Title: 13 Ways of Looking at a Thestral
Spoilers: Post-Deathly Hallows, Deathly Hallows disregarded
Disclaimer: These characters do not belong to me.
Summary: A man and a woman and a Thestral are one.
Author's Notes: Written for sc010f in the 2010 snuna_exchange. Original prompt: Snape and Luna have disappeared after the war and are discovered years later. Where are they? Who discovers them? How does that person react?
Thanks to my beta csinut214.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
He can't help but think of that line every time he sets foot in The Forbidden Forest. This particular evening — a Friday near the end of April, green buds on branch tips and new growth underfoot — is no different.
He loves the Forest at this time of day. It's quiet and still, shadows lengthening as the sun thinks about setting. The students have eaten and are, or should be, gathered in their common rooms. It's not yet quite warm enough to lounge outside for long periods of time.
The shadows are deep here, and there are still pockets of dirty snow the sun has forsaken. Time stands still in the Forest, he thinks, and then he thinks, Since when have I allowed myself to indulge in such fanciful thoughts?
Then, he laughs, quietly.
Tonight he is looking for Alihotsy, and he isn't leaving the woods until he's found some and yanked the devilish plant out. Known to induce hysteria when consumed, it's collected by the seventh years for pranks (dissolved in pumpkin juice it is nearly undetectable), and after last spring's unprecedented wave of pandemonium followed by a flurry of Howlers from infuriated parents and a severe reprimand from Ministry officials, he is taking no chances this year.
He walks steadily, carefully, eyes down, searching for the plant's distinctive puce colour and shiny, spiky leaves. He's done this before, countless times, under different circumstances, and will do it again, countless times. It is solitary, time-consuming work, but it is his life, his calling, his chosen profession, after all.
He knows the long limbs, the deep crevices, all the secret places of these woods more intimately than any single person — male or female — in his life.
He realizes he is chilled, that the sun has, indeed begun to drop. He pulls his wand out, murmurs Lumos, hunches his shoulders against the chilly air. He's all but admitted defeat for the evening when he sees it, in the clearing ahead.
Not Alihotsy, after all; but it doesn't matter, because all thoughts of the wretched plant are pushed aside as his eyes focus on the sight before him.
Of all things.
He realizes with a jolt that he hasn't seen one, literally, in years. After the War they all seemed to simply vanish.
He expels a breath he didn't know he was holding, and hopes the beast stays for just a little while.
He approaches cautiously, as he has done before. Reaches out a slightly shaking hand, as he has done before.
He strokes the great beast, his heart swelling with something like joy, and as his hand passes down over its neck he feels something. Someone has woven a necklace for the animal, complete with a tag. He reads it in the light of his wand and as the impossible words register in his brain he can't help but laugh, loudly.
"If found please tell me to go home, because Luna will be looking for me. Feel free to ride along, if you'd like. Love, Angharad."
Deep in the forest, he whispers her name, pictures her face and remembers the last time he saw her:
Waving hand and waving hair, looking at him, but not quite at him, walking where? Into the Forest. That's right. "See you soon, see you very soon!"
His heart just about breaks when he realizes she isn't coming back.
The Thestral watches him and waits.
He remembers the last time he rode one of them:
Cold night air whipping by his head, gripping to its mane with all his strength, flying into the great unknown, one of only two who could actually see the beast—
The Thestral — Angharad — kneels down in the dirt and waits, its wide, white eyes watching him.
He thinks of Luna, of touches and promises.
Does he dare?
He mounts the animal — So familiar! So fine! — and flies, it seems, for hours. He admires the Thestral's beauty, its sleek blackness, the way it shines in the setting sun. He finds he's just as nervous — terrified, really — as he was the last time he rode. His heart thuds loudly, and he can hear it above the sound of Angharad's flapping wings.
But then he can't believe he's actually going to see her again and that thought alone pushes aside all feelings of present terror.
Gradually the woods thin and he sees a winding river, houses here and there with thatched roofs and smoke curling lazily from chimneys. He sees livestock, vegetable gardens, signs of life.
They're getting closer. He can feel it. He can feel her.
Angharad slows and dips and he leans forward as it does, gripping the mane even more tightly and she zeros in on one house in particular, set apart, back from a winding dirt road.
They land gracefully in near darkness, by the small house. Smoke curls from the rather lopsided chimney and warm yellow light spills from the windows. The door opens and suddenly she's there, standing before him, looking up and smiling at him sweet as every dream he's ever had.
"Oh, hello Neville," she says most congenially, as if they had just seen one another at lunch, or on the Quidditch Pitch. She brushes hair away from her eyes and smiles vaguely, serenely. "I see Angharad found you then. That's good. You must be thirsty. Would you like some tea?"
Neville dismounts awkwardly, and stands before her on shaky legs. Shaky, he realizes, for various reasons not entirely related to a long, tense flight atop a strange and wondrous beast.
He feels minute and he feels ten feet tall, as awkward and gangly as the 18-year-old he was the last time he saw her. Everything has changed. Nothing has changed.
"Hello," is all he can think to say. Dunderhead, he chastises himself. He's standing before The Girl of His Dreams and all he can utter is—
But then he can't think at all, because she's in his arms, pressed against him, her long, slender arms around his neck, her light, sweet-scented hair against his nose.
"I'm so happy to see you, Neville, and he will be, too, don't worry. I don't want you to worry! After all, you've come so far. He always said you'd find us, eventually, you, of everyone! He said you had, how did he phrase it, 'untapped potential.' An 'underachiever', he said. He said it just the other day, actually. Your face has gone all red! Do you feel all right? He has such a funny way with words, doesn't he? It's taken me some getting used to, as well."
As he reaches up to touch his cheek, still burning from her brief touch, he thinks:
He? He who?
Oh. Surely she must mean her father.
Of course. Neville almost laughs with relief.
She looks at him. "You look exactly the same, isn't that funny? But, I suppose I do, too. Perhaps we're the kind of people who age well. It's been, how long? I'd say about 1,900 days, wouldn't you?"
She nods, calculating, he supposes, in her strange and wondrous head. "Yes. 1,917 days today."
He kneads his fingers against sore thighs.
She looks around, smiling. "Someplace beautiful." She blinks. "Or, don't you think so?"
He ventures a glance around and finds it is, indeed, beautiful, awash in shining orange and gold light, the sun finally slipping below the horizon and leaving them in purple shadows, black around the edges.
"Why don't you come inside for tea? You must be frozen. Did she fly very high? She's just a baby, you know, and rather timid at times, though she did venture much further than I thought she would. She does like to explore. Or, perhaps you'd care for Firewhisky instead?"
She extends her hand and tilts her lovely head and Neville, his heart bursting with anticipation and something else like hope, nods and takes it and follows her inside.
The house is low-ceilinged and very warm after the chill of outside air, and smells of stew and candle wax. Neville squints in the light and when his eyes adjust he sees bookshelves jam-packed with books. He sees a large fireplace and fire, a long shelf above that lined with an appropriately odd assortment of Luna-type possessions: shells of varying shapes and sizes, beads, dried flowers, a twisted piece of wood, a mask. Before the fireplace is a table, four chairs, a vase filled with Wild Mignonette, just in bloom. Neville smiles, then stops, rather violently.
There's a man seated at the table, a book open beside him, a mug of hot tea beside that. Neville is suddenly unable to draw a breath, because suddenly he's 14 years old again, awkward and red-faced and scared utterly to speechlessness. His chest tightens and his heart races and he wonders, vaguely, if he's having a heart attack.
Wouldn't that be something, after all this time, if he finally succeeded in scaring me to death—
"Are you all right?" Luna asks, peering into his face with those eyes. "You look quite ill, you know. Would you like some smelling salts?"
The man at the table smirks and makes a sound like laughter, but that can't be possible, it simply can not, for the man Neville knows — or knew, rather — never, ever laughs.
"He's fine, Luna. He's looks exactly like he should: like someone who has just seen a ghost," the man says quietly in the flickering yellow light. Then, just as quietly, "Hello, Professor Longbottom."
"Hello, Professor Snape," Neville whispers, just before his legs give out.
"Well, that was unexpected."
"Really? I was expecting it completely."
"Oh, yes. Mr. Longbottom always had a terribly weak constitution."
"I think you're being unfair. He was sweet, Severus—"
"You're simply biased, my dear. He had a horrible crush on you—"
"Maybe he had one on you, have you ever thought that? I mean, I did—"
"You did what?"
"Had a crush on you. You do have that effect on people."
He hears their voices, sees their faces swimming before his. Strong hands hoist him upright and seat him, rather roughly, at the table.
"How are you feeling now?" Luna asks solicitously as Neville hunches over his mug. The curls of sweet steam caress his face. He is taking deep breaths.
"Fine," he says, hoping they can't see his red, red cheeks.
"Oh, good," Luna says, one hand brushing the top of his hair. He shivers.
"I thought Angharad was lost," he says brusquely.
Luna laughs. "Oh no. Thestrals never get lost. Don't you remember? They have amazing senses of direction. Obviously she went to find you and she did. And," she adds, "now you're here."
"Yes I am."
"Indeed he is," adds Snape.
"So, here we all are again." Luna smiles at the men, who do not smile in return and, in fact, glare at one another in a rather predatory sort of way.
Neville gulps some tea, which is hot. He chokes and, eyes watering, looks desperately at Luna.
"But," he gasps, "how did you get here?"
"Oh, we flew, too," Luna says, smiling. "You see, Hagrid put me in charge of the herd, just before the war."
"I caught her in the woods, more than once during that last year, feeding them," Snape adds, then reaches out and almost touches her hand.
"We lost so many during the war," Luna says sadly. "This farm belonged to my great-aunt. I found out, after my dad passed, that it was left to me. And it was perfect for my project."
"Breeding Thestrals, of course," she says. "They're here. They live here. I breed them, care for them. The biggest compound in Europe. And Severus has developed the most wonderful food for them, a combination of Northern Marsh Orchids and caterpillars and well, blood, of course. They do love their blood."
Neville dares a glance at Snape.
"I also write, and publish, of course," he says, rather unnecessarily, by way of explanation.
"Severus took over the Quibbler's printing equipment after Daddy died. He publishes all sorts of interesting books and periodicals, actually. Maybe you've read some of them: The Life-Cycle of the Light Yellow Thestral, or The Last Potions Book You'll Ever Need to Buy, or—"
Neville nods stupidly and tries to think if he has actually read them, or heard of them, but mostly he tries to think of the word that best describes how he's feeling at the moment:
"I should be going," he says at last. It's full dark outside, making the light inside that much brighter. Neville's head hurts, and his eyes waver. He closes them and when he opens them Snape is watching him.
"Oh, you can't go tonight," Luna says. "It's much too late. Please stay and tomorrow I'll show you the grounds."
Neville tries to think of a reason why he simply can not stay, but he's at a loss. He could lay his head down on the table and fall asleep right there, he thinks. He notices a statue on the table, a small frog with a coin in its mouth. Luna notices him staring.
"Isn't he wonderful? Severus gave it to me for Christmas. It's a three-legged moon frog of good fortune and wealth. Adding the good luck coin to its mouth increases the prosperity power. It's an ancient Chinese Feng Shui symbol also associated with longevity." She pauses. "I just think it's cute."
Neville tears his eyes away long enough to meet Snape's steady gaze full-on.
Feng Shui, Snape? Really?
Snape is not unnerved. He merely smiles that smile, that wicked, evil, knowing smile that has haunted Neville's dreams for more years than he cares to count.
He lies ramrod straight in his narrow bed, blankets pulled to his chin.
He tries to sleep.
He tries to work it all out in his head, but nothing is making sense. They can't be together, can they? It can't be possible. Surely they must be living as friends, or as caretaker and invalid. Business partners at the very least.
Surely not as—
He closes his eyes and fights back a surge of nausea at the very thought.
He rolls to one side, then the other. Outside he's sure he can hear the Thestrals jumping, making their strange screaming whinnies.
He hears a sound, a thump, a muffled shout. He sits up, rubs his bleary eyes.
Another thump. Another muffled shout. The sounds are coming from inside the house.
As he moves from his bed to the doorway to the hallway to another doorway, he rationalizes.
Snape is having a nightmare and Luna is comforting him. That's all it is. The relief that floods through Neville makes his knees sag and he grips the doorframe to keep from falling.
"There, there," Luna murmurs, her voice light as air, soothing as a touch.
The door to their room is slightly ajar. Neville, just another shadow among many, pauses outside, listening.
"It's all right, my love."
It's all right.
Now, however, the sounds are distinctly different.
Luna — his Luna — is, well, moaning. Very lightly at first, but definitely increasing in both volume and excitement. Neville grasps, almost against his will, his cock, which is twitching against his thigh.
Be still, he orders his cock, which does not obey. Be still, be still—
His hand moves faster, faster, his thoughts catching up, images arranging themselves in accordance, one, two three—
Luna's head thrown back Snape between her thighs Neville kissing her Thestrals dancing prancing screaming just as aroused—
He comes then, with a muffled shout, and teeth on his lips and his cock in his hand, his head thudding painfully against the doorframe, shoulders shuddering and sagging, and, as always and not for the first time, completely, utterly alone.
Inside the room — their room — he hears similar sounds, Snape coming (there is no other word, he's coming, of course he is) and Luna is groaning, head thrown back (he can see it, even if he can't see it) and Neville turns and lurches back down the hallway to his own room, his own bed, his own pillow, borrowed, as they are—
He pushes his head into the pillow, wills himself to smile, to sleep, to forget.
Outside, somewhere in the night, a Thestral screams.
Neville awakes to Snape's face — dark, determined — hovering inches above his own.
This is it, Neville thinks. This is the end. He knew I was outside the door. He's going to kill me, once and for all.
Snape, realizing Neville is, indeed, awake, sniffs and straightens, clasps his hands tightly behind his back.
"You were snoring," is all he says. He turns, heads for the door. He stops, and without looking back, says: "And breakfast is ready." He then sweeps from the room and Neville is sure he sees the shadow of a great, billowing cloak behind him.
Some things never do change.
The meal is a quiet affair. Neville notices Luna and Snape, sees how they pass the pitcher of cream back and forth without either one asking; how Luna absently stabs a bit of his egg and takes a bite while Snape reads the newspaper. When their fingers meet above the pot of sugar, their eyes meet as well and they both smile.
"You're not hungry?" Luna asks when Neville puts down his fork abruptly.
"Perhaps now is the time for you to show our guest your pets," Snape says above his cup. Luna claps her hands once.
"Yes! You must see them. They're…they're just beautiful."
"Of course," Neville says, as he wipes his mouth on the napkin, stands and follows Luna.
Neville feels Snape's gaze burning into the small of his back all the way out the door.
The clearing is full of them. She has bred not only black ones, but, of course, a full rainbow of Thestral colours: yellow and green and red and mauve. They prance and dance, nuzzle and munch in the early morning sunshine.
"Thestrals are endangered creatures now, you know. So many people can see them since the War. You'd think they wouldn't be frightened of them any longer, but they are, same as always."
Neville can understand why. They're horribly frightful looking beasts, even in full daylight.
"Tenebrus died last year," Luna says.
"Hagrid's favourite, the first one born in the Forest. At least, I think he died. He just…disappeared. That's what happens when they die, you know."
"I didn't know."
Neville watches them, tries with all his heart to love them as she obviously does.
But in truth he's never gotten used to their looks.
"They're so ugly," he says, almost shyly, glancing at her profile, her long nose, protuberant eyes, pale, pale hair.
Beyond them, almost at the horizon line, walks Snape, a lone, slim black figure, straight, head bent, staring at something by his feet. Some plant, some flower. A rock. Who knows?
"I don't know," Luna says, tilting her head slightly for a better look. "It's interesting how things that seem ugly to us in the beginning can gradually become almost more beautiful than we can bear."
She turns to face him fully, her face awash in sunlight, her light, light hair blowing and caressing her cheeks. She smiles wide.
"There is beauty in everything if you know how to look for it."
"Come, Professor," Snape says briskly, gleefully, when the midday meal is done. "Now it's my turn."
Snape walks briskly, with purpose, leading Neville to the edge of the woods, where shadows are just beginning to spread.
"It's…interesting, that Angharad found you, don't you think, of all people? And that you…decided to…join her, for an unknown journey?" Snape remarks.
"If you say so."
"I had no idea—"
"Come now," Snape says, cutting his eyes. "Everyone knows you always harboured…" His lip curls slightly. "…feelings for Luna."
Caught, Neville simply shrugs. "It was a long time ago," is all he says and Snape nods.
"What's this?" he barks then, pointing.
"Good. And this?"
"Uh…uh…" Neville flushes.
"Come now, Professor. Surely you haven't forgotten Umbilicus rupestris already. hope you're remembering all this for class Monday morning. Who do you have?"
"Slytherins and Gryffindors. Third years."
Snape sniffs. "And that?" He points at the spiky, purple leaves.
"A-Alihotsy." Neville falls to his knees, grabs the plant in amazement.
"And when is Luna's birthday?"
"February 14, 1981."
He pauses, face full red as he realizes what has happened. Snape, to his credit, does not gloat. He simply watches Neville, eyes slightly hooded, mouth slightly down-turned. His expression is, Neville realizes, mournful.
"So, is there…anyone else?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, Professor, as you very well know, is there anyone else of…significance in your life?"
"Why?" Neville stalls.
"Because, quite frankly, I see myself in you, Professor, and I simply offer you this advice, to do with as you will."
Neville grits his teeth and glares, best he can.
Snape's dark eyes are pitch black in the forest depths, but even so, his expression is the kindest Neville has ever seen. He can't look away.
"Don't make your profession your life. Don't…marry your job."
Neville shoves his hands deep in his pockets. He won't cry. He won't.
"Why did you…leave?"
Snape shrugs. "I was dying."
Neville shakes his head. "No. There's more."
"Yes," Snape agrees. "There is more. There's Luna." He pauses. "And I was tired of being alone."
They stare at one another. Neville can hear his heart. Thud. Thud.
"You really were the worst Potions student I ever had," Snape says suddenly.
"And you were really the worst teacher I ever had." Thud thud thud.
"She saved me," Snape says simply and Neville doesn't know if he means Luna or Angharad. "She saved me when no one else would, she brought me here, she tended to me for months and months. She believed I would get well and she gave me love and hope and purpose, things I'd never before received from anyone.
"I love her, too," he says, and then, Neville knows, he means Luna.
He finds her alone in the garden, digging in the dark, black earth and singing to herself. Behind her the Thestrals prance.
"I still…I still care for you," he says in a rush. "Very much. Why…why don't you come back with me? You don't have to stay with him any longer."
Luna doesn't move. She stands still, watching the Thestrals paw and dance and nuzzle. The wind whips her hair about her head, across her face. Neville watches her and wonders, not for the first time, what she's thinking, what she's really thinking.
"You asked me to marry you once, didn't you?" she says suddenly. "Or, was that just a dream?"
He shakes his head miserably. "No. Not a dream."
She wraps her arms around herself, smiles a little. "It was very sweet, the proposal. I remember. I almost said yes."
"Why didn't you?" He leans towards her, every muscle straining with the effort to not grab her, pull to him.
"We both had jobs to do, after the war," she says. "You had to care for the plants and I for the Thestrals and Severus."
"All right. Fine. I understand that. I do. But." He stops. "The…Thestrals…they're good. They're…thriving. And Snape…Snape is…he can look after himself. He's…he's fine. And I love you, too. I always have. And I can look after you. I want to look after you. And I'm…I'm nice. And kind. Everyone says so. I…deserve to be happy. I do."
It might be the most he's ever said to anyone at one time. The space around them is filled with his words. Luna seems to take a moment to swallow all his words, digest them.
"Severus always said you loved me," she says. "And—"
"And that you'd find me."
Neville steps closer.
"He was right."
Her lips are very soft. He leans towards her, and fully expects her to pull back, push him back, scream, laugh, but she does none of those things. She simply lets him kiss her. He can feel her lips curve in a smile beneath his.
"Oh Neville," is all she says when he pulls away. "That was very sweet. I remember you were always very good at snogging. Oh, look! They're watching!"
He turns and sees the horses are, indeed, still, their odd white eyes staring in their direction. They look utterly creepy. "Ah," he says, and then, "Thank you," because he feels he must remain polite.
Luna stands and extends her dirty hand to him. He stares up at her.
"We…we were supposed to be…together. Everyone thought so," he says miserably. "I…thought so."
"But he needs us, you see," Luna says. "And I need them, and it's nice to be needed, don't you think?"
He nods, because it's the polite thing to do, but in all honesty, he doesn't have a clue.
"Don't worry. There's someone out there for you, too, you know."
Then gently, and sweetly, "I think it's time for you to go home."
"It was so good to see you again, Neville," she says, standing on tiptoe and pressing her soft lips to his cheek, and for a moment he lets himself believe her. "You will come visit again, won't you?"
"Wild horses," he says and she laughs a little.
He climbs onto Angharad's back, grips her mane tightly, squeezes his knees tightly.
Luna, shading her eyes against the sun, reaches out her hand and finds Snape, who takes it easily, instantly, and brings it to his lips, and Neville smiles and cries at the same time, the great beating sound of Angharad's wings, wind in Neville's hair, against his ears and his whole, long life spread out ahead of him.
Title shamelessly borrowed from 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, by Wallace Stevens