Of all creatures that roamed the earth, Severus liked Thestrals the most. He admired their glossy black wings, firm, sure tread and strong, sinewy bodies that knew nothing of fatigue. Their manes of spun onyx shimmered with an other-worldly lustre that Severus found bewitching, and he was fascinated by the strong magic that cloaked these creatures from the sight of so many. He esteemed the way they were handsome but not beautiful, wild but rarely dangerous and obliging but never sycophantic. Most of all, Severus felt that these enchanting beasts were some sliver of comfort and consolation for the horrors he had seen, felt and inflicted throughout his tattered life.
And so it was that Severus often walked into the Forbidden Forest to find the herd - on weekday afternoons when the student rabble were in Hogsmeade, on winter mornings when the air was bright or blizzardy, and in the creeping twilight of cool summer evenings.
He enjoyed the solace that these trips offered; the opportunity to momentarily relax his guard and to feel a little - to be something more than a frightening caricature in black robes; to be a man who ached and remembered. Memory was a luxury that Severus could seldom afford.
He found that the Thestrals were the perfect companions for these outings. Severus liked to flout superstition and court these magnificent beings, quite sure in the belief that he would be uninterrupted and alone when so doing. Like him, they were naturally dark in their way, but not evil. They were shadowy creatures that had their own elegance and pride, and were so often doubted and misunderstood by the wizarding community at large.
The dark thoughts that flooded Severus' mind when he walked in the Forest were a sour relief from the impassive demeanour he was forced to retain at all other times. Such ruminations were necessary to maintain an equilibrium, for if the traumas were not given attention as they demanded it, they would surface and come to haunt his every waking moment. In the Forest Severus could uncage his memory and let it run amok with the other beasts that abided there. He was helped in his soul-searching by the white eyes that gazed knowingly, but never piercingly. White, glassy, pupil-less eyes that understood but did not judge.
The Thestrals allowed him to remember, but not to hurt more than he could bear. Cool, philosophical and detached, they offered an unsentimental yet honest gaze that soothed his troubled heart. Their mood was meditative but solid and their very presence a reminder that despite the traumas of life, his continued existence was real and in time strife could pass.
In the company of these strange, lizardy creatures Severus felt wordlessly accepted - the animals had learned to approach him and seemed to revel in the sensation of calloused fingers methodically caressing their tough, shiny hide. They pressed their bony snouts into his robes, and although many would be wary of the impressive fangs, Severus knew the Thestrals had merely learned where he kept the scraps of food he had brought for them. After receiving these morsels the animals stayed quietly by his side, as if they could sense a soul in need of an anchor. In such moments, Severus felt somewhat at peace in the soft, dark bower - he had found a moment of tranquillity within this Gothic fairy-tale that was his and his alone.
Thus, each time Severus left the Forest he moved slightly further along the painful road to acceptance. The Thestrals grimly reminded him that he was strong, that he could cope, and after some time spent with these animals Severus felt reinforced, temporarily repaired, and able to face the next passage of his dangerous, treacherous existence. They were his succour.
On this occasion, autumn was in the air. The house elves had begun to prepare hearty fare at mealtimes, birds were embarking upon their long southern journeys and the Forest floor was crisp underfoot with fallen leaves; brown, russet and gold. Severus had walked straight to the Forest after breakfast, in need of solace and quietude after the previous night's ordeal. He had been summoned by Voldemort and was feeling shaken and terrorized. Inhuman snake-like eyes flashed at the edges of his every conscious thought and his veins and lungs still ached from the Cruciatus curse that was thought to encourage the 'loyalty' of a spy.
Severus walked through the bracken at the edge of the Forest and penetrated into the thickly wooded shadows. As the gloom became more dense, he could scarcely believe that it was in fact a bright and blowy day in the open; all about him was dim and mute, just as he wanted.
A Muggle woman was brought before the gathering as an example of inadequate breeding. They taunted her with burning hexes to the eyes and pulled her hair with flicks of the wand until it detached from the scalp. They told her to defend herself and laughed when she couldn't. Her child was made to watch as she writhed and screamed on the ground under the Cruciatus curse. Severus killed her cleanly and was chastised for ending the others' sport too soon.
He sat down upon a fallen tree trunk and tried to breathe evenly. The memories danced about him like demons from a fire.
More screams - this time from the child. Severus' jaw ached from smiling when he wanted to vomit and his hands were shaking and numb as he applauded Bellatrix for the evisceration.
Severus stood up rapidly, as if he could jerk his mind away from the lingering image. He inhaled deeply and released the air in a low hiss. After a moment of silence an answering sibilance came from behind a thick knot of trees and Severus set his course toward the source of the sound.
He did not have to walk far to find the Thestrals. There were five creatures, all standing quite still in a small clearing, and they turned as Severus approached. A genuine smile tugged at Severus' lips as the beasts came toward him and he habitually extended a hand for them to recognise his scent.
A very cold room below ground. Twelve Dementors hissed and flailed at the confinement but Voldemort was late for the appointment and they knew they must wait. The impatient ghouls tried to harvest from the Death Eaters present. Malfoy was attacked and groaned as the creatures feasted upon his positive thoughts. Nott suffered similarly, then Rockwood. A Dementor approached Severus, and he steeled himself for the onslaught - a Patronus charm could not be used in this company without arousing suspicion. The creature touched his mind but then withdrew and moved on. It had clearly found Severus' happy memories to be very slim pickings indeed and had decided not to bother...
Severus buried his hands in the Thestral's shiny mane and enjoyed the feeling of solidity. A tear welled in his eye as for once he was uncloaked and honest with the world. His poor, shivering heart felt more cold and empty than any Dementor attack could have caused and he bent to embrace the gentle beast.
As he stooped, Severus suddenly froze. He had noticed a tall white shape in his peripheral vision and immediately sprang to attention, wand extended. He heard a panicked gasp, and upon squinting into the gloom could tell that the shape in question was not in fact a dangerous beast but merely a boy, and a vacant, shocked, floundering boy at that. To be precise, it was Neville Longbottom.
Severus glared in panic and strode across the clearing to confront the quivering student.
"What did you see?", he spat, feeling ruffled and strangely vulnerable.
"N...n...nothing, sir," replied Neville, almost too hastily.
"Then why are you here?" Severus felt violated; his one place of solace had been intruded upon and his mind was still whirling from being dragged away from painful reflection so rapidly.
"I...I like the creatures sir."
"You like the creatures?" Severus' tone was incredulous, but his natural sarcasm largely masked the genuine surprise he felt. How could a weak little Squib possibly like the Thestrals? His Thestrals?
"Yes, sir," replied Neville.
"I see." Severus imperiously raised an eyebrow to convey that he was not at all convinced. "Does anyone know you are here, Longbottom?" Interrogation came naturally, by way of something to say.
"No sir. They are all thought... they all thought that I was seeing things...."
"You will be, Longbottom," Severus snapped, on autopilot, "most specifically, the inside of the Potions cupboard for a month of detention."
Neville flinched at the thought, but nodded despairingly. Severus felt slightly more grounded at that familiarity, but was still rankled by the boy's explanation - he wanted to find the reality behind it.
"And if I were to be as indulgent as to believe your story, Longbottom, what peculiar reason would we attribute to this fancy of yours, this like?" Severus' tone was acerbic and biting, but Neville missed the genuine urgency that lay beneath.
The boy gulped and looked to his left and right as if seeking a means of escape. When none presented itself he resigned himself to having to answer.
"Because...because they remind me that...that I'm still here." Neville's eyes flicked to one of the Thestrals, as if seeking courage. "They make me feel as if I can cope...sir."
That explanation came too close to Severus' own feelings for him to absorb it easily. Therefore, he retreated to suspicion. "A likely story! Now let me see what you and your ghastly little friends are really plotting."
Severus reached easily into Neville's mind to find the truth about why he was here - to dispel any daft affectation about the beasts and to discover where the other brattish Gryffindors were hiding - no doubt in some spiteful scheme to spy on their Potions Master. The boy obviously had no mental defences so Severus found entering his thoughts was easy as gathering fur from a moulting Kneazle. However, no childish pranks could be found near to the surface.
Professor Snape, looking fierce and horrid. A shuffle of feet, a hasty explanation.
Impatiently, Severus reached further back in time. He did note with pride however, that he could indeed raise an imposing profile.
Neville sat in a gloomy thicket, quietly. A large, black animal approached him and hissed quietly in greeting. The boy smiled and stroked its shiny muzzle. "What shall we talk about today," he said, and the animal settled by his side, curling its long legs below its body as it nested on the ground.
Upon seeing this, Severus was taken aback - the boy was actually telling the truth. But what could Longbottom want in Severus' dark sanctuary? How could this place be a balm to a child who had never known real suffering; never been forced to kill? But even as he indignantly wondered, the peaceful stillness of this memory seemed infectious. Severus could feel his breathing slowing and heart rate calming, even as his consciousness lingered there inside the boy's mind.
An old man at peace. He was surrounded by his wife, sisters and grandson and smiled slightly as he dreamily slipped in and out of consciousness. He nodded toward the young boy and attempted to speak - something kind, but too quiet to hear. His eyes flickered shut again. Finally, he was gone. The oldest woman clutched his hand, savouring the last of its heat. The spirit stepped away from the body and looked down upon the family group who embraced tearfully. The boy looked upwards then, and mouthed 'goodbye'.
A death that was not accompanied by screams and blood - Severus pondered whether he had ever seen such a thing. A dignified ending that promised something more than simply a halt to suffering.
A hospital ward. A middle-aged couple in shapeless sanatorium robes with vacant expressions. Dull, straw-coloured hair where might have been a vibrant blonde. A slack-jawed gape where might have been a mischievous grin. And among it all, an overwhelming surge of love. Amazing gratefulness for their sacrifice and an empowering vow to make them proud. To do well and be strong, for their sakes.
Severus felt simultaneously repulsed and perplexed. This was indeed a grim reminder that death was not the worse available fate for a human, so like his own memories of carnage and horror. However, here he sensed a great and incongruous positivity.
In this boy's mind Severus perceived the very calmness and elusive acceptance that he craved so badly. It was a hushed, gentle place that had internalised grief and built upon it, using dark times as a strong foundation upon which to build afresh.
Even as he remained there in Neville's unresisting thoughts Severus could feel a gentle glow reaching into his own darkness, warming it and having a strangely life-affirming affect. The promise of relief and the alleviation of his terrors was alluring, and Severus began to relax into the warmth he found. However, his instincts of mistrust were too strong. The sensation of being helped and soothed by another in this way was so alien Severus panicked and hastily withdrew from Neville's mind. Returned to his own body, he suddenly felt strangely cold and bereft.
The nearest Thestral hissed softly and came to Severus to be fussed, bringing him swiftly back to the concrete world about him. Shiny hide felt warm and solid beneath his fingers and the creature nuzzled expectantly at his breast pocket, where it remembered the treats were kept. Severus suddenly felt awkward in front of this student - to be seen petting an animal would not be acceptable to his reputation.
"I'm forced to deliver an important dietary supplement to the herd," he snapped, at no-one in particular, "the dumb beasts cannot fly without it."
Severus thought that he had covered his tracks in as brusque a manner as possible, although he knew that simple bacon-rinds from the breakfast table could perform no such magic. Nevertheless, he produced a packet of carefully gathered kitchen scraps and affected nonchalance while scattering the contents upon the ground.
Severus then turned abruptly and headed back to the castle, his mind full of question and contrast. How could a silly young boy have a stronger coping mechanism than he? Where did those warm, positive feelings come from, and why could he not remember having ever felt them?
Severus only reflected later that he had forgotten to give Longbottom fifty points from Gryffindor for straying out-of-bounds. He also mused that just perhaps, the boy wasn't so much of a dunderhead after all.