Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author.

I would like to say a final thank you to VIVAvivacious for her patience with me as the beta for this entire story. Her assistance has been an unbelievable boon.

The warm orange glow of the fireplace lit up the room, casting long, dark shadows in the corners and over the furniture.

When Hermione had first walked into the house, she thought it was empty. The hallway light had been left off, and the house was freezing. Of course, it always was freezing in the winter. It hadn't been until she walked up the stairs that she noticed the door to the study was slightly ajar, and the light from inside was casting a sliver of light against the floor and the wall across from it. There she found Snape, sitting in an overstuffed armchair in front of the fire with a book open on his lap, his head tilted back slightly, and his eyes closed as he slept.

She had covered him with a light throw rug then, reluctant to disturb his peaceful state. Instead, she had returned to the bottom floor and went to the kitchen to begin preparing the fish she had taken out of the freezer box for dinner. After skinning and de-boning the fish, she went back up the stairs, and the way she had left Snape asleep in his armchair was exactly how she found him on her return.

'Severus?' she said softly into his ear, stroking his face gently to wake him.

He murmured her name softly, making her smile. She gave him a slightly harder prod in another attempt to wake him, this time being more successful. His eyes flickered open slowly, and the moment he focussed on her, their corners crinkled slightly from the smile that brightened his whole face. Hermione was still amazed how much seeing this man smile drove away the darkness that continued to push for control over her every time she read the newspaper or heard news about Dumbledore.

After Hermione had accepted her Order of Merlin in a private ceremony in Kingsley Shacklebolt's office, she and Snape had gone through with their plans and left the country, settling down in house in Southern France. They still had the Daily Prophet delivered at Snape's insistence that 'it is better to keep one's enemy closer'. And although it had been nearly a year since the last time she had seen Albus Dumbledore, her blood still boiled with anger every time there was so much as a mention of him. Still, she was resolved to ignore him, for the man hardly warranted a moment of her attention.

Shaking herself from her thoughts, she looked back at the man before her who was staring at her curiously, his eyebrow raised in question.

'And what thoughts are distracting you from interrupting my sleep this evening, hmmm?' he asked with a smirk.

Hermione shook her head and offered him one of her hands to help haul him out of his chair. 'Nothing of importance,' she replied as he stood up on both feet fully.

Snape gestured for Hermione to lead the way, so she turned on her heel and made her way into the hall, stopping at the stop of the staircase to turn around and place a swift, teasing kiss on his lips before flouncing down the stairs, leaving him staring after her and shaking his head at her behaviour. When she arrived in the kitchen, she placed a griddle pan on the stove and turned on the gas, lighting it manually. She had always preferred cooking things the Muggle way — it always tasted better. Snape entered the kitchen just as she was placing the fish on the pan to grill.

'I believe it was my turn to cook dinner tonight,' Snape murmured, wrapping his arms around her waist and placing a kiss atop her head.

'I don't mind making dinner two nights in a row,' she said with a smile, spinning around in his arms so she could wrap her arms around him also. 'Besides, you looked so tired, and I know you had to deliver your potions all day.'

Snape, since moving to France, had started his own potions business, creating both standard and rare potions to sell to Apothecaries all over Western Europe as well as tutoring two days a week at the Academy of Magic in Nice. On the days that Hermione was going to be returning home late from her work as an apprentice to the Arithmancy Master at Beauxbatons, Snape would usually make dinner after completing his work for the day, and it would be sitting on the table waiting for her when she walked through the door.

Likewise, on the days when Snape was tutoring at the Academy, Hermione would leave the school early and make dinner for the two of them. It was not very often that she would come home to find the house as silent as it had been.

When the fish was cooked, Hermione gave Snape a nudge and he moved out of the way and went to pull down two plates to put their meal on. With their fish, salad and a glass of white wine each, they went to the sitting room and ate their dinner sitting on the floor in front of the coffee table, with the light from the fireplace bathing the room in just enough light for them to see in front of them.

'What were you thinking about when you woke me up, love?' Snape asked suddenly as Hermione was taking a bite of her food.

She chewed and swallowed hastily to reply. 'It was nothing, honestly.'

He frowned at her and sat back from his empty plate, patting his full stomach. 'You and I both know that it is never "nothing" when it comes to you,' he said seriously. 'Please don't try to hide this from me.'

Hermione sighed heavily. She could never hide anything from Snape. 'Dumbledore,' she muttered under her breath.

'Now why would you be thinking about him at a time like this?' Snape asked her, leaning forward and gently capturing one of her hands in his.

'I've been having a hard time of letting go of the bad things,' she murmured softly. 'I never used to hold grudges like this or think badly of people, no matter how much I disliked them. It's as if the darkness within me is desperately trying to burst out and strangle someone with an iron grip on their throat.'

'In this case, I suppose you'd like to strangle Albus?' Snape stated, his hand still gripping hers and his calm, even tone unwavering.

'Well, yes,' she admitted with a slight shrug. 'I suppose you are going to tell me that the urges will fade with time?'

'It will,' he said with a small smile. 'When I was first seduced by dark magic, I had a lot less restraint than you have so far, and I allowed it to control me for some time before I matured and realised that what I was doing was wrong. You are that much stronger than I was to be conscientiously battling against it from the start.'

'I killed people, though,' she said, staring down at their clasped hands. 'Those kinds of stains don't just go away.'

'I agree, and these urges might bother you and continue to influence your decisions for a few more months, or years even,' he said, looking her right in the eye. 'It is how you manage it and deal with it when you lose control for even a moment that defines you as a person. You are one of the strongest people I know, Hermione.'

Hermione smiled, the beginnings of tears starting to fill her eyes. She blinked and they fell away, rolling down her cheeks to splash onto the tabletop before her. He reached his free hand over and brushed away the remaining moisture. She had never known what it would be like to be in love with a person as much as she was with the man sitting across the coffee table from her. He was her rock, the support structure on which she was building the rest of her life. Without him, she did not know what she would be doing at that very moment. Perhaps she might have lost her mind and ended up in an asylum.

'I am only strong because I have you.' She whispered her confession, afraid that if she said it too loud he would be ripped away from her.

With a wave of his hand, Snape made the dishes disappear, most likely to the kitchen to be washed magically, and stood up from the floor. He held out a hand to Hermione, hoisting her to her feet and guiding her around the table to sit on the lounge beside him, her legs draped over his lap as they cuddled one another tightly. He stroked her hair gently and pressed a kiss to her temple.

'I wish I had someone like you around to guide me in the right direction when I was young and foolish,' he admitted quietly. 'But then I suppose if that had been the case, I would not have found my way to you now. I'd much rather have this.'

Hermione smiled contentedly. 'I am pleased.'

After a while the fire died down, leaving only the smouldering embers, and the pair finally decided to move upstairs to bathe and go to bed. They showered together to save time but ended up delaying to pursue more pleasurable pastimes, washing one another and giving each other pleasure until they reached their climaxes and collapsed against the tiles of the shower wall. Soon after, when they were sufficiently clean and dry, they collapsed onto the bed, Hermione magically summoning the bed covers over them and snuggling with her back to Snape as he spooned against her as usual.

Hermione listened to the sound of Snape breathing as he fell asleep behind her before she rolled onto her back and pressed herself to his side to maintain their closeness. She turned her head a fraction and opened her eyes to look at him as he inhaled and exhaled every breath. She recalled a discussion the two of them had a couple of weeks beforehand, while lying beside one another in bed, when he had asked if she would ever consider marrying him. It wasn't a proposal per se, but it was as close as he would come until the day when he actually proposed to her.

She didn't mind. He could ask her at any time, in any way he liked — hell, there didn't even have to be a ring involved, and she would still say yes.

She pushed herself up to lean on her elbow and gaze down at her lover's pale face as the moonlight shone through a gap in the curtains directly over the two of them. He wasn't conventionally handsome or charming, but he was the perfect sort for her. She reached out a hand and stroked his cheek gently, causing him to stir from his light slumber and peek an eye open to look up at her.

'Aren't you going to go to sleep tonight, witch?' he mumbled sleepily.

'Oh, yes, I will go to sleep in a little while,' she answered with a smile. 'I just like to look at you is all.'

'You're a strange little thing,' he said with a husky chuckle.

'But you like that about me,' she said, and he could only nod in agreement before reaching out to pull her back to lie with her head on the pillow beside his own.

'I like everything about you,' he commented, running his long fingers through her slightly damp curls. 'But as I am biased, don't go getting a big head about it.'

'Be careful not to snag your fingers in a knot,' she said as he eased his hands out of her hair and wrapped his arms back around her.

'I'm always careful with you.'

Hermione laughed softly. 'Too careful.'

'Just careful enough.'

'I thought you wanted to sleep, not have a debate,' she challenged.

'I do want to sleep, now close that pretty little mouth of yours, or I shall do it for you,' he retorted swiftly.

'Oh? And just how shall you do — mpph...' She was cut off by his lips covering hers in a passionate kiss, his tongue sliding easily into her mouth to play with hers.

'That was cheating,' she said breathlessly when he pulled away.

'I love you,' he said, pressing another swift kiss to her lips.

'And I love you,' she replied. 'But don't always expect to win our arguments that way.'

A short time later, they welcomed sleep together.

The End.

A/N – I hope you enjoyed the ride as much as I did.