His robes billowed behind him as he walked through the corridors of Hogwarts. It was his night to patrol the areas around the library, and he was slowly but surely nodding off with sheer boredom. Nothing would happen tonight. It was too cold, too damp, and too dreary for any student to be out of their cozy common rooms. Still, though, he was stuck wandering the empty hallways, shivering slightly every time he passed a cracked or unsealed window. Why teachers had to do this was a mystery to him. He would much rather just pass off this duty to some overzealous house elf, pupil, or even the squib, Filch. Ghosts don't need sleep – get them to do it.
Sighing inwardly, he wrapped his cloak tighter about his body, and continued his slow, rhythmic walk. He turned the corner, and spotted the library doors. This was the final lap to his count of how many times he would have to walk around this dreary place before he could return to bed. His footsteps echoed off the blank stone walls, and the firelight from the many sconces surrounding him flickered weakly against the ice-cold air. His mind began to drift, and he thought about how lovely it would be, barely twenty minutes from now, when he would be in front of his fireplace with the book he had just purchased. After he swept through the library one last time, he could be relieved from his post.
Revelling in this fact, he was just passing Madam Pince's desk when he heard a high-pitched scream from where a circle of armchairs sat at the far end of the library.
His heart skipped a beat as he ran towards the sound. He could hear someone thrashing and pounding on the floor; surrounding the screams was sobbing, and desperate pleas of, 'No, please, please, no!'
When he reached the chairs, he looked down to see Dumbledore's charge, Elizabeth Holmes, shaking violently in her sleep, tears soaking her cheeks, and drenched in sweat, even though it was the middle of January.
How could that stupid woman pass this little upstart sleeping on the floor of her library? Snape pondered to himself as he bent down to feel the girl's forehead. How did I pass this little upstart sleeping on the floor of the library? She was ice cold.
'Miss Holmes,' he called, patting her hair awkwardly and holding her shoulders down to ensure she didn't hurt herself. 'Miss Holmes, can you hear me?'
Her eyes shot open, and she froze. For a moment, she didn't move a muscle; simply looked into his dark eyes with her strange gold-indigo ones. He was shocked when she sat up abruptly and her small arms wrapped around his thin waist. Her hold was surprisingly strong as she sobbed into his ebony robes, his arms flitting uselessly around her. His spider-like fingers tried to pry her off at first, but the heart-wrenching sobs were too much, even for him. Eventually, he wrapped his arms around her shoulders and held her until her breathing slowed and he could feel her grip loosen.
'Miss Holmes?' he asked softly, pulling her away and looking into her eyes once more. 'Are you alright?'
Her face was ghostly white, and shone with tears. Her entire body still trembled as she replied shakily, 'Mummy… and – and daddy… they're – they… he…' She began to cry again, and, clutching her stomach, gasped, 'It hurts so much!'
As realization hit him, he pulled out a handkerchief for her to wipe her face. 'It's alright, Miss Holmes, you're safe here. The Dark Lord is gone; you're at Hogwarts, remember?'
She nodded, and sniffed into the envelope of cotton. 'Dreams… such scary dreams!'
'How often do you have them?' he asked, dreading the answer.
'Every night since he came to our house… I always feel Crucio… and his laugh… his cold, cold laugh…'
He thought back to the days when he himself had felt Crucio at the hands of the Dark Lord as the latter laughed mercilessly along with his followers. He still had nightmares about it occasionally. This girl was only nine years old, and she was already plagued with it.
'Do you… I will accompany you back to your room, Miss Holmes; this is no place for a child this time of night.' He watched as she glanced around at the gloomy shelves of the library, watched her eye the shadows with suspicion, watched her nod forcefully, and finally, watched her take his hand firmly in hers. They began walking out between the stacks and he asked, 'Why were you in the library so late?'
'I was reading… and I fell asleep… I can't sleep at night, so I drift off sometimes,' she replied matter-of-factly. 'Why were you in the library so late?'
He chuckled inwardly and said, 'I am a teacher. I have to patrol to ensure students are safe in their beds.'
They walked without speaking until her gentle, childish voice rang out with, 'But I'm never safe in my bed.'
The ominous phrase shot a chill down Severus' spine.
They continued their walk in silence, and when they reached the door to Elizabeth's room, she asked slowly, 'Sir, will you… can you please tuck me in? I'm scared of the dark.'
He didn't respond for a moment, wondering whether or not propriety would be an issue here. Thinking he would simply write a quick note to Dumbledore before he entered, he replied, 'Of course. But I must send a message to the Headmaster quickly.'
She waved at the portrait, and it swung open silently. 'I'm not in any hurry to fall asleep,' she said, shrugging and pointing towards the writing desk in the corner of the main room.
'Thank you.' As she moved to her bedroom to change, he strode over to the desk, and in his spidery cursive wrote,
I found your charge, Miss Elizabeth Holmes, shrieking in her sleep in the library, and am now putting her to bed. I believe that, henceforth, she should be administered a draught of dreamless sleep to aide in her nightmares. If she requests it, I will attend her until she falls asleep. Please come as soon as possible. SS.
He folded the piece of parchment into a small crane-like shape, and tapped it with his wand. He watched as it flapped away.
'That was pretty. How did you do that?'
He turned, and spotted Elizabeth watching it flutter away behind him and into the fireplace.
'A simple spell. Perhaps I shall teach you when you come of age.'
'Next year,' she said, smiling some.
'By my count, you are still only nine years old.'
'Yes, and they're letting me in early because Albus told them I'm especially clever.'
Her matter of fact tone almost brought a slight smile to his slender lips. 'Are you ready for bed?' he asked flatly, trying to regain his 'evil professor' façade.
Her mouth opened, and he registered fear in her eyes before she said slowly, '…yes.' She held out her hand for him to take. He did, and she walked slowly into the bedroom. Glancing around, he noticed the room was brightly illustrated all around the walls with magical creatures and plants, but most were obscured behind shelves filled with what looked like fourth- and fifth-year textbooks, potions being amongst the most common.
'I take it you like to read?' he asked as she climbed into the bed along the far wall.
She nodded, and said, 'I love to read. I used to do it all the time with my mum and dad. They want me to be a great witch some day.' She paused, looked at him with her big doe eyes, and asked, 'What's your name?'
The depth of her eyes was rather disconcerting as he replied, 'Professor Snape.'
'Your mum named you 'Professor'? That's rather silly, isn't it?'
'Severus…' she repeated slowly, and smiled. 'I like it.'
He tilted his brow in scepticism and replied, 'Thank you.'
She snuggled down into the covers, and tilted her head slightly. 'Can you tell me a story? So I'll think of that, and maybe not dream tonight?'
Slowly, he replied, 'I'm afraid I'm not good with stories.' He slid over to the edge of the bed, and sat down abruptly.
She shrugged, and said, 'That's okay. Just… just tell me a story from your childhood. When you were little, like me.'
Memories flooded his mind of Tobias Snape, his father, shouting at his mother, the witch, about how she was such a freak; how he hoped his son wouldn't turn out with such unnatural facility. Certainly not suitable for a child. 'I don't have any which would interest you.'
'None? Your mummy didn't read to you when you were little?'
Memories of potion books in the middle of the night, learning by torchlight to bottle fame, brew glory, and stopper death with his mother as she nursed her bruises, both new and old, filled him. 'No.'
'Oh.' She concentrated hard on the comforter in front of her, as if she were thinking very hard, until she asked, 'Then can I tell you a story until I fall asleep?'
'If you think it will help.'
She nodded firmly from amongst her downy pillows, and pointed to the lights. With a wave of his wand, he extinguished all except the one flickering on the bedside table in a delicate floral sconce.
She laid her head back, shut her eyes, and began, her voice light and haunting in the silence.
'Once upon a time, a little girl lived with her mummy and daddy just outside a little muggle town in a great big house. They were happy.
'One day, a wise and silly old professor came to the house and gave the little girl candy. As she ate it – lemon drops – the old man told her mummy and daddy that they had to hide. Go far away and hide from the Dark Lord that was killing people all over.'
Severus was immobile. He knew where this was going, and he didn't know if he wanted to hear any more. But she kept on going.
'They did, and for a little while, he didn't find them. It was just like they were on a vacation. But one night, when the stars and moon were shining bright, the little girl awoke to the sound of her daddy screaming for mummy to run, that he had found them.
'The little girl ran outside her room, and into her mummy's arms. That's when they saw the flash of green light, heard a high pitched laugh coming towards them. The little girl knew her daddy was dead.
'The mummy told the little girl to run, that mummy would make sure everything would be okay, and that no matter what to remember that she always loved her little girl.
'Thinking her daughter had run, the mummy turned around to face the evil man. The little girl, though, stayed right where she was, holding tight to the door.
'The evil man came in. He didn't look human – he looked like a giant snake. He laughed, and told the mummy to move aside, that he wouldn't kill her if he could only have her daughter. The mummy told him he would never have her little girl, her princess. The evil man pointed his wand at her, and used a spell that made the mummy scream so loud…
'Then there was another flash of green light, and the mummy stopped breathing. She was dead.
'And then the evil man started towards the little girl.
'He smiled his snake-ish smile, and used the same spell on her that he did on her mum – the one that had made her scream so bad that her throat felt like it was being ripped out of her neck. But the evil man, too, looked like he was in pain.
'Then, just as the little girl was ready to give up, to die, there was a crash, and she felt the curse lifted. The old professor had come to save her.'
Elizabeth let out a long sigh, and her body sank into the downy pillows.
'The wise old professor got rid of the scary man, but her mummy and daddy were still dead, so she had to go live with her aunty and uncle Potter.'
'The same thing happened there, but this time it was her little baby cousin, Harry, who the bad man was after. He killed the uncle, the aunty, and then turned to the baby. But he couldn't do it. The flash of green light rebounded and killed the bad man instead.
'Everything went by quickly for the little girl after that. She ran away with her little cousin's godfather, saw him arrested for something another man did, but no one believed her when she told them what happened. She was brought to St Mungo's hospital for awhile… and then she was brought to the most amazing place she had ever seen to live with the wise old man who had saved her.
'Every night, she would dream of what happened to her parents, and to her aunty and uncle. Often she would wish she could see her little cousin, hold him and tell him he would be alright, that she would protect him. Sometimes, she would fall asleep during the day because she wouldn't let herself sleep at night.
'That was, until one night, she woke up from her dream in the middle of the library, with someone standing over her.
'She looked at him, and even though she thought that maybe sometimes he could make himself look scary, he was the most unscary man she had ever seen… and he looked at her, and the little girl knew in an instant that he would help her, because he knew what she had gone through. He had felt pain and loss from the evil man and his followers –' Severus felt a chill run down his spine '-and she knew when she hugged him that everything would be okay.' Silence crept over them for many moments, and he felt her hand find his. 'I'll be okay, won't I Severus?'
Severus Snape turned, and looked down at the little girl whose life had been torn apart by the man to whom he had once been a faithful servant. He glanced at his left hand, held softly in hers, and back up to her doe-like eyes, which shone with innocence, with pain.
And those eyes could only retrieve one answer from him, because if it took every last breath in his body he knew he would die to make it so.
'Yes, Miss Holmes. I promise you, you'll be okay.'
She smiled then, soft and sure, and her eyes drifted shut. 'Thank you, Severus.'
He sat there until he was sure she was completely asleep, and then turned to send another note to the Headmaster.
He was surprised, then, to find Albus Dumbledore himself sitting in an armchair in front of the fireplace.
'Headmaster,' he replied curtly, shutting the door to the bedroom gently behind him.
'I come down here thinking I was needed to console a broken young girl, and here I find you, listening to her open up more than she has to me.'
Dumbledore chuckled, and motioned for Snape to take a seat, a lemon drop in his hand. 'Elizabeth Holmes has never spoken of what happened those fateful nights last March, nor last October: not to me, not to anyone.' Snape was stunned, and he sat in wonderment as he listened to his mentor speak. 'Her mother and father were right. She is an extremely powerful young woman. I believe she absorbed some of Lord Voldemort's powers when he tortured her, and I believe she somehow absorbed some of her mother and father's powers when they died for her. She is destined for great things.'
'But what does that-'
'I believe she has somehow inherited an over sensitive intuition. Not Legilimens, per se, but something similar so that she can read the emotions of any person, regardless of whether they are a skilled Occlumens or not. I should know – she has read my feelings numerous times, and as you know I am skilled at both Occlumency and Legilimens.'
'Never mind the explanations, Severus – did you feel a strange connection to her?'
He thought about it for a moment, and then replied slowly, 'I… I did.'
'I thought as much.' Dumbledore paused, popped the candy into his mouth, and said, 'Please return to her bedside for the night, Severus, just in case she awakes. I know you would do nothing to harm her in any way, so you have my permission as your employer and her legal guardian to sleep in the same bed. Indeed, the girl has not slept a full night in a year and a half, and perhaps you will fix that.' With that, he stood, and said, 'Goodnight, Severus. If you need someone to cover for your first period potions class please feel free to call upon me.'
Dumbledore left then, and Snape sat momentarily still, gazing into the fireplace. After a while, however, he stood slowly and made his way quietly into the bedroom. Looking down his hooked nose, he saw the frail, delicate young girl who had seen something good in him. Something that he had thought was nonexistent. Something so good that she trusted him with her deepest fears.
He lay down beside her above the comforter, and slept.