Severus Snape fell through green eyes, out of suffering and fear and the draining of his life's blood, into peace.
He found himself on soft grass. His eyes, relinquishing that lambent gaze, had fallen shut. He could feel a light breeze and hear the lapping of water, the rustling of leaves. He seemed to be breathing, though he could sense no heartbeat, no pulse—no pain. His long fingers searched along his own body. His robes were clean and dry, and so was his neck, though he could touch the ragged edges of flesh where the enchanted snake had ripped into it. He let his hands fall to his sides and rested in the absence of demands.
Gradually he became aware of another presence nearby. He felt a strange reluctance to open his eyes, then called up the bitter blend of courage, guilt, and self-contempt that had always driven him to defy the terrors of his life.
He snapped his lids up; above him tossed the branches of the great beech tree that had stood beside the lake at Hogwarts for generations. He knew it all too well. Doggedly, he turned his head toward the presence he had sensed. Sitting beside him, knees to chin gazing out at the lake, was another figure he knew all too well: James Potter.
Severus closed his eyes again. "Ah, it is as I expected," he said dryly. "I am dead, and in hell."
James gave a soft huff of laughter. "Not hell," he said. "Not heaven, precisely, either. Not yet, anyway. And you're not exactly dead, evidently."
"Clear thinking as always, Potter. Is there a reason you are haunting my death, or near death, or whatever it is you are attempting to articulate?"
"I'll try to be clearer," James said in a surprisingly meek tone. There was a silence, then, "I need to move forward, and you to move on—or back. But before either of us can find our way, we have… some work to do."
Severus resolutely kept his eyes closed. "I take it you mean we are to have some grand reconciliation," he said. "I knew you were sentimental, but I never realised you were delusional as well. I have no interest in whatever facile protestations you may have in mind, and I object to being subjected to them against my will."
"Believe me, Snape, this wasn't my idea."
Severus opened his eyes a slit. "Was it not? One has, ultimately, no free will?"
James blew a gust of breath upwards that stirred his hair, unruly as it was in life, Severus noticed. "I'm no theologian, but we do seem to have free will. We can refuse this task."
"And the consequences of refusal?"
"Stasis. No growth, no movement. And we'll simply be presented with it in a different form at some other point. We're here, we might as well deal with it."
Severus looked up at the branches of the beech again. "Interesting choice of venue. Do you expect that I will be overcome with nostalgia, here where you hung me upside down from this tree and stripped me for the amusement of your friends and half the Hogwarts student body?"
"Again, not my choice," James said. "There are no happy memories here for me, either."
Severus sat up. "It gives you no pleasure to remember your great triumph, Potter?" he sneered.
James sank his head onto his folded arms. "No pleasure at all. The triumph was short-lived, and not worth the cost."
"And this sad revelation is to gain you my pardon? My admiration and sympathy for your terrible suffering, perhaps?"
James raised his head and looked full at Severus for the first time. His retort died on his lips and his eyes widened. "Merlin, Snape, what have they done to you?"
"Attacked me with a giant snake."
"I don't mean that, I mean the way you look, your face—"
"I am aware that I am no beauty, Potter, but I hardly think reminding me of that fact is the way to, as you put it, move forward."
James shook his head impatiently. "That's not what I mean. From that point of view, you're if anything better looking than you were when we were both alive. You've… grown into yourself, or something. But the lines in your face, and the hollows—" He reached out a tentative finger, but Severus shied away.
"Repeated exposure to Cruciatus, decades of constant tension, and the stresses of dealing with a thousand imbecilic students leave a mark, Potter. And remember that I am twenty years older than you ever got to be."
"Sirius told me, but I didn't understand till now what these years have done to you."
"What did the mutt tell you?" Severus demanded, scowling.
James seemed to continue his reading of the marks of suffering in Snape's face before replying quietly, "That he had done you great wrong. That you never failed in your duty to the Order, to Remus, to Harry, even to him, regardless of your personal feelings. That he wishes he had used those last months to express his regrets, and his admiration for you, instead of wasting them in petty jealousy and spite."
Severus was taken aback, but finally shrugged. "He paid the price for his mistakes, I suppose. The years in Azkaban for someone else's crime, the months as a virtual prisoner in that horrible house while the rest of us were at least free to act, the loss of his life in the service of the Order—I can forgive him. You, on the other hand…"
"There's no reason you should forgive me," James said, "and I won't ask it of you. I lost my life through sheer bloody carelessness, believing myself invulnerable." He grimaced. "My parents were besotted with me, you know—their only child and the son of their old age—and I was all too ready to accept their opinion of me. No mere homicidal maniac, even if he was the most powerful wizard of the generation, would best the great James Potter. I didn't have the house properly warded, I didn't even have my sodding wand with me when Voldemort burst in. If I had, I might have bought enough time for Lily to grab Harry and Apparate to safety; her death is on my head as much as anyone's. I didn't die a hero like Sirius. Or Lily. Or you."
He pushed his glasses up and scrubbed his hands over his face. "And in the earlier years, where you were concerned, I was simply an absolute shit. Conceited, arrogant, vain—and I couldn't stand it that Lily admired you and was fond of you." James looked at Severus, who looked away. "She sends you her love, by the way. As does Albus." He looked out at the lake again. "It's also true that Padfoot and I brought out the worst in each other; I always wanted to impress him, and he hated you because of your involvement with his brother. Regulus sends his love as well."
Severus hunched into himself and folded his arms across his chest.
Turning toward him, James touched his elbow. "Severus—"
"Don't you mean Snivellus?"
"Oh, please, Sev. What can I do? Do you want me to kneel at your feet? I will."
"Potter, kindly spare me your melodrama."
"Then how can I show you my remorse?" His voice thickened. "Sev, I said I wouldn't ask you to forgive me, but I do ask you—I beg you—to believe me when I say that I am so sorry, so ashamed."
James took his glasses off and ground his knuckles into his eye sockets. "I expected you to thank me when I saved you from Remus—saved you from a situation Sirius and I goaded you into in the first place. So I felt justified when you resented me for it. I told myself you deserved our making your life a living hell." He gave a strangling snort and looked sidelong at Severus, who was looking down at the grass between them, listening hard.
James went on, "But in my heart I always knew better. I knew it was wrong that we got off with a few detentions for trying to kill you. Dumbledore chose us over you, and left you to the dark. When you took the Mark, I knew that I'd helped drive you to it. I told myself that I would make it right somehow, that we'd conquer Voldemort and then I would—" He choked, then forced out the next words. "I'd be the great hero, and I'd save you and at last you'd be grateful, and that would make up for the way I'd treated you." James began to cry in earnest. He bent his head to Severus's shoulder.
Severus flinched but reflexively brought an arm around him. After a moment he sighed and brought up his other arm, cradling James against his chest. "Young, you're so young," he murmured into James's hair. Where once he'd hated Harry because the boy recalled his father, now he saw the son in his old enemy. "Hush," he said. "It's all ancient history now. Children's spite, adolescent posturing. I've been hurt since then by experts. You were an amateur. And I do forgive you." He gripped James hard until his shaking stilled, then loosened his arms.
James pulled away enough to rest his forehead against Severus. "Unbelievable," he said. "I torment you in life and now in death I impose on you to comfort me."
"I had my vain imaginings, too," Severus said in a low voice. "One was precisely this: that you would come to me broken, needing my comfort. Sometimes I would concoct a scenario in which I spurned you with scorn. But it was more satisfactory to picture myself as giving you what you sought."
James sat back, leaving his hands on Severus's shoulders. "Lily always said you were a giving heart."
Severus's mouth twisted. "I was a whinging prat."
"You were a wounded boy."
"So was Sirius. And I hated him."
"But you loved his brother?"
"Reg needed me. Sirius had you. And I hated him for that, too. I loathed you, James, but I envied your followers their closeness to you. You were the sun we all revolved around. You may laugh to hear it, but I loved you, too."
James gave no sign of laughing. "I know," he said. "That's why it was so easy to hurt you. Sev, I am so very sorry."
"Enough of that," Severus said, reaching up to his own shoulders and taking James's hands in his, bringing them to rest on his knees. "If it is my grace to forgive, it must be yours to accept forgiveness."
"You're right, of course," James said, bowing his head. "Thank you." Then he looked up, smiling slightly. "You must have been a fine teacher."
"I was a dreadful teacher. I was brusque and cruel and deliberately unfair. Students who learned from me did so in my despite. I believe I helped destroy Draco Malfoy. And as for Harry—James, is it my turn to be forgiven?"
"Go on," James said, locking their fingers together.
"I leave aside the trifling matter of my having been the indirect agent of your death, and Lily's. That was unwitting, as I think you must believe, knowing how I felt about her. But I never cared about your losing your life as I should have, and where Harry was concerned—" He disentangled one hand to cover his own trembling mouth, then lowered it as his voice went on steadily. "I delighted in torturing him. I took pleasure in watching him try, time and again, to please me and then at last merely to avoid me. But I pursued him to cause him pain. I told myself it was because he was like you, and I had defined you as one worthy of contempt. A contemptible excuse in itself. But the reality was worse, it was—" He dropped James's other hand and brought both his own, clasped together, to his lips.
Severus was drawing great shivering breaths; his eyes were closed, but the tears leaked out the sides and down his cavernous cheeks. James wiped them off with his thumbs. "Don't stop, Sev," he said softly. "You're doing brilliantly."
Severus nodded, pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes, and went on. "It was his eyes, Lily's eyes, that brought me low." He tossed his head violently as though to shake the memories out of it. His voice began to rise. "I loved to make those eyes, Lily's eyes in Harry's face, shine with unshed tears, to see the hurt and bewilderment in them. I was so angry at her—angry that she could have loved you, that she could have abandoned me—though in my heart I knew it was I who had driven her away—angry, above all, that she had thrown her life away to protect that brat." His voice cracked and he stopped speaking while the tree rustled and James waited quietly.
Severus brought his hands down fisted into his lap and faced James with a desperate ferocity. "And shall I speak now of my real sins, the crimes I committed? Shall I be forgiven for Charity Burbage, hanging like a fucking chandelier over Malfoy's table pleading with me while I sat and stared till that serpent-faced abomination killed her and fed her to that blasphemy of a snake and I did nothing to stop him? And she was one of many."
He went into a paroxysm of racking, coughing sobs. "But the worst, worse than casting green death on a man I loved more than my own father—" he waved a silencing hand at the beginning of James's protest "—was the way I colluded in the death of innocence, in that old man's decision to send a brave, beautiful boy to sacrifice himself for however noble an end…"
James put his hand on the back of Severus's head, twining his fingers in the long black hair. "But you saved his life again and again," he murmured into his ear. "Sirius has told us all you've risked to keep Harry safe. And you put your own body between him and the monster. And he lived, Sev, you know that, right? His sacrifice was accepted and he went back. Don't you feel that as redemption?"
Severus shook his head and clutched James's arm till he could speak again. "Oh, yes," he said at last. "I'm good at intrigue, and the grand tragic gesture. Just don't ask me to behave like a decent human being, or to carry on with any human relationship that requires engagement on my part. I failed Lily, I failed Regulus, I failed Draco, I failed Harry again and again." He ventured a look at James, then drew back, glaring. "Why are you staring at me like that, James? You're gaping like a beached fish."
James, whose mouth was actually only slightly open, smiled and leaned in to kiss Severus on the brow. "I am amazed," he said, "at the sheer bloody courage of you. Padfoot said you were as ruthless with yourself as with everyone else."
"I suppose you know what you're on about."
"Oh, I do. It took me forever, Severus, and I needed all Lily's help and eventually Albus's and Sirius's, to bring myself to face my own failings. But you cut right to the bone on your first try. I'm in awe of you."
"All done with mirrors, Potter."
"You were calling me James."
"Yes, and my reward for that was that you kissed me. I think re-establishing a little distance is in order."
James laughed. "You git."
To his surprise, Severus dropped his face into his hands. "That's what he calls me," he whispered.
"What who calls you?" James pondered, then realisation dawned. "Harry?"
"Yes." A slow flush suffused Severus's ears as he buried his face in his sleeves.
"And that makes you angry? No, you're not angry, are you. Sev? Severus, look at me."
James slid a hand under Severus's chin and tilted his head up. Severus took a deep breath and opened his eyes, looking directly into James's. "Never angry at Harry, never. And the worse I treated him, the more I… No, never angry at Harry."
Now James did gape like a beached fish. "Great Merlin, Severus, you're in love with my son, aren't you? Sirius suspected as much, but I thought he was being paranoid—"
Severus took another breath, schooling his features to impassivity, though the flush still lingered. "There is no cause for alarm. I'm sure the boy suspected nothing, and if he did, he would no doubt find the notion ludicrous and repellent."
"Not ludicrous, whatever else he felt or didn't feel, Sev, I've seen enough of him to know that. He would respect what you had to offer, even if he couldn't accept it. And I have to admit that I'd rather see Harry with that fiery red-haired witch I've glimpsed beside him. But for your own sake, Sev, you should at least let him know how you feel."
Severus shook his head. "For my part," he said, "I would rather live without love than risk rejection, so he will never know, whether I stop here or go back to the world. I am, you see, in fact a coward."
"Sev, no. If you—"
But all at once a look of panic came over Severus's face. He clutched at his neck as the gaping snakebite wounds began to leak blood, and blood blossomed on his robes at chest and arm. He struggled to his feet, James half supporting him. "What is happening to me?"
"I think someone on the other side is bringing you back, Sev."
"I don't wish to go back! There is nothing for me there."
"There might be. There must at least be something undone waiting for you, or this wouldn't be happening." James brushed his knuckles against Severus's cheek. "Trust yourself, Severus. Trust Harry. Let yourself live; you have another chance."
"No! I haven't the strength to try again."
"You do, you know. In any case, you have no choice. You're beginning to fade already." James's voice quickened. "Severus, Padfoot told me that Harry saw your memory of what happened under this tree that day. Please tell my son that I'm sorry I disappointed him."
"And you, will you tell Sirius—"
"… And Lily?"
"Always." James pulled Severus into a warm embrace.
Severus closed his eyes and felt the warmth tighten into bands of pain, while the rest of him grew cold and darkness swallowed him. He was back on the floor of the Shack, and Aberforth Dumbledore was standing over him with an empty vial in his hand. The bitter tang in his mouth told him he'd been given a dose of antivenin. A thick cloth staunched the wound at his neck.
"The Headmistress sent me to fetch you back to the castle," Albus's brother said.
"No," Severus croaked. "Please. Not the castle. Bring me to Hogsmeade, please. And tell no one where I am."
"I'll have to tell Minerva."
"No one else."
"What ails you, man? The Dark Lord is dead. Young Harry Potter is up there now telling everyone who'll listen what a hero you've been. Let me bring you to them."
"No, I tell you!"
"All right, all right, stop thrashing about. I'll do as you ask."
Severus felt flayed. He needed to rebuild the shell he had ripped apart in his encounter with James. He could not risk seeing Harry in his current state. It hurt too much. His courage failed him. Severus fled.