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Thanks Lucid for coming up with this wonderful challenge and to Miriam, my beta-reader. This was supposed to be a one-shot but turned out to be pretty long, so that I decided to split it in two chapters. Enjoy!



The Most Magic Place in the World

Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.
— Norman Cousins


Chapter 1
Take my hand and care for me


Potion Partners.
September, 1973.



As always, Professor Slughorn’s classroom was filled with a variety of vapors and billows of fumes. While large, bubbling cauldrons spun on fires, the sole purpose of some others was to awaken the students’ curiosity.

Instantly reminded that she would be learning more advanced magic this year at Hogwarts, Lily Evans walked into the Potions classroom behind a couple of her fellow Gryffindors. There was a lot of animated chatter, the predominant topic of conversation being the summer holidays that had just ended. Personally she was simply thrilled to be here again, and she had a feeling that Potions would remain her favorite subject this year.

It was definitely a good omen that they started with a double-period, and not even the sight of the Slytherins entering the classroom at the same time as the Gryffindors altered her good mood. True, the rivalry between the two houses was legendary − and their year was no exception − but it wasn’t her main concern at the moment; peering at the diverse cauldrons as she walked in and sat down was far more intriguing.

“Good morning, good morning.” Slughorn started the lesson jovially. “Now close the door, that’s it, thank you,” he said as one last Slytherin showed up. “Has everybody arrived?” He took his time looking at them in turn, winking slightly as his gaze stopped on Lily and on a couple of other students he was quite fond of.

Lily couldn’t help exchanging a knowing glance with one of the girls who shared her Dormitory, and who had also attended Slughorn’s so-called parties the previous year. It seemed more adequate to call them reunions, and to say that Slughorn wasn’t interested in the meetings themselves but in the benefits he would later make from the ones he had influenced was unnecessary. It didn’t really matter anyway; Lily had come to appreciate the professor’s talents. He was, after all, the best potion maker she’d ever met.

“Well then, let’s get going,” Slughorn began. “I could of course ask you to take your brand new books out,” he chuckled slightly as he caught sight of everyone’s disillusioned expressions, “But I doubt you’ll appreciate it if your first hour of Potions consists in reading. Therefore−” he said in a theatrical tone, “Please take out your potion ingredients and get paired. Today we shall be brewing a blood-replenishing potion. Now listen carefully, you must pay extra care to the instructions because Madam Pomfrey just informed me that she only has a couple of bottles left.” He lowered his voice in a very melodramatic manner. “Therefore your actions will be crucial.”

Everyone hastily bent down to retrieve their ingredients from their bags. “Oh, Lily,” Slughorn called.

Lily looked up hurriedly. It wasn’t the fact that she was being called by her first name that surprised her− she was quite used to that− but what did Slughorn want with her on their very first hour of Potions?

“I’d like you and Severus to share a table together. You’re the best potion makers here; we’ll see what you can come up with. Both your talents put together should do wonders, and Madam Pomfrey will be happy to know she can count on students for a bit of help.”

It took a good five seconds before Lily understood what Slughorn had just asked her to do, and one glance at her horrified friend was enough to convince her that she had indeed heard right

Lily knew who Severus was. He was excellent in Potions, which inspired a certain amount of respect − but he also happened to be one of the most disliked Slytherins at Hogwarts. She had heard the whispers: the pallid, skinny, greasy-haired boy knew a lot about the Dark Arts.

There were a few snickers after Slughorn had spoken; he ignored them and started giving out instructions for brewing the potion. Lily watched as Snape reluctantly seized his schoolbag and made his way toward her table, averting his eyes. Meanwhile her friend moved a couple of rows toward the front and shared a table with another girl Lily knew fairly well; she was one of the few Slytherins she had come to be acquainted with.

When she gave a glance over her shoulder, Lily saw Peter Pettigrew and Remus Lupin both drinking Slughorn’s every word; further behind, Sirius Black was muttering something to James Potter.

She frowned slightly at the sight of the latter, and even more so when he ran a hand through his messy hair. She didn’t know who she’d rather have as a partner between popular arrogant Potter and unpopular skillful Snape. Not that she had a choice. Well, at least, there was one good thing about being paired up with Severus Snape. On the contrary to James Potter, he wouldn’t end up asking her out.


Prefect Duty
March, 1976.



“I wouldn’t dare get within ten feet of your things, Potter. I’d have to wash my hands afterwards.”

Lily froze when she heard the snide comment, stopping so suddenly in the middle of the corridor that her friend collided with her. Why am I not surprised, she mused. It had been at least a week since that big-headed idiot in her class had hexed anyone.

Someone snorted contemptuously, and Lily leaned forward to make sure she took notice of whatever was going on. Barely a second later a voice shouted, “Stupefy!”

There was a loud thump and Lily couldn’t help wincing as if it was she who had been stunned. Given the fact that the voices sounded close and not muffled at all, she suspected that Potter and his gang were right in the adjacent corridor.

“Don’t bother, Lily…” the girl behind her whispered in warning. “We’re going to be late.”

But Lily was bothered. Unfortunately she happened to be a Prefect ever since the beginning of the year, and school Prefects were supposed to handle such cases. She was accustomed to Potter and Black going too far, especially when it came to trying to ridicule Snape− because the acerbic voice unmistakably belonged to the Slytherin who shared her table in Potions.

“What’s wrong?” came yet another voice. It was low and poised, although its owner seemed to be talking as carefully as if he were walking on eggs. Lily recognized the tone as Remus Lupin’s. Pettigrew mustn’t have been far behind; the four of them always hung out together.

“Someone stole James’s bag.” The snicker belonged to Sirius Black.

“Ah,” Lupin said simply, as though that explained everything.

Lily felt the blood rushing to her temples. It enraged her that Remus Lupin wasn’t exercising any control over his friends. He was supposed to be a Prefect too, wasn’t he?

“Are you actually going to tell them off?” Lily’s friend whispered in her ear. She didn’t seem thrilled at the idea.

“Prefect’s privilege,” Lily replied sullenly, her hand darting toward the pocket where she kept her wand. When it came to dealing with Potter and Black, she wasn’t likely to take risks.

Lily turned the corner. It was as she had expected; Potter and Black standing with their wands out, towering over Snape, and Lupin and Pettigrew behind, with Lupin not daring to move although he did wear a disapproving crease between his eyebrows.

Snape wasn’t completely stunned. Apparently Potter had managed, gods only knew how, to stun no more than the upper part of his body, so that he was frantically trying to fight the spell off. In another universe, Lily might have been curious to know how Potter had done that− but she was far from finding the sight of Severus Snape twitching on the floor entertaining.

“You’re not entirely right, Sirius,” Potter was saying. He was speaking so smugly that Lily wondered how he could live with himself. Some students were obviously finding this superiority something to be jealous of though; there was a small circle of onlookers already laughing heartily and more and more where joining them as the seconds went by.

Someone didn’t steal my bag,” Potter went on. “Snivellus here did.”

“And I don’t suppose anyone else could have been tempted to take your schoolbag,” Lily cut in loudly. “Gifted with intelligence as you are, this didn’t, of course, cross your mind.”

James and Sirius both turned around at the same time. She thought Potter was going to hex her too, but he seemed strangely rooted on the spot when he saw her. However he recovered from his supposed surprise at the speed of light and flashed a grin. “Hey, Evans.”

“James, mate,” Sirius said in a ridiculously portentous tone, “I think she’s flattering you. What about me, Lily?”

She cast him a glance that could have frozen water. In background, Snape was still trying to get rid of the spell, which was wearing off. “You are both going to help him on his feet,” Lily said with cold fury as Snape grabbed his wand.

During a flickering second, she had the impression that James was going to laugh at her − but on the contrary, he seemed to make a decision and declared seriously, “All right.” He ran a hand through his messy hair, and the gesture was so well rehearsed that he seemed to be doing it without thinking. “I get Snivellus back up and then you go out with me, Evans. Deal?”

James was just pathetic… Lily resisted the urge to hex him too. She was truly mad, both because she hated it when he asked her out like this in front of everyone and because she found it maddening that he could grant himself the right to hex anyone just for the fun of it. There were a thousand reasons that she could have brought forward to explain why she hated Potter, and the fact that he kept calling Snape Snivellus, Snivelly or any other offensive names wasn’t last on that list − but she wouldn’t stoop so low as to use his methods and get into a fight, however tempting it might be.

She didn’t even waver at Potter’s last words, keeping a stiff upper lip. “Leave him alone.”

“Or what?” James retorted.

It happened so fast that Lily barely had the time to notice what was happening. Before she had the time to reply anything Snape pointed his wand at James. “Furnuncul−”

“Incarcero!” Sirius shouted, and thick ropes erupted from the tip of his wand. The next second, they were coiling up on Snape, tying his wrists and ankles.

Lily darted in his direction. This spell was dangerous; what if the ropes reached his neck and strangled him?

“Evans, he’s not worth it−” James began, but in that moment Snape looked up at Lily.

She didn’t think she would ever forget the rage she saw in his eyes as he struggled against the ropes that kept wounding themselves around his limbs. Taking out her wand, she pointed them at the thick knots, intending to release him, but he spat, “Get away from me, Mudblood!”

Lily backed away so suddenly that she could have been stung by his words. Everyone had stopped speaking, but it was an unmusical silence with a few intakes of breath and a lot of feet shuffling, as if a wave of unease had spread over the group of students watching.

James was on Snape immediately. “Take that away,” he hissed with his wand inches from Snape’s neck. “Take that back immediately.” He waited for a second, and when it became clear that Snape could not reply at all due to his repeated efforts to break free of the ropes, Potter took a step back and laughed. “Well… Serves you right, Snivelly.”

Lily watched. It was heart-wrenching to be doing nothing to help Snape, but she didn’t dare try to move again. It wasn’t that she was afraid of the insults, but Snape didn’t want any help.

Still. She felt like a monster, standing there with the rest of the students who had resumed their laughter. It didn’t matter that she had tried to interfere; she was one of them herself, wasn’t she? An onlooker. Or even worse: the unfortunate witness of a scene she was condemned to watch quietly when she should have been the one to put an end to it.

Snape seemed to be losing the fight. His weariness was almost palpable as his strength weakened, but finally he managed to untie one of the ropes from his wrists and, panting, to free his legs. He was starting to gag because of the bounds around his neck, but, seizing his wand at last, he cut them loose. With one final effort he threw the last rope off himself and remained on the floor, out of breath.

James picked up one of the ropes that were now lifeless, wearing a satisfied smile. “You should keep one,” he snickered in Snape’s direction, “As a souvenir, in case you ever want to steal my things again.”

A shudder ran up Lily’s spine as Snape threw him a glance of utmost loathing, and she wondered if he was going to curse Potter for good this time. But James turned on his heels, closely followed by Black and Pettigrew, and Snape, too exhausted to return the fight, said nothing. Lily noticed that his left arm was twisted at an odd angle, as if it was dislocated. But not a sound came out of his mouth; not a whimper, not a complaint.

Most students imitated James and Sirius and left, but one of them hung back, seeming shocked. Lily gave Lupin a sour look that he didn’t return. She felt like saying something along the lines of a sarcastic, What a perfect Prefect you are, Remus Lupin. But the words never came out then because a small voice in her head whispered, You’re not much better than him.

“Lily?” her friend called at last. “Are you coming?”

She nodded and gave a last glance in Snape’s direction. He looked up at her challengingly, one of his fists tightly closed into a ball. Averting her eyes, Lily slowly turned around.

***

“You’re going to see Snape? You don’t have to do that, it’s not your fault if Potter cast him that spell.”

“Well,” Lily protested, “He was hurt pretty badly and−”

“Come on, this is Snape we’re talking about.”

“So?”

“So,” her friend snorted. “Don’t tell me you actually care for Snape. Just because he’s your partner in Potions because Slughorn made it so doesn’t mean he’s worth the attention.”

Lily gave a small sigh and, glad they were in the library, pretended to be reading a book. Ever since the day they had produced what Slughorn still called from time to time the most extraordinary blood-replenishing potion he’d ever laid his eyes on, he had insisted that she and Snape remain together during his classes. The most disquieting result of this decision was that Lily, even after several years, still didn’t know what to think of Snape.

To say that she didn’t care about him would have been a lie, and that was maybe why her friend’s last comment bothered her so much. He was truly a good potion maker, more than just decent. She could see the genius and skill he possessed, but he was an enigma on the whole. It was evident that he was misunderstood by most, especially those who didn’t know him at all: everyone despised him but the few Slytherins he seemed to be getting along fine with. Well, they were a detestable lot, Lestrange, Goyle, Avery and the rest of them, but at least he wasn’t entirely alone all the time. Rumor was, it wasn’t friendship that kept them together but a common fascination for the Dark Arts.

Which part of it was true? Lily wasn’t sure she could tell. The pale, unpopular Slytherin was as clever and logical as he was disconcerting. He’d been cooperative in Potions most of the time, but always with this distance between them; and she’d never been quite able to decipher him. Nothing filtered from his dark, intense gaze that seemed to read minds and his soft, low voice was almost always devoid of emotion. It was as though he always made sure to keep himself enveloped by an aura of mystery that never wavered.

And he was brave, after all. She’d never seen him give in to Potter or Black, nor to anyone else. He had an impressive character that was even… appealing.

Oh, God. She couldn’t believe she had just thought that about Snape, the hated Slytherin. Lily gave a glance at her watch, yawned and stood up.

“You’re going to bed?” Her friend raised an eyebrow.

Lily tried to think quickly. It was getting late, but she still had the time to make a detour and check on Snape before curfew. “Yes, bed,” she finally mumbled. “I might go down to the kitchens first, I’m hungry.”

“That’s because you didn’t eat enough at dinner.”

Lily gave a vague approval and left the library, immensely thankful that the girl who shared her Dormitory hadn’t found she was hungry too.

The corridors were empty for the most part; a few students were headed to their Common Rooms and she avoided Peeves by choosing the longest path around when she heard the racket he was the source of near the second floor.

The Hospital Wing was as silent as usual. Lily pushed open the door with hesitation, wondering what she was going to say. Perhaps Snape would be asleep? She made her way through the first beds, noticing how white the entire place was; white and spotless.

Snape was lying on a bed about two-third down the way. He straightened up when he saw her enter. It wasn’t until she was at the foot of his bed that she understood the inappropriateness of the situation: Snape with a splinted arm staring at her mutely, and she, standing with discomfort beside him in the quiet hospital wing.

“Are you all right?” Lily’s voice was oddly magnified by the empty place.

“What do you care?” Snape said aggressively.

Such animosity temporarily stopped her. Again she realized that she was acting very strangely tonight; why had she come? She would never have done so before; she might not even have bothered to care before, especially not for someone who had insulted her. So what had changed?

While all these thoughts crossed her mind, Snape grabbed a book on the bedside table and started reading as though he wasn’t aware that she was still near his bed. It was really a shame that Lily had just done the exact same thing in the library a few minutes before; she knew the tactic well by now.

“I’m a Prefect,” she said straightforwardly, even if she had the impression to be talking to a wall. “They were out of line. I ought to have stopped them.”

Snape didn’t blink, but she knew he wasn’t reading because his eyes weren’t moving. Was he really that annoyed by her presence? Or maybe… slightly taken aback? Lily couldn’t tell: like ninety nine percent of the time, his expression was smoothly unreadable.

He finally looked up. “I called you a Mudblood.”

It sounded like a statement and he made it devoid of sentiment, so that his intentions remained unclear. Was he about to insult her Muggle origins again? Or was this some kind of apology? He was truly a master in the art of hiding his feelings.

She gave a casual shrug, trying to appear more unconcerned than she actually was. “Everyone would lose their temper with Potter around. I shouldn’t have let him hex you anyway.”

At these words she thought she saw a flash of anger in his dark eyes. “Is that why you came?” He seemed to be gritting his teeth. “To ease your conscience before you walk away just like everybody else? Or maybe−” he added mockingly, “You’re afraid to be alone in Potions.”

Lily stared. Any thought of remorse was leaving her; she didn’t think she wanted to care for someone like Snape after all. She felt infuriated that they couldn’t even manage to have a normal conversation. But then again, what had she expected? He was a Slytherin, and, being a Gryffindor, he considered her on James’s side.

“Maybe Potter’s right about you,” she said before she began walking away. She had wanted to reply in an unpleasant tone that would have been as spiteful as his was, but it had only sounded a bit awkward. Why was it that she couldn’t hate him like everyone else did?

Lily was already ten feet away when Snape spoke: “Evans, wait−”

She wheeled around. When she met his eyes she found no anger there, just… something quite impossible to define. He had extended a hand as though to prevent her from leaving, and she noticed how troubled his gaze was.

“Thank you,” he muttered in a breath. Only because he seemed to think that an explanation was required did he add, “For coming.”

Lily found she didn’t know what to reply.


Secrets
June, 1977.



The night was warm and the grounds of Hogwarts completely quiet but for the sound of Lily’s own voice in the dark. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” she was gazing at the stars spread across the vault of heaven.

“It’s perfect,” Severus answered serenely.

That it was. Lily’s head was resting on his shoulder; they were lying on the ground, their cloaks spread on the grass to prevent the humidity from damping their clothes. It wasn’t the first time they had sneaked out of the castle unnoticed at night just to be together, and Lily certainly hoped it wouldn’t be the last.

They didn’t talk for a while, just enjoying the moment− but eventually Lily began to be uncomfortable. It wasn’t that she was starting to feel numb on the hard ground; she was only asking herself probably too many questions for her own good. Her relaxed position gave no hint of her inner turmoil, but the thoughts were swirling in her mind. And in a way she knew why she felt so uncertain. Oh yes, she knew, even if she had never acknowledged it yet.

She and Severus might not be doing anything wrong,− well, except being out at night, but that was another matter− but she still felt unnervingly blameworthy. That last feeling was mixed with dread at the idea that someone might find out about them, anxiety when she thought of what the future could be made of, and a thousand different emotions she couldn’t really sort out.

What they were doing made no sense, did it? She shifted slightly, her hand in his. He wasn’t moving at all, so that she could have believed him asleep; but he was probably deep in thought, just like her. After a while, she couldn’t help but ask, “What would they say, if they knew?”

He took his time to think, and although the pressure of his hand in hers did not vary, she thought she heard a small, frustrated sigh from him. Then he answered, “They would hate us.”

Lily shut her eyes, feeling cold even if the temperature was exceptionally pleasant. She could just imagine what would happen if someone even saw them together. Severus was right, they would be literally hated. It wouldn’t matter that what drove the other students to loath them would be jealously, surprise or incomprehension. From popular and smart student she would become the discredited Gryffindor girl everyone would point at because she had dared go out with Snape. It wouldn’t matter that she loved him; they would be outcasts.

And yet… yet she was willing to risk it all just for a chance to be with him. She would have renounced anything for a moment like this. But how long would it last until they were forced apart? How long until their night escapades went noticed, how long until one of them declared they couldn’t bear this hidden relationship anymore? How long until they stopped fooling themselves and faced the painful reality that would not only hit them hard, but separate them forever?

“One thing at a time, Lil,” Severus said in a whisper.

A bewildered silence followed his words. “How did you know what I was thinking?” Lily finally asked. She couldn’t keep the suspicion out of her voice. It wasn’t the first time he seemed to read her mind, and she hated to think about the reasons that would explain why he might be able to do that.

“It’s not what you think,” he answered promptly. “I swear, Lil. It’s just that… We both have a lot of things to think about, both of us. But I’ll never use Legilimency to spy on your thoughts. Never.”

“I know,” Lily replied. She smiled at him even if he couldn’t see anything more than the outlines of her face in the dark. Of course she knew; it was the very meaning of trust. However, the thought should never have crossed her mind.

Severus had seemed a bit odd lately. No, no odd. Off. Preoccupied. And she knew what bothered him: Voldemort, the Dark Arts, the trouble he had in figuring out what he wanted. They rarely talked about it, but she already knew, deep inside, that he wasn’t likely to abandon any of it soon.

“Are you cold?” Severus suddenly asked, changing the topic of conversation. Lily realized she was shuddering as Severus took out his wand and muttered a heating charm.

“You always keep your wand near?” Lily chuckled. She already knew the answer was yes, but it was somewhat of a joke between them. She had once asked if he was planning on hexing her anytime soon in case she refused to kiss him back.

Not this time though, he didn’t laugh. “You never know…” he said vaguely.

It didn’t surprise Lily that he said no more; she had become accustomed to it, just like she had become accustomed to the way he hid his emotions when he spoke, the way he dreamt, the way he was. There was a lot of meaning in his words; and the lack of precision was just a way for him to show that he’d rather say no more.

“Potter and Black hexed you again?”

This time he did laugh, though humorlessly. “Tried to hex me would be more adequate.”

She hissed angrily. “You’d think they knew better than that by now.”

“Lil, don’t worry about it,” he said gently.

“No?” Lily replied, a knot of anger swelling inside her. “They have no right to−”

“I’d rather be with you, and let them− let them try to make fun of me if they want. They don’t know anything, do they? I’d rather let them be if it means I can be here with you without anyone standing in our way.” He paused, then added softly, “It’s worth it. They don’t understand any of it, is all. They don’t understand,” he repeated, placing a gentle kiss on Lily’s temple.

She decided to let him choose. They had had this conversation over and over again already, and she understood his point even if she wished he wasn’t the target of so much mockery. “Tell me of a place where people like them don’t exist…” she said, staring at the bright spots far above her in the starry sky. “Tell me about a world where there is no evil and no hatred, just beauty and peace…” she added dreamily.

Severus wrapped an arm tightly around her shoulder. “I can tell you about a place no one knows about,” he said. “It’s beautiful there in fall; the leaves take a thousand different colors and twirl in the wind. There’s a bench at the end of a graveled path, bathed in a warm sunlight at spring and half in the shadows of a huge oak in the summer when it’s hot. That bench has always been there as far as I can remember. You can sit and let the hours go by without realizing it because it’s so quiet and peaceful.” He paused. “I swear we’ll go there one day. I’ll take you where time doesn’t exist.”

Lily smiled at the idea. Was it a real place? It sounded more like an illusion, a lost, unreachable paradise, but wasn’t that romantic?

“Where is it?”

Severus raised his wand again and started sketching a map in midair. It was comprised of small luminous dots that glowed in the night like so many stars. “I’ll show you,” he spoke softly, and the he told Lily about the most magic place on earth.

*******************

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