Author's Note: I am sorry for the long delay in updating. This is the last but one chapter, the epilogue will be posted on the weekend. Many thanks to my wonderful beta, Dreamy_Dragon!"
Determined to get it right, Severus Apparated late on Christmas Eve to St Tropez. The sea was calm, and nary a person was in sight. The large yachts were absent. He returned home and checked his favourite jumper and his best black trousers for the third time. Everything was as it should be.
Christmas day was spent with a leisurely dinner at his apothecary friend’s house in Venice.
On Boxing Day, Severus Apparated to St Tropez again – a full hour early. He walked up to the Castle and was back again at their meeting point ten minutes before the appointed time. Staring out at the sea, he failed to hear the approaching steps.
He turned around, checking himself just in time before he almost pointed his wand at her. Hermione Granger had grown up. She was nearly his height now, her hair had lost part of its unruliness, and her face was that of a determined, fully-grown woman. Severus thanked Merlin that he would easily be able to see his friend Hermione and not his former pupil Miss Granger.
Hermione’s nose and ears were a bit reddened from the incoming wind, which pleased him unaccountably because he took it as a sign that she had foregone the comfort of a warm hat for looking her best at this first meeting.
“Hermione, it’s good to meet you.”
They shook hands, Hermione rather nervously looking him up and down, blushing slightly.
For some time neither said a word, then she offered, “Fancy a walk?” indicating the path along the sea.
They set off, Hermione talking about her holidays so far. After some minutes, Severus couldn’t stand it anymore. He stopped.
“Hermione, do you truly not recognise me?“
She finally looked him squarely into the eyes, taking in his features, her eyes widening as he raised an eyebrow. Then she dashed behind two parked cars to be violently sick.
Her would-be suitor stood frozen on the spot. So unexpected was this reaction that he was more astonished than anything else. Before he could follow his urge to Apparate away immediately, she came back. A pale-faced Hermione made a move as if to hug him but stopped short, obviously remembering her less than pleasant breath.
“Please do not make anything of it. I always get sick when I am nervous, and then I couldn’t sleep last night, and I knew I shouldn’t eat anything, but then my mum pressed me to eat breakfast, and I let her fuss over me because I still feel guilty, and so I ate breakfast even though—”
Severus’ smile grew wider, and when she finally noticed that he wasn’t going to run away screaming she ceased to babble. He offered her his arm.
“Let’s find a cup of tea, shall we?“
It took three cups of tea, a trip to the loo for a quick brushing of her teeth and two chocolate croissants for Hermione to overcome her embarrassment. Severus distracted her by emphasising the science behind his survival rather than the more gruesome details and by lightly holding her hand whenever she stopped fiddling with her spoon. He was glad in a way about her predicament because it enabled him to be the calmer of the two of them.
In his mind he had not formed a picture of her, the old Oxford photograph being even less of a starting point than his last memories of her as a pupil. There were only fleeting images of an upward-curling corner of her mouth, of ink-stained fingers, of a certain shade of brown hair set off by a certain scarf, of her eyes changing from curious to laughing.
Hermione Granger was all of the above and completely different at the same time, too. And so very right for him that it frightened Severus anew. His anxiety about her reaction to his identity seemed ridiculous compared to the feelings emerging now. He had loved Lily Evans with the all the passion of an adolescent, later with the obsession of a deeply disturbed grown man, but those emotions paled now to the absolute rightness he felt in the company of Hermione.
It was somewhat comparable to the first time of holding his wand, or to the thrill he had felt when he had completed his first potion by composing it rather than following a recipe. Yet, this was so much more: Severus knew with absolute conviction that the antsy, pale woman across the table was the one that completed him, the one he wanted to spend the rest of his life with.
And he was terrified of ruining things.
Some of his thoughts, however, must have shown on his face because Hermione looked at him with her first genuine, relaxed smile, tightening the grip on his hand.
“Shall we go for a walk again?”
He nodded and paid the smirking proprietor, who had watched them quite openly, not even bothering to pretend to watch the old Christmas movie on the TV behind the counter.
Outside she enquired, “Will you let me Side-Along you to my favourite place in the area?”
He nodded, and moments later they appeared amidst the rugged wintery beauty of the deserted Gigaro-beach near La Croix Valmer. The only wildlife there were a few seagulls. And the elephant in the room. Hermione finally sensed that “Zelko” awaited her verdict.
“Severus, I’m not going to hex you! You are alive, you tried to alleviate my guilt over leaving you for dead on the floor of the Shrieking Shack, even if that endangered your cover, you asked for a personal meeting when we got closer – you did nothing wrong. And I—”
She was wringing her hands, sometimes making a motion towards him as if to touch him.
Severus cared neither for distressed damsels nor for chivalrous knights, but finally understood the concept when he heard Hermione’s relieved sigh as he stilled her fingers against his heart with one hand and used the other arm to draw her closer. The scientist in him very briefly wondered how sometimes pieces suddenly fit together easily, but after meeting her lips for the first time, every rational thought left him.
The Half-Blood-Prince, Severus Snape, Zelko Princip – it didn’t matter what people called him.
He was home.