The Shrieking Shack, Hogsmeade, Scotland, May 1998.
He had not expected to die from a snakebite.
He had expected to die, of course. Severus had never imagined that he would survive the war. He had not even particularly wanted to. From that horrible moment seventeen years ago, when he had learned of Lily's death, his purpose in life had been to help defeat the evil monster who had killed her and to protect the boy, Lily's son, who had survived. It didn't matter that he loathed the boy, could scarcely bear the sight of him. Harry Potter was Lily's son and Severus had sworn to keep him safe.
A foolish promise, as it had turned out. Despite Severus' best efforts, the boy was destined to die anyway. His death was the only way to ensure Voldemort's destruction and no one could spare him from it, not Albus Dumbledore who had truly cared for the boy, nor Severus who had despised him.
Except that he didn't. Not anymore, or at least, not as much. Ever since he had learned of the horrible sacrifice the boy would have to make, and then in the ensuing months when he had heard occasional rumours of the trio's escapades and had secretly rejoiced at each victory, Severus had had a difficult time summoning the old hostility he'd once felt for Harry Potter.
There were even times when he had felt something akin to sympathy for him.
Sympathy and a sort of bitter resignation at the cruel fate that had condemned them both.
But he had come to accept that whatever destiny awaited the Potter boy, his own path was clear; to continue in his role of spy against Voldemort, using all of his considerable skill and subterfuge to masquerade as one of the Dark Lord's closest followers while sabotaging his plans as much as possible, until the day he would die.
Severus had always tried not to think of that day, but sometimes he had not been able to stop himself. And of all the possible means he had imagined…various methods of torture, dying in battle…somehow he had never considered death-by-Nagini. Well, what was the saying? The things you worry about never come to pass?
No, it's the unexpected that always bites you in the rear, or in his case, in the neck, Severus thought with wry irony. Still, there was a certain poetic justice in the Head of Slytherin House dying from a snakebite.
Severus had a crazy urge to laugh, if he had been able to by that point, and decided that it must be the loss of blood affecting him. He had lost a tremendous amount in just the past few minutes. It couldn't be much longer now. He could sense the darkness hovering at the edge of his consciousness and suddenly he was ready for it. This life had brought him only pain and misery. He hoped the next would be better.
And maybe, just maybe, he would see Lily again.
As the darkness overcame him, Severus tried to picture her in his mind; Lily's delicate face, long red hair, and brilliant green eyes, but somehow her image kept blurring into her son's and the last thing Severus saw was a slight boy with tousled dark hair and a thin face, but with the same emerald eyes…
A Better Place, May 1998.
He was lying on a smooth hard surface, but it was not uncomfortable. For a while…Severus had no idea if it were minutes or hours…he simply lay still, feeling more relaxed and at peace than he had in a very long time. But eventually he did begin to feel curious about where he might be and he sat up and looked around.
He was in the lobby of a large building, sitting on a black and white diamond-patterned floor. Long gleaming counter-tops stood along opposite walls, while a third wall behind him was entirely of glass. White mist obscured the outside view though, so Severus had no idea what might lie beyond.
The fourth wall, directly ahead of him, was the most curious. A tall door was surrounded on either side by posters, yet the posters were blank.
The entire place seemed deserted, except for him. A fortunate thing, as Severus abruptly realised that he was naked. He was shocked that it had taken him so long to discover that fact, but as soon as it had occurred to him, a stack of neatly folded clothes…all black…appeared, rising through the floor just as the plates of food did at Hogwarts.
Severus hesitated, but the clothes seemed to be meant for him. They were even black. So after a couple of seconds, he reached for them and caught his breath when he saw that the hated Dark Mark branded on his left forearm had vanished. He brought his right hand up and brushed trembling fingers over the smooth skin, staring in wonder.
But after a while he remembered that he needed the clothes and hurriedly grabbed at them. He dressed quickly, hoping against hope that no one would appear before he was suitably covered. No one did; he seemed to be quite alone in this place, wherever it was.
Severus stood and gazed about again, feeling increasingly bewildered. He caught sight of his reflection in the glass wall and was almost surprised at how normal he looked; a tall lean figure, dressed in black, with dark hair that brushed the collar of his shirt and a long pale face with obsidian eyes.
But no wounds. Slowly Severus brought a hand up to feel his neck, verifying what he could see in his reflection. The bite marks were gone, just as the Dark Mark was gone, as if they had never been. He didn't even have a scar.
Feeling dazed, he turned once more to face the last wall, with the door and the empty posters and moved towards it, the click of his boots against the floor sounding impossibly loud in the utter silence.
Severus moved through the door and entered another large room. Rows of seats sat before a large blank screen flanked by velvet drapes. Now he knew the type of building he was in, though he was startled by it. He had never imagined the afterlife consisting of a giant cinema. He had never been much of a movie-goer before, though he and Lily had gone to a few in their youth, before everything had been ruined…before he had ruined everything. But he knew what one did at the cinema so he slowly made his to a chair and sat down.
What sort of show did one watch in the afterlife anyway?
A re-play of one's time on earth perhaps? And then would he face some sort of judgment? Severus swallowed hard, feeling a deep sense of shame and trepidation. He knew better than anyone the horrible mistakes he had made, the terrible acts he had participated in, and he dreaded the thought of having to re-live them again. The memories were hard enough to bear.
But whatever judgment passed upon him, it would be no more than he deserved and whatever else he was, he was not a coward. He would face it with as much courage and acceptance as he could muster.
Still, he was suddenly grateful to be alone. He didn't want anyone else to see all the worst parts of his life. He had been hated and feared enough.
Then the lights dimmed and pictures flickered across the screen. But they weren't scenes from Severus' life.
He watched Dumbledore and Minerva McGonagall walk down a dark street before the dim outlines of identical houses, discussing the fate of a small toddler. He saw a tiny boy, little more than a baby, with messy dark hair and sad green eyes, curl up in the corner of a small cupboard and weep for his lost parents. He saw the same child grow and survive a childhood that seemed as bleak and miserable as Severus' own.
The young whale of a cousin bullied and isolated him. The aunt and uncle alternately ignored or mistreated the boy. The child seemed to live in the cupboard, locked away out of sight for hours at a time. He was forced to work harder than any house-elf, half-starved, and slapped, punched, and shoved around by the very people who should have protected and cared for him.
And then he came to Hogwarts. For the first time he had friends and felt wanted and loved. But there were secrets and dangers at the school, too, and abuse. Severus saw the boy and his friends in their first Potions class. He saw himself striding through his old classroom, snapping out his traditional opening day lecture. He saw the boy diligently taking notes and himself baiting the child.
Severus watched as the next few years went by. He saw the trials and triumphs, many of which he already knew of, but it was different to see things from the boy's perspective. He saw himself, mocking and ridiculing him at every turn, taking every opportunity to hurt and humiliate the child. And not just this child, but many of the others as well.
For the first time Severus felt remorse for the way he had treated his students. It was true that many of them were dunderheads and Severus had never had any patience for idiocy…but was it possible that their fear of him had been at least part of the reason for their clumsiness and incompetence? But no matter. There was no excuse for the way he had taken out his own pain and fear on them. The children had deserved better.
Harry Potter had deserved better.
The final scene, of the boy leaving the headmaster's office, knowing that he had to sacrifice himself, ended. The room became dark and still again.
But Severus was no longer alone.
He knew who would be sitting beside him even before he turned his head.
"Albus," he stated. His voice was thick and he realised for the first time that tears were silently slipping down his cheeks.
His old mentor turned to face him, grief written across his face as well. But instead of commenting on the Potter boy's travesty of a life or on Severus' shortcomings, Dumbledore placed a hand on his shoulder and said softly, "Well done, Severus. Congratulations."
Severus could only stare at him speechlessly for a long moment. He had always suspected that Dumbledore was not completely sane, but congratulations at this moment seemed absurd even for him. Dumbledore simply gazed back at him, seeming sad but serene. The older wizard looked much the same as Severus remembered, except that both his hands were healed and whole. His long silver hair and beard were neatly combed and he wore golden robes and slippers, so bright they almost sparkled.
Finally Severus managed to sputter, "What?" He waved a hand towards the screen. "Did you not see any of that? I failed him. I…"
"I failed him, Severus," Dumbledore interrupted. "I left him with the Dursleys. I ignored Minerva's warnings. I never went to check on him. I refused to see the signs, because I had convinced myself that there was no other choice and I didn't want to admit that I might have made such a costly error, that I was responsible for a great deal of Harry's pain."
Severus shook his head. "I misjudged him and mistreated him. You tried to tell me, but I couldn't see past my own pain. I have always been a selfish, cruel person," he finished in a low voice.
"At times, yes," Dumbledore replied calmly. "But not always. You have served the Light faithfully, saving many innocent lives and often suffering and risking your own to do so. You have stayed the course, no matter the cost, and you have contributed greatly to today's victory."
"Victory?" Severus raised his head.
Dumbledore nodded and smiled, though his blue eyes were still sorrowful. "Yes, victory. Voldemort will die soon, if he has not already. All the horcruxes are destroyed so he will truly be gone this time. But it is victory with a high price."
"Potter's life," Severus said softly.
But Dumbledore shook his head. "No, Lily's protection saved him once more. Harry was able to return. Voldemort will die at his hand today."
Slowly Severus smiled. "It was not in vain."
"No, not in vain. But I fear for Harry still," Dumbledore replied in a grave tone.
"Because he has lost everyone. Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley have died, as have most of the Weasley family. Harry is more alone now than ever." Dumbledore's blue eyes pierced Severus. "He needs you."
Severus blinked at him, wondering if he had heard correctly. "Needs me? But I'm…here. I'm dead, aren't I?"
Dumbledore did not answer directly. "Severus, you know how often I tried to convince you to give Harry a chance? How I never gave up on trying to force a reconciliation between the two of you?"
Severus nodded, a tad impatiently.
"Well, at the time I had a feeling, but now it is much more. I know that you and Harry were meant to be together. Harry has always longed for a parent. You need someone to care for. For both of you, the greatest desire of your heart is to have a family, to love and be loved. You can heal Harry, and he can heal you."
Severus sighed. "But I'm dead."
Dumbledore gave him an indulgent smile, as a parent explaining something to a stubborn child. "Yes, but you are being given a second chance. It is a rare thing, Severus, not often granted. But, as I said, you and Harry were meant to be together and even death cannot prevent it."
"So I have to go back?" Severus asked. He wasn't sure he liked that idea. He had been ready to leave all the pain and sorrow behind. To learn that he had to go back to it after all…
"No, it is your choice," Dumbledore replied. "You can leave the cinema and go on, if you wish. But if you go back, I think you will not regret it. You need Harry as much as he needs you, though that might not be apparent right away."
Severus slumped, resting his head in his hands. He didn't want this. He didn't. But he kept seeing images of Harry Potter in his mind: the little boy weeping in the cupboard, the stoic resignation on his face as he sat in Potions class, the dull hopelessness in his eyes…Lily's eyes…as he left to walk to his death, or so he had thought.
And now, with Weasley and Granger gone, the boy was truly alone. Severus knew how close the three of them had been. He honestly couldn't imagine Potter being able to carry on without them.
No, not Potter. Harry. He was going to have to start thinking of the child as Harry.
Severus sighed and raised his head. "Very well, Albus. I shall go back."
*** Yes, this will be a Christmas story, though it has not started out as one. I hope you enjoy it and thanks for reading!