A/N: Thanks to sshg316 (Shug), who squeed, then betaed; to Annie Talbot, who asked the right questions, then betaed; to MagicAlly, who does her best to battle my rampant Americanisms, and to Machshefa, the world's best psych beta.
This story is very AU, canon compliant only through HBP, and darker than most Subversa stories. Please be warned.
The lamps in the kitchen at number twelve, Grimmauld Place were lit against the early dark of late autumn as the board of trustees for the Order of the Phoenix Trust gathered for its monthly meeting. A supper of fragrant spag bol simmered on the ancient stove, promise of the treat to come when business was done. The board members, consisting of the surviving members of the Order of the Phoenix, sat about the old wooden table, sipping drinks and chatting together, awaiting the arrival of those of their number who were running late. Nymphadora Tonks, her shocking pink hair spiked about her heart-shaped face, held forth on the end of her most recent relationship with a man introduced to her by her mum.
'… and then he let drop that he expected his wife to stop work!' she said with a comical grimace, drawing chuckles from many of her listeners. 'To stay at home, thank you very much, and keep house!'
George Weasley leant partway across the table. 'What did you tell him, Tonks?' he goaded.
Tonks snorted. 'I told him he could stick it—' She darted a quick look at Molly Weasley, who glowered at her. '—Where the sun doesn't shine!' she finished. The table at large burst into hearty laughter, despite Molly's disapproving glare.
When the hilarity had died down, Tonks spoke in a more introspective tone. 'Honestly, who wants to be owned in this day and age?'
Most of the heads at the table were nodding in agreement when a voice spoke up from the quiet end of the table.
Eyes swivelled immediately to the speaker, who sat alone, huddled in upon herself, the chairs to either side of her empty, as if awaiting the presence of persons whom everyone knew would not show up … everyone, perhaps, but the girl who had spoken. Her hair was short and looked as if it had been chopped off by a primary school child with safety scissors. What was left of the uneven mess hung about her forehead and cheeks in bedraggled disarray. Her face was unhealthily thin, her complexion sallow, and dark shadows circled her eyes. She wore a shapeless, faded jumper, topped by a tatty brown Muggle overcoat. Everyone stared at her for several beats, as if trying to make up their minds how to react to her, and then Tonks burst into raucous laughter, turning the mood of the gathering again to amusement.
'Hermione!' Tonks gasped between chuckles. 'You kill me! As if you'd ever!'
George and Fred Weasley rose from their seats in one motion and took the chairs on either side of Hermione, George urging a Butterbeer on her, Fred putting a comforting arm about her shoulders, which he gave a friendly squeeze. Hermione did not shrug them off; to do so, it seemed, would require more energy than she possessed. She accepted the drink and the squeeze with an unsmiling nod, and then Kingsley Shacklebolt hurried in, drawing all attention to himself.
Now that the Minister had arrived, everyone was present, and the meeting could begin.
A solitary spectator sat slightly removed from the table in a darkened corner and contributed neither raillery nor conversation to the mix. One might have been forgiven for imagining the silent outsider to be a third-party observer of the proceedings, so little engagement in the business matters did the man exhibit.
Only at one point did the black eyes of Severus Snape show any sign of life: when, at meeting's end, they avidly followed the slump-shouldered figure of Hermione Granger, as she fled the kitchen for her room upstairs.
Hermione lay upon her bed fully dressed, staring with unseeing eyes at the ceiling. She hated being back at Grimmauld Place, hated the memories it evoked, but she always forced herself to remain overnight. If she tried to leave before breakfast was finished the morning after a meeting, Molly cried. And as dead as Hermione felt inside, Ron's mother still had the ability to wring a guilty response from her. After all, with her boyfriend and her best friend lost in the war—along with her parents, though they weren't strictly dead—Molly Weasley and her relatives were the only connexion Hermione possessed that resembled a family.
Hermione had gone to Australia when the war was over to find her parents and reverse their Memory Charm. But the town where she had installed them over a year before, during the horrible summer after Snape killed Dumbledore, bore no trace of Wendell and Monica Wilkins, the pseudonyms she had given them. The two had apparently decided to move away, leaving no forwarding address, and the help of the best private investigators Hermione could afford—both magical and Muggle—had turned up no sign of her parents.
She was an orphan.
Wrapping her arms tightly about her torso, Hermione rocked herself gently, finding some small comfort in the repetitive motion. Alone. She was always alone now.
Hogwarts was besieged by giants and trolls and other horrible beasts, and the castle's defences were weakening. They had to find Voldemort so Harry could kill him. It was the Light's only hope of victory.
She made a pact with Harry and Ron, her brother and her lover. They stood in a circle, hand in hand, bent forward with their foreheads pressed together, breathing in each other's breath for the last time. They would run through the Dark Forest to find Voldemort's stronghold. If one of them fell, the others would not stop, but go on.
In the primeval dark of the Forest, Hermione was knocked flat by a Stunning Spell, and the boys left her where she fell, as they had promised they would do.
The rest she knew by report only. Harry and Ron had found the Dark Lord, and Ron had taken the Killing Curse meant for Harry, giving the Boy Who Lived a chance to engage his enemy in a duel. Both had fought for their very lives, and each had fallen to the other's curse—for neither could live while the other survived.
In the cold and barren room beneath the eaves of the Noble House of Black, tears ran unchecked from beneath Hermione's closed eyelids, mixing with the mucous from her nose, streaking her face and dripping into her hair.
Alone. She was always alone now.
Arthur Weasley opened the bottle of Ogden's Old Firewhisky and pouring a tot for himself, he gave it to Minerva McGonagall, who handed the bottle to Remus Lupin. From Lupin's hand, the bottle passed through the freckled hands of the Weasley boys, Bill, Percy, Fred and George, until it reached the Minister for Magic. Shacklebolt poured two fingers, muttering, 'Just one won't hurt,' and then, with a smile, he offered the bottle to the man to his right.
'It's a rare night when you join us for a drink, Severus,' the Minister said.
Snape tilted a measure of the smoking liquor into his glass and raised it in a slight salute. 'But it's quite cosy by the fire,' he observed. 'To your health, Minister.'
And everyone drank, quickly forgetting the highly unusual circumstance of Severus Snape remaining overnight at Grimmauld Place.
When dawn broke at last, Hermione rose from her bed and washed her face in the cold basin water before creeping down to the kitchen. She only had to manage another hour—two at the most—and when she had pretended to eat breakfast, Molly would permit her to depart. As she bid her goodbye, Molly would wear a brave face that would twist Hermione's gut. It tore at her heart to see Molly tearful and upset, but it hurt her more to see Molly not at all. Short of taking up residence at the Burrow, which Hermione could not even bear to visit because of the agonising memories it evoked, these monthly board meetings were her only chance to bask in the motherly affection of Ron's broken-hearted mum. And as messily emotional as it all was, Hermione could not deny herself this time en famille with the Weasleys and other Order members. It was her only concession to sentiment at all.
She sat in her customary chair, legs curled beneath her, arms wrapped about her torso, head down as she waited for time to pass. She could scarcely endure the company of her Order friends, for they were kind and loving to her when she knew she was undeserving of such generosity … and yet here she came, month after month, to expose herself to them and to absorb as much of their caring as she could permit herself to do. She could neither enjoy the board meetings, nor could she stop attending them. It was undoubtedly just another example of how very fucked up she was in mind, body, and spirit.
She heard footsteps coming down the basement stairs, a firm, steady tread. Not Molly, then—a man. He walked to the stove, and Hermione heard the faint click of cup against saucer as he began to prepare his morning tea. She stared at an old burn mark on the table top, ignoring the rumble in her tummy. She seldom felt hunger, and in general, if she ignored her appetite, it went away.
Moments later, a long-fingered hand set a cup of tea before her, and Severus Snape slipped into the chair at the foot of the table—not right beside her, but closer than he had ever done before.
'Two sugars and a splash of milk,' he murmured, taking up his own tea and sipping.
Hermione lifted her eyes to stare at him. He wore his hair as he had done all the time she had known him, though at present it was freshly combed out of his face—as if he had just showered. His black robes were draped over a black suit, and overall he evinced a remarkable calm, the likes of which she had never known him to display.
'How do you know how I take my tea?' she asked.
'I am … observant,' he replied, meeting her eyes with polite attention. 'See if it is to your taste.'
Hermione obeyed the suggestion without thinking, and the sweet, milky liquid filled her mouth with tea perfection. The first sip was so good that another quickly followed, and before she knew what she was about, she had drunk the entire cup.
Throughout the entire process, Severus Snape watched her as if her consumption of the warm liquid was of significant interest to him, and when she finished the last drop, he nodded approvingly. 'Perhaps we could have toast with our next cup,' he mused.
Hermione opened her lips to inform him that she never took food before noon—and precious little then, she had to admit—but what she said was, 'Is there strawberry jam?'
Her shoulders began to relax, as never happened anywhere but behind the locked door of her flat, and it seemed to be in simple response to the sight of Severus Snape performing the very homey function of toasting bread and pouring tea. He produced both strawberry and raspberry jam, and Hermione had a bit of each, managing to eat an entire piece of toast while drinking a second cup of tea. Her companion ate two pieces of dry toast, allowing Hermione to eat in peace, maintaining a comfortable silence between them.
When she pushed her plate away, Snape leant back in his chair and addressed her in an exceedingly mild tone.
'May I ask a question?' he said.
Hermione felt a flicker of unease. She had been lulled with tea and toast—had actually ingested nourishment!—and now she would be made to pay for it. Something … unpleasant was coming.
'I would like know what you meant yesterday, when you said you wished to be owned.'