A/N: The final chapter, where Snape makes his choice.
The darkness of open land and star-studded sky blew away, like so much smoke clearing in rainfall. Numbly resigned to whatever else the powers-that-be required them to witness, Snape experienced a moment of mild astonishment when Dumbledore's library-between-worlds faded into view, the book that had carried them into such a desolate future harmlessly fallen open in his hands.
Hermione was gone. Only Lily stood before him, jade eyes luminous with hope...and sorrow.
'Where is she?'
'The decision is yours and yours alone,' the red-head answered gently. 'You will have a chance to see her again, once you have made your choice.'
The professor studied her for a moment before sweeping his hand about the room, taking in the bookcases, the tome tucked under his arm, the shadow of Albus Dumbledore's favourite tea set. 'I gave you my answer before we began. This has changed nothing.'
'You wished to look before you leapt. I have shown you what there is to know,' she countered. 'But I warn you, Severus: once the bridge is crossed, it will burn. The fork you choose will be irrevocably set.'
'What is the toll for the crossing, Mrs. Potter? What must I pay?'
'I thought that much has been clear from the beginning. To purchase the future, the price is the past.'
He blinked, at first not comprehending. The price is the past...Cold rippled through him, a tightening of the gut he no longer had. The Potters had shown them two things: the world they would change, recompensed by the one they would sacrifice.
'We...to effect...to save the future...we must trade...us?'
A nod. 'If you choose to make the change, we swallow the last three years. It is as if they had never been.'
'-will survive. Happily, Severus. There is a future waiting where she lives well into her hundreds, does uncountable hour of research and development in the Department of Mysteries and becomes one of Hogwarts' best-loved Headmistresses.'
That thought alone was dazzling. Her life would not end on the cold gallows in front of Azkaban before her twentieth birthday. All the magnificent potential that had drawn him to her would be turned to the betterment of her adopted people, a long life lived exactly as Hermione wished.
But if payment was to be made... 'This is a future in which I do not feature.' It was not a question, and now sadness outweighed the dreams in Lily's fixed gaze.
'No,' she confirmed, genuine grief colouring her voice. 'You do not.'
'I see.' He turned from her, gazing blindly at the shadowy bookcases, as insubstantial as he, himself, was. Hermione Granger was the brightest spot in his adult existence – and the only true friend he'd made since losing the ghost at his back in his mid-teens.
Why? he wondered bitterly. Why was the cost the one thing in his life he treasured? Why must he surrender the solitary part of his world that he had carved out for himself alone? But he already knew the answer. All things in balance. There was little else of value in his life that could be so offered as a ransom for so magnificent a gift.
'...well into her hundreds...' Could he deny her that? Everything her future offered. All that it should have contained. All that it would. How could he consider saying 'no' when all it took was a word from his mouth to deliver it?
'She will be happy?' he asked softly, almost inaudibly, unable to look at the love of his childhood.
'She will. Her life will tangle around that of another. She need never know that you were the better match.' Lily's voice was gone, replaced by that of his one-time rival. Snape spun back in surprise, ready to eviscerate the other man, only to find his tongue dry at the compassion on James' thin face.
'Severus, I well know that the price is high. Almost too high.' The ghost moved swiftly, crossing to stand directly in front of him, his dark eyes glittering with challenge. 'But think of what you can do. You, Severus. Not me, not Sirius, not Harry, not even Albus. You have been given the chance of a thousand lifetimes.'
'To be a hero? That was never my job,' Snape sneered, backing away.
'To save the woman you love,' James answered, mercilessly staring straight into his former enemy's eyes. 'Do you have any idea what I would give to be in your position? To have such power? To do for your Hermione what I could not for Lily?'
'Be careful what you wish for, Potter,' the other man warned, sudden exhaustion in every syllable. 'You have no inkling of what I dedicated my life to doing – and undoing.'
'If I could have bought Lily a single hour, I would have. None have been handed this opportunity. None have presented the right balance. None of them have been you.
'You said 'In full and in blood'. Did you mean it, Severus?'
'In full and in blood.' 'Wishes come true, not free.' To say yes was to lose his compass, to irrevocably divorce himself from the only part of his life that had held any beauty. Knowing that he would never again run his hands through that hair, never receive that secretive, glowing look she used to toss at him over a crowded dinner table, never see her moving easily through his lab and library with the ease of one born to these places. She would never be at home in his presence. His student. Rufous-mane, heavy bag, a penchant for over-answering questions. Faithful servant to Potter's whims. One dimensional.
But living. And to say no...
'How does it work?'
James was startled by the gravelly voice. Snape had stood so still, his face oddly blank, that the other wizard hadn't been sure he was going to get an answer. 'I beg your pardon?' he asked reflexively.
'How does it work? When I agree to return, to make whatever changes must be made, how does it work? What keeps me from making the same mistakes the second time as the first?'
'We swallow time. Not memory.'
'So we will know. You will turn back the clock, but we will keep our memories of these last years?'
'Not 'we'. It is you who are the fulcrum, the crucial point of balance. You will retain your memories, so that they may guide you.'
Snape narrowed his eyes. 'Hermione does not keep hers?'
'No. For her, the last three years will be erased. They will never have been at all.'
'You would condemn me to knowing what I know about her, what we shared, and living with her indifference? Even her hatred?'
James spread his hands, and Snape could see the sincere remorse in the Gryffindor's eyes. 'These are not my terms. But they are the dictates I must give to you. Yes, you will retain all of your knowledge. You will always know that she loved you. But she will not. Cannot. She will return to being your student, and thinking of you as she has always done: with respect, nothing more.'
The desire to refuse surged so strongly he nearly let it off his tongue. This would be a torture for as long as he lived, even if it were only a few years. Knowing what he had lost. Seeing her daily in the halls of the castle – and knowing that she would never again be his. That her life would weave into another's, that she would walk away from him without a second glance or the glimmer of 'what if?'
But if he could re-write the future to save everyone she loved and chose not to, she would never forgive him. She would not be Hermione if she did.
'How will I know what to do?' he asked quietly, his stillness surprising them both.
'It will be obvious. You will be dropped back into your life at the point of balance. You will know which path to pursue.'
In life there might have been tears, or a tightening of the chest, an abrupt inability to breathe. Here there was only a calm so intense he fancied he could hear the beat of a heart he no longer had. His eyes were bright with resolution as he met the glance of a man he had despised for the whole of his life.
'Take me back.'
He expected to draw breath at any instant, deposited back into the world of the living wherever and whenever his forever-altering choice was to be made. But a span of seconds spun past, followed by minutes, and there was no movement. The ghost of James Potter had vanished, and the dark wizard stood alone in the shadow-copy of his mentor's study, waiting.
A bookcase rippled, and Hermione emerged from the wood and leather-bound volumes as if they had exhaled her into being.
Long, wild tresses, still honey-brown in death. Large cinnamon-and-chocolate eyes, blazing in adoration. A look reserved for him alone, one he would never see directed towards him again.
Now his chest tightened and his vocal cords refused to function. Strange, the things a spirit-body could do.
The look faded, worry quickly crowding it out. 'Severus-?'
'I have decided to go back,' he answered, forcing the words off his tongue. His voice sounded leaden with defeat, even to his own ears.
'Of course you have,' she said with a quiet, sad smile. 'That was inevitable, from the instant we saw Diagon Alley.' Her eyes searched his face, phantom fingertips coming to brush against his cheek gently. 'But you look like a man who has had his arm twisted, beloved. Is it so distasteful a task?'
He shook his head, averting his face to avoid her eyes. 'I had hoped to be finished with the world. It has not treated me well.'
The young woman could hear both truth and evasion in his voice, and ducked her head around the curtain of ghostly hair. Even in death, eyes remained windows to soul and mind. 'That is not the whole reason. What else has happened?'
His head snapped up, black eyes flashing. 'The future comes with a price-tag attached.'
'What must be paid?' For a long moment, he did not answer her, insubstantial fingertips flexing around her equally transparent wrist. The dark gaze had gone empty, remote, the image of the man she had met as a child and feared for much of her school career. 'Severus...what is the price?'
His lips moved, the answer so quiet she scarcely credited her ears. 'Us.'
'Us?' she repeated dumbly. 'What does that-?'
'Whatever moment they select, it will be before the night I betrayed my true loyalties. We...we will walk entirely different roads. Ones that do not lead us to one another.'
Hermione was shaking her head violently, stepping away from him. 'No. That is too high. That's a price we cannot pay.'
'It is not yours to decide,' Lily Potter's voice echoed with regret as she and James shimmered into existence. 'Severus has made his choice.'
'How could you? Just...write it all away?' she whispered brokenly.
'Hermione...what would you say if I had refused? Sam and Helena. Cassandra and Ector. Gwyn and Aren. Julia and Gareth. Do they not deserve to live in a world where their lives are not destroyed – or ended! – merely by loving someone? With the power to change that, should I have refused?'
'Of course not!' she flung back at him. 'But surely...! We can wait,' she plunged on recklessly, hope flaring again. 'Until after the war, until after you do whatever it is that you must!'
Snape caught the tear-bright green eyes of the other woman and smiled in grim acknowledgement of what he saw there. 'I suspect I will not survive, either way.'
A tilt of the glorious red hair. 'I am truly sorry, Severus,' she answered hoarsely. 'Your life is forfeit. There is no timeline where you survive past the fall of Voldemort.'
'Karmically, that is no more than I deserve.' His voice was bleak as he drew Hermione to him, his hands melding with where her ribs should have been.
'And how am I supposed to survive?' Her face was stained with the silver of phantom-tears. 'How do I go back to living my life when I will be missing you with every breath? How am I supposed to go on, knowing what I've lost?'
'You will not,' he murmured gently. 'I, alone, will bear the burden of memory, to keep the cycle from repeating. You will be free. You'll never see this fork of time – with its attendant joys and pains. The only future you'll know is one of promise and prosperity.'
'And I will be denied remembering you. Everything about you...' With abrupt hostility, she whirled to glare at James. 'Change it. Cede this – that I might know him. Let me at least keep my memories.'
A shake of the messy head that looked so like that of his son. 'I have not that ability. We are not here to bargain under any circumstances. There are terms. They are ironclad. You meet them, or you do not, but they must be taken as they are.'
'And we must take them. You, who have defended half-giants, werewolves, hippogriffs, ex-convicts and house-elves, you above any other woman I have ever known, must understand that this is not a true choice. How can I choose you, you who have become my beacon of light in the darkest years of my black life, to remain in death with me when I might give you – and those like you – life?'
'When?' Hermione asked, quiet acceptance heavy in her voice, head bowed so that the disorderly strands of her brown hair rustled under his nose.
'Now,' Lily answered. 'There was time granted for you to be told, for you to bid one another farewell. That time has run out.'
'Not yet!' Hermione whispered frantically, meeting his eyes. 'Not yet – it's too soon. There hasn't been enough time! We can't go yet!'
'I will beat you to this side of the veil by more than a hundred years. I will wait for you. In death, I will find you,' Snape said, and his words had the quiet, weighted cadence of an irrevocable decree. 'And here, as time has no meaning, in death you may remember.'
'I won't forget. I promise,' she promised softly, the sheen of pearl thick on her face now. 'I won't forget. I won't forget. I won't-' He swallowed her mantra as he covered her mouth with his own for the last time.
Heartbeat. Lungs drawing air. The roughness of a leather-bound book under his long hands. His tongue tasted faintly of salt...a gift of Hermione's tears.
A swift glance up from the tome lying in his lap revealed Spinner's End. Back to his childhood home. But this time, he felt anchored to the present, the integration of memory and body knitting into one whole. Not that he was a spirit using a body for a few minutes or even hours, but that he was rooted, now here to stay.
They had turned back the clock. But until when? Which part of the dance had he re-engaged?
A knock on the door. His eyes flew almost involuntarily to the cracked, ticking piece over the door. Shortly before midnight. A worm turned in his stomach. He could easily guess which night this was.
He opened the door a sliver, and was unsurprised when the robe-swathed figure threw back her hood to reveal the coldly beautiful features of Lucius' wife.
'Narcissa!' He greeted her with every evidence of pleasure, opening the door wider to admit Bellatrix as well. 'What a pleasant surprise!'
'Severus!' Her voice was taut, strained. 'May I speak to you? It's urgent.'
'But of course.' All courtesy, he allowed his guests to brush by him, acknowledging Bellatrix's sneered salutation with a mild one. Narcissa sank gracelessly into one of the threadbare armchairs, her sister taking up station behind her, the spy dropping into a fading velveteen across from them.
Exactly as it happened before...he noted whimsically.
'So, what can I do for you?'
'We...we are alone, aren't we?' Narcissa whispered, glacial eyes darting to the corners of the room.
'Yes, of course. Well, Wormtail's here, but we're not counting vermin, are we?' A flick of his wand and a bookshelf moved, revealing the plump Animagus standing in a narrow stairwell. 'As you have clearly realized, Wormtail, we have guests,' he continued smoothly. He turned back to the sisters. 'Wormtail will get us drinks, if you would like them.'
Wine was poured in ruby-red streams into ancient goblets inscribed with the Prince house crest. A sharp command sent the rodent-faced Death Eater scurrying back into his bedroom.
'The Dark Lord,' he toasted, and the sisters copied him.
'Severus, I'm sorry to come here like this, but I had to see you. I think you are the only one who can help me...I know I ought not to be here, I have been told to say nothing to anyone, but-'
'Then you ought to hold your tongue!' Bellatrix snarled, a claw-like hand tightening on her wine glass. 'Particularly in present company!'
Snape had never been able to resist bating the former beauty. Azkaban had left the eldest daughter of Orion Black extraordinarily volatile. 'Present company?' he drawled at his most sarcastic. 'And what am I to understand by that, Bellatrix?'
'That I don't trust you, Snape, as you very well know!' She unleashed a furious diatribe, firing out question after question – none of them new in the fifteen months since Voldemort had begun his reign. He had answered all of them – freely and under duress – and his skills had kept him alive through many questioners more artful than Bellatrix Lestrange.
'Now...you came to ask me for help, Narcissa?' he deflected calmly after answering the blistering attack.
'Yes, Severus. I – I think you are the only one who can help me, I have nowhere else to turn. Lucius is in jail, and...' Tears were creeping down her face, and Snape abruptly, painfully, recalled Hermione's face shining with grief, the peculiar dignity it leant her...
'The Dark Lord has forbidden me to speak of it. He wishes none to know of the plan. It is...very secret. But-'
'If he has forbidden it, you ought not to speak,' he interrupted with gentle firmness. 'The Dark Lord's word is law.'
'There!' Bellatrix announced in triumph. 'Even Snape says so: You were told not to talk, so hold your silence.'
'It so happens that I know of the plan,' he ignored the elder witch, rising with a faint frown. 'I am one of the few the Dark Lord has told. Nevertheless, had I not been in on the secret, Narcissa, you would have been guilty of great treachery to the Dark Lord.'
'I thought you must know about it!' the woman breathed in relief. 'He trusts you so, Severus...'
The pair disregarded Bellatrix's immediate, sputtering outrage. 'What help do you require, Narcissa? If you are imagining I can persuade the Dark Lord to change his mind, I am afraid there is no hope, none at all.'
'Severus...' she wept, pleading openly. 'My son...my only son...'
The cruelty of Draco Malfoy's features in a distant future, the sneering slant of his mouth as he had watched his professor and Head of House swing rotated in Snape's mind's eye, and he nearly snarled a refusal to the wretched woman begging before him. Save Draco. For what? So that his policies could cause the destruction of thousands of lives? Could ruin and then murder his father? He reflected brutally that Narcissa was lucky not to have lived to see the monster her son became.
Running through his head in a fine chain, whispering like sand in an hourglass, he could hear James Potter's voice. 'You will know.'
Bellatrix had made some comment, Narcissa had snapped a response, and her ice-blue eyes were turned on the dark man beseechingly. 'That's why he's chosen Draco, isn't it? To punish Lucius?'
'If Draco succeeds,' Snape said softly, memory making his voice distant, 'he will be honoured above all others.'
'But he won't succeed!' The Potions master experienced a passionately violent wish that the sobbing woman before him was right. If only her son were as spineless as they had assumed! 'How can he? Severus...' she rose to stand in front of him, her fairy-pale hand clutching the front of his robes as if they were a raft in an endless sea. 'Please...you are, you have always been, Draco's favourite teacher. You are Lucius' old friend...I beg you...You are the Dark Lord's favourite, his most trusted advisor.' Her lips were trembling, with fear both for her son and her blasphemy. 'Will you speak to him, persuade him-?'
'The Dark Lord will not be persuaded,' he answered firmly, removing her tight fingers, 'and I am not stupid enough to attempt it. I cannot pretend that the Dark Lord is not angry with Lucius. Lucius was supposed to be in charge. He got himself captured, along with how many others, and failed to retrieve the prophecy in the bargain. The Dark Lord is angry, Narcissa, very angry indeed.'
A choking sob, the dry heave that meant a struggle for some semblance of self-control. 'Then I am right, he has chosen Draco in revenge! He does not mean him to succeed, he wants him to be killed trying!'
That he may...he was very pleasantly surprised by Draco's performance. And mine carried a shock of its own – though of course, in the opposite way.
Her tears fell unchecked and unheeded now, dripping off her chin. The spy hesitated.
'You will know.' He already knew the first ending of this story, and what his refusal would gain. Death and devastation. And Hermione. He ruthlessly suppressed the thought as soon as it entered his head. He had consigned her to memory – nothing more.
I am the balance, the fulcrum of the war, he acknowledged in the grim privacy of his own head. It was I who was given this choice and I who must see it done.
'It might be possible...for me to help Draco.'
'Severus – oh, Severus – you would help him? Would you look after him, see he comes to no harm?'
'I can try.'
She was on her knees in front of him, her bedraggled blond hair and tear-stained face rose from her grey-blue cloak like a drowning woman glimpsing light just above. 'If you are there to protect him...' she had seized one of his limp hands in both of hers, pressing her mouth to it frantically, 'Severus, will you swear it? Will you make the Unbreakable Vow?'
With terrible, binding certainty, Snape knew. The words teetering on the edge of his tongue were the pinpoint of history.
'The Unbreakable Vow?' he repeated, buying himself time. Once, he had refused her, and then strewn the floor with her blood and his own. Once, he had betrayed himself and in doing so, the Order.
Miles away, in a better part of London, Hermione Granger was lying stretched on her carpet in short shorts and a casual tank-top, quill tapping her nose as she fumed about his complicated essay...
'...the usual slithering out of action,' Bellatrix's sneering voice brought him back to his own, dark, living room. 'On the Dark Lord's orders, of course!'
Save Draco...I have promised. I am committed. I did not return to watch her die.
'Certainly, Narcissa, I shall make the Unbreakable Vow. Perhaps your sister will consent to be our bonder.'
He kept himself from smirking as Bellatrix all-but gaped at him. He lowered himself to kneeling, facing the once-beautiful woman worn with grief and loss. He reached across to grasp her right hand in his own. 'You will need your wand, Bellatrix.'
Almost dazed, she did as ordered, shuffling forward a few steps to place the tip of her wand on their linked hands.
'Will you, Severus, watch over my son, Draco, as he attempts to fulfil the Dark Lord's wishes?' Gone was the weeping, willowy waif. There was steel in Narcissa's voice, and Snape felt the echo of it wash through him, chilling him as he answered.
'I will.' The first tongue of flame burst from the wand tip, looping around their fingers.
'And will you, to the best of your ability, protect him from harm?'
'I will.' A second thread issued, twining itself with the first in a fine, glowing chain.
'And, should it prove necessary...if it seems Draco will fail...will you carry out the deed that the Dark Lord has ordered Draco to perform?'
A pause. A moment to marshal his thoughts. He knew what was being asked, and what he might have to do. Would have to do if the son of Lucius was to be truly saved.
'I will.' The third tongue blazed from her wand, twisting with the chain to become a dense, fiery rope. It was done. He had promised...and he would fulfil it or fail at the cost of his own life.
The magic soaked through their skin, binding them, linking them irrevocably. For as long as her son shouldered his burden, Snape, too, would feel its weight.
Forgive me, Albus. You who have helped bring back what little light I once possessed...It will be unexpected. You will believe me your enemy, and your followers will spit on my name and call me traitor...but I have seen the future. Better for me to die a traitor to the cause I champion than a traitor to a world I loathe. And Hermione...
A peculiar smile touched his face, equal parts ecstasy and agony as he drew Narcissa to her feet and sent the siblings on their way. His mind's eye was full of wild brown hair, two-toned eyes, full lips and a curious, alternately gentle and impassioned, voice. I will remember. For the numbered days of my life, for the mornings I will rise uncertain in my course, for the nights of terror that I have ruined it yet again.
I will remember a season of sunlight, stolen from darkness. A world of acceptance raised from the ashes of betrayal. A life that I never deserved, but found a piece of, anyway.
I will remember you.
A/N: Thank you very much for dropping in to read my tale. I hope you enjoyed it. Please let me know what you think.