Disclaimer: All rights belong to JKR.
Author's note: The first chapter is–as many of you will recognize–set during the OotP-chapter 'Christmas on the Closed Ward'. Most of the fic will follow the story line from book 5 to 7 in a behind-the-scenes kind of way. It was inspired by the lyric lines quoted below and by the idea that sometimes it only takes a single moment on the edge of the night to change it all...
My eternal gratitude belongs to Losille2000 for her beta magic.
"It's the terror of knowing
What this world is about
And love dares you to care for
The people on the edge of the night"
(Queen – Under Pressure)
The ancient wood of the staircase groaned quietly under her feet. Hermione took each step carefully and slowly, avoiding waking the portrait of Mrs Black. It would not do that her nightmare-induced insomnia disturbed the night's rest of the other sleeping inhabitants of Grimmauld Place, especially not on Christmas morning.
Hermione herself had awoken with a start around two o'clock, once again plagued by the vision of a hooded figure wearing a Death Eater mask, whose gloved hands were grasping for her—for the Mudblood.
She cringed at the memory.
If the Order fails, they'll come for me; they'll come for all of us.
The insight became more evident to her heart with each day that passed since Harry's announcement of You-Know-Who's return, and with each night, her nightmares became more vivid; sleep was losing its comfort inch by inch.
Tonight, after what seemed an eternity of useless tossing and turning in her sheets, unable to find her way back to a blissful slumber, she had decided to go down to the kitchen to comfort herself with a cup of hot chocolate and a well-known chapter of Hogwarts: A History. And now she was wandering through the semi-darkness of Headquarters, fiercely ignoring the obscure shadows the moonlight was casting on the walls. To use a candle on her way was beyond question since it would draw Kreacher's attention to her presence—the last thing she wanted right now.
While Hermione made her way through the corridor, she could already see the light that gleamed in the kitchen from afar. The house was obviously not quite as asleep as she had believed it to be. Who else could be roaming Grimmauld Place at this time of night?
She proceeded silently suddenly well aware of her fast-pounding heart. The kitchen door was slightly ajar. Hermione placed her right palm carefully on the cool wood, slowly pushing it open, widening her view into the room. The moment she beheld the scene, she gasped in surprise.
In front of her, the dark figure of her Potions professor was sitting on a chair, the upper part of his body leaning forward over the kitchen table with his head resting on his outstretched right arm while the other arm bent toward his face. Thick streaks of hair obscured his features, while the sound of his breathing was filling the silence of the room. Severus Snape had apparently fallen asleep over the kitchen table.
Strange. What was he doing here at such an hour?
Hermione bit her bottom lip while she drew nearer to the sleeping figure, warily avoiding any sound that could wake her professor. Her eyes travelled over the sight before her, searching for hints that would give away why the usually reserved and private man had fallen asleep in such a public place. A place he openly despised. Professor Snape must have been completely knackered…
A cold knot of awareness formed in her stomach when her eyes fell on the heavy black robe and the Death Eater mask lying on the chair next to him, not so unlike the one she had seen in her nightmare earlier.
He had been with You-Know-Who. He had worn this. He had been one of them. Shivers ran down her spine, and Hermione grasped the back the chair for support, her chest feeling suddenly too tight to breathe.
She forced her eyes shut, trying to control the panic that was coursing through her veins.
You know that Professor Snape went back on the Headmaster's orders.
He is Dumbledore's man.
Her mind repeated the words over and over again, and gradually her heartbeat slowed again, allowing her to regain her composure in stages. It seemed like an eternity before Hermione felt able to face the sight of her sleeping professor. She was still standing next to him, her hand clasped around the backrest of the chair with panic-induced strength, while her eyes were glued on the Potions master.
He hadn't moved an inch.
Another chilly feeling grew in the pit of her stomach, foreboding. Something felt odd about this whole scene. It felt peculiar that her watchful professor was so sound asleep in the kitchen of his oldest childhood enemy.
Oh, my. How could she have missed it at first sight, missed the slight tremors that ran through Professor Snape's body? His hands were cramped into fists. He was apparently in pain.
They have Crucio-ed him.…
Although Hermione hadn't witnessed the after-effects of a Cruciatus Curse before, she knew the symptoms.
Prolonged muscle pain.
Fever and ague.
She frowned. Was this the normal state he returned in? Why was he not with Madam Pomfrey? He must have known what he would have to suffer from after being cursed. He needed medical assistance. Evidently, he had chosen to come here. Why?
Use your brain, Granger.
Oh, of course. It's Christmas. Madam Pomfrey was not at Hogwarts during the school break, and maybe the Apparition distance had been too long in his state. But the Headmaster….
"Cold. So cold." A hoarse, needy murmur stopped her line of thought. The man in front of her was wincing in his sleep. No, not wincing—shaking.
She needed to do something. Warmth. He needed warmth. Without hesitation she reached for the heavy black Death Eater robe, lying next to him. Carefully, she covered his body with the robe as effectively as possible without awakening him.
She was confident that Professor Snape would never allow himself to be observed in such a moment of weakness, at least not by the Gryffindor know-it-all. However, the man lying in front of her, trembling and unguarded, looked so unlike the Potions professor she knew, almost vulnerable.
As if on its own accord, her hand reached out and brushed a damp streak of hair from his face, her fingertips softly grazing his skin. He stirred, eyelids fluttering open. His fever-glazed black eyes found her hazel ones immediately. He was awake.
Hermione felt the panic rising in her throat as she saw how the frown between his eyes deepened, even in his weakened state. She took a deep breath and steeled herself for his wrath about her intrusion of his privacy. But his reaction hit her more than any Bludger could have.
One word, a question, spoken so softly and filled with so much hope that it made her heart clench in pain.
And then, different realisations dawned at the same time.
He thinks I am Lily.
On mere impulse, Hermione placed her right hand on the Potions master's wrist, squeezing it gently. She could feel him relax under her touch, his glassy eyes never straying from hers.
"Lily?" he asked once again. It sounded more like a plea than a question.
How was she to do this? Hermione swallowed and gave him a small smile.
"I am right here, Pr… Severus. But I need to go to inform Professor Dumbledore of your return... and that you are hurt." She hoped he had missed the tremble in her voice. His given name had barely left the tip of her tongue.
"Don't leave me," he demanded in a low voice, his frown deepening further.
Long, slender fingers moved to cover the small hand on his wrist, leading it away to cup his cheek. Hermione closed her eyes momentarily at the sensation. His skin was hot and sweaty due to the after-effects of the Unforgivable, but his touch was gentle and full of longing. It made her insides melt.
"I won't. All is well."
The lie burnt on her tongue. Nothing was well. Lily Potter would never return, not to Professor Snape, not to Harry. Tears formed in her eyes. This wasn't right. She was not who he believed her to be. She couldn't stay.
"But now I have to go and inform Professor Dumbledore. You need help, Severus," she said determinedly.
"But you will come back?" Glassy black eyes burned into hers, leaving no doubt about the unspoken 'to me' in his question.
The amount of hurt that filled these dark orbs was her undoing. Hermione knew it was madness, that it was a falsehood. He was her teacher and longed to hear these words from somebody else, but all she wanted in this moment was to ease this small piece of his pain that was in her power. He would only remember Lily afterwards. He would never know it was her.
Swiftly and before her courage could leave her, she bent down, allowing her mouth to brush his brow in the barest of touches.
"Whenever you need me."
A whisper. A promise, sealed against his skin, causing her lips to tingle painfully as she withdrew them again.
Without giving him a chance to respond, she rushed from the kitchen, her legs barely carrying her on the way. Her mind was still in a daze as she Flooed the Headmaster to fill him in on the situation. Unaware of the tears that were running down her cheeks, Hermione excused herself for not awaiting his arrival. And as she finally buried her face in pillow that night, she knew that she wanted to keep her promise.