Continuing Tales

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 18 of 60

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The morning of September the nineteenth was clear and cold; Hermione had been watching her breath steam in the chill air while she waited for Snape to show up. He had arrived late, yawning and bleary-eyed and utterly unapologetic, as uncommunicative as always, and she resolutely squashed the tiny flutter of disappointment; she hadn't expected anything, she told herself sternly, so it had been stupid to hope. It didn't matter.

Finished with the warm-down and starting to feel the chill again, she turned and made her way back into the passage they used in silence, telling herself resolutely again that it really didn't matter. Snape's gravelly early-morning voice stopped her as he said quietly, "Granger."

Caught by the relative informality of the address, and by the fact that he was speaking to her at all, she turned to face him, disgusted with herself at the renewed little flutter in her stomach. "Yes, sir?"

He dug a hand into the pocket of his tracksuit bottoms and held out a small package. "Your mother somehow contrived to send this to me. She's a tricky woman," he added blandly as she gaped at him. "I can see where you get it from." Hermione continued to stare at him until he rolled his eyes and stepped forward, unceremoniously seizing her wrist and pushing it into her hand.

As soon as she felt the shape of it, she knew what it was, and her breath caught for a moment as her eyes stung. "Oh..." Snape raised an eyebrow, cocking his head slightly to one side curiously, and she smiled shakily as she explained, "It's my mother's locket – well, my grandmother's, really. It's a family heirloom."

He nodded in understanding, and she looked back at it. "Thank you, sir." Looking back at him, she hesitated and bit her lip before turning away, and stopped when she heard him chuckle softly; turning back, she found him smirking at her, mocking as always but for once without malice.

"Honestly," he muttered, shaking his head. "Gryffindors. Here, Granger." He dug something out of his other pocket and gave it to her. "Happy birthday. Now bugger off and stop bothering me."

She had no idea what her expression showed, but it made him laugh properly for the first time in her hearing, a deep, somehow gentle and slightly husky sound; it didn't sound like he used it very often. Smiling a little shakily, caught between shock, happiness and embarrassment, she managed a quiet, "Thank you," before turning and hastily making her escape before she made a total fool of herself, his soft rusty laughter following her down the passageway.

Showering and dressing in record time, Hermione flung herself down on the bed with her presents; the little pile at the end of the bed would have to wait, because all her attention was on the two small packets in her hands. She opened the one from her mother first, turning the small platinum locket over in her fingers before opening it; there were spaces for four tiny photographs – her mother had kept photos of her parents, her husband and her daughter in it. Now one of the slots held a picture of her parents, smiling with their arms around each other, and another held a photo of Crookshanks giving her a knowing look; the other two spaces were empty.

Her mother had included a note, she saw, and she unfolded it with shaking hands.

Dearest Hermione

Happy birthday. I hope this gets to you; I think it will – Professor Snape didn't seem like the kind of man to refuse a simple request without good reason. I wish we could be with you today, but it wouldn't have been possible anyway with you being away at school. I suppose you're an adult now... much as we would both like you to still be safely in our world with another year to go before growing up, I think in our hearts we always knew that wouldn't happen.

We miss you terribly, all three of us, but at least we know you're safe at the moment. Please promise you'll try and stay that way, even if we're not there to hear that promise. Don't become a casualty; you're all we have, and we might never see you become the second female Prime Minister but there's no reason why we can't see you become the first female Minister of Magic.

Your father and I are so very proud of you.

All our love

Mum and Dad (and Crookshanks, of course).

PS – Your professor is a very interesting character, isn't he?

Hermione was laughing and crying simultaneously by the time she reached the end of the letter, although the postscript left her laughing more than she was crying; her mother had no idea. Strangely, it didn't sound like her mother disapproved, exactly; evidently Snape had somehow managed to make quite a good impression, although she suspected Hell would freeze over before she managed to find out just what the three of them had discussed that morning.

Smiling, sniffing and wiping her eyes, she looked back at the letter. The idea of her becoming Prime Minister had been a running joke in her family since she was five years old, and she had never been entirely sure how much of it was a joke and how much was serious parental ambition. Her parents would never try to make her do anything she didn't want to do, but she knew they wanted the world for her. "I promise I'll try to stay safe, Mum," she whispered, before her smile widened. "Professor Snape would never let me hear the end of it if I played the reckless Gryffindor again and ignored all his lessons."

And speaking of Professor Snape... Grinning in sheer delight, she reached for the other package. She had been sure that he didn't even know when her birthday was; okay, so her mother had told him, but he hadn't needed to get her anything. Just a simple 'happy birthday' from him would have had her on Cloud Nine for a week, he was that undemonstrative normally, but a present...

The small paper scroll fell into her palm, and she looked at it, puzzled for a moment. It was badly scorched down one edge, smelled faintly of smoke and looked a bit battered and tattered in places, very much the worse for wear... Very carefully, she unfolded it and stared down at the spiky handwriting, and started to smile. "Oh..."

Danger lies before you, while safety lies behind
Two of us will help you, whichever you would find
One among us seven will let you move ahead
Another will transport the drinker back instead
Two among our number hold only nettle wine
Three of us are killers, waiting hidden in line.
Choose, unless you wish to stay here for evermore
To help you in your choice, we give you these clues four;
First, however slyly the poison tries to hide
You will always find some on nettle wine's left side
Second, different are those who stand at either end
But if you would move onwards, neither is your friend
Third, as you see clearly, all are different size
Neither dwarf nor giant holds death in their insides
Fourth, the second left and second on the right
Are twins once you taste them, though different at first sight.

"You brilliant, infuriating, clever, maddening man," she whispered, wiping her eyes again as she very, very carefully rolled the little scroll up once more. His message was obvious; he was gently reminding her that even aged twelve she had been capable of much more than could be expected of a child. Ordinarily a logic puzzle wasn't much, especially compared to what Harry had done later that night, but under the circumstances... yes, she could feel proud of it. And she had seen and done and learned so much since then... Snape was telling her gently that she didn't need to worry so much about her deficiencies.

This was quite possibly the sweetest present she had ever had. She had no idea why he had retrieved and kept the riddle – she couldn't imagine that it had been for this – but obviously he had, and now he had given it to her as a reminder of the first victory that she and her friends had won.

Abruptly Hermione realised, Professor Snape gave me a poem for my birthday. She promptly dissolved into hysterics, frantically muffling her giggles in her pillow as she laughed until her ribs ached.

She didn't have Defence that day, so it wasn't until the next morning that she was able to speak to him; he had been avoiding looking at the Gryffindor table during meals. As usual, the two of them ran side by side in almost companionable silence, keeping to their mutual pace without even thinking about it now; she gathered her courage, and as they headed back to the castle after their warm-down she said quietly, "Thank you."

Snape gave her an enigmatic look before inclining his head slightly. "You're welcome." He sounded ever so faintly sheepish, just the tiniest tremor under the roughness of his normal morning growl, and she found herself grinning at him.

"You're not a bad poet."

He snorted, that tiny hint of embarrassment subtly increasing. "It was drivel. But it got the job done."

"It was certainly less pretentious than turning your name into an anagram or something," she said reflectively, trying desperately not to laugh. This was absolutely brilliant – she was actually teasing Professor Snape, of all people, and rather than eviscerating her, verbally or physically, in retaliation he was actually responding with some of the gentle wry humour that she had seen before, almost as if they were really friends. It was a better present than the real gift had been, because it was far more than she had ever thought would be possible. This had definitely been the best birthday she had ever had – although she certainly wasn't going to comment on the Half-Blood Prince. Evidently even Snape couldn't avoid the sad fact that teenage boys could occasionally be really, really daft.

That earned her an even better gift, the soft rusty laughter that she had heard before, as Snape looked genuinely amused by the remark. "Almost everything about him is certainly pretentious," he agreed, smiling slightly – a real, warm smile, not a smirk or a sneer. The expression looked quite odd on his harsh features, almost awkward, and it was painfully obvious that he very seldom smiled, but it softened his eyes. "It's a shame that he doesn't realise it, really."

They reached the castle just then, and the mood broke; she saw the smile fade from his eyes as he withdrew into himself once more, but rather than feel disappointed, her mood remained surprisingly buoyant as she wished him 'good morning' and headed back towards Gryffindor Tower. She'd seen another glimpse of the real Snape today, and she valued it; she was determined to try and repeat the experience. After all, she was officially an adult now.

Severus barely checked a sigh of relief when Voldemort finally dismissed them and stalked out; tonight's meeting had dragged interminably. He stood up slowly, wincing when his knees cracked in protest – kneeling for so long on a cold stone floor had done him no good whatsoever – and started for the door with the others, when he felt a touch on his arm and glanced sideways at the masked face. Recognising the grey eyes behind the mask, he nodded fractionally, and as they all filed out and started for the door Severus drifted sideways and ducked unobtrusively behind a tapestry. He had been to Malfoy Manor many times and briskly found his way to Lucius' private study, pouring two snifters of brandy from a crystal decanter on the sideboard before removing his mask and sinking into one of the plush armchairs by the fire.

Lucius swept in a few moments later; it was still a jolt to see his old friend looking so dishevelled and on edge. Wordlessly, Severus levitated the other brandy glass over to him; the older wizard accepted it with a nod and crossed to the humidor on one end of the mantelpiece. "Cigar?"

"No, thanks. I have my own."

"Not those terrible Muggle cigarettes still?" Lucius quirked half a smile at him and came to sit opposite him. "You never did have any class."

"Of course not." He dug into his pocket for his cigarettes and lit up, relaxing into the chair and stretching his legs out in front of him. "I assume we are safe for a while?"

"Until the morning, with luck. How long can you spare?"

Severus raised an eyebrow at the note in his friend's voice. "I would like a little sleep tonight, but I can certainly spare a few hours for a good cause, and for good brandy."

"And what shall we drink to?" Lucius asked him with an odd smile.

"Being up off that cold floor without bleeding for the privilege," Severus quipped in response, both men sharing an ironic glance before drinking.

After quite a while and a refill of brandy, Lucius broke the companionable silence with a long sigh and an exhaled plume of cigar smoke. "Ah, Severus, old friend... Is this what you dreamed of?"

"Not quite," he replied affably, taking another sip of the brandy before reluctantly setting the glass down on the small table at his elbow; he had a feeling he would need a clear head. "It isn't exactly as you promised me it would be, either," he added without rancour or resentment.

"No." Lucius sighed again and turned to look at him; the pale eyes and the dark were both equally expressionless, equally tired. "Just whose side are you really on, Severus?"

"My own, of course."

Lucius smiled slightly. "Hardly. You have never been particularly self-serving. Almost unheard of for a Slytherin, you know. Whose side are you truly on?"

"In all honesty, old friend, I don't know any more," he replied after a moment's pause to make his mind up, shaking his head. "There are so many to choose from, these days. It was all so simple when I was younger and everything was black and white."

His friend nodded agreement and finished his drink. "Can I trust you with my son's life, Severus? Because that is my true concern now, above and beyond this damnable war."

"I swore the Unbreakable Vow to Narcissa."

"I know you did, Severus. Don't insult me by pretending that I am one of your Gryffindor colleagues from the other half of your life. I've known you since you were eleven. You have never made a promise without leaving yourself a loophole, even this one. You gave yourself a back door, somehow, didn't you?"

"Yes," Severus admitted candidly. "But I don't intend using it unless I must. Draco is my godson, Lucius, and I have known him since the day he was born. I will protect him for as long as I am able."

"Even if it means killing Dumbledore?"

"If it comes to that. I am no longer certain that it will. I'm not certain of anything any more. I have precious little loyalty left to Dumbledore, I can tell you that much; he has seen to that."

"And how much of your loyalty to the Dark Lord still remains to you?"

Severus considered the question as he finished his cigarette and leaned back, regarding one of the only people he had ever thought of as a friend through half-closed eyes. "At this point, my friend, I believe I am almost as loyal to him as you are."

"Ah..." Lucius sighed in understanding, and both men exchanged glances laden with meaning. "What is to be done about it? We have both learned from the examples set by others in the past..."

"I really don't know. I have no idea what is going to happen." He leaned sideways and picked up his glass again; the dangerous part of the conversation was out in the open now, and it really was good brandy. "I have no faith in what little I know of Dumbledore's plan. I have more faith in the Dark Lord's plan; I do not know if the Order can stop him. I am glad I am not a gambling man; I would not care to wager any sort of coin on the outcome of this throw of the dice."

"And have you no plans of your own?"

"None. Yet."

"Ah." Lucius poured them both another drink. "You always did think in curves. I trust you to act for the best, at least, whatever that turns out to be." He paused. "I fear for Draco. Narcissa told you truly; we both believe that our son is being forced to suicide to punish us. He is no killer... he is not like we were."

"He grew up in a kinder world," Severus agreed quietly. "I fear for him as well, Lucius, I cannot deny it. He acts out of fear, for you both and for himself, and his fear blinkers him. His sole hope is the fact that Dumbledore knows what he is up to and has no wish to harm him, but that may not be enough if he moves too soon." He sighed and took another mouthful of brandy, savouring the warmth of it down his throat. "He no longer trusts me. He blames me for your downfall."

"I know. I have tried to talk to him. Oh, it is hard, Severus, watching your child make mistakes. I never wanted this for him." He hesitated, turning away from the fire to look at him directly. "What would you advise, old friend? Knowing what you know, and thinking as you do?"

"That you invest in a Time-Turner," Severus advised him dryly, shaking his head and smiling a little. "Look at me, Lucius. You would truly take my advice?"

"Yes." Lucius smiled back at him, raising an eyebrow. "I certainly don't trust you to take care of your own skin, but... you and I, we have been friends for a long time. There is a reason I chose you as Draco's godfather, rather than one of my more socially acceptable, better connected friends. What do you suggest?"

Severus swirled the last of the brandy in his glass, turning to look into the flickering flames. "Do nothing," he said finally. "Hold to your course. The Dark Lord does not have so many trusted servants that he can afford to spend you easily; it is why he is using Draco. You are valuable to him still. However things play out... I believe you, your wife and your son will survive this," he said slowly. "I will do what I can to that end, with what cards have been dealt me, although I have a poor hand to work with. After this round has been played out... we shall see."

They fell silent for a little while, thinking over their conversation; even though they were temporarily alone in the manor, and as safe as they ever would be, neither man even considered speaking plainly. For one, Slytherins didn't do that. For another, to say it openly would make it too real, too inevitable, and make it much harder to change later.

Finally Lucius said quietly, "The world is changing. We were fighting to hold on to the old ways, once. I am not sure what we are fighting for now, but the world is changing. I wonder... will there be a place for my family in a new world?"

"Perhaps," Severus allowed softly. "I doubt I will survive to see it, regardless of who wins, but... I think there may be a way. Hold your ground, Lucius. While there's life, there's hope, or so they say."

Abruptly Lucius grinned at him, the years falling away until he looked strikingly like the charismatic teenager who had been the Slytherin prefect when Severus had arrived at Hogwarts. "You have the audacity to lecture anyone on optimism, Severus?"

He started to laugh. "You did say the world was changing."

"Changing, not ending."

The two of them shared another laugh, as though they were simply old school friends enjoying a quiet drink together, as though they hadn't been sitting and discussing treason.

On her way out of the dungeons following their morning run a few days later, Hermione was halted by Snape's crisp voice close enough behind her to scare the living daylights out of her. "Miss Granger. A word. Now, if you please."

Swallowing to recover from her near heart attack, she turned to look at him curiously. "Yes, sir?"

He gave her a penetrating stare, his gaze expressionless but nonetheless intent. "I believe you have something of mine."


His dark eyes sharpened. "I have warned you about sounding like an idiot. You know exactly what I am talking about." Slowly he leaned forward, lowering his voice to a soft, silken whisper. "Where is the book, Miss Granger?"

Hermione eyed him warily, trying to judge how angry he was as her mind raced in an attempt to find a way out of this. It didn't take her very long to realise that there wasn't one, and she sighed, looking at the floor. "In my bag in my dormitory, sir," she said quietly. "How... how did you know I had it?"

"I don't owe you an explanation," he replied curtly, "but if you must know, Professor Slughorn has been raving about some of his more promising students and had a number of complimentary things to say about you and your innovative techniques."

"I don't understand, sir."

"I have taught you for five years, Miss Granger. You aren't innovative in Potions lessons. You are far too cautious to experiment and have never once deviated from the written instructions. If you were doing something different, it was only because someone else you were used to obeying had written it down."

His tone made her hackles rise, but he had a point. Reluctantly Hermione nodded. He regarded her stonily for a moment before looking away. "How do you come to have that book?"

"Harry and Ron didn't have Potions textbooks for this year," she explained softly, "because they didn't think they would be able to take the NEWT class. There were only two spare copies in the cupboard, and one of them was this. I took it off Harry because he was complaining about not being able to read it properly, and when I saw some of the things written in there I looked for the name..." She shrugged uneasily and trailed off, watching him uncertainly.

He glanced briefly at her once more, his eyes hard. "Why did you not return it to its owner?"

"It was in the bottom of a cupboard," she said defensively, "so I assumed it wasn't wanted. And – the things in it – I... just wanted to do well in Potions," she added quietly. She wanted to examine some of the things the teenaged Snape had written, as well, but the Potions lore was the main attraction; even as a boy, he had known so much...

Snape transferred his piercing stare to the wall for a few minutes, apparently thinking. "Have you tried any of the spells in the book?" he asked finally.

She considered lying and decided that there was no point; she wouldn't put it past him to use Legilimency on her if he thought she wasn't being honest, and never mind that it wasn't allowed to do so against a student. "A couple."

"Which ones?" he asked crisply.

Hermione tried not to squirm. "Um. Harry found out what Levicorpus does, he tried it on Ron last week..." The boys' description of the event had made her laugh, a little, even though she still remembered too vividly seeing the spell being used to torment those helpless Muggles at the Quidditch World Cup; it had been a real jolt to learn that Snape had invented it, especially since Harry had seen it being used against him in a memory. "And we've been using Muffliato a few times," she admitted.

Snape worked his jaw for a moment, scowling at nothing again, before sighing. "I see."

"...Are you angry, sir?" she dared to ask him uncertainly.

He looked back at her. "Yes," he replied bluntly, his black eyes hard. "But not with you, at least not entirely. I should have destroyed it years ago, or at least taken more care with it." He returned his stare to the wall.

"I'll bring it to Defence later," she mumbled reluctantly. Snape didn't reply at first, apparently very deep in thought; he didn't look particularly happy with whatever he was thinking, biting his lip slightly and frowning, but he didn't seem particularly angered, which was surprising.

"Against my better judgement, I am willing to let you continue using that book," he said slowly at last, "with certain conditions."

Hermione stared at him; she hadn't been expecting that, and couldn't help wondering why.

"Firstly, that you tell nobody else of it and do not allow anyone else to even see it, nor do you tell anyone else who the – the Half-Blood Prince was." There was some sort of emotion in his voice as he spoke the nickname, but she couldn't tell what it was.

"Yes, sir," she agreed promptly. As if she had needed to be told that.

"Secondly, that you do not try any further spells – or allow your brainless friends to do so – without checking with me first. Some of them are... dangerous."

She swallowed and nodded. "Yes, sir."

"Thirdly, don't follow my version in class; stick to the textbook."

"I don't understand, sir."

He gave her a penetrating stare. "Don't draw attention to yourself. You have enough enemies already, Miss Granger. Keep your head down. Your intelligence is already perceived in certain quarters as a threat; do not make it worse." For a moment the hard edge in his eyes relaxed fractionally, and he added in a marginally more human tone, "Besides, Professor Slughorn will never leave you alone if you turn into a prodigy overnight."

She grimaced in acknowledgement of the point – much as she continually strove for her teachers' approval, Slughorn's mercenary attitude turned her stomach. "Yes, sir."

"And finally, if I catch any of you using Muffliato in my classes I will make all three of you very sorry."

Hermione bit her lip to hold back a smile, relaxing a little. "Yes, sir."

He stared at her with an unreadable expression before turning away. "Do not make me regret this."

It was the middle of October when things took a far more serious turn. Severus could have strangled his godson for the stupid stunt with the necklace. He'd recognised it instantly, because it had been in Borgin & Burkes for years because nobody else was thick enough to buy it. Borgin had tried to convince him to buy it several times before giving up on him. He didn't know what Draco had been thinking; Dumbledore might have made one mistake with cursed jewellery, but he certainly wouldn't make two, and any experienced wizard could recognise that the pretty opal necklace was very nasty indeed. The stupid boy was still refusing to speak to him, though, and he couldn't exactly stalk into the Slytherin common room and drag him out by the scruff without a few questions being asked.

It had been quite a long day, what with one thing and another. The curse that had hit Katie Bell wasn't all that dissimilar to the one Dumbledore already had eating at him, so fortunately for the girl Severus had a few helpful potions in stock already; otherwise it was doubtful she would have survived long enough to be transferred to St Mungo's. It was evening now, and late enough that he knew he wouldn't be Summoned tonight – that would come; word of Draco's failure would trickle back to the Dark Lord and his merry band of followers soon enough, and Severus suspected he would take the blame for it. The goodwill he had bought from his master with the damned Unbreakable Vow wasn't going to last much longer. He was whiling away the time marking essays now, having managed to neutralise the necklace. The curse was still there, but dormant, so he'd shoved the thing into a box for now. Dumbledore would probably want it later. He'd already removed the residue of Draco's magic from it.

There was a tap at his office door. Before he could tell whoever it was to come in, or to shove off and leave him alone, the door opened, which meant it wasn't a student. He had been half-expecting Granger, actually, or perhaps Dumbledore if he was back from wherever he had gone, but it turned out to be Minerva, which was interesting – they didn't often visit one another. It was clearly too much to hope for that she was just here to play chess; her expression was grim. Putting his quill down, Severus leaned back and gave her an ironic glance. "Whatever the students have done now, I don't want to hear about it."

"It's not that. I just want to talk to you."

Troubled by the slightly odd tone in her voice, he eyed her thoughtfully for a long moment before shrugging and pushing the other chair towards her with his foot, wandlessly and non-verbally closing the door behind her as she came to sit down. "Drink?" he offered, mostly out of reflex.

"Not the foul stuff you drink, no," she retorted automatically, sounding more like her usual self for a moment before it faded and she regarded him seriously, searching his face. "Severus... what's happening?"

"Would you care to be more specific? Lots of things are happening."

"Don't be flippant. This is important."

He sighed. "Fine, but you're still going to have to be more specific. What do you want to know?"

"What happened today? That necklace... you know as well as I that it wasn't aimed at Miss Bell. She was supposed to bring it to someone else – to Albus."

"She was, yes," he confirmed, wincing inwardly as he started to see the eventual shape of this conversation. It wasn't going to be pretty. He knew his colleague didn't know what was really happening, and he couldn't possibly tell her.

"Who was behind it?"

"How should I know?" he countered.

"Severus, don't treat me as though I'm senile, please," she told him crisply. "I'm not in my dotage yet and I know you know what's going on. Now, Mr Potter and his friends are convinced that young Mr Malfoy is behind it..."

"Of course they are. They were convinced he was the Heir of Slytherin, too. They were also convinced that I was after the Philosopher's Stone, if you recall," he added acidly. That still hurt. He was pretty sure Minerva had almost believed it herself, too, and she couldn't quite meet his eyes now.

"Yes, I'm aware of that. I know how deep their feud goes. I cannot believe Mr Malfoy is an assassin, but someone was responsible."

"Obviously," he drawled mockingly.

"Enough," she snapped. "Tell me what's going on. I know you and Albus are involved in something that the rest of us don't know about. He refuses to say anything; he simply smiles and tells me I will find out in due time."

Of course he does, Severus thought bitterly. Dumbledore wanted it to be a lovely surprise for everyone. They were all going to hate him for the rest of his admittedly short life afterwards. He still hadn't worked out how that was supposed to help anyone, and had by now concluded that it was just because Dumbledore liked making him suffer. There was simply no other reason for his refusing to tell anyone else what he had planned. He shrugged as Minerva gave him a hard look.

"That's not good enough. Whatever it is, I know it's important and I'm sure I am going to need to know before it happens."

"If he won't tell you, Minerva, then he won't tell you. It's not up to me to say anything," he said wearily. "It doesn't involve you anyway. It's a private matter between him and me."

She studied him for a while, her eyes narrowing slightly as she considered; he knew she couldn't read anything in his face, but she had known him a long time. "How bad is it, Severus?" she asked finally in a slightly softer voice. "I want to help. You look..." She trailed off.

For a brief moment he was tempted to tell her, as he felt again the crushing weight of all the things he was burdened with and trying to ignore. If even one other person knew, it might ease the pressure on him a little. It was an optimistic little thought, and it quickly died a painful death in unfamiliar waters as he slowly shook his head; it would do no such thing. He doubted Minerva would believe him, and if she did, she would be utterly horrified. He didn't need to give anyone another reason to see him as a monster, and there was absolutely nothing she could do except to make him feel worse about it all.

"Oh, now you want to help me? Where were you when I really needed help? When I was a teenager, when nobody gave a damn whether I was dead or alive, let alone whether I was happy or not?" he asked venomously. He had intended just to put her off, but an old hurt somewhere deep had just started bleeding again, and he had been repressing his anger too much recently. "All right, so I wasn't in golden Gryffindor, but you're Deputy Headmistress and you have a responsibility to all the students, not just the ones who wear red and gold. You've never shown the slightest interest in helping me before, so why start now?"

"Severus!" she protested, looking somewhat taken aback as the words started to pour out of him.

"No," he hissed. "You know I'm right. You're the one who found me bleeding to death from self-inflicted wounds and you still never lifted a finger to help me. I had to survive on my own without help from anyone then, and I can do it again now. Dumbledore still doesn't trust me as far as he can kick me, but he doesn't have to tell you everything he orders me to do. You'll all find out when it happens. Until then, it's my business and I would appreciate it if you'd keep your nose out; stop interfering."

Minerva stared at him for some time before standing wordlessly and letting herself out. Severus stared at the door as it closed unnecessarily firmly behind her, and sighed as the adrenaline eased and the pain faded from wrenching sharpness to the familiar dull ache once more.

"That was clever," Phineas drawled from the wall. "You don't have so many friends that you can afford to alienate them, you know."

"I think murdering Dumbledore will alienate everyone quite quickly, somehow," he replied irritably, annoyed with himself; he hadn't meant to go that far. He never did. Damn my pride and damn my temper. What was the point of raking up all those old grievances now, when it wouldn't change anything?"What difference does it make if it happens now or next year?"

"You should talk to someone about this, Severus, or you'll go mad. Perhaps –"

"Don't even think of it," he snarled, glaring up at the portrait. "I meant what I said in the summer. You're bound not to tell anyone what happens in the Headmaster's office and if you try and find a loophole in that, if you try and tell her or anyone else what's going on, I will make your existence very, very unpleasant. Portraits can be made to feel pain, with the right spells, and you know I'll do it if you make me."

"Fine, be that way, but you need help."

"And there is none to be had. So shut up and leave me alone."

The night after Harry's second meeting with Dumbledore and their second trip into memories of Voldemort's origins, Hermione was woken by Dilys again. "There's no emergency yet," the portrait reassured her quietly, "but Poppy has work to do elsewhere for a couple of hours, and Severus is out. We're about due for another bad time, so she wants you to wait in the infirmary in case he returns and needs help."

Stifling a yawn, Hermione gave the portrait a withering look. "If you're testing me, you could just say so," she said grumpily, "instead of getting me to lie to Professor Snape when he's tired and in pain."

Entirely unrepentant, the older witch grinned at her. "Clever girl. Yes, fine, this is a test of sorts – we want to see how you manage by yourself. Obviously, if it's something really bad, I'll get Poppy to come back and deal with it, but otherwise you'll be on your own. You won't even see me watching."

"Is it likely to be bad?" she asked, pulling her school robe on over her pyjamas and checking her watch; it was just past midnight. "He's late..."

"We won't know until he comes back. I'll see you up there."

"Do you have any advice?" she asked, not comfortable with this. Interacting with Snape in the early mornings when they simply ran side by side in companionable silence was one thing, as was enduring his lessons both curricular and extra-curricular, but Snape alone and in pain was still something of an unknown quantity – it seemed to be different every time – and he wasn't going to be happy about this.

"Don't let him be an idiot. Inside the hospital wing, you are not his student; in Poppy's absence, you're his Healer. Don't stand for any nonsense. Stun him if you have to."

"No thank you. I choose life." She'd done that to him once before; even if it had been an accident, she knew it had been a miracle that she'd got away with it, and she doubted she would be that lucky again.

She passed an anxious hour in the hospital wing in silence, reading and fidgeting and seriously missing her cat's comforting presence, before she finally heard footsteps in the distance and put her book down, looking at the door. The steps were slow and irregular, which surely meant that it was indeed Snape.

It was. He pushed the door open slowly, half leaning on it, and stared rather blankly at her for a few moments before his eyes narrowed slightly and he looked at Dilys' suspiciously empty frame. He looked back at her with a vaguely accusing expression, and Hermione shrugged apologetically, standing up and resisting the urge to fidget under his stare. "It wasn't my idea, sir. How bad is it tonight?"

Snape regarded her expressionlessly for a moment, then turned; Hermione drew her wand and shut the door before he could leave, and he turned back to glare at her warningly, his jaw tightening. Bracing herself, Hermione ignored his angry eyes and studied him, noting that his weight was all to one side and that his hands were shaking. He was paler than usual and his jaw was clenched, but there was no sign of blood. "I am more than capable of treating the Cruciatus by now, sir," she told him far more firmly than she felt, a little troubled by his silence.

He continued to stare at her somewhat glassily, seeming to have trouble focusing his eyes, without speaking; she was close enough now to hear his somewhat erratic breathing, and when he finally took a step forward he swayed for a moment before slowly limping past her to sink down and sit on the edge of the closest bed, visibly shaking. Growing worried now, Hermione knelt to unlace his boots, since clearly he couldn't do it himself this time. "What number, sir?"

Snape didn't answer immediately; she had removed his boots and tugged his robe off his shoulders and was starting to undo one sleeve of his coat before he finally replied, and his voice was a hoarse rasp. "...Nine, I think," he whispered, and she could hear in his voice that he was trying very hard not to scream.

Hermione sank her teeth into her lower lip; she'd never heard him admit to anything higher than seven and a half, and that had been the night he had half-crushed her hand and gone into a seizure. Even if he had been lying about the severity on that occasion, this was more than she had ever witnessed before. Standing this close to him, she could feel the tension humming through him as he held himself together, stubbornly refusing to give in even though his whole body was racked with tremors. Concentrating on what she was doing, she got his coat undone and helped him out of it before he tried to lie back slowly and ended up near enough collapsing onto his back; he was starting to breathe heavily through clenched teeth now as he closed his eyes.

Picking up her wand again, she cast one of the neurological diagnostic charms that Madam Pomfrey had taught her, and stared in dismay as his nervous system lit up like a Christmas tree. She had no idea how he wasn't screaming; anyone else would be unconscious, but he had only just begun to break a sweat. Shaking her head, she took a deep breath and set to work, focusing intently on what she was doing and using everything he had ever taught her about Occlumency to push her emotions away and bury her feelings behind her mental fog.

Snape's control was beginning to slip; he started to twitch and jerk a little as she worked, his breathing growing heavier, before he finally started to make small pained sounds – strangled noises that were clearly against his will, as his breath caught and stuttered and he started to shake in earnest. Trying to stay calm, Hermione kept working, casting the charms over and over again, battling to stabilise his abused nerves and suppress the impulses. She wanted to talk to him, to try and distract them both, but she couldn't think of a damned thing to say; the best she could do was to look at his face occasionally to let him know that she wasn't ignoring him and to rest her free hand gently on his wrist, ostensibly to monitor his pulse. He flinched when she first touched him, but made no move to pull away, so she left her fingers resting on his arm and carried on.

His shaking grew worse as she worked, pausing every so often – to wipe the sweat from his face, to give him small sips of water, to undo his cuffs and the first couple of buttons of his shirt. He kept his eyes closed and his teeth clenched, but he couldn't stop the small sounds of pain escaping, as his fingers clawed at the bed underneath him, before his back arched and he whimpered, "Oh, God..." in a voice that wasn't much more than a broken rasp.

Blinking rapidly to disperse the threat of tears – crying wouldn't help him, and she needed to be able to see what she was doing – Hermione traced her fingers over his wrist to his palm and gently gripped his hand, focusing on the movements of her wand in her other hand. He tried to let go; she appreciated the gesture, since he clearly wasn't in any fit state to be careful of hurting her, but she refused to let him, and a moment later his hand tightened on hers as he groaned softly.

Squeezing his hand gently, she said quietly, without looking at him, "If you feel a seizure coming, I know how to deal with that, as well." She'd never had to before, and had only ever witnessed it that once – although Madam Pomfrey was sure it had happened on at least one other occasion, down in the dungeons by himself – but she at least knew the theory and he'd be in no state to notice her reaction.

"No," he whispered in response, although she wasn't sure if that meant he wasn't going to have a seizure or if he was simply denying it. The rusty sound of his voice was horrible; she had a nasty suspicion that he had screamed himself hoarse already, and she shuddered to think how he had managed to drag himself all the way up the drive and through the castle to the hospital wing in this condition.

"Why?" she asked finally, unable to stand it any more. "What could you possibly have done that deserves this?"

"Not me," he rasped, swallowing painfully, gasping and shuddering before continuing. "Someone else. Whipping boy."

Hermione processed that, ignoring the pain in her hand as his grip tightened even more. He'd taken someone else's punishment... Harry was certain that Malfoy was a Death Eater, and if he really had been behind the cursed necklace, then maybe... well, whatever was going on, she wasn't going to ask. It wasn't up to her, or Harry, or anyone else to sort it out; Snape knew what he was doing, and presumably so did Professor Dumbledore, and that was all there was to it.

He hissed in pain, his fingers digging in; never mind bruises, if this kept on he was likely to break a few of the delicate little bones in her hand, but she didn't try to stop him. If he could go through this, she could put up with a painful hand, especially since she could easily heal it later. "Isn't there a better way to treat this?" she asked helplessly; these charms would work, but very slowly. It would likely be at least an hour before it eased, and he'd be in pain for days yet.

"No," he informed her in a voice that was nearly a whimper.

"Then you should make one."

Snape tried to laugh. In his current condition, it sounded absolutely horrific, and ended in a gasp of pain as he crushed her hand again. "Can't really... study it right now," he pointed out hoarsely.

Well, that was certainly true. And, thinking about it, he was unlikely to ever have free time to study it, since it wasn't likely he would survive the war... Trying to put that thought out of her mind, she squeezed his hand again and returned to the fight against his own nervous system.

"Talk to me, Granger," he rasped a few minutes later, a request she'd never heard him make before.

"What about, sir?"

"Anything," he hissed, shuddering.

For a moment Hermione's mind went blank, before she grinned suddenly and started talking about her Potions homework, drawing another painful attempt at a laugh from him as she launched into her most recent essay. It helped to distract her from the crushing hold on her hand, or the low sounds he was making under his breath, or the occasional strangled curse – he really did have a shockingly varied obscene vocabulary; she'd learned a few new words from him over the past year.

"Must be... a pleasant change," he managed at one point.

"Actually, I think I prefer your marking methods," she replied ruefully, looking at him; his dark eyes were open now, if slightly glazed and filled with pain. "I get the impression that Professor Slughorn doesn't always read everything I write..."

"And you think I did?" he rasped mockingly.

"Of course you did," she retorted. "You were looking for excuses to take points off."

He coughed painfully. "True."

That was the last contribution he made to the conversation, and she completely lost track of time as she worked and talked and tried to ignore his pain. She had no idea how long it was before his grip slackened and he passed into unconsciousness, but she was growing hoarse and had talked her way through several years of schoolwork from more than one subject. Retrieving her now really painful hand, she ran through the charms a few more times before stopping and wiping her face on her sleeve. That's about all I can do. Stiffly she stood up, working the kinks out of her back, and checked her watch; almost half past three. Brilliant. Still, she could lie in a bit in the morning; she doubted he was in any condition for their usual morning run.

Hermione examined her hand; it was a little swollen, and the pain when she moved her fingers left her pretty sure that a couple of bones were indeed broken. "Episkey," she murmured, running her wand over the worst spots, and wiggled her fingers again as the spell took effect; satisfied, she turned back to the unconscious man on the bed. There wasn't much else she could do for him, but she gently cleaned the sweat from his face and cast a couple of diagnostics to make sure there were no other injuries he hadn't told her about before finding a spare blanket to lay over him – unconscious or not, he was still shivering. Padding into the store cupboard, she hunted out a painkiller and something for his throat and left them beside the bed before turning and staring expectantly at the suspiciously empty picture frame on the wall.

Dilys showed herself, for once not smiling. "You did very well indeed, Hermione. Well done."

"It wasn't enough," she replied quietly. "There should be something else we can do for him."

"It is enough," Dilys corrected her softly. "It's more than anyone else manages to do for him. Don't belittle this, Hermione. It's not a complete solution, but you've done something good tonight. He'll never be able to tell you, but I'm sure he appreciates it, and he certainly needs it."

"Have you heard him admit to nine before?"

Dilys stared down from her frame at Snape's unconscious figure. "Once, we saw ten," she said quietly. "In the first war, shortly before it ended. He was too badly hurt to say anything at the time, but afterwards he admitted it was ten. It's the worst thing I have ever seen... he had been virtually torn apart. I don't have words for some of the things that were done to him; he almost died."

"Why does he do this? I almost asked him tonight, but he couldn't have answered me even if he'd wanted to, and to be honest I'm a bit afraid of the answer."

"There's more than one answer to that question. Nobody's simple, and Severus is more complex than almost anyone else you'll ever meet. He has a lot of reasons for acting as he does."

"He's going to get himself killed."

"Trust him, Hermione. He knows what he's doing. If he does get himself killed, it will be because that's the only way to achieve our goals. I know you've realised just how little he values his life, but he won't throw it away lightly, I promise you that. You know better than almost anyone else just how strong Severus really is; if anyone can survive this mess, he can." The portrait added more lightly, "And if he comes around and hears you fussing over him, he'll be furious. Since he can't say it at the moment, I'll say it for him; stop being such a bleeding-heart Gryffindor and go to bed."

Hermione stifled a laugh, exhausted and close to tears. "That didn't sound anything like him."

"Well, I don't have his gift for sarcasm, or his remarkable voice. I mean it, though, Hermione. Stop worrying about him, and go and get some sleep. He'll be fine, and you've done very well tonight."

She made her way through the corridors in a thoughtful frame of mind, musing that there had to be something else that could be done for him. Something small, something so obvious that she was overlooking it but that would simply make him feel better. Maybe something to help stop him shivering? That was starting to grow more noticeable now. Cooling charms helped with the attacks on his nervous system but they had to be their own type of pain for someone whose circulation was failing, as his was; his skin was noticeably cool to the touch now. There had to be something that could warm him a little, whether physically or psychologically... it was worth thinking about.

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 18 of 60

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