A/N: Many thanks to my betas RenitaLeandra and Keladry Lupin for all their work on this fic. I hate to think what it would have been like without them.
So, this is it! The last chapter! I hope everyone has enjoyed it!
When Severus left the kitchen, Hermione stared at the wall in shock for a long time before realizing that he was not coming back, and that he had been serious in his instructions. What had he meant by that? Why couldn't he just answer right away? She knew him too well to think that he would respond well if she went after him and insisted on an answer. Her only option was to do as he requested and return in the morning.
She spent the rest of the day back at Grimmauld Place, where she had been living given that she had been unable to find a job since the end of the war. Harry appreciated the company and had never so much as hinted about her moving out. She tried to spend the long hours locked up in her room, but Draco stopped by and she had been forced to be social.
They had a long talk; Draco had gone to Malfoy Manor and surveyed the damage, which was extensive and it seemed that the entire house had fallen into disrepair. Draco said even the interior had not been cleaned since his mother had been taken to St. Mungo's. It seemed that Narcissa's last order to the house elves had been not to touch anything, and she would be right back. The poor creatures had taken her literally and Draco had found their decomposing remains in the kitchen, exactly where she had left them. They had not even touched food to keep themselves alive.
When the subject had come around to Severus, Hermione tried her hardest to avoid his probing questions and knowing looks. She did not tell him about her conversation with Aberforth and her subsequent visit with Severus. Inside her stomach was still churning as to whether or not she had done the right thing, and she couldn't stand to hear what Draco might say. She knew that he could tell she was hiding something from him, but, to his credit, he said nothing about it.
Finally, as the afternoon grew into evening, Draco left, saying he still had a lot of work to do on his house. Hermione and Harry ate a silent and simple dinner in the kitchen before he left to go to the Burrow and visit Ginny. He requested that Hermione go with him, but she refused, saying she was tired and was planning to go to bed early. As he was on his way out the door, he paused and turned back.
"Don't worry, Hermione," he said and she looked at him with surprise.
"I'm not worried about anything," she lied.
"Right," he said laughing. "You know, you don't have to be a Legilimens to know what's on your mind. Snape would be an idiot to refuse you."
Hermione stared at him in dumbfounded silence, but Harry just laughed again, said good-bye and left.
Shaking her head in amazement and wondering when Harry had become so perceptive, Hermione climbed the steps up to her room and got ready for bed. She lay, staring at the ceiling for a long time wondering why Severus had told her to return the next day. Surely that was a good sign. If he wanted nothing to do with her romantically, he could have said as much right away instead of putting her through such torture. Finally, her mind began to calm and her thoughts turned more pleasant as she thought of the look on Severus's face right before he left the kitchen and the intense look he had given her. With that thought in her mind, she turned over and finally fell asleep.
Severus also did not get much sleep that night, although it was for a different reason. When Hermione had so bluntly stated her case, it was all he could do to not pull her to him and show her exactly how much he agreed with her. But he knew he had hurt and upset her that day at St. Mungo's, and he wanted time to plan his words carefully. To make it clear to her exactly what she meant to him. He refused to say he was in love with her; he wasn't entirely sure he knew what love was. But he knew that he felt something towards her that he had never felt toward anyone. Not even Lily Evans.
Lily. That was someone he usually avoided thinking about. He wondered if Aberforth had talked about her to Hermione. She had not mentioned it, yet if he knew the old man at all, he would have told Hermione all about their friendship. But that's all there had ever been with Lily. Just friendship, never anything more. This thing that he had with Hermione, was something else entirely. Something he had never though himself capable of. And, for once in his life, he was going to get it right.
He wanted to give her a token, something to show her how important she was to him. He refused to look like some silly romantic fool, though. He would not give her flowers or jewelry or some other ridiculously clichéd gift. Instead, he spent a good portion of the afternoon and well into the night down in his lab in the basement. Luckily, his stores of potions had remained untouched and unharmed. He worked with the potions and charms until his gift to her was exactly as he wanted it to be and finally, a few hours before dawn, he collapsed into a heap in his tiny bedroom.
He woke a few hours later, before the sun had even had a chance to creep over the horizon, to the sound of an insistent knock on the door. Dragging himself off the bed, and running his hand through his unkempt hair, he went to answer it.
"I'm done waiting!" Hermione said as soon as the door was opened. She was standing on his doorstep and it was impossible to tell if the color on her cheeks was from cold or anger. Severus suspected the latter. She pushed her way through the opening and into his sitting room. "This is just cruel, Severus Snape, and I'm done with it. Either give me an answer or turn me away, but don't toy with me."
Severus was shocked. He knew she would be annoyed at his behavior from the day before, but he never guessed she would be angry. Hadn't she been able to tell what he felt for her? Did she really not know? She sat down with a huff onto an old armchair and looked up at him expectantly.
"You're angry with me," Severus said, still surprised.
"Well, of course I'm angry with you, you miserable git!" Hermione said glaring at him. "Do you know what I have put myself through the last day? You really are a sadistic bastard when you want to be, aren't you?"
Severus couldn't suppress the grin on his face. Hermione looked at it and raised her eyebrow.
"What?" she asked suspiciously.
"I am finding your little tirade to be amusing," Severus said sitting across from her. "Just how many years have you wanted to call me all those names?"
Hermione had the grace to blush. "Well… you have to admit that the way you used to torture poor Neville in class was a bit cruel. Do you remember the day you threatened to poison his toad?"
"Mmm… yes I do as a matter of fact. I also remember you cheating to save the stupid animal. Too bad. Had that toad died, I would have been a lot less nervous about Longbottom. Pets and volatile potions rarely mix. "
"Oh… I never thought about it that way," Hermione said, with the sudden realization dawning on her face.
"No, I daresay you didn't. But you were young and Longbottom was a friend. And in the interest of fairness, I will admit that the boy did not turn out to be as big of a dunderhead as I had feared." Severus looked across to Hermione. Her face had returned to its normal color and she was no longer fuming. He took a deep breath. He had put this off long enough with silly chit chat. "You are not here to discuss Longbottom or his toad, though, are you?"
Hermione shook her head. "No," she said softly as if she now would like to run back out the front door. Severus rose and walked toward one of the bookshelves where he had a small wooden box resting. He fingered it for a moment but did not pick it up.
"Before I give you an answer to your question, I have something else that I would like to do," he said and waited a moment before turning back around to look at her.
"All right," Hermione said, but her voice shook and she didn't sound all right. Severus cleared his throat.
"It has been over a year since I first put you in harm's way by taking you to Riddle Manor and allowing you to be tortured by Death Eaters, myself included," he began. Hermione opened her mouth to object, but he held up his hand in a request for silence. "Do not argue with me. It is the truth and we both know it. Several weeks after that, I made a promise to you. I promised to protect you. Of course, I failed dismally there as well, since you were nearly killed again by Bellatrix."
"Severus, you could not…" Hermione was once again cut off by a sharp look from Severus.
"I was standing right there, Hermione. I was standing right next to you when she stabbed you with that knife, and I did nothing to stop it." The self-recrimination in his voice was clear and Hermione desperately wanted to argue, but she knew he would have none of it. "Since that time, you have spent all your time working to free me, at your own personal cost. Do you think I haven't noticed the way people would whisper about you in the courtroom? Did you think I never would see a copy of The Daily Prophet? I know what you have sacrificed for me."
"I did it gladly, Severus, and I would do it again if I were given the chance," said Hermione earnestly.
"I know," Severus grimaced. "You fool Gryffindors have courage in spades but lack a little in the self-preservation department."
He walked back over to the bookshelf and picked up the small box and brought it over to Hermione, holding it out to her. She took it carefully from him and opened it slowly. Nestled inside, resting on a piece of black velvet, was a small golden otter. She picked it up and held it in her hand. After staring at it for a moment she looked up at Severus questioningly.
"What is it?"
Severus cleared his throat nervously. "It is a Good Luck Charm."
Hermione quirked an eyebrow and smiled. "What? No rabbit's foot?"
"No," Severus laughed. "Not one of those silly Muggle things. This is a real Good Luck Charm. I'm surprised you've never heard of them. The otter is protected by Shield Charms and has been dipped in Felix Felicis. Using your Patronus enhances the protective power of it. This will repel most hexes and jinxes and will also prevent most minor accidents. They are rather tricky to make since it usually takes someone skilled in both Potions and Defense Against the Dark Arts. You are very lucky, my dear, to know just such a person. And that my personal potion stores were still good."
"You have Felix Felicis?" Hermione asked in surprise; her interest in the otter temporarily forgotten.
"Of course. How else do you think I got away with being a spy for so long? It can't be taken frequently, unfortunately. But it did come in handy the day we escaped from Riddle Manor. And my hand might have slipped over Potter's pumpkin juice the morning of the final battle."
Hermione could not help the laugh that escaped from her mouth. "Severus Snape! You never fail to surprise me." She laughed for several more minutes before turning serious once again. "I don't understand, though. This is very kind, but what does any of this have to do with yesterday?"
"My point in all this is that I once made a promise to you; one which I took very seriously, and still do. And if I cannot live up to that promise, how can I ever hope to keep all the other promises I plan to make to you?"
Hermione's breath caught in her throat and Severus knelt down to her, taking her hands in his. "Do you really have no idea?" he asked quietly. "When I pushed you away all those times, Hermione, it was not because I didn't want you. Quite the opposite. I have been amazed by you since the day I first returned to the Order. But I kept believing there must be someone better. Someone kinder who would give you the life you deserve."
"I don't want anyone kinder," Hermione said as tears suddenly pricked her eyes, "and there is no one better for me."
Severus dropped her hands and cupped her face. "You are so very foolish," he said softly before pulling her head down toward his and gently kissing her. It felt like an eternity since their last kiss more than a year before, and as he deepened it, he felt her running her hands through his hair. He pulled back for a moment, breaking the contact. "But I don't seem to mind foolishness anymore," he said and she smiled.
Hermione also smiled and slid off her chair so she was kneeling in front of him. He gathered her in his arms, enjoying the feel of it finally after fantasizing about it for so long, and kissed her again. As they broke away, his face had once again turned serious.
"I will not make promises that I cannot keep," he said and she nodded her understanding. He thought very carefully how to word what he wanted to say. "I do not know if I can promise to give you my heart. I do not even understand what those words mean. I've never really loved anyone in my life, and I'm not sure where to begin. But I can promise to give you my mind…" He tipped her head to press a kiss to her forehead."My body…" he smirked as her face turned delightfully red. "And my soul." He said these last words against her lips and Hermione thought that her insides must have surely melted away.
She leaned into him, settling into his arms and he shifted position so he was now sitting on the floor. They sat in silence for a long while as the sun slowly rose outside and cast sunlight on the book-lined walls of the sitting room. Occasionally, Hermione would tip her face upward and Severus would lean down to kiss her and, sometimes, his arm would tighten reflexively around her as if reassuring himself that she was really there. Eventually Severus shifted uncomfortably when his legs began to ache and then they both stood, Hermione now facing him. Severus was looking very serious as he smoothed her hair away from her face.
"You know this will be very difficult for you. When the public discovers that we are in a romantic relationship they will think that they were right all along. I don't like to think about what you might have to face."
"I don't care what they have to say," said Hermione bravely and stubbornly. "They don't know anything unless The Daily Prophet spells it out for them. My friends… our friends… they will understand."
Severus looked at her with admiration shinning in his dark eyes. "I didn't think you would care. Still, that is why I made that Good Luck Charm. Potter told me about that woman in Diagon Alley who spit on you."
Hermione made a low growl in her throat but Severus ignored it.
"I can't be with you every minute, as much as I would like to right now. But even if I'm not, it gives me peace of mind to know that you have some extra protection."
"Severus," Hermione said feeling both touched and exasperated, "I can protect myself, you know."
"Yes, I'm aware of that. But you must allow me to do this."
"Very well," Hermione conceded.
Severus relaxed visibly as he leaned down for another kiss. "Good. Now, if you don't mind, I believe I have a year of stupidity to make up for."
With that, he suddenly reached down and swept Hermione off her feet. She gave a small startled scream which was quickly silenced by his mouth. When he was done, she found she didn't have any breath left at all. It wouldn't have mattered, though, as Severus carried her up the narrow staircase. For the first time in her life, she was speechless.
Which, they both decided a long while later, was a very good way to be.