Hermione struggled to breathe. Panic squeezed her chest, and the Ministry official's words reached her ears as though she were under water. Her hands were sweating so much that the only thing she wanted was to rip off those damnable gloves once and for all.
"I do," said Ron firmly, and looked at her, smiling.
"Hermione Jean Granger," began the official, and she could not stop her mouth from dropping open in dread.
Hermione Jean Granger, she repeated to herself. Her. No one else but her.
Her hand went to her chest and clasped the little vial of Felix Felicis. Seeing her distress, the official paused and said, "Are you all right, Miss?"
"Mione?" She heard Ron's worried voice.
She looked at him as if surprised to see him there, and took a step back. The guests, sensing that something was amiss, fell absolutely quiet. Hermione stepped back and turned abruptly to face them; the silence was so complete that she could hear the rustling of the lace in her train.
Eyes wide, she was finally able to take in a great gulp of air, as if she had been too long underwater and had finally fought her way to the surface. Whipping off the gloves, she flung them to the ground, and heard a scattering of startled gasps, but it no longer mattered to her at all.
"I'm sorry. I can't do this. I'm sorry."
And pulling the stopper from the tiny vial of potion hanging about her neck, she drank its contents down and vanished.
"Lily?" persisted Severus, on the verge of concluding that it must be his imagination and the fear of death playing tricks on him.
At that very moment he heard a pop and decided he was definitely hallucinating, because across the room there appeared a vision of what, to him, was the most marvellous woman in the world, enveloped in white satin and adorned with jasmine flowers.
The bottle slipped from his fingers and struck the floor, rolling and spilling its contents. One moment the two were looking into each other's eyes across the room, and in the next they were running toward each other, groaning as their bodies came together and she crashed against his chest like a wave against the shore.
Hermione wept, but with relief. Finally she could breathe again. Severus's arms were neither cage nor prison, but the loving protection of a home, warm and welcoming.
Severus felt choked with emotion, unable to form a coherent thought. Nevertheless, there was something he had to know. He lifted her face gently to his, and looking into her eyes, he asked:
"You didn't go through with it, did you? Tell me you didn't."
"I'm still Hermione Granger."
He kissed her on the lips, thinking that never before would he have imagined that he would feel so absolutely happy to hear that name. They clung in the embrace, unable to release each other for even a second, and as he felt her sob and shudder against his chest, Severus realized that the tears he had so struggled to contain were now falling freely down his cheeks.
He didn't care. He buried his face in her jasmine-bedecked curls and let the emotion overwhelm and free him. All that he needed was to be here, in her arms.
Don't let them take her away from you, Severus, Lily's voice whispered in his ear. Suddenly there was a series of pops, and the room filled with people: Ron, Harry, Ginny, Arthur and Molly, all with wands drawn—even Hermione's parents, who seemed to have Side-Alonged with them, were there.
Without releasing his hold on Hermione or moving from where they were standing, Severus reached for his wand.
"They followed me," murmured Hermione, and turned slowly in his arms to face the new arrivals.
"You fucking pervert!" shouted Ron. "I knew it was you!"
"Please, Ron, calm down," Hermione begged, desperate to control the damage. "I'm so sorry, Ron, I never meant to hurt you... "
"Come home with me, Hermione. Let's go home and forget about all this—the ceremony, the reception, the guests... just come with me and we'll start again." He drew closer to her, reaching for her hand, but she shrank away and Severus stepped between them.
"No, Ron." Her voice was trembling, but loud enough for everyone to hear. "I'm sorry, but I can't leave. She corrected herself immediately: "I don't want to leave."
Ron stood there, mouth open in stunned incredulity. Harry and Ron's father edged quietly towards him, ready to restrain him should some foolish impulse overtake him.
"Ron, my boy, it's better if we leave now. Perhaps tomorrow... "
Arthur placed his hand gently on Ron's shoulder, but Ron shrugged him off, saying, "Hermione, are you mad? You're swapping me for this... this... thing?"
"I believe Miss Granger has made her preference clear enou—"
"You! What did you give her? You've slipped her some love potion, haven't you?" Ron interrupted him, so angry he might have been spitting fire. And then he remembered something and gave a bitter laugh. "Of course. That's what she drank right before she Disapparated. What was it? Amortentia? You're nothing but a filthy old man who can't get a woman of his own, so you have to use magic to steal another man's girl!"
"No, Ron, you're wrong," Hermione broke in, desperate. She knew Severus must be exerting tremendous self-control in order not to hurt anyone, but his limit was fast approaching. "What Severus gave me was a dose of—"
But before she could finish, Ron felt his blood boil over at her defense of the loathsome bat, and he lost the last bit of self-control he had left. Raising his wand, he let fly the most horrible curse that popped into his head.
"NO!" There was a collective shout, and Harry and Arthur threw themselves upon him, unbalancing him and skewing his aim so that the curse missed. Or almost missed, because it succeeded in grazing Severus's neck, knocking him to the floor, tearing his bandage and making the old wound bleed profusely.
"Severus!" cried Hermione, her voice rough with pain and fear. She dropped to her knees beside him, fearing the worst. "Severus, please, no!"
Ron looked on in stunned amazement as she tried to stanch the blood with her hands, murmuring a spell to slow the hemorrhage. Desperate, she used her wand to rip apart her petticoat into bandages.
Severus blinked twice and sat up, murmuring to her in a calming voice, "I'm fine, Hermione, it's just the old wound... I think."
Once she had helped him to his feet and assured herself that at least for now he was out of mortal danger, she wiped her bloodied hands on her dress and raised her wand with the fury of an avenging angel.
"GET OUT!" she shrieked, hurling a curse that sent him flying across the room. He slammed into the wall and fell heavily to the floor, gasping for air. "Get out, get out, get OUT! How dare you do such a thing, Ronald Weasley? You might have killed him! I don't ever want to see you again in my life, do you hear me? Not ever!"
Ginny and her mother stared at Hermione in disbelief. They had never seen her out of control like this.
"How could you, Hermione? It's Ron!" cried Ginny. "Snape has to be controlling you with a potion. It's the truth—we all saw you drink it!"
"For god's sake, Ginny! Didn't you see it? Didn't you recognize it? You've taken it yourself: Felix Felicis!"
There was a collective gasp from the witches and wizards in the room. If this was true, then the situation was quite different from what they had been imagining.
Hermione took advantage of the silence to continue her explanation.
"Yes, it was Felix Felicis. I didn't know what to do or where to go. When I took it I was too upset to make a decision, so I closed my eyes and thought about disappearing... and the potion brought me here. Because this is where I should be. Because I really belong here, at Severus's side."
Severus came up behind her and rested his hands protectively on her bare shoulders.
"Again, I think Hermione's wishes are quite clear." He pronounced her name slowly, looking a challenge at Ron. "I'll thank all of you to cease this invasion of my property and assault on my person. If it's not too much to ask."
"Let's go, Ron. We've no business here any more," Arthur said to his son, taking him by the arm. But Ron shook him off and turned to face her once again, tears of rage glittering in his eyes.
"Why, Mione?" Why did you have to wait till the last minute to run out on me? Didn't I love you enough?"
Hermione didn't answer—just lowered her eyes in shame, and he saw that there would be no answer for him.
"Goodbye, Hermione," he said, and Disapparated.
She heaved a great sigh, closing her eyes and leaning against Severus's chest, thinking that at least the worst was over.
But then her father, who had remained silent through the whole ordeal, spoke up.
"I hope you know what you're doing, Hermione. Because you've turned what should have been the proudest day of a father's life into an episode of EastEnders. "
"Dad!" she cried, but his mouth was set in a grim line, and he refused to look at her.
"We've stood by you, your Mum and I, through this whole witch-and-magic business—even though we didn't understand it—because it was your life and it was what you wanted. But magic's one thing, and good manners another."
She opened her mouth to speak, but he went on in a dreadful, flat voice. "We never brought you up to do something this unkind—lead a decent young man on and then shame him before his friends and family just so you can have your bit of high drama. I don't know who you've embarrassed more—your fiancé or your mother and me."
She ran to her mother—just as she had always done as a child when her father scolded her—and put her arms round her, seeing the glitter of tears in her mother's eyes before burying her face in her shoulder.
"Mother? Mum? Please, tell me you understand!"
Her mother laid a gentle hand on the nape of her neck, and leaned forward to murmur in her ear.
"Give him time, dear; I'm sure he'll come around. He's just—we're both in a bit of shock at the moment."
She drew back slightly and looked into Hermione's eyes. "It's not exactly been your finest hour."
Undone by her parents' disappointment, she fell to her knees, racked with sobs that would have moved a heart of stone. Severus knelt beside her and took her in his arms, then raised his eyes to impale her parents with a glare.
For a second, the four of them remained thus in a frozen tableau, and then Hermione's mother turned to Mr Weasley and said, in a quiet voice, "Arthur, would you take us back, please?"
"Of course." He took them by the hand and the three of them Disapparated together.
Molly was terribly conflicted. Her heart was breaking for Hermione; she longed to run to her and console her, but the girl had hurt her son horribly, and she did not know what to do. So she put her arm around Ginny and the two Disapparated together, each with her heart riven by divided loyalty.
"Well, it looks to me like you've well and truly fucked it up this time."
Severus and Hermione both looked up in surprise. They had forgotten about Harry, who had been observing matters quietly from a corner of the room.
"You, too, Potter? Don't you think Hermione's been through enough already today, without you tormenting her any further?"
"I'm not likely to cheer her on, am I? Ron's my best mate, after all. I mean, I don't have to be Professor Trelawney to know that wasn't a match destined for happiness, but there are ways of doing things decently, and that was hardly the best way to go about it, was it?"
He smiled sadly, not moving from his corner. "But I won't stand in your way. I owe you a debt, Professor, if you recall, and I'll speak for the two of you. It won't be easy straightening out this mess, and it'll take some time, but I'll do what I can. It's just that everyone's so hurt right now—including me—and no one's thinking clearly. I'll try to help them see sense."
"No, Harry," she broke in, drying her tears, her voice still shuddering with sobs. "If you d-d-do that, they'll just think you're taking sides, and you'll end up fighting with them too."
"I'll be fine, don't worry."
For the first time in his life, Severus looked at Harry with respect. His efforts might prove futile, but there was no doubt he would be true to his word. And he'd have to be brave indeed to confront all his friends for their sake.
"Thank you, Harry," he said, with a brief nod. Harry nodded back, and then Disapparated with a soft pop.
At last they were alone in the room, completely exhausted. Severus carried Hermione to the bed and they lay down in each other's arms.
"What am I going to do, Severus? I've lost everything, everything..."
"Not everything. It may not be much, but you have me... that's if you want me. This is all my fault."
"No! It's not your fault! I was the one who... "
"I was certainly the underlying cause. You risked everything, choosing me, but I'll do everything in my power to make it up to you, Hermione, even if right now I've no idea how I'll manage it."
Their faces on the shared pillow were inches apart, and he looked directly into her eyes as he spoke.
"You risked everything for me, and I haven't even had the guts to tell you that I love you. I love you, Hermione Granger, are you listening? I love you with my life. And I'll do anything to make you happy."
"Just stay with me, Severus—stay with me forever, and you'll make me happy." She smiled weakly. "I love you, too, Severus Snape."
They lay there in each other's arms, exhausted, until sleep overtook them: each wrapped in the other, the white satin dress mingling with the black silk robes, one single being to face whatever was to come.
A/N There's an epilogue coming. Did you think I could leave it like this?
T/N: This chapter has been a real collaborative effort. I'm so grateful to June for her patience, and to Exartemarte for his tireless help.