The Sugar Quill
Author: Violet Azure (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Fumbling Towards Ecstasy  Chapter: Chapter 1: It's My Heart that Pounds Beneath My Flesh
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The distribution of this story is for personal use only. Any other form of distribution is prohibited without the consent of the author.

Disclaimer: I do not own the creations of J

Disclaimer: I do not own the creations of J.K. Rowling, nor am I making any money off of her wonderful creations.  It’s her universe; I’m just visiting.  All original characters are of my own creation and may not be used without permission of the author.

 

A/N: Thank you to the ladies of the SQ workshop for all of their help and suggestions.  Thank you to Jen who supplied me with the details about large dogs! 

 

Chapter 1: It’s My Heart that Pounds Beneath My Flesh

 

 

The sound of breathing was the first thing she heard. 

 

Slowly, she opened her eyes and then closed them again.  She listened as the steady rhythm continued, like a heartbeat.  Funny how such a simple thing, a necessary function really, could bring a joy so great that it seized your heart and squeezed it with a fierce and tender grip.

 

Max. 

 

Every day, during that transition between sleeping and waking, there was this moment when she had to pause and remind herself that she wasn’t dreaming, that the person beside her was real.  It used to be so disorienting, waking up with someone by her side, having to think of why they were there.  She had, however, learned to adapt.  Indeed, she had enjoyed the process of growing accustomed to starting each morning and ending every night with him.  And with each passing day, that morning pause was becoming shorter and shorter.

 

His breathing was becoming increasingly louder, forcing her to wake up.  It almost sounded like he was snoring, except that Max didn’t snore.  He shifted and she waited for a kiss or a touch, but it didn’t come.  Maybe he was still sleeping?  No, he was definitely up.  He seemed to be looming over her…panting?  She cracked an eye just in time to see a large pink tongue slurp over her face.

 

“Eurgh!  Fang!”  Rosmerta sat up and wiped the dog drool off her cheek.  “Yuck!  That was disgusting.  What are you doing in here?  Where’s Max?”

 

Fang barked in response and made an attempt to give her another good morning kiss.  Rosmerta fended him off as best she could while Fang licked at her hands and arms.  

 

“All right, all right.”  Rosmerta began rubbing the dog behind the ears to get him to calm down.  He settled his upper body on her legs and put his head in her lap while she continued to pet him. 

 

Rosmerta looked down at him.  “Please, do make yourself comfortable.”  Fang replied with a contented sort of whine, yawned and closed his eyes. 

 

She fussed over Fang for a while.  She had been looking after him all summer while Hagrid was visiting his lady friend in France.  It was so wonderful to see Hagrid in love—and not with something that could bite his leg off.  Hagrid should be returning today and Rosmerta couldn’t wait to find out all the details of his holiday.  Now that she had Max, she wanted everyone else to be under the same giddy spell that she was. 

 

All of a sudden, Fang’s ears perked up.  His head came off her lap and then Rosmerta heard it too, the sound of the front door opening.  A second later Fang scrambled over her and galloped out of the bedroom.

 

“Hey boy.”  Max’s voice came from down the hall over Fang’s enthusiastic barks.  “Shhhh, keep it down,” he said in a low voice.  “Ros is still sleeping.”

 

“Good morning!” she called. 

 

She heard footsteps and then Max entered the bedroom, Fang by his side.  Max was wearing his bright blue running shorts and one of his Cerberus Brewing Company T-shirts.  It was damp and stuck to his body in patches.  His sandy hair was plastered to his head and looked several shades darker due to the sweat from his early morning run.  Still breathing heavily, he put his hands on his hips and looked down at her.  “You’re up!” he grinned.

 

“Yes.  Fang decided to wake me for a little early morning affection.” 

 

At the sound of his name, Fang took a flying leap onto the bed, stepping all over her as he settled back on her lap.  He nudged her hand to let her know she could resume petting him.  Rosmerta stroked his head and got him to quiet down, keeping her face turned toward Max.

 

“Mmmm, can’t say I blame him.”  Max bent over and gave her a kiss on the lips.  Rosmerta tasted salt and the faintest echo of mint from his toothpaste.  “I could use some early morning attention myself.”

 

“You could use a shower is what you could really use.”

 

“Awww.  Come here and give me a hug.”  Max stretched his arms out to her. 

 

“No!” she yelped, squirming away.  Fang, thinking it was playtime, got up and pranced around on the bed, barking and wagging his tail.  Max drew closer, placing his palms on the spot where she had just been. 

 

She scooted all the way over to the other side of the bed, laughing.  “You’re all sweaty!  Get off!  You’ll make the sheets icky.  Go!”  She pointed her finger in a commanding manner in the direction of the bathroom. 

 

“You let Fang on the bed.  Are you saying that I smell worse than him?”

 

“Right now it’s too close to call.  And I didn’t exactly say he could come on the bed.  He sort of invited himself and he’s been rather stubborn about moving.  You could use a bath as well,” she directed her last comment to Fang, who merely continued to pant and slobber.

 

“Speaking of Fang, when do you want to head up to the castle?”

 

“I’m not sure what time Hagrid’s coming back.  Term starts tomorrow, so he must be home, but I haven’t heard from him at all.  I guess we should head up around…one o’clock?” 

 

Rosmerta furrowed her brow.  It was strange that she hadn’t had an owl from Hagrid yet.  He’d sent her one when he arrived in France and one a little later wishing her a happy birthday and describing the sights he’d seen, but that had been more than a month ago.  Well—her face softened and a smile came to her lips—he must have other things on his mind.  Nothing produced amnesia quite like love.

 

“Sounds good.”  Max wiped his arm over his brow.  “Yeach.  I do need a shower.  Want to join me?” he asked with a sly twinkle in his eye. 

 

“Mmmm…maybe,” she purred before wrinkling her nose.  “You need a ten minute head start, though.”

 

“All right.  And if you’re lucky, I just might serenade you while we’re in there.”  Max winked at her.

 

“Oh, good.  I need to practice my Silencing Charm.” 

 

Max responded with a chorus of “Witchy Woman”, one of the Muggle songs he liked to sing to her, as he turned and headed to the bathroom. 

 

Rosmerta smiled as she watched his retreating back.  “All right, Fang,” she turned to the dog.  “Off.  Time for breakfast.” 

 

She got out of bed and went to the kitchen, Fang trotting behind her.  She poured food into one of his bowls and water in the other.  She got two canisters out of the cupboard and put a scoop of food in both Queenie’s and Rosenkrantz’s food trays. 

 

Rosenkrantz was Max’s owl and the latest addition to her living room.  She and Max were more or less living together, although they would never call it that, especially in a town where gossiping was everyone’s favorite hobby.  The two of them spent so much time together that his possessions had begun the slow migration to her place.  Her closet was full of his robes and shirts.  His toothbrush resided next to hers in the bathroom and his razors and other assorted toiletries fought for space among her many lotions and gels.  He still maintained his flat and occasionally spent the night there, but little by little he was integrating himself into her daily life.  They weren’t engaged yet, having come to the decision that they should slow down a bit.  In light of what Professor Dumbledore told her two months ago, Rosmerta was glad they were waiting; she didn’t want to plan a wedding if the wizarding world was going to be under attack soon.

 

At the sound of food hitting her tray, Queenie opened her eyes and gave a little bob of thanks.  Rosmerta stroked her, murmuring good morning greetings.  Ever since Fang’s arrival, Queenie had been on her best behavior.  Most likely she was afraid of Rosmerta making good on her long-standing threat to replace Queenie with a dog.  Even the appearance of Rosenkrantz, to which Rosmerta had expected a negative reaction, was met with little fuss.  The two birds actually got along and Queenie seemed to enjoy having a friend and co-conspirator.

 

Once all the animals had their breakfast, Rosmerta went into the kitchen to prepare her daily Contracievious Potion.  With a grimace, she tried to swallow the contents of the goblet as fast as she could.  The cherry flavor wasn’t much better than the grape.  

 

She put the goblet into the sink and went down the hall into the bathroom where Max was giving a private concert.  With a roll of her eyes, she put down the toilet seat and rummaged around in the cabinet for her toothbrush.

 

“Pleased to meet you…hope you GUESS-ed my name!  That’s why HUS-tle-ing you is the…NA-ture of my game!”

 

“Spoken like a true salesman,” she said through a mouthful of toothpaste.  She finished brushing her teeth and ran her toothbrush under the tap. 

 

Real intimacy, Rosmerta had come to realize, was not sharing a bedroom but sharing a bathroom.  Unlike sex, which by its very nature was meant to be a joint endeavor, grooming habits were a private matter.  It was one thing to love someone while entwined in a passionate embrace; it was quite another thing to love them while they were flossing their teeth.

 

Max poked his head out from around the edge of the shower curtain, his head covered in foamy white suds.  He squinted at her and rubbed off some of the suds that were sliding down his forehead.  “Come on in.  The water’s fine.”

 

“Mmmm, you do clean up nicely.”  She pecked him on the lips then turned to rummage around her many products.  “What do you think,” she held up two bottles.  “Summer Meadow or Midnight Rain?”

 

“Don’t you ever just use plain old soap?” 

 

“If you don’t like how I smell, I can always take my shower after breakfast.”

 

“Ahhhh…Meadow Rain then.”  Max’s head disappeared behind the curtain. 

 

Rosmerta shook her head.  She shimmied out of her nightdress, picked up the bottle of Summer Meadow and stepped into the shower. 

 

Before she could do much in the way of washing up, Max pressed her back against the tile and gave her a proper kiss good morning.  No day began or ended without one.  She shivered as the cold tile hit her bare skin.  Every morning, she thought, every morning should begin this good.  He released her and she went about washing up.

 

“You know,” Max said as the smell of flowers permeated the bathroom, “they should really invent more masculine showering products.  No bloke wants to go to work smelling like a bleeding flower garden.”  He ducked his head under the spray and rinsed the suds out of his hair.

 

“Well then, what do you blokes want to smell like?”  Rosmerta asked.

 

“Hmmmm…beer.  Sweat.  The great outdoors.”

 

“Ha.  It’s precisely because you smell like those things that you need to take a shower.”

 

“Or bacon,” Max continued.  “I think what the world needs is a line of meat-scented shampoos.  I mean, there are all these fruit scents.  And those bath things you have with the milk and oatmeal sound like breakfast…why not include some of the other food groups?  You could have sausage shampoo and strawberry conditioner—dinner and dessert!”

 

“Oh, you’re so clever.  And you’re blocking the hot water.”  

 

“Just you wait.  It’s a brilliant idea.”  Max stepped out of the shower.  Before he closed the curtain, he winked at her and tapped the side of his head.

 

“That’s right.  You are touched in the head,” she called over the pounding water as she rinsed her hair and finished her shower with a smile on her face.

 

“So,” Max said, when she joined him in the bedroom, “do I get a little early morning affection, or was that only for Fang?”

 

“It’s nearly ten, so I guess you missed the chance for early morning affection,” she replied, using a Drying Charm on her hair and then brushing it out.

 

“All right then, how about some mid-to-late morning affection?”

“Is there any time of the day that you don’t want some affection?”

 

“Well, I’m usually sleeping between the hours of eleven and six, but I suppose if you woke me up I wouldn’t mind…er, so I guess the answer is no.  Any time of the day is a good time for me.”

 

Rosmerta started applying cream to her legs; she looked over her shoulder at him and rolled her eyes before returning to her primping.  A minute later, arms encircled her waist.  “You didn’t answer my question,” he teased, burying his head in her neck. 

 

“It depends—do you promise not to slobber all over my sheets?”

 

“I’ll do my best, but I can’t make any promises.”

 

Rosmerta tilted her head and kissed him underneath his chin.  “Sit.”  She inclined her head toward the bed.  He sat down and watched her while she finished her beauty routine.  “Lie down,” she said, a mischievous smile on her face as she eased him onto his back, tugging on the sash of his robe.  “Good boy.” 

 

***

 

Some time later, Rosmerta cooked brunch and they went out to the garden to enjoy the last of the summer weather and the Sunday paper.  Fang and Rosenkrantz joined them as well. 

 

“Rubbish!  Utter nonsense!”  Rosmerta shut the Sunday Prophet with a snap and threw it down on the table.  She glared at it for good measure.

 

“Something in the paper, Ros?”  Max looked up from the business section and smiled at her.

 

“Oh, just the Prophet writing horrible things about Professor Dumbledore again.  I should cancel my subscription to protest.”  Rosmerta leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms over her chest, continuing to shoot dirty looks at the paper. 

 

“Is he still going off about You-Know-Who returning from the dead?”

 

“You-Know-Who wasn’t dead, he was just…away.” Rosmerta furrowed her brow. 

 

“Away where?  On holiday in the Bahamas?”  Max chuckled.  Rosmerta curled her lip in an elegant sneer and he became serious.  “You buy into that whole thing about You-Know-Who being back?”

 

“You don’t?”

 

Max shrugged one shoulder.  “It’s hard to believe without any proof.  All we have is Dumbledore’s word.  According to Dumbledore, You-Know-Who’s been back for two months, but there haven’t been any sightings of the Dark Mark—”

 

“Wasn’t there some incident at the World Cup last summer?”

 

“Yeah, but that was before You-Know-Who was supposedly back.  I thought what happened at the Cup was just a bunch of people acting like arses.  But there haven’t been any sightings since then, no strange murders or anything.  Not that lack of murder is a bad thing, of course, but it’s just hard to believe what Dumbledore’s saying without evidence, that’s all.”  Max shrugged.

 

“But Dumbledore is normally so secretive,” she said.  “Now he’s making all these public speeches, he’s losing his positions on councils…he wouldn’t be risking this exposure if he didn’t think something was seriously wrong.  And there was that horrible incident during the Tournament.”

 

 “Why are you so wound up about this?”

 

“I’m not wound up, just concerned, she said, fixing herself another cup of tea.  Rosmerta was quiet as she drank her tea, lost in thought.  “You don’t know what it was two years ago.  The village was swarming with Dementors, everyone was so tense…I’m just afraid that if You-Know-Who is back, then the village could be in danger.”

 

“I don’t think you have to worry about Sirius Black.  Last I read, Black’s been hiding out in Tibet.”

 

“And if he comes back to the area, I’m sure you’ll keep me safe.”

 

“Damn right.  No one messes with my girl.” 

 

“Glad to know I can always count on you.”  She smiled at him and reached across the table to give his hand a squeeze.  “Something odd is going on, but I think you’re right; there isn’t much evidence.”  She continued to run her fingertips over the back of his hand, almost absentmindedly.  After a moment, they returned to the Sunday paper. 

 

She dug around until she found the sports pages.  “I think this is the only section of the paper with any integrity left,” she said loftily.  She read in silence for a few minutes until she let out an indignant  “hrmph.”

 

“Tornadoes acquired Mullet and Troy…pre-season favorites.  I can’t believe they won the League.  I think they cheated.”  Rosmerta snapped the paper closed.  “I stand corrected.  Would you pass me the Lifestyles section please?”

 

Max handed it to her, chuckling.  “Hell hath no fury like a Harpies fan scorned.” 

 

She took the paper from him and immersed herself in an article about the fall robe styles.  Apparently purple was the color for fall and zodiac prints were all the rage.  There was even a mention of Maddie’s old employee, Persephone, and a spread of some of her designs.  A print showing the judgment of Paris was Rosmerta’s favorite, and she debated buying it, even though it cost nearly two hundred Galleons.  She wondered how much the Psyche and Eros robes that Maddie gave her last Christmas were worth.  Rosmerta was happy for the girl, though.  It was so uplifting to see one of Maddie’s former employees have things work out for them.  She set the paper aside to show Maddie.

 

“Shouldn’t we start getting ready to leave for the castle?” Max asked when her head finally reappeared.

 

Rosmerta looked at her watch and sighed.  “We have to give Fang a bath and get his things together.  We can’t stay too long; Hagrid has the feast tonight and I have to leave for work in a few hours.”

 

“Why don’t you close the tavern on Sundays?  You certainly can afford it.”  Rosmerta noted the slight edge to Max’s voice, although he tried to keep his tone light and playful. 

 

“Yes, but I’m one of the few places open for dinner in the village on Sundays.  Merlin forbid some of the fellows learn how to cook for themselves.  Besides, as soon as I hire a new waitress I’m going to try to take some more time off.  I put an ad in the Hogsmeade Herald last week.”

 

“Have you heard from Hester at all?”

 

“Yes.  I received a letter from her yesterday.  She told me all about France and how her classes start next week.  She’s living with one of the Beauxbatons students she met a few months ago.  She seems to be doing well…loves the museums, took a trip to some of the vineyards, she says she’s never had such good bread in her life.”  Rosmerta sighed.  “Paris.  I haven’t been there in years.”

 

“Maybe we should go on a mini-break, just you and me—if you can get off work.”

 

“You just got back from a holiday with your friends and you want to go on another one already?”

 

“We haven’t been away together yet.  Besides, I’m sure you’re a much better travel companion than Neil.  You don’t snore for one thing, or leave your knickers on the bathroom floor.”

 

“Or get drunk on tequila and pick a fight with a bunch of Mexican vampires.”

 

“Yeah.  Not his finest moment, although to be fair they started it and we didn’t know they were vampires.  It wasn’t all bad; we did get to see a Muggle church.  Lovely glasswork.  Hello, Queenie,” Max rubbed the Fwooper’s head.  She had just glided out into the garden and was perched on the arm of Max’s chair, her bright black eyes surveying the brunch leftovers.

 

“I see you,” Rosmerta pursed her lips and stared Queenie down.  Queenie flapped her wings and turned her head, as if trying to pretend that she didn’t know what her mistress was talking about. 

 

“You can stop staring at that sausage.  You already had breakfast, missy.”  Queenie took a step onto the table and leaned toward Max’s plate.  “No.  No!”  Rosmerta pulled out her wand and pointed it at Queenie.  Queenie straightened up, stretched her wings and sailed over the table to the tree behind Rosmerta, clipping Rosmerta on the head.  She settled on a branch and sulked.

 

“Why can’t she be more like Rosenkrantz?  He behaves himself,” Rosmerta muttered, fixing her hair.  At the mention of his name, Max’s owl woke up and surveyed her with a drowsy eye before rustling his wings and settling back to sleep.

 

“Krantz was an old post owl, he’s had years of training.  Queenie’s not so bad, she just likes your cooking.  Can’t say I blame her.”

 

“Just, please stop indulging her so much.  She gets sick when she has too much table food.  You’d think she would have learned her lesson by now.”  Rosmerta took her napkin off her lap and stood up.  “I think breakfast is over.  Come on, Fang, it’s bath time.”  Rosmerta gathered some of the plates and began walking to the kitchen, Fang trailing along, looking hopefully up at the leftover sausages.  Queenie flew in, her eye fixed firmly on the plate as well.

 

Max gathered the paper and a few plates  “Do you want to save it?” he asked, holding the paper over the trash bin.

 

“No, that’s all right.”  She put down the plates and took a few parts of the paper from him.  She set the Lifestyles section aside and kept another part in her hands.  “I just need this section.”  Carrying the front page over to Queenie’s cage, she removed the old newspaper on the bottom of the cage and re-lined it, making sure it was face up.  The printed version of Cornelius Fudge shook his fist at her.  She smiled sweetly at him and patted Queenie on the head. 

 

***

 

“All right, does it look like all the soap is off him?”  Next to her, Max nodded.  Rosmerta held up her wand but before she could utter a drying spell, Fang decided that he would much rather do it the doggie way.  Shaking himself and spraying the two of them with water, Fang immediately made a beeline for Max to lavish wet kisses all over him.  Max hung onto Fang while Rosmerta used a Drying Charm on both Fang and their clothes.  She then fastened Fang’s collar back on.

 

“How is it that Fang took a bath but we’re the ones soaking wet?”  Rosmerta checked herself over to make sure she hadn’t missed a spot.  “Are you going to change?” she asked. Max was still dressed in Muggle clothing.

 

Max looked at the copious amount of dog drool accumulating on the leg of his blue jeans.  “I don’t think there’s much of a point until this guy is back at Hagrid’s.”  Max gave Fang a firm pat against his side.

 

“All right.  Keep him busy—and clean—while I change for work.”  Rosmerta darted into her bedroom and exchanged her house robes for work ones.  She reappeared a few minutes later, much to Max’s surprise. 

 

“I think that’s a new record.” 

 

“Yes, well, it’s a lot easier to get dressed without any... interference.”  She looked pointedly at Max while she tied her pouch around her waist.  “I’m going to get his things together and then we can go.”  She gathered Fang’s toys and bowls into his bed and floated it out of the living room, holding Fang’s leash in her other hand.  Max and Fang were waiting at the front door.

 

“Hey boy!  Wanna go for a walk?”  Max wrestled with Fang, rubbing him on his head.  Fang jumped around, barking and trying to slurp his tongue all over Max.

 

“I think the answer is yes.”  Rosmerta eyed the two of them uncertainly, knowing that if she got any closer she was likely to be knocked off her feet.

 

“All right.  I’ve got him.”  Max grabbed him by the collar and dug in his heels.

 

“Be a good boy, Fang,” she crooned, coming around to clip the leash onto Fang’s collar.  “We’re going to take you home to see Hagrid.”  She gave him an affectionate scratch behind the ears.  Max let go of the collar and Fang circled Rosmerta, barking and panting.  She kept switching the leash from hand to hand so she wouldn’t get tangled up. 

 

“I think we have everything.  Let’s go.”  Rosmerta gave the leash a little flick, like she was getting a horse to trot.  Fang took her lead and immediately tugged her along.  Max got out his wand and floated Fang’s bed as they made their way up to Hogwarts.  Rosmerta wasn’t sure, but it looked like Fang was skipping when the three of them reached the grounds. 

 

When Hagrid’s cabin came into view, Fang strained at his collar, nearly choking himself.  Rosmerta gave in and unclipped his leash.  Fang ran to the cabin door, barking his head off.  He jumped up and down, scratching at the door, but it didn’t open

 

“I don’t think Hagrid’s home.  Do you think he’s somewhere around the grounds?” Max turned to her.

 

“Possibly.  He might be in the forest getting ready for his class, or catching up on his grounds keeping duties.  Maybe we should look around for him.  Come here, Fang.”  Rosmerta bent over and beckoned the dog to her. 

 

Fang ignored her.  He whined and went around to the back of the cabin.  Rosmerta and Max followed him.  Rosmerta noted the condition of Hagrid’s garden; it appeared that the weeds were doing their best imitation of the Forbidden Forest.

 

“Fang,” Rosmerta said again, but Fang’s tail disappeared around the corner of the cabin.  The humans followed him back around to the front door again.  He nosed at the bottom of the door and looked as if he was ready and willing to dig himself into the cabin.  He paused and looked back at Rosmerta expectantly, whining. 

 

“Maybe Hagrid’s asleep?”  Max suggested.

 

Rosmerta was really starting to get worried.  What if something had happened to him?  He could have had a heart attack or fallen and hit his head.  Maybe Fang was trying to tell them something.  She took out her wand and muttered “Alohomora.”

 

She pushed the door open, stirring up a cloud of dust and sending insects scuttling for shelter.  The air was warm and stale and there was no sign of any recent human habitation.  Fang took a lap around the cabin, but his head drooped and his tail wasn’t wagging.  He whimpered and looked at Rosmerta for an explanation.

 

“I don’t know where Hagrid is, Fang.  I’m worried too,” Rosmerta told him.  Fang leaped up on Hagrid’s bed, rested his head on his paws, and looked like he was settling in for a long wait. 

 

“Should we leave him here?” Max asked. 

 

“No.  I think we should see if Professor Dumbledore or one of the other faculty members is around.”  With some coaxing, Rosmerta got Fang off the bed, fastened his leash, and the three of them set off for the castle.

 

They reached the Great Hall without running into another person, although a ghost or two floated by.  Halfway to Professor Dumbledore’s office, they ran into a tight-lipped Professor McGonagall.  She stopped and eyed them suspiciously, particularly Max’s lack of robes.

 

“Hello, Madam Rosmerta.  What brings you up to the castle?”

 

“Good afternoon, Professor McGonagall.  Ready for another school year?”

 

“Of course.”  Professor McGonagall continued to eye them like she was trying to think of a reason to given them detention or take away house points.  “What are you two doing up here?” she repeated.

 

“We’re bringing Fang back—we’ve been looking all summer while Hagrid’s been on holiday—but it appears that Hagrid isn’t home yet.  Do you know when he’ll be back?”

 

Professor McGonagall’s face hardened so much, Rosmerta wondered if the professor had caught sight of a gorgon.  “What did Hagrid tell you about his trip?” Professor McGonagall inquired.

 

“He was spending the summer with Madam Maxime in France.  Apparently the two of the got on quite well when she was here during the Tournament.  He asked me to look after Fang while he was away.  I assumed he’d be back by now since term starts tomorrow, but I haven’t heard from him in over a month.  Is he coming home later today?”

 

“Hagrid’s trip has been…delayed.”

 

“Do you know how much longer he’ll be in France?”

 

“I’m not at liberty to say.”  The expression on Professor McGonagall’s face dared them to ask her another question.

 

An awkward silence followed until Rosmerta’s eyes widened like someone just catching onto a big secret.  “Oh!”  Rosmerta exclaimed, clapping a hand to her mouth.  Professor McGonagall’s body tensed. 

 

“Did Hagrid elope?  I knew he was mad about Madam Maxime but I didn’t think they’d get married so soon.  Oh, that’s so romantic!” Rosmerta gushed, leaning against Max in a swoony sort of way. 

 

McGonagall’s body relaxed like a silent sigh.  “No, I don’t believe Hagrid has eloped, but he is…extending his visit a bit.”

 

“I understand,” Rosmerta smiled and winked.  McGonagall didn’t return the smile.  “We’ll just keep Fang until Hagrid comes back.”  Rosmerta leaned down and rubbed Fang’s head.

 

“That’s all right.  You can drop Fang off at Hagrid’s cabin and I’ll have someone look after him.”

 

“Oh no.  We don’t mind having him.  I’ll leave a note for Hagrid and when he gets back to Hogwarts, he can pick Fang up from us.” 

 

McGonagall looked like she wanted to argue with her, but was either out of reasons or out of time.  “All right then.  If you’ll excuse me,” Professor McGonagall looked at both of them, “I have a lot to attend to before the feast.”  She nodded and strode past them.

 

Rosmerta and Max walked back to Hagrid’s cabin.  Fang leaped back on Hagrid’s bed.  Barking and wagging his tail, he looked like he wanted the humans to join him. 

 

“No, Fang, we’re just leaving a note for Hagrid,” Rosmerta said, rifling around for parchment and a quill.  She scribbled a quick note and left it on the counter.  After much tugging and coaxing, they dragged Fang from the cabin and headed down the path that led back to Hogsmeade.

 

“I’m glad we’re going to keep him a bit longer,” Max said, taking her hand.  “He’s a lot of fun.  When Hagrid takes him back, we should think about getting a dog.”

 

“It was awful the last time Hagrid went away.  Poor thing wouldn’t eat, didn’t want to play…he wouldn’t even leave Hagrid’s cabin to come stay with me, he just sat by the door and waited.”

 

“Where’d Hagrid go?”

 

Rosmerta averted her eyes.  “I really shouldn’t tell you.  It isn’t my place to say.”

 

“Oh, come on.  You can tell me,” Max said in that winsome, let-me-sell-you-some-insurance voice of his.

 

Rosmerta continued looking down at the dirt path.  Why did Max always want to know everything?  She supposed that this was his way of showing that he cared about her and wanted to take an interest in her life, but he was honestly the nosiest man she had ever been with. 

 

“Do you promise not to say anything to Hagrid?”  She turned her head to face Max.

 

“Promise.”

 

“Swear on your wand?”

 

“I swear on my wand.  Tell me.”

 

Rosmerta glanced back up at Max and lowered her voice until it was just above a whisper.  “He went to Azkaban—”

 

“Hagrid was in Azkaban?  He’s an ex-convict?”  Max abruptly stopped walking.  His hand slid from her grasp and he stood there gaping at her.  If Rosmerta had suspected that Max had been slightly afraid of Hagrid before then, she was convinced that he was positively terrified of him now.

 

“There’s no need to shout.  It was a misunderstanding.  They didn’t have a shred of evidence.  He was proven innocent and given a full pardon.” 

 

“I’m sure he was.  Still, he went to prison.”  Rosmerta narrowed her eyes.  “Sorry, it’s just that…it’s Azkaban.”  Rosmerta put her hands on her hips and was glaring at him so hard her eyes were practically closed.  Fang tugged on the leash, impatient to continue their walk, and she gave it a yank back.  Fang sat down and waited.

 

“Uh, sorry.  I’ll stop saying that now,” Max said.  Rosmerta waited a beat before they resumed walking.  “How long was he in there?”

 

“Almost three months.”

 

Max let out a low whistle.  “Poor guy.”

 

“Yes.  He’s been through a lot.  He’s a truly wonderful person once you get to know him.”  The defensive notes in her voice were impossible to miss.

 

“I know.”  Max reached over and managed to coax his hand into hers.  “It’s rather nice that he’s found himself a lady friend.” 

 

“It is, isn’t it?  I don’t think I’ve ever seen Hagrid so smitten.  Well, except for that time when he…saw those dragons at the Tournament.  In case you haven’t noticed, Hagrid’s a bit mad about dragons.”  She didn’t want to mention Hagrid’s illegal dragon, Norbert. 

 

“I’ve noticed.” Max grinned at her and then sobered.  “I didn’t mean anything by what I said.  It’s just that you don’t meet too many people who have survived Azkaban, is all.”  

 

“Don’t mention anything to Hagrid, please.”

 

“Of course not.”  Max leaned over to kiss her on the cheek. 

 

They walked until they reached the tavern.  “I’ll see you later tonight,” Rosmerta said, stretching up to give Max a peck on the cheek.  She passed Fang’s leash to him.

 

“I’m going to listen to the game at Neil’s this afternoon, but I’ll be by.  I promised Tom a rematch.”  Max had started coming by the tavern on Sundays to play chess with some of the regulars.

 

“That’d be nice.  I’ll bring dinner home tonight.”

 

They kissed good-bye and Rosmerta went into the tavern.  She immersed herself in cooking and pretty soon it was time to open.  Her usual stream of customers trickled in for dinner, chatting about local news and complaining about the rain.  Max strolled in around half past five, wearing robes and carrying his portable chess set under his arm.  He settled himself at a table in back with some of the villagers and got a game going.  Rosmerta smiled as she brought them a round of drinks.  It was so nice seeing Max making friends with the townspeople, and they were embracing him like one of their own.

 

Near closing time, Rosmerta was walking to the kitchen past the table where Max and Thomas were playing chess when she felt an arm snake around her waist and another grab her wrist.  With a muffled, “Ooof!” she lost her balance and toppled onto Max’s lap.

 

“Have a seat, Ros, you’ve been on your feet all night.”  Max wrapped his arms around her, resting his hand on her upper thigh while she tried to regain her balance.  “How about one more game, Tom?”  He kissed her on the neck while the men at the table snickered into their mugs. 

 

“I’m quite capable of finding myself a chair, thank you,” Rosmerta snapped as she struggled to her feet.  She threw Max an icy look over her shoulder as she marched into the kitchen.  In her wake, she heard sniggering and teasing as the kitchen door swung shut.  It was a good thing Max didn’t follow her; she probably would have thrown a pan at his head.

 

Pulling me onto his lap as if I were his personal property!  What was he thinking?  And then fondling me in front of everyone!  All right, calm down—he was just being affectionate, you do like that…but for the love of Merlin, can’t he keep his hands to himself for five minutes?

 

Alternating between working herself up and calming herself down, Rosmerta did all the dishes, mopped the floor and took out the rubbish.  Only a few patrons were in the tavern when she emerged from the kitchen.  Max was still talking to Tom.  Max glanced up and watched her walk by, but something in her expression kept him in his seat.  Rosmerta wiped down the bar while a broom she had enchanted swept up.  She waved good-bye to the last few people leaving and gathered up the ledger and till. 

 

“Ready to go?” Max asked, swinging his cloak over his shoulders.  He kept himself at arm’s length while he waited for her answer.

 

“No.  I have to do the books.  I’ll see you at home.”

 

“I can wait with you.”

 

“I’d rather you not.  I won’t be long and it’s silly for you to hang around with nothing to do.”

 

“I don’t mind.”

 

“I do.”  Rosmerta fixed her lips into a tight smile, her eyes hard and glinting like cobalt glass. 

 

Max paused in the middle of fastening the buttons on his cloak, his eyebrows drawn together.  “Is something wrong?  You seem a little upset?”

 

“How very perceptive of you.  Yes, I am a little upset.  Do you have any idea why?”  She set the till and ledger down on the bar top and turned to face him, hands on her hips.

 

“Is this because of the lap thing earlier?” he asked.

 

“Yes, it is because of the ‘lap thing’ earlier.  In case you didn’t know, I am not your personal beer wench.  You just don’t yank me onto your lap like you would some floozy barmaid!”  She thought she saw amusement flicker across Max’s face, and though she wasn’t a violent woman by nature, she dearly wanted to hex him at that moment. 

 

“I’ve told you a hundred times about maintaining a professional appearance in the tavern and then you go and do something like that?  What were you thinking?”  Rosmerta crossed her arms over her chest, still glaring.  

“I’m sorry, I just thought that by now everyone knew we were dating so it wouldn’t be that big of a deal.  You’re always working so hard, I just wanted you to get off your feet for a minute.”  A look of pure confusion was on Max’s face. 

 

“It is a big deal because not every person here is a regular.  A kiss hello and good bye is fine, but when you…maul me in front of the entire tavern, it sends a message that I’m not to be taken seriously.  I’ve spent the last forty years swatting hands away from my bottom.  I’ve finally gotten to the point where I don’t have to fend off drunken warlocks every night and I’m not about to jeopardize that hard-earned respect.” 

 

“I didn’t maul you.  How can you think a little embrace means that everyone won’t respect you now?”

 

Pausing to collect her thoughts, Rosmerta closed her eyes and counted to ten.  “Max,” she began in a patient but weary voice, “how would you like it if you were in the middle of a meeting with your clients and I waltzed into your office, sat on your lap and started snogging you?”  A sheepish look of understanding crossed Max’s face, although hers remained cool and impassive.

 

“I’m sorry,” he said.  “Although snogging in my office does sound like a lot of fun,” he added jokingly.  He grew serious when he saw that Rosmerta didn’t crack a smile. 

 

Rosmerta waited a moment so that the message fully sank in before relaxing her demeanor.  “I’m glad you understand what I’m saying.”  She reached up and gave him a peck on the lips.  “I’ll see you at home.”  Rosmerta turned and went to the bar to gather the ledger and till.  Max watched her cross the floor before heading out the door.

 

It was quiet in the basement.  She wasn’t used to such long stretches of silence anymore.  Tonight though, she found it relaxing.  She made herself a cup of peppermint tea and kicked off her shoes.  Dipping her quill into an inkpot, she wrote out her grocery list for the week, an order for the butcher, her wood order, and got her banking ready for the next day. 

 

When she glanced at her watch, she was surprised to find that more than an hour had passed.  Ever since Max had come into her life, she hardly had a moment alone, just snatches here and there and usually only when she was at the tavern.  One would think that she had had enough of being alone to last her a lifetime, but it was still an adjustment having another person around.  Sometimes it was absolutely wonderful, like when they cuddled together in bed and listened to the rain hit the roof.  Other times, like when he left his clothes and trainers all over the place, she dearly wished that her house had a separate wing for him.

 

It was still raining when Rosmerta left the tavern.  So much for walking home.  She considered relighting the fireplace and Flooing back to her house, but at the last second changed her mind and just Apparated.  She managed to get through the door before getting too wet.  Max had changed out of his robes and was lounging on the couch listening to the wireless.

 

Fang came over to greet her, barking and slobbering.  She rubbed him behind his ears before sending back to the living room.

 

“Ohhhhh—dragon dung!”  She stomped her foot.  “I forgot to bring home dinner,” she said to Max. 

 

“That’s all right.  I’m not that hungry.”  Max sat up and began petting Fang.

 

Rosmerta looked over her shoulder at him while she took off her shoes.  She knew “I’m not that hungry” was code for “You were running late, so I’ve already eaten everything in the refrigerator.”

 

Padding barefoot to her bedroom, she deposited her shoes in the closet and then sat down on the bed.  Smothering a yawn as she took off her earrings, she slipped into a long silk nightdress with a matching robe.

 

“Is there any chicken left?” she asked, without much hope, when she returned to the living room.

 

“Errrr, I made a sandwich,” Max said apologetically.

 

“Uh-huh,” she replied, settling next to him on the couch.  “How about the ham?”

 

“Uhhh, I made another sandwich.  There’s some steak and kidney pie.”  Rosmerta wrinkled her nose at the suggestion.  “I could go pick up something.  What would you like?”

 

“Nothing, really.  I’m not that hungry,” she murmured.  The headache she always got when she Apparated was threatening to break.  If she stayed perfectly still, it might go away.  Max pulled her close and began massaging her temples.  She snuggled into his chest, her earlier annoyance at him fading.

 

“What do you want to do tomorrow?” he asked, stroking her hair.  “I heard on the wireless it’s supposed to rain all day.”

 

“Mmmm,” she cuddled closer, trying to keep her eyes open.  “Whatever you want to do.” Just not dinner with your parents.  Grace Hopper was thawing, but an iceberg didn’t melt overnight.  

 

“Why don’t you come to Bristol after you do your banking?  We can have dinner, maybe go to a movie.”

 

“Sounds lovely,” she murmured into his neck. 

 

“You’re not falling asleep on me, are you?  I didn’t think my company was so boring.”

 

“I’m not sleeping,” she said, closing her eyes. 

 

“It’s not even ten—that’s a new record for you.  You must be exhausted.”

 

What could she say—she was exhausted.  She had gotten used to having help around the tavern.  Now that Hester was gone, she found herself back to her usual grueling schedule, only now she had the added responsibilities of a relationship.  She forgot how much effort they took.

 

“Would you like some tea?” he asked after a while.

 

“No.  I made some at work.”

 

“How about some dessert then?  I’ve been holding myself back from the rest of that blackberry tart.”

 

“Mmmmm, go ahead, but don’t move.”

 

“No problem.”  Max Summoned the tart, a fork, and some whipped cream.  “Here,” Max fed her a forkful of tart and cream.

 

“Delicious,” she sighed, pulling the blanket she kept on the couch over her and settling her head on him again.  She listened to Max eat, chuckling slightly as the noises he made while swallowing echoed against her ear, which was pressed against his chest.

 

“Do I make a good pillow?” he asked between bites.

 

“Not bad, but you’re not squishy enough.”

 

“Well, that’s a good thing.”

 

Rosmerta made a contented sort of noise in response.  She thought she was going to drift off to sleep when Max spoke again.

 

“Last bite?” he asked, holding the fork in front of her lips.

 

“No, you have it.”  She sighed and turned over.  “I have to go food shopping tomorrow,” she groaned. 

 

“We’re out of cheese, tomatoes and mustard,” Max informed her. 

 

“Write it down on the grocery list pinned on the fridge or I’ll never remember it.”

 

“Why don’t you go to bed?  You’re nearly asleep as it is.  Tomorrow we’ll do something fun, whatever you like.  Sound good?”

 

“Very good,” she mumbled, although she showed no sign of moving. 

 

Max let her doze until the wireless program was over.  Gently, so as not to wake her, he lifted her off the couch and put her to bed.

 

***

 

“Are you sure this is a movie?”  Rosmerta asked for the fifth time, holding up the box.  “How do they fit it in here?”

 

“I’m not exactly sure how, but trust me, there’s a movie in there.  Can we please pick one, we’ve been here nearly an hour?”

 

“Ooooh,” she said, a box catching her eye.  The cover showed a woman dressed in a ruffled dress and wearing a bonnet.  “This looks good.  Why haven’t we seen anything like this before?”

 

A pained expressed crossed Max’s face.  “A Jane Austin movie?  How about Die Hard?  I think you’ll like the actors in it.”

 

“I don’t want to see anything with the words ‘die’, ‘death’ or ‘destruction’ in the title.  Who’s Jane Austin?”

 

“Trust me,” Max said, putting his arm around her shoulders, “you’ll love it.”

 

“I wonder if they have any of the movies Maddie was in.  I should have asked her for the names of them.”

 

“Maybe some other time,” Max said, directing her to the counter.  He paid for the movie, ignoring the smirk from the young clerk who looked at the movie they were renting and then at them.

 

They walked several blocks to his complex.  “Sorry the building doesn’t have a lift,” Max apologized, holding the door open for her.  “It’s a rather old place.”

 

“That’s all right.  I didn’t think any place besides the Ministry of Magic had a lift.”

 

“The building’s pre-war.  Miracle it survived all the bombing,” Max explained as the two of them climbed the flights of stairs.  “Most of the magical folks live on the top floors.  Here we are,” he said, getting off at the fourth floor and walking down the hall.  He turned the key in the lock and pushed open the door.

 

Max flipped on a light switch and she gasped.  “It has electricicity!  Do it again!”  She looked eagerly at him. 

 

Max raised his eyebrows, but obliged her by turning the light switch on and off a few times.  After a few flicks he left the lights on.  Rosmerta’s eyes adjusted to the brightness and she took in her surroundings.  She had always thought it was a bit strange that she had never been to Max’s flat.  Now she knew why.  The furnishings were rather sparse.  A large leather couch was the centerpiece of the living room; across from it was a huge telly and some other odd looking Muggle devices.  It did have a cozy sort of charm though, with a fireplace and mantle.

 

“So, this is your flat?” 

 

“Yeah…it was difficult finding one with a fireplace that didn’t cost a fortune.”  He watched her look around the flat.  “I’ve been thinking about getting more furniture…maybe putting up a few pictures or something.”  Max took her cloak.  “Alice and I…we used to have this little house not too far from here…two bedrooms, little backyard garden.  We lived in a flat before that.  Took us forever to save up the money for the house.  We had just started decorating it…by then everything was going to hell between us.  So we sold the house and then I moved here.  Home sweet home.”  He gave her a tight smile and ran his hand through his hair.

 

“It’s wonderful,” she said.  “And you have your own telly!”  She walked over to the entertainment center.  “How do you make it work?” she asked as she poked at the screen and tapped on the top. 

 

“Come here,” Max sat on the couch and patted the spot next to him.  Rosmerta ignored him and continued prodding the telly.  He picked up a small black object and pointed it at the telly.  All of a sudden, a picture came on the screen.

 

Rosmerta gasped and stumbled back.  “It’s like magic!  Is that a wand?” 

 

“No,” Max laughed.  “It’s called a remote control.  Do you want to try it?”

 

“Yes!”  Rosmerta bounded over to the couch and reached for the remote.  She examined it for a few minutes and then began pressing buttons.  Pictures flew across the screen.  “This is fun!”

 

“You have to stop eventually,” Max leaned back and smiled.

 

Rosmerta ignored him and continued playing with the remote control.  “What do those other machinesdo?”

 

“They play music,” Max said, pointing at his stereo system, “and that black box there is going to play the movie for us—”

 

“How does it work?”  

 

“I’m not exactly sure, but it reads the film on the tape,” he got the cassette out of the bag and pointed out the film.  “Do you want to watch the movie now?  Or do you want me to show you how some of these other things work?”

 

“In a few minutes,” Rosmerta said, turning her attention back to the telly. 

 

Max continued watching her until his stomach growled.  “What do you want for dinner?”

 

“I don’t know.  Surprise me,” she said, turning the telly’s volume up as high as it could go and then turning it back down.

 

“I’ll be right back.  Have fun,” he chuckled, dropping a kiss on her head and heading out the door.  Twenty minutes later he returned, a brown paper bag crackling in his arms, to find Rosmerta nearly in tears. 

 

“Max, I’m so sorry.  I broke your telly!”  She cringed as if expecting a tirade from him.

 

“What did you do?” he asked calmly, setting the bag down.

 

“I hit a button and the picture went away and it’s completely dark now.” She gestured at the blank screen.

 

“Oh dear,” Max said calmly, looking like he was trying to suppress a laugh.  “Did you use your wand on it at all?” Rosmerta shook her head.  “Well, then, I think you hit the ‘power’ button.”

 

“Is that bad?”

 

“It’s fixable.”  Max pointed the remote at the telly and a second later the picture reappeared.

 

Rosmerta gasped and clapped her hands together.  “Oh, thank goodness!  I was so afraid I broke it!”

 

“You’re funny,” he chuckled, kissing her on the cheek.  “Let’s eat.”

 

He unloaded the little white cartons like a pirate showing off his plundered booty from a raid.  The exoticness of the food—at least for Rosmerta, who still found dim sum and moo shu pork a charming novelty—warranted a picnic on the living room floor.

 

“Why do they call them egg rolls when there’s no egg in them?” she asked, examining the little fried log.

 

“I don’t know,” Max said, chopsticks paused before his mouth.  “One of the great mysteries of life.”  He slurped up some of lo mien noodles before they fell on the rug.   “Perhaps it’s a cultural quirk.  I suppose spotted dick is just as puzzling to anyone who isn’t British.”  He shrugged and dipped his chopsticks back into the carton.

 

“I love Chinese take out,” she said, turning her attention to the little white cartons.  She folded the flaps in and picked up the container by its silver handle.  It swung slightly as she held it up to admire it. 

 

“When you’re done, it’s as if you have all these little presents waiting for you in the fridge!”  She laughed and picked up a few more containers, letting them hang off her fingertips as if she had just come back from a shopping spree.  Max watched her, that half smile on his face he always wore whenever she discovered something new. 

 

“What does your fortune say?” he asked when she put down the containers and cracked open one of the biscuits. 

 

“Ooooh, yes!  I nearly forgot about that part.”  She extracted the little slip of white paper and held it up before her eyes.  “‘Many pleasurable and memorable adventures are in store for you!’”

 

“In bed.”

 

“Pardon?”

 

“You’re supposed to add ‘in bed’ after you read your fortune.”  Max took out his slip of paper.  “See, like this—‘Constant grinding can turn an iron rod into a needle—in bed.’”  He snorted and bit into a piece of biscuit.  “I’m not sure what that means, but it sounds rather pervy, don’t you think?  Read yours again and add the ‘in bed’ part.”

 

Rosmerta laughed and obliged him.  She looked up from the piece of paper.  “I don’t care what my fortune says about adventures, I’m not doing that thing you’re always asking me to do.”

 

Max arched his eyebrows and grinned wickedly.  “Biscuits don’t lie,” he said a mock serious expression on his face.  “I can assure you, it would be pleasurable and memorable.”

 

“For you maybe.” Rosmerta rolled her eyes.  “Is this what the noble art of Divination has come to?  Naughty biscuits?”

 

Max stretched out on his back, laughing.  “That’s a fantastic name for a rock band, don’t you think?”  He linked his hands behind his head and grinned at her.  “So what do you want to do now?” he removed one hand from behind his head and took her wrist, kissing it on the inside.

 

“Well,” she purred, stretching out next to him and nibbling on his earlobe.  “There is one thing I’d like to do.”

 

“Oh?  Do tell.”

 

Rosmerta blew in his ear and then whispered in her flirtiest voice.  “I want to play with the telly some more.” 

 

Max chuckled and passed the remote to her.  He waved his wand and set to work cleaning up dinner while she flipped from the shopping channel to a nature program to an American sit-com.  She finally settled on the football match and the two of them curled up on the couch.

 

“Don’t you want to watch your movie?”  Max asked.

 

“No, this looks interesting,” she said, her eyes riveted to the screen.

 

“You truly are a woman after my own heart.”

 

“Mmmmm,” she replied, snuggling closer but retaining a firm grasp on the remote control.  “I have to check on Fang,” she sighed after a while. 

 

“You want to spend the night?” Max asked, playing with a strand of her hair.  “I can go take Fang for a walk, pick up a few things for you.”

 

“What about work?”

 

“We get up early enough.  You can certainly make it back to Hogsmeade with plenty of time to spare.  Besides, you said Tuesdays are slow for you.”

 

After a bit more coaxing, Rosmerta agreed.  It was an oddly pleasant experience spending the night at Max’s flat.  Everything was new; the sounds from the street, the feel of the bed, even the shadows looked different.  It seemed as if she had just closed her eyes when she found herself being shook gently awake.

 

“I’m going out.  What would you like for breakfast?”  Max murmured over her.

 

Rosmerta rolled over, yawned and stretched.  “Don’t you have any food in your flat?”

 

“Yes, but I didn’t think you’d go for Goblin Crunchies.”

 

“Mmmm,” she said, turning back into the pillow.  “Wait, did you say goblin crunchies?”  She sat up and rubbed the sleep out of her eyes and tried to fix her hair.  She looked blankly at Max.  “What on earth are those?”

 

“It’s a cereal,” he laughed.  “I’ll bring something back from the local bakery.  Tea’s in the left-hand cabinet near the stove.”  Max kissed her and left.

 

The lure of a few minutes more of sleep was too tempting to pass up.  Rosmerta had nearly dozed off again when a shrill briiiiiing cut through her head.  Heart pounding, she sat up and looked around wildly.  The noise sounded again.  Rosmerta jumped out of bed and began looking around for the source.  It was one of the most horrible sounds she had ever heard, almost what she imagined a banshee sounded like. 

 

The door? she thought, stumbling toward it.  No one was on the other side when she yanked it open.  The ring sounded one more time, then it was followed by a short, high pitched beeeeep!  Incredibly, the next thing she heard was Max’s voice.

 

“Hello.  You’ve reached Max Hopper.  I’m not home to take your call, but if you leave me a message, I’ll ring you back as soon as I can.” 

 

Of course—the fellytone!  While Max’s voice played, Rosmerta located it on the kitchen counter.  She watched it intently to see what it did next.  It beeped again and then a woman’s voice appeared out of thin air. 

 

“Max?  It’s me.  I know it’s been a while.  I…I’ve had a bit of bad news and I…I just wanted to talk with you.  Please…call me back.”  A string of numbers followed. 

 

Frozen, Rosmerta stood in the kitchen listening to the woman’s voice.  Who was she?  Why was she contacting Max?   It’s me.  It sounded so…intimate. 

 

The key turned in the lock and Max walked into the flat carrying a white paper bag and with a newspaper tucked under his arm.

 

“I got croissants,” Max announced triumphantly.  He sounded like he had just returned from a dangerous hunt involving spears and woolly mammoths.  “Chocolate, plain, and the last of the raspberry.  They’re still warm,” he said setting the bag down.

 

“You have a message.”  Rosmerta nodded in the direction of the answerphone.

 

“Did they say who it is?” Max opened the fridge and pulled out a tub of butter, and cartons of juice and milk.

 

“A woman.  She sounded upset.”

 

Max’s expression revealed nothing.  “Really?”  He hit a button on the machine and reached into the cabinet above it to pull out two mugs.  As he listened to the message, Rosmerta watched his face go from puzzled to understanding and then it closed down.  “Would you get the plates?  They’re on the second shelf,” Max pointed to the cabinet above her head.

 

Who is she? her mind screamed.  “Aren’t you going to fellytone her back?”

 

“I will.  Later.  Tea?” he asked, pulling out a tin from the cupboard.  He didn’t look at her when he asked.  He seemed engrossed in opening the tin.

 

Rosmerta didn’t want to think the thoughts that were running through her head.  Mutely, she nodded and pulled two plates down from the cabinet. 

 

I can’t do this again.  I don’t have the strength for it.  It didn’t matter that she knew, she knew, there was no reason to be suspicious; she still felt like a jealous shrew.  She wished she could find Ares and curse him for doing this to her, for making her doubt herself and second-guess everything about her relationships. 

 

She looked at Max out of the corner of her eye as he poured steaming water from the kettle.  What would happen if she pressed him for answers?  If there was one thing she was good at, it was getting under a man’s skin.  Max did have a bit of a temper though.  He’d never used it against her…but then again, neither had Ares in the beginning.

 

It took her a minute before she realized that Max was talking to her.  “I’m sorry.  What did you say?”

 

“I asked if you wanted butter.  And the tea’s ready.”  He pointed to the mug on the counter.  “The milk’s a bit dodgy but I think it’ll be all right.”

 

“No thank you.”  She shook her head at the tub her was offering her.  She sniffed at the milk and wriggled her nose.  “I think I’ll skip the milk.”

 

“I can’t remember the last time I bought groceries,” Max said, taking a bite out of a thickly buttered croissant.  “Whatever’s in there is getting scary though.  My fridge has become this sort of diabolical Herbology project.  Oh!” he swallowed.  “I’m sorry.  Do you want to sit down?  I usually just eat breakfast standing up or grab something on the way to the office.”

 

“I’m fine,” she said, pulling off a piece of the croissant and popping it in her mouth.  The raspberry filling was good, not too sugary or jelly-like.  She turned the bitter sweetness over on her tongue. 

 

“You know,” she said, finishing her breakfast, “I bet Fang is about ready to explode.  I ought to go home and let him out.”

 

“All right.  I’ll talk to you…later.”  His eyes darted to the answerphone.  “Here, why don’t you take the rest of these?”  He pulled out a plain croissant for himself and handed her the bag.

 

She peeked in.  There was a chocolate and two raspberry left.  He always remembered her favorite things.  The corners of her mouth lifted slightly.  Any man who brought her raspberry croissants couldn’t possibly break her heart.  Still, it didn’t mean the matter of the mystery woman was forgotten.

 

Rosmerta gave him a kiss on the cheek and went home. 

 

 

A/N: Lyrics in this chapter are from Sympathy for the Devil by the Rolling Stones.  The title of this chapter comes from Sarah McLaughlan’s song, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy.

//
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