He was peering into Lily's green eyes, into Lily's beautiful, compassionate eyes, and his vision was graying out, and his body was dying…
And then…and then, there was a sensation of separation, of weightlessness, and of unbearable cold, silence, and loneliness. All the light in the universe seemed to go out all once. And he felt that he was lost, cast adrift like unwanted cargo, and he knew terror, and he knew despair. And he did not remember who he was, or where he was, or how he had come to this awful state.
And then, out of the darkness there came a radiant golden light and a sound like phoenix song. And a voice said, "Wait, that one belongs to me."
And it seemed as though he had only fallen asleep for a moment, and now he was awakening from a horrible nightmare of darkness and torment. And he stirred, and sat up, and found that he had been lying, not in a pool of blood in a gloomy, abandoned shack, but on a warm, white beach where the sibilant sound and briny scent of lapping waves greeted his newly awakening senses.
He looked down at his hands and turned them over, and he saw that there was no blood on them. He thought for a moment that it didn't make any sense that there should be no blood there. He remembered…
Someone was pacing the interior of the shack, talking some nonsense about…about wands and destiny. Something slithered in the darkness. Something hissed like a serpent. Something flew at him without warning and surrounded him in rippling coils of cold and heaviness and inhuman rage. Something ripped open his neck…
He raised a hand gingerly to the place where he had been bitten, and there was no blood, no pain, no pair of gaping holes. He could feel only rough, ragged marks where the wounds had been, and somehow he knew that he would bear those marks forever.
It was then that he realized what had happened. He had been bitten by the snake, and he had died on the floor of the Shrieking Shack, alone and forsaken.
No…not quite alone.
Someone had appeared out of the darkness and the haze of pain that had engulfed him. Someone been looking down on him... with pity? With revulsion? He could not tell. He could not decide which he had deserved. Maybe it was both.
The eyes, her green eyes, had looked at him with such scorn the day she walked away. He remembered tears, and smuggled-in Firewhisky in the Slytherin dorm room, and rash vows of desperation and vengeance. He remembered watching a wedding, under a Disillusionment Charm, through the stained glass windows of a church, because he had not been invited. He remembered screams, and flames, and battle-flung curses. He remembered a dingy little pub, and a prophecy half-heard, and a mistake that he would never be able to atone for. He remembered pleading on hands and knees, begging two bitterly opposed masters to spare her life. He remembered more tears and vows, and a mission to protect a little boy, a boy who had the same green eyes as his mother. The boy had inexplicably survived a curse that had killed everyone else it had ever touched…including his mother, Lily Evans.
He buried his face in his hands and the tears came again. He remembered so many times in life, feeling as though they would never cease. If he could not flee the pain even in death, to where else could he run?
He looked up in recognition at the name he knew was his, and the voice he had not heard in half a life-time. And there she stood, just as real as the pale sand, slate sky, and indigo water behind her. He had not seen or heard her approach, and yet there she was with a line of footprints behind her that led down to the wet white sand. How had she done it? Had she Apparated here? Why hadn't he heard the distinctive crack? Had she come up out of the sea?
"Lily," he whispered. "How…?"
"How did I get here?"
He nodded dumbly.
"Well, it wasn't easy, coming back, even if it's only for a little while. I didn't really want to do it, but Albus said that I ought to. I thought that he should be the one to go and meet you, but he said no. He wanted it to be me. He thought that you would never be able to make the crossing otherwise, and he said that I might be interested in hearing what you had to say for yourself."
Lily looked at him in surprise. "Yes, Sev, the crossing. Don't you see the ship? Surely you didn't think that this was your final destination…unless you want it to be?"
"Er…I don't understand. What ship? Where am I going?"
Lily stared in open-mouthed amazement. "You mean…you don't know? You can't see it?"
Severus shook his head.
"You really can't, can you? Oh, that's not good. Fawkes says that if you can't see it, it's because you don't really want to go on. I saw it almost as soon as I came to the beach, but then, I suppose it was easier for me because I was rather expecting it."
"Er…go where, Lily? You still haven't told me."
"Home, Sev. Home." She stretched out a hand, offering to help him up, but Severus did not take it. "Come on," Lily urged, waving the hand impatiently. "You've got to get on that ship before the tide goes out. If you don't, it'll sail without you, and you'll never get another opportunity."
"How can I board the ship if I can't see it?"
Lily paused for a moment, dropping her hand to her side as she thought. "Well, I've never heard of anyone who couldn't see it before they cast off. Maybe you just have to try harder to see it. Maybe you have to really want to go."
"I… Is it…is it safe?"
"Oh, Sev, it is more than safe. It is glorious. Not at all like the first part."
"The first part?"
"Getting to the beach. Not everyone makes it even that far, you know."
"No, I didn't know. So what happens to those who don't make the crossing, and why haven't I met any of them?"
"Well, the beach is vast. Maybe even infinite. You would have to walk a very long time to meet anyone else on this side. And I know you. You would not go very far from this spot if you decided to not to sail, not even with all eternity to rethink your poor decision."
"You're wrong," Severus said flatly, and Lily's eyes widened that he had the audacity to contradict her when he had only just arrived here. Severus shook his head and said again, more firmly, "You're wrong. About me. You used to know me, but that was a long time ago. A lot has happened since then."
"Enlighten me," Lily said coolly with her green eyes on the white sand and indigo waves.
"That could take a while," Severus said. "I don't think you realize how much has changed, how much history can be packed into seventeen years. Will you sit with me for a moment, like old times, and I'll tell you?"
"Fine…" Lily said, kneeling on the sand impatiently. Severus thought that it was not concern about missing the turn of tide that was bothering her so much as it was an overwhelming desire to go back to the other side, back to where she had come from, and where she said he was supposed to be going as well. Back to where James no doubt waited for her return…
"…But you'd better not try to kiss me like you did that one time our fourth year at school."
"My dear, I want nothing more…" Lily glared at him, and Severus continued on, undaunted, "…than to beg for your forgiveness."
"Don't start, Sev," Lily said with an irritated sigh. "I don't want to hear your excuses for what you did. You wore them out a long time ago."
"Not excuses," Severus said, with fresh tears pooling in his eyes as he watched the waves roll in. "Repentance. I…I wanted to tell you that if I could have given my life to spare yours, I would have. And if there were any way that I could have changed what I did to you and your family, I would have. Lily…I didn't know. I…I swear…I didn't know. When I heard the prophecy…"
"You could have kept it to yourself. You could have saved yourself and everyone else a lot of misery if you had just kept a lot of things to yourself."
"Lily, I spent the next seventeen years keeping everything to myself. Because I had no one else to share it with!"
"Yes you did. You had Dumbledore."
"Oh yes, Dumbledore!" Snape spat viciously. "He used me for seventeen years. Used my grief like a weapon, and my guilt like a tool for his war. I laid down my life for his cause, and I never got a single reward for it. I wouldn't exactly call that sharing."
"Well, maybe I would feel more sympathetic if I didn't think that you deserved a taste of your own potions. Have you forgotten how poorly you treated me?"
"What? I never used you! I wouldn't! I couldn't! I loved you! You were my life!"
"Oh, Sev," Lily said wearily, "you drove me half mad that last year before I threw you out and started dating James just to get rid of you."
"You…you only dated him to get rid of me?" Severus said, stricken. "But I thought…?"
"At first, that was the only reason, yes. Later, of course, that changed. I did fall in love with James. But the reason it started…that was your fault, Sev. You brought it all on yourself."
"No, no…" Severus buried his face in his hands, and his shoulders shook.
This time Lily favored him with a look of genuine pity. "I tried to warn you. I tried to reason with you. I tried to explain to you that were building your own dungeon, that you were laboring, with your disgusting passtimes and malicious pursuits, to make your own worst fears come true."
Lost in his grief, Severus said nothing.
"You say you loved me, but you didn't. Desired, perhaps, lusted, perhaps, but not loved. No, it was not love, because you never understood the meaning of love."
"That's…that's not…not true," Severus choked out.
"Love is not selfish, Sev. And love despises the control and manipulation of the Dark Arts. Love gives up what it is not meant to have, and sets free that which desire would imprison."
"Don't leave me again, Lily. Please! I can't give you up again!"
"I'm not telling you to give me up, Sev, I'm telling you to grow up. Don't you see that love is so much more than your pitiful definition of it? You would settle for this narrow, empty, lonely stretch of sand, when you have so much more waiting for you on the far shore."
"Wait, are you telling me that in order to be able board the ship, I have to understand love? It is not about clinging to the old life after all?"
Lily gazed at him thoughtfully for a long moment, as though she too had suddenly realized something of profound importance. "I…I'm not exactly sure how it works. It sort of happened naturally for me. But maybe in order to be able to do one, you have to be willing to do the other as well. Maybe the crossing is as much about embracing as it is letting go."
"What more would you have me embrace? Responsibility for my actions? I have taken it. Regret? I have experienced enough of that to say that it is almost as bad as an unending Cruciatus Curse. Acceptance that things can never again be like they once were between us? I have accepted it, though it is worse than the Draught of Agony. What more must I do?"
Lily stared at her childhood friend and sweetheart in surprise, seeing him as though for the first time. "I think…I think I have been blind, Sev. You have changed. Will you forgive me for not seeing that? I think I have failed to realize that, because seventeen years for you have been only a few minutes for me. Time passes differently on the other shore. You lose track of the ones you've left behind."
"You did not miss me at all, Lily," Severus said in a wounded, bitter tone. "But I missed you every day. Do you know that my Patronus never changed in over twenty years? Do you know that every time I risked my life in the war…wars, I did it for you, not for Harry? Do you know that when I died (in terrible pain, I might add), that I saw your eyes, not Harry's, looking down at me? And would you believe me if I told you that I would do it all over again, if you asked me to?"
Lily's eyes glistened. "Oh, Sev," she said sadly, "I am sorry that I ever let you get so attached to me if I caused you that much pain. Perhaps I should have driven you away in the very beginning, even before you got so messed up."
"No!" Severus bellowed, shaking his head wildly. "No! You don't understand! You are the one who doesn't understand love! Don't you realize what would have happened to me if you had not been in my life? Don't you see that I would not have had any Patronus at all? Don't you see that I would never have come to this beach? That I would never have had a ship, invisible or no? I don't know what will happen to the other Death Eaters, what their fate will be, but have you ever seen any of them…over there…where you came from?"
Lily shook her head, and now twin tears trickled down her cheeks. "Not one," she whispered, "only you."
"Lily," Severus said softly, getting to his feet for the first time since he'd arrived on the sandy shore, "I think I want to go now. Will you forgive me? Will you take me to where the ship is moored? Will you go with me?"
Lily rose to her feet beside the man she had once liked, and loathed, and pitied in life. And now she experienced a new feeling toward him, one she never would have dreamed she'd ever have: respect. And she surprised Severus with a sudden, impulsive hug. And she said, "Of course I will."
Severus returned the hug in like fashion, and looked beyond Lily's auburn hair to where a brilliant golden ship lay beached on marble sands with azure waves curling around it. Fawkes sat perched upon the bow with his wings spread wide, and he was singing. And Severus recognized the tune as he followed Lily's footprints to the gangplank, leaving his own etched in the sand beside them. And the song of the phoenix was one that most Muggles would know almost immediately:
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see!