Dumbledore went down to the dungeons very early the next morning. No one answered his knocking, so once again he used, "Open Sesame" to enter. He found Severus already awake and sitting on the edge of his bed facing the window. The light from the barely risen sun cast brilliant flames of color against his younger looking face. Severus' head was tilted upwards, his eyes closed in seeming meditation. He rolled a vial back and forth in his hands like a rosary.
"Good morning, Albus," he said without opening his eyes.
"Good morning, Severus. I'm glad to see you've recovered."
"I see Miss Granger has also returned to her rooms—"
"She left shortly after I awakened—"
"Which was several hours ago, yes, I know. The reason I'm here, Severus—"
"You're here now because she's still asleep, and you don't have the courage to ask what you're about to in her presence."
A long silence followed.
"Severus, you know I do not ask this of you lightly, or easily."
"Yes, I know," was the curt reply.
Dumbledore sighed. "If there were any other way…"
"I know what the stakes are, Albus. I understand." Severus turned to face the Headmaster as he said this, and Dumbledore saw now what he had not noticed before: Severus had been crying.
"I also know what kind of rare opportunity has presented itself," continued Severus. "Now that the Dark Mark is gone, Voldemort thinks I'm dead. What better cover to have as a spy? And with this, my own invention," he said as he held up the vial of Invisibility Potion, "no one will ever even see me. I'm already familiar with all the enemy's ways, and he's even conveniently provided us with a Portkey that will take us directly to him. You'll have your perfect, undetectable spy."
"Except for my ties with Hermione," interrupted Severus, still one step ahead of the Headmaster. "She'll come after me, of course, as soon as she finds out. Or maybe you'll send her away with Potter, but eventually, she'd come. And then I'd have to divert my attentions to making sure she's kept safe as well. Voldemort's already gotten to me through her once; who knows what will happen next time?"
Dumbledore said nothing, indicating agreement in his silence.
"I've decided, Albus. This world is not one I want her to have to live in a second longer than necessary. If what I do can help you end it sooner rather than later, I'll do it. She won't understand, of course; they never do. Which is why you'll tell her that I've died."
Once again, Dumbledore was not surprised that he had come to the same conclusion, only at his acceptance of it. "You've thought this through very thoroughly."
"Severus, I'm not sure I've ever asked your forgiveness for all that I've asked you to do in these last few years."
"Why would you need to?"
Dumbledore decided to approach the topic from a different angle.
"Hermione, she asked me how I could've sent you back."
"She had no right."
"Of course she did. She had the right of being your friend. I'm afraid the situations I've put you in have not let you make many. You should have had more people to defend you. I must admit, I've been rather…single-focused. If I could do it all over again—"
"I would not have changed anything. You used me, Albus, I know that. But I let you. And if you hadn't, things might be more grim today than they would have been had you not. Albus, there is no need for you to ask forgiveness."
"Then, I offer you my deepest-felt gratitude. No one else could have done what you have. No one."
Severus accepted this with a slight downward turn of his head.
"I would rather not wait any longer than necessary, sir." He uncorked the vial and brought it to his lips. He hesitated, though, and spoke once more to Dumbledore before drinking. "As much as I do not look forward to going back to being a spy, I fear your task of telling Miss Granger that she has failed even more." And with that, he swallowed the potion and disappeared.
Dumbledore waited until he knew Severus had gone, and even then, stayed where he was, watching the morning sun, until he knew he could not tarry any longer.
"No! No!" she screamed in the Headmaster's office. "You're lying! I saw him! He was fine!"
"I'm sorry, Miss Granger, but it's true. After you had returned to your rooms, there were…complications. Nothing you could have foreseen. Voldemort had booby trapped his spell so that any interference would still result in death."
"No! I don't believe you. Show me the body."
"Why not? What are you hiding from me?"
"Nothing, Hermione. His body, it…completely disintegrated. There's nothing left of him."
It was this detail that made Hermione first doubt her assertions that Severus was still alive, for it seemed exactly the type of thing Voldemort would do. And once the first crack in her confidence appeared, the rest came down quickly.
"But…but I saved him. We saved him. All for nothing." She staggered backwards until her legs hit the seat of the chair behind her, and she collapsed into it. "He was finally free… I could see it in his eyes…" The wave of anguish that swept over her was so intense that she had to clamp down mentally and emotionally lest it overwhelm her while she needed most to remain focused on the tasks ahead. She had no control over her tears, though, which continued to fall from her eyes.
"May…may I be excused now? I still have preparations to make before I leave with Harry."
"Yes, dear, you may."
As she exited the Headmaster's office, she would have sworn she could feel Severus' presence. Maybe it was the whiff of a familiar smell or something else, but in the days and months that came, the same feeling would often come to her. She would never see him or hear him, but there would just be this sense that he was there, watching over her. Eventually, she stopped mentioning it to Harry because every time she did, the feeling would vanish. Over time, she learned to live with it and relish it, regardless of whether or not it was insanity that caused it.
Together, she and Harry found all of the remaining Horcruxes using the information that Dumbledore fed them. She never questioned where it came from, afraid to know the answer. With Ron and Severus gone, the whole of her was attuned to the defeat of Voldemort. If it had not been for Harry, she probably would have turned into what Severus had feared most for her, another version of himself. Instead, they kept each other sane by reminiscing about the past and reminding each other what they were fighting for. Ron was, of course, a frequent topic, and it grew easier to talk about him each day. Hermione wasn't sure whether or not it was a good thing, though, that Harry would never bring up the subject of Snape. While she sometimes wished she could talk to someone about him, she wasn't sure Harry was the right person, and she definitely didn't want to alienate him now, when he was the only one of her friends left.
Finally, the Last Battle approached. By then, Voldemort had realized what they were doing to his Horcruxes. According to intelligence, he was intent on murdering a half dozen Muggles in an elaborate ritual and using the deaths to create more Horcruxes. That night, the entire Order Apparated to the designated site. Hermione and the younger Weasleys were to release the captured Muggles and get them to safety. The rest were to protect Harry as he finally fulfilled the terms of his Prophecy.
The fighting was fierce, and Hermione had a hard time keeping track of what was happening. As soon as they freed the Muggles, she made Ginny, Fred, and George Portkey away with them while she returned to the thick of the combat. It seemed most of the weaker wizards and witches had already been overcome and those who were left were evenly matched. This left Harry able to make his way towards Voldemort, who was waiting for him.
She saw him cast curse after curse at Voldemort, but they all deflected off of some kind of invisible shield that surrounded him. It sparked every time one of Harry's curses hit it, and in the brief flashes of light, she could sometimes make out what looked like the silhouette of another figure behind Voldemort. Hermione was still too far away when Voldemort finally raised his wand at Harry. She screamed his name, but it died away when she realized that the Dark Lord had been somehow hit with a Full Body Bind. She hadn't seen where it came from, nor did she know how it had penetrated his force field. All she knew was that he was now as defenseless as a sacrificial lamb. She watched as Harry walked up to the Dark Lord, entered the ring of protection, and cast the spell that would end the wizarding world as she knew it.
With Voldemort dead, most of his followers that were still fighting chose to try and escape. The majority of them were captured, but a few managed to get away. It didn't really matter. Voldemort was finally gone. The single purpose of Hermione's life the last few months was now fulfilled and she collapsed to the ground, partly in relief, but mostly because now she could finally grieve for the man that she had lost in the process.
She was still on the ground, sobbing, when she felt his presence again. Whereas before it had been a source of comfort, now it was unbearable. She felt as if she was being mocked for her devotion.
"Why don't you just leave?" she cried, her eyes still closed from all the tears. And she felt it do so, except this time, she heard footsteps and felt the passing of what could have been billowing robes. "Wait…" She got up and looked around. She saw the back of a man walking away, just a few steps from her. "Severus? Oh God, is it really you?" He turned around slowly. She had almost forgotten how he had he looked when she had last seen him, the younger Severus. Oh God, it really was him. "Severus!"
She ran to him.
He held out his arms to her and she fell into them.
"It's you. It's really you. You're alive!" The tears flowed again, but this time they were tears of joy. "I can't believe it, you're alive."
He held her back at arm's length and started to wipe away her tears. "I'm so sorry, Hermione…" he started, but stopped when she took his hand in hers and kissed it. He returned the favor by cupping her face with his other hand and tilting it upwards. "Hermione…" She heard the raw need in his voice and inched upwards to meet his lips, throwing her arms around his neck. It was the hungriest kiss of her life, savage even, but she attacked his mouth with equal fervor. When it finally ended and after catching her breath, she whispered harshly to him, "Never, never, leave me again!"
The look he returned to her was just as possessive. "I don't ever intend to."
"Witnessed!" And she kissed him again to seal the vow.
Okay, before ya'll get all mad at me for ending this story, let me just say, I am soooooooo grateful to all of you who've made it this far, and especially those who've left reviews. It's been a great experience cranking these two stories out, working with Ali, my beta, and hearing back from readers. But it's been a month and a half now, and I'm a bit burnt out.
There's a bit more background to why I ended it like this, but if you really want to read about it, it's posted on my LiveJournal (link on my profile page), in the August 28th, 2005 post. For those too lazy, let's just say, this is one alternative ending to the story, and one of these days, I may pick up the proverbial pen again and write another version of chapter 6. Actually, I already have written the first 500 words or so of that, but again, you'll have to check out my LJ to read it.
So thanks again and keep the faith. Severus shall be redeemed. Toodles!