A/N: This, my friends, is the end not only of this story, but of an amazing journey we have taken together. I don't know what I will do with myself now that we have arrived at our destination. I know you will say, "Write another story!" but first, I must recover from this one. I want you to know that I will answer the reviews for this last chapter; I have no new chapter to write, so there is nothing to prevent me from responding to your comments.
Thanks from the bottom of my heart to my readers, both those who have been along for the ride from the start, and those who are just joining us. A large load of love goes to the ladies at ftpma_dishing on Live Journal, whose generosity and support for this story has been phenomenal. I am in awe of you all. You humble me.
For the Potions Master's Amusement
Chapter 87: The Epilogue: Dreams Only Last Forever
Hermione threw the door open and hurled herself at him, and he caught her up in his arms with a sound between laughter and a grunt of surprise.
'Hermione!' he responded teasingly, matching her screeching tone, but not nearly matching her volume.
He heard a door slam somewhere in the interior of the house, but Hermione seemed not to notice, only tightening her arms about his neck and whispering, 'I'm so glad you came.'
He squeezed her briefly. 'When have I ever missed your birthday?' he asked her.
Severus Snape entered the foyer precipitately, wand at the ready, and Harry released Hermione to free his hands, stepping back from her but making no move to draw his own wand. His green eyes were fixed on the erstwhile Potions master, keenly watchful.
Snape's black eyes swept from Hermione to Harry and back. Seeing that Hermione was in no immediate danger, the older wizard resheathed his wand. 'You'll no doubt forgive my entrance, Potter,' he said smoothly. 'Hermione's shriek gave me to believe the house had been beset by … marauders.'
Harry's lips tightened as he absorbed the derisive barb, but he was here for Hermione, and he would not permit the git to bait him. Determined to be on his best behaviour, Harry stepped forward, his hand outstretched.
'Congratulations, sir,' he said, using the voice he had perfected for the occasions when the Ministry trotted him out for social functions. 'All-England Grand Master—very impressive.'
Snape stared at the proffered hand, and for a moment Harry flashed back eerily on that moment in the hospital wing, so long ago, when the Headmaster had commanded his Potions master to shake the hand of Sirius Black. Would Hermione's wizard break her heart by refusing to shake hands with him? Harry hoped not; he didn't want to see Hermione hurt.
However, now, as then, Snape appeared to overcome his reservations. He accepted the handshake, undoubtedly for her sake, this time, but Harry knew she wouldn't quibble. She wanted them to get along, her man and her best friend.
'But out in the second round in the World Duelling Cup,' Severus pointed out quietly. 'You're a famous duellist, Potter—you should look into competition.'
Harry laughed, feeling natural again as his society self fell away, and Hermione seemed relieved, no doubt glad that Snape had preserved at least the appearance of civility between them.
'I've been a lucky duellist,' Harry said, the same caveat he had always given for his many escapes and escapades through the years. He suffered an internal struggle for a moment, but his innate honesty won out, and he added grudgingly, 'I never managed to lay a wand on you, sir.'
And not for lack of trying, he reflected, remembering their heated disagreements in those last weeks of the war.
Snape responded with a show of modesty that seemed to catch Hermione somewhat off-guard. 'Ah, but you're a Ministry-trained Auror now, Potter,' Snape said, reaching for Hermione and pulling her to his side—and she went willingly, Harry admitted to himself. She looped her arms around Snape's narrow waist, as if happy to be his and unashamed for it to be shown. Snape took the opportunity to expertly place another hit. 'I'm sure your skill has improved, or you'd be in remedial defence classes.'
Harry grinned at Snape's needling attempts to anger him—he didn't know why Hermione wanted the old bastard, but there was no denying she adored him—just look at her, radiant and happier than Harry had ever seen her. Better to redirect the conversation, maybe. 'Any road,' he said amicably, 'the two of you got a bit further at the World Duelling Cup in the mixed doubles competition—quarter finals, wasn't it?'
Snape openly smirked at this, and Hermione laughed aloud. 'It's not tennis, Harry!' she scolded. 'In duelling competition it's called Witch/Wizard Tandems.'
Harry nodded, easily accepting the rebuke. 'I listened to it on the wireless,' he said. 'The commentators seemed impressed by the fact that you've only been teamed for three years. Apparently, most of the teams work together from childhood to be able to anticipate their partner's spells and movements.' He frowned, his curiosity piqued. 'How did you manage to develop your partnership so quickly?'
Hermione looked up at the ugly, hook-nosed git as if he were as handsome as Gilderoy Lockhart and cooed, 'We were made to be partners.'
Harry felt slightly nauseated. He really, really hated to be around soppy witches … except for Ginny, of course. 'That's another question,' he said, his professional interest roused. 'What even made you think of training Hermione as a duellist, sir?' He grinned at her. 'She was never keen on defence at school—it ranked only a little above Divination for her, I think—and flying, of course.'
Hermione huffed indignantly. 'Are you going throw all of my deficiencies in my face, Harry?' she demanded.
Snape interceded silkily. 'Hermione needed only a competent instructor to develop speedily into a world class duellist,' he said, and Harry was treated then to the old git leering down at Hermione, a truly disgusting sight. 'She went in one year from unranked to first in her division in the All-England competition.'
Hermione's cheeks were pink with gratification. 'I was one of the oldest competitors in the bracket,' she protested. She told Harry, 'It was the under twenty-ones, and I was twenty before I began competing. Some of the girls were no more than fifteen.'
Harry shook his head, still grinning. 'In all the time I knew you at school, I never would have pegged you for an athlete, Hermione.'
'With her fierce, competitive nature?' Snape inquired. 'She was born to compete professionally, and there are no international studying competitions, you know.'
All of them laughed then, Hermione and her wizard doing so while looking into one another's eyes, which was a bit much for Harry—but it was good to see that Hermione responded to teasing from Harry and Snape pretty much the same way she had done from Harry and Ron. She was still the same—ever and always completely Hermione—and seeing Snape laughing and teasing her like a regular bloke made him seem different in Harry's eyes. Harry gave an internal shrug. Apparently, having Hermione in his life would mean having Snape as well, and now was as good a time as any to begin seeing the old git in a new light.
'I want to show Harry around the house!' Hermione said to Snape. 'I didn't mean to disrupt your workout.'
Harry noticed for the first time that Snape wore not his customary black suit and robes but gear not unlike that worn by fencers—black, of course, rather than white, but strangely informal attire for the man. And his hair, which Harry had taken to be greasier than usual, was actually wet with sweat; obviously, Hermione's scream had interrupted Snape during a workout. It was disconcerting to think of the old git doing something besides chopping dragon livers and brewing potions, but to be fair, Hogwarts was four years behind them, and something had given Snape the body definition revealed by the snugly fitting clothing. Harry wouldn't have minded having such developed muscles through the chest and upper arms, and any bloke would want the smooth, lean sinews of Snape's lower body. Harry hated to admit it, but the greasy bat had got rather muscly and fit in his old age.
Unaware of Harry's scrutiny, Snape said to Hermione, 'I'll get back to it, then.'
Harry couldn't help himself. 'Why would you need fitness training to be a duellist?'
Snape looked down his nose and descended into his professor mode, speaking as if he were addressing an ignorant firstie. 'Duelling is a mental game, Potter, demanding focus, strategy, tactical execution, and incredible forethought. However, it is also a sport requiring power, flexibility, and speed.' He shrugged. 'Many people use the "physical chess" metaphor when they are asked to describe competitive duelling, but this comparison often tricks one into overemphasising the "chess" half of the analogy, while skipping the physical.'
Harry was truly intrigued now. 'What sort of training do you do?' He wondered if he could find the time to undertake the sort of training regimen Snape—and presumably, Hermione—pursued now, as a matter of course.
'Running for endurance,' Snape replied, 'weight training for strength, sprinting and jumping exercises to increase speed, stretches for flexibility. The usual.' He turned away from Harry and bent to brush Hermione's lips in a kiss. 'I'll see you later, then,' he said, his tone implying things Harry preferred not to think about.
'Yes, you will,' Hermione agreed, then watched Snape leave the room as if it were a bit of a hardship to have him go away from her. When he disappeared through a doorway, she turned back to Harry and linked her arm through his, a mischievous light in her pretty brown eyes—but not as pretty as Ginny's, of course, he thought loyally.
'So,' she said, waving her hand about, 'this is the entryway.'
Harry looked dutifully about the space, which was floored with large alternating black and white tiles, like a checker board, the only ornaments a decorative table bearing a vase of bright orange zinnias, not unlike the ones his Aunt Petunia had grown in her garden. Above the table hung an oval mirror. Doorways to the right and left opened into other rooms, and a staircase led upstairs.
'So I see,' he responded.
She chuckled and pulled him into the lounge. 'I'm proud of this room,' she said in a strangely self-satisfied tone. 'Other than our bedroom, it's the only room I had much say in decorating.'
Harry looked about at the comfortable, squashy sofa, love seat, and armchairs, thinking of how the arrangement of the room reminded him of the Gryffindor common room, where he and Ron and Hermione had spent so much time together. Did Hermione realise where her inspiration for the selection of furniture had come from? But instead of mentioning it, he said, 'You mean Snape has a flair for interior design?'
Hermione laughed and punched him lightly on the arm. 'Of course not!' she said. 'He designed the floor plan, but he only decorated his study and the Du—' She broke off and bit her lip.
Harry gave her an inquiring look. 'What? He built a dungeon in your house? He missed his old one at Hogwarts too much?'
Hermione flushed and looked away from him. 'Don't be such a prat,' she said. 'It's what we call the basement.'
'He decorated your basement?'
'It's where the training room is!' she said defensively, and then looked away from him.
'Well, if he didn't decorate the rest of the house, who did? The house-elf?'
Hermione laughed again, the secretive look going from her eyes, and Harry wondered, not for the first time, if she and Snape were back up that old business—the one involving the dog collar—but they seemed like any other couple setting up housekeeping in a new house. He put it out of his mind; it was too disgusting to contemplate.
'No, not the house-elf,' she said. 'My friend Taffy—we call her "t" for short—is good enough at interior design to do it professionally. Severus and I bought the land for the house from her husband—you know Rafe, don't you?'
Harry nodded. Rafe was the one he thought of as the "other" Lestrange brother. 'Does Rafe's wife do decorating professionally? I've been … thinking about fixing up Grimmauld Place.'
Hermione whirled on him excitedly. 'Are you finally thinking about settling down with Ginny?' she demanded.
Harry grinned sheepishly. 'Yeah, I am.'
This started up a whole new round of hugs, after which he said, 'Well? Does she?'
Hermione shook her head in the negative. 'No, t's a stay at home mum—they have two little ones, now. But I'm sure she'd be happy to help you out, if you needed it, Harry—but wouldn't Ginny enjoy doing it herself?'
They toured the remainder of the house, looking into the kitchen, the study, and the upstairs bedrooms—four of them, Harry saw, though only two of them were furnished as of yet—the one Hermione shared with Snape and this one. 'So you and Ginny can come for visits,' she said, smoothing a hand along the polished surface of the dresser. 'Was she too busy to come today?'
'The Harpies are playing in Austria and Germany this week—she's not allowed to come back home unless it's an emergency.'
'That's too bad,' Hermione said, seeming genuinely sorry.
Harry flicked the wall switch, and the overhead light came on. 'You have eckeltricity!' he marvelled, and they laughed together, their shared history like a warm pool in their past from which their current lives flowed, branching off in streams to new and different places.
'You said you'd show me the trophy room after the upstairs,' he reminded her, and Hermione led the way to the ground floor, entering the one room they'd previously left unexplored.
Harry's eyes widened at the plethora of trophies, cups, medals, plaques, and figurines with engraving. 'All of these belong to you and Snape?' he said, thunderstruck.
'Well, he has his mum's medal for being the school Gobstones champion when she was at Hogwarts,' Hermione admitted, 'but otherwise—yes.'
Harry went slowing around the room, studying those items on the shelves dedicated to Hermione's duelling career.
'You get a medal for every match you win, then a trophy if you finish in the top three,' Hermione explained. 'That's why there are so many of them.'
Harry looked away from the display case which contained row after row of glittering medals variously attached to satin and grosgrain ribbons. 'What made you take this up, Hermione?' he asked her seriously. 'Obviously, you're very good, but what made you decide to pursue it?'
Hermione bit her lip and continued to study the golden cup she had been awarded as Grand Champion in the under-twenty-one division in 2000. 'When Severus and I broke up,' she began at last, 'it was because he had been … difficult about my participation in fighting in the war. I was furious that he would try to control what I did in the protection of the people and places I love—and he was furious that I would put myself in danger when he knew I wasn't a very adept duellist.' She turned sober brown eyes to his face. 'So when we … got together again, we made a sort of contract with each other: I agreed he could teach me defence until he was satisfied that I could protect myself, and he agreed that when I was trained up, he would allow me to fight, if needed.'
Harry did a slow revolution, looking at the impressive collection. 'Does he think you're good enough yet? Clearly, his standards are high,' he said drolly, drawing a giggle from her.
'He was already training for the men's qualifying round when we reconciled, so I became his practice partner.' She winced in her recollections. 'He knocked me arse over elbow so many times I thought I'd always be black and blue—but I learned quickly. He signed me up for the qualifying rounds in my bracket that year without telling me—said I was going to be there with him anyway, so I might as well be doing something useful.'
As she spoke, Harry continued on his circuit around the room, pausing before the centre case which held the place of honour. It contained Snape's Order of Merlin, First Class, as well as Hermione's, which was Third Class, and a faded, tattered newspaper photograph of Hermione from the Yule Ball in their fourth year. The photograph looked as if it had been creased and smoothed many times.
'How does the newspaper clipping fit in with the Orders of Merlin?' he asked.
Hermione crossed to stand with him, and there was a tender, reminiscent look upon her face as she gazed at the piece of newsprint.
'When Severus left Hogwarts, after the prison breakout over Christmas hols that year, he had to go immediately into hiding. He had made plans for me, though. He wanted to put me somewhere safe, and he had arranged for Rafe's wife to take me there—but she'd never met me, and Severus wanted her to be able to recognise me. He didn't have a photograph of me, but he remembered that my picture had been in the paper because I was Viktor's date at the Yule Ball, and he thought of the library archive of old copies of the Prophet.'
Harry snorted. 'So the professor most likely to give a student detention for breaking rules nicked a newspaper from the archives and defaced it?'
Hermione ignored his levity. 'Yes. I don't know how long he carried it around before he gave it to t, but I could tell it had been handled quite a bit after it had been cut from the paper.' She smiled mistily. 'It made me feel good to think of him looking at a photograph of me.'
Harry nodded, wisely keeping his thoughts to himself. 'But why do you keep it with your war medals?'
Hermione turned away and began to walk out of the room. 'We just consider it to be a … memento of that time in our lives … of the war.' She smiled over her shoulder at him. 'Let's walk up to Odd Cottage now—everyone else is already there.'
Harry trailed after her. 'But don't I get to see the training room in the dungeon?' he asked. 'I'd love to see your set-up.'
Hermione shook her head. 'That wouldn't be a good idea—Severus is training down there right now, and I would hate to interrupt him again.' She picked up a carrier bag embossed with 'Fairy Goth Mother' from a chair in the kitchen as they passed through.
'What's in there?' he asked.
'Just my underthings for what I'm going to wear later,' she answered.
'Never mind,' he said hastily, hoping to avoid an in-depth discussion of girls' underwear.
They walked together out into the crisp day, the blue sky cloudless overhead, and began to walk down the pathway from the house to the lane. When they reached the street, Hermione turned to look at the house, and Harry turned to look as well.
'Isn't it brilliant?' she said, sounding as if she couldn't quite believe it belonged to her.
Harry surveyed the steep gables and the gingerbread trim, noting for the first time the wooden sign over the door inscribed, The Haven. 'Yeah, it is. It looks a lot like the big one down the lane,' he said.
'We wanted it to coordinate with Odd Cottage,' she said, 'but it's more modern on the inside.'
Harry glanced at her from the corner of his eye. 'Professional duelling must pay well,' he murmured.
'Oh, no!' Hermione said. 'It pays hardly anything at all!'
'But you both left your jobs at the Ministry ages ago,' he pointed out.
Hermione started up the lane, giving Harry's sleeve to tug so he would walk with her. 'It's the merchandise endorsements that pay enough to live on,' she confided. 'The Ollivander's contract alone was nearly enough to pay for the house outright.'
Harry uttered a low whistle. 'I wouldn't have thought the old man had the gold to sweep up the shop, much less to pay Snape a fortune to sell his wands.'
Hermione shook her head. 'You'd think Mr Ollivander was impoverished, from the way he keeps the shop, but he does very well indeed, both at home and abroad. And besides, it's a five-year contract. One year's worth wouldn't buy a new house.'
And she linked her arm with his, her bushy brown hair blowing about in the wind, and they strolled up the hill from Hermione and Snape's new house to Odd Cottage.
Taffy Lestrange issued instructions to her house-elves regarding the buffet luncheon set out in the back garden, and then a glance at the clock sent her hurrying toward the front door. Where was Hermione?
She opened the front door of Odd Cottage just as four guests arrived. Hermione was coming up the rise from the Haven to the west—holding the arm of a messy-haired, bespectacled young man who could be no one else but Harry Potter—while a limousine had stopped right at the walkway, and Reggie was assisting an enormously pregnant Kell out of the backseat.
Hastening down the path with a smile of welcome on her face, t cried, 'Do you need an air chair for her, Reg?'
Just as t reached the group, Hermione deserted her companion and hurried forward to kiss and pet Kell, telling her how lovely she looked. Reggie gave t a one-armed hug, his other arm securely about the shoulders of his submissive, and kissed the top of t's head.
'She says she doesn't want one,' he said sotto voce, 'and for now, it's best not to argue with her.'
'I'm fine!' Kell said crossly. 'I can walk … well, I can waddle on my own!'
The girls chuckled, and Reg looked over their heads at Hermione's guest. 'Harry!' Reg said. 'Good to see you, mate!'
Taffy followed Reggie's gaze and looked again at the Boy-Who-Lived, wondering how Reg knew him. Well, they both worked at the Ministry, didn't they? And everyone in the wizarding world recognised Harry Potter on sight.
Harry came forward then to shake hands with Reg. 'How are things in the Budgetary Department?' Harry asked. 'No cuts in sight for the Aurors, right?'
Reg snorted at this pleasantry, then glanced down at Kell. 'I'd like for you to meet my wife,' he said. 'Kay, I probably don't need to tell you that this is Harry Potter. Harry, my wife, Kelly Bardulph—and our impending children, Rheghan and Callum, or as we call them, Rheg and Cal.'
Kell looked as if she forgot her discomforts for a moment, and she shook hands with Harry with a sparkling smile. Taffy hid her own smile; if meeting the most famous young man in wizarding Britain cheered up a witch in the last month of her pregnancy misery, who could object to that?
'Let's go inside,' t said, taking one of Kell's arms. Hermione slipped an arm about Kell from the other side, and three girls walked toward the house as the men followed them, still chatting.
'Where's your partner?' Reg inquired. 'Not used to seeing you minus your great ginger shadow.'
'He couldn't get the afternoon off, but he'll be along after work,' Harry answered.
'Don't tell me you don't need to sit down,' t said firmly to Kell. 'I can see how your ankles are swelling. The only question is, would you rather sit outside in the shade with your feet up on pouf, or with Vi and the wee ones in my bedroom with your feet up on a pouf?'
'I want to sit with the girls,' Kell said decisively.
Taffy rounded on Reg and Harry, who both stopped to speak with her. She said to the Boy-Who-Lived, 'I'm Taffy Lestrange.'
Harry Potter took her hand with a friendly, open grin, and t marvelled at how very green his eyes were. Then she looked to Reggie.
'Reg, please take Harry into the back garden. There's food, if you're hungry, and Rafe and Claudius are out there arguing about the best way to place the fairy lights.' She allowed her voice to drop. 'Don't worry; I'll watch her like a hawk, I promise.'
Reg glanced at Kell, whose shining dark hair was bent to Hermione's bushy head, the two girls deep in conversation. 'It's just that it's so close to her due date,' he said quietly, 'but she would come.' His lips pressed together, and he swallowed, his adam's apple bobbing in his throat before he added, 'I can't lose her again, t.'
Taffy stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. 'She'll be fine, Reggie. She's in perfect health, the babies are in perfect health, and witches have babies every day—it's the most natural thing in the world! Please try not to fret about her—it just makes her more anxious and cross—take it from a mum who knows.'
Reggie inhaled deeply. 'You're right—I know you're right, t. I'll go quietly.' He clapped Harry on the back. 'Come with me, mate—Rafe has fair taste in liquor, and I don't know about you, but I could use a drink.'
The two wizards disappeared around the side of the house, and t followed her friends inside. Kell agreed, with some grumbling, to allow her friends to magick her up the stairs, and Hermione and t murmured 'Mobilicorpus!' together. Once on the first floor, t stopped in the doorway to her bedroom to watch her friends and her children. Her heart was full of love for them all—it was a very happy day.
Violet was in the rocking chair, crooning over dear little Rane, t's baby boy, age three months, but she happily surrendered both the chair and the baby to Kell so that she could take Hermione in her arms. Taffy reflected as she watched the two women embrace that Vi had scarcely changed in the three years since Hermione had completed her training with Claudius, while Hermione's appearance had altered significantly. Hermione still had the bushy brown hair, but she was far more slender than she had been before and enviably fit, due to her relentless training and competing. Her face had lost some of the roundness of youth, and her brown eyes appeared even larger in her thinner face, the flattering hollows of her cheeks adding definition and mystery to her countenance.
To t, who loved her, Hermione had always been pretty, but the change in her looks had made her more commercially interesting, and wizarding duelling manufacturers—the wand makers and gear providers—had queued up to enlist her as a representative. Severus, on the other hand, had been forced to endure the straightening and whitening of his teeth in order to be an acceptable spokes-wizard.
'What does it matter?' he had complained to Rafe. 'It's not as if I'm going to smile at the bastards, is it?'
She grinned at her reminiscences, kneeling on the floor to assist Daisy and Marcus to build their tower of wooden blocks. She and the children were in the midst of the circle created by her closest friends, and she basked in the moment of utter contentment she felt as she listened to them catching up on one another's news.
'Vi, did you tell Hermione about your job?' t asked.
Hermione gasped. 'Is Master Claudius going to let you go back to work?' she asked excitedly. 'I thought he was dead-set against it!'
Vi positively beamed in reply. 'He considered it for a long time before he made a decision,' Vi admitted. 'You know it never does to rush him.'
Hermione nodded soberly. 'I remember,' she said.
'In the end, Master said he would have no objection to me working at St Mungo's again, providing it was no more than three days a week—but that will be enough for me to regain my certification. I'll be a medi-witch again!'
Little Marcus stood and held out his arms to his mother, a tow-headed tyke with his father's grey eyes. Vi took him onto her lap, and Kell looked up from her cooing at baby Rane.
'What's this I hear about a possible addition to your family?' Kell asked, and t noted how carefully she phrased the question.
Hermione clapped her hands. 'Are you pregnant?' she asked.
'No,' Vi said serenely. 'Master and I had only planned to have one child. But he and Hadrian went to Lincolnshire last month to meet with the D/s community there, and he met a submissive called Lisette Winters. She's been to visit with us, and I quite liked her.' Marcus squirmed to be let down, and Vi eased him onto the floor, where he began to play again with Daisy. 'The play went very well, but I will have to know her much better before I can agree to accept her as our submissive—to invite her to join our family.'
Taffy gently reproved Daisy for taking the block Marcus had been playing with, reflecting that her daughter was definitely a bossy girl. When she looked up again, Kell and Hermione were exchanging an anxious glance, but Vi appeared as composed as ever.
'Does Claudius want to make her an offer, this Lisette?' t asked quietly.
'He is interested in discussing it,' Vi said, 'but we both have to agree completely before such a thing would be done.' She smiled sweetly at Hermione. 'I would have to love her and trust her before I would want her in our bed, and I don't know her well enough yet. Master understands completely.'
'Master,' Daisy echoed happily, placing a blue block atop a red one.
'Oops,' Hermione murmured, biting her lip as if to stifle laughter, and t and Vi sighed simultaneously.
'Little people have big ears,' t said. 'I'm learning not to say the "M" word around the wee ones.'
Vi sighed a second time. 'I don't understand why we have to hide it,' she said, 'but Ma—Claudius is determined that the child not be burdened with unnecessary information.' She seemed sad. 'He says that the time is coming when we'll have to remove to our house in Swindon. Roissy House is fine for babies, but not the best place for raising children, really. I'll miss having Elinore down the hall.'
'Not nearly as much as Elinore will miss having you, my dear.'
The girls turned to look as Elinore's chair glided through the doorway, and Hadrian raised a hand from the corridor. Hermione rose from her seat and went to hug the silver-haired Dominant. Taffy kissed Elinore's cheek as her chair stopped beside Vi's, then she hastened to Hadrian. He kissed Hermione's forehead and said, 'Happy birthday.'
Hermione murmured her thanks as he turned from her to bestow an embrace on t. 'Where is Severus?' he asked.
'He was still at our house a half-hour ago,' Hermione answered.
'But if he's here,' t continued, 'he's either in the back garden with the Do—with the men or in his old room over the stables.'
Hadrian smiled his good-bye and left them, and t pulled Hermione into the bedroom, this time closing the door behind her.
'It's time for you to start getting ready,' she said to the birthday girl with some severity. 'I know you hate to be fussed over, but it takes time for us to put your hair up, you know.'
Vi began working on Hermione's right, and t began on the left, each of them taking sections of hair and saturating it with Sleekeazy's Hair Potion. After a time, t said, 'I remember that you were concerned about your friend's reaction to the news—how did Harry take it?'
Hermione met her eyes in the mirror. 'He thinks he's here for my birthday party,' she admitted.
There was a knock at the door, and t hurried to open it. 'Hermione, it's your mum!' she announced cheerfully. 'Come in, Mrs Granger—we're just putting up her hair.'
Jean Granger nodded greetings to the other women and advanced on her daughter, bending to kiss her cheek. 'Happy birthday, darling,' she said. 'All this fuss for a birthday party!'
Hermione turned in her seat to take her mother's hands. 'Did Daddy come?' she asked. 'Is he downstairs with the men?'
'Of course he did, Hermione—what's the matter?'
Hermione said, 'I've got something to tell you, Mum …'
And t listened with only half an ear as she stared down into the large square jeweller's box, its lid flipped up to reveal a platinum necklace—one might even call it a collar—edged with tiny diamonds and centred with the largest pink star ruby t had ever seen.
Hermione would be wearing it today.
Severus Snape combed his shower-wet hair back from his forehead, glaring at his reflection in the steamy bathroom mirror. Mirrors had ever been his enemy as a boy, ill-favoured and unkempt as he had been. As an adult, he had learned to ignore his reflection, save to make sure his clothing was in order. But as a tool in schooling a submissive, he had discovered that mirrors had uses he had never before imagined …
Experimentally, he attempted a smile, and as usual, he looked as if he were baring his teeth like a rabid animal. At least the teeth in question were no longer objectionable, due to the insistence of his business manager and the skills of the private cosmetic Healer—and at those bloody prices, he had best have the most magnificent smile in the United Kingdom.
Hermione, at least, had been delighted by the results, telling him with her usual candour that he had been 'striking' before, but with the new colour and configuration of his teeth, he was 'devastating'. He snorted and turned away from the mirror. Hermione did not see him clearly—never had done, perhaps, if she had ever thought him either striking or devastating—but he knew that she meant what she said, for they spent hours at a stretch now sharing each other's consciousness, and they knew one another with an intimacy unparalleled, perhaps, by any couple in the history of the world. That she could know him so completely and love him—love him, with a completeness and certitude that, in the beginning, had overwhelmed him and sent him into emotional retreat more often than he cared to admit—was a truth that, for a very long time, he could neither accept nor refute. His resistance and silent scepticism had left her unruffled. When he had returned from his emotional withdrawals—for there had been no physical separations since the night of her debut—she had welcomed him into her mind and her soul with the same eagerness with which she welcomed him into her body and her heart.
He moved from the bedroom of the flat over the Odd Cottage stables to the sitting room, where Rafe waited patiently, one hip resting on the corner of the writing desk as he stared out into the back garden through the open curtains.
'All right, Sev?' Rafe inquired, glancing at him.
'I thought you were in the garden, coming to blows with Claudius over the fairy lights,' he responded snidely. 'Did you cry craven and withdraw, Max? How unheroic!'
Rafe grinned unrepentantly. 'But with only a little argument from me, our serious friend became more convinced with each passing moment that his methods were superior to mine …'
Severus snorted with laughter. 'Will you ever have done with baiting the Ravenclaws into completing your work?'
Rafe shrugged. 'Some methods learned in the common room at school are still effective, thirty years on.'
Severus seated himself at the writing desk and took up the raven feather quill Hermione had given him at their first Christmas together. It was rather ragged now, for he had mended it repeatedly over the years, but it was still his favoured writing instrument. He dipped it in the inkwell and opened his green journal, paging through to find his incomplete entry. 'You realise, of course, that Claudius is fully aware of your methods and is completing the placement of the lights because he wants to do it for Hermione,' he said.
'That was always the downside of taking the piss out of a Ravenclaw,' Rafe agreed. 'The really clever ones always twig to one's game.' He removed his backside from the edge of the desk and peered down at the journal. 'Haven't you finished that yet?'
Severus scowled. 'Obviously not, and I'm not likely to finish any time this year with you blathering on.'
'Right,' Rafe said moving to the door. 'I'll just go down and admire Claudius' work, shall I?'
Severus nodded absently. 'Don't let anyone up except for Hadrian,' he said. A thought occurred to him then, and he looked up into his friend's face. 'Hermione's father is likely to come looking for me,' he added.
Rafe looked sympathetic. 'Shall I try to distract him with my best Scotch?' he asked. 'I have some McCallum 1926 from my father's cellar …'
'Bring him up directly should he ask for me,' Severus said seriously. 'He has the right to try to knock me down, if he wants.'
Rafe sobered. 'Does he have any idea about D/s? About collaring?'
Severus shook his head. 'She has kept it from them up to now, and it's her decision.'
'Right,' Rafe said briskly. 'I'll guard the gate, mate—get your homework done!'
And with a slap to his friend's back, Rafe Lestrange sallied forth.
When Hadrian entered, half an hour later, Severus was affixing studs to the starched cuffs of his white shirt. It frequently surprised Severus when he truly looked at Hadrian, whose silver hair and lined face did not match the picture Severus carried in his mind, of a man twenty-five years younger. His eyes met those of his mentor, and Hadrian nodded once—he had read the entry Severus had finally completed in their twinned journals.
'Are you ready?' Hadrian asked. 'No, not your coat—I can see you're still dressing. Are you ready here?' He tapped once upon his temple.
'Yes,' Severus answered, pleased to realise that it was true.
Hadrian sat down in an armchair. 'So, in three years she's only used her safe word twice? That's remarkable, Severus.'
Severus relaxed a bit, standing with an elbow resting on the mantelpiece. 'And both times were during … arguments.'
Hadrian's eyebrows arched. 'You permit her to use it outside of play situations? Intriguing!'
Severus' lips thinned as he remembered the first time she had done it, the two of them standing toe to toe in the sitting room of her tiny flat, arguing about whether or not she would spend a weekend with the Weasleys for some special occasion or another. She had blurted, 'Harry Potter!' and he had been thrown into furious silence. She had subsided, pale-faced and tearful, onto her tatty loveseat, and he had marched into her kitchen and prepared a pot of strong tea. It had been mortifying for him to realise he was unwilling to have her go because he could not face a night without her in his bed—the memory of his year without her was still too fresh for him to contemplate a separation. In the end, they had compromised: She spent the days of that weekend with the Weasleys at the Burrow and the nights with him, tied to the bedposts in a charming bed and breakfast in Ottery St Catchpole, delightfully noisy behind the Soundproofing Charm he had cast …
'I wanted her to be able to call a halt to any situation,' he said. 'She left me before because of unilateral decisions I made on her behalf. It goes very much against the grain to have my reasoning questioned, but it all comes back to the primary lesson you taught me about Hermione.'
Hadrian smiled and leaned forward. 'What was your understanding of that lesson, Severus? I'm curious to know.'
Severus straightened up, surprised that Hadrian would ask. 'You told me that if I were to ever be worthy of her, I had to love her enough to be willing to let her go.' He shoved his hands into the pockets of his trousers and frowned. 'That's why I stayed away during her time with Claudius—why I let the other Doms approach her and try to win her—why I attended her debut under an Invisibility Cloak.'
Hadrian settled back into his chair. 'And would you have let her go?'
'No!' Severus spat, unable to prevent the word from flying from his lips. 'Why should I? She wanted me, not someone else—and if I was willing to subject myself to allowing all of Roissy House into our business to ensure her satisfaction with our contract, why would it even be necessary to think about it?'
Hadrian laughed out loud and rose from his seat, crossing to Severus and laying his hands upon Severus' shoulders. 'That's my boy,' he said, amused. 'You did everything I asked of you—worked as hard as any Dominant I have ever mentored—and why, indeed, should you give her up if you're willing to take every necessary step to make sure you've satisfied both the letter and the spirit of your agreement?'
Severus looked down into the bright blue eyes of the man who had brought him into the life of a community where he had been accepted and appreciated—a man far more like a father to him than the pitiful excuse of a paternal parent he had endured in childhood—and swallowed against the emotion rising in him.
'Thank you, Hadrian—for everything.'
His voice sounded gruff to his ears, and he was glad no one else was here to witness this show of weakness. Hadrian responded by kissing his forehead.
'You and Hermione have my blessing,' he said, and before Severus could humiliate himself by some emotional display, Hadrian strode to the door and left the room.
Severus turned and took up his coat from the bed, shrugging it on and wandering near the window to look out at the party preparations going forward. As he watched, Ronald Weasley appeared from around the side of the house, and he swiftly crossed the grass to Potter's side. Curious, Severus flipped his fingers at the window, which raised itself so he could hear them.
'Where's Hermione?' Weasley asked.
'I haven't seen her since we came up from Snape's house,' Potter answered. 'She's inside looking at babies and putting on make-up, I guess.'
Weasley turned and looked around at the party preparations. 'It's a lot of trouble for just a twenty-third birthday,' he said. 'I wonder why?'
Potter shrugged. 'Dunno,' he said.
Weasley waved a hand toward the west edge of the garden lawn, where folding chairs had been arranged in rows. 'What's that all about?'
Potter seemed to grow weary of questions to which he had no answers, for he clapped Weasley on the shoulder and said, 'Come have a drink—Rafe has some prime Firewhisky!'
And as Severus watched the boy wonder and his faithful companion make haste to the drinks table, Hermione's father walked past the young wizards with a terse nod and started up the stairs.
Severus straightened his coat and moved to open the door.
The sun was setting as Severus descended the stairs to the lawn and strolled into the crowd now milling about, sipping aperitifs and chatting. David Osborn towered above most, and Severus stopped to exchange a greeting with him and his submissive—what was her name? Chassity?—after all, Osborn had only aspired to Hermione's favour. Severus could afford to be generous.
Rufus Desmond accosted him next, dressed formally in a kilt, with his submissive, a Scot lass called Joanna, clinging to his arm. Severus had been particularly brutal in his derision of this man when Hermione's future had been at stake, but in truth, Desmond was a decent sort. Rafe and t had been to Edinburgh to visit the house Desmond had set up for the D/s community there, and they had pronounced it a success. It was no small accomplishment, particularly for a Dufus.
Other members of the Roissy House board hailed him, and though he appeared to give his whole attention to those with whom he paused to speak, his inner clock was ticking down to the appointed hour, and with each passing moment, he was one step closer to his objective. Whereas some men might feel nervous at the approach of a momentous hour, Severus Snape felt as if he were on a course of triumph and dominion, and with each passing second, his power grew.
As the sun dipped beneath the horizon, the fairy lights illuminated. The guests moved to sit in the seats on the verge of the gentle slope, and in the swiftly deepening dark of the hollow below, the Haven, the home Severus Snape had never thought to possess, nestled in the quiet.
Severus stood between Rafe and t in their garden, fragrant of the last breath of summer, his eyes trained on Hermione, who walked toward him in her tight white corset with the tulle skirt beneath, falling to the tips of her shoes. She held to her father's arm, but her chin was up, her eyes unwaveringly fixed on him, Severus, the diamonds on her collar winking in the fairy-lit dusk. He reached for her with his mind, unafraid now of knowing and being known—really known—and felt the answering flicker as her consciousness settled within his, vibrant and sure.
He was aware of the moment when Weasley finally caught on, for he muttered, 'The sly git!' before Potter could forcibly muzzle him—then Severus saw only Hermione: his reason, his home, his prize. The fierce surge of possessiveness, tempered with desire, gilded with love, flashed through him, and he was ablaze with vindication and victory.
Rafe's voice penetrated, pitched for Severus' hearing as all eyes marked Hermione's progress toward the group at the crest of the slope. 'Do you think she'll provide for your amusement?'
Severus' elbow made contact with Rafe's ribcage, and the youngest Lestrange brother absorbed this blow with an amused exhalation. Nothing of this exchange was observed by the guests, who had eyes for only Hermione.
'But you've always said that wives make notoriously poor submissives,' Rafe continued, sounding at once both teasing and serious.
Severus did not glance at his oldest friend, for Hermione was almost within touching distance, and in mere seconds, he would take her hand in the presence of this company. As his hand reached out for hers, as Mr Granger kissed his daughter's cheek, Severus replied, his voice pitched for Rafe's ears alone.
'But submissives, you see, make the very best wives.'
And Hermione's hand was in his, their hearts, minds and souls as one, as they stepped up together to face the vicar.
7:34 AM, 10 July, 2010
Odd Cottage, Somerset, UK