Some final pieces of art, from TaraSindar: aquasindar dot deviantart dot com /art/The-Otter-and-the-Fox-Chasing-The-Sun-318311312
And from nene27: nene27 dot deviantart dot com /#/d59qq45
And from AngelicFayth: angelic-fayth dot deviantart dot com /art/Chasing-the-Sun-May-God-have-mercy-on-my-soul-319463662

And so we come to the end of this story. I have had an absolute blast writing this and I want to thank you all for the support you've shown. Your reviews and messages, your art and other gifts really mean a lot to me. I never expected to get this big a response and I'm completely blown away by it. Thank you all so very much.

I need a short break from writing now before I begin my next story. As you know I won't start uploading it until it's mostly finished in rough, so it'll be a while, but I owe quite a few one-shots to people, so hopefully those will tide you over until the next long fic begins, and as always there will be updates on my profile letting you all know what I'm up to. I'll see you soon!

"The first time I loved forever
Was when you whispered my name
And I knew at once you loved me
And all the mere fool I am

The first time I loved forever
I cast all else aside
And I bid my heart to follow
Be there no more need to hide

And if wishes and dreams are merely for children
And if love's a tale for fools
I'll live the dream with you

For all my life and forever
There's a truth I will always know
Though my world divides and shatters
Your love will help me by..."
– Beauty and the Beast, 'The First Time I Loved Forever.'

November, 1997

The last week has been absolutely insane, Hermione told herself absently. Even by our standards.

She was currently loitering in the hallway in Grimmauld Place, waiting for Severus; they would shortly be going to see her parents, still in hiding in the south of France. She had borrowed Hedwig the night Voldemort had been killed so she could let them know it was all over and that she would be able to see them soon and bring them home, and since then everything had been insanely busy.

There had been a great deal for the Order to do, mostly involving the Ministry; trying to find someone to actually run things had proved a real headache, since most of the competent people were either dead or had fled the country. At the moment Professor McGonagall, Mr Weasley and Tonks were unofficially in charge of things while they tried to find someone they could name Minister, even pro tem; ironically, Percy's infamous anal-retentive over-organised attitude and microscopic attention to detail had proved invaluable. People were slowly returning to work and some departments of the Ministry were beginning to function once more, but it was a very gradual process, and until they got someone in charge there was a limit to what could be done.

Dealing with the prisoners was going to have to wait until what was left of the Wizengamot could be rounded up and returned to office; at the moment they had been unofficially divided into two groups. One group was at Malfoy Manor, nominally under the guard of Lupin, Bill and anyone else who could be spared but in reality subject to the Malfoys. Of course, Lucius and his wife and son were technically prisoners too, but frankly nobody had the time or resources for that, and they had been paroled with the understanding that if they ran away or attacked anyone Severus would be held responsible. It was far from ideal, but so far it was working splendidly and none of them were causing any trouble – as far as Hermione had heard, anyway, since she was staying well clear.

The other group of prisoners were actually in Azkaban, which had been cleared of everyone the Death Eaters had thrown in there. They were the ones who had refused to surrender, or the ones Severus and Lucius said had acted willingly with no need for coercion; Umbridge was amongst them, to everyone's private satisfaction. They were being treated moderately well at the moment, since there weren't many Dementors left, but it would be a while before they could be tried properly.

Hogwarts had slipped further down everyone's list of priorities at the moment. Hopefully the school would reopen after Christmas, with the loss of only a single term, but the Order were still contacting people and trying to work out who was still alive. It would be a while before they could find enough teachers to disable the last of the defences and open the castle once more, and certainly a while before Professor McGonagall was able to start sorting out how many staff members she had left and begin interviewing replacements, getting a headcount of how many students would be coming back and organising the new first years.

Hermione had spent a significant part of the past few days in St Mungo's with Poppy; between the Ministry and Azkaban there had been a lot of rescued prisoners in very poor shape and the staff had needed all the help they could get. She had dragged Ron and the twins along to help, since apart from Harry and Ginny – who were far too focused on one another to be of any help whatsoever – everyone else was too busy. Despite spending quite a long time being interrogated at length by an absolutely delighted Dilys, she was proud of how much they had managed to get done.

The rest of the time she had spent with Severus, who had dropped off the radar as much as possible and was doing his best to stay well out of everyone's way while he sorted himself out. They were staying at Headquarters with everyone else and he had been helping when he was genuinely needed, but he had been spending as much time as possible on his own coming to terms with things. For longer than Hermione had been alive, his entire life had been focused on defeating Voldemort, and now it had finally happened it was taking him a little while to adjust to his freedom. Despite her fears, he had mostly been fine, as far as she could tell; a little quieter, given to brooding a little more often, a bit jumpy, slightly more restless in his sleep and with a tendency to be clingy in bed when awake, but overall he seemed to be coping. He had warned her it probably wouldn't last, but right now things were okay, probably because there was so much going on that there wasn't really time for anyone to break down.

In addition to everything else, she had been transferring all her parents' belongings back into their house and making sure it was ready for them to come home to, working hard so she didn't have time to worry about how they were going to react when she started telling them everything that had happened. At the moment it was her personal life that was occupying her attention – Severus was nobody's idea of an 'ideal' partner, particularly in the Muggle world – but just telling her parents about the war was going to horrify them, given everything they'd been doing since she had last seen them.

A gentle fingertip pointedly tugged her lower lip away from her teeth, and she suppressed a squeak of surprise as she looked up at Severus, who raised one eyebrow and smirked faintly. "Pay attention," he scolded lightly, shaking his head. "Are you really this nervous?"

"Like you're not?" she retorted, spotting the telltale blankness of Occlumency shields in his dark eyes.

He ignored that, naturally. "Hermione, from what I observed of them, your parents are going to be so relieved that you're alive and unhurt and that the danger has passed that everything else is just details. That said, I would heartily recommend that you lie," he added mildly, "or at least gloss over the worst parts. It is hard to put a Muggle-friendly spin on bank robbing or playing around in someone's brain – what passes for Potter's brain, at least – or planning an assassination or taking part in a battle. Especially since most of your guardians were completely oblivious to most of it and had no idea where you were or what you were doing."

"And the guardian who did know about it was shamelessly taking advantage of me?" she teased. A corner of his mouth twitched in response, but he didn't smile; he really was nervous about this, she knew. Not because he cared what her parents thought of him, but because he knew it was important to her. "Anyway, you always say I'm a terrible liar."

"Most teenage girls manage to lie convincingly to at least their fathers, even if their mothers usually aren't fooled," he retorted. "And in this case they will want to accept the lie. You already know your parents don't want to hear about the reality of your world; I imagine you've been lying to them since a few months into your first year. Or did you really tell them you were almost killed by a troll?"

"Oh, shut up. Are you ready?"

"As I'll ever be. Where are we actually going?"

"France. Is that a problem? I've never tried Apparating to another country. Should we use a Portkey instead?"

"It's not necessary, no. The Apparition will take a little longer and the dizziness will be slightly more pronounced afterwards, but not enough to worry about. They are expecting us?"


"Then let's go."

Nodding, she took his arm and concentrated, closing her eyes and tugging them both into whirling blackness. Before she had a chance to do more than regain her balance and open her eyes, a piercing yowl sounded about an inch from her ear and she staggered as a ball of ginger fluff threw himself off the back of a chair at her. Catching her cat more or less out of reflex, Hermione buried her face in his fur and hugged him, squeezing her eyes shut and willing herself not to start crying. "Hello, Crooks," she whispered hoarsely as he started purring louder than thunder, his whole body vibrating with it. "Miss me?" A moment later her parents' arms wrapped around her and she lost the battle against her tears.

By the time she managed to stop crying, she wouldn't have been at all surprised had Severus run for the hills, but in fact when she wiped her eyes and looked around he was still standing nearby, watching with an expression of carefully guarded amusement. He had also apparently been adopted, since he was scratching a still-purring Crookshanks behind one ear and had quite a few ginger hairs stuck to his coat. "Sorry, Severus," she told him sheepishly. I did tell him I wasn't going to be emotional.

He smiled slightly, turning his head to avoid her familiar's whiskers as Crookshanks sniffed his jaw. "I'll survive." Glancing at her parents, he inclined his head. "Good morning."

"Good morning, Professor," her mother replied politely, wiping her eyes; Hermione didn't like the way she was smiling. "It's good to see you again."

Severus' eyes narrowed fractionally as he nodded. "I was able to pass on Hermione's seventeenth birthday present, but if you sent anything for her eighteenth it would not have reached us," he said carefully. "The past few months have been somewhat eventful."

Hermione's father was grinning now as he produced something from his pocket that turned out to be the bloodstone Severus had helped create what seemed like years ago. "We gathered. This was glowing fairly sedately for a long time, and then around... what, May? – it started turning all sorts of interesting colours one evening. We knew something had happened."

Her mother took up the story. "It calmed down after a couple of hours, I suppose. There have been a few days since then when it's been flashing strangely, but not as badly. What on earth have you been up to?"

"It's a very, very long story, Mum," Hermione intervened hastily, smiling ruefully at the sheer inadequacy of that description. "I will tell you, I promise, but it's going to take days. We won, and I'm safe; can't the rest wait until we're home?" Not that it was really her home any more, but still.

"Hermione Jean Granger, do you really imagine I'm going to let it go at that?" her mother asked, shaking her head and smiling. "Because I'm not really surprised to see Professor Snape with you today. In the past few months that stone has been turning another colour, you see..." She paused and smiled triumphantly. "The same shade of pink your face has just turned, in fact."

"Oh God," Hermione said in a small voice, fighting the blush desperately. That was not the way she had wanted them to find out. Turning, she glared at Severus. "You didn't warn me that would happen!"

"I didn't know," he protested, looking slightly embarrassed himself.

"Relax, both of you," her father said mildly. "It's not as if we didn't suspect this was coming," he added, staring directly at Severus, who began to take a keen interest in the floor.

"Is someone going to finally tell me just what he said to you last year?" she asked, disloyally relieved to have all the attention focused on her partner instead of her.

"It isn't what he said," her mother said thoughtfully, "so much as how he said it. Let's just say... we were quite confident that you were going to be well looked after."

Severus was still studying the floor as though it was the most fascinating thing he had ever seen, and by the tension in his shoulders was probably daydreaming wistfully of the Cruciatus curse as less painful than this. Hermione reflected with some amusement that he really was a very complicated man; he was looking visibly uncomfortable because he wanted to, because he felt it would create a better impression than his usual expressionless mask – and he was probably hoping for sympathy, too. The emotions were genuine, but he had made a calculated decision to reveal them; as always, he had expertly judged how best to play this. Slytherins.

Following his lead, she did her best to look meek and embarrassed. "You're not... disappointed in me, are you?" Amused or not, that was a genuine question; part of her had been worrying about her parents' reaction for months now.

"Not yet," her mother replied cryptically. "Do you think you need to say anything else?"

Severus cleared his throat softly to draw attention back to him; he was working very hard to be charming, Hermione noted, watching him carefully putting Crookshanks down before squaring his shoulders and walking over to her. He wasn't shielding much and was clearly trying hard to look less forbidding and grim, helped by the cat following him and purring. Taking a breath, he reached for Hermione's left hand, twining his fingers through hers and raising it so the light caught her ring. "Such as this, perhaps?" he offered a little sheepishly.

Her parents stared at them silently for a long moment with rather stunned expressions before her mother cleared her throat. "Right, young lady, we're going to get our things and then we are going home for a very long talk. That means you too, Professor."

"Severus," he corrected quietly, avoiding direct eye contact.

Under cover of all the bustle as they gathered the luggage together, Hermione managed to smile at him, scooping her familiar into the crook of her arm; the half-Kneazle's purr was sounding rather hoarse now, but he showed no sign of stopping. "Well done," she whispered. "You're doing very well. I told you they'd love you."

"You owe me," he retorted in an undertone, shaking his head. "I'm no good at this, damnit."

"Actually, I think you're going to be just fine."

August, 1998

The sun was just rising when Hermione opened her eyes and stretched lazily, listening to the distant sounds of the sea as a cool breeze drifted through the open window. Later it would be blazing hot, but at the moment it was lovely. I wonder what day it is? She had honestly lost track. Smiling ruefully, she glanced sideways at the cause; Severus was sprawled inelegantly on his back beside her, one arm hanging off the edge of the bed, snoring softly with the sheet tangled loosely around his slender hips. Even asleep, he managed to look slightly smug – deservedly so, really, she supposed.

It was possibly still the first week of their honeymoon, but it could well be somewhere in the second week for all she knew. The days had rather blurred together in a glorious haze of sunshine, sex and good food. They were on the south coast of Cyprus; his idea, but one she had heartily approved of as soon as they arrived. He had offered to sort out the honeymoon in order to escape most of the wedding plans, evidently fearing that the combination of her mother and Mrs Weasley – plus occasional interference from Poppy Pomfrey – would be too much to cope with.

Planning a wedding while still at school and having to keep the preparations a secret had been challenging, to say the least, she remembered idly, especially since she had been spending the best part of every weekend with Severus and neither of them had really wanted to go and discuss things endlessly with her parents when there were far better things they could be doing. Keeping the wedding small had been easy enough, simply because there weren't many people she had wanted there; Harry, Ron and all the Weasleys, Professor McGonagall, Poppy, and her parents. She didn't see much of any of her other relatives and they didn't know she was a witch, so there was no reason why any of them needed to be there. It would have been nice if Hagrid could attend, but since they had picked a Muggle ceremony he might have been a little hard to explain, and in any case was happily living in France now. Tonks hadn't come since everyone had agreed it would be a very bad idea for Lupin to be there, even though he had promised to behave.

The only people Severus had invited were the Malfoys. Hermione hadn't been terribly happy about that, but he had dug his heels in, and since it was the only thing he had asked for she couldn't really say no. Lucius was his only male friend and therefore Severus had wanted him to be best man, end of discussion. He had also cheerfully admitted he just wanted to make the three of them dress as Muggles for a few hours for his own amusement. To her surprise, Hermione had rather reluctantly grown to quite like Lucius despite everything he'd done; his humour was quite similar to Severus' and it was hard not to respond to his shameless mockery when it wasn't openly malicious – besides, the clothes fittings had apparently been very entertaining; Severus had described his friend flirting with every single woman in the shop.

She had only had to meet with the other Malfoys a few times. The first meeting with Narcissa had been rather uncomfortable; either Severus or Lucius – or both, probably – had clearly intervened, since subsequent meetings had been stiffly polite but not unpleasant. Draco hadn't spoken to her at all, save for a muttered congratulations after the actual ceremony, but she would happily take that over insults.

There had been no stag or hen night, either; she had spent the final evening before the wedding with Harry and Ron in Grimmauld Place, just the three of them. In the end they hadn't really said much, but after all the three of them had been through together they hadn't needed to. Severus had gone for a drink at the Hog's Head in Hogsmeade with Lucius – apparently he knew the landlord – and apparently spent the evening explaining to his friend just how the hell it had all happened, which had probably been quite a funny discussion. As far as she knew there hadn't been any excessive drinking or anything stupid.

The wedding itself was all a bit of a blur. She had spent most of it concentrating fiercely on Occlumency to stop herself getting emotional, flatly refusing to cry no matter how she felt, and from what she remembered so had Severus, but she did remember the look in his eyes when she had walked down the aisle towards him, and the way he had kept eye contact without blinking as they made their vows. Neither of them had stayed at the reception very long, shamelessly sneaking off once the formalities were done; Harry had sent Hedwig two days later informing them that everyone had got very, very drunk after they'd left and that the mail was already piling up. He hadn't mentioned the newspapers, but no doubt the Prophet were having the time of their lives with the scandal.

Hermione couldn't really say she cared. Stretching again, she glanced out of the window as the sky lightened; it was beautiful here. They were in a small villa right on an almost private beach, a short walk from a pretty little town whose name she couldn't pronounce; Severus spoke fluent ancient Greek and fairly passable modern, which had so far impressed the locals enough to let them avoid being ripped off in tourist traps. She had even managed to drag him down to the sea a couple of times, although only once the sun had set enough to avoid sunburn, and they had discovered that whilst sex on the beach sounded romantic, in reality it meant getting sand in a lot of uncomfortable places. We've made up for it in this bed, though, she reflected in some amusement, looking around the room. Thank God for cleaning spells. And Silencing spells.

So far, married life seemed to be getting off to a very good start, she mused happily. She had graduated only a couple of months ago with a list of Outstanding NEWTs, and the plan was to look into a Muggle psychology qualification, possibly combined with a Healing apprenticeship at St Mungo's, specialising in post traumatic stress. Severus was going to be her main guinea pig, at his calm suggestion; he was a lot better than he had been six months ago, but he still had trauma episodes sometimes, when he would take off by himself for a couple of hours and come back very quiet and inclined to be clingy. Once she reached that point in her studies, he was prepared to try and describe what happened to him during those episodes and how he dealt with it, which she appreciated. He had spent most of their time apart working, building contacts and sorting paperwork and preparing to set up a professional brewing company once they were settled.

But that was all in the future; more immediately they would be finding a house – no doubt complete with two portraits, who were not going to be left out of anything – and arguing about whether or not she needed to get a job to cover some of their expenses before continuing with her studies. And dealing with the no doubt sizeable mountain of hate mail that was likely to be waiting when they got back to England.

Her friends seemed to be doing pretty well at organising their lives, too. Harry and Ron were happily immersed in the Auror training program, and both showed promise according to their tutors; Fred and George were taking bets on how long it would be before Harry got around to proposing to Ginny, who was in talks with a couple of local Quidditch teams. Everyone had been a bit – unsettled – after the war, but things were almost back to normal now. Whatever 'normal' meant, anyway, she added mentally; this certainly wasn't how she had expected her life to turn out.

With his usual perfect timing, Severus yawned, distracting her; glancing over, she smiled fondly as he stretched and slowly opened his eyes to give her a sleepy smile. "Good morning. Possibly."

"Hello. I think it's morning. The sun's coming up. I don't know what day it is, though."

"Mm." Rolling onto his side, he shifted closer, untangling the sheets. "I'm sure someone will tell us once the money runs out. It's not as if either of us have anything important to do for a while."

"Bad influence," she chided, smiling, before laughing softly as he slid an arm around her waist and leaned to nuzzle at her neck. "Honestly, Severus! Aren't you worn out yet?"

"Apparently not," he murmured; she felt him smirk against her skin as he kissed the spot under her ear that always made her shiver. "You'll have to try harder... wife."

Humming in pleasure, Hermione twined her arms around his neck, wondering if she'd ever get used to being referred to that way. Signing her name was going to take a lot of getting used to, in particular; it was strange not being a Granger any more. Turning her head, she kissed him, gently biting at his lower lip. "I think you should remember you're not a teenager any more, husband," she retorted, slowly trailing a hand down his chest, scratching lightly to feel him shiver. Although since the war had ended, Severus seemed to have lost years of stress and hurt; right now, as he smiled into her eyes before leaning in to kiss her again, he looked younger and happier than she had ever seen him, his whole demeanour relaxed and content and the harsh lines of his face softened.

"I am well aware of that," he replied against her mouth, bringing his hand up to caress her breasts; she could feel the slight coolness of his wedding band against her skin. "You seemed to be thinking hard when I woke," he observed between kisses as their hands wandered.

Mapping his familiar scars with her fingertips, she murmured agreement into his mouth before breaking away to kiss his jaw and moving down to his neck. "Just remembering what's happened in the last year, that's all," she said against his throat as his hands slid into her hair, simultaneously finding sensitive places on her scalp and combing out some of the worst frizz and tangles. "It doesn't really seem real unless I stop and remind myself how we got here every so often, you know?"

His hands tightened just enough to make her shiver as he shifted to press his erection against her thigh with a low sound of pleasure. "I know the feeling. It does feel rather like a dream at times," he agreed, untangling one hand from her hair to reach down between her legs.

Arching up against him with a low moan, she laughed slightly breathlessly. "If we don't both calm down soon, married life is going to be rather difficult," she pointed out, closing her eyes as his fingers moved deeper. "We are both going to need to work at some point, and if we can't keep our hands off each other..."

His husky laugh made her shiver again. "I think we'll survive."

"You might not," she told him impishly, opening her eyes again and grinning at him. "I'm sure it's every man's dream to die of heart failure in the middle of sex, but..." Kissing her to shut her up – a method that usually worked entirely too well – Severus gently drew his hand away and rolled onto his back, pulling her down on top of him without breaking the kiss.

As she shifted and sat up to straddle his hips, he grinned at her. "You do talk rubbish sometimes."

"Get used to it. You're going to have to put up with it for the next few decades at least," she retorted, sinking down to meet him as he thrust up into her once more, sliding her hands over the scars on his arms to link her fingers through his.

"I think I got the better bargain, somehow," he said reflectively, squeezing her fingers gently as they began to move together. "No regrets?"

"None whatsoever. You?"

"Of course not, love."

March, 2005

Severus put the last flask carefully into the crate and closed the lid, straightening up and stretching to work the kinks out of his back before drawing his wand to seal the box; it didn't need to be sent until tomorrow. He was glad the order was finally finished; this one had taken him most of the week. Looking around to make sure everything was tidy and where it was supposed to be, he left the former barn that had now been converted into a laboratory and headed towards the house. A meow drew his attention as Crookshanks trotted out of the undergrowth and followed him, and he glanced down at the half-Kneazle.

"What do you want, furball? You know I won't feed you until later," he informed the cat, climbing the shallow stone steps onto the porch and pausing to find his cigarettes, taking a moment to look around as he lit up.

Even in the light drizzle that was falling, he had to admit he and Hermione did live in a beautiful house. The old stone cottage was too small to be classed as a farmhouse, but it was more than large enough for the two of them, especially since his lab was in an outbuilding and not cluttering up the main house. Fixing it up and modifying it all had taken a lot of time, but he'd had plenty of free time while Hermione was studying, and he'd enjoyed it, somewhat to his surprise. He had his lab outside; inside they had a decent kitchen that doubled as a dining room, an office they both shared, and a living room that had been split into two rooms so they had an actual library lined from floor to ceiling with bookshelves on all four walls. The library was somewhat pointless since there were also bookshelves in every other room of the house, but it was a token effort towards organisation. Upstairs the attic and roof space had been turned into their bedroom and bathroom, and a guest bedroom at Hermione's insistence that so far hadn't been used.

Smoking slowly, he looked around the garden, or rather gardens; it had been split into four areas. The land at the front of the house, either side of the drive, was really only maintained to make the house look presentable; neither he nor his wife were particularly interested in gardening for its own sake. At the rear of the house, where he was looking now, he had claimed a sizeable plot for potions ingredients and miscellaneous useful plants, and they grew vegetables in another section. The rest of it had mostly been left wild, and was turning into a respectable meadow, separated from the surrounding woods by a thin fence that he planned to replace with a stone wall and gate at some point.

Finishing his cigarette, he stretched again and headed into the kitchen, glancing at the clock; time to start dinner before he went to finish the paperwork for the order he'd just completed. Severus was well aware that many of their acquaintances snickered and made snide jokes about his being a house husband, and generations of chauvinistic Northern ancestors were probably spinning in their graves, but this life suited him perfectly; it wasn't much different from the way he had always lived, really. He and Hermione split the most mundane housework between them; he liked cooking more than she did and had no objections to doing most of it; and he had more free time than she did for domestic chores. Humming absently to himself, he started work, watched hopefully by Crookshanks.

It still confused him sometimes to contemplate how easily – relatively speaking – everything had worked out. That plan he had outlined to Hermione so long ago had worked almost seamlessly. The wedding had been fairly painless, even if he privately still wished nobody else had been there, and the honeymoon had been... he smirked to himself. It had been good enough that they re-enacted it every year. It had been almost two months before they made it home, utterly exhausted and suntanned – or sunburned, in his case – to deal with the impressive pile of mail that had built up in their absence and laugh over the newspapers before planning the next step.

In order to do a Muggle degree, it turned out you needed other qualifications first; Hermione had ended up having to do a handful of GCSEs and a couple of A levels over the next three years, and had been working part time at St Mungo's at the same time, as well as starting to collect notes and interviews from Order members to begin her research into post-traumatic stress. It had been a lot of work, even for her, and there was a limit to how much help he had been able to offer based on his amateur knowledge of Muggle literature and his by now almost totally obsolete Chemistry O level that he had taken more or less for fun nearly twenty years ago. On the other hand, half that early research had mostly been about him, and he was the anonymous star of several papers by now, since she had followed those early exams more or less instantly with a psychology degree and was about a quarter of the way through a PhD on post-traumatic stress now; Hermione Snape had become the wizarding world's only healer who was a qualified expert in trauma psychology, and a few more publications would see her in demand all over the world.

From a professional point of view, her learning had come too late to help him, but Severus was more than capable of being his own therapist and pharmacist when it was necessary. He hadn't needed any specific help from her; just knowing she was there had been enough for him to slowly and carefully put his shattered psyche back together. He still had odd mood swings occasionally, and sometimes his dreams still jolted him awake shaking in the middle of the night, but he was genuinely all right, for the first time in more years than he could recall. Provided no more insane soul-splitting dictators arose to tear the world apart again, his life was going to turn out just fine, despite truly unbelievable odds.

Still humming idly to himself as he finished tidying up, he left the food cooking and headed to the comfortable clutter of their shared office, mostly taken up by their desks placed facing one another in the centre of the room to make space for all the shelves and cabinets around the walls. Severus liked this room for its blend of Muggle and wizard; there was a computer and telephone in one corner and the books ranged from Potions and Healing journals to medicine, psychology and chemistry textbooks, and he had two large Muggle metal filing cabinets against one wall holding all his customer records and business paperwork. His new piano, a gift from Hermione on his fortieth birthday, had been in here until recently but they had finally managed to fit it into the living room after shifting a couple more bookshelves out of the way. There was also quite a sophisticated safe built into the wall behind the computer table that contained the Elder Wand; occasionally one or other of them would spend a couple of days playing around with it.

Crossing to one of the filing cabinets now, he began flicking through one of the drawers, sparing a baleful glance for the computer; it was only a couple of months ago Hermione had deemed him adept enough to be trusted to use it without her nearby. That was one area of Muggle technology that had passed him by, and anything other than typing up notes or basic Internet searches still left him more or less totally in the dark. Paper and pen was good enough for him. Finding the invoice he wanted, he settled down at his desk to add up the costs for this latest order, automatically swivelling sideways in his chair to allow Crookshanks to jump onto his lap.

"This is a disgustingly domestic scene," a voice observed mildly from the wall, and Severus glanced up with a wry smile. Phineas and Dilys each had a frame in the office now, which had not been easy to set up; after they had annoyed him one too many times, both of them had been barred from accessing any other pictures in the house. He liked the portraits, and admitted he owed them both quite a lot, but that didn't mean he wanted them constantly in his life.

"You say that virtually every time you visit," he noted, leaning back in his chair and absently stroking the purring cat.

"It's usually true, that's why. Still all on your own?"

"For another hour or two, probably; she said something about a Floo call to Berlin. Is this a social call, or has Minerva sent you with a message again?"

"The latter; she still wants you to visit so she can show off everything that's changed."

"I was there a year ago."

"Tell her, not me."

"Fine, I'll see if I can spare half a day during the Easter break. Any news to report anywhere?"

"You heard Ginevra's pregnant?"

"Yes," Severus replied with a certain heavy irony. Potter and his wife had visited to break the news last week; he hadn't realised Hermione could make sounds at that pitch before. Crookshanks had spent the next hour sulking under the bed after being terrified out of his fur by the noise.

"I think that was the only new gossip. It's all getting terribly dull now you're all healing and getting on with normal lives, you know. Any news here?"

"In the two days since Dilys last stopped in? No, strangely enough, unless you'd like to hear the full details of my latest shipment to the apothecary in Hogsmeade."

"No thank you. Have you considered getting a hobby, Severus?"

He snorted softly. "I have several, thank you. Bugger off and stop complaining."

"Fine," Phineas huffed, departing in his usual haughty style, and Severus returned to his paperwork, signing his name at last before leaning back and idly rubbing behind Crookshanks' ears. In fact, he finally had time to devote to his hobbies properly; one corner of his lab had become an art studio, and he had a few academic projects tentatively in development, although he had to admit his favourite hobby was distracting his wife from whatever she was trying to focus on.

As though the thought had been a summons, the front door opened and closed, and Crookshanks jumped off his lap and trotted out of the room to greet his mistress. Standing and stretching, Severus followed suit, leaning against the wall in the hallway and watching Hermione shrugging out of her coat. It was obviously raining harder now, judging by the way her hair had frizzed, he noted in quiet amusement. "Hello."

"Don't talk to me just yet, I need to write something down before I forget it," she told him absently, ducking past him and heading for the office; smiling wryly, Severus followed her, waiting patiently while she scribbled a hasty note and tossed it into the tray on her desk. "Sorry. Okay. Hello, love," she said apologetically, kissing his cheek.

"Busy day?" he asked dryly, and she made a face at him.

"One of those days that leave me wondering why the hell I let you and Poppy talk me into this. They want me to go out to Germany in May and give a speech at some Healing conference I've never even heard of!"

"If it's anything like the Potions conferences I used to attend, it's just an excuse for a booze-up," he told her, sliding an arm around her waist and leaning against her desk. "Everyone there will have read every piece of research you've ever published and decided what they want to ask you weeks in advance; you could stand up there and recite your times-tables and it would have the same effect. It'll be all expenses paid and a free bar, though."

"Easy for you to say, scrounger," she chided him, wrapping her arms around him in return and leaning against him with a sigh. "Some of us haven't been in academia long enough to risk insulting people by saying no."

He smirked. "That's the advantage of being the best in your field, Hermione – nobody can make you do anything you don't want to do. And as I keep reminding you, you're the only one in your field, so you can do whatever the hell you like."

"Well, right now, I want a glass of wine and a bath before dinner."

"You do have such clever ideas," he murmured, and she gave him an amused look.

"I didn't say you were invited, Severus."

You didn't have to. After this many years, he certainly knew her invitation when he heard it. He only gave her a slow smile in response, watching her eyes darkening slightly before she smiled back at him.

"Fine, you win, but give me half an hour to enjoy a proper soak first."

"Yes, dear."

As he listened to her disappearing upstairs, Severus smiled to himself, still savouring the relative novelty of not feeling angry or hurt or miserable; despite their years together, he wasn't about to take this happiness for granted. He finally had everything he had ever wanted, and he intended to keep it.