Some stories start with 'once upon a time' and others with a knock on the door.
As she rocked the baby on her shoulder, Lily turned her puzzled face towards the sound. From outside only three people could reach that door without their being allowed in through the intricate tangle of interlocking wards. These people were James, herself and the child in her arms. She should still have known that someone was coming, even if it was her husband, and James would not knock.
Something composed of ice splintered in her belly and the pieces lodged around her heart. Disapparition was impossible and there was no time to send for help. She needed to put Harry down and fight, if putting Harry down were possible. In this moment she found that she could not bear to let go of her child. She could not breathe.
Think! She fought with herself for control and the onetime apprentice Auror won. There was another knock and, suddenly, she was furious. 'Sirius Black, you slimy scum sucker . . .' She wrenched open the door. Outside, half leaning against the wall, was a tall, thin man. Wings of black hair hide his face. It wasn't Sirius Black.'
'Hello Evans,' said Snape. He was wearing a deep red, embroidered Indian shirt and jeans and he would have looked good if he wasn't so damn pale. He looked exhausted. He should definitely not have been here.
Lily took a deep breath. 'Not Evans. I married.' Her child in her arms, Lily wondered if there was any point in trying for her wand. 'The name is . . . '
'A mistake,' Snape interrupted. 'Invite me in.'
'Don't be a prat, Snape. You're not a bloody vampire.' He just looked at her.
But, as Lily had learnt from years of association at school, that was Snape. Slughard had liked to put the two of them together and it had proved possible to work with the boy, just as long as she did things his way. He had even tried to be generous, giving her credit for ideas that had been his own, but Snape, clearly, had had issues with control. That was why she'd not been able to believe what she'd been told about him. He wasn't the minion type.
'What's with the get-up?' she asked. 'You look like a hippy.'
'Love and peace,' said Snape, deadpan behind the hair.
'No shit, Batman?' She murmured and then, very sweetly, 'Come in, Severus.' She turned back into the house. 'Do you want a cup of tea?'
After her fright, she took Harry with her into the kitchen. As she made tea one-handed she wondered how and why Snape was here. While she was ready to admit that he could be dangerous, she'd never been afraid of him.
'She's just a mudblood Snape.'
'Mudbloods don't really feel pain. Do it!'
Stubbornly the boy had refused. Nothing they had done to him had changed his mind until they had turned their attention to her. Finally he had cast a jelly-legs jinx and the older Slytherins - the beautiful people, their lesson done, had gone away still laughing.
He had been trying to lift the spells when some boys from her own House had arrived. She had been unable to defend him, unable to speak at all until Madame Pomfrey removed the hex and then she'd collapsed into tears. Later Snape had been brought in, filthy and bloodied, breathing wetly through his broken nose. She had tried to explain what had happened but it had been her word against the older Slytherins and Snape had refused to say anything. James and Sirius never forgave Snape for what they had done to him. It had been easier to call him 'Snivellus' and make him the bad guy.
Stubbornly she had persisted in trying to be friends.
She placed the tea things on a tray and floated it through to discover her guest staring out the window. Outside, rooks circled above the spinney under a December sky of perfect blue. It made a strange backdrop for the Christmas decorations. Lily found herself smiling. 'Sit down,' she said.
Sitting, Lily lay Harry down on the sofa beside her where he yawned and blinked as he woke up. As she poured the tea, Snape folded himself down onto the edge of the chair facing her, sitting forward with his hand on his knees. He seemed fascinated by the pattern on the carpet.
Lily handed Snape his tea and he put it down on the coffee table. She sipped her own tea, wondering what this was all about.
Snape fidgeted briefly and then, speaking carefully as though reciting something vital and complex, began. 'You should know that, shortly after I left school, I undertook a small commission for Lucius Malfoy.' For a moment he glanced up and then returned his gaze to the carpet. 'It proved to be rather taxing and, to reward me, Lucius lent me a book. A valuable and rare, not to say illegal, book. That evening, not for the first time, I was visited by Aurors and, for the first time, they found something. I thought it best not to reveal to whom the book belonged and I was arrested for its possession.' Snape's long fingers flexed on his knees. 'You can have no idea what Azkaban is like. After a while it becomes difficult to think at all. By the time Lucius visited me I was prepared to agree to almost anything.' He smiled bitterly. 'Annoyed as he was by the loss of his property, I had, at least, been discrete and he was prepared to pull some strings on my behalf. Naturally, I would have to do something for him.
Finally he raised his face to meet her eyes. 'I agreed to be of service to the Dark Lord.'
Lily dropped her cup. She was fast but Snape was ready for her. 'Expelliamus! Accio wand!'
Snape used his own wand to clean up the mess before continuing. 'Small things at first, until they felt that they had the necessary leverage and then I took the mark. Subsequently, I found the 'confiscated' book in Lucius' library. He claimed to have obtained another copy: an obvious lie intended to let me know the depths of his contempt for someone who'd been taken for a fool. I was sufficiently angry to seek out Dumbledore.' Casually, he held out Lily's wand and she took it from him. 'Which brings me to why I'm here.'
'A prophecy has been brought to my master's attention, or at least the first part of one. To whit: 'The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches . . . born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies . . .' Lily could feel herself beginning to tremble. He's come to kill Harry . . . Snape shook his head gently. 'No, Lily, I would never harm your child. At present, the prophecy is known to apply to two people. Neville Longbottom and Harry Potter. He has decided that the problem should be eliminated. He has also decided that your son represents the greater danger.' Snape stood up. 'Don't pack. Don't do anything unusual but don't be here tonight.'
Harry had begun to cry. Numbly, Lily re-draped her shawl to hide herself, opened her blouse and put the baby to her breast. As he latched on tenderness flooded her, drowning the growing rage that might otherwise, she thought, have brought down the house. Bending her face to her child, she closed her eyes and bit her lips together to prevent the storm of sobbing that threatened to overwhelm her. She only became aware of her own rocking when Snape's fingers wrapped around her shoulder, stilling her. 'Lily, I will protect you and the boy. I swear it. I'll take an unbreakable vow.'
She opened her eyes to find Snape kneeling on the floor beside her, an ocean of pain in his eyes. 'Your word is enough,' whispered against the constriction in her throat.
'No.' Snape had returned to staring at the floor. 'I was the one who told the Dark Lord about the prophecy. I didn't know it was you. If I take the vow I can never be forced to harm you. You must make Dumbledore agree and you must not talk to anyone else. Someone very close to you is reporting to the Dark Lord.'
It's possible, thought Lily. People are afraid. What would I not do if they threatened . . .? But they did threaten Harry and she had nothing she could offer them of greater value. Nothing she could do would change their minds. 'Someone in the Order?' she asked.
'Yes. I could not have reached the house without alerting you had I not had privileged information.'
Lily nodded slowly. There had been five of them creating the wards: James; Sirius; Remus; Peter and herself. Somehow, one of them must have mentioned something to someone they had assumed was safe. She would have to have a word with Sirius. Next time we must all be more careful. Half-dizzy with relief, she stood up to see Snape to the door.
'Lily, promise me that you will tell no one other than Dumbledore that I was here.'
'You cannot think that James . . .'
The idea was unthinkable and Snape conceded. 'James, then. No one else.'
'I promise. And thank you.' Snape nodded once and, as he glided towards the door, Lily saw that he'd grown up. The ugly boy would never be handsome but his awkward adolescence had given way to something more proportioned; a strong, interesting face and a predatory grace. She had sometimes thought that his exceptional intelligence came at the expense of some other part of himself, that there was something odd or even damaged about Snape, but apparently he'd grown out of that too. Such a strange man . . . She had often thought him too inflexible for a Slytherin. He's always had more courage than most Gryffindors . . . or does it, perhaps, it comes down to what it is that he's afraid of?
'Severus.' Snape stopped by the door. 'Why did I have to invite you in?'
'Occlumency,' replied Snape. There will be consequences following the failure of our mission tonight. It would be most unwise for me to attempt to hide my memory of this visit from him, but I can make it look like something else.'
'Like what?' she has to ask.
Lilly smirked. 'What sort of a dream?'
'You have to ask?' While Snape smiled only rarely, he did so now: a warm and wicked thing that made light dance in his dark eyes.
Lily remembered. On an afternoon when they both have a free hour, they are behind the greenhouses exploring. What they are exploring, with a little less than the innocence of children, is each other. Neither has kissed before, although Lily has been reading some rather lowbrow literature and Severus seems to be enjoying her experimentation. His uneven teeth are sharp against her tongue so she bites his lower lip and tugs and he goes rigid. A gasp and a shudder are followed by a soft curse. Black eyes open and regard her as though she were something fabulous and strange and, quite possibly, dangerous. 'What is it?' she asks.
'A small problem with laundry,' he answers wryly and, when she understood, they both laughed.
Of course someone had seen, and someone had talked, and the Marauders had stepped up their efforts. As had Slytherin. When Snape had called her a 'Mudblood' by the lake she had understood it as an instruction to back off. Wasn't he one himself? Wasn't that the point when the older Slytherins had picked on him in the first year? To force an acknowledgement of the inferiority of Snape's mixed blood? Her reply had only sounded like an insult. But he had refused to talk to her after that and they weren't friends any more.
'Severus, what happened?' . . . by the lake.
'I created 'Levicorpus' – the spell they used against me. They had to have had my book. When you smiled, I assumed that you had given it to them. I did not know then that people sometimes smile when they're afraid.'
'Why would I do that? We were friends!'
'What better way to get the attention of the dream team?'
Snape's face was impassive. She might have hit him if she hadn't known what his lack of expression betrayed.
'Mudblood,' he had said. They had frequently called each other worse. Had not she called him 'The Half-Blood Prince? But to call her so in public was to damn himself, and he had, and Severus Snape did not forgive easily. He had, clearly, not forgiven himself. Lily had had other friends but he had not and, somehow, the marauders had always seemed to find him. Eventually he had been forced into the company of his own House, on what terms she could only imagine.
'No,' she murmured. 'It was almost certainly Peter who took your book.'
'Pettigrew? I hardly think that likely.'
'Peter's good at acquiring things.' Snape was looking at her questioningly. She considered telling him about Peter's animagus form but she had never betrayed Severus to the marauders and she wouldn't betray Peter to him.
'Well,' he said finally, 'I suppose that would explain their letting him hang around.'
As ever, he was being too harsh. Lily remembered Peter, sweating with concentration, struggling so hard to memorise the wards that she had actually felt fond of the little rat. She stared into Severus dark, haunted eyes. He had himself been betrayed, set up and sucked in, and in turn he had betrayed her to Voldemort, not knowing to whom the prophecy applied. She and James certainly hadn't intended to have a baby so young. He couldn't have guessed. 'I was an Auror,' she said. 'What if . . ?'
'I would never . . . intentionally harm you. Please, Lily, speak to Dumbledore.' He turned again to leave.
'Severus.' Again he stopped in the doorway but he did not turn. 'Thank you.' And then he was gone.
In the unseasonable warmth of a mid-winter's day, Lily was left to rock and croon to her baby, terrified for her friend but relieved that he was, after all, still her friend. There was something almost indestructible about Severus Snape. When James got home they would contact Dumbledore. The snuffling breath and warm, sleepy weight of her son comforted her and she allowed herself to feel some small amount of optimism.
Some stories end with 'happily ever after', and others with a knock on the door.
Author's note: story revised following reviews. Thank you.