The Phantom slowly approached, heavy boots thudding on the floorboards with each step. It was shrouded in deep black garments, which concealed its head, its face and its form. The very air through which the spirit moved seemed to scatter gloom and mystery. The figure was tall and stately when it came to stand before her, and as Hermione cowered on the floor at the foot of her bed, she was filled with a solemn dread.
"Get up, you silly girl."
She stopped shaking and peered intently into the shadows of the cowl covering the figure's face.
"Although any amount of time spent in Black's presence is enough to want to hex your ears off, I know you are not hearing impaired, Miss Granger. Get up."
Oh, dear Zeus. She knew that voice. In fact, she had a very visceral reaction to the dark, steel-edged tone. Slowly, she rose to stand on unsteady legs to face the one man for whom she had extremely conflicting emotions.
"Merlin's balls, girl. What have they dressed you in?" He pulled back the cowl to reveal a disgusted sneer.
She crossed her arms over her chest in a protective manner. "If you must know, the pyjamas were a gift from Professor McGonagall, and the socks were –"
"Dumbledore," Snape drawled. He then did something that surprised Hermione greatly. He lifted his trouser leg to reveal a calf covered in similar rainbow-coloured fabric.
Unable to help herself, she snorted with laughter. This earned her a scathing glare from the ghostly visage of her former professor. He let the trouser leg drop and assumed a superior look.
"I have come at the behest of –"
"– someone you love," she finished for him with a careless wave of her hand. "And let me see if I get this right, hmm? First Dumbledore visits me and says three men will be here tonight… and gives me socks. I try to get some sleep, thinking I'm going to be accosted in my bed at some unknown hour of the night, but instead, I get Professor Lupin dragging me all over London and Scotland to show me things which I had wanted to leave buried in my bruised psyche. Next, I'm taken – via a menacing death-trap of a vehicle – to the Ministry and then to Harry's house, to show me what a neglectful, straight-on-the-road-to-Spinsterville, pedantic swot of a harridan I am. No, no, wait… I'm almost through here. After I feel like the backend of a Hippogriff for letting Harry and Albus down, I'm now stuck with the worst professor to ever teach at Hogwarts. I'm betting you're here to show me the future, and if that's the case, then I am stuck in some Dickensian hell that I couldn't even conjure on my wildest of drinking binges."
"I hadn't realised you'd taken up drinking," Snape said with a snort.
"After tonight? I'm seriously considering it."
"Are you quite through?"
"If I say no, will you go away, under the assumption that I've learned my lesson?"
He arched a lone brow. "I would like nothing better than to retreat back to my peace and comfort instead of listening to you blathering on, Miss Granger, but as I was about to say before you so rudely interrupted me, I am here at the behest of someone I care for. So, no, I will not assume you have learned anything of the sort."
"I guess it would be the height of presumption for me to ask who this person might be, and why they are, all of a sudden, so worried about my welfare?"
She sighed heavily. "Fine. Am I supposed to say I fear you most of any spectre I have seen thus far tonight?"
"Do you?" Snape had a thoroughly wicked gleam in his eyes that unsettled her.
Hermione paused for a moment before answering, giving the question some thought. "I used to fear the power that you held over us, but that's long gone. Maybe I should fear what you're going to show me."
Snape gave her speculative look. "Perhaps the know-it-all has gained some wisdom, to equal all that she has learned from books."
Red tinged her cheeks from embarrassment. "I've found they don't always go hand-in-hand as I had once thought," she admitted softly.
"Yes," Snape said in exasperation. "Well, if you're done feeling sorry for yourself, may we continue with this exercise in foolishness?"
Affronted, she snapped, "Foolishness? If it's nothing but foolishness to you, why bother?"
"Because, for once in my life, I want you to prove me wrong, Miss Granger," he growled. "Prove to me that you understand and accept the fact that you are not always right. That you do not need to fix the entire world. Prove to me that you can see beyond your self-righteous crusades for justice, which are nothing more than thinly-veiled attempts at boosting your self-esteem, and concentrate on changing the things that you are more than capable of doing."
Her eyes narrowed in anger at the fact that Snape was more than a little right. "I seem to recall the Ghost of Christmas Future in the book was silent. How is it you have free rein to speak your mind?"
"It was the one condition I insisted on if I was to play out this farce." He spread wide his voluminous cloak, as if he were a great bat about to take flight. "Now, are you ready?"
She fixed him with a dubious look. "You have a penchant for resembling a certain Lord of the Undead, you realise." She swallowed reflexively, unsure of what she should do. "How are we travelling?"
He rolled his eyes. "Come here."
Steeling her nerves against her rampant imagination of what she might see tonight, she stepped up to Snape and allowed him to enfold her in his arms. She closed her eyes and buried her face in his chest as the floor beneath their feet disappeared.
It wasn't like travelling with Lupin, or heaven forbid, Sirius. There was no motion to speak of, other than a subtle shift, as if her stomach were rising into her chest from a sudden plummet. Snape's arms did not release her until the sensation ceased. Then, she stepped away and found herself in the kitchen of the Burrow, where it seemed most of the Weasleys and their extended family had gathered.
"Harry, dear, you should eat," Molly gently chided her adopted child.
He gave her a wan smile, his face reflecting a deep exhaustion. "Sorry, Molly. Guess I'm just not that hungry." Harry glanced over at Albus, who sat next to one of Bill's children. Albus' eyes were red-rimmed and puffy, but he ate in silence.
"Did Hermione come by this morning?" George asked.
Tears welled in Albus' eyes and Harry thinned his lips. "She's in Germany at the moment," was all he said.
"But it's Christmas!" Ginny spluttered. "She should really know better."
"You know once Hermione gets it into her mind to do something, she's like a magpie with a shiny object. This needed done, and she's the one to do it, end of story."
"Has she ever taken a holiday?" asked Dean Thomas, Ginny's new husband.
"No," Harry, Ginny and Percy said in unison.
There was a sniffle from Albus. Harry was about to console his son when a voice from the hearth in the other room called out to him.
"Potter? Are you here?"
Harry rose from his seat and found Kingsley Shacklebolt's face floating in the fire. "What's the matter?"
"I need to see you immediately!"
Harry stepped back and allowed Kingsley to come through the Floo. "What's so urgent?"
Shacklebolt glanced at the gathered Weasleys, his face grim. "It would be better if we spoke in private."
Harry nodded and cast Muffliato. "It's safe to talk now. What's happened?"
After much hesitation, Shacklebolt whispered, "There's been an incident."
"Out with it, Minister," Harry growled.
"We need you to come to Germany."
Harry paled significantly, his hands shaking. "Hermione?"
"Harry, please. I refuse to say more at this time. Will you come?" The younger wizard swayed a bit before Shacklebolt grasped his arm to hold him upright. "Steady on, man."
Throughout the whole scene, Hermione had been silent, but she spoke up now. "What's happened in Germany?" she asked Snape.
"Isn't that where you are organising a protest over the deforestation of the Erkling's habitat?"
"Yes, but I don't see that –"
"How many Erklings are there in the world, Miss Granger? A handful at most, which is more than enough. They're dangerous, Dark creatures. Yet, you wish to save them."
"Everyone and everything deserves an equal opportunity to live," she argued.
"Do they?" Snape's lip curled into his familiar sneer as he opened his arms wide again. "Come along and find out."
Though she was reluctant to embrace him again, Hermione quickly complied in order to reach their destination. She felt the same gut-wrenching tug and shift, and when they stopped, she stood in a sparse field on the edge of a dark wooded area.
Off in the distance, she could see Harry standing near a copse of trees. Not waiting on Snape, she ran to his side, halting suddenly at the scene before her.
Harry was staring at the yellow tarp on the ground. His face was devoid of any expression, his eyes dull and lifeless. Several men had assembled nearby, in uniforms denoting that they worked for the German Ministry for Magic.
"Lift it up," Harry rasped.
The men looked at each other uncertainly. One soul, braver than the rest, bent low and removed the covering. After he had done so, he and the other wizards turned away and retched.
Harry did not move. His eyes, slowly filling with tears, searched the carnage on the ground.
Hermione dared to glance over Harry's shoulder and nearly joined the officials in being sick. She recognised the navy-blue cloak Harry had given her for her birthday one year, mangled and twisted around what looked like an arm. There were slash marks in the fabric, marks that looked very much like they were caused by claws, or sharp teeth. And that was all she could really see. The rest of what could mildly be called butchery at the feet of her best friend was indiscernible.
Cautiously, Harry lowered himself to study the remains. He tapped his right hand with his wand, and then used his fingers to sift through a particularly gory mess until he grasped something and pulled it away. Rising, he held up a long, bloody clump of hair. He ran his wand up and down the length of the hair, murmuring spells. When one of the spells caused the tresses to burn bright green, Harry inhaled sharply. He promptly dropped the sizzling item, looked over at the German Ministry team, and nodded. They immediately started speaking in their native tongue and fanned out to continue searching.
"Why?" Harry whispered with a sob. He turned and started walking away.
Hermione ran to catch up with him, but Snape grabbed her arm to prevent her from following him. "Let me go!"
"Not yet!" Snape snarled. "And not here. Come."
"No! Not until you tell me what Harry was looking at!"
"Don't be dense, girl."
"I'm not. Tell me!"
"Then I'm going after Harry." She made to trounce off, but came to an abrupt halt a few feet from Snape due to a barrier. Her fists pounded on the invisible shield. "Let me go!"
"You're not in control here, Miss Granger. I am." Snape's voice was cold.
Panic was inching its way up her spine. "You're not, either. You're just at the mercy of some nameless god or person who wants you here to make my life miserable." She whirled to face him. "What the hell do you want from me?"
"To see," Snape said, as if that were the answer all along.
"That's shite, Snape, and you know it!" She pounded again on the barrier. "I want to see Harry!"
Snape leaned down until he was nose-to-nose with her, his teeth clenched, his voice low. "But you didn't want that yesterday, did you? Why is today any different? You've ignored him for so long, why must you see him at this particular moment?" He drew back and gave her a disgusted look. "Only now, at the end, do you begin to understand what you have done."
A sob escaped from Hermione and she clapped her hands over her mouth. The anger she had felt earlier at Snape's brutal honesty turned now to self-loathing for what she had become: withdrawn, obsessed, bitter and lonely. She had to admit, if only to herself, that Snape had every right to question why she wanted to see Harry now. Never, in the past seven years, had she made any kind of overture to see her best friend that didn't involve some Ministry function.
"Are you ready to go?"
Tears tracked their way down her cheeks as she nodded. Once more, and she hoped for the last time, she was enfolded within the heady warmth of Snape's robes and transported.
This time when Snape let go of her, she was back in Godric's Hollow, in Harry's house. The wizard was seated at the dining room table, a tumbler full of Firewhisky within reach.
Harry did not blink for the longest time. He just kept staring at something in his hands. She saw it was a picture of the two of them, taken when they were younger. In the photograph, Harry's head was resting on her shoulder and she was propped up against him. Eyes never straying from the image, he reached for his glass and downed the contents.
Hermione sat next to Harry, wishing desperately to hold him, to comfort him. She used to be good at mothering him, but not anymore. And that thought hurt worse than any other. This brave, compassionate wizard had been just as alone as she was, yet he had befriended her during a crucial time in their lives. She had never once left him while they were fighting Voldemort. So why did she find spending time with Harry so unimportant after the Dark Lord's defeat? Merlin, Ron was right. Even after all these years, she still didn't have her priorities straight.
Placing the picture on the table, Harry next picked up that day's edition of the Daily Prophet and read the headline.
Hermione Granger, of the famous Golden Trio, found dead!
Best friend, and Head Auror, Harry Potter, called to Niefern, Germany to investigate! We have it on good authority that Miss Granger was supposed to attend the widely-criticised demonstration concerning Erkling habitats in the Black Forest. As you know, dear readers, Erklings are some of the Darkest creatures in the wizarding world. Their behaviour is volatile and unpredictable - stealing babies, feasting on children, ravaging adults that invade their territory, just to name a few characteristics. Study after lengthy study has found the species to be detrimental to society-at-large. However, Miss Granger's views are well-known to the public, and it seems she could not be dissuaded from provoking a confrontation with the last remaining Erklings. It is quite possible she became a victim of her own overzealous nature concerning conservation. Let's hope the next candidate will show some restraint.
Harry crumpled the paper and threw the wadded parchment across room. He laid his head down on his arms, sobbing quietly.
After a loud sniff, Harry raised his head to see Albus standing in the doorway, a pensive expression on his face. The boy came to the side of Harry's chair and placed his hand on his father's arm. With an innocence born only of the young and naïve, Albus asked, "Did Aunt Hermione miss another meeting?"
Harry could not suppress a moan of despair and grief. "No, son," he managed. He pulled Albus onto his lap and cuddled him close. "Aunt Hermione is… is… gone."
"Did she finally take a holiday?"
"No," Harry said gently. "She went to heaven, love."
Albus withdrew from his father. "But, Santa told me that he would make sure Aunt Hermione got home safe!" His lower lip began to tremble and tears swam in his eyes. "He promised she would! It's not fair!"
Harry's face mirrored that of his son's. "I know, Al, but sometimes life isn't fair."
Albus now cried openly and threw his arms around his father's neck, burying his runny nose against Harry's shoulder.
"No! I'm here!" Hermione shouted to the two men she loved most in the world.
They could not hear her.
"These are but shadows, Miss Granger."
She turned swiftly to Snape. "But I'm alive!" She thumped her chest. "I'm not the witch I was. I refuse to be the person that I've seen tonight. Why show me this, if I was past all hope?"
"Because I delight in torturing you?" Snape suggested innocently.
His off-putting nature wasn't going to rile her, not this time. "Tell me I can change this outcome," she implored, grabbing his hand.
He shook her loose. "I can tell you nothing. However, I've been assured by certain parties, that if you were to alter your behaviour, you might avoid disasters such as this one."
"I swear by Merlin, by the Saints, by the Holy Rood if you want, that I'll keep Harry and Albus at the centre of my life. I'll find a way to balance life and career. I'll hire more staff. I'll –"
"Miss Granger," Snape warned. "I care not what you do in your life, only that you live it to the fullest. It is, after all, what we all died for."
She nodded and gave him a meek look. "Can you…"
He drew his black cloak around his shoulders and glared at her. "Can I what?"
"Could you give Ron a message when you go back?"
"Bloody Gryffindors," Snape muttered, rolling his eyes. "You can tell me. I won't promise to give it to him."
"Would you tell him that I miss him, and that I hope he's happy."
Snape waited, assuming there was more to her missive. When she said nothing further, he prompted, "Is that all? No declaration of disgustingly sappy, undying love?"
She shook her head. "No. I love him, yes, but not in that way. I thought I did, but tonight was a paradigm shift in more than one respect."
"Indeed." Snape glanced at the scene of Harry and Albus comforting each other and his eyes softened just the tiniest bit. "Be sure of your heart, Miss Granger. I won't have you toying with their affections."
With the flare of a Muggle magician, Snape gave a courtly bow, twirled his robe, and was gone in the blink of an eye, leaving Hermione staring at her bedpost.
Harry Potter rolled over in his bed and groaned.
This time, there was a small hand shaking his shoulder to accompany the insistent voice.
"It's time to get up. It's Christmas!"
Harry opened one bleary eye and regarded his son. "What time is it?"
Albus looked at the wall clock and concentrated, trying to remember his numbers. "If the big hand is on the seven and the little hand is on the six, what time is that?"
"Half-six, which is way too early to be up, even on Christmas."
The boy propped his head on the bed, his bottom lip stuck out in a pout. "But I want to see if Santa brought my present."
Harry grimaced. "Al, I'm sure Santa did his best. But you know that some wishes are just beyond Santa's power to grant."
Albus tugged his father's hand. "I know, Dad. I just want to check, please?"
Anticipating the disappointment he would see in his son's eyes, Harry rose and donned a dressing gown over his sleep shirt and trousers. He let himself be led downstairs to the front room, where the Christmas tree stood. There was an abundance of gifts in the stockings and underneath the tree, which Harry knew were presents from friends and other family members that had arrived by owl.
Albus' hand squeezed his before letting go as the boy looked at the bounty. He dropped to his knees and pulled out a brightly-wrapped green and red package. He read the nametag and turned to Harry.
"It says my name," he whispered in awe.
Harry smiled. "I'm sure they all have your name on them." He sat in an old rocking chair nearest the hearth and lit the fire. "Who's it from?"
Albus stood and took the gift to his father. "I think it's from Santa."
"Is that so?" Harry read the tag and frowned. It did indeed say, From Santa, in spiky, scrawling script. "What the…" He caught himself before he swore.
"Can I open it?"
An uneasy feeling filled Harry the longer he gazed at the package. "Give me a minute to check it out, yeah?" He ran several detection and diagnostic spells over the box. Finding nothing wrong, he handed the box back to his son. "Open it carefully."
As if handling a piece of glass, Albus removed the paper and lifted the lid. The excitement in his eyes morphed into confusion. "It's a piece of parchment." He retrieved the note and handed it to his father.
You can find your heart's desire in the kitchen.
Albus clapped and squealed. "I bet Aunt Hermione's in the kitchen!"
Voice thick with caution, Harry tried to temper his son's enthusiasm. "Al, I don't think she'll be –"
"– hiding in the kitchen any longer," came a welcome voice.
Albus shot off like a Snitch and lunged at Hermione, who scooped him up in her arms and snuggled him close. Harry slowly rose from his seat and watched as Hermione entered the room with her precious bundle. "You're here," he said nervously.
"I am." She stopped in front of him and cupped his cheek with a free hand. "I'm so, so sorry, Harry," she whispered.
He closed his eyes and nuzzled into her palm, covering her hand with his own to keep it there. "You're here for Christmas."
With Albus still wrapped around her, she leaned in and hugged Harry. "I'm here for the other days, too… if you want."
"She can stay here forever, can't she, Dad?"
Harry opened his eyes and Hermione pulled away. "Aunt Hermione is a busy witch, Albus. She can't be here all the time."
"I know that. But when I go to Hogwarts, you'll be all alone and I want her to stay with you when I'm gone."
Hermione cleared her throat. "We'll talk about that later, Albus." She tickled his tummy, earning a childish giggle. "You'd better open the rest of your presents," she said and tried to put him down, but he tightened his grip. "Don't you want them?"
Albus buried his face in Hermione's hair. "I already got the one I wanted."
Her eyes closed and she pressed a kiss to Albus' temple. "I love you, little one."
"Al, could you please open the rest of your gifts for a little while? I need to talk to Aunt Hermione in the other room."
Reluctantly, Albus drew back and allowed himself to be lowered to the floor, where he proceeded to choose another package to unwrap. He became so focused that he didn't notice his father pull Hermione into the kitchen.
Once there, however, Harry crossed his arms and gave her a hard look. "What are you playing at?"
She winced at his tone. "I deserve that, I know."
"Damn right, you do. You come in here like bloody St. Nicholas and think you can buy my son's affections with a few well-timed visits and expensive gifts?"
"No, never," she whispered. She bit her lower lip. "I promise you that I have had a life-changing event turn my perspective around. I-I didn't realise, you see, that I'd almost completely cut you and Albus out of my life. I can't tell you how sorry I am that I caused you even a fraction of the hurt I've felt all night."
Harry studied her intently. "What was this life-changing event?"
She smiled and pulled the legs of her tartan pyjamas up, revealing the rainbow colours adorning her feet. "Socks," she said simply.
"Socks?" Harry repeated with a chuckle. "Those look like something Dumbledore would've worn."
"Maybe," she agreed with a grin.
The two stared at each other; one with hope, the other with trepidation. "I mean it, Hermione. I'll give you one chance to prove yourself. I won't have you hurting Albus. You mean too much to him."
"What about you?"
Harry blushed to the roots of his hair. "You know I'll always love you."
She stepped closer to him, near enough to share the same breath. "Will you?" she asked quietly.
His fingers reached to bury themselves in her wild mane. "Yes," he murmured and closed the gap, pressing his lips to hers in a tentative kiss.
Hermione whimpered and wound her arms around his neck. She pulled back enough to whisper, "Me too."
"Oh, thank Merlin," he groaned. He delved in for another kiss, wanting to make up for lost time.
While his father was still talking with Hermione, Albus Severus Potter fished a Chocolate Frog from among many bits and bobs in his stocking. Once the sweet amphibian had been devoured, he turned over the wizard trading card and smiled.
The former Headmaster of Hogwarts had a dour countenance, lank black hair, and stately robes – all quite fitting of his hero status, in the opinion of the boy studying the man's image. After checking to make sure that his father or aunt had not returned, Albus held the card close and whispered, "Thank you."
Severus nodded with a smirk, gave Albus a wink, and then resumed his rigid stance and irritated glower within the frame. The boy knew the man he was named after was definitely not Santa Claus, but Albus was content in the knowledge that if he ever needed something – something important – he could ask Severus again, and the wizard would try to provide it for him.
Maybe, Albus thought, next year, he would ask for a baby brother.