Chapter 8: Coming Home~~~
Snape flinched and tried to look away. He didn’t want to see Dumbledore slumped against the wall of the Astronomy Tower. He was so weak, so fragile. But the old man’s voice, however feeble, was calling out for him, and Snape had no choice but to face the dying man. Pleading blue eyes met cold black ones, and Snape felt his gaze harden.
‘I don’t want to do this,’ he heard himself whisper.
‘You gave your word, Severus.’
It wouldn’t be the first promise I break, Snape thought.
He felt his hand twitch and looked down at his wand, the wand that had never killed before. One spell, one single curse, and nothing would ever be the same again.
Snape raised his wand. Slowly, so slowly. His hand was shaking, and for a moment he hoped that he would miss.
For the second time in his life, a Killing curse ripped Snape’s heart in two, and as he stared at the jet of green light that shot from his wand, he saw a pair of bright green eyes look right back at him.
‘Lily!’ he breathed.
He watched her fall, hit squarely in the chest by Voldemort’s curse. She had not even had the time to blink, and her green eyes were staring into nothingness as she lay dead on the floor. Lifeless. Cold. Two emeralds rendered worthless in a heartbeat.
Snape wanted to scream but was unable to utter a single sound. His throat was so tight, he couldn’t even breathe. His soul was in agony, and he was ready to die.
‘Hush, now. Hush. It’s alright. It’s but a dream.’
Snape gasped for air, coughing and wheezing. His throat was on fire, and he felt as if his chest had been ripped open.
‘Easy now. Easy.’
He felt a small, warm hand on his right shoulder and a tender touch on his left cheek, and as he cautiously drew in breath, he was surprised that it didn’t hurt anymore. His heartbeat was slowing down, and he opened his eyes.
‘It was but a dream.’
For a moment, Snape felt confused. The green eyes he was looking into, however similar in colour and shape, weren’t Lily’s. They were framed with dark lashes, and even though the look in them was caring and tender, there was also a hint of a shadow, the lingering ghost of horrors that couldn’t be forgotten.
‘Hope…’ Snape croaked.
A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth, and for a moment, Snape thought that he saw a faint blush creep onto her otherwise pale cheeks.
‘What time is it?’ he inquired.
The curtains were drawn and the room only dimly lit by some candles on the nightstand. He had no way of telling.
‘It is almost midnight.’
Snape frowned. He had Apparated to the edge of the forest at dawn. If it were midnight, that would mean…
‘You slept for almost fifteen hours,’ Hope confirmed his suspicions. ‘I guess you needed it.’
With a noncommittal grunt, Snape let his eyes flutter shut again, feeling his head sink back into the pillow.
‘How about you?’ he muttered, mostly to keep himself awake for a little while longer. ‘Have you been sitting here all day?’
‘I promised I would.’
Snape swallowed, thankful that his eyes were closed since he didn’t know what to say. A simple thank you seemed inadequate as it wouldn’t express the gratitude he felt. Hope had taken him in without any question and watched over him all day. There weren’t many people in the Wizarding world who would do that for Severus Snape.
‘How is your shoulder?’ she now asked in a low voice, almost as if she were afraid to wake him.
Snape carefully rolled it.
‘Better,’ he said, struggling to open his eyes.
‘You can’t stay here all night,’ he stated quietly, too tired to sound authoritarian. ‘You need to rest.’
‘So do you,’ Hope whispered, brushing Snape’s forehead with her fingertips just as carefully as she had done early in the morning. Her touch was both calming and comforting, and as if by reflex, Snape once more closed his eyes.
He slept soundly and dreamlessly until the morning, and when he woke up, feeling more rested than he had done in months, the room was bathing in soft sunlight. The window was open, and he could hear the birds chirping in the trees. There was the sound of cars drifting up from the street, footsteps and voices of the people passing by the pub. It must be late in the morning, Snape concluded and sat up, looking around the room in search for a clock. But instead, his eyes were drawn to the armchair by the window. At first, he thought that it was covered with clothes, thrown carelessly upon it. But after having blinked a couple of times to clear his vision, he realised that Hope had curled up there under a woolly blanket. She was fast asleep.
Careful not to make any sound that would wake her, Snape pulled back his blanket and sat on the edge of the bed, his dark eyes never leaving Hope’s face. She looked peaceful in her sleep. Her features were relaxed, her breathing slow and regular, and Snape couldn’t help but wonder what she was dreaming. She deserved happy dreams. Dreams of a world where she had never been touched by darkness, where her smile had never faltered and the sparkle in her eyes had never been extinguished. Surely, she had been happy once. Surely, she had known joy.
Or had she? Her father had been a cruel, bitter man and the manor where she had grown up cold and grey. Maybe she had never laughed, never had a reason to smile.
Snape sighed. He had visited the home of Nadezhda McKibben only once, half a lifetime ago, and still he could see the gloomy manor house before his inner eye, feared its shadows and felt its chill creep into his very marrow. And whether he wanted it or not, his thoughts were drawn to a similarly loveless place, a rundown brick house at Spinner’s End.
‘They will be looking for you there,’ the Dark Lord had warned him, and Snape had agreed. Why Voldemort would have assumed that he would go there of all places, however, was beyond him. What he needed now was a safe place to stay, a place where he could unwind, both physically and mentally. A place where he could find the strength to carry out the task he had been set. How could he find that in his father’s house, where the sounds of muffled cries and leather belts clashing against naked skin still hung in the air?
Snape flinched when Hope stirred in her chair, and his breath caught in his throat when she opened her eyes. Emerald green and almond-shaped, just like Lily’s.
Futilely fighting the memories that invaded his mind, Snape blinked. The first time he had seen Lily, he had been hiding from his father on the other side of the river, knowing that Tobias never crossed the bridge. It had been a dark and gloomy day, and the girl that the young Severus had seen at the playground had been like a ray of sunshine. He had adored everything about her from the very first moment he’d laid eyes on her: her laughter, her magic, the smile in her eyes. And suddenly, Snape understood that it was her he needed now.
‘I… I need to go,’ he brought forth, his throat so tight that he was surprised that his voice was steady.
Hope frowned and rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand.
‘Go where?’ she asked.
Her voice was drowsy and her gaze not yet fully focused. But despite her being still half-asleep, she quickly thought better of it.
‘Don’t… Don’t answer that. I shouldn’t have asked.’
She hastily got up from her chair, wrapping the blanket around her shoulders before wrapping her arms around herself as if she were freezing.
‘I… I’ll go fetch your robes,’ she announced. ‘I… I washed them. They, um, they should be dry by now. But I… I haven’t mended them yet. If you… you know, want to wait for a moment, I can… It won’t take long.’
‘It’s alright,’ Snape interrupted her stuttering. He had noticed her voice become shaky, and as he looked at Hope now, he noted that she had lowered her head in order to avoid his gaze.
Silently, he rose, closing the distance between them with a few swift strides. For the duration of a heartbeat, he considered cupping her chin to make her look at him. But he discarded the idea almost as quickly as it had come to his mind. Hope didn’t want to look at him. She didn’t want him to see that she was upset. And he had no right to demand anything of her.
‘There is something I need to do,’ he explained calmly. ‘It shouldn’t take long.’
He wasn’t ready to reveal where he was about to go, and he figured that Hope didn’t want to know. Not really. She had left the Wizarding world behind her for good reasons. What went on there was none of her concern.
Silence settled over the room. Even the street noise and the chirping of the birds seemed to have disappeared, and for some moments, Snape stood quite nonplussed, at a loss as to what to say or do. He couldn’t just walk out, as he was still wearing Edmunds’ pyjamas, and frankly, he didn’t want to leave without saying goodbye.
‘You have done more than enough already, and I don’t know how to thank you,’ he stated in the end, tentatively reaching out his hand to put it on Hope’s shoulder. To his relief, she didn’t shy away. Instead, she took a deep breath, and as she looked up at him, her green eyes filled with worries and fear, Snape’s breath caught in his chest for the second time that morning. No one had ever looked at him that way. No one had ever cared about him that much.
‘Take care of yourself,’ she pleaded, and Snape promised it gladly. It was the easiest promise he had ever made.
‘Do you think it wise?’ had been Hope’s last question as she had accompanied Snape to the edge of the forest, and he had told her not to worry. He knew his way around, after all, and as he now walked down the familiar alleys, disguised as an old man with a limp, Snape was glad that he had the skills to disappear into the shadows and to lure people into doubting that they had ever seen him. For every now and then, he caught sight of a person who he knew did not belong in the rundown parts of Cokeworth. They were Aurors and members of the Order of the Phoenix, all set out to hunt down the man who murdered the Headmaster of Hogwarts. If they were there on orders or out of their own accord, Snape did not know. Frankly, he would have preferred if they were all out on a personal vendetta. For no matter what personal feelings he held towards the man, Snape truly believed that Albus Dumbledore deserved being avenged.
There were two men lingering in front of the last house at Spinner’s End. They had done a pretty good job disguising themselves as Muggles, but Snape could still tell that they were wizards. He could also tell that they were waiting for him. Him, a cold-blooded murderer, a Death Eater, Voldemort’s man through and through. What were they expecting, he wondered. That he would come flying down the alley, throwing hexes and curses to the left and right, striking down anyone in his path in order to get to his father’s house? Or did they think that he would be taken by surprise and be so shocked at their presence that they could easily overpower him and drag him to Azkaban where he would pay dearly for his crime?
Snape sneered. Either approach was ludicrous, just as ludicrous as the idea of him even wanting to get into the house. There was nothing for him in there, nothing at all. But of course, no one knew that he would not even flinch if the house burst into flames right there and then. Why he had even come to Spinner’s End, Snape didn’t really know. Out of sheer habit, he assumed. For what he was looking for could not be found there. It never had.
He slunk back into the shadows of one of the narrow alleys and headed for the river. The bank had been strewn with litter already when he had been a child, Snape remembered, but back then he had not cared. Had he had any money to buy sweets back then, he would probably have discarded the wrappers on the riverbank as well. And now, more than twenty years later, Snape found the environments fitting: the dirty river, the crumbling houses. Everything around him was decaying, rotting away like his soul.
The playground was a tragic sight. No one had been playing there for years. The slide was covered with graffiti, and the playhouse had fallen victim to flames. The swing set was so rusty that it might as well collapse at any moment, but still Snape settled on one of the swings, dragging his feet through the dirty sand. Lily had loved the swings, had used to swing higher and higher before letting go and soaring up into the air and then falling gracefully to the ground. She had always loved to fly.
No wonder she had chosen a Quidditch player, a boy who could take her for a ride on his broomstick.
Snape groaned and kicked the sand, annoyed with himself. He had not come here to wallow in bitterness, he reminded himself. He had come to look for memories, happy memories, and a bit of hope. If he couldn’t find it here, in the place where he once had found his Lily, he wouldn’t know where else to look.
He got off the swing and crossed the playground, coming to a halt in front of a clump of bushes. The remains of them, anyway. They had shrivelled up and died, and where there once had been green leaves, there were now only naked twigs. But Snape remembered the flowers that once had bloomed on those bushes, remembered how Lily had picked up one of them, how she had held it in her hand, making it open and close its petals like a living, breathing organism. He hadn’t made a very good first impression on her back then, jumping out from behind the bushes in his shabby, overlarge coat, Snape recalled. But he chose not to think of this now. All he could see in front of his inner eye, all he wanted to see, was the joy in Lily’s green eyes when she had performed her magic.
Her magic, always bright and beautiful, so much unlike his.
How could he ever have thought that they belonged together, Snape wondered now, snapping off a dry twig. How could he even for a minute have hoped that Lilly would be sorted into Slytherin with him, that he could take care of her there, guide her, and show her the magical world he had told her about before they had boarded the train to Hogwarts? How could he have dreamt? How could he have been so naïve?
He broke off another handful of twigs. Everything would have turned out so much better if he and Lily had ended up in the same house, he mused. Things would definitely have turned out differently for him if Lily had been sorted into Slytherin. He would have spent all his waking hours trying to impress her, to make her laugh and magic a smile into those green eyes of hers. But fate had decided differently. They had been separated upon their arrival at Hogwarts, Lily being sorted into Gryffindor and Snape into Slytherin. Lily had made friends, and young Severus had done everything in his power to make people in his house to notice him. His need to belong somewhere, to be seen had clouded his judgement, and when he had understood what kind of people he was associating with, it had been too late. He had alienated Lily with his behaviour. And eventually, he had lost her.
Snape shoulders slumped, and one by one, the twigs fell out of his hand that was hanging limp by his side. They fell to the ground and were crushed under his boots, and when Snape walked away, they were picked up by the wind and scattered, just like the dreams he had once had. Turning his back on the playground, he walked away, the charm he had used to disguise himself fading with every step he took along with his memories and dreams. For no matter what he had felt when he had been but a boy, no matter what he had thought that he felt, he should have understood that he had been dreaming. He should have understood already as a ten-year-old that Lily would never be his, that she was too good for him, too pure to be sullied, too light to drift into the shadows that had always lingered around him. He had been lost from the very start.
At the bank of the river, Snape once more gazed back towards Spinner’s End, the house to which he would never return, the house that had never been a home. He saw the ghosts of his parents in the window on the first floor, saw them drift away and fade, and as he Disapparated, Snape knew that he would never again return. For in the town of Cokeworth, he would never find hope.
He didn’t Apparate to his usual spot at the edge of the forest but chose the shore of the lake instead. It had started to rain, and he sought shelter under the slender branches of a willow where he leaned with his back against the tree trunk, watching a pair of swans courting each other not far away from the shore line. They didn’t seem to mind the rain. Nor did they seem to mind the sound of cars drifting down from the street or the dog that was barking loudly somewhere further down the shoreline. It was almost as if the world around them didn’t exist, and Snape envied them. How he wished to be able to forget all his obligations and worries, just for a little while.
‘Swans mate for life. Did you know that?’
Snape shook his head without taking his eyes off the birds. He hadn’t heard Hope’s footsteps but wasn’t surprised at her sudden appearance. And for the time being he didn’t even question how she knew that he had returned to the village or why she had come to look for him by the lake.
‘Those two have been together for six years,’ Hope continued, nodding towards the swan pair. ‘They started building their nest about two weeks ago, over there, in the reeds. They are a bit late this year. It’s due to the abysmal weather, I guess.’
She shuddered, digging her hands deeper into the pockets of her raincoat, and Snape took a step to the side, making space for Hope to share his shelter. She treaded closer and pulled down her hood, making her black hair spill over her shoulders.
‘They had nine eggs in their first year,’ she continued. ‘They all hatched, but none of the cygnets made it through the summer. They lost most of them during the first week to crows and herons, and the rest of them were snatched away by minks and foxes. They were young back then and didn’t know how to protect their babies. But as the years passed by, they learnt from experience. Last year, they had eleven young, and all of them made it.’
Snape turned his head. There was a note of sadness in Hope’s voice, a tone of longing that pulled at his heartstrings and made him wonder how many times she had come to the shore of the lake over the years, praying for the cygnets to make it through the summer and mourning her own son whom she had not been able to protect. He would have loved to see her face now and her eyes, those precious emeralds that every now and then offered a glimpse into her very soul. But as Hope lowered her head, her hair fell over her face like a set of black velvet curtains, and Snape returned his gaze towards the swans. He watched them swim towards their nest, saw the female disappear in the reeds and the male stand guard. He’d defend his mate against any danger, no matter how big.
‘Thank you,’ Hope said after a while.
‘For keeping your promise,’ Hope clarified, slowly lifting her head. ‘You seem unscathed.’
‘I tend to keep my promises,’ Snape pointed out.
‘I know that. I’ve known it for a long time.’
Black eyes locked onto green ones, and Snape couldn’t help but brush a strand of hair from Hope’s forehead. She didn’t flinch, and the miniscule smile that flitted over her lips gifted Snape with more warmth than he ever could have hoped to find on this day.
‘I made up a room for you,’ Hope said quietly. ‘You’ll have your own key and may come and go as you like, no questions asked. Just make sure you go on keeping your promise whenever you leave. Look after yourself, alright?’
Then she pulled up her hood, turned and stepped out into the rain, and all Snape could do was gaze after her as she walked back to the village, once more at a loss for words and unable to express the gratitude he felt.