Well, I can hardly believe it but…this is it! The last chapter. It's taken me over a year to write it, and I want to thank those of you who stuck around loyally even after a long hiatus last year.
I thank anyone who reviewed, particularly those of you who were kind or constructive, but particular thanks and virtual hugs go to Ghostwriter71, heartmom, orlando switch, stexgirl2000, worrywart, JaneDoH0, Amathya and silverose29. It really does mean a lot – it's tough to put something out there for others to criticise, and I know that this story has sometimes taken turns that people didn't like much, but you've stuck by it, so I'm very grateful.
When I started this story (so long ago!), it was a follow-up to Deciding to Live, and I wanted to try to keep it in canon with the third version of that story. Well, it didn't quite work out that way, but I'm still reasonably happy with the way things worked out.
And now I'm going to pour myself a very large glass of wine…sniff!
Usual disclaimers of course! And I did use one of JKR's lines right at the end…
5 years later
Severus woke with a start.
He knew without opening his eyes that it was sometime around 6.03. He didn't normally wake up at that time these days, but just occasionally the habit re-asserted itself, particularly on significant days.
He lay motionless for a while, wondering where he was, why he was under such a thick soft duvet and what was so special about today that his old habit felt the need to re-surface. He felt nicely warm and loath to move in case he lost that comfortable sensation. Gradually he became aware that he was curled around a warm body. His arm was draped over Hermione's side and his hand lifted and fell fractionally as she breathed slowly and regularly.
He moved his hand to her stomach; she murmured in her sleep and wriggled back into him. He nuzzled at the nape of her neck as he tried to work out why he'd woken so early this morning.
Of course. September 1st. And Hugo was joining his sister to Hogwarts this year. They'd spent the night in Rye, which was why he was feeling disoriented.
He sighed and nuzzled his nose into Hermione's hair. It seemed to have a life of its own first thing in the morning. He closed his eyes, inhaled the smell of her shampoo and cast his mind back over the last few weeks.
They were at the end of a particularly mad summer. He'd been busy with Draco in Valenzuela – after much dithering, his assistant had finally decided on the unique potion he would be developing to gain his Mastery. His Snape Institute for Rehabilitation and the Treatment of Addiction was up-and-running now, and Draco had decided to design some potions to work in conjunction with the psychological therapies being provided by a team of Muggle and magical psychotherapists. The two of them had spent much of the last few weeks discussing the actions and parameters of the potions. Draco would have been happy to launch into initial testing, but Maia had put her foot down – she had spent the entire summer looking after Lucio and their lively two-year old twins by herself, and didn't want him working on a long project until they'd had a chance to take a holiday.
Meanwhile, Hermione was working on a spell damage research project at St. Mungo's which had reached a crucial stage; she'd been putting in as many hours as possible and had spent what limited spare time she had hopping over to France, where her parents had recently bought a holiday home. Rose and Hugo had grown tanned during the month they had spent around the countryside and beaches of southern Brittany and when he'd collected them from their grandparents yesterday, he would have sworn that both had grown another inch at least. He hadn't seen much of their mother for five weeks.
When Hermione had finally staggered back in the early hours, she'd been almost dead on her feet. She'd given him a perfunctory kiss, muttered something about "bloody patent office, just give me a chance to hex them" and more-or-less collapsed on the bed. His only consolation was that they were going on holiday immediately after waving the children off on the Hogwarts Express.
She shifted backwards again, and he felt his body beginning to respond. He began to draw lazy circles on her soft, slightly rounded stomach. He knew she hated the fact that, as soon as she gained any weight, it went straight to her tummy and hips, but he loved her curvy shape. It was such a contrast to his own skinny form; he didn't seem to be able to put on any weight however much he ate.
She stirred, sleepily. He felt her body tense in confusion and then relax again as she realised where she was. Her hair tickled his nose as she shifted slightly. "Morning."
"Good morning," he mouthed against her shoulder.
"Been awake long?" Her hand skated down his wrist to rest over the hand on her stomach.
"Just a few minutes."
"Mmm." He waited for a minute, but that seemed to be all she was capable of at this early hour. Hermione was always a little slower to wake than he was, and he was often successful in distracting her into other, more pleasurable, activities before her brain caught up with her. Right now, she seemed to approve, as her hand moved his very deliberately lower on her stomach. His other hand was current trapped under her body, but he managed to wriggle it through enough to cup a breast, and she sighed and turned her head over into a lazy kiss.
"Please tell me you're finished with St Mungo's for now."
"Mmm?" Her eyes opened, more alert now but still heavy-lidded with sleep. "Oh yes. Nothing to do now until the next stage. Few weeks maybe?"
"So you can definitely get away?"
She smiled lazily, rolling over fully and pressing her thigh into his half-interested erection as she stretched up to kiss him again. "Oh yes."
This was what he loved most – the early mornings, with slow unhurried kisses and teasing touches, knowing that there was nowhere to go and no rush…
This morning, though, he doubted he had that much time. Even as his arousal increased and he began to rock automatically against her thigh, he began a countdown in his head.
Any minute now…
"What time is it?"
…and there it was.
"Oh, about quarter past six," he said, trying for nonchalance.
"Quarter past six?! Quarter past six?! And it's the first today! Oh god, why didn't you wake me? We'll be late!"
He sighed, regretfully feeling his erection subside a little, as she flung the duvet off and jumped out of bed. "There's hardly anything to do, and we've got hours yet. The kids won't even be awake."
That earned him a glare as she pulled on a dressing gown. "Well, wake them up then! We've got to pack -."
"We have packed," he pointed out, sitting up and wincing as he adjusted himself. "I sent them to pack yesterday when we got back from France."
Again, a narrow-eyed look. "You sent them to pack. You sent Hugo and Rose to pack, without any supervision. Rose, who's probably only packed books and hasn't bothered with any clothes at all, and Hugo, who's probably only packed his broomstick and Quiddich posters. Do you really think they're competent to be left to pack alone?"
He smirked at her. "Give me a little credit. I gave them each a list of things to pack, and no ice cream until they finished. And I checked afterwards."
She subsided a little. "Still… there's packed lunches to be made, and I wanted to write a note for Rose to pass onto Neville…" She grabbed her towel and hurried into the en-suite shower room, banging the door shut unnecessarily loudly.
As he heard the shower turn on, he groaned and lay back down. His only consolation was that, by tonight, they would be in a little cottage tucked away in a remote cove in western Nova Scotia. Officially, they were attending a North American Healers' conference being held in Lunenberg, but Severus had also arranged a private boat trip to the Bay of Fundy as an early birthday surprise, having recalled Hermione once saying rather wistfully that she'd never seen a humpback whale.
He couldn't wait to get there. It was rare that the two of them got to spend much time alone, and the last few weeks had been particularly tough in that respect. He knew that Hermione stayed with him as much as she could, but too often that might coincide with a time-consuming project with Draco. Plus the fact that Draco and Hermione had become close friends themselves and were often to be found with their heads together poring over plans for their rehabilitation centre. Hermione, having graduated from her Healer course, had established her reputation as an excellent researcher very quickly and was now in demand.
It was ridiculous to feel jealous of a job, but sometimes he felt a little as if she was leaving him behind. He knew it was pure paranoia. The reality was that they were both well-established in their careers. However, while she moved from project to project with dazzling speed, sometimes working for more than one research team at a time, his potions work tended to come and go depending on the circumstances, including the seasonal availability of ingredients. Right now, he wasn't working on anything new, in preparation for the fact that his laboratory would be taken over by Draco in a couple of weeks' time, and he felt restless.
"Severus! I'm going to school today!"
He hurriedly pulled up the duvet to cover himself as Hugo darted into the room and bounced on the bed. "Going to schooool, gooooing to schooool…" he chanted as he bounced up and down.
"Yes, so I've noticed," he said, drily. "I hope you'll always be this keen."
"I'll be in the Quiddich team!"
"No you won't." His teenaged sister stood in the doorway, her arms folded. "Don't know how many times I've told you, Hugo, first years don't get places on the Quiddich team."
"Uncle Harry did," Hugo retorted.
"Your uncle was exceptional," Severus commented. And didn't he know it, he added to himself, uncharitably.
Hugo was beginning to look a little sulky. Very much like his father, Severus thought as he chivvied them out of the bedroom. "Get dressed, you two. Your mum's on the warpath, so you'd better have everything packed and ready."
Rose gifted him with one of her dazzling smiles before pulling Hugo away.
Severus chuckled as he leaned back against the headrest. They weren't such bad kids really. Rose was shaping up to be as pretty as her name but, thankfully, was far too sensible to care about the male attention she received as a result. In James and Albus, she had a couple of staunch champions who treated her like a sister and protected her from any unwanted attention. She was as bright as a button, just as he had expected she would be, and – much to his delight – had a particular aptitude for and interest in potions. She had happily managed to combine her mother's intelligence with her father's gut instinct and promised to make an excellent potioneer one day. Severus was already looking forward to the day when he could make her his new apprentice – although Draco kept teasing that he would steal her away to work in the large laboratory that he intended to set up over in Orgiva once he achieved his Mastery.
Hugo was very much like his father. He had that Weasley friendliness but fortunately lacked Ron's insecurity, which was, in any case, more to do with being the youngest of six sons. Severus didn't anticipate that his stepson would make an outstanding scholar, but he was a reasonable all-rounder with some aptitude for Charms. He certainly wouldn't shame the Weasleys, just as long as he didn't get too obsessed with Quiddich to get his homework done. Lily Potter was a sensible, good-natured girl, much quieter than James and not as sensitive as Albus, and would be likely to keep an eye on him and make sure he got on with his studies.
Assuming, of course, they were in the same house. It wasn't a given, just because your parents were both from one particular house. Severus had been quite surprised that Rose hadn't been Sorted into Ravenclaw rather than Gryffindor…but then, of course, her mother hadn't been either. Hermione had told him once that the Hat had wanted to place her in Ravenclaw and, in fact, she had been quite keen and had been rather disconcerted when it had unexpectedly veered off into a different direction. Severus often wondered whether Rose had been offered a choice and whether she too was secretly disappointed in the Hat's decision. He didn't recall any such debate – he had wanted to be in Slytherin, no matter what. He didn't know where that early conviction had come from. Hermione had often speculated as to what might have happened if he'd ended up in Ravenclaw instead, but he'd never given that much thought, having come to the conclusion that it was impossible to argue with fate. He was fed up with 'what if' questions.
Hermione came back into the room, draped in a towel. "Are the kids up? I thought I heard them." She peeled off her towel and started getting dressed with a ruthless efficiency that really shouldn't have been that arousing. She didn't help matters much by giving him a dangerously knowing look that promised much later on.
"How are we getting to King's Cross?" he asked casually, trying to hide his renewed interest.
Fully dressed, she sat down at the dressing table to tackle her unruly hair with a wand. It straightened out and twined itself into an intricate bun. Hermione didn't always bother with using magic to tame her hair; she often complained that it made matters worse when the spell wore off, but today she was clearly in a hurry.
"That's why we haven't got much time. Ron and Susan are coming over for breakfast. The kids wanted to go in his new car. I was a bit worried about the North Circular on a weekday morning, but Ron seems to think it'll be OK."
She sounded a little anxious, but Ron and Susan had been living in Finchley for five years now, and Severus assumed they knew the London roads well enough to be able to get Hugo and Rose there in time.
"Come on – get up." Hermione threw her damp towel at him as she rose and prepared to go downstairs.
Severus didn't move. "Why should I? We've still got plenty of time, and I've got nothing to do – unless you want me to make the packed lunches."
Hermione shuddered at the idea. "Ron and Susan will be here at seven, and we're all going to sit down to a civilised breakfast. That does not mean black coffee and the remains of last night's takeaway warmed up – oh, don't think I didn't notice the smell of Chinese when I came in last night. It means cereal and juice and proper coffee and fruit – and a full English breakfast if that's what they want. And you're going to cook it."
"Really? And what do I get out of it?" he drawled, watching her carefully.
She hesitated for a moment before crawling across the bed towards him in a seductive manner. Her lips brushed lightly against his cheek, and he felt her warm breath as she whispered in his ear. "Oh, I'll make it up to you. Later."
And then she was gone, sweeping out of the door and shouting for Rose and Hugo.
He groaned, grabbing his towel. Time for a cold shower.
Despite Hermione's predictions, Ron and Susan didn't turn up until 7.30. Ron brushed off Hermione's concerns ("Merlin, Hermione, it doesn't go until 11." "Yes, but it takes 2 hours to get there, Ron!"), hugged the children enthusiastically and whistled appreciatively at the sight and smell of a full English breakfast, laid out on the table.
"Wow, you went all out, didn't you? You didn't have to do all this, you know. Not that it's not appreciated."
"I know," Severus replied in his dry manner. He gave Susan a sympathetic look; the second Mrs Weasley was due to give birth in a couple of weeks and was looking very uncomfortable. He pulled out a chair for her politely, and she gave him a grateful smile. He rather liked Susan. She was cool and sensible, and made the perfect ally when Ron and Hermione went off on one of their rants – as they did now.
"For heaven's sake! Of all mornings to be late."
"How long were you expecting breakfast to take? As long as we leave by half eight it'll be fine."
"But what about parking? You know what it's like around there."
"It'll be fine." Her ex-husband heaped bacon, eggs, sausages, mushrooms and baked beans onto his plate and winked at his daughter. "If we have any problems, we can just pull over and apparate to the station while Susan can just -."
"No. Susan cannot just," his wife interrupted serenely but with just a hint of steel in her voice as she buttered a piece of toast. "You know I'm not allowed to drive."
"Everything all right?" Hermione asked with concern, as she ran her eyes over the heavily pregnant woman. Severus recognised what he thought of as her healer's expression as she assessed Susan's condition in a clinical manner. She might not actively practise her profession, being too focused on research, but she still possessed the knowledge and skills of a healer, which had proved somewhat useful at times, particularly after the occasional unforeseen laboratory accident.
Susan smiled cheerfully. "I'm fine. Just a bit large and getting rather fed up with it. My healer told me not to 'mess around' with Muggle contraptions, as she put it."
Ron snorted. "As if it's any safer to travel by broomstick."
"And apparation can't even be contemplated," Hermione murmured and Susan shuddered in silent agreement as she helped herself to honey.
Breakfast passed reasonably peacefully after that, although Hugo was too sick with excitement to eat and Rose was constantly distracted by the need to go and pack another book that she'd forgotten about and 'absolutely had to' take with her. Severus privately wondered how she'd managed to find space for her compulsory school books. His step-daughter's tastes in reading were eclectic and wide-ranging, and she also liked to 'read around' the core topics. He suspected that Hermione may have magically expanded the space in her school trunk to accommodate this interest.
The four adults chatted amiably on a variety of topics. Severus found he could tolerate Ron very well these days – in fact, he would even go so far as to admit to liking the other man. Ron had grown in confidence since setting up his private investigation business with his brother Percy. Away from the restrictions of Ministry work and with his new-found happiness in his personal life, he'd shaken off the immaturity and bitterness that had dogged most of his early life. In his field of interest, he was well-informed and witty, and Severus found himself laughing at Ron's stories of the funnier cases they had investigated and the various scrapes they had found themselves in. They had built up a reasonably successful business in a short time – it appeared that Ron had been quite right to suspect that there were plenty of wizards and witches out there who really didn't want to draw the Ministry into their private affairs. Initially, Harry had been disapproving when Ron handed in his notice, but eventually even he had to concede that the Auror department was less over-worked with more of the petty cases of absent husbands or wives and mysterious disappearances of valuable property being dealt with elsewhere.
At the other end of the table, Hermione and Susan were deep in conversation about the Snape Institute. Although Susan had been very interested in moving into psychiatric rehabilitation, she'd stayed in her senior position at St Mungo's. However, she had decided to resign her job to start a family, and was considering a part-time post at the Institute when she returned to work. Severus suspected that the link with Muggle therapies, an extremely controversial issue, may have been a problem for her – although she was not entirely against the idea, it was difficult for an established senior Healer to publicly admit to an interest in it. This break in her career was giving her a chance to consider a change of direction.
They managed to leave promptly at half past eight, squeezing everything and everyone into Ron's orange Mini, which was, of course, bigger on the inside. Severus dreaded to think what the Muggle commuters thought when they saw the Mini pull up right outside Kings Cross and a large number of adults, children and luggage emerge from it. The general detritus included broomsticks and two cages, one containing a cat (descended from Crookshanks, of course) and the other a little short-eared owl. Ron quickly placed a disillusionment charm over the car, leaving it parked on a double-yellow line, and they hurried into the station.
Harry, Ginny and their children were already on platform 9 and three quarters, having travelled in a more conventional (and quicker) manner. Rose and Hugo hurried over to Albus and Lily, and the adults greeted one another.
Harry shook Severus's hand firmly, with a smile, and Severus was struck afresh by his resemblance to certain Muggle politicians. With his neat haircut and smart suit, he was every inch the young Ministry employee looking for promotion. He had already headed up the Auror division for six years and rumour had it that he was looking to move on to bigger and better things.
Minister Shacklebolt, with his traditional robes and stubborn focus on wizarding traditions, was looking dangerously out-of-date in comparison with young Mr Harry Potter with his Muggle suit and radical ideas. In fact, had they but known it at the time, Hermione and Ron's very public divorce had been something of a catalyst. It had shaken up traditional wizarding ideas about family life and the degree of control the Ministry still held over society. Eyeing Harry now, Severus wondered whether he had foreseen that. He might be being unfair on Potter - he was obviously very fond of Hermione and Ron and wanted them to be happy – but it certainly hadn't done him any harm to show his public support for them.
As always, Ginny Potter somehow managed in the general bustle to avoid greeting him personally, although she gave him small, slightly stilted smile. Severus noticed that Susan positioned herself between Hermione and Ginny, acting as a buffer between the two women as she gently drew small talk from them both, and his admiration for her grew.
The train whistle blew, and there was a general panic as parents began to bustle their children on board, with various bags and pets. In the hubbub, Severus, Hermione and Hugo found themselves separated from the Potters and Weasleys. Slightly off-balance, Hermione inadvertently barged into an older woman.
She turned around, and they recognised Esmeralda Curry from the Ministry, clearly here to see off her grandson.
"Oh, sorry about that. Hello, Esmeralda," Hermione greeted her politely, having worked with Madam Curry some years before.
"Good morning," the woman responded, icily, her pale green eyes sweeping over Hermione's left hand. "Still Miss Granger, I see."
She swept past them haughtily.
"Still an interfering old busybody, I see," Hermione replied cheerfully, not bothering to lower her voice. "Aha, there they are. Come on, Hugo, let's get you on board."
With a final flurry of hugs and kisses, Hugo and Lily stood side by side in the train window, their faces suddenly very pale and young. Hermione sucked in a breath and clutched at Harry's arm. "Never gets any easier, does it?"
"Nope," Harry replied, quietly. "Third time for us, and it really doesn't. I just try to imagine the excitement of arriving and seeing Hagrid standing there with his lamp."
Severus and Susan had stepped back diplomatically to give the parents more room to say their farewells. As they watched, Ginny took Harry's hand and Ron stepped up on the other side of Hermione, pressing his shoulder against hers in mute comfort.
Once it might have bothered Severus – this strong friendship, bordering on love – but not now. He had begun to suspect that the Hat knew what it was doing when it placed those three young children in the same house so long ago now. In fact, he had a strong feeling that it would never be possible to separate the 'golden trio' entirely. However much their lives and relationships changed and pulled them into different directions and to different locations, the bond could never be fully severed. Every now and then, Hermione would feel the tug of that connection – that shared history - and he knew by now not to comment if she got that faraway look on her face and said she needed to meet up with Harry and Ron for a while.
He didn't mind. He understood the nature of love far better now. It wasn't about possession, about ownership. That was the kind of emotion he had felt for Lily Evans – and she had been right to run away from him. And Lucius had loved his son in his own twisted way, but he had wanted to own him – and look how that had turned out.
Hermione would always be her own woman. There would be times when he felt left behind; when the demands of her job and her children and her other outside interests would take over, but he was confident that she would always come back to him. And there would be times when she needed Harry and Ron more than she needed him, just for a little while…but that was the price of loving one of the golden trio.
Judging by the secretive smile on Susan's face, she understood too. Sadly, the one who would always fight against that bond was Ginny. He fervently hoped that she would find some peace from the demons that still haunted her from time to time, and he deeply regretted the part he had played in her trauma, but there was nothing that he or anyone else could do now.
The four stood in a huddle as the train carrying their children puffed out of the station. As it disappeared around the corner, Ron let out a shaky breath.
"Well, that's that."
Harry half-raised his hand to his scar, in an imitation of his old habit when it used to hurt him, and smiled.
Hermione turned around, seeking Severus. When she saw him, her face lit up and he felt himself drowning in the warmth of those large brown eyes.
All was well.