One evening Albus comes to call at Severus's quarters, which is a little unusual. As Severus waves his wand around the room lighting some more candles to accomodate the company, Albus says, "I've been thinking long and hard about things. I believe I'm going to have to ask my old friend Horace to come teach here this year. I trust you remember Professor Slughorn?"
"Of course," Severus says a little absently. Then once he has a moment to think about it, he turns around to look straight at him. "But he was a Potions teacher."
His eyes go a little wide as he suddenly understands; there is no other reason he would come here to tell him about this right after coming to his decision.
"You mean you're letting me have...?"
"The Defense Against the Dark Arts job, yes," Albus says.
Severus looks at him a long time, and has to sit down just to think. It is so strange. After all this time he doesn't know how to feel about it. Over the several years he's been at Hogwarts, he has realized that maybe Albus was right about his reasons to not give him the job. Maybe without him even realizing it, his interest in teaching about the Dark Arts was just a remainder of the undesirable inclinations that led him to become responsible for the thing he so deepy regretted, reflecting a dormant but still-present desire to become something greater and more impressive.
After everything he did in hopes of acquiring power, so certain that it would be the answer to all of his difficulties and make everything better for him, and learning once it was too late that the cost was far too much, he is now just a humble teacher. That is probably the most he will ever be, and teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts will make no significant difference in his life. He has perhaps finally accepted this, as much he will ever be able to. There will always be that other part of him for which it's not enough. He will always be a man with a mark on his arm that burns. But at least he understands this now. Perhaps that was all Albus was waiting for.
Thinking of something, he asks, "The job is...most certainly cursed?"
"Oh yes, most certainly," Albus says. "We shall only expect you to last a year doing it, one way or another. But one year, I hope, should be enough."
"Enough for what?"
"To teach the children as much as you can before this war becomes even more of a threat to them and they find themselves in real danger and needing to defend themselves. I would like to be more optimistic, but I'm quite sure everything is going to get much worse before it gets better. I need someone I know will do the job right, and to be honest, I have few other options."
Severus sits still for a long moment. "...Since when did you have so much confidence in me?"
To his surprise, Dumbledore laughs lightly. "To keep from becoming corrupted by the Dark Arts again by teaching a class? After all the other immensely important things I've trusted you with by now, I think it would be rather ridiculous not to think you can handle this...for just one year, that is," he adds.
It takes Severus a moment to realize he was making a joke.
It does not get easier. The long, grinding time, rather than healing, seems to wear away at him more and more, so that the weight of it all only becomes harder to bear every day.
Harry Potter has now narrowly escaped death several times, not without some of his help, and he keeps growing older. But to him, it might as well be that nothing ever changes. The boy will always be without a mother.
He cannot forget it, at any moment. Over so much time it has turned into a constant bitterness at himself he always tastes. How sorry does one have to be for something like this, and for how long, for him to have finally paid enough for it?
And now he has learned that he'll have to take another life. Albus came back from some secret mission he left for on his own with a curse in his hand, and in a way he didn't understand, Severus felt for the first time like he genuinely hated him for being so careless. And he told him then what must be done, so infuriatingly calmly, and all he wants to say to him is "God damn you." After knowing him this long, without a doubt ending up knowing him the best of anyone, doesn't he understand? He cannot bear the weight of that responsibility, not along with everything else he already carries. He can't do it.
But he is now bound by more than one vow. His protection has extended beyond only the Potter boy in ways he never expected. He supposes he can't even be called a boy anymore, and nor is Draco Malfoy. But they are still young. Too young. Undamaged. But Severus Snape, his soul is already ruined anyway - why shouldn't he do it?
Albus seems to know exactly what thoughts are still bothering him for the next few days when he is suddenly so quiet with the overhanging, overwhelming magnitude of what he will have to do. As if thinking it will make him feel better, he says to him one time he comes to see him in his office, "I would not have asked you to do this if I didn't know you can. I know in the end, you are always willing to do what is necessary. You have the kind of bravery for that."
"How do you know?" he asks. "This is different from the other things I've done for you. I am not...I can't be very afraid of..."
"You don't fear death?" Albus finishes when he can't seem to. "Isn't that very brave in itself?"
"Not if it's because it's too late for me...For my life to get any better. The only thing I can be frightened of is all of this being for nothing, making no difference, after everything I've done."
"Some who feel as much remorse about things they've done as you might be afraid of paying for the way they've lived their lives after death. Of punishment."
"Anyone living with as much remorse as I have is already being punished. What difference does it make?"
Albus goes silent at what he says, and just looks at him like he is suddenly seeing him in a new way. Severus becomes uncomfortable with his eyes locked with his like that, and looks away.
Albus sighs a little, thinking, and then says, "You know...sometimes, Severus...not always, but sometimes...I think you are a little too hard on yourself."
He continues to sit still at the chair at his desk, saying nothing. Albus rises from the seat across from him and stands looking at him as if waiting for a final word.
"I can do it," Severus says quietly, closing his eyes a second.
Albus puts a firm hand on his shoulder. "Thank you. My good man...Sometimes I really cannot imagine what the Order would do if we didn't have you on our side."
The only thing he could be frightened of. The only thing.
Harry Potter will have to die.
He feels...he doesn't even know. His life has become protecting life, even though he has no love for it. He doesn't even like Potter. He hates him. But how can it be that all along this has been a lie, an illusion of purpose? He has been a pawn on a chess board. It feels like something inside him is laughing. You are the fool, Severus. Lily Evans is dead and gone. It's over. Your stupid, miserable life of service cannot make any difference. What will you do now if not this, when it's all you have?
But there is something else about it that's tearing at him, a feeling he can hardly make sense of, as he looks in disbelief at Albus now knowing what he has done. Severus always said it himself: He agreed to answer to him instead of Voldemort from then on, to do whatever he says, to do whatever it takes, but it doesn't mean he has to like it. It doesn't mean he and Albus have to like each other. It doesn't mean they're friends.
And yet right now it feels like so much has been lost in just a brief moment. A flash of green in a house in Godric's Hollow that lasts only a second and rearranges the whole world. All over again. "My good man..."
But has it really all been manipulation? Albus told him to meet him here in his office tonight, that he was going to prove his trust in him. Why tell him, why trust him with this information, if he knew the truth could turn him against him? You do not tell the pawn they've been a pawn right before you need them most. He even acted surprised by Severus's reaction and asked, "Have you grown to care for the boy, after all?"
Because of the two of them it was Albus, unthinkably, who underestimated love. He has never understood as much as Severus thought he did. It may not make any sense, but one's general compassion for all of humanity can be nothing compared to their love for just one person. This is the very essence of love: knowing someone as unique, as more than just anyone, as something special. If he is such a despicable person for caring about nobody but her, then all of the human race is loathsome filth because of their love.
All this time he kept his word that he would help him. He has been Dumbledore's man for sixteen years. He has stayed at Hogwarts where he can keep an eye on Harry and stepped in to help keep him out of harm's way, even though just looking at him made an old, intense hatred start burning in him again from the very beginning. He has become a spy. He has taken an Unbreakable Vow. He has agreed to use the Killing Curse and take Albus's life before anyone else can.
But what it was all for even Albus didn't recognize. The two of them, once on opposing sides in a war, Slytherin and Gryffindor, have learned to judge each other not so harshly, and even to admire certain qualities in each other. But still Albus only ever saw him and tried to understand him with his own narrow view, through the eyes of those in his House, applying only his own views of the world to make sense of his.
And when Severus does what he hates and conjures his Patronus, absolutely certain it is still the same form even with how long it has been since he needed it, the mistake Albus made becomes clear in the figure of the beautiful, glowing doe that leaps gracefully and weightlessly across the office.
For Lily. Always only for Lily.
Godric's Hollow. He has always been afraid to come here before, even if he knows it is as much as he deserves: to see all of the ruin and devastation he had a hand in. It is for the same reason he did not go to her and her husband's funeral. But he has never realized before that perhaps in this way, he never allowed himself to truly say goodbye.
The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death, it says. Perhaps he can believe it. Severus sinks down to the ground in front of the stone, his robes soaking up the snow under his knees, and realizes he brought nothing to place on her grave. His hands feel so empty, so useless, only still stained with the blood and powerless to undo what's been done.
What can I give you, Lily? What can I do now? There is nothing I can give you. Your one child must die. You gave your life so he could live, but now he has to die.
A chilling breeze blows through the graveyard, rustling the leaves of trees until they sound almost like voices. And some kind of understanding seems to seep into his mind like the freezing cold dampness now gathering at the bottom of his robes. Harry is his mother's son. She gave her life for the good it could bring, and now he will do the same. This is what he could never understand, but what even James Potter must have. To him, there was only always the wrenching question Why? This whole world is such an endless affliction to him, and has only ever treated him coldly, except for the time that now seems so brief when compassion was always there for him in her eyes like warm, healing light from the sun. He cannot help it. He doesn't feel all the pain of others in the world like a phoenix can. He cannot see the nobility of suffering for all of humanity, the pure and the wicked all together, so many nameless faces only ever looking at him and then looking back away. But Lily could.
And what she did for her son he would have done for her. She probably never knew.
It is like the grief is new all over again, the shock he already processed. He suddenly feels physically sick with the guilt, and even as the tears pour it does not feel like a relief as much as a difficult effort to pull out something that can't be removed no matter how much he cries. The words I'm sorry, I'm sorry fill him like a million needles driven in him all over, but they stay behind his gritted teeth. He cannot even begin to say it, not in a way that will ever be enough, not now. Seventeen years of a life spent with no freedom from paying what he owes her, and he still has more to ask her forgiveness for besides just her death. It feels like he has only begun to repent.
With cold, slightly trembling hands he reaches into his robes and takes out the page of the letter to Black with Lily's writing on it that he took. He kisses it and makes a third vow: to never again wish he could forsake ever having known her and loved her, no matter what. He will not envy the one who killed her any longer. For someone who clings so desperately to life, he has no idea what life is. A smile from someone that seems to reach inside you and make every nerve more relaxed, that feels like the only thing happening in the world at the moment. The girl hitting your arm playfully whenever you say something mean, trying to point out to you the cloud in the sky that looks like a turtle, and not knowing you're watching as she stares off in another direction just to take in how her deep green eyes look in the flickering light from a fireplace. God, she was so beautiful. And still so young. The loss of just one life out of everyone in the world can make it feel like an entire city has fallen. The Dark Lord has no idea.
Maybe love is hell, but he will boldly walk through it for her, feel the burning of the flames for the whole of his remaining life.
He is not completely aware of what he says to Harry Potter as everything starts to slip away. The room around him seems hardly there. There is only the pair of eyes he knows so well.
And he forgets the pain where the snake's fangs sank in, and drifts instead to somewhere else - a memory. One time in a hallway when Sirius Black tripped him and he fell to the floor, and the next thing he knew he was looking deep into her concerned eyes above him as she dropped to the floor at his side, putting a hand on his arm as she asked if he was okay. He can almost feel her gentle touch now, the way it made his bitterness and anger subside right away. He remembers how the sound of her laugh was almost like a touch itself, the brushing of a soft feather, and he cannot see anymore how it ever mattered that he could never have her completely, never actually hold her. Other ways he knew her love have come to have so much more permanence than touch, and are still with him now.
As he feels the weight starting to lift, he lets the green eyes fill him completely, and himself become set free in them. Death cannot touch them. They will stretch on forever, lasting outside of time and never fading, and from death they will protect him. They penetrate him completely, the only thing that can see straight into the deepest part of him, stripping away all else until there is nothing left but the final judgement. And he is waiting and ready to finally be released from the burning chains, released from himself. He is not afraid.