Severus felt electric with anticipation. One thought kept chasing through his mind. The fuse is lit. That was the code phrase that he had given to Rori that meant they had to be on their toes. Something big was going to happen; it was only a matter of time. When the fuse ran out, Rori would Floo to Hogwarts and wait.
Not unsurprisingly, she had argued with him about leaving. She was blessed, in a way, by never having watched her parents argue, let alone fight, which was always unpleasant for children. Even further, Rori could not begin to imagine the temper that her mother had, and when that came part and parcel with unpredictable magic, there might be serious danger.
When Gretchen returned from the Potters’ house a couple of days ago, Severus had seen the spark in her eye. She was getting close to the next phase, but she wasn’t there yet. Not since he had first seen Gretchen in the bookshop had he felt as excited. For Severus, it was as thrilling as waiting for the perfect ingredient to transform a potion.
From the kitchen, Severus watched Gretchen and Rori as they decorated. He could see them as they buzzed between the tree and the crate, pulling out ornaments. Hagrid had outdone himself this year, bringing a perfectly shaped tree to the cottage just after breakfast this morning.
The house was beginning to smell like Christmas. Ginevra had sent home a banquet of treats, and the sugary confections seemed to lure everyone into the kitchen from the furthest corners of the house.
The tree was tall as tall as Severus, green and fresh. So tall, in fact, that Gretchen couldn’t reach the highest boughs. Rori handled decorating the lowest section, prattling away over every memory of Christmas she had.
Gretchen was enthralled. She had barely let Rori out of her sight since coming home from Godric’s Hollow. Severus hoped it was a sign, a possessive move that she had almost worked through everything. Also, when she wasn’t with Rori, Gretchen kept careful tabs on Severus. She had begun watching him as well.
He tried to imagine what it might be like for her. Sometimes it looked as though she had taken a bite from a bright, juicy-looking apple only to realise it was made of wax. Sometimes she would find him in a room, and stop what she was doing altogether just to look at him as though he was a spot she thought she had scrubbed away. Sometimes she sat close by him on the couch, spreading out the runes he’d copied from her staff as she studied them.
Severus watched her as she came closer and closer to her conclusion. Gretchen clearly had no idea what to do with herself, and Severus watched her struggle with savoury anticipation.
“Dad! We need your help with the rest, please!” Rori called from behind the tree as she moved to hang one last bauble on a branch.
“One moment, Aurora.”
Severus watched as Gretchen turned to look at him, lips pursed and eyes narrowed. Her arms crossed as he moved from the kitchen toward the crate, and she stepped to the opposite side of the tree as he selected the last few ornaments from the shreds of paper in the crate.
Once it was finished, he and Rori moved to the fireplace as was the custom each year. She stood in front of him, and he rested his left hand on her shoulder. Then he drew his wand and whispered, “Lumos Arboris Delicatii”
Rori gasped as the fairy lights began to sparkle, first at the bottom before twisting up the tree. As though wrapped in ribbons of light, the tree was swept up as branches began to twinkle. As they reached the top of the tree, they seemed to twine together until they became a brilliant star.
It was truly a wondrous sight.
As always, Rori clapped with delight as the tree became truly stunning. Gretchen cleared her throat. Turning to look at her, Severus found she was lit by an eerie white light, but it wasn’t coming from the tree.
It was coming from within her.
“Aurora, go see your Papa Albus, please.” Severus spoke to his daughter, but his eyes never left Gretchen. He listened as Rori went to the Floo and left without complaint.
He was not surprised. Where Gretchen had once been a docile carbon copy of her mother, she now stood like a fallen angel.
“How dare you!” Her voice sounded like thunder in the distance, and it made her seem twice her usual size.
Approaching with caution, Severus smiled, baring his teeth. “Finally have it, then?”
The fairy lights on the tree quivered, and the ornaments shook and rattled quietly. When she was within arm’s reach, Severus lunged forward, Apparating her into the empty field between the cottage and the castle.
She pushed his shoulders away, and Severus fell into the snow.
He scrambled to get up, and took aggressive steps toward her.
“How dare I what?” His hair was damp with snow, and it fell limply over his cheeks. She stepped forward again and shoved him, moving him bodily, but Severus kept his footing.
Overhead, a loud clap of thunder struck.
Then, her skin lost its curious brightness as a cloud of white mist surrounded them. “Five years! Five years you waited!”
Giving up shoving him, she shouted at the sky. Her arms were thrown out from her sides, and Severus saw that she had left her staff in the house. His heart skipped a beat as he remembered. She had hooked the harness over a coat hook as it made it very difficult to manoeuvre around the tree.
Regaining her focus, she turned her luminous gaze upon him. “I was there! I was waiting for you!”
Severus drew himself up to his full height and looked down his nose at her. “And what about you? You had the Portkey; you had your magic. Why didn’t you come?”
Affronted, she stepped back. That seemed to stop her for a moment, but only just. “You knew! I had no idea, but you knew, and you kept her away from me!”
“You’re damned right I did. What are you? You aren’t her mother! You are just some shop girl.” Severus dared to turn and walk away from her. He hadn’t made it two steps before he was dragged back, on his arse through the snow.
His head hit her shins, and another clap of thunder sounded. Severus looked up at her as she towered over him, his head pillowed on her boots.
Kicking her feet back, she stepped away for just a moment. She put one foot on his chest, side-stepping so she could look down upon him.
“You knew! Harry told me how he wanted to come for me and you wouldn’t let him. You kept her from me!”
“Ah, well, if the great Harry Potter says so, then it must be the right move.” Severus stretched his body, lying back on the ground. “What would Potter have done if there was nothing to be done with you, Gretchen? What would he have told your precious daughter if he had been wrong? Sorry, darling, your mummy doesn’t love you.”
Severus drew his wand once more, sweeping her feet out from beneath her so she, too, was on her back in the snow. “You know it’s true. How many times have you held Potter back when he wanted to dash into trouble? You know it would have been half-cocked to try before we knew everything.”
“I don’t care! This is my life! My daughter! You had no right!” She was sitting on top of him now, pounding on his chest with tears streaming down her face.
Severus let her. It was the very least he could offer her now that she understood. He, himself, would give up every moment of his life before Rori to have every minute he had with her now.
Hermione had given up her very life so that Rori could live in a world free from Voldemort. To find her alive all those years ago had been a miracle. It had been a crime, in a way, to leave her there in her dull Muggle life when the whole Wizarding world was waiting for her.
It had been unforgiveable to deny her the family she had sacrificed so much to protect. As her fists began to slow, her ragged breath echoed around them. Severus opened his eyes, astonished to see his wife straddling him and wiping the tears from her cheeks.
“Severus.” Her arms coiled around him.
He rolled over, covering her body with his. “Hermione. Stay. Please, stay.”
“The magic is coming back. I can only expel it for so long. We can only do it for so long.”
“You and Gretchen. Who is she?”
Hermione smirked up at him. “A fantasy I had when I was little and having the worst time in Muggle school about how great things would be when I grew up and started a new life, including a less ridiculous name. It seems so silly now.”
Severus sighed. “So she’s you, then?”
“One hundred per cent. And the magic is thinner now, inside.”
Severus looked around. On the field the fog was sinking, pulling back into the source.
“I can feel it incorporating. Be patient, Severus?”
He pushed hair away from her face. “Pot.”
She sighed. “You are made of patience.” She began to breathe more and more deeply, and Severus could almost see the magic move into her like water into a sponge. She never stopped smiling at him, though.
He watched her carefully, hoping to witness the exact moment that the change occurred. Severus wanted to know she was with him. When she took a gasping breath and began to cough, he knew the switch had been made.
“What do you remember?”
“The tree. It was brilliant.”
He looked down at her.
“And fighting you. It was like that dream-memory with Voldemort. My body was acting and I had no control over it. I’m sorry. Did I hurt you?”
“We will know in the morning. I expect my body is in shock at this time.”
She smiled up at him. Her eyes twinkled as she moved to get more comfortable beneath him.
“Did you kiss her?”
Severus narrowed his eyes at her.
Measuring his thoughts, Severus considered his next words.
“Why do you ask?”
“I just don’t want to miss out on the fun, is all.”
“Cheeky,” Severus grumbled as he pushed his body away from hers. Once on his feet, he helped her up. “Better get inside before we catch our deaths. We’re both soaked through.”
“Yes, Severus,” she answered; her voice was quiet and light. She stepped up and wrapped her arms around him.
He drew her body close and Apparated them back into the house.