Disclaimer: The characters from the Harry Potter universe in this story remain the property of JKR.Child Bride
A blur of unconnected images raced through his mind's eye: swathes of red cloth… a dark blue uniform… peach blossoms… a serene lake… a moving stream… unending yellow sand of a hot arid desert…
Hollow bits of strange sounds and languages accompanied the strobe effects of these images echoed in his semi-consciousness: the soft whizzes of arrows launched into the air and loud clanging of iron against iron, juxtaposing with the unmistakable sounds of musket and canon fires, in an all-encompassing background of screams…
People he knew – at least they looked familiar to him – crossing his path; could that really be Dumbledore with black eyes? The Porter Who Lived? The Wessex who stole her from him? Meg? Peach Fragrance?
Peach Fragrance? Was that the scent assaulting his sense of smell? His senses were reeling. He could still smell the heavy metallic pungent stink of blood and sweat and tears in the nether reaches of his mind; the primal smell that he associated with his deep utter desolate loneliness…
And there it was again – the scent of peach blossoms; harkening to days in the presence of one who comforted him, who brought laughter instead of tears, who allowed him to soar, to fly like the birds in their V-formation in azure blue skies.
He could feel his own laboured intake of air, and yes – that unmistakable overwhelming scent of peach blossoms.
In his semi-conscious state, he briefly considered the riot of impressions he experienced. Were those impressions real? Did they occur in his past lives? Or were they just his reality transformed into strange unfamiliar scenes by his overactive subconscious? Did one's consciousness survive multiple lifetimes, or was there only this lifetime he had to live – and consequently had to live it well?
'Too philosophical by half!' he mocked himself internally. He did not know – it was not a topic he spent much time pondering.
'Who…Where am I?' and he almost snorted at that other question that have plagued philosophers through the ages.
'The War. Voldemort.'
Another groan. This time loud enough that there was someone else where he was that responded to him.
"He's coming around!" an excited and relieved whisper. "Headmaster, he's waking up!"
Severus Snape tried to wet his dry lips with his parched mouth; "water…" was all he could indicate before unknown hands gently propped him up and a goblet of water was placed at his lips.
"Harry—" he croaked out. "He's—"
"He's fine, Severus," a gentle voice soothed him. "Ron managed to portkey both of you out in time."
"Headmaster, now that Severus has regained consciousness, I need to give him the dreamless sleep. If I could—?" a woman's voice, not Pomfrey… but a familiar contralto.
"Of course, my dear. Severus, rest well and worry not – the war is over."
A sip of chamomile scented water later, and Severus slipped into a welcome darkness.
A warm cloak suddenly enveloped him.
The past two weeks were lost in a blur of celebratory dinners, speeches and confusing confounding congratulatory messages from students, staff and strangers alike.
He could not quite remember what happened in the period when he just came back from Voldemort's lair. He distinctly remembered a sense of déjà vu when he locked eyes with a brilliant green pair, as the two of them stood side-by-side in the dark corridors of Riddle House, prepared to charge into battle.
"A knut for your thoughts?" she asked, as she stood behind him, looking out towards the lake.
The war against the Dark had come to a crux with the abduction of Rachel Abbot, a 1st Year Ravenclaw, and cousin to the Hufflepuff Abbots. When the nefarious designs on the 11 year-old was revealed to the Order by way of an intercepted code, Dumbledore knew that he had to put his best duellers on the offensive against Voldemort, before the dark Child Bride Ritual took place. For if it did, Voldemort will not only regain his full magical powers; not only will Rachel's life be forfeited; Dumbledore and his Order will not have the means to overcome that great evil.
Therefore, a dozen Phoenixes Apparated together with Severus into the woods near the Riddle House, and hiked the rest of the journey under the cover of darkness. They managed to circumvent the wards undetected with a strong Potion-Charm concoction that Professors Granger, Flitwick and Severus had devised, and had caught the Death Eaters unaware in their own den. They had easily dispatched most of the Death Eaters with no casualty on the Phoenix's side, but then they realised that the stronger and better fighters were all missing from their Dark headquarters.
Using a location charm, Rupert Abbot managed to pinpoint the whereabouts of his youngest sister and the twelve had hurried to the hidden chambers where the Child Bride ritual was taking place. Just when Virginia Weasley broke through the chamber's ward, all hell broke loose.
In that melee, Severus and Harry had managed to enter into a corridor whilst the other Phoenixes dealt with the elite of Voldemort's army. With hexes and curses flying like fireworks on Guy Fawkes night, the duo were able to spirit away to where Voldemort held the tiny girl spinning in mid-air.
Instinctively, Severus hurried to aid the girl, while Harry confronted Voldemort. Just as Severus managed to get the girl onto terra firma into the arms of her brother who portkeyed her to Hogwarts' Infirmary, Harry's scream of fury turned Severus to the more perilous task of fighting his ex-Master. With twin shouts of Avada Kedavra by the two Phoenixes, Voldemort's cry rang explosively through out the Riddle House. The magic that was woven into the House became unstable and the beams of the mansion started tearing apart. A large piece of detritus knocked Harry unconscious just as Severus managed to push him out of direct head impact. Severus tried to activate his portkey, but before he was successful, he succumbed to a numbing unconsciousness wrought by falling debris.
"I was wondering about the scent of peach blossoms that lingered when I awoke," he said, turning to the brunette behind him.
Her eyes twinkled mischievously. "My own concoction. A peach blossom based potion. Actually, it was Dumbledore who pointed out that the peach blossom was believed by the Chinese to bring blessings of sorts, but I can't remember exactly what it was. I did some tests on the blossom's extract, and found that it had very good magical healing properties – much better than our standard ones."
Severus nodded, his amusement at her pride in her own creation colouring his eyes.
"Anyway, you shouldn't be out here by yourself," she chided him. "It's cold out, and you are still recovering—"
"…I won't have you survive Voldemort and only to have you succumb to pneumonia—"
"…what with Madam Pomfrey on my back about helping her with the other casualties—"
He stepped towards her, grabbed her upper arms and swooped down onto her lips, both effectively shutting her up and getting her attention.
Her eyes widened as she stiffened in surprise at the uncharacteristic impulsive streak displayed by her usually taciturn colleague. But sensing him retreating from her lips, she possessively grabbed the back of his head restricting his movement. Her eyes closed as she deepened the kiss, feeling his arms coming around her back and waist, holding her up against his front.
She moaned in pleasure. In delight. In relief.
She could feel hot tears wetting her cheeks, but they did not come from her own dry eyes. They broke the kiss after what seemed like eternity, to take in much needed air, leaning their foreheads together, not wanting to break that physical bond now that they've broken through the barrier.
"Hermione," he breathed, in that warm silky tone she loved and dreamt of, "now that I've got your attention—"
She giggled in reply.
His eyes grew warm at her girlish giggle, but turned serious, as he sighed, "Marry me."
Hermione blinked in confusion and she frowned.
'Wha—?' her mind refused to work.
His proposal of marriage would not be surprising if they were already involved in a relationship.
But they weren't – at least, not in the traditional sense of the word.
They were working colleagues and have been now for the past five years. Before that, she was his student – one of his best, who had gone on to the University and returned to Hogwarts to teach Arithmancy. During the past year, they had spent much time working together on the Potion-Charm with Flitwick, in order to overcome Voldemort's wards.
True, their had spent some down-time in between work together, but they were hardly what anyone thought of as romantic. They had had dinners together in his quarters, in the Potions lab, even in her quarters, but they were usually work-related, hectic refuelling of the body, while researching obscure literature; rather than the idyllic dalliance that couples indulged in.
And they were not a couple.
They haven't even kissed!
'Well, not counting this one,' she thought wryly, as she looked into his warm gaze and kiss swollen lips, 'but I could get used to this.'
She looked into his black eyes, which were scrutinising her thoughts in hope, and she lowered her hands so that it rested on his chest.
"Severus," she spoke to his chest and moved her head up to look into his eyes, "Why?"
"Because I can have a future now, Hermione," he whispered almost inaudibly. "Before, I can't – I can't give either of us false hopes." Fresh tears traced his still too-thin cheeks. "Because this past year, working on the project, I realised that I've fallen in love with you and that without you beside me, my future's bleak – an utter desolate loneliness." He took a bracing breath, "I love you Hermione. And call me selfish, but you, your brilliance, your kindness – I…" he faltered, and continued almost fiercely, "I will not lose you to another because I dare not ask for what I want." He softened his tone, "And I want you."
Her breath caught in her throat at his intense declaration.
All her life, Hermione wanted what the French called a grande passion, someone who would enter her life, love her with a great passion and sweep her off her feet. In her friendship with Harry and Ron, she discovered a brotherly love that comforted and supported her in her times of need. They were her mates, but they could not relieve that ache in her heart or that loneliness she felt when her friends found lovers, which naturally excluded her presence. From Viktor, her first romantic attachment in her 4th Year at school, she found that she had qualities that appealed to the opposite sex that transcended merely looking good. From him, she discovered that she had worth. From the few romantic attachments she had after that, she found that being in love was like cotton candy, all light, fluffy and sweet. One of them – Crispin, taught her that sometimes men pursue women because they can, and when the chase was done, the fun was over; and they then look for another prey.
But none of her romantic attachments ever proposed marriage to her.
They all said they loved her, but none wanted her for life.
Except for this dark, brooding, and unloved man – who had never promised sweet nothings to her, who had never complimented her dressing, who had never given her to think that he ever felt more than what friendly work mates felt for each other – this man wanted her. With a passion.
Oh, but they always had that tension, even whilst working frantically to come up with that potion. That "what if" – what if there was no work involved; what if there was no Voldemort; what if it were just Severus and Hermione – would they? Could they?
But, like Severus said, those were dark times – and it was unwise for either of them to embark on a relationship when one of them could be left behind to mourn the other. But that argument is moot now – Voldemort has been defeated for two weeks. Could they now? Would they?
But marriage? Marriage was a huge step from workmates to life partners.
Was this a cry of loneliness from him? An avoidance of loneliness? That he chose her because she was convenient? Could his passion for her die down without that frantic "live today, for there may be no tomorrow" mantra they'd live with the past year?
Did she even love him?
Hermione swallowed the lump in her throat, "Severus—"
His forefinger rested on her lips, stopping her answer.
"Hermione, you do not have to answer me today. I need for you to know my intentions. I want to marry you, love. I understand if you need time to think this through. You may be a Gryffindor," he smiled, "but unlike the rest of your House, you have the sense to consider the consequences of your decisions. Take your time to decide, love. I've waited this lifetime, and I can wait until you've reach your decision."
"Severus," was all she could say to him, smiling a smile of gratitude.
She tilted her head up and kissed his lips languidly as her hands snaked up into his long raven hair, tasting him, loving him. She would take time to rediscover this man without that backdrop of darkness and malevolence. And she would make her decision.
A/N: I had great fun writing this portion of the story. I think the Chinese sequence and this last chapter were inspired. It was just flowing. The middle story was much more difficult to write. sigh
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed the story. Oh if you follow Xiang Shi's foretelling, you'd know how the story ended; Severus is saved by tao hua yun – both the peach blossom based potion and Love of A Good Woman. I'm happy to report that they spend their married days in scholarly pursuits, wizard chess, walks in Hogwarts' gardens, poetry and wine in the moonlight by the Lake…