Chapter 8

Hermione froze at the sound of the familiar voice of her dearest female friend, Ginny Weasley. Ginny, who had come up behind them now walked around to face Hermione and Snape, with a look of suspicion animating her features.

"So, you have found him, then?" she asked softly. "Hello, Professor Snape." Snape nodded slightly in greeting, but his eyes were wary.

"Hello, Ginny," Hermione said evenly. "Yes, we have found Severus, and I am sure you can see he is unwell and in need of rest …"

"Yes, of course," Ginny said, sarcasm dripping from every word. "You must make sure you take good care of Professor Snape, since he is so much more important than my brother."

"Ginny, don't start," Hermione groaned. Snape just stared at his red-haired detractor blankly.

"All right," Ginny replied through a cold smile. "But, we will be talking, Hermione."

And she flounced away, leaving Snape and Hermione with only the background noises of supper now progressing in the Great Hall.

"Don't you think we should go to the hospital wing?" Hermione asked as they started out slowly once again.

"No," Snape gasped. "My rooms … Please"

"As you wish, Severus. But won't you let me transport you with a levitation charm? I think …"

"Certainly not!" Snape snapped rather less forcefully than he had before. Hermione said no more.

It was a struggle getting to the dungeons, but somehow they managed it. And Hermione had helped him to bed by the time Professor McGonagall and Harry arrived.

Professor McGonagall burst into uncharacteristic tears at sight of him. A myriad of emotions flitted across her face, as Snape watched her with trepidation. After all, the Headmistress had been quite close to Dumbledore.

Finally, she calmed herself and seemed to settle on being happy to see the former Potions master. "Severus, you are finally back," she said in a watery voice.

"So it would seem, Minerva." He managed to sound bored, but he was still watching her closely. "But how long will I be allowed to stay once the Ministry is informed of my return?" He felt an overwhelming urge to be sure of his welcome, no matter what Potter had said about the Ministry's feelings on the matter.

"Don't be silly, Severus," Professor McGonagall said dismissively. "Harry and I took care of the Ministry long ago … The worst you can expect from them is a hero's welcome."

"That is bad enough," Snape muttered. But he relaxed visibly.

"Still as optimistic as ever, eh, Severus," McGonagall chuckled.

"Professor McGonagall," Hermione interrupted abruptly. "I think Severus should rest now." She reached for Snape's hand and the Headmistress watched with barely concealed surprise as he willingly grasped her hand in return.

She smiled knowingly. "I see," she said briskly. "Yes, of course, you must be tired from your journey. We will speak later when you are feeling better."

"Harry." She turned to him abruptly. "You still have a bed in Gryffindor Tower, if you wish."

Harry nodded his acquiescence.

"And, Hermione …"

"I will be staying here with Severus, Professor." Her tone was polite but pointed.

McGonagall sized up her former student for a moment. "As you say, Hermione" she said finally. There was a hint of a sigh in her tone. "Well, then, if you need anything do not hesitate to call up a house-elf," she continued as she headed to the door. "Good evening." She was out the door with an officious swish of her robes.

Both Harry and Snape were gaping at Hermione, who had begun busying herself straightening the bed-clothes. She looked up to see the stunned faces of the two wizards most dear to her.

"What?" she asked, stopping at mid tuck in the duvet.

"You just dictated to Professor McGonagall …" Harry started, his eyes wide with disbelief.

"So, I did," Hermione said. "Severus can't very well see to himself right now, can he? And I am assuming you wouldn't want Madam Pomfrey hovering over you." She looked over at Snape for confirmation and he gave it with an alarmed expression. "And I hardly think Harry …"

"Uh, no," both men confirmed. Harry coughed rather forcefully.

"Well, then, it looks as though I am the one for the job." Hermione finished conclusively.

"Harry, you had better go find your bed for the night, hadn't you?" she said as she ushered him to the door. "We both have business to take care of tomorrow." She gave him a pointed look.

Harry smiled grimly. Ron and Ginny …

"Goodnight, Hermione … sir." He turned to Snape briefly.

"Goodnight," Hermione replied. Snape said nothing. She closed the door behind her retreating friend.

"Do your wards reset themselves when your door closes?" she asked.

"Yes," Snape replied. He breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank you." His eyes were on her, but his face was without discernable expression.

"Whatever for?"

"For taking care of … everything."

For taking care of me, he thought.

Hermione read between the lines. She walked over to him and kissed his forehead. "You are welcome," she whispered. "Are you hungry?"

He nodded.

The house-elves brought a spread fit for a small dinner party and Hermione watched with satisfaction as Snape ate his fill.

"Are you in any pain, love?" she asked as she took his tray.

"No," he said, "I am only a little tired." But Hermione knew better. He was more than a little tired.

"Then you must sleep now." She began to arrange his pillows.

"Hermione," he said, his voice full of foreboding. "You will have to talk to him sooner rather than later, you know."

Hermione looked at Snape with worry-shadowed eyes.

"He is bound to know you are back. His sister …"

"Yes," Hermione confirmed quietly. "But I am not leaving you tonight."

"Your actions speak volumes, then." Snape watched her carefully as he spoke. "He already knows."

"That may well be, Severus." She hastily wiped a tear away.

Snape took her hand and patted the side of the bed beside him. "You are sure?" His eyes begged her to understand his need to ask. She did.

"I was never more sure of anything in my life," she said in strong, firm tones. Snape's face moved from fear to rest. "And I will go to him tomorrow to tell him of my decision."

"He will hate you for it, Hermione." His voice was mournful.

"Perhaps," she answered firmly. "I do not delude myself that this will be an easy conversation. But, I know now, that even if you had not come along, it still would have been wrong for me to marry Ron. One day, Ron will realise it, too."

"What about Harry?" Hermione jumped at Snape's use of Harry's first name.

"He is, I think, coming around, don't you?" she said with a small smile.

Snape looked somewhat skeptical.

"Severus, I know you and Harry may never be the best of friends …" Snape smirked. "But Harry respects all you have done, and I know that you are not insensible to Harry's contributions …" Snape's face froze. He would not give away his thoughts. So, Hermione felt confirmed and she smiled. "Perhaps you could build on that and one day you will at least not hate each other."

"I don't know, Hermione," Snape replied darkly, shaking his head.

"Well," Hermione said, hiding her disappointment, "hope springs eternal." She finished tucking him in. "Sleep now, darling." She kissed him lovingly.

As she settled on the sofa for the night she let herself feel her nervousness about tomorrow's meeting with Ron.

She knew it would be a defining moment—for good or ill. The thought that she could lose Ron forever, not to mention Ginny and the whole Weasley family, made her feel shaky.

At least Harry had promised not to desert her.

And nothing could compare to what she had found with Severus.

It would hurt her terribly to see Ron go, but if he chose to do so there was nothing she could do to stop him.

Hermione pulled her blanket up to her chin and listened to the fire crackling on the grate. Tired as she was, it was another hour before she slept.

The next morning dawned cold and dark. Hermione saw it as a bad omen.

Snape came out of his room to find her hunched over her tea at his small kitchenette table.

"Good morning, Severus," she said mildly as she poured him his tea.

"Good morning," he replied smilelessly. "Did you sleep at all?"

"I did … and you? You look much better."

"I am recovered, thank you." He sat down and took up his cup.

"I wonder who finished cleaning up your rooms," Hermione said conversationally. "They did a fine job. I can tell you it was a right mess, especially after our battle with Rodolphus Lestrange. I couldn't believe …"

"Hermione, you are babbling," Snape said mildly as he sipped his tea.

"Sorry," she said sheepishly. "I suppose I am a little keyed up." Her teacup clattered as she set it clumsily on its saucer.

"It is only natural," Severus said. "You needn't pretend with me." His gaze was slightly reproving.

"I know," Hermione murmured.

"I think it would be best for you to go to see Mister Weasley right away. Get it over."

"Yes," Hermione agreed. "I can't eat anyway."

Snape took her hand. "I will be here waiting for you." His expression was tender.

She kissed him. "Thank you. That is no small comfort."

The walk to the hospital wing was a long one. She felt anxious to get there, but once she stood outside the doors, she couldn't bring herself to go in.

"Come on," she coached herself. "No sense standing out here." She pushed through the doors and walked stalwartly in the direction of Ron's cubicle.

He was all ready sitting up and waiting for her. His expression did not bode well.

"Ron," Hermione said coolly.

"Hermione," Ron grumbled through clenched teeth. His eyes were hard as ice.

"I have something to tell you." Hermione saw no reason not to plunge right in.

"Save it!" Ron growled. "I all ready know." His face reddened with anger.

"Ron …" Hermione sighed. "I am sorry, really …"

"I just bet you are!" he yelled suddenly, clenching his hands in the bed sheets. "First, you abandon me to go look for the git! Then you CHEAT on me with him!"

"I didn't cheat, Ron!" Hermione was horrified. "And don't shout. Madam Pomfrey will have our heads!"

"Yeah," Ron rolled his eyes with contempt. "And you did cheat, unless you have forgotten you were my fiancé!"

"I think you have forgotten that you broke it off with me BEFORE the trip ever took place!"

"Come on, Hermione! You know I was just angry! You know I didn't mean it!"

"Oh, I see," Hermione said caustically. "You expected me to read your mind instead of going on your spoken word … as usual! And I suppose that is how you planned to conduct our entire married life!"

Ron looked gobsmacked. "I would expect you to understand me and …"

"Really, Ron! And what, spend the rest of my life dealing with your temper tantrums? As much fun as that sounds …"

"Now, wait just a minute, Hermione! You can't make this about me! I am not the bad guy here!"

"No, Ron, you are not! You are the incredibly selfish, insensitive arse here!" she hissed. "You are telling me that your fit-throwing is something I would just have to get used to and allow for because it is who you are! Well, no thank you!" She crossed her arms over her chest and stamped her foot for emphasis.

For a moment, Ron looked cowed. But only for a moment. "Oh, and life with that greasy bastard, Snape, is going to be any easier! What about his temper, his cruel remarks!"

Hermione glared. "Severus is temperamental, I will admit. But HE does not play games. He tells it like it is! And he may be harsh at times, but he will always say and do what is best for me!

"And he will not try to stifle me or stop me doing what I feel I must!"

"Oh, yeah, he's just the picture of the perfect husband!" Ron said contemptuously.

"Ron, I love him," Hermione said softly, all the fight suddenly gone from her.

Ron looked, for a moment, as if she had shot him. "Don't say that, Hermione," he said miserably.

"I am sorry. I just think you deserve to know the truth," she whispered, moving nearer the bed.

The look in Ron's eyes was devastating. "You once said you loved me, too …"

"I know, Ron," Hermione pleaded. "I thought I did. Truly. But now I know better. Don't you think it odd that I am unwilling to allow for your faults, but I am willing to allow for his?"

Ron shrugged. His face was stony.

"I cannot see you and I staying together for the rest of our lives, but I can see Severus and I …"

"Stop, Hermione, please." Ron put up a hand, his face blanching. "Look, you obviously know what you want to do. And my opinion means nothing to you now. But you can't expect me to be happy about this. I can't go with you on this one."

Hermione nodded slowly. "I see. I expected as much, Ron. And I understand that you cannot sanction my relationship with Severus."

"No," Ron said, "I don't think you do understand." He paused, nervously wiping his forehead with one hand. "I don't think we can even be friends anymore."

"Ron," Hermione gasped.

"Hermione, I can't bear to watch you throw away what we had on that great greasy git! And if you had a particle of compassion in you, you would understand that!" Angry tears stood in his blue eyes.

"You may not love me anymore, but I still love you. And the only way I can deal with what you have done … what you are doing … is to walk away completely."

But Hermione did understand.

It is always about you, isn't it, Ron? she thought resignedly.

"That is going to be hard to do, don't you think? We are both friends with Harry," she reminded him carefully.

But Ron only eyed her speculatively. "Don't worry, Hermione, I won't stand in the way of your relationship with Harry," he said stoically. "I need some time away anyway. I think I will go away for awhile—maybe to visit Charlie in Romania."

"Ron, you don't have to …"

"I am serious." His voice and expression brooked no argument.

"Alright," she said quietly. "You do what you need to do."

"Thank you," he said, his face set.

"Ron, I really am sorry," she said. "Truly I am. I did not see this coming any more than you did. And I wish I could do something to help you feel better." She wiped quickly at her teary eyes. Her words seemed trite, even to her own ears.

"I know." His reply was barely audible. He was not looking at her.

And with one last look at the pathetic figure of her ex-fiancé lying in his hospital bed, Hermione turned and walked away.

Meanwhile, back in his quarters, Snape was busying himself with nothing in particular. He wished he knew what was happening with Ron and Hermione.

It seemed that every fear he had ever had about his relationship with Hermione had come to roost squarely in his tormented mind.

What if, when Hermione saw Ron, she suddenly realised she had made a terrible mistake and decided to go back to him? What if when she returned she told him it was over?

She promised never to leave you, didn't she? a small voice questioned him.

And she had, but what if she changed her mind? What if losing Ron's friendship and that of Ginny and the rest of the Weasley family was all too much for her after all?

But she said she loved you. What are you afraid of?

Snape stopped his pacing before the fire and turned to stare into it moodily.

"That she will find out that she really does not love me … that the best thing that has ever happened to me will end before it's even started," he said bitterly.

"Severus?"

Snape closed his eyes. Had she heard? He turned slowly. One look at her face told him she had.

"Hermione," he breathed. "You are back." He could not hide his relief.

"Of course I am," she said as she rushed into his arms. "How could you doubt me?"

Snape held her tightly to him. He kissed the top of her head. "I didn't, really. Only you were gone—with him. I thought perhaps …"

"I would change my mind?" She looked up at him, her brown eyes glimmering with tears and firelight.

He nodded stiffly. "I am sorry," he said softly.

"Severus, it is all right. I realise all of this is new to you. But someday," she reached up and kissed his sallow cheek, "I hope you will be secure in my love."

Snape looked down at her and said nothing, but his obsidian gaze was full of warmth, passion, and love. His heart was clearly visible to Hermione. And she felt her heart answering his in turn.

"You are precious to me," Snape said, bending near to her ear. "Do not forget it." He looked at her again, his face only inches from hers. "Without you, I would have no reason to go on."

Hermione felt a delightful shiver run through her as his voice flowed over her and into her like warm, smooth honey.

"Severus," she sighed, closing her eyes.

Then, his lips took hers, and she let herself melt into his embrace. His arms tightened around her. He pulled his mouth from hers and began trailing kisses down her throat.

"Oh, Severus," she said, her heart swelling with love, her body responding to his touch.

"Hermione," he murmured into her throat. "How I love you …"

"I love you, too." She barely got the words out before Snape was kissing her again fervently, possessively.

She felt her desire to be fully united with him in every way possible overwhelm her. She pulled away from and looked deeply into his eyes. She saw his own desire there. "Take me to bed, Severus. Please." Her voice was shaking, but sincere.

"Are you certain you know what you are asking?" he replied silkily. His eyes were now smouldering.

"Quite sure," she said in sultry tones, enticing him with her own come-hither look.

Snape pulled her into another fiery kiss. Then, he swept her into his arms, lifting her easily off the floor.

"I should warn you that once I have had you in my bed … once I have made love to you … I shall consider you irrevocably mine. And I will not willingly be parted from you again." His words were firm but passionate. "I love you, Hermione. It is my love for you that compels me now."

"Can you … will you … accept my terms?" he whispered.

But his gaze was no less intense for the softness of his voice.

Hermione felt butterflies take up residence in her belly and her heart was so full! Full of the revelation that, to Severus, making love to her was about commitment. It meant he would remain with her forever and would expect that she do the same for him.

To Hermione, hearing this—these sweet, solemn, beautiful words from Severus was a dream come true.

Her eyes sparkled with joyful tears as she tenderly stroked his cheek. "Yes, Severus," she cried, hugging his neck tightly. "I am more than willing to belong to you—and only to you."

Severus kissed her softly, and without once looking away from her, carried her to his room—their room.

Severus and Hermione's binding ceremony was performed one month later. It was very poorly attended. Only Harry and a dutiful Professor McGonagall came. For their little circle of friends and acquaintances was scandalised, not only by the discovery of their relationship itself, but by the swiftness with which they moved toward finalising their commitment.

The Weasleys, as predicted, were livid at this development. Ginny and Mrs. Weasley both took turns berating Hermione for "what you did to poor Ron". Ginny refused to have anything further to do with Hermione.

Mr. Weasley took an entirely different tact. He tried to reason with Hermione by pointing out that the loss of her friends would be the least of her trials if she married such a cold, aloof wizard as Severus Snape.

"You will rue the day, Hermione," he had said sadly. "You mark my words."

But Hermione knew different.

Harry said very little. He seemed resigned to the fact that one of his best friends was determined to marry his near enemy. He and Severus developed an uneasy alliance that Hermione hoped against hope would eventually become friendship.

Her hope was bolstered one day when overheard Harry defending Snape to Ginny in Hogwarts' gardens three days before the binding. She knew she should walk away for propriety's sake, but she just could not bring herself to do it.

"I don't see how you can agree to be at their ceremony! It is positively traitorous, Harry! Just plain traitorous to Ron!" Ginny had said petulantly. "You remember Ron, don't you? Your closest friend—the one who is in Romania licking his wounds as we speak!"

Harry had taken a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Ginny, Hermione has made her decision. She has given me her reasons for breaking up with Ron, apart from her love for Snape, and I cannot really fault her for them." He had stood up tall as he could and given her a defiant look. "I think she is right about her and Ron not being meant to be together. I think they would have made one another miserable in the end."

"But, Harry!"

Harry stopped her with the abrupt raising of his hand. "Just a moment. As for her relationship with Snape … I may not understand it fully, but there is one thing of which I am certain, they truly do love one another. And Snape's heart is right toward her."

Ginny had huffed angrily at this point.

"Ginny, he is a good man." Hermione had been stunned at the certainty in Harry's voice. "He is not particularly pleasant, but I trust him to do his best by Hermione.

"And I plan to befriend him, if I can, for her sake, and I hope one day you will do the same, if only for my sake."

Ginny, who had inherited her mother's temperament, had stomped off. And Hermione's heart had broken for Harry, who had looked after his love disconsolately.

At the same time, Hermione was glad that Harry was standing with her and, by extension, Severus. She was glad he hadn't succumbed to the pressure all around him. It made her feel strong just knowing he was with her.

Now she could only hope that, soon, all those she loved would come around.

But, if they didn't, she could not regret her decision. Severus was worth this trial of fire.

He was surly, difficult, and ridiculously stubborn—exasperating, really. But he was also good, noble, wise, and a constant challenge. Hermione loved a challenge. Now she had one for every day of her life.

Snape, for his part, suffered greatly for having so much attention drawn to him. Being reclusive by nature, he detested the Ministry's attentions to him as the long lost war hero just as much as the very negative attention heaped upon him due to his relationship with Hermione.

Many of his so-called friends—Professor McGonagall included—tried to talk him out of what they saw as his selfish folly. Sometimes it had been very difficult not to fall under such judgement—especially when it so closely mirrored his won insecurities about the "rightness" of his actions.

But such fears dissipated entirely when he saw Hermione in their rooms at the end of the day. It amazed him that no matter how battered and storm-tossed he felt, having Hermione to come home to made it all worthwhile.

Her cool, firm hands rubbing his temples as he lay on the couch, head in her lap … her sweet, soft voice affirming her love for him … reading together by the fire … making love in their big four poster … These were his simple pleasures, his small, but significant comforts.

Now that he had her, he felt his life had truly begun. He would weather any storm just to see that special smile she reserved just for him.

To his hungry heart, so long starved for love, nothing was more wonderful, nothing more necessary to his existence now. To him, Hermione's love was worth everything.

Epilogue—Ten Years Later

Severus watched with an amused expression on his face as Hermione busily went about opening the potions shop they had owned for the last seven years. She looked so serious, strands of bushy hair escaping the silver clip at the nape of her neck, robes whipping around about her legs.

When she stopped to arrange a display of wizarding cold remedies, Severus saw his chance.

Creeping up behind her, his eyes gleaming slyly, he reached out to grab her and pull her to him.

"What are you doing?" he purred.

"Severus!" Hermione spun around, her anger crackling around her, which only made him chuckle gleefully.

This incited her further. "Why is it you feel compelled to sneak up on me like that! For heaven's sake …" she muttered as she ineffectually tried to straighten the wrinkles in her robe by hand.

"Are you a witch, or are you not?" he said with a teasing smile. And with a flick of his wand her robes were perfectly pressed.

She glared at him. "Really, Severus!" she blustered. "Answer my question now. Why must you insist on a once a month sneak-fest?"

"Because you always respond like this," he said smugly as he levitated the cold remedies back to their place on the shelf.

"Well, I wish you would stop it! It's infuriating!" she said heatedly, her hands coming characteristically to her hips.

"You are just angry because you never see it coming," he said evenly. He watched her out of the corner of his eye.

Hermione eyed him irritatedly and grumbled, "I so hate it when you are right."

Severus spun around and gathered her up into his arms and kissed her cheek affectionately. "As I usually am …"

"Arrogant bastard," Hermione said smilingly.

"Little know-it-all," he countered without missing a beat smoothly. And he kissed her soundly.

"We had better open the shop," Hermione said wrapping her arms around his waist.

His smile faded. "Yes, I suppose so."

"Well," Hermione pulled away and headed for the door, "at least we will be closing a little early tonight. Remember, Ginny and Harry will be here for supper."

"Don't remind me."

Hermione gave her husband a knowing look. "Oh, don't pretend you don't like them, Severus. You know you don't hate Harry anymore. In fact, I would say you have even made friends with him."

Severus glared at her. "Bite your tongue," he growled.

Hermione only smiled sweetly in reply.

"All right," Severus began grudgingly, "I will admit I don't despise him. His company is … tolerable."

"Yes, of course," Hermione rolled her eyes—and counted her many blessings.

It had taken time after their binding ceremony for the Weasleys to come around—Ron the longest. But once he was married to a lovely witch he had met in Romania named Sabina, the whole family, even Mrs. Weasley and Ginny, had thawed out toward Hermione. And eventually they had learned to, not only accept, but to like Severus as well.

And Hermione had had the very great pleasure of watching Harry and Severus develop what could only be called a friendship. It had started with Severus acknowledging the fact that Harry had stood with them at their binding and thereafter—even though he had been risking the loss of Ron, Ginny, and the whole Weasley clan.

Severus had never said it out loud, but Hermione knew he was secretly impressed with Harry's steadfast defense of their right to be together.

Each time Harry had come to visit Hermione after their binding, Severus had spent a little more time in the room with them. And one day, he had sat down to tea with them. Soon he had begun joining in the conversation. From that point on Severus had made it a point to be around when Harry came.

Oh, Harry and Severus continued to trade barbs and insults. But there was no heat in them. Their baiting had become more a sign of affection now.

Yes, life was good.

There had been only one disappointment—one roadblock—that had threatened their union. They had been unable to have children—or, more precisely, Hermione had been unable.

For two years, they had visited Healers. Hermione had taken numerous potions … They had even looked into Muggle means, but to no avail.

Hermione had been frantic, more because she felt she was standing in the way of Severus having it all—wife, children, everything she believed would make him happy. She had been so driven to give him children that she had inadvertently left Severus in the dust.

And, as she could not bring herself to tell Severus how she felt, tensions grew so high that their marriage began to fail.

The fighting had gotten too intense that soon Severus and Hermione had started avoiding each other completely.

Then, one night, Harry, in whom Hermione had tearfully confided, broke that confidence, and cornered Severus in the Leaky Cauldron and had had a heart to heart talk with him.

Neither Harry, nor Severus ever divulged the contents of the conversation. But, somehow after that talk, Severus had found the strength to go home to his wife.

He had dedicated himself to convincing her that, whether they had a child or not, he loved her and was content to remain with her for the rest of their lives.

It had been a huge hurdle, but in overcoming it, their love had been tempered and refined and strengthened. And they had learned that their commitment was not dependent upon the transient happiness of a moment. Theirs was a life-long bond built on, not the ever changing circumstances of life, but on the rock solid foundation of the spiritual connection forged between them at their bonding.

True, this priceless knowledge had been dearly bought with tears and pain beyond measure. But both Severus and Hermione saw it was worth it.

Yes, the eternal preservation of their love was worth it all.

finis—25 November 2007