Rain, and a humidity that rises from the ground in wispy swirls of steam.
A courtyard of wet sand and stone paths, gone from empty to occupied in the space of an Apparition. A man materialises, shrouded in linen robes that hang limp with the cloying dampness. He would be at home on a high Scottish moor, the wind whipping his hair and cloak into a cold, black fury; here, in the warm rain, he seems bedraggled, lost and less than he has been.
He is met by a boy, perhaps sixteen or seventeen, with shaved head and almond eyes, owlish spectacles and indigo robes. He holds out an unblemished hand and takes the man's battered bag, beckoning him with a wave of a down turned palm over a puddle-strewn path.
They cross the stone threshold of a sturdy wooden house and remove their shoes to step up to the main level, the contrast stark between the boy's deft movement and the man's laboured unlacing. Cedar floorboards are smooth beneath them, and, for a brief, unrecognisable moment, the man feels a desire to slide over them, childlike, in stockinged feet.
A room - six straw mats in area and sparsely furnished with low table and square cushions. To the right, a simple lavatory with sunken toilet and sink. To the left, a deep closet with quilted mattress, duvet, and buckwheat husk pillow. Ahead, an opaque glass door that slides open to reveal a small, private patch of green. Stone wall with spigot to one side, a large wooden barrel to the other, and all enclosed in brown bamboo fencing.
The boy deposits the bag on the floor, gestures gracefully towards the table, and says, "Go-yukkuri," before giving a slight bow and exiting. He draws the door shut, and the man feels a frisson of magic course through the air as it closes. He reaches out - tries to slide it open again - and realises that it has been spelled shut. He would worry, try to break the charm, if he didn't know that this is the way it must go.
Sighing - with resignation, or perhaps just relief - he removes his outer robe and hangs it on the single hanger dangling from a hook on the wall. He pulls a flattened cushion to the table and sits upon it, stretching long legs out before him, leaning back on locked arms. A cursory glance around the room reveals that it holds neither lanterns nor lights, and he realises that time will progress differently here, dictated not by the whims of man but the laws of nature.
He is used to solitude, but the silence of his dungeons has always been a cloistered quiet, protective and private, enclosing him in a cocoon of his own making. He has hidden away in the darkness for years, licking his wounds until they have festered in the gloom. But now he hears bird song...the rustle of young leaves...a gurgle of water. Softly diffused light fills the room, and he feels exposed in a way he never has before. This is a more expansive quiet than he has ever known, and it threatens to overwhelm him. He feels his foundations rock, senses a ground swell of memories and emotions rising with a kind of inexorable force that cannot be outrun; alone, here, in a foreign land, there is no place to hide anymore.
As he sits, struggling with forces only he can sense, a steaming cup of tea appears on the table. The man takes it in thin, trembling fingers and stares for a long moment at a perfect circle of spring-green nestled within white porcelain.
Snape breathes deeply, then brings it to parched lips and drinks.
Disorientation gives way to rote mundaneity. He rises with the sun and sleeps at nightfall. He eats the food he is given, unfamiliar tastes on an uninterested palate: rice gruel and salted mackerel, cold noodles and pickled radish. He sits, and it looks like peace; but his outward blankness belies a maelstrom of deferred suspicions and fears raging just under the surface.
Since his arrival, Snape has been assaulted by waves of memories that buffet and erode the rock that has been his heart. The earliest he expects: the back of a hand raised in ire. A blindingly beautiful flash of auburn hair. A whisper of seduction that slithers down his spine and a bloodcurdling scream that splits the night. Ready forgiveness, always at a price.
But these are little more than the waking nightmares he has lived with for twenty years, a well-trodden path to darker climes he has not yet visited.
Time passes without interruption. Weeks become a month and still he sits, the deepening solitude driving him further inward. Snape remembers the feel of his father's hand in his own, deceptive in its gentle warmth. The sweet mouth of a girl, now twisted in fury on his behalf, now betraying him with a barely concealed twitch of her lips. Twinkling forgiveness for miscreants and marauders and would-be murderers; disgust for him and blue eyes that glitter with icy disdain. An expectation, that he will always be ready, that he will always be prepared to do things that are asked of no one else, and an assumption that he will always (mis)interpret it as a sign of trust.
The anger that rises out of these memories is at once familiar and foreign. He recognises it as that thing he has suppressed and displaced for decades; but now it demands to be given voice, and his solitude here is such that, for the first time, he lets slip a tentative grunt. A guttural growl through clenched teeth - a snarl of fury - and suddenly he is standing, raging like a caged animal, and if someone can hear he doesn't care because he cannot stop the swelling tide that sweeps black and inescapable over, around, and through his carefully constructed defences.
Then there are the days when he cannot be bothered to rise from his bed, and this, too, is familiar.
The morning dawns grey on the seventh day of July. Snape sits once more, his choler mellowed to introspection, and in the dim light comes an insight: that, against the odds, he has outlived them all. That they are dead and he is not - that they cannot hurt him any more than they already have. And it is that word, that errant thought (hurt they hurt him), that loosens tears like the rain falling outside his room. Snivellus, he sneers to himself as they roll down wan, wasted cheeks, and he chokes back a sob, struggling to resist this latest humiliation. But if he can still the tears, he cannot stem the emotion that washes over him, now receding with the flotsam of his decimated dignity only to rush forward again in renewed onslaught.
And yet, tears are not the only thing freed by this acknowledgement. It's been his dirty secret for so long - one he's kept from himself for years. That he had to love them; that the forgiveness he so desperately craved came at the price of unquestioning, unconditional love. That he had to believe that Lily could do no wrong, had to believe that Dumbledore cared, even when (sometimes I think we sort too soon) it was little more than an afterthought. That faith, however misbegotten, had been the only thing that had kept the fragile framework of his penitence from collapsing altogether.
And as he surveys the razed wasteland of his life, he realises that, for the second time in as many months, he stands at a crossroads. It would be easy (so easy) to let the weight of his memories and regrets drag him down. And he knows that there will always be days like this, no matter what he decides, when he will want to give in to the murky undertow.
And it seems...hackneyed.
But in the end, against inertia and certainty and the sweet siren-call of self-pity, he chooses to live.
One day, he decides to forgo the cleansing spells he's been using in favour of soaking in the large tub just outside his room. He washes his body and hair outside the tub using a small basin to douse himself, his lanky limbs perched precariously on a small cedar stool as he scrubs. He gives his long hair - reaching, after nearly two months, halfway down his back - especial attention, aware that this has been a failing of his in the past. If he is starting fresh, he thinks, then he might as well begin with this seemingly simple thing.
Once washed, he eases himself into the round wooden tub. The water this morning is piping hot, and he expects that, combined with the already-stifling humidity that envelops him, the temperature will drive him out before too long. But, as he sinks down, limbs folding into a seated position until the water reaches his upper chest, Snape feels some of the tension he has carried for months (years) begin to slough away. There's a unique pleasure in this feeling of being safely submerged, his head above water for once.
When he returns to his room, Snape finds that his robes have been replaced with fresh, black linen clothing. He is self-conscious in this thin new skin of loose trousers and wrap-around top, keenly feeling the loss of layers that have effectively kept his body apart from the press of other flesh for years. When he is dressed, he tentatively pulls at the door to the hallway for the first time since he arrived. It slides open without resistance, and he emerges from his small cell, a towering presence in the low-ceilinged corridor.
His quiet exploration of his environs leads him to a small kitchen, where the boy - still in indigo, still owlish - stands preparing...something. Noticing that he now has company, the boy gestures towards a nearby table and says, "Douzo, osuwari kudasai. Gohan o sugu motte kimasu," and Snape takes a seat, unsure of what to expect. After several minutes, the boy brings to the table two bowls of steaming rice, soup of slick, brown mushrooms in a fermented bean broth, sweetened egg, and squares of roasted dried kelp.
When they have eaten, Snape brings his dishes to the sink; although he knows this place to be magical, he remains ignorant of the rules regarding its use. He follows the boy's lead, picking up a rectangular tea towel to dry the cleaned dishes handed him. When they are finished, the boy gestures for him to follow into the glaring heat of the courtyard, where the dull buzz of cicadas becomes a deafening roar.
The boy leads him across the way to a small shack, its walls lined with shelves and a large worktable standing at its centre. The shelves groan with glass jars of indeterminate content; except for the wood of the structure and the soft, warm breeze that blows through open door and glassless windows, this place reminds him vaguely of his own potions laboratory, and he feels, if not at home, more comfortable than he has in weeks.
Casting a wandless, wordless charm that both cleans the table of detritus and stills the air around it, the boy brings two small earthenware mortars and wood pestles to the worktable, then places a pile of dead, dried horned beetles next to them. He picks up one and shows it to the man, removing its single horn and wings with a deft touch. The horns he sets aside; the wings he places in one of the bowls. Taking a nearly empty jar of black powder from a nearby shelf, the boy points first to the wings, then to the jar, saying "komakaku naru made sutte kudasai," and starting to grind them with the pestle.
As he works, the task mindless, the overwhelming thoughts and emotions of the previous weeks begin to fade from Snape's consciousness. He finds himself lulled into a comforting sense of familiarity, and it is only the urge to snap something sarcastic and biting to this boy who would presume to tell him what to do, only to find that he has no words to do so, that returns him to the unfamiliarity of this place with all the subtlety of an Apparition. Words have always been his first defence and his last refuge; without them, he is different, an enigma even to himself.
A warm August evening finds Snape meandering through a forest of stone: tall grave markers interspersed with stone lanterns that are lit for the first time since his arrival. He stops to look at one headstone, its indecipherable carvings thick with lichen and moss, and as he leans close to brush his fingers over its rough surface, a soft voice breaks the summer silence.
"We light the lanterns once a year," it speaks, drawing closer. "In remembrance of the dead."
Snape turns his head and looks up to find an elderly man - small, bald, and bespectacled - standing next to him, eyes raised towards the deep blue sky, hands clasped in front of his slightly protruding belly. Snape slowly rises to his feet, then bends slightly in the unnatural bow of a foreigner before saying, "Then it is fitting that I should meet you tonight."
The man turns to face him, acknowledging him with a tilt of his head and an unexpectedly warm twinkle in his bright, black eyes. "Albus spoke often of you," he says, and now it is Snape who turns stinging eyes to the distance as the old man continues, "He never truly expected you to come."
Snape nods absently. "I know. I might not have, had he not been so persistent."
The man casts a shrewd glance at the taller man and shakes his head. "No, I believe you would have come regardless. You have the air of one who is - "
"Exhausted." Snape finishes for him, and the man chuckles softly.
"I was going to say 'ready for change," but perhaps they are one and the same," the man says. "I am the yakushi of this place - the potions master. Please, call me teacher."
Snape, irritated and amused in equal parts, raises a sceptical eyebrow and replies, "That may be difficult."
"Sensei, then," the other man says with a dismissive wave of the hand. "It makes no difference." Gesturing at Snape to follow, he begins walking out of the graveyard, heading towards an elevated dirt path that cuts through the lush green of ripening rice plants. "Tell me about yourself," he says, the command implicit in his voice.
"I - " Snape begins; then he stops in his tracks, his eyes widening slightly in unexpected astonishment. "I hardly know myself anymore."
Sensei nods. "It often happens to those who come here, particularly in the beginning. Let me, then, tell you a little about myself. What do you know of me?"
Snape ponders this question, clasping his hands behind his back as he once again begins to walk. "Only what the Headmaster - Albus - told me. That you were friends from your youth, that he turned to you in a moment of weakness. That it might be possible here to find...peace."
Giving a small snort, Sensei shakes his head bemusedly. "Albus...I suppose you could call us friends. We met in Egypt. He was but a boy - only sixteen - being honoured for his alchemical achievements at Hogwarts. I was somewhat older, a young man of twenty, and I found him...enchanting." Sensei smiles as he looks at Snape. "I had never before seen eyes of blue. They - "
"Twinkled," says Snape with a scowl, and Sensei laughs.
"I would have said 'sparkled', but 'twinkled' will do. Yes, they were alive, and he was everything brilliant and charming. Indeed, I was surprised that he even took note of me, dour youth that I was. But it seemed we had a connection of sorts. I could speak little English at the time, but, of course, he had a charm for that."
Snape nods. "The one you are using now, I presume?"
"Yes," replies Sensei. "My spoken English has improved over the years, but certainly not to the level of fluency you are hearing now." As if to punctuate the distinction, he cancels the charm with a slight flex of his fingers, then says in words more accented than before, "This is me. Without the charm, my English is simple. But my thoughts are more...difficult? Complicated." Sensei shakes his head impatiently and recasts the charm before continuing, "I far prefer to express my mind than constantly fight between what I can say and what I am thinking."
"Legilimency?" Snape asks, intrigued.
"A modified form of it, yes. Non-invasive, of course, and intended to convey thought rather than seek it out. Only Albus..." Sensei shakes his head again.
It is a long moment before Snape can speak. When he does, his voice is hoarse - with anger or tears, he cannot say.
"I feel as though I haven't known him at all."
"He was ever a surprise, was he not? So splendid, and so flawed." Sensei gives Snape a sympathetic smile.
"In those first weeks of our acquaintance, we spent countless hours in the warm sun, talking of our lives, our studies, and, eventually, our...passions. He was, truly, beautiful." Sensei casts Snape a meaningful glance, forgoing further explanation. It would be a lie to say that Snape has never considered this side of Dumbledore, but hearing of it from the lips of this man brings the Headmaster back to life in a way that not even necromancy itself could do. He wonders at the bright boy this man must have known, wrenching his thoughts back to the present when it seems as though they might wander into dangerous waters of their own.
"I had hoped to see him after he had finished his education at Hogwarts, but it was not to be," Sensei continues after a long moment spent in his memories. "The death of his mother changed many things for Albus, and it was many years before I heard from him again. By then, he had fallen under the thrall of Gellert Grindelwald, and when he finally contacted me it was to try to recruit me to their pureblood cause."
Snape has heard rumours of Dumbledore's past and, in particular, his flirtation with pureblood politics. Having eschewed the sensationalistic tomes that proliferated in the last years of his life, though, this is the first real confirmation that he has ever had of Dumbledore's darker nature. It would be easy, he thinks, to accuse the Headmaster of deception, of deliberately keeping his fallibility from Snape, but he knows that he could have uncovered more - everything - had he but tried. That there were things about the Headmaster he never wanted to know.
"What Albus failed to understand then," Sensei observes, "was that here we do not make these distinctions of 'pure' and 'half' blood. We have no 'Muggles', only humans with varying abilities to draw from the natural world. As a result, those whom you would call 'Wizards' are as fully a part of the communities in which we live as any non-magical person. To be sure, in a practical sense this has meant that we have few practitioners who have exhibited more than an average talent - at least, not openly. At the same time, though, neither have we suffered the cyclical wars so common to European wizarding culture."
Sensei falls quiet for a long moment. Snape considers his words as he watches the dragonflies dart over and around the tall summer grasses, wondering what might have become of his own life in such a place.
"When I finally saw Albus again, he was...broken. A shell of the beautiful boy I had known. I tried to comfort him, with words, with ideas that were different from Grindelwald's poison, but nothing made a difference. Every minute of every day, I watched him slip deeper into his regrets. He withdrew from me - literally. He retreated to one of my rooms - not," he hastens to add, noting Snape's startled glance, "that which you have occupied these past months. And when it seemed I could no longer reach him, I gave myself over to his most basic physical needs - nourishment, hygiene. Otherwise, I left him alone to struggle with his demons, and there he stayed for...I cannot even remember anymore just how long it was.
"When he emerged, he was...raw. Naked. Stripped to his emotional essence, and it was only then that he began to listen and to learn. We spoke of forgiveness and redemption. Pride and humility. The inevitability and worth of our mistakes."
They have almost reached the house, now cast into shadow, when Sensei stops and turns to face Snape, looking him in the eye. "Albus did not leave here a perfect man. And he struggled for the rest of his life with the temptations of ambition and power. But, whatever mistakes he may have made - and I have no doubt they are legion - he tried to do what was right."
Snape gives a cynical snort at this, and Sensei smiles knowingly, saying, "No matter who had to suffer for it."
They fall into a silence that leaves Snape uneasy. There is another shoe ready to drop, a catch that he cannot see, and it maddens him.
"Why tell me this? Why now? Is this the Headmaster's way of having the last word? Am I here for you to make his excuses?" Snape fairly spits the last word, his habitual sneer besmirching his face. If Sensei is surprised, he gives little outward sign of it.
"Albus did not tell me the details of your association, and neither did he tell me what to say to you. He showed me certain of your interactions, but left it to me to decide how best to...approach you."
"What do you mean, he showed you?" Snape demands. Sensei pulls a small vial from his robes and holds it up for Snape to see.
"His memories. Some of them, at any rate. He bequeathed them to me in his will." Lowering his hand, he looks down on the vial with a small smile on his round face. "Some, of course, were of days long since passed, remembered with such vivid freshness that I can only imagine that he was in the habit of retrieving them from a young age. Others..." he begins, then looks Snape in the eye. "It's interesting. I know of your work as a spy, and how it began. I know that Albus entrusted you with his death." Snape blanches at these words, but Sensei presses on.
"These are not those memories. If I didn't know better, I would think that Albus had deliberately chosen memories that reflected not your weaknesses, but his. A time when, as a youth, your life had been threatened, and, knowing this, he nonetheless exonerated the guilty party. A time when he returned you to the embrace of your Dark Lord, knowing full well what horrors awaited you. Countless sacrifices, both large and small, that he asked of you time and again up until, presumably, the moment of his death."
Observing the way that Snape's lips tighten to a thin, pale gash, the way his eyes widen and his nostrils flare, Sensei adds quietly, "Or perhaps even beyond."
These revelations hang in the air between them for a long moment. Snape is suddenly torn between two equally overwhelming desires: to flee this place for the familiar miseries of home, and to lay himself bare at this man's feet, the better to expose and exterminate his weaknesses once and for all.
He does neither, but when Sensei again speaks, he listens.
"What I saw in Albus's memories is a man who has done enough. Suffered enough. Who must learn this for himself, if indeed he truly wishes to live. Only he can make this decision, but I can help. I am a sympathetic ear when it is time to talk, and a teacher when it is time to learn. I will pick him up when he stumbles, but I cannot walk for him. What he makes of this...opportunity - that is entirely up to him."
Sensei once again looks Snape in the eye, and his gaze is unaffected and unflinching. "I make no promises, save that I can teach you something of our practises, such as might improve your opportunities when you return home. But I offer no condemnation and no forgiveness. Neither is my place to give - only you know of which you are deserving, and only you can bestow it upon yourself. The choice is yours."
So saying, Sensei turns and enters the house, leaving Snape to his thoughts.
The loose garments of summer have given way to flowing woollen robes of black and grey. Today they are flecked with the first snowfall of the season as Snape follows the boy across the courtyard.
The days have assumed a certain regularity as he has been enfolded into the patterns of the place: morning ablutions and breakfast with the boy, followed by potion ingredients collection and preparation. Lunch is followed by brewing, and this is always under the instruction of the yakushi. His vastly more extensive experience notwithstanding, Snape is as much a student during these sessions as the enigmatic young man who stands alongside him, a situation that provokes no small irritation on his part.
The boy, however, seems modest and likeable, if necessarily distant and not infrequently distracted. He uncomplainingly prepares meals and maintains the household with quiet efficiency. Snape wonders occasionally how Sensei has cultivated this obedience in him, absent any noticeable discipline; in his experience, sixteen is possibly the worst of the adolescent years, all raging hormones and hair-triggered anger, but he finds no such inclinations here.
In truth, Snape doesn't give the boy much thought. When he does notice some small (difference) thing, his observations are fragmented and always just out of sight: a spark of amusement in black (not green) eyes, an apologetic dip of his shaved (not tousled) head. Such thoughts dart through Snape's mind with all the permanence of a Patronus, and he might try to pursue them but he (can't he won't).
On this day, Snape's only thoughts are of the biting cold. The pair remove their slippers under cover of a thatched awning, the boy bowing low as he enters a small wooden structure on bent knee. The air is tinged with the light fragrance of incense, and Sensei sits on folded legs to their left. Snape follows the boy's lead, sitting perpendicular to their teacher and bowing low with his hands flat on the matted floor. Sensei returns his gesture, then passes the boy a rough stoneware plate bearing two plump sweets; he takes one and places it on a piece of white rice paper, then slides it to Snape who does the same. They use blunt bamboo picks to cut into the confection, tasting it as they watch Sensei expertly manipulate the utensils before him.
Eventually, Sensei passes a bowl of frothy green tea to the boy, who raises the bowl just above his head, then takes one short sip, two, and a long third before returning the bowl to the floor. Sensei cleanses it and then repeats his movements, passing the bowl to Snape when he is done. Following the boy's example, Snape bows first to Sensei and then to his neighbour before taking the bowl in hand. He rests it on his left palm, right hand cupping it as he has seen the boy do, lifts it slightly in acknowledgement, then rotates it once, twice. He takes three sips, draining it of all but the dregs. Alone, the tea is bitter and nearly unpalatable; coming after the almost cloying sweetness of the wagashi, it achieves a certain pleasing pungency that lingers on the tongue like a memory.
Only when they are done does Sensei speak, directing his words to the boy who, with a low bow to both men, leaves. For several minutes there is no sound but the light rustle of snow falling on bamboo leaves outside; then, Sensei's words slice gently through the silence.
"Albus loved the tea ceremony," he says, catching Snape's eye. "Especially the sweets."
Snape gives a soft snort, although the words make him acutely aware of his aloneness.
"I'm not sure, however," continues Sensei, "that he ever really understood it. From the moment we enter the tea house, we are equals. There is no master, no servant; no teacher, no pupil. We are men, no better or worse than the next."
An admirable sentiment, Snape thinks, if utterly unrealistic. He remembers many a sweet-laden tea in the Dumbledore's office, none of which left him in any doubt of his position relative to the Headmaster.
As if sensing Snape's thoughts, Sensei observes, "Albus wielded tea like a weapon - something with which to disarm people and make them more receptive to his...plans."
"Machinations, more like," scoffs Snape, and Sensei tilts his head in acknowledgement.
"Perhaps," he says softly, then continues, "I'd like, if I may, to talk with you a bit about the boy."
The vertiginous pull that Snape experiences at these unexpected words rips him from the safety of this moment to the disorienting next. There has only ever been one boy -- only one -- only, and (no)
"What?" Snape rasps, and Sensei looks up, startled by the desolation in his voice.
"The boy - my grandson, Severus" he hastens to explain, and Snape is bathed in a cool wave of relief.
"I..." he begins, "I had no idea."
Sensei shakes his head slightly. "No, there's no reason you would. He is the son of my daughter, lost to me now these ten years. She was...special. Not beautiful, but vivacious, alive. She could do such things with magic...such wonderful things."
Sensei looks away, his gaze falling absently on the kensui to his right. "She had married into a non-magical family...had a daughter of her own, and a son. The boy, Hiro - his name is Hiro - loved automobiles. At five years old he loved their speed, and they were in the car one day..." Sensei turns to Snape and shrugs. "He wanted to go faster - accidental magic. My daughter, my granddaughter, were killed instantly. Hiro survived, but his father...I imagine he still blames the boy. I don't know for sure - I haven't seen him in nearly a decade.
"For a time after his father brought him here my own behaviour was no better. He was a constant reminder of what I'd lost, and I - I never hurt him, not physically, but I was cold. Unfeeling. In truth, I suppose I was mourning my beloved girl, and eventually I understood that what I was doing to the boy would, in the end, only drive him away. It might not seem like I needed to forgive him, for what he'd done was truly an accident, but I forgave him anyway. More importantly, perhaps, I forgave myself. For my anger and resentment, for my human weakness. I forgave his father for being even more human than me. Were he to come through my gate tomorrow, it would be to a family who longs to see him again."
Sensei seems to remember Snape now, looking into the stark black eyes with something like compassion.
"Albus...I think he never forgave himself. Not for Ariana or Gellert, not for you. And it occurs to me that a person who cannot forgive himself is ill-equipped to truly grant forgiveness to another. A man who cannot forgive punishes - both himself and others. He is exacting, and even his kindnesses can be cruel. A human failing, of course, but one with its own consequences."
Snape does not know what to make of this confession. He sees the parable that Sensei intends, but he alone knows that there is another lurking in its shadow like a scorpion poised to sting.
And so they sit in silent contemplation until Sensei beckons him to stand.
"Come," he says, and his voice is gentle. "Let us see what Hiro has prepared for lunch. He's become quite a skilled cook, if I do say so myself."
In winter, Snape sleeps, and sometimes he dreams.
While autumn is a time of harvest, spring brings its own abundance. The fronds and shoots and buds that signal rebirth at the end of the long winter form the basis of the potions of this place, and it is now that Snape begins to learn in earnest new ways of brewing, and new ways of being. He follows behind Sensei and Hiro as they climb into nearby hills, clammy and cool in the early March air, to seek out young takenoko and kogomi; treks through dry woodlands in search of mugwort and tara no me; pulls tsukushi and udo and warabi from fertile soil. Slippery centipedes and fat, fuzzy caterpillars too find their way into potions meant to ease the body, enhance the senses, and soothe the soul.
No part goes unused, and what cannot be purposed into a potion is often edible, resulting in myriad teas and subtle sansai delicacies. Admiring this, Snape begins to study his surroundings with an economical eye, seeking out variety and ever more esoteric ingredients, his mind racing with possibilities he has never considered before. He seeks Sensei out now, quizzing him on this property or that technique, hungry for this new knowledge in a way he hasn't been since his youth.
The weather grows warm, and one overcast morning finds Snape wandering amidst the cherry trees. The blossoms swirl around him in the dry wind like snow, and in a moment of uncharacteristic abandon he lifts his arms into the air, fingers spread wide, hair snaking around his head in long tendrils. From a distance he resembles nothing so much as the trees that surround him, pregnant with springtime possibility.
Coming upon him like this, Sensei chuckles softly, and Snape whirls around with bright eyes and flushed cheeks.
"Forgive me, Severus," Sensei says, a smile lingering on his lips. Snape bows self-consciously.
"Not at all. I was..." he begins, then shrugs.
Sensei nods. "I understand."
Struggling to regain his composure, Snape asks abruptly, "The cherry blossoms. What are their properties? How are they used? What do they do?"
Sensei looks up and around, watching the pink-tinged petals dance around them on the breeze. Then his eyes meet Snape's, and he says, simply, "Why, nothing."
Snape's eyes dart over the path that Sensei's have taken, as if searching for something he cannot see.
"I don't understand. We have used everything, every last leaf, every root, every casing - all of it. Why not these?"
"Some things," Sensei says quietly, "are not meant to be used. Some things should be experienced and loved - treasured for what they are, without asking anything more of them than that they live, blossom and grow." He gestures to the petal-littered ground. "Their decay will nourish the earth soon enough, so why watch them with only an eye to that end?"
Snape shakes his head, Sensei's answer tugging at some unacknowledged mystery deep within. "But why? If they can be useful, and surely this is the case, why waste them?"
"Oh, Severus," Sensei says in a kind of horrified wonder. "Has there never been any beauty in your life?"
He is taken aback by this question, but his traitorous mind whispers (yes), and for a moment all he can see are the black and pink and green of the (boy) landscape and he can't breathe, he can't speak except to deny it, to say
with a finality that brooks no argument.
And he turns to stalk back to the house, and Sensei watches him go.
haru, ni-nen go
Two years later, Sensei again finds Snape wandering that same grove one warm spring morning. The hunted look in his eyes has gone, replaced not with softness, but with a certain sharp curiosity. His harsh temper has mellowed to mere irascibility, and he has learned, if not to laugh, to appreciate irony when it finds him. He has not become beautiful, but neither does he hide behind a wall of greasy hair any longer, choosing instead the practicality of tying it neatly at his nape. His nose remains bent and his teeth yellow, but, in the absence of his habitual sneer, they punctuate, rather than mar, his still-sallow face, lending it a compelling kind of character that is not easily ignored.
On this day, there is a wonder in his eyes as he watches pale petals waft gently to the ground. Sensei does not want to disturb this, does not want to risk the tentative peace this man has made with the world; but he knows that, were he to keep things hidden from Snape any longer, the man would never forgive him.
“Severus,” he calls out, and Snape turns calmly and gives his companion a quizzical glance.
“Is there something you required?” Snape asks, and Sensei shakes his head.
“No, I…there’s something I must speak with you about.” So saying, Sensei beckons Snape to follow him, and they return to the house that has been Snape’s home these three years.
Once they have settled at a low table, cups of steaming tea brought by a boy who has grown and matured in the interim cooling before them, Sensei sighs and produces a thick, parchment-bound album that he places on the table. He places a hesitant hand on its cover, sighing once more before he speaks, his eyes cast downwards.
“I’m not sure where to begin,” he says, and when he looks up he sees the hint of a shrewd glint in Snape’s eyes. “Since you have been here – well, from before then, if I am being honest – I have followed the events of your homeland with a mind to being able to serve you as best I could. I knew the general circumstances of your self-imposed exile…and,” Sensei pauses to take a deep breath before continuing, “I know of things that have transpired in your absence.”
“I see,” says Snape, his closed expression revealing nothing.
Sensei nods, lips pressed firmly together, as if bolstering his own nerves. “I know we have never spoken of it, but...”
“The boy,” Snape says, cutting him off with these two tight words.
“Yes,” Sensei replies, and all of Snape’s carefully cultivated calm dissipates in the space of a fierce, fleeting memory that has never really left him.
“What has he done?” he growls, a defensive ire simmering somewhere deep inside.
Sensei smiles unexpectedly at this, giving a small shake of his head.
“What hasn’t he done? He is…extraordinary. I will say that I think you have nothing to fear of your welcome, should you choose to return. As for the rest…” Sensei gently pushes the album across the table. “It’s all in here. I have kept this for you, for the day when you chose to know what has happened in your absence, but it never occurred to me that you might need to see it before you were…ready. I know only what I have read, and even I am not so naïve as to think that there are no lies contained in these pages. But I trust that you will be able to discern better than I which is truth and which is fiction.”
Snape stares, wide-eyed, at the album, and for his life he cannot say if what he feels is hope or despair. All this time the boy has been here, right here in these pages, and he thinks if he had known he might have gone mad.
Pushing back from the table abruptly, Sensei lays two flattened palms on the floor in front of him, bending low in a dogeza bow and uttering a whispered “Forgive me” that startles Snape into speech.
“No,” he says. “I do not blame you.”
Straightening, Sensei gives Snape a small, tight smile and a nod, his eyes closing briefly in relief. Then he stands and takes his leave, sliding the door closed behind him.
Snape stares for a long moment at the album, his only feeling an overwhelming thankfulness that he is alone.
When, in the future, he thinks back on this day, he will realise that it isn’t any article or even any photograph of (Harry) that compels him to return. The history of three long years are written in the snippets of the Prophet assembled here: a fight for Snape’s redemption, waged single-handedly by a callow youth with no understanding of the politics of indebtedness; no awareness that, with each small battle waged and won, he falls deeper into the clutches of a Ministry more than happy to make him their poster-boy. Neither is it the fading light in the boy’s eyes that makes Snape don robes he has not worn in years, nor the swirling rumours of his instability (which, not unexpectedly, arise just when he seems to realise what his defence of Snape has cost) that drive him to pull his worn duffel from the closet and pack what few possessions he owns.
In each of these pictures, these mercifully black-and-white photographs of the boy, he is flanked by Weasley and the Granger girl, as if they are somehow better equipped to shield him from his own folly than he is himself. Weasley’s eyes betray a certain scepticism, first in the boy’s single-minded mission and later in the incursions of the press on his tenuously preserved privacy. But it is not Weasley’s increasingly vigilant glare that pushes Snape to bid both Sensei and Hiro a hasty farewell, the possibility of his return left hanging in the air between them.
It is one photograph, not of the boy but of Granger, that impels him to seek Portkey passage back to the country of his birth. If it were just the headline (“GONE,” the word big and black), it might not concern him. The boy has earned the right to his own peace, and Snape is loath to disturb it. But, directly below this stark, screaming headline, a photograph depicts Granger repeatedly slamming a door against an onslaught of reporters. And it is not this action, but the look in her eyes, that compels him to Disapparate from the one place he has ever known peace, to knowingly cast himself back into the unmissed maelstrom of British wizarding society.
In it, her eyes are clouded by an uncharacteristic uneasiness, their usual brash confidence held in check by some unknown apprehension. They dart about, looking not at the throng gathered before her, but somewhere just past them – somewhere on the horizon.
Looking for Harry.