Lily slid and slipped as she tore her way through the pockets of yellow marshland, panting heavily. It didn’t matter that she was walking in plain sight and that Elladora might see her. Unlike the previous year, when contestants used wands to create bridges across a cluster of islands, one giant race to a platform where one could Apparate back home, this year wands weren’t necessary. This year, in order to win each round of the Devil’s Duel, you must be the first one to reach the door in the frame. The picture frame. This year, each round took place inside of various paintings.
This round, the fifth and last, was held inside a watercolor scene. Lily found it a relief from the fourth round, which was an impressionist painting. Last Wednesday, she’d found herself stumbling around in a headache-inducing maze of multicolored splotches that she couldn’t make heads nor tails of. It was impossible to tell where she was or where she was going, being so close in perspective to her surroundings in an impressionism painting.
It was also a tremendous advantage that the watercolors were bleeding into her skin, staining them the color of trees and wildflowers and a little brook that trickled through a nearby meadow. Lily reached up with both hands and absorbed the sky through her palms, allowing the white-gold to wash down her face and shoulders. She then crouched in a misty copse, daubing her feet with more evergreen needles, before continuing onward. Elladora could be anywhere, but Lily had known her long enough to guess that she probably wouldn’t think of using her environment’s matter as a disguise.
Elladora had no reason to attack Lily, of course, but it was easy to assume that she might try to follow Lily if they crossed paths. In the first round, Lily had warned Elladora about one of the doors she knew to be false, pointing across a vast architecture borne from cubism to where the deceptive door hid. Lily couldn’t help Elladora now, not with the end so close.
With Harry so close.
Lily knew that three false doors lay behind her, but that meant very little. Someone beyond her kept spinning the painting – she could feel all the eyes in Cliodna’s Clock watching her as she rolled and rolled – and when the painting righted itself, the doors had revolved around the frame like the doors in The Department of Mysteries. She’d been walking in circles for over an hour and still hadn’t found the single red door with a gilded gold knob. The winning door was always the only one with the knob.
She trudged up a hillside, bending low to keep her body blending into the setting. She accidentally knocked into an apple tree, leaving a bright, ripe red imprint of an apple on her collarbone. She fleetingly wondered what James was thinking as he stood in front of the enormous painting that was currently serving as the ceiling of the Town Hall. He would be sitting cross-legged on the floor, probably next to Elladora’s mother, head tilted back to observe his wife slop through a watercolor world far above. He would be able to see the right door. He would know if she was going the wrong or right way. James and Mrs. Ketteridge would be the only ones still interested in the outcome of the races, the only ones willing to invest their care at such a dangerous stage of the competition.
Lily recalled her sixth foray into the races, back in 1987 when she and Perpetua Fancourt found themselves the champions of their fourth duels, and therefore fated to go head-to-head against each other in the fifth round. That year, the Devil’s Duel took place inside of a book about dinosaurs. Spidery black letters rained down from the sky, filling up hollows in the dirt with ink. It was a race against time to read the letters as they fell, stringing words together, until they smashed after hitting the ground. The words were clues about which dinosaur they were supposed to kill. Whoever achieved this goal first would be crowned the winner. Lily had been completely lost, unable to make sense of the clues she’d managed to unscramble out of the air, when she’d stumbled across Perpetua.
Perpetua hadn’t seen her. She had her eyes on a relatively small creature with brass-scaled armor, teeth bared as it approached her on two horned feet. Her wand was drawn. Attacking the wrong dinosaur entailed immediate disqualification, making the other contestant a winner by default. Lily had no time to think, to process what she was about to do. All she knew was that Perpetua had been a Ravenclaw; she would have had no trouble deciphering the clues and her wand was currently poised to attack. But Lily was a Gryffindor. She’d been in the Order of the Phoenix and she was quicker with spells than Perpetua was, and therefore Perpetua’s husband had to watch Lily take a win that should have belonged to his wife.
1987. That was the year Vernon Dursley called Harry a ‘useless, unwanted little vermin’ and Lily had almost broken every single rule that applies to Devil’s Duel grand champions. She’d bit her lower lip until it bled profusely, hands shaking as she willed herself not to beat her fists on the windows until the glass shattered; telling herself over and over that she wasn’t allowed to be seen or heard and could not be permitted to blow open the door and wrap her arms protectively around her sobbing little boy.
But this is now, not then, Lily thought, pushing away the memory of a red-faced man bent over her only child, her greatest love in the universe, threatening to send him to an orphanage if he ever touched Dudley’s toys again. And then she’d had to swallow her shrieks of rage when Petunia made a waspish comment about how selfish and greedy Harry was, sending him off to bed without supper. Lily’s eyes had almost burned holes through the door in the impossibly tiny cupboard under Petunia’s stairs where they forced Harry to live, scarlet anger overpowering her to the point where she couldn’t think straight, couldn’t see straight. She’d had to cover herself with a Disillusionment Charm and sit on the curb with her fist in her mouth, trying not to scream from frustration.
There had been times when she’d interfered, when she’d come very close to breaking the rules. There was the incident when Dudley had purposefully stepped on Harry’s hand while the latter boy was lying in the bushes outside the sitting room window to avoid Dudley’s gang. It had only taken a second to whisper the healing incantation, and Lily hadn’t even meant to say it out loud; it was a kneejerk reaction to seeing her son hurt.
Harry was so furious with Dudley, shouting and waving his arms (Lily was impressed that he was standing up for himself despite their incredible difference in size, and knew it would make James so proud when she told him later), and didn’t even realize at first that his hand was no longer scraped. But he’d noticed it a few seconds later after Dudley was gone with his friends, all of them laughing their heads off, and a rather curious expression overcame him.
Lily hoped with a fervent desire almost bordering on pain that he would somehow know, and that he could somehow feel that his mother was doing her very best to protect him as much as she was allowed. But she was up in a tree and couldn’t allow herself to be seen, and he didn’t know the difference, and he’d shrugged and walked into the house where he was promptly told off for tracking dirt all over the clean floor.
Her hands were now coated with thick layers of cloud – faint blue and white and gold and gray – as she extended them on both sides like she was flying. The wind was paint, too, curling toward her with bits of metallic silver spray. She could feel the flecks of it on her face as she made her way down the hillside and toward a ravine. There were spots on the canvas under her shoes where paint hadn’t been layered on liberally enough, showing beige crisscrosses just underneath the warm blush of a meadow.
Weighed down with so much slick substance, Lily paused to shake off the olive leaves and spiny brown branches that had appeared on her arms and legs after she’d gotten caught between their overhanging boughs and the same rippling branches mirroring off of greenish creek water below. In the distance, a stone well sat underneath a halo of sun that broke through the drab clouds, pouring down rays in streaks of canary yellow. Elladora was sitting on the edge of the well, her lower half stone-gray and her facial features indiscernible from the way such rich yellow hues distorted them.
She saw Lily and her back went rigid. She leapt away from the well in one graceful swoop, gliding towards her opponent. One hand was raised in friendly greeting. She was going to say hello, or perhaps suggest that they help each other.
Lily’s stomach turned. Think of Harry. Think only of Harry. She could not let herself view Elladora as a friend anymore, to view her as someone with a future. She couldn’t remember Mrs. Ketteridge watching her back home, face upraised to view their progress in the races. They were so close to the end that everyone would be paying attention to the Devil’s Basin – the Pensieve with everyone’s blood in it – for signs of who had the better chances of winning. Lily wanted it more. She had a son unknowingly waiting for her and if she didn’t watch over him for at least one day and one night, then she would be letting him down. If she didn’t have just these twenty-four hours out of all the other long, torturous hours of the year, then how could she still call herself a parent?
This was her job. This was her sacrifice. Somewhere out there right now in the calm, peaceful village of Cliodna’s Clock, her blood was boiling higher and hotter than Elladora’s, and Elladora’s mother would have to witness it. Mrs. Ketteridge would know that her daughter’s minutes were numbered. Because they had to be.
She turned and walked away. Elladora must have sensed the cold rift in their friendship, because she wordlessly set off in the opposite direction. There could be no more waiting around, pretending that the watercolor prairies and mountains stretched on and on forever. They were confined to a picture frame, the horizon fleshing together with an expensive border of twisted bronze. Only one could win and the other would lose, and Lily owed it to Harry to keep an annual vigil over him. She owed it to James, too, who had to endure standing helplessly off to the side while his wife willingly threw herself into the eye of the storm.
She would not sign up year after year if she would only succumb to a guilty conscience in the end. Elladora had signed up, too, after all. Neither were halfhearted about their desires to win, to get that twenty-four-hour prize, and both were aware from the very beginning that someone would have to be extinguished and it could be either of them. Cliodna's Clock had to purge one citizen. It was the only blind spot in an otherwise perfect world, and the only consolation for being just a little bit faster than one of your friends is the subsequent time you are given on Earth. Maybe they did it because they were bored and fancied a little danger. Maybe they did it because it made them feel alive again. Maybe it was more than just the promise of a prize, and some of them felt compelled to punish themselves for all eternity.
Elladora gave a scream and Lily whipped around just in time to see the willowy woman sinking into a quicksand of paint. It was up to her thighs, swallowing her stomach with a crudely-blended soup of what might have been a flower garden. Clover crawled over Elladora’s arms, pulling her down in a tangle of red roses. Elladora screamed again.
The roses had thorns, of course.
Lily’s stomached clenched, protesting her physical and emotional exertion. She glanced at the bronze frame that was just within sight, the awareness of how close she was to the finish line dawning over her as she watched her friend drown in a glitch of paint. A mistake on the canvas. It was bottomless and it reminded her that they weren’t in a real painting one might hang on the wall for decoration, but in a tournament created by Cliodna herself. Maybe the paint glitch wasn’t a glitch at all, and was a gift to Lily. The gift of a few seconds’ head-start before Elladora pulled herself out.
Except she wasn’t pulling herself out. She’s going to die, anyway, Lily thought to herself fretfully. I certainly can't help her win. If I were to die, who would watch over Harry? James flashed across her mind, but she quickly swatted him away. No, James wasn’t built for a tournament like this. He didn’t have the heart to put himself before others. He couldn’t switch off his emotions and would rather let someone else impale him with a jet of wandlight in the first round than go out of his way to win. In this respect, Lily knew that he was a far, far better person than she could ever be.
But still, for some strange faraway reason that Lily couldn’t quite comprehend, the long grasses faded into her legs as she brushed past them, melding to her body. She kneeled at the edge of the swamp and reached out with one hand to touch four of Elladora’s muddy fingers.
Harry’s almost thirteen. He’s almost a teenager and he isn’t a baby anymore. You don’t have to do this, you know. You have to stop trying to control what you have no control over. You’re dead.
Roses entwined around Lily’s forearm in an intricate tattoo as she yanked on Elladora’s exposed fingers, digging deeper to work up a good grip on her wrist. The roses twisted down Lily’s shoulder blade and combed through her hair with leaves and thorns. Elladora’s face was emerging, her lips gaping open to gasp for oxygen. A bubble stretched around her mouth, a shining red bubble that was too thick to be blood, and Elladora coughed up the last of the roses that had crept down her throat as Lily dragged her out of the swamp.
I might be dead, but he’s still my son.
“Thank you," Elladora sputtered gratefully, trembling as she sat up against the trunk of a tree. Lily stood to her feet, looking down at the woman as Elladora absorbed the white oak’s bark through her clothing. Something about the blurriness of the scene distressed Lily, rousing a dormant memory of that precise tree. “Thank you, thank you. I didn’t think you were going to stop and help me. For a moment I thought you were going to let me drown.”
She was still expressing her thanks when Lily turned and darted away, pawing blindly at the frame in search of red doors. She passed one without stopping to try it, as it had no knob, but the second…she could see it shining. The knob was glinting like a Snitch and Lily had no competition anymore. Elladora was still catching her breath at the swamp’s perimeter, peeling off the painted roses one by one. Lily’s hand was on the door and she was pushing through…falling through the air. There was a hot breeze whistling past her ears as she dropped out of the painting. The floor of the Town hall rose up to meet her, promising a painful impact that she would surely deserve.
But the pain didn’t come. Three wands had cast spells to slow her movements – James’s, the depot attendant’s, and Mrs. Ketteridge’s. All she could think of while the depot attendant grinned down at her with a familiar Portkey, waiting to escort her to earth, was that Mrs. Ketteridge was going to lose her child. James was leaning against the wall now, composed entirely of sweat and shaky breathing, so relieved was he to see her alive. Relieved that she had made it out unscathed yet again. And Lily’s eyes were now locked on the Portkey and the angelic blue glow it emitted. The attendant was saying something but she couldn’t spare him a shred of attention – she already knew he was going over the rules. He was going to bring her to Harry.
Yes, it was worth it. Yes, I could do it again. I’m coming for you, my love.
The story of Severus Snape’s death is not one many can compare to their own. For most, death is instantaneous. One minute, you’re looking around at your friends and family or the sky or the ceiling of the room where you’d been progressively growing more and more ill as time wore on; and then the next minute there is water in your ears and nose and mouth and you’re kicking with all you’ve got. Maybe you haven’t even realized yet that your legs are stronger, like they used to be when you were young and healthy. But you are gone, forever, sucked up and spit out into this new place and you never even got a choice.
Except Severus did.
He was given a choice offered to very few. As he lay on the wasted floor of the Shrieking Shack, the very last place in the world he wanted to be, his eyes rolled upward to see claw marks. Claw marks on the ceiling. He swallowed a series of hollow pangs, the blood forming a warm collar around his throat. The irony that he was about to die in a place where his childhood enemies once paraded around in, crowing in self-congratulations about their superior cleverness, did not escape him. He hated them then and he still did. Severus would never be able to stop punishing Potter. If he did, then he would have no choice but to look at himself and accept that he’d blown it. He’d lost Lily long before Potter began building a nest in her head.
And then, horribly and wonderfully, there was Lily gazing at him through her son, disappearing every time he blinked. She should never have been his mother. Severus never should have parted ways with her like they were strangers, choosing to forget that their friendship had shaped them into who they were as they grew up. She was still shaping him from afar even after they lost touch, unknowingly molding him with her words and glances, and how she faded away from him with frosty indifference.
Dumbledore’s instructions tugged on his neurons, his subconscious warning him that he didn’t have any more time to procrastinate. It was important that he finish the job properly, all of the unwanted information festering in his memory for years finally ready to hand over to the boy. Both of them were destined to die today.
Three faces swam before his vision but he only had eyes for one of them. If he concentrated hard enough, ignoring the cold glass phial pressed against his clammy cheek, he could almost imagine that it was his Lily kneeling there. Hallucinations distorted the face surrounding those eyes, stroking the night with red hair and pink lips frowning in concern. Death was almost worth it to have her back with him. A hand touched his arm – he didn’t know who it belonged to, but he told himself that it was Lily, fretting over the slipping state of him – and his fingers flexed involuntarily in response.
Reaching for her, weakly, and finding nothing there.
It was his mother, kneeling before him instead of Lily, instead of Harry. Potter, Granger, and Weasley had vanished into the void, disappearing into the gouge marks that tiptoed across the ceiling. He recalled watching Lupin’s backbone rip right out of his flesh on that night under the Whomping Willow all those years ago, back when they were still in school. He could have counted each vertebrae in Lupin’s spine until coarse gray hair began to curl over top, fusing man with beast until he was repulsive, unrecognizable.
And then James’s uninvited arms were around his middle, dragging him out, back into the wide moonlight where he could be devoured by embarrassment and fear right in front of the little group of heathens. Where he could be openly mocked for being a fool enough to listen to someone like Black.
“Severus, you are bleeding.”
He touched his neck. It wasn’t warm anymore; as soon as he thought it, he realized that he was now standing up. Another thought entered his head, this one being that he wished to walk, and suddenly he was moving without ever giving his legs permission to do so. “But there isn’t any blood,” he whispered to himself.
The thin wisp of a woman turned her baleful eyes upon him, already withering away under the harsh resentment he radiated. “Your heart bleeds.”
And then he realized where he was. The sky was a seal of misty gray, the soil beneath his feet damp and sponge-like. There was a rusted assortment of equipment in a play park just around a curved path, one of its swings much higher than the others because someone had once thrown the chains over the beams, over and over and over. There was another park close to Lily’s house, which was much nicer, but they preferred this one because it was the same distance from each of their houses. Meeting in the middle, they’d said.
The sandbox was flooded, the miniscule grains threading through the grass where he used to dig for buried treasure Lily would have left for him earlier in the day. Sometimes she hid crayon drawings there, or pretty stones. Once she left him a photograph of a tree she had snapped with her camera – a white oak with its trunk twisting up into a ‘Y’ shape. It was blurred, as if she’d been running while she took it.
He kept that picture even though he claimed to have lost it, years later when they were sixteen; and even now he had never thrown it out. It was tucked between the pages of a library book they checked out when they were eleven and never took back, much to the vexation of the librarian. It was Severus’s turn then to think it was lost, but he discovered it later…so much later, when Lily was lying right there on the floor but was also gone forever. His eyes had spied it on the bookshelf in Harry’s nursery, sandwiched between Two Little Ducks and Gale’s New House, its spine just as ravaged as Lupin’s but the script still legible: The Witches of Parasol Park. Its binding was stiff, the cover eaten up with water spots from where someone had left it out in the rain.
He’d snatched it up because it wasn’t supposed to be Harry’s. He felt betrayed that she’d given it to him, loathing the idea that James might have once sat in the rocking chair in the corner with Harry on his lap, reading the words that belonged to Lily and Severus. That book had become a special game to them when they were children, running around the play park in search of invisible witches. It was a mystery. It was a legend. It had become larger than life as Severus whispered to her over the phone, voice low so that his father wouldn’t know he was still awake, that he was quite certain he had spotted one of the Parasol Park witches just outside his window and that they had better investigate the area for clues in the morning.
He could almost still see the pearly-white ghosts of all four witches as they snaked between the grove of trees where Lily had once sworn up and down she had caught them at last and spoken to them. Severus had been just a little irritated that she’d said that, because catching them meant closure, that the game was over. So he insisted over and over that Lily had not seen them, that the witches still hadn’t been caught yet, and she must have seen a bit of newspaper or an old plastic bag snagged in the branches.
She’d relented, of course, and said that he was probably right about the plastic bag theory, but the game just wasn't as much fun after that. Severus mostly found himself jealous that he couldn’t have pretended to have seen them, too, and that they hadn’t pretended to have seen them together. It was ever so easy, when the two of them were playing, to fool their eyes into seeing things that were not there.
Fog floated along the ground in curls of heliotrope smoke, lacing around Severus’s ankles. It clung to his trousers, weaving snowflake patterns with purple and blue shadows, and he caught his mother staring at his eyes while he thought of the games he’d played with Lily once upon a dream. A sad emptiness engulfing him, he turned toward the trees, warmth returning once more to creep along his collarbone; and so quickly that it might not have happened at all, he caught the barest flicker of ruby.
Her hair. It was Lily – he could feel it – right there with him, hiding just out of sight. Just out of reach. She was running with the witches, perpetually ahead of Severus in their never-ending game.
“You know the spell to heal it,” Eileen said softly. Her eyes were large and haunting, glistening with the reflection of a broken roundabout situated behind her son. Its yellow paint was flaying, the exposed metal underneath tinged with green. The air had grown cold, a drizzling rain making musical ‘ping’ sounds as they struck the bars and rotating wheel. “You could fight it if you wanted, and live.”
In his mind, Lily’s footsteps sprang in front of his, dancing from stone to stone in the shallow creek that slithered near his house in Spinner’s End. They were looking for salamanders; dirty old buckets swung from their hands, intended for scooping up various amphibians with. And then the footsteps abruptly grew larger, heavier, and Lily froze in place on a broad, flat stone and pierced him with her now-fifteen-year-old gaze. His breath was light, not nearly enough oxygen in it, his pulse quickening. Why had she brought him here? She’d said she wanted to tell him something important…
He followed her – he would follow her anywhere – and gazed intently at her as she located a dry patch of log to sit on, motioning for him to join her. Sunlight dappling through the leaves overhead left green spots on her pale arms, and, as if nervous, Lily set to examining them.
Oh, how he had longed for this. He’d turned it over and over in his dreams and every waking thought, Lily’s smile tumbling through all of them as she looked up at him with her beautiful ivy eyes and –
“Severus, I don’t like your friends. I think they’re poisoning you.”
And it marked the beginning of the end.
“You could be old,” Eileen urged, her delicate voice almost inaudible. “You could live to be an old man. It’s not too late to marry, to have children…” But there was something there, something tantalizing she hinted at that was just on the edge of the conversation. Severus tasted the unspoken word on his tongue: Or…
His mother and the misty park smeared together, viewable only through a dusty window. The window shrank until it was tiny, a faraway dot of light. Lily’s eyes bore down on his and it was not her voice that was murmuring to someone he didn’t care to see. Those were not her cheeks that he had seen bloom with pink so many times when she’d caught him staring. Those were not Lily’s eyes and he was angry that he’d been tricked, that this abomination was masquerading as the woman he loved, worming his way into Severus’s cherished hallucinations.
The words echoed in his head. “Your heart bleeds.”
His last demand was for those eyes, one last time. He lay there quietly, waiting for sleep to claim him, waiting for the arm with dappled green light to guide him to a place and time where the past meant nothing and there was never a James. He did not want to try to save himself, and so he let Harry Potter watch him die. After years and years of preparation, he was ready at last.