Heart over Mind: Love is...
Hogsmeade was already aglow by the time Hermione Granger reached the dark edges of the village. It was late; the sky was ink-dark and crisp against the red-gold aura that gilded every wall and storefront, the culmination of every torch, lamp and bonfire lit the citizens had lit in honor of the Midsummer.
Hermione loitered near the empty train platform for a moment, simply soaking in the ambience -- the village, the castle standing silent in the distance, the slumbering landscape that felt both familiar and strange. Months spent on the Nazca plains had made the dense line of trees and lush greenness alien even as she felt herself relax from the hominess of it.
Unlike her last visit to Hogsmeade's Midsummer celebration, Hermione arrived alone -- and with flowers already in her hair. She'd plucked a single rose from her mother's garden and threaded it into the ribbon that loosely held her hair away from her face, the outer petals resting heavy against her neck, just under her ear.
In that respect, she'd come prepared.
Hermione ambled toward the village's brightness, toward the smell of spices and the jaunty music that floated out from the celebrating crowds. As she edged her way into the town proper, she could see the mass of people jostling good-naturedly, juggling food and wine and loved ones. But even from a distance, she could discern the line of men waiting to jump the bonfire, and she smiled remembering Wyatt's attempt from the year before.
Sliding into the merry throng, Hermione's mood lifted, carried by the crowd's. She'd been afraid that she would miss the festival this year and that fear had been too much of a reality for too long. But somehow, she'd managed to make the stars align in her favor so that she could be there in Hogsmeade.
"Well, well, look who we have here!"
It took Hermione a moment to recognize the cheerful, old voice but as soon she turned to see the elderly apple-face grinning at her, she laughed. "Madame Ljalja!"
"Who else?" the old woman asked, waddling forward to squeeze Hermione's hands in affection. "I thought I might see ye here," she added with a wink.
Hermione only smiled in response to the wink, returning the pressure of her hands. "Come to enjoy the festival, have you?"
"What, me? No, m'dear. I'm too old for that. Somebody's got to sell my wares, girl." The old witch tugged her along, Ljalja's many beaded necklaces twinkling with their movements.
"I thought you were retiring," she pointed out, letting herself be led into the crowds, past familiar faces she might have spoke to otherwise.
Ljalja cackled. "So I was! But little Severus was right in doubtin' me. I'll retire when I'm dead, and that'll be soon enough." She stopped addressing Hermione long enough to yell something wickedly blunt at a couple who blocked their path, too engrossed in one another to notice their crime. "Travel and sellin' is in my blood as much as the magic is."
Hermione nodded in understanding.
"Well, my girl, speaking of selling..." Ljalja slowed and dropped her hand so that she could turn and face her. They were standing close enough to the dancing area that the music was full and loud in her ears, no longer simply a stray note in the back of her mind. The tune was lively and Hermione could almost feel the vibrato of the strings humming through her veins. "I have to get back to my wares if I plan to make myself a profit tonight." There was a gleam in her eye as she added, "You should stop by before ye leave."
Hermione nodded. "I will. It was good to see you again, Madame Ljalja."
"Please, call me Grandma," Ljalja said, grinning, before she barreled into the crowds once more. "I expect to be seeing ye!"
She watched the squat figure be swallowed by the crowds and she took a deep breath, eyes surveying the revelry around her. No longer seeing anyone she knew, Hermione approached one of the food-laden tables and found herself a glass of spiced wine, cushioning her stomach with a bit of sweet cake and a handful of strawberries, mindful to save her clothes from the stains of berry juice or wine. But even while she ate and returned merry wishes of happiness to those in the crowd familiar enough -- or inebriated enough -- to shout them at her as they passed, Hermione kept her eyes searching, moving over the people with an impatient sharpness that anyone would've recognized for what it was.
She was waiting for someone.
Caught up in the spectacle of other celebrants, Hermione had no idea how long she waited there before she sensed his presence. She didn't see him immediately but she could feel him; she twisted around until she found him with her eyes, standing just outside the shadowy nook created between two shops, slightly away from the masses milling through the streets.
Snape was dressed similarly to how he'd been the year before, simple clothing, no cloak. But instead of a tunic whose color mimicked the night sky, he wore one whose shade echoed the wine in her glass, the rose in her hair, the berry juice that stained her fingers. His dark eyes were steady and warm on her and she felt her blood reacting to it, even with the distance of the street separating them. He waited casually in the shadowed spot, graceful in his stillness.
Hermione set aside her half-drunk glass of wine and headed his way, her eyes never leaving his.
"I was wondering when you'd get here," she remarked once she was within a comfortable hearing distance.
Snape raised an eyebrow. "I think your attendance was rather more in question than mine."
She accepted the blunted rebuke with a quick nod. "I know. I'm sorry for that."
"As you should be," he told her, his mouth threatening to lose its harsh shape for the curving line of a smile.
Hermione answered with a grin of her own, a sly, sharp smile. "If someone didn't know you, they might believe that your choice of meeting place and time was meant to be a romantic gesture."
She'd reached him by then and she had little warning before he drew her to him, pulling her close and farther into the shadows, away from roving eyes. "If they knew you, they'd understand that this was the only way I could finish up my work this evening without you bothering me."
"Are you saying I'm a distraction, Severus?"
"I'm saying you're a nuisance, Hermione."
Laughter threatened to bubble from Hermione's throat at his dry humor but it never had chance because he chose that moment to kiss her, arms tightening around her. It wasn't until she responded, twining her arms around his neck, that she realized how exhilarating it felt to finally be there with him, after so long apart. Dimly she was aware that her hands were shaking with the unexpected rush of emotion and she buried them in the material of Snape's tunic in hopes of steadying them.
"Am I now?" she asked breathlessly when they pulled apart, her voice light with laughter and mischief.
Snape caught the nuance and responded in kind. "Usually worth the bother, I'll admit."
"Thank heavens," she smiled with a coquettish toss of her head. "Otherwise, I'd worry that you'd give me up entirely."
"It was a very near thing," he warned.
She gasped her surprise which melted into laughter at the wicked gleam in his eyes. She'd heard before that someone could be drunk on happiness but she'd never quite felt that way until that night. She couldn't help but smile, laugh, tease -- she was heedlessly, recklessly drunk with joy.
Snape released her and stepped from the shadows, offering her his arm. "I believe you had your heart set on enjoying these festivities again this year?"
"I did," she agreed, taking his arm, settling in close to him, as close as she'd wanted to the year before but hadn't dared. "Lead on, Professor."
There were things, Hermione had learned the year before, that one simply had to do at the Midsummer festival and those were the things that she and Snape did first. They sampled the free wine and food, and watched the young men try, sometimes in vain, to leap over the bonfires. They meandered through the crowds, but not rushed or nervous or uneasy as they'd been together the year before when both of them had been too unsure of themselves and each other to truly enjoy their time.
"That's quite the ensemble," Snape said after awhile, raking his eyes over her from head to toe. She noticed that his gaze lingered on the rose tucked into her hair before it drifted up to her eyes.
"Thank you," she said with a little nod of her head. "I was quite taken with this dress myself."
She'd bought the dress over Easter when she'd been taken with homesickness, regretting her decision to stay in America for the holiday. Noticing her melancholy, Marisol's sister had taken her shopping, had worked to keep her too busy to notice her own sadness; it had been on one of their many excursions that she'd found the beautiful garment. It was in a style most associated with traditional Mexican dress: made of pristine white cotton, with a full tiered skirt and edged in lacy crochet work. It was a far cry from the sleek, satiny dress that Sophia had once given her but it also seemed to fit the Midsummer night as much as that elegant piece once had.
Snape was still watching her intently. "I was more in mind of this," he corrected her softly. They were huddled into another quiet alcove -- he was adept at finding them, she noted absently -- and he slid his hand over the lacy edge of the bodice and up over the bare skin of her shoulder and the line of her neck, until it rested lightly against her throat, fingers brushing against the sensitive skin behind her ear. She shivered.
"This?" she echoed, distracted, eyes dreamy.
He curled one finger in response, tracing a distinctive pattern on her skin. Magic sparked in its wake, shimmering against the bright blue ink that outlined the spiral Snape's finger had followed.
"Yes, that." His fingers deliberately brushed over the mark's surface again. "Think I wouldn't notice it?"
"Hoping, perhaps?" she admitted. "At least not so early in the evening."
His eyebrows rose at her statement. "Obviously, you have yet to realize the attention I've paid you these last visits if you didn't think I'd notice that you've gained a rather remarkable tattoo."
"Do you know what it means?"
"I have some rather vague notions of what it could mean," he told her wryly. "I have some first hand experience with this kind of magic."
She gently laid her hand over his where it rested against her neck, offering a comfort that he probably didn't need to receive but that she needed to give.
It was old territory that they'd first breached when she'd helped him gather mistletoe the year before, one eroded over long evenings since, but slowly and cautiously; a testing of the waters. But she could see that it risen up in him again, if only for that one moment.
"It's nothing like that."
"I didn't think it was," he told her. "But it's ancient magic. I can feel it."
"That's not always a bad thing, Severus," she said quietly, thinking of Harry, thinking of the hayam.
"True," he finally answered, slow and measured, as if he'd given it deep thought.
Suddenly, Hermione decided that Hogsmeade was not where they needed to be, not for the conversation she wanted to have with him. "Oh, come on," she said determinedly, taking him by the hand. "Let's get out of here."
Snape said nothing but let her lead him away from the celebration until they skirted into the edge of the forest, retracing the steps they'd once taken in search of summer mistletoe. Only once did Snape question her actions, a sardonic "How far must we walk before you're able to speak again?" as he continued to follow her. Along the way, Hermione had drawn her wand to cast a scantilla spell and the warm air was alive with its lightning dust by the time they reached the ancient oak.
Snape gave the tree one long look before he glanced back at Hermione.
"You are nauseatingly sentimental," he noted simply.
"Well, Miss Granger, I assume your ability to speak has returned by now?" He leaned against the old oak, arms crossed over his chest. His eyes, however, were intent, curious. "I'm waiting."
"I'm sorry," she began. "For the rather manic and mysterious nature of some of the letters I've sent you since Christmas."
"You said you were busy," he said, dismissively. "It's not as if the reverse hasn't occurred."
Hermione took a deep breath and crossed her arms as well, her eyes serious but glittering. "I was working on something but I wasn't sure it was going to work out." She gave him a rueful grin. "I don't do well with failure, you know. I didn't want you -- anyone -- to know what I was doing in case I failed."
"Since you're telling me, I assume you didn't fail?" Snape asked.
Her expression brightened, growing more luminous as the seriousness began to melt away. "No, I didn't."
"And it has something to do with the -- marking?" He touched the place on his own neck where he'd once touched Hermione's.
Hermione nodded. She was fighting a losing battle with the giddiness she felt earlier, her anticipation quelling any lingering nervousness. She moved closer to him, pulled her heavy gather of hair away from her neck, tilting it to expose it fully to the soft glow of light put off by the spelled light dotting the air around them. "It's the mark of the healer, granted by the Nazca School," she explained quietly. "It's an ancient tradition, or so I'm told, but they still observe it as a mark of honor."
She paused and let her words sink in, the silence cluttered only by the sounds of the silent trees and the faint strains of music floating up from Hogsmeade. Hermione was surprised that it was still discernable so deep in the wood.
"I thought you had another year left on your apprenticeship?" Snape asked her, oddly broken. Surprised, she guessed.
"I did," she admitted, straightening her neck to stare at him squarely. "But as much as I relished the chance, I was tired of having an ocean between me and everyone I love. Between us."
He ran his finger lightly over the tattoo once again, watching its magic spark. "It's very new."
Hermione chuckled. "Yes. I only managed to finish everything a few days ago. I wasn't sure I would make it back in time for the Midsummer. I don't think I would've survived if I hadn't."
"I'm sure you would've," he said with confidence, pulling him toward her, into the circle of his embrace. She wrapped her arms around him, let her weight sag against him even as the bark of the old tree bit into the exposed skin of her arms.
"I'm not so sure," she whispered against his neck where she'd buried her face. Her voice trailed away, soft and confessional, unsure.
It seemed strange to admit her own weakness, how much she'd missed him, even though his letters had professed a similar longing. Perhaps her trepidation came from the fact that there would be no more leaving, no more snatched visits and then months of pining, months of separation. Their time together had finally come, years after her first realization of feeling, almost a year after she'd come to accept it and still months after his own confession had brought them together. It had been a limbo, in some ways worse than the time when she'd been sure of her unreturned love.
"I must admit I am glad you didn't postpone again," he told her, his voice near her ear, rumbling deep as his breath whispered against her skin. His quiet admission matched her own in feeling and he tightened his arms around her, saying more through touch than word.
Hermione sighed, a contented sound. She pulled away a little, creating enough space so that she could look into Snape's face As she watched him, the smile that wouldn't turn his mouth lit his dark eyes. "You know..." she began, nodding upwards. "We're standing under mistletoe."
"Is that some sort of veiled hint?"
"Maybe," she admitted, closing the distance she'd created. "Actually, definitely."
And then she kissed him, like she'd wanted to do for the months they'd been apart, fueled by a desperate desire that was out of place in the here-and-now but still lingered in her memories of the lonely nights she's endured in Peru. Snape didn't seem to mind and responded with equal passion; when they finally pulled apart, Hermione was dizzied and dazzled by the fact that she was the one now pressed against the old oak's trunk.
"You are either nauseatingly sentimental or impressively devious," he announced, amused. He gentled his hold on her and lifted a hand to ghost against her cheek, to soften his words.
"I vote the latter," she smiled dreamily, content to let silence cloak them once more.
Snape grew serious in the lengthening quiet. "Have you made plans? Now that you've finished your apprenticeship."
"No," she admitted. "Not anything substantial. I've -- I've had some offers but nothing I've accepted. St. Mungo's, of course, but I don't think that's where I belong."
"No," he agreed, touching the Nazca spiral again.
"I'll find the right place," she said with conviction. "Eventually. I have -- time."
"Yes," Snape said. "As improbable as it seems in the Wizarding World, you do."
"And..." Hermione leaned into his touch, the hand lingering on her neck. "My decisions no longer simply affect me. I didn't -- I wouldn't make decisions without talking with you first."
He remained serious. "I would never dream of telling you what you could or could not do, Hermione."
"I know," she told him, and she meant it. "But what you think matters to me. If you haven't figured that out yet."
Finally, his expression softened. "I have some inkling of that, yes." She smiled and Snape's lingering hand inched down her shoulder. "I want you to make choices that will make you happy. Beyond that..."
Hermione leaned forward, pressing in closer to him. "I'm already happy, Severus. Here and now. Well, now that I won't be running off in the morning to disappear for months on end. Being here makes me happy. This makes me happy."
Snape settled his eyes on her, dark and hot and knowing. "My sentiments exactly."
The faint strains of music from the village seemed to swell and the melody floated around them, distant but clear. Hermione looked at him expectantly. "You still owe me a dance," she reminded him.
She nodded. "From last year when you ruined my chances to dance with someone else--"
"He was being completely inappropriate---"
"And you refused to dance with me--"
"I believe your memory of the incident in question is faulty--"
Hermione held her finger against his lips, cutting off his words. Her next words were whispered, soft. "Dance with me, please."
Snape sighed but took the hand she'd held against his mouth and led her a few steps away from the ancient oak. "Nauseatingly sentimental," he declared even as he pulled her into his arms.
Unlike their first awkward try at a dance a year before, their two bodies slowly began relax into the rhythm of the music and they swayed softly in time with the echoes that reached them. Hermione had always wondered how something could be so happy that it was sad but that feeling was upon her, bringing unexpected tears to her eyes as she stood there, wrapped in Snape's arms.
She wanted to blame the rollercoaster of emotion she'd been on the last few days -- finishing her apprenticeship, coming home, coming there -- but she couldn't help but feel that that was only the tiniest part of it. The voice inside her that sounded like her Aunt Sophia, that sounded like her heart, said it was nothing more or less extraordinary than the magic of that perfect moment -- than love.
She looked up, startled by his voice after the moments of silence, by the uncharacteristic emotion in it. She gave him a questioning look.
Snape caught her eyes fearlessly, intent, watching her as she watched him. "I am not the type to say things that I do not mean and I have never been one to make promises lightly. I was taught that they are too important for frivolous overuse and that to break them easily is to dishonor yourself, no matter how dishonest the promise might have been."
Hermione nodded, a quick movement of her head, knowing how much his words bared of him.
"As much as I would like to, I cannot promise you forever," he continued, his voice as soft and silken as she'd ever heard it even though it caught on the emotions he had chosen to reveal. "I don't believe in the future and haven't for a very long time. I am trying to change but I'm afraid that I'm too old to do it again."
"Severus," she murmured, interrupting. "You don't --"
This time it was his fingers against her lips that quieted words. "What I can say is that I care for you, as you know. That I love you and that I don't expect that to change in all of the years I have left. Feeling this way at all was extraordinarily unexpected; I don't think I can take any more surprises rising from my own--"
"I love you, too," she interrupted again, with a finality that stopped Snape mid-sentence. "And that's enough."
Snape didn't reply, at least not in words. But he kissed her again, passionate, lovely, abandoned, and Hermione knew that what she'd said had been absolutely true.
This was enough, what they had. They didn't need words or formal ceremonies or anything else to give it more meaning than it had; they didn't even need approval or acceptance from anyone who didn't stand with them in that grove with the ancient oak and its mistletoe. It would always enough -- more than enough.
And while he could not say it in words or pretty phrases, Hermione could hear forever in every breath and touch they shared, in every look and caress; luckily for them both, she was the perceptive sort.
Author's End Notes: There are a lot of things that I thought I'd want to say when I was finished with HOM but now that I am, I'm not sure what it was. HOM has been a long, long journey in fic-writing, one that started four years ago with a funny little idea that wasn't meant to last past the first scene or two. Then it morphed into an outline which included ten chapters and about 20,000 words and then slowly it became what it is today. When I started in earnest writing on this, I had a few objectives: I wanted to create a real family for Hermione, one with character and uniqueness and that fit my perception of what kind of people who could produce a child like her; I wanted to write some of my favorite tropes from the HGSS fic sphere and use them in a fic; I wanted to write a story that didn't necessarily rely on sex to keep the readers interested; and I wanted to write a HGSS romance that felt realistic and plausible -- hence the very slow build.
I'm not sure if I succeeded in all this but I've come to the end and I'm glad for it. One part of me wants nothing more than to yank this thing down and do a symbolic violence on it in the form of major editing and revising but I just don't have the energy for that! So HOM will probably stand as is, in its imperfect form, as you see it now.
I want to thank all of my readers who've sent me encouragement over the years and who've stuck with me despite months without updates, the whining on my LJ and my periodic resentment of all things HOM. It was for y'all that I finished this and I hope the ending didn't turn out too badly!
As always, thanks to Beta Goddess Kel! And special thanks to PookaSeraph and Tai for helping me through this last chapter.
This is your last chance, so -- if you feel inclined, leave a review.