He had done nothing . . .
As the sun faded beyond the forest, Harry closed his eyes.
It was happening more often recently. Shadows seemed to shift inexplicably while the peculiar scent of sandalwood and cedar that he associated with his one time Potions Master hung in the still air.
Harry rested his hands on the solidity of the desk: Snape's old desk that he had had brought up from the dungeons when he had first become Headmaster more than a century ago. Even then the world had changed beyond all recognition and today few even claimed to know where magic ended and technology began, or vice versa.
A world at peace.
Harry shivered. What peace could there be for him? The truth about Snape had emerged soon after Voldemort's defeat. Snape had not needed to shout 'Legilimens!' to understand what Dumbledore had wanted from him: what the dying mage had been prepared to beg for. It certainly had not been his own fading life.
Dumbledore had often spoken of 'the right thing and the hard thing' and Snape done the hard thing, as the Headmaster had demanded, as well as fulfilling his vow to protect the child. He had given what was asked and received the Order of Merlin First Class.
Snape had been found, empty eyed and . . . Snape's body had been found, freezing on a hillside and, with unexpected clemency, Moody had left it there until after life had ceased.
There were no more Dementors.
None at all. Not even for research. They had been eradicated after the Department of Mysteries had published the 'Granger Report'. As an Auror, he'd helped. He hadn't understood one word in three of the report, so Harry had asked its author, and Hermione had tried to explain. 'To put it as simply as possible,' she had said, 'Dementors destroy souls and souls are indestructible. Effectively what this means is, even after the Dementor has finished feeding, the process continues. Forever. Like something falling into a singularity. You know? A black hole?'
As the first stars appeared Harry considered that that destruction of souls would still be happening when those stars had gone: not just set but ceased to exist. For some years Harry had turned to religion. He had tried to believe in a just and merciful god but still, he could only ask himself what should become of someone who had condemned another to hell for all of eternity?
As the Dementors had closed in they had avoided Harry, concentrating on Snape; Snape, who, as Harry quickly realised, could not summon a Patronus. Two Dementors had raised Snape from the ground by his extended arms and held him as though crucified. Harry had known that, while with Ministry executions the process was a quick one, in uncontrolled conditions Dementors shared, taking turns. Clearly Snape had known too. In dreams that left him shaking and sweating, midnight black eyes still challenged Harry. What are you going to do?
Harry had turned away.
All of his long life had not been enough to make up for it and tonight Harry knew that he was dying. All of his affairs were in order and his successor named. It was now just a matter of waiting and Harry was long sick of waiting. Once or twice he had considered making an end of it. He might still do that. Perhaps he had already done so? He was definitely not supposed to mix the medicine he had been given with alcohol. The nurse had been quite specific about it. Harry took another sip of firewhisky. 'In such sleep what dreams may come?' he asked himself aloud as a log fell in the fire.
These nights, even in midsummer, he felt cold. A month ago he thought that he had seen Snape's travel cloak sweep through a door at the Institute of Techno-Magical Feasance and Ethics, the quondam Black House and Headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix.
Hermione, for all her brilliance, was worse at naming things than Leonardo of Quirm.
Harry smiled and then the smile faded. He had never told her what he had done. He had never told anyone. He had tried all his life to make up for it, earning a reputation for courage, decency and compassion that was unrivalled anywhere. He knew that his very existence was a comfort to many, but there was still no way to make it right. There never could be and Harry knew that he was afraid. He could feel a pounding under his ribs, the beat echoed in his fingertips, and he could hear the underwater rush of blood in his ears. It would be soon now. 'Unlike you, Snape,' he gasped, 'I am a coward.' It was becoming much harder to breathe. Harry closed his eyes and something changed.
It took him a moment to realise that it was the quiet. Apart from the soughing of the rising wind outside and the spitting of sparks from the fire, Harry could no longer hear anything. Gripping the desk to steady himself, Harry forced his eyes to open.
It had been quite two hundred years since he had last seen those long, slender hands resting on the other side of the desk but he recognised them. Trembling, not knowing whether he dreaded more the imagined emptiness of so many sleepless nights of the sheer elemental fury that he remembered, Harry met Snape's eyes.
It was not unlike falling into icy water. Again Harry was gasping for breath. 'I'm sorry, I didn't know . . . even if you'd been guilty . . .' without any sort of transition he was on his hands and knees, fifteen again, in Snape's office at Hogwarts. 'I was wrong. What I did was . . . wrong.' His knees and his head ached but neither were the cause of his shaking or the tears splashing onto the stone floor. It was an effort to get the words out. 'I'm so . . . very . . . sorry.'
'Get up.' There was no anger in Snape's voice but Harry shook his head.
Harry felt Snape's hands seize his shoulders, lifting him to his feet and steadying him. Harry looked up and then, cursing, pulled backwards, struggling to escape.
Snape hung onto him. 'What now?'
Harry could only stare at the enormous bat like wings that rose from Snape's back. Snape glanced over his shoulder and the wings slumped visibly. 'You would, Potter,' he groused wearily. 'You know, most people, if they see wings, see feathers.' Snape let go and turned to Harry's decanter of firewhisky which had appeared on the desk beside him. He poured himself a glass and drank half of it. 'You always were a perverse little sod.'
'I . . .'
'Cat got your tongue?'
'I don't understand. Hermione said . . .'
'Unending destruction for all eternity?'
'Justice,' murmured Snape, swirling pale gold liquid in his glass. 'I didn't deserve that. And mercy,' Snape swallowed his drink and poured himself another, 'even if I had.' The wings flexed and then folded.' Rules can be bent and angels cheat like hell.' Snape produced a second glass, half filled it, and pushed it across the table it to Harry.
Harry picked it up and gulped some of the contents. 'No one deserves hell for all eternity,' he shuddered.
'So it doesn't happen.' From somewhere Snape had found a jug of water with which he diluted Harry's glass of firewhisky. 'Still tastes of whisky, doesn't it?' Harry sipped and nodded. 'What if I dropped it in the lake? The whisky would still be there but you wouldn't notice it. What happened was less than ten minutes in two centuries.' He scowled. 'This doesn't mean that I wouldn't cheerfully have turned you inside out and pickled you on numerous occasions since.'
'You wouldn't say that you've led something of a charmed life?'
Harry thought about that. 'Just what are you suggesting?'
'That, occasionally, you had a guardian.'
'You?' If that were the case, Harry decided, someone or something has a seriously warped sense of humour.
'For my sins.'
'But didn't the Dementors destroy the souls of their victims?'
'Obviously not.' Snape shook his head. 'Well, yes and no. I no longer have a soul, as such, but . . . It might be better described as an extreme form of change. In another few millennia I should understand it better. Apparently.' His mouth twitched wryly. 'I am quite sure that I will still be incapable of explaining it.'
'Situation normal,' murmured Harry. 'You were a terrible teacher.'
'But my results were excellent.' Snape considered his glass again. 'Sit down.' Noticing that they were back again, in the Headmaster's office, Harry sat down and took another sip of the drink that Snape had poured for him and tried to get some sort of handle on his disbelief. Not only was his nemesis not angry, he seemed relaxed, even friendly, enjoying the warmth of the whisky and the fire.
Harry sat back in his chair and gradually allowed himself to relax and enjoy his own drink while the fire burnt lower. Feet on the desk, Snape had managed to make himself comfortable despite the wings, and appeared to be in no hurry, but eventually Harry had to ask. 'Why are you here now?'
'To ensure that you get where you're supposed to be going.' Snape stood up and leant over the desk toward Harry. 'Because you are quite powerful enough to cause yourself harm, your perception of your own guilt is dangerous to you.'
'But I am guilty.'
'And you are forgiven.' Snape straightened, crossed to the windows and stretched, great wings extended across the pale green of dawn on the horizon.
Feathers Harry noted. Crow black feathers with bars of iridescent blue/purple.
The wings folded and Snape turned back to Harry. 'If you are ready?' he suggested dryly. 'If you are prepared?'
Sorry, but I can't imagine Dumbledore begging for his own life. Snape's up to something.
(Leonardo of Quirm belongs to Terry Pratchett).