Continuing Tales

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 12 of 60

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Thank God it's almost the end of the year. Severus was exhausted and actually looking forward to the holidays. Yes, his Death Eater activities would increase, but he'd be free the rest of the time and could catch up on his sleep; and, too, that helpful curse of his master's would hopefully kick in any day now and get rid of Umbridge. Severus was quite prepared to do it himself if Fate didn't seem to take a hand soon, especially since Minerva was now in St Mungo's after what those bastards had done. Umbridge hadn't named a deputy yet, which he was immensely thankful for because he really didn't want it to be him.

He completed the last form on the last piece of paperwork that needed to be done for the rest of the term and set his quill down with a flourish, sitting back and stretching in his chair and feeling quite pleased that it was out of the way. Standing up, he decided that he deserved a drink and was on the way to his comfortable old armchair when someone knocked at his office door and he nearly groaned. What did the little nuisances want now?

"Good evening, Draco," he greeted his godson, hiding his irritation. "What brings you here this evening?"

The boy smirked at him. "The Headmistress sent me, uncle." Severus overlooked the informal address; Draco had called him Uncle Severus since he was a toddler too young to pronounce it correctly, despite the fact that they weren't related. Usually he insisted on more formal titles in school, but there was nobody else in earshot, and in any case Draco's next words gave him something far more important to worry about: "We caught Potter and his little gang breaking in to her office, and she wants you to come and help."

Oh, fuck. Potter, what the hell have you done now? "How delightful," he drawled sarcastically. "It must be at least a week since he last did anything stupid. Very well, let us get this farce over with."

As he followed Draco through the castle, his mind was racing frantically, every instinct screaming at him that something was wrong. He'd been told to ignore any summons this evening, because Lucius and Bella were leading some sort of mission that he wasn't involved in, and he had to admit that he hadn't tried as hard as he could have done to find out what they were up to. His arm was prickling a bit, but it wasn't burning... yet.

Draco opened the door to Umbridge's office and Severus walked into insanity. He looked around from behind his Occlumency defences at quite a few of his students, all of whom seemed to be trying to murder Gryffindors, automatically noting them all; Granger was being half-crushed against the wall by Bulstrode, Weasley was bleeding on Warrington, Longbottom was being throttled by Crabbe. Interestingly, a couple of younger students seemed to be involved this time; Miss Weasley was struggling with Farley – he hadn't even realised she was one of Umbridge's thugs; she was a sixth year – and Goyle was looking as stupid as ever, since Lovegood was completely ignoring him and gazing interestedly at the wall with her usual vacant expression and looking somewhat out of place in her Ravenclaw tie. Potter stood at bay in the middle of all this, looking... well, rather crazed, which was a marginal improvement over his default expressions of either sulky or bewildered.

"You wanted to see me, Headmistress?" he asked indifferently, managing not to choke on the title.

"Ah, Professor Snape," she greeted him, with what might have been a nice sunny smile on anyone else. "Yes, I would like another bottle of Veritaserum, as quick as you can, please."

And I'd like to retire to a chateau in the south of France as a multi-millionaire, but that's about as likely as my taking up a new career as the newest member of the Chippendales. He gave her a bland look, letting his hair fall forward to partially hide his expression. "You took my last bottle to interrogate Potter. Surely you did not use it all? I told you that three drops would be sufficient."

To his horrified amazement, she blushed, which was one of the more disturbing things he'd seen in the past year or two. "You can make some more, can't you?" she said in a voice one note away from simpering, and for a moment he thought he might actually be sick. Recently she had begun to remind him more and more of Bellatrix; they both took the same childlike delight in causing pain. Even if Umbridge still denied it to herself, it was in her, and growing stronger by the day.

"Certainly," he said coolly, sneering a little and doing his best to ignore the students, who were all staring at him. His Slytherins were grinning and most of the others looked horrified and furious, although no doubt Granger would be staring pleadingly at him if her face had been visible. He hoped she could still breathe; Bulstrode was a perfect example of why more students should take exercise, the girl was built like a wardrobe. "It takes a full moon-cycle to mature, so I should have it ready for you in around a month," he added urbanely.

The look on her face was priceless, as Umbridge swelled in fury and squawked, "A month? A month?" in a voice straight out of one of the terrible cartoons from his childhood; she sounded like a Scooby Doo villain. "But I need it this evening, Snape!" How sad for you, then. "I have just found Potter using my fire to communicate with a person or persons unknown!"

"Really?" he asked mildly. Fuck, Potter, what do you think you're doing? Turning, he looked at the boy, who – for once, by some miracle – actually seemed to understand and opened his eyes wide, staring directly back at him. Wandless and nonverbal Legilimency was very difficult even when he wasn't staring into Lily's green eyes, and Potter was so agitated that he couldn't identify the confused swirl of images. I can't hear your thoughts, Potter. Show me, don't tell me... "Well, it doesn't surprise me," he said absently, trying to ignore Umbridge and see what the boy was trying to show him. "Potter has never shown much inclination to follow school rules." Damnit, boy, concentrate! I can't see! There was something... a tall figure that he thought was the Dark Lord, and an indistinct buzz of noise...

"I wish to interrogate him!" Umbridge repeated in almost childish anger; he looked back at her for a moment despite himself, just to see whether she really was going to stamp her foot. "I wish you to provide me with a potion that will force him to tell me the truth!"

Oh, shut the hell up, woman. If the room hadn't been so full of students, he'd have Stunned her and let Potter talk to him, since obviously the boy was desperate, but he couldn't deal with so many. He replied evenly, not even really trying to hide his contempt any more, "I have already told you that I have no further stocks of Veritaserum. Unless you wish to poison Potter – and I assure you I would have the greatest sympathy with you if you did – I cannot help you. The only trouble is that most venoms act too fast to give the victim much time for truth-telling."

Hoping that the boy would have calmed down a little, Severus looked back at him and re-formed the connection, struggling to make sense of the flood of images churning through Potter's mind. The boy was actually sweating, he was trying that hard, but he was still focused on mind reading and was obviously trying to send words instead of just concentrating on images. He wished that Granger wasn't still buried behind Bulstrode; she had learned how to keep her head and would hopefully be able to tell him what the hell was going on.

"You are on probation!" Umbridge shrieked at him, and he turned very slowly to face her, raising his eyebrows. Oh, you did not just say that to me, bitch... "You are being deliberately unhelpful!" Well spotted. Only eight months after I started being unhelpful, too. "I expected better, Lucius Malfoy always speaks most highly of you!" No doubt he does. His speaking highly of me got me the Dark Mark, God help us all. "Now get out of my office!" Gladly.

He bowed to her as sarcastically as he could manage and turned on his heel, and Potter yelled at his back, his voice high and shaky with desperation. "He's got Padfoot!" What? He froze, not daring to look around, and the boy continued frantically, "He's got Padfoot at the place where it's hidden!"

Under other circumstances, Severus would have been reluctantly impressed that Potter had finally learned something approaching secrecy and subtlety, but right now his guts had turned to ice water as he absorbed the implication of his words.

"Padfoot?" Umbridge shrilled at him. "What is Padfoot? Where what is hidden? What does he mean, Snape?"

He turned slowly, focusing on keeping his face expressionless, raising his eyebrows in an attempt at innocent surprise as his mind began to race. "I have no idea," he lied coldly. "Potter, when I want nonsense shouted at me I shall give you a Babbling Beverage." Turning away again, he added witheringly, "And Crabbe, loosen your hold a little. If Longbottom suffocates it will mean a lot of tedious paperwork and I am afraid I shall have to mention it on your reference if ever you apply for a job."

Closing the door behind him, he walked at a measured pace through the corridors, thinking furiously. Black had been captured? How? Grimmauld Place was inviolate; there was no way they'd got the location from Dumbledore. Had Black sneaked out again and been caught? It was possible, but even though the dog was undeniably that stupid nobody else would have let him.

No, this all stank like week-dead fish. Apart from anything else, if there had been some plot to take Black, he would have been involved; the Dark Lord knew how much they loathed one another and would have permitted Severus to join in the fun. And even if he had been caught, why take him to the Department of Mysteries? Nothing in there would do them any good... unless they were to lure Potter there. By, for example, threatening his godfather.

All right, fine. But how did Potter know? And why had he been trying to use the fire to speak to someone? Severus worried at his lower lip with his teeth, biting hard enough to hurt as he thought. Shit, shit, shit! He had to find out what was going on. Pausing at the nearest portrait, he spoke crisply to the stern-looking wizard in the frame, some distant Transfiguration expert he couldn't remember the name of. "Find Phineas Nigellus' portrait and tell him I need to speak to him urgently."

"What's so important?" the former Headmaster asked huffily.

Trying not to think about what Umbridge might be doing to the children, Severus snapped, "Get to your other frame and tell me where Black is. Now."

Phineas went, grudgingly, and came back only a minute later. "Sulking in the Hippogriff's room as usual. Why?"

Almost collapsing with relief, Severus shrugged. "It doesn't matter. I just needed to be sure he was there." Ignoring the portrait's anger, he turned and walked away, heading back to the toad's office to try and make sure she didn't kill any of the students, so he could tell Potter that it wasn't true.

When he walked in, he found his Slytherins all nursing various lumps and bruises and arguing with each other, and not a Gryffindor – or a Ravenclaw – in sight. Oh, for fuck's sake, what's happened now? "What on earth have you all been doing?" he inquired, perversely tempted to laugh.

That desire only increased when a whining and indignant Draco told him what had happened. Granger had pulled off what sounded like an Oscar-worthy performance, and one he was sorry to have missed, and had successfully lured the toad off into the Forbidden Forest with her and Potter, at which point their little friends had neatly fought off the so-called Inquisitorial Squad and scarpered.

"Well, you have all covered yourselves in glory tonight," he said scathingly, looking at the sorry bunch of students staring back at him with sullen expressions. "This is what you get for being lapdogs for someone like her. I have absolutely no sympathy – particularly not with you two," he added witheringly, staring at Farley and Goyle, "being defeated by a pair of fourth-years, one of whom is only nominally on the same planet as the rest of us."

Lovegood's Potions work was... unique, to say the least, but at least she never caused explosions. She had drugged half her class on one memorable occasion, filling the lab with fumes that had simulated an LSD trip and had most of them babbling confusedly about tentacles coming through the windows – he still wasn't quite sure about that one; the dungeons didn't have windows – but at least those lessons were never dull, and her homework could be absolutely hilarious at times.

"But sir," Draco protested, "the Headmistress – Potter – shouldn't we...?"

"It's only Potter and Granger. I'm sure the Ministry's finest will manage," he replied with delicate mockery, wondering with vicious glee just what the girl had planned in her bushy head. He'd be bitterly disappointed with her if it wasn't something wonderful. "Get to your common room. I will sort out this mess. And if any of you put so much as a toe outside the portal before morning, you will be very sorry indeed. Do I make myself clear?" Despite popular opinion, he didn't let his students get away with everything. In private, he was as hard on them as he could be without jeopardising his position, and he did punish them when they deserved it.

That earned him a chorus of sulky "Yes, sir," as the Inquisitorial Squad slunk off with their tails between their legs. Breathing out slowly, Severus rubbed his eyes and left, heading to the walltops and staring out at the darkened forest, wondering what was going on out there.

After a while he saw that something was happening; he could very faintly hear sounds, and the disturbance even sent some of the Thestrals soaring away. Whatever plan Granger had come up with, it had obviously been quite spectacular; he looked forward to hearing about it.

Gradually as the sky darkened Severus started to get uneasy. His arm had burned briefly once or twice, so obviously Lucius and Bella's mission was under way, but his responsibility right now was the school. Finally he saw movement at the edge of the tree line, and squinted into the shadows until he recognised Firenze; the pale centaur was carrying someone slung over his back, and he was alone. Ice slid down his spine as he saw Umbridge; where are the children? Oh, God.

He knew that Black hadn't been taken, but Potter had been convinced; the boy had sounded terrified and had even been desperate enough to ask him for help. Abruptly he realised; Occlumency. You stupid little shit, you never did learn to close your mind! Oh, bloody buggering hell. The Dark Lord had realised how to use their connection to his advantage, and had sent the boy a false dream telling him that his godfather had been kidnapped and was being held in the Department of Mysteries. They were counting on Potter to be a Gryffindor; with Dumbledore and Minerva both gone, there was nobody left at Hogwarts the boy would trust, so naturally he would go running off there himself.

And he'd find Lucius and Bella waiting for him.

His Patronus wasn't working any more, even if he was willing to let anyone else in the Order see it, and with Minerva gone there was nobody else here he would trust with this, so he'd either have to risk leaving the school unguarded and in Umbridge's hands – not an option, and it would take too long anyway – or use the one fire that the toad didn't have access to, in Dumbledore's office. Turning, he walked as fast as he dared through the corridors until he reached the gargoyles, who gave him a long look before letting him pass without waiting for the password.

"Severus, what's going on?" Dilys asked from the wall.

He ignored her, dropping to his knees on the rug and lighting the fire and cursing Dumbledore for not giving them a way to contact him. Although admittedly the Headmaster couldn't have known that his Patronus would stop working, or that Minerva would be injured badly enough to have to leave the school, or... Shaking his head, he threw a handful of powder into the flames and shoved his head into the fire. "Twelve Grimmauld Place! Hello, the Order! Tell me someone's home!"

"Keep your greasy hair on, Snivellus, before it catches fire. What's so damned urgent?"

"Black, I never dreamed that I would ever say this, but I'm actually glad to hear your voice," he replied with a shudder, glancing swiftly around the kitchen. Tonks, Lupin, Shacklebolt, Moody and Black; perfect. "Listen to me. A trap has been set up for Potter; the Dark Lord has convinced him that you've been taken and that you're being held in the Department of Mysteries. I think he and his little friends have gone haring off to save you."

"What? Snape –"

"I only found out tonight. I had no knowledge of this! I didn't think he'd believed it either, but he's disappeared with a lot of his friends from their stupid Defence group. Send out the bloody cavalry. And where the hell is Dumbledore?"

"He's due here any minute, actually," Kingsley said.

"Oh, how good of him to join us," Severus spat, relieved and angry in equal measure. "Black, stay put and tell him what's happened. The rest of you had better get over there."

"Shut up, Snivellus. I'm not staying here while my godson's in danger. I'm not as much of a coward as you are."

"I don't have time to watch you straining for a new insult," he retorted, biting his lip for a moment as his arm burned again. "Get moving. I've got to try and hold things together here and try to find out if they're still in the Forbidden Forest, although I doubt it." He yanked his head back out of the flames before anyone could say anything else and turned to find every single portrait staring at him. "Those of you with portraits at the Ministry, keep watch there," he ordered, hurrying to the door.

He didn't want to get Umbridge to the Infirmary; she could lie on the floor and bleed to death for all he cared, although she actually wasn't that badly hurt when he relented and dragged her up there – unashamedly bouncing her off a few walls on the way. Turning her over to Poppy, he roamed briefly around the castle to make sure the other students were all behaving themselves before heading out into the grounds to begin the utterly impossible task of searching the Forbidden Forest.

"I hate trees," he muttered to himself some time later, pausing for a moment to catch his breath and cursing irritably. He was a city boy at heart and he didn't much like the forest; he'd never been in the Cubs or the Scouts and had never wanted to be, and most of his experience of woods consisted of climbing one of three scrubby trees at the edge of the local playground every so often. Half the time he'd fallen out of it, too, or been pushed out by one of the bigger boys.

Apart from anything else, he couldn't fucking see. The moon was up, but it wasn't anywhere near full – just as well; there were no werewolves in the Forest, only rumours and noises, but try telling his phobia that – and it was nearly pitch black. Lumos just filled the place with weird flickering shadows that had him jumping out of his skin all the time because he thought he'd seen something sneaking up on him. He was sticking to the trails where possible, but only Hagrid knew all the paths in here. "Of course," he muttered sourly, "anyone else wouldn't be able to go three feet without tripping over helpful centaurs or good faeries or bloody talking squirrels or something." But no, not him. Pretty much everything in the Forest was both supernatural and highly intelligent, and nothing was going to approach anyone who reeked that strongly of Dark Magic. They all knew he had the Dark Mark – bloody Firenze wouldn't even look at him, and for once he had actually tried to be polite, even if just to annoy Umbridge. Death Eaters were on their own. Even the dangerous creatures avoided him, since he was too skinny to provide much of a meal.

At this point he'd even welcome being attacked by something just so he could burn off a bit of adrenaline. He was more than capable of killing anything in these woods and it might help him calm down. Bloody trees. Bloody Gryffindors. Bloody Harry bloody Potter and his bloody stupid friends. By now he was grimly certain that they were definitely not still here and that they really had unbelievably gone haring off to London chasing moonbeams. This was pointless; he might as well go back to the castle. Maybe he'd get lucky and find out that Umbridge had died of her injuries.

Without a helpful trail of breadcrumbs or something, he had no hope of searching the entire Forest anyway; he wasn't even sure how big it was. Maybe if he'd taken to the air and tried to search in a grid pattern, but his chances of seeing anything at all under the canopy were nil, especially after dark. Knowing his luck he'd probably be attacked by a Thestral, or something worse; besides, he didn't actually like flying. Oh, it was useful enough, and it certainly looked impressive, but learning how to do it had been rather unpleasant and almost fatal. He could Summon one of the castle brooms, of course, but they were all frankly shit since so many students used their own.

Scowling, he admitted defeat and trudged back to the school to take up position on the battlements, pacing back and forth and waiting for something to happen; with nothing else to do, he finally allowed himself to panic as his arm burned again, telling himself firmly once more that it wasn't Hermione Granger he was most worried about.

Severus nearly passed out when Dumbledore's ridiculously flamboyant phoenix Patronus reached him to inform him that they were on their way back. It had been almost the worst evening of his life, spent wearing a hole in the battlements and panicking horribly, flashing back to the last night a Gryffindor he cared about had been in danger and he'd been left helpless with no way of knowing what was happening. He'd chewed his lip to ribbons, struck his knuckles bloody against the stone and scratched his arm raw, more frightened than he had been for a very long time.

The only productive thing he had done in the past few hours was to silently award Gryffindor twenty points for what Granger had done to the toad woman. That had been sheer malevolent genius. Perhaps it had used up all her intelligence, since that was the only reasonable explanation he could come up with to justify why she had then gone skipping after Potter into the jaws of death instead of, for example, Stunning the reckless idiot and coming to see him to find out what was really happening. He had spent the rest of the time stewing in impotent, helpless anger, every nerve on edge as he waited tensely for his arm to burn, and in the end had removed those twenty points again plus a few more out of sheer terrified frustration.

He saw the Headmaster for a grand total of three minutes, long enough for the old man to tell him wearily that the children were all back safely and that they could talk more when everything was done. "I believe Poppy may need your assistance in the Infirmary," Dumbledore added, before taking himself off to – hopefully – shake some sense into Harry sodding Potter and give the boy a long-overdue thrashing. Severus felt his stomach tighten – there had been casualties? – and all but ran up the countless flights of stairs between the dungeons and the hospital wing, cursing his all too vivid imagination as his mind filled with images of bloody horror.


"Severus, thank Merlin," the nurse said tiredly when she saw him.

"Who was hurt?"

"It's mostly just cuts and bruises; Miss Lovegood had a broken ankle, and Mr Longbottom a broken nose. I'd like you to look at Mr Weasley and Miss Granger..." She blinked and said hastily, "Relax, Severus, she isn't too badly hurt."

Severus took a deep breath and unclenched his fists. Don't do that, woman! Are you trying to give me heart failure? "Then why do you need me?" he asked acidly.

"Because I don't recognise the curse used, not because the injury is life threatening," she told him crisply in response. "Mr Weasley is more serious. That way. Now, Severus," she added warningly. He scowled at her, but reluctantly did as he was told, although frankly he could care less what had happened to the boy.

Under other circumstances, he might have found Weasley's injuries more interesting. As it was, dittany would take care of the wounds with minimal scarring, and he had other things on his mind right now. Unlike her red-headed idiot of a friend, Granger was conscious; she flinched when he stepped through the curtains around her bed and her eyes filled with tears.

"I'm sorry, sir," she whispered hoarsely. "I tried – I thought... he said it was working, that he'd listened to me – I..."

"It isn't your fault," he replied softly, shaking his head. It wasn't her fault that her friend was a moron and a liar. "I thought he was working on his Occlumency as well. And I knew nothing of this plan." Although I should have done. Did this mean that Voldemort no longer trusted him, or had this been some sort of test, or...? Never mind that now. Focus on what he could deal with, and worry about the rest another time. He gave her a stern look as he moved to the side of the bed. "You shouldn't have gone with him."

"I couldn't have let him go alone..."

"None of you should have gone," he said curtly; it took every scrap of self-control he possessed to resist the urge to shake the girl and start yelling at her. Bloody stupid, impossible Gryffindors and their reckless protective loyalty! He possessed that particular trait himself, which meant that he was all too aware of how idiotic it was, and he hadn't been so scared in a very long time, damnit.

"We tried to check whether it was true or not," she replied, somewhat incoherently now as she started crying in earnest. "Umbridge caught us after we'd contacted Headquarters. Kreacher said Sirius had been taken..."

Did he, indeed... Severus filed that away for later consideration. At least she'd had enough sense to try and find out what was really happening. Almost absently placing a couple of spells on the curtains to give them some privacy, he sat on the edge of the bed. "Miss Granger, please stop crying," he said tiredly. "It has been a long and trying night for all of us and you will only make yourself feel worse. You are not to blame. Now, Poppy tells me you are hurt. I need to see."

Of course, just telling a child to stop crying didn't mean it would happen. He'd been a teacher long enough to know that. Trying not to sigh too dramatically, he found a handkerchief in his pocket and sternly ordered her to blow her nose and pull herself together and tell him where she was hurt. It took some time before she managed a coherent reply, and when she did he rather wished she hadn't. "...My chest."

Severus silently cursed his imagination and resolutely kept his eyes on her face. "Where, exactly?" he asked levelly as his mind started veering wildly between fascination and horror. Damnit, Poppy. You could have warned me. I'm so not in the mood for this. She gestured vaguely at the hospital nightgown the mediwitch had forced her into, and he sighed and rephrased the question, keeping his voice even. "Is it visible without removing your undergarments?"

Granger nodded, sniffing inelegantly and yet still obviously trying not to blush despite being blotchy from crying. He didn't blame her for being embarrassed, really; he hated being exposed even slightly in front of anyone else, and were he in her position he certainly wouldn't want someone like him staring. "Then I still need to see. I can call Poppy in here if you wish..."

She shook her head, closing her eyes as though that would make it less awkward for her, and fumbled with the neck of the nightgown, wincing as she carefully pulled the cloth away. Severus leaned closer, focusing on the wound, and was relieved to find that it wasn't as bad as his imagination had been suggesting. It was still bad enough, though, a long gouge somewhere between a cut and a burn that began below her collarbone and slanted diagonally across her sternum to finish just above the edge of her bra.

"How badly does it hurt?" he asked, lighting the tip of his wand for a closer look, trying to be as dispassionate as possible and cursing himself for a bastard at the same time. It's not my fault, he told himself defensively; whatever else he might be, he was still a man, and he hadn't been laid in – well, years, which was bloody embarrassing and rather sad, and he was very tired and not up to his usual levels of mental discipline. It also wasn't part of his regular routine to have to examine a teenage girl's cleavage; in fact, that hadn't happened since he'd been a teenager himself. As a young male teacher he'd had to grow accustomed to being around teenage girls a lot, but really, there were limits.

"...Six? Seven?" she said finally, distracting him and bringing his mind back to the present.

He blinked at her and she smiled very shakily at him. His lips twitched in response and he shook his head. Blasted Gryffindors. Sometimes – very, very rarely, but sometimes – one of them did deserve their reputation for bravery. "Ordinarily I would say that a student capable of cheek is not badly hurt. But given that it is you, Miss Granger, I find myself wondering whether I should check for head injuries as well."

That earned him a choked sound that might have been laughter punctuated by a sob. "How are the others?"

"Already on the mend," he assured her. "Now shut up and let me concentrate. This won't hurt." He knew the spell that had been used, but whoever had cast it couldn't aim for toffee. If the hex had been used properly, Granger would be dying right now. As it was... He began to slowly move his wand back and forth across the wound and started chanting softly. Poppy had been badgering him for years to find out exactly what this spell was, but he had no intention of telling her or anyone else.

She cried out softly. "You said it wouldn't hurt!"

"I lied," he replied calmly, pausing for a moment and regarding her with a raised eyebrow. "Keep still. It went deeper than I thought and you have at least one cracked rib, and enough internal damage that you are going to be in bed for most of the rest of the term and drinking a lot of potions." He resumed the quiet singsong chant, ignoring all further protests, and finally drew away with a sigh. "I have done what I can, Miss Granger, but I fear you have earned your first battle scar."

Understandably, she looked upset by this, and when combined with everything else she had been through today it wasn't much of a surprise when she started crying again as she fumbled to do up her nightgown once more. He had noticed years ago that she paid little to no attention to her appearance, but even people who weren't vain hated scars, and all teenagers had fragile egos. "There will be some improvement," he told her quietly. "It is only half healed. It is better to leave it to heal slowly now that you are free of pain and there is no risk of it reopening. But you will always bear a scar." Sympathy only went so far, though. His skin looked like someone had drawn a noughts and crosses grid on a Picasso sketch of a hopscotch course; he'd gained his first permanent scar before he was out of single digits. "You should try to sleep, if you can," he told her, giving her his handkerchief again and standing up.

About to leave, he paused and looked back at her, hesitating for a moment as he debated with himself. "Who was it?" he asked finally.

The girl looked exhausted; her eyes looked huge and dark in her too-pale face as she stared numbly at him. "Dolohov," she whispered at last, so quietly that he had to strain to hear her.

Dolohov, Severus repeated to himself thoughtfully. That explained the dodgy aim, at least; the man was a complete imbecile, although he had once been a force to be reckoned with, before Azkaban. "Get some sleep, Miss Granger," he said softly. "Under the circumstances, you did well." And even if he didn't want to admit it, he was very relieved to see that she was all right.

"Thank you, sir."

As he left the Infirmary, Severus froze half way down the stairs, pain flaring in his left arm at last. It seemed that Voldemort had finally realised that his spy was absent. His master was not going to be pleased. Suppressing a shiver, he checked his pockets to make sure he had his robe and mask with him and changed direction, heading for the front door. No rest for the wicked.

Hermione woke in darkness and found that Crookshanks had unerringly managed to find his way to the hospital wing; his warm weight on her legs and the faint vibration of his purr helped ease the ache in her chest that was only partly caused by the still-tender place where she had been hurt. At the time, she'd been sky-high on adrenaline and unable to stop and think; now, though, she could appreciate just how close they had all come to lingering and painful deaths. Every time she closed her eyes she could see Voldemort; Harry's descriptions hadn't been given willingly and had utterly failed to convey the reality.

Slowly, as she stroked her familiar's warm thick fur, she became aware of voices nearby and began straining to listen. Crookshanks lifted his head to look at her, then jumped down off the bed and disappeared through the curtains; the faint voices grew louder and she realised he must have nudged the door ajar before he returned to the bed and curled up again.

"Good boy," she whispered, rubbing his ears and listening.

"I told you, there is nothing else to report, Headmaster." That voice was easily recognisable; Snape, sounding utterly exhausted and with a rough scratchiness to his usually velvety voice that didn't bode well. He must have been Summoned after he had left her, and there was no way it could have gone well, under the circumstances; he was probably here for Poppy's help, rather than to talk to his employer, although it didn't show in his voice as he continued speaking hoarsely. "He was... rabid. He said nothing of any value. He barely said anything except curses or obscenities. I can give you nothing until he has calmed down."

"Nothing," someone else hissed; it sounded familiar but it wasn't until the man spoke again that she recognised Moody. "What good is that, Snape? We need to find out what he's going to do now."

"He can do very little until we've all recovered," Snape replied wearily. "He nearly killed both Bellatrix and Lucius tonight; angry though he is with them, they are his lieutenants and he needs them, although his focus on them did at least spare the rest of us too much damage. In any case, there is little he can do anyway. The Ministry was a gamble and it didn't pay off."

"You dismiss it so casually." The thick voice was choked with bitterness, so much so that Hermione didn't recognise it.

"Remus," the Headmaster said softly. "Please keep your voice down."

"Damnit, Albus, look at him. He doesn't care what happened."

"Why should I?" Snape asked coolly. Yes, Hermione decided, listening to him, he definitely had a sore throat at the moment. "We won, didn't we? The Dark Lord didn't get what he wanted and, astoundingly, the children survived their first battle through sheer dumb luck. We even managed to shove Umbridge out of place and hopefully convinced the Ministry to stop getting in our way. I fail to see the downside."

"No, of course you don't! You probably danced a jig when nobody could see you! I bet you were laughing. Finally got what you wanted, didn't you, Snape?"

"Lupin," Snape said in a surprisingly patient voice, "I have no earthly notion what you are babbling about, and right now I don't really care. I haven't slept properly in days and I can barely see straight. Can we please end this meeting so I can go to bed for an hour or so before I have to return to work?"

"I'm talking about Sirius, you bastard!"

"Whatever for?"

"Because he's dead!"

There was a very long silence. Hermione was leaning so far out of bed that she was in danger of falling on the floor, straining to hear something, ignoring the renewed ache in her chest as she closed her eyes to better concentrate on her sense of hearing.

Finally, after what felt like hours, she heard Snape speak again. "Black is dead?" he said blankly. From the tone of his voice, he almost didn't seem to understand what the sentence meant.

"As if you didn't know," Moody growled. "Remus is right, you were probably dancin' for joy."

"I... didn't know." Snape still sounded oddly confused.


"I didn't know," he repeated, sounding annoyed now. "I don't know a damned thing that happened. All I know is that Potter got a vision of the mutt in trouble, that creep of a house elf lied to him and he and his little friends went dashing off into trouble. Bella and Lucius were waiting for them, with friends, and there was a fight. They are hurt and the Dark Lord is furious. That is all I know." The anger faded slowly. "Black is dead..." he repeated thoughtfully, almost trying out the sound of the words. It really seemed as though he was having trouble getting his mind around the idea.

"Yes," the Headmaster said quietly. "Sirius was killed by Bellatrix Lestrange."

Quite a lot of sounds happened almost simultaneously. It almost sounded like Snape had laughed incredulously, and from the sound of it either Lupin or Moody or both had attempted to hex him, or hit him, or something, which he had understandably objected to. Dumbledore intervened before anything could happen, reminding them all sternly to keep their voices down before dismissing the other two Order members, leaving himself alone with Snape in the corridor.

"So, another of the Marauders is dead," Snape said reflectively.

"There is no need to sound so cheerful, Severus," Dumbledore said tiredly. He sounded sad, especially when compared to the Potions master.

"Should I be crying for him?" Snape wanted to know; the acid edge to his voice couldn't hide the scratchiness that was roughening the usual silky tones. "I will mourn him about as much as he would have mourned me had our positions been reversed."

"I know you wanted him dead..."

"No, I didn't," Snape interrupted unexpectedly. "If I had wanted him dead, I would have killed him. He wasn't important enough to the plan for me to let him live, if I truly wanted him to die. I have never viewed murder lightly, Dumbledore." The bitterness in his voice was unmistakeable. "He wasn't worth the price."

"Sirius was a good man."

"Better than I? No, don't answer that. I don't want to hear you say it, nor do I want to hear you lie to me yet again." Snape sighed. "It's half past five in the bloody morning, Dumbledore. I'm not in the mood. There's no point my trying to sleep now, so let's move on; I want to talk to Poppy soon. Did they overhear any of the prophecy?"

Hermione stared towards the door, straining her ears again as the Headmaster replied, "No, nobody did, which is perhaps for the best at the moment."

"Are you ever going to tell me the part I don't know?" Snape asked, and Hermione nearly fell off the edge of her bed in shock. Snape knew part of the prophecy? From what little had been said, she knew Voldemort knew part of it and had been trying to find out the other part, but how did Snape know? Surely he hadn't told any of the Death Eaters? And the Headmaster knew the whole thing?

"Not unless I have no other choice, Severus," Dumbledore said quietly. "I don't intend you to be involved in the final stages."

That made Hermione frown, but Snape's only response was to sigh, evidently neither surprised nor particularly angered by that somewhat odd answer. "No, I suppose not. As you wish, Headmaster. Now, what do you want me to tell the Slytherins?"

Their voices faded as the two men walked away, and Hermione managed to squirm back into bed without hurting her chest too much, too tired to think about what she had heard right now. It would have to wait. Poppy had left her a mild sleeping draught; she took it, hoping it would push her dreams too deep to be remembered when she woke up, and let exhaustion drag her under.

So, Sirius Black was dead. Severus looked around his rooms in a pensive frame of mind as he thought about that; he really wasn't sure how he felt. He certainly wasn't upset, though – why should he mourn for someone he had hated so intensely? And he had truly hated Black, on a visceral and almost primal level that nobody else could possibly hope to understand. He felt that he was entitled to, all things considered. After all, Black had made his life a living hell virtually single-handed, him and James Potter. Their constant, unceasing and unrelenting harassment was one of the main driving forces that had led him to pick up a knife aged sixteen and open his wrists. Not the whole reason, but a large part of it. He glanced briefly at the faded, barely-visible marks left by that attempt and shrugged.

Dumbledore had been surprised that he and Black were still so much at odds with one another. The old man had assumed that Severus' hatred stemmed from his incorrect belief that it had been Sirius who had betrayed Lily, and that once he found out that he had been mistaken he would be willing to lay aside their schoolboy grudge and make peace. Severus sighed; the Headmaster still hadn't realised how much that November night in their sixth year had damaged him. Whatever anyone else might say about it, Black had tried to kill him, and for no real reason. Nobody had given a shit then, and nobody gave a shit now.

Nobody understood the real reason why he had hated Sirius Black, either. Severus himself hadn't understood it for many years, but he was getting pretty good at self-analysis now and had finally figured it out a year or so ago. It was jealousy, pure and simple. Not over looks, or money, or friends, or anything so stupidly mundane, but simply because everyone made excuses for Black and nobody did the same for Severus. Anything Black did wrong was explained away, justified and excused and forgiven, regardless of what had happened or who was hurt – the boy hadn't had a nice childhood, he should be praised for trying to get away from his upbringing, he wasn't a bad person at heart, blah, blah, blah. Everyone fell all over themselves to justify his actions.

But Severus? No chance. Not the greasy little oddball that everyone hated, the strange boy with no friends and such a spiteful tongue. Nobody cared what his motivations might have been. Nobody had bothered to find out that he hadn't had a nice childhood either and everyone had assumed that he was bad at heart. Even Lily had always been quick to believe the worst of him. That old injustice still rankled. At the beginning of the story, he hadn't done anything wrong. Somehow, James Potter and Sirius Black had decided that Severus Snape was their enemy, and he had never understood why, and he still remembered vividly the confused hurt bewilderment of realising just how much they hated him for... nothing. Once the feud had got under way he had fought back with everything he had, and he had definitely been far from innocent by the time they had graduated, but he hadn't started it and hadn't wanted it. But nobody else believed that. Obviously the golden Gryffindors couldn't be to blame; it must be the creepy little Slytherin boy who had started it, with his dirty hair and his sly looks – apparently people believed he was stupid enough to have single-handedly started a war with the most popular gang in the school. After a while, it was easier to go along with the stereotype rather than trying to argue.

He and Black did have a disturbing amount in common, sometimes, if you looked at it from the right angle, but they had never been treated equally. That was the real reason behind his hatred, even now. Black could break into the castle, attack the Fat Lady's portrait, steal from Longbottom, terrify Weasley into hysterics and later break the boy's leg, and somehow that was fine – he had never even been scolded for any of it. He could endanger the entire Order of the Phoenix out of sheer boredom, and that was totally acceptable. Severus didn't want to even begin to imagine what would have happened if he'd done any of those things. Half his colleagues still believed he'd been trying to jinx Potter Junior in that stupid Quidditch match in the boy's first year despite Potter himself getting a confession from Quirrell, and he'd received nothing but condemnation for battling his own fear to chase after a werewolf unprotected by Wolfsbane in order to try and save the children from what, at the time, he had thought was a very serious threat. Nothing he did was ever good enough, but everything the precious Marauders touched turned to gold, regardless of the facts or the circumstances, and he wasn't even allowed to be angry about it.

No, he wasn't going to mourn Black for a second. But he didn't feel particularly pleased, either. His hate had long since turned cold; he didn't really care any more. He wasn't going to stop hating the other man, wasn't going to forgive or forget the past just because he was dead, so his being dead was largely irrelevant. He hadn't wanted Black dead, necessarily, but he hadn't wanted him alive either. Yes, all right, there was a small dark corner of him that was laughing in malicious delight, and he couldn't deny that part of him was happy that the bastard was dead at last and had finally got what he fucking well deserved, as well as being privately a little disappointed that he hadn't been there to see it, but he was good at ignoring that part of him.

And Black hadn't been contributing anything important to the war – hell, if all the Order wanted was a depressing dirty house full of bad memories and cursed objects, they could have Spinner's End if they wanted. All the former prisoner had been doing was moping around whining and feeling sorry for himself, and occasionally pulling a stupid stunt that endangered the people around him, before finally charging off and getting killed in a suitably heroic and Gryffindorish fashion.

Good riddance, as far as Severus was concerned. The man had been unstable, and his death was no big loss, except that it would probably make Potter even more unbearable to be around. It was a pity that Bella had been the one to do it – he was opposed to anything that made the psychotic bitch happy on general principles. He didn't wish it had been him instead, though; he certainly wouldn't have hesitated for a heartbeat if it had been, and nothing on this earth could have made him try to intervene, but as he had told Dumbledore, if he had wanted Black dead he would have killed him already. Killing him wouldn't have changed anything; it wouldn't have been revenge for anything that had happened before, because none of that could be avenged. It didn't matter now.

Two down, two to go; there were only two Marauders left alive. Lupin... well, Severus despised the werewolf, but he didn't hate him, not truly. It wasn't really Lupin's fault that he had been too much of a coward to try and stop his friends, and he had never really blamed him for the Shrieking Shack – at least, not the first time around. Lupin had been as spiteful as his friends on occasion, but he didn't have the heart to be a real bully, and Severus couldn't be bothered to hate him any more, except perhaps for the Boggart incident, and he'd paid him back for that by outing him. Pettigrew, though... that was another story. Pettigrew had betrayed Lily, after all.

Christ, I'm tired. He rubbed his eyes, too tired now to feel the pain from earlier as the adrenaline finally deserted him. Stumbling blindly to his bedroom, he collapsed fully clothed across the bed and passed out.

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 12 of 60

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