A/N: Thank you for taking this journey with me. Here is the final chapter. I hope you will enjoy reading it as much I did, writing it.
The Love You Take
Chapter 28: The Love You Make
Hermione moved through the remainder of the Summer Term as one in a dream. She attended her classes, she completed her homework, she studied a set number of hours every day, and she lived for the letters she received from Severus by owl post.
His note to her upon quitting Hogwarts had been warm, snarky, sexy, sardonic, and autocratic—very much like the man himself. The Ministry of Magic had requested the assistance of Severus Snape in the preparation of the cases against the Death Eaters who had been captured and were waiting to stand trial. Severus had taken the opportunity to away to London, insisting that his absence would serve a number of purposes, chief amongst them the fact that he could not remain in the castle without having her in his bed, and he felt that it would be wrong for them to continue as they had done now that the necessity no longer existed. In addition, she would be better able to concentrate on preparing for her N.E.W. without the distraction of his presence—and admittedly, it would be an opportunity for her to gauge how her feelings for him would hold up during an extended separation. He assured her that he anticipated no change in his feelings, but he felt that it was, in his words, 'only fair' for Hermione to be given the chance to see if her attachment would hold up in his absence.
Professor Dumbledore had taken over Severus' classes, as well as assumed the duties as Head of Slytherin House. A number of the older Slytherins, as well as those from the families of known Death Eaters, had failed to return to school after the Easter holidays. The headmaster had, in a public statement at breakfast on the first day of classes after the fall of Voldemort, admonished the students to make no assumptions regarding their classmates' reasons for not returning to school. The war had taken a toll on everyone in the wizarding world, and each family would deal with the fallout in its own way.
Hermione wrote to Severus daily, telling him everything that happened to her each day, assuring him of the endurance of her affections, and beseeching him to return as soon as possible. He replied to her every second or third day, commenting upon her news and giving her scant information regarding his activities, saying simply that he was working as a consultant for Magical Law Enforcement, carrying out the duties assigned to him. In typical Severus style, he did not encourage her to continue telling him about every day in minute detail.
I state under threat of enforcement that if you wish to actually have me read your missives, you must refrain from regaling me with the puling minutiae of the personal lives of your friends. My interest ends before the first detail is transcribed, I assure you.
Tell me instead of the gossip regarding my former colleagues, whom I greatly love to mock—and of course, I am always entirely fascinated by the workings of your convoluted mind, my dear delight.
After the first few weeks without him, Hermione began to realise that he was not coming back any time soon. At that point, she resolved to enjoy her last term at Hogwarts, and she threw herself into every activity, even going so far as to scream herself hoarse at the last Quidditch match of the season, in which Gryffindor defeated Ravenclaw by an enormous margin and won the Quidditch Cup.
On the night of the final Leaving Feast, she sat between Harry and Ron, reminiscing about all their years at school. It was easy to laugh with her friends, knowing that on the morrow she would board the Hogwarts Express and return to London—where a Floo trip from the Leaky Cauldron would deliver her safely to the Atrium of the Ministry of Magic … and thence to her love.
Everyone loved surprises, didn't they?
Hermione moved wide-eyed through the second level corridor of the Ministry of Magic, her heart pounding, anticipation coiled in her tummy. She was mere minutes away from seeing Severus again, after over two months of missing him desperately. How would his face look when he saw her? Would he smile that rare smile she loved so well? Would they embrace? Kiss?
She saw the doorway leading into the Aurors' office, and she paused for a moment to press her hands to her cheeks and to take steadying breaths.
She whirled to see Tonks, standing with a stack of parchment clutched to her chest, her violet hair spiking in every direction.
'Hermione!' she cried again with genuine gladness and rushed forward to give her a one-armed hug. 'You look terrific! You scared me at the battle, passing out like you did—I was so worried.'
Hermione returned Tonks' hug, laughing.
Tonks released her and stepped back. 'But what are you doing here?'
Hermione spoke softly, as if conveying a great secret. 'I'm looking for Severus—do you know where he is?'
Tonks gaped at her. 'For Severus? But why? Do you have a message for him from Dumbledore?'
'No!' Hermione replied, knowing she was flushing and feeling annoyed about it. 'I want to see him—to … to ask him to dinner,' she finished lamely.
'To dinner?' Tonks repeated, as if Hermione were speaking a foreign language. 'Is Molly cooking dinner for everyone tonight?'
'No! I mean, I'm sure she is cooking dinner at the Burrow, but I'm not going there—I meant to invite Severus to have dinner with me here, in town.'
'Like on a date?' Tonks could not have been more incredulous had Hermione announced her intention to court the Giant Squid.
'Yes!' Hermione flared. 'Good God, Tonks, you act as if a woman never asked a man out before. I know good and well you asked Remus out first. What's so surprising? Don't you think Severus wants to go out with me?'
'No! I mean, I don't know,' Tonks amended, seeing the stormy look on Hermione's face. 'I don't think Snape wants to go out with anyone, frankly. He's an irritable git—he'll just try to humiliate you if you ask him out, Hermione.'
'Well, that's my problem, then, not yours. Where is he?' Hermione asked, her patience waning.
'He's not here,' Tonks said.
Hermione felt a sinking sensation where the bubble of anticipation had been. 'But where is he?'
Tonks shrugged. 'On the continent, I think—he's been spending a lot of time in Belgium, gathering evidence for the Leclercq woman's trial.'
'For Morgen?' Hermione gasped. 'Is he trying to help her defence?'
Tonks snorted. 'No! Morgen Leclercq has been slinging mud at Severus so much that it's amazing none of it has stuck! No, he's working to put her away in Azkaban for life.'
'But he never told me he was travelling out of the country,' Hermione protested, disappointment adding a whinge to her tone. 'We write constantly …'
Tonks interrupted her. 'So you're the one he keeps getting owls from!' She laughed. 'Remus tried teasing him about it, but it didn't go down well.'
Hermione's face cleared. 'That's right! He's staying at Grimmauld Place with you and Remus! I can go there to wait for him!'
But Tonks was shaking her head emphatically. 'No, he and Remus didn't get along at all—so Remus and I got our own place, and Snape did the same. I don't know where he's staying now.'
Hermione stomped her foot in frustration. 'That man!' she fumed. 'Trying to pin him down is like trying to nail jelly to the wall!'
Tonks gave her a rueful grin. 'But he's been answering your owls,' she said musingly. 'I would have bet against him even doing that, Hermione.' She leant confidentially nearer. 'Why? Why do you want to go out with Snape?'
Hermione withdrew imperceptibly; she couldn't confide in Tonks about the curse and the time they had spent as lovers—she had to protect Severus. 'You don't know him,' she said simply. 'No one does. If you did …' She shrugged and sighed. 'I had really hoped to see him today.'
Seemingly touched by her sad tone, Tonks laid a hand on her arm. 'Do you need a place to stay tonight?' she asked. 'Remus and I would be happy to put you up on the sitting room sofa.'
Hermione shook her head. 'Thanks, Tonks, but I'll just go home—I know my parents are anxious to see me.'
The girls said good-bye, and Hermione trudged back down the corridor she had traversed earlier with such anticipation, wanting to cry. She entered the lift with the lavender paper airplanes and rode to the Atrium, from which she Disapparated home.
Using her key to open the back garden door, Hermione entered the kitchen. 'Mum? Dad?'
With cries of greeting, her parents descended upon her with hugs and kisses, and with her mother's arms around her, she finally gave way to the threatening tears.
'Hermione!' her mother said in surprise, gathering her closer and stroking her hair. 'What's wrong, poppet?'
'Oh, Mum,' she whispered, 'there's this man …'
Severus responded to Hermione's attempt to see him with a bothersome lack of enthusiasm.
I cannot fault you this time, for you were unaware, but let me assure you that Slytherins do not appreciate surprises of that sort. I ask that you do me the courtesy of allowing me to decide when I am prepared to see you again. You must try to understand that the work I am doing now consumes all of my time and attention, and when we see one another again, I wish to provide our reunion with my undivided attention—unless you should undergo a change of sentiment, of which I hope you would apprise me with no delay.
For the time being, Petal, know that you are my Hope and my Reason.
As ever yours,
Summer whiled away in a haze of warm, golden days, which Hermione spent alternately dreaming about her future with Severus and fuming over whether or not he would ever decide it was time for them to see one another again. He seemed determined to provide her with space she neither wanted nor needed, and even though she was annoyed with him, still, her sheer physical want of him eclipsed all. She lay awake in her bed at night, her hands now able to deliver some measure of relief from the ache in her quim, her thoughts saturated with memories of how he felt within her, how he smelled, sounded, tasted … and looked. Dear Merlin, but the sight of him, lean and fit, lounging in their bed beside her, his midnight eyes glittering above his self-satisfied smirk, was such an erotic memory that she would soon drive herself to another peak, aching for him in her very bones.
The results of her N.E.W.T.s were delivered on Harry's birthday, whilst she and her friends lounged about in the Weasleys' back garden. Luna, Neville, and Lavender had been invited for Harry's party, to be held that evening, and the arrival of the five owls bearing the exam results created a moment of tense silence amongst them. Hermione stared at the official-looking envelope, remembering how anxious she had been upon the receipt of her O.W.L. results, and reflecting on her lack of anxiety this time around. Could it be that she finally felt as if she belonged? Was accepted? Had proved herself?
With a mental shrug, she joined the others in ripping open her exam results.
'Well?' Ginny and Luna inquired simultaneously; they were the only ones without N.E.W.T. results clutched in their hands.
'An O in Defence, E's in Charms, Transfiguration, Potions, and Herbology, and an A in Astronomy,' Harry said happily.
'An O in Divination!' Lavender exclaimed, ecstatic.
'Five passes!' Ron said.
'Me, too,' Neville agreed.
Six pairs of eyes turned to Hermione.
She grinned at them. 'Nine passes,' she said.
Harry leant over and snatched the parchment from her hand. 'You even got an Outstanding in Defence!' he said.
'Only because you taught me so well,' she assured him. 'We all did better in Defence because of the DA, Harry.'
The others nodded and murmured, and Hermione took her results back and folded them to stash in her pocket, already composing in her mind the letter she would write to Severus.
Harry and Ron sent their N.E.W.T. results in to the Auror Academy to complete their applications, but Hermione declined to join them. Although she had no intention of telling them so, she had already caught the only Dark wizard in whom she was interested, and she had no interest in chasing any others—she'd had enough of that to last a lifetime. She would have preferred to have things settled with Severus before she began job-hunting, but her pride would not permit her to admit it to anyone. She was not going to be one of those women who sat around, putting her life on hold whilst waiting for some man to pull his head out of his arse. With great determination, she began studying the brochures the Ministry had sent with her N.E.W.T. results, making lists and doing research into the career she wanted to pursue.
September first arrived, and with a pang, Hermione thought of all the children who would be crowding platform nine and three-quarters, setting off for their first adventure at Hogwarts. She realised this was the first year since she was a very little girl that she had not set out for school on the first day of September.
The morning of her nineteenth birthday dawned fair and bright, with only a touch of crispness to the air to remind her that autumn was upon them. She was sitting at breakfast with her parents when a large eagle owl swooped into the kitchen window, bearing an unwieldy package. Dropping its cargo into Hermione's lap, the bird turned without stopping and flew away again.
'One of your friends remembered your birthday,' her father remarked, rattling his newspaper.
Her mother watched her carefully. 'Is it from …'
Hermione nodded, breaking the seal on the letter attached to the package.
Happy Birthday, Hermione.
Every successful young witch needs one of these, and you will be more successful than most.
As Ever Yours,
Ripping the paper from the package, in a puff of the smell of the most expensive leather, Hermione found a butter-soft calfskin briefcase in a shade of brown that exactly matched her hair. She released the golden clasp engraved with her initials, to another puff of the leather scent, and stared down into the case to find a copy of the Daily Prophet and another envelope.
Curious, she withdrew the newspaper; it was today's edition, which she had not yet read. The top story was about the Ministry setting a date to honour the recipients of the Orders of Merlin to be awarded for distinguished service in the late war. The entire article had been circled in slashing red ink, with the date underlined: 31st October, 1998.
With trembling fingers, she opened the second envelope, unaware that both of her parents were watching her with bated breath.
May I solicit the honour of escorting you to the Ministry of Magic Gala on the evening of 31st October? If this is acceptable, I shall collect you at your residence at eight o'clock that evening.
When Hermione jumped from her seat and fled into the back garden with her letters and her briefcase, her mother and father exchanged a significant glance. When her squeal of delight reached their ears, they could not help but laugh.
That afternoon, Hermione was lolling about in her room, alternately reading from one of the books her parents had given her for her birthday and filling out job applications. She was surprised to hear a knock upon the front door and even more surprised when her mother called her down.
Glancing in the mirror to make sure she was presentable, she skipped lightly down the stairs, only to be arrested by the sight of Madam Tatiana Prince standing in her parents' entrance hall with her daughter, Eileen Snape, standing behind her.
'Ma'am!' Hermione gasped, starting forward with both hands held out.
'Hello, Hermione,' the old lady responded, grasping her hands and leaning forward to press a dry kiss to her cheek. 'Happy birthday.'
Thanking her, Hermione turned to offer her hand to Severus' mother, as well. 'How do you do, Mrs Snape?' she said with a friendly smile.
Turning to her parents, who waited expectantly behind her, Hermione said, 'Mum, Dad, these are Professor Snape's grandmother, Madam Prince, and mother, Mrs Snape.'
Turning back to the Severus' family members, she said, 'Madam Prince and Mrs Snape, allow me to introduce my parents, Richard and Leigh Granger.'
Everyone shook hands, and Hermione's mother invited everyone to sit in the lounge whilst she prepared tea. Moving into the lounge, Hermione wondered why on earth Severus' grandmother would have decided to come see her—for she knew that Mrs Snape was not the decision-maker of the two. Both of the ladies were dressed in Muggle suits, and they wore hats and gloves and carried boxy handbags, very much like the Queen—and like Neville's gran, only minus the stuffed-vulture hat!
They chatted about inconsequential things whilst waiting for the tea, with Mrs Snape speaking only when spoken to and otherwise staring down at her lap; Madam Prince, however, was ruling the conversation and taking in every detail of the Grangers' furnishings. At last, Hermione's mother returned with the tea service, and she pointedly directed Hermione to pour whilst she engaged the witches in polite chit-chat.
Performing the duties of hostess just as her mother had instructed her in her formative years, Hermione handed round the teacups and followed up with the delicate petit-fours which were only bought at the baker's for birthdays and holidays. At long last, Madam Prince opened her bag and withdrew a wrapped gift box, adorned with a large green satin bow.
'I have brought a birthday gift for you, Hermione,' she said, a slight smile upon her lips as she extended the offering. 'I understand that you are attending a formal gathering next month, and I thought it might come in handy.'
Hermione slipped the ribbon from the box and quickly ridded it of the decorative paper. A jeweller's box was revealed, and when she snapped it open, she saw silver filigree earrings, set with garnets.
'The metal is white gold, so you need not fear that it will tarnish,' the old lady said, and Hermione knelt impetuously at her feet.
'Thank you, ma'am,' she said mistily. 'I'll wear them very proudly.'
Madam Prince placed a hand upon her hair, then bent to whisper in her ear. 'They were my very own, when I was about your age,' she murmured. 'It will make me very happy to have you use them.'
Soon after, the Prince women took their leave. At the doorway, the old lady turned to Hermione's parents and spoke in her most supercilious tones.
'Your daughter is an exceptionally fine girl,' she announced. 'I hope you are very proud of her.'
Assuring her that they were, the Grangers waved as their guests walked down the drive and only closed the door when Madam Prince and Mrs Snape had disappeared around the bend.
'What a frightening old woman,' her dad said, turning the lock on the door.
Hermione looked down at the garnet earrings and smiled. 'Dad, you have no idea,' she said.
On the first of October, Hermione began her job in the Wizengamot Administration Services as a Research Assistant. She had wanted a job with regular hours which would allow her to exercise her passion for library research, and Arthur Weasley had assured her that a position as a clerk for the Wizengamot was a springboard to just about any other department in the Ministry.
Accordingly, she moved in with Harry and Ron at Grimmauld Place, explaining to her parents that it would be much easier to commute from there than from home, but a large part of the truth was that three months at home was about her limit; she wanted some independence. Kreacher fussed over the three of them as if they were still at school, his new-found adoration for Harry seasoning his interactions with all of Harry's friends with fond respect.
The Wizengamot had spent the summer in continuous trials, and many Death Eaters, including Morgen, had been convicted of crimes and received life sentences, to be served in Azkaban. Hermione was proud to think that Severus had been instrumental in putting those Death Eaters in prison, but she missed him desperately, even so. She continued to watch out for him at the Ministry, but she never saw him there, and the few times she met up with Tonks, she didn't receive sufficiently specific information. According to Tonks, Severus had been 'around' occasionally, but not long enough to stay and chat. There were times when she suspected her friend of being in on a plot to keep her from the wizard she loved, but to be fair, the number one offender in that category was the wizard, himself. Still, Halloween was coming, and she would see him then.
She thought she might expire of expectation.
Halloween fell on a Saturday, so Hermione was able to sleep in on that day … but she didn't. She couldn't. She felt almost sick with excitement. In twelve hours … eleven … ten … she would see him again.
At eleven o'clock, Hermione was in her room, flipping through a magazine full of different hairstyles, still trying to decide how she would wear her hair that night. Unexpectedly, there was a knock upon her bedroom door, then Harry peeked around the doorjamb.
'I think you'd better come downstairs,' he told her, a huge grin on his face. 'If you don't, there might be elvish warfare in the entrance hall.'
Intrigued, Hermione followed Harry downstairs, where she found Kreacher standing with his back against the closed front door.
'What is it, Kreacher?' she asked kindly.
'Kreacher thought Miss was happy with his service!' the elderly elf cried. 'Kreacher thought Miss liked him!'
Hermione came forward and knelt beside him. 'I do like you, Kreacher,' she assured him.
'Then who is this?' he demanded tragically, throwing open the front door.
For a moment, all Hermione saw was an enormous bouquet of roses upon the stoop—then she realised the roses were being held by little elf hands.
'Scampy!' she cried, bending to take the roses from the house-elf. 'Come in!'
Scampy came in nervously, and Hermione closed the door behind her. 'Scampy is happy to see Miss,' she announced, 'but the other house-elf is not happy to see Scampy.'
Hermione turned to introduce Scampy to Kreacher and to explain the reason for her presence, but Kreacher had retreated in a huff to the kitchen.
'Never mind,' she said, lifting the Black Bacarra roses to inhale their scent. A slip of parchment nestled amongst the blooms, and she plucked it out to read it.
Make an effort, my petal, not to put these lesser blooms to shame.
'Miss?' Scampy said anxiously. 'Does Miss need to sit down?'
'She's all right, Scampy,' Harry said with a chuckle, and Hermione looked up from the note, her cheeks flushing even as the faraway look faded. 'Miss Hermione is just happy.'
Scampy straightened her tea towel and looked up the stairs. 'Happiness is no reason for Miss to scare Scampy,' she declared. 'Let's go to your room, Miss, so Scampy can begin to prepare you for the party.'
Finding no fault with this program, Hermione obediently led the way up to her room.
The Hogwarts students who were due to be honoured had been permitted to come to London for the weekend, and were being put up at the Leaky Cauldron, so Harry went there in the early afternoon to be with Luna. Ron left at six to have dinner with Lavender before the gala began, so Hermione was alone in the house, save for Kreacher, as eight o'clock approached.
Scampy had surpassed herself. Hermione wore garnet-coloured velvet robes, deeply décolleté, which clung to every curve, ending just above her knees. The stockings she wore were silken, and the shoes, bearing Scampy's signature Balance Charm, which would permit her to walk in such unnatural high heels, were stunning. Of a dark garnet dragon hide leather, a delicate ankle strap held the shoe upon her foot, which was left naked to the toes, at the base of which a narrow strip of the garnet leather crossed; the heels were at least four-inches tall, but as always with shoes Scampy Transfigured for her, she was able to walk easily in them.
Scampy had insisted upon putting her hair up for such a formal occasion, pointing out that Madam Prince's earrings would show to best advantage that way. Accordingly, her hair was swept up on top of her head, where it was sleekly wound into a complex chignon, with the tiniest of wispy curls left to grace her nape. As once before, the Black Bacarra roses nestled in her hair. From her ears dangled the garnet earrings given for the occasion.
How many times had she dreamt of being seen in public with Severus Snape—of being acknowledged as his woman? And tonight it was going to happen; she would walk into the Ministry of Magic Gala upon the arm of a bona fide war hero, a completely grown up, powerful wizard, whose slightest smile turned Hermione's insides into goo. She felt giddy with delight just thinking of it.
As the hour approached, Hermione felt as if she could jump out of her own skin. Her tummy kept swooping at unexpected times, giving her a feeling of light-headedness. It had been more than six months since she had last seen him—how would it be when he was standing in front of her, looking down into her face with those endless eyes—eyes in which she would gladly drown? Again, her tummy swooped and her heart fluttered … and a knock upon the door compounded it all.
He was here.
Having banished Kreacher to his room for the night, it was up to Hermione to answer the door, and she approached it with measured steps, wanting at least to appear dignified when she opened the door to him. Grasping the doorknob with a trembling hand, she turned the knob and opened the door to her love.
He stood upon the stoop in dress black robes, over which he wore a long black cape lined with dark green satin. His head was bare, and his black hair was tied back, exposing his face to her. A very slight smile upon his lips increased the trembling in her extremities, and as her eyes rose to meet his, she noted that he was no longer quite so gaunt as he had been. The expression in his eyes deprived her of breath, and she thought she might have whimpered.
'Hello, petal,' he said, his voice falling upon her ears like an auditory aphrodisiac. 'May I come in?'
She fell back before him, and he swept into the entrance hall, closing the door behind him.
'Hello,' she said belatedly, feeling her heart pounding erratically in her chest. He was her own dear Severus, she knew from his eyes, which made a leisurely trip down her body, absorbing the details of how she was dressed—but it had been so long since she had seen him that she scarcely knew how to act. She had thought she would throw herself into his arms, but she felt wrong-footed and awkward.
'Beautiful,' he murmured, his eyes now upon her lips.
Nervously, she licked her too-dry lips, and he pounced upon her like a panther upon its prey.
'May I kiss you?' he asked, one arm about her waist, the other hand upon the nape of her neck.
She answered by wrapping her arms about his neck and pulling him insistently into a kiss, their lips parting and tongues twining as if they had never been apart. He kissed her languidly but thoroughly, seeming to savour every thrust of her tongue and every throaty whimper she made. His hands travelled down her back, over her bum, and back up her sides.
When he released her lips, she made a sound of protest; her entire body was on fire from his touch, and all she wanted to do was drag him into the nearest room and tear his clothes off. He chuckled, as if he had read her thoughts, and she opened her eyes to look up at him; almost immediately, his gaze darkened.
'No one else has touched you—kissed you—in the time we've been apart?' he asked, his voice gruff.
'No,' she said fiercely, tightening her grip upon him. 'And you—have you been touched or kissed by someone else since we've been apart?'
'No,' he assured her, dipping his head to bury his nose in her throat.
Pressing herself against him, she said, 'Let's go up to my room.'
With another of his chuckles, which he gave with his lips upon her throat, sending sensation skittering along her skin, he lifted his head and stepped back from her. 'We are expected elsewhere,' he reminded her, lifting the black cloak he had given her from the hook upon which it rested and fitting it about her shoulders. He became suddenly still, and Hermione turned to face him.
'What is it, Severus?' she asked.
'Where did you get those earrings?' he inquired, sounding a bit odd.
'From your grandmother,' she replied with a smile. 'Remember, I told you she brought me a gift for my birthday.'
'Yes,' he said, 'so you did.' With a half-smile, he turned to open the door.
'Wait!' Hermione cried. She picked up a perfect Black Bacarra rosebud from the table beside the troll-leg umbrella stand and reached to fasten it upon his dress robes.
He stared down at the flower in his button-hole, then bent and pressed a kiss to her mouth. 'Thank you,' he said quietly.
Smiling with true pleasure, Hermione stepped with him out onto the stoop, where they turned as one and Disapparated.
Having surrendered their wraps to a courteous house-elf, Severus pulled Hermione's arm through the crook of his elbow and led the way to the Grand Ballroom, feeling himself swell with pride to be seen with such an attractive young woman at his side. Approaching the Prophet photographers stationed outside the entrance to the room, it occurred to him that this was the first time in his life, aside from his shadow existence as a Death Eater, that he had been in public with a woman on his arm.
It felt good.
For all that, they did not stop to pose for the photographers, but continued past them, deaf to their entreaties, and entered the venue. Severus found they were standing at the top of an elegant curving staircase. The tables for the dinner for the honourees were spaced about the edges of the dance floor below, whilst the Minister of Magic's table was upon the raised platform at the front of the room.
An elderly couple were directly ahead of them, speaking to a young man dressed like a footman. The young man held his wand to his throat and announced in his magically amplified voice, 'Mr and Mrs Jedediah Pratt.'
Glad of the example of what to do, Severus led Hermione to the footman and gave their names.
'Professor Severus Snape and Miss Hermione Granger!'
Severus knew it wasn't his imagination when the enormous room became quiet. Placing his free hand possessively upon the small one tucked in the crook of his arm, he looked down into Hermione's face. 'Are you ready for this?' he asked her softly.
She smiled up into his face before the crème de la crème of the entire wizarding world, her heart in her eyes. 'Oh, yes,' she said happily.
'Good girl,' he said and led her down the stairs.
The evening was rather like every dream he'd ever had of paying off scores for every insult and injustice he had ever experienced. People who had been students at Hogwarts with him—people who had never given the skinny, ugly, ill-kempt Slytherin the time of day—came up to speak to him, to thank him for his service to his country, to look curiously at Hermione and wonder about her. He pointedly ignored every hand that was stretched out in greeting, looking down his nose at the toadies and answering their questions and comments in a tone bordering on insolence. When the last of the fawners had departed with their figurative tails betwixt their legs, Hermione tugged on his sleeve.
'We're going over now to speak to my friends,' she said, 'and you're going to be civil to them.'
'Am I?' he asked, raising the hand upon his arm and kissing it. It was heaven to have her beside him. 'Are you sure?'
She lightly stroked his cheek before drawing her hand away from him. 'Yes, I'm sure,' she told him, and he felt that she was answering a different question entirely. It made him feel as if he could easily hold the earth upon his back, for her sake.
'Then lead on, petal,' he murmured.
Before he could be entirely bored by the hero-worship of the younger DA members—before he had ceased to be amused by the covert, horrified glances the older students were darting between him and Hermione—the Minister called the room to order, and they all found their way to the tables to partake of dinner. Claiming Hermione from the chatter of Longbottom and Ronald Weasley, he led her up onto the platform where the Minister would dine with the recipients of the Order of Merlin, First Class. Potter and his girlfriend, the pop-eyed Miss Lovegood, took the seats immediately upon the Minister's right. Severus continued down the table past the Minister, on whose left sat Albus Dumbledore.
'Good evening, Headmaster,' he murmured, pulling out the seat beside the old man for Hermione.
Dumbledore stood with an expression of genuine pleasure. 'Hello, Severus,' he said, remembering at the last moment not to offer his hand. Instead, he placed the hand upon Hermione's shoulder. 'And hello to you as well, Hermione.'
Hermione responded to the headmaster with such a cool, reserved greeting that Severus had to repress a grin when he seated himself beside her.
Dinner seemed to take much too long—very much too long, when Hermione was sitting beside him looking good enough to eat. He found that she frequently glanced at him, as well, and neither of them ate very much of the food that magically appeared before them. He debated whether eating the food would simply weigh him down in the evening he had planned or if he might need it for fuel in order to maintain his stamina later. Having her so close made him happier than he had any right to be—but what he most wanted to do was to take her away from here.
At last, the tables were magically cleared of food and cutlery, and the Minister of Magic began to speak about the wonderful way the wizarding community had risen to fight against the Dark Lord. He began the handing-out of awards with the DA students, who had fought against and captured many of the Death Eaters. Severus caught himself feeling proud of the little berks as they trouped up to accept their Orders of Merlin, Third Class, and the pride was so foreign an emotion that it took him a while to identify it—at first, he thought it was indigestion.
When the Lovegood girl had resumed her seat beside Potter, clutching her award, the Minister began awarding the Second Class Orders. Most of the members of the Order of the Phoenix, including the Weasleys and their five oldest sons, Lupin and Tonks, McGonagall and Flitwick, and his own Hermione, accepted these awards, and the feeling of pride increased exponentially when the splendid Order was placed in Hermione's hands.
He stood to applaud for her, and the shining look she directed to him took his breath away. Had there ever been a lovelier girl? If his grandmother was right, and one's love only grew stronger through the years, how would his being be large enough to contain this feeling, when Hermione was Grandmother's age?
Finally, it was time for the Minister to distribute the First Class Orders. First up was Dumbledore, who received tumultuous applause from everyone in the room, including Severus and Hermione. Next was Harry Potter, and this time, had they not been far below ground, Severus believed the roof would have been blown off the building by the riotous response to the announcement of the boy's name. Last, the Minister gave way to Dumbledore, who raised his hands for silence before beginning to speak.
'Eighteen years ago, a young man came to me with a daring offer. He was willing to carry information to me and the Order of the Phoenix from directly within Tom Riddle's inner circle.
'That young man's name was Severus Snape.
'At great personal risk, Severus moved back and forth from his position as Potions master at Hogwarts to his position in Riddle's organization, providing intelligence. Then Riddle fell, and we all hoped he was gone forever. As you know, we hoped in vain. Riddle rose again, and Severus went back to him, professing loyalty and devotion, so that he might place himself in the position to provide information on the movements of the Death Eaters. He did this tirelessly—ceaselessly—twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, knowing that at any time, he could be betrayed to Riddle and killed for treachery.
'He also managed to teach a few of you a thing or two about Potions during that time.'
The room responded with chuckles of appreciation, and Severus was astonished to see the looks of admiration directed at him by the audience members.
'In the end, of course, it was Harry Potter who had to face Riddle, as the Prophecy had foretold so long ago. Harry set out alone for this confrontation—but he was not really alone. Severus Snape followed him to the Centaurs' Clearing, and I am going to tell you a part of the story that has never been made public: Tom Riddle cast the Killing Curse at Harry Potter, and Severus Snape stepped in front of Harry to intercept that curse, willing to the very end to do what was necessary to bring about the end of Tom Riddle—up to and including sacrificing his own life to give Harry one more chance.'
There was an audible, collective gasp in the room, and excited whispering broke out as people leant over to say to their neighbours, 'Did you know that? I didn't know that!'
Dumbledore lifted his hands for silence again, and again, the audience responded to his request. 'You all know what happened then—Severus added his strength to the Shield Charm Harry had cast, and Riddle was drawn into that shield, and he died of it.'
Dumbledore turned away from the audience and looked at Severus, and Severus looked back at him, struck dumb by what was happening in the room. Dumbledore continued to speak.
'Severus Snape has devoted his entire life, since the age of twenty, to bringing an end to the power and influence of Tom Riddle, and he has sacrificed personal goals to do so. In the last battle, he demonstrated courage and bravery above and beyond the call of duty, and was personally instrumental in bringing about the death of Tom Riddle. For these acts, the Ministry of Magic awards him the Order of Merlin, First Class.
'Wizards and witches of Great Britain, I give you Severus Snape.'
Thunderous clapping began as the crowd rose to their feet as one person, and whistles and shouts added to the raucous cacophony. Hermione stood, looking down at him with such love and admiration that he thought his chest would burst from the unaccustomed emotions roiling there. After a full minute of looking down into his incredulous face, she leant over and kissed him softly on the lips, whispering, 'Go. They're waiting for you.'
As if in a dream, Severus stood and walked to Dumbledore, who extended to him the glittering Order of Merlin, First Class. Through eyes strangely blurred, he was able to read his name inscribed upon the Order, and he reached to take it into his own hands, the swelling feeling of unreality increasing with every passing second. Then he looked up to see Hermione watching him, applauding him—loving him—and the surreal quality of the moment began to subside.
He looked at Dumbledore, who was standing back from the podium so that Severus could approach it, and Dumbledore was clapping for him, with tears running abashedly down the old man's face. Without pausing to think, Severus took a step towards his mentor and extended his hand; with a tremulous smile, Dumbledore clasped it.
'Thank you,' the headmaster mouthed.
'You're welcome,' Severus answered, and he meant it.
Then he turned to face the people—his people?—and he let the tumult pour over him. The crowd gave acclamation, and he absorbed it, for what seemed a very long time. At last, they became quiet, and after a longer time, they resumed their seats.
'Let us observe a moment of silence,' Severus said, his classroom voice magically magnified and filling the room, 'for those who died so that we might live in a world free of Tom Riddle.'
Bowing his head respectfully, he thought of Lily and James Potter, Emmeline Vance, Sirius Black, Sturgis Podmore, the Prewett brothers, and the men who had been his boyhood friends, who had chosen the Dark over the Light and had died for that choice.
At last he raised his head and looked out at the faces, now sombre with remembrance. 'Thank you for this honour,' he said gravely. 'Now, let us celebrate life and victory.' He stepped back from the podium and bowed formally, then walked back to sit down beside a beaming Hermione.
They were coming to the end of their second dance when Severus dipped his head to nuzzle behind her ear and to ask, 'Do you wish to stay, or would you be willing to let me show you my home?'
She turned her face and pressed her cheek to his. 'Oh, let's go!' she said eagerly.
'Would you like to take leave of your housemates?' he asked.
'No,' she replied, taking his hand and beginning to weave her way through the crowd. 'Let's go.'
He wrapped her up in his arms and Disapparated, holding her close to make sure she had found her feet before he released her at their destination. The moonlight was shining brightly down on the quiet countryside; she looked about curiously. 'Where are we?' she asked, and he turned her to face the other direction, pointing down the gentle slope upon which they were situated.
'Do you see the roofline?' he asked.
'It's Prince House!' she said. 'I didn't know you had a cottage here!'
He did not answer but led her up the path to the door, and when he reached for the doorknob, the door was pulled open, and golden light poured out onto the stoop.
'Welcome, Master,' Scampy said with a deep bow. 'And welcome Mistr—'
'Scampy,' he said sharply.
The little house-elf stepped back from the door and bowed again, not speaking. Severus took Hermione's hand and led her into the cottage. They stood in a sitting room lit by a brightly crackling fire and furnished with a sofa, two armchairs and a coffee table, not unlike his sitting room at Hogwarts.
'Welcome to Crystal Cottage,' he said, watching her closely.
'Oh, Severus,' she said, 'what a wonderful room!'
He removed his cape and held out his hand for her cloak, then passed them to Scampy. 'We won't need you again tonight, Scampy,' he said.
Scampy bowed again. 'Yes, Master,' she said, scurrying off to put their things away.
Hermione frowned a bit. When had Scampy stopped calling him 'Master Severus' and begun simply calling him 'Master'?
'Would you like to see the rest of the house?' his warm voice rumbled in her ear, and Hermione turned and kissed him full on mouth.
'I'll take that for yes,' he said when he broke the kiss, which was growing heated. He tugged her hand. 'The kitchen is through here.'
They went into the kitchen and then into the dining room, with its cherry wood table, chairs, and sideboard. The furniture looked very old and very well cared for. She trailed her hand above the tabletop, not wishing to mar the polished surface, then she noticed several official-looking parchments covered with curious handwriting, the top one complete with a red beribboned seal at the bottom. She recognised goblin-writing when she saw it.
'What are these?' she asked.
Severus picked up the parchment and studied it. 'They deal with the future of Grandmother's estate; this one conveys ownership of Crystal Cottage to me,' he admitted, seeming to be rather amazed by the turn of events.
He offered the documents to Hermione, and she looked over them carefully. 'This implies that the big house will be yours upon her death,' she said, surprised. 'I would have thought your uncle—I mean, he is her son, and presumably, his father's heir.'
Severus took the proffered parchments again with a sardonic smirk. 'More than implies,' he agreed. 'This cottage was offered to my Uncle Tiberius at the time of his marriage, but he declined, preferring to live on the continent. It was offered again when he accepted his teaching position at Durmstrang, it having been hoped that he would prefer to spend his summers and holidays away from the school, but it was again declined. He and my Aunt Ava preferred to keep a home near her parents, in Germany, and to stay with Grandmother at Prince House when they visited England.'
For a moment, his gaze became somewhat unfocussed, and he stared at the parchment with unseeing eyes. Then his lips thinned into a harsh line, and he put the parchment back upon the tabletop. Hermione watched quietly and waited for him to speak again.
'When Morgen was taken prisoner, it was revealed that she was a guest at Prince House, and Aurors were dispatched to ask questions. My uncle and his family were detained in England for a time, whilst the investigation progressed. The British Ministry decided that my uncle and aunt were in a position to be aware of Morgen's political leanings and questionable activities, and the word "collaborator" came up more than once in those conversations.'
Hermione gasped; persons who were considered to have collaborated with the Death Eaters in England had been sentenced to serve time in prison! It was a very dangerous time to have that designation placed upon one.
'In the end, they were permitted to leave the country, but only upon the understanding that they were not to return. Grandmother made it possible for my uncle and aunt to live in the style to which they were accustomed—but in return, Tiberius signed away his rights to inherit the estate upon Grandmother's death. So, it will come to me.'
Hermione placed her hand upon his arm, and he immediately clasped it, raising it to his lips.
'I'm very sorry that your uncle and aunt were made so uncomfortable,' she said softly.
Pulling her into his embrace, he laid his cheek upon the top of her head. 'Don't be sorry,' he said gruffly. 'My uncle tried to sit on the fence and ended up falling on the Dark side. I was quite horrified to discover the extent of their knowledge of and involvement in the activities of Morgen and her husband. I shared some of the information with John, because I felt he was old enough to know the truth. The ban from Great Britain will not affect my cousins; they will be free to come and go as they please. But John is currently out of communication with his parents; I don't know how long that breach might last.'
Hermione wrapped her arms around him, the scent of his shaving lotion igniting her desire, and she clung to him, all thought of his uncle's misfortunes gone from her mind. After a time, he stepped back and took her hand, tugging her across the hall, into his study.
She smiled at the book-filled walls, and he smirked at her. 'I thought this room might please you,' he said. 'I work from home occasionally, so the papers I leave upon my desk will be off-limits to you, my know-it-all.'
Diverted, Hermione asked eagerly, 'What work? What are you working on?'
He rolled his eyes, crossing his arms over his chest in a gesture she recognised from his classroom—but the warmth of his expression lessened the effect, she noted with satisfaction.
'If my papers are off-limits to you, what makes you believe that my work is open for discussion?'
'Are you still working on the Death Eater prosecution? Because I never see you in the Wizengamot offices, so …'
He sighed noisily. 'No. I will tell you what my position is, and then you will not ask me any further questions, do you understand?'
Her mouth dropped open. 'You're an Unspeakable!'
He jerked her against him. 'You are the brightest witch of your age,' he teased.
She laughed out loud, and he paused to kiss her again, very thoroughly, before leading her up the stairs to the first floor.
'There are two bedrooms up here,' he said, pausing in the doorway of a room that, as yet, bore no furnishings.
Hermione looked into the room, thinking it was just the right size for a study for her … she wasn't foolish enough to believe he would let her use his desk, particularly if his work was of such a confidential nature. But she was getting a bit ahead of herself; he hadn't yet implied that he wanted to share this lovely cottage with her—so far, he was only showing off.
He indicated the bathroom, then continued on into the room at the end of the hall, situated directly over the sitting room, with very nearly the same proportions. A fire crackled in the large fireplace on the far wall, and before the fireplace was a cosy-looking loveseat and coffee table, which held a tray of sandwiches and cakes, with a teapot and two teacups.
To the right was a large bed, covered with a luxurious duvet the colour of burgundy wine. On either side of the bed was a table, and at right-angles to each table was a bookshelf. The bookcase on the left side of the bed was full of many books Hermione recognised from Severus' rooms at Hogwarts, and on the very top of the bookcase was the statuette of Merlin and Nimüe, which Professor McGonagall had called a Vinculum. The bookcase on the right side of the bed was bare save for two items that sent her rushing to examine them.
On the very top shelf, in solitary splendour, stood the copy of Alain Foucalt's Merlin et Nimüe, which she had read repeatedly in his rooms at Hogwarts. And two shelves down, at eye-level, was a framed photograph of her with her mother and father on holiday in Nice—the same photograph that had stood upon her bedside table at home for years.
'Severus,' she said, 'where did this come from?'
He came up behind her, wrapping his arms around her and peering over her shoulder. 'Your mother brought it when your parents came for lunch,' he said, as if such things happened every day.
She turned, breaking his hold on her. 'My parents were here? When?'
He watched her with fond amusement. 'They've been twice; the first time, just to speak with me, and the second time, they stayed for lunch—that's when your mum brought the photograph.'
'You saw them when you wouldn't see me?' She didn't know whether to be angry or amused, but right now, she was leaning toward seriously annoyed.
'I saw them in preparation for seeing you,' he corrected. 'Your father, by the way, found me to be … almost adequate, but your mum is far more inclined in my favour—plus, she loves the house.'
Before she could respond to that comment, Severus murmured an incantation, and all of the candles in the room, plus the large oil lamp on the ceiling, were lit—and she saw, for the first time, the mural painted on the wall behind the bed. It was a reproduction of the stained-glass window that stood on the first landing of the staircase at Prince House. However, what could not be done in stained-glass was the wonderful detail of the painting on the wall; Nimüe, the young enchantress, stood before the Crystal Cave, her arm extended as if to invite Merlin to enter, and the older wizard bowed his head in acceptance of his fate.
She turned from the mural to find Severus watching her attentively. She smiled at him, and he placed his hands tentatively upon her shoulders.
'Do you know,' he said, 'that there is another version of the story of Merlin and Nimüe?'
Hermione shook her head. 'No, I didn't know; I've never read a different version.'
He smiled down into her face and rubbed a thumb over her lower lip. 'Would you be agreeable to having tea with me here, before the fire? And I can tell you the second version of the story.'
'I'd like that very much,' she admitted.
Severus poured the tea and plied her with cakes, and they ate companionably, as they had done so many times in his quarters at Hogwarts. They chatted about his family and hers, about his job and hers, and when he had sent the tray back down to the kitchen, he brought the Vinculum from the top of the bookcase and set it on the coffee table before them.
'This Vinculum is another thing that came to me because my uncle did not want it,' he mused. 'He and his family might have had this cottage, but it remained unoccupied for decades after my great grandparents died, and my grandparents moved to Prince House. I believe my grandfather must have been rather disappointed in his son.' He remained quiet for a moment, drinking in the vision of Hermione sitting upon the loveseat at his side, so lovely in the firelight in her ball finery, smelling of the roses in her hair. She looked back at him fearlessly, invitingly, waiting in all patience for what he next would say.
'The true account of the story of Merlin and Nimüe has been told in my family for centuries,' he told her. 'In that version, Merlin was not seduced or tricked into bestowing the gift of his magical powers upon the woman he loved—instead, he gave them freely, by his own choice, as a measure of his love for and devotion to her.'
Hermione listened to him raptly, her lips parted. Holding her gaze, he picked up the Vinculum and placed it in her hands.
'This Vinculum is a fulcrum—an agent, through which vital powers are exercised—and for centuries, the wizards of my family have used it to bind themselves to the witches who became their wives.'
Hermione stared down at the ancient magical object in her hands. 'It wasn't a coincidence that you left it in my room with the note you wrote for me,' she said softly.
'No, it wasn't a coincidence,' he agreed. 'It also was not a coincidence that my grandmother placed the Vinculum in my room upon our last visit to Prince House.'
Hermione looked up into his face, her eyes wide.
'It was her less-than-subtle reminder to me that when she and my grandfather bound themselves to one another, there were two magical binding agents involved: her Nexus and his Vinculum. It made for a very powerful bond betwixt them.' He watched her eyes, resisting the urge to perform Legilimency upon her to discover what her thoughts were. No, there was no need, and there never had been—this was Hermione, and given the opportunity, she would share every thought in her head with him.
'Why are you telling me this?' she said, her voice barely a whisper.
'Can you guess?' he asked gently, reaching to cup her cheek in the palm of his hand.
'Are you accepting my offer?' she asked, her fingers straying to the Nexus, which, at her touch, became visible.
'Yes,' he affirmed, moving his hand down until they both touched the Nexus, and placing his other hand upon the Vinculum in her lap. 'And I am making one, as well. Of my own free will, as a measure of my love for and devotion to you, Hermione Granger, I offer to bind my magical powers to you, through the agent of this Vinculum, until we are parted by death or design—what say you?'
Her eyes were bright with tears as she said to him in a small, scratchy voice, 'I accept your offer.' A tiny sob escaped her, and she said, 'Now what do we do?'
'We keep on touching both the Nexus and the Vinculum,' he said, leaning in and stopping with his lips mere millimetres from hers, 'and we seal our bond with a kiss.'
Surprising him, as she was wont to do, Hermione took the initiative from him and pressed her lips to his, effectively sealing the bond, binding their magic each to the other. The power that formulated at the contact of their lips and spread over each of them was electrifying, and feeling the surge of magic, their lips clung with more determination, each breathing the other's breath, until the blaze of power had run its course, leaving a sensation like fire burning in their veins. Severus moved cautiously back from her, and she cried, 'Look!'
The Nexus was now gold, rather than silver—and the Vinculum was encased in a transparent capsule, as if Merlin and Nimüe had stepped together into the Crystal Cave.
'The Vinculum looked like this when my grandfather was alive,' Severus said, hearing the awe in his own voice. 'When the bond between him and Grandmother was active … I'll never forget coming back to Prince House with her after his death, and finding her holding the Vinculum and crying—the capsule and their mortal bond had been dissolved when he died.'
He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and began to tenderly wipe the tears which had spilt onto her cheeks. 'I hope you're going to agree to marry me, as well,' he said with a wry smile. 'I'll be in disgrace with Grandmother, otherwise—the earrings she gave you were her betrothal gift from my grandfather … and besides, it was the understanding I reached with your parents.'
In answer, Hermione leant forward and place the Vinculum on the coffee table, safely out of reach, and held out her hand to him. 'I'll marry you, but only if you seal the bargain by making love to me. I need you so much …'
Severus extinguished the lights, and they undressed one another before the fire, going slowly, as they had seldom had time to do before; he marvelled at the flawlessness of her body, the softness of her skin, and the brilliance of her eyes. She was perfect, and she had bound herself to him without reservation.
When she was naked save for the Nexus, now golden with their bond, he took her in his arms and carried her to their bed. 'I need you so much,' he said, echoing her sentiment, and they wound themselves about one another, as if to seek out a way to merge their very beings. As she became more heated in her response, he slipped two fingers into her body and his thumb circled inexorably about her pleasure centre until she came apart in his arms.
He rolled then, covering her body with his, pressing his leg between hers, parting her thighs and shifting until his hips were cradled by hers, his aching cock seeking the home of her heat. He stared down into her eyes, slipping into her mind and simultaneously invading her body. Physically, he thrust and thrust, each glide of friction carrying him higher; mentally, he sought out and absorbed her every erotic thought, every carnal fantasy, feasting in body and mind. She welcomed him completely, wrapping her legs about his hips and straining to take him as deeply within her body as she could; sheathing him as well in her mind, she surrendered every sensual impulse, every impassioned inspiration, immersing his mind in concupiscence even as she bathed his body in the essence of her desire for him.
Coming closer to his orgasm, he felt as if his very consciousness were expanding, with every sensation twisting and elongating to carry him completely outside of himself; melded with Hermione in mind, he opened this prolonged rapture to her, and he felt her falling into his bliss, shattering into glittering shards of exaltation as she fell, and he impaled himself upon those shards, coming utterly undone in a shower of jetting completion which went on, it seemed, into infinity.
Lying with her in their afterglow, his body humming with the euphoria only she could bring to him, he thought of how this day had been the realisation of one impossible dream after another. Never in his life had he hoped to know such elation, and he desperately hoped he would not wake again to find himself in the life he had known before.
'If this is a dream,' he said, turning his face to her, 'never let me wake from it.'
'I shall make it my life's work,' she promised, twining herself about him, parting his lips with her open kiss, and beginning to make again the love he had never thought to possess.
Standing in the embrasure of her private sitting room window, Tatiana Prince looked out at the cottage on the hill, and the windows of its upper story were illuminated from within. Patiently, she waited and watched, and at last, a flicker of magic fell away from her, and passed, with a shiver, through and out of her body. She sighed, recognising the significance. Soon after that moment, the upper story cottage lights went out.
Turning away from the window, she walked slowly back to her chair and sat down before the fire, glancing over to her husband's portrait with a smile.
'Are they settled in?' he asked.
'Yes,' she answered, 'and the bond is made.'
'May they have as much joy of it as we did, my love.'
She laid her head back upon the cushion and closed her eyes. 'Of that, I am quite certain, my love.'