Continuing Tales

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 15 of 60

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Well, Severus mused rather dizzily as the door closed behind the sisters – with a bit of an effort; it stuck sometimes, damp had got into the wood years ago and he never had got around to fixing it – the summer had definitely just taken a turn for the worse. Not much of one, though, he supposed... it didn't really change anything, after all. It just made it a lot more... real. He stared down at his hands, slowly and mechanically rolling his sleeves up to look at the red lines wrapped around his wrists. In an hour or two those would fade, and wouldn't reappear again until the vow was fulfilled. It didn't hurt, exactly, but it felt as if it ought to.

He'd never made an Unbreakable Vow before. I've never been this bloody stupid before, he told himself sourly; he hadn't exactly had a choice. If it had just been Narcissa, he could have refused her – well, Narcissa would never have asked it of him. They would have talked about it and he could have reassured her and that would have been that. But Bellatrix... well, there were lots of different parts to the story. One, Bellatrix was completely and utterly bat-shit crazy, absolutely fucking bonkers. Two, she was unbelievably paranoid even by Slytherin standards. Three, she hated him, although perhaps not as much as he hated her. Four, she was totally obsessed with their master and ridiculously protective of any perceived threat to him. Five, she was jealous that Severus had his favour at the moment and she did not.

If he had been free to act, he would have told her where to go and thrown her out of his house so hard that she bounced. Narcissa wouldn't even have said anything, as long as he still agreed to help Draco. But with Wormtail eavesdropping, and with Bellatrix herself so clearly about to report him as a traitor, he had had no choice but to go along with her suggestion and bind himself by the strongest magical oath in existence.

Only it wasn't strong enough, not by half, he told himself a little hysterically, refastening his shirt cuffs somewhat shakily. His personal obligations and debts weighed on him more strongly than any formal vow ever could. He had been prepared to do what he could to help Draco anyway, but – and this was the key – only up to a point. He loved the boy, in his way; the Malfoys were the closest he had to a family. But, important though Draco was to him, the final plan was more important.

And, God, he'd been luckier than he could ever deserve today. Thank the Lord that Bellatrix was as impulsive and blind as any Gryffindor could ever be; she lacked the twisted cunning of a Slytherin these days, too used to instant gratification and too damned insane to think straight. She'd left herself totally open, and it had only needed the faintest touch, the merest whisper of a suggestion to change one crucial word. Licking his lips, Severus grinned to himself a little nervously, without humour. Instead of swearing the Vow in Draco's name, he'd sworn on behalf of his godson. If it came to it, if he found himself needing a way out, a hastily scribbled sentence and a signature and a single drop of blood would ensure that he no longer had a godson. Hence, no Vow.

At least, he hoped so. There was no reason why it shouldn't work, but he'd never heard of anyone managing to cheat the Unbreakable Vow before. He sat back in his chair and exhaled slowly, shaking his head. It didn't change anything. The plan would still go ahead. Dumbledore was still dying, and Draco was still bound to try and murder him, and Severus had still promised to do it. But at least this way he could do it on his terms; he wasn't going to be forced into anything unless he truly had no other option, and he certainly wasn't going to let Bellatrix bloody Lestrange dictate his actions. Part of him was still hoping to find a way out of this mess, somehow.

A creak on the stairs pulled him back to reality, and he snarled, abruptly losing his temper and coming to a decision. It was stupid, it was risky, but he was fed up with this. Drawing his wand, he flicked it, opening the hidden door; he'd built the concealed stairway and the room at the top of it as his own bolthole if needed, somewhere to hide should it become necessary, but now it had been turned into a rat cage. "I've warned you about eavesdropping, Wormtail," he said coldly. "Do I have to enforce the lesson to get you to obey?" Give me a reason, Marauder. I dare you.

Pettigrew blinked watery eyes at him resentfully. "You wouldn't dare. Our master –"

"– doesn't give a flying fuck about you," Severus interrupted contemptuously. "You're a fool if you think otherwise."

"I brought him back!"

"Because you were too scared to disobey and because nobody else would have you," he replied with a sneer. "You're not a hero to our cause, Wormtail. How much did you overhear?"

His eyes flicked from side to side. "N-nothing."

"Don't lie to me. Crucio."

Severus didn't keep the curse on him for very long. He didn't trust himself not to keep it up until Pettigrew ended up like Frank and Alice Longbottom, truthfully. He didn't like using the Unforgiveables and he didn't enjoy causing pain, not the way some of the others did, but for Wormtail he made an exception, because the rat was a Marauder and because the rat had betrayed Lily.

"How much did you overhear?" he repeated in a dangerously soft voice once Pettigrew had shaken off the worst.

"...I hate you, Snivellus."

"The feeling is mutual," he replied icily, suppressing the automatic flare of rage and hate at the old despised nickname. At least with Black dead he didn't have to hear it very often any more. "This is your last chance before I start cutting more bits off you. How much. Did you. Overhear?"

Pettigrew broke first, as if there had ever been any doubt. "All of it."



Severus gave him a very cold smile and wondered if it looked as unpleasant as it felt. "Good," he repeated silkily. "Because it means that you can return to our master and tell him what a dedicated and faithful servant I am. Now, go and make your report like a good dog. No, not a dog – the dog is dead, isn't he? Tragic, that. Anyway, run along and sing my praises. And Wormtail, make it convincing."

The rat hesitated in the doorway. "Why did you do it? Would you really... kill Dumbledore?"

Very slowly, Severus stood up and looked at him. "Dumbledore," he said softly. "The Headmaster who was sworn to protect and guard all his students. He never once tried to stop you and your little friends, Wormtail. He turned a blind eye to everything you did to me. He has never taken my side over anything in more than twenty years. Even now, he neither likes me nor wholly trusts me, despite everything I've done for him. Why should I hesitate about killing him? Revenge is a dish best served cold."

Pettigrew swallowed, staring at him rather nervously.

"Now go and make your report," he spat, tiring of the game. Everything he had said was true; he really did hate the old man. He hated a lot of people, but he would still hesitate before killing them... Most of them, anyway. "And hurry back afterwards, will you? I want a couple of words with you tonight."

"The Unbreakable Vow," Dumbledore commented thoughtfully. "I didn't expect that. Still, it will only help to convince them of your sincerity."

"Yes, it's absolutely wonderful," Severus replied sourly, resisting the urge to rub his wrists again. It was all psychological; the lines were already gone and there was nothing to see or feel. It just felt as if there should be. "I'm so glad you're pleased. I only swore to infuriate Bellatrix anyway; she's going to spend weeks wondering what I'm up to."

"Never guessing that you told her openly," the Headmaster mused.

"Honesty confuses us Death Eaters," Severus said nastily. "We're not used to hearing it."

"Very droll, I'm sure," his employer said, giving him a look of rebuke. "You're committed now, Severus."

"I ought to have been committed years ago."

The Headmaster ignored the joke, such as it was. "So, we have one year. At the end of the year, everything is going to change."


"Under the circumstances, then... you might as well teach Defence this year, if you still want the job."

"What?" Shocked, Severus stared at him blankly for a moment. Cursing the small part of him that felt pleased, he narrowed his eyes suspiciously. "Why?"

"Why not?"

"Because you don't trust me," he said bluntly.

"Don't be melodramatic, Severus."

"Do you trust me?"

"Once again, there were no other applicants for the post. You certainly know enough about the subject to be qualified to teach it, and there is no chance of my securing anyone else, not this time. I believe I can persuade Horace to come out of retirement for a year, so your Potions students will be in good hands."

Severus didn't miss the fact that Dumbledore hadn't answered his question. He hadn't expected anything else. Rather shaken by the decision, and unable to shed the nagging suspicion that there was something else behind it, he thought about it for a few minutes before deciding wearily that it didn't really matter. It was only for a year, and then everything would end. It was quite likely he wouldn't even live until the end of the year – the curse on the job wouldn't help, but his life was drawing to an end anyway. One way or another, he wasn't going to live to see the end of the war, no matter which side won. Once, this change of job would have made him happy, or at least as close to happy as he ever got, but now he didn't much care any more.

"I always did enjoy being someone's last resort," he said tiredly.

Hermione discovered an unbelievable advantage to the odd situation a few days later; with only one underage person in the house, most of the Order had forgotten she was there, and were far less preoccupied with security. The kitchen door was still warded, but not the window, which was left open out of habit as much as anything. She promptly installed herself in the room directly overhead, opening that window wide and leaning out to listen, wishing vainly for one of the Extendable Ears. This meeting wasn't a full meeting, only a few members of the Order were present and they weren't likely to be discussing much, but anything she could learn might help.

She listened intently, frustrated that she couldn't catch every word; they were discussing Sirius' death and the effect it was having on the rest of the Order. Dumbledore reported that Harry was coping as well as could be expected, which was to say, not very well at all; in a couple of weeks he would be collected and removed to the Burrow, where it was hoped that the presence of his friends would help him.

Personally, Hermione rather doubted it. Harry had changed since Voldemort's return and was no longer so reliant on those around him, pulling in on himself; she'd talked about it with Ron before. Neither of them really knew what to do about it, though. Dumbledore added quietly, "I intend to see that Mr Potter is kept occupied this year." Annoyingly, nobody questioned him on the specifics, so Hermione couldn't find out what the Headmaster had planned.

The talk moved on to Lupin, who was apparently very depressed over the loss of his best friend and was also not coping well. Frankly, Hermione had wondered about those two since... well, since the Shrieking Shack, actually, although she'd kept her speculation to herself. She nearly fell out of the window when Kingsley's deep voice revealed that Tonks had been pursuing Lupin for a while and commented that her Patronus had now changed form to reflect it, which generated a low murmur of interest. Bill – at least, she thought it sounded like Bill – added that Lupin had said no several times, the last time harshly enough that Tonks had fled to the Burrow to talk to Mrs Weasley about it; apparently Lupin hadn't said he wasn't interested, only that he didn't think she should get herself involved with a werewolf.

Now perched on the windowsill, Hermione rolled her eyes. She was only sixteen, but she'd seen enough of life to know that most men really were stupid. And if Lupin really thought that was going to discourage someone like Tonks for long, he was more oblivious than most.

Moody's rough voice stated the obvious, that such harshness was unlike Remus Lupin, and asked if anyone had any ideas of ways to help him recover from his depression. A familiar smooth voice said, directly below Hermione, "Well, I could add Calming Draught to his Wolfsbane if you like. It may well poison him, but it's a risk I'm willing to take," and she nearly overbalanced again; she hadn't realised Snape was there. He really should wear a bell around his neck or something. He hadn't been back to Headquarters recently, at least as far as she knew.

"That's hilarious," Professor McGonagall replied witheringly. "In case it slipped your mind, Severus, we need him."

"What for?" Snape asked contemptuously. "He's never going to be able to win the other werewolves over. I don't know why you're persisting with this farce."

"I know you don't have any faith in Remus, but..."

"It's not about faith, it's about werewolves," he replied irritably. "Don't any of you know anything about them? Lupin's not an alpha. They won't listen to him if he talks himself hoarse every day for a century. If you really want the werewolves on our side, you need to find an alpha male more dominant than Greyback who doesn't want to be a Death Eater and persuade him to get involved. Werewolves follow the strongest; they'll follow Greyback until someone beats him."

"How do you know so much about werewolves?" McGonagall asked after a short pause; Hermione remembered the lesson Snape had set in third year. He hadn't talked about their society and she hadn't been able to find out anything.

"Know your enemy," he said spitefully, earning a lot of angry muttering. "It's not just about the werewolves, anyway. Hagrid couldn't get the giants onside, and the goblins aren't listening to you, are they, Weasley? There is absolutely no point in approaching any of the other races and trying to persuade them to join our team."

"What makes you say that, Severus?" Dumbledore asked mildly.

"We're not in a position to offer them anything they want. We don't have the power to change the laws. If the Dark Lord wins, he'll be able to change anything he likes – he won't, he'll betray his allies, but they clearly don't believe that, since they're listening to him. If we win, the best we can offer is that we'll ask the Ministry nicely to get their heads out of their backsides, and that's not enough. We have nothing to bargain with. Why should any of the non-human races listen to us prattling about our concept of right and wrong? If the Dark Lord keeps faith with them, they will all be much better off if he wins, and they know it. You're wasting time and resources chasing moonbeams. I've been saying it from the start."

"Shut up, Snape," Moody growled at him, "unless you have anything useful to contribute for a change."

Hermione didn't think that was particularly fair. What he had said made sense; during her obsession with house elf rights, she had looked into the legislative issues concerning other races and there were no simple solutions – she was still very interested in it, but she didn't exactly have much time to pursue the issue at the moment. Certainly the Order weren't in a position to promise anything. And maybe if they had been less preoccupied with 'chasing moonbeams', they would have been able to protect more people, like her parents, instead of Snape having to take it on himself to do so. If that was what had happened, anyway; she still had no proof that it had all been his idea.

"Such as?" Snape asked dryly, and just from the tone of his voice she could picture the sardonic arch of one eyebrow and the mocking smirk curving his lips upwards at one side.

"Such as your master's next move, maybe." Moody couldn't do sarcasm anywhere near as well as Snape, she reflected, suppressing a small smile. Then again, nobody else she had ever met could do sarcasm as well as the Potions master.

"I have no idea," Snape replied calmly, "for the simple reason that nor does he, in my opinion. The failure at the Ministry was only a minor irritation, although one that he will severely punish Lucius and Bellatrix for; much as he would like to know the full prophecy, he is not unduly concerned yet, since he is still certain of victory. The true setback was Fudge showing up at the end; it suited him to have the Ministry and the wizarding world as a whole remain ignorant of his return until he saw fit to reveal it. That has seriously disrupted his plans and none of us know what he will do next."

"As useful as always, eh, Snape," Moody said scathingly.

"That will do, Alastor," Dumbledore said firmly.

"It's no more than the truth, Albus, and you know it."

"I must disagree. Severus' information has proved invaluable many times. In just the past couple of months his prompt action has helped reduce the severity of this injury to my hand that you have all been politely pretending not to stare at and his swift warning kept the casualties at the Ministry to a minimum."

"Yeah, and got one of his enemies killed," the old Auror growled. "Very convenient, that, wasn't it?"

"Aren't you bored of this game yet?" Snape asked coolly. "You sound like a broken record, Moody. Worse, you sound like Potter. Are you having a mid-life crisis? I cannot think of any other reason why a man of your age would be regressing to a whiny teenager again."

Up above them, Hermione bit her lip to suppress another smile. She didn't much like Moody; the real one was marginally less creepy than the impostor had been, but he was very aggressive and temperamental as well as excessively paranoid. And she had learned over the past five years that when Snape's sarcasm wasn't directed at her or her friends, he could actually be very funny, even if she had never dared say so.

"Potter's no fool, if the boy knows better than to trust you," Moody retorted. "You managed to get Black killed..."

"For the last time, Black got himself killed," Snape replied irritably, "charging headlong into danger without stopping to think. I wasn't even there."

"No, of course you weren't. You were hiding in your hole like the coward you are, waiting to see who'd come out on top, weren't you? You spineless little creep."

"How well you know me." Snape's voice had lowered; the only reason Hermione could still hear him was that he appeared to be sitting beside the open window. His silky tones were cold and dangerous and she could picture the way his black eyes would have hardened, beginning to glitter with anger.

"Bah," Moody said in disgust. "You sicken me. You're nothing but a craven slinking scavenger."

Hermione tried in vain to loosen her white-knuckled grip on the windowsill, swallowing bile as she remembered Snape bleeding and shaking on a hospital bed in the Infirmary, silently enduring the aftermath of whatever tortures had been visited on him this time, or standing motionless as Poppy helped clean up, his eyes haunted by what he had been forced to do. The man was a bastard, there was no denying that, but he certainly wasn't a coward.

"Do shut up, Mad-Eye," Snape said almost conversationally; the crisp enunciation of his words was the only hint at his increasing anger. "What, exactly, have you done to advance our noble cause recently, hmm? Terrorised or tortured any helpless prisoners lately? For someone always so outspoken against the Dark Arts, you Aurors never scruple to use them freely."

"Enough, Severus," McGonagall said firmly. "Are you a member of the Order, or not?"

"No, actually, I'm not," he replied coldly; he sounded completely detached and disinterested, but there was the very faintest edge of hardness in his voice that said clearly to Hermione that he was very angry now. If she could see his face, she was sure his black eyes would have been flashing with dark fire, and that muscle in his jaw might have started jumping, which always meant he was close to snapping – that and the vein pulsing in his temple were the two danger signs that made his more observant students want to run.


"I'm not a member of the Order. I was never asked to join. I'm just a tool, to be used until I break and then discarded. I'm not one of you, and I never will be; that has been made very clear to me over the years."

This pronunciation was greeted with rather stunned silence. Hermione desperately wished that she could see their faces, both Snape's and the people he was confronting; she hadn't realised that either. But now that she thought of it... she'd seen the photo Moody carried around of the original Order, and Snape hadn't been in it. He only ever seemed to attend meetings if he was making a report, too, he never seemed to be part of any of the planning sessions...

"No," Moody said in an ugly tone, breaking the silence. "You're not one of us. You're just another Death Eater."

There was another long pause. Hermione wondered unhappily why Dumbledore wasn't saying anything in his spy's defence.

"Yes," Snape said finally, very quietly. "I am." A chair scraped on the floor as he presumably stood up. "And just think where you would all be if I weren't." The kitchen door slammed, followed by the front door, and Mrs Black's portrait started yelling.

There was a low murmur of voices from the kitchen, but Hermione couldn't hear them any more; they were speaking too quietly, and in any case she was too angry to listen further. If even Snape's allies treated him like scum... what chance did he have? Abruptly something crashed home in her head as she slid off the windowsill and closed the window, and she gasped softly in sudden realisation before hurrying to her bedroom to think; she was reasonably certain she had just unravelled most of the enigma that was Severus Snape.

Around an hour later, she looked up and found Phineas Nigellus staring down at her from the frame on the wall. "You overheard the meeting, then?" she asked quietly.

His lip curled. "Yes. I assure you, something similar happens almost every time."

She nodded bleakly. "I guessed as much. Does he ever seriously try to defend himself?"

"No, not really."

"I thought not."

"So, you've worked it out, then?" Phineas asked quietly.

She nodded again, looking grimly at the portrait. "Yes." Sighing, Hermione wished vainly for the comforting presence of her cat again. Hugging her knees, she watched Phineas, who was regarding her with his usual lack of expression. "I've been wondering about it for a while – since you showed me his rooms, in fact. Why he looks the way he does, why he lives the life he does. I didn't realise... it's all just because he hates himself that much, isn't it?"

"Yes," the portrait told her baldly.

"Does anyone else know?"

"Dilys does. Poppy suspects to some extent, but she doesn't know. Nobody else has a clue."

"Why haven't you told anyone?"

Phineas gave her a penetrating stare that was very Snape-like. "We could have done, but something like this needs to be understood fully. You had to realise it for yourself. I doubt you can fully put your new knowledge into words; it isn't something that can be explained, only felt."

She nodded slowly. "Is it why he joined the Death Eaters, too?"

"Partly, we think, but not completely. Understand, Miss Granger, we have never discussed this with him, nor even attempted to do so."

She nodded again and tucked her hair back behind her ears. "What are you supposed to do with people who feel like that?" she asked quietly. "What's the psychological treatment for self-loathing this intense?" She knew just enough about clinical depression to know that she didn't really know anything about it, and it was hardly something she could research at Hogwarts, given how frighteningly ignorant the wizarding world was when it came to mental health. She had planned to look into it this summer with her parents' help, but, well, that hadn't worked out.

Phineas shrugged. "Give him a reason not to despise himself; which is almost certainly impossible, in this instance. He doesn't want to live, Miss Granger, and you know it even if you don't want to admit it. His life means less than nothing to him. If things continue like this, he is likely to suicide after it's all over, should he by some miracle actually survive the end of the war. When Voldemort falls, Severus will no longer have a reason to keep himself alive."

"Is his life truly so empty?" Hermione asked very softly.

"Not empty, no – for someone as intelligent as he is, there are always things to fill the time – but... lonely, and meaningless. You have seen how the Order treat him, and how the Death Eaters treat him, and they are the closest thing to friends that he has. He has no family. His life gives him no real pleasure. I honestly believe, and Dilys agrees, that the only reason he has stayed alive as long as he has is to see Voldemort die if he can. It's all he lives for."

"Why?" she asked. "Why does he hate him so much?"

"I don't know all the reasons and I won't speculate with only half the story."

She nibbled on her lower lip thoughtfully. "Why does he hate himself so intensely? I can think of half a dozen small reasons, but none of them seem like enough, even combined."

The portrait sounded faintly annoyed. "Because, as far as we can tell, everyone in his life ever since he was a toddler has treated him as though he is worthless. Nobody has ever valued Severus for who he is, only broken him down and used him for what he can do, and almost everyone who has ever met him despised him. Anyone in that situation would grow up believing that they truly were worthless and despicable. And in addition, Severus has a conscience, and he knows that the things he has done in the past and must continue to do are terrible and wrong. Every day he is dragged in deeper, and he... cannot... escape. Most of his capacity for love has been destroyed, and what is left cannot be directed at himself."

Hermione sat and thought and bit her lip for a while. "Is there anything that anyone can do?" she asked finally, not sure she wanted to hear the answer.

"Probably not," Phineas replied somewhat brutally. "We aren't certain of anything where this man is concerned, but we think it's probably too late to save him now."

She swiped the back of her hand across her eyes. "It shouldn't be like this. Bastard or not, he deserves so much better."

"Life isn't fair," the portrait said quietly. "That, too, is something Severus has learned very early on. You are an idealist, Miss Granger, but people seldom get what they deserve, whether good or bad. By all means, turn that infamous mind of yours on the problem and try to think of some way to persuade him to value his own life a little more highly and look after himself more, but be aware that it almost certainly won't work."

On that cheerful note, he departed, leaving Hermione to stare at nothing as the shadows lengthened, lost in thoughts of a man who hated himself so much that he made no effort to look after himself, who couldn't be bothered to heal his own injuries or repair his furniture or even keep his hair clean. All their hopes might depend on him. It was a rather grim vision of the future.

Her worries subsided a little over the rest of the summer, which turned out to be pleasantly dull and quiet once she left to stay with the Weasleys – well, as quiet as things ever got at the Burrow, surrounded by half-mad young men, at least. She had told everyone the same story, even Harry and Ron; namely, that she had been the one to realise that her parents weren't safe, that she had somehow persuaded them to leave and gone to Headquarters. She didn't like lying to her friends, but telling the truth wasn't an option. They wouldn't believe her, for a start, and Snape would be furious and probably in danger if she did tell anyone.

In between fretting over everything else, she had found time to worry about her OWL results, but she was happy enough to see the long list of Outstandings – marred by the single Exceeds Expectations. That was a shame, but Defence had never been her forte, and... well, you couldn't win them all. It was quite annoying that she hadn't been able to beat Snape's record, she told herself wryly, but she'd still done well enough to be happy. Given their sketchy, patchy education on the subject, it was a miracle any of them had passed. And if she kept telling herself that, she might actually believe it and stop being disappointed. But God, she wished she could share her grades with her parents...

Most of the rest of the summer was spent trying to keep Harry cheerful. She'd known him for years and he must absolutely not be left alone to brood – especially given what he had told her and Ron about the prophecy. After the initial conversation, Hermione firmly pushed that onto the list of other things she was trying not to think about; she still didn't trust Divination in the slightest and it might not mean what Harry clearly thought it meant. Better not to think about it yet, and try to keep him positive.

She might have found that a bit easier without Fleur Delacour flouncing around the Burrow stirring up everyone's hormones, but even that proved to be quite diverting; she spent a fair amount of time holed up with Ginny, shamelessly bitching and laughing at Ron, which was certainly a lot more fun than being dragged forcibly into playing Quidditch. Nothing on this earth would ever persuade her to like flying; the actual sport was somewhat irrelevant.

Snape hadn't been back to Headquarters since that meeting she had eavesdropped on. Hermione was worried about him to some extent, but if anything had happened to him the Order would have reacted even if it didn't seem likely that anyone would grieve much, and she knew he could look after himself. He probably shouldn't, but given the reception he usually got here, she could understand why he was staying well clear. Even if he did show up here badly injured, he would never concede to being treated so publicly.

Overall, she managed to mostly forget about the war, at least until they went to Diagon Alley to get their school supplies and saw for themselves the empty shops and the frightened people. That troubled her enough to dull the impact of seeing Fred and George's shop, although not quite enough to prevent her being irrationally tempted by some of their products; it took every scrap of willpower she had not to buy anything, but she might need every coin she possessed someday soon.

Draco Malfoy being up to no good left her largely unmoved; he always acted suspiciously about something, and usually there was nothing to it. Harry's paranoia on the subject was more worrying. Hermione very much doubted that Malfoy was a Death Eater, not at his age – what would You-Know-Who want with a teenage boy? What could Draco do that his other followers couldn't? – but even if by some bizarre twist he was, Snape would know and would have told Dumbledore, and she was happy to let them deal with it. Not that she was stupid enough to say that to Harry; she settled for doing her best to distract him, and added it to her list of things not to think about just yet.

Hermione's summer might have been mostly pleasantly unexciting, but Severus couldn't say the same. He was horribly busy, dividing his time between Death Eater meetings, Order meetings, visiting the Malfoys and trying to talk to Draco, dealing with his own personal projects such as brewing Lupin's bloody Wolfsbane – the blasted werewolf never had tried to learn how to do it for himself – and attempting to put together a full new curriculum for seven classes who had very little background in Defence at all and who all needed to be taught decades of survival experience in eight or nine months. There weren't enough hours in the day; sleep had become an almost unattainable luxury, and yet he was still finding plenty of time to worry himself sick.

The more he thought about Dumbledore's plan, the less he liked it. Some of the facts were unavoidable – the old man was dying, and it did make sense for Severus to be the one to do it in the end. But he was growing increasingly certain that the Headmaster didn't plan to tell anyone else what was going on, and that frightened him, because what was going to happen after he'd done it? He'd kill Dumbledore, and as far as the world was concerned there would have been no reason for it. If his sanity survived yet another murder, one more personal than any he had committed before, he would lose everything – his fragile status on the edge of the Order, the grudging companionship and respect of his colleagues, what little standing he had among the students (even his Slytherins wouldn't forgive him for that one, and never mind that they didn't like Dumbledore). Even Poppy and the portraits would turn on him – and Granger, damnit, although he was trying hard not to think about her.

He couldn't handle a loss on that large a scale. He was used to struggling alone through most of the shit in his life, but he could not survive losing absolutely everything like that. And what was he supposed to do afterwards? Dumbledore had told him to protect the students, but how could he hope to do that under those circumstances, with every man's hand and wand raised against him? Who was going to protect him? No. It wasn't going to work.

Another possibility occurred to him around the middle of August, and he promptly started researching poisons. It didn't have to be seen as murder. If he could make the old man's death look like natural causes, then perhaps he could continue to walk the terribly fragile razor's edge between the two sides for a little while longer. If he could manage to convince Voldemort that he was responsible while convincing the Order that it had nothing to do with him, maybe he could persuade them to go along with it. The Dark Lord would make him Headmaster when they took over the school; if the other teachers were still on his side, it might be possible to do what he was supposed to do. He couldn't see any other way.

Of course, he reminded himself painfully while crawling home one night – literally crawling; he was in too much pain to stand, and he had a feeling his leg might be broken anyway – it was quite likely that he wouldn't live long enough for it to become an issue. He didn't think Draco had the balls to kill anyone, so once Severus was dead either the curse would finish Dumbledore off or the old man would have to kill himself. Either way, the plan would fall apart, but it wouldn't be Severus' fault. The odds were very high that he was going to be dead before the end of the year. Relatively few of the many Defence Against the Dark Arts teachers had actually died, but fatalities had happened, and those men and women had led far less dangerous lives.

The summer dragged on torturously slowly despite all the work he had to do. Alone once more in his depressing empty house, he concentrated on keeping himself alive, scared and overworked and stressed out and burning with helpless, pointless, frightened anger about it all. Whatever happened, he was screwed, and he was getting more than a little tired of that.

Hermione felt that the year was not off to an auspicious start. It wasn't exactly the first time Harry had been in trouble before the start-of-year feast had even begun, admittedly, but it still didn't seem like a good omen when a bored-looking Snape escorted a sullen-looking and rather worryingly bloody Harry into the Great Hall shortly before dessert was served. She kept mostly silent throughout his explanation of what had happened, largely to ignore the small treacherous part of her that suggested it did rather serve her friend right for trying to spy on Malfoy. Whether he was actually a Death Eater or not, Draco had hated Harry since first year and would hardly have passed up the chance to hurt him.

Seeing Dumbledore's blackened and withered hand was a nasty shock, too; Harry had failed to mention that, and it was sufficiently gruesome and worrying to hold her attention throughout the first part of the Headmaster's speech before she finally tuned back in.

"We are pleased to welcome a new member of staff this year," Dumbledore told them, and she regarded the new teacher curiously as he stood up. "Professor Slughorn is a former colleague of mine who has agreed to resume his old post of Potions master."

"Potions?" Hermione repeated dazedly, echoed by about half the school by the sound of it as she twisted to stare at Harry. "But you said..."

"Professor Snape, meanwhile," Dumbledore said more loudly, drawing her attention back to the staff table, "will be taking over the position of Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher."

"No!" Harry shouted, rather rudely. He wasn't the only one, either; cries of shock bordering on dismay had sounded from three of the four House tables, and even among the Slytherins only a handful of students were applauding.

Hermione stared at her teacher, somewhat stunned by this unexpected announcement. He hadn't stood up, merely lifted a hand to silence his Slytherins, and despite his sardonic smirk she didn't think he actually looked all that pleased. The expression looked false, and seemed to be more bitter amusement over the reaction to the announcement rather than a response to the announcement itself. If anything, he just looked tired, although she supposed not many people would have known his features well enough to spot it.

"But, Harry, you said that Slughorn was going to be teaching Defence Against the Dark Arts!" she told her friend accusingly.

"I thought he was!" he protested, sounding almost offended by this turn of events as shocked conversations sprang up all across the hall. "Well, there's one good thing," he added in an ugly tone. "Snape'll be gone by the end of the year."

"What do you mean?" Ron asked. Even he looked a little taken aback by Harry's vehemence.

"That job's jinxed," Harry said in a tone of dark satisfaction. "Quirrell actually died doing it. Personally, I'm going to keep my fingers crossed for another death..."

"Harry!" Hermione snapped at him, truly shocked. She hadn't told even her best friends what Snape had done over the summer to protect her family; it was safer that way, and she also knew they wouldn't have understood, not that she fully understood it herself. She knew Harry hated Snape every bit as much as Snape seemed to hate him, and somewhat unfairly blamed him for Sirius' death, but saying something like that was utterly inexcusable.

The next morning she made her way rather hesitantly down to the dungeons, unsure whether he would be expecting her so early in the term. She didn't even know if he was still living down here, now he wasn't teaching Potions any more – that still felt strange; Snape was the Potions master, that was how the world was supposed to work – and neither Dilys nor Phineas had visited the picture frame above her bed last night, so she hadn't been able to ask them.

He was waiting at the mouth of the passageway as usual, and the grainy predawn shadows didn't provide enough light for her to tell whether he was surprised to see her or not, especially since he clearly hadn't learned to be a morning person over the summer and looked like he hadn't slept in weeks. Recalling rather awkwardly that she hadn't spoken to him since the night she'd asked him to stay in her room until she fell asleep, Hermione cleared her throat hesitantly.

"Good morning, sir."He responded with a grunt that might have meant anything and led the way outside; at least it wasn't raining, she noted with some relief as she began to stretch carefully. Glancing up at him, she asked quietly, "Defence, sir?"

"So it would seem," he replied in his usual gravelly early-morning voice, wincing slightly as one of his joints cracked audibly. He gave her a sarcastic smile. "The announcement was very well received, was it not? Such friendly, welcoming enthusiasm really warms the heart."

Ignoring that, she asked, "Why didn't you tell me, sir?"

He raised an eyebrow. "Miss Granger, contrary to your expectations, you do not need to know everything about my life," he told her, his tone milder than his words. "Besides, I didn't know myself until sometime in early August. It was all rather last-minute."

Studying him for a moment, she noted that he still didn't look happy. Then again, he seldom looked anything at all this early in the morning except tired, so there was no point trying to read too much into it. "Your predecessors all seem to have ended their careers rather, um, dramatically, sir," she said cautiously, trying not to think about what Harry had said.

Snape gave her a sharp look. "Did you come here to chatter at me and state the obvious, or to run?" he asked crisply, the effect somewhat ruined by his trying not to yawn mid-sentence. Taking the hint, she shut up.

By the time they had made it around the circuit and were warming down, she could barely breathe, and he chuckled nastily. "Dear me, someone is out of practice."

"I ran every day at home," she protested breathlessly, glaring at him. "But I couldn't leave Headquarters, and when I was at the Burrow... well, everyone there believes any form of exercise that doesn't involve a broomstick to be a mortal sin," she added mischievously.

His eyes glittered for a moment as he snorted. "Touché."

"I have Defence before lunch," she said quietly, watching him curiously.

Snape sneered at her, probably more out of habit than anything else. "Thank you for enlightening me, since obviously I do not know my own timetable despite having spent an entire day last week in a staff meeting arranging it."

"Yes, sir," she replied dryly, trying not to smile. When there was no malice behind it, she quite liked his sarcasm, at least some of the time. "What do you have planned, sir?"

"As if I would tell you, Miss Granger," he replied dismissively, before smirking. "It won't be Cornish pixies, I'll tell you that much. I will not be courting trouble by inviting anyone to write poetry about me – I dread to think of what would be handed in – nor will I be requiring anyone to read my autobiography. I don't care if you know my favourite colour or not."

I shouldn't think you have one. You don't seem to like colour at all. Keeping the retort to herself, and ignoring the jibe about Lockhart, she continued calmly, "And I have Potions this afternoon. What's Professor Slughorn like, sir?"

He snorted, smirking again, and now there was a hint of malice in his glittering black eyes. "You'll see. His attitude is rather different from my own... although doubtless that should be seen as a positive thing."

"Was he your teacher, sir?"

"He was, yes."

"Were you part of his... club?"

Snape raised both eyebrows. "He's started recruiting already? He hasn't wasted any time, then. Interesting. And to answer your question, Miss Granger... it is, as ever, none of your business. Now be on your way."

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 15 of 60

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