This is a non-profit tribute to the works of JK Rowling who, together with her publishers and licensees, owns the characters and situations elaborated herein.
A/N: Thanks to Bellegeste and Cecelle for their helpful comments.
Warnings: Major spoilers for HBP, character deaths.
Harry stood up slowly, shaking off the ashes of a dead dark lord. With the Horcruxes destroyed, why hadn't he realised that he'd seen in first year how a not particularly competent teenager could destroy the strongest dark wizard in living memory? His mother's love burning through his veins; his mother's sacrifice incinerating her killer as soon as they touched. Here, where it all started, in his parents' home at Godric's Hollow.
A few feet away a long black-clad body lay prone where it had fallen after shielding him from an organ-ripping curse. There were other bodies in the room but no others that still breathed. He blinked at it, finally letting himself feel the puzzlement he'd been too busy to notice at the time.
"You saved me." It sounded more like accusation than thanks.
Sunken black eyes glared at him from a gaunt grey-lipped face.
"Again. Yes," a thread of silky voice sneered. "Are you going to - thank me instead of hexing me - this time?"
Harry's tired brain batted away the distraction. He stared at the man who'd never made any secret of his hatred for all Potters.
"Still so - inarticulate?" The man stumbled over the last word. Harry had never heard that tongue stumble before. "Why what?"
Harry's shoulders lifted in an impatient shrug.
"Why did you?" he demanded.
A thin chest heaved in the effort of drawing breath. Half-closed eyes gleamed with scorn.
"I'm Dumbledore's man. I didn't stop - obeying his orders - when he died."
Harry's hand clenched tighter round his wand. He remembered telling the Minister exactly the same a year ago. Had Snape somehow been listening in so he could mock him now? He opened his mouth on scorching words then shook his head, closing his lips to a thin straight line. Of course, Snape was mocking him, he always had, he always would, but not about this. Not if he'd taken that hex in his stead. But that didn't explain a raised wand, a green light flashing, an old body flying off the Astronomy Tower.
"When he died?" Harry scoffed. "You killed him!"
"No, Potter," Snape rasped. "You killed him. I merely – shortened - the end."
Harry's eyes widened.
"The poison? He told me it wouldn't -" His voice trailed off as he remembered how Dumbledore had corrected himself with the addition of that one word that changed everything. It wouldn't have killed him immediately, no, it would have been a long, slow, painful – irreversible – death. What other sort of poison would Voldemort have used? Hadn't he known that from the outset till the headmaster's reassurance fooled him?
He glanced sideways at his counterpart.
"How did you know?"
One corner of the thin lips curled up in a mocking smirk.
"Little though - I may have taught you, Mr Potter - I am a Potions-master." The hateful voice was almost gentle. "I knew as soon as I saw him. Even before he begged me -"
"To save him!"
"No, to kill him. How little you knew him - if you thought he'd have - begged for his life."
A spasm shook him. His hands and his eyes shut tight then flung open as his body jerked and his long limbs shook. Harry was irresistibly reminded of the fake Moody casting Cruciatus on a spider in a jar. It had twitched just like that.
"I don't believe you!" he said in a hard voice.
The thin body was still, eyes closed and limbs splayed wherever they'd landed. Harry had to lean closer to hear the whisper issuing from lips that barely moved.
"You still have a few minutes - to Crucio me - if you hurry," Snape paused on a long rattling breath. "If you're any better at it than - last time we met."
Harry raised his wand in cursing position. The words were burning a path up his throat as he stared at his white-faced enemy but he didn't speak them. Was Snape trying to goad him into casting the Unforgivable? Why?
The silence stretched between them heavy with their hatred. It was Snape who broke it.
"Perhaps not quite so - dunderheaded as I thought - if you've realised that was - no way – to honour his memory."
"You're a master of Dark Arts. You cured Malfoy when I cursed him." Harry's voice was thick with suspicion. "You could cure yourself, couldn't you?"
Snape spasmed again and blood trickled out of his mouth and nose.
"Sooner death - than Azkaban," he breathed after it ended.
"You won't go to Azkaban if I speak for you," Harry argued. A small protesting part of his brain asked why he'd want to do any such thing. He ignored it, staring at the curled hands and closed eyes of his former teacher.
"Has the Ministry changed – so much that they – listen when you speak?"
"I mean it. If I testify that you were secretly helping me – It was you, wasn't it, leaving us those clues? If I tell them you had no choice -"
"There's always – a choice."
The fisted hands were bleeding now too from the nails digging into the palms. The body curled into a tight ball then jack-knifed open into another painful tangle of twitching limbs with a long breath that hovered between groan and scream, choked off by another outpouring of blood. Harry gulped. He didn't want to Crucio him any more. Not like this.
Behind him a girl limped up, her bushy hair tangled and sweat-streaked. Her t-shirt clung damply to her slim form and there were spatters of – something – on her jeans.
"Harry?" she called. "Have you seen Ron?"
Her eyes followed his speechless stare and she brushed past him, dropping to her knees beside the writhing body, rattling off reversal spells in a long muttered string of syllables.
"Harry! What did you do? Take it off!"
Indignation warred with confusion in Harry's heart. Why did she care what happened to the man who killed Dumbledore? Had she known all along that he was still on their side? Then why had she never said anything?
"I didn't. It wasn't me, it was Voldemort!" he yelped.
The prone head twitched at that name as if to protest one last time but only a whimper came out and another great gout of blood. Harry's chest was icy. There was something wrong with a world in which Snape – arrogant, impervious Snape – whimpered.
"He saved me," Harry admitted blankly. "It's been him helping us all this while. And now he's dying from some curse intended for me. Can't you do anything?" Taking down the anti-Apparition wards would take too long and the Floo network was still down. Besides, it was obvious Snape couldn't be moved.
Hermione rocked back on her heels away from the flailing arms and closed her eyes in desperate thought. Sniffing, she swiped the back of her hand over her face and cast Stabilis Specialis. Then she looped her wand in an unfamiliar twirling design, saying, "Laxolenioaltum."
Trembling she added, "The first spell stops him getting worse and the other eases the pain but I'm not a Healer. I can't save him, only keep him alive till you fetch one."
The order was faint but unmistakable. A trembling hand groped towards hers, long pale fingers tightening painfully around her small soft hand. Tears started to her eyes, whether from the ache in her chest or the crushing of her fingers she couldn't tell.
"No," Snape whispered again. His corded muscles relaxed with agonising slowness till he lay panting but controlled at their feet. Black eyes opened, flashing once more with fierce intelligence.
"Little Know-It-All," he breathed, the pain smoothed away from his quiet form. "Still learning about life from your books?"
"You should be glad of that, Professor."
"I'm not your Professor now."
She ignored the irrelevance.
"You know, don't you?" she demanded. "You know how to heal this."
He turned his head away, letting the lank black hair fall over his face.
"I didn't plan to survive. Not with Albus dead." All his strength was focused on his clutching hand, there was none left for his voice.
"He'd want you to," she urged. "It's not the same! He lived a long life, you're so young -"
Harry saw greasy strands of black shift as Snape gave a small negative jerk of the head.
"I've lived too long already. Should have died last year."
"He loved you. He died so you could live," Hermione urged, tears running unheeded down her cheeks.
"He made me his killer." Black eyes closed as he whispered, " 'Not love,' quoth he, 'but mastery, sets love a task like that.' "
Harry's jaw dropped. Was Snape quoting – poetry?
Hermione pocketed her wand and edged a bit closer, eyes dark and lower lip caught between her small white teeth.
"The grave's a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace," she told him, leaning over to gently smooth the stringy hair from the damp white face. His thin lips twitched slightly upwards.
Harry's fist tightened again around his wand. What was going on between her and the greasy git? She was supposed to be with Ron! She was with Ron! How could she hang over Snape like this as if – as if - He refused to put the thought into words.
"Had I but worlds enough and time." Snape's free hand inched up waveringly to push hers away. "Not mine," he whispered. "Never mine. Go marry your Weasley and be happy."
"Ron!" At the reminder, Hermione's head jerked up to stare wildly around the room and down the entrances. "Quick, Harry, go look for him! Something's wrong if he hasn't come to find us. He might be lying injured somewhere or -" She swiped her hand across her eyes again, leaving a stripe of bloody vomit. She didn't notice.
"Aren't you coming?" Harry asked when she made no move to stand.
She shook her head.
"I can't, Harry. If Ron's – Ron's -" she grimaced, "if anyone can help him it's Professor Snape. I have to keep him alive till you find him."
"Will he?" Harry asked. Snape had always despised them.
"If I can, Potter," the weary sneer promised as Snape released Hermione to grope for his wand.
Harry bent and placed it in his palm and hurried out of the room. Behind him, Snape was questioning Hermione in an urgent mutter about her knowledge of power transference spells.
It didn't take long. Ron was at the far end of the corridor, propped where he'd fallen between the wall and another corpse, conscious but unable to move.
I can't seem to feel my legs," he explained, his ginger brows furrowed in puzzled surprise.
For a long moment Harry's heart stopped beating. He couldn't breathe. No, no, no, no, no! This wasn't right; this wasn't real. Ron was joking, just joking. The walls swam around him and he leaned against one to steady himself. Then the buzzing in his brain stopped and all the air rushed back into his lungs at once.
"Stabilis Specialis," he cast, remembering that a spinal injury should be immobilised and hoping he'd heard Hermione's spell correctly. "Mobilicorpus."
Gulping down the duelling-baby-dragon lumps in his throat, he watched his friend rise to hang in the air as limp and boneless as a coat on a hook. Keeping his wand hand steady he directed Ron's form carefully down the corridor and back into the living-room. He hoped it would fulfil its name for Ron at least.
Hermione had moved. She had hoisted Snape to a sitting-position against a chair, then sat down between his outstretched legs so that he now leaned forward against her back, his head resting on her shoulder. His right arm lay on top of hers, their two wands side-by-side in their right hands. His other arm curled around her waist.
Harry scowled as he lowered Ron gently to the floor. It didn't seem right for that git to be holding Ron's girlfriend like that, dying or no. Ron seemed to be thinking the same.
"Hermione? What are you doing with him?"
"I'm helping him heal you, Ron," her voice hitched, "so just relax now. We can talk about it later."
"But – but he's a traitor. He killed Dumbledore!"
"No." Hermione could feel the stiffening of Snape's arm muscles. She gave his left hand a reassuring squeeze. 'No, he's been on our side all the time."
"Harry?" Ron's eyes were narrowed and his lips drawn back from his teeth. His freckles were dark dots on a paper-white face.
"She's right, Ron." The words were thick in Harry's throat as congealed porridge. "Nothing to worry about. We've won and we'll have – all the time in the world for explanations later."
"Settle down." The familiar order and the snap in the voice startled them into silence, just as it had done so many times in the dungeon classroom. "Lie still, Weasley. Miss Granger, listen carefully to the incantation. You may need to repeat it later."
"What should I do?" Harry asked.
"Just stay out of the way, Potter." Snape flicked him a contemptuous glance. "We've never worked well together."
Harry's eyes burned with red rage and his hands fisted till his knuckles were white. It was Snape's fault! It had always been Snape's fault! A small stern voice in his head reminded him that this was no time for argument. Wait till Ron was better, then argue. He clamped his mouth shut and watched.
Snape was muttering instructions in Hermione's ear. She nodded and then wands and voices moved in unison. Once, twice, thrice, spiralling over the base chakra and pointing to each of the other six main points in turn, sacrum, solar plexus, heart, throat, brow, crown, as they chanted a swirling swooping incantation that reminded Harry strangely of phoenix-song. Halfway through the third time Snape's head slumped abruptly still and his hand dropped from Hermione's to the ground, opening to let his wand clatter away. She gulped but continued on with barely a pause.
"What did you stop for?" Harry demanded. He knew Snape couldn't be trusted to do it right for a Gryffindor. Malfoys he would heal but not Weasleys!
The man didn't reply. Harry bent down to push at his shoulder and the long body toppled off Hermione onto the chair legs then both chair and body crashed sideways to the ground.
Ron started and sat up, drawing his legs under him.
"Huh? Why's he down? Did you knock him out, Harry?" His blue eyes twinkled with satisfied glee. "About time, eh? Serves him right, the greasy git!"
Hermione disentangled herself and swiftly stood. Without a word she stalked out of the room, slamming the door behind her.
"What's up with her?" Ron wondered. "Harry?"
"He's dead, Ron. He took a curse to save me and then he used the last of his strength to heal you. And if Hermione ever hears either of us call him a greasy git again she'll make us sorry he bothered."
"Oh." Ron scratched his head. He didn't understand. Snape was a traitor and a Death Eater, wasn't he? Wasn't he?
After a bit, Ron wandered off to find lunch, but Harry just stared in silence at the ashes drifting over Snape's corpse. He'd killed Voldemort and he was free. They were all free now, even Snape. For all the good it would do him.
A/N I don't speak Latin. These spells are not grammatically correct but neither are JK's.
The (slightly tweaked) poetic quotes are:
1) "The Glove and the Lions" by James Leigh Hunt,
("Not love," quoth he, "but vanity, sets love a task like that.")
A court lady drops her scarf into the lions' den to show off her gallant's dedication to her.
2) "To his Coy Mistress", Andrew Marvell
(Had we but world enough and time…
The grave's a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace…)
An attempt to persuade his love into bed, on the grounds that life is their only opportunity.
No Ron-bashing is intended:
As the story ends, Hermione is devastated, Harry reflective and Ron bewildered. As he has, through absence and incapacity, missed both the dramatic action and its import, he is still stuck in the mindset of "Snape is evil." He doesn't know what to say (and has effectively been forbidden to say the only things he knows how to say) about Snape's death, and his near-death experience has left him weak and light-headed. He therefore chooses the practical, sensible option of making lunch, thus solving both problems simultaneously.