Disclaimer: Not mine, all respects paid to JK Rowling and her wonderful world. Also thanks to Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt and their creation 'Angel', from which this plot took root.
A/N: This plot-bunny bit me shortly after the release of Book 6, for all that it took me several years to actually work out how I wanted it to look. This is most definitely a bitter-sweet story, heavier on bitter than sweet, and features major character deaths. The title and seeds of the plot are the property of the first season of 'Angel'. The 8th episode is entitled 'I Will Remember You' and is one of the most beautiful, and heartbreaking, in the series. I hope you enjoy.
Dawn's gilded edges slid rose-and-orange over the bars of the cell, bathing the stone with a kiss of gold, the granite eagerly soaking up the rays, warming to chase away night's chill. The day would be hot, flowers competing with their raucous colours for the attentions of bees and butterflies, each enticing the pollen spreaders with their barrage of scents and promises of nectar. The cycle of life continued unabated, unconcerned by the bloodshed that had stained so much earth and brought so many tears. Uncaring of the lives that would cease today, the last of a line executed one by one.
The man huddled in a corner, farthest from the creeping line of sunlight rippling across the grimy floor. His black robes deepened the shadows in which he had hid himself as he waited. The bare rise and fall of his chest was the only thing that confirmed his existence amongst the living. The cold, sculptural face, the hair curving in matted lines of filth past his jaw, the stillness of his limbs were more reminiscent of a disturbing art piece than a live being.
Not that he would be for very much longer.
The door rattled, a large skeleton key inserted to unlock and simultaneously dismantle the wards surrounding his cell. The man did not stir. He was one of the two highest-security prisoners in the fortress-prison, but his guards had found him docile, compliant, three-quarters dead already. The formidable mind seemed to have surrendered to the inevitable, and with it, all will to exercise a once-indomitable power.
'Snape?' the Death Eater grunted, entering. ''is Lordship says yer t'swing today. Last ones finished and we're rid o' the lot o' yer.'
For the first time, Severus Snape met the eyes of his captors with something like emotion flickering to life in them. Last ones. Had they already killed her? The last of the Golden Trio, the only one to survive the battle – to be condemned instantly to the inside of a prison cell. Would her spitted head greet him as he strode to his hanging, that wonderful hair falling in frizzy layers around a bloodied neck, impatient brown eyes dulled with death?
He unfolded himself rapidly. Death's embrace suddenly seemed welcome indeed. For years he had expected it, only to find over the past long months that he desperately wished to keep his life, to see it continue, to allow it to grow and include others – a certain Gryffindor, to start, and, maybe one day, a son or a daughter to grace Hogwarts' halls in their turn...
The bloody end of their conflict had also aborted such dreams. They had backed the wrong horse. Dumbledore's frailty had combined with an unexpectedly ruthless streak in Draco Malfoy to bring about his too-early demise, and the pieces of the Dark Lord's soul remained scattered and well-guarded. Potter's final stand in Ottery St. Catch-pole had been brave, self-sacrificing, noble, utterly Gryffindor and completely useless.
It had also been the end of the war. Unable to destroy his mortal enemy, Potter and Weasley had fallen in the same breath. The next ten minutes had seen the devastation of most of the army, Voldemort's twirling wand invincible now that the Bane-of-His-Existence had died.
The guard's wand was trained on him, and Snape wanted to laugh in the man's face. Were they so deluded as to think that he – he who had walked both sides of the line and witnessed the horrors perpetrated in the names of both Light and Dark – would fight them now? He could not live in a world that Voldemort controlled. He had known that since his nineteenth year of life.
The cell door swung closed on noiseless hinges and the young Death Eater's walk echoed heavily from the dark walls. He kept glancing nervously at the prisoner who walked such sinuous silence next to him. No wonder the man had been given a space of his own at the very top level of Azkaban. Deprived of his wand, food, a shower and any changes of clothing, he still radiated power and self-control to a degree that most could only envy.
Snape was well aware of the regard as they traversed the halls to the lower corridors of the tower. He glanced at the death-grip the man had on his wand. It would be too easy to overpower him, to strip the wand, keys and robes, to alter his appearance and leave—
-and go where? With whom? The world beyond the veil had claimed the few he loved and the many he'd fought for. Minerva McGonagall. Neville Longbottom. All the Weasleys. Albus Dumbledore. Harry Potter. Lily Potter. Hermione Granger.
At not-quite-forty years old, Severus Snape was ready to add himself to the horrendous mortality rate the war had commanded.
"Ah, there you are." Walden Macnair rose from his seat as the prison's official, smirking at his former comrade, the guard totally ignored. "Our Lord wanted you to see this." He beckoned to the large window that overlooked the bridge to the mainland and the courtyard below. "Come, Severus." Snape moved forward slowly, dreading what he might see. His former master was adept at forcing others to drain the cup of sorrow and pain to its dregs, wrangling misery from those who truly thought there could be no more.
He tensed at what he saw. The gallows had been constructed there in the courtyard, still bathed in the triangular shadow of the great bastion. Hanging. Voldemort's final statement.
'Those of you who believed in Muggle rights may die by Muggle means,' he had said a week ago, when the hangings had begun.
A body was being unloaded now, the rope cut down. Snape strained to see, but could not make out the features. Soon, it would be his lifeless shell flopping so gracelessly into the cart being pulled by Argus Filch – the Squib allowed to keep his life for his betrayal of Dumbledore and Hogwarts...
'No,' he whispered, and his long fingers were pressing against the glass. The pale form being pulled up the rough steps to the noose had long, brown hair that whipped in the morning wind. Defiance still lined her body, the tilt of her chin clear even from this distance. He watched her spit at the hangman, and the huge man backhanded her, causing her stumble as the Death Eaters watching jeered, relishing the savage entertainment.
'The master said you always had too much attachment to...what were his exact words? "Those of filthy blood."' The words rolled from Macnair's tongue as if he were smacking his lips around them, enjoying the flavour. 'Another of your treasures come to ruin, eh, Severus?'
The pale ex-professor barely heard the gloating words, his nails scraping the window as a thick rope was shoved down over Hermione's head, weighing her hair to flutter helplessly in the wind like a broken-winged bird. Her manacled hands lifted as she tried to push the hemp away, earning her another slap and more uproarious laughter from the crowd.
'Spirited, isn't she?' Macnair sneered. 'Must have been a perk in bed.'
These words finally had the effect the warden was looking for. A frustrated roar surged through the dark man, and his bound hands fisted, swinging upwards to make contact with Macnair's head. The Death Eater stumbled backwards, a trickle of blood blossoming from his temple to stream down his face.
'Stupefy!' cried the young guard, terror in every inch of his face as Snape ducked half-successfully, the curse catching his thigh and sending a wave of numbness through his legs. He crashed to the floor, twisting his shoulders to turn the fall into a roll – only to meet Macnair's booted foot with his mid-section.
Hands jerked him upright even as he curled in on himself, and he was gazing into Macnair's anger-reddened features. 'Always so quick to fury, Severus. Over what? A Mudblood toy? Was she worth turning traitor? Was that Evans bitch? You could have had either – or both – if you'd stayed the course.'
'What I have fought for is something you cannot understand,' Snape breathed laboriously, his ribs aching from the steel-toed shoe.
'I certainly hope not. You'll die for it.'
'I've been prepared to die for twenty years, Walden,' he said with a cold smile. 'Forgive me if the thought does not send me into weeping hysterics now.' He craned his neck, watching through the window, praying that of the millions of theories that accompanied the Afterlife, at least those regarding the closeness of loved ones would prove to be true...
The executioner was at his lever. The trapdoor would drop— Snape closed his eyes. He could not save her. He could only join her.
'She is dying for it. Now. Watch,' Macnair's icy voice ordered, and Snape found his eyelids spelled open, his face pressed against the window, unable to keep himself from watching as they immobilized Hermione to stop her struggling, as a black-gloved hand reached for the control—
-the burly man yanked the lever, the door collapsed—
-a shudder travelled through the body he knew so well, limbs jerking in a final spasm—
-and she was still, swinging faintly as the crowd erupted in cheers.
'Your turn, Severus,' Macnair said with a snigger, turning away. Three wands dug into the wizard's ribs, but the black eyes that swept over the room were nearly as dull as those belonging to the murdered witch below. He said nothing as he marched out the door, down another two flights of stairs and into the already-warm early-morning air.
'The last of our criminals, the traitor Snape, who spent twenty years spying on our noble lord and selling his secrets to the meddlesome Mudblood-lover, Albus Dumbledore!' The announcer stepped back, basking in the boos and hissing coming from the audience as Snape ascended to the platform.
He made no moves as the last rope, the only one uncut, was secured about his throat, constricting his breathing and making it rasp in his ears.
A flash of blond penetrated his cocoon of pain, and he focussed on the pale-gold head of Draco Malfoy, who stood, cool and superior, to the left of the crowd, surrounded by his lackeys wearing dark blue lined with silver to show allegiance to their newly-named regent.
Who had known the boy would prove so bloodthirsty? Worse than Lucius by far. The death of Albus Dumbledore had vaulted him to the high seat his father and Head of House had once occupied.
Your sons will grow twisted, their knees bent to a tyrant, and on the day that one of them dies at his hand, you will know what you have embraced. You will understand how much it cost your father to watch you surpass his monstrous deeds. And it will be too late.
The Devil may have the lot of them, Snape thought, without a shred of mercy. It would not take long for the wizarding folk who had bowed to Voldemort's rule to learn what destruction they had brought upon themselves. And by the time they knew, they would be too far gone to change course.
'Final words?' the announcer asked, swaggering up to him with a nasty smile.
Snape shook his head. The smirk widened, and the man nodded to the executioner. Out of the corner of his eye, Snape could see the hand reaching, saw the fingers wrap around the lever, saw the muscles in the bare arms flex—
-his feet barely felt the ground vanish beneath him—
-his neck seared for the briefest moment—
-blackness engulfed him, a blessed stillness suffusing him as he hurtled into a different world.
Indeterminate darkness. Un-clocked time. Weightless and spaceless, Snape's consciousness drifted. Relief gave way to curiosity, curiosity to boredom, boredom to impatience and, finally, disappointment.
Finally, the dreadful question took shape. Is this all? Is there no more?
Snape had expected neither the white wisps of light-soaked clouds supporting angels, nor the smoke-fogged, flame-saturated underworld from so many mythologies. Death was bound to be mysterious – a life bounded by physical properties could not possibly comprehend an existence without them, no matter how many metaphors humanity employed.
But so far, all he knew was that he, Severus Tobias Snape, continued. Without knowledge of others, without connection to place or time...
He focussed his increasingly random and lonely thoughts, wondering if this version life, like the many years before it, required will and work to affect a change in his not-quite-environment.
Tumbling curls. A warm smile on the wickedly intelligent mouth. Impassioned amber eyes. A feeling of homecoming, a desire to come home, to have such a concrete place in his deliberately fluid existence. The unshakable faith, the undeniable assertion... 'Of course I love you...'
The woman solidified in his mind and her name seemed to vibrate through him. Hermione? He felt himself moving – though how he would describe such movement in a place lacking scenery or even wind was beyond him. He only knew that his centred mind had caused him to shift – that where he was now was not where he had been...
Lines sketched themselves before his eyes, a simple black-and-white drawing growing complicated as shades of grey clouded corners, space becoming three-dimensional, and then drab colour leeched into the composition, growing slightly brighter.
The world that finally crystallized around him shocked him. It was the playground from his childhood, ill-used and ill-kept, paint peeling from the seesaw and weeds creeping through the sandbox. He glanced around, surprised to find himself suddenly seeming so corporeal and in such a real place. What was death, that he found himself here? And why had it produced this desolate landscape instead of the Gryffindor he longed to meet?
Even as he wondered, the long-forgotten site of his youth began to melt, shifting, becoming the stones of a castle he knew too well, the Great Hall forming around him, Sorting Hat and stool dominating the front. It was completely empty of other people, but that did not overly worry him. He took a hesitant step towards the artefact, only to see it swirl into the black curtains wrapping his bed in Slytherin's dungeon, the long, teen-scarred House tables becoming the rich mahogany of his personal chambers.
Here, he did no more than sweep the space with his eyes. He had lived in these quarters for more than a decade and a half, and yet he felt little connection to them in this world, wherever he was. He had never particularly cared for them in life—
-the scene seethed again. Now, the lined bookshelves of Albus Dumbledore's private library, tucked behind his public office, took form, and Snape was moving as the small space settled, a peculiar contentment that he had never felt in life bathing him. This was the right place – though he didn't know how he knew what constituted a "right place" in this strange realm.
His fingers ran along the spines of the books curiously, skimming titles, wondering if, perhaps, this constituted a kind of reward or paradise – regrettably empty of certain people, but brimming with the chance to continue learning. He had selected a title when he felt the arrival of another presence behind him. He knew without turning that it was not the woman he wanted.
He froze. The voice was warm, full-bodied, an adult woman's voice deepened with maturity. A voice he had not heard for many years. But one he knew, nevertheless.
'Mrs. Potter,' he said stiffly as he twisted to face his childhood friend and the obsession of his teen years. She was still beautiful, looking as untouched as the day they had closed her coffin – pale skin, bright green, inquisitive eyes, tumbling corkscrew curls of rich red. Her cheeks were flushed with colour as they had been in life, and a wide smile split her lips as he turned, genuine delight glittering in her eyes.
He could not help the stab of irony that pierced his disappointment. There was a time, not so many years ago, that he had dreamed of meeting Lily upon his death. But instead of the satisfaction he had imagined, only a cool tinge of cynical curiosity coloured the moment. Once again, he was facing the second-best. Was he to be forever denied that which he most desired?
'You love her very much, don't you?' she asked, her smile of welcome fading into one of bittersweet sadness.
Such a question should have angered him – the living Snape would have answered the query with a tight-lipped glare. But here it aroused almost no emotion, other than astonishment that the red-head who had walked out of his life so many years ago would care.
'Yes,' he heard himself answer simply.
Lily looked directly into his face and her expression was much older than the twenty-one-year-old woman who had been laid rest in the ground. 'Come. There is something you must see. Something of great importance.'
For a long moment, he merely stared, holding the green eyes that had ceased to plague him years ago. 'What?'
'I will show you.'
'I would rather look before I leap this time,' he countered coolly. 'I spent my entire life paying for a mistake made as a child.'
'What you need to see is the bridge over the river. You can look all you want before crossing.' He cocked an eyebrow, unmoving, daring her to continue. 'Your position is...singular. Unique. Two men made you the fulcrum of a war. Your actions had a greater significance than most.'
'And? Past tense, Mrs. Potter,' he replied, unable to keep some relief from his voice. It had ended badly, but at least it was over. 'My life has run its course. I made my choices. They were the wrong ones.' His mild satisfaction faded, eyes bleak with memory. 'The whole of my life was a waste.'
'It doesn't have to be. You needn't make them twice, Severus,' she told him gently. He favoured her with a look of blank incomprehension.
'Come,' she bade him again.
'All you have spun me are more riddles. Speak plainly.'
'Plainly? As you will. You can choose a different path. Purchase a future for the world you have left.'
Snape studied the shade of a woman he had once loved in vain. This wasn't making sense. Done was done. Time moved on for mortals, a world he no was no longer linked to. 'How?'
'Return. The land of the living can yet use you.' She returned the dark gaze steadily. 'Turn the clock backwards. Make a new decision.'
'That is what I have to show you. Your choice, and that which accompanied it, and the decades that will spin ahead under Voldemort's rule. Everything that you can change. All it takes is your own will.'
The former teacher and spy considered it, shook his phantom head. 'To what end? I told you – it's over. And I will not lie to tell you I am sorry to be rid of the world and its burdens.' He turned his back, dismissing her.
'And her, Severus? What of Hermione Granger?'
He whipped back around faster than she expected, eyes burning charcoal. 'What about her?'
'Her life, along with hundreds of thousands of others, hangs in the balance.'
'I see.' Oppressive silence, followed by, 'Any other critical details you care to drop?'
'My life – as you so correctly pointed out – has been one of manipulation by two of the most brilliant wizards in the past five centuries. I have paid the ultimate price for it – several times over.' His voice dropped to a deadly whisper. 'I will ask you one more time. Anything else?'
A breath, a sigh. Purely for effect, he noticed. Breathing was no longer required. 'No.' The green eyes flashed as she met his furious gaze again. 'But I will make you a promise.' Snape waited, cold features growing no warmer. He had been the victim of many promises – some of them had been made by this very woman in their youth. 'I guarantee that should you choose to return, she will survive.'
Decisiveness hardened in the black. 'Then return me.'
'Payment must be made.'
'Naturally,' he snorted. 'Even in death, nothing can come for free.' His eyes darkened, and Lily could tell that he was looking past her, into a world that she could not see. 'It doesn't matter.' He re-focused on her, and the heat in his expression made her swallow. 'Whatever price you demand, I will pay it. In full and in blood, if I must.'
Wordlessly, she pulled a slender book from the shelf without ever breaking eye contact, handing it to him. Like his skin, the tome was shadow, pages made of wispy spirit-paper, the leather-bound cover merging with his hands.
'Your gateway to the past you must change. Open it.'
There was no hesitation as he flipped the cover aside. Otherworldly wind ruffled the pages, blowing them over as Lily and the office began to fade around him.
'You will not accompany me?' he asked.
'No. This is a journey you must undertake alone, one that your heart must understand. Watch, and learn. Remember...' the physical imprint had vanished completely, leaving her voice to land in his ears as if stretched over a great distance, 'wishes come true. Not free.'
And she was completely gone, the book and the office disappearing with her, leaving him in the strangely blank space he had inhabited before...
Snape regarded the new space suddenly unfolding before his eyes curiously. It was clearly a Muggle suburban development on a mid-summer's night. The leaves on the hedges were poking up furtively, as if wondering how far they could creep before the clippers came back out to tame them. Flowers drifted to and fro on delicate stems with the passing of cars, the friendly nosiness of dogs and the occasional breeze that meandered through.
The Potions master noticed that he had retained the physical shape granted to him in the mock-up of Dumbledore's library – semi-solid and in full colour, but oddly translucent. The not-quite-ghost drifted over the emerald lawns, listening to the quiet ticking of sprinkler systems and wondering what could have brought him here, to the kind of place that had been too expensive for his parents, too Muggle for his comrades...a foreign world he had only ever entered on raids...
His sight caught on a brass number pinned neatly to the brick next to an off-white door, and he felt himself pulled closer. Trusting that this was in keeping with what Lily had ordered him to learn, he allowed himself to waft towards it.
He went through the flimsy door and glided silently up the stairs, the voices from the kitchen rising and falling indistinctly, like a radio with bad reception. Across a landing. A room mostly-shut, a splash of gold illuminating the otherwise dark hallway. The light seemed almost too bright to be natural, as if it were summoning him, drawing him onwards, and he let himself follow the instinct.
Flowing out of the darkness, into the light...stopping. The breath he didn't have suddenly aching in his chest as he understood why he had arrived here.
Sprawled out before him lay Hermione Granger, smooth, tanned legs wrapped in a pair of short shorts that she would never have worn in public, slender back partially bared by a thin spaghetti-strap. Yearning seized him, and he stared at her greedily, allowing his desire to reign in death as it had never been permitted to in life. This woman who he had known too well, and not well enough, whose mouth, face and neck he had memorized with the promise of learning the rest of the body later, at their leisure...
Then she had preceded him in death. Yet she was splayed here, heart beating, the rise and fall of her sun-browned back betraying her breathing, very much alive.
When was he? The 'where' was obvious, but he needed a time frame...
Her left hand idly petted her familiar, Crookshanks, as she irritably tapped her quill against a half-filled parchment, spraying ink-drops everywhere.
'I don't know, Crooks,' she grumbled to the half-Kneazle. 'I don't know what he wants. Does he mean that we should speculate or do independent research? The answer is definitely not in the book.' Slamming shut the apparently useless tome, the young woman sat up abruptly, staring moodily at the unfinished essay. 'Impossible man! Properties of Faceted Gemstones in the Process of Distillation! Borage says yes, Clawson says no, Liberati insists that it only works when pure moonlight or sunlight are involved. Not all of us have access to the library in Alexandria whenever we want!'
Properties of Faceted Gemstones...Date and time clicked in his consciousness as he glanced towards the clock with glowing numbers and then found the calendar, the days dutifully crossed off in her countdown to Hogwarts. 11:46 pm, the first of August. Three years ago. He knew what night this was. He dimly recalled assigning the essay that she was fretting over so. He definitely remembered her many sheets of parchment on the subject – the only one of her peers to have remotely touched on the point he had wanted them to make.
But in a few minutes, he had a shrewd suspicion that tonight's frantic work would be interrupted.
His own memory of this event was so vivid he could still recount every detail. It was the night that he had signed his own death warrant, the evening he had brought the executioner's sword to lie over his neck, beginning the painful, dangerous wait that would last almost three years before it came slicing through.
Knocking at the door. Furtive at first, then growing louder, desperation almost blaring as the banging grew heavier, the whispers from the other side more heated. Snape entered the shabby living room of his parents' home, hurrying to turn to the knob.
'Narcissa!' he said, face softening. 'What a pleasant surprise!'
'Severus. May I speak to you? It's urgent.'
'But of course.'
Bellatrix's hostility washed over him, at odds with Narcissa's desperation, Pettigrew's whinging and his own, silent decision, made within seconds of the pair's arrival.
The petty assertions of his false loyalties – all true – from the eldest daughter of Orion Black...Narcissa's weeping...and then the fatal words:
'Severus...will you swear it? Will you make the Unbreakable Vow?'
Snape re-adjusted surreptitiously, wand dropping from the sheath strapped to his forearm into the cupped palm of his hands, uncertain how the unstable woman would react in her current condition.
'No, Narcissa.' The voice he used was so gentle as to be completely foreign to his students. 'That I cannot do.' The Dark Lord had told him of Draco's pending job, the expectation that Narcissa would beg for Snape's help. He had made his decision then – he would refuse her. He had to refuse her. He could not blithely promise to end the life of Albus Dumbledore.
Almost in time with his soft denial, a feral smile creased Bellatrix's Azkaban-ravaged features. The snarl of victory as her wand flashed upwards told him that the whole situation was a test – driven by a genuinely distraught Narcissa, but a test nevertheless.
One he had failed.
He had felled Bellatrix, but not until after she had laid his body open in over a dozen places. The dusty floor of Spinner's End had been coated in blood, vomit and mucus. Blinded by the crimson pouring from his own forehead, he had dropped to his knees to find Narcissa Malfoy's weak but constant pulse, and then groped for his bookshelf.
Shoved between the covers of an ancient school text was a golden Galleon. His slick fingers scrambled over it, streaking the gleaming coin with generous swaths of blood. He had hesitated, uncertain.
It was a coin belonging to the DA, the group of rebels that had christened themselves Dumbledore's Army in open mockery of the Ministry and their Defence Against the Dark Arts professor. It was the first of Harry Potter's actions that Severus Snape had whole-heartedly approved of, and he had deliberately acquired one of the coins, duplicated it for himself and Minerva, and slipped it back to its owner. It had come in handy in protecting the illegal association, until Draco had defied him.
But if he activated it now, it would burn, and potentially bring a few puzzled students – those capable of Apparition, anyway, to this unsafe neighbourhood, perhaps walking into a Death Eater trap...
Better death, the shade remembered thinking, than exposing one of them in such a way. It would have been so easy to die that night. So simple to allow himself not to witness all that he had, not to suffer what he had borne. All he'd had to do was close his eyes and let his mind drift away as his body dripped the last of his life onto the mouldy rug.
But Harry Potter still had to defeat the Dark Lord. Until the maniac lay in his grave, Snape could not put down his wand. Stiffening hands fumbling, he had managed to change the coin's message.
SOS. Spinners End. Call Albus.
11:48. Crookshanks began to mewl, re-focussing shade-Snape's attention on the present – whatever that meant – as the familiar began pawing at Hermione's neatly-hung school robes in the open closet. The wild curls lifted, brown eyes creasing in puzzlement.
'What, Crooks?' She did not rise from her position on the floor, and the half-Kneazle's claws came out, hooking into the threads. She was on her feet in a flash, quill throwing ink halfway across the floor as she dashed to stop him. 'Stop it! You know how easily you shred these!' She snatched him up, glaring expectantly, but there was no apology on the squashed face. Instead, he extended a long leg, paw outstretched. Her anger turned to bafflement as he insistently turned his yellow eyes on the pocket.
'What? These've all been washed, so you can't possibly sense anything on them,' she huffed as she set him down, plunging her hand into the deep pockets experimentally. The first yielded nothing but a scrap of red lint. She dangled it in front of the feline's nose.
'See? Nothing there.' But Crookshanks' gaze remained resolutely fixed, and Snape watched the girl give in to her familiar's instincts and go rifling through the other pocket.
He knew the instant she touched the coin. Bewilderment gave way to immediate alarm, and she snatched her hand out of the robes, bringing the Galleon up to her face and squinting to make out the summons there.
'SOS. Spinner's End. Call Albus?' She repeated the message to herself, front teeth worrying her lower lip. 'What is Spinner's End?' she wondered aloud. Amber eyes cut automatically to the piles of books stacked haphazardly on every flat surface (including the bed) before dismissing research as too time-costly.
'Professor Dumbledore...' she whirled on the half-Kneazle now perched smugly on the armchair. 'Crooks – can you get to Fawkes?'
Snape's attention snapped back to the girl, his idle perusal of his memories and her things forgotten. Fawkes. He recalled that she had seemed to have a peculiar...connection with the eternal bird. Their time had been so short that he had never asked her – writing it off as yet another side effect of being hit with Harry Potter's limelight. Perhaps Potter had much less to do with it than he had assumed.
'Tell Fawkes that Professor Dumbledore is needed for this Spinner's End. Urgently.'
Crookshanks tilted his head and closed his brilliant yellow eyes, looking for all the world as if he were going to sleep where he sat. Hermione's fingers clenched and released spasmodically around the coin in her fist as she watched him, her glance never wavering.
The slotted eyes snapped open at the same time that fire flared in the middle of the room, and Hermione scrambled backwards with a shriek of surprise, her wand Summoned wordlessly to fly across the room and slap against her palm.
By the time the orange flame vanished to reveal the splendidly-clad Headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the young woman was crouched behind her dresser, three layers of shields between her and the powerful wizard, and a combination ward on the door to prevent him from getting to the Muggles just one floor down.
Her speed, effectiveness and thoroughness impressed the shade now lingering in the corners of the room. He had not doubted the Gryffindor's brilliance since she had solved his riddle guarding the Philosopher's Stone in her first year, but he had forgotten, in the desperate weeks since their loss, how fast she had become when duelling. As a younger student, it had always been one of her weaker suits.
But this was after fifth-year, after the DA, after the fight in the Department of Mysteries that had nearly resulted in her death. Apparently she was determined not to be so unprepared again.
Not that it would save her, in the end.
Brushing faint traces of ash from a resplendent forest-green brocade, Dumbledore merely gave her an amused look. 'Your reflexes are commendable, my dear. As is your knowledge of defensive charms. However, I feel obliged to point out that, were I a Death Eater, I would not arrive in so, er, flashy a manner.'
'Sorry, sir,' she panted, and rose slowly, dismantling the charms shimmering around her. Fawkes had perched on the back of the chair where Crookshanks was resting and Snape saw Hermione wince as she watched the wickedly curved talons sink into the upholstery.
'Understandable. And, as I said, commendable.' The twinkle had vanished, and he stepped towards her quickly, lowering his voice. 'Miss Granger, it is vital that I understand this message completely. How is it that you know about Spinner's End? And what happened there that requires immediate attention?'
In reply, Hermione's upturned palm produced her sweat-polished DA Galleon. The elderly wizard peered at his through his half-moon spectacles, thin lips moving as he read the inscription.
'This was the way that Dumbledore's Army communicated.' It wasn't a question.
'Then how...?' The old man shook his head, tried to project a version of his confident smile at her, and failed. 'Thank you. Forgive me for not staying long enough to introduce myself to your parents, but this is an emergency.'
'Of course, sir.' Fawkes' large wings awkwardly filled the room for a moment as he launched from his resting place, shredding the top of the pillow. Dumbledore's veined hands clasped around the sweeping golden tail and they vanished in the blaze that had brought them.
Snape watched Hermione stare at the centre of her room for a long time, eyes glazed in thought. Crookshanks retained his vigilant posture in the chair, gaze darting from surface to surface, tension rippling in the muscles under his fur.
The phantom once again drifted closer to the young woman who had managed to scale the sheer walls closing off the inner sanctum of his heart, grief rising to match his craving to feel the heat of her body under his hands. The woman that had hung in Azkaban's courtyard had been a shadow of the healthy almost-seventeen-year-old before him. Pale, haggard and unkempt, only the spirit had remained the same. The curious, passionate eyes had not changed in captivity or with the knowledge of her imminent execution.
Impotent fury filled Snape as he watched her slowly resume her studies, feather now tapping her teeth at long intervals when she would stare out the window, Potions essays eclipsed from her mind. That this girl, this vibrant, achingly innocent girl, would be dead before she lived another three full years was suddenly too much to know. She had so much life left, her joy in living a tangible feeling as she tackled her obligations, as she buried her hands in her familiar's fur, when her mouth split open in laughter.
She was undeniably old before her time. The swiftness of her reaction to the Headmaster's arrival left no doubt that she was an active soldier, fighting a war. But she remained un-jaded, the core of her being unsullied by the hideousness of the Death Eaters and the pettiness of her classmates.
Despair swamped him as it had not done when he had witnessed her hanging, the full remembrance of who had been sacrificed that crisp morning agonizing him.
If I could spare you...you, who deserve to live, to fight for the dreams you can make... War was such a waste. And it always claimed the best as its prizes. Frank and Alice Longbottom. The Prewett brothers. Lily Potter. Hermione Granger.
The minutes ticked past. The young woman rose again, hands twisting about the quill as she discarded her attempts at study and paced the length of her room, not even glancing at the late hour betrayed by the clock. Sleep was clearly not on her mind.
Light and warmth burst in the small room again, and this time the object of his mourning neither cried out nor raised her wand. She merely scrambled backwards as the Headmaster solidified once more, the black-and-white-clad body of the Potions master of Hogwarts draped over his arms.
'Professor Snape?' she gasped, and then jerked her wand at her bed, scattering the books there haphazardly across the floor, her reverence for the library's possessions abruptly deposed by his wretched appearance.
'Thank you, Miss Granger,' Dumbledore breathed heavily, gently placing his burden on the mattress. 'Most of the blood is dried, so it shouldn't get too dirty.' A hand passed over weary eyes. The digital clock now read 12:04 in glaring red.
'I deeply apologize for my continued intrusion on your privacy and time, but I must beg of you to allow Severus to stay here overnight.'
A hesitant nod signalled her assent as a quiet 'Tergeo,' began siphoning away the remaining blood. 'Will he be safe here? Will my parents be safe with him here?'
Good girl, the shade approved. She showed no surprise at the nature of the professor's irregular request, but had skipped straight to the two most critical questions.
'Your house is warded, Miss Granger, by a layer of enchantments specifically designed to keep the Death Eaters away. Extra security will be here within fifteen minutes. Precisely because it is a most unlikely place for Severus to hide, I firmly believe they will not come here. However,' he dug in his robe and produced a worn china teacup, the inside permanently stained a light brown from holding tea over decades, 'it does not do to take any risks. This is a Portkey, tied to my office. If you are disturbed, make sure both of your parents are touching it, then grab hold of Professor Snape and go with them. The Portkey will activate once all three members of your family are touching it, so make sure you've got a grip on Severus before you go.'
'Understood.' She carefully took the delicate item and balanced it in one of the miniscule free areas of her desk. 'We have nothing beyond basic first aid in the house,' she warned the Headmaster, returning to her task and continuing to clean him.
'Despite how bad it looks, he was remarkably lucky. The only serious damage was two cracked ribs, and I mended those. There were other, smaller wounds that I have closed – but if they can be run down with disinfectant or spells, I would appreciate it. He really shouldn't need anything much beyond sleep.'
'And Blood-Replenishing Potion,' she returned. 'Which St. Mungo's gave me to recover from the Department of Mysteries disaster.'
'If you have any to spare, it would be a great help,' Dumbledore admitted ruefully. Then the x-ray gaze landed on her sternly. 'To spare, Miss Granger. Not to sacrifice. I do not want your health imperilled.'
'I have completely recovered, sir,' she assured him. At least physically, Snape thought from where he hung, once again hovering near the closet so that he could see the expressions on both faces. Nothing could restore the broken innocence of her childhood. Her instant reaction to the professor's arrival both times had proven that.
'I am indebted to you, my dear. This is an occurrence I have no wish to explain – not to the staff at St. Mungo's or at Hogwarts.'
'Why, sir?' she asked boldly. His moustache twitched upwards as he regarded her, but the blue eyes were singularly serious.
'You know what Professor Snape does for the Order?'
'He's a spy,' she answered immediately.
'Yes. Unfortunately, I believe tonight's events have put that station in the past tense. He was a spy. When I arrived in his house tonight, Bellatrix Lestrange's body was on the floor and her youngest sister, Narcissa Malfoy, was unconscious in an armchair. Before dawn, Voldemort will come looking for him. Despite littering the world with disinformation, the Prophet and its reporters observe wizarding Britain entirely too well to keep his condition and whereabouts a secret in any institution. It is imperative that he remain out of sight until he has recovered.'
'He is welcome here, sir,' she said quietly, and Snape almost felt the heart he knew he no longer had surging into his throat. She did not wince, sigh, roll her eyes or make excuses. She did not demand a reason for being asked to bear such a burden – and burden it would be. Standing half-naked at midnight in front of the most powerful wizard in Britain, Hermione Granger suddenly exuded the quiet dignity unique to adulthood that had always been lacking from her studious demeanour.
'Thank you,' Dumbledore replied, his voice equally soft. Suddenly, he extended his hand. A flicker of amusement shot through Snape as he watched the young woman gaze at it in awe, then match the age-marked hand with her smooth one, squeezing. 'I know he will be in good hands, Hermione.'
For the third time, the room filled with light, heat rolling in a wave to bounce off the walls as Fawkes and his master vanished from the house.
Snape watched Hermione gingerly begin to strip his torso, fascinated by the delicate, but clinical, way in which she removed his black, button-down shirt, and then used her wand to slice through the white undershirt beneath, baring his chest. Small fingers prodded sensitively at his plainly-visible ribs as she ran her wand down his chest, drawing the slashes of scarlet from his scar-laced skin.
It was a miracle she'd ever looked at him again, the shade thought critically. He had always known his physical appearance left much to be desired. Looking at himself from the outside, self-disgust broiled in him. His flesh was almost plaster-white, the criss-crossing lines of puffy scar tissue darting across it in tracks, disfiguring him. He was far too thin, the blue of his veins standing out like vivid rivers on his lower arms.
'It seems that Headmaster Dumbledore did do all the basic healing on you, Professor,' she was addressing him in a quiet voice. 'So...I'm going to go borrow one of Dad's tee-shirts for you to sleep in and give you some of this.' While talking, she stood and crossed to her bathroom, re-emerging with a long tube. It was white, with the blue emblem of St. Mungo's crossed wand and bone in the middle. Snape squinted at it from his place near her closet. He couldn't explain his reluctance to move closer, but he didn't want to get any nearer to the wreckage of his physical body.
'Crooks, will you get one of Dad's shirts? Mum did the washing this afternoon, so it's probably all folded on their bed.'
With a yellow glare that left his mistress in no doubt that such petty thievery was beneath him, Crookshanks stalked from the room, one claw hooking under the door and pulling it open. That had been an annoying ability, Snape remembered. Nothing was more disconcerting than looking up to find the door you had previously latched swinging open because the half-Kneazle wanted to come in. And it had been impossible to explain to the animal that sometimes doors were locked for a valid reason.
Hermione had squeezed the light green paste onto her palm and was now rubbing it briskly between her hands, warming it before applying it to his skin. 'This is for bruises and scars, Professor. I hope we can keep you from developing any more.'
Snape stared, remembering the smoothness of that skin as her hands began to work the cream into his chest, over the newly-mended ribs and the large, purple-black puddles forming under the skin. His physical self drew a sharp breath as her fingers grazed over one of the angry cuts Bellatrix had bequeathed him.
'I'm sorry, sir,' she murmured as he stirred faintly, eyes still firmly closed. 'I don't want to hurt you, but this has to be done.' And her hands never ceased.
By the time all the cream had soaked into his skin, her familiar had returned with a white tee-shirt bearing the logo of an unknown company and she had produced a small vial of copper-coloured potion that he instantly recognized. She negotiated herself behind his head at the top of the bed, and then gradually eased herself under him, head lolling in one hand as she patiently scooted, a bit at a time, to support the upper-half of his back in a semi-vertical position, letting his head come to rest on her shoulder.
One arm still curled about his waist to keep him from slipping, she pulled the stopper from the tiny bottle with her teeth, spitting it away for Crookshanks to chase. She slowly lifted the vial to his partially open mouth, whispered a wordless spell to ensure that none of the valuable contents would be lost, and tipped it upwards. She waited until the last drop slid like molten metal into his mouth, then set down the glass and began to massage his throat, starting near his ears and working downwards.
Fascinated by her movements, Snape didn't realize at first that she was whispering again. '...swallow, Professor. I know you probably can't really hear me, but this is the absolutely last thing I need you to do before you can sleep comfortably for as long as you need to. Just swallow. It's Blood-Replenishing Potion. You'll recover a lot faster if you just swallow...' He was surprised to see the muscles in his throat constricting, and equally amazed to see the look of gratified relief on his impromptu caretaker's face.
'Perfect. Well done, sir,' he heard her sigh. She wandlessly Summoned the tee-shirt crumpled on the floor where Crookshanks had abandoned it and lightly pushed it over his hair, lifting each arm in slow-motion to fit through the sleeves.
The effect was ridiculous, in Snape's opinion. Mr. Granger was obviously a lot broader of shoulder, and the end result was that the Potions master looked very much like a boy dressing in his father's clothes.
A long sigh issued from her mouth as she finished, tugging the large shirt straight to cover him completely. The shade could see a smile curving her mouth, eyes sparkling in spite of the large circles under them. 'I doubt you'll like this very much when you awaken, Professor, but you can Transfigure something later.' She then began to wiggle backwards, doing her best not to disturb him.
But this last movement proved too much. The black eyes snapped open, head twisting automatically to discover where he was, whether he should fight, flee or relax-
-the obsidian gaze found the shadow on the other side of the room. Unlike Dumbledore and Hermione, there was no doubt that the body saw the spirit, because the eyes began to narrow-
-Snape was being dragged forwards, the eyes drawing him in as a black hole captures light-
Wishes come true. Not free...
-feeling suffused him. Lungs, breathing. Heart, beating. More than a dozen cuts, stinging. Soreness in his abdomen, near the bottom of his rib cage. The copper taste of Blood-Replenishing Potion in his mouth.
He torqued his spine, ignoring the protests from his weakened body. Spirit and body flowed together, mind sealing them and hazing the world of the soul, burying it before Snape could acknowledge it himself, and he was left with a peculiar, grasping feeling...
Part of him thought this room was familiar, safe, a place of peace, a place he wanted to be... But that was ridiculous. He'd never seen it before in his life, and he shoved away the peculiar sense of déjà vu that permeated the air. He was in far better condition than he had any right to be, especially since a swift glance at the illuminated clock told him that he had been bleeding to death in his own living room not thirty minutes prior.
Then the voice at his back froze his whirling mind.
'Sir?' came the startled cry.
He became suddenly, sharply aware that the softness underneath him had angled bones under that, lacking the comforting shapelessness of a pillow, and radiated the kind of warmth that only the living produced. Snape jerked himself partially upright and turned-
-to meet the wide, astonished eyes of Hermione Granger.