Length: ~ 10,300
Main character or Pairing: Snape-centric; *SS/LE (imagined), pre-slash HP/SS*
Card: Six of Cups
Card Interpretation (from various sources):
--- Reversed - Nostalgia, inability to face reality. Reversed, this card warns of the dangers of constantly looking back, living in the past, yearning for all that is gone and never to return. It could indicate hiding in the past to escape facing up to current problems which need attention.
--- "A card of the past and memories, things that have vanished."
--- Dreams of idealized childhood. (RW)
Disclaimer: Anything recognizable isn't mine, it belongs to J.K.R. and WB and whoever else has a legal claim. The snippets of song lyrics belong to Don McLean.
Warnings: SPOILERS for Deathly Hallows, some het and a hint of slash (because I just couldn't help myself)
Summary: "It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live…"
Author Notes: This story is mostly Deathly Hallows compatible, with a few adjustments noted here - *-- Snape is not dead -- Story is probably not epilogue-friendly*. Beta-ed by confiteor_3; also inspired by the 'Mirror of Erised' prompt over at snape_after_dh
In a labyrinth of cobblestone hedged by tumbledown houses, there is a woman who does not belong. She walks at a contradictory pace – steady and slow as one who is looking for something, yet with a frantic sort of undertone, as though life hangs in the space between her feet and the steps they make.
She shivers as she walks; at any other time of day, she thinks, the homes around her would be frightening, depressing even. But it's twilight now, and the dying sun washes them all in a golden glow. So she walks on.
Every intersection takes her deeper into the heart of this dilapidated little neighbourhood. The streets here do not have road signs; she doesn't need to wonder why. They are not designed for strangers, because no one who hasn't already been subjected to the melancholy fate of living in such a place would ever venture here of their own accord.
As she makes her way, the signs of life fade, as if trying to mimic the sun. There are now more boards than windows, and more rats than children. Those things, more than the raw autumn air, send chills down her spine.
She turns down yet another cobbled street, but this one has a sign, albeit crooked and ancient. Spinner's End, it whispers to her, and she follows it. She does not feel her intuition kick in until she reaches the end of the street and the house that rests there. This has to be the one. Strangely, it's not as wretched as she had always imagined it would be. The house is dark to be sure, but it does not look as if it is about to collapse as most of the others do.
Summoning her courage, she walks up and onto the stoop, and things seem a bit more intimidating than they did from the street. She takes a deep breath and raises a shaking fist to the forbidding door, knocking three times in rapid succession, as though once her skin touches wood she'll lose her nerve.
She waits a minute, then knocks again, this time with determination. First nothing, then she hears shouting, and she knows she's come to the right place.
"It's about damn time, you pathetic waste of flesh! You don't even deserve the word 'urchin', you stupid…"
The door swings open before her, and the rest of the insult dies along with the glass in the frame of a picture that falls from the wall as the door slams against it. The man in the doorway grimaces plainly, though whether it is because of her presence or the shattered glass now littering the hallway, she does not know.
"What in the hell are you doing here?"
"Hello to you too, Professor Snape."
The frown on his face deepens. "Spare me, Miss Granger; I do not have time for pleasantries."
The man has not changed at all, from what she can see. Still as nasty and jaded as when he'd woken up in the hospital wing, two days after Voldemort's defeat, demanding to know what miserable fool hadn't just left him to die.
"Alright, I'll be brief. I came because I…we…we need your help."
He scoffs, and the door twitches towards her, ready to slam.
She thrusts her foot into the doorway in a panic. "Wait! It's about Harry!"
"Oh?" His forehead wrinkles with what might be concern, and her hopes soar. "Well why didn't you say so? How could you have been so cruel as to deny me the pleasure of tossing my life's pursuits aside to cater to the whims of our saviour? Half a lifetime of doing so is hardly enough."
Her hopes crash back down to lay at her feet as the man in the threshold scowls.
"Now, kindly remove yourself from my doorway so that you may inform Mister Potter that I am not a house-elf to be summoned at his beck and call."
He starts to shut the door again, but she pushes herself in the way. "No, please! He didn't send me. He's…please, Professor…he's dying."
Ten minutes later, Severus is pleased to note that his young intruder is decidedly uncomfortable in his house. She has been babbling, mostly nonsense, since the moment he sighed and let her in. She's finally getting to the point.
"He's been in St. Mungo's for three weeks – some kind of curse damage. The Healers have tried their best, but nothing seems to help him. He's unconscious, and they don't know what else is wrong with him, though they think it's a psychological curse." She glances up briefly, and Severus knows the apathetic look on his face is not encouraging.
"I still fail to see why you came to me for this – I am not a Healer, nor do I have any specialist's equipment that would be of interest to one."
She narrows her eyes and frowns, and he knows the blackmail is about to begin.
"You know the Ministry has been aching to put you in Azkaban since the second the war was over. I know you've never gotten on very well with him, but Harry's support is the only thing standing between you and a life-sentence. If he dies, your life will be over." She pauses here, and her face exhibits shock, as though she had not yet truly considered a reality in which Potter would actually die. Gryffindors.
"I appreciate your attempt to threaten me, Miss Granger, however poor it was, but I am aware of my interest in Potter's continued well-being."
She begins to look exasperated. "Well then why won't you –"
"I did not say I would not…offer my assistance to his Healers, only that you have still given me no reason why he would be in any better hands if they were mine."
She seems puzzled at the fact that he even asks this question. "Well…you're you. You know more about mind magic than any wizard I've ever heard of. And well…" She smiles a bit, and her cheeks show some colour. "If there's anyone who can fix Harry, it would be you."
Severus is not amused. It is true that he could use Legillimency well and with enough control that he could probably diagnose Potter without laying a hand on him. But just because the brat decided to leave all his messes to be cleared up by someone else didn't mean that the 'someone else' always had to be Severus.
'But, you promised, Severus.' He grimaces. As much as he despises that little voice, it usually makes him feel a slight bit better about killing Albus.
"Tell me what happened."
The girl looks beyond relieved, and she begins. "He hasn't really been the same since June. He'd been going off on his own a lot, and we could never find him until he chose to come back. Last week, he'd been missing for over a day, and we searched the castle. Neville finally found him in one of the abandoned classrooms; he was stone cold, lying on the floor, and nobody could wake him. The Healers did every sort of diagnostic test they knew but…now they say nothing can be done."
The look in her eyes tells him she's lying, but considering she's a Gryffindor, it may just be that he isn't hearing the whole truth.
"What are you not telling me, Miss Granger?"
She sighs deeply, with an unmistakable hint of guilt. "The room where we found him…the Mirror of Erised was there."
"You believe he had been using it?"
She nods. "He was lying in front of it, as if he'd been gazing into it and just fallen asleep. Ron said…Ron said Harry had been talking about it more and more over the last few months. I think maybe…maybe that's where he was going when we couldn't find him…maybe he was addicted to it."
"You've told this story to the Healers, have you?"
She hesitates, then nods again. "Yes, we told them where we found him, but they didn't seem to think it meant anything."
Typical. "That is perhaps discouraging, but not shocking. There are few now with enough knowledge of the Dark Arts to recognize a Dark curse, and certainly none of us would be allowed a Healer's license."
"But…I don't understand. How could the Mirror have cursed him? I thought only Dark objects carried curses."
He sighs, but only because his face is tired of glaring. "Honestly, Miss Granger; how, in all rationality, could you possibly think that an object specifically designed to show you what you most desire and then hold it out of your reach for eternity could be anything but Dark?"
"I…" she pauses, shaking her head as if she knows she should have thought of that herself. "I never saw it like that, I suppose."
Severus makes a noise of disgust and rolls his eyes. "Well then let this be your first lesson, Miss Granger, concerning the delusional effects of optimism. That mirror was created by a Dark wizard who formed it for the sole purpose of torturing his wife who had fallen in love with another man. He chained her to it and tortured her, seeing visions of the life she longed for but could never experience. It has had many curses placed on it throughout its existence, one of which is plaguing Mister Potter, no doubt."
She shakes her head, still disbelieving. "But Dumbledore would never…how could he keep something so dangerous in a school?"
"I can assure you that Albus had several…projects in the castle that would have given the Board of Governors a communal stroke."
She looks equally appalled and amused by his feeble attempt at a joke, but her face turns serious once she remembers why she is there.
"I've convinced them to release him for a few weeks. I'm not asking that you do anything drastic or costly, just please, look him over, see if you can help him. He…he doesn't deserve this…not now."
She blinks back her tears, and Severus sighs. They do not speak as he leads her to the door – she already knows his answer, probably knew it the moment she set out to find him. He hates being so predictable, but he has a promise to keep.
Minds are a tricky business, and as often as Severus has suggested the contrary, he finds Potter's to be no less twisted and complex than any other. He cannot really describe what it's like to view another's mind. Brains are easy to describe certainly, but when all is said and done, the two really have very little to do with each other.
It is mostly dark here, in the place where Potter's conscious thoughts should be flashing by like cracks of lightning. Should be – or would be – if he were having them. The curse isn't here. It has driven the boy into his own mind and trapped him there, able now to do nothing but breathe and dream.
Severus probes deeper, further into the cavern of Potter's mind, and it's here that he finds the curse. There are no real thoughts, just a silvery haze that floats and grows slowly but steadily as he watches it. He prepares his mind – an emotion too strong or a stay too lengthy and he will be swallowed up just as easily as the boy. He probes the haze with caution, and almost as soon as he touches it, he is thrown forwards and into a void.
Childish laughter floods his ears and bright, white sunlight momentarily blinds him. Dazed, Severus opens his eyes, prepared for some macabre and perverse scene typical of a psychological curse. But when he starts to take in his surroundings, he realizes this is much more like a dream than a nightmare.
The grass is cool under his feet, the sky clear, and the air thick with summer. Strangely enough, it is not the woman of his dreams who catches his eye first, but the little boy, no older than six, who is running away from her. The laughter spilling out of his sweet, innocent lips is the sort that Severus supposes all children delight in when they are so carefree.
A small girl, more unsteady on her tiny feet, chases him to the edge of a stream where the boy promptly grabs her and hangs her above the rushing water. Her squeals of delight are almost loud enough to drown out her mother's stern shout.
"Harry James Potter, don't you dare drop your sister!"
Severus turns his eyes to the large willow a few yards away, and it takes every ounce of will he has to ground his emotions and keep himself from feeling anything other than professional indifference. He gazes on the living breathing form of the only person he has ever loved. It has been twenty years since he has had a glimpse of her besides the green-eyed, auburn-haired visions as only his memories can produce.
After all this time, he still thinks she is the most beautiful thing he has ever seen.
Severus closes his eyes before he is overcome by feeling. He is good at compartmentalizing, so he stores this moment away for a time when he's ready for it. His eyes shift from Lily's face to her lap where a small bundle lies, oblivious to the mischief of his siblings. Predictably, Potter is sitting at her side, grinning broadly as he watches the joys of genetics play out before him – his own beloved traits manifested in his son.
Severus, who has never been able to give a beginner's Potions kit to a child with a hooked nose or his pale skin, feels his envy towards Potter grow, and it is almost as strong as the love that had filled his heart only a minute ago. Again he must turn his face away; he remembers why he is here and refocuses on Harry, the little boy by the stream.
"Aww, mum," he groans, but he lowers the girl with the fiery braids onto the ground with a gentleness that could have only come from his mother.
"Aww, mum!" she mimics, though she doesn't look terribly disappointed to have solid ground under her bare feet again. A brightly coloured butterfly distracts her from her brother, and she toddles after it. Harry runs back to the tree and bounces on his toes next to his father.
"Daddy, can I have my ball?"
Potter reaches into his pocket and holds his clenched fist out in front of his son. "If you can catch it!" He opens his fist and a golden ball floats out lazily. Harry laughs and leaps towards it, and Severus feels a little haze at the back of his mind. Another look at Lily – he is reluctant to leave, but he knows the risks of lingering too long. Their eyes meet as he begins to pull back.
As the idyllic scene fades from view, he wonders how long he will have to punish himself for being ill at ease with the sight of those eyes in her face. He's gotten so used to the boy's. And it feels like another betrayal.
It is unusually warm for an English October night. A warm breeze plays with the hem of his old woollen cloak, the one his mother gave him before she died. Severus has kept all of her gifts – it is one of the few sentiments he allows himself.
Another is this walk, which he has not made since last year's summer. He cannot bear to do it more frequently than that anymore, though in the early days he would make the trek nearly every night. It is barely a half hour's walk away, sometimes more when he has to force himself to place one foot in front of the other. He always returns in a much worse state. But he must remind himself every now and then.
He rounds the corner. The swing-set comes into view, rusted now at the bottom of its poles, looking just as lonely as the first day he saw it. His old bush has long since shrivelled and died, but he stands in its place, solitary and solemn. The breeze whipping his cloak around his knees is playing with the swings as well; the chains creak and groan their disapproval. It's possible that they are wondering when they will feel the warm, too-tight grip of a child's hand around them again. More likely, they are remembering what being loved used to feel like, and they are coming to accept the bitter truth that the only caress they will ever feel again is that of the wind.
Severus's mind is thinking much the same thing. He can picture it perfectly in his mind – the grass, the sun, his nervousness, her pigtails. It feels so like yesterday that he might well have aged thirty years in a single day, but the ache of years spent alone presses on his heart. When he first saw her, he knew that she was something special, even before he watched her turn a wild daisy into a lily and back again and knew she was like him.
Severus had been like any child, in the beginning. Full of curiosity and innocence and love above all. But unlike most children, he hadn't had a safe or deserving place for that love. His parents, more concerned with hating each other than caring for him, they didn't deserve it. But he knew when he saw Lily that she deserved it; she deserved everything he could give her.
He had tried to give her everything, but his everything just wasn't enough.
Severus's head is throbbing from being in Potter's mind so long and from taking this walk that brings up so many memories and guilt and anguish, so he heads home, hours sooner than normal. The swing-set creaks in the darkness as it is left alone again, to rust and be forgotten, just like its only companion.
The bed in which he is lying is not his own and the body spread out next to him looks far too beautiful to be one of the whores he indulges in occasionally. When he shifts against the soft sheets, he is amazed to find that the aches and twinges that had harassed his body for decades have vanished without a trace. In his mind he knows that these things should be making him nervous, but his heartbeats refuses to deviate from their slow, contented rhythm.
He sits up abruptly in the unfamiliar bed and frowns at the woman next to him. Severus reaches out for her shoulder and shakes her none too gently. The absence of the Dark Mark on his forearm is noted with a measure of bewilderment, but it takes a backseat to the shock he feels when the woman next to him rolls over and he can finally see her face.
His voice is hoarse from sleep and breathy with shock, but she does not seem to care. She hums contentedly and opens her eyes. "Morning, Sev."
She shifts closer to him, turns on her side and lays a bare arm across his middle. "Lay back down – it's early still." She yawns and closes her eyes again.
He obeys, eyes wide, unable to do anything but stare. The sheet rests low on her side and he can see the swells of her breasts resting just underneath her arm, so close to him that he can't help but reach out to pull her closer. Everything he's ever wanted is finally in his arms. Everything. Finally.
All the nerves in his chest seem to be poised on the brink, waiting for that blissful moment when she is finally pressed up against him. So it surprises him that he feels his abdomen give way first, to something hard and warm and so soft. He runs his hands down her sides to inspect the obstruction and forgets to breathe as they slide over her belly. Her very large belly.
She giggles, and he just can't stop touching her; he knows he helped create what's underneath that skin. She's there, she feels so real, and she has his baby – their baby – their love growing inside her.
"He's kicking again this morning; can you feel?"
Something small and blunt nudges his fingers, and his heart stops in his chest. He nods.
Lily sighs happily and snuggles closer to him. "I hope he has dark hair like yours." She tugs at a lock of her own hair with obvious disgust. "Green eyes though, so you'll always remember that he's a little bit of me too."
She doesn't see him blink back tears because he's holding her tight to him and kissing her with everything he has. She kisses him back fervently, bringing her hands up to caress his face and run through his hair. Severus is almost paralysed by the storm of emotion raging through him, but he needs this, needs her. The kiss tapers off gradually, and she finally pulls away, groaning as she reluctantly rolls on her other side and sits on the edge of their bed.
She stands up slowly, winking at him from over her shoulder as she bends shamelessly to reach for something on the ground. Straightening back up, she pulls a Rolling Stones t-shirt over her head and down over the generous swell of her belly before pulling her long hair into a messy semblance of a bun.
"Breakfast, love?" she asks as she walks through the doorway.
She disappears from sight and Severus is devastated. Not because she's gone, but because he notices the silvery sheen wavering at the edges of the door, and now that he's really looking, he can see it surrounding their bed, their windows, and even himself.
He had stayed too long. And all of this is nothing more than the most aching desires of his heart played out in a fantasy. He really should have known; if his life has taught him anything it's taught him not to hope for something he wants because he just won't get it.
For one fleeting moment of insanity and longing, he considers staying, letting the curse overtake him as it had Potter. He can't. Something makes him need to leave. For now, at least, it whispers to him, but he pushes it away in disgust. He removes himself from the bed reluctantly and moves to stand in the middle of the illusion.
Severus centres all of his magical energy into his core and pushes out with his mind. Ripping, burning pain sears into his chest, and he screams uninhibited, until he feels the pull of gravity again. Gasping, he opens his eyes and sees the floor. His arms shake violently as he pushes himself up and his head is throbbing with every beat of his heart. He almost collapses, but the edge of the bed provides him some stability and he kneels up, and looks to the top of the bed.
Potter lies there calmly, undisturbed by Severus's violent re-entry into reality. Severus curses under his breath and drags himself to the bathroom down the hall where his nausea overtakes him before he shakily makes his way to his room.
He lies on his bed, curled up into a pitiful little ball, the same way he had spent many a night as a teenager, after he had lost her – the only friend he had. The only person he loved. He does not sleep. He just feels, takes in as much as he can, before the gentle heat of her skin leaves his own. His hands are already forgetting the feel of his baby. He clings to it, grasping desperately, entwining those memories, those sensations in with his very being, so that he will never be able to live without them again. He knows it is indulgence, but he needs to remember.
It's been a long time, but tonight he even lets himself weep.
Autumn is the only time Severus can bear to open the windows in his room. Spring brings insufferable birdsong, the summer sun burns too brightly on his pale skin, and the English winters are simply too bitter.
But today his windows are wide open, and the breeze fluttering his curtains drives the crisp scent of the season into his stuffy room. Severus's ancient desk is littered with books, all on Dark curses and various forms of mind magic. The fact that he has experienced the curse for himself now will help, and it's only a matter of time before he knows exactly how to bring Potter out of his little utopia. If only he could concentrate.
He pushes another book aside with a melancholy sigh. Severus has tried to focus on his research, he really has, but for all he is worth, he cannot get that vision out of his head. How could he have been so careless? He'd been in Potter's mind twice a day for the better part of two weeks and not been seized by the curse, but just that one slip and he is so weak that he can't even complete the task he's been set. Severus grabs the thing closest to him and draws back, prepared to hurl it against the wall, but suddenly, a soft familiar melody blows in on the breeze. Her melody; her song.
A long, long time ago…
He rushes to the window, more surprised at that song than to hear signs of a living soul in a house so close to him. It is a girl – teenager, by the look of her – a rake over her shoulder, turning the volume up on her portable stereo.
…used to make me smile…
She begins her work, and Severus's fingers dig painfully into the wood of the window frame as he remembers…
"It's summer, you're supposed to be bored," Severus says without a twinge of sarcasm. He is lying on the floor in Lily's room, a book spread out in front of him, reading casually, while she lies on her bed and pretends that summer, with all its boredom, is her biggest concern. They do this nearly every summer – it is the only way Severus survives his months at home.
She rolls over on her side and stares down at him. "I can't believe you got your books so early; we haven't even been home for a month!"
Severus reverently smoothes his hand over the page, careful not to smudge the notes in the margins, a few in his own scrawl, the rest in a femininely meticulous script. "I just have the one...it's my mother's."
"Oh." The teasing tone leaves her voice in an instant. She knows how much it means to him, being given something from his mother; she always understands him. "Is it Potions?"
He nods. "Good!" she says, her voice light and happy again, "You can do all the work this year and I'll sit back and take all the credit."
"What do you mean, 'this year'?" he scoffs. She laughs and throws a pillow at him. He smiles and lets it graze his back before tossing it back up onto her bed. "Still, it's good to know that some things will never change."
She makes a quiet noise of agreement before settling back down on her bed. Barely a minute has gone by before she sighs loudly. "Still bored."
He rolls his eyes and continues reading, but is soon startled out of it again.
"I know!" Lily exclaims. She bounces up from her bed and crosses the room, while Severus makes a vain attempt to keep his eyes on his book instead of her swaying hips. She reaches for the hodgepodge of vinyl records on the floor and pulls one from a worn sleeve before setting it in the player.
As the first chords sound throughout the room, he slams his book shut and glares at her.
A long long time ago, I can still remember how that...
Severus groans. "I hate this song."
Lily laughs. "I love this song! How can you possibly hate it?!"
"To start with, it doesn't even make sense. Second, it's rather unpatriotic, don't you think?"
She rolls her eyes and sighs like he had known she would - they've already had this argument six times since the beginning of the summer.
"You can't take everything so literally, Sev - it's meant to be abstract! And I have just as many Beatles records as everyone else; just because I have one by a Yank doesn't mean I'm unpatriotic. Besides," she bounces on her toes and wriggles her hips to the rhythm, "it has a good beat."
Severus sighs melodramatically, as though his ears will be bleeding any second. "You live to torment me."
She grins and turns up the volume. "Oh, you love it."
Yes; she always understood him…
As the memory fades from his mind, he turns his attention back to the scene unfolding outside.
…But I knew I was outta luck the day…
Because the girl has her back to the house as she drags her rake through the leaves and shakes her hips to the music, she does not see the boy sneaking towards her from the porch. He waits until he is within reach and then calls out her name. The girl turns with a start and he pounces.
…We sang dirges in the dark…
When the leaves settle, they rest quietly around the snogging couple, and Severus is both jealous and annoyed. Still, he waits until the song is over before he slams his window shut.
That night, when he checks in on the boy, he is treated to a very touching scene. Potter's little brother, no longer a lap-bundle, is welcomed into the older boy's bed when he seeks comfort from a nightmare. It's endearing (if not a bit too saccharin) the way Potter soothes him, whispers to him, strokes his hair, and makes sure the little one is asleep before he lets himself close his eyes. So like his mother.
This time, when he feels the haze at the back of his mind, he doesn't fight it.
It's much harder to pull out this time, but that irritating sense of obligation draws him back and he finds himself crawling to his room once again. It's worth it, however, when he lays in bed, and forces his mind to imprint the new vision in his memory – a crackling fire, a cosy parlour, and his precious child asleep in his arms.
The next three days become a blur of silver and joy for Severus. He has given up; he lets the curse take him now, take him to the place where he feels love and home and family such as life has never given him. He watches his son grow, watches himself become respected and successful, watches Lily stay beautiful and love him more and more each day.
To be fair, he hasn't technically failed in his task; he knows exactly what curse Potter is under, and he knows exactly how to cure him – it's actually a great deal simpler than he expected. But he can't bring himself to do it. Once the boy is cured, the curse will be gone, and Severus will be alone and bitter and guilt-ridden again.
This time, he is watching his son, Ethan, as he is sorted into Ravenclaw, clapping politely as is proper for the Headmaster, though he is secretly thrilled, and proud beyond measure. He will tell Lily all about it when he returns to their quarters that night, just before he makes love to her and promises her the world, as he does every night.
Even as his curse-self is smiling, he sighs internally – he should be going back. About half a year has passed here, which means it's been more than a few hours in the real world, and he is sure his body is starving by now.
Getting out is harder now, so much harder that he thinks this may just be the last time he's able to do it. He makes it, regardless, and when he's back in his conscious self, he falls to the side of Potter's bed, too exhausted to move or care that he is about to empty his stomach of the little he's eaten today or that his nose is dripping thick drops of blood.
Severus manages to make it up onto his knees, but when he tries to stand, he is hit by a mental blow so hard that it knocks him back to his knees. His head swims with memories, new and old, and he is lost in them, no longer able to discern his Lily from the curse's Lily as they spin round and round his mind like twin cyclones. He cries out in pain as another blow hits, more searing and agonizing than even the burn of his Dark Mark. It has to be the curse – it's done something to his mind; poisoned it, eaten away at it, and now it's killing him.
The third and final wave of pain rips through his mind as though splitting it in two, and Severus's eyes roll into the back of his head as he is pitched once again into blackness.
It is hot. Too hot. For more reasons than one.
The little river that runs outside their neighbourhood had always been the perfect cure for summer sun. But this year Lily has a bikini, and Severus has what he is sure is a gross excess of testosterone that could only have been inflicted by the same cruel master who had given him a father that hated him. The two are not a good combination, especially in a bathing suit. So he thanks Merlin that they spend most of their time in the water.
Not now though. Now they're sitting against the tree, the same one they had sat under, so many summers ago, when Severus had told her that being Muggle-born didn't make any difference and had meant it with all his heart.
Lily inhales deeply, as if to treat her lungs to the last of the summer air.
"Sun's setting – mum'll be ready with dinner."
Severus nods silently – this is always the worst part of his day. They had their best talks under this tree, and the one today had been deep, meaningful, both validating and commiserating in each other's teenage angst, parental woes, and the trauma of growing up. And if his mind hadn't been playing tricks on him, Severus also noticed something different in the way she spoke to him and looked at him. Something different, and very good.
Lily shifts and kneels next to him, and he turns to look at her, to get his last glimpse before tomorrow. She smiles and leans in, and he freezes in panic. When her lips brush his cheek, it is like thousands of his prayers being answered all at once, and he stops breathing, sincerely believing that he will never be able to breathe again.
She moves away, and still he holds his breath. "I'm glad we're friends, Sev," she says quietly.
The sun sets before he can move again. As he makes his way back home, he feels connected to something so much deeper and more powerful than himself, something perfect and beautiful, and for once in his life he can truly have faith that things just might not be as bad as he had always believed.
Once he wakes, he is determined.
Tonight, he decides, is the night that it ends.
It is for reasons he does not yet understand. All that he knows now is that it feels wrong, like an insult to his real memories, a betrayal of their true friendship.
What he will come to realize later is that everything that had happened in the clutches of the curse – the slow, sweet kisses, the bliss of contentment, the feel of his child growing in the body of the woman he loved more than life itself – it all paled in comparison to that one kiss.
The reason is not complex. The things in his vision had happened because he wanted them to. But Lily had kissed him because she wanted to. And that difference, though small, is all the difference in the world to him. He had always loved her, but that kiss…it meant there had been a time when she had also loved him.
Severus pushes himself into Potter's mind for the last time. It will be hard this time – he will have to insinuate himself in the boy's own curse in order to pull him out. And knowing Potter, he will resist with the stubbornness of any Gryffindor.
The scene is different this time, much different, than any of the idylls he has intruded on thus far. Potter is outside, asleep, looking close to the age he is in his physical form, and he is resting in the arms of…another man. Severus suppresses his shock – it would not do to attract the curse and be caught now; he doesn't think he would have the willpower to come back out.
He walks up to the dozing couple and speaks the boy's name twice before his sleepy eyes flutter open. For a moment, he looks confused, but Severus watches as the realization sinks into those eyes and sharpens them, hardens them. Potter scrambles to his feet and starts to run, but Severus is too close, and he grabs the boy's arm in a vice grip. The screams pierce the air around them, but Potter's companion lies as if dead, peaceful and unmoving at their feet. There is a struggle, but Severus finally manages to wrestle the boy into his arms and concentrate enough to push them out.
As they fade into the void, a heart-wrenching shriek follows them – 'No!'. Severus tells himself it is the voice of the curse, only because he does not want to be responsible for ripping such a cry from another human being. The boy's body is terribly weak, so he puts up no more struggle once they stumble back into their respective consciousnesses.
He sobs so hard for so long, so desperately, that Severus has to stun him even after he injects a calming draught directly into his veins. Potter finally drifts into sleep, and Severus leaves him with as many protective charms as he knows in case he wakes and finds the latch to the window, or the place where Severus keeps his straight razor.
Severus crawls into his own bed, more exhausted than he has been in weeks. He has experienced more emotion, more life, in the past few days than he had spent in the last few decades, and he has discovered that it is draining to feel so much. Just as that horrific wail had followed them into the void of the mind, so it now follows him into the oblivion of sleep, and the nightmares he has that night are some of the worst.
But at least they're not dreams.
Harry's breathing is deep and slow, his normally fidgety body as still as the morning sky framed by his window. Still asleep then.
Severus is surprised the draught has lasted this long. He carries a small tray bearing potions and runny porridge to Potter's bedside, setting it down so that he can draw the curtains against the dawn.
"I never suffered," comes a haunted whisper from the bed, and Severus – not accustom to being in the same room with a person who has the capacity to speak – takes a moment to let his panicked heart still before he turns toward the voice.
The boy's eyes stare straight ahead, an apathetic gaze that seems to find comfort, however small, in the pale wall on which it is transfixed. Able now to get past the surprise that his charge is not asleep, and relieved that he has not slipped back into the curse, Severus focuses on the words he had spoken – 'I never suffered.'
He does not understand; Potter had suffered, if not more than most adults in his acquaintance, then certainly more than anyone his own age.
"What was that, Potter?" he questions.
"I never suffered," he whispers again, this time with more conviction. "In my…my other life…everyone around me suffered sometimes, but I never…I never did." His eyes squeeze shut, and he curls in on himself.
Severus wonders if the slight ache in his chest is pity.
Harry keeps his eyes shut as he speaks, louder this time. "So this is real, then?"
"As real as it can be, Mister Potter."
He winces, as though the very vibrations of Severus's voice ring painfully in his ears. "I don't like it here; it hurts."
The temptation to spit out a scathing, jaded remark is great, but the boy looks so pitiful, so utterly miserable, that he can't do it. Instead he says, "You'll get used to it," and picks up the bowl of porridge.
Potter…Harry, doesn't eat anything that first day. Severus can no longer reconcile the boy he has been protecting for all these years with the boy who had helped make his life a living hell during the most difficult years of his life. He also remembers Lily's words - ' Green eyes though, so you'll always remember that he's a little bit of me too.' - and he just can't hate him anymore.
He still has no time for foolish stubbornness, however, so when Harry refuses to eat the next day, Severus makes a show of preparing a thick syringe with nutritional potions and flashing the thick needle so that it catches the sun and gleams wickedly. The boy manages to eat a bit of porridge after all.
The rest of the week is quiet. Severus gives Harry time to regain his strength, making him walk around the room and stretch his atrophied muscles, and increasing his food intake from porridge to stew. They are both brooding, deep within their own minds, and Severus has a way of telling when the boy just wants to be left alone, probably because he knows what it feels like.
He writes to the Granger girl – He is awake. No visitors. Will stay here until recovered. –S.S.. He expects Potter's entourage to turn up at his doorstep anyway, but all he gets is a note in return – I knew we were right to trust you. Thank you. – then in messier script – Take care of him. Please. It is signed with two sets of initials: H.G. & R.W. He shows the note to Harry, and it is really only then, he thinks, that the boy starts to heal.
There is no better remedy for psychological and emotional conflict like hard labour. This is really the only explanation he can come up with as to why he and Harry are covered in sweat and mud, digging up a rogue Venezuelan Vampire Vine before it sucks one of the scrawny neighbourhood children under his fence. Personally, Severus has always felt the neighbourhood could do with a few less brats like the urchin who brings his groceries, but this isn't for them. This is therapy.
The winter wind freezes their sweat on their skin, and Severus has to drag a panting, exhausted Harry inside to keep him from freezing to death. The mindless but physically difficult tasks they have been set at all week have done more good than Severus will admit – for both of them. The speaking is minimal; they have both been healing in their own way, and silence helps.
Two hot showers and one hot meal later, both of them are standing in the kitchen, tired from the day's work, but contented.
"What was it like for you?" the boy asks him as he plunges his hands into scalding dishwater.
Severus is startled to hear a full sentence, but it does make him feel more like he's been living with another human instead of a spectre. "Some specificity in that question would be appreciated, Mister Potter."
"The curse. What visions did it give you?"
Though it has been several days since Harry awoke, neither of them have mentioned the reason behind his prolonged unconsciousness. Severus hadn't been sure that they ever would.
"Nothing worth remembering." Everything. Everything I've ever wanted.
"I don't believe you."
Severus pulls out the dish he's been cleaning and turns to Harry. "Why not?"
"Well for one thing, the curse doesn't work that way. And also because I know you."
Severus raises his eyebrows, but before he can think of something to say, the boy is already talking.
"You don't make mistakes more than once. The curse may have taken you once, by accident, but five times? You wouldn't have let that happen. Unless you wanted it to happen."
The dream passes in front of his eyes. Peace and contentedness. The smooth, warm hardness of her belly ripe with his child. The love in her eyes, all for him. Only for him.
He closes his eyes and remembers the real. A freckled teenage girl in a polka-dot sundress. A swing-set and the smell of fresh grass. The heartache and the loneliness. It feels better, in his heart, to remember instead of dream.
"That is very uncharacteristically observant of you…Harry." He knows the boy expected a more descriptive answer, but he does not give one. He knows Harry has already figured it out.
A few shining dishes later, his knowledge is confirmed.
"It was her, wasn't it? My mother. That's what you saw."
Silence. They both know he's right.
"You loved her." It is not a question.
Severus neglects his dishes and braces his hands against the sides of the sink as he sighs. "She was the only human being who ever bothered to give a damn about me; of course I loved her. But her love never went beyond friendship, whereas I…she never knew how I felt, and I never wanted to tell her. I knew I didn't deserve her."
They fall into silence again, and the dishwashing resumes. Severus isn't sure why he told the boy so much; he hasn't so much as spoken her name to anyone but Albus in over twenty years, and he has never been one for open emotion. Before he can dwell too much on it, Harry speaks yet again.
"It's okay, I dreamt of her too." Silence, then he continues. "I wanted to talk to you…about…the memories…"
"No." Severus's voice is stern, the voice he uses to inflict detentions. "I never intended to live long enough to have that conversation, and I still do not intend to have it."
"Look, I know you never wanted me to find out...about you and my mother. But I know now, and you can't change that, so why don't you make the best of it?"
"Use it as an excuse to Obliviate you?"
Harry sighs, but with an amused smile. "You kept this secret for thirty years; aren't you at least a little relieved that you can talk about it with someone else now?"
Well, it isn't actually a lie. He does feel more at ease, more vindicated somehow, now that someone knows what he was fighting for all those years. But that is as far as it goes. He doesn't want to talk about it, and perhaps he never will.
A warmth, better and softer than the scalding water, brushes over the back of Severus's hand. Harry's wrist rests there as he reaches for the dishtowel, his eyes both intense and sad as they gaze over Severus's face. He pulls his hand back slowly, as though he doesn't mind that he's touching the skin of a Death Eater; he's simply taking comfort in touching the skin of another human being, regardless of Severus's dark past.
"It's okay to miss people, you know," he says quietly.
The rest of the night is silence.
They are arguing, and really, Severus is surprised they have lasted for nearly two weeks without any angry words. He had told Harry that he was free to go, as long as he swore to stay with friends until his peace of mind returned. A Slytherin would have lied and said of course his peace of mind was back and he would never do anything self-destructive. But Harry had protested. Not to staying with Granger and Weasley. Apparently, he doesn't want to leave at all. They have gone from a bit of yelling to personal insults back to yelling, and now, to Severus's astonishment, Harry is actually begging.
"You cannot stay here forever, and I have no intention of curing you just to send you back and have you kill yourself or turn to drugs or something equally foolish!"
"I don't want to face them. Please, don't make me leave."
"What is there to face? You were ill; now you're better and your friends will support you." Silence. "Ah, I see. It's the element of support that you dread."
"No…well…yes. It'll just make things so…awkward. Ron will feel guilty and Hermione will be telling him all about how different and changed I'll be so he'll never act the same around me. And then she'll force me into counselling, which –"
"Force you? Potter, if you expect me to believe that you can be forced into doing anything, you may have suffered more brain damage than I thought."
The boy groans. "You know how she is."
"Miss Granger only forces you to do things because you let her. I thought you'd have had enough of being manipulated by now."
A dark fire lights behind Harry's eyes, something angry and slightly terrifying, but Severus holds his ground, and the fire goes out. The boy sighs, long and pitifully. "I don't want to cause them any more pain; they've been through enough because of me. You can't see how much it hurts them when they know they can't understand me, can't help me, even though I would never expect them to." He turns his face down. "You…I don't know why, but I feel like you understand me, and you don't patronize me either. I…" his voice fades, and Severus doesn't prompt him to finish his thought.
Because Harry is right – he does understand.
Six weeks have come and gone since Granger's unexpected visit. There have been no more arguments, and without prompting, Harry has told him he will leave in the morning.
Severus is glad that the boy has finally come to his senses, but even he cannot fool himself into believing that he will be any happier when Harry is gone.
The boy makes one request of him – he wants to visit his parents. And Severus must go with him, which is why he is standing, and Harry is kneeling, in the snow at the little church in Godric's Hollow, a place Severus has never dared to visit until now.
Harry sheds a few tears, says some clever things about love, relates the story of the past six weeks, and tells his parents how much he wishes they were here. Severus grows more uncomfortable by the second; he doesn't deserve to be here, doesn't deserve to mourn her here.
Finally, he has had enough. "This has all been very maudlin and tender, but may we go now?"
"Not yet." Harry's voice breaks through the winter silence and chill, and he does not rise from the snow. "It's your turn."
Harry turns his head to look at him. "Talk to her. Apologize or do whatever it is you have to do. It'll make you feel better."
Severus stares at him, wondering if he has finally gone off the deep end. "It is a piece of stone, Potter, it cannot hear me."
"But she can. And I'm not leaving until you talk to her."
The little brat is just about to trample on his last nerve. Doesn't he understand that Severus can't talk to her, not here where she lost her life? Because of him. "Fine! Evans, tell your idiot son to get out of the snow before he freezes to death! There, now we can go."
Harry rolls his eyes. "No! Why won't you do this? You kept telling me how important it was to move on and you won't even do it yourself! You've been living for decades stuck in one spot, and when you can finally be free from your vows and your guilt you're too scared to do it!"
Severus's eyes narrow even as his mind screams at him, telling him the boy speaks the truth. "I thought we had already discussed you calling me a coward, Potter."
"Then prove me wrong and do it!"
"I can't!" The truth. Finally. "I can't do it. Not all of us are so lucky in favour and forgiveness as you – I have no right to grieve for her, no right to speak to her, especially not at the place where she rests, the place where she would not be had I not put her there."
At last the boy is silent, and he turns his face back to the headstone. Though aching inside, Severus is pleased that this ridiculousness is finally over, until he hears a soft voice from below his knees.
"I know she's forgiven you."
Severus sighs. The stubbornness and naivety of youth. "You can't know that."
"I do. Why wouldn't she?"
"She didn't. Once." He remembers the Fat Lady's patronizing pseudo-sympathetic smile as he sat broken in the tower corridor.
Harry's stubborn knees remain fixed to the ground – he is not sympathetic.
He sighs in resignation. Harry already knows all his secrets – what harm could it do?
Severus closes his eyes and imagines her sitting there on the ground, cross-legged and looking up at him, a summer smile on her face. "Lily," he whispers.
Then, so that he is heard, he begins to speak. "Your son…he insists I say something to make my peace. It seems a general statement of contrition will not appease him, and I know you too well to believe that begging would work against you." He takes another deep breath of bitter cold air. "But I am unable to think of anything…of something I can say to you now that is any different than the things I tell you every day, the things I ask of you. If you haven't been able to hear me, then I expect you can't hear this either. If you have, then…you already know what I would say, and you know, as I do, that it will never be enough."
Severus closes his eyes against the stinging wind and his unshed tears. "I do not desire your forgiveness, unless you believe I deserve it."
That is all he will say, and they spend a few minutes in silence, grieving.
After those minutes, however, Harry rises from his place on the ground, apparently satisfied. Severus expects him to offer some sort of awkward expression of comfort or pity, but he doesn't. Just stands with him, side-by-side, a comrade in mourning and suffering, turning to stones for love and finding nothing but ice.
When Harry's hands begin to shake at his sides, it is time to leave. Once more, Harry stops him from turning away. He pulls out his wand and his brow furrows. Severus watches as an exquisite collection of lilies bloom into life from the holly. He suppresses an urge to roll his eyes; trite and uninspired as it may be, it is the boy's tribute, not his.
But then, he thinks, it is his, in a way. Not the flowers, but Harry himself. Severus's ultimate gift to her, the greatest of all the stones that have built his road to forgiveness, is his unspoken devotion to her son – the man who shares his grief. He has protected him when he could, and saved him when protection was not enough. Harry is alive, despite the conspiring of both Light and Dark toward his death. Harry is alive and whole. Severus's promise is fulfilled.
The foreign feeling of peace steals over him. Contentment, after twenty years of living without it, sits ill with him, but he suspects it will be easier to live with than crushing guilt, and he breathes deeply – his first breath as a man who is truly free.
A sudden gust of wind rushes past them and Severus's hand comes up to his jaw, slides up to his cheek as he feels a fleeting, warm, moist pressure there. Some part of him, still fifteen and intoxicated with love, recognizes it for exactly what it is – her kiss – but the rest of him can't quite trust that far yet. He blames it on the boy and his contagious optimism.
Harry leans in to lay his offering on his mother's grave, but Severus reaches out and wraps his hand around Harry's wrist.
He takes the well-crafted flowers from Harry's hands and touches his wand to them.
"She hated lilies," he whispers. Magic curls around one bloom and turns it into a full pale purple hyacinth. Please forgive me. Three more become blue and white striped carnations, and their fragrance combines well with the chill air. I'm sorry I can't be with you. Lush white daffodils and frail daisies fill out the rest of the bunch. I will always love you, even though you don't love me. He immediately adds, I will never forget you, and he almost smiles to see the small blue flowers spring up through the others. He fixes them all together with a small white ribbon and places them gently in the snow next to the stone.
It is an odd, mismatched cluster, icy as the winter air around them but for the bright yellow centres of the daisies. But it fits, and Severus knows that she would have appreciated this bunch more than any perfect bouquet.
He keeps his wand out and conjures a single white lily, just as beautiful as Harry's had been, and catches it in his hand.
"I thought you said she hated lilies."
"She did." Severus reaches over the bountiful bouquet now lying in the snow and places the single white lily on the 'James Potter' side of the headstone. "But he didn't."
There is no flower whose meaning conveys regret, jealousy, and acceptance of the past all at once, but Severus is confident that James Potter would not appreciate that sort of subtlety anyway. The lily works just as well.
When Severus turns back to Harry, there is a wide smile on the boy's face and his eyes are suspiciously wet, even for the biting wind around them, and finally, they make their way home.
The next morning, the boy comes down the stairs with his small knapsack slung over his shoulder, and Severus feels a strange hole form in his chest. He had expected some sort of scene involving a spectacular tantrum or a shouting match at the very least; he hadn't expected Harry to keep his word. That sounds quite foolish, now that he admits it.
"You're leaving then."
Harry nods. "I promised I would, didn't I?"
Severus scoffs, but he puts his book down and stands, preparing to walk the newly healed Saviour to the door. They reach the threshold and Harry turns, a look in his eyes that Severus has never seen before. He holds out his hand and smiles weakly.
"Thank you. I'll be grateful forever for this, even if you did wake me from my best dreams."
Severus takes his hand and shakes it, almost feeling that he should pull him into an embrace. Almost. He isn't ready for that just yet. "They were only dreams, Harry. Remember that."
"I will." The boy turns again and walks out the door, down the steps to the street. They don't say good-bye because they believe they will see each other again, but Severus is no longer content to leave such things to chance, and he has a plan.
This is a bad idea, he thinks, but the damage is done now – Harry is turning to look at him. He tells himself that he is really only doing this for Lily; who knows what kind of trouble the boy might get into if left to his own devices.
"I believe I have a remedy to Miss Granger's nagging." Harry cocks his head in curiosity. "Do you think she would let you alone if you came back once a week for additional…counselling?"
The boy blinks his eyes in disbelief. "Come back…you mean here? With you?"
Severus doesn't hear a hint of disgust or wariness, but he still tries to backtrack. "We don't have to talk about therapeutic things. Just think of it as a way to get away from the rest of the world."
Harry smiles, his widest since he's been awake, and Severus burns. That smile, with those eyes, does something to him on the inside. "I'd like that."
The moment suddenly becomes too tender and he lifts an eyebrow, slipping back into the comfort of sarcasm. "Anything to stop the badgering?"
Harry looks coyly down at his feet, but when his eyes find Severus's again, they are smirking. "No. Not really."
He disappears in a flash of Apparition.
Severus closes the door and walks up to his room. The stolen picture of Lily rests there, on his desk, but it won't after today. He holds it in his hand and looks into her eyes, noticing something peculiar. The eyes that he sees when he dreams of happiness do not match the eyes in the picture. He chalks it up to the delusional properties of memory, but next week, when Harry returns and he looks into the boy's eyes, he'll know that's not what it is at all.
Severus lays the picture gently in his drawer, and he never touches it again.
More detailed Author's Notes can be found here.