Music at the Close
The setting sun, and music at the close,
As the last taste of sweets, is sweetest last.
~ Shakespeare, King Richard II, Act II, Scene I
Disclaimer: All Harry Potter characters were created by JK Rowling and belong to her and her business associates. I make no money, and mean no harm.
The dialogue in this story is what I like to think of as Frankenstein-Shakespeare; I took everything from the Bard's plays and sonnets, but broke apart different words, phrases and verses in order to stitch them back together in a new order. I tried not to lose the beauty or meaning of his language along the way; you will judge whether I succeeded. Many thanks to those who design and maintain the online Shakespeare search engine, without which this story would never have been finished.
Finally, I consider this story AU, or at least extremely improbable. But I couldn't resist. And yes, the whole thing was just an excuse for the Snape and Lily conversation in part three - guilty as charged. Thanks so much for reading.
…The course of true love never did run smooth…
In retrospect, she should have seen the danger signs.
James and Sirius had been entirely too excited about their last Potions assignment. It was quite normal for them to linger over potentially explosive brews, and anything that involved invisibility, polka dots, or the removal of inhibitions was guaranteed to catch their attention. But this potion had been entirely too practical to justify their fascination; a mundane translation tool, produced almost exclusively for the use of diplomats and scholars.
It was a rare challenge to create, a finicky mixture of spell-work and delicate brewing; that's why something so comparatively boring showed up so late in the seventh-year curriculum. After completing the strenuous five-hour preparation phase, a bit of complicated charms work keyed the potion to any printed volumes the brewer might select, usually dictionaries or foreign literature. Once completed, the potion allowed its users to absorb the vocabulary and syntax of the chosen works, and it automatically translated their thoughts into the specified language.
As an added benefit (or disadvantage, depending on one's view of diplomacy), the potion translated thoughts without a conscious filter. It enabled a wizard to communicate in other languages without taking the trouble to learn them, but it also robbed him of control over his words; he could neither choose his expressions nor entirely monitor their content.
If she had stopped to think about it, Lily might have guessed that even such mild inhibition removal could become a tool of mayhem in the Marauders' hands. She definitely should have noticed the extraneous notes and furtive whispers they'd traded both in and out of class, but they were always plotting something, and she'd been … a little distracted.
She'd been dating James for a month and a half – she still couldn't quite believe it – and over the last week her daydreams had centered, not on busting his next heist, but on enjoying his company over Valentine's Day weekend. For years she'd been able to spot upcoming misdemeanors with unerring foresight – she and Snape had awarded each other advanced degrees in Marauder detection when they were thirteen. She knew what James Potter was up to; she'd always been able to see right through him.
But now she began to realize that falling in love with her subject necessarily disrupted her sense of perspective. She hadn't seen this one coming.
"Nor did I wonder at the lily's white, nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose; they were but sweet, but figures of delight, drawn after you, you pattern of all those. O sweetest, fairest Lily! Verona's summer hath not such a flower."
Her boyfriend was standing on the bench of their House table, drawing the eyes of the whole Hall, overflowing with poetry and self-satisfaction. A few months ago she would have found it terribly off-putting, but somehow the sincere, awed delight that filled his eyes when he looked at her changed everything. Embarrassed and pleased, she wished she could respond in kind.
She opened her mouth, and found she could.
Along with the rest of the school.
…Confusion's cure lives not in these confusions…
It was funny at first.
They'd somehow managed to spike the school's orange juice supply at its source – she shuddered to think how many house elves they must have covertly recruited – so the involuntary tide of eloquence flooded swiftly through all Houses. Given Shakespeare's breadth of romance and invective, friends and enemies quickly found their voices.
The next two days were a madcap whirlwind of exquisite emotional clarity, marred by red-faced boys slapped for bawdy indiscretions or flushed hot by elaborate insults. A number of younger girls betrayed starry-eyed proclivities, and the few late risers who'd missed the mass dosing at breakfast seemed subtly disappointed. The faculty – all coffee-drinkers, thank heaven – dodged the rhetorical bullet, and reacted to the antics of their students along a spectrum ranging from disgust (McGonagall) to delight (Dumbledore), with the majority settling for amusement. Complications developed when it became clear that no one could cast spells properly – limited to the Bard's words, even a simple 'lumos' was out of the question – and all the dormitory passwords had to be reset once Sprout found a line of students queued outside the Hufflepuff Common Room attempting to convey Felix Felicis non-verbally.
Overall, however, the Marauders' Valentines prank felt like good, crazy fun, and most of the school accepted it as such. The potion, even at its most concentrated, could not last beyond forty-eight hours, so on Sunday evening Lily kissed James goodnight with a shy smile and whispers of poetry. She woke up the next day refreshed and ready to learn.
Monday morning was when it stopped being funny.
"That no dram of a scruple, no scruple of a scruple, no obstacle, no incredulous or unsafe circumstance –" Lily broke off as they entered the Great Hall, still echoing with Elizabethan cacophony. "What can be said?"
"I confess nothing, nor I deny nothing," James answered stoutly, taking a seat.
"Is there no way to cure this?"
"The dissolution of it must cure it. Being the time, the potion's force should cease."
"Yet clearly it has not ceased, Mr. Potter." Professor McGonagall had approached from behind, and now loomed over them in ominous fashion.
"Uncurable discomfit reigns in the hearts of all our present parts," James said, enjoying himself immensely.
"I suggest you adjust your attitude immediately, Mr. Potter," she snapped. "When did you four create this abomination?"
"My salad days, when I was green in judgment," Sirius said.
"Friday last," Remus translated, kicking him under the table.
"Your peers may be less pleased when this week's schedules are handed out," McGonagall said grimly. "All incantation-based lessons have been canceled, which means the entire school is facing Double Herbology, Double Divination, and Triple Potions for the indefinite future."
Identical looks of horror spread across the Marauders' faces.
"That is the first sign of genuine remorse I have seen from you," McGonagall said, "but I assure you it won't be the last." She leaned threateningly toward James, who rapidly scooted backward. "In over twenty years of teaching, I have never allowed a student to seriously disrupt even one of my classes. You have just effectively canceled fourteen of them, this week alone. And I promise you, Mr. Potter, Mr. Black, Mr. Lupin, and Mr. Pettigrew," she nodded at each in turn, "you will regret it."
Professor Slughorn proved considerably more affable about the whole fiasco, and gamely quizzed the boys about their methodology and ingredients. James was reduced to mutely pointing at key words in their Potions text, while Sirius mimed the brewing process and Remus flashed his hands to indicate timing. Eventually, having combed through their potions kits, Slughorn announced that it was a simple case of contaminated spikeweed, and he quietly pressed the boys to let him arrange some marketing interviews to promote their accidental discovery. The contaminant appeared to have strengthened the potion by a factor of ten, but he confidently expected to design an antidote by the end of the week.
For Lily, it became a difficult wait. She practiced what non-verbal spells she could, but she had yet to fully master the technique and only consistently succeeded in Charms, which came naturally to her. Meanwhile, as Head Girl she had to deal with the emotional outbursts of Gryffindors who resented living like Squibs, even for a few days. Bullying in the halls became far more physical than usual, and her non-verbal defensive spells were simply not reliable. On the whole, it was a disillusioning week, and she was more than ready to reach its end.
…In thee I see the twilight…
Lily was making her rounds just before curfew when a vague buzzing sound seemed to flit through the back of her mind. She stopped, scanning the empty corridors, struck with an odd sense of déjà vu. She had reached the outer perimeter of her assigned patrol route, but she turned down the branching corridor on her right, trying to trace the familiar sensation. As she walked, the sound grew stronger, like a tiny vibration in her head. Another twenty feet and she placed it; this was muffliato – it had been two years since she'd felt the spell this way. Only once, that first time Severus had demonstrated for her, had she found herself outside his shield; after that he'd used it to cover them both.
Clearly he was covering for someone else, now.
Lily stopped in the middle of the hall, undecided. If Snape and his friends were up to something in an empty classroom, she had little chance of defusing the situation on her own. Any Slytherin who wanted to keep his possessions and dignity intact had to master non-verbal Defense years ahead of the other Houses, and she would stand no chance in such an unequal contest of skill, even one-on-one. The muffliato spell made it likely that two or more were in conversation around the corner, which lowered her odds even further.
She shuffled slightly, hesitating; then a sharp shout broke through the ambient noise, and she lost the luxury of choice.
She rushed into the nearest classroom, casting a silent Finite with all her might. That much she could handle, and her spell cut loose the Slytherin third-year dangling from invisible tenterhooks in the air. He collapsed on the floor, and all eyes turned to her. In the moment of shock before reaction set in, she counted five seventh-years, including Snape, standing in one straight line like a firing squad.
She didn't know if she'd stumbled across some strange initiation ritual, or their sick idea of an internal disciplinary committee, or something altogether unknown, and she didn't have much time to wonder. Three silent spells slammed her off her feet, and she hit the ground hard. One of them must have been expelliarmus, because her wand was gone and her head was pounding so hard she couldn't see straight. She heard the third-year make a successful break for the door, but was powerless to follow.
She couldn't count on the chance that he'd gone to get a teacher to help. She was probably on her own, and when she made an abortive effort to get up, a tangle of thin, tight cords whipped around her, courtesy of…she lifted her head slowly…Mulciber. Perfect.
He took a step closer, his face full of anger. "Base and misbegotten hag-seed, there stand, for you are spell-stopp'd."
Out of options, Lily held his eyes stubbornly, and then deliberately shifted her gaze to Snape. He had completely locked down his expression, but she called on him, firm and confident. "Let me go."
He looked at her like a stranger, but she sensed a dangerous edge in the bemused faces and calculating eyes his friends turned toward him. In desperation, she had made him a target, and she could tell that no one in this room believed in his indifference.
A flush began to spread along his neck, but she honestly couldn't tell if it came from embarrassment or anger. The group's atmosphere edged closer to the predatory; Mulciber drew his wand. Lily saw that he expected to block any ameliorating magic Snape might send in her direction.
With a sudden, impatient sigh Snape turned to the far corner of the room, the head of the Slytherin line, where Avery had been lounging with calculated languor since she'd been disarmed.
"Untie the spell," Severus said tersely.
Avery raised an eyebrow, eying Snape as though he were an academic curiosity. "By this light, he changes more and more: I think he be angry indeed."
Mulciber was less subtle. "The foolish fortune of this girl makes him a fool," he taunted loudly, "more stubborn-hard than hammer'd iron. Corrupted blood some watery token shows of its own kind – the life of all his blood is touch'd; ay, for these slips have made him noted long. His soul is so enfetter'd to her that she may make, unmake, do what she list, with his weak function."
"You tread upon my patience," Severus hissed, furious. "Let there be some more test made of my metal, if thou doubt the power in my blood. I should be glad to prove it on thee."
Their wands rose simultaneously, but Avery stepped between them. "Gentlemen…" – somehow his inflection made clear he was not addressing Snape – "Let us among ourselves give him allowance for his folly. He is strange and peevish in this one thing, but it is no matter. She is pretty, he is a dreamer; what care I?" With a delicate shrug, Avery gestured the others toward the door. "Leave him there. The lioness wilt not keep him long, one way or other."
Snape looked ready to explode, but kept his place and held his tongue while the others filed out. Avery turned in the doorway, lowering his voice. "But be sure, my spirit and my place have in them power to make this bitter to thee." With a mocking smile, he waved his wand toward Lily and courteously closed the door behind him.
The ropes around her disappeared, and she sat up, pressing one hand hard against her forehead. When Snape stepped toward her, she flinched.
"Do not be made a fool by their malice. I never did thee hurt in all my life," he said impatiently, bending to take her elbow. She jerked back and brought the side of her free hand down hard against his wrist. He cursed with Shakespearean vigor, dropping her arm. They glared at each other.
Having made her point, Lily turned her attention to exploring her injuries; her head was pounding and her cheek was starting to swell up, its smooth surface strange beneath her fingers. She started to stand, but the movement made her nauseous. She sank back down, bending over her knees and breathing hard. She could feel Snape hovering, and when she looked up, he was bending over her. He started back guiltily as she sat up.
"Are you hurt?" he asked, sounding panicked. "Let me see thine eyes – Lily, let me see!" he insisted as she tried to push him off again. "I am no beast, no foul offender. I wish to help, that is all. You ought to use me." Before she could protest, he placed one hand against the side of her face and moved the other horizontally across her line of vision. She tracked his fingers automatically, and he watched her carefully, checking for signs of concussion. Seeing the verdict in his face – relief smoothed his forehead and loosened his shoulders – she forced herself to her feet and leaned into the wall. She felt ready to move on, but her unwanted companion objected.
"Thou art not well," he said quietly, putting himself in position to block her path. "Though thou stand'st more sure than before, thou art not firm enough – pause awhile here, till thou be restored. Please." She looked up, surprised at the word. He dropped his eyes, then raised them, his habitual response to her scrutiny.
With a frown, he cast a silent diagnostic spell in her direction; she could see the surreptitious twist of his wrist, moving a tad stiffly. She felt a twinge of sympathy, a jot of guilt – she hadn't meant to hurt him, she just hadn't wanted to be touched. His gaze grew distant as he absorbed his spell's results, muttering under his breath. "All this for the sake of a stranger, a worthless coward," he murmured. "Why the devil came you between us?"
It was the kind of bile that always slipped out when some momentary distraction made him neglect the strict self-monitoring he practiced in her presence. Her sympathy vanished. "How can you speak so?"
She could see the anxious flicker behind his eyes as he tried to identify his mistake. Then his back straightened defensively. "I would say as much to any friend who scarr'd herself in a cause not worth her pains."
She shoved past him and out the door, ignoring his floundering attempt to slow her down. "Away!" she snarled. "I will not have to do with you."
"Be still – for goodness' sake, consider what you do; how you may hurt yourself…"
"Dost thou object?" she asked, feigning surprise. "Surely a maid of baser birth and parentage than thine cannot be worth thy pains."
"Your worth is very dear in my regard, as you well know," he mumbled, scowling at the floor and trailing after her. "I would not have thee walk alone; there is danger enough in this injury, and a fresh assault could make it worse..."
"I do not need your help, and I do not desire your company."
"You are a fool, then," he said hotly. "Will you not suffer me to stand betwixt you and danger?" He gestured vaguely at the empty hallways into which his cohort had just retreated; there was no telling where they were now, but they were certainly still nearby. "What, wouldst thou have a serpent sting thee twice?" he challenged.
"So says one of their kind, in venom steep'd." She craned her neck awkwardly to look up at him. "We are advertis'd by our loving friends," she said caustically. "Thine are filth and scum, mark'd for the gallows."
He moved in front of her again, forcing her to either stop or walk straight into him. She tried to sidestep, her headache flaring, but he would have none of it. He had the desperate gleam in his eyes that she'd associated with their worst arguments ever since childhood. "I would be friends with you," – he choked a little on the words, but affected an awkward nonchalance – "forget the shames that you have stained me with, supply your present wants…and you'll not hear me," he concluded flatly, seeing her anger flush across her cheeks.
"Wear thou thy wrongs, after so long?" she demanded. "You were to blame. Dost thou forget?" But she could not speak to him of Death Eaters or their slurs – the thoughts died wordless in her throat. She sputtered inadequately, "Ill deeds are doubled with an evil word!"
He caught her meaning. His eyelids flickered and a spasm of frustration twisted his face. "Lady, you bereft me of all words. Be satisfied!"
She shook her head, hands clenched. "Forgive and quite forget old faults, when evil deeds have their permissive pass in your eye? No man well of such a salve can speak, that heals the wound and cures not the disgrace. Though thou repent, yet I have still the loss: Th'offender's sorrow lends but weak relief to one that bears the strong offense's cross." She brushed her fingers over her swelling cheek. "In choosing for yourself their cause, you show'd your judgment. Thou art to all my kin, and thus to me, disloyal."
"Never," he said fiercely. "Never to thee." Then, shifting, he grappled with the fact of their two-year estrangement. Whatever tangled thoughts he had, he could voice only a simple claim: "I love not less, though less the show appear."
"Your friends think you corrupted through affection."
"I would wish us to remember otherwise. Can we not say: 'They were trained together in their childhoods; and there rooted betwixt them then such an affection, which cannot choose but branch now. Since their more mature dignities and necessities made separation of their society…" he paused, struggling for words, "…they have seemed to be together, though absent; shook hands, as over a vast; and embraced, as it were, from the ends of opposed winds.'" His ears flushed a dull red, but his eyes never shifted from her face. "Can we not say thus much? I wish no less."
She stared at him, unable to imagine how that could be his image of what had happened between them over the last two years. She couldn't keep her voice from rising. "I do remember; but our argument is all too heavy to admit much talk. Your fore-vouch'd affection is fall'n into taint; you follow'st those which would level at my life as soon as think of me! It is to them you will return." Lily shook her head, at a loss. "You have too much respect upon the world," she said, without much fervor. "They lose it that do buy it with much care."
He caught her wrist with a sudden, graceless twitch. "For what care I who calls me well or ill?" he spat. He hesitated, and she felt his fist clench painfully. "You are my all the world, and I must strive to know my shames and praises from your tongue. None else to me, nor I to none alive, can touch so near."
Lily shifted sharply under his pinching fingers, unsure that she had understood him, but rather afraid that she had. She drew away, and something insubstantial in him quailed. He'd said too much, they both felt it, but he didn't stop. "Now I do not speak to thee in pleasure but in passion, not in words only, but in woes also. I have loved you night and day…for many weary months…" His eyes were dark and shocked, as though he could not believe the words were his. Defeated already, he dropped her hand with a whisper. "Dost thou not know?"
Slowly, she shook her head.
In all the years they'd known each other, he'd never been open about his feelings – he'd always heeded the polite, unspoken discouragement she'd broadcast when his interest swirled too near the surface. For so long they'd hardly spoken; the vague, regretful misgivings of early adolescence had long since faded from her thoughts. Now the old prickles of awkwardness and pity she had buried with their friendship re-emerged, vivid and overpowering. She dropped her gaze, momentarily undone, blushing in embarrassed empathy.
Snape took her blush for the insult it was, however little she wished or intended to wound him. Anger sent blood rushing to his face, and without a word, he stepped back and raised his wand. Lily threw an arm up instinctively, but he was already pivoting away from her, stabbing his arm into empty air. With a sound like a pistol shot, one of the marble rungs along the nearby balustrade blasted to pieces. Tiny chips of stone showered over them both, and Lily held still while the white dust rose. When she lowered her hand, he was leaning against the wall, looking humiliated. "I am sorry," she said helplessly, and escaped down the corridor.
She'd reached the second staircase before he caught up to her. She glanced at him apprehensively, but he raised a hand. "Peace. I'll not trouble thee, but walk with thee." His face was grim and no trace of sentiment lingered. She tried to find a polite way to send him away, but he deflected every attempt.
"I marvel why you cannot let this go tonight," she said quietly, addressing his shoulder more than his face. His wand was still in his hand, and his eyes roamed over everything but her. Someone would be after him about the pulverized railing before long, but for the moment, they passed unhindered through the corridors. "Why thus persist? You take little delight in it."
"And I marvel your ladyship takes delight in an ordinary fool that has no more brain than a stone," he snarled, suddenly vicious. "Doubtless his head shall be a wall sufficient to defend, but in the absence of this same skull, you must take your chance with one whose wits are not so blunt. You shall not walk alone." He stalked alongside her, immune to further protest.
When they arrived at the Gryffindor portrait, Lily glanced warily at her storm-cloud companion. "I thank thee for thy care and honest pains," she said, "Truly. But henceforth leave me to mine own protection."
She couldn't read his expression in the dark, but he soon shook his head and answered, "That I cannot do." She was about to remind him that she had many closer friends to rely on, and was hardly helpless herself; tonight she had been at a strange and unique disadvantage, one she never intended to stumble into again. But he pre-empted her protests. "To be your fellow you may deny me," he said coldly, "but I'll be your servant whether you will or no."
She sucked in a breath and stared at him. He met her gaze with absolute conviction.
Even at its height their friendship had been precarious, lurching unsteadily between something less and something more than affection. For the first time in years, Lily felt a sense of shifting balance. "I do believe you think what now you speak," she answered, "but what we do determine oft we break. Our wills and fates do so contrary run that our devices still are overthrown. Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own."
His earlier rancor drained away, which left him sounding tired. "Never believe, though in my nature reigned all frailties that besiege all kinds of blood, that it could so preposterously be stained as to leave for nothing all thy sum of good," he said. "Myself I'll forfeit first."
"But thou hast already!" she insisted. "Thou art lost, and hast lost me." She slumped back, defeated and miserable, and she could see it was a hundred times worse for him; they were exhausting each other. This was how things always went between them, but he never gave up, and she never quite pushed him away.
Her cheek throbbed and a bead of sweat trickled unpleasantly down her neck; abruptly, she stopped thinking. She took his hands in the moonlight – his breath caught – and she offered him all she could. "Old sullen playfellow," she murmured, "leave these sad designs. Repent what's past, avoid what is to come."
"For thee?" She barely heard him, though he was standing near.
"For thyself, no other. In faith, I do not love thee, but wish thee happiness with all my heart."
He recoiled with a smothered, choking sound.
Lily waited, but he had nothing to say. Her heart sank and she shook her head, a familiar burning building behind her eyes. She suppressed the feeling impatiently; she was done with crying for him. Her voice, once she found it, turned harsh. "I am sorry for thy angry soul, possessed with a thousand wrongs – that surly spirit that hath baked thy blood and made it heavy-thick in passions hateful. I am sorry I lose your company to an inhuman wretch uncapable of pity, void and empty from any dram of mercy. I am sorry one so learned and so wise as you should slip so grossly."
He stood, closed and silent, through the outburst.
"In thee I see the twilight of such day as, after sunset, fadeth in the west – which by and by black night doth take away," she said.
"Thou knowest me not," he answered her, and left.
…Though justice be thy plea, consider this: that, in the course of justice, none of us should see salvation…
The next morning, Professor Slughorn triumphantly issued each student their share of his antidote. Lily had not slept well. She contemplated her dose over breakfast, but didn't drink.
Carrying the cup back to her room, she set it carefully on the desk, picked up her pen, and finished her conversation.
I have said farewell already. You have let me say my mind; oft have you heard me produce the grand sum of your sins, and never yet did hear me breathe a word of my own fault.
In good sadness, I am sorry that with better heed and judgment I did not mark your bitter injuries, too early seen unknown, and known too late. I am sorry that, for my sake, you have suffer'd. You take from this divided friendship something of my negligence, but something also of my love and honour.
Hear this last honest truth: In choosing wrong, you do yourself wrong, and thus must all go wrong with you and me. So much my conscience whispers in your ear.
Think on my words, old friend, and fare thee well.
She set down her quill, sealed the letter, and drank the antidote.
A week later, she received in answer one final word scratched in his spiky hand across torn parchment.
The rest, unsurprisingly, was silence.
The whole strange episode came, in time, to carry a distinctive aura in Lily's memory; it was not romance she remembered, or anger, or eloquence. It was a fleeting sense of possibility, which faded each time she and Severus passed each other, moving through their private series of closing doors.