Characters are property of J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter Universe. Thankfully, she allows me to borrow them for a bit of fun.
That night, I didn't sleep. It would have been impossible had I wanted to. Sitting wide-eyed with my former professor's head resting in my lap was hardly conducive to rest. There was so much I wanted to ask him but, like he said, I need to learn to not ask questions I don't really want the answers to. The questions swirling in my mind are merely my shaky attempt to keep my stomach from twisting into knots over the grief and guilt of what I didn't do. I owe Severus Snape more than I can give him.
Slices of moonlight fill the cavern, casting shadows over Professor Snape's face. Blood stains his cheeks and neck—some of it dry, most of it fresh—but he looks peaceful, almost content. He appears vulnerable but hardly defeated as he wages this continuous war with the venom flowing through his veins. An unwinnable battle he can't see, and one I wish I didn't have to. I can't stop myself when I reach down to wipe away a smear of red. The scrap of stubble on his sallow cheek and wetness of the blood consumes the tips of my fingers, making it hard for me to move. Touching—feeling the solidness of him still shocks me after everything I've seen. Snape's dark eyes flutter open and he blinks to adjust to the darkness. He has been asleep for several hours.
I can feel the redness of a flush creep across my face as he slowly sits upright. The scowling wince on his face is hard to miss, and for an instant, I feel horrible for disturbing what little peace he had. "I didn't mean to wake you," I stammer, unsure of whether to help him or get out of the way.
He doesn't answer but shrugs and removes another phial of the Blood-Replenishing Potion from his pocket. When Professor Snape finishes draining the contents of the phial, he replaces the cork and sits it down between us. We are both thinking the same thing. There are only three phials left and his condition is not improving.
As if on cue, Snape starts to carefully touch the sleeve covering his neck. I watching silently, wringing my hands when his breathing becomes laboured and his movements forced. No matter how much he tries to hide it, he's in pain.
I move closer to him, carefully reaching out to touch the soiled white shirt covering his shoulder.
"Tell me what I can do. How can I help you?"
Professor Snape closes his eyes, bringing a single hand to cover his face. I can see shame flash across his features for an instant, followed soon after by annoyance. Receiving help is much harder for him than I had first realized. "You are not my keeper, Miss Granger. I—"
I draw his hand away from his face, taking it in mine. "Maybe I can help you, if you just tell me what to do." I wait expectantly for him to answer, noticing the sudden heaviness of his hand, or maybe it is just the weight of lying to him.
Snape's head sags back against the stone, the only sign of his acquiescence. "I need to see if the wound is closing, to see if it is healing."
I push the sleeves of my jumper up as I come to my knees in front of him, hoping the sweat and dust on my face hides the apprehension. "Do you want me to check for you?"
His hand goes to his side where it rests on his cracked ribs, and he tenses. Watching him work through the offer is vexing, but the determination behind those fathomless eyes is short-lived when the pain of even the simplest movement becomes too much. Severus Snape is the sort of man who would rather preserve his dignity, even in the most desperate of times, than appear broken. To him, weakness is almost as hurtful as the pain itself, and I wish I could form the words to tell him that his dignity won't be surrendered by accepting help.
Black eyes find mine and then the floor. "It appears I have little choice in the matter," he answers with measured composure.
My nervous hands go to the cloth around his neck, but I can't bring myself to work the knot loose. "If I hurt you, tell me. Agreed?" I know he would never admit it, but it makes me less anxious to say it, and I get to work. The drawstring from my jumper works as a temporary tie to use in his hair so it doesn't get pulled or dirtied any further. Professor Snape casts a dark look in my direction when I sweep a stray strand behind his ear, but remains quiet.
"It's only for a moment, I promise," I tell him before turning my attention to the sleeve. It is tied tightly enough to impede some blood loss, but its thickness makes it impractical. It's sodden in places and dry in others making it sticky and difficult to manipulate. A bandage, even a conjured one, would have been better than what he used. Then it suddenly occurs to me that I haven't seen his wand since I found him.
"Why didn't you charm something for this?" The question escapes me before I can prevent it, and for a moment, I fear I've overstepped my bounds yet again.
"I haven't a wand," he answers with deep regret, as if he knows nearly all of his problems could be solved if he had it. "It was knocked from my hand when the Dark Lord ordered the snake to attack."
I finally manage to get the knot worked free and start unravelling it one small section at a time. "You couldn't find it?" He obviously couldn't find it, you dolt. Otherwise, he would probably be alive right now. Before my mind can scramble for a way to save me from my idiotic question, Snape answers.
"I did not think to look." He gestures meekly to his neck.
I swallow hard, trying not to imagine what it was like for him when he came to, battered and alone, concentrating instead on untangling the fabric from around his neck. Professor Snape's breath hitches in his throat as the sleeve comes free from the partially dried blood and reveals the gore beneath.
"Professor, I…" My voice dwindles. The gash, raw and oozing, shows signs of healing, but it is still vicious. The skin around the gaping hole is coloured dark from the bruising or possibly from the venom, and I can see severed tissue between the ribbons of flesh. It is as if I am sitting in the middle of a scene from a Muggle horror film, only I know this isn't makeup or special effects. My hand flies to my mouth, and I must decide whether to faint or look away. I choose the latter. It's far worse than I had feared.
"Well?" There is an edge of alarm in his voice that shakes me from my panicked state. I quickly rub my hands over my eyes as if such a gesture will erase the red that clouds my vision. Only when I feel the sting behind my eyelids do I gain the courage to even look at him.
Tears silently stream down my face, falling to the ground like rain. I watch his fingers run over the wetness, my mind hardly aware of my moving mouth. "Not good."
A sage expression settles over his crestfallen face, and my resolve threatens to shatter to pieces. He must know—he has to know—that he won't be able to walk away from this. Unable to look at his neck any longer, my hand presses the sleeve against the angered flesh. I start to replace his provisional compress, only to have him stop me.
"Do you have your wand?" His words freeze me like ice, but not before the bitter lie can slip from between my lips.
There is no way I can tell him the truth, because the truth is useless to him. Nothing can change this, not the sleeve I'm pressing to his neck, not the phials in his pocket, not even magic. My wand, concealed in my sock, stays hidden, and I force myself to remain silent as the last flicker of hope vanishes from his eyes. He doesn't press the issue as I feared he would, which only serves to make me feel worse rather than relieved. My aversion to the gore all but completely vanishes after that. If I can't tell him the truth, if I can't help him, I can at least push my reservations aside and clean him up.
The cleanest thing I'm wearing are my socks, so I pull my left shoe off only long enough to remove the sock. It seems hardly practical but it's the closest thing to a cloth that I have. Moreover, the black fibres put me at ease. At least I won't have to see the gore as it comes off. Using the garment, I warily wipe away the blood on his face and neck. Had it not been for the tiny streams of groundwater running down the side of the tunnel, I would have never managed to make it through the layers of caked blood. It still takes several agonizing minutes of me apologising profusely and him balling his hands into fists before most of the blood has been wiped away.
Even clean, the severity of the wound is enough to weigh heavily on my conscience. "I don't know how to fix you," I tell him gently, dabbing the last clean edge of the sock along his dry lips. The slight dampness seems to breathe only a small bit of life into them before they begin to look shrunken and chapped again.
Snape looks straight ahead, seemingly unaware of my poorly stated declaration. "As I said, you are not my keeper." His voice falters, but it is the slight quivering of his jaw that drives the final blow of guilt straight through my chest. "Only time will… fix me."
Time which is steadily slipping through your fingers, I want to say, but don't. In lieu of my mouth turning me into a fool, my hands work on their own accord to return the sleeve that was once part of his finely tailored frock coat to his neck. It goes on much easier than it came off, but it doesn't make it any easier for Professor Snape. Twice, I see his hand go to his mouth where he bites hard on a knuckle to keep from crying out.
When I'm finished, I wipe my hands on my denims and sit back, allowing the millions of thoughts to run rampant through my head. It feels impossible to put into words what I will eventually have to tell Professor Snape, what I will have to do to convince him, to bring him peace. I can feel the thread of truth dangling in front of my face but I question if I have what it takes to pull it and watch as a broken man's spirit unravels like an old sweater.
The wrongness of it all seemed to crash down around me as I watch Professor Snape fighting to keep himself afloat as the darkness beckons to him like some syren. He gingerly pulls another phial from his pocket and downs it with a grimace. I try not to think of what will happen when the final two phials run dry. My mind refuses to grasp the permanency of his death once all of this is finished. Even though I know his fate has already been sealed, watching the last shattered piece of him leave this world right in front of my eyes is enough to make me physically sick.
Severus Snape sacrificed himself for a false idiot and an old man that left him alone on the cusp of chaos to carry the weight of the war by himself. After the smoke and dust had settled, we, the survivors, thanked him by forgetting him, by allowing him to fall victim to this hell. Even though I had nothing to do with his death, even though my hand played no part in the attack or the manipulation, my leaving him behind had been the card that indirectly sealed his fate. How could I possibly expect his forgiveness? Even more, how could I even think myself worthy enough to ask it of him, knowing I was one of the last people to see him alive? A lump catches in my throat that threatens to choke the life out of me. I won't dare ask him.
A cold feeling creeps over me as I watch Professor Snape close his eyes. I would have missed it had I not been looking at him so closely, but it is there nonetheless. A tear so small it hardly has the right to be called a tear, resting in the corner of his eye. It steals past his long, dark lashes like a thief and rolls silently across the bridge of his nose. It lingers there for the slightest moment before he wipes it away. I have to clench my hands together to keep from pulling him toward me, and comforting him. I don't know why, but pretending not to notice feels like the noblest thing I can do.
"Are you afraid of what's happening?" I hear the words coming out of my mouth, and before I have even finished speaking, I want to take them back. The question sounded much better in my head, and the look on his face tells me he is trying to decide if I'm being serious.
Severus pauses for a moment then looks away, as though thinking of an answer, or contemplating whether to tell me anything at all. It's hard to tell which by his bland expression. "Does it matter?" he answers finally. "I shall greet Death, that smirking bastard, all the same."
I look at him stone-faced out of fear of spilling every secret I know. Severus is, at the bottom of everything, a highly intelligent man, and he has just presented the acknowledgment we both need. Whether he truly understands the gravity of his words or not, he does, at least, accept the very real possibility of his death. It's a start, I reassure myself, trying to ignore the wrenching pang of grief that stabs through my chest.
It's a start.
"Everything has to die at some point." His voice is softer than I've ever heard it, almost as if he's having a private conversation with himself instead of me. "Some of us sooner than others, but everything and everyone withers away into nothingness eventually."
I take a deep, shuddering breath and touch the folded copy of his autopsy report in the pocket of my jumper. "Professor—Severus, there is something you should know, and I'm not sure how to tell you, or if I'm even the person that should. It's just that—" I force my mouth shut. Rambling will not make this any easier and neither will any excuse I try to use. Tell him, you coward. Tell him before it's too late, my subconscious screams, and I give in.
"Professor... You are already dead."
For a second, something seems to pass over his face. Confusion, maybe? Panic? Everything around us becomes hazy and slow, as if I am having another one of my nightmares. I can feel any common ground we had found during this whole ordeal slowly slipping away, but I delve deeper to find what little resolve I still possess. "You died in this tunnel nearly five years ago, two days after Voldemort was defeated." I watch the emotions play out in his eyes. He doesn't believe me; refusal churns in his dark eyes.
"Enough," he says severely. The vitriol in his words makes me want to recoil, but I don't. He can easily detect my determination to stay, and he tries to move away from me as if I'm an insidiously dark creature. He almost makes it to his knees, but comes crashing back down onto the stone next to me with a pained cry.
"Please—" My hands reach for his shoulders to help, but they never touch them. Severus's arm swings around with swift force, slamming me into the wall. I try to shrug out from underneath it, but he catches my wrist in his hand. His grip is surprisingly strong given his depleted state. I can't escape as he moves closer to me, agony etched deeply on his face.
"Get," he hisses, "Away... From... Me."
"I can't!" I don't realise I'm yelling until the sound of my own voice echoes through my head. My dirty hand runs over my face; a weak attempt to regain composure. "I will not leave you," I continue, softer, so that he can't detect the panic in my voice. "Do you understand me? I don't care what you want, because this is what you need! You just can't see it yet. Please—"
"Listen to yourself, you fool! You've gone mad!" His words provoke white-hot anger, and I can't help but blink back the stinging tears in my eyes. I think back to everything I've seen and ahead to things that have yet to come. I had expected resistance, but nothing of this magnitude. Heidegger made it sound simple, but now I see he hadn't the slightest clue. Death itself is easy; it's the coming to terms with it is the heavy burden. How can I possibly expect to break such terrible news to someone who has fought so hard and so long to keep it at bay? Looking to Severus, I see that the weight of the truth is starting to cause his steadfastness to bow. Unable to move, he slouches against the wall, hardly keeping himself upright. He can yell and spit insults at me all he likes, but he is going to let me help.
"Don't..." He sounds bitter and miserable, but he doesn't resist my efforts. Instead, Severus leans into my stomach, allowing me to support his weight as I haul him to the floor. I strip off my jumper, ignoring the chill in the air, and place it under his head. It's a meagre attempt to soothe him, but I hope he can detect the sincerity behind it. I want to do more, to make him comfortable, to end his suffering, but there is only one thing that can do that. As I watch him, I briefly think that it's too early to even discuss this. Then, a cough rips through the silence followed soon after by a haunting groan and more blood. It's then I know I'm running out of time.
"May I speak freely?" I ask as I sit beside his head, reaching out hesitantly to take one of his hands in mine. He says nothing, giving me my opportunity. "I know this seems preposterous, I didn't even believe it when I first learned of it—"
"You expect me to believe that I am dead," he says with great effort, "and yet I'm still here enduring this hell on earth?"
"I do," I tell him, carefully choosing the right words, "and I would hope you trust me enough to believe what I'm telling you. If you truly believe me, if you accept what I'm trying to tell you, then this will all end. For good."
Snape sighs deeply, and shivers. He is not handling this at all. "I am losing my mind," he says as I pull his robes around him to combat his chills. The movement jostles the autopsy report free from my jumper, and it lands on the stone beside Severus's head. Momentarily forgotten in our confrontation, it now sits gleaming like a beacon in the darkness. I had brought it with me for this very purpose, knowing full-well that he would think me insane. However, now that the moment finally presents itself, I find myself filled with dread. How on earth will he react to seeing his own autopsy report?
"It seems that way, I understand, but this is not real, though you can feel every stab of the pain. I can prove it if you'll let me." It's as if the words don't belong to me as they echo down the cavern. I don't want to believe them anymore than he does, but before Professor Snape can argue, I reveal the chilling proof, holding his autopsy report above his face so he can see it for himself. "Part of your soul, when you died, attached itself here to this hole. Your soul has been trapped here all this time, reliving this nightmare. Each time it gets more real for you, each time it rips what's left of you a little more. It's called Resonare Mortis, and it prevents you from passing through the Veil."
I watch as Severus's expression becomes distant, and I can tell he is fighting to see past the hard evidence, searching for some way to prove me wrong. Soon, it becomes clear that he can no longer take the weight of the world that has been dropped on his shoulders, though he tries with little avail. After several agonising, silent seconds, Snape finally gives in, allowing everything to crash down around him. He averts his eyes from mine as the silent tears come. There is no more pretending, no wiping them away. "Read it to me."
My stomach twists into an unbearable knot, making the autopsy report feel like a lead weight in my hand. Why did he have to ask me to do that? I stare straight ahead, trying to think past the droning roar in my ears, trying to figure out how escape this request.
I'm vaguely aware of his hand resting on mine. Only when he tightens his grip do I rally up the courage to look at him.
"Why are you here?"
My eyes start to well up once again, but I refuse to cry. "To help you," I reply breathlessly. My head is spinning. I know what is coming next, the bitter deed I can no longer avoid.
"Then… help me," he says, almost pleading. "Read it."
The tunnel around us suddenly seems so still, as if all of the air has been sucked out, leaving pure emptiness in its absence. I can think of nothing else but how much I want a hole to open right under my body and pull me down into its depths. That is until I feel Severus's freezing hand glide across my face to draw my gaze to his.
His expression is frantic, but his voice is the most serene I that have ever heard it. "Miss Granger…" Without another word, he reaches into his pocket and retrieves the last two phials. He doesn't drink them after slowly popping the corks, but rather turns them up, allowing the crimson potion splash to the grey stone beneath us. "Please."
One word is all it took. It is the single word that I never thought I would hear him say to me, but it causes me to cave. Denying him any longer feels like a much greater crime than reading the words that will show him the truth. I hold the parchment out at arm's length so Severus can follow along as I read. I finally understand. This is not about me. It is about Severus accepting his fate. If he can be brave enough to do that, I must be brave enough to help him get there.
My hands shake so badly at first that I cannot read the parchment. I do my best to steady them and begin to recount to Professor Snape the details contained in the autopsy report. Each word is a struggle to get out. Monitoring his expression, it's clear that each sentence I read brings him closer to accepting the truth. Mercifully, I reach the end of the parchment. Snape says nothing for several moments, and after a while, the silence becomes too much to bear.
"Do you know what this parchment fails to mention," I ask without expecting an answer. "It lists every horrible thing about your death down to the colour of the socks you had on your feet when your heart stopped beating, but it pays so little justice to your life, your sacrifices, and your achievements."
I place a single finger to his cracked lips, and he quiets. "You are Severus Snape, the proud recipient of the Order of Merlin, First Class. Your portrait hangs on the wall of the Hogwarts Headmaster's Office, only it hasn't been able to provide Minerva with any counsel because you've been stuck here. Books have been written about you, not because of what you have done or what you were, but because people want to remember you. You are missed, Severus, so dearly missed, and your loss of life has not been in vain. Without you," I continue as the tears prick my eyes, "we wouldn't have had a foundation to stand on."
That was it. Probably a meaningless handful of words to him, but they ring true to me nonetheless. I half expect him to cast me away. In fact, it takes every scrap of composure I have to keep myself together as Professor Snape's quivering hand brushes against my face. He reaches up, sweeping my tangled hair out of my eyes before his head sags further into my jumper. I stare down at him, and he smiles. It's hardly noticeable, as if it is meant only for my eyes, but it is enough to make remorse rear its ugly head. A wayward tear slides down my cheek, and he shakes his head with considerable effort. "Miss—Hermione… I… "
I wait, but there is only silence.
Nothing but a terrible silence that lasts less than a minute, though it seems to stretch out years. It hits me that I'll never know the words Severus intended to say as his hand goes limp in mine. I sit, exhausted and emotionally drained, staring into the darkness in front of me. Feeling tremors start in the bottoms of my feet and slowly work their way up my body, I am attacked by a swift feeling of remorse so strong that it nearly pushes all the wind from my lungs. I bury my head in my hands and give myself over to the string of unrelenting, hopeless sobs I had somehow managed to keep contained.
I had never known true sorrow until this moment. The sheer intensity of it threatens to grind me to dust, and in my current state, I am tempted to lie down and let it. How naive I was to it all. I knew nothing of death or the paralysing fear that comes along with it. I had been an utter fool to claim that I did. To think that someone had been forced to relive the hell I had just witnessed for nearly five years felt catastrophic. Every time I try to wrap my mind around the vastness of such an idea, it is too much—as if my feeble, naive mind will burst at its seams.
Wiping my eyes, I look to where Professor Snape had lain sprawled and lifeless on the unforgiving stone. He is gone. I scramble over on my hands and knees to the spot where his body should be, feeling only the rough, dust-covered floor under my hands and the drawstring that held back his hair, the jumper I had given him for a pillow, and the sock I used to clean his wounds. Did I want to feel his cold body there? I don't know, and I will never be able to answer that truthfully. Perhaps I am yearning for evidence that everything I had just gone through was more than the residual twisting of a man's torn soul. I need proof that the fates are simply not that cruel. That's when I hear it.
The sound of soft footfalls ricochet down the narrow tunnel, telling me someone is coming. For a moment, I freeze, fearing it might be Severus' nightmare starting over. I listen, hardly breathing, for the sound of ripping threads or Professor Snape's muffled voice. The voice I hear isn't Severus's, but it is familiar.
I hurl myself from the ground and take off toward the sound of his voice as fast as my feet can carry me. It doesn't take long before we meet, and he stops dead in his tracks when he sees me. I'm sure I look horrible, covered in dirt and a dead man's blood, but that doesn't stop him from scooping me up in his arms before I can fall to my knees.
"You shouldn't have come alone!" His voice is angry, loud and panicked. He hefts me to my feet, supporting my weight as we head toward the exit. "What's happened to you?"
I say nothing as a desperate sob erupts from deep within me, and Harry shakes me as if trying to rouse me from some trance. "Hermione, talk to me!"
"He's been here, Harry, all this time!" That's all I can say, and I'm sure it makes little sense to the wizard guiding me out of the tunnel. "Professor—Severus… His soul has been trapped here."
"What?" He seems stunned, as if he doesn't want to believe it. I can see the disbelief and refusal brewing in his eyes the same way they did in Severus's when I told him.
Wrenching my arm from Harry's hand, I push him away. He makes no effort to console me or to touch me, he simply looks at me. "He's been reliving his death for the last five years," I scream, "right under all of our noses!"
"How what? How do I know?" I snap, interrupting him. I shouldn't be angry with Harry. None of this is his fault, but I can't mask my fury, my guilt. "I know it because I've been reliving it with him! I held his hand, helpless, as he bled to death all over me! I had to listen to him plead for relief, begging me to end it all, to put him out of his misery!"
Harry takes a step toward me cautiously, as though I might lash out at him like some wild animal. "I am sorry you had to be part of that. If I had any idea—if I knew it was even a possibility—God's truth, Hermione, I would've set it straight for him. I would have been down here the instant I got wind of it."
"But you didn't," I say, my voice hardly audible. "And neither did I. We didn't even bother to…"
I'm unable to finish my sentence. I have neither the strength nor desire to hear the cold sting of the truth. Harry waits for information that is hardly forthcoming. Something inside of me shuts down and all I am able to think about is getting to the castle.
"I need to see him. I need to see his portrait."
"You need to go home," Harry corrects. His hands are on my shoulders again, pushing me forward. "Let me take you home, please."
Somehow, I manage to escape his grip once again and start walking on my own accord through the tunnel. Only when he reaches out and snags my arm do I falter. "I can't! Don't you get it! This is least I could do for him after what he did for us."
The look I receive from Harry tells me how lost I sound, and for a moment, he seems to be fighting with himself, as though contemplating throwing me over his shoulder and taking me straight to St. Mungo's.
"Listen to me, please." Dread courses through my veins, and I lean against the wall for support. Why is this hard to explain? "I can end all of this today, and I know it seems ludicrous, but you're just going to have to trust me. After that, I'll go wherever you want."
"Fine, but you're not going alone. Do you understand?"
I realise that arguing with Harry is no use. He is much too stubborn and I much too tired to dissuade him from accompanying me. "Fine," I say with a hint of submission in my voice.
Harry climbs out of the tunnel and then turns and grabs my arm to help me up. Once free, Harry takes my hand in his and we Disapparate to the school gates. He waves his wand, opening the gateway, and we walk through. He doesn't let go of me as the two of us climb the path toward the castle in silence.
It's easy to see that Harry is fighting hard to keep his questions to himself. Part of him wants the details, but the other side doesn't seem quite as sure. I would never tell him even if he asked. I decided that the moment I found Severus. The truth would break Harry, and I couldn't stand to watch it. Squeezing his hand in mine slightly, I realise some things are better left unsaid.
When we near the grounds, a glistening silver stag erupts from the tip of Harry's wand, and flies through the early morning sky. It arches upward, moving quickly from where we stand. It curves around and around the turrets, and heads straight for the tallest of the towers—the Headmistress's personal chambers. My breath hitches in my throat when the stag dives through the window, leaving it perfectly intact, serving as Minerva's only notice that we were coming.
Harry tilts his head, watching as the Headmistress's window is bathed in a soft glow. "McGonagall doesn't know?"
"She knows I was looking for information," I say flatly, avoiding the real question hidden between the lines.
Harry stops in his tracks, looking at me pointedly. "That wasn't what I asked you."
"She does not know about Severus," I clarify, leaving him standing alone as I turn for castle. "And I know what you're thinking, Harry. The answer is no."
"You don't think she'd want to know what really happened?"
"Of course she would want to know!" I erupt, the ire in my voice rising. "But I'm not telling her because it doesn't matter what happened. Her knowing, you knowing, the whole bloody world knowing isn't going to change the fact that we left him the way we did. Why would I drop that horrible fact on her or anyone else?"
Harry shakes his head like I'm talking nonsense. "Keeping all of this to yourself isn't a smart idea. As your friend, Hermione, I'm telling you to think about it."
My foot kicks the gravel path hard, sending tiny pebbles flying in the air. "Do you want to know what I said to him after I read him his own autopsy report? I told him how little justice it really paid him. That still holds true. It doesn't matter how the man died, or when, or where. I absolutely refuse to let what happened to him cast a shadow over everything he did. Now you think on that."
Our conversation is over in good time, because seconds later, I spot Minerva standing in the opened doorway in her nightdress. Before she can get close enough to clearly see the mess I'm in, I pull the wand from my remaining sock and siphon off the blood and dirt on my clothes. My face is still covered with dust and specks of blood and my hair is a disaster when she hurries out to meet us.
"Hermione! Good gracious, child, what happened to you?" Before I can answer, she takes my face in both of her hands and checks me over as best as the early morning light will allow. When Minerva is satisfied that Harry and I are both in one piece, she looks at me, utterly perplexed and irritated. "Explain yourselves."
"It's a long story," I tell her. "And before you press, I can't tell you, and I'm sorry for that."
Minerva's eyes flash to Harry's for the slightest scrap of information, but all he can do is shake his head. "Have you lost your mind? You expect me to just take 'I can't tell you' as an acceptable answer when you waltz up to the castle at five in the morning looking the way you do?"
"I do," I say, taking both her hands in mine, "and you must trust me, Minerva. Consider this one of your final favours to me."
Her tired face twists with confusion. "Favours?"
"One of them, yes. I need access to your office one last time. I need to see Severus."
The Headmistress's eyes search mine for a brief moment. It's not hard to guess that she's considering sending for Poppy. Instead, she glides her wand down and across my face, and I can feel the filth and grime being stripped away by her silent spell. Satisfied, she turns for the castle. "Follow me."
As the three of us walk through the sleeping halls of Hogwarts, Minerva and Harry carry on a hushed conversation. The Headmistress must see that information will be anything but forthcoming from me, so she bombards Harry for details that he doesn't know. I almost feel sorry for both of them. Almost. Keeping them in the dark isn't an idea I like, but it is what's best. Minerva shouldn't have to look at Severus's portrait day in and day out and feel guilty. Nor should Harry, who knows more about the man's sacrifices and his personal life than most, have to carry any more of the burden than he already does. What we wish we had done and what we really did will never change, but there is no point in dwelling on that hard fact. In the end, Minerva is better off in the dark and Harry is better off with the limited confession I gave him.
We arrive at the stone gargoyle outside the Headmistress's office. Minerva draws her wand and points it at the statue but suddenly stops. Her expression is not much different from the first time I asked to see Professor Snape's portrait, but it's her eyes that give away the frustration and sorrow. "I don't understand what you're trying to prove," she tells me. "Severus never answers, Hermione. Never. Just this afternoon, as I sat in that very office, I tried to get him to speak, even if it was only a single word. It's always the same response—silence."
"You are going to have to trust me," I say, my voice heavy with hope.
"Suit yourself, but this will only end in more silence," she says, casting a quick glance between Harry and me. "Just as it's been since the day Mister Potter hung Severus's portrait himself."
As Minerva utters the password and the Gargoyle leaps aside to allow us passage, all I can think about is how much I am dreading this moment. The uncertainty of it, not knowing if I have truly helped him, stirs the nervousness in the pit of my stomach. If that wasn't enough, chaotic thoughts about what I will say to him if I have broken the chains of his imprisonment come together to form the perfect storm of uneasiness in my scattered mind.
Stepping into the room that holds the portraits of the Headmasters, it's a relief to see that most of the other portraits are sleeping. Those awake are, thankfully, not in their frames. I don't know why, but as I get closer to his portrait, this task feels much too personal to share with several dozen pairs of eyes.
Leaving Minerva and Harry standing near the corner of her desk, I find myself studying the portrait in the dim lighting, fully aware of their watchful eyes. I don't have to turn around to know that Minerva's are filled with uncertainty and Harry's with confusion. Forgetting my audience, I run my hand across the engraved wood of the portrait's frame, and the feeling of agony briefly finds its way to my fingertips. Flexing my hand to relieve the discomfort, I look at the empty setting painted on the canvas. There isn't a trace of him. I place my hand over the portrait and close my eyes. "Severus." My voice cracks, but I don't stop. I couldn't stop if my life depended on it. "If you're there, please..."
A deep shuddering breath escapes my lips as I drop my hand and step back to watch the portrait. Nothing happens, and my heart sinks to the soles of my feet. I can feel the panic starting to work its way through my body, spreading to my limbs, but something catches my eye near the bottom of the frame. It's almost like liquid light, if such a thing could ever exist. It is coming from a crevice near the base of the portrait and fills the cracks between the designs like shimmering water. As it pools, the light seems to climb the side of the frame, inching its way inward toward the canvas. I stare at it, realising that the portrait is waking up, and I am unable to keep the tears from spilling from my eyes. The gasps coming from behind me tell me that Minerva shares the sentiment.
Like a withered plant being rehydrated by a passing shower, the light seems to seep into the portrait, causing it to swell faintly. The colours of the pallet grow vibrant until the glow intensifies, blocking the scene from view. When the glow subsides, I see in its place an image of the Severus Snape I've come to admire standing behind the armchair with a look of knowing on his face. He nods to me before both of his hands rub across his face. He's struggling to hold himself together, and that thought carves away at me like a knife through soft butter. There is so much I want to say to him, but the only thing I can do is offering him a pained smile.
It will never feel like enough to me, and I'm sure I'll go through the rest of my days feeling as though I could have done or said something differently, but in the end, there is only one thing that matters above all the rest.
Severus Snape is free.
We've reached the end of this tale and, for the final time, I would like to thank the two ladies that helped me sort all of this straight, Meladara and Anoesis. And finally, I would like to express my gratitude to all of you who not only took the time to read this tale but also review.