Continuing Tales

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 17 of 60

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A couple of evenings later, Hermione was called to the Room of Requirement by Dilys' portrait; the elderly witch was grinning in a decidedly unsettling manner. "So, my dear, can you guess why we're here?"

"Professor Snape said he'd asked you to help me with my confidence issues," she replied a little sourly – it wasn't as if he was in a position to comment on anyone else's poor self esteem, after all.

"Yes," Dilys agreed cheerfully, "and I will gladly do so. But not in the way that he imagines, because dear Severus is a man, and there are some things he simply does not understand."

Hermione blinked rather warily at the portrait. "Like what?"

Dilys smiled kindly at her. "For boys – and all men are still boys at heart in some ways, as you will learn over time – their confidence is tied to what they can do. Who scores the most Quidditch goals, who can do the flashiest magic, who can lift the biggest weight, silly testosterone-fuelled things of that sort. For women, though, our confidence is tied far more to our looks, even though we might wish otherwise. So, Hermione, I'm going to give you a makeover – or make you give yourself one, at least."

"No." She didn't even have to think about it, giving Dilys a rebellious look.

"Oh, relax. I'm not going to be attempting any of the things young Miss Weasley has tried to inflict on you, or those ridiculous children you share a dormitory with – and they are children, children who are trying far too hard. The only reason it seems to be working now is that teenage boys are ridiculously easy to impress. Once everyone's hormones have calmed down they will find that they aren't as pretty as they think they are. In any case, that is by far the wrong approach in this instance, I suspect."

She fought the blush with everything she had, dredging up every scrap she had ever learned about Occlumency to keep her face expressionless as she glared at the portrait. "I'm not going to do it."

Dilys smiled again and gave her a knowing look. "Relax. The key word here is subtlety, Hermione; it's not just for Slytherins, you know, although they tend to appreciate it more. I'm going to suggest lots of very, very tiny changes, half of which you won't even notice, and you'll be astounded at the difference it makes. You might even enjoy yourself, my dear; most of your peers will be aware that something has changed, but they won't be able to figure out what, and it's going to irritate a lot of people. You're probably going to make a few girls jealous, too, by the end, and believe me, there are few things more enjoyable than the sound of some stuck-up young thing chewing on her own liver in frustration."

She stifled a giggle, suddenly remembering the Yule Ball. It had nearly killed her, achieving that look, but the absolute stunned amazement on every single face had so been worth it – even if Ron had spectacularly failed to respond the way she had hoped. Viktor had been... quite appreciative, she remembered, smiling. And yes, the other girls had given her looks of such pure hatred... she hadn't enjoyed herself so much in years.

Looking down at herself, her smile faded. "There's not exactly much to work with."

"Nonsense," Dilys told her briskly. "Just because you don't look like whatever the current fashion is doesn't mean a thing. Your looks are timeless – regardless of current tastes, you are pretty, and it's high time you realised it. What do you most want to change about yourself?"

"My hair," she replied instantly. "I like the colour and I like my curls... I just hate it being so frizzy and uncontrollable."

Dilys grinned. "I thought so. Well, you're going to be disappointed there, because we're going to leave your hair well alone. Replace the word 'uncontrollable' with the word 'untamed', dear; a bit of wildness can be very appealing, especially since the rest of your appearance is so smart and restrained. I will order you to let it grow longer, though."

"What? Please, Dilys, no. I can barely cope with it as it is," she protested.

"Growing it will help, believe me," the portrait assured her. "The extra weight will pull the curls out just a little bit and make it less bushy. There will be more of it but it will be more manageable. Trust me; my mother had hair very much like yours. The only thing to do with it is to grow it long enough to weight it down, or to cut it so short that it doesn't curl, which I doubt either you or... anyone else... would ever forgive me for."

Hermione frowned. That did sound logical, sort of, but... Pensively she picked up a lock of hair and gently pulled it, noticing that the longer curl did look a bit less bushy. "Maybe," she said finally, before sighing. "I'll try it, but if I can't stand it then I'm cutting it again."

"Of course," Dilys replied. "None of this is compulsory, Hermione. We're just experimenting; not all my ideas will work for you, and fun though some of them are I don't think you'd dare," she added with a truly disturbing smirk that made Hermione blush a little. "But a lot of them will make you feel better about yourself, possibly without you even realising, and that will spill over into your confidence in your magic, which was the original point."

"Are you sure? This all sounds... well..."

"Insane? Yes, I know, but you need to trust me. Severus wanted me to help you improve your confidence, and this really is the quickest way – after all, we don't really have time for you to perform lots of amazing feats. Trust me, Hermione. I was young once, you know, and I have become a rather adept study of human nature over the years. Now, let's move on to your clothes..."

Twenty minutes later, Hermione was feeling very out of her depth. She'd never paid much attention to her clothes at all and it seemed utterly insane that anything Dilys had suggested was going to make any difference at all; people weren't even going to see any of it. The portrait insisted it would make her feel different and that would show outwardly, but she remained sceptical. She was certain that this was a bad idea and wondering if she would ever dare smack Snape for putting her through it; admittedly he certainly hadn't had this in mind when he had enlisted Dilys' help, but that didn't stop her blaming him. She scowled at her reflection in the mirror that had appeared; at least this one didn't seem disposed to talk. Since entering adolescence she had developed a rabid hatred of all magical mirrors and their criticism. "I feel stupid."

"All I'm asking is that you try, Hermione. Give it a week. If after that you still feel uncomfortable, then it's not working and you should stop, but I think you'll be surprised." Dilys studied her for a few minutes, thoughtfully. "We're almost there."

"I think you're putting too much faith in this, Dilys."

"Nonsense. Confidence is sexy, Hermione, and these tiny little changes will make you seem much more confident, and the reaction you get will make you feel more confident."

"How exactly do you know all this?" she asked. "I mean, don't you come from the time of corsets and so on, when bare ankles were scandalous?"

"Witches were never quite that repressed, dear. In any case, I was a Healer specialising in female problems, and I was also a teacher. Teenage girls haven't been a mystery to me since I was one. And Poppy and I take great delight every few weeks in laughing together over the latest nonsense in Witch Weekly. None of those silly fripperies are necessary, Hermione; if you feel sexy, you'll look sexy. It really is as simple as that."

Time for extra lessons again; Severus found the whole situation quite ironic, really. He hated teaching, he always had and he always would, and the last thing he wanted was to spend any more time with any of the Trio – Potter was his own personal form of torture, Weasley annoyed him immensely, and it was probably bad for his health to spend too much time with Granger, under the circumstances. Yet, here he was in his office, waiting for Weasley to show up. Hopefully this would be the only time he would need to see the boy alone, and hopefully it would go better than the private lesson he had a feeling he was going to have to endure with Potter before too much longer – he hoped he wouldn't need to do it, but his luck had never been good – but still, there were better ways to spend an evening.

He glanced up at the hesitant tap on the door. "Enter." This was at least something new, he supposed – he'd never spent any time with the youngest Weasley boy, not even during detentions. But he had watched him, over the years, as he had watched all of them, and he had been thinking about this lesson for a while now.

"...Good evening, Professor," the boy mumbled awkwardly; he looked – well, terrified, actually, and Severus repressed a smirk, sternly telling himself to behave.

"Good evening, Mr Weasley. Sit. We are here primarily to play chess. While we play, I will talk, and you will listen. You do not need to look at me, you do not need to respond, we will not discuss anything. Take a seat, and make your move when you are ready."

Looking seriously bewildered, the redhead nodded and sat down, keeping his eyes on the chessboard that had been set up. Personally, Severus preferred Muggle chess, but since he didn't know any Muggles, he put up with playing wizard chess. He owned several sets; the worst one had belonged to his great-grandfather, and the pieces screamed and bled as they were taken. He had left that to Dumbledore in his will; at least the old man would get the point, even if he wouldn't care. This set was perfectly ordinary, though.

Slowly Weasley sent his first pawn forward. As Severus moved in response, he began to speak quietly, keeping his own eyes firmly on the chessboard; he hated this sort of thing. "I have been watching you since your first year, Mr Weasley, and I have known your family for a very long time. You are the youngest son of a poor family; you have spent most of your life resenting being in the shadow of your brothers, desperate for a chance to grab something of your own. That carries over into your friendships. You have never liked the fact that Miss Granger is smarter than you are, and you have never liked the fact that Mr Potter attracts so much more attention. No, don't talk, remember? Just listen.

"You spend too much time worrying about things that those around you are better at. It's called an inferiority complex, Mr Weasley, and it is a well recognised psychological issue. Instead of fretting about being overshadowed, you should be finding something you are good at, for your own sake. You follow Potter as though you are joined at the hip. If you persist in trailing around after him like a lost puppy, you cannot complain if you are only ever treated as his sidekick. You might think about that in your spare time, but it is not what I wish you to consider tonight. Eyes on the chessboard, if you please, Mr Weasley, you are in check."

God, how he hated speeches. His Slytherins were mostly capable of working things out for themselves with no more than a couple of leading questions; damned Gryffindors, needing things spelled out for them. Resisting the urge to sigh, he continued.

"Of course Potter is going to be in the limelight. He is the so-called Chosen One, after all. I know you are aware of the prophecy; think about what it says. War is not about glory, Weasley. It's not about honour. If you survive, you might well get a shiny medal and a pat on the head and your picture in that useless rag of a newspaper, but that is not what the war is about. Checkmate, incidentally; pay attention, I thought you were a better player than this. Does it really matter who gets the credit for bringing the Dark Lord down? The important thing is that our side wins; individual victories are hardly important. I know you aren't actually selfish, Weasley, because I know your parents and they would not have raised you to be as stupid as you often appear, despite your older brother's deficiencies – I said keep your eyes on the chessboard. You are three moves from checkmate again already, because you are not concentrating. I told you before to stop taking everything so personally. Contrary to popular belief, I very seldom insult anyone purely for the sake of insulting them; there is usually an actual reason for it. Check."

All right, maybe this could be fun after all, but Severus still felt like a bloody idiot.

"I will talk about this more later. The main reason for this meeting, aside from the entertainment of beating you at chess, was to discuss the other useful strength that I mentioned before. Let us consider Mr Potter more closely..."

Hermione waited up for Ron the first time he went to meet with Snape alone, suspecting – correctly, as it turned out – that Snape would keep him late. It was nearly midnight when the redhead shambled in, looking a little bewildered, and he grinned in relief to see her and came to flop down in the chair opposite her.

"How did it go?" she asked, and he rolled his eyes comically at her.

"Horrible. He absolutely thrashed me. Beat me four times in a row, then I managed to get a stalemate, and then to make me pay for it he beat me another six times before he let me go. The man plays chess like a demon."

She stifled a giggle and tried to look sympathetic, with only marginal success. "Poor dear." Frankly, Ron's ego had needed deflating; he was better than his brothers and Harry, and he never played against anyone else. She couldn't play at all, not with a wizarding set, because she got too distracted when the pieces fought so brutally. "What else, though?"

Ron looked uncertain. "It was a bit weird. I... think I sort of see what you were on about when you kept going on about how he's just a human being. He... talked. About lots of stuff, really. He's helped me understand a few things." He gave her an almost guilty look, and she rolled her eyes and smiled at him.

"You don't have to tell me, stupid. I'm not going to tell you anything I've talked about." Mostly because it would cause another row, but still.

He snorted and relaxed into his chair, rubbing his eyes; he did look a lot better, actually, less on edge and more like the boy she remembered. "He talked about other stuff, too. Remember how he said there was something else I could do for the war that he'd tell me about in private?"

"Ron, do I need to make you look up 'private' in the dictionary?"

He grinned. "Funny. Nah, seems 'private' just means 'not in front of Harry'. Where is he, by the way?"

"Asleep. He waited up for a while, but after the third time he started snoring I sent him to bed because he was annoying me. So come on, tell me; you've got me curious now."

Ron looked serious, frowning slightly. "Well, it sounds a bit horrible now I come to say it to someone else, but – well, Snape told me I'd need to keep Harry focused, you know? Keep him remembering who he is, kind of thing. Keep him grounded."

"Oh," Hermione said softly. "He really is a clever man."

"You reckon he's right, then?"

"Yes. Come off it, Ron. We've both seen how much Harry's changed since the war started. When's the last time you heard him laugh? I haven't even seen him smile in ages. He worries too much and he gets too moody for his own good and starts brooding. He needs you to snap him out of it."

"And you? I asked Snape why he wasn't telling you this too, and he just did that weird almost-smile he does and said I should ask you because you'd already know."

Hermione smiled. "I do know. Harry does need me, but not for that. I'm not his friend, I'm his big sister; I look after him, I nag him to eat his vegetables and do his homework and go to bed on time, and I tell him about girls when he's too thick to work it out for himself. You're his best mate, not me. He needs you so he can act like a teenage boy every now and then; I make him act like a grown-up, and you don't. He needs both of us, but for different reasons. That's what Professor Snape meant when he said all three of us were going to be needed. You and me, we're here to see that Harry makes it. You know that, don't you?"

He hesitated, then nodded. "Yeah, I know. He's the one that matters."

"No, he's not," she corrected him gently. "We all matter. I don't think he'll make it without us."

Ron grinned suddenly. "Merlin, now you even sound like Snape."

She rolled her eyes and stood up. "You meant it as an insult, but I actually think it's a compliment," she told him loftily. "Go to bed."

"Yes, ma'am. Good night."

"Good night."

Hermione sat quietly in her usual seat in the Potions classroom with her chin propped on her hand, watching Professor Slughorn thoughtfully. It was still very strange, being taught Potions by anyone other than Snape. The classroom itself was different, brighter and – warmer, somehow; it even smelled different, but she wasn't sure she liked the changes much. Before, it had been what it was supposed to be; a laboratory, functional and practical and yet with a hint of dramatic atmosphere; now it felt... false, in an odd way.

She watched Slughorn almost absently, listening with only half an ear. She'd already read this lesson several times, both the textbook version and the Half-Blood Prince's notes on it; right now she was more interested in the demonstration, focusing on their teacher's hands as he blended the ingredients.

It wasn't the same, she reflected idly. Oh, Slughorn was certainly a good teacher, after all his years of experience; he knew exactly what he was doing at all times. But he lacked Snape's... flair. There was a certain rhythm to Snape's movements when he brewed, a flow to his actions that made them seem as natural as breathing. He made it all seem so effortless, as though it was a part of him, a natural process of his body rather than a conscious action he was performing.

Slughorn had several decades on him, so it wasn't a question of practice, simply a matter of sheer natural talent. Their current Potions professor was a skilled and competent teacher, but their previous teacher was a true expert. She had found out during the course of her background reading years ago that Potions Master wasn't an affectation as she had always assumed, but a genuine title that meant far more than simple Professor. Snape held a Mastery in Potions; as far as she understood it, Master status was the highest academic rank you could achieve in the wizarding world, far beyond degree level and equivalent to a doctorate at least. And although she hadn't had as much time as she would like to read through his old textbook, even when he had been her age it seemed he had known a startling amount about Potions that she could only dream of.

Which did rather beg the question of what he was doing in Hogwarts; she had wondered about that for years. Why was Snape here, doing a job he clearly hated and was massively overqualified for? She hadn't known the answer to that question until the day Madam Pomfrey had told her of Snape's true role in the war. He was here purely because he had needed to be in position when Voldemort returned.

Miserable as that was, one of the side effects had been to give many years of Hogwarts students an absolutely stellar education in Potions that no other school could hope to match. Every non-Slytherin student might well hate him, and a lot of them did have good reason, and everyone might agree that he was harsh and almost tyrannical at times and an absolute unpleasant bastard, quite frankly... but nobody could deny that he was a very good teacher. He simply would not allow his students to get poor results. The Potions grades were consistently higher than average and it was generally the subject with the greatest pass rate.

Slughorn, skilled though he was, simply couldn't compete with that, in Hermione's admittedly possibly somewhat biased opinion. He didn't even maintain Snape's tight control over his classes; she was pretty sure she was one of the only students ever to have realised that the man wasn't being a strict disciplinarian purely for the sake of it but also because Potions was a dangerous subject and students misbehaving could potentially cause very serious accidents. Slughorn's whole attitude was different, less focused and less aware and just... less.

Suppressing a small smile, she reflected that his hands weren't right, either. She'd spent years watching Snape's hands, focusing on every movement of those long and elegant fingers. Every action was smooth and precise and there was absolutely no wasted energy; every movement had a purpose. His hands were marked by his craft, stained and scarred and callused in a dozen small ways that were hard to notice unless you looked closely; they were the hands of a craftsman, combining art and sheer hard work. Slughorn's hands seemed soft and clumsy by comparison; she was pretty sure he manicured his fingernails.

More than all of that, though, the two men differed most in their reactions to what they did. Slughorn obviously enjoyed his job; he liked teaching, liked interacting with the students, and for him Potions was a hobby and a means to an end. Snape, by contrast, hated his job and his students equally from what Hermione had observed, except for the actual brewing of potions. When he was marking essays or asking questions or walking around scrutinising their work, he was his usual harsh and unpleasant self, but sometimes when he was demonstrating a potion to them – or, much less frequently, sometimes during certain lectures – something in his eyes changed, almost a softening, as if some inner tension had relaxed a little. She had watched him brewing privately and seen it far more clearly; for Snape, his potions work satisfied some inner need, gave him a sense of peace and purpose and fulfilment that he didn't seem to find anywhere else.

By contrast, his expression during Defence lessons told a very different story. There was certainly a part of him that genuinely enjoyed the subject in all its darkness, admittedly, but mostly she could see that he was just trying to keep them all alive. He was trying to teach them how to survive, and yet she could see in his face that he knew they weren't going to listen. It was why he was giving her, Harry and Ron the extra lessons, because he knew that the students wouldn't heed the regular ones. Potions had given him peace, but Defence seemed to give Snape nothing but despair – although that was probably mostly a reflection of his general despairing attitude, these days.

God knows he's got enough reasons to feel completely hopeless.

Pushing aside her troubled thoughts of her professor, Hermione focused on the lesson once more, and when her mind wandered again it was into the realm of Potions that her thoughts strayed; in particular, the Amortentia that Slughorn had showed them. Neither Ron nor Harry would admit to what it had smelled like to them, and she certainly hadn't said many of the different scents aloud. Sitting here, she registered that many of the herbal and smoky scents had come from the Potions classroom as it had been under Snape; that made sense, she supposed. Potions was one of her favourite classes, just behind Charms and tied with Transfiguration, despite his best efforts to completely discourage her. Maybe even because of it, actually, now she thought of it; winning her other teachers' approval wasn't hard, but with Snape she had to really push herself just to get something he couldn't criticise, and she had always liked a challenge.

Most of the other scents in the Amortentia hadn't been a surprise either – ink and parchment and paper and leather bindings, the smell of books. Sun-warmed grass... she'd loved the smell of grass cuttings since she was a little girl; it was the smell of summer. But there had been another scent winding through those notes, something tantalisingly familiar that had annoyed her for days until she'd finally recognised that it was the smell of rain, the indescribable scent of the air after a storm, fresh and clean and alive. It was a nice smell, but she couldn't quite work out what it represented – the only thing she had really noticed that smelled even slightly like that was Snape, oddly enough, that clean mineral tang to his personal scent, and it obviously couldn't be him.

Slughorn finished his lecture, and she put it out of her mind, sorting her ingredients out and starting to work on the potion, leaning over the battered textbook and studying the scribbled amendments to the instructions.

At the end of their morning jog a week later, Snape caught her eye as she wished him good morning before turning away. "Your first combat lesson is tonight," he informed her crisply. "Tell your friends, and do not be late."

She couldn't speak for the boys, but Hermione worried herself sick for the rest of the day. Defence was her weakest subject, despite all the work with the DA last year, and the only OWL she hadn't managed an Outstanding in; she knew she was no fighter. Besides, this was going to get ugly; Harry and Ron spent hours gleefully talking about finally getting their own back on the greasy git, until she finally lost her temper.

"Oh, grow up, Harry," she snapped. "He'll wipe the floor with you if you give him a reason to, and we all know it. We're teenagers, and we've only ever been in one real fight. What, exactly, do you think you're going to be able to do to him? And Ron, you've changed your tune since last week; did you forget already?"

Neither of them spoke to her for the rest of the afternoon, but she ignored it. They were both arrogant when it came to this sort of thing; she still remembered going after the Stone in the first year, and Harry blithely telling her that he'd be able to hold Snape off for a while even though he wasn't a match for him really. She'd been too busy panicking to give it much thought at the time, but even then part of her had wanted to laugh scornfully; Harry had been a weedy eleven year old who'd known about a dozen spells, none able to do any damage whatsoever. It had been just as well he hadn't ended up facing Snape in a fight; it would have lasted about thirty seconds at most.

Snape was waiting for them, looking much as he had done in their second year in the doomed Duelling Club, devoid of his billowing robes. Hermione looked at him for a moment, then shrugged out of her own robe and draped it over the back of her chair before sitting down and starting to braid her hair back out of the way; she didn't like doing it because it would be frizzier than ever when she took it out, but it made sense. The boys just sat down, and she barely stopped herself rolling her eyes.

"If you recall," Snape said softly, moving to stand in front of them, "I told you last time we met here that normal rules will not apply here. Do not use any illegal spells; beyond that, anything goes, and I mean anything. I advise you to practice wandless and non-verbal magic as much as possible. As I said before, you will get hurt here, but probably not today. For this evening, I merely wish to see what each of you can do, to give me a better idea of what you each need to learn. I won't be fighting back this time, only defending. I want each of you to attack me in turn. Don't hold back; I need to gain an accurate picture of your offensive abilities." He paused, his eyes glittering in a manner that never boded well. "Let's get this over with, Potter, shall we?"

Harry all but bounced up eagerly, gripping his wand, and Hermione winced; you didn't need Divination to see what was about to happen. She'd been right; thirty seconds later Harry lay flat on his back, winded and gasping, his glasses askew and his wand ten feet away from him, although she had no idea what he'd tried to do or what had happened to him when he did.

Snape looked utterly bored; he hadn't even unfolded his arms, merely flicked his wand slightly. "Right, let's try that again, shall we, Potter?" he asked silkily. "And this time, don't try to be clever. I've been fighting in formal duels since I was your age, and in informal scraps since long before that. Don't be stupid. I want to see what you can do, not what you would like to do but can't quite manage. Take a moment to think about what you're doing, instead of thinking about how much you'd like to hurt me, because it's not going to happen. You've got a lot to learn before you'll be able to harm me. Now stand up, pull yourself together, and try again."

Harry was stubborn as a mule, and although he wasn't stupid, he never did know when to give up. Hermione wasn't remotely surprised when Snape once again had to disarm him and throw him, and apparently nor was Snape. After the third time, her friend clearly couldn't stand, and their teacher rolled his eyes. "Miss Granger, do make sure he's not dead, if you please. The Headmaster will no doubt lecture me if he is."

Hermione knelt next to him. "Harry, are you okay?"

"I'll kill him," he wheezed.

"You're fine, then." She sighed and rested a hand on his shoulder, lowering her voice to a whisper. "Don't be stupid, Harry. He's trying to help you. You're not hurt, and you're a fool if you don't think he could have hurt you badly. I don't care if you don't want to hear it, but Professor Snape is a far better fighter than all three of us together. You can't win by just charging in. Now do as he says and think about what you're doing, okay?"

"We've taken him before."

"Five to one, when he wasn't paying attention and we got lucky," she pointed out softly. "Harry, he's twenty years older than us, and he's always been good at this sort of thing, and he's been fighting other wizards for most of his life. You're not going to be able to hurt him. Now will you please, please just show him what you know, so he knows what else to teach you? It doesn't matter whose side you think he's on, he's the best teacher we've got. And if you keep this up he's going to lose his temper, and then you'll get hurt. Come on, Harry, please. For me, if nothing else."

He glared at her, but sighed. "All right, all right. Ow."

"Stop fussing, you're only bruised," Snape said dismissively. "Calm yourself and try again. If you persist in this idiocy, I won't be gentle. Come."

Harry picked himself up; the last fall had evidently knocked a bit of the defiance out of him, as he finally seemed to register that Snape did know what he was doing. Brushing himself off, he paused and frowned, then took his robe off and threw it onto his chair before moving slowly back to his previous place and taking a moment to think at last.

Hermione watched, wide-eyed. From the DA, she knew that Harry knew a lot of jinxes and hexes as well as defensive spells, and there were all the other spells he'd learned when preparing for the Tri-Wizard Tournament; he was good, now that she had time to watch him fight without being terrified for her own life at the same time. But Snape was better, effortlessly blocking and deflecting everything sent at him until he disarmed Harry again a few minutes later, this time without throwing him half way across the room.

"Enough, for now. You're getting frustrated and angry and making mistakes. Stop." Harry glared at him, but when he retrieved his wand he sat down without arguing. Snape shook his head. "I keep telling you, Potter, you can't hope to beat me yet. You might be able to threaten me seriously, in time, if you pay attention; you certainly have the power, and some of the knowledge, but not the skill, not yet. That is why you are here. Your previous... extra-curricular activities... have given you a decent enough repertoire to be going on with, it seems, but again, you must work on your temper. Righteous anger is all well and good, but it is a serious liability in a fight. I shall have to think about this, but that was much as I expected. Weasley, you next."

Ron only had to be thrown once before he got the message that Snape was too strong for him, but he quickly grew flustered, turning red and fumbling his spells and at one point he nearly dropped his wand before Snape finally called a halt. Surprisingly, the older wizard didn't say anything mocking, merely gave him a thoughtful look and murmured, "Again, much as I was expecting," before turning with a smirk. "Miss Granger, if you please."

Cringing inwardly, Hermione stood and came to face him, preparing for humiliation. She really did hate not being able to do something well. At least she managed a few spells non-verbally, not that it seemed to make any difference; Snape didn't even look like he was trying. She might as well have been a first year for all the effort it was costing him to block or deflect everything she sent at him. She would have given up much sooner; it felt like an eternity before Snape finally nodded and raised a hand and let her slink back to her seat, red-faced and despondent.

His black eyes flickered briefly over each of them before he conjured a chair and came to sit in front of them. "That wasn't a complete disaster," he told them dryly. "Your DA has at least provided you with a decent background knowledge of combative spells, despite the disjointed teaching you have had to suffer throughout your education so far."

He stretched his legs out in front of him, crossing them loosely at the ankles, and leaned back. "Potter, first."

"I know, I know, my temper. Sir."

"Thank you for proving my point," Snape told him sardonically, arching an eyebrow disdainfully at him. "Yes, your temper. You're strong and quick and your reflexes aren't bad, but you telegraph every move before you make it, with your body language and facial expression as much as your thoughts –"

"Wait, you were using Legilimency?" Harry blurted.

"Of course I was."

"But that's not fair –"

"Good Lord, boy, you're not a child any more," Snape snapped at him. "There are some people in this building who could face me in a fair fight, but you're not one of them yet, and your enemies are certainly not going to be worried about fair. Besides, sensing what moves you're about to make lets me learn about your fighting style. As I was saying, you declare every move before you make it, which makes it very easy to block and defend against. And you get frustrated and angry, which means you start being stupid. You need to think and to keep your wits about you; we need to work on your self control. If you can manage that against me, you'll find it easy enough to do so against someone you don't absolutely hate," he added with a faint edge to his voice before turning his head.

"Weasley, you're a lazy fighter," he continued. "You send a spell, then stop to see if it's worked, hoping not to have to do another. That will get you killed very quickly. You're too obvious about your moves as well, and you keep using the same few spells over and over. You try to show off, too," he added dryly. "You're never going to have lightning reflexes, but you're powerful enough, once you learn how to use it and stop going for the flashy spells on general principles. Again, you'll do better when you're focusing on the fight and not on how to try and hurt me."

Ron scowled, flushing darkly, but he didn't argue.

Snape turned to Hermione. "Which brings us to you, Miss Granger."

"I was terrible," she muttered.

He raised an eyebrow. "No, actually. Your style is different to your friends, but not necessarily worse. You know instinctively that you don't have the raw power for larger spells and don't waste time, and your body language doesn't betray you. Had you thought to use Occlumency as well, your mind might have been hidden enough to benefit you against someone who doesn't know you, although your expression still gives you away every time. Your magic is more suited to defence than offense; you are not a natural fighter. Mainly you lack confidence, as I have said before; part of you fears that your spells won't work, so you're not putting your full strength behind them. You are also reluctant to hurt anyone and try to stick to less damaging spells even when you think of stronger ones, giving you a tendency to flinch as you cast, which is all very admirable but won't help here."

Snape stood up and began to pace slowly back and forth. "Mostly, the three of you simply lack experience. You need to be taught to react quickly and instinctively and to learn how to assess a situation swiftly so you know what to do and what not to do, and you need to learn how to accept the realities of fighting – namely, that you will get hurt and that you will hurt others. You need to learn your strengths and weaknesses and how to work best with others who fight in different ways, and to control yourselves. The best way to do that is to practice. I want the three of you to start mock-duelling one another here as often as you can, and I will test you when I can spare the time. Once I see some improvement, you'll start facing me singly, in pairs or all of you together, and I can tailor our duels to what you each need to learn."

He smirked briefly. "I want you to start exercising, as well, if you don't already." Hermione bit her lip to avoid laughing, trying not to catch his eye as he continued. "Physical strength is important; it does affect your use of magic, a little, and it matters a great deal as far as endurance and stamina in a fight are concerned. We'll be fighting physically as well as magically."

"Why, in case we want to punch Voldemort?" Harry asked sarcastically.

"I've told you not to use his name in front of me. Don't make me tell you again. And yes, to be blunt," Snape told him flatly. "You may well be disarmed in a fight, and too drained or too dazed to use wandless magic. Most wizards know nothing about hand to hand combat. It may not do much good, but it will buy time; more importantly, your opponent will not expect it. I'm not teaching you how to duel, I'm teaching you how to survive. All's fair in love and war, and we are at war. Anything goes. Anything. Magic is your first means of defence, but it's not your only option."

"So we're allowed to hit you?" Ron checked.

Snape gave him a withering look. "When we reach that point, yes. If you can. Do bear in mind that I will also be hitting you."

"I don't believe the Headmaster's going to allow this," Harry protested.

"Then ask him," Snape replied dismissively. "Tempting though it is, I have already promised him that I won't damage any of you too badly, but you won't learn otherwise. The only way to truly learn fighting is to get into fights, and it's safer to do so here in a controlled environment with someone who knows what they're doing." He regarded the three of them distantly. "It's brutal and it's far from ideal, but you'll learn quickly. Time is not on our side. In an ideal world someone would have begun training the three of you years ago, but as it is, this is our best option." He glanced up at the wall, and a clock obligingly appeared. "That will do for tonight. Do try to think about what I've said; I assure you, I am not doing this for fun."

The following morning, Snape broke the companionable silence between them to ask archly, "So, what did you think of your lesson last night?"

"Truthfully, sir?"

"If you really must, although at your age you should know that it is usually better to lie most of the time."

Ignoring that with a small smile, Hermione replied honestly, "Well, sir, I was expecting you to use the chance to try and hurt Harry."

She watched him uncertainly as they jogged onwards in suddenly thick silence; he was staring into the distance with a rather faraway expression. Finally he sighed, not looking at her. "I can hardly blame you for assuming that, I suppose. I must admit I considered it."

"Well, I'm glad you didn't," she offered, and he snorted.

"Thank you for your vindication. My life now has meaning once again," he told her sarcastically. Apparently he was in one of his moods; Hermione resisted the urge to try and think of a comeback and held her tongue for the rest of the run.

Severus was preoccupied with trying not to fall asleep in his breakfast when the owl landed in front of him. He gave the bird a faintly puzzled look; he rarely received any post at all, let alone a small parcel like the one bound to the creature's leg. Carefully untying it – postal owls, like most magical creatures, didn't like him; he assumed they could sense the Dark Mark somehow – he examined it and the attached note with a frown. It was from the Hogsmeade post office, and the stamp marked it as having been redirected to Hogwarts from a Muggle origin. He couldn't think of any reason offhand why a Muggle would be writing to him; he didn't really know any, now.

"Anything interesting?" Minerva asked. He gave her a look; she should know better than to try and talk to him this early in the morning by now. Grunting vaguely by way of an answer, he set the package down and reached for his coffee again.

She snorted softly. "Honestly, Severus. Anyone would think you didn't enjoy your job," she told him dryly, and he huffed quiet amusement in spite of himself.

"What gave it away?" he asked in a gravelly voice, giving her an ironic look.

"Oh, I don't know, I just somehow picked up that general impression." The Deputy Headmistress regarded him thoughtfully. "I've often wondered, though, Severus – what did you actually want to do? Clearly teaching was never your ideal career." He shrugged, and she pressed him, "Humour me. Where would you like to be, right now?"

Severus looked around the Great Hall briefly and felt a faint glimmer of mischief surface from a part of him that he had thought was long dead. Turning back to face his colleague, he met her eyes and answered with complete and total honesty, "On a deserted island somewhere, in bed with a pretty girl half my age."

That earned him another snort and a look that was somewhere between disgust and amusement. "There's no talking to you in this mood. Be serious."

I was. He held his tongue and contented himself with trying to imagine Minerva's expression had she known which pretty young girl he had in mind, thankful that he wasn't awake enough to drift completely into fantasies. His dreams were bad enough as it was without lascivious thoughts monopolising his waking hours as well. I'm too young to be a dirty old man.

"Seriously, Severus, what would you be doing if you had the chance?"

He sighed and turned to look at her. "What does it matter, Minerva?" he asked wearily. "I'm here, and although I am certain many people wish I was not, that's how it is. I have no choice." If by some miracle he made it through alive, he'd resign so fast it would make Dumbledore's head spin and they wouldn't see him for dust, but realistically it wasn't going to happen. He'd be here until he died, end of story. Good mood successfully crushed, he returned his attention to the remains of his breakfast and to speculating about the contents of his post.

Taking the parcel and the envelope, he retreated to his office and settled into his chair, swinging his legs up to rest his boots on the edge of the desk casually and making himself comfortable before curiously opening the envelope.

Dear Professor Snape

I'm taking a risk in writing to you, I know that, but we daren't contact Hermione and this is important. It's her seventeenth birthday on the 19th of this month and she comes of age in your world. If it's possible to do so without causing any problems, please pass on her present and tell her that we're thinking of her and that we love her.

Severus raised an eyebrow and looked at the small package again. He had been vaguely aware that her birthday was approaching, but he hadn't been able to think of a convincing reason to look up the exact date. Filing that particular scrap of knowledge away for later consideration, he drew his wand and almost absently made a few passes over the innocent little parcel; no, it was harmless. Satisfied, he returned his attention to the letter.

I don't know how your war is progressing. I suppose we're better off not knowing, as long as we know that Hermione is safe. I wish you luck, Professor.


Helen Granger

PS: If you hurt my daughter in any way, then I will hunt you down and I'll make you pay for it. Wizard or not.

He stared at the letter's postscript for some time before starting to laugh despite himself. Remembering the two brief meetings he'd had with the woman, he honestly believed that she would do it. It was easy to see where the younger Granger got it from. It was also rather disconcerting that she'd felt it necessary to make the threat in the first place; maybe mothers had some sort of special instinct for such things, since nobody else had guessed so far and he'd wager half the contents of Gringotts that he hadn't betrayed himself. Unless she just meant it more generally, he supposed, based on years of hearing horror stories... he'd never been able to understand any woman, after all.

Severus drummed his fingers on the desk, shaking his head ruefully. Death Eaters and dark magic and evil snake-lords were all very well, but he sometimes thought that some of the women in his life were far scarier than any of the villains. Rather whimsically, he crafted an image in his head of Granger's mother, Molly Weasley, Minerva McGonagall and Poppy Pomfrey; now there was an army to make even the Dark Lord tremble.

Snorting with poorly-suppressed laughter, he shoved the image away and regarded the letter again. There was no way to respond, of course, since the woman wasn't stupid and had smeared the postmark into illegibility; no way of tracing the letter's origins. That was probably just as well; he wouldn't have known what to say. Eyeing the small package curiously, he turned in his chair to look at the calendar thoughtfully, his eyes narrowing.


Dozens of possibilities ran through his mind throughout the rest of the day, as he shamelessly neglected the work he should be doing in order to consider this utterly mundane and ridiculous problem of what to get someone for their birthday. The flash of inspiration that finally hit him late that night seemed almost divine in origin and nearly stunned him with the sheer perfection of it; for the first time in years, Severus fell asleep smiling and feeling quite pleased with himself.

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 17 of 60

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