Present day

"I have to go, Severus. I shouldn't be here. Ron will be home at any moment." Hermione pressed against his naked chest as she tried to rise from his bed.

"Do not speak his name to me. He doesn't deserve you." His arms tightened around her, holding her captive.

"It can't be helped," she whispered sadly against his chest, a tear falling out of the corner of her eye. "I'm trapped in this. Everyone would be so disappointed if we separated…"

Severus had had enough of that madness. "I don't understand your friends. Everyone can see how your husband treats you, and no one has tried to intervene? What about your happiness?" He'd actually come to have some respect for young Potter after the defeat of Voldemort, but that was quickly slipping away at his failure to stand up for Hermione.

"It's complicated. He was never able to have much of the fame, with me achieving the highest marks in school, and Harry being the hero. Now he's finally able to shine, and no one wants to take that from him." She closed her eyes as she felt Severus' body tighten angrily. She knew he would never understand this particular complicated issue, but she continued to try to explain anyway. "It's not the real him, you know. He's become so desperate, so different…"

"Don't think to defend him to me, Hermione." He hadn't sneered at her in a long time, and it pained him to have to do so now. He was trying to help her escape from all this, and yet she still denied that there was a problem. Or perhaps, by now, she'd lost all hope of being able to admit it, and perhaps get away.

"I guess I'm trying to defend myself, in a way," she pondered in a small voice against his sternum, her fingers tracing idle patterns on his chest. "I never knew things would end up this way. Everyone always praised me for being such a bright witch with a brilliant future, and now…" Her voice hitched as she restrained a sob.

Suddenly, Severus rolled on top of her, pinning her beneath him. His large, calloused hands cupped her cheeks as her hips instinctively cradled his. He gazed down at her fiercely, his eyes burning into hers.

"You still have a bright future, Hermione. But you must realize that first, and believe that first, before you can have it." His thumbs caressed her cheekbones as his expression softened. "You are everything a witch should be… and you deserve your happiness. I can help you, but only if you let me." He reached down and twined his right hand with her left; stroking the ring he'd placed on her finger. "I didn't give you this to taunt you; I gave it to you to make you realize you can have everything you ever wanted."

Hermione's eyes had filled with tears, making her feel pitiful. She didn't cry often, but then, she'd been bottling up these emotions for quite a while, and Severus had always had a way to make her drop her defenses completely. "Since when did you become a champion, Severus Snape?" She smiled ruefully up at him, squeezing their entwined hands together.

"Your champion," he corrected, and leaned down to press a gentle but heated kiss to her swollen lips. He raised his head slowly, apprehensive to how she would take all of his words.

Hermione gazed up at him, her heart pounding painfully in her chest. The man was dangerous. He made her believe in things she had stopped believing in the first time Ron had bruised her heart. If she were honest with herself, Severus had torn her heart much earlier, leading her to accept Ron's overdone proposal of marriage much later. Perhaps she'd been the problem all along, never truly opening up to Ronald because of her anger and hurt after Severus.

But now Severus was before her, and he had changed; truly, deeply changed, and not only did he love her, he wanted what was best for her. He was saving her, even as he had abandoned her before. She felt so entirely conflicted… but she knew what she wanted, what she needed. And it was the man currently on top of her, his black eyes blazing with so much love it stole her breath away.

"I don't know how to do this, Severus," she murmured, "but I want you, and I want to be free, and I want…"

He laid a finger over her lips. "You shall have it," he promised, eyes glittering as a smirk tugged at the corner of his mouth. "But first, we must deal with the hard part. Summon that Gryffindor courage that so annoyed me when you were a student, and face this head-on." He slid off the bed, and helped her up, as well, hating the way she trembled from her upcoming task. But he would be there for her, every step of the way, and he told her so.

With those thoughts, he took her back to the home she shared with her husband.

H~S~H~S

Hermione wasn't sure whether to be mortified that Ronald was home, or if she was relieved – she had somewhere, deep down inside, hoped that he would be home so that he would see her with Severus and know their time together had come to an end. Still, as she held Severus' hand in the foyer of their home, and faced Ronald as he came out of the kitchen into the hall and spotted them, she wondered if she could really get through this.

"What in Merlin's name are you doing here, Snape? And Hermione, why isn't dinner ready?" Her husband had his arms crossed over his muscled chest, frowning at them as they all stood there awkwardly.

Hermione realized he hadn't seen their hands yet. She stepped forward into the light and approached Ronald slowly. "I'm afraid I won't be making dinner for you anymore, Ronald." Her voice was gentle, but firm, as she reached into her robes and pulled out the ring he'd placed on her finger two years ago. She took hold of his wrist and he instinctively opened his hand, where she set the ring in his palm. "I'm sorry, Ronald."

Severus didn't like her apologizing, but he waited in the shadows with his arms crossed, letting her handle it the way she wished.

Ronald didn't seem to understand at first, but as he stared from her to Severus, it finally dawned on him. "You're leaving me?" His voice was neutral, flat… indifferent.

"I don't want to hurt you, Ronald, but you've been hurting me, and I just can't do this anymore. I tried so hard to be what you wanted, but I also realize some of the problem has been me, as well. I never fully opened my heart up to you after I got hurt…" She halted, biting her lower lip, and willing tears not to fall; he wouldn't take it at all well, then.

"But he was the one who hurt you. I asked you to be my wife so you wouldn't hurt anymore. I thought that was what you wanted." Ron seemed a bit lost now, a puzzled expression on his handsome face. He shoved his hands into his pockets and shifted uneasily on the balls of his feet, glancing between Hermione and Severus. "I never wanted to hurt you," he muttered, not meeting her eyes. Hermione could tell he was embarrassed, and angry at himself. She knew the real Ronald was buried deep, but still there.

"If I stayed," she began, trying to ignore what those words would do to Severus. But she had to know. "Would things change? Do you even want me to stay, Ronald?"

Severus felt a fist close around his heart. He knew Hermione's emotions were in utter turmoil right now, but he feared he'd go off the deep end if she didn't come with him. He knew Weasley was in too deep to even think about giving her the right kind of life now.

"I want you to be happy," Ronald told her, stepping forward and tilting her chin up. "You still love him, don't you?"

"I love you, too, Ron. But not like I should, not like you deserve, and not like this marriage needs." She nibbled at her lower lip before she continued, "I daresay it's the same on your end…" That would be too easy for her. She couldn't hope that all of this would just suddenly be okay, regardless of Severus' heated words.

"You are one of my best friends, Hermione. You know I love you. But…" He struggled to find the right words – Ronald had never been the eloquent one among them. "I guess I wasn't really ready, when we married. I wanted to help you, make you feel better. We had such fun before you left for university." He shut his eyes, shoulders slumping. He sent a stern look at Severus, eyes narrowed. "If he hurts you again, I will come for you."

Severus moved forward then, actually surprised – though he didn't show it – at the maturity the youngest Weasley male was demonstrating. He smirked inwardly at the thought that Hermione had been the one to mature the boy. He stopped beside Hermione and settled his arm possessively around her waist. "I can assure you, she will be the happiest woman alive." He'd always had the gift of sounding completely confident when in reality, his insides were twisting. But he would do anything within his significant power to keep Hermione in bliss for the rest of her days.

"Then take her," Ronald said sadly, and stepped away from them. "I'll send you the papers, Hermione, and you will be free of me."

Hermione surged forward and wrapped her arms around Ronald's neck, hugging him tightly as she whispered in his ear, "Oh Ronald, I don't want to be 'free of you.' You're one of my best friends…" Tears started rolling down her cheeks, wetting his red hair and splashing against his neck and Quidditch shirt.

Ronald squeezed her waist and pulled her back. He took hold of her shoulders and said firmly, "We won't stop being that. I promise." He retrieved the ring she'd given back to him out of his pocket, and held it out to her. "Keep this as a sign of that promise, okay?" His hand moved through her unruly hair, and then he playfully, barely cuffed her on the chin. "You'll still have to attend all the horrid Weasley parties," he informed her with a small smile.

"I would be hurt if you didn't invite me," she responded breathlessly, not quite believing that it was actually happening, that Ron was forgiving her, that she would be free to be with Severus.

"Go on then," Ronald said again, motioning to the door. He followed them as they exited. "I'll have to go to Mum and see if she'll feed me," he said with lighthearted chagrin.

"Goodbye, Ronald," Hermione whispered, squeezing his hand before letting Severus lead her across the street in preparation for Apparation.

"Goodbye, 'Mione." Ronald watched them with his hands in his pockets, and before they Apparated, called out, "You better take care of her Snape, or I'll take care of you."

H~S~H~S

"I'm not quite sure this is real, Husband," Hermione announced, as they Apparated to their destination. She continued embracing him as they stood there, in front of the lopsided, misshapen house.

"It must be, if I'm actually going through with this," he gritted out between clenched teeth, his arms tightening around her.

"I'm like a daughter to them, Severus. They wanted to have a party in honor of our marriage." She tugged at his hand to lead him forward, annoyed when he didn't quite pick up his feet.

"Only for you, Hermione. This is the only reason I'm taking the chance of my food being sabotaged by a Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes." He trudged behind her, his face grim, though a smirk was threatening to appear.

Hermione turned to look at him with an easy smile, so loving it took his breath away. "My hero," she cooed, then tugged him into the Burrow for their wedding reception.