A/N: Well, here it is - the final chapter! After so much editing and a rather long day, I'll admit, I'm half asleep as I post this, so any errors will get taken care of later when I'm not falling asleep at my computer. I wanted to get this up, though, so without further ado!
Many thanks to my wonderful beta, Brittny!
Disclaimer: Harry Potter is copyrighted to and belongs to JK Rowling. I'm just playing in her sandbox and own none of her associated characters.
Chapter 11: A Return to Life
"Each of us has the power—and must develop the will—to be the hero of his own life. We believe in goals, in purposes, in achievement and in the joy of living."
Two Weeks Later
"You're looking remarkably well, my friend."
Severus casually tossed his book aside, yet another loaner from Hermione, and regarded Lucius seriously. "Thank you," he replied with a slight bow of his head, a few stray hairs falling gracefully into his eyes. "I'm feeling much better."
For the first time in what seemed like ages, Severus's black eyes appeared rather light and unburdened by the severity of life, which had weighed him down for far too long. In fact, to Lucius, his friend's entire demeanor had changed quite drastically since his first visit. The wizard had much more color in his cheeks, as pale as they were, and something heavy that had once lingered in the atmosphere around him had somehow lifted. The ever curious Lucius had suspicions as to what—or whom, rather—may be the contributing factor to Severus's lightened mood and was prepared to make inquiries in his own time.
"So, to what do I owe the pleasure?"
Lucius invited himself into the sofa chair next to Severus's bed and shot him a wry smile. "Do I need a reason to visit?"
"I suppose not."
"You're as cheerful to see me as ever," Lucius half teased, half hissed.
"I am glad to see you."
"You should be." A short pause later, and the blond wizard gave a toss of his long hair. "Everything's arranged."
"Thank you for your help, Lucius. The first couple weeks will be an...adjustment," Severus uttered with some difficulty, and a twinge of embarrassment.
Lucius waved away his reservations. "Severus, you'll be learning to live on your own again. It's understandable, really, and you needn't thank me. It's the least my family and I could do. The house has been swept from top to bottom, and Cissy stocked your kitchen with all manner of foods I couldn't even relay to you, so, if we can be rest assured of one thing, it's that you certainly won't go hungry; not if my wife has anything to say about it."
Severus smirked. "That is reassuring. Please thank her for me."
"There's no reason to, Severus. Draco is eager to pay you a visit, so don't expect me to be able to hold him back for too long. I've relinquished all control over that boy."
"He's hardly a boy anymore, Lucius," Severus offered gently, to which Lucius acknowledged that grave fact with a heavy sigh.
"Yes, I know..." Lucius straightened and quickly changed topics. "So, all of Miss Granger's efforts seemed to have paid off?"
"Indeed, they have..."
There was a strange twinkle in Lucius's blue eyes that made Severus draw back against his pillow. "So... Is she the reason then?"
Severus's dark eyes flashed. "I do not follow."
"Don't be coy with me, my old friend. You denied it last time I was here, but what I see before me is irrefutable. You've changed."
"Of course I've changed," Severus huffed a little too hastily, averting his eyes for the first time since his friend entered his hospital room. "I'm no longer ill, Lucius. Isn't that obvious?"
"Yes, it is, but that isn't the only reason. Come now... Level with me."
Severus tightened his jaw. "There's nothing to 'level' with you about, I'm afraid. Sorry to disappoint you."
Lucius's all-knowing grin extended, however. "That 'kiss of life' the Prophet was talking about must've done the trick..."
Severus's face turned somber, and even a shade whiter. "I haven't the slightest idea what you're talking about, Lucius." His voice was low and controlled and bordered on anger—a tone Lucius knew well not to cross.
"Suit yourself, but it's no fun keeping it all to yourself."
"What the Prophet said was disgraceful to Miss Granger's professionalism, as well as to her sincere efforts to help me."
"Yes, the article was rather tactless, I'll admit."
"And to add insult to injury," Severus insisted with a curl to his upper lip, "a superior in her department spoke out against her efforts as well. I hardly find the matter as humorous as you do."
Lucius blinked, his smile stretching from ear to ear. "Merlin, you're quite smitten with her, aren't you?"
Severus startled and drew back. "What?"
"I've never seen you come so quickly to someone's defense before, not even mine."
Feeling his cheeks starting to burn, Severus cast his eyes away from Lucius again, his trademark scowl returning. "I will come to the defense of anyone who deserves it, Lucius," he answered after a long, drawn out pause.
"Come, my friend, surely you can be forthright with me after all this time?" Lucius tapped his snake cane absentmindedly against the floor, keeping his intense focus on the now troubled-looking wizard. "We could always tell each other things. Well, before..."
Understanding what Lucius wanted to say but couldn't bring himself to finish, Severus nodded, his expression still solemn and pensive. "Yes, I know; but Lucius, this is..." He took in a sharp breath. If he couldn't confide in one of the few friends he still had, he wouldn't be able to ever confide in anyone. Save for Hermione, he thought fleeting.
The overbearing weight of being a spy and sworn to secrecy for too long had taken its toll the night he nearly lost his life. Considering the fact that the man paying him a visit now had also been the one responsible for saving his life, Severus attempted to move past the discomfort of opening up to Lucius in a manner he hadn't before, and swallowed his reserves in an effort to speak plainly.
"She's too young for me, Lucius," Severus found himself confessing softly, as difficult as it was to utter aloud. "She's too good, too generous, has too many admirable qualities which I lack. I think it's exceedingly accurate to claim that Hermione Granger deserves better than what I could ever possibly offer her."
"Ahhh, the first name address finally comes out," Lucius returned with his catlike grin. "You sell yourself far too short, Severus. Far too short, indeed."
Severus sneered, not believing a word of it. "You know me relatively well, Lucius. You shouldn't say such lies for my benefit."
"Yes, I do know you well, Severus, and I've always known your full potential, far more than you've ever been able to, that's for sure! What's stopping you from allowing yourself some well-deserved happiness?"
Severus didn't answer; or, rather, he couldn't. Like the ever-present melancholy long attached to his life, hanging over him wherever he sought refuge, Severus understood more than anyone how complicated and difficult a person he was to contend with, regardless of the claims Lucius made in his favor. Putting up with his anxieties, mood swings, and general displeasure wasn't, in his opinion, worth the time to a young witch who deserved someone far better, and far less damaged, for that matter, than he.
As though sensing the dark wizard's misgivings, Lucius's face turned contemplative and concerned. "Does she return your affections?" he pressed quietly.
Severus met his guest's gaze, the emotion behind his colorless eyes well concealed. "Yes," he whispered almost painfully; or guiltily, Lucius wasn't sure, "she does..."
"Then what the bloody hell's stopping you? Shouldn't her returned affections be enough to persuade you?"
"You won't know what it could be, Severus, if you aren't willing to take a chance."
Severus kept his mouth tightly bound, though Lucius could see the berating thoughts wrestling internally behind the fierce, dark eyes. He's undoubtedly trying to talk himself out of this, Lucius reflected with a sad shake of his head.
"Severus, listen, things would never have worked out between Cissy and me if I hadn't pursued her. You remember some of the difficulties we encountered, but look how we turned out. I have a wonderful wife—a beautiful witch who understands me completely—with whom I share everything. I'd like to see the same for you. You deserve a good woman in your life, Severus; someone who will love you and respect you as any good and decent chap would want."
"How sentimental you've become in your old age," Severus sniped, though his voice was soft and subdued, which told Lucius that his words were having some desired effect.
"A witch will do that to you," Lucius chimed with a wry smirk, "and, if that is the price a man must pay for falling in love, I'd gladly do it all over again."
Severus ran his fingers through his hair, a burdened scowl outlining his mouth. His features were pinched, his eyes laden with hesitation and inner turmoil Hermione knew not.
"She was my student, Lucius, and I'm a target for the papers."
"I think Miss Granger's proven that she doesn't give a damn what the wretched papers say." He added with playful humor, "Especially if she's willing to put up with your miserable arse."
Severus met his snide quip with a small smirk of his own. "For now," he returned; the comment earned him another furious head shake from Lucius. "And it doesn't change the fact that I was her professor, Lucius."
"Was being the keyword! You aren't any longer, nor is she your student. She's matured into a grown woman who can make up her own bloody mind, Severus, and she's chosen you. So, the question remains: what gives?"
"She... She deserves better!" Severus knew he was losing the battle, but it wasn't for lack of trying. "You know that as well as I!"
Lucius sighed wearily, and, for the first time that day, he regarded Severus with sadness. "Would you rather spend the rest of your life alone? Here's a confident, smart young woman—someone who matches you in intelligence and stubbornness, no doubt—and she wants you, Severus! What's wrong in that? She isn't naïve or confused, and she's evidently made her affections for you quite clear."
"Even so, Lucius—" Severus growled but was swiftly shot down.
"There's nothing wrong with how you both feel, Severus. Don't hesitate or push her away; you'll spend the rest of your life regretting that decision if you do. I don't want you to go through that pain and torment again... I really don't."
As aggravated as Severus was with Lucius's insistent pushing and prodding, he couldn't deny the accuracy in his fellow Slytherin's argument. He had already spent nearly two decades regretting the way things had gone south with Lily that, now that he held even stronger regard for a very different—and far more understanding—witch, could he truly walk away, particularly after denying himself for so damn long?
"She's done a great deal for me, Lucius," he whispered delicately, his hands knotting together in his lap. "More than I ever could've imagined; much more than I deserve..."
Lucius's crystal blue eyes, normally quite cold and distant, warmed at what he could decipher in Severus's guarded words. "You think yourself unworthy, Severus, but you're far from it. Miss Granger sees the potential in you that I see. So, take my advice, would you? Take a bloody chance, have some faith or whatever you want to call it, and be patient with yourself. It'll be an adjustment, naturally, but would I confide in you about my Cissy if I felt any differently about what we have together?"
Severus sneered unpleasantly. "I preferred you better when you were haughty and unsentimental."
Lucius threw back his head and let out a hearty laugh; it brought a returned glimmer of humor to Severus's eyes. "You're one to talk, Severus!" Lucius mused. "I don't know another individual as indifferent as you."
"That is true."
"One can only wonder what Miss Granger sees in you."
"Merlin knows," Severus deadpanned with a roll of his eyes.
After allowing a moment of contemplative silence, Lucius smirked and regarded his friend anew. "One day at a time, my friend," he offered soundly; Severus locked eyes on him but remained quiet. "Don't be too hard on yourself, be good to her, and let the cards fall where they may."
Severus grumbled under his breath before uttering a compliant, "I'll try," that earned him another wry smile of triumph—one he was no longer willing to argue against.
You love her, Severus, his mind caved in, his heart warming at the very thought of her. For once in your goddamn life, let that be enough, and contend to love her back.
Hermione surveyed Severus's room with a personal grief only an affectionate woman could bestow. All morning, she had been willing herself not to appear upset or dismayed at Severus's departure. After all, he was well enough at long last, and would finally be starting the process of rebuilding his life—one that held promise instead of heartache this time, the decisions of which would be left entirely up to him. There was much cause for celebration, even if the Slytherin was too proud to show it.
As she prepared to enter his room, Hermione mentally tried to smooth over the emotions that were lumping at the back of her throat. In the short weeks since first laying a kiss on the wizard's mouth, as well as confessing her feelings, Hermione had watched Severus come around and respond in a manner she had only hoped but hadn't expected. Gradually, the wizard had opened up to her, though there were still plenty of locked doors yet to unlatch, and illustrated his affections in his own disarming, albeit subtle, methods that often left her weak in the knees.
Hermione had yet to inform her friends about her and Severus—if she could call them an 'item' now. Patience, Hermione, she reminded herself when she got too in over her head about it. He has yet to make a fresh start. Let him get settled first, and you as well. One day at a time...
Hermione swallowed and slowly entered Severus's room, where she found him no longer lying in bed but sitting on the edge with his hands in his lap. The bed had been made, and all the tokens of a Slytherin-occupied space, which Hermione had seen to months before, were gone. The room looked eerily dull and lifeless now that the various greens and handsome furnishings had been discarded, and it made Hermione's smile lessen.
Severus was hunched over and rubbing his hands together, undoubtedly thinking over the drastic changes that lay ahead for him upon leaving this place—one of refuge, as dismal to him as it may have been at times. St. Mungo's hadn't turned him away or shunned him out, but it wasn't the hospital itself that Severus had painfully wrestled with leaving behind. Instead, it was a certain pretty witch who had captured his heart, as much as she nagged him on to get well, and she would no longer be accessible at an arm's length.
"It won't change so much, though, will it?" Hermione had asked on more than one occasion leading up to this moment.
The desperate hope that surfaced in her eyes whenever they spoke of his departure inadvertently tugged at Severus's heartstrings. The visible proof that she would, in fact, miss him astounded him every time, and yet, he was deeply touched—and thankful—that someone actually yearned for his presence. It was certainly new and not what he was accustomed to and, when he witnessed that look from Hermione, Severus would offer a faint smile in return and reassuringly caress the side of her face.
"No, it won't," he would affirm quietly. "You'll be welcome to Spinner's End any time you wish." All the time, in fact...
The smile that lit up Hermione's face spoke volumes. "You can expect me quite often, in that case!"
I hope so. Severus's couldn't help but worry, however, despite every reassurance she had given him, that the witch wouldn't call upon him, or, worse, that she would forget about him entirely.
That day had finally come—"the first of the rest of your life," Lucius had recently penned to him—and Severus found himself at a crossroads he was apprehensive about, at best. He was exhilarated to get on, and yet, what lay beyond the confinements of this room—Comforts, Severus. Hermione. That is all. Don't deny it.—left him more than a little ill at ease.
Today, Hermione could detect those anxieties as she entered his room, even without the wizard expressing them openly. It was visible by the knitted brow and concentrated scowl he wore. She took a moment to thoughtfully study him from where she stood.
The dreadful hospital gown was gone, replaced by the handsomely pressed, infamous black cloak, frock coat, and tight cravat he had long worn. (Lucius had taken the liberty of bringing the wizard his clothes from Spinner's End days before.) Taking in the enticing sight of Severus's full return gave Hermione pause, for she hadn't been happier or more excited for him than she was now, seeing him dressed so finely.
Severus casually peered over at her, and the severe lines on his forehead softened at her appearance. Hermione drew closer and quietly sunk onto the bed beside him. Her warm hand grazed over his thigh until his larger hand came to weave itself tightly around hers, holding it in place.
"Penny for your thoughts?" she whispered close to his ear, which earned her a delicate, attractive smirk she was still growing accustomed to.
"I was just thinking..."
There was a gentle squeeze to her hand. "How greatly you've helped me," he finished in a hushed tone Hermione also wasn't yet used to hearing; but she loved it.
"I was glad to."
"I know." Severus drew her hand up to meet his lips, and his mouth lightly pecked at her knuckles. Hermione swallowed, sensing her heart beating a little faster at such a gentle gesture from the once sour wizard. "I'm most grateful, Hermione. Thank you..."
"Of course," Hermione said and returned his dose of affection by brushing a light kiss along his cheek.
Severus inwardly wrestled with his next question before drawing it out, trying to mask the tension in his speech as best he could. "When should I expect to hear from you?"
Hermione's soft smile widened, her eyelashes fluttering as she stared into his face. "As soon as you'd like, Severus."
The wizard raised an eyebrow, not wishing to come across too anxious. "Tomorrow, perhaps?"
Hermione acknowledged the date with an eager nod, not at all holding back. "Tomorrow then! I get off at five."
Severus's feeble smile dissipated as he glanced around the room, reflecting back to how far he had come, as well as the unknown that awaited him beyond this place. Hermione tenderly pressed his arm, and the encouraging smile she bestowed was enough to muster his will to move.
"Time to go," she additionally pushed, though sadly.
Severus agreed with a nod, a few hairs whisking elegantly across his nose. They both rose from the bed at the same time, Severus's eyes sweeping the room one last time before stepping out into the bustling hallway, where Hermione's arm dropped to her side and her hand slipped out of his. She suspected people probably had an inkling of their growing attachment by now—the funny, almost suggestive grin Gwendle shot in their direction was enough to convince Hermione that their secret would soon be out in the open, if it wasn't already—but all of that could wait.
All in good time...
Together, the unconventional pair made the agonizing walk towards the entryway of the hospital, passing by several Healers and Mediwitches, as well as ailing patients, who were running here or there and paying no mind to either of them. It was strange to Severus to not be the subject of everyone's prying eyes, but he was most grateful for the obscurity, particularly at this moment as it left him valuable time to speak to Hermione without the nerve-wracking notion of others watching their every move.
Once they reached one of several Floo Networking stations, they stopped, huddled close together. Hermione drew her eyes upward to meet his that once echoed of nothing but foreboding and animosity towards all, including her. No longer were they dreary and lifeless but, instead, discerning—if only to her.
"Thank you again," he whispered, finding himself stammering over his words like a lovesick fool, which he inwardly despised. "I can't...express to you enough...what you've done for me, Hermione."
A familiar hand came to rest upon his cheek, and his breathing calmed to the familiarity of her touch. The inherent gentleness in her eyes brought him a sense of peace, and he was reassured then, gazing into Hermione's eyes, that they would see each other soon. Very soon.
"I'm so proud of you," she surprised him by saying; his eyes flickered curiously. "So very proud, Severus. You're so much stronger than you know, to come back from what you did."
To this, Severus's eyes spoke of a different reality, even as the words came slipping out of his mouth before he could stop them. "Not as strong without you," he confessed, turning bright red afterwards.
Hermione's fetching smile extended. Quickly glancing about as an added precaution, and finding that no one was watching, she leaned in for a proper kiss, only to find his mouth wanting nothing more than to further explore hers. It took every ounce of control to not snatch the witch up and send them both flying through the Floo Network back to the privacy of his home, but, regretfully, Severus parted their lips, catching whiffs of Hermione's excited breaths as he painfully drew back.
"Are you sure you'll be..." Hermione started, but then stopped herself short; instead, she forced a smile. "Never mind."
"Relinquish the reins, Healer Granger," Severus teased, causing her to laugh and playfully smack his arm.
"I just want to make sure you'll be all right is all!"
"I think I can manage." But it was a lie; inwardly, the desperate wizard would have preferred nothing more than to have Hermione by his side...at all times.
The thought of returning to an empty house, which Lucius had unwarded, seeing as Severus presently had no wand, was practically unbearable here and in this moment, and it wasn't only Severus that worried about such a prospect on his first day out of hospital. Hermione inched closer, still smiling up at him.
"I'll send you a Patronus later this morning when I'm on break."
Severus rolled his eyes, trying to keep up the pretense that he would be perfectly fine. "You don't need to 'check up' on me."
Hermione reared back, giving him a skeptical look over. "Would you prefer I didn't nag you then?"
Severus hissed in reply, which sent Hermione into a shrill of laughter. "That's a trick question, and, this early in the game, I intend to tread carefully."
"You?" Hermione issued with a mocked, gaping mouth. "Treading lightly? Someone pinch me."
"And I don't like it when you revert to that form of address!" She smacked his arm again, albeit harder, and found that Severus was quite content to play along, which brought a warm smile out of her she couldn't contain. Chancing upping their date from tomorrow to this evening, Hermione asked, "Shall we make a trip to Diagon Alley this evening?"
Severus didn't want to seem too eager, but it was difficult for him not to react. "To get me a new wand?"
"Yes. I figured that would be the first thing on your list of priorities." She reached out and squeezed his hand. "Mind if I join you?"
"No," Severus found himself answering with ease, "not at all."
"Good!" There was a pause that seemed to stretch out for an eternity between them—not one that was uncomfortable or awkward but, rather, filled with a stubbornness not to go or move from that very spot. Finally, Hermione's smile wavered, though she continued to regard him thoughtfully. "So... See you soon?"
A muscle in Severus's jaw twitched. It was time to go. "Yes," he strained to answer, though she didn't know it.
Forcing a tenderly rendered smile that would forever be reserved only for her, Severus made to walk into the Floo entrance when Hermione called after him, "And I'll check on you in a bit, shall I?"
Severus shot her a glance over his shoulder, his lips curled at the edges of his mouth, which gave away his satisfaction. "If you must," he muttered, and only Hermione could detect the hint of underlying amusement.
Severus turned around to face her properly from where he stood. Hermione let out a deep breath and, with that, Severus took a handful of Floo powder, uttered his destination and diminished into nothing but green flames. Hermione lingered for a long moment, however, her eyes trailing after the point where the dark wizard had abruptly disappeared. Eventually, she willed her legs to move away back to her ward again but with lingering, affectionate thoughts of him in her mind, and in her heart.
'If you must,' Hermione snorted, knowing how much the wizard really desired her nagging.
With a confident toss of her wild curls, Hermione chuckled to herself and made her way over to the Healers' Station. Both professionally and personally, she had never felt more upbeat, and it showed as she made her rounds to several grumpy, downtrodden patients that morning and afternoon. None of them, however, could compare to the challenge of a case that had walked out of her care earlier that day.
Not by a long shot! she mused with a contented smile.
A/N #2: An open-ended ending, yes, but it was always intended to be that way...
Thank you so, so much for all of your wonderful reviews, favs, and alerts! I've truly been wowed by the generally positive responses to this story; it's meant the world to me to hear just how much many of you enjoyed The Awakening - so much so, that I'm now quite glad I decided to share it rather than let it continue gathering dust on my computer. It's been a welcoming surprise, to put it mildly. Thank you for making it worth sharing! :)
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Until next time!