Waiting for death
After a few minutes Snape felt strong enough again to get up, go to a large cupboard and take out a few potions. He would not be able to produce an antidote to the poison, but at least there were some potions that would make it a bit easier for him.
When he had finished, he went to his study. Dumbledore was pacing in his portrait but stopped as soon as he saw Snape.
"Severus! What happened? Did you find her?"
Snape nodded. "Yes. I brought Hermione back to Cambridge. She's fine. It was Livia Chatswold"
Dumbledore looked astonished. "Livia! Tell me about it."
Snape told him everything up until Livia's torturing Hermione with the Cruciatus.
"And what happened then?" Dumbledore asked. "How did you escape?"
Snape met the elder man's gaze unflinchingly. "There was nothing I could do. I couldn't allow her to kill Hermione. And then Livia made me an offer."
Dumbledore was alarmed. "What kind of offer?"
"Livia wanted revenge. But then she was disturbed. Did you somehow manage to track Hermione or me?"
"Not yet, but we were close. When you didn't return from Rome I sent Miss Weasley and Arthur after you. They found traces of rather unusual magic in Miss Granger's hotel room, and my research showed that similar spells had been performed somewhere in Liverpool a bit later. So I sent the members of the Order to search there for her. I guess I can call them back now."
"You can. Livia and her brother are gone. Had I known you were close to finding us..." But no, they probably wouldn't have arrived on time and Livia would have killed Hermione nevertheless. What he had done had been the only way to save her and he didn't regret it.
Snape faced Dumbledore's curious gaze. "Livia proposed a deal to me. She would let Hermione live and not harm her in the future. If I drank the Morituri Potion."
Dumbledore's eyes widened, then his face grew very sad. "My poor boy," he said softly.
Snape shook his head. "Don't worry about me. There was no other way, I don't regret it.
Dumbledore looked at him hard. "And Livia is gone?"
"Yes. It will be hard to trace her unless she reveals herself again."
The elder wizard sighed. "I am very sorry, Severus. How long do you have?"
"I'm not sure. Two hours, perhaps a bit more."
"Is there anything I can do?"
A bitter smile tucked at Snape's mouth. "Not really. I have a few potions which will make it easier."
"Do you want me to stay?"
There was a sudden lump in Snape's throat. "You mean because I was there when you died?" he said gruffly.
Dumbledore just looked at him in the searching and yet benign way he had always looked at the boy Severus. "No. I just think nobody should die alone."
Snape felt relief and only then realized how much he had feared to be on his own. "Yes, I'd like you to stay. Thank you."
Dumbledore smiled, but very sadly. "What about Hermione? Does she know?"
Snape shook his head vehemently. "No, she doesn't. And she must never know. She'd feel guilty and I don't want that. Promise me you won't tell her."
Dumbledore looked reluctant but finally nodded. "I won't, if you don't want that. But what shall I say to her when you are dead?"
Snape shrugged. "Wait a few weeks and then tell her that there was an accident in the laboratory. I'm leaving everything to her, she can decide what to do with the house and all the other things."
"I see." The elder wizard gave him a scrutinizing look. "Have you told her how you feel?" he asked gently.
Snape looked away, down on his hands. Then returned his gaze to meet Dumbledore's eyes. Those penetrating eyes that had seen right through him ever since he had been a child. The time for pretence was finally over. "What use would there be?" he said quietly. "No, it'd only give her pain. You can tell her I am sorry that I hurt her when I wanted to keep her safe from Livia. But nothing else."
"If you wish," Dumbledore sighed. "You know, as strange as that sounds, I really think you are the most selfless person I know."
Snape laughed out loud, but his laughter suddenly turned into a choking sound as a new spasm grasped him. Shaking, he reached for a phial nearby and downed the potion, but it was several minutes till the pain abated.
Dumbledore looked down on him worriedly.
"I'm afraid it won't be a nice sight," Snape said.
The elder man shook his head. "Don't worry. I just wished there was something I could do."
"There isn't. But I'm glad you're staying."
Dumbledore gazed at him with a sad smile on his face.
"We've come a long way, Severus. Haven't we?"
Snape gave a weak laugh. "We certainly have." He took another potion, waited a few minutes until he felt its effects and then straightened up. "Do I look presentable?"
"As much as you ever will, Severus."
"Then I'll call Rose. I don't want her to be here when it happens. When it's over, will you tell her that I have always been very satisfied with her service? And that she now is bound to Hermione, but must never tell her what has happened here tonight?"
Dumbledore nodded and Snape called the house-elf.
She looked at him with a worried expression on her face, as if she were sensing that something was not right.
"Rose, go to Miss Granger and tell her that I am well. And then go to Loch Tully. On its southern bank there is a small stone circle where you will find a patch of star shaped white flowers. They lose a petal every hour all throughout the night. Stay there until the sun rises and gather the fallen petals of ten flowers for me."
Rose nodded reluctantly, her face still worried. "Yes, master. Is there anything else?"
"No. Go now."
She disapparated and Snape walked to his favourite chair and gingerly sat down on it.
"I will leave you for a short while," Dumbledore said. "I have to try and contact Arthur and the others and tell them that Miss Granger is safe. But I will return as soon as possible."
Snape nodded and watched Dumbledore walk out of his picture. The house was very still. What do you do with the last hours of your life? He thought, his eyes looking around his study, seeing it as if it were for the first time. He would have to get more painkilling potions soon. But not so much that his mind would be muddled. He wanted to meet death with a clear head.
Was it really less than a day that Hermione's disappearance had jerked him out of his sleep? How strange. He wouldn't have thought that he'd die today.
Snape felt great sadness. After all the pretence and denying he finally admitted to himself that there might have been another life for him. She had wanted to kiss him… For a few moments he allowed his mind to ponder on that memory. He had been happy when Hermione had kissed him. Shocked and confused, but also, for a moment, truly happy. And even after that, when he had fought with his feelings, he had always been happy in her presence. But there was no use tormenting himself with what might have been. Not now. And greater than the sadness inside him was the joy that he had kept her safe. That she would live.