The looming towers of Hogwarts signalled the end of her long trip, at last. In another life, Hermione might have set down there and joined the Headmaster in his quarters for a cup of tea and a discussion about Potions. Then again, what would he have wanted with the derided Know-It-All? Perhaps Hermione should count her blessings – there was nothing she could do to change the present, so she may as well enjoy its few perks.
She moved her fingers experimentally, grimacing with the effort of untangling them from the broom handle. They hadn't fallen off, at least, but she rather thought having some feelings in her hands might be beneficial before beginning her landing. Wandless magic was all well and good, but to do some real damage one needed a wand.
A lot of people in Hogsmeade wanted her dead; Hermione had no inclination to make it easy for them. Constant vigilance, and all that.
Besides, another five minutes would teach Severus she kept no one's schedule but her own. She burrowed her chin deep down into her well-worn Gryffindor scarf and settled in for another lap around the village.
“I'll have that ready for you in a minute, sir. Excuse me for a moment.” Rosmerta's hands and smile worked of their own accord, pouring a pint in eight seconds flat while looking like she was pleased to see the rabble Barnaby Selwyn saw fit to run over her inn with. She ducked into the kitchen, passing the surprised chef on her way to the pantry without a word.
There was nothing much in the pantry, other than a window looking out over the yard. For several anxious seconds Rosmerta stood on her tippy toes, trying to catch a glimpse of anything moving out there.
Selwyn had laid his trap well – there was nothing to alert that brazen hussy her chickens finally were coming home to roast.
Rosmerta knew her kind. There was no way she could attract a man like Severus if it hadn't been for the war. The canny Miss Granger knew how to use his divided loyalties against him, enticing him to seek her out for comfort he was too cautious to seek elsewhere.
Sev had always been like that, grateful for the crumbs thrown to him from the table. Rosmerta had known him since he had been a snot-nosed brat with his nose stuck in a book, only rousing himself when Lily Evans bothered to acknowledge his existence.
She had been a tart in a lady's clothing as well, that Evans girl – no one had ever heard of her parents before, and still she had married James Potter. Much good his wealth had done for her, too.
They never bothered to look at the woman serving them, those girls with their bright futures ahead of them. Not like the boys – they noticed her all right. Rosmerta had done well for herself, too, saving enough to buy the best pub in Hogsmeade before she was forty. The prudish Hogwarts girls could turn their noses up at the way she dressed all they wanted; back then, a generous bosom had been enough to pull in the tips like you wouldn't believe.
It had all changed now, of course – Rosmerta had never signed up for running a brothel, and she despised most of her regulars.
Severus was different. He had suffered under the new regime, too. Rosmerta had earned her living watching people for almost four decades, and Sev wasn't as good as he thought at playing the Big Bad Death Eater. The illusion worked on most people, or he would have been long dead, but it was harder to fool someone who had helped cleaning him up after spewing out his innards as a sixteen-year-old, sobbing about Lily Evans.
She had been almost sure about him. Almost.
It wasn't until she had managed to overhear Granger in his chamber she had known for sure – not even Severus knew The Three Broomsticks as well as she did, and he had forgotten to ward the little hole in a floorboard where the knot had fallen out. Lying flat on her back on the ceiling of the lounge with her face full of sawdust, Rosmerta had finally realised what brought Severus Snape to her house of ill repute.
Mudblood Granger, they called her – Public Enemy Number Three, if Rosmerta recalled correctly. The prize money alone would allow her to retire in comfort. No more aching knees masked by a comely smile, no more putting girls half her age up for sale.
That wasn't why she was doing it, though. It was for Severus. He needed a woman of his own age, someone who could look after him and prevent him from throwing his life away on that useless Order.
It was time they all realised that the war had been fought and lost – what better confirmation than the capture of Hermione Granger? Any moment now her broom would approach, and this time all her spells and charms would not be enough to save her.
Rosmerta looked out at the yard one more time before returning to her customers, but it laid empty in the moonlight.
Twelve brittle rings from the clock on the mantlepiece announced that Hermione was late, and Severus almost dared to hope she had never set out at all. Maybe a last-minute mission or a broken broom had confined her to camp and she was safe and sound. He pictured her at the campfire, her hair let down and her body leaning forward, laughing at something one of her friends had said.
It would be for the best if she could remain that way. Far beyond his touch, Hermione would be safe from the plague of destruction Severus eventually brought upon everyone that mattered to him. There were plenty of other ways she could waste her life in this endless war – he would simply request a different liaison, and she would no doubt find a more pleasant way to spend one night per month.
Severus could live with the void she would leave behind – he could live with almost anything, as long as he could believe Hermione was still going to be free in the morning. Then he saw a tiny speck on the moon, getting bigger and bigger with each second. It grew into a witch on a broom, like in the Muggle storybooks Severus had turned his nose up as a child.
Even then, he had been too clever to believe in happy endings.
There was no rustling of robes, no whispers and nudges among the waiting Death Eaters – could they not see her diving headlong into their ambush? In his anguish, he forgot the layers upon layers of protective charms they had woven together to keep their encounters secret. Only Severus could see her being buffeted by the gusts of wind, fighting to stay on course towards her doom.
Being invisible was little protection in the end – Selwyn's trap would slam shut as soon as Hermione reached the yard at The Three Broomsticks.
Severus closed his eyes, seeking strength to endure what was about to unfold before him. If all he could do was to bear witness, then he was determined not to miss anything for Hermione's sake. Yet again, he had picked the wrong option – he bitterly regretted not attacking the ambushers while he had a chance to take some of them down. He had chosen the duty thrust on him by Dumbledore, the duty to protect what innocence his students still retained for a few more years over the inkling of a chance to save Hermione.
If he ever had to choose again between things that mattered to him, Severus would make his choice and then do the opposite.
As he was waiting to see Hermione torn off her broom and savaged by the soldiers of the Dark Lord, Severus couldn't recall ever wanting anything as much as he wanted to find a way through Selwyn's wall of spells to warn her. Not when he was waiting for his Hogwarts letter; not when he finally realised he was losing Lily; not even when he had been willing to sell his increasingly tattered soul for a chance to bring Lily and then her son back from the dead.
With each dip into the abyss of despair he carried the weight of his previous mistakes, and so Hermione's imminent capture was the culmination of the misfortunes Severus Snape had inflicted on those he loved.
The silvery, shimmering shape took him by surprise as it burst out of the tip of his wand. Severus barely had time to notice its shape as it dove out through the window, swimming upwards towards the approaching witch without being impeded by any of Selwyn's carefully crafted wards.
Severus only became aware that his mouth was open as he tensed into a defensive posture – the Death Eaters may be unaware their prey was approaching, but they had certainly noticed his Patronus. Brainless as they were, he didn't expect them to be flummoxed about its origin for more than a few minutes.
They would not take him alive. The Dark Lord liked to play with his prisoners, and Severus had no intention to allow him an opportunity to indulge in his favourite pastime.
As he flexed his fingers, preparing for his last battle, he allowed himself one last look at the silver doe that almost had reached Hermione, still several hundred yards from the bubble of enchantments encasing The Three Broomsticks. She was going to be able to escape back to her camp, and as Severus went to his death he would imagine her living many long, happy years before she finally withered of old age.
What he saw almost made him drop his wand.
“Turn back! It's a trap – turn back! Selwyn's men... – in the yard” Severus' voice sounded as close to panic as she had ever heard him, and although Hermione strained to catch all the words among the howling of the wind, the doe delivered her message with aplomb.
She had known his Patronus form, of course, but seeing it in the flesh pierced her heart in a way that had nothing to do with the danger at hand. Dismissing it – Severus's love for Lily Potter was old news – she made some quick calculations, still hurtling at full speed towards Hogsmeade and The Three Broomsticks. Once she turned, the game would be up for Severus – if it wasn't already.
They would have put wards on the inn, preventing anyone from leaving. Severus would be stuck, and thanks to his method of communication he had practically nailed his colours to the mask. His career as a spy was over and so was his life, unless –
It couldn't possibly work, but unless she wanted to join him so they could die fighting together, Hermione couldn't think of anything else.
If the last years had taught her anything, it was that life was too precious to throw away.
She would do her very best for Severus, and then she would turn back, racing for safety – she harboured no illusions Selwyn would let her go quietly once he realised she had escaped his trap. Making her decision in a split second, she summoned up the memory of Severus turning away to hide a smile at some of her more colourful invectives about Umbridge's latest white paper on Muggle-borns.
Hermione barely had time to notice her otter had been replaced by something feline, as she tossed a coin to it in the air.
It took considerable resolution to force her broom around in a loop, turning her back to Severus, her Patronus and her emergency Portkey which most probably was heading at speed towards the ground. Forcing the creaking wood upwards, Hermione found herself the right way up again, with nothing else to do except race as if the dogs of hell were on her heels.
If half of what she heard about Selwyn was true, it was more a prediction than a metaphor. She squeezed her elbows in, resisting the temptation to turn backwards.
The blurred shape turned out to be a leopard, to Severus' mild surprise – he had been quite sure Hermione's last known Patronus had been an otter.
The shape of the creature mattered little, however – the fact that it was carrying an object in its mouth rendered Severus Snape speechless. The body of a corporeal Patronus was still as substantial as the air it travelled through, for all that it resembled a real animal. Trust Hermione Granger to achieve the impossible, when most witches would have considered even the attempt a futile endeavour.
He had thought he would never hear her voice again. When the leopard ordered him to say “Go”, he obeyed instinctively, beyond surprise as his hoarse whisper activated the Portkey.
It was only as Severus laid gasping on the floor in what appeared to be a ruin overgrown with ivy and other weeds that he realised she must have given him her only means of escape. He had taken it, leaving Hermione to fend off a company of Death Eaters alone on her broom.
Wherever he was, there was moonlight here too, and Severus stared at the sky in a vain attempt to triangulate his position relative to Hogwarts. There were spells for that, but he didn't know what protections were placed on this hideout and was unwilling to use anything but essential magic until he did.
Setting up rudimentary wards occupied his mind for several minutes. After that, all there was to do was to stare at the blank disc of the moon, waiting for a witch who may never come.
Severus started, his eyes flicking wide open and his hands reflexively tightening the grasp on his wand, which had slipped down on his lap. He didn't know how long he had been asleep – the moon seemed to be in the same place it had been before, above the spindly branches of the leafless trees marking the boundary of the abandoned dwelling.
Time moved like quicksand, treacherously fast and slow in turns.
Dawn was creeping across the edge of the skye, and Severus tried to believe it didn't mean anything. Daylight was an arbitrary limit – there was no reason to believe Hermione was more or less likely to be alive simply because the long night almost was over.
Even as Severus tried to reassure himself that Hermione probably had sought shelter somewhere else, reluctant to travel by broom in daylight, there was a rustling sound from his wards being tripped. Hermione tumbled down from her broom in a pile of curly brown hair and ill-fitting clothes, collapsing on the ground.
Severus didn't notice he had flung his wand aside in his haste to get to her until several moments later, when he had satisfied himself that her ice-cold hands and frozen cheeks were nothing worse than the inevitable consequences of flying through gale-force winds in November.
When he came to his senses again, he was sitting on the ground with Hermione wrapped in his arms.
Curiously, she seemed to have no complaints, leaning against his chest while her teeth slowly stopped clattering enough for her to speak. “I guess you'll be joining the Order full-time, now.”
“You shouldn't have wasted your Portkey on me.” Severus wanted to turn her around so he could glare at her properly, but that would mean he had to put an end to the one time he was likely to ever hold Hermione in his arms.
“I don't think it was wasted, do you?”
“I didn't realise your subversion of the laws of magic was premeditated.”
“Sometimes, you just have to take your chances. Come on, don't you want to go inside?” She gently shrugged herself loose of his grip, but grabbed his hand instead to pull him up to standing.
“There is an inside?” Severus looked around, but even in the soft sunlight he could only see the shape of the collapsed walls, covered in ivy.
Hermione did a complicated wand movement, and a snug farmhouse appeared where the ruins had laid. “There should be firewood inside.”
She still hadn't let go of his hand, wrapping her cold fingers around it like it was something precious.
“It didn't occur to you to mention this before?” When in doubt, Severus sought refuge in sarcasm.
“When I was trying to escape from a company of Death Eaters, you mean? I'll be sure to mention it the next time.” She gently tugged him across the threshold, lighting the fire as soon as she stepped inside.
“Are you going to release my hand?”
“No.” Hermione simply tightened her grip. “Is that a problem?”
Severus considered the matter, and decided to go with the flow for once in his life. “No.”
“Great. Now, will you rustle up some food while I make tea,or would you rather do it the other way around?”
Fortified with a cup of tea, Severus tried to come to terms with the fact that his career as a spy was over. The blow was tempered by the fact that he seemed to have become permanently attached to Hermione in the process. She had eventually loosened the grip on his hand, opting instead to sit very close to him in front of the fire.
He had to fight the impulse to bury his face in her hair, but he snuck little whiffs of the scent instead. Hermione smelled of fresh air and snow, and something else that was warm and earthy.
“Now that you're with us, we should have this war wrapped up in no time,” she announced, stirring the fire with her wand.
“I admire your optimism.”
“Between us, with Minerva thrown in for good measure, we should be able to outsmart Tom Marvolo Riddle without too much trouble, don't you think?”
Severus felt the corner of his mouth quiver uncertainly. It wasn't until Hermione turned around to look at him, eyes brimming with merriment, that he realised he was actually smiling.