Gretchen needed a reprieve from magic, and Severus was going to give it to her. He had one of Hogwarts's house–elves prepare Gretchen's flat. What was adequate for a single woman with no friends or hobbies, books aside, would not serve to hold Gretchen, Rori, and Severus for what he hoped would be about seven days. House–elf magic would make all the difference.
None of Gretchen's things would be changed, but there would be two magical rooms, one each for Severus and Rori to stay in for the duration. Also, as it had been a number of months since anyone had stayed there, her flat was musty. The house–elf took care of that, too, filling the refrigerator and cupboards prior to their arrival.
Severus, Rori, and Gretchen, who was poly–juiced as Ginny once more, rode the morning train from Hogsmeade to King's Cross, then took the Muggle tube to Gretchen's flat. They were all dressed as Muggles, and when Gretchen got to the front door of her building, she was startled to find the keys to it in the pocket of her denims.
"It's been so long since I thought about normal things," she muttered as she let everyone in. Once through and into flat, everyone got settled in, Rori squealing when she found the telly.
Severus had to call her back to remind her to take off her coat and shoes. He turned to Gretchen and said, "Welcome home."
Gretchen put her things away without thought. Shrugging off an invisible burden, her coat went on the hook, the keys in the bowl on the table, and she turned away.
Severus touched her shoulder, and she paused. Her staff was Disillusioned, but Severus tapped it with his wand to end the charm.
Gretchen gave a tired smile in thanks, and slid her hand around the grip of the staff. Without a word, she walked into her bedroom and shut the door.
The rest of Severus's morning was spent acclimating himself to Gretchen's enhanced flat. The house–elf had brought their things over prior to the trip so they could travel unencumbered. Rori spent the time sprawled in various odd positions across Gretchen's settee, watching telly.
Gretchen did not emerge again until Severus lightly rapped and announced lunch. She looked as though she had slept, but not much or well.
Lunch passed with efficiency. Rori managed to chew her food, but barely, her urgency for more time in front of the telly cause great distraction. Gretchen ate what she was given, but without much concern for what was on her plate. Not one for prattle, Severus made quick work of his meal.
He was just cleaning up the lunch dishes when a horrible electronic 'bell' rang.
"Uncle Neville!" Rori shouted, running to the box that emitted the wretched tone.
Severus grumbled under his breath. Longbottom. He'd forgotten that Gretchen and Rori were expecting him this weekend, what with the dreams and the destruction of his beloved cottage, and inserting a holiday into their schedule. Severus scrubbed the plate in his hand with a bit of extra effort.
Gretchen went to the speaker box to confirm it was Neville, and then pressed a button, Severus presumed, to let him in. A short while later, Longbottom's usual knock came upon the door.
Rori reached to pull the door open, but Gretchen stilled her hand, peeping through the hole a moment before nodding her head. Finally, Rori could open the door and dive for her uncle. Longbottom navigated his way through the door, stiffly moving his legs against the force of Rori.
Gretchen took his coat. Once it was on a hook, Neville gently scooped her into a hug. Gretchen returned it, flinching but squeezing his chest tightly.
"What's this, then?" Neville asked as he pulled away. "What's got you all back... here?"
"Dad wanted to give Gretchen a break from the cottage. It's a holiday! There's telly!" Rori announced, dragging Longbottom to the settee.
"It's not a very nice one. I don't much care for telly," Gretchen said mostly to herself. "How did you find us?"
Severus watched them from the kitchen, having magicked a small mirror into the corner of the cupboard so he could see what played out.
Longbottom dropped his chin as Rori climbed under his arm, aiming the remote at the telly as though it were a wand. "I might have followed you home from your job on occasion," he said, shame–faced. "I'm sorry. It's weird. I shouldn't've. But you looked just like Hermione, and Harry and Severus had said, and I just wanted to know..."
Severus could see Longbottom's face looking wary and repentant, but he couldn't get a good angle on Gretchen. She was quiet for a moment, and Rori flipping between channels was painfully distracting for Severus.
"It's alright, I suppose. I mean, I understand. If I was your friend, you'd want me to be safe, and you'd be curious."
Longbottom was obviously relieved, but he must have felt very guilty about it since he leaned away from Rori and closer to Gretchen. His gaze fell to the floor. "Very. But it's uncouth, isn't it? And, well, I knew you'd be safe."
"Why do you say that?" Gretchen asked, leaning forward as she finally took interest in the conversation.
"If you had her body, you'd have the brand." Longbottom absently rolled his shoulder where his was and smiled. "The phoenix brand, you know? It's got magic in it, things to help you heal if you're hurt and everything."
"You mean the bird on my hip is magical?"
Severus had seen the brand on more than one occasion. To say it was on her hip would be putting it mildly.
Longbottom blushed and cleared his throat. "After the Department of Mysteries, we knew we could really get hurt, like really. Ginny and Harry and Luna, you – Hermione, I mean – me, and Ron. We took steps."
Gretchen shook her head in a negative way, not understanding. "Brand?"
"The phoenix," Longbottom started but his voice caught. He was really starting to turn pink. "On your, you know, erm... pelvis. It helps your body heal. If you got hit with a hex or a jinx or something, it wouldn't do as much damage, or you might be able to recover more quickly. It's not perfect, mind you, but they were – it was Bellatrix Lestrange and everyone, you know!"
"I don't know," Gretchen said, curling up in her chair. Her hand moved over the spot where her phoenix was, closer to where the baby had grown than her hip, but her body folded up so her feet were tucked beneath her.
Severus hadn't realised that he wasn't the only one who had seen the mark on his wife, but of course, someone would have had to cast the spells. Besides Hermione, Severus would have to grudgingly admit that Longbottom was the next best person to do such magic. His confidence and spellcraft had really evolved after that night in the Ministry. Moreso than most, Longbottom knew what it was like to fight and what it meant to lose.
Longbottom pulled completely away from Rori, moving to kneel where he could try and look Gretchen in the eye. He shushed her and touched her hand where it rested on top of her knee. "I didn't mean to upset you."
Severus shifted to change his vantage in the mirror. When he looked again, he saw a mist swirling on the floor. Rori seemed not to notice, entranced as she was by the telly. Severus stilled as much as he could, watching what he thought could be Longbottom talking to Hermione for the first time.
"You can't make an omelette without cracking some eggs, Nev. Did you save anything?"
"H–Hermione?" Longbottom asked, stammering. His back stiffened. "Yeah. Yeah, I did."
"I liked it when I saw you. You've become quite handsome. Gretchen finds you familiar."
That caused him to blush. Severus felt as though his heart was pounding against his ribs.
Longbottom held her hand tighter. "H–how?"
"Because... magic," she said.
"So stay." Neville pleaded. His voice was an urgent whisper.
"Were it only so simple," she whispered back.
In the kitchen, Severus's ears were piqued. His eyes flicked to Rori, who was still blissfully unaware.
"What do we do?" Longbottom pleaded. He was holding her hand in a white–knuckled grip.
Her other hand moved to push through Longbottom's mop of hair. "Keep on. We love seeing you lot. She may be dragging her feet, but she likes it when we're all together. She just doesn't know what it is to like, to be liked."
"How are you doing this?"
"She's very calm here." Then, Hermione turned to look at Severus. They stared at each other in the mirror. "This was a brilliant idea. Relaxing."
Then, Hermione winked at Severus in the mirror and turned back to Longbottom. Severus wished that he could chase her, bodily if he could, but he just stood, staring into the mirror while his heart pounded in his chest. Hermione turned back to Longbottom, pushing his hair away from his forehead once more.
In a quiet voice, she said, "I'm very tired. I have to go lay down." She braced herself on Longbottom's shoulder and used it to push herself up. Longbottom stood with her, and their fingers folded together for a moment before she drifted away toward the bedroom door. Around her, the mist began to subside, although not completely before the door closed.
The quiet click stirred Rori at last, but not much. She only reached out for Longbottom's hand to pull him to sit next to her.
In the kitchen, Severus cleared his throat. Longbottom turned to look. Severus held up a packet of tea in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other. Without a word, Longbottom gestured for the latter, and Severus brought out a glass for each of them. The two men sat together and stared, unwatching, at the telly, drinking quietly as Rori devoured every flickering image.
That night, Gretchen wandered about her old flat a bit. Rori was asleep, having stayed up watching the telly until she couldn’t keep her eyes open. Severus had heaved her up, and he and Gretchen had tucked her into her bed.
Then, Severus announced that he would have a shower. His face had the rough stubble that was the preamble to a salt and pepper beard. Gretchen thought he might have a bit of resentment for his grey, because she had noticed he never kept it for very long.
By now, Gretchen was more than familiar with his routine. She knew he would take a few minutes to shave carefully, then spend an equal amount of time in the shower.
She could imagine the steam and the subtle curves and lines of his form. She wasn’t sure if it was pure fantasy or part memory, but she… knew.
This morning of coming back to her flat, and then her time with Neville had left her feeling luminescent, as was everything around her. Gretchen wondered if Severus and Rori could see the bright haze that surrounded everything, everywhere she looked.
More than ever, she felt whole.
Gretchen listened carefully for Severus to get in the shower. Right now it was the tap of his razor followed by the flow of the tap. Tap–tap–tap. Flow. Pause. Tap–tap–tap. Flow. Pause.
Gretchen slid her left hand up the length of the staff. Her right hand slid over the books and shelves and the high-back chair she’d gotten.
It looked like the high-back chair in Severus’s office.
Finally, the shower began to run. Gretchen’s heart pounded in her chest. Like a runner waiting for the gun, she waited for the sound of the curtain.
Gretchen trotted on bare feet to the magicked room that was Severus’s. She knew what she wanted but she wasn’t entirely sure where she would find it. Time was wasting.
She was struck, upon opening the door, by the smell of him. She almost swooned. Bracing herself on the doorknob, she pushed it so it was almost closed, but not quite. She turned and faced the bed. The model of efficiency, his case was tucked under the foot, the corner of the bedsheet turned down, the pillow mutilated and pounded into the shape he preferred.
She could easily climb in.
That wasn’t what she was here for though. She turned and eased open the second drawer of the bureau. There, in three stacks, 5 black cotton t–shirts. Severus had taken one in with him to put on after his shower: 2–2–1.
Pulling her teeth over her upper lip, she ruminated a moment. Her theft would be obvious immediately. One of the piles would be reduced, and their number would be obvious when Severus next opened the drawer.
Her hands gripped the front panel of the drawer. She didn’t hear her staff drop, but it did. It rolled on the rug a bit, and then stopped.
Deciding, finally, she grabbed from the middle. She turned for the door, clutching her prize in one hand. She reached for the knob with the other, but the door swung slowly open.
She stared at the knob.
“Pinching again? But I’ve caught you this time.”
Professor Snape’s voice snaked around her neck and into her ear. She was terrified. She’d be expelled. She took a deep breath. No. They had often joked about that, when they were alone in their rooms. No. She’d never had a need or desire to take something since she’d got to the cottage. All she had to do was ask if she wanted.
Clearing her throat, she smiled. She pulled the soft black cotton to her nose and breathed deeply. “Nothing here smells like you. I needed something. Especially if you’re planning to leave me.”
Severus frowned. “What? Leave you?
“Yes, well,” she paused to reach for her staff on the floor. “You’ve clearly decided that I’m better off here.”
“Are you drunk?”
She hummed. “Well, Severus. As I see it, if you won’t play house with me, then you have to. Like a fisherman who decides his catch isn’t large enough.” She lifted her fist and softly shook the shirt at him. “I’ll have a souvenir of you, at least.”
His eyes immediately tracked to a shining ring, hammered platinum. “What’s this on your hand?” His fingers circled around her wrist.
She looked up at him. He was birdlike.
“My wedding ring,” she said and smiled.
“Yes. Mine. I found it in a packet in a drawer earlier today.”
“Yes. I found my ring.”
“But you don’t even know who you are.”
The vulture-man leaned forward, towering into her space. She reached up and slid the tip of a finger down his nose. Before her eyes, her vision shimmered, and a man was peering down his nose at her finger, and then, at her.
“What is your name?”
The question sent a shiver down her spine. “Gre–mione? Her–tchen?”
Severus leaned back, rolling his eyes as he dropped her wrist. “One cannot simply cut two words in half and splice them together.”
“You’re evading the point, Severus.” She stepped closer to him. “Either, you are making this a last stand for you and me and Rori, and you are going to steal her away at the end, leaving me here to be alone, returned to my life, a caught fish to be released. Or you are going to take me home with you, and I mean, home, professor. There will be no shared custody, no separation. I will be mother and wife.”
Severus stuck his chin out. “You don’t even know if you want to be married to me.”
“You are the only one I could dream of being married to.”
“We have discussed at length your many hallucinations, Urchin. I know quite well that you often perceive me to be a vulture, as recently as just a few moments ago. I know that glazed look in your eye.”
“And part of you clearly thinks of me as a buzzard, an old beast that circles and preys off carrion.”
“Oh, don’t be melodramatic.”
Severus huffed and drew a breath, but Gretchen reached up and squeezed his nose between her thumb and forefinger.
“What shall it be, Snape? Will I be coming home with you?”
His lips curled, and his teeth ground together. “Of course.”
She stepped back, removed her top and put on his t–shirt. She watched his eyes flit for just a blink to her chest before looking away. Once the soft, black t–shirt was over her, she reached beneath and unfastened her bra from under the shirt. She left both her top and her bra on the floor where she stood.
She brushed past Severus, popping up quickly to kiss his jaw where she could, since his face was turned away. “Sweet dreams, you old buzzard.”
She padded to her room and opened the door. Just before it closed, she heard him whisper good night as well, and mumble something that sounded like ‘urchin’.