(Highlight to View) Warning(s): Death of a Canon Character.
(Highlight to View) Prompt: Little Albus Severus is afraid to go to sleep so Aunt Hermione tells him a bedtime story about the bravest man she had ever known — one who will keep him safe from the dark and the monsters under the bed — but the words of a witch have power... What happens when the story she weaves for her godson brings Snape's phantom into her life? (SSHG or SS&HG)
Note: Dear JKR, thank you once again for providing the most amazing sandpit to play in. I get no payment for playing in it, except for the great joy it gives both me and my readers.
Summary: When a young boy is scared, sometimes bribery is the best persuader. And if you believe hard enough yourself ...
"Aunty Hermione, I'm scared."
Little Albus Severus half-sat up in bed, the blankets clutch tightly around him, and a look of terror on his face. His aunt walked over from the door (never run into a crisis) and sat on the bed beside him in the darkness. She stroked his face, and surreptitiously checked around, but there didn't seem to be anything odd in the bedroom. No boggarts, no dressing-gowns accidentally hung in the shape of a ghost, not even a …
tap tap tap tap tap tap
Hermione jumped and looked around, while Albus gasped and tried to hide under the covers.
"Did … did you hear that, Aunty Hermione? It's the ghost."
"Ghosts don't do that, Albus. I should know — some of the nicest, kindest ghosts ever were at Hogwarts, and that wasn't what they do. Now po..." She almost said "poltergeists", but this was not the moment to scare the child. "Now possibly there's something loose under the bed, or caught in a draught. Let me have a look..."
Hermione cast a quick Lumos and bent down to check under the bed. Two seconds later she was storming out of the door of Albus' bedroom, down the corridor and into another bedroom, where the occupant was trying to pretend to be asleep.
"James Potter don't you DARE!" She put her hand on her elder nephew's shoulder and rolled him onto his back. "How could you do that to your brother? You should be ashamed of yourself!"She watched in satisfaction as James' eyes opened wide and guiltily, staring at the contraption in her hands.
"It was just meant to be a joke..." The eight year old's voice was simultaneously giggling and scared — you do not want to get on the bad side of Aunty Hermione. But the levers and the clockwork mechanism, tied with a small enchantment that meant it only worked when the lights were turned off — it had seemed like a good idea to scare his brother, and surely no-one would have found it.
"No-one else could have found it except me." Hermione watched in satisfaction as her nephew's face flicked from guilty to terrorised. "And I did. So. Tomorrow you're going to clean up the playroom, without even being asked — right?"
James nodded silently, and Hermione held up the equipment, then waved her still-glowing wand at it. In a moment the mechanism had changed into a small brass monkey statue, eyes glowing just as her wand was.
"Right", she said as she put it on his bedside table. "This little fellow will be watching you. Tonight. Tomorrow, after I've gone. And then for the rest of the week. And if you try to tease or bully your brother one more time..." She let the rest of the threat hang, and turned to leave the bedroom.
"I'll be good! Honest!" She let the bedroom door close quietly on James' terrified promises, and headed back up to Albus's room to see if she could un-scare him.
She stuck her head in the middle bedroom, where Hugo and Rose were curled up with Lily on a large pile of cushions and blankets. The youngest of the broods seemed to enjoy sleeping like puppies in a basket, and Rose had decided she wanted to join them tonight. Hermione didn't mind — it wasn't often that Harry, Ginny and Ron got to see a night-time Quidditch match, and she was quite happy to babysit the brood while they did. Actually, she much preferred babysitting the children — but she didn't let the others know that. Ron was always out at something Quiddditch related, and Harry and Ginny were still mad on the game after all this time — it was no hardship for Hermione to spend an evening at home with the children instead. She needed the "credits" for her own times off — spending the day in the Department's library, or heading up to the moors in northern England to search for rare ingredients.
With a soft sigh, Hermione closed the bedroom door to the puppy pile, and headed back to Albus's room. The young lad was now sitting bolt upright in bed, eyes still wide with fear, and a slight acrid smell drifting out that Hermione recognised immediately. Bother. She was going to get James for this — it was all his fault.
"Albus?" She asked as softly and sweetly as she could, trying hard not to make the child more upset than he already was. "Albus, dear, shall we change the sheets?"
At this, the child's terror was broken, and he broke down into tears, the words too scared, couldn't wait and so sorry barely audible over the sobs. Hermione stripped Albus of his now wet pyjamas, wrapped him in a dressing gown and sent him down to the bathroom to wash before putting on clean nightwear. As he left, shamefaced, she stripped the bed and cast a quick scouring charm on the mattress to remove the last of the urine. The sheets were quickly wrapped up with the wet nightwear and she grabbed a spare set of pyjamas to drop off at the bathroom as she levitated the soiled stuff down to the laundry and into the washing machine. A detour to the kitchen procured two cups of hot cocoa and she came back to find Albus already standing outside the bathroom, wearing the clean pyjamas.
He sniffed, gulped and wiped his eyes. Finally, very very quietly, he snuffled "Yes, Aunty", his eyes on the floor.
"Then come back to bed, and let's get you settled."
She sat the lad on a chair at the side while she quickly made up the bed, then settled him back in and let him have the cup of cocoa. As she cleared space on the bedside table for his and her cups, she moved a couple of books, a photograph, and a certificate from the local Muggle primary school for Best Improvement in Reading.
"You read a lot, Albus?"
Albus sniffled again, and went to wipe his nose on his sleeve, but a tissue proffered by his aunt stopped that gesture. Hermione took his mug while he blew his nose, then handed the mug back.
"I like reading, Aunty. I like hearing stories about the old days, and the big battle, and all the brave things you and Dad and Mum and Uncle Ron and Uncle Neville did. And Professor Snape. He must have been very brave." Severus glanced over at the photo, which was sitting face down, and Hermione reached over and set it upright.
The picture was of Snape, in full Professor robes, standing in a pose that he must have been interrupted in. As Hermione watched, he seemed to glance behind himself before looking back at the camera, the customary scowl displayed for all to see. She smiled sadly, and brushed a little dust off the glass in front of the robes, before setting the picture back up to watch Albus.
"He was, Albus. He was brave, and noble and terribly, terribly courageous, and none of us knew it until it was too late." She sighed a little, then looked back at the boy. "If I told you a story about him, would you go to sleep after?"
"... maybe." Albus smiled, and Hermione wondered which House he would end up in in a few years time. She decided that the best solution was to be upfront.
"Then let us make a deal, young man. I tell you one story — one, mind you, not two or five or a dozen — and then you go to sleep. Deal?"
Albus frowned lightly, then glanced once more at the picture. "All right, Aunty. But it can't be a short one."
"Then let me tell you," she sat back in her chair with her hot drink, "all about when your dad was playing his first ever Quidditch match for Gryffindor ..."
Fifteen minutes later, Hermione tiptoed out of Albus's room, carrying two empty mugs and closing the door silently behind her. Albus had fallen asleep as soon as she finished the story, and even the photograph looked sleepy, if a photograph could. She headed down to the kitchen, just in time to hear the front door open and the other adults come quietly in.
They came up to the kitchen where they could see the lights were on, and the next half hour was full of excited tales of the match, to which Hermione just nodded as she poured hot cocoa for all of them, this time fortified with a little Peakes Potent Brandy. Then, leaving the dirty mugs for the men to deal with, she took Ginny by the arm and led her down to the laundry, softly explaining the reason for the washing machine to be going at such a late hour.
"Oh I could kill my eldest sometimes, I really could," Ginny spat out, her hands on top of the washing machine as if to hurry it along. "He just doesn't understand that Albus is … not delicate, but easily frightened. It's taken us a year to get him to stop wetting the bed, and if James has started it all out again..."
"He settled pretty well, though, once I told him a story." Hermione explained about the tale, and about the charmed statue keeping an eye on James. Ginny's eyes lit up, and she grinned a rather wicked grin back at her sister-in-law.
"Then leave the statue there. And I have a plan, but it's going to need your help."
"If you'll agree, I'll tell Albus that you'll come back and tell him a story about Snape every week that he has seven dry nights. What do you think?"
"Brilliant, Ginny! Bribery!" Hermione hugged the redhead, a rare gesture which Ginny returned gratefully. "And if we just leave that picture of him on Albus's bedside table, it can be an incentive."
"Don't see why not." The washing machine stopped, and Ginny charmed the wet contents to hang up on the elevated racks that hung from the laundry roof. "No-one else in the house wants it, but Albus seems to have taken a liking to it. Now you take that brother of mine home and have yourselves a lie-in tomorrow. We'll feed the kids and you come over for lunch when you're ready to collect them."
"And if I don't want to get them back?" Hermione smiled sweetly, and Ginny had to remind herself that Hermione was as good at stirring as any of them. They parted on a conspiratorial note, and the plan was in place.
The first week was, alas, a no-go for the story. James' plot had Albus scared to put his feet down on the carpet, so Ginny had to send an owl over to Hermione after the first couple of days. No story this week — but James is learning how to work the washing machine! Hermione grinned at that one. The punishment was fitting, and besides, she had to think of a way to tell some of the stories without scaring a six year old to pieces. It was towards the end of the week that she discovered, on her own bedside table, a copy of the same picture that Albus had on his. Once more Snape was standing, staring, apart from a quick look over his shoulder.
"Bless you, Ginny, for sending this." Hermione set it up so that she could see it as she fell asleep, to the complete disgruntlement of Ron.
"Isn't enough that you're talking about the greasy git all the time? Do I really have to look at him at night, too?"
"It's for your nephew, love. But all right." The picture almost scowled as Hermione carried it back to her study, but it seemed to settle as she placed it on top of her rather battered copy of Moste Potente Potions. She felt odd leaving it alone, so, looking quickly behind her to make sure Ron wouldn't see, she opened the latest copy of the Quibbler and laid it in front of the photo. Crookshanks, now very old and venerable, barely looked up as his mistress patted the top of the simple silver photo frame.
"To help you catch up on what's been happening... no, wait, I'm talking to a photograph?" Hermione shook her head and left, heading back to her bedroom. Crookshanks laid his head down on his soft cushion, and did not react at the slight sound a minute later of a page turning … then again.
The week after had been one of success for Albus, and Hermione turned up on the Friday evening with a small notebook and a large smile for her favourite nephew.
"Did you know that James apologised?" Ginny shook her head in disbelief at the actions of her eldest as she and Hermione set the table for dinner. "At his own behest, too. I think he must be feeling a bit guilty about it all."
"He takes after his other uncles and his namesake, I dare say." Hermione laid out the cutlery, then summoned the water jug over and settled it into the tiny space left on the table. "How has Albus been?"
Ginny stopped for a moment. "I'm … not sure. He's not so scared of the dark any more, but he still thinks he sees something. If you could ask him about it tonight..."
"Gladly." Hermione rubbed Ginny's shoulder, then braced herself as she heard the thunder of three sets of feet stampeding down the hall. One moment later she was being hugged from three different sides at once, and trying to persuade the children to come and sit at the table for dinner.
Later that night, when she had helped with baths and played "horsies" and catch and a quick game of wizard chess against James (who was surprisingly good — Hermione had had to really think to keep ahead of him, and had actually lost honestly rather than letting James win), the children were allowed one story with her in the sitting room, and then sent to bed. She told them about when Ron came back in the forest with Godric Gryffindor's sword, and although they had heard it before, they'd never heard it from her side. Reluctantly they shuffled off to their respective rooms, and Albus made a fast trip to the bathroom before he came back, took her hand and led her to his.
"Aunty Hermione?" His voice was much more confident than it had been two weeks before.
"Hmm?" She was tucking him in, and just about to turn off the large light. A small spark came from the lumos spell Hermione had cast on her wand and left propped against the photo frame.
"Aunty Hermione, do you really believe there are good ghosts? Ones that wouldn't hurt me?"
"Absolutely, Albus. When you go to Hogwarts, you'll meet lots of them. Why?"
Albus ignored her question. "What about things that lurk under the bed, or the shadows on the wall. Can they be good as well?"
"I don't see why not." Hermione shot him a quick look, then grabbed her wand and inspected under the bed. There were no signs of any more of James's creations, just an ever-increasing pile of fluff. The walls held a bundle of shadows, but none that were sinister or threatening — more the combination of a damp patch overlaid with the shade created by the wand. She sighed and settled the wand back in place, then sat in the chair and looked at Albus. "Why do you ask?"
"Oh, no reason." Albus lay back on his pillows, then sat up abruptly. "And you owe me a story."
"So I do. About the war?"
"No, I want you to tell me another Severus Snape story. Something else he did that was really brave."
"Well, one time he saved us — your dad, Uncle Ron and I — from a slavering werewolf..." And for the next twenty minutes she told about the Shrieking Shack, and Remus, and Sirius. She might have downplayed the heroics of the other adults while she played up Snape's role, although she certainly didn't miss out anything she, Ron or Harry had done. After all, it was her telling the story and she could tell it how she wanted.
As she talked, she found herself telling the story more to the picture than to the small boy in the bed, and she thought … just once, when she was telling about when Snape had thrust himself in front of the werewolf Lupin … but no, wizarding photographs do not change. And they certainly don't smile smugly — nor do they frown when the story finishes.
"And that was how Harry discovered that Sirius wasn't the traitor, but they let Peter Pettigrew go." She finished up, and looked back at Albus, expecting him to be asleep on the pillow.
Not a hope. The small boy was sitting bold upright, eager, his eyes shining in the dim light as he looked from the photograph to Hermione and back again.
"And what happened then, Aunty Hermione? Did they catch Peter? Did Sirius get away? Did they kill the werewolf?"
"Enough, young man." Hermione stood up, leaned over and helped Albus snuggle down under the covers. "It starts getting a bit rough after that, but if you're very good and stay dry for another week, I believe we have an agreement?"
Albus almost bounced out of bed in excitement. "Oh, please, Aunty Hermione, I'll be ever so good, and I'll see you next week."
"Sleep, then. Going to sleep when you're supposed to is being good." And she kissed him goodnight, took her wand from beside the photograph, and took one last look around the room. The damp patch reminded her of how cold and wet it was going to get in the next few weeks, and she sighed at the thought of endless muddy Quidditch practice outfits that would need washing. Tonight, for instance, Ron was playing for the Chudley Cannons across the other side of London, and would be home after midnight with a bag full of filthy robes.
"Are you sad, Aunty?" came the quiet voice from the bed, almost asleep.
"No, not sad. Just thinking of grown-up things." She walked to the door and opened it.
"Yeah, that's what he says, when he won't tell me either. G'night, Aunty."
"Goodnight, Albus." And she shut his door behind her, extinguished her wand and walked down to the kitchen for a quick cup of tea before she headed home.
The next two sessions went well. Tales of the Chamber of Secrets, and how Severus had duelled with Gilderoy Lockhart and shown him up completely were received with delighted giggles, and the tale of Severus Snape meets Fluffy was also a delight. The next two weeks, though, were a wipeout, despite Albus's good record. Halfway through the week, not three hours after Hermione had bid farewell to Ron who was off on a Quidditch tour with the Cannons, she went to wake Crookshanks up for his dinner and discovered that the venerable old part-Kneazle had passed away in his sleep. She cried for two days, before burying him in the garden outside, and she missed Ron like crazy.
Then Hugo and Rose came down with a nasty case of what had looked like Spattergroit, but was really old-fashioned Muggle Chicken Pox. Hermione cursed the lack of vaccinations for children in Britain, and ended up having to explain to the Weasleys what vaccination is, why Chicken Pox can be dangerous, and why, therefore, none of them could go to Grandma Molly's birthday party, especially since Aunty Fleur was pregnant and almost due to give birth to her third child. Hugo was philosophical about missing the party, but Rose was quite ill and had to spend a few days in St Mungos, in the isolation section of the second floor with her mother hovering over her. There was a lovely selection of hand-made cards from the rest of the cousins, and Albus's one had a hand-written note inside that just said "You owe me two now."
Hermione laughed at this, the first laugh she'd had since Rose had been so feverish she'd been delirious, and slipped the note into her pocket to tell Ron about later.
"It's a good thing your Uncle Charlie was around to look after Hugo," Hermione told Rose the next time her daughter was awake. "But I bet we'll get home to find that Hugo has a pile of dragon books a mile high, and a mysterious egg of his own."
"Just like Hagrid did." Rose smiled, and fell asleep again almost immediately, her mother gently smoothing her hair.
"Yes, just like Hagrid did." Hermione remembered the first time she'd seen the egg, not long after she had set fire to Snape's robes. She sat back and smiled at the memory, and wondered if he had ever forgiven her for that. Or even realised she had been the one to do it. Hermione felt her eyes getting more and more tired, and ended up cradling her head on her arms on Rose's bed, just for a minute. She wouldn't take any longer, just a few minutes' rest...
She started awake — something had roused her. A noise? A light? The room was dark, apart from a night light near Rose, and Hermione could barely make out the curtains hung at the sides of the bed. Rose herself was fast asleep, but a cold draught was making her restless. Hermione stood to get another blanket and to check for open windows, when she realised that the curtains on the other side of the bed were actually a dark shadow, shaped remarkably like her old Potions professor. She could just make out his white shirt under the robes, and the pale look on his face above a set of blood-stained bandages around his neck — bandages she had tried to use on him as he lay dying in the Shrieking Shack on that last, terrible day. He was looking right at her, reaching his hand out for her to take it, trying to tell her something, when a terrible rattling sound made him jump, and he faded away … and Hermione jerked her head up from the bed, and realised she'd been asleep still the whole time. A window nearby had blown open in the winter storm that was building up outside, and the rattle of rain on it had woken her from a very strange dream. Rose murmured and rolled over in the bed, and a Mediwitch came bustling in to close the window. The room, although dim, was not as dark as it had been in her dream, and Hermione wondered what had led to the scene.
"Can I get you a hot tea, or a buttered cider, my dear?" The Mediwitch was leaning over Hermione solicitously. "You've been here day after day — you must be exhausted."
"What? Yes, please. That would be …" But the Mediwitch had already gone, leaving Hermione still dazed. It was only a moment later that the Healer on rounds walked in, Rose's charts in her hands.
"Mrs Weasley? Your daughter seems well out of danger now. If you wanted to go home, she'll be fine, and you can come back in the morning."
Hermione looked down at Rose, then caught a whiff of stale, smelly unwashed body. It only took a moment to realise it was herself, in dire need of a hot bath and a change of clothes. "Thank you," she said. "I will."
"Floo network on the ground floor, if you want." The Healer smiled gently at her. "And get a good night's rest. This little one won't wake for hours now — and it's all good, natural healing sleep. You should take your cue from her."
Hermione took the lift down to the ground floor, where it looked as if a riot had broken out. A late-night drunken party at the Leaky Cauldron had spilled onto the streets of London. An altercation had started up, not helped by the arrival of the Knight Bus or a few other Wizards in a helpful frame of mind. The end result was a pile of battered and bruised revellers, a bunch of injured passengers, and an odd scattering of other bystanders who had been caught up, including...
"Ron!" The name slipped out as a near-inaudible gasp. Hermione couldn't believe her eyes. There, sitting at the side of the waiting room, was her husband, currently being fussed over and kissed by Parvati Patil. Hermione just stood, looking at the pair, whose behaviour showed that they were obviously much closer than just two ex-classmates from Hogwarts. Hermione couldn't decide what to do — leave? Go? Scream out her husband's name? She had just decided to make a quiet retreat and deal with it when Rose was better, when Ron looked up and saw her. In an instant, he had pushed Parvati away and was trying to force his way across the crowded waiting room, but Hermione couldn't cope with it. Not now. She was exhausted and emotionally frail enough from their daughter's serious illness … She grabbed a sachet of Floo powder and sent herself home from the nearest fireplace.
Once home, she couldn't work out what to do. Charlie was asleep in the lounge, so she couldn't stay there, and Hugo was in his own room. She needed somewhere safe, somewhere she felt protected... Without really knowing how she got there, she found herself in her study, with the various reference books around her desk and the picture of Snape looking down on her chair. She stumbled over to it, picked it up and started to talk to it. She knew she was behaving irrationally. She just didn't know what else to do.
"It's not like it's the first time." Her voice shook, only slightly muted by the heavy rain coming down outside. "I caught him once, back when we were first married, working late at the Auror's office but really he was shagging bloody Susan Bones! Told her we'd split up, and she was foolish enough to believe him."
Tears ran down Hermione's face, yet through the blur, it seemed like Snape's face was scowling more than ever — but was it in sympathy for her, or was he annoyed that she was burdening him with all her problems? She didn't care any more. She looked over at Crookshanks' empty cushion, and began sobbing inconsolably. Clutching the photograph to her chest, she wept until there were no tears left, and the racking gulps had calmed down into a deep, rhythmic sigh. Then a renewed memory of seeing Parvati and Ron curled up with each other started her off again, and she held the photo even closer.
At this moment, there was a knock on her study door.
"It's me." Charlie opened the door, and walked in, bearing a tray with a hot cup of tea on it and looking very apprehensive. "You sounded pretty miserable — I thought you might like this. Is Rose...?"
Hermione suddenly realised what he must have thought. "No, she's fine, she's going to be absolutely fine, not even any pock marks." For a brief moment her smile shone through her tears, and Charlie smiled back, glad that his favourite niece was on the mend, but he knew there must be more.
"Then what's …" That was all Charlie could get out, before Hermione burst into tears again. He crossed the room quickly, and enveloped her in his large and capable arms. She tried very hard to control the sobs, but all that happened was incoherent burbling. Wrapped inside her arms, the photo frame didn't have a chance.
With a crack, the back of the photo frame split in two.
Hermione and Charlie both jumped, and then started giggling at the foolishness of it all. He picked her up and sat her on his knee, just as he would have to Ginny many years before. Taking the photo frame from her hands, he put it face down on the desk and then grabbed a handy tissue and wiped her eyes.
"So tell me," he said as he removed the worst traces of tears. "What has that idiot brother of mine done this time?"
"But … I didn't say it was Ron."
"You didn't need to, Hermione. Your whole body was screaming it out, and I'd be a poor dragon tamer if I didn't recognise the signs of distress. And besides, I saw him three days ago with another woman, and I didn't know how to tell you. I suppose you saw him tonight?"
Hermione didn't speak, just lay back in Charlie's arms and wept silently again. She didn't know when she fell asleep, when he carried her back to her bedroom and tucked her in, or that he spent nearly half an hour on the floo to Viktor afterwards, despite the fact that it was nearly 2am back in Romania where the couple had their home.
For the next week, Hermione existed on autopilot. She visited Rose (bringing her home after three days), played with Hugo, and ate the meals that Charlie prepared. The only thing she didn't do was to answer the owl that Ron sent, although she registered that he had declared his love for Parvati and that he had moved into the Patil shared residence in North London. It was only as the next Saturday approached, and Charlie asked if she was going over to Ginny and Harry's, that she felt anything at all.
"Ginny called. She said that Albus said he was sorry Rose had been so ill, and why don't we all go over to their place and stay the night." Charlie hugged Hermione again, and Hermione surprised herself by nodding.
"Good. I'll let them know. And Hermione?" She looked up at him. "They know. I told them, but it looks like Ron already explained things to Harry." Charlie had an inscruitable look on his face, and Hermione puzzled over it for a moment, before realising.
"And then Ginny walked in? Is Ron still in one piece?"
Charlie's face split into a huge grin. "Only just! Ginny said particularly that she had bought a special box of chocolates for Ron's birthday, and she would consider it a favour if you could come and help her eat them tonight."
Hermione's answering grin wasn't very nice, but it was the most emotion she had felt in a week. "Would you tell her from me that it sounds like the best night ever? We'll be there at five."
Hermione spent the afternoon clearing away Crookshanks' cushions and bowls, but by four o'clock she had nothing else to do. Once more the rain was drizzling away outside, echoing her mood as it had done for the past week. The ground outside was soaked and muddy, and no-one in their right mind would go out if they could avoid it.
Sitting in her study chair, she went to pick up the photo that had spent the week face down on her desk, but then stopped with her hand just above it. The thin board that was holding the photograph in had split in two, and a small, bright object was glistening under the backing. In a moment she had pried the object loose, and was turning it over and over in her hands. Then she remembered.
In an instant, she dropped the silvery item on the carpet, grabbed her wand and was casting detection spells as if her life depended on it.
The piece wasn't cursed, nor was it poisoned, hexed or jinxed. There didn't seem to be any compulsion spells on it, nor was it laced with darkness. Only the spell to detect soul-portions reacted slightly with it.
The bright object that lay on the carpet looked like a coin that had been broken crudely in half. Not a Galleon or a Sickle or Knut, the coin had the gleam of having never been used, and yet looked remarkably like an old-fashioned silver shilling. Or rather, half a shilling. Using a spare tissue, Hermione picked it up and put it carefully in an old matchbox, to take to Ginny and Harry's later.
If she had had a moment to turn the photo frame over and look at the picture, she would have seen that it was empty.
With the chaos that always ensues when five stir-crazy children are stuck inside once more, and who haven't had any outside exercise for over a week, it was quite a while before Hermione managed a single word with Harry and Ginny. Even then it was just a "talk later?" before Hermione was dragged into a very noisy game of Exploding Snap with the children — and then a ten minute session of calming down Lily Luna who always got scared by the loud noises. It was only with promises of a story before bedtime that the parents managed to get all the children bathed and in their pyjamas, with Charlie showing the best "monster-handling" techniques of the lot.
"So are you and Viktor going to have children of your own any day?" Hermione asked as she wrestled Rose's pyjama top over the wriggling child.
Charlie paused in the middle of trying to find the right-side-out of Albus's dressing gown. "Maybe. Perhaps. Adoption, probably. There's been a lot of orphans from the war, but we're not ready yet. But certainly we'll be considering it, in a few years. "
"What's adoption, Uncle Charlie?" Albus's solemn face wrinkled up at the strange word.
"Well, sometimes, just sometimes, a parent can't look after their child because they're sick, or they're poor, or the parent is too young. And they love the child enough to want the child to have a wonderful life, so they ask another adult to be the parents instead." Charlie kept his face straight, and hoped he'd got that right, and Ginny's smile as she came in with Lily Luna told him that he had.
"Albus, think of your cousin Teddy. His parents are dead, so his grandmother is his parent." Ginny wrapped her arms around the boy as she continued. "She loves him, she looks after him, she's not his mother or father, but she's like an adopted mother. She's done everything for him that Tonks would have done, so she's been his mother for him."
"Oh." Albus started digesting that, then turned to Charlie. "Uncle Charlie, so can you adopt Aunty Hermione? Because she doesn't have a mummy or daddy, and I know you like her."
Charlie burst out laughing, and hugged Albus hard, but as he started to explain the impossibility of the situation, Hermione slipped out of the room and up the corridor. She was surprised by the incredible flood of sorrow that came upon her, and just needed a few minutes to herself. Any reminder of her parents hurt, and on top of Ron leaving her and Crookshanks and the week with the sick children … she dashed into the nearest room and collapsed on the bed, crying.
In her distress, she found herself hugging the pillow, and it was only after a couple of minutes that she realised that the pillow had something hard inside it. She was just sitting up and reaching into the pillow case when Ginny came in and sat behind her, holding her tight. The room was still dark, and lightning flashed at the windows and lit up the bed.
"Are you ok, Hermione?"
"It's been a hard week. And an odd one." Hermione hugged Ginny back, then let go, the troubles of the last seven days seeping out of her and leaving her feeling once more empty and distant. Then the dim light from the doorway picked up a shape, and she gasped.
"How long has that damp mark looked like that?" Hermione stood and touched the place on the wall where the stain had spread, picking up dust on the way. It almost looked like the outline of a body. One she knew...
Hermione reached once more for the pillow case, and drew out the hard object within. "Gin, why did you send me a copy of this photograph?"
"Me? I thought you sent me this one, for Albus."
"What???" Now Hermione was suspicious, and she hurriedly put the picture back on the bed. The visage of the Potions Master looked up at her and Ginny, twisting his head over his shoulder once more, but with a slight smile on his face. Now he was reaching his hand out, as if entreating the two women.
The door behind them opened, and Harry, Charlie and Albus came into the room. Hermione held out her hands, and Albus walked up to her and took them, while Ginny filled them in on the odd non-history of the picture.
Quietly, so as not to frighten the child, Hermione sat back down beside Albus and started to probe.
"Albus, sweetheart, why were you keeping the picture under your pillow?"
"He wanted me to, Aunty Hermione."
"He?" She looked past Albus to see the other adults standing silently behind him, then Harry sat down on the bed beside Hermione and took one of his son's hands. Hermione continued with her gentle interrogation. "Who's he?"
"Severus." Albus pointed to the face in the picture, which was showing slight signs of Oh thank Merlin someone is finally getting it. "Severus Snape. He's the man in the picture, isn't he?"
"He is," said Harry. "But he's been dead for many years now. Fourteen."
"Then why is he on my wall?" Albus turned and pointed at the damp mark, which was now noticeably darker from when Hermione had seen it not ten minutes before. Another flash of lightning from outside lit up the wall, contrasting with the shadow there. The fluff that would tend to gather under Albus's bed was now lining the edges, giving it definition and depth... Hermione held the picture up to Harry, Ginny and Charlie.
"I never sent you a copy of this. In fact, I thought you, Ginny, had sent me a copy, which I've had at home for the last few weeks. And if I'm right..."
She looked at the back of the photo, but there was no sign of any split in the backing. Then, suddenly, she knew. She wrapped her arms around the picture, warding off Harry's sudden attempt to snatch it from her for fear that it was a Dark Artifact. Holding the frame close to her chest, she brought back to mind all the pain, the hurt and the fear she had felt over the last week, the loss of her pet, the end of her marriage, and the reminder once more that her parents were gone too. She added to that the fear she had had over Rose's hospitalisation, and the tears started to fall.
And the back of the photo frame cracked with a noise like a gunshot.
Harry now dived for the frame as Charlie took her in his arms and held her close. She didn't notice the loss of the picture as the tears once more soaked the front of her dear friend's shirt, and through her misery she was grateful that she had so many people who actually did care for her. But it was Harry's words that brought her out of her misery.
"There's a coin..."
"Don't touch it. It might be cursed." Ginny pushed Harry's hands away from the object with her wand, then started the same round of detection spells that Hermione had used.
Above them, unnoticed, the shadow on the wall gained more depth, solidity...
"I have the other half, I think." Hermione reached into her pocket and drew out the one she had found earlier, as the thunder rumbled outside. She unwrapped it, and brought it close to the one they had just found.
"NO!" Harry dived, but he was too late. Like a pair of magnets brought close together, the coin halves suddenly jumped together, out of Hermione's hand and out of the frame. With a crash and a crack and a flash of lightning so bright they were all dazzled, the two halves became one whole — and then none of them could see anything at all for ten seconds.
Except for Albus.
"Hello, Mr Snape."
"How do you do, Albus Severus. Trust your father to give you that name. He always was a sentimental fool." The voice was the same as always, and once Charlie had blinked his own eyes back to half-normal, he was able to focus on …
"Mr Weasley. Potter. And Mrs Potter, I assume. And …"
Hermione looked up at the tall dark figure now standing in front of them. "Professor. So you're real. You're there. Here."
"Obviously." The sneer was the same as always, and yet it sounded gentler. "And only through your efforts."
"You … they were Horcruxes?"
"Similar. They were made through the same method, but in each case the death I caused was inevitable, a mercy killing. Albus Dumbledore, Charity Burbage — I truly lost part of my soul each time I killed. So I made sure that that part of me was kept safe somewhere." Snape shook, and Charlie guided him to a chair. "And before I … before that battle, I arranged for these photographs to be delivered, by an agency that specialises in such matters, and hid the coin parts in the back. And then I had to wait for someone to believe in me again."
"Me?" Albus piped up, hopefully.
"You … and your aunt." And he smiled at both of them, a gesture no-one had ever seen on Severus Snape's face before.
The adults exhaled in unison, none of them aware until that moment that they had been holding their breaths.
"So … what will you do now?" Harry rubbed his temples, still finding the whole thing hard to believe.
"I really have no idea." Severus looked over at the window, where the last of the storm clouds were blowing away, and the light of the moon was starting to show. "But a storm has passed, the times have changed, and I think, perhaps, that I should worry about that tomorrow."
Once more the adults looked at each other, then Ginny stood and held out her hand. "We have a spare room here that you're welcome to stay in, if you'll give me a moment to prepare it. And yes, let's discuss this tomorrow." Severus took Ginny's hand, stood, then turned back to Hermione.
She stood up and and looked into his eyes. "Yes, Severus?"
"Thank you. For believing. And for teaching Albus to believe." And he turned and walked out with Ginny.
Albus looked at Harry, Hermione, and Charlie, and then started to cry. Harry frowned in puzzlement, and Charlie rumpled his hair, but Hermione flew to her nephew and hugged him hard.
"What's wrong?" Charlie said, worried about the effect on the child.
"Will... will..." Albus hiccoughed, unable to make a complete sentence, and Hermione started laughing.
"It's all right," she said. "You don't understand, Albus. Of course he'll want to tell you stories, now that he's back. He'll want to correct all the parts he thinks I got wrong! But now?"
"Bedtime." Albus shrugged, and crawled under the covers. "But you still owe me, Aunty Hermione."
"I won't forget." She kissed him and tucked him in, then made way for his father and uncle. "Because, of course, we have a deal."