"I don't understand." Mary Sue stood in in the great hall, her purple suitcase pulled up close enough for her to lean on for support. "We're only three weeks into summer vacation!"
"This doesn't happen often, dear, but it's . . . not unheard-of," Professor Potsdam said. "Sometimes with wildseed families, the magic is stronger than the non-magic-users can handle. Most only forget the magical elements of their child's life, but every once in a while the forgetting spell has more of an effect than it's supposed to, and the parents forget about their child entirely. Even when it's only temporary, non-magical authorities tend to get involved and it gets thoroughly messy. We can't risk it." She softened her tone at Mary's defeated look. "It's not necessarily forever, my dear. I promise we're trying our best to figure out how to reverse the damage, but for right now it's best if you stay here at the school."
Mary had to concentrate hard to keep the tears at bay. Yes, she had secretly wished she might have the opportunity to stay and possibly see more of her husband (husband, still such an odd thought!) - but after a year of school, all she really wanted to do was to go home and be part of her family again. A family who didn't even remember her now.
"Seeing as you'll be a sophomore next year," Professor Potsdam continued, "I think it may be best if we go ahead and set you up in the wing for the sophomore Horses. There are a few other students here for the summer, but you'll have the wing to yourself for the next two months." She paused, then nonchalantly added, "Of course, Hieronymous is here as well – if the two of you wish to work out another arrangement, no one would think oddly of it."
"Oh, no, I . . . he wouldn't want that," Mary stammered. Yes, they had exchanged a few letters since that confusing evening during the May dance, but neither of them had felt particularly comfortable letting any emotion show. Hieronymous was just as dry and sarcastic on paper as he was in person – something to which she hadn't yet figured out how to respond. They couldn't even write to each other without awkwardness – how could Professor Potsdam think they'd share an apartment?
Professor Potsdam smiled indulgently. "It's your choice, dear. Here, let me walk you to your room."
It was strange, being alone in an empty room in an empty hallway. Mary spent the first two days alternating between unpacking and sitting on her bed staring out the window. An older boy she didn't know came to the room with food the second morning, under orders from Professor Potsdam, but she couldn't bring herself to introduce herself to anyone new. He muttered something, left the food on the floor outside her door, and departed.
The knock on the third morning wasn't entirely unexpected. Mary was debating whether she should answer or not – she really was hungry – when she heard the voice she had been dreaming about for ages.
"Mary, if you don't come out and eat something, I'm going to unlock that door and come in there after you." He jiggled the doorknob threateningly.
She glanced down at her blue-and-green frog-themed pajamas – definitely not what she wanted to be wearing when seeing her husband for the first time in almost a month! She jumped off the bed and dove for her dresser, but her husband was faster. There was a muffled bang, a dark cloud filtering through the keyhole, and then Professor Hieronymous Grabiner was standing in her bedroom.
"I . . ." His awkward glance at her pajamas made Mary blush, but she couldn't think of anything to say. "I've missed you" would have been too forward, but "Sorry I'm not really dressed" would have been too . . . something else.
He instead kept his eyes studiously upward toward the ceiling as he set down the breakfast tray he was carrying and walked over to the window to look out over the lawn. "I'm sorry about your family," he finally said. "I've brought something to eat."
Mary quickly pulled on her robe over her pajamas and patted ineffectively at her hair. She looked like she hadn't left her bed in three days because, well, she really hadn't.
That was the best she was likely to do. Taking a deep breath, she crossed over to the window to stand next to him and watch the birds hop around on the path outside. "Thank you," she said. "I guess I haven't been all that hungry lately."
"Here," he said, and with a flick of his wand and a sparkle of blue magic in the air, he had moved one of the empty desks to the middle of the room, between two of the beds, to act as a makeshift table. He quickly set out the food – biscuits and butter, two kinds of toast, an assortment of fruit, a small platter of bacon and sausage, and a bowl of scrambled eggs. And place settings for two. He laid out the silverware swiftly and neatly, as if the exact placement of one's glass to one's butter knife was something he had known since birth. And maybe he had, with his background.
"I hoped – would it be all right if I ate with you?" he asked. "Professor Potsdam and I have been worried."
Mary nodded, still finding it hard to say anything when faced with Hieronymous right there in front of her. He was in his school robes as usual, but he had abandoned his hat and the difference was striking. She found herself wondering what his hair felt like – would it be soft to the touch?
Eating was safer. They ate for a few minutes in silence before he cleared his throat and ventured a topic.
"So I've been doing some research into the problems with the memory spell affecting your parents–"
"You're helping me?" Mary asked, shocked out of her contemplation.
"Is it that surprising?"
"No, I just . . ." She looked down at her plate. "I really appreciate it, that's all."
"Oh." Was that disappointment in his voice? "Well as I was saying, I've been doing some research into the memory spell. It's very complicated magic, as I'm sure you can imagine, but oddly enough there are very few instances of this sort of thing happening. There have been only three at this school in my lifetime, and merely a handful elsewhere as well."
"Did the others, did they . . . get better?"
He sighed. "It's not that easy. Some do seem to get better fairly quickly – within a few days, in one case, and within two weeks in another. They appear to recall their student in flashes, specific memories of activities done together. In those cases, the student and the family usually start by writing letters to each other during the term and by the next break the student is able to go home again without incident."
She could hardly bear to ask, but . . . "What about the other cases?"
"Those are more complicated." He pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes. "If the parents don't start to recover their memories of their student within a few weeks, it's usually deemed in the student's best interest to make the break permanent."
"Why? How could that possibly be in anyone's best interest?" Mary knew she was shouting, but she didn't care.
"Not so loud, if you please – I've been up for three days straight researching this and I have a massive headache as it is." He took a deep breath, then continued, "Sometimes it's not safe anymore. There was one instance in which the student returned home for Thanksgiving and his parents summoned the police, thinking there was a burglar attempting to get into their home. They couldn't remember anything about their son. That's something the magic world prefers to avoid, for obvious reasons. But to answer your previous question, in some cases the memory loss appears to be long-term. It would be cruel to send a student home to parents who may or may not remember eir."
"No," Mary whispered. All the air seemed to have left the room. She didn't even realize she had fallen backward onto the bed until Hieronymous leapt up and darted around the desk-turned-table with impressive agility to sit beside her.
"Stupid girl . . . really shouldn't starve yourself like this," he groused under his breath as he slipped his arm between her shoulder and the bed and eased her back to a sitting position.
". . . not stupid," Mary muttered. "Just hungry."
"Then eat." He selected a strawberry from her plate and held it up to her lips. "I don't want you fainting on me again like you did at the mall last year."
Mary leaned forward a fraction and gingerly accepted the strawberry into her mouth. He had unusually long fingers, she realized. Strange, how she had never really noticed his hands before now. She wondered idly whether having long fingers helped with playing the flute. Before he could object, she reached out and captured one of his hands in her own, holding his larger palm up to her smaller one.
"You have very long fingers," she offered lamely.
"I've never given my fingers much thought," he said. He hesitated, then twisted their joined hands so her fingertips rested on his upturned palm. "Your hands are . . . very soft." He blinked, then let go of her hand abruptly. "I'm sorry. It was not my intention to further anything . . . inappropriate between the two of us. I apologize if I've offended you."
Mary felt the corners of her mouth twitch upward – her first smile since returning to school. "Hieronymous, you're not going to offend me. Although I get the impression you're not used to apologizing to anyone so much."
"I'm not," he agreed gruffly.
She couldn't think of anything more to say, but she was definitely enjoying the strange feeling of being next to him. And although he had dropped her hand back into her lap, his arm was still braced around her shoulders to keep her from losing her balance again. He felt a bit like some curious wild animal, skittish enough to leap back to the proper side of the table if she moved, but willing to stay put as long as she remained in place and moved slowly. He smelled like breakfast and like something else entirely . . . aftershave, maybe? Definitely different than Ellen or Virginia ever had. More masculine but not too much so.
Mary saw a flash in her mind, of her leaning in and laying her head on his shoulder, sniffing to see whether that male scent was from aftershave or shampoo or just was what adult male wizards always smelled like. The thought immediately after that was a fervent hope that he was not attempting to sense her emotions right then. Would she notice if he did? She had felt it last year when she and Virginia had been practicing in class, but maybe it was different with experienced magic-users.
"I don't have to use a spell – I can sense your emotions just fine without one," he said quietly. Mary started, and he chuckled at her reaction. "No, I'm not using a spell to read your mind either – it was written clearly on your face. You suddenly looked guilty, and then panicked."
"You don't have to be. You've made me curious, though . . . what exactly were you thinking that made you feel guilty?"
Mary swallowed and bowed her head, hiding her face from his all-too-astute gaze. But this was her chance, wasn't it? "I was just wondering what it was that you smelled like," she said in a small voice.
"What I . . . smell like?" He sounded perplexed.
"You smell nice. I was just wondering what that was."
She felt, rather than saw, his amusement. "And this makes you feel guilty?"
"I . . ." Mary's mind flashed back to that brief kiss the night of the dance. This seemed like a similar one-chance-only moment. Biting back her embarrassment, she murmured, "I was just picturing resting my head on your shoulder and burying my face against the side of your neck. To see if it was your aftershave."
A long stillness greeted her revelation. Mary was afraid to move, afraid to look up, lest he let loose some caustic remark and cement this as the most embarrassing moment of her life. But he stayed frozen beside her for almost as long as she could bear. When he finally did speak, his voice sounded strangled. "I don't know if I can be what you want, Mary." He moved his head to look down at her, then, and lightly brushed his lips across her temple. "I'm older than you, I'm grumpier than you, and if you haven't noticed, I'm no good with people."
She let out the breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. He hadn't rejected her – at least, not outright. "I don't mind," she said. "If you haven't noticed, I'm not particularly good with most people, either."
He slipped his finger under her chin, then, tipping her face up to look into his. There was a look in his eyes she'd never seen before, and it made her shiver.
"I don't mind," he echoed. And closed the distance to kiss her. It was a proper kiss this time, still rigidly controlled like everything he did, but full of unspoken promises. And when he started to draw back, Mary gathered her courage and followed. His lips softened momentarily – in surprise? – but he quickly recovered and took charge again. Thoroughly. Mary was happy to give up the lead – her one and only kissing experience had been less than a month ago, that all-too-fleeting peck in his room during the dance, after all – but she wasn't going to let him dictate everything. And definitely not in this arena. She may be a novice, but she couldn't bear to let him brush her off again for the sake of his pride or his former love.
When he broke their kiss a minute later, Mary's mind was whirling far too much for her to complain. At least Hieronymous looked just as flustered as she felt. He searched her eyes for a long moment, then looked away abruptly.
Oh, she knew where this was going to go – she'd heard it before. And this time she was having none of it.
"Don't you dare even think of apologizing to me for that, Hieronymous," she said. "Or I'll be the one giving you detention."
He quirked a brow at her, eloquent even without words.
In for a penny, in for a pound, right? "Don't make me assign you ten demerits and require you to spend the day practicing." She suddenly realized what she had said and felt her face flush, but he seemed amused.
"You're the one who has been sampling her first kisses, Miss – Mrs. Grabiner," he said. "Are you saying I need more practice?"
"Would it mean practicing with me?" She could barely hear her own words over the pounding of her heart.
He searched her face, serious again. "I'm not ready to have . . . that kind of a relationship, you understand that, right? Not a marriage of the type Professor Potsdam keeps hinting at. Quite aside from my being your professor and fourteen years your elder, I have some . . . other things to work through first."
"I understand," Mary said. "And I'm not expecting to . . . be an adult like that quite yet. I want to live here in the student hall, make friends, take classes, and learn what magic is all about. I have a lot to learn still, I know. I just – there are some . . . aspects . . . of student life I'm not going to be a part of here, even if we're only married more or less by accident. And I don't want to miss out on those . . . aspects . . . entirely."
"I see." He brought his hand up to cup the side of her face. "And would I hate to be the reason you graduate with less than a full education. But this is only for a year and a day, so –"
"At least for a year and a day," Mary interjected. "I know this is a lot, but I don't want to – to make any assumptions about how we'll feel then."
He bowed his head in assent. "That's reasonable, I suppose. But as I was saying, I can't be both your teacher and a . . . private tutor for certain aspects of student life."
Mary knew he was right, but she felt tears pricking at the corners of her eyes anyway. She tried to look down, to keep him from seeing, but one tiny tear leaked out and dripped on his hand. She heard his sharp inhale, then his defeated sigh.
"Come here." He lifted her – surprisingly easily – and set her down crossways on his lap, her cheek resting on his collarbone. He did indeed smell like aftershave, mixed with something Mary would have bet money was just uniquely him.
"It's not that I don't want to," he said. "Spirits know I haven't been tempted like this by anyone else since Violet's death. But I don't trust myself to stay in control and not do something I shouldn't. And there are a lot of 'shouldn't's about this marriage."
"I'm not that fragile," Mary murmured against his shoulder.
"I know, and that's why I'm here with you at all." He resettled her on his lap, a bit more securely. "I should be upstairs doing more research into that memory spell. Three days and no real progress yet."
Mary sat up a bit and looked at him assessingly. "Have you really been up for three days straight on my behalf?"
He muttered something she couldn't hear, then sighed. "It's a magical problem that does need solving for future students, but yes, you're the reason I've had no sleep since we found out about the issues you were having."
Well they were sitting on the bed now, weren't they? Mary braced her leg against the desk and leaned into him, knocking them both flat side-by-side on the narrow mattress.
"Oh, you had to do that, didn't you?" He put a hand over his eyes, shielding them from the torch overhead. "Now I'll have to get up." He showed no inclination to move, however. Mary took the opportunity to wriggle a little closer.
"So sleep." She propped her head up on her elbow. "Nobody's going to interrupt, and you look like you could use some rest."
"You're an evil temptress, Mary," he mumbled, but she could see the tension in him already starting to drain away.
"Only for you," she answered too quietly for him to hear. He looked so different when he was relaxed – he still had his hand thrown over the upper half of his face, but the frown lines in his forehead had already disappeared and his posture was no longer quite so stiff. He was a lot less threatening this way.
She stayed as still as she could until his breathing slowed and his hand slipped off his face and down to the pillow beside him. When she was certain he was asleep, she carefully sat up, polished off the remains of breakfast, stacked the dishes as quietly as she could, then lay back down on the other bed a few feet away to watch him until she was asleep herself.