Chapter Thirty-Five

Hermione scampered along the perimeter of the lawn, inches away from chaos. Her jaw ached from clenching her wand between her teeth, and her mind kept shrinking away into a haze of primal fears and senses. Ron had the cloak tight around himself, so she could not see if he was following, but occasionally she could hear the thud of his footsteps or a whisper of feverish muttering behind her.

It was astounding she even heard him at all, the noise of battle was overwhelming: explosions and screams, the crackle of flames, pleas for help, cries of malice and fury. It was madness. Where was she supposed to begin?

Trap them, trap them, beat them down, Hermione repeated to herself.

She couldn't kill them, she didn't know how.

Trap them, delay them, beat them down.

Sooner or later, she would need to pick her moment and transform. As a rabbit without magic she could do very little to attack or defend. The most she had done so far was to get under the feet of a passing Death Eater and send him for a tumble.

"Not so fast, Hermione," Ron panted behind her, as she darted and weaved amongst strewn rubble and smoke, beneath the flashes of flying hexes. "Not so—"

Hermione had only a split second of warning. She felt the rumble of a very large object pounding towards them, then the whistle of something slicing through the air. She heard Ron grunt with pain. She turned and saw the towering form of an enormous hedge animal – what might have once been a bear – bewitched into full, animated fury. Vines were everywhere, sprouting out of its back and the ends of its massive paws. One of the animal's paws must have caught Ron unawares and sent him flying, because she couldn't see him or pick up a scent of him anywhere. Though, she was hardly given time to look. The bear was in a rampage, flailing wildly about, and it was all Hermione could do not to get snagged up or trampled, as she scampered around underfoot.

In fact, Hermione was so distracted, that it took her a few minutes before she discovered that there was a wizard caught in the vast netting of foliage the animal dragged behind it. The man was struggling wildly, trying to scream, but unable to do so as he slowly choked in the hedge beast's grip. With his one free hand, he pulled desperately at the vines encasing his head, which had so thoroughly enveloped him, all that could be seen were small patches of his flaming red… hair…

Just as Hermione realized that Mr. Weasley must be the man trapped, a spell from nowhere hit the hedge animal and the entire creature burst into flames. It stumbled a few steps, then seemed to curl in on itself with a silent scream. There was a faint whooshing sound as a second spell cut through the vines trapping Mr. Weasley, and the moment his wand arm was free, Mr. Weasley rolled onto his back and sent a jet of light at the creature that blasted it clear across the lawn and out of sight.

Hermione stood stock still, her heart hammering as Mr. Weasley ripped away the last of the vines, looking around as he did so for the identity of the wizard who had saved him.

Ron, somewhere nearby, appeared to have decided to remain hidden beneath the cloak.

There were footsteps and then a wheezing Kingsley Shacklebolt appeared. "Arthur," he panted. Hermione could see a big tear in his robes just above the knee where some horrible spell had caused the skin beneath to boil and swell.

"Sarofim's in trouble," Kingsley said hurriedly as he reached down to help Mr. Weasley to his feet.

Mr. Weasley hardly heard him as he took a deep breath and adjusted the mangled glasses on his face. "Was… was that you, Kingsley?"

"Was what me?"

"There was this, this beast, and damned if I didn't think it had me, but someone—"

"It doesn't matter," Kingsley interrupted, grimacing as he put weight on his damaged leg, motioning for Mr. Weasley to follow him. "Come with me – Now, Arthur!"

Mr. Weasley nodded, rolled back the sleeves of his robes, and then the two men were off at once, running side by side with their wands outstretched before them.

A moment later, Hermione jumped as she heard Ron sprint up beside her.

"I'm going with them," he panted quickly, and then, without another word, the sound of his footsteps pounded away after the retreating form of his father.

Unsure of what else to do, Hermione was about to follow. She shifted her wand around in her mouth and had taken no more than two or three leaps forward before there, right there, only a few yards away, she saw a familiar figure rush by.

Her heart jumped. Her chest sparked with a violent, electric pulse.

Snape.

And he was not alone. Hermione saw a swish of black robes, a stream of dark hair and then she heard the echo of a familiar laugh. The woman was dueling with Snape, chasing him through the battlefield, her every mannerism deranged and powerful – Bellatrix Lestrange.

Like a shot, Hermione was off. After them, after Snape, not certain what she could do, but determined to do it quickly and to the best of her ability. She ran through a sea of running feet, and the hems of wizard robes, multi-colored ash raining down from above as fireballs roared in the sky overhead.

With each blink of her eyes, with each twitch of movement to dodge or duck, she grew less and less sure that she was headed in the right direction. She had lost Snape and Bellatrix in the smoke, but surely they couldn't be far. Surely not. Only a few more yards, if she just ran a little faster, she would catch them. Over there! Was that him? It looked—

Hermione squealed with pain as someone's foot caught her in the ribs and knocked her down. She gasped for breath as she saw a woman — was that Mrs. Weasley? — stumble to her knees and then leap back up again and take off in a full sprint.

Ouch.

Hermione needed a minute to catch her breath. Her chest ached horribly. Where was her wand? It had flown from her mouth — but not far. She could see it poking out from beneath the grass a little ways away.

Laboriously, Hermione struggled to her feet — paws, rather — and dove after her fallen weapon. Just as she recaptured the handle between her teeth, she heard a familiar crackle to her right. Flames roaring to life. She turned to see a ring of blue fire, ominous and hot, put to light by a pair of Death Eaters who had captured one of the armored Hippogriffs in the center. The Hippogriff bucked and wheeled around in fright, the flames too close to allow for flight. If it stretched out its wings even the slightest, the feathers would burn and the creature would be stranded to its death.

Hermione knew this was the moment. She needed to transform.

That was no ordinary Hippogriff, it was Buckbeak! And he was in danger. Any amount of armor, no matter how powerful, would be of no help if Buckbeak himself were burning beneath.

Practice in the face of peril had done a trick on Hermione's brain during her adventures of the past few days. She found it surprisingly simple now to quiet what needed quieting in her mind, and to locate the full human within herself.

A moment later, she was Hermione again, standing strong, griping her cherrywood wand in a white-knuckle grip.

ZAP – CRACK – with two quick hexes, the dark robed figures were on the ground and Hermione rushed forward to dispel the blue fire.

Buckbeak leapt aside in anxious excitement the moment he was free. His armor looked a little blackened, and his chest feathers seemed a bit scarce, but he was otherwise unharmed. The Hippogriff paused for a moment and caught Hermione's gaze with his fierce, golden eyes. He nodded once, very distinctly, slowly, and with much grace, as though to say a heartfelt thank you — before he leapt upwards, and with a gigantic sweep of wings, took off into the sky.

Then Hermione was alone again.

She felt the full effect of her vulnerability for the first time, standing there as she did, without disguise or immediate action. The wind felt so strong — almost dangerous — as though it accentuated all the parts of her body that were not covered. The flutter of her clothes against her skin made her all too aware that, unlike Buckbeak, she had no armor to speak of. It was then she began to honestly consider how deranged and perhaps futile this plan was. Could they really have been so stupid to do this… Right here in the middle of all things… Any moment now could be hear last, and no one would know… They were only kids after all…

Then she remembered: she had to find Snape. That thought consumed her at once, and nothing else found room to enter her mind.

She took off at a jog, wiping sweat from her eyes and pulling hair out of her face.

Nearby — so near that it made her heart leap in her throat — she heard Bellatrix cry out in triumph.

NO!

Hermione broke into a run in what she thought was the direction of Bellatrix's call. No, no, no, please no, please no

There, through a parting in the black smoke and swirl of wizard robes, she saw him. The tall, lithe figure of Severus Snape, side along Mrs. Weasley and another Order member she could not see, throwing hexes and counter curses in a blur of growing desperation.

They were surrounded, a pack of Death Eaters closing in tight. Bellatrix must be hidden somewhere among them, Hermione could not see her. But the Death Eaters were winning their fight. Snape was forced to step back — and step back again — sweat pouring down his face, his movements growing weaker by the second. Hermione had seen this before, but it was different this time. He looked even more tired than he had when cornered in Pruitt cottage — less sure of himself, less sharp, more vulnerable, barely hanging on. Hermione quickened her pace, knowing she had to get there before the rest of his strength was gone.

From a distance, she watched Snape block a spectacular jinx in a shower of gold sparks. He gave a clipped yell of victory, then hurled a spell back at his attackers that encased two of them in a block of ice.

Hermione's breath came short and sharp in her chest. She was getting closer — she was almost there.

Then the wind changed, and the smoke cleared. Snape's gaze was distracted for half a second. His dark eyes flickered up to meet Hermione's as he caught sight of her through a gap in the fighting. Then—

No

A blinding flash of green light.

It hit Snape full in the chest, and in the space of a heartbeat, he had fallen backwards. He was so utterly still. The very air around him seemed to have died as he did.

In that instant, Hermione had no idea what happened. Her mind somehow took leave of her body and the magic roared out of her like some mighty force of righteous fury. Two spells erupted from her wand in almost instant succession, both of them so immense and so powerful she could feel the vibrations in the very marrow of her bones.

The first spell covered Snape and his comrades in a white sphere of protection. The second spell manifested a sort of sonic explosion that knocked the full circle of Death Eaters violently into the air.

With her every nerve buzzing, and her vision half-blinded by the blast, Hermione waited for the dust to settle.

She walked forward a few steps, her mind in a blank haze, her wand held out in a shaky hand.

He couldn't be…

Forward. A few more steps.

The dust was clearing. She could see him now. His face so still and pale, with his coal black eyes open and staring blindly into vacant space.

He was gone. Severus Snape, in whose arms she had lain only hours before, basking beneath his kisses and the soft rumble of his voice…

How could she have been so close and not made it? If only she had run faster. If only she hadn't stopped to help Buckbeak. If only—

But then, as she watched, Snape began to change. His hair grew lighter, his nose grew straighter. A thin line of scars appeared across his face, and…

"Not him," Hermione breathed.

It was Lupin. Dear, sweet Remus Lupin.

That first, fleeting burst of relief Hermione had felt at the realization that the Snape she saw was not the real Snape, almost immediately vanished as she was overcome by a crashing wave of despair. She realized at once that the real Snape had possession of her Phoenix potion. If he fell, he would rise again.

But Lupin did not. He could not. Lupin… was really dead.

"Not him," Hermione moaned and her legs gave out beneath her. She couldn't look at him. Oh, Professor Lupin.

As though from a distance, she could hear Mrs. Weasley's stifled sob. "Remus, dear, you can't…"

How could it be Lupin. Always so calm and competent, so quietly sincere. So determined to help, to do good in the world.

Hermione heard the scuffle of whatever able bodied Death Eaters had survived her blast scamper away in retreat.

She didn't care. Lupin was dead. He was gone now, like Sirius, perhaps together with him somewhere in the afterlife now, and neither of them ever again able to—

"Oi!"

Hermione's head shot up.

Mrs. Weasley and what looked like Snape — was that another non-Snape? — were standing over Lupin's body. They were staring, thunderstruck, because Lupin's body was moving.

Hermione scrambled to her feet and ran to Mrs. Weasley's side.

Lupin's eyes were open. His hands were stirring, and he was looking around—bewildered, in pain, but very much alive.

Everything, absolutely everything that still remained awake and aware in Hermione's brain came to a screeching, shuddering, bone jarring stop.

With no care for injury or shock, Hermione dropped to her knees and descended on Lupin, grabbing him by the collar of his robes and shaking him roughly. "Did someone give you a potion," she demanded. "A golden potion? Harry or Snape — who was it!" She tightened her grip on his robes so that her knuckles ached and she gave Lupin another rough shake. "WHO!"

Lupin's eyes were wide, his face white beneath his scars. "S-Snape," he managed to cough.

Hermione let go. She leapt to her feet again, heart hammering.

That bastard. That idiot. That bloody stupid idiot bastard.

"Blimey," said the other Snape, looking abashed. "Thought he'd been hit with the killing curse. Thought for sure he was… He was…"

"I'm alright, Hagrid," said Lupin weakly, getting himself into a sitting position. "It's a… potion." He grit his teeth, flexing his wand arm. "Hermione."

She turned to look at him.

"Thank you for—"

But before he could say another word, somewhere far beyond the fighting, nearest the mansion, an enormous tower of flames fired into the air. Dumbledore's booming voice could be heard all across the grounds, shouting, "TO ME! TO ME!"

Hagrid-Snape looked up, eyes wide, skin pale as ice. "Right," he said, gripping his wand. Then, after a moment of hesitation, he turned and disapparated with a sharp crack.

"My wand," Lupin muttered, throwing himself down on all fours again, searching the ground for his lost weapon. The disorienting aftereffects of death still seemed to be lingering on the surface of his brain.

Hermione stared perplexed at the spot Hagrid-Snape had just vacated. Then she turned to Mrs. Weasley. "Where—?"

But Mrs. Weasley was sputtering, so red in the face that she looked on the verge of exploding. Then she teetered over the edge and let loose: "NEVER YOU MIND WHERE YOU LUNATIC GIRL FIRST FRED AND GEORGE AND NOW THIS WHO BLOODY ELSE HAVE YOU BROUGHT ALONG WITH WHAT IN MERLIN'S NAME DO YOU THINK YOU'RE—"

Mrs. Weasley bore down upon Hermione, trembling all over with shock and fright, her eyes fierce, her expression wild.

Hermione backed up a few steps in surprise. Her mind had not fully returned yet from the events of the past few minutes — Snape dying, Lupin dying, then both of them still being alive, but with the real Snape now out there somewhere bereft of the protection Hermione had given him — it was all very difficult to process. Meanwhile, Mrs. Weasley was advancing ever further, threatening to send her home, to send her away.

But Hermione couldn't leave, not now, not when she knew Snape was battling Bellatrix. That he could be lying on the grass, even at that very moment, all life having been blasted from his body. His empty eyes staring into nothing…

Mrs. Weasley at last pulled in a shaky breath and seemed to gather what was left of her wits. "Hermione, I—"

Mrs. Weasley was interrupted as Lupin, having found his wand, clambered to his feet. He walked over and drew Hermione into a fierce, brief hug, whispering a hoarse, "Thank you," into her ear. Then he stepped away, turned on the spot, and disapparated.

Hermione looked back at Mrs. Weasley, who gave her a watery grimace that might have been intended as a reassuring smile. But her nerves had the better of her. "Hermione, dear," she said shakily, putting a hand on her arm. "What I want you to do is—"

Once again, Mrs. Weasley was cut short as Tonks came running up, with Buckbeak the Hippogriff trotting close behind. Tonks was very winded, and there were great streaks of ash all over her clothes and across her small, round face. She was trembling, but seemed unharmed.

Tonks glanced quickly back and forth between Mrs. Weasley and Hermione. "Was that Remus just now?" she asked in a squeaky voice. "Back there, I thought I had — One of the Snapes you see, he fell next to me and it — I looked after him as well I could — So sure it was Remus — Not that I'm sorry, of course — It was McGonagall you see, and — after Buckbeak here — I revived her — then Dumbledore's voice, and she," Tonks made a snap in the air, "disapparated like that, without even a word. Was Remus going to join her? Where did they go?"

"Dumbledore's called them," replied Mrs. Weasley. She pointed towards the mansion, to where the tower of flames had been just moments ago. "Off that way somewhere, but I think—"

Tonks took off running.

"I THINK YOU SHOULD STAY WITH — damn it all," Mrs. Weasley cursed. She wiped the hair out of her eyes and glanced at Buckbeak, who stood nearby, poised and proud beneath his armor that shimmered in the faint glow of sunset. Daylight had almost vanished, at most a quarter of an hour from full darkness.

Mrs. Weasley grabbed Hermione by the shoulder and gave her a push. "You take Buckbeak, now. And you go — you go and find my wretched boys. You get out of here, you understand?" She snatched Buckbeak's reins and pressed them into Hermione's hands. Then she started backing away, getting ready to run after Tonks. "Please dear, I've — I've got to run now." She picked up her pace, almost jogging. "You find my boys!" she yelled, finally running into the darkness. "Get everyone home!"

Then she was gone.

Hermione was alone once more, and night was fast approaching.

Not too far away, Hermione heard a shrill scream — was it Bellatrix? In the past ten minutes or so, without her noticing, the sounds of battle had lessened somewhat. Whosever cry that was had been piercing. Except… Herimone could not tell if it was a call of triumph or defeat.

With a quick shake of her head and a thrill of nerves shooting suddenly up her spine, Hermione grabbed hold of Buckbeak's breastplate and heaved herself onto the Hippogriff's back.

Buckbeak made a sound of restless excitement. He pranced forward a few steps in several different directions while Hermione made up her mind. Then using the reins, Hermione guided Buckbeak towards the distant silhouette of Godric Gryffindor's manor, an enormous mass almost indistinguishable in the fading light.

Yes, she would take Buckbeak, as Mrs. Weasley suggested, but not to get her boys. Ron was with his father. And Fred and George… well, they were capable young men, brothers, who had each other to protect. They could take care of themselves. She also doubted very much that they would voluntarily sett off for home just because Hermione asked them to. They had as much right as anyone to be there.

Hermione gave Buckbeak's ribs a light tap with her heels and then Buckbeak leapt into a loping gallop across the lawn.

Things certainly had quieted down. No more explosions or deafening yells. There were still small groups of wizards dueling here and there, but most everyone had either taken shelter (behind hedges and trees and small fountains, or the protective shadows of armored Hippogriffs), or had migrated somewhere else.

Had the fighting moved? Hermione wondered. Was there another battle going on somewhere she didn't know about?

Black robes and masked faces seemed scarce.

But she could just be imagining it.

Within the next minute, Hermione reached the front steps to the mansion. Far off to the side, she could see Tonks and Mrs. Weasley bent over a man who had seemingly crashed there against a fountain. Even from a distance, Hermione could tell it was Mad-Eye Moody, with his wooden leg and his electric blue eye. He was writhing on the ground, apparently wracked with a mysterious curse that the two women were trying to break. She thought she saw Lupin too, hurrying up to join them.

Hermione turned as she heard footsteps and a shouted spell to her right.

Snape!

He was there, fighting someone. He was… Except, as Hermione watched him, he seemed a little out of sorts. Had he been hit by a spell? His movements were not clean, not sharp the way they usually were; they were slow and clumsy, and the way he seemed to lumber about despite his rail thin frame, he — Oh!

Hermione jumped as another Snape figure crossed her path, striding purposefully towards the far fountain where Moody lay.

That must be him! So tense and confident. But… not quite right, either. Was the first one him? Maybe just tired. Or the second? Maybe he… Oh, this is ridiculous!

Hermione nudged Buckbeak after the Snape that had just walked by. He gave a clipped yell of surprise as Hermione cut him off and he realized who sat atop the Hippogriff.

"Miss Granger!"

It was Professor McGonagall.

"Professor, I need to know where Snape went," Hermione said hurriedly, all the while feeling the anxiety churning in her stomach. She had been too late to help Lupin, what if she was too late to save Severus? She had to find him now — if only to know that he was OK and thus ease the fire in her heart.

McGonagall-Snape's eyes were wide. She stumbled for words. "How — How in Heaven's name did you find this—"

"It doesn't matter," Hermione snapped, and Buckbeak reared up a little, making a sound of equal impatience. "Where did Snape go — the real Snape!"

"I — He — S-Severus went after Albus and Potter, with that – mad Lestrange woman behind him, but—"

"Where did they go?"

"Into the manor, Miss Granger, but—"

Hermione did not wait to hear another word. She wheeled Buckbeak around, and together they took off up the steps, Buckbeak's hooves clattering on the stone, Hermione's teeth clenched and her wand biting into the palm of her hand.

The great oak double doors were wide open. Hermione gripped the reins as they blasted through.

In the next second, the pit of Hermione's stomach dropped as she and Buckbeak suddenly plummeted downwards. The floor to the building was gone.

With a shriek of surprise, Buckbeak managed to throw out his wings and slow their fall enough to land safely a few moments later, but the jolt of the impact still threw Hermione forward over Buckbeak's shoulder and she hit the ground hard. Her ribs had been hurting her ever since Mrs. Weasley's foot caught her back when she had last been in Animagus form. She thought they had been bruised at the time; now, after her tumble, Hermione's breath would not come, and she began to think she might have fractured one.

Hermione took several minutes to regroup, rolling onto her back and staring upwards, trying to take in what had gone wrong.

Why had they fallen? Why was it so dark? What… was this place?

The mansion was not a mansion at all. Or, at least it might have been once, but the entire building was an empty void, like it had been utterly gutted from wall to wall. The insides were blackened, scored. She and Buckbeak had fallen at least three stories into the dark. Looking up, Hermione could see that the walls extended five floors or higher above the ground. Up at the top, where the roof should have been, was simply open air. What little light was left from the setting sun shone in from above in a gaping rectangle of light, making it seem as though she were looking up from the pit of an enormous tomb. If not for the many rows of windows on either side, that's exactly where she might have thought she was.

What had happened here?

The fine hairs on the back of Hermione's neck and arms stood on end. Whatever it was had been horrible. She could not help but felt that many people had died in the exact spot in which she lay.

Grunting and wincing with pain, Hermione rolled onto her front and pushed herself slowly to her knees. Best be moving on.

Buckbeak hovered close by; he did not seem to like it in there any more than she did. Hermione used him as support to pull herself to her feet, then she looked around for an exit.

The surrounding area was very dark, as the only source of illumination came from windows hundreds of feet up.

"Lumos," Hermione whispered, and a stream of light burst from her wand.

Within seconds she was off again at a brisk jog, holding her side, aiming for a door she had spotted at the far end of the… room? Pit? The air was so quiet around her, almost vacuous. She shivered, imagining all sorts of grotesque and dangerous creatures hiding out in the shadows, mere feet away from her on either side. Thankfully, Buckbeak continued to stay close, trotting behind her, though even the sound of his hooves seemed dulled in the oppressive silence.

When she reached it, the door was small and unassuming, its dark wood untouched by ash or scorch marks. Hermione reached out to turn the handle, expecting it to be locked. Even if it didn't open, she wanted to test its defenses first before she went about trying to break through.

To her utmost surprise, the handle turned and the door swung open with ease.

A long, stone hallway lay beyond, with flickering torches on the wall, and that dark, damp feeling of an underground tunnel. It extended distantly into darkness.

Right, then.

The opening was too small for Buckbeak, so Hermione turned to whisper to him, "You're going to have to stay here, Buckbeak," giving him a soft pat on the neck. She stepped forward through the doorway, then turned around again. "But you are going to have to," she said, hoping the Hippogriff could understand. "Stay, I mean. I'm stuck here if you don't. Alright? I can't climb walls and I haven't got wings for myself."

Buckbeak gazed back unblinking. Hermione thought he knew what she had asked. He owed her a life debt after all, and he did not seem to be taking that lightly.

Right

Hermione took a deep breath (which caught in her chest as her ribs gave a horrible wrench), clenched her wand tighter, and set off down the hallway.

After only a few steps in, the door slammed closed behind her.

Hermione whirled around and ran back again, feeling the fear rising in her throat. Any second, something was going to grab her by the shoulder and drag her off to die.

The door opened without effort — but Hermione's initial relief was instantly whisked away as she found herself staring not at the place from which she had just come, but down another long, vacant hallway.

She looked behind her.

Still the same, empty hallway.

Except, the one in front of her looked exactly the same too. Which way was she supposed to go?

Hermione thought for a few minutes. It was so quiet, she could almost hear the gears working in her own brain.

Then, hesitantly, Hermione walked forward into the new hallway. She kept walking until she heard the door slam behind her again.

She jogged back to it, opened it, and—

"Buckbeak," she said in surprise.

She was back at the beginning, looking out into that ruined chasm of a room, with Buckbeak standing guard nearby. This was very confusing.

Hermione returned to the hallway, and closed the door herself. She opened it again; back to the hallway now. What did this mean? Was there a pattern to it, or did it just alternate when it felt like it? And was she in the first hallway now or the second hallway? She had to be in the second, because she hadn't moved, only the door had changed locations — meaning that what she was now looking at had to be the first place she had entered. Or was it a third?

She felt as though she could have lost days puzzling out the answer to this door, but it was important that she move on quickly. Dumbledore and Harry were fighting for their lives, and Snape couldn't be far away. She decided to walk down the new hallway, and see how far it led.

As Hermione walked, she began to take in her surroundings with more detail, feeling a deep uneasiness creep up her spine as she did so. This all seemed so familiar. It reminded her of the dungeons beneath the church, back in London, where her whole adventure with Snape had begun so long ago. That was the first moment in her life Hermione had truly thought she was going to die, when she truly thought she had run out of options and no one would be there, no Harry to come bounding in at the last second, no Ron with an unexpected burst of genius. Now, she was alone again, and her ribs hurt. The shooting pain made her memories of writhing beneath the Cruciatus curse all the more overwhelming.

Hermione was ashamed to realize that she was frightened.

Frend is dead, she had to keep reminding herself. He was dead, everyone knew that, the Ministry said so. He was dead. Travers had killed him and Snape had killed Travers.

Snape killed Travers, Snape killed Travers, she repeated to herself. Killed Travers… because Travers was going to kill me.

Hermione walked for a long time. Or at least it seemed so — for all she knew, she had been walking for five minutes. Time moved so differently in the haze of panic. At any moment, Hermione expected to come upon some sign of Voldemort or Dumbledore, or Harry or Snape — something to indicate where they had gone, how the battle was going. Oh, Harry, be careful, she thought. But surely he would be fine; he was with Dumbledore.

There was another door at the far end of the corridor and Hermione tensed, getting ready to open it. This was it. It had to be. Voldemort was just on the other side…

Hermione opened the door, then let out an exasperated, "No!" There was Buckbeak again. She had come right back to the beginning! Frustrated, feeling a violent urgency suddenly light up in her chest, Hermione slammed the door closed again. Then she opened it.

Hallway.

She slammed it closed again. Opened it.

Hallway.

Closed. Open.

Buckbeak.

Closed. Open.

Hallway.

Closed Open.

Buckbeak.

Hermione was halfway through the motion of closing the door again, tears of frustration already blurring her eyes, when Buckbeak let out a screech of alarm. But Hermione could not react in time and the door closed, cutting off Buckbeak's cry.

Heart pumping fast, Hermione began to cycle through the door's different locations again. There was no continuity! Hallway, hallway, hallway — time and again, Hermione threw open the door and found a stone corridor.

At last, she opened the door and found the enormous, ruined pit inside the mansion. Buckbeak was inches from the door, startling her as he beat his wings and reared, letting out a shriek.

"What is it?" Hermione asked loudly. She put out her hands as though to calm him, but Buckbeak sidled away and reared again, extending his talons and bucking his head as though to indicate something high above them.

Hermione ran out into the room and looked up.

Her mouth fell open. By God, there he was…

Snape and Bellatrix, way, way up in the air, were circling each other on brooms, darting and weaving, and nearly unseating each other with every turn. It was him, she knew it, the real him, the real Snape at last! He and Bellatrix were dueling with a breathtaking fury, their movements almost impossible to follow as they rolled and spun and looped around, throwing jets of colored light back and forth — and all the while, rising higher and higher.

As Hermione watched, Snape shot upwards, through the open ceiling at the very top of the house and flicked a spell at Bellatrix below. Bellatrix countered, and somehow sent two hexes back at him in quick succession. Snape managed to avoid the first. The second he was only just able to block — but the force of the blast threw Snape from his broom, and the broom was gone in an explosive shatter, blown away and lost into the growing darkness.

Snape fell wildly for a fraction of a second before he managed to grab hold of the edge of the top ledge of the house. Then he was hanging there from the roof, legs dangling, hundreds of feet from the ground.

Miraculously still in possession of his wand, with his one free arm, Snape hurled a curse at Bellatrix, a blinding flash of light that nearly engulfed her, and in that moment of distraction, he managed to pull himself up on the ledge.

Hermione was already pulling herself onto Buckbeak's back by that time. The second she had a grip, Buckbeak took a running start, beat his enormous wings, and launched into the air. "Come on, Buckbeak, come on," Hermione urged as they raced up to meet Snape; Bellatrix was circling around for her next attack.

"Come on, come on." They were at the ground floor. Now two stories up. Now three.

Snape blocked and dodged, and blocked and dodged, so precise and surefooted on a wire thin space, then—

Bellatrix flew right at him with her broom. Though Snape tried to prevent her, she avoided his spells, and with a well-placed kick to the chest Snape could do nothing to avoid, she sent him toppling over the far edge of the house — and five stories down.

With no time to think, Hermione threw Buckbeak into a furious plummet, faster than a shot, aiming for the second floor window, "Go," the wind blasting her face, tears streaming from the corners of her eyes, heart pounding, not going to make it, "Go, Beaky," and then, "GO!" she shrieked, as they hurtled bodily through the window with an explosive shatter of glass.

Hermione's breath was knocked out of her as something heavy crashed into her arms.

Snape.

In a flurry of limbs and feathers, and shards of raining glass, Buckbeak brought them all safely to the ground. He landed hard, and Hermione and Snape slipped off his back together onto the soft grass, still entangled.

Hermione gasped for breath as Snape tried to catch his. He rolled over dazedly, his brain not fully caught up with his current situation. Just as he was disentangling himself from Hermione's arms, he saw who it was who had saved him and then he immediately grabbed her up again. As though by sheer instinct, his body still pulsing with shockwaves of fright and relief, Snape held her close, smoothed the hair from her face. "Darling girl," he choked. "I thought I'd — But you were there, always there damn you, and—"

She gave him a shaky smile in return. In the split second she had to notice, beneath the very last dying sparks of sunlight, Hermione saw that Snape looked a bit worse for wear. His robes were rent and bloodied on his right side—quite a lot of blood, in fact. There was a great, ugly burn on his shoulder that extended nearly all the way up his neck. And his hair: he had—he was the only Snape who did, she realized—that familiar streak of white.

Caught by an overwhelming impulse, Hermione was just reaching up to thread her fingers through it, when Snape's expression changed. His mind seemed to jump up another rung of understanding and he realized again whom he was holding, where they were. His eyes grew wide and wild, and his fingers dug into her shoulders. "WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE," he bellowed. "HOW THE BLOODY HELL DID YOU—"

Snape was cut short as, out of nowhere, Buckbeak slammed into the pair of them, throwing them backwards just in time to save them from an explosive jinx that scorched the ground inches from their feet.

Wild laughter, followed by a shadow that swooped down low over their heads meant Bellatrix had followed them.

There was no time for anything. Snape had already clambered upright and grabbed for Buckbeak's reins.

"You—" Hermione started to say.

"GET OUT OF HERE," Snape roared back at her as she was scrambling to her feet, hoping to follow him in pursuit of Bellatrix.

But Snape was too quick, and had already mounted. He caught Hermione's eyes for a fraction of a second, and yelled at her as though everything in the world were crashing down around their ears, "Hide yourself and STAY SAFE!" Then he tapped the Hippogriff's heels and the two of them were off, up into the sky and out of sight.

Once he was gone, it became so dark, and so quiet, Hermione almost couldn't stand it. Was the battle over? She strained her ears for a few minutes, trying to make out a familiar voice — or an unfamiliar voice at that. There was no sound to greet her but the wind, and even that had died down to a mere breath of breeze. Where was everyone? Maybe she and Snape had fallen behind the house, and the Order was on the other side, having captured or defeated the Death Eaters, now waiting for signs of Dumbledore and Harry.

Or, maybe it was the other way around.

"Lumos."

Hermione gasped as the wandlight illuminated dark red smears all over her clothes. Blood? No… She cast the beam from her wand around and saw that she and Snape had crashed through a garden of red flowers. She could smell the sticky sweetness of pollen clinging to her skin and in her hair. It was beginning to make her feel a bit ill.

Suddenly, there was a rustle of branches and a cough from somewhere behind her. Hermione whirled around and ducked down, shining her wand every which way. But everything was still and silent. The darkness was almost complete now.

She could hear the pounding of her heart like drumbeats in her ears.

"H-Hello?" she said softly.

No reply.

OK. This was something else, now. This wasn't battle out in the open anymore, it was danger in the shadows. She didn't like this. She didn't like this at all. She… She… could turn into a rabbit any time she liked.

Hermione whispered, "Nox," and dropped to all fours, laying her wand down amidst the grass and ruined flowers. The world grew taller, her eyesight sharpened, and the smell of pollen nearly overwhelmed her as she transformed into her Animagus form. Once settled, Hermione extended her long ears, straining to hear any sign of her hidden aggressor.

There. She heard a rustle of leaves, or perhaps robes, heavy branches knocking together, and what might have been a low moan. Where? The sounds had emanated from somewhere above her head — but as a rabbit, nearly everything was above her head. Far above her head, though, she thought. In a tree? It could be an animal just roosting there for the night. A very large animal, she realized, as the noises came again. Another hedge beast? Most likely it was a person. Hedge animals did not moan.

An enemy? An ally? Someone trapped — or in danger — or hurt?

Hesitantly, Hermione began to approach the direction of the sounds. As she drew closer to the base of a nearby tree, her senses began to go haywire. Her heart pumped so fast it made her head spin, and her every instinct seemed to be screaming at her to get away, get very far away.

She stood frozen, one paw lifted, ready to flee.

A hoarse, raspy voice cut the night air. "Morsemordre," it gasped. "Morsemordre, morsemordre."

Hermione braced for a spell that did not come. There was no flash, no dark mark exploding into the sky. Still, the voice muttered on, "Morsemordre…"

She did not wait any longer to see what happened. She tore off through the grass, and all around the perimeter of the manor. When at last she reached the front steps, where she had spoken with McGonagall not half an hour ago, she found—to her immense relief—members of the Order, all gathered together at the foot of the stairs. They were milling about mostly, in silence, and it was so dark that she could not count them properly. It made her stomach churn to think how impossible it was that everyone would have made it through safe and alive. That battle had been madness; so easy to take one wrong step and fall into the path of a wayward curse. It was impossible to think that someone had not fallen. Please not Ron, she thought. Please not a Weasley.

She peered up at faces lost in shadow as she crept among them unnoticed. There was no one she recognized yet, though the faces she saw did not look triumphant. They looked wan and troubled, tense, anxious. Why? she thought. The Death Eaters had gone, hadn't they? Hermione even stumbled by a group of them bound together in a circle, unconscious, unmasked, and no longer a threat. McGonagall—now physically herself again—stood guard nearby.

Hermione considered setting up camp there beside her Professor, just to take a breath and figure out her next course of action, when she caught sight of Tonks and Professor Lupin a little ways off, sitting together on the raised edge of a fountain.

Hermione crept through the grass to sit at the ground near their feet, listening to them whisper quietly to each other and grateful for the company. Her ribs ached. Weariness began to overtake her the moment she had settled.

Are they together? Hermione thought, mildly aghast, as she felt rather than saw Lupin put his arm around Tonks and draw her close. It couldn't be…

Then again, stranger pairings had certainly been made, she realized. She and Snape for one.

Snape… What she wouldn't give to be curled up beside him in safety, both alive and well and in each other's arms, without bother or notice… able to whisper… able to mend…

Please be safe

As the night breeze blew, clouds drifted in to shroud out the moonlight, and with the soft sounds of Tonks and Lupin murmering to each other soothing her nerves, Hermione soon drifted off to sleep.


When Hermione woke, she knew immediately that something was wrong. From the stiffness in her body, she could tell that many hours had already passed. She opened her eyes to a rippling sort of darkness; clouds still shrouded the sky, but they were moving in and out with a quick wind. Patches of moonlight shone through now and again, and in these patches of illumination, Hermione could just see—to her gathering horror—tall, dark figures gliding towards them up the sloping lawn.

The air was frigid, a mist already beginning to gather. Someone screamed. Hermione looked up to see hundreds of black cloaks swooping down upon them from the sky. Dementors! She tried to leap to her feet, then realized that she had paws instead. Beside her, the lip of the fountain was empty; Tonks and Lupin had gone. She was separated from the rest of the Order, as they scattered out over the lawn, attempting to flee, attempting to fight back with Patronus charms (though they were so exhausted, and that particular spell so complex, that very few succeeded).

The Hippogriffs were spooked, and many of them took flight, shrieking, striking out at the elusive dark figures as best they could. Dementors were not alive, however, and could not be harmed through physical means, so the Hippogriffs were mostly in retreat.

The confusion and madness Hermione thought they had long left behind returned now, doubled almost by the added elements of cold and darkness, the growing mist, and the weak flashes of light that managed to flare up against the Dementors here and there amongst the crowd as thin wisps of Patronus charms struggled to be realized.

For a few moments, Hermione scampered around in random directions, wand clenched in her teeth as she searched for help, for safety, for somewhere to hide—until at last she realized that she was not being chased.

She was too small for the Dementors' interest.

The red haze of fear ebbed slightly from the peripherals of her vision and Hermione was able to slow down, to draw breath, to think.

But before she could altogether put her muddled mind in order, she heard a distant, "Crucio!" and then an answering scream.

"Reducto!"

"Incarcerus!"

"Impedimenta!"

"AVADA KEDAVRA!"

There were flashes of colored light everywhere, sounds of hexes clashing and rebounding off each other, and what seemed like hundreds of loud cracks as suddenly Death Eaters were Apparating into the darkness all around.

The battle had begun again, more fraught than ever. And Hermione could not just sit there, she couldn't remain a rabbit, she couldn't. What had she come here for if not to help? To fight? But the thought of transforming so terrified her, she felt almost paralyzed.

Hermione's already pattering heart gave an enormous leap as, very nearby, she heard a long, drawn out, inhuman howl. The hairs of her body stood on end. It wasn't, it couldn't be… There came another scream—this one human. Hermione's nostrils seemed to fill with the smell of blood and fear and—

Hermione had a split second of warning before she had to leap aside just as a Dementor swooped down and took a swipe at her with one of its rotting hands. Hermione leapt again as it made another attack.

Get away! Hermione wanted to scream at it, cold dread striking through the marrow of her bones, a sick despair taking her over, but all that escaped her mouth was a sort of strangled squeal. Distantly, Hermione could hear a familiar voice. A deep, troubled voice full of ominous threat filling her ears. Then she heard the sound, she couldn't believe it, of Frend breaking her leg with the crack of a dark spell. She could almost feel her shinbone shatter—and then she could hear Severus crying out. Frend's voice bellowed, "Avada Kedavra!" The edges of her world began to fill with green light.

In desperation, Hermione started to run—as fast as it was possible to run. She had no idea where she was going, she was too blinded by fear and by the horror of memories. She ran and ran, her ears ringing, her head pounding, until eventually, at long last, she began to notice dried leaves beneath her paws. She could no longer see the green light at the edges of her vision, she realized, nor hear Severus's screams in the back of her mind.

Hermione blinked and looked around. She was deep in the woods, far outside the perimeter of Godric Gryffindor's estate. She stood there for a few minutes, trembling, trying as she drew breath to piece together what had happened. The Dementors… they had never done that to her before. Back at Azkaban, she had been in close contact with several of the creatures, and no such memories had visited her. But, perhaps then she had been too single minded, too focused on Snape's escape—and certainly there had not been so many Dementors as there were now.

Hermione's gut twisted as she thought about how many had flown down from the sky, catching everyone unawares. Who knew what sort of damage had already been done. She had to go back. She needed to transform and return to the battle—but she would not do so alone. First, she would cast her Patronus.

When she had transformed once more, and pulled herself tenderly to her feet (her ribs still pained her quite a lot), Hermione closed her eyes and tried to conjure in her mind the purest, most delightful memory she could imagine. In truth, she did not entirely know how to perform the Patronus spell. She had read about it, had heard Harry and Professor Lupin speak about it, but there was something yet more difficult she knew was required. But she did not know what that was. She would have to rely more on the strength of her memory and determination for the spell, her instincts and natural impulses rather than… any sort of… technical…

What was that?

Hermione could hear twigs snapping, she thought. Bushes rustling and the scraping of branches against—something very large that was pushing its way through the wood. Was it coming closer? Her pulse hummed. As best she could, she tried to hold her breath. The sounds were getting louder. Under the shuffle of leaves she could hear a course, ragged growling—almost, but somehow not quite fully, animal. Coming closer. Could it smell her? What was it? Please, not… It couldn't be…

There came a ripping loud howl just twenty or so feet to Hermione's left and she screamed, bolting deeper into the wood as fast as her feet could take her. It was Fenrir Greyback!

And he was after her—she could hear the crash of branches close behind, and a man, a beast, panting with giddy excitement.

Hermione pointed her wand over her shoulder. "Reducto!" she cried. There was an answering explosion, and then Greyback's laughter.

"Mudblood! Mudblood!" he cackled.

Hermione's lungs burned as she ran on. The trees and bushes whipped her face and her chest, but she tore through the undergrowth without heed. Up ahead she thought she could see the glow of moonlight on an open clearing. Open space—that would give her a chance to turn on Greyback, to fight, to escape. But could she reach it in time?

Greyback howled again, so very close behind her, Hermione could hardly remember how to put one foot in front of the other, she was so frightened. Again, she pointed her wand over her shoulder and shouted, "Stupefy! Impedimenta!" The spells seemed to disappear into a void for all the effect they had. Just twenty feet away from the clearing, now fifteen—run faster, faster! Branches cracked and crashed, as though the whole forest were being smashed to pieces under Greyback's weight. How big was he? "Stupefy!" Hermione shouted again, her vision narrowing to little dots of light, her chest aching with the effort of pulling in breath. Almost there. Almost there. "Stupefy! Stup—" With spectacular speed, Hermione's foot caught the root of a tree and down she went, knocking all air from her lungs and smashing her nose into the dirt.

In her dazed shock, she had only enough sense of mind to register a passing wind as the hulking form of Fenrir Greyback soared overhead—having just leaped in for the kill and narrowly missed at the last second.

Hermione wasted no time. As Greyback rolled to a crashing halt through a bush and into the clearing, Hermione snatched up her wand, and from right there, belly down on the ground, she threw forth the loudest, most powerful "STUPEFY!" she could manage.

She watched in horror as the thick jet of red light hit Greyback directly on his broad back, and then ricochet off into the dark, leaving no trace of itself behind but for the smallest of singed imprints on his tattered clothes.

Greyback began to pull himself almost leisurely to his feet. He turned to look at her, blood dripped from his mouth and down his chin in congealed rivulets, shining in the moonlight. Hermione stared at him in paralyzed shock. He stared right back, unblinking, with his cavernous, yellow eyes. "Good try, Mudblood," he rasped.

Why didn't her spells work? Hermione thought. Was it something about being a werewolf? Like Giant's blood, where it repelled minor spells? Did she need to try something stronger?

Suddenly, with no more warning than a slight intake of breath and a jerk of his arm, Greyback came at her again, full speed.

There was no time to think. Hermione knew she couldn't use her wand. She felt something solid and round beneath her right elbow and she rolled to the side, grabbing it up in both hands, and then coming full around, swinging her weapon as hard as she could at the approaching Greyback.

What turned out to be a very heavy tree branch crashed into the side of Fenrir's head and cracked through the middle in an explosion of splintered wood. Greyback howled with outrage, falling to the side and clutching his jaw with his clawed hands.

Hermione scrambled up and away as quick as she could, holding her ribs which ached like fire, making each breath agony. She grit her teeth and flicked her wand once more at Greyback's prostrate form, gasping, "Stupify!" for the last time. Again, the spell had no effect. Why didn't it work?!

Fenrir was already beginning to recover himself, and Hermione was on the brink of running for shelter to reevaluate her next move, when she heard someone—from the other side of the clearing—call out her name.

"Hermione!"

It was Professor Lupin. He was running quickly through the grass, wand outstretched, with a very strange, white-fury look on his face that Hermione had never seen before.

"Professor, what are you—"

"REDUCTO!"

Lupin's spell blasted Greyback, who was just about to regain his feet, backwards into a tree. Then Lupin swished his wand again and sent a netting of thick ropes flying through the air, which then ensnared Greyback's arms and legs so that he hit the ground, thrashing and snarling and howling with all his might.

Hermione realized that she was standing with her own wand outstretched, pointed at Greyback—but she was still not sure what to do.

"He must be killed, Hermione."

Hermione looked at Lupin in shock. He stared back, the lines of his face drawn tight, his skin white in the glow of starlight, and his brown eyes blazing with something Hermione did not understand—but feared all the same.

"I can't," she stammered. "I—I—"

"Of course not," he said, taking a step forward. "I will, I must. I only meant... He deserves it, you have to understand. You have no idea what… what he's done, and how much… how much he deserves…" But Lupin's arm shook as he held out his wand. He leaned his body forward as though trying to force himself to walk, only his legs would not obey.

They stood this way for several long moments—with Hermione paralyzed and shivering, Lupin gritting his teeth and willing himself move. All the while, Greyback's ropes were breaking under the will of his strength, tearing under his razor sharp teeth.

The seconds pressed on. Hermione was just about to work up the nerve to approach Lupin, to reason with him, and tell him that surely they could figure out another way, when there came another disturbance from the forest: A snap of twigs, the rustle of bushes, something loud that sent several crows flying, squawking into the air—and there was Professor McGonagall, bursting into the clearing.

McGonagall took three determined strides toward them, her robes streaming out behind her. She pointed her wand and said sharply into the night, "Avada Kedavra!"

There was a flash of green light, then all at once Fenrir Greyback's horrible thrashing, his groans and roars of outrage, were instantly silenced. He lay still, the half mutilated ropes wrapped around him now loosened from tension. In less than a fraction of a second, he was just a black shape, huddled against the roots of a tree.

With mirrored looks of disbelief, Lupin and Hermione watched McGonagall approach. There was some sort of slick, shiny substance that covered a good part of her robes, and as she got closer, eliminating the final distance between them, Hermione could see that the substance was a dark, deep red, and could not be mistaken for anything else. But whose blood was it? It couldn't be McGonagall's; here she was walking around, and anyone who had lost that much would surely be close to death. There were also long, angry burn marks that snaked up McGonagall's wrists and forearms, as though she had been caught up and tangled in ropes of fire. Everywhere on her body were signs of struggle and peril, but her expression was calm. Her eyes were steeled, her mouth set in a line of thinned determination. There were those, Hermione realized, who crumbled under pressure, who looked into the faces of their enemies and discovered suddenly that they were afraid.

It seemed that Minerva McGonagall was not one of those people.

McGonagall came to a stop next to Lupin (who still stood where he stood, holding out his wand in a trembling hand). "This is war," she replied coolly to their stares. "And in war, you do not take risks, you eliminate them. Come now. Back to the front—there is fighting yet to be done." She gestured at them to follow her. Then she turned, and began to walk back the way she had come.

Hermione and Lupin followed without a word.


Halfway through their return journey, Hermione managed to ask McGonagall—in a very tentative, ashamed sort of way—if she might be able to do something about the pain in Hermione's ribs.

McGonagall gave her a shrewd look and nodded, crouching next to her and muttering the same, strange incantation Hermione had heard from Snape so many long months ago when he had healed her knee in the Forbidden Forest.

Within minutes, Hermione felt all but healed again, and without a word, McGonagall stood and the three of them commenced their stoic march.

The woods were just so quiet. It was difficult for Hermione to work up the nerve—but she had to know. "Professor…" she said quietly. McGonagall glanced over her shoulder as they walked. She seemed able to read Hermione's question on her face before she could speak.

"It is not my blood, Miss Granger—nor anyone you know. A Hippogriff, bless it. I was…" she shook her head, "careless. Caught myself in a trap." She lifted her arm to show the rope burns. "That werewolf beast was upon me and a Hippogriff put itself between us, only to be torn to bits. Brave bloody soldiers, those creatures, loyal to a fault."

Hermione swallowed a lump in her throat and nodded. "And you, Professor, how did—" Hermione turned to look at Lupin, but her voice caught when she saw his hollowed gaze.

"How did I find you?" Lupin said in a raspy sort of voice. "I was tracking… I was after… him, Greyback, he… he attacked—"

"For pity's sake, she is not dead, Remus," snapped McGonagall sharply.

"No, but—"

"In fact, last I saw her, she was hardly wounded at all."

Lupin blinked. He seemed to let out a breath and that strange fury began to retreat from the lines of his face. "You mean she's…"

To Hermione's utmost surprise, McGonagall rolled her eyes. "Strong though your instincts are, I'm sure, to enrapture us all with your glory blaze of righteous revenge—you seem ill suited for the job, Remus. And Nymphadora has but bumped her head. Next time, I suggest you take a moment to reconsider the situation, to perhaps recognize the haze of battle nerves for what they are before you go running about the forest brandishing your sword and leaving the rest of us a man down in the meantime. Though, I suppose it is fortunate in the end, for if you had not been following Greyback, Miss Granger, here, would have no doubt succeeded in getting herself killed."

Hermione prickled at the last, hating for her efforts to be thought of so dismissively. "Actually, I had it mostly under control, Prof—"

McGonagall's gaze was so withering and so fierce then, Hermione felt her knees actually weaken to jelly so that she lost a step and had to stumble to recover.

Clearly, McGonagall did not take well to her students—favorite or otherwise—disobeying orders when they were expressly told to remain where they were put.

Well, anyway, Hermione though moodily, as she once again fell into a confident stride beside Lupin, she was here now, and alive, and she had done her share to help, so McGonagall could pretty well stuff it.

Another thought crossed her mind, and Hermione cleared her throat. "Um, Professor,"—she addressed Lupin this time—"Why didn't my spells work against… uh…" She looked over her shoulder, for some reason expecting him to come charging down the path after them. "Greyback."

Lupin shrugged. "I couldn't tell you. There's always been something about him that wasn't… quite normal. I say that while knowing that being a Werewolf is not strictly normal to begin with, but there's something about his human nature that fused with his wolf nature and then never seemed to separate again. Werewolves, when transformed, can often deflect minor spells—I've been attacked on several occasions and can tell you the truth of this. So perhaps Greyback retains that quality even when the moon is not full." Lupin shrugged again. "Though to be honest, Hermione, I haven't the faintest idea. And…" He shot a furtive glance in McGonagall's direction. "I suppose now we will never know."

Finally, after another few, long, silent minutes of walking, they halted at the edge of the forest. Over the distant rise of Gryffindor's lawn, Hermione could hear much yelling and see the familiar flashes of spells. Her throat felt tight.

McGonagall raised her wand and turned to Lupin and Hermione when they had stopped, saying firmly, "Patronuses, I'm afraid. Dementors are still in force."

Lupin nodded grimly and muttered a quiet, "Expecto Patronum." Out of the tip of his wand burst an enormous, shaggy, silver dog, that loped once around the three of them and then came to rest at Lupin's side. In response to Hermione's questioning look, Lupin smiled sadly. "Sirius was a good friend," he said.

Hermione felt a sick, heavy feeling ignite in the pit of her stomach.

McGonagall cast her Patronus next: A great, gleaming cat, with thick fur and bright eyes, and that was twice the size a normal cat should be.

Then both Professors looked at Hermione, who winced in return. "I…"

"Don't know how," finished Lupin.

Hermione nodded, her cheeks flaming.

Quickly, but thoroughly, Lupin ran through detailed instructions, with Hermione nodding along quietly and only asking the occasional question. When she was ready, Hermione positioned her wand and tried to conjure in her mind the most powerful happy memory she could imagine.

Winning the battle, she thought. The fight being over, and all of us safe and celebrating. But, that was no good, because the anxiety that took hold of her when she thought about the battle still underway tainted her happiness. Then, Pruitt cottage, of course, came to mind, and her perfect day there with Snape—however, much though she thought she should be able to use such memories, they were too interlaced with pain and death, with Sirius, and Frend's horrible blue eyes. School, then? Anything at school—surely, with Harry and Ron—but as she cycled through everything in the back of her head, all Hermione managed to realize was that every memory had so much worry—she was always worried!—and too much danger. How did they always manage to get themselves into trouble? Never a moment to rest. Never a second to breathe.

Except… Just once… When all was safe… For the shortest of hours…

Suddenly, almost unbidden, Hermione heard the soft, sweet notes of a piano in the back of her mind—the song of clouds and windy cities, street lamps at dusk, red wine and dancing on rooftops… She let the music fill up all the spaces in her head, one note at a time, and as she did so, she could almost feel Snape's hands moving on her skin, the rumble of his voice in her ear, the white fire of his kisses, and when she closed her eyes and saw a glimpse of his deep, happy, secretive smile—

"Expecto Patronum!" With a flash of white light, Hermione produced from the end of her wand a magnificent silver serpent—sleek and shining, and with such a sense of entitled nobility that it immediately reminded Hermione of Severus. The snake slipped through the air, encircling Hermione tenderly in a warm, wonderful light, making her skin glow. Then she blinked and looked up to see McGonagall and Lupin staring at her with very perplexed expressions.

"Uh…" Hermione stumbled, searching for something to say. How in the world to explain? "Uh… It's, um… Family pet," she managed lamely.

McGonagall gave a grunt, unconvinced. Lupin, too, looked skeptical. But the matter did not seem to merit any further investigation, because at McGonagall's signal, they set out once more, emerging from the protective shadows of the forest and across the open expanse of Gryffindor's moonlit grounds, up the sloping lawn, towards the waiting battle. And all the while, Hermione's serpent slipped through the air in a protective halo around her. Every time it passed close to her ear, she could hear—she swore she could hear—music, as though Snape's song were emanating from the very creature itself. The sound gave her heart strength, made her feel hopeful for the first time since she and the Weasley boys had first materialized on the dirt road outside town. If only such hope would last, she thought, if only it would be enough to see her through…

Sooner than expected, in no time at all it seemed, they were beyond the hedges and in the thick of it once more.

Dementors came at Hermione from every direction, rattling and gasping, stretching out their bony hands. Her Patronus lashed out faithfully, whipping its long tail and bearing its fangs at anything that dared attack.

From the darkness, a spell came at Hermione. She ducked just in time and sent a retaliatory jinx back at the Death Eater, whose silhouette she could only just make out a few feet away. The Death Eater blocked her spell with ease. Then he wound up for another attack, so fast, Hermione barely had time to register that she needed to readjust her wand position for a protective spell. From somewhere on her left, McGonagall stepped forward and blocked the Death Eater's attack before it had hardly begun. Then she sent the robed figure to the ground with a quick stream of red light and turned to Hermione, saying, "Quick as a cat, Miss Granger, on your toes. I know I've taught you better than that."

Hermione nodded in return, feeling emboldened, letting her chest fill up with it. McGonagall had taught her better, and Hermione would be damned if she didn't spend every last ounce of will she had in proving it.


The battle outside Godric Gryffindor's manor raged on until nearly dawn.

For the most part, Hermione stuck close to McGonagall. Lupin, she only saw for a few minutes when they first arrived, before he was off to defend Tonks, somewhere far beyond the wide, gravel path on which Hermione stood.

Other than that, she saw almost no one but enemies. In the time since Hermione had fled to the wood, the Order had managed to gather back some degree of control and had formed a sort of unofficial line of defense, encircling the manor, each of them responsible for a certain territory — and once Hermione found her footing, she dared not leave her post (as she had come to consider it).

Hours passed at a grueling pace.

Hermione's strength was so fleeting by the end of it, she could hardly keep her legs from giving out — but they were winning. The Death Eaters had all but gone. Half an hour previously, Buckbeak had found her in the dark, so Hermione was able at least to lean on him, to seek protection behind his armor and catch her breath.

The fact that Buckbeak had shown up without a rider was not lost on Hermione.

But if she thought about that fact too hard, she would certainly get herself killed. She needed to remember what McGonagall said. Lupin had acted rashly, now Hermione would learn from his mistake. It would be foolish of her to go running off at such a critical moment to look for Snape, when he very well might be just on the other side of the manor, alive and well and waiting for everything to stop so they could find each other again.

In any case, she would not have to wait long to find out, surely.

After hours of struggle, the battle had at last turned in favor of the Order. In the end, to everyone's surprise, what brought them their victory were the Dementors — who, after discovering that the Order proved apt in conjuring powerful Patronuses, began to attack their fellow dark Wizards instead. The Death Eaters were unable to ward off the specters, either from lack of knowledge of lack of happy thoughts, and when the last of their feeble Patronuses died out, they fled. Then, as the final masked man disapparated with a crack, the Dementors, too, sensed their defeat and took flight, escaping not only the glow of so many Patronuses, but also the coming rays of morning light.

At once, there was a cheer of triumph. They won! They did it! But the cheer was quickly stifled, for Harry and Dumbledore had yet to emerge from Godric's manor.

And Hermione had yet to see a sign of Severus Snape.

As sunrise finally began to peek out over the top of the hedges, illuminating the staggering wreckage left behind on the field of battle, Hermione looked around and the first person she saw — with an enormous sigh of relief that reached into the very depths of her chest at the sight of that shock of red hair — was Ron Weasley.

Oh, how she wanted to run to him, and hug him and weep with exhaustion. But she held back for some reason, not wanting to give herself over to her emotions just yet. She wanted to prove that she could maintain herself, keep composure. Perhaps this had something to do with the straight-back presence of Professor McGonagall, whom Hermione could just see at the edge of her peripheral vision. Or perhaps Hermione simply wanted to prove such things to herself.

Either way, Hermione disentangled herself from Buckbeak and, on shaky legs, calmly approached her dear friend.

Ron let out an enormous breath when he saw Hermione, putting a hand to his head as though he very well might faint with relief. He seemed unhurt, but he was so pale, and trembling all over, and—she realized, as Ron promptly let out a small cry and grabbed her up in a tight hug—sopping wet.

"You're alright," he said weakly. "You're…" He pulled back and did a slight double take, staring at the big, red stains all over Hermione's clothes.

She waved him off. "Flowers," she said. "Just red flowers, and — well, I wouldn't be surprised if some of it was blood, honestly. Professor Snape was covered in it." She paused, feeling her heartbeat quicken despite herself. "You… haven't seen him, have you?"

Ron shook his head. "Not for a few hours in any case. Last I saw, he was on foot, chasing after Bellatrix Lestrange into the mansion."

So… Hermione thought. Snape, too, was missing somewhere beneath their feet. No doubt, once sensing the changing tide of battle, Bellatrix had fled to her master with the news, or perhaps to seek his protection. And Snape had followed. Wherever they were now, they were with Voldemort. And Harry. And Dumbledore.

Hermione took a deep breath, endeavoring not to think about that just yet. She gave Ron another once-over as she searched for something else to say. "Why are you wet, by the way?" she asked.

Ron gave her a weak, half-smile. "Right, that. Well, there was all that fire being thrown about, I'm sure you remember."

She nodded.

"And, it's all kind of a blur really, but there was this woman who was trapped—flames all around her. I didn't have time to think, so I just sort of waved my wand and doused myself with water and jumped in to grab her. When that worked pretty well, I thought it might be a good idea to keep doing that, hosing myself down every so often — you know, as a precautionary measure."

Hermione blinked in surprise. "That's… very smart, Ron. I never thought to do that."

From behind Ron, Arthur Weasley walked up to join them. He, too, was wet, having followed his son's example. He clapped a hand on Ron's shoulder and beamed down at him proudly. "Didn't lose your head, that's for sure. Hello, Hermione — are you alright? Uninjured?"

Hermione nodded, and looked around behind them as a thought occurred. "Where's…" But then Hermione could not make herself say it, fearing the answer if bad news prevailed.

Ron's eyebrows furrowed. Then he understood. "Oh, Mum, you mean? She's off trying to find Fred and George. A complete wreck, mind you. It really did a number on her, seeing us all here in the middle of things. Though I guess I can't rightly blame her. The reason she was risking her life in the first place was to ensure that we wouldn't have to risk ours."

"Well put," said Mr. Weasley. "I suppose I should be yelling at you too, but I'm afraid I'm not as young as I used to be, and I just haven't the strength for it. I'm sure we'll be discussing an appropriate punishment later, when the family's all together again."

Ron grimaced, but not in the way that Hermione had expected. He seemed ashamed, apologetic, and very much aware of what he had just put his parents through. It was then Hermione realized that something had changed in Ron since she parted ways with him not too many hours ago. He had grown up.

And so had she, Hermione thought. In a way. It felt… strange to notice such a thing about oneself, and she was not entirely sure how she felt about it. So, instead, she changed the subject. "Your brothers," she said after a few moments. "I haven't seen them since the beginning, when they took hold of that Hippogriff. Have you…" she trailed off, because Ron shook his head again slowly. Mr. Weasley adopted a very strained, white sort of look on his face.

"That's why Molly's off searching," said Mr. Weasley. "Said she saw them for a brief spell maybe half an hour into the fight and then not a peep from them since. In fact… I said I would stay at my post, but seeing as it's all quieted down now… I'm sorry, Hermione — Ron. You two, uh… stay together, alright? Just… stay here. I'll be straight back when I've heard word…" After readjusting his glasses and taking a moment to assess the surrounding scene, he took off at a light jog.

Hermione saw him pause a little ways down the lawn when he was hailed by Professor McGonagall. The two of them stood talking for a brief minute, and then both of them were jogging away, along the perimeter of the house.

Ron and Hermione remained still and quiet for a while, neither of them ready—nor perhaps even feeling the need—to discuss what had occurred over the past night.

Eventually, Hermione broke the silence. "Do you think we made the right choice?" she asked.

Ron seemed to think on this before replying. "I thought we did, at first, but… With everything that's happened, with all those near misses, and with my brothers… my…" He trailed off, something in the distance having caught his attention.

"Your…" Hermione prompted.

When Ron did not immediately go on, Hermione turned to look for herself.

The moment she recognized the approaching figures, she let out a cry. "Your brothers!"

She and Ron started running at once, meeting up with Fred and George in fact very near the place Hermione had caught Snape in the air—that had been so fast, so close. She thought she could see the glimmer of broken glass amongst the flowers.

Meanwhile, George was leaning heavily on Fred, and his shirt had been ripped to shreds. Both boys were stained all over with blood, but aside from exhaustion neither of them seemed hurt, and both were smiling.

"What happened to you?" said Ron and Fred at the same time.

"You first," said Hermione and George.

The four of them laughed, and then George went on. "Just a scratch, really."

Fred shook his head. "That bloody Hippogriff. You two made the right choice, staying on the ground—nearly killed us, it did, and more than once at least."

Hermione's mouth fell open a little as she pointed at George's torn shirt. "Did—did the Hippogriff do—"

"No, no," said Fred hastily.

George grimaced. "I was stupid."

"He got cursed, it wasn't his fault. In any case, we were in the air and he had the navigation. That idiot bird spooked when George got all sliced up and I tried to grab for the reins, get the thing under control again, but it kept flying higher and higher. George sort of passed out, I think. Then we fell."

Hermione let out a small sound of distress. Her stomach churned and she felt her face go white. "How did you…"

Fred and George looked at each other, then they smiled.

"An Order member," Fred said. "He swooped down out of nowhere with his broom and slowed our fall—enough to cushion our landing in any case."

"And we fell into a pool," added George.

Fred nodded. "Then he healed George. Impressive magic, to say the least."

"Who was it?" asked Ron.

"Some guy named Sarofim. Afterwards, he said something about being glad to have had a chance to repay our dad the favor. I don't know what he was going on about. Actually, have you seen Dad, by the way?"

"Yeah, just a minute ago." Ron pointed off in the direction Mr. Weasley and McGonagall had disappeared. "That way."

"Do you think we should go after him, or wait here, do you think?"

Ron raised his hands helplessly. "He said he would be back. He was going to find Mum and help her look for you two. She's been out searching since—"

But Ron was cut off as they heard an enormous cheer rise up from around the front of the house. Shouts and whoops, and cries of triumph—and seconds later, with bangs, and bursts of color, fireworks that were magically shot into the air.

Hearts in their throats, the four of them took off running and raced around the perimeter of the house to find the waiting crowd of Order members by the stairs, all leaping and crying, and holding each other, and laughing.

And there, in the midst of it all, was Harry.

They rushed immediately forward to get to him, through the crowd to his side. Hermione was first to arrive—and was subsequently the one who caught him as Harry stumbled off the steps and fell into her arms for an embrace like none she had ever had.

"I've done it," Harry said in her ear.

Hermione felt tears prick behind her eyes.

The Weasleys had to have been waylaid at some point, perhaps by their parents, because Hermione realized that it was just she and Harry, standing there together in a small space, surrounded on all sides by celebrating witches and wizards.

Hermione pulled back, and so did Harry. He looked tired, but Hermione could not manage to make her brain notice anything else about him other than the fact that he was alive. And that his eyes were so very green. And that his scar had gone.

"I did it, Hermione," he said again.

Hermione tried to push down the sobs now welling up in her throat. "Harry, you… Oh, Harry. You… you… How did you do it?"

"I… used my wand."

Hermione made a small noise of amusement. "Well, yes, Harry, I gathered as much. But what spell? What sort of incantation could possibly—"

"No, no," Harry waved his hands—which were shaking, she saw, with magnificent tremors. "I used my wand, Hermione." He held it up. There was something strange about it. "Stabbed him. Straight through to where it was sure to kill him. Right here, on the underside of his…" Harry pointed to the underside of his jaw, where the flesh was soft and vulnerable. Hermione realized at once what was strange about Harry's wand. The whole of it—right up to the handle, was stained and blackened.

Stabbed him? …With that?

Brave bloody sword-wielding Gryffindor, indeed, Hermione thought. But all she could manage to say aloud was a drawn out almost reverently whispered, "Holy shit."

"Yeah," was all Harry said in reply.

"But—but," Hermione sputtered. "But how did you manage do it?"

Harry shrugged, shaking his head at the same time. It must have been so overwhelming for him, but he must have wanted to tell her, because he managed to put it together. "Your potion, Hermione," he said. "You see, none of my spells were working, so I—well I've never been great shakes with magic, you know that. At least not good enough to battle Voldemort. I sort of knew from the start that straight dueling wasn't going to work, or any variation on that. I was counting on Dumbledore being there to help, because he was the one with all the answers, but…"

The pit of Hermione's stomach dropped. "Don't tell me—"

"No, he's alright, Dumbledore's fine, he's just fine. In fact, he came out right behind me, he's somewhere around here… Anyway, Dumbledore was there beside me as we chased down Voldemort, all through the—there was this maze of tunnels underground—and we ran through them after Voldemort, for ages, we were running. It must have been hours, but I couldn't tell you how long. Then we got to this big room, like a throne room or something—there were these throne looking things there, four of them, and each one had a pile of bones—at least I think that's what they were—and above them were big portraits of the Hogwarts Founders. Voldemort had done something… horrible. Probably even Dumbledore doesn't know how he did it. But out of nowhere, the four Founders—Gryffindor and Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Slytherin were all there—like their ghosts or something, or their bodies, or I don't even know, but they were there. It was their skeletons, I think—Voldemort must have found their remains and done something, because they were possessed, they started attacking Dumbledore. You see, that's why it was just me and Voldemort at the end. I was on my own because—Hermione, you should have seen it—Dumbledore was fighting all four of the Hogwarts founders. All of them at once. It was… incredible."

Hermione could hardly breathe, waiting for Harry to go on. She couldn't imagine. The founders of Hogwarts… possessed by Voldemort… To what dark depths did that man's power reach?

"Anyway, the point is, I knew I was going to lose. The only thing I had was that gold potion, and I… Honestly, I suppose I didn't have any other choice, but I decided to trust you, Hermione—something that has never served me wrong in the past, I must say—and do the only thing I could do. I… let him kill me."

"Oh, Harry…"

"The element of surprise was my only weapon. That, and my wand. But as he was walking towards me, and I started to—to—you know, come back—I couldn't think of any spells. I tried and tried, but by then he was there and it was too late, so I just reacted. I knew I had to kill him, so I did what instinct told me and used the weapon I had in my hand. And…" Harry gave the most deeply weary, wise, and powerfully sad half-smile Hermione had ever seen. "It worked. He's dead." Harry paused, then said, "And all because of you."

Hermione felt herself laughing and crying and cheering all at once—yet all of it silently in her head because she couldn't find the energy to possibly express the full extent of what she was feeling. Everything was over at last. Everything, all their struggles and fears, and all of it so unpredictable but somehow fated. How did they do it? It wasn't just luck; they had certainly had their share of misfortune. But still it was all such a tumble of things building upon themselves and building and moving forward until here they were suddenly, at the end of it, with Harry alive and Voldemort dead… "And all because I missed my dinner!" she said suddenly aloud.

Harry stared back at her questioning. "Uh…"

Hermione's mind was in a fantastic, whirling tornado of thoughts and memories and overwhelming emotions. "Ages ago, I fell asleep in a lesson," she babbled, "and Snape never woke me so I missed my dinner, and if I hadn't fallen asleep, Snape wouldn't have punished me, I wouldn't have wanted revenge, got detention, seen him summoned by Voldemort, thought I'd poisoned him, and I wouldn't have been there to save him that night, so we wouldn't have largitio, I wouldn't have been able to make the phoenix potion, and you'd be dead, Harry, you wouldn't have revived to save the world, and all because he made me miss my dinner! By God, it's a good thing Snape's such a bastard!"

The both of them laughed, Hermione clutching Harry, and Harry clutching her right back.

Harry ran his hand through his hair as he took several deep breaths. "Snape was a bloody, hero, Hermione, I don't mind saying," he said, a bit more serious now. "Bellatrix came bursting in near the end, and we all thought we were done for, because Dumbledore was just barely hanging on as it was. I was on the ground, seemingly dead. He wasn't prepared for that to happen, I think, and he sort of lost it, he'd almost given up on the will to keep going—and with Bellatrix suddenly attacking him too, it was looking impossible. But then Snape was there, and killed her—he killed Bellatrix and saved Dumbledore. He also knew about the potion, of course, he saw me and knew I wasn't dead, and damned if he didn't start attacking Voldemort, distracting him, at exactly the right moment! Because right as Snape drew Voldemort's fire." Harry motioned with his wand. "Straight through. Over in less than a second. And I couldn't have done it without Snape. He… really saved us down there."

The turmoil of emotions in Hermione's chest swelled so full she could barely get out the words. "And I saved him," she breathed.

Harry smiled and gave Hermione's shoulder an affectionate squeeze. "Yes, you did."

Then… Just then…

Hermione heard something—perhaps a slight sound from the surrounding crowd, or the creak of a door hinge, or the fall of his footstep, or maybe it was just the music of his soul that somehow reached out through the air and touched her beneath her chin, tipping up her head so that as she looked along the wide stairs to the very top where the doors of Gryffindor's mansion stood open, Snape was there at last. Tall and slim and clothed all in black, his dark hair shining with that stripe of white gleaming in the rising sun, and his pale hands at his sides as he descended the stairs, every inch of him exuding that elegant, hard-won, confident pride that was so very much his own.

Just as Severus Snape reached the second landing midway down the stairs, Hermione gave out a cry. She threw herself forward and ran up the stone steps, taking them two at a time, tears stinging her cheeks, and she tackled him to the ground right there, hitting him and punching him all over.

"You gave it to someone else!" she shrieked. "You stupid, stupid man—I can't believe you did that! I gave it to you and you gave it away! My potion, my rules, you knew it but you bloody did it anyway! You idiot man, how could you!"

But through it all, Snape was laughing. And within moments, Hermione's blows turned to kisses and her arms wrapped tightly around his neck as his arms wrapped tightly around her back.

"I'm alright, aren't I?" he said gruffly, making her head spin with the sound of his voice. "Stop fussing."

Hermione buried her face in his shoulder, all but sobbing now. "I can damn well fuss if I damn well want to, you big bloody oaf! I've never been so frightened!"

Snape laughed again, and stroked her hair. She kissed his cheek and reached up to thread her fingers into that single lock of white at his temple. She was entirely lost in a world that was him, just him and only him, when Snape suddenly cleared his throat. "Hermione," he said warningly into her ear, as though just having noticed himself. "People are watching."

Hermione looked up at last, and turned her gaze to the side to see that absolutely everyone within hearing distance, in fact all of the crowd still gathered at the foot of the stairs, were watching them—and each of them with expressions of horror, disbelief, their faces various shades of color; from Tonks's delicate pink to Ron's fierce red, McGonagall's deep purple to Harry's tinge of green (who, in fact, looked so nauseated by the sight of them, that he seemed to be moments away from emptying the contents of his stomach all over the grass).

Hermione took one look at them, then one look at the battered, handsome, soot smeared, smiling face in her arms, and felt her heart sing.

"Oh, sod them all!" she said with a laugh, and, with everyone still watching, she leaned down to kiss her dear Severus full on the mouth, tongue and all.


...

The End

...


A/N: My gosh, here we are. After how many years now? There are so many of you I want to thank, JFig/Buggo, oddmentandtweak, misundersnape, Capt. Blue-Eyed Jane, debjunk, and so, so many, many more who I'm sure have been there for so long, being so vocal and supportive and awesome, and thank you to EVERYONE for making me smile every day! I don't even know how to begin. You guys are AWESOME. This damn story has been so long in the making, it is frankly stupid to think about. But despite it all, there we are, all finished and done and once and for all and forever at last we can finally finally FINALLY officially label it "complete."

AND YOU KNOW WHAT? NO ONE DIES. SCREW IT. I DON'T CARE. I DO WHAT I WANT. LUPIN AND TONKS AND SNAPE AND DUMBLEDORE AND ALL THE DAMN WEASLEYS. EVERY DAMN LAST ONE OF THEM. THEY LIVE I TELL YOU. ALL OF THEM. HAPPILY EVER AFTER. THE END.

Thank you.

All my love and gratitude,

L.M.

**EDIT: Epilogue to come. Maybe. Probably... Maybe. Eventually. Yes. I think so. Yes. :D