When Lily perched on the arm of his chair in the middle of breakfast and turned her vacant gaze down from the staff table onto the swarms of children blocking the aisles, Severus knew he had taken too large a dose. He had suspected it when he'd woken with the searing fingers of pain above either temple that made him wonder if the muscles in his scalp weren't trying to tear his skull apart; the dense bleariness that had hung over him even after dragging himself out of bed, even after the very cold bath he had drawn to try to chase it away, had made him almost certain. Lily, to whom he now surrendered his armrest although she wasn't really there, was the proof.
"You look terrible, Severus." Minerva's chair slid out and she sat beside him, late to breakfast as ever, and probably early to leave.
Severus' mouth turned down at a sour angle as he surveyed the dishes arranged before him. "Good morning." The moment his fingers closed around his cup of tea, Lily's hand crashed down onto his wrist, rattling his arm and sloshing half of his tea out onto his plate. "Coffee," he muttered to the elf who appeared to mop up the mess; his cup refilled. From the corner of his eye, he could see Minerva's arched brow, Lily's face still turned, unseeing, to the Great Hall, and Dumbledore, humming quietly to himself and applying a third layer of jam to a piece of toast as though nothing had happened.
She was right – no tea. Tea would act against the toxin from the Cocculus Indicus, which was the only thing keeping his breathing from slowing dangerously. Tea would allow the mandrake to act unopposed. His lungs might shut down. He wished he could remember how much he had taken.
After filling his cup to the brim with cream, he drank his coffee – disgusting stuff – and forced himself to see through the fog of pain. What could he safely eat? No steak – meat in general was a bad idea – eggs he might be able to risk, and toast, toast would be all right. He made himself a plate, but it sat untouched. With Lily beside him, how could he turn his attention to food? He wasn't hungry. He gazed up at her stony face, wishing they could speak. She was nothing but a lingering shadow now, a waking vision rather than a dream. She couldn't be herself when she was only an after-effect of too much of the potion.
"If you're ill," came Minerva's voice, cutting through a distant ceramic clanking – his own fork shivering against the edge of his plate in his shaking hand – "we can no doubt find someone to cover your classes. Take some Valerian and go back to bed."
Severus pulled his eyes away from Lily's. Valerian would definitely kill him. "I'm fine. Only tired. Thank you." He set his fork down. There was a ghostly tingling on his scalp where Lily's fingers had been last night. Now they sat like so much dead stone on the table, and he remembered with a cold rush why he had overindulged. There had only been enough left for one night and a half, and so he had taken it all. Why he had thought it was a good idea, he couldn't say, but the fact remained he had to make more. The discomfort after a night with too much would be nothing at all compared to the agony of a night with none.
He trudged through the list of ingredients, all of which could be found in the store cupboard even if some were running a little low. There had to be some benefits to being Potions master, after all.
Cowslip, to sharpen the memory even in sleep. Mandrake, to slow the senses and to bring his dreams in hand, lucid and malleable. Cocculus Indicus, to ensure proper respiration and guard against involuntary thrashings and sleepwalking. The tincture of rain beetles, the lump of quartz, the knot of yellow dodder vine. So long as he could remember them and measure them out, his misery would pass. Tonight, after a proper dose, he would fall comfortably asleep and meet Lily in his dreams as he had for almost a year. And she would be warm, and smile, and talk with him as she used to, and he would feel her fingers like the solid flesh they were – not the cold, empty shadow that rested on his shoulder now as he ate his breakfast that tasted of nothing.
The food was like a stone in his stomach as he pushed his chair back from the table and stood. Lily faded – and for a moment he thought perhaps some of the worst had passed. But everything was turning a dull, corroded grey, his vision was being eaten from the sides, and all he could see was the place straight in front of him, quite far away, where the doors led into the entrance hall. A sharp pain erupted just above his eyebrow, and he fell into blackness.
* * *
But this was not his bed. The room was too bright for the dungeons, and there was a faint smell of dittany. He sat up, and the pain sprung up his spine, twisted into his skull and began to wander through his head like a blunt plow through soil.
There was a glass of pumpkin juice on the bedside table, which he drank immediately. It did nothing to dull the pain, but it gave him enough strength to stand. His limbs were dead, numb weight. This was not the hospital wing. His lip curled and his shoulders bowed when he realized he had fainted at breakfast, but now the sun was well above the highest of the ancient pines that made the distant forest ridge; it formed a small puddle of light at the foot of the room's one window. It was nearly noon. They should have woken him and sent him on his way; he was more than capable of working through a little weakness. He turned for the door –
And turned again, wondering not for the first time today if his mind had started to leave him. There was no door. There was a bed, a diamond-paned casement window left ajar, and the bedside table with its empty glass, a jug of water and a tiny glass bottle. A small mirror hung at eye level. Tucked behind it was a square of parchment. His wand was nowhere to be seen.
Severus peered into the mirror first, ignoring the leaden anxiety that was settling inside him. There was a small, white scar on his forehead that would likely heal within the hour. He snatched up the little bottle – dittany, as he had suspected – and replaced it, seeing no further need for it. It must have been quite a minor wound to begin with. The parchment worried him far, far more than some scratch. He pulled it away from the mirror's frame; it split open at his touch, and Dumbledore's narrow writing bled across the page.
Severus slapped the note onto the table with a curse, gritting his teeth against the stiff, flaring muscles in his back. No wand, no door, and he was expected simply to sit here and distract himself, all so that he could – rest?
Please take this opportunity to rest. I have arranged for your classes to be covered. I must apologize for my previous lack of attention to this matter, and will do so in person as soon as I possibly can. If you have need of anything, the elves will know how they may assist you. I have left the book I found beside your bed in the upper drawer here – please forgive the intrusion. I rather thought you might like a distraction.
No. He sat on the bed, staring at the quivering meniscus in the water jug, attempting to focus. His thoughts were slow, too simple, muddled first in fatigue and pain and now in the beginnings of rage. Dumbledore knew more than he had written, perhaps knew about the potion; it was almost certain that Severus had let slip some sign that could be interpreted by someone who knew how to look. And the only man who had any inkling of why he might want to spend his nights in manufactured dreams, in intoxicating memory, was Dumbledore. It was quite possible that Dumbledore knew everything, and he was sure to disapprove.
Severus understood as well as anyone that information and its distribution was a complicated, murky affair. A man might be absolutely certain that his secret was known, might in his paranoia read every innocuous word or action to mean that his discovery was imminent or already accomplished; and all the while, the world might be completely ignorant, unconcerned, free of the least suspicion that anything untoward was occurring. He had personally conquered this sort of all-consuming dread several times while the Dark Lord still lived. In each instance he had moved ahead regardless of his fears, for he'd had no other choice, and each time his fears had proved groundless.
He took some strength from that now as he pulled open the drawer and found his book, as promised. Algor's Newe Anthologie of Deathly Herbs and Their Usses was dog-eared, as he had left it, at a very old but rewardingly dense essay on the tranquilizing properties of asphodel, but was also marked with a thin scrap of paper. Severus was not surprised to see more of Dumbledore's writing spread over it when he tugged it out from between the pages.
It crumbled in his hand.
Please remember our common purpose.
The oppressive knowledge that he had been found out returned in full force. He moved to the corner of the bed nearest the window and tried for a while to calm himself by reading, but it was no use; this time the fear was tinged with resentment, and it grounded him so irretrievably in the grinding minutiae of the present that he was unable to do anything to make the time pass more quickly. If he had been discovered, what should it matter? Why should he not be allowed to spend his nights as he pleased? Had he not promised to do everything Dumbledore asked of him? It made no difference that Severus thought Dumbledore's belief that the Dark Lord would come again was more than a little far-fetched – he had promised, and he should have his due for that. If he wanted to remember Lily, to spend the time with her now that he had never had, what business was that of anyone's? It was true that there were risks – paralysis, dementia, death – should he make a mistake, but he was an excellent brewer, probably the best here. Last night he had only mistaken the dosage. It had been more a matter of judgment than of skill. He was fully capable of conducting his own affairs, and safely.
He was also quite aware of what would happen if he was not able to convince Dumbledore to let him continue as he pleased. The symptoms of that deprivation would be more terrible than he wanted to contemplate. Surely, surely there was no harm in letting him have this, letting him have her, when the alternative was so hard to bear.
By the time Dumbledore arrived, the sun had begun to set, and Severus' hands were shaking. It might have been from anxiety or from an early craving, he did not know. Sometimes the need struck him too soon in the day.
A door appeared just beside the table, and there came a gentle knock. Severus ignored it. If Dumbledore saw fit to block him in like some criminal, he could damn well walk in without permission. Severus wasn't going to invite him.
"May I come in?" Dumbledore's voice was muffled behind the thick wood of the door, but was measured with the infuriatingly even gentleness that it seemed always to bear.
Severus left his book on the bed and went to the window. The protective magic that sealed it off from the open sky shimmered very faintly, as though it had collected some of the last light of the day, but there was no heat. A breeze was blowing through. "Go away."
"I'm afraid my time – our time is rather short." So polite, always so unbearably polite. It was such a waste of time. "I had hoped to have a word with you before nightfall. If you would rather speak this way, I have no objection, although my hearing is not what it once was. If you're not terribly busy –"
"No." Terribly busy, indeed.
Dumbledore seemed to interpret this as an invitation. The door opened without a sound and shut again with a smooth click of the latch.
"I hope you are comfortable." Dumbledore remained just inside the threshold, and Severus curled his fingers around the window frame to steady his hands. "I realize that this is not ideal, and I do apologize – as I wrote to you – that it has taken me so long to address this."
"To address what?" Severus turned to him. Though his voice was glass sharp, he was careful to keep his face quite flat; he would not be tricked into a confession.
He had expected, somehow, that Dumbledore would be smiling – that the gentle, quiet expression that spoke of eternal patience would be there to meet him as it almost always was. But Dumbledore's face was grave, and there was pity in the slight furrow of his brow. "The temptation can be very great," he said after a silence, with far too much understanding. "Very great, to bring back those who have left us. But death is not a line to be crossed, Severus, and letting yourself be consumed by –"
"If you've come to accuse me of necromancy, I'm afraid you'll be disappointed. I don't know who has the time to waste in dredging up spirits." It was still possible that Dumbledore was off the mark.
The pause that followed drained his hopes, however; no accusation came, only another long look so full of knowing and sorrow that it was hard not to turn away. "Pomona covered your first lecture this morning while you were unconscious," Dumbledore said, his voice very low. "She said that quite a few of your stores are seriously depleted, considering the time of year. The cowslip is gone entirely. I think the others included –"
"I know what they are," Severus barked, turning to sneer out the window and to hide the rising color in his face. For the first time, it occurred to him that what he had been doing was stealing. The shame angered him, and he tried to shake it off. Look how much has been stolen from me, he wanted to say. He deserved all of that, and so much more, after what he had lost.
"Then you must know what you are doing is exceedingly dangerous." Dumbledore's voice was closer. "One misstep, and we might lose you forever to madness. After what's happened this morning, I must say I think it quite likely if you continue on your present course."
"That will be my business and not yours."
Dumbledore's reflection in the window moved as though he had been about to reach out for Severus' shoulder – but he stopped and spent a thoughtful moment smoothing down his impossibly long beard. "No," he said softly. "I am sorry, but I'm afraid I need your mind to stay where it is, Severus. And so will Harry, when the time comes."
Severus almost laughed. Harry – only five-years-old now, and it killed him that he knew even that much – was so far off, a mission so distant and repulsive, that to throw it in his face this way was more likely to make him jump out the window than anything else. He would keep him safe for her, but not happily; he would murder the man who had taken her life, but any joy he might have from that was so far down the line that it might as well not exist. The thought that he would give this up for Harry was beyond ridiculous.
But he couldn't laugh; he couldn't bring himself to speak at all. After what seemed like a silent, seething hour, the door closed again behind him, and he was alone.
A shudder passed through him when he let go of the window frame. His hands were trembling, too unsteady to hold a book, and he was lightheaded, in danger of weaving off his path with every tenuous step he took to find the bed again. The door had disappeared. Dumbledore could not do this to him, and yet he was – he had never meant to promise this, and yet it was being taken. He wanted to refuse, to smash his way out of the room or find some way to summon Dumbledore again and force him to deliver the potion that his body was demanding more stringently with each passing second. He needed to. But he was too slow, too stupid now to think of anything – he would take a nap first. He would refresh himself, and form a plan when his every fiber wasn't screaming at him to lie down, keep still and bundle up. It would only take an hour or so.
And so he buried himself under the bedding, forcing a pillow over his head to block out the unbearable din of the flickering torch, the trees rustling in the forest, some vermin scurrying through a distant wall. Exhausted as he was, he slept only fitfully, dragged into wakefulness by waves of nausea and strangely urgent sensations of deathly weakness. Lily was there, sometimes, standing in the corner and gazing at nothing like a monolith. Whether she visited him while he was asleep or awake, he couldn't tell, but the sight of her soothed him hardly at all. He could tell that she was slipping away from him as sure as the sun would rise again tomorrow.
* * *
Everything, everything was walled off by a pulsing, visceral pain that seemed to have no beginning and no end inside of him. It struck everywhere at once and receded again, leaving his nerves singing and his stomach heaving and pulling into knots. Any relief he might have had was shattered by the knowledge that another attack was building and there was nothing he could do to stop it. He lay staring at the ceiling with his fingers curled into the bedding like claws, or curled on his side and searching desperately for something to count, for something to occupy his mind as his knuckles whitened around the bedpost and he chewed on his lip in a doomed attempt to produce a pain that he could tolerate.
Stop. In his mind the plea rang out to every corner of the castle, but his ears were so full of the slamming rush of his own blood that he didn't know if he had spoken it aloud at all. Panic built in his restless, twisting fingers and his twitching mouth. Was he being watched? Could anyone hear him? An invisible door and Dumbledore jumbled together with eggs and spilled tea and the thin, dusty, beer-soaked smell of the Hog's Head and filthy river water in summer. The only complete thought that he could grasp for more than a few moments was one of need.
Every time he hauled himself to sitting he saw Lily standing in the corner, leaning at an unnatural angle, one arm jutting out the open window and the other sagging at her side. Even in the low torchlight the green of her eyes was unforgettably bright and clear, but her face was nothing like what it had been in life. Perhaps it was what she looked like now. Maybe this was the face that stared up into a pile of earth every night. Maybe this was what he would see if he were to pry off the lid off of –
He fell out of bed with a strangled grunt. He could not remember what he needed that wasn't her. Surely there had never been anything else?
He drew himself up on the window frame, shaking violently and trailing a twisted sheet from his ankle. With great difficulty he seized her hand, clinging as though to let go would mean a fall to his death. "Please –"
She collapsed, her joints giving way all at once, leaving her without shape, a mass on the floor he could not make sense of. Suddenly, he couldn't tell her from the pile of blankets that lay at the foot of the bed; everything was deep red or fair like skin and torchlit green, but none of it was in place. He clung to Lily or to the pile of bedding and tried not to let himself be thrown off, though the entire castle was tilting like a ship tossed among mammoth waves. His left arm split open to the bone, but still he held on, riding the agony until the moonlight gave way to gloaming and the room seemed to empty, piece by piece, of everything that did not belong. The same washed out grey that had flooded his eyes before he had lost consciousness in the Great Hall painted everything now, a life-draining absence of color; and he fell asleep.
He flexes the muscles in his shoulder, stiff from stillness, and then – so slowly his arm shudders all the way to his fingertips – he relaxes, sagging into the threadbare upholstery. He knows she's asleep because she doesn't feel it, doesn't move, just breathes on, in and out across the front of his robes where he can feel it on his neck. If she knew he was sore from sitting for so long without moving, she would get up. But maybe she does feel it; maybe she wants so badly to stay that she's willing to hurt him. He imagines the delicate scratching sounds that she must hear when he fidgets: his robe dragging across his shirt and his shirt across his skin, the new tension in his muscle that's all energy, no true sound but a force – and she'll sense it all the same.
Outside the window there are high cliffs of brick and concrete that rush by but never end. They are so close, so close to the end of everything that isn't council housing and the river and a bare cell of a bedroom.
The train stops, even though he lets every part of his body channel every power that he's ever felt, even though his will and all the magic that he knows lies waiting in him is pushing onward, anywhere, anywhere but here. She picks up her head. Her smile is shy and sleepy, and the seam of his robe is printed on her temple and the top of her cheekbone. It will be gone in a few minutes, but he smiles back. Not all of his smiles are lies, not to her, but this one is.
"Did I fall asleep on you?" she asks, looking past him out the window into the station where the sunlight is pouring in right at them, glaring off the sweeping streaks on the windows so that everything outside is white.
"It's all right," he says. "I fell asleep, too."
"Dream anything?" She stands and stretches. Her robes fall away from her wrists, and while she's yawning, she bends at the waist and whips them off over her head. Underneath, she's wearing blue jeans and a shirt with great thick purple stripes.
"Just runes. I told you I was going to have dreams, the way you kept muttering them while we were in the library."
She laughs and gets up on her toes to pull her trunk off the rack - but he has it floating down to the floor for her before she can lay hands on it.
"Do you want a ride home?" she asks, as he's pulling his robes off. He pretends not to hear as they bunch around his neck and he gives them a tug that has some of his hair standing on end. "Sev, do you want a ride home? Dad's bringing the car, and we'll stop for supper on the way."
"No, thanks." He stuffs his robes into his trunk and gives her a quick smile. His school trousers and a jumper she got him for Christmas are going to be too hot in this weather, but they look Muggle and they fit. "I'm taking the train. Mum's meeting me halfway, and we're going to see some aunt of hers in Leicester."
She's actually disappointed – her mouth twists up a little as she ties back her hair. "Well, you'll call and tell me when I can come see you, then."
She leans over the trunk that's lying between them and puts her arms around his neck. He has to lean awkwardly to hold her, hands under her shoulder blades. Just once he wants it to feel natural, just once, with nothing in between them.
"Bye, Sev," she says, turning in the compartment doorway to give him a wave. "See you soon." Her trunk follows her out into the corridor.
He stays a few minutes, until the stampede has mostly cleared out onto the platform. Then he disembarks, finds a trolley, and goes to buy a ticket to Warrington. He keeps his face down, pushing his money through the window without meeting the agent's eyes. Lily will still be outside, not so very far away, waiting in the sun on the pavement for her Dad's white Peugeot that's only two years old to come and carry her up the hill and beyond. He doesn't know when she'll go, exactly, but a long time after that he will still be waiting for the train, and the sun will drop low enough in the sky that the huge empty echoing vaults of the station will be grey, and his journey won't even have begun.
* * *
Severus sat at the table, where a chair and a tray of food had been waiting for him when he had finally awoken. His stomach still alternately rebelled and leapt at the thought of eating, but he knew he would need enough strength at least to walk across the room before he could leave. And so he ate, pushing dry toast into his mouth and drinking tea and hating himself for enjoying the taste, for having missed the smooth and pungent flavor.
Another bit of parchment lay before him untouched. The door had reappeared, but no knock had come in the hour he had been awake. He was free to go, it seemed, and yet here he sat, reluctant to leave everything behind.
After forcing himself to finish an egg, Severus took the note in hand, where it opened and spelled out its contents. Loathing and humiliation and a need to hear someone who was real battled to fill him as he read.
You were insensible when I arrived yesterday. I hope to see you well this evening – in your office, if all goes well, and here if not.
There is no greater struggle than leaving someone dear for lost. But it is here, and not in the comfort of memory, that you can do the greatest service to the dead. It is here that you may once again face her killer, and here that her son will
He stopped reading. The note fell to the table and crumbled to nothing, like so many other things had done during his timeless stay in this room. Yes, here he would serve their common purpose, although he knew that there would always be some divergence between his goal and Dumbledore's. The prize he sought would only ever be a consolation, a retribution rather than a victory. He could never seek what he truly craved. He had tried, and it had been …
It had been agony and terror beyond imagining, but he thought that perhaps someday he might think that it had been worth it, when the tips of his fingers and the depth of his stomach stopped burning at the very memory. But it was gone, as surely as he was the only breathing thing left here.
He stayed until darkness fell, feeling foolish for wanting to keep company something that had never existed, but nonetheless unable to leave until the night had stolen every last trace of that familiar red that the sunset had bled onto the sheets.