Title: Severus and Snivellus and Snape
Rating: T+ for tone, subject matter, and one precision F-strike.
Characters/Pairings: Severus, Lily, walk-ins from Dumbledore and Narcissa, cameos from others; initial Lily/Severus, later Severus — Lily, Lily/James mentioned
Summary: Lily is the light that casts Severus's shadow. And how dark a shadow she casts.
A/N: I recognize that parts of the childhood section contradict the Prince's Tale, but this 'verse has already taken a few liberties with canon/Word of Rowling, so I'm not really fighting to make it fit. The spirit hasn't changed much, except Snape is probably a way less creepy child here than he was in the books. Tangent to "Common Stories," "i await a guardian," and "and in this moment i am happy."
He has only one name.
He's six years old the first time he sees her, and just old enough to be learning that no one really wants to talk to him, especially not girls. The neighborhood kids were nice enough to him at first, but after only a couple of afternoons, they started talking around him because he was different, then shunning him because he was strange, then teasing him because he was a freak.
He doesn't want to be a freak, but whenever he tries to fit in, it just doesn't work like it's supposed to. He always says the wrong things or he does something that the other kids don't like or he doesn't have the right kind of clothes or toys; for a while, he learns that he can make them like them if he gives them the answers to the tests at primary school, but then they start hating him for having all the answers and then the teachers find out and then his mother finds out and then his father finds out and then he's worse off than ever.
She's just moved in to a house a few blocks down the street, so she's the new girl at school, and hasn't really settled into a group of friends yet. He almost doesn't say anything to her at all, but then his mother takes him out with her to shop ("at the muggle store this time, can't let your father think I'm still teaching you potions"), and she's there with her parents and sister, and she talks to him first.
"You're in my class, aren't you?" she asks, wide-eyed and half-hidden behind the groceries in her mother's cart.
"I think so," he replies in a vague whisper, although he knows for a fact that she is because she sits two rows ahead of him and one over and sometimes blocks his view of the chalkboard and he's been trying to work up the nerve to talk to her at lunchtime for the past three weeks. He's about to introduce himself when she smiles at him and he forgets what he was going to say.
"I thought you were!" she chirps, and then holds out her hand. "I'm Lily. What's your name?"
"Severus," he answers, too softly, so quiet that even he can barely hear it. Lily tilts her head.
His mother finally notices that he isn't following her anymore, and comes back to him. If his father had been on this trip with them, she would have just grabbed him by the hand and tugged him away because Father is… odd about Severus and what Severus does, but he isn't here, so Mother smiles brightly. "Oh, hello," she says, leaning down to Lily. "And who might you be?"
"Lily!" she replies, matching Mother's smile. "I'm in his class."
"Lily," Mother repeats. "What a pretty name. It suits you," she adds, because Mother is always more cheerful and sweet when Father isn't around. He still doesn't really understand why, but he prefers everything in his life when Father isn't around.
"Thank you," Lily says, and then glances back behind her to where her parents are moving out of the aisle, waiting for her to catch up. "I gotta go! See you tomorrow!" she cries, and runs away from him.
"What a sweet girl," Mother murmurs, taking his hand. "There's a sale on cabbages, by the way. What do you say we don't tell your father and use the money we'll save on them to get ice cream?"
He grins and nods and doesn't bother to question why they always have to lie to Father.
When he walks into the classroom the next day, she smiles at him and waves with big motions, pointing to the seat next to her. "I saved you a place!" she cheers. "We're gonna be friends," she says with a grin brighter than the washed-out white lights in the ceiling.
"All right," he replies quietly, a little scared, a little unsure. "It's Lily, right?" he asks, even though he knows it is. Everyone knows it's Lily. She introduced herself to the class before the teacher could do it for her, and everyone always wants to talk to her and play with her and sit by her, and she gets almost as many answers right as Severus does but she's nicer about it so the rest of the class likes her more. She shouldn't even talk to him. She shouldn't even care about him. She shouldn't even notice him.
"Yup!" she answers, still in that happy, chirpy voice. "And I know a secret," she teases, looking up and away from him.
"What is that?" he replies uncertainly, because secrets in the Snape household are never good for anyone but especially never good for Severus. Secret is a dirty word to Father.
"Yes," Lily gushes, oblivious. "I know your name!" she cries like it's a victory, and he can't stop himself from smiling a little bit.
"How'd you find out?" he asks, as though he isn't just now deciding that this was a game they made up ahead of time, a sort of a question-and-answer guessing game, a warm version of Rumpelstiltskin.
"I asked, silly," she says, rolling her eyes, but the smile on her face keeps her from sounding mean. She's talking like she doesn't really think he's silly, like she really thinks they're friends now that she's won their game.
It's the first time he can remember someone calling him a mean name in a good way. It's the first time he can remember someone teasing him in a good way.
It's the first time he can remember someone liking him.
"Anyway," she goes on, leaning in and touching his arm, "I like your name. The other kids thought it was funny, but I don't think it's funny. I think it's just corking. Se-ver-us," she says, sounding it out. "I've never heard anyone with that name before, and I thought, anyone with such a good name has to be a good friend. That's just how the world works," she declares, and he feels like he's falling.
"Is it?" he asks faintly, and she nods matter-of-factly, a cheerfully secretive smile on her face as she does.
"We're going to be best friends, Severus," she whispers. "I feel it."
It takes a little time for him to figure out why she likes him so much: even though she's golden-red and brilliant like the sun, she's got a wicked sense of humor that matches his right up like they were made to be friends. They play hopscotch on the playground and they both nudge each other's stones to help the other cheat, and they both stand by the gate after school waiting for their parents to pick them up and they both make up ridiculous stories about all their classmates' parents, and they both very firmly don't talk about two very firm people: Lily doesn't talk about her sister, and Severus doesn't talk about his father.
But when Lily's parents pick her up, they're bright like she is and sweet as can be and they offer him rides home a lot (which he always refuses because even though Father forgets about him sometimes, Father gets really angry if he comes up to school to pick up Severus and Severus isn't there waiting). They smile like Lily smiles and their car is grass-green like Lily's favorite dress is and Lily's mum has red hair like Lily does and Lily's father has black hair like Severus does and he looks at them and he learns just how deep want can cut.
Lily is the light that casts Severus's shadow. She talks like him but he knows she isn't like him at all. She isn't part of his world and she doesn't really know what goes on at his house and in a few years she'll go on to secondary school while he goes onto Hogwarts and if there's anything Severus knows for sure, it's that muggles and wizards shouldn't be allowed to be friends and definitely shouldn't be allowed to be married and extra-definitely shouldn't ever have children who have to feel the Severus feels.
He's almost nine years old before he actually starts to understand her.
Lily, he learns, was never really blind about what goes on at his house.
She finally tells him, on the last day of school before Christmas holiday, that she started to put the pieces together after noticing how much he'd jump whenever his father spoke to him, that her parents keep offering him rides because she keeps begging them to, that she's even more like him than he thought she was but in the other direction, that she sees through masks even better than he does but for the other reason.
The more he understands her, the more he misses her — already misses her — because she'll stay here and he'll go on to Hogwarts. For the very first (and very last) time in his life, that December, he wishes he was a muggle.
But that January she knocks on his door a million times and rushes past his mother when she opens the door without so much as a sorry or a please, then bursts into his room and into tears.
"Something wrong with me, Sev!" she cries, and claps her hands over her mouth with a nervous glance back to the hall, something she's inherited from him. Mother walks into the room cautiously and closes the door behind her.
"Lily, what's the matter?" Mother asks kindly, and Lily relaxes, because she's learned the same lesson Severus learned a long time ago: Eileen Prince is always more cheerful and sweet when Tobias Snape isn't around. If Mother is openly concerned for Lily, it means that Father isn't home.
"I did something," Lily gasps behind her hands. "I don't know how but my sister was being so mean to me about you and I — I just — I don't know what happened!" she wails, and it says more about Severus than he would like (or that he will ever admit) that his first thought is what will we do with the body? It isn't Mother's first thought, though.
Mother touches Lily's shoulder and guides her to Severus's desk, where she throws herself dramatically into the seat and buries her face in her arms. "What happened to your sister, sweetheart?" she asks, rubbing Lily's shoulder while looking straight at Severus and there's something in her eyes that he doesn't recognize.
"I made her hair blue! It was like I poured paint on her but I swear I didn't!" Lily sobs, looking up at Mother desperately. "Everyone's so mad at me and it wasn't my fault! I don't even know what happened!"
His heart is about to come pounding out of his chest. He turns to his mother, but she isn't looking at him anymore. Instead, she crouches down so that she's looking up at Lily, and brushes her tear-splattered hair back from her face. "I know what happened, Lily," Mother says softly. "And there's nothing at all wrong with you. In fact, there's something wonderful about you."
Another something wonderful, Severus thinks.
At Hogwarts, she defends him from those boys in her house and doesn't understand why he isn't really grateful anymore. It's all right, when they're alone, for him to agree with her that she's got just as much worth as boys and pure-bloods, that no one has the right to tell her what she can't do with her life, that she's equal — but in public, he has a reputation that he's got to uphold.
Lily doesn't understand that reputation. She thinks it's ghastly, and she watches him warily whenever it comes up because she thinks of it as a betrayal, but it isn't, it really isn't. He'd love to be like her, die to be like her, kill to be like her, to be able to agree with her and be with her in public. It's just that it isn't safe.
It isn't safe and he isn't a Gryffindor; he doesn't take those kinds of stupid risks like she does. If Lily goes counter to the crowd, people admire her for it — she's in the house of the brave and she's Setting An Example and she's Making A Difference — but if Severus goes counter to the crowd, he's just alone, at best.
And at worst… at worst, at worst, at worst…
Lily doesn't know. She doesn't understand his reputation, and she doesn't know how much she owes to it. She's a mudblood, sticking her neck out where it isn't wanted, into places that'll get it cut off, because she's brave and reckless and indignant and justified, terribly justified, and she doesn't know how much danger she's in because Severus never lets her know how much danger she's in.
Because Lily wouldn't be Lily if she got scared into silence.
So he keeps up his reputation with the darker parts of Slytherin House so those darker parts will leave her alone. And they've made it crystal-clear that his word is all that protects her, if he didn't defend her, then she would — she wouldn't be Lily, either they'd terrify her or they'd break her or both and he can't — it's Lily, and she has to be Lily, because if he doesn't have Lily he doesn't know what he would have.
She's the only person who's ever been brave enough to stand up for him.
Even his own mother could never stand up for him.
But Lily's losing faith in him and it's making him scared; cowardice is in his blood, it's carved into his bones, and he doesn't know how to be brave enough to tell her, to side with her, to choose. Lily's getting tired of making excuses for him, Lily's getting hopeless about him, Lily's losing faith in him.
Severus is just losing.
The last time she tries to reason with him, he (foolishly) (desperately) (painfully) thinks they still have hope.
"I know what you're trying to do, Severus," she tells him quietly, lingering by the greenhouses after class. "I know you think you're helping me, but please, I need you to trust me. Don't throw your lot in with them to protect me. I can protect myself. You're better than this, Severus," she says, eyes both exhausted and imploring. "I know you don't think you are, but I do. I know you're better than them."
"I — " he starts, but then Lucius Malfoy saunters out of the nearest greenhouse and Severus has to greet him because he has an appearance to keep up. "Lucius, good to see you," he says amicably, and Lucius smiles at him, breezes right past Lily like she's painted into the background.
"Severus, I was just looking for you," he replies, and maybe it's a mirage cast by Lily's words or maybe it's something that's really there, but he sounds unbearably condescending and cruel. "We were planning a meeting tonight, in the seventh-year boy's dorm. I trust you'll be there?" he asks without asking at all.
"Of course," Severus answers automatically, and glances to Lily with a beg in his eyes, but her face is glazed over — she's shut them both out entirely. "Same time as usual?"
"Naturally," Lucius says archly, and strolls away from them like they're subjects at his court. It makes Severus's blood boil… but Severus's blood has been boiling for five years, and he's running out of places to direct the steam.
"Lily, I'll talk to you later," he says fervently, readjusting his books under his arm. She looks like nothing's the matter at all. She looks like herself, just like she always does.
"Yeah, we'll talk," she lies woodenly, and turns away from him.
It occurs to him a week into the summer after his fifth year that he will spend the rest of his life trying to apologize to her.
It occurs to him a week into his sixth year that she will never accept it.
When he follows Sirius Black's map into the Shrieking Shack, he doesn't know what he's thinking. All he knows is that it feels like his skin is made of lightning and malicious hope and abyssal self-destruction; he's too mad with pent-up anger, sorrow, longing, need, heartache, shame, fear; he's blinded by the blood on his hands and the memories sewn into his eyelids; all he can think, the only thing echoing in his skull, is that this is exactly what he's been waiting for.
It's dysphoria on his tongue, an undirected malevolent energy that pushes him further and further under. He knows what he's going to find at the end of the tunnel: a werewolf — a second chance — a secret to expose — a taste of vengeance — a passive-aggressive suicide — a mistake —
When he gets into the house, he doesn't see the werewolf (but it's Lupin, it has to be Lupin, always sick, always disappearing, always exhausted, it's Lupin it's Lupin it's Lupin) and he only half-hears it's rough transformation; the blood pounding in his ears is blocking everything out.
He doesn't see James Potter either, until the hand grabs him from behind and nearly tears his arm out of its socket, throwing him away from the door and back towards the passage. James Potter's eyes are nearly as wild as Severus's, but in all the opposite ways.
( — a human, a lost cause, a secret to keep, a taste of heroism, an active salvation, a triumph — )
"Get out of here, you mangy git!" Potter shouts, because good is not always nice.
"I knew it," is all he can say, the only words that will rise up to his throat. "I knew it! He's a — Lupin's a werewolf!"
"Yeah, he is," Potter screams back at him, a vicious light in his face, "now what the fuck are you gonna do about it? 'Cause the longer you sit here, the more likely it is that you'll be wolf chow before morning!"
Severus finally notices where James Potter is standing: braced against the door, between him and the deadly noise. The meaning doesn't immediately penetrate the manic haze vibrating in his skull. "I have proof! This'll be the end of you and your cronies!" he crows, but his thoughts are finally starting to coalesce from the mist, his surroundings are finally starting to come into focus.
Underneath the chaotic tangle of emotion, a deep, icy fear is beginning to crawl down his spine.
"Not if you die here!" Potter screams desperately, a look on his face that Severus has never seen before.
(It looks like Lily's face outside the greenhouses. It looks like please, I need you to trust me.)
"Get out!" he yells, so loud that his voice cracks on the last syllable, so loud that it startles Severus out of the hazy dissociation, so loud that it dislodges the terror from his brain and sends it shooting across all his nerves, so loud that it chases him back out of the passage.
This is the second most shameful moment of his life so far: Severus Snape leaves James Potter in the Shrieking Shack with a howling-mad werewolf because James Potter ran desperately into the Shrieking Shack to save Severus Snape from a howling-mad werewolf.
Lily would be absolutely disgusted with him if she knew.
This is why he keeps the secret.
When Dumbledore pulls him into his office half an hour after the event, to join Potter and Black where they're already standing, blank and silent like statues with McGonagall right behind them, it's James Potter that he asks an explanation from.
And James Potter lies.
Potter lies to cast himself as the villain. Potter lies to one of the most accomplished Leglimens in the world. Potter lies, and says that he planted the note. Potter lies, and says that he goaded Severus into using it. Potter lies, and says that he made Severus go into the Shrieking Shack.
Potter lies, and no one believes it.
But they don't have to believe it, because Potter isn't trying to convince anyone. His words are mechanical, his back is straight, his eyes are locked on the Headmaster's; this lie isn't meant to be believed, it's simply meant to be heard.
It's Potter's word that will go on the record, unless Severus or Sirius Black refute it, but neither of them speak; Severus is staring at the desk and Black is staring at the floor, although neither of them are seeing anything at all.
Dumbledore could demand the truth. Dumbledore could call Potter out on his blatant lies. Dumbledore could demand that one of them speak up, agree or deny; Dumbledore has to know that they can both stand silent while Potter throws himself on the sword for them, but if they're asked to speak they'll be forced to give into the crushing shame. Dumbledore could spare James Potter. Dumbledore could destroy Severus Snape. Dumbledore should destroy Sirius Black.
"This is a very troubling matter, Mister Potter," he says sternly, and doesn't look away from Potter's face. "You nearly killed a fellow student, and this cannot be ignored. However," he adds, a concession to the truth, "your record this year has been remarkably clean, and until now I had thought you had turned over a new leaf.
"In lieu of expulsion," he explains in a low voice, and it's Sirius Black who flinches, "you will be placed on a week's full suspension. You will not attend class, nor will you be allowed to make up the assignments that you miss. You are barred from all school activities and functions, and restricted from all parts of the castle and grounds except the bathrooms, your dormitory, the Gryffindor common area, and the Great Hall, for the duration of the week. Any violation of the suspension will result in your immediate expulsion. Do you understand?"
It's right now, Severus thinks, cutting his eyes to the side to look at Sirius Black's shoes, that they should speak up. James Potter is playing the hero that neither of them asked him to be, making a sacrifice that neither of them need and certainly don't deserve, placing the both of them so far in his debt that it turns Severus's stomach just to think about.
It's right now that he should speak. It's right now that Sirius Black should speak, even moreso than Severus.
But cowardice is in his blood and malice is still too bitter in his mouth to make any room for words, and Sirius Black will suffer a far worse punishment than James Potter will if he tells the truth now. So instead, they stand alone and together with their stigmata.
"I understand, sir," James Potter says, and it lands on the floor like the blade of a guillotine.
He started Hogwarts with his hand in hers; she graduates Hogwarts with her hand in James Potter's.
I was there first, he thinks, it should be me. And then, because it twists in his chest to think that Lily isn't around him anymore because Lily doesn't want to be around him anymore, he re-focuses all his hatred on James Potter, tells himself that James Potter has conned her into his bed, that James Potter lied to her like he lied to Dumbledore.
He tries to catch her right before she leaves the Hogwarts Express for the very last time, and he's almost certain that she hears him call her name, but she doesn't turn around or even slow down.
And then she's gone.
In the blackest, cruelest, damnedest parts of his mind, he is convinced that she's to blame. She asked him to trust her, but refused to trust him! She belonged to him first! He was the one she came sobbing to when she turned her sister's hair blue! He needed her!
He needs her and she left him without even saying goodbye. After everything they went through, she — she just left — she's just gone — she walked away —
( — from the person who betrayed her and hurt her and threw his lot in with those that want her dead, whisper the lighter parts of his mind, the flickering light that still casts his shadow — )
— without even telling him goodbye.
His heart is broken.
Viciously, he decides to take her at her old words by the greenhouse, at her I can protect myself. Viciously, he withdraws his seven years of protection like they would have mattered in the outside world anyway. Viciously, he imagines her running back to him, begging him to save her. Viciously, he imagines denying her. Viciously, he imagines bribing her.
Pathetically, he imagines cooking up a love potion and forcing her to drink it.
Nauseously, he imagines the way she'd look at him if she knew what he was imagining.
But underneath all the bluster, heartache, loneliness, and bitterness, he still can't bring himself to hate her. Lily was the first, and last, person who has ever actually been on his side.
At the basest level, he knows that this is utterly his fault. But cowardice is in Severus's blood, and there's no room for honesty under all his scar tissue.
The Dark Lord thinks it a kindness, when he gives Severus his mission. He believes that he's giving Severus the vengeance he craves and deserves, as a thank-you for his loyalty and a debt he'll forever be forced to repay.
He sees it for what it is, because the only person who's better at seeing through masks than Severus is, is Lily Evans. It's meant to indenture him to the Dark Lord, and it's meant to test his commitment to the cause, and it's only a happy bonus that it would kill two known members of the Order of the Phoenix.
He knows what it is at every level and he isn't even surprised by any of it, but when he leaves the Dark Lord's presence and returns to his dusty home on Spinner's End, he still collapses to the floor and cries.
Narcissa Malfoy is to be his partner in this crime, although whether it's a boon for Severus or a punishment for her, he isn't sure. Severus has never had much to do with Narcissa, beyond the occasional hello at a meeting or a social event, but he thinks immediately that he'd rather she was his target than Lily.
Narcissa Malfoy makes such a nice target, and easier in every way.
Lily's information is ironclad after leaving Hogwarts: according to all of the official records, she completely fell off the map the moment she left King's Cross. She is rarely seen in public, and only in very public places. If she travels at all, it's by untraceable, muggle means at unknown hours. She does not contact friends or family unless they're also in the Order. She has no home on any record Severus can find, nor any place of work. For all intents and purposes, Lily Evans simply vanished after Hogwarts.
Although a tiny, ever-shrinking part of Severus — the lightest part of his mind, the part that almost wishes that both he and Lily were muggles after all — a tiny piece of himself wonders if the real reason he can't find her is because he doesn't want to find her.
But Narcissa Malfoy has a brain that seems wired to sniff out rats, because a week into their hunt, she levels him with a cold glare and says, "Everyone else may believe you, but you're not fooling me. You're a half-blood," she continues, disgusted. "You know damn well how to find someone using muggle resources, and you know damn well that they won't be protecting themselves from those."
Without a counterattack ready, Severus has little choice but to agree. "A fair point," he replies quickly and evenly, and it only appears warm in contrast to her icy contempt. "Continue searching for them magically, in case they slip up. I'll begin searching muggle networks."
He's dismayed at how quickly he finds her through the muggle post, but he's much more dismayed at the post he finds.
You are cordially invited, the thick, creamy card says, in gold-red ink just the color of Lily's hair, to the wedding of James Thomas Potter and Lily Katherine Evans, to be held at the home of Mrs Vivian Potter at seven o'clock in the evening on the fifteenth day of March, Nineteen-hundred and Seventy-nine.
And — in a fit of disgust and spite, consumed from the inside-out with a monstrous need to cause pain, the desperate compulsion to retaliate — he shows the invitation to Narcissa, all of his poisonous emotions hidden behind indistinguishable scars.
"Well," she says evenly, turning it over in her fingers a few times. "That wasn't so hard, now was it?"
There's something challenging in her tone, something he can't accurately read. She expects something of him now. He just isn't sure what.
Narcissa tells the Dark Lord about the invitation before Severus has a chance to decide what to do with it, and he loathes — Narcissa for making the move Severus never would have been able to, the Dark Lord for forcing him into this, James Potter for being James Potter, himself for a lifetime of ghastly mistakes — but more than all of them, in this single gut-wrenching moment, for the first and last time, he loathes Lily.
She shouldn't have ever noticed him in the first place. Why did she even notice him in the first place?
It's her fault. She shouldn't have been Lily. She should have been awful like all of the other students at that stupid primary school, she should have been awful like his father and a coward like his mother, she should have been a muggle, she should have been a Slytherin, she should have been his. It's her fault. She made the wrong choices and her wrong choices forced him to make the wrong choices and she gave up on him before he could save her and it's her fault.
It's her fault.
It's her fault.
It's her fault.
It's his mission.
He blends into the dusk on March fifteenth, in an alleyway a block from Mrs Vivan Potter's sprawling yard, close enough to catch glimpses but far enough to be unseen. There's gold lights in on strings, paper lanterns slowly rising into the sky, a gazebo with backlit flowers, music, the smell of cake and spring blossoms, the sound of Lily's voice, the color of her hair burned into his retinas.
Narcissa is standing beside him, hood over her white-blond hair (he imagines blue paint falling all over it like Petunia's hair, Lily's wailing, Mother's soothing voice), watching the sky and twirling her wand between her fingers idly. Severus tries to block her out of his consciousness, as though he can make her disappear if he wishes hard enough.
(Lily's memory in his ear tells him that he's better than this, and he tries to block it out of his consciousness, too.)
He doesn't know if it was planned ahead of time that Narcissa would join him on the actual attack, or if it was a last-minute improvisation on her part, or perhaps — worryingly, if so — on the Dark Lord's part. It shows a distressing lack of trust from one of them, but only the Dark Lord's mistrust matters to Severus; Narcissa can be convinced or ignored outright, and if it really comes down to it, he's closer to the Dark Lord than she is, and his word has higher value.
He thinks it's Narcissa who distrusts him. He thinks about the details of the mission and the details of his Lord and the details of his fellow Death Eaters so that he doesn't have to think about the murmur of Lily's voice lingering on the breeze.
Either way, he demands himself to think, neither of them believe that he's going to turn on them. His loyalty to the cause is not in question — the only variable is whether or not Severus Snape is cold enough to kill Lily Evans. Either way, and whoever decided it, that's why.
Narcissa is here to make sure he goes through with it — to watch him destroy the only person who has ever found him beautiful.
For a few minutes, as the sun falls towards the horizon and turns the red-gold sky a rich wine color, he hates Narcissa Malfoy more than he hates anyone else in the entire world. And then she speaks, voice almost too low to hear.
"You can't do it," she murmurs, and he flinches, a lie halfway to his throat. She doesn't wait for it. "But you don't have to."
"I do," he snaps, voice matching hers for volume. "I — that's what she deserves," he explains, cutting off the I owe her that dignity just before it can reach his lips. Narcissa must believe that he hates Lily, because the Dark Lord must believe that he hates Lily, because if he leaves a shadow of a question about whether or not he's capable of this then he'll lose the position he's worked so hard for — the position he sacrificed her for— the position he took to save her and he'll kill her to keep — and it would mean that he's done all of this for less than nothing.
Narcissa must be convinced. The Dark Lord must be convinced. Severus has already traded his heart and his soul for this — it has to become worth it. Somehow. In some way. For some reason. Something has to go right for him, anything, even if only in this wrong definition of right.
A hard knot coils itself up into the base of his throat — equal parts shame, sorrow, and self-loathing — and he swallows it, like he has a thousand times before.
But Narcissa isn't finished.
"You can't," she repeats firmly, the words maddening in their quiet confidence. Narcissa, he recalls, is also good at seeing through masks, but then, he hasn't been wearing this one very well lately.
A minute or so passes; the sky darkens several shades until it's more blue than red; the temperature begins its crawl towards a late frost that might kill off the flowers on the gazebo before they can fully bloom.
Severus tries to breathe.
"Not like this," Narcissa finally murmurs, and turns away from the sky, to the ground, a look on her face that reminds him of that shadow over Lily's eyes, at the greenhouse almost four years ago.
"Then how should it be done?" he drawls, an passing attempt at his usual contemptuous sneer.
"Not like this," she repeats, with such feeling that it surprises him. "Not on her wedding day."
"Narcissa Malfoy, getting sentimental over a mudblood's wedding?" he jeers, because it's all he can think of to say. She glances at him without turning her head.
"I'm talking about you," she replies, words sharpened to sever an artery. He wonders how long she's been waiting for this. "You can't do this to her tonight. Not on the happiest day of her life — even if it makes you sick to see her marry that blood traitor."
He doesn't reply for a long moment, trying instead to focus on Lily's voice, trying to discern the words — but at this distance, it's just noise. "I don't have a choice," he whispers, nerves shaking too hard under his skin to give concrete sound to the words.
"Yes, you do," Narcissa says, and a spike of white-hot rage electrifies him.
"Either I do it myself or it doesn't happen at all," he snaps, jaw clenched, dragging in three short, ragged breaths.
"I never suggested that I do it," she replies in that firm, even, confident tone. He pauses to regain control of his lungs, and she continues. "Lily Evans is entirely too intelligent to even consider allowing a wedding invitation with her precise location and the time that she will be at that location to even potentially fall into the wrong hands," she says like a recitation.
He wonders again how long she's been waiting for this.
"And if that was true?" Severus asks, slipping into his scar tissue, relying on instinct to make him opaque.
"The invitation was a plant," Narcissa explains patiently, eyes locked on one of the paper lanterns that's steadily trying to float away. "A diversion. You and I both misjudged her, I because she's a mudblood and we all know that mudbloods are fools," she murmurs, "and you because you believed that she had not changed since you were close to her.
"It was a simple mistake, and we equally accept what little blame there is to be had. We give the Dark Lord this information, as an explanation for our failure and as advice for the future: Lily Evans — I'm sorry, Potter," she corrects, another calculated knife aimed for his throat, "is not to be underestimated, but unfortunately, Severus Snape does not have the clout that he once had with her, and would be no more effective at eliminating her than any other qualified witch or wizard."
(A new lesson is suddenly learned: scar tissue protects from shallow wounds, but causes more agony when pierced than unmarked skin.)
"Why would you do this?" he asks emotionlessly.
She doesn't look away from the lantern. "It suits me to have others in my debt," she answers simply, and refreshingly direct. "And, I'll admit," she adds, semi-apologetic, unnecessarily-sarcastic, "I have little taste for ruining a lovely wedding dress."
"And you came up with this yourself?" he challenges, and she turns to him with a whole winter's worth of frost in her eyes.
"I have depths in me, the magnitude of which you cannot fathom," she hisses, shadowed in ways that he thought were his alone. "I am proposing a mutually beneficial arrangement between two allies and business partners. You have nothing to lose by agreeing to it. And," she adds pointedly, carelessly, caustically, "to answer your question, yes, I did come up with this myself. Do you really believe that anyone else would be so kind?"
He doesn't respond for a long moment, just long enough to hear the pianist's first note. "Then I believe we have an agreement," he says evenly.
They leave without looking at each other, before the bridal march can begin.
The morning after she dies, when he's locked in his house so no one can see him or hear him, someone knocks on his door and is gone before he can even scream at them to leave.
On the step is a paper lantern: half condolence, half reminder.
He hates Narcissa Malfoy with every fiber of his being, and he's impossibly grateful to her.
Severus has lost; he goes to Dumbledore with nothing but self-destruction propelling him forward, nothing but the quickly-fading memory of Lily's voice ringing in his ear, nothing but information to offer, nothing left of his skin but shredded scar tissue.
Dumbledore could demand blood as repayment. Dumbledore could call the entire Ministry of Magic in to drag him off to Azkaban. Dumbledore could twist the knife into his heart, force him to face the full weight of his choices. Dumbledore could validate Snivellus. Dumbledore could destroy Severus. Dumbledore should destroy Snape.
"Help me protect Lily's son."
The word Snivellus belongs to a schoolyard bully, and it poisons the air with memory.
The word Snape belongs to his father, and it's a legacy he's fallen into step behind in spite of (or perhaps because of) how much he loathes it.
The word Severus belongs to Lily, and it casts a shadow he'll never escape.