Chapter 5: Ineluctability
Once the initial awkwardness was dispelled, Lily and Severus' progression toward each other, Albus Dumbledore noticed with moderate surprise, was gradual but steady. They started by sitting by each other during meals and then they could occasionally be seen talking in the hallways. Their conversations started and finished often on Harry, but often traipsed over the smallest, most trivial things. It amused the Headmaster at first, the way they prudently studied each other as if their "opponent" was a wild animal easily threatened into defensive ferocity. Then he had surprised them passionately discussing the virtues of a certain book in the fourth floor Library, after what was probably an accidental meeting. The animation on Lily's face as she defended her viewpoint to her old friend, right before the couple noticed Albus' stealthy entrance, was something Albus had not witnessed in a long time. It had a almost...childlike quality, and the look Severus had sent him before his expression was quickly schooled into emptiness was been defiant.
This development concerned Albus, but his misgivings, the old man admitted with reluctance, had little to do with a grandfatherly exigency to shield a young woman's vulnerability from an ex-Death Eater's devotion. Lily was an adult, and although Severus' affection could appear as bordering on obsessive, there was no denying the young man would die before hurting her intentionally.
Passion could be volatile, but Love had a way of becoming a saving grace.
You disgust me, Albus had once said to a younger Severus, meaning every word of it. The statement was no longer true, because somewhere during his early meetings with his willing spy in war time, the Headmaster had begun to suspect something which had eluded him before: Severus Snape had not sided with Voldemort because he took pleasure in the impiety the Death Eaters perpetrated but rather because he didn't perceive any concrete difference between the two sides of the fence.
Both sides had been hostile to him, either because he was an half-blood or a Dark Arts practitioner, and the young Slytherin had probably made his choice based more on personal inclinations and resentments than an abstract sense of morality.
Irrational as it was, there was a part of Albus Dumbledore which took responsibility for that choice, because when a fifteen-year-old Severus had stood in his office, stonily demanding that the Marauders be expelled for pushing him into a corner with a werewolf, the Headmaster's refusal hadn't been motivated by favouritism for a group of thoughtless pranksters. It was simply that he hadn't felt like exposing Remus Lupin's condition for the sake of satisfying the resentment of someone like Severus...talented, intelligent, bitter, and hungry for recognition. Someone too much like Tom Riddle.
It wasn't entirely wrong to say that Albus had looked on Severus with suspicion for the very same reasons he had looked away (as long he had been able to) from Tom Riddle's growing malice. Both boys had reminded him of the worst part of himself...the part that had taken Ariana and Aberforth away from him.
In previous years Severus Snape hadn't been ashamed to take out on his students his resentment for the profession he was forced by circumstances to embrace, yet Albus had seen the younger man prove himself as the most dedicated among his Heads of House. The Potions Master controlled his Slytherins with an iron fist, for which they admired and feared him equally.
"His Slytherins," Severus often defined them in conversation, unaware of how proprietary the name sounded upon his lips - parent-like, as if those boys and girls were the closest thing to a family he had left. Certainly Severus took pride in that part of his academic role, in defending his protégées' interests the way nobody had done for him. And then there was Regulus Black, for whom he showed no animosity in spite of the murder of his father...for all the Slytherin concept of making allies rather than friends, that truce held premise untainted by loathing.
So there was good in Severus Snape, regardless of the extent of his regrets for the past and outside his loyalty to Lily. The notion stimulated Albus Dumbledore to wonder if after all the tragic predicament in which they found themselves wouldn't have been avoided if so many years ago a certain Headmaster had made a different choice. If he had shown to that younger, scathing Severus that Darkness wasn't the only path to the power he had access to, would his decision have been different? It was a question he would never find an answer for, just as he would never have known if a more actively pursued interest in the young Tom Riddle's doings would have spared the wizarding world from another war.
Today Albus could only watch older, more scarred versions of Severus and Lily drifting toward each other, with the oddest feeling of ineluctability. Unwise as they could be, he would be more than willing to allow the redhead the benefit of her choices, if those had not had the potential to interfere with his plans.
Any peace at present was on borrowed time: someday Voldemort would return and the Order of Phoenix would need their spy back in action. If Lily grew to return Severus' love, Severus' availability could change. It wasn't advisable to lose a double agent so skilled in Mind Arts and dissimulation; he was too difficult to replace. It would be simple enough to put a stop to two childhood companions becoming reacquainted with each other; at this stage Lily wouldn't recover from learning about Severus' culpability in her son's illness. If Albus told her...the trust blossoming between them would be frayed beyond repair, and it would be all for the greater good. It was a card he had played often to justify his actions, but he disliked pulling it on two people he respected and had came to care about. Perhaps all he had to do was take due precautions and prepare Remus Lupin to fit the role by pushing him to cultivate contact with other werewolves. It would be believable: Remus had already isolated himself from the remaining Marauders for a while.
Albus had barely reached the door into the Medical Wing when ear-splitting screams startled him out of his musings. The sound had actually been audible until he had put his hand on the handle, unmistakable proof that a Silencio Spell had been attached to the wall of the adjoining rooms, but the spectacle that met his eyes when the elderly man entered was even less pleasant.
The screams, however loud, weren't pained and they could have been passed off as those of any capricious child in a fit of temper.
But Harry lay on his bed, his hands reaching out as though to shove somebody away, his green eyes wide open and his body twisting slowly, purposelessly...the child looked like a puppet whose strings were being pulled carelessly by a bored puppeteer. It was one of the most horrendous scenes Dumbledore had had the misfortune to witness in a long and eventful life.
Poppy stood beside Harry, swirling her wand into air to direct confinement spells which would keep the child from either hurling himself out of the bed or damaging himself without constraining his movements. In a corner of the room, the boy's mother looked appalled, her shoulders hunched and her face white, wide jade eyes unwavering from the small figure thrashing with such dreadful slowness on the mattress. In that moment, her arms hugging herself as if to gather strength, Lily looked more like a child than her Harry.
Only one individual on the scene actively recognized Albus' arrival, and he appeared untouched as ever by the agitation around him.
"What is happening here, Severus?" Albus asked the other wizard, who had came to stand at his side. He had known that today they would begin testing the dosages of that Egyptian Elixir, but it was nothing that would justify this.
"The Nephertemisius Elixir required a dosage higher than we expected. This is the first immediate response we've been able to elicit."
"I don't remember your other patient reacting like this." Although Regulus Black's condition had required only a low dosage.
"His cerebral functions were differently altered. Right now, the boy's mind is connecting for the first time with his body."
"Therefore you are absolutely certain this is normal?" Albus turned toward Lily, whose presence at his back was as sudden and unexpected as the weakness in her voice.
"Absolutely certain," Severus echoed, something like gentleness leaking through his reply.
"Lily dear, maybe you shouldn't stay here."
"Where else should I be? My place is with my son."
The young mother went from composed to spitting in a few moments at Madam Pomfrey's gentle suggestion, startling the mediwitch into silence, although Poppy was used to handling her share of hysterical parents. Fortunately, Severus wasn't so easily influenced.
"You aren't of any use to him or to yourself at this moment, especially not in this state. It would be better if you took some fresh air."
The other man's pitiless resolution gained him a fiery glare at first, but then Lily closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, calming herself at once. Albus sighed, making decisions on more levels than this one.
"Severus, why don't you accompany Lily outside? I'm sure she would greatly benefit from a walk."
"Good idea." Poppy nodded enthusiastically, regaining her usual vigour.
"He is needed here," Lily remarked, feeling like a hypocrite; there was a part of her that longed to be removed fast from this room, but the rest of her burned with guilt over it.
"What use could he be now?" Poppy shrugged. "All that is left to do is a Healer's job and I would do it better without the two of you fussing over our little Harry."
Unable to decide whether he was more aggravated at being called useless or for the offensive definition of what he was doing here as "fussing", Severus found himself experiencing a moment of extreme discomfiture when three different pairs of eyes settled expectantly on him. He blinked twice, mentally reviewing the scene, and finally understanding.
"Fine." He put his hand on Lily's shoulder, his fingertips barely grazing the texture of her robe before his ghost of a touch was gone.
The huge relief the young woman experienced once they were outside the Medical Ward shamed her deeply.
"I can escort to your room if you prefer," Severus suggested, but she shook her head wearily.
"No, I think I'm feeling a little claustrophobic now. Some fresh air will do me good. But you don't have to accompany me if you're busy."
She hoped against hope that he wouldn't take the chance to get away from her, because she really, really didn't want be alone now. Even if the prospect of being closeted inside her room made her feel trapped and breathless, the idea of going outside and facing the students' glances, confronting the open space of the Hogwarts grounds, was just as scary. Perfect: she suffered from an hysterical fear of being assaulted by open spaces and suffocated by tight ones if she was left alone...maybe she was truly close to a nervous breakdown.
"I could use a walk if you can use the company."
That made her wish for her sense of humour: you could always rely on Severus Snape for an ambiguous answer in a difficult situation. "Okay then."
She walked as if in a daze until they were outside the castle, the weight of his hand on the small of her back sustaining her: he had probably noticed she was going to be too slow unless he directed her somehow. For her part, Lily didn't even realize where he was leading them for a long while...then she saw the outline of Hagrid's hut.
During their second year, when the inter-House hostilities had made it advisable to keep their friendship more discreet, they had used to come often to the pumpkin patch behind the wooden cabin. Living at Hogwarts could become surreal: memories grew too cumbersome if the expectation of the present didn't match up. When had she became so fond of reminiscence, anyway?
Lily felt strange, hyperaware of the trees' rustling leaves and of the singing birds around them, of the man standing quietly behind her, yet at the same time incredibly distant, as if she was tucked somewhere deep inside herself.
They stood on the hill, admiring the vivacious colours of the patch in the distance, the plants' green and the orange of their fruits gloriously blending. When had they stopped walking?
"Sometimes I forget it's not...normal. The way Harry is, I mean. But then I remember...and it's worse." Put like that, her thoughts were pure nonsense. Lily croaked a humourless laugh.
"Merlin, I'm not even sure what I'm saying!"
"No, I understand it. I understand it well." It would have been presumptuous of him to saying he felt the same, only less so, because getting used to the abstract concept of something was easy but it didn't mean the concrete reality wouldn't on occasion smack you in the face.
A light breeze played with her locks and Lily imagined staying here, frozen forever, lost in the grass's scent and the wild but soothing beauty of nature. When her sight grew blurry, she dropped her eyelids closed, determined to wish the tears gone; she was no longer a little girl and there was no sensible reason to cry.
While she was half-turning to retrace the path of their walk, her foot slid and the witch lost her balance, only to have her fall roughly arrested by a strong arm sneaking around her waist. She ended up colliding head-on with Severus, her face pressed into his thick, black robes which smelled faintly like cinnamon and...mint? A side benefit of hovering around cauldrons for days at a time, she thought with a bit of envy.
In her fall, she had grabbed a fistful of his robes. She didn't let go even though Severus manoeuvred her back to her feet with a indelicate deliberateness which she resented a little. Lily held onto him stubbornly, waiting for him to push her away. She wasn't completely sure of why she wanted so much to prolong this contact:. Their positions were awkward and her companion, who was anything but a cuddly type, was bound to get pissed off at her...but this, right now, was calming her and grounding her.
Severus' hold on her waist loosened and Lily anticipated he would draw back from her. It shocked her when the man pulled her closer instead, bringing his other arm to surround her in a loose, unconstraining embrace. They remained like that until she felt stronger, Severus unmoving but supportive around her, and then they separated. They took over their walk, pretending it had never happened and commenting about how autumn was ending.