The man stepped out into the clearing and shrugged out of his rucksack with a grateful sigh. Setting it on the ground, he looked at some indefinite point to the west. His clothing was miraculously clean for someone who had just walked a few miles in the early morning dust of rural Botswana with only a few monkeys watching him from the trees. He used a spotless white handkerchief to mop his brow.
Rummaging through his sack, he extracted a box and a notebook and, taking off his jacket, he sat down on the garment and began using one scientific instrument after another from the box. He took notes, his actions unhurried. So great was his relaxation, as was proper to a man alone in the wilds of a remote African region, that he jumped up like a shot at the French voice behind him.
"Excuse me, is it…?"
He took in the small woman, who looked to be in her early forties and might be from India or Pakistan, and started again when she completed the phrase, "Andre?"
"No one has called me that in years," the man said in his own panicked French that betrayed his own origins from some Francophone African country. "Who sent you? You can't force me to work for you! I have rights!"
The woman burst out laughing, a musical sound that contrasted oddly with the man's fear. "Forgive me, mon ami. If you had any idea how hard we tried to find you, and then here you are, doing exactly what we're doing, as we should have thought. Julian told us all about you."
"Oh!" he sat down heavily, the fear draining from his face, leaving a sort of watchful exhaustion. "Then you know all about Mick. I suppose I should call you a friend as well." He looked around. "You said 'we.' Are you here with a research team to see the fungus pass through?"
A smile played around her lips. "Yes, as a matter of fact, I am. But no one else is an early riser like me, so I thought I would get a head start before the crowd. I can see you thought the same."
"Yes, well, it's easier to-sense these things-if no one else is around." The woman made a move to go. "No, madam, I didn't mean you, it's just, well, no one else understands, you see —it's a rather lonely path. Which is why I go by Paul, these days, Dr. Paul Senghor."
"And I go by Padma, these days," the woman returned with a little laugh. "Here, allow me." She took a large blanket from her own rucksack and spread it on the ground. "Julian always said you were very exacting in the laboratory. It must be difficult for you to suffer all the unknown variables and contaminants in the air."
He chuckled. "He teased me on more than one occasion, yes. I've had to become comfortable with the unknown, madam, much more than I would have ever expected all those years ago when I met Julian. You knew him in Paris, or did you meet him in his travels?"
"In Paris. Much of what Julian said about this miraculous mold went straight over my head, but I do remember he was always darting off to buy strange foods at the oddest times." Her smile faded. "I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but Julian died some eleven years ago."
The man nodded. "Yes, I knew." He took in her surprise. "We didn't stay in touch, obviously, after he left so suddenly, but I found out from the healer-woman that works in these parts, oddly enough. It was on my only other visit here that she told me."
He produced a flask of water and offered it to her, but she removed her own container from her bag. "It was one of those things that happens a few times in your life, when someone tells you bad news and you know in the pit of your stomach that it's true. One more unscientific thing I've had to accept since meeting our mutual friend."
"Oh, so you have met Nnunu?" The woman leaned forward. "I was very much hoping to talk with her. You see, we, my 'team' and I, we've been retracing Julian's steps all over the world, everywhere his extensive notes make mention of, which have led us to some very odd places. But this lady in particular seemed one of the most knowledgeable."
He grimaced. "I'm afraid if you're seeking a meaningful conversation you aren't likely to have one with that woman. Not only is she half-senile, or was when I came through eight years ago, but she's so old that the dialect she speaks is nearly extinct. No one could communicate with her with any degree of accuracy then, unless she really only spoke the nonsense the translator relayed to me, and there's no telling she's even still alive. The people in these parts don't trust outsiders, and I couldn't get a straight word out of any of them when I arrived yesterday."
"But she somehow told you that Julian had died?" The woman asked with the air of someone who knows the answer.
"Yes, it was the strangest thing. We were having this muddled conversation where I was trying to make her understand that I possessed a healthy culture of the mold she used once a year when it passed through her region, and I was just about to give up when she looked right at me. I felt like I was rooted to the spot. Then she said in what seemed like perfect French to my ears, 'He's dead, you know,' in this way that my heart knew must be true."
The woman nodded. "I've talked to many of these healers Julian had contact with, and nothing surprises me anymore," she said and then looked over her shoulder to where the man's gaze had been drawn. "Children! Come and meet Doctor Andre!"
The group of eleven children, ranging in age from ten to seventeen and of assorted ethnic backgrounds, approached slowly. One girl had a small monkey clinging to her. A cloud of butterflies was hanging over another. Several had small birds perched on their shoulders.
"This is your research team?" the man asked.
"And a finer team you could never find," the woman declared proudly. "This is Doctor Andre, the one that was friends with your uncle."
"Pleased to meet you," each of them said politely in perfect French and then, with a nod from the woman, they wandered off. Some sat on the ground to dig up some type of insect or worm. Some studied the sky or plucked leaves from the bushes and passed them back and forth as if they were reading pages from a book.
Everything took place in complete silence.
"You are a—relative—of Julian's?" the doctor asked, looking from her to the assorted children, obviously trying to find a connection.
"We were the closest thing to family he had, my husband and I. The two youngest, the twins, Jacques and Jennie, they are our biological children. The rest we've picked up along the way."
The man's expression was neutral as he watched one of the older children carry a smaller one on his back. Three of the group seemed African, two East Asian, two Slavic and the others, Western European or some mixture thereof. "Not everyone would thank you for taking these children out of their own culture."
"But this is their culture!" she burst out so fiercely the man leaned back. Padma took a deep breath and looked Andre up and down a few times until her expression calmed. "Forgive me, doctor, Julian taught me the secret of how to deal with you people who spend your days in laboratories and libraries, but we exist in the real world, where the rest of my family has not learned the lesson so well. Kindly do not say such a thing to my husband when he comes. It would wound him to hear you say that the home we have offered these children is anything less than ideal."
They gazed at the different groups of children, who often contrived to be hand in hand or lean close to one another's shoulders.
"They seem to get along very well," he admitted. "Very affectionate, aren't they?"
"Oh, yes, they're always hugging and holding one another. We thought it would be different for our adopted children, whom I assure you came from frightful conditions every one. Our two were always that way, always touching hands. They dislike being alone." A shadow passed across her face. "Do you have children, Doctor Andre? I'm sorry, I can't think of you any other way."
"No, it's fine as long as you don't tell anyone in Europe you've seen me. Yes, I have a son of ten. I named him Julian, after the man who gave me so much and explained so little."
Sympathetic eyes regarded him for a moment. "Jacques?" She called. The boy and girl approached. "One of you run and tell your father to see if he has that letter your uncle wrote to Andre."
The children nodded but only stood there studying the leaves in their hands.
"I said now," their mother said and gestured towards the path. They ran off.
"We digitized all of his notes, most of which were written on anything other than paper, long ago, so my husband probably has the file with him. It was one of the things he left at his death."
"How did he…?"
The words came quietly but steadily. "It was some illness that overtook him suddenly, possibly contracted in his travels to far-flung regions," she said. "It was a terrible loss for us, my husband and me, so perhaps you can not speak of it with him."
"Of course, I wouldn't do such a thing," the man assured her. "They should all hurry back. It's coming soon." He shook his head at her placid expression. "You don't know how wonderful it feels not to have to explain how I know. "
"I, myself, have a policy to explain as little as I can get away with, doctor." She squeezed his arm warmly.
All of a sudden the children started rummaging through their pockets. They each retrieved a small pot of some ointment and smeared some on their upper lips. "Oh dear, it really must be close," the woman said, taking out her own container.
Then the man sniffed and made a face. "Yes, here they come." He took a portion of the gel from his container, which smelled of camphor. "I thought doctors working in less than ideal conditions were the only ones who habitually carried something to use against the smell of sickness."
"No, try this." The woman offered her jar. "This is one of the many things recreated from Julian's notes. It will take away the odor but also has antimicrobial properties. I wouldn't have the children get close otherwise."
The first stretcher came into sight, bearing a man groaning and holding his stomach. The two carriers stopped to rest for a moment. A few more stretchers followed close behind. The bearers appeared to confer and several pointed at a path further on. Eventually everyone decided to stay where they were.
Some people walking on crutches or wrapped in bandages joined the first group, bringing with them the air of sickness that had reached the children first. The sick and their companions took out containers of water and food and began to wait. One man circulated in the growing crowd.
"He's taking bets, that one," Andre gestured. "The fungus could easily appear in another place within a two or three mile radius. There will be people camped out at some of the other locations where it's been sighted before."
There was a rustling in the crowd, which made way for a man who seemed to be wounded. Bent at the waist, he was sobbing and holding onto two children's hands. "No really, I'm fine, I'm not actually wounded like that," the man asserted in a good strong English voice.
The children led him through the crowd to where the woman and the doctor sat. His face was streaming with tears but he beamed and extended his hand to the seated doctor. "Don't mind me, Doctor Andre, I'm just a bit emotional today. So glad to finally meet you. The name's Arjuna, but everyone calls me Archie."
The English voice speaking very good French contrasted with the man's features, which also seemed to hail from India, though his skin was paler than the woman's. Thinking the husband was of Indian stock but born in Britain, or perhaps Eurasian, judging from the complexion of the couple's children, the doctor stood and shook his hand. "Yes, I'm pleased to—"
He stopped and looked over his shoulder at a point towards which the children's gaze was already transfixed. A smudge of gray fuzz was clinging to a tree. A murmur went through the crowd. They pointed excitedly, and then someone else gestured towards a spot on the dusty ground. The bookmaker and a few other stretcher carriers pulled out cellular telephones and spoke excitedly. The mold moved slowly when it wasn't seemingly vanishing between one point and another.
Some of the stretcher-bearers acted as crowd control, holding the anxious sufferers back. The line that had formed according to need straightened itself. Soon a couple of shouting voices were heard. The crowd fell silent and made way for a final stretcher.
An ancient woman was borne forward, her legs shrunken beneath her, but whose torso and arms appeared incongruously hearty. She pointed imperiously to where she wanted to be settled in the middle of the clearing, and the men set her down gently and then propped her up with rugs so that she could direct the morning's healings.
The two spots of mold approached her cautiously. She smiled, revealing a complete set of teeth, and greeted the fungi as if allowing a wild animal to sniff at her hand.
A small movement from her hand towards the first person in line, the wounded man, made even the birds and other insects that had added background noise to the African morning fell silent. The man's cries and groans appeared to grow in volume. The healer took some sort of stick, mumbled over it, and then used it to apply a small bit of mold to the bloody mass on the man's abdomen.
The silence in the clearing became complete for one long moment. Then the man cried out, a joyful cry, and the people all clapped. He was carried out, a changed man.
And so the healings continued. All of the most urgent cases were attended. While they watched, the woman rubbed her husband's back. "Are you all right, darling?"
"Yes, I just feel as though he were right behind me watching along with me," the man said. "Except when he was watching this same scene, everything hadn't—" He took a deep breath and then patted his pockets. "We searched for you for several years so we could give you this." He put a small data drive in the doctor's hand. "I hope it helps."
A murmur went through the crowd and they turned to look. "You see, that is the one thing I truly don't understand," Andre said "A mold that seemingly appears out of nowhere and can heal any wound—I've made my peace with that. But how does she know when to cut off the treatments for the day, and how do people accept it?"
The patients who had not been seen were packing up their bundles and receiving instructions from some of the stretcher-bearers, who pointed in various directions. "She's giving the mold a chance to rest and reproduce so that it will be around for another day, another decade. But I, for one, am not able to make these decisions so peaceably."
The husband and wife exchanged glances. "I'm sorry, I didn't ask whether you had managed to integrate Mick into a standardized treatment," the woman said. "I take it that day is still far off?"
The man sighed. "Mick is now a fully vetted medical treatment. For the past several years we haven't been trying to prove what was already apparent to the naked eye the first time I saw Julian slice his hand open and cure it with a bit of mold. What we've been struggling with is the fact that no one can seem to keep it alive but me, and I am but one man in a world full of wounded people, not all of whom are likely to be as patient as the ones who were just told to wait until tomorrow."
His words began coming out quickly, as if they had been stored for too long. "If we—my colleagues and I at an unnamed European research institute—if we were to open our doors tomorrow and people were to experience Mick's wonderful properties for themselves, the privileged of the world would never be content with a traditional surgery again. The rich and the powerful would insist upon this perfect healing and overrun our one hospital. Meanwhile, the people everywhere else would have their chance at experiencing this treatment precluded by the others who would use it up with no thought to tomorrow. And me? I'd be chained up in some laboratory somewhere, feeding an equally imprisoned and miserable Mick."
He looked at his two listeners and laughed bitterly. "It is no exaggeration, I assure you. This is why I assumed a new name and a new life in this country I will not specify even to friendly people like you, for fear of what they will do to my family.
A pained look flitted over Archie's face and Padma grasped her husband's hand.
"I stayed in Paris until I could complete my education. I attribute my degree and also my marriage to Julian and Mick, because I was able to bring my sweetheart from Senegal and set up a life for us as if by magic, once I had my academic place assured by this odd ability I developed. Things were fine, for a time, until that research team got close to establishing the safety of a drug based on Mick, which, unfortunately, had the same drawback as my current treatment—the mold must stay alive in order for it to work, and it can't be kept alive long enough to ship anywhere—or the culture alive on its own long enough to give me more than a very short vacation like this one.
"Julian began to regret the same situation shortly after bringing Mick to Paris," the husband interjected, "so it must have gotten old for you after so long."
"Yes, at some point I started to chafe under these conditions, but what really started to bother me was that they wanted to make production more efficient, they said, so they were storing the cultures in ever more crowded and uncomfortable conditions. I walked in one day and they had scores of small containers in which they were trying to grow the culture. It was like a factory, with this hideous lighting the mold doesn't like, with nothing to climb on and no room to move."
He caught their smiles. "Yes, all the considerations everyone thought Julian was mad to worry about, for someone who has an affinity for Mick, it's like hearing this silent scream. I had to do something for this substance that had given me so much. So I began exploring other avenues, other academic placements where perhaps they would appreciate this life form as such, wanting to learn more from it instead of racing to patent a medicine that we couldn't properly use.
"At around this time my wife went to get her passport and that of my infant son ready, as I wanted to be able to leave quickly. She was surprised to find the documents delayed indefinitely. That was when the director of my department came to see me. Perhaps Julian mentioned him?"
"You were the only one from the medical sciences section that Julian had anything good to say about, so all the rest ran together for me," Archie said wryly.
"I don't think even Julian would have thought the man capable of what he did. He explained in the most polite and amicable terms that if I so much as tried to take a day vacation across the channel to England, my wife and son would be detained as illegal aliens upon trying to cross back over the border. That none of us had any freedom whatsoever, because I was the only goose that could lay this particular golden egg, and they weren't throwing away years of research just like that."
"But that's outrageous!" the husband exclaimed. "S-Julian always used to complain about their inability to see the big picture, as he called it, but…."
"But you got away," Padma prompted the doctor.
"Yes, I had the good fortune to find this independent research consortium that was willing to accept my very vague promises of a scientific breakthrough—I had signed a confidentiality agreement in Paris, of course, and I wasn't willing to open myself up to prosecution until I was well and truly away from all that.
Andre's face split into a grin and he slapped his knee. "Once it was settled and my family and I were ready to become refugees from the scientific community in Paris, I did have a little fun sabotaging all my work. You see, I'd always kept a culture of my own at home, just in case something happened with the other one, so I merely let that one grow to a healthy size while letting the official strain begin to wither for unknown reasons.
"I had to endure many shouting sessions with all the other scientists, laughing on the inside while I pretended a sincere befuddlement at why this species that I'd enjoyed complete mastery over suddenly stopped eating anything I offered.
"It took six months of failures before they had to finally accept that the strain was completely dead, as far as they knew. It was very difficult to play the part of the disgraced academic, but I did it long enough that they stopped paying attention to me, and then one day, my family and I were gone, and our old names left behind. The research was set back for years while the new team started from scratch, but I had to think of my family."
"Don't worry," Archie said, putting his arm around his wife. "We know a few things about crossing heaven and earth for family's sake. "
"Oh look," Padma pointed towards the throng of children. "They are talking just fine. I hoped they would." The children were clustered around the old woman, while her two stretcher bearers looked on in amazement at the eleven assorted young people talking fluently in the woman's extinct tongue.
Their surprise was mirrored in the doctor's face. "That's impossible. Where would they have learned this dialect?"
The couple exchanged a glance and Archie got up to talk to the healer while Padma turned to the scientist. "There are some things you do not understand, but have learned to accept, yes, doctor?"
"Yes," the scientist said, watching the husband talking to the old woman's helpers and fiddling with something on his hand. The tall, muscled men shook their heads vehemently. The healer was making increasingly commanding motions with her arm and speaking in a loud voice. Finally she produced a cellular telephone and shook it at them. Reluctantly the assistants left her there on the ground, but not without transmitting a look of menace to the much-smaller husband.
Throughout the whole exchange Archie stood his ground and smiled.
"Your husband should think twice about tangling with anyone from this region. She may be half-batty, but the old woman is a local treasure."
"You'll find my husband and my children can all take perfectly good care of themselves. Watch closely," Padma said. A feast appeared from the children's bags. Out of nowhere, fruits, sandwiches, dishes of rice and other foods appeared and were placed on spotlessly clean china.
"Please join us for lunch," she invited the doctor, picking up her bag and blanket and taking the astonished man gently by the arm and steering him towards the group.
"Emma, bring the doctor's things here. Soren, give Andre some of that antimicrobial solution for his hands. Diedre, find out what he is hungry for," the small woman said with the air of a general used to being obeyed. The lunch was distributed in an orderly fashion, with everyone settling on blankets, Archie sitting next to the old woman and serving her the foods of her choice, and Padma sitting with the doctor on their own blanket.
"Would I let my family eat something that wasn't safe?" the woman asked, watching the doctor look at his plate suspiciously.
He began to eat.
"How long do you estimate the fungus will stay in town?" Padma asked. "The children like nothing so well as to study a new species. They'll be talking of nothing else for week.s."
"When they're not in school," the doctor said.
"Oh, school," she made a dismissive gesture. "Some of our older children are currently enrolled in some of the best universities in Europe, and I don't think they've had a moment's hard time keeping up after their untraditional education with us."
As he ate, Andre watched the children thoughtfully. "These are all orphans, you say?"
"Worse than orphans, monsieur. This is their true family." A boy pointed at something invisible in the sky and they all looked up. "And I assure you, each one of these children was abandoned, beaten, starved or otherwise mistreated, and the only people sorry to see them go were the owners of the ones who were in the sex trade."
The man looked shocked.
"Don't worry, people who are only interested in money are easily satisfied," Padma said, tearing off a strip of bread.
Now Andre looked outraged. "You purchased some of these individuals!"
She gave him a savage look. "We did whatever had to be done, at any cost, to rescue them. Would you do otherwise if you had the means? I'd thank you to not bring it up for Petra, the eldest over there. She has been very happy with us." She gestured to a girl who was wearing a sari and headscarf.
"So you just pick and choose the ones who merit to be part of your little designer family?" he spluttered.
"No, the other thousand men, women and children whom we've rescued all went to various relief organizations. Petra is one of the few who found a home with us. This is our life's work, and my husband is much more sensitive than I about hearing unwarranted criticism."
They ate in silence for a while. Andre's eyes were on the old lady. "She must be a hundred years old. I came back to question her some more about Mick. The last time she said some things that I've only begun to understand." He selected a piece of fruit.
"She said that the mold was a bit of heaven, and that's how it performed miracles. At the time I thought it superstitious nonsense, but she said something I can't understand.
"'Like your friend," she said. 'Like—' but she said some other name, not Julian, and I thought her mind must be wandering. Then she said, 'The fungus has stayed alive all this time because it can find the purity it needs all over the world. It keeps moving so people, in their infinite stupidity, haven't been able to stamp it out. People have a hard time going unnoticed like a bit of mold, and sadly people like your friend have a hard time of it. They're a throwback to some other time, when people were still equipped for things like union. Worse for them, they are forced to be alone. They know not that they belong to something larger, and if they did no good would come from finding another such as they.'
"What do you think she meant?" Andre asked.
Her eyes moist, the Padma took a moment to reply. "When I was pregnant with the twins, it was a very difficult time. The doctors said I would have to choose one or the other, that the two lives wouldn't be saved." She set her mouth. "Thankfully they knew less than nothing, and my babies were born, though very sickly.
"Jennie and Jacques couldn't even be separated in the hospital, not for a moment, or they'd raise a fuss. But they were both very ill for the first two years, until I brought an art project to their bedsides—my husband is a genius with art, and I dabble, so we wanted to start the children off early. We were going to bake this dough I had made and stick in seeds and sequins and things to make ornaments for Christmas. With them so ill, we were afraid it would be our last with them.
"To my surprise the children were more fascinated by this task than anything else. They pushed around dried beans and things with a startling level of concentration for two 2-year-olds. When they had each pressed their design in the dough they were very tired, and I baked them while they were asleep. Jacques took the one that Jennie had made and vice versa. And they began to get much better right away."
Padma leaned towards the doctor. "There are things you don't understand, I don't understand, but I live with them every day. Julian knew things you and I don't. He could see and feel things almost no one on earth can. Except our children, our children sense each other from miles away."
Archie had wandered over during this last speech, leaving the old woman in his children's care, and was smoothing Padma's hair. "I first began retracing Julian's steps as a way to help the children. We had been told by certain practitioners that our twins shared the same condition that Julian spent his life trying to understand. When they were a little better we brought them along. Our idea was to learn from the little surviving wisdom that might be able to improve their health, but our children soon were teaching us."
"They pulled us to an abandoned wood in the middle of the Carpathians," Padma continued. "I was terrified and even my husband was nervous, but they cried and insisted so that we had no choice but to obey. They led us to a child, or what became a child again under our care, living half-feral in the wilderness. A boy abandoned who knows how long ago-thankfully he had acquired the rudiments of speech before they left him in the middle of nowhere with some sort of brand on his hand. We later found out this meant he was cursed, and for—people of a certain sensitive nature-to stay away.
"How two babies of not even three were able to communicate with a mostly-wild creature of the forest is not something I can explain to you, monsieur. Well, I could, but you would not believe me. Suffice it to say that they recognized each other. They understood each other. And they helped each other, the first gesture being that together the twins made a sort of amulet for that new member of our family, who we call 's at Oxford right now."
Andre's face was astonished.
"Not how most stories of so-called 'wild children' end, as you know. Those two you see over there with the butterflies, those are Egan and Patrice, from Turkey and Fiji, respectively. They were also abandoned by their families. But we have had others who had the opposite problem, and were kept as prized pets in the brothels of the world specializing in such offerings. One of my husband's other interests is fighting this type of exploitation, and his head would fetch quite a price from several international crime syndicates—if they were at all able to trace his activities to one man."
She pointed to the girl wearing a sari with the veil obscuring her face. "We've been able to offer her some, er, reconstructive surgery, but Petra is our most recent addition. She burned herself with acid to discourage the unwanted attentions from men far and wide. We thought it was high time to seek out Mick in case he could do something more for her scars. "
Andre was suddenly all business. "You know, we haven't extended many of our investigations into such extensive tissue damage, because the remedy in question is about healing open wounds, something that, as you know, Mick does remarkably well. I wonder…"
"Monsieur Andre, you are so like him in a way. The world falls away for you when you begin to theorize. Like for—Julian-and our children as well, when they are investigating things. I've watched them pass back and forth a leaf or a stone that looks like nothing to my eyes, but it engrosses them for hours. They are all remarkably gifted when given the right environment." Archie and Padma smiled at one another and he kissed her cheek.
The doctor gazed at the couple in front of him for some moments. "I suppose it is all right to share the true reason for my visit. My son." He looked thoughtfully at the horde of children. "I wonder. Could he have something similar to your young ones?
You see, my Julian, from a very small age, has known how to feed Mick."
Andre nodded at his listeners' surprise. "It was my practice to bring him to the lab occasionally, and one day I looked around and there he was feeding Mick bubble gum from his pocket! Naturally, I was about to scold him, not ever having though of chewing gum as food, but suddenly I sensed that he was exactly right. My three-year-old had pinpointed what I had not."
"Has your son had extraordinary difficulty in life?" Padma asked. "Misfortune, unhappiness, ill health?" The doctor shook his head.
"Then probably he's a normal boy with a special ability," Archie put in. "Our children, every one except the twins, have all suffered terribly in their short lives. I would say that it's unusual for someone with their set of qualities to survive to twenty, without special interventions. Their condition is not so much rare, as it is ill-suited to the earth."
Padma took her husband's hand. "Does anyone else know?" she asked.
"No. Supposedly I am calling in the right diet from here, although practice has shown that this does not work. That specimen," Andre nodded to a bit of mold that had slithered over a pile of rice spilled by one of the children, "is eating rice, but I'd bet anything that my strain is eating something else entirely. My son will tell me this evening.
"I do not want my son to be forced into this responsibility before he is old enough to choose," the doctor said pleadingly. "Perhaps Nnunu can teach me more about Mick's nature and we can find a way to make him a resource for all humanity. Or else it will be none."
The couple exchanged a glance. "Exactly like Abelard and the Too-Pure Potion," Archie hissed.
"Oh look!" Padma exclaimed.
The two men followed her arm to where she was pointing at the bit of stray mold crawling over Petra's sari. The girl was giggling as she let it find its way through the folds of cloth and up to her face.
Before, it was as though a bit of smoked glass existed between the girl's face and the observer's eye. She seemed a normal-looking girl, but it was as though the eye couldn't focus on her as well as others' faces. That's what the doctor had thought, at any rate, but in a flash it was like some curtain dropped. The young woman's face was terribly, terribly scarred, tragically disfigured by an acid burn he found it difficult to believe she had inflicted on herself.
The mold was crawling around her face, and she was laughing as if t tickled. Before Doctor Andre's eyes he saw the wasted and shriveled tissue become young and smooth again.
Everyone had gone quiet, and when the girl was healed, her siblings fell upon her in a heap, stroking her face, hugging her, as Petra looked over them to her parents.
Not wishing to intrude upon this emotional family moment, Andre wandered over to ask his questions of the old woman.
She was fast asleep after eating well.
Andre returned to his laboratory and pored over the notes from Julian, which, if they didn't yet make complete sense to him, at least held the promise that Mick had begun to make sense to someone.
In late May, the doctor was called away from his research. He greeted three young people at the front security gate before his well-guarded institution. "Would you please come in?"
As soon as they were in his private office, he dropped all pretense. "Who in God's name are you, and how did you find me?"
The three exchanged glances. "Our brothers and sisters could, er, smell that you had come from Switzerland," one girl said.
"Our mother sent us so you could have a vacation," the boy added. "Padma. You met everyone in Africa."
"A vacation? What, and leave three university students to muck about in my lab? Of all the—"
"Please, doctor, don't send us home," the other girl begged. "Mum gets frightfully upset."
"You should go on a vacation, or she'll find out," the boy agreed.
After observing their comfort with his precious mold—and their general dexterity in a laboratory—Andre grudgingly agreed to take his family on their first significant vacation ever. The two girls were to take healthy strains of mold away with them, and the boy would stay in Switzerland, caring for and experimenting upon the fungus.
After a well-deserved rest far away from any thoughts of fungus, Andre finally gave in to his worry and called the two numbers the girls had left with him.
One led him to India, and Padma answered the phone. "Magda," she yelled. "I hope you've not been thinking about your work during your vacation," Padma chided him.
"Not at all, I was simply curious how Mick was getting on," the doctor said. The girl was put on the line and he was reassured that a healthy culture was growing at her location.
Next he called the other number, a Paris extension. "Hello?" a woman's voice answered.
"Hello, yes, Madame,, excuse me. I was looking to speak with Irina," the doctor said.
"Oh, Doctor Andre! How nice to finally meet you!" the woman exclaimed. "Julian told me so much about you."
"The only reason I agreed to this arrangement was on the terms that my true name not be used," Andre said stiffly.
"No one has so much as breathed your name, do not upset yourself. It's just that I get confused sometimes, having to keep names straight. And Julian used to call you 'the cautious Senegalese.' Talking as you do, who can blame me for thinking of the name he used for you?" the woman said in rapid French, in a manner that reminded him somewhat of Padma.
"And who do I have the pleasure of speaking with?" he asked.
"Rukmini. S-Padma's cousin." The woman laughed. "It is very difficult to keep all the names straight. Here she is. So nice to meet you!"
"Hello?" said Irina's voice.
"Yes, Irina? This is Doctor Senghor." He heard the sounds of small children running around. "How many of you are there? It sounds like a horde running around."
She laughed. "There are five little ones. I'm helping Aunt Rukmini take care of them. She rushed to add. "In between caring for Mick."
Harry made his monthly stop to the island to be there for the Ministry shipment and keep up the fiction that he was there full-time. It was also his studio, so now he looked on it as a method of forcing him to paint. Sometimes Shanti joined him, but most of the time he was alone with his memories and his art.
Every day he spent there, he talked with the sea at the time of day the sun made it glimmer back at him, as if it were responding to his words.
"Severus." Harry waited for the water to wink at him. "Every one of the children reminds me of a different facet of you. If only you had not spent so much of your life alone."
The tears began to fall, as they still did, these ten years later. "Losing you is a wound that never heals, but you understand that, too, damn you."
Harry continued relating his family's adventures, telling of his quest to rescue every Alkahest he could, using the wealth and freedom Severus had left him in service of his sworn mission to take away some of the world's unhappiness, even if it wasn't the specific unhappiness that Harry had once added to it.
"I love you, Severus."
Finally, Harry felt his toes grow warm and his nose grow cold, and he knew he had been heard.