Before he knew it, Severus found December half lost. As he stood in the kitchen sorting the post that had just arrived, he felt a headache bloom behind his eyes.
How could he have forgotten Christmas of all things?
He knew, of course, that for those in the little cottage behind the castle, the world had narrowed down to three players, the rest be damned.
Besides, it wasn’t as if he and Rori hadn’t been travelling right up through most of December for the last five years. He had made sure they were home by the twentieth of course, no matter where they had been in the world: Spain, Russia, or Japan. Hermione’s parents demanded Rori’s presence for the actual holiday, and Potters and Weasleys had to be seen as well. Usually, they would come home from their travels to a big fresh tree courtesy of Hagrid and a crate of ornaments courtesy of the house-elves waiting in the sitting room.
He hadn’t actually told them otherwise, so perhaps they would hold to those usual dates. It would buy him some time, at least—four days to bring Gretchen up to speed and prepare her for her parents... And prepare her parents for her. Severus pinched the bridge of his nose. Her mother was desperate to know about her, but her father was more reserved. Severus could imagine his hesitation. If he had to look at Rori and treat her as anything less than the light of his life, he would be lost. To lose a child once was unimaginable, to lose the same child twice...
Severus had a plan, of course. He hoped that Gretchen would be ready for it. There hadn’t been any notable developments for a few days, more than a week when he thought about it. Was she ready to go home? It was one thing to bring her to the cottage, a place she had never been. Severus remembered the sounds of cracking glass, her smoking wand, all of the power that she couldn’t contain. That had all been here, where magic was safe: there were no electrical wires, no neighbours, and most importantly, there had been no history.
Hermione’s mother had made Hermione’s bedroom into a bit of a living museum. It helped Rori to know who her mother had been. She had played with some of Hermione’s old Muggle toys when she was very small. She would sit in Hermione’s childhood bed and read when she went to see her grandparents. It was an essential, invaluable connection for Rori. Hermione’s parents managed it carefully. They weren’t shaping her to be a replacement daughter; Rori had her own room in their home and her artworks and such had their own place on the icebox.
Still, as many parents who had lost their child had done, they kept a sense of Hermione, their longing for her saturating the house. Could Gretchen walk through and keep her calm? Accidental magic had terrible effects on Muggle homes, and as practised as she may be, Gretchen was not always in control when under pressure.
Either way, the house was ready for her. Severus’s eyes flicked through the letter from her mother again, telling him everything was ready, and for that very afternoon, as agreed. He ground his teeth, swearing silently at himself for letting it slip his mind. What was he going to do with Aurora for the afternoon?
He halted his self-recrimination as he thrust his arm out. His wand was trained on the fireplace now, where Albus’s glowing head looked out.
“Am I correct in noting that you will be out of the house shortly? I was wondering if your daughter was available to spend the afternoon in the castle.”
Sometimes there was just something in the way that man breathed that made Severus want to take points. He cleared his throat and said, “I believe that may be arranged. Shall I—”
“Yes, excellent! Do send her through when you are ready. And don’t forget to dress Muggle.”
The fireplace flickered and was empty once more. Severus gripped his wand, lowering his elbow to his side with a marked restraint. As if he hadn’t lived eleven years and six terrible summers as a bloody Muggle under his father’s roof...
Gretchen felt strange, putting on denims and a cardigan, socks and boots, as if she was going out for a cuppa in London – not that she wandered about in witching-wear, but this felt like she was going on a wild adventure into reality. She was leaving Narnia after being queen these last few weeks.
She watched Rori hop into the fire-place and disappear. She still hadn’t decided which was more bizarre: to jump into a burning hearth or jump from one. Or was it that a part of her thought it was perfectly normal, perfectly safe?
“Are you ready, then?” Severus asked, straightening her coat with a shake so he could help her with it.
Gretchen turned, allowing him to slide the sleeves up her arms and the collar up to her neck. His hands rested on her shoulders. “Ready for what?”
“We are trying something new; I’m taking you to a place you’ve been before, a place that’s very important to Hermione Granger.”
One hand left her body as he stretched for her staff where it leaned in the corner made by a bookshelf and the wall. He brought it around to her right side.
Gretchen turned, looking up at him, but the hand on her shoulder stopped her. “Where is it?”
“I want you to stay in front of me, facing out. I want it to be the first thing you see. If when we arrive, you want to investigate, you may. If you want to leave, we will. I will take you Side-Along, and I won’t let go of you until you are ready.”
“Why are you being so mysterious?” she asked, trying to turn again. He let her this time, but when she looked at him, he revealed nothing. “You’re making me feel... buzzy.”
“It is not a bad place,” he said in concession. “Quite the opposite, in fact. However, I have given the matter great consideration, and I can find no better solution.”
“Very well.” Gretchen sighed and turned on her heel. She waited for him to step up behind her, not at all reluctant to go anywhere with him Side-Along. The few times they had done so had been quite... moving.
Severus stepped forward, and she felt his hands slide down her arms and around her belly. He bent, slightly, to hold her close, and his breath was in her ear for just a moment before they popped away.
“Open your eyes. We’re here.”
She blinked and the world came into focus. Behind her, the familiar click-shut of her bedroom door sounded.
She was... home! Pulling away from Severus without even a thought, she moved across the room, four steps!, and climbed onto her bed. George was there, in the centre, on the pillow. She picked up the worn, old monkey and clutched him to her breast. She rolled onto her back, and the familiar shadows of her canopy bed dusted the ceiling. She turned her head, and there was her telescope and the small drafting table she had set up to keep her star charts on. Turning the other way, bookshelves and her bureau and her desk and—
A strange pale man with lanky hair and a hooked nose. He had just bent down to pick up a staff.
“I’m going to vomit.”
“Ah-ah!” he chided, stepping forward and thrusting the beautiful, twisting staff in her direction.
The room spun around her, and her tongue tasted like she’d had too much cheap red wine. She reached out for the post of her canopy, but her hand wrapped around the staff instead.
“Beith,” the man said. She thought he was a man, although her mind swam, and from the corner of her eye, he looked like a great crow looming over her.
She goggled at him and put her hand over her mouth, still certain she was going to sick up.
“Beith,” he reiterated, staring down at her now.
“Beith,” she parroted back.
“Good! Now, ‘luis’.”
“Earn.” He encouraged her and stroked her hair.
"Beith, luis, earn, saille, nuin, úath, duir, tinne, coll, ceirt, muin, gort, gétal, straif, ruis, ailm, onn, úr, edad, idad."
“There’s a girl.”
“Don’t patronise me.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it.”
He was smiling down at her, now. He smiled in such a way, and she had missed it so much. She smiled back at him and kissed him, just a moment, on his mouth. Then she moved to curl up on her bed, George in one hand and her staff in the other.
She’d gotten a perfectly good night’s sleep last night, and yet she was utterly wrecked. Severus could go to her dad’s den and have a bit of whisky if he liked. She slept.
Severus was startled out of his reverie, ‘gazing’ around the neighbourhood with Hermione’s telescope, and bumped his nose on the eye piece. “Sh...”
“Severus? Where’s Crooks?”
The woman on the bed rubbed her eyes as she pushed herself to sit up. He had no idea who she was at the moment, and from the earlier display, he imagined she didn’t know either. If there was such a place as Purgatory, this was it. Hermione was here on gossamer strings of lucidity.
“I’m sorry, darling.”
“Why? What happened?” She rolled over the edge of the bed, moving to sit on his lap in the little slipper chair of her astronomy nook.
He couldn’t have been more relieved that she’d brought the staff on her own. This was definite middle ground, of that he could be sure.
She wrapped her free arm around his neck and looked at him, bracing herself for bad news.
“Close your eyes.”
He set his voice to a low rumble, hoping to guide her through this as gently as possible. She looked at him, puzzled, but closed her eyes. “Something happened to him.”
“I want you to close your eyes and consider... what is the date?”
Again, her face scrunched together a bit in confusion, and her head tossed. “Well, it’s—” She paused, taking a moment. Finally, she said, “It’s odd. I know that it’s Christmastime, but I’m not sure. I don’t know the year.”
“What is the last thing you remember?”
Silence drew out, and her body curled against his chest. When her cheek rested on his shoulder, she answered, “15 May. Because it was my birthday, but that can’t be right, as that’s not my birthday.”
“Your memory, as usual, is nearly perfect.”
She opened her eyes. “When did you get so grey?” Then she pushed her fingers through the hair on his temples.
Russia. Siberia in the winter! He would take Scotland any day of the week over being here and delivering this bit of news.
“I’ll tell you if you tell me. What year is it, darling?”
She rolled her eyes and smiled at him. “Severus, it’s 2008. For a few more days, anyway.”
“It is my unfortunate duty to inform you that Mr Crookshanks Silver-Whiskers, as your daughter liked to call him, passed away in 2003.”
Her shoulders sank and tears filled her eyes. Then she turned, clutching his jumper as her tears soaked into it. Severus wrapped his arms around her, careful not to jostle her staff. The half-kneazle had lived well after Hermione’s disappearance, to Rori’s delight and Severus’s consternation. The beast had watched Rori grow, stubbornly guarding her until shortly after Severus first met Gretchen in the bookshop.
Hermione had loved that cat, and now she was grieving for it, and it was a good, strong emotional connection, so Severus didn’t mind the sacrifice of his best casual Muggle shirt bearing the brunt of tears and more.
They sat there until her tears ebbed and she looked up at him with swollen eyes. “Who is Crookshanks Silver-Whiskers?”
Severus Summoned a picture from Hermione’s desk, catching it and passing it along. He nodded at the picture but held his tongue.
She knew what to do—this was an assignment, and she would reason it out. In the picture, Hermione was twelve, and she and Crookshanks, Potter and his owl, and Weasley and bloody Pettigrew all looked out from the scene. It was a magical picture that Hermione had stilled so she could bring it home over the summer holiday.
She cleared her throat, holding the picture between them. “Well, obviously, he was my pet—no, familiar, right? That’s more than a pet, which Crooks was. And, he was smart too, because he always hated that rat that Ronald is holding, and he liked other people who were good even though they seemed bad.”
Severus snorted. It was an old teasing argument they had started somewhere between the nuptials and the conception. The cat had been unrepentantly unscrupulous when it came to Severus’s possessions, but Hermione had always defended him, saying it was only because Crooks liked him so much.
The minute stretched out, and they stayed as they were: he had one arm around her back, and she leaned against his chest, smiling at him.
An incautious man would have thought he’d had his wife back. “Tell me a secret?” It was another game, one she’d started when she couldn’t engage him in the usual interview conversations people had at the onset. The rule was: you had to whisper the question in the other person’s ear, giving the opportunity to divert with the more comfortable physical advance if you were unwilling to whisper something back.
She bit her lip, but then turned a bit on his thigh. She smiled and waited for him to elaborate.
“Who are you?” Severus whispered, his voice bending into her ear.
She inhaled deeply at his neck and whispered back, “I don’t know.”
With her head turned, he flicked his wand at the bedroom door, and the sound of jingle bells and Christmas crackers popping surprised her. She jumped off his thigh as if her parents had caught her with a boy in her room, but the door didn’t open.
“If you are feeling rested, there is much more to this lovely home than just your bedroom, Miss.”
It was her turn to scoff. “Miss? You make me sound like a school-girl.”
Through the door, a voice came up the stairs, “Sweetie, we’re home!”
Severus flicked his wand again, and bells and crackers sounded. Not as loud as before, but enough.
“Shit. I didn’t know. I didn’t know we were coming here! Severus, I can’t—please!”
He stood and put his hands on Gretchen’s arms. Oh, yes—she was Gretchen again, Gretchen as he remembered her: sceptical and unsure, insecure certainly. Severus remembered her in her flat and on the couch as he shoved her through the Legilimency spell. She had yet to fail, though, and he wouldn’t let her start now.
“Of course you can, and you will. Don’t forget your staff.” Which she had, right between his legs when he first sounded the alert. He moved it in her direction, and she took hold of it as though it were her only hope.
“What if they don’t like me? What if I’m not good enough?”
“What if dragons come flying out my arse? Stop being ridiculous.”
“What if you hadn’t liked Rori? What if she wasn’t good enough?” That idea hit home with her, and Gretchen looked up at him, aghast. “What if you went away to school and came back full of ideas and stories and marks they couldn’t conceive of? What if the first time you had PMS, you got in a terrible shouting match with your mother and took out the electricity on the whole block?”
Gretchen’s posture loosened, and she managed to pull a face to communicate just where he could put his hypotheticals.
Severus rubbed his hands up and down her arms and then squeezed her shoulders. “Remember when you first saw Rori? Remember how perfect it was even though it was so far from perfect?”
She nodded and moved toward the door. She had to move her staff to her left hand, but despite her obvious nerves, she pulled the door open, and walked through.
Gretchen could hear the bustle of bags being unloaded downstairs, and as she put her hand on the banister, she rustled the pine garland, releasing its scent into the air. She walked down the stairs with her hand smoothing over the warm fairy lights and bristling pine needles and felt like Christmas was finally coming alive for her again.
She hadn’t really celebrated the holidays since coming out of hospital. She had been alone in the apartment, so she’d never really seen the point.
The fairy lights were on in the sitting room as well, the tree waiting to be decorated with ornaments. Gretchen stopped at the bottom steps to watch an older man and woman bringing in bags of prezzies.
“Quick, dear, before she comes downstairs,” the man said. The woman nodded back, neither noticing Gretchen on the step.
She nearly jumped out of her skin when Severus whispered in her ear. “You’re blocking the way.”
The woman turned around, twisting quickly only to catch herself on the sofa. “Severus?” Her tone was full of hope, and when she looked around, Gretchen felt like she wasn’t looking for Severus at all. Her hand moved to lie flat on her collar, and she just stood and stared at Gretchen. On the step, the young woman stared back, eventually lifting her hand in a small wave. They both stood there, each drinking the other in for a good while.
That was until the man came back, the last of the bundles heaved awkwardly in his hands. He carried them around the sofa and arranged them, possibly in some order, around a low table. When he had his things settled, he looked up to speak with his wife, and seeing her as she was, looked up and found his daughter on the stair as well.
He cleared his throat as if to speak, and it broke the spell. “Well, look who’s here!” he said and smiled.
Gretchen felt Severus’s hand on her lower back, and he began guiding her forward. Using her staff for a bit of balance, she walked forward between the tree and a low-backed chair.
“Introductions?” Severus offered, but the woman was already moving through the bags to wrap her arms around Gretchen.
Gretchen returned the embrace, and then Severus forfeited her to the man as well. She weathered the tide of sniffles and hugs, being passed back and forth and back again. Being surrounded in so much... affection would have been impossible for her just a few short months ago, but Gretchen felt safe enough that she thought she could withstand the onslaught.
“Enough!” the woman finally exclaimed. She turned around, pulling Gretchen to the sofa through the sea of bags and bundles. Without turning around, she said, “Now, I know ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’ aren’t realistic at this point, but you are simply forbidden from calling us Jack or Carol, and you should know that ‘Gretchen’ is quite unlikely from me at least. We’ll just have to make do. Time for prezzies.”
“Presents?” Gretchen landed heavily on the sofa, more concerned with the gift exchange than what was proper. She hadn’t brought anything of course.
“Yes, you’ve got quite a backlog, dear; you’d better get started.”
“I couldn’t possibly.” Gretchen looked around, picking up on what looked like a decade’s worth of presents. “Please, I just—“
“We have been waiting quite some time for this moment: ten years since yo—our daughter vanished, presumed de—dead; five years since Severus came here to tell us you were out there, but oh, no! We couldn’t see you. He insisted you weren’t ready to come home nor might you ever be; and worst of all!” She stopped and set her hand on Gretchen’s thigh. Then Carol took a deep breath and said, “Worst of all: the three months you’ve been at that cottage! Three months!”
“Rori had greater need,” Jack muttered. The topic was clearly not a new one.
As if it was settled, Carol set a brightly coloured box on Gretchen’s lap. “Happy birthday! 1999.”
Gretchen stared at the big, curly bow. She was frozen, incapable of movement. She looked to her left where Jack—her Dad?—the man looked up from tracing shapes on her staff and nodded encouragingly. “She’s shopped; who could stop her, really? Although Rori was a good outlet, and I could limit her to just the big events: Christmas and your birthday. Not that I wanted to stop her, of course, wouldn’t’ve if I could’ve.”
“Go on, then!”
Ripping the paper away revealed a bright yellow box, and inside the box was a brand new Curious George, not identical to the one she had upstairs, but still George.
“I love it.” The words were out before she knew it, but they rang true. It was a more modern George, but not entirely so, as it was indeed now an older imagining.
“Of course, I meant it for you to give to your daughter, but... you’d vanished before we could give it to you. Her George is here, too, in her room,” the other woman said, the words rattling off quick as Rori could speak when she was excited.
Gretchen smiled, the idea endearing her to this whole ordeal.
“Rori’s got a whole mountain of them in her room,” Severus added, and Gretchen looked up, surprised but comforted that he was there.
“As if she needs the encouragement. Your— That is, Rori is inquisitive and curious, and magicks whatever she likes,” Jack said.
Carol laughed, “If I wasn’t grey before, Aurora has certainly put me through my paces.” She tugged at a few tight grey curls, cropped short and tucked behind her ears.
Jack then passed a brightly wrapped package, red with green ribbon, and Gretchen braced herself. Unwrapping nineteen presents – ten for her birthday and nine for Christmas – would be taxing. However, they couldn’t be rushed, wouldn’t be, and if Jack and Carol hadn’t been as interested in giving gifts as they were in ‘catching up’, it would have taken all day and all night. As it was, the last was a stretch, Carol’s warm smile met with a deep yawn. Jack had been dutifully repacking bundles, and pushing spent wrap into a rubbish sack.
Luckily for Gretchen, Severus stepped in just as the three on the couch sat back from the sacks of now-unwrapped presents. “It is getting late, and I have to retrieve Aurora from Hogwarts.”
“So soon? —But, we’ve only had the afternoon!” Carol sighed, although her enthusiasm was undercut by a yawn herself.
“I am sure that we will be back soon.” Severus extended his hand to Gretchen, and she let him help her up.
Jack gathered the bags together, getting out of the way for Carol to stand up and wrap her arms around Gretchen once more. “It was a joy, dear. It’s so good to finally see you. We’ve waited so long for this.”
“Yes, erm—me, too! And thanks for everything. It’s very... I can’t—Thank you.”
Carol held on until Jack had transferred all the bags over to Severus, who managed to get everything in the grip of one hand, long fingers wrapped around several handles. Jack then pulled her into his arms, and Gretchen felt his strong embrace. She relaxed against him, remembering a smell she’d almost forgotten. Then, she passed out.