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Hermione leaned with her back against the mantlepiece. She closed her eyes and took a deep, measured breath, wiping hastily at the tear that spilled over her cheek.

She wouldn't allow her emotions to get the better of her, not tonight, not tomorrow. She had to be strong, had to be calm. For Rose.

She remembered vividly from her own wedding how anxious and nervous she had been in those final hours, and she had married without the family dramatics that accompanied her daughter's wedding.

Afterward, then there would be a time when she could curl up under her bedsheets and cry and mourn that her little girl had grown up so fast.

Hermione walked to the living room table to fetch her abandoned glass of red wine before she flung herself on the settee in front of the idle fireplace. This house had once been her parents' house, a place she had called home a long time ago.

After her parents' deaths, she had inherited this place, but she couldn't bring herself to sell it, much to Ron's dismay. And with another crazy twist of life, she had moved into in her parents' house again nearly eight years ago, as Ron and she had mutually decided to settle for mere friendship for the rest of their lives.

Her parents' house had offered Rose and Hugo enough room to spend most of the summer break here. But it appeared empty and silent to her, now that her children had moved out, a reason why she had stayed at Hogwarts over the last summer and planned to do so again. Therefore, it especially warmed her that Rose had asked to sleep in her old room tonight, a sign that her children had been truly comfortable living here all those years.

A thing she couldn't say for herself anymore. For so many years, her home had been where her children had been. As she and Ron had divorced, she had left the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, a career that had nothing more for her to offer, and had accepted Minerva's invitation to teach Arithmancy at Hogwarts. She had wanted to be close to Rose and Hugo, had wanted to be able to see how they adjusted to their parents' decision, and if she was honest with herself, she had wanted to return to her first and true home in the wizarding world: Hogwarts.

Hermione leaned her head against the settee, closing her eyes, trying to remember the last time she had been truly comfortable in this place―without her parents, without Rose and Hugo. A small smile tugged at the corners of her mouth.

Christmas Eve.

It had been a last, wonderful evening before the balance of her small universe had been disrupted; a condition that hadn't worn off over the previous five months. She sighed, exhausted. Unbelievable, five months. Five dreadful months during which she had fought with all her might to prevent that something of Voldemort's lasting shadow could fall upon her daughter's happiness... in vain.

In the first weeks after Rose's declaration, everything had turned out rather well. While Hermione had been caught by surprise by her daughter's decision, she had to admit today that she should have seen it coming from the very beginning. Well, at first, it had taken Harry's son Al to establish a bridge between his housemate and her daughter, but since then, the three had been inseparable. Scorpius had been her daughter's friend for ages, a constant throughout Hogwarts. And in all these years, their friendship had been a subject of constant teasing (for the younger) and constant concern (for the older ones) at the Burrow and at Grimmauld Place.

Whenever the topic of the youngest Malfoy came up between them, Hermione had tried to placate Ron's worries as she had, as one of his professors, seen Scorpius grow into a rather sensible young man, still sly and smart (Rose wouldn't settle for anything less), but without his grandfather's malice.

Given this experience of lasting scrutiny about their friendship, Hermione could understand why her daughter hadn't said a word when things between the two of them turned serious. The thought had stung at first, indeed, as she had to realize that she hadn't been aware of a significant change in her daughter's life. But what had hurt the most was that Rose had thought it necessary to keep their love a secret, and Hermione had promised Rose as well as herself that she would be right by her side, whatever reaction she and Scorpius would have to face from their families and friends.

However, precisely until Christmas Eve, things had gone to her utter satisfaction. Ron had―after the initial shock and with joint appeasement efforts by Rose and herself―succumbed to his daughter's wish (in the end, he always did), and Hermione ascribed it to Luna's good influence on him that since then, his support of Rose's choice hadn't faltered for one day. And, after a week of sulking with ostentation, her son had come around as well.

Eventually, it had been the weekend before Christmas that Rose had Flooed her. Scorpius had spoken with his family, and surprisingly, Draco and Lucius had both approved their relationship. For a gloomy moment, Hermione had pondered whether having the daughter of two war heroes to marry into the Malfoy family had outweighed her Mudblood genes, but she had brushed the thought quickly aside, happy and relieved that Rose would not have to face old pureblood prejudices, at least not openly. At the end of the Floo-call, Rose had agreed to speak with the rest of the Weasley family, especially with her grandparents, after Christmas.

Therefore, Hermione had been in a rather fabulous mood as she had attended the last staff meeting before the winter break.

 

**~~**


She ascended the stairs to the Headmistress' office, and it felt as if a slight swing accompanied her every step. Rose had looked so gloriously happy during her brief Floo-call that Hermione's chest was overflowing with a sense of well-being, adding to her already cheerful Christmas mood.

On Christmas Eve, she would finally have some time for herself, a good book, and a vast amount cardamom ice-cream included, while Rose and Hugo would stay at the Burrow, and on Christmas Day, she would eventually have both of her children home for the first time in months. Two things she really looked forward to.

She stepped into the already half-filled room, greeting her colleagues on the way before she took the empty armchair beside Severus. He sat with his legs crossed at the ankles and read a potions journal, seemingly wholly absorbed. One of his successful strategies was to avoid any other staff members' attempts to draw him into a conversation.

So far, he hadn't looked up to acknowledge her presence, and Hermione leaned back, taking advantage of the moment to take a closer look at the inscrutable man beside her. While she could still recognize her old Potions professor, hooked nose and all, age had, for once, been kind to Severus Snape.

For a wizard of sixty-six, he had preserved a surprisingly lean frame, although the skinniness she remembered from her childhood days had vanished. And the streaks of white that graced his temples gave him when his hair was tied back as it was now, an aura of distinction.

And he is probably well aware of it, the old Slytherin, she thought with an affectionate smile.

For one wild moment, as she had first met him after all these years, he had reminded her of Dumas' Count of Monte Christo, returning home after a lifetime away to take revenge for the injustices he had suffered. An absurd thought, she found today. It was apparent to anybody who bothered to take a closer look that the life of Severus Snape was still formed by redemption and not revenge.

"Have you quite finished your inspection, Professor Granger?"

The question had been asked quietly, only for her to hear; however, she still jumped at the sudden sound of his voice, abashment rising hot in her cheeks. How could she have been so foolish to let herself get caught while ogling the poor man?

Meanwhile, Severus had looked up from his journal and gave her an expectant look. But the smirk twitching in the corners of his mouth gave away that he was obviously enjoying her discomfort.

Hermione cleared her throat. She had been caught in the act, so denial would get her nowhere, but she had to save at least some of her dignity.

"Well―Yes, thank you. It has been very enlightening," she said with every ounce of detachment she could muster.

"I see," he said, an elusive note in his voice.

Without further ado, he turned to look at his journal again, and Hermione's stomach did an anxious flip. Had she offended him?

She was about to reach out and apologize when Minerva rose behind her desk and opened the staff meeting, subjecting Hermione to hours of uncertainty. Every so often, she tried to catch Severus' eye; however, when his attention wasn't focussed on Minerva, his gaze seemed to be staring blankly at some point far away.

Only after what felt like a short eternity to Hermione, did the meeting finally draw to an end. The Headmistress looked at her notes again.

"…that leaves me with the final point for the evening," she said, and inwardly, Hermione heaved a sigh.

"As in every year, on Christmas Eve there will be a Christmas dinner in the Great Hall for staff and students who wish to stay over the holiday, and the house-elves have asked me to provide them with the number of persons who are staying so they can make smaller arrangements and grant us a more familial atmosphere for the evening."

Minerva glanced over the edge of her square glasses, eyeing her assembled staff.
"May I ask everybody in the room, who will be staying for the Christmas dinner to raise her or his hand?"

Hermione looked around. There were only a few who would stay: Sprout, Hooch, Filch, Hagrid… and Severus.

He had just turned into her direction, and upon seeing that she hadn't raised her hand, he arched a questioning eyebrow.

She shook her head in denial, fighting the sudden feeling of regret that she wouldn't see him over the holidays. Over the last year, he had become a daily constant in her life, a friend…. Her heart twinged treacherously, and Minerva's concluding remarks barely reached her mind.

"… I would like to take this opportunity to wish you all a peaceful holiday and a good start to the New Year. Term will start again on January the 4th. Good evening."

With those words, the usual bustle of voices and people arose around Hermione as she stood up. Her eyes searched and found Severus' gaze, his expression closed. If he was surprised that she wouldn't be staying at the castle, he wasn't showing it.

They had never spoken about how they were planning to spend the holidays. Usually, Hermione tried to avoid any family topics with him since she had recognized that they always led rather quickly to an end of their conversation.
Severus took a step toward her.

"Shall we?" With a cue of his head, he gestured toward the door.

She nodded, hoping that on their way, she would find the possibility to apologize to him for her earlier staring, although right now, he didn't appear to be cross with her.

They walked in unusual silence down the stairs; until, on the third floor, they needed to wait for a moving staircase to turn into their direction, and Hermione decided to seize the opportunity, but it was Severus who spoke first.

"Hermione, may I―"

"Severus, I―"

She laughed. "Well, it seems we both wanted to say something."

"So it seems." He smirked, and Hermione cast him a smile and gestured for him to begin.

"Please, you wanted to ask me something."

But Severus hesitated as if he was weighing his words, something she had seen him do very seldom. The frown between his brows deepened, before he finally said, "You are not staying at the castle on Christmas Eve."

His tone was inscrutable, but the meaning of his words floated somewhere between curiosity and accusation. Meanwhile, their staircase had already come and gone without being noticed.

"No, I am not."

Hermione gave him a questioning look. He crossed his hands behind his back, and she had the distinct impression that he was trying hard not to scowl at her for forcing him to ask the question at all.

"May I inquire why not? As you will probably remember, I was sitting between you when you explained to Minerva at length that your children are with Weasley on that day."

Now, his voice held an edge of annoyance, and he seemed to look everywhere, but her eyes. It surprised her that he recalled this particular part of her breakfast conversation with Minerva and, more so, that he had apparently drawn the conclusion from it that she would be staying at the castle.

You could have simply asked me, she thought but realized she could understand his irritation. She wouldn't herself be looking forward to spending the evening in the company of Hooch and Filch.

Shrugging apologetically, she smiled up at him. "Well, for the last years, I have spent Christmas Eve at my house in London. Usually, I cook something special for myself before curling up on the settee with a good book. Call it a private tradition, if you like."

Severus relaxed visibly during her answer, and a part of Hermione's mind wondered where he had suspected her of being on that evening.

She searched his gaze, and her heart skipped a beat. The unfathomable abyss of black that usually inhabited his eyes was gone, replaced by a maelstrom of emotion. But even before Hermione had a chance to untangle what she saw, Severus's gaze broke away, and the moment was gone. She shivered inwardly at the sudden loss of warmth she felt.

"I understand," he said, nodding as their staircase arrived again.

He was already about to descend as Hermione placed her hand on his upper arm, holding him back. Her heart had made a quick decision.

Severus turned around, giving her an expectant look. Hermione took a breath and said, "Severus, I would be happy if you would join me for Christmas Eve."

A moment of silence passed between them. Hermione thought she heard the thud as her heart dropped into her stomach. She had extended the invitation on a mere impulse, asking a friend to spend a quiet evening with her, something she realized she would like very much; however, now she feared she had finally overstepped her bounds with him.

"I mean, only if you like... It's not much, and the elves will probably cook better than I. Well, I can cook quite well; however, the house-elves will do it probably better and―"

"Hermione―"

"Really, if you don't like the idea―"

"Hermione―"

"I could understand―"

"Woman, stop this rambling and listen to me," he barked, before adding softly, "Please."

She nodded, although momentarily, the sound of her blood rushing in her ears seemed to drown out everything. But she didn't miss how a small but genuine smile changed Severus' face.

"If the offer still stands, then I would be glad to accept it, Hermione," he said, the raw velvet in his voice enfolding her soul.

 

**~~**

Only hours later, while tossing and turning sleeplessly in her bed, it had truly sunk in for her what she had done. For weeks, she had been trying to ignore the treacherous skips and twinges of her heart whenever Severus was around, forcing herself to merely see and value the friend she had found in him. However, with a few random words, her heart had trapped herself into spending a whole evening with him―well, not just an evening, but also one of those times of the year one should spend with those close to their heart. And instead of putting her out of her self-created misery with a simple 'No, thank you,' he had accepted her invitation.

Eyes still closed, Hermione smiled ruefully. At the age of forty-six, she had fought the most evil wizard of her time and had accomplished a career in Law Enforcement while raising two children. She had deemed herself a self-confident and strong-minded woman, or something close to that, and by the time Christmas Eve had arrived, she had been sure she could enjoy the evening without putting her heart on the line. She had seldom been so wrong.

 

**~~**


"So, what's next?" Severus leaned back in his chair, smirking at her over the rim of his wine glass, and Hermione couldn't help but smile in return.

They had finished dinner a few moments ago, and it had been delightful in every way. Hermione was amazed how at ease she felt with him tonight… as if it had never been otherwise. She had even trusted him with the news of Rose's engagement to Scorpius Malfoy, although this had been the one dead-end topic of the evening so far.

When Severus had arrived earlier, he had insisted that they would spend the evening in the same way she usually did, and now, he was sitting there, appearing visibly relaxed and waiting for her to determine the further course of the evening.

Hermione inclined her head in feigned thoughtfulness, tipping her index finger against her mouth.

"Hmmm. Well, at first, there are the dishes in the kitchen, and the presents must be placed―

"You promised me books, Granger, good books," he growled, glaring at her mockingly.

She laughed, shaking her head in amusement. "Oh, Severus, I should have known that it would only be my exquisite library that could lead you into temptation tonight."

Her words had been said lightly, a continuation of their playful banter, but they were hardly spoken, that Hermione wished she could take them back as she was left to watch the man in front of her pale visibly as if she had hit him with a Bludger.

Instinctively, she searched his gaze over the distance of the table between them. His face was closed, unreadable, but she found the answer in the depths of his eyes, glistening with the same dark maelstrom of emotion she had seen only days ago, but this time Severus didn't turn away. The warm surge engulfed her, caressing her senses, telling her of desires he wouldn't name, and she knew her heart was lost.

For how long they sat there, mesmerized by each other's gaze, joined in an unspoken confession, Hermione couldn't tell.

After some time, Severus cleared his throat, averting his eyes as he reached for his wine glasses in some kind of displacement activity. Hermione seized her own glass as well, but put it down again, tracing the rim pensively with her fingertip, all too aware of her fluttering heart.

She exhaled slowly. Somehow, she couldn't speak, she couldn't think. For minutes, she couldn't do anything besides breathe. Merlin help her. If her heart behaved like a hummingbird from a simple look into his eyes, what would it do if he should ever kiss her?

Whatever it would do, she was prepared to find out. Hermione looked up, smiling. But her hope and heart sank immediately at the sight in front of her. During her emotional Stupefy, Severus had risen from his chair and stood prepared to leave, with his traveling cloak already in his hand, observing her with detached black eyes.

"I should go now," he announced, his voice low and tinged with regret, and it was painfully obvious that he was trying to escape from what he believed to be a rejection.

Silently, Hermione rose from her chair. Her heart hammered in her ribcage as she walked around the table to where he stood, unmoving, only his eyes following her on her way. Once she had reached him, she placed a hand on his chest. The rapidly thudding heart beneath her palm betrayed his outward calm, and as she looked up to him, she hoped her gaze could convey the sincerity and affection she felt; however, Severus merely looked at her, his gaze burning into hers.

"Don't," she said, a little breathless before she added more determined. "Stay."

Hermione saw the lingering doubt on his face, mingled with a hint of surprise, but after another moment of contemplation, it vanished, and his hand entwined with hers on his chest, sending a jolt of longing and belonging through her veins.

"So what's next?" he repeated his earlier question, a little huskier than before.

"Next is: 'Curling up on the settee.' Care to join me?"

"Gladly." His lips curled into a smirk, but his gaze remained sincere, and Hermione returned it with a frank one of her own, and neither of them let go of the other's hand on the brief way to the settee.

Hermione sat down, pulling her legs slightly up as she turned to face Severus, next to her. They regarded each other for a long moment. Somehow, there was no need for words anymore. As if on its own accord, her hand rose, and as her fingertips touched his cheek for the first time, he inhaled sharply.

Tenderly, longingly, she began to trace the outlines of his face, and her heart skipped once more as he allowed his eyes to flutter shut, surrendering himself to her caresses.

Her fingertips ran over his cheeks, his nose, and over the worry line carved so deeply between his brows. Suddenly, Hermione was struck by the thought how little she truly knew about the man in front of her, apart from the things Harry had told her as she had helped the Order with Severus' defense in front of the Wizengamot after the war and the few precious glimpses Severus had shared with her in the course of the last moments.

The first thirty-seven years in the life of Severus Snape had been disastrous and lonely, to put it mildly, and now, while memorizing the lines on his face, Hermione couldn't help but wonder if life had been kinder to him afterward. She hoped it had been.

Had he been loved, and had he loved return? A question her heart had never dared to ask until now, but the fact that he was still unaccustomed to physical gestures of familiarity let her fear otherwise. Could Lily's shadow still linger over his heart? Even the new edition of /Hogwarts. A History had a whole paragraph dedicated to his life-long love…

Her fingers stilled, falling to her side as a cold knot curled around her heart, her gaze ending in nothingness.

"Hermione?"

She heard the confusion in his voice, but she couldn't free herself from the iron hold apprehension had suddenly on her heart, her soul.

Gentle fingers grasped her chin, and she followed his gentle guidance as he led her to meet his gaze. Within moments, Hermione felt her fear abate as she saw the unconcealed affection in his eyes; for once, there were no lingering shadows.

"Something wrong?"

She shook her head, but Severus gave her a skeptical look.

"Really, I just realized how little I know about your life after the war."

He stiffened but relaxed momentarily again as Hermione enfolded his hand in her small one.

His gaze drifted to their joined hands, resting in his lap, but she still saw the sudden spell of sorrow flitting over his face.

"I am not good at sharing information about myself, Hermione, I have never been, I know that―" He paused, gently freeing his hand from her claps, his eyes following the path of his fingers as they traveled feathery along the back of her hand, her pulse point and over and over again along the sensitive skin on the inner side of her forearm, sending waves of shivery pleasure down her spine.
Hermione closed her eyes, savoring the addictive sensation.

"―but you can ask me anything you like, and I promise to try my best to answer your questions."

Eyes fluttering open, she smiled at him, warmed by the gesture behind his words.

"I think I would like to try that."

"Good." He nodded, a hint of a smile curling his mouth.

"But―" She trailed off, moving a little closer to him, her index finger memorizing the outlines of his jaw.

"But?" he asked, taking her up on her objection and leaning slightly toward her, his eyes dark with desire.

They were merely inches apart, and Hermione found her heart fluttering wildly in her throat again. If it wouldn't survive the experience of kissing him, she thought, she would gladly die trying.

"There is something else I would like to try first," she whispered, unconsciously wetting her lips.

"I have no idea what that could be," he teased, cupping her cheek gently with one hand, his thumb caressing her skin.

"You could try to guess, you know," she breathed, leaning into his palm.

"Why not give an old man a clue?"

If she hadn't needed every breath right now, she would have snorted indignantly. How did he dare to string her along like that? But somehow her heart knew that he wanted her―maybe needed her―to cross this line first, to end this slow tantalizing dance they were dancing.

Eyes fluttering shut, she bent slightly forward, closing the last distance between them and brushed her lips gently, tentatively along his. It was all it took for him to claim her mouth in a passionate kiss.

Timeless moments passed until they broke apart. Leaning her forehead against his, she whispered, "Any idea now?"

"Actually, yes," he murmured, and she could hear the delight in his voice. "Try again?"

Every fiber of her being was humming, and she wanted to say yes; only yes, over and over again, by claiming his lips with hers, but at that second, her fireplace flared green, and they both jumped apart, startled by the unexpected sound.

A second later, her daughter stumbled through the flames.

Hermione cursed inwardly, casting Severus an apologetic look, but her anger and frustration abated immediately as she heard Rose's tear-filled voice.

"Mum?"

Instantly, she rushed from the settee, cupping Rose's face. Silent tears spilled over her daughter's cheeks, her beloved blue eyes so full of pain that Hermione could hardly breathe.

"Darling, what's wrong?"

Wordlessly, Rose flung her arms around her neck, sobbing helplessly. Drawing soothing circles along her daughter's back, Hermione's chest tightened with foreboding.

"Rose, what has happened," she asked pleadingly. "Why aren't you at the Burrow?"

"He―threw―me―out," she sobbed.

"Who?"

"Grandpa."

"What!? Why?" Hermione grasped her daughter's shoulders, her mind reeling. Rose was the apple of Arthur's eye. He would never do anything to hurt his granddaughter, much less throw her out of his house, except…

"Because he found out," Rose whispered, pain cracking her voice as she confirmed Hermione's fear.

Carefully, Hermione led her daughter to the settee; she had to calm her first if she wanted to find out the full extent of what had happened.

Severus had moved to the outermost edge of the furniture, his elbows resting on his knees, and he observed them both intently as they sat down. Hermione felt a rush of gratitude that he hadn't tried to leave.

Minutes of silence passed, only broken by quiet sobs and soothing sounds, until Rose took the hanky Severus offered and wiped her face, visibly calmed.

"Thank you, Professor," she said, still slightly sniffling.

"The least I can do."

Rose blew her nose before casting them both an apologetic glance. "I am so sorry to have tumbled down here tonight, Mum, Professor."

"Darling, it's all right." Hermione gave her a lopsided smile, brushing a curl from her brow. "But please, what has happened between you and your grandpa tonight?"

Rose drew a shaky breath, squeezing the hanky between her trembling fingers.
"Hugo and I were alone in the kitchen, cleaning up for Grandma. Well, we―we had an argument about who was to spell the rinsing. It was nothing, really Mum, but within it, Hugo shouted that I shouldn't believe myself to be something better because I am going to marry into the Malfoy family." She swallowed. "Grandma overheard him."

Hermione sighed, caressing her daughter's cheek. She could vividly imagine the scene, her son's fiery temper that had led to his slip of tongue and the chaos that had broken loose afterward, but she couldn't understand why it could have escalated like this.

Damn, Ron, where were you in all this?


"Well, she overheard Hugo's comment; that was not quite the way we wanted to break the news to them, darling but happened then? Where was your dad?" Hermione knew that her rising anger was plain in her voice, while guilt knotted her stomach. She hadn't been there to help her daughter.

Rose closed her eyes, holding onto the hanky a little tighter.
"Grandma asked if it was true that I was going to marry Scorpius, and I said yes. Well, she rushed off and confronted Dad about in the middle of the full living room, for everyone else to hear―" Rose paused, giving her mother a knowing look. "Dad was brilliant, Mum. Really, he told her he approves and that Scorpius and I have the unconditional support from both of you, and Uncle Harry sided with him immediately. "

Hermione sighed, relieved, although she could have sworn that she had heard a quiet snort from Severus.

"And that didn't satisfy everybody?"

"Well, a little, but―" Rose's voice cracked, a new wave of tears spilling down her cheeks.

Hermione took the hanky from her hands, dabbing her daughter's cheek. "Darling, but what?"

"Everybody was upset and shouting, but in the midst of it all, Grandpa suddenly grabbed my arm. He said we had to talk and pulled me out of the room. But we didn't talk. He threw me out, Mum."

"Oh, Rose. Why didn't anybody stop him?"

"Everything happened so fast, I don't even believe they saw us or realized what he was doing. Al would have never allowed it."

Hermione drew her shaken daughter into her embrace and placed a kiss on top of Rose's head. She was at a loss for words. How could Arthur do such a thing? And why? To his beloved granddaughter. A man who was overprotective of his family never raised his voice, let alone a hand against anybody. She had expected Molly and him not to be pleased with her daughter's choice, but this?

"D-Do you know what he said, Mum? The W-Weasley family has no-o place for witches who mess around with Death Eaters or the s-sons of Death Eaters." Her daughter's words had been quiet, whispered into the fabric of her dress, but for Hermione, it was as if somebody had stabbed a knife into her heart. Ache, hot and stinging, flooded her chest.

"That's not true, Rose," she choked out, struggling against the lump in her throat. "Do you hear me, darling? That's not true."

Tightening her arms protectively around Rose, Hermione's gaze flew to Severus. He sat unmovingly, bent forward, elbows resting on his knees, gaze fixed on the floor. But the knife in Hermione's heart turned once more as she saw his right hand gripping his left forearm violently. Arthur's words hadn't just hurt one person close to her heart tonight.

Hermione squeezed her eyes shut, trying to get a hold of her tumbling emotions as for the second time this evening, her fireplace flared green, and Ron's voice echoed through her living-room.

"'Mione, love, is Rose with you?"

"She is here, Ron."

"I am here, Dad."

With two strides, Ron stepped into the room, his face grief-stricken.

"Rose, love, I was so worried―" He trailed off as he beheld the scene in front of him. Annoyance flashed across his face as his eyes fell on Severus.

"What is he doing here, love?" Ron asked, looking irritated at Hermione.

"Dad, please!"

"Ron, that's none―"

"Unlike you, Weasley, I was invited," Severus said coolly as he stood up.

"Bloody hell, love, you invited Snape for Christmas?"

"That's enough, Dad."

Finally, Hermione had risen from the settee and crossed the room to stand in front of her ex-husband, glaring up at him.

"Listen, Ronald, Severus is a friend, and whom I invite or not invite for Christmas Eve or on every other evening of the year is none of your business, do you hear me?" she snapped, poking a finger against his chest. Suddenly, all the restrained frustration and hurt she felt broke free. "But what I would really like to know is, where have you been, Ronald Weasley, while your father threw his own flesh and blood out of his house, telling our daughter there is no place for her in this family anymore?"

Angrily she wiped at the angry tears she hadn't realized were running down her face, looking at Ron expectantly.

He had blanched at her words, his gaze drifting to Rose and back to Hermione again.

"I had no idea," he said, his voice suddenly hoarse. She nodded, and he rushed past her, crouching at his daughter's side.

"Love, I just thought you left after―" He trailed off, caressing her cheek. "If I had known, I would have never allowed―"

"I know, Dad."

Hermione watched the exchange between father and daughter until she felt Severus' presence behind her. She turned around to him. The unreadable mask he usually wore was back in place.

"I'll leave now," he said quietly, only for her to hear.

She wanted to protest, but he raised a hand, stopping her.

"Don't. Your family needs you now. I understand that."

Hermione nodded. "I am very sorry, Severus."

"So am I," he said, the black in his eyes glistening strangely.

His gaze lingered for a moment longer on her face, before he turned to leave, and Hermione couldn't stop a new wave of tears from falling. Once the fireplace flared, she hugged herself tightly, an inexplicable feeling of loss constricting her heart.

He was gone.