Home for the First Time
Severus made it back to his chambers late that evening. Not that that was different from most school nights. Either he spent too long in his lab brewing potions for the infirmary, or he was on hall duty watching for students out after curfew. Very rarely was he up late due to research or personal brewing, and even more rare was he reading for enjoyment.
No, he was quite used to being up at all hours of the night and getting up bright and early in the morning. That was the normal pattern of his teaching career. But it brought with it a dilemma that he had yet to find a suitable answer to.
Running a hand through his hair, he looked at the clock. It was close to one in the morning. There was no time to wash and dry his hair before he needed to be asleep, setting aside that he really should have been asleep an hour ago. 'I'll shower in the morning.'
A sigh slipped out as he turned towards the bed. He really wanted to wash his hair. It felt greasy and lank. Yes, most of the students would say that that was normal for him, he knew it was a joke that was still making its rounds, but it bothered him the first couple months back from summer. Because in the summer it wasn't as bad. In the summer he had time to use the rinse that Mama Sung had started using on his hair before he had even come to Hogwarts.
Settling under the covers, he wondered for the millionth time if there was a way to tweak the rinse so that he could use it in the morning and it still be just as effective.
His eye closed as the memory of a promise and the summer that it was made drifted behind his eyelids.
Nine-year-old Severus sat very quietly next to an oak tree near the river. A small bag was hidden near the roots and his eyes were watching the area carefully. This was not his normal spot, but he was still wary that his new friend, Lily, would find him and want to play. Not that he didn't want to play with her, he really liked her, it was Tuney that he had problems with. Today, though, he had other plans.
A soft pop sounded near the tree line and a man dressed in a mandarin collared shirt and dark trousers looked about.
Severus grabbed his bag and scampered over to where the foreign wizard was peering about. "Mr Sung."
"Severus, there you are. Are you ready?" Mingyu Sung smiled down at the dark haired boy.
Severus had to struggle for a moment to decipher the lilting Mandarin. It had been almost a year since he heard it spoken by someone else. Making sure that his bag strap was over his shoulder, he nodded while fighting to keep his excitement from being too obvious. "Ready, sir."
Mingyu took Severus' hand in one of his while offering a small red envelope with his other.
Severus held onto both the hand and the envelop as the portkey whisked them away.
When they landed, Severus stared. There was a house instead of a hotel, and the air smelled of flowers and water. Holding tight to Mr Sung's hand, he peered cautiously about.
Mingyu smiled softly. "Come on Severus, this way."
He pulled the nervous boy towards the front door. Giving the tiny hand a reassuring squeeze, he let it go before he opened the door. "Welcome to the Sung house."
Severus stood in the doorway, uncertain of how to proceed. There, waiting for him was Lui and Mrs Sung as well as a group of other people. After a quick look at Lui's welcoming face, he straightened his shoulders and walked through the door.
Severus fingered the soft light cotton robe, marvelling that it was his. Not that he could take it back to Spinner's End, but while he was in China, this was his robe.
He walked into the small room that he was sharing with Lui and laid a towel over his pillow. Mum didn't like it if he got the pillow wet at night, and he doubted that Mrs Sung would either. He didn't have time to stay up to dry his hair since they were to be up early in the morning. Severus wasn't sure if the excitement rushing through him would let him sleep, but he knew he had to try.
Crawling onto the bed, he made sure to lay his head down carefully. It wouldn't do for his hair to dry a mess. The pillow would flatten it out if he laid just right.
"Severus." Lanfen Sung stopped just inside the door, looking about before staring at the small boy she was starting to consider one of her own. "Severus, you can't go to be with wet hair."
Severus shot up and stared at Mrs Sung, fear of doing something wrong palpable in the air around him. "I covered the pillow with a towel." His voice came out soft and shaky.
Lanfen crossed the room quickly and sank down till she was eye level with Severus. She fought to keep the trepidation out of her voice. "Does your Mother allow you to sleep with wet hair?"
Severus touched the towel. "Only if I cover the pillow with a towel. I can't get it wet."
Lanfen reached out and ran a light hand over the wet black hair before ending on Severus back. She felt him stiffen before relaxing. As much as she despised it, she knew that it was normal for him. He would stop soon enough. She put a little pressure against that thin back. "Come on, off the bed."
Severus slipped off the bed, wary dark eyes searching her face.
Lanfen directed him towards a small stool and picked up a brush. "You should never go to bed with wet hair, Severus. It is bad for you. You can get sick." She tipped his chin back so that she could look him in the eye. "Promise me, little one, that you will never sleep on wet hair again."
Severus searched the eyes that were as dark as his, looking for the truth in them. "If I can help it, I won't."
A small frown creased Lanfen's brow. "Severus..." She stopped her scold when she saw a tiny bit of fear creep into the boy's face. Shaking her head, she rested her hand on his shoulder. "Just try your hardest."
The small smile that curved Severus' mouth made that compromise worth it. Moving behind him, she brushed his hair until it dried.
The next morning came early, but Severus didn't feel tired. He was up before Lui and had waited for what seemed like hours before his friend woke up. While he waited he ran all the Mandarin he knew through his mind. This year he was going to need it more than ever before.
Over the last three years, Severus had collected and copied everything he could find on the Chinese language. It had taken him weeks to hand copy a book on grammar he had checked out from the library. He had eventually found an old worn out Chinese to English dictionary in the library castoff pile. It was now the prize of his collection hidden in his room. He had assigned himself Chinese homework every night. All of this meant that he could read and write the language better than he could converse in it.
When Lui eventually woke up, he sped through his morning routine and headed for the door.
"Severus, come on!" Lui turned about and waved the other boy to catch up. Racing through the hallways, he led the way to the dining room.
Severus came through the door right behind Lui and stopped dead when he spotted Mrs Sung's expression. His own Mum's words echoed through his head. No running in the house.
Lanfen narrowed her eyes as she looked at the two boys. "Lui, Severus, you both know better than to run about inside the house. Join us for breakfast, and then you can go outside. Lui, show Severus about the paths. You can run off that energy out there."
Severus waited until everyone else sat down before slipping into the vacant chair. Keeping his head down, his eyes darted between Mrs and Mr Sung, waiting to be scolded more. When nothing else came, he slowly relaxed and ate his breakfast.
Breakfast done, Severus and Lui took off out the door. There was never any question of where to go. Lui took them straight to the small stream on the edge of the property. Every trip they had taken, both of them had discussed improvements to their leaf boats. The next few hours were spent discussing designs and testing them.
Lanfen watched as the boys took off towards the stream. Turning back around she frowned at Mingyu. "They treat him something awful at that house. I refuse to call it his home."
Mingyu looked up from the paper and met her worried eyes. "We don't know that for sure. They could be worried sick right now, wondering where their son is. All we have is Severus' assurance that they didn't even notice that he was missing."
Lanfen sank into her chair and clasped her hands together. It had been a point of concern each time they took Severus with them. It could technically be called kidnapping. Narrowing her eyes, she remembered the thin shoulders and the way he expected the worse every time someone spoke to him. "I believe him. He is underfed... he doesn't know the meaning of a light punishment. He didn't even know not to go to sleep on wet hair."
Mingyu sighed and folded the paper. "We'll send Huan and Li to see what is going on. They did want to travel to England. They can make a side trip to Severus' house. "
Lanfen smiled slowly, relief evident on her face. "That is a good idea. Shall we ask?"
Mingyu followed her to the fireplace.
Severus hung back behind Lui and was slowly drifting to the edge of the crowd of children that was surrounding his friend. The Mandarin was flying about too fast for him to follow, and he wasn't sure that it was all Mandarin.
They had left the boat designs and followed the stream into a park. It hadn't taken long for Lui to be noticed. The boys and girls had made their way over to his friend and then the words started flying. At first, he understood most of what they were saying, then one of the boys pointed out a flower and he had become completely lost in the words. Lui's eyes were shining, his hands were animated, and his words flowed like the stream they had left behind.
Severus was finally free of the crowd and walked back towards the path that had brought them there. Biting his lips, Severus clenched his fingers tightly and fought the threatening tears. 'It was bound to happen. He has friends here. He doesn't need me. I'm the odd one. No one needs a no good child like me.'
Stepping into the woods, Severus set himself the task of hunting for plants that he knew the name of and studying the ones that he didn't so he could look them up later. It was a common pass time at Spinner's End, one that had him deep in the woods and near the river more often than not. It was a lonely game, but one that was familiar.
Lui laughed at the comment that Ping said and turned to make sure that Severus had understood it. It was at that moment he noticed that Severus was not in the crowd around the hibiscus. He stood up abruptly, his eyes darting from person to person. It was hard not to spot Severus even with his dark hair and eyes, he was taller than most of them. Not to mention his eyes were wider.
Ping cast a puzzled look at Lui. "What are you looking for?"
Lui pushed his way out of the crowd, his gaze moving about, searching every person that he could see, hoping that it was his friend. "Severus." He turned back to his friends, worry plain on his face. "Did anyone see where Severus went?"
Meilin frowned slightly. "Tall boy?"
Lui nodded quickly.
"I think I saw him heading for the stream about five minutes ago."
Guilt crashed hard. He hadn't even noticed that Severus wasn't there. Why would he leave? He knew that Severus loved plants. He could talk forever about one if you got him started.
'If he wanted to be alone, you should let him." Ping folded his arms across his chest as he tried to look like a sage. The other children nodded in agreement.
Lui shook his head violently side to side. "Severus... Severus..." He bit his lip lightly but figured that everyone was going to find out sooner or later. "Severus doesn't speak Mandarin well. He could get lost and not even know how to ask directions. This is his first time visiting China."
It hit Lui just how bad a host he had been. He had gotten so carried away with his friends that he hadn't even noticed that one of his best friends who was also his guest had disappeared.
Ping stared at Lui for a moment before nodding. "Then we need to look for ... Severus. Where do you think he would go?"
Lui looked over at the woods that lined the stream, fear digging deeper. Severus could be anywhere in there. "The woods."
Meilin compressed her lips before heading in that direction. "Then we need to get started. Hopefully, we can find him without having to call in your parents to help."
Lui felt the rest of the blood leave his face. "Right."
"What does he look like?"
The question came from the back of the group.
"He is about a head and a half again taller than Ping, and has black hair and eyes. He is an Englishman."
The group of children headed towards the woods.
Lui walked down the path that Severus and he had come down. He was hoping that Severus hadn't wandered too far off into the woods. The others had spread out, making sure that they were still within earshot of someone.
Meilin's eyes widened when she spotted the English boy out on the branch, and she was afraid to startle him. Moving quickly, she let her sister know to pass the word to Lui to get there. Word travelled quickly through the children when someone spotted Severus. They wanted Lui to talk to him since they weren't sure if the boy would understand them.
Severus leaned out over the branch as far as he could. He wanted to see and touch the large flower that was growing in the centre of a calm eddy. His hand was wrapped firmly around the branch that he was climbing on as he leaned closer to the water.
Frowning when he couldn't touch the petals, he studied the branch closely, checking its thickness. Deciding that it could do what he wanted, he looped an arm and a leg about it and then slowly let himself dangle down towards the plant until he was being supported only by the crook of his elbow and his knee. He then gently touched the white petals and let his fingers ghost over the leaves that were standing out of the water. He counted the petals and noted their shape and thickness. He then checked out the pattern of the veins in the leaves.
Lui stopped near the edge of the tree line, his eyes wide as saucers as he watched Severus dangle himself over the water and touch the petals of the lotus. The rest of his friends were clustered behind him, staring as well.
"See why I wanted you to talk to him?" Meilin tried not to gasp when the tall boy shifted slightly, causing bark to fall into the water.
Ping watched as the long fingers brushed over the petals before turning to Lui. "See if he can get back without falling in. If he can, then he will be the first one to ever succeed in touching the lotus without getting wet."
All the other children tensed and strained forward without moving. This was history in the making. A dare that had never been done, not by any of them or their brothers or sisters.
Lui stepped quietly out onto the feeder stream's bank. As much as he wanted Severus to complete the dare, he was far more worried about if Severus knew how to swim.
"Severus." He pitched his voice low and soft, trying not to startle his friend. He watched as Severus moved so that he could see him.
Severus felt his eyes widen in surprise, he'd been so focused that he never heard Lui step onto the bank. That he was there was shocking, and it was obvious that the other boy had been looking for him. "Lui... I thought you were having fun with your friends."
Lui tried not to flinch at what was not said in that statement. Severus felt as if he had been brushed off. He closed his eyes briefly and squared his shoulders. This was his mistake and he needed to repair it. "I'm sorry, Severus. I shouldn't have gotten distracted like that." He searched Severus' sideways face, hoping for some sign that he was forgiven.
Severus spotted the other children in the woods watching him intently before shifting his gaze back to Lui. "They helped you find me?"
Lui nodded. "Meilin spotted where you went. And I was worried. You could get lost and then not know how to get back home..." He trailed off, unvoiced fears evident in his tone.
Severus shifted a bit on the branch. "I know the way back. You know that I wander all about home and not get lost." That was how he knew how to get to that owlery when Lui was lost from his family.
Lui flinched when slivers of bark hit the water. "Come back to shore, please. Carefully. We can finish this here."
Severus took in the worry that was on Lui's face and looked once more down at the pretty flower. Swinging back and forth gently, he gathered enough momentum to bring his other hand and leg back to the branch. He then shimmied back down the branch before jumping onto the bank. He hadn't expected the loud cheering when he was on solid ground.
A glance at Lui's face showed that his friend was grinning from ear to ear. In his bemusement, he spoke his first English word for the day. "What..."
"You won the dare. It has been issued every year. To touch that lotus with your hand and get not get wet. You did it." Lui beamed.
Severus looked over at the white flower. "That is a lotus flower?"
Lui chuckled. "Yes, it is."
As the other children poured out of the woods and onto the bank, Severus looked between them and Lui.
"Let me introduce you to everyone. Then, if you don't mind, we can play together." Lui watched Severus' face, hoping that this was okay.
'With them? He wants me to join them?' Searching his friend's face, he nodded.
Lui smiled as he began the introductions.
That was the first day of several that they ran about with the other children.
Lanfen Sung tightened her fingers about her teacup as she listened to Huan and Li.
"They seem happy that the boy was missing. Mrs Snape didn't look like she was stressed about anything. Mr Snape wasn't either." Li sipped her tea, her amazement and disgust were evident in her tone.
Huan shook his head. "Mr Snape was too far into the bottle to notice." He looked over at Mingyu and Lanfen. "I slipped into the house while they were out, just to see what it was like. The place was dismal, but the boy's room was the worst. Did you know he was studying Chinese? He has an entire collection of books on how to write our language, and translating ones as well."
Mingyu felt his eyes widen. Severus was trying to learn to write Chinese on his own?
"And no one has ever told him not to group things into fours. That unlucky combination was all about his room."
Lanfen narrowed her eyes. She would handle that omission before Severus headed back. "Thank you for checking for us."
Li leaned back in her seat. "Are you going to take the boy in? Just the little bit that we saw of him... I think he would be a good addition to the family."
Mingyu shook his head slightly. "His mother is a witch of an old family line, she won't give up her son." He had looked into it while they were waiting on Huan and Li to return. "But we can offer him a place here later if everyone wants to. It will have to be a family decision."
Lanfen searched Mingyu's face before accepting his answer. She did not want to send Severus back to that place, but since that was not an option, he needed a way to escape if he had to. "You said that he was learning to read and write Chinese?"
Huan nodded. "At least that is the way it appeared by the work in his room."
"Then we need to set up a way that he can mail us if he needs to."
Mingyu smiled lightly. "More than that. We need to find a way for him to stay in contact with us and Lui all year round. That way we will know if something changes."
The four put their heads together and hashed out a plan.
Severus held the brush in his hand and drew out the characters he had been studying ardently for years. As his ideas come out in beautiful script, a smile filled his face. He had been working for days with the writing set that Mrs Sung had given him before he came home. He wanted his first letter to them to be written with it. Later he would practice the quill that Mr Sung had given him. Dipping the tip into the ink, he continued to tell Lui about the plants that he had seen that week and about what Lily had done.