Snape pauses before each container and recites their names to himself as if they were lovers. The grey cat (he has not named it; naming it would make it a pet and he can afford neither pets nor lovers) twines about his ankles, leaving a dust of fur along the hem of his robe. He does not mind, does not admit the comfort he draws from the soft miaow when he enters the garden.

The task of potions master does not come without its privileges. A garden, deeply enchanted and hidden away from students and other teachers (he thinks to himself, on occasion, with a smirk, that Sprout would be jealous, should she ever know the variety he silently cultivates), is the one he likes best.

Snape is weary. He no longer knows which is the facade and which is the truth. He dreams of Cruciatus, dreams of Potter helpless before Voldemort, dreams of Dumbedore's coffin before it is engulfed in flames. Snape remembers once dreaming of nothing more complex than the next day's lesson, and his nightmares were flavored then with students' melted cauldrons.

He wonders when he let himself forget what it was to live. His fingers glide through the leaves of one plant and then another; he knows by touch and scent each of them (the brush of a blossom passes for intimacy these days) and the formulae for half a dozen concoctions slip through his mind.

The cat bumps against his hand as he lets it fall to his side. Snape thinks a raven would have been more suitable; something appropriately dark and brooding. The cat twitches its tail and steps lightly toward the sprawling bed of catnip. He wonders what possessed him to plant so much of it this year. It wasn't as if he suffered from a cough.

He sighs and sits on the edge of a stone wall, watching it roll in the catnip and flatten half a season's growth. He lacks the heart to stop it, to cast a fence around the bed. The scent fills the air until, even as sensitive as he is by both nature and occupation, he can smell nothing else.

The sun warms him through his robes, though the garden is carefully climate controlled. It is late afternoon and he hears, carried on the wind, a chorus of childish voices engaged in some game or another. It occurs to him that he hasn't felt warm in a very long time. The dungeons are cold, even on the best of days.

Finished with its exertions, the cat staggers back to his side, placing both paws on Snape's thigh. He frowns at it after a moment and looks away, reaching a hand over to scratch its ears. The cat purrs delightedly. Snape attempts to forget what he does.

The children are arguing about quidditch. He hears, rising above and at the center of the fray, Potter and Malfoy. The cat leaps into his lap and makes a bed of his robes, bumping its head against the crook of his elbow.

He remembers being young, the warmth of the late summer sun. Not so long ago, was it? He strokes the cat despite himself. It soon falls asleep, lulled by his touch. Snape could not recall the last person who had been so trusting.

He would sit here until the sun set. It was his custom, these days, to spend his time here. The wind moving through the few small trees soothed him; the soft noise of the stream that wound through the garden was a balm on his chapped nerves.

It could not go on forever, he thought. The sky slowly turns orange and pink past the horizon, dipping the clouds in flame. The evening star flickers to life and the cat twitches in some small dream of hunter and hunted. Snape realized long ago which side of the equation he sat.

Every night is the same. He finds a vague sense of peace in this. It does not make him sleep at night. He doubts anything can.