Professor Snape had shoved her hard and Crabbe was not prepared. She careened into him and he barely had time to lift his hands to ward her off. They collided and Crabbe grabbed her arms and pushed her upright. He scowled at her just as her cloak glowed blue. Instantly she felt a yank behind her navel and suddenly they were buffeted by whirling wind and color. The transport seemed to be taking a bit longer than she had experienced before and she had time for one extra thought: she didn't have her wand.
As soon as the spell released them, Hermione grabbed onto Crabbe's robes and, using the momentum from the transport, jerked on the Death Eater and forced them into a roll. She had no idea where they were, but the ground was hard and lumpy. Fortunately, she ended up on top and knew she only had a split second to capitalize on her maneuver. Lifting up, she brought her fist back and punched him in the face with all the strength she could manage. She felt his nose break under her knuckles at the same time a sharp pain shot through her hand and for a moment she saw sparkling dots of light dance before her eyes. It hadn't hurt this bad when she had punched Malfoy.
Momentarily stunned by the pain, Crabbe took advantage of the lull in her attack. He shoved her away and she fell hard onto what the bright moonlight revealed to be cobblestones. Crabbe quickly rolled away and gained his feet before she was able to get up. He pulled his wand and pointed it at her. The only chance she had to survive would be to avoid the green jet of light she knew was coming. Favoring her hand, she tried to scramble to her feet but only made it to one knee.
"Aveda . . ."
Crabbe pitched forward and fell face first in front of her, his nose crunching again for the second time that night. Hermione looked over to where she had heard a very distinctive voice cast the Stunning spell. Professor Snape stood there, black hair and robes highlighted in deep blue in the light from the moon. He lowered his wand.
"Miss Granger . . . I . . ."
He was interrupted by the sound of boots striking stone as several robed figures ran toward them. Now that Crabbe was no longer a danger, Hermione noticed that she was kneeling in the middle of a large cobbled courtyard, tall massive walls encompassing it on all sides. The approaching figures slowed to a walk.
"Drop your wands!" the closest one commanded. Shakily, she got to her feet and raised her open hands in the air. As she complied, she heard the sharp pop of someone Apparating behind the group of wand-pointing wizards. "There are three of them, Warden," one of the wizards informed the newcomer.
"Warden Selby?" Professor Snape queried.
"Yes. And my apprentice, Miss Hermione Granger," said Professor Snape. "Vincent Crabbe, on the ground here, is your latest prisoner. He may need some medical attention." He pointed his wand at the unconscious Death Eater. "Rennervate."
"Crabbe? Excellent, excellent. That's a major blow to the opposition," said Warden Selby. Crabbe moaned and the prison guards surrounded him. While one retrieved Crabbe's wand another two roughly pulled their prisoner to his feet and the contingent escorted him off.
The warden approached them and held out his hand. Professor Snape's clasp was brief.
"We will be sending you three more in short order," Professor Snape said. "Rowland, Meyers and Pinkerton. I think that cleans out about half of Crabbe's group. I have one under the Imperious Curse, Rowle, and I'll use him to trap the rest and then Portkey the lot of them here over the next few days. After that, I'll be their last resort and I suspect, sooner or later, most of the rogue Death Eaters will show up on my doorstep."
"When you and Kingsley cooked up this scheme, I didn't think it would work. You've proved me wrong and I'm glad to admit it. No doubt it has saved more than one Auror's life. You'll be Portkeying back out?"
"Yes, we have a bit of cleaning up to do."
"I'll leave you to it then. We'll keep an eye out for your next delivery. Thanks again, Severus." Warden Selby said warmly. "Miss Granger," he nodded her way and turned and followed after his guards.
They were alone. Professor Snape reached into his pocket, pulled out her wand and held it out to her.
Hermione's limbs began trembling. Some small part of it was because the threat to her life was past and she was coming off an adrenaline high - not an unaccustomed sensation, given her life to date in the wizarding world. Another part might be due to the cold; her frosted breath glowed in the moonlight. But most of it was because Professor Snape, once again, had just resoundingly proven what side he was on. She walked toward him. Really, it had been to retrieve her wand, but upon drawing closer, her emotions overwhelmed her and she stepped past the offered wand and fell against him. Wrapping her arms tightly about his waist, she laid her cheek against his chest and the tears began.
Snape stood there, as if he'd been Stupified, arms slightly raised, looking down at the brown-haired head laid against his chest. Then he heard a sniff. Oh, Merlin, she's crying.
"I apologize, Miss Granger," he offered. "It was the only plan I could come up with on short notice."
"That's not the problem," she replied. He heard another quiet sniff. "You are a good man. I was so frightened that you weren't."
He didn't know what to say. He didn't know what to do. Her arms tightened around his waist and he felt her trembling against him. She must be cold. That problem he could address. He tucked her wand up his sleeve next to his and pulled his robes about her. And, well, the only way to keep them there was to wrap his arms around her too. In a few moments the trembling and the sniffing eased and he congratulated himself on that small achievement.
"You could have told me about your plan before Rowle came to the apothecary," she said quietly.
"That would not have been prudent. The Sorting Hat put you in Gryffindor for a reason," he replied. When he saw her questioning face, brightened by the moonlight and looking up at him, he added, "I knew you were quite capable of being brave. I also knew you were a lamentable liar. I chose the talent that would get the job done." Comfortable as he was at the moment, he dropped his arms from around her shoulders. "We need to attend to Potter and Weasley. I gave Rowle orders to guard them, but he is unlikely to render any aid out of the goodness of his heart."
She nodded and finally released his waist. He flicked his wand at her cloak, casting the Portkey charm for the third time that evening. Taking hold of her arm, the transport initiated about two seconds later and they were returned to Crabbe's cabin.
Potter and Weasley were sitting on the floor, backs against the wall, in the same room he had left them. They had been untied but Rowle was in a chair across from them, wand pointed warily in their direction. Meyers and Pinkerton were on the floor in the corner, prone and insensate, also as he had left them.
Miss Granger rushed to attend to her friends and Snape found himself frowning. Potter and Weasley obviously needed assistance, but he was surprised that her eagerness to do so annoyed him. He watched her reach into her pockets. Stepping up to the three of them, he pulled her wand from his sleeve and passed it to her. But then he saw her hand, bruising and bloody, and gently took it in his. Using his wand, he vanished the blood and gently plied the bones beneath her purpling skin. She winced when he felt a grinding just below one knuckle.
"Episkey," he cast the healing spell and she smiled up at him, her warm eyes shining. He looked away quickly and found Potter glaring at him.
"So you're taking over Crabbe's operations?" the boy wonder snarled.
"Harry. Shut it," Miss Granger snapped. Potter seemed taken aback by her command, but he held his tongue. She used her wand to clean the blood off their faces. Snape knelt next to her to take a look at Weasley's leg. It was definitely broken, but its mending was something he felt she could handle. He needed to deliver a few prisoners to Warden Selby.
Standing, he aimed his wand at Meyers. "Portus," he cast the spell. The man's robes shifted, flashed blue and a partial second later, he disappeared.
"Hold on!" Potter demanded. "These Death Eaters tortured us. They were going to kill us and you're helping them escape?"
"They're not escaping, Harry," Miss Granger said sharply. "They're sent to . . . to . . ." Her soft brown eyes reflected frustration when she looked up at him. Their contract was preventing her from revealing his activities. Snape was always loathe to explain himself. The less those around him knew about his motives and actions the easier it was to lie about them later. But he could see that Miss Granger was distressed because her friends still considered him a traitor. Again.
"Azkaban," he said and cast another Portkey charm, this time on Pinkerton and achieving the same result as he had with Meyers.
"Yes, Azkaban," Miss Granger said, now free to discuss the operation he had been involved in. "That's where Crabbe is. I saw him carted off by the prison guards myself. Professor Snape has been baiting rogue Death Eaters with the promise of escaping the country and then sending them to Azkaban instead."
Wisely, Potter kept his mouth shut. It appeared he finally had something to think about, not that he had anything to think with. Snape smirked as he left the room. One more remained to send away and he found that one where Rowle had left him near the entrance to the cabin. Another charm, a few seconds and Rowland was gone as well.
Snape headed back down the hall and heard murmured voices arguing in whispers which ceased abruptly when he entered the room. Three sets of eyes turned to look at him when he did so. Miss Granger stood.
"They're a bit tired, but I've mended all their injuries," she said. "A slathering of bruise paste, a good night's sleep and they should be right as rain."
"You need a bit of bruise paste yourself, Miss Granger," he replied. "There's plenty back at the shop," he said and turned to Rowle. "Begin contacting the rest of Crabbe's crew. I want you to bring them to my apothecary one at a time, alert me by your Dark Mark and come to the greenhouse entrance on the alley. Explain that Crabbe has been arrested and that I am now their only chance of escaping the Aurors. Is that clear?"
Rowle didn't respond. He hadn't moved from his position, staring at Potter, since Snape had returned. His spell was wearing off and the task assigned was something Rowle was fighting.
"Imperio," Snape renewed the curse and Rowle's eyes glazed.
"Is that clear?" Snape repeated.
"Yes," Rowle answered and stood up.
"Miss Granger, if you will take Weasley back to the apothecary, I will take Potter," Snape said and watched as the two young wizards got shakily to their feet. Potter didn't protest the division of labor and meekly followed Miss Granger from the room. Snape let Rowle leave and then followed behind as they all made their way out of the cabin.
Rowle Disapparated first, then Miss Granger with Weasley, leaving himself and Potter. Snape studied the younger man. The only trace of the woman he had loved that he had ever been able to find in Potter was Lily's eyes. Standing now in the meadow where everything was washed out by the light of the moon, even those were gone.
He lifted his wand and Potter took a step back, suspicion flaring on his face. Ignoring him, Snape flicked his wand toward the center of the meadow.
Bright light flowed from the tip of his wand and he watched as his silver doe took shape. Mentally he implanted his message and sent the Patronus off to find Shacklebolt. The Minister would want to know his Auror-in-training and the Weasley boy were safe. He watched the doe bound across the meadow and launch itself into the air just before reaching the tree line. Then he noticed that Potter was watching the Patronus as well.
"You really did love my mother, didn't you?"
"Yes, Potter, I . . . loved . . . your mother very much," Snape answered and realization softly filled his soul - Minerva had been correct. With the defeat and death of Tom Riddle, his feelings for Lily had resolved themselves. His love for her was still there, but it was complete somehow and its torment had fled his soul.
He held out his forearm and Potter took hold of it. Snape turned on his heel and they Apparated to the alleyway at the back of his shop. Through the glass he could see Miss Granger and Weasley enter the kitchen and he opened the back door and ushered Potter into the greenhouse. By the time they gained the kitchen Weasley was sitting at the table and Miss Granger had a jar of bruise paste open, applying liberal amounts to patches of his discolored skin. Snape noticed that she ignored the bruising on her own hand.
Potter pulled out a chair next to Weasley and scooped paste out of the jar. He sat down and started working on his own bruises.
"Severus?" Shacklebolt's deep voice issued from the fireplace and Snape walked over to receive the Minister's Floo call. "Would you send Mr. Potter and Mr. Weasley through to my office? There are a few items I need to discuss with our two wayward young wizards."
"Certainly, Minister," Snape answered. "They'll be coming through in a moment."
"Wayward?" Weasley mumbled as he passed by Snape on his way to the hearth. "We were kidnaped!"
"But what were you doing when you were kidnaped?" queried Snape. When no answer was forthcoming from either Weasley or Potter, he took a guess. "Perhaps trying to find out what I was up to?" Surreptitious glances between the two confirmed Snape's hunch. "Even after the Minister told you to leave off?"
"The Ministry has been wrong before," Potter groused.
"Let me explain something, Potter, because I suspect no one has the guts to point this out to you. You were the subject of a prophecy that only involved Voldemort. That gave you an advantage and because of Dumbledore's mentoring and scheming, you managed to defeat the Dark Lord. Do not for one minute delude yourself into believing that the prophecy covered any of Voldemort's minions, unrestrained, or that you have reached the point in your training that you could take a Death Eater on by yourself.
"There were threats against your life by Vincent Crabbe, Sr. Shacklebolt's orders were to keep you safe. It was to keep all three of you safe. Don't be surprised if the Minister tosses you into a jail cell for your own good until I can corral the rest of his crew."
Potter's eyes flicked toward Miss Granger.
"I am perfectly safe here, Harry," she said and picked up the jar of bruise paste from the table, handing it to him. "Take this with you."
"Hold up," Snape said and took the jar from him. He opened the lid and scooped a fingerful out, closing and returning the jar to Potter. He picked up Miss Granger's hand and rubbed the paste onto her bruised knuckles, watching as the nearly black skin turned pink and healthy again. When his examination proved she was completely healed, he rubbed it one last time and let it slip from between his hands. A quick look at her face showed her cheeks were pinking up too. He heard the roar of a Floo transport and looked over.
Weasley had already left for the Minister's office and Potter was at the hearth with a pinch of Floo powder in hand, watching them.
"Thank you . . ." he paused, ". . . Professor Snape." He tossed the green powder into the fireplace, said firmly, "Kingsley Shacklebolt's office," and stepped into the swirling emerald flames.
"Well, we made it back in time for bed," Miss Granger said and then her pink cheeks went red. "I mean, for bedtime." Redder. "I mean, it's eleven o'clock. Good night Professor Snape."
He watched her leave the kitchen.