In His Keep

by Branwyn

1.

Being forced to sympathize with Sirius Black was perhaps not the single most odious aspect of Snape's confinement at 12 Grimmauld Place, but, as complaints went, it definitely merited a spot near the top of his list.

The sympathy was more easily explained than endured. Snape considered it an involuntary result of the (humiliating) fact that the rest of the Order were beginning to treat Snape the way they'd treated Black a year ago: giving him mundane jobs for which the youngest Weasley boy would have been overqualified in order to convince him that he was still a valuable part of the resistance. All the while looking at him as though he was likely to bolt for the door at any second—make a gift of himself to the Dark Lord, simply to get a change of scenery.

As Black had ultimately done. Though for all his ties of blood Black had never understood what hunted him. Not really. If he had, he would have taken a very different view of Dumbledore's restrictions. Would have behaved less like a sulky teenager and more like (Snape) a level headed adult.

So Snape told himself. And, in his better moments, believed.

Snape had reached the refuge of Grimmauld Place far more nearly dead than alive, having battled both Death Eaters the Aurors who were still loyal to Fudge even after Kingsley Shacklebolt's mutiny. Dumbledore would not yet allow him to risk the journey back to Hogwarts. Voldemort's spies were scouring the country and much of the Continent for Snape, the Dark Lord infuriated to the point of madness by his apostasy.

The one or two people who cared whether he destroyed himself or not, such as Dumbledore and Molly Weasley—and for some unfathomable reason, Remus Lupin—assured him that soon the battle would erupt into the open. That soon, secrecy would no longer be necessary, and Snape would be able to fight openly on the side of his choosing for the first time in his life.

But Snape had long known in his own mind what no one would say aloud: that the Order would only abandon secrecy once it was impossible to maintain. They were all preparing for the day, not long in the future, when the Dark Lord's eye would see past all the enchantments that once blinded him, and no wall, however thick, and no dungeon, however deep, would hide any of them. Let alone one who bore his Mark and stank of his guilt.

One who had managed, in some way or other, to betray every cause he'd ever tried to serve.

It rained nearly every day. At the end of the first week, tired already of his books and the research he was half-heartedly conducting, Snape had scoured the house for the components necessary to brew some sort of intoxicant. His search had yielded, not potion components, but an intact supply of excellent brandy. The smell of it reminded him strongly of Black in the latter days of his confinement, and Snape couldn't help but think it just like a Gryffindor that he hid the stuff from the rest of the Order despite the fact that the house had belonged to him.

Now the decanter in the library was always full, and the liquor helped to take the edge off his annoyance whenever he began perusing the mediocre collection. It sat within easy reach of the desk where he read and took notes and planned for a book he would only get around to writing if they kept him here another twenty years. For three weeks he scratched meaningless sentences onto paper and drank brandy and watched the rain falling through a window he couldn't afford to open. He prayed, absent-mindedly, for the fight to come to him soon, and for his death to come soon after.

Into this state of mind blundered the unlikeliest of distractions.

It was seven in the morning, and Snape was at seated at the desk in the library, having postponed the hour of his bedtime so many times that night that he eventually decided to abandon the idea of sleep altogether. A sudden noise in the kitchen brought him to still, silent attention; the noises were not particularly loud, but they were different from any the house or its ghosts had made in the three weeks he had been confined there. He rose abruptly, letting the quill fall to the surface of the desk, and went to investigate, wand optimistically in hand.

He was prepared to meet one of two eventualities in the kitchen. The intruder was either a member of the Order, or he was a Death Eater, which, under the terms of the Fidelius charm, meant that Dumbledore was dead and all was lost. Snape anticipated both possibilities with almost equal parts trepidation and relief.

It had been a long three weeks.

And if he had been willing to consider the thing logically he would probably have conceded that Luna Lovegood was at the very least a de facto member of the Order—being a Ravenclaw and of age and the daughter of a man who opposed the Dark Lord heroically, if a bit ridiculously, in every issue of his ridiculous little publication. The sight of her nonetheless surprised him into speechlessness, and it had almost nothing to do with the fact that she was wearing a small, chirping bird in a silver cage on a chain around her neck.

One simply did not expect marginally irritating students to appear from nowhere without escort or warning in the kitchen of the heavily warded house in which one had been hiding for nearly a month. One certainly was not pleased to see her, especially when she was staring vacantly forward with an expression of detached interest that made her appear far less confused than Snape himself was feeling at the moment.

They stood several moments in silence. Luna's eyes made an inventory of the small room, a deliberation in the way they lingered upon one object and ignored another that belied her languid manner. Snape watched her for what seemed an intolerably long time before he lost patience and snapped at her, distantly irritated that he was the one to speak first.

"What brings you to Grimmauld Place, Miss Lovegood?"

Luna's eyes met Snape's as though that had been their destination all along, and after a small pause she replied in distinct and beautifully rounded syllables.

"It was the chipped tea cup. The fifth one from the right."

Snape stared. She continued without seeming to notice. "They all were, you know. But no two in the same place. My mother did it that way on purpose. Before she died, you know."

Irritation threatened to erupt into anger, until suddenly it dawned on him, suddenly, what she was saying. "You Portkeyed here. I see. Who sent you?"

She looked once to the left and once to the right, then brushed past him into the library where his notes lay on the desk and the brandy decanter sat, open and mostly empty. A blush attempted to spread from the protection of his collared neck to the exposure of his face, and he was annoyed. There was no reason that the girl's presence should feel like such a violation of privacy, yet he was as mortified as if a student had found her way into his private rooms at Hogwarts.

He was positively itching for the ability to award detention again.

"Miss Lovegood." He saw, with a distant and twisted sense of relief, that he retained the ability to imply both his contempt and rebuke of a student simply by saying her name. "I am not one of your school friends, and I have neither the time nor the desire to listen to you speak nonsense. If you have been sent here by Portkey then somewhere a situation of some urgency is developing. I need to know what is happening."

She looked at him with the same vaguely unfocused expression she had worn since arriving. "Why? What can you do from here?"

And in that moment Luna Lovegood took the place of Neville Longbottom as the most trying student of Snape's acquaintance.

She turned to the wall, withdrew her wand, and transfigured an umbrella into a tall metal stand with a hook. She then took the birdcage hanging around her neck and hung it there before pointing her wand at it.

"Finite incantantem."

The cage tripled in size, and the bird inside grew from a fuzzy brown chick into a large barn owl.

She took a seat on the rug in front of the owl's cage and started to sing something to it in a language Snape didn't recognize—probably Nargle, he thought, with a dim rage that was threatening to become mild hysteria.

Minutes passed in which Snape stared at the back of Luna's robes, willing them to spontaneously combust. When the frustration receded, he realized that he had two choices: he could elicit straightforward information from the girl with threats of egregious bodily harm; or he could take a seat and wait for her to talk to him. Irritation, and his love of efficiency, warred with a more distant desire not to be the kind of man who would knock a girl across the room because she happened to have a disconcerting talent for stripping him of his illusions.

The end of it was that he took an abrupt seat behind the desk where he'd pretended to work since the beginning of his confinement and sat there stiffly, making an effort (a small one) not to betray his impatience.

Luna continued to sing to the bird, who at that point was already fast asleep.

An hour passed in this fashion, but Luna gave no sign of succumbing to a sudden burst of eloquence on the subject of her arrival. Snape began to look longingly at the brandy decanter on the table beside him. Despite the fact that Luna was paying him no attention he could not, for some reason, bring himself to touch it in her presence.

So he stood, speaking abruptly into the silence in tones only mildly less commanding than those he employed in the classroom. "I am going to have tea now, Miss Lovegood, if you would care to join me."

"Mind the cups," she replied without turning in his direction. "No telling what someone's been up to around them."

Snape did not bother to conceal the curl of his lip. He stalked away toward the kitchen, vaguely mindful that, as he left the room, Luna took up her bird song again.

He had just finished arranging the tray and was waiting for the water to boil (a practice which his potions training inclined him to undertake without magic) when a scratch at the window caused him to look up. An owl—the first he'd seen in three weeks. He very nearly knocked the kettle off the stove in his haste to let it inside.

The letter was from Lupin. Signed, Snape noted, as though they were friends. He had persisted in foolishness of the kind ever since Black had gotten himself killed, and no doubt would continue to do so until he learned to accept that loneliness was a fact of life for most people—that the camaraderie he had known as a school boy was an illusion which very few people managed to turn into a lifestyle.

The message itself was quite brief.

Leopold Lovegood was killed early this morning by Death Eaters. Only one body was found so we are in some hope that his daughter Luna may find her way to you by Portkey. If she arrives please send reply owl, and do what you can for her.

Remus

He read the message a second time. Then the kettle began to whistle, just in time to precipitate what would have been an historic event—namely, Severus Snape wishing passionately that Remus Lupin had come to deliver his message in person rather than sending an owl.

Lupin, whatever his failings, would have him at a ludicrous advantage when it came to ministering to the heartbreak of a seventeen year old girl.

Not that Snape was without some empathy for her—or without personal experience of similar losses. But the comfort he could offer the girl (were he willing, which he wasn't) was nothing she was likely to appreciate, even if he could make her understand that it had enabled him to live for years under the enemy's shadow and emerge with most of his humanity intact. Better Lupin had come to tell her, or someone else who would not place himself in a false position by drawing Luna into his arms and patting her hair when the inevitable collapse came.

He delayed returning to the sitting room by several minutes as he arranged the ornaments of the tea service on a tray and ended up with a far more elaborate selection than he'd intended when he first entered the kitchen. He regarded it for a moment, then turned to the herboire a few feet away and retrieved an ounce of valerian root, which he proceeded to steep in a fresh pot of boiling water—this one aided by magic.

It was the best he could have done for anyone—have the sedative on hand, apply it liberally, supply the dearth in his social skills with his mastery of potions.

He added the valerian infusion to the tea and carried the tray out of the kitchen toward the library.

She wasn't there when he entered, but he heard voices coming from the corridor nearby, so he deposited the tray on a table and went to investigate.

"But if you were to go and visit a painting of a feast, you know, with a long table all piled up with food, could you eat it? Would it taste like real food?"

She was conversing with a portrait—specifically, the portrait of Domina Black that no one could silence after the Order first moved into the house. Snape had always taken care to avoid her. She could not call him a Mudblood, but she could easily think of far more specific and humiliating names for him. She had known him personally, after all, and known his family for far longer than that.

"WHY MUST YOU TORMENT ME?" the portrait shrieked. "WHY DON'T YOU JUST GO DOWN TO THE KITCHENS AND STUFF YOUR FACE AND TASTE SOME FOOD FOR YOURSELF, YOU RIDICULOUS GIRL? YOU COULD DO IT EASILY ENOUGH, BUT NO, YOU'VE GOT TO TAUNT SOME POOR OLD CREATURE WHO DOESN'T EVEN HAVE AN OLD HOUSE ELF TO DO FOR HER ANYMORE! WHY CAN'T YOU GO TORMENT YOUR OWN ANCESTORS?!"

"Well, really. All I want to know is, if you ate the food in the picture, would we still be able to see it, or would it just disappear? "

"MISERABLE CREATURE!" the portrait howled.

"Miss Lovegood?" Snape waited for Luna to turn and see him. "The tea is ready."

"YES, GET HER OUT OF MY SIGHT! BLOOD-TRAITOR!"

Snape held the door open for Luna then closed it behind himself, effectively muffling the portrait's screeching which did not stop when she was alone.

Luna took a seat on the sofa, crossing her ankles as demurely as though she were Pansy Parkinson or Hermione Granger, and he was suddenly filled with dread. He fidgeted with Lupin's letter with one hand, using the other to pour the tea more carefully than necessary. Then he turned his back to the girl and stirred a liberal splash of brandy into his cup.

When at last he was ready to face her he found her holding a teacup with a steady wrist and watching him as though she knew he had something to say to her. So he inhaled sharply, and began.

"I received an owl several minutes ago. I...think perhaps you should see the letter." It was a last second retreat—he had intended to tell her himself, then give her Remus' note. Possibly, however, it was better this way. She took the letter as he offered it.

Snape watched her take in the contents without lingering, then fold the paper along its original lines and set it to one side on the couch. A little more than a minute passed; Luna stared into the unlit fireplace to Snape's left and was quiet.

Just when he didn't think he could abide the silence any longer, she spoke. "He tricked me into touching the Portkey, so I didn't actually see it happen. But I had already guessed."

He nodded, and, sensing she wasn't finished, waited.

"I suppose he thought I could already see thestrals clearly enough."

She set her tea cup on the table in front of her and walked slowly from the room. The door opened and shut with two soft clicks, and she was gone.

He stood motionless until he could no longer hear her footsteps in the corridor. Then he sank into the desk chair and tried with all the strength of his desire to be a decent man not to feel too much relief.

And found that he didn't have to try nearly so hard as he'd been afraid he would.

and death is great

we are in his keep, laughing and whole...

matt slocum

"dresses"