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Puzzle Pieces

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Puzzle Pieces

**~~**

Two lives, two hearts

joined together in friendship… united forever in love

request the honour of your presence …to witness our vows.

Her breath was shaky, as were her fingers, as she brushed once more over the letters imprinted on the ivory-colored invitation card, memorizing the feel against her skin. Realisation had finally begun to sink in for her during this short moment of silence she granted herself.

Tomorrow. The wedding would be tomorrow.

But even now that the date had eventually arrived, her heart, so determined to feel light and joyous, was anxious with anticipation.

Her hand curled tightly around the stem of the glass as she sipped at the red wine, trying to get hold of her emotions. She closed her eyes as the warm, rich taste enfolded her, calming her nerves and evoking a memory, pleasant but neglected for far too long.

**~~**

"Detention, every weekend until Christmas? Honestly, Severus, wasn't deducting 50 points from the boy enough?" Hermione couldn't help asking as her gaze strayed to the nearly empty Gryffindor hourglass. Ernest Greenville was usually a quiet and sensible student, not one of the habitual troublemakers Gryffindor House tended to accommodate now and then.

Walking next to her, her colleague cloaked himself in silence as they both crossed the Entrance Hall on their evening patrol. It was just after curfew, but the early November wind was already whistling quietly through the cracks and chinks of Hogwarts.

"Severus, he only opened the door to the Pixie cage while you were out of the classroom," she reminded him, but his silence continued, and Hermione cast him a thoughtful look.

A deep frown graced Severus' forehead, and his gaze was directed straight ahead, deliberately avoiding hers, and Hermione had to hide a small triumphant smile. In the last year, since his return to Hogwarts, she had learned that this reaction was a sure sign that she was gaining ground against Severus Snape on a topic.

Gently, she added, "The boy is usually terrified by your mere presence, you know."

Severus met her comment with a snort, and the silence was broken.

"Obviously, Mr. Greenville was not terrified enough, or he wouldn't have disregarded my explicit order not to touch the cage in my absence."

Hermione sighed. "You know very well that Messrs Selwyn and Bulstrode dared him to do it."

"Exactly."

Severus stopped in his tracks, and as she turned to him, he crossed his arms in front of himself, a dark, unfathomable expression shadowing his features.

"Hermione, don't you agree that it is only in Mr. Greenville's best interest to learn that even being dared or lured into doing something doesn't save him from the consequences of his deed, especially as long as those consequences can be still measured in detentions and house points."

The words were spoken quietly and lacked the usual biting note he used to lecture people, but even so, her heart constricted for a moment. So many peaceful years, but the man in front of her was again trying to protect children from more serious experiences than hideous Boggarts or loose Pixies.

In January, when the former Defence teacher, Professor McAllister, hadn't returned from the winter break on time without prior notice (something was rumored about a dragon accident), Minerva had once again extended her offer to Severus to take the post. And this time, much to everybody's surprise, he had accepted it. Eventually, twenty-nine years after Voldemort's defeat and—as Hermione had sadly noted at the time—in the first year after young Lily Potter had taken her NEWTs and no other Potter child was roaming the halls of the castle, Severus Snape had returned to Hogwarts.

But apparently, the ghosts of the past wouldn't leave him alone.

She closed the distance between them with two steps and placed a hand gently on his left forearm. She had initiated such contact before and did so easily. He had long become more a friend than a mere colleague in her eyes. But even now, she could tell that he still wasn't used to her blunt Gryffindor gestures of affection, and for a moment, she feared he would shrink from her touch.

He didn't. Inclining his head, Severus merely observed her; an eyebrow arched inquiringly.

"I know what you are trying to teach Mr. Greenville, and I understand why, Severus," she said, squeezing his arm reassuringly. "But please, don't forget, he is just a second-year."

But her words became meaningless as he lowered his gaze to her hand, still resting on his forearm. His eyes lingered there for a long moment, unconcealed grief playing on his face.

Hermione blinked, unable to comprehend what had to cause this sudden change in him. It took a moment, but then, with the sharp ache that so often accompanied cognition for her, she truly realised what she was so carelessly touching through uncounted layers of fabric, what had caused all this grief for him. The Dark Mark.

Her heart caught in her throat. But before she could follow her immediate instinct to pull her hand away, he cupped it with his own, meeting her eyes.

"Don't."

And she didn't. Gently, he brushed his thumb along the back of the hand, his gaze not straying from hers.

"Your hands are cold."

They were, obviously, but words had left her. Hermione could only nod, heart and mind enfolded by the warm, dizzying sensation of his touch.

Slowly, he turned her palm upwards; the tip of his wand tickled her skin as he murmured a Warming Charm, but it was the well-hidden but continuous brushing of his thumb that set her skin on fire.

"The headmistress would surely be furious with me if I allow her indispensable Arithmancy professor to catch a cold, don't you agree, Hermione?"

She barely heard the question, nor did she recognize the affectionate note in his voice; the only thing she was aware of was the insistent, rapid sound of her heartbeat, humming in her ears.

"I, well―"

"I think―"

He smirked. "Yes, Hermione?"

She swallowed, struggling to come up with some kind of witty answer that would help her to conceal her flustered state. But eventually, it wasn't her own determination but something else that cut through the fog in her mind, a sound that would always reach her consciousness and had so for the last twenty years.

"Mum!"

Rose.

Her daughter's voice echoed from the other end of the Entrance Hall, and Hermione turned instinctively around towards where she must be standing. Only her heart mourned the sudden loss of Severus' touch as she felt him let go of her hand.

Do children always have to have such lousy timing?, she thought, amused, before a slight worry gripped her. Rose would have never come to visit her at such a late hour and unannounced, if not for an important reason.

She frowned.

Rose was walking rapidly from the entrance door towards them. Her dark traveling coat twirled gracefully around her calves, and her long, auburn curls waved behind her each step of the way. She looked every bit like the self-confident young woman Hermione had always hoped she would grow up to be.

"Oh, Mum, I am so glad that I've found you," Rose said as she embraced her mother tightly. Hermione leaned back and regarded her daughter's face.

"Darling, is everything all right? It is a little late for a formal call, isn't it?"

"Everything is fine, Mum. Oh, please, don't give me that look. I just need to talk to you," Rose declared, smiling at her mother. No, she wasn't just smiling, Hermione realized. Her daughter was glowing with happiness; her dark blue eyes held a sparkle that she hadn't seen there before, and Hermione wasn't able to fight against the tightening in her chest at the sight. Something had happened, something important.

She regarded her daughter pensively as Severus cleared his throat; he had followed their exchange in silence, so far. His expression was one of indifference, but the slight stiffness in his posture suggested that he felt uncomfortable to be the witness of their mother-daughter display.

"If you'll excuse me now, Professor Granger, I'll retire for the night," he announced, and Hermione had to refuse the urge to roll her eyes at his use of her formal title in front of her daughter.

"Severus, please wait. I would really like to introduce you to each other. Severus, this is my daughter, Rose Weasley. Rose, this Professor Severus Snape, a colleague―" Hermione caught his eyes before she added, "―and a friend."

"Good evening, Professor," Rose said as she reached out her hand, a gesture Severus accepted without hesitation, and Hermione couldn't suppress the rush of satisfaction at their exchange.

"Miss Weasley."

"It's really nice to meet you finally in person, Professor; Mum has told me so much about you already," her daughter added with a genuine smiling.

"Rose," Hermione scolded, embarrassed, her cheeks flushing. She had thought she had just mentioned him here and there…

"Really, Miss Weasley?" Severus asked and arched an amused eyebrow at Hermione. "How surprising. But as much as I would like to inquire what kind of information about my person your mother has shared with you, I fear this has to wait for another time. If I remember correctly, Miss Weasley, you came here to speak to your mother, and I would like to retire for the evening. Good night."

Before either of them could object, Severus had turned, leaving in a flurry of billowing, black robes. Hermione's amused gaze followed him on his way. Even at the age of sixty-six, Severus Snape hadn't lost much of his touch. Once he had vanished into the dungeons, she turned to Rose again, offering her daughter her arm.

"Care for some tea? As Severus rightly reminded us, you came here to talk about something."

Rose smiled and accepted her mother's proffered arm, "Gladly."

Some minutes later, they took their seat on the settee in Hermione's quarters; the flames in the fireplace bathed the living room in a pleasant, warm light. Rose took a sip of the Ginger tea Winky had brought before she said, "He is nice, you know."

"Who?"

"Professor Snape. A bit austere, but nice."

Hermione shook her head, amused, sipping some of her tea. "Darling, I think you are the first person to use the word 'nice' to describe Severus Snape. But, well, yes, he can be quite amiable if he chooses to be."

Rose glanced thoughtfully at her, but Hermione placed her cup of tea on the side table and shook her head, determined to avoid any further elaboration of the subject.

"Darling, you didn't come here to discuss your first impression of Professor Snape with me. Why don't you tell me what was so urgent that you came to Hogwarts to spend a Friday evening with your mother? From the look on your face, I know it isn't something bad, so you weren't expelled from the university."

"No, no expulsion so far, Mum." Rose chuckled. However, in a blink of an eye, an expression of sadness crossed her face, and she bowed her head slightly, her gaze lingering on the teacup. "But I am not so sure whether some people will repudiate me for what I intend to do."

Hermione took the cup from her daughter's hands and covered them with her own. "Rose, look at me. There is nothing―do you hear me?―nothing you could ever do that would make me even think about repudiating you in any way, and the same is true of your dad."

She gave her daughter's hand a reassuring squeeze. "Especially when I can tell that this something is making you happy."

Rose looked up and gave her mother a radiant smile. "It does, or I should better say, he does."

"So?"

Rose took a deep breath. "I am engaged."

Hermione blinked. She couldn't do anything but blink as her gaze fell on the diamond ring on her daughter's left hand.

"I'm going to marry Scorpius, Mum."

**~~**

"Mum?"

"Mum, did you hear me?"

"I am sorry, darling, what did you say?" Laying the wedding invitation aside, Hermione shook herself from the memory and looked at her daughter who had emerged next to her. Rose's auburn curls fell gracefully around her face and she wore an elegant black, knee-length dress that clung delicately to her slender frame. How did Ron and I ever create something so beautiful?

"Muuhm!"

Rose's insistent call jolted her again from her thoughts and she searched her daughter's eyes.

"I asked if you could help me with my hair. I never get the charm for the updo right."

"Of course." Smiling, Hermione stood up and took her wand from the table. "Turn around."

Rose did as asked, and Hermione seized her daughter's curls with her left hand before she touched them with the tip of her wand, murmuring the spell.

"Thank you, Mum." Rose placed a peck on her cheek. "I am terribly late for this hen night thing. Lily and Victoire are already waiting for me. Are you sure you won't come with us? We will have a lot of fun."

"I am sure you will. Does Roxane join you three, as well?"

A shadow fell over Rose's face, and Hermione already knew the answer and it made her heart hurt. Her cousin wouldn't come, wouldn't celebrate with her, and there could be only one reason why.

"No, eventually she confessed that Uncle George has forbidden her to go," Rose said quietly, confirming Hermione's assumption.

She brushed her daughter's cheek gently. "I am so sorry, darling. I had so hoped they would all come around in the end. Your dad tried so hard to make your uncle see reason."

Rose shook her head, her chin lifted determined. "Mum, I know how hard you both, you and Dad, tried to talk with them all, especially with Grandpa. You know it doesn't matter to me that they won't be there tomorrow. Not anymore. I am not ashamed of who I love and who loves me in return."

"As you shouldn't be, darling, as you shouldn't be," Hermione said sadly.

After a moment of silence, Rose gave her mother a questioning look, "So, are you coming with me to celebrate?"

"Rose, that's not the kind of party where you should take your old mother." She gave her daughter a feigned painful look as she gestured at herself.

Rose rolled her eyes in return. "Dad is going with Hugo to Scorpius' stag party, too, you know."

But Hermione was saved from another excuse as the fireplace of her house flared green and the voice of Lily Potter called through the flames.

"Gosh. Rose, hurry up. You're pretty enough and we've already been waiting for hours."

"I am coming."

"You'd better!" Lily laughed and vanished from the flames again.

Rose turned to her mother again. "I have to go."

"I heard." Hermione place her hands upon her daughter's arms and drew her into a quick embrace. "Have fun, darling, and give Lily and Victoire my love."

"I will." Rose smiled and Hermione was glad that it was a smile that reached her eyes. There hadn't been as many of those smiles in the last months. But now, eventually, as her wedding day was nearing, the smile and the sparkle in her daughter's blue eyes had returned.

She watched Rose throw a hand of Floo powder into the fireplace, calling 'Grimmauld Place', however, she was already about to step through as Hermione was hit by the sudden clarity of the moment, her eyes awash with tears. Tomorrow. Tomorrow, her baby girl, her extraordinary daughter, would be married; she had grown up and slipped through her fingers without Hermione truly realising it.

"Rose! Wait!"

Rose turned around and looked at her bemused. "Changed your mind, have you, Mum?"

With a few steps, Hermione crossed the room and cupped her daughter's face with both hands and placed a kiss on her brow.

"I love you and I am very proud of you."

Rose closed her eyes and leaned her forehead against Hermione's, taking a shaky breath. "I know, Mum. Love you, too."

"Bloody hell, Weasley! Cut the sentimentalities short. We're waiting!"

"And starving!"

Lily's and Victoire's insistent calls echoed once more through the room

Rose laughed and gave Hermione an apologetic grin. "I must, Mum. See you in the morning."

Then she was gone.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

…Once the fireplace flared, she hugged herself tightly, an inexplicable feeling of loss constricting her heart. He was gone.

**~~**


And her heart had been right, she knew now. Hermione sighed as she rose from the settee, making her way to the living room window. The twilight had already fallen over her parents' garden, immersing the plants and flowers in different shades of grey.


Initially, she had wanted to return to Hogwarts immediately after Christmas, but the events of the evening had shattered this plan. Rose had been devastated by her grandfather's reaction, a reaction that only turned into a decision by the light of day and left a rift inside a distraught Weasley family. While Ginny and Bill had immediately sided with Rose, the rest of the family had supported Arthur's decision that her daughter wasn't welcome at the Burrow anymore.


Therefore, the rest of Hermione's winter break had been entirely consumed by this family crisis. When she hadn't been trying to console her distraught daughter as well as her conscience-stricken son, she had spent her time having long and often unpleasant talks with different members of the Weasley family.


After a very hurtful and upsetting conversation with her former in-laws, Hermione had been convinced that there was something far more personal behind Arthur's reaction. It wasn't the fact that Rose was marrying the son of a former Death Eater. Scorpius' good character was not in question—Al had vouched ardently for him—and Arthur had never before judged somebody because of his ancestry. He hadn't even held the slightest grudge against Sirius, although the Black family had disowned his own mother as she had married his father, Septimus Weasley. It just wasn't like him.


Eventually, Hermione was sure that the problem behind all this was that Rose was marrying the grandson of one Lucius Malfoy. She would have bet her Order of Merlin that something entirely personal had happened between the two men. But every time she had tried to confront Arthur about her assumption, he evaded her question by ending their discussion and asking her to leave.


By the start of term, she had returned to Hogwarts, emotionally exhausted and without a solution to ensure her daughter's happiness, but determined to find one. Upon her return, she realized that Severus had retreated behind his emotional shell, subjecting her to painful politeness. And even while he appeared tired and doleful to her, he acted as if Christmas Eve had never happened, avoiding Hermione as much as possible.


Her heart had felt drear and cold at his reaction, but Hermione had been far too wary of opening a second emotional battle line and confronting him and fighting whatever had led to his withdrawal. A condition that hadn't changed in the last five months. A time during which she had to muster all her strength to ensure that her daughter didn't have to decide between the man she loved and the family she belonged to.


But tonight, on the evening before Rose's wedding, she had finally to concede that she had failed. She had failed her daughter. She had failed to mend the rift that ran through her family. And as if this wasn't painful enough, she had to realize her battle against unknown shadows of the past had robbed her of the time and courage to pursue her heart's desire: Severus Snape.


In the last five months, she had banished every thought of him so successfully, she realized that she didn't even know if he would attend the wedding in the Great Hall tomorrow… if her heart would have to endure seeing him there without being able to be close to him.


With a swift Accio, Hermione spelled the guest list from the kitchen table into her hands. Her eyes wandered over the parchment. She frowned. She checked it a second time, and the frown between her brows deepened. Severus' name was still unmarked. Hadn't he responded to the invitation yet? It wouldn't be like him not to, and Rose would never forget him if he had. She had been quite insistent about sending him one.


Hermione gazed for a moment at the puzzle in front of her before she took a look at her watch and made a quick decision. It was barely after seven o'clock. She would simply Floo in and ask him. It was something she did for a dozen of things during the term—well, not lately—but why not, if her daughter's wedding was concerned?

She grasped a hand of Floo powder and threw it into the fireplace, but no green flames appeared as she called out her destination. She tried again with the same result and crossed her arms in frustration.
Strange, she thought, worrying her bottom lip.


He must have closed his Floo connection, but she had never known him to do so before, and now that she thought about it, she realized that she hadn't seen him at breakfast before she left Hogwarts this morning. Hermione flung herself back onto the settee, mulling whether those two things, the missing invitation response, and the closed Floo connection, could be linked in some way. They appeared like pieces of a peculiar puzzle to her.


Hermione was still lost in thought as her fireplace flared green. Her gaze snapped up, only to find the face of Hogwarts' Headmistress in the flames, and she tried best to hide the sudden disappointment she felt.


"Hermione, are you there?"


The younger witch rose and moved to the fireplace. "Hello, Minerva."


"Still nothing new from the Weasleys, I assume?" It was something Hermione appreciated the most about her former Head of House; Minerva McGonagall didn't waste anybody's time with preambles or pleasantries.


She shook her head slightly. "No, nothing, and I don't expect to change that before tomorrow."


"I am really sorry, dear."


"So am I." Hermione shrugged in defeat. "At least Rose appeared genuinely happy as she left tonight."


Minerva nodded, gazing at her over the edge of her square glasses. "Hermione, are you all right? You look as if something else is worrying you."


She made a dismissive gesture. "Oh, it's nothing. I just tried to Floo Severus a few minutes ago, and it seems as if he has closed the Floo connection of his fireplace. It's just not like him. Did you see him at dinner tonight?"


Momentarily, the expression on Minerva's face changed from the one she had always used to worm answers out of reluctant students to one of concern... a change that caused an anxious knot to curl in Hermione's stomach.


"No, no, I haven't seen him." Minerva cast her a worried glance. "Not since he went to see Albus' portrait this morning."


"He did what?! But he hasn't since―"


"I know. I know," Minerva said crisply. "He came this morning to my office and asked if he could have a few minutes alone with Albus. I thought maybe you had finally convinced him―"

"No, he hasn't said a word to me about it."


Hermione bit her bottom lip. Severus hadn't spoken to Dumbledore's portrait since his flight from Hogwarts, and he stubbornly refused to do it after his return, even when Dumbledore had asked to see him.
"Has he said anything why he wanted to talk to him?"


Minerva gave her an uncomfortable look. "I didn't want to pry; maybe I should have, but, well, I did not, and Albus has been feigning sleep the whole day. I can tell that by now."


Hermione said nothing. First, the missing invitation response, a closed Floo connection, and now, he had decided to talk to Dumbledore's portrait for the first time in twenty-nine years and hadn't been seen afterward.

She frowned. Where are you, Severus?


"Hermione, maybe we are dramatizing things. It's Saturday. It could be that he just wanted to be left alone for the day."


She cast Minerva a skeptical glance but didn't mention the missing invitation response. Somehow, her heart knew that this wasn't caused by a mood swing that would last a day.

 

She sighed. "Yes, maybe you are right. Nevertheless, could you please try to wake Albus once more?"


"I will. And you'd try to get some sleep, dear. You look completely exhausted."


"Thank you, Minerva. I'll try." With another nod, the headmistress vanished from the flames and left Hermione standing once again alone in her empty living room.


She hugged herself once more, rubbing her bare upper arms against the sudden chill she felt. Damn, it was mid-May, and she shouldn't be freezing at all. But she was, after weeks of too much stress and too little sleep.


She went into the kitchen, searching for some Ginger tea in her cabinet. She hadn't prepared the house for a longer stay, but the essentials were always there. The only question was, where had she left them?

As she finally found the package, she set up some water, as she still liked her tea best when it was brewed the Muggle way, and leaned against the kitchen cupboard, lost deep in thought while waiting for the water to boil.


Why would Severus go to visit Albus's portrait after all this time? Why today of all days? He hadn't said a thing about planning to do it or... had she missed one of his careful insinuations that he wanted to speak about something personal with her? No, he wouldn't do that anymore. But once there had been those precious moments when he had dared to open up to her, mostly during their nightly patrols.


She had learned then that he had worked for different Ministries of Magic around the world as some kind of security consultant after he had left Great Britain. Well, he hadn't just left; he had simply vanished from the face of the earth the night after the Wizengamot had announced his acquittal of all charges.


"I received what I had thought only death could give me back: Freedom. Suddenly, I had a life to claim, but how could I have done so while the past surrounded me everywhere I went?" he had explained to her one evening as she had asked why he had left. "So, I took this offer from the American Minister of Magic."


She had understood his decision, and she had understood the political officials abroad. They had been eager to buy his knowledge about Potions and the Dark Arts, combined with his spying experience, to train their Aurors. Had it not been for Minerva, who had somehow known where to find him, and her constant nagging, he would be probably still be training foreign Aurors today.


Next to Hermione, the kettle whistled, jolting her from her thoughts, and a moment later, she was infusing herself a cup of peppermint tea as the sudden sound of the flaring fireplace caused her to wince, spilling some of the hot water over her left hand and the kitchen cupboard.


"Hermione?" Harry's voice called from the living room.

"Damn," she swore, shaking her hand in pain. "I am coming. Just a moment." She cast a silent Evanesco to vanish the mess before she rushed into the living room.

"Hello, Harry."

"Hello, love, may I come through?"

"Certainly."

Harry stepped out of the flames and into her living room, drawing her into a brief embrace.

"How is Rose? Ginny said she was in good spirits when she left with Lily and Victoire."

"She was, far better than I would have expected days ago," she confirmed. "Haven't you seen her yourself? Don't tell me you were working again."

Hermione eyed him suspiciously, a frown between her brows. Since Harry had accepted the post of Head of the Auror Department at the Ministry, he often had appointments during the weekend or late in the evening. This fact had caused some disharmony at Grimmauld Place, and she had often been the one Ginny called for some comfort and reassurance.

Harry brushed with a hand through his still unruly hair, giving her an uneasy look. "Well, yes."

"I see."

"No, you don't, 'Mione." Harry sighed. "Love, this isn't just a formal call. Can we sit down, please?"

She gestured to the settee, ignoring the anxious knot that was curling her stomach again. She followed Harry once he sat down.

"So, what is so important for the Ministry that it couldn't wait until after Rose's wedding?" she said, irritated. "It's not as if I hadn't enough on my mind right now." She knew that she was unjustifiably angry with him, but the tension she felt was finally wearing down on her.


"I know, 'Mione, and I am sorry, but you are the only one I trust for advice on this matter."

Hermione inclined her head, waiting for him to go on.

"It's Snape, 'Mione."

"What about Severus?" she asked quickly, trying to keep the sudden worry out of her voice.

"Well, the lead Guard of Azkaban Flooed me a few hours ago. Snape has paid Dolores Umbridge a visit today. Do you have any idea why he would do that?"

"Are you monitoring him, Harry? Is it that why you are informed about his moves?" she snapped, while her mind tried to make sense of this new puzzle piece. Severus had gone to Azkaban. He went to see Umbridge.

Harry grasped her hand and squeezed it reassuringly. "Love, please draw in your claws. I am not monitoring him. It's Umbridge. Her visitors are reported to me personally."

"I am sorry, Harry." She squeezed his hand in return, giving him a lopsided smile. "You know I don't trust the Ministry where Severus is concerned, not after what they have put him through."

"I know, but times have changed, love; we have changed the Ministry." He gestured at them both before returning to his initial question. "So, do you have a clue why Snape would go to see Umbridge?"

Hermione shook her head. "Not one. I thought that after the year he had to spend there, Severus would never want to see this place again."

"So did I," Harry agreed, while he regarded her pensively. "You are worried by this news, 'Mione. Why?"

She looked away, haunted by Severus' words, echoing in her mind. "They tried to bury me alive in Azkaban, Hermione. I never thought I would leave that place, that tomb, again, until the Order achieved my release."

She bit her bottom lip. And today, he had gone back to that place to see Umbridge, as he had gone to see Dumbledore's portrait.

What are you doing, Severus?

"'Mione, talk to me, please."

"Severus visited Albus' portrait today," she said tersely.

"He did?"

She nodded. "Minerva just told me, as well."

Harry frowned. "'Mione, did you know that Umbridge owes Snape a Life Debt?"

"What? How do you know this, Harry?"

"Prophecies aren't the only things collected at the Department of Mysteries. Did you think I wasted my time before I came to see you? I have learned something from you, love: research is everything." Harry gave her a sheepish grin, before he went on, "The entry in the Ministry roll is dated on the 19th of June, 1996. That's one day after Sirius―" He trailed off, clearing his throat, and she squeezed his hand in understanding.

"Because of the date, I have a good idea where the Life Debt resulted from love. I think Albus sent Snape to negotiate Umbridge's release from the centaurs. But I can't come up with a reliable explanation, why Snape would call upon this Life Debt after all these years, 'Mione." He looked at her inquiringly.

Hermione shrugged helplessly. There was nothing she knew to have happened that should make Severus feel the need to call upon something so strong as a Life Debt. Or had she missed the signs? Could this be the reason behind his emotional withdrawal? Desperation cramped her already nervous stomach.

"No, I haven't, Harry, but why would you think I could have? Why are you coming to me with all this?" she asked, anger and distress plain in her voice.

"I thought you and Snape―"

"You thought what?"

"Ron told me you spent Christmas Eve together, love, so I assumed you two are―" He paused. "―well, close."

"We were." Past. Gone. Lost. Saying it out loud, confessing it in front of a friend, and knowing it was true, hurt more as she could have imagined.

"I am sorry, love."

"It's okay, Harry. It's just, I am worried about him, and I have no idea why he is doing it, but I know what he is doing, Harry. And it scares me―" She paused and leaped to her feet, approaching the living room window.

"First Dumbledore, now Azkaban. Harry, for some reason, Severus is facing his demons, his fears—whatever you wish to call it—and I have the feeling I should be there for him―" She hugged herself, wishing the coldness would leave her. "―and I am not."

Harry said nothing, but she heard him rise from the settee as well. Moments later, she felt his hands grasping her shoulders gently.

"You love him." A statement, not even a question anymore, but Harry had spoken it without any hint of disapproval.

Hermione nodded, not trusting her voice as the lump in her throat spread, making it hard to breathe.

"He will be fine, 'Mione. Believe me. Snape has always been."

Another silent nod and Hermione felt herself being drawn into Harry's embrace. She allowed herself the small comfort of being held by her oldest friend, but it was the very recent memory of another embrace that truly enfolded her heart.

**~~**

She leaned her forehead against the cold stone wall. Thankfully, the Astronomy Tower maintained its chilly atmosphere even throughout May. The coolness of the stone against her skin helped her to remain focussed. Her cheeks were burning, burning with hurt and failure. Her right hand held Molly's letter in an iron grip, crushing it with all her might, hoping it would dissolve into dust. But it wouldn't. Somehow it wouldn't.

Wrath, hot and searing, filled her stomach, and she bit the inside of her cheek against the sudden desire to scream, to rage. How did she dare to declare her own granddaughter a non-person? How did she dare, without even giving a reason? Another surge of anger washed over her, and Hermione barely recognized how her hand, still curled around the parchment, moved to strike the wall with violent strength,

But her fist never hit the cold stone in front of her. At lightning speed, a hand rushed forward, gripping her wrist and stopping her movement mid-air.

"Don't."

Not daring to move, Hermione cast a glance sideward. Next to her, Severus leaned against the wall regarding her intently. She realized he must have followed her as she had left the staff table abruptly after the letter had arrived. His hand was still holding her wrist as he dropped his gaze to her curled fist. And she conceded as he unhinged the parchment from her fingers.

"May I?"

She closed her eyes and nodded. She hadn't the strength to look at him while his eyes were flying over the hurtful lines that called her abilities as a mother into question and judged her daughter's love, telling her that there would be no family reconciliation, not tomorrow nor ever.

Blindly, she followed his gentle pull as he enfolded her in his arms, holding her tightly against his chest. She buried her face in his frock coat. He smelled like salty sea air, and the steady beating of his heart was the most soothing sound she could have imagined. Here, in his arms, she knew her heart was home.

But the moment they stepped away from each other, he left as quickly as he had appeared.

Only the shadows heard her soft, "Thank you."

**~~**

Once more, as if the fates wanted to mock her, the air filled with the sound of her fireplace flaring, and Hermione groaned quietly, pressing her face deeper into the fabric of Harry's pullover. All she wanted right now was to be left alone, to sleep, to forget. No more visitors, no more questions, no more memories.


"My, my, what a cozy scene we have here." Draco stepped into the living room, a cold smile on his face.

Harry's embrace had instinctively tightened at his former nemesis' appearance. Hermione quickly wriggled free, straightening her blouse.

"Good evening, Draco. To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?" She tried to sound calm.

During the wedding preparations, they had reached something like a truce for the sake of their children. But still, Hermione tried to keep their contact at a minimum, discussing most things with his wife, Astoria. Therefore, his spontaneous visit tonight was a novelty, one she didn't like at all.

"Maybe I should better ask what my father owes the displeasure of being visited by one of your lapdogs, Hermione?"

"Watch your tongue. Malfoy," Harry bawled at Draco, wand ready at his side.

Swiftly, Hermione grasped his wrist. "Harry, please, put your wand away! Draco, what are you talking about?"

"Don't tell me it wasn't you who sent Snape to my father, asking for those memories. Snape has never gone to see him in all those years, and Rose certainly told you that Mother and I try everything not to upset Father, Hermione. And right now, he is agitated, indeed."

His voice had cracked softly over the word "Father", and Hermione wondered if Draco had realized it as well as she regarded him. It was apparent that his anger was outweighed by his worry for his father's health. Lucius Malfoy had never really recovered after his year in Azkaban and the abuse—mental and physical—he had received afterward at Voldemort's hands. It had been one of the reasons Hermione had refrained from confronting him herself about the reasons for Arthur's personal feud with him. Draco had done this in her place, but without any satisfactory result.

And now Severus had gone to see him. A new piece to her puzzle, but if she had needed final proof that Severus facing the ghosts of his past, his visit to Malfoy Manor provided it.

But why are you doing this, Severus?

First, he had obviously called upon a Life Debt, now he collected some unknown memories. It didn't make sense at all. Hermione shook her head, trying to clear her thoughts.

"Draco, honestly, even if it were in my power to send Severus Snape anywhere to collect some memories for me―as I can assure you it is not―why would I? I have no use for any of your father's memories."

Draco measured her with his suspicious grey eyes while she spoke. "You have, Hermione. From what father tells me, those memories concern the Weasley family. And they were the only ones Snape requested."

"What?" Harry exclaimed. Shaking her head, Hermione bit her bottom lip, gazing desperately at the ceiling.

But before Draco could elaborate on the content of those memories, the flames flared green once more. Hermione felt her heart stop as Arthur bustled into the room, a look of anguish marking his face.

"Rose? Is she here, Hermione? Rose!" he called desperately.

"No, she isn't here," Harry answered coolly before she could.

"Hermione, where is she now? I need—Sweet Merlin, I need to talk to her," Arthur pleaded, rushing toward her, grasping her desperately by the shoulders, oblivious to everybody else in the room. "I need to make amends, Hermione. I have been wrong, so inexcusably wrong."

Finally, regaining her composure again, Hermione drew a deep breath.

"She is out celebrating, Arthur, with Lily and Victoire. But even if I knew where they are right now, I would ask you not to disturb them. Rose has earned one evening without family dramatics before her wedding, don't you agree?"

His face fell. "You are right. I am so sorry, Hermione. Can you ever forgive me?"

"It's not in my place to forgive anything, Arthur." She smiled sadly. "But maybe we could start by you explaining what has caused this epiphany tonight?"

She gestured toward the settee before looking firmly at Harry and Draco, who had already turned to the fireplace, ready to leave. "I'll call you both later, okay? I have a certain feeling that all of this is somehow connected."

They both nodded and vanished through the fireplace. Once Hermione had taken her place, she looked at Arthur, waiting for him to begin.

It took minutes of heavy silence before he finally said, "You were right, Hermione, when you accused that the reason I repudiated Rose was not because she is marrying the son of a former Death Eater but was because she is marrying Lucius' grandson."

"Then why haven't you been honest with me, Arthur?"

"I am so sorry, Hermione. You have to forgive an old man for believing for over fifty years the most convenient explanation for a personal failure that cost our family dearly. So dearly, that I have never before spoken about it to anyone but Dumbledore and to him, only because he had to know because of the Order. I couldn't even bring myself tell Molly, Hermione, that's why I haven't been honest with you."

She nodded. Dumbledore. The puzzle pieces were moving. "What kind of failure?"

He sighed, his eyes fixed upon the floor. "Shortly after I knew that Molly was pregnant again, this time with Fred and George, I realized that I needed a promotion. My position in the Office against the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts didn't provide enough to support a family of seven properly, in my opinion. Funny how I thought that at the time, given how it all turned out in the end, isn't it, Hermione?" A dry sob caught in his throat, and Hermione felt her chest tightening at his words.

"At that time, 1976, Voldemort and his followers were already a looming shadow, but within the Ministry, we were far more concerned about our declining relations with the Muggle Minister. Therefore, and blind in my wish to earn the promotion I thought I needed so badly, I submitted a suggestion for improvement to the Ministry Board of Executives. My idea was to establish a perpetual council between the highest authorities of the wizarding and the Muggle worlds to better understand each other. I have been a fool, Hermione."

Arthur buried his face in his hands. Hermione placed a gentle hand on his back next to him on the settee, rubbing it gently.

"Arthur, you aren't a fool. Your idea was wonderful, and as you very well know, we have something very similar, like a council between the British Government and the Ministry today."

He looked up, his face was grief-stricken. "Today, Hermione. But at that time, it was an insane thing to do."

"What happened?"

"The Board dismissed the proposal immediately, but what was far worse, they decided to suspend my right for promotion indefinitely 'because of my inability to think in the best interest of the Ministry and the wizarding world.' That's the reason why I was in the Misuse Office for over a decade, Hermione."

She nodded silently, knowing that there were no words, no consolation to ease the pain behind this confession.

"I heard from my Chief of Office that it had been at first only one person within the Board who proposed my career suspension, but this person did it so persuasively that the other members voted for it in the end as well, dooming my family to a decade of almost poverty."

"Lucius," Hermione whispered, still unable to believe that Arthur had kept all this from Molly and his children.

"So, I thought as well, until today." He shook his head, disbelievingly. "But it wasn't Lucius, Hermione. It was Umbridge."

With Arthur's explanation, puzzle piece after puzzle piece found its place for Hermione, forming such an incredible solution, she didn't dare to believe it.

"How do you know this, Arthur?" she asked, seeking confirmation although her heart already knew the answer to her question.

"Severus. You can probably imagine how surprised I was to see him again after all these years. He came to the Burrow tonight and asked to speak to me. I wanted to refuse at first, but, well, in the end, I let him in. He showed me Umbridge's memory of the Board meeting and a few of Lucius' memories. And while his reasons were grounded in the wrong beliefs, I now know that it was Lucius who discouraged You-Know-Who's ambitions to strike against our family, Hermione. That's why I came here tonight. I need to tell Rose how wrong I have been."

Hermione closed her eyes, swallowing hard. Severus. He had done all this today, had faced the demons he had avoided for so long, for her family, for her daughter. Did he even realize what he had given her today?

A moment later, she felt Arthur's hand on hers. "I still have no idea how he knew about all this: my proposal to the Board, Umbridge. But regardless of how he knew it, he has done it for you, Hermione."

She blinked, unable to comprehend, to believe Arthur's words. She shook her head desperately, wishing this new painful surge of hope would leave her alone.

"Trust me, Hermione. He didn't say in so many words, but when I asked if I would see him at the wedding, he told me that he had lost his chance to receive the wedding invitation he'd hoped for."

This time, there was no ache, no pain that accompanied cognition for her as the final puzzle piece fell into place. This time, there was nothing but the humming in her veins.

"I have to go, Arthur. Thank you for telling me. I will speak to Rose early in the morning, and we will come to the Burrow as soon as possible. She will understand, Arthur. Everything will be all right, I promise."

She leaped from the settee and placed a peck on his brow before she Flooed to the headmistress' office at Hogwarts.

A second later, she was gone.

Endless minutes later, she stood together with Minerva in front of Severus' office door. Minerva gave her an inquiring look over the edge of her square glasses, and Hermione could have sworn her beady eyes were twinkling slightly.

It hadn't taken a lot of explanation to ensure the headmistress' cooperation in this matter.

"Are you sure, dear?"

"As sure as I will ever be," Hermione confirmed, taking a shaky breath.

Minerva cast a silent spell, taking down the wards on Severus's office door and opening it a crack. As Headmistress of Hogwarts, she was the only one who could do it beside Severus himself.

"Now, it's your turn, my dear," Minerva said with a wink.

Hermione laughed. "Thank you, Minerva. I'll see what I can do about that." She hugged the headmistress briefly and stepped through the door and into Severus's dimly lit office, her heart beating violently against her ribcage.

It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the semi-darkness of the room, but after a second or two, she saw the outlines the door that led to Severus' private quarters. She cast a non-verbal Alohomora, sending a silent prayer to whatever benevolent deities might be listening that she would find him behind this door, and a fraction of a second later, the heavy wood in front of her cracked open without a sound.

After a moment of hesitation, she slid through.

Only the flames in the fireplace lit the living room, but they did little to banish the cold from the dungeon. In front of the fire, Severus sat in one of his armchairs, bent forward, and holding a balloon glass in his hands, his posture one of exhaustion.

Carefully, she knocked on the wood of the doorframe, making her presence known to him. Slowly, he looked up from the flames for a moment, his expression hidden by the semi-darkness of the room.

"Hermione." His voice sounded hollow.

"Severus," she said softly, crossing the room. "How are you? From what I heard, you had a rough day."

"I have been better," he said with a cheerless laugh, leaning back to face her as she reached him. Her heart hurt as she saw the dark circles that wrapped his eyes. He looked as if he hadn't slept in days.

Silently, she knelt down in front of the armchair and took the glass of Firewhiskey from his hands, enfolding them in hers.

"Thank you," she whispered, knowing that these two words would never balance what he had done for Rose, for her.

His dark eyes fluttered shut, and he nodded, his Adam's apple bopping violently.

"I know what it must have cost you to―"

His eyes snapped open, dark with emotion. "Hush." He cupped her cheek with one hand, placing his thumb gently on her lips, silencing her mid-sentence. And even if she had wanted to finish her thought, she wouldn't have been able to as the unexpected sensation of his touch struck her breathless.

She leaned into his palm, savoring the feeling of his skin on hers. Uncounted minutes passed until she finally asked, "How did you know?"

An astute grin played in the corners of his mouth. "I have been a spy, Hermione, and even if I hadn't been one, I heard you tell Minerva about your suspicion regarding Arthur and Lucius often enough. Today I just did a little research on my own."

"I researched for months," she said quietly, the feeling of failure once again heavy on her soul.

"I know Hermione, but my advantage was, well, let's say there are some people who could not deny me when I asked for their cooperation."

Hermione sat up, placing her hands on his knees and shaking her head slightly. "Only, they aren't just some people, Severus."

He took her hands in his, regarding them for a moment as if they were the most precious thing in the world, and as he raised his eyes to her again, the amount of ardor and affection filling those dark depths left her trembling.

"I know, Hermione. But if that's what it takes, if my facing the ghosts of my past is what it takes to see you happy, Hermione, I'd do so again and gladly. I finally realized that―" He swallowed, forcing his wavering voice under control. "―I mean, if you allow me into your life again."

"I never cast you out, Severus," she said, unacknowledged hurt misting her eyes.

"No, I did that myself. I know that, Hermione." A wistful expression flitted over his face, and she realized he had no more guards left.

"Why?"

"I told you before, I am not good at sharing; in fact, there has been little in my life that truly belonged to me," he said quietly, his gaze straying to their joined hands again. "After Christmas Eve, I realized that you would never be mine alone, Hermione, even if you wanted to be. There would always be a daughter, an ex-husband, a whole family that needs you―"
His words sank in, filling her chest with new coldness, and suddenly all Hermione wanted was to leave, to run as far as she could. She leaped to her feet, but Severus didn't let go of her hands as he rose as well.

"Please, hear me out, Hermione. Will you?"

Reluctantly, she nodded, not able to look into his eyes again.

"Hermione, I know my reason was selfish, and I know it's hard to understand, but the fear that I might have to share your heart, that my feelings might not be returned with equal measure―" He trailed off, clearing his throat.

"Yesterday, on the Astronomy Tower, when you were finally in my arms, I wanted nothing more than to hold you—as long as I could. Hermione, I am willing to face this fear, if that's what it takes to love you, even if this means sharing you with the whole Weasley bunch and their associates."

There was a moment of silence before Hermione searched his gaze. Never before had she seen such a raw vulnerability in his eyes.

"Love me," she asked carefully as if the wrong word from him would shatter her heart irrevocably. And somehow it would.

"Love you, Hermione, yes. I do love you. Is that so hard to believe?" he said, his voice constricted by uncertainty. But within a moment, his words had melted the doubts and fears around her heart, freeing her chest from the lingering coldness.

Hermione smiled up at him, a smile as bright as the August sun, as she rose on her tiptoes, wrapping her arms around his neck. "No, actually, it isn't. But before I tell you why, I would like to try something else first."

Enfolding her in his arms, Severus chuckled, well aware that they'd had this conversation before. Mirth and relief glistened in the black of his eyes.

"I have no idea what that could be."

"You could try to guess, you know," she teased.

And this time, he did. With one movement, he bent down, claiming her lips, her love. Ardently. Longingly. Leaving her breathless. But this time, Hermione knew her heart would survive.

**~~**

"… who gives this woman to this man?" Minerva asked in a dignified tone, looking up from her book to gaze at Ron and Hermione.

They both stepped forward and shared a glance before saying together, "We do."


Hermione blinked, but nothing could save her from the sudden rush of tears as Rose gave her a radiant smile. Her daughter was happy, and she couldn't be more so. With another glance at each other, she and Ron placed the cord around the bridal couple's joined hands and stepped back again to stand with the rest of their friends and family.

Hermione took her place next to Severus again, and he slid his hand into hers, entwining their fingers and giving them a slight squeeze. She was home.

 

::::Finis::::