Chapter 23

On the last day of the holidays Hermione could honestly admit that for the first time in her life she was not looking forward to going back to school. She was having such a lovely time away from Hogwarts. All worries had moved to the back of her mind and returning to school meant getting back to reality, which she had been happily avoiding for almost three weeks.

The honeymoon in Jamaica was amazing. Her husband had booked them at a secluded villa with a private beach. They had spent time swimming, snorkelling, and simply laying on the white sand, reading books and having the wildest sex. Severus's imagination was endless and his stamina left the young witch exhausted and content.

She had never had such a lazy holiday. Both her parents preferred active breaks, be it visiting cultural sights in a city or trailing walking paths in the countryside. Hermione had no idea what type of holiday her husband preferred, but it turned out that Severus was as happy to lounge on a beach with a book in hand as he was walking the streets of a city exploring Jamaica's capital.

One thing she was sure about was that she very much enjoyed watching her husband in nothing but his swimming trunks, with his alabaster skin protected by a UV repellent spell. It was a real surprise to her that somebody who was always dressed in layers upon layers of clothing could be so comfortable wearing almost nothing. When she mentioned it to him, he first remained silent and then simply replied that he did not like the cold. The admission left her gaping, and she could not help but laugh at how uncharacteristic this explanation sounded.

In general, that week provided a number of revelations. Away from Hogwarts and Britain, Severus Snape was a lot more relaxed. He was easier to laugh with and smile. His wit was still dry but less caustic, and he seemed to have de-aged, looking more like a young man than austere academic. He also became more open, even talking briefly about his childhood spent in a dilapidated house in one of the most deprived areas of Manchester. They compared the classes and teachers during his time at Hogwarts with hers, and even went so far as talking about favourite films.

He was also interested to learning more about her and did not seem to mind when she blabbered on for a whole hour about Muggle school curriculums. All in all, it was probably the first time that she felt like he was not just her husband but a friend, and she treasured every minute.

On top of everything else, Severus surprised her by suggesting that they take her parents out to dinner on Christmas Eve and then spend the night with them so that they could open the presents first thing on Christmas Day, as was customary in the Granger's household. She remembered that she had told him about it sometime before and to have him not only remember but also follow her wish made her heart melt.

It was not only her heart that was affected. During the time with her parents, she witnessed first hand a charm offensive by Severus Snape. He was a perfect guest and son-in-law - offering his help to Helen in cooking Christmas dinner, and, when she insisted that she was perfectly cable with Hermione's help, he politely retired to the living room, leaving mother and daughter to catch up.

Severus patiently watched football with Mr Granger and surprised him with the knowledge and understanding of Muggle politics and economics. Severus insisted on clearing up the table, and even did so by hand, though Hermione was sure that he used his skills in wandless magic the moment he was out of sight.

His gifts were thoughtful as well: a weekend in Paris in the George V Hotel, with tickets to La Traviata at the Opéra de Paris and a pair of gorgeous diamond and smoky topaz earrings for Hermione. While they were all "oohing" and "ahhing" about them, Severus produced a modest green envelop from his pocket and handed it to Mrs Granger. Her mother started to protest that this was all too much, but, when she opened the envelop, Hermione, for the first time in her life, saw her mother smile broadly with tears falling freely down her face before she threw herself into her son-in-law's arms.

A sheet of paper had flown to the ground and Hermione recognised a distinct Hogwarts crest. Her father read aloud the official invitation to Drs Helen and Jeremy Granger to visit Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry on the 3rd of January, the day before the students' arrival.

Hermione had read Hogwarts: A History enough times to know how hard it was to obtain such an invitation. Parents were not normally allowed to visit the school for security reasons. The permission had to be requested by the Head of House, signed by the Head of the School, and approved by the Board of Governors. The fact that Severus went to all that trouble made her heart soar.

Now it was the evening before they were supposed to pick her parents up for their tour, and Hermione stood in front of the trunk, surveying her school robes with distaste. She did not want to wear them. She did not feel like a schoolgirl anymore, and spending the holidays like an adult made her realise how far she had outgrown her peers.

"You could always withdraw from classes and complete your education in the private study," her husband's smooth baritone interrupted her thoughts.

Hermione turned to him in disbelief. "Are you serious?"

"Of course. It is a perfectly acceptable course of action and has been done many times before. Considering recent changes in the law, I believe it is likely to be a very frequent occurrence in the next few years."

"But that would mean I will not be with my friends."

"You won't be sitting in the same classroom as them," he corrected, "but otherwise nothing would change. You will still reside at Hogwarts and be able to secretly see Potter, as you are doing at the moment." He laughed at the look on her face. "Yes, my dear, I know about your arrangement in the Room of Requirement, but no one else does, so I have to commend you on your discretion."

"We are not doing anything wrong." Hermione's face turned bright red. "We are just talking and having tea. And…"

"I am not jealous, Hermione. If I thought you had more than brotherly feelings for Potter, we would not be conversing like this. I trust that your behaviour will be befitting of my wife, and I will not insist on you abandoning your friend as long as you keep it quiet. Now, do you want me to talk to McGonagall about your switch to private study?"

She thought for a moment. "And who will tutor me?"

"Do you really need to ask? I will provide you with as much help as I can, and I am sure other professors will be happy to advise you as needed."

"All right then, but I will talk to McGonagall myself, if you don't mind."

"As you wish." He inclined his dark head and then walked towards her and pulled her into his arms. "I have a feeling that being a student is not the main thing that bothers you."

Hermione relaxed into his embrace. "I don't want to go back," she muttered into his shoulder. "It's been wonderful to be away from it all. At Hogwarts, I am constantly worried about you and Harry and myself. It was nice to be able to relax."

She could not see his face, and Severus was grateful for that because, even with his perfected skill of hiding emotions, he doubted he would be able to maintain his façade this time. Hermione's words struck him deep because this was exactly what he was thinking himself. If, in Hermione's case, it was fearing of the unknown, he knew exactly what was coming his way. Dark times were ahead for the Wizarding world, and him personally, and, no matter what, his wife would be part of it all.

If running had been an option, Severus would not have hesitated, even if it meant spending the next ten years in hiding. His oaths did not leave him with an option, however. The bond of the Dark Mark was powerful, but it had nothing on the vow that Dumbledore had extracted from him, death being the only source of freedom.

Hermione sighed lightly against him, and Severus pushed his dark thoughts to the back of his mind. He had between five and six months of relative safety left and he was going to enjoy them and make sure that his wife enjoyed herself as much as possible.

He tightened his grasp on her waist. "We don't have to go back yet," he murmured. "Let's enjoy the time we have here."

And enjoy they did. When Hermione was picking up her parents to travel with them to Hogwarts, she was still on cloud nine from a trip to Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen and a bit tired from the vigorous lovemaking that lasted into the early hours of the morning.

She quickly forgot her lack of sleep, with all the excitement of showing Hogwarts to her parents. The Grangers got a full tour. They started with Gryffindor Tower, her dorm, and the common room. Then they went to the library and some of her classrooms, including the Potions dungeons. At the end, they came to the Great Hall, where they met Severus, Dumbledore and some of the other teachers for lunch.

If Hermione was excited about sharing the magical world with her parents, she could see that her mother and father were getting a little overwhelmed by everything around them, especially Helen Granger, always so talkative and confident, who was quieter and a lot more reserved. The Headmaster noticed it as well and suggested that they retire for a coffee in his office.

After everybody was settled with their cups of tea, Dumbledore talked about the curriculum changes by the Ministry and the Board of Governors. Such mundane conversations about the process of running a boarding school somewhat put the Grangers at ease. After half an hour had passed, Hermione's parents were ready to depart.

After saying their goodbyes to the Headmaster, Severus led the way down the spiral staircase. The four of them were already half way there when Helen noticed that she had forgotten her bag. As she was the last coming down the stairs, she quickly rushed back, shouting to the rest of them that she would be back in a moment.

What happened next was a scene from a Hollywood action movie. There was a loud bang and the stairs shook from a powerful explosion. Hermione was thrown back, as were her husband and father, all of them tumbling down in a heap.

Severus's well-trained instincts kicked in, and he had just managed to cast a nonverbal cushioning charm when they crashed into the hard stone. The dark wizard cursed, as he disengaged himself from the other two.

"Hermione, are you hurt?" Although she seemed to look unharmed, Severus was not taking any chances.

The young witch looked visibly shaken. "No, I am fine. Are you?" She clutched his now dusty sleeve.

"Yes, and so is your father." Severus cast a quick diagnostic spell on the Muggle doctor, whose eyes were fixed on the stairs above.

"Helen…" he whispered, and the colour drained from Hermione's face. She rushed to get up but was stopped by her husband.

"You stay here, both of you." Severus's tone allowed no argument. "I will have a look upstairs and call you if it's safe."

Without waiting, he got up and grabbed his wand. Carefully checking the stairs for security, the wizard proceeded around the corner of the spiral staircase that was hiding the entrance to the Headmaster's office. What he saw inside made him cringe.

The office was destroyed by a powerful blast. Dumbledore's desk was a pile of rubble, and, on top of it, like a terrifying grotesque picture, lay the old wizard's head with no sign of the rest of his body.

A painful groan from a corner made Severus raise his wand and rush towards an upturned chair. Behind it he could see a shape of a woman dressed in Muggle clothes.

"Helen!" Severus rushed forward but froze in midstep. Instead of the face of Hermione's mother, he was greeted by a badly burnt but still recognizable aristocratic features that belonged to Narcissa Malfoy.

Blue eyes slowly opened. "Severus…"

The dark wizard sank to his knees. "Cissa, what are you doing here; what have you done?" He started casting diagnostic spells, but the witch in front of him rasped.

"Numbing charms, Severus; it's too late for anything else." Before he could object, she continued, though it was obvious that every word caused her pain, "I did what I had to… Freed you from your oath to me and to him… Now that he's gone, my son does not have to kill him and you don't have to protect Draco… Everybody wins." She breathed a little easier as Severus abandoned his attempts to heal her and cast a numbing spell instead.

"Where is Helen Granger?"

"Your wife's mother is safe. She's sleeping in the cleaning cupboard of her office. I was always good at Polyjuice." A faint smile touched her lips.

Severus could hear the footsteps coming up the stairs, but the woman in front of him was fading with every second. His mind was muddled with questions, but he didn't know what to say. Carefully, he grasped her hand. "Why?" he asked finally. "How?"

"I used a Muggle explosive. Hogwarts defences are not able to detect them, and you taught me enough about the Muggle world to procure what I needed. I could never defeat Albus Dumbledore magically, but it is ironic that the greatest wizard of our time was killed by a simple Muggle bomb." She grimaced in pain, and Severus had to bend down to hear her rushed whisper. "I love you, Severus; always have and always will… I want you to be happy, to live and take care of our son." Blue eyes bore into black ones. "Draco is your son, not Lucius's. Yours… Please take care of him for both of us…"

"Albus!" McGonagall's cry of anguish was not heard by Narcissa Malfoy, as the Slytherin witch was no longer breathing.

Hello everybody. Long time-no see. Huge apologies for the long delay. I wasn't sure if I get another chapter done at all and I really appreciate all the reviews as they do inspire me to keep writing. This chapter is a bit of a bombshell... hopefully enjoyable one. Reviews are, as always, incredibly welcome.

Huge thanks to my Beta - CRMediaGal