Severus Snape laid there for a minute, waiting for some sign he was actually dead, long after the Potter boy had run off. Where was Death and his great scythe? Where were the Valkyries, come to whisk him off to Valhalla? Was an angel coming for him? He didn't think so. But then, he never really expected any afterlife anyway, no matter what others said.
Severus stood up carefully, expecting creaky bones and complaints from forming bruises. But there were none. In fact, he felt much better, physically speaking, than he had in years. Younger, too. He looked down where he had lain and saw his corpse splayed on top of a congealing black star of blood, staring slack jawed toward where Potter had been earlier.
There was a soft growl ahead of him and he looked up sharply; a tail flicked in the deep shadows of the Shack and blue-green eyes glowed in the low light. Severus tried to silently summon his wand from where it lay or its spirit twin. Nothing came flying to his fingers, and he tried again. The wood remained where it was and the great beast in the shadows moved closer. Cursing his bad luck, Severus turned on his heel and fled up the stairs, away from the animal; he had no idea how he was going to fight back but up was away.
He raced up the creaking steps, slamming into walls and trying to follow the sharp turns of the hall in the dark. He could hear the grunts and growls and the sound of huge claws digging into the rotting wood. Severus ducked into an open door and hid in the shadows, trying to stifle the heaves of his chest. Deep sniffs penetrated the dusty stillness of the night and another grumbling growl could be heard as a pair of blue-green eyes stared right at him through the door way. A heart beat, and then the thing charged.
Severus bolted toward the huge, open window, praying to whatever gods there might be that he could escape as he took a flying leap off the ledge, three stories up. He seemed to hover for a moment before falling at an alarming speed and with a great whumph! he crashed to earth. Heaving himself off the ground, Severus turned to see his predator; it was a huge cat, bunched up on the window ledge he had just vacated. Fur shone in the starlight, green fur, as it prepared to jump to earth.
He turned and ran as fast as he possibly could towards Hogwarts, racing through spell-crisped grass and dodging defoliated undergrowth. Rookwood was fighting someone and he found himself yelling at them.
"There's a great bloody cat back there! Run!" he screamed. "Before it eats you!"
They didn't seem to hear him and continued firing spells. Severus didn't turn back to warn them again; perhaps they would slow the beast down, he hoped. Better them than me.
There were no screams, no echoes of agony and some part of his brain not clogged with adrenalin thought this was a very bad sign. Moments later, Severus heard a rustling in the grass behind him and a terrifyingly familiar low growl. He poured more speed into his run, pulling from reserves he didn't have.
Up a head, the grounds of Hogwarts loomed and he felt relief pour through him, cool and clean, as he bounded through the remaining wards and tumbled over his own feet into the long grass. The cat stopped at the edge and pawed at them, brilliant white spell plasma rippling around its touch. It was a leopard, he thought.
One bone white claw extended through the ward and pulled straight down; there was a terrible ripping noise that echoed against the hill behind him. Severus stood bolt upright as a long, fatally elegant limb extended through the flap in the wards. Swearing to himself again he raced up the grassy slope towards the castle.
A howl to his left sounded from the battle on the front steps of Hogwarts and a huge red wolf streaked towards him, ghosting through the mortal combatants. Gasping for breath, Severus veered away from the wolf and zigzagged toward the back of the castle. There was a secret drop entrance only he knew of and he hoped it was open; he didn't want to know what happened if it wasn't.
He approached the entry. It wasn't open!
Severus began to panic. This was too much! He had fought, killed, and died tonight, and now he was going to die again! Maybe this was like what the muggles sometimes said Hell was like; repeating the same loop of events forever and ever. Perhaps he was doomed to fight for his life and loose it every night for the rest of eternity.
The two beasts closed in on him, seeming to ignore each other in favor of him. He pressed himself against the wall, not knowing what to do. Two pairs of eerie blue-green eyes glowed in the dark and he could barely pick out which was which in the low light as they raced toward him. As one single coil of muscle, the leopard and the wolf leaped at him. He closed his eyes, waiting for claws and teeth.
Instead, he felt the earth dissolve beneath him and Severus fell head over heels through a dark hole, leaving the beasts behind.
It was a long fall and eventually he managed to stop tumbling, keeping his feet pointed down, wherever down was going. The light of the stars which lit the tunnel made him feel strange and as Severus looked around, he saw the many-colored glitter of distant galaxies stretching out into infinity. He looked up and far above his head to see what he thought was rock and soil. Below, and rapidly approaching, was a brilliantly blue circle. Whatever it was, he hoped like hell it didn't hurt. Severus curled his legs to his chest instinctively, desiring not to break them if he could help it, and prepared for impact.
It was not what he expected (but then, he thought, is anything?). The blue circle was soft and gave under him; the stuff closed around him as he descended, then stopped and sagged. He dropped out of it into a clear sky and fell a short way, his eyes closed, before being caught fast by something firm and springy.
Severus felt it shift beneath him and when he opened his eyes, it was to the sounds of life. Birds chirped somewhere and a gentle breeze carried the scent of wet earth to him. He was sitting in a wingback chair in the middle of a huge strawberry field, the red berries and white blossoms smiling at him shyly from under green leaves. The sun was shining in a brilliantly blue sky, where clouds romped and a single sparrow spun and weaved through the air.
There was the familiar sound of a porcelain tea cup being set upon a saucer and he looked toward the noise, discovering a very young looking Sirius Black sitting across a small table from him.
Instantly, any wonder he had felt evaporated.
"Hmm," Black mused. "This is going to be awkward." Without looking at Severus, he reached for a strange teapot; it was banded black and white with huge blotches of metallic red and gold paint covering the vaguely Dr. Seuss-like body. After pouring himself some from one of the four spouts, he asked, "Tea?"
When Severus remained silent, Black shrugged and poured him a cup anyway.
Sitting back in his chair, Black sipped his tea and watched Severus like a cat for a long moment. "I suppose you think you've gone to hell because I'm here, am I right?" he asked finally, a tinge of amusement in his voice.
"No," Severus replied coldly. "I expected to see you of all people at heaven's gate."
Black chuckled and stared into his white tea cup, idly sloshing the liquid around. "Well, you haven't gone to either place. This is Kurys, the lands of the dead." He looked up and gestured at the sea of strawberries that reached for the horizons around them. "Welcome."
Severus' lip curled. "Why you are the welcoming party I am forced to suffer through?"
The other man put down his cup and shook his head. "There's a system here; Merlin knows why it's like this but Kurys has a mind of its own and we're all subject to its whims. Anyway," Black went on, "I am your first escort, the one who will guide you through the process of making peace with your enemies because I am the one Kurys thinks you'll be able to make peace with the most easily. Once you've gotten through all of your foes you're not actually related to, I'll hand you off to a relative in a similar position."
"Kurys must have a strange idea of 'easy' mustn't it?" Severus asked chilly.
"I think it has something to do with the fact that it knows we can't stand each other," Black answered, an eyebrow raised. "It hopes we can come to a truce; I want to get rid of you as soon as possible and I don't think you want to hang about with me for eternity, either." He reached for his tea cup and took a sip.
Severus opened his mouth to reply and shut it with an audible click. "Did you notice," he asked faintly, "that your tea cup is covered in fur?
Black looked down at it for a moment in the sunshine. "So it is," he shrugged and took a sip anyway.
Severus stared at him.
"What?" asked Black after a moment.
"You just drank out of a fur covered cup."
"Yes," Black agreed. "I did. Can we get on with this? I'd like to get you out from under my feet as soon as possible, honestly, and I'm sure you'd like to be rid of me, too."
Severus stared at him again and dropped his forehead into an open palm. "What do we need to do to get rid of each other?" he asked, looking up at Black through his hair.
"Generally admit we were berks, I think." Black's cup was mercifully fur-free, though it was now an unpleasant shade of orange.
"'We'?" asked Severus. "You were the problem, Black, not me."
"Au contraire," disagreed Black. "I was awful, yes, but you were pretty bad too, and even worse when we grew up. As I recall, we took in Peter because you were picking on him. And when– "
"Don't you dare blame me for Pettigrew!" Severus snarled vehemently.
He felt his anger rise when Black simply smiled at him the way one smiles at an angry, foot stamping child. "I'm not blaming you; what Peter did, he did of his own cowardly choice. You and I were both part of why he became what he was, but he certainly didn't have to betray us, did he?" Black asked, almost rhetorically.
Severus' eyes narrowed. "You were still the problem!"
"Half of it," said Black vaguely, staring into his cup. "Or rather, we were half of it. You and yours were the other. You'll see James later, and oooh that'll be a show, but I've already made my peace with D'arcy and the other dead. It's you and I who are sitting here under this blue sky, in this eternity of spring." He looked up. "Just us."
They stared at each other for a while, Severus growing more and more infuriated by Black's knowing, amused little smile. When Black inevitably got bored, he got up and started to wander around their general vicinity, picking berries.
"Want some?" he asked Severus over his shoulder. He rubbed the dirt off one and popped it in his mouth, "They're – mmm – amazing." Black looked contentedly off into the sky as he enjoyed the berry.
When Severus gave no reply, Black picked several more and used his white shirt as a basket to bring them to the table, where he carefully off loaded them. He shook the fabric and the stains fell away like powder.
When Black sat back down, he spoke of their school days between strawberries, and then later of when Severus had outed Lupin.
"That, you know, could have ended in his death," he said conversationally. "And then there was the way you treated non-Slytherin children. And I mean in general, not just Harry..."
Black continued to ramble, talking about how both of them had behaved rather badly through significant portions of their short lives. Severus soon figured out that there was no way to shout Black down and when he had tried to leave, he couldn't get out of earshot, so he gave up and flopped over in a chair.
There was a sudden, long silence which brought Severus out of the stupor of Black's lecture and he found the man watching him patiently.
"Haven't you got something to say? I daresay I had thought you'd have some sort of horribly long rant about my behavior over the years. Merlin knows I gave you enough material," commented Black, fiddling with his half empty cup again (which was now a gaudy king's goblet).
"So you really," Severus asked as he sat up straight in his chair, "truly, admit you were a horrible bastard when you were alive?" This is too good to be real.
"To you," replied the other man evenly. "And to others on occasion, even when I loved them." There was a pause. "Do you admit that you were at fault as well?"
"Details," he demanded, ignoring Black's questions.
And Black gave them to him.
"Now," he said after what felt like hours to Severus, "do you admit fault?"
Apparently Severus' grudging silence was enough for Kurys, because an edge of the strawberry field appeared within walking distance. Beyond that, a grove of citrus trees stood.
Black clambered out of his chair without looking back for Severus and strolled through the rows, hands idly stuck in his pockets as they walked in the sun.
He looked over at him, eying his black woolen robes. "Might want to alter your clothing. It's going to be unpleasant otherwise. Unless you're one of those people who never get hot, now matter what."
"I left my wand," Severus pointed upwards, "back there."
"Yes, well, it would have been useless anyway," said Black absently. "Everyone here can use a limited form of magic. You just sort of wish for something to happen and as long as you aren't wishing for the Taj Mahal you generally get what you want."
"Everyone?" asked Severus, now deciding if he wanted to keep wearing wool or not.
"Yep. Anyone with an imagination can do it." Black waved at someone on a distant hill, calling to them. "Sigmund! You must come by for tea with Carl! And Lily says hi!"
The figure waved and called back, though his reply was caught in the breeze.
"Oh," Black said, leading them into the sunny grove. "And you might want to relax your death grip on logic, Snape. This place follows it only when it pleases, and you seem like the type who might go mad if you don't."
"What do you mean, 'only when it pleases'?" demanded Severus as they walked next to one row of trees.
A passing breeze shook several fruits from their branches; one of them broke like an egg on Severus's shoulder and a tiny, wet chick slid wetly off his sleeve to fall on the leafy earth. Black had managed to catch one and when he opened his hand, a humming bird the colors of autumn rose out of his fingers. It landed on the man's thumb and he turned around to face Severus.
"Do trees normally hatch humming birds out of tangerines?" Black asked pointedly, gesturing with the tiny saffron bird for emphasis, who blinked at him with glittering black eyes. "I mean, I'm pretty sure they don't but I could be wrong." His eyes flicked to Severus's shoulder. "And you really might want to do something about your robe. The yolks stink like you wouldn't believe!"
"How did you say you do it again?" Severus asked him, loathe to request help from Sirius Black of all people.
"Wish for it," he explained. "Picture what you want; how it should feel, look, smell, etcetera. And then wish for it."
Frowning, Severus tried it and found himself wearing a crisp black linen shirt instead of a yolky over robe.
Black encouraged the little bird to fly off and conjured a pair of muggle sunglasses, strolling off again as they passed a tall, blue, muggle windmill, which turned lazily in the wind.
The two men walked for some time, crossing small, verdant valleys, populated by Technicolor sheep and miniature castles complete with gothic spires, and climbing hills where locals argued in what Severus though might be Basque while goats and children milled about on rocky outcroppings. Walking through another hummingbird grove and a cherry orchard, they came upon what was an achingly familiar house for Severus.
It was a red and grey Tudor style cottage with a wall that swooped off the slanting roof like a bird's wing to curl around the walkway. Potted plants lined the wall and the populated the sides of the paving stones while fruited vines crawled up the rough stone. Diamond paned windows were lit by merry golden candle light and the oaken front door was open.
James Potter was tinkering with what looked like Black's old motorbike in the yard and he hailed Black as they approached. He paused when he saw Severus walking with him and commented acidly, "What did you drag this home for, Padfoot?"
"He," Black explained, "was the person I was supposed to escort. We're done, thank Merlin, but that leaves you and Lily and a few others before I can leave him with his next guide."
"Ah," Potter nodded. "Didn't know Snivellus had bitten the dust already." He threw Severus a look. "I thank you for protecting my son and working for the Order. But I still hate you."
"Keep your gratitude and I return the feeling," came Severus's snide reply.
Black rolled his eyes. "I'll let you two duke this out here. I'm going to go inside, if you have no objections James."
"Of course not," came Potter's reply as he eyed Severus. "Warn Lily, though."
"Naturally," came Black's reply as he sauntered to the door. He paused, "Any word on Harry?" He looked worried and chewed the inside of his lip.
"Nothing especially bad, so far as I know. Lily got tired of me wearing a hole in the floor and chased me out here. Said she'd tell me if anything horrific happened," Potter told him, still eying Severus with an angry expression. "Shut the door behind you, please."
"As you wish." The door shut behind Black with a soft click.
The two men watched each other in total silence, glaring.
Severus spoke first. "You are and always have been, alive or dead, the bane of my existence. There's something horribly contagious about being related to you, you know." He paused and gave Potter a parody of a smile. "Your son never knew you and yet he was just like you in every way. Arrogant, useless, expecting others to do his work for him, and–"
He never had a chance to finish the sentence. He found himself frozen, as though someone had hit him with a Petrificus hex. Potter circled him now, a cold, hard expression on his face that Severus had never seen in life.
His voice could have frozen boiling water. "Do you have any idea what my son's life was like? I don't think you do, or you'd know that you are terribly wrong. Harry never had a chance to be a boy! Cast into the mold of an icon at fifteen months, left in a house that was never a home, and dropped straight into situations that put his life at risk from first year on. Don't give me that line that he wanted it like that. Sometimes he barreled into it head first, yes, but I am certain he never wanted it." The binding was released and Potter stopped in front of him.
"I know how this works, Snape. I yell at you, you yell at me, and we come to some sort of treaty." He stepped back. "And then we are free. My son, however, is off limits for discussion."
"Fine." Severus surged forward. "I have more than enough complaints about you."
That old cocky, lazy grin that said hello worm crossed Potter's face. "Do tell."
Severus would never have any idea how long his blow out with Potter took since the sun didn't seem to move during it, but afterward Lily appeared at the door and called for Potter.
"James dear," she said. "I get the impression Kurys is expecting us to do something soon. Sirius will be coming too."
Potter paused, utterly ignoring Severus for a moment as he seemed to be checking for something. "Right you are, Lily my love. Coming!"
Lily and Black stepped out and after Potter waved an absent hand, the three of them disappeared.
Severus turned around and promptly walked away from the cottage, hurrying back the way he and Black had come. And, as in the strawberry field when he tried to escape Black's droning lecture, the ground didn't seem to move. He kept walking, but he got no further than the edge of the cherry orchard.
Eventually, he gave up and stayed in the orchard, deciding to experiment with this new magic. It was deceptively simple at first but grew progressively more difficult as he tried to make more complicated things.
After a certain point, he felt he had done everything he really had the energy to do at the moment and he chose to study the orchard instead.
The fruit were very odd looking; as brightly colored as a maraschino cherry and somewhat transparent. There were blooms right alongside the fully matured cherries and the air was heavy with the scent of them. He wanted to pick one to study it but was half afraid some sort of gooey insect would ooze its way out of it if he did.
Sometime later, he heard footsteps and Black appeared at the edge of his vision.
"Tried to get away, hm?" the man asked with amusement. "I don't blame you, really. I tried the very same thing the first opportunity I had to escape." When Severus said nothing, he gestured him back toward the cottage. "You still have to get through Lily, you know. And then whoever else has recently died. I think Lily's going to be your worst, though," Black said as he turned.
Severus felt very sad as he followed Black back through the trees. Lily should never have had the opportunity to hate him and while he still loved her. Two words from him had caused her to turn away and she had walked another path, one that lead away from him.
And now, he would have to face her.
As they approached the cottage, he saw Potter talking to Lily, two huge baskets at their feet. They looked up as Black and Severus approached.
"We're going to go pick hummingbirds, Padfoot," Potter told Black as they met at the front of the walk, hoisting one wicker basket against his hip. "Let these two have a row in private," he said, looking at Severus and Lily.
Black nodded and grabbed the other one before they headed to the leafy green grove.
Severus turned to Lily, feeling defenseless and vulnerable as she gave him a wintry glare. Without saying a word, she turned abruptly on her heel and strode toward the yard. When he didn't move, she turned to stare at him. Which meant follow me in Lily speak.
When she stopped again, they were standing on the other side of the house, on the edge of a glass and silver wood. The light echoing off the silver veins of the leaves lent her pale skin a cold cast, making her expression even colder and unapproachable. The leaves tinkled in the gusty breeze and silence as they stared at each other.
"I'm sorry," Severus's voice cracked when he finally spoke. "So sorry."
"For what?" she bit out. He knew her well enough to know that she wouldn't stop until he was on his knees. It probably wouldn't take much either and they both knew it.
"For telling the Dark Lord the–"
"Pawn," she cut him off. "You were a pawn and didn't know. Move on."
"F–for the way I treated Potter."
"Your son, Lily. I was," Severus paused, "horrible to him. But I kept seeing your eyes in Potter's face!"
"He was the reminder of what I lost," he said quietly.
"What you never had, Snape," she said icily, tucking flame red hair behind an ear. "We were friends and never more. And then," Lily's smile was bitter and angry, "you called me a "mudblood" at which point, we were–"
"I know!" Severus cut her off loudly. "I know I lost you entirely that day, Lily! There are no two words I regret speaking more."
"Not even 'avadra kevadra' to Albus?" she asked sardonically, her arms crossed over her chest.
"That was not my choice, Lily! I doubt that I ever would have been a position to have had to say them if I hadn't said those words to you!"
"Oh yes?" she growled, "Your entire fate hung on those two words spoken to your teenaged crush?"
"More than teenaged," he murmured almost inaudibly, staring at the ground for a moment. "But yes. I think, had I not said that, I might have walked a different path."
"Ah," Lily said. "But you did say them and then you continued to say stupid things, particularly to my son." She raised an eyebrow, "I would have thought that if I ever meant anything to you, his eyes would have made you stop. He's my son; if you loved me so much, those eyes should have been the reason you didn't pick on him."
"I did not pick on him!" Severus was outraged. Picking on other people was what children did and he was not a child.
"What did you do then, hm?" she asked him coolly, "I would call what you did picking on him. He was a little boy and yet you treated him the way I would have expected to you to treat James if you were eleven again."
She stopped him before he could go on. "Don't dig yourself a hole you can't climb out of, Snape." Lily's expression was like the winter wind, "Get out of my yard. I will have no bullies here."
Some part of Severus's mind wanted to scream at her that Potter and Black were both bullies but the rest of his brain was too much in shock. He hadn't expected their discussion to be roses and light but he hadn't expected it to be like this either. This was not the Lily he had know; she was more forgiving than this woman.
After she strode away, Black, covered in a rainbow of hummingbirds, pointed to the gate. "She said out. I think I'm going to have dinner here and then we'll kip someplace for the night. You will have to fend for yourself."
Severus nodded dumbly and flopped down on the ground just outside the gate as a flood of brilliantly colored humming birds flew off over his head.
The sun began to move rapidly and it was sunset before Black reappeared. He nudged Severus with boot and when he looked up, Black gestured to the woods before changing into the black dog Severus had been familiar with in life. When he stood up, Black sauntered into the woods, Severus close behind.
They walked through the dusky forest, cast in the pastels of a summer sunset as the dying light shone through the glass trees and bounced off the silver pine needles and leafy veins. They chimed as the man and dog walked through the underbrush. The moon was rising in the sky when the two came across a clearing. With a shimmer, Black was a man again and he stretched lazily.
"I think here's good for the night," Black said as he looked around the glen. "Very good. Nice soft grass, shelter from the wind, and a nightlight!" he pointed to the moon with a bright laugh. "No monsters, though, so I don't expect anyone will need one." He shrugged and without any further discussion, he shifted back into a dog, settled down with a wuff, and closed his eyes.
"A tent, Black?" Severus asked pointedly. "Or am I supposed to sleep on the ground."
Black peeled open an eye and shrugged at him again before settling down again.
"You are the most unhelpful cur," Severus muttered before attempting to picture a suitable tent to sleep in. After a few tries (once he forgot the inside, the next he forgot a door) he had created an acceptable
place in which to sleep and he bedded down for the night.