Chapter 3: Face To Face
Spinner's End was exactly like Lily remembered.
Nothing was changed: from the rows of terraced houses linked by alleyways and crossing streets, the poor state of repair of the street lighting, the evidence of vandalism given by the many boarded up windows, the tall, finger-like chimney of the steel mill towering ghastly over the industrial area, to the general rudeness of the inhabitants, evident in the withering glances she received whenever she crossed the walk of a resident who resentfully eyed her clothes.
Even if she hadn't dressed to impress, she felt almost guilty for a moment, that in spite of a war, a would-be-divorce, an incapacitated son, and no employment, she was still far better off than the mill workers who lived here. James might have deserted his family, but at least he provided for them, enabling her to stay home with their son.
Yet her heart constricted painfully in recognition while she stood before the always popular fish-and-chips shop and her mind ran to the river whose stench could be smelled streets away.
She and Severus had had a favoured spot, distant enough from the mill that no rumour could disturb them and so close to those far-from-clean waters that the place was unpopular among adults as much as among other children. They studied there more often than in her or his house; it was neutral ground, without Petunia trying to intrude or his mother lingering around in a semi-conscious daze.
Gryffindor is all about chasing shapeless ideals, but Slytherin...there's more to it than greed and ambition: it's the path to becoming all that you have the potential to be. Try to beat that! he had told her there, during the summer after their first year, and she had almost shoved him in the river by accident. How scared she had been when she had grabbed his unbalanced body before he fell in the water, forcing him to fall on her instead. How hard they had laughed, after tumbling all over each other!
Back then, their dreams were all within reach; everything was very simple and free. It was easy to forget the differences that stood between them during the school term and hold on to the old camaraderie, because in that imperfect but secret, private spot, they felt like royalty. The river hadn't used to stink then and it was sad that the merciless tickling of time had soured their relationship without sparing at least its more central memento.
She cringed in disgust while her overactive imagination tried to picture the state their wild refuge had to be reduced to...disgraced and unsacred, like their lives. Who could have known that he would become a Death Eater and a spy? That she would be been married to Potter for a rather long bout of insanity? If someone had given her a charmed mirror where she could see again the children they had been, she wondered if her driving instinct would have been to hug or yell at them for their thoughtless ignorance of what was to come.
At last, Lily came to a point from where she could easily spot the Snape house, up where the street terminated in a cul-de-sac, slightly set apart from the other habitations, which were all attached, by virtue of being situated at the end of a row. She recognized its outline instantly, with an unexpected pang of nostalgia; it was anything but imposing, reflecting the typical architecture of buildings designed to house Victorian workers, with only two small rooms below and two upstairs. Her gaze wandered around, oddly hungry for familiar details, barely glimpsing the outdoor lavatory in the yard at the back. She knew there was no bathroom inside and she smiled faintly, not in bemusement but in fondness, remembering how Severus had never grown into the habit of washing his hair daily, even when, at Hogwarts, it would have been both comfortable and convenient. It was so very Sev-like to disregard completely any tactless jabs he received from their schoolmates and take it as a matter of pride to not do anything about it.
She knocked at his door; a magical buzz tingled under her fingertips when she grazed the wooden surface and produced the oddest impression of "echoing" within the house. The door must be charmed to differentiate Muggle visitors from magical ones.
In spite of being unsurprised when it opened right away, Lily experienced a faint disorientation when she found a tall, dark-clad figure standing in front of her. Even here, he wore black robes that easily blended with the shadows behind his back and made his cadaverous complexion stand out even more against the living, penetrating intensity of those black eyes.
"Good evening," she said hesitantly. "Albus said you'd taken a few days off."
His features maintained a morbid, unsettling stillness as if they had been etched in unfeeling marble. Because she was smaller than him, Lily had to slightly look up to properly meet his eyes; the unnatural blandness there would have made a less brave woman shiver. He didn't look cold , but there was an intangible absence of animation in his face and stance and eyes which made him appear entirely removed from the present situation.
"Come in." He stood aside brusquely, annoyance reassuringly creeping into those four syllables.
Lily squared her shoulders and entered, chin up determinedly. The door opened directly onto the small sitting room, bare of any commodities but a sofa and an armchair. As she followed his invitation to sit on the sofa, her gaze lingered on the bookcases, which were simply everywhere she turned, even on the back of two internal doors (one led into the kitchen, she remembered; the other opened onto a narrow staircase to the bedrooms upstairs), and she wonderd what could have driven Severus to stay here, in this place he loathed so bitterly, when he was so blatantly short of space.
"I know Albus has contacted you."
"Do you mind?"
"I thought he was a little premature to involve you at this stage. I'm not sure of what I can do for your son."
Raising her eyebrows expressively, she picked on his choice of words right away. "But you aren't of the same opinion any more?"
"I'm willing to concede that the Headmaster has a knack for seeing beyond ordinary boundaries and yet being right. Can I offer you some tea?"
"Um, no thank you." Lily blinked quickly, thwarted by his Dumbledore-like abrupt change of subject.
"I take it you have questions about the treatment, but I don't know what details Albus has shared with you."
Leaning back against the uncomfortably hard sofa, Lily relaxed, feeling visibly more in her element as she allowed her brain to focus on what she had learnt.
"He owled me a few documents among Poppy's medical files, all anonymous of course. I understand you're associating your experimental brews with Gregory's Unctuous Unction, altered with, I assume, an emotion-balancing mineral?"
"I've used a combination of them." He tilted his head to the side, his chin leaning on the back of his hand, and Lily had the oddest impression Severus was truly seeing her for the first time. It emboldened her enough to voice a curiosity she had had since she had read his side notes and felt the stirrings of her old interest for this discipline, pushing her to explore again her long-neglected library.
Seeing her inclined forward almost conspiratorially, in a bizarre mimicry of a pose she had assumed often when they were just children studying outdoors, most often on her porch or by the river, coaxed a reluctant smile out of him. "Amethyst and jade, but in your case, I would substitute the latter with obsidian."
It made sense; obsidian amulets were frequently used to ease reversion to normal states of consciousness after astral travels and the like, but also to transform "heavy" emotions and energies into lighter ones. Lily remembered, after a few moments' hard thinking, that that stone was also known to provoke nightmares or depression in some predisposed persons, given its powerful work on the subconscious mind. Amethyst's more gentle influence should prevent the effect anyway. Brilliant.
"Then there's that old Egyptian remedy. Saint Mungo's tried it already, more than a year ago, but Harry showed no response." She couldn't recall the unpronounceable proper name of the remedy, and she would die before using the vulgar version of it in front of Mr Know-It-All.
"He might have been too young to metabolize it. If you were to place your child in the testing program, we should begin by trying its different dosages all over again, because Potter's biochemical is definitely different now. Even so, I expect no improvement before combining it with other medications. But before we stop it and see how he handles the Orphicus Draught, I need to know how much he can tolerate before developing a dependency but without losing its effectiveness."
"How much time would this preliminary phase last?"
"Approximately three or five weeks, then we might begin to gradually administer the Orphicus Draught and the Gregory's Unction first, later adding the remaining options, and last, the Vicia Torporis Salve."
Lily nodded, uncertain about where the conversation was supposed to be going now that she couldn't think of any other questions to ask. In the end, it all added up to whether or not she had the spine to take the leap, and the decision had been made almost since the moment she had received the letter.
"I think I'd like to try."
"Does that mean you have made a definite decision, or will you need more time to think about it?" There was no mistaking the challenge in that politely sarcastic snap, but Lily didn't back down, just regarded him a little more intently.
"I'm absolutely certain I want Harry included in your program and I won't change my mind. Do you plan to be antagonistic for the duration of our direct interaction, or is this just a one-time deal? "
Severus's smirk was slow and faint as a ripple on water.
"I merely have difficulty believing your husband would agree to allow his only descendant anywhere near me. I won't tolerate his interference once we have started. As a matter of fact, it would be even better if I didn't see him at all."
"That won't be a problem," she retorted, unconcerned with the sarcasm in her words. "James is on an assignment for the Ministry now and he isn't allowed to have contact with anyone. I'll deal with him when the time comes."
Irritatingly, her inquisitioner raised his eyebrows as if to suggest he had his doubts but he would hold her to that promise.
Lily sighed, not eager to change the subject but more sure than ever that it was unavoidable. "If Harry and I are going to stay at the castle, we'll see each other almost every day. I appreciate what you're doing more than I can express - and look, wouldn't it be better if we talked out the tension between us right away? We were friends once; it's okay if you don't want that any more, but it won't do to pretend we're strangers. "
During her rambling, her eyes didn't stray from on her hands. Her willpower centred on keeping them folded in her lap and not playing nervously with the hem of her sleeve. She glanced up when she heard him chuckle softly. If there was humour here, she was missing it.
"It's not a matter of wanting, Lily." With that admission, Severus seemed to deflate all at once: he didn't look remote any more, just weary and maybe disappointed.
"Then what is?"
He shook his head vehemently, as if the gesture could enable him to shrug off the empathy evident in her voice. He rose suddenly, looking around and wishing the room was large enough to allow him to pace the way he liked to.
Lily regarded him curiously, marvelling at how readable the man was at this exact moment, when until a few minutes ago his mood had been nearly impenetrable. When his head turned to her - the move so serpentine in quickness than she mentally cringed as if he had risked twisting his neck - and their gazes finally met, the redhead was astounded at the extent of the feverish emotion she found there.
"I never meant to hurt you, Lily, in any way. Never."
It was almost a plea, and although she didn't understand where the mercurial change of attitude was coming from, his sincerity was so tangible than she couldn't find it in herself to question it. "Okay," she nodded shakily, "I believe you."
The speed with which he came to stand before her surprised her. Severus only moved like that when he was nervous - some things didn't change over the years, it seemed - and then she found him kneeling to put them face to face.
"But only because I didn't mean to bring you harm. That's not to say I haven't."
A fervent silence stretched between them, their faces inches apart, and her mind felt completely empty, right before she suddenly remembered snippets of past events and conversations, disconnected pieces of a puzzle which now acquired concrete meaning.
"You're the Death Eater who overheard the prophecy and delivered it to him," Lily whispered numbly, hoping he would insult her for her assumption yet knowing he wouldn't.
"I didn't imagine it could be about you--"
"But it would have been about someone. About someone else's kid." That awareness broke her inside, but it wasn't the angry kind of break or a desperate one. It was more like a grey resignation, the undesired certainty that evil could still reach out to touch anything.
Severus rose as slowly as he had knelt, his oily hair falling over his face and hiding it from her view, his towering height not as intimidating it had been a short awhile ago. "I can't take back my choices and I won't insult you with apologies that mean nothing at the end of the day."
"But you tried making up for them. You're still trying. This research of yours was meant for Harry, wasn't it?" She wasn't justifying his actions, or offering him consolation. It would have been absurd. She was just stringing facts together, exploring the potential connections between them.
She had been enraged for so long: at Bellatrix, at Peter, at James for killing Rodolphus and trusting Peter, at Sirius for coming up with that stupid switch of secret keepers. At herself for going along and accepting as a friend a man who hadn't truly convinced her to respect him, for having trained herself to not see the casual cruelty with which the Marauders treated each other, reflected in the way they took Remus for granted and in their amused complacency at Wormtail's eagerness to please. The seeds of betrayal had already been there, but she had dismissed them for no better reason than her need to hold on to the illusion of a shelter in the storm.
Lily found she no longer had the energy to be angry or desperate; the reality was that Voldemort was gone, Harry was mentally impaired, and Severus had the will and the skill to help her. Yet there was more than that; in the past he had been so angry with the very world around them, his rage spilling out of control in both his words and actions. But there were no traces of that fury in him now, only a weary bitterness hidden behind layers and layers of that indolent control he had been perfecting since they were children.
Certainly there was plenty of blame to spread around for Harry's tragedy, but Lily couldn't avoid feeling sad for both Severus and herself; they were both different people today, but there was no escaping the consequences of their past mistakes. Fleetingly, Lily wondered if some mornings he rose, like she did, with the distinct sensation that he was living somebody else's life.
In that instant, in spite of all their differences and the time that had passed, she felt an instinctive closeness to him. Which was strangely convenient but doubtlessly insane. Perhaps she was in shock. Merlin, she had often pondered the notion that her childhood friend had done horrible things, but she hadn't considered Harry would be involved in any of them.
"Why are you telling me this, if it's not my forgiveness you seek?"
Severus didn't answer her and she didn't really expect him to. Lily squeezed her eyelids shuts and breathed in with determination. When she spoke again her voice was strong, free of hesitation.
"Harry is all what matters now. If you want to help him, then we're on the same side and I can live with the knowledge of what you've done. I have to."