A/N: I can't submit this final chapter without voicing my undying gratitude to Toodleoo, who helped me whip and beat this story into shape. I couldn't have done it without her, and she deserves hugs, applause, flying confetti, trumpet fanfares, and all manner of felicitations.
I also can't thank you readers enough for following me along this path I set for Severus and Hermione. I'm glad you enjoyed the ride, and I particularly appreciate all the lovely reviews.
The Great Hall was filled with the sounds of students laughing, talking, joking, all more exuberantly than usual. Christmas break had begun, and when breakfast ended, most would be heading for the station to catch the Hogwarts Express.
"It's not quite the same this year," Severus said from his seat next to me at the Head Table. "Right about now I would be counting down the minutes until the thundering horde flees the premises. But since we're leaving as well…"
"I know," I enthused. "I can't wait to get home. We can put up a tree, have a fire in the fireplace, I can do some baking…."
"You can do some baking?" my husband echoed dubiously.
"I can manage some holiday biscuits and pies," I said, highly affronted. "I'm not totally helpless in the kitchen."
"Right," Severus muttered into his coffee cup.
Much as I hated to admit it, his skeptical comment wasn't far from the mark. During the three months we'd lived together on Spinners' End before relocating to Hogwarts, I could count on one hand the number of meals I'd produced that were what one might call inspired. As a result, Severus did most of the cooking when we didn't dine out.
Why not make the shepherd's pie again, he asked me after a particularly heinous attempt at lamb stew was binned after a few bites? I told him the story of my checkered past with shepherd's pie, and when he stopped laughing, suggested that I might want to take a chance and give it another go.
"How's your flat white?" Severus inquired now.
I eyed the contents of my cup. "Better than the last one."
Back in May when I told the Headmistress that I would be honored to become the first professor of the combined course of study of History of Magic and Muggle Studies, I had only one request: could she possibly encourage the House-Elves to branch out into newer versions of coffee? I swore to Minerva that if need be, I was prepared to introduce a lesson for my students on What Muggles Drink, and claim that sampling lattés and the like were an educational requirement. Minerva had readily agreed, and ever since then, the quality of Hogwarts' coffee had risen to greater heights. It still wasn't Coffee Cartel, but it was an improvement.
Once I had decided to accept the job offer, I left my Ministry post immediately. I missed Clare, and even Sondra on some days, but I needed every possible hour to prepare lesson plans. In a rather satisfying change of roles, Severus became the one helping me with my project, trying to get it whipped into shape before September first arrived. "It's what I like to call payback," I told him smugly when he complained that he'd spent all day on the Klingbeek text and was faced with an evening of acting as my assistant.
We moved into our new quarters at Hogwarts in mid-August. It was so strange to be back at the school in a different role, but I thought I was adjusting rather well—until suddenly the Hogwarts Express arrived and the Sorting took place and I found myself staring out at hundreds of curious young eyes. I didn't sleep a wink that night, and the next morning I wanted a whole lot more than a good cup of coffee; a stiff drink would have been much more helpful.
Severus knew I was terrified, and when breakfast was over he'd shunted me through a side door behind the dais and kissed me and told me he loved me, and suggested I avoid using Unforgiveable Curses on the first day of classes. When the first students filed into my classroom that morning—Ravenclaw and Slytherin Firsties, no less—and seemed to think I might actually have something worthwhile to say, I honestly wanted to run down to Hagrid's hut and beg for a treacle tart and a cup of tea.
But then, somehow, I'd managed a shaky smile and told my pupils that we were going to learn how magical peoples and Muggles had co-existed over the years, and how it affected their lives now and in the future. I'd set them all a brief assignment—to write their favorite pastimes, their likes, their dislikes, a brief bit about their families—and then compared them in class. The simple point I made, of course, was that they all had much in common, regardless of the degree of magic in their background.
A month later, a Gryffindor Fifth Year raised his hand to ask me how to bridge the gap when it seemed like he and his Muggle parents didn't understand each other any longer. It broke my heart, and I'd wished more than anything that I had a simple answer for him. I opened it up to class discussion, then sat back and watched the students wrestle with the issues of communication. And after class, I'd gone into my office and cried.
And now the first term was over; I had survived, and so had they.
"Tomorrow morning," Severus was saying now, "we'll go to Coffee Cartel and you can get your flat white fix."
"And check out that new bakery that opened down the block," I added. "And I want to see how our trees are faring along the Greenway. I wonder if they've expanded it farther."
"I doubt it," he shrugged. "It's winter. I don't think you should expect much progress this time of year."
A bell rang, and the mass of students who hadn't already left the Great Hall to collect their belongings now surged for the door. To a person, my colleagues at the Head Table sagged in relief.
"Hermione." Professor McGonagall fluttered her hand at me from the Headmistress's chair.
I rose at once and hurried over. "Yes, Minerva?"
"Would you and Severus be willing to see the students onto the train?"
"Of course." I returned to my seat to tell Severus about the new assignment. He greeted it with barely concealed disgust.
"Wonderful. I was hoping to start compiling marks next to the nice, warm, fireplace in my office."
I nudged his shoulder playfully. "Oh, cheer up. I might even start a snowball fight with you on our way back."
Severus glared at me. "A snowball fight. With me. Do you honestly think you would win?"
"No. But after it's over, we could return to our quarters, and take off our wet clothing, and warm up."
He smiled at me, an evil glint in his eye.
A Few Notes:
Believe it or not, I don't drink coffee. I never learned to drink it, although it always smells delicious. I did have my first Pumpkin Spice Latte this fall, so I can check 'Learn to Drink Coffee' off my bucket list. I don't know that a PSL counts as actual coffee, but I will admit that it was rather tasty.
Nor am I a wine person. I had to ask for advice on what wine Severus and Hermione might drink. Again, I never developed a taste for it.
I do have some experience in the gentrification process. When my husband and I first married, we rehabbed an old house in an up and coming neighborhood. It was definitely an experience. Sadly, the neighborhood never reached the heights we'd hoped, and we escaped to the suburbs like so many do. This was shortly after two of the un-gentrified neighbors decided to have a demolition derby in front of our house. Still, my hat is off to the visionaries who tackle city life and old houses.
I truly believe that Severus was ripe for gentrification after surviving the war. He had to find his way in the world after serving two masters for so long. I suppose he could have chosen the path of least resistance, sinking deeper into darkness, but I like to think he decided to opt for something better.
And I've said this to several reviewers: I think JKR was cruel in her treatment of the Grangers. I know Hermione was vital to pushing the story along, but couldn't she have spent a bit more time with her parents? Did she always have to be around to support Harry and Ron? And in DH, if the Order was allowed to hide the Dursleys, of all people, couldn't they have done the same for the Grangers?