"With How Sad Steps"
"We Only See the Side You Wish to Show"
When he wanted to, Severus Snape could move like a cat. He found it was best, while in the Forbidden Forest, to go unheard so as to avoid detection by many of the more aggressive beasts, and so now he pulled his cloak more tightly around him and swept through the blackened woods. It was dark as a cave, silent as a cathedral, and, Severus knew, as densely populated as a major city.
He could see the clearing ahead, a patch of grass and scrub about half the size of the Great Hall. Cold moonlight spilled in, making the clearing almost bright enough to read by. Severus stopped and hunkered beside one of the enormous trees. It would be near the edge of the clearing, Professor Guilan had said. It would glow softly pink, but only in the light of the full moon–
There. A glimmer of pink, about five yards to Severus' right. He moved slowly toward it, removing the jar from the pocket of his robes as he went. He slipped on a pair of thick dragonhide gloves and quickly pulled several of the leaves to put in the jar.
Chokebush. It was paradoxically one of the most poisonous plants known to wizardkind and one of the best for making antidotes. Severus smiled grimly, glad of his gloves; the slightest prick from one of the tiny thorns on the plant's leaves would cause instant, painful asphyxiation.
He gathered as many of the leaves as he could. Professor Guilan should be happy with this, he thought to himself. He knew why he'd been sent and not any of the other students. The others were impatient and careless. They'd disturb the forest, probably stepping on the very plant they'd been sent to retrieve in the first place. No great loss, in Severus' opinion.
He returned the jar to his pocket and turned to leave. Just as he'd taken a step, he heard a soft rustle off to his left. He froze, but recovered quickly and slipped behind a tree. The rustle sounded again, and something moved into the clearing. It was pale grey and shone in the moonlight, its round eyes reflecting as though they were made of glass.
It looked from right to left hesitantly and turned in a circle. Severus, still behind the tree, tried not to breathe. He'd never seen a mooncalf before. Truthfully, until this very moment, he'd thought they were a myth.
It was one of the oddest-looking creatures he'd ever seen. Its legs looked far too skinny to support its fairly rotund body, while its feet looked far too big to allow it to walk. And yet it was walking, shuffling really, into the center of the clearing, as easily as any other creature. It raised itself onto its hind feet, sniffing the air carefully, and dropped back to all fours with a soft grunt that sounded almost like a sigh. And then, with uncanny grace, the mooncalf began to dance.
It moved in small circles, slowly at first, then with increasing speed. It switched directions, its head weaving to and fro and dipping to the ground. Its legs carried it backward and sideways almost silently. It bowed and swayed and twirled.
Severus stared at the creature and found himself living a cliché- his breath was literally taken away. For a moment he looked as young as the little boy he'd once been, back in the days when his mother had told him about mooncalves and their nocturnal, gentle dances. He stood transfixed, his eyes large and mouth open, his too-thin hands softly gripping the tree. Part of him wanted to go into the clearing and join the mooncalf in its revelry, to spin and caper and laugh at the moon. But he knew that as soon as he moved an inch or made a sound, the mooncalf would be gone.
And then, just as suddenly as it had begun, the mooncalf stopped dancing. It paused, its nose pointed toward the moon, and moved slowly to the edge of the clearing. Without knowing he was going to do it, Severus stepped forward with hand outstretched, wanting to stop the creature. For the barest instant, the mooncalf's eyes met the student's, and then it disappeared into the trees with a soft and sibilant swish like the breath of a sleeping child.
A cloud drifted over the moon and plunged the clearing into darkness. Severus moved blindly forward. He didn't know what he was doing or where he was going; he wanted to follow the mooncalf. Maybe he would find others. Maybe he would see them dance again. Maybe–
He hit the ground with a cry of surprise. A rock dug into his thigh and another into the ball of his right hand. He'd tripped over a tree root, and as the clouds floated lazily away from the moon he could see a small patch of glowing pink leaves two inches from his left hand. Severus rocketed to his feet and dusted himself off with a shudder. Watching the mooncalf dance already seemed like a dream. Even now he was unsure that he'd really seen it. With a last glance at the clearing and once more drawing his cloak more tightly around himself, he swept back into the forest, wanting to get back to the castle as soon as he could.
Unbeknownst to him, a pair of large, round, gentle eyes watched him go.