Harry rubbed his eyes, he was being bathed in a warm golden glow, and he no longer felt pain, only blessed peace. He was still wearing his school uniform, but other than that nothing about this place was recognizable. His parents, he only knew who they were because of the picture Severus had shown him long ago of Lily and Hagrid had shown him another of James, were standing before him. They were wearing ordinary clothes, his mother had on a green dress that matched the color of her remarkable eyes, and his father was wearing gray slacks and a red pullover and glasses as well. Both of them were smiling welcomingly, and a large marble staircase abruptly appeared behind them.
The staircase wound up and up into golden light and mist and Harry could not tell where it went. Except Lily had said something about the stairway to heaven. But surely you only went to heaven if you were . . .dead? He rubbed his eyes again and thought that he didn't feel dead. Then again, what did being dead feel like anyhow?
"If I'm not dead, then what am I doing here?" he asked, honestly puzzled.
"This is an inbetween place, a sort of gateway, if you will," James told him. "Uh, why don't you sit down here, next to us, and we'll try and answer some of your questions, all right?"
He beckoned Harry over to a seat on one of the lower stairs and Harry walked over and gingerly lowered his bottom onto the marble step.
To his surprise, it was very solid, and not at all misty, like he had expected. James sat on one side of him and Lily on the other. Lily was staring at him with a sort of yearning in her eyes, and suddenly Harry could feel her love for him, it was as vast and deep as the ocean and she wanted him to hug her.
So he did, tentatively at first, but she felt so real and warm in his arms that he soon quit feeling awkward and hugged her tightly.
"Harry, Harry. My little baby is almost grown up," she murmured, rocking him gently.
She smelled of citrus and sunlight, Harry thought in wonder, and felt tears come to his eyes. This is my mother. I can almost remember her holding me. And her voice . . .I remember her singing me to sleep . . .
"Lily. You know the rules," James reminded her regretfully.
She sighed, stroked Harry's hair once more, then drew away. "Yes, I know. Funny that you should remind me of them, James, who never followed a one when you were in school."
"That was then. I know better now."
Harry looked from one to the other. What was going on? "Uh, did I do something wrong? Are you, like, not allowed to touch me?"
"No, though we should limit the physical contact between us because . . .as we said before, you're not really dead, and any contact with us draws you further into the Realm Beyond, what some people call heaven and others Nirvana," James explained. He gave Harry a quick one-armed hug.
"Oh. Are you . . .angels or something?"
Lily laughed, her laugh was like music, sweet and beautiful. "In a manner of speaking. We are guardian angels of a sort, sent to advise and watch over certain people who need us."
"Uh, well, we weren't assigned to you specifically, son. We're here by request. You see, you hover on the cusp of life and death right now, and that's the only reason we're permitted to speak with you this time."
"Because we could affect the choices you make in your life," Lily said softly. "And man was given free will for a reason, Harry. So that he could choose his own destiny. Still, we are permitted to tell you a few things. First, that we love you and you made us very proud today, standing up to that twisted soul and his pawn."
"Your mum's right, Harry. I couldn't have done it better myself." James praised, and Harry felt a warm glow suffuse him. "But for every good deed there is a price."
"A price? Like my life?" Harry guessed. "Or someone else's? Please, don't let Severus die. He . . .he's done everything for me, I don't want his death on my conscience."
Lily patted his arm. "I know, Harry. Severus is quite alive, child."
"He is?" Harry heaved an immense sigh of relief. "That's wonderful, Mum. I thought I might have been too late in giving him the ring when Quirrell cast that Green Venom spell on him."
"No, Snape is a tough old python," James said without a trace of jealousy or dislike in his tone. "And I never thought I'd say this, but he's done a good job of raising you, kid. I have to admit, that when Lily told me about the promise she made him swear, I thought she was making a huge mistake."
"He argued with me over it for three days straight, until he realized I wasn't going to give in, then he accepted it. I knew that Severus would be the ideal guardian for you. And I was right, wasn't I, dear?"
"Yes, Lily. Happy now?" James rolled his eyes. "Severus is probably better father material than I would have been."
"Really? Why would you say that, Dad?" Harry asked.
"Because I'd of spoiled you rotten, most likely." James admitted, chuckling. "The way I was spoiled by my mum and dad. I never really learned how to say no, to my friends or myself, which is why I ended up getting in trouble so much at school. I was a spoiled brat, actually, though I learned better eventually. But Severus doesn't have that problem."
"No." Harry agreed. "If anything, he's pretty strict."
"But he loves you, son," Lily said then.
"Really?" Harry felt a sudden quiver of hope run through him. "I mean, I always hoped he did . . .but he never said anything . . .so I wasn't really sure . . ."
"Ah. Shall we show you how deeply Severus cares for you, Harry?" asked James. "Look."
He spread his hands and a clear globe appeared inbetween them.
Harry peered into it, and saw the familiar whitewashed walls and curtained beds and tray tables of the Hogwarts infirmary. In the bed was a slight boy with a shock of dark hair that Harry recognized with a jolt as himself. Beside the bed, on a wooden chair sat Snape, his arms wrapped about his lean frame, pale and drawn, his hair hanging limply in his eyes.
"Yes. That is you as you presently are, unconscious in a bed in the Hospital Wing with Severus beside you," James nodded.
Harry continued to gaze into the globe and suddenly he could hear and see all that was said in the room, spoken and unspoken.
* * * * * *
"Is there anything else I can do for you, Poppy?" Severus asked softly, hope and despair mingled in his voice.
"No, Severus. You have done all you can . . .and so have I. I dare not give him a more powerful stimulant, his heart won't be able to handle it." The medi-witch looked exhausted, her cap was askew and her hair straggling from its usual neat bun.
Severus looked stricken at those words, as though the Healer had taken a sword and thrust it through his heart, which in a way, she had. "Nothing . . .nothing more at all?"
"No," Poppy said sorrowfully. "All we can do now is wait. And pray, if you're so inclined to. He's in the hands of the Trinity now." She shot him a sympathetic glance, then bustled off to tend some other patients, who had gotten on the wrong end of some magical fireworks.
Severus bowed his head, then returned to his silent lonely vigil at the bedside of his ward, who had defeated Voldemort, or at least his vessel, but at such great cost. Harry had drained his magical reserves down to nearly nothing, as well as his life force, sending himself into a kind of catatonic shock. He clung to life by a slender thread, and not all of Severus's skill or Pomfrey's healing art could mend him. Even Albus had tried transferring a bit of his own power into the boy, but it had been rejected.
Severus leaned forward, one lean hand reaching out to clasp the small bandaged one, for Harry's right hand had sustained minor burns. His lips moved, but no sound came out, his throat had a lump so big in it that he could not speak. Come back to me, Harry. Come back. Don't go, child. Not yet. Stay with me. You have so much to live for, a whole lifetime. Please stay.
Over and over he pleaded wordlessly with the child's fragile spirit to remain, hoping that somehow Harry would hear him. But Harry remained inert and still, his spirit wandering another realm.
Then he began to pray, his words barely audible. "Please Lord, don't take my child from me, I beg of you. If you need a life, take me instead. I offer myself freely. Just let him live . . .please . . ." Begging was foreign to the proud wizard, but he found he would humble himself in whatever way was necessary if only his son were spared.
He felt as if his heart were splintered into a million little pieces, worse than even that fateful Halloween night when Lily had died. THAT had been a tragedy, this would be . . .unspeakable.
He trembled, trying to contain the torrent of grief that surged up within him. He lives still . . .he breathes, his heart still beats, Severus . . .and yet, for how much longer? It has been three days . . .He sucked in a breath. He had not eaten or slept in all of that time, he had done nothing save brew a Stimulant Draft for Poppy and then sit beside Harry's bedside.
He felt a light touch on his shoulder. "Severus, you should rest."
"Sev, you haven't slept in days. You can't keep on like this. You nearly died as well. Destroying your own health won't help him, Severus Snape . . ." Minerva told him firmly yet compassionately.
He knew she was right, but he didn't have the courage to admit it. So he said instead, "Then what will? There is nothing more I can do, save be by him if he . . .passes on. Do you not understand? It is my fault he is lying here . . .barely a breath away from Heaven's gate! That should have been me, damn it all! I was his protector, I swore a sacred oath to put my life before his always . . .I was supposed to have killed Quirrell . . . and I failed him . . .failed him just like I failed Lily . . ."
The Potions Master did not look at her, but in his voice was a raw bitter ache and a savage self-loathing.
Minerva felt her heart contract for the man before her, who was hurting so badly and yet did not know how to ask for comfort. Worse, did not believe he deserved comfort. "Sev, no. You did the best anyone could have done . . .better than I could have, better than Albus even, why do you think Lily chose you? She knew. Merlin's beard, you fought bloody Riddle himself for Harry and survived! How many other wizards have done that?"
Severus gritted his teeth. He could feel his control shattering, and sought to hold onto it.
"But it wasn't enough!" he rasped. "It never is . . .everything I do, it's never enough . .!"
"You're wrong, Severus. You gave that child there something no one else ever did. You gave him your heart and your love and someone to depend on. And that is enough for anyone." Minerva said quietly, tears running down her cheeks.
Then she did something no one else would have ever dared.
She took the guilt-ridden, distraught, Potions Master in her arms and held him.
Severus stiffened. Then he tried to draw away. "No . . .don't . . .I don't deserve . . ."
"You do. God help me, yes you do, my boy," the witch said, hugging him tighter. "I should have done this long ago."
Severus found his face pressed up against Minerva's tartan shawl, breathing in the sweet scent of heather and soft wool, and suddenly his self-control snapped. He was weary unto death of suppressing his emotions, sick to his very soul with fear and anguish, and he could not bear it any longer. His son was dying and there was nothing he could do to prevent it. So he did the only other thing he could do. He buried his head in Minerva's shoulder and sobbed, terrible hoarse sobs dragged up from the depths of his being. Then the tears came, and he wept himself to exhaustion on the tartan, and all the while the Transfiguration teacher held him, murmuring softly and stroking the raven hair in featherlight touches, her tears mingling with his own, though in truth she was not sure who she was crying for-Harry or Severus.
* * * * * *
Harry blinked, and drew back from the globe, as the image of the Hospital Wing vanished, and he felt his own eyes well up with tears. Now he knew the truth, irrevocably and irrefutably. Severus loved him, loved him as much as James or Lily ever had. For no one sobbed so brokenly over a person if they did not love that one best of all.
"He really does love me," he sniffled.
"Yes, dear," Lily said, and smoothed a stray lock of hair from his forehead. "Severus has always had a great capacity to love, but has been hurt so much in the past that he was afraid to show it. But it was always there. And what he loves, he loves forever."
Harry nodded, unable to speak right then, too moved by what he had seen.
At last, he said, "If Quirrell is dead, does that mean Voldemort is too?"
"No, son." James answered, shaking his head. "Evil never really dies, it simply assumes a new form, and sleeps until it can find a way to cause death and destruction again. It has always been so, since the beginning of time. The battle between good and evil is eternal. Voldemort was defeated again, true, but he is not dead, since he was only partially alive in this incarnation."
"Can he ever die?"
James nodded. "Yes, but it is rather difficult to kill him. He feared death so much that he tried to trick it, and he made a bargain with Lucifer to extend his life in exchange for dark powers. He can die, but only if certain conditions are met."
"Like what, Dad?"
"I cannot tell you. That must be discovered by the one who is his adversary." James sighed heavily. "Now, you have seen for yourself that there is one who loves you unconditionally, and can take our place, if you will permit him. That is one reason you were brought here. The other . . .your spirit hovers on the brink of life and death, Harry, and so you must choose. . ."
"Whether I'm going to die or not?"
"No. Whether you are going to live," James corrected. "Dying is easy, son. It's living that's hard. If you choose to live, know that you also choose to put yourself in direct opposition to Voldemort. You will become his adversary, the one who could defeat him for all of time. And he will stop at nothing to destroy you. But you shall have your friends to help you and Severus to protect and guide you and love you. And together you may triumph over Voldemort."
"Or you could choose to follow us into death, sweetheart," Lily said gently, her green eyes luminous. "There will be no pain, and then you may accompany us up the stairway to heaven and become as we are, guardians and watchers, dwelling forever in the blessed peace and light of heaven. And someday, when it is time, you may also choose to be reborn again, and live your life anew. The choice is yours. Very few are given this choice, Harry. Choose wisely."
Harry stared first at one parent than the other. He did not know what to think, what to feel. On one hand, he had tasted already of the eternal peace and love that surrounded his parents' spirits, and he could feel a sudden urge to walk up that marble staircase and immerse himself fully in the blessed realm. He would be with his parents and never know pain or suffering again, for such did not exist there.
But on the other hand . . .he recalled the image of Severus weeping brokenly in McGonagall's arms over him. And he remembered Hermione kissing him gently and wishing him luck, and Ron grinning and teaching him how to play chess. He recalled the way it had felt to soar above the clouds on his Nimbus, and the thrill that came when he cast his first spell, and the sense of belonging he had felt when he had first seen Hogwarts.
Could he give all that up?
There was a price for everything, however.
Heaven's price was his life.
But if he chose to live . . .he must face Voldemort once again.
And he was terrified.
He closed his eyes.
Then he recalled something Severus had said to him once about being afraid.
"Everyone is afraid of something, Harry. But there are ways to conquer fear. First by acknowledging it and then by accepting it. Once you have done that, you will become fear's master."
So then. He was afraid of Voldemort. Why? Mostly because the wizard could kill him. Or, not just him, but those he cared about. Like Severus, Hermione, and Ron. He did not want them to die because of him. But he also knew that if they did die, they would go to heaven just like his parents. And they might not die at all if he was willing to do as James had said, and face Voldemort and defeat him by learning his weaknesses.
If I die now, there will have to be another person to be the adversary. And Voldemort might still win. And then there's Severus. If I die, he will be all alone again. I don't think I could bear that, seeing him so unhappy. I owe him too much. And not only that . . .I love him too, as much as I ever did James.
Harry made up his mind then.
He stood up, then turned to James and Lily, and cleared his throat.
"I've decided. I choose to go back and live. I'll pay the price and become Voldemort's adversary and defeat him if I can. But not because I want to be a hero or anything like that. It's because Severus needs me. And . . .and I need him." Harry coughed awkwardly. "Not that I don't want to be with you, Mum and Dad, but . . .well, you seem happy here and Severus . . .I don't want him hurt like that. And I want the chance to grow up . . .with a father who is alive and not a memory."
James clapped him on the shoulder. "We understand, son. You deserve a chance to live, and be happy. Severus does too. If you defeat Voldemort, you can have that chance."
Lily hugged him. "I'm so proud of you, Harry. You chose the harder road, the road less traveled by. But remember this, even the darkest night has stars, and hope shines brightest in the darkness."
James stood up and hugged him also. "It's time for us to go, son. But we'll meet again someday. Hopefully later than sooner. Trust your instincts, keep your wand handy, and obey Severus like you would me. We love you, and so long as you remember us, we will always be with you." Then he kissed Harry on the forehead, and so did Lily.
Harry found himself floating into the air and the last thing he heard were Lily and James saying, "Goodbye, Harry. May you know peace and light forever."
Then a brilliant light surrounded him and he shut his eyes. He felt something tugging and pulling at him, and he surrendered to it and allowed it to take him where it would.
The next thing he knew, he was back in his body, alive and well, and the first sight that met his eyes when he opened them was Severus, who was staring at him with tears running down his cheeks.
"Severus. Don't, please. I'm okay, really."
Severus nearly fell off his chair. For one moment he remained speechless.
Then he was in Severus's arms, and Harry hugged him hard, crying and laughing all at once.
Severus held him so tightly he almost couldn't breathe, but it was all right. His dark angel rocked him back and forth murmuring over and over, "Harry, Harry, you're alive. You came back to me. It's like a miracle."
"I know." Harry murmured softly, his own face damp. Then he said something he had been longing to say ever since Severus had cured him of the arsenic, but had not had the courage to say until now.
"I love you . . .Dad."
For one endless minute there was no response.
Then Severus replied, in a voice filled with amazement and delight, "I love you too, my son."
And they clung to each other, unashamed.
Chapter End Notes:
I DID warn you . . .you should have gotten a Kleenex!
Next: Dumbledore fills Harry in on some facts concerning Voldemort, plus Severus has a delayed reaction to his ward's disobedience, and something unexpected occurs.
Next: Dumbledore fills Harry in on some facts concerning Voldemort, plus Severus has a delayed reaction to his ward's disobedience, and something unexpected occurs.
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