He wasn’t fast enough.
The curse caught him square in the chest, sending him head over heels and smashing him into the pock-marked stone wall. By the time he hit the floor, his wand had been snatched from his hand and his opponent was astride him, the tip of her wand tilting his chin up that he might better see her triumphant grin.
“Had enough?” Miranda purred, her gray eyes sparkling over him.
“Not nearly,” Severus growled back. “But you have.”
“I don’t know.” She playfully twirled her wand between her fingers, considering. “You won the last round and I won this one. Why don’t we say best two out of three?”
He put one long finger on the end of her wand and deliberately pushed it away from his throat. “Healer A’isha ordered you to limit yourself to one duel per day until your next appointment. We’ve already had two. It’s enough.”
“Spoilsport,” she murmured, rolling smoothly to her feet and tossing his wand back to him.
He caught it and got to his feet while she started her tedious routine of post-duel stretches. The simple dueling platform and the opposing banners emblazoned with the Slytherin and Thunderbird crests vanished, leaving a narrow, waist-high table behind. With an audible groan, Miranda climbed onto the table, lifting her arm for Severus to manipulate according to the Healer’s stern specifications.
“I’m still not sure which is worse; the physical exercises or the magical ones,” she grumbled, wincing as he held her arm in place a few seconds longer than the day pervious.
“Your spellwork seemed marginally less pedantic tonight,” he said, the encouragement clumsy in his mouth.
“How nice of you to say so.”
“Healer A’isha did order me to bolster your precarious spirits with regular doses of praise,” he said wryly, leaning on her leg until she stifled a groan. Healer A’isha had also warned him that he would come to hate these exercises more than Miranda did herself. It was one thing to endure pain—and yet another to inflict it on the person whose well-being was unfortunately bound up with one’s own sentimental affections.
“I was thinking I would move back to the cabin this weekend,” she said casually when he released the stretch.
“Were you?” Why was it that no matter how many times one rehearsed receiving disappointing news, it never dulled the pain when the blow actually fell?
“Yes.” She sucked in her breath as he leaned on her other leg.
“All the better for you to neglect your recovery.”
“With you and Rachel dogging me, how could I dare? Aaron’s going to help me move.”
“I see.” He released her leg and offered her a hand to help her sit up. It was shameful how pleased he was when she actually took it; he was like a dog slavering after its master for affection.
Part of the floor sunk away, melting into a clear blue pool of steaming water, and Miranda used her wand to painstakingly transfigure her clothing into a trim bathing suit. Spells that were once instantaneous now required her strictest attention and labor, but the fact that she was able to perform them at all was enough to hope that she would, in time, recover her powers completely. He stooped to pull off her boots—vanished footwear was so notoriously difficult to retrieve from nonbeing that it was rarely worth the risk of sending it thither. She gave a deep sigh as she slid into the water, and she laid her head back on the tiled floor, letting her eyes close and her arms drift.
“You can come in if you like,” she suggested without opening her eyes.
“I think not. You would only distract me from completing your exercises.” A chair materialized on the opposite side of the pool, and he settled himself into it. “Tell me when you are ready.”
“Are you angry with me?”
He was. “Of course not. Why would I be angry?”
“I wouldn’t have asked Aaron for help, but I didn’t want to impose on you any more than I already have.”
“You haven’t been imposing.” Although what else he wished to call her extended sojourn in his rooms he refused to admit.
She opened one eye and smiled at him. “Yes I have, don’t lie to me. But feel free to join in the fun. Rachel and Maggie are coming along to make dinner.”
“I fail to see how a baby would be of any use at making dinner.”
“Rachel can do anything with Maggie strapped to her back. Aaron says it’s a sight to behold.” She lifted her head off the tile and raised one hand out of the water, wordlessly summoning her wand. “I’m ready now.”
Severus conjured a golden ball the size of an orange and sent it spinning towards Miranda with a smooth wandstroke. She watched it, her brow furrowed in concentration. The ball flew towards her, unchecked until it was less than an arms-length away from her nose, when she managed to wordlessly send it back towards him. He lazily batted it with his magic, and this time she used hers to catch it in mid-air and stretch it into a length of rope, which she dropped into the water. With a flick of his wand, the rope shot out of the pool, transfigured now into a fish that splashed back under the water and swam towards Miranda, tickling her toes. She laughed and drew her wand through the air, causing the water to surge out of the pool and toss the fish up with it. Before it could land back in the water, she waved her wand again, and the fish transformed into a mangled half-avian, half-ichthyoid horror. It hit the tile next to the pool and flopped helplessly, until Severus waved his hand to vanish the mess.
“Well, that was better than yesterday,” Miranda said half-heartedly.
“It was. Most of the fish-bird’s organs were on the inside today rather than haphazardly arranged on its scales,” Severus remarked.
“I guess that’s true.”
Her frustration was palpable, and he went around the pool to sit on the cushion that appeared on the tile at her side. While his attempts at verbal encouragement tended to be as mangled as some of her recent transfiguration attempts, he had discovered that a well timed kiss served just as well, if not better. Her lips were a firm line of irritation when he captured them, but they quickly softened under his patient insistence, and when he pulled away to draw breath, she was smiling.
“So, will you come?” she asked.
Disappointment cut through the fog of tenderness that had gathered in his chest, but though he felt his jaw clench at the idea of her leaving, he heard himself saying, “It would seem there is nothing left for me to do but acquiesce.”
She caught his face between her warm, wet hands, and drew him down for another lingering kiss that fed both his anger and his tendre for her.
“Don’t be cross, Severus. I know we’ve both been looking forward to finally being on the same island at the same time, but we’ll drive each other crazy if we keep living in the same two rooms together. I really am so grateful to you for everything you’ve done, and I don’t know how I’m going to repay you, but…”
“That’s quite enough,” he interrupted. He did not care to listen to her thanks. “Will Saturday serve the purpose?”
“Saturday’s perfect. I’ll write to Aaron tonight and let him know.”
He helped her out of the water and hovered near her elbow while she arduously cast a drying charm on herself, and transfigured her bathing suit back into her trousers and tunic. She gave a jaw-splitting yawn when she finished and sat down on the table, allowing him to put her socks and boots back on her feet for the trek down to the dungeon. As usual, he exited the Room of Requirement first and, finding the hall empty, he rapped on the wall and started down to the dungeon. He was entering the stairwell when he heard Horace Slughorn’s voice in the hallway behind him.
“Why if it isn’t Miranda Rose!” Horace said pleasantly.
“Hello Horace,” Miranda replied in a bright, but weary tone. “Fancy finding you here. Are you visiting?”
“No, I’ve come out of retirement, I’m sorry to say. But someone has to teach these youngsters Potions, and Albus Dumbledore is a difficult man to say no to. To what do I owe the happy accident of seeing you this evening?”
“Albus Dumbledore, who else?”
“Who else indeed. Then you must know what I am talking about. Come into my office and have a nightcap with me. I can’t tell you how serendipitous this is! I was about to owl you with regards to a project…”
The door closed, shutting off the rest of Horace’s monologue. Severus briefly considered eavesdropping, but decided it wasn’t worth the bother. He had plenty of work waiting for him in his own office, and Miranda would likely tell him anything interesting that the crafty potions master said.
Or she wouldn’t. And there wasn’t a damned thing he could do about it.
“And it ended with me having to accept an invitation to his Christmas party,” Miranda said, suppressing a grunt as she flicked her wand at a book-filled crate. It crashed into the floor harder than she meant it to, but she kept the wand flicks coming lest Severus notice her tiring and order her to take a break. The books leapt jerkily out of the crate and floated to the shelves, lining up like weary soldiers returning home.
“Did you?” Aaron replied as he attempted to wrestle her turntable back into its desk drawer. “Woman, how did you get this blessed thing in here in the first place?”
“You have to talk nice to it.”
“I s’pose.” He swore under his breath as yet another corner refused to fit. “But a party’s not so bad. And I’ve heard Horace Slughorn knows how to throw ‘em.”
“I’ve heard that too; but a student party full of hormonal teenagers? What am I supposed to do, wilt along the wall with the chaperones?”
“Are you still complaining about Horace’s party?” Severus asked irritably, emerging from the newly cleaned potions closet. “I had thought you would not have minded keeping me company there.”
“I wouldn’t mind if I was allowed to act as though I knew you, especially considering how hard it is to get you to go out at all. But at least when we go to Prospero’s, you hold my hand.”
“I don’t believe I’ve ever held your hand,” he muttered, gathering the crate of her prescribed potions.
“A convenient lapse of memory.”
She didn’t hear whatever he shot back at her, as he covered his grumbling with returning to the potions closet and spending an inordinately long time unpacking and arranging it.
“Do you ever give that man a break?” Rachel chided from the stove where she was busily sautéing a rainbow of vegetables while Maggie tugged on her sleek black ponytail.
“If he can dish it, he can take it,” Miranda retorted, starting on another crate. “How are things at the Embassy?”
“Busy,” Aaron replied, “and complicated. Scrimgeour’s discouraging anyone from coming into or leaving the country. He’s trying to play it off like he’s got the whole Voldemort situation under control, and I do believe that he doesn’t want to look a fool by having all the foreigners high tailing it home. But I also think he’s scared shitless that if he keeps the borders open, he’s going to have a mess of Death Eaters and Death Eater sympathizers coming in to play. So he hasn’t exactly shut them down, but they ain’t exactly open either.”
“What does Robert think about that?”
“He’ll play along if he gets what he wants out of it. Take that you demon-spawn!” Aaron whooped, slapping the turntable as it finally snapped into place.
“What does he want?”
Aaron started flipping through Miranda’s records in search of some appropriate victory music.
“For now what he wants is permission to run his own Aurors to protect the Americans in the country.”
“Really? That’s never happened before. And Scrimgeour allowed it?”
“He did. And Robert’s champing at the bit to get ahold of you. I reckon he wants you on the team.”
The book that Miranda was directing onto the shelf clattered to the floor, and she groaned inwardly as she recast the charm to send it back to its place.
“That’s flattering. I don’t know that I want to be an Auror, but I would at least consider it.”
“Not at the current moment,” Severus snapped, returning to the room to glare at her. “And I believe that it is time for you to sit down.”
“I will when I finish this crate.” His glare darkened and she protested, “I’m fine! I can finish a crate, it won’t kill me.”
“Your left shoulder is high,” he said in that quiet, angry tone of his.
“Your left shoulder. It rides high when you are tired and forcing your magic. It’s your tell.”
She grinned in spite of herself. “I didn’t realize you knew about tells.”
“One of the few useful things my father bothered himself to teach me.”
The set of his jaw told her that arguing the point would be neither useful nor entertaining and—to her chagrin—he was right; she was forcing her magic. She threw up her hands in defeat and said, “Fine, you win. I’ll hold the baby.”
He continued to watch her sternly until she had liberated Maggie from the flower-patterned baby-carrier on Rachel’s back and was settled on the new leather sofa in front of the fire as if he expected her to covertly thwart his orders the instant he looked away. She sank into the comfortable cushions and contented herself with bouncing the fine, plump child and replying to her happy babbling as though it were intelligible conversation. The old sofa had gotten lost somewhere in the shuffle of chaos at St. Mungo’s, and the Lees had insisted on replacing it. Miranda had attempted to decline the generosity at first, but she had to admit that her friends had a talent for selecting furniture that was as functional as it was beautiful.
She was glad when Severus finally took over her unpacking and ceased to watch her with his piercing eyes. She doubted that her friends had noticed it, but the sorrow flickering in those inky depths was all too apparent to her.
After the ramen had been eaten, the tea all drunk, and the baby nursed, the Lees were making ready to leave in a flurry of cloaks, scarves, and mittens.
“When’s your next appointment?” Rachel asked while she deftly wrapped the sleeping baby on her chest and settled her cloak snugly around them both.
“Monday morning,” Miranda replied. “If it goes well, I won’t have to go back until after Christmas.”
“Come by after you’re done. We can have lunch.”
“That sounds wonderful. I’ll see you then.”
She kissed her friends’ cheeks and waved them away. Severus kept to the background, still arranging books and bottles on their shelves; but he did trouble himself to return Rachel’s good-bye and shake Aaron’s hand. The Lees turned back to wave when they reached the end of the lane before disappearing with a loud pop. Miranda closed the door after them, and was surprised to see Severus shrugging into his cloak.
“Oh, were you going home?” she asked, trying to keep the disappointment she felt from showing.
His brow furrowed, but his eyes were blank. “I…had thought so.”
She smiled quickly and reassured him, “Of course. You must be dying to have some peace and quiet.”
He ran a long finger lightly over her cheekbone and jawline. The contrast of the roughness of his calloused finger and the gentleness of the touch made her shiver.
“I can stay if you would prefer it,” he offered quietly.
“No,” she said, a little too quickly. “I’ll be fine. I can’t wait to have a few minutes to myself.”
“As you like.” He withdrew his hand and reached for the doorknob, but not before she saw that flash of sorrow again.
Guilt prompted her to put her hand over his and soften the blow. “You know, I doubt I’ll feel much like cooking dinner tomorrow, after being spoiled by the house elves and Rachel for the last six weeks. There’s a little pub in Shoreditch that serves our kind. The Queen Mab, say eight o’clock?”
He smiled wryly at her and he kissed her brow before replying, “That would be agreeable. I shall have time to finish my Koestler while I wait for you.”
“I’ll be early, just to spite you.”
“I suppose there is a first time for everything. Until then.”
He left before the silence that fell between them could turn awkward, and disappeared at the end of the lane without looking back. She shut the door and wished that she could shut out the confusing web of emotions tangled up with her dour Englishman as easily. With a sigh, she wandered through her cabin, running her fingers over the roll-top desk; the books and the barware; the pictures on the mantel. When she came to a window, she threw it open, welcoming the chill of the night air as it blew in off the Channel. Soon there was a delicious cross breeze, and she perched herself on her bed, leaning on the window-frame and gazing out over the blackness of the water. The air in her cabin had been stagnant, like the air in neglected places. It had been far too long since she had been home.
Home? She pulled out a cigarette and lit it with a snap of her fingers, wondering when she had come to think of this place as home. While it was true that she had a habit of referring to wherever she laid her head for the night as home; it was also true that at some point during her Romanian adventure, she’d caught herself thinking of Britain as home in the way that she usually thought of her parent’s farm in Edgewood as home.
She blew out a line of smoke, watching the winter wind send it dancing through the moonlight, and refused to ponder the reasons why.
“How did it go?” Rachel asked on Monday as she, with Maggie strapped to her chest, and Miranda queued up behind a long line of hungry Embassy workers.
“I feel like I was hit by a truck, so pretty well,” Miranda replied, grimacing as she rolled her shoulders in a fruitless attempt to relieve their soreness.
“Did Healer A’isha say you would be alright at home? That you’ll be able to do all of your exercises?”
“Yes mother. She said it was just fine, signed me a note and everything. Besides, Severus will come by often enough to bother me about it, and he’s sterner than any of the Healers about training.”
“That’s good to know. Maybe between the two of us, we can keep you on track. You know you’re a terrible patient.”
“That’s fair. But I also know when I have to buckle down and work. Going into the Iele’s realm drained me more than I could have imagined possible.”
“Was it their realm, or their guards?”
“I think it was both—and rather than either—or. It’s been almost two months and I’m still not where I want to be.”
Rachel gave her arm a reassuring squeeze, and Maggie imitated her mother, catching hold of a lock of Miranda’s silver hair. “You’ll get there. It just takes time.”
She was absolutely sick of hearing that. “So everyone keeps telling me. What do you feel like having today?”
The creeping queue finally inched under the sloping, art deco doorways, and the cafeteria opened out before them, a gleaming, stainless steel cornucopia of choices. The shining walls were etched with enchanted scenes of vaudeville routines for the entertainment of the diners eating at the long farmhouse tables. Squeezed into the cavernous space was a dizzying array of American delicacies; from fried chicken and waffles, to jambalaya, to Boston cream pie and everything in between.
“I usually get the meatloaf and apple pie here. I’m boring,” Rachel said. “You?”
“It’s been forever since I’ve had some real pizza, and after that hellish check-up this morning I think it’s been long enough.”
“Good choice! New York style, right?” Rachel stuck her tongue out at her friend in anticipation of her answer.
Miranda stuck out her tongue in response before gasping, “Blasphemy! Chicago style is the only thing that qualifies as pizza in my book. Meet you at the usual spot?”
The ladies parted to join the queues at their chosen kitchens, and Miranda soon lost Rachel and Maggie in the crowd. By the time she was close enough to see the handsome brick wood-burning oven, the morning tasks were beginning to make their effects known. She leaned heavily on the shining countertop, tapping her bright yellow tray with shaking fingers. Food would help—the sooner the better—and then maybe she’d ask Rachel to let her come down to the Lees’ flat for a nap. A long nap.
“Here y’go,” said a round-faced youth who seemed far too young to have a job.
“Thanks,” she murmured, taking the red hot plate and quickly setting it on the tray next to her lemonade. Scooping the whole thing up, she turned and swayed dangerously as a wave of dizziness hit her. She wanted to growl with frustration as she fell back against the counter. This whole recovering from almost dying business was not entertaining at all.
“May I help you, Miss?” A smooth, polite voice and a pair of firm hands steadied Miranda and her tray before either of them went toppling to the floor. “I know I’m always a mess when I need to eat.”
“No, thank you, I’m fine,” Miranda protested halfheartedly, looking down into his pleasant face.
He would not be deterred. “Let me do it so I can tell my Mama I helped a nice lady. Where to?”
“I…well, thank you. This way.”
It was all she could do to keep herself steady as they crossed the crowded room. Her stomach was churning and she was starting to see spots on the edge of her vision. Clearly, she would be of no use to anyone until she put some food in her stomach. The noise of dishes crashing, people chattering, and the squeaking of the moving pictures on the walls coalesced into an cacophonous whirlpool that threatened to suck her under.
By the time they reached the table in the corner, Miranda’s last nerve was hanging by a single, fraying thread. Her knight errant set down the tray and pulled out a chair for her; which she all but collapsed into. The duo on the wall behind her yammered about the eternal question (Who’s playing first? That’s right.) and she started shoveling steaming pizza into her mouth so quickly that it burned.
Half a slice and a few gulps of lemonade later, she was capable of behaving as though she had not been born in a barn. She wiped her hands and face with her checked napkin and said ruefully, “Thank you for your help. I had a rough time at magical therapy this morning.”
He took the hand she extended and shook it firmly. “It was my good deed for the day. I hear that those Healers at St. Mungo’s are the devil when they’ve got hold of you.”
“You’ve heard right.”
She took a daintier bite of her pizza and studied her good Samaritan. He had a handsome face, complimented by a close-cut mustache and goatee. His kinky black hair was peppered through with silver, although his warm, copper-colored skin was unlined. His hands were large for his height and his suit was smartly cut and fitted closely to his muscular body. It lacked the sort of flamboyant accents of color that Aaron favored—this was clearly a man who preferred to advertise his taste by its subtle excellence.
She swallowed the last bite of her first slice and decided she really ought to introduce herself. “I’m Miranda Rose, by the way.”
His golden eyes lit up like Christmas had come early. “Are you? I’ve been itching to meet you! Robert Walker, at your service.”
Miranda blinked once before laughing with surprise. “Likewise. I’m only sorry to have met you when I’m in such a state. You must think me weak as a kitten.”
“No, Aaron’s told me all about what happened. You’re a regular danger girl.”
“Robert! It’s good to see you,” Rachel said, balancing a tray on her hip while Maggie attempted to overturn it from her perch.
“How’s my second favorite Mama?” Robert stood to give Rachel a peck on the cheek and deftly remove her tray from Maggie’s flailing arms. He deposited it on the table, and flicked his wand towards an alcove, which brought a high chair floating towards them. There was a small fuss over getting Maggie settled and providing her with food to taste and throw on the floor before conversation could continue.
“Aaron will be sorry he missed the pleasure of formally introducing you to each other,” Rachel commented after her first bite of meatloaf.
“I’ll be sure to give him a hard time about it then,” Robert replied. “What year were you at Ilvermorny Miranda? I may call you Miranda, yes?”
“Sure, if I can call you Robert,” Miranda agreed easily.
“I wish that you would. You graduated in ’83, same as Aaron, if I remember right.”
“I did. Same house too.”
“That’s right. You were a little too old and a little too young to know any of my siblings then.”
“How many do you have?”
“I have four older brothers myself. All No-Majs though.”
“My, you are special! The only girl, the only witch, and the baby. Your brothers must’ve given you hell.”
“They did.” Maggie had finished gumming her crumbs of pizza, and Miranda gamely cut up a few more for her.
“Was Professor Rodriguez still stiff as a board when you were there?”
Miranda arched an eyebrow. “He was my head of House and my favorite teacher. I thought he was very personable. Did you not find him so?”
Robert shrugged, his attention apparently half on the game he was playing with the baby. Maggie was tossing her spoon on the floor and laughing delightedly when he sent it floating back up to her tray with a lazy wand flick. “He and I crossed wands from time to time. How’s motherhood treating you, Rachel?”
“It’s good! I’m exhausted and it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it’s good. I’ve even been able to find time to get back to translating lately.”
“Your captive audience will be happy to hear that,” Miranda observed.
“Feel free to tell him that I’m starting with the potions text.” Rachel said before digging back into the meatloaf.
“If I may be so rude as to pry into something that’s probably not my business, how is your bill of health?” Robert asked, his attention still on the spoon-throwing baby.
“It’s getting there,” Miranda replied carefully. “Still not a hundred percent, but I think I’ll be cleared for light duty after Christmas.”
“You must be raring to go. How long have you been off?”
“Long recoveries are the worst.” He charmed the spoon to twirl on its handle on Maggie’s highchair tray and turned the full force of his gaze back to Miranda. “I’m going to stop beating around the bush, since I’m sure that Aaron’s already tipped you off to the fact that I want to hire you.”
“He has mentioned it. What exactly do you want to hire me for?”
The glint in his eyes now reminded her more of a dragon than of Christmas. “I want a team of MACUSA Aurors, and I want you to be one of them. I’ll be partnering you with Aaron—I hear tell that the two of you are unstoppable.”
“Nobody’s unstoppable,” Miranda said lightly. “And I’ve never actually been an Auror. That was Aaron’s old line of work.”
“I’m aware of that, but you’ve got the experience. All I have to do is pull a few strings and we’ll have you vetted in no time.”
“What’s the assignment?”
“Primarily, you’ll be keeping an eye on our people in the UK. There’s all sorts of nasty things afoot these days, as I’m sure a smart lady like you is well aware. We’ll also be assisting Scrimegeour on a case-by-case basis.”
She finished her slice and studied Robert’s relaxed posture, finally understanding what Aaron meant when he said that the ambassador was ‘hard to read.’
“I’m going to be honest, I refuse to be deputized as an Auror. It’s a matter of principle.”
Robert let out a rumbling laugh and reassured her, “I expect we can work around that with a little creative thinking. May I send you a contract to look over?”
“Sure. Never hurts to look.”
“That’s what I like to hear.”
“Are you always this accommodating?”
“Only when it’s for someone worth having. And I anticipate that you will be well worth having.”
She couldn’t contain her smile. “Such flattery! No wonder you’re the ambassador.”
“You’ve found out my secret.” He stood and bowed to each of the ladies in turn. “Rachel, Miranda, Magdalene, thank you for your time and I hope you enjoy the rest of your afternoon. Look for an owl later this week, Miranda.”
“I will. Nice to meet you, Robert.”
He strolled off, meandering through the cafeteria and pausing to talk with various people. Miranda watched him until he was out of sight, turning his proposal over in her mind.
“What do you think of him?” Rachel asked, pulling Maggie out of the highchair and settling her down to nurse.
“He’s interesting, that’s for certain.”
“Are you going to take his offer?”
“I’ll think about it. I’m surprised that you let Aaron go back to the Auror life. I thought it was too dangerous for your liking.”
Rachel gave Maggie a finger to hold, and snuggled her a little closer. “I don’t really like it, but it’s true that these are dangerous times. We all have to do what we can to help. And I’d feel better knowing you were out there with him.”
“I meant what I said about not taking the Auror’s oath. Too many strings.”
“Sometimes strings aren’t a bad thing,” Rachel observed mildly. “The right ones can hold you up.”
“That may be true,” Miranda agreed, absently running a finger around the rim of her lemonade glass. “But the wrong ones can strangle you.”