(Highlight to View) Warning(s): Ladies of a certain age, cursing, and discussions of Prince George's sweater vests.
(Highlight to View) Prompt: Jean Granger joins a woman's book club (she'd already given up on the gardening group, Ikebana lessons, pottery class and the village theatre troupe) and finds the first meeting to be as mind-numbing and horrid as one would expect. She wouldn't have gone back but for the company of one other misfit- an oddly posh, deeply sarcastic and wonderfully brilliant woman named Eileen Prince. When they finally get kicked out of the meetings for taking the piss out of the required reading one too many times, they decide that their plotting skills are best served elsewhere- chiefly, getting their frustratingly single offspring together.
Note: Many thanks for such a delicious prompt, and many additional thanks to the fastest beta in the world for putting up with me! Any mistakes remaining are due to my continual tinkering.
Summary: After retiring and losing her husband, Jean Granger needs to find a new purpose in life. She's looking for a hobby, so it's a good thing her thirtysomething daughter is still single. Of course, she's not the only mum on the lookout for a partner for their child.
They say that grief takes time.
For Jean Granger, that was certainly true. Most of those first few months after her husband David had died ran together in her memory, a blur of heartache and hopelessness. Nobody had warned her about the waves of exhaustion accompanied mourning, either, so on more than one occasion, Dr. Granger found herself nodding off in the middle of a complicated procedure. Thankfully, her dental assistants all caught on to this and made sure to ask endless litanies of questions in order to keep her focussed when a patient was on the table.
She had been planning on retiring soon, anyway.
Now, though? Well, now it seemed like it was the only option. She cared too much about her patients to keep at it when her heart wasn't with their teeth.
Roughly five months after she'd buried her husband, Jean hung up her periodontal probe for good. She found a buyer for the practise, a young woman fresh out of the Institute of Dentistry who happily took over all the old patients as well as Jean's bimonthly blog Nothing But the Tooth. A tasteful retirement party had been thrown at the clinic by her radiant daughter, toasts and tears had been shared by her friends and colleagues and longtime patients, and then it was time to hand over the keys.
When she packed the last box of her framed photographs and pens into the back of her car that night, she felt marvelous—better than she'd felt in months. That was probably the champagne talking, but it was also the well wishes of all who had shown up to celebrate the success of her life's work. She knew that some medical doctors looked down at dentists' work as frivolous, but they were wrong about her noble profession. She encouraged young and old alike to value and take care of themselves, starting with their pearly whites. She gave people back their confidence as she rebuilt their smiles.
It wasn't until she walked into her home and dropped the box onto the table that she considered the future. She supposed that she could sleep in, if she wanted to. It was a Wednesday, but it's not like she had anywhere to be. Not anymore. No one needed her to patch a bicuspid or tighten some braces now that they had somebody new to do the job.
She trudged up the steps to her bedroom, changed into her night clothes, and pulled down the sheets, slipping in on the left side. If she allowed the delusion, she could almost feel her husband sitting down beside her, the heft of the mattress moving under his body. He would toe off his socks, one by one, before getting under the covers and tickling that soft spot behind her knee. He needed her, too—needed a partner in crime who humoured his wild ideas and kept him from acting on all of them. Needed someone to make him laugh and think. Needed someone to trust with his life.
If David were still with her, they might have made love in the soft green light of the alarm clock that adorned the side table. Or just chatted a bit more over their days before drifting off to sleep.
But he wasn't here.
And although it had been five months since anyone had tickled her knee, she still couldn't bring herself to sleep in the middle of the bed.
She did sleep in the next day. Why not? It didn't matter. At the age of sixty-eight, Jean Granger slept in till noon, like she was an unruly teenager on summer holiday from school. Instead of preparing a sensible lunch for herself, she ate half a bag of crisps, following it up with a glass or two of a dry white wine from the cellar. A glass of orange juice and the rest of the crisps was supper, and then it was time for bed.
After a few days of that, Jean began to pull herself together. She prepared real breakfasts made from things like vegetables and eggs. She even showered and got dressed in slacks and blouses, almost as though she still had a purpose in life.
If not for her neighbours and her daughter Hermione, Jean wasn't sure what would have happened to her. Holed up in her comfortable home, she often went 24 hours without speaking a single world. Winchester was a smallish city, though, so the neighbours were nosy enough to force themselves upon her at regular intervals, and while Hermione was quite busy with her work as a... doctor, of sorts, she always made it a point to meet up on the weekends and ring her throughout the week.
Eventually, Jean fell into a kind of routine. Life became a series of cycles where she repeated the same things over and over again, either by the day or the week or the month. She got up at the same time each morning, cooked the same foods that she'd purchased at the same store, and watched the same television news programmes every day. Sat in the same chair at the table. Worked the same crossword puzzle in the paper. She was walking through life in a haze, barely aware of the choices she was making. Some days, it barely felt like she was awake at all.
One day, however, that all changed.
It was the night before the first anniversary of David's death. She'd dreamt of her late husband that night, and she'd felt an ache in him as he examined the flatness of what her life had become. Right before the dream ended, his voice rang in her ears, speaking the words they had used to toast one another at their wedding. They'd used them again when their daughter was born, as well as when they'd opened their office together. All these memories jumbled together in her brain as she heard him speak. "To life, Jeanie! To life abundant!"
Jolting upright, she looked down to find herself in the middle of the bed.
She heard it echo once more: "To life, Jean!"
And Jean Granger finally woke up for the the first time in a year.
She hadn't noticed just how dreadfully dull all her friends were when she was examining their bitewing X-rays and hosting cookouts with her husband by her side. She'd been so busy then! Now she had nothing but time, and she spent it observing those around her.
Her conclusion was that all English women of a certain age were roughly the same person.
At least, that's what Jean Granger told herself as she surveyed her friends and neighbours. Dead boring, the whole lot of them. It was as though they were unable to hold adult conversations about anything other than their gardening plans for spring, the coming changes to the pension system, and the undisputed excellence of their grandchildren. Once they'd passed sixty-five, there appeared to be a strict regimen of womanhood to embrace, one that consisted of humdrum activities involving ovens or yarn or roses.
She had been falling into that very trap, but no more.
She would claw her way out if it was the last thing she ever did.
Hermione came over for tea on Saturday.
"I have something I want to tell you, dear," Jean said, greeting her daughter at the door with a kiss on the cheek.
"Of course! But first, let me just..." Hermione's voice trailed off as trotted past her to the kitchen to stow a container of fresh strawberries in the fridge. "There! Now then, Mum, what did you want to—"
She followed her daughter to the other room. Hermione's eyes searched for something, finally settling on the noisy patter of water striking the sink. "Mum, do you know that your faucet is leaking?"
Jean sighed. She knew her daughter meant well with all the suggestions about home maintenance, but the young woman didn't quite understand that she didn't a shit about it. Not that Jean would ever say that aloud—she had manners, after all, even if her daughter tended to be a little controlling when she loved people—and the place wasn't going to flood. She'd get around to it eventually. "Oh, that."
"Has it been going on for long?" Hermione asked, pushing the issue further. She peered around the knobs as though the mysteries of plumbing would reveal themselves if she just stared at them for long enough.
Jean shrugged. "Two weeks, perhaps? Three? Your father always took care of things like that." She tried to redirect her daughter, handing her the tray of tea things to bring outside to the garden. "I'll call someone to look at it later."
Hermione wasn't budging. She set the tray down on the counter and pulled out her wand. "I think I could just use a standard Repairing Charm on this."
"Oh, no," Jean said, walking over to her girl to lay a hand on her arm. "I don't actually know what your spell would do, dear, but what would happen if I needed a Mugglish plumber someday in the future? She—or he, I suppose—might be confused by your pipe mending."
This was met with a begrudging sort of grumbling.
Taking advantage of Hermione's momentary misdirection, Jean picked up the tray and led her out to the back. The sun shone down on them from a cloudless sky, and the women cosied into their regular seats around the small table wedged under the pergola. It turned out that retirement had been a boon to all Jean's plants, so the jasmine vine threading itself through the wooden slats was thriving.
"I have decided," she announced imperiously, "to rejoin the living."
"Oh, mum," Hermione said, her voice gentle. "I know this year has been hard, but—"
"No more buts," Jean declared. She poured a cup of tea for each of them while Hermione doled out the Jaffa cakes. "Your father, rest his soul, wouldn't recognise the woman I've become. Of the two of us, he was always the adventurous one—"
"The crazy one!" Hermione interjected.
"—and I always loved that about him," Jean finished. David was a bit of a wild card, but Jean had needed that. "He was the reason we learnt to ski, you know. He was also the reason we let you attend Hogwarts, since I didn't want to let you go. Of course, he'd attended Winchester College as a boy, but I didn't want any child of mine to board anywhere."
"Dad was the one?" Hermione asked. "I never knew that."
Jean took a slow sip of her Earl Grey. "He was. Your father was so proud of you, Hermione. He would have moved the moon and the stars for you if you'd needed him to."
Hermione stifled a cry. "I miss him. Sometimes I'll be at home, watching something stupid on the telly, and I'll imagine him walking in from the kitchen."
"I miss him, too, love. We built a beautiful life together, and while I will always carry him in my heart, he's... he's..." Jean blinked away the tears. Stiff upper lip, and all that. Besides, she knew that her daughter understood the unspoken words. Hermione wrapped her arm around her, leaning in to rest against her. Sniffling into her napkin, Jean pulled herself together. She discretely wiped her eyes, and she pretended not to notice when Hermione's face suddenly looked like it had been wiped clean. "Which is why I've decided that I need to find a new purpose in life."
Her daughter's eyebrows rose at that.
"Since I'm not going to discover that overnight," Jean added, handing over the stack of pamphlets she'd been given at the library, "I've decided that I need to find a hobby."
Hermione thumbed through them, dividing them into two stacks. "Mum," she asked, "is this a midlife crisis?"
Jean snorted. "I'm well past the middle bits, dear."
"But... Mum," she continued, holding up a teal sheet with a telephone number and an address, "do you really think Krav Maga is a good idea? For that matter, do you even know what it is?"
"I'm fairly certain it's a pottery class."
"It's a street fighting class designed by the Israeli army. Hand-to-hand combat."
Jean frowned, taking the paper from her daughter. She folding it a few times and put it under the teapot. "Maybe I'll take that one off the list of options."
"These look more your speed, Mum," Hermione said, giving back a half dozen or so of the information sheets. "How about the Hampshire Women's Institute?"
Jean shuddered as she gazed down at the forest green booklet. It was trying too hard, with overly enthusiastic promises written across it: The WI is here to inspire you! The WI is everything you want it to be! The WI is what you want it to be! She looked at her daughter in horror that she would even suggest such a thing. "I'm not dead yet, dear. I think the average age there is pushing eighty."
"Fine," Hermione replied. She flipped through the stack, pulling another to the top. "How about this? I think you'd love Ikebana."
"Japanese street fighting?" Jean said, a sly grin on her face."
"Japanese flower arranging."
"That sounds tedious."
"Do you want to come home with bruised ribs from where a twenty-something has punched you?" Hermione asked, tapping the Crab Magoo flyer with a tense finger.
Jean shrugged dramatically, her eyes twinkling for the first time in ages. "I hear my daughter is a doctor. Moreover, she's got actual magic oozing out her pores. I'll call her up if I need a patch job. She's desperate to fix things, you know."
"Mum..." Hermione's tone held warmth, but also hesitation and a touch of protectiveness. "I don't want you to get hurt just because you're trying to prove something."
"Hermione," she said, her voice firm. She reached up to brush a lock of her daughter's hair from her forehead. "Hermione, I want a challenge."
The young woman slumped in her chair, and Jean was struck all at once with the image of her as a child, quiet after another awkward day at school. She knew Hermione was into her thirties now, but she looked lost, just as she did as a lonely little girl.
And suddenly, it all became clear.
Her purpose in life?
To help her daughter live, and, as David might have said, to live abundantly.
He would surely approve of that. He loved their daughter fiercely, and it had been hard on him to watch her growing up an outsider wherever she went. First she was a misfit at her primary school, reading chapter books in the corner while her classmates were stumbling through their alphabets and numbers. Once they'd discovered that she had magic in her bones, both she and David had relaxed a bit. Surely, they'd thought, things would be better once she was around other children who were like her. Oh, her letters home that first year had been cheerful enough, but Jean could read through the lines. Other than that Longbottom boy, no one in her house had taken the time to befriend her when she'd arrived. Harry and Ronald came along eventually, but there was a fundamental divide between the genders that presented its own challenges during puberty.
And the bullying just because she was from a non-Magical family? Jean never understood why that headmaster of theirs hadn't interceded for her child. What on earth was magic even for if you couldn't use it to protect those under your care?
The question, really, was how to best help her daughter now. Hermione was a workaholic, giving her life to that hospital of hers as a Healer. Did she do anything for fun? Just for her?
Jean racked her brain trying to remember the last time a man was in her life. There had been Ronald, of course, a blessedly short affair after their war. Then that nice boy who played for the Bulgarian athletic team. Jean had liked Viktor. Justin Finch-Fletchley had been a flash in the pan as well, but that was maybe six years ago. Or was it seven? No matter. Lately? There hadn't been anybody who'd lasted long enough to meet the family.
Did Hermione even want a man? She certainly didn't need one, but if she had someone who loved her as she deserved to be loved, he'd keep her from working herself into an early grave. For that matter, did Hermione want a child? If so, she'd have to get on that soon enough.
Late to motherhood herself, Jean held her tongue where impending grandchildren were involved, never asking outright if her daughter was seeing somebody or if she was thinking about mothering in some newfangled way. Now, with her new mission in hand, she needed to know what she was working with.
She decided to fish for information.
"You know, dear, I was over at Lulu Crutchley's the other day, and she told me to pass on her love to you."
Hermione rolled her eyes, sitting upright again. "That old bat? Mum, she drives you crazy. Why were you over there in the first place?"
It was true, of course. Lulu was the neighbourhood gossip, a woman who knew everything and made sure that everyone else knew it, too. She never had anything good to say about anyone, but it was more interesting to visit her than to repot all the geraniums on the porch. "She was trying out a new recipe for a sandwich cake and showed me photos of her grandson."
Hermione nibbled around the edges of a Jaffa cake, just like she'd always done. Some things never changed. "My womb isn't going to spontaneously erupt into baby making, mum."
Jean held her breath. "I didn't say anything, dear."
"Can't you just focus on the royals, like everyone else does?" Hermione asked. Having cleared the non-orangey parts, she swallowed the rest of the biscuit whole. "I'm sure little Prince George has been photographed in a sweater vest recently."
As a matter of fact, he had been photographed in a darling sweater vest only last week. It was a navy thing with marching guards all over it, and it was adorable, but that was beside the point. Jean decided to go for the cheeky approach. "That Prince Harry is still available, Hermione. I think he's moved past his wilder years, and unlike his brother, he has all his hair." Hermione would appreciate that, she thought. After all, she'd inherited her robust locks from her father. She deserved a man with a full head of hair.
"Even if I wanted to marry a prince—which I don't, Mum—I could never go for one that was four years younger than me."
"I don't know about Monaco or Sweden or... Does Japan still have a monarchy? England's all out of older princes for you to marry."
"Mum! Please drop it."
Jean bit her tongue. She'd have to become better at subterfuge if this was going to work. Of course, she'd also need a man to throw at her daughter, and it wasn't like she had them queuing up on the front stoop. Realising that she could kill two birds with one stone, and knowing that Hermione liked intelligent men, Jean made up her mind.
"I'm going to join a book club."
That was how Jean found herself in her local Waterstones.
She tended to avoid High Street if she could help it, since there was no decent place to park the car. However, if she was going to find her daughter a suitable man, she would have to suffer through the idiots, find a garage, and walk the cobblestones to her destination. It was a good thing that she only owned sensible shoes.
The book club was to be held on the third Thursday of every month, with readings selected and discussions led by one Mr. Gordon Popplewell, literature instructor at Winchester College. For Jean's first time joining the group, Oliver Twist would serve as their inspiration. She'd read it as a girl, as had everyone else on the whole fucking island. Well, she thought, not David. He'd read it as a boy. She sniggered quietly to herself, amused by her own joke. At ten, she'd been proud of herself for surviving it, but she hadn't actually processed it as a piece of art. As an adult, she could bring new eyes to the classic.
She hated it.
Lord, what pretentious shite! Was Dickens getting paid by the word? Jean knew that most of his novels were serialised, which should explain some of the quality control issues, but this book was horrid.
She ambled into the store a few minutes before ten o'clock, ready to get a seat in the back. From there, she could watch all the other book club participants to see if any of them would be a good match for her daughter. Or perhaps Popplewell himself, if he were the right age and single. The plastic folding chairs were a tick uncomfortable, and they were set up in a circle. Just as well, Jean thought. She'd still be able to watch for wedding rings on the hands of the passersby.
As she sat down next to a young woman with a sleeping baby on her shoulder, Jean realised her mistake. To the left of her? Young mothers and pensioners. To the right of her? More mums and retirees. She wanted to kick herself. It was a weekday morning book club. Why on earth would it contain an eligible man for Hermione? Any man fit for her daughter would be working during that time, preferably at a law office or at one of those not-for-profit do-gooder type of places. Maybe Hermione would like a scientist. Or a linguist?
Well, she was there already, and the man leading the book club was already introducing himself, so Jean was stuck there for the duration. Stuck with Dickens for the duration, and she wasn't even going to be able to find a man there.
"...know already, but you new readers should also just call me Gordon," he said. Jean had missed whatever he'd said as an opening. It probably wasn't an apology for picking a wretchedly overwrought story for them all to endure, so Jean sat there in polite judgment of him and his poor taste.
"One of Dickens' finest works," Just-Call-Me-Gordon said, "Oliver Twist will forever remain a stalwart in the canon of classic literature."
Someone snorted in defiance.
Jean looked around, trying to find the source.
So did Popplewell, his eyes scanning the room for the culprit. When he couldn't find one, he continued speaking. "The fiction of normative values in Dicken's great work is virtually coextensive with the politics of linguistic transparency. In fact, it has often been observed that the Artful Dodger represents a departure from..."
Jean zoned out, shocked by the way Popplewell dodged the point of the English language, which was, hypothetically, communication. Everyone else in the circle was either furiously nodding or blinking as he spoke, so they seemed to buy it.
Everyone, that is, except one woman dressed in black with distinguished nose, who was sporting a dangerous sort of smile as she stared down their discussion leader.
Upon closer inspection, Jean noticed that it wasn't black, but rather a dark grey suit that the woman was wearing, exquisitely tailored. Pewter boots adorned her feet, and her salt-and-pepper hair was wrapped up in a tasteful chignon at the base of her neck.
Jean liked the look of her.
She liked the sound of her, too, when she spoke up to argue with Popplewell. "Dickens is famous now because he was famous then. You cannot tell me that any modern reader would find this drivel palatable."
"Charles Dickens," the man argued, spittle gathering at the corner of his mouth while he channeled his frustration, "remains the single greatest novelist in the English language."
"Does he now? Well, then. Let's see," the woman said. She thumbed through her copy, a battered leather-covered thing that had seen better days, and began to read. "'Among other public buildings in a certain town, which for many reasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning, and to which I will assign no fictitious name, there is one anciently common to most towns, great or small: to wit, a workhouse; and in this workhouse was born; on a day and date which I need not trouble myself to repeat, inasmuch as it can be of no possible consequence to the reader, in this stage of the business at all events; the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the head of this chapter.'"
She then glanced around the room. "I know I'm on the edge of my seat. I'm riveted, really." She then nodded her head at a woman who, it seemed, had fallen asleep in her chair, upright. "So is Mary, isn't she?"
The woman in question jerked at the sound of her name, and promptly fell back into slumber.
"I can just picture the setting so clearly," the older woman continued. "Where are we? Why, we're in 'a certain town.' I see now, Charles. Thank you so for extending your skills as a writer. That must have been difficult for you to write such vivid imagery."
"Elena," Popplewell said, rising to his feet, "if you don't like Oliver Twist, you needn't have come here today."
"I like Oliver, I suppose," she said. "Poor thing. It's hard for anyone not to sympathise with a young boy who's been denied so much in life. It's really just semi-colons that I find disagreeable, so..." Her voice trailed off as she let everyone else connect the dots on their own.
Jean laughed aloud at that, earning herself a glare the beleagered man before her. It was like the dark woman was reading her mind and speaking aloud all the things she'd wanted to say. Unlike Jean, whose propriety kept her in check, this Elena woman said whatever was on her mind.
The rest of the hour simply flew by, with Gordon trying to ram the profundity of Dickens down the throats of all present and Elena heckling him from her seat.
It was the best time Jean had had in ages.
Afterwards, she tracked Elena down, asking her to tea at the cathedral refectory around the corner from the book shop. Over scones and fruit cake, Jean learnt that Elena Prieto had a wicked sense of humour, read in four languages, had travelled the world, and was a published author. The woman knew how to live. She was newly back in the United Kingdom after a few decades in Valencia, Spain, and had settled in Winchester to avoid returning to the North, where she'd been born. As for the book club? Elena hated all the selections since she'd arrived a few months earlier.
"Herr Popplewell is a pedantic nincompoop," she explained, "and he turns a particularly nasty shade of pink when his authority is challenged. I haven't found anything in town that amuses me nearly as much as the Waterstones Book Club."
And just like that, Jean had found a friend.
Things progressed fairly quickly from there.
They'd had another delightful tea a few days later, this time in the Guildhall courtyard cafe, and talked more about books and politics and history. These were all safe topics of conversation that allowed them to reveal their interests without getting too personal.
The following week, Elena had invited Jean to join her at her flat for lunch. She'd prepared a heavenly paella with a kind of spicy sausage in it, and had filled it out with artichokes and white beans. They pair had made it through an entire bottle of wine together, and it was only noon. Jean felt positively decadent as they drank and chatted away the afternoon hours. After telling Elena about her late husband and her daughter Hermione, she learnt a crucial piece of information: Elena had a son who was a scientist of some kind.
An intelligent son.
If he was anything like his mother, Jean figured that he could be just the man she'd been looking for. It was clear that Elena was a few years older that she, so her son would be in the right age range.
"How do you like your daughter-in-law?" Jean asked in what she hoped was a subtle manner.
"My unmarried son, who is as ornery as he is loyal and brave, hasn't ever been married," Elena said. She cut to the chase, that woman. "How do you like your son-in-law?"
"Oh, that's right," Elena said with a smile. "How… convenient."
"Is he happy?" Jean asked.
At this, Elena sighed. She stood up and paced the room, pausing every now and again to look at Jean with the strangest expression. Finally, she spoke. "My son is a good man. I..." She collapsed into her chair. "I made the wrong choice with his father, and Severus paid the price. He made some ill-informed choices of his own when he was younger, but he grew into a man who was loyal and who fought for what was right, even when he received no credit for it. He protected me, you know. When things looked bad, he went to the authorities, asking them to protect me. That's how I ended up in Spain. He kept me safe and gave me the chance at a new life."
Jean filled in the gaps with what she knew. He'd made some bad choices? Perhaps he'd been involved in a life of crime? And yet Elena must have been threatened by her husband in some way, and her son had gotten her placed with some sort of witness protection group abroad. The boy had turned against his own father in order to save his mum.
"Here," Elena said, retrieving a photograph from the mantle. "This is Severus."
He was a striking man, a man with a slender frame, an inscrutable gaze, and a far more hair than any other prince found in England. Really, Jean thought, it was a shame about William's hairline.
Regardless, Severus would do nicely.
Then women shared stories about their children for a good two hours after that. Severus was a chemist, Elena said, an independent consultant for several European governments. He lived in London and worked far too much, but he had a wicked sense of humour and he'd become fluent in Spanish while she was living there. He loved to cook, he played the violin, and he read poetry voraciously. He rode a motorcycle sometimes, which made Elena nervous, but she trusted his judgment. She was, however, concerned that he was too withdrawn, and she wished that he would settle down.
When Jean told stories of Hermione, they were edited with care so as not to mention her magical abilities. If things ever got serious, Jean decided, Hermione and Severus would have to work through that issue together. She wasn't going to undercut the possibility of this relationship just because Severus and his mother were Muggles.
Besides, where would Jean even meet a witch in her life?
Yes, this solidified things. Jean had found a brilliant man who had thrown off evil in order to save his family, and one who looked like he was fairly fit. As long as he was even remotely personable, Jean was fairly sure that she had just found herself a son-in-law.
Now she just had to get them both in the same room.
Jean examined the table for the umpteenth time, noting the starched white linen tablecloth, the polished silverware, and the bottles of red wine Elena had sent over earlier in the week. It was perfect. Just the right atmosphere for her stubborn daughter to let down her guard, be charmed by Elena's son, and fall madly in love.
The doorbell rang as she was setting out some of the bread and oil Elena was fond of.
Snapping out of her reverie, Jean bustled over to the foyer and ushered the Prietos inside. In person, Severus was quite a sight. He was taller than she'd expected, though you would never say that he was a towering man. More muscular, too, if the press of his torso against his Oxford shirt had any say in the matter. Like his mum, Severus had fair skin and a few streaks of grey hairs. No real wrinkles to speak of, although the crinkles at the corners of his eyes spoke of a good humoured nature. Jean guessed that he was in his late forties or early fifties.
Ah, she thought. Elena must have gotten pregnant at eighteen or nineteen years of age. The explanation of her husband now made sense. Had Elena been trapped in a bad marriage because of an accidental pregnancy? No wonder it had taken her some time to extricate herself.
"Elena," she said, greeting her friend with a kiss on each cheek.
"And you must be Severus," Jean added.
"Gordon, actually," the man replied, pressing a kiss to the back of her hand. "Just call me Gordon."
Jean sniggered as Elena swatted her son's arm.
"My mother," he continued, his voice rich and smooth, "has informed me that you've joined her in torturing the locals."
Lord, he was perfect for her daughter. Jean started mentally calculating how many weeks it would take her to take up crochet or embroidery or something equally domestic. Her future grandchild would need booties and little caps, after all, and Hermione was a crap hand at knitting.
"In all seriousness," he added, "any friend of my mother's is a friend to me. Thank you for inviting us into your home."
"Severus," his mother admonished, handing him a white cardboard box, "do be a dear and put the dessert in the refrigerator." She pointed him in the direction of the kitchen, and like a dutiful son, he went.
"Did you tell him that my daughter will be joining us?" Jean asked, her voice a subdued whisper.
"No," Elena replied. "He would have refused to show had he known. We had better tell him soon, though, so he's not completely taken aback when she arrives."
"He's handsome," Jean said softly, admiring the view as he walked away. There was a pinchable arse on that one.
Elena barked out a laugh. "No. No, he's really not."
"Well, I like the look of him nonetheless."
Elena smiled, a proud mother. The lines around her eyes softened as she looked at her boy. "I do, too."
Just then, Severus rejoined them. "Jean," he said, "your sink is leaking. Would you like me to take a look at it?"
"You know how plumbing works?" she asked, dumbfounded. Was there nothing Severus couldn't do? She still hadn't called anyone to fix the damn thing, so the timing on this was superb.
"I am more than capable of a simple repair." He looked almost offended that she would even ask him such a question. "It's basic mechanics."
"Oh, thank you!" she said. "My daughter's been trying to get me to call a plumber for weeks. Since she'll be joining us for dinner, she'll be glad to see that it's fixed."
Severus gave his mother a pointed look at Jean's mention of a daughter, but he didn't say a word. He headed back into the kitchen to examine the pipes.
Meanwhile, Elena walked over to a small photograph of Hermione sitting on the piano in the sitting room. It has been taken at Christmas a few years earlier, but Hermione rarely changed her hairstyle. "Your daughter is lovely."
Funny, Jean thought. She hadn't shown Elena a picture of Hermione before, and there were a good half dozen photos on the piano of friends and other family members. Yet Elena was able to figure out exactly which one was her daughter. Perhaps the family resemblance was strong enough that the women could tell?
Before she'd had much chance to mull this over, the doorbell rang again.
Hermione let herself in before Jean even had a chance to get the door. As she hung her jacket on a hook in the foyer, Elena came forward to introduce herself.
"Elena Prieto," she said, offering her hand to shake. "Your mother has told me so much about you."
"Likewise. I'm Hermione, of course, but you know that." Hermione paused a moment, looking at Elena intently. "Pardon me, but do I know you from somewhere? You look familiar."
Elena shook her head. "I have an excellent memory. I can assure you, Hermione, that we have never met before."
"Hi, mum," Hermione said, giving her a quick hug and handing over a container. "For afters. It needs to stay cold until then."
"Er..." Jean stammered, deciding that now was as good a time as any to let Hermione in on their dinner plans. "Elena's son is helping me with the leaky faucet. He'll be joining us for dinner, and I really think that you should say hello."
"Mum!" Hermione cried, her voice quiet, yet indignant. "How could you set me up with a man I've never met before?"
Jean grabbed her daughter's elbow and led her into the kitchen with more force than she usually displayed. There, out from under the counter, wiggled a rather fine male backside. Jean gestured appraisingly at said arse, giving her daughter a look that clearly said, "Not too bad, hmm?"
Hermione ogled him for a few moments, and then nodded sheepishly. She kissed her mother on the cheek and whispered in her ear, "Thanks, Mum." She opened the fridge door and began rearranging things in order to squeeze her dessert in with whatever it was that the Prietos had brought.
"And all is well," Severus said, pulling himself out to stand. "You shouldn't have any more problems, Jean."
"Thank you again, Severus," Jean said. "How kind of you to help."
Still buried in the fridge, Hermione froze in place.
Jean looked over, wondering what was wrong. "Hermione?" she asked. "Is everything all right?"
Severus's eyes grew wide, and his jaw dropped open ever so slightly.
She wasn't a magician, but she knew that something was up. Perhaps she and Elena shouldn't have sprung this on their children. Or perhaps they should have taken more time to warm each of their children up to the idea of a blind date.
Suddenly, Hermione took a step back and closed the fridge. She turned to face Severus slowly.
And looked back at her mother.
And at Severus again.
"You! What are you doing in my mother's home?" she asked him, pulling her wand out in a defensive gesture.
"Put your wand away, Miss Granger," he spat. "I have no idea what you think you're doing, but I would never harm a fly."
Jean was incredibly confused.
"Severus was one of my professors at Hogwarts, Mum."
"Oh." She paused, glancing back and forth between the pair. "Oh. Er... This is a surprise, isn't it?"
"Undoubtedly," Severus said. All the warmth had drained from his voice, and whatever colour he'd had in his face had left him, too. Evidently, there was a history between her daughter and this man.
Still, there was a roast chicken to be had, as well as some anchovies and salad and other things to nibble on. There was wine to be drunk, too, and it seemed more likely than ever that the wine would be necessary for the evening to proceed with any semblance of calm. Jean had Severus bring the bird to the table, and the foursome ate in stony silence for the first several minutes.
It was incredible, really, just how loud the clink of the silver was against the dishes when no one was talking.
Jean decided to get the ball rolling. "So, Severus, you… er… you're a wizard, then?"
His deft fingers had ripped a piece of bread into miniscule pieces, and he hadn't touched his wine glass yet.
Elena must have kicked him under the table, because he winced before his reply. "Yes, Jean. A wizard."
She smiled kindly, hoping that someone else would take up the helm of conversation.
Jean had to do it herself. "Hermione, you mentioned that Severus was one of your professors at Hogwarts?"
Her daughter took a large bite of chicken and chewed it thoroughly.
She followed that up with a piece of bread dipped in olive oil.
And a swig of wine.
Well, Jean decided optimistically, things can only go up from here. She thought that a little humour might break the ice. "Was he one of the professors you fell madly in love with?
"Mum!" Hermione whipped around in her seat to glare at her mother.
"Professors? With an emphasis on that zed sound? Professors plural?" Severus said, an edge to his voice. "My, my, Miss Granger. Here I thought your only youthful indiscretion was that dolt with the mannequin hair and the false teeth."
"Don't blame her, Severus," Jean said, trying to keep her tone light and jovial. "Her father and I raised her to value a man who valued his teeth."
At that, his mouth shut tightly. Oh, dear, Jean thought. She hadn't meant that as a slight to Elena's son, but he clearly interpreted it that way. And was sensitive about it. Jean made a mental note to apologise after dinner and offer to connect him with the dentist who had taken over her practise. A light bleaching and six months of alignment would straighten him right out.
Hermione just sat there smirking in smug triumph.
"At any rate," Severus said, making a point of keeping his mouth almost entirely closed, "the only time I saw heart-shaped doodles all over her class notes was for Lockhart. Gilderoy Lockhart, infamous charlatan and professional baboon, who is now permanently incapacitated."
"I knew you weren't that one," Jean said. "After all, David—that was my late husband, Severus—David and I met him on our trip to Diagon Alley that year. You're not the werewolf, by any chance?"
If looks could kill, Jean would be six feet under. Hermione's eyes were poisoned daggers, her nostrils flaring and her knuckles white as she clutched the tablecloth.
"Lupin?" Severus laughed. "Really, Granger? You fell for Lupin?"
Hermione turned to Severus. "I was fourteen years old!" she said defiantly. "I was fourteen, and he was kind and intelligent. He was also bullied by the more immature members of the faculty, Professor Snape, and you know how I like an underdog."
Jean interrupted them then. "Severus... Snape?" Now Snape was a name that Jean knew. Hermione came home from school every year with complaints against the only professor who failed to praise her work. Still, a school girl's grudge against her teacher didn't explain why Hermione and Severus were this hostile to one another.
Severus leaned in closer, propping his elbows on the table. "You have abysmal taste in human beings, Granger. First it's Potter and Weasley, and now I learn that it's Lockhart and Lupin?"
Jean decided that she needed to redirect towards lighter topics of conversation again before they said things they might regret. She drew a blank in the heat of the moment, though, and blurted out the only thing that came to mind. "The only other professor I remember Hermione having a crush on was that spy fellow."
Severus's fork fell to his plate with a clatter.
And Hermione's head fell to the table, landing with a loud thunk. "Just kill me now," she whimpered, her words muffled by the tablecloth.
"What?" Jean asked. "You said he was dashing and misunderstood. Didn't you? The one who was your Defense professor during your sixth year?"
Elena burst into laughter.
When Jean looked at her new friend—really looked at her—a dozen questions washed over her. "Do you know what I would like?" she asked, rising to her feet, the food all but forgotten on the table. She might not be a witch, but Jean knew how to harness her will to get what she wanted. "I would like a fucking explanation right about now."
Elena stopped laughing as quickly as she'd started.
Severus turned a bit pink at the ears.
Hermione merely lifted her head and gaped at her.
A little tingle of delight shot up her spine as she said the word "fucking." Had she ever said it aloud in the light of day? She'd thought it so many times, but it felt delicious in her mouth. Why shouldn't Her daughter's perfect date was apparently a wizard, which meant that her bosom friend Elena had been lying to her. As far as Jean understood, everyone in the Wizarding world knew who the name Hermione Granger, so she wanted answers.
She deserved answers.
Hermione simply stared at her. "You cursed, Mum."
Jean's chest puffed up a bit. "The situation called for it."
"I've just never heard you use any profanity before."
"Your father was the only one who ever heard me swear, dear, and it was always under rather specific circumstances." Jean smiled, remembering those times fondly. If she was going to break all bounds of propriety, she might just as well shock the socks off her only child.
The reaction didn't disappoint. "I did not need that image, Mum!"
Jean ignored her daughter's moue of distaste and raised her glass in a toast. "To life, my girl!"
Hermione tipped her glass in reply.
Then Jean turned to Elena, still looming over her in her chair. " Surely you knew who my daughter was as soon as you heard my last name. Why did you lie to me? You could have told me that you're a witch. You must have know that I, of all people, would understand."
Elena looked down at her hands. "I was a witch, Jean. I'm not one anymore."
"Was?" Hermione asked, her brow furrowed. "I've never heard of anyone losing their magic."
Elena looked chagrined. "When you neglect it for decades, you'll find that you can no longer access it."
"Eileen Prince," Hermione murmured under her breath. "Elena Prieto is Eileen Prince."
"I have seen you before," Hermione gasped, and her eyes raked over the genteel woman beside her. "I could barely recognise you from the photo I saw of you as a girl."
"The Gobstones Club?" the older woman asked. Jean still had no idea what she was talking about.
Hermione nodded. "You look much happier now."
Elena—Eileen—smiled. "I am much happier now. Eileen Prince was a bitter woman in survival mode, but Elena Prieto has a rich and fulfilling world."
These names prompted Jean to address Severus. "I somehow thought that your last name was also Prieto."
The man exchanged a few meaningful glances with his mother, looks imbued with deeper meaning. If it weren't for the fact that he was at odds with her daughter, Jean would have found this kind of nonverbal communication between a parent and her child to be charming.
Elena coughed into her napkin. "Prieto is the surname I adopted when Severus—my son the spy, Jean—helped me relocate to Spain thirty-six years ago. It fit in much better than my maiden name ever would have, and I needed to hide in plain sight."
"I know all about hiding," Jean said. That year in Australia had done a number on Jean and David both, but they'd forgiven their daughter long ago for her actions. "Though I didn't have a say in my own disappearance during the war."
Elena gestured to Jean's chair, wordlessly asking her to sit again so they could all continue the conversation.
Her feathers were still ruffled and she still needed some answers, but Jean's bunion was killing her.
"Yes," Elena said, "I pieced together who you were and who your daughter was. I've known since the first time you mentioned Hermione's name."
"Did you get the Daily Prophet delivered to you in Valencia?
"I've never read that hogwash," Elena protested, pouring herself a second glass of wine. "I did, however, speak with my son."
"My son," Elena continued, ignoring the panicked look on the man's face, "spoke of a maddening young woman under his tutelage. A clever girl who wasted her time with imbeciles, whose tendency to overwork herself was only outdone by her stupidly benevolent nature. A girl he'd wished had been in his own house so that he might have been free to work with her when she'd grown into an inspiring young woman."
Bewildered by her former teacher's compliments, however backwardly given, Hermione, for once, was quiet.
Severus, for his part, wasn't making eye contact with anyone else at that table.
"Now then," Elena said, pushing back from the table. "I'm in the mood for a walk rather than dessert, and I think, Jean, that you should really join me. Please." She tipped her head towards their children, each lost in their thoughts. "Join me, Jean."
That's how Jean and Elena found themselves walking in circles around the cul-de-sac, even though Jean's feet were aching and she'd much rather have been tucking into the dark chocolate torte Hermione had jammed into the fridge earlier.
Surely, their children just needed a little push in the right direction. They'd figure the rest out on their own, wouldn't they?
Three weeks later, and it was time for the next monthly meeting of the Waterstones book club again.
Jean was pleased as punch. She and Elena and the children had all read the book aloud together earlier in the week. This time it was Morrissey's List of the Lost, a contemporary novel from an author whom Severus claimed was a "self-indulgent, rambling waste of cellular tissue." The four of them had laughed their arses off with each increasingly pretentious expression they'd found in his prose.
The children were just in the early stages of some sort of relationship, Jean knew. She didn't want to interfere, but it seemed like it was going rather well. Hermione texted her photographs of the flowers Severus had sent after their third outing together, and had even refused all the extra shifts from the hospital in order to see more of him.
For that matter, Elena had told Jean that her boy was looking for a different job with the English Ministry in order to be closer to home, which Jean read as meaning closer to Hermione.
Neither she nor Elena knew where their offspring were on that particular Thursday morning, but they had both thought that they would all go together to give their opinion of Mr. Morrissey's book. When the older women couldn't find them anywhere, they headed off for Winchester's High Street on their own. It was a lovely, warm day, after all, so Jean left the car at Elena's flat before they walked the last mile and a half to the shop.
Gordon Popplewell groaned audibly when he saw the pair come through the doors.
Jean grinned. Really, it was like she and Elena had already won this game, and they hadn't even gotten started on the anatomically improbable sex scenes that the author had slipped into the story.
Everyone sitting around the circle began sharing those kinds of pleasantries one uses when they're faced with the prospect of talking to a stranger.
Finally, Popplewell introduced himself and the book. "Morrissey, familiar to readers though his musical work, brings us a robust approach to the written word. Yes, robust. The most compelling author England has seen in decades."
"Don't tell me," Elena piped up, clutching her book to her chest in mock adoration, "but it's evocative, isn't it?"
Gordon rolled his eyes, and Jean decided it was time for her to speak up. "May I read aloud one of my favorite passages?"
"Mrs Granger," he said, acknowledging her before the group, "where would you like to begin?"
Jean pulled out her copy and opened to the dog-eared page that had sent the children giggling earlier. "I think," she said, "you'll agree that Morrissey writes a scene of love-making and physical release for the ages: 'At this, Eliza and Ezra rolled together into one giggling snowball of full-figured copulation, screaming and shouting as they playfully bit and pulled at each other in a dangerous and clamorous rollercoaster coil of sexually violent rotation with Eliza's breasts barrel-rolled across Ezra's howling mouth and the pained frenzy of his bulbous salutation extenuating his excitement as it whacked and smacked its way into every muscle of Eliza's body except for the otherwise central zone.'"
The room was quiet.
"I'd like to point out," Jean stated matter-of-factly, "that Mister Morrissey accomplished all of that in one sentence."
"What, pray tell," Elena asked "was the man evoking when he used the phrase 'bulbous salutation' here?"
Jean snorted. "I thought of flower bulbs, myself."
"Rather than penises?"
Elena sniggered. "Perhaps we should ask the book club for their ideas on the rest." She gazed upon Mary, the mum who always fell asleep once she was seated. "Maybe Mary can explain to us all how breasts can barrel-roll across someone's mouth?"
By now, all the young mothers looked quite scandalised by the incendiary remarks from these two older ladies.
"Is that all?" Just-Call-Me-Gordon asked, clearly exasperated with them.
"Yes, I'm through," Elena stated. She rose from her chair. "Faffage over."
Jean was feeling rather proud of herself.
Right up until the moment when the day manager of the bookshop kicked them out of the reading club for the foreseeable future.
Ah, well, Jean thought. You can't win them all. She and Elena picked up ice cream cones before heading out onto the footpath beside the River Itchen for a summertime amble. They passed a swan nesting on a small island in the water, and also walked along the back fields of the school boys as they practised their cricket skills.
It was a shame Hermione and Severus were missing it.
After a few miles along the river, Jean and Elena turned around to head north into town. They hadn't made it far when they heard a strange sound coming from a shrubbery beside the riverbed.
Elena tiptoed closer, beckoning Jean to follow. What the women found was a dark-haired man, his lanky body almost wholly covering a brunette as they snogged in the grass like children. His fingers were threaded through her hair, and they were entirely unconcerned that anyone might see them.
Jean let out a happy sigh. Having found her daughter a match and having found herself again in the process, her work here was complete. "To life, David!" she whispered, pulling her friend Elena back onto the footpath so they could leave their children in peace.
She really needed a new hobby.