Disclaimer: And for the final lap, witches and wizards and Muggles, I, sylphides, solemnly swear that I do not own the world or characters of Harry Potter.
~Nineteen Years Later~
She stuck her tongue between her teeth as she inked in another fine, black line, careful to lift her hand up so that it would not smudge the image that was almost finished beneath her fingers. Concentration wrinkled her forehead…almost done…she held her breath as she made another mark, quill barely touching the fine parchment. There. She let out the breath she'd been holding, slowly, and took a cautious step back to look at her finished product.
She could see nothing else that she needed to do, no other minute change. It was the best work she'd ever done, though her critical artist's eyes still saw flaws in what she had created. Still, overall, she was rather proud of the ink drawing that had taken her almost a month to complete. She'd started this project three and a half weeks ago, knowing that she'd need all the time she could muster to create the perfect Christmas present for her godparents, who were her favorite people in the world other than her own immediate family.
She hoped they liked it.
"Of course they will," said a voice by her ear, and she jumped nearly out of her skin, shrieking.
Her twin brother and biggest menace of her life stood, laughing at her, his grey eyes dancing with amusement at her expense, and she scowled at him. "Lys, you arse! You nearly gave me heart failure! Not to mention that I could have ruined my drawing by mistake if I'd jerked the wrong way," she snapped at him.
He tugged on her curly blonde hair affectionately. "Nah, Lu, you're too protective of your work to ever risk it," he retorted. "'Sides, it's a skill I'm cultivating, to be sneaky. This Christmas, they aren't going to sneak up on me again like that! I'll sneak up on them instead."
"Good luck," Lu snorted. "They've had far longer than you to practice being sneaky and quiet. You'll never win."
"I can try," her brother said with infinite dignity.
"Lunaris and Lysander! Have you finished packing?" Mum's voice floated up the stairs, and the twins winced simultaneously.
"Almost!" Lunaris called back down, lying blithely through her teeth. "Quick, help me cast the protective charm on my drawing," she hissed, drawing her wand.
For all his tomfoolery, Lysander was extremely talented in Charms, and his spells tended to equal spells cast by witches and wizards twice his age. The siblings held their wands out over the parchment, and cast simultaneously.
The parchment, and the drawing it contained, glowed briefly and then returned to its original appearance. However, even a foot away from it, Lunaris could feel the strong protective magic that encased her precious artwork, preventing it from being ripped, creased, smudged, soaked, or stained. "Thanks," she said grudgingly to her brother.
He shrugged. "Are we going to pack or wait till Mum comes up to yell at us for lying and making us late to catching the Portkey?" he asked.
With great care, Lu rolled up her gift and tied it with a rich green ribbon. She placed it on the unorganized pile of things she'd dumped on her bed to take with her, and then surveyed the assortment of clothes, books, gifts, and other essentials. "Fifteen minutes," she estimated.
"Ten," Lysander countered with a challenge in his eye. Never one to turn down a challenge, she pursed her lips and nodded. "Ready, set, go!" The room exploded in a flurry of packing as both twins competed to finish before the other, and certainly before ten minutes was up.
"Done!" Lunaris declared, just as Lysander cried, "Finished!"
They both groaned. "Tie again, that means that Cassie will have to think up another tie breaker," Lysander sighed.
"What about me?" A small head poked into the twins' room. Cassandra was ten going on twenty, five years younger than the twins, and the official negotiator of their on-going twin rivalry.
"We tied again," Lunaris informed her.
"Oh. Well, I'll think of something, but right now, Mum's about to come up and check your room," Cassie warned them. "Looks like you're packed, but you may want to hide those." She indicated towards the stack of books on Lysander's table, and he cursed. Hurriedly, he shoved the stack of books under his bed.
"Thanks, Cassie," he said hastily. "Mum doesn't need to know that I'm thinking about becoming an Auror yet, plenty of time for that hullabaloo in a year or two…"
Lu nodded fervently. Dad might understand Lys' need to join the force, to be able to do something important for their home country however dangerous it was, but Mum would only see the risky nature of the job and the violence required, the waste of Lysander's other talents. As much as she considered Lys a troublesome creature in her life, she didn't want to see her twin be harangued and guilted by Mum into doing something else he didn't really want to do instead. Not to mention as his twin, she'd be blamed equally for not 'being a better influence on Lys'—as if anyone could influence Lys if he didn't want to be influenced!
"She's coming," Cassie hissed, and vanished, probably to her own room. Sure enough, a second later, Lu heard the creak of the stairs. When Skye Corwin entered the room of her two eldest children, Lunaris was stretched out on her bed innocently reading a book and Lysander at his desk, hard at work editing his essay due after the holidays. She wasn't fooled a bit.
"I hope you remembered everything," she said, choosing not to investigate too closely this time. "Bring everything downstairs, we're going to Floo to the International Transportation Department and Portkey from there."
"Yes, Mum," they chorused obediently. She gave them one more suspicious look and departed to find Cassandra.
Both of them breathed a quiet sigh of relief that she hadn't actually checked to see what they had packed—not all of it would have been parent-approved, considering that it was stuff not quite legal by British standards, though fine by the Italian Ministry. But the Transportation Officials never checked their belongings, so as long as neither Mum nor Dad found the items in their bags, they would make it over there safely for Lunaris and Lysander to pass on to their sort-of cousins.
In short order, the twins found themselves in the sparse chamber of the Transportation Department, where, at least for the magical citizens, tourists, and visitors of Italy, all international traveling occurred. A much more organized and regulated system than ours, I'm afraid, Uncle Percy had told her ruefully once when she had asked why in Italy they had to arrive or depart from the same building but in Britain, you could go from anywhere as long as you got issued a Portkey. Still, one change at a time, and there are far more important changes to push through first. Uncle Percy had been elected the British Minister of Magic two years ago, amidst much cheering—he'd been a shoe-in, because he had fought in the big war against Voldemort and because he'd been so instrumental in rebuilding the shattered Ministry after the war was over. The other contenders couldn't say the same.
They visited Britain almost every Christmas. It meant a great deal more traveling for Lu and Lys when they started going to Hogwarts, because that meant they left the Isles to come home by Portkey at Aunt Danielle and Uncle Xenophilius' house, and then several days later had to Portkey back with their family. Still, neither twin really wanted to stay in Britain even those couple of extra days without their family. As much as they loved Hogwarts, they'd grown up in Venice, not Scotland or England.
"Hold tight everyone!" Dad reminded as they all jostled to grip on to the plain, smoothened wood-carved baton. Lu and Lys engaged in the traditional shoving to see who could put their hand squarely in the middle of the engraved Italian Ministry crest, which Lys won this time. Then they were jerked away, bags and all, and unceremoniously dumped at their destination. Dad quickly placed the baton on the ground, and as soon as his fingers left the wood, it vanished, to return back to Italy where it would be re-used.
"Draco, Skye!" Lu heard a familiar voice call out her parents' names from the window of the house they now stood before, and an instant later, the door flew open to reveal Aunt Danielle and Uncle Xenophilius beaming at them all.
It took a moment of craziness to get sorted, but soon, they were all installed in the rooms that their aunt and uncle had long ago reserved for their visits. Technically, Aunt Dani and Uncle Xeno weren't their aunt and uncle, they were Lu and Lys' great-aunt and great-uncle, but both had insisted that the 'great' prefix made them feel old and senile, so it had been dropped.
Having dropped their bags on their beds and changed for the Christmas Eve dinner, Lu and Lys clattered down the stairs to find Cassie already perched on the kitchen table, sipping hot chocolate and conversing with Aunt Dani. "Lu, Lys!" Aunt Dani greeted them as they came in. "Care for some hot cocoa?"
"Yes, please!" they exclaimed, joining their little sister at the table.
"Cassie was just telling me that she's thinking about going to that Italian school, whatsitcalled, instead of Hogwarts, when she turns fourteen…"
"L'Academia di Magia," Cassie clarified. "Their program starts when you've finished their version of primary and intermediate schooling at fourteen. I want to finish at school like the rest of my friends."
"But you are British! Your whole family has gone to Hogwarts ever since I can remember!" cried Aunt Danielle.
Lu and Lys looked at each other. Cassie had always done what she wished, and if she wished to stay in Italy, finishing her preliminary magical education and moving on to the secondary school for magic…
"Well, she isn't turning eleven until April, so she'll have some time to really decide," Lys said sensibly. "It's only December yet. Besides, Uncle Xeno would love to have an excuse to visit Italy more than he already does. He's convinced that the Italian Ministry is covering up some big conspiracy to do with smuggling Wrackspurts into the locker rooms of the Quidditch national teams that are going up against Italy's for the Quidditch World Cup this summer."
"Your uncle has been nagging me incessantly about taking all of my sick days to accompany him to America in search of Bigfoot," Aunt Dani muttered. "As if I hadn't already wasted all of them last year on that ridiculous search for heliopaths in Hawaii…"
"But you did get a nice tan," Lu teased her great-aunt, knowing that whatever she moaned about her husband, she still loved him nonetheless.
Now blushing a little, Aunt Dani thrust a mug of steaming chocolate at her, and another at Lys. "Here, drink," she said unceremoniously. But she was thoroughly distracted, and Cassie gave Lys and Lu a grateful look.
"Where's my favorite Slytherin?"
Uncle Xeno entered the kitchen, trailed by Draco and Skye Corwin, and he came to pet Lys absently on the head. "How have you been, my boy?"
"The same as when I last saw you, three days ago," Lys replied sarcastically, but at Dad's sharp glare, quickly amended his answer. "I'm well, Uncle Xeno."
"Good, good." Uncle Xeno turned to Lunaris, and his eyes softened as they always did when he set eyes on her. "And my little Lu, how are you?" He pressed a kiss to her forehead and stroked her hair.
She was his undeniable favorite, and Lys had never quite got along with him for that reason. Lu understood why—Dad and Mum had sat both of them down when they were much younger to explain why their great-uncle favored Lu so much over everyone, including her identical twin—but it made her uncomfortable. "Fine, Uncle Xeno," she answered softly. "I've been studying a lot for my OWLs, so it's nice to be able to relax for Christmas."
"If you ever need help, I'm always available," he reminded her.
"Thanks," she smiled gently at him, knowing exactly what her twin was thinking and not saying—if you want to fail, then he's very available to help you think of creative and incorrect answers! The tension dissipated as Aunt Dani gently laid her hand on her husband's arm.
"Come on, Xeno, I'm sure the children are dying to see their friends, and the Potters are waiting for us to Floo over," she said quietly to the man she had married five years ago to the surprise of all, none of whom had seen it coming.
"Right." Uncle Xeno's hand trembled a little as he lifted it from Lu's blonde head, but he smiled at his wife sincerely, and he looked less fragile than he had last Christmas, when they had all thought that he would follow his first wife and his daughter across the Veil.
Not for the first time, Lunaris wished that she didn't look so uncannily like her dead namesake, or that she didn't bear her name in honor of her, or even that she wasn't in Ravenclaw like her. She gave Lysander and Cassie a brave smile of her own, determined to forget about what she could not change. "Want to bet that James will have done something to get himself into trouble when we arrive?" she asked resolutely trying to change the subject with far less skill than Lysander possessed.
Lys shot her a look, but complied with the abrupt shift in topic. "No one's going to take that bet, not when it's a true fact," he said scathingly.
"Let's go," urged Cassie. She stood between Mum and Dad, and where both Lys and Lu had inherited the fairness of their father, she was as dark-haired as their mother.
Christmas Eve dinner at the Potters' was always chaos. James, Albus, and Lily Potter were great fun but very rowdy and constantly up to mischief. All the Weasleys would be there, like Grandma Weasley who would tell all of them that they were too thin and Grandpa Weasley who would ask them about any new Muggle trinkets they'd picked up in Venice. Then there were the numerous Weasley aunts and uncles. Lu's favorite among those were Uncle George and Aunt Ethel because they never called her Luna by mistake, and because they had been one of her few supporters in the…unpleasantness of last Christmas, when she had broken the news of what she wanted to do after Hogwarts to the family. Uncle George had even gone head to head with Uncle Fred about it, and everyone knew that George and Fred never fought. Uncle Harry and Aunt Ginny, though she loved them, were the worst at remembering to call Lunaris by her name or even her nickname, though Lu supposed that was probably because they'd been really good friends with Luna Lovegood and Aunt Ginny had seen her die and all that.
There weren't just the Weasleys and Potters though they were the majority of the crew, there was also the Lupins, Aunt Dani and Uncle Xeno of course, and even Headmistress McGonagall (whom they called Aunt Minerva outside of school). It was a lively crew that Lu enjoyed, though sometimes it got to be too much, especially with the number of kids in the gathering. All in all, there would be fifteen children—though technically several of them, like Teddy Lupin, weren't really children anymore and Lu was loath to call herself a child. Even with the Potters' big house, it was almost impossible to find a solitary moment.
Still, Lu enjoyed being immersed among her cousins, cooing over Uncle Fred and Aunt Pansy's new baby Bianca, laughing at the antics of Molly and Lucy, Uncle Percy's two children and regular clowns, and giggling with Dominique, who was the same age as her. She grimaced and tried not to look too much at Victoire and Teddy, who had started dating at the beginning of the year. This was hard to do, as Teddy was one of her closest friends among this motley crew of family and friends of family.
She managed to escape his blithe chatter with her about how it looked as if Ravenclaw had a good chance of winning the House Cup, retreating to the semi-quiet of the library where at least only Aunt Audrey and Aunt Pansy were discussing politics, and wished for an instant that she was back in Venice, where she could just go out for a walk around the neighborhood to clear her head, or at least, everyone in her family knew to leave her alone when she was in one of her moods. Really, they didn't happen often and especially not during one of the few times she had the opportunity to spend time with all her favorite people, but the situation being such…
"Still pining over Teddy?"
Lu started, then sighed, trying to calm her racing heart. "Lys…" she said warningly.
"You can do so much better than him," he said, sitting down easily next to where she had hidden herself relatively away from the noise and crowd. She scoffed.
"I don't know what you're talking about," she said weakly.
"You aren't in Slytherin for a reason, because you can't lie—well, at least not to me," he said frankly.
"Merlin—am I that obvious? Does everyone know?" she groaned, letting her head fall into her arms.
"I don't think so," he assured her. "It's just obvious to me because I'm observant. And because I know you."
"I'm pathetic," Lu muttered. "I can't even get over it, and they've been sickeningly cute and together for half a year now. He doesn't even know that I'm a girl. I'm just someone he thinks of as his kid sister."
"You are fifteen, and he's nineteen," Lysander pointed out unnecessarily. "You could slip him Amortentia," he suggested, having received a scathing look of you-think-I-don't-know? She took her face from her arms again to glare at him. He sighed. "Look, don't expect me to say this ever again, but you're worth ten of Teddy Lupin and Victoire Weasley. You'll find some other guy that it'll be less like incest to date, and I'll supervise and intimidate and threaten him and it'll all be good."
"I wish I could hate them, it would be so much easier that way."
"That's a rather silly reason to hate someone you've known all of your life and generally get along with," Lys remarked.
"I know," she said grumpily.
He was quiet for a minute. Then he got to his feet. "Come on," he said abruptly.
"What? Where are we going?"
He refused to tell her more, despite her protests. Instead, he dragged her up two flights of stairs, to where the attic was. Miraculously, there was no one in here—usually, there was at least one person or another here with the aim of escaping the noise and crowd for a precious few moments. Lu had utilized the Potter attic for no few times over the past Christmasses. There, he finally let go of her and fished into his robes.
"You know how I've been working on a special Charms project for extra credit?"
Lunaris nodded. Her brother had been uncharacteristically exuberant as he'd told her about how Professor Flitwick had drawn him aside at the beginning of the year and asked him if he'd wanted a bit of an extra challenge in class, as he'd been bored out of his mind. He'd petitioned to take sixth year Charms instead of sitting through what he had already mastered for a year, and been offered this alternative instead, as both sixth year Charms and NEWT level Charms classes happened when he had another class on his schedule and the Department of Mysteries was unequivocally adamant that they would never place another time-turner or sensitive equipment in the hands of a student again. (Something about the destruction of years-long research, exponentially expensive tools, and damage done to their department by a gaggle of students during the Dark Wars.)
"I haven't shown anyone but a few of the Professors what I've been working on, but just before we left for the Hols, I finally made a break-through. I think I'll have it as early as May or June, although it might take me through the summer to refine it enough to even make a prototype, but my break-through might be just as marketable," Lys confided.
"What is it?" Lunaris asked, curiosity riled up.
In answer, Lys pulled out a small, plain, hand-held mirror. It was polished to a high sheen, with a simple silver handle. "Look into it," he urged.
"I hardly think…oh!" Lunaris blinked at her reflection. Her face was haloed in colors—a glow of pink, dark green, and shadings in the array of a rainbow. It cast an ethereal light on her appearance. "What…"
"It shows your predominant aura," Lysander said into the silence. "It's very crude, of course. The charms I cast on it are only good enough for it to see just past the surface. It doesn't capture the complexity of humans very well, and the more complicated a human being, the more trouble it has, but it does fairly well. It's a much smaller step from charming a mirror to reflect at the frequency of a person's aura to reflecting their innate trustworthiness. If I succeed, I'll have formed a mirror that sees past Polyjuice Potion, sees past Glamour charms, sees past the best acting skills of anyone, sees past even an Imperius-controlled person. The aura's only the first step."
"But a major one," Lu breathed, tilting the mirror this way and that, admiring the way her aura seemed as alive as the sunlight and vaguely reminiscent of a cat's graceful dance movements. "Lys, this is wonderful!"
Her brother stuck his hands into his pockets, the only sign of his embarrassment. "Figured it'd cheer you up," he muttered. "You know what the colors mean, right?"
"Pink seems to be my predominant color—that's for a compassionate and sensitive nature, often artistic. Forest green, the color of insecurity." She blushed.
"Whereas I have a massive overload of confidence," Lysander smirked. He reached out and tugged a strand of her hair gently. "This is going to be my Christmas present to them," he told her.
"It's a beautiful piece of work, Lysander Corwin," murmured a new voice, soft and rich and instantly identifiable, and both children jumped visibly. Lunaris spun, nearly losing her balance. A firm but gentle hand, long and tapered, steadied her, and she looked up into the dark eyes of her very favorite uncle, whom she idolized above all for his genius, his wit, his treatment of her and her brother with equality and always as adults.
"Uncle Severus!" She flung herself into his arms, and he allowed such an indignity for a good minute before he distangled himself from her.
Meanwhile, Lysander had recovered from his shock and was politely—and sincerely—hugging the other half of the pair. Aunt Hermione was absolutely the best aunt anyone could ever have, never mind that they weren't technically related that closely. "You did it again," Lysander said half-irritated, half-admiring, as he shook hands with the tall, gracefully silent man. "How did you manage to sneak in on us again?"
Uncle Severus, eyes glittering with laughter, smirked at them both. "Your aunt and I have been 'sneaking around' since before your were a gleam in your parents' eye," he uttered smugly. "You'll have to do a lot better than that, boy, to catch either of us off-guard. Even if you are an exceptional Slytherin."
Lys looked for a moment as though he wanted to protest, to find out how exactly the pair had taken them completely by surprise, but wisely took note of their uncle's unspoken challenge as well as compliment and let it go. "You've seen my present to you early now," he whined instead. "Not fair."
"Life is rarely fair, Lysander," Aunt Hermione said. Unlike Uncle Severus, she was openly smiling and warm, but no less impressive for it. When Lu had been very young, she'd cast them in her dreams as a king and queen for all they managed to fade into the background of every gathering they attended. It was the power within them—an imperial sort of understanding of the world as intensely secure people, capable and very aware of their capabilities. Not quite arrogant, but extremely imposing to anyone less secure in themselves.
"Well, you still have to unwrap it with everyone tomorrow," Lys said, disgruntled.
"Have you seen the others?" Lu wanted to know.
"Not yet," Aunt Hermione replied. Lysander perked up. That meant that they would get to watch their aunt and uncle scare the living daylights out of the rest of their relatives!
"Eager, are we?" Severus chuckled. "Why don't you two go down ahead of us, and let the experts show you how it is done? Perhaps by next Christmas, Lysander, you at least may be able to notice us approaching. I'm rather afraid, Lunaris, that you are hopeless."
Lu shrugged, not at all fazed by the judgment. "I wasn't in Slytherin for a reason," she retorted.
"There is no reason for you to be practicing those sort of skills, either one of you," their aunt said firmly, pushing back the mass of curly brown hair that framed her delicate face. "In any case, Lu dear, Severus must admit—no matter how reluctantly—that even a Gryffindor can learn stealth. After all, he married one."
"For which sin, I have atoned for many a time since," Uncle Severus said with a straight face, the only hint of his tease in the brightness of his gaze at his wife. In answer, she lifted an eyebrow at him, a habit they both seemed to share, and her own returning look was one of pique and daring.
Lu and Lys watched, fascinated. They rarely saw Uncle Severus and Aunt Hermione, and each time they did the unique barrage of words they seemed to constantly exchange and the honed wit that the children could barely understand or keep up with was both foreign and wonderful to watch.
"Well, go on," Aunt Hermione urged them after a beat, turning away from her exasperating husband to smile at the twins. "We'll follow you down."
"Indeed," her husband murmured.
Downstairs, the twins slipped into a room awash with noise, warmth, and the aroma of mashed potatoes and roasting pork. Barely fifteen minutes later, as Lu occupied herself with stringing popcorn into chains with several of her cousins, Lys stiffened minutely and caught her eye. He glanced ever so briefly towards where Uncle Harry and Uncle Ron were roaring with laughter at something or other.
If Lunaris hadn't been training her eyes hard for the signs, she'd have missed the tiny flicker of moment, the barest displacement of color and air creeping closer to the two men, drawing nearer and nearer—
"Blimey, Harry, the family keeps getting bigger every time I see it," exclaimed Uncle Ron, whom Mum had called the perennial bachelor.
"We're just trying to make your mother happy!" retorted the bespectacled man, green eyes bright with humor.
"Indeed, Potter, and may I congratulate you on having produced spawn rambunctious enough to ensure Molly Weasley's happiness thrice over?"
"Bloody buggering hell!" Uncle Harry yelped so loud the entire room turned to see what was going on. Where the slightest smear of a Disillusionment charm had been, the Snapes stood, surveying the two men—and the room—before them.
"Harry James Potter, did I just hear you swear in front of the children?" Ginny Potter, no less slim and feisty and a great deal more comfortable in her own skin and life, marched out of the kitchen, a dishtowel still in her hands. Her eyes were snapping and they promised much pain. "Do you need me to wash out your mouth with soap, or will you stop swearing in front of the children?"
"I'm sorry, love, I was just...habit…taken by surprise…Snape," he said, struggling to evade his wife's temper, which had in the years since her children had been born taken an alarming resemblance to the Weasley matriarch's own scoldings.
"Yes, well you can get yourself out of the habit or your children will be watching you eat soap," Aunt Ginny said sharply. Then she shifted her focus to the two newest arrivals, and her face lit up with pleasure. "Hermione, Severus! It's wonderful to see you two! How was Singapore, or wherever you've been hiding in a hole for a year?"
"Malaysia, and it was amazing. Severus picked up some unique plants and remedies known only to the locals and he finally made the breakthrough he's been hoping for in his Healing research. We only just returned a few days ago."
Lu exchanged gleeful glances with Dominique, who had been stringing popcorn chains with her. Aunt Hermione and Uncle Severus never failed to lead the most exciting life, staying for months at a time in exotic places Lu only dreamed of one day being able to see and draw, and their stories were the best to listen to, because they were so foreign and yet completely real.
"And your book?" Uncle Ron asked. "That one you were writing about, eastern magic or something?"
"Magic of the Southeastern World," Aunt Hermione corrected primly. "Look for it on your lists of textbooks for next year," she added with an unconcealed grin of pride. "They're including it in a bundle of required textbooks for the Magical Cultures class for fourth year up."
"Brilliant, Hermione!" exclaimed Uncle Harry, evidently having gotten over his misuse for being tricked, startled, and scolded. "I knew it! They can't replace their ancient and out-dated textbooks fast enough."
She smiled gratefully at her friend, accepting the rest of the room's cries of congratulations as well. "Thanks. Do you know, when I was writing this book I kept wishing that I could go back to Hogwarts just to take this class? Minerva's move to add a class on magic practiced beyond the borders of our country was such a fantastic plan."
"I do believe that if Minerva would let her, she would actually enroll back in Hogwarts just to take the class," Uncle Severus said wryly, to the knowledgeable amusement of all who knew Hermione.
"You could teach it yourself," Uncle Ron snorted.
"Now that's an idea. You should petition for the job and stay nearby us for once, Hermione!"
Aunt Hermione grimaced and shook her head. "I—we—have had quite enough of teaching to last a lifetime," she smirked, glancing up at her husband whose very attitude agreed wholeheartedly with her. "Let those who love teaching and are good at it take those jobs—Severus and I are content finding new things and writing about them in utterly boring and ostentatious journals, papers, and books!"
With the most-traveled of their extended family now back, it was truly Christmas. Lu exchanged a joyful glance with her brother, sister, and many cousins. Even the thought of Teddy Lupin and Victoire Weasley was not enough to dampen her rising spirits as she contemplated the holidays, and gloried in the feeling of family, tucked in close around her. Life was good.
Tradition called for the opening of presents to start with the youngest, a scheme no doubt instituted by the many parents of this large gathering who knew that it would be impossible for their young ones to sit patiently through so many people before their turn. That had proven wise, as the families who gathered together for Christmas at the Potter's residence in London had grown over the years.
Hermione watched indulgently as the youngest of the children who were old enough to understand the concept of presents ripped open their gifts with squeals and shouts, one by one. Next to her, nursing a mug of coffee—authentic, brewed from the aromatic coffee beans he had grown partial to during that time they'd spent in Colombia—Severus had a particularly fixed sneer of long-suffering disdain on his face. She didn't blame him. Children were fine in small doses, and she enjoyed spending Christmas with the many progeny her friends had produced, but by the end of it, she would be glad to be on her way, back to the peaceful solitude of their chosen semi-nomadic lifestyle. Severus, if anything, had even less tolerance than she for the rambunctious chaos of the many children.
Still, the curl in his lip lessened somewhat as the gift-opening moved to the older children, those who (in theory at least) were mature enough to open their presents with decorum.
"Thanks, Aunt Hermione, Uncle Severus," Cassandra Corwin exclaimed with delight, stroking the carved wood-and-gilding Siamese cat, whose curled up posture was small enough to fit into her palm. The cat yawned, and sat up, blinking the blue jewels that served as eyes at her new mistress. "Oh!"
"It holds very little magic—only just enough to animate it," Hermione told Cassie, smiling at the child's wonder with her new possession. "It doesn't need much care but for an occasional dusting and perhaps a check on the charms woven through the object every few months to make sure it's still in working order."
"Her name is…Saoirse," Cassie decided, gently running a fingertip down the miniature cat's back. The cat purred silently, and curled back up into Cassie's cupped hand.
"A good choice, Cassandra," Severus murmured approvingly. "It means freedom."
James Sirius Potter was next, followed by Louis Weasley, the youngest of Bill and Fleur's three children at thirteen.
"Our turn!" Lunaris seized her brother's sleeve and tugged, impatient as a two-year-old, and Hermione bit back a chuckle. For all that everyone whispered that Lunaris was eerily similar in temperament as well as appearance to the woman she had been named after, Hermione privately though Lu was far more similar to Draco. Imperious, sensitive, and far too prone to mood swings though with a healthy appreciation for humor that saved him—and her—from pompousness.
Her twin, Lysander, tried his best to maintain his dignity—as he always had, from the day he was born. Hermione never lost the opportunity to tease Severus that having been unlucky enough to be with Skye at the time of her labor and being the closest Healer on hand, having had to deliver the twins (and oh, isn't that another story!)—Severus had somehow imparted his personality to the male of the set. But this mini-version of Severus was, at least, growing up in such drastically different circumstances that his dignity could not hold out against his twin sister and the thrill of Christmas presents. With one last attempt at reputation, Lysander heaved a sigh, before he seized hold of his first present, being the younger of the two by nine minutes.
He was unerringly polite, another difference between him and the man he idolized much to Severus' dismay and her amusement. And too, he was young enough, and thank Merlin, no war or experiences had jaded him enough for him to hide his obvious delight as he revealed his last present, from them.
"It's…thanks," he breathed, gazing at the small, unassuming book with awe enough to make Hermione's book-loving heart warm.
"What book is it?" called out one of the Weasleys—Molly II, affectionately known as Hurricane Molly for the chaos she left behind, for she had inherited her twin uncles' predilection for pranks and trouble much to Percy's dismay. At seventeen she was, despite her inherited prankster nature and won't-grow-up attitude, well aware of the importance of some magical tomes. She had just been promised a job after she graduated with Weasley's Wizardng Wheezes as an assistant with the very real possibility of a fast track promotion to inventor-researcher, after all. She'd been the one to insist on starting bottom rung—no one was going to accuse her of taking advantage of nepotism!
"Grimmoire of Ammon the Magus," Lysander said in reverent tones. "It's so rare…most of the known copies are only partial, but this one's a full edition!"
"It can't be copied by magic, and the only full original is housed in the Library of Alexandria," Hermione lectured. "It's a good thing I had an in with the curator there—he let us spend some time hand-copying it."
"It has some of the very foundational spells that underlie charms as we know it," Lysander said, still caught up in the book. He opened it gently, revealing a glimpse of pages of neat, small handwriting interspersed with larger, almost spidery script. "I can't thank you enough!"
"Use it well," Severus said simply, for the both of them. Hermione agreed quietly.
Then it was Lunaris' turn, and she blinked in puzzlement as the wrappings fell away from the last present—for it seemed a trend that Hermione's and Severus' gifts were always opened last. "Because your pressies always show ours up," Ron had grumbled some years ago. "Bloody overachieving…ow! Merlin's arse, Hermione, have a care for my arm, I need it to cast spells with!"
The winter sunlight through the window, clean and sparkling like diamonds, filled the room and struck against the deceptively black, smooth block that rested on a charcoal grey stone with a small depression. Teased by the light, the black surface…glittered, reminiscent to Hermione of Severus' eyes though she doubted anyone else would notice.
"What is it?" It was one of George and Ethel's children—Roxanne Weasley, the younger sibling at eight years old—who broke the silence, asking what everyone was thinking.
Hermione reached forward and plucked the small, oblong stick of black from Lunaris' hand. "This," she informed them, "is an ink stick. Grind a little of the end in the inkstone—" she gestured to the shallow stone object still held by Lunaris—"and add a little water, and it will become liquid ink. We thought it appropriate for someone who promises a great talent with quill and pen sketches."
"A new kind of medium worthy of your talents to experiment with," Severus said quietly to the girl.
Lunaris cradled her gift in her hands with care, and when she lifted her eyes to her aunt and uncle, the look on her face was thanks enough. Hermione remembered, clear as day, last Christmas when Lunaris had caused quite a stir among the wide and abundant sea of her relatives by announcing that she wished to go to a Muggle art school upon graduating from Hogwarts. Odd how no matter the wide-spread acceptance of blood equality, fervently promoted by all in the room, enough unconscious superiority remained in the culture of magic for almost all of said proponents of equality to protest vehemently at one of their brightest children 'wasting her talents' living wholly in the Muggle world and doing Muggle things.
Even the child's parents had been horrified, for both Draco and Skye had been brought up ensconced in the heart of Pureblood life, and though both were great supporters of the arts, they worked purely within the Wizarding World and had expected their daughter to do the same. Only Lysander, Cassandra, Dominique Weasley, and George Weasley and his wife Ethel had supported Lunaris' decision. Severus and Hermione had remained silent on the matter other than a single pointed remark from Hermione about the attitude that magical talent was somehow greater than a gift that did not require magic to run.
Their present to the girl both Severus and Hermione considered close enough to their goddaughter in all but name—for it was Xenophillius and Danielle who claimed that honor for the twins—was a clear indication of their support of her dream, one that had evidently not 'been a passing phase,' as Molly Weasley had on more than one occasion insisted.
Skye Corwin, at least, had the grace to look slightly abashed as she took in the approval in Hermione's and Severus' eyes. Draco, Hermione observed, was every inch quite set against his eldest daughter going into the Muggle world. Not, I think, because he considers them below, though it is hard to escape the prejudices that we are taught from infancy. But rather from the fear of the unknown, combined with his protectiveness of his daughter…I shall have to alert my parents to the situation. They might be able to knock some sense into that thick head of his, and after all their situation was the same though reversed—they had to let their only daughter go into a world they knew almost nothing about, and it was certainly far more dangerous during those years I first entered the magical world! Yes, Jane and Daniel Granger would certainly both beat some needed sense into Skye and Draco's heads as well as reassure them about losing a child to an alien world. They certainly would have right now, if they weren't spending two service years in Tanzania working with a nonprofit organization to provide free dental healthcare to those who desperately needed it as much as they desperately could not afford it. They'd opted to spend Christmas there this year.
"Hermione," she heard, and recalled herself to find that Severus was holding a messily wrapped gift and watching her with carefully hidden amusement.
"Our turn, I presume?" She recovered quickly, with barely a hint of having been years away a second ago.
Lunaris' present to them was beautiful. Severus held it up, tilting the parchment towards the light from the fireplace. Each line was inked with thought and effort, every shading a study in skill. The effect struck the unprepared viewer.
At first glance, it looked as though it were a scene out of a legend, or a wonder-tale: one that might have fit with Arthur drawing Excalibur, perhaps, or Sir George slaying a dragon. The style, the strokes of the quill that had penned the image, mimicked that long-ago era. But on a second examination, the faces were very familiar. It was a rounded stone room, with gothic, sweeping arch-designs, angry scores in the wall that shed light, and a rough-hewn stone that was lighter than the rest of the floor set in the middle. Encircling it were five figures, and sixth set a little apart from them, her face turned away from the viewer. On the far side, a tall, gaunt man was marked out with sharp, black lines and dark shading that threw his face into shadow. Hermione knew him instantly—Severus, and Severus as he had been during those long years of unending service to a draining war. She caught her breath. For never having actually seen Severus in those times, Lunaris had done a spectacular job of capturing the essence of the man. His presence, even on paper and only in ink, was both commanding and yet conveyed the subtle nuances of a man beset on all sides and grimly accepting of the almost certain fate of death before him.
Hermione swallowed, memories assaulting her, and without even thinking of it, she rested her hand on Severus' arm. He looked at her with a faint smile, and his dark eyes were soft in a way he had come to learn how to show in the years following the death of the Dark Lord, and she turned resolutely back to the exquisite drawing, reassured enough to leave the past behind.
Beside the man whom Severus had once been, there was a woman who radiated confidence and a certain majesty, and to her shock, Hermione recognized herself after staring for several seconds. Yes, there was no doubt in her mind that it was herself, for she had been next to Severus that night and there was no mistaking that mass of hair. Even in the picture, it did not obey her but frizzed as it would. Why Lunaris had chosen to draw Hermione with all the poise of a queen was anyone's guess, but that was definitely meant to be her. And to her other side, Tonks was outlined with quill strokes that somehow in a mysterious fashion depicted both courage and brashness in spades. Draco was next, and though it was but a side profile, there was no mistaking the set of his shoulders and straightness of his spine as anything other than stalwart pride and determination.
Of the five who had been Children of Hogwarts, only Luna Lovegood had been drawn with her back entirely to the viewer. Her lines were smudged, vague and trailing, and already half-not of this world, and Hermione wished irritably not for the first time that Lunaris' friends and family would stop deifying Luna to the poor girl. Luna had been strange, yes, fey certainly, and she had had a deeper connection than most to another unseen world, but she had been entirely human and when she had been alive, had never pretended otherwise. Xenophillius, Tonks, Remus, Ginny, and the others were doing Lunaris no favors by building up her namesake on a pedestal of spirits and goddesses. One day…well. It was probably another reason Lunaris was so set on leaving the magical realm for the Muggle, where she would be taken as her own person by all, and not as the inferior second coming of a hero-spirit-girl who had died before her time.
And the last, the sixth, standing off to the side by Luna, also with her back to her current audience, the White Witch crackled with foreign energy, as much as was able to be put into a few quill marks, after all.
It was obvious to anyone who had been there that night, just what this scene depicted. It was the bonding of the Children of Hogwarts to the sentience of the castle, on the stone that had been the foundation of the school. It was eerily beautiful, with Fate like knowledge scrawled across each solemn, weary figure linked together in their casting circle. It wasn't completely accurate, of course. The room looked far grander than it had been in reality, the people there far older and more powerful than they had been. It had really been the White Witch's show from the moment they entered to when they had staggered out one by one, which was not apparent in the way this drawing seemed to suggest a theme of Inevitable Fate and Destiny woven and chosen by the actors on the stage. Really, all it had been was a few battle-scarred witches and wizards doing their best in the fight, and nothing as glorious as young Lunaris had evidently dreamed up.
But it was stunning, pensive, evocative, and inked with both heart and a burgeoning skill. "Thank you, Lunaris," Severus said evenly for both of them, sensing that Hermione would not be able to speak normally. He inclined his head to his niece. "It is beautiful work. We are honored by it."
"I got the descriptions from Dad," Lunaris said, fidgeting a little as she stared herself at the heavy vellum of her work. "I hope it's close enough…"
"It is more than merely enough," Severus told her calmly, gently rolling it up once more.
"Mine next," Lysander insisted with a rare impatience. It came across as arrogance, as it too often did, and Hermione was struck with a sudden image of a young Draco Malfoy, nose pointed in the air haughtily, but it faded as soon as it had arrived. She smiled at her honorary nephew, taking the gift he held out to them. Though they knew already what it contained, she did not let that stop her from smiling with genuine pleasure as she unraveled the wrapping securing the small mirror.
"Absolutely lovely, and the Charms-work is spectacular," she exclaimed, carefully lifting it up so everyone could see. Severus smirked as a familiar play of aura-colors fanned out in the mirror reflecting Hermione. As a Healer-Researcher, the role he had found himself drawn to after the conclusion of the war, he had learned techniques from several different cultures to see the auras of others in order to diagnose less obvious ailments. It never failed to take his breath away how warm and bewitching Hermione's aura was, the bright sunshine yellows, coppers, and earth tones that signaled the intelligent, sharp, detail-oriented optimist with a hidden playful streak that he knew without needing to interpret the colors she shone.
It was true what Lysander had himself commented on his own work—the aura mirror was crude work, only able to pick up one or two dominant shades and even then, unable to replicate them as true as the real Sight of them would have been. But Lysander was himself an exacting, wildly intelligent young man—Severus had no doubt that one Christmas, he might well unwrap a marketable mirror that would see the depths of a person's soul.
"You're so sunny, Aunt Hermione!" Lily Potter remarked, eyes wide as she peeked at the reflected image of Hermione in the mirror. "Can I try, please?" Severus blinked away the sudden memory of another Lily, eyes just as green and hair just as red, who had spoken in that same wheedling tone to ask Severus to let her try a spell out of one of his mother's battered spell-books.
"Sure, honey." Hermione passed her the mirror, and Lily's eyes grew wide as she peered into it. Severus settled back for a longish wait—no doubt the mirror would be passed around the entire circle before they would be allowed to move on. He caught his nephew's eye as three-year-old John Lupin squealed with glee and bounced at the sight of the pretty colors around his own reflection.
"Thank you," he said quietly under the noise of exclamations and explanations of aura colors.
Lysander inclined his own head, dignified though the extra sparkle in his grey eyes betrayed his pleasure. "I'm glad you like it, Uncle Severus," he replied just as softly.
"Your turn, Severus!"
Severus sighed, pinched the bridge of his nose, and took the handle of the mirror. Hermione had never seen his aura—oh, hadn't that irked her, a spell she couldn't master!—but it was not even a real spell, but more of a manipulation of his mental magic, an adjustment of his vision really, and only achievable by the highest practitioners of mind magic and the Healing arts, and Hermione had never shown much inclination beyond rudimentary Healing spells and potions.
Therefore, she drank in the sight of her husband's face, wreathed in the mirror with dark and light blues warring for precedence, with a haze that Severus suspected was the result of the mirror's inability to portray the complex jumble of colors and shades of his own aura. "Fear of self-expression, but also deep, truthful, and collected," Hermione murmured into his ear for him alone. "With a mist that probably means far too many other colors for the poor mirror to cope with. You're giving Lysander's gift quite a work out, Severus."
"Indeed," he responded, ignoring the curious glances of a dozen Weasleys, Potters, and sundry. He laid Lysander's gift alongside Lunaris' with a finality that told the others they would not today find out what his aura was. With a little disappointment that vanished soon enough, the assembled family returned to gift-opening, secure in the anticipation of the rest of Christmas Day, games, food, singing, and all.
Hermione sipped from her wine glass, relatively alone amongst the cheerful, riotous crew that was the gang of Potters, Weasleys, and co. She was perched on one of the high kitchen stools that had been dragged in to provide more seating, tucked away in a corner by the bookshelf that didn't quite catch the light of the fireplace. Her eyes roamed the room full of her family and came to rest on a man conversing in reserved, dignified tones with Minerva. The man was tall, dark and handsome—well, that was what she called him when she wanted to tease him. Severus never failed to sneer at the idea that he was anywhere near to a clichéd prince, no pun intended thank you very much.
Then again, she'd never be what you might consider a princess, despite Severus' mocking use of the nickname during some of their more memorable quarrels. But however much Severus loathed the tall-dark-handsome label, he could not be anything else but striking. Almost nineteen years of traveling the world with her husband and exploring the wonders and knowledge that each new place offered certainly provided Hermione with a lifetime's worth of examples to prove the strength of Severus' draw on the human interest—not just her, but the countless people they had encountered in the years gone by.
It was only one of the facets that made up the man she loved as deeply as the oceans. Without meaning to, Hermione remembered the vast desolation and utter bleakness of her life when she had thought he was dead. She would have lived—Hermione didn't believe in dying of love, though to be sure she had been close to it then before Li had pulled her out and reminded her of duty, of responsibilities that didn't go away because a war had been fought and finished or her heart had been ripped to shreds. She would have lived, but she would have become a fragile, bitter, worn-out thing and her life would have been much, much less without Severus in it.
The firelight cast her beloved in relief, and Hermione drank in the sight of his relaxed posture, open expression—even today, Severus gloried in every moment he passed in freedom, slave to none but himself. It had been after another argument, perhaps a year after they had married in a quiet ceremony out by the Hogwarts where he had dreamed of walking at liberty. That particular argument had been the catalyst for Severus' decision to consciously choose to experience freedom—to risk showing his emotions ("on occasion, when it suits me").
Severus' freedom was precious to him, Hermione knew. It was why, amongst the fact that they had lied to her, that she had been so livid at Honour Rabnott, Li, and the High Council of the Order of the Phoenix for denying Severus that right for even a day, let alone four months.
But I showed them just how far they had crossed the boundaries, she thought and even now, it brought her a vicious kind of pleasure to think of the justice she had wrought. Li, she had been fairly gentle on. He had, after all, tried in his own way to hint at Severus' survival in his own words when he'd talked to her at the Library of Alexandria. He'd said—and she remembered it only after Severus had turned up and nearly killed her again with shock—"He wants you to live." Said in the present tense.
She'd only given him one memory, one ordinary day out of the many she had lived in a blur of misery and constant pain. Rather than the traditional pensieve memory that could be viewed as an objective third party, she'd bound up her emotions, her thoughts, her feelings into the very fabric of the memory she'd given him, so that the viewer would be unable to watch the memory without being her.
Li had said nothing after emerging, pale and drawn, from her past, but the single tear and the way his hands trembled as he pressed them against her fingers in the briefest apology was enough for Hermione. Neither of them had brought it up again.
Honour Rabnott though, oh, that had been another story. That woman had saved Severus, it was true, but done it only to bind him to another slavery again, had used him. She'd taken away the most important thing to Severus, that elusive freedom, and put him in chains again, "for the greater good". Of the same brand as Albus, but a hundred times worse—Albus cared, and he could learn better. Honour simply sees what must be done regardless of who she destroys to accomplish it.
It was ironic: after the months of training as a spy, the months following of being a spy's handler, the intensive education Honour herself had invested in her to make her an assassin—all that hard work of becoming the best in the game of espionage and the shadow game, all it had taken was for Hermione to ask Mippy to slip a potion of her own brewing into Honour's food and drink, a tiny drop at a time so she would not notice it over a few days. Mippy had been malevolently pleased to be revenging himself on "Iron Face Woman." He, as Severus' house elf, had known by his magic that Severus was not dead. And because Hermione was, in all but official name, Mistress, he would have very easily broken any sort of wizarding magic keeping him silent to tell his mistress the truth. Honour had gotten around that by simply spelling the incorrigible house elf to sleep until Severus himself finished his task.
"Nasty, Iron heart, iron mouth, iron face," Mippy had snarled in an eerie imitation of his master's black mood when Severus and Hermione had woken him. "She is only all iron. Maybe she is not noticing if Mippy adds more iron up her bum?"
That had required Hermione extracting an explanation from Severus about why his young and impressionable house elf knew about shoving wands (and in this case, iron bars) up people's rear ends.
She hadn't met Honour at all, in the end. She'd simply sent a note after the last of the potion had been ingested and the full effects were beginning to be felt.
They say the truth sets you free. For each day you enslaved Severus Snape, may you experience the freedom of truth. Never touch me or mine again, or I shall gift you with that basic right to take to your grave.
Unsigned, left—again by Mippy—by the empty phial used to house the potion that had been the many-times ancestor to the modern-day Veritaserum, Honour would not fail to get the message. And if Honour was perceived by those surrounding her in the next four months to be more candid, more shockingly blunt, and much more human than she had been since she was a young child, no one questioned why. Neither did they dare ask why the woman who had never taken a day off from her mysterious duties with the Order suddenly petitioned for a four-month leave of absence.
To be able to only speak the truth was, after all, an unpalatable and dangerous flaw in a job that required many shades of lies to be told.
Something she knew all too well.
"Sickle for your thoughts," a voice broke in. Hermione looked up, beaming, at Ron. The gangly, insecure redhead she had known from Hogwarts had become a charming, confident man.
"Just thinking of the past," she said lightly. "We've come such a long way, haven't we?"
"Since a troll in the bathroom? Yeah," Ron agreed, fiddling with the glass of wine in his hand. "Never would have thought you'd be the one globe-trotting while Harry and me stayed home, you know?"
Hermione laughed unexpectedly. Trust Ron to pick up on one of the least significant of the changes that had occurred since their first year at Hogwarts. "Come now, Ron, jealousy doesn't become you," she teased. "You've got quite the reputation as the next Moody Mad-Eye in the Auror corps, I hear, and Harry's got all the family he's ever wanted and possibly more."
"And you have the world's libraries at your fingertips," another person added in a joshing tone. Harry Potter, his green eyes just as vivid as the day she had first confronted them about a lost toad, slipped an arm around Hermione. "What's up?"
"Your children," Hermione retorted without missing a beat. And indeed, they were up—James Sirius Potter shrieking in indignation as his mother flicked her wand and forced her son to hang upside-down and be awkwardly shaken. Contraband that the boy had concealed on his person, most of them bearing the Wizarding Wheezes logo on them, flew everywhere, causing all below to take shelter.
Harry groaned comically. "James is giving me grey hair, I swear," he sighed. "I can't turn around without Minerva Flooing us to tell me that he's either in detention for the rest of the year or in the Infirmary for the rest of the year. He never listens!"
"Hmm," Hermione hummed, trying not to smirk. She failed.
Ron coughed discreetly. "Uh, Harry?"
"Don't look, but I think you just described yourself."
"What? I do not…"
"Put yourself in danger, not listen to adults, and wind up in detentions or the Hospital Wing every single year of our schooling and far beyond?" Hermione queried.
Ron took one look at the man who had been his best friend since that fateful day on the Hogwarts Express and burst out laughing hysterically. Hermione managed to stay sober and mildly inquisitive while confronted with Harry's red, stammering face and darting eyes for another full minute before she, too, dissolved in laughter. "Oh Harry, your face," she gasped, giggling madly.
"Traitor," Harry hissed at the still guffawing Ron. "You're supposed to be loyal friends and companions!"
"Sorry, mate, we're not Hufflepuffs," Ron managed to say, flinching as Hermione slapped him lightly up the side of his head. "Blimey, Hermione, I got nothing against another House!"
"How fortunate your relatives must feel," sneered a new voice.
"Severus," Hermione smiled warmly up at her husband.
"Your wife requires your presence, Harry," Severus said with some reluctance. It had taken quite a great deal of pressure on Hermione's part to get Severus to address Harry by his first name.
Harry looked over and cringed a little. Ginny was now hauling his eldest son off in the direction of the kitchen by the ear, no doubt to give him a talking to, and if his presence was required that meant that Ginny was going to make him back her up—she'd finally reached the end of her rope. Harry hugged Hermione as though it was his last day to live, went as far as to shake hands solemnly with Severus. Dark Lords and wars and threats to his life he could deal with—a furious Ginny and his equally stubborn, often rude, and very much in rebellion-stage barely-tween son in a sulk, he didn't know if he could survive.
"Good luck, mate," Ron hooted, and scoffed at Harry's parting rude gesture, which Harry made sure to shield from the view of the children. "Guess I better go help gather the evidence of James' contraband," he continued cheerfully. He, too, hugged Hermione by the simple expedient of picking her up off the ground entirely and whirling her around. "It's good seeing you," he whispered. "Don't be a stranger."
Hermione watched Ron go, whistling cheerfully as he started to help the others pick up the liberated contents of James' robes. She was smiling wistfully when she turned to fully face Severus again. "Hi."
He raised an eyebrow and looked entirely Professor Snapeish. "You have mastered the art of the truly inane comment," he observed acerbically. "Hi?"
She ignored the fine sarcasm. "Did you already have a chat with Lys, then?" she asked, though she knew the answer very well.
He eyed her, and her smile grew wider. "Good. The boy idolizes you, and he'll cherish your advice and insight."
"Not that I had much to offer him." Severus shrugged just a little, his face shadowed. "He is already so much more than I was at his age."
"He isn't growing up in the darkness of a war or in total isolation and hatred," Hermione pointed out logically. She looked thoughtfully over at where the boy they were discussing stood next to his youngest sister, explaining something to her—a complicated charm, by the looks of the way his hands gestured in a rough estimation of the casting shape. "You would have flourished in the kind of environment he is growing up in too, Severus."
"Perhaps," he allowed.
"And maybe I am selfish, but I am most thankful that you are you, and not a version of my honorary nephew," Hermione stated with conviction, lacing her hand through his. She glanced up once at her beloved's stoic face and then looked back out at the sight before them.
"They're fine without us, as they've been for the past decade or so," she murmured. She watched as Harry, having returned from the kitchen with the air of a man relieved from a death sentence, started an impromptu tickle war, relentlessly tickling his youngest daughter until she shrieked with laughter and breathless pleas for mercy amidst her various unhelpful relatives. Even young James, who had returned sullen and subdued, lightened a little at his sister's hilarious plight.
Severus surveyed the tableau before him, one that he might have once regarded with the utmost horror as the conglomeration of his worst nightmares, Potter, Weasley, and Gryffindors all multiplied and miniaturized and spilling from the seams of the large living room. If one had chanced to glance at the man, they might have been momentarily stunned twice, once at the lack of a vitriolic sneer and once at the almost-smile that played on his lips ever so faintly.
But no one even so much as flicked a look in Severus Snape's direction, and so he remained safe from scrutiny. He merely continued to track the scene before him and his beloved. Harry and Ginny Potter and their children, as always, were the center of attention but many held forth in the festivities scattered throughout the warm, fire-lit and glowing room. Draco, Skye, and their children were clustered with Bill and Fleur Weasley, trying to out-do each other's tales of wild, youthful misadventures. Their collective children were both listening avidly to the stories of their parents as children as well as whispering amongst themselves. A little further away, Molly Weasley held forth, knitting and animatedly discussing the latest Hogwarts gossip with a little circle of women: Tonks holding her unexpected surprise, the three-year-old John Lupin, Danielle Corwin-Lovegood, Pansy Weasley, and Ethel, George's wife and the only true Muggle. George had seen her in a coffee shop in Leeds when trying to track down a lost shipment of Peruvian Instant Darkness Powder, and instantly fallen in love with the fair, blue-eyed woman who was dumping a hot latte over the head of the man sitting across from her (and who had made sure to pick up her partner's cup rather than waste her own cappuccino).
Remus Lupin, still as gentle and careworn as nineteen years ago though considerably freer from stress, was having what appeared to be a fairly private conversation with Percy and Audrey Weasley, both of whom looked intent. Considering that Percy was the Minister of Magic and Severus knew that Remus continued to work, supported by his wife, for equality for werewolves, he suspected the conversation might be related.
Meanwhile, Percy and Audrey's two daughters Molly and Lucy and Geroge and Ethel's Freddy were arguing over which House would win the House Cup this year—Molly and Freddy insisted that Gryffindor would reign victorious, while logical Lucy, who despite her love for mayhem had been sorted Ravenclaw, reasoned that Ravenclaw was far more consistent in the gaining of points and would prevail. Right next to them but in no way encumbered by the volume of the argument, Freddy's younger sister Roxanne and Louis Weasley were being entertained by Ronald Weasley's narration of the latest Quidditch statistics—at eight and thirteen, both were as Quidditch-obsessed as the rest of the Weasley and Potter clan. Minerva McGonagall, bless her stalwart Scottish heart, was doggedly enduring one of Xenophillius Lovegood's extended sermons on the evolutionary importance of the Dirwigible Plum while dandling Pansy and Fred's seven-month old Bianca, and certainly it looked as though the witch considered the baby far better company than the man if her stoic expression was anything to go by.
Finally, furthest from the fire and almost hidden in the shadows, though painfully obvious to Severus and to everyone who had half a brain cell, the newest couple Teddy Lupin and Victoire Weasley were far too wrapped up with each other to notice the world around them. They didn't see the disgusted looks from Victoire's younger brother Louis, who was completely grossed out by the embarrassing germ-swamping of his eldest sibling, or the occasional glare they were receiving from Dominique Weasley, who was a Gryffindor true and true. All the better for Lunaris, who will benefit from that loyalty and Gryffindor temperament of her best friend. In Severus' opinion, Lunaris was far too sweet-tempered and altogether too likely to allow anyone, especially those closest to her heart, to walk all over her—though Hermione hit him every time he mentioned it, he wondered often why his godson's oldest daughter was in Ravenclaw as opposed to Hufflepuff. However. Between her Slytherin brother and her Gryffindor cousin and friend, Lunaris Corwin should be well-guarded.
And just as importantly, between Lunaris and Cassandra, Lysander would never allow that hidden sensitive heart of his be hardened by the rough treatment of the world. He would never become like the man he most admired, after his father, thank Merlin. Severus was aware of the boy's unfortunate hero-worship of him, and had long ago cautioned Draco and Skye to keep an eye on the boy who might one day become what Severus could have been, given a better environment to grow up in.
"They look happy," Hermione murmured—he broke his gaze from the sight before him, and watched the play of emotions across his wife's face instead. She was normally better at hiding her feelings, but she had never been as good as he, and he was attuned to her thoughts and emotions after nineteen years of marriage. Wistfulness, joy, grief, thankfulness, all scattered in the curve of her soft cheek and the softness of her brown eyes.
"Christmas is a time for family," he said neutrally, eyes flicking for an instant to where Cassie Corwin tugged at her older brother's sleeve to ask him a question and Lysander, in an unusual show of affection, tucked his little sister's hair behind her ear.
"Harry's always wanted a family," Hermione said absently, eyes fixed on one of her two oldest friends. She smiled, a little. Severus caught it from the corner of his eye, and knew it for a half-sad, half-glad smile. "And Ron's always wanted to stand out from his brothers."
The sole bachelor of the Weasley clan and a well-respected Auror trainer, he certainly was distinguishable from his brothers now. Severus grunted.
"You're right," Hermione said suddenly, voice firm as she turned away from the scene that had transfixed her so as if she were abruptly done with it. "Christmas is a time for family. But Christmas is over, and I've always considered guests to be like fish—both start to smell after three days. As this is our second day, we should be very certain not to begin to smell."
"It would not do," Severus agreed with a smirk.
"They will do fine without us, as they always have," Hermione stated. "Perhaps we might visit Draco and Skye soon to see how they are getting along. We don't have any imminent new locations to explore, not since my book's been finished and you finally tracked down what you needed for the next stage of your Healing research. But right now the thing I'd like best in the world would be to go home and spend some time with my family. I'm sure Mippy has gotten the bed ready for us by now." She gave him a slanted, wicked glance up through her lashes that left Severus in no doubt as to what she wanted to spend their time doing. Severus raised an eyebrow, but he offered her his arm.
"Then shall we, my lady?"
She mock-curtseyed and took his arm. "Let's," she said, all traces of wistfulness erased with a deep contentment that spread through her body and made her eyes sparkle with that familiar warmth and suffused her voice with a peaceful tranquility that spoke of a life led with no restrictions and no expectations, a life without the weight of the world on her shoulders.
The tall, austere-looking man and the smaller frame of the woman, her hair riotous and wildly free, faded from sight rather like a snowflake melting, one moment here and the next, gone without alerting notice. Neither one looked back, and it was not until half an hour later that Lysander Corwin met his twin sister's eyes with the dawning realization that their most mysterious aunt and uncle had, once again as every year, simply vanished from the crowd without fuss or attention.
No one else seemed to have perceived this yet, and with unspoken consensus, the twins did not mention the fact until Al Potter exclaimed in ringing tones of disgust that Uncle Severus and Aunt Hermione were nowhere to be found, and really, what was the use of having an aunt and uncle who traveled to such exotic and exciting places if they wouldn't even stay for long enough to tell half the stories they must have about living overseas?
And while Ron groaned and Harry sighed and Molly Weasley shook her head in disbelief, no one made too much of a commotion about the lack of a proper goodbye or the briefness of the Snapes' stay. It was, after all, a family tradition.
Not so far away, in the Fidelius-kept Prince Manor, Mippy the house-elf radiated with exultation as he welcomed his wandering master and mistress home. And not so long after that, the manor was quiet and dark once more, but for the small light burning in the fireplace of the bedroom, casting heat and a shadowy golden aura on a couple so intertwined, it was almost impossible to tell where one left off and the other began.
And in a different place of the house, Mippy crossed his fingers and toes that this time, there might be little masters or misses to fill the place. No matter what his owners said. There was no harm in hoping, after all.
A.N.: And that's all she wrote, folks. Thank you so much for reading. Thank you for reviewing. Thank you, those of you who reviewed anonymously or have disabled pms so that I am unable to reply to you. From the first supportive reviews, to my squeeing over my story hits, to having someone accuse me of buying into the franchise of Warner Bros and giving up my morals, to the anonymous reviewer who told me to throw myself off a cliff for writing such *insert impolite word here* (whose advice I did not take, by the way- why the heck were you reading my story if you thought it was so bad?), to my first foreign-language review (Google Translate is awesome, thank you anonymous French reviewer!) to the people who have told me how much my story has impacted their life and whose thanks have moved me to tears, it has been a long journey together and it's finally time to close this small window on Severus and Hermione and let them live happily ever after.
I hope you, too, do the same in your own fashion.
I do plan on remaining in the fandom, and I do have a short story in the works. And this one I KNOW is short, unlike the surprise explosion of Last Spy, because I've already written most of it. It's very different from this story, and will follow the lives of Sirius Black and Severus Snape as an unpredicted event over the summer forces the cocky Marauder to take a closer look at himself and his rival and, dare I say, grow up.
Again, thank you, everyone! The luck of Felix Felicis on all your ventures.