He feels warmth.
It is a long time since Severus Snape has felt warmth. He felt it as a child, spying on Lily through the fence. It faded when she abandoned him, and he believed then that he was cold. What he believed was coldness drew him, for a time, into darkness – but it was only when she died that he learned what true coldness was.
Still, there were moments after that. Never so bright, but they were something. Moments of understanding with Dumbledore, mostly. Occasionally a dropping of hostilities with other members of the order. Gratitude from Remus for his health. Hospitality from Molly. A gentleman's accord with Mad-Eye. Quiet understanding from Minerva, who had his own stoicism and a woman's perception. Holding him accountable for his behaviour, firmly but without rancour.
But then, for the last year...nothing but cold. Shut out by Minerva and Remus. Maiming Molly's son. Immersed in darkness and in the cloying fear of those around him. Narcissa, sobbing and stroking his hand, begging for reassurance that her own husband did not care to give and that he could not truthfully provide. Bellatrix, lurching with unpredictable malice from one day to the next. Draco, staring up at him with eyes haunted by equal parts gratitude and revulsion. Crabbe, the blundering child turned monster, no finer instincts to hold him back.
And the Dark Lord...always the Dark Lord. Snake-like. Soul diminished to the merest sub-human thread. Always there, branded on his arm. Penetrating his mind – or at least the fictional rooms of it created for the Dark Lord's benefit. In his veins like a curse, held at bay for only a while. And, for the last year, in the people around him as well.
The Dark Lord. Lily's killer.
That fury, that pain was long quietened, but never gone – especially not with her son around. He felt so much when he looked at Harry – jealousy towards the father he resembled, anger that Harry had survived when Lily had not, and fierce, bitterly unwilling protectiveness as well. And deep, rending pain. Pain that had been locked up ever since he had employed his greatest defences and told the Dark Lord coolly, "Of course, she was only a Mudblood. I should have enjoyed her primitive pleasures, but she was hardly of consequence."
She was hardly of consequence.
One day, perhaps, it will be known that she was everything of consequence. He could not have borne that before. Partly because it would have made his work impossible, but only partly. His horror of being vulnerable had always been there, hadn't it? And he supposed it had been his downfall. Without it, perhaps there would have been light, and friends, and Lily. And even if there hadn't been Lily, her loss would not have turned so poisonous inside him. She would have lived, and his years of exile would not have happened.
It all seems very silly and pointless now. Now that there is warmth. Was this what he feared all this time?
He wonders what he will see when he opens his eyes. It doesn't seem terribly urgent to do so. Sun, of course – what else could emanate such warmth? – and then he supposes that the mysteries of the world beyond life will be revealed. His life has been a burden long since carried with resignation, and he is not sorry to leave it behind.
Slowly, his eyes drift open.
It is night. The warmth is coming from many Patronuses, each one a beautiful, graceful doe. He has never seen a witch or wizard cast more than one Patronus, but he supposes that it is possible. They surround him, watching him with utter gentleness.
He knows that he did not cast them.
He gets to his feet.
"Lily," he whispers. It is a plea.
"Behind you, Sev."
When he turns, a lifetime falls away. He feels the lines, the ravages of time disappear from his face. He is still himself, older than her now, but physically restored. He knows without looking that the dark mark is gone. It has no dominion in this place and time.
"Lily," he says again, transfixed by her smile. He feels something that he knows is supposed to be joy, but it hurts more than he has ever hurt in his life. He is standing before her, naked of every defence, his love and his flaws and his wrongs all laid out before her.
"Where we're going, all will be healed," she says. Then, gently, "I know you've suffered."
He closes his eyes. Years of agony, undiluted by magic or occulumency wash over him. Ah, yes, he thinks – this is what he feared. Tears well up and spill over his cheeks. Not a lot of them, but the ones that fall sear with heat.
She approaches him. Her hands cradle his face.
"Don't," he says huskily. "You aren't mine."
"Marriage is severed at death," she says. "Where we're going, there is no marriage. There is no need. All who love, love perfectly and completely. They are in perfect union. There is no delineation between them. Parents, spouses, children, and friends all have equal love for and claim on one another, and all have utter freedom."
"Marriage is for the living," he says slowly. Figuring it out as he speaks. Marriage is one sacred mystery that was always closed to him.
She nods. "It is a glimpse of that union, but with one person only. It is too much, too big for most mortals to live more widely than that."
"But then-" he protests, but she stops him.
"In this time and place," she says firmly, "I am not married, but I can give of myself. This is a space between."
Her hands are still cradling his face. His brow furrows. "But James-"
"I love James," she says. "And I love you."
"I love you, Lily." He says it with the air of an admission of guilt.
"I know you've suffered," she says again, her mouth brushing against his, and then she kisses him.
He kisses her back, knowing it will be the only time. Putting everything into it – every hurt, every regret, and yes, every shining moment he's held her in his heart. His hands thread themselves through her hair, not possessively – somehow that's been burned out of him – but cherishing her all the same. More tears for both of them. Patronuses dance around them. Stars above them, seeming to sing. And at last, it ends.
She presses her forehead against his, still stroking his cheeks with her palms. "Sev," she whispers. "I have to go. Harry needs me. The Patronuses will lead you on." Then, with a smile, "There are a lot of people waiting for you, you know."
He nods. Strokes her face with his fingertips. "Will I see you again?" He already knows the answer.
She gives him a radiant smile. "Oh, yes."
"And all will be well?"
She nods. "All will be well."