"You have fought," said the high, cold voice, "valiantly. Lord Voldemort knows how to value bravery.
"Yet you have sustained heavy losses. If you continue to resist me, you will all die, one by one. I do not wish this to happen. Every drop of magical blood spilled is a loss and a waste.
"I speak now, Harry Potter, directly to you. You have permitted your friends to die for you rather than face me yourself. I shall wait for one more hour in the Forbidden Forest. If, at the end of that hour, you have not come to me, have not given yourself up, I shall join my Death Eaters in the fray myself, Harry Potter, and I shall find you, and I shall punish every last man, woman, and child who has tried to conceal you from me. One hour."
Had he been alone at the time the announcement was made, Harry might have taken Voldemort up on his offer. However, if the way Ron and Hermione were shaking their heads was any indication, to do so would be impossible short of knocking them both out first, and leaving them helpless.
He contemplated that option briefly—maybe if he covered them in his cloak—but Hermione cut off his train of thought before he could come up with a more concrete plan. "Don't let him play on your guilt, Harry. He's planning on killing us all either way," she said. "You go back to the castle and view Snape's memories—they might be important—Ron and I will follow him and take care of Nagini."
Harry hesitated. While he'd been considering walking himself into Voldemort's trap, it wasn't in his nature to let his friends go in his place. He was the one Voldemort wanted. They shouldn't have to deal with Nagini—and probably Voldemort himself—without him.
They could all follow Voldemort, but his instincts told him Snape's memories contained crucial information; someone needed to view them.
He almost suggested that they look into the memories while he dealt with Nagini, but they'd likely interpret that suggestion as an attempt to surrender. So, instead he said, "Perhaps we should all go back and look at the memories; if they're as important as Snape made them seem, we might have to change our plans."
Hermione shook her head, "We don't have time for that, Harry. People are dying."
You have permitted your friends to die for you rather than face me yourself. I shall wait for one more hour in the Forbidden Forest…One hour…
Voldemort's words echoed in his mind. Hermione was right, they didn't have time. Back to his original plan then, "Perhaps, I should just turn myself over to Voldemort then—maybe get a lucky shot at the snake–and buy you all some time to check out the memories and then finish him off, while he's busy gloating..."
"HARRY JAMES POTTER! Don't you DARE even consider it. You turning yourself over is exactly what HE wants, and it wouldn't do us an ounce of good!" burst Hermione
Harry glanced at his other friend, hoping for support. He didn't get it. "That goes for me too, mate," Ron added, "I've already lost one brother tonight, don't you go adding yourself to the list."
Harry considered arguing further but the look on both their faces told him it would be a wasted effort. So, instead, he gathered up his Invisibility Cloak and thrust it at Hermione, "At least take my Cloak; you'll need it more than me if you're going to try and sneak up on Voldemort."
She shook her head, refusing to take it, "We couldn't possibly, you're the one he's looking for; you'll need it to stay hidden till you're ready to face him."
"Please take it, Hermione. How else do you propose to get close enough to dismantle that shield he's using to protect Nagini? It should cover the two of you well enough, if you're careful. I'm heading away from Voldemort. I'll be fine."
Reluctantly, she accepted the offered cloak, "We'll take good care of it," she promised.
She turned to Ron, "We should probably get going," she gestured for him to follow her through the tunnel entrance. He followed without a word. Harry brought up the rear.
The silence was heavy as they made their way back through the tunnel and there were no goodbyes when they split up at the base of the willow. Ron and Hermione donned the cloak heading into the forest. Harry turned to the castle, instead, ducking spellfire from all directions as he crossed Hogwarts' lawn, where the bulk of the fighting seemed to be occurring.
When he finally reached the castle, he found it unnaturally silent. The corridors were empty, except for a few stragglers and the bodies of the dead. He ran faster, the crystal flask of Snape's last thoughts held tightly in his right hand, past the empty Great Hall, past Fred Weasley's corpse, past Susan Bones battling two Death Eaters to a standstill—there was simply no time to stop.
Only when he reached the entrance of the headmaster's office, did he pause briefly, and even then, only to guess at the password, before sprinting up the spiral staircase two steps at a time. He glanced briefly at the empty portraits that usually held the former headmasters and headmistresses, before crossing over to the cabinet which held the Headmaster's stone Pensieve.
He was surprised at how light the basin felt as he carried it from the cabinet to the Headmaster's desk, though perhaps that was simply the adrenaline still coursing through his system from his run across the grounds and castle. His heart was still pounding frantically as he uncorked the flask and poured out the memories within.
Harry took only a brief moment to brace himself, diving into the swirling silver-white memories, before he could change his mind. He took no time to consider what he might find within.
What he did find was beyond anything he could have imagined.
Not even in his wildest dreams would he have thought it possible that Snape and his mother had been childhood friends, and had had a falling out only once Snape started hanging round with the wrong crowd. That Snape had been in love with his mother, had begged Voldemort to spare her, then turned himself in to Dumbledore when his Master had refused.
That Aunt Petunia had once wanted to be a witch was inconceivable... And, Snape's hatred of all things Potter made the idea that he might have promised to protect Harry, unfathomable...
Even the fact that Dumbledore had been dying before that fateful night in the Astronomy Tower and had asked —no implored—Snape to finish him off when the timing was right, had never crossed his mind once in all the times he's replayed that awful memory in his mind.
That even after his death, Dumbledore had guided Snape's actions was just as hard to swallow as the idea that the doe Patronus had been Snape's, that he had been the one to give them back Gryffindor's sword.
But those revelations were of little import when placed beside Dumbledore's greatest secret—hidden in Snape's memories: After all he'd been through, he wasn't meant to live, he wasn't meant to survive. He was one of Voldemort's last remaining links to life, his accidental Horcrux.
Either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives.
He had to let Voldemort kill him.
The thought terrified him. All his life, he'd been fighting to survive; to throw that all away was not an easy thing. But there was no doubt in his mind that it was what he had to do, no second guessing, no thoughts of running.
His decision made, he wasted no time, painfully aware that time was running out on the hour before Voldemort joined his Death Eaters in battle. He stood to leave the office and didn't look back.
The castle was just as empty, heading back towards the Entrance Hall, as it had been on the way up. Though he knew each step took him a little closer to his death, still he clung to the shadows, avoiding notice as best he could without his cloak. He did not sprint as he had on his way up the Headmaster's office, but he moved quickly all the same.
He passed the corridor where he had seen Susan, on his way to the Headmaster's office. This time, it too, was silent. Two bodies lay crumpled on the ground. One wore the trademark Death Eater mask. The other was Susan.
If you continue to resist me, you will all die, one by one... You have permitted your friends to die for you rather than face me yourself.
Voldemort's words echoed through his mind at the sight, but were replaced just as quickly by the memory of Dumbledore's conversation about him with Snape: Part of Lord Voldemort lives inside Harry… cannot die… the boy…the boy must die… Voldemort himself must do it... die at the right moment…
He did not slow. Voldemort was waiting for him in the forest, and though Nagini still lived, anchoring Voldemort to life, the right moment was now. His job was to die. Hermione and Ron would take care of the snake.
But what if they didn't?
It was that thought that made him stop when he came across Neville near the entrance of the castle. Best to be absolutely sure. He took the time to tell Neville about Nagini, not that she was a Horcrux, but that she needed to be killed before Voldemort could be destroyed, that Ron and Hermione were trying to kill her, but that if they should fail...
He would have said more, but the words were cut off by a burning pain cleaving his head.
He was standing in a clearing. On the ground before him lay Nagini—dead. The glistening cage that had previously protected her was nowhere in sight, replaced instead by a basilisk fang imbedded deep at the base of her head.
Voldemort's attention was not on his fallen familiar, however, but rather split between the struggling red-headed wizard being held in place by Lucius Malfoy and the curly-haired witch who lay withering at his feet under the effects of a well placed Cruciatus Curse.
He lifted his curse on the witch, granting her a brief respite, and demanded, "Where is Potter?"
Hermione remained silent, shaking through the after-effects of her most recent bout of torture. Ron did not, "We'll never tell you—so you might as well kill us now."
Voldemort laughed, almost a cackle, "So anxious to hasten your death, Mugglelover?" He spat the last word.
Ron glared at him, and his defiance seemed to further incense Voldemort. A twisted grin crossed his face as he said, "Very well. I do grow bored of this game." He slashed his wand, pointing it at the boy, "Avada Kedavra!"
Green light lit the clearing as he turned back to the witch at his feet, "Will you tell me what I want to know, Mudblood?"
Hermione managed to push herself to her knees from her prone position and intone, "Never!" with all the strength she could before she too was consumed by a flash of green.
Before the vision faded out completely, Harry heard Voldemort address him directly, "I know you're watching, Potter. You sent your best friends to die in your place. How many more will you let die because you are too weak to face me yourself?"
Neville caught the change in Harry's expression, "Are you okay, Harry?"
Harry shook his head, trying to clear away the memory of the Dark Lord's words. "You won't have to worry about the snake, after all, Neville. Ron and Hermione took care of it. But–" his voice cracked, "then Voldemort killed them too. I've got to go finish off what they started."
Neville grabbed his arm as he turned to leave. "We're all going to keep fighting, Harry. You know that?"
"Yeah, I —if I don't succeed—"
"We'll give him hell for you, Harry. Just, don't go getting yourself killed on purpose, okay mate?"
Harry swallowed, the weight of the lie crushing him, but he managed to nod in agreement. Seemingly satisfied with his response, Neville let go and nodded back, then turned to head back out into the battle that still raged on the lawn.
Harry walked on, ducking spellfire as he crossed the grounds once more—one last time.
A/N: I would like to start by thanking everyone who helped make this story possible. Firstly, Mistri Tonks' Admirer, with whom I first brainstormed this story, back in 2005. Secondly, Telepwen, who convinced me on October 30th, 2011, to take part in NaNoWriMo 2011, and who has supported me through the process. Thirdly, LiL-kristin-o7, my pre-beta, who offered her invaluable input. Lastly, but not least, my beta, Arnel, who took me back, after 5 years of silence.
NB: This story evolves from a single change from canon, which can be found in the opening excerpt. For those of you who don't have JKR's text memorised, please refer to "Chapter 33 - The Prince's Tale: to spot the difference. For those of you that do have JKR's text memorised, any text you recognize, isn't mine, though I tried to keep the direct excerpts to a minimum…