Hermione's broom was slow at accelerating, and she thought she glimpsed a white face through a window in the yard as she took flight. Rosmerta's quarters were placed directly above the kitchens – it must be her. Somewhat to Hermione's surprise, it had turned out Severus had a bit of a history with the landlady of the Three Broomsticks. Despite that, Hermione was glad of her Disillusionment Charms as she left the inn and Hogsmeade behind.
It made no sense, but Hermione was never happier than after an hour of bandying sarcasm and barbed comments with Snape. Possibly, it was the challenge: one had to pay attention to everything, from the smallest gesture to what he didn't mention, in order to have any chance of figuring out what the man actually meant. She flattered herself she had a pretty good idea of what sort of person he was after several years of unwrapping the hidden clues.
Or she might be completely wrong, and he sniggered at her naivety as soon as she had left. There was no way of knowing, and that made Snape endlessly fascinating.
Well that, and the fact that he had spent most of his life atoning for the misdeeds of his youth, far beyond the point where most people would have resigned themselves to failure. He seemed to regard his position as Headmaster as a penance rather than the reward it had been intended as, and yet did everything within his powers to protect the students he despised.
Thinking about Snape, trying to puzzle him out, had effectively become Hermione's hobby. There were worse things, she reassured herself. Weren’t there?
She was quite careful, however, not to betray to her friends how much of the time she spent in her own head was devoted to a surly man twenty years older than her. Hermione knew very well how it would sound, and long experience had taught her Ron would put it exactly like that.
Minerva McGonagall, who seemed to have her own ways of communicating with her successor, occasionally made Hermione wonder if their esteemed leader was using Occlumency on the sly.
“If we must, we can dispense with your meeting with Severus this month. I'm told the curfew measures in Hogsmeade have been tightened again.”
“It's fine,” Hermione rushed to reassure her. “George's Broom Acceleration Charm gets me through their wards, and once I'm inside the village it never occurs to the patrols to look up.”
It was a challenge to keep her eyes honestly fixed on Minerva's, especially while her uppermost thought was that she couldn't bear going two whole months without seeing Sev– Snape. Hermione almost wilted, but after what seemed an unbearably long time Minerva seemed to take her word for it.
“Good. The leadership council will meet on Thursday. Any luck with the Squib Taskforce?”
Severus decided it was just like Herm– Granger to be late for their subsequent meeting, too. Even as a student, she had excelled at causing maximum anxiety in those tasked with ensuring her safety. There was still a faint scar on his wrist where a violently struggling Mandrake had bit him when he was brewing the Mandrake Restorative Draught that revived her from being Petrified.
Somehow, the thought of a Petrified Hermione didn't seem so bad at the present time. That way, at least he would be able to keep her safe. Once the war was over, he could stew another hundred Mandrakes to bring her back to life – and then? Even at the moment of victory, Hermione was unlikely to fall into his arms. The best Severus could say for himself was that he didn't harbour any delusions his affections were returned.
There was no fool like an old fool, and Severus Snape was perhaps the biggest fool in all of the Dark Lord's realm.
He did in fact have something else to recommend him; the three women he had loved over the course of his misspent life were all infinitely superior to him. The first had been his mother; that the other two both had been brilliant Muggle-borns was a sign that Fate had a sense of humour, after all.
This time, he had thrown a blanket over the whore so he didn't have to look at her; pacing the room, imagining the barbs he would throw at Hermione for keeping him waiting again, was a more effective distraction if he imagined himself alone.
Rosmerta had a pinched look about her face and she had seemed more than usually skittish today, jumping at each door banging as her patrons came and went, but Severus wasn't overly concerned. All it took to overset her these days was yet another levy – the corkage tax had almost brought her to her knees two years ago. Presumably, whatever set her on edge this time was equally humdrum concerns.
Severus knew better than most wizards how real poverty grinds you down, consuming every spark of hope for better things. He didn't think Rosmerta was quite at the breadline, however, so his sympathies were limited.
He cast a glowering look at the kettle, sitting plump and shiny on the dressing table like the embodiment of Severus’ inability to stop thinking about Hermione Granger.
Turning on the spot again, his robes hitting the enormous gilded mirror Rosmerta had picked long before she had been reduced to running a brothel – it ought to be a comfort some of her investment had not been wasted – he was prepared to take another five strides before he had to turn again when a noise in the corridor outside made him stop mid-step.
Severus advanced cautiously, tapping the door with his wand and leaning his ear against it.
“In the name of the Dark Lord, I command you to open this door!” someone bellowed. Severus tightened his grasp on his wand convulsively, until it creaked in protest.
It was flipping cold at two thousand feet, despite three layers of thermal underwear scavenged from expeditions to Muggle shops. Hermione's hands were locked into position, wrapped around the handle of her broom, and she wasn't sure if she was still able to move her fingers.
With any luck they would fall off in front of Snape, and he could entertain himself making sarcastic comments about her ineptitude while he charmed them back on.
She was flying too high to be detected by local wards, and too low to collide with airplanes (even pure-blood supremacists tended to admit being Muggle-born came with some advantages if they had ever been on collision course with a Jumbo-jet). Minerva's concerns about increased security measures in Hogsmeade didn't worry Hermione unduly; her continued existence was a continued sore point with He-Who-Must-Be-Defeated, so visiting the wizarding village was hardly more risky than remaining at their camp.
In fact, her chances of survival probably increased when she joined the presumed loyalist population in Hogsmeade; the patrols didn't even use Unforgivables.
If she could only get there before she froze solid and fell off her broom, she was confident of her chances of surviving the night.
“What's going on?” The occupant of the adjacent room did not seem pleased being interrupted mid-coitus (Severus' charm had removed all Silencing Charms placed on the establishment – with his luck, his neighbour would of course decide to ignore the summons in favour of continuing with his chosen activity).
“None of your business. Sir,” his interlocutor added belatedly, and Severus could have groaned in dismay. It was Selwyn; he'd recognise that lazy drawl anywhere. In addition to being a vicious bastard with an inclination for thuggery his hallowed ancestors would have been aghast at, Selwyn was Head of the Muggle-Born Eradication Task Force. If Selwyn was here –
Severus's fingers twitched with the effort of refraining from warning Hermione. Every instinct screamed that he must contact her now, before it was too late, but any attempt at rational thought told him he must wait to find out more.
“Well, why are you banging down my door, then?” The unknown wizard next door plainly didn't know Selwyn as well as Severus did. He didn't even sound apprehensive.
“We,” Selwyn's voice moved away, as if he had entered quite far into the room, “are in receipt of information that a dangerous fugitive might be visiting the locality.”
“My goodness, really?” The man's voice almost hit a falsetto note in his surprise.
“Yeah. So push off.” There was some further commotion at the other side of the wall, but Severus stopped paying attention as soon as it was clear Selwyn wasn't about to share more information with the civilian.
He dropped his shoulders and cleared his head as best as he could, helped by practice honed by hiding most of what made him Severus before countless meetings with the Dark Lord. When his mind was still, he raised his wand above his head in a circular motion Filius once had taught him, and waited.
Slowly, the walls of the inn paled into nothing – left was only its occupants, obscured by the occasional piece of furniture. He saw at a glance that there were far too many people there – Rosmerta would have been successful beyond her wildest dreams if she could attract a crowd like this on a wet November Tuesday. In every room looking out to the yard, there was a cluster of black robes with silver masks peeping through their hoods gathered around the invisible window. Their wands were pointing to the sky, towards the still invisible Hermione.
Severus felt bile rising in his throat, but swallowed it down until there was no saliva left in his dry mouth.
Lowering his wand abruptly, the charm lifted and the walls slowly shimmered back into place. He didn't need it for the next bit – another piece of complicated wand-waving (taught to him by Albus, this time) left him with a mental map of the wards his fellow Death Eaters had laced their trap with.
Someone spoke in a muffled voice outside his door; had Severus not lifted the Silencing Charms already, he wouldn't even have noticed.
“And this one?”
“Are you mental? That's the Headmaster's room – are you going to butt in while he's getting his jollies, asking if he's hiding Mudblood Granger under the bed?” If Selwyn still feared incurring Severus's displeasure, his cover still held – which begged the question of how he had come by his information.
The answer, while creating a score to be settled in the near future, was not important at the moment. The thick wall of pulsating wards created by Selwyn's troops, encasing the inn like a tightly spun cocoon harbouring a malevolent butterfly of contained violence, consumed all of Severus' attention as he turned his wand this way, then that way, to try to find a weak spot.
There were none; one of Selwyn's more surprising traits were his thoroughness, almost as unexpected as his insistence on always getting his round in.
Unless the strong winds had made Hermione turn back – even as a student, Miss Granger had been as stubborn as a goat, so Severus strongly doubted the elements would be enough to put her off her chosen course – she was heading straight into Selwyn's trap, and there wasn't a thing Severus could do to warn her without blowing his cover. Even then, he would have been hard pressed to find a way, with no way to get through the wards, on his own against more than fifty Death Eaters.
Another man would have beaten his fist bloody against the wall,or screamed and railed against the way he seemed to infect everyone he came close to with his own bad luck.
Severus moved softly towards the window, a dark silhouette against the lit-up yard. Only someone standing right next to him would have noticed the way his hands were shaking, like they were breaking under the strain to remain still.