate’! Ennervate!’”
Everyone was looking at Draco, but Rori turned back to Gretchen. “So, you’re not angry with me?”
“Of course not.”
“And you’re not leaving.”
“I only just got here!”
Rori looked down at her sleeve for a moment. In a very small voice, she asked, “And we’re still friends?”
Gretchen looked at the little girl kneeling next to her and couldn’t find the words. She did not want to be ‘friends’ with Rori, but so much had happened, too much and not enough to call herself the girl’s mother.
Gretchen touched Rori’s chin and when she looked up, nodded softly and smiled. Rori fell forward, throwing her whole weight against Gretchen, and wrapping her arms around her neck. It sounded, at first, as though Rori was thanking her again and again, but it melted into more tears.
Around the room, everyone took to their own thoughts. Draco watched Gretchen console Rori, but he also watched Scorpius sleeping in Gretchen’s lap. He’d been undisturbed in his sleep through it all. Albus stood at the mantel, hands clasped behind his back, his nose a hair’s breadth from the glass case holding Hermione’s wand. Severus moved to sit in his arm chair, his back rigid as he leaned against the high support of the wingback. His eyes trailed around the room until they landed on Gretchen’s staff.
Time stretched out until Albus took a deep breath and shuffled toward the fireplace. He made a quiet bow to the room and disappeared into the flames. Draco, taking a deep breath for himself, rose and collected Scorpius into his arms. He and Gretchen shared a knowing, if sad, smile, and Draco stroked Rori’s hair back from her face in farewell before proceeding to the door. Severus moved to help him get arranged to go. When they were ready, they shared a silent bow, and Severus eased the door open and shut behind him.
Severus turned, and pointed his wand at the couch. He transfigured it into something more proper for sleeping. He retook his place in his chair once Rori and Gretchen were settled under the blanket he kept on hand for such a occasions.
The kip was normal, mostly. Rori was up after not very long. She moved from her place with Gretchen and crawled into her father’s lap. They didn’t speak, but he held her close and tight. It seemed as though she needed his strength, because she soon started sniffling again, and her shoulders shook against his for a brief time. He stroked her hair and took measured breaths.
Her tide of emotion moved out soon enough. They sat together quietly. Then, Rori sat back from his body, and rubbed her eyes. “I was foolish today,” she whispered.
Severus shook his head. “Nonsense. You are rarely foolish, and never more than is perfectly reasonable,” he whispered back.
Rori frowned and cocked her chin at him. “I don’t want her to go,” she said, quiet as a mouse.
“She’s not going.”
“But I was bad.”
“You were not. You, most of all, are the reason she is here.” Severus leaned close to Rori, keeping their discussion between them. “Never change who you are only to make someone stay. She wants you to be who you are.”
“Because she’s my mum?”
“Perhaps. But even if we never resolve the Janus, even if there are always two sides, you are special to her.”
“I could do more.” Rori frowned and gazed over her knees.
“No, Aurora. You are not responsible for her.” Severus wrapped his arms around her body and pulled her close. “Your mother gave everything to protect you, so you could have your chance and be who you are. You are only responsible for doing your best. That is all anyone can do.”
“All right,” Rori conceded with a thick swallow. She relaxed into her father’s arms once more, and sheltered there until the sun was gone from the windows. Just as Severus thought she’d fallen asleep once more, she pushed away from him softly. “I need a shower, I think.”
Severus kissed her forehead and let her go. As she stood, his lap felt cool and empty, and he turned to watch her as she climbed the stairs. When he turned back to the room, he saw Gretchen’s foot was twitching beneath the blanket. He stood and peered over her, seeing a look of distress on her face.
With a last glance after Rori, Severus hustled to sit next to her, checking her forehead for a fever and finding her skin clammy. He clenched his jaw, worried it had been too much. He picked her up and carried her upstairs to the bedroom.
Once the door was closed, he laid her in her bed. He took a deep breath and lifted her eyelids up with his thumbs. Peeking into her mind, he found she was running from the basilisk. He shook her shoulders until she woke with a start.
“Holy shit,” she said, panting. Gretchen clutched at the sheets. “There was a slithering sound everywhere. I was in the castle, just running.” She moved to curl up on her side, her words slurring as she tried to go back to sleep.
“Gretchen!” Severus demanded with hushed urgency. “Are you sure you should be going back to sleep? Your nightmare might come back.”
“I’m so tired, Severus. A few more minutes won’t hurt.”
He watched her go back to sleep almost instantaneously. She slept through dinner and barely woke up to give Rori a hug before bed.
It would be the last solid bit of sleep she would get for days. For nights after, every time she slept more than a couple hours she woke from nightmares. Severus had to silence the room to keep from disturbing Rori.
Gretchen was fighting the basilisk. She was being crushed by a troll. She was fighting Bellatrix at the Ministry and losing.
Her memories were the foundations of terrible dreams, and she would wake up screaming and casting inexpert magic. By Sunday, Severus had stopped removing the silencing charms in the morning. It just wasn't worth it day after day. He had a Hogwarts house elf come and cast charms around the room to keep Gretchen from damaging the whole cottage irreparably. If it lasted much longer, he wasn’t sure what he would do.