The girl’s voice is filled with ice. She stares at the dark, unkempt boy standing in front of her.
“You can’t wait to join You-Know-Who, can you?”
It’s a challenge, daring him to deny it. The boy can tell she’s not quite sure it’s true, what she’s saying. But she will know if he’s lying when he answers. He taught her than much, anyway. She always knows when he’s lying.
At first the boy seems to struggle with the words hanging in the air, as if he is both loathe to admit them or to reject them. He simply wants them to disappear, to turn back time and make them go away.
The girl continues to stare at him, her arms crossed in front of her, her eyes filled with suspicion. He can sense that she is about to step back through the portrait again.
The very second before she turns away, he speaks. He almost cannot believe what he is saying. He almost cannot believe that he means what he is saying.
“I’m giving them up, Lily,” he tells her. “I’m giving him up.”
The Fat Lady stares down at them both, a peculiar mix of disgust and eager curiosity in her eyes. As for the boy’s eyes, they are resolute and determined, but he can see the girl does not think he can do it. And indeed, Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters are too intoxicating, too enthralling and empowering for many an impoverished soul to willfully surrender.
Finally, “Suit yourself,” the girl says, trying to make her voice sound as dispassionate as possible.
Then she waits just a bit, watching him, as he tries not to think of all she has meant to him. That will break him.
In the end he only nods, looking down. When he finally looks up at her there is a steely resolve in his eyes, a resolve tinged with desperation.
“I can. I…I will,” he whispers.
She cannot bear to meet those eyes for long, so she turns and disappears, leaving him on the stairs.
In that last look he can see she is tempted to believe him, and so the boy takes with him that one kernel of hope. But whether or not it bears fruit the girl is right about one thing. He cannot abandon the Dark Lord for her. He must do it for himself.
It is not easy, but he is as good as his word. He distances himself from Avery and Mulciber. Abandons the secret meetings, the pattering volleys of threats and mean-spirited enterprise that characterizes their words and actions.
This of course makes him a pariah. He sits by himself now, always alone, and even Potter and Black leave him be, for his own house is having at him enough.
He is, in a word, miserable, feeling that he has lost something mysterious and glorious. He had friends, once. Friends and acceptance, and a sense that he had a greater purpose. Knowing that in truth that the Dark Lord provided none of those things does not seem to make him feel any better.
As for Lily, she refuses to talk about the boy to anyone, but all of her friends are relieved that the horrible Slytherin to whom she seemed so devoted has been banished from her golden aegis. The girl is beautiful and well-liked, nothing like that sallow-faced, grimy creep with whom she so recently kept company.
Even Potter finds himself encouraged by the girl’s sudden independence. He sidles up to her a week before the end of school.
“See you’ve rid yourself of some unpleasant baggage,” he says, almost conspiratorially. “No one ever could figure out why someone like you put up with him. Even someone as tolerant as you are has their limits, I guess…”
Potter is intending this as a compliment, and he gives her a shy smile. No one has ever called Lily Evans “tolerant,” for she is nothing of the kind. Tolerant is what she wants to be. And for a moment warmth spreads in her chest, as she is buoyed by the flattery. So she looks at James Potter, for the first time perhaps. He is fairly good-looking and everyone knows he’s rich. He is a Quidditch star, and both he and his friends are very popular.
But then something turns inside her. The compliment comes at a cost. A dig at her old friend, her friend since childhood. A friend she suddenly finds herself wanting to defend.
Potter unfortunately mistakes the slightly thoughtful look on her face. He thinks she agrees with him.
“I mean even his old friends won’t put up with him anymore. You’re well rid of him,” he tells her.
It is then that the beautiful face of Lily Evans goes blank for a moment. Potter moves a bit closer.
“What do you think about going to Hogsmeade with me this weekend, just the two of us?” he asks. His voice is full of promise.
But suddenly, she cannot bear the thought of spending even one moment with James Potter. Instead, she thinks of Severus alone, studying. Alone, eating. Alone, everywhere and with everyone.
She says one word to Potter.
After that she never speaks to him again, save for once when he tries to engage her in the Great Hall, the day before the school year ends. Sirius Black is by his side, a smug smile knifing its way through his handsome face.
Potter opens his mouth to say something, but Lily Evans knows in her heart she doesn’t want to hear what it is. He says it anyway.
“C’mon, Evans,” he begins, his voice all wheedle and smarm, “you know you want to go out with me…this is your last chance before summer. What do you say?”
Black makes a slight chuffing sound, and in that moment she realizes that she hates them both. Perhaps there is something redeemable about Remus Lupin, and Peter Pettigrew isn’t worth the energy to dislike, that is sure.
But these two…she hates them.
So she turns on Potter, her eyes glittering.
“I want nothing of the kind,” she tells him. “You are a mean-spirited bully, and full of yourself. You could to use your father’s money to pay some girl to date you. But it won’t be me.”
She glares at him, her nostrils flaring. As for Potter and Black, after a bit of an awkward silence, they break into forced laughter.
The next day Lily goes back home. She goes home, to the sister she now finds intolerable, and parents that don’t ever want to hear about anything sad or unpleasant. She puts on her brave face, her good girl face, intent on forgetting everyone and everything.
She puts James Potter out of her mind soon enough, but she seems to see Severus Snape everywhere. Once, in fact, she does see him. Somehow she finds herself at the deserted playground where they met as children, and he is there. From across the expanse of rusting swings and blank-eyed coil horses she sees him. They look at each other for a long time, too far away to speak.
Finally he begins to move towards her, and she bolts and runs. She can’t talk to him now. She is too lonely for him. She will make a fool of herself. And then where will she be, if he has not truly abandoned the Dark Lord? It would be worse than before.
It is the worst summer of her life, and when she returns to school, many times she has to stop herself from sliding onto the bench beside him as he sits alone.
Instead, she watches him for three months. Only watching. She pays attention. He has improved his hygiene, perhaps with the hope of making some new friends. It hasn’t worked. His impossible hair seems less flat, and frizzes slightly at its long ends. It seems that he’s combed it with a rake. She wonders why he doesn’t cut it.
Then one day, as Christmas approaches, she comes upon him in the library. He is, as usual, completely alone, save for the three mountains of books that stand guard around him. So lost is he in his studies that he doesn’t see her there.
Suddenly, she is not afraid anymore. She knows somehow that he has indeed truly forsaken his former friends, and the Dark Lord. And he has not returned to them, even when it became plain to him that leaving them would not win her back.
He seems like the loneliest creature in the universe, sitting there. Lonelier even than she is.
So she walks up to him, and just stands there, watching him. At first he doesn’t notice her, though she is less than two feet away from him now. He is lost in an Herbology book, a book called “Flora and its Curative Powers.”
It’s a book on healing. Something hot squirms in her chest and tears spring unbidden to her eyes. She blinks them back.
For he has finally realized that she is standing there. His shoulders hunch slightly, but he doesn’t look up.
“Do you miss him?” she asks.
There is a long silence. “No. Not once,” he says at last. This is not true. He does miss. But he understands it’s all a lie.
She slides into the chair next to his, and he goes perfectly still. “Do you miss them?”
When he speaks, his voice is as noncommittal as he can muster. “It was nice, having mates,” he says. He does not look at her. He cannot bear to. Yes, he misses them, desperately, because now he has no one.
“I don’t see you mucking about with anyone, anymore…”
Now he is turning the pages of the book, absently, not reading, not seeing anything at all. He is terrified that if he looks at her, she will disappear, fly away as she did at the abandoned playground.
“I keep to myself, mostly,” he tells her.
They sit together for awhile, saying nothing, as Severus Snape blindly turns pages.
“I’m not going home for Christmas,” she says.
He does look at her then. And she does not fly away. “Why not?”
She looks at her hands. “Mum and dad…my aunt’s taken ill. They’re spending time with her. They wanted me to go, but…”
He nods. “Your sister is going, I’m sure…”
She nods, then, too.
“Are you staying?” she asks him.
He stops turning pages now, wondering what this question means. He stopped hoping months ago. “I can, if I want to.”
He nods again.
“It’s not so bad, Hogwarts at Christmas,” she says. “We could…I don’t know…I might be…less lonely if…”
We. We we. we.
Her voice trails off, and Severus Snape feels as if something in his chest has hitched free, and is flying happily around his head. He thinks he is going to weep. He can’t say anything, not for a few moments, anyway.
Then, quietly, he says, “I would like that.”
He has little money, very little, but he uses what little he has to buy some unworked silver, and he forges her a shawl pin. He spends three nights making it and charming it, protecting it from tarnish and from loss. He engraves it magically, with glowing letters: “To L from S, Christmas 1977”.
She gives him a pair of black mittens, thick and rugged-looking, that she has knitted herself, and a scarf to match. She knits his initials in the cuffs of the mittens, and the edge of the scarf. He wears the mittens and the scarf into May, even when it becomes far too warm for them.
And then one spring evening, they are sitting together behind the greenhouse, talking. She has just quit Slughorn’s “Slug Club” because Slughorn has never asked Severus Snape to join, though he is clearly the smartest boy in the class.
She is angry about this, though he is not. He was a member of a far more intimate and powerful club once, and he is beyond feeling offended at being denied entrance to Horace Slughorn’s little society. He watches her, slightly amused, as she continues to rant about the injustice.
Then, when she pauses for breath, because he cannot help himself, he kisses her.
She freezes for a moment, thinking that it is odd, being kissed by him. So very familiar, like something she’s done ten thousand times before, yet like nothing she ever could have imagined.
And for a few moments, she does not respond.
He pulls away, stricken. “I’m sorry…” he stammers. “I mean it’s obvious you don’t…you couldn’t…just forget I…”
His last words are cut off by her mouth pressing to his, and now he is the one who does not respond. He is shocked.
But this time he does not pull away. The kiss deepens, and she writhes against him, breathing hard. Then all of a sudden he is touching her breast, and she utters a soft cry, arching against his exploring fingers, liking it.
And Lily’s hands explore as well, travelling down his body.
“Lily, don’t…” he murmurs, apologetically. He has an erection. He fears she will be horrified, disgusted.
But she has found him, found him where no hands but his own have touched. He thinks she will turn away now. But the sound she makes is not one of shock, but of something else. It’s a low sound, something like…desire.
And she does not pull away …because apparently she wants to touch him there. She rubs him through his robes, pulling at him. It is exquisite, Lily’s hand there. Her other arm is around his neck and they are kissing, kissing with open mouths now as she continues to pull. So good and so sweet that he is half out of his mind now.
Half out of his mind and she has to stop, has to stop because if she doesn’t, if she doesn’t…
“Lily…” he husks desperately, breaking the kiss, “you shouldn’t…I’ll…you'll make me…”
But Lily’s hand is still moving, and he cannot bring himself to push her away, not now, not when he…
“Ah!” he cries out desperately, pressing his face to her neck. He comes hard in his robes as Lily strokes him through them, murmuring delicious encouragement. Nothing in his life so far has ever felt this good, being so near to her, with her kissing him like this, touching him like this. Wanting to touch him like this. He thinks that nothing in his life from now on ever could.
Until the next month, when Lily leads him to that same greenhouse again, pulling him down, her legs parting to him. As he enters her, he is so overwhelmed with love and desire that he wishes for death, wishes he could end his life inside her. He knows then he cannot live without her. He will die without her.
After school ends, Lily does not want to go home. And neither does he.
“We should go away somewhere…” he says tentatively.
But her voice is matter-of-fact. “I think we should get married.”
His mouth falls open and he just stares.
“Well if you don’t want to…” she says, suddenly embarrassed.
But Severus Snape does want to. He kisses her and warns her he might die of happiness if she marries him, but she only laughs, relieved, and answers that she is willing to risk it.
So they marry, eloping that summer, sending word to their families after the fact. Dumbledore asks them both personally to join the Order of the Phoenix, and they agree. Potter doesn't like this and utters an ultimatum, which Albus Dumbledore ignores. So James Potter leaves the Order in exile, to become a Cursebreaker. Potter cannot bear to see Lily and Snivelus. He is rich. He was a Quidditch star. He was head boy. He should not have lost the girl he wanted to that poor, skinny, greasy bastard with a big conk. Having to work beside them would be unbearable, and when Sirius Black begs him to stay, he tells him that he'd rather die.
And so James Potter does die, eventually anyway. Like nearly every wizard and witch in Gryffindor. Like most of the Hufflepuffs. The Ravenclaws are more useful. The majority of them survive. But it is all over in a matter of weeks. All over.
Severus Snape is himself long dead by then, murdered while he attempts to protect his beloved Lily and their infant son. Lily dies too. Voldemort does not ask her to stand aside.
As for their son, he lived for awhile. Like everyone lived for awhile, while the Dark Lord was in hiding. Harry Snape sees his father once, in the Mirror of Erised, his father who died long ago, shielding his wife from the fury of the Dark Lord.
And Harry dies as well, at the Dark Lord's hand.
For there is no Severus Snape to protect him when he enters Hogwarts. Just Horace Slughorn, well-meaning but ultimately craven. There is no Severus Snape to spy against Voldemort, to collude against him from the side of good, or heal the withering body of the Headmaster, overburdened with his task.
Because Severus Snape made the choice he should have made, long before, on the stairs to Gryffindor Tower. He turned his back on the Death Eaters, and the Dark Lord. He turned toward the light, and the girl he loved. And he gained Lily, and a son, and his very soul.
He had everything he ever could have wanted, until everything he ever could have wanted was taken away again. From him. From everyone. The darkness claimed them.
And so the world was lost.
That evening, on the stairs.