A/N: Recap of the story so far: An injured Hermione wakes up to find that Snape has rescued her after she was captured by Death Eaters during a raid. It turns out that, as far as Dumbledore's death is concerned, Harry (as usual) didn't get his facts right. Since Voldemort has ordered her dead, she can't return to the Order – at least not as Hermione Granger. Since there is a mole in the order, doing so would be the equivalent of signing Snape's death sentence. So, with the help of Minerva McGonagall, they concoct a plan (using Polyjuice) that will allow her to return to the Order under an alias once she is recovered. While she is still recuperating, Snape returns one evening with the news that Ron Weasley has been killed in action.
She woke up the next morning to a fresh wave of grief dragging at her like a riptide, threatening to wash her out to sea.
Ron was dead.
When Snape entered with breakfast, acute embarrassment was added to the emotions churning inside her. She had been cruel to him last night. And something else had happened. She couldn't quite remember what — for some reason, much of what happened last night was a complete blur — but there was a vague feeling that something she had said hadn't been appropriate.
What had he given her?
Her muscles still protesting, she pulled herself up into a sitting position.
"Miss Granger." He set down the breakfast plate with a nod and turned to leave, the stiffness that had been absent for the last few days back in his posture and his voice.
He turned back towards her with obvious reluctance.
"I think we should make arrangements for me to return to the Order," Hermione said in a rush. "I'm feeling…quite well enough. It is time." She had imposed on his hospitality long enough. Her presence had to be a burden he could do without.
His face stayed expressionless. "Very well. As long as you are certain."
She gave him a half-smile. "I am. At least I think I am. "
The story they had agreed on was that she was Jane Brown, an Unspeakable who for the last few years had supplied the Order with undercover information, dealing directly only with first Dumbledore and then Minerva. She had recently been injured after her identity had been exposed to Voldemort's forces, and would have to recover at headquarters.
Going back under an alias would enable her to be of some use to the Order again, as soon as she was fully on her feet. The Light needed all the help they could get.
Then, when it was safe to resume her old identity — once Voldemort was dead — the plan was to stage a theoretical coup in which Hermione Granger would get dramatically rescued while Jane Brown met her sad end.
It sounded simple enough, but as Hermione looked up into the impassive face of her former teacher, she was suddenly assailed by doubts. Was going back really the right thing to do?
Again the enormity of what he had risked to get her out of Voldemort's clutches was driven home to her. As was the fact that he was placing his life in her hands. One wrong word, and he might be found out. One slip of the tongue, overheard by whoever was passing information to Voldemort, and it could spell the end for him. "I'll be careful," she said, without being asked. "I promise."
"See that you are. I'll contact Minerva and let her know."
An hour later he was back, setting three large bottles and a small envelope down on her bedside table. "Minerva will be here shortly. Here is the Polyjuice Potion, enough for at least a month, and the hair to add to it. I have more of both should the need arise." It was impossible to tell for how long exactly she would have to live as Jane Brown. "This house is Fidelius protected. Number 23, Candlestick Lane, Oxenholme. You may come here to replenish your supplies, if need be. I do not usually reside here, so you don't have to be afraid of …imposing." He pointed to the small wall cupboard. "I will leave everything necessary in there. The envelope with the extra hair will be labeled with your name."
Hermione nodded, took the first bottle of Polyjuice, carefully extracted a hair from the envelope, and dropped it in. The potion hissed and frothed, then turned a dull, dark grey.
"Where did you get the hair?" Hermione asked.
"A Muggle," he said, in a tone of voice that discouraged further questions. He handed her a small, empty bottle made from opaque green glass, prominently labeled 'Snap-back Solution.' "Here."
Hermione recognized the name – it was a general strengthening elixir they had brewed in their fourth year. Apparently, the man had thought of everything. Since the Polyjuice must be taken every hour, this would provide an adequate explanation if she had to take it in public. Jane Brown was supposed to be a convalescent, after all.
"Very clever. Thank you, sir." Decanting some of the finished Polyjuice into the smaller bottle, Hermione wrinkled her nose at the familiar cabbage smell. With a sigh, she eyed the bottle, then took a quick sip. "Well, here goes…"
The transformation was as unpleasant as she remembered, as her skin, muscle, and bone reshaped to the form of someone else. Less than a minute later, Hermione Granger was gone, and a stranger named Jane Brown sat in her place. She got up and stepped reluctantly in front of the small, half-blind mirror hanging on the wall. 'Jane' was at least ten years older than she, maybe a centimeter shorter, with shoulder-length, mousy brown hair and hazel eyes. Hermione touched the straight, dull tresses, shivering at the strangeness of it all, all of a sudden fighting tears again.
When would this be over? When would all the changes and losses stop? Would there ever be a time when things went back to quiet and normal?
She turned to Snape, as if he could provide the answer. It had been a common reaction for her lately, she realized. But he was looking at her with shuttered eyes, his mouth in a straight, grim line, and she knew that in this case, he would be as much at sea as everyone else.
Only a short time later, Minerva appeared, and they left the house together. Just before they Disapparated, Hermione turned back for a last look. Snape stood motionlessly in the doorway, watching, a silent, solitary figure. She raised her hand slightly, waving a hesitant goodbye.
She would miss him, she realized with a sudden jolt.
It was time to go back; the Order needed her, and she needed them, needed to be with them, now that Ron was dead. It was the right thing to do.
But she would miss him.
It felt good to see them all again. Harry, Remus, Ginny, Molly... Hermione resolutely blinked away the tears as she looked at red-rimmed eyes in worn, drained faces, now staring at her with wary expressions. There had of course been questions and raised eyebrows when McGonagall had shown up at headquarters with a perfect stranger in tow.
"Her name's Jane. Jane Brown. I've known her for years." McGonagall, voice raised and eyes glaring fiercely over the top of her square glasses, had recited the agreed-upon backstory perfectly and with passion. "Please do make her feel welcome. Though you haven't met her before, she's as much a part of the Order as any of you."
"If yeh say so." Dedalus Diggle's voice sounded doubtful. Hermione suppressed a sigh – she was sure many of the others shared his doubts. It was understandable, of course. She would have been suspicious herself in their position.
"Look, she's here, isn't she?" The mere fact that Hermione – Jane – had been able to even enter the Black residence proved that she belonged. "If Dumbledore thought she could be trusted, isn't that enough for you?"
"Well, he's been known to be wrong before, hasn't he?" Diggle said sullenly.
Hermione tensed, and saw Minerva's hands ball into fists at her side.
Remus stepped forward and gave Diggle a warning glance. "You have to forgive our manners, Miss Brown. I'm afraid you've caught us at a rather…difficult time. You must be tired. Let me see you up to your room…"
Yes, it felt good to be back – at first. Rejoining the Order turned out to be much more difficult than she had expected. Hermione had not been prepared for how hard it would be to come back as a stranger, to be there, but not belong.
These were kind people, she knew, but at the moment, the stranger in their midst was simply an unwelcome imposition. Jane had no right to intrude on their private sorrowing.
She wanted to hold them, touch them, grieve and cry with them, reminisce with them, reassure them. To comfort them, and be comforted herself. Instead, she had to hide her own anguish and stand on the sidelines, unable to do much of anything other than offer general condolences.
In the middle of all these people she loved, she felt more alone than she ever had before.
It was hard, watching them hurt. To see Remus look years older than he had looked just weeks ago. To see the twins subdued and quiet, so unlike their typical selves. To see Tonks colorless and drab, the spark driven out of her. To see Molly and Ginny watch Harry with anxious eyes, the last of the trio to survive.
Harry. How many more losses could he take?
Oh, how she wished now that he would have tried harder, that he wouldn't have given Snape reason to stop the Occlumency lessons. Sometimes, she got close to revealing herself to him, to let him know that she was alive, to at least lift that burden off him. But she knew that she couldn't – it was anyone's guess when Voldemort would try and reestablish the connection to his mind. It was simply too big a risk to take.
She tried talking to him a few times, only to find herself firmly rebuffed. To him, she was just an irritating, meddling stranger.
"I hate being Jane Brown," she said with explosive force as she took tea in her room with Minerva a couple of weeks after she had got back. "I hate it." She hated the face-that-wasn't-hers looking back in the mirror. She hated the way her friends treated her with remote, kind politeness, as if she were nothing but a business associate. She hated the way conversations stopped when she entered the room, the way they would impatiently look up and wait for her to leave. "I don't want to do this any more."
Minerva surreptitiously strengthened the Muffliato she had cast before looking at her with sympathy. "I know it's hard, but…"
Hermione had got up and was pacing the room restlessly. "I didn't think it would be this hard. They are all starting to refer to me in the bloody past tense."
"Harry isn't," Minerva said quietly.
Hermione laughed bitterly. "Do you see the looks the rest of them give each other when he talks of rescue plans? They think he's crazy to still hold out hope."
"Well, he isn't, isn't he?" Minerva put down her cup. "It's only a matter of time until you…"
"A matter of time! Ron's dead, and they think I'm dead, and I have to tell them lie after lie after lie, if they even talk to me at all. I hate being Jane Brown! – You know what I did?" Her laugh had slightly crazed edge to it. "I took some of the Polyjuice that Snape gave me and added one of my own hairs, just so I know I can turn back into myself when I want to. I can't even stand to be Jane for the bloody hour it takes for the bloody potion to wear off at night!"
Minerva shrugged. "That sounds reasonable enough."
"Sometimes I feel like I'm going crazy. If it wasn't for you…" She raised her hands helplessly. "It's just – I can't even talk about Ron to them. Or about anything else that really matters." Her voice broke. "I miss him so much. – Do you think that is what Snape felt like all those years? Always on the outside looking in?"
"Shush. Not here." Minerva had got up as well. "I tell you what, child. When you can't stand it here any more, come and see me at Hogwarts. My quarters are safe from spies or Extendable Ears, and you can be yourself for at least an hour or two."
Hermione laughed shakily. "I'd love that."
"It's settled then. Come on Tuesday. I'll be done by four."
She began to look forward to the visits with a fervency that seemed almost obsessive. An hour to be herself, an hour talk to someone who knew who she was, an hour to talk about anything she needed to talk about – about her friends, about her fears and worries, about Ron. About Snape.
Another thing that had turned out so much harder than she had imagined was listening to them talk about Snape, to watch their faces contort with hatred at the mere mention of his name, and say nothing, to bite her tongue day after day.
She found herself thinking about him constantly – a lone man walking on the edge of a precipice, with no room for error. The smallest mistake would have deadly consequences. And not just from Voldemort's side. Should the Auror Corps find him, they would fire spells first and ask questions later.
It seemed to do Minerva good, as well, to talk about her Severus to someone who had a willing ear. The old witch had carried his secret a lot longer than she had.
In the course of their conversations, Hermione learned more about him, about his student years, his first years as a teacher, and his role as their spy than she had ever expected. There was so much she hadn't known — things that made her gasp, made her laugh, made her cry, made her angry, made her feel ashamed for the wizarding world. Things that made her feel as if she was finally beginning to know him.
When after three weeks she went back to Dumbledore's house to replenish her supply of Polyjuice, she found the place empty. Of course, he had told her not to expect him there, she told herself. It would have been silly to get her hopes up.
And yet she lingered as long as she could.
He never appeared.
Sometimes when she visited with Minerva, Snape's Patronus would arrive with a message. A magnificent eagle – she had recognized it immediately as his.
She could not think of a Patronus that would have been more appropriate for him. Proud and solitary; fiercely protective of those who belonged to him; loyal, but not mindlessly so; strong and brave and independent. It suited him perfectly.
She breathed a sigh of relief every time she saw it, because it meant that he was still alive, that he was, for now, safe.
Its raptor silhouette reminded her of his beaky, proud, slightly sinister looks. She had always thought of him as ugly, and she couldn't quite figure out when that had changed. It wasn't as if his looks had improved, but when she thought of him now, what she remembered was the way he carried himself; his voice; the elegant motion of long, thin hands; the sound of his heartbeat as she had cried against his chest…
Now the hair — well, yes, something would have to be done about that, of course, but… At that point, she ruthlessly pulled the emergency brakes on her train of thought and jumped off.
It was not likely Snape's hair was ever going to be her concern, was it?
Things came to a head in late May. There had been a Patronus from Snape, with news of the greatest urgency. Apparently, Voldemort had just recently taken up residence at Malfoy Manor, and Severus had managed to slip some poison into Nagini's food. The great snake, the last Horcrux, lay dying. It was imperative for the Order to move instantly, and he would…
The Patronus blinked out suddenly, in the middle of a sentence. Hermione's heart stopped for a second.
"What does that mean? Why did it do that?"
"I don't know." Minerva's voice sounded ragged. "But we had better go now…"
Not half an hour later, the Order Apparated in the grounds of Malfoy Manor, and shortly thereafter Ministry forces arrived as well. The battle raged on for what seemed like hours, as Aurors and Order members fought Death Eaters.
And then, suddenly, just like that, it was over.
Voldemort was vanquished. Bodies, of friends and enemies, dead or merely stunned, littered the grounds. The remaining Death Eaters high-tailed it out of there, disappearing with quick, final 'pops' as they Disapparated.
She hadn't seen Snape anywhere. Not on the side of the Death Eaters, not joining the Order. The thought gave her an icy feeling in the pit of her stomach. It was so…unlike him. He would have been there, if given the chance.
As soon as she could, while the rest of them were still busy attending to wounded comrades, she ran towards the Manor. She passed a group huddled around Harry; Remus Lupin was attempting to mend a cut on his forehead, but the young man was struggling to get away, his voice filled with angry determination – "…Let me go…have to find…"
She passed another small group where two Aurors were levitating a limp McGonagall off the ground. Snippets of voices drifted her way. "…unconscious…." "…still breathing…" "…got to get her to St. Mungo's…"
Hurrying on, she reached the Manor. An Auror — she knew him; he worked under Marston — was examining the corpse of the huge Snake. Another Auror was already checking the ground floor, wand drawn.
"Anything?" she called softly.
He shook his head. "No."
She hurried ahead down the corridors, checking doors. If Snape was still here, if he was still alive, she had to get to him before anyone else. As universally hated as he was, she wouldn't put it past any of them to finish him off and declare him a casualty of battle, just one more dead Death Eater.
And the only person who could effectively exonerate him was unconscious and on her way to St. Mungo's.
She found him in a room in the basement, behind a door with a weak ward, as if it had been warded in a hurry: a heap of black fabric, his face ghastly pale, his eyes closed. "Ennervate!" she muttered frantically, kneeling down next to him on the ground. How badly was he hurt?
His eyes fluttered open. She had to think fast — she could hear voices at the end of the long corridor. She ran her hands over his arms and legs carefully; there seemed to be nothing broken and he wasn't bleeding, but he was obviously in no shape to go anywhere quickly. What she wouldn't give for a bottle of Invigoration Draught right now!
Instead, she cast every energizing spell she could think of.
"Oh, please get up, we have to get you out of here…" she begged.
One way or another, she needed to make Severus disappear before they found him. Thinking rapidly, she pulled a vial out of her pocket. The familiar rotten cabbage smell rose into the air as she pulled out the cork. "Here." She lifted the bottle to his mouth. "Drink it. Now."
He took a choking gulp, and she stuffed the vial back into her pocket. As he started to transform, his form shrinking, becoming smaller, his black hair curling up into brown frizz, she looked anxiously to the door. Just another second, she thought fervently. I need just another second. In front of her, Snape had turned into a replica of Hermione Granger. The spells had done their job, as well. He — she — was attempting to get up.
Draping his arm around her shoulders, she helped him to his feet. His Death Eater robes hung loosely on him, now too big and too long.
Then Harry's face appeared in the doorway.
"Hermione!" With a few quick steps, Harry walked up and pulled Snape into a bear hug. "Oh god, I had almost given up hope," — his words came out muffled; he sounded like he was crying and laughing at the same time — "I thought you were dead. I can't believe you're alive…"
'Jane' had reluctantly let go as Harry pushed her out of the way. She could see Snape glaring at her over Harry's shoulder, incredulity and revulsion flitting across his face. It was…bizarre, seeing that Snapish look on her own features. She had to bite her tongue to stop herself from breaking into hysterical giggles.
Putting a hand on his back, she stepped closer. If Harry was here, Remus and Tonks were probably not far behind. She needed to get Snape to safety. And she couldn't allow herself to be separated from him – if the Polyjuice Potion wore of, and she wasn't there…
"She should really go to St Mungo's, there is no telling what curses she's been subjected to…"
But how to get rid of Harry? She felt somewhat guilty, but there was only one absolutely sure-fire way she could think of.
"By the way, did anyone find Snape yet?" She watched the happy grin fall off Harry's face. "She says she thinks they locked him up on the second basement level. Apparently, he double-crossed them, too." She slipped a protective arm back around Snape's waist as Harry straightened up.
To her surprise, Harry didn't storm off the way she had expected. He just gave a tired shrug. "Let him rot there, then." He reached out and squeezed his friend's arm. "All I was worried about was finding you. I told them you'd still be alive!"
"Well, you found me," Snape, who apparently had caught on, spoke up with impatience. "Now go finish the job. Go find the man responsible for all of this. "
Harry straightened up with a sigh, regret edged on his features. "I suppose you're right. I'll come to St. Mungo's as soon as we finish mopping up here." He pulled 'Hermione' into another quick hug before turning to Jane. "You'll take care of her?"
The real Hermione nodded. "I will. We're going right now."
Harry looked at Snape again. "Are you all right going with her, Hermione? Maybe we should wait for Tonks."
Snape quickly interrupted him. "Don't worry about me. It's fine."
Harry finally seemed satisfied. "All right, then…I'll see you later, okay?"
As he disappeared down the corridor, Hermione quickly draped Snape's arm over her shoulder again. "Let's go quickly, before someone else shows up."
"This way," Snape said, pointing at a small door off to the right. "It'll take us to a hidden passage in the back. We can get past the Anti-Apparition wards without being seen."
Hermione nodded. Good thinking. He was still wearing Death Eater robes, and she didn't want anyone firing a final curse in their direction. With a slash of her wand, she severed the hem of the much-too-long robe so he could walk without tripping.
As they slowly and painfully made her way along the passage, she gave him a sideways look filled with worry. What had happened to him? What had they done to him?
"You got caught?" She knew the question was stupid the moment she asked it. That much was obvious. "What did they do to you? Do you need a Healer?"
"No." The word came out fiercely. "I just need to get away from here."
They had reached the back of the building. After a quick glance to make sure no one was looking, Hermione half-dragged him across a small strip of open land, into a copse of trees. "Are we past the wards yet?"
He nodded. "We can Apparate."
She looked at him doubtfully. "Can you Apparate?"
Conflicting emotions warred on his face. He would hate having to ask for help, she realized. With a small smile, she turned and wrapped her arms around him. "Just hold on; I'll take you." A moment later they reappeared in front of the house on Candlestick Lane.
"You may leave now," he said as he straightened up, swaying as he attempted to support his own weight. "I can take it from here."
Ignoring him, she took him by the arm and helped him up the front steps and through the door.
"Easy now," she murmured as he nearly tripped, the effects of the energizing spells obviously fading rapidly. "Just a bit further. We're almost there."
A minute later, she was helping him lie down on the same bed where she had spent her first few days in this house.
With a wave of her wand, she sent off her Patronus. Minerva should know where they were, and that Severus was, for now, safe. She fervently hoped the witch would be well enough to take the message.
Once she had tugged off his boots – now much too big on his feet – she got up and rummaged through the potion cabinet, finding the spherical bottle from which he had medicated her when she had first arrived. The condition he was in, it was a safe bet that he had been on the receiving end of more than one Cruciatus. She turned to him, holding the bottle up. "This one?"
He nodded. His eyes were half closed as he lay rigidly on the bed, his face white and drawn. Her heart performed an odd sort of backflip as she looked at him. He must be hurting badly…
She measured out a tablespoon of potion and, supporting his head, helped him to drink. The tension drained out of his body as the potion took effect, relieving the pain.
Hermione forced herself not to stare — it was disconcerting, looking down at him looking like her, while she was still looking like Jane. This had to go down as one of the most surreal moments in her personal history…
With a quick decision, she pulled out the Polyjuice (the 'Hermione' Polyjuice) and took a swig. A minute later, there were two Hermiones in the room. No more Jane. She was so tired of Jane.
Snape opened his eyes. "My comb is in the bathroom. You should be able to find a hair…" She nodded and trotted off in the direction of the bathroom. She knew exactly how he felt.
"You should return to London. Your friends will want to see you," he said when he was finally himself again. He had regained a hint of color, she noticed with satisfaction. "Potter, especially."
"They can wait a few hours," she said firmly. "I don't want to leave you like this. You don't even have your wand."
"Really, I can…"
"What goes around comes around. It's my turn to take care of you."
At that moment, a silvery, ghostly cat entered the room straight through the wall. Hermione smiled — apparently, Professor McGonagall was going to be all right. Stay where you are, the Patronus said inside their heads, in McGonagall's stern voice. Don't leave until I have straightened the whole mess out and tell you it is safe. I'll explain to Harry and the rest of the Order.
The cat disappeared, and Hermione suddenly sat down on the edge of his bed, the muscles in her legs starting to shake and give way. All that had happened started to crash in on her.
"It's over," she said in a trembling voice, half to herself. "He's dead. It's finally over."
"What happened? How did he die?"
"I don't know," she said with a shaky laugh. "It all happened so fast…I was fighting this Death Eater, and then all of a sudden, there is this shout, and I look over, and he is simply gone… He's really gone this time."
She watched him swallow hard, and felt sudden tears in her own eyes. "You are free," she said softly. "You can go where you want now, live your own life…"
He gave a soft, bitter snort. "We'll see if Minerva is successful in convincing the Ministry that I was an unwilling participant. I am not yet certain they'll come around to her point of view."
"Knowing Minerva, she won't rest until your name is cleared. She can be rather persuasive. And she has that letter and the memories from Albus to prove her point." She smiled and laid a hand lightly on his arm. "She is rather fond of you, you know. – Is there anything else I can get you? How about that other potion you gave me back then? Would that help?"
He shook his head. "I just need some rest. Fortunately, they had time for merely a few rounds of the Cruciatus before the Order arrived and so rudely interrupted them."
Merely. Fleetingly, she wondered exactly what had been done to him in the past for him to write that much pain off as 'merely a few rounds of the Cruciatus.'
"I was so worried." She shuddered. "I was afraid that if you weren't dead already, they would kill you when we arrived."
"One advantage of dealing with a megalomaniac is that the Dark Lord would never have admitted the possibility of defeat to himself," he said dryly. "He was fully confident of being able to return later and finish what he started."
"For once, I am glad for that," she said quietly. Then, hesitantly, she reached out and gently brushed the hair back from his forehead. "I'm so glad you're safe. Go to sleep now…no one will find us tonight."
He looked at her with the same look she had seen on his face months earlier — a mix of awkwardness, pain, and fear. "What are you doing?" he asked, his voice low and hoarse. But she noted that he wasn't stopping her, wasn't pushing her hand away.
"I think," she said softly, as she continued the caress, "that I am telling you that I would very much like to get to know you better."
"You would?" His expression was carefully guarded, tinged with disbelief and something else.
"Yes. I would." The way he was looking at her then made her think that it might not be an absolutely terrible idea to kiss him. And so she did, leaning forward, brushing his lips softly with hers, a kiss gentle and tender and chaste. There was hope in that kiss. Hope that after all these years of fighting, of death and of pain, there could be a future that was good. A future with him in it.
She looked into his eyes, so deep and dark, and smiled. Yes. She could see it clearly.
For a moment, wonder, doubt and hunger chased each other across his face, and then he reached up and buried his hand in her hair, pulling her down towards him, for a kiss that she was sure would not be chaste at all. And right before their lips met, her heart twisted with joy as she caught the expression in his eyes.
Apparently, he could see it, too.
A/N: This was at first draft stage beta'ed by Bellegeste, but has undergone major revisions since that time, so I hope you'll forgive me for any mistakes I have edited in.
This was originally 'commissioned' in the gift exchange as a one-shot, and at 12,000 words is already pushing that, so there is much that didn't get fit in that probably should have. An epilogue at some point is a distinct possibility.
To tie up one loose end that just wouldn't fit in since the story ends before the characters find out: When Harry and Co searched the second basement level, they found a number of captives, among them Dedalus Diggle's granddaughter.
Voldemort had been able to pull the image of the original Order of the Phoenix from Harry's mind before he severed the mental bond, and was able to identify the old wizard from that. Diggle, afraid for his family and being a rather weak man, decided to cooperate with him. He tried to be judicious in what he passed on, but Diggle didn't have much of a chance to hide anything: Voldemort just took whatever he needed via Legilimency (so while Diggle thought he was only passing on minor tidbits, Voldemort was getting all he was after.)
After the last battle, Diggle disappeared without a trace, but some say a silly old man wearing a rather threadbare violet top hat was spotted in Argentina a few years later. :-)
Thanks so much for reading (and reviews make my day!)