Disclaimers, notes, and beta credits may be found in Chapter One.
By harmony bites and zeegrindylows
As soon as Severus rematerialized, what hit him was the stench. An acrid, burned smell, combined with other odors, grease, offal. Through the murky air, he saw the ruins of a castle. The profile of a tower, still intact above the ruins, made his stomach clench in recognition. His first thought was that Dumbledore had to have turned him into a Muggle, that surely this was just the illusion that Muggles saw—this wasn't Hogwarts as it really was, couldn't be. Then he turned around and saw before him the familiar wrought iron gates flanked by the pillars on which stood the statues of winged boars.
Over a thousand years, with Dark Lords and Ladies rising and falling, Hogwarts had often been the ultimate prize, the ultimate redoubt and final place of battle. What it had never been, because what its former students could never let it be, was a ruin in fact.
He began to run up the steps, when Dumbledore called him back. As soon as he felt the cold trickle down his back of the charm, he didn't wait any longer, but ran back up the stone steps, bracing himself for what he'd find, and stopped short at what he saw at the driveway. An open pit. At first, they looked to him like tossed piles of straw-filled clothes, stained and almost floating in the blood, surrounded by a cloud of flies. But only a moment passed before he knew them for what they were—corpses. He recognized Cho Chang by the distinction crow shape of her lapis lazuli hair clip. The Patil twins were entwined together as if that had been how they'd died. There were Slytherin cloaks among the other houses here and there. In some cases their faces were obscured; other faces were unrecognisable, but there, that was Zabini … Greengrass … Pucey.
Severus felt a touch at his arm. "None of my Slytherins should have died," Severus said softly. "They stayed out of the fight originally, and if Voldemort won this…"
"He did," said Dumbledore just as softly, seemingly for once as affected by the horror before them as Severus was. "Who else would put all his enemies in a common pit?"
"Enemies? Zabini? Greengrass? Pucey? Slytherins all—"
"Some Slytherins fought against him. Oh, Severus, did it never occur to you to wonder why not one Slytherin fought by Harry's side?"
"No, because I was sure of the answer. Slytherins were never included among the DA. During your entire tenure in Hogwarts they had never been given any reason to feel they had a stake in opposing Voldemort or would be trusted if they did."
"More than that, remember why you survived, Severus. The first thing Bulstrode asked when Minerva told the students they could stay and fight, was where you were. Minerva told them you had 'done a bunk' and later, after Parkinson threatened Harry, Minerva told her to leave and that 'the rest of your House could follow.' They did not know what had become of you. Bulstrode, Zabini, among others, were sure you would not have abandoned them."
"They were wrong at that." Dumbledore squeezed his shoulder. "No, they weren't. You just didn't want to hurt Minerva and the others—and you did need to find Harry. You had other priorities then if we were to defeat that madman. I know it cost—"
"Yes, yes." He shrugged off Dumbledore's hand.
"Minerva's unfortunate wording left the Slytherins with the definite impression they would not be welcome in the fight, so after Parkinson led them out, Slytherin split."
"With Draco, Goyle, and Crabbe to our infamy doubling back to ambush Harry."
"And the bulk of Slytherins fanning out to find you—and a good thing they did, or you would have died. That is your legacy too. Without the DA, House Unity was weaker, but it was equally weak—no longer three versus one, but four standing shakily together. This battle of Hogwarts was even less organized, even more bloody than what we knew. And yes, to his shock Ronald Weasley found Adrian Pucey fighting by his side. Cho Chang died with Zabini and Greengrass fighting beside her. The losses were considerably higher on both sides. Come with me."
Following Dumbledore, they climbed through the ruins to find a small group huddled over a pile of stones that was being levitated away. Severus spotted Lucius. Naturally. Like cockroaches, there'd still be Malfoys after a nuclear apocalypse, or, as in this case, a magical one.
This Lucius looked little like his sleek self, though. Stubble appeared on his chin and his clothes were stained and wrinkled. His eyes were bloodshot.
Beside him stood Bellatrix. "You should be proud. Proud that Draco died for our Lord."
Severus bit back a moan. After all the deaths in this panoply of horror Dumbledore had laid before him, he thought himself immured, but before Brian had ever been born, the closest Severus had ever come to being a father had been his relationship with Draco.
Severus saw Lucius' wand arm twitch, a movement immediately stilled, but telling in the very controlled elder Malfoy. Then he saw a dark shape swoop down from the sky and alight in front of them both.
"My Lord," Bellatrix said, ecstatically, immediately bowing down to kiss his hem. Lucius was fractionally slower, acting simply as he were being careful, as if the movements pained him, but Severus wondered if that was simply physical.
The man turned down his hood, and the face before him looked older than it should be given how he'd seen him in the last—vision? He should be around twenty-one, but it was the face of someone who had spent the time in dissolute acts—or Dark Magic. His eyes were heavy-lidded, and there seemed a reddish tinge already to those dark eyes.
"Fear not, my faithful servant. You still have the hammer and anvil to make a better forging. Narcissa was a weak vessel, you can do better."
"As you say, Lord." Lucius' tone was drained, but a further twitch of his wand hand told Severus that were it anyone else that stood there, the words that would have poured out of his mouth would have started with Avada and ended with Kedavra.
"You can have your choice of wives among pureblood society." For him, Voldemort's voice was almost gentle.
Lucius just inclined his head, and the three turned and walked away.
As soon as they made it out of their hearing and Dumbledore lifted the charm, Severus turned to Dumbledore and said, "Lucius will turn against him."
"He might have—had Voldemort been directly responsible, had there been any organized opposition that led him to hope—"
"Lucius loved his son. If you'd ever had any—"
"Lucius loves power. And he's practical. He will accommodate himself. Not easily, I grant you, but the result will be a man more bitter, more sadistic than you ever knew."
"What happened to Narcissa?"
"After I … or rather, after my counterpart died, Voldemort set upon Draco the task of finding the way to get the Death Eaters into the castle. She didn't have anyone to go to—no one to ask to look after her son and protect him, since in this course of events, Lucius had also been sent to Azkaban after being caught in a raid. So she went directly to Voldemort. Who was not … amused by having someone question his orders."
Severus swallowed. "Voldemort killed her?"
"No, not till today at her violent reaction to Draco's death. At that time he simply cursed her, crippled her, whilst telling Draco the curse would be lifted if and when he succeeded. Draco eventually found the solution with the Vanishing cabinets as he had before, only instead of a small group of infiltrators like before he brought in group after group. They attacked the same day the coup overthrew the Ministry, killing Scrimgeour and making Pius Thicknesse Minister. Severus—Amycus Carrow was the Headmaster over this past year."
Severus' head whipped up, and he stared at Dumbledore, finding a wealth of sadness in those blue eyes.
"You weren't here to protect the students. Cruciatus wasn't simply a sporadic practice you were able to eventually put a stop to before a few months passed. It wasn't a momentary, excruciating pain." Dumbledore gestured towards where the pit lay. "This wasn't the result of Harry or Voldemort's visit precipitating a battle. Cho Chang was the closest thing to a leader the students had left. Hers was … a less martial spirit than Harry's or even Neville's. She tried to hang everything on the law, on reason, among an unreasonable people. Carrow and Voldemort had had enough of her opposition, especially after they found out she and Cedric Diggory had been smuggling accounts of what was happening at Hogwarts abroad, where they were being published. Carrow announced that Cedric, being an of-age wizard, had been executed. He told the assembled students they were going to use Cruciatus on Chang until 'that Ravenclaw brain was mush,' then tried to detain her. The students … they'd had enough and much of the staff joined the fight. Few were able to stay out of the way of the melee that ensued. Very few that fought were not killed or captured."
"But this destruction—"
"Carrow panicked when it looked like they were losing and unleashed a spell of such destruction—well, you see the results around you."
"Carrow wanted to put down all sorts of dunderheaded booby traps throughout Hogwarts in case of attack—blow up the school if need be rather than let it be taken against us. I stopped—I stopped him … Dear Merlin." Finding his legs trembling, Severus tried to sit on the remains of one of the benches, only to find he had sat against something hard and lumpy. Gobstones. His mother had been teaching Miranda the game. He rolled them against his fingers, and then, on some impulse he didn't quite understand, put them in his pocket.
"Don't you see, Severus, at every turn, you've been the necessary man. Not the only one. Things would be as bleak without Harry, without Hermione. But you are the keystone on the arch. Your life has been a gift, whether you appreciate the fact or not—a gift not just to yourself, but to others as well. I admit, sometimes it was one that more closely resembled a sack of coal for you than brightly wrapped gifts, especially before Voldemort's defeat and your marriage to Hermione. Still, it was among the greatest of your gifts that you have had great power to affect others. If you withdraw that gift, you are helpless to affect change, to protect those you hold dear."
"No more," groaned Severus, staring down in the direction of the pit that held the lifeless bodies of the students that had been his charge. "I want Hermione. Take me to Hermione, Dumbledore!"
"By all that is holy, Dumbledore, I swear I will strike you down where you stand. I killed you once, old man, and I will do it again if you don't take me to my wife!"
"You won't like it."
He faltered. "She's—alive, isn't she?"
"Then show her to me."
Dumbledore sighed, and the clearing melted away.
Although Hermione let Harry lead her away from the corridor, what replaced the sobbing scared Harry. Her face seemed frozen, except for her glittering eyes, an expression that Ron had always called scary.
Just before they reached the hall to her quarters, Hermione took Harry's arm in a bruising grip. "Not a word about this will be said in front of the children. They're not to ever know their father cared so little—" Her mouth twisted.
"What then? A coward? What am I supposed to tell the children if he never comes out of there?" She pressed her knuckles against her eyes, rubbing them. "I'll never forgive him if he leaves me alone to … No, he won't. He can't. So we'll just have to make things right. Harry, give me something to do. I knew, really. There's no way into that room, so let me help you—"
"Hermione, it's an official investigation—"
"Bollocks. You're family. Severus is family. You're here for him. Don't pretend you're objective. Everyone knows you're not." Her voice broke. "Harry—give me something to do."
"I—" Harry broke off when he saw the group coming towards them. Rita Skeeter, Auror Warrington—and Lucius Malfoy.
"Professor," Warrington said, addressing herself to Hermione, "do you know where your husband is?"
"The Headmaster can't be reached," Harry said.
Malfoy's eyes, closed near to slits, flicked a glance at Hermione. "Are you a professor now, Potter? Or Snape's wife? Strange, but whatever Professor Granger's failings an ability to speak for herself was never one of them."
"What are you doing here Malfoy? Come to spread Christmas cheer?" asked Hermione.
Malfoy brushed an imaginary speck of dust from his shoulder. "McLaggen has accused your husband of being involved in a conspiracy to cover up the death of his son." A slight smile played over his lips. "It pains me to inform you of this, dear, Severus is an old friend—"
"As in it was a long, long time ago he would have called you one."
"It's Professor. My title is Professor."
"I wouldn't scorn friendship where you can find it. As a friend, I convinced the Board to install me as Headmaster on a purely temporary basis, you understand, until we can get this cleared up."
"That won't be long, I assure you, Malfoy," said Harry.
Lucius smirked. "I wasn't aware that you were assigned to this case, Potter."
"I'm a Senior Auror—I can make it my business—that gives me more authority here than you, Malfoy—or you, Warrington."
Warrington swallowed. "Surely, sir, you see how bad it looks if the Headmaster isn't to be found?"
A flash illuminating Harry's face made him blink. Skeeter smiled at him. "Just a picture for tomorrow's edition of the Prophet." She hooked her fingers as if miming quotation marks. "'Harry Potter is on the case.' Any comment?"
"Yes, I'd be careful what you write. Headmaster Snape is innocent."
"That would be rather a first, wouldn't it?" Skeeter said sweetly.
"Actually," Hermione said, "it's a rather old story, just one you keep missing." With that, Hermione pulled Harry by the arm. "Oh, and Mister Malfoy, good luck trying to get into the Headmaster's Office. As Umbridge found, the castle is quite picky as to who it recognizes as Headmaster."
When Severus opened his eyes again, he did not recognize where he was. Dumbledore had taken him to some ramshackle shantytown, a huddle of dilapidated tents and other sad, lopsided structures. Here and there, small fires crackled, tended by tiny, hunched children with grime-smeared faces. Some of them wore a few rags that still resembled robes or Muggle clothes. Others were naked, or nearly so. When they saw Severus, they scattered, raising a screaming alarm.
Soon, older people were stumbling out from the things that Severus could not bring himself to call 'houses'. Several of them were in rags as well. Others were better-dressed, but all were skeletally thin, and many were barefoot. Judging by the appearance of their feet as they ran, many of them had been going barefoot for some time.
He didn't chase after them. He was looking for Hermione. At last, he found her, but the sight of her gave him no joy.
She was crawling out of a small tent set somewhat aside from the rest. Her hair was chopped short, unevenly, and it hadn't been washed in far too long. It hung, lank and greasy, into her eyes. Her face, like the rest, was streaked with dirt, her cheekbones standing out in prominent relief from the rest of her face, which had grown shockingly thin.
Her limp hadn't gone.
In fact, her limp had grown much more pronounced, and she stumbled lopsidedly with every step, struggling to keep her balance, unable to run nearly as fast as the rest, who had far outstripped her, and were beginning to disappear into the nearby woods.
He shouted wordlessly, unable to help himself any longer. He was running to her, he realized. He didn't remember beginning to run, but he was almost to her side now.
She didn't stop when he said her name. She kept going, panting for breath as she tried to navigate the circuitous path that led through the makeshift village she apparently lived in.
When she fell, Severus was there to catch her. He closed his arms around her waist, lifting her into the air so easily that, for a moment, he thought he must not have lifted her at all. She seemed to weigh nothing, and he nearly lost his balance, thrown off-kilter by the overexertion of his muscles when he'd gone to pick her up.
"Stop!" she screamed, clawing at him desperately. "Let me go, I'm not a witch! I'm not! I'm not!"
Severus, grunting, managed to get her arms pinned down. "What are you talking about, woman? Of course you're a witch."
"No," she said, her voice increasingly hysterical. "I'm not. I swear, I'm not. You can search me. I haven't any wand. Please, please, just let me go."
"You haven't any wand?" He blinked. "What have you done with it?"
"I—I haven't done anything."
"Of course you have. Did it break? Hermione, what are you doing here? What's going on? Please, you've got to help me, Hermione, I've—"
She stilled, eyeing him suspiciously. "How do you know my name?"
"Of course I know your name. I know everything about you. You're Hermione Jean Granger. You're a Muggle-born witch. Your parents are dent—"
But he couldn't finish. At the words 'Muggle-born,' she had begun to writhe again, clawing at his face now, tearing gouges into it with her fingernails. "I'm not Muggle-born." She gasped for breath, and Severus noticed for the first time the congested gurgle that sounded in her chest each time she inhaled. "I just—I was born in another country, if you must know, and that's why I haven't got papers. Please, you've got to believe me. Don't take me to the Ministry. I haven't done anything wrong!"
He performed a rather complicated maneuver that he had long since perfected in the process of looking after their children, transferring her body to one arm so that he could hold her hands still with the other. "Stop scratching me, harridan. I'm not going to give you to the Ministry."
"Oh," she said. A look of understanding and of animal cunning came onto her face, and she stopped struggling. He set her down. Should she choose to run, it would be more than easy for him to catch her again.
Once on her feet, she stood still as he'd hoped, her eyes fixed on him with a peculiar expression. "I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't understand."
"Didn't understand what?"
"I thought you were a Snatcher." She made an attempt at a confident, businesslike tone, but it failed—or perhaps he just knew her too well to believe it. She was terrified. It moved him deeply, and frightened him, that his Hermione could find him a stranger and be so terrified of him. He was so caught up in sadness that at first he didn't register what she was doing with her hands …
"What are you doing?"
"I'm—you promise that you won't send me to the Ministry, don't you?" Her hands stilled, clutching the newly-unfastened halves of her … garment … together over her chest. "If you're going to take me to the Ministry, I'd rather you not pretend to be kind beforehand."
He opened his mouth, but the shocked response that formed in his brain came nowhere close to his throat.
Taking his silence for assent, she nodded sharply and opened her hands. The mess of torn, frayed fabric that covered her body fell to the ground, and she stood naked before him. She was cleaner than some of the rest, at least. Her skin was still as white as he remembered. But it had no loveliness to it. There was no glow of health in that skin. She looked like a corpse. Her hipbones jutted out sharply, and he could count each of her ribs. She raised her hands to hold up her small, shrunken breasts for his inspection, and he saw that her arms were pathetically thin.
"Stop," he said sharply, turning his eyes away. His wife she might be, but it was indecent to see her like this, to gaze on her emaciated nakedness. He wanted to vomit. A skeleton that called itself a woman, that's all that she was. And she was standing there, offering him her body in exchange for her life—her filthy, wasted body. The body that had once been Hermione's.
"What?" Her voice was puzzled, frightened. "Do I—do I not please you? Oh God, don't send me to the Ministry. I'm sorry. I'll find someone else for you. I'll do anything. Just don't give me to Him."
"You know I'm forbidden to speak of him," she whispered, her eyes widening. "You're trying to trick me. You do want to take me to the Ministry. Well, I won't go! I'll throw myself to the Dementors first!" She backed away from him, limping horribly with each step, leaving her clothes on the ground rather than taking the risk of moving any closer to him to pick them up.
"Stop this," he said again. "Hermione, I can't—I—" but there was nothing he could say. He turned and ran, retching as he went. He looked for Dumbledore, but, for once, the meddlesome old man was nowhere to be found. Severus was alone, trapped in a world that was the stuff of his every worst nightmare. He searched desperately, but he couldn't see Dumbledore anywhere.
He stumbled and fell, landing hard on his hands and knees, the impact ripping the skin apart even through his trousers. The terrible, twisted image of Hermione seemed to have burned itself into his retinas, into his mind, soiling them. He coughed, his stomach heaving, but there was nothing for him to vomit out. He had never eaten—not in this non-life that had swallowed him.
He bent forward, letting his face rest in the barren dirt, overwhelmed. Since the moment he‚d learned of the accident, he'd sunk into despair. Now, though, he finally remembered what it was to break. His face was hot and wet, a mess of tears and mucous and soil. Nothing mattered now, if he was stranded here. Nothing mattered but finding a way back to his own Hermione and assuring himself that she never risked so much as a hint of the suffering that she could have endured, had things in their lives together been … different.
"Didn't choose to take her?" said a voice at his elbow. He nearly cried out in surprise, but he recovered himself, glaring at the erstwhile Headmaster as his face slowly dripped back into visibility.
"No, I did not, as you so eloquently put it, choose to take her. She is my wife, not an unpaid whore to be used at my will. She doesn't know me. What is the meaning of this, Dumbledore?"
"Its meaning? Surely you have grasped the basic lesson at this point. You were never such a poor student in your youth."
"Tell me." Severus swallowed, his throat burning painfully with emotions he was, by now, barely able to control. "How did she come to this? How did the world come to this?"
Dumbledore gave an eloquent shrug.
His voice was unsteady, as he knew it would be even before he attempted to speak. "Tell me, Dumbledore."
"With the Order gone, and the opposition at Hogwarts all killed, there was no resistance left. The wizarding world fell, and fell quickly—to its knees, in abject surrender. Voldemort waited a mere six months after his so-called 'liberation' of the Ministry before he began to wage total war against the British Muggle population. Naturally, the Statute of Secrecy was broken entirely. The revelation that there were witches and wizards living in Britain was one that rocked the world, and when it came out that Britain was not the only country, other wars started as well."
The Headmaster's spectacles glinted in the light, giving him an eerie appearance, as if he had no pupils—merely white, glowing eyes, half-lidded. "In a few places, there have been truces, and even tentative alliances, but those are few and far between."
"You're telling me that the Muggles, they—"
"Hunt witches and wizards, Severus, and burn them."
"Witches and wizards know how to deal with burning," he said immediately, thinking back to his many tedious hours in History of Magic. "It's a basic flame-freezing charm."
"Perhaps in the Middle Ages, when burning meant being tied to a stake in the middle of a pyre, Severus, and with their wand tied ceremonially there with them. The Muggles of today are wiser, or, perhaps, simply more vicious. I think Arthur would have praised their ingenuity. The lucky few who have not had their wands destroyed by Voldemort, and it is very few, have had their wands destroyed by the Muggles if they are caught. There are furnaces built especially for the purpose of eliminating magical folk from the British population. Those who aren't corralled into Voldemort's forced labor camps are herded into Muggle prison camps and slaughtered with as free a hand as any Death Eater ever had."
"Still, it's only fire—"
"Only fire, in an enclosed, superheated metal room, designed solely for the purpose of incinerating witches and wizards."
"I don't believe you."
Dumbledore's eyebrows went up a fraction. "Would you like to see?"
"I thought as much."
"I would like to go back to Hermione."
The old man gestured wordlessly in the direction Severus had just come from.
"Not that Hermione. I want to see my Hermione. The one I'm married to. The one who's—not that one." Fear clenched around his heart. Suppose he couldn't go back? Suppose that he was trapped here forever, and that his Hermione was gone, as unreal and imaginary as this one had once been? Magic could do things like that, when wielded unwisely. Whether the world had really been altered, or Severus' brains had merely been addled, he was already at a loss for how to cope in this world that was not his.
"I don't know, Severus," said Dumbledore. "Are you sure that all this is not what you want?" His arms moved expansively, seeming to encompass everything that Severus had seen. "It was your wish to be here, after all."
"Get me out. I don't want any part of it. I want my wife and children."
The rest of the world didn't.
He froze where he was, staying still for so long that he lost count of the agonized seconds which had passed. Then, finally, everything disappeared and reality once more rearranged itself.
Severus stood in a small, nondescript room. It could have been behind any door in the castle. There were no decorations on the wall, no rugs on the flagstone floor, and he saw not a single piece of furniture.
There was only the door.
Cautiously, he opened it and stepped out into the hallway. It looked like Hogwarts. Simply Hogwarts. The Hogwarts that he knew and loved, that he was Headmaster over. He rolled his sleeve up and gave an exulting cry when he felt the scars at his throat. He moved, trying his muscles, glorying in the familiar aches and twinges that came with unaccustomed stretching and twisting. Straightening his clothes, he realized that even the few gobstones he'd picked up in the ruins of Hogwarts were gone.
He didn't wait another moment. He turned in the direction of his home, his wife, and his children, and ran, praying to every god he knew of that they were still there, and as he remembered them to be.
The clock chimed one o'clock in the morning as he opened the door. How was it possible that he'd been in the Room for so long? It had felt like ages, but surely so much time couldn't actually have passed.
He crept through their quarters, assuring himself that all was there, and as he remembered it. Yes—there were Brian's initials, carved into his bedroom door with his wand on his eleventh birthday. There was the much-abused old piano that Hermione had brought from her parents' house, and had insisted that each of the children practice on every day. There, on his desk, lay untidy piles of parchment, many covered with childish scrawls and scribbles, several declaring, in crayon, that they were dedicated to him with love.
Toys were scattered on the floor, some of which belonged to the Potter children. Harry and Ginny had been there, apparently—still were there, he realized, catching sight of a white face and red hair peeking out from beneath a heavy blanket on the couch.
The sight of Ginny sleeping in his front room reminded him of the one sight he had not yet seen, and the one which he longed for most of all. Softly, he opened the door to the bedroom he had shared with Hermione for so many happy years. His life was in ruins, his reputation once again besmirched, he knew that Hermione would stay by him. That, in the end, would be enough. He counted himself lucky to have her … if she was still there—and would forgive him.
She sat at their large shared desk, her back to the door, her head bowed. For a moment, he thought she'd fallen asleep, but then he heard the faint noises that she made, and saw the shaking of her shoulders. She was crying.
He stopped, realizing for the first time what she must have gone through while he'd been wandering through the darkest holes of his psyche. Their family clock lay on the bed, placed neatly atop his pillow. Severus had a feeling she'd put it there to keep herself from looking at it too often. Glancing at it now, he saw that the hand with his name on it rested squarely at 'home,' and he allowed himself a smile.
While he watched her, she straightened up, wiped both eyes with her palms, and then reached for a pair of scissors and a bit of Spellotape. There was a faint rustling of paper as she enclosed a small gift and wrapped it in the same tidy, deliberate manner that she did everything else. Occasionally, she gave a loud sniff. When she had the bow affixed to the top of the box, she set it aside, atop a pile of similarly wrapped boxes.
Only Hermione, he thought, would wrap Christmas presents with the world falling down around her head. He smiled, imagining the conversation she had surely had with Ginny Potter about it. Severus might be sacked. He might have slept with another witch. He might even be dead, but her children were still going to have a regular, happy Christmas morning, no matter what it took.
Her hair was caught up into a rather sloppy knot, from which several thick curls had escaped. They lay on the white nape of her neck as beautifully as if they had been draped by an artist. Her loveliness took his breath away, and suddenly, all he wanted was to seize her in his arms and kiss her. He longed to tell her how intensely he loved her, how much she meant to him, how he wished that he could show to her how different and miserable his own life would have been, had she been the absent one.
Instead, he very quietly drew his wand and whispered a spell. The wrapping paper in her hands folded itself neatly around the box (one that his mother had sent for Brian).
She went very still, her hands still hovering in midair, though the paper had been snatched from them.
"Wife," said Severus, "will you never learn that some things are better done early, and by magic? You are not generally a woman to save things for the last minute."
He could see the flexing of muscles in her neck as she swallowed, slowly lowering her hands to the desk. "My mother always did it this way, and so will I," she said. Her voice was a mere whisper as she took her part in what had become over the years a tender, annual script for them to repeat on Christmas Eve.
"Your mother," he said, his voice as full of helpless passion as it had been on their wedding day, "is a Muggle, who does the best she can with the tools she is given. You are a witch, and you ought to behave like one."
"You're only saying that because you don't know how to wrap a gift with your own two hands."
He had approached, until now he could nearly touch her, could feel the warmth radiating from her back into his chest. He looked down at her thick, coiled hair, and touched it, resting his palm on the side of her head. It was long and full and clean, and her skin seemed to radiate health and well-being. "On the contrary, madam. I pick up my wand with my left hand, I transfer it to my right hand, and I speak the incantation."
He moved his hands to her shoulders, squeezing them gently, feeling the tension in them. He lowered his head, until his lips were nestled into her hair.
"Severus!" her voice was a gasp, and her hands moved up to grip his, squeezing them so tightly that the blood ceased flowing into his fingers. Just when he'd begun to think of trying to pry her grip a little looser, she let go and spun around, flinging her arms around his waist and burying her face in his stomach, her body heaving with sobs. "Oh God, Severus, I was so frightened you'd left me."
He caught her up in his arms, lifting her off the ground and holding her as tightly as he could, so that it was her turn to wriggle, lest her ribs be cracked with the force of his embrace. It took an effort to lift her this time. She was by no means fat, but she bore the weight of their children in her hips and breasts, and it sent a shiver through him to feel it. "Hermione. My Hermione." He buried his face in her neck, kissing it passionately, finally sure that she was real—his real Hermione. "I thought that I'd lost you."
She drew back in surprise. "Afraid that you'd lost me?"
"Albus, apparently not satisfied with inhabiting portraits, gave me a visit and tried playing Jacob Marley."
"It seems that anything in the Room of Requirement is possible." Was it, though? Did perhaps one drop of Somnus reach his lips? Even the gobstones he'd hung onto as proof of the reality of what he'd experienced had vanished. Tightening his hold on his Hermione, he realized it didn't matter. He remembered his helplessness at the sight of the other Hermione. Never again would he willingly put himself into a situation where his family was beyond his reach and protection.
"You utter, git," said a voice affectionately from the doorway. "I think Hermione and I both have several more gray hairs because of you—usually James is responsible for them, but you—"
He turned to see Harry at the door, a big grin on his face. He held up the evening edition of the Daily Prophet, only the headline was not the one that Severus expected. It read, "Potter Solves Case: Lucius Malfoy Arrested." Harry walked over and put the newspaper on the desk.
"I take it, then, that you're not here to arrest me?"
Harry shook his head, a smug look on his face. "I do believe I've just discharged one of my life debts to you. I think you were ahead? Not that I keep count."
Severus scowled at Harry, then drew the paper closer to him and began to read. "Draco turned in his own father?"
"He came to me, Severus, I didn't even have to go find him. Draco may not completely approve of how you and Neville have been 'Mugglelizing' the school—but he does care about you. And he didn't care for how Lucius used Scorpius to give him information about the school, the curriculum. That's how he knew exactly when, where and how to switch the boomslang for redwort. How he knew Ernie's routine well enough to Confound him, then Obliviate him, so he wouldn't notice the switch. Draco didn't appreciate his son being used the way he had been." Harry pushed up his glasses with a finger, then glared sternly at his old teacher. "The only reason you're not getting a lecture from me—"
"Harry—" Hermione's tone was a warning.
"—is because Hermione would likely hex me—and it's Christmas." Harry's voice roughened. "But for Merlin's sake, next time, before you rip all our hearts out—yes, even mine, you git—try to remember you have friends and ask—"
"I believe you said you'd spare me?" Snape said.
"Dennis Creevey, among others, leaked the story the Daily Prophet was going to run. Before they knew it, they had quite a crowd on their doorstep, using some tried and true Muggle protest tactics. Ron and George were there, you know."
"Selling Weasley Wheezes."
"More like organizing the mayhem. Did the part about friends register?"
"Who are also yours. And a lot of those people—at that protest, busy sending owls to me and leaking information like a sieve, are your Slytherins, you know. It's going to be one hell of a party—"
"Well, I sent Ron an owl, of course, to let them all know you're back, and cleared. I think the whole lot should be arriving any minute—"
Severus could hear a rising cacophony of voices nearing. "Potter," he said angrily, "it's past midnight!"
"Happy Christmas, Severus and Hermione!" cried a chorus of voices from the front room, as Ron opened the door, revealing a press of people so thick that Severus wasn't sure they'd be physically able to get out of the bedroom to greet everyone who had come.
He grabbed tightly onto Hermione's hand, determined that no matter what else happened this night, he wouldn't let go.