"We've done it! Do you hear me, you miserable old bat? We've done it! Voldemort is gone, forever!"
Flat on his back, Severus Snape struggled to open his eyes. When he succeeded, he could just make out Harry Potter's face, exultant despite the blood and dirt covering most of it. Fires in the distance lent an otherworldly glow to Harry's profile and to the figures moving hurriedly about, some assisting limping comrades to medical help, others lying motionless on the ground or moaning softly in pain.
Overhead the stars burned a brilliant white in the deep black sky, cold and serene and untouched by the epic battle that had just put an end to a horrendous war. Some corner of his mind wondered, just for a moment, whether Mars was bright tonight.
"Good," he managed, blood bubbling in his mouth. His lips were lacerated and swollen over the broken teeth, and the pain blossomed anew as he coughed weakly.
Nearby, he could hear Draco, talking brokenly and somewhat incoherently to Ginny Weasley. He was proposing marriage, somewhat desperately, for the sixth time. Ginny was accepting yet again, and urging him to hold still until the mediwitch could get around to look at his badly broken leg. Her voice was gentle as she scolded him for moving, and Severus could detect the devotion the young woman had for his godson. The boy was in good hands.
Harry glanced up at the ministry medi-witch performing triage on the nearby wounded.
"We need some Phoenix Tears potion over here!"
Silently the witch held up an empty vial, the last one in her possession. Not even a drop remained in the bottom; she'd even fed the rinse water from the vial to an earlier patient. Snape had been brought a short time later in by the medics scouring the battlefield for survivors, and a hurried examination had told her the man was beyond the reach of any medi-wizard's skill. She shook her head sadly, denying that she could do anything.
Harry swore. "Come on, Snape," he demanded, pulling on the bloodstained robes to find the pockets full of surprises he knew the professor usually carried on him. "Tell me you've got some hidden away here."
A horrid ropy cough broke from the wizard on the ground. "Harry," Snape rasped, reaching out one hand and grabbing the younger man's shirt with what strength he had left. "Let me die at Hogwarts, Potter. I want to die at home."
Harry Potter swallowed heavily, the utter waste and irony of the moment leaving a bitter taste in his mouth. Adrenaline had carried him through the evening, fueled his concentration and allowed him to harness the tremendous energy released during the Sanguis Inficere spell. Now, that energy was ebbing fast, and as it faded the true reality of the battle crept in. Fatigue, and pain, and the appalling carnage around him washed away any remaining euphoria at his victory, leaving only regret and an overwhelming emptiness.
That emptiness would be filled by his friends, he knew from experience; Ron and Moira and their new child, even Ginny and Malfoy would help fill his life again once things returned to normal. But for Professor Severus Snape, Potions Master of Hogwarts and the man who had earned his grudging respect, there would be no similar recovery.
"I understand, Professor," he told the dying man. Hogwarts had been more of a home to Harry that Privet Drive had ever been. It was no surprise that Snape should feel the same way. "I'll see to it."
A quiet word to the medi-witch summoned an Auror, one of the walking wounded, who agreed to honor Snape's last request. The unknown Auror managed to tandem-Apparate Severus' stretcher to Hogwarts' front gate. With care he levitated the nearly unconscious man through the damp, pre-dawn air, up the gravel drive and finally to the massive double doors of the castle, which opened without argument. Once inside, he called out a cautious hello to the apparently deserted school, unsure what he should do next or if there was even someone there to hear him. The children had all been given Portkeys to their homes when the Order had been summoned to the battlefield, and most of the teachers had gone.
"How did we do?" asked a contralto voice, and he whirled to see one of the ghosts of Hogwarts hovering in the air above him.
"We did well, Lady," he answered respectfully. He didn't remember this particular ghost from his own days at the school, but ghosts had always made him a bit nervous. "Harry Potter has triumphed over Voldemort. The war is over, but we've lost a lot of good people. Professor Snape - he's in a bad way. He wanted to come back here."
The ghost bit her translucent lip for a moment before smiling slightly. "I see. Please - bring him into the Hall."
The large doors into the Great Hall opened as the ghost drifted towards them, and the Auror obediently sent the stretcher after her and let it settle on the flagstones before the High Table's dais.
"Thank you for bringing him home," the ghost told him. The Auror was smart enough to recognize a dismissal and made a hasty retreat, eager to return to his own family. The ghost settled beside the stretcher, gazing down at Severus Snape. To her surprise, his eyelids fluttered open.
"Hermione?" he croaked.
"I'm here, Severus," she told him. Silver trails began to make their way down her cheeks as she wept, but her voice remained steady. "You're here," she elaborated. "You're home."
"Home," he repeated, swallowing. More blood dribbled from the corner of his mouth. "We did it."
"You did. All of you."
"We beat him, Hermione. We beat Voldemort." For the first time in over twenty years, he spoke the name of his defeated master.
"I know, Severus. Hush now. You've done it, love. You've done everything you need to do."
"Have I?" he questioned, his voice going thin. His black eyes, although they were losing focus, were still sharp enough to see the crystal tears dripping off her chin. "You're crying."
Hermione sniffed and forced a watery smile to her lips. "They're tears of joy, Severus. I'm happy for you. You've done everything you thought you needed to do, and more. You see?" Hermione tilted her head back to look up at the ceiling of the Great Hall, turning gold and blue and red as it mirrored the rising sun outside. "It's a new day for the wizarding world, Severus. Because of you."
"Me," he repeated numbly. Abruptly his eyes sharpened, and his hand rose and reached out to touch her ghostly cheek. "Don't cry for me, beloved. The last thing Hogwarts needs is another wailing ghost."
"I won't," she promised. Her hands took his, and his human fingers were barely warm within her grasp.
A faint smile crossed his blue lips, and then his hand sagged limply to the hard flagstones.
Hermione waited, watching his still chest. The hall was utterly silent, save for the barely audible creaking as the morning sun fell down on the space and warmed the waxed and polished tables. The entire space seemed to be holding its breath, waiting.
"It's no use," came a dark, sad voice from behind her, and Hermione turned to see the Bloody Baron staring at her with a look of compassion in his eyes. His broad hat was in his hands out of respect, and the smoky feather wafted in the early morning light as he gestured towards the dead man on the floor.
"I waited – for days, I think – when my wife died. I have no doubt her soul went to heaven, for she was an angel in my eyes. But for the likes of you and I, that way is closed to us forever. It is not given to our kind to see the path that we did not choose. That is why I warned you, years ago. Caring for a live one will only bring you pain.
"Come away, my dear. Stay with our kind, and forget the ways of the living."
Kneeling beside his body, Hermione waited for something to prove the Baron wrong. Every movie she'd ever seen, every story she'd ever read, ended with the worthy soul being taken to the afterlife in a wash of golden light. If she could not be with him, then it would have been enough to know he'd gone to a just beyond.
No light appeared, however, and while the Baron waited patiently, Hermione choked back her tears and fumbled for the handkerchief that appeared in her pocket when it was needed. When she'd dried her tears, she leaned over, kissed Severus Snape's cold forehead. Then she rose, taking the Baron's arm and let him lead her where he would.
It was Argus Filch who made the arrangements for the burial later that same day, when a bright morning turned into a gusty and cold evening, and if his actions seemed hasty it was understandable in the aftermath of the Final Battle. The Ministry was in turmoil and the population only barely beginning to understand that the ramifications of the victory. Nevertheless, a handful of folk from the village stood vigil with the seedy caretaker as the body was lowered into the ground in a hastily procured coffin. A few witnesses were heard to mutter that a hero like Severus Snape, who had stood shoulder to shoulder with the Boy Who Lived, should have a better funeral. Someone else pointed out that there were heroes being buried all over England, these last few days. What was one more or less?
In their haste to deal with everything, no one remembered to mark Snape's final resting place, which was quickly covered with weeds and blown autumn leaves. And in the end, it did not matter, since no one ever came to visit the grave. Draco Malfoy appeared once, stumping down the hill on the ebony and silver cane his father had used for effect. He needed it in fact, but the sharp tip bit into the ground and left him with no support. Ginny Weasley talked him into returning home before he had been able to search more than a small part of the graveyard, and he was unable to locate the grave.
He and his quasi-brother in law Harry Potter made a pact to find it, during a late night drinking binge, and that did more to cement their budding truce-cum-friendship that anything they'd done together during the war. Ginny Weasley was proud of them both, and let them each know it, although Harry only received a kiss on the cheek while Draco received a much warmer gesture of approval.
As the days after Severus' death passed, Hermione kept herself busy rather than think about the great gaping wound that had been left in her heart when Severus died. She helped corral Peeves who, in the absence of all the school's professors, had taken to pushing over the suits of armor and causing as much mayhem as possible. She chatted with house-elves, who were understandably distressed at not having even the bare minimum staff to cook for and take care of. She also made sure the owls all got their exercise, shooing even the big horned owl (who was the laziest bird ever seen in the owlery) out into the night. The Baron tutted at her fondly for involving herself with the Live Ones again, but made no effort to dissuade her.
When the other ghosts invited her to go on a haunting expedition with them, Hermione went along without argument. She even went to a headless polo match with Myrtle and Sir Nicholas, and pretended to cheer for their favorite team. They lost.
The one thing she did not do was what she longed to - to fling herself on a weedy mound in the graveyard and weep until the notorious Shrieking Shack was a forgotten footnote compared to the noises coming from the Hogsmeade cemetery. But she had made a promise and she would keep it, despite the pain. He would have done, had done, no less for her.
She found herself longing for the return of the students, even though that would mean a new potions professor would be taking up residence in the dungeons. In preparation, she made a list of things to discuss with the new instructor when one was selected – she would not stand for the quality of teaching to devolve into the farce that was the Defense Against the Dark Arts class.
A few days later Percy Weasley, sent by the Ministry, appeared as well to assist with the preparations. He was as pompous and nit-picky as ever, but his gifts for organization and details gave them all hope of having things straightened out in time for the students to arrive on November first. He welcomed any help Hermione could give him, and she stayed at his side as he worked late into the night, sending out teacher recruitment letters and finding the lesson plans for the teachers who had perished. To her surprise, Dumbledore had suggested she teach the first, second, and third year potions students.
"Me?" she echoed, as Percy read the relevant portion of the Headmaster's letter to her.
"Why not?" Percy asked. "Binns has been boring the daylights out of students for decades. You're eminently qualified, according to Albus. There aren't any incantations needed for the lower form classes, and they'll certainly pay attention to your lessons when you tell them you died from a bad potion."
Hermione chose to overlook Percy's overly familiar use of the Headmaster's first name and considered his proposition. The lesson plans found in Professor Snape's desk were comprehensive enough for any fool to follow, and Hermione could almost imagine him saying as such as she paged through the meticulously written parchments. She tentatively agreed, reserving her full acceptance until she could speak to the new Potions professor.
The other professors began straggling back to the castle, cleaning up their clutter and readying their lesson plans, all woefully off track after the final battle. Minerva McGonagall arrived as well, carrying reams of parchment and more instructions from the Headmaster. Dumbledore himself would not be returning, and Minerva had no intention of leaving his side for any longer than necessary. They were determined that the school be back in session as soon as possible so that the children would not be too far behind when the Christmas holiday came around.
To her own surprise, Hermione found herself haunting the little room at the top of the staircase at night. The private potions laboratory was too painful to spend much time in, and she could not bear to be in Severus' rooms at all. She resolved to gather all her sentimentality for the classroom itself, and keep her mourning for the tower where she and Severus had finally been honest with each other. Eventually she would remember only the joy of being with him, and cease to dwell on the eternity she would spend without him.
At least, that's what she told herself, and after all, she had all of eternity to convince herself. Cold comfort was all she really found in the tower room, but it was comfort enough to allow her to get through each turning of the day, from dawn to dusk. It was while she was returning from one of these melancholy reflective periods that Myrtle and Sir Nicholas swept past her, calling out, "Have you heard?"
"Heard what?" she replied, but they were gone in a flash. It was game night, and they had their matching team scarves on. Polo matches started precisely at midnight, and the couple simply hated to miss the first head toss.
Hermione could only suppose that a new Headmaster had been selected. For lack of anything better to do, she drifted towards the gargoyle and spiral stairs that led to the Headmaster's office. If Percy was not there, and considering the hour she doubted he would be, she could always poke about and see if she could be of any assistance to the never-ending pile of work on the desk.
Nodding absently to the portraits who waved from the wall of the Headmaster's office, she settled at the wide desk covered with stacks of parchment and was quickly engrossed in the endless details that needed resolving.
At first Hermione did not pay any particular attention to the tall form striding into the room, other than thinking the night had passed more quickly than she had expected. Percy Weasley was known for being an early riser and working hard – to be honest, he was more transparent than her fellow ghosts when it came to his secret desire to be named the new Headmaster. Flitwick had made it clear he didn't want the position, and despite his lack of personality Percy Weasley was an adequate administrator. There were worse candidates for the position.
It wasn't until the individual tried to perch on the edge of the Headmaster's desk that she realized not only could he see her in her current invisible state, but also he was having trouble perching his behind on the mahogany surface. Percy also wasn't known for coming into 'his' office to work in his shirtsleeves. Hermione gave a dubious glance to the plain black trousers, vest, and rolled-up sleeves before it dawned on her that she could see through them. And the person wearing them.
"Where the devil have you been?" Severus demanded. "I've been looking everywhere for you."
Gone were the sweeping professorial robes he'd worn like armor for twenty-five years, replaced by his favorite working clothes; trousers, a white shirt, and his black vest. His hair wafted about his face in translucent black wings, framing features that were no longer drawn with fatigue and stress. He looked to be anywhere between thirty or forty; mature but not as old as he'd been when he had died.
"Severus?" she questioned. "Is it really... It's you. It's really you!"
"Apparently, yes, it's me," he replied waspishly. "Who were you expecting, the ghost of Christmas Past?"
Torn between laughing and weeping, Hermione threw herself across the desk and into his arms. He caught her gladly and held her close as she gasped and clutched at his shoulders. Under her hands, she could feel the solid, cold frame of his biceps and the soft whisper of his fine linen shirt.
"You're real. You're here!"
"As real as any ghost, I suppose." His hand rose towards her face, and for the first time, she felt the caress of his palm against her cheek. "I'm sorry I'm late."
"How?" was all Hermione could think to say. "I don't understand."
"You were wrong," he told her gravely. "I wasn't done. I still had one piece of unfinished business."
Her eyes, shining with tears of joy, rose to his, questioning. His answer was to bend his dark head to hers and kiss her gently.
For many years afterwards, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry was served by Headmasters, Prefects, and Professors alike, some more ably than others, in the duties of educating the latest generations of young witches and wizards. Among those duties, the nightly hall patrol was no more or less an important part.
Those individuals assigned would wander the darkened hallways of the school, intent on catching mischief-makers, night-wanderers, and those students whose romantic inclinations took them out of their houses after curfew. And many, many times, those vigilant folk would come across a pair of lovers snogging in some out-of-the-way spot.
The usual announcement regarding the loss of house points would quickly turn into a bloodcurdling shriek of surprise as the supposed 'students' would rise into the air and answer back, the man usually issuing a scathing remark, the woman giggling an apology for frightening them. The pair would swirl around and past the astonished person, hand in hand, their merry laughter echoing down the dark corridors forever after.
#1. If you didn't see that coming, you need to turn in your Hopeless Romantic Guild card.
#2. Hugs to Eloisa, who gave me the 'Ask me about my halitosis' joke.
#3. The Sowelo rune, according to my sources, indicates the sun, sudden changes for the better, and 'abundant energy and strength.' When cast in divination, it indicates victory.
And last, but certainly not least, This chapter is dedicated to the Memory of Moira, our beloved Moise, who unexpectedly left this world December 19, 2004. She will be greatly missed.