It was still dark and a cold wet wind was lashing his face, but Snape didn't notice it. It had been many years since he'd last been there, but from the outside the house hadn't changed. He hesitated for a moment, then knocked hard on the door. Nothing. He resumed knocking until finally he heard some movement inside.
The door opened a little and Snape looked into the sleepy eyes of Arthur Weasley. As soon as they fell on him, they widened in shock.
Snape smiled sardonically. "Good morning, Arthur. I'm sorry to disturb you at this hour, but it's urgent."
Arthur Weasley gaped at him for a few seconds, then visibly pulled himself together, nodded slowly and opened the door. "Severus, well, that's a surprise… But do come in."
He slowly stepped away from the door and Snape entered. "I need to know where your daughter lives," he stated. Arthur looked at him aghast and Snape gave a short, barking laughter. "Don't worry, I only need to ask her something."
"At this time?"
"It's about Hermione Granger," Snape went on, his irritation showing in his voice. "Listen, I know this is strange, but she's in danger and your daughter might know something that can help her."
Arthur looked worried and suspicious. "What danger, and what do you have to do with Hermione?"
Close to losing control, Snape hissed, "I don't have time for this now, but I can explain everything to you. Or Dumbledore can, if you don't trust me. Or even your daughter, I assume. But right now, I really need to know where she is."
Arthur stared at him for a few moments, then nodded. "All right, I'll take you to her. Just let me put something on and tell Molly."
"Do that," Snape said sarcastically. Arthur doesn't trust me, he thought. Taking Weasley with him as a chaperone wasn't exactly what Snape had wanted, but if that was necessary so that he could talk to Hermione's friend then so be it.
After a few minutes Arthur returned, dressed but rather flustered. Snape could only guess what he had told Molly. They both stepped out of the house, then Arthur put one hand on his arm and they disapparated. They apparated in a hallway in what looked like a building full of flats. Arthur led him to a door a few metres away and knocked. After several moments the door opened and Snape saw a rather tired looking Ginny Weasley.
"Dad," she mumbled, "what's the matter?" Suddenly she looked worried. "Is everything all right?"
"Yes, Ginny," her father replied soothingly. "But I brought you a visitor who insisted on seeing you as soon as possible."
She turned to look at Snape and her eyes widened. "Professor," she exclaimed. "That's unexpected." She gave him a rather hard stare which forcibly reminded Snape of her mother. "Well, come in," she finally said.
They both entered and sat down on a sofa.
"I know you have lots of questions," Snape stated as soon as they were seated, fixing his eyes on the Weasley girl, "and I'm sure we can discuss everything eventually, but right now I need to know if you know where Hermione is staying in Rome."
The young woman blinked. "Is she all right?"
Snape felt uncomfortable under her scrutinizing gaze. "I hope so," he replied, trying not to show how worried he was. "But it seems that she has disappeared, and I need to know where she was staying so I can find out where she is now."
His two listeners gasped. "I'm afraid I can't help you," the girl said, looking deeply troubled. "I only know that she went to Rome and was staying in some hotel. What about her parents?"
"Dumbledore didn't want to worry them until we know more," Snape explained, his voice showing his irritation. "But if we don't discover something soon, we'll have to contact them."
"I could ask them anyway," the young woman said. "I could phone them and tell them that I wanted to go to Rome and surprise Hermione, and that I needed her hotel's address for that. But I'd have to wait at least till half past seven, otherwise they'd get really suspicious."
Snape felt a surge of hope. "That's a good idea. Please do that and tell Dumbledore if you find out anything."
She nodded, then, after a few moments of deliberation, added, "Hermione booked the hotel over this muggle-internet. Perhaps someone can figure out where she went."
"Dumbledore said he knows someone who is good with computers," Snape replied.
The girl's eyes lit up. "Simon Taylor?" Snape nodded. "He really is," she went on, "he'll find it out." She fell silent but looked hard at Snape, and once again he was reminded of her mother's penetrating stare. "Is this connected to what happened to you in September?" she eventually asked.
Snape ignored Arthur's puzzled look but met her gaze unflinchingly. "It might be. I never wanted Hermione to be endangered."
She stared at him, her brow furrowed. "I see," she finally said. "Please, keep me informed. And if there is anything I can do, anything at all, tell me."
"I will. I need to go now. Good-bye Miss Weasley, good-bye Arthur."
He got up and disapparated right away, his last image the confused look on Arthur Weasley's face.
Back in his house, all Snape could do was wait. It was infuriating: Dumbledore was busy making enquiries, the Weasley-girl would ask Hermione's parents and Simon Taylor would be searching her computer; but all Snape could do was pace around his study, waiting for Dumbledore to return. He felt restless and frustrated at the lack of action. Merlin only knew what was happening to Hermione right now while he was stuck there, doing nothing. His hands opened and closed compulsively. He wanted to do something, anything was better than this waiting.
Snape was wracking his brain to come up with some other way to find Hermione, trying not to think of what might be happening to her. As soon as he let his mind dwell on this the panic that she could have been harmed – could be harmed right now because of him – threatened to overpower him.
Perhaps he should have told her about the danger? Shouldn't have pushed her away? He had wanted to protect her, but that obviously hadn't worked. Perhaps this never would have happened if he had told her...?
Shortly after seven Dumbledore brought the message that, unfortunately, Hermione's parents didn't know in which hotel she was staying. Obviously the Weasley-girl had been so worried she hadn't waited until a more polite time to contact them.
Dumbledore left again to pursue his investigations, leaving Snape once more alone with his fears and self-reproaches. The failure with Hermione's parents had increased his frustration and the choking feeling of helplessness that was threatening to overpower him as soon as his concentration slipped. He knew that even if he found the hotel this didn't necessarily mean that he'd find any clue as to what had happened to Hermione. But it was the only thing he could do now, the only thing which prevented him from feeling absolutely powerless.
"Rose!" he suddenly called out and immediately the elf appeared.
"I need you to do something for me. Go to Malfoy Mansion and tail Lucius Malfoy. Make sure that he doesn't see you. And come and fetch me as soon as he is alone at a place where we won't be disturbed."
The elf nodded. "I will, Master" and disapparated.
Snape had no idea if Lucius had anything to do with this, but he was the only suspect he could get to at the moment and at least it was something to do.
Nearly two hours of excruciating waiting passed, bringing no message from Dumbledore, nor from Rose. Then the elf suddenly apparated, startling Snape who had sat down on his desk leafing through a book without really noticing any of its content.
"Master Malfoy is walking in the park alone," she said quickly, "take my hand, Master."
Snape reached out and they disapparated. When they apparated Snape found himself next to a group of bushes in what must be the large park surrounding Malfoy Manor. After a few seconds he heard someone coming closer. When he carefully looked around the bushes he spotted Lucius.
Snape had no idea what Lucius was doing walking alone in the garden at this time of the day, but he didn't really care. Drawing his wand, he suddenly stepped out right in front of him.
The elder man stopped, stared at Snape and quickly reached for his wand.
"Don't do that," Snape hissed and Lucius dropped his hand.
"Severus. Well, that's a surprise," he said, masking his shock with his customary drawl. He still wore the arrogant expression that Snape knew so well, but he had aged visibly. Even without Dementors Azkaban was no holiday resort.
"Where is Miss Granger?" Snape hissed.
For a second Lucius's face was absolutely blank. "The little Mudblood?" He seemed honestly surprised. "I have no idea, I haven't seen her since… well, you know since when." He stared at Snape and suddenly the confusion in his face was replaced by a calculating look. "Why are you asking?"
"That's none of your concern."
Lucius eyed him thoughtfully and then abruptly laughed out loud. "Why, Severus, I never thought your tastes ran in that direction!" He smirked. "Tell me, did you have her while she was still your student?"
Snape's fingers clenched his wand but he kept his face dispassionate. "You disgust me, Lucius," he said in a flat voice.
"Do I, Severus? Well, well… Narcissa will never believe me when I tell her! You are full of surprises." His eyes narrowed. "Speaking of surprises, I never thought you were dead. You were a survivor, right from the start. But no, I don't have your precious Mudblood. I hold no grudge against her or you."
Snape snorted but Lucius shook his head. "I mean it. Azkaban was not pleasant, and we've suffered some financial losses. But the Dark Lord's death was the best thing that could have happened. You know how highly volatile he was in the end. It was more dangerous to be in his inner circle than to be a Mudblood! No, it would only have been a matter of time until he'd have killed us all, and so I'm truly grateful to you and little Potter."
Snape looked at him, trying to define if Malfoy was speaking the truth and finding to his surprise and frustration that he believed him. He had studied the elder man over the years and whatever talents Lucius had, he had never been a good liar. And his astonishment at Snape's connection with Hermione had been genuine. No, Malfoy didn't know anything about her.
Lucius met Snape's scrutinizing gaze with that condescending and derisive look that Snape remembered so well from his schooldays. Then suddenly his face took on a calculating expression. "But I have to admit you fooled me, Severus. After all the things you did I would never have thought that you weren't on our side. It seems I've always underestimated you."
"If that's all I'll leave you now," Snape said coldly.
"Wait," Lucius cut in. "Tell me, Severus, for how long have you truly been Dumbledore's man?"
"Longer than you can imagine, Lucius."
Malfoy smiled maliciously. "Indeed," he drawled. "Why, then the things you did are even more repulsive, aren't they? After all you did them without really believing in them. Tell me, Severus, does your little Mudblood-friend know about them?"
Malfoy laughed out loud. "I didn't think so… Perhaps you are afraid she won't like you anymore if she knew? Well, I hope you can sleep soundly. Good luck with your search, Severus."
And he turned and walked away, leaving Snape standing alone, his mind whirling with anger and frustration and the pain of the knowledge that Lucius was right.