Chapter IV - Autumn

-

"Then it's settled?"

"Yes, Severus. She is safe. They are all safe. I've told them to find a secluded place to hide, and a trustworthy friend to keep their secret."

The invisible rope around Severus's neck disappeared, allowing him to breathe freely for the first time in days. Lily was safe. She was going to be alright. He gave a heavy sigh, ignoring the conceited, smug half-smile which crept on Dumbledore's lips. He hated the fact that Dumbledore now knew about his greatest weakness, and would surely use it against him one day. As humiliating as it felt to to tell Dumbledore about his feelings for Lily, he had had no other choice than to turn to him. Lily was in danger, and if it took Severus to reveal his most vulnerable side to Dumbledore in order to save her, he was willing to pay the price. For her, he could have done worse.

Lily had given birth to her child - a healthy baby boy, according to the rumours. Severus had not seen her since the night at the bridge. He had not even tried to get in touch with her again; in fact, he had done everything he could to forget her. Their last meeting had left him feeling like he had been carved open. He did not wish to experience such powerlessness before one woman ever again. Hiding behind the mask of a Death Eater, Severus Snape was one of the most ruthless servants of the Dark Lord, and if he ever was to defeat all of his rivals and enemies to become as strong as he strove to be, he would have to get rid of his only weakness. He had tried to teach himself to hate Lily as much as he hated her husband, and their disgusting little newborn boy - the flesh and blood evidence that she preferred Potter. Briefly, he had thought he succeeded.

Severus had once wished for her death just to end his crippling obsession with her. He had thought that he would have rather seen her dead than lived through another day knowing that somewhere out there Lily was with Potter, partly out of her resentment for Severus. However, when he had been offered a chance to see his cruel dream become reality, everything had changed. Without hesitation, he had gone on and betrayed his master, abandoned his old beliefs - which, though, had been standing on a trembling ground for months before Voldemort had expressed his desire to murder the Potters - humbled himself in front of Dumbledore, and even reluctantly saved James Potter's life just to keep her safe. All his dreams, aspirations, and old plans had turned into dust when her life was at stake. .

"Are you sure you don't want me to inform the Potters who they are to thank for their lives?" asked Dumbledore.

"No," replied Severus. The last thing he wanted was James Potter's gratitude. The thought of having to protect the one he hated the most still made him want to do something very, very bad to something cute and defenseless.

"Not even her?"

"No," repeated Severus darkly, "I never want any of them to know."

"Then you are more noble than I thought you were. It's a pity that you leave your most selfless act go unrewarded, but perhaps that is what makes it so honourable."

"I'm the one who owes you, remember?" said Severus bluntly, "I'll listen to your cheap words of wisdom when you come back and collect your bidding, whatever it is you want from me in return. If there's nothing else I can do for you now, you might as well leave me alone."

Dumbledore's eyes twinkled.

"As you wish. But don't be surprised if the good you've made comes back to you. You're bound to receive what you give, you see. It's called karma by our Eastern friends, Severus. Perhaps it teaches you a valuable lesson."

He then made his way to the door, muttered a spell that made him invisible enough to step outside unnoticed, and flew away on his broomstick.

Severus slammed the door shut behind the old wizard. Once again he envisioned them - Lily, Potter, and the child - far away in a secret place, happy, well, and unharmed. He imagined their bright, joyful faces and the perfect future that lay ahead of them. They would survive the war, and raise their family in a peaceful world where no-one would haunt them. Lily would have more children, and she would grow even more beautiful with each one. She and Potter would have a nice home, nice children, nice pets, nice furniture, nice friends, and a nice, comfortable life. They would watch their children grow up, they would meets their friends, they would see their son Harry going to Hogwarts for the first time, they would love each other, they would grow old together, they would share every detail of their lives, and they would be happy in every sickening sense of the word. And for once, Severus would not mind, because in the end he found himself caring more about her welfare than his own happiness. So what if Potter had her instead? At least Lily would live, and she would have the happy, full life Severus had always wanted to give her.

Severus stood still in front of the door like a statue, and felt oddly calm. Was this it? Was this the closure he had been looking for? Was this the moment he could finally let Lily go and get on with his life? Or was this the selfless love Dumbledore had been talking about? He had looked death in the eyes many times in his life and remained the same, but catching a glimpse of her death had turned him into something else entirely. He had gotten over himself, and risen over his own desires and needs to preserve hers. Was this inner peace the thing he had been searching for all along?

Suddenly, only minutes after Dumbledore's departure, a frantic knock came from the front door. Severus opened it and saw no-one, but felt someone elbow their way past him into the house, shutting the door before he could make another movement. And then Lily appeared out of nowhere right in front of him. She peeled off the Invisibility cloak she had been wearing with one swift movement of her hand and carelessly let it fall down at her feet.

"He told you, didn't he?" said Severus dryly.

"Actually, no," she replied, perplexed, "Well, he did give some heavy hints. He never mentioned any names, but he gave several lengthy and elaborate descriptions of an 'old friend' who had risked his life and abandoned his ideals to help us, and then he kept winking at me. So he was either trying to signal me that it was you, or he was just desperately trying to hit on me. I chose the former explanation and followed him here when he told me he was going to see the person who saved us and thank him for us."

Severus snorted. He knew Lily couldn't have followed Dumbledore without him noticing it.

"Liar," said Severus to himself.

"I.. don't know what to say," she began, "'Thank you' comes to mind, but there's so much more..."

She gave him a shy but inviting look. Severus purposefully ignored it.

"On the contrary of what you may think, I don't expect you to pay me back in flesh," he said coolly, "You don't owe me anything."

"I didn't suggest that!" she argued hotly.

There were a million things Severus wanted to say to Lily, and a million other things he knew Lily wanted to tell him, and yet somehow they ended up spending a whole minute in awkward silence, as though they had both temporarily lost the ability to speak.

"Wow, this would make the greatest TV-show ever. Verbally Challenged People Staring At Their Feet. Sometimes At The Floor," Lily broke the silence with her rambling, "Muggle joke. You don't get it."

"Look, Severus", she continued seriously, "Even though what you've done now proved me that you know how to surprise me, I like to think that we still know each other better than anyone else. That's why I know you can feel the extent of my gratitude, even though I don't have the words to describe it. If it means anything to you, I am forever in debt to you."

"I already told you that you owe me nothing. The important thing is that you're safe and unharmed."

"Severus..." Lily breathed, and suddenly burst into tears. Less than a second later she had pressed her head against his shoulder, and began to cry uncontrollably.

"I knew it!" she whispered between her sobs, "I knew that there would come a day when you do the right thing, because I always knew you weren't the person you tried to convince everyone you were. I've been dying to get you back, and you're finally here. You took that step."

She pulled away from him, and dabbed the corners of her eyes with her sleeve.

"You do realize that I have responsibilities as a mother, and as a wife. Harry and James need me now more than ever, and I can't just leave them. I can't take that step for you. Not now. Even if I wanted to... And I do..."

"I don't expect you to. I don't even want you to," replied Severus. This was a glaring lie; of course Severus wanted nothing more than to carry her upstairs, make love to her in every room of the house, and take her to some exotic location without giving another thought to the mess they would leave behind. It took all the strength he had in him to act as though he stood behind his words. Had he felt any less noble and selfless, he might have not been able to resist the temptation of persuading her to elope with him. However, previous experience had taught him that disastrous things happened whenever he confronted her. Every time he reached out for her, he only ended up pushing her further away from her.

"Just go home, Lily," he said, while he still could.

Lily smiled at him sadly. She then rolled up his sleeve gently, revealing the Dark Mark in her arm.

"Look at us," she said, holding her wedding ring close the the skull tattoo, "We've been branded like cattle. When did we start treating ourselves as property somebody else can claim? Weren't we supposed to be the rebels?"

"This is not who I am," said he, holding up his marked arm, "Not anymore. I've changed"

"No, you haven't," replied Lily, "You just realized who you really are. As did I."

She looked down at her ring finger.

"As a wife, I'm loyal to my husband, at least for now. As a mother, I'm always going to put my son and his needs first. But as Lily Evans, as the person I was before I was a wife or a mother, I'm always going to be your best friend, and a girl who loves you."

She kissed him lightly on the cheek. Then she picked up her cloak, and walked to the door with heavy, reluctant movements, as though she was slouching to the gallows, ready to be hanged.

"Why do I get the feeling that something terrible is going to happen to you because of this?" she whispered, and suddenly rushed back to him, "Promise me you won't do anything stupid, like die a violent death in suspicious conditions including pitchforks and hungry boars. I couldn't bear to lose you all over again."

"I promise."

"And if I come back after all this is over, will you still be here waiting for me?"

"Always."

What happened next, Severus would never remember clearly. He would recall that they had exchanged a few more words, embraced, kissed, and then Lily had left. Had he known that the first time he had bid her farewell trusting that she would return in years would in fact be the last time he ever saw her alive - that less than three days later she would die while attempting to protect her son - Severus would have breathed in every detail of her and the world where she still existed. Little had he known that by controlling his urges and nobly allowing her to return to her family, he had indirectly sent her to face her own death. The night would join his long list of things he desperately wished he could change, things he bitterly regretted, times he had watched her walk away, walk away, walk away. There were so many things he should have done differently and so many things he had left unsaid that sometimes he felt as though he was about to get crushed beneath the weight of it all. In the end, no matter how he ached, how he hoped, and how he cursed, nothing would bring her back.

--

Severus Snape was dying.

It had all happened very fast; the snake had dug its sharp fangs on his neck before he had had the chance to defend himself. Seconds later, he had felt the numbing venom filling his veins, and the blood dripping from his damaged neck. After the worst was over, time had seemed to slow down, and his last minutes alive began to drag on like hours.

It was ironic that he would die in this particular moment, just when he had temporarily learned to value his life again. For well over fifteen years, he had had very little interest in living, not hesitating to play with death whenever he had the chance to do so without being accused of pointless self-destructiveness. Although he did not actively seek death, mere existence had become such an intolerable state to linger in that he would have gladly finally gotten an excuse to be liberated from it. Right now, however, he was in the middle of an elaborate plan to finally avenge a very special person's death while honoring her memory by protecting her son, and he was not quite finished yet. Potter needed to know what Dumbledore wanted him to do next, and Severus was the only one who could tell him.

Just then, Potter and his friends appeared out of nowhere. Severus did not know nor care how they had gotten there, but he seized his chance and forced the memories Potter needed to see in order to know what to do - and the ones Potter needed to see to believe him.

"Take... it...Take... it..." he whispered.

Potter, who Severus had clutched by the robes, seemed to understand him, and collected the memories which flooded from within him in a small flask.

And then it was over. Severus had done everything he could, everything in his power to protect the boy, as he had promised. After devoting so many years of his life to keeping him safe ultimately at the expense of his own life, Severus rewarded himself by allowing himself to spend his remaining moment on earth exactly the way liked. Less than a second later, memories of Lily came flying to him from the depths of his mind.

Lily hadn't been the last woman in Severus's life. He had eventually had others, some of who he had almost loved, but he had forgotten each and every one of them as his interest in them withered away. Lily was the only one who would not fall into oblivion. A lifetime later, thoughts of her still haunted him from time to time. She was still the only person who had ever understood him, the only one who had ever made him laugh, and the only one who had made him feel like he was free to be himself. Sometimes he had managed to go through whole months without thinking about her, but she always came back to him in his dreams and in his nightmares as vivid and vibrant as she had ever been. Something he saw reminded him of something she had said; something he did made him wish he could have shared the experience with her. Her absence felt heavier and heavier on his heart with every year that came between the present day and her death.

With her son attending Hogwarts, it had become exceedingly difficult for Severus to ignore the longing that could never be helped. Harry Potter, and his bothering resemblance to his mother which Severus refused to see, thrown against his face almost every day of the year. It would have killed Severus if the boy had realized that he was the result of the battle Severus had lost to James Potter, and thus Severus had done everything in his power to keep Lily out of his mind. But now he was finished, free to indulge himself as he pleased with no worry of what tomorrow might bring.

"Look... at... me..." he said, and drowned himself in Potter's magnificent eyes - Lily's eyes - focusing in the green orbs until his vision failed him.

And there it came: a whole montage of the only person he had ever loved. Lily, aged ten, running across the street on a sunny day. Lily swinging backwards and forwards with the wind beneath her red hair. Lily at the old bridge, throwing rocks in the river. Lily in the Great Hall, waving at him from the Gryffindor table. Lily jumping in the snow, challenging him into a snow fight. Lily laughing at their private joke during Potions, clowning around to make him smile. Lily telling him a secret she would not share with anyone else. Lily standing by the lake at dawn, looking sublimely beautiful. Lily talking, and Lily listening. Lily racing him down a grassy hilltop, choking in laughter. Lily standing up to him in front of everyone, ready to defend him against the world. Lily responding to his kiss in a bathroom. Lily naked in his bed, sleeping peacefully by his side. Lily on a cold winter's night, telling him she loved him.

Lily in his arms, where she always should have been.

- End -


A/N: I wrote a draft of this story months ago as an immediate response to what I consider to be the most touching subplot of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, but I sort of forgot all about it until I rediscovered the draft last week and reworked it into this story. It was originally much angstier, but I got tired of Snape being so emo all the time that I kept making Lily funnier and funnier. It's still extremely melodramatic, but hey, I like melodrama, and it's not like Snape wasn't being any less of an obsessive drama queen in the actual books. Anyways, thank you for reading the story this far, and I hope you enjoyed it. I greatly appreciate feedback, so... amuse me with a review?