Chapter 48

oO December Oo

Hermione crouched low, standing on top of one of the many houses on the dingy snow-covered street. Night was quickly falling over the sleepy town, only those safe and warm inside the town pub about. Well, not entirely. Hermione moved just a bit farther, her steps silenced as well as magically gripped to the tiles in which she moved. Her eyes trained towards the far end as she watched two dark figures moving onto the main street.

She had found Ron and Harry almost two weeks after she'd set out to do so. Starting in Hogsmead, her keen ears and sharp eyes had picked up all the clues she'd needed from the various windows and roofs she'd found to be her whispering post. She really thought she should have warned Fred and George that they should add some wards to the upper levels of their shop but as she'd soon realized their foes were not as cunning as she.

She had bided her time for Harry and Ron to make their way out of the safe-house. Not wanting to lead anyone who might have been lurking in her shadow to them without making very sure she was completely alone. Then again, she was never completely, alone. A small smile curled her lip as her inner focus turned from her observations to the soft voice that had been reading to her for the last hour.

"Professor?" Her voice was just a whisper on the wind, but it didn't need to be loud for him to hear her.

"Yes, Miss Granger?"

"Can you read me a fairy tale? A magical one?" Hermione slipped behind the soot stack, turning her head carefully around the edge still very much alert despite her request.

"Anything in particular?"

"Anything will do." Hermione had so much enjoyed his voice whispering in her ear. Nearly every night, when he'd been able, he had read to her. Anything and everything, whatever he had been researching or merely reading to ease his own mind. She'd not once complained about the subject nor made any requests, until now.

Miles away, locked in a tall tower, Severus came to his feet closing the book he had been reading with a soft snap. Weeks now, he'd gone to bed alone. A small return to his normal life. To say it was not without its challenges would have been an understatement. He had often enough woken in a small panic when he'd found his bed empty, only to remember that the girl who he'd fought to shelter, had made her own choice to leave.

He hadn't stopped her, as she had every right to leave though they had had very strong words before she'd left. The first few nights he had waited for the call that would lead to his death, having bitterly given up on fulfilling his own mission. The sour taste of failure was something he was often familiar with, and though it pained him greatly to know that his entire life was a waste, he prepared himself to die with as much honor as possible.

Then, three days after he had watched her go, she spoke to him through the magical ring she had left behind. Asking him if he had plans to read that evening, that if he were to do so, that he do so aloud. At first, he'd not given her a response. His throat too tight with emotions he could hardly name let alone understand. It had been two days after she'd made her small request, that he'd obliged. Of course, he'd been watching her in the mirror, wanting to prepare himself for when his world would come crashing down. It had never come.

Severus took a slow breath, looking through the titles left behind by his predecessors. His fingers trailed over long worn spines before pulling out a smaller tome. With only a small glance over the cover, he returned to his chair. A soft sigh passed his nose as he crossed his long legs. He had become somewhat of an adviser in the recent weeks. Helping her to identify those she'd run into.

She'd left well enough alone as far as trying to take on snatchers that were still inside the Dark Lord's influence. So long as they hadn't had any prisoners with them, she'd wisely let them be on their way, though not without gathering crucial information. She was like a second set of eyes and ears, senses of which he could not expend. She was the body in the field that Dumbledore had lacked for years. It was true that Severus had the Dark Lord's audience but it would have been a fool's move to speak of everything he was to do with him. Many of the smaller matters did not concern him, not anymore.

Hermione smiled even wider when his voice warmed the space that had been slowly building in her heart. There was something to be said about the phrase, 'Distance makes the heart grow fonder'; she too had felt a sort of heavy loss in her extended absence though she was much more understanding as to what it meant.

She wouldn't have called it love, not by its traditional definition but there was something there. Admiration came to mind, as well as deep respect. While her body certainly had other desires, she was not controlled by its urges anymore. Something she found relief and some concern with. She wasn't even sure if she could ever love a man in such a way, though if she were honest with herself, she would be willing to take the chance of finding out on him.

"What could be so important here...?" She mumbled only to herself, trying not to interrupt the soft voice whispering in her ear, though he did pause she didn't wait for his actual response. Instead, she moved onto the top of another house, this one overlooking a small grave-yard that looked centuries old.

She'd kept her distance, not daring to risk exposing herself to them. She'd watched them make camp, impressed with Harry and Ron's concealing spells. Their small comments to her, had warmed her heart. They had her diary, she'd learned and they had finally taken it upon themselves to read and learn without her constant weight on their shoulder. It was a wonderful sight as it was disheartening. She wasn't needed anymore. Not by them. They had finally grown.

Hermione pursed her lips when the voice that had been accompanying her went silent. Her attention pulled away temporarily from Harry and Ron who'd begun to walk about through the tombstones, "What's wrong?"

"Where are you?"

"Godric's Hollow."

Severus had slowly relaxed his vigil on her over time, having other tasks to attend to. One of which was a blond haired pain in the arse who had made the days leading to the term break rather difficult. His memory modification spell had taken hours, nearly all of the night he'd come to accuse him. It had to be done carefully, with the utmost attention to detail and without flaw. He'd taken to keeping a tight watch over the boy in the time that had passed, ensuring that his spell had rightfully taken hold. It had.

He'd brought the mirror into his rooms, finding comfort in watching her fall asleep even though he knew he could never be with her, making sure her back was covered while she rested was one of the ways he found himself to be useful. She'd done well to protect herself, sleeping high in the trees, making a sort of cot out of the branches before using the spells he guided her through to conceal her presence.

"You can't be there."

"Why not?" Hermione felt herself grow still, her body lowering down even further to ensure she wasn't seen, though her other senses were beginning to heighten.

The voice on the other end of the connection went silent again, a small warming of her ear telling her that it had been canceled. Her teeth ground, the only reason he'd ever removed his ring was that he'd been summoned. The first time it had happened, she'd thought he'd left her on her own. Angry and broken-hearted, she'd almost returned to the castle. It was only a tiny voice inside her head that begged for her patience did she stay her course.

A small huff left her nose and she turned to go further down the row, her path, however, was cut short when she came across a house that stood in permanent disrepair. Her brow furrowed as to the why, when two sets of footsteps gathered her attentions.

"This is where they died..." Harry's voice was soft, choked thick with tears he refused to let fall. His eyes looking out over the fence that kept memorial over his once childhood home.

Hermione's heart beat a little heavier as she looked on from the shadows at her friend's heavy-hearted face. Her own mirroring the pain that was so clear across his features. How she wanted to pull him into a hug, to tell him that it would be alright, that this war would end, that the man who had done this crime would be brought to justice. It hurt her in ways deeper now, as she had no family to call her own. She had no one to embrace her, to call her their own. To share her blood.

A shuffling sound caused all of their youths heads to turn down the street, where an elderly woman was slowly making her way towards the pair on the street. The hair on the back of Hermione's neck rose and she slipped her wand tight into her palm. If there was to be a fight, she would not stand by to let this sacred place become defiled any further.

Waiting until Harry and Ron had chosen to follow the woman's silent bid, she backed herself up on the roof and pulled her cloak out behind her, a whispered and well practice spell turned the cloth into black wings and she took a silent run. Using another spell to give her lift, she glided over the gap to the other side of the street landing with practiced ease. A shake of the fabric returned it to its original form and she quickly made to follow.

It was just as she landed on the house just in front of the one Harry and Ron had entered when several cracks of apparation from the far end of the street caught her attention. She moved cautiously around the chimney, looking down the snow-covered lane. Her heart began to be just a bit faster when the four dark figures took formation, covering the path completely.

"How long do we need to wait?" A cool aristocratic voice that was easily identified as that of Lucius Malfoy.

"We only attack if the Dark Lord's trap fails." Another easily recognizable voice, cold as the ice that covered the stones—Bellatrix Lestrange.

Hermione could feel her heart beginning to pound faster. She didn't need the other two to speak to know who had joined them. Despite their faces being covered by the silver masks of death, she knew who had come to their aid. Her eyes lowered to the man standing just behind on Bellatrix's right, his dark hair and clothes unmistakable.

As if guided by the fates alone, her dark eyes met with his. Even from beyond the mask, she could feel his soul reaching out to her own. She knew this was the reason why he had suddenly left her, what he had been so fearful of since she'd left. He'd never spoken a word, but he hadn't needed to. She had been able to hear it in his voice when he'd argued with her to stay. He hadn't known for sure that their paths would cross, that her loyalty to him would have to be betrayed, for the greater good.

A choice had to be made, one that could potentially bring one of the biggest turning points in the war to date. Hermione knew it, Severus knew it. The question was, who was going to move first?

Hermione ground her teeth against the inside of her cheek turning her eyes cautiously away from the group standing sentry at the end of the street and towards the house that held Harry and Ron. She could see some sort of dim light inside, as well as shadows but despite her extended senses, she could hear nothing. If she was going to act, she'd have to do it perfectly, flawlessly.

Her mind was turning in every possible direction, and though she could feel the weight of his eyes upon her, she knew her time to decide was running out. Flee, or fight. Protect herself and Snape or risk it all and reveal herself to Harry and Ron. It seemed like such a black and white choice but with all things she'd learned in this life, there was always a third option.

Another glance back towards the group that had now begun to circle in on itself, she made her move. Spreading out her cloak as she had before and with a charm to cloak her further, she pushed off of the roof, gliding across the street. As she landed, she checked that her flight had been without witness before she quickly slipped behind the back of the house and further into the safety of its shadow.

"What was that?" Bellatrix had heard a rather large thump, her head turning back just in time to miss Hermione's landing, her black eyes narrowed.

"Probably just the snow Bella." Lucius let out a heavy sigh, carelessly throwing a glance in the direction of the sound before crossing his arms over his chest.

"Probably?" Bellatrix mocked his lazy tone before flipping her hair over her shoulder. She was the only one who didn't wear a mask, as she didn't care who saw her face. Let her visage bring nightmares to all those who would dare to stand in the Dark Lord's way.

"We must be patient. It wouldn't do us well to risk the Dark Lord's plan with recklessness." Severus' low voice seemed to bring the insane witch down just a touch but he knew he couldn't hold her back for long. He only prayed that Granger had decided that her life was more valuable than his and had already fled to the safety of Hogwarts.

Bellatrix made a face, mouthing his words with a childish sneer before turning her eyes back down the street. Her own senses were tingling, whispering that something was different than before, but her eyes failed to tell her what she was missing.

Narcissa moved just a step closer to her husband, her bright blue eyes looking to Severus from behind her mask. She'd been unwell for months, ever since she'd received a rather brutal lashing for her husband's failure. Despite what aid Severus had be able to give her, she was still not at her best.

Hermione pressed her hand over her heart forcing it back into her chest. It had been a risk but it had been measured. With a thick swallow and a slow deep breath to bring her mind center, she pressed her back against the decaying wood before carefully turning her face into the frost covered window. A deep pain pressed into the beat of her heart when she took an instant sight of Ron.

His red hair and dirty face turned towards her if only just, looking at something obscure. A sound pulled his attention away and he was gone from sight, moving further into the cluttered house. Hermione snarled slightly at how oblivious he was to the dangers lurking just beyond the door and she looked to the heavens for strength.

Another courage building pause turned her toward the door leading from the back garden. Her wand pressed into the heel of her hand as she released the lock. With all the stealth of a shadow, she moved inside, pressing the door silently closed behind her. A small tug brought her hood down over her face, further concealing her into the darkness that seeped from every corner.

The house was chilled, but not so much that her breath gave away her position. It was with great cat-like grace that she managed to move through the kitchen, stacked high with disarray, before making it to the hallway. Her dark eyes glittered like a ghost through the darkness. Her body completely concealed by her cloak. She was only ten steps away from her childhood friend. She could actually smell the horrid cologne he had taken to wearing in their fifth year.

The creak of the floor overhead told her where Harry must have gone but she didn't dare to move until Ron had turned to follow. As expected, he'd not even looked up when he'd turned towards the landing, his eyes looking over the mounds and mounds of books left on either side. She could have been anyone, and yet he did not sense another's presence. It was a miracle to her how he had lived this long.

As he neared the halfway point, her feet began to move. Her throat felt thick, as though someone was holding their hand tight around it. She wanted to cry out, to call his name, hear him call her own. How long had it been since she'd heard her name? Her first name? Did she even recognize it as her own anymore? It was an odd thought to have in the middle of all that was taking place, yet still, it pressed between her temples.

Just as her feet had brought her to the landing, a sharp cry and a dangerous crash shook the entire house. Her movement was swift, bringing her right onto the second-floor landing in a few short jumps.

She moved without thought, driven by the pure instinct to preserve life. Her hand took a sharp and shocking hold of the back of Ron's shirt, sending him backward with a startled yelp and wide eyes of surprise. Her pull sent him tumbling down the stairs with impressive force as she took his place. Her eyes flared wide and filled with red.

"Harry!" Ron's voice broke as he collided clumsily on the stairs.

Harry was scrambling back on his hands and feet, his head dumbly turning towards her instead of the snake that had begun to rear up from the decaying body of Mrs. Bagshot. Hermione sneered at him, her face that of an animal, a demon. She was sure he thought that she was there to kill him, his eyes wide, face as pale as the snow that covered the streets.

Her spell left her wand without a word, ricocheting off of the enchanted snake, exploding the room and the floor sending Harry down below and marking her a target. She could hear Ron scrambling to pull Harry out of the debris, their shouts of alarm, of confusion nothing but muffled sounds as Hermione jumped the gap. With her dagger in hand, she landed with a hard blow across the serpent's maw. The loud hiss and black smoke of her connection making the air thick.

Voices from all around began to fill her world, closed in on all sides. She snarled, chest heaving as the snake reared back again to strike. It was a brilliant dodge by any standards, but her footing was lost in the process bringing her against the weak years-worn glass of the window overlooking the street. Another brilliant dodge, just barely, sent the snake tumbling through the glass, its cool body gliding across her throat as it passed.

More shouts, and an explosion of wood rocked her world, sending her for a small retreat further into the house. Clamoring over the debris she'd already created, Hermione could feel her world growing dark around the edges, her ears ringing. She had but one chance to keep them from advancing. One chance.

Only a few panting breaths left her chest before she took off, pushing herself through the blood and papers that littered the floor. She shielded her head as she crashed through the remains, the glass raining down over her form like crystal. A roll landed her hard over the edge of the first floor roof. Her body instantly pushing itself back right.

Confusion and argument filled the street below, and it was in that moment that she pulled her cloak upward. It's large transformed wings lifting her feet from the tiled roof. Sending her partially soaring, partially falling towards the cobblestone below. She landed on bent knee, the bone cracking hard into the stone and sending out a small tremor alerting everyone who had come to the house with ill-wish to her presence.

As she raised her head, she found herself mere paces away from Bellatrix, the witch's wild bloodthirsty eyes instantly narrowing on her own. First in confusion, then with interest then finally with the thirst for blood. Bellatrix's own devilish smile was greeted in kind, the black painted face showing the whites of their teeth, like a lion prepared to lunge.

Severus could feel his entire world coming to a sharp and jolting stand-still. His eyes wide behind his mask, then a small imperceptible nod, a small flick of her eyes in his direction told him what he had feared. She was prepared to fight, to die. Without revealing either of them.

"After the boys! Cissy get Nagini back to our master! This one is mine." Bellatrix found an almost sick fascination with the woman who had slowly begun to rise. As though their thirst for blood was one and the same. It would be a pity to kill someone so much like herself.

Lucius followed the direction without question, his hand catching Severus' arm as he ran past towards the back of the house.

"And what do they call you, then?" Bellatrix licked her bottom lip, almost tasting the blood that was about to be spilled, fluttering in the air.

Hermione raised her chin, her eyes not on the wild woman before her but just beyond her shoulder. When Severus finally moved, her eyes turned back to the black haired woman, the only response to her question was a small flick of her dagger, sending the blood that coated it's blade into the snow.

Bellatrix let out a raucous cackle, her eyes filled with the joy of the hunt. Oh yes, she hadn't had a proper challenge since she'd rejoined her master. She would bathe in the blood of her foe before the nights end and carry her head to his feet in her victory.

Hermione had only a second to react, her eyes narrowing as she cast off the first of a series of spells that preceded the woman's advance. The thick haze of smoke and sound of exploded stone turned her world small. Her body turned, agile and quick changing their positions through a small haze before she began her own barrage.

It was like a dance of swords, wands in one hand, cursed daggers in the other. Bellatrix had gone easy at first, wanting to toy with her prey, draw out her scream so that she could have wonderful dreams of its sound. It had quickly turned more serious when the witch had gotten in her own attack, leaving a rather nice cut along her flawless skin. She could smell her own blood as she continued to close the distance between them. Her dagger now joining her wand in her attack.

Hermione hissed when Bellatrix turned their ranged combat into a grapple, the deranged woman's clawed hand taking hold of her hood, ripping it back before taking a tight hold of her hair bearing her throat. Taller than she, Hermione could smell death on her breath as the wild eyes looked so directly into her own. Searching for answers she would not find.

It was in the second of embrace that Hermione's dagger had found it's hold, pushed with all the strength she had left inside her into the woman's hip. The wild eyes that had sought to devour her whole went wide as the pain registered. Her body turned warm as Bellatrix released her to stagger back, her hand clutching at her side that painted the stones.

A sharp cough bent Bellatrix in half, her breathing heavy as Hermione took the chance. Not choosing to wait around for the outcome of her strike, her blood covered hand clutched tight to her pin, and in an instant, she was gone. Smoke in the wind.