A/N: And here we are, the end. But afterward I've included a tiny epilogue and a few comments on the story.
Chapter Thirteen: Framed
A shiver ran down Snape's spine.
"Severus, put that phial away."
Having obeyed that voice for nearly three quarters of his life, he had a difficult time overcoming the impulse not to do so now and he paused. The thick potion had barely made it to the lip of its container. He looked up at the portrait of Phineas Black that hung in Potter's room, except someone else had taken Phineas' place.
"How did you get here?" Snape asked wearily.
"Harry honored me with a portrait in his drawing room. Over the fireplace. Though I can't occupy it very often, there being so much to do at Hogwarts," said Albus Dumbledore.
"Leave me be, Albus. I'm finishing the job you gave him to do."
"There is no need. Hermione is correct. Riddle used the killing curse and for all intents and purposes Harry died in the forest that day. The piece of Voldemort's soul attached to him died as well. The blood protection that Lily bequeathed Harry allowed him to return and defeat the Dark Lord. Just as I had planned."
Snape tipped the phial upward, pulled it away from Harry's mouth and stood, facing the portrait. With all the machinations he had seen Dumbledore devise over the years, this scheme was not that far-fetched. But scepticism had always been his best friend.
"When you were alive you told me that Potter had to die or Voldemort would return. Why wouldn't you have told me that there was a possibility that Potter could live?"
"Two reasons; first, you had to stay at your post for everything to work out as planned and not go haring off to protect Harry, and second, you had to be able to convince the boy he had to die. If he went to face Voldemort with the slightest inkling he could survive, he could not have invoked the power of love to protect the rest of his fellow combatants."
Snape looked down at the unconscious Potter. The old headmaster had always favored the boy over nearly every other consideration. Could it be that his portrait had gone soft and was now trying to protect him?
"I believe your motives might be suspect. Your affections for Potter might be taking the upper hand."
"You are right, Severus, I love Harry like a son," said Dumbledore. "A younger son."
"A younger son?" Snape asked. The portrait's painted eyes seemed to mist up.
"I have the same regard for you that I have for Harry," Dumbledore continued, his voice a bit rough. He cleared his throat. "And you had the more difficult and convoluted road to travel. I couldn't be more proud of you than if you were my own flesh and blood." Snape needed to clear his throat too.
"Fate," continued the portrait, "brought both of you to me and together we defeated Voldemort. Our journey had many twists and turns, many intrigues and many trials. But it is over. Riddle is truly and completely defeated."
"I thought you didn't believe in fate," Snape said.
"I don't believe anyone to be bound by fate, but I certainly believe fate works to give us opportunities that we are at liberty to accept or reject. And I strongly believe that is what is happening here."
"What do you mean?"
The portrait waved a hand at Hermione, frozen in place on the floor under Snape's robes. "Fate has brought the two of you together. Can you think of any other scenario that could have accomplished that? Left to yourselves, your paths never would have crossed again - not in a way to bring you to marriage."
Snape looked down at Potter and accepted what the portrait said. It was over. Voldemort was gone forever and the boy did not need to die. He looked at the poison he held in his hand. He still faced the hopelessness of having his emotions chained to someone who could never love him. The potion could be a remedy if he took it himself. He raised the phial and looked at it closely.
"You made a terrible, impulsive mistake twenty years ago, Severus, and have spent the intervening years making amends. Do not make another mistake that will take the rest of your life and which can never be repaired. And which will destroy those around you in the process." Dumbledore's voice was as severe as paint could make it.
"But I can't do this, Albus. I can't live in a marriage with her. I can't be in love with her, knowing she doesn't love me. Knowing she would prefer Weasley, even now; knowing the only reason she would be with me was because she can't ever have him. That would be a hell worse than the one I've just got shut of."
"Except that she doesn't love Ron Weasley anymore," said the portrait. "I overheard her talking to Ginny Weasley. I'm afraid she's in love with you, my boy."
"I tricked her into having sex with me so that I could have a chance at killing Potter. How could she ever forgive me for that?"
"From what she told Miss Weasley, apparently she's especially grateful for that," said Dumbledore. Snape could have sworn the portrait's cheeks gained a few brush strokes of vermillion. "The good thing is, you don't have to believe me. You need only lift the spell she's struggling under and she will tell you herself."
Snape looked down at the potion again. He had a choice to make. He looked at Hermione and the tears staining her cheeks. Was it even possible?
"You are the bravest man I have ever known, Severus," Dumbledore said. "Take one more chance with your life. Be brave, one last time."
Snape nodded at the portrait, stoppered the phial and returned it to his pocket. If it wasn't true, he still had another way out. If it was . . .
He flicked his wand over the witch laying on the floor. "Finite Incantatem." She looked up at him and smiled, her eyes happy and warm, despite the unshed tears still filling them. He swallowed hard, bent down and offered his hand. She took it tightly and he helped her up. Then she pulled her hand from his and flung her arms around his waist, burying her face into his chest. And she began crying.
"Is it true?" he whispered and felt her nod her head. He wrapped one arm around her and with the other hand, stroked her hair. "How is that possible?"
"How doesn't matter. It just is." her voice, tremulous, was interspersed with sniffing as she tried to control her tears. He placed his cheek on top of her head. As he held her she calmed down, growing quiet. Then he felt her tense up.
"Lily," she said.
"Lily," Snape repeated.
"Lily," the portrait interjected, "was not Severus' one great love. She simply prepared him for the greater love to come."
Hermione pulled away from him enough to look up into his face. He returned her gaze and nodded, not really trusting his voice at that moment. He was rewarded with a brilliant smile and was amazed at the happiness that radiated from her face. She stretched up on tiptoe and pressed her lips against his.
"You know," she said slyly. "Technically, it is morning . . . " She kissed him again, longer and more passionately, " . . . and you have some obliging to do."
"And here's the solution to the mystery," Snape scoffed. "You just like the sex."
"No. I love the sex." she said. "I just kinda like you."
For the first time in her life, Hermione heard him laugh. Fortunately, it would not be her last.
"Good night, Albus," Snape nodded to the portrait.
"Good morning, Professor Dumbledore," Hermione said and they closed the door behind them.
Epilogue: The Marriage Law was repealed two months later. Hermione and Severus had eight children in rapid succession and then lived happily ever after, to the end of their days. (I always wanted to steal that phrase.) She never learned to perform the hair-drying spell.
A/N: In case no one noticed, I pulled a little bait and switch here with my title. At first, I encouraged readers to think that "one last time unto the breach" was Severus being forced to wade back into the fight to destroy Voldemort but, in fact, it was for him to give love one more chance, which has always been a battle for our man in black.
Thank you for taking the time to read Unto the Breach, One Last Time. Reviews are most welcomed and appreciated. Your input will influence any future stories I write.
Addendum: Due to a few reviews posted for this story, I just wanted to express my opinion about Dumbledore. I used to feel the same way - that he was an uncaring deceptive old codger - until I read this article, directions below, and it completely changed my mind about the man. Now I adore him and really believe that he loved Snape as much as he loved Harry.
Directions: go to the mugglenet website, add slash, then editorials, then slash, then flawintheplan. shtml. Amazing article!