He saw the headmaster leaning heavily on the ornate chair behind his desk with his blackened, shriveled hand hanging useless beside him, and he knew then and there that it was a lost cause. He had gotten Dumbledore out of tight spots before, but this was different. The ring rested on the desk in front of him. The black stone was broken, cleaved down the middle, but it still had a distinctly malicious glitter to it. Snape moved his attention from the ring to Dumbledore's drawn face, and strode forward to support him as he teetered unsteadily.
The most he managed to do was contain the curse to one hand. His best efforts would not be enough to spare the headmaster's life; indeed, he doubted that any could have stopped the curse completely. But he bought him another year of life, perhaps, and Dumbledore assured him that it would be enough.
Snape wanted to know, at the very least, why Dumbledore had been so foolish as to put on the ring in the first place. Dumbledore did not protest; perhaps he realized that Snape could not be kept in the dark for much longer. After the story was told, Snape stayed with him for most of the night. When Dumbledore finally drifted off to sleep, Snape stood to leave. But as he reached the door, something made him pause. He turned. The ring was still glittering on the desk, now looking resoundingly innocent. He felt it calling to something deep inside him. The curse was already broken; surely it could not hurt. With a last glance at the man slumped over in a deep sleep beside him, he slid the ring onto his finger and closed his eyes. His thoughts focused on one thing, one person…
He felt her in the room before he saw her. Her presence was like the light staining the sky before the sun rose above the trees, warm and glowing. Suddenly, he was afraid. He didn't know why he had called her here; she was dead, she did not belong in the world of the living, and she did not want to see him, the man responsible for her murder. What could he possibly say to her?
"Sev." Hearing his name was like a hex to the chest. No one had called him Sev since the day she had turned her back on him. He could not keep his eyes shut any longer, could not hide from what he had brought upon himself. He opened his eyes.
She stood a few feet away from him, next to a table covered in delicate silver instruments. She was not quite solid, nor she did not look like a ghost; simply a person who was not quite real. Her hair was redder than he remembered, her eyes greener, and her skin paler, and she wore faded jeans and a ragged Gryffindor sweater.
"Lily." He stared at her with a mixture of fascination and horror, dreading what she would say.
She was silent for a moment. Then, in a voice that suggested that her heart was breaking in her chest, she asked, "Oh Sev… why did you do it?"
Why had he done it? He asked himself that question so often that it seemed never to leave his mind. "I didn't… I didn't know it meant him. I didn't know they would kill you…" he trailed off. This was not good enough, he knew. Telling her that he would not have told Voldemort about the prophecy if he had known it condemned her son did not explain why he had joined the Death Eaters in the first place. "I just… I don't know. I don't fool myself that there is anything I can say to redeem myself. I can't take back what I did."
"Would you take it back, if you could?"
He gasped. "Yes! I would give anything, Lily, I would, I would… anything."
She gazed at him, her eyes heavy with sadness, and asked, so quietly that he almost didn't hear, "Why?" He opened his mouth to speak, but no sound came out. He simply gaped at her, unable to voice what he needed to tell her, unable to believe that she had not realized after all this time. "You said you would give anything," she went on, seeing he was not going to speak. "So can't you give me an answer?"
"It's because I love you!" he spat. "I always have, all these years… I never stopped loving you. And when that good-for-nothing Potter came and stole you away from me, I lost the only good thing I ever had. Can't you understand why I hated him? Lily, please…" he finished in a whisper. A single tear rolled from his lashes unbidden to hang at the end of his crooked nose.
Silence stretched for a tangible moment as Lily held the gaze of the man who had once been her very dearest friend. The man who had been her companion in entering the world of wizards, so huge and frightening to an eleven year old. The man who had eventually drifted from her side and followed the darker path, who had inadvertently sent Voldemort to kill her, and who had done his best to stop her son from following her to the grave. When at last she spoke, her voice sounded strangled, as if she was having trouble finding the words. "You protected Harry."
He glanced up at her, hopeful. "Yes. I won't pretend that I've been anything but a poor mentor, or that I treated him with fondness… but I helped Dumbledore keep him safe, and I did it for you."
"Thank you," she whispered.
"Anything," he repeated. "Anything for you." He took a step toward her, unsure of himself. She smiled a tiny smile through the tears streaking her cheeks, and it was all he needed to see; he swept forward and pulled her to his chest. Although she was not really there, simply projected into the living world by the Resurrection Stone, she was solid enough to wrap his arms around, and he held her as if he could bring her to life simply by pressing close enough.
"I've missed you, Sev," she told him, her voice muffled by his hair. "I've missed having a best friend."
"You have no idea," he replied, and rested his chin on top of her fiery head, his eyes shut tight, breathing in the scent of her.
They stayed there for a long moment, and Severus thought that he could easily have held her forever, but at last she pulled away. "You know I can't stay," she said gently, grasping his chin and turning his face up to hers so that he could not avoid her eyes.
"I know," he said, misery etched into every line of his face.
"No, don't cry," she protested, wiping away the trail of another errant tear with her thumb. "It's not forever; nothing is. I'll see you again someday."
"Someday seems like a very long time from now."
"I know," she said. "I know."
His eyes swept over her, seeking to memorize every last detail of her existence, to imprint her in his mind. He wanted to remember her like this, as beautiful as ever, gazing at him with love and affection as she once had. He wanted to remember her because he knew he would not be seeing her again in this lifetime.
"Sev… there's something you must know." She stepped forward again, placing her hands on his shoulders. "You were my best friend. You are my best friend. I love you-" she stood on tiptoe to press a kiss to his cheek "-and I forgive you."
He could not control it; the tears he had been struggling to hold back burst free, streaming silently down his face, and he could barely see through them as she stepped away from him, as she began to fade, as she smiled one last smile. He smiled back, the most genuine smile to grace his lips in years. Then he blinked, and she was gone just as suddenly as she had appeared.
For a moment he stared in dazed silence at the place where she had been. It was no wonder that people were tempted by the Resurrection Stone, he thought. It was no wonder they lowered themselves to thievery and murder to attain this ring, both wonderful and terrible. A grim shadow of a smile twisted the corner of his mouth as he slid it off his finger. He was tempted no more. He placed the ring back on the desk where it had been, knowing he would never feel the need to pick it up again. She loved him; she forgave him. She said they would meet again. That was all he needed to know.