Continuing Tales

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 11 of 60

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Severus was getting annoyed now, listening to the chatter in the staff room and trying to block it out by concentrating on the journal he was trying to read. Ordinarily he would have been hiding in his dungeon in peace – or as much peace as he could get with the thoughts occupying his mind at the moment – but since Dumbledore had left he didn't dare; it was a lot safer to stay where he could keep an eye on Umbridge and be warned of the newest bloody Decree before it happened.

"Will you all shut up?" he asked finally in some irritation. "What are you all babbling about, anyway?"


"Tonks? Why? Has she fallen over anything more interesting than she usually does?" The young Auror annoyed him; she had been a terribly accident-prone student, and as a fellow Order member she was cheerful enough and optimistic enough to be unbelievably irritating. Luckily she didn't try to speak to him very often, but that was small consolation, although she was quite good at annoying Moody, which was always worth watching.

"She's apparently set her cap at none other than our dear Remus," Minerva told him.

Somewhat childishly, he made a gagging noise in the back of his throat, although he did at least refrain from making any perverse jokes about why Lupin might want to play with a Metamorphagus – at least out loud. "God help us all. That's doomed from the start." Surely she wasn't that blind, or that dense?

"Don't be so sure."

"Why, has he proposed already?" he asked with a sneer.

"Oh, no, he's being stubborn and refusing her at the moment. No, her Patronus has turned into a wolf. Even you have to admit that's sweet."

"I may vomit," he replied coldly, returning to his journal and staring blankly at the pages while he tried to work out why he suddenly felt worried. Thoughts of his Patronus usually just made him feel sad, and sometimes vaguely guilty; fear was a new one. What did it matter if Tonks had joined the ranks of those whose Patronus reflected unrequited love? She'd been lucky; at least hers was rather less embarrassing than his doe...

A cold shiver ran down his back. He hadn't cast his Patronus in a long time, not since the very start of the war... a lot had changed in his life since then.

Oh, shit.

As soon as he convincingly could, Severus excused himself and beat a hasty retreat down to the relative security of the dungeons, trying very hard not to panic. This was dangerous – if his Patronus had changed, which seemed worryingly likely, then Dumbledore would eventually find out. He didn't even want to imagine what would happen then; the Headmaster barely trusted him an inch as it was.

And if it had changed, that meant he'd lost his last link with her, too. That hurt to think about, which was nothing more than a reflection of his own confusion. He really didn't like the way he had felt about Lily for so long, and if he was brutally honest he didn't much like her at all any more, but he still didn't want to lose this final piece. He also didn't really want to face all the complications that would arise if he had to confront a changed Patronus and what that meant, since he had been resolutely trying not to think about it for days now. What a mess. Crossing through his quarters quickly, he took the stairs down to his usual laboratory, the one place where he was guaranteed to have some privacy since there were no sodding portrait frames down there, and perched on the closest bench; taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes and composed himself, concentrating hard.

"Expecto patronum," he whispered finally, opening his eyes somewhat nervously to see the results.

Under the circumstances, Severus was not in a particularly good mood following his extremely unwelcome realisation, as well as the problem with his Patronus. It really wasn't Granger's fault, but that wasn't stopping him from taking it out on her – much as he disliked that part of his personality, it was still a part of him, petty or not. Keeping silent and ignoring her every morning was fine, it was normal, and if he found himself glancing at her from the corner of his eye more often or focusing more intently on the sound of her breathing then that was his problem and nothing anyone else would notice. Equally, sniping at her in lessons and butchering her homework was par for the course, and in the hospital wing he was generally in no fit state to let his thoughts stray into dangerous territory, although he hadn't had to go there in a while.

But Occlumency lessons... ah, those were a different story. Now he knew he was becoming more tangled with every cautious foray into her mind, and he was fighting it with everything he had. Unfortunately, there was no real way to fight it, since he was either causing her pain or grudgingly admiring the way she avoided it. And, as always, he was tired and stressed, which always made his temper worse, and tonight he simply couldn't be bothered to rein himself in any longer.

Irrationally annoyed at her increasing resistance to the usual probes, even though that was the whole point of these lessons, he changed tactics and chose instead to show her a memory, to distract her and weaken her defences. It was a legitimate method, but there really was no excuse for him to choose the memory of several years ago, when he had been called to the Infirmary after Poppy had admitted defeat and been confronted with the sight of a student who was half girl and half cat. She had been sedated at the time, which meant she hadn't seen the way he had laughed until he couldn't stand unaided and had to cling to the doorframe for support, nearly crying with laughter, until he showed it to her now.

The brief flicker of hurt he sensed in response was enough to make him feel a little guilty, and he started to draw back, preparing to end the connection and talk about this new strategy – until she retaliated, projecting a memory surprisingly forcefully. It took him a moment to recognise the underside of the Quidditch stadium benches, and a moment longer to realise the point; by that time, the memory-Granger had drawn her wand and set fire to his leg and he had responded with what in hindsight had been an embarrassingly high pitched yelp, as well as a rather undignified attempt to stamp out the flames instead of drawing his own wand and dealing with it more rationally. He didn't like fire, at least not when it was directed at him, and he had been concentrating very hard on his attempt at a wandless counter-curse.

His temper flared at the humiliation associated with the reminder, and he responded unkindly with a flurry of images of her bouncing frantically in her chair and waving her hand around with near-terminal eagerness to answer a question; it had taken the better part of two years for her to break herself of that habit, and even now she sometimes regressed if she was especially enthusiastic about a topic.

It seemed her blood was up as well, since she responded with the image of the Boggart that Lupin had orchestrated. Severus had seen it before, against his will; the bastard had projected it for everyone to laugh at in the staff room every night for a week afterwards, and the memory now made him flush with humiliated fury as his temper snapped completely. Spitefully, he retaliated with the worst memory that sprang to mind, one that he was actually genuinely ashamed of – last year, when Draco had hexed her teeth and he had cruelly made everyone else laugh at her. His reaction at the time had been without thinking and born of temper, just as it was this time.

And, just as it had done on that occasion, his action hurt her. He felt her anger give way under the sting of old pain, a feeling he could identify with only too well, and his own temper began to subside into guilt. He was trying to come up with some way to soften the damage he had done that wouldn't be too out of character for him when he felt a flicker of some emotion he couldn't quite identify and a moment later was hit with a very strong projection of Lupin changing into the raging werewolf of his nightmares.

He very nearly wet himself in blind and automatic fear, breaking the connection instantly before she could catch just how terrified he was, and he had never been so grateful for his defences as he reflexively retreated and burrowed deep behind them to calm down. She knew him far too well to play this game, which worried him, and he had to admit – even if only to himself – that he deserved it. Feeling rather shaky, he looked at her, blinking and trying to focus on something other than the image of snarling fangs in his head, and found her staring at him with pure Gryffindor defiance; she looked upset and hurt, and rather frightened of his reaction, but anger had kindled smoky flames in those deep brown eyes.

"Enough," he said quietly, looking away, trying to back down without actually backing down. They had both gone too far, and he couldn't legitimately get angry because it had been his fault and he had deserved worse. If it had been anyone else, that wouldn't have stopped him blaming them, taking a lot of House points and giving them detention – and if Potter had been the one, the boy would be running for his life right about now – but... but this was Granger, and he was now dismally aware that where she was concerned his usual rules no longer seemed to apply.

As the awkward silence dragged out, he was trying uncomfortably to think of some way of apologising without actually saying sorry – not only was he terrible at apologies, and didn't want to admit that he was actually sorry, but Professor Snape didn't apologise for hurting students; in fact, he revelled in it – when it became somewhat moot as his arm began to burn. Oh, fuck. He didn't need this now. He wasn't in the mood and would end up seriously annoying someone; still, maybe a duel with someone he disliked would help him clear his head, as long as he didn't pick anyone his master wanted at the moment.

Avoiding her eyes, he said rather stiffly, "I may well see you in the hospital wing later."

She drew in a sharp breath in response, pushing her anger away. "Are you being Summoned, sir?"

He bit his tongue to stop himself snapping 'Obviously' at her, and merely nodded, turning away and automatically fishing his mask and robe out of their usual pocket. "I'm sure you can see yourself out. Preferably without touching anything."

Snape looked a real mess when Hermione entered the hospital wing later that night; his face was covered in blood and his half-open coat and the white shirt beneath it were both spattered with gore. Despite herself, she asked, "What happened?"

He wouldn't even look at her in response, and Madam Pomfrey answered absently, "By the look of things, a fairly weak Reductor curse to the face. Nasty, but not life threatening. He has a broken jaw and probably some loose teeth. Hold still, Severus, and open your mouth as far as you can." Snape gave her an unreadable look before obeying, and both women winced; his jaw didn't open so much as simply fall, accompanied by a wave of crimson that poured out of his mouth.

"Well, that's worse than I thought it would be," the nurse noted dispassionately after a moment, using her wand to siphon away the worst of the gore so that she could inspect the damage. "I think you've lost a tooth, Severus, unfortunately, but it's quite hard to see – everything's been twisted around in here." She started poking around in his mouth; Snape's eyes turned flat and distant as he reverted to his usual trick of pretending that he wasn't there and that it wasn't happening, trying to maintain as much dignity as possible given that bloody drool was running down his chin.

Hermione moved in for a better look; his already crooked teeth were all over the place right now, emphasising the existing malocclusion, and his whole jaw was twisted to one side and almost hanging loose. There were splinters and fragments of bone visible in his gums, his tongue and the inside of his cheek, there was a deep wound across the roof of his mouth that was seeping blood, and Madam Pomfrey was right, one of the upper left molars was missing. All in all, it looked a bit of a mess; her parents would have been utterly horrified – although they would anyway, with his teeth, she told herself uncharitably, still seriously angry with him. She had grown dangerously complacent, becoming used to Snape treating her fairly decently outside classes and ignoring her during them; she had forgotten just what a petty, spiteful and unjust bastard he could be at times.

"What do you think, Hermione?" Madam Pomfrey asked, breaking in to her reverie.

About to answer, Hermione paused as a cold shiver ran down her spine; she had a sudden sense of standing at a crossroads, as if what she said next was a lot more important than she thought it was. It wasn't a very nice feeling; a disorientating sense of uncertainty. Distantly, she heard her own voice with mild surprise as she replied quietly and with deliberate emphasis, "I see no difference."

Madam Pomfrey simply looked puzzled, as well she might, but Snape's head snapped around and he stared at her, his black eyes sharp and piercing. His expression went from disbelief to anger, before it faded and he dropped his gaze, looking surprisingly ashamed of himself. He'd got the point, at least, although Hermione didn't expect for a moment that he would let it stop him from tearing a strip off her as soon as his jaw was back in place.

Once the repairs were done – he claimed not to know what had become of the missing tooth, but thought it probable that he had accidentally swallowed it – and Madam Pomfrey had gone in search of something soothing to wash his mouth out with, Hermione took a breath and bit the bullet. "I'm sorry for what I said earlier, sir. And for... before." He had shielded very quickly, but she had still caught a brief flash of real deep fear from him. Choosing the werewolf had been rather unkind; he could have retaliated with any of her fears, she was sure he knew them by now. There had been nicer ways to annoy him, as daft as that sounded, without playing on his fears.

His voice was quieter than usual and the edges of his words slightly softened due to his sore mouth as he shivered and replied, "No, you aren't. Nor should you be."

She blinked at him. "You're not angry, sir?"

"No. Oddly impressed, if anything, I think. Few people have the courage to tell me when I've gone too far." He worked his jaw slowly and carefully from side to side, almost experimentally, before reaching up and starting to poke at it in direct defiance of Madam Pomfrey's orders.

"Harry and Ron tried to..."

"No, they didn't," he interrupted contemptuously. "They shouted rude words at me like seven year olds. It was a pathetic juvenile display and it made as much of an impression as every other such display I have seen over the years. Besides, although I am loath to admit it and will deny it until the end of time should you tell anyone else, I deserved worse earlier. I started it. You also responded to the attack in exactly the right way to resist such an assault."

Taking a risk, she sat on the cot next to him; he was still avoiding her eyes, she noticed, adding to her confusion. He wasn't reacting the way she had come to expect; something was different tonight. "Why did you say that about my teeth, sir?" she asked, trying and failing to keep the pain out of her voice. He had truly hurt her last year, and again earlier this evening.

"I don't think you want me to answer that, Miss Granger," he replied quietly; she could feel him shivering still.

"Yes, I do."

He sighed, still looking at the floor. "I wanted to hurt you," he said indifferently. "It's that simple. I was having a bad day and I wanted to take it out on someone else and you were a convenient target. I am not proud of it, I regret it, but there it is."

Before she could stop to remember who she was talking to, she asked acidly, "And do you think that's appropriate behaviour from a teacher?"

"I don't have this job because I am a good teacher, Miss Granger," he responded tiredly. "I am here because the Headmaster needed to keep an eye on me and needed me to have plenty of information to assure the Dark Lord of my loyalty when he eventually returned. No other reason. Of course it wasn't appropriate. It wasn't fair, it wasn't nice and it wasn't true. I am somewhat surprised that you think any of those reasons might have stopped me from saying it. Surely by now you have realised that I am in fact every bit as unpleasant as I seem."

There really wasn't much she could say to that, but she was disappointed. She had hoped that there had been some deeper reason, some sort of motive behind it, drawing the focus away from Harry and Malfoy before the situation grew any worse or something, but apparently he had said it just because he was that much of a bastard. Feeling strangely let down, she only nodded and shifted a little further away from him, fiddling with a lock of hair silently as Madam Pomfrey returned and bade Snape rinse his mouth with a milky-looking potion.

As he was leaving, Hermione said quietly, "That wasn't an apology, sir."

Snape turned and looked at her, raising an eyebrow; his eyes glittered a little as he replied matter-of-factly, "No, it wasn't. Well observed." Regarding her for a moment, he nodded once and left the room, closing the door quietly behind him.

Despite herself, Hermione actually laughed softly, shaking her head. At least he was honest about it.

Severus was sorry to have missed the departure of the Weasley twins, but they were already gone by the time he made it out of his dungeons. Their dramatic exit was the declaration of open hostilities; their joke products were all over the school, and within a week at least half of all the toad's students were leaving her lessons in the first ten minutes with a very varied and creative range of ailments. With one accord, the staff gleefully joined in; Severus had already made her very, very nervous about what she ate after several nasty bouts of gastric flu and was mostly content to sit back and watch his colleagues starting to play.

Minerva pulled the best stunt, he was forced to admit; she had broken into the toad's office and Transfigured all those horrific kitten plates so that they looked like real kittens, ginger and tabby and black and tortoiseshell, rather than pink or purple. She had removed their bows and fixed their crossed eyes as well. The kittens actually seemed quite pleased, Severus had noted idly next time he was in there – for some reason Umbridge insisted on holding staff meetings in her office rather than in the staff room – but the toad had been absolutely livid, especially since she had so far been unable to reverse it. His superior had probably won herself the pot for that one, annoyingly.

Filius showed a knack for disrupting the staff meetings; the little Charms teacher had rapidly realised that few people took him seriously and that even someone as paranoid as Umbridge wouldn't suspect him, and really went to town. The temperature changed dramatically every few minutes, the window came loose from its frame and let gusts of wind through – a wind that didn't exist outside – and the candles and lamps flickered or changed colour so rapidly they seemed to strobe, or simply went out entirely; they sat through more than one meeting by wand light, and discovered idly that several of them had a certain odd talent for shadow puppets. Severus earned himself a slap around the back of the head from Minerva for his admittedly somewhat obscene contribution to the theatre.

Septima Vector, Rolanda Hooch and Aurora Sinistra had formed an alliance – Severus had promptly christened them Macbeth's Coven, if only in his head – and had begun following the students' example when it came to animals, only instead of letting Nifflers into her rooms, they let in tomcats. Entire tomcats, who therefore naturally proceeded to spray everywhere before clawing anything that would take a claw, and on one occasion when they let in two at once having a splendid fight. They had also let Peeves in twice, to the poltergeist's joy.

For his part, Severus let it happen, mostly too tired to muster his former enthusiasm as the end of the year drew closer and rather preoccupied with other matters. He did, however, play to his strengths and shamelessly mock everything the toad said; he had honed the delicate use of sarcasm to a fine art over the years, and his tongue was as sharp as his wits. Most of the time she didn't even realise that he wasn't agreeing with her, and he usually had the others in stitches. It was a small bright spark of amusement in an increasingly grim and bleak world.

"Filius, may I talk to you, if you're free? I want to ask your opinion."

The little Charms teacher looked up from the pile of essays he was marking. He looked quite surprised to see Severus standing in the doorway of his office – as well he might; Severus wasn't a social man and rarely if ever sought his colleagues' company for anything, let alone a professional opinion – but recovered smoothly and offered him a smile. "Of course, Severus. Come in. May I offer you a drink?"

"No, thank you," he replied tersely, closing the door behind him and settling uncomfortably into a chair, automatically suppressing a wince. "I wanted to ask – what factors would cause a Patronus to stop working?" he asked bluntly. No need to beat around the bush; he wasn't in the mood for small talk and he didn't have time for it. This was preying on his mind too much for comfort and he needed to sort it out as quickly as possible.

"Stop working?" Flitwick echoed, frowning. "How do you mean?"

"I mean that the Patronus charm used to work and now no longer does," he snapped, exasperated. "What else would I mean?"

"Are we talking about you, Severus?"

"Yes," he admitted through gritted teeth.

"I didn't realise that Death Eaters could produce a corporeal Patronus," the Head of Ravenclaw noted in a tone of mild surprise.

He scowled, clenching his jaw for a moment. "They can't," he replied curtly. It was odd that the words stung him so much; after all, they were perfectly true. He was a Death Eater, had been put on trial for it many years ago – a memory that still haunted his dreams – and had admitted it publicly, even to the point of brazenly showing his Dark Mark to the Minister of Magic, which was certainly not his cleverest move ever. And yet, someone else calling him a Death Eater stung. Strange.

"But you can?"

"I just said so, didn't I? At least, I used to be able to. Now, well... see for yourself." Gloomily, he drew his wand from his sleeve and concentrated for a moment. "Expecto patronum."

Both wizards watched the swirling silvery mist. It wasn't the wispy and insubstantial effort of someone who had only just learned to perform the charm, or of someone using a memory too weak to succeed. Instead, it was almost as if something was preventing the Patronus from forming. There was a suggestion of something four-legged in the roiling foggy tendrils, but the shape lacked cohesion and kept falling apart, struggling to reform and failing.

"I've never seen anything like this, Severus," the Charms teacher said after a pause, watching the silver swirls thoughtfully. He picked up some fresh parchment and reached for his quill. "Let's start with the basics. How old were you when you first cast a corporeal Patronus?"

"Seventeen." He remembered that Defence lesson vividly; James had created his stag first. Lily's doe had manifested half an hour later, and amidst all the teasing and sighing Severus had realised that he didn't dare keep trying to cast a Patronus in front of the others, not if they showed something so personal. He'd practiced alone in the Room of Requirement, and he had been dismayed and embarrassed but certainly not surprised when the silver doe had finally formed.

Flitwick blinked at the answer, but nodded and started making notes. "What was its form?"

"I'm not going to tell you that." Only two other people in the world knew about his Patronus; Dumbledore, and the wizard who had been his NEWT examiner. Severus didn't remember the man's name, but a professional invigilator would have seen so many students cast that spell that there was no chance he would remember an individual; besides, even if he did, he wouldn't know what it represented. And Dumbledore had promised long ago never to tell anyone.

His colleague made no attempt to argue; Filius had known him since he was eleven and knew how stubborn he could be when he needed to. "Very well. Has its form changed at all before?"

"No. Never." Whatever people might say about him, at least he was constant.

"And when did this change occur?"

"I don't know. I use this charm so seldom. I noticed it a few weeks ago; when I couldn't find anything by myself, I came to you."

"Hmm. Is it something to do with the memory you based it on?"

Severus shook his head. "I doubt it. I always use the same memory; it's never been an issue before. In any case, once this problem started, I tried other memories, and it's always the same." Flitwick looked mildly surprised when he heard that, as well he might; most wizards didn't rely on a single memory for their Patronus. Most wizards had a rather larger stock of happy memories to draw upon than Severus did.

"Well, I'm sorry, Severus, but I really don't know what to suggest. Has something happened in your life recently that might have influenced it?"

Nothing that I'm ever going to tell you. "Not really, no," he replied with deliberate vagueness. "But even if that was it, surely that would cause the Patronus to change forms, rather than stop working? Strong emotional upheaval can make it change, I know that, but it hasn't changed, it's broken." Which, when you thought about it, was quite ironic, really. He had wondered if the charm was somehow picking up on his emotional confusion – since he didn't know what he was feeling, maybe the Patronus didn't, either. He just hoped that since it hadn't actually changed, maybe it wasn't anything to do with... her after all. God, he hoped so, but he suspected he wasn't that lucky.

"Ordinarily, yes, you're right," the Charms teacher agreed, frowning again as he considered his notes. "It might simply be due to stress, you know. Your life isn't exactly easy at the moment."

He barked a laugh. "That's the understatement of the century, Filius, but no. I'm no more stressed now than I was six months ago."

The little wizard hesitated. "There is one possible theory, but you're not going to like it."

He narrowed his eyes. "Go on..."

"Well, the Patronus charm is perceived by many to be the definitive Light spell," Flitwick said slowly. "I assume that is why the Death Eaters are unable to cast it – which is why it was such a surprise to learn that you could. In any case, it is possible, maybe even probable, that those who regularly come into contact with the Dark Arts lose the ability to create a Patronus, as the dark magic destroys the pure positive impulses that create it..." He trailed off, clearly lacking the courage to ask the question.

Severus' lip curled. "I haven't done anything darker or more bloody than usual recently," he said coldly. "My soul is no more stained now than it was earlier this year." That was a lie, of course, but the stains and tears were due to cumulative damage, not an increase in severity. Damn you, Flitwick. Pushing down the pointless anger, he sighed. "That's not it, anyway. My Patronus is no weaker than it was. It just won't take solid form."

"That's true. I don't know what else to suggest, then, Severus. It may be that your Patronus is in the process of changing forms, for whatever reason – such changes are usually instantaneous, but given your circumstances, perhaps it will take time. All you can do is keep trying and see if anything changes. I'm sorry I couldn't be more help."

"I wasn't expecting much," he muttered. "Thank you for trying, at least." He stood up.

"Was there anything else?"

"Just one thing," he said softly. It took only moments to cast three spells: a non-verbal Accio followed bya non-verbal Incendio to destroy the notes Flitwick had made, followed by a quiet, "Obliviate," as he left the room.

I'm sorry, Filius, but I can't afford to risk anyone else finding out about this. I don't trust anyone any more.

Severus was very worried. He was in deep trouble now, from a source he could never have anticipated. He had expected problems and threats from all sides and had done what he could to prepare for them all, but there were no defences against this. Somewhere, somehow, Hermione Granger had become a bigger threat to him than even Voldemort, a threat inexplicably made all the more potent by the fact that nobody had any idea, least of all her.

He didn't even know why. No, that was a lie. He tried not to lie to himself any more than strictly necessary to keep functioning. He knew exactly why, and that knowledge was eating him hollow.

Oh, there were lots of superficial reasons. The simplest explanation was purely that she was growing into a moderately attractive young woman and he hadn't been laid in a very long time, but that alone had never been enough for him, and he'd never paid that sort of attention to any of his students. She was smart, too, his intellectual equal if he ever actually made himself admit it, and that was a fairly powerful draw in itself. She was nice to him, as well, which was part of the real reason. And physically she wasn't a threat because she didn't look like anyone who carried negative associations from his past.

You can't even admit she's pretty, Severus. What the fuck do you expect to happen?

Fine, then, physically she was fairly attractive, at least to his eyes. Severus was a very good spy; he saw beyond the superficial. He could see beyond the bushy hair and the indifferent clothes, and he had always preferred the kind of woman who wasn't trying. If he had a physical type at all, he had to admit, he liked curvy brunettes anyway – Lily had been an anomaly, a wild card, and completely irrelevant in this context. He also had to admit that he had a soft spot for bossy women – look at his friends. But none of that mattered; the girl was hardly the first in his life to fit those criteria, and she was still too young for him to be seriously attracted – he tried to ignore the little voice that said yet.

Occlumency had started it, ironically enough. He'd seen enough of her mind over the weeks of lessons to gain a vivid impression of who she was. The strength and force of her personality was startling in a girl her age; that legendary Gryffindor courage was tempered by a healthy dose of the common sense that her friends so conspicuously lacked, giving her a certain clarity and sharpness of thought enhanced by her natural intelligence. Her sense of humour matched his own, as well, when she relaxed enough to be honest; she had a wry, sharp, quick wit that he liked, although she was gentler about it, less cutting and harsh than his jokes tended to be. There was a vitality about her, too, that showed up in the mental landscape as brightness approaching flame, a sense of life and energy and warmth, and she was so infuriatingly stubborn that perversely he'd come to like it instead of being annoyed by it. It was hard not to admire something like that, but even that wasn't the whole truth.

The reality was almost laughably simple. She cared about him. That was it, the secret either of his masters would have given their eye teeth to learn, the way to completely control Severus Snape; all anyone had ever had to do was care whether he lived or died. Not because his death might inconvenience them somehow, not because of what he could do or what they could get out of him, but simply for his own sake. Despite everything, Severus knew he had never outgrown the frightened, abused, lonely boy he had once been; all he had ever wanted was for someone to genuinely like him.

There were people in his life who cared, somewhat. Certainly Poppy would grieve when he died, and so would Minerva, and perhaps even Dumbledore to some extent – although he somewhat doubted that. Dilys and Phineas, too, he supposed, even if they were dead. Strangely, Lucius might, as well; he didn't trust his fellow Death Eater an inch, of course, but they were close enough friends for Severus to be Draco's godfather. But it had never been enough. There was no one person who thought of Severus Snape as an important part of their personal world, only as part of a larger plan; he wasn't personally significant to anyone.

That was where it broke down, of course. Granger cared about everyone; she probably cried over small lost baby birds, too. She had a natural Healer's fathomless compassion, and he shouldn't take it personally, because after all, why should anyone care about him, particularly someone like her, who had seen most of the worst bits of his grubby and tattered soul over the years? Still, he remembered with disturbing clarity the first time she had touched his hand and tried to ease his pain, for no reason except to make him feel better. She had still hated him at that point, he knew that for certain, and she had been worried that he would respond by losing his temper at her presumption, but she had wanted to make him feel better. That pure and innocent gesture had nearly reduced him to tears, he'd been that far gone.

Severus wasn't stupid, and he knew full well that this only existed in his own head; nothing would ever happen, for more reasons than he could easily list in an hour. That didn't matter. His feelings didn't require reciprocation to vindicate them, after all. At the moment, Granger saw him as her teacher, her sometime patient, her ally and possibly in some weird way her... friend. That was more than enough for him to live with quite happily, more than he had any right to expect, more than he could have hoped for. He had never bothered wasting time indulging himself with wistful thoughts of what could never be; it was enough that he could acknowledge what he might like, and then put it away and get on with what he actually had.

He wasn't worried about anyone else finding out, either. It wasn't as if concealing things was a challenge for him. Granger was very carefully hidden in the shadowy depths of his mind, along with everything else important enough to keep safe, and there she would stay. Nobody was capable of getting that deep into his head, because the sheer trauma of the attempt would have killed him long before anyone got that far. He'd see to that. As for finding out by more mundane methods, he wasn't worried about that, either; he was a far better actor now than he had been as a teenager, and Hell would freeze over before he admitted anything to anyone.

Nonetheless, he was worried. This could jeopardise the whole plan. The plan, as far as he understood it – Dumbledore was a sneaky bastard at times and sometimes Severus suspected the old buzzard of making it up as he went along a lot of the time; the Headmaster would never reveal the entire plan – was for Severus to continue spying and enduring unimaginable torments in order to gather enough information to keep Potter alive, while the rest of the Order strutted around feeling important and making overtures to various peoples who couldn't care less about the war and did their best to thwart the plans that he discovered along the way. Once Potter had learned enough, or done enough, or whatever the final plan was, the boy was then supposed to kill Voldemort – somehow.

By that point, Severus would be dead. Even if by some miracle Voldemort never discovered his treachery, he couldn't keep living like this indefinitely. He suspected that he had a couple more years at most before sheer cumulative damage finally killed him – if something more dramatic didn't carry him off before then, obviously – and he would probably have another mental breakdown before then. It was looking increasingly less likely that he would survive to see his fortieth birthday. That was fine. He'd known when he first knelt at Dumbledore's feet and swore to him that it would kill him eventually, because after all, double agents didn't often die of natural causes. That was the whole point, really; it hadn't mattered to him then. His own life meant nothing to him – in which case, he supposed, it was a little irrational to expect it to matter to anyone else – and he had always been quite happy to die if it meant bringing down Voldemort.

Only, now, he didn't want to.

That was the threat Hermione Granger posed to him. She had shown him that life wasn't quite as empty and hollow as he had always known it to be. Severus wasn't at all sure, now, that he could throw his life away so casually.

Ordinarily, being called at almost two in the morning would have resulted in instant death for whoever had roused him, but unsurprisingly Severus hadn't been asleep. His insomnia was getting worse; he'd dozed briefly earlier in the evening, been woken by nightmares and hadn't bothered trying to go back to sleep. He was curled up in his battered armchair by the fire and re-reading The Hunchback of Notre Dame when Dilys' voice almost screamed his name from the picture on the wall. "Severus!"

Startled, more by the tone than the call, he glanced up. "What's wrong with you?"

"Get to the hospital wing. Now. Poppy needs your help."

Putting his book down, he stood and shrugged into his robe, finding his boots. "Tell me." His mind was racing; what on earth had happened? It was around the right time for Potter to do his annual stupidly-confronting-danger trick, admittedly...

"It's Minerva," Dilys said curtly, cutting off his speculation as he stared at her. "Poppy's not strong enough to help her alone. Move, Severus, please."

He moved, racing through the castle, a dark shadow slipping through the secret passages and hidden stairways that took him to the infirmary as quickly as possible. He was sweating by the time he got there, panting and hunching over to ease a stitch, and grew seriously worried when a white-faced Poppy barely stopped herself from hugging him. "What's wrong?" he asked urgently, fighting for breath.

Poppy led him to the bed and pulled aside the curtains. Minerva was unconscious and deathly pale, breathing very shallowly. "She's very weak," the nurse said shakily. "I need your help, Severus."

Nodding, he drew his wand. "What happened?"

"That bitch," the mediwitch spat. The sudden venom in her tone startled him, before he registered what she'd said and froze for a long moment.

"She did this?" he asked in a very dangerous tone of voice. Umbridge would die for it if she had. He'd take her head personally, pickle it in a jar for the shelves in his office, and give what was left to Greyback to play with. Or maybe he'd give her to Greyback first, and take her head afterwards.

"No, no," Poppy said tiredly. "Her thugs came for Hagrid tonight. Minerva went to try and stop them." She gestured at the unconscious witch helplessly. "Four Stunners direct to the chest at close range..." She didn't need to say anything else.

Severus nodded and started work, running a few quick diagnostics to assess the damage. "I can give her strength and stabilise her, but then she'll need to be taken to St Mungo's," he said quietly, studying the results. "I don't know how to treat this any more than you do. It's going to be all over the school by the end of breakfast tomorrow, too..."

"It's already all over the school," Poppy corrected him. "The fifth years had their Astronomy OWL tonight. They saw the whole thing from the tower. Examiner Tofty is furious; he's at the Ministry right now, kicking up a fuss."

"Why isn't there an army of Gryffindors outside the door, then?" he asked, beginning to move his wand in a series of quick, precise movements.

"Filius dealt with them, I believe. I'm sure they're all plotting her death right now, but at least they're quiet."

"They're not the only ones," Severus muttered through clenched teeth. He and Minerva weren't truly friends, more friendly rivals; she was as quick as anyone to suspect him when something serious happened, and the divide between Slytherin and Gryffindor was wide and deep, and both of them had too many memories of his student days to ever really be friends. But of all his colleagues, she was the one he got on with best, at least some of the time, and she was fundamentally part of Hogwarts; besides, now the Headmaster and the Deputy Headmistress were both absent, and the school was very vulnerable.

Trying to keep calm, he began the soft singsong chant of his own personal healing spells, concentrating on what he was doing as Poppy sorted through her healing potions. "Why isn't Miss Granger here?" he asked during a pause for breath.

"I thought she would be more use helping Mr Potter keep his temper," the nurse replied quietly. "She can't help with something like this yet, and there isn't much to see, and if Harry blows up again without his Head of House to protect him I don't know what will happen."

He nodded and carried on chanting, putting his wand down and resting his fingertips on Minerva's forehead, laying his other hand on the blankets over her stomach and concentrating on directing his magic, trying to keep hold of his temper. Regardless of how he actually felt about her, he'd miss her if anything happened, and the world would be a darker place to lose her.

"Who's in charge now?" Poppy asked him softly during another pause.

"The Headmistress," he replied sarcastically, and she slapped his shoulder.

"Don't blaspheme."

That earned her half a smile, albeit a slightly distracted one, and he shook his head. "Filius has seniority, but... we never actually discussed Minerva's successor, but I think it's probably supposed to be me. God help us all," he added. He'd never been convinced that he was capable of running the school, and he was so unpopular that actually the only chance he had was of being Deputy Headmaster under Umbridge; at least the students hated her more than they did him. Besides, he was a Death Eater, and he had no free time anyway. "It's almost the end of term. I'm inclined to let anarchy reign. Let Dolores reap what she has sown."

"Can we recall Albus?"

"I've no idea where he is, Poppy. He's not at Headquarters. Minerva was in contact with him, I assume, but I don't know for certain."

"Don't the Order have some sort of arrangement in place for situations like this?"

"How should I know?" he asked, a little bitterly, and resumed his quiet chanting again before she could respond. How the Order worked was nothing to do with him, he'd had that made perfectly clear to him ever since he'd first gone to Dumbledore and shown him the Dark Mark beginning to return. His job was to do as he was told, and nothing more.

He stared into his colleague's pale face as the spell rippled endlessly from his tongue. He was going to have Dolores Umbridge's head on a spike for this, he promised himself grimly, even if it took him years to manage it or if he died in the attempt.

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 11 of 60

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