June 1980 -
The envelope was made of a creamy, expensive paper, but otherwise very plain, marked only with his name and address in brisk, neat black writing. When it arrived in the morning before breakfast he did not give it a second glance, only tossed it on the desktop, where it was soon buried under other letters and correspondence.
It was awhile before he opened his mail. The heat made him indolent. It was turning out to be an unusually fierce summer and, though it was early, the sun was already blinding yellow, pushing aggressively through the kitchen windows. Only when he had finished his eggs and was sipping the last of his tea, did he begin to sift through the morning post.
Letter from Lucius Malfoy. He knew he ought to open it immediately. It might contain some important change in tonight's plans. Lucius was always changing things. It wasn't that he was indecisive – quite the opposite. Lucius was the Dark Lord's right-hand man (holding the letter, he felt a twinge of jealousy pass through him briefly), and knew everything that went on in wizarding Britain. Lucius was careful when he planned the attacks. He had to be. But the Ministry was getting more vigilant in its investigations, and it would only get harder for the Death Eaters now that Albus Dumbledore was taking an active role. Of course, no one at the Ministry would state for certain that Dumbledore was involved in the Auror activities, but everyone knew. Who else would – or could – defend the wizarding world against the Dark Lord's army of insurgents? But it was too early to try and decipher the elaborate codes Lucius used.
Birthday card from his Aunt Isabelle. Only four months late this year – her memory was getting better.
Telegram from Slug Jiggers Apothecary in Diagon Alley, where he worked. It said not to bother coming in today. Another apprentice had spilt Exploding Fluid onto a bundle of gillyweed and the shop had been temporarily renovated into an aquarium until everyone's gills could be got rid of.
The Daily Prophet. He never read the propaganda on the front page – he was smarter than that. He only took a subscription for the sports pages. He'd been a Quidditch fanatic since he was six. Not in public, of course. It wouldn't do for him to express an overt interest in something as frivolous as flying or Quidditch. The dignified, reserved persona he had constructed around himself had higher intellectual pursuits.
One of these pursuits was not love.
Not anymore, at least.
He couldn't help it – he thought of her. Only for a moment. But suddenly it was like she was there in the kitchen with him, kneeling by his chair, her arms round his neck and her lips on his cheek –
He shook himself then, both mentally and physically; and she tumbled back into the caverns of his imagination whence she had come.
But she lingered still on the rim of his memory, and he had meant to wholly expunge her from his thoughts.
He said her name aloud, to exorcise her. But he felt a pang of embarrassment and annoyance. Although he lived alone, he made a point of not talking to himself, which in his opinion was crossing the line between solitude and eccentricity. He returned to his mail, a little shaken.
Finally the creamy envelope, with a bulge in the centre. The handwriting on the front seemed vaguely familiar, and foreign at the same time, like something he had known once and buried in secret.
He slit it open and found a cream-coloured card. As he slid it out, he noticed it was crooked in the envelope, as if it had been shoved in hastily.
The front of the card had a gilt border. A pair of linked gold rings was embossed in the centre. It did not take a Seer to figure out this was a wedding invitation.
Who did he know who was getting married? Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy had come back from their honeymoon three weeks ago, and he had only just introduced Rodolphus Lestrange to Bellatrix Black, though they had seemed to take to each other very well. It wouldn't be unlike them to marry on impulse… But they were more the eloping type of couple, not the tasteful gilt-edged embossed-invitation type.
Then he wondered why he was sitting here musing when he was holding the answer in his hands. He opened the card – but before he could look at the names, a folded-up sheaf of parchment fell out and bounced onto the floor.
He put down the card without reading it and picked up the letter, a bundle of parchments scrunched together. So this was what had made the envelope so thick. He guessed that not every invitation had contained a personal letter like his.
He unfolded the letter.
Dearest Severus, it began.
Immediately he sprang backwards, knocking over his chair, and dropped the letter as if burned. All the spit was gone from his mouth, because he knew only one person who would address a letter that way, and it wasn't Lucius.
"She can't," he said aloud, the words forming hoarsely in the dryness of his mouth. He didn't even realize he was talking to himself again. "No, it's not possible. It's a mistake."
He looked down at his feet. The pages had fallen face up.
Please don't be angry, it went on in tense, crabbed script. This is what I want. It feels strange to say it, but I love James. I'm sure of it.
"No!" he cried, but he had already fallen to his hands and knees and could not keep his eyes from following her fretful words.
I don't know exactly why I'm writing this, Lily wrote. I know you're thinking that you said all there was to say, that night we had our last face-to-face row. I think I'm writing out of guilt, for having parted on such awful terms.
"You decided them! I always let you decide!"
I should be asking for your forgiveness. I said some terrible things that night. But so did you, don't deny it.
You're probably wondering why I'm marrying him.
But you never had to wonder why I took up with him in the first place. I told you I would. It was because of you, you knew that; it was to get back at you.
"Yes, I knew."
At first that was true. Then I realized that to James it wasn't just a conquest or a fling. He really was in love with me – or whatever image he had of me in his head, at least; and he was convinced I liked him too. And then it seemed like a practical joke gone too far. I got scared. I almost told him about you.
"That wouldn't have been necessary. He already knew."
Potter hadn't known about Lily and Severus' trysts from the beginning. But one night in the Entrance Hall he had overheard them arguing, the kind of argument conducted entirely through clenched teeth that only secret lovers have. Severus hadn't seen him hiding in the shadows until it was too late; until everything hurtful they had to say had been said.
"Come on, don't do this, please, not on the night before our last OWL!"
"How can you say that? Don't you care, don't you even care what happens to me? Maybe you're just too wrapped up in your studies to spare me a thought!"
"You know I need to study to get ahead, Lily! Or is it that you don't want me to succeed? Are you jealous that I'm first in every class?"
"Oh, please! Not everything is about school, Severus! But now that you bring it up, no, I don't want you to succeed if it means you're going to join the… you know."
"The what? Can't you say it? Come on, spit it out!"
"The Death Eaters! There, I've said it and it felt putrid in my mouth."
"They're going to rule the world and you can't stop them, Lily, no matter what you think."
"You know what they do to people like me. Do you really have no problem being part of that gang of sadists and ghouls?"
"I would never let anything happen to you."
"They're going to kill all the Muggle-borns and you can't stop them, Severus, no matter what you say. One day it will come down to the two of us, I can feel it. We're at the crux of this war."
"But how do you know? How could you possibly know?"
"Maybe I don't. Not for certain. But sometimes it feels that way, like there's nothing in the world more important than the two of us, like…"
"Like we could change the world?" His tone was faintly sarcastic and she did not deign to answer.
"I don't know how we're going to stay together," he said. "We're barely surviving as it is."
"Don't you have any faith? Don't you believe in us?"
"No. Yes. I- I don't know."
"I'm sorry, Lily, there are some questions I don't know the answers to!"
"This isn't a test!"
"Maybe we shouldn't even try to stay together then," she said softly. "We should just give up now."
"You're the one who said you don't believe we can survive!"
"I didn't mean we should break up!"
"I think you did. Maybe you're right. After all, how could a pureblood Death Eater and a Mudblood Auror ever be together? It's a logical impossibility."
"Lily, you're being deliberately obtuse!"
"Severus, if you can talk about throwing in the towel, so can I."
"Are you really giving in this easily? Is there anything else I should know? Extraneous factors, perhaps?"
"What on earth are you talking about?"
"Lily, I don't know why you wanted this in the first place. All I've got is intelligence-"
"-and so I'm smart enough to realize I leave something to be desired in the departments of looks and charm."
"Let me talk, for God's sake! I'm trying to tell you I understand why you're so eager to find an excuse to leave me. You're clever and kind and more talented than any pureblood witch, and I know you know that when you enter a room, heads turn."
"You're talking rubbish!"
"Come on Lily, don't tell me I'm the only one who knew from the beginning that you were too good for me!"
"I'm saying nothing of the sort."
"So you admit I don't deserve you."
"Severus, why are you doing this?"
"I can see how badly you want to leave me for someone better. I'm just trying to help you with an excu-"
"Hold it! 'Someone better?' There is no one in the world better than you."
"Not even King Potter, who's liked you forever?"
"Not again, for God's sake! I've told you a hundred times, I hate James Potter!"
"Don't lie to me."
"Now who's being obtuse? I'm not lying now, I never lied to you before, and I'm definitely not going to just to feed your ludicrous obsessions."
"Yes, Severus. You're obsessed! I'm not a fan of Potter either, but I can assure you, he's not trying to humiliate you, or upstage you, or out to get you in any way!"
"Sure, side with your Gryffindor chum!"
Lily threw her hands in the air in frustration. "This is so stupid! Why do we have to go through this every day?"
"Because he wants to take you away from me."
She sighed crossly. "Maybe I should date Potter if you're going to be like this, you bastard. Just to show you a lesson."
"Aha! So you would date him!"
"No! Severus, I swear to you I would not go to him for a million pounds."
"What are you now, a whore?"
When Severus was seven he had learned to fly on a broomstick. Once he had been flying through a forest, weaving through the trees, far too fast for someone of his scant experience, and he had flown straight into a tree. In the second before the collision time seemed to slow down to demonstrate to him that although he could see perfectly what was about to happen, there was absolutely nothing he could do to about it. After the collision, when he was lying on the ground in the lethargic silence of the forest, time seemed to stop entirely, as if to allow him to fully register the hideousness of what he had done.
This was the exact same kind of situation, Severus flying straight at an obstacle at high speeds, but with vulgar words instead of a broomstick. As the remark fell from his lips he saw Lily's face begin to contort, ever so slowly, in outrage and hurt, but there was no way to cram the words back into his mouth. He actually put his hand out, half-dazed in the wake of the calamity, thinking stupidly that if he could just catch the words before they reached her…
But she thought he was reaching out to touch her and she shrank back, beginning to cry.
"Is that all you think of me?"
He gabbled uselessly. "N-n-n-I-b-b-"
"I knew I should never have-" she muttered, mostly to herself. "God, if-"
"I didn't mean it," he blurted out at last, but it was obviously too late. She lurched to her feet.
"I can't stay with you," she said pleadingly.
She turned and ran up the marble staircase. At the top of the landing she turned back and gazed at him. Then she went on quickly.
Later, days later, even years later, Severus would recall their argument, and this would be the thing that stuck in his mind: the look on her face, when she turned back, that he had been unable to interpret. Why hadn't he realized what it meant? Why hadn't he run after her?
That had been the real test, and he had failed.
But at that time he hadn't known what to do, and instead of giving chase he gave up, and trudged downstairs to the dungeons.
He had heard soft footsteps above him then, and, thinking it was her, had hurried back up to the Entrance Hall in time to see James Potter slip out of the shadows by the marble staircase and run up after Lily.
And the next day was the Defence Against the Dark Arts OWL, followed by Severus' public humilation at the hands of Potter.
The letter continued:
I hated James, I hated him so much back then. He, of all people, was the first person I saw after our row. We didn't do anything – I know that's what you're wondering; he asked if something was wrong and I told him it was none of his business. He said it certainly was his business if a beautiful girl was crying as if her heart had been broken. I said, "What do you know about hearts? You don't seem to have one." And he said – Severus, please forgive him – he said he knew he had one, because it was full of love for me.
At this point Severus uttered an unrepeatable swear word, an oath so foul that it permanently corrupted the minds of the children who were playing in the house next door.
He screamed it, as long and loud as he could. It was a few minutes before he caught his breath and could bring himself to go on reading.
You'll be glad to know I told him to fuck off. But Severus – I couldn't stop thinking about it afterwards. It was such a stupid thing to say, but I was in such a state that it sounded more beautiful than anything I had ever heard in my life. I knew – I thought I knew – that it was just a line, a casual ploy to get me to go out with him – oh, I didn't know what to think. I was so certain I was in love with you and loathed him, but now everything was turned inside out and backwards – maybe I loathed you and loved him
I had always known you two were polar opposites, but until that night I had always thought you had the best qualities and James, the worst. After the row and everything, when I was lying in my bed sobbing instead of studying for the last OWL like all the normal girls, I thought I might have been wrong. After all, how could such beautiful words come from someone I despised, and such terrible ones, from someone I was in love with?
The next day only confused me further. You spent the whole exam scowling, sulking, refusing to look at me – I truly thought you had turned into something horrid and evil. James was arrogant and conceited as always, but whenever I caught his eye, his face would change – like he was asking me a question. I thought to myself, It's a ploy! It has to be! There had been plots and tricks galore from him for years, why should that day have been different? Now I know it wasn't him that was different. It was me. The scheme hadn't changed, just the reception.
And then – well, you know what happened, of course. You were there.
Just thinking about it brought stabbing pains of shame and humiliation in his chest. Yes, he knew what happened. It was the worst thing that had ever happened to him – more shameful than the row with Lily, more excruciating than his rites of initiation into the Death Eaters.
It's probably your worst memory. But I bet you didn't know it was mine, too. That was the day I knew it was really over between us, because I had begun not to love you anymore.
"Oh my God," he said, alone in his kitchen.
I had seen how ludicrous and pathetic you were. Oh God, I'm sorry, Severus, I really am – I was only fifteen! I was a fool. What had seemed enigmatic and alluring to me before, when you were swathed in dark and mystery, seemed laughable and almost contemptible in the shocking brightness of day. When you called me a Mudblood – it felt worse than if you had slapped me. I know we always bandied words like Mudblood and pureblood and Snivellus between us, but always in jest. And yet when you said the word and looked straight at me, it almost felt like you meant it to hurt. Maybe you did, maybe you didn't: to this day I still wonder. If you were joking, then I congratulate you on your acting skills – it did more than sting. It felt – actually, it felt like our fight the night before, when you used another rather sensitive word. And I realized that I couldn't stay with you.
Please, please forgive me. I promise you, it was the only time during our entire relationship that I ever felt ashamed of you. But unfortunately, it was the one time I was most vulnerable to such dark thoughts.
And then I wasn't confused anymore about you or James. I decided then and there I couldn't stand either of you. I hated you because I had suddenly, shamefully, started to believe in what you had said about me being too good for you. After all, I was a bloody Gryffindor, and what were you? A Slytherin loser. But I hated James too, because it was he who made me see how repulsive you were.
Please understand: I'm not writing these things to hurt you. I'm writing them to show you what frame of mind I was in when I decided to end it with you. I'm hoping that by helping you to understand why I thought we couldn't be together, maybe I convince myself, too.
Because I still love you. There, I said it. I'm saying it out loud too, right now, in the hope that the words will reach you across the miles, across the abyss of the years we lost. And I know now that I never stopped loving you. I just lost the thread for a few years. Five, to be precise. But I've found it again.
I suppose you should know, thought, that I'm learning to love James, too. Why shouldn't I? My heart is my own and I believe it has an infinite capacity for emotions of all kinds. There is no limit to my grief, nor to my happiness.
I am most regretful when I think of the day I lost you.
I am happiest when I am with James.
But I need you to come to my wedding, if only for a moment. I feel like I need to see you. Like I need your blessing – or rather, your pardon. I need closure. I need you to forgive me for being young and stupid.
Don't mistake this for a plea for rescue. I do want to be with James, I am doing this of my own free will, I am not being Confunded or poisoned or Imperiused. My marriage to him is not contingent on your attendance.
But I know I would feel like if you were there. And I think you would feel better, too.
If you don't come, at least send a reply.
He went slowly into his study. Sitting down at the desk, he took out a quill and a parchment – just one piece.
To the Happy Couple,
Congratulations on your engagement. I am certain you will be very happy together. I regret I will not be able to attend the ceremony. Please accept my sincere thanks for the invitation and best wishes for your very bright future.
On paper he could be perfectly civil, but old habits die hard. Out of spite, when he was putting the letter in an envelope, he addressed it to James Potter.
Three days later, at the same moment that Severus Snape was mopping up the last puddles from the floors of Slug and Jiggers Apothecary, Lily Evans was standing in front of a full-length mirror, trying on her wedding gown, swishing the skirt back and forth listlessly. Sitting at his desk at the other end of the room, James Potter was going through the morning post.
"Bills, bills – God, Auror school's expensive, isn't it Lily!" The only answer he received was the slow swish of taffeta. "Bills – ah! Wedding RSVPs."
He slit open six envelopes, and skimmed five of them quickly, making little ticks on a list of names as he went. Normally this was Lily's job, but she had been rather preoccupied these last few days. He wondered what was bothering her.
The sixth envelope bore only his name in handwriting he did not recognize. He unfolded the note. To the Happy Couple, it began. He read through it and stopped on the name of the author.
Lily was staring at herself in the mirror through half-closed eyes. "Lily?" he said slowly. "Why did Snivellus Snape write me to say he can't come to our wedding?"
Lily looked up at his reflection in the mirror and saw him holding the note. Her eyes filled with tears.
Three weeks later they were married. Lily did not see Severus there. But he, lurking at the very back, isolated and far behind all the other guests, did see her. He left before she said "I do."
Twelve months later Severus was skulking in the back of the Hog's Head pub when he overheard a strange conversation between Albus Dumbledore and one Sybill Trelawney. It involved a job at Hogwarts Academy and what sounded like a prophecy, uttered by the witch in harsh, low tones.
Severus didn't get to hear her finish what she was saying before the bartender, at a discreet gesture from Dumbledore, ejected him from the pub. But as he was dashing from the town to go find his master, a single thought persisted in his mind: Lily enfolded in clouds of white silk and taffeta, floating gently down the aisle—away from him.