Prologue: Mr. Qu
"You are a miracle…you are dead, you live, you die, you live again. England has earned such a miracle!"
-John T. Aquino, "When the Dead Rise Up"
Genovaise Jenkins, candy striper at St. Mungo's Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries, had been told upon hiring that the Janus Thickey ward for permanent spell damage was strictly off-limits to volunteers. So when Healer Heckleburg had told her that she was to head to the fourth floor and assist with Mr. Qu, Genovaise had nearly dropped the sheet she had been diligently folding.
"Me, mum?" she had squeaked, her ears flushing pink. "Are – are ye sure?"
Healer Heckleburg's thin lips had tightened into an even thinner line. She was a tall, stocky woman with a sallow complexion. In the lime-green, standard-issue Healer robes, she looked very similar to an oversized grape. She tended to bark her commands in a low, gravelly voice, which had caused Genovaise and the other candy stripers to secretly give her the nickname of "Toady" Burg.
"Complaints, Genny?" Healer Heckleburg had asked coolly. "Healer Streeter's off for the day, and I'm short of help. I'm sure even you –" her deep-set eyes had narrowed for emphasis "—can handle one coma patient."
Fifteen minutes later, Genovaise found herself wheeling a small handcart down the shiny tile of the fourth floor hallways.
"I bet she 'eard me callin' her Toady to Nikki," the eighteen-year-old grumbled over the slight squeaking of the handcart, which had a wobbly wheel. "'As it in fer me, she does. Ever since I tried to clean up the git spitting slugs last week an' accidentally blew 'em up all over 'er…."
Her face set in a long-suffering look as she pulled up to the doors of the Janus Thickey ward. It wasn't that she disliked working at St. Mungo's. She enjoyed it just fine here, especially when she got to work with sufferers of incorrectly-applied love charms – those were always worth a chuckle. But the long-term residents were something completely different. She had heard the stories of the other candy stripers that had been assigned there, heard about the drooling patients, the glassy and empty gazes, the incoherent babbling. Genovaise liked helping at St. Mungo's – in fact, she had been a patient once when her older brother's wand had misfired and turned her nose into a pig's snout – but the long-term residents were just, well, too messy.
It also didn't help that St. Mungo's had become increasingly boring over the past several months. It had been over a year since Harry Potter had destroyed You-Know-Who and scattered his dark followers every which-way across the globe. Genovaise had signed up to volunteer at St. Mungo's not long after the big excitement, even though her mother had protested loudly and tearfully. It had been her chance – her chance to do something exciting!
Genovaise was secretly enamored of Muggle novels, especially romance novels, and had read several series revolving around an historic event called the "Civil War." She had devoured the descriptions of the brave heroines in those books, with their bloodstained sleeves rolled up over their elbows, their sleek hair piled atop their heads so that tendrils cascaded down their slender necks, their eyes tired but glowing with kindness as they ever-so-gently tended to the fallen soldiers. Although Genovaise's shoulder-length brown hair was too short to pile atop her head, and her neck was far from slender, the prospect of administering to the fallen was too good of an opportunity to pass up. The day before she had begun work at St. Mungo's, Genovaise's excitement had rendered her unable to sleep. The imagined praise of the soldiers rang loudly in her ears – "angel of mercy," they called her, and a "veritable Florence Nightingale" – which, although she wasn't certain, she supposed was a variety of Italian songbird that they always talked about in Muggle novels.
But to her dismay, she had discovered that none of the volunteers at St. Mungo's were allowed to tend to the soldiers of the Second Great War. Instead, Genovaise and the other candy stripers found themselves delegated to tedious tasks like serving meals to the cauldron explosion victims on the ground floor, or changing the bedpans of the creature-induced sufferers on the first floor. No one called her an 'angel of mercy,' except for one toothless old man who thought she was his daughter, and she had zipped out of that room as quick as her feet would carry her, you'd better believe it!
Both she and Nikki had bemoaned their rotten luck. Of course, only the most important war of anytime had been fought during their lifetimes, and they didn't even get to take care of one misfired spell injury.
"Heckleburg's just jealous 'cause she knows we'd do better 'n her," Nikki had sniffed, and Genovaise had been inclined to agree with her. The two had resigned themselves to just watch the hustle and bustle of the Healers as they attended the war victims, but even that had petered out over the months as the injuries healed, patients recovered, and people started to go back to their normal lives.
It had been, altogether, exceedingly boring.
The doors to the Janus Thickey ward were always locked to visitors and patients, but one alohomora from Genovaise opened them with ease. The cart's wheel rattled rhythmically as she entered the ward and trotted past the beds of the long-term residents of St. Mungo's.
Healer Lauwren, standing at the shoulder of a man who was happily drooling and petting a potted plant, looked up at the sound of the cart and smiled broadly. "Genny!" she exclaimed, straightening and pushing her horn-rimmed glasses up the bridge of her nose. "I didn't know you were allowed up here. Heckleburg's promoted you, has she?"
Genovaise twisted her hands behind her back. "Not likely," she retorted ruefully, trying not to stare at the man next to Healer Lauwren, but failing miserably. He had found one of the plant's leaves and was now gnawing absently at it. "Got sent up 'ere to check up on Mr. Qu."
Lauwren gently batted the leaf away from the man's mouth, causing him to gurgle in sudden protest. "Oh, good. He's down there, last bed on the left." She motioned down the hallway without looking.
Genovaise's face scrunched up. "Why can't ye do it?" she blurted out. "I mean, yer the Healer fer this ward, an' all…." Then she suddenly realized what she was saying and blushed deeply, quickly biting off the rest of her words.
Lauwren raised a dark eyebrow and stared at Genovaise for a long moment. Then, she smiled, putting her hand on her patient's shoulder. "Professional distance," she said breezily. "I knew Mr. Qu before he – ended up here." Her fingers gently twined in the hair of the drooling man, who had resumed petting his plant. "Heckleburg wants a person who doesn't know him to take care of him, someone who doesn't have a personal attachment."
"Oh," said Genovaise.
"It'll be good for him," Healer Lauwren said after a moment, her voice suddenly bright and cheerful again. "A new face will do him good."
Genovaise's brow puckered. "I thought 'e were in a coma." She wondered if there was any truth to the rumor that tending the long-term patients for too long caused you to become dotty yourself. She shuddered at the thought.
"He is," Lauwren said cheerfully. "But I like to think that he'll know the difference. Go on, Genny, you don't want to be wasting time, or Heckleburg'll have your wand."
Genovaise was inclined to disagree with Lauwren's optimistic assessment of Mr. Qu's comprehensive capabilities as soon as she rolled her rickety cart up to the still figure in the far bed. Mr. Qu's eyes were closed and the muscles of his face were slack and sunken. His cheeks were horribly scarred, almost as if someone had heated two irons and clapped them to his face. He was bald as a cue ball, and Genovaise could clearly see the bones of his skull beneath his skin, like a statue covered with a wet rag.
She set to work as quickly as possible. She tried to hide her distaste for the task, but even so, her lips curled back from her teeth as she pulled back the sheets and clumsily worked his slack limbs from his crumpled gown. The bedpan was hurriedly removed and tapped with a wand to clean it. Finally, Genovaise pulled a large sponge from the cart and dipped it in the accompanying bucket of soapy water. With a wave of her wand and a muttered "Lavatis Qu," the sponge sprang to life and began to diligently bathe the comatose Mr. Qu, only pausing for Genovaise to lift his arm or roll him over on one side or the other.
More to distract her from the task at hand than anything, she let her eyes wander around the small enclosure as the sponge set to work. While the bedside areas of the other long-term patients had lots of personal touches – pictures of family, brightly knitted blankets, familiar clothes – Mr. Qu's walls were bare, save for a tattered 1985 calendar of the Chudley Cannons. Genovaise could see faint discolorations on the wall, outlines of where pictures had once hung – the faded ghosts of a former resident. There was nothing in the room that spoke of the existence of the mysterious Mr. Qu, save for the slowly-breathing body in the bed.
"Huh," Genovaise muttered, not unkindly. "Poor ol' sod."
She had just finished re-sheeting the bed when a polite cough echoed behind her. She turned and found herself staring up into a pair of steel-gray eyes. The question she had been meaning to ask dried in her throat as she stared at the man who had appeared behind her. He was dressed entirely in black, from the fine cut of his silk robes to the black hat shadowing his chiseled features. Although his hair was pulled back beneath the hat, Genovaise could just make out separate strands of platinum blond disappearing beneath the black velvet brim.
Cor blimey, Genovaise thought weakly, gazing into his regal visage. 'E's old enough to be me Da, 'e is, but ain't 'e a looker! Like somethin' outta one o' me books!
"Excuse me," the man murmured in a dulcet tone, touching one gloved hand to the brim of his hat. "But I was informed by the Healer in charge that I could find one of my old friends back here."
Genovaise, finding her loquacious tongue suddenly tied in knots, flapped an arm towards the comatose Mr. Qu. A smile flickered across the blond man's face, and he swept to the side of the bed in a rustle of black silk.
"Ah, Quintus," he whispered, clasping the patient's limp hand rather gingerly between his two gloved ones. "My, but you've gone to rot." He dropped Mr. Qu's hand from his own, and it fell back onto the bed.
"Ye – ye knew 'im?" Genovaise squeaked, her voice cracking over the words. The man's glittering gray eyes rose to her face, and the breath caught in Genovaise's throat as a slow, brilliant smile lit his countenance.
"Are you the nurse in charge of my old friend, then?" he asked, his voice rich as cream. "My, you must be quite the prodigy, then…you don't look any older than my son…"
"Um…" Genovaise found it very hard to concentrate beneath the gray of his gaze. "Just an…assistant."
His smile deepened. "Really?" He glanced at Mr. Qu and raised one pale eyebrow. "For the attentions of such a pretty candy striper, I might not mind being a bedridden wreck myself."
Genovaise shyly smoothed her striped apron over her thick waist. "I'm – I've almost finished enough time to become a Trainee," she mumbled, deciding to stretch the truth a bit.
The man's eyes flickered to the nametag pinned to the front of her uniform. "I am glad indeed that my friend has been entrusted to such capable hands…Genny." His gaze caught hers. "Such a childish name for someone so terribly sophisticated. It must be short for something much more suitable."
She giggled, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. "Um…it's actually…Genovaise," she mumbled shyly.
"Genovaise." His gray eyes flashed warmly. "How absolutely exquisite."
Blushing furiously, Genovaise turned to her pushcart and began to noisily arrange its contents. "I'll just – I'll just leave you two to catch up," she said hurriedly, grabbing hold of the cart and starting to push it away.
"Thank you for your kindness, Genovaise, but that will be unnecessary."
Genovaise halted and turned back around. The blond man laid Mr. Qu's hand back on the sheets and patted it gently. Then he straightened and looked directly at her.
"I regret that I have insufficient time to visit further with my friend this day." He stepped slowly around the bed, keeping his eyes fixed on the blushing Genovaise. She tilted her head back as he drew near her, so close that she could see the faint lines beginning to etch around his silvery eyes.
"But I shall return another day," he murmured, his voice a soft caress. Then, to Genovaise's wonderment, he grasped her hand with a polished movement and raised it briefly to his lips. "And I hope that I shall see you on that happy occasion, my dear Genovaise." He gave a slight bow and loosed her hand. "Please, take good care of my friend until then."
Then, with a touch to his hat and a quick smile, he swept away, leaving a blissfully trembling Genovaise in his wake. Several moments later, the girl finally remembered to breathe.
Who cares if he's old enough to be me Da, she thought dazedly, clasping her hand so tightly to her chest that she could feel the blood draining from her fingers. He's gorgeous! Wait 'til I tell Nikki 'bout this ... ooh, won't she just die!
Genovaise finally remembered where she was, and started to put away her instruments on the pushcart. Her face split in a wide smile as she folded up Qu's soiled gown and placed it next to the bucket of soapy water. It was a crying shame, really, that Mr. Qu's room was so bare. Even if he couldn't see, or didn't have any family, the place should at least look nice.
Some pictures, she thought, tucking a straggling strand of mousy-brown hair behind her ear. An' maybe some flowers, or a plant – somethin' to drive away that nasty medicinal smell. Though Mr. Qu wasn't awake, who was to say that he wouldn't sense the difference?
It only took Genovaise two tries to turn the pushcart around, after knocking a huge chip out of the bedside table with the left front wheel. She beamed at the still form of Mr. Qu. Healer Lauwren really was overworked in this wing – as soon as she put her cart away, Genovaise silently swore she would march straight up to Healer Heckleburg and ask to be moved permanently to the Janus Thickey ward. The staff really was overworked – Genovaise would be an invaluable help to the long-term residents!
Qu's medical clipboard hung from the end of his bed, and before she left Genovaise quickly scribbled the date and time of her visit. The words, she noticed proudly, were only slightly trembly. Her eyes fell on the name printed in bold letters above the chart; she studied it for a moment, and then, humming an off-tune melody to herself, began to push the little cart back down the ward. The loose wheel made the cart swerve in her grasp, but she barely noticed.
"See you tomorrow," she said merrily over her shoulder to the patient in the bed, "Mr. Quintus Quirrell!"
Author's Note: Ladies and gentlemen, the incorrigible Aieshya has returned! Yes! Over a year later, the long awaited sequel to The Fire You Touch is being actualized. I can hear your cries of joy all the way across the Internet. And, yes, before you ask…I WILL finish more than two chapters on this (unlike the failed experiment of The House of Rimmon).
On to the first chapter! –AKB