Severus Snape hesitated before opening the door to his house, fearful of what might await him inside the dark and cheerless rooms. Outside everything was grim as well; the weather damp and chilly, clouds hanging low and oppressive over the town. He took a deep breath to gather his courage and pushed the door open. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, Severus saw his father collapsed on the floor and his mother curled up next to him, her arm draped over his unmoving form.
Earlier, when his father had come home in a drunken rage, he had stepped between his parents, taking the beating intended for his mother. He hadn't fought back. He had endured the blows and verbal abuse stoically until his father had exhausted himself and passed out. Only then, when he knew his mother would be safe, had he left the house. But why had he bothered? It made no difference. No matter what his father said or did to her, she always went crawling back for more.
Anger roiled within him and he longed for physical release but he didn't trust his ability to hold it in check tonight. He had to get out. He didn't know where to go; he just knew he needed to put as much space between himself and this house as possible. He could do nothing about his physical resemblance to his father; every time he looked in a mirror he would see him. His father's cold, sneering voice telling him he was useless, worthless, an idiot seemed to always be in his head. But what haunted him the most was the fear that he was like his father in more than just appearance. He had to leave before it poisoned him, before he became exactly like him.
Severus crept stealthily through the dim and eerily quiet rooms. Over the years, he had perfected the technique of walking silently to avoid confrontations with his father. Quietly he gathered up spare clothes and what little food he could scrounge that wasn't stale or spoiled, stuffing everything haphazardly into a bag that he slung over his shoulder. In the kitchen, he spotted a half-empty bottle of Firewhiskey on the table and started to reach for it. It would be so easy to stop feeling, to blot it all out just for a while; but that was how his parents dealt with life. He had other forms of escape.
Lily. He didn't want to see her tonight, not in the shape he was in, but if he could just be near her...
He wondered if she knew that sometimes he left his house in the middle of the night when the tension was too oppressive to bear and sat in the midst of her mother's ridiculously expansive flower garden? He would sink into the rows of riotous blooms and both their sweet fragrance and the knowledge that Lily was sleeping peacefully in her bed just behind the wall calmed him enough so that he could sleep, too.
He began to walk in the direction of the Evans's house, his anger beginning to ease with each step, but leaving behind it a sick, shaky feeling. As he approached, he could hear faint music through an open window as Lily practiced a new piece on the piano. He sat in the shadows to listen, leaning against the stone wall of her mother's greenhouse, clasping his legs to his chest and resting his head on his knees. The music was gentle and he could feel his eyes drifting shut as the soft notes soothed him.
When the sound stopped abruptly, he raised his head in alarm, watching the house for any sign of her. His breath caught when he spotted her framed in the window, leaning out across the sill, her long red hair wafting gently in the evening breeze. She turned her attention to someone who had entered the room and her angry voice carried to where he was sitting.
"For the last time, Petunia, I am not coming! What makes you think I want to spend the day with your horrid boyfriend and his family?"
"He is not horrid!" came the indignant reply.
"Oh, no? I heard what he called me!" Even from the back, Lily appeared furious. "He should talk. He looks just like a toad. About as much personality, too."
"Well, what about you and that awful Snape boy?"
"Shut up!" Lily yelled. "Or I'll hex that simpering smile right off your face, I swear I will."
"Girls!" came their mother's sharp voice. "That's enough! I'm not listening to one more minute of this nonsense."
He heard the front door slamming and Lily's feet pounding across the porch and down the steps. He retrieved his bag and scrambled to his feet, heading for the stand of trees in the nearby park, where they had always retreated when they wanted to talk privately. This was another place he could sense her presence and he visited regularly, often at night, and didn't need light to guide himself into the clearing where the towering trees arched overhead. He stood motionless, listening intently to her footfalls drawing nearer. He could see the wedge of light from the small torch she was using to find her way and he shrank back further into the foliage. The torch's beam fell on him and he raised a hand to shield his eyes.
"Sev!" she said, her voice sounding surprised and relieved. "I was hoping I'd find you here."
He said nothing, trying to keep his face turned from her as he lowered himself into a seated position against the trunk of a tree.
She threw herself down next to him, sighing deeply. "You won't believe what they're expecting me to do tomorrow..." She stopped as she noticed his overstuffed bag between them. "Camping out, are you?" she asked teasingly and then grew serious when he did not respond. "Did something happen?"
She moved to sit across from him just as when they were younger; legs crossed, leaning towards him. Her green eyes searched his, and he was hesitant to meet her gaze, but when he did he saw only concern reflected there and not judgment. She reached out a tentative hand to touch his face, startling when he winced away from her touch.
"Oh God, Sev...you're bleeding,” she said, brushing her thumb against his lip and then wiping it on her leg. “Did he do this to you?”
"He was drunk.”
“What about your mother?”
"Are you? Okay, I mean."
"Damnit, why didn't you leave? Why just let him beat on you?"
"It was me or Mum."
She shook her head. "Why does she stay with him?"
He was quiet for a long moment. "I don't know," he said honestly. "Nowhere else to go, I suppose."
"Couldn't she have gotten the both of you out somehow?"
"She tried, Lily. Years ago. We stayed with her brother for a while, but he was no better..."
He fell silent, remembering that in many ways, his uncle had been much worse; as malicious and abusive as his father, but also a powerful wizard. As a young boy he had been forced to learn hexes and curses beyond his years just to protect himself.
The expression on her face was fierce. "I'd rather starve than stay with someone who was mistreating me,." she said heatedly. "And if it were my child being harmed, I would do anything...anything...to protect him."
He turned his head away from her, suddenly unable to meet her eyes. He was so tired of pity, of sorrowful and sympathetic looks. He felt her hand on his shoulder and he tensed at her touch.
"I'm worried about you," she whispered.
"You feel sorry for me, you mean."
"No, you can take care of yourself, I know that, but...I just hate the thought of you having to go back there."
"It's only for a few more years. Once I'm of age, I'm never coming back." But that wasn't the complete truth. When he was of age, he was coming back here one last time to make his father pay for everything he had suffered.
"I'm taking you back to my house," she said, standing and trying to pull him up with her.
"No, Lily," he said, freeing himself from her grasp. "I don't want to see anyone right now. I just want to be alone."
"Then will you wait here for me?" she asked. "I won't be long."
He nodded. He would stay, but only because he lacked the energy to move.
As soon as she was certain she was out of earshot, Lily sank into the grass, finally letting the tears that had been threatening fall.
It was gut-wrenching to think of what he had to endure every day; not just at home but at school as well. He was her friend and she loved him; she always would. She could still remember the relief and joy of discovering that not only was she not crazy, she was magical, and her memories of that discovery were all tied in with Severus. There was a vulnerability and a sorrow about him that made her want to wrap him in her arms and protect him; to stand as a shield between him and the rest of the world and from the abuse and torment he suffered and could not seem to escape.
She took a shuddering breath and dashed the tears from her cheeks, trying to regain her composure as she walked towards her house. In the bright, cozy kitchen, her mother was sitting at the table, feigning interest in a novel.
"There you are!" Mrs. Evans said with relief, marking the page and setting the dog-eared book aside. "I was wondering where you 'd run off to."
"I just took a walk, Mum. I wanted some fresh air...and time to think."
"Well, come and sit down. We need to talk about tomorrow."
Lily sank into the chair across from her mother. She buried her head in her hands and moaned, "Please don't make me go."
"I don't understand, Lily. The Dursleys are a fine family and it was very kind of them to invite us for the day."
She gave her mother an incredulous look. "They hate me."
"Oh, nonsense. And this is very important to your sister...and to me." Although it was unspoken, Lily knew that her mother, who had started her family very late in life, wanted nothing more than to see her daughters settled into a secure marriage before anything happened to her. But Lily now had an entirely different reason for wanting to skip the affair tomorrow and it must have been evident to her mother despite Lily's attempts to conceal her anguish. Mrs. Evans green eyes, a perfect match for Lily's, studied her youngest daughter's face.
"There's something else, isn't there?"
She nodded. "It's Severus," she said softly.
Her mother's back stiffened as a wary look crossed her face. "The Snape boy? What happened to him?"
Lily tried to keep her voice from quavering as she said, "You know what it's like for him at home, and he...he's just sitting out there all by himself. I want to stay with him for a while, that's all."
She shook her head slowly. "I don't think that's a good idea, Lily."
Lily slapped the table with her hands as she stood up. "He's hurt...and he needs someone with him," she said stubbornly. She stalked from the room, threw open the hall closet and began digging around for the sleeping bags she knew where buried somewhere in the mess. She hated defying her mother, but nothing was going to stop her from going back to him. She crossed to the lavatory and searched the cupboards until she located the small first-aid kit. She added it to her quickly-growing stash by the back door.
When Lily re-entered the kitchen, her mother had returned to reading, but there was an overstuffed paper bag with its edge folded over sitting on the tabletop in front of her. Lily opened it wordlessly, smiling when she saw a container of leftover soup, a packet of sandwiches and a tin of biscuits. She stood behind her mother and wrapped her quickly in a hug.
"Thank you," she whispered.
"I still don't like it," Mrs. Evans said, patting her arm.
"I know." Lily kissed the top of her head and hefted the bag in her arms.
The next morning, Severus woke slowly, gradually becoming aware of his surroundings. It was a beautiful day. The clouds had cleared and the sun was throwing dappled patterns through the leaves. The industrial stench that usually hung over the town had dissipated and the soft breeze was carrying a different scent of grass and of damp earth. He turned his head towards the spot where Lily had been lying next to him all night, but she was gone. He wasn't sure whether he felt disappointed or relieved, but finally settled on relieved. He was nothing to look at most of the time but especially not first thing in the morning and in the bright, unforgiving sunlight.
As he knelt and began rolling up the sleeping bag, he saw Lily walking back towards the clearing. Her hair was blowing gently and she reached up and pushed a strand of it from her cheek. He sat back on his heels to watch her. She was so lovely. He realized with a sense of shame how he must look in comparison with his greasy, straggly hair, his face swollen where he knew the bruises were deepening, his lip crusted over with dried blood.
"Good morning," she said as she approached, somehow managing to make it sound teasing.
"I thought you had left." His jaw felt stiff and it was almost painful to speak.
"I did, for a bit. I didn't want to wake you."
Now that Lily was standing near him, he could see that she looked rather pale and drawn.
"I'm fine," she said, covering a yawn with her hand.
"I'm sorry if I kept you awake..."
"You didn't, I..." She trailed off, setting her chin stubbornly, clearly determined not to share her thoughts.
"Did you stay up all night or something?"
"Not all night..." she said, a guilty expression passing across her face.
So it hadn't been a dream. He had slept deeply, but the times he awakened in the night he had felt her protective presence and a gentle hand resting on his chest.
"You were so still when you fell asleep...I was afraid you were dead." She flushed slightly as his bemused expression. "Don't laugh," she warned. "I know it's silly."
Lily helped him gather his things and while they were working side by side she asked casually, "What are you going to do today?"
He shrugged. He didn't really feel like talking about it, not even to her, but in the light of day he knew he would do what he had always done: go back home, endure, try to survive until the summer holiday was over, immerse himself in his books, draw his strength from Lily when he could.
"Mum and Petunia are out," she told him. "Come back to the house with me. You can clean up a bit and I'll make some breakfast. It'll be just like when we were kids playing house."
"I really should go check on my parents," he said reluctantly.
"At least have something to eat with me first. It'll be so boring all by myself."
Upon reaching her house, Lily kneed the door open and dumped her armful on a low bench in the entry. Severus hesitated on the porch. He felt dirty and almost unworthy to stand in this serene and peaceful place. He should just leave and go back to his house where he belonged.
"Are you sure this is okay?"
"Of course," Lily said, grabbing him by the arm and pulling him through the door. "They'll be gone all day."
He stood uneasily in the sitting room, feeling completely ill at ease and out of place. Over the years, he had caught glimpses of the Evans home through the windows but this was the first time he had ever been inside. The house was small but immaculate. Sunlight streamed through the kitchen windows at the back of the house and everywhere were flowers, arranged in vases and drying in bundles hanging from the overhead rafters. He was nervous and felt almost feverish. He shivered, hoping Lily hadn't noticed, but she frowned at him.
"The lavatory is through there," she said, motioning to a door at the end of the hallway, "if you want to clean up a bit."
Taking her not-so-subtle hint, Severus studied his reflection in the mirror. His hair was straggling against his face and he was paler than normal with dark shadows under his eyes. There was a dark bruise over his left cheekbone and his lip was split and swollen and crusted over with dried blood. Turning his head away, his gaze fell on the old-fashioned tub in the corner with a neat pile of clean towels nearby. He thought of how long it had been since he'd had a proper bath - not the quick, makeshift scrubdowns in a sink at his house - but a long, soaking bath with lots of hot water. He didn't like feeling any more exposed than necessary, especially not at home where everything was unpredictable and dangerous, but surely here there would be no harm. Before he could change his mind, he opened the faucets and filled the tub nearly to the top with steaming water.
He lowered himself gingerly into the hot water and leaned back, feeling the tension from the previous day beginning to ease. As he began to relax, he wondered which of the innumerable bottles lining the edge of the tub was Lily's. He wanted, just for one day, to have her scent surrounding him. He took each container in turn and opened it, trying to place the spicy, floral scent that was so uniquely hers. He was concentrating on the aromas, eyes closed, when he heard the bathroom door open slowly. He scrabbled for a towel, water slopping over onto the floor. He knew he was safe. He knew it couldn't be his uncle, not here, but he still couldn't control the momentary surge of panic and the expectation of seeing his uncle's cruel, leering face advancing towards him, just as when he was a little boy.
He quickly finished his bath and as he toweled himself off he looked towards the door, but the clothes he had dropped there were gone.
"Lily," he called through the closed door. "Where are my clothes?"
"I'm washing them," she called back. "Everything was all damp from being outside. It won't take long."
She was being charitable, he knew. He had to make do at home, washing his things in an old metal tub and hanging them out to dry, but it was difficult to get everything clean.
"Well, what am I supposed to wear?" He tried, but was unable to keep the annoyance from his voice.
"I think there's one of my dad's robes on the hook by the door."
The robe was a garish red plaid pattern and as he reluctantly pulled it on, knowing he must look ridiculous with a large expanse of arm and leg showing beyond the sleeve and bottom hem. He opened the door to find Lily standing there, one eyebrow raised.
"Very nice," she said, trying and failing to keep a straight face. "It really suits you."
At the breakfast table, he could tell by the easy way Lily sat, feet propped up in a chair, occasionally reading items from the paper that struck her as funny or interesting, that this comfortable domesticity was second-nature to her, while for him it was so unfamiliar as to almost be disorienting. What a miraculous thing it was to sit in a quiet, sunny space, feeling rested and peaceful, watching the light turn her hair coppery-gold as it streamed through the window.
Later they sat together quietly, folding his clothes that were still warm from the dryer. It was another nice thing about Lily. Once the conversation had died out she didn't feel the need to fill the silence with unnecessary talk; the quiet was companionable and comfortable rather than awkward. He felt better this morning than he had in weeks. He was full and freshly bathed, wearing clean clothes and no one was shouting at him. But better than all of that, he was sitting at a table with a beautiful girl who actually seemed to be enjoying his company.
As if reading his thoughts, Lily glanced up at him and smiled.
"Let me fix your hair," she said suddenly into the quiet room.
"Why?" he asked, his hand going self-consciously to the lank strands. "What's wrong with it?"
"Nothing. I just want to see what it looks like tied back."
"I've tried that. It makes my nose look enormous."
"Nonsense," she said, coming to stand behind him. He felt goosebumps raise on his skin as she combed her fingers through his now-dry hair and gathered it at the nape of his neck. "Let me see," she said, and he reluctantly turned his face to hers.
"I like it." she said. "But I think a nice big bow would really finish it off."
"Lily!" he protested, half-rising from his chair.
She threw her arms around him, laughing. "I'm kidding!"
She was holding him down in his chair, her cheek warm and smooth against his. He could smell the sweet, floral scent of her hair as it brushed against the side of his neck. He wanted nothing more than to fix this moment in time and she seemed to feel it, too, keeping her arms around him even after he had stopped resisting. He could feel his heart hammering in his chest, making him nearly breathless, but he needed to tell her now, while he had a chance and while he still had enough courage to get the words out. He covered her hands with one of his own.
Her attention was diverted by the sudden appearance of a large eagle owl at the kitchen window.
"I wasn't expecting anything today," she said in puzzlement, crossing to the window and raising the sash to let the owl in. "Were you?"
The owl flapped over to her chair and she took the envelope from its leg, absent-mindedly handing it a piece of toast. She unfolded the paper, and while reading, the smile quickly left her face and her mood turned sour.
"What is it?"
"Nothing." she said curtly, tossing the envelope to the table. "Just an invitation." She rummaged in one of the kitchen drawers for a pen and then threw herself into the chair. "The wonderful James Potter is having a party before the start of term. He wants a reply by return owl today." At this, the owl gave a soft hoot and resumed pecking at its toast. "I know," she said, stroking the owl's back. "It's not your fault."
"You're not going, are you?"
She sighed and scribbled a few lines at the bottom of the invitation. "I despise the arrogant little prat, but he's invited all the fifth-year Gryffindors - everyone will be there." She read what she had written, her forehead creased in irritation. She glanced over at him and her frown deepened. "Will you stop looking at me like that? It doesn't mean anything - I have to go."
"You don't have to do anything you don't want to."
"Oh, really?" She crossed her arms and regarded him stonily. "Don't you Slytherins have a get-together in the summer? Maybe torturing Muggle-borns for some laughs?"
Her voice was uncharacteristically bitter, and in that moment, she was like a stranger to him again. Her biggest worries were harmless arguments with her sister and unwanted party invitations. She didn't understand what it was like - how could she? He felt a sudden surge of anger towards her - for her loving family, for the ease with which she made her way through life, for everything she had that he did not.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean that. It's just..." she waved the page by way of explanation. The pleasant mood from this morning had evaporated. Leave it to James Potter to ruin things for him without even being present. He stood up, gathered his clothes and without looking at her, muttered. "Thanks for breakfast. I have to leave."
"Severus, wait! Can't we talk about this at least?" She followed him out the door and stood helplessly on the porch. "Where are you going?"
He whirled on her in a fury. "I'm going home to see if my parents have killed each other yet."
When he reached his house, it was just as he had expected; they were still sleeping it off, curtains drawn against the sun. Neither had moved from their positions of the previous night. He dropped his bag, feeling that he had nowhere to turn. He and Lily were drifting apart, he had no real friends at Hogwarts and no family he could rely upon. He crouched, running his shaking hands through his hair, feeling despair rise as he remembered Lily's touch from what now seemed a lifetime ago. His stomach churned and bile burned at the back of his throat. He wrenched the front door open and ran to the side of the house where he fell to his hands and knees, retching miserably. When there was nothing more to bring up and he had nearly exhausted himself, he had just enough strength remaining to scrabble backwards before he collapsed into the front yard, the grass cool against his face, the sun warm on his back.
"Sev? Are you okay?"
He groaned when he heard Lily's quiet, concerned voice. Of all the positions he had never wanted her to find him in, this had to be the worst.
"Go away," he said, without raising his head from where it rested.
"No, I won't."
He rolled over and draped an arm across his eyes. "What do you want?" he muttered.
"I wanted to apologize. It wasn't fair, what I said." She stepped closer and sat down near him. Her familiar scent surrounded him, carrying away any lingering irritation he felt.
He levered himself up slowly, hanging his head between his bent knees.
"I've been thinking," she said quietly, leaning her weight against him. "We'll have our supply lists soon. I'll skip the party and we can go to Diagon Alley together instead."
He looked at her and opened his mouth to reply, but shook his head instead. He couldn't. Lily had come very close to the truth and it was one of the reasons he had left her house so quickly, before she could see his guilty expression. There was going to be a gathering of fifth-year Slytherins this summer, very soon, although he didn't know exactly when, and he couldn't have word get around that he was associating with a Gryffindor, and a Mudblood at that. He winced at the realization that the word he despised was beginning to come too easily to his mind after years of hearing it.
"I just don't want anything to come between us," she said.
As they were growing older, the mood at school was getting uglier and he would sit and laugh with the other Slytherins, joining in the taunts and cruelty, all the while watching her, his only true friend, across the Hall. It was too dangerous to acknowledge her. He had no choice; it was this or lose the few allies he had at Hogwarts. He knew he was smart enough to play the game for a few years and not get drawn in. But one day they would both leave school. There would be no House affiliations dividing them. He would be free to tell her how he felt; that he had always loved her.
"What was it you were going to say?" At his puzzled look, she continued. "Back at my house, before the owl showed up. You were getting ready to tell me something."
"It wasn't important."
"We'll always be friends, won't we?"
He took her hand and entwined his fingers with hers. As long as she was in his life, he could endure anything. "Always," he agreed.