He sits stiffly in his chair, silent and heedless as conversations go on around him.
Well, maybe not heedless exactly. He pays no heed to any particular discussion, that much is true, but he pays a lot of heed to the whole tableau playing out around him. He always has. You don't survive for fifteen years as a double agent without being a pretty good observer of human nature. Voldemort might not qualify as exactly human these days, but the principle holds.
Molly places a plate before him and touches him gently on the shoulder. It is the women in the Order who spare him the occasional moment of kindness, never the men.
Molly's hospitality is impersonal. She presses him to stay and eat, not because she enjoys his company particularly, but because he lives in cold rooms without a good woman, and Molly considers that fact - with no inside information whatsoever - to be unspeakably sad. The irony that he is occasionally mothered/wived by another fiery redhead is not lost on him.
At the end of the table, Nymphadora is making pig faces and making the Weasley girl laugh. Ginny resembles Lily a little. Not strikingly so - it's the hair, mostly, and maybe her cheekbones. Just enough to make him catch his breath every now and then when he sees her out of the corner of his eye. The vision flickers and evaporates in an instant, leaving the schoolgirl behind. It is an annoyance he has learned to live with, as he has with every slender little redhead he has taught down the years. But it isn't Ginny he considers now.
It is Nymphadora he considers with interest. She hates the name, and she thinks he calls her that to annoy her, but he doesn't. He is uncomfortable with nicknames. They bring people close when he would like to have them at a distance. And Nymphadora doesn't do boundaries too well at the best of times. If she isn't oblivious to them or ignoring them, she's tripping over her own feet and getting in his space.
And Nymphadora knows things sometimes.
She and Remus are civil to him, because he provides Remus with Wolfsbane Potion. Others can do it, but his is the most stable, and the Order needs all the stability it can get.
She regards him with curiosity. Asks him occasionally about the relatives who have disowned her. About what it was like to grow up as a half-blood in the Slytherin world - the world of her ancestry, a world that intrigues and repels her.
He thinks they are questions she can never ask her mother (or Sirius, for that matter). Andromeda was a restless, rootless figure, never truly anchored in the wizarding world, and she probably has no comprehension at all of the desire for magical connection that appears to nag at her daughter. It is a struggle common among the exiled half-bloods, even those raised in loving homes. He's seen it often enough, and lived it himself. The urgency has eased a little since she has fallen for Remus Lupin (which any idiot could perceive - little wonder, then, that Remus has not) but it has never left her.
There is a lot that the others don't notice about Nymphadora. It is easy to see her good humour and her 'coolness', as Ginny puts it. But Severus cares little for humour and less for 'cool,' so he sees the other things, things that are as plain as day even to his disinterested gaze. The casual dismissal of her mother as a damn fool, her father as a slob. These trivial parental criticisms may be acceptable in the Muggle world, but they are considered highly inappropriate for public discussion in wizard society. Nymphadora is on a precipice, turning away from her family and towards something that is darker and more dangerous. It is there in her attraction to Remus, which is foolish but harmless, and her attraction to the Blacks, which is far more sinister altogether.
He answers her questions truthfully. He knows what it is to seek connection. Knows the dark impulses that haunt those who cannot find it. He doesn't empathise particularly with the specifics of her search, but he respects the trials of her profession and does not wish to see them worsened. The life of an Auror is not unlike that of a double agent. It costs him nothing to help her discover for herself that the path not taken was for the best.
Besides. She may have to kill Bellatrix or one of the Malfoys one day. Better that she gets the fascination out of her system now.
He has been tempted more than once to tell her that her aunt is a Metamorphagus like her, but he won't, and not only because Nymphadora might inconveniently identify with her. Narcissa has persuaded everyone that the ability left her in her teens - it happens sometimes - and she is terrified Voldemort will find out otherwise and try to use her.
Even Lucius doesn't know, but Severus does. Her hair turned as red as her cheeks the night she kissed him, drunk, then pulled away, shocked and sober. He will never tell anyone her secret, any more than he will tell anyone that they sank to the floor together afterwards, or that she was Lily for him, knowing his secret without being told. That she let him tell her everything without words, every regret and every promise, and submitted willingly to the Obliviate charm afterwards. It was only a month after Lily died, and he thinks it might have saved him from the grief that was eating him alive. It wounded and healed him in equal measure.
Some might consider it ironic that he could give himself to Lily only after her death, but Severus considers it poetic justice. It was always his downfall, after all, to hide the best of himself and show the worst. He knows this essential failing about himself even without Dumbledore helpfully (and regularly) pointing it out. His understanding of human nature extends to his own, but understanding doesn't help. Even now, he lives with the coldness and suspicion of the Order, something that could be dispelled if he allowed certain truths to be known.
Intellectually he sees good reasons to do so. Their suspicions - and Harry's especially - are counterproductive, and the risk is minimal. Even if Voldemort were to extract the truth from one of them under torture, it would be a simple matter for Severus to convince him that he had merely played the part to perfection. Voldemort believes in evidence, not in feelings, and the idea that Snape would still be strongly motivated by Lily after all this time is not intellectually persuasive. The nature of the divide between life and death is such that the living are normally carried away from their dead by time. The things that make Severus different, his own inner chasm and Lily's part in it, are utterly unfathomable to someone like Voldemort.
So the risk is minimal and the reasons are good. But he cannot even begin to countenance such a thing. He doesn't enjoy the disdain of the Order, but he is revolted by the idea of being exposed so utterly. He has spent his whole adult life in concealment for a greater good, and the reserve that was once merely an inclination is now profoundly ingrained.
Besides...if he did, what then? He could have warmth and friendship, that's true, but he is not so sure that is a good thing. Dimly, he perceives that a very big part of his ability to do what he does, is wrapped up with the way he has shut himself away like a solitary and self-sufficient animal. He may not enjoy disdain, but he feels no need for recognition either, and that is a very rare trait. An essential one for someone who assumes the role of a villain.
That need was burned out of him the day it cost Lily her life.
So he seeks it now from no one. Not Dumbledore, not Harry, not the Order. The occasional, unprompted kindnesses of the women are something he can cautiously accept, but to rely on them is something he can never allow himself to do.
His gaze falls on Nymphadora a second time, and this time she notices. Throws him a mischievous smile and a wink. He gives a nod of acknowledgement, but doesn't smile. He never smiled much anyway - especially after Lily died - but years in the company of the Death Eaters has reinforced his unsmiling demeanour. He is known for it, so no one questions when he witnesses their various atrocities with stoicism rather than the good humour that is normally expected. His demeanour is taken for callous disinterest, and it has kept him alive.
She gets up and comes over to sit beside him. "Shove over, Severus," she says good-naturedly. He glares at her, but without a lot of conviction. He doesn't comply, so she squashes herself in between him and Molly like a clueless child. Looks at him expectantly.
He sighs. "Did you want something, Nymphadora?"
Her hair turns a fairly mild shade of red. She doesn't bother to tell him to call her Tonks anymore, and the hair is mostly for show. "Yes," she says. "Come and talk to me in the other room, will you? I'll meet you by the family tree."
Oh, Merlin, not another trip down Black family history. "Sneaking off to be alone, Nymphadora? Aren't you worried what your wolf friend will think?"
The hair flashes dark red then, but she doesn't rise to the bait. It is against her instincts, he thinks, but she has learned over time how to manage him. (Much like managing a werewolf, he supposes). "Severus," she says patiently.
Oh, all right, he thinks in exasperation, mostly because he knows he makes her work for...well, everything. He doesn't say so. He settles for a heavy sigh suggesting an enormous concession on his part. "Very well. But make it quick."
She leaves the room, and he follows. As he passes into the hall, he sees a flare of envy spring up into Lupin's ludicrously transparent features. He suppresses a rather juvenile smirk. Civil or not, old rivalries die hard. On both sides.
"So, Nymphadora," he says, closing the door behind him, "What is it?"
She is standing beneath her mother's burnt-out miniature, and he waits for the inevitable interrogation, but what she says is so far removed from what he expected that she catches him entirely off-guard.
"You knew Lily Evans."
The pause as he collects himself seems too long to his own ears. "Of course I knew her," he snaps in derision. "We were in the same year. So did fifty others."
"I mean you really knew her. You were children together. Remus said so."
"And? Get to the point, Nymphadora - you're trying my patience."
She bites her lip. "Harry needs to know about his mother. He needs - identity."
Projection? he thinks. "In case you hadn't noticed, this house is full of people more than willing to wax lyrical about the Potters. And to have love-ins with the boy."
She shakes her head. "Remus and Sirius didn't really know Lily. Not really. She was James' girlfriend to them. They liked her, but...there was more to her than that. There had to be."
Unwillingly, he's impressed, and touched. He did know Lily - better than them, and better than James, too. He still believes that, even now.
He says with a tone of conventional regret, "I can't help you, Nymphadora. I'm sorry." He moves past her to leave.
She snaps in exasperation, "Sev, just put your patented dislike aside for one evening and talk to him!"
It's the nickname that does it, not her pestering, and dangerous things flare up in him in an instant. One part of him is rationalising that she doesn't do boundaries while the other whirls around and grabs her by the arm. He pulls her hard against him. Says in a low, predatory voice, "You have no - idea - what you're asking."
She stares at him. Lips parted. Breaths shallow. Realisation flooding into her features. Too late, he remembers that her gift is to filter out extraneous detail and see the things that really matter.
"Oh..." she whispers, "oh, Sev..."
"Don't call me that." It comes out husky, on a shuddering breath. A plea, not a command.
"Severus," she amends, and raises her free hand gently to rest on his chest, her eyes gleaming. Over her shoulder, he sees Narcissa's portrait in miniature, and thinks that beneath everything, the Black women aren't so different after all.
He tries to assert some sort of control of the thing. "Isn't one wounded man in your life enough?" he needles. "Do you need to see the good in everyone that badly, whether it's there or not? It's hardly a good trait for an Auror."
"You're all talk. It is there. I saw it." There is a note of triumph in her voice that he doesn't like.
Just then, the door opens, and Sirius gives a sound of outrage. "Get your hands off her, Snivellus," he bellows, striding swiftly towards them, Remus hot on his heels.
"I tripped, you idiot," Nymphadora says, recovering quickly. "He caught me. Don't get your knickers twisted." She extricates her arm from his hand. "Thank you, Severus."
He bows his head slightly. "Of course," he says with impersonal formality. His exterior practices stilted courtesy while his relentlessly troubled higher mind is in turmoil while his magical mind efficiently divides his tumult into rooms and seals them away, all components powered by instincts that come as naturally as breathing. His is a divided mind, but that is all right. It probably reflects the state of his soul.
Sirius is still staring at him mutinously, but under Nymphadora's withering glare, he falls back. "All right," he says, giving way without much wanting to.
"Well," he says with some semblance of command of himself again, "I must be going. Thank you, Molly," he adds to the worried figure hovering just beyond Remus, drawn by the commotion.
"You're always welcome," she stresses with a pointed look at Sirius. Black's nose wrinkles, but he doesn't speak. No-one says no to Molly Weasley.
Without ceremony, Snape turns on his heel and sweeps out of the room with an effortlessness he doesn't feel. Paces down the narrow hall towards the door in long, even strides. Dimly, he hears Nymphadora making some inane excuse to follow him, and prays he will reach the doorstep before she does so he can Apparate away.
But no, her patented clumsiness is at bay for once, and she catches up, reaching through the front door as it is closing and catching his arm just in time. A second later and he'd have been gone; half a second and she'd have been dragged along with him, and likely splinched into the bargain. He sighs in resignation; she pushes her way through the doorway to stand on the doorstep with him beneath the stars.
"Nymphadora," he says heavily, but she leans up and kisses him.
He stands there, shocked and unyielding at first, but he feels her change beneath his lips and his mouth opens tentatively beneath hers. Feels her hair grow and change, new baby-soft tendrils pushing against his cheek. Wonders only fleetingly about her motives before submerging himself in the illusion, willing himself to drown in it as he takes the lead, kissing her with the urgency of a lifetime apart.
It is then that it becomes real - not through what she gives him, but through what he allows himself to give in return, the doors in himself that he unlocks for her. He could be sixteen again, wanting to say that he was jealous and he'd wanted to wound and he loved her and he was so fucking sorry. Could be seventeen, watching her dance with James from a window, wishing it was him. Could be twenty-one and holding her at last, telling her he loved her when she was gone and it was all too late. The parts of himself that he can never show outside the wards of Grimmauld Place, nor within its walls either. This doorstep is perhaps the only place in the world that this moment could ever be.
He reaches for her face and strokes it with trembling fingers. She gives a long, low sigh, leaning in to his hand, eyes drifting closed for a long, long moment, and he rests his forehead to hers. I'm sorry, he thinks, and waves of grief and remorse spill over inside him. His mouth finds hers like a drowning man. There are tears on his cheek as she kisses him back and he honestly doesn't know if they're his or hers.
Clouds part, and the moonlight is stronger now, strong enough that he can see her. He expects a pale imitation - Nymphadora's younger, would have been no more than eight years old when Lily died - but she got it right after all. However, the thought alone pulls him out of the moment. The eyes aren't quite Lily's, he thinks - even Metamorphaguses can't duplicate soul - but they're close. Close enough for a moment in time.
A clinical part of him wonders at her accuracy. Did Nymphadora know Lily as a child? Admire her as little girls admire vivacious young women? Could that be?
He stares at her, thinking these things. Thinking that it has many years since he has been touched. By anyone. Her skin is flushed and her eyes gleam in the moonlight and he wonders how much of this is for him and how much for her. How much is her search for darkness.
The thought makes him feel oddly better. If he's using her, at least it's mutual.
He says softly, "They'll be wondering where you are."
The Lily-figure before him answers in a curious voice that is neither Lily's nor Nymphadora's. "They know where I am. Smoothing things over with you."
"Is that what you call it?" he challenges. "Is that what he'd call it, do you think?"
The warmth falls out of her voice. "He isn't mine. He doesn't get a say. And that wasn't called for."
He regrets needling her. Wonders why he always does that to her. "No, I suppose it wasn't."
The chill in her voice lifts as quickly as it came. Stepping closer, face turned upwards, she says, "Are you going to think, or are you going to do?" There is danger in that voice. Danger that has nothing to do with Lily.
There will never be another moment like this. So he does.
He takes her upturned face between his hands and kisses her. She finds his cloak, clenches it into her fists and pulls him closer. It starts out like impulsive strangers, but as the illusion takes hold once more, his mouth slows, and she slumps against the wall, tilting her head up to receive him. The sound that escapes her is one he recognises all too well. It is both utterly about sex and entirely removed from it as well. He draws her up and tugs her hard against him, devouring her with shaking breaths, restlessly searching her hair with his fingers. Ripples of longing fall over him like a shroud, and he is hard and ready and every part of him wants to feel softness and warmth.
She kisses him urgently, and edges forwards, pushing closer against him. Arches her back, drawing him forward with her, so that he sinks his head to her throat with his eyes closed, uttering a low moan. She hisses with need when he turns her away from him, splaying his hand over her belly. Tugs her neckline down from behind to explore the slender whiteness of her neck. She presses the small of her back against him. One hand covering his over her belly, the other reaching behind her, reaching between them.
Shaking his head, he takes her hand and brings it around in front of her, encircling her waist with both arms. Brings both her hands up to her shoulder, and kisses them, then her collarbone, then her neck. Her head is leaned back on his shoulder, her eyes closed as he holds her around her shoulders.
"You'd regret it," he whispers into her collarbone. He has no idea whether he's saying it to Lily or Nymphadora.
She turns her head. "No, I wouldn't," she says, and kisses him hungrily over her shoulder.
He walks around her. Her gleaming eyes track him every step of the way until he faces her. Takes her face between his hands and strokes back her hair. "Yes, you would," he insists, and this time he knows who he's talking to.
A little of Nymphadora returns to those faraway Lily-eyes, and then she resumes her own form. She seems to come back to herself as she does it. Shivering, she nods.
His hand is still in her hair, and he strokes it down to cradle her cheek. Says softly, "Your aunt Narcissa did this for me once." Her eyes widen slightly as she takes in the implication. "She's a good woman, really," he adds as an afterthought. "That must sound very strange to you."
She shakes her head. Eyes gleaming. "It doesn't."
He says reflectively, "She's obnoxious, of course, and flawed. But she's also intensely loyal, and she can be very kind when she cares for someone. You remind me of her a little."
Does he imagine it, or does a certain peace come into her eyes?
"I used to visit the Potters as a child," she volunteers. "Mum knew them through Sirius. I knew her. I knew Lily."
That much was bleeding obvious, but he doesn't have the bloody-mindedness to say so. He's still hard for her; her face is still red and flushed for him. So he simply nods.
"Believe it or not, I was a girly girl. I loved Princess Diana." She doesn't explain who that is, but Severus still reads Muggle newspapers on his occasional trips to Spinner's End, so he nods in recognition. "The wedding was not long before Lily died." That gleam is still in her eyes. "Lily and I sat on a swing in Godric's Hollow, talking about it, the last time I saw her. She said...she said it didn't look right to her. She said sometimes people married because it made sense, not because of what was in their heart. And I asked how people knew what was in their heart. She gave this sad little smile and said, 'The Patronus knows, Tonks.' I've never forgotten it."
He stares at her. Stricken.
"Sev," she whispers. She steps in and kisses him gently - this time as Nymphadora. He hears her silent thank you and returns it without words.
As they break apart, he draws his wand with regret. "I'm sorry," he says, and she does not protest. Just watches solemnly as he whispers, "Obliviate."
Her eyes grow faraway for a moment, then slowly refocus. She looks at him in evident confusion.
"It's good, Nymphadora, that you're less distracted by the Blacks now," he prompts. "And good that you're planning to contact your mother. No doubt she's been concerned."
"Oh," she says vaguely. "Oh - yes. Yes, I suppose she has." She looks conscience-stricken.
"I'm glad you came after me to tell me. I really do - want things to work out for you."
Her confusion and guilt suddenly clear. Beneath them, that peace is still there. Peace, and her own clarity and razor-sharp intellect. "I believe that."
He judges that she is in a fit state to return indoors without attracting undue attention. "Well," he says, and just for a moment their gazes meet. Some subliminal recognition flickers there, and then it is gone.
"Of course," she says. Elliptical. As though they have suddenly slipped into a language of their own.
"I should-" he flicks his head vaguely to one side.
He bows his head. "Goodnight."
She nods too. She looks like there is something she wants to say - something on the tip of her tongue but not quite remembered. Finally, she says, "Goodnight."
He watches her go inside with more than a little longing. Sending her away was the right thing to do, he knows that - Nymphadora's psyche is in a precarious state - but he is still wound up tight like a spring. And while there are releases for his body, there are none for his mind and his heart.
There never are.