Author's Notes: This one takes some explaining, but you may want to read these author's notes after you've finished reading the story. It is directly inspired by lily-fox's gorgeous fanart In another life: wake up on deviantART, and so a bit of the dialogue is from that. (If you want to fully understand what I was aiming for with this, read her artist's notes. I pretty much took my cue from them.) It's also inspired by Doctor Who. The quote I've put at the beginning of the story was a huge jumping-off point, because it was totally fascinating for me to think about. I took inspiration from what happens to Mickey, but changed it a little. The timeline of the story is going to be confusing, because it alternates between the past and present of the real world, and a kind of past and present of the alternate world with... one appearance of the alternate Severus. Plus, a bit of wishful thinking happening in the real world. It really is meant to be a bit confusing, though, because Severus is confused (wouldn't you be?). Anything that isn't in the present is meant to show what could have been used as a catalyst for the creation of the parallel world. (Unless you just want to view it as, say, heaven, or some such, which is totally fine by me.) Lastly, I borrowed the first four lines or so of dialogue from Order of the Phoenix, so those, obviously, belong to JKR. (Also, can I point out the amazing amount of awesome Severus/Lily fanart since Deathly Hallows Part Two was released? It's like CHRISTMAS.)
In Another Life
"Every single decision you make creates a parallel
existence, a different dimension..."
- Doctor Who
"LEAVE HIM ALONE!" Lily cries for what seems like the hundredth time; but Severus feels none of the grating annoyance he often derives from repetitiveness. Rather, each time is like the first time. Each time, the words are like the sudden trill of birdsong in silent woods, glorious and full and bursting, and it is far too long since anyone has heard the sound.
"Ah, Evans, don't make me hex you." With Lily, Potter complains instead of threatening. The empty menace behind this speech makes him seem all the more childish.
"Take the curse off him, then!"
Severus hears a sigh, a Finite Incantatem, and then the life returns to his limbs. His fingers twitch, still uneasy from their forced immobility. Once they have regained most of their feeling, he braces his hand against the grass, and unsteadily rights himself again.
"There you go," Potter says to Lily, as if proud of his handiwork in this skinny, tottering boy he has tried so hard to break. Adds, "You're lucky Evans was here, Snivellus—"
"Lucky she always will be, for me," Severus cuts in, because in spite of his pride, Lily Evans is the most skilled witch he has ever known, and he has already been humiliated enough that right now, he does not care what others will decide about him from this remark. "Though I don't suppose I can say the same about you, can I?"
It is Lily again who saves him from more hexes, as she is already by his side, holding his arm with one warm hand, still pointing her wand at Potter with the other. Her body, whether unconsciously or not, is positioned just enough in front of him that no one will dare try to curse him for fear of hitting her by accident.
Their crowded audience grumbles, and Potter seethes as Black mutters soothing words of revenge—later, later—in his ear. Severus does not care. Later, later, he will be ready.
"Come on," Lily mutters, her tone softening for the first time. "If I have to listen to Potter's voice a moment longer, I'll be sick."
He shrugs away slightly but gently as they leave, the crowd parting in disgust, but she seems to understand: she can rescue him, but should not coddle him now, not when she has made it so he can walk on his own. His pride does need a bit of recovering, now that this is over. She shrugs, herself, as if to say, Boys, honestly.
And then Lily smiles, just at him, and takes his hand in hers, not in a gesture of pity or assistance, but of promise.
This is the way it should have been.
Severus Snape frowns into the cold rain that slants toward his face, regretting the grey and green umbrella that is over five hours away, tucked in the hall cupboard between a pair of Wellingtons and a stack of mittens with holes worn into various places. A part of him has expected this: the mornings he steps outside, bent nose to the sky to gauge the day, and returns to the warmth of his home with notions of blueness and sunlight, it nearly always ends like this. Even the often-clear skies of May will turn to spite him, it seems. This is Britain, after all. The days he is the least prepared are the days most things will happen to him.
His spider-thin lips curl at one corner, not in pleasure, but not without humor, as he adjusts his coat. His wife has never liked it—the coat. Long and black, she tells him it is altogether too depressing, especially in spring, and besides, his students are intimidated enough by Chemistry without their teacher glowering at them above a dark and menacing collar. (She tells him this always, but with her fingertips tracing fondly over the long line of buttons, smoothing the fabric over his shoulders, lovingly picking off white cat hairs. Once, the morning after a petty fight of the like that only married couples seem to have, he had found her curled asleep on their bed with the coat fisted tightly in her hand, a pair of scissors cast onto the floor nearby. "It's just that you love this stupid thing so," she had said when he had woken her. "I couldn't do it.") He thinks of how pleased she will be when she sees it drenched and dripping, how she will laugh as she struggles to pull it off of him as he comes through the door, and make a show of exiling it to the back porch to dry.
Suddenly, he wishes more than ever that he had not been cajoled into helping chaperone this godforsaken school trip. The students had done nothing but whine about the weather and smack the chewing gum in their mouths loudly and disinterestedly while they plodded along behind their guide for two days. Children might appreciate the gore and violence of battles and wars, but the ruins of where the excitement took place, the remains of history, littered upon the earth like crumbling bones, lose their attention almost as soon as the first wayward stone is within sight.
There had been one ruin that had caused a stirring among them, and they had gazed at it almost involuntarily for two minutes of absolute silence, compelled as if by magic. It had once been a castle, and they had been made to travel an extra hour out of their way to reach it in its nest among the rolling highlands. Severus himself had felt an odd tug of familiarity upon seeing it, but the feeling had soon passed, and the children resumed their smacking, and Severus reassembled his frown.
Now, he is faced with another long, grueling train ride, full of homework crumpled and flung across the aisle like the fecal matter of apes, and off-key songs about the inanities of travel screamed as if by drunken men in a pub. Already, the familiar ache of yesterday is beginning to build behind his temples.
Severus has never been overly fond of other people's children, especially those who lack a certain academic appreciation. Each year, he will discover a handful of students, keen, bright, and serious, who will likely follow his selfsame path, and remind him why he still bothers to teach in the first place.
This year, however, that handful is smaller than it has ever been, and as mismatched as if he had plunged his arm blindly into a barrel of fish, and pulled out the first three he could find: the spoilt, snobbish bully who nevertheless has the drive, if not the appropriately-loaded pocketbook, to succeed; the quiet, mousy boy who keeps mostly to himself and his studies, and has a canny eye for the details others miss; and the know-it-all girl whose very voice grates his nerves, yet whom has earned his grudging respect for her beyond-the-textbook knowledge and common sense. A few others had shown promise in the beginning of the term, but Severus soon discovered they were pursuing perfect marks instead of passion. Which is acceptable, and to be expected—but not commended, in his eyes.
And even his shining three, though they had refrained from the smacking and the singing and the throwing and the whinging, had still succumbed to the listlessness of their peers by the end of this trip. A dozen too many cairns, perhaps. At least the girl had kept asking questions.
Night has fallen around him. For a moment, a single star blinks through a gap in the rain before it is swallowed again by clouds. It reminds Severus of his wife, somehow, and of home, and it makes him hurry onward down the street toward the railway station. Except for that brief, miraculous break, the onslaught of water is unrelenting. Rain pelts his skin, his bones, seeps into his eyes and attempts to blur his vision. His black hair is plastered to his cheeks and the underside of his jaw as if it has been sculpted there by cruel hands.
Scowling, Severus attempts to shield his eyes with a raised arm. Of all the chaperones, he had been elected to linger behind and attend to last minute formalities with their lodgings—to make certain all the forms had indeed been in order, the bills sorted, to discuss items damaged or broken in the rooms of the students in his charge...
The train leaves in ten minutes. Ahead, he can see the lights from the station gleaming in the dark, but still curses under his breath. He prefers timely earliness to precise punctuality, and anyway, would have been of use in corralling the students into their proper places. ("I'm sure one swish of your cloak is all it takes to have them stumbling over themselves," his wife once teased. He has never minded her teasing, because when they were children, she was the only one who always laughed with him, and never at him. He had never known until he met her that there was a difference.)
Just as he is about the reach the other side of the street, two beams of headlights come seemingly out of nowhere. In the back of his mind, Severus registers that he must have seen them, must have discounted them in the glare of the railway station in the rain, the sheer blindness that is moving through a storm.
Somehow, in the moment that matters most, he is suddenly powerless.
In the time it takes for an impatient driver to sound the note of his impatient horn, Severus fails to take the two steps it would have required to save his life. The swerve comes too late.
Severus Snape crumples into the darkness, reaching, ever reaching, toward a pair of luminescent green eyes.
Lily always finds him. Here, on the dust-laden floor of the Shrieking Shack, she peers at him from Harry Potter's stoic face. Even as Severus gazes into her eyes, his memories of her bleed out of him, and their leaving, more than anything, drains him of life.
Or perhaps not drains, exactly. He simply... melts, like a long sigh, slow in ending. Despite the sharp pain in his neck, and the aching in his chest, Severus sinks into the hidden earth with less dread than he ever imagined possible.
He does not wish to die, not anymore; he simply is. The end has come. He has waited for it for years, looking over his shoulder in empty corridors and crowded rooms, always meant to be the target of its dogged pursuit. It is almost a relief to know that Death has finally turned to face him.
There are so many things he regrets, so many unfixable things. This end he does not begin to regret, though, because he has been regretting it for the past twenty years before it even came; regretting, grieving from the moment that bitter, vulgar word had shaped itself, unbidden, upon his tongue. Twenty years have been his penance. The danger, the anger—they have been his reward.
And now, Lily looks at him for the first time in so... so... long.
So many unfixable things that could have gone differently.
So many unfixable things that did not. He has relived them in his dreams for over twenty years, but oddly, now, they do not come to him to torture his mind with their prying, skeletal fingers.
Now... he simply... sinks...
"Do you ever think about what it would be like to be ordinary?"
He looks at Lily sharply, her rounded child's face bright with intent.
"No," he says. "Because we aren't."
"But what if we were?" she presses. Above them, the leaves shift in the wind, and their colors flash with magic that could belong to either of them. "What if I were just a Muggle, like Tuney, and Mum and Dad, and you were like..." Her words falter.
"I never want to be like him," Severus hisses under his breath.
Still, Lily hears him. She reaches across the grass to tug on the sleeve of his overlong coat. "Hey. I'm sorry. I didn't mean it like that."
He does not reply.
After a moment, she tries again with renewed fervor. "Just imagine, though, Sev. Imagine, just us. Plain, and usual. Don't think about your family, or mine. What if it were us on the other side of that wall? No magic. Nothing special in our blood."
"It would be awful," he tells her truthfully. "I can't think of anything worse than being ordinary." The last word comes out in the shape of something grotesque.
"But..." Lily's voice is softer, almost timid. "Don't you think it would be worth it?" she asks. "I mean, if we were there together?"
Morning. The soft glow of light beyond his eyelids. The rustle of something small shifting over fabric. The sunken indentation of a warm weight balled near his feet. Birdsong.
The things that are somehow so familiar, and yet utterly foreign in a context he has yet to see.
Severus opens his eyes. He is met with another pair so like his own that he almost starts. Yet they are not his own; they belong to a little girl with auburn hair falling down her back, mussed fringe tickling her eyelashes, and a universe of freckles sweeping from cheek, to nose, to cheek like tiny stars. In her light, flowered pajamas, she supports her chin with her hands, elbows resting on the edge of the bed in which he lies and by which she kneels. A room in shades of earthen greens and browns frames her gentle head.
She is watching him, fixated on the motion of his blinking and the movement of his body as he breathes.
"Are you awake?" she asks after a short time. Her voice is a cricket's chirrup. All at once, she is precious and known and his, at the same time he is certain he has never seen her before in his life.
"Yes," he finds himself saying, and without thinking about it, reaches to fondly touch her head. She does not flinch, as a child might from a stranger, but continues to stare at him with the curve of a smile. Severus recognizes it now, what he had missed at first: the utter adoration in her expression, as if he is the most wonderful human being in the world, and his touch is what keeps her grounded there.
"Mummy says pancakes are ready," the girl informs him after a bit. She lingers by his bedside a moment longer before, duty accomplished, she darts from the room. Severus can hear her excited footsteps pattering down the stairs and a name resting on the very tip of his tongue. "Daddy's awake! Mummy, Daddy's awake!" she shouts into another room.
A muffled reply, and a laugh he would recognize anywhere. His heart nearly freezes somewhere in his throat. The white cat near his feet sounds a quiet note of concern, and he suddenly feels the metal of a wedding band on his finger.
A part of him argues that this is nothing new, that this is the way he awakens most mornings, into this warmth and glow. That everything he has ever wanted is waiting for him downstairs, has always waited, and always will, because he will always come to find it. That this existence has never been threatened by anyone or anything, even though he never takes it for granted, not precisely. He is comfortable. There should not be anything unusual about that, he thinks.
Still, his heart is beating too fast as he climbs out of bed and belatedly follows the little girl (and the cat, who trots ahead of him) down the stairs. Through the posts on the staircase, he catches glimpses of rooms and furniture and routine, and he tiptoes past it all in grey cotton pajamas.
None of these rooms matter, though, when he comes to the kitchen. She's standing with her back to him, red hair longer than he has ever seen it and slung over her shoulder in a plait loosened by sleep. This, and her wrinkled periwinkle nightgown suggest she's only just awoken, but there's an alertness to the shape of her shoulders, the way she holds a spatula in one hand, positioned accidentally so that the freckles on her arm seem to stem from its handle.
Lily Snape is the sun.
"Daddy!" the little girl cries from her mother's side.
Lily turns around. He has to keep a firm grip on the chair in front of him when she does. If he had been holding something, he would have dropped it promptly, and it would have shattered into fragments without him caring in the least.
"Good morning." She seems to smile the words.
"Im...possible," Severus breathes, awed.
Yet of course it is possible. It is possible, and Lily seals the tangibility and reality of it with a peck of a kiss on his lips. Familiarity comes in waves at the feel of her mouth: the kisses of every ordinary morning, habitual, juxtaposed with the sense that this is the first time since they were thirteen that he has had this—"Happy Christmas," Lily says shyly—and she has grown into her lips, even though he has always thought they suited her perfectly, because Lily has always symbolized perfection to him.
"You don't have to sound so shocked." She plays at a scoff. "I do know how to cook, as you should know full well by now."
He does. He knows the precision with which she follows recipes, measuring flour and sugar as if one extra grain of each will ruin her concoction. ("Don't look at me like that, Sev, this is science, and science is exact. You are teaching your students that, aren't you?") The frown of concentration as she taps a line in the cookbook with her finger. The excited babble of explanations about the chemical properties of baking soda and gluten.
"Oh," she adds, "could you help Jo reach the plates?"
Without thinking, his lips are murmuring an "Of course," and his long, slender fingers are reaching toward the handle on the cupboard door, to curl firmly around the black patterned ceramic inside. The three of them always use the same plates, nothing plastic for Jo; her little hands are careful—she is their daughter, after all—and should not have to suffer the indignities of other people's children. Jo is special, as she should be. (Just not special enough for Lily's mother's china, upon this they have agreed. They will unpack it from the boxes in the attic when Jo is older.)
Severus hands Jo the thin stack of plates, and she takes them from him, her dark eyes dancing like happy stars at the responsibility. Proudly, she carries them to the table, brows furrowed in concentration, standing on tiptoe to align each plate with each setting—a little too far away from the edge, Severus notes with a smile.
When he has finished watching her—making miracle of a mundane task, or so it seems to him, the way his chest tightens with warmth—he automatically sweeps into the kitchen for tea and juice. He grabs both, but for some reason, cannot remember where to find the teacups and glasses.
"Wake up, Sev," Lily says, poking him with her foot as she balances a platter of Scotch pancakes in one hand—the other somehow managing the jars of jam and cream. But her voice is kind as she directs him to one of the cupboards on the right.
At the sight of the platter, Jo dutifully takes her place at the table, and Severus, having sorted out the drinks, takes his. Lily presents the pancakes proudly, and for a moment, they rest at the center of the table like a prized Christmas turkey.
"They look wonderful, Lily," Severus tells her.
And they do, his family, this picture of them here. His. Something in him wraps around the sense of sudden—not possession, really, but—belonging. Everything feels right, though for some reason, he thinks things have not been right in a very long time.
"They had better taste wonderful, too," Lily mutters. He knows she knows knows they will. Slathered in jam and cream and Lily's love and care, how could they not?
The three of them eat in bursts of companionable silence, interrupted by other trickles of conversation. Jo slept very well, Mummy, thank you; Lily had a fine day helping out with the classes at the bakery while Jo was at school, nothing too involved this time, sadly; and Severus's school trip had gone as well as one could expect, smoothly enough
"Speaking of which," Lily begins, "the school called earlier. They said you weren't on the train with everyone else, and they hadn't been able to reach you. I was worried because I hadn't heard you come in last night, but then, you obviously must have done, because you were sleeping as soundly as anything right next to me." She shakes her head. "I swear, Severus Snape, if you persist in lurking about as such, people are going to talk."
Her tone is genuinely casual and teasing, but still, she waits. Of course she waits. Both he and Lily thrive on explanations and truths.
And so he tells her one of the ones he can remember. "I missed the train," he says, the curve of his mouth a little sour at the memory. "Trifles had to be dealt with at the hotel, and the incompetence of the management on their part delayed me several minutes too many. I... caught the next one."
Lily looks up sharply at his hesitation. Severus's eyes dart to Jo, and then back to Lily meaningfully.
Because he loves Lily with everything that he is and ever was, he will tell her, later, about colossal snakes and castles brimming with magic. Just not now.
Jo catches the pause, but not the meaning behind it. "Daddy's quiet as a mouse," she explains to her mother seriously. "That's why we didn't hear him."
Any tension remaining in the room dissipates with Lily's delighted laughter.
"I'm marrying James Potter," she says as soon as he opens the door.
Her presence there surprises him, but the news she brings does not; he had read it in the Prophet that morning. He had scoffed, first. Even in the midst of a brewing war, Potter demands the attention of all. Then he had held the parchment in his hands, suddenly too weak to crumble it as he wished.
Now, the picture from the paper manifests itself as flesh on his filthy doorstep. Though she wears her hair under a bleak hat, and grey Muggle clothes to disguise herself, she is still so impossibly vibrant and recognizable to him. He has been subsisting on memories and old photographs for years. How could he have ever thought they compared? They seem so faded, with her here.
"So I've heard," he replies flatly.
Her face falls. "Oh. I'd just hoped... Well. I just thought I should tell you. In person, I mean. I thought you should hear it from me."
"You hardly owed me that."
She falters, sighs. "Please, Sev, won't you let me in? If only for a moment."
Severus shakes his head, even as he is pulling open the door and stepping aside to let her through. From the tilt of her head and the shape of her mouth, he can tell she is taking in the dark little room in which they now stand together, struggling not to say anything, lest it sound unkind. Severus looks away. Lily Evans was never meant to be in place like Spinner's End. When they were children, he had made certain to keep her away from it, though she had often asked to take just a peek. He almost regrets it now, because of the way, even drably garbed, she seems to set it alight.
They stand awkwardly, their discomfort showing in the distance between them.
"How did you find me?" he asks, giving a little cough first that seems to startle her. "It isn't safe for you here."
"I'll be fine," she says. She tosses her head a little, trying to be flippant, but fails. "And anyway, I'm sure you've many wards up on this house. You always were clever enough to know how to protect your things."
"Not clever enough, apparently," he mutters involuntarily. Lily flushes, and pretends not to have heard.
"I'm only going to be here a few minutes," she adds belatedly. As if this will be a comfort. "I know someone who... who'd seen you. Vaguely. I guessed you would be here, from what I was told. It's the last place anyone who knew you would look."
Knew. Yes, they do not know each other anymore. Too many years have stretched between them like the physical space that separates them now. Too many—one too many—words said, too many unsaid, or said, and unheard.
"I'm frightened for you, Sev," Lily says. "I've heard rumors about what you're doing, those people you're still hanging round with."
"That's hardly your business," he snaps coldly. "You made that exceptionally clear."
Instead of looking stunned, she nods slowly. "I know what I said. I know what you said." He flinches. "But I never... You hurt me, Sev, and you were hurting yourself, and I didn't think you would ever stop. And I was right. You still haven't. But I couldn't..." She makes a motion as if to thread her fingers through her hair, distressed, and then seems to remember that it is all tucked away under her hat. Her hands hang in the air for a moment, poised and lost. "I couldn't stop caring about you, even if we had to stop being friends. It was so... Do you know what that's like?"
At his expression, it is her turn to flinch. Of course he knows what it is like. He has missed her so unbearably much, has been living with the loss of her for years. He tries not to feel satisfaction at the shame in the downward tilt of her mouth.
There. Now she knows. It will be a burden they share.
"Does Potter know where you are?" he asks.
Lily shakes her head. The motion dislodges—finally—a red wave from her hat. She sweeps it behind her ear automatically. "I didn't think he'd understand."
"And you thought I would?"
She pauses. "I just wanted to see you again. I didn't know if I ever would." She bites her lip, and then seems resolved. "I need to leave now."
He wants her to stay. It is everything he can do to restrain his hands as they long to reach out for her, trapping her here, if that is what it will take. Regardless of his efforts, she still notices his clenched fist, and senses its meaning.
"I wish I could," Lily says simply. "But you know I can't. You know we've both made this decision. You have your path, and I have mine."
The implication is there: I can't save you anymore; I tired of trying long ago.
She is going to leave. As she said, he may never see her again. Everything is so uncertain now.
The betrayal and hostility falter abruptly.
"You asked me once, if I—in another life, if we had no magic..." His eyes are desperate now, not angry, and he hates himself for breaking down while she is still here. "After everything, Lily... Answer me this. Would you still wish me to come with you? If there were another path for us to tread?"
He braces himself for her sharp reply, but her response is much, much softer than he expects. She holds his gaze steadily, sadly, and does not speak for a long time.
"Always, Sev," she whispers eventually, and turns to leave. Before she does, though, so quickly that he does not have time to react, she throws her arms around him and pulls herself to his chest, breathing her words into him as if they are meant to give him life. "Always."
Then, she is gone. The room darkens again.
Severus spends a bewildering and euphoric Saturday holding the hands of his wife and child. They never seem to let him go—or perhaps, he thinks at one point, it is he who is so reluctant to release them. Once every last pancake has been consumed, they walk to a nearby park, close enough that their sides do not start to ache from the fullness of their stomachs. The bushes and trees surrounding the grass and play structures are dotted with flowers like brightly-colored inkblots.
Jo has a favorite swing to which she darts at once, kicking her legs and looking at him expectantly. Though she is old enough—big enough—to propel herself, she takes delight in the tradition of being pushed by her father, thrown into the sky like a dove. Lily teases him at the manner in which his coat flaps every time Jo passes on her swing—another tradition, one that will never get tired, though he enjoys scowling at it for show.
When Lily worries that Jo will actually lose her lovingly-prepared breakfast, Jo jumps off the swing—stirring Severus's memory so suddenly that he is surprised when she does not fly off and float gracefully to the ground—and moves to a sandbox, where she constructs historically-accurate castles for the next two hours. Severus and Lily retire to a bench close by, and they discuss Chemistry lesson plans, and the possible hopelessness of education for some individuals, and read their respective books—Lily, a classic novel, Severus, a lengthy biography—in companionable quiet, the only sound that of Jo's digging and the laughter of the other, distant children.
At length, another unforeseen bout of rain sends them scurrying laughingly for shelter. Severus laments his absent umbrella, Lily tries to linger outside for just a few minutes longer, and Jo urges them onward with the expectation of hot chocolate once they reach home. This expectation, of course, is met, and they huddle in a contented crowd about the fireplace with mugs to warm their hands—the only dry creature among them being the cat, who joins them despite Jo's wet fingers on his fur. (Severus's coat is not permitted to the happy circle.)
For the first time in a long while, the day has left Severus almost giddy. There are some times when his expression registers blank at a name someone mentions, or an item whose location he does not recall, or an event that seems familiar only as the distant memory of a memory; and every time, Lily catches his gaze and holds it for a moment, puzzled, but obviously working on an explanation with which to present him later, and with which to compare the actual truth. However, she says nothing of it while the sun still shines overhead, and the promise of a later conversation behind a closed door waits, but does not loom.
Finally, after the library's closing sends them home to dinner, twilight clinging to the edges of the clouds; after Jo agrees to go to bed only if she is read the first chapter of her newfound book, her eyes too sleepy to hold onto the printed words on their own; after all but the lights in one room are switched off; after the house itself begins to settle into the noises and patterns of sleep, Lily takes Severus's hand and leads him to the one illuminated room, and closes the door softly. She sits on the edge of their bed, and waits.
"So tell me," she says.
He does; and Lily listens. Her brows furrow not in judgement, but in what appears as an almost academic interest, the cogs in her mind visibly turning to, if not rationalize, then understand and accept. Her first reaction is not to proclaim him mad, but to think of all the ways in which he is not, and for perhaps the first time today—though it surprises him that it has taken him this long—he realizes, concretely, that Lily loves him. Not as a friend, with the simple fondness of children who have grown up together; but deeply, unshakably, romantically, and requited.
Sometimes, he has to stop his explanation, because he gets things muddled, at one moment one person, and the next, another version of himself. Sometimes, he does not know which is real, and which is not, and Lily holds his hand tighter, smoothing circles with her thumb, and tells him everything she has ever read on the possibility of parallel universes ("It hasn't been disproven, you know. We discover new truths every day. Or, maybe you're actually still dead, and this is some kind of... afterlife."), and how it will be all right regardless, really.
"So do these two worlds align exactly, do you think?" Lily questions at one point. "That is, are the events the same across both worlds, except that one has magic, and one doesn't?"
"I don't know," Severus admits. The magic world, the memory of the snake's fangs in his neck—they are clearer now than Jo and the cat and the little Muggle home. "The end results are... contradictory."
"Oh?" She arches an auburn brow. For a moment, he is distracted by the way the lamplight shines in her hair.
He clears his throat. "You marry Potter."
Lily, to her credit, looks aghast. "Potter. James Potter? The arrogant toerag? That Potter?"
Her incredulity makes his heart leap.
"You have a child together," he adds. "A son. He grows up to"—his lips twitch—"save the world."
She laughs. "And my darling husband and me?"
Severus looks down at their joined hands, the wedding bands. "You are killed by the Darkest wizard that world has ever known. It is... my fault."
"Spend the rest of my life attempting to make amends for what I have done." Pursing his lips, he falls silent. A part of him has always wanted to tell Lily what he has done for her, for her son—though somehow, the name, the name is slipping from him—yet now that he has the chance, he cannot.
Lily will ease it from him later. For now, she resumes stroking his hand with her thumb, and curls her legs so that her knees rest against him. She talks, too, soothing him with her voice as well as her touch. She speaks of rewards, and turning points, and the time she remembers Potter and Black nearly embarrassing him to death by holding him upside down until she had got there to scream at everyone, and then he had put them all to shame by not throwing the rock clenched in his fist, instead uttering some witty remark that had turned Potter's face bright red, and had made Lily fall in love right then and there. ("With you," she clarifies, "of course with you," and for a long time, they are distracted by the feel of each other's lips and skin.)
"It is so... frustrating," Severus admits, after the moon has risen high, and the lamps have gone out. "I feel as though I belong here, yet I have also belonged there, so wholly. Here, I have gained, yet there is such loss that I can hardly comprehend. I... We once performed magic, Lily—magic, of all the scientific impossibilities! The things there were to learn! There, the thought of being ordinary was deplorable to me. Now, here I sit, indistinguishable."
Lily's voice is almost too soft when she next speaks, almost shy, unsure for the first time. "Would you rather be in that world than here?" she asks. The question is so similar to one he has heard before that he freezes before he even has a chance to process how the original implications have been twisted. (Is it worth it? That we're here together?) "I'd understand. It sounds fascinating and wonderful."
Just as before, so many years and lifetimes ago, he does not need to think about his answer. "I would much prefer to be ordinary," he tells her, honest, "than willingly separate myself from you. If I have learned anything, it is this."
Lily smiles into his bare shoulder, enclosing him in her slender arms. "We may be regular people in this life, Sev," she murmurs. "But in that simple fact alone, I believe we are extraordinary. That's magic enough for me."