Continuing Tales

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 14 of 60

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The morning sun was warm as Hermione carefully clicked shut the padlock on the door of the storage unit. Carefully she tucked the key into her pocket before looking at Snape. He looked as tired as she felt as he rubbed his unshaven jaw wearily and returned her gaze without expression.

"Where to now, sir?"

He didn't answer for a moment; watching his jaw move, she realised that he was trying not to yawn. Blinking slowly, he exhaled, lifting a hand to rub his eyes wearily. "To your house to pick up your things; then to London, and Grimmauld Place. I will Apparate with you to a spot a few streets away, and I will be watching you until you are let in – I do not know who is in residence at the moment."

"You're not coming in with me?"

His black eyes sharpened. "Miss Granger, I have not seen you since term ended. You are intelligent enough to have realised that your parents will no doubt be at risk at some stage, and with your insatiable need to know everything you were easily able to work out a way of getting them to safety. Your actions certainly could have nothing to do with me."

"I see, sir," she replied carefully, not seeing at all. "Thank you."

Deciding again that she really hated Side-Along Apparition, Hermione gathered all her things together, carefully shrunk down and stored in her school trunk, and made a brief search of the hauntingly empty house to make sure nothing had been overlooked before she spoke to him again. "Why did you do this, sir? Surely it puts you even more at risk."

Snape shook his head. "I am hiding so much now that it makes no real difference. If he gets far enough into my head to find out that I warned you, he will have already found more than enough to condemn me, and more than enough to drag the Order down with me."

Hermione swallowed and tried to keep her tone light. "I guess we're lucky that he can't get that far in, then, aren't we?" He raised an eyebrow at her, his lips twitching briefly in what might have been a suppressed smile, before she added, "You said that people on both sides would be angry if they found out what you had done..."

He shook his head again. "That is not your concern, Miss Granger. Everything I do angers people on both sides, these days. It is part of being a double agent, or a triple agent, or whatever it is I am – frankly, I lose track."

She smiled a little as she locked the door and carefully pocketed the keys; his gallows humour was funny, sometimes, bleak though it was. "Thank you, Professor."

"Don't mention it." He gave her an ironic look. "That wasn't modesty, it was an instruction. Don't mention it."

"Yes, sir. Thank you anyway," she added daringly.

"Whatever for?" he asked blandly. "As I said, I have not seen you since term ended. I am on holiday, after all. Come now." He offered his arm, and a few minutes later she was knocking on the door of Number 12, Grimmauld Place, able to feel his eyes on her even though she couldn't see him. He hadn't answered her when she had asked why he'd done this, she realised as the door opened.

Severus wasn't sure, even now, whether he'd done the right thing or not by warning the Grangers. On the surface, it seemed obvious that he should do whatever he could to save as many lives as possible, and he did see to it that warnings were passed on as often as he dared, but he'd never intervened personally before and never with a target of such importance. Besides, he could admit if only to himself that he hadn't been thinking about the war at all; he'd done it for personal reasons, which was very strictly forbidden by his own code as much as by any command of Dumbledore's. He couldn't afford personal considerations in any aspect of his life. It was a distraction that might well prove fatal in the long run, and this intervention now would prevent him doing something similar in the future and could have unknown repercussions he hadn't thought of.

Still, he couldn't help but feel a certain sense of satisfaction when Avery and Yaxley returned from their raid empty-handed and furious, especially since when questioned he had been able to reply with a shrug that the girl wasn't stupid and had no doubt worked out that she was vulnerable and had then told his master with complete honesty that there had been no official Order protection for her. If there had been, he wouldn't have needed to act as he had.

He was enjoying a hitherto unknown ascendancy among the Death Eaters at the moment, thanks to Bellatrix and Lucius still being in disgrace after the fiasco at the Ministry. Being Voldemort's right-hand man was unpleasant and dangerous, but it could also be fun at times simply because of the poorly-disguised envy and hatred radiating from his brethren. Part of Severus took enormous satisfaction in flaunting his new power over them; here he was, a poor half-blood with nothing to distinguish him, and he ranked higher than any of the aristocracy. The irony was simply beautiful.

Pride would no doubt come before a fall, but he was damned well going to enjoy it while it lasted. Besides, he knew full well that his master didn't trust him entirely; in his wisdom, the Dark Lord had chosen to set Wormtail on him, and to his displeasure Severus now had a Marauder as a houseguest. Ordering Pettigrew around and making him clean the house had been fun for a couple of days, but he was losing interest now and there was something a little creepy about trying to sleep in the same house as the rat. Not to mention that Severus sincerely wanted him dead.

That was a problem for another time, though; right now his focus was mainly on trying to stop his leg from going to sleep as he knelt in his place in the circle and tried to work out what was going on. His master had said cryptically that this meeting would be special, but so far it had been just the same as all the others.

Towards the end of the meeting, around the point where Severus always wanted to say Any other business? Voldemort stood up and came forward to address them all again. He was smiling, which was always a very bad sign. "My brethren, I have an announcement to make tonight."

Tell me you're retiring, Severus thought grimly, glad that his mask spared him the need to look attentive and interested.

"We must always look to the future, and tonight that future begins. We have a new recruit."

That made Severus pay attention; there had been no new initiations since their master's return. He narrowed his eyes and studied their leader, and for a moment was jealous of the new recruit, whoever they were – their initiation wouldn't be as nightmarish as his had been, or that of any of the others. Voldemort wasn't human enough any more. He still couldn't think of the night he'd taken the Dark Mark without breaking into a sweat and wanting to be sick, and without Occlumency he would still have nightmares about it.

He thought he was having a nightmare now, when the new recruit was brought forward and his hood was removed to reveal Draco Malfoy. Severus stared in pure horror, frozen to the spot for a moment. Oh, no. Not this. Not yet. Not yet, damnit! He had known that it was inevitable that Draco and his year mates would almost all choose to take the Dark Mark and join the Death Eaters, but only once they'd left school. The Dark Lord never recruited anyone underage... his mind started to race as several very unpleasant possibilities occurred to him. Oh, God, no. You stupid boy, what have you done? Behind his mask, he sank his teeth into his lower lip and concentrated on his breathing as the ceremony got under way.

There were a few differences. Draco's parents stood as his sponsors; Narcissa was trying to look proud, but Severus had known her for a long time and he could see the fear in her eyes. They both knew that this was partly a punishment for Lucius' failure. Lucius knew it too; his old friend looked grim, tired and harassed. Draco himself looked smugly proud and arrogant, with just the faintest flicker in his eyes to suggest that he wasn't sure what he was getting himself into; the boy didn't even have sense enough to be afraid as he spoke the words. Had the ceremony been the same as it had been during the first war, that smugness would have been destroyed very quickly. Severus watched with grim resignation as his godson stretched out his left arm and received the Mark, and screamed with the pain of the branding, but kept his feet bravely.

He wanted to speak to the Malfoys after the meeting was over, but there was no chance. He didn't really want Draco to see him like this anyway; the boy knew his honorary uncle was a Death Eater, of course, but knowing something and seeing it were two different things. There was time only to exchange a fleeting glance with Lucius before they departed; he had never seen his old friend look like that before. And then Voldemort addressed him directly, holding him back to explain why he had chosen to initiate Draco.

Severus chose not to Apparate straight home, instead going to a spot several miles from his house and walking the rest of the way, trying to clear his head. It wasn't to spy on the spy, at least, he tried to comfort himself; his master would know that Draco couldn't learn anything that way. Voldemort trusted him. That wasn't comforting at all, really, given the circumstances. Poor Draco had no chance of succeeding; Severus knew he couldn't let it happen. Even if, terrible though the thought was, that might mean that he had to kill his own godson, a boy he'd known since he was born. God, he hoped it wouldn't come to that. But right now, he had to go and talk to Dumbledore.

Professor Dumbledore had been at Headquarters when Hermione had arrived, along with Moody and Tonks. The younger Auror had been pleased to see her, at least; Moody had seemed quite impressed when she had carefully explained that she thought it would be safer to get her parents out of the country and stay in Grimmauld Place, rather than sitting in a defenceless Muggle town jumping at every strange noise and worrying herself to death, but the Headmaster had seemed almost annoyed or at least slightly inconvenienced. She'd barely seen him since, but he'd been his usual twinkly smiling self.

She was quite enjoying herself, strangely. Her friends wouldn't be joining her for a week or two yet, probably, and since she was the only 'child' in the house, most of the Order members coming in and out weren't taking so much care about security and she was learning more about them. Not about their plans, necessarily, but she was building up a much clearer picture of who was in the Order and how their power structure worked. She was also enjoying having access to the library, now that all the dangerous or Dark books had been safely purged, and had redone quite a few pieces of homework with the new knowledge she now had access to. And she had Phineas' portrait for company, which made a nice change, passing on gossip from Hogwarts – not that there was much happening there over the summer – and shamelessly offering to help her to eavesdrop whenever anyone forgot to clear any picture frames from a meeting room.

The house did feel strange with Sirius gone, but it wasn't as if she'd seen much of him when he had been there, really. She had grieved for him a little, but she was more worried about Harry than anything else, since she still wasn't allowed to contact him. In his absence there were no full-time residents in Headquarters, but plenty of people drifted in and out so she was never left completely alone – Snape himself came and went more frequently, although he usually didn't seem to have the time or the inclination to talk and was often clearly on some private business of his own. He seemed rather harried and stressed, the few times she saw him, and had started sleeping here once or twice a week – when pressed for an explanation in the hallway by McGonagall, he had replied shortly and irritably that Peter Pettigrew had been set to watch him and he wanted to spend as little time with the rat as possible, which was certainly fair enough.

One of the most memorable encounters took place a few days after her arrival; Hermione was in the library when she heard Mrs Black's portrait start screaming abuse again, and when she poked her head out into the hallway she found Snape standing near the portrait with his arms folded across his chest, looking bored. Curious, she padded close enough to hear what the painting was shouting at him.

"Mongrel filth! Traitor! Faithless worm!"

"I think she likes you, sir," she ventured dryly; this was the first chance she'd had to speak to him since he'd left her outside Headquarters. She had no idea what he did if he needed medical assistance during the summer holidays; maybe he had Madam Pomfrey's home address or something, but it was more likely that he simply endured it.

He snorted. "As unimaginative as the rest of her family," he said disdainfully over the portrait's ravings.

"Mongrel?" she asked. "The rest makes sense – from the point of view of an insane pureblood snob, anyway – but... mongrel?"

"Think about it," he replied, absently studying his fingernails and pointedly ignoring the ranting woman pointing at him and screaming. "You are Muggleborn, which makes you a mere animal or simply a freak, something to be thought of with contempt and almost pity. I am a half-blood, which means that one of the superior magic users lowered themselves enough to breed with a Muggle; I am therefore something of a perversion and at the very least a mixed-breed mistake." He rolled his eyes. "Once she runs out of epithets, she'll probably explain this theory in more detail. Again."

"You could just walk away, sir," Hermione pointed out cautiously.

"Yes," he agreed. "I could also silence her, permanently."

"Really?" Nobody else had been able to, and quite a few people had tried.

"Oh, yes," he replied absently. "It's not difficult."

"Then why don't you, Professor?"

He offered her the faint ghost of a smirk. "Guess."

Hermione grinned. "You like listening to her insulting the others."

"Now, Miss Granger, would I be so petty?" he asked sarcastically. "For your information, you are wrong. I enjoy watching them get frustrated and tiptoe around pandering to a dead woman instead of doing something to actually shut her up." He drew his wand and flicked it almost lazily at the portrait, and the curtains snapped shut over a final stream of shrieked profanity that made Hermione blink.

"I've never heard her actually swear at anyone else before."

For a man who had just been told that he had had a very unhealthy relationship with his grandmother and suffered from a number of humiliating personal problems and a few nasty diseases, Snape looked surprisingly amused still. "Clearly, I am a special case," he drawled, turning away.

"Sir, I had a question."

"I find that very hard to believe," he replied mockingly, turning to sneer at her, his dark eyes glittering with faint laughter. "What is it this time?"

"Where did the money come from?"

She had caught him off guard; he was silent for just a fraction of a second too long before replying blandly, "What money?" and the furrow that had appeared between his brows looked more annoyed than puzzled. Hermione made herself meet his eyes squarely, which wasn't easy. His expression was totally unreadable now, his eyes blank and smooth as polished obsidian and holding just as much emotion. Bloody Occlumency. After a long moment, when she didn't answer, he looked away before turning on his heel and striding for the door.

Biting her lip, she watched him leave, wishing she'd been wrong. She didn't want to owe him three hundred quid, especially since she didn't have that much. Her savings account was linked to her Gringotts vault, but whichever currency you converted it into, she didn't have anywhere near enough, and she couldn't access her parents' money; besides, she knew Snape well enough by now to know that he would never accept it if she tried to pay him back. He had his own mysterious reasons for acting the way he did and he wouldn't tolerate further questions or an attempt to redress the balance.

Stubborn, irritating man. Sighing, she turned away and returned to the library.

Ordinarily, a summons from Dumbledore would have seriously angered him, especially in the middle of the night and especially when Wormtail was unfortunately in the house, but Severus knew tonight would be different simply because it was Fawkes who came to get him and brought him directly into the Headmaster's office at Hogwarts; that had never happened before. He had never been transported by a phoenix; the experience was one he could have done without, since it was extremely disorientating, and by the time the flames had receded from his vision he had a headache, but he was already taking in the scene before him.

Dumbledore was slumped over in his chair, panting and clutching his wrist; the fingers of his right hand were black and looked very badly burned, particularly the ring finger, which seemed to be encircled by a ring of blood. Presumably that had been caused by the ring that lay on the desk in front of the old man next to Godric Gryffindor's sword, with some kind of black stone that was now cracked in two.

"What happened?" Severus asked rather blankly as he hurried forward and dropped into a crouch to examine the burned hand, ignoring the cracks of protest from his knees.

"Cursed ring," one of the portraits told him succinctly.

No shit, Sherlock. Keeping the retort to himself, Severus examined the hand, noticing that the blackness was spreading even as he watched. It wasn't a true burn; there were no blisters, no raw flesh. Instead, the hand seemed to be drying out, turning black and withered – some kind of corruption curse, perhaps. Drawing his wand, Severus glanced briefly at Dumbledore's face; the old man was barely conscious and looked almost drunk and was obviously only vaguely aware of what was happening.

Trying not to bite his lip – best to lose that habit as soon as possible; he was still furious at having picked it up in the first place – Severus started work, discovering quickly that he had never seen this particular curse before, that it was extremely dark and very virulent. Swearing softly to himself, he managed to get a temporary stasis on the affected area and went running, sprinting frantically through the dark and empty castle and nearly killing himself several times as he vaulted blindly down the endless stairs to the dungeons and his lab to raid his Potions supplies.

He had no idea what he was doing, frankly, trusting to instinct as he worked feverishly to concoct a potion that was partly a healing potion but would mostly help to strengthen the old man and keep his magic free of the corruption; hopefully it would also help to keep the curse at bay long enough for Severus to try and work out a counter. He barely let himself breathe until the final colour change gave him the deep gold he had been hoping for, and the run from his quarters back up to the Headmaster's office had never seemed so long.

The potion helped restore Dumbledore to something approaching lucidity, enough for him to explain a little of what had happened; Severus listened with half an ear as he worked on trying to establish the exact nature of the curse consuming the old man's hand. He had come back to Hogwarts, managed to get the thing off and smashed it with Gryffindor's sword for some utterly insane reason.

"Why, why did you put on that ring?" he asked finally in sheer disbelief, shaking his head desperately as he tried to bind the curse and stop it. He had a terrible feeling that he wasn't going to be able to counter it. "It carries a curse, surely you realised that. Why even touch it?" Dumbledore wasn't that bloody stupid. Gritting his teeth, he kept going grimly, muttering to himself in a mixture of Latin, Greek and anything else he could think of, hoping to get lucky.

"I... was a fool," Dumbledore admitted hoarsely. "Sorely tempted..."

"Tempted by what?" he asked, pausing for a moment to look more closely at the ring. It didn't look like anything special and didn't match any known artefacts he could think of. The symbol on it was hard to see because of the crack in the stone, but it looked like it might be Grindelwald's old badge. God, was that all? Some stupid, insane nostalgic moment? And for that, the old man might have sentenced himself to death, because now Severus knew he couldn't eradicate this curse. It was too deeply rooted already, too strong. Shit.

Oddly, the thought that Dumbledore was probably dying actually caused him some pain, a dull ache in his chest. That was a little surprising, actually. Severus hated Dumbledore, he truly did, and had done ever since he was a boy; he served him out of necessity, nothing more. He grudgingly respected his employer up to a point, but nowhere near as much as most people did, and he would never like him. But the old man was all he had left to believe in, the only tiny, fragile scrap of faith he had left. More than that... the Headmaster was the Order, in a way. They would be lost without him – in fact, they would probably lose without him, Chosen One or no. The war might very well have been lost tonight.

Close to panic, he looked up and said furiously, "It is a miracle you managed to return here! That ring carried a curse of extraordinary power; to contain it is all we can hope for. I have trapped the curse in one hand for the time being..."

Dumbledore lifted his hand and studied it with an expression of mild interest. "You have done very well, Severus," he said, with around the same inflection he would have used to praise a dog who had just done a clever trick. "How long do you think I have?"

For fuck's sake, you could at least sound upset! Are you completely stoned? Unlike Severus himself, Dumbledore actually enjoyed life and surely couldn't be as sanguine as he was pretending to be about the possibility of death approaching. He hesitated, before replying reluctantly, "I cannot tell. Maybe a year. There is no halting such a spell forever. It will spread, eventually; it is the sort of curse that strengthens over time." He hated to be beaten, but this was beyond even his skill to counter.

"I am fortunate, extremely fortunate, that I have you, Severus."

Good boy, do you want a biscuit? Piss off. The words stung, because he wanted so desperately to believe that they were sincere and yet he knew they weren't. Nobody was lucky to have him around. Feeling rather unstable at the moment and grateful for his Occlumency to keep the worst of the shock and fear at bay, he snapped angrily, "If you had only summoned me a little earlier I might have been able to do more, buy you more time!" Turning his head, he stared at the ring and the sword, still confused and well aware that Dumbledore wasn't telling him the full story. "Did you think that breaking the ring would break the curse?"

"Something like that... I was delirious, no doubt..." Dumbledore replied vaguely, forcing himself to sit straight in his chair and just like that returning to business. "Well, really, this makes matters much more straightforward." Despite himself, he stared at his employer. What the fuck are you on about now? The old man smiled, gently mocking his obvious confusion. "I refer to the plan Lord Voldemort is revolving around me. His plan to have the poor Malfoy boy murder me."

Hauling himself to his feet, Severus walked around the desk and sank wearily into the chair opposite, feeling tired and drained. His arm had started stinging with the use of that name, and it was odd that Dumbledore had given him a title, and he wanted to point out that the poor Malfoy boy had a name, but they didn't have time to get sidetracked. Scowling, he repeated impatiently, "The Dark Lord does not expect Draco to succeed. This is merely punishment for Lucius' recent failures. Slow torture for Draco's parents, while they watch him fail and pay the price."

"In short, the boy has had a death sentence pronounced upon him as surely as I have," Dumbledore said serenely, seeming unruffled by either of their fates. "Now, I should have thought the natural successor to the job, once Draco fails, is yourself?"

Severus paused for a moment; he'd been trying not to think about that. "That, I think, is the Dark Lord's plan," he allowed finally, swallowing. It wouldn't be the first time or even the thirty-first time he'd been ordered to commit murder, and it wouldn't even be the first time he'd killed someone he knew, but...

"Lord Voldemort foresees a moment in the near future when he will not need a spy at Hogwarts?"

"He believes the school will soon be in his grasp, yes," he replied reluctantly. It was starting to look all too likely.

"And if it does fall into his grasp, I have your word that you will do all in your power to protect the students of Hogwarts?"

Seriously insulted, Severus nodded stiffly, gritting his teeth. He already did just that. He bled for these children, every week, nearly killing himself to try and keep them alive. Dumbledore should know that by now.

Apparently ignorant of the insult he'd just given, Dumbledore continued calmly, "Good. Now, then. Your first priority will be to discover what Draco is up to. A frightened teenage boy is a danger to others as well as to himself. Offer him help and guidance, he ought to accept; he likes you –"

"– much less since his father lost favour," Severus interrupted, still annoyed and yet oddly reassured by the conversation. Dumbledore sounded like he had a plan, at least. "Draco blames me; he thinks I have usurped Lucius' position."

"All the same, try. I am concerned less for myself than for accidental victims of whatever schemes might occur to the boy." That was a valid concern; Draco tended to panic at the best of times, and never considered other people. "Ultimately, of course," he continued briskly, "there is only one thing to be done if we are to save him from Lord Voldemort's wrath."

Severus ignored the twinge in his arm and raised his eyebrows before asking sarcastically, "Are you intending to let him kill you?" That certainly would simplify things...

"Certainly not. You must kill me."

He stared rather blankly at the old man, wondering if he had heard correctly. With no idea what to think or say, he fell back on sarcasm, and asked bitingly, "Would you like me to do it now? Or would you like a few moments to compose an epitaph?"

"Oh, not quite yet," the Headmaster replied urbanely – he was actually smiling. "I daresay the moment will present itself in due course. Given what has happened tonight, we can be sure it will happen within a year."

"If you don't mind dying," he said roughly, "why not let Draco do it?" The boy would be punished if he failed, if Severus had to do it for him. And he was so tired of killing and bloodshed, even though he didn't want to put his godson through that shocking loss of innocence.

As though echoing his thoughts, Dumbledore replied quietly, "The boy's soul is not yet so damaged. I would not have it ripped apart on my account."

That hurt, truly hurt, in the small battered fragile corner of him that still wanted to prove that he wasn't total scum. "And my soul, Dumbledore?" he asked in little more than a whisper, already knowing the answer. "Mine?" His soul didn't matter. He was already lost beyond redemption, so what was one more murder? He didn't object to further condemning himself in order to spare Draco, but he was so damned tired of confronting just how unimportant he really was.

"You alone know whether it will harm your soul to help an old man avoid pain and humiliation," Dumbledore told him softly. Those were empty words, and Severus knew it; there was no such thing as a mercy killing, not in this world. This wouldn't be a Healer gently easing someone's passing when age and disease had struck them down cruelly; this was the premature ending of a life without due cause, and it was murder, and he knew he would never recover from it, not this time.

He also knew that there was no choice. A cold weight seemed to have settled on his shoulders as he looked back at his master hopelessly, preparing to agree to damn himself beyond all hope of salvation. But Dumbledore could never resist adding that last little twist, pushing just that little bit too far, and kept speaking.

"I ask this one great favour of you, Severus, because death is coming for me as surely as the Chudley Cannons will finish bottom of this year's league. I confess, I should prefer a quick, painless exit to the protracted and messy affair it will be if, for instance, Greyback is involved – I hear Voldemort has recruited him? Or dear Bellatrix, who likes to play with her food before she eats it."

Damn you, old man. You don't always need to force me kicking and screaming and you don't need emotional blackmail. For once, can't you just simply ask, and trust that I will do the right thing on my own without needing to be talked through it step by step? The brief anger was pointless, and didn't last. Severus met his master's eyes dully, feeling the crushing inevitability of the future settling onto him, one more burden among many. Finally, slowly, he nodded, and felt something else die inside him as he did so.

"Thank you, Severus."

Don't thank me. Not for this.

Hermione jerked awake to the sound of her own voice screaming, choking the sound off hastily as tears started to run down her face. She hadn't had a nightmare since leaving home and had thought she was past that... apparently not. Shuddering and gasping, she wiped her face shakily on her sleeve, and nearly jumped out of her skin when she heard the crash of a door being flung open from out in the hallway.

"Granger, something demonic had better have just crawled out from under your bed and tried to eat you," Snape growled sleepily and irritably from outside her door, "because if you just nearly gave me a heart attack because a spider walked on your face or something, I am going to lose my temper."

Apparently she had screamed rather more loudly than she usually did after bad dreams, Hermione processed slowly as her racing heart started to slow down. She really wasn't in the mood to be shouted at, though, and ignored him as she concentrated on finding tissues and trying to stop crying. Already the details of the nightmare were fading, which she was grateful for; seeing it once had been bad enough.

"Miss Granger?" Snape asked, sounding rather less hostile. "Are you all right?"

Finally managing to clear her nose and throat to the point where she could talk, Hermione raised her voice. "Sorry, sir. Just a nightmare. I didn't mean to wake you." Silence greeted this pronouncement, before she heard his footsteps receding as he presumably went back to bed. Fine; she didn't want sympathy anyway, she told herself, wriggling to sit back against the headboard and blowing her nose again and wishing that Crookshanks was here – right now she very much wanted something warm and soft to cuddle, and if it was fluffy and could purr as well that would be a nice bonus.

It took a while for the tears to stop. She leaned her aching head against the wall and wondered if she dared go to the bathroom for a glass of water, before realising the stupidity of the thought and nearly laughing as she fumbled for her wand. Sipping at the conjured drink helped the soreness in her throat, but she didn't think she could sleep again now. She nearly dropped the glass when there was a tap at her door, choking for a moment before managing to call uncertainly, "Yes?"

"May I come in?" Even though there was nobody else in the house at the moment, it was still a jolt to hear Snape's voice again, especially since she thought he had gone back to bed. Hermione looked around the room hastily, scrambling out of bed to find her dressing gown despite the heat; once she was decent, she opened the door cautiously. Her professor stood in the hallway, looking rather scruffy and dishevelled and still half asleep, wearing what turned out to be his teaching robes hanging open over a long and slightly threadbare faded grey nightshirt. He was holding a mug in each hand, and now held one out towards her. "Here," he said gruffly.

Hermione took the mug out of reflex and sniffed it, before giving him an incredulous look. "Chai tea? You drink chai tea?"

"Sometimes, yes."

Remembering her manners, she stepped back from the doorway, watching him a little uncertainly. "Thank you, sir." He shrugged in response and padded into her room; he was barefoot, which explained why she hadn't heard him approach her door again. "I didn't mean to wake you."

"So you said. And yet, you did wake me." Snape folded his thin frame to sit cross-legged on the end of her bed, scooting back to lean against the wall and taking a sip of his tea; his dark eyes watched her thoughtfully as she awkwardly sat on the other end of the bed and turned to face him. "Do you wish to talk about it?"

"There's nothing to talk about, sir. It was just a bad dream." She sipped her own tea and blinked; amidst the spices and the sweetness of extra sugar, she was pretty sure there was brandy in it, or at least something alcoholic. "...I'm only sixteen, sir."

He snorted softly and absently scratched a half-healed cut on his shin, balancing his mug on his knee. "You've been drinking Butterbeer since you were thirteen; weak as that stuff is, it's still alcoholic. There's not enough in the tea to get a house elf drunk. You need it, in any case. Nobody screams like that for 'just a bad dream'. Night terrors aren't to be taken lightly, Miss Granger."

"It wasn't a night terror, sir. I don't even remember most of it now, but it was just a nightmare about – about the Ministry. I've been dreaming about it since it happened, but it's getting better. Before tonight I hadn't had a nightmare for nearly two weeks."

Snape gave her a penetrating stare, before nodding slowly, apparently believing her. Which was good of him, since it was the truth. More awkwardly, Hermione added, "You didn't need to do this, sir. I'm grateful, but... I'm all right, really. And..."

He arched an eyebrow sardonically at her. "And it's strange to see anything human from Professor Snape?" he asked bitingly. "Come now, Miss Granger. I have been a Head of House for fifteen years. Do you really imagine this is the first time I've been dragged out of bed because a teenage girl is having nightmares? Slytherin children aren't aliens; they have the same problems as Gryffindor children, I assure you, and I am familiar with bad dreams myself." He took another sip of tea. "Think of something else to talk about, then. If you sleep now, in this mood, your dreams will be worse, and I don't want to be woken by your screaming again. Besides, I am hardly in a mood conducive to restful slumber either."

Are you ever? She managed not to say it out loud, but it was a close thing. She was pretty sure he knew what she was thinking anyway, judging by the arch of one eyebrow as he looked at her, and grabbed hastily at the first subject she could think of that wasn't too unpleasant. "Well, sir, I did want to ask you something about last week..."

His eyes turned a shade wary as he looked at her guardedly. "Yes?"

"Creating the Portkey."

He relaxed a little, and she wondered briefly what he had thought she was going to ask. "What about it?"

"Well, I've never – shared someone else's magic like that before, but... is it supposed to feel strange?"

"It can do, sometimes. Strange, how?"

"Er, it's a bit hard to describe, but... well, your magic felt very different to mine. I mean, I know we're very different people, so it was bound to feel different, but it seemed more so than I would have expected."

"Go on," he replied neutrally.

"It felt – colder than mine, somehow, and... the sense of power was different. Slower, but stronger, if that makes sense, and... darker? Not in the sense of – of the Dark Arts, or anything, but... Oh, I don't know, sir. I can't describe it."

Snape had raised both eyebrows in what looked like genuine surprise. "Interesting. Most people would not have sensed it." He looked thoughtful. "Very interesting indeed," he mused. "What you felt... it's not an accepted part of magical theory these days and it's not really important, as such, but – you know of the concept of elemental magic?"

"Yes, sir."

"Every witch or wizard has an affinity, if you like, with a certain element. It gives their magic certain characteristics. It doesn't affect magical strength or ability, merely adds a sort of background flavour to what they do. Ollivander the wand maker has studied it, a little; he thinks it is part of what determines a person's affinity for their own particular wand. Most people pay no attention to it; the ability to tell one from another is quite rare."

"Can you do it?"

"Yes," he affirmed. "It seems that you can, as well. It is a fairly useless skill, though. The vast majority of witches and wizards, probably a good seventy per cent, are aligned to fire, and most of the rest are earth."

"What element is your magic, sir?"

His eyes glittered briefly in the dimness of her bedroom. "Guess."

She thought about it, but it wasn't much of a leap. That slow, inexorable surge of cool and relentless power... "Water."


"Is that why you use water as your visualisation?" she asked, remembering the dark, quiet ocean of his mind.

"Not consciously, but it is probably a part of the reason, yes," he agreed. "Water seems to be the rarest alignment. And speaking of visualisation... you should continue with your Occlumency. It will help clear your thoughts and control your emotions, as well as easing some of your nightmares."

"Yes, sir. What elemental alignment am I, sir?" When his eyes glittered again before he opened his mouth, she added, "Please, don't make me guess again. I'm too tired."

He snorted softly and relented. "Air, Miss Granger; it is almost as rare as water, but not quite. And to forestall your asking about every single mutual acquaintance we have... let's see. Potter is fire, as his parents both were, and as is the Headmaster, and the Dark Lord. So are most of the Death Eaters, and most of the Order. Interestingly, all the Weasleys are earth, as are Poppy Pomfrey and Kingsley Shacklebolt – and Narcissa Malfoy, although her husband, her son and her sisters are fire. Professor Flitwick is air, like you. The other professors are fire, except for myself."

"Do you know anyone else who is water?"


"Is it inherited, sir? You said the Weasleys were all earth..."

"I don't know. As I said, it is not something that has been studied in any depth."

"What element is your mother's magic?"

A strange expression flickered briefly through his eyes, one that made her regret asking without really knowing why. "I don't know," he said after a pause. "I very seldom saw her use magic." His use of the past tense told her everything she needed to know, and she winced.

"I –"

Snape shook his head, cutting her off. "If you needed to apologise, I would have demanded it already, rather than answering you. I have never hesitated to tell you to stop asking questions, after all."

She smiled a little. "That's true." Relaxing, she leaned back and slowly sipped at the last of her tea while it was still warm, savouring the sweetness and the spices. Hermione still had no idea why he'd done this, but she was grateful. It was actually surprisingly... nice of him. Part of her had to admit, rather uncharitably, that nice and Professor Snape were antithetical concepts and that it was a bit suspicious if not downright creepy; still, she appreciated the gesture anyway, whatever his motives.

"You should try to sleep once more," he said softly after a while, his deep voice quiet.

"I don't think that's very likely, sir."

"Oh? Why not?" he asked.

She hadn't actually meant to say it aloud; too many nights with too little sleep were taking their toll, and around this man in particular she needed to guard her tongue. Hermione shrugged, hoping he would lose interest; surely he wanted to go back to bed as well. However, the black eyes fixed on hers didn't look particularly sleepy now. Looking away, she stared into the empty mug and admitted quietly, "This house feels so... empty, with everyone else away. I... it doesn't really feel... safe."

After a pause Snape said a little stiffly, "I am still here. Although I can understand why that might come as small consolation."

Realising that she'd stung his pride, Hermione shook her head hastily, glancing up at him briefly before embarrassment made her drop her eyes again. "That's not what I meant, sir, and I'm sorry for implying it. I trust you, and I know you could deal with anything in the house, and I know nobody can get past the Fidelius Charm. I – I think it's more a psychological thing. I feel a bit stupid really, but I'm just – not really used to sleeping in such an empty house. At home there was always Crookshanks, and my parents were only next door. And at school there are the other girls in my dormitory." On the verge of babbling, she made herself shut up and bit her lip, risking another glance at her teacher.

He was watching her quietly, his dark eyes intent and thoughtful and surprisingly free of judgement or mockery; she had the feeling he understood what she was trying to say, probably better than she did. "I am only a short way down the corridor," he pointed out softly. His lips twitched. "Within screaming distance."

She smiled slightly despite herself; weirdly, it did actually make her feel better. "I know. I'm being irrational."

"Of all the myriad adjectives I have used to describe you, Miss Granger, 'irrational' is a very long way down the list." His tone was dry, and she smiled a little more to realise that he was apparently trying to tease her out of her dark mood; he really wasn't acting like Professor Snape. I suppose he is on holiday, after all, she told herself whimsically.

Feeling better, she screwed up her courage, and managed to say, "Sir, could you..." before it deserted her again and she faltered before shaking her head. "Never mind."

Snape cocked his head and looked at her. "What is it?"

Biting her lip, she looked away, unable to face him now as she felt her face starting to heat. "No, it doesn't matter."

"Ask. You have never been reticent about asking questions and I refuse to believe you have started now."

"I can't," she mumbled, blushing harder and wishing she had never said anything as she stared down at the bed. "I feel like such a child."

"Miss Granger," Snape said gently, "you are sixteen years old and part of a war you should never have been exposed to. You have seen and done more in the last few months than most people do in their entire lives. Your family are effectively in exile and hiding from assassins, and only a few weeks ago you were in a fight for your life, your first battle, where you were wounded quite seriously and finally saw our enemy in the flesh for the first time. I think, under the circumstances, you are entitled to feel a little vulnerable. Now, ask whatever it is you are too frightened to ask of me. I promise, the worst I shall do is say no."

Twisting her fingers together and catching her lower lip between her teeth again, she took a deep breath and finally managed to whisper, "Could you... stay here? Please?"

There was a terrible silence; when she dared to look up, he was staring at her, looking utterly stunned. Suddenly blushing again when she realised what she had actually said, Hermione stammered, "I – I didn't mean –"

Snape blinked and looked faintly embarrassed in turn; apparently he hadn't even registered how inappropriate her request could have been interpreted. "I know you didn't. I understood what you meant." He still looked peculiarly shocked, though; apparently someone asking him for comfort and protection was a very rare occurrence. After a long moment his expression went blank as he regained his senses, and he exhaled heavily before looking away and staring into the darkness of her bedroom. "...I will stay for a little while," he said uncomfortably, rubbing the back of his neck. "Until you fall asleep."

He didn't sound happy about it, which she could hardly blame him for. Insomniac or not, he probably wanted to go back to bed, and regardless of the circumstances he would be in a great deal of trouble if the Order found out that he was sitting in her bedroom when nobody else was in the house, and Snape had never had any patience for what he called 'childish histrionics.' Still, he had agreed, which she had never expected. Torn between feeling better and feeling horribly embarrassed, she said in a small voice, "Thank you, sir." He nodded without looking at her and she awkwardly slid out of her dressing gown and got into bed as he stared intently at the far wall.

Despite the awkwardness, she had to admit she felt better once she was settled. She could feel the way the mattress dipped down by her feet where he was sitting, she could faintly smell the scent of his soap and the tea and the scent of Snape himself – a combination of something fresh and mineral that seemed somehow familiar, the faint copper of old blood and the earthy herbal notes of whatever potions he had been working with recently – and it was so quiet that if she strained her ears she could hear his breathing. There was no earthly reason why his presence should make her feel safer; this was Snape, murderer, traitor, Death Eater, double agent and self-confessed bastard. If anything, she should feel more frightened; but she didn't. He was certainly capable of dealing with pretty much anything that could possibly happen, and for whatever peculiar reason, she trusted him. Closing her eyes, she relaxed and sank surprisingly easily into deep, dreamless sleep, and she never heard him leave.

In his own room once more, some time later, Severus lay awake and stared at the ceiling, still a little confused by what had happened tonight. It all seemed so logical, as he reviewed the chain of events; a bit awkward, perhaps, since he really wasn't an expert on making anyone feel better, but anyone who was Head of Slytherin learned very quickly how to deal with nightmares. Calm them, change the subject, talk about something innocuous until they grew tired, then leave them to sleep once more. The tea hadn't been part of that, admittedly, but still, it had all made sense until she'd asked him to stay.

Despite her obvious embarrassment, it hadn't actually occurred to Severus to read any innuendo into the request. In hindsight, that was rather depressing and surely indicated that his libido was definitely on the way out, although that was probably for the best, given the circumstances. He hadn't for an instant thought that she was propositioning him – he was a realist; no woman of any age ever did such a thing even in his wildest, darkest dreams. It had been the request itself that had completely floored him. He'd been thinking about it since returning to his own rooms – there was no way in hell he was going to get to sleep again now – and he couldn't recall a single other instance in his entire thirty six and a half years of life when someone else had shown him that level of trust. It confused him, and unnerved him a little, and somewhat irrationally annoyed him, but it also fractionally managed to ease a little of the lonely cold sensation that had left him hollow for so long.

He closed his eyes and saw her sleeping face once more, her features softening and the little worried crease between her brows disappearing. She looked even younger asleep, her insane hair all but hiding the pillow, and surprisingly vulnerable for a girl with such a strong personality. It should have made him feel like a bastard, the way he'd been feeling for months, but it hadn't. Instead it had just made him wonder uneasily what he would do if he was ever faced with a choice between protecting her and maintaining his cover; he was no longer sure what his choice would be, and that was dangerous, not only for him – and for her, if anyone found out – but for the whole war effort.

Sighing, he shifted onto his side and curled up, dragging his blanket over his head despite the muggy summer night. "You're going to be the death of me, Granger," he muttered, closing his eyes and pursuing the sleep that eluded him. "You might even beat the Dark Lord to it." He almost hoped so.

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 14 of 60

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