Actions

Work Header

The White Road

Work Text:

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you . . .

– But who is that on the other side of you?

T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land

~~~~

The first time Lily sees her son naked with Severus Snape, she changes the channel with such a furious snap of her wrist that the scenes of her life spin into a nauseating blur before her eyes.

Blasted magical gadget. Her son's life is not a serial, ta ever so. It's not a bloody porn flick.

dark, flat nipple on white skin, wet flash of tongue

Oh, bugger.

Except when it is.

It started like this. Several weeks before, Albus had found her sitting at the edge of the playground sifting the hot sand with her bare toes. James was off refereeing yet another awkward meeting between Sirius and his younger brother. The sun was beating down, and a gritty, sweet odour, almost like chalk, pervaded the air. The blaze of light on the sandy waves made the grains glitter like the sea. When the leather seats got a gentle push from the breeze, the chains of the swingset mewed and creaked. Lily's heart creaked with them. This wistful ache of memory was the main reason she liked to sit there.

She'd sensed Albus's presence but, in the midst of that honey-laden, summery peace, had only propped her chin up and smiled a vague invitation for him to join her. His shadow eclipsed the sun, then a heavy golden ball landed in her lap. At that, she glanced up – the white of his hair was giving way to streaks of auburn, and there were moments when her mind scrambled to catch up and remember who this youthful stranger was. The Grindelwald effect, she and James had dubbed it. That cat-eyed, mellifluous snake had even had a chastening influence on Albus's wardrobe. Oh, he was still gaudier than your average wizard, but lately the colours actually matched.

Curious, Lily hefted the ball, squinting at the double row of tiny, inscribed numerals. The device looked rather like a gold-plated model of the planet Saturn, only its rings weren't as wide.

"There's some very fine viewing to be had, my dear," Albus had said, smiling as if he'd just made perfect sense. "If you feel like watching the telly, that is."

The only television Lily remembers is the one that used to stare out of the fake-mahogany cabinet with fussily carved side-doors and shallow, dusty end-shelves that had been delivered by lorry one day when she was about seven. A long, cumbersome crate had been deposited, with a splintery boom, on her mum's Arabian carpet (bought during a liquidation sale from one of those import markets that are often, as she discovered later, run by Squibs). Lily's father had loosened his tie and proceeded to have a rare old time wielding a crowbar on the packing materials before he nipped to the fridge for a cold one and back to spend a happy hour sweating over the wires and hook-ups. That night Mum had stripped the plastic sheeting off the sofa so they could all pile on and make a tour of the channels, cooing over the colour episodes and getting fussed at the latest Coronation Street. Mum had spoken her mind about letting the girls watch, but Tuney had whinged and bargained like a pro, and if Tuney was going to get her way, then by God so was Lily.

This is the same hulking monstrosity on which, curled on the vinyl sofa in the serenity beyond death, alone among her family to have crossed beyond the veil – not counting James, of course – she watches the soap opera that was once her life.

Lying sideways on the sofa one endless afternoon, Lily fools with the silver band above the gold-filigreed ring that conjures the channels and sees the picture jump. Suddenly she's not in it anymore. Harry is. And just like that, she discovers that she can watch Harry's life, too. James is a different combination of silver and gold; it's all in how she manipulates the controls. Lily's got her own channel, and so has James, but Harry trumps them both.

There's a black band as well, located under the silver and gold. A ring of shadow. Bugger if she can figure out what it does.

The gold ring sports more than a hundred channels. Twenty-one of them correspond to the years of her life, and she can go forward or backward as she pleases. She can slot it into number one on the silver band, tune in and watch herself do nothing for hours. Or she can adjust the silver band and spy on the child she left behind.

But not on him having sex with – well, anyone, to be honest, because what mother would? But especially not with a man twice his age. Not a homely, cold-blooded, Dark-stained bastard with thin lips and a nose like a treacherous shoal that would spell shipwreck for the most innocent kiss. Not Snivellus fucking Snape.

long, bony fingers, callus-rough, like the tines of a pitchfork buried in Harry's fringe of black hair

Swearing, Lily smacks the dial to stop the wild rotation of numbers and bats the golden Saturn right off her lap. It twinkles across the floor until it fetches up against a high-heeled sandal with a plastic heart over the toe-straps (Tuney's) and wobbles to a stop, the number 13 floating languidly on the surface. On her own frequency, that would simply be a record of her thirteenth year. No picture comes up, though, because she's using the station navigator and she's always stopped at number three. That's quite enough, thank you. Because the level of personal detail is a bit – well, to say it violates privacy is an understatement. Maybe someday she'll venture beyond her immediate family, but she's not that desperate for entertainment yet. There are some things it's better not to know.

Like the fact that her son is off his bloody nut.

What the hell was Snape doing with his robes peeled away, his erection quivering like a dowsing rod pointed straight at Harry? And Merlin, what was Harry doing, what hex could possibly compel him to fasten his young mouth onto Snape's tainted body? Severus Snape should not appear anywhere in Harry's life except as a villain, in Harry's future except as a detested memory.

She wants to yell for James, to throw things – ruddy sharp things – at Dumbledore, storm back into the world and kick Severus in the bollocks. She can't believe he'd seduce her baby, her little boy. She can't believe Harry would let him. Slimy pervy bastard, touching her son.

With a violent shake of her head that does nothing to dislodge the image of Harry leaning forward to run his tongue over Severus's nipple, Lily jumps from the sofa to retrieve the dial and snap off the telly. In her haste, she trips over Petunia's other sandal, Accios it, and stoops for the channel-changer. Blinking hard, she nudges the sandals together, lining them up, calming herself with this small domestic gesture. It's odd how many trivial details of her childhood find their way into this make-believe living room.

She levels a glare at the telly, forbidding stark-naked Severus and his rude willy to desecrate her screen again.

The tube's surface is black; she must still be on the frequency associated with the silver band. Since she's channel one, James two, and Harry three, it's likely thirteen is a void.

My, but Severus's skin looked childishly pale. And his ribs will evidently stick out for all eternity. At Hogwarts, he was greedy about food but forever dyspeptic, unable to finish what was on his plate. She remembers the phials of homebrewed potions he brought to every meal, his shrugging admission that they helped settle his stomach. And those scars? No surprise there. She has a fair idea how he must have come by them. And was there a circle of hair around each nipple? As a boy, he was never much prone to taking his shirt off, but she's sure his chest used to be hairless. Merlin, that was a long time ago. His body's still smooth, angular but not so reminiscent of a stick insect now, and distinctly younger than his face –

What the devil are you on about, you silly witch?

Face hot, Lily almost chucks the dial at the console. Instead she squeezes it, and the screen flares to life. Startled, she just manages not to fall on her arse. The picture flickers, stabilizes, but it's so unrelievedly black that she guesses it was only some sort of power surge. Then the staticky speakers emit a gurgling, choking sound, and she realises that the blackness is more condensed in the middle of the screen. Also, it's moving. She can see pale smears.

Crouched, the golden ball clutched to her chest like a snared snitch, Lily frowns at the coalescing image of (bastard, horrible racist loser, Death Eater) Snape sprawled out on his back, a dim figure centred in the picture tube.

Thank Merlin for small mercies, he's no longer naked. Self-dramatizing git never outgrew his obsession with black robes, apparently. They're spread across a dirty plank floor, in near-darkness. Cautiously, her stomach unknots. Harry's not there, under Imperius or otherwise. Severus, looking careworn and middle-aged, lies alone, his face twisted in –

She leans forward and the knot returns with a vengeance. Agony. He's in agony.

Lily's eyes close and open, click-click, like a doll with movable lids, as if one blink of denial can wipe away what she's seeing. But Severus remains, and there's blood – a lot of it, all over his face, his clothes – everywhere, blood's everywhere, and his thin, still-beautiful hands gleam, slick red gloves that clutch his torn throat as he tries to staunch the wound.

He's dying. The conviction slams into her, harder than the bludger that knocked her off her broomstick and into the infirmary her fourth year. Just like that, the sterile walls of serenity in which she's sheltered for more than a decade crack around her. Old memories dribble in, laced with pain.

Turn it off, she tells herself. But she doesn't do that, and she doesn't look away. The pain spreads, and to her own astonishment she starts to weep, jerkily, like a distraught teenager, holding her stomach in fear that she might throw up. Her cheeks are wet with a scalding rain, and within seconds she's coughing phlegm. Merlin. The depth of her grief stuns her. She's forgotten how horrible it feels.

Outside, Sirius's motorcycle farts and growls – more than once, Lily's been grateful that she can summon her parents' house and put a roof between them – and she hears James laugh derisively. She'd bet money that he's practicing daredevil stunts on his Zephyr ten-speed, putting his all into impressing his old schoolmate. Surprising, really, that they still behave as if turning somersaults in mid-air is the same as risking life and limb, since nothing they do now can hurt them. Their laddish shouts and competitive bickering float in through the window, where muslin curtains lift and settle lazily in the breeze.

Bugger it, why is she in here on her knees mourning this creep? Sobbing aloud, Lily covers her mouth to stifle the shameful sounds. Damn it. Damn Severus to hell. He shouldn't be able to make her cry like this. He betrayed her, remember? He was the one who gave Voldemort an excuse to hunt them down. He almost got Harry killed. She should hate him. She does hate him. She was right to spurn the greasy little bastard in school. Just like James always said, he was destined to become a typical Slytherin, a vicious, violent Death Eater.

Bent on converting this awful feeling to a cold, hard sense that justice has been done, she rocks her misery like a baby.

Then Harry tiptoes into the picture, wan, dirty, clearly out of his element, and Lily's grief freezes in her chest. She chokes off her tears, because this is the antidote to her foolish sorrow: Harry in danger.

At sight of the boy, Snape's eyes widen with some desperate, indefinable emotion. Lily panics. Why is the picture so dim? She tries to will it brighter, but the shadows camped out in the decrepit little room come between her and her son.

The dying man on the floor shudders with effort as Harry kneels over him; a thin river of blood empties from the side of his mouth. Lily shouts, "For Merlin's sake, stay back!" because Snape's not dead yet, and even in this condition, who knows what he might not do?

Shiny red in the middle of the screen, his long, wet hands reach up and yank Harry down.

"No!" Frantic with revulsion, refusing to let those bloody fingers stain her child's soul, Lily spins the rings on the golden ball with such fury that she cuts one finger on an imperfection in the silver band. Her own blood seeps out and stains the dial. But she gets what she wants: Severus whips out of sight, and the images jump maniacally. She rubs, but a red thumbprint stays stubbornly on the golden surface.

Fumbling, she blinks at the numbers through damp lashes. It's got to be here, the combination that will show her Harry's other future. His real future. She's seen it, she knows she has.

Abruptly a young woman's face swims into view, red-haired and sharp-featured, and the picture pulls back to show her shepherding two boys down a Hogsmeade lane. Older and more solid, almost stodgy in his Ministry robes, Harry follows with a toddler in his arms. Lily hangs her head and takes a breath, then reaches up and outlines Harry's face with one finger. He looks . . she can't quite translate the subtle changes to her own satisfaction. Both complacent and queasy at once, like a man who's gorged himself on all the things denied him as a boy, only to find he hasn't the stomach for them. Well-fed but bothered with chronic indigestion. The redhead is briskly affectionate, downright managerial, and they seem to have a nice tag-team way of dealing with their rambunctious older boy. Lily can't see Harry's eyes behind his glasses, but she's cheered by the way he swings the little girl into the air and busses her soundly before handing her off to his wife.

black hair threaded with white falling around a scarred throat, head tilted back as one worn, thin hand cups Harry's head, the tip of Harry's tongue extended to tease a nipple

Shite. This could become a serious problem.

Swallowing, Lily makes careful note of the settings on the dial, then clicks it off. The picture shrivels to a pinpoint with a crackling whine, and the screen goes dead. She pockets the golden ball as she rises, wiping her face dry. She'll come back later to watch Harry with his family; it's just the thing to help banish that shocking and obviously false vision of Harry reaching for Severus as if – Merlin, she can't even finish the thought without gagging. A unicorn stumbling on a virgin in the Slytherin dorms is more believable than Harry ever wanting that.

(Although, her mind pipes up, it's not too much of a stretch to imagine Severus escaping Hogwarts with his virginity intact; most girls, herself included, wrote him off as too nervy and strange, dipped in darkness like a quill in ink.)

No. Let's face facts. Snape's going to die. That's all there is to it. Harry's going to father several children by a red-haired witch and be a force in the Ministry. Lily's seen it; she has no reason to doubt it. Severus Snape will never have the chance to pick open his buttons and slide out of his robes to seduce – debauch – to do anything to Harry Potter. Harry will never – oh, sod it, he just won't. For Merlin's sake, this is all some bizarre error on the part of the universe.

Anyway, he's entirely the wrong person.

Lily feels a bit better about the dizzying series of images that have left her heartsick and distracted. Right now, though, she craves fresh air. Maybe she'll wave the boys down and insist that James land so she can hop on behind. Riding piggyback on a broomstick, arms wound tight around her husband, will do her a world of good.

As she bangs the door shut behind her, the house pops out of existence like a soap bubble.

~~~~

There are more lives than she thought possible on the gold band. It's not just her, not just James and Harry. Well, of course. It makes sense. The silver band permits glimpses into her mother and father's past, glimpses of Sirius and Remus in their prime, of Petunia, Dumbledore.

Even Snape. It just figures, doesn't it, that he'd be number thirteen.

But it's more than that. Once locked into a channel, the gold band stays fixed. The silver band allows her to riffle through the years.

The black band reveals things that haven't happened yet. That might never happen. That, in some cases, should not be allowed to happen.

She debates telling James about the new gadget and the voyeuristic telly, but he's enjoying a second adolescence with Sirius and Regulus after years of having only Lily to knock about with. Of course, their version of knocking was sweet and sexy and companionable, but perhaps not as exciting as James might have wished. Now he's all bouncy and boyish again, and Lily's left alone a great deal, so she decides to continue watching on the quiet. Not forever, but it's nice to have something all to herself for a bit. Dumbledore hasn't asked how she's getting on, but he twinkles at an exasperating rate when they cross paths. Lily can't help but feel twitchy about his omniscient attitude. What she does behind closed doors and all that. Although she supposes she owes it to him and therefore ought to feel grateful.

One morning she goes for a swim in the nearby lake. Afterwards, clad only in a dark red bikini and one of James's shirts, she heads for the meadow where she generally conjures the house, and Albus appears in her path. The green-tinted shadows of the trees cool his robe's random glitter, pattern its silk with curious symbols. He resembles the wild green man of the woods, sly and strange and imbued with old magic. His hair shines coppery in the chlorophyll twilight. He's cradling something in both arms, something covered with a frayed pink blanket, and his chin is held high, his glasses impenetrable with leafy reflections. Then he tilts his head down and peers over them.

Lily, in sandals, lisps to a stop, and Albus smiles, bouncing the bundle while she buttons her shirt, uncomfortable at being half-naked in his presence. "Well met, my dear. Shall we walk on together? I'd like you to meet Tom."

He pinches a fold of blanket and lifts it up to reveal a small, squinched face. Lily bends forward, then straightens with a jerk. "Heavens. Poor little sprog. What's wrong with him?"

The baby's face is raw and scabby, scrunched reddish-purple with temper and pain.

"In this case? Hard to say. In a larger sense, of course, everything's wrong. And yet I can't actually determine the cause. As a consequence, however, little Tom here is tetchy and ill humoured most of the time and needs constant looking after. I was wondering if you – "

"Tom?" As the pieces fall into place, Lily's voice climbs an octave, with a screechy edge that makes her sound a lot like Tuney. "As in, Tom Riddle? You want me to help you take care of a blasted baby Voldemort?" She scuttles back in alarm and doesn't add, although her tone implies it, Have you lost your bloody mind?

"Well." Unruffled, Albus turns away. Dead leaves swirl outward from the hem of his robes as he begins to stroll along the winding path through the woods. Lily finds she can't really refuse to follow, although her heart pounds as if she's been asked to do something life-threatening. "He isn't actually a Dark Lord in his present condition," Albus lectures genially. "In fact, he's more a life in potentia, if you take my meaning. That's why he's here. He's neither alive nor dead, and he could shift states at any moment. Pure possibility in naked infant form." He shoots her a sharp look. "But quite diseased, as you see."

Lily hurries along beside him, wrestling with her temper. Her wet hair annoys her by streaking the blue cotton shirt with drips, so she dries herself with a thought and then, surrendering to necessity, transfigures her outfit. There. She's decent now. Albus doesn't acknowledge her inward battle or outward transformation, except to walk for some distance in benign silence.

That's when Lily notices they've got company. Off to one side, flickering between tree trunks and underbrush, another figure keeps pace, gliding noiselessly on a parallel track. Tawny hair glows like gold coins in dappled sunlight, and if he's attempting to conceal himself at all, he's certainly doing a crap job of it.

"The reason I'm asking you to help," Dumbledore remarks at last, tugging his sleeve free of the twigs overgrowing the path, "is that this pitiful – figment – is also part of Harry."

Lily stops in her tracks with a squeal of breath, mouth working, aware that Dumbledore's robes have ceased rustling as he pauses on the path to wait her out. Dry leaves crunch on for a step or two before Grindelwald falls still. She feels his sly, amused gaze observing her through the stained-glass patterns of the leaves. Birdsong loops through the canopy, and feathered shadows flash by. Her mind races from one dreadful implication to the next. Merlin forgive her. She loathes Tom Riddle with every fibre of her being. What she feels for Snape is microscopic compared to her boiling hatred of Voldemort. She would grind him underfoot if she could, snap every bone in his body to prevent him hurting Harry. She would do anything.

But for him to be part of – for him to actually be Harry –

Eyes wet, insides quaking with horror, she stares at Dumbledore and realises for one terrifying, world-shaking moment that it's possible to hate him, too.

"Don't take on so," the old – or rather, not so old – man murmurs, slim hand patting a blanket-covered bottom. Even so, it's hard to tell whether he's cajoling the petulant child in his arms or Lily herself. When she drags her feet forward, chest aching too painfully for coherent speech, he gives her a sympathetic nod. At least he doesn't dare pat her bottom. Sometimes she thinks Albus's compassion merely sugar-coats the poison he hands out like candy.

"My dear," he says, confirming her theory, "do me a favour, would you, and hold the little fellow for a bit? My arms are quite tired from toting him all about the grounds."

She doesn't want to, and yet she does. She tries to imagine this sickly creature coiled like a cyst inside her son, and doesn't say a word when Albus lowers him into her stiff embrace. It's as if the baby's skin's been peeled away. Revolting. He whimpers as she shifts him around to ensure that no part of her comes in contact with his sores (I could drop him, throw him, I could dig a hole and bury him in it when Albus isn't looking). His runny eyes track back and forth in helpless dismay, his tiny, starfish fingers tangled in the blanket's soft weave. Through its fuzzy pink covering, his shrunken body twitches and trembles.

"What do you want me to do?" Lily demands, her voice raw, as Albus leads the way onward.

"Look after him from time to time, nothing more." When she blinks, confused by the modesty of his request, Albus says gently, "Did you think I would ask you to assume the role of his surrogate mother? Fear not, child. Tom is my responsibility. My own fallible decisions fathered this mistake. I may not have brought him into the world, but I can hardly deny that I set him loose upon it. I've merely come to you for help because – well, as you can no doubt imagine, he's a handful, and needs more attention than I alone can give him."

A brilliant shaft of sunlight slots through the murmuring, jasmine-scented treetops. As they pass through, the baby curls his miniscule fists against his face and starts to cry. Lily hushes and jiggles him, appalled by the patches of peeling skin on his chubby arms. They re-enter the shade, and Tom subsides into exhausted snuffling.

"Oh, all right," Lily says, disturbed and yet unable to turn away this fragment of a soul, never mind that it's evil incarnate. "I suppose I – tell you what, I'll look after him while I'm watching the telly. Will that suit? I'm mostly just sitting there, and I might as well sit with him. But I'd rather not involve James or Sirius for the time being. Let me be the one to explain to them that Harry's – that this creature – just let me break it to James myself, if you don't mind."

"I wouldn't dream of interfering," Albus lies with a straight face. They emerge from the woods, and lo, there stands Lily's old house, with the ivy twining round it and the diamond-paned front windows and eccentric chimney pots. She hasn't summoned it, and she'd like to point out that it's rather rude of him to take it upon himself.

Grindelwald, the most beautiful of them all, steps forth and assumes a stance beneath a chestnut tree, examining her sanctuary with evident, if slightly bored, interest.

Annoyed with them both, Lily stomps up the path, props Tom on her hip, fumbles the door open, and slams it behind her.

~~~~

She gets the baby settled, transfiguring a bassinet out of an end table stuffed with her mum's fashion and housekeeping mags. Tom watches her solemnly, snot dribbling from his nose. She cleans him with two brusque flicks of her wand – predictably, he cries – then wedges herself into a corner of the sofa, bare feet tucked under her. Merlin, she needs a distraction. She spins the dial on her own channel, and watches herself give birth to a blood-shiny, magnificent baby boy of her own. It makes her teary-eyed to watch. Right, well, she and Tom can cry together.

On a whim, she resets the channel and sits through her own birth again, her mum in hospital scrubs under a white sheet with her feet in stirrups and a squalling, prune-skinned infant popping out of her. It's amazing. Lily clicks and clicks, smiling at herself as a jam-smeared toddler, a red-haired girl on a swing, a teenager scurrying through the halls of Hogwarts, a girl shining and alive with magic, laughing, happy in her overlapping worlds, tossing her hair and putting her hands on her hips and drawing boys to her like flies to honey.

One particular boy slides into view, underfed and beak-faced, bearing an unfortunate resemblance to a moody hippogriff. Scarcely a moment passes before she rounds the corner and his whole face kindles with eagerness. Their eyes meet, but a gaggle of Gryffindors clatters in her wake, and Lily watches as the chattering group clomps right past Severus as if he's merely a gargoyle in an alcove. She doesn't see his reaction, because the telly shows her teenaged self and her dorm mates all heading for the Tower stairs.

She kills the picture and rests her forehead in one hand. She can hear the baby bubbling as he breathes.

~~~~

Sex.

It can muck about with your life, even when you're not the one having it. She doesn't know what to think about that bizarre encounter between Snape and Harry. She wishes she didn't think about it. But her prurient mind won't let it go. Some days it takes all her willpower to resist the urge to go looking for it again. Really, she didn't see much, and it's terrible of her to want to see more. But she simply can't believe it. Of course, she can imagine how it would look if she just happened to track down her son having sex – he can lark around as much as he likes, it's merely Snape she objects to – and Albus chose that day to pop in for a visit.

Which raises the question: does Albus have a telly or some equivalent device that enables him to see the same futures she sees? It crosses Lily's mind to ask him about the uncanny and discomforting function of the black ring, but she's afraid he'll trick her into admitting what bothers her so much about the future. After all, in every one she's seen so far, Harry survives the Dark Lord.

"Well, in this future my son's gay and he's fooling around with the Death-Eating bastard who sold us to Voldemort." Somehow, she doubts Albus would condone that assessment. He's far too forgiving of immoral fuck-ups: witness Grindelwald. But then, since arriving here Albus has tried on more than one occasion to intimate that Snape's not as horrible as he's cracked up to be.

long unsunned back, ribs nudging through shallow stretches of muscle, like a snow-covered view around the indented river of his spine

She sighs. One of the benefits of giving in (once or twice, no more than that) to the impulse to search for sexual proof is that it's led her to explore the actual future Harry will have once he's defeated the threat to the Wizarding World. The future he deserves. Scenes of marriage, children, domesticity. Harry with his arm around a freckle-faced girl. Harry distracting a fussy baby with a musical toy snitch. Harry and his wife and a dozen friends zigzagging around the sky, playing games of pick-up Quidditch. Harry ducking the yellow energy of a curse, aiming his wand in retaliation. Harry and Hagrid and Minerva McGonagall conversing together before a white tomb, while behind them groups of children in student robes skitter about, untouched by the past.

Harry crouched, his robes trailing on the ground, a small glass bottle in his hand, as he pours a potion – no, something silvery that dissipates like steam – into the grass of an untended grave.

Memories? Whose? She backtracks and this time catches the name carved on the headstone. She should have guessed. She twists the rings before she has a chance to read the death date.

Her initial sight of this infinitely preferable existence, the life that will save Harry from Snape's sordid clutches, startles her at first. Not as badly as the sight of Harry hungering to lick Snape's skin. No, nothing so depraved. A mere momentary lapse. Anyone could be forgiven for thinking that the slender, red-haired witch and the black-haired wizard with the cock-eyed specs are – well, it sounds ridiculous, but she mistakes them for herself and James. For a blink and a breath, she actually thinks her son is her husband.

The splitscreen confusion of identities lasts less than a second, but she spins the dial and blushes, glad no Legilimens is around to eavesdrop on her mistake.

All it means, of course, is that Harry's looking for echoes of his mum in another woman. It's nice that he finds red hair appealing, that it holds nothing but good memories for him. Harry's wife, it turns out, is one of Arthur and Molly's brood. Lily can't remember whether the girl was even born yet the year she and James died. Still, the resemblance to every other Weasley is impossible to miss.

And yet she did.

~~~~

"Mr. Potter, our newest . . celebrity."

Thwap! Tuney's left sandal smites the bastard square on the nose and flips away from the screen. Fist balled in impotent fury, Lily wishes his imperious conk would poke through the veil between life and death so that she could take a swing at it.

"Pick on someone your own size, wanker!"

Spoiling for a fight, she stands up to stretch her legs. Onscreen, face unhealthily pale, his lips drawn so tight it must hurt him to speak, Severus glides the aisles like a hawk circling for prey. Harry looks utterly bewildered, poor love. God, what Lily wouldn't give to be able to climb through that screen into that classroom and hex Snivellus in front of the entire complement of first years. No, jinxing's better. If her memories of the git are anything to go by, he can likely endure any amount of torture, but ridicule makes him mental. She can't decide who deserves it more, Severus or Tuney. How could they abuse her child like that? Didn't they care for her at all?

For that matter, she ought to drag Albus into some secluded spot and tell him exactly what she thinks about his hiring practices. She vaguely recalls him mentioning the reason he brought Snape in as potions master, but she's forgotten, and really, there's no excuse. This is a flaming arsehole who should have all rights to co-existing in the same room with children – in the same castle, even – revoked.

Pacing, she spots a pack of smokes sitting on an end table, and her eyes narrow. It's been years, but – blast, this is all Snape's fault. The memories stirred up by watching the telly have brought back details she thought she'd laid to rest. Like Severus risking a violent row by nicking his da's fags so he and Lily could slope off to the canal and smoke themselves sick. Bulrushes fringed the water, and they'd flattened down the stalks to create a small, secret grotto. Sev could be a bloody nut job about the importance of hiding places. But then, he was never so relaxed as on those long afternoons, leaning back on his bony elbows with his face tilted to the sky, his hair hanging down to the mat of trampled, whitened reeds. Gusts of warm wind rattled and hissed in the rushes around them. Hidden like this, they spent a few days together hacking up their lungs and giggling as if dizziness and burnt mucous membranes were the funniest things ever. Well, all right, Lily giggled, and Sev resorted to that snickering thing he did to keep from showing his teeth. Lily never did get around to telling him to pack it in and stop worrying, her dad's teeth were just as yellow and uneven. Black tea and nicotine, what would you expect?

They got the hang of it in the end. Smoking, that is. It only lasted a summer. Oh, be truthful, Evans. Two. Lily grimaces a smile, annoyed by the fact that memories of Snape can make her smile at all.

She picks up the bundle of cigs and flounces back onto the sofa, reaching as she does for the dial. It takes her a while of spinning rings and aligning numbers before she finds the station. The future that never happened. That's never going to happen. She doesn't bother justifying to herself why she's surfing around looking for more evidence of depravity. She just does it.

Within seconds, she stumbles upon them mid-scene, glaring at each other over a table and two glasses of wine. Evidently, whilst she and James have been lazing about in the afterlife, Hell froze over: Snape's dining with Harry. Lily lights a cig with a flick of her wand and takes a vicious puff. She blows fumes at the telly, imagining Snape's greasy hair catching fire, just as Harry says peevishly, "Keep your shirt on, all right? I'm trying to say 'thank you.'"

"Do not bloody thank the man who got me and your dad murdered," Lily huffs at the screen. The inside of her mouth feels harsh and prickly, yellow with smoke.

"If I were to lose my head and start rending my shirt in front of everyone in this room," Snape says, in a dark, quiet voice that she doesn't remember at all, "it would be none of your business. I object to having my emotional state hauled up before the Gryffindor review board and bloody well approved. My appetite's not treacle-proof, Potter. The sentimental antics stop now."

"Oh, come down off your broomstick," Harry scoffs. ("Tell him where he can stick it, love," says Lily.) "Sentimental, my foot. How is thanking you suddenly as bad as pulling a Lockhart?"

"Because it's pandering. Nothing more than a performance tailored to the fantasies of your besotted audience." Snape's eyes narrow sideways, and his disdain snaps out like a lash. "I don't recall agreeing to public humiliation as the price of dinner. Certainly not to boost your reputation as a magnanimous prat." His eyebrow rises to poise over the next part. "At least, not for the price of dinner alone."

"You insufferable git," Lily blurts, astonished. "You should grovel for the chance to kiss his feet." She drops her face in her hands, then, the cigarette almost setting her hair on fire. "I mean, not kiss. I forbid there to be kissing between you and any part of Harry's body. Just grovel, for God's sake. Or better yet, get out."

Merlin, she's babbling, she can tell, but haranguing Severus has always been second nature.

The celestial camera dollies back to show the two men – the man and the boy, Lily thinks stubbornly – seated in a private alcove in a restaurant packed to the rafters with rubbernecking wizards. If glares were arrowheads, Snape would be spreadeagled on the seat cushions by now, bristling with quills like some overdressed St. Sebastian. By contrast, the glances the hungry crowd keeps sneaking at Harry run the gamut from shrewd surmise to starry-eyed adoration.

"How can I display something I don't even know how to pronounce?" Harry points out. Lily's hopes that he'll best Severus in a contest of maturity are dashed when he stoops to mimicking Snape's voice. "Magnanimous." Harry's own voice isn't nearly as deep, and his snort is a tactical error. "Wouldn't hurt you to try it sometime."

Their food arrives, and Snape picks up his wine glass, not to drink but to have something to glare down into. Harry slouches back and sulks unbecomingly at the plate steaming on the table before him. The house elf who does the honours adds to the juvenile atmosphere by trying to decorticate Snape with his scowl.

Lily rolls her eyes. Honestly.

"If conversation's all you wanted, why on earth arrange to put us on display like this?" Snape grumbles, toying with his food.

Harry sets down his fork and stares. "Oh, I like that! You total hypocrite. I invited you to Grimmauld Place for dinner, and the owl returned my letter absolutely covered in red ink!"

Snape's lips twitch. He's still staring down at his plate, but Lily's appalled, thinking, Severus was flirting, and Harry didn't even notice. On the one hand, she's relieved that Harry's so clueless about the way Snape's mind works – serious rejection on his part would range from furious, impenetrable silence to the letter coming back as a howler that promptly bursts into flames – but the idea that Severus was actually – that Snape, she corrects herself, was teasing Harry alarms her.

"Forgive me, but the idea of joining Messers Weasley, Weasley, Weasley, Madame Weasley, and Mademoiselles Weasley, Granger, and Lovegood in an intimate dinner for nine – "

"Ten, actually." Harry shrugs, sheepish. "I invited Professor McGonagall on kind of short notice. Mrs. Weasley said it wouldn't do to have an odd number of guests. Otherwise you – I mean, someone would get stuck without a dinner partner."

"Yes, boorish of me, how could I have been so shortsighted, I who have never lacked for dinner partners," Snape murmurs, and Lily can't help it, she snorts a laugh. "I trust you were able to cope with uneven numbers in spite of my failure to turn up. But if you make an effort, Potter, and strain your intellectual capacity to the utmost, you might conceivably understand that I'd rather swallow pure aconite than be forced to endure interrogation from one entire half of the Weasley clan. Especially since they have Miss Granger to lead the charge. I'm sick to death of being grilled. Every Auror under the sun has taken a shot at dissecting my memories. So, thank you but no. That way nausea lies.

"There is also the issue," Snape passes a hand down his face, and the weariness he's trying to massage away merely collects like melted wax in the hollows and creases of his skin, "of my esteemed former colleague Minerva McGonagall, who has every right and reason to want to hex the living daylights out of me."

"Oh," Harry says, and stabs his fork into his potato mash. "Yeah, I can see that. But what else did you expect me to do, considering that you'd never agree to come to dinner if it was just me – "

"Oh, of course not, Potter," Snape cuts him off, craning forward at an indignant angle. "Because I am clearly not sitting here consorting with you in the flesh –"

Harry looks up, startled, into Snape's offended snarl. In that half-second's hesitation Lily's off the sofa and on her knees before the console, hand outstretched to freeze the picture. She swears the rings spin and click of their own accord, hitting pause. Because in that half-second Snape's control slips, and Harry's open-mouthed stare is utterly naked. The screen magically frames the way their damaged halves lock into a complex whole. Something fuses between them, a separate entity sparking with emotion.

Hand splayed on the glass, Lily studies the scene. Snape's face, half-hidden behind a greasy drape of coal-black hair, is like the cutting edge of an axe, whetted and seasoned to bite into the sweet block of wood sitting opposite him. To savour that first pungent blow. He's leaning over the table, one wrist bent inward with unconscious elegance, keeping his sleeve well away from the wine sauce on his plate. Paintings adorn the wall above their heads, and the booth is woven with vines to resemble a bower, smooth art-nouveau foliage and dark green leaves. Their travel robes hang from convenient branches.

Harry looks as if someone's just seized him by the back of the neck, shaken him soundly, and set him down again, his lips pursed in a funny little moue and his hair scruffed upright.

Their physical awareness of each other is the third presence at the table, a condensed light defined by the lineaments of their bodies, pressed into the negative space between them.

Lily knows what it is that shares their booth: the avenging angel of mutual desire. It has descended upon them in full view of the crowd, and there's no way they – no way she – can pretend it's not there.

Her faith in the ginger-haired witch and Harry's three children feels distinctly shaken.

Swallowing, Lily smoothes her hand over Harry's messy head, the glass squeaking under her palm. She takes a last drag off her smoke, then traces an arc across the screen and with a savagery she seldom admits to, stubs the cigarette out against Snape's thin cheek. "He can't have you." Her voice sounds scorched to her ears, and she twigs a moment too late to the likelihood that someone who didn't know better would infer she was jealous of the wrong man. Doubt twists in her stomach, but she fends it off, fingers nimble on the dial, hurrying to release her son from this incandescence of lust.

Behind her, a knock ricochets through the room. Blast. Someone's at the door.

She ignores it. The dial chimes faintly like a tapped cymbal, and Harry blurs into motion onscreen. "Then why the fuck did you – " and Snape's wrist quickly tips the other way, his forearm slamming down like the span of a drawbridge being lowered. The bridge becomes more than a figure of speech when his fingers slot into the spaces between Harry's knuckles, sliding forward to hold him still. Caress or restraint? Lily can't tell, and she'd bet a clutch of Ashwinder eggs that Harry can't, either. Their hands form a knot on the table, momentarily bridging their differences. Snape remains inscrutable, his silence freezing Harry in his seat like a wordless Imperio. Lily doesn't know what passes between them, but Harry's almost shaking and Snape's the one who grounds them both, providing an outlet in the crush of their hands.

"For Merlin's sake, Potter," he says at last. "Not here."

Breathing erratically, Lily licks her lips and scrubs the ugly black smudge of ash off the picture tube with her sleeve. Oh Merlin, she doesn't like this. She really doesn't like this. Is it the beat of the angel's wings driving the insanity through their veins? Snape's not capable of anything but erotic obsession, last time she checked. Which makes Harry a sitting Kneazle. Maybe evil can't destroy him, but something masquerading as love certainly could.

Then Harry lowers his voice and whispers, "Why the fuck did you kiss me if you didn't want – if you were just going to – "

The knock comes again, and Lily jumps. Damn it.

"I didn't kiss you," Snape hisses, abandoning Harry's hand to snatch up his goblet. This time he drinks, but his hooded eyes stay fixed speculatively on Harry's face.

"I – you're joking – you – " Harry masters himself, makes a "gah!" sound, and quickly knocks back some wine under the shadow of Snape's mocking eyebrow. "You are such a bastard."

Lily couldn't agree more.

"It's my birthright," Snape says coolly. "As an only child, I inherited every bit of bastardliness my parents put into joint savings. One might say I own the bank. Now," he demonstrates for Harry's benefit, "keep your voice down. I only meant that you, if memory serves, were the one who kissed me."

"Right, because you had your knee between my legs!" Harry hollers back in a scathing whisper. "You were the one pinning me to the wall!"

"Self-defence," Snape mutters. "I wasn't waving my wand around like a homicidal drunkard, now, was I? In fact, I was unarmed. In custody. From my perspective, I was merely subduing an overwrought and uninvited guest."

Lily scowls at him. A kiss, was it? That's how it started. Right. She needs to find it.

"Pardon me, Lily, but do you have a moment?" a benevolent voice booms through the door, and she whirls around on her knees, gasping. Albus. Crap.

"Forgive me for dropping by unannounced," his Sonorus decreases a bit, and instead of shaking the room it merely echoes. "But I've brought Tom with me."

The baby. Oh, God. Albus. The baby. She'd totally forgotten. "Just a minute!" Lily calls. "I need to – just give me a minute, I'll be – "

"So why'd you kiss back?"

Speechless, Lily swivels around to stare. Oh, Harry.

"Because I'm a pathologically self-destructive seducer of little boys," Snape says, his delivery so deadpan that she can't tell whether he's joking or not. The camera zooms in to consider this flash of honesty. For all that he seems to be leading Harry by the nose through this absurd convo, Snape's face is almost regal in its refusal to betray emotion. The picture focuses without comment on his hand gripping the table edge, the fine bones overrun with distended veins. "Don't tell me you haven't viewed the memories I so cunningly bled out in my delusion that I was finally getting off at the last stop on the Night Bus."

What memories? Lily recalls Harry pouring a flask of them over Snape's grave. Flustered, she pokes the dead butt she's been smoking into the packet of filter tips, and jams it in her pocket. Then she sweeps her wand around the room, dispelling the stink of smoke.

"Look," Harry says. His hand inches across the table until his fingers are quivering in proximity to Snape's, just the barest few molecules of skin touching skin. The telly gives her a close-up, then pans to Harry's face. He looks adorably earnest. "I like kissing you. I assume you like kissing me, even if you refuse to admit it. My guess is that we don't have to like each other to like kissing."

"Oh Jesus God," Lily says, stopping dead to stare.

Snape makes haste to cover his mouth, and Lily want to slap him for the disbelieving smirk he's hiding from Harry. "I do believe that's the most Slytherin thing you've ever said to me, Potter," he murmurs in that silky, forbidding voice. Frustrated, she drops down in front of the console to search his worn face for the boy she once knew. The boy who once loved her. Having smoothed his smile out of existence with thumb and forefinger, Snape draws his wand – Lily can just imagine how everyone in the room flinches – to cast warming and stasis charms on their untouched plates. "If you mean what you say, then why not ask this fine establishment to deliver our meal to your – ah, my mistake. Still unplottable, is it?"

Harry takes off his glasses. "What? Oh. Er – not anymore." He has trouble getting the words out. Buffing the lenses absently against his shirt, he squints at Snape, as if unsure exactly who it is sitting across from him.

"The Order broke Fidelius? What stupid twat – " Snape sputters, then inhales the rest of the sentence and looks away.

Lily wonders if the war will ever be over for him; if he will ever stop analyzing each new situation for probability factors of betrayal and death. Well, it serves him right. The least he can do is live out the rest of his years in a state of miserable paranoia.

"Never mind. It doesn't matter. This is the sort of stupidity that makes life interesting, I suppose." He stares at Harry some more and presses the serviette to his thin lips. "Well, then, shall we? You'll have to summon the waiter, as I have the distinct impression that I'm a social nonentity here. Unless I've already called your bluff?"

Behind her, an infant starts to wail. The latch clicks, and she leaps to her feet as Albus strolls in, jiggling the bundle in his arms. "Apologies, my dear, but he's grizzling like mad."

On the tube, Harry's arm strains out of its socket as if he's flagging down a cab or lobbying for a teacher's attention. "Check, please!" squeaks his miniature voice. It's a tinny, old-speaker-wire sound, and Snape, she notices with immense relief, has been shunted offscreen by the camera angle.

Hands unsteady, she spins the rings before turning off the set. Covering your tracks, she tells herself scornfully. As if Albus doesn't already know.

"Come in," she says, breathless, because he is in. "Sorry I kept you waiting. Would you like to sit down?"

"Please don't trouble yourself," Albus tuts. "I know how it is. One minute, and then one minute more. It's quite addicting watching the lives we left behind, don't you agree?"

When he beams and offers her the blanketed lump, she takes the peevish infant and just stands there, wondering how to entertain Albus. She's holding the baby as if he's a bread loaf, because she can't quite bring herself put her arms around him.

"I must be off," Albus remarks, making no move to go. "Discoveries hang in the balance. Do you know, with Gellert's help I've already found three new uses for dragon's blood, bringing it to a grand total of fifteen."

Smiling, he contemplates the floor, then crooks his finger. The gold dial leaps directly to his hand. Lily feels a thread of alarm stitch through her pulse, but she ignores it.

"We're having a little trouble with the last one," Albus confides, spinning the rings almost absentmindedly. "It's not ideal, trying to reproduce experimental conditions here in the afterlife. No corporeal substance, you understand." The dial hums and clicks. "It's a pity all our work is doomed to remain purely theoretical."

He still shows no sign of budging. Albus never leaves when he says he will. "What's the problem?" Lily sighs, willing him to stop channel-hopping.

"Ah, well, the obvious problem is that we have no way of testing it." Albus cocks his head when a loud hiss bursts from the speakers. The blurry picture starts to flip hypnotically, bottom to top, like the blades of a windshield wiper. "Put bluntly, our only test subject is someone who should never be allowed to imbibe it."

He turns and points his crooked nose at the bundle of baby Dark Lord she's holding. Alarmed, Lily draws the child closer, as if to protect him from the experimental urges of two mad scientists.

"You've lost me," she says.

"My fault, I'm afraid, for being so obscure." Having piqued her interest, Albus smiles. "We believe – we'd like to think – that we've created an elixir, which may have the power to 'stopper death.' That's Severus's phrase, by the way. Rather poetic, wouldn't you agree? It's not foolproof, by any means. And it's not immortality, no, nothing like. It merely assists, if the soul desires, in holding off the body's demise."

Lily frowns down at Tom and swallows. "I see." She thinks it foolish of Albus to allude to this within earshot of Voldemort's soul. Then she makes the connection, and her nerves light up. "Oh – could Harry, do you think – "

"I do indeed. Think, that is." Albus silences her with a shake of his head, although his smile is kind. "We cannot test it, alas. And I have no wish to poison our Chosen One."

A sharp rap at the door breaks in on their exchange of secrets. "Dumbledore! By Medusa's head, I could have swum three laps around the lake by now! If you could never be punctual in life, at least take pity on your friends in death!"

"Patience, Gellert," Albus calls. "I'll be with you in a – "

"Patience be damned! I would prefer punctuality!" Gellert roars back.

Brows lifting in amusement, Albus peers at the screen and sets the dial down on the console. It tips toward Lily, the number thirteen winking on its surface. "I've tuned in," Albus remarks over his shoulder as he makes his unhurried way to the door, "to what's happening now in the land of the living. At this very moment. If you can spare the time, I believe you'll find it rather enlightening."

The door bumps shut; the tongue of the latch clicks. Deflating, Lily folds onto the sofa.

She stands up a second later to fetch the golden ball and then sits again, the baby warm and awkward in her arms, almost weightless. He squirms. She notices a fine sheen of perspiration on his blistered cheeks, so she tugs the blanket off his head. He's bald, poor chap. She's tempted to cover him up again but decides he could stand some airing out.

For a while she simply sprawls back on the sofa and broods. Nothing's happening on the telly. The picture's dim, and all she can see are trees. She tries to oust from her mind that flash of helpless desire she'd seen beating its wings between Snape and her son. The memory won't go. She hears Harry say again, We don't have to like each other to like kissing. For the love of Merlin. Good thing it'll never happen or they'd eat each other alive. Restless, Lily rolls her head toward the curtained window, feeling the allure of sun and wind. She thinks seriously of hailing James to come meet the baby, then glances down at Tom and thinks better of it.

Something pale and glowing appears onscreen and slips through the underbrush, alerting her. A unicorn, perhaps, gliding along a path in the Forbidden Forest, doing whatever it is unicorns do when free of those pesky virgins. Lily smiles faintly. What could possibly be enlightening about this?

Wafting upward, the creature lands in a clearing. It whispers to a stop, its milky hide as brilliant as the crusted snow that etches the rocks into crystal sculptures. Translucent ears prick forward. With a soundless cry, Lily gathers Tom to her breast and slides off the sofa. She scoots closer to the screen and leans forward, rapt, cradling the baby in the sling of her knees.

Head swivelling to look back, the doe stamps her hoof, snorts softly, then bounds forward to merge with the shadows. A ghostly and beautiful light bursts from her, stippling the surrounding trees. Snow diamonds glitter in the low-lying boughs. Cut-glass stars flare atop fir trees.

In her wake, a deeper shadow ripples along the inky treeline. It's silent and ominous, sinuously black. Only an occasional cloud in the frosty air betrays that it lives and breathes. Footprints stamp pockets in the snow, but each telltale mark magically fills and disappears.

For several yards the forest wall thins out. Tree shadows stripe the snow like piano keys, ivory alternating with black. The figure hesitates, then flows over the intervals, brushing silent chords with the hem of his robe. Lily hears the squeaky crunch of boots on snow. Moonlight freezes on his skin, his face flickering from visible to invisible like the stuttering frames of a silent film.

Her chest aches. Snape. Bloody Snape. What's he doing with her Patronus?

She watches the whole thing, fingertips pressed to her mouth. Tom dozes. The silver doe wafts serenely up to a small tent buried in the forest – hiding, that's right, Harry and his friends are hiding from the Dark Lord. The light the doe's made of lures forth – oh God. An overwhelming rush of love tingles through her. There he is. Lily smiles, and it hurts her face. She yearns to embrace the scruffy, bruised-looking young man who emerges from under the tent flaps. Her baby. Her grown son. Instead, she draws the blanket over Tom's face so there's no chance he can see or somehow betray the boy who matters most. She assumes that Voldemort knows nothing of what happens here, on this side of the veil, but why risk it?

She drinks in the sight of Harry, almost forgetting in her fear and joy the third member of this little charade. Then the doe moves off, blazing, through the crowded darkness, and Harry stumbles in pursuit.

Snape gives them a decent lead, blending with the background like a charred tree trunk. Then he breaks his stillness, steps forth under the moon, and Disapparates.

This is happening now. Lily watches, shivering, her heart in her mouth. She watches the entire scene in real time, the lake, the sword, Harry shucking his clothes and descending into the frigid water, a tall young man appearing in the nick of time to wade in after him and haul him ashore. She looks at Harry, loves him, and cannot save him. Not even from his own foolishness, damn it.

Her heart is so full that she can't help herself; she uncovers the baby and leans forward to plant a soft kiss on his hot, skinned brow. He doesn't wake up, which is for the best.

Shifting her arse, because she's been sitting in one position for a very long time, she resets the dial and watches it again.

Because there's this little matter of Severus Snape's role in this strange escapade. He's there the entire time, lurking in the darkness beneath a massive, snow-laden tree. The lake gleams nearby like a bottomless hole with a pale glaze upon it. Snape keeps watch, almost indistinguishable from the black-iron whorls of the tree trunk. The doe ripples into view, waves of radiance building and breaking in scattered bursts upon the black-velvet landscape. Shortly thereafter, Harry scrambles out of the underbrush and the Patronus vanishes in a dazzle of light.

Layers of darkness reclaim the forest, blurry and impenetrable, gradually yielding to snowlight, the soft sound of Harry's panting, and the tiny, ghostly clouds that mark each breath. In another second, Lily discerns his silhouette detaching from the background, moving about. But it's Snape she watches, Snape with his arms folded and his shoulders hunched.

Snape, in turn, watches Harry. With his eyes, of course, but in a larger sense with his entire body. Lily re-winds and starts again once she realises how whole-souled Snape's focus is. He's attuned to everything Harry does, every small infraction, every failure to be careful, his bewilderment and inexperience. Each incautious tread and red-nosed sniffle, each cough and flash of lens and iridescent sheen of magic that emanates from the boy, Severus witnesses and absorbs into himself. He huddles against the tree, as silent as the snow upon the ground, but his entire being is bent upon Harry.

He never steps forward, and only twice reacts in any overt way. The first time, when Harry strips naked to enter the lake. Lily sees Snape's eyes enlarge in his white face, and the quality of his watching intensifies by several magnitudes. The second time, when Harry flails deeper into the freezing water and the surface smoothes over and goes mirror-still. When he doesn't emerge, Snape snaps to attention. Sparks cascade from his wand as it whips into the air. He starts to cast, but a splintering sound interrupts him, the crunching of ice-bound twigs as the Weasley boy crashes out of the trees and plunges into the lake to save his friend.

Snape lowers the wand, and an unvoiced spectre curls from his lips, an exhaled prayer of relief. When the boys thrash ashore, Harry coughing up water and convulsing from the bone-deep chill, the two of them dragging the magnificent sword between them, Snape shifts his feet and refolds his arms, breathing deeply. Lily has no doubt that he's repressing the desire to go wrap his winter robes around that goosefleshed body, Harry's bare skin pearly and dripping icewater in the soft Lumos.

Snape witnesses the destruction of the locket. He stays even after Ron helps Harry pull on his knitted layers and limp back to camp. Once the silence and the darkness have settled again, and Lily can hear the ice creak and the report of a frozen branch like a gunshot in the distance, he focuses on the place where Harry struggled out of his shabby clothes and extends one black-sleeved arm.

"Expecto Patronum."

The doe forms shimmering at the end of his wand, and the lake turns molten silver. This is dangerous. Snape seems driven by something he can't control, now that it's only himself at stake.

Brilliant and unearthly, the Patronus soars into the air and twists back on itself, touching down again directly in front of him.

Snape holds utterly still, bathed in the luminous magic of remembered happiness.

Lily wonders how it feels; if it's like immersing one's existence in a gigantic pensieve. He doesn't turn silver like the overhanging cypress. If anything, his contrasts grow more pronounced, his hair and clothes a deeper black, the pallor of his skin so pure, so identifiably him in shape and angle, that it's like a spiritual portrait. His eyes are dense, hot, the air in front of them warped as if by a heat mirage. Shafts of light strike their black surfaces and refract below. When he blinks, colours fly out in minuscule, vanishing sparks.

The glow dims, condenses, and Snape darkens into near-silhouette, his face eerie with reflected magic. His eyes squeeze shut, and Lily's alarmed that Severus Snape – spy, Dark wizard, Death Eater, tongue-lasher of negligent fools – would drop his guard so completely.

The doe arches her neck. She's like the scratch of light from a shooting star, caught in recognizable shape. The outline of her muzzle brushes Snape's cheek. She licks twice, thrice, her tongue a passing glitter, like tinsel on his skin. His face tilts, as if raised for a kiss or a blessing.

The doe vanishes, snuffed out of existence like a candle flame.

Snape jerks, pulled out of memory and plunged back into winter. Darkness flows over him, the darkness of the present moment. He gathers himself. It's mesmerising, like watching the black and white shadows of two decades race over him, fast-forwarding from youth into age, from hope to despair. Lily sees him gather his anger, his stubbornness, his cold brilliance and remorse, his bitter devotion, sees him spin them around himself and pull the net tight. The lines eat into his face as he grows spidery again, fugitive, too subtle for even the Dark Lord to catch.

The night wind whistles through the naked branches, drags a handful of hair across his eyes. Eyeless, he's terrifying. Then he turns toward the wind and it rakes the blindfold away, revealing his grim face. The quiet pop of Apparition overlaps the sharp tinkle as icicles break off and crash into the snow.

Lily clicks the dial. Thoughtfully, she rests her cheek against Tom's frail skull. So Severus has a heart. She can't think of anyone, save Dumbledore perhaps, who wouldn't laugh or sneer at this revelation. It's the sort of knowledge one keeps to oneself. She will never forget the way he watched Harry, just as she will never forget that Harry will someday lick Severus's face with the same reverence the doe showed him that night.

That is, Harry would. If his future weren't already spoken for.

~~~~

She goes looking for the kiss in Severus's future.

By now Lily understands that this prospect exists on Harry's channel, too. When she first stumbled upon them naked, she hadn't yet found the number thirteen. So that – the erotic obeisance – was already somewhere in Harry's life, a dark possibility. But she never looks for it there, fearing that to do so gives credence to something that might take away Harry's wife, his children. She can only spy on what Severus would have had, if things had been different.

The walls of St. Mungo's are cool and sterile, and Lily remembers how soothing it was to enter the birthing room and relax in a warm tub. The telly fails to convey the tranquillity charms that suffuse the wards, folding the sick and scared in a subliminal blanket of reassurance, a spell-induced conviction that all's right with the world. The staff glides by with a subdued impression of bustle and urgency, and Lily fidgets while the camera navigates the corridors.

It zeroes in on one particular door, which swings open, and there's Harry hunched over a bedside. Lily realises that she's been ushered into the room just ahead of Harry's friends, and the camera lingers on them for a moment: a hail-fellow-well-met sort of gingery chap, all loose limbs and cowlick, and a somewhat overweight girl whose brown hair is a bit like a fuzz bomb gone off.

The boy's robes have been mended. Ron Weasley, Lily thinks. Hermione Granger. She recites their names under her breath because someday she'll get the chance to meet them, to thank them both for their extraordinary devotion to Harry.

Still, it strikes her as curious that Harry's best mates are so ordinary and unspecial compared to – well, James and Sirius and even herself. Her generation cut a much more dashing figure. But of course that can't be held against any of Harry's lot. They're the victors, after all.

"Any change?" says Ginger Chappie, and Harry shakes his head. "Right, then, let's grab us some lunch. He'll stay nice on ice, I shouldn't wonder, till you get back. On the off-chance he does wake up, it's not like he's got the stones to bust out of here after being chomped by a giant snake."

Harry swivels an irate look at his friend, but the girl is just as keen. "Not to nag, Harry, but aren't you at all interested in how Neville and Luna are getting on?"

"What's that supposed to mean? Of course I am," Harry snaps, obviously stung. He stays seated, though.

"Ginny's been asking after you," Ginger Chappie throws out there in a totally transparent attempt to be casual. He winces and changes tack when Harry's face blazes up in a betrayed scowl. "Look, mate, no pressure, but having you stay over at the Burrow for a day or two would cheer Mum up something fierce, you know?" He shifts guiltily, which makes Harry shift guiltily, and the girl starts to speak but instead sidles over and squeezes the taller boy's arm.

"Not that it's your business or anything to make sure everyone's dealing all right with what happened. It's just," Ginger Chappie manages an awkward hand-flap, as if wondering why words are even necessary. Only then does Lily perceive, not a jolly sidekick, but a heartsick young man. His chin glints with bristle, and the grey pinch of concern bruises the childhood out of his face. "I wouldn't mind hanging out a bit myself, Harry. It just feels lately like we have to take a number and stand in line for you to notice us."

"We miss you." Lily makes up her mind that she likes this girl's straightforward, bossy ways. "We do understand that you want to be here when he wakes up – fine," she amends when Ginger Chappie snorts, "I understand, but your friends need you, too. Spare us five minutes?"

Harry looks stricken, and says, "It's not what you think. I'm not avoiding you, you know? It's just that I've been – "

" – holding Snape's hand for three days straight," says Ron Weasley. "That's utterly mental, and it's time someone asked you what in Merlin's name you think you're doing. I'm willing to take your word for it that he wasn't the totally evil wanker we always thought he was. But he's still a bastard, Harry, and he's not the only one who made sacrifices here."

The camera rises and tilts, and Lily's finally permitted to see the figure on the bed. She'd known, the moment the door opened, that it had to be him, but the viewpoint has intercut among the three weary young survivors bargaining back and forth without quite knowing what it is they're haggling about. Lily sees a great flopping mess of black hair, like a dead crow dropped on the pillow, and a thick bandage spotted with blood. Snape's head is canted toward the wall, but she identifies the bony cartilage of his nose and the stern precipice of an alarmingly sharp cheekbone that seems to have lost all padding. She recognises his eyelashes, densely black against his bruised underlids. He sports a five o'clock shadow, something he would never have tolerated if awake. His skin looks sheathed in wax.

The camera pans. Ron's right. Harry's not merely holding on; he's insinuated his blunt, capable fingers through Snape's lifeless ones and is cradling the long, white hand in his lap.

After a pause during which Snape's harsh, arrhythmic breathing scrapes like waves on a pebbled shingle, Harry pulls his fingers loose and sets Snape's arm down on the bed. He stands up, brazening out the embarrassment, while Ron claps him on the shoulder. Hermione starts filling him in on the latest news, the estimates on Hogwarts' renovation and reopening, the Daily Prophet's front page story calling Neville a veritable 'second Potter', the upcoming dates of the first Death Eater trials – at Harry's scowl, she abruptly veers into a reminder that the survivors of Dumbledore's Army are throwing a party next week – anything and everything to propel Harry out the door on a tide of friendship and optimism, three sets of shoes clattering together down the hall's polished tiles. Lily finally hears Harry laugh, just before their voices dwindle to silence.

She doesn't change the channel after they've gone. Snape twitches in his sleep, and Lily wonders if Harry's far-off laughter echoes in his dreams. His head doesn't move, but his hands start to spasm every few seconds. Maybe he's about to wake up. One arm jumps. First his left hand, then his right, wanders a few inches, seeking solace, exploring the texture of the hospital-issue beige blankets. Finally, his head jerks in Lily's direction, and both hands flop onto his breast, long fingers quivering. Must be a bad dream. One hand covers the other, then they clasp, and Lily sees some of the lines on Severus's face – not disappear, exactly, but cease clenching, as if the fear or anguish has retreated to bearable levels. Mouth open, he submerges again into utter, waxy stillness.

Lily's thoughts are warm and full of Harry. Is there anyone anywhere with a better heart? Not only surpassingly brave, but decent. Look how kind he is to Snape. No one deserves a home, a family, more than Harry. All the love in the world can't make up for what he's gone through, but a family would be a start.

She smiles at the screen. The reality of what she's watching sinks in, and her smile twists into what her dad used to call a lemon-peel. Bittersweet, he meant. She never cared for it. The flavour, the aftertaste. The way it feels.

Sweet Merlin. Severus.

Swallowing hard, she turns off the telly and gnaws her knuckles to keep the feelings at bay. Her teeth jar painfully, and she looks down to see that she's bitten her wedding ring.

There are things she shouldn't know, of course. For her own peace of mind. Things she'll never admit to knowing. Not just the expression on Harry's face when he's rutting against Snape. Not just the way Snape sprawls out and lets Harry suck and bite and pinch and delve into his arsehole and fuck his face until he's arched like a bridge beneath the younger man, wired with lust. Merlin's beard. She's broken the bounds of decency time and again. She's partaken of Harry's hunger for an ugly bastard, a reject from her own youth, and learned not to bat an eyelash when her son strips naked.

None of this is right. None of it belongs to her. She knows things she shouldn't, and some of them are things she will never give up.

But there are other kinds of knowledge, and they can break your heart. Moments of privacy Lily wishes she could return untouched. And this, for some reason, is one of them: the way Sev, unconscious and just this side of dying, holds his own hand when Harry's not there.

~~~~

Within the week, Snape wakes up enough to recognise his surroundings. He doesn't ask who won the war. He doesn't ask after Harry's welfare. Of course, he doesn't need to. Within a day, Harry shows up, chagrined that he missed the great awakening.

Snape leaves instructions for the nursing staff to forbid him entry.

Harry gets around this by reassuring them that Snape is occasionally subject to delusions of persecution but not to worry, he's basically harmless.

Snape calls him an interfering and presumptuous jackal with a martyr complex.

Harry tells Snape he's clearly hallucinating and that he, Harry, is not an Animagus, and that he, Snape, had better see to the rusty nails and wooden cross he's got stashed in his own dungeon before he starts pointing skinny fingers at other people. And that he needs to eat because he looks like shite.

Snape informs Harry that Gryffindors aren't nearly as funny as they think they are and that Harry has, by his own example, made the world safe for mind-numbing mediocrity and that he, Harry, should do Britain a favour and abstain from engaging in reproductive acts.

The Ministry has Snape's wand in – they call it 'safekeeping' – so when he's in the mood to hex something he resorts to pillow-throwing. Which makes Lily fall about laughing.

By her count, Snape kicks Harry out the room four times in a row. They're incapable of speaking to each other without snarling and snapping, competing to see who can be the rudest, the touchiest, the most unreasonably defensive. Who, in point of fact, is the bigger arse. But then Snape levers himself up on one arm to make a particularly devastating point, and it sets off a coughing fit. Blood spurts from his mouth and a dark patch spreads suddenly on the bandage at his neck. His eyes flare with impatience – God, only Snape would treat choking on blood as an annoying interruption. Then he takes in Harry's horrified face and abruptly starts gesturing at him in a fury: Out of here! Get out!

Harry, thank heavens, runs into the hallway shouting for help, while Severus subsides back onto the pillow, eyes lifted ceilingward, and brings his considerable willpower to bear on drawing the next breath.

The three times after that, Lily is tuned in to the All Snape All the Time station, so she's already watching the room before Harry arrives. Snape's lying on his back looking depressed, emaciated, and bored out of his mind, but at least his bandage is spotless. So, she notices, is his hair, which no doubt plunged the nursing staff into a pitched battle earlier that morning. His restless hands roam the coverlet, plucking and pilling the soft weave, and every few seconds his black eyelashes flick, slicing off another ribbon of time.

After a stretch during which nothing happens, Harry's distant voice filters through the speakers. "No, listen, I promise, I won't be a minute. I'll just drop off his lunch and say hello. You really don't need to – "

And Snape's face changes.

It's subtle, and he's clearly aware of it, fighting it, forcing himself to remain blank. But it fills him like a milk glass from the bottom up. A light, almost invisible, but there.

As has become her habit when something unexpected knocks her emotions arse-over-teacup, Lily snaps off the telly and sits frozen, trying not to think. When that doesn't help, she goes to collect Tom and steps outside, barefoot, the grass tickling her toes as she tramps toward the back of the house. Tom burbles and coos like any other baby. A fugitive breeze flutters against her cheek, and she raises her face to the sun. It's always sunny here. Down by the lake, she gets a glimpse of Albus walking arm in arm with his Teutonic bloke and gesturing expansively at the sky. His hair blazes auburn, and his robes – ugh, what is that, chartreuse? Even this far off, she senses the ironic glitter of Grindelwald's charm.

Not wanting company, Lily ducks back inside, fetches a cig, and plunks down, cuddling the almost-skinless baby on her lap. She feels fortified by her head-clearing stroll, ready for another look. When the picture flickers on, there's Sev, trapped in his narrow hospital bed and staring upward, his worn features sunk in on themselves, alight with a kind of – almost a kind of –

Oh, Merlin, déjà vu. A memory tingles through her, awakened by the stumblings of her own bad grammar. Didn't she actually say that to him once? "Almost a kind of – " 'Beauty,' she finds herself thinking. Lily Evans, undisputed queen of the backhanded compliment.

But what could have driven her to use a word like 'beautiful' when he's so clearly not?

Reckless, she waves her fag at the screen. "See there, Tommy?" Puffs of smoky words drift in a soiled halo around the baby's hairless head. "Did anyone ever look at you that way? What's it mean, d'you think?"

Bugger that, she bloody well knows what it means. What's troubling is that it used to be for her, only for her.

She used to think it was the utter transparency of a mad pash. The covetousness of a damaged boy finding something to aspire to in a 'normal' girl. Well, maybe. But that's not all it was.

It's hope. Harry gives him hope. Once upon a time, when she was young and self-absorbed and special, so did she.

The door opens. Harry strolls in, bearing a tray neatly piled with roast chicken and sautéed greens, protein and fibre. At his approach, Snape pushes himself up into a sitting position, stuffing the pillow into a lump at his back. Once arranged with a semblance of dignity, he eyes Harry sideways. The muscles of his face are stiff, unable to settle on a natural expression. For a wonder, Harry's got him fussed, and Snape's failing to hide how anxious he is.

Then the girl – Harry's future wife – follows him into the room and stands with her arms folded, broadcasting impatience at this entire encounter.

Seeing her, Snape's eyes ignite, that exploding cauldron of accusation Lily remembers from school, betrayal flying from his gaze, winging Ginny Weasley but not stopping until it hits Harry full-on. Once it finds its target, the terrible emotion fizzles and goes out. Snape returns to contemplating his lap, while the cutting edges and implacable surface of his lifelong contempt lock around him like a mask, the kind that drives nails into the wearer's face. With a twitch of his shoulders, he swings a drape of hair between himself and the prying eyes of the world.

Oh, dear. Lily rearranges her limbs to get more comfortable and unfolds the blanket so that the weave doesn't chafe Tom's skin. She wishes there were some way to get a message through to Harry. Sev retreating behind his hair is never a good sign.

"Ah, house elf Potter," are his opening words. He doesn't look up. "Put my lunch on the bedside table and get out."

The girl exhales scornfully. "See? I told you. Do what he wants, Harry, and let's go. Ron said they'd wait lunch for us."

Harry stands motionless, tray in hand, peering at Snape through his glasses. He takes a look at his girlfriend, squares his shoulders, and says, "Run on ahead, won't you? Tell the others I won't be a minute. I'd just like a word alone with," he stumbles, "with him, if you don't mind."

"You're being totally unreasonable about this," the Weasley girl says. With the wounded, arrogant head-toss of thwarted youth, she turns and storms out, practically stomping, as if she intends to go Cruciate the rubbish bins.

"And if I mind, Potter? Does my opinion count?" Snape's voice drips rancour. Merlin, he belongs onstage. Vocally, he's a genius at taking the piss.

Harry ignores the words, and gestures with the tray. "Would you like me to – ?"

"On the table. Leave it, I said. I'll eat when I'm hungry." Snape's expression, scribbled over with twisted black lines of hair, is as malicious and secretive as Lily's ever seen it. "Conversation with you ruins my appetite, or hadn't you noticed?"

Harry sits carefully on the edge of the bed. "Sod that. I've seen you. You're never hungry."

"I beg to differ," Snape snarls, then trails off in an exhausted hiss of disgust and resettles his shoulders so that he can lean against the wall. Skull-socket eyelids purple with strain, he mutters, "You've grabbed the wrong end of the wand, as usual. Suffice it to say, I am always hungry."

"I, yeah," Harry says in a staccato burst. "Me, too."

Snape blinks, but his only answer is the controlled rise and fall of his chest. His almost fleshless hands continue to worry at the coverlet, restless, unappeased, the beautiful fingers unable to be still. Harry watches them, and suddenly his elbow jerks. Lily wills him to complete the impulse – but then Snape clasps his hands together in his lap, as if afraid Harry will do something totally idiotic and inappropriate, like actually take one and smoothe it between his palms. Lily would, if it were up to her.

"Uh," Harry says. They both sit for a minute looking anywhere but at each other. "Right, then. Next question. How are you doing?"

"I have it on the good authority of my own senses that I'm alive," Snape drawls, his tone consigning the question to the fifth circle of stupidity. He gives the food at his side an impersonal glare. "And as much as it may want to, the medical community cannot deny it. Punishment enough, wouldn't you say?"

"Stop talking like a condemned man," Harry snaps back. "No one's going to hurt you, I promise."

Snape struggles to sit straighter. "Once I'm in Azkaban, remind me of this little exchange so that I may enjoy a laugh at your expense. In the meantime, spare me. If you're doing this to salve your conscience, stop. I should have thought it enough to save the Wizarding World. Why you had to save me is – beyond imagining." He slumps again and his voice is dispirited. "Although if you're still looking for vengeance, by all means, come poke the traitor with a stick."

Fidgeting, Harry gets to his feet. "Don't call yourself that."

By now, Snape could hardly look worse than if he'd been used for stampede practice by a herd of centaurs. "What I call myself is irrelevant, for fuck's sake. The point is," he blinks with enormous lassitude, though his gaze, fixed on Harry, is as black as ever, "I have no wish to see you, Potter. In fact, I can't think of anyone I wish to see less. So I'd appreciate it if you'd stop playing the ministering angel."

"You know," Harry huffs, "it's impossible to talk to you."

"I daresay that owes something to the fact that you're impossible to listen to."

"Right, well, you're not listening. I'm trying to tell you, all I want – "

"And I'm trying to tell you, Potter, I don't care what you want. All I want, which should not be so bloody hard to understand, is a Potter-free period of recuperation before I'm dragged before the Wizengamot and flayed for my sins."

"Don't," Harry says suddenly. "Please don't do this. Please, there's something I – "

"Do. Not. Beg," Snape stops him, his voice deathly quiet. "Do not ingratiate yourself. You are the saviour of the Wizarding World. Don't you ever dare think you need to beg for anything." He almost spits his disgust. "Conduct yourself with dignity, for Merlin's sake. But in the interests of sanity," he stabs a finger at the exit, "do it out there."

Harry hunches his shoulders, sticks his hands in his pockets, and glares at the door. Then he looks at the finger pointing to the door. Then he reaches out and grabs Snape's hand.

Snape practically has a seizure. "Stop infringing on my privacy and remove your arse from this room at once!" Magically incontinent, he up-ends the food tray without realizing what he's doing. It spins through the air and clangs into a wall, spraying a speckled trail of steamed spinach and rubbery chicken parts everywhere.

Wrestling for possession of his hand, he snarls, "Potter. I do not accept your willingness to burn in the fires of my own special hell, do you understand? If you wish to experience damnation, invent your own. I'm sure Miss Weasley will be eager to oblige." He clutches at his throat, choking with rage but no sign of blood, although Lily wonders if his sanity is cracking. "Go where you're – where you're wanted, you fool. Meaning anywhere but here."

The jealousy and self-loathing in the room are so thick you could use them to paint the walls. "You sodding git, fight for yourself," Lily argues at the screen, and then thinks, shite, no. She doesn't want Snape to win; Ginny's obviously the better match. She just hates to see him take a blunt knife to his own feelings, and incidentally to Harry's.

The door slams. Harry doesn't even stick around for a parting shot.

Severus collapses so abruptly that his head bounces off the wall behind him. He keeps one hand around his throat, kneading the bandage. His breathing doesn't subside as it ought to, now that his tantrum has succeeded in driving his tormentor off. He gazes desperately around the room and pants as if waves are crashing in his chest and he's trying to stay afloat. The light Lily saw earlier in his face has drained away, leaving nothing but bone structure, the waxy pallor of his indomitable nose, and eyes as empty as holes drilled in rock.

It troubles her that nobody comes to clean up the spilled food. Snape just sits there, propped up like a doll in a cupboard, and eventually falls into an exhausted doze. The hand at his throat uncurls and ends up twitching on his chest.

Unsettled, Lily speeds through the hours, searching for Harry.

Who bounces back, in typical Gryffindor fashion. The next time, he's on his best behaviour. Snape's sick, after all. Sick enough that one can trample his wishes underfoot and lose no points, serve no detentions, suffer no consequences. Harry's love interest stands fuming in the doorway, a testament to the power of long red hair.

Snape doesn't contest Ginny's claim to Harry. In fact, Snape doesn't even bother sitting up. He just rolls onto his side, bony shoulder and black hair and mute, blanketed back fending off Harry's every attempt to hit upon a topic that might interest him. After several excruciating minutes during which Harry does nothing but babble, Ginny grabs his arm and hauls him out the door.

The final time, Snape's up, dressed in loose black cotton pyjamas that Lily would bet were some other colour when he first put them on, but which have since seen the error of their ways. He radiates the spindly, defensive quality of people who have shrunk in stature, but his face is still intimidating, so cadaverous that the light and shadow are constantly changing on it, filling hollows, fingering bone. It's so sculptural that even Lily finds it weird when a purely human expression crosses Snape's face.

He's hunched over at the foot of the bed, paging through a book that obviously annoys him, when Harry knocks and enters without permission. Snape stands up at once. His sleeves bag loose, emphasizing the overwrought bones of his wrists. Blood loss has left his skin so pale that each individual black hair on his arms is extremely distinct.

"Ah, my prodigal house elf returns," he mutters, and pushes the straggly black tangles behind his ears. Lily remembers that gesture. Even after all this time, it still means that Sev's nervous as fuck. "Really, Potter, must I have you banished from my room?"

"Just give me a moment," Harry says quickly. "Please. Let me – there's something we need to talk about."

Snape walks right up to him, and at first Harry falls back, surprised, letting himself be herded toward the outer hall. He realises in the nick of time that in another few steps the door will slam in his face.

He stops, forcing Snape to collide with him. Lily expects Snape to throw a fit at that. But no, he waits, his gaze darkly pissed-off. Nothing pure, nothing radiant, glimmers from him.

They're standing very close, and perhaps it's that almost-touch, Harry a mere breath away, so young and earnest and incapable of taking no for an answer, that goads Snape to say, "You've made your choice, Potter. I don't understand why you keep returning so that I may have the pleasure of throwing you out again. If it's to solicit my blessing for your upcoming – then I don't – I'm not selfless, and I can't – "

He turns away and Accios a water goblet. After several steadying gulps, he manages a complete sentence into the rim of the goblet. "I cannot bring myself to congratulate you."

Lily has no idea what Snape's on about. Congratulate Harry for what, winning the war? Jesus, that deserves a medal for lowest form of ingratitude ever.

Harry stalks up behind him. "Stop pushing me away," he hisses, sounding at his wit's end. Snape keeps his back turned, masking himself with the water goblet. Harry flaps his arms uselessly before blurting out, "You want to know something? You don't understand the first fucking thing about what I want." Snape gives a soft, disparaging grunt, but Harry says, "No, you don't. And neither does Ginny. No one in the fucking world knows, because I don't. Yeah, I've always said I wanted to be normal, but," he laughs the way people do when they can't believe themselves, and Snape shivers as Harry's breath stirs his hair. "That's not going to happen. And there's so much – so much pressure on me to decide."

Harry's closeness, the intimacy of his whispered confession, clearly tests Snape's nerve. Lily judges he's within seconds of breaking and bolting across the room.

"I have to decide," Harry rants in a whisper. "Who I am. Who I'm going to be. It has to be now. They won't leave me the fuck alone. I have to decide now. Me or the Boy Who Lived." Like a child desperate for attention, Harry gathers the tails of Snape's pyjama top and tugs. "But you could – I must be crazy, but if anyone can help me figure things out, it's you."

Then Harry does a strange, brave thing. He cups his hands around Snape's sides – Lily sees the lightweight cotton give, sees Harry's fingers line up in the hollows between ribs – and draws Snape gently backward until their bodies are touching. With immense care, as if Snape is fragile or flammable (and of course he's both), he wraps first one arm and then the other around Snape's wasted body and presses his face to the greasy, badly-brushed layer of black hair hanging down the thin pyjama top.

Snape's still holding the goblet in both hands, as if it's a chalice, and he neither protests nor submits. After a while, though, long past the moment Lily would have expected him to turn and rip Harry to shreds, he bends his neck back until his head touches Harry's, one crown of black hair atop another. Snape rests there, against Harry, his gaze wide and dark upon the clean white ceiling. Then he shuts his eyes, and the skin between them pinches.

"I think I'm gay," Harry murmurs into Snape's collar. "And I'm really messed up, and I need to talk to you."

Snape sends the goblet back to the end table with an absent gesture. By touch, he finds Harry's hands with his own and covers them. They stand like that, arms crossed and fingers interlaced, but only for a moment; then Snape lifts his head and pries Harry off him.

"Let me go."

Harry does, reluctant and dazed. Snape pulls away and sinks onto the bed. Lily thinks he's trembling a little, possibly with weariness. Possibly with something else. "Merlin, Potter. Nothing's ever simple with you, is it?" He cocks his head, wry. Harry's hair stands out in tufts like a licked kitten, and shards of reflection shine on his lenses, hiding his eyes. Much to Lily's annoyance, it reminds her of Dumbledore. He starts to speak, but Snape waves him silent. "Shut it. I'm tired. Enough for now. Come back tomorrow, when I'm able to think, and we'll discuss this further."

Lily frowns at the screen. Something's off about this. Harry apparently doesn't sense it, because he smiles and stutters his thanks, and backs out the door. It clicks shut, and Lily squints suspiciously, praying that Snape's features will relax now and fill with that quiet, private glow.

They don't. He sits on the bed after Harry's gone, idly tracing the knob of his kneecap through the black cotton. Then his face contorts. He picks up the book he'd been reading earlier and hurls it at the door. Face set, he starts fingering other parts of his body, places where he's boniest. He stretches his arms up, rotates his head, squeezes his sides. His splayed fingers hesitate on the furrows between each rib and his eyes grow distant, but only for a moment. They blaze back to the present, and he digs his fists into the mattress, cutting short the physical inventory.

Lily wonders if he's trying to gauge what Harry sees in him. She absolutely doesn't expect him to reach back and peel off the bandage.

"What the devil?" she says aloud as the thick gauze falls indifferently to the floor. Rising with some effort, Snape stalks into the tiny closet-like loo off the corner, tilting his chin so that he can examine his throat in the mirror. The wound is red and tender but sealed shut with sore-looking scar tissue. He touches it, traces the ragged outline, prods the forming scar with almost clinical interest, then catches his own eye in the mirror and snorts, turning away.

From the loo he walks directly to the door and yanks it open. Immediately, a young, musclebound Auror steps in front of him, blocking the exit.

With a smirk borrowed for the occasion, since his mind is clearly elsewhere, Snape folds his arms. "Don't panic, Mr. Dalrymple. The big bad Death Eater isn't attempting to escape. I would appreciate, however, if you'd pass a message to Auror Shacklebolt. Let him know that I'm well enough to sign out."

"You are?" the guard says dubiously, looking Snape up and down.

"You were expecting a more dramatic arrest?" Snape dismisses the absurdity with a gesture. His left sleeve pulls up, as if by accident; from under his cuff, the faded insignia of the Dark Mark boils out. Lily grimaces. Unaware he's being played, the Auror makes a snide remark about Death-Eaters who rate special treatment and how he hopes Snape chokes on his own viscera someday.

Extending his arm to bring more of the Mark into view, Snape snaps the fingers of his right hand. He catches the fellow's wand as it flies upward. "Amateur," he remarks, then idly points the wand when its owner lunges for him. Without a word, he hexes the careless idiot over backward – oh, Sev, you insufferable show-off – while people scream bloody murder up and down the aisle – and Snape tosses the wand down with a brittle clatter alongside the sprawled guard.

He's supporting himself on the doorframe now, and almost pulls off making it look casual. "Tell Kingsley that if I'm stuck with you as escort, he has only himself to blame if I escape. Have him send a replacement with faster reflexes and functioning brain cells. Preferably someone who passed their exams by other means than fellating their instructor." He shuts the door but immediately re-opens it, one hand bunched in his nightshirt. "Also inform him in no uncertain terms that I require a new set of robes. Unless there's a post-war fashion for copious blood stains, my old ones are too disgusting to wear, and I have no intention of entering the Ministry dressed in my nightclothes."

Slam.

Melodramatic bastard. Lily lets out a disbelieving breath. Lucky for him the Auror on duty doesn't consider it his right to break down the door and give Severus a taste of his own medicine.

She tracks the dial slowly through the hours.

The escort arrives the next morning. A patient, imposing man, coffee-brown and bald as a doorknob, he waits until Snape opens at his knock, hands over a voluminous black garment that Snape dons with a show of compromised dignity, waits further while he struggles to make the robes hang less haggardly on his bony frame, then spells Snape's wrists behind his back, takes his arm, and Disapparates them out of St. Mungo's.

When Harry shows up, the sheets on the bed will already be changed.

Click. The screen drains to black, emptier even than Snape's room. Lily gets to her feet and carries Tom outside. She concentrates until she can intuit Dumbledore's whereabouts, then Apparates nearby and calls until he appears out of a cave. With a quizzical smile, he extends his arms for the baby. He never asks what Lily watched that day or whether she has questions. He merely says, "Thank you, my dear," as he always does, and then disappears back inside the cave, ducking the overhang.

Lily shifts, missing Tom's warmth and presence and smell. Then she concentrates again and goes to where James and Sirius are splashing about in the lake. Seeing her, James shouts, then comes pounding up the bank to fling his wet arms around her, his bare, sun-freckled chest heaving. She kisses him, ignoring the fact that Sirius is floating about in the water, ogling them wickedly. Within seconds, her clothes are soaked, and she relaxes.

James pulls back and tweaks her nose. "Lil, my love, please don't take this wrong, but you taste like an ashtray."

"Sorry!" She covers her mouth, and he gives her the crinkly, tolerant smile, his wet fringe plastered down over his brow, so boyish. But it's followed by a beat of silence, and the moment when she should have explained why she's smoking pulses and slides by. Instead, she gives the water-shimmery skin of his chest a great lipsmack and pulls him toward the lake.

She's never cheated on him. She's not cheating now. She doesn't feel dirty, it's just that a dip in the lake sounds – refreshing. She's almost relieved when she steps into the water and Sirius, with a whoop, levitates a glistening sheet over her head and smacks her with it. Drenched to the skin, Lily throws her head back and laughs into the sun, trusting to the fact that she's always looked innocent. And desirable, which perhaps counts for more.

~~~~

Later, she corners Sirius while he's tinkering with his motorcycle. It's a monstrous and beautiful thing, and she's nervous of it, but also a little fascinated.

"You know the potion Albus and Grindelwald have been working on," Lily begins. "The dragon's blood elixir."

"Yeah?" Sirius grins at her sideways, as if he already knows what she's going to say.

"I need a bottle's worth of it."

He sleeks his fingers through his shaggy hair and straddles the leather seat, looking rakish and mutt-like. "Well, why don't you ask them, then? Seems little enough."

"Albus mustn't – I want to keep Albus from knowing for as long as possible."

Sirius grunts. "Good luck with that." Lily wonders if he's being deliberately obtuse. "You want me to do the stealing, I take it. Why?"

"Because it's for Harry. It could help, but Albus is concerned about the possible side effects."

"And you're not?"

"I'm more concerned that Harry might – " At the last second, she switches from, "die," to, "lose. That Voldemort might torture or overpower him, despite Albus's best-laid plans."

"The old man's not infallible, I'll give you that." Sirius rubs his nose and glances at her. "I'll do it." His eyes make a casual tour of their surroundings; his brother Reg has a disturbing tendency to loiter in the bushes nearby. Albus attributes it to years of ducking his parents and waiting for someone his age to show up, but Lily suspects he just likes to spy. He's a Slytherin, after all. "In exchange, though, you'll tell James about the baby?"

Lily, realizing her mouth is hanging open, shuts it. Then she says, "What's to tell? If you know, then obviously James knows, too."

"Yes, but not from you." Sirius studies her from under shaggy brows. "You haven't said a word. He's a bit bummed about that."

She sighs and scrubs her face. "Have I mentioned lately that Albus Dumbledore is a royal purple pain in the arse? Yes, of course I'll tell him. Not that there's much to tell, really. It's just a baby."

"Right, and I'm Helga Hufflepuff," says Sirius, and guns the engine.

~~~~

She finds their first kiss. It takes place – where else? – in Azkaban.

Fate, it seems to Lily, has a nasty sense of humour.

It's odd, that the prison at first reminds her of Hogwarts. Just because it's an old stone castle, with stairways and alcoves and overhead galleries, doesn't mean she should feel as though she knows it. Mostly it's lit like the dungeons; the window embrasures are small and squinty, narrowing the amount of daylight that gets in. Torches are few and far between, stuck at drafty turnings, the loud flames sucked and extinguished and relit in a repetitive fire-breathing pantomime. The whoosh of combustion casts long, jumpy shadows down the corridors, which narrow rather quickly into great slots of darkness. On the walls, moisture stains glisten, and there's moss or possibly rot. It's not merely Hogwarts in ruins, not merely a castle in full-blown dribbling senility. It's Hogwarts after a psychotic break.

Snape's sitting in his shirtsleeves in his small, damp cell when the iron door creaks open to admit Harry. While he confers with the guard on watch, Snape hunches further into himself, chafing his arms for warmth and holding his Mark against his chest. If appearances are anything to go by, he hasn't slept in a week, and it's been at least that long since his hair was last washed.

"That was a pretty filthy trick you pulled," Harry says once they're alone, "you fucking arsehole."

The visit degenerates from there into a shouting match, and Lily skims. Snape's right, Harry does wave his wand around in a reckless manner. Well, he's upset about Snape's incarceration and pending trial. Good boy, Lily thinks; but Snape refuses to leap on 'the Potter bandwagon.' The next thing Lily knows, Snape's got Harry backed up against a cold, encrusted wall and is leaning so close you could stun them both with a single spell. Hm, Harry was dead on about where Snape shoves his leg. And Snape was telling the truth about who kissed whom first, although to be fair, that leg is rather provoking.

But Harry's the instigator, and Lily has to hand it to him, it works brilliantly at getting Snape to shut it. Also, Snape seems to appreciate Harry's tongue far more when it's in his mouth than when it's left to wag unsupervised. However he justifies it, he doesn't object to Harry kissing him nearly as much as he objects to – vilifies – pretty much everything else Harry does.

Until the kiss winds down. Then Snape turns a special shade of pale and tells Harry, in a frayed-thin but reasonable voice, "Go now, for fuck's sake," and Harry looks at him with a kind of sick hope. Lily curses the sexual alchemy that's sprung up between them. Snape has every reason to look dismayed, considering he's mostly composed of impurities, and that's exactly what the alchemical process is intended to transmute. He could very well plunge his soul into the fire and end up reduced to ash. Harry, by any reckoning, is already pure gold. Well, golden enough. Lily sees no reason for him to endure another crucible of pain to prove his worth, certainly not just because he fancies a fuck.

After Harry leaves and the booming door locks Snape in, he paces the room the way predators do, desperate, his eyes flickering back and forth, always returning to the door. Finally he stalks to the mildewed corner most secure from prying eyes, wedges his narrow back against the stone, and slides to the ground, knees up. Eyes closed, as if he's too humiliated to watch what he's doing, he gropes inside his trousers and starts tossing himself off.

Trembling, Lily changes the station. She seeks out Harry's wife. She avoids Harry in this timeline and concentrates on his children. They're the future: amusing, high-spirited, the continuation of the Potter line. But in the end it doesn't matter, she tells herself. Snape's going to die. Harry won't have a choice.

She turns off the set and goes to find James. She needs to touch someone. Someone real. She banishes the house. She banishes the past. She needs to be touched in a way that will assuage the strange trembling that this scene, this sordid act, has awakened inside her.

~~~~

She's been pulling James into the bushes a lot lately. He doesn't seem to mind. Sirius has taken to giving her sour, amused looks, but he'll have to make do on his own.

She feels briefly guilty for having lured James away by dropping sexual hints. She wants to be outside Sirius's sphere of influence and to avoid, if possible, Albus eavesdropping. James is already untucking his shirt when she says, "Not so hasty, love, this is – James, I'm sorry, I've meant to do this before now. But I'd like you to meet Tom."

He tucks himself in again, fast. He almost knocks his glasses off, ruffling his hair in agitation. "Merlin's tits, Lily!" He leans forward, nose wrinkling, then says, low and hard, "That's the most revolting excuse for humanity I've ever seen." She flares up, feeling personally insulted, but he gets to the point: "That's a piece of Voldemort's soul. You know that, right?"

She steps back a pace, alarmed. So they've figured it out. Or maybe Albus let it slip. "Don't speak to me as if I'm an idiot. I know what he is. I also know," slow down, Evans, she tells herself, and takes a deep breath, "that he's part of Harry."

James nearly pops a vein. "He's a fucking Dark wizard!"

She looks over her shoulder, then shoves her way through the foliage, knowing he'll follow. She doesn't want that black dog Sirius to overhear and come lolloping out of the bushes to add his bullying approbation to everything James says.

They rustle into a coppice that's been one of their favourite love nests, tall, pretty saplings quilted with sunbeams. They proceed to desecrate it by turning and squaring off. "Listen carefully, Jamie. I'll say it again." Tom's asleep. She touches his cheek too gently to wake him. "He's part of Harry."

James glares at Tom as if he's turned her against him. "He's a remnant of a murderous, diseased psychopath, and he doesn't deserve to be coddled like this." Restless, he props his shoulders against a tree and stubs one heel on the roots. "Bloody hell, Lil, how can you let yourself be taken in like that? Just because he looks harmless. He's like this magical cockroach that won't die!"

A few leaves drift down. One lands on Tom, a five-pointed green leaf like a papery hand. He whimpers, and Lily brushes it away. Nearby, there's a crackling, skittery sound, like lizards scarpering off. James straightens up, then, and draws his wand, as if he intends to use it.

Lily's temper almost gets the better of her. "He's a baby."

The wand is pointed at them – no, at Tom. "What would happen, do you suppose," James says, all the strength and courage in his body knotted into a need for revenge, "if I killed him here, where he might actually die and leave Harry alone?"

Lily remembers having those same thoughts, the first time Albus put Tom in her arms. She could Disapparate now, but Merlin, she refuses to run from her husband.

"I don't know," she retorts, and turns her back. "But if you want to find out, you'll have to curse me first."

She waits. James whispers her name, betrayed, and she faces him with Tom pressed to her breast. "He's part of Harry," she says again. "I'm sorry, love, I can't let you do it. I can't jeopardize Harry's chances, certainly not in a fit of hatred. And," she swallows, because of course this is part of it, "it won't change what's already happened. Or what has yet to happen. He'll still have to defeat – " she folds the blanket over the baby's ears and whispers " – You-Know-Who."

James takes his glasses off and rubs his eyes. He says quietly, "So it's Harry who'll have to kill him, then."

It hurts to hear that. It hurts not to know whether it's true. "Maybe," she whispers, and then walks up to James. "Here. Just for a minute. Hold him, James, please."

He dons his glasses, scowls at the diseased child, sulks at her, then stabs his wand into his pocket. "It won't harm Harry," Lily promises, placing the wool-wrapped bundle in his arms. Tom is shaking. Or it could be Jamie. "Who knows, it might even help. Perhaps Harry can feel us touching him somehow."

The sibilant tongue of the wind talks its way through the trees. Tom flaps his pink hands and lets out a mighty burp, and James, her bold Jamie, grimaces but doesn't drop him. Today's a bit cooler than usual, and though the sunlight throws intricate chainmail patterns, it's simply not warm enough. Lily circles behind her husband and hugs him, her chin on his shoulder. This way, she can make silly faces at the baby. Someday, she's sure of it, Tom will smile back.

It's almost like having a family again.

~~~~

A few days later, there's a knock at the door. Lily's been watching bits of Snape's life on his personal station, but she switches the dial at once to Harry's future and spins the rings back and forth until she locates him. He's brought the kids to Ottery St. Catchpole, and there are redheads everywhere, more than Lily can possibly keep track of. She smokes nervously and only half-watches, alert for possible invasion. This is her hiding place. She can do what she likes here.

The knocking stops. She's still tense, so when the window suddenly crashes upward she's on her feet at once, ready for battle.

Sirius leans in, festooned with curtains and grinning like a sex-crazed fiend. "It's no use pretending you're not at home," he tells her, arms crossed on the sill. "The house only shows up when you're in it, you know."

"There's such a thing as wanting to be left alone," she says tartly.

"Just trying to be neighbourly," he smirks. "Here, catch." A flash of red glass hurtles through the air, flung with alarming accuracy at Tom's bassinet. Lily Accios it, and a small bottle slaps into her palm.

"This is the elixir, eh?" She shakes it; the contents are the colour of fresh blood. "So, how'd you sneak it past Albus?"

Sirius gives her a mock-pitying look. "My dear Lily, you really must get used to being dead. We're no longer bound by mortal restrictions, remember? If something already exists, you need merely conjure it yourself. Think it into being and give it the necessary properties. I didn't go anywhere near the dragon's lair to acquire this. I created it myself."

She huffs in exasperation. "So how do I know it's the real thing?"

His devilish eyebrows lift. "At this point, it's up to you. If you believe it's the elixir of life, then it is. It'll work within whatever limits are set by its theoretical counterpart in Albus's mind."

"You're saying I could have done this myself." Lily frowns at the bottle.

Sirius grins and shrugs, almost banging his head on the sash. "Really, love, how long have you been dead? You need to figure these things out."

After Sirius finally leaves her alone, Lily squirrels the bottle away in the lefthand compartment of the console where, to her astonishment, she finds a stash of soft-core porn mags.

~~~~

So, that abbreviated dinner in the restaurant was Harry's way of celebrating Snape's acquittal. No wonder the git was so prickly. Intent on following the convoluted beginnings of their affair, Lily picks up where she left off the day Albus so rudely interrupted.

She watches the wait staff vanish the food from their table, Snape drape himself in his robes while the entire clientele of the restaurant stops talking, mouths full, to stare. Ignoring the collective weight of disapproval, Harry wraps a hand around Snape's arm, says, "Ready?" and then Sidealong-Apparates them into the night. The area of London looks familiar, with the starless sky capping the low, dense halo of city lights. Sirius's old neighbourhood, isn't it? For a moment, Lily's nearly bent double with nostalgia. Then her son, towing a reluctant Snape behind him, steps from a dark alleyway, and the two of them navigate the bustling streets together, flaring into odd visibility beneath the electric lamps, almost lost amid the hurly-burly of Muggle crowds. A passing lorry or an impatient line of cross-traffic occasionally blocks Lily's view. The steady rumbling is as noisy as Sirius's motorbike, which she half-expects to come crashing through the window, drawn as if by a mating call.

To her relief, the camera's focus tightens and she hears Harry's voice over the din. He keeps glancing up to gauge Snape's reaction, which predictably results in him stumbling over the pavement as often as he stumbles over his words. Snape strides along in silence and lets Harry cope as best he can. "I keep waiting," Harry pants, hurrying not to fall behind, "for the day I stop thinking about other blokes. I'd like to believe that Ginny and I can make a go of it, but – "

"But it's never a good idea to marry one's mother," Snape snatches the sentence away from him.

Lily sits upright, startled, and she and Harry both yelp at once, "You arsehole!"

Lily blushes at the coincidence, thinking, Well, the arsehole's got a point. Harry stops in his tracks, much to the annoyance of various Londoners with things to do and places to be. He looks as if for a sickle he'd Disapparate and leave Snape alone to face the irate hordes.

"I suspect, however," Snape hauls Harry to the pavement's verge and presses the issue only after they're no longer a pedestrian hazard, "that in Miss Weasley's case, it would be more an instance of marrying her mother."

"You enjoy being a dick, don't you?" Harry's practically standing atop the toes of Snape's boots, and he juts his chin upward as if spoiling for a fight. Or a kiss.

With a flick of robes and a twitch of kneecaps that nearly topples Harry in front of a roving band of stockbrokers, Snape re-establishes an argumentative distance. "Whether I enjoy it or not, there it is: the thing that sets me apart from the Miss Weasleys of the world. They may be better looking and more socially acceptable, but," he waves a hand dismissively, "I have something they don't. Therein lies my primary appeal."

Harry sighs and rumples his hair, gazing vaguely up the street toward Grimmauld Place. "Yeah, I feel bad for Gin. But I 'spect she'd prefer to be spared finding out years down the line that her famous husband's a homo. Not a very happy ending, that."

Snape turns as though to lay a hand on Harry's arm, but changes his mind and walks on. As if it's a partner-dance, Harry steps forward into the vacuum left by that incomplete touch.

"If you were to marry Miss Weasley," Snape informs him the moment he jogs alongside, "I assure you, she would never find out." He's so quiet and serious that Lily briefly imagines the kind of man he might be if he didn't feel the need to scrawl I am hateful and I hope you all burn in hell across the world's face with every word and gesture.

They cross at the light, Snape ruminating as he stalks to the opposite pavement. Oncoming pedestrians veer around them, casting annoyed looks at Snape's robes, as if his eccentricity of dress inconveniences them. Harry starts to ask a question, but Snape's not done. "You'd stay married," and he imparts each word as if pronouncing a spell vital to Harry's existence, "spawn a celebrated host of red-headed Potters, behave like a model husband, dazzle your legions of fans, and devote the rest of your life to making your family happy. Even if that happiness depends upon everyone collaborating in a fiction of blissful ignorance. Even if it means you will never be happy." He shakes his head, clearly tired of thinking about it. "Who's to say that wouldn't be the better course?"

Harry rubs his hands on his robes and scratches behind his ear before blurting, "I wasn't lying when I said I've always wanted more than anything to be normal."

They're passing under a street lamp. Oh, Merlin, the way Sev rolls his eyes. Lily has to agree with him in this case. "Too late for that," he sneers, which is going a bit far. "And if I may point out, forcing your presence on me doesn't qualify as normal. If you're in search of happily-ever-afters, then my only contribution to your little self-delusionary quest is as an example of what not to do."

Impulsively Harry takes Snape's arm and performs a little scuffling jump to match his stride. Lily almost bursts into a million pieces at the look on Snape's face, and her sudden lunge to hug her knees jars Tom awake. "I'm not ever going to be normal, though, am I?" Harry gets out, sounding as though a bone's caught in his throat. He shoots Snape a sideways glance. "So I'll settle for being fucked-up and happy in the moment, if it's all the same to you."

"It's nothing to me, Potter." They come to a halt, heads tilted up to confront the massive, decrepit façade of Grimmauld Place. "I hope you're not expecting me to hold forth on which future is best for you. I'm no more familiar with immediate gratification than I am with reaping rewards in the long run. Look to someone else for advice."

Still clasping Snape's arm, Harry gestures lamely. "Home sweet home."

The door at the top of the stairs swings open, and Snape twists free as Ginger Chappie pokes his head out. Lily catches a flash of something furtive and conflicted as Snape steps aside, creating the sense that an icy chasm has sprung up between himself and Harry. Ron Weasley sings out, "Oi, Harry, great timing! A whole tableful of fantastic grub just appeared out of nowhere! Not enough to go around, but we've saved you a plate, so you'd better – oh." It's taken him that long to acknowledge the cold burn of Snape's baleful smile. He nods warily. "Professor."

Harry pounds up the weathered stairs, but Snape doesn't follow. Clearly upset that his plans for the evening are slipping away, Harry retraces his steps, argument evident in every line of his body. Snape's frosty demeanor defeats him before he even musters a word. "Save your breath, Potter. I've no desire to be present at a Gryffindor slumber party."

"Look, I'm sorry. I didn't know they'd be here."

Above, the doorway's jammed with a solid wall of interfering and inquisitive friends. Lily hears Hermione's exasperated voice, "You've no idea where that food came from! For all we know, it could be poisoned!" before her face rises into view, peering curiously over Ron's shoulder. Ginny Weasley crowds to the fore, and Lily's amused to see that she's already drawn her wand. At a guess, the girl's nursing some serious revenge fantasies.

"I'm perfectly capable of finding my own way back," Snape announces. "Bear in mind what I said, and don't throw your choices away. There's no shame, Mr. Potter, in being faithful."

He's standing on a lower step, which puts them nose to nose, and suddenly Harry leans forward as if afraid he'll never get another chance, never mind that they're in full view of a shockable audience. Snape deflects the kiss, raising his ravaged face to indicate the spectrum of gobsmacked expressions caught in the light from the open doorway. "Many thanks for an enlightening and ultimately pointless conversation," he grumbles with enough snap to bring Harry to his senses – although his lips brush Harry's ear when he turns. "I hope your friend Weasley enjoys my portion of the dinner."

"You can't go." Harry almost reaches out to restrain him but realises in time the enormity of his mistake.

"Can't I?" Snape says in an ominous drawl. "Whyever not?"

It's a struggle, but Harry finally gets out in a whisper, "You owe me a snog."

Snape's glance flickers to the doorway and its occupants, to Harry's face, then up and down the street. It's the look he wore in prison, which ended with him crouching in a corner, one hand down his pants. He feels trapped, Lily realises. Unclean. "So it's payment you're looking for, is it?" he says under his breath. "I should have known."

"No! That's a load of bollocks. I'm not – "

"Go inside, Potter," Snape commands. "And don't even think of following me."

He stares straight into Harry's scowling face until the boy turns and marches up the steps. Ron attempts to shove a glass of wine into his hand. "Mate, you should try the food. It's fantastic!"

"Have mine," Harry snarls, "I'm not hungry," and shoulders past them. Ginny squints a mean, triumphant smile at Snape's rigid figure as everyone mills about on the threshold and then stampedes inside. The door slams.

Snape stands for a moment without moving. The camera pans down his body; his hands are wound in the material of his robes, clearly anchored there to keep them from touching what they shouldn't. "A load of bollocks, indeed, Mr. Potter. You're bloody starving," Lily hears him say, but the focus remains on his hands. They twist, press their knuckles together, and slowly unclench. "As am I."

His voice is a whisper, and Lily swallows. A swirling, shadowy confusion blurs the screen, and when it clears she's staring at the bottom steps, the angle of lamplight illuminating one corner like a wedge of white cheese. By the time the camera rises, giving Lily a long shot of mansions towering in the gloom, Severus is already far down the street, dwindling between pools of lamplight, an extra layer of black vanishing into the darkness.

~~~~

It's only a matter of time before Lily succumbs to the urge to trace Snape back through her own history. Dying may be horrible – Snape's death certainly will be – but being dead is quite simple. Still, she's having a hard time reconciling the fact that Severus must be got out of the picture before Harry can properly settle down. How incredibly sad, that the price of Harry's marriage is Severus's life.

The tube spits and whines – Tom, to her amusement, imitates the sound – and a picture expands to fit the screen. She fiddles with the dial. There: the canal, the bridge in the distance, the rusty iron rails. She spins through the days, the seasons, sees a flash of what she's searching for, and follows the images back to the beginning.

The sky's a high enamel blue, although an occasional white plume cools the sun's rays for a strange, dim moment until the burning eye slides open again and the whole world glows. Lily's already flopped down, panting and red-faced, grinning in triumph. She's never outrun Sev before. They're of a height, but his legs are longer and he's a sprinty little bugger, plus he doesn't have to contend with new and rather awkward physical developments, like breasts. Around her, lime-green marsh roots spindle upward into a forest of spear-tipped reeds, fading in colour to a late-summer crackly yellow that filters the sun. The rushes scrape and hiss like dry cornstalks, amplifying her exuberant pants for breath.

A rustly spatter of footfalls ticks rapidly through the marsh, and then Severus bursts through, looking out-of-sorts and splotchy with exertion and annoyance. Watching, Lily feels a surge of something hot, something downright weird, and she remembers. Oh God, maybe she shouldn't watch this. As Severus throws himself down onto the crushed reeds at her side, her younger self crows, "Forfeit! It's my forfeit. I won! You've got to do what I say!"

Breathing hard, Severus shakes the clingy hair off his damp neck, doing his best to look haughty and careless instead of gawky and high-strung. "You won because that stupid, interfering old Muggle thought I was chasing you," he scoffs. "Grabbed my arm and slowed me down, the meddling bastard."

"Language," Lily snipes, just to be awful, and Severus sprawls irritably onto his back, eyes closing as he catches his breath. "You were chasing me," she twits him, mischievous and prim. You ridiculous tease, thinks older Lily as she watches Sev's eyes crack open a millimetre to consider her sideways. She's forgotten how thick his lashes are. It's almost like he's wearing eyeliner, and it partly accounts for why he looks so insistently broody and evil. Of course, it's also because he was broody and evil. Pity he never outgrew it.

Huddled before the console, she feels her heart speed up in embarrassment and expectation, knowing what comes next.

Severus lifts up on his elbows, sneering in disgust. "He thought I was going to hurt you."

This is it. The moment. She remembers that strange twist in her belly as she smirked at him, and she feels it again, the same but not the same, gazing at the thin boy onscreen, his black hair tangled around his indignant face, the sweat shining on his throat and drawing attention to the delicate points of his collarbone. He's wearing – poor Sev – a short-sleeved, blue-and-white checkerboard number that must have been an old workshirt of his da's, and it makes him look more of a scarecrow than ever. The frayed threads have been laundered to cobweb consistency, and Lily wouldn't be surprised if magic's all that's holding them together.

The thing is – oh, the shaky eroticism of youth – it was this that made Lily aware that he hadn't got a vest on underneath. Plus the sun's hot and Sev's been running pell-mell, so his pale skin's streaked with perspiration and his chest's rising and falling just dramatically enough to telegraph the patches of shirt sticking to him. Where it's wet, the fabric nearly melts.

And he's got nipples. Well, of course he has, it's just that Lily's never thought about them before or cared to or – seen them. Or maybe she has, but not consciously like this. Not consumingly. Or the slow-trickling sheen along his neck, all fluttering hair-shadow and wet skin, and the wary blackness of his eyes, and the fact that he's a strange, fierce boy who would do just about anything for her.

Below the short sleeves, his arms betray only the shyest swell of muscle, because he's primarily a creature of straight lines and awkward angles. The bony protrusions at his wrists and elbows are like anatomical drawings. For some reason, though, it's his arms that give Lily her boldness, because they so rarely see the light of day. They make it seem like she could actually overpower him.

Her forfeit, if all had gone according to plan, would have been typically petty. Something easy for her but embarrassing for him, like gathering flowers or apologizing to Petunia. She was a good girl, after all. A nice girl. Besides, some part of her shrank from allowing Sev to glimpse anything cruel, anything forbidden about her. He'd have felt her ambivalence and turned at once with that hawkish, hopeful glare. There was this one smile he had, like super-dry kindling catching fire: smoky, flickering, creeping along the edges of his lips, a bit dazzling in its potential violence.

Especially once she'd started at Hogwarts, this sense of him floated always at the periphery of her mind: Sev as a skinny, baggy-shirted pied piper of darkness.

Lily sighs. Onscreen, she says, a bit too casually, "Got a smoke? Unless you've managed to crush the pack with your skinny arse."

Oo, daring.

She's treated to an early version of Sev's eyebrow dexterity. "Language, Evans," he drawls, and they share a smug look, as if they're actually being witty. Merlin, when teenagers aren't wrapped up in the intense, invisible drama of their lives, they're insufferably pleased with themselves.

Clearly chuffed that she's asked for something he can give, Severus sits lankily forward and digs the fags from his shirt pocket, the breeze doodling strands of hair across his downturned face. He lights a cig for her and one for himself, then hangs an arm around one drawn-up knee, flicking ash with small, economical movements. He looks content. Young Lily blows a fountain of smoke at the circle of sky. She waits sphinx-like until Severus settles onto his back again, craning his head sideways and extending a milky-smooth, unintentionally elegant arm upward to drop hot ash into a mudslick. The burnt tobacco sizzles when it hits.

Lily wonders now why she didn't just lean over and run admiring fingers up his pale biceps or kiss the exposed side of his throat. Well, of course she knows why. She didn't want to make a fool of herself. Also, thinking about Severus that way made her nervous. He wasn't really her cuppa. So she didn't do that, and yet in the next second she says:

"Ready for your forfeit?"

She waits until he adjusts to face her, head propped on the bent-back forearm that tapers to his lazily curled hand still framing the smouldering cig in two fingers. He looks relaxed, skeptical, amused, and his other hand rests unconcernedly on his stomach. He also looks surprisingly sensual, which – did she even recognise it? It was an accident, of course, Sev not knowing the first thing about flaunting himself, but she also remembers being too stuck on her own recklessness to pay proper attention.

So, no, she hadn't noticed. Silly chit.

On the blanket beside her, Tom wiggles and kicks, then starts to wail.

"Not now," she admonishes, scooping him up. She neglects to grab the blanket first and has a moment's inward cringe when his bare, peeled skin presses against her. "Getting to the best part," she whispers. "Watch, you'll see." Self-conscious but determined, she cuddles him, telling herself she has no right to be repelled, and he rewards her by blowing tiny spit-bubbles.

Onscreen, she delivers the immortal words, "Unbutton your shirt."

Lily claps a hand over her mouth, overcome with glee. Tom, startled perhaps by her clutching him so tightly, squeals in imitation. Delighted by the incongruity of it all, she laughs at his high-pitched squeaks, at her own audacity, and then again at the shocked expression on Severus's face. Dear Merlin, she can't believe she ever said that. In a funny way, she's proud of herself.

"You're joking." Sev's voice is whispery, almost ominous. The grace brought on by repose has vanished. It leaves him jagged, brittle, not someone you'd really want to touch.

"My forfeit," she tells him, doing her best to sound normal. "You lost, remember?"

He stares at her for another moment, a familiar crease appearing between his brows. Then an unfamiliar surge of pink washes in a tideline from under his shirt, up the curvature of bone, the hollow of his throat, his jaw, along his ears, to flood his face with the most comprehensive blush she's ever seen. It doesn't look charming. On the contrary, it's painful, like a rash.

"Lily." Amazing that he can make himself heard when he's barely using his voice. Especially since he has yet to acquire the nerve-tingling quality that will develop later, a resonance that still surprises her every time the adult Snape opens his mouth. "Don't make fun of me. Please."

They are still children; in another year, she'll have expelled him from her circle of friends, convinced that he's a lost cause, a rotter, a bigot. But she remembers that here, in their secret place by the sloshing, murmuring canal, she almost panicked. She wasn't ready to lose him yet. Remembers, too, how she swallowed down her shame. She would make him bend. It wasn't the forfeit. What she wanted, she realises in hindsight, was tribute.

She wants him to prove he belongs to her by taking off his shirt.

"Go on, Sev. It's not a joke."

Still staring – has he blinked at all? – Severus stubs out his cigarette in the mud and starts to sit up.

"No." Lily bars his way with her arm. Her voice betrays her, harsh, like yellow smoke. "Don't make a big production out of it. Just stay there. Lie down."

Severus lets his head fall back and rests his elbows on the ground. He shifts slightly, and the carpet of shredded, pulpy reeds crackles under him. Wrists bent – the pose reminds her of a praying mantis – he trails both hands passively along his chest until he reaches his open collar. His fingers interlace, collaborating in the act of slipping the top button through its shapeless, unstitched hole. He watches Lily the entire time, squinting slightly against the sun, but she knows better than to meet his eyes. She keeps her gaze fixed on what he's doing.

Overhead, the brilliant sky is tight and hot, shimmering blue, and the marsh spears around them throw faint green reflections on Severus's skin. Her own hair glows. They're breathing in tandem, and from her position safely on death's side of the screen, she smiles at these two serious children. Merlin, how innocent they are together. Even Severus. No, especially Severus. Because in memory he's always the monster, the snake who viciously turned and bit her, the boy who lost all claim to forgiveness. His hovering fingers are absurdly long, as his nose is absurdly prominent, the kind of bone structure that Lily associates with Renaissance paintings. By the time he grows into them, he'll be a stranger. She won't have seen him in years. For that matter, when she spurns him Severus is still very much as he appears now, a weedy adolescent. They have the same accent. They are the same height.

She sees him around school, of course, long after the Mudblood incident. But she dies before they meet again as equals. It's an odd thought. No wonder she still thinks of him as a boy.

There: Sev blinks. His fingers wander to the next button and pluck aimlessly before working it open. His intense blush has sunk into his skin like a rising tide absorbed into the sand, leaving only a high watermark of humiliation. He's on the third button now, and is starting to breathe out of sync, a pale sliver of chest quickening between the parted edges of fabric.

Teenaged Lily watches, mesmerised. Adult Lily worries the inside of her lip with her teeth.

A breeze ripples the shirt, fans a few locks of hair around young Lily's shoulders, throws some limp black strands into Severus's face. He pushes them off, then slowly seeks out the next button and toys with it, reluctant rather than flirtatious. The dried husks of the reeds scrape around them, filling their ears with papery whispers. The open hem on the buttonhole side flips up suddenly, its weightless fold caught in the teeth of the breeze. Both Lilys get a flash of dark nipple on a bony chest, a hard young nipple, and yes, he's still smooth, hairless –

Shite. What is she doing?

Lily scrambles to her feet, clutching Tom, her groin warm, her head spinning with panic. Startled from sleep, the baby whimpers in confusion, then burps and breaks into a series of squeezed-out sobs. It's more peevishness than full-out squalling. Lily hustles him to the bassinet and snugs him down, her hands a bit frantic, the thud of her pulse sending uncontrollable shivers to her fingertips. She pats and jollies him, and Tom grumbles drowsily, content to fade right back into sleep.

Calming her flutters, Lily returns to sitting on the floor. She picks up the dial, thinking, Right, that's enough of that. Turning you off now.

Onscreen, her evil teenaged self bursts out, "Honestly, Sev, you're whinging over nothing. You act as if I'm going to owl pictures of you straight to the Daily Prophet."

"You said 'unbutton,'" Severus retorts. He's finished his task, and both hands lie crosswise on his chest, weighing down his shirt against the insinuating breeze. He's being ridiculously modest. But then, in matters physical, he always was a bit of a prig. "You didn't say nothing about me pulling my clothes off so you can get a laugh off me looking like a glow-in-the-dark scrag."

Lily's eyes sting, and she frowns at the screen. Funny, isn't it, the things she remembers and the things she doesn't. Like the grumpy way Severus refers to himself, as if his unsightliness is a foregone conclusion. His grammatical slip's especially telling, because at the time he was deep in the throes of shedding his flat-cap accent.

She also spares a moment to wonder whether Sev's stomach problems contributed to his being underweight. Perhaps, as a child, he suffered from an incipient ulcer.

Her younger self says blithely, "I promise not to laugh, you paranoid git. Besides, that's the whole point of a forfeit. You just do what you're told without arguing." She pokes him in the side. "So stop arguing. It's not like I asked you to unzip."

And that's when Lily remembers what she's been suppressing: she'd had a conversation with Potter – with James – about this, after class or Quidditch practice or something. About Snivellus (his coinage) being a nasty-arsed, ninety-pound weakling with bad hygiene and horse teeth, whose only magical prowess lay in spells as freakin' ugly as he was.

Lily had been aware on some level that Potter's jabs at Sev were his way of signalling interest, of muscling in on the competition and running down a rival's masculinity. It meant he liked her. Well, it also meant he hated Severus, but then so did a lot of other people. When the hormones hit, the boys tended to behave like dogs, growling and stalking around stiff-legged, sniffing each other's arses. Potter evidently felt that, in a contest of sex appeal, he could wipe the floor with Severus. It was just one of the many reasons that Sev returned James's hatred with interest. That deadly, viperish edge was his sole advantage. If one could call it that.

James had also implied that she was slumming by hanging around with Snape. Disgracing her middle-class background or some such bollocks. The unflattering truth was, Lily had experienced an occasional twinge along these lines herself.

She'd shrugged Potter off at the time as a rude little snot, never mind he was attractive in a swell-headed fashion. He'd planted a seed, though.

That seed's flowering in front of her now. Sev's rag of a shirt is pulled open, the extra material tucked underneath him. The ends of his hair flirt up in the intermittent breeze, while Lily's streams forward in shiny red waterfalls, blowing around her sleeveless top. "Right," he says, scowling up at the gleaming blue that lies in small, pale windows across his open eyes. "Look your fill, then. Can I sit up, at least?" His lips and eyebrows share the same flat line.

She doesn't speak, just shakes her head.

"I'd really like to know what this is about, Evans." There's a moment's fragile silence, then he exhales through his nose. "For fuck's sake. At least fetch me a smoke while I lie here feeling like some carnival sideshow." He holds out an imperious hand.

"Half a sec." She doesn't chafe him for swearing, just pats the reeds until she finds the packet. She fumbles with the matches and gets her own fag drawing, puffs out a cloud of nicotine, then lights another off her tip and fits it between his first and second fingers. She always did like Sev's hands, never mind that he had a devilish time keeping his nails clean.

They smoke in silence for a moment. Sev half-closes his eyes and fakes nonchalance as Lily tilts her head over him, being obnoxiously obvious about looking. She hadn't known how else to defuse the tension. She'd promised not to treat it as a joke, but having to be serious had made her want to kiss him. She knows this, because it's what she wants now.

Finally, to break the silence, she pretends she's inhaled down the wrong pipe and produces a phony cough. "I don't know what you're so worried about. You're," and this had been the bloody hardest thing to say, harder even than naming the forfeit, "you're almost kind of beautiful, you know."

On its way to his lips, his hand pauses. After a moment, Sev lowers the cigarette, inhales around the butt, then, letting the smoke curl out of his mouth, mutters, "Don't do me any favours, Evans."

It's impossible to make clear to him what she means. Staring at the telly, Lily feels a pleasurable, guilty ache in her crotch. Cripes, she could eat him up with a spoon. Her physical interest in Severus had been piqued that day, although she'd wondered about him before. He's thin, no question, gangly and round-shouldered. But there's a purity of line, a forgiving glow of youth about his body that's fascinating, the hard, arched latticework of his ribs sloping down to where his sunken belly slides under his belt – though there's just not enough proper flesh on that to call it a belly. It's stretched milky-pale and smooth, and Lily scorns herself for not having found the courage to spread her palm right there. His whole body would have jumped at her touch, she's sure of it. The delicate, sliding ovals in his arms are echoed in the nascent curve of chest muscle, that double medallion of untouched skin. Shadows – the spoonfuls pooling like rainwater in his collarbone, the fingertip streaks along his sides – give hints of definition.

She's seen his body with Harry. She knows that it won't develop much beyond these hints; he'll never really deviate from this early blueprint of tension and neglect. The milky tenderness that shines here will fade over time. He's already set on course to become that lean shank of a man, Severus Snape, a whitened shinbone with a dark and bitter marrow. A Death Eater.

She experiences a distressing but not unexpected flash of boyish, nailbitten hand on narrow-boned torso, sudden intake of breath rounding Snape's chest upward to meet Harry's descending mouth

God, stop it, she hisses at herself. That's disgusting. That's Snape. It's one thing to regret lost opportunities when it's mere nostalgia for a boy who used to be hers. It's another to feel that deep, throbbing cello-note of lust drag harshly across her insides, until she shudders with resentment each time Harry kisses him and Severus fucking lets him

Lily watches this thought flit through her mind – through her midriff, actually, like a stabbing heat – and smashes it out of existence. Sod off.

It's pretty much impossible, after that, to ignore Sev's nipples. She's aware of them stamped dark and disturbingly present on his pale chest, small wicks in pools of wax, as if the breeze has pinched them erect. The dips and bumps of his clavicle, his bony shoulders, form a silent calligraphy that, to older Lily's eyes, spells surrender.

Banished to the wrong side of the screen, she's a witness to the offering of Severus's body. If she'd decided to stub her cigarette out on his protruding ribcage, she has a sneaking suspicion he wouldn't have stopped her.

Between her legs, now, a small, damp furnace burns. Hating herself a little, Lily presses one hand there, trying to bank the fire.

The cords in Sev's neck distend as he curves his head sideways to take a nervous puff. He hides tight-lipped behind a pantomime of smoking. And waits.

A horrible memory flares that has nothing to do with sex: wet pulse of death, darkness, the fact that she could see the bloody membrane where his throat gaped open. Her hands fly up to press the sides of her nose, which suddenly prickles with tears.

On the telly, her younger self say shrilly, "Now lie still and don't panic, all right? And don't laugh. I'm just – I'm going to listen to your heartbeat."

Marsh spears crunch as Sev's head snaps around. He starts to sit up, then hesitates and lies back without Lily needing to say a word. His eyes dart about, until they fixate on the tall, plush shaft of a bulrush overhead. Lily snorts. Talk about your ruddy phallic symbols. He thrusts his right arm all the way to the side, smoke floating up from the stub he cups in his fingers. Pretending it's no big deal, young Lily settles down sideways on the reeds, making no attempt to be graceful – yes, she's nervous, too – then carefully extends one arm and hooks it across his waist, likewise holding her cigarette out of range. Neither one of them wants to give up their only prop, the only thing keeping their hands occupied. Awkwardly, she tucks her cheek against his bare chest and then proceeds to simply lie there.

This time Lily gets to watch the full onslaught of the blush that rises from Sev's waistband and rolls inexorably upward, like the opposite of an eclipse line darkening a field. A fire line, more like. His chest glows as it passes. He shuts his eyes in obvious mortification.

And still they lie there.

Lily remembers the briny, rotting stench of algae and marsh roots simmering around them, the sun scorching her head, the strands of her hair stirring in the breeze, no doubt tickling Sev unbearably as they danced over his skin. Flies buzz onscreen. She remembers – or makes it up, it hardly matters now – how soft the skin was, stretched over his skeletal frame, how a patch of sweat glued her cheek down, how he barely dared to breathe in case it disturbed her. She could smell his sweat, the oily heat rising from his black hair, and was surprised that she didn't mind. Under her jawbone, his chest cavity echoed with the frenzied bump of his heart bouncing off every available surface.

They lie there, waiting. Lily can detect the instant a disgruntled expression creeps over her face. A lump rises in her throat, because she remembers the real significance of this moment. Or rather, realises it for the first time.

A second later, Sev's left arm twitches up. Elbow bent like a jointed doll, he lets his hand hang down, far less sure of itself than when covered in flobberworms or frog entrails. His fingertips play gently with the topmost wisps of her hair - and then, in slow motion, giving her every possible chance to shake him off, he places the full weight of his palm on her head.

They breathe in perfect harmony for a moment. When she doesn't object, Severus starts to stroke her hair, clumsily at first but with a sense of such intense cherishing that – Lily swivels her face away from the screen, because she has to deal with that blasted lump. It's trying to force unwanted emotions upon her. Swallowing, turning back, she sees herself still lying there, still waiting for Sev to – but that's all he does, just runs his long, deft fingers through her red-gold tangles, over and over, gathering up garlands of hair, teasing out the knots with a delicacy that argues a sensual temperament.

The camera rises to scan over her shoulder – she catches the puckered lips and the glum sigh that give voice to her petty disappointment – and then the focus tightens. At the time, there was no way Lily could have seen this, since she'd made sure to pillow her head in the opposite direction. She was too abashed to look him in the face. The watery reflections off the bulrushes quiver over her.

Look at him now. The dreadful second blush seems to have activated some dormant tinge of colour in his face, and his eyes are wide but no longer panicked. His lashes sweep up and down like fans, dreamily, his expression alert and at the same time entirely elsewhere. As she watches, he crooks one knee upward, and his outstretched hand brings the almost-extinguished cigarette to his lips. The lit end crackles and turns ember-bright, and Sev opens his mouth slightly, letting the smoke swim in the cup of his mouth like strands of memory. His shirt flutters at the neck. Shreds of splintered reed, pale as straw, glint in his black hair.

His other hand never leaves off petting her, sensuous and careful, asking nothing more than just this. The strain that pinches his face, so indelible that Lily has always believed him marked from birth, is gone, simply vanished.

He's – what, fourteen? His parents have been going at it hammer and tongs all summer. She thinks this may have been the year Sev started the hols with a split lip.

But here with her, he looks transfigured. He looks –

She stumbles to her feet and clicks the telly off, not even watching as the two of them collapse into a single white spot, wiped to humdrum blackness. It doesn't help. His face still glows in her mind's eye, haunting her.

Happy. That's what it was. Happiness. Lily tugs at her shirt, brushes both hands distractedly down her hips, tousles and smoothes her hair, using rapid physical movement as a delaying tactic to stave off the slow heave of sobbing that builds in her chest. She walks jerkily over to Tom's cot and bends to check on him through blurry eyes. He's asleep – well, he is until two tears splash him in the face, and then he mewls awake and fusses and gets hit on the nose by another wet drop as Lily loses the battle not to cry. The baby gasps a little and kicks and bulges his eyes at her. Then, for the first time ever, he reaches up, asking to be held. Lily scoops him from the bassinet without a second thought and cradles him in her arms, pacing back and forth and whispering, "It's all right now, sweetie, it's going to be all right," as the tears trickle down her face.

Because the thing is, that's when Sev really lost her. Not like later, when he pushed her over the edge with that despicable slur. This was the real shift in allegiance, more subtle but just as final. Because he didn't do anything. After that day it had become inevitable that she'd turn to someone else – to James Potter, as it happens – because she'd given Sev his chance and he hadn't taken it. He was so not the sort of boy her family would approve of, and she'd been so daring, and it sounds so pathetic now, but then it mattered, it mattered that he hadn't done anything.

lean body bending forward, pale and dark, narrow hands trapping Harry's head, thin lips closing over Harry's

She hadn't known, she couldn't, Merlin, who would have guessed? – that the sharp-edged, magically violent boy who followed her around and who so clearly doted on her was gay. At that age, boys who liked boys were more mythical than dragons or unicorns to her, rumoured to exist but not something she expected to encounter in daily life. Remus and Sirius – well, it had been easy to indulge them. They were cute. They were good for each other. But Severus –

A thing as simple as stroking her hair had put that look on his face. And she'd lain there, grading him, failing him, annoyed that he hadn't even tried to get a leg over – a leg she would have rejected, but still. All she'd registered was that Sev had disappointed, even insulted her somehow, and she'd missed the one and only time she'd ever seen him happy.

~~~~

Instead, she watches him die.

She tells herself she owes him that much. Even so, she cradles Tom in her lap, unable to sit through it alone.

Right, here we go. The psychotic monster, the huge snake in its sparkling cage. Severus screaming. The darkness, the loneliness, and then the miracle of Harry creeping into view. Oh God, the look in Sev's eyes when he sees him. His blood on her son's robes, red hands holding fast. The sprung leaks through which the dying man, desperate to impart his message, exudes the incriminating, absolving memories. The secretions of his soul. Numb and slow, Harry siphons Snape's terrible gift into a flask handed him by Hermione. And Snape begs. It's anybody's guess who he sees in Harry's eyes.

Harry vanishes out the door without a backward glance, leaving Snape for dead.

It's horrible and sad, and it's what happens. In war. In life. People die pointlessly, often in pain. Her own death had been horrible and sad. So had Jamie's. Having followed Harry's future – his Snapeless future – beyond this point, she knows that what Severus has given him contains his own death sentence, spoken by Dumbledore, along with a selection of memories that explain what drove Severus to this end. Drained, Lily rocks Tom in her arms and kisses the top of his head. There are things she will never understand. But as she sits on the floor with her feet in Tuney's sandals, an obscure sense of pride worms its way through the welter of pain.

Pride in the way Sev kept faith, the way Harry will shoulder his fate without breaking.

The shack is filthy, empty, dark. The black-robed body lies in its blood. She sits vigil for a long time, but nobody comes for him, not even Harry. Her insides ache. Don't they remember? Does no one grieve? As gratifying as it is on some level to see Snape suffer as he made others suffer, Lily's need for vengeance stops here. She doesn't regret now the times she's cried for him. Searching, she turns the black ring, willing the world to behave with decency.

The screen goes blank.

That's it? Troubled, Lily spins the dial further, then goes back to the body and realises, with a strange desolation, yes, this is it. Absolutely all there is.

Tom squirms, tired of lying in one place, so she lifts him up and lets him practice standing in her lap, making sure that he faces away from the telly. He bobbles his head, and she whispers, "It's your fault, you know." He blinks at her and reaches out to pat her lips. She gives his hand a soft kiss. "All," kiss, "your," kiss, "fault."

The screen goes dark again, and Lily thinks, with a jolt, wait a minute. A rush of dread dizzies her. She sits Tom down, and he starts to grizzle. Fumbling, she spins back to the sight of Severus inert and outlined in blood. Oh God, oh God. He's alive. He must be. The fact that she can see him is the proof. Until the picture winks out, and then he's dead. But only then. Sweet fucking Merlin. Blind-eyed, silent, perhaps paralyzed by snake venom, he lives on for – oh, this is unbearable, it must be hours – after Harry leaves the shack.

And no one comes for him. No one saves him. The screen shuts down to an empty black hole, and that's it, that's all there is, he dies. The world's forgotten him. From this point forward, there's nothing else.

Tom wiggles and tries to crawl over her knees, but Lily pulls him back, craving warmth, shushing him softly when he complains.

Knowing how useless it is, she wishes, oh she wishes that she could pass between worlds and hold Sev like this – the way she holds Tom – put her arms around him and cradle him gently so that he's not alone when the blackness comes.

~~~~

She spends more time with James now, ever since they quarrelled about Tom. Something happened when he pointed his wand at her. It doesn't entirely make sense to Lily, because they're edgy now, a bit on their mettle and ready to take offense with each other. When they fuck (Lily thinks 'fuck,' when she's pretty sure she used to think only 'make love' or 'have sex'), they're rougher with each other, more selfish. This is what finally clues her in: James is interested in her again because she's demonstrated that he doesn't, in fact, know everything about her. She's become a bit unpredictable, and it's put him in the habit of watching her, of vying with her over small, irrelevant things just to strike sparks.

It makes her feel slightly guilty. But, in fact, she prefers things this way.

~~~~

Lily's been circling this moment for days. Not because it's somehow worse than anything else she's spied on, here in her imaginary house in the safety beyond death. She's been closing in upon it in long, sucking swirls of emotion, following the path that water travels down a drain, as her feelings about Severus have begun to fill the pristine, perfect shape in her heart that has always represented Harry, her fears for Harry, her dreams.

She hesitates because – well, if every choice, every moment, makes one future likelier than another, what effect will her watching this have upon her son's happiness?

Snape walks free, mostly thanks to Harry grandstanding on his behalf. His own dry, detailed account of Dumbledore's strategies and his role within them makes the rounds of the Wizengamot. The public is not best pleased. The tabloids, denied an exclusive, retaliate with endless snippy little articles about Snape's character and whereabouts. He promptly dumps Spinner's End on the market and disappears.

The meagre bit of cash he realises from the sale enables him to buy a grey-stone, dilapidated cottage in the Scottish Highlands, tucked between braes where the water crashes and foams over rocks. Barren scarp felted with sheep-grazed foothills, boobytrapped in odd patches by a grimpen mire straight out of Conan Doyle (oh, the memory comes back: how her dad had loved Holmes), meet in a lee that helps to isolate and wind-break the house. A poorly-maintained track leads down to a village straggling along the trainline.

The cottage is so battered by wind and weather that, from the outside, it looks as if it hasn't seen a tenant since before Albus was born. Bittersweet grows up both sides of the door, its poisonous red berries hanging like fruit. Inside, Snape freshens the white paint above the dark wood wainscoting, and a modest hearth spits and crackles in the sitting room. In the bedroom, another grate sits piled with unlit kindling. If either is on the Floo network, Lily will eat Tuney's sandals.

It's all a bit cave-like, because the rooms are snug and the ceilings low. Lily wonders where Snape intends to brew, as she can't imagine him breaking the habits of a lifetime. But it appears there's a root cellar out back, built into the hill, and he uses wizard space to enlarge it.

Snape owns more cauldrons and decanters than he does cups and plates. His armchair, which takes a rather opinionated position at a determined angle when he deposits it in front of the fireplace, is comfy-looking if a bit tatty. His bed wins no prizes for luxuriousness, although it turns out that Sev has a charming weakness for pillows. They take up the space a bedmate would otherwise occupy, thinks Lily, and then is ashamed of herself.

Books, of course, form the bulk of his belongings. Multitudes of books, calfbound, morocco, blindstamped and slipcased, mouldering and magically venomous titles locked in iron receptacles and chained to the walls, cloth over boards in perfectly preserved dust jackets, pamphlets both recent and centuries-old, paperbacks that he stacks sideways onto shelves while handling the older volumes as if they're fabulously rare ingredients preserved in silk and cambric.

A rotted-out lambing shed on the property provides wood for a nifty bit of transfiguration; Snape makes short work of covering the walls in bookcases. He clearly has the dimensions of his collection memorized. Filling the newly designed shelves is a more leisurely pursuit. Some of the books fly to their places, propelled by an indifferent wand flick. Others, Snape excavates from a box and then wastes time puttering around the room, deciding. Occasionally, book in hand, he starts to read and ends up wandering to the armchair and sinking into it. The work of unpacking's postponed until he raises his head and yanks himself out of the private world of the printed page. Once or twice while organizing the shelves in his bedroom, he pokes his nose into one such book, gravitates to the bed, then curls over and flops down full-length on his stomach, cheek propped in one hand, reading steadily all the while and apparently unaware of his surroundings. Once, as Lily watches, enthralled against her will, he stretches out like this to read and first one, then the other, booted foot kicks into the air and remains there, waving with the rhythms of the words spiralling into his soul. When his legs cross at the ankle, robes falling in folds across his thighs, and he wedges his chin into the joined wings of his hands, reading onward through lowered lashes, Lily feels a strange flush in her cheeks and clicks off the telly before she's overwhelmed with regret.

Severus must be close to forty, yet he still surrenders to books like a ten-year-old boy.

She resumes watching, hurrying ahead until it's daylight and teatime and a knock snaps Severus out of his droopy-lidded reverie. He pushes aside a rattling cup and saucer and drops the crusts of what appears to be a mayonnaise sandwich onto a chipped plate. Fine-fingered as a marsupial, he dabbles his hands in a paper napkin and rises silently, wand drawn. Lily guesses he's stayed up most of the night, and she wouldn't be surprised if he'd added a tincture of Firewhisky to the proceedings.

Sunlight warms the floorboards. He's going to need rugs before winter sets in. When he transpares the door, she sees Harry standing on the other side, wearing Muggle togs and with a knapsack slung over his shoulders. Severus' wariness shifts into something more brittle. He hugs himself, fingers twisting at his elbows as if he's trying to unscrew bottle caps. The violence of his stare is unnerving. Then Harry knocks again at empty air, and Severus cuts off the spell, strides forward, and flings open the door.

"No soliciting," he snarls, before Harry can utter a word. A brisk wind snakes his hair into Medusa-like tendrils.

To Lily's astonishment, Harry saves his breath and merely barges into the house, a move guaranteed to get on Snape's bad side. First, though, it foils him, since he evidently expected to spend time bickering on the threshold.

"Out," he says with asperity. "For Merlin's sake, I would have thought that relocating to the arse-crack between rockfalls and quagmire would alert my pursuers to the likelihood of an untimely end. Of course, I should have remembered that rules, laws, locked doors, and personal boundaries mean nothing to – "

Harry dumps his knapsack and spells the door shut so hard it slams. "Glad to see you're feeling better," he announces, clearly determined to sweep aside the preliminaries. His colour's heightened and his hands want something to do. Lily realises why when he blurts, "Look, I'm here for a reason, so shut it and let me get to the point. You owe me a snog."

Lily waits for the riposte, but Snape, with unexpected resilience, says nothing. He merely glowers. Still bird-tracked with the sleep-marks of someone who's stayed up reading half the night and is therefore less than fresh, like a rumpled flannel spread out to dry, he strokes a finger along his lips. The hope with which Harry stares at his mouth seems to decide him.

"You're lying, Mr. Potter," he remarks. "You're not here for a kiss."

Harry gapes as he crosses the room, graceful and predatory. "If you'll allow me?" Without waiting for an answer, he unzips Harry's trousers and insinuates his long fingers under the waistband. He spreads the flat of his other hand along Harry's face, his fingers travelling from feature to feature, tracing them possessively. Harry's flustered, but his tongue snakes out and leaves a glistening trail the length of Snape's thumb.

"I shall suck the truth out of you, Potter, and you will be healed and go forth, relieved of your delusions."

Snape's legs fold under him, one hand dragging and squeezing all the way down Harry's torso, the other parting the tabs of his fly. Kneeling, he noses the slit of Harry's underpants, then hooks two fingers inside. Harry's erection more or less twangs out through the tented flaps. Oops. Lily should look away now. She doesn't, of course. Harry's cock flops forward, clubbing Snape in the face. Deftly, he catches the stubby mushroom-shaped head in his mouth, his lips drawn back to display the unnerving pinch of teeth on skin. He inhales, a long, wet hiss, not biting but doubtless sending Harry's autonomic nervous system into conniptions. Lily's not quite sure what he's doing – something with his tongue, she can tell that much, because Harry's breathing gets faster and faster. Snape's black gaze tilts devouringly up, and Lily envies Harry so much for the way Severus looks at him, brooding and evil and sexy as fuck.

Then his jaw relaxes and his mouth slides away, leaving spit all over the red tip of Harry's cock. Lily is impressed that Harry still has the presence of mind to gasp out, "I'm not sure we – this isn't how I – "

Fabric bunches on Harry's thighs as Snape tightens his grip. Lips delicate, puckered, he shapes a bite to the underside of Harry's prick, then rubs down its length, the angle of his cheek as ungentle as a cheese parer, the pressure of it clearly devastating. Harry's trousers hang open and his legs shake. Snape burrows into Harry's groin and Lily can hear the wet, doggy sounds as he licks his bollocks.

Lily's pretty certain Harry's eyes have crossed. She's absolutely certain her own legs are tied in a knot.

"I assume this is how you picture me?" Snape retreats just far enough to spit out curlicues of pubic hair. "On my knees before you, giving you what you want? Shall I skip the preliminaries and get down to the business of calling you master?" "

Eyes and nostrils dilated, Harry snaps out of his trance. "Don't," he chokes. "Don't do that. Make it ugly." Snape hooks his chin sideways, tilting and smearing his face all over Harry's jutting cock. His tongue curls out, but Harry pushes his head aside before he can lick the smear of precome. "Damn it, why don't you understand? All right, yes, I want – someone. Not just scraps from my mother's table, but someone who's mine." He tangles one hand in Snape's hair to hold him still. "And I'd – I'd do the same for you. But if the thought of giving yourself to me makes you sick, then just," he swallows, "just stop, all right?"

"Stop sucking your cock? Is that what you want? Tell me. Either way, I will oblige." Snape's hunched down as if about to pounce, every molecule in his body refusing to yield.

"Of course I want it," Harry breathes, forehead crinkled as he studies Snape's face. "More than anything. But I still don't have a clue what it is you want."

That sepulchral pallor wells up in Snape again, and it hits Lily that he's fighting his desire to give in. To give himself. This is what Sev's face looks like with the light driven from it. He's fighting the hope Harry's brought into the house, because for Severus, hope's always been a prelude to betrayal.

"What I want, Mr. Potter, is to be left alone. Beholden to no one. Cared for by no one. Remembered by no one. A kind of death in life, if that's what it takes."

Shocked, Harry lets the crimped handful of hair by which he's been steering the dark head trickle from his fist. It dangles root-like into Snape's sallow face. Smiling hatefully, Snape wraps his fingers around Harry's shaft before he can step away.

In that moment, Lily despises him with the full force of memory, of the days when she would have paid to see him suffer.

But then the camera retreats, revealing him on his knees, not graceful at all but hunted, hunched over, holding onto Harry's legs like a supplicant, someone bent into servility. He takes a deep breath and bows his head, black hair parting at the nape, and Lily sees the vulnerable bump of his vertebrae.

Oh, Sev, she thinks. If you can't even allow yourself to be touched, what was the bloody point in coming back to life?

Harry's leagues ahead of her. Voice wavering, he says, "Don't kneel to me. That's not – you've got it wrong. That's not what I want." He places a palm flat on Snape's forehead. "Snape. It's just me. I would never – for God's sake, don't kneel."

Severus tilts his head up, and for a second Lily thinks he's going to kiss Harry's hand, but he's only trying to see past it. "Ah, but I should," he says quietly. "I should kneel. I'm well aware. But if you ask it of me, I will fight you to the death."

"Tell you what, then," Harry replies, "we'll kneel together," and when she can bring herself to think about it later, Lily suspects this was the moment, for all he's cold as stone, that catches Snape unprepared; the moment, for all that he's brutally trying to protect himself, when the cliff edge crumbles underfoot and there's nothing he can do to stop himself from falling.

But it's in falling that the angel's forced to open its wings.

Once, Sev had chased after hope in the guise of a young girl who could fly. Now, a grown man who's known and dealt death, he falls for Harry, not because Harry's special, the saviour of the world, but because he lowers himself, kneels to show Severus that kneeling doesn't make him a slave.

Unknowing, Harry grips his head, straddles him, slides down and surrounds him, knees hard against his ribs. "You still owe me," he says. "Or maybe I owe you, I'm tired of keeping score." His mouth is angry, and Lily flinches in dismay as Harry bites a ragged path across Snape's cheeks. Snape allows it, and ugly marks break out on his sallow skin. There's a smear of blood at the corner of his mouth. Damn it. Lily hates seeing Harry driven to this.

Suddenly Snape rocks forward, knees bending and twisting as he staggers to his feet, Harry's limbs still pretzeled around him, the way a young monkey clamps around its mother. Severus hauls them both upright with a strength of will that startles Lily. Weaving under the extra weight, he humps Harry's centre of gravity a few inches higher, spine arched to steady himself, sways backward, then carries his armload smack into a bookcase. The rubber heels of Harry's trainers hook themselves at the top of Snape's arse, and he's going to rip out a hank of hair soon if he doesn't loosen his death grip, but Snape takes him at his word and starts kissing back. He slams the boy's tailbone against a shelf; Harry curses, his voice changing in pitch when Snape's pelvis grinds between his legs. Snape goes for his mouth with a ferocity that has Lily expecting blood to start dripping down their chins.

Harry thrashes, kicks Snape in the kidneys, and yanks away briefly. Lily hears him pant, "Don't you ever," but Snape effectively gags him by pushing his tongue back inside Harry's mouth. Their teeth scrape in an extremely unsexy way. Lily winces, and Harry starts muttering, "Don't you ever stop wanting me, you fucking arsehole. Don't you ever walk away. Don't you try to tell me it doesn't matter."

Snape bares his teeth. His face is bruised and his eyes are like the inverse of stars, piercingly black in his white face. "Stop thinking with your groin, Potter. There's no evidence that we can stand each other's company beyond a passing fuck. And mark this. I've been a possession nearly all my life, passed from hand to hand by Lily Evans and Tom Riddle and Albus Dumbledore. I will never be yours."

The litany of shame, Lily thinks, and resists the urge to go pick up Tom.

Harry won't let go, like a swimmer being rescued from drowning, the kind who pulls his rescuer down with him into the suck of the tide. "I get that," he pants. "I know, you fucking distrustful git. Get over it already. I don't want to own you, I just want – "

"Potter." It's not so much the way Snape says it as the way he rests his forehead against Harry's fringe and closes his eyes. "Stop wanting so much. It never ends well."

Harry's trainers slide to the ground. They continue clinging to each other for a moment, crowded against the bookcases. Then Snape pulls away. "Right," Harry says, swallowing repeatedly. "Right, then. Can we start over? I mean, with this visit."

Snape wipes a smear of blood from Harry's lips – his own blood, Lily supposes – then turns and walks away.

Looking panicked, Harry pulls his trousers shut and stumbles after. "You know what? Kissing you is weird."

"The feeling is entirely mutual." Snape motions the tea things off the table and sends them speeding toward the kitchen.

Checking again that his fly is secure, Harry waits for Snape to turn around, and when he doesn't, trudges over to his knapsack and swings his foot against it. "Look, just because I saved your life – you don't owe me anything."

"The same applies to you, Potter." Turning at last, Snape leans against the table and crosses his arms as if erecting a roadblock. "By which I mean, just because you saved my life, you don't have to go on trying to save it."

"Yeah, so Hermione keeps telling me."

A corner of Snape's mouth quirks. "You do realise that dragging Miss Granger into the conversation is guaranteed to send my libido screaming from the room." He reaches behind him for the paper napkin, which he presses to his bruised lips.

The word 'libido' brings Harry around like a shot. "Yeah, well, insulting my friends isn't likely to get me hard, either." His quick blush and spiky hair rather contradict that statement. He squirms a little under Snape's scrutiny.

"No insult intended, Mr. Potter." The longer the black eyes stare at Harry without blinking, the more they smoulder. "Unless you expect me to lie about the fact that I'm not the least bit interested in sucking off Miss Granger." He shudders dramatically, and Harry looks a bit green. "As to the point I was actually trying to make, the ever-intrusive Miss Granger was very recently my student. Which is a depressing reminder that so, in fact, were you."

"Not anymore," Harry says, adding fervently, "And if I have to sacrifice small animals to keep it that way, I'll do it."

"I have sacrificed small animals, Potter. You may direct your gratitude to me. But it underscores," he snorts and paces a few steps toward the bedroom door, "your extreme youth. And therein lies the rub."

Harry snickers. When Snape just looks at him, he makes a faintly obscene gesture. "You said 'rub.'"

Snape pauses in the doorway, still uncommitted. "Please do not feel obliged to demonstrate your puerility simply because I pointed it out."

Harry follows him, arguing. "Can't a bloke try to lighten the mood? Right, look at it this way. In exchange for indulging my infatuated lust, you get sex and a little protection. It's going to take a while for the Wizarding World to stop seeing you as Voldemort's lackey. So, hanging about with me would be good public relations."

Snape turns one of those serpent-eyed stares on him, as if watching a hitherto-undiscovered species of moron procreate before his eyes. "Are you really suggesting that I fuck you in order to cement my reputation within Wizarding society?" With a silent step, he leaves the threshold and enters the room, luring Harry deeper. The curtains are drawn back, and pale light falls across the unmade bed. "What kind of a fool do you take me for?"

Even Lily has to admit that Harry's common sense is of a kind rarely seen in nature, because those who possess it would quickly die off.

Her son stalks up to Snape. "I take you for the sort of inside-out Slytherin who's so sodding paranoid, he won't do what he wants precisely because he wants it. You insist on having a better reason than the simple fact that you've thought about ripping my clothes off and, uh . . . " Harry's voice fails him as he realises where they're standing.

"Very promising, Potter. Go on. And?"

"Erm, you," Harry stammers, and nervously bobs his head, "you get my drift."

"So you're not worried that engaging in wild, illicit sodomy with an unpleasant and totally inappropriate object of desire will reduce you to the world's most embarrassing cliché?"

Harry needs a second to sort out the syntax. Then he grins. "Oh, well, the fact that I'm here kind of proves I don't care what people think of me, right? And it's not a cliché if," he clears his throat, "you've never done it before." Snape smirks, and Harry edges further into the room. "Could you please say 'wild, illicit sodomy' again?"

The aura of Don't even think of touching me, imbecile that routinely emanates from Snape isn't having the desired effect. It's clear to Lily, if not to them, that their bodies aren't really all that interested in prolonging this verbal foreplay. Even their magic seems to spark at such close range, completely bypassing whatever scruples or stupid games their brains are mired in.

"Your friends will be delighted to know that you've decided on a high-risk career of banging your old potions master into a state of respectability," Snape says, removing Harry's glasses with deliberate care. "I expect that will go over like a lead Dementor."

Harry's laugh jumps half an octave. "You know bloody well that as soon as word of this gets out, my friends will practically be shitting Puffskeins."

Snape's hand returns to enclose the blush on Harry's face, with the caution he would use to test a warming cauldron. "This vulgarity's new, Potter. When did your vocabulary start branching out?" He runs a speculative thumb along Harry's lips and tugs the lower one down as if examining his teeth. His gaze is sly. "I like it."

Goggling like a stunned fish, Harry opens his mouth to respond, and Snape takes that as an invitation to slide his thumb inside. He – Merlin, he pets Harry's tongue. Intrigued, Lily sticks a finger in her own mouth and strokes the soft, slippery cushion. It's wet and it tickles. Harry makes a gurgling noise. Well, so would she, in his shoes.

With a veiled expression that implies he'd be smiling if he weren't such a monumental prick, Snape dries his wet thumb by slowly circling the pliant ring of Harry's lips. The boy's mouth looks ruddier and fuller by the time he's finished, as if he's applied lipstick instead of spit.

Harry stares at Snape. Snape keeps his lowered eyes on Harry's mouth.

"Uh." Harry sounds suddenly rather squeaky and young. "What does it take for a bloke to get you into bed?"

"Initiative," Snape purrs back, and Lily blinks in astonishment because – who the hell is this? Not the Severus she knows.

The bastard makes Harry do all the heavy lifting. Harry takes his Gryffindor courage in hand and slides it up under Snape's robes. Alert to any twitch that declares some part of him off-limits, he walks his hands up and down Snape's chest, steps closer, hooks one arm over his shoulders and one around his waist. It's awkward, but ineffably sweet. Snape pulls Harry closer, feeling his way around her son's body. With a frustrated whimper, Harry tugs at Snape in a wordless demand for kiss, now, the sound altering to accommodate the thrust of tongue as Snape bends his head and complies.

They stand wrapped around each other, backlit by high-altitude Scottish sunlight. They're entangled now, and the kiss seems to go on and on, while the pink and purple streaks of heather outside the window smudge the view with colour.

Lily cannot fathom it. Harry seems undeterred by anything: the texture of Snape's hair, the size of his nose, his pallor or his age. This is horribly wrong, but it doesn't stop them doing their damnedest to suck each other's lungs out.

After a moment, Snape leaves off trying to hump Harry standing up and growls, "Was that weird enough for you?"

"No," Harry gasps back. He's grinning, grinding himself on Snape's leg, grabbing his arse. "Not nearly weird enough. I know you're a devious bastard, you can do better than that. Come on, weird me out."

They wrestle their way to the bed. Lily is astonished by the look of exhilaration on Harry's face. He wants this. He wants Snape to push him against the wall, bite him, tear at his clothes, do everything in his power to knock him sideways to the bed. And he fights back with the same sexual ferocity. Snape has Harry's shirt off and his trousers halfway down his legs, but has yet to shed a single article of clothing. Exasperated, Harry pants a command that sucks Snape's robes from his body and flings them across the room. The bundle of black material lands atop a Craftsman lamp. The geometry of amber glass and copper piping topples, and there's a muffled crack. With an irritable flick of his fingers, Snape sends the robes flapping into the air to disentangle and rearrange contritely on a dresser.

"For every item you demolish," he snarls at Harry, "expect to pay."

"Bring it on," Harry gasps, one hand in Snape's hair, one leg trying and failing to get him in a hip-lock. "Cripes, Snape, don't tell me you want to play nice?"

Snape staggers, peels Harry off his body, and dumps him heavily on the bed. Under his robes he wears an exasperating number of layers.

"Nice," he hisses, kneeling over Harry, who hisses back at him, half-drugged with lust. "What has nice ever done for me?"

He vanishes Harry's trousers contemptuously. Lily has no idea where he sends them, because they're certainly not in the room anymore. But it's hardly the point, because Snape proceeds to bend Harry in half, pushing his knees apart and up toward his chest. The position puts a strain on Harry's inner thighs, that shallow dip between the large tendons, right below the groin. And it's to this silken hollow that Snape fastens his predator's mouth, skin tender in the ring of his teeth. He rolls and sucks, not flinching from the crude, succulent, slurping noises, his cheeks working, fluttering like gills, his eyes closed in the lascivious bliss of indulging a long-held fantasy. Saliva glistens on Harry's thigh and wets the leg band of his underpants. Harry, whose first response had been to bleat indignantly, arches his head into the pillow, fists the bedsheet, and undergoes some sort of carnal epiphany.

"Come up here," he begs hoarsely as Snape pulls back to examine the darkening bruise. In response, Snape delicately tongues the stressed skin, and Harry invents a new language on the spur of the moment, yowling bizarre syllables. Ignoring him, Snape settles back gracefully on his haunches. Like a hunting cat waiting for its prey to make a move, he gazes hungrily down at Harry, sprawled out naked except for his Y-fronts. The white cotton is pulled so taut, one could use it to make a plaster cast of his cock.

"You're still dressed," Harry whinges, as if just noticing. "That's not bloody fair."

"I take an aesthetic pleasure in contrasts," Snape retorts, reaching out to lay one enveloping palm on Harry's erection. He half-closes his eyes. "Coarse cloth rubbing on naked skin. The precise imprint of buttons. It's a pity wool trousers are too scratchy for everyday wear, because I imagine you would find this," he hooks a finger in Harry's waistband and stretches the material down below his scrotum, "interesting." With this last word, he leans forcefully over Harry, and Lily jumps, although only his crotch makes physical contact. Pushed upright on his arms, he looms over the boy, rocking his hips and watching as each stroke of sensation registers on Harry's face. The bed squeaks.

So does Harry. "Jesus." His hands tremble at Snape's buttons. He looks appallingly young and full of greed, arching his pelvis to meet each thrust. "Can't you at least take your boots off?"

"Make me," Snape whispers, and the suddenness with which the rest of the world falls away and that profound, secret accord flashes over their faces astounds Lily. Because Snape, of all people, has entered that trance where only the beloved exists; where it's possible to believe that nothing else matters.

Then Harry body-slams him, and the fight is on. They roll back and forth, constantly trading who has the upper hand. Snape's got the longer body and the erotic know-how, but Harry's like an obsessed terrier who keeps flinging himself back into the fray. Lily's impressed and a tad embarrassed by her son's singleminded frenzy. Wandless, Snape spells the mattress to widen and roll them back to the middle each time they're in danger of falling off. The extra pillows mass together to form blockades. Almost at once, the expanding bed knocks an end table over with a great crash. A book slaps the floor. Their tussle freezes momentarily, then Snape shoots Harry an evil smile, his hair in lank, unkempt tatters, and triumphantly strips him of his last scrap of modesty, dropping his pants off the side of the bed.

Harry confines himself to non-magical attacks on Snape's clothing, but it seems to be a losing battle. Severus is remarkably uncooperative about getting naked. Well, Lily could have told him that. In frustration, finally, Harry pins Snape's head to the pillow, one hand trapping the length of his hair. With his free hand, he balls up the front of Snape's shirt and wrestles with it until buttons pop away like miniature champagne corks.

The shirt rips open, and for a wonder there's no vest underneath, just Sev's slightly broader, slightly hairier, but still rather spindly sternum, with its pale skin and dark nipple, sensitive, Lily thinks, because it's standing out like a bead. And Harry goes for it, makes a mindless dive and starts licking frantically, his whole head moving up and down like an eager puppy's.

An odd shock crosses Snape's haggard features, tentative, disbelieving. And then it's as if a potion hits his system and he all but liquefies into the mattress, head bent at an awkward angle because Harry's still leaning on his hair. Harry catches the expression and shifts his weight, scrambling to get Snape's shirt entirely open as if he's pulling the wrapping from a present. Then he cups his hands over Snape's bare shoulders and gives him a little "stay there" push that makes the bed bounce. Snape's eyes follow him, but apart from that he doesn't move. Harry starts planting kisses at random, covering Snape's torso with wet spots and small bites, lingering, lapping, drawing the poison out of Snape's soul, sucking the loneliness through his skin as Snape had threatened to suck the truth from Harry's.

Lily stares at Sev's face, and her heart almost breaks. Do touch-starved people ever go mad when finally confronted with intense sensation?

Harry works his way upward, and almost bends to the disfiguring scars on Snape's throat, only to be stopped by a peremptory hand. Urged higher, he obeys, crawling up Snape's body to seal their mouths together. Snape gathers Harry to him, and they curl around each other, pressing and rocking, totally intertwined. Harry's bare leg is hooked over Snape's trousered thigh, and Snape is stroking Harry's white arse and plum-ripe bollocks with one hand, the other black-sleeved arm yoking him tight, his elegant fingers twisted in Harry's bird's-nest of hair. Harry rides Snape's sinuous body – yes, sinuous, all angles to the contrary – like a pogo stick, up and down, and they're kissing, addicted, as if kissing is their drug and they need each other's mouths to survive. When one of them breaks for air, the other waits, seductively afloat on the surface tension of a powerful sexual undertow. They lift to each other's mouths and go under time after time. Yet neither of them drowns.

As they sink deeper into their erotic rapport, Harry makes a soft sound, like a startled bird, and Lily becomes aware of a third presence in the room with them. Not fused between them, as it had seemed that night in the restaurant, a barrier as much as a conducting medium. No, it's all around them now, surrounds them, filling the air. Each clap of its wings exalts and destroys, thundering and exquisitely silent. It's the angel, invisible and undeniable, hanging over them. They've brought it into being, and Snape's bedroom rings with it, the embodiment of passion.

Lily breaks down. She doesn't know if it's the telly, if it's that filter between life and death, but she can see it so clearly even while knowing perfectly well nothing's there. As Harry buries his face in Snape's neck and spasms with release, clawing at his back, crying out, Lily weeps into her hands.

After a moment, the rocking stops, and they lie together catching their breath. Harry rests his head on Snape's shoulder, and Snape's long hand rises and crooks its way into Harry's hair, stroking gently. His shirttails hang open to both sides, and his long, sallow torso gleams. That private, impossible beauty brims in his face, tempered by time but kindled nonetheless. All it needs is a cigarette and the echo will be complete.

Lily lights one in his memory and blows smoke at the screen, not in derision, but in case the faint whiff of it reaches Severus and recalls to mind the girl he once loved.

But then Harry, clever Harry, reaches down and undoes Snape's trousers, pulling out his dark, slender erection and petting it flat against Snape's belly. "It's not necessary," Snape starts to say, but Harry only snorts, "You're having me on." Then, his voice unsteady: "Let me. Please." Snape says nothing, merely trails his hand over whatever part he encounters as Harry wiggles down, tucks his cheek against Snape's chest (Lily shivers at this scarcely endurable re-enactment), and proceeds to use Snape's nearest nipple as a counter-sensation to the hand on his cock. He makes a ring and presses Snape's rigid flesh through it, while his teeth nip and his tongue washes away the sting. When Snape squirms suddenly, Harry snickers into his chest hair. He continues pumping slowly, easily. Once or twice Snape starts to arch like a cat, clearly trying to keep himself under control. This goes on for a while, languorous, sensual, maddening, until Snape is breathing like someone who's been climbing for miles, higher and steeper. He makes a ragged sound, and Harry sits up. His hand speeds the milking.

Bare-chested, trousers plundered, Snape twists and pants and turns his face away, unable to lie still. His eyes are screwed shut, and Lily's reminded of the childish belief that closing your eyes will make you invisible. That no one can see you if you can't see them. Or in Sev's case, yourself.

"Look at me," Harry says, but Snape shakes his head. Harry straddles him and insists, "Look at me," and Snape groans, "Potter," one hand blindly outstretched. Harry grips it and says, "Right, then, hold on," and positions himself, fingers pulling the tip of Snape's cock between his arse cheeks. Snape whips his head around and starts to sit up, but too late, he falls back and wrenches Harry's hand and digs his fingers into the sheets, bucking against Harry with a shouted, "Fuck!" Semen squirts against Harry's backside, but he's squeezing the love-bite inside his thigh and staring at Snape; Snape, his knuckles white around Harry's, shaken hard in the grip of erotic imperative, bursting free of years of self-denial, with the strength of the strong man in a circus who snaps bands of iron with his bulging chest.

But this is something greater than brute strength. It's courage, and hope, and the bands around Snape's heart have been more than twenty years in the making.

Lily watches Harry cast Scourgify, watches him drag Snape's boots off and drop them on the floor. With that very Harryish combination of compassion and stubbornness, he nags Snape, who is clearly befuddled in the aftermath of a shattering experience, until Snape is picked clean of his clothing and as naked as he is. She waits until the two men fold up together, spent, and the wings of their passion, of their extraordinary good fortune, fold down around them, no brighter, but no less bright, than the late sun on the Scottish hillsides, no less real for being imperceptible.

Then she turns off the telly and lies down on the floor, thinking, What can I do? What can I possibly do? Over by the sofa, she hears a loud sniffle, and then Tom starts in wailing, the kind of sham crying that means he wants to be coddled. Lily rolls over, and there he is, standing up in his bassinet, naked and pink as a piglet. He's never done that before. When he sees her staring, his wails grow piteous.

She gets to her feet, cleans her face, takes one last drag before vanishing her cig, then goes to lift him into her arms.

~~~~

Click: Harry with his red-haired girl, dressed for his wedding, jittery with excitement.

Click: Snape and Harry arguing. Harry throws one of Snape's books. Snape throws Harry's broom out the door and tells him to go after it.

Click: Harry and his wife, curled up together, taking turns feeding their new baby.

Click: Harry bent, clutching the table. Snape fucks him from behind, his hands ceaseless in their gratitude for Harry's body, his eyes alternately bottomless with hunger and half-lidded with the immersion in a happiness that he doesn't have to remember, because it's here, now.

Click: Harry as an Auror, his robes brilliant and spells crackling with self-confidence.

Click: Harry as an Auror, his robes brilliant and spells crackling with self-confidence. Lily smirks. Apparently some things remain the same, no matter what the future holds.

Click: The growing Potter family, three kids, Harry guiding one petrified child atop a miniature broom, his Weasley wife reading out an article on the latest Holyhead Harpies match. There are plaques on the wall. Family pictures. Kitchen spells whisk and clatter in the background.

Click: Harry perched on a rock with his broom parked alongside, gazing out over stone-helmeted hills and sunshot clouds. Snape rooting about nearby, parting the clover with careful fingers, snipping herbs and harvesting strings of tiny sundrop flowers – creeping jenny, Lily's picked it herself. They're shouting casual insults at each other, warped and hurled away by the wind; Lily's resigned to the fact that it's their primary language. Then Snape, crouched beside a stand of bog myrtle, snaps off a sprig and crushes the fragrant leaves, holding them up to inhale. When he stands, the wind sluices his hair off his shoulders and flaps it behind him, while the thin sun fills his shirt with light. Inside that incandescence, his shadowy torso tapers like a stem into a vase. His pale fingers rove the red catkins of the myrtle, squeezing, assessing.

One minute Harry's face is squinty and indolent behind shimmery glasses. The next, it's a-blaze with the angel's presence. He burns up at Snape, lovestruck. Calmly uncinching the drawstring bag at his belt, Snape's about to drop the crinkle of leaves inside when an invisible wing skims over him. He starts up, suspicious. Then in a single stride he stands before Harry, looms over him, clasping his wind-chapped cheeks between stained palms.

He kneels – uh-oh, Lily thinks, wondering how much sex she can bear to watch in one go.

Snape drags Harry backward onto the grass. He doesn't disrobe but unfastens their clothing from breast to groin, opening them both up to sun and air. His white shirt struggles to take flight around his ribs – ribs like a terraced fountain, Lily sees, the descending ledges from breast to hipbone laddered and perfect. She shouldn't think this way, but she does. She doesn't care. No one will ever know. Call it payback for once finding him scrawny and insufficient.

Sunlight ricochets off Harry's glasses. He unhooks and hands them to Snape, who tosses them aside onto a slab of rock. Harry protests the cavalier treatment. He's so young like this. So bright with anticipation. Shaking out the bag, Snape rolls the herbs and flowers between his hands, then sprinkles them in clumps over Harry's bare skin. Before the wind can snatch them away, he lowers his body down upon Harry's and touches his lips to the hints of green sap streaking his face, whispering all the while. They start to move, rubbing and crushing the freshly picked leaves between them. Harry undulates hard beneath Snape as though trying to buck him off, both legs wrapped around him to make sure he stays put. A gasping sound spills from him, earthy and uninhibited, and Snape dips his head, inhaling the laughter with the same serious appreciation he'd given the scent of myrtle.

For reasons she doesn't dare examine, Lily finds it harder to bear the sight of Severus in love than of him dying. She flees to the other channel.

Click: Dark bedroom, Harry walking quietly out the door and down the stairs. He stretches out on the sofa and stares up at the ceiling. Lily's about to switch scenes, when Harry reaches down his pyjama bottoms and starts to masturbate. She changes channels quickly, but it's her first glimpse that Harry's got a private world.

Click: Snape's cottage starts out uncluttered, albeit stuffed with books. The more often Harry pops around, the more the small cosy rooms start bulging at the seams with things. At first Lily assumes it's all Harry's influence, but gradually, about the time the upright piano appears on the scene, it dawns on her that fate has brought together two men who suffered privation in childhood and have had, in their lifetimes, very little to call their own. They're starting to make up for it now, and it's not just Harry.

Quilts, magical clocks, wizarding artefacts of all kinds, racing brooms, windowbox herbariums, paintings, odd-shaped lamps, stained glass, copper pots and pans, astrolabes, maps and globes, telescopes, a self-organizing desk, a puppet theatre designed as a Quidditch field, three chess sets, and a scattering of joke gifts delivered by Weasley's Wizard Wheezes, are only some of the things that encroach upon Snape's asceticism. Snape refuses to touch the latter items, and when the owl drops them off, he makes Harry open them outside. The piano, Lily notes, is nearly identical to the one that used to reside in her mum's back parlour, just down the hall from where she's watching the telly. Snape, who seems to have devoted considerable time to a private study of Harry's breaking points, periodically drives him out of the house when he wishes to be alone through the simple expedient of playing scales. Three pages of Hanon finger exercises, and the door bangs shut. At which point, smirking, Snape either switches to practicing actual pieces of music or else gets up to apply himself to something that requires uninterrupted concentration.

Click: Lily frowns. Hang on. That nondescript gent in Muggle clothes handing money to a predatory-looking older bloke? That's Harry under Polyjuice. They go to a bar and just sit. The bloke is confused and puts pressure on Harry to rent them a room. Lily can't decide if Harry's there for himself or if he's working an undercover assignment.

She looks for evidence that Harry's cheating on his wife. She finds more scenes of him paying men to sit and have dinner with him. Once, he submits and actually pays for private lodgings. The rentboy gets as far as taking off his shirt before Harry abruptly stands up and leaves.

Harry in the middle of the night, drink in hand, levitating children's toys out of his way as he totters across an unlit room. He fetches up against the window and stares out, his breath misting the glass, his face catching the glare of a street lamp.

And yet, in daylight, Harry's jolly and comfortable with his kids, a bit of a pushover as a dad. He's affectionate with Ginny and seems to depend on her to maintain their busy public schedule.

Click: Snape naked, except for a pair of reading glasses. Harry naked, his head on Snape's chest, both of them safely tucked under blankets and a luxurious counterpane. They look sated, and their hair's in tangles, so Lily reckons she's safe from another bout of sexual athletics. A fire crackles in the hearth, and rain rattles in sharp bursts against the window. Snape's reading aloud from a book, and Lily can just make out the title on the dust jacket: The Return of the King. Under the sheets, Harry's hand lies between Snape's legs, petting contentedly. Lily reflects that she has a similar penchant as regards James. Apparently she and her son both enjoy the soft, silky feel of a limp penis. Too bad James hasn't anything like Snape's ability to invest his voice with a purring quality. Every now and then, the throaty feline monologue jumps a few notes and Snape stops reading to glare down at Harry.

Another assault on the window, rain spitting like nails. There's a draft in the room; the flame in the copper lamp flutters.

" . . the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back," Snape reads, "and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise." Closing the book on one finger, he leans back against the pillow and gazes over the rims of his glasses at the black, streaming panes. "I suppose it must be so for some. Is that how death seemed to you, Potter?"

But Harry's asleep, or perhaps just pretending.

Click: White walls, blood, the flick of wands, the flash of silver. She can't see Harry, but she hears him. She knows his voice, and that's him, screaming.

The golden ball thuds to the floor. Panicked, she scrambles after it, but not before a figure onscreen sets a knife to one of Harry's fingers. Then Lily's screaming, too, shrieking, "No!" as the blade cuts through bone. The close-up shows two stumps, two other fingers, already removed from that hand.

The finger comes off. Harry's moaning, a delirious sound, half-mad.

Trembling with horror, Lily makes the rings clash as they spin. Go forward, forward, find him. Find him healed and whole, for God's sake, don't let this be his future. Bile rises in her throat, but there, Merlin be praised, there he is, home. Harry's home, not dead, it's all right, it can't have been that bad. Look, his fingers are re-grown. Ginny's bustling about the room, packing, stopping to firecall her mum every few minutes to pass on instructions about how her daughter Lily should be treated, what toys are forbidden her, how magical creatures always follow her home, and that, no, she can't keep them.

It takes Lily a while to realise that Harry's just sitting there stirring his tea round and round, repeating over and over in a monotonous whine: "I'm sorry. I'm really sorry. I wish I could get over this. I'm sorry, Gin, you shouldn't have to babysit me while you're managing the team. I could stay behind with Ron and Hermione again, but – I'm sorry, please don't leave me. You and the kids, you're all I have. Please, I won't be a bother, I'm sure I'll be better soon – "

Ginny's been binding brooms together in pairs. Now she sits down across from him with a gusty sigh, then leans forward and ruffles his hair. "Hush, love. You're getting fussed over nothing. I'm not going anywhere without you, all right? We've got you billed as my personal assistant, so you can travel with the team and the world will be none the wiser. You've nothing to apologize for." She speaks slowly, with forced brightness, and Lily understands that she's said the exact same thing to him many times before. "I'm the one who should be sorry. And I am. I'm sorry it took the Aurors three weeks to find you, Harry. I'm sorry you had to suffer like that. We'll do our best to make this work. I promise. I promise never to leave you, do you understand?"

"Yes, of course," Harry says anxiously. "I believe you, Ginny. You're so good to me. I'm all right now, really. I promise, I'll do whatever you say. I won't act up on tour. I'll take my Dreamless Sleep every night. No one will ever know. Just, for Merlin's sake, don't leave me alone – "

Oh God.

Click: Quickly, she spins through the years. Maybe it won't happen if he's with Snape. Maybe that's why this future exists.

But then she's in the potions lab, the one embedded in the hillside. Snape's brewing with sharp, controlled motions, his face waxy and sunken-in like a shrivelled pepper, his eyes flat and calm. The cauldron smokes. As Lily watches, sickened, Snape cuts his palm open with a slash of his wand, bleeds into the black water, then pulls up his robes and urinates. In succession, he adds tears and semen. It requires the use of a Pensieve to provoke the necessary level of grief, and a certain amount of pacing and pinching to work up a willing erection, but Snape extracts both fluids with grim efficiency. Lastly, once he's reduced the substance at a rolling boil and stirred it until it separates, he summons a mirror from the far end of the room, cracks it in half, and feeds one sheet of it into the cauldron, crooning an incantation that makes Lily's nape prickle. The fragment melts. Snape times the cooling-off period with evident impatience, then skims off the silvery gelatine on the surface and – Lily grimaces tensely – drinks it down. He covers his mouth with both hands and waits out the impulse to vomit. Then, eyes watering, he picks up the second fragment of mirror and concentrates.

Within seconds, his eyes turn silver. Lily can't see what he sees, but she's pretty sure she knows what it is. Snape's hands start to shake. Soon his whole body is trembling violently, and the mirror slips from his grasp, shattering at his feet. He stands for several minutes, blind, his sockets glittering, until the silver film fades and his eyes are fully human again. Then he crosses to the utility sink, sticks his finger down his throat, and vomits up the potion. Casting Scourgify, he disposes of the evidence. To Lily he seems unsteady on his feet, but without giving himself time to recover, he Disapparates.

She expects him to reappear in the whitewashed, sterile cell of Harry's other future, but the picture shifts to the home of Harry's friends. Ron is taller, but Snape's singleness of purpose booms out, filling the room. He buttonholes Ron, snarling, "Either you come with me now or I do this alone. Going through official channels will only waste time, and Potter has no time. The wizards who kidnapped him are part of an underground market dealing in dismemberment and magical transference through cannibalism and similar atrocities. They will sell him off piece by bloody piece until nothing's left."

That's all it takes, of course. Snape grips Ron's arm and instructs, with the icy calm of the man who executed Albus Dumbledore, "Send your Patronus to the Ministry the moment we arrive. And do not be a milksop. Kill if you must."

Lily can't watch. But she can't not watch. She fast-forwards, bombarded by fragments. Snape, Stupefying the wizard standing over the bed where Harry lies shackled. Harry's left hand, spread on the bloodstained sheets, already mutilated, less one finger. Snape risking a precious second to ensure he's not otherwise damaged, getting hit broadside by a roaring Incendio. The snap of Ron's wand, the flames imploding with the sound of a burst paper bag. Snape, face murderous, pivoting in a cloud of charred and smoking robes.

Lily slows the speed to play this sequence in real time, because – well, because she wants to see Severus flatten the bastards. He sizes up the opposition, shouts, "Weasley, get the fuck out, now," and then proceeds, with a single cast, to Cruciate the lot of them.

Mass Cruciatus. Merlin, how much hatred and sheer bloody-minded power does that take? Lily really shouldn't be cheering. Because there's no doubt to whom he owes that skill.

When the Aurors arrive, three of them Stupefy Snape simultaneously, knocking him with a crash into Harry's bed. Someone else adds a Body-Bind for good measure. By that point, he's unconscious and bleeding from a head wound. A fourth summons his wand, while a back-up pair struggle to cancel the curse that has three men and one woman screaming and flailing on the floor. Ron steps forward to report, standing fast even though the Auror in charge is clearly royally steamed at this evidence of an unauthorized raid. A rogue member of her department in the company of a former Death Eater, no less. She gives Ron the stink-eye and orders that Snape be carted off with the kidnappers – "Shut up, Auror Weasley, I wouldn't give two knuts for your job at this point" – while a security contingent rushes Harry to St. Mungo's.

For gratuitous and illegal use of Unforgivables, Severus Snape is sentenced to Azkaban.

Lily's seen Snape in prison and would prefer not to repeat the experience. For the first time since discovering the number thirteen, she switches from Snape's future with Harry to Harry's with Snape. It's a subtle difference, pure superstition on Lily's part, but she's always scrupulously observed it. She regards this channel as the 'real' future, Harry as husband, father, celebrity, honourable member of Magical Law Enforcement. When she uses the black ring on channel three, it's to watch him with Ginny, to bask in the antics of the grandchildren she will never meet. Giving preference to his future with Snape threatens their very existence.

She keeps expecting a ghostly seepage from one future to another, the shriek of his children's voices calling for their dad echoing under the image of Harry flying tight laps around the countryside. When he angles his broom back to earth, he lands in Ron and Hermione's garden. Until Snape's release, he stays with his friends.

The months pass. The hills change with the seasons. The purple nightshade flowers twining around the door yield to blood-red berries. Snow whistles over the peaks, and the hills glow under a milky crust. Lily longs for a Patronus to come cantering through the moonlight, but the stars stay where they are, in the sky.

Click: She ventures back to Harry's channel, and there he is, slouched on a bench in a Hogsmeade square, with history repeating itself. Perched beside him is a young woman, a slip of a girl with red hair and green eyes. She's dressed a bit hoydenish, and her hair's cut on a slant in an asymmetrical bob. This time, there's no mistaking them for husband and wife.

"Mum sends her love," the girl remarks, and he nods, taking a small sip from a flask. Dead leaves scud around their feet.

Harry's daughter glances up, clearly impatient, in time to catch the quizzical look from a passer-by. She bestows a tiny smile, and the portly older man pauses. If he's hoping to pay his respects to The Chosen One, he's doomed to disappointment. Harry mutters, "S'not me," and the older wizard shrugs, tips his head in sympathetic farewell, then takes his leave. The camera changes angles, and Lily realises that the square is dominated by a huge animated monument to the Riddle Wars. It's cast in bronze, and the figure that represents Harry emits a constant golden light.

"If you don't want people to recognise you, you shouldn't sit here."

Harry shakes his head. "S'not me, though."

"I still think it's a good likeness." The girl's face softens. "Put your gloves on, Dad. Your hands look frozen." The camera follows her gaze, and it's true, a bluish tinge has crept through his re-grown fingers.

"I don't mind," Harry says reasonably. He waves the flask at the statue, not toasting, more in a "go away" gesture. Vapour swirls up, and he takes another quick swig, then caps it. "I wish they'd pull that bloody thing down. Can't ever get away from it." His daughter taps her wand in a bored way, and the sparse piles of leaves around the bench wad together, flap their papery wings, and start skimming and bobbing above the ground. "Don't they see? I'm not like that. Never was." A brief silence descends. Harry fetches out his wand, neat and quick in a way that shows up his daughter's ennui, and one of the leafy imposters flourishes suddenly into a fat, blinking pheasant. It chitters and explodes into flight, glorious feathers rippling. "Sorry. I dwell on that too much, don't I. How's your mum?"

"We've gone over that already," the girl whinges. "Right as rain. Still kicking arse like nobody's business." A fond smile illuminates the subtle ways in which she resembles Harry, but then it fades. "I told you, right? She sends her love."

Harry huddles down on the bench, hands tucked inside a jumper emblazoned with a Holyhead Harpies logo. "Thanks, Lils. Yeah, I heard you the first time."

The name hurts. The whole thing hurts. She can't watch any more.

Click: Snape is home, seated in his battered armchair, attenuated and sombre. There's a worn beauty about him, like the stone escarpments visible through the window, a tribute to erosion and endurance. His greasy hair's frost-blighted, and Lily wonders exactly how long he was in prison. A dressing gown puckers tight around his middle. She remembers him standing in the silvery light of his Patronus, purified, as black and white as the shadows and the snow. She wonders if he ever told Harry how he watched over him that night.

The amber light of afternoon burnishes the inlaid mahogany of the piano. The lid's been lowered over the keys; errant sunbeams show up the dust. Harry paces and rants. Snape's been home less than an hour, Lily estimates, and already they're fighting. Or anyway, Harry is. Lily blinks at the feathering of grey at his temples, the fines lines around his mouth. It wasn't a boy the kidnappers took; this Harry, with his stubble and his uncombed hair and two layers of jumpers, is forty at a guess, possibly older. Which puts Snape past sixty. It's a shock, not because her son is aging, but because it means she's been watching them together for twenty years.

Partway through Harry's list of reasons why Snape is an arsehole – reasons that include risking Ron's life, risking his own life, suffering second-degree magical burns, using a fucking massive Unforgivable that's probably crippled him for life (Lily frowns, until she realises he means Snape's magic, and then she thinks, better him than you), getting himself thrown in Azkaban for nine frigging months – Snape dozes off.

He wakes up when Harry crawls into his lap. Slowly, as if unsure whether he's dreaming, he curls one hand around Harry's leg and one in his hair. He doesn't speak. After a minute, Harry mutters, his face pressed to Snape's neck, "Can I get you anything? Is there anything at all you want?"

Snape blinks and shifts, urging Harry to budge over. "I've always been partial to blow jobs," he says, harsh and low.

"No problem. One phenomenal blow job, coming right up."

Neither one of them moves. Then Harry lifts a hand to Snape's cheek and starts smoothing his thumb back and forth along the bone. Snape closes his eyes, and Lily assumes he's fallen asleep again, but then one arm drops over the side of the chair. He gestures, frowns, waits a moment, opens his eyes, and gestures again. The armchair shudders and lurches downward, converting without grace to a rocking chair. Snape glares at his hand, clenches and straightens the fingers, then sighs and goes back to groping Harry's leg.

They rock in silence, but Harry's breathing is wet and audible. Snape remarks, "I don't think I've ever had the dubious pleasure of a blow job that consists solely of heavy breathing in my ear." He grabs a handful of hair and pulls. "Potter." Harry shakes his head, but Snape insists. He drags Harry's damp face into view and studies it, then pushes Harry's glasses up his forehead, leans over, and places his mouth on the tear tracks. He licks slowly, thoroughly, before sitting back. "As I informed Mr. Weasley and Miss Granger," he says, his voice gaining strength, "I have partaken of your blood, your semen, and your piss – "

"What?" Harry yelps. "You what? No, you're joking. Oh my God, please tell me you didn't actually say that." He groans. "Oh, fantastic. Now they're probably convinced we get off by pissing on each other in bed."

"Even you, Mr. Potter, are not squeaky clean one hundred percent of the time," Snape says snidely. "I've just added tears to the list of bodily fluids I've ingested. And believe me, you aside, I'm not in the habit of making public confessions of my sexual proclivities to former students. I wanted Auror Weasley to understand that I'd used a Dark spell to find you and that this would place him in a precarious legal position if he agreed to assist me. Apart from which, I needed to persuade them both that I knew where you were." He snorts. "Oddly, they had no trouble believing my story. Such are the perks of my reputation, that even my allies take it for granted I always have a Dark spell up my sleeve."

"I'll never be able to look Ron in the face again," Harry whinges.

"You count this a hardship? Rest assured, Potter, that if Miss Granger should ever disappear in the dead of night, Mr. Weasley will waste no time dismantling our wards and our door to demand that I instruct him in the particulars of this spell. He never even flinched, and I've no doubt he filed it away for future reference."

"Hey, that doesn't mean I'm not grateful." Harry straightens his glasses. "It's just – all right, don't get mad, but I've got to say this. If you hadn't used the Cruciatus – "

The rocking stops. Lily holds her breath.

"No," Snape says explosively. "We will not do this. Potter. For fuck's sake, I shouldn't have to explain. Not to you. You're the one who was chained to the bed, you stupid boy. They were going to cut you up for sale to the highest bidders. They intended to make a fortune by killing you as slowly and painfully as possible and auctioning the scraps. Do you have any idea how much some Dark wizards would pay for the blood and bone of the Chosen One? How much more magic inheres if the pieces are harvested while the donor's still alive?" Snape's breathing is harsh. "If you'd been missing more than the little finger of your left hand, I wouldn't have resorted to the Cruciatus. Or the Killing Curse, for that matter. I would have made their deaths an absolute agony."

Lily suspects he's spent months alone in his cell, replaying over and over what would have happened if they hadn't found Harry in time. Well, she knows what would have happened, because she's seen it.

"You forget," Snape whispers. "I am not a good man."

Harry sits up, and his lips are ruddy, his expression famished. He leans toward Snape's mouth, one hand snaking inside his dressing gown, seeking the shape of a nipple.

Snape grabs his wrist and dodges the kiss. For a moment Harry freezes, stricken, looking horrified and bewildered. "Oh – you don't – sorry, I didn't mean to – "

"Don't be an idiot," Snape says, restraining him as he tries to push out of the chair, then forcibly resettling them both. "I'm – I can't yet, Potter. I'm wound too tight. Too much sensation right now will – it will take me apart. Look." He raises one hand, and they both stare at the tremors. "I almost lost you, and it's – impossible. I'm sorry. You may think me in control, but I'm not. Until I am, until I've stripped the memories and stench of Azkaban off me, I'm," his hand tightens, and he dredges up the words from somewhere dark, somewhere he must have lain curled at the bottom of his mind during those long, silent months, "I'll only be capable of tearing at you like some ravenous beast." His voice escalates, suddenly furious. "Because they touched you, they dared to take you, and I should have cursed them straight to hell. They had no right, no right, you're mine, you belong to – "

He stops short, his body shuddering like a horse shying at the fence.

"I know," Harry says with equal intensity. "Fuck it, Severus. I had to stand by while they threw you in that filthy hole, with no guarantee that you'd ever come out again. Don't you think I feel the same way? I know."

The light in the room is suddenly muted, both luminous and dark, like the underside of a raincloud. It's that divinity between them, that sublime force perhaps only Lily can see, kindling out of nowhere. She suspects that if it were to take shape, incarnate, it would possess not merely wings, but a sword. It hovers over them, the dark side of all that is transcendent about them, merciless, terrible in its wrath.

Harry's arse has slid off Snape's legs onto the seat cushion, and they're tangled awkwardly around each other, cluttered together in an interlocking geometry of knees and elbows that looks extremely uncomfortable. At any other time, Lily suspects Snape would have had no qualms about dumping Harry off the chair. Right now she reckons it would require an Unsticking Charm to pry them off each other.

Harry uses one finger to trace the outline of Snape's lips. "Potter," Snape says repressively.

"Shut up. If you won't kiss me, then you can fucking well call me Harry, don't you think?" He's staring at Snape's throat, and for a second Lily thinks he's going to lean down and bite the long tendon, a bookend to Nagini's mark.

Snape brushes his grotesquely aquiline nose over the top of Harry's head, inhaling the smell of home. "You are always Harry," he says, violent and soft. Mimicking the finger to the lips, he pets the tense curve of Harry's mouth, and Harry engulfs the finger, sucking it in. "But it's not something I wish to bandy about, to use constantly, until it loses all significance. I prefer to save it for the right moment." Harry looks at him narrowly, still sucking, and Snape rolls his eyes, giving in. "Yes, yes, all right. Harry."

Letting go of the wet finger, Harry butts Snape's shoulder. "I'll tell you what. All these months, there's something. It's been bothering me. You being gone for so long has made me realise – my life could have been so different. Unthinkably different."

Snape gazes off over Harry's head, the tired light in his face wavering like a flame in a draft. He's afraid, Lily sees. Harry huddles down, silent, and Snape resumes rocking. "The truth is," Harry whispers, "the day Voldemort died? I almost didn't come back for you."

Snape goes still. "Or I for you." A bird on the windowsill pecks at the glass.

Harry gives a startled huff, and Snape gestures impatiently. He snaps his fingers three times before the logs in the fireplace hiss and suddenly burst into flame. "I could have – stayed. There. On the other side. Amid the green hills, just as it says in the book. With white sand, and the swings creaking in the breeze." He sighs. "Ironically, it was only in death that I realised I'd finally let go of the past. And that I wanted something I'd stopped believing I could ever have."

"What, me blowing in your ear?" Harry says, trying to smile.

"I don't know why I bother having conversations with you, Mr. Potter." Harry tightens his hold, and Snape idly rearranges his legs, tucks Harry's hand around his waist, and it's as if he's just solved the puzzle. Suddenly they fit together, nothing superfluous, arms and legs neatly intertwined. "I wanted a future."

"You really died?" Harry says, after struggling with it for a moment.

Snape frowns past him, into the fire. "I was there when your – when all those who loved you were summoned. Those who watched over you when you walked to your death."

"I didn't see you."

"You didn't call me."

Harry's head rises. His hair's sticking up all over the place, and his eyes are strangely panicky, staring at Snape. "Well, I'm calling you now. I can't, fuck, I – listen to me, I literally can't imagine what my life would have been like without you. I swear to God, Severus, if you ever try dying on me, I'm summoning you back."

Snape nudges Harry's chin up with his fingers, just enough to shape their lips together with the same sweet, uncomplicated fit as their bodies share, a promissory note for the moment when Snape can finally let go. "I heard you," he breathes. "You were my future, Harry. I heard you call me from all the way over there. From the other side. In death. I saw a white road, and you on it, ahead of me."

He kisses him again, and Harry twines his hands desperately in Snape's hair. "So," Snape closes his eyes, "I came back."

Click: Lily turns off the telly. She's seen enough.

~~~~

It's almost here. They can feel it. Dumbledore gathers them together, which makes it official.

"The time approaches," he informs them. "If I'm not mistaken, Harry will soon call us to him, and the final chapter in this tragedy will shortly begin."

Remus has crossed over, confused and mildly distraught but happy to be reunited with them all. He brings them up to date on rumours about Harry, and the battle of Hogwarts in which he lost his life. He's accompanied by a cheeky young witch who introduces herself as his wife.

"You're joking," says Sirius, looking hard at his friend.

Tonks shows them her ring. "You're Harry's mum, right? Amazing, he is." She gazes around her, frowning slightly at the sylvan landscape. City girl, Lily thinks. Maybe in the future she and this funny young witch can go exploring. "We left our lovely Teddy behind," Tonks blurts, her eyes changing colour through her tears. "I don't know what we were thinking, getting ourselves killed like that. Rotten luck all around. He's too young, our Ted, he'll never remember us." Lily hugs her, her mind flickering to Tom, before remembering she should be thinking of Harry.

Regulus tacks out of the shadows, zigzagging from one spot to another as if he might fool them into believing he's not really there. Or not interested in company, just passing through. Spotting him, Sirius jerks his head: get your arse over here. Reg's posture as he dawdles up is a study in conflicting desires. He trying to act above it all, but really, the boy's petrified with shyness. The only reason Lily can see that he's decided to break cover is that he's utterly bewitched by Tonks.

It occurs to Lily that the afterlife is getting a bit crowded.

She feels constantly nervous now, unable to settle. She holds James's hand a great deal and they smile at each other, overwhelmed by the promise of seeing their son. It seems to Lily that the very grass under her feet glows with love, that the trees sing with it, that the sunlight is composed of waves and particles of joy. The scenes on the telly shrink in her memory to a small, black dot. She pushes them to the back of her mind.

Then Albus beckons her aside and takes her hand. "I have a very great favour to ask of you, my dear. Someone is coming, and there's no one he would wish to see more, and no one who could better reconcile him to death, than you."

Lily withdraws her hand. "Severus," she says. She stands blinking, and the sunlight is suddenly only sunlight. "You mean he's dying."

"I'm afraid so," Albus says gravely. Tears sting Lily's eyes. "He has conducted himself with greater loyalty and courage than I'd any right to expect, and has paid the price. Dare I ask whether you've forgiven him enough to welcome him home?"

"I – yes," Lily says, distracted. It's over. She can't quite comprehend how that can be. The future she saw for Harry, for Severus – it will never happen now. A strange, unplaceable regret wells up in her, a feeling she associates with an almost-forgotten fairy tale. Beauty and the Beast. Yes, she remembers. As a child, she'd never understood how Beauty could break her promise like that, how she could so easily forget the Beast once she was safe, surrounded by people who were eager to assure her that the Beast had no soul. How could she leave him to die of a broken heart? It was callous. She feels a bit like that now.

"I'll go meet him. I'll be happy to." Some part of her finds the prospect terrifying. "If you'll just tell me where to find him?"

"You may choose the meeting place," Albus says. "He'll come to you. Treat him gently, my dear. He has a foot in both worlds right now, and he'll be wavering between. That's not an easy introduction to death. But then, Severus seems incapable of choosing the easy way."

"You mean to say, he's still alive?"

"I believe," Albus mutters, and then hesitates and says firmly, "Yes. But not for much longer."

"I'll go now," Lily says. "And I'll take Tom with me."

Albus has been about to turn away, toward a beckoning Grindelwald. He swings back with a startled air. "Lily. Do you think that's wise?"

"Perhaps not," she says, unnerved by his shrewd glance. "But it's right."

Albus strokes his beard before saying, "I see. Well, then. Perhaps you know better than I." His condescending tone sets her teeth on edge. Holding out his arms, he conjures the baby out of thin air. That's a bit off-putting. Tom's not a bloody elixir. And the way he's being offered? Like a sacrificial lamb. She picks him up, pats his bum gently and props his feverish head on her shoulder. Turning to go, she's swamped by sudden misgivings, and turns back. "If Harry needs me – if he arrives before I – "

Albus waves her on. "Not to worry. Wherever you are, you'll feel the call. I wager James will come to fetch you and the two of you will go together."

Abashed, Lily nods. Of course Jamie will. Stupid of her to think otherwise. She cranes her head, and James scuffs up, hands in pockets. They stand looking at each other. "Always knew you were soft on the bastard," he grumbles, and she's completely thrown until she realises he means Severus. "Sorry," he says when she shifts away, annoyed. "My nerves are about shot. It's Harry, y'see. It's the waiting. Think I'll take my broom up, fly in circles for a bit." She nods, suddenly wishing she could go with him. "Give Snivellus a kick in the bollocks when you see him, and tell him it's from me, all right?"

Lily snorts, "Go on with you," and then kisses him, glad he's not going to argue or insist on coming with. They part ways, and Lily glances back once. She sees an odd conga line forming: Sirius behind James; Remus drawn in Sirius's wake like a dog on a leash; Tonks tagging along behind Remus; and poor infatuated Regulus bringing up the rear. Shaking her head, Lily Apparates to the field, summons up her childhood home, and pushes open the door.

She hovers by the telly for a moment, wondering what she'll see if she turns it on. A dark shack, a dying man, blood everywhere. She scoops the bottle from its hiding place and stuffs it in her pocket.

~~~~

She knows exactly where to find him: standing on the hill overlooking the swings. Swathed in black, his face bony and unrevealing as a mask, he looks as if he's turned up to audition for the role of Death incarnate.

Lily climbs the hill to meet him, and Severus wheels about. His expression betrays no surprise, no wonder or peace, merely a stunned weariness. When he sees her coming, this changes – at first Lily thinks she must be reading him wrong – to something like fear.

She slows down as she gets closer. His physical presence is a shock; her senses register a stranger. She's alone on a hillside with someone she doesn't know. This sharp-boned, wary man is real, whereas the scenes she's been watching are mere images, flickers on a screen. He's taller than she expects, and the darkness of his magic is like an acrid cloud, the gristly, oily texture of his power staining the air around them. This is what Harry wants? But it's no longer her place to pass judgment. It's just that watching hours of his life onscreen hasn't prepared her for the impact.

She halts within a couple of yards of him, adjusting the blanket around Tom. After a moment, he says her name, very low, with the kind of careful warmth that makes her feel as if he's just taken her hand and squeezed it.

She inclines her head. "Severus."

He continues staring, studying her. The baby might as well not exist. "I – Lily, it's good to – " He stops, clearly unsure, then says helplessly, "You're here." He stands as if paralyzed, and she can't bear to look. She does recognise him. She'll know the moment he dies, because under her gaze he'll become young again. He'll go back as far as he has to in order to become the person she once loved. "Thank you for coming," he turns his head slowly, still bewildered by the view, "to show me the way. You're to be my gatekeeper into this world, then?"

"No. I'm not here to help you cross over." He wavers back a step, confused. Long strands of hair paint his face. She wishes she could be kinder, but in giving him a choice, she, too, must choose, and she wouldn't have brought the bottle if she hadn't already made up her mind. "I've come to convince you to go back."

His veneer of sorrow cracks. "Are you out of your – Back? To what?" For a moment his robes hang sodden with blood, a reminder of what awaits him on the other side. Then his face goes blank, and the overlap between worlds fades. "You don't want me here," he says bluntly.

"Did you think I'd welcome you with open arms?" It's not an answer, but she depends on him not being able to keep up with her motives. She turns to pick her way downhill toward the playground, knowing he'll follow. Tom stirs, and she pauses, then takes a huge chance. "Here, you carry him."

Snape looks at the sore-infested child with distaste. "I'm not good with children, you know that. Babies especially."

"You're not good with anyone. Carry him. He's partly your responsibility."

Looking annoyed enough to spit, Snape takes the child. Once Tom is in his arms, the entire hillside seems to freeze. "Dear God," he whispers.

Lily's alarmed to see the blood reappear on his robes, on his hands where they clutch Tom's blanket, on his face, whiter than bone. She keeps her voice steady. "Don't you dare drop him, or I'll see to it you're banished somewhere without human company. Imagine being alone for eternity, and think better of it."

The moment lengthens, while the wounds in Snape's throat break open and drip onto the grass. Then he closes his eyes, hitches the baby closer, and with an effort of will banishes the evidence of his mortality. His eyes, opening on Lily, are accusing. "Haven't I carried my sins long enough?"

"You have the nerve to ask me that?" She tosses her head the way she's seen the Weasley girl do with Harry. "At least now we have a chance to raise him with love. If nothing else, we can heal his sores."

He says drily, "Love's all very well, but in this case I'd recommend dittany."

"Wounds of the body, yes, thank you, I scored as high as you did in potions, Professor Swot. Dittany's wasted on wounds of the soul." Her downhill foot slithers a little in the grass. "You of all people should be aware of the difference."

They finish the descent in silence, Severus shifting the baby's position several times. At last he says, "It's like holding a part of me that I've tried to cut out with a knife."

"Well, it didn't work, did it?" They reach the edge of the playground before she allows, "He's a part of Harry, too, you know."

For a second, Snape looks desperate enough to take flight. "About the boy. I'm sorry, he's –"

"He'll be fine."

"No, you don't understand. Dumbledore – "

Lily almost stamps her foot. "You need to stop believing everything Dumbledore says!"

Tom starts to cry. Severus shifts the sobbing bundle, looking exhausted, confused, and fed up. "I don't, Lily. I never did." The bitter half-smile he turns on her drives home the fact that he's a Slytherin. He whispers, "That was never the point."

She frowns at her bare feet. "Look, let's get this out in the open right now. Do you really intend to stay here with me? Me and James and little Tommy?"

"I wasn't aware I had a – " He snorts, shakes his head slightly, pivots on one foot, and starts pacing the cement perimeter. "I assume that's an unsubtle hint that you'd prefer me to go elsewhere. Have patience, Lily. I just arrived."

Catching up, she steals a glance at his profile, his exorbitant, hooked nose, which is still the first thing you notice about him, his lank hair, the grace he never exhibited as a youth. His face is lined. She thinks distractedly: he's a man, not a boy. I never knew he would grow up.

"You mistake me," she says, using the pang she feels to sharpen the edge of her voice. "I'm just wondering why you don't make more of an effort to stay with Harry."

Startled, Snape turns. She sees a trace of alarm, the faint mottling of a blush, burn through his passivity before it fades. "Are you mad? I'm – "

" – not dead yet," she supplies with relentless impatience. "Listen to me, Sev. You could stay with him. You could live."

"Not without help," he says, breathing hard. "As you may or may not recall, we're in the middle of a war. Trust me, no one's going to come rushing out to retrieve my exsanguinated corpse."

It's said with unflinching bitterness. He believes it absolutely. Her heart aches, and she hardens it. "Rubbish. That's cowardice pure and simple. You simply want an excuse to give up."

He gives her an irritable look followed by a sharp huff that could pass, on a cold day in hell, for laughter. "Do you blame me?"

She says, quick and sharp or she won't say it at all, "I will never stop blaming you, surely you know that," and Severus tightens his arms around the whimpering child, raising Tom close to his chest like a shield. His face looks drained, more drained, considering he was already colourless and bleak when he arrived. She fears the conversation is weakening whatever hold he still has on life.

She steps off the cement and kicks sand on her way to the swings. He follows. Lily settles herself on the hot leather seat and curls her fingers around the iron links, rocking idly back and forth. Tom doesn't like the sun. His fretting grows louder, and Severus scowls.

Lily stretches her legs out. Severus doesn't even glance down at them. "You can stay here as an onlooker," Lily spells it out for him, "envying my happiness, exactly as you did when we were children." He opens his mouth to protest and she talks over him. "Or you can go back and be there for Harry. Defeating Voldemort doesn't mean he's not perfectly capable of making a hash of his life. In some ways, he's just as much of a dunderhead as you always said he was."

Slashes of scarlet light up his thin face. He retorts stiffly, "Potter has friends."

"Potter, as you call him, is over there flying around with Sirius and wondering what the bloody hell I'm doing here talking to bloody you." She can't help it; the smirk on his face at these words warms her. "As I understand it, we're discussing Harry." Severus almost turns his back on her then, and she says, "It's perfectly all right. You can call him by name in front of me."

"He has friends," Severus repeats in a rough whisper. He's bouncing the baby absently, and infant Tom is staring up, as if he recognises Snape's face. "If he," Severus hesitates, and it occurs to Lily that he genuinely has trouble saying her son's name, "if . . Harry . . survives, he'll want for nothing. He's already the golden boy, and the Wizarding World will rush to lay everything at his feet. He has no need of – "

"Bollocks," Lily sighs. "Right, you do that, you tell yourself whatever you need to in order to justify your emotional cowardice. Stay or go, it's all one to me."

"Is it?" he says, his voice strained.

"What do you think?" Then she does it. She hasn't been sure until now that she would, but she says it, point-blank: "Would I be dead if not for you?"

There's no way of knowing that, actually. If the slaughter at Godric's Hollow had never happened, Voldemort would have continued unchecked. But Lily has no interest in splitting philosophical hairs just now. She has the truth on her side and every right to say this, and nothing less than the truth will drive Snape to his knees. "I may never forgive you, Severus. But I'll bet you anything Harry will."

He stands petrified, fading and flickering like an image on her telly screen, and it terrifies her that he's alive yet, his body suspended precariously by a thread. The living suffer so terribly. Re-opening this old wound of the soul when he's dying of untreated wounds of the body may destroy him.

But there's no way they could meet again and not speak of it. Besides, it's too late to take it back.

"I've tried . . ." There's an odd, choked note in his voice, of baffled anger. "I don't know what more I can do by way of penance. Except kneel. If that's what it takes."

She recoils, even while thinking she should do it. She should make him cry out against her as he did against Harry. Once upon a time, she would have felt she had every right to force him to his knees. But she's learned by example – Harry's example – and she wants to preserve some glimmer of Sev's love for her.

"Don't be daft," she snaps, drawing lines in the sand with her toes. "I'm not exiling you from paradise or condemning you to eternal torment. I'm merely pointing out that you won't find what you want by staying here, because it's not here. You left it behind. So if you really want – " She shrugs, fearing she's talked herself into a corner. There's very little she can promise him, after all. "Look, just hang on until Harry comes for you. Because he will. And it will mean a great deal to him if you're alive."

"Yes, a lifetime in Azkaban is a very great deal. Need I spell out what that would mean to me?"

Severus moves to the swing beside her, but instead of sitting in it, he speaks a cooling charm, lowers Tom onto the seat and then places the baby's hands around the chains, fixing them in place with a spell. He circles around behind them, his robes flapping. A shadowy after-effect paints a ripple of black along the air as he passes, a symptom, perhaps, of his condition, wavering between life and death.

A second later Lily feels his long hands fit themselves to her back. It's not unexpected, but the shock of him touching her sends a jolt right to her toes. She swallows. He gives her a gentle push, then does the same for Tom.

She can't see his expression when he says, "How long do you expect me to 'hang on,' as you so tactfully put it?"

She smiles to herself. A peevish Severus is better than a tragic Severus. "As long as you can," she says, enjoying the breeze that skims through her hair like gentle fingers. "As long as absolutely necessary. You're good at that."

"I must be, since people keep rubbing my face in it," he mutters with the hint of a snarl. Lily stubs one heel in the sand and spins her seat about, the chains chattering as they cross overhead, metal grating on metal. She hadn't stopped to consider that he might be on the verge of giving her another push. Both his hands flare wide to avoid striking her face. For one second, she anticipates them settling like veils over her skin, shading her eyes from the sun, the taste of them white against her lips.

But Severus waits, his hands aloft, uncommitted either way. He'll do nothing unless she gives him permission.

She almost does. Almost invites it. Almost, because she suspects that if he were to touch her with those chill fingers – and Lily knows, despite the sun and the heat of his robes, that he'll feel cool, like clean sheets on a summer's night, because somewhere on the other side, he's dying – if he did, she might kick free of the swing, step forward against those sun-drenched, puritanical layers, and lean up for a kiss. She's pretty sure she can gauge the best angle to avoid the whole issue of duelling noses, she even vaguely remembers the reverent pressure of his thin lips, once upon a time, with the humid, rotting-plant smell rising from the canal, and then her mind flashes helplessly to Harry's hands on that lean, pale torso, because damn it, Harry's seen – will see – more of Severus's body than Lily ever did.

Because she hadn't wanted it then. It had been hers for the taking, and she'd known that and valued it accordingly, at nothing, because it already belonged to her.

The truth was, there'd been no challenge or thrill in claiming something that came unbidden to her hand, even something as wild and potentially dangerous as Severus Snape. As her Gryffindor clique, and most of Hogwarts for that matter, had taken pains to demonstrate, Snivellus was no prize even as Slytherins went.

That's all over. She's long since made her choice. Lily digs her feet into the sand and backs her swing up, so that she's standing, fists clenched around the twisted iron links.

Turned like this, the breeze tosses tendrils of hair around her face. She's aware of Severus watching, his eyes hooded. His eyes aren't actually black, but they're dark enough to fool people into thinking they are, and they dilate at the slightest sign of threat or pleasure. Lily remembers that. He was a passionate child, and somehow she doubts that's changed much.

She can't tell who's more shocked, herself or Severus, when she blurts out: "Anyway, it would never have worked out. Aren't you gay?"

He stares, and Lily catches herself treacherously hoping that his amazing technicolour blush will overrun his face. Alas, it seems to have flown with the winds of puberty, a delicious but temporary side-effect.

"I beg your pardon?" She waits him out, rocking almost insolently against the swing. He reins in the snarl and says, with slightly less violence, "What exactly do you mean by that?"

Time is so short that everything she needs to say is bound to come tumbling out in a flurry of non-sequiturs. Lily shrugs. "Would you really have married me if given the chance?"

"Yes." He doesn't hesitate.

Lily shivers with temptation. After all this time, he still sees her as magical. It would be so easy to keep him here. "You'd have married me and sacrificed your physical desires to stay with someone you had a crush on when you were nine years old?"

Merlin, you can see that broomstick ram right up his spine. He looks at her askance, and she notices that he's turned horrifically pale. One hand flies to his throat and presses, but there's no sign of blood, and she suspects the gesture has more to do with all the things he's never said aloud, all the silences that define him. "I would have been faithful, if that's what you're asking," he says, his manner stilted. "I would have loved you all my life. I've lost so much, of far greater worth, that my 'sexual preferences' hardly qualify as a sacrifice."

Harry would have something to say about that. She supposes she could only offend him more by demanding to know if he's still a virgin, but that wouldn't help her cause.

She concentrates on the flashes of memory, what she saw when she violated his privacy, the way he touched Harry, the way it transfigured them both. She thinks of Harry with his face in his hands, hungry and ashamed, and it makes her push harder.

"I saw you in the Forest of Dean, watching him," she blurts, as Severus reaches a restless hand over to nudge the baby's swing. "Did you know that Harry's Patronus is a stag?"

She's no sooner said it than a shock of dark, angry pink sprays his features. Merlin, it's amazing to see someone so sallow and grim, so starkly wedded to black and white, suffused with sudden colour, even if, in Severus's case, it means he's about to lose his temper.

"Really," he says, with an edge cutting enough to dice runespoor. They lock eyes for a charged moment. "Your point being?"

His coldness startles and dizzies her, like a billywig's sting. This is a Severus she never knew, years older than she will ever be, and she wishes now that she'd treated his adolescent attempts at dignity with the indulgence they deserved. She wishes, too, that she could explain to him how sex and love are magical on their own, unique and indescribable, but when you put the two together, it's like –

"Did you ever learn to fly?" bursts stupidly from her mouth.

Taken aback, he says, "Yes." Then his lips and shoulders tighten. "Not like you, though. It's not the same. When I do it." Funny, she can hear his accent twang through the words. "Not like when you fly. So maybe the answer's no, after all. If flying's what you do, then no, I never learned."

"That's because," she says slowly, and it doesn't matter that it makes no sense, she's saying this as much for herself as for him, "you need wings, Sev. You need someone who'll push you off the edge."

His thin body, wrapped in blackness, pulls in on itself. For the first time, Lily gets a glimpse of how disfiguringly lonely his life must be. Horcruxes aren't the only darkness capable of ripping a soul to shreds. If she could hale Severus's out of his body and spread it alongside him on the grass, it would be tattered and stained, irradiated with despair.

She shouldn't allow him within a hundred miles of Harry. But who will save the saviour if Severus dies?

"Go back," she says sharply. "Harry won't leave you."

He pales again, save for two raw, red streaks along the bones just below his eyes. They appear painful to the touch. Mortified. He's holding her with his darkest, grimmest look, almost pleading, You can't possibly know. Don't say it. Do not tell me you know.

Suddenly Lily wants to hurt him. She wants to slap him, claw him, draw blood. Because she does know. She knows he was hers. For years and years he loved her and belonged to her, and now she's lost him. To her own son. Ironic that the whole reason she's here is because, for all that he resists, Severus will go back, and she knows it, and it's up to her to make sure he doesn't leave it too late.

She thrusts the bottle at him. "Take this. Go on. You're absolutely right, I don't want you here. My heart's not that big." Later, she will take a rueful pride in having out-Slytherined the Slytherin. "But I'm sure Harry can find a use for you."

As she speaks Harry's name, she feels the surge of longing. Oh, Merlin, the summons. It's Harry's magic. His call.

Face ashen, Severus holds the bottle for a long moment, then pulls the cork. His nose wrinkles. "Dragon's blood. To put me out of my misery?"

"Don't be a git," she says. "Albus distilled this elixir, with a little help from his dear friend Grindelwald." Snape's eyebrows shoot up, and he re-corks the bottle. "He quoted you, actually. Something about putting a stopper in death." A melancholy smile, like a bird's shadow, skims his eyes, his lips, and Lily sees how one might learn to love this face. "But it's an untested stopper, so you're right, it might kill you. Or it might buy you time."

Restless, she orients herself in the direction from which Harry's call emanates.

Snape holds the elixir up to examine it. The liquid turns blood-red in reaction to the sunlight. His black hair lifts like a shawl in the breeze, and Lily fears that the wind will knock him down, dissolve him. But Merlin, she can feel the tug at her heart. She needs to go. Her son is coming.

She hurries on, "I was going to give it to Harry, but I've realised – well, I can't explain why, but he's not going to need it. He'll be fine. So – there, if you want to risk it, it's yours."

In the distance, James shouts, "Lily, it's time! Harry's summoning us, come quickly!"

"Harry's here?" Snape whispers, his eyes fierce and troubled.

"Just for a while, just passing through, so we can speak to him, tell him," and Lily hates that she's saying this to Severus's face, even if he already knows, "that we love him. That no matter what, it'll turn out all right." She babbles on, desperate to be gone, desperate not to say goodbye. "We'll stay with him so that he won't die alone. So he won't lose hope."

She turns away, scanning the rise of the hill. James is nowhere in sight. Behind her, Snape echoes, "Hope," in an angry voice and then starts to cough. Lily spins around, and he's vomiting blood into the clean white sand. Her nerves strung tight, singing with the need to fly to her son's aid, she takes a step toward him, then turns back, torn between the hill and the swings. "Sev! I'm sorry, I have to go. It's Harry."

He draws himself up, wiping his mouth, and squints beyond her at the trees, at the shimmering sky, as if he, too, can feel the summons. "I know," he says. He doesn't reach out, as if he's used to it, as if he's learned to stand back and let other people go. His cold black eyes shift from the distance to her, then down to the bottle in his hand. He thumbs it open. With no fuss at all, he drinks down the contents, as if he swallows poison every day.

"I'll – I'll see you later," Lily says, sounding callous and childish to her own ears. She's already walking backward up the hill as blood starts trickling from the corners of his mouth. She half-expects him to call after her, "Don't go," or, "I'm sorry," or worst of all, what she most wants to hear, "I love you."

He doesn't. His voice passes her, as if running on ahead. Not even, "Goodbye." The only words she can make out before they're stolen by the wind are, "Save him."

Released, she breaks into a sprint, and there's James on the crest, come to fetch her. The grass under her toes feels cool, clean. She crushes it, running, the sound of Sev's gluey cough chasing after her. It stops, but she continues her climb to the hilltop, clutching the hand James holds out to her before looking back.

Across the way, on the other side of the playground, a middle-aged woman with lank black hair and a half-buttoned cardigan stands with her arms clenched across her breasts. She leans forward, as if wanting to hide her sallow face, and Lily realises she's crying. As the woman trudges back the other way, then Disapparates mid-stride, a memory snicks into place: the bitter witch of Spinner's End.

Sev's mum. Bloody hell. She must have watched the whole thing.

He's gone, of course. Sev is gone. The empty seats of the swing are wobbling back and forth. Splashed on the white sand, a vivid red stain catches the sun.

Lily's heart throbs painfully. The swings are empty. "Tom!" She forgot. She left him. Oh, Merlin, there's no time. She stares around, disbelieving. "Tom, where are you!" She gives James a panicky look. "Oh, God. Severus didn't take him, did he?"

James shakes his head. "I can't think why he'd want to. Come on, love, we'll be late." She clutches him, still staring to all sides as if Tom might miraculously appear, and he catches her face, kissing the corner of her mouth. "Don't worry, Lil. It'll be all right." He nods encouragingly. "We're going to see Harry."

"Harry," she echoes, and suddenly everything is all right. It will be. She's seen it. She's sacrificed something that once belonged to her, set him free in the name of a greater good, and isn't that the price of a happy ending? In fairy tales, at least.

Then the veil between worlds rends, sucking them to a place in the forest where their son stands waiting with a stone in his hand.

~~~~

Lily's never been so overwhelmed with love. He glows, her son, her saviour of worlds, multi-layered, Harry now and Harry then and Harry overlapping unto infinity. She barely sees the existing boy for all the intervening selves that cling to him, ripple and flicker around him. Knowing too much, she speaks hardly at all, but walks silently with Harry toward his fate. She stands witness. They all do. There's a line of them, holding hands, and it's astounding that Voldemort is unable to detect the sheer volume of love in the room.

He's nothing like Tom.

Then a green flare bursts around Harry and he falls, already gone, and Albus with him. Sneaky devil. But Lily's learned a thing or two about stealth and cunning and the metaphysics of death. She hurls herself upon the great rush of magic that rises in their wake, and it transports her on a wave of sacrificial power, a white descent into death. All Lily wants is to be where Harry is, so that's where it takes her.

King's Cross station, really? Well, all right, it's not her place to ask. Breathless, invisible, she looks around. The emptiness is rather creepy. Tom's there, stashed naked and helpless under a bench, his small, maimed body on display. Harry keeps sneaking glances at him, but Albus says point-blank, "You cannot help him."

Tom trembles and cries, and Lily thinks, Yeah, well, I bloody well can.

She walks over to the bench and sits down to wait, confident that Harry, at least, has no idea she's there. She resists the mad urgency of her heart and leaves the baby where he is. Just for now. She'll have to settle her score with Albus later.

"Tell me one last thing," Harry says. "Is this real? Or has it all been happening inside my head?"

Albus beams; he loves questions like that. As the mist thickens, Lily rises to her feet and steps without hesitation through the glittering hole of Harry's magic. King's Cross disappears, and for a moment she's disoriented. Too slow, she thinks. Perhaps she lost him, after all. Then she emerges into the blurry, faraway land where suffering and death are more common than happiness. The land of the living.

She falls to her knees beside Harry's body. "My darling," she whispers. "My good, brave boy. I'm so proud of you, Harry. I love you so much. My dearest wish is for you to be happy. So listen carefully now. Listen, my love.

"Once you've defeated Voldemort, go back to the Shrieking Shack." She runs her fingers through his hair. "I'm sorry, I know how exhausted you must be. But Sev," she swallows, "Severus is still alive. You know that phrase about life hanging by a thread? Well, you're his thread, Harry. He trusts you to come back for him. But hope alone isn't enough to stave off death. And he's waited a long time. Longer than you know."

Harry's head stirs beneath her hand. It's time for her to go.

"He was willing to die for you, my love. Remember that. Save him if you can."

Then she's no longer crouching beside her son. He's gone, or she is. Instead, Tom lies before her on his back, naked on the grass that sweeps down to the swings. Lily blinks, haunted by the memory of Harry's shoulder twitching under her touch, the texture of his hair beneath her hand. Hollow with loss, she lifts a kicking, sobbing Tom and folds him to the empty place at her breast.

There's a whisper of fabric beside her, the shifting of feet. Albus stands over her, his face solemn. "Lily Evans Potter. What have you done?"

She squints up at him. "I'm not sure," she admits, then smiles. It's cheeky, but she feels absolutely no guilt. "If I'm not mistaken, I've just changed the future."

Albus sighs and tugs pensively on his beard. Then he removes the golden dial from his pocket and extends his other hand, helping her to rise. "Come along," he says. "We don't want to miss the final showdown." He holds his arm out. "If you'll do the honours, my dear?"

She blinks at him uncertainly, then conjures the house and precedes him up the drive and through the door. Once inside, Albus snaps his fingers for Butterbeer and biscuits, and someone knocks. Holding a freshly-swaddled Tom, Lily hurries to answer. It's the conga line: James, Sirius, Remus, Tonks, even Regulus. She stands aside, faking the role of hostess, and they all file in. James passes her with an enigmatic look. Albus spins the rings, adjusting the telly, and another knock sounds. "Door's open!" Lily shouts, and Grindelwald pokes his head through. Albus cries, "Gellert!" and ushers him in. The sitting room's crowded; they all settle and re-settle, competing for the ideal seating arrangement. Lily opts for the floor, snuggling between James's feet, Tom ensconced in her lap.

"Look, there's Harry," Tonks cries, breathless.

The room falls silent. Lily puts one hand up behind her, and James clutches it. Together they watch their son fulfil his destiny.

~~~~

The cheers have died down. Sirius has stopped whooping and beating on the sofa, Tonks has got over playing games with her hair colour and her silly-putty face, Albus of course still beams and nods like a benevolent deity, and the Butterbeer is flowing. "Haven't you got anything stronger?" Sirius barks, and Lily raises an eyebrow: "Conjure it yourself."

Someone finds her packet of fags, and Sirius and Tonks both light up. Grindelwald wanders away down the hall, and Lily hears him playing chord changes on the piano. It reminds her of Severus. The room fills with chatter and smoke, excitement ringing from wall to wall. Lily claims a place on the sofa, Tom on her lap and a bottle of Butterbeer in one hand. James joins her on one side, Albus on the other.

Then Albus claps his hands together and trumpets, "Places, please! Our young heroes have one last task to perform. Come one, come all! Gather round! There's an unexpected coda to our passion play, and I wouldn't miss it for the world."

Everyone finds a perch, and Albus turns the sound up.

Harry and his friends are ducking through the underbrush, and Lily recognises where they are at the very moment Sirius mutters, "Crikey. What is this, old re-runs of stupid mistakes?"

Remus tilts his head back on the sofa and groans. "I could happily go for all eternity without ever seeing that accursed place again."

The kids pile inside. Lily's been hoping there would be some evidence that Snape still lives, but he lies utterly unmoving, arms sprawled out, blood drying under him like a thin blanket.

"Lumos," says Harry, and leans over. Snape's mouth is slightly open, his throat gaping and clotted with blood. The only difference is that his eyes, instead of staring fixedly into permanent darkness, are closed.

"Harry!" says Hermione. "Look at this." She crouches down by Snape's limp hand, and a glassy rattling sound fixes their attention as a small bottle rolls out of his grip. She holds it to the light; there's still a streak of red on the glass.

"Tried to save himself, poor bastard." That's Ginger Chappie. Ron.

Harry waves a hand over Snape, and the wand's glow swipes back and forth, Harry's features flapping in and out of focus with an anxious, searching intensity. Snape flares into cadaverous relief, overlit and shadow-carved. Each pass of the light only accentuates how very dead he looks.

"Professor," Harry whispers, strained. The grim face utterly shuts him out. Without looking up, he says, "Give me some light here," and his friends both cast Lumos, exchanging glances as he sinks down next to the body, one knee on Snape's outspread robes and one pressed into his blood. After a second's hovering, Harry croaks, "Damn it," hunches his shoulders, and bends down, carefully pressing his face into the wet, bunched fabric that is the only thing (Lily thinks) keeping the softness of Harry's cheek from the pale skin of Snape's chest.

"My eyes, my eyes!" Sirius barks, flinging himself in mock-horror back against the sofa.

"If you cannot respect the dead," Albus says quietly, "leave the room."

"This man, you are sure he is dead?" Grindelwald leans forward, elbows on knees to peer closer and drink in the details.

The room – both rooms – are achingly silent while Harry kneels there, lying across Snape's body. His face is a pale smudge against the black of Snape's robes.

Then the camera pans in for a close-up, and Lily gasps; a quiver, like a current of water, ripples over Snape's eyelids.

A second later, his lids part, slitting open on crescents of white. The gap widens to reveal the black iris before his eyes slide shut again. When they open a second time, they stay that way, lost and unresponsive, staring up at the dim ceiling.

"Fuck," grunts Sirius.

"Cripes," breathes Ron.

"Well, that's rather unexpected," and Lily thinks that Remus deserves the Understatement of the Year award.

"What the hell's going on here?" James wants to know.

"Severus." The voice is Dumbledore's, whispering Snape's name with some deep emotion that Lily can't fathom.

Grindelwald swivels his head to give his old enemy and lover a keen and not entirely kindly smile. "You have misjudged, yes? Your friend is not ready to join you yet, it seems."

Lily watches, scarcely breathing. If she were alone, she'd be curled on the floor, almost pressed to the telly, as close as she could get to being in the shack with them. She'd be touching Severus with her fingertips, petting Harry, urging them with soft strokes. Never mind, she'll watch again later when no one's about. Fearing that any moment now she'll have to blow her nose, she strokes Tom's scabby head.

The viewpoint retreats again, and Lily swallows a suffocating wave of jealousy as a gaunt hand, smeared to the sleeve with blood, wavers upward, orients itself, then descends as slowly as in a dream, settling with unprecedented gentleness upon Harry's uncombed head.

"Um, Harry," says the girl, suppressed tears bottled in her voice. "He's – don't you think you should – "

"His heart's beating," Harry insists. "I can hear it. He's alive, Hermione, I swear!"

"Mate, she's only trying to tell you – "

"Shhh," Harry commands, burrowing deeper into Snape's clothing, and Lily suppresses an hysterical giggle.

The moment lengthens, Harry's friends standing side by side fidgeting in embarrassment as their loathsome professor cradles Harry's head to his breast and Harry stays huddled, oblivious, listening eagerly for signs of life. Then the long fingers tighten and Harry jerks upright in shock, blurting, "Shite! You're alive! Let me go!"

Dislodged, Snape's hand tumbles to Harry's shoulder, then slides listlessly down his robes and thuds to the floor.

"Potter." It's a graveyard whisper, and the children's eyes go wide in fright. Then, "Help me up."

Hermione brings out the potions and administers them. She and Ron stand back while Harry helps Snape to sit up, coughing and breathing with difficulty.

"I don't understand," Snape says, raspy and confused. "What are you doing here?"

"What do you think?" Harry says. "In case you were still – I couldn't just leave you."

Snape's face is ghastly, all sunken, glaring eyes and red-cracked lips. His resemblance to a vampire does him no favours. He frowns at the blood on his hands. Then his fingers thread through the folds of Harry's robe and spasm into a fist. "Tell me." His voice is a ragged ghost. "The Dark Lord, is he – "

"Dead," Harry says, and his face quiets. He smiles painfully. "Really dead this time." The smile widens, and offscreen there's the sound of Hermione sniffling back tears. "We won."

Snape stares into his eyes as if he can't quite believe what he's hearing or doesn't understand the words or has simply reached the end of the script he's been following all his life and hasn't the faintest idea what to do when confronted with a blank page. Instead of letting Harry go, he clenches his fingers tighter and his lips move. A small bubble of blood pops, and they recoil away from each other, Snape struggling to swallow, head turned aside. Awkwardly Harry clasps his shoulder. "Professor?"

Brows a fierce V over his closed eyes, Snape tries again. "Voldemort – gone. But you," his voice catches, which could be due to the fact that his throat is an open, draining hole, but Lily doesn't think so. "You're alive."

Harry snorts. "Yeah, sorry about that. Can't have everything."

Snape gives an abrupt, pained shake of his head, and a small gout of red leaks from his neck. Hermione says, "For God's sake, Harry, don't let him jerk about like that. The whole point is to stop him from bleeding."

Jolted by her voice, Snape gazes up aslant, hot and cold and slightly delirious; Lily's pretty sure he's blind to anything but Harry. "I didn't – " The haze clears from his eyes, and he sounds amazed. "I didn't fail you, then."

Harry's chin jerks a little, and Lily smoothes her fingers rapidly back and forth over her lips, intent on hiding the way her mouth stretches, the way her whole face grimaces with a pent-up sob.

"No." Harry clears his throat, his glasses flashing as he seeks out his friends. "No, sir. You didn't fail us."

Snape's head wobbles; it might be a nod. Then, as if he can no longer support the weight of being alive, he lowers his face and slumps like a tired child, his forehead sinking to Harry's chest. Harry blinks repeatedly and bites his lip, then slowly unclasps Snape's arm. Lily takes a deep, shaky breath and lets it out silently when Harry raises his hand and places it with great care atop Snape's black, bloodstained head.

Beside her, there's the rip of a tissue being torn from a box and the wet sound of someone blowing his nose. Glancing over, she sees Albus smiling a little, wadded tissue dabbing at his upper lip.

For a fleeting instant, Lily's reminded of her long-ago, scornful thought, about the impossibility of a unicorn ever finding a Slytherin in whose lap it might lower its dangerous head; to whose innocence it might surrender its own. It never occurred to her that she might have got it backwards, that there might be such a thing as a black unicorn, a greasy unicorn, scarred instead of sleek, a beast with yellow teeth and a history of goring its adversaries. But she's acutely conscious of the magic flowing from the screen as this bitter, dark creature bows down and lays himself entirely in her son's hands.

And she's aware, with a strange sensation, like cloth ripping inside her, that Severus doesn't belong to her anymore.

"I do so love happy endings," Albus sighs as Harry hesitantly begins stroking Snape's hair, obviously embarrassed but not letting that stop him.

It doesn't end there, of course. A great clamour breaks out on both sides of the tube. Ron's, "Ew, will you cut it out, Harry? S'enough to turn a bloke's stomach," and Hermione's, "I really don't think you ought to take liberties – " collide inside the room with the sound of Sirius gagging, Remus interjecting, "Harry's a decent chap, but he does have a tendency to go overboard," and James struggling to spit out the scandalised words, "What. The. Bleeding. Hell?"

Lily hunches over to hide her turmoil. Merlin, it hurts. It really bloody hurts, and she doesn't know why. At the same time, a deep satisfaction is spreading through her, a settled, pleasurable ache of relief that she's done something right. It's bracing to have feelings so at odds with each other, and she wonders, since Albus is sitting right there, how often he used to end up feeling this chaos of contradictory things after meddling so ruthlessly in people's lives. He was like this, too, always stacking the deck. She sneaks a quick, appraising look at him. To her utter lack of surprise, Albus is watching her. The reddened tip of his nose and creases of sorrow narrowing his eyes aren't so much approval – although they're that, too – as they are respect.

It occurs to her, with a strange, belated irritation, that she's not the only one in the room having his face rubbed in the fact that Severus is no longer, and will never again be, theirs.

They exchange wary smiles. Once Lily decides they've reached as much of an understanding as she can tolerate, she looks away.

Rocking a little, she glances down at Tom, who stares back, his wide, worried eyes studying her face. She traces his sore cheek with the pad of one finger and gives him a watery smile. To her shock, his mouth gapes open and he smiles back. There's nothing sly or powerful about it. It could be attributed to gas or an imitation of the many times she's smiled at him or it might, just might, be joy. His toothless grin is infectious, though, and it tips her squirming bundle of emotions over the line into happiness.

She focuses on the scene in front of her and realises that Harry's been murmuring to Severus the whole time, rocking him – sweet Merlin! rocking Sev – and she's completely missed what he said. Severus's face is buried in Harry's robes, and one hand grips his arm with the desperation of a penitent who expects at any moment to be torn away.

The screen goes black.

No. Oh please, no. Lily's scalp prickles and her heart turns to ice. She remembers Severus' death, remembers the black screen, and the tears she's managed not to shed start sliding down her cheeks. She reminds herself there were no guarantees. You can only postpone death for so long. But she'd thought this was Harry's channel. She'd convinced herself Severus was going to live.

Then James says, "Oops."

They all look at him. He raises his head and smiles in mock-apology. "I do believe I just broke it." The two halves of the dial lie open in his lap like a hatched egg, and the small, intricate ball of gears has fallen out. The rings lie separately, detached.

"Couldn't stand it anymore, eh, mate?" Sirius grins.

"I've seen enough." James says this with an odd defiance, looking straight at her as he does.

Lily closes her mouth abruptly on a cry of outrage and scrubs her face dry. On her other side, Albus sighs, "Ah, well. I imagine it's served its purpose. We can't sit around forever dreaming of what-ifs and if-onlys."

"Too right," says Tonks cheerfully. "Besides, Harry's a growing boy and needs his privacy, don't you think? We're dead, and he's not."

"An excellent sentiment," Albus says. "Not to mention an inarguable truth."

"Nonsense," Grindelwald roars, slinging an arm around Albus's shoulders. "I am onto you, my dear hypocrite. Never try to tell me you have not dedicated your life to disregarding inconvenient truths such as that." He grins sideways at Lily. "Mother of heroes, will you walk with us?"

In ones and twos they wander out the door until the house is empty again. Lily's the last to emerge, and she doesn't look back; she knows when the house is gone. She doubts she'll ever summon it again.

"Well," Albus says. "Little Tommy played his part to perfection, don't you think?"

"Are you mad?" Lily cries, remembering her vow to yell at Albus for his treatment of Tom at King's Cross. "Don't you ever do that to him again. That was horrible and cruel. This poor little boy already suffers enough."

"It was in Harry's best interests," Albus says, infuriatingly calm. "We had to know how strong his connection to Voldemort was. If he'd been compelled to pick up the baby, well – "

"Well, what?" says Lily, with dawning suspicion.

"We'd have known he would never entirely be free of temptation."

"Yes? Meaning that at some incalculable point in the future he'd have been in danger of going Dark?"

Albus shrugs, his face inscrutable. "No need to dwell upon it," is all he says. "Harry passed the test. He didn't allow compassion to overrule his sense of what was most important."

Lily almost boils over with the impulse to shout: Don't you dare try to remake Harry in your image! But at the same instant Grindelwald shrewdly re-directs the conversation by saying: "Your Dark Lord, he has finally crossed over, you say? Hum, very interesting. Why then, do you suppose, is this child still here? Is he not part of this larger soul?"

Albus brightens and starts to stroke his beard, gazing, not at Lily and Tom, but straight at Gellert. "That's a very good question. A very good question indeed. I've no idea how that works in death. But you're right, it appears that a fragmented soul isn't bound to reunite, even with all the scattered pieces gathered in one place. Do you know, I believe that bears looking into."

"Thank Gott," erupts Grindelwald. "I am thoroughly sick of piddling around with dragon's blood, Albus. It is enough. I am more than ready to proceed to worthier fields of enquiry, and this seems, as you English would say, just the ticket."

"Speculate all you like," Lily says. "But leave Tom out of it."

~~~~

She abandons them to their deep philosophical debate and carries Tom to the swings. On her way, she hears laughter overhead, and looks up to see James flying around in figure eights. There's a rumbling growl from the woods, and Sirius's motorcycle takes to the air, Remus clinging on fearfully behind. The bike backfires, and they surge up to intercept James, who whips about and speeds off toward the lake with Sirius in hot pursuit. Lily waves as the figures dwindle into the blue, then takes Tom by the wrist and makes him wave, too.

As the noise dies away, she steps onto the sand and sets Tom down amid the twinkling grains, pleased when he doesn't whimper. She conjures a pail and shovel for him, then props him up and says, "Now watch this, love. Someday I'll teach you how to do this, I promise."

The leather seat warms her bum. She glides back and forth, smiling at the baby, building up the rhythm, halfway imagining Severus behind her, his long hands catching, pushing, letting go. She'll always think of him now when she comes here. His footprints have silted away, and it's anybody's guess what became of his blood.

But the playground means something to her it never has before: it's the site of a past she could have had and didn't. Perhaps someone, somewhere, has clicked through the scenes of her life and witnessed a future in which she and Severus stayed together; where he turned to her in the marsh and she rolled over and her whole life changed at the look on his face. It would have meant something, surely, that happiness.

Lily pumps the air, urging the swing higher, her hair and skirt fluttering, her mouth stretched with laughter. The sky tilts and swoops, and she rears into it, driving the swing up and up. Tom flashes by, staring at her, and the sun blazes in her eyes, and she feels the perfect moment spring through her muscles. Launching into flight, she spreads her arms wide and descends in a blaze of joy, pure as one can be only in the bliss of childhood or the absolute freedom of death. The white sand rises to meet her, and she returns to the world like the feather dropped from a shining wing.

FIN.