A/N: This is for everyone who's been waiting for another chapter of AFY and starting to think it's not going to happen, including me. This isn't that 'next chapter'; it's something I've been feeling I should write for a while, something that fits best between A Mistaken Fate and A Fractured Year, and I hope you enjoy it.
Chapter Summary: Poppy Pomfrey takes things as they come.
The moment she caught sight of Antares and Bella, Poppy knew she'd been right to argue for the Portkey. Bella looked rather like she'd forgotten she was even holding the sweet in her hand; she was far too busy stroking her son's hair and muttering under her breath and holding him as if he might break. Poppy took the sweet from her and sat her— or rather, them— down in front of her messy desk, and was at the hearth in minutes.
Albus, the annoying bastard, didn't seem to be within hearing range of the main hearth in his office. Angry and impatient, Poppy ducked out of the flames and dusted herself perfunctorily. Her noisy desk clock had ordered her to eat just minutes before Bella had dropped in— that meant twelve o'clock in the afternoon, and lunchtime, and Severus also not bloody available—
Antares made a muffled sound, and began to look even more green than he had coming in, and Poppy had to force herself to hand the conjured bowl to Bella instead of settling it in his hands herself. Large hands he had, for his size, and they were pale and shaking.
"That little room," Bella said, suddenly. "Is it—"
"It's empty," Poppy said, sighing in relief. Then, to Antares, "Will you mind moving?" He shook his head slowly, obviously fighting the urge to be sick. Poppy straightened and, wand in hand, revealed the spell-door that connected her office to the private room Bella and her son already knew so well. The resulting door was made of stone— a ghastly oversight, true, but Poppy was in a hurry, and the castle wouldn't fall grumbling down around their ears for a little lightening in this particular spot.
Moments later, Bella and Antares were seated on the neat, if slightly dusty bed in the room, and Poppy could turn her attention back to getting some preliminary potions together for tests. She shouldered open her main cabinet door hastily, and tried not to feel angry at the memory that today should have been Antares' first appointment with a proper Claromens at St. Mungo's. Bella had been so quietly proud of having quite enough for a meaningful session or two, something that Antares sorely needed to ease his nightmares and resettle all the things that blasted diary had taken upon itself to rearrange. And now—
Focus, Poppy. A deep breath later, she was shouldering her way back into the little room and closing the makeshift door entirely behind her. Antares was shivering now, and retching uselessly over the bowl. The room smelt as it always had; he wasn't bringing anything up.
"We saw the Claromens," Bella said, over the sound of Antares' discomfort. "Antares was nervous— insisted on not having breakfast. I suppose it was a good idea." She was half smiling now, and one would never have connected the whitened hand holding the bowl steady with the gentle one stroking Antares' neck. "I didn't know what to expect—"
"Why would you?" Poppy set down the vials with a clatter, hoping the small table she'd just conjured would hold steady. "It's not often that you need a Claromens."
Bella's expression tightened, and as she looked down at nothing, Poppy wondered why on earth it had occurred to her to try and make small talk. Something serious had gone wrong; Antares wouldn't be here otherwise, curling next to his mother, his sick expression at odds with the clean bowl beneath his head.
Poppy, sighing, let the vials alone. They weren't going to help in this case. "What happened?"
Bella didn't speak for a long, tense moment. When she started, her tone was calm— too calm. "It should have gone well. He was nervous, but not that…" There was sharp-edged worry in the look she gave Pomfrey then. "It started well, too. The man we had, the Claromens, very polite. Very kind, very…and then he put his hands on Antares' head and told him to relax and close his eyes. Nothing special, I thought. Nothing I'd consider, you know, different, or strange." There was anger in her tone now; at what or who, Poppy could not guess. "He started shaking a minute later."
Bella's smile was sharper than any other one Poppy had ever seen. "The Claromens."
"You heard me," Bella said, the smile twisting on her face. "Couldn't believe it myself. Antares— he was so still. I didn't know what in the least…and then, he started screaming. The Claromens, again."
Poppy stared. There was only so much one could know about a medical field one did not practice, but anyone, anyone who knew enough to practice anything knew that a Claromens was strong. They meddled deeply in the makeup of the most meaningful weapon of any wizard, carefully tending minds that had portions damaged by spell exposure and deep trauma. Entrance to the St. Mungo's program was highly selective, and the most important criteria that was selected for was strength of mind. A Claromens had to be able to see and stand apart from the worst of their patient's memories to help. That this one had reacted in such a manner— had screamed—
"I separated them, then." The smile was gone now, replaced by worry again. "I could— I could feel something, some growing connection break, when I touched them." Bella shook her head. "They just— they threw us out, basically. And Antares, by then…"
But Poppy wasn't really listening anymore. A connection. Something that had been forming, as Bella had said, something not quite there. Almost like— and the thought hit Poppy hard, so hard she couldn't breathe— almost like a month ago, or more, in this room. A connection that formed and held.
A seething, stubborn bond.
"I didn't know what else to do," Bella was saying, her eyes now on Antares. "I— I hope you don't mind—"
"You're sure it was a connection," Pomfrey said, cutting in. When Bella stared at her, she tried to explain. "You said just now that you felt something break. Some sort of connection."
"Yes, but what does that have to do with anything?" Bella looked up at her, clearly confused and not a little angry at the interruption. "Antares needs Claromentic help. He couldn't have done it, and I know that poor young man couldn't have—"
"It'll happen again," Pomfrey said, not quite able to feel guilty at cutting Bella off again. "Take my word on that."
"What do you mean it'll happen again? There are other Claromens we can see; it can't—"
"Oh, it can," Pomfrey said, firmly. "Changing to another Claromens won't help."
"How on earth do you know that?" Bella said, her tone beginning to rise. "I can't just leave things as they are! Only a Claromens will help control his nightmares, you told me that—"
"Only a Claromens can have brought forth such a powerful effect," Poppy said. "I suppose I thought his seeing one might be all right." It was harder than she'd thought it might be to actually say the words, to see the way faint hope dimmed on Antares' face and plummeted on Bella's. "Claromency is a Blind Art, Bella."
"Tell me something I don't know," Bella snapped, glaring at her. "Try telling me what that has to do with anything, anything at all."
"The protection charm on your son was recently roused to defend him at a time he was undergoing an invasion of his mind," Poppy said, bluntly. "Claromency is an invasion of the mind. A healing invasion, yes, of course, but after what happened with Albus, I doubt the charm on your son depends on intent."
Bella drew in a sharp breath, going still. "I see." Looking at her, Poppy saw that she did. She did not know whether to feel relieved that Bella would not be…obtuse, just now, or whether to feel bad that Bella could not hide the implications of this unlucky discovery from herself. "And I don't suppose we could test to see if the charm on him will let me— might let me—"
"No." The unquenched hope in Bella's eyes broke down Poppy's desire to refrain from explaining why. "What happens if it goes wrong? There's no one else connected to him by blood, as you are."
"And we naturally couldn't try connecting anyone to him that way," Bella said sarcastically, her tone jerky and odd. "Even if Albus Dumbledore isn't dying to have some stake in his future—"
"Has it occurred to you that a blood connection might not be the only thing that lets you interfere in the charm's results?" Poppy took a deep breath. "It is not worth testing if we don't know."
"Mum," Antares said, quietly. His voice was surprisingly steady; odd, since the bowl he clutched was still empty, and his face was still pale. "She's right." Bella didn't look down at him, but he went on anyway. "They're just nightmares. I'd rather have you than have them go away."
"I wouldn't die—"
"Do you know what it did to the Healer?" Bella looked at Antares then, her words dropping away. "It— I couldn't do a thing. All he did was just— get in, and try to take off what I'd been covering the scars with." Antares looked sickened, now. Poppy could not help but wonder if he hadn't just remained in his own mind, or if the charm had taken him along to see the mistaken vengeance it wrought on the Claromens. "If you— if it did that to you…" He gulped, and shifted closer to Bella, who put her arms around him. "You'd just hurt me, and I'd hurt you. Make everything worse."
Bella bit her lip, but said nothing for a long, still moment. "I suppose you'll have to heal by yourself, then. Just this once." She smiled a little, bitterly. "You were getting on, weren't you?"
Antares nodded against her. "A bit." He sounded like he knew just how much of a lie that was; all of them knew that his consumption of Dreamless Sleep hadn't gone down one whit just yet.
Poppy softly cleared her throat, trying to find something truly hopeful to say. "You might be able to accelerate things a little if someone taught you how," she said tentatively. "I doubt the protection charm will take offence if you used the same techniques. And I'm sure we could find someone willing to show you how to do things without going into your mind."
"There might be a book or two," Bella said, looking up. She sounded hollow, but that was better than the deep bitterness etched into her face, or the despair in her eyes. Antares, his eyes closed in what looked like relief, would only think she was tired, and perhaps not worry about that. "Cheaper than going to another Claromens, anyway."
They threw us out, she'd said earlier. For a moment, Poppy hated every living soul at St. Mungo's, for she had just realised that Bella had said nothing about them paying her back. "Oh, they'll pay you back. Less anything the Claromens requires, but they'll pay you back," Poppy said encouragingly, thinking hard. "They're probably trying to figure out how to get it back to you— you still don't have an account at Gringotts, do you?" When Bella shook her head, looking dubious, Poppy nodded. "Well, then. It shouldn't take too long for them to realise Antares has a perfectly suitable account in his name, and transfer accordingly."
"I suppose so," Bella said, reluctantly. "Be pleasant to have it back that soon."
Poppy smiled. "Shouldn't take more than a week," she said decisively. I'll make sure of it. "Now, is there anything else I can do to help? Besides some more Reviving potion, that is." Bella smiled at that, just a little, and after that it wasn't so hard to go through the usual sequence of dosing Antares with this and that, and asking careful questions about his spell practice. Once they began talking about that, Bella relaxed further, obviously happy to have good news of some sort to report.
"I haven't needed to show him a charm more than once yet," Bella said proudly. "Spell theory and potions and history are the only things holding us back, really. And what really matters in daily life, anyway?" She smiled again, smug. "I've a feeling the school board's going to regret dropping him as an Apprentice."
Poppy smiled along with her, now thinking of who best to approach at St. Mungo's about the money they owed Bella for the botched treatment. "Oh, I don't know about that," she said. "From what I hear, they may be having someone else take over the position."
"Oh yes. I think more than half of the professors are in favour of regularly choosing Apprentices now, and not just selecting for magical brilliance. The older Apprentices— they're in Slytherin, I believe— they haven't been as much use as Antares here has, and they showed a lot more potential from the start. Oh, and Ginny Weasley as well." Poppy turned back to the potions, hoping she'd brought the one she would need. "Professor McGonagall apparently swears by her."
Antares snorted softly, and muttered something like "She would." Poppy chose to ignore it; Minerva was hardly the worst sort for playing favourites, and when she did have a preference, she wasn't one to flaunt it as starkly as Filius or Severus might. Antares sighed when she found the potion, but didn't grumble when she exchanged the still-empty bowl he'd been holding for a nice vialful of carefully watered-down Ostendi anima. She turned away as he drank it down, steeling herself for the usual blaze of light that he would be overlain with.
When she heard the clink of the vial being set back on the table, Poppy finally turned to look at Antares. She blinked and willed her eyes not to water— no point in making the potion tied specifically to her if she couldn't hide her reactions on viewing Antares' magical core. It was hard going nonetheless, and Poppy's skin crawled under Bella's respectful gaze as she tried to relate her observations without adding her reservations to them.
"Mending nicely," was all she could say at first, as Antares shifted uncomfortably under her gaze. "Looks to be growing at the normal rate." Bella smiled, and the discreet hint Poppy had been about to drop about her son's rather abnormal starting point for his otherwise normal growth died away. "I can see the results from that visit to the Claromens, though— remember the layer I told you about? The one that I think represents the protection charm?" Bella nodded, her smile smaller than before, and Antares began to make a close study of his hands in his lap. "It looks…irritated, especially higher up. But of course, that should clear out eventually."
Bella, though she couldn't see just how much Poppy was understating the charm's irritation, didn't seem to take as much comfort from that as Poppy had hoped. "But not permanently," she said, mostly to herself. "Of course not."
That's hardly the problem, Poppy found herself desperately wanting to say. He's kept that magic he took from the diary, and from Albus. If you think that charm will let him give magic back to anyone else, after all that's happened… Poppy sighed, half in frustration, half in relief; the effect of the Ostendi potion was fading. "Everything else about his core is normal, though. That's one thing you can be sure of." Antares looked up then, a puzzled look in his eyes, and Poppy found it hard to keep her face straight.
"Normal," Antares said, his tone low. "What's that mean?"
Poppy could have kicked herself— why didn't I just move on to something else? "It means that your magical core is expanding and growing at the normal rate for someone of your age," she said carefully, hoping—
"But the other stuff," and this was the question Poppy had been dreading, "it's okay? The magic the protection charm took from— from the diary, and—"
"It is," Poppy said, calmly. Maybe he wouldn't dig any deeper—
"It is, what? Is it normal?"
"Well, yes, but—"
"How can it be normal? You said normal is when it's growing at the normal rate," Antares pointed out, feverish hope now clear in his eyes. "It can't be growing, that wouldn't be normal, would it? That's what you mean, isn't it?"
Poppy licked her lips, looked away from him, and found that Bella's face was closed. Merlin's bones, Poppy thought, looking into her eyes, she knows. Antares was shifting impatiently beside his mother, as if to draw back the attention he could see he'd lost. Poppy licked her lips again, and tried to speak.
Bella's calm voice was what she heard instead. "The magic the protection charm took is part of your magical core now," she said, matter-of-factly. "Of course it's growing."
Antares gave her a look so full of venom that it made Poppy catch her breath. But all he said was, "That's not true."
Poppy sighed. "Unfortunately—"
"It's not fair," Antares said, ignoring her. "I didn't ask for it—"
"It's how your body works, for Merlin's sake," Poppy snapped, suddenly grasping that this might be a long-standing argument between him and Bella. And all over something so basic, something that so definitely could not be changed. "Any infusion of magic into you is accepted and integrated into your magical core. Why do you think curses work? Protection charms like the one you've got are one of the few ways to keep certain kinds of magic from being absorbed— curses, befuddlement charms, that sort of thing. Do you understand why your charm hasn't done that this time?"
Antares' face froze as he considered her question, desperate, no doubt, to find an answer he could accept. "It— my charm took the extra magic on purpose," he said quietly. "From the diary, and from— from the headmaster." His tone was now dull with realisation as he continued, "So my core absorbed it."
"Yes," Poppy said warily. "It isn't completely absorbed yet, but it should all grow at roughly the same rate from now on. In a few months, there won't be any real way to tell what was added and what was yours to begin with." Antares was now glaring at his hands, ignoring her attempts to catch his eye, so Poppy turned her attention to Bella instead.
Bella's expression was still closed, but she somehow managed a sincere, if dry smile anyway, one that strengthened Poppy's belief that she and Antares had already argued the matter before. "So, in effect, his core is larger than usual, and will continue to be larger than usual as he grows up?"
"Yes," Poppy said, smiling slightly in return. "His spell proficiency's only going to go up, I'm afraid. I wouldn't be too surprised if it starts increasing faster than seems normal for him, after this." The panic that crossed Antares' face at that wiped the smile off Poppy's face, but she went on anyway. "Third year's the time of greatest magical growth for most children, you know."
Bella sighed, looking gratefully down at Antares. For what felt like the twentieth time, Poppy felt relieved that he wasn't here at Hogwarts; Merlin only knew how much destructive attention his increased ability would have attracted here, even after all that had happened. Then Bella looked around the near-empty little room, stiffening slightly. "Is the Headmaster not coming?"
That she'd only just noticed his absence made Poppy shake her head; she knew, in abstract, that Bella was very good at hiding her feelings, but hadn't thought her ability at that would stretch to cover the kind of panic that must have relegated thoughts of Albus Dumbledore to the very back of her mind.
Poppy repressed a sigh, cursing him and Severus again as she checked the time. Quarter to one, so lunch would be just about over by now— "No. It's lunch, and he wasn't anywhere near his hearth." Bella nodded, pulling her son closer to her. "I could probably get a hold of him by now, though. Or," Poppy added reluctantly, "if you like, of Severus."
But Bella was already shaking her head. "I've only half the day off from work," she said, rising from the bed. "Much better that I just get us some lunch and take him home."
"Ah," Poppy said, moving out of the way so Antares could get off the bed as well. "Won't he be bored?"
"God no," Bella said, another, more mischievous smile flitting across her face. "You've got books, don't you, darling?"
"Yeah," was the muttered answer. "And homework." Antares made the latter sound so awful that Poppy couldn't quite keep from smiling.
"It's not half as bad as anything you'd get here," Bella said automatically, rolling her eyes. "Well, Poppy— you'll tell the Headmaster what happened, won't you?"
"If I'm unlucky, he'll keep me in my seat for half an hour telling me he'd seen it coming," Poppy said, reopening the rough door into her office. "If I'm lucky, he'll Floo you and give you that talk instead." She managed to make it a wooden portal this time, and closed it with a swish once they were through; the potions in the room weren't going anywhere for the time being. And Bella and Antares were, once Bella finished hunting in her pockets for the return portkey they'd agreed on her having just two weeks ago. She accepted the sweet that had been cast on Poppy's desk with an absent nod, then turned up the sweet wrapper as she tried to find something to protect the sweet with.
"Don't forget this week's check-up," Poppy said, smiling at them both. "And if Severus starts stinting you on Dreamless Sleep, you know who to call."
Bella only smiled at that, taking firm hold of Antares as she did so. "See you on Sunday, Poppy." And then, with one last look down at Antares, she mouthed the password and was gone.
Poppy stood there for a moment, letting her own smile fade. Then, with a sharp shake of the head, she made for her hearth again. A spell or two ensured that any tendrils of hair that had been escaping this morning were back firmly in place, and another spell floated the floo powder pot within reach.
"St. Mungo's," Poppy called, as the flames turned green. Her face had settled into its sternest lines, save for a twitch at her lips; it had been too long since she'd had the chance to rightfully give someone at the hospital a good talking-to. Stilling her mouth, Poppy leaned forward into the flames, eyes closed, and gave herself up to the dizzying whirl of Floo travel.
A/N: Apologies for any spelling mistakes or other weird things that jump out at you, and be sure to let me know if there were any in here that are extra embarrassing. Happy holidays, everyone.