The Scientist

Author's Note: Thank you all so much for your really fantastic reviews and messages and emails. I still can't believe I'm finishing a story.

I initially intended to include clipped scenes from this story but decided not to in the end because I felt that it crapped up an otherwise neatly packaged finale to this story. Sorry, guys—maybe someday I'll post those scenes on my blog. Rest assured there will be several little smut scenes in the future posted there from this story, as the last one was more plot-oriented and less fun :P

Oh yeah, and please review!

Thanks to all of you who reviewed the last chapter: DreamsMelody, Jane and Henry Forever, Cuttlefish, AM, Cellar, ladi, Crazy4Beverages, lolita, Nerys, WeasleySeeker, FiOnAFiO, rising of the darkness, The-tall-girl-in-green, AwesomePersonlolxx, ajamaisdanmoncoeur, Sen, Nirja, wingedmercury, AngelumPacis , ber1719, KamiaKeller, and RabxBlack.

Warnings: nothing too explicit, but there is a bit of smutty content scattered about.

Disclaimer: The HP universe does not belong to me; I am just borrowing.

Epilogue: Christmas Lights

The next morning, Hermione awoke with a cramp in her shoulder and her hip. She groaned and blearily opened her eyes to the sight of a bare, lean chest. Okay, what the hell is going on? she wondered, trying to process where she was and who the owner of this (notably attractive) bare chest was. Her leg was crossed over his hip, hence the cramp there, and his arms were wrapped tightly around her, which explained the shoulder cramp. Also, I'm naked. Don't panic yet.

And when she poked her head up and out of the circle of her sleeping companion's arms slightly and caught sight of a rather angry-looking wound stitched up on the man's firm bicep, the previous day's events came rushing back like a crash of icy water, and Hermione let out a squeak of shock before bolting backwards across the bed.

Oh my god. I slept with Dr. Riddle.

Time to panic, apparently.

And considering how sore she was, she had done the deed several times. Hermione crouched on the opposite side of the bed, clutching a dark evergreen throw blanket to her naked form and staring owlishly at Dr. Riddle's sleeping form. I guess he's officially Tom to me now though, isn't he? she realized, blinking in shock. Tom's brow furrowed in his sleep and he twisted a bit, burying his face further into his pillow, his hands subconsciously seeking out her form. Hermione realized her mouth was watering a bit at the sight.

Does he have to look superhumanly beautiful even first thing in the morning?

Then she realized that sooner or later he was going to wake up and see her sitting there, and Hermione scrambled out of the bed, getting tangled in the covers and nearly falling on her face onto the carpet. With a backward glance to assure that Tom was still sleeping, Hermione stealthily sneaked into the bathroom attached to his bedroom and shut the door, chest heaving as she stared at her reflection in the mirror on the medicine cabinet. Love-bites marred her pale skin in places that she could not believe she had allowed his mouth to roam; her hair was so tangled she was wondering if she might as well need to simply hack all of it off; and her lips were still swollen from kissing. She sprang into action and located his mouthwash, hidden behind the medicine cabinet.

Out of curiosity, she poked around the cabinet even though she knew it was impolite. A dark green razor, shaving cream, aftershave, deodorant, and mouthwash were stacked on the bottom shelf. Hermione took out the aftershave and inhaled deeply, closing her eyes as she recognized the scent. Okay, now time to stop being a creepy fangirl, she told herself, hastily shoving the aftershave back into the medicine cabinet. She swished the mouthwash around, replaced it in the cabinet, and attempted to run her fingers through her tangled hair.

Not satisfied so much as defeated, Hermione crept out of the bathroom and back into Tom's bedroom. He was still deep asleep, and she marveled at the planes of his torso and how they were cast in high relief from the gray Christmas Eve morning light outside. Still clutching the blanket round her body, Hermione peered through the window at the fresh coating of snow outside as her insecurities returned in spades. He had said a lot of things last night, but did he still mean them this morning? Logically she knew that he must, for Tom did not say things he did not mean and he did not tolerate anyone's presence unless necessary. And it wasn't like he was exactly experiencing a shortage of willing girls…

"I knew you were a morning person," a voice that was still husky and gravelly from sleep startled her. Hermione turned around, tightening the blanket self-consciously. Tom might very well look stunning with the morning light cast over his body, but she knew better about her own body, and in her opinion, there were some things (such as her thighs) better kept under wraps during daylight.

"You'd think after all the time we've spent together, you'd have figured that already," Hermione teased in a crisp voice as she walked gingerly to the bed. Tom sat up slightly, rubbing his dark eyes and stretching. Hermione tried to not make it too obvious that she was staring. Tom winced and abruptly pulled out of his stretch, massaging his arm and frowning. And that right there is proof that my insecurities are unfounded, she thought, filled with warmth at the notion that he had saved her life without a second thought. She sat down on the edge of the bed, unable to stop herself from grinning like a fool at him. Tom narrowed his eyes at her suspiciously as he rubbed his face.

"God, you're so cheerful it's disgusting," he groaned. Hermione was about to retort but he reached over and gripped her arm, pulling her back down onto the bed. She scrambled to clutch the blanket to herself, but Tom irritably ripped it out of her hands and cast it back behind his shoulder as he pinned her beneath him. "Let's see if we can't make use of some of that cheer," he growled before pressing his lips to hers.

"So you don't regret last night," Hermione confirmed anxiously, pulling away from the kiss a bit reluctantly. Tom rolled his eyes.

"Hermione, are we really going to go through this again?" he complained before sneakily nudging her legs apart, trailing kisses along her collarbone. "Because honestly I can think of plenty of more entertaining uses for your mouth right now and none of them involve talking," he added wickedly.

Hermione flushed indignantly and was about to tell him off when he pressed his lips to her hipbone thus robbing her of the ability to speak.

"O-oh," she said a bit stupidly, her fingers winding in his dark locks. "Well, as long as you're sure…"

"Do I really even need to answer that?" Tom asked, glancing at his arm pointedly before returning his attention to her hipbone. "It might be the stupidest thing you've ever said."

"Enough talking," Hermione said grumpily, scowling deeply when he laughed and then gasping when his breath tickled the skin just above there.

"That's more like it," he said wickedly. "Oh, and Happy Christmas, Hermione."

"Happy Christmas indeed," Hermione managed to gasp before she completely lost any ability to string words together at all.

Hermione grasped Tom's hand in hers, for once not embarrassed at all that her palms were noticeably sweaty. That was a relatively minor embarrassment compared to what this afternoon was likely to bring. She and Tom stood on the crowded suburban street, staring up at a respectable, stately home. It was early May, and the fragrance of springtime was a bit heady. Hermione's dress floated around her legs pleasantly with the breeze, and picked up locks of Tom's dark hair. It was the perfect day to introduce him to her parents, but even with the fluffy clouds in the bright blue sky and the birds twittering in the trees, she couldn't help but dub today Doomsday.

"A-alright, here we are," she stammered before taking a step towards the front slate stone walkway. Tom let out a chuckle of amusement at her expense before allowing her to lead him towards the front door. She thought she ought to knock at first but decided that was too formal and weird, and instead just pushed open the front door as she might have done had she been arriving alone.

Hermione's parents had both been dentists, so she had grown up considerably comfortably, as demonstrated by the fine decor of the foyer. An heirloom crystal chandelier caught the light from outside and cast prisms about the tasteful wallpaper and plush carpeting running up the stairs. Hermione chanced a glance back at Tom to find him looking around the foyer, his expression unreadable. They had had such starkly different pasts that now Hermione was beginning to question whether they could possibly have a future together. "Mom, I'm home," she called out in a tense voice. "Come on, she's probably out in the back garden," she said to Tom, leading him further into the house.

Indeed, Sarah Granger was out in the backyard, picking irises from her garden. She was a petite woman with hair nearly as bushy as Hermione's , though much more styled, dressed in pristine slacks and a ladylike cardigan. Hermione took one last glance back at Tom before opening the French doors to the porch, scrunching her eyes shut and bracing herself.

"Mom, we're here," she said in a slightly quavering voice. Sarah looked up, clutching the bunch of irises in her hand, and a brilliant smile graced her pretty features.

"Hermione, dear!" she said, hastily crossing the grass to the back porch, where Tom and Hermione were standing. Hermione swallowed over a lump in her throat. She had told her mother quite a bit about Tom, of course, but she was still terrified of how their interaction would go.

When her mother's eyes landed on Tom, Hermione watched her mother's jaw slacken slightly. Tom was certainly jaw-dropping, and she knew her mother would not be immune to his looks. In a blue oxford with the top few buttons undone and the sleeves rolled up, he looked exactly the sort of man a mother would be delighted to have her daughter bring home. That's all fine and well…until he opens his mouth and speaks.

After a moment, Sarah recovered from the shock of seeing Tom Riddle for the first time. "And you must be Tom Riddle," she greeted politely as she reached the porch, laying the bunch of flowers on the railing. "Hermione tells me you're considered one of the top barristers in Hogsmeade—impressive," she said as she moved to shake Tom's hand.

Tom glanced at Hermione swiftly as Mrs. Granger leaned over to kiss Hermione's cheek in greeting. She could tell he was recalling the promise that she had forced him to make: that he would be polite and refrain from making any offensive remarks. Unfortunately, Tom was about as unpredictable as a man could be, and while this quality made him an exceedingly exciting boyfriend, it didn't do well for this situation.

"….Maybe top-five," he said with what Hermione knew was enormous restraint. He flashed Sarah one of his trademark charming grins. Sarah blushed rather tellingly and Hermione rolled her eyes. She knew her mother had the same weakness for the tall-dark-handsome-types just as she did, if her father was anything to go by.

"Well, we're so very glad you two could make it today. John's just out to the chemist to pick up some cold medication, but he ought to be back shortly. Why don't we go inside? I just made some tea if either of you'd like some."

They followed Mrs. Granger back inside, and Hermione and Tom shared a look before stepping back inside the house.

Indeed, Hermione's father had returned in the time that they'd been on the porch. John Granger was quite a tall man, with a receding hairline and strong features. The only thing Hermione had inherited from him in looks was her brown eyes, though she knew that, at least in personality, she was truly her father's daughter. John Granger was just as stubborn and temperamental as she could be...

…which was why she was most worried about how Tom and John would get along. Mr. Granger was unpacking the items he'd bought from the chemist when they came in.

"John, Hermione's back!" sang Sarah as she immediately rushed to put the irises in a cut-crystal vase. Hermione watched the two men regard each other. She did not miss how her father straightened to his full height, looking sorry indeed that he did not tower over Tom. For Tom's part, a ghost of his infamous arrogant smirk played on his lips, and it looked like he was struggling to keep polite.

"A barrister, eh? I didn't miss the Firebolt parked in the drive," said Mr. Granger as he leaned forward, holding out his hand. "John Granger."

"Pleased to meet you. I'm Tom Riddle," Tom said coolly, shaking John's hand in a startlingly firm handshake. Hermione winced a bit and turned to help her mother pour the hot tea into teacups. "You're a car person, then?" Hermione heard Tom make a pained stab at polite conversation, and she relaxed slightly despite the way her hands trembled a bit from nerves as she poured the tea. Her mother caught her eye and smiled broadly at her.

"He's so handsome," she mouthed, her blue eyes darting over to Tom. Hermione could not mask her cat-like grin as she busied herself with setting up the cream and sugar.

"Heh, I'll admit I've coveted the Firebolt," Mr. Granger was conceding with a forced laugh. "Beautiful engine. But the Nimbus isn't too bad either."

"But hardly economical," drawled Tom. Hermione and her mother led the two men out onto the porch, where they set down the coffee. "A friend of mine has the Nimbus; I don't think he can make it once across the city without stopping for gas."

"Yes, and the Firebolt's got a nicer transmission. Gets pretty fast, I heard." The conversation was thankfully moving a bit more smoothly now.

"Boys, enough car-talk," chided Mrs. Granger. They were all sitting now, and the nervous butterflies in Hermione's stomach had quieted a bit now to a pleasant fluttering feeling.

The afternoon passed relatively smoothly, though when the conversation veered into the realm of politics, there was a point where Hermione had to tactfully stomp on Tom's foot to stop him from voicing his opinions. Her parents were both extremely liberal and tended to label the sort of views Tom had as 'heartless' and 'evil' conservative views. The stomp resulted in Tom attempting to paste on a pleasant and vacant smile that combated with his wish to argue. In the end, he had a rather sinister-looking grin on his face that was probably better suited to a padded cell in a mental institution than tea on a late spring day with her parents.

After a bit of arguing about sports (Mr. Granger insisted the Aurors were set to be top of the league, Tom thought this was absurd and contended that the Death Eaters were indefeatable) Hermione and Tom cleared the heirloom teak porch table and went to the kitchen to wash dishes. Mr. Granger had to make a few calls, and Hermione's mother went into the sitting room to do a bit of neatening up. They were left alone in the kitchen together, and Hermione could finally breathe a sigh of relief.

"Thank you," she whispered as she took a wet plate from him to dry with a tea towel. "You were perfect."

"Yes, but what are they going to do when they find out I'm a soulless right-wing conservative who thinks the Aurors are absolutely doomed this season?" he mused, splashing her a bit with dishwater. Hermione scowled and hit him with the tea towel.

"Tom! This dress was expensive!" she hissed reproachfully. Tom's lip curled in disdain.

"Yes, maybe that'll teach you to stop letting that ginger girl pick out your clothes," he sighed. Hermione rolled her eyes. Tom had made it perfectly clear that he found Ginny's taste in clothing to be unforgivable but when Hermione had questioned him about how he preferred for her to look, she had ended up naked in a dressing room and he'd removed all of her clothes to another location.

"Well, it doesn't matter—eventually they'll find out the truth about your views, but I'm hoping by then it won't matter because you'll have grown on them too much," she explained matter-of-factly, shaking her head. "I mean, I'm extremely liberal and I still manage to like you," she said thoughtfully. Tom scoffed.

"Yes, but I'm not trying to romance your little girl," he pointed out. "I don't think it matters much how 'perfect' I am—I'm still a villain in their eyes."

"I can see you're so upset about this," Hermione said sarcastically as Tom sneakily grasped her hand to pull her in for a surprisingly chaste kiss on her lips.

"Terribly upset. I'll never recover," countered Tom with a sly grin before releasing her and returning to washing the dishes. "Because you know how much stock I put into others' opinion of me."

Hermione was about to dole out a retort when out of the corner of her eye she saw bushy curls and a glimpse of khakis and a cardigan fleeing from the kitchen doorway. Had her mother witnessed the interaction? Her stomach tightened. Dreading meeting her mother's eyes later, Hermione neatened up the counter, barely hearing Tom poking fun at her again.

The time came to leave. Mr. Granger stole Tom for some last-minute good-natured arguing about the Aurors versus the Death Eaters as Hermione joined her mother out front, standing in the early evening's last bit of fleeting sunlight.

"Hermione, he's perfect," Mrs. Granger whispered, turning to her and clasping her hands in hers. Hermione felt her eyes burning with tears of relief.


"I couldn't help but watch you two do the dishes together," confided Sarah, grinning at Hermione as she tightened her hold on her hands. "I've never seen anyone look at you like that. And I've never seen you be yourself so much around a man."

Hermione's cheeks flushed.

"How does he look at me?" she prodded self-consciously, her eyes wandering inside to where the two men were standing in the foyer, voices raising slightly as they argued. When she looked back at her mother, she was startled by the sincerity in her eyes.

"Like he gets a kick out everything you do. Like he respects and honors you for the lovely, wonderful person that you truly are," she whispered, her smile broadening. "I can tell he's not the type to hide who he is to please others. But he did that for you today. And I can't tell you enough how lovely it is to see you be yourself around someone." She paused as she gazed at Hermione. "I didn't miss how he seemed to understand how your father and I might be feeling. And how he didn't seem bothered in the least by it. That's the sort of man that you want to keep around, Hermione. I think he's the one for you."

Hermione was in shock. She opened her mouth to make a comment, but at that moment, Tom and Mr. Granger came out of the front door.

"It was nice meeting you, Tom," said Mr. Granger a bit gruffly, tugging at his collar. Hermione got the impression that their friendly argument about sports had just escalated a bit and she and her mother exchanged knowing smiles.

She watched with interest at how Tom looked at her, and suddenly it hit her—how he completely lit up when his eyes landed on her.

"Yes, please come back any time, you two," added Mrs. Granger kindly, releasing Hermione's hands to envelop Tom in a hug. It was an awkward one, considering Mrs. Granger was even shorter than Hermione, and they all laughed as Tom had to stoop down low to return the hug. Mr. Granger and Tom shook hands, and they bid each other goodbye.

Mr. and Mrs. Granger watched them get into the car and back out of the drive. Hermione and Tom had not spoken yet, but the butterflies had returned tenfold as she sat in silence, watching him pull out of the drive and begin driving down the street. She noted with pride that he didn't even insist on accelerating to double the speed-limit until they had rounded the corner and were out of her parents' sight.

I think he's the one for you.

Hermione recalled her mother's words as she turned to look at Tom, who was frowning as he tried to recall how to return to Hogsmeade from this little suburb. It had certainly been a long drive to get here, that was for sure. They had a long drive ahead of them, and Hermione was filled anew with gratitude for Tom's uncharacteristic generosity.

"Thanks for today," she mumbled, staring down at her hands. "I've never introduced a boyfriend to my parents before, so—" she halted, unsure of how to continue. "You're really great, you know."

"Yeah, I do know," Tom sighed before dodging Hermione's light slap upside his head. "You're alright. I suppose," he conceded a bit doubtfully, sniggering at Hermione's indignation.

They settled in for the long drive, chatting and watching the shadows stretch along the highway as the twilight melted into evening, and slowly the light-studded skyline of Hogsmeade at night came into view after a few hours. And even amidst their conversation, Hermione did not let go of the feeling she had gotten from what her mother had said. He's the one for you. She watched Tom, watch him disregard road rules entirely and drive at absurd speeds, watch him take pleasure in overtaking the other cars with his superior engine, watched him try to explain to her exactly why the Aurors were so completely inferior to the Death Eaters, gesturing with his free hand, occasionally pausing to push his dark hair from his face like she saw him do when working on cases sometimes. And she watched when he would glance at her, the barest, faintest hint of a secret smile just for her on his lips.

I think he's the one for you.

Tom hadn't invited her to the wedding so much as ordered her to go. Hermione had learned to not let him order her around, but in this case her curiosity won out and she found herself on Christmas Eve in an impressive cathedral in Hogsmeade, standing next to him in a pew, listening to organ music play a slow wedding march. Her dark green velvet strapless dress matched his dark green tie and she felt that they looked good together.

She was still a bit in shock that she was attending Draco Malfoy's wedding. He was marrying a society girl named Astoria Greengrass, and it was probably the most gossiped-about, high-profile wedding in Hogsmeade of the year. The Malfoys were a bigger name than Hermione had initially realized, and that point was driven home by how the enormous cathedral was packed to the brim with pristinely-dressed relatives and friends of the Malfoys. She recognized several well-known politicians and socialites about the cathedral, and noted that because she wasn't fully attuned to the society world of Hogsmeade, she was probably not recognizing other big names present.

It was also her and Tom's one-year anniversary of dating, though neither of them had mentioned it at all yet. Hermione attributed this to the fact that Tom had been up to his ears in work in the past few months, but deep down there was a part of her that was, frankly, really pissed off that he had forgotten such an important date. He'd been very distracted lately, especially in the last few weeks, so she had to remind herself that, with his high-stress job it was forgivable for him to have let the date slip his mind. Unfortunately, she refused to be the one to bring it up, so they were stuck forgetting the anniversary. However... the fact that she was standing next to him in a church, their hands secretly clasped together, sort of made up for it.

Sort of. But not completely.

Severus was on Tom's other side, and the two men had been making snide remarks about the various guests of the wedding this entire time under their breath. Hermione had hissed at them sharply to stop because really, some of the guests were easily within earshot, but so far both of them had done a supremely professional job of ignoring her. Except for when Tom would glance at her while fidgeting, making Hermione uneasy. Tom never fidgeted. Was he so stressed out from all of his cases that he was incapable of unwinding enough for a wedding?

"Aw, look at that, Narcissa's on the verge of showing an emotion for the first time in her life," drawled Severus in a murmur, earning a snigger from Tom.

"Frankly it's a wonder she can move her face at all," remarked Tom snidely. Hermione rolled her eyes and amused herself by watching Draco at the altar, waiting for his bride. His best man, the notably handsome Blaise Zabini, was looking rather smug and Hermione assumed that he had given Draco a bit of 'liquid courage' prior to the service, as Draco wasn't looking too steady on his feet. Everyone gasped and rose as Astoria entered the church on the arm of her father, wearing an enormous (but still surprisingly pretty) strapless gown and shrouded by a glittering veil.

"The gown cost more than my rent for a year," Snape said over his shoulder to Tom and Hermione gasped, staring at the gown in shock. As Snape was Draco's godfather and consequently had been relatively involved in the process of planning the wedding, he was probably telling the truth. Hermione grimaced in renewed disgust as she watched the bride make her way to the altar, where Draco was looking even paler than usual.

"The brat's about to hurl. Zabini apparently fed him several buckets of Firewhiskey last night," Tom whispered in Hermione's ear, his lips ghosting along the shell of her ear, causing goosebumps to prickle along her skin. She shivered. Would she ever become accustomed to contact with Tom? She pulled her matching shawl tighter around her shoulders to hide how he had affected her. Surely the fact that he still could bring her to her knees with just a touch meant that they had something important between them...right?

"Serves him right. He should never have gone out the night before his wedding," replied Hermione in a bossy whisper, earning a sexy, rumbling chuckle from Tom.

As the service dragged on, Hermione surprised herself by how she found herself picturing her own wedding. I'd never pick out an expensive dress, she thought primly, staring at the back of Astoria's gown. Her eyes widened when she realized that every inch of the gown was studded with tiny, subtle crystals. That explained the exorbitant cost of the gown. And we'd never have a big service. It'd just be a few people and maybe a dinner at a nice restaurant afterwards.

But Tom had never alluded to any desire to marry, and while Hermione had always envisioned herself getting married after she had reached thirty, she still found herself feeling a bit anxious. Calm down, it's only been a year, she told herself bossily, and tried to focus on the wedding at hand. But she couldn't. Why hadn't Tom remembered their anniversary at all? Did he feel as strongly as she did? They'd never even said The Three Words, which worried her more than she cared to admit. Every other couple she knew had said it within months of beginning the relationship, but she and Tom hadn't had any talk of the future since the first night that they had been together.

And now she was twenty-seven and almost finished law school, and all of her friends were beginning to get on with their lives. Harry and Ginny were engaged (finally), Fred and Angelina had married earlier that year in the fall, and Ron was planning on asking Luna Lovegood to move in any day now. Hermione was filled with unease.

It's only been a year, she repeated to herself consolingly. These were not as comforting as she had hoped when she reflected on the intensity of her feelings for Tom and the way they had so willingly rearranged their lives to accomodate each other.

"You may kiss the bride," announced the pastor, and Hermione watched as Draco and Astoria finally kissed, though Draco had a job of pushing her enormous skirt out of the way just so he could get anywhere near her. As they walked down the aisle, her eyes met Draco's and she nodded discretely, earning a rogue wink from him that had her rolling her eyes and grimacing. Tom and Snape had not missed the exchange, and Snape was smirking while Tom was stifling sniggers at Hermione's expense.

"Honestly, I can't believe he winked at me like that," Hermione said prissily as they left the church to throw rice at the newlyweds. The grains unfortunately were lost in the flurry of snow and Hermione tightened her shawl around her shoulders, eager to get back to Tom's car where she could fetch her coat. The reception was to be held at the rather exclusive Florean Fortescue restaurant, and guests left in droves to get there for the open bar.

"I can. Have you met Draco? Besides, he was probably doing it just to get a rise out of you," said Tom with a smirk as they pulled up to Florean Fortescue's restaurant.

"Sort of like how you do things like that," Hermione noted. He parked and opened the door for her. For the briefest moment, Hermione caught a glimpse of unease in his dark eyes.

"Yes. Exactly," he said rather vaguely, making Hermione a bit tense.

They danced and socialized the night away. It was pleasing to see Tom so in his element as he charmed and scathed the other barristers in equal parts. Even better was when Bellatrix sauntered over in a rather inappropriate red bandage dress and was met with frosty indifference from Tom and Snape alike. She left, pouting, and tripped on her stilettos. Hermione glowed with pleasure at the sight. She had never gotten over her dislike for the ruthless and desperate female lawyer, and was pleased any time Bellatrix looked foolish.

She also ended up dancing with Snape, much to both their chagrin, but her unhappiness was remedied by the information she wheedled out of the chemistry professor about Tom's teenage years while they danced to stereotypical wedding songs, which would provide several years' worth of fodder for teasing her boyfriend. One particularly amusing anecdote about how Tom had, as an eight-year-old, come up with a moniker for himself out of an anagram of his full name left Hermione tearing up with laughter. Even Snape was smirking as he told her the story.

By the time they left the reception, it was nearing midnight—almost Christmas day. Their one-year anniversary was nearly over. The fun of the night died away as she snuggled into her coat and walked along the snowy sidewalk in silence with Tom. As they strolled along towards the parking garage, she recalled last Christmas, and how he had looked, approaching her on the street, clutching his arm and his hair tousled beyond help. She remembered that kiss and she felt all of her reservations melt away.

After all of the intensity of their relationship, especially in the last few months, she realized it was foolish to not voice her feelings. She had to do it, because they as a couple deserved complete honesty. They did not operate on lies or even half-truths. Tom was always honest with her, even when the truth was uncomfortable for both of them, so why couldn't she do the same for him? So she slipped her hand into his, entwining their fingers.

"Ever think that'll be us?" she asked, clearing her throat a bit nervously. Tom had apparently been lost in thought, as he often was lately, and glanced over at her in evident surprise. He arched his elegant brows questioningly at her as they stopped in front of a decorated storefront. He was silhouetted by the multicolored lights behind him, reminding her even more strongly of the night they had finally admitted the truth to each other. Perhaps it was time for her to do that again now and speak what had been on her mind for months now—perhaps even since May when she had taken Tom to meet her parents. "Draco and Astoria," she clarified, tightening her grasp on his hand before dropping it.

"I'll never be blonde, if that's what you mean, and frankly, darling, you would look absolutely dreadful in a gown like that," he replied with a smirk. Hermione couldn't even bring herself to laugh. She didn't want to get distracted from the real question at hand.

"I mean married," she said softly, watching the smirk wipe itself painfully abruptly from Tom's handsome face. He stared at her for a moment in shock. "I know we haven't been together long—"

"—a year exactly—" he interrupted, before pressing his lips together. Hermione faltered.

"So you did remember," she sighed. "I thought you'd forgotten."

"I didn't. What do you think I am, senile?" he demanded, finally earning a half-hearted chuckle from her. He still hadn't answered her question. He sighed, raking a hand through his hair and looking away.

"Well?" she prodded. "I can't let you lead me on, Tom. I—I have feelings, you know." She could feel her hysteria rising at his lack of response. He laughed a bit callously.

"I am well-acquainted with your feelings, Hermione," he reminded her. "You don't exactly hide them, honestly."

The snow was falling around them again and Hermione wondered if they were about to meet their end in a similar way as how they had begun. Their relationship was far from perfect but she knew she'd loved him from the start. Yet now the awful, horrible, searing silence between them was killing her and it was hard to tell if they could last through a confrontation like this. If he didn't feel the same way about her, she knew her pride would disallow her from sticking around. She couldn't bear being with him while knowing that his feelings did not mirror hers. Maybe it was foolish to talk of such important decisions as marriage so soon, but she knew herself, and she knew her feelings. Go in for the kill, right?

"Please tell me," she said, her eyes burning with tears threatening to fall. He stepped forward, pressing his lips to hers, and she pulled away. "Don't try to distract me," she ordered in a choked voice. Tom glowered.

"I'm not, you insolent—" he stopped before snapping his jaw shut. "Oh, hell, Hermione, you really know how to kill a mood, you know that?" he reached his hand into his wool coat pocket, still scowling at her, and shoved something at her, looking away. "There. Is that an adequate answer, Miss Granger?"

With shaking fingers, Hermione held the thing he had shoved at her, not looking at it. It wasn't wrapped—of course; Tom had informed her long ago of his disdain for wrapping gifts—and was very small. She thought she detected velvet but was afraid to believe her fingers. It's probably a necklace or something, she told herself. Which would be fine and would at least be a half-answer, and yet she prayed it was the very thing that she thought it wasn't. "And before you ask, I absolutely refuse to get down on one knee," he added, and then her hands were shaking so badly she wasn't sure she would be able to hold the little box reliably. Swallowing, she looked down and tried to pry open the box. She could not breathe; her lungs had stopped working.

Inside the little box was a ring. Hermione stared stupidly down at it, not even processing what she was seeing. Her jaw hanging slack, she looked up at Tom. He was watching her with narrowed eyes.

"Well?" he mimicked. Again she noticed all of the little things he'd been doing for the past few weeks to give away his anxiety—the constant foot-tapping, the look of distraction on his face, the perpetual grimace. She'd assumed it to be due to the stress of his job, but who was she kidding? Tom never was stressed out about work. In fact, he rarely was upset or worried over anything. For him to be preoccupied, it had to be over something really important.

"Y-you really won't get down on one knee?" she whispered when she had found her voice. Tom scowled.

"Not a chance in hell. You know what this means—you're a smart girl. So what's your answer?"

The elation that surged through her was dizzying as she stared at the ring glinting different colors in the Christmas lights.

"When did you—"

"The day before you took me to meet your parents. I even asked your father—not that his answer would have the slightest affect on my decision, but because I know you like that sort of nonsense. But I thought it was too soon. And I know you appreciate campiness in ways I do not, so I thought you'd like it if I proposed on our anniversary, but I was waiting to see your reaction to Draco's wedding," he said automatically. Hermione stared at him as she remembered that drive home, remembered how she had known so very clearly her feelings for him that evening. The realization that he had felt that too was staggering.

"You really can't get down on one knee and do it the proper way?" she teased a bit hopefully, batting her lashes at him. Tom's nostrils flared.

"Only if you promise you'll say yes. Otherwise I'm going home," he said flatly, glowering down at her. Hermione was beginning to feel a bit giggly despite the fact that she had not had anything to drink tonight.

"Can't make any promises," she sighed loftily. With an unrepeatable curse from Tom, he snatched the box from her hands and went down on one knee in front of her, scowling.

"Alright, here I am," he snapped. "God. I can't believe I'm actually doing this for you. You'd think saving your bloody life would be enough, but no."

He took her hand in his free one and she was overcome with her love for him. Staring at each other, she realized that they had been set on this path the moment he had run into her outside of Hogwarts.

"I love you," she confessed. His scowl softened a bit.

"I love you too. But my knee is about to freeze off," he said tartly, "So I'd appreciate some sort of answer sometime soon. Will you marry me or not?"

"You really want to, even though I'm sort of too young for you—"

"Hermione, I'm literally about to kill you. Will you marry me or not?" he demanded, clearly fuming. Hermione found herself glaring down at him.

"Excuse me, but it's not every day a girl gets proposed to by the man she's in love with! I want to make the most of this moment!" she said shrilly. Tom snorted.

"We could do that inside where it isn't cold," he pointed out, smirking at her.

"No, we're doing it out here so I can tell everyone you proposed to me out in the snow," she said bossily, crossing her arms over her chest. Tom's expression darkened.

"You are never going to tell anyone about this," he informed her darkly.

"Actually, I'm going to tell everyone—even Snape," she said haughtily, attempting to toss her hair before she recalled that it was done up in a tight bun. She settled for sticking her nose in the air. "And everyone's going to find out just how cuddly you really are….Lord Voldemort," she added scathingly. Tom paled at the sound of his rather embarrassing nickname that he had insisted on being called in grade school.

"How the fuck do you know about that—wait, of course. You danced with Severus." With an enraged grumble, Tom reached into his pocket with his free hand to pull out his cell phone as Hermione found herself giggling absurdly at his rage. "Hi, Severus. Happy Christmas—hope you enjoy it, because it's going to be your last day as a living man. Goodbye," he hissed into his phone. Hermione caught Severus laughing on the other end before Tom hung up.

"Actually, I thought it was rather clever. I mean, not many eight-year-olds even know what anagrams are," she said thoughtfully, tapping her chin.

"You are a very difficult person to love. Just so you know," Tom said grumpily.

"Well, you're a very difficult person to love too. You're practically the Grinch. It's why we're perfect together, really," Hermione replied knowingly, earning a laugh from him. Finally their laughter died down and she was left to stare down at him and at the ring he was holding in his pale hand. "And yes," she said softly, "I will marry you." She was laughing again and she didn't know why as Tom masked a look of triumph by sliding the ring onto her finger before rising to his feet.

And in front of the romantic glow of Christmas lights, she pressed her lips against his as they each wondered what next Christmas would bring.