A/N: Wow!! Thank you so much for all your kind reviews. This is the last chapter. I hope you enjoy it! And of course, thank you to RenitaLeandra for all her work.
Severus stared bleakly out the kitchen window and into the howling darkness outside. The wind and rain had picked up considerably over the past hour and, if he was translating his French correctly, the Muggle television was telling him it was gradually going to get worse until early morning. It suited him just fine, though. He was in the mood for this angry, violent sort of weather and he was viciously glad that other people were going to be forced to spend their Christmas as miserable as he was.
He had spent many Christmases alone over the course of his lifetime. When Severus was a child, his father had usually spent the day at a local pub while his mother, after giving him a small gift and a pat on the head, spent the day melancholy up in her bedroom wondering where her life had gone wrong. Once he had started at Hogwarts, though, he had made it a point to never return home except when forced to do so in the summer. More often then not, he was the only Slytherin in the common room over break.
When he started his teaching position at Hogwarts, he had been required to be involved in the festivities, but by then it was against his nature and it had always made him feel uncomfortable and strained. Dumbledore had always given him some small token but that had been the extent of it.
In fact, the only Christmas that had ever been even remotely enjoyable had been the one from the year before. Hermione had come to visit after spending the morning with her parents and the afternoon with the Weasleys. She had stopped by, early in the evening, with a wrapped gift of rare potion ingredients on one arm and a bag full of leftovers from her parents on the other. They had spent the evening in front of the fire, eating turkey sandwiches and mince pie and playing a game of chess.
He supposed it was that one happy experience that had ruined his mood this year. He didn't want to think about that Christmas night he had spent with Hermione. In fact, he didn't want to think about Hermione at all.
He often times tried to figure out where he had gone wrong. Tried to pinpoint when, exactly, he had broken his most important rule and allowed himself to become close to someone. He should have recognized the warning signs from the very beginning when she had met him outside Hogwarts and announced her intention to become his friend. But he hadn't. The novelty of civil conversation had been too alluring. Even if it was from someone that he had never previously considered an equal, let alone a friend.
As the months had passed, he had noticed that he began looking forward to her visits with increased anticipation. He remembered the night, a couple months after he had woken from the spell, when she had finally worked up the courage to call him by his first name. It was the first time she had truly treated him as a friend and not a former professor. If he wanted to, he could still recall the small pleasant surge he had felt and promptly attempted to squash. It was then that he knew it was too late. Any hope of keeping his distance was lost.
He had tried to anyway. His sense of self-preservation had told him to back away. To keep her at arms length rather than risk the inevitable pain of disappointment. Eventually, as the months passed and his feelings increased, he had even gone so far as to try to avoid her touch even if he couldn't bring himself to rid himself of her company. But it hadn't worked. And in the end, when Hermione had confronted him the last night he had seen her, he had realized he could no longer hide his feelings. That thought had scared him more than all the Death Eater meetings in the world.
He turned away from the window and moved restlessly through the old, stone farmhouse he had purchased almost a year ago. Back then, he had still thought that he would leave Britain as soon as he was in the position financially and, although it was larger than anything he had needed, the house and its private location had appealed to him. As it happened, he had become financially secure just a few short months later.He had developed an experimental healing potion that the Ministry had paid handsomely for, but by then he had grown too comfortable. He couldn't bring himself to leave behind the friendship that had come to mean so much to him. That was, until the night in August when everything had changed.
Generally, he avoided thinking about that night, but his mood was foul enough that he almost enjoyed the pain that it brought to him now. How had he so completely misunderstood her feelings? Was he really so socially inept that he couldn't tell the difference between his own romantic feelings and her feelings that clearly didn't extend beyond friendship?
Granted, she had tried letting him down easy. Implying that she just needed time. Were he a different man, with different past experience, he might have believed her. But his past told him that that would be a foolish thought. Besides, he had felt her resist him when he had first kissed her. He was disgusted with himself when he thought of how he had forced himself on her. He had only come to his senses when she had physically pushed him away. Better to cut off the relationship before he caused any more damage.
It was at the moment when she was walking out the door, that Severus decided it was time to leave. He had packed only those belongings that were important to him, made contact with the French Ministère de la Magie--courtesy of Kingsley Shacklebolt -- and left in less than forty-eight hours. He had no idea if Hermione had tried coming back to his little house, although he suspected she had. Her Gryffindor sense of honor wouldn't have allowed her to end the friendship that she had so desperately wanted to start in the first place.
And now, four months later, he stared outside watching the ferocious storm. It had prompted warnings and closings virtually throughout the entire country and was being called the worst storm in fifty years. As he watched the trees bending in the wind, Severus couldn't help but wonder what she was doing. He wondered what might have changed in the four months since he last saw her. Had she and Weasley patched things up? He couldn't imagine why the boy would have walked away from her, even if he was a fool. He had surely come crawling back within a few days, begging her to take him back.
Once again, there was another update on the storm and Severus only half listened to the Muggle television announcer. Living as he was, in a country that he wasn't entirely familiar with, Severus had decided to give the appearance of being a Muggle to his neighbors; even if the closest ones were a quarter mile down the road. He had bought Muggle appliances, generally wore Muggle clothes and had discovered television which had helped him to improve his French tremendously.
His neighbors were polite but aloof and that suited him just fine. They seemed a little curious about their tall, dark haired British neighbor who wore nothing but black, but they kept their curiosity at a distance and, on the rare occasions that they spoke, never asked him questions of his past.
All in all, it would have been the most enjoyable time in Severus's life had it not been for the fact that he once again found himself completely alone. There was no one that he could accurately call a friend or even that he would qualify as friendly.
Unable to contain his restlessness, Severus finally sat down on the faded sofa in front of the living room and reached for the book he had been reading. Perhaps he could forget about Hermione if his mind was occupied.
An hour later, Severus decided his idea was only marginally successful. Although he was able to keep his mind engaged, the howling wind was increasingly distracting himto the point that he felt the need to charm the windows against breaking. He moved through the house, meticulously placing the spells on each pane and was just finishing when he thought he heard a knock at the door.
Nonsense, he thought to himself. No one in their right mind would be out in this weather.
A moment later he heard it again. Just the wind, he told himself. When the knock came for a third time, Severus walked to the front window and peered out into the dark. Sure enough, the faint outline of a hunched figure in a dark cloak could be seen on his front step.
"Probably some foolishMuggle," he mumbled to himself, reaching for the doorknob. "Couldn't manage to stay inside and got themselves stranded."
But when he opened the door, it was obvious this was no foolish Muggle. It was a foolish witch. More specifically, a foolish bushy haired, know-it-all witch named Hermione Granger.
He stared at her dumbfounded for a moment before she looked cautiously up at him and said, "M-m-may I c-come i-in?"
Forced out of his reverie by her words, Severus realized that the wind and rain were pouring into his house and the door was in considerable danger of being blown off its hinges.
"Bloody hell, woman!" he nearly shouted, realizing just what a risk she had taken to come out in this weather. As he pulled her by the arm into the warmth of the house he could feel her shivering under her soaked clothing. "Are you trying to kill yourself?"
Hermione's teeth were chattering so hard she couldn't respond and she looked pale and tired. Severus pulled out his wand and, after casting a drying spell that only seemed to work half-way, called out, "Accio blankets!"
Two wool blankets came flying down the stairs from his bedroom and he wrapped her tightly in them before leading her to the sofa and forcing her to sit down. It was only then, as she looked up at him from the blankets off of his bed, that it sunk in that Hermione was actually sitting here. In his house. In France. He sat down on an armchair across from her and stared at her, trying to decide what question to ask first.
"What are you doing here?" he finally asked when he thought he could control his voice sufficiently.
Hermione shrugged her shoulders and blushed a little. She lifted her arm up to show she was holding a bag. One that, from the looks of it, contained leftover dinner. Remembering their Christmas from the year before, Severus guessed it was from her parents' house.
"Happy Christmas," she said timidly, while he continued to stare at her. "I thought… well, I had hoped anyway…" Her voice trailed away and Severus looked at her, confused.
"You had thought what?"
"Well, I realize it's awfully presumptuous of me, coming here when you made it clear that you want nothing more to do with me. But I figured you'd be alone and… what I mean is…" She broke off again, blushing furiously. "I'm not saying anything right, am I? What I mean, is that I thought perhaps you'd like some company."
As Severus listened to her talk, there was only one thought that entered his brain. Hermione was here. Because she wanted to be. She had traveled to another country, and braved the worst storm in decades to bring him Christmas dinner. Suddenly the world seemed a much more cheerful place.
"You… you think I do not want your company?" he asked, when his brain had sufficiently recovered in order to speak again.
"That's why you left, isn't it?" Hermione asked.
Severus had never before considered how Hermione would interpret his hasty departure. He had been so consumed with his own feelings of self-pity and disappointment. He supposed that he just thought she had continued to go on about her life, unconcerned. But now, he realized how foolish that thought had been. Hermione was not the kind of person to just forget about her friends. Now that Severus looked at her, he realized she looked just as unhappy as he felt and that thought put the faintest glimmer of hope in his heart.
"Hermione," he said, "I apologize if you were under the impression that I dislike you. I can assure you that you are mistaken."
"Oh," she replied softly. "I just thought… I thought I had made you angry that night."
"No. You did not."
Hermione smiled at this and Severus felt a painful tightening in his chest as he watched her. This is why I left you, he thought to himself as she burrowed herself further into his blankets. It is too painful and I cannot bear the disappointment.
Rather than expressing his thoughts, however, he instead rose and walked into the kitchen. He poured a cup of tea, adding sugar and milk precisely as he knew Hermione liked it, and returned to the living room with her tea in hand. She accepted it gratefully and, when her fingers brushed against his, he forced himself not to pull away too hastily.
When she had finished drinking her tea, she sat back on the sofa with a contented sigh.
"Thank you," she said. She regarded him for a moment before smiling again. "Aren't you even curious as to how I found you? I would hate to think I went through this much work without the proper appreciation."
Severus had to admit, he was curious. He had not kept in contact with anyone from Britain and, for reasons of security, chose to go under an assumed name here in France. He had no desire for anyone other than the highest levels of the French wizarding government to know that a former Death Eater was living in their country.
"How did you find me?" he asked.
"Well, all right, I suppose it wasn't that much work. Being friends with the Minister of Magic certainly helps. I've actually been trying to find you for some time. It took some convincing, but finally, a few weeks ago I got Kingsley to at least tell me you had moved to France. He insisted he didn't know where exactly in France you were living, though."
"He was right," Severus said. "All I requested from him was a list of Potions contacts. Turns out, he was very helpful in that respect. It seems he worked out some sort of potions dispute in the early days after the war. When the Ministère de la Magie learned of my connection to him, they were only too happy to give me business."
Hermione was quiet for a moment before speaking again, apparently digesting all he was telling her. "So anyway, after that I contacted the Ministère but that wasn't very easy. It seems they take your identity very seriously. In the end it was Fleur Weasley who was able to get the information for me."
The mention of Ron Weasley's sister-in-law made Severus wince a little. Apparently, Hermione was still in contact with the Weasley family and friendly enough to be able to call in favors. He didn't want to think about what that meant regarding her relationship with the youngest boy.
"All she was able to get, though, was the area you were living in. You have done a good job of keeping yourself hidden. It seems that no one actually knows where you live."
"So then how did you find me?"
"I asked the Muggles," Hermione said shrugging her shoulders. "They were a bit reluctant to come to the door in this weather and, if my French is correct, more than one questioned my sanity. But I got the answer quickly enough. You're a distinctive looking person and, sure enough, as soon as I began describing you, I was directed here."
Severus was amazed. Hermione had gone to the highest levels of two countries' governments to find him and she acted as if it was of little consequence. He couldn't fathom why she would do such a thing. Covering up his own curiosity, he searched for another, safer topic of conversation.
"I assume that if you have traveled all this way, you would at least like to see more of the house than the living room."
She rose, still clutching one of the blankets, and followed Severus. At first the conversation seemed forced, as they both tried to ignore the fact that the last time they had been in the same room, Severus had had his tongue down her throat. But eventually their old friendship overrode any awkwardness and they chatted amicably. Finally, they ended up in the kitchen, eating sandwiches made from the leftovers that were, indeed, from Hermione's parents. Luckily she had thought to use an Impervius charm on the bag so at least the food hadn't been ruined. By the time they got to the pudding, Hermione declared that she was now warm and dry, and had discarded the blanket.
"So why are you not spending the evening with the Weasleys?" Severus asked as, he finished his last bite of pudding. He knew he could very well regret the answer, but his curiosity was too great to leave the question unanswered. Hermione gave him a strange look.
"Why would I be at the Weasleys'?"
"Wouldn't you want to be spending the day with Ron?" Severus asked, deciding to throw caution to the wind and get to the heart of the matter. He held his breath, afraid of the answer, until Hermione burst into laughter. He looked up at her cautiously.
"Well, I don't think his girlfriend would have appreciated it much," Hermione said, still chuckling.
Severus released the breath he had been holding. "His girlfriend?"
"Yes." Hermione gave him a knowing look that convinced Severus that either he was too obvious or she had become skilled in Legilimency over the last several months. She leaned forward and grasped his hand from across the table. It took all of his willpower to not pull away. "Severus, Ron and I never got back together again. We both agreed that we are better off as friends."
"I see," Severus said, hoping that his voice was calm and that she couldn't feel how quickly his heart was racing, just from touching her hand. They sat in silence for another moment, until he felt like he had sufficient control over his emotions. "Why are you here, Hermione?"
Now it was Hermione who looked nervous and uncomfortable. She withdrew her hand and Severus immediately mourned its loss.
"I suppose I'm here to ask you a question."
Had the conversation not been so serious, Severus would have laughed. Leave it to Hermione to cross the English Channel in the middle of a storm just to ask him a question.
"Very well," he said, gathering his courage. "You have gone through enough trouble to find me. The least I can do is to answer your question."
"Why did you leave? Please, give me the real reason. I have wondered about it for four months. Ever since I showed up at your house only to find it empty without a word, I have tried to figure out why you would have left."
Severus could hear the pain in her voice and it was enough to make him regrethis decision, now. At the very least, she had deserved an explanation.
"I thought…" He paused for a moment, but the pained look on Hermione's face forced him to push on forward. "I behaved badly when we last saw each other. I thrust my… affection on you when it wasn't wanted. I felt it was best for both of us if I ended the friendship. I thought if I left, then, I could spare you further interaction with me and I could spare myself…"
He broke off. Even now he couldn't bear to admit the pain she was capable of unknowingly inflicting upon him.
Hermione stared at him, dumbfounded. "You mean, you thought that I didn't have feelings for you and so you left the country? Couldn't you have at least checked with me first?"
Severus was feeling increasingly foolish but, after confessing this much, he couldn't turn back now.
"I admit, I don't have a very good record with this sort of thing. I have only cared for a woman once before, and she ended up marrying my enemy. I couldn't… I couldn't bear to watch you fall in love with another man." Severus closed his eyes. His humiliation was now complete. He might as well declare his love from the top of the Astronomy Tower.
He could hear the rustling of movement as Hermione rose out of her chair, but he couldn't bring himself to open his eyes again. Then he felt her hand on his again and she was pulling him up out of his chair. He did open his eyes, then, and Hermione was standing terribly close to him. Far too close. But the look on her face wasn't pitying or mocking as he had been so afraid it might be. Instead she pulled him even closer, wrapping her arms around him.
"You know, Severus," she whispered in his ear, "for such a brilliant man, sometimes you are incredibly stupid."
He couldn't help himself. He reached for her, cupping her face in his hands, and kissed her desperately. He reveled in the feel of her lips against his; he had been so sure that he would never experience that again. Yet, just as before, Hermione abruptly ended the kiss. Her face was serious once again.
"You know, I tried coming back. I wanted to explain that I shared your feelings but I just needed some time to sort myself out. When I returned it had only been two days and you were already gone."
Severus wrapped one of his hands in her hair and he pulled her against him. "I was an idiot," he said into her hair. "I couldn't fathom why you would have any interest in a disagreeable, bitter man like me."
Hermione lifted her head to look at him, her eyes were shining with unshed tears. "I was heartbroken," she confessed.
Severus bent his head to press a kiss to her lips. "What a foolish girl you are," he murmured, "to trust something as valuable as your heart to me."
"I guess we are both fools then, aren't we?" Hermione whispered, and Severus had to agree.
"I am so sorry, Hermione." Now that he was sure she wasn't going to either laugh at him, or run screaming from the house, he felt more comfortable expressing himself. "Please, forgive me."
Hermione gave an overly loud sigh and Severus saw her smirk at him. "Well, I suppose. Since you asked so prettily."
Severus chuckled, feeling positively light-hearted. Could it even be possible that there was still a storm raging outside when suddenly, because of this woman, there seemed to be much less darkness in the world? He kissed her again, leaving them both a bit breathless.
"So what now?" he asked. Hermione grinned at him, her brown eyes twinkling.
"Well… you never showed me the bedroom."
Severus woke suddenly, jerking awake and trying to discover what had woken him. He thought he had been dreaming, though he couldn't remember it aside from that it had been pleasant. As he rolled onto his back, he smiled to himself, remembering the previous night. It turned out that Hermione had found the tour of the bedroom most enjoyable.
He glanced to the other side of the bed and realized it was empty. Scanning the room quickly, he found Hermione standing at the windows, wrapped in one of the blankets from the night before, and looking pensive. He rose and walked over to her. The sound of his footsteps caused her to turn her head and she smiled at him. He stood behind her and looked out. The storm had lessened over the last several hours, although it was still raining heavily.
"It is normally a much nicer view," Severus said, resting his hands on her shoulders. She leaned back against him. "You will enjoy it much more on a clear day when the sun is rising."
Severus's heart was beating unusually fast as he said the words. She had not said that she was ever planning on returning, but he had already made the decision he wasn't going to let her leave his life again.
"I'm sure I will," Hermione said, putting Severus at ease. "You know, I've been thinking…"
"Surely not," Severus scoffed, mockingly. "I have never known you to think."
Hermione laughed but then turned serious again. "This is an awfully big house for just one person."
Severus's heart began pounding again. He had been terrified that she wouldn't even return. Could it be possible she wanted to live here? With him? He swallowed hard and willed his voice not to crack as he spoke.
"It is. When I bought this house, I was told that it was really more for a couple or a… a family."
"And what do you think of that?" Hermione asked, cautiously.
"I think it is a good house for a family," he whispered. Hermione turned in his arms.
"I think it is, too," she said, looking up at him and smiling.
"What about your career?" Severus asked. As soon as he spoke the words, however, he wished he could take them back. He didn't want anything ruining this chance he finally had at happiness.
"I was thinking about that," Hermione said, thoughtfully. "I don't know why I couldn't continue working at the Ministry. It really didn't take me that long to Portkey across the channel. It doesn't take much longer than Apparition, actually. And if that doesn't work out, I can find a job here in France. Their Magical Creatures Department is positively groundbreaking."
Severus couldn't help but smile at Hermione's enthusiasm. The part of him that was still sure he would wake up and find this was a dream wanted to question her further and make sure that she wouldn't end up regretting her decision. But his newly found optimistic side told that part exactly where to go and he said nothing more. Instead, Severus wrapped his arms around her and held onto her tightly. He marvelled at this woman who had somehow charmed her way into his heart. He never would have thought it possible, yet somehow she had managed to save him in more ways than just his life.
Without another word, he led her back to bed and they slid under the covers, back into each others arms, and fell asleep.