Written for Mihnn at the Granger Enchanted Santa Fic Exchange.Direct quotes from Dickens, A Christmas Carol, as well as from Goblet of Fire and Half-Blood Prince. Gratuitous use of canon, AU in that Harry only has one child - Albus. Many, MANY thanks to my betas - Stgulik, Reynardo, and UniquePOV. Disclaimer: The characters and canon situations in the following story belong solely to JK Rowling, Scholastic and WB. I am not making any money from the publishing or writing of this story.
Dumbledore was dead, to begin with.
Well, he was more than dead. By this point in time, the one hundred and eighty-three year old wizard – give or take a few hours – was a pile of magical dust within the white tomb. It had been seven years since the Headmaster had toppled over the parapet, falling from the Astronomy Tower on a late spring evening. The purveyor of his death, Severus Snape, was dead, too – killed some months later by the very master he claimed to serve.
These events are significant, dear reader, as you will soon find out.
There had been a great and terrible war: death, life and rebirth swirled amongst its ruins. After the smoke had cleared, the price of victory had been counted, and it was more than some people – most notably, one Hermione Granger – could bear to pay.
She was intelligent, brave – foolishly so, at times – a champion of those who could not fight for themselves, and totally oblivious of the attention she garnered from certain people at any given time. This may seem quite trifling in the whole scheme of things, but it was a combination of these particular traits which led to her current situation.
Because she was exceedingly intelligent, she passed her N.E.W.T.s with the highest score ever to come out of Hogwarts – barring Severus Snape's, that is. Though he was no longer amongst the living, he would have been pleased to know that she did not surpass him. It wouldn't have mattered that she was only one point shy of his score – she knows; she checked, and rechecked again several days later. To him, it would've been a matter of principle.
Regardless, after leaving Hogwarts, Hermione took an apprenticeship in the Care of Magical Creatures within the Ministry. Thanks to hard work, long hours – including weekends, holidays, and even working while sick – and an obsessive attention to detail, she was able to rise within the ranks at a phenomenal rate until she reached her full potential in that division. She accomplished this in a scant sixteen months and earned the lead position.
But employees of the Ministry hated dealing with her due to her pedantic nature. Unless you were a close friend, had an appointment which had to have been arranged months prior, or had found out that centaurs were trying to crossbreed with unicorns, Hermione Granger would not take the time to see anyone. It had been this way for the past five years.
Because she was brave – foolishly so, at times – she had seen many friends and loved ones die throughout her years as a student, and even some just after leaving school. Each extinguished life had taken its toll on her battered soul until there was nothing but an empty shell where her vitality used to reside. She often ruminated over how many ways she could've stepped in front of her best friend, Ronald Weasley, when a curse from Bellatrix Lestrange had killed him. Sometimes she thought of ten different ways; others times, it was fifty-six. Some days, it was none. She had even completed an Arithmancy model once to calculate the odds of reaching Ron in time before Bellatrix's hex had struck him square in the chest. The results hadn't been optimistic, so she'd hidden the notes in a desk drawer, accessible only with the right combination on an intricate ward.
Because she was a champion of those who could not fend for themselves, her S.P.E.W. campaign became even more important to her once she reached the head of the division. She was often lauded and vilified, in turns, by the wizarding world for her work concerning house-elves. And it didn't stop with house-elves; any creature that had been persecuted in the past thousand years was a candidate for her undivided attention. If she was not attending a symposium on the behaviours of certain classes of beings, she was actively protesting their cruel treatment within wizarding society, or writing propaganda that touted the injustices of wizarding culture in general. The Ministry, including Minister Shacklebolt himself, was exasperated even on the best of days. However, they couldn't deny that she got results of the highest calibre, results which reflected positively on the British Ministry and on the Minister. The whole of the Minister's cabinet frequently placed wagers on if Hermione ever left her office or not, or even if she went home, for she was often seen burning the midnight oil.
And because she was totally oblivious of the attention she garnered from certain people at any given time, Hermione Granger had not noticed that Harry Potter had been slowly and steadily falling in love with her over the past fourteen years. They told each other that they loved one another on the rare occasions they met by chance at Ministry functions, but Hermione had not noticed when Harry's tone had changed, when his looks began to linger, when his verdant eyes began to speak volumes.
She didn't even notice when Harry, in a futile attempt at happiness, decided to marry Ginny Weasley. She never observed his looks, as he stood at the altar, begging with his eyes for her to rescue him from his idiocy. She pointedly ignored Ginny becoming pregnant with a son that looked exactly like Harry – black hair, sage-green eyes, and a dimple in his right cheek. She never even remarked that there was anything of consequence when Harry, tired of the charade he'd forced himself to play, amicably divorced Ginny three years later. She took no notice that her godson, Albus Severus Potter, had turned five recently.
Harry felt that was the last straw.
For all that Hermione was an intelligent, brave champion, she was quite blind when it came to matters of the heart. She had buried what little emotion she allowed herself, deep behind high walls that no one could hope to penetrate. Little did she know that her walls were about to be scaled and obliterated by events of a most peculiar nature and a man of a most persistent character.
Hermione glanced up from her work. "Harry. What brings you here?" She didn't wait for an answer and returned to scanning the legal document for any loopholes.
Consequently, she didn't see his smile drop. "I was just wondering where you were last weekend." He entered her office and closed the door.
"Last weekend?" she murmured absentmindedly. Her red-inked quill continued to scratch along the parchment. "I was probably in Romania for the lecture concerning Swedish Short-Snout dragons."
Harry sat in a chair that was positioned in front of her desk, not that she ever had any visitors that used it. "It was December sixteenth."
She darted her gaze up and frowned. "Yes, I know. I was the guest lecturer."
He blew out a pent-up breath. "It was Albus' birthday."
Her eyes widened fractionally for a moment, before they closed. When she opened them, she returned to proofing her material. "I'll send him something to make up for it."
"That's not good enough, Hermione."
She threw her quill in the ink pot and crossed her arms. "He's what? Four? He won't know the difference between a plush animated unicorn and a jar of salamander eyes. Don't tell me it's not good enough."
"He just turned five," Harry ground out, losing his temper. "And he happens to like potions kits, not that you'd know. When's the last time you actually saw Albus?"
The bottom of her lip was pulled between her teeth, where she began to gnaw on the corner, a sure sign of concentration. "Last Christmas?"
Harry snorted in derision. "Try his third birthday party, and you were late to that."
She waved her hand dismissively. "Like I said, I'll make it up to him."
An overwhelming look of sadness suffused Harry's features. "When?"
"Which is tomorrow."
She groaned and dropped her head into her hands. "I'm supposed to organise the protest against deforestation of the Erkling's habitat tomorrow."
"But, it's Christmas, Hermione!"
"And the world still revolves, Harry. It doesn't stop for one day of the year."
Harry was incredulous. "I can't believe you." He stood and leaned over her desk. "No, the world doesn't stop, not even for a day, I'll give you that. But Hermione, you need to look at your life, before you have none of it left. At this rate, you'll be eighty and one of those crazy cat witches that everyone is afraid of."
She looked affronted. "I happen to like cats, thank you very much!"
"Really? Tell me, what happened to Crookshanks, hmm?"
Her lips pursed until they were nearly bloodless. "He went dotty in his old age, and ran away."
"Seven isn't that old for Kneazles, or even half-Kneazles. Try again."
She pushed away from her desk and stood. "He was old and senile. Now, if you don't mind, I've got to finish this tonight."
Harry came around the desk and leaned in until they were practically nose-to-nose. "He ran away to Luna's because you became so caught up in your work, protests and movements that you forgot to feed him for a week. You neglected him." It was quite possibly that Harry wasn't being fair, but he'd reached his breaking point, which was where his mouth often took over for his brain.
Her face was like stone. "Get out," she whispered, wrapping her arms around herself.
"No," he spat. "Merlin, why can't you see what's right in front of you, Hermione? You're neglecting all of us. And for what? I understand that you want to make a difference, but at what cost? Your soul?"
"You know nothing," she muttered.
In that moment, though, Harry thought she sounded an awful lot like Snape. "I know more than you think." He willed away the tears that prickled his eyes. "Please come to Godric's Hollow tomorrow for Christmas," he pleaded, hating the sound of his voice.
She stepped away, grabbed her thick file of documents, and moved to the coatrack that held her travelling cloak. "You know I can't. The protest is in Germany, near the Black Forest. It'll take all day just to lay the groundwork for a peaceful demonstration." After donning the heavy wool coat, she pulled out her hair from underneath her collar. "Maybe Boxing Day. See yourself out."
Harry watched her leave, and was deafened by the sound of the silence that followed.
Hermione lived in the South London borough of Southwark, specifically in Dulwich. It was not a magical community, but rather, a sparsely-populated Muggle area that was not commercialised and was considered a conservation zone. Dulwich still boasted nearly all the original buildings from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It was also known for its waters – they were found to be possessed of purgative qualities, and for some time had been used medicinally. What the Muggles did not know was that ages ago, a lost unicorn had dipped its horn in the babbling stream that led to the village, imbuing the stream with healing properties. Of course, Hermione did know, and it was one of the reasons she chose Dulwich to live in – that, and she wanted to keep an eye open in case another unicorn wandered too close. It would not do to have Muggles touting that they had seen one, which would lead those with an over-inquisitive nature to potentially penetrate the wizarding world.
She lived in a nineteenth-century house that had been built by Charles Drake, of the Patent Concrete Building Company. It was the only concrete house from that time period in existence in England. It was also considered derelict by the housing council of Southwark, which suited her just fine. The appearance of a run-down, decrepit frame of a manor deterred most anyone from coming near.
Inside, however, it was quite comfortable after Hermione made massive alterations. It was not lavish by any means; it was even Spartan in some areas. But overall, it was enough that she felt content. No one bothered her. No one called – not that they could; she had never told anyone where she lived, though they had asked on multiple occasions. No one saw the brief Lumos she would cast as she arrived home at night, and no one would see the light extinguish when she went to bed… if she went to bed at all.
On this particularly windy and wintery night, however, someone did see all of that, and more. And what he saw disappointed him greatly. He had hoped better for Hermione Granger. She was such a talented young witch. Why was she wasting her life away in a dilapidated building, with no friends or loved ones to speak of, and living as though she were in hiding? No, this would not do. This would not do at all.
Christmas Eve night found Hermione Granger huddled within her threadbare Gryffindor robe, still perusing the two inch-thick proposal to set up a Crumpled-Horn Snorkack sanctuary in Siberia. Though she thought Luna Longbottom dotty on the best of days, Hermione had to give the witch credit for actually finding the heretofore-imaginary creature in the flesh. Of course, now it had to be protected, and the document in her lap would do just that.
Hermione had grabbed a few slices of bread – toasted, of course, a strong cup of tea, and had settled herself in her comfortable bedroom before a roaring fire. The heat from the tea, the licking flames in the hearth, and the lateness of the hour caused the words on the parchment to float. She was just at the part where the Snorkack – a massive beast on the scale of a rhino – needed the arctic chill in order to live comfortably, when her head drooped and her eyes closed.
She did not stir at the sound of her name whispered on the wind.
A little moan issued from her lips, and she tossed her head against the back of her squishy chair.
The voice brought about an immediate response, ingrained as her habit was to its authority. "The square root of sixty-nine is eight point three zero six six –"
She sat up and squinted her eyes, trying to focus on the intruder. It didn't work. Her right hand slipped between the cushions of her chair and wrapped itself around her wand. "I already gave to the London Wildlife Trust yesterday, and you're trespassing. I suggest you leave, before I summon the authorities."
"Such a welcome, and from one of my best students. I daresay I should be insulted."
Her brows drew together in confusion. "Who are you?"
The individual gave her an amused look. "Do you truly not know who I am? Do you doubt your senses?"
She snorted mirthlessly. "After the day I've had? Most definitely." Looking over the imposing figure, she came to the conclusion that the man was probably an escapee from Hanwell Asylum. "I'm not in the habit of chatting up burglars, so you can either leave, or wait for me to –"
"Do you mind?" the man asked, pointing the chair adjacent her own, clearly intending to have a natter.
"Yes, as a matter of fact, I do mind!"
Paying no heed to her outrage, he sat and pulled out two twigs from his voluminous sleeves. This caused her to raise her wand in his direction, which was slowly lowered when a lengthy skein of rainbow-coloured yarn appeared in his lap. She watched as he studied her exposed bare feet, narrowed his eyes, and then transformed the flimsy twigs into double-pointed needles. The man cast-on a number of stitches, then quickly completed row after beautifully-even row. The yarn flew as he clacked his needles around a heel, until only the toe was left. With a flourish he joined the two sides, then looped the thread through the last stitch, his hands somehow stretching the knitted swatch into two distinct shapes.
"For you, my dear." He handed her a pair of thick, rainbow-coloured socks.
Hesitantly, Hermione took the proffered clothing. "Erm, thank you?"
"You're welcome!" He steepled his abnormally long fingers, staring at her. "Now, if I may address the reason for my visit…"
"You're not here to pinch the silver? I mean, that would be quite futile, actually. There's none to be had."
"Still unsure of my identity?" He tsk'd and shook his head regretfully. "I suppose my appearance has changed a bit since I was at Hogwarts."
She examined the stranger more closely, taking note of the embellished robes, the longish neck-length beard, the familiar twinkle in the bright blue eyes.
"Dumbledore!" she gasped. She tilted her head to the side in confusion. "What happened to your beard?"
"The most amusing thing, really. A certain ginger prankster decided that the afterlife was quite dull and decided to spice things up a bit by setting fire to my beard. Alas, fire does not burn in the hereafter, it merely disintegrates things, and I was not able to save the noble bush." He stroked his facial hair, as he used to do when he was Headmaster. "This took seven years to grow, and I'm only just now able to braid it like a Viking warrior." He demonstrated this very feat.
"Brilliant," she said and smiled wanly. "But, you're dead… aren't you?"
"Yes, quite right. That's why I'm here."
She arched a lone brow. "You're here because you're dead?"
"In a manner of speaking." He smiled widely, rose from the chair, cleared his throat, and spread out his arms. "You will be visited by three men this night..."
Laughter burst from her chest. "Three men? I mean, I know I don't get out much, but don't you think three men at once is a bit much?"
Dumbledore glared at her. "Spirits. They just happen to be of the male persuasion. You have not lived up to your potential, Miss Granger. I'm here to, hopefully, correct that."
"I'll have you know that I've accomplished a significant amount in the seven years since leaving Hogwarts!" She stood to match him, toe-to-toe. "The house-elves can now choose to work for minimum wage, centaurs are treated as near-gods, and Cornish pixies now have a protected habitat in Truro. Tell me again how I have not lived up to your expectations, Professor!"
He looked at her in pity. "You have not allowed yourself to love, Hermione. To live a full life."
"What?" she whispered harshly. "You dare to come in here, my home, and tell me that because I didn't wish to burden my heart with emotional entanglements, that I'm living a lesser life?" She crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes. "I won't be party to your manipulative games, Professor. I know how you treated Harry all those years; what you did to Snape."
Dumbledore gave her a derisive look. "This is not a home, Miss Granger. This is a hovel that you changed to suit you. Yes, I regret the machinations that placed Severus and Harry in countless danger, but they were necessary, as you well know. The truth of the matter is that I am here on behalf of another, before it's too late."
"I cannot divulge such information at this time, but perhaps I will once you have seen the light, so to speak."
"Get out now!" she spat, picking up a pewter candlestick. "I swear, spirit or not, I will find a way to exorcise you from this place."
"Child, think of the chains you are forging in this life. Chains of loneliness and isolation. You might have died that night, as well, for all the actual living that you've done since."
With a mighty yell, she hefted the heavy pewter at her ghostly visitor. The item went straight through his incorporeal form and landed with a thud on the carpet. Seeing how ineffectual the action was, Hermione pulled her wand to try something different.
"I would advise against casting spells on a ghost," he warned. "It has a nasty tendency to backfire and cause the spirit to remain bound to the place it was hexed."
"Ronald warned me of your temper," Dumbledore said offhandedly.
"Don't. You. Dare," she ground out vehemently. "Don't speak of him as if you knew him, like Harry and I did. You don't have the right!"
"My apologies," he said gravely. "It was not my intent to cause you pain this night, Hermione."
Tears threatened to fill her eyes, but she refused to give into them. "I really wish you would leave, Professor. I can't imagine Elysium being so dull that you would come to visit me on a whim."
He stepped close to her, the cold chill of his presence freezing her to the bone. "Indeed, it was not a whim. I told you, I am here on someone's behalf. In fact, I am here on your behalf, as well. I wish to avert a disaster of monumental proportions."
She scoffed. "Dramatic as ever, Professor." She returned to her seat and stared pensively into the fire.
"You are too young to be so cynical and bitter, Miss Granger," he said gently. "Where is the wonder and excitement that infused your very soul the moment you stepped into the wizarding world?"
"It died when Bellatrix Lestrange carved 'Mudblood' into my skin, sir," she answered without inflection, her tone dead.
"Oh, Hermione," he lamented quietly. "I am so very sorry that happened."
She glanced at him once and returned her gaze to the fire. "Why are you sorry? You didn't do it."
Dumbledore heaved a sigh. He darted his eyes to the clock, noted the time and stroked his beard in agitation. "I do realise that I was not a party to the pain inflicted upon you, Miss Granger. I was empathising with you. Perhaps it is an ability you have lost touch with?"
She winced at his insinuation. "Go away," she said listlessly.
"They will still come," he told her. "The three spirits."
She waved him off as if he didn't matter. "Fine, fine. I hope they don't mind seeing me in my pyjamas."
He chuckled. "I daresay they might enjoy it." There was a decidedly mischievous gleam in his eyes.
"Pervy old gits," she muttered. She turned to glare at Dumbledore, only to find him gone.
After rising, she made her way to her bedroom door and checked the wards – all still in place, and not a one disturbed. She checked the windows as well, finding the same. The flue was a bit clogged, so there was a thin film of smoke in the room, which dissipated when she waved her wand to disperse it.
She snorted, chalking up her spectral visitor to fatigues of the day and not having eaten much throughout. Too tired to eat a proper meal, she donned the tartan pyjamas that McGonagall had given her ages ago for a Christmas present. She then promptly fell in bed and fell asleep upon the instant.