Severus Snape hurried down Diagon Alley, clutching his cloak fastenings tightly against the wind. His eyes darted from side to side, then alighted upon a small, shadowy nook between two shops. This must be the right place… He stepped inside and allowed his eyes to adjust to the darkness. There was no one there. Mulciber was late, as usual.
He leaned against the wall to catch his breath, all the while keeping his eyes sharpened for any sign of Mulciber. Passersby hurried past without speaking, and no one stopped to chat with anyone on the street. The Dark Lord had already made his place known in the world; there was a definite sense of fear and tension in the air.
A flash of dark red hair caught Severus's eye, and he stepped forward in spite of himself. There was no doubt who the red hair belonged to.
"Lily," he called, as loudly as he dared.
Lily Evans whirled around, startled. Her distinctive green eyes flashed in his direction, and his breath caught in his throat. He had not seen her for five months, not since they had graduated. She looked older, though five months could not possibly have etched those weary lines on her face. Yet she was just as beautiful as he had remembered.
"Severus?" She sounded wary, almost fearful, as she caught sight of him standing in the shadows.
"Lily, what are you doing? You shouldn't be alone. It's not safe." He stepped out of the nook and guided her inside, quite forgetting about Mulciber.
"I was just running some errands," she said, indicating a large paper bag she was clutching. "What about you?"
"I'm just… I'm just meeting a friend here."
Her face darkened, and Severus felt himself plagued with unhappy memories—all the times she had warned him against his friends' uses of Dark magic, and that particular memory, his biggest mistake of all, when he had called her a Mudblood. She had forgiven him after a fashion and treated him with polite civility for the remainder of their time at Hogwarts, but their relationship could never be the same after that.
Lily seemed to be thinking about the same events, but as if determined not to show it, she put on a brave face and said as conversationally as she could, "How have you been?"
As she pushed a strand of hair behind her ear, Severus caught sight of a silver wedding band on her finger. He resisted the temptation to punch the wall behind him.
"I've been…" He tried not to think about his initiation into the band of Death Eaters and the terrifying meetings with the Dark Lord. "I've been all right. You?"
She put on a small smile. "Oh, you know… I've been getting through. I won't say that it's been easy, but we're all trying our best, and that counts for something, right?"
She shivered as she spoke, and Severus immediately unfastened his cloak and draped it around her shoulders. Her eyes widened a little in surprise.
"No, Severus, I don't want you to be cold—" She tried to hand the cloak back, but he swiftly pressed it back into her hands.
"No," he said simply.
She nodded and swallowed as she slowly put the cloak back on. "Thank you."
A fresh gust of wind swept through the alley, but Severus barely noticed. He was examining every inch of Lily's face, from the bright green eyes to the wind-chapped lips to the narrow cheekbones. She cast her eyes toward the ground, embarrassed.
"Listen, Severus," she began awkwardly. "It was nice running into you, but I think I have to go—I'm on a tight schedule, and—"
"Right," he said abruptly. "You're right, of course. I'm sorry I kept you."
She gave him another small smile. "Well, I guess… goodbye, then?"
They stood facing each other.
"Wait," Severus said suddenly. "Would it be okay if we—you know—go grab a butterbeer sometime?" He spoke the last sentence very quickly and waited breathlessly for her response.
She smiled sadly at him. "I don't know, Severus." She picked up her bag from the ground, and Severus caught another glance of the silver wedding band. Her answer was, under the circumstances, the best he could have hoped for.
Then suddenly, without warning, his left forearm burned with the most painful sensation. He drew a sharp intake of breath and his right hand instinctively closed around his arm.
Lily, who had just been preparing to leave, turned back in alarm. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," he said quickly. "Nothing."
He dropped his arm, but she had already seen. She grabbed his hand. He tried to snatch it back, but her grip was surprisingly strong. She peeled up the sleeves of his robe and stared, dumbstruck, at the ugly skull-shaped mark burning against his skin.
For a second, he chanced a hope that she wouldn't know what the mark was, but one look in her eyes ascertained that she knew exactly what it was and exactly what it stood for.
He pulled away. "Lily, I'm sorry—I can explain—"
She backed away several steps, staring at him with a look of the deepest disappointment and disgust.
For a moment, they simply stood looking at each other. Then, panicked, Severus launched into frantic justification, not knowing how he could possibly excuse himself but convinced that he had to keep talking.
"Please, Lily, just hear me out. I never meant to—I'm not really—"
"I thought you were better than this."
Her quiet words shattered the air between them, and her gaze was icy. Without another word, she threw his cloak back in his face, spun on her heel, and made to leave.
But she had already Disapparated.
He stood staring at the area she had been standing just a second ago, unable to erase from his mind the hurt, horrified expression in her eyes. He did not deceive himself into believing that he had ever had a chance with her, but he knew, without doubt, that this was the last time she would allow him to see her.
Those seven words echoed in his mind. I thought you were better than this.
He had no time to dwell on it, however; the mark on his forearm burned again, more insistently.
"I'm sorry, Lily," he whispered to the cold November air.
And he, too, Disapparated to answer his master's calling.