Defying the Stars

A pale boy raced headlong into the forest, laughs and jeers following him as his eyes went from burning to leaking; he was crying. Again. Why did they always go out of their way to make him miserable? What had he ever done to deserve this?

It was a good thing the day was warm because he was definitely "going commando" as the expression went, his pants having become some sort of sick trophy for Potter and his minions. As he raced along in his fraying robe, his ankles and shins were scratched and bruised by brambles and branches. He kept running until he collapsed in a clearing deep in the forest and cried into his arms.

As he calmed down somewhat, he realized how cold he felt here, and how eerily quiet it was. Of course this was the Forbidden Forest, and even on the brightest day, it was night here. Or maybe he had been here longer than he thought. He looked up to discover just how dark it was.

Something rustled in the trees. Shivering, the teen gathered his threadbare robes around himself and recalled just why the forest was forbidden; in its depths were told all sorts of evil creatures that wouldn't hesitate to devour helpless, foolish humans who crossed their path. At least he hadn't to worry about werewolves as the full moon had been two weeks before. Werewolves were the worst. The noise came again, and he tried to make himself as small as possible.

Shaking, he reached for his wand and remembered that it was still by the lake. He had been too mortified to retrieve it before his mad dash into the deceptive safety of the forest. He was totally defenseless against whatever monster had come to finish him off. Perhaps it was better this way; he had nothing going for him. No one would mourn his passing. Still, he couldn't help feeling afraid; his death would probably not be a pleasant one.

Rubbing his wet face and nose on a robe sleeve, he scrunched as small as possible and wrapped his arms around his knees. He closed his eyes and waited…

A palomino centaur roamed the forest. For his kind, he was quite an early riser; the stars had not yet appeared in the sky and he sensed the sun had not fully set. His odd schedule was caused by his curiosity; humans had always fascinated him, especially their young, and if he rose early, he would be able to observe them.

He had just started on his usual route toward the human school when he heard a sound he never thought he would find this deep into the forest: the sound of human misery. Searching his memory, his mind lit upon the foreign word: "crying". The owner of the voice sounded quite young to his experienced ears. He moved to investigate.

This was another trait that set the blue eyed centaur apart: his compassion for other species. It was something many in his herd would never understand. Their lives were devoted to the stars and what was written there. Any interaction was seen as being in direct conflict with what had been foretold. The only reason why they allowed him to continue with his obscene visits with humans was because they thought him young (he was only 30 summers) and therefore, foolish. They reasoned he would develop wisdom when he matured. That and he had not yet made direct contact with a pure human. The kindly groundskeeper did not count as he was only half human.

He pushed a branch out of the way to observe the young trespasser. A small dark figure caught his eye, a student no doubt. The child's aura was pulsing with fear, fury, and despair. He sensed the child had come here to die. He felt a sadness at such a defeatist attitude in one so young.

He swished his tail in concern; this was no place for a human child. He began to move forward, then stopped. Centaur law forbid him from directly helping. But in the time it would take to retrieve the half giant, the child might have already fallen prey to one of the forest's less benevolent denizens.

He pawed the ground in agitation. For all his curiosity and observation, he had never directly interfered in human affairs. He had not dared to break that law. Until now.

Looking down on the child huddling for warmth and protection, he made his decision. He would not let this innocent meet its fate right now, here in the forest. He just hoped no one would find out. The penalty could mean expulsion from the herd.

He moved into the clearing and knelt beside the shivering young…

The long-haired child bit back a cry of panic when he felt something brush over his head. He swallowed hard. This was it; some creature had found him and was going to devour him in painful bloody bites. He clenched his eyes harder and let out a sob.

"You have nothing to fear from me, little one," a slow patient voice pronounced. It speaks! The boy opened his dark eyes and regarded the other with awe. He'd only ever read about them.

"Yes, I am a centaur. My name is Firenze." The bright, wise-looking creature extended a hand which the skinny boy hesitantly took. He found it very warm. It seemed to fill him with a positive energy, enough to overcome his awe to murmur, "Severus."

"What brings you so far into the forest alone, young Severus?" The child in question looked down and its face got very red. Firenze sometimes saw humans do this, but had no idea why, nor how they accomplished the color change. He reached out and touched the face of the shy creature to find it warmer than its hand.

As if the touch of the centaur gave him strength again he mumbled, "I…my year mates have played a terrible and…humiliating trick on me." Severus examined a moss by his shoe before bursting out with, "Everyone hates me!" Damn his burning eyes again! Why should he care what they thought? But he did. He looked up into the pair of bright blue eyes solemnly regarding him.

"Was what they did really so terrible?" Severus, about to launch into an explanation, paused. His eyes took in the entire form of the friendly centaur and thought on what he had been about to say. How does one explain pants to a being that wore no clothes? No doubt the wise, old centaur would think the whole thing rather silly and he said so.

The centaur considered this for a moment. "I have been studying your kind for years. I always value an opportunity to understand your ways better. It must be serious indeed to drive you this far into the forest." There was that coloring of the face again.

Severus decided to give his impromptu audience a little background on his problem. "See, there's this mean group of boys. And they've hated me ever since they saw me. I don't even know why. They always gang up on me, and call me names, and play humiliating and painful pranks on me. And nobody stops them. Not even my own housemates; I…I think I'm an embarrassment to them." He found his eyes had roamed all over the clearing while he spoke, and he looked back at Firenze. The centaur seemed to be slowly turning his words over in his head.

"I am puzzled about this division you refer to as Houses," he said at last. Severus noted that he was always patient and spoke slowly as though considering his words even as he said them.

"Oh, everyone who comes to Hogwarts gets put into a house. It's supposed to be your family while you're at school." Severus tightened his jaw at this idea. "When you first come to the school, they put a magical hat on your head and it decides which house you should be in based on what traits and abilities it thinks you possess." He explained the next part in rote fashion, as if he were telling a first year on the train. "There are four houses: Slytherin, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Gryffindor. They stand for cunning, smarts, loyalty, and bravery, respectively. So everyone thinks Gryffindors are the heroes of the school. And they think Slytherins are evil because it's the house You-Know-Who was in when he was at Hogwarts." Severus clenched his fists at this point.

"I don't understand why humans create divisions for themselves. But I think I understand a little more of your problem. You and these boys are from different houses, correct?" His guess about which two houses were involved was confirmed by the child's next words.

Severus nodded. "They get away with everything because they're Golden Gryffindors and I'm just one slimy Slytherin. The Headmaster and the Deputy Headmistress are both Gryffindors. They think it's all in good fun. But when I try to fight back, it's '20 points from Slytherin' and 'Detention, Mr Snape.'" Firenze was not sure what the terms 'points' and 'detention' meant, but from the child's tone, it could mean nothing good.

"So you get in trouble when you are merely trying to defend yourself," Firenze stated. Severus made a face he was unfamiliar with.

"Er, well, most of the time. Um, sometimes I seek them out for revenge." Severus ducked his head under Firenze's suitably disproving gaze. This was a word the centaur did know; likewise, he knew how much trouble it can stir up. He shook his head slowly.

"By seeking them out, you remove yourself from the category of the innocent," he advised his young listener.

"I can't help it sometimes. They make me so angry! I just want them to know, even for a moment, pure humiliation, like they put me through."

"Can you not just bring your problem to the attention of your elders?" Firenze queried.

Severus snorted. "Who would listen to a slimy Slytherin?" he sneered. "Especially when everyone else backs up the Golden Gryffies. They say something happened; when the teachers arrive, everyone else says the same thing happened. Would you believe one person, or twenty?"

Firenze nodded in understanding and gestured for the child to continue. "So today, my year was taking an OWL (that's Ordinary Wizarding Levels, very tough tests) and I decided to look over my paper outside. And that's when the lot of them spotted me. They had me disarmed and cursed before I even had time to think. And then they had me upside-down and, uh, we humans, we're very, er, conscious of being naked; anyway, my robes slid down, and all I had on was a pair of pants." He buried his red face in his arms. "I no longer possess that underwear. They bared me for all the school to see."

Firenze folded his legs beneath him and laid a hand on the child's dirty hair as he puzzled through the information given. "So," he began slowly, thinking as he spoke, "they broke a powerful social taboo solely for their amusement."

Severus glanced up, careful not to dislodge the hand from his head. Surprise dominated his tone. "You understand."

Firenze nickered nervously. "I well understand taboos. I am breaking one by even conversing with you."

"You won't get in trouble, will you?" Severus asked anxiously.

The centaur cleared his throat. "Ignorance will hopefully prevent consequences," he voiced delicately.

The boy grinned through his dirty tear-streaked face. "You mean what they don't know won't hurt 'em."

"Precisely." Firenze quirked his head slightly and removed his hand from the child's head. "Others approach."

Severus ears picked up the distant rustling. "Yours or mine?" His heart began to pound. If they were centaurs, Firenze would be in a lot of trouble. "Maybe you should go," he added shakily.

Firenze flicked his tail. "No, they sound like two-leggers. But you are correct. I must not be seen helping you." Firenze stood and reached down to help the young to its feet. "If ever you lose your way again, seek me out."

Severus looked up at the magnificent creature with awe, gratitude, and just a little puzzlement. Then he gave in to the purely human impulse to wrap his arms quickly around the waist of the wise centaur. Startled, Firenze inquired what this action meant. Severus smiled into his warm fur. "It's called a hug, Firenze, and means many things. It can express greetings, comfort, love…" Severus forced himself to continue past the sudden lump in his throat. "Right now, I am expressing my gratitude, my friendship, and my farewell."

Firenze nodded, absorbing the treasured information about this curious species while wrapping his arms about the young in turn. "A most versatile expression." The footsteps drew closer.

Severus released the centaur. "Thank you for talking to me."

"You are most welcome, young Severus. Please take better care of yourself," Firenze intoned sternly.

Severus looked down. "I'll try," he whispered to the ground. A slight rustle nearby, and he knew the centaur had gone. A moment later, he heard voices approaching.

"…hope the lad's a'right. All alone out here wi'out 'is wand an' all…"

"…only hurry along and see, Hagrid…"

"…want those boys dealt with…beyond a so-called joke, Headmaster…"

Severus was startled by the sound of a growl and backed quickly into a tree trunk. His situation came crashing back around him: no wand, cold, dirty, injured, humiliated…

"…from over there…"

"…back, Fang!…"

Severus licked his cracked lips with a dry tongue. "O-over here!" he called. He wrapped his arms around himself and waited.