THANK YOU ALL SO MUCH! I never would have finished this without you guys, and it wouldn't be half the story it is, either. I hope you've enjoyed it, if you've come this far. I have certainly enjoyed the ride. I know I almost never respond to Reviews, but I just want y'all to know that I really appreciate every little notes you've sent to me over the years. I know your pennames like the faces of familiar friends. I love you guys.
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Here is the Epilogue
without further adieu.
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The gauzy white material of Tonks' simple wedding dress was plastered to her in the wind. Beside her, Remus looked scruffy as ever. Somehow, even dress robes weren't enough to hide the wolf within. But Tonks didn't seem to mind. They beamed at each other; neither quite able to look away.
Un-amplified by magic, their vows were swallowed up by the ocean, heard only by each other, with Dumbledore as witness. Their bare feet pressed into the powdery sand. Hermione was unsurprised to see a small tattoo on Tonks' dainty ankle; the silhouette of a wolf howling at the moon.
Next to Remus, Severus looked uneasy. Hermione wondered if he had done as he'd promised and taken shots of Ogden's beforehand. From his expression, (and the fact that emotions were actually showing on his face) she guessed that he had. Poor dear. He looked so awkward and uncertain, as if he were still not sure why he was there. She knew, had circumstances been different, the Slytherin never would have accepted the position. Sirius Black should have stood in that spot. But he had died defending the them.
Hermione shivered and her mum wrapped an arm around her shoulders. A cool breeze had swept away the summer heat, but it wasn't the chill that raised bumps on Hermione's arms.
The sun kissed the horizon just as Remus kissed his bride, their figures silhouetted before the deep pink glow. They melted into one another and for a moment, all was right with the world. Then Tonks was dashing off toward the cottage, dragging a stumbling Remus along behind her. His grin never faltered once.
The friends and family gathered began to turn to one another, sharing smiles of momentary contentment. It was a breath of fresh air after months of nearly drowning. They made their way to the cottage, lingering in doorways, chatting aimlessly about how beautiful the ceremony had been. Tables were covered with horderves and glasses of champagne. Hermione took a glass and met Severus's eye across a room. He was nodding at something Arthur Weasley was saying, the hint of a smile on his lips. She wanted to go to him, but was also unsure. Her parents hadn't spoken to Severus since the Christmas hols and she didn't know how they would react to him now.
Their relationship had made quite a shock wave in the Magical Community, but there was no denying there was something between them after his performance at the Manor. After the initial scandal, however, everyone began to admit that it made a certain sense. And anyway, such an age difference was not unheard of in the Magical World. But Dumbledore had been quick to make the importance of their roles in the War against Lord Voldemort known, so Hermione imagined they were all just grateful to the unlikely pair. That, or they had all gotten tied up in the romance of it all.
From around a doorway into another room, Ginny Weasley suddenly appeared. "Hermione," she said, grabbing the other witch's arm, "you've got to come."
Hermione stumbled backward, taken off guard by the other girl's vehemence. "What?"
"We've just been to Grimmauld Place. Our scores have arrived."
Hermione had to grasp the door frame in order to steady herself. Our NEWTS, she thought, her eyes growing wide. She'd been waiting for her scores all summer. Really, she'd been waiting for this her whole life. Breathless, she allowed Ginny to take hold of her hand and drag her into the room where the mirror had been set up. They practically skipped into that silvery surface, emerging into the dim, grimy light of 12 Grimmauld.
Severus watched Hermione go with a curious stare. In fact, he was so absorbed with curiosity that he didn't notice Mrs. Granger's cautious approach.
"Professor," the woman's voice began, hesitant and apologetic.
Severus snapped to attention. Meeting the woman's eyes, he wanted nothing more than to escape. But he was trapped. "Good evening," he said as way of an awkward response.
"I just…" she hesitated, biting her lip. Apparently that was a habit Hermione had gotten from her mum. "We heard about… everything," she began, lamely. "About how you were… what happened to you. And… I know it was because you protected us." Severus felt like a trapped animal. He didn't know what to say. "I just wanted to tell you… that… I'm sorry. I… didn't understand the… extent of the situation and… I appreciate everything you did. For us. Thank you."
Severus nodded, not quite trusting himself to speak.
"Professor Dumbledore tells me it was your idea to hide us away and that… we would likely be dead if you hadn't, so…" she let out a long huff of air, clearly out of things to say.
"Don't," he told her, embarrassed by her vehemence. "It was a risk I knew I was taking," he said, the words spilling out of his mouth of their own volition. The drink had clearly loosened his tongue. "And given the choice," he continued, his better judgment not having any say, "I would do it all again."
Hermione paced in the little bedroom she had shared with Severus so many months ago. Her unopened letter was clutched in both of her hands. Somehow, she couldn't bring herself to open it.
Once more, she paused in her pacing to stop and stare down at the creamy, pressed parchment of the envelope. It was heavy in her hands. Her fingers itched to slip inside and rip the letter open. And yet, at the same time, she could not make them move.
This is ridiculous, she told herself, rolling her eyes. She had faced the most powerful evil wizard of all time. Surely she could manage to face her NEWTS scores. With this in mind, she let her breath out in a huff of impatience and tore the envelope open. The parchment fell out onto the floor. Eyes wide, she bent to pick the paper up. Her hands were shaking. Her eyes skimmed over the grades she had gotten and the tension went out of her with one little word. "Oh."
Ginny, Harry, and Ron burst into her room at that, brandishing their own open letters. "There you are!" Harry exclaimed.
"Well, let's see then," said Ron, gesturing to her letter. Instinctively, she ripped it out of his reach.
"Hermione, you've gone white," said Ginny, eyeing her friend with concern.
"Have I?" said Hermione, dismayed when it came out as little more than a whisper.
"Come on, 'Mione," Ron groaned. "It must be better than any of us did."
"I…" Hermione couldn't pull her eyes away from the parchment. "I… got an E in Defense."
"And?" said the others in unison.
"And… that's it."
"That's it?" said Ginny, raising an eyebrow.
"Oh, I mean, I got O's in all the others, of course."
"Of course," echoed Harry and Ron, grinning.
"Hermione," Ginny began, putting a hand on the other girl's shoulders. "You know, you also saved the Wizarding World in that time, so… I wouldn't be too worried about it."
Hermione nodded absently. "You're right. I know. I just… I could have done better."
"Yeah, and you could have died, too."
"Ron!" Harry and Ginny glared at the red-haired prat.
"What? I'm just saying. You're too hard on yourself, 'Mione. If you can't be happy with those grades after saving the world, you'll never be happy."
Hermione turned to him at that, staring into his bright blue eyes. "You're right, Ron," she said. "Thank you." A weak smile broke out across her face and she nearly hugged him; nearly but not quite.
"Yeah well," said Ron, rubbing the back of his neck, "let's get back to the party, yeah?"
Remus and Tonks Lupin had eyes only for each other as they danced beneath the stars. Albus Dumbledore had offered them Hogwarts for the wedding and the Minister of Magic, himself, had offered them a variety of grand venues large enough to accommodate the many admirers and wellwishers who wanted to attend. But Remus and Tonks only wanted to be together.
The joy of the occasion danced just above the surface of a somber weight that had settled since the fall of Lord Voldemort. Sirius Black was dead. Remus Lupin's closest friend. Harry's godfather. He had saved Hermione and Severus from countless Death Eaters at the Manor. And she would never have a chance to thank him for that.
Hermione glanced around the party, her heart full of love for each person there. She knew, just watching them, that they felt it too. Molly and Arthur were practically glued to each other in a dance too slow for the music. Fred and George were whispering behind their hands and sneaking glances at a couple of Tonks' attractive Auror friends. Fleur leaned against Bill's shoulder, her face now marred by a scar that matched her husband's.
Harry and Ginny clasped hands and followed Ron to the tables of food. She watched them, studying their faces as they laughed uproariously at something Charlie said. Their cheeks were already flushed from the rum the twins had snuck in earlier and their cheerfulness verged on mania.
Hermione smiled, so happy to be surrounded by so many wonderful people. Not a one of them wasn't a decorated War Hero now. And yet, at the same time, they were still just her friends. Yes, to the rest of the world they were the Order of the Phoenix, Albus Dumbledore's hand-picked team of skilled and brilliant witches and wizards; the very team who took down Lord Voldemort, himself. But to Hermione, they were laughter in a cramped kitchen, shared worries and amplified hopes, cozy afternoons sitting in silence in the study at Grimmauld. They were family.
She caught sight of Severus as she peered through another doorway. He was standing with her mum and dad. And he was laughing. They were laughing. Together. Hesitant and curious, she approached. Their chuckling evened out into broad grins and her mother placed a kiss on the top of her head before taking hold of her father's hand and leading him outside.
Without warning, Severus took her chin in his hand and placed a chaste kiss against her mouth. She went rigid with shock, and just as she began to melt against him he offered her his hand. It was an offer of dance, but it was also his way of telling her without words that they had broken past the last gate keeping them apart. It was alright now. Finally, they could be together.
He led her outside, stopping at the threshold to struggle out of his dragonhide boots. He added them to the pile of discarded shoes beside the door and together they stepped barefoot out into the sand. They danced beneath the stars and laughed as they stumbled through the dunes. It was not a graceful dance; not like it had been at the Halloween party a lifetime ago. But it was a beautiful one. For they held each other close and smiled into each other's eyes. And this time, there were no masks.