A/N: Thank you wonderful friends sooo much for your lovely messages and condolences! Your kind words mean the world to me and I appreciate each and every one of you :)
And for more thank you's-MrsHH (the wonderful author of 'The Headmaster's Wife, an epic fic that you should all read) was key in helping with this chapter because I'm pants when it comes to certain things and my brain was broken and she was the plaster to patch it all back together. C'sMelody, your lovely eyes that help pick up my errors, bless you, dear friend. You get all the cookies, cakes and brownies. My other half, he let me pick his brain when it came to writing some other bits.
Last but not least, thank you EVERYONE FOR THE REVIEWS! They keep me going, they keep me typing, they keep the ideas flowing. Trust me, sometimes someone will say something and it gives me an idea of a different way to go than originally planned. I should take this time to say that if any of you ever toy with the idea of writing but don't because you don't think you're good enough...let me stop you right there. You ARE good enough and you have some creative brains so don't let the doubt stop you!
So...this is the point where I tell you that I've taken a huge amount of creative licensing and... everything isn't totally canon here. So if something seems out of order... even if it's a slight change..it was likely done on purpose. Variety is the spice of life and all that jazz ;)
OCB, shut up, no one cares about your long author's notes. OK, everyone, please enjoy!
Sleep refused to come easy for Hermione. Each time she drifted off, some horrible flashback of her and Harry's evening stabbed into her subconscious and startled her awake. Instinct made her grab for her wand, and even after remembering that she'd given it to Harry, it was still hard to relax. However, she wasn't so wound up that she was keen to get up, especially since her bed was a cocoon of warmth and the area around it was shockingly cold.
The need to relieve herself eventually made her get up, although after using the lavatory she felt anything but relieved.
A cursory glance at the clean seat of her cotton knickers made her realise that she was unable to pinpoint when she'd last gotten her period. Its mild inconvenience found her right after they'd first gone into hiding, but a large pouch of tampons and sanitary napkins were conveniently among the myriad of objects that weighed down her charmed beaded bag. October began to stand out in her mind, most likely because at the time Ron had mentioned the Hallowe'en feast that took place every year at Hogwarts, and she was met with the rare craving for sweets. Survival, however, had a way of making her forget about little things, her period being one, and now she had slight cause to panic.
She loved Severus—there was no doubt in her mind about that. But if there was true cause for worry, Hermione had no idea how to handle the situation. The reason for her being out in the middle of a forest in the dead of winter, hungry, aching all over, and freezing her arse off was enough of a crushing responsibility. There was no way she could be—
No. Don't even think about it.
It was true that they'd often gotten carried away in the heat of the moment, but Severus had made it abundantly clear that getting her in an 'interesting condition', a euphemism once used, would never happen. It had been easy to allow him to handle the issue of contraception as Hermione had no idea how to obtain birth control pills or the like while being away from home. Their last encounter had been in August and it was now after Boxing Day, and logic told Hermione that if she were in fact pregnant, she should be showing by now. Regardless she still had to keep in mind that she was dealing with an insanely late or possibly skipped period. While she could appreciate that Severus was having a time of it dealing his with double lives, she hoped with all her heart that he hadn't been remiss in remembering one little phial of potion.
Those worries had to be momentarily put on hold. By morning, Harry suggested that they Apparate to a new location and Hermione readily agreed. Her difficult night still hadn't dulled her senses, and she was positive that her ears detected someone moving outside the tent and around their enchanted camping area.
The Forest of Dean was more thickly covered in snow than the previous place, and terribly windy. Hermione had worn her pyjamas beneath her jumper and jeans, yet the extra layer did little to protect her from the bitterly cold weather. They spent the entire day inside the tent, huddled around the fire. Harry still hadn't said much to her, and for once, Hermione didn't mind. She was too preoccupied with an unsettled stomach and the idea that she could possibly be pregnant. Of course, Hermione hoped that it was nothing more than nerves and indigestion that possibly came from the lunch of tinned baked beans she and Harry had eaten.
While Harry slept, she kept watch at the opening of the tent. By nightfall the entire surrounding area was bathed in pitch dark, giving the feel that she was the only person left alive in the world. Around midnight Harry came to relieve her, and she was less reluctant to hand over her wand before heading off to bed.
It took some time before she fell into a sleep that was absent of tossing and turning. Hermione was unable to get truly warm, as the air proved too bracing to breathe in unless she kept her head beneath the blankets. She'd even dragged herself out of bed to put on the last of her jumpers and an old hat that was her first disastrous attempt at knitting; both items were found at the bottom of her beaded bag. Yet the moment she dropped her head back against the pillow and closed her eyes, visions of Ron, Bathilda Bagshot's body, and a delirious Harry immediately appeared. Curling up on her side, burying her face in the blankets and trying to remember what Severus smelled like soon left Hermione composed enough to drift off.
She had no idea how long she'd been asleep for. There was the feel of a hand gently shaking her, and Hermione found that she had been so deep into her rest she'd nearly forgotten about her current surroundings. Reality swiftly kicked in and just as she was about to reach for her wand, she found Harry hovering over her and remembered that she'd loaned him her wand. She was about to tell him to leave her alone when he pointed across the tent with a "Look!"
At first Hermione wasn't sure if she was seeing things. She wondered if she was still asleep, still dreaming, but when she saw that Ron really was standing a few feet away from her, uttering a feeble "Hey" when she looked straight at him, the only thing Hermione registered was becoming red with fury and fighting with the blankets that suddenly decided to inconveniently tangle themselves around her legs, causing her to fall back onto the bunk when she tried to stand up. It didn't matter that Ron and Harry were red-faced, soaked to the bone and dripping water everywhere. She didn't care that Ron was holding onto a large sword which looked familiar. The only thing she knew was that the person she'd gone sick with worry for and cried over for days on end, sobbing to the point that her nose began to bleed, was currently alive and standing before her.
Perhaps if Ron had a missing or broken limb, he might have garnered some of her sympathy. But the fact that the redheaded idiot was a few inches away from her with a goofy, stupid grin on his freckled but otherwise unblemished face sent Hermione into a blind rage. Words were coming out of her mouth but not a single one sounded coherent. Ron threw his long arms around his head and began cowering as she beat her fists against his chest; Harry tried to avoid her wrath by tucking himself into a corner but the moment Hermione demanded he return her wand, he used it to cast a Shield Charm all around them.
Hermione became indignant at the indignity of being sequestered away, and it took a long time before she realised the way she was shrieking and pacing like a caged animal behind the invisible partition. She finally calmed down long enough to listen to Harry explaining that Ron had just saved his life, but it still wasn't enough to completely diffuse her anger. Only after Harry lowered his shields and tossed the destroyed locket into her lap did some impression of sanity return.
"See?" he asked, a wary look on his face as he darted back across the room.
"So it's destroyed? It's well and truly destroyed?"
"Yeah," Harry replied. "One Horcrux down, who knows how many more to go."
Harry began explaining how he round the sword, and then Ron began telling them about his nasty run in with a group of Snatchers and how he escaped them. Hermione did her best to keep quiet, even though she wanted to praise him for his quick thinking. It was also hard to not be impressed, especially after he dumped a handful of nicked wands onto the bunk, but she resisted, knowing that the temptation was still too fresh to tell him off again for his foolhardy behaviour.
The need for the lavatory was suddenly a welcome excuse, and Hermione got up and walked out without a single word to Ron or Harry.
"So, one Horcrux is destroyed, Ron's back, and you're not pregnant," she muttered impassively to herself after pulling down her knickers. "Let's hold out hope for a fourth good thing to bring my night to a close."
Many times in his youth Snape wished to be noticed. However, it did not take long for him to learn the merits of roaming about whilst being well concealed.
An envelope had been delivered to his study earlier that evening by an unfamiliar bird. The message was written on rather plain parchment, and there was no imprint of a stamp pressed into the red wax seal. There was no name signed to the missive, yet the letters were by a hand that Snape immediately deciphered. Swiftly he replied to the note, giving terse yet clear-cut instructions on the future meeting place.
After venturing to the red-light area where most minded their business and rarely asked questions, Snape found himself off to the side in a dark, seedy pub, his face well concealed beneath the hood and voluminous folds of an old travelling cloak. Stealth was an important factor to this meeting, yet skulking in a corner would only attract unwanted attention. People tended to ignore the things that were right in front of their face, as proved by the surly barkeep who hadn't even glanced at the professor while distractedly setting down his drinks. The place attracted all sorts and no one gave a damn about appearances, so long as they were paying for occupying a seat. Two dented pewter tankards filled with ale sat before him untouched, as Snape had no intention of imbibing. From the looks of things his cup most likely contained more besides ale—warm piss, judging by the colour—but his order had been purely for show. Now he glanced at an old wooden clock on a far wall. It was five past twelve, ten minutes past the time he had given.
"You're late," he muttered, catching a glimpse of plain but expensive, custom-tailored black robes whooshing past him and settling into the opposite chair.
"My apologies. There was no sign and at first I wasn't sure if it was the right place."
Barely moving his head, Snape took a glance around the room before focusing on the hooded figure in front of him.
"You did ask for an obscure meeting place," he reminded. "Not that I wish to rush you, but if you would be so kind as to hasten towards the reason for our being here..."
The man gave a lingering glance to his surroundings, and the lines at the corner of his thin mouth tightened as he focused on the grime and dirt packed into the aged floorboards. A muttered expletive followed, noticing how sticky the tabletop was when he had to peel back a gloved hand.
"It washes off," Snape bluntly offered, just as his companion straightened up in his seat. "Nothing to be done about the stench of spilt beer, unfortunately."
"Perhaps I'll burn my robes and save myself the trouble," he murmured, peering distastefully down into his goblet, extending two fingers and nudging it to the side. "I have something that may be of interest to you."
Snape remained impassive as the man dug into his inner robes, withdrawing a small cloth-wrapped bundle and pushing it across the table.
"And what am I supposed to do with this?" he asked after pulling down one corner of the cloth to peer inside.
"Lock it up, keep it somewhere safe."
The man had never outright boasted of his many riches, however, it was no secret that his home was full of opulent trinkets and rare, expensive novelties that had no tangible use. The thing in Snape's hand was clearly old and not worth a tenth of the value of other things entrusted to him in the past, therefore the reason for this being passed over was not clear.
"Would it be too inquisitive if I were to ask why?" he asked, privately considering the possibility that the other wizard was pushing beyond the brink of sanity.
"Because," the hooded man replied in a soft register, "my wandmate's beastly relation is attached to the damned thing—too attached, if you ask me. And... he entrusted her to keep it in a safe place."
"Are you telling me you had the balls to steal from that bint? From him?" Snape continued speaking in a lowered voice, but disbelief and being two seconds away from a conniption made his words come out in a hiss that vaguely resembled one party they were discussing. "You reckless, insane fucking bastard! What the fuck are you playing at?"
"I need that fishwife out of my house, if you must know," his companion replied tightly, nostrils flaring. "I don't give a damn if we are tenuously related. It is bad enough that I have to bow and genuflect in my own home, but to feel fear as you walk to take the view of the gardens is unconscionable. We're up to our eyes in strife and Na—"
"No names," Snape smoothly cut in, drawing the cloth back over the object and shoving it into his pocket.
"My wife rarely ventures out of the bedroom. Of course she shows face when necessary but this is affecting her more than she cares to admit."
"She isn't the only one," Snape murmured, glaring knowingly across the table. His companion's delicate features hardened as he deciphered the meaning behind the professor's words. "However I think we'll both agree that his current location is safest in comparison to others."
Comprehension gleamed in the man's icy eyes and for a rare moment, he seemed lost for words.
"He's fine," Snape stated curtly. "I've been keeping an eye on him. I wish I could say the same for myself now that you have me entrapped in this idiotic plot of yours. I'm almost curious enough to ask how you managed to tear it from her grasp."
"Don't ever let her tell you she's resistant to the Imperius Curse, because she is not. Rather, let us not say anything. Ignorance is bliss when it comes to certain individuals."
"And I can only pray that ignorance upholds the legs to your plan. You do know the punishment for thievery?"
"Eventually we all end up taking risks," the man replied after a stretch of silence.
"You can thank me later for those finely honed Occlumency skills."
"You know as well as I do that I am forever in your debt. Now, will you leave here first or shall I?"
Snape answered his question by rising from the table and nodding in farewell.
The headmaster somewhat resented getting tangled in Lucius Malfoy's drama, but he understood all too well the bitterness that his long time friend felt when it came to Bellatrix Lestrange. For a moment, he wondered if Lucius had been covertly trying to get the witch into the Dark Lord's ill graces, but even that sounded petulant, considering that he was possibly gambling with his life. Yet if there was one thing he knew about Lucius, it was that when pushed into a corner, there was nothing he would not do to protect his wife and child.
Snape had long suspected that Lucius harboured guilt about his son being publicly shamed and made to pay for his mistakes, and his wife being forced to witness it all. The fact that he stole from Bellatrix with the hopes of her being punished for fecklessness was surprising, yet Snape knew that men often did strange things when their backs were against a wall.
From first fleeting glance at the tiny cup, Snape wondered why the Dark Lord concerned himself with it. Only after seeing the engraving and jewels on it did he realise the cup's origin, and removing the cloth and holding it in his bare hands let him know that Dark magic covered it.
Thinking back to Dumbledore, the ring he had tried to wear and the sword that lay beside it made Snape ponder if there was any connection. Yet his musings were cut short once he returned to the Headmaster's study.
Phineas Nigellus had been frantic, nearly losing his hat as he bustled into his frame to give the location of Potter and friends. Only after the portrait spoke the name of their whereabouts did Snape sharply remind him not to use the word 'Mudblood', as he had referred to Granger. Immediately Dumbledore instructed Snape to remove the sword of Gryffindor from a hidden compartment in the office and find a way to get it to Potter. The cup of Hufflepuff had still been in his pocket and upon holding the sword close to his body, Snape felt the cup seemingly recoil against him. It grew hotter and hotter until it felt as though it were burning through his clothes, and only when after tugging on his travelling cloak and moving far away from Hogwarts did he remove the cup and toss it to the ground.
Using the tip of the sword to prod the cup's handles, Snape was startled to find it slowly edging backwards in the grass. The further away the cup moved the more agitated he became. Mounting anger made him take his frustration out on the inanimate object, which strangely had taken on life of its own. Being used by Dumbledore, watching innocent men and women die as he stood by, and all manner of horrendous things that were typical to his life came to mind as he stood in the middle of the cold, snow-laden forest, vainly attempting to destroy the cup . However, the next strike upon it yielded a response that Snape had not expected.
Everything grew dark and when the fog lifted slightly, he was met with the sight of swirling snow falling onto a cloud of frizzy hair. The display of Hermione's bloodied, lifeless body on the ground sent Snape crashing to his knees. Empty brown eyes stared straight into him and Snape was unaware that he had dropped the sword and begun screaming like a deranged man. Every effort of telling himself that the scene before him was not real proved pointless: it felt real enough. The already chilly air had grown glacial and putrid and in spite of the open surroundings of the forest, it felt as though the walls were closing in on him.
The cup had rolled just out of reach, and the longer it remained intact the sicker Snape became. From it came thick curlicues of black, foul-tasting smoke that swirled towards him and caused him to choke. No matter which way he moved the smoke continued twining around his neck, slithering up his nostrils and stinging his eyes.
He had to get to Hermione, even if it meant rushing through the smog and risking his life in the process. The vapour seemed to know his plans and began feeling almost solid, turning into a mass that pressed and pinned upon every inch of him, as though trying to keep him away. A part of him that he'd kept hidden from all came bursting forth through his many layers of cold, tightly-controlled behaviour, and a rush over protectiveness sent him digging his fingers into the cold earth and crawling over on all fours to the false image of his young lover.
His hands went right through the veneer and that was enough of a reminder that the sight before his eyes was a sham. With trembling hands, he managed to find the sword, picking it up and jamming its tip into the cup. A terrible shriek rang out and the grisly scene before him immediately dissipated, leaving the forest to its original state. It was minutes before Snape's heart resumed beating and he fell backwards while maintaining a shaky grasp on the sword's hilt. Beads of sweat rolled down his forehead and he fumbled with an inner pocket until his fingertips brushed against a handkerchief.
Repeatedly, Snape told himself how fucked he was. His stomach continued twisting long after destroying the cup and he had a second's notice before retching violently onto the unblemished blanket of snow covering the ground. It took a long time to calm down and Snape forced himself to focus as he roughly mopped dry his soaked face with the handkerchief. That brief bit of horror rocked him more than he wanted to admit, and his severe reaction to even a hint of Hermione being dead was a clear and unquestionable attestation as to his true feelings.
An icy wetness began seeping through his cloak and trousers and reminded him that he was still lying in the snow. After forcing himself to his feet and steadying one hand against a tree, Snape tilted his head back and gulped several mouthfuls of bracing, wintry air. A breeze touched the remaining droplets of perspiration at his temple, making him shiver, and that small shock to his system was enough to make him press on.
The Forest of Dean was not terribly far from his location and he was able to Apparate a close enough distance. It took little time to find a place to leave the sword, and even less time to find Potter and send his Patronus to lead him to the sword. Finding the location of their tent took a bit more legwork.
Snape wandered about for a while. Upon approaching one specific area, he honed in on the many magical traces lingering about. The feel of one individual's magic was keen and distinct, and although he knew it was thoroughly idiotic to follow through with the plan forming in his head, some irrational part of his brain made him press on. Getting through the wards took some effort, but Snape felt relieved when the battered tent came into view.
The inside of the tent was marginally warmer than outside, and Snape silently applauded the trio's pluck for staying on their mission in spite of the uncomfortable circumstances. Quietly moving about, he checked each room in search of one particular Gryffindor. The first room he found was empty, and had a bunk that held a pile of old blankets and clothing. The second room he visited was small but neat, and the bunk inside had a thickly blanketed form on top.
Hermione had tucked herself into a ball and looked as though she was trying to protect herself from the outside world. An ugly hat, which greatly resembled one that belonged to Potter's cheerful house-elf, nearly swallowed her head and the blankets concealed most of her. However, just enough of her face was exposed and Snape immediately noticed how overwrought she looked, even in the midst of sleep.
His hand seemed to move of its own accord as it reached out. Two fingers carefully moved a few strands of unruly curls that had fallen over her lips and, gently as possible, he ghosted the back of those fingers across her skin. A tiny crease formed between her brows and Snape was prepared to flee, knowing that he could not allow Hermione to see him. It was bad enough that he had gone so far as to bogart his way past her wards and into the tent. Then he had taken to hovering over her like some sort of deviant who didn't know how to behave around a woman. It was his fortune that Hermione did not wake up; the groove of worry in her forehead disappeared as his touch became more robust, and she sighed and shifted slightly beneath the blankets. Not once did her eyes open and Snape decided to not take his chances before it could happen.
"Sod off, cat. Your mummy isn't here," Snape said menacingly to Crookshanks. The ginger half-kneazle had immediately run over the minute he stepped into his rooms, growing excited as he picked up the scent of his mistress.
Crookshanks moved away at the professor's threat, but when the professor settled into the armchair before the hearth, the cat padded his way back over, hopped up on Snape's lap and began nuzzling his face against his hand.
Snape was still recovering from the events of that evening. He still felt troubled by the false image in the forest, but after slipping into the tent and seeing Hermione's prone form huddled beneath the blankets, and touching the warm silk of her cheek, the tangible reminder was enough to temporarily alleviate his worries. That and not wanting to be found by Potter in the event of his return eventually forced Snape to uproot his feet from beside Hermione's bunk, walk out her room, out the tent, and disappear into the night.
"You'll see her soon," he assured Crookshanks when the animal shifted to stand in his lap, pressing both front paws against his chest. "Stop looking at me like that."
The half-kneazle continued staring at the professor.
"Go to sleep, cat, lest you feel like spending the night in a draughty corridor."
Crookshanks looked at Snape as if to say 'You'll do no such thing', but moved down from his chest and curled into a ball on his lap.