“So a historian, a Healer, and a house-elf walk into a bar,” Regulus began airily, lifting his glass at the three people who’d just joined him.
“Dobby is not a house-elf, sir,” Dobby said staunchly, taking great care to straighten his thin shoulders as he sat down. “Dobby is only an elf. You is being very lazy, Mr. Black. You should be ashamed of yourself, sitting around all day when valiant Harry Potter is saving the world from He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named!” He very pointedly turned away from Regulus, who stifled a smile, and folded his arms over yet another new jumper he was wearing. Melinda Gladrags was constantly designing clothing for the elf, as he was her most enthusiastic model, and she never seemed to take the temperature into account. Dobby was presently wearing ugly orange wool and long sleeves on a warm summer day.
“It’s true, it’s true,” Regulus drawled, clearing his throat noisily and then shaking his head back and forth like a wet dog. “The lifestyle of a wine connoisseur is paved with misconceptions. I can see how others would consider me lazy, when in fact I am merely very dedicated to my craft.” He looked thoughtful, swirling the contents of his glass. “But now I’m quite confused, Dobby. All along, I thought you were a big You-Know-Who supporter. Switched sides now that the game’s changed, eh?”
Dobby took the bait, as usual, and turned his head around so fast to scowl at Regulus that one of his batty ears knocked Bathilda Bagshot in the face. “Never! Never in Dobby’s life! Dobby has always supported Harry Potter, he has never liked bad wizards and You-Know-Who is the very worst bad wizard of all, yes he is!”
“Oh? So the rumors that you used to work for Lucius Malfoy aren’t true?” Regulus’s eyes glinted. Bathilda pursed her lips at him disapprovingly, but he simply couldn’t help himself. “Abraxas says you were a spy for the Dark Lord, trying to swindle secrets out of the Chosen One.”
Dobby’s eyes flashed wide; he started making spitting noises. “That is not true! Dobby has been Harry Potter’s greatest friend! Dobby has helped Harry, yes he has, and he has been most important and useful.” He nodded fervently, hands slightly shaking as he straightened his new pinstripe beret. “More useful than some other people Dobby can think of. Yes, he has been Harry Potter’s very best friend!”
“Some friend,” Regulus remarked. “I heard you stole his letters once.”
“Oh, stop, Reg,” Dilys Derwent chided, taking up her usual stool between Bathilda and Dobby. Lily Potter, who was sitting on a stool at the far end of the counter and was busy mixing her gillywater with her pinky finger, didn’t so much as crack a smile. Normally she’d laugh at just about anything.
“Something got your goose, Potter?” Regulus inquired. “It’s a great day, I hear. You should be out making a racket with your old Order mates. At the very least, you could swim over to the Grotta and rub it in their faces that they lost. I heard tell from Mad-Eye that boatloads of people have been arriving over there all day long. Shouldn’t have moved so close to the coast, myself. They don’t ever shut up as it is and it’s only going to get worse. I won’t get any sleep for weeks.”
She didn’t appear to have heard him, and gave no reply.
“Well, something’s certainly got my goose,” Dilys Derwent began, spinning her wand toward the pub owner. Odo, who had been wiping grime away from the sterling silver tap over a barrel of Ogden’s Old Firewhisky, noticed his shirt tails un-tucking from his trousers and lifted his eyes to Dilys. She smiled at him, knowing full well that he disliked it when she got his attention that way.
“Something I can get for you, Dilys?”
“Oh, sure,” she said breezily. “I’d like a red currant rum, if you’re not doing anything else.”
Regulus snorted into his drink. “At two in the afternoon?”
“Don’t give me any of that tosh, Black. I’d wager my wand that you haven’t got regular old pumpkin juice in your goblet.”
He rolled his eyes but didn’t deny it. Bathilda turned to the witch with stately silver ringlets. “What were you saying about a goose, dear?”
“Hogwarts is in chaos,” Dilys confided in a low tone. “If you ask me, they’ve got a solid twelve months of repairs ahead of them. I've no idea how they’re going to put it all back together by September – might have to ship the students off to Durmstrang or Beauxbatons for a short spell.”
“Oh, is that true?” Bathilda answered in an equally grave voice, eyes sparkling with a demand for gossip. “Someone said – I think it might’ve been Armando – that the Quidditch pitch was destroyed.”
“Oh, yes. It’s definitely gone. Not a single blade of grass from the gamekeeper’s hut to the front gates, the way I heard it. And my knowledge comes from a very reliable inside source, a reporter by the name of Skeeter. She was talking about it right in front of me to the Healer-in-Charge of the Dai Llewellyn Ward, since, as you know, I have a painting in St. Mungo’s as well as Hogwarts.”
Dilys loved providing confidential information that not many others were privy to. Phineas already knew about the level of damage, of course, along with several others, but they were all out on the streets celebrating with the rest of Cliodna’s Clock. The crowd who usually occupied Odo’s Pub had decided to come back today just as if it were any other normal day (excepting Helga Hufflepuff and Broderick Bode, who never missed a party if they could help it), and Dilys eagerly looked forward to lording suspense over Bathilda and Regulus. Only one lone figure sitting at the end of the counter looked out of place in Odo’s Pub.
“Lily?” Dilys asked sweetly, leaning across Bathilda to lay her prying eyes on the young woman’s face. Lily moved her shoulder infinitesimally – just enough to brush her hair over her shoulder to obscure her downcast eyes from view. “They won. I’m sure you’ve heard already? There’s nothing to be worried about anymore. It’s all over.”
“I’ve heard.” Lily’s voice was quiet. “I know.” She shifted her elbow, laying both palms evenly upon the counter. Her outfit was slightly out of character for her – instead of the usual jewel-tone robes, she was wearing a tweed jacket with elbow patches over a faded yellow dress. From a distance the color of her jacket looked periwinkle, but upon closer inspection one could see that it was woven with tiny pink and blue stitches overlapping each other.
Dobby beamed brilliantly. “Harry Potter has won! He has defeated the most terrible evil wizard and now the world is saved! No more of that bald old man and his horrible snake!” His long fingers reached up to his ears, instinctively wanting to pummel them in punishment for speaking ill of Voldemort (as Voldemort was closely connected to Lucius Malfoy, Dobby’s old master), but he gained control of himself. Regulus grinned at him. The elf had gotten awfully brave since he’d arrived in Cliodna’s Clock, now that he was far away from the clutches of danger. “No more of that horrid old flat-faced wizard. That cruel, smelly, bad, double smelly –”
“Now that’s no way to talk about your old friend,” Regulus started to say, but Dilys subtly shot Petrificus Totalus at him. Stiff as a board, the man keeled backwards off his stool and hit the floor. His eyes, large and surprised, didn’t blink.
Bathilda and Dilys laughed delightedly. “That should shut his trap. You don’t mind lying down there for a while, do you Reg? It’s just that you’re putting a bit of a damper on our party here. This is Harry’s day. Let Dobby talk about the poor brave boy as much as he wants.” Dilys raised her rum in Lily’s direction, offering her a rueful smile. She and Bathilda both had a fair inkling as to what sort of thoughts currently engaged Mrs. Potter’s mind.
Odo placed trays of fish and chips in front of each of them without having to be solicited, even Regulus, whose empty stool he gladly ignored. Dobby frequently tossed vindictive looks at the frozen man on the floor, his broad mouth twisting up into a smile. The elf would personally never dare do such bold magic on an old war hero who had evidently gone to extreme lengths to pose as a Death Eater to gather information, when, in fact, he was not a true Death Eater at all (which Regulus had taken to flaunting about often), but Dobby adored seeing other people with no such qualms giving Mr. Black exactly what his foul mouth deserved. A war hero he very well might be, but his voluntary mission to infiltrate Voldemort’s inner circle had not ended very well. Dobby thought to himself that Regulus must have made a rather pathetic spy.
“Oh, there’s James,” Bathilda mused casually, bringing a teacup to her lips. Lily spun around, eyes growing three times in size, just in time to see her husband passing by the rows of frosted glass windows, one hand reaching toward the door handle. By the time her tumbler of gillywater crashed to its side, drenching a pile of napkins with drink, she had already flown behind the counter and crouched beneath it.
“Is Lily anywhere about?”
“Yes, Mr. Potter, sir, I has just been seeing Mrs. Potter just now –” Dobby piped up proudly. He looked around for the missing redhead, puzzled, but Bathilda coincidentally jabbed his basket of chips with her knobby elbow and sent them scattering all over the floor. Dobby hastened to pick up the mess, apologizing profusely over his shoulder to Odo. “Very sorry, sir. Clumsy Dobby. Don’t worry, sir, Dobby is tidying it up. No need to bother yourself.”
“Lily,” James repeated anxiously. He was a young man who looked even younger than his twenty-one years, what with the glasses sitting crookedly on his long nose and the charming smile he always wore. With very good reason, however, he looked much older than usual today. He was pinched and exhausted from worrying all morning over his son, his complexion still as pale as death. “Has anyone seen her?”
“Nope,” Dilys replied loudly. “Can’t say that I have.”
“No Lily here,” Bathilda added.
James looked perplexed, grazing a hand through the hair on his crown and frowning. “So have you seen her or haven’t you, Dobby? She’s been gone for the past few hours.”
Dobby made to speak, but Bathilda kicked the basket of freshly-collected chips with her shoe, sending them flying all over the tiles again. Dobby rose to his knees and did a flustered little dance, hands clenched maddeningly. “Dobby did not do that this time! Dobby is most certain!”
“Well, all right…” James said slowly, eyes roving over Regulus’s stiff body on the floor. One could almost hear Regulus mentally shrieking at him, pleading for help, but for whatever reason James chose to ignore him. “If you do see Lily, will you tell her I was looking for her?”
“And tell her that I’m going to go search for Remus, will you?”
James left then, and the two ladies witnessed through the frosted panes of glass that James headed off to the right, presumably to check Florean Fortescue’s new ice cream parlor for any signs of his wife. As soon as he was safely down the street, Bathilda boomed over the counter, “I do believe someone’s looking for you.”
Lily grudgingly trudged out from behind her hiding post, looking every bit like a sheepish scoundrel. Odo raised a bushy eyebrow at her, as her jacket was now smeared with dust and dirt, but said nothing. “Mrs. Potter!” Dobby cried shrilly. “There you are!” Dilys clapped a hand over his mouth, reducing him to a squealing pile of hysterics.
Lily mumbled something unintelligible that sounded like ‘thanks’ and quickly ducked out the door, keeping her head down. “He went right!” Dilys shouted just before the door closed. Lily hesitated for a moment before turning left, briskly widening the gap between herself and her husband.
Bathilda clucked her tongue. “Poor girl. I bet she’s been dreading this day for quite some time.”
Lily hurried down the busy avenue, glancing back every so often to ensure that James’s messy head hadn’t popped up over the crowd, and found solace in Amelia Bones’s garden shed. It was in a different location today than it was two days previously, as buildings and walkways and trees sometimes disappeared in one spot on the island and reappeared in another – rather like the stairways at Hogwarts going in different directions.
She could hear the witch’s rocking chair creaking against her patio on the other side of the house, but Lily knew that if Amelia found her she wouldn’t ask any questions. The citizens of Cliodna’s Clock were rather used to catching Lily doing odd things with no sensible explanations tied to them. She and James sometimes amused themselves with leaving each other gifts in strange places, sending each other on scavenger hunts, and it wasn’t an unordinary thing to find one of them digging around in someone else’s kitchen drawers or climbing marble statues in the park.
The garden shed provided a decent vantage point for viewing the festivities beyond, even though she knew that the person she was really hiding from wouldn’t be out and about with the others, shouting for joy. She closed her eyes and sank against the damp corner next to a row of rakes, feeling the crumbling moss and mud seep into her clothing.
She wasn’t exactly avoiding James, per se. She just didn’t want to see him or speak to him until she could get herself together. In truth, all day long, every time she saw anyone with black hair her heart stuttered in her chest and her face got extremely hot. She’d heard over and over about the finer details of Severus Snape’s life through Cassandra Trelawney, and the lengths he had gone to in order to protect her son. But he hadn’t done it for Harry. No, Albus Dumbledore had made it perfectly clear over a cup of tea and a dish of scones with raspberry jam, smiling just as nice as you please, that Severus had, in fact, done everything for Lily.
How was she supposed to greet the man who’d spent the last twenty or so years pining for her? Who’d sacrificed moving on and ever trying for a life of his own, given up on the prospect of finding love with anyone else, all because of his fixation with Lily’s memory? It was startling and baffling and Lily couldn’t make sense out of why he’d never given her up. She was endlessly thankful for everything he’d done for Harry, of course, even though Cassandra sometimes gave her the impression that Severus wasn’t always very polite to him during their interactions. Still, despite it all, the fact remained that Severus was still in love with her, even after all this time.
Somehow the words ‘thank you’ didn’t seem like they would suffice. Thank you, Severus, for risking your life over and over, existing on a razor's edge, to act as a spy for Dumbledore because you love me, but I’m not sure I’m the person you think I am. Thank you, Severus, for helping my son keep surviving until he was old enough to kill Voldemort himself, but I’m still with James. I’m still married, and I still love him. I still do not have those feelings for you. Sorry about all that, but there isn’t much waiting for you here.
Lily swallowed. She couldn’t bear a confrontation with him, couldn’t bear for his black eyes to scrutinize her, for the weight of bitterness and darkness to lift from somewhere over his heart as he gazed at her. He always had a certain way of looking at her that wasn’t like how anyone else ever looked at her, even James, and it made her uncomfortable. It made her feel like Severus was seeing everything she didn’t want him to see, and things about her that didn’t even exist, all melded together in one rose-colored image of perfection. Lily in the flesh would never match up to the Lily of his memory, especially not when he’d spent the past sixteen years turning her into a shrine.
Would he regret spending his life that way when he saw her and remembered the Lily she truly was, and not the distorted girl in his dreams? Reality would pierce him like a sword as soon as he laid eyes on the woman who had not aged a day since she was twenty-one years old. And he, Severus, who was now thirty-eight, couldn’t be shielded from the truth that even in death they could not turn back time.
She’d been avoiding him much longer than several hours. She’d been avoiding him for years. Thirteen times she had been back to earth, and thirteen times she had briefly considered visiting him before making up her mind that no, absolutely not. There were rules, after all, and to a shallow extent she was able to delude herself into thinking that she was only keeping to the rules by steering clear of her childhood friend. Even if she wasn’t allowed to be seen and even if she did everything in her power to conceal her presence, she was certain that he would just know, that he would feel her there. He always had a way of knowing, being the astute wizard that he was, and what would he do if he found her out? If he discovered the deceased Lily Potter watching him from a shadowy corner?
It was enough to smooth her shame so that she could effectively steer clear of him. She allowed him to continue loving her even though he shouldn’t, repressing her guilt in favor of pretending Severus acted as Dumbledore’s right-hand man and Voldemort’s left-hand man for his own personal reasons that had nothing to do with her. Thirteen times she had been to earth on July the first, and not a second was spent in Spinner’s End.
The opportunity for a fourteenth visit was looming, and Lily felt distinctly uneasy. Soon, Severus would know that Lily was something of a legend because of how many times she’d won the Devil’s Duel – usually referred to as ‘the races’; and that she’d had the opportunity in the past to see him if she so wished. Would he ask her if she ever looked him up? Would she lie about her answer? She could feel the heavy, heavy imbalance in their relationship. He’d devoted most of his life to making up for initially choosing the wrong side, and in turn she had tried her hardest to forget him.
And now he was here, in Cliodna’s Clock. He had to be. Those thirty-eight crows were for her, calling for her. It colored the air with red and warning and Lily ran; away from James, away from the merriment and packs of joyful witches and wizards. The last time there had been this sort of celebrating, it was right when Lily and James arrived at the depot. It was only fitting that history was to repeat itself in the streets of the village of the dead right when Severus came, as well. It felt like two ends spaced universes apart were finally meeting, drawing to a tense close. He was here and he would see her, and she would eventually have to see him.
“Coward,” she muttered to herself. Sirius would be ashamed to call her a Gryffindor.
She opened her eyes and moved over to a hole in the shed’s wall. Instead of alighting upon a swarm of boisterous people, however, there was only the sting of salt and a bright white sky. Nearby, waves crashed against a familiar stone cottage, the waves dotted with petals of lavender from a flowerbed on the south side that served as a peninsula. She realized that the shed had once again relocated, rearranging itself within the fabric of Cliodna’s Clock. It would take ages for Amelia Bones to find her shed out here, on the outskirts of the island next to Regulus and Sirius’s house.
Lily sighed and opened the door, inviting in a swell of warm wind. She shed her jacket and draped it over one of Madam Bones’s shovels before drifting outside, certain that Sirius would find it when he came snooping around. From out of nowhere, a Ravenclaw-blue paper tumbled through the air and landed in the pebbles at her feet. Lily bent down to retrieve it, although she already knew what it would say.
It’s that time of year again!
All residents of Cliodna’s Clock are eligible to sign up for the Devil’s Duel, the most exciting tournament the afterlife has to offer. Compete for the chance to win 24 hours on earth! But be warned: Second place in the final round is last place. Entering is not advisable if you are not wholly prepared to accept the possible consequences.
Register no later than the 31st of May. Our office is open day and night.
Lily let go of the paper, her green eyes following its journey over the ocean. A smaller island just a little ways away, a fortress of bare trees and a tall, curving fence of iron, was also cheering in celebration today. A hand reached over the wall, just barely discernible, and snatched the paper. Moments later, there was a whoop of glee and an explosion of voices.
The Grotta didn’t need a tournament to purge one person a year. Their island didn’t rely on people like Lily, who were so desperate to see loved ones living in another world that they would risk their souls over and over to see them for just one day. They were different from the people of Cliodna’s Clock in that they weren’t immune to death save for coming in second in the races. They could die at any time, their souls forever stamped out. They were constantly killing each other off, so there was no need to hunt them to keep their population low. And although they weren’t permitted to participate in the Devil’s Duel, they were allowed to watch. It was the only time people from the Grotta were able to mingle with people from Cliodna’s Clock, albeit highly supervised mingling, and they made the absolute most of it with lots of uproarious shouting and catcalling meant to intimidate.
The words scrawled across the flier stayed in Lily’s mind, and she found herself wondering if she deserved to enter the races at all. If someone like Severus had no one to win for, no one left to see on earth, then did Lily, the woman who inadvertently stole his life, have the right to win such a prize?