In this chapter: Hermione flees, Snape pursues, and the entire future of the resistance depends on what happens next.
**The Bloody Stare of Mars
Snape wouldn't tell Voldemort. He wouldn't.
The thought flashed through Hermione's mind as though it were a fact true, and tested, and sure. She knew that part of her wanted to believe that, despite everything.
However, the rest of her her body frozen painfully in place by a spell, her face stinging from the blows he'd delivered knew better. Maybe, when she was younger, she could have believed that the worst wasn't upon them. But she had far too deep an acquaintance with the worst-case scenario by now.
Snape was backing away from her, his face twisted into something halfway between a grimace and a sneer. Hermione knew Death Eater tactics enough to realize that he wasn't supposed to murder her; that honor would rightfully be reserved for Lord Voldemort himself.
She gasped. Voldemort could read minds, and if he read her mind maybe he already knew about Harry, but not about Ron, or Firenze, or the break from Tartrosgate. Whatever else happened, Hermione could not bear the thought that her last act might be to betray her friends.
Well, she thought, struggling against the tears welling in her eyes there's only way to prevent Voldemort from getting to you.
Good thing Snape never followed Death Eater tactics exactly.
"If I'm going to die," she said, coldly as she could manage with her voice shaking, "then I might as well tell you what I really think of you. Haven't anything else to lose, have I?"
"You do not want the answer to that question," Snape growled. His hands clenched the back of a chair, his knuckles already white.
"I wasn't a spy, not at first," she said. Why lie, when the truth would do the work for her? "I couldn't bring myself to go to bed with you, not for secrets, not to stop the potion, not for anything."
"You are a liar. You are a spy." His face was wild now, his eyes glittering feverishly in the light of his burning papers. Was he angry enough to kill her? Not yet, Hermione thought desperately, not yet.
But one more push would do it.
"Once I'd forced myself to bear it, I thought of anyone else in bed, anything else anything so that I didn't have to think about the fact that you were inside me. I hated it. I hated YOU."
"Silence!" Snape stalked toward her, his wand again at the ready. Avada Kedavra, Hermione thought in mingled relief and terror. One flash of green, and it will all be over, all over, all over --
Hermione stood still, not breathing. She realized three things: She was still alive, the light that had flashed was blue instead of green, and Snape instead of looking outraged was wavering on his feet, then slumping, slowly, to the ground.
Behind Snape stood Binks, blinking her big eyes, wringing her tea-cozy garment in her hands.
"Binks?" Hermione whispered. "You you saved me?"
"Binks listens to mistress of the house, same as master," the house-elf said. She then waved her little hands, and Hermione felt the bonds of the paralyzing spell fade, then vanish.
She sank to her knees, ignoring Snape's limp form on the floor. "You mean you're loyal to the heads of the household, but when those loyalties are divided, you can choose sides? And you chose to help me?"
Binks looked more fretful than moved, but she finally said, "Mistress is always nice to Binks. And and Mistress is Harry Potter's friend."
Hermione grabbed the house-elf and hugged her tightly. Naturally, she didn't hug Hermione back; that wasn't how house-elves were, was it? But it just went to show that a little bit of decency could do miracles she couldn't WAIT to tell Ron
"Ron!" she gasped. "Oh, Binks, I have to go. I have to go right away. I I won't be back " Quickly, she pulled off one of her shoes, then her sock, and held the sock out to the house-elf. "You needn't take it if you don't want to. But I think you better had, before he wakes up. Come with me, if you like. We could use you."
Nodding wearily, Binks took the sock and trudged toward the door. Hermione pulled her shoe back on, mentally calculating the time it would take her to grab her things upstairs not long, but not worth it, and besides, she didn't need the photos any longer; she'd have the real thing again, and soon.
As she got to her feet, Hermione glanced down again at Snape, still prostrate on the floor. His face was free of anger or outraged pride; he looked precisely as he did when he was asleep. They'd slept together actually slept so few nights; for all her still-simmering anger, Hermione knew that some of what she'd shouted at him moments before had been a lie.
The revulsion she'd felt as she'd spoken had been not for Snape himself, but for the fact that, by the end, she had hated him no longer.
Then she remembered Harry, and the hatred seized her again, hotter than before. Snape had known Harry was alive, he had KNOWN there was hope, but he'd kept working for Voldemort anyway, and he'd let Hermione help create a potion that might kill Harry for real this time. She bit her lip and somehow restrained herself from kicking Snape's inert body.
Binks' spell would have Stunned him deeply, but Snape would inevitably awaken, and upon awakening, report them. Hermione had enough of a head for tactics to know that the logical thing to do was kill him. She had no intention of using an Unforgivable Curse, but during the war she'd learned that knives worked perfectly well.
For some reason, she found herself thinking of "Twelfth Night," of the beautiful actress in her disguise. Why that memory now?
Hermione did not know, and did not care. But she left Snape unharmed as she hurried away, pausing only to grab a single flagon the potion for her counter-spell.
She was Harry's only chance.
After curfew, while the Dementors patrolled, Voldemort's London took on an eerie cast, darker than the night sky above it.
Hermione ran as quickly as she could, Binks tripping along nimbly at her side, trying hard not to look into any of the many shadows that surrounded them. If only they hadn't dismantled the Muggle power plants; if only Apparating weren't so bloody loud! "My kingdom for a broomstick!" she gasped, joking to herself. Binks paid her no mind.
And that conjured up memories of Snape reading Shakespeare, his voice soft as they sat together in front of the fire. Would her mind ever be free of him?
Time to worry about that, she decided, when I find out if I'm going to live long enough to remember any of this.
She forced herself to slow down as she approached Tartrosgate; a running woman would attract more attention than one walking, and her shoes made a terrible racket against the pavement, and oh, God, her side was hurting. Hermione had been exhausted, from sleeplessness and worry, even before she began wrecking Snape's workshop. Now she felt weak and wrung-out, but there was no time for it. Later. She would have all the time in the world to rest later, one way or another.
This wasn't a visiting night at Tartrosgate; the ragged crowds that Hermione was used to seeing there were absent, as was the banshee. In fact, she could see no guards at all only the Phlegathon Barrier kept the prisoners in, but then, that was all that had ever been necessary. She could see it vividly, a ribbon of liquid fire, lacing its way around the camp, its red-gold light the only illumination for perhaps a mile around.
"Come on, Binks," Hermione murmured, more to shore up her own confidence. They made their way closer and closer, stepping off the pavement into the soft grasses around Tartrosgate. This had been a park, once; still standing were many trees and hedges behind which Dementors could easily be hiding. But if they'd seen her, Hermione rationalized, surely they would have stopped her by now. As she reached the very brink of Tartrosgate, she dropped to her knees, and even tiny Binks crouched low. To her dismay, she realized that, on a non-visiting night, none of the prisoners came very close to the Phlegathon Barrier. Understandable, she thought, but damned inconvenient. What magic spell could get their attention without alerting the guards?
Oh, blast magic, she thought, picking up a rock and chucking it into Tartrosgate as hard as she could.
The first three rocks landed soundlessly, probably in the grass, but the fourth rock thwacked satisfyingly against some sort of tree or pole. Sure enough, a few moments later she heard motion, then saw Firenze stepping closer to the barrier. "Hermione," he said, unsurprised. "You are expected."
"Right, thanks, nice to see you too," Hermione said, thumping her fingers nervously against the ground. "We've got trouble. Snape knows about me that I'm a spy, I mean and Voldemort knows about Harry, and they're going to use the locator spell to go after Harry soon. I think it was to be tomorrow night, but now that I've gotten away Firenze, it could be any time, any hour now "
For once, thankfully, the centaur's attention was focused on the here and now. "We must act to protect Harry Potter, and quickly."
"My point exactly," Hermione said. "But how?"
"We will leave immediately," Firenze said, as majestically as though he could simply step over the Phlegathon Barrier at will. "The planned escape will take place tonight, as soon as all can be alerted. Wait here." He vanished back into the darkness, leaving her no more enlightened and not significantly less scared.
"That wasn't a big help, wasn't it?" Hermione said to Binks, who had to be terrified. Of course, the house-elf looked more annoyed than terrified, with Hermione's sock pulled onto her head as a kind of stocking cap, but Hermione was certain that was just Binks' way of trying to be brave. "I expect we'll know the signal when we see it."
When that signal came, Hermione knew that she would do the only thing she could do: Go to Ron and Remus and help them however she could, the better to get the counter-spell and potion to Harry. Hermione put her hand over the small bag in which she held the precious flagon. Ron would be so proud of her, when she told him about this.
Ron. Memory lanced through her, an icicle through her gut. By now, Remus would have told Ron everything about her and Snape. Ron knew.
Stupid, she thought, to be worrying about that at a time like this. Ron's focused on this escape, and I should be too. I will be. I am.
She heard murmurs and rustling within Tartrosgate, and began to make out shapes within the prison: Dozens of people, she thought no, maybe even a hundred. Instinctively, she crept backward, tugging Binks with her, as the murmuring turned into a low chant:
"Phlegathon phorasus leviosa Phlegathon phorasus leviosa "
To Hermione's horror, it looked as though the Phlegathon Barrier was actually growing filling up its ditch, certain to overflow at any moment. Binks squeaked in dismay and began clambering up the nearby tree. Hermione was about to join her when she realized that the sluggish river of fire wasn't swelling it was rising. Literally rising.
The Phlegathon Barrier began to lift slowly in midair, now a glowing hoop that levitated above the earth, higher and higher every moment. Hermione watched, aghast and amazed, to see the liquid fire still flowing within the energies that now surrounded it.
Oh, God, she realized. The guards, the Dementors they'll all be able to see this, any moment now.
"Go!" a voice shouted, and the prisoners of Tartrosgate ran for freedom.
Ragged crowds stumbled into the now-empty ditch, jumped over it, helped toss each other across. Hermione saw Firenze take a mighty leap with at least four people on his back; when he landed and kept them all on, he immediately started galloping toward the west. Trying very hard not to look at the hoop of liquid fire boiling overhead, Hermione ran forward and helped a few of the weaker prisoners ex-prisoners climb out of the ditch. But no matter how bony they were, how shaky on their feet, each and every one kept going, moving as quickly as they could after Firenze.
She put her hand back in the ditch to pull someone else out without looking to see who, but amid the din, she heard a soft laugh. "You were always just in time for the trouble, weren't you?"
"Remus?" Before Hermione realized it, she was hugging him, feeling the painful jut of his ribs against her body. "That spell the Phlegathon Barrier won't stay up for long "
"More reason to run -- we DON'T want to be there when it comes down!" Remus said, taking off as well. Hermione began running after him, her earlier exhaustion forgotten.
"Where are we going?" she called after Remus. For somebody who had clearly been starving, he was surprisingly fast. She'd have to ask him if that was the lycanthropy. "We're not getting away on foot!"
Remus didn't look backward, but he answered her, "We're going to a Convergence point." Hermione remembered those from her studies; they were places where lines of magical power crossed, amplifying the power of spells. "We should be able to conduct a mass Apparition there."
Mass Apparitions were extraordinarily dangerous, and Hermione opened her mouth to say so then realized that they were running away from a ring of burning fire that was about to collapse, through a forest no doubt about to be filled with Dementors, and compared to all that a Mass Apparition was positively safe.
A scream echoed in the woods, and Hermione saw a red bolt, no doubt from a prison guard's wand. She was certain she saw a shape fall, but nobody stopped running. No time for any more rescues, no time for even a moment's delay.
What if it was Ron? Hermione thought. No, no, I won't think of it. I won't look for him.
But she did grab her wand, and the next time she saw red bolts lance through the air, she pointed in that general direction and cried, "Repulsio!" A screech like a thousand crows split the air, raising the hair on her head and making many of the escapees scream but Hermione knew that at least one fewer Dementor was after them.
Others were casting defensive spells as well, but few and far between it was hard to do while running, in the dark, and with so many people who might trip or stumble and get in the way. More Dementors would be coming, soon. How far, Hermione thought in panic, is this bloody convergence point? I'm not going to make it to Salisbury Hill.
Then she heard Lupin cry out, "Left! Everyone, bear left! You'll sense it soon!"
Behind her, she felt a flare of heat, then an enormous crash that shook the earth and made the sky the brilliant orange of sunrise for a moment. Hermione realized that the Phlegathon Barrier had crashed, and whatever precious secrecy they still had was now gone.
They ran through what had been a Muggle banking district; great stone columns lined the edifices of the buildings, and the enormous windows had almost all their panes cracked or missing. Hermione saw Firenze standing shock still, his riders all of them old or frail clinging to him weakly as he remained motionless. She realized immediately that his magic would stand against the Dementors for the critical moments they'd need to prepare. Sure enough, seconds later, she heard him behind her shouting a Stunning Spell.
The crows shrieked again, the noise of it even more terrible echoing against stone. Firenze cried, "They cannot find us for ten minutes. After that, I can do no more."
Hermione felt it as warmth first, so tangible that she turned her head, looking for the fire. Then she realized that it was more than warmth it was strength, and surety, and power, a shot of good whiskey, a compass needle pointing north. Everything that was good and right and whole -- "What is this place?" she whispered.
"One of the most powerful convergence points in Britain," Remus said, walking into a small courtyard in what, according to the battered plaque on the wall, had been the Bank of China. He held his hands out over an unimpressive-looking slab of rock beneath a metal grate. "London Stone. The Muggles built around it and forgot it entirely. Fortunately for us, Voldemort hasn't bothered to capitalize on its potential. But we will."
He began working with some of the other witches and wizards, each of them discussing incantations and parameters. Hermione longed to poke her nose in and hear all the details fascinating magic, really but she knew she'd only be in the way. Instead she tugged at the neck of her robes, damp with sweat from her run in the hot summer night. I wonder, she thought as she wandered to the edge of the courtyard, if we're going someplace cool? Please, let Harry be hiding in Norway. Or Switzerland. I hear Iceland's nice.
She stopped, stood perfectly still, not even turning around. In a tiny voice, she said, "Ron?"
And then his arms were around her, and his mouth was on hers, and tears were in her eyes. She couldn't hold him close enough, or kiss him hard enough. It was Ron, her Ron, alive and well and still loving her, despite all the years, despite Snape, despite Voldemort, and to hell with them all. Nothing else mattered, nobody else, just this moment, when Hermione was finally kissing Ron again.
When their mouths parted, Ron whispered, "I've waited too long for that."
"Oh, God, me too. I love you, Ron." Their lips were still just inches apart, and she tilted her face up for another kiss, but he took her face in his hands and looked serious.
"I love you too," he said. "You should know nothing could change that, not ever. What happened with Snape " It hurt him to say it, Hermione saw, and that knowledge cut her deeply not because of Ron, but for him. "You shouldn't have been scared to tell me, okay? I understand. I hate it, but you can't have thought Hermione, I'd never blame you for that, not for being brave and doing what you thought you had to do."
She could only stare at him. "I'm glad you understand but "
The only way to say it was to blurt it out: "You don't sound much like the boy I used to know."
"I don't know if I am much like him," Ron admitted. "The last couple of years, I've found out sometimes you have to make hard choices. Sometimes hard choices are all you've got left."
Hermione rested her head against Ron's chest, comforting him for whatever past pain he was remembering. She'd envisioned him tending to Harry all this time, but Ron's life had taken as many strange paths as her own. She had no idea what he'd been through no idea who he was, now. But she was willing to find out. "I can't believe I spent all that time worrying about whether you'd be mad."
Ron's hands tightened against her back. "I'm mad as hell. But not at you at Snape, that lousy, cowardly, vicious "
"Cowardly, Mr. Weasley?"
Hermione spun around, gasping in horror just as Ron cursed under his breath. Walking up the steps of the bank was Snape, clad in black robes, a sardonic sneer on his face. Snape said coolly, "I hardly think a coward would make his appearance here and now, do you?"
He stepped closer, his eyes boring into Hermione's, as he added, "And yet, here I am."
They stared at him, two perfect masks of complete terror, and Severus allowed himself to relish the sight of it. If he had to look at them Hermione in Ron Weasley's arms, the two of them celebrating her escape from him Severus preferred to look at them scared out of their juvenile wits.
It was Ron who spoke first. "How did you find us?"
"Only you, Mr. Weasley, could ask that question of someone who has spent the past several months perfecting a potion to empower a locator spell." Severus raised one eyebrow. Given the evidence, he ought to have known that Hermione wasn't attracted to intelligence. The boy made a move for his wand, but Severus had his ready and held it aloft. "This is not the time nor the place for a duel, boy."
"What do you want?" Hermione said. She, at least, had regained her composure.
What did he want? Severus knew he could only discover the truth by asking one person who was not standing before him. He allowed every bit of contempt to resound in his voice as he said, "Let me speak to Remus Lupin."
They stood still for a moment; then Hermione turned and said, calmly, "Ron, go get Remus."
"Hermione, no! What if Snape calls out a pack of Dementors?"
"If he were going to do that, he would have done it before we ever saw him," Hermione said, displaying the first evidence Severus had had all night that her judgment hadn't entirely deserted her. "It's Ron, I think it's all right. Just get Remus, quickly."
Ron looked as though he would rather tackle Severus, an eventuality for which Severus was fully prepared but he swore under his breath and then ran back into the ragged crowd. Were these all prisoners of Tartrosgate? Severus had never quite realized just how many there were.
"Tell me the truth when did you know about Harry?" Hermione said. Her careful control, her drawn face, and her wounded eyes were all so familiar. Severus tried to place the memory, then realized he was recalling the day she'd come to him and asked for work. Her slim hand placing her c.v. in his the image stung.
"Tonight," Severus replied. "I only realized tonight. Something the Dark Lord said yesterday led me to consider the facts in a different way, and then I hit upon the solution." He cocked his head. "When did you realize that I didn't always know about Harry?"
"Just now. When you didn't show up with a pack of Dementors." Hermione did not apologize for her mistake. Just as well, Severus decided; if apologies began between the two of them, he suspected they would go on for far too long. As it was, he could see the faint bruises on her cheek that his hand had left, and he did not need to hear either excuses for her sins or blame for his own. "Why did you threaten to tell Voldemort, before?"
The painful truth slipped slowly from Severus, but he forced his way through it. "Because I was considering telling him."
A man's voice said, "That surprises me more than anything else, really." Severus blinked; it was difficult to recognize this bony wraith as Remus Lupin. No trace of the boy he'd been remained, save for the wry curve of his smile. "Severus, I've considered you an ally at times, written you off as a traitor at others, but I always thought you knew your own mind."
"For the first time in your life, you have given me too much credit," Severus replied, studiously focusing on Remus, the better to ignore Ron gathering Hermione in his arms again. "I take it that this is why no one from the Order ever contacted me about Harry Potter."
Remus folded his arms. "Nobody in the Order ever attended Voldemort's celebration banquets after Dumbledore's death."
"Of course I kept myself alive!" Severus snapped. "Should I have died for a cause I thought was already dead?"
"That's arguable," Remus said. "But you're here, and you didn't come with guards, so I take it that means you came to help. Good. I can use it."
Ron's mouth gaped open. "Professor Lupin are you mad? You're not going to TRUST him?"
"Maybe he'll betray me," Remus replied, so casually as to defy belief. "But he won't have the opportunity until the rest of you are gone, and after that, I'm willing to take my chances."
"You might be," Ron said, shaking his head as he stepped forward. "But I'm not."
"Ron, no." Hermione touched Ron's shoulders, just with two fingers, but it was enough to stop him. Severus finally looked back into her face as she said, "It's all right. We can trust him."
Severus turned his head away, though he could not have said whether it was to stop seeing her or to prevent them from seeing him. Remus quickly said, "The others have the Mass Apparition almost ready. Severus and I will stay behind and Obfuscate where you went."
Hermione said, "But how will you get away?"
"We'll do our best," Remus said, which Severus suspected was Marauder for "I have no plan, and I expect fate to take care of everything for me." Typical. "Hermione, as soon as you get to Harry, perform the counter-spell."
"Immediately," Severus said. The point could not be stressed enough. "After the break from Tartrosgate, Voldemort will soon realize that Potter's forces are regrouping. He will know that I have left his service by morning, at the latest. If we are lucky, he will distrust the potion we made but in this, we cannot afford to rely upon luck."
"Lupin!" It was Firenze whose voice rang out, and Severus blinked in surprise to see him again. The centaur did not acknowledge him; nor did Binks, who had joined the people gathering around. "This is the time!"
Remus glanced at Hermione and Severus, then tugged at Ron. "You, help me get everyone in place. A few of them are Stunned, don't know quite what's going on." Ron did not look thrilled at the idea of leaving Hermione alone with Severus, but he followed Remus.
Severus was not thrilled at being left alone with Hermione. Damn Remus and his misplaced ideas of courtesy.
"I'm sorry," Hermione blurted out. "I said horrible things to you and I lied to you, all this time, and I didn't trust you, and, well, maybe I couldn't trust you right away, but I might have tried to find out if I could, but "
"Stop," Severus said, more harshly than he'd intended. Forcing himself to be steady, he continued, "Hermione, I know what it is to be a spy. I am quite familiar with the compromises one is forced to make. There is no place, in that work, for divided loyalties. Do not apologize for doing your job well."
That should have been all there was to it. The logic was simple, pure, almost mathematical. Generally, Severus found logic comforting and familiar, but tonight it was cold.
Hermione stepped forward and gently laid her hand upon his forearm. She whispered, "Then I'm not sorry for what I did. But Severus I'm still sorry that it hurt you."
She'd never called him by his first name before. He hadn't realized that until this moment. That was the sort of detail that he ought to have noticed, really. "What did you use in the potion for the counter-spell?"
"Oh oh, of course. Topaz, cinnabar, attar of roses " She began ticking off her ingredients; unwillingly, Severus felt his old admiration for her spark anew. They were intelligently chosen, well-designed, precisely what he'd have selected himself.
When she was finished, he said only, "Well done." Hermione gave him a crooked little smile that cut him through to the quick.
"Let's go!" Remus shouted, and Hermione walked, then ran toward the group amassing atop London Stone, straight into Ron Weasley's arms. She didn't look back. Severus stood beside Remus, slightly apart from the rest. "Help me out, will you?" Remus asked, as easily as though they were still schoolboys, trying to reach books on the top shelves of the library.
Severus readied his wand. "On three," he said smoothly. One two
-Hermione's eyes found his, for only an instant
Three. Lightning and thunder, and where the crowd had been, there was only silence and faint trails of smoke coming from London Stone itself. He and Remus stared at one another for an instant, then immediately began chanting the basic Obfuscation spell. Snape might have tried something more complex on his own, but this would no doubt be best for Lupin. The moment they spoke the last words, they turned as one and began to run.
"Don't tell me," Severus gasped as they turned down a back alley. "You have no idea what happens next."
Remus said, "Actually, the underground had heard rumors of a contraband broomstick stash around here. I think it's high time we check that out, donšt you?"
Severus wasn't certain that qualified as a "plan," precisely, but it was better than he'd hoped.
They found the warehouse and the broomsticks pitiful old things, bristles broken and handles worn, nothing more recent than a Cleansweep that had seen better days. Remus beamed as though they'd stumbled into an open vault at Gringott's. "Brilliant. Now just give me a moment."
As Remus slumped against the wall, Severus said, "You'll want us to perform Disillusionment Charms upon each other, I take it."
"I think they could see right through me," Remus said, somehow joking about his bony hands. "For your sake, though, seems like a good idea."
Don't pretend any of this is for my sake, Severus thought sourly. "Where shall we go after that? To protect Harry Potter, I suppose?"
Remus watched him quietly for a moment. "No. He's protected well enough, right now. We need to try and get to Beauxbatons, if we can. They still have a stronghold there. You, ah, don't have to worry."
Severus glared. "We're going to try to get to France on broomsticks that don't look like they could cross the room, and we needn't worry?"
"Oh, no. You can worry about that," Remus replied. "I meant you don't have to, ah, be around her. Them. For a long while, I think."
"That doesn't matter," Severus said. "As long as she is safe, and well the rest does not matter."
He thought he'd said it coolly enough, but Remus, unexpectedly, smiled. "You know, Severus," he said, "for the first time in my life, I actually like you."
"Have I at last won your approval?" Severus replied, raising an eyebrow. "Then it's all been worth it."
"Sarcasm ages you faster than anything, you know," Remus confided. "Adds lines around the eyes."
"Shut up," Severus said, "and pick a broomstick."
Ron's hand was warm around Hermione's as he drew her toward the castle doors. It was a rather ordinary castle, half in ruins, the sort she'd driven past on holiday as a child without a second glance. But it was inhabited now, candles and torches burning brightly in every window, illuminating the gloomy plain. The pre-dawn fog made everything seem soft, almost surreal.
"Nobody ever came out here except Muggle tourists," Ron said. "Dean remembered it from one of his mum's picture-postcards. You'd think it would be grand or at least nice, but it's not, it's all cold and wet, but the towers are brilliant, you'll have to go up and see the view."
"Later," Hermione said, trying to smile. She was exhausted, and felt strangely lulled by the fog and her own sleeplessness. They were just two people in a long column filing into the castle, all of them quiet, as solemn as though they were preparing to walk down the aisle of a cathedral. Ron gave her an uncertain look, and she realized that he was as disoriented as she was.
They went through the hall and walked into a large room, around which candles all floated. A few people who had obviously been there a while Hermione wasn't sure, but she thought she caught a glimpse of Ernie McMillan, and that was definitely Poppy Pomfrey smiled and nodded, greeting the newcomers.
And there, in the center of the room, on a long pallet
"Harry!" Hermione cried out, feeling and reality returning to her in one great crush. She dropped to her knees, Ron following her, until they were both at Harry's side.
"Hermione," Harry said. His voice was deeper than she remembered, his body broader despite his evident illness. His hair had been shorn so close to his scalp that, for the first time, Hermione could see how far back the lightning scar reached; it was uglier than she'd realized. "I never thought I'd see you again."
"Likewise," Hermione managed to say, despite the swelling in her throat. She wanted to kiss him, to kiss Ron, to grab them both and hold them so tightly that nobody could ever, ever make her let them go. But she remembered her task and pulled out a vial. "I need to perform a spell, Harry. So Voldemort can't find you."
Quickly, she dampened her fingers and anointed Harry's forehead and hands; the thick scent of roses mixed with the candle-smoke, making her even more light-headed, but she kept going, chanting out the words. Harry lay there patiently, only blinking a little as the liquid trickled across his temple. At last she whispered, "There. It's done. You're safe."
All around them, people began murmuring, "Safe safe the Dark Lord defeated safe " Hermione saw them all smiling beatifically, and wondered how it was possible to simultaneously feel so comforted and so unnerved.
"About time you two got here," Harry said, taking both her hand and Ron's. He then raised his eyebrows and whispered, "It's been getting just a little, you know HOLY around here."
That's it, Hermione realized. The people in this room they don't just follow him. They worship him.
But Harry wasn't acting like somebody who wanted to be worshipped. He was grinning up at them, glad to see the two people who'd spent more time than anyone else putting him in his place. This, she decided, was a very good thing. "About time we got here," she agreed, squeezing his hand. "And we're not going anywhere else without you."
"Just like it used to be," Harry said, smiling fondly. But he was already drifting back into sleep.
"That's right, mate," Ron said, placing Harry's hand back on the pallet. "Like it used to be."
Hermione felt Harry's hand relax, then stood up and held the vial out to Madame Pomfrey. "The spell I just performed do you remember it?"
"Every word, Miss Granger," Madame Pomfrey said. "Rather ingenious work, I must say."
"It'll be more effective on the castle as a whole if performed by someone who's been here a while," Hermione said. Madame Pomfrey simply nodded and took the vial with her as she headed back out the door. Everyone else seemed content to just watch Harry sleep.
Ron said, "Let's go." As they went up the steps, he muttered, "Harry's right about the whole holy thing. I mean, it's impressive and all, him returning from the dead, or the near-dead I guess, but people here, it's like they don't think of him as a human being. Even kids who were in school with us!"
"They'll calm down," Hermione says. "Once he's got his strength back, we'll get him to play Quidditch, maybe. When they see him complaining about penalty calls, they'll come back down to earth." Ron laughed and slid his arm around her shoulders, but Hermione found herself remembering Luna and all the other Neville-followers, huddled in their basement hideaway. Just the mention of Neville's name had made them come alive with hope and delusion.
Is that what's left for us? Hermione wondered. Is that what I'll have to watch? Or what I'll become?
"Here's my room," Ron said, pushing open a door so strong and new that it had to have been spelled there. "I mean our room, unless you "
"Here's our room," Hermione said. She took both his hands and drew him inside as though she'd been living there for months, as though it were her home. It felt like home.
Had it been like this for them before? Hermione remembered their lovemaking as being exciting and fulfilling, but she didn't remember anything like this kind of intensity the shivers down her spine as they kissed, or the thrill of feeling the bare skin of his back as she pulled off his shirt. She didn't remember him looking down at her naked body like that, the way his hands caressed her and moved her in the ways he wanted her to go. When they were finally together at last, entwined in bed, moving in rhythm, she realized that she was laughing and crying, both at once. Ron just kept kissing her, kept loving her, kept reminding her of everything good about being alive.
By the time the sun had risen, Ron was dozing at her side. She lay her head on the pillow next to his and breathed in the scent of him she'd almost forgotten that, the way he smelled. One more thing that had come back to her just in time. Hermione stretched her legs, arced her feet and prepared to try to sleep, despite her excitement. It had been so long since she'd slept.
The last time she'd slept had been in Snape's bed, with him at her side.
Now, in Harry's fortress, in bed with Ron, Hermione found that she could think about Snape in a way she never had before it was safe, now, to consider him, and who she had been when she was with him. She remembered his anger, his snobbery, his willingness to smile and be friendly with the dregs of the earth, Lucius Malfoy and Voldemort and all the rest.
She remembered "Twelfth Night," and excited conversations about potion theory, and laughing about Muggle money. She remembered leaning her head on his shoulder to cry, and feeling comforted, despite everything.
If things had happened differently, Hermione realized, I might have come to care for him. I would have. More than more than I already did.
But they didn't happen differently, she reminded herself. They happened like this.
Hermione snuggled next to Ron, and fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.
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