Author's Note: As always, I owe my wonderful beta Hìril a huge thank you – any remaining errors are my own.
This was originally written for Gelsey, for the SSHG giftfest on LiveJournal, with Alfred Noyes' poem The Highwayman as inspiration. I took some liberties with the source material (fortunately for me, Severus Snape is a fictional character and can't object to featuring as Bess, 'the landlord's black-eyed daughter').
The shutters shook with every new gust of wind, and on the floor below an unlatched door creaked and whined as it flapped shut and then open again, like it was complaining about the rough treatment meted out.
Severus approached the window again, but drew back, just like he had the other thirteen times.
It was not yet time; to open the window now would only attract unwanted attention. The Headmaster of Hogwarts descending upon the seediest inn in Hogsmeade invited the kind of comments he despised, but at least the gossips knew what brought him there every few weeks.
Careful to preserve the illusion, Severus had chosen a woman downstair at random and instructed Rosmerta to leave them alone for the night. He hadn't bothered to ask the wench her name; as soon as the door had slammed shut behind them she had succumbed to a bout of drowsiness, and was now sleeping peacefully on the bed.
Severus glanced at her – a drop of saliva rolled down from the corner of her mouth to join its predecessors, forming a wet patch on the mattress. He resolved never to sit there again. The Three Broomsticks' decline had been rapid, and unobservant patrons could be fooled by the elegant furnishings.
Severus knew better; he recognised a dark stain on the pillowcase from a fortnight ago. Rosmerta's standards had crumbled along with her aspirations to respectability.
She wasn't the only witch whose present fell short of the promises of her past.
Downstairs, he refused to look closely at the whores because he was almost certain to recognise his old students; their demographic virtually guaranteed he had been teaching them Potions a decade or two ago. Young whores didn't end up at Rosmerta's; they made much more money at the Hag's Head, under Horace Slughorn's tutelage.
His old students were among them too, of course; there was nothing Severus could do to keep them safe once they had left Hogwarts. Even under Dumbledore, the balance between protecting the children and preparing them had been precarious; Severus had spent most of his tenure torn between the two by circumstances outside his control.
He frequently wondered when one ceased to keep one's cover and became part of the new regime: ten years later? Twenty? When all hope was gone (he'd never even made it, in that case)?
His presence here tonight could be construed as an attempt to continue the fight on behalf of Albus Dumbledore and The Order of The Phoenix, both sadly defunct. For all his faults, Severus was scrupulously honest with himself most of the time. The real reason was rather closer to his purported errand than he cared to admit.
For all of his convoluted reflections he was still waiting: where, in the name of Merlin's cragged carbuncles, was she?
Hermione Granger was late, and anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with her knew she was never late.
“You forgot the kettle?” Hermione thought she could be forgiven if she sounded a bit petulant. She had spent hours on a broom, never her favourite mode of transport in the first place, and she was chilled to the bone.
Ordinarily, Severus could be relied upon to produce a steaming cup of tea, a rare luxury to someone on the run. Today, he had apparently decided he had better things to do.
“Pardon me for according more importance to my tasks as Headmaster than planning your evening cuppa.” He looked down at her, impeccably clad in the flowing black robes she remembered from her very first day at Hogwarts, back when every detail in the scene unfolding now would have been Hermione's idea of a poor joke rather than her future.
The bastard had probably had a bath in the last week as well, unlike Hermione.
“Unlike you, I don't have house-elves at my beck and call.” She sidled over to the fireplace, almost blocking it in her attempt to defrost her numb fingers. About to continue grumbling, she bit her tongue – they weren't here to argue.
“Do go on – to what do I owe this unusual reticence?” Snape, of course, could never let sleeping dragons lie.
“I was about to point out that not all of us can sit out the war at Hogwarts, with a fire roaring next to your cosy bed. I did realise it was unfair.” It felt good saying it, however, and thanks to Snape she didn't need to feel bad about it either.
“A mere four consecutive decades of spying have naturally left me unable to appreciate the exigencies of fieldwork.” The sneer on his face was magnified by the flickering light of the fire.
“A simple 'Sorry, I'll bring it the next time' would do.” Sometimes, Hermione wished things could just be nice and simple. Then she remembered she had more important things to worry about. “Any news?”
“About what?” Snape swivelled around on the spot, his robes still billowing half a second after he had come to rest again. In his cupped hands he was holding the cup of tea Hermione had imagined to keep her going for the last forty miles on the broom.
“Where did you get that?” She almost snatched the cup out of his hands, holding it up to her chin to feel the rising heat.
“I am a wizard.”
Hermione's instinctive response, involving the Principal Exceptions to Gamp's Law, fluttered and died as she took in the forbidding expression on his face. She knew it well; it always seemed to make an appearance when he did something nice. If Severus Snape would rather have his hair shaved off than have it acknowledged that he occasionally behaved like a normal person, that was fine with her.
“Seeing as you are also an important public figure, I'll ask again: what news have you got?” She almost scalded herself on the first sip, and it burnt a hot path all the way down her throat. It was heaven.
“Yaxley's retirement from the Ministry is imminent. His successor is not yet announced, but the Crups on the street know it's going to be Weasley.”
Hermione perked up. “Percy? That's great news!”
“Hardly. As Head of Magical Law Enforcement, he will be under increased scrutiny. He is of vastly more use to you as an anonymous Undersecretary, attracting little attention except from inside the Ministry.” Merlin knew how Weasley had made it as far as he had; Severus didn't expect him to last a month in his new post.
“We'd better strike quickly, then.” Hermione's optimism was mostly intended to annoy Snape; more than five years after Harry had been struck down by Nagini in the Battle of Hogwarts, they weren't any closer to bringing Voldemort down now than they had been then.
As far as they knew ('they' being the survivors of the Hogwarts defenders: a mix of DA members, Order fighters and others who had been left no choice other than keep on fighting), Voldemort had refrained from creating more Horcruxes, but he kept Nagini under constant watch, confining the snake to an underground palace built for the purpose.
Fleur and Neville had spent the last three years digging a non-magical tunnel to get in, but as their target wriggled and squirmed, presumably moving in concert with Nagini, progress was slow. They had other avenues of attack, but they all relied on Voldemort coming into the open. He hadn't shown his face in public in years.
The insurgents' biggest asset was five foot, eleven inches of eloquent but wordless disapproval next to Hermione.
No one knew how close Snape had been to dying when a victorious Voldemort had dispatched Lucius Malfoy to see if the Headmaster was still breathing. He had been, just about, and somehow he had survived by prescribing his own Potions, brewed by Narcissa Malfoy, who apparently had been one of Horace Slughorn's favourites.
Snape had returned to his post, neglecting to mention who he really had been fighting for all that time, getting the shock of his life when Hermione tumbled out up in his fireplace a month later. It was the only time she had ever seen him lost for words.
It didn't last long – in-between his diatribes on her stupidity appearing at Hogwarts and bitter complaints that not even his dying thoughts had been left private (Hermione refused to feel bad for that one; it had been Professor McGonagall who had found the Pensieve full of memories as she prepared to evacuate the castle), he also castigated Hermione for not realising that Dumbledore had intended to let Harry die all along.
That was too much, even for someone inclined to turn him into a surly hero. “And what do you expect I would have done, if I had known?” she snapped.
“To come up with a plan, Miss Granger – wasn't that why you came along, to provide the boy with some brains?” Snape looked like he wanted to bite his own tongue off when he realised what he had said – apparently even a backhanded compliment was too generous for him.
“Should I have told him to run, then? You mustn't have known Harry at all, if you think there was any way he wasn't going to confront Vol- that bastard once he knew he could put an end to it.” She brushed a tear away – thinking about Harry going off alone always broke through her carefully constructed defences. “I would have gone with him, but I could as soon have made the sun rise in the west as I could have persuaded Harry not to go.”
“Be that as it may –“
A rising tide of annoyance pushed Hermione's grief aside. “I believe this is where you apologise, rather than continue digging yourself deeper into the hole.”
“Really, Miss Granger? If defeat has turned you delusional, I don't think there is any point to our little chat.” Snape spat out the last word as if it had offended him personally.
“No point at all, if all you care about is the past.”
“Everything I care about is in the past.” The shadows in the corners of the room seem to draw closer around Snape, like a cloak of darkness embracing him.
“Why are you still here, then?”
That brought him up short. “What do you mean?”
Hermione took a small amount of vicious pleasure in spelling it out for him. “If you really didn't care about anything, Hogwarts is surely the last place you would be. Are you trying to tell me you wouldn't have been able to come up with a way of slipping away quietly, letting your Dark Lord believe you were dead?”
“The Dark Lord is not easily deceived.“
“You managed to do it for almost as long as I've been alive – I'm pretty sure you would have found a way.”
“While your faith in my abilities is touching, I fail to see how it is relevant.”
“Do you? If you didn't want to be here, you would have slipped away and let everyone believe you were dead. Instead, you choose to remain – that's a declaration the war isn't over, if I ever saw one.” Matching glare for glare, she tried to read the blackness in his eyes, but Snape gave nothing away.
“Bravo, Miss Granger,” a familiar voice said, and Hermione turned around towards it so fast she almost lost her balance. She had to grab on to Snape's desk as she faced the portrait of Dumbledore, smiling down at her just like she remembered.
“Oh, shut up!” Snape told him at the same time as Hermione found her tongue again.
“I'm surprised you didn't foresee this, seeing as you seemed to have everything else planned out. Did it ever occur to you that sharing information rather than hiding it would have been a better idea?”
There was sadness in his painted blue eyes as he looked down at her. “Frequently, my dear. Alas, by then it was much too late.”
“Don't waste your time arguing with a charmed canvas and some pigment,” Snape cut in.
“Who should I be arguing with, then – you?”
“The current situation is beyond the stage where arguing would make any difference.”
“Exactly,” Hermione agreed. “That's why I've come here to establish a new line of communication between you and what remains of the Order of the Phoenix.”
Snape cast a sideways glance at Dumbledore, as if he were challenging him to interrupt again, but the portrait remained silent. “While the invitation certainly is flattering, the fact that my self-appointed contact has not got as much as a N.E.W.T. to her name fails to inspire me with confidence.”
Hermione wished she could arch one eyebrow like Snape; she had to settle for a less dignified eye roll. “Yeah, those N.E.W.T.s would have made all the difference: if only I'd passed Charms, I would have taken down Bellatrix before Mrs Weasley did.”
“Run, Miss Granger. Run while you still can, and hide in the Muggle world. You have your whole life ahead of you – don't waste it on a war you've already lost.” It was probably intended to be the kindest thing he had ever said to her.
“I'm not running, for the same reason you're still here.” Hermione had committed herself years ago, perhaps even from the moment she had stepped onto the Hogwarts Express with her head crammed full of book-learning and an anxiously beating heart.
“As usual, your impertinence is only rivalled by your breathtaking presumption.” His face was expressionless, unless you counted the sneer.
“If you didn't care what became of the students, you wouldn't be here. Save your put-downs for them instead, and listen to me.” It had not escaped Hermione's notice that he hadn't ordered her to leave (yet). From Snape, it was as good as a gold-plated invitation. “I imagine you're aware the survivors have gathered together?”
“How accommodating – the inevitable attack will be much more efficient this way.” He didn't ask who had survived, which told its own story. Hermione had been present when Professor McGonagall found out Snape had survived. She had been speechless for several minutes, her hands shaking violently as she clung to Fleur Weasley muttering something about 'the poor, poor boy'. Hermione would be very much surprised if Minerva McGonagall's regard was entirely one-sided.
“Don't worry – we're sufficiently protected to withstand even a giant attack. That's not what I need to talk to you about.”
“To what do I owe the pleasure of your sustained intrusion, then?”
“We will keep on fighting.” The decision had been made as soon as the wards had been set up and enough people could be spared from guard duty to talk strategy. It had been almost unanimous; anyone who didn't agree had left quickly afterwards, fleeing to France and further afield.
People still kept pouring into the camp, found by the Order's response to the Snatchers and advertisements in Muggle newspapers. After a year on the run, being surrounded by fellow fighters should have made Hermione happier than it did.
She kept seeing the missing faces, the empty places around the fire.
Ron wasn't much help – Hermione should have known better than hoping they could help each other holding it together. He escaped the roaring loneliness that came with being just two when there should have been three by pretending he was a Weasley first and foremost. Hermione barely got to talk to him without him being attached by one of his surviving siblings.
Hermione had never felt so alone before, despite being joined by others whose families either were dead, missing or safely in hiding.
She had volunteered to contact Snape so quickly Neville only had time to raise his hand to his ear, where it hovered uncertainly for a moment before he took it down again. Not everyone accepted her assignment so quickly, however.
“Why are you sending her?” Tracey Davis had ended up on the improvised leadership council by virtue of being the first Slytherin in the camp. Once she had pointed out that members of her house most likely had no means of contacting the opposition even if they were fighting against Voldemort, she had been joined by a trickle of others. “If there is anyone Headmaster Snape can't stand, it's Granger.”
“He will speak to her, Miss Davis. Rest assured.” Professor McGonagall was one of the select few who were privy to the details of the Horcrux hunt. Hermione had believed her at the time, but now she was uneasily aware that Snape had shared no useful information whatsoever so far.
“How will you keep on fighting, precisely?” He paced from one end of the room to another, robes swishing like they used to do in Potions when he got particularly agitated. “You have no supplies, a few hundred fighters at most and far too many dependents. The Dark Lord is searching the country to find you, and when he does –“
“He won't.” Hermione looked him in the eyes, knowing he wouldn't believe her but making the attempt anyway. “We will continue to fight the only way that we can win: by destroying the last remaining Horcrux and then take him down.”
Snape stopped dead in front of the window, his dark head contrasting against the soft sunlight seeping through the glass. “Horcruxes?” he whispered. “More than one?”
“Six have been destroyed. One,” Hermione swallowed, staring intently at the fireplace where some pieces of coal had been dislodged by her arrival, ”was Harry.”
“The boy.” He merely breathed the words, and Hermione kept her eyes away. “And the last one?” he asked eventually, in the voice she remembered from the Potions classroom.
“It's Nagini. Which is where you come in.”
There was a long pause. “I would appreciate if you refrain from treading soot into the carpet in the future; the house-elves do have tasks other than cleaning up after careless visitors.”
With Snape, all one needed to know lay in what he didn't say.
Hermione only visited his study twice after that; Snape came up with The Three Broomsticks scheme instead, to reduce the risks of relying on the heavily monitored Floo network, and house-elves cleaning up after her had become a distant memory.
It had seemed like a simple plan in the beginning: kill Nagini and then her master, followed by a general uprising. Unfortunately, they never got past the first part. Although Voldemort must have realised his Horcruxes were under attack, he didn't seem to have created more of them. Perhaps the unpredictability of splitting his soul in even more pieces frightened him.
Hermione didn't care; in retrospect, it might have been a more sensible plan to bring Voldemort down first and then track down the bloody Horcruxes at their leisure. Admittedly, Voldemort would have retreated to the shadows again, biding his time to return, but even the Ministry of Magic would surely have learnt the lesson the second time around. The Dark Lord skulking without a body was infinitely preferable to him actually running the country, mercilessly hunting down his enemies while they were trying to destroy him.
At the moment, however, their only chance to get to either Voldemort and Nagini was through Snape – but they could only use him once. Neither of the options were appealing: attack Voldemort, and Nagini would escape through his master's intricate web of detection spells – or bring Nagini down, and Voldemort would know Snape for a traitor.
Which was why they were still trudging along with option C, despite it taking Neville and Fleur years to advance even a few yards.
“Alas, there is only one likely outcome in a fight between Longbottom and Nagini – you could at least pretend to take the scheme seriously and assign an adult wizard to it.” Snape looked like she had been caught passing notes in class.
Hermione didn't bother pointing out that Neville had been of age since he had escaped from Hogwarts; some subjects were best avoided with Snape. “Fleur Weasley used to be a Curse-Breaker in Gringotts. Or is a witch not enough for you?”
“Kindly refrain from endowing me with outdated Muggle prejudices. Mrs Weasley is... acceptable.”
“Oh, for the love of Merlin,” Hermione mumbled. Apparently, outdated Muggle stereotypes were partly accurate – she only wished it hadn't been true in the one area where Severus Snape's opinion was likely to overlap with Ronald Weasley's.
Predictably, Snape ignored her. “The Dark Lord is currently in Upper Flagley, visiting his faithful subjects. It is possible that Longbottom and Mrs Weasley may be marginally more successful in his absence.”
“No doubt they will be fuelled by enthusiasm, should they hear of your ringing endorsement.”
“One would think the opportunity to rid the world of a delusional tyrant who has long overstayed his welcome would be sufficient motivation.”
Hermione was almost certain the glint in his dark eyes meant that he was joking. “It gets old, you know: save the world, bring freedom to the people, a new dawn, etc. etc. Maybe if you promised them you'd actually give them a compliment if they succeed, they might actually do it?”
His eyebrows went up and up, and Hermione was cringing in embarrassment of having misread him so. “Hardly. If I believe that would work, I would have praised Longbottom to the skies years ago. Cauldrons aren't cheap, you know.”