AN: It gets longer and weirder...
The next night, Hermione put off going to bed. She scrubbed and washed the cauldron and banked the fire. She even did a count of the flatware and bowls.
"You can't put it off, you know," Maire said quietly. "He's already giving you the eye."
"I know. I just wish more people would put their torches out. I'm tired of being watched."
Maire nodded understandingly. "You'd think with all the other doings at night, people would get bored already. But they've got bets riding on it."
"Aye. Which one of you kills the other first. They've given up on you enjoying it."
Hermione winced. "Who'd you bet on?" she asked.
"Snape," Maire replied with a quiet chuckle. "He's been watching you."
Hermione scowled. "I know. It's really annoying. As if it's not bad enough that I have to put up with Cormac."
Maire cackled. "You mean he watches you then too?"
Hermione tilted her head. "Why? What are you talking about?"
The older woman clicked her teeth. "I would have thought it obvious. He won't have anything to do with anyone but Weasley and you."
"That's just because he doesn't really know anyone else."
"Half the people here were his students, and I went to school with him. He doesn't want to know anyone else. Whenever he does seem to know what's going on around him, you can be sure he's watching you. Moreover, he does tuck himself down next to you each night, doesn't he? Plenty of the women have been trying to make nice with him, even Oona. He just acts like he don't see them."
"He rarely acknowledges my existence either."
"Oh, he knows you exist, dear."
"He also calls me by the wrong name, Maire. It doesn't signify anything."
Maire cackled, reaching up, and grabbing the torch over their heads. "You're blind because you want to be," she said as she ground it into the bucket of sand on the floor. "Go to bed, Granger. If you make Cormac come get you, it will be worse for you in the long run."
Hermione nodded and headed over to her bedroll.
Snape was already asleep in his blankets a mere foot away; his hair fanned up away from his face. She noted the unkempt sideburns, contrasting with the sparsely stubbled jaw that showed he shaved daily. She mapped out the lines etched into a face that didn't relax even in sleep, only managed to look sadder.
She thought about moving her blankets farther away but didn't. He was vexing, to be sure, but there was something perversely comforting in his presence. Protective.
She grimaced. That last thought was pure projection. It had been a long time since she'd felt anything even vaguely like protection. Even before the Cataclysm, Hogwarts had only ever offered the illusion. Her years there had been full of peril, and she'd certainly paid the price. The years between their victory and the end of the world had been bitterly short and full of the chaos involved with trying to chart a course for her life. The years after had been nothing short of wrestling greased serpents for the lives of the people under her care.
Snape was now one of those she felt responsible for—another burden, as were the rest of Arthur's band—yet she took comfort in the fact that he was here. It added weight to her belief that perhaps her friends were still surviving out there somewhere. She reached out and tugged his blanket further over his shoulder.
She sighed and kicked off her shoes, shoving them against the wall before sitting down on her blankets. She peeled off her socks and realized she was out of clean ones. Laundry tomorrow, then.
She'd just settled her head on the pillow when Cormac came stumbling over, drunker than usual. She closed her eyes briefly before lifting her blankets. It was her first gesture of welcome since they'd started this farce. She could tell he was taken aback. The foul expression on his face cleared, and he met her eyes with an almost timid expression. She bit down a laugh. What a fool. Were all men this easy to play?
He crawled in and began pawing at her. "You want it, don't you?" he said. "I'd almost given up on you, you know."
She didn't answer, just spit in her hand and wiped it between her legs, before helping him with his trousers. He saw this act as added proof of her desire and the last of the anger he'd carried across the cave with him evaporated.
"Oh, yes…" he moaned, prodding at her.
She pulled her hand back and wiped it on his shirt. He'd have to navigate himself. She'd be damned if she'd touch him before she absolutely had to. Her last simulated act of acquiescence was to pull his head down and hold it next to hers when he finally managed to get where he wanted to go. It looked tender enough to pass muster, but in truth, she just didn't want to see his face. It was all she was capable of faking tonight.
She turned her head away from his and darted a look at Snape. His mouth was still slightly parted, with one, long-fingered hand peeking out from the boiled-wool blanket, relaxed in sleep. Seeing him sleeping, unaware of what was going on for the first time, brought an unexpected ache to her chest.
She found herself fighting back tears and bit her tongue to keep her focus.
She knew she was being ridiculous, but Snape being completely oblivious to her plight nearly broke her. She realized that his burning anger had been needed. Lying there, glaring daggers at her, he'd been freely expressing the rage she'd had to hide. Without it, she felt like a victim not a fighter.
She shuddered with revulsion as Cormac moaned. Of course, he misinterpreted it.
"You like it like that?" he whispered in her ear. "I knew you would come 'round. Bloody hell, you're so hot."
She stifled a sob, twisting her face away from him. She considered going for her knife and cutting his throat, but that would be foolish. His two stooges wouldn't hesitate to take over, and they were far more vicious and even less inclined to listen to reason.
"Oh, I see," he said. "You can't admit it yet." He chuckled. "Go on, keep your eyes closed and lie to yourself."
She closed her eyes, feeling utterly lost, and when Cormac dropped his head back to the make-shift pillow, she stretched her hand towards Snape, stopping short of touching him.
She knew it was a stupid gesture. He couldn't help. That first night he'd pulled his useless wand out, she'd soundly told him what he could do with it. Besides, he was more than a little mad. There was no telling what he would do, or even if he would do anything at all. This was the price she had willingly decided to pay to give Arthur some peace.
She pulled her hand back and nearly jumped when she felt a fold of cloth and warm fingers cover it. She opened her eyes and saw Snape looking at her through half-veiled lids. He let go briefly, to throw the corner of his blanket farther across her arm, before clasping her hand with his again.
She gave him a watery smile as his eyes slid closed. There was no sign at all that he was awake, only his thumb constantly stroking her knuckles under the blanket.
Even after McLaggen had finished and left, with a flurry of wet kisses on her forehead, she clung to Snape's hand under the blanket.
Hermione was down at the river, scrubbing at her laundry, when Jackman came up. He sat down on a rock next to her and dropped his arm around her shoulder.
"What the hell are you up to?" she snapped, shoving it off and jumping up.
"Come off it, Granger. Cormac told us he's finally broken you in. Everyone knows the Ice Princess is thawing." He stood up and came towards her. "I figured you might like a change of menu, so to speak."
She pulled out her knife and gripped it. "I'm going to do you a favor and pretend I didn't hear that, if you turn and walk away right now."
"You might want to listen to her, young man."
They both turned and looked at Arthur Weasley. He looked grey and winded, but was clutching a stout branch like a cudgel. Snape stood beyond his shoulder giving Jackman a stare that froze the blood.
Jackman looked around, but had no allies in the area. He spat on the ground and looked back at Hermione. "We'll finish this conversation another time," he said suggestively. "I can see your dance card is full."
He sauntered away, making a wide arc around Arthur and Snape.
When he was gone, she turned on them. "What do you think you're doing?" she hissed.
Arthur looked nonplussed. "I thought we were saving you from a nasty situation," he said with a small note of indignation, while Snape walked off towards the river.
"You're supposed to ingratiate yourself, not pick sides! If you try to defend me, you'll make enemies for your people."
Arthur sagged. "Hermione…" He paused and scrubbed his hand down his ashen face. "This isn't right. I've been talking to the others, and well, some of us are ready to leave. We've put you in an untenable position, and it's wrong. We can pack our things and leave tonight if you wish."
Hermione dropped her gaze to her feet. "And where would we go?"
"Anywhere has to be better."
She shook her head with little energy. "No. You were right the first time. There's nowhere for us out there. When I left the first time, I was close to dying from hunger. Leaving with you was a silly dream."
"I was wrong the first time! Dead wrong."
"No, you weren't!" she snapped. "Think back, Arthur. Why were you so willing to stay? Why would you have walked all the way to the arse end of Scotland? Look at you. You're too sick to leave. You know more than anyone what's out there. Is this really worse? How many of you were there when you escaped London? Strout told me it was nearly two hundred. You only had twenty left when you came here. I escaped Hogsmeade with three hundred. By the time we found these caves, there were only ninety of us left. We've lost more since then. Every time we send a party out to scavenge or hunt, there's no guarantee they will ever come back."
She sat back down on the rock, turning her head to see Snape picking her clothes out of the river. They'd started to drift away on the slow current. He was wading about, up to mid-thigh in the water, plucking up her socks.
"I appreciate it, Arthur. I really do. The gesture truly means something to me, but the roads are still full of fanatics and outlaws. This place may be hell, but you know as well as I that it's one of the lesser rings. It's hard to imagine us folk being afraid of Muggles with their silly black-powder guns, but it's that very incredulity that has got so many of us killed. What are we supposed to do with our collection of knives and swords and homemade crossbows?"
"They can't all be crazy!" Arthur snapped.
"No, but they are all scared. It's been less than four years since everyone's world went to hell. Millions of people have died. Only those communities with a strong leader have survived. In an age of chaos, strong always means the one most willing to be brutal. That's why Cormac's in charge, and I'm not. The people feel safer with him. If I'd had a couple of bully boys to back me up, I'd still be in charge."
It was plain from the way his voice trailed off, and the following silence, that he was out of words. He shook his head helplessly and threw his stick down.
"Go back to the cave, Arthur. Make your peace with Jackman. Tell him I tried to attack you too. Tell him whatever you need to. Just don't let the sun set while he holds a grudge."
Arthur gave her a look bleeding pain and turned away. She watched his dejected shuffle until he was out of sight around a bend.
Turning her head at the sound of a wet slap, she stared at the pile Snape had dropped into her reed basket. She looked at his sodden clothes and winced. Every time she started to think he wasn't as crazy as he seemed, he did something like walk out into the river fully clothed.
"Thank you," she said quietly.
He didn't respond. He just sat down next to her on the rock and took her hand. He sat like that until the shadows grew long in the grass, while she cried against his damp shoulder.
Finally, she pulled away and scrubbed at her face.
"How do you do this?" he asked out of the blue.
She turned to him, not sure if he was all there or not, but his eyes were clear and bright as he looked at her.
"How do you keep sane under all the weight."
She snorted. "They need me." She stood up and grabbed at her clothes. "Being needed is probably the only thing that keeps me sane, Snape."
He scowled out at the water. "Being needed drove me mad."
She slid a look at him. "You seem sane enough right now."
He stood up, leaving a wet patch on the rock. "I know. I have been for days. I find it rather vexing."
She gave forth a dark laugh as he turned and walked away.
"Oi! Shove off, you git!"
"Leave him. He probably doesn't understand you anyway. It's not worth your breath."
As if to prove her point, Snape unrolled his bedroll and sat down with his back to them to unlace his boots. His blankets overlapped the edge of hers.
Cormac reached across her and shoved at them in disgust. "He keeps getting closer. I expect tomorrow, he'll simply crawl in here with us. He was always creepy, but this is a little much, even for him."
"If you don't like it, you can always go find someone else's bed. I promise, I won't mind a bit."
He looked down at her, a slow smile spreading across his face. "After last night, I'm having trouble believing that." He rolled over onto her and began kissing her neck.
She closed her eyes and twisted her face away again, unable to bring herself to fake even the slightest enjoyment.
When she reached for Snape, his hand was waiting just beneath the edge of his blanket. He took hers and pulled it under, folding his warm fingers around it.
She closed her eyes and forced her concentration to narrow down to nothing but that hand. She felt the strength in it, the warmth, and the rough calluses that matched her own. Her fingers explored the tiny wiry hairs along the edge and the shockingly soft skin at the juncture of his hand and wrist.
When she felt his fingers slide along her own, a slight, faltering motion, the effect on her was electric.
Her eyes fluttered open, and she darted a look at him, but his face was as closed as his eyes.
She took a shaky breath and rubbed at the soft skin again. Her breath rushed out when she felt his hand stroke hers in response. His fingers slipped up along her palm and then intertwined with hers. She closed her own around his and lightly squeezed before relaxing her hand and exploring some more.
Their hands danced together, feeling, discovering, learning each other's contours. His other hand joined and he began to massage hers between them.
Hermione's mouth dropped open as she started panting softly, her heart pounding in her chest.
McLaggen groaned. "Merlin, Granger. You just got so wet… Tell me the truth. Tell me you like it…."
Snape's eyes flew open, and he pinned Cormac with a furious stare.
Hermione squeezed his hand. "I do like it," she whispered to him.
Snape looked at her and opened his mouth to say something, but then shut it again. He closed his eyes and pulled her hand further under his blanket so he could press it against his chest over his heart. Spreading her hand, she willed him to understand her silent acceptance of his offering. Her eyes filled with tears of a different salt, as she felt the pounding beat under her palm.
She slid her hand up along his body and under his neck to cup his jaw. He turned his head and pressed a kiss to her wrist, and she moaned softly.
Cormac groaned and made to push himself up, but she wrapped her other hand around his neck and pulled him back down, pinning him.
It occurred to her that the situation was more than a little bizarre. Snape was making love to her hand while Cormac was shagging her. But life had grown bizarre ages ago. Normal was a highly unstable concept.
She brushed his lips with her thumb, and he opened his mouth and sucked on it.
"Yes, Granger, that's it. Let go," crooned McLaggen. "Oh, gods, you feel so good…"
Hermione ignored him. He didn't exist in this moment. Here, there was only her and dark eyes staring at her with naked desire. She swallowed thickly and stroked his face.
There was little warning before Cormac came with a grunt, cursing himself for his lack of control and blaming it on her. She snatched her hand back from Snape and started pushing at him.
"Come on, Granger. Let me stay. You know you liked it."
"You keep telling yourself that and maybe one day it will be true," she hissed. "Get off me!"
Cormac rolled off, obviously confused and gave her a hurt look. She rolled her eyes and reached into her clothing basket for a flannel and began scrubbing between her legs before he'd even got his trousers back up. He jumped to his feet and stormed off, nearly stepping on several people along the way.
She threw the cloth away from her and dropped back down onto her blankets, trying to take a few moments to calm herself and collect her thoughts. It didn't work. When she turned her head toward Snape, he lifted up his blanket in invitation, and she nearly flew under it.
He pulled her against his chest and attacked her lips, kissing her greedily from her mouth down to her collarbone. She clung to him by grabbing fistfuls of his shirt, and he backed away long enough to pull it off. She moaned quietly as her hands encountered his skin.
He slid his hands down her thighs and pulled up her slip, and within moments they were both naked. Reaching down, she clasped her hands around his sex, capturing his mouth again and kissing him hungrily. He let out a shuddering sigh as she guided him into position and pushed inside with a ragged breath.
When she was full of him, he stopped and lifted up far enough to look into her eyes. His hand stroked a few wayward strands of her hair out of the way before he leaned back down and kissed her gently. She closed her eyes, parted her lips under his sweet kiss, and let the rest of the world disappear.
When she opened her eyes again, they were both sweat-slick and panting, wrapped around each other in sated need. She turned her head and kissed his jaw. He nuzzled his nose in her hair before pressing his mouth to her temple
A dozen feet away, a dying torch spat its last bit of resin, briefly illuminating Cormac's murderous stare.
Hermione set her jaw defiantly as she slowly unwrapped her legs from around Snape's waist. She curled herself against him, as he draped his blanket around her shoulder possessively and dropped a last kiss onto her head. With a quick tug, the blanket blotted out the sight of McLaggen.
Hermione had bitten her lip to bleeding pulp by the time the other shoe dropped in the mid-morning.
Her breakfast had long since turned into a hard lump in her belly as she'd berated herself for her stupidity. It hadn't been sleeping with Snape—that has been glorious—it had been being so foolishly open about it.
She'd slipped out of his arms in the early morning hours and set about making the morning meal. He'd given her a small smile when he'd handed her his bowl to fill, but other than that, he'd done nothing but sit on a rock and sharpen his hunting knife as Cormac stared daggers into his back.
Every reproachful look from Moira or Arthur felt like a blow to the gut.
By the time Cormac had swaggered up to Snape with Jackman and Damien at his sides, Hermione was close to throwing up.
She jumped to her feet, despite Moira and Oona's attempts to drag her back down.
"Snape, my good fellow!" said Cormac with false joviality. "I've been thinking. Since you're obviously the best hunter here, I thought it would serve the interests of our happy little family if you showed my boys here a few tricks. After all, since we have so many more mouths to feed, we need to hone a few skills, don't we? What do you say?" The false smile dropped and Cormac's face was a mask of threat. "We need meat. It's time to earn your keep."
Snape didn't respond. He just checked the edge of his blade and sheathed it. He stood and walked over to his bedroll, snatching it up, along with his small pack, and slinging them over his shoulder. He turned and gave Hermione a steady look, before walking back past McLaggen and his stooges and out of the cave.
The silence he left in his wake was oppressive.
"Well? Don't just stand there. Go after him!"
Jackman and Damien scrambled to grab their gear and follow.
Cormac turned and gave Hermione a hideous smile, before he grabbed Polly Valefar's elbow and dragged the giggling fool over towards his bedding.
Moira grabbed at her hand and tugged her back down. "I'm sorry, lassie," she said softly. "He was a good man, to be sure."
Hermione dropped her head in her hands and started to cry.
By the evening meal, she couldn't take the tension anymore. She let Oona and Moira serve, and went to pack her things.
She was halfway to the entrance of the cave when Cormac stopped her.
"Leaving, Granger?" he called to her. "What about the people you hoped to protect?"
She turned to see him standing slightly behind Alice Longbottom, who was smiling at her spoon. She sighed, heavy with loss and defeat. "Cormac, I don't—DON'T!"
There was a sickening scrape of metal against bone as Alice gave a little surprised cry. Her eyes rolled up, and she sagged to the floor. Cormac gripped his knife and let her weight pull it out as she fell.
A woman screamed and several of the younger children began to cry.
"You bastard!" Hermione dropped her things to the floor and ran to Alice.
Arthur got there before her but jumped away as Cormac slashed his bloody knife at him.
"How could you?" Hermione sank to her knees beside Neville's mother.
Cormac smirked down at her. "Honestly? It was easy. She didn't care. She probably doesn't even know she's dead."
Hermione pulled the woman into her lap. "That would be because she's not dead yet, you psychotic bastard!"
Miriam Strout stepped over and scooped her arms under Alice, dragging her out of the way as Hermione came back to her feet.
"You're making a dangerous mistake, Cormac."
"Am I? And what would that be? The days are growing colder, or did you forget that fact? We're going to be short on food soon."
"If we are, it's because you just stabbed one of our best harvesters, you arsehole. And Snape? He was our best hunter! Do you really think you're doing anyone a favor by limiting our resources? Do you really think anyone here is stupid enough to believe you're doing this for them? Is sleeping with me really worth risking everyone's lives? Just how sick are you?"
She spun around and stared at the rest of the people in the cave. "Is he still the better option? Do you all really want to live this way?"
Mutters rippled around the cavern and the tension grew.
Cormac's eyes widened a little as people began to shuffle forward. He spun in a circle, spreading his arms wide. "You don't like me? Then do something about it! See if Granger and her foolish committees can save you from the Muggles when they get here. Oh! Didn't you know?" He dropped his arms. "The same ones that sacked Hogsmeade have joined up with the ones just west of our territory. There's easily five hundred of them now, and they have guns. Why do you think game has been so scarce? It's only a matter of time before they come this way. Probably sometime this winter, and then what will happen to you?
"Are you going to exile your only fighters?"
Hermione's heart sank as she saw the fear return to the people's eyes. She could measure her loss in the number that took a step back and looked away from her in disgrace.
She hung her head. "Let me go," she said quietly.
He reached out and pinched her chin painfully. "Leave… and another one will die," he spat.
"You're mad," she hissed.
"We're all mad, Granger," he said in a soft voice. "Even you. After all, you're the one that slept with the greasy git. How sick is that? The man's insane." He wrenched her face to the side as he let go. "You brought this on yourself."
"He's saner than you," she snapped back. Turning away, she went and gathered her belongings from the floor and headed toward the back of the cave.
When Cormac came to her that night, it was only to beat her viciously and leave her weeping as quietly as she could. Arthur came and sat on a rock by her bed and kept watch for the rest of the night.
The next day, Hermione kept vigil by Alice, mopping her fevered face with a cool cloth as she lay dying on a pallet near the entrance to the cave. The only people who would come near were Strout, Arthur, and Frank Longbottom, who sat next to his wife, because he'd always sat next to his wife.
Strout had given up somewhere in the early hours of the morning. Cormac had punctured a lung, and partially severed Alice's spine. Without magic, there was nothing anyone could do. Instead, the Healer had taped up Hermione's ribs and splinted her wrist.
Arthur sat next to Frank, looking nearly as lost, with tears sliding down his face. He constantly looked around and shook his head.
It was past noon when Alice let out a bubbling gurgle and stopped breathing. Strout said a few words of quiet blessing before she closed the dead woman's eyes.
"It could have gone on a lot longer," she said quietly.
Hermione nodded stiffly and started to cry. "It didn't have to happen at all," she whispered.
Strout shook her head. "I think it was inevitable. He's mad as a hatter, that one. We need to leave. All of us. Before his bully boys get back."
"Agreed," said Arthur quietly.
Miriam stripped away the top blanket and pulled the bottom sheet up around the body. She pulled a needle and some string out of her pocket, obviously prepared for this, and began to quickly stitch the sheet onto a shroud.
Hermione wiped at the blood that had leaked from the dead woman's mouth and tried to arrange her grey hair before folding the sheet over her face.
The sound of hooves preceded the shadow that blocked out the light from the cave entrance.
She turned to see Snape holding a pony's lead, a wild pig tied to its back.
She let out a weak cry and then closed her hands over her swollen lips to block anymore sound from escaping her mouth.
His eyes narrowed as he saw her, and she watched as he took in the tableau before him.
"Where are my men?" shouted Cormac, walking up with his hand on his knife.
"Did you do this?" Snape asked in a quiet voice. His arm made a sweeping gesture that took in Hermione's face, as well as Alice's body.
If Cormac was surprised to hear Snape speak, he didn't show it. "Answer my question!"
"He did," Arthur said to Snape, rising up and setting his shoulders. "Hermione tried to go after you."
Snape dropped the pony's lead and pulled his wand from his sleeve.
There was a moment's shocked silence, and then Hermione winced as McLaggen began to laugh. He drew his knife from its sheath.
"Oh, this is rich, Professor," he said with a sneer. He turned to Hermione. "Take a good look at your lover, Granger. This is the idiot you chose?"
Snape raised his wand and aimed it, not at Cormac, but at Alice. "Venikython. Imperious!"
The room erupted in shouts and gasps as red light shot out of Snape's wand.
Strout threw herself to the side, and Hermione scrambled back as Alice sat up. The sheet fell away, and when the corpse opened its eyes, Hermione almost vomited. They were on fire. The cavern filled with the stench of burning sulfur from the smoke and flame belching from the eye sockets.
The pony let out a terrified squeal, but didn't bolt. Hermione realized Snape held it in thrall as well.
The thing Snape had called forth clambered to its feet, gaining more motor control as it stepped out of the makeshift shroud and kicked it away. People began screaming as it turned toward Cormac and lifted its arms, hands curled into claws.
Cormac stepped back and the thing followed. He tripped over a stone and reached out, grabbing Polly to right himself. As Snape's creature drew closer, he pulled Polly in front of him and pushed her forward.
She had the good sense to faint.
Cormac backed farther away, making a quick grab at a child. He held the Twillings' boy by his hair and set his knife to his throat. "Call it off, Snape, or Kevin here pays the price as well."
Snape flicked his wrist, and the creature shot forward, turning into a blur of movement. There was a high-pitched scream and the sound of cracking bone.
McLaggen continued to scream as the thing that was not Alice Longbottom dangled him off the floor by the arms pinned behind his back. His elbows were touching in a way that shouldn't have been physically possible.
The boy screamed as he raced to his mother and buried his face in her skirt.
"Bring him to me," Snape said in a cruel voice.
Cormac shrieked as the creature set him down and shoved him forward by his arms, pushing him across the floor until he was face to face with Snape.
"How—?" It was the only word Cormac could spit out through the pain.
"How?" bit out Snape. "Surely, even you remember your schooling, McLaggen. Although, you never were a particularly bright student, were you?" He sneered and leaned closer until his nose nearly brushed McLaggen's face. "Magic is dependent on nature. The time and tides. The seasons and phases of the moon. The movements of the planets and stars. The ley lines and epicenters. The magnetic tides of the earth.
"All magic, that is, except one."
"Dark magic," Hermione whispered. "Oh, gods. No wonder you tried to retreat into madness."
Snape didn't look at her, but his face turned the color of shame. His scowl grew terrifying, and Cormac screamed as the creature twisted his arms until they popped out of their sockets.
"Severus, don't," said Arthur in a gentle voice. "There are children here."
Snape flicked his eyes over at him, and then flicked his wand. "Finite."
Cormac cried out as the corpse behind him let go and collapsed to the ground with a sickening thud. He moaned in pain, hunching down to the ground with his useless arms dangling.
"Avada Kedavra." Snape's words were spoken quietly, but the flash of green light that enveloped McLaggen was like a shout. Cormac dropped to the floor dead with his eyes widened in surprise.
Snape turned and gently lifted Hermione up from the floor. He didn't look at her as he held her good wrist lightly and led her out of the cave.
She followed him in silence down to the rock by the river where they did their laundry. When they reached it, he spun around and pulled her into his arms. He hugged her tighter than was comfortable, but she refused to show it. She held his trembling body and pressed her face to his neck as he clung to her until his heart stopped banging against her chest. Eventually, he dragging in a deep breath and blew it out, as he sagged down onto the rock and pulled her down with him.
"I'm sorry," he said quietly.
"Don't be. He needed to die. He was too dangerous to let live. I assume Jackman and Damien met a similar fate?"
He nodded. "I'm not sorry for that. I'm sorry because I can't heal you."
"Oh." She leaned against him. "I know that. Dark Magic is the antithesis of healing, isn't it? Because it works against nature. Don't worry, I'll heal in time."
Snape nodded and pulled her against him. He loosened his arm when she hissed, sliding his hand up and feeling the wrappings on her ribs. He ground his teeth together audibly.
She shushed him, stroking her hand against his knuckles.
"Tell me, Severus. Tell me everything."
He sighed, and she felt a shudder run through his frame. "The world didn't end, Granger. It's just… resetting itself. It's happened before. Many times over the course of the earth's history. However, none of the events were ever manmade before."
"What do you mean? What caused it?"
He shook his head. "I don't know, honestly. I assume some war not big enough for us to have heard about. Whatever happened triggered the polarity of the earth to undergo a shift. An excursion. Perhaps it even instigated a flip, wherein north becomes south. It will stop. Think of it as banging the bottom of a pot full of water. Eventually the water will calm."
"You mean magic isn't gone?"
He shook his head. "Magic is still there. It's just greatly reduced. The only places you can still feel it are the epicenters. The grottos and springs. The places where the elder gods were worshipped. But it's barely useable. Just scrapings, really. The magical creatures burrowed into the earth to sleep, even the bloody goblins. It's instinct for them."
Hermione nodded her head. "That's why Minerva insisted on taking the children into the Forbidden Forest, isn't it?"
"Did she?" He closed his eyes and sighed. "I feared they were all dead. We went to the school…"
She squeezed his hand. "I tried to force her to come with us, but she would have none of it. The only one from the school that the Muggles caught was Pomona Sprout. The rest of the staff are with the students. If any of them are still alive."
He squeezed her hand again.
"When will the magic come back?" she asked.
"That depends on the earth. In the past, it's taken anywhere from a year, to a thousand years for the poles to reset."
"When was the last time?"
"In 392 AD."
"From what I remember reading, the same thing, only the Muggles were far less affected by what was going on. Wizards panicked, wards and enchantments fell, and Muggles took the opportunity to take revenge on the people that had oppressed them. The only wizards that had any power were madmen and murderers. Chaos reigned for differing amounts of time in different parts of the world. Here, it lasted for over a hundred years until one wizard found the fortitude to use Dark Magic with restraint. He managed to defeat the other wizards, cobble together a manageable Muggle kingdom, and restore something resembling order by putting a Muggle in charge of the whole lot. Then he fucked off into history."
Hermione felt her heart start to beat with more hope than she'd felt in years. "How? How did he make the Muggles trust him? How did he get them to follow him with only Dark Magic?"
Snape gave her a look filled with disappointment. He shifted away from her and drew his knife. Raising one eyebrow, he made the knife flare red and plunged it into the rock between them. He left it quivering in the stone.
Hermione's eyebrows jumped up to her hairline. "You must be joking."
He narrowed his eyes at her. "Hardly."
"But it doesn't say that in any of the books! I've read the histories!"
"All of them?" he said in a snide voice. "Congratulations, that's a remarkable feat. Especially considering a large chunk of it has always been kept secret. It was deemed too destabilizing to let people know that our powers could be snuffed like a candle at any moment and the only useful magic was the type preferred by sociopaths."
She saw the pain in his eyes and hugged his arm closer. "You're not a sociopath, Severus."
"I'm not capable of that much restraint, either, Hermione. The power is addictive. It takes all of my energy to fight the lure. It's full and ripe and there for the taking, when everything else is gone. But it can't be used for anything useful. I've had to watch people die because I was too unstable to risk defending them and turning into a monster. I'm not all that sane now. "
She grimaced at the desolation on his face and stroked her hand across his shoulder.
"Hermione, until you, I had lost all compassion. Even my restraint was more from a sense of duty than because I cared about the damned world. I clung to Arthur like a barnacle because he had enough compassion for all of us. But, he's dying, and I can't do a thing about it. Time was I could brew a potion, and he'd be right as rain. Now?" He shook his head in disgust. "I almost hate you because you made me care again. I'm not strong enough to shoulder this burden."
"You don't have to be," she whispered, but he pushed her words aside with a wave of his hand.
"You watch, when we go back into that cave, they will all be clamoring for me to teach it to them, ignoring years of fearing the Dark Lord and his followers. What am I to do? Give them hope? Teach them how to embrace evil just a little bit so they can use it? Then what? They'll want me to show them just enough so they can defend themselves in this world we live in, but it wouldn't stop there. Each of them holds the potential to become seduced and thoroughly corrupted. Each person in there has a reason to hate. I'll have unleashed a new Dark Age on the world that will take a thousand years to crawl back out of.
"As it stands, the Muggles will sort themselves out in another ten to fifteen years. Maps will have new borders, but they haven't lost so much knowledge that they can't recover it all in time. The only question is whether or not enough of our people will still be alive by then to be able to restore the population." He shook his head. "Even if I did chose to teach them the Dark Arts, it would take years before one of them could wield the power. I'm not sure we have years left. Muggles have come close to exterminating us twice now. Can we survive a third time?"
She nodded her head. "Yes. I'm living proof. There will always be Muggleborns." Her face fell. "Wait. What about the babies? Why aren't there any babies?"
He smiled and stroked her face. "That will change as well. It's only affecting the magical folk. It's not uncommon for women to become infertile during famine. This is similar. Your body will adjust to the shock eventually."
She held his hand to her cheek. "Good."
She threaded her fingers through his and dropped them to her lap, wrapping her other hand around them as if his hand were precious.
"Why me?" she said quietly, not looking at him.
He took some time before answering her. "I don't know," he said honestly. "I think because you didn't need me. You were so strong. You had done so much for the people around you without your powers, while I had done nothing with all of mine but mesmerize animals and kill them when they were convinced I was safe."
"You should have hidden your traces better. They all started to suspect you when the game returned with no wounds…"
"I was beyond giving a damn."
He sighed, squeezing her hand gently. "Do you want to know why I was in St. Mungo's when everything fell apart? I was being treated for depression." He gave a dark, terrible laugh. "I was having trouble dealing with everything after the war. Minerva had finally convinced me that perhaps someone there could help."
He looked away into the past. "That first night, when you told Arthur what you had built and what you had lost, I was astounded. You seemed so unbelievably strong, when I had been so weak. When I looked at you again, the next day, you seemed incredibly fragile. Small. When I understood the Faustian pact you had made to give us a home…"
He shrugged. "You puzzled me. Thinking about the puzzle distracted me from the fog that I had found preferable to reality. I felt like perhaps I might serve a purpose again. I wanted to help you. I wanted to protect you. I wanted to take your pain into myself."
He pulled his hand away and cupped her cheek gently. "Somewhere along the way I realized I just wanted you."
She sighed, luxuriating in the first feelings of contentment she'd felt in years. "Severus, I'll make a deal with you."
He stiffened and pulled his hand away.
"No! Not like Cormac!" She grimaced. "Never again." She reached up and took his hand, pulling it back against her cheek. "I'll protect you from them, if you protect them for me."
He tilted his head to the side, staring at her. She watched his mind working over her words, and brought his hand to her lips. "I'll be your restraint," she said, placing a kiss on his palm. "I promise I'll never ask you to teach me."
He sighed, nodding his head as the tension left his body. He pulled her hand up to his lips and then pressed it against his heart.
"Why me?" he asked, sending her question back to her on a quiet puff of air.
She gave him a watery smile. "Because you did make me feel protected. That's something I haven't felt since I was eleven. More than that, you made me feel." She laid her head down on his shoulder. "It's been so long since I've felt anything but anger. What you make me feel is priceless." She swiped at the tears spilling down her cheeks. "And don't tell anyone in there, but I really do like feeling protected. It's a bit addictive, now that I've tasted it." She looked back at him. "So are you."
He chuckled, a deep rumble in his chest, and carefully draped his arm around her. He pulled the knife back out of the rock and shifted closer to her. "I will protect you, Hermione, and I'll protect them, but you'll have to tell me how."
They sat that way in silence, listening to the rustling of the grass in the breeze and the murmuring of the sluggish river behind them until the sun started to set.
It was mid-winter's day when the Muggles poured out of the forest and surrounded the cave entrance.
They'd finally worked themselves up into a fighting rage over the strangers to the east. Testimony from those that had sacked Hogsmeade had mixed with rumor, religion, a shortage of game, and superstition to whip them into a killing frenzy.
All they found was a woman in her twenties, standing on the hill above the entrance. Just beyond her, a man dressed in billowing black robes stood near a stone engraved with the name, Arthur.
The Muggles snarled in frustration to find only the two unarmed people. They were sure the rest had to be hiding further down in the caves and were angry that the element of surprise had been blown.
Words were exchanged, terms were offered and sneered at, and finally, one angry man had fired a shot.
The man in black had raised his hand and the lead ball smashed through ten skulls before he lowered it. Another took aim, but after being enveloped in a flash of amber light, he'd turned his gun and shot himself in the face with it.
Again, the woman offered her terms, and again they were refused.
She shook her head sadly and stepped to the side.
The man behind her raised his arms and burst into emerald flame. He shouted, and the metal in the Muggles' hands began to glow. They threw their weapons down, scrambling back as the black powder started to explode.
When the dead began to rise up off the ground and shuffle after them with clawed hands, they fled and didn't stop screaming until they reached their makeshift village.
When the man and the woman came, bringing their people with them on the first day of spring as promised, the village surrendered without a fight.
So did the next one.
And the one after that…
Hermione stood up and rubbed at her back. She'd been sitting too long, going over the new laws that had been ratified by the council. She'd only vetoed one.
As she'd taken over larger and larger areas, eventually holding sway over most of Scotland, she'd gathered those lords and commoners with government experience. She'd added the clans that had a strong union and cobbled together a working government with herself as the final say in everything.
She became a mostly benevolent tyrant who slowly pushed them toward total independence, always aiming for the day when the magic would come back and the Wizarding World would fade away again. She settled disputes among them and kept watch over their interim constitution until the day when the old one would be put back in place. Each year brought more land, more laws, and more people back to the concept of civility. A committee had been sent south to figure out how to connect with the remnants of the Monarchy rumored to be holding out in the burned-out wreckage of London. They hadn't returned yet, but she didn't expect them until summer.
All in all, there had been excellent progress. The Muggles in Scotland were making great strides in restoring their sanity.
Better than the magical folk. Those she still ruled with an iron fist. Her attempts at recreating a Wizengamot had fallen flat, and every few months Severus had to put down a new 'Dark Lord.' It hadn't taken very long for word to spread that Dark Magic still worked. Fortunately, those that tried to use it were no match for the last of the Death Eaters.
Those wizards and witches that tried to access it had to struggle to control it. Severus made it dance to his will with ease—a fact that bred even more suspicion and distrust.
The magical community was trapped in utter turmoil. If she didn't restore some semblance of order, there would be chaos when the magic came back.
She wasn't the one to do it. They tolerated her because they were terrified of Snape, but outside of her small group of friends and advisors, they had no faith in her at all. She kept them all busy by making them write down their knowledge, distracting them with a crusade to restore what had been destroyed in the days after the Cataclysm. So much knowledge had been lost. She shook her head and sighed.
She stretched and walked over to a window, looking out over the town that had sprung up below the gates. They opened, wobbling slightly from inexpert repairs, and a small group of people came through, allowed entrance by the Muggles on watch. They had to be magical folk. The Muggles had a list of questions to ask that only a witch or a wizard would know. She peered at the small group, not recognizing them at all.
A new group then.
Each month brought another small band of survivors as word spread slowly throughout the UK. Each day, more people heard about the new state that had been carved out in the north. Word of its peace and prosperity ran one step behind the rumor that a powerful wizard and his fairy queen ruled over it all.
It was said that Merlin had been freed from his cave and had returned to bring the people back from the dark. The surviving wizards and witches that heard the rumor nearly always packed their things and began the pilgrimage back to Hogwarts immediately. The problem was, with only crude printing presses and no radio at all, word spread very slowly. England was still in chaos, and little word ever came out of Wales. Gossip was limited when people didn't trust each other.
She turned away from the window when the door opened. Severus came in and placed a stack of parchment down on her desk before coming over and wrapping his arms around her.
"What's that?" she asked.
"Requests for admission into the Realm by another four communities. Lennox and Athol passed them on to us. They have their hands busy with all the conflicting claims in North Tayside. Minerva and Filius already vetted them, and they meet the requirements."
"How many didn't?"
"Only one. They refuse to give up slavery. They called it by some other euphemism, but our sources say it's just semantics."
Hermione shook her head. "How could we have devolved so much in only eight years?" She scowled. "Add them to the list of possibilities for the spring campaign. Let the Muggle council decide if they want us to wipe them out. I hope they do."
Snape chuckled darkly. "'You're always so bloodthirsty at this stage," he said, rubbing her swelling belly. "Come spring, you won't want to get off the couch."
She laughed. "True, and I won't let you leave without me either. Perhaps we should let the council use their own army. They need to start getting used to doing things without us, anyway, if Septima's measurements are correct."
"They are," he said, kissing her forehead and hugging her. "We've run it twice more. The magnetosphere is definitely showing signs of an increased rate of stabilization. It's only a matter of years now, not decades. More measurements will allow for a better estimate."
Hermione swallowed and dropped her head onto his shoulder. "Then we definitely need to find a wandmaker. I also want to—"
"Hermione..." His voice sounded strange, and she pulled away to see him looking out the window over her shoulder.
She twisted around in his arms and looked back down at the group that had come through the gate. Now that they were closer, they appeared to be two men and three woman, all bundled against the cold. They had three children with them, two toddlers and possibly an eleven-year-old. She was about to ask her husband what had bothered him about them, when one of the men looked up at the tower.
Light glinted off the glasses he wore under his hood. She looked at the woman next to him and saw a long, auburn braid escaping from under several layers of shawls.
Her hands flew to her mouth. "Oh, God. Severus, do you think?"
He nodded to her and let her go.
She turned and raced out of the room.
She'd just reached the Entrance Hall when the huge doors were pushed open and in walked Harry Potter. Ginny, Fleur Weasley, Ron, and an unfamiliar woman, clutching Ron's hand like a lifeline, were arrayed behind him like an honor guard.
She kept her hands pressed to her mouth as her vision blurred. When her knees started to buckle, Harry was there to catch her, arms wrapped tight around her.
"We knew it had to be you," he said in a broken voice. "As soon as we heard the rumor, we knew it was you. If there was anyone that could have found a way to dig us out, it had to be our Hermione."
She sobbed as Ron and Ginny closed in and surrounded her.
Harry. He'd always been a symbol of hope. He was just what their people needed to rally them.
She lifted her head and looked up the stairs to where her husband was standing next to a beaming Minerva.
He caught her eyes and nodded to her, and her heart swelled nearly to bursting.
And there you go. I do hope you enjoyed. Also, a reminder. With the new format at ff.n, I cannot reply to reviews if your PMs are set to private. You know, FYI, and all that.