A/N: I commissioned the cover art from ChioInk (check out their wonderful artwork on Tumblr).
Chiaroscuro (Merriam-Webster) - a : the arrangement or treatment of light and dark parts in a work of art b : the interplay or contrast of dissimilar qualities (as of mood or character) c : the quality of being veiled or partly in shadow
by Calliope Confetti
The following scenes occur concurrently with the actions featured in the chapter "The Silver Doe" in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows…
The wind lashed at Severus, stinging his face as he wound his way through the Forest of Dean. The cape of the hooded traveling cloak he'd donned prior to his departure snapped in the wind and seemed to catch on every rogue branch and bramble; he cursed under his breath as he attempted to disentangle it from the limb of a dead oak that had jutted into his path. The sounds of the forest provided welcome cover for his footsteps crunching through the snow-crusted leaves which blanketed the forest floor.
Without warning, a lightning scream pierced the air, striking him with a paralyzing jolt of fear that electrocuted his nerve-endings and arrested the night. Immediately, his unconscious reached an incontrovertible conclusion—it was the sound of a woman screaming—a thought that triggered an invasive sense of déjà vu that threatened to overwhelm him.
Another haunting scream sent a shiver through the trees, tinkling the icicles that clung to their barren branches, and he could feel his heartbeat throbbing hotly in his ears. A final scream sent fissures through the infinitesimal moment of silence that had preceded it, but further exposure to the sound gave him pause, invoking his rationality—the unknown voice lacked any intonation indicative of human speech, each of its subsequent cries a perfect echo of its first.
As if on cue, the true culprit padded through a skift of snow to cross Severus's path, and he berated himself for his failure to recognize the cry of a red fox, an animal infamous for its disturbing mimicry of a woman's scream. The strangulating hands of fear that had been crushing his throat released their hold, and he heaved a sigh of relief. The air, heavy with frost crystals and cold, felt denser in his lungs now that he could finally breathe again. The sensation that followed the neutralization of the threat proved euphoric yet fleeting, as his brain buzzed with the latent paranoia that formed in its wake and left him feeling exposed, naked as the surrounding trees.
The entire episode had put him on edge and agitated his senses into a heightened state, rendering him hyper-aware of his surroundings. After taking a moment to lean heavily against a tree and compose himself, Severus proceeded to venture deeper into the forest. No longer deafened by fear, he heard the sparse forest chorus start up again—an owl's lone sonata accompanied by the faint rush and crackle of an ice-impeded creek. He found himself in a cluster of evergreens, comprised of trees so dense that the moonlight could hardly penetrate the geometric effect created by their interlocking needles, so he paused for a moment, withdrew his wand, and spoke quietly, "Lumos."
The Dark Mark on Severus's left forearm prickled as if with needles that had first been thrust into a fire, and his anxiety mounted within him—his abrupt and unexplained departure had aroused the suspicions of the Carrow siblings, the deputy headmasters, who resented Severus's high standing among the Death Eaters and who had likely already reported his curious behavior to the Dark Lord in order to gain favor. As Severus maneuvered through the trees, his movements jostled the sword of Gryffindor that he'd sheathed and strapped to his shoulder, hidden by his cloak.
The earthy scent of leaves decaying on the forest floor mingled with that of the freshly snow-laden firs with their bowing boughs, interspersed with piney hints of juniper. On his next breath, Severus caught another note—a telltale wisp of wood-smoke on the wind. Only then, when he knew with certainty that he would soon come upon their campsite, did he mull over the half-formed plan he'd spoken of so confidently to Dumbledore's portrait hours before. Finding a foolproof way to surreptitiously present the sword to Potter had been easy; the boy had a sentimental bent that left him prone to reckless and irrational behavior, so the appearance of a phantom of his mother's Patronus would provoke an overpowering emotional response, one capable of conquering any lingering doubts to ultimately win his trust—mesmerizing him and leaving him powerless to resist the urge to follow after her.
Severus patted his pocket to confirm that the other item Dumbledore had entrusted him with had survived the journey; thankfully, he felt the vial of phoenix tears intact and still stoppered, safe at his side. Initially, he had adamantly refused to fulfill Dumbledore's request for him to personally deliver the vial to its intended recipient to ensure that it made it directly into the right hands—right into the hands of Hermione Granger, that is—and he balked at his insistence that he relay the contents and purpose of said vial to her. But then he uncovered the fact that Dumbledore's "request" was actually an order in polite disguise.
Still, his reluctant acquiescence was the culmination of months of countless heated arguments that went round for round until one of them inevitably reached their breaking or boiling point—almost always Severus, who rivaled Albus in stubbornness but lacked his unparalleled patience and who detested Albus's unwavering belief in the righteousness of his convictions. And while Dumbledore's immortalization in portrait form infuriatingly afforded him all the time in the world to devote to strengthening and reintroducing his argument to wear Severus down, Severus's current position as headmaster and Order spy forced him to attend to a barrage of more pressing concerns.
Severus shook his head at the thought before making a mental inventory of all he knew about Hermione Granger, the insufferable know-it-all who boasted the annoying habit of constantly thrusting her hand in the air, practically waving him down, in response to every question he posed in class, as well as boasting a curiosity with the power to kill countless cats. While sentimentality and emotion crippled Potter, Hermione's unquenchable thirst for knowledge proved to be her greatest weakness—as well as her greatest strength (wit beyond measure…thought Severus, wondering, as he often did, why the girl wasn't sorted into Ravenclaw with others of her ilk). When he remembered the "S.P.E.W." campaign he'd heard students and professors alike sniggering about in the halls and in the staffroom, he reassured himself of the fact that she was unlikely to Avada him at first glance—her compassion for all creatures would benefit him too.
Severus stopped cold and his thoughts trailed off when he spotted the amber glow of an occupied tent between the trees. "Nox!" he spat, which shrouded him in darkness once again. The fire illuminated the clearing and showed Harry sitting silhouetted against the canvas tent like a character in a shadow play.
Correctly intuiting that Hermione had fortified the twosome's camp with as many protective enchantments and repelling charms as she could think of or dream up, he moved carefully about the perimeter of the campsite until he came upon a frozen pond a few miles away. The glassy surface of the ice gleamed with a prismatic sheen in the moonlight. He had hoped for such an ideal hiding place but had feared he may not have one at his disposal.
Severus keenly surveyed his surroundings before furtively unsheathing the sword he'd strapped to his back. The burnished steel of the blade flickered with his reflection as he did so, and for once, he didn't despise his own mirrored image, and he studied his hooded face, cast in shadow, his obsidian eyes flickering back with the moonlight than shined white on the sword. With his teeth, Severus removed his leather glove and then grasped the icy metal of its gilded hilt, smirking smugly at the idea of a Slytherin wielding the legendary Gryffindor treasure. He took a deep breath and gripped the sword, plunging his hand into icy water, which strangely assuaged the pain of the burning mark.
Severus withdrew his hand from the pond and regarded the sword's jeweled hilt as rubies darkened into garnets glinting through the undulating black waters he had disturbed. Muttering a spell, Severus re-froze that portion of the pond, leaving the sword half-obscured by a translucent layer of ice that whitened as the snow continued to fall and skitter across it. He performed a quick drying charm on his numbing hand before re-donning his glove and making his way back toward the clearing where Harry and Hermione had pitched their tent.
Severus performed a complicated revealing charm on the perimeter, which he could distinguish by the way it crackled electrically in such a palpable way that he could feel the static it produced. A rush of spells came to his mind and he struggled to catalogue and remember them all as he began the arduous process of disenchanting each one enough to allow him a small opening in the invisible shield through which to pass undetected. Almost an hour later, he had succeeded, but he knew his spells wouldn't hold for longer than a few hours, so he needed to hurry.
Severus passed through the break he'd created, and walked lightly and tentatively towards the tent. "Expecto Patronum," he whispered, muffling his voice with his gloved hand; his breath dissipated into the thin winter air from between his fingers.
The doe bounded from the tip of his wand, a beautiful silver specter in the darkness. Severus smiled genuinely at her as he willed her to do his bidding by following his plan to reveal the location of the sword to Harry. The doe nodded, as if she understood, before leaping through the forest to the entrance of the tent, leaving long-exposure trails from her hooves. Her ghostly presence sparkled brilliantly in the firelight and she paused while Harry admired her with wonder. When she made as if to depart, Harry scrambled to his feet, "No! Come back!" he called out to her hoarsely.
Holding his breath, Severus hung back on tenterhooks, and he watched Harry follow her with nary a moment's hesitation. Harry's cry had stirred Hermione from a light and restless sleep, and Severus watched her hover at the entrance of the tent; he could read her body language well enough to discern the tension in her rigid stance which revealed that she was a millisecond away from breaking into a sprint to follow after him, but her caution prevailed, and the taut muscles in her back relaxed perceptibly.
Severus swallowed against the anxiety he felt welling inside of him, and as though his will was not his own, he stepped forward and approached her. Seemingly transfixed, Hermione stared in the direction that Harry had disappeared within the maze of trees. Slowly, Severus slunk towards her until he was only about five yards away from her, and he held a trembling, balled up hand to his mouth and cleared his throat audibly. He watched her stiffen instantly and wheel around on her heel, her wand gripped with such force that he thought it might snap in two.
Staring into the darkness, she turned in every direction, her eyes darting over the scene, exhaling short puffs of breath that betrayed her confident fighting stance. Her eyes finally fell on the fixed point in the dark where he stood in shadow, and her eyes narrowed. "Who's there?" she quavered; he understood the reason for her hesitance—anyone who could pass through the tangle of shields she'd thrown up likely had to be a friend. "R-Ron?" she stammered, frightened. Severus's lip curled at the mention of the Weasley boy as he removed his hood and stepped into the pulsing sphere of light cast by the fire.
Stunned, Hermione gaped at him, seemingly rooted to the spot where she stood, "You?!" she snarled, and she lunged at him like she had suddenly broken free from invisible bonds. He kept still and put his hands up in a show of no intent to harm, and she stopped in her tracks when, to her shock and horror and amazement, he purposefully dropped his wand, letting it fall soundlessly into the snow. After a beat of rest, Hermione shook herself; now unfazed by his unexplained disarmament, she rocketed toward him in raw, unbridled anger, battering him with blows from her fists and switching him with her wand, landing its pointed tip dangerously close to his eyes.
"Granger! Granger!" he spat, holding his outstretched arms crossed to attempt to deflect her attacks away from his face.
"'Give me a reason!'" She smiled maniacally, pointing the tip of her wand directly between his eyes. Severus noted something peculiar about her "wand," and upon this forced closer inspection, he realized curiously that she wielded only an innocuous wand-like stick. She noticed him staring at the decoy wand, and she screamed obscenities at him that echoed in the night.
In a panic, Severus grabbed her around the waist and lifted her off the ground, where she flailed at him and tried to bite him until he somehow managed to lock his arms around her shoulders, restraining her arms to her sides, leaving them to struggle and strain against his hold; her "wand" had been dropped in the assault.
"Listen to me, I'm here not as a Death Eater, but as an Order member still—I never defected," Severus hissed.
She writhed against his hold and began to argue, but he silenced her with a wandless spell. Tears of fear and rage welled in her eyes, eyes that irradiated him the hatred they contained.
Changing tactics, Severus sighed, "Miss Granger, listen to me," he repeated firmly, "I know you've had your doubts about me, doubts about whether I'm truly working for the Dark Lord." She shook her head roughly in denial.
"You've had reservations plaguing you, I know," he whispered silkily, and she appeared confused by his softened tone. "You are a smart witch, and even I know you've read and re-read 'Hogwarts: A History' so many times that it far exceeds any semblance of normalcy."
She seemed disarmed by his surprising compliment, an effect he had counted on. "So, I'm sure you know, being as clever as you are, that Hogwarts chooses its Headmaster—the Headmaster cannot force himself on Hogwarts, it will not yield to him, as it is a nearly sentient magical entity."
Searching Hermione's eyes, Severus saw the flicker of recognition that he had sought. "Ah." He lifted his chin in affirmation, "but of course you know that—you've thought about it, endlessly I'll bet, even here in the forest while out on the lam." Severus spoke in a stage whisper, his voice scarily, clinically calm, "You've obsessed over the fact that the headmaster's quarters barred Professor Umbridge's entry, yet I freely occupy those same quarters, a fact which your friends have no doubt informed you of, as they have so often earned the pleasure of visiting me in my office—the headmaster's office, I must reiterate. If the Dark Lord wasn't so impressed with himself and his knowledge and deigned to pick up a book, like you, it may have given me away."
Hermione's eyes widened and she stilled, seemingly waiting for him to continue. "So, now that we have established that Hogwarts chooses its headmaster, then it would follow that, because I was chosen for appointment, there must be a reason—another fact which has given you pause, that has set to work the wheels of your mind—that beautiful mind—and it has revealed other inconsistencies, hasn't it?" She looked away from him, closing her eyes against his words, which he read as another affirmation.
"To not answer is to answer, Miss Granger," he whispered, his lips almost grazing her ear. When she flinched, he came to his senses and backed off—although he loathed to admit it, he was having a perverse sort of fun toying with her, and it felt exhilarating to be doing this off-the-cuff with some success.
"You've wondered why I kept Potter and, by extension, you, alive throughout your formative years before you or I knew the Dark Lord was even alive. Why did he brew Lupin's Wolfsbane? Surely even Dumbledore couldn't have pressured a man under his employ of such questionable repute to brew a potion for a friend of his childhood nemesis?" Severus said softly, self-referentially.
"Furthermore, why would a man in the Dark Lord's employ deliver Potter's coded message to Dumbledore, alerting him to the supposed capture of his Godfather in the Department of Mysteries?" Severus asked rhetorically. Hermione frowned, but she now held his gaze, seemingly captivated in spite of herself.
Noticing this, Snape smiled smugly. "Do I have your attention?" She glared at him; ready with a retort, she opened her mouth before closing it again resignedly when no sound came out, and she remembered his muffling charm remained in force.
"And why on earth would Professor Dumbledore ask for me, holding off Draco, talking him down, until my arrival, only to say 'Severus, please?'" Severus growled, as his anger spiked along with the volume of his voice, his face contorted with rage. Hermione cowed to him as he inadvertently constricted her in his hold. "And afterward, Potter pursued me onto the grounds and attempted to subject me to the soul-damaging and unforgivable Cruciatus, as well as a bevy of other curses, among them ones that I myself created—I only deflected his attacks; I didn't attack him, save for an instance of uncontrolled magic when he called me…never mind that—and all I said was that his life was to be spared 'for the dark lord' not that I couldn't deliver him to the Dark Lord or at least send a few parting curses his way!" Severus finished breathlessly.
The image his words evoked in his mind transported him into the past, to that very moment; in recall, as Bellatrix ignited Hagrid's hut, he felt as if he were choking on the smoke, and he could practically feel the sweltering heat rolling from the flames that engulfed the house as he roared at Potter above the din of the hellish scene unfolding behind him. When he snapped out of the scene, his eyes re-focused on Hermione, who was shaking and cowering to him, no longer attempting to free herself, and he saw her crying—a discovery that left him feeling the weight of palpable shame sink his stomach, knowing he'd gone too far.
"I'm sorry," he whispered, his sincerity and shock clear in his stark tone. He loosened his grip around her, yet she still didn't struggle for her freedom. Perplexed, he lowered her towards the ground, where she refused to put her feet under her until she was close enough to the snow that she could slide out of grasp and onto the cold ground. She sobbed, her tears falling and melting the snow.
Severus's shame intensified when he realized they were tears of relief as well as sorrow—she had thought he was going to hurt her or rape her or worse. Lifting the muffling charm with a wave of his hand, Severus hung his head, slouching as he dropped to his knees on the snow beside her. "I wasn't going to cause you any harm," he said softly.
"Why should I believe you? Why should I take your word for any of this?" she cried sharply.
Severus cocked his head thoughtfully for a moment, "Well," he began, pausing as he parsed over his words, "have you not had those doubts, those thoughts…about me?"
Hermione sniffled, nodding as she spoke, "Yes, every single one, and more than that. Why do you think I didn't Avada you as soon as I realized it was you under that cloak?"
You mean other than the fact that the only weapon you have to speak of is a stick? thought Severus, but he decided to humor her. Unwittingly, he smiled. "Because your curiosity as to why I was standing there overruled your good sense. And I was hoping your compassion for magical creatures extended beyond house-elves to cover surly potions professors alike," he offered lightly.
Hermione snorted and laughed, before covering her mouth in surprise, realizing how inappropriate laughing would be under the circumstances. She cleared her throat, injecting seriousness into her tone. "Your first guess was correct—if you would've banked on the second one being true I think you would've found yourself sorely wrong—and you certainly wouldn't be here talking with me now."
Severus smirked appreciatively at the ire behind her jab and her quick wit. Hermione saw this and averted her eyes shyly. "I have so many questions," she braved hopefully.
"Knowing you, I'd advise you to pare them down to the ones giving you the most pause," he replied, still smirking.
She glared at him. "Well," she stumbled over her words when she realized he was correct—the number of questions she had was staggering. She selected the question that had bothered her most. "Why did you kill professor Dumbledore?"
Somehow intuiting that this would be the first question to pass her lips, Severus sighed. "Well," Severus began, before closing his mouth and reminding himself that he needed to appeal to Hermione's logic—he must avoid making any justifications. "Because he asked me to," Snape said simply, waving his hand dismissively when he saw Hermione attempting to interrupt. "Because, Miss Granger, Albus had made the mistake of attempting to wear Marvolo Gaunt's ring."
Hermione's eyes widened and he recognized her eager expression as the look she donned each time her hand inevitably shot into the air in his class. "Yes, which as you now know, was a Horcrux—one which contained a powerful and ultimately fatal curse. Albus asked that I take a look his hand, and when I examined it, I knew he likely only had one year to live—and that was my liberal estimate. To Albus, this proved most opportune. You see, after Lucius's failure to obtain the prophecy from the Department of Mysteries, the Dark Lord sought to punish him, so he selected his son for an unthinkable task, one he knew to be nearly impossible for a boy of Draco's age to carry out—to murder Albus, easily one of the most powerful wizards alive at the time, if not the most powerful. The old man seemed more concerned for the boy's soul than for his own life or either my soul or my life," Severus scoffed before admitting, "which was his way, I suppose. So, as it was likely that the Dark Lord would assign me the task if Draco failed, Albus asked me to kill him—to put him out of his misery, the way he worded it—in Draco's stead. And I agreed…" Severus trailed off, the finality of "and I did so" hung in the air, acknowledged, albeit unspoken.
Severus, who had been staring at a fixed point in the snow while he spoke, turned toward Hermione, unsure of what emotions he would see inevitably splayed across her face. "Oh, Professor…" she whispered with empathy, sobered by his confession.
"I essentially held you against your will and yet you still call me 'professor.' Incorrigible, Miss Granger," he chided her snidely, eyes flickering with a hint of gallows' humor.
"Yet you still address me as if I'm a student." She sneered in a startling facsimile of his own, before adding, "I assume you know my name after all these years?"
Severus obstinately went back and forth over whether to admit that he did, before he finally sighed, conceding, "Ok, Hermione."
When he finally said her name, she had been absently tracing patterns in the snow with the stick serving as her wand, and she looked at him incredulously. Bemused, Severus's lips quirked into a small smile, and he noted that, oddly, she appeared flushed from something other than the wind and cold…the cold, he remembered, as he just then grew conscious of the cold, noticing that his legs were going numb from kneeling beside her in the snow.
Hermione seemed to read him in turn, an observation that alarmed him. "Come, you can sit by the fire for a bit before you have to go." Severus stood up and made his way over to the fire, where he sat down and relished in the warmth of her signature bluebell flames, sitting so close to the fire that they nearly licked the soles of his boots.
"Here," she murmured—from somewhere, Hermione had procured a cup of tea. Severus stared at her quizzically for a moment before accepting it, hoping she hadn't beguiled him with her overtures of understanding and laced it with poison.
"Thank you," Severus whispered, guarding himself against seeming too eager to accept her small token of hospitality.
"What should I call you then?" she asked him as he sipped his tea; he appeared lost in thought.
"What's that?" replied Severus, stirred from his reverie.
"What should I call you, sir, if professor won't suffice?" Hermione inquired quietly.
"'I assume you know my name after all these years,'" he mocked her teasingly, and she blushed and squirmed as he eyed her amusedly.
She attempted to process his request. "Severus," she enunciated each syllable, like his name was a word she was unsure how to pronounce correctly—or as if she was uncertain that it was even a word at all, before she voiced what was presently on her mind, "I have more questions."
"Undoubtedly," he acknowledged with a smirk before he added, "but I fear our time is running thin. Perhaps, I will answer them at a future time."
Aghast and flustered, she weakly protested, "But…but?"
"I'll let you ask one more," he purred.
Her eyes glimmered with hope, so that they danced in the firelight. "I haven't told you why I am here," he reminded her silkily.
She appeared puzzled until she realized his lead-in. "Why are you here, Prof—Severus?"
"Albus sent me," Severus answered.
"What?!" gasped Hermione.
"His portrait, Hermione." Severus sighed, kneading his brow.
When he saw her look sheepishly to the ground, he knew she felt stupid for forgetting that Albus still existed in portrait form—he thought it seemed like an unfamiliar expression on her.
"He sent me with something for Potter. And something he entrusted me to give to you," Severus explained as he unbuttoned his pocket to retrieve the vial of phoenix tears.
"What did he send for Harry?" she asked quickly, glossing over the second part of his statement, the one that pertained to her.
"Do you always concern yourself for him above yourself?" Severus asked, shaking his head in quiet disapproval, before he continued, "And the question and answer session is over, I'm afraid."
"You think now is the time for sarcasm?" she snapped in exasperation.
Severus furtively looked left and right to reassure himself that they were totally alone. "He sent me with the sword of Gryffindor so I could plant it for Potter to find, but he absolutely cannot know," stressed Severus.
Hermione regarded him thoughtfully for a moment. "But then… that was your patronus?" she asked, stunned. For a moment, Severus regretted the fact that she had outwitted him there. He bowed his head in silence.
"'To not answer is to answer,' Severus." She smiled haughtily before she appeared lost in thought again. "But it's a doe…that's the same as Harry's mother's." She looked him up and down, curiously.
"I had no idea," Snape replied curtly in a way that communicated to her that the discussion was over. "As I was saying," his eyes narrowed for a moment, then he went on, "Albus entrusted me with this. We had a discussion about the snake, and he…we thought it prudent that you should have it." Snape withdrew the vial from his pocket and pressed in into her hand before gently cupping his hands around hers to curl her fingers around it for safekeeping, lingering for a moment. "He calls the snake Nagini. That vial contains phoenix tears, which, in case you've forgotten…" He knew she hadn't forgotten even before she interrupted him.
"…Can be used to heal basilisk bites, as well as an antidote to the venom of other snakes," she finished his sentence for him.
"Correct." Snape smiled. "10 points for Gryffindor," he proclaimed slyly, which made Hermione laugh, unabashedly this time.
"Severus, if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" She smirked equally slyly. It was Severus's turn to laugh; it was a raucous sound, foreign-sounding in its sheer disuse. She looked taken aback.
"I suppose that is the age old question, Miss—Hermione." as he turned on his heel to walk away, Hermione threw caution to the wind and grabbed his shoulder to stop him.
"You're not going to obliviate me after all you've told me?"
"No. Did you want me to? Also, I believe that's a question…" he began.
"Answer me!" she demanded, before withdrawing. "Please," she added demurely in a way that made Severus chuckle.
"Albus trusted me to relay this information to you, well, most of it—I'll admit I went a little beyond what we'd discussed—and although I still find you an insufferable know-it-all, and I detest you the majority of the time, even I have to admit that you are anything but untrustworthy or disloyal. You know the grave danger this could put me in—more than that, the danger to yourself and your friends, and it could cost us the war, and those facts and your overall character give me the utmost confidence that you will not reveal a word of this to anyone. Plus, one of my Occlumency books went missing shortly before your departure, and with all your positive traits, an aversion to stealing if it suits you or your cause is not one of them."
On that last line, Hermione's obvious guilt crept into her expression along with a blush to her cheeks. Suddenly, Severus heard Potter's familiar voice through the trees as he approached the camp, along with another voice that Severus didn't have time to identify.
"I must go. Repair the shields—I've only undone them in one spot, which you will see me pass through. And remember, Hermione, go forth as if this meeting never transpired. If the situation calls for it, treat me with as much hatred and disdain as you did prior to it. Curse me—kill me if you have to. You must."
She shifted on her feet, looking everywhere but his face. "Promise me, Granger," Snape demanded hurriedly.
"I will." She gulped, and he turned to walk away. "Wait," Hermione whispered. Severus turned mid-stride to look at her one last time, unsure of what she could possibly want or even why he turned around. "Thank you…and be careful, Severus."
"Of course, Hermione. You as well." He nodded and grasped her hands, curling them firmly around the vial of phoenix tears again, before he let go and departed on brisk footing through the snow, through the hole in the shields, and into the darkness that lay beyond. Hermione stood, holding her breath, feeling a strange sort of bereft-ness that she couldn't place, floored by all he had told her, as the mysterious man wound his way back through the Forest of Dean to a suitable apparition point, where he disappeared with a crack that sent birds flying scared into the sky.
Before she slipped back into the tent to feign sleep so Harry would be none-the-wiser, she looked up into the now cloudless sky, awed by the way the stars themselves seemed to sparkle with an icy sheen as if they too were frozen by the cold of this surreal winter night. The white fog of the moon's penumbra emanated from it like a person's warm breath dissipating into the cool night air, an observation that lifted Hermione's spirits and left her feeling less alone in the wilderness and in the world.