Chapter 29 : 28 - Keeping Busy
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A number three silver cauldron simmered over a low flame; its contents continuing to bubble gently while wisps of silver vapour spiralled upward. The white tresses that had been gathered from the fallen unicorn served to provide the perfect and rare ingredient to a potion used to sustain the life of premature babies. I was hesitant to use anything from that particular creature, fearing that it would be tainted with Dark magic, but after exhaustive tests, the mane and tail hairs as well as the hoof clippings were unaffected. I was unwilling to touch the blood, the life source of the animal, even though it was an exceptionally valuable commodity at any Apothecary, quite certain that it would be contaminated, but the rest of the collected items from the forest would keep the team and me in research for some time.
“It’s looking good,” the assistant director mentioned casually as he passed the steaming cauldron. “The team has completed the tests on the Magpie mushrooms. Interesting results.” He handed me a beige folder not unlike those used in Muggle offices.
I leaned back in my chair, placing my elbows on the arms, and invited him to sit. Flipping through the notes, the edges of my lips turned slightly upward as the outcome had been what I had expected.
“Now, all we have to do is find a place to apply it,” I smiled as I gently tossed the folder onto the wooden desktop. The mushrooms had a hallucinogen effect, but also worked at reversing various spells that injured the mind. I instantly thought of those wounded during the war…but where to begin?
The assistant smiled and nodded. He had been annoyed with my return for it bumped him back into a subordinate position. I had been gone for three months with no contact with the department, and he had been completely in charge, enjoying the power of the position. I felt for him. He was ambitious and had the quality that it took to run the job successfully, that’s why I had no qualms about leaving the department in his hands. That’s also why I knew that if ever came the time for me to leave the Ministry or my post; I would recommend him as my replacement…but not today.
“Any thoughts?” I asked always trying to appease his injured male ego.
“A few,” he answered appreciating the attempt.
As September began, my thoughts drifted to Severus and the new school year that lay ahead. I wondered what kind of mischief the students would get into this year to test his already low reserve of patience. As the weeks passed, I ventured to send Stark with a brief note.
How is it so far?
It was the beginning of October before the raven returned with a message even shorter than mine.
I sent a small package of very strong Willowbark and Feverfew tincture through the Ministry post to the Potions Master at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. I’m sure he could have made his own, but it was the thought that counted.
I>To be used when needed.
I kept myself busy over the following weeks joining Carmen on the occasional excursion to Wizarding Rome, visiting the Campta’s once (I found that I had a craving for cinnamon buns after receiving Severus’ note), continuing the research for John Radcliff Hospital (I was due to update the staff before the end of the year) and running a variety of tests, with the team, on the moss, mushrooms, and remaining items from the forest. The process was slow, but so far had been successful. I had a good team. However, the hags were beginning to refer to me as the “lab rat” again, and Carmen’s calm disposition was seriously tested.
“Why don’t you ever say anything to stop them?” she asked in frustration one afternoon as the whispers and giggles filtered around us when I emerged from the sterile chamber.
“What do you suggest I say?” I replied steadily. “Please stop, that’s not nice. Please stop, you’re hurting my feelings. Please stop, you sound like the old bitties that you are?” I smiled sensitively at Carmen’s growing irritation and gently placed my hand on her arm. “Not meaning to sound conceited, but I once told a Muggle friend of mine, “Let the idle minds of the less brilliant chatter”. Regardless of what I say, they’re not going to stop, and if I try to stop it, it will only give them more to talk about, so I try to ignore the situation, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t affect me.”
Carmen merely shook her head and pressed her lips together, absently pushing some papers around her desk. After a moment, she handed me a couple of letters with my large leather agenda, the page open to next month.
“You received a letter from the university this morning and a fancy envelop from the Society. Looks like an invitation. Open them up, and we’ll fill them in,” she said following my advice.
She was right. It looked like I would be spending some time in England in December. The Society invitation was not only for the Yule celebration, but a seminar was scheduled for the day before. It sounded interesting. A new Mistress had been inducted late last summer and had helped her master with a project on how Muggle viruses affect wizards and new methods to treating them. Both were scheduled to present the work. It was unusual for both Master and apprentice to share credit for something, but there were rumours about their relationship. I had to admit, though, they worked well together, and she deserved the induction. Another speaker was a renowned, American botanist who intended to bring some plant samples from the American southwest. I had only heard of some of these plants and was very curious as to what they would look like and what he had to say.
The letter from the university was actually from Adam Kurtz, informing me that the faculty was having a Christmas party before everyone went their separate ways for the holiday. As it happened, it was the afternoon before the Yule celebration. He wondered if I would be interested in attending. I wouldn’t call it an invitation, but smiled that such an ill-tempered, socially awkward man would even consider letting me know. I slotted all three events into my book and hoped that I would be able to stay the full week and get my business with the hospital out of the way at the same time. Plus, I had missed going to England last year and was looking forward to visiting a number of friends this time around.
The florescent lighting over the wide corridor leading to the faculty lounge in the Biochem building reflected off the harsh white walls. The smell of bleach and cleaning fluid permeated my nostrils as my heels clicked against the worn tile floor. I had arrived in England early that morning and had immediately gone to the hospital. A meeting had been scheduled with the Oncology staff before rounds were to be made. After the meeting, I visited the lab and some of the other researchers who were working on similar projects. We compared information and experiences and were able to shed a little light on some snags that had appeared. I had decided to accept Professor Kurtz’ invitation and use one of the university guest quarters which would save me Apparating from Cumberland. Pinky had accompanied me to England but chose to visit her “friends” at the Society and help prepare for the symposium and Yule celebration. She was very excited.
Approaching the open faculty door, I poked my head in to see who was there. It wasn’t a formal affair; most had come directly from invigilating or correcting exams. A few favoured students served as waiters or waitresses for the event, passing around trays of small snacks and glasses of wine. I entered the room a bit uneasy, as I hadn’t seen Professor Kurtz anywhere. Moving forward, I joined a few professors that I recognized but didn’t know very well. Finally, spying my elusive and unsociable friend hovering by the refreshment table, I excused myself from the self-absorbed bores and moved to intercept my former advisor.
“And here I thought I’d been stood up,” I greeted cheerily as Adam stuffed a cracker spread with pate into him mouth.
“That’s what I was thinking,” he replied grumpily, bits of crumbs falling from his dry lips onto the front of his dark green argyle sweater.
“Didn’t you get my letter?” I asked, not completely trusting the Muggle post.
“Yes, but that doesn’t mean much. You could have changed your mind,” he stated unpleasantly.
“Have I ever retracted anything I’ve said to you?” I asked a bit puzzled with his callous demeanour.
He inhaled deeply, and slowly shook his head “no”.
“Then, why would I now?” I questioned. “I’m pleased that you invited me.”
His eyes brightened slightly as he poured a cup of punch from a large glass bowl. “If I recall, you don’t drink,” he said passing it to me.
I smiled, accepting the glass and taking a sip of the fruity liquid. I was receiving a strange sensation from him that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, more than his usual distant and tense air. I tried to cast “Legilimens”, but he kept avoiding my eyes. The hair on the back of my neck began to prickle as he placed his hand on my lower back, steering me away from the table to a sit at a couple of plastic chairs by the far wall. Passing a few of his colleagues who turned to ogle, Adam’s uneasiness deepened, and he stuffed his hands into his pockets. I remembered that little quirk as a sign of insecurity.
“Is there something wrong?” I asked my friend as we sat watching the group.
“Maybe this was a bad idea,” he said practically under his breath. “I…wanted…” he broke off, shook his head, and looked away, his eyes nervously scanning the gathering.
That strange feeling returned, only this time it felt like someone was watching us. I followed Adam’s gaze but saw nothing unusual.
“Adam,” I placed my hand on his knee, “do you want to get out of here? Maybe go for dinner?”
He nodded, then sighed and shook his head. I gazed perplexingly at him, and we sat for a few moments in awkward silence listening to the intellectual and psudo-intellectual conversations flow around us. Finally, I made a move, standing in front of him and holding out my hand for him to take. He looked up, uncertain of what to do, but my unwavering stance told him to grab hold. He reached out a grasped my fingers, and I pulled him to his feet.
“Something is going on, and whatever it is, you need to deal with it,” I stated firmly as I began to lead him through the milling crowd. As we wove through his colleagues, the uncomfortable feeling of hurt, despair and anger became stronger. Stopping by the exit, we turned toward the room.
“What are you looking for?” Professor Kurtz grumbled.
“Not what, who,” I clarified turning my attention to the guests. “It’s hard to explain,” I offered to a puzzled expression.
Continuing a path along the wall, I practically dragged a reluctant but irritably curious professor behind me until…
“Hello,” I reached my hand out in greeting, “I’m Daniella.”
The young, blonde woman startled, her large green eyes flitting from me to Professor Kurtz and back, uncertain of what to say.
“Have you two met?” I continued, pointing between the young woman and the professor, trying to initiate a conversation.
“Miss Pratt is my teaching assistant,” Adam grunted under his breath. “She’s in her final year.”
“Teaching assistant…since when do you take TAs?” I asked, surprised but pleased. “That’s wonderful. No wonder I haven’t been scheduled into your classes this year.”
“Are you a TA, too?” Miss Pratt asked slightly venomously.
Adam snorted, “Hardly.” Miss Pratt’s eyes softened as he spoke. “Dr. Di Marco is a former student and is presently a top medical researcher with the Italian government. She holds a grant from John Radcliff Hospital to continue studies on intracellular transmission systems and their effect on certain cancer cells. She is also a guest lecturer here at Oxford. Surely, she’s spoken in one of your classes?”
“You’re Dr. Di Marco?” The young woman’s eyes widened. “You look…different.” Suddenly, I was struck with a devastating sense of hopelessness.
I thought so, I smiled a knowing smile as the professor shifted uncomfortably beside me. Lifting two glasses of wine from a passing tray, I handed them to the couple.
“I believe you two have things to discuss,” I smirked as Adam began to flush.
“But I invited you here,” he protested desperately, a look of fear crossing his face.
“A month ago, but I believe things have changed since then. May I make a suggestion?” Both stared at me with uncomfortable incredulity. “This may be a conflict of interest, but it’s not impossible.” Miss Pratt’s brow furrowed. “It’s just a matter of being…discreet, or,” I pointed at an obviously embarrassed professor, “you can wait until her session is finished, or you can get a new TA and openly pursue this.”
“Pursue what?!” Adam nearly blasted in denial. “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” he huffed.
“Goodness, Adam. I can feel it from here, the tension between the two of you. I thought, at first, that it was projected toward me, but as we got closer to Miss Pratt it was so obvious.” I rolled my eyes at him, smiling.
Professor Kurtz’ neck and cheeks were completely red now, his teeth clenched together, and Miss Pratt had turned scarlet from the cleavage to her forehead.
I smiled kindly at the pair. “Go find a quiet corner somewhere and talk. Try to move beyond the classroom.” I placed my hand on Adam’s arm. “It’s time I left.” Leaning forward to place a quick kiss on the pock-marked cheek, I whispered, “I saw a sprig of mistletoe hanging above Dr. Redwood’s doorframe. Use it wisely.” With a wink, I pulled away, extending my hand to Miss Pratt. “It was a pleasure to meet you. I hope you have a wonderful holiday.” Directing my attention to Adam, I bid him a Happy Christmas, smiled sweetly, and left the two to they’re own devices.
The Society’s manor house was decorated in its usual holiday splendour. Red and green garland and holly berries were strung from the windows and around the doors. Frosted orbs lit the snow-dusted path from the Apparition Garden to the sweeping steps. The sound of festive music filtered into the night.
Severus hadn’t gone to the symposium the previous night but was supposed to meet me tonight. I was looking forward to seeing him and had dressed for the occasion, wearing a robe in a colour that he favoured and very little of anything else. We hadn’t been in contact much, our letters being brief and far between, but I got the sense that life at the castle was difficult. The “feeling” of the notes said more than their words.
Greeting Chairwizard Castwell inside the grand entranceway, I slid the cloak from my shoulders and handed it to Pinky who was grinning and waiting with her arms outstretched. As I leaned to hand her the wrap, I whispered, “Is he here yet?” She shook her head, “no”; bat-like ear flopping from side to side.
Moving across the polished marble floor to the gathering inside the reception hall, I made my rounds greeting colleagues that I hadn’t seen in months, some in years. Many had brought their spouses this year, and I was introduced to several. Master Whitherling’s new bride was a delight. They had married last spring after a long, apparently tremulous courtship. This was his second marriage and her first.
As the evening wore on, I danced with a few wizards who took pity on my solitude, but my heart wasn’t into it. It was getting late, and Severus hadn’t made an appearance. By midnight, I was finding it difficult to hide my disappointed. Finally, bidding the others a “good night and Merry Yule”, I retrieved my cloak from Pinky and told her that I was going to the safe house…should Severus arrive after I left. Pinky nodded in understanding.
The safe house was dark when I arrived, but a quick “Lumos” lit the sconces in the kitchen and hallway. I didn’t bother lighting the fireplace in the sitting room but had a fire blazing in the bedroom before long. Silently stripping out of the deep blue velvet robe, a flick of my wrist hung it neatly in the wardrobe. Standing naked before the fire, I let the warmth touch my skin, then pulling a soft nightdress over my head; I sadly crawled beneath the chill covers of the double bed. Shivering from both the cold and the disappointment, I hugged the spare pillow tightly crestfallen tears beginning to flow. Something must have kept him away.
I slept fitfully, tossing and turning, listening to every creak and groan in the old house, hoping that he would eventually show up. He never did.
After spending a full day secluded in the safe house, feeling let down, I ventured into Muggle London to do some shopping. Emily was hosting dinner on Christmas Eve and had invited me to join them. I was reluctant at first, not wanting to intrude on a family gathering, but she and Colin were insistent. I was looking forward to seeing the children again, and I hadn’t seen the baby yet, who was now just over a year old. Stopping at a busy toy store to pick up a few presents, I then moved onto other shops to find something appropriate for my friends. Heading to the safe house in the late afternoon, I wrapped the parcels in bright paper and ribbons hoping that it would cheer me up.
Arriving at Emily and Colin’s cheerfully decorated townhouse in a comfortable neighbourhood on the outskirts of London, I paused on the front stoop to gaze through the large picture window at the silent activity inside. A full, well-decorated tree dominated the opening, obscuring most of the view, but I could see several children beyond, playing on the floor and poking at the presents. Emily emerged from what appeared to be the kitchen with a beautiful little, chestnut-haired girl on her hip and gently shooed the children out from under the tree. Colin appeared by her side and took the little girl into his arms, tossing her lightly into the air, eliciting a giggle. The twins raced for their turn, arms outstretched, while Emily gave Colin a “look what you’ve started” expression. There was another couple present with their children, and the group laughed, sharing the holiday cheer. I already felt like an intruder.
As the winter chill deepened, I gathered my nerve and rang the bell. Two pint-sized Colins pulled the door open, pushing and shoving to be the first to greet the new guest. Their father followed closely behind.
“Daniella!” Colin exclaimed. “I’m so glad you could make it.” He ushered me into the comfortable home. “Emily,” he called, “Daniella’s here!”
Emily dashed around the corner with a girlish squeal, her arms opened wide to draw me into a friendly hug. “I’ve missed you!” she cried out, giving me a rib-cracking squeeze, instantly making me feel welcome.
As we entered the living room, I was introduced to Colin’s brother, his wife and their two children. The twins lugged my bag of presents into the room from the front door while the baby crawled around the floor, curiously poking at the colourful wrappings. Putting the bag on the low table in front of the sofa, I asked if it would be all right to give the children their presents now. The little ones gathered around, clapping their hands in delighted anticipation, and Emily nodded in agreement. It may keep them quiet for a while whilst we caught up with each other. I had not anticipated the other children, so I had to get a little creative with the contents of the bag.
Reaching in, I inconspicuously removed the bright bows from the twins’ packages and withdrew the boxes, handing them to the boys. Placing my hands back into the bag, I clasped the bows and Transfigured them into two more small boxes containing appropriate presents for Colin’s young niece and nephew. There was a squeal of delight as the presents were opened, and the older children dashed off with their new toys. The baby watched in wonder and disappointment as the other children left. Scooping her onto my lap, I let her inquisitively look into the bag and helped her pull out the last package. Chubby little hands grasped the colourful ribbon that magically unfastened with the slightest pull. Pushing the paper aside and lifting the lid, the baby’s eyes widened as she saw the fluffy, stuffed bunny nestled in the wrappings. In awe, she delicately lifted the toy from the paper, studying it carefully, and then promptly stuffed the left ear into her mouth, eliciting a laugh from the adults. Adrianne stayed on my lap for a good part of the night. It felt good to have a child in my arms again. I had given up so much to work for the “cause”.
Christmas morning found me puttering around an empty, dreary safe house. I had decorated a little bit but my heart was no longer into it. Pinky had made bacon and eggs with toast and lemon tea for breakfast, and I poked at the food, not really very hungry. Severus still hadn’t sent word, and I was getting very concerned. By lunchtime, I had given up on waiting and decided to go to the one place that had always given me solace when I was in England. Apparating to the Radcliff Camera, I walked east on High Street until I reached my destination – the Botanical Gardens. Entering the warm dome, I inhaled deeply, absorbing the life forces of the plants. Wandering from chamber to chamber, I crouched to place my hand in the moist soil of the exotic plant section, feeling Mother Earth under my touch. The visitor’s bench was welcoming, and I sat with my eyes closed letting the power of the plants flow through my weary body. Slowly, I began to relax.
“It’s peaceful here, isn’t it,” a smooth, deep voice broke the silence.
Opening one eye, I cast a glance up at the intruder, and my lips twitched into a crooked smile. “Yes,” I said softly.
“Mind if I join you?” the voice asked.
I shifted on the bench to make room for the newcomer.
“Kind of depressing to be here all by yourself on Christmas day. No place else to go?”
I shook my head “no”.
“Why so sad?”
I sighed and opened my eyes, unshed tears shimmering beneath the lashes. I couldn’t speak and was slowly folded into the warmth of familiar arms and held until I steadied.
“How did you know I was here?” I whispered into the shoulder of a heavy, woollen overcoat.
“I didn’t. I like it here, too. I saw you place your hand on the earth and thought there was something wrong. What is it?”
I shook my head slowly against the broad chest. “It’s complicated.”
We sat in silence for a long while, his rough hand stroking the back of my head as it rested on his shoulder, soothing troubled nerves. If felt good to have this reassuring touch.
“Not going to fall asleep on me, are you?” The low chuckle made me smile.
Lifting my head and staring into the worn face of an old friend, I cupped his cheek with my hand and thanked him for the comfort. He smiled in return and placed a chaste kiss the tip of my nose. Rising and pulling me to my feet beside him, he looped my hand through the crook of his arm, and we wandered the gardens together for the remainder of the afternoon.
By late afternoon, I was feeling much better and accepted his invitation to dinner. The Red Lion was still open for business, and we found a quiet table in the back of the nearly deserted pub.
“So, you going to tell me what the problem is?” he pressed over dessert.
“Not much to say. I was expecting something to happen and was disappointed when it didn’t. I do get depressed every now and then, you know,” I quipped with a crooked smile.
“Don’t we all.” There was an understanding pause. “I’ve missed you,” he added uncertainly.
“It’s been a while,” I agreed.
“Too long.” His eyes were soft and weary.
I nodded sadly. “It doesn’t look like you’ve been taking your potion.”
“Belby cut me off last summer,” Remus replied.
“He what?” I expelled a bit too loudly. “How could he? We made a deal!”
Remus shrugged. “Not much I can do unless I want to make headlines in The Daily Prophet. “Werewolf Demands Wolfsbane – Threatens Creator”. ” He sat back in the wooden chair, exasperated.
I could feel my temper rising. “Belby agreed. Did you tell Headmaster Dumbledore? Can’t he do something?”
“I’ve mentioned it, and he’s had the Potions Master at the school make it for me on occasion but…”
“But what? Remus, I created that because of you. What does it matter who makes it as long as you get it?” I beseeched.
“The Potions Master there is an old schoolmate, from a rival house. We never got along. You know who he is. You’ve met before at the Wolfsbane unveiling. Snape.”
I knew who he was all right, but I didn’t think Remus would stop taking the potion because Severus was the one making it. “Is your contempt for him so great that you would sacrifice your health? Remus, that’s unreasonable.”
“I don’t hate him. I just don’t trust him. He’s a nasty, spiteful man who can hold a grudge longer than anyone I’ve ever known,” Remus began “I wouldn’t put it past him to make a “mistake”.”
As upset as I was with Severus, my angry rose as the suggestion that he would purposefully try to harm Remus based on a long-time grudge. I obviously didn’t know all of the circumstances.
“Look, I’ve got a room here on campus. Come on up and we’ll finish this. I want to hear why you feel this way, and I want to see if there’s anything I can do to help,” I encouraged. Although I hadn’t used the guest quarters since the faculty party, they were still available, and the campus was practically empty. No one would know.
Remus and I talked well into the night. He explained the history of animosity between the Marauders and Severus and the whole sorted story from his sixth year; of Sirius and James, the night of the full moon at the Whomping Willow and luring Severus into danger. It all spilled out, and, to me, it was obvious that both he and Severus had been pawns in a cruel plot. I remembered that incident. For weeks following, there had been a rift amongst the Marauder’s, and Severus skulked around the school angry and afraid, unwilling to speak of what had happened. According to Remus, James had saved Severus’ life at the last moment, thus creating a life debt that should have ended when James died. I finally understood why Severus felt so conflicted toward the Potter boy. It wasn’t just that Saxon would have been in the same year, but the debt to James had not been fulfilled. In his mind, he transferred it to the son. That, in addition to feeling guilty about passing along the overheard part of the prophecy, weighed on him greatly. There was another factor, but I wasn’t willing to tread there just yet.
As night gave way to the grey of early dawn, I managed to convince Remus to accept Severus’ unenthusiastic help, explaining that, as Potions Masters, we took an oath to preserve the integrity of the craft. As unpleasant as Severus was, he was too proud of his work to intentionally taint it. Remus finally relented and agreed to speak with Headmaster Dumbledore.
Remus fell asleep on the short sofa as the sun began to crack through the dull edges of morning, and I flopped onto the top of the hard bed in the tiny bedroom. Sleep came quickly but only lasted a few hours, the bells of St. Mary the Virgin Chapel ringing in morning service. We groggily rose, sheepishly straightening our rumpled clothes and bundling up against the cold winter wind that whipped through the campus. Bidding each other “good bye” at the Camera, I hugged my friend closely. He would always have a special place in my heart. Wishing him “good luck” and encouraging him to speak with the Headmaster, I kissed his cheek and Disapparated to the frosty backyard of the safe house.
The gravel path crunched under my feet as I made my way to the back door, and as I pushed my way in, Pinky raced into the kitchen, a look of worry turning to relief on her little face.
“Mistress is alright. Mistress is alright,” she cried, clinging to my knees, bulbous eyes brimming with tears.
I smiled at the little elf. “Of course I am. What made you think I wasn’t?”
“Mistress didn’t come home. Mistress has been gone a long time. Pinky was worried,” she answered as she released her grip.
“As was I,” a baritone voice angrily hissed from the kitchen doorway.
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