With only the light from Hermione's wand to guide them, the tunnel was a frightful place at the best of times. Roots grew down through the soil and combed through their hair like long skeletal fingers. Hermione shuddered, thinking of dementors, and found herself halfway to casting her patronus. Luna walked along behind her, ethereal, possessed of an unearthly calm that was as terrifying as it was reassuring. The Death Eaters had certainly found it terrifying. She never seemed to dive aside, she just...wasn't...anywhere their hexes and curses struck. They had no such protection when she turned her dreamy, almost gentle gaze on them and replied with a simple, silent flick of her wand. Hermione had personally seen three of them fall before her.
They stopped where a tunnel turned aside to Honeydukes, thinking they heard something. Luna gestured and her hare patronus hopped up the passageway. Neither of them was in the mood to allow a stray Death Eater to slip away unseen. It was only some small creature that chittered at them in terror, its small eyes glowing in the dimness. Luna asked, "Do you think we should we see if it's a Death Eater in animagus form?"
Hermione cast a spell that would have transformed the creature back, if it were a shapeshifted human. They went on, more confidently now that the tunnel was somewhat larger.
They entered the ruin carefully, well aware that fugitives from the battle might have hidden in here. There still could be giants about, as well. But the place was clear...of anyone living.
Hermione's heart clenched. She hoped in her heart of hearts that there would have been some change while she was gone, but when they stepped through the door, Severus Snape's black-clad body still lay as they had left him, still and cold. Hermione felt tears sting her eyes and forced her emotions down. They must do this last thing, they must take him home, and it was not a safe task. Only when they were back safely within the castle walls could she allow herself the luxury of grief.
Luna glided over to the body. "He seems smaller somehow," she said.
"They always do," Hermione replied gently. "Let's do this. It's still bloody dangerous out here."
If Luna was surprised to hear her companion swear, she said nothing of it. This was a day for swearing. Hermione transfigured a broken chair into a bier and laid it on the ground next to the silent form. Luna was right, a dead body did seem smaller.
And no wonder, with such a spirit gone from it. In her time this man had inspired anger, fear, humiliation--certainly never anything bland where he was concerned. But of all her professors--well, he and McGonagall--he had never hesitated to challenge her. He had never let her coast because she was the smartest kid in the class. And when they had got themselves into some kind of fix he had always been there to bring them back safely home. She would always remember him placing himself bodily between her and a transformed Remus Lupin, but now that she truly understood how the terror of his previous run-in with Lupin had haunted him, she knew what courage it had taken for him to do that. As a child she had mouthed the words of gratitude, but now that she was a woman she understood she owed him a life-debt many times over...one that she would now be unable to ever repay. A few tears escaped her control.
Luna said, "I wish we had understood everything when we could have told him...I understand so much now, Hermione, how hard he tried to protect us this last year. Do you know he 'punished' us by sending us to detentions with Hagrid? We all put on such an act that it was so horrible and we thought we were putting one over on him! Oh, Hermione..."
She put a hand on her friend's shoulder. "He was a Slytherin through and through to the end, wasn't he?"
"And when we really messed up and got caught--I tried to slip some dreamless sleep to Lars Thorson, he's a first-year Ravenclaw. He started crying in the great hall and they hung him in chains all night. Anyway, they caught me. I was to be crucioed and I was so frightened. I didn't expect to live through the night. He gave me that scowl of his and he said, 'Lovegood, even you are strong enough to survive this, and it certainly will not adversely affect your mental capacities.' Hermione, I was so furious with him if I'd had my wand I swear I would have hexed him! But I did survive. The anger I felt was enough to carry me through, just as he knew it would. I know in my heart that he saved my life that night. And then, when they took me to Azkaban, the strength I found within myself saved me again." By then there were tears streaming down Luna's pale face. "Why did we only find out the truth now that it's too late? Hermione, why did he have to die?"
She shook her head. "I don't know. I don't know why Fred or Tonks or Lupin had to die. It isn't fair and it breaks my heart. But this is the last thing we can do for them, you see."
With that they knelt on either side of the body and worked together to gently levitate him onto the bier. Hermione said, "This is...odd..."
"What do you mean?"
"It's been long enough, I think he should be in rigor by now. Shouldn't he?"
Luna cast a lumos from her wand as well. "He had something in his hand. It has to be right here--" She scooted back and looked around. A tiny potion vial had rolled under the hem of her robe. She picked it up and sniffed it cautiously. "It smells like...absinthe?"
"Absinthe? Wormwood? Let me see that!" Hermione held it in one hand and used the other to carefully fan air across it to her face. "Luna, this is Draught of Living Death."
"Dear Goddess! You mean he might be--?!"
"I thought he was dead when we left him, but I swear, he didn't have this vial in his hand then! He must have come to for a moment after we left and swallowed this. If it took effect in time it could have put him into a sort of stasis. The poison and the blood loss would have been put on hold. We need to get him to St. Mungo's right now, I'm not taking the time to carry him back to the school through that tunnel."
"I never got my apparition license."
"I have mine. I can side-along us all without splinching us, but it would be easier if you can help."
Luna said with one of her dreamy smiles, "I said I never got my license."
Hermione levitated the bier, which she now hoped was a stretcher. Each of them took one of Snape's hands then Luna reached across him to take Hermione's wrist. Hermione fixed the image of St. Mungo's lobby in her mind and apparated.
A harried mediwitch listened to their story and took the vial. She tried to leave them in the lobby but neither of them was about to be parted from Snape at that point. Nobody outside Hogwarts had yet heard the whole story. They weren't taking a chance on some enterprising person deciding to make sure the "traitor" never got the chance to come back from the dead.
So they found themselves at either side of an A&R bed, wands drawn, looking every bit like the soldiers fresh off the battlefield that they were. Hermione drew the curtain to keep all and sundry from figuring out just who was in this bed. It was enough to keep people well out unless they had business there.
No one paid much attention, though. The other beds were full and families had apparated in to be with the most severely injured.
An older mediwitch with several rows of gold braid around her collar swept in, paying them no more attention than two more pieces of furniture. The Healing Mistress passed her wand over Snape in several complicated, silent spells, then her eyes widened and she swore, "Merlin's balls, I don't believe this! You there, were you the ones who brought him in?"
"How long since he took the potion?"
Hermione tried to think, but she didn't know how much time had passed. "It was insane, there was so much fighting...I know Voldemort gave us an hour so it was more than that. Two hours?"
The Healer hadn't even blinked at Hermione's use of Voldemort's bare name. "He may just have managed to sneak through the cat flap." She pulled three vials from a voluminous pocket. From the clinking, Hermione thought her beaded bag must have a counterpart. With a spell, the Healer raised the head of the bed, and expertly tilted Snape's head back to pour the contents of the vials down his throat. Another spell made sure they went into his stomach rather than down his windpipe. "Well, then, lad, it's up to you now. Let's just see if you're as tough a piece of shoe leather as young Potter seems to think you are."
"Yes, I sent a patronus when I heard your story. He told me to tell you well done, but he can't leave."
Hermione nodded, smiling. "It's rather a mess up there."
"We wait. There is a spark of life held in abeyance by the draught he took. Quite a bit of presence of mind there, under the circumstances. I gave him antivenin for the snake bite--dreadful thing, that Nagini, I certainly hope you lot killed it!--and then the strongest blood replenisher I have. Finally the antidote to the Draught of Living Death." She straightened the collar of Snape's robes, a gesture that came across as respectful and caring rather than motherly. "He has a chance, but I can't say how much of one. It's a very near thing. We wait to see if he wants to come back."
Luna asked, "What do you mean? Why wouldn't someone want to come back?"
"Dear child, we aren't all as full of light as you. You are one of those special people who can walk through the Dark without having it ever stick to you. Please know how rare and precious a gift that is."
"The Dark doesn't have to stick to anyone. You just shake it off."
The healer kissed her forehead, and said again, "Dear child."
Hermione asked, "Can we do anything?"
"Just stay here and be with him. Want him to come back. Love him if you have it in you. Believe me, that's stronger than any spell or potion. I must go, there are so many others. Dreadful business. But I'll check back on you later. We may move him out of A&R a little later if we need the bed for another emergency."
Hermione nodded, then conjured a couple of chairs. It looked like they were going to be here for a little while.
She heard Luna softly chanting a spell to raise healing energy, and after a few times she felt its power growing. By then she had learned the chant so she cleared her mind and joined in. Love him if you have it in you, the Healer had said. For Luna, that was easy. She loved everyone, maybe even the Death Eaters she'd had to kill. It wasn't so clear-cut for Hermione. Was the confusing mess of gratitude and respect and compassion she felt, love? Unbidden, she thought about impossibly dark eyes that could snap with annoyance and disdain or just as quickly turn to deep pools of mystery. She thought about sure hands that so easily prepared ingredients, and she wondered if they were as sure to other pursuits.
Ron was waiting for her at Hogwarts. She should not be having such thoughts!
But in that sixth year that seemed so very long ago, a few times, she was sure her professor had looked at her, not as the annoying little kid who made his life hell in potions class and out of it, but as the woman she had been becoming. He shared her love of books, her passion for discovery. Ron wasn't interested in books unless they were about Quidditch and the only discoveries he wanted to make were between the sheets.
She definitely shouldn't be thinking about that!
But was that love? Were those things that could help call him back? Because God and Goddess knew, she wanted him back. She poured it all into the chant without trying to sort it out.
The antidote to the Draught of Living Death worked very slowly, but finally Snape became aware of a vague light around him. It seemed he was sitting on a concrete sidewalk somewhere, with white figures moving around him in a faintly glowing fog. He shook his head...this wasn't right, he'd been in the Shrieking Shack. He found his wand and stood up, gasping for breath. It looked like, of all things, Kings Cross Station. Impossible!
He didn't hurt any more. He raised a disbelieving hand to his neck. There should be fang marks big enough to stick his fingers in, but the skin was as unmarked as the day he was born. So, unbelievably, was his left arm.
He heard footsteps and reached for his wand, then almost dropped it in disbelief. "Lily...Merlin...is it you?"
"Yes, Sev, my Sev," she said, and she was smiling, and there were tears spilling from her green eyes. "I came to tell you how proud I am of you, and how thankful. You saved my boy. Your life debt to James, and to him, is now discharged, Sev. It's all in the past. The future is all that matters now."
"What future, Lily? I'm dead, aren't I? Haven't you come here to guide me to the great beyond?"
She smiled. "You're not quite dead yet. You swallowed your potion in time. It's your choice now, don't you see? You're free now to do as you will. No more debts, no more obligations. If you want to cross over, you can, and I'll be overjoyed to have my best friend back. But I can wait and there are other people who love you. I think you should give us all a few more years to kick Albus for putting you into such a terrible situation first, don't you?"
He shook his head. "Lily, Albus didn't get me into anything. I was the one who was fool enough to listen to Tom in the first place. Lucius helped but it was my doing. Albus had his own ends in mind but he did honestly try his best to get me out of it alive."
"Well, I'm glad to see you've forgiven each other, anyway. That will help immensely. He is sorry, you know."
"I know. He told me as much, that night. I wasn't in much of a mood to care how sorry he was at the time."
"I should think not. Well, dreadful an idea as it was, it worked. I can't tell you too much about what awaits you. It will be a few more years yet, but I want you to look here." She took two photographs from a pocket in her white robe. One was of a sprite of a little girl with very curly black hair and inquisitive dark eyes, who looked at him over a first year arithmancy book. The other was of a newborn baby swaddled in blue, lying in a cradle near a sunny window. The baby opened his eyes and looked up at him with a sleepy curiosity.
"Sev, I hear the next train coming and I need to be on it. You see those two bright lights down there? All you have to do is walk toward them. There are a couple of people waiting who know the whole story, and they want you to come back to them. You're so young still, you have your whole life ahead of you now. Go back and live it!"
"I love you, Lily, I don't want you to leave me again!"
"Don't you understand, Sev, I never left? I've been right here with you, every step of the way, every dark night. I always will be, because I love you and love never dies. It only changes...everything She touches changes."
The train whistled as it pulled into the station.
"Go, Sev, go back to them. You've got your whole life ahead of you. Go back and live it. Find out what it really means to be alive and free. Follow every one of your dreams and catch them and hold on with both hands. Don't be afraid to love with all your heart! Give those two precious babies a chance to be born and have children of their own. I'll be with you still, and when the time comes many years from now, I'll meet you right here at the station. But it isn't your time yet. It isn't." She threw her arms around him and kissed him on the cheek, then let go and gave him a little push, off toward the two bright lanterns in the mist. "Go!" She ran to catch her train, albeit with many a backward glance. When she found her seat she pushed down the window to lean out and wave as it pulled away.
Other people were waving from the cars. With a shock he recognized Tonks and Remus, and there was one of the Weasley twins. He'd be buggered if he knew which one even now, with all the hair hanging down over his ears. Remus was holding Tonks so close against his side, and he looked so young and carefree now. He yelled back, "Take care of those kids...and look in on our Teddy now and then, will you?"
Snape just nodded, and stood there for a moment, trying to wrap his mind around everything Lily had said. It was too much to comprehend all at once. The train picked up speed and disappeared into the mist.
He turned. The lanterns glowed brightly in the distance. He walked past street lights, past an old woman and an even older little cat who seemed to shed their years like raindrops as they approached the station. He picked up his pace. One of the lights was silver and steady and secure, the other a merry bright golden light that seemed to reach out to him. He picked up his pace when he saw that the lanterns were burning brightly on either side of a doorway. He understood that there was pain on the other side of it, that he was going to have to fight for his life if he wanted it. He wasn't going to run from a fight, not with so much to be won. Without hesitation, he pushed it open and stepped through.
Hermione and Luna had been chanting the spell until their voices had dropped to a rough whisper. The bedlam in the A&R had slowly settled down, and some while ago someone had come with the idea to move them. But a mediwitch saw the healing energy at work in the little curtained alcove and sent the orderlies on to their next task. Now it was night and everything was quiet, except for a family down at the end of the hall who were similarly chanting over one of their own.
Luna's quick breath drew Hermione's attention back to the bed. "What?"
"I think he started to open his eyes."
Her suspicions were confirmed by a sudden jolt and a deep, wracking cough that followed a gasped breath. One hand shot to the bandage around his neck, the other grabbed the bed rail in a white-knuckled grip.
Luna ran to find the mediwitch.
Hermione said, "Hush, you're OK, you're safe! Lie back, please, don't hurt yourself!"
"It seems I can't much help that!" He managed to snap, even though he was weaker than a newborn kneazle kitten and he hurt from his hair to his toenails.
The remark elicited a warm peal of relieved laughter, and he opened his eyes to a pair of very bright brown ones. They were surrounded by brown curls that reminded him of a mane of black ones, seen in a photograph. "Miss Granger? Where am I?"
"You're at St. Mungo's, and you're alive," she informed him. The girl was actually crying happy tears over him.
With that, Luna returned, hand in hand with the Healing Mistress. The older woman took charge of the situation, and as she examined him a bright smile transformed her face. She had doled out so much bad news tonight. This time it was all good. She took his temperature the old fashioned way, with a warm hand on his forehead, and drew a blanket over him. "You're going to be fine, young man. That was a brilliant bit of thinking, I can't imagine anything else that would have bought you the time to get back here! But it doesn't even look like there'll be any nerve damage localized to the bite. The bleeding was apparently profuse enough to flush out a lot of the venom. You're one lucky wizard. Don't expect to get out of here for a couple of weeks, though. I'll have them get you into a room right away."
He managed a rather subdued, "Thank you, Healing Mistress."
She smiled, "You should be just fine." Then she went on about her rounds.
A witch in volunteer's robes stuck her head in, then said, "SHHH!" to someone in the hall and pointed to their alcove. Hermione and Luna had their wands in hand before anyone had time to blink, but they immediately relaxed.
Harry and Ron and Ginny all looked fraught, but they all grinned from ear to ear. Snape asked, "Is he--"
He knew, but he still needed to hear it aloud to be absolutely sure it was over.
Harry met his eyes with obvious intent, pushing the memory forward with enough clarity for Snape to see it as if he had been standing there. He said firmly, "That bloody son of a bitch is dead."
There were shouts, whistles and hurrahs from the whole ward, his fellow inmates and their visitors alike, and even quite a few of the mediwitches. Order was quickly restored, but a great deal of darkness had been driven out.
Ron reached out to Hermione and she leaned on him for strength that was clearly more than just physical. It made absolutely no logical sense to Severus why that hurt. They were all alive, he and Potter had beaten some especially poor odds. That was all that mattered right now, they were alive. He had the strong sense that things were unfolding as they should, that everything would come right in the end. He lay back against the pillow, which Luna transformed from the flat A&R thing to a much better one filled with down. She whispered, "I think it would be OK if you go to sleep now. I doubt that lot will notice. They'll probably go somewhere there's fire whiskey. I'll stay on till morning. It's really all right, now, you know. I think when you want to be alone now, you shall have to chase people out."
He didn't mind if the celebration moved on to the nearest pub, but he felt no inclination to chase Luna out. Somewhere she had taken off her shoes again, and she tucked her bare feet up under her robes in her chair. He asked her, "Weren't you supposed to be in Azkaban?"
"Yes, but I think they forgot about me after Father crossed over. Even the Dementors left me alone. Do you know, if you are thinking of happy things but you are angry or afraid at the same time, they come to feed. But if all you feel is pure love, they don't like that much and they leave you alone. I think it must hurt them. Once we all learned to do that, they all stayed far out over the water. When the Death Eaters all left, we knew it was time, so we decided it was time to escape and come to help."
"How did you know where the battle was taking place?"
Luna smiled and replied, "Where else would it be, really?"
Harry Potter and his sidekicks left, with a promise to return when they could tomorrow. The Weasley siblings were crying together, and he suddenly wanted to tell them about their brother and the train, but he couldn't find the words.
Luna said, "Rest now. They know. Or, they will, when the loss has time to fade a little."
"What the bloody hell are you?"
She smiled, her soft blue eyes alight. "I'm just Luna, sir. I'm just the girl whose life you saved last October." The magic of a life debt swirled around them, and she bowed to it without fear, in full understanding of what it meant.
"And you discharged that debt yesterday evening, I should think," he replied. But instead of disappearing, the bond went both ways--unbreakable friendship. Severus wondered at that, but remembering Lily's advice he just accepted it.
It appeared that most people knew the truth, and with Ravenclaw's magnificent little lunatic sitting in that chair with her wand in her hand, the few who hadn't yet heard were no threat whatsoever. Clearly, the world had turned upside down and inside out while he was half-dead. But it was all right, somehow it was all right. The war was over and they had won.
The pain was considerable, but he was much too tired to care. He sank into sleep with the certain knowledge that tomorrow everything would be different. Tomorrow the rest of his life that Lily had promised him would begin, and he was eager to shake off the darkness and get started.
Hermione yelled, "Hugo! Rose! Carolyn Eileen! GET DOWN HERE NOW!"
Children's feet hit the stairs. Hermione's older kids, seventh-year Hugo, would-be Ravenclaw seeker Rose, and their little three-year-old Carrie came tumbling into the room, followed by trunks, an owl cage and a cat carrier. She reached into the bassinet to pick up little six-month-old Sebastian. "Have we got everything?" She asked, sounding extremely distracted.
Severus took charge of Rose's trunk. Only a second-year, she was having a little trouble dealing with it and the owl cage. "I think we're ready, Hermione. If they've forgotten anything, I can bring it along to you at Hogwarts tonight."
He had finally stepped down as Headmaster at Hogwarts, in Minerva's favor, a position he had held should have been hers from the beginning. But the old Scot had absolutely refused to be persuaded to leave her classroom until she had managed to lure Hermione away from the Ministry to become the new Transfiguration professor. So this year Severus would be at Spinner's End (when he wasn't in her quarters at Hogwarts) while he got his new potions laboratory off the ground.
"Are you sure you and Weasley aren't going to hex one another off the platform again?" Snape had bit his tongue where Hermione's relationship with the Weasley idiot was concerned for twenty years, as long as she was happy. He had valued her friendship far too much to let anything interfere. But when the moron and Lavender Brown had been splashed across the front page of the Prophet, nearly in flagrante delicto, all bets had been off. Molly Weasley had been in fine form, but things had once again worked out as they were meant to. Within the year, Ron was quickly married to Lavender in a big Weasley bash at the Burrow, before it got out that she was already pregnant with their little Theresa. Shortly afterwards, he and Hermione had been handfast in a small, quiet closest-friends-only ceremony on the Hogwarts grounds, in a beautiful grove of trees not far from Albus' tomb. The scandal had rolled under the rug as soon as someone else had done something public and idiotic. As the aggrieved party, Hermione had not been touched very much by it anyway.
Hermione smiled sheepishly, "You know full well Molly and Arthur are always nearby to referee ever since that happened." Truly, things had quieted down in the intervening years. She and Ron had two very much loved children together, and they had children with their true loves. Hugo and Rose spent as much time with Ron and Lavender and Therese as they did here at Spinner's End and it was all working out. She had forgiven her ex-husband and his new wife. Ron was finally becoming once again a best friend who was like a brother to her, although she knew it would take longer for Severus to forgive Ron for hurting her and it was taking her longer than she liked to completely let bygones be bygones with Lavender. A few more years of real happiness should do the trick. "Oh, Merlin, where are those teacher's manuals?!"
"Already in your classroom, my dear, I took care of all that yesterday. Let's go before we miss the damned train!"
The little family joined hands, and on the end Hermione made sure she had the baby's little hand in hers. A moment later there was a loud crack, and the newly painted little house in Spinner's End fell silent as the family disapparated.
in finite incantatum