“…and, if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death.’
-Elizabeth Barrett Browning
“I wonder what Snape bloody well thinks he’s doing.”
“Has he gone mad?”
It was a Saturday, in February. Snape had ventured out for a walk on the school grounds. Unusually, he wasn’t in his school robes, but had on a pair of black slacks and a thick, gray turtleneck sweater—one of the ones distributed to staff. He had a lit fag clamped between his teeth, and his hair was tied into a short queue. He walked, barefoot, out to the great lake, its surface frozen solid. He had come round to the lake from a side entrance of the school, away from the general commotion of students. Still, some noticed his bizarre appearance.
“Ron, he’s bleeding.”
The surface of the ice was sticky and cold, and it tore at the skin of his feet. He left bloody prints behind as he walked, but he barely seemed to notice. Instead, he stoically made his way to the very middle of the lake, and then peered up at the sky. The smoke from his fag unfurled along with his breath and he waited for a moment.
“It’s an owl!”
A handsome bird flew down from the heavens. It bore an unrecognizable crest and it carried a note in its beak. It opened its beak and the small slip of paper fluttered playfully and landed perfectly between Snape’s raised fingers. The bird flapped in midair for a few seconds before landing gracefully on Snape’s shoulder. Snape gently stroked its feathers, which were a tawny colour, and walked back across the lake, leaving more bloody footprints.
“Harry, did you see that?”
“I did—I wonder who that owl’s from.”
“His feet are bloody bleeding!”
Hermione looked contemptuously at Ron.
“I think we’ve all clued into that already, Ronald.”
Harry didn’t notice their bantering; his eyes were still trained on the retreating figure of Snape. The small, lone figure turned its head to look at Harry, and Harry could feel the piercing gaze of Snape’s eyes. He panicked and looked away, but by the time he felt brave enough to look again, Snape had already re-entered the school.
What Harry didn’t know was that Snape felt a twinge of guilt, and malicious glee, as he thought, If only you knew what I held in my hand, Potter… If only you knew…
Severus walked back to his quarters and sat down at his private desk. The owl found its regular perch on the backboard of Severus’ wooden sitting chair, by the fireplace. Severus looked at it fondly and sent for a house-elf to bring it some owl nibbles from the Owlery. He opened the slip of paper and found the anticipated note to be disappointingly short:
Tell me your version of the night first, and then I’ll fill in the rest. Don’t leave out any details.
Severus frowned, but only for a moment. He then pulled out a clean sheet of parchment and searched absently for a quill. Inking one and ready to write, he thought for a moment before scribbling his reply:
Don’t be coy, now; you only want to hear my version to feel the full drama of that whole sordid affair. But I’ll indulge you. May you take this and feel your girlish sensitivities tickled.
It was the Halloween masquerade. You can imagine what that was like for me. It was our seventh year. I was teased horribly; by then I was already well established and revered in my house, but still the thought of my going to the school-wide costume party was laughable. It still is, I suspect.
Eva Rosier took pity on me. I was quite friendly with her elder brother, you see. She found me a traditional Slytherin’s mask—serpentine, I believe, and it wasn’t overly dramatic, but suitably appropriate. I think it was supposed to mimic or represent one of the ancient kings descended from Salazar, back in the age when wizards had swords… A little funny to think of it now, but I was relieved then just to have found something. I had a crown, a circlet really, but a crown all the same. Do you remember that? I’m sure you appreciated the humour in it.
This was after our (quite public) falling-out. You had been going out with—and I shall not mention his name, for I don’t feel it’s necessary—for about a month now. I had this jealous feeling that you had picked him so quickly just so you could have someone to go to the Halloween ball with you. I was right, wasn’t I? A digression—I apologize. So because it was so soon after our falling-out, I did think it best to avoid you at all costs. I was still angry with you, but I was also afraid that you were angrier with me, and of what that would entail. You had quite a sharp tongue, you know, and I didn’t fancy being chewed out in front of the whole school again.
Eva was a safe choice for an escort. She was already engaged to Nott, who had graduated a few years earlier. So we went almost as cousins. I was seen almost as her keeper while Nott was away. I was fine with it; I had someone to dance one number with and to hold onto my arm for at least a few moments. I didn’t feel like I had come to the ball alone and without purpose. That would have been enough fodder for a month’s worth of teasing. I had an excuse, is what I’m trying to say, and I was glad for it.
Even though I was avoiding you, I was by no means unaware of you. You had dressed as the moon, and he had dressed as the sun. I thought it rather too tacky in its neat little match, but you looked beautiful all the same (get the sniggers and ‘aaws’ out now). I thought you would have looked better with me, the serpentine king with the bewitched moon… Ah, wishful thinking, and I never entertained it for more than a split second. I wasn’t that romantic.
The entire night went by in a bit of a blur. I remember being aware of you and trying to avoid you, but keep you within seeing distance at all times. I remember looking for distractions, and mainly sticking with my house members the entire night. I think I even retreated and hid in one of the stone alcoves of the gardens away from all the noise and people.
And as you remember, midnight was the closing of the ball, but it was also the closing event. The professors magicked away all the lights so that it would be pitch black for a count of three minutes. A special scavenger hunt was then put in place; whoever could find the unicorn’s alicorn hidden somewhere on the party grounds was the victor. It was a chance for everyone to run around and be silly. It was also the unofficial, but traditional time for everyone to run around and steal kisses from strangers or friends. What a hormonal bunch we were.
I knew where the alicorn was, and so I tried to stay away from that area as much as possible. I didn’t want to be caught in the sudden rushing crowd when someone made their triumphant discovery. I didn’t want the alicorn for myself. I didn’t want the sort of attention I would get if I had found it. I was actually wandering around the stone gardens again, hoping half-heartedly that I could spot you, but mostly on my way back to my dormitory.
Which is when you ran straight into me, catching me off guard. I initially thought you had bumped into me by accident, because you acted as if you had, apologizing to me, but I thought of it later and that can’t have been true. You had run purposefully right into my chest, fully aware of your surroundings.
That silly catchphrase people yelled before they attacked someone’s mouth. So that’s what you yelled, and you pecked me on the mouth. If you had left it at that, perhaps I wouldn’t have stayed up nights over-analyzing everything that had happened; but you didn’t. You then whipped off my mask, smiled at my circlet crown and then kissed me fully on the mouth, exposing my naked face to the night. You clung on, as if afraid to let go and fall, and then you ran off again. To him. He had found the alicorn. He presented it to you with pride. I remember seeing it again on your wedding night (you had no idea I was there, did you? I was sitting at the very back).
So there. That’s what happened—at least, all that I know of. It has bothered me ever since. Over the years I’ve learned to forget it, but it surfaces now and again, just as a small puzzlement, a small question. But it has never left. I hope you can resolve that now.
Severus twirled his quill between his fingers, and then scratched out the “sincerely.” He blew on the ink to dry it faster and rolled the parchment into a scroll. Tying it with a cord, he presented it to the owl, who took it in his beak. Severus smiled at it ironically.
“Well… You know who to take it to. Lily Evans.”
The owl hooted at him, dropping the scroll, before huffily picking it back up again. Severus raised an eyebrow.
“No, I refuse to address her as Lily Potter. She is writing to me as Lily Evans. So go to her, then… wherever she is. She still won’t tell me, will she?”
He fancied that the owl gave him a knowing look. The bird ruffled its feathers and then flapped into the air. It took a moment to land on Severus’ windowsill, and then it flew out into the open air.
He didn’t know where the notes were coming from. The first one had come to him on a cold January day. They came every other day now, whimsically falling into his fingertips.
He had walked out into the middle of the frozen great lake just by chance on that first January day. He had been bored, and he also couldn’t bear being cooped up inside the castle for a moment longer. It was evening; the students were mainly inside, as it was too cold to be out. He wrapped himself in warmer clothing and when he saw the lake, he decided to walk across it. Just a passing fancy.
He noticed the bird in the sky, first as a dark speck. He assumed it would fly to the Owlery, but then it came to his hand. It dropped the parchment into his hands, and Severus froze when he saw whom it was from.
“To: Severus Snape, From: Lily Evans”
The owl stubbornly stayed with him, no matter how many times he tried to shoo it away. It only left later, to deliver his reply to wherever this unknown source was. The first note he quickly skimmed through downing a tumbler full of Firewhisky, and then read it again slowly, a thousand times over, murmuring the words to himself.
We have not seen each other in years—an ironic statement, I know. I don’t think you can inquire as to how this correspondence functions—I don’t think I can understand it, myself. You must send me a reply by this owl. He’s here specifically for it, and you will get a reply from me soon. Just stand in the middle of the great lake again, like you must have done to be reading this.
Well, all technicalities aside, you must be gobsmacked—I hope you are (as not much leaves you speechless). I’m glad that it’s you these letters are getting through to. Of course, there are many people I wish I could speak to, Harry for one, but that’s just a passing whimsy. There’s no one I wanted to communicate with, with any sort of urgency, except for you.
Why? Because I know you need closure. No, don’t get angry—I don’t say that with any pretension. Take this opportunity now while you have it, Severus, it’s a most amazing chance. Don’t disappoint me. Think about what I mean when I say closure, and please reply. If you burn this letter, as I know you may, then know that you will always have a feeling of doubt and dissatisfaction. And I know you—with any problem, you like discovering the answer. I hope this quality overrides all of your pride.
I did miss you those years ago, I swear. Lily
His first instinct, ironically enough, had been to burn the letter. Or to rip it. To do something destructive. He satisfied himself by stripping the feathery strands from his quill and then demolishing it in his hands. He sat motionless at his writing desk for the better part of an hour, unable to move, afraid to think, and almost as a reflex he sent his glass smashing into his fireplace.
What sort of sorcery was this? What sort of cheap trick? What was this? He could not articulate his fury or his fear. If this was some elaborate hoax… if this was real… or if this was some dark ploy…
The owl that had brought the letter hooted at him impatiently. It had been perched on his mantel, finding no other comfortable roost, and was beginning to grow tired of waiting for him. Severus looked at the destroyed quill in his hands, and with an irritable gesture, he fished out a spare. Angrily he scribbled onto a scrap of parchment,
He held it up in the air for the owl, who clamped it in its beak and then flew off, out through the only small window in his private quarters. Severus watched it fly off, a million thoughts buzzing through his head and an ache somewhere in his torso. Above all his suspicions and fears, he was most afraid that he would not see the owl again.
He did, though, beginning for him a time period of frayed nerves, anxiety and a demented happiness too bitter for him to enjoy. The owl came back the next week. He had gone to the middle of the frozen lake every day since he had sent his short, sharp reply. At first he thought it silly and highly embarrassing if he played along with whatever game this was, but the thought that the owl would come with another letter and he would not be there to receive it bothered him too much for him to stay away.
When he saw the owl come back after four days he suddenly had the urge to run back to the castle. Or to hex it and blast it out of the air, anything to stop it and its incendiary package. He could not move, frozen to the spot, and the owl swooped low and dropped a piece of parchment into his hands. The note was almost as short as the one he had sent. On an impulse he brought the parchment under his nose, in some fervent hope to catch the hint of a perfume or fragrance, but it only smelled like parchment should. He found himself satisfied with that and then looked at the note:
Don’t say that.
That was all the parchment said.
Severus hadn’t known how to answer those three biting words. The message itself could have been innocuous, perhaps a touch petulant, but they roiled within him like a dark syrup. They haunted his every thought, always a shadow dancing in the background of his mind and they placed him into such a state of numbness and hypertension that he had been even more caustic the next few days—so much so that he frequently rowed with Minerva over unfair treatment towards her students.
As she sulked at him, demanding that he acknowledge abuse on his part, he could only think, don’t say that. He could only hear half of what Minerva said, could only silently scream at her to leave him alone, that he could not hear her out today of all days. After fifteen minutes of enduring his menacing unresponsiveness, Minerva stiffened and looked at him through her spectacles.
“Your eyes are bloodshot, Severus. Why don’t you get some sleep and try to be more civil in the morning?”
Upon later inspection in his solitary confines, he noticed she was right. The veins in the white of his eyes had grown fat with blood and fatigue. He cursed under his breath; he had not replied to the letters—he was not sure they would continue to come. He did not know whether that was a good thing or not.
And then, the owl came:
I should have known you would keep your suspicious nature. You’ve always suspected everything I’ve done. Always wondering whether I would speak to you, only to relate our conversations to my fellow Gryffindors later, laughingly, at your expense—yes, I knew. I knew you didn’t trust to say much around me at first. Always thought I was having a laugh behind your back with my mates. You know, it really annoyed the bloody hell out of me at first, you wouldn’t say anything, and I was starting to think a piece of toast would be more engaging than you were. But I remember you started to talk after we had that run-in behind the statues. You know, after Potions, when Sirius hexed you and you had to run out with a bloody nose. And then he came looking for you in the corridor so you ducked into my old hiding place—you’ll like this, I was trying to hide from James.
I don’t know what I did to make you trust me then, as it wasn’t my first time trying to help you after a nasty encounter with James and Sirius. All I can really remember—it was so long ago—was that I tried to take you to Madam Pomfrey, but you refused. And then you left to go to Arithmancy, and somehow you started talking to me after that. So, I want to know what I did, and I hope this makes you believe it’s me. No one else was around when this happened, and I doubt you would have told anyone, so no one could possibly know.
Oh, you give me a headache sometimes.
Not fully trusting any of the situation, still fully aware that he had to be cautious, Severus found himself writing an honest reply, despite all of his misgivings. It shocked him to reread his short reply and to see how candid it was. But he sent it with the owl quickly before he could destroy it, and then sat stunned at his writing desk for a moment longer, wondering if this vulnerable encounter would leave him destroyed.
You used my name. You’d never done it before—no one did, really. It was either that hateful nickname Black had so brilliantly created or it was just, ‘hey you’ or ‘you, Snape’. No, I don’t really know the full answer to your question, but seeing as I refuse to ruminate on the issue any more deeply, that is the only conclusion I can come up with.
After that, the letters flew thick and fast. Severus was still aching to ask her how any of this was possible, a part of him still wondering if it was all a ruse; but he couldn’t express any of it on paper, and instead enjoyed the one correspondence he had thought impossible.
Their letters were startlingly frank. They both asked each other questions that were deeply probing and potentially destructive. He often wondered whether he would push too far, but he had to know. The first few letters had remained tentative; Lily wanted to know what had happened to some of the people she knew. Amazingly, though, she never once mentioned James unless it was a passing anecdote, and she never asked after Harry. Severus felt darkly glad for it, for he was sure if she ever asked about her son he would not be able to reply or bear to receive any more letters from her. He would never admit it to himself, but her letters were beginning to become a lifeline for him. Selfishly, he had to know that they were all his, that she was writing to him, for him and no one else.
She then began to ask about when he became a Death Eater. What was it like having the Dark Mark branded on your skin? What was it like having the Dark Lord as your master? Why did you do it? Did I have anything to do with it? To which he fervently replied, No, no, don’t be the stupid Gryffindor and think it was your fault, and he didn’t once feel bad for lying. Her question had opened up a floodgate, and Severus began to pen down thoughts he had pushed to the furthest corners of his mind:
Did you ever think of me after we left Hogwarts?
Sometimes, Lily wrote. They were not always pleasant thoughts, mind you. Mostly I was busy hating you in my mind. But I thought of you once, during my wedding—a pleasant, fleeting thought.
Severus’ hands had trembled too badly for him to trust himself to be able to write something for an hour afterwards. They were coming to the crux of it now, he was sure.
I have been cursed with not being able to forget you, as maudlin and sordid as that may sound, and I know you will appreciate how difficult it is for me to articulate such a sentiment. I need to know, why did you do that to me Halloween night?
Severus’ demeanour had begun to slip as he got closer and closer to asking what he truly wished to ask Lily. When the answer began to close in, he was distracted in his classes; snapped randomly at students, deducting points and causing tears; and he slowly stopped caring whether the staff noticed all the trips he made out to the great lake, or whether the students picked up on his unusual behaviour. It was all trivial to him now; the letters were the only things of importance. It seemed to him almost as if he were walking and carrying through his daily motions in a dream-like trance, as if all of this lightheaded fancy would just float away if he tried too hard to wake up.
He felt oddly amused the next few days after sending his recount of the Halloween masquerade. He felt like he was on the verge of freedom, of an internal liberation, and the fumes were heady and intoxicating. Soon, he would know.
He went to the middle of the lake, again having neglected his cloak. Severus barely noticed the cold anymore, and in his haste to receive Lily’s letter he didn’t notice the bloody footprints on the ice. When the owl came with the letter, a thick scroll of parchment promising a depth of content, he noticed that Potter had been observing him the whole time. It seemed that after the golden Gryffindor trio had last spotted him, they were curious and Harry had come to see exactly what he was doing on the great lake’s surface.
Severus was about to deduct House points when suddenly, he laughed. He laughed fully and maliciously in Harry’s face, walking back to the castle and ignoring the boy in every other way. This was wonderful. If only Harry knew. The Potter boy looked deeply disturbed to see him laughing, and also because of the unpleasant note he heard in it. Scared of pushing his luck any further he quickly ran into the building and Severus laughed even more.
Severus inhaled sharply; she had never written so much as a “Dear Severus” in her letters. To see her suddenly address the letter in an affectionate way gave him the warning signs to prepare for what was written in the letter. Surely she was trying to tell him something difficult in a gentle manner, and this “Dearest Severus” business aggravated him rather than soothed him.
Well, as you can imagine after our public falling-out I was quite upset and turned to other schoolmates. Sadly enough, as it is with the whimsy of youth, I soon forgot about you. I hated every time I saw you in the halls, shooting me dirty looks or ignoring me completely, and I resolved to dislike you. It wasn’t difficult. I was young; we both were. I turned to Remus and my other school friends, and it took a while, but I began to warm to Sirius and James and Peter. But I don’t think you want to hear about how I started to see more of James.
I heard you were going to the Halloween masquerade with Rosier a week before. I didn’t admit it to myself then, but it made me very nervous. I was determined to see you—or to do something, I wasn’t sure at the time, but I couldn’t admit it to myself. I didn’t want to have a guilty face or look like I was up to something, and quite frankly I didn’t know why your appearance at the masquerade unnerved me so. Well…all right, I did—I missed you. I wanted to see you, to see if you were miserable once we stopped being friends, because I had missed it. But you know, no young girl thrust into the hormonal hot house of high school is going to go admitting things so honestly to herself.
When the scavenger hunt began, I urged James to go find the alicorn for me, and then I went looking for you. I figured you would have left the school by then and gone outside, where it was less crowded. You are frighteningly predictable for all your enigmatic ways. And yes, I kissed you. I didn’t know I was going to go any further, but I had to see your face for some sort of reaction. I was giddy, a little hyper, a little scared, and I wanted to tease and be playful with you again. I knew you would have been gobsmacked after being given a midnight kiss by a girl, so I wanted to see what your expression was. And then—well, I had to kiss you again. It was our last year; a passage of my life was ending. Even though I knew I had my whole future ahead of me, I also knew it was a different life, and the world I knew around me was ending. There is never a situation that can closely simulate the mayhem of school. It was the last I would ever see of you, I knew, and I knew my life out of school would not have you in it. So what else could I do? I had to say goodbye and give a send-off to our unfortunate friendship.
There you are, Severus. I kissed you because I wanted to. Because I missed you, because I wanted to shake you up, to see if you missed me, as I was sure you did. I kissed you to say goodbye, and also, not kindly, to see if it would affect you afterwards and for how long afterwards. Secretly I wanted to make sure I lasted in your memory and that I confused you enough to have you puzzled about me for years after. It’s a young woman’s fancy, to test how strong her influence is. It’s only with years of hindsight that I wish I had not done it with that purpose.
Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye—that’s what it meant. And the small, fruitless wish for something more.
Severus had to remember to breathe. His right hand began to shake and with a grimace he clenched it into a fist. His jaw was tight and he felt an overwhelming urge to say something. Or to scream. There was no one to hear him or to be the participating listener, but he felt on the verge of babbling. How…how…c-could… He could barely finish a coherent thought; too many things were sweeping through him at once.
If James hadn’t
His quill had been shaking so badly as he forced himself to write that there were ink splatters and blotches all over his piece of parchment. His writing was an unhappy scramble and it was with great effort that he kept his mouth shut and his outbursts internal. He almost flung the parchment at the owl, and it hooted back, offended. He couldn’t finish his pitiful reply, but he was sure she would understand. He forced the owl to leave before he could change his mind and, in his violent mood, snap the bird’s neck.
Shaking as he sat back down, he stared mutely at his surroundings, and then, finding sight too painful, he buried his head in his hands and tried to calm his breathing.
It was with concern and urgency that Severus made his way across the great lake. He wanted to cross it in a flat out run, but found he had to force himself to walk quickly and to take care. It was an ominous sign, and he had completely forgotten it would happen—the icy surface of the great lake was beginning to melt, and there was a thin film of slick water on top of its surface. Early March… how could Severus have forgotten that winter would inevitably turn into spring?
The owl fluttered down from its mysterious origin. Severus’ nerves were shot and he grabbed desperately at the parchment, not even bothering to go inside, but began to read it at his position in the middle of the lake.
You mean, if James hadn’t… been? If there were no James? If he had never played into the picture?
I’ve thought about it too, Severus, and I think I would do you a greater disservice by being dishonest, so I will tell you the truth—all of it.
No, things would never have played out between us even if James Potter were not alive. Even if Sirius didn’t exist, for that matter. Our friendship would have been stronger, and more precious, I think. Its longevity certainly would have benefited, but I would never have been able to love you more. You are like a wild thing that has come out of the forest. Beautiful, strange and dangerous. I would face more pain falling in love with you than by denying you. You know it; we would only hurt each other and be worse off for it. You are not one to be tamed.
The very quality that makes me admire you so.
Severus was overwhelmed with urgency to the point where he could barely register her letter. He could feel a dull ache somewhere behind his ribcage, and he knew it would hit full force later, but he tore off a piece of parchment and quickly scribbled with a quill he had stowed away in his pocket.
Lily, the ice is melting, what does that mean? What will happen?
He hurriedly placed the parchment in the owl’s beak and helped it launch into the air. It flapped its powerful wings and quickly soared on an uprising thermal, out of his sight. To the elusive Lily.
The full force of everything that had happened to him seemed to bear down on his shoulders now, and punch him square in the middle of his chest. He felt the breath leave him and he sank to his knees. His legs felt too weak to support him and it took him five minutes of pure will to stand up again. He left the school grounds, unaware of anything around him, the letter clutched in his hand, burning.
It was mid-March, and the ice had melted.
Even before he received that last letter from Lily, Severus knew it would happen. He didn’t want to believe it, but he knew… he knew there would be no more. The surface of the lake had cracked up quickly into small ice floes, and then disintegrated back to its original form—the ever constant, ever changing water. The students were thrilled that the weather was beginning to warm, and the giant squid even poked out a tentacle from the lake’s surface as if to greet the sun.
Severus tore each of the letters mechanically and tossed them into his fire. He watched stonily as they crinkled and blackened and turned to ash. He looked at the last letter he held in his hands and sighed once, long and even, before it met its similar fate.
You are not one to be tamed.
The very quality that makes me admire you so.
The seasons passed. Winter melted into spring. Spring blossomed into summer, and summer matured into autumn. The October leaves shook orange and dry, and the world gave its last display of rich beauty, before it fell asleep back into winter. Winter, with its eternal white blanket which muffles the sound of breathing. Sharp, crisp, but sedate.
Severus walked across Hogwarts grounds, across the winter silence and stood at the edge of the great lake. It had been… odd, returning to the school. He had not returned to teach that year. He had been on the run; he had been caught up in the deadly grasps of war. There were still battles to be fought, lies to be told, treachery to commit. His life had once again become a maelstrom of hate, death and snow. But he had waited for winter, and he allowed the world to stop for one moment in its tumultuous times, so that he could come pay his last respects to closure.
Severus walked across the great lake. It froze solid every year. The clicking of his boots against ice was muffled by wintry noise, and he blew on his fingers to keep them from numbing.
How long Severus stood in the middle of the lake, he did not know. He guessed that he had been given a silent hour of waiting and contemplation. More time than he would ever receive again, he was sure.
A small smile twisted around his lips. He hadn’t expected the owl to come. He never had held the hope for a letter from Lily again. It almost pleased him that he was right, and that that sordid, painful time would never occur again. Almost. He dropped the small piece of parchment he had been holding in his hand to the icy lake’s surface.
Severus walked back to the edge of the lake without a second glance behind him. There was no movement in the sky, and no ray of light from the sun. The letter lay sticking to the lake’s surface, a corner flapping forlornly in the wind as if to urge him back. He did not look behind his shoulder, but continued to trudge on through the snow. The world was waiting. Time was waiting to start up again.