AN: Some aspects of book 7 has been disregarded in this story. Voldemorts downfall remains as it was, but Snape survived and Dobby did not die.
Disclaimer: I, of course, own nothing.
Hermione Granger stared at the girl in the mirror with an expression that was so hallow that she didn't recognize herself. Never mind the bruises that covered her face and arms or the swelling around her eye. It was the haunted, empty expression on her face that scared her. Had it really come to acceptance? Not only did she expect him to come home both drunk and in a wild, uncontrollable frenzy of lust, but she expected him to come home to have his way with her and silence her muffled pleads of him to stop with a fist to the face. Had it really come to this?
What had happened to the love they once had shared she couldn't begging to understand. Thinking back on it, she couldn't remember when it had gone wrong or what had happened for him to change his personality so. He was a Weasley, for crying out loud! Surely it was unheard of that a Weasly physically abused a person he was supposed to love? That was something Death Eaters like the Malfoy's were supposed to do. The Weasleys were known for their compassion and gentle ways. What had gone wrong with Ron?
Hermione gently touched the swelling around her eye. She sucked her breath in as the tender lump stung incredibly. Looking over her body in the full-length mirror she noticed that the bruises on her body were everything from dark blue, to purple and yellow. She couldn't see all of her back, but there was still a fresh wound on her right shoulder, a reminder that Ron should never be allowed to handle knives when he was drunk. A big chunk of her hair was gone – he had been so forceful at tonight's session that he hadn't even noticed what he had done. She winced when she saw that an area as big as a galleon, at the top of her scalp, was hairless. More or less bare-scraped. Merlin's beard. She needed to be rid of him.
Before he kills me.
Hermione started at the revelation, instantly regretting the stray line of thought. He wasn't purposely ever going to kill her –what a preposterous notion! – but he was slowly sucking the life out of her, something she couldn't bare to deny anymore. She had dropped the class in Advanced Potion-Making she had been taking, since she had fallen too far behind to be able to catch up. She had stopped going outside, since she was scared of what people would think of her. The only person she had seen, besides Ron, in months was Harry and he was so busy with Auror school that he barely had time left over for her. Not that Hermione would begrudge him of this, it was his life dream (apart from destroying Voldemort) and she was ecstatic that he was doing so well. Because of this, not even Harry knew how Ron was treating her.
The worst part of this whole ordeal was that she had lost control of her magic. She was unable to summon it at will and at times her spells were so weak that they faltered half-way through, sometimes even doing things she hadn't meant to. One time she had managed to blow up a loaf of bread instead of summoning it to her, her Accio failing miserably to do what it was supposed to. Another time, the simple Lumos spell had set her bed sheet on fire. She no longer felt like the brightest witch of her age. She hadn't for a long time. In fact, she barely felt like a witch at all these days.
She had to leave. Now. Before he woke up from his drunken stupor and would see that she was gathering her things. He had managed to threat her into staying so many times. No more. She was done. She was out for good. Nothing he would say could ever be enough to get her to stay or to come back. Looking around the cramped apartment, she quickly realized that she had too many things to be able to take them all with her now. She couldn't use magic, it was too risky, so she calmly thought through what items she most likely would have use for. Her wand, obviously. Even if her magic was a bit wonky, she wouldn't be parted with it. A change of clothes might be wise, as would the priceless set of First-edition Potion books Harry had given her for her birthday – with Ron's temper it was not an unfamiliar thought that he could set any of her things on fire for leaving him. The thought made her wince. Suddenly it was much harder to decide what would stay and what would go with her. Grabbing an over seized duffel bag, she stuffed it with the things that had sentimental value first – the frames with pictures of her family and friends, her Hogwarts diploma, a box of letters sent to her from various people during her school years and her Gryffindor robes. She then added the Potions books, a few t-shirts, a pair of jeans and underwear and socks. Noticing there was room for more, she threw in some extra books, Hogwarts, A history, being one of them, and another pair of jeans – just to be on the safe side. Before she left, she hurried in to the bathroom and smugged foundation over her entire face, covering the black spots around her eye. She did not want anyone to see what she really looked like. She sighed, annoyed, as it took time to finish. If only she could cast a glamor spell...
Once she was finished, she heaved the bag up on her shoulder and stumbled a bit at the unexpected weight. Readjusting it slightly, she nearly cried out in anguish as the strap grazed her wound. She felt the scabs open under the shirt and knew that her shirt would be covered in blood when she took it off. Taking a breath breath, she started for the door. A floorboard creaked under her and Ron grunted in his sleep. Hermione froze, half-expecting him to wake up and through a fit. But he merely turned around and buried his face into the pillow, letting out a soft snore. Hermione closed her eyes and sighed quietly in relief. Walking as stealthily as possible, she reached the door, opened it slowly and as soon as it was shut behind her, she started running. Or jogging, actually. The bag was heavy and it controlled her speed.
Diagon Alley was more or less deserted, which hardly was surprising – it was after midnight after all. Hermione was strangely comforted by the empty street, feeling safe in a way that there was no one she knew that could witness her flight. As soon as the coast was clear, she whipped out her wand and saying a quick prayer that her wand and magic would not fail her at this crucial time, she called the Knight Bus. It appeared with a bang which made Hermione jump. She scolded herself for her obvious jumpiness. She had been on this bus countless time – it really shouldn't shock her every time. The door to the Bus opened and out sprang Stan Shunpike.
"Welcome to the Knight Bus, emergency transport for the stranded witch or wizard. Just stick out your wand hand, step on board and we can take you anywhere you want to go. My name is Stan Shunpike, and I'll be your conductor this evening."
He didn't look directly at Hermione until he was finished with his usual greeting. As his gaze turned to meet hers, she hoped he wouldn't recognize her.
"Miss Hermione Granger! What 'choo doin' out at this time of night?"
Of course he would recognize her. She and Harry had two of the most recognizable faces in Wizarding Great Britain. Harry, being the boy who lived AND the-boy-who-destroyed-He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, couldn't go anywhere without being stared at. Hermione, being said boy's best friend AND the highest scoring graduate of Hogwarts since Tom Riddle, was more or less constantly recognized by the public. She winced slightly. No wonder Ron always said that he was living in her shadow.
"Just need a ride, Mr Shunpike," she answered wearily with a polite, but tiny, smile.
She prayed that the make-up she had used to cover up her black eye was still in tact. Stan, sensing her resigned demeanor, was wise enough not to push the matter. He simply gave a quick nod and then hurried to take the bag from her aching shoulder.
"Where too then, Miss Granger?"
The question caught Hermione off guard. She hadn't at all considered where she would go. She racked her brain. Her parents house was out – she needed to stay in the wizarding world if she ever was to get control of her magic. The Burrow was out of the question – Ron would most likely check there first and for the very same reason, she crossed Grimmauld Place off the list. Besides, she didn't want any of these people to know what Ron had put her through. Not yet. So, without really thinking about it, she blurted out–
Minerva McGonagall had been Headmistress of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry since the end of the war, when it was clear that Severus Snape was both unable and unwilling to continue this post. He was a patient at St Mungo's for several weeks after the bites Nagini had bestowed upon him in the Shrieking Shack and was reluctant to come back to Hogwarts as Potions teacher when he had recovered. Minerva had, with a lot of cunning and persuasion managed to get the best Potions Master in Britain to return to Hogwarts.
He was more closed off to the world than he had ever been, Minerva noticed not long after he was back. It had been two years since the downfall of Voldemort, and Severus seemed more lost for each passing week. He was as sullen and grumpy with his students as ever, but there was a slight improvement in the differentiation of Houses. He no longer blindly favored the Slytherin's, just as he no longer automatically blamed the Gryffindor's for every little thing. House rivalry in general had improved immensely since the end of the war – perhaps wizards and witches finally could see the whole picture, instead of seeing everything in black and white.
Minerva started as one of the bells on the wall jingled, signaling that someone was at the gate of Hogwarts. She tilted her head and simply stared at the bell for a long time, but jingling didn't stop. Whoever was down there was desperate to come in. She sighed tiredly, not being dressed or in spirit to walk down to the gate to see who was coming. Looking at the grand clock over in the corner, she realized that Severus would be the only one awake at this hour. Bracing herself, she threw a handful of Floo Powder in the fireplace and then waited for Severus to appear.
He sounded tired, or perhaps even resigned. Minerva had promised him not to treat him as her personal slave, as Albus had done at times, and thus she had to phrase herself accordingly.
"I am sorry to disturb you at this late hour, Severus, but there is someone at the gate," she told him carefully. "I would go myself, but I am not appropriately dressed for it. Would it too much to ask if you could go in my stead?"
Severus looked at her will a dull expression, neither getting angry or annoyed. His lack of emotion was starting to concern her.
"Of course not, Headmistress. I will go at once."
"Thank you, Severus," she said, but his head had already disappeared.
She sighed heavily, wondering what could be done about this matter. The portrait of Dumbledore had informed her once that Severus never had imagined surviving the war. If this was indeed true, then perhaps Minerva could understand why he seemed to be alive in body alone. He had lost his spirit, his will to live when he had awoken in the hospital bed at St Mungo's. He needed someone to help him regain the will to not only be alive in body, but to be alive in spirit as well. Someone strong-willed and intelligent. Someone who could challenge him. But where could one begin to look for a woman that was strong-willed, intelligent and enough of a challenge for a man like Severus Snape?
Walking in his usual stride along the corridors of Hogwarts, his wand illuminated to show him the way, Severus was muttering under his breath who it was that was stupid enough to graze Hogwarts with a visit at this time. The impertinence! Whoever this person was would be in for the scolding of a life-time. As he stepped out onto the grounds he saw that it was raining. He stopped short, grumbling shortly before letting out a stream of curses. He contemplated turning around, letting whoever was down by the gate stay in the rain and rot as punishment for disturbing his solitude. Realizing that Minerva would hex him if he went back on his word, he stepped out into the rain and hurried down the path to the iron gate of Hogwarts.
As he got closer, he noticed that whoever was awaiting entrance, was not dressed for the weather. The lite frame was shivering violently with cold and he quickened his pace without thinking about it. It was a woman, he surmised, seeing long hair plastered along the side of her head. Reaching the gate, he stared dumbfounded at the woman in front of him.
"Miss Granger? What are you doing here?" he demanded, sounding more harsh than he had intended to.
"Hello, Professor Snape, it's nice to see you," Hermione managed to get out, smiling slightly. "Could we wait with the pleasantries until I get out of the rain, please?"
He saw that her lips were almost blue from the cold. Her teeth were evening chattering. He was so shocked to see his former student in such a state that he for the longest time only stared at her.
She was begging him now. Severus shook his head in a vain attempt to clear his mind and then put the tip of his wand on the lock of the gate, mumbled an incantation and than watched her step on to the Hogwarts grounds with an evident look of relief.
"Give me your bag, Miss Granger," he said and held out his hand to grab it from her.
He notice her wince as if something was hurting her as she slid it off her shoulder. With the bag in his hand, they started up the path to the castle, and he wondered why the bag was so heavy. Surely she had shrunk everything in it? Had she packed every belonging she had ever owned into the bag? They didn't speak, and even though Severus had a million questions, he didn't ask a single one. First of all, he could see that she was not only ice-cold, but she was in pain. It was not his business to receive the answers for what had happened to her. He was not suitable for it and thus he decided to take her directly to Minerva.
"You were lucky that the Headmistress was still awake, Miss Granger," he said in his usual slow drawl. "You would have been forced to wait until morning had she not heard the bell."
Hermione nodded gently, not bothering to reply. It had been a gamble coming here in the middle of the night, she knew this.
"I will take you to her directly," Severus then informed her and he heard her murmur a quiet 'thank you' in return.
As they walked down the hall, he noticed many things at once. She was limping. There was a chunk of hair missing on her scalp. She was doing nothing to dry herself off magically. Who on earth was this person? What had happened to the insufferable little know-it-all that had driven him nearly insane with the never ending hand waving during class? This was not that girl. This was only the shell of the person who was one of the best students Hogwarts had ever had.
He opened the door to the Headmistress' office and then extended his arm to show her that he was holding the heavy wooden door open for her.
"Miss Granger! This is a most unexpected visit!" McGonagall exclaimed in surprise.
Hermione saw that her old professor's eyes narrowed as she watched her, but all she did in return was smile, trying to ignore the wetness of her clothes and doing all she could to restrain the shivers as they ripped through her body. Suddenly she heard Snape muttering quietly behind her and instantly she was both dry and warm. She turned her head slightly.
"Thank you," she said, looking him directly in the eye, and he instantly froze, his mouth dropping in surprise.
Hermione frowned at the change of his expression and then realized that he was staring at her face. Oh no! The rain must have washed away the makeup! Immediately she wished she could run. But she out of options. Hogwarts was the only place she would feel safe.
"Miss Granger... who did this to you?"
He sounded furious. Hermione glanced at Minerva and saw the obvious look of disapproval of what had been done to her in her expression. The headmistress requested that she sit down, so that they could talk about this in civilized manner. Hermione sat down on the nearest chair, but refused to look at either one of them. She saw out of the corner of her eye that Snape took the seat diagonally from hers, probably so that he could still look at her without sitting too close to her.
"I didn't know where else to go," Hermione finally said so quietly that her old professors almost didn't hear her.
For a moment no one spoke. It was so quiet that an owl could be heard hooting from somewhere out in the dark night. Hermione turned to look out the window and saw that it was no longer raining. Just her luck, picking the exact worst moment to arrive at Hogwarts. It hadn't rained when she had left Diagon Alley, the rain had been pouring down when she arrived and now, ten minutes after getting inside the castle, it had stopped once more. Sodding unbelievable. Then the dead quiet was broken with–
"This was not done by a stranger."
Snape's statement was so straight to the point and true that Hermione flinched violently enough to nearly fall of the seat. Snape and McGonagall shared a look and then the headmistress raised herself from her seat, walking around the large desk to get closer to her former student.
"I do not believe that we have to discuss anything tonight. The hour is late and I am sure we are all tired. You are safe her, Miss Granger. We can talk in the morning or whenever you feel ready."
Hermione slowly raised her eyes to meet the concerned ones of Minerva McGonagall. She hadn't seen anyone look like that at her in several years. Ron had never worried about her. He had always begged her to forgive him, but he never once worried that he had gone to far. She wished she could run in to the arms of her old head of house and just cry – cry about Ron, cry about being on the run, cry about everything she had kept bottled in for so long.
"Might I a make a suggestion, headmistress, before you cart us off to bed?"
"Of course, Severus, what is it?"
"It might be in Miss Granger's best interest to fabricate some adequate story for her being here. Unless, of course, you wish to remain hidden in your quarters during your stay, Miss Granger?"
Hermione blinked in confusion. Your quarters, he said. That made it sound like they wouldn't put her in Gryffindor tower somewhere as she first had thought. He was looking her straight in the eye, his eyes narrowing a fraction when she didn't answer him. She quickly murmured a soft reply, conveying that she had no interest in being more hidden than she already was.
"Have you been studying at all since you left Hogwarts?" Snape wondered, even though he knew she had been taking Advanced Potion-Making.
The class in question never accepted Hogwarts students without first consulting him, to make sure that the student was serious about the art of Potion-Making and had the amplitude to take on the logic of said art form.
"Potions, but I dropped the class months ago," came the swift reply.
This was news to Severus, but his face betrayed no surprise. He merely inclined his head and then continued raptly.
"Very well. Then you are here as my apprentice."
Hermione's jaw dropped and she stared at him in open shock. As far as she knew, Snape had never, during all his years of teaching, taken on an apprentice. Minerva hid a smile behind her hand – this certainly was a first. She glanced at Dumbledore's portrait, almost laughing when she saw the familiar twinkle in his eyes.
"Wonderful idea, Severus," the headmistress acknowledged with an approving nod. "There are quarters in the dungeons, which I hope are reasonably clean. Dobby!"
Hermione jumped at the sound of Dobby's 'pop', but quickly regained her composure with a reminder that belonging to the magical world meant not being skittish about every little sound.
"How cans I be of service to Headmistress?" the always-eager-to-help little elf asked with his squeaky voice.
"I would like for you to ready the guest quarters in the dungeons for Miss Granger," she told him and indicated to Hermione with a nod in her direction.
Dobby turned and saw her for the first time, his eager expression replaced by a huge grin.
"Miss Hermione! A pleasure it is to see yous again!"
Hermione smiled with delight. She always enjoyed seeing the elf that had cause Harry so much grief and trouble, but who still always managed to get back on Harry's good side.
He bowed dramatically and then with a 'pop' he was gone. Hermione felt that the short moment of happiness had gone with him when he disappeared. She suddenly felt very tired. When was the last time she had slept? Really slept?
"One matter remains, Miss Granger," Snape said when the elf was gone. "May we heal you?"
The question caught Hermione off guard. She automatically raised her hand to put it on the wound on her back, but changed her mind halfway trough. Dropping her hand back to her lap, she also quickly turned her gaze to the carpet under her feet. Severus had seen her hand go for her back and that made him certain that she was hurting, just as he has suspected down at the gate. He also noticed the troubled look in her eyes. Something was causing her inner turmoil. He glanced at Minerva. She appeared to be oblivious, which didn't really come as a surprise to him – he had, after all, learned to look for the little things during his years as a spy.
"You... I don't–"
"Only the bruises on your face and the gap of hair missing, of course," Snape said when he sensed her discomfort. "To remain inconspicuous."
Hermione stared at him for a long time, trying to remember a time when Severus Snape ever had cared about anything concerning her. She came up with nothing. Why on earth did he appear to be so concerned now?
His smooth voice called her back from her thoughts. He was giving her an expectant look, as if waiting for something. Oh right. He was waiting for her to answer him. She only nodded, her eyes downcast. She saw from the corner of her eye that he stood and walked to stand in front of her.
"In order for me to do this, Miss Granger, you must raise your head up a bit."
She was really getting annoyed of hearing her last name in every sentence that came out of his mouth. She wanted to hear him say 'Hermione'. Ron hadn't called her that in... Actually, she couldn't remember when he had called her that last time. By now, she would be thrilled to hear anyone call her by her first name. Refraining from uttering this out loud, she lifted her head a fraction until she had forced herself to reach the level of his eyes with her own. She remained motionless while he softly murmured spells to heal her bruises. Her scalp prickled a bit when the missing hairs had magically grown back.
"That should be sufficient," he said as he put his wand away and then he gave her a piercing look. "For now."
Hermione gulped, but she didn't comment. All she wanted now was a good night's sleep in a room and in a bed where she had nothing to fear. She never would have guessed that coming back to Hogwarts would feel as if she had finally come home.