Prologue: The Final Battle
It surprised me, if only because I had always hoped for a blessed Nothing after death. Since there was precious little to commend me for a heavenly reward, I had long believed that having my soul snuffed out like the flame on a candle was preferable to roasting in a fiery hell. But this was… What was this?
I cautiously opened my eyes and found milky whiteness everywhere. I was alone, as near as I could tell. There was no sound, no source of light although this place was bright enough to cause me to squint. Did that mean I had eyes? Tentatively, I raised an arm and flexed the fingers of my hand; my skin, I noted, was almost transparent. Surely I wasn't – had never wanted to be – a ghost… Ghosts chose to remain in the physical plane, while I wanted nothing more than to flee the madness that had been my life. The mere thought of spending eternity cruising through the halls of Hogwarts was enough to send me into flat-out panic. Wondering if I could speak, I croaked a hoarse, "Hello? Is anybody there?"
Immediately, I sensed footsteps coming closer.
I knew the voice instantly. And at once I felt familiar, icy fingers of self-loathing and despair clawing at me.
At the mention of the name, a smiling Albus Dumbledore came into view. He reached out to grip me by the shoulder. "There, there, Severus, it's all right. Really."
The compassion in Dumbledore's voice sent tears streaming down my cheeks immediately. I hadn't heard anyone address me with sympathy and concern for a very long time.
"I – I seem to be dead," I said, my voice cracking.
"It would seem that way," Dumbledore noted dryly.
"I'm not surprised that I'm dead. The surprise is that we seem to be in the same place."
"Ah. Didn't think we'd end up together, eh?"
I shook my head vigorously. Dumbledore sighed.
"The truth is, this place has had a very busy day. I was just chatting with Harry, and –"
"Potter's dead?" I blurted in dismay. "There's no hope, then. The Dark Lord will take over immediately!"
"Actually, he's not dead. No more than you."
"What? What do you mean?"
"I suspect," Dumbledore continued calmly, "that Madame Pomfrey would do a much finer job of explaining it to you, but as she's still quite alive, you'll have to make do with me."
"Could we get to it, then?" I felt a bit lightheaded; surely dying should have earned me some straight answers. Blast the old man and his penchant for stringing out a story!
"Apparently, Severus, you were previously exposed to Nagini's venom. Were you bitten on an earlier occasion?"
I stared at the curious blue eyes, and it crossed my mind briefly to wonder why a dead man still wore spectacles. "I – I don't – I can't remember –" But even as I spoke, a vague recollection surfaced.
A year or so earlier, there had been a Death Eater named Purcell, a man who had never completely won favor with Voldemort. He had a short temper and a large ego, which meant that no one was surprised when the Dark Lord killed him; we were merely curious as to why it had taken so long. Voldemort, I remembered now, had just begun to favor using the snake to dispatch his enemies. It was a novelty he seemed to enjoy; apparently, a simple Avada Kedavra was too taxing and didn't provide the gut satisfaction of seeing one's victim die a lingering death.
I recalled standing next to the unlucky Purcell, then jumping back when the snake lunged for the man. I had raised my own arm in self-defense, and it was barely grazed when Nagini, fangs bared, launched herself past me. Annoyed at finding the wrong flesh in her trajectory, the snake had to recoil and strike once more. This one was a direct hit on the hapless victim. Voldemort, meanwhile, turned his distorted face toward me.
"Are you bitten, Severussss?"
"No, my Lord, it is merely a scratch."
And I had thought it was, even when the small wound festered for a few days before finally healing. Now, looking back at the incident, I could see where I might have inadvertently received a drop of venom through the scratch.
"I believe that is possible," I admitted.
Dumbledore nodded. "Then you must have achieved some measure of immunity, which explains why you did not die instantly."
"But the blood… There was so much blood…"
"Perhaps not as much as you think. As a Head of House, I'm sure you've been made aware time and time again that a relatively small amount of blood looks like a massive hemorrhage."
I nodded. More than once, I'd had to calm down hysterical Slytherins whose hijinks resulted in minor bloodshed in the dormitory.
"It's just a little blood, for Merlin's sake! Get to the hospital wing and let Madam Pomfrey deal with it!" If I had a galleon for every time I'd said that during my teaching tenure, I could have taken early retirement.
"Then… I'm to live?" I questioned, frowning.
"So it seems." Dumbledore nodded, looking somber.
I sat down, although there was no chair present that I could see. Abruptly, I burst into laughter. My body – if you could call it that – shook with the effort, and tears streamed from my eyes once more.
"Merlin's sodding broomstick! Why?"
Dumbledore regarded me warily. "Why are you still alive? I cannot answer that, I'm afraid."
Still chuckling, I swiped at my cheeks with one hand. "Of all the idiotic, misbegotten outcomes… I've been near to death more times than any man has a right to be, and I'm still bloody alive?"
"I don't make the decisions here, Severus."
"Fine! I leave one miserable existence, only to find that it's not yet over?" My laughter faded and was immediately replaced by a fierce scowl.
Dumbledore ignored my question. "The reason I came to greet you is that I wanted to thank you for everything you've done."
Everything I've done. I felt an overwhelming urge to throttle the former Headmaster, although I wasn't too certain that it would be effective in this arena. "As if I had a choice?" I demanded bitterly.
"You always had a choice," Dumbledore retorted, his tone suddenly icy. "And I, for one, am extremely grateful that you sacrificed so much for the cause."
Still sullen, I retreated. I muttered, "You're welcome, then."
"It's not too late, you know."
When Albus spoke, his voice was far gentler. "I have no idea. I'm sure you'll think of something."
Riddles. If it wasn't one Riddle, it was another. I counted to ten. "Are you finished with me?"
"If you wish. All you need to do is walk away from me, and you'll find yourself back in the Shrieking Shack." Dumbledore turned to go. "Goodbye then, Severus."
"Wait!" I felt a sudden bubble of panic rising within.
Dumbledore stopped to regard me patiently. "Yes?"
And suddenly, I was at a loss for words. There was much I wanted to say, but given how much I enjoyed berating students with my broad and varied vocabulary, I was completely useless at expressing feelings of affection. "I – I'm sorry. So sorry…"
"You know exactly for what. You asked me to do something no man should ask another."
"Oh. My death, you mean." Albus looked sublimely unconcerned. "Water under the bridge, Severus. I'm rather enjoying myself here."
"Of course, you are. For me, it was horrible. Quite frankly, it was worse than any task the Dark Lord ever assigned me."
Dumbledore stared at me for a long moment, and then he slowly nodded, his eyes misting over. Once more, he reached out to grip my shoulder. "I'm sorry, too. If I'd seen another way…"
I nodded, then coughed abruptly to cover the bare emotion of the moment. "At any rate," I said, straightening up and composing myself, "I must thank you as well. I earned your trust, and that is no small thing."
There was an enormous lump in my throat, and it seemed that Albus was having the same problem. Dumbledore finally spoke.
"Very well, then. I must be off. It's time for you to return, Severus."
"Wait!" I said again, understanding finally clicking in my mind. "Is there a way to – to – see someone else here before I leave?"
A small, knowing smile stole over Dumbledore's face. "I believe there is."
Immediately, a noise on my right caused me to look in that direction. In my peripheral vision, I saw Dumbledore vanish, while ahead of me another figure took form and substance. Lily Evans Potter, her dark red hair tumbling over her shoulders and her green eyes glistening, stood smiling at me.
"Hello, Sev," she said softly.
"Lily." The lump in my throat was larger than ever.
She stretched out her hands to me, and I took them immediately.
"I'm so glad to see you," she murmured. "How are you doing?"
"I've – I've been better," I said, my voice thick with emotion.
"You're going back, I hear."
"Apparently." Was there actually a silly grin on my face, or did it simply feel that way?
"I want to thank you. For helping to keep Harry safe all these years."
The silly grin, if it had been there at all, vanished abruptly. One scene after another paraded across my brain, an endless, vivid depiction of every occasion on which I had belittled, derided and tormented Harry Potter.
"I didn't do as well as you think," I muttered, dropping Lily's hands at once.
"He's alive, isn't he?" Lily pointed out.
I was tempted to retort, You'd know if he wasn't, but chose to let the words die on my lips. "I'm so sorry," I mumbled. "For everything."
"Sev, the past is gone. It does no good to relive it."
Lily truly looked as beautiful as she had all those years ago, I thought. "I may not relive it, but I'll never forget it," I said huskily.
She said nothing at first, her eyes studying me intently. Then a weak smile played on her lips. "Nor will I," she murmured. "The good times, I mean."
It was the nicest, most wonderful thing she could have said to me. I reached up to find that my cheeks were wet with tears once more. "Do you mean that?" I whispered.
"Absolutely." Lily paused to wipe away tears of her own. "You were my first friend in the wizarding world."
"You were my friend," I said slowly. "My only true friend, and I threw that away."
Lily swallowed, then managed an encouraging smile. "It does no good to keep going over this, you know."
"Life… happens, Sev. It doesn't follow the paths you expect, and sometimes you get derailed, and sometimes –"
"—sometimes you die long before you should," I finished for her. "Or, in my case, you keep living for some godforsaken reason."
"Perhaps you've been given a second chance," Lily ventured.
"Second?" I snorted. "More like a third or fourth chance. It should be you, not me."
She flashed me a tremulous smile, taking my hands once more. "But it's not, is it? Take this chance, Sev. Take this chance and run with it."
I must have looked so doubtful that Lily burst out laughing. She pulled herself up on tiptoe and planted a brief kiss on my cheek. "Be happy, my old friend."
I felt myself being drawn backwards. Or was Lily the one backing away?
"I loved you," I said desperately as the gulf between us widened.
"I know. And I loved you too," she murmured.
Had I heard her correctly? Had Lily Evans actually declared her love for me? My thoughts tumbled over and over within my mind, just as my body seemed to be tumbling end over end through nothingness. I wanted to stay, to find out more, but I was falling faster than ever.
With an enormous effort, I opened my eyes and found myself lying on the filthy floor of the Shrieking Shack, my cheek soaking in a pool of my own blood.