AUTHOR: AbstractConcept (aka theconcept)
RATING: PG 13, Almost Pre Slash or Gen
DISCLAIMER: Belongs to J.K. Rowling, etc, etc, etc.
BETAS: Gemsbok, Detefabula and Noesnifunifa, who helped ruthlessly eradicate the overuse (and improper use) of the common comma.
NOTE: REVIEWS ARE MUCH APPRECIATED
Four days after the defeat of Voldemort, Severus Snape was captured by Aurors and placed in Azkaban to await trial. He went quietly. He'd hoped that the facts would bear his testimony out, that the Wizarding World would finally know the sacrifices he had made, that he would be forgiven. Not so. Not even close.
Three weeks after being thrown unceremoniously into a cell and left to rot, his wand broken, the press finally uncovered the existence of the former Death Eater and, with a little digging, the truth of his involvement in the war. It didn't exactly bring the public to Severus' side, but it did garner him enough attention that they had to allow him due process. It was something, anyway.
Two months after his trial began, the charges of murder and treason against Snape were found "not proven." That didn't make him popular, but it did make him free. They didn't replace his wand. They couldn't return his dignity. And they didn't apologize.
One year after everything was said and done, Severus Snape walked away from it all.
Severus had finally been allowed to return to Hogwarts to collect his things. Not to his surprise, there wasn't much worth taking. The potions ingredients belonged to the school and the private potions he'd made did not store especially well over large periods of time. There were a few books—mostly gifts from Albus—and some doxy-eaten robes in his closet. After pacing between his old office and his chambers half a dozen times, the man came to the realization that there wasn't anything there he particularly wanted.
He left empty-handed.
The new headmaster had eyed him suspiciously as he exited the building, the only real home he'd ever known. All of his other property had been sold off to pay his legal fees. He had nowhere else to go. It should have been intimidating, at the very least, but Severus found that he felt nothing more than a vague sense of relief.
If nothing else, at least he was free.
He had no particular destination in mind; he just wanted to get away from the school, from the accusing looks, from wizards in general. With his newfound sense of freedom, Severus walked aimlessly, leisurely through the Forbidden Forest, listening to the sounds of birds in the briar, small animals making their way through the undergrowth, the crunching of his own steps over last year's leaves.
It was...almost nice.
So he kept walking until he found a stream and followed its meandering path away from the castle. When he found a pleasant little glade, he stopped and looked around. It was quiet and still. He sat down on the grass and unlaced his tall, dark boots, slipped them off and peeled off his socks. He rolled them up, tucked them into the toes of his boots, stood and threw them as far as he could.
Then he walked gingerly back to the small creek, dug his toes into the cool, sandy soil and stood there with the sun on his back.
It was very pretty here. To hell with the rest of the world. This was enough for him.
It was a lovely summer, green and warm and full of life. Severus had everything he needed. He had peace, sunshine, the gurgle and laugh of the brook, the buzz of the insects, the cheerful song of the finch and the absence of the fools who had plagued him for so long.
He felt stronger than he'd ever been. He was sure he stood straighter. He gave up reaching for answers and instead reached for the azure sky, the brilliant sun, the scattered, fleecy clouds, stretching and sighing in the heat of the day. Here, away from the pain and the hatred, he'd at last found a place that no one could touch him and inside, he sang for joy.
Outwardly, he fell mute. At first he spoke now and again, to scare off a badger that was digging too nearby, to encourage the trout to the surface of the stream, to comment on some little passing thing that caught his fancy. But he'd never been much of a talker, really. He became terse, then often taciturn, then finally silent.
It was enough to watch, to hear, and to feel. No one had ever listened to him anyway.
He was out in all sorts of weather, and his skin became tough. It turned from sallow and pale to coppery-gold. It peeled a bit, but that didn't bother him much. The state of his skin was a small price to pay for tranquility, and it wasn't as though he'd ever cared about his looks.
Snape found serenity in his solitude, in craning his neck to look up at the stars, gazing as they wheeled slowly across the dark sky. He loved to feel the night breeze and relished the deep stillness of the hours just before dawn. Severus began anticipating the sunrise. First a line of orange appeared on the horizon and the sky melted from inky black to milky white. Then the morning burst onto the scene, the clouds to the east lit with fiery crimson and coral.
And on his sandy bank, Severus Snape would tremble with awe. There had been no dawn in Azkaban. There had been no sun. There was only perpetual twilight, the shadows of a thousand sins hanging over his head. Every day was almost overwhelming in its glory to a man who'd once even condemned himself.
He began to forget the rest of the Wizarding World, friends and foes alike—not that he'd ever had friends, really. Humanity was a lost cause, his longtime antagonist, worth nothing. He was better off here, surrounded by field and fauna.
He was better off.
It was months before anyone crossed his path. After all, the gamekeeper was dead, and no one was brave enough to risk the Forbidden Forest and all it entailed. Odd, that. Snape saw very few dangerous creatures in his time there. Possibly they'd heard about him and steered clear. The thought almost made him smile.
One golden afternoon, a hush fell over the forest, and Snape knew what it meant. He'd learned to read his surroundings well enough, and this fearful stillness could mean only one thing: a person was infringing on the land.
It wasn't long before Snape spotted the culprit; a figure crested a hill to the west, lifted a hand to shade its eyes, and began picking its way down the side of the knoll. When the person got down below the level of the trees, Severus lost sight of it, and his interest wandered.
He didn't remember the figure again until a boy came tramping into his glade. It wasn't a complete shock, but his presence wasn't welcome. Severus was motionless, staring. It wasn't a boy, exactly. There was something boyish about him, though...something about the way his hair stuck up all over. Something about the jaunty way he stuffed his handkerchief away in his robes after mopping his brow. Something in his eyes. Something hopeful.
He went away, of course.
He didn't even see Snape standing there. Severus figured that, judging by the thick glasses he wore, his eyesight wasn't the best. He sagged in relief after the outsider had gone.
Still, there had been something strangely familiar about the man.
Severus hoped he'd stay away.
The man was back the next afternoon. He had a picnic lunch packed and stopped in the glade to eat. It was an awfully poor choice to sit next to the anthill, as he quickly learned. There was a lot of yelling and ineffectual waving, which caused Severus to shake with silent laughter. Then the man wised up and whipped out his wand. Severus hissed. The young man looked up, green eyes burning. Severus was sure he'd been noticed. Maybe he had. What difference did it make now? After a long, indecisive moment, the wand was lowered, and the man picked up what he could and moved. Severus was glad. After all, the ants weren't hurting anything, and they'd been there first.
Eventually, the youth clambered over a couple of smallish boulders and spread his lunch nearer to the stream. He ate without talking or making much noise, seeming to enjoy the fresh air, squinting in the sunshine. Severus only hoped he wouldn't leave the apple pips nearby. He didn't need the competition. But no, the dark haired young man spat them into the brook one by one, watching them swirl away in the eddies. A fish surfaced and tried one of them, but disgorged it almost immediately.
The boy-man laughed at this, and it sounded...good, to Severus' surprise. It wasn't harsh or jarring like he expected the first human voice he'd heard in months to sound. It was warm and fresh and fit just right in Severus' little corner of the world.
The youth stayed for some time, dangling his fingers in the stream, resting his head in the grass. When the shadows grew long, he got to his feet, dusted off his robes and went away again. Severus saw him hiking up the grassy knoll later, his silhouette dark against the rosy sunset.
For some reason he couldn't even fathom, Severus almost wished he'd come back.
Two weeks passed before Severus saw the boy again. He brought another lunch; he unpacked it, propping his pack up against one of the large rocks. The youth came right over to Severus, as bold as anything, and flopped down on the lumpy ground. He wiggled around awhile, trying to get comfortable. The young man ended up sitting Indian-style right at Severus' roots, eating a roll.
Severus was astounded at the boy's brashness.
The youth seemed to have no cares in the world. He ate his lunch, watched the world go by, and smiled a lot. After he was done eating, he whistled. He wasn't very good at it. Most of the birds were scared off by his racket, but this didn't seem to bother him.
It didn't bother Severus, either, much to the ex-Potions Master's consternation. It was rather friendly to have someone sitting beside him, not judging, not demanding anything. If nothing else, it was certainly a novel experience.
Severus had been without human companionship for a very long time, it seemed to him. And even though he'd never gotten anything beneficial from it, he recognized that part of him missed it.
He debated reaching out, touching the boy's shoulder, but decided against it. He was never really the touchy-feely sort. He preferred to keep himself to himself, and that was that. Still, it was nice to have company.
He didn't even pretend to himself that he wasn't lonely after the young man left. It left a sorry, painful ache inside, and even the song of the stars, shimmering their way through the darkness, wasn't enough to completely soothe him.
All the same, he stood late in the dimness, listening to the whisper of the wind through his leaves, and took comfort.
"It's nicer here," the boy remarked one lazy fall afternoon, and Severus almost fell over. Was the boy talking to him? Had he finally realized that Severus was not really what he seemed? The youth had been visiting on and off for three months now, lounging in the little meadow, and he'd never given any indication that he realized Snape's true nature.
But the young man wasn't looking at him. He wasn't looking at anything, in particular. Severus decided he was just talking to himself, in the nature of many youngsters with few friends. It made Severus uneasy, though. He was used to the quiet, and this talking, this one-sided dialogue evoked the need to respond.
"Everything's changed too much. I don't like it," the youth went on. "The new Minister's a berk. I'll never forgive him for—certain things. And the new Headmaster isn't much better. He's always telling me not to talk about the war. It happened, didn't it? And those who don't learn from history, and all that…he doesn't like anything unpleasant."
Snape sighed, and a light breeze rippled through his branches.
The boy scootched back until his back was against Snape's trunk. Severus hadn't felt anything like that in quite a while. He shivered, his leaves quivering, and the boy looked up at them, his brow wrinkled.
"…It's better here," he eventually reiterated. "Quieter."
The next day, Severus noticed a leaf fall from one of his slender branches, and watched it flutter to the ground in morbid fascination. It was golden-yellow, and for a moment Snape feared it had something to do with that boy touching him. It took him a few moments to remember what happened to trees in the fall. They lost their leaves, became bare, looked naked and dead. It wasn't as bad as what happened to Potions Masters in the fall, he reflected, when the students came back to the school.
When the youth passed through again, he glanced at Severus and let out a low whistle. "Wow," he said, almost under his breath.
Severus couldn't help but feel a little proud.
Severus wasn't sure how he would handle the snow when it came, but it wasn't so bad. He had dropped most of his leaves by then, and it hadn't hurt a bit. The flakes fell thick and white, and built up on his branches and in the elbows of his boughs. It was soft and cold. He'd felt cold in Azkaban, but it was a different sort of cold. An empty, lonely sort of cold that emanated from within. This was a bit easier to deal with.
Icicles formed on some of his branches, and he felt very smart, draped in winter's jewels. He stared at them for hours, watching the light play on them, marveling at their facets and clarity. If he shook himself a little, they'd break off, so he took care not to move too much. He rather hoped they'd still be there when the young man next visited.
When the youth came, he was dressed warmly, and he didn't try to sit near Severus' roots. Instead he stood, leaning against Snape's trunk, tossing a snowball to himself.
Severus watched. Up into the air, a slight arc, then down. Up into the air, a slight arc, then down. The young man seemed to have something on his mind: his eyes were distant, thoughtful, and he wasn't really paying attention to the snowball. He was lost in contemplation, and Snape wasn't particularly happy about this. He'd always hated to be ignored. Finally, he couldn't take it anymore. He just couldn't resist.
One of his branches snaked out, snatching the ball of powder out of the air. The young man blinked, looked up and gaped, astounded. Severus let go.
His limbs shook as he laughed at the boy, who was wiping the slush off his face. "Oh, very funny," he said. He looked at the tree calculatingly, and Severus felt a twinge of apprehension. He really should have restrained himself, but it was such a golden opportunity. "You're still not as bad as the Whomping Willow," the youth finally sighed. He stepped away from the tree, walking nonchalantly with his back turned to Severus. "Plus…two can play at that game!" He ducked over and scooped up a handful of snow, flinging it at Severus' trunk and hitting him squarely.
Severus didn't think; he quickly reached a long limb down and curled it around as much snow as he could grip, tossing it at the laughing, retreating boy. It sort of disintegrated in the air, but a good lump made it down the youth's collar.
They played this way for nearly an hour. Severus could remember having equanimity, contentment, and freedom in his woods, but he couldn't recall having fun. They only stopped when it seemed the youth was too winded to continue, leaning against Snape and breathing hard, his exhalations fogging up his glasses. Then the boy took them off, wiping them on his coat, looked up and noticed the heavy, sinister clouds rolling in.
"I'd…better be getting back," he said, as the first fat snowflakes began to fall.
Severus shifted uneasily.
"You don't think I'd make it?"
One slender limb shrugged eloquently.
"Yeah…maybe I'd better stay here. Build a fire. I can do that; I'm a wizard." The boy set to summoning stones, which he arranged in a circle, then carefully built a fire far enough away that it wouldn't singe Severus, but close enough that the youth could stay by both heat and tree.
He dragged some evergreen branches over and propped them against Severus to make a sort of shelter. Snape was only slightly offended. He was almost excited to have a guest. Someone would be spending the night sleeping beside him. He couldn't remember the last time it happened.
But then, he couldn't remember a lot of things. Names had vanished. Places were vague. Numbers meant nothing. It seemed his humanity was slowly seeping away from him. He had no regrets; he preferred it that way.
At just about midnight, the storm broke, and Severus was astonished at the power of it. He was tossed and swept about in the gale, the sleet pounding him all over. He bent with it as best he could, but he wasn't as young as he used to be. During a particularly viscous gust, he heard something snap, and it hurt.
He looked down in horror to see one of his branches lying amongst his roots. It made him feel sick.
The boy was tucked in down at the base of his trunk, shivering with cold and—likely—fear. Instinctively, Severus reached down, protecting the young man from the howling wind and driving hail. He bowed himself and held the boy safe in the crook of his branches and waited for the storm to end.
Severus lost some smaller twigs as well, but they didn't hurt so much. The larger one had sort of twisted off, and it left him looking rather shabby. When the sun came up the next day and he was able to take stock, he had to admit he was really looking the worse for wear. He wondered if he should get a pruning. He wondered if he was going mad.
The young man praised his bravery, tutting over the fallen branch and rubbing a hand over the splintered stub. "That ought to come off," he muttered, "or it'll interfere with new growth." He ran his hand down, fingers stroking the old, black scar in Severus' wood. He took away the broken branch, making the glade look tidy again, and came back the next day with a saw. Severus noticed it with some trepidation. It didn't hurt as bad as he thought it would, though, and he allowed the youth to trim some of his other ragged branches as well.
He felt better for it.
He didn't see the boy again for a long time. He wasn't sure why he'd quit visiting. He felt depressed about it but couldn't see what to do. He was lonely, but the thought of returning to the humans was not to be borne. Besides, the young man wouldn't like him if he knew what he really was. And Severus Snape was nothing if not self-sufficient. He enjoyed his own company.
He concentrated on himself for awhile, and in the meantime…
Severus grew on the inside, reflecting on what he wanted out of life and who he wanted it from. He grew on the outside, stretching toward the heavens, his crown beginning to sprout new buds. He listened to himself in the quiet and heard his leaves opening, felt himself bloom. It felt exhilarating.
He stood in the spring rain, loving every last chilled droplet of water that beat against his body, his free, living, sensing body. He watched the grass turn green, saw the flowers burst into blossom, and listened to the brook as it thawed, its coating of ice dripping with a plink, plink, plink as it melted.
A bird built a nest in his branches, and he grasped it delicately, holding the precious new lives aloft.
Severus was alive, and he was glad.
Eventually, Harry came back to the glade.
"I'd hoped you'd see sense," he said with a sigh. "You always were stubborn, though."
Severus stiffened in surprise.
"I found your shoes," Harry explained. "I knew you wouldn't go far without your shoes. After that it was just a matter of keeping my eyes peeled. And…then I noticed your scar," he added, nodding to a branch. "It's not exactly the same, but if you're looking for it…" He looked around a bit, plucking a small blue flower from the soil and twirling it round in his fingers. "I hoped you might come looking for me," he said quietly. "Do you always have to be so inflexible?"
Severus dropped a young, green cone on the boy's head.
Harry gave the tree a dirty look, smoothing down his unkempt hair where he'd been struck. After a little while, he continued. "You know, I did some reading. About trees, and whatnot. Didn't find much about you, though. Synonymous with a punishment, which I expect is rather fitting. Symbolically, you represent purification and new beginnings. You're pretty hardy. Other than that…" he trailed off. "I miss you. The old you. Sparring with you. I miss the way you used to protect me, even when I was sort of clueless about it." His voice sounded rough.
Severus tried to think of how to react, but nothing came to him. A tree's life is a slow life, and he didn't have his ready arsenal of words anymore. He didn't need them.
"I'll come again tomorrow," Harry whispered. "I hope you'll talk to me then. I really need someone I can lean on." Harry tucked the flower in the crook of one of his branches. He wore a strange, self-mocking sort of smile.
He went away, leaving Severus with a lot to think over.
Severus shifted nervously. He wasn't sure what to expect. He wasn't certain how he ought to behave. People were so complicated. Complications made him edgy and irritable. He glared at Potter as the boy entered the clearing.
Harry's face broke into a large grin, and he ran forward and threw his arms around the man. "I missed that scowl," he said, his voice muffled against Snape's shoulder. "You smell nice. Like wintergreen. Does this mean you'll come back to the castle with me? We've got a new Headmistress. They've finally given McGonagall the position. She says you can have your old job back, if you want it."
Snape was overwhelmed—by the touching, by the torrent of words, by Harry's optimism. "I don't know," he said cautiously. "I haven't even got a wand."
Harry stepped away and pulled a box from the depths of his robes. "I think this'll do. Eleven and a quarter inches, unicorn hair." He looked up at Snape, eyes shining. "Yellow Birch."
Severus moved to take the wand, but paused. "Would you mind holding onto this bird's nest?"
Harry took it obediently, his face a bit puzzled. "Er. Sure." Severus took the bit of wood between slender, now slightly knobby fingers, gave the wand a flick, and the nest rocketed out of the boy's hands up into the air, then snuggled itself into an oak tree. Severus smiled.
"All right," he said quietly. He looked about the glade sadly. "I'm going to miss the place."
Harry took his arm. "We'll be back," he assured the man.
A short while later, two figures climbed the hill, and if anyone had been watching, they'd see that the silhouettes were hand in hand.
That summer, and the next, and the one after that, the yellow birch returned to the glade where it could listen to the stream trickle over the rocks, enjoy the birds flitting through its branches and the sun shining on its leaves.
A few feet away stood a short and rather shaggy hawthorn.
Occasionally, when the wind blew warm and strong through the glade, the hawthorn would flutter a branch out and brush its leaves against the birch. Most of the time, the birch pretended not to notice. Once in a while, it would reach down and take the hawthorn's branch in the fork of its own stems, holding it gently.
Four years after the death of the Dark Lord, and Severus Snape had finally found his own little Garden of Eden.