Warning: THIS STORY CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR DEATHLY HALLOWS!
Disclaimer: Everything concerning Harry Potter belongs to J.K. Rowling and her publishers, no money is being made.
The first thing that Severus knew was that he was not in the Shrieking Shack any more, because when he opened his eyes, there was bright light shining through leaves above his head. There were trees, he now realised when he carefully pushed himself up on his elbows, and he was lying on a thick, soft carpet of grass, on a small clearing between the trees. Everything was green and gold, lush plants and light, the air was pleasantly warm, and a slight breeze was rustling in the leaves, mingling with the chirping of birds and the sound of water somewhere nearby.
For some time, he simply stared, gaping. It was too bizarre, too surreal, too beautiful. Just minutes ago, Nagini had slammed her fangs into him, then he'd been lying on the filthy floor of the battered old shack, with Potter staring at him, Potter, who was on his own now, whom he could no longer protect... Instinctively, he brought his fingers up to his neck where he had been bitten. There were no wounds, just a fading ache, weaker with every moment.
Someone was calling him. Who knew him here? Where was 'here' in the first place?
He turned his head into the direction of the approaching voice, surprised. It was familiar, but he hadn't heard it for so long, far too long - and only now did he realise the nickname, and it made his stomach clench with fear and hope. Could it be...could it really be? If so, this would all make sense.
And then he saw her. He recognised her immediately, would recognise her anywhere, anytime, no matter the circumstances. She was running towards him quickly, her long, red hair shimmering in the sunlight like molten copper and gold, eyes greener than any of the plants around them, waving at him, smiling.
He got to his feet, stumbling a little as the world began to spin around his dizzy head, and then she was there and had thrown her arms around him.
"Oh, Sev, thank you! Thank you! We saw it all; you were so brave, and they would never have made it without you! Thank you!"
He barely heard her words; he was standing stiff and frozen, too stunned to react, overwhelmed by her sudden closeness, her face pressing against his neck, her hair tickling his nose, her arms holding him, warm and tight.
Finally, with great effort, he was able to think and move again, and he gently pried her off him just enough so he could look her in the eyes.
"I'm...dead, then." It wasn't a question, but she nodded, her smile fading slightly.
So this was the afterlife. He had never much thought about it, hadn't even really believed in it. And to think he would meet her again...he had never even dreamt of it.
"Your son -"
"He's safe," she said, and he felt a ridiculous amount of relief. "He killed Voldemort, and he's fine. Everything's going to be fine for them." She smiled more again, her voice now warm and vibrating with gratefulness. "Because you always protected him. Thank you so much."
The words hit him like a fist, and he snatched back his hands from her arms, where he had held her. He tried to draw back, but he still was weak and disoriented, and she simply wrapped her arms closer around him.
"Let me go!" His voice was as raw as he felt inside, but she wouldn't listen.
"No, Sev, you needn't worry. Everything's all right now."
But it wasn't, and he had to tell her. Tell her and see her recoil in shock and disgust, her eyes growing cold as they had once before, so many years ago.
"Sev?" She was staring up at him, looking concerned, and he couldn't take it, not when he knew that she would hate him in just a few seconds.
The words didn't want to come, and when they finally did, he had to wrench them from his heart, an ugly, shaky croak: "It was me. The prophecy. I told him. You died because of me. Your son lived without you because of me. It's my fault. Everything."
He had closed his eyes as he had been speaking, and now he was waiting, waiting for her to let go of him, to tell him that she loathed him, and he knew he deserved it.
"Not everything," a soft, male voice said suddenly. A hand was placed on Severus's shoulder, and when his eyes jerked open, he saw Peter Pettigrew standing by his side – not the grovelling, pathetic fool he had become over the years, but a younger, healthy-looking version of the man.
"Not everything," Pettigrew said again. "You weren't the only one to betray them." There were sympathy and understanding written on his face.
"But that doesn't matter any more." Another voice, another face: brown eyes behind glasses, unruly black hair, a smile he had used to hate so much – Potter.
"They're right, Severus." Black. Calling him 'Severus', with no hint of the usual dislike in his voice. "It's all over now. You needn't worry about what you did any more."
He didn't understand, and he didn't like it; how they all looked at him with sympathy, how they suddenly seemed to think they were friends, their smiles directed at him, Pettigrew's hand still on his shoulder.
His eyes searched Lily's again, because she was the only one that really mattered, and maybe she would explain.
"I...I don't understand."
"We knew. We knew it was you, ever since we arrived here."
It made even less sense. If they had known, if she had known, how could she have welcomed him like she did, how could she still talk to him, smile at him, touch him? She had left him for wrong choices when they had still been at school, and this wrong choice, this mistake, had been so much graver than any other.
"We're not angry," she went on. "You made up for it; you gave everything to help Harry. All those years, I saw what you did, we all saw it. And here, in this place," she looked around, and his gaze followed hers, over sunlight toying with leaves, over flowers, and a spotless blue sky, "nothing of it matters any more. This isn't a place for guilt and regret; it's a place for healing, and happiness." She smiled at him once more. "You're forgiven, Sev."
He stared at her silently, and then, suddenly, he had crumbled to the ground and was crying, with her arms still around him and the others watching in silence. He couldn't care about them, about anything but her closeness and his pain, and it seemed that the only thing he was still able to say was, "I'm sorry," in between an endless row of sobs so hard that he thought he might be sick any moment. It didn't happen, though, and he calmed down again, still clutching her tightly, his face buried against her chest where he could feel the faint beating of her heart. Her hand was on his head, stroking, soothing.
"Lily. I...I've always...always..." But he couldn't say the words, couldn't tell her that he had loved her – that he still did – not with Black, and Pettigrew, and Potter still here.
"I know," she whispered, and he finally raised his head and looked up at her, into the eyes that had been the last thing he had seen before he died. Her face was now serious, and he wished he could be alone with her, that Potter would turn and leave instead of stepping forward and touching her shoulder, his expression now serious as well.
"Can't you leave us alone even now?" he snapped, and the bitterness in his voice made him flinch inwardly. Nothing had changed, it seemed; even in afterlife his heart felt still raw and bleeding, burning with hatred for those who had made his life hell at school, and Potter especially, who had taken her away from him.
"Listen, Sev, please!" Lily suddenly sounded worried, scared even, her grip on him tightening. "You mustn't...you mustn't hate him any more. And you mustn't love me any more, not like that. You're hurting yourself with it. You need to let go. It's so much easier here than it's when you're alive, can't you feel it?"
He mutely shook his head. He couldn't let go any more than he could have ripped out his heart while he had still been living, and he didn't understand why he should want it. It was the only thing that had driven him, had enabled him to do everything that he had done.
A cool wind suddenly blew over the clearing, and he shivered. The others must have felt it as well, because Lily turned her head away from him, her eyes anxiously searching for something – and then she seemed to have found it, and all colour drained from her face.
"No," she whispered, shaken. "No, not him. Please, not him."
He followed her gaze and saw two human figures at the edge of the clearing, of a dark gray colour, their outlines blurred, as if smoke had gathered and taken human forms.
"They've come to take him." Potter sounded sad, and it irritated Severus almost more than the strange events.
"Who are they? What's happening?" he demanded, but he got no answer. All eyes were locked on the figures, who were now approaching, slowly but determinedly, and Lily was still murmuring, "Not him, not him," over and over.
"Lily? Lily, look at me! Who are they?"
She slowly turned and stared at him, eyes wide and swimming with tears. Shocked, he raised a hand without thinking and brushed it over her cheek – but as he did so, his fingers started to slip through her skin and flesh, and with a strangled outcry, he snatched them back. A weird, uncomfortable feeling was spreading on his back and waist, and when he looked, he saw Lily pulling back her hands, not from him, but through him, as if he were only a ghost.
"You're fading, Sev. They...they're really coming for you."
"Fading? How...fuck, Lily, what's going on? Tell me! I don't understand anything!"
"They're called the Guardians, but we're not allowed to explain more." It was Black who had spoken, and when Severus looked at him, he meant to see that he was trembling, fists clenched, still staring at the approaching figures. "They'll tell you everything you need to know, and you have to find out the rest for yourself. It will all become clear if...when you come back."
If he came back?
"We'll be waiting for you, Sev. I promise!" Lily was crying now, and Potter had knelt down beside them, wrapping his arms around her. Even now, Severus's first thought wasn't with whatever it was that would happen, but that he wanted to be in Potter's place, that he would give anything if only he could stay with her.
And then they were upon him, dark shadows surrounded by an icy chill, with no eyes to see and no mouths to speak, and yet he could feel their gaze upon him, and their voices inside his head.
Like a puppet, he was forced to obey, getting up from the ground, and whatever warmth had still lingered within his eerily ghost-like body vanished as their hands touched him and made him turn, away from the woman he loved.
They started to walk, and he had to follow between them, and even though everything inside him cried out that he didn't want to come, that he wanted to stay, here, with her, he could not speak. I'll come back, he wanted to say, but his mouth moved without making a sound.
In front of them, the edge of the clearing was changing: the outlines of the trees became blurred like the figures leading him away, colour and light draining from them more and more, until they were sickly shadows of trees, and then they vanished entirely, leaving only darkness – a darkness they were inevitably approaching.
Black, it seemed, had been running after them, and now he had passed them, walking backwards so he could look at Severus as he spoke.
"Listen, Severus! You need to remember this, no matter what! There will be help, do you understand me?" His tone was beseeching, frantic. "There will be help, but you must decide to accept it. If you don't, there's nothing that can be done. You must not forget this!"
The last thing that Severus saw before the darkness swallowed him and his escort were Black's terrified eyes - then nothing.
He was surrounded by complete darkness, but he knew he was not alone, for he could still feel the Guardians' icy touch on his arms and back, leading him on to he knew not where, to a purpose he did not care about, because all he cared about had been ripped away once again.
He had no idea how long they had been walking when slowly, the darkness seemed to lift in front of them. There were shapes, and faint sounds in the distance that sounded like human voices.
"Where are we going?" he asked, and he was surprised that he could speak again.
"This place has many names," he heard the Guardians answer, "but we shall give you those that might be most familiar to you. For those who are able to eventually leave again, it is Purgatory. For those who will stay, it is Hell."
With every word, the air around him seemed to become colder, the distant voices louder, and the slowly building terror inside him stronger.
"But why am I here? Haven't I paid enough? And Lily...she said I'm...that I'm forgiven!"
Or had she been wrong? Because if not, what was he doing here? If you were forgiven, you didn't belong in Hell.
"She did not lie. Everyone has forgiven you. Everyone except for yourself. You hate yourself, and you still hate those who died before you, and you love the woman in a way that should not be. There is no place for those feelings in Elysium. You should have let go of all this when you died, but there are those unfortunate souls who cannot, or do not want to do so. You are one of them. Do not see your presence here as punishment – it is a second chance."
Severus wanted to answer, tell them that he did not understand, but they went on, "Heed the advice your friend gave you. It is your decision to accept the help that will be offered." And before he could protest that this wasn't fair and they needed to tell him more, their hold on him loosened, and they were fading away together with the darkness.