The flat was empty. He hadn't returned. His favourite mug was whole and in its place. The whisky had been opened, but only perhaps enough for a double measure was missing. She boiled the kettle and drew a hot bath, hoping that he wouldn't be so far gone when he got there that it might already cause tissue damage. She waited. After ten minutes he wasn't back and she cast a Warming Charm on the bath and flicked the switch on the kettle again.
As she cast the Warming Charm for a second time, she muttered irritatedly under her breath.
"Severus Snape, if you don't get your skinny, white arse back here—"
"You'll do what?"
She hadn't heard him approach, had even missed the crack of him Apparating onto the top-floor landing that no one but he and she could find. She turned, taking in his bedraggled and weary appearance. Though he shivered, she saw him clamp his jaw and still the tremors.
If he could make the shivering stop that was a good sign.
"Don't even think of going anywhere other than in that bath, mister."
He didn't move.
"I'll use Levicorpus if I have to," she threatened.
"While I find your concern for my personal hygiene... Actually, no, I don't find it touching. I find it intrusive. I'm tired, I'm hungry and I've had a hell of a night, so perhaps for once you would spare me from your incessant whining and go back to wherever it is you come from?"
Hermione narrowed her eyes, stared right back at him, taking in the way his body rested against the doorframe. In anyone else it would be an insouciant lean. Severus never leant.
"My incessant whining is the only thing keeping you from freezing to death, you idiot."
"I do not take kindly to being called an idiot by a girl less than half my age."
"And what would you call someone who went to sleep, frozen to the bone, in wet clothes, in the middle of December, and didn't even put the heating on?"
"Very, very tired?" Snape suggested, raising a hand as if to pinch the bridge of his nose through his mask.
Hermione lifted the Time-Turner on its chain, sensing victory when she saw his gaze was drawn to it. "Not so tired you didn't finish that bottle of single malt before you dozed off."
Severus gave a resigned sigh. "Start at the beginning, girl."
"Get in the bath," Hermione answered stubbornly. "Keep your black silk boxers on if you must, but get in. I'll make you some tea, and then you can worry about how I come to have this." She let the locket fall against her rib cage.
She brushed past him. "If you're not in the water when I get back with the tea, I'll assume you need my help getting undressed." She looked back over her shoulder and grinned at his look of consternation. "Last time 'round I used a Diffindo."
When she brought the tea, he had added enough Dettol to the water to turn it milky white and fill the air with an antiseptic tang that took her straight back to childhood.
She shook her head in amusement, her eyes meeting his, and a look of concern suddenly swept his features. "You've been crying... quite excessively it would seem. Has something happened?"
She tilted her head to one side and drank in the velvet softness that touched his normally obsidian eyes. "What did you think I was going to do when you died on me, Severus? Throw a party?"
"Hermione..." Her name left his mouth in a strangled whisper. "You shouldn't..."
"Shhh." Hermione leaned over him to set the mug down on the flat area at the right angle of the corner bath. "Don't start giving me the hundred reasons why I shouldn't care about you, or why you think you don't deserve my tears, because I know them all already. You needn't worry that I've developed some childish crush. It's not like that, but I do care." She tucked his hair behind his ear and leaned over to brush her lips to his forehead. "You understand me."
The irony of her whispered words impaled Severus's heart. Compared to Weasley and Potter, he did understand her. He understood the hand-waving, though he personally had never resorted to such obvious tactics. He shared her love of knowledge and her desire to excel at everything she did. Much of her personality was the mirror of his. He understood the aspiring student perfectly, but the nascent woman who tempted him with her gentleness and her caresses was utterly alien. She said it wasn't a childish crush. Was she saying she felt something more or just something different? He had no idea.
The soft kisses were gone, and she prodded him in the arm from her perch on the bath's edge.
"What, you juvenile harridan?"
"Drink your tea before it goes cold," Hermione scolded, grinning mischievously, "if you want to hear what sort of day I've had, that is..."
It took an hour, several more Warming Charms and even some Legilimency before Hermione had told her tale to Severus's satisfaction. He focused on the most ridiculous things, like the exact time she'd arrived and how long had passed before he died.
"Why—" she tried to ask.
"You don't want to know."
"Severus, don't make me waste time trying to hex you," Hermione threatened. "I know you could wipe the floor with me on a normal day, but you're exhausted. I might get lucky. Either way, it's a waste of time... I get enough of the saviour complex from Harry without you starting."
He accepted the towel she passed to him, draping it around his hips as he stood up. "I'm not trying to protect you. I'm trying to protect me."
"Protect you from what? In three hours you will die. If you have a plan to stop it, I want in."
Severus reached out and grabbed Hermione by her upper arms, forcing her to meet his gaze. "Haven't you worked it out, yet? You watched a man die in that bed, a man who never spoke, who died less than an hour after you arrived. Now I have two options. That man can be me, or it can be someone who looks like me. Which one do you think I'm going to choose?"
He watched her realise what he was saying. When her shoulders slumped and her chin lost its defiant tilt, he let her go, striding off toward his bedroom.
He emerged from the bedroom five minutes later, dressed in smart Muggle clothes and his hair dry. Hermione was waiting for him.
"Which one do you think I would choose?" she threw his question back at him, before passing him two potion vials. He pulled the cork from the first container and added a hair, which he plucked from his head. The potion bubbled fiercely and then turned silver. He resealed the tube, pocketing both.
Hermione took his arm, and he searched her face intently for several seconds.
"I trust you," she replied to his unspoken question as they Disapparated.
They appeared inside the grounds of a large building. Severus cast Disillusionment Charms on both of them, and they reached the entrance before Hermione saw the sign. She wasn't surprised that Severus had brought them to a hospice. It was the difference between doing what must be done and having the heart of a murderer. The building was clean and bright and the staff seemed friendly and helpful, but if they couldn't find a patient here who would gladly trade whatever time they had left for a couple of pain-free hours in a healthy body, they wouldn't find anyone anywhere.
Alastair Cameron was ninety-five. His wife had died ten years earlier, and he had no children. The doctors gave him a month. He was the fifth patient Severus used Legilimency on. If Hermione had any doubts about what Severus had negotiated before he tipped the potion down the man's throat, they disappeared when Severus's twin began to rip all the needles, tubes and wires from his body and instructed Snape to "Beam me up, Scotty."
Alastair took Polyjuice twice more after they got back to the flat and it took all three of them to empty that bottle of whisky.
They waited as long as they could before Alastair put on the robes and the mask. Hermione gave him the sleeping draught, the most potent type Severus kept, and then, when he slept, Severus added the Cooling Charms that would ensure death came quickly.
"If it was really him that I saw, wouldn't the Polyjuice wear off after he died?" Hermione asked as they left the building.
"No, didn't Potter tell you about Barty Crouch's mother? The magic remains in stasis unless you cast a spell similar in nature to that used to make an Animagus return to human form."
Hermione nipped her lower lip between her teeth, ignoring her pizza. "Was it ever really you in that bed?"
Severus gave a sigh. "No, it was always Alastair. We always did what had to be done... and contrary to public opinion, Hermione, I know better than to drink a whole bottle of whisky when I'm cold and wet." He ignored the fact that there would have been no reason to look for Alastair unless someone else had died in that bed first.
Hermione sucked up a mouthful of Coke and stared at Severus. "Methinks the professor doth protest too much."