Harry closed his eyes and turned the stone over in his hand three times.
He knew it had happened, because he heard slight movements around him that suggested frail bodies shifting their footing on the earthy, twig-strewn ground that marked the outer edge of the forest. He opened his eyes and looked around.
They were neither ghost nor truly flesh, he could see that. They resembled most closely the Riddle that had escaped from the diary so long ago, and he had been memory made nearly solid. Less substantial than living bodies, but much more than ghosts, they moved toward him, and on each face, there was the same loving smile.
As Harry turned from Lupin, a fifth shape slipped from behind a tree trunk two dozen paces away. Nearly as black as the night around it, the barely corporeal figure approached slowly. Harry’s eyes darted to his father, who began to stride forward and open his mouth angrily as if to speak, but Lily’s hand reached for James first. She pulled him back and shook her head in silent reproach. She then looked at the figure with a reassuring smile.
The figure now recognizable as Severus Snape materialized and paused within a few steps of the group. Harry could not help but audibly gasp. Unlike the other men, he looked precisely as he did as he did when he died. The year of emotional solitude---with only a portrait as a confidant---had not been kind to the man. He appeared to have aged ten years since Harry saw him fleeing Hogwarts a year ago. Snape’s mouth instinctively curled into a snarl and the obsidian eyes narrowed as Harry saw the three square off against the one like in days gone by. Lily stepped out from behind her husband. Then it was if all else for Severus Snape fell away.
He returned her greeting with the corners of his mouth quirking up in a shy, boyish smile which could not help but light up the rest of his face. The man who had previously been suffused with nothing but vitriol for the father and the son had eyes only for the mother. For one of the very few times in his life, Harry could empathize with Severus Snape. Harry himself had felt the same longing only moments earlier for this woman of ethereal beauty and unspeakable grace.
His head full of conflicting thoughts, Harry was unsure of what to do. He knew he had limited time to meet Voldemort before the bloodshed began anew on Hogwarts. But his long-standing burning hatred for the man battled with newfound understanding and a desperate desire for closure. He again looked back towards the rest of the group. James’s eyes were narrowed in loathing, Lupin’s face was pinched in distrust, and Sirius’s nostrils flared and seethed. Though they all looked like they dearly wanted to say or do otherwise, James looked over at his wife for the final word. She gave a small smile to Harry and bowed her head once in consent. The four backed away several paces as Harry slowly stepped forward towards Snape, who reluctantly wrenched his gaze off of Lily. The pair strode off together silently into the forest.
Wraithlike robes billowing as ever, Snape did not stop until the warm glow of Harry’s protectors was no longer visible. As the older man finally turned to face the younger, there were several moments of silence as they avoided eye contact.
“Professor…I’m sorry…I couldn’t save you from the bite wound,” Harry started awkwardly.
Snape sighed and shook his head and then sighed once more with a deep sense of angry frustration roiling right below the surface. “It was no one’s fault but mine, Potter. All of my hopelessly reckless, self-serving, and infinitesimally stupid choices finally came to a head. I have long been living on borrowed time in this nightmarish purgatory called life, just as you are living on borrowed time right now.”
Snape paused and paced restlessly like a wounded panther. His ghostly black robes swirled in a cloud of agitation as he seemed to be trying to muster the strength to continue.
He suddenly dropped to his knees and clutched his chest as if Harry had hit him directly with the Cruciatus Curse. It had taken nearly four decades of chaos to finally break the long established levees in the powerful wizard’s soul. It was a heart-wrenching sight.
“All because of Voldemort!” he roared with such venom that it surpassed even the hatred he normally reserved for speaking of James Potter. Harry recoiled slightly as he realized Snape used, for what was likely the first time, the Dark Lord’s name.
“He is the source of it ALL! Despite some of what you saw concerning my association with my brainwashed contemporaries at school, I did not really care for blood purity. I told Lily not long after the first day we met that it does not matter! It still does not. However, false friends and the prejudices of the ages have a way of creeping into our thinking and come out as we least expect. I never truly thought of her as a…” Snape trailed off as he could not seem to say the hated epithet.
“I was continually humiliated in front of the whole rabble at a tenuous age by the supposed saviors of the school. To have a girl, even your love and light and life, try to save you was simply more than an arrogant sixteen-year-old boy could take. It was never my mortification in front of the insipid masses that made me take special care to hide that memory of mine from you during the Occlumency lessons; that happened on a nearly daily basis, even after your father saved my life from the werewolf. No, Potter, calling her that hated name and ending our friendship…that was the second worst memory of my life. Knowing she died nearly by my very own hand was truly the worst.”
He slowly returned to his feet to look again at Harry, his otherworldly face a thunderstorm of turmoil.
“Potter…the hour is late and I do not bring you here merely to be my life’s confessor. Dumbledore has long assumed that role. I have but a moment to attempt to make peace for a lifetime of sins and their consequences that I have dumped on your head before you must help to set right all my wrongs and vanquish that evil bastard as that wretched prophecy foresaw so many years ago.”
“I could not see you but for your father looking back at me defiantly from the grave...mocking me, taunting me, humiliating me. I could manage it the only way I knew how: with contempt and loathing. I was raised up in an atmosphere of anger and pain. Any weakness, any emotion, was scorned. Why should my formative school years in the house of Slytherin be any different? Unlike your blessed father, I never had the love from a family, athletic ability, respect from peers or teachers because of my love of learning or talents, or genuine friends…except Dumbledore’s gradual allowances beyond his scheming...and a red-haired Muggleborn who, for some unfathomable reason, took pity on me and allowed me to follow her around like a stray dog. I have been both simultaneously used and cursed by the lords of both the Light and the Dark like a distasteful but necessary blunt instrument for my entire adult life. Despite all of that, or maybe because of it, I have helped you to the best of my ability and I regret not being able to do more. This is but a meager mea culpa, but…”
At this, Snape’s chin dropped to his chest as he appeared as a lamb before the cudgel. His lank black curtains of hair obscured most of his face as he waited for the proverbial blow to fall. His voice had reduced itself to a hoarse whisper on the wind.
“No matter what cruel machinations the hand of Fate had in store for us all, I never forgave myself for the fact that I could not save Lily…or James…so I would not expect you to do so either. I do somewhat regret the way I treated you on occasion…but you must understand! Every single time I looked at your eyes, I could not help but think of…of…what might have been…In my own self-imposed hell, your very presence for these last seven years raked what was left of my soul over hot coals. Yet a very small part of me that I compartmentalized in the far reaches of my mind…indeed, that I never dared acknowledge until now…I was…proud to see you stand and fight like a man.
“Potter, I have paid the penance for my sins for what should be a thousand times over, but I know it will never be enough in life or this next one. For just the briefest of moments, I wish to feel the warmth of atonement that I do not merit. Like a hapless fly, I have long stumbled towards the light of day only to get trapped in the web of Fate. It seems like men like us were never meant for more than mere pawns in the greater scheme of things. But to finally breathe these words to you is to also desire a release from the shackles of Hades for just a moment to see heaven’s light. After I am done speaking, Lily can go back to her true love, you can meet your own destiny, and I can finally reside myself to the hellfire that I so richly deserve.”
Snape’s spectral hands violently clutched at the other’s robes and looked again into the green eyes. Seeing the physical manifestation of the torment, self-loathing, and the ultimate despair of Severus Snape made the younger man’s heart physically ache.
The slight chilly breeze blowing through the forest neither explained the lump in Harry’s throat nor the burn of fresh tears in the corner of his eyes. Harry took a slow, deep breath and again marveled how each was bringing him closer to his last. He measured his next words carefully.
“Professor Snape…Severus…I think that when my mother saved me that night in Godric’s Hollow so long ago…she also saved you.”
Harry clasped the suffering man around the shoulders and looked earnestly into his face as he said with finality, “Severus…thank you. For everything. Please…be at peace.”
The deathly face of the irascible man finally relaxed as his eyes fluttered closed and his head tilted towards the heavens. Harry heard a long soft sigh on the wind as the aura of Severus Snape brightened momentarily and started to fade along with the voice.
“The imprint of my soul will guide you back to the others as I begin to move on. But know as you prepare to meet the enemy, the ones who have left are never really gone. We will be with you always, even until the end.”
The cold breeze again picked up and the now vaporous essence trailed away back to the clearing where the others were waiting and then slipped once more out of sight.
Just as Harry was about to leave the headmaster’s office with Ron and Hermione, he stopped for a moment and beckoned them to go on without him. Wanting a moment of solitude, he looked out through the window surveying the expansive grounds and noted the devastation in the morning sunshine. Just like an ancient tree after a forest fire, Hogwarts was a dynamic entity and would heal in time. As he turned to leave, he looked down and noticed a small vial near the windowsill.
For H. Potter, read the hurried scrawl on the label. He picked it up and shook it slightly. It swirled lightly in the vial and glowed a soft, silvery blue.
He picked it up and walked over to the Pensieve once more. He emptied the contents into the bowl and entered the single memory.
Harry saw Severus Snape in the headmaster’s office alone with nothing but the portraits for company. Severus addressed the empty room.
“Harry Potter, if you have received this, you will know that I have died trying to the last to protect you and this school that I have called home for nearly thirty years. I hope I have not died in vain and that some good can finally stem from my ruined life.
“I ask for no memorial or tribute, but I do request something that only you can bring about, if you have indeed survived. Hopefully my beloved books have not yet been removed from the headmaster’s office. They are mostly texts on research topics, but I confess that I have long had a love for Muggle literature. There is a small, unlabeled book on the third shelf from the left by the desk. It was a favorite of mine from before my time at Hogwarts. If you are not familiar with it, I am certain Miss Granger can enlighten you on the story, as I know she is a lover of magical and Muggle books as much as I was.
“On my gravestone, the only thing that need be said is the very last sentence from the novel and nothing more. This memory is entrusted to you in great haste and I hope it does not fall into the wrong hands. Thank you for fulfilling my final request.”
Severus offered a small somber smile with an inclination of his head and the memory faded.
Harry stepped out of the Pensieve and looked around. The former headmaster’s books had indeed not yet been moved. Harry rifled through Potions, Ancient Runes, Herbology, and Arithmancy texts and scrolls and found an almost worn out book with no words on the cover on the third shelf. He flipped to the title page: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. He had heard of the author, though he had not read the book. He smiled as he turned to the last page of the story and read the last line. Severus was right. He would have to consult Hermione on the story, but he did as was bid of him.
He visited the graves of the fallen annually and swore to do so as long as he was able. His yearly sojourn was long and nearly complete, but one remained. He stood holding a single white lily where the bravest man he ever knew lay entombed. As the November wind whipped through his black untidy hair, he gingerly placed the lily on the ground as he knelt by the simple headstone. He paused to gaze up at the words carved into the black marble below the name just before he turned to Apparate away. At many of the other graves, he felt compelled to say a few words of gratitude in the name of friendship and ultimate sacrifice. No words needed to be spoken here, as the inscription said more than enough.
It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done
it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.
Author's note: the first section is from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows p. 698 US hardcover. The last section is from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.