A/N: Please forgive the formatting. It is not among my talents. The summary quote "When the fall is all there is, it matters" is of course from the 'The Lion in Winter'.
Where 'mid the gorse the raspberry
Red for the gatherer springs;
Two children did we stray and talk
Wise, idle, childish things.
- Francis Thompson, 'Daisy'.
Severus and Lily, crouching, fascinated, beside a blackened cauldron in a grimy kitchen, as Eileen Prince brews love, and death, and despair. Charred earth in the rotting gaps beneath the skirting boards, smudged and impish faces alight in the greenish gloom.
Six ounces of Fireweed, harvested in full flower, and dried beneath a waning moon. One ounce of shredded willow bark, and one of bindweed...
As Mr Evans, cheerful, in his rusty, fox-red pelt takes photo after photo through the lens of the 1967 silver Kodak that is his pride and joy. Photographs that will fade and bleach with time, the saturated-summer photos so characteristic of the seventies, blurred slightly around the edges, as if the red-blood sun of those halcyon days had seeped through into the negatives. Here is Eileen Prince, sharp-faced, wrathful, a story-book witch caught unawares, trapped forever motionless by the power of lens and twisting cogs. Here, the children that cluster, enthralled, staring into the cauldron's covert depths and dreaming of the day when they, too, will draw out destinies from the shifting smoke. Here are Lily and Petunia, long-haired, barefoot, in dresses of white crocheted lace. And here, Severus: dark-eyed, with a thin, eager face, scrabbling like a monkey amongst the gorse and sweet sage that line the parched clay banks at the roadside.
Asphodel, grown in the dark.
No photographs of Tobias Snape, mill worker and despiser of magic, for even the inordinate cheek of Mark Evans is unequal to that particular task. No photographs, but he comes easily to the memory for all that: tall and dark (though by no stretch of the imagination handsome); shirt sleeves rolled up above forearms whipcord-muscled; cruel-nosed, lean-bellied, with steel in the toes of his boots. Older than Eileen Prince by some years; old enough, at least, for the chip of shrapnel lodged in the scar-tissue of his right shoulder, and for the silver-buckled belt, which bears the name and arms of a regiment, and the word 'veteran' (but which cuts like any other belt when brought into sharp contact with flesh).
The pool beyond the mill-wheel, clear and brown as warm, weak tea. Pale-limbed, naked children who scramble up ladders made from the roots of trees to plunge yelling and twisting into cool, green depths, where yellowing willow leaves curl and twist upon the eddies. Severus and Lily, mud-slicked, squealing, ribs showing proud in bare, child-thin chests, imp-faces alight. The old mill, long decrepit, where the wind croons softly to itself through the parched boards, and the long-hoarded dust plumes breathily, scuffed by secret-child feet (the feet of warriors, of pirates, tribesmen, dragons, knights in armour) – for there are two mills, in this little English town; one is the mill of adult things: of freight and taxes and sawn lumber, of strikes and union meetings and the weekly pay packet (never enough). The other is the old flour mill with its bridge and broken wheel, the mill of summer pool and willows and stories, of quests and pacts and promises.
They are six years old when first he notices her, during the course of one of his rare attendances at the muggle primary school that serves the flourishing little mill town. Severus is seldom at school, though - to the bewilderment and irritation of the infant mistress - he reads well, and reasons cleverly when he tries. And if his script is cramped and archaic in style, if he is inclined somewhat towards olde worlde spelling and knows words not commonly used in English for the last five hundred years, if he is exacting in his use of imperial measures and fails utterly to comprehend the metric system – the result of Eileen Prince's erratic home-schooling – well, he is still ahead of his age group, and no one mentions it. Several times, the infant mistress has attempted to approach his mother, to discuss the boy's frankly unacceptable absences, his inappropriate winter clothing, or the uncommon frequency of bruises and accompanying claims of having fallen; yet every time the subject is broached, Eileen Prince simply looks at her from behind dark eyes, and the accusations wither in the teacher's throat. Often enough, she finds herself struggling to remember exactly what it was that she intended to discuss in the first place.
On the day when Severus first notices Lily, the sky is grey and dull, and Lily's hair streams behind her like a kite, like a firebrand, as she wheels pink-cheeked, splay-armed down the hill to school, her patent-leather shoes skittering madly through the oil-grey puddles. At lunchtime, she notices him sitting alone on a bench outside the classroom, staring intently at the mud that he stirs beneath bare brown toes.
"Did you forget your lunch?" she asks (kindly, concerned). And Severus stares mutely, as if she speaks a tongue wholly unknown to him.
"I forgot my lunch once," Lily continues (bright, child-like, oblivious). "It was horrible. Luckily 'Tuney remembered, and brought it for me. She's my sister. She's nearly nine."
She shares her sandwiches, cut into triangles and wrapped carefully in crinkled butcher's paper. The sandwiches are made of thick brown bread, with cheese and lettuce and a slice of pink ham, and Lily's eyes are bright and curious as he gulps bread fast enough to choke.
It is Christmas, almost midnight, and the Snapes stand together in church, all in a row: father, mother, son. There has been an argument, and the signs of it are still visible beneath the hastily washed-and-scrubbed, no-son-of-mine-is-going-to-grow-up-a-heathen, shabby Sunday best. Tobias is newly shaven, his dark hair slicked across his forehead, not-quite hiding the neat, recently bleeding cut at his temple. Severus's jaw feels bruised, and he licks at the split place on his lower lip that Tobias refused to let his mother heal. Beside her son, Eileen is close-faced and wrathful, the long sleeves of her blouse buttoned tight to hide the ring of bruising that bracelets each wrist.
Across the aisle, Lily peeks out from between her parents, and waves exuberantly at Severus.
Willow leaves and white daisies, gathered on May morning. Sliced roots of fennel, and a thimbleful of primrose wine...
Some few hours later, after the mass and the candles, after the bells have rung and the baby has taken his place in the manger, and the my blood, shed for thee, the Evans family piles cheerily back into the lightly rusted blue Morris. They stamp booted feet against the cold, and exclaim over the snow, shouting joyous farewells to friends and neighbours.
It is not until they are nearly home that it happens – a small figure, suddenly before them on the road; a small, dark figure in the headlights of the car, with a torn sleeve and bare feet and blood congealing around his nose and mouth. For a heartbeat, he is framed by the headlights, until Mark Evans slams his foot against the brake pedal, and the gear box squeals in protest as the old Morris skids sideways in the snow. A juddering halt, and steam rising from the abused engine, and Mark Evans bows his rusty head, breath coming harsh and swift, and clutches the steering wheel with white hands.
"It was a child." He tells them, covering his trembling jaw with a shaking hand. "Did you see? A child."
"Oh, that's just Severus." Lily, pert and unharmed.
Ruth Evans spins in her seat to stare at her daughters.
"You know him?"
Petunia rolls her eyes at her little sister. "It's that Snape boy," she explains. "He lives down in Spinner's End, and he wears funny clothes, and he's always dirty."
"He had no shoes, Mark." Ruth whispers. "Bare feet, in the snow, on a night like this... And that he's on his own in the first place..."
Mark's hands tighten again upon the steering wheel.
"I know the father." He says, grimly.
They are eight when Severus first starts to take a more active interest in her, begins to suspect that this muggle girl may perhaps be more than what she seems. Half-hidden in the gaping hollow at the roots of the rotting, black-cored willow beside the playground, he watches as she hurls herself, fearless and invulnerable, from the battered swing; watches her soar, weightless as dandelion seed, into the ever-summer blue. And, lying in the willow's cool depths, between the thick, familiar smell of decay, and the arid, sweet-hay scent of the parched grass, he vows that this girl will one day teach him how to fly.
It is almost a week after his first abortive effort to talk to her when they encounter each other again. Days later, and without her sister in tow, she still clings defensively to the swing-set, as if taking it for granted that he shares her rules. The creaking roundabout, the willow, the tangled hawthorn are his territory (he knows this by the tiny frown between her eyes when he strays beyond his allotted bounds). The dilapidated stone wall, the slide, the swing set – these are hers, and she holds the chipped-paint post of the swings like a protective barrier between them.
She is like a cat, he thinks, as they eye each other warily, not-quite-hostile, from opposite corners of the playground. Her eyes are narrowed, and she moves in fractions: cautious, over-wary, alert against insults or sudden moves.
"Were you lying to me?" Shot quickly across the shabby playground, brows contracted over quick, sharp eyes.
"No." The riposte just as swift, he matches her glare for glare.
Severus has been expecting this. Nothing in their small shared experience of the world holds playground currency without proof.
He dares not look at her as he fumbles in the pocket of his filthy coat for the coins with which he will buy this friendship: a square of newsprint torn from an out of date Daily Prophet; a pale strand of unicorn hair, stolen from his mother's meagre store; a cheap and heavily scarred wooden pawn, gesticulating, swearing squeakily.
In her fascination, she forgets to be wary. She takes the chess piece delicately from his offered palm, and a shiver passes through him as a soft fingertip touches his life-line.
The first time, he hangs back warily behind Lily as she leads him into the house. His face has a bruised look, and there is a bleeding split on his right temple, surrounded by a fist-sized swelling.
"There's a spell to fix that." Mark overhears him telling Lily, as he stands before the bathroom mirror and takes the sticking-plaster she offers with a dubious expression. And for the first time, Mark wonders if this imaginary world of theirs has perhaps too great a hold.
Later, of course, it becomes a regular-enough occurrence that they feel no need to remark on it (though Petunia will glare, and roll her eyes). A quick, awkward tap on the front door, late at night, usually well after the girls have gone up to bed, and there is Severus, composed, bleeding, dark-eyed.
"Hello Mrs Evans. My mam's not well again. Do you think... would it be alright if I stayed here?"
He is not beaten, he tells Lily. Or at least, not really. But punishments are harsh, and transgressions many, and excuses are seldom tolerated. When he and Lily get lost way up past Gilligan's farm, chasing each other through the dust-dry, sap-scented pine wood, his tardiness is rewarded with a blow, and a promise that if he cannot come to the table on time for dinner, he will go without. When he talks back to Eileen about the state of his school jersey, he is rewarded with twenty lashes from his father's belt (two for every year of his age). And when he comes home with a black eye after a playground fight with Billy Harris, Tobias gives him a reminder of the standards expected of him by making damn sure that the other eye is blackened to match.
As a grown man, Severus will remember this with a cold clarity, but in the here and now, Tobias and Eileen are soft-focus, intangible, and his impressions of them are overlaid with things too fragile, too fearful, too complex to analyse. Tobias is fists and boots and belt-buckles, but he is also mill-roughened hands and cigarette-softened voice, and he sits long evenings in a straight-backed chair before the barren hearth, while the needle scratches on the turntable of the old gramophone and the room is filled with slow, wistful music – songs of Ireland, songs of home. And if Eileen is hard hands and flint-cruel eyes, yet she is also lye soap and scuffed work boots; a straw figure wound about with rags, who smells of caraway and tobacco and essence of rue. And what Lily cannot understand when Severus attempts to explain, stumbling and inarticulate, is that his hatred would be less bitter if only he did not love them quite so hard.
It is July once more, and the air is dusty and golden and sage-scented when their Hogwarts letters come at last. Lily has never seen it before, but she recognises the crest imprinted in the purple wax the moment she sees it in her father's hand.
If Mark is perplexed by the creamy parchment, the lack of stamp or postmark, he does not show it. He simply hands the letter across the breakfast table, smiling at his daughter's obvious excitement. Perhaps he thinks it only some game of Severus's, perhaps a letter or an invitation from a school friend (though the purple sealing wax is unobtainable in Cokeworth's single store, and the penmanship is finer than any child's).
The letter itself contains nothing incriminating, only a request to meet with Lily's parents regarding a very special scholarship. On the day in question, Severus and Lily perch impatiently in the copper beech beside the Evans' front gate, hidden from passers-by behind a veil of rustling, bronze-edged leaves.
When Minerva McGonagall appears out of thin air in the narrow, shade-dappled space between Mrs Pearse's tall hollyhocks and Ted Robinson's garden shed, Severus and Lily stare, open-mouthed, and clutch each other's hands so tightly that the knuckles show white beneath the skin. Later, Severus will struggle to reconcile the Minerva McGonagall of this moment with the woman he knows, for this Minerva is young and proud and fierce-hearted, the first real evidence of their secret world, the first true witch (for somehow, Eileen in her shabby homespun sweater has never seemed to quite count) that they have ever seen. She wears a green robe and takes long, purposeful strides with high-heeled leather boots. Her grey eyes flash behind square spectacles, and her dark hair ripples, long and loose behind her.
It is July once more, and Ruth Evans reads them stories of Gandalf and the Balrog, Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole, and lost boys fallen from Kensington-garden prams.
And "Why?" asks Lily. "Why did they have to fall?" And Ruth Evans only shakes her head and smiles at Severus, who sits beside them on the worn blue sofa, careless, uncared-for, and more shrewd, in this moment, than his pretty playmate.
"Because without the fall," she tells them, "there can be no story".
The house in Spinner's End proves to be approximately what Minerva had expected. Shabby, dilapidated brick, with narrow, grimy windows, and sprawling stains that bleed from the decaying windowsills and the corroded fittings. The narrow staircase leading to the front door is chipped cement, lined with rusted iron palings, and plunges into a cutting so that the lower rooms of the house are half-buried in the earth, the kitchen windows level with the street. In the small space between the house-front and the cracked pavement there is a straggling garden: waist high grass, henbane and rye; a tangle of scrap metal, slowly oxidising; and the charred remains of old fires. A twisted Judas tree grows, black and contorted, in the corner nearest the road, and in the rotting flowerbed beneath the kitchen window there are plantagines and aconite and foxgloves, asphodel and straggling willow-herb.
Eileen is brewing Nicotentia when Minerva knocks, and if she is surprised to see the older witch standing on her doorstep she does not show it. She nods curtly, and her thin mouth twitches, but her glance is bright and sharp from behind hooded eyes.
They sit together at the bare kitchen table on the only two available chairs, drinking tea that tastes of dust and disuse. Eileen smokes – a short, twisted pipe with a blackened bowl which she taps against the tabletop to clear the ash, filling the air with the smell of thin, herb-scented tobacco. Eileen is much as Minerva remembers her from school, though she seems harder, more brittle, and her hands upon the table-top are yellowed and scarred with use (and it startles her to realise that this hard, unsmiling woman is not yet thirty-five). She wears a thin, grey muggle dress with a man's knitted sweater over top and heavy, cracked- leather boots held together with neatly knotted laces. There are strands of untimely grey in the dark hair, tied in an untidy knot at the base of her neck, and though she wears no hat, her witchcraft can be read by the glint in her black eyes.
"I was in the neighbourhood on Hogwarts business." Minerva shrugs, by way of explanation.
"Ah... the Evans girl."
Minerva nods. "I met your son there, so I thought I'd stop in." There is an edge to her words, a hardness, as if daring Eileen to deny what she has seen.
Eileen grunts. "Thick as thieves, those two are." She deflects the unspoken accusation.
They drink in silence for awhile, each studying the other. Minerva takes in the grimy kitchen, the squalid poverty, the cauldron of miserly potion, its contents adultered with chaff and sour wine. Through the doorway to the living room, she glimpses dark shelves and battered grimoires, a rag heap of poorly-laundered clothing sprawled across an armchair. There is little here that indicates the presence of a child – no toys, no brightly-coloured books, no photographs. Only a yellowing scrap of newsprint pinned to a cupboard door – an ancient crayon drawing in a scrawl of red and orange.
The silence is broken by Severus and Lily, stumbling through the doorway in a clatter of childish enthusiasm. Their progress is checked by the sight of Minerva, and Lily stares outright, her eyes as round as saucers at the sight of the two witches drinking tea together at Eileen's kitchen table.
"We're going to make potions." Severus informs his mother, scrabbling in the cupboard for the much-annotated copy of Arrhenius' Apothecary which he knows is hidden there.
"Fine. But no stealing my belladonna this time, you little shit." And she cuffs him about the head with a casualness which makes Minerva frown and Lily stare, wide-eyed. Severus springs back out of range, shaking his head to clear it, and flashes a swift, bold look at Minerva, daring her to comment.
"No, mam." He grins lopsidedly at Lily, cocky as only an eleven year old boy can be, and in a clatter of feet and voices they are gone. Eileen makes a thin, dismissive noise through her long nose.
"He'll be in Slytherin, right enough," she tells Minerva, re-filling her pipe with practiced, weary hands. "He's a cunning little beggar. Ambitious too. Hungry for someone to notice him, to make summat o' himself. His father's seen to that, right enough." She snorts, wry and self-depreciating, and her yellowed hands move deftly as she tamps down the tobacco with unusual violence.
Minerva's eyes narrow, cat-like, but she makes no comment.
"And the girl?" she asks, intrigued already by the strange, unlikely pair.
"Hard to say," says Eileen, through a laconic mouthful of smoke. "I'd put my galleons on Slytherin for her too, but that broomstick won't fly, not with her being muggleborn. Could be Gryffindor maybe."
Minerva says nothing, but her dark brows contract slightly as she sees, through the grimy kitchen window, a fire kindled beneath a rusting cauldron and the two small figures crouched beneath the smoke, bare brown feet and patent-leather shoes scuffling in the dust.
"How do you do it?" he asks, and the longing is clear in his voice. Her hair whips behind her as she swings, and her blue dress flutters about her knees.
"It's easy," she tells him. "You just... don't fall. Don't let yourself fall."
"I don't understand," he says, confused, and a little angry. He is too much a thing of earth, of silence and tree shadows and still water. He cannot control the air.
"Take my hand." Lily tells him.
Clumsily, he shuffles himself onto the rough wooden swing seat next to hers. His scuffed boots scrape awkwardly against grass and dusty earth. At the fullest extent of their eleven year old arm spans, their hands touch just enough for him to hook three fingers tightly over hers.
Just don't fall.
Somehow, he listens. They launch themselves from playground swings, weightless as dandelion seed.
His hand in hers, he flies.