Chapter 1 : Veiled
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Severus Snape opened his eyes and peered up at a vision of tree limbs, stretching tall and spindly to disappear into leaf clusters and open sky. He sat up and took in the still forest around him. Eerily, no breeze or bird stirred. Beyond the towering tree trunks lay a bright meadow that cast a hazy glow through the intervening trunks.
A bird twittered and then a breeze rustled.
"Severus," a familiar figure intoned welcomingly.
The unexpected vision of Albus Dumbledore crouching beside him made Snape instinctively grasp for his neck, recent memory flooding him. Frantic groping around his jugular revealed puncture wounds, and sticky silvery blood.
"Ah, is that how it went, then?" Dumbledore asked gently.
"How . . . ?" Snape began, but faded out. He was about to ask how what went? but decided belatedly that he understood the comment. He wiped his hands on the leaf fall beside him, since he had no clothes to wipe them on. He wondered for a moment if Potter had understood the memories passed to him, but decided there was nothing he could do about it now. "So, where is this?"
"I don't know," Dumbledore said. "What does it look like?"
Snape attempted to glare at the old wizard, but Dumbledore ignored it. Sounding the gracious host, Dumbledore said, "Perhaps you would like to be robed?"
Twice Snape tried to respond, but dared not come out yet with the derisive tone he really wanted to use. He was distracted in this by the sight of a set of robes identical to those he typically pulled from his wardrobe for teaching. Rather than being nestled in a wardrobe, this set hung from a tree limb.
Snape rocked forward to get to his feet and walked over to tug the robes down. He crumpled the fabric in his hands and stared at it rather than don them. What difference did it make if he were naked or not . . . he was dead.
Dumbledore cut into his thoughts, "I think you'll be more comfortable dressed, should you encounter anyone else."
Snape glanced around the dark, unmoving forest. "Whom would I encounter, here, of all places?"
Dumbledore clasped his hands behind his back and paced slowly. "Anyone also dead is a possibility."
Snape tugged on the robes, but before he sealed them he touched his chest, which was marred with a whorl that cut across flesh and bone equally. It felt both hard and tender to the touch. "I wasn't injured here, I don't think," he muttered in confusion.
"Problem?" Dumbledore asked.
"I wasn't injured . . . like this," Snape said, wanting to understand this. Things were strange enough.
"There is more than one kind of injury here," Dumbledore explained in a tone that expected it to explain everything. "Some things are healed when you cross over." He clasped his hands together, which hid them inside the broad sleeves of his robe. "So, where exactly are you; if you don't mind my asking?"
"I am obviously in a forest," Snape said, wondering if somehow the old wizard had grown more dottering by dying.
Dumbledore smiled and waved off his annoyance. "I cannot see what you see, my dear Severus. No one can."
Snape exhaled what could not really be air, but felt like it. "Ah."
Dumbledore's sleeves bounced as he fidgeted his hand. "Is there an obvious way out?"
Snape turned toward the glowing meadow where the towering, spindly trees, dark in contrast to the light beyond, came to an abrupt halt. "That way."
"Presuming that you wish to go on . . ."
"What do you mean?" Snape interrupted. "I have an option? I do not particularly wish to be dead."
Dumbledore straightened. "Your option, should you refuse to go on, is to become a ghost."
"That is not an option."
"Well, then . . ." Dumbledore caught his long beard on his arm when he raised it to invite Snape to walk in the direction he had indicated.
Snape stared at him unhappily before accepting the lead.
Glaring sunlight might have been what one expected given the glow emanating from within the trees, but there was no actual sun. Above hung a glowing sky of muted, washed out blue and below a long, long meadow, slightly valleyed. The open grass led down to a town in the far distance one way and to the crest of a hill far off in the other. Snape had only take a few steps onto the meadow, but when he turned back the trees were remote, far behind him. He stopped.
"What is this?" Snape asked.
"I cannot see it; I'm afraid," Dumbledore answered patiently.
"What do YOU see?" Snape demanded.
Dumbledore turned slowly, eyes focussing too close for anything visible. "I see my office in the tower." He waved an arm. "A few of my things . . . it was too cluttered before."
Snape looked around himself at the mesmerizing grass bowing slowly in the breeze. It stretched on in a way that promised a walk of a whole day and more to reach anything. Snape reeled at the meaninglessness of it. And in desperation tried to simply understand and not worry about the future. "You said others are here? Where are they?"
"Ah." Dumbledore sounded grateful to be on better ground. "Well, you have to be thinking of them at the same time they are thinking of you. Then you will meet."
Snape considered that; thought about people who were recently dead, of which there was no shortage. He did this for a while, unsure how long because time had lost meaning in a way something as fundamental as time should not. A figure faded into view, strange for having two real legs.
"Alastor," Snape said in surprise.
"Severus!" Moody exclaimed, confidently striding closer to pat Snape on the arm. His touch did not quite connect even though it appeared to. It felt like a breeze ruffling Snape's robes against his arm. "So, what happened to you?" the old Auror asked.
Snape formulated a reply through the sudden heat of betrayal. He reached up and touched his neck, which was now unmarred. "The Dark Lord murdered me." So very odd to state that, for many reasons.
"After all this time?" Moody asked. He scratched the back of his head. "Wouldn't've expected that."
"I certainly did not."
Snape looked over at Dumbledore, standing patiently by.
"Aye, of course, Albus is here with you, I presume?" Moody asked. "He does like to greet people he knew, which is a lot of people." The old Auror stepped closer to Dumbledore and said, "Good to see you as always."
Snape only then realized that they could not see each other until just then.
Moody interpreted Snape's sudden silence saying, "Ah, you'll get used to it. Makes it easy to be alone when you want to be, let me tell you."
They chatted for a while longer, until Snape found the reminisces of recent other deaths too tiresome, given that he appeared to be facing eternity in a giant meadow and others, somehow, were doing better than he. Moody faded out the same way he had come. Dumbledore spoke to Moody longer, but Snape could not hear him except as a faint whispering that could have been the grass.
When Dumbledore returned his attention to him, Snape said, "I could get to like that power."
"Perhaps you need some time alone to think?"
"Think about what?" Snape asked. "There is nothing to think about!" He gestured at the open space around him. "There is nothing to experiment with, nothing to cast a spell at, what on earth . . ." Snape flinched at the painful mistake. "What would anyone need to think about in a place like this?" He stopped at an odd sound, wondering where it came from. He did not see anything around him.
"What is it?" Dumbledore asked.
His old mentor's caring patience had grown cloying. "Nothing of any consequence," Snape grumbled and wished him away.
Trouble was, there was nothing left to distract him from the meadow which, were he alive, might have been beautiful, might have been just the kind of place where someone who grew up in a grimy, claustrophobic mill town would have loved to escape. Snape squinted down the gentle valley. He could no longer see the city in the distance; the meadow just went on and on. He began walking in the slight upward direction, towards the crest of the hill.
Snape walked and walked. He walked until his mind, attempting to keep time using his pace, decided that if nothing else had happened in that much time, then nothing was going to, and if he were no closer to his destination, then he would never be. Snape fell to his knees and sat there in the bowing grass, mind numb.
The mad, hopeless circling of Snape's thoughts was broken by the same cracking sound repeating, louder this time. Snape, from his perch on his heels, glanced around. This time he did see something; he saw a crack in the perfect blue sky as though his world, his meadow, were just a dome and a fragile crystal one at that.
Snape stared at the crack, at the way it forked into three crazed lines and around each, the pale blue washed out nearly to white. Worried, but grateful for something to contemplate, Snape sat back and considered it. As he did so, the blue color reasserted itself and Snape could not be sure, but the cracks may be shortening.
Snape's contemplation was interrupted by a figure arriving not by fading in, but by stepping in as if the air were a doorway. In contrast to the washed out colors around him, the visitor was a vivid composition of darks and brights.
"I certainly wasn't thinking of you," Snape said to the wholly unexpected figure of Sirius in long hair and long flowing robes, but sans beard.
Sirius crossed his arms. "I get that a lot, believe me. Because I fell into the veil whole I can find people even if they don't want to find me." He stated this with smug aplomb. "I play messenger rather a lot as a result."
Snape stood up, not willing to ignore his nemesis's presence just in the faint hope it would force him to leave again. "I imagine."
"And the message I have for you . . ." Sirius pretended, with overdone mimed movements, to pull out a scroll and unwind it before him. "Is that Dumbledore wishes to see you."
"Does he?" Snape said, trying to not wish to see him. It did not work; boredom was more powerful than his ego.
Dumbledore shooed Sirius away and the other backed up with a bow and stepped away through the thin air.
"How are you, Severus?" Dumbledore asked.
"I don't know," Snape replied.
"Well, I come with good news. Harry has defeated Voldemort." When Snape did not respond, Dumbledore added, "Your work, your sacrifice, was not in vain."
"I am dead. I don't care." Snape flinched this time when the cracking sounded. He turned and peered with reluctant fear at the damage. It was more than a crack now, a piece was missing and beyond in the gap, pink mists swirled.
"Severus," Dumbledore said in clear concern. "Are you having difficulty?"
Dumbledore approached, but Snape backed away from him. Finally he stopped and confronted his old mentor. "I need to know . . ." he demanded, feeling desperation which made him bend forward because he lacked the strength to stand straight. The endless meadow fell away from him in all directions, an endless giant globe of bowing grassland, promising nothing. "I need to know, is this heaven or hell?"
Dumbledore parted his hands. "It is whatever you make of it."
Snape glanced behind at the gap in the sky. "I will go mad here." He stopped and pondered the pink swirling fog. "What is beyond this place?" He was back on his knees again even though he did not remember falling.
Dumbledore bent over him, touching him but not touching him. "I did not imagine you would be in such difficulty already."
"What is happening to me?" Snape asked, feeling real fear, despite being dead, a condition one would expect to be free of fear, since what in the end did one normally fear but death itself? He almost laughed at the conundrum of that.
Dumbledore grasped his shoulders like a stiff breeze or a Hover Charm. "Severus, your world here is of your own making. You have to accept that."
Snape stared at him, fixed his mind on his familiar features, trying to do as he was told. His own making. How hard could that be? Except that his world had never been of his own making. It had always been controlled by someone else, and the best he had done was stake out a workable, liveable space inside that. Perhaps this was not so different.
"Can you stand?" Dumbledore asked anxiously.
Snape started to, but said, "What? Afraid you will have to feel guilty if I self-destruct?"
"No, because I care about you. Come on, stand up." His voice had grown commanding, so Snape tried harder to obey.
"You didn't care much when you insisted I use an Unforgivable Killing Curse on you," he grumbled, feeling a sting on his chest at the memory. He rubbed the marred flesh under his robe. "This wound is from that, isn't it? The other is gone like you said. Funny that the wound the Dark Lord inflicted on me is gone but the one you inflicted remains."
Dumbledore did not reply. Snape managed to get his feet with only a ghostly touch to guide him even as hard as Dumbledore seemed to be trying to grab at him. He swayed, but remained upright.
Dumbledore said, "Come now, Severus, you must feel some pleasure at knowing Voldemort is finally defeated."
Snape had to concede that he felt a little. "I'd enjoy it more if I were alive to enjoy it." The sheering split behind him made him flinch.
"Severus," Dumbledore said in a voice normally reserved for very errant students, "You cannot afford the luxury of wishing for life. Accept what you have."
"This is nothing," he snapped, horrified that anyone could believe otherwise.
The shattering snap from this assertion made him jump and nearly topple over. He turned with dread to stare into the swirling dilute-blood mist that covered a quarter of the sky. Dumbledore came closer, near his ear. "How bad is it?"
"You cannot see it?" Snape muttered, studying the jagged edges of his world. "What can you see?"
"I can see you," Dumbledore answered and surprisingly this answer healed one of the tiny cracks leading away from the edge.
Don't think about the future, Snape began to chant to himself. Only right here, right now.
"How bad? Is it more than halfway gone?"
Dumbledore's clear relief raised Snape's spirits.
"It can be repaired?" Snape asked.
"Yes, of course, but the more shattered it is, the more difficult it will be. Missing pieces must be replaced with something."
"What?" Snape asked, trying to hope it was something he could actually find.
"Whatever works," Dumbledore replied.
Snape ran his hand through his hair, fighting despair because his, well, not his life, but at least, or perhaps even more importantly, his after-life depended on it.
"I need to readjust my thinking," Snape said.
"Yes. And it takes time to do that, but you don't have that luxury any longer."
Snape peered at the swirling beyond. As bad as his empty meadow was, that looked far worse. At least there used to be a city at the end of his meadow. Maybe that had been the first thing to go. Snape sighed and pulled his thoughts to something else, something vaguely happy.
"So, the Dark Lord is actually dead?"
"Yes," Dumbledore said with happy certainty.
"Potter defeated him, I suppose," Snape asked with reluctance. "He's dead too?"
"No, he is quite alive."
"How in Merlin's magic did he do that . . . or do I really want to hear the answer?" He felt unbelievably grudging, suffocatingly enslaved by not being able to really get upset or risk losing what little future he had left.
"He did exactly what I told you to tell him. You must have got your message through."
"Maybe too much message," Snape said, thinking that he expected the boy to be dead with those memories, not wandering the wizarding world, free to pass them on. The thought made him queasy. "But how did he survive it?"
"He was tied to life by the blood Voldemort took from him to remake himself. He could choose to return alive from the edge of the veil and did so."
"Bloody convenient for him," Snape said.
"He stepped in front of a Killing Curse and did not counter or fight it. He was willing to die for something bigger than himself.
"DO NOT say I should take a lesson from him," Snape growled, seeing where this was going.
"I would not imagine doing so," Dumbledore said, hands up in surrender but his amused eyes belied him.
Snape closed his eyes, pained by his situation, especially in contrast to that of an enemy. He froze. "So, the Dark Lord is . . . here?"
"He is," Dumbledore said and stepped back in a way one would to make space for other's joining.
Snape, abandoned, glanced around, alarmed at who he might meet, especially with no wand.
Dumbledore's voice was still reassuringly close as it said, "No fear, Severus, he cannot harm you."
Snape suppressed his panic and turned when something caught his eye, lower to the ground than he expected to find someone arriving. It was not quite human and it rocked back and forth emitting noises of misery. He listened; if they were words, they were unintelligible.
Snape stared at the thing, bathed in the icy shock of realization. "That's the Dark Lord?"
"That is what is left of him after cleaving his soul so many times."
Snape looked down at himself. "I am whole like this and he is not?" he asked, knowing how dunderheaded the question sounded, but needing dearly the reinforcement of hearing the answer.
"Yes, Severus." When he saw Snape rubbing his scarred chest, he said, "That too can heal, but it will take a very long time. In contrast, there is little to no hope for this thing ever being anything more human than this."
Snape turned to Dumbledore, feeling considerably better. He wished to not see Voldemort any longer and the hunched figure faded out. He glanced up and found that just maybe the gaping hole represented just a little bit less of the sky.
"Why don't you wish us a bench to sit on, and we'll enjoy the view here," Dumbledore offered, convincingly pretending he was in Snape's world. Snape took a seat on a bench that appeared, mostly because he agreed the meadow would look much more civilized with one in it. Dumbledore sat beside him. "I hope you don't mind an old wizard's company, because I would like to stay until you are feeling definitively better."
Snape glanced behind them, where Voldemort had disappeared. He sat forward again and slipped his hands into his pockets. "Things could be much worse."
"The human psyche does seem to need that as an anchor, doesn't it?" Dumbledore mused.
"Am I still human . . . what am I?" Snape asked. He felt about half real: he breathed and his heart beat, but it threatened to reveal itself to be an illusion for the sake of normality if examined too closely.
"You are the very essence of your humanity," Dumbledore said, sounding pleased to say it.
"Wonderful," Snape muttered and started at Dumbledore chuckling. "What is so funny?"
"I think I've been missing you, Severus. Everyone else I've ever met here would respond with sentimentality to such a revelation."
"I believe it," Snape muttered grimly. He sighed, sort of.
"Isn't there anyone you'd like to see again?" Dumbledore asked.
Snape's mind flitted over various people, and he froze and stopped thinking about it, not really wanting any of them to appear. "No."
"Really? Not your mother or . . . even Lily."
"No," Snape repeated, feeling undone by the very notion. Recriminations from that source would be the end of him, he was certain.
Gently, Dumbledore said, "Well, whenever you are ready. You have rather a lot of time to change your mind. Nearly everyone changes their mind, eventually."
"I assume the Potters are always together?" Snape asked, unable to resist his curiosity.
"Yes, usually," came the pleasant reply.
"Figures," Snape muttered. "For eternity, no less."
They sat there on the bench, making idle conversation that ebbed and flowed like the slow wind on the grass surrounding them.
"You have nothing else to be doing?" Snape finally asked his old mentor. He was growing somewhat bored with his presence, but in his gut did not want him to leave.
"Nothing else," Dumbledore replied. "You accuse me of selfish motives in wanting to help you, but it is really not true. Feelings aside, you were always loyal to me once you pledged to be and I certainly could not have succeeded without you. I owe you at least seventeen years of my time in return."
"How much time has passed?" Snape asked. The sky was annoyingly unchanging. His head felt heavy, now that he considered it. Could one grow sleepy here?
"It does not matter," Dumbledore replied. "Time has no meaning."
"It does have meaning. As others enter the veil, they can tell you the date. It would have meaning from that."
"True, but it only confuses things to try to use the living world's calendar in that way. It's harder than just letting go and I think you need to stick with what is easier for now. Your journey towards becoming whole again is a long and arduous one." He touched Snape's shoulder, but it was no more than the beat of the wings of a passing bird. "But I know for a fact that what you lack in positive outlook, you more than make up for in discipline."
Snape looked at Dumbledore's aged hand on his shoulder. "There is no touch here."
"There is a little. Sirius has an advantage there as well. I sometimes send him on missions to hug as a result."
"Do. Not. Send. Him. To. Me." Snape stated, appalled to the core.
Dumbledore laughed, tossing his head back. "Oh, my dear man. I wouldn't dream of it, but I don't mind the reminder."
Snape's head nodded, growing heavier. "Does one sleep?" he asked.
"You may do whatever you wish," Dumbledore said.
"But to sleep," Snape argued. "What would be the point of it?"
Dumbledore wagged a boney finger at him. "Now, now, that's the wrong attitude. You may have whatever you like if you can imagine it and, here is the critical part, believe in your heart that you deserve it. People with a positive outlook, overladen with sentimentality, do startlingly well here."
"People like you?" Snape asked dryly.
"Even I have had to work at it, as I'm sure you can well imagine. But if you are tired, wouldn't a little rest feel nice?" he prodded, voice cajoling. Snape peered around the grass at his feet. He did not have the strength to conjure a bed. Dumbledore said, "Lay out your cape on the grass, it is quite soft."
It did look soft. "But it does not make sense," Snape said, fighting what may be fatigue but could also be more death for all he knew.
Lecturing, Dumbledore said, "I'll admit it isn't exhaustion as you are wanting to define it. The spirit can simply desire a break and because of the regular habit of sleep to which your psyche is so very accustomed. It translates that way because it feels comfortable to do so. Don't fight it, Severus. If there was any one mantra I would have for you right now until you are healed it would be: don't fight it.
Snape lay his cloak out and curled up on it, barely making it to the ground before slipping into a swirling pale world of not-quite-dreams.
When he awoke, or more accurately, came to a more common awareness, he was alone. He sat up and Dumbledore appeared on the bench in the same position as before.
"How long was I out?" Snape asked.
"It does not matter. Think of it as eight hours if you wish."
"Eight hours. All right." Snape accepted that even though his sense of logic wanted to scream at him. He beat it down with force and told it he could not afford it right now. Beyond Dumbledore the hazy pink swirling sky appeared just a little smaller again.
"How are you doing?" Dumbledore asked, seeing Snape's gaze.
He took a seat beside Dumbledore, leaving his cloak on the ground. "Better, I think. I have to lose myself, but no great loss," he stated grimly, frustrated.
"Severus," Dumbledore chastised. "That's not true." Then more brightly: "When you are better and your world is solid again, it will tolerate more of your old miserable self again."
"Promise?" Snape asked, finding a smile trying to sneak onto his lips. His situation had grown dire enough to be comical, apparently.
"Certain you don't wish to see Lily?"
"Positive. Why do you keep asking?"
"Because I think it will help you a great deal."
Snape glared at him. "To be accused in person of killing her and her bloody husband and nearly their child. Oh, I am certain that will help."
"Severus, Voldemort and Pettigrew are far more . . ."
Snape jumped to his feet and began pacing, thinking of Pettigrew, wanting to confront him properly, face to face, finally. He did this a long while, with Dumbledore watching. He was stubborn, and eventually—who knows how long it took—Peter Pettigrew appeared. The former friend of James Potter instantly cringed and wrapped his vaguely paw-like hands around each other.
"You traitorous bastard, you got what you deserved," Snape said. "I wanted you dead, but had to protect you because the Dark Lord expected it."
Pettigrew moved his head like a rodent, eyes not really focussing.
"Most likely he cannot hear you, Severus," Dumbledore said softly, sounding tragic. "His world has long since shattered."
Snape took a step back, taking in the hunched, constantly moving man before him. Pettigrew's head tilted this way and that as though to try to catch sight of something. "Are you certain he can't hear me?" Snape asked.
"He probably hears a whispering. He may know you are there, but just as a shadow. Before he lost everything, he told me he considered your treatment of him a kindness. He did not get much kindness those last few years in servitude."
"He didn't deserve any," Snape said, disgusted now by the sight before him. He wished the man away and he faded out. Snape pushed his hands into his pockets and resumed his seat. "He is in hell, isn't he?" he asked. "Nothing for company but a blood-stained sky and earth for eternity."
Sadly, Dumbledore replied, "It is unlikely he'll recover. Not impossible, but unlikely."
Snape sat on his bench, peering at the endless vision before him. He struggled with words that wanted to come out but he did not wish really to give voice to them. They were pride-consuming words, but they would most likely help and he needed all the help he could get.
"Thank you for staying with me," Snape said. A tiny sliver of one jagged part of the sky repaired itself as his voice drifted away on the wind.
"I have all the time in the world for you, Severus."
Snape sat across from Karkaroff at a fine oak table under a white canopy tent that fluttered intermittently in the wind whenever he remembered that it had not done so recently. He well knew now how to create a real building around himself, but found he preferred not to. The unconstrained space of the meadow appealed to him now even as disconcerting as it had been in the beginning.
A great deal of time had passed. As Dumbledore had asserted, keeping careful track was a mistake, but Snape knew it was many years in the living world. Knowing this made it easier to let go, for him anyhow. Others, like his mother, whom he met with occasionally, were distressed by the increasing distance time impressed upon the dead.
Karkaroff was a safe visitor. He too struggled with a world even more precariously damaged than Snape's had ever been and had no complaints about long contemplative silences. He sat, hunched, sipping tea. Snape never bothered to ask him what he saw around him and the man never volunteered to sketch his personal, internal-external scene.
"You seem better today," Snape observed because Karkaroff's hands had not twitched even once.
Karkaroff snorted. "If it were safe to tell you what I feel about this place I would tell you. As it is, I'm afraid to even think it." Karkaroff's face twisted faintly. "I assume you understand."
"Well enough," Snape agreed. The first time Karkaroff had appeared he was nearly as lost as Pettigrew, jerky and barely aware of his surroundings. For some reason, not well understood by Snape, he had persisted in trying to talk to the man. He told himself that it was because he would make a reasonable companion when the boredom grew oppressive, and that was true enough. But, as Dumbledore annoyingly took great pleasure in pointing out, in the end Snape benefited at least as much. He could not argue against this given how much repair he had managed on his own world when he was not even paying attention to it, but to Karkaroff's instead. Only one large triangular piece was missing now in the dome of Snape's world. A few hairline cracks teased around the corners of it, lengthening or shortening depending on his mood. Things had been that way long enough that he had begun to simply think of the gap as a reminder of what he was guarding against, like a window on an endless storm for someone drawing up complicated plans for a better house.
Dumbledore surprisingly appeared when Snape's mind touched on a vision of him without really expecting to see him.
"Severus, so glad to find you so easily," he stated graciously. He gave the Bulgarian a faint bow after Snape pointed out his presence. Karkaroff gave Dumbledore a grudging greeting, his embarrassment causing him to send Snape away. Snape had grown accustomed to these disjointed group discussions. If one concentrated just right, one could just make out what someone present was saying to another person not wishing to be present.
Dumbledore said goodbye to Karkaroff and stood alone before Snape, hand raised in invitation to stand. "I thought you'd like to see Minerva, she has just arrived."
"You persist in sounding pleased when someone dies," Snape complained. "You are running another reverse-wake, I suppose?"
Dumbledore smiled. "If you wish to call it that. Minerva asked about you, specifically."
"How long has it been; if you think it safe for me to know?"
"Ten years, Severus. Or thereabouts."
There was so very little to think about in this place that new arrivals, like the worst gossiping circles of the damned, were the only possible source of new information. Snape could not help himself and a moment later Minerva McGonagall appeared, speaking emotionally to someone Snape could not see.
She turned to him and exclaimed, "Severus!" as though greeting someone she, well . . . cared deeply about.
Snape froze and as a result did not move fast enough to avoid a hug. "Just because I am dead, does not mean I have lost my mind," he said to her, but she just smiled in return.
"I can't really hug anyone anyway, I'm realizing."
"Sirius you can hug . . . so I am told," Snape informed her. She was still clinging to his sleeves. "Thank Merlin I have not verified that from experience."
She laughed, face brightening even more as she glanced around what from her side must be a very crowded place. She did not know enough to say whom she saw to pull Snape into the group, and mostly he did not care.
"You seem happy to be dead," he said when her damp-eyed gaze came back his way.
"I have more friends dead than alive now, by a wide margin," she explained, glancing around with a soft expression. "But I am glad to see you, Severus. I never got a chance . . . well, to understand, I think."
Strange, this hit Snape harder than expected. He had never sought or believed he cared about her understanding, but perhaps he was wrong. She released him, like butterflies taking flight from his sleeves and greeted someone else Snape did not know.
Dumbledore stepped closer to Snape. "You are remembered with a bit more good will than you realize," he said.
"That would not be difficult to achieve," Snape commented, watching McGonagall circulate within an invisible, whispering group.
"James and Lily," McGonagall said with feeling, going along a roster of those present.
Snape could not exit in time and the pair appeared. They looked exactly as he remembered them from so many years ago. Lily especially. Snape set his jaw and held himself fast. Lily looked his way and they stared at each other while James carried on a wholesome and noxiously sentimental conversation with McGonagall. His old colleague would do fine here, Snape thought to himself a tad derisively. He heard the faintest crack behind him and schooled himself to stop that debilitating train of thought.
The rest of the crowd began disappearing and breaths later he and Lily stood alone. Snape felt like an insect pinned to a glaring white board. After this much time of carefully avoiding thinking of her for long enough that she might also happen at that moment to think of him, he had no idea what to say. As a result, she spoke first.
"Severus?" she prompted. Her muted red hair was exactly as he remembered it, long, flowing. He could not speak for a minute but managed a nod.
"You look well," she said.
True, he thought. He could be much worse. His mantra; this was not the best time for it. His world was going to fall apart talking to her and he would have to start again. But by Merlin, at least this would be over with.
"Nothing to say?" she asked, almost amused.
Snape shook his head and spoke anyway. "What is there to say?"
She glanced to her left and said something to McGonagall. Snape saw his old colleague then as well and then Dumbledore and then James Potter. Lily spoke other names and whole a crowd appeared. Old teachers. Old Order members. Lily was doing that for him, he knew. It did not make him feel better.
"Oh, yes," McGonagall was saying. "Harry is poised to take over the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. Everyone is so proud of him, well, those that haven't got in his way these last few years." Her tone turned darkly amused.
"Sounds like a right son of mine," James said proudly. He glared at Snape, who gave him a scoffing look in return.
"Yes, and a second child now . . ." McGonagall was saying. "He and Ginny turn out the most gorgeous children."
Snape was more than ready to leave. This was making him wish for another death, or at least another circle of hell. Fortunately, his discomfort did not cause any damage. He sighed, tolerated a wink from Dumbledore, who held up a subtle hand to forestall his departure. Snape wondered why he insisted on punishing him with more of this.
McGonagall turned to the old wizard. "He named the youngest after you, Albus. I thought you'd like to know. Cutest little boy with eyes just like Harry's."
"Oh dear, I do hope they didn't use Wolfric too," he said with the kind of theatrical lilt that made Snape believe he was setting something up. Snape had not seen that in, well, eleven years.
He stared questioningly at Dumbledore as McGonagall laughed and said, "Oh, no. Harry named him for his other favorite former headmaster, Severus."
Snape stared at her, believing that last must have been in Parseltongue and he just thought he understood her. James shouted, "WHAT!" sharply enough to make Snape and others jump.
McGonagall gave James a Dumbledorish smile. "But, of course, Harry rather idolizes Severus, I'm not surprised."
Snape stared at her. Then turned to Dumbledore with a look. You knew. Dumbledore winked.
"You bewitched my son!" James accused, stepping closer, but stopping before crossing in front of Lily.
Snape held his ground even though old instincts tugged at him to retreat. "I did no such thing," he uttered, distracted from saying anything more forceful by trying to sort things out in his own head.
McGonagall intervened. "Oh, come now. No one in their right mind would imagine that Harry of all people could be bewitched against his will." She turned to Snape and again her words so mismatched his own understanding he instinctively believed them to be gibberish. She said, "Harry's told me on several occasions how brave you were."
Snape stared at her. "What?" he managed. He retreated a step from her, which he had explicitly not done in the face of Potter's accusations. He did not want to care what Harry Potter thought, or did, or what he named his brats, but it was not working so well. For one thing, he was not supposed to care what the living were doing. A cracking sound came from behind him. Pained, trapped by his own despised fragility, he retreated completely.
The meadow was empty again. He shook his head, found the will for a rock to sit upon and took advantage of it. He hugged his knees loosely, trying very hard not to lose his slippery grip on his oh-so-flimsy reality. Confusion and perverse curiosity tugged at him. The meadow was too empty. He was halfway along some winding, treacherous path and could not retrace his steps nor could he remain where he was, hanging like this.
Snape stood when Lily appeared.
"Why'd you run off?" she asked.
Again, that unsettling mismatch. She behaved as if she had forgiven him and that was impossible.
"I'm not fond of crowds," he said, half-intentionally disparaging her earlier effort to pull him into the group.
"Hm," she murmured.
He looked at her more freely, on better footing given McGonagall's revelations.
"Your other half is undoubtedly going to wonder where you are," Snape pointed out, forcing her to pick a side, if only for a moment.
"He'll get over it," she said slyly. Her smile was akin to a weapon. Snape let it cut through him, deserving to be massacred by it.
She broke into his silence, "I thought I'd see you sooner than this. I was worried about you."
Snape refused to believe this. "Really?" he asked with a lilt.
"Why wouldn't I be?" she demanded. Her faint anger disarmed her, freeing Snape to speak honestly.
"Causing your death would normally be expected to have some impact on your outlook," he said.
"Did you intend to do it?"
Snape thought he had control, but that one question, and more so the necessity of answering it, swept it away. "No. How could I?" At least his voice was not too shaky.
"Dumbledore insists that everything had to work out the way it did," Lily said.
"He WOULD say that," Snape stated darkly. "Meddling old fool."
"Don't say that about him. Why do you always insist on saying the wrong things when you know they are insulting?" She sounded too young as she said this, childishly accusing.
Snape found yet more strength. "One word. One mistake," he said, glowering now. His mind was working, understanding things. "You always forgave him, but never me."
"It wasn't one mistake. You insisted on mixing with the worst kind of witches and wizards-"
"I had nothing to lose," Snape cut in.
"Oh, so it is of course, not your fault."
"Everything is my fault," Snape countered with a hiss. "I am well aware of that. Ask your simpering little husband if he is aware of it in regards to his own life. I'll wager what his answer will be."
She pursed her lips, getting more angry, which was just fine with Snape because it allowed him to remain unchained.
"Everything that happened I brought on myself," Snape said. "I fully accept that; it is the reason I'm as well as I am." He stopped. He had not meant to say that much.
Her eyes brightened with sympathy and Snape cursed inwardly. She frowned, sucked in her lips. Her every movement was an eternity of visions. She glanced at their surroundings, making him wonder what she saw around her. Was it Godric's Hollow or Hogwarts or some other place of which he was cursed to never had any real knowledge of?
"You always forgave him anything," Snape repeated, but with declining force, remembering many tiresome incidents of what he would classify as evil from the man she decided meant everything to her. It made no sense. "Couldn't save both of us, could you?" he asked as the revelation came to him.
She did not look at him. Snape's lip twitched, trying to sneer, but inside he found only pain which after this much time should have waned, at least some.
"I can't change the past; it is fixed," Snape said, pleading for understanding with enough force that it blasted his pride away ahead of it. But he had to stop there. An alien vibration rang through him like a gong, and had he really needed to breathe he would have had to catch his breath. He blinked and looked around himself. The world was brighter. Still washed out more than the living world, but definitely sharper. Above him the sky was unmarred, an unbroken giant drop of blue arching overhead. Stunned, he stared up at it.
"What is it?" she asked.
Snape blinked at her. That had been it; the last piece was accepting that everything was truly done with, unchangeable, forever the same. The relief he felt at this made his knees uncertain.
"Nothing," he said. "I just . . . realized something." He huffed and took her in without distraction before saying with a slight snarl, "Your . . . husband . . . will certainly be missing you now."
"Yes," she admitted with a false laugh. "But I don't want to be strangers. Harry has obviously . . . more than forgiven you, so we should as well."
He wanted to say that he did not need their forgiveness, but he could not bring himself to. Instead, he said, "Nor I," which was the absolute truth. He had to take what he could get; there was only the future to think of, and a little of her doled out over eternity would certainly add up.
She smiled more honestly then. "I should go."
He shrugged as uncaringly as he could manage and she faded away.
The meadow lay in richer colors of yellow and green now and the grass bobbed almost on its own. Snape reclined on an overstuffed chair and ottoman under a broad marquee and stared off at the tiny city, glistening in the distant crux of the valley. He contemplated whom he might wish to see with a relaxed attitude. He was whole and wanted to bask in that by insulting someone, but whom shall it be? Or perhaps he should just relax and wait to see what happened next. Dumbledore would come eventually. The old wizard would be annoyingly ecstatic and overly emotional about Snape's success.
There was no reason in the world to hasten that.
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