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African Violets by Alopex
Chapter 1 : How it Happened
Rating: 15+Chapter Reviews: 12

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Written for Staff Challenge 4, in which the task was to fatally poison a favourite character.

Disclaimer:  The Harry Potter universe belongs to JK Rowling.  See the site's disclaimer for additional details.

The men from the Ministry come on the second day after his funeral. When she answers the door, they show her shiny badges and crisp parchment rolls stamped with wax seals that prove they’re part of the Magical Plant Removal Squad with Herbological Damage Control in the Department of Magical Accidents and Catastrophes. Before she’s quite finished deciphering their titles, she finds them making themselves comfortable around her kitchen table. She doesn’t remember inviting them in, but she offers them tea anyway, which they wave off.

While she waits for them to speak, she pinches a dry leaf off the African violet sitting on the windowsill and shreds it. The taller one speaks first, and she learns they’re here about the plant. For a moment, she is surprised they know anything about it, but then she thinks St. Mungo’s must be required to report such things to the Ministry. She hasn’t decided what should be done about the plant yet, so she’s relieved the men are here to take it away. After they show her some more parchments with wax seals, she scrawls her signature on the necessary lines without reading the forms properly, and the fatter one speaks up for the first time, asking her if she would be so kind as to show them to the garden.

Even though the man phrases it like a request, he isn’t really asking for her help or permission. She can tell he is used to giving orders and being obeyed, because even when he pretends he is making a request, it feels like an order. A part of her is taken aback at being politely ordered about in her own home by a chubby man young enough to be her grandson, especially when the man is sitting in his chair. But then, she does want the plant gone, so she only hesitates a moment or two before leading the way.

Holding her breath, she pushes open the back door, grimacing when it lets out a dreadful squeak. He never had the chance to oil the hinges this spring. Firmly, she pushes the thought aside and steps out onto the garden path. She walks briskly, without stopping to check if the men from the Ministry are following or not. She can’t hear their footsteps, but she doesn’t know what kind of shoes they’re wearing. Her own click smartly on the paving stones. The clicks remind her of a clock ticking—or a heart beating—and counting off the seconds until something is gone forever.

An overturned chair marks the place where he sat the day it happened. When she reaches it, she stoops down and sets it upright, gripping the back for support. The weathered wood feels soft and papery beneath her fingers. She knows he used to cast a Varnishing Charm on his chair each fall, but now she wonders if he’d forgotten to do it this past year or if the chair simply had grown too old for the charm to stick. The idea that he had remembered the charm but it wore off with his death is one she pretends had never occurred to her.

Today is the warmest day of spring so far, and all she can think is that he should have lived to see it. Spring had always been his favourite time of year. He loved to see leaves unfurling, flowers blossoming, and everything becoming green again. As she stands in his garden, gripping his chair, she can picture his round, boyish face glowing with excitement as he exclaims over his latest hybrid or a particularly plump vegetable. He never would have wasted a chance to be outside in his garden on a beautiful day such as this one, which is warm but not hot, with just a hint of breeze to tickle her hair.

His presence is everywhere in this garden. She can feel it in the chair she’s gripping, she can smell it in the fragrant roses he so loved, she can hear it splashing in the fountain he built without magic one spring, and she can see it in the profuse tangle of new growth that he ordinarily would have pruned back by now. Under his loving care, the garden had always bloomed early and long, growing so quickly he had to prune nearly every day. She surveys the tangle with some dismay, wondering how she’ll be able to keep up without him this year.

The sound of a throat clearing jolts her, and she returns to herself to find the men from the Ministry watching her. She wonders how long she was lost in her thoughts, how long they’ve been staring at her. They look concerned, and the taller one calls her ma’am and asks if she’s all right. She nods, firmly to convince herself too, and indicates the tangle of leaves in front of her. The plant must be somewhere in there, since this is where he was sitting when it happened.

The men retrieve shrunken packs from the pockets of their robes, return them to normal size, and begin unpacking gardening tools and various other implements she doesn’t recognize. She eyes the unfamiliar equipment with some trepidation and reminds them to be careful. The inane remark slips out automatically, though she feels foolish afterward because the chubby man sniffs and glances pointedly through his goggles at the heavy-duty gloves and other protective gear they’ve already begun donning.

She stands watching for a few minutes, hugging her elbows and biting her lip, but the men seem neither to require nor desire her presence. Feeling a bit useless, she wanders back toward the house. She eases the door open slowly, but it squeaks anyway. It squeaks again when she snatches it shut behind her. If anything, the squeak seems louder than ever. Its volume—or perhaps her awareness of it—seems to increase proportionally to her desire to avoid hearing it.

She takes refuge in the kitchen. The kitchen has always been her domain, but even in the kitchen she can’t escape his presence. There is the chair he always sat in; there is the old trivet he bought her for their fifth anniversary; there is his favorite coffee mug; there are his African violets in the windowsill; and there is the window through which she spent hours—years—watching him in the garden. She props her elbows on the windowsill in her usual looking-out posture. Today, instead of seeing him, she sees the men from the Ministry through the window. They have finished setting out their tools and have begun prodding at the tangle with their wands. They have a brisk, businesslike air about them, which is all wrong for his garden.

Outside, the breeze has picked up a bit, dancing through the new, green leaves and ruffling the men’s hair. On the day it happened, a similar breeze had ruffled his hair, too, as he sat out in the garden. His white hair had fluttered—almost like a flag of surrender, she thought suddenly. The hair had been white for half a lifetime, it seemed, but until this past winter, she hadn’t noticed how thin it was becoming.

His hair wasn’t the only thing that had grown thin over the winter. He’d always been a little round, even stout starting in his middle age. The Healers had told her he needed to lose weight after his heart attack, so she’d put him on a special diet per their instructions. He hadn’t lost much weight on it—she rather suspected he sneaked snacks behind her back—but after two bouts of pneumonia that had landed him in St. Mungo’s, he’d become alarmingly thin. The Healers had her put him on another special diet, this one for gaining weight. That one didn’t seem to work either.

Despite his new frailty and a deep, persistent cough, he was determined to sit out in his garden when spring arrived. He always checked all his plants in the springtime, and it was a ritual not to be left by the wayside because of mere trifles such as heart attacks and pneumonia, especially not after he’d missed most of the autumn gardening season. Though she’d worried over his cough, she thought it would do him good to be in his garden, so she hadn’t protested.

Now she wishes she had. If she’d kept him indoors, there wouldn’t be two men poking around in his garden, searching for every last trace of that horrid plant. She wouldn’t have heard the door squeak that afternoon. She wouldn’t have rushed into the hall to see him dripping blood and muttering something about the Venemous Tentacula she thought she’d bullied him into getting rid of. If she’d kept him indoors, there wouldn’t be a freshly dug grave in his family plot. None of it would have happened if she’d kept him indoors.

But she had allowed him to go out, and so she heard the door and saw his diminished frame looking too small in his old clothes even though she’d taken them in. She saw his white face and, most horribly, she saw the blood dripping to the floor. Wrinkling her nose against the tang of the blood, she helped him to the kitchen and fetched her healing kit.

She dabbed on some Disinfecting Potion first before carefully applying a drop of Essence of Dittany to each bite mark. The wounds had knitted together quickly, though not so quickly as they usually did. Probably because of his weakened immune system, she decided. Finally, she tipped a dose of Venemous Tentacula antidote down his throat. Some angry red streaks remained around the fresh pink skin, but she had treated enough of his Tentacula bites to know those would fade within six hours.

Only they didn’t. When she checked his hand before bed, the streaks looked angrier if anything. She pressed her hand against his forehead, but he had no fever as was normal with Tentacula bites. He was no longer a young man, and if the Dittany hadn’t acted as quickly, perhaps it was to be expected that the antidote would take longer as well. She gave him another dose of antidote to be on the safe side, and they both went to bed. Though he slept fitfully that night, she didn’t think much of it—all winter his cough had kept both of them up at night.

The African violet on the windowsill catches her eye again. It is dying, or perhaps it is already dead. He had always looked after the houseplants, but she’d been forced to care for them during his stays in St. Mungo’s. Mostly she’d done all right, but even though she followed all his instructions, the African violet suffered under her care. She wonders if African violets are like dogs that yearn after their absent masters.

The men from the Ministry are standing on the garden path. They seem to be having a discussion, or more likely, an argument. The fatter one keeps using a trowel to gesture at something in the thicket. The taller one points with a wand and shakes a cloth sack in the other man’s face. They finally come to an agreement and wade back into the tangle. They kneel, and she can only see the backs of their heads.

If she stands just so, the African violet’s pot covers up their heads, and she can pretend they don’t exist. That’s what she’d tried to do that night—pretend he wasn’t tossing and turning and keeping her awake. Perhaps if she hadn’t been so cross about it, she would have paid more attention. If she’d paid more attention, she might have realized he got up for water more often than usual. If she’d simply asked him if he was all right, she might have noticed how clammy his skin was becoming, how red and itchy the bite marks, and he might have told her he was having chest pains. If she hadn’t pretended to be asleep, perhaps she could have gotten him to St. Mungo’s in time.

Instead, it had been too late. She didn’t know it until later, but it was already too late by the time they went to bed. It probably was too late the instant he was bitten. She didn’t know it then, though. Her first clue that it was too late was the thump from the bedroom. She’d paused in frying the bacon and called out. There was no response, which was odd, so she walked back to the bedroom, where she saw him collapsed on the floor at his side of the bed. Crying in alarm, she rushed to him and felt for a pulse, but she couldn’t find one. 

She rushed to the fireplace, knelt, and Floo’d St. Mungo’s. She was greeted by a calm receptionist type who treated her very kindly. Within moments, the witch told her help was on the way and to be sure her fireplace was unblocked. Before she’d finished brushing the soot from her hair, a team of medi-wizards burst into the house and whisked him away. Pausing to grab her purse, she quickly followed and found herself in a crowded, noisy room.

Someone rushing by told her to unblock the fireplace, so she moved away and began searching the room for her husband. People kept bumping into her; she seemed to be in the way. She kept snagging sleeves and asking where her husband was, but everyone was in such a big hurry they all pulled away without answering. She finally made her way to a desk where another calm receptionist was sitting. The witch consulted an impossibly long roll of parchment and informed her that her husband was in treatment for heart failure induced by poisoning. The witch then pointed her to a smaller, quieter room where she could wait for further news.

She sank down in one of the uncomfortable chairs, twisting her handkerchief in her trembling hands. Heart failure induced by poisoning. She should have given him another dose of Tentacula antidote during the night! She peeped at the other occupants of the room and wondered if anyone else was waiting for news on a relative suffering heart failure induced by poisoning. Probably not.

On a low table before her were several old copies of Witch Weekly and Quidditch Illustrated. She shifted the pile aside and found a year-old issue of The Quibbler, which she opened to an article on the Crumple-Horned Snorkack. The silence in the room, broken only by the occasional turning of a page or a muffled cough, was maddening, and she found herself reading the first sentence over and over before she had to give up because she couldn’t see the words through her swimming eyes. It seemed like ages but probably was only half an hour or so until someone came to the door and called her name.

It is the taller man from the Ministry, who asks if they can borrow one of the pots stacked near the garden shed. She agrees and squeaks the door shut again. The door at St. Mungo’s didn’t squeak. She hadn’t even heard it open. She felt a strange mixture of relief and dread. She wanted to know what was happening with her husband, but she dreaded hearing bad news, as she was sure it would be.

The news turned out to be worse than she thought. She could scarcely believe her ears when the Healer told her he hadn’t been bitten by a Venemous Tentacula at all. She protested that she’d treated enough of his bites to know what one looked like, thank you very much, but the Healer insisted that while the bite wound pattern was characteristic of a juvenile Venemous Tentacula, the venom isolated from his blood had no known antidote. Even a bezoar wouldn’t help him now, not with the damage to his heart.

The Healer led her to his room, where he looked to be resting peacefully. She was greatly relieved to see his chest rising and falling, but when she mentioned it, the Healer looked grave and told her it was only a matter of time. All they could do for him now was make sure he was comfortable and not in pain. She stumbled to the seat beside the bed and took his hand, waiting for him to look at her and tell her everything would be fine.

But he hadn’t looked at her, and he hadn’t told her everything would be fine. He had never woken again. She sat by his bedside for several hours, watching as he began to struggle for breath. She willed him to take deep breaths, but despite her mental exhortations, he stopped breathing about four that afternoon. She never had the chance to say good-bye.

She looks out the window and notices the men from the Ministry are packing up their equipment. They walk around to the front without coming inside, and she stares at the place they’d been. Without them to distract her gaze, the African violet’s pot seems to increase in size until it is the only thing she can see. Suddenly, she can’t bear the dead leaves and wilted blossoms anymore. She seizes the pot and rushes to catch the men before they Apparate away. Panting, she pushes the pot into the fatter one’s arms. He protests and tries to hand it back, but she refuses to take it.

“Please,” she says. “Take this away too.”

He is quiet for several moments before he nods reluctantly. “As you wish, Mrs. Longbottom.”

A/N:  I struggled mightily with this story, and this final version is extremely different from the original.  I'm not especially pleased with the way I handled having two different "times" in this story.  Your thoughts and comments are appreciated.

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