Continuing Tales

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 22 of 60

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After a sleepless night, Hermione spent most of the day and the evening hiding in the library being thankful that term hadn't started again yet. It was easy to avoid looking at the staff table at meals, since she usually did. Hopefully by the time she had to see Snape once more she would have stopped panicking. At least she knew a bit about Occlumency – it wouldn't stop him for a minute if he was seriously trying to read her, of course, but if she didn't give him any reason to look through her head she didn't need to worry about a stray thought betraying her. And she had spent enough time with him to learn to keep her expression under control, at least a little bit. If she could stay calm, she might be able to stop him finding out; she didn't want to think about what would happen if he did.

She was exhausted by the time she finally slunk back to Gryffindor Tower with about a minute to spare before curfew, hoping that she could just go to sleep without worrying herself sick half the night again, but her hopes were dashed when she saw Harry and Ron sitting by the fire and clearly waiting for her. She really wasn't in the mood tonight.

"What is it, Harry?" she asked tiredly. Can't I just go to bed and pretend my life is normal? Please?

"This is important, Hermione. I had another meeting with Dumbledore tonight and I need to tell you and Ron about it."

Taking a moment, she studied her friend's face; he looked excited, and after a short pause her curiosity outweighed her weariness and worry. Nodding, she went over to them and took her usual seat, twisting slightly so she didn't have to look at Ron. "Okay, fire away."

"Well, I found out why I have to get Slughorn to like me. The memory Dumbledore showed me was one of his, only part of it was – I don't know, missing, or altered, or something. He'd changed a bit of it. Apparently people can do that?"

"Don't look at me. I don't know anything more about Occlumency than the stuff I taught you."

For a horrible moment she thought Harry was going to grin or even start sniggering, but he behaved himself, apparently more interested in talking about this memory than in teasing – which was just as well, given the mood she was in. "Anyway, it was of a meeting of his Slug Club, back when Riddle was his student."

Ron made a disparaging noise at mention of the club, but held his tongue when Harry glared at him. Hermione kept her eyes on Harry and tried not to react; she had a headache and she really was too tired for this.

"The other students all left, and Riddle stayed back to ask Slughorn a question about a type of magic called a Horcrux," Harry said, watching her face expectantly. "Have you ever heard of it?"

She gave him a blank look, racking her brains for a moment; it didn't sound familiar. "No. Should I?"

"Well, probably not, I guess. It's really rare and something to do with the Dark Arts. But you find all kinds of weird references when you're reading, so I just wondered. Anyway, that was when the memory changed – it all went really foggy and strange, and Slughorn was yelling that he didn't know what it was and wouldn't have told Riddle if he did. So Dumbledore reckons that in the original memory, Slughorn told Riddle what a Horcrux is and how it works."

"Did Dumbledore tell you what it was?"

"No." Harry looked thoughtful. "I think he was trying to pretend he didn't know, but I'm not sure I believe him. Whatever it is, it's obviously important. He's asked me to somehow get the original memory off Slughorn to find out what he told Riddle. I guess Voldemort must be doing something involving this Horcrux."

"Just for once, wouldn't it be nice if someone told us something straight out?" she asked wryly, leaning back in her chair and sighing. "It was obviously something bad, if Slughorn was trying to hide the fact that he'd said anything. How are you supposed to get him to admit it? I know we've been trying to turn you into his blue-eyed boy in Potions..." Thanks to Snape, anonymously, and she really didn't want to think about him right now... "But is that going to be good enough?"

"I don't know, but I've got to try. He's mad about me," Harry said wryly, grinning as his friends grimaced. "Yeah, I know, but I'm the Chosen One, right? He liked my mum, too, she was one of his favourite students, he's told me that often enough."

Well, she worked with a Potions prodigy for years in class, Hermione told herself uncharitably before biting her lip and mentally rebuking herself. Don't be stupid. Lily would have been good at Potions in her own right anyway; intelligence wasn't something you could pick up from your friends, or she wouldn't still be having to help Harry and Ron out occasionally. Besides, just because Snape disliked Slughorn didn't necessarily mean that Slughorn had disliked Snape. Damnit, why can't I concentrate on something apart from him?

Wrenching her thoughts back to calm fog, she shrugged. "All right, then. I don't see what this is supposed to tell us, though. Okay, a Horcrux is apparently something rare, but I'm sure Riddle could have found out anything he liked in all these years. How does it help to know how long ago he started to learn? And why can't Dumbledore just go and find out what it is himself, assuming he doesn't know already?"

Harry shrugged. "No idea," he said cheerfully. "It's daft, isn't it? But there's got to be a reason."

Hermione only shrugged again in answer; she wasn't convinced. She didn't know Dumbledore, really – she'd only spoken to him maybe half a dozen times in as many years – but she wasn't sure Harry did either, for all their apparent closeness. She'd been doing a lot of thinking ever since their first year and the Philosopher's Stone, and she wasn't at all sure that the Headmaster was as nice as he seemed. That wasn't necessarily a bad thing, but still, a lot of the things that had happened to the three of them over the years shouldn't have happened. And, too, it came back to Snape, who was obviously suffering because of something the Headmaster had asked him to do. She wasn't sure how much she really trusted the man they were all depending on, which scared her.

"I guess so," she said finally. "Look, I'm glad you told us, and I'll take a look through the Restricted Section next time I'm in the library, not that I'm expecting to find anything, and I'll try and help you think of a way to get the memory off Slughorn. But can it wait until tomorrow? I'm absolutely shattered."

Harry nodded; his green eyes were wide and innocent in a way that instantly made her suspicious. "Sure. I'm about ready to drop myself. I'll see you in the morning," he said quickly, jumping up and all but bolting for the stairs – and leaving her alone with Ron, she realised.

"Harry James Potter," she started angrily, but he was already gone, scrambling out of sight. Stupid Seeker reflexes.

Ruefully, she finally looked at Ron, who didn't look much happier than she was. "He's still as subtle as a brick, isn't he. I'll see you in the morning, I suppose."

"Hermione, wait."

Suppressing a sigh, she rubbed her eyes and looked at him; she really wasn't in the mood to fight now, especially since as it turned out there wasn't really a reason for it. "Yes?"

He gave her a somewhat guilty, awkwardly crooked smile. "Um... can we talk? I know you said you were tired, but... well, we've got to sort this out sometime, right?"

About to say something, she paused and gave him a suspicious look. "Did Harry put you up to this?"

Ron went red. "Er. Maybe? We – we kind of had a long talk earlier..."

Suspicion gave way to ice cold certainty, which yielded just as quickly to rage. "I'm going to kill him! Oh, Christ, what's he told you?" Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit!

He held up his hands. "It's not his fault," he said weakly. "I don't think he meant to, you know? We were talking about – well, about you, and me, and then..." He swallowed at the look on her face, reddening again. "It's true, then? I thought he was winding me up at first, but... like I said, it was quite a long talk. Er. Hermione. You look like you're going to kill someone. Hermione?"

Taking a deep breath and holding it, she forced herself to relax a bit. Realising that she was holding her wand pointed at him, she put it back inside her robe, privately quite pleased at her reflexes, and made an effort to fill her mind with fog again as she sank back in her chair. "If I do kill someone it's probably going to be Harry, not you, but I'm really not in the mood for a fight right now so please watch what you're about to say." She sighed unhappily. "I can't believe he actually told you."

"I can't believe it's really true," Ron muttered. "Snape?"

"Don't say his name," she said tiredly. "We're probably safe here, but I don't want to take the chance. If word of this gets out... it doesn't bear thinking about."

He gave her an odd look, but shrugged and nodded. "Okay. I won't tell anyone, if that helps. Anyway, Harry was..." He blushed again, and this time the red made it all the way to the tips of his ears. "Well, he wanted to find out how I – how I felt about you, like... uh..."

Watching him squirm was actually quite funny, Hermione noted dispassionately. It was tempting to leave him floundering, but as he really started to stammer she took pity on him. "He was asking why you were trying to make me jealous and whether it was because you were jealous of me or if it was just because that's what was supposed to happen, yes? He had the same talk with me before that." She smiled a little uncertainly at him, trying to work out when the odd tingle had gone that she had once felt about him. It had faded a long time ago, without her even noticing. "Weird, isn't it?"

He struggled for a moment, looking just as uncertain, before grinning suddenly. "What, Harry thinking? Yeah, that is weird."

They shared a laugh, and she felt better for it as a little bit of tension eased. "You know I didn't mean that."

"No, I know." His grin faded and he looked thoughtful. Ron did have a brain, when he bothered to use it, after all. "Yeah, it's weird. I mean, I kind of – just assumed that someday we'd work something out, you know?"

She nodded. "So did I. It seemed like that was how things were going to work out. But Harry's right, you know – it would have been a disaster, wouldn't it? I mean, what would we even do on a date, let alone if we started having a proper relationship? We can barely go a day without arguing, and apart from schoolwork, the war, and Harry, we don't really talk about anything much."

He nodded ruefully in agreement. "He said that too. He's been thinking about it for ages, apparently. And he's right. We'd bore each other rigid, and then we'd have a flaming row, and then we'd ignore each other for days. We'd end up hating each other."

"I think part of the problem is that I don't talk to the other boys here very much," she said pensively. "I don't think anyone here really believed Skeeter's crap because it's obvious Harry and I don't like each other like that, and although I chat to Neville sometimes we're not really friends, so since you're my only other male friend everyone assumed I'd end up going out with you. Because obviously a boy and a girl can't just be friends."

He grinned at her tone. "You've got to admit, Hermione, you've never seemed interested in anyone. You've never acted like..." He hesitated, obviously realising that he was about to say something stupid.

"Like a girl?" she asked sweetly.

Ron grimaced. "Um. I don't mean it quite the way it sounds, but I can't think of how else to say it, so... yeah."

She shrugged. "Because I wasn't interested. I don't really have anything in common with many people. I know what everyone thinks when they see me, but I like being a bookworm and sitting reading quietly and I'm not good in crowded parties and I can't be bothered to get dressed up all the time."

"Okay, I guess I can see that, but none of the other girls here seem to think that way, so nobody really understands it..."

"I know, Ron. Believe me, I know. After six years of it, I know." Even at primary school, she'd been the freak. It still hurt, a bit, but not as much as it had done once. "It doesn't matter, anyway. The point is, you and I are never going to get together and we both needed to realise that."

"Yeah." He nodded slowly, sighed, sat back and gave her another guilty grin. "Um. I'm sorry for being such a jerk recently."

She really, really wanted to make him squirm, to stay angry, but she did sort of miss him, and she had to admit to her own share of guilt. "I'm sorry for kneeing you; I didn't realise just how painful that was. But I'm not sorry for much else, because you've been really horrible."

"I know."

"No, Ron, I don't think you do," she said quietly. "I'm not just talking about me. I don't like Lavender, I never have, I never will, and she doesn't like me, and she's really enjoyed rubbing my nose in this. But that's not the point. You've been using her to hurt me, and that's not fair to either of us. I think she really likes you, you know. If you're not really interested, you should stop it before it gets out of hand." With the best will in the world, she couldn't stop herself adding, "Well, more out of hand, sweetheart."

"Oh, Merlin," he muttered, blushing again. "I never meant it to happen, you know. I just..."

"If you say you just got carried away I'll kick you again, and this time I'll mean it," she said warningly, giving him a stern look. "Imagine what would happen if your mum heard you say that." More than that, I really, really don't want to know.

He blanched. "Point taken. No, that's not what I was going to say. I don't know. I... I think I like her, but sometimes..."

Hermione held up a hand. "Don't, Ron, okay? I can talk to Harry about his love life, but I don't think I can do it with you, not yet anyway. It's just too strange. Talk to Ginny, if you want help. She'll tease you, a lot, but she'll help and she won't tell anyone else."

He nodded slowly. "Fair enough, then." Hesitating, he gave her an odd look. "Snape, though?"

"I told you not to say his name." Apart from anything else, her brain waves flat-lined every time he did. She wasn't sure she'd ever been so confused. Pausing, she gave him a suspicious stare. "This calm reaction isn't like you. Why are you being so reasonable? What happened when Harry told you?" She'd known him too long to trust this apparent maturity.

He went red to the ear tips again and grinned ruefully. "There was a lot of yelling," he admitted. "And swearing. And, uh, an accidental fire. Harry had to throw me into a snowdrift and hold me down with my face buried in the snow until I calmed down a bit. But you've got to admit it's weird..."

"I know," she agreed with a sigh. "It's not like I wanted it to happen. Did Harry tell you why I trust him?"

"A little bit. He said the Healing thing was more than you'd told us, and that you'd been seeing more of him than you'd said, and that there was other stuff he'd promised not to tell anyone. And when I'd calmed down a bit, we sort of talked about it. Until we were both sick, anyway."

"Not funny."

"Sorry," he said insincerely. "But... he really has been thinking about this for ages, you know. He had this big list of things you've got in common, and... it's horrible, and wrong on every single level, but it does kind of make sense. Except for the part where you're blind, anyway. At least Lockhart was pretty."

"Oh, shut up."

"How does he feel about you?"

"I have no idea. None whatsoever. It seems to change every time I see him." Shaking her head, she smiled a little despite herself. "Sometimes I'm the insufferable know-it-all he's spent years trying to suppress in class, and everything I do or say annoys him. Sometimes I'm his Healer, when he's too tired or hurt to argue any more and just does what he's told. Sometimes we actually get along all right, weird as it sounds."

Ron looked vaguely ill, but bravely made himself keep talking. "Do you think he... likes you?"

"No. Why would he?"

"Are you serious?" He'd gone red yet again, but his blue eyes were incredulous.

"Don't start. Harry was trying this as well. I know he's been acting weirdly, but he usually does. I'm seventeen and a schoolgirl, Ron. Sometimes we get along, but I get along with most of my teachers – it just took me a bit longer to get to that point with him, that's all. There's nothing there. I've just got to deal with it." Smiling with a bravado she didn't feel, she added untruthfully, "I'm sure I'll come to my senses soon. Lockhart wore off pretty quickly in the end. Anyway, I'm glad we've sorted things out, but if I don't get to bed soon I'm going to pass out, so let's call it a night. By the sound of it we're going to be having a few late nights with Harry trying to work this memory stuff out."

"Yeah, okay. I'm glad we're sorted too."

"Do warn Harry that I'm going to want a little chat with him in the morning, please, and if he tries to hide I'll hurt him. I don't care what his reasons were; I'm sure he was only trying to help, but he shouldn't have told you, and if he tells anyone else I'm going to skin him alive." All it would take was one silly argument, one wrong word in the heat of the moment, and the whole school would find out and then she would have to kill herself. She trusted Ron when he was her friend, but when they were fighting he was capable of anything.

"I'll tell him. Good night."


Despite her exhaustion, Hermione couldn't sleep when she got to bed. Snuggling down as comfortably as she could – she still missed having Crookshanks sprawled across her legs and purring – she closed her eyes and tried to sort out her tangled thoughts. Ron, she could ignore – she was seriously surprised that he was so accepting, and wondering what on earth Harry had done to him, and she was pleased to have more or less patched things up, but it really wasn't all that important, horrible as that sounded, and she had other things to think about. Hopefully it would last for a while before they had another fight, but until then she had other people on her mind. One man in particular kept creeping back into her thoughts, and it was driving her mad.

She had tried to convince herself this was just another Lockhart-esque silly crush. Harry was right in hindsight that she was always likely to have been interested in older men, simply because she really had nothing in common with anyone her own age, and for the past two or three years Snape had been the only male at Hogwarts between the ages of eighteen and at least sixty, and now that she had reached the end of puberty her hormones were only just beginning to settle into adult levels.

That all made perfect sense, but it was also rubbish, because Snape really wasn't remotely attractive. He had plenty of potential, and as she had admitted to Harry she liked his voice, his eyes and his hands, but... well, he looked ill. More than that, he looked half dead. She was pretty sure you couldn't develop a shallow crush on someone's personality – not that his personality was much to write home about either, she admitted, smiling to herself in the darkness. He was a bastard, after all. But somehow, it didn't seem to matter. Despite all his many flaws, she liked him, and there was something rather sweet about his occasional awkwardness when he tried to act like a normal human being.

Whether or not she fancied him was complicated, because she wasn't sure she had ever really felt like that about anyone. Lockhart emphatically did not count, and although she'd liked Viktor – and liked kissing him – her feelings at the time hadn't been as she had imagined they would be, and the odd way she'd felt about Ron didn't seem like it counted either, and she'd certainly felt nothing of the sort about Cormac. Most of the time when she saw Snape she wanted to drag him to the hospital wing, in all honesty. She wanted to look after him, more than anything else.

Maybe if she'd ever really had a proper boyfriend she'd know a bit more about her emotions, she reflected quietly. She had no idea how she was meant to feel. It was impossible to tell how deep this went because she had nothing to compare it to, and it would clearly take a lot more thought to straighten things out in her mind. In the meantime she could admit that she liked him a lot and that she would very much like a chance to find out more, although such a chance was surely non-existent. For the moment her best strategy seemed to be to try not to think about it too much, filling her thoughts with fog every time they strayed, and to try and act normally when she started seeing him more often at the start of term in a few days.

Of course, it was worth remembering that this wasn't going to be a normal crush anyway, because he wasn't a normal man. Part of her was scared of what she was getting herself into. Snape was brave and intelligent and in his own way he could be sort of nice, or at least somewhat protective, but... he was also rather disturbed in some ways and pretty seriously damaged, psychologically and emotionally; she was sure she'd only barely scratched the surface of his problems in the last year or so. And he was a mass-murderer, too; whatever the reasons behind that, he had killed people. A small part of her did feel relieved that there was so obviously no chance of him returning any feelings, just because of all the complications involved in even trying to have any sort of relationship with someone so broken. Just being his friend was usually difficult enough. She didn't believe he would ever hurt her willingly, at least, but that wasn't going to be much comfort if something did go horribly wrong.

There was Lily, too. Okay, everything she suspected there was just that, unfounded suspicions, but she was still certain that she was right. However it had started, by now it must have developed into obsession; she was beginning to think that it was probably almost all that kept Snape going. No moral code in the world was strong enough to make anyone endure what he went through, but revenge for a murdered loved one? That made sense. It also meant she really didn't stand a chance, which part of her couldn't help thinking was probably for the best. She really did like Snape, certainly more than she should, but there was no way she could cope with the reality of who he was, surely. She knew she had only seen a small part of the story, and there could be anything behind the shadows in his eyes.

Rolling over and settling deeper into the bed, she slid a hand under her pillow to touch his birthday present thoughtfully. Originally she had planned to give it to him personally, but that wasn't a good idea right now. Take things slowly and give herself time to come to terms with things and to learn more about him, that was the way. They were sort of friends; she thought that could change from 'sort of' to proper friendship, but that would be as far as it went. That was okay, though. It sounded pretty good to her, actually, if she could manage it.

Wearily, Severus began to sort through his post between gulps of too-hot, too-strong coffee. He was quite surprised to find that he had any, actually, despite the fact that it was the ninth of January once again; he wasn't expecting anything from anyone. He still hadn't bothered telling most of his colleagues when his birthday was, and Poppy still hopefully had the sense not to try and give him anything, and given that Dumbledore hadn't bothered with a Christmas present this year he wasn't expecting anything from his employer either. Lucius had offered to give him some sort of fancy gourmet aged whiskey, but he had refused since it was absolutely wasted on someone with his drinking habits.

There wasn't much. The latest copy of Pozioni (the Italians had produced some wonderful potioneers over the centuries, although his Italian was rather lacking, sketchy at best, and it could take the whole month to work his way through one issue); the Prophet, still not worth the materials it was made from; his Flourish & Blott's catalogue; and a small object wrapped in cheap parchment and sealed with candle wax, addressed simply to Professor Snape, that made him narrow his eyes suspiciously even though he was reasonably sure he knew who was behind the attempt to disguise the writing.

"I'm getting as paranoid as Moody," he muttered, even as he drew his wand from his sleeve and passed it slowly back and forth over the innocent little package. There was something in there that had been enchanted quite strongly, but the magic seemed self-contained rather than radiating outward and it certainly didn't feel hostile. In fact, it felt vaguely familiar, although he couldn't remember where from at this hour of the morning. Paranoia warred with curiosity before he went with his instincts, putting his wand down and picking up the small parcel, turning it over in his fingers. There was something small and hard and circular inside... Giving in to temptation, he tore the flimsy parchment open and blinked in momentary confusion.

He wasn't sure what he had been expecting – although he couldn't deny a rather tragic flutter of childish anticipation at the first birthday present he'd had in probably about ten years – but this wasn't really it; he wasn't the kind of person that people bought jewellery for. Slowly he picked up the copper bangle and examined it. It was plain, simple, but well made – not the cheap crap you saw in pharmacies to allegedly protect the wearer from rheumatism; he could see the subtle ripples in the metal, the depth of colour as the light caught it.

Turning it over again, he noted that there was some engraving on the inside of the bracelet and looked closer. There was nothing fancy about it at all, just a single word: Protego. He stared at it for a moment, then understanding dawned and he reached for his wand again.

"Arcanum specialis revelio," he murmured, studying the resulting play of light around and through the copper. Protective spells, and lots of them. Some were specifically designed to block certain types of hex or curse, others were more general, and many were related to healing; there was even blood magic threading through it somewhere. He stared at it for some time, following the complex layers of magic slowly; it was powerful, and impressive. And by far the best thing anyone had ever given him.

"Finite," he whispered after a while, swallowing as he turned his attention to the wrapping. There was no note, and the simple address on the outside had been printed very carefully and anonymously, but he knew who it was from anyway. Only one person would even think of the idea in the first place, let alone actually make the damned thing and wrap it in so many layers of protective magic.

Severus realised somewhat to his horror that he was alarmingly close to tears. He hadn't really cried since the terrible night when Lily had died, well over a decade ago now; even before that, he had seldom done so – one reason why the Marauders' nickname for him had so annoyed him; they had certainly never seen him cry. But now his throat was tight with that horrible achy, scratchy feeling, and his eyes were stinging. He remembered New Year again rather uncomfortably; he'd nearly collapsed and started sobbing in the snow, just from finally having a way to ease some of the cold and the hurt as well as from the knowledge that someone had cared enough to find an answer, and now he was on the edge of tears again. "Well, damn," he whispered hoarsely, gulping the rest of his coffee to try and ease it, shivering as he reached out and picked up the band again. It was a beautiful thing in its own right, and it was likely to be useful in the near future.

Clearing his throat irritably and swallowing again, he gently flexed the metal in his hands, carefully bending it open before tightening it again once it was over his bony wrist. After some thought, he rolled up his sleeve and slid the bracelet up his right arm and closed it more tightly around his forearm, snug against his skin out of the way, darkly amused for a moment to note that if he'd put it on his left arm instead it would have been directly over the Dark Mark. After a little more thought he picked up his wand and Disillusioned it, laying a glamour over it similar to the one he occasionally used to hide the worst of his scars; it was definitely a good idea to keep this hidden.

Tugging his sleeves down over it once more, he flexed his arm to feel the band, still not really sure what to make of this. If he'd spared even a moment's thought to speculate about whether or not anyone would acknowledge his birthday, he might have hazarded that she would send him a note wishing him many happy returns or something as she had done at Christmas, but he hadn't been expecting a gift and he certainly could never have anticipated anything like this.

He made his way up to the Great Hall for breakfast in a very thoughtful frame of mind, and could feel her eyes on him almost from the moment he entered the room. Taking his seat, he grunted vague acknowledgement of Minerva's usual cheerful greeting, concentrating on getting some food that wouldn't leave him nauseous later, and when he decided that an appropriate interval had passed he risked glancing very briefly towards the Gryffindor table. He met her eyes for less than a second, but it was long enough for her to give him a smile that lit up the whole damned room before they both looked away.

You're going to be the death of me yet, Granger. And yet, he still found himself fighting not to smile in answer as he concentrated on his breakfast once more, feeling off balance and worried and yet inexplicably happy.

That evening, Severus made a belated New Year's resolution, for the first time in years. Filled with almost manic energy, he went through his rooms with a fine tooth comb, assembling all his drugs and medicines and every scrap of alcohol he possessed, before rather brutally beginning to purge the stash. All the booze went; he'd given up drink before, more than once just since the war had broken out, but he'd never stuck to it before. It was time to seriously pack it in, he'd decided; even the rubbing alcohol he used occasionally as a disinfectant was poured away.

The next step was the locked metal box in the cabinet beside his bed. Dragging it out, he sat on the sagging edge of the mattress and disabled the wards and locks protecting it; there were enough things in here to earn him several life sentences in the Muggle world. Actually, everything in here right now was of Muggle origin; he wasn't taking many potions or magical substances at all. Not many of them worked any more, and there were very few potions that did anything Muggle pills couldn't do with less effort, at least in his circumstances.

Thoughtfully he picked up a small, dusty brown bottle, regarding it sardonically. This was what Poppy and Dilys were afraid of, he knew that; this innocent little bottle held quite a lot of pure quality heroin. During the very worst of the last war and its horrifying aftermath, it had been the only thing that penetrated the numb crackling shell shock and the only thing capable of distracting him from the pain. For that reason, he'd been tempted to use it again, but he hadn't. Partly because he remembered what a bitch the withdrawal had been, partly because he didn't like the way it actually made him feel, but mostly out of some weird principle that even he didn't understand and a vague sense that he would be letting people down.

Holding the bottle up to the light, he studied the contents critically; it probably wasn't any good now, although he didn't actually know if it had an expiry date or not. Most people used it as soon as they got it, after all. No, get rid of it. He didn't plan to use it and he wasn't going to keep testing himself in case he weakened. He dropped it on the floor and Vanished the mess before he had a chance to change his mind, and kept going.

There were all sorts of drugs in here. The hallucinogens went; he didn't need them any more, but his Occlumency hadn't been strong enough in the first war and he hadn't been sure whether they would be necessary this time. The worst of the painkillers went, too; they were addictive and it wasn't worth the risk. He couldn't afford to be dependent on anything, even chemicals. He got rid of some of the medicines, the ones that his body was building up a resistance to; a high enough dose to do anything would cause more problems than it would fix.

Severus paused to consider the little collection of uppers and stimulants, ranging from caffeine pills to amphetamines, narrowing his eyes. He should get rid of them, but he did need them sometimes, at least the amps. The milder stuff could go, since it didn't really work any more, but after days of no sleep and hard work he sometimes needed a couple of pills to keep going until he got a chance to rest. It wasn't a good idea, especially given all the side effects, but there wasn't always much choice. Sorting through, he put the strongest ones back in the box and Vanished the rest.

The antibiotics didn't really need to be in the box, since they weren't strictly speaking illegal, but he hadn't obtained them lawfully. Closing his eyes for a moment, he mentally reviewed everything he was taking; these little tablets could clear up his ulcer and several other little problems, but only if they didn't react with something else. No, he should be safe to start a course of them, if he was careful and watched for side effects; they went back in the box. The blood pressure pills were going to be a problem, now that he was working on isolating capsaicin to take; it was going to give him a cough, and possibly some other side effects that he didn't know about. On the other hand, a stroke was more serious than that; back in the box with them, because they were necessary. He'd have to remember not to take them too close to any of the uppers, though.

Slowly he picked out a couple of bottles from the corner of the box and held them up, regarding them pensively. He should get rid of these, too. It was horribly, horribly dangerous to self-medicate on anti-depressants, but he didn't know what else to do. They did help, a little, and he couldn't exactly go to a Muggle doctor and talk about why he was depressed, could he? He'd either be arrested or committed in short order. There weren't any wizarding equivalents, not really. Some potions could temporarily even out erratic moods and stabilise various hormones and chemicals in the brain and the blood stream, but you'd have to drink a hell of a lot of them. Finally he decided to put them back in the box, but to cut his current dose in half and try to find an alternative.

Once he had finished purging the contents of his medical store, he sat down and began to run through diagnostic charms by the dozen, patiently and thoroughly drawing up a full picture of everything that was wrong with him physically at the moment, before sorting out his remaining medicines. He had too many problems to treat them all; he'd die of toxic shock syndrome if he tried taking that many things at once, but he finally worked out everything in order of severity and arranged a new regime of medicines. He'd been ignoring too many health problems for too long; it was time to pull himself together properly.

Finally, past midnight, he moved into the bathroom and flicked his wand to cast a harsh and unforgiving light, illuminating his gaunt features as he extended the mirror to full length and stripped off. I might have bitten off more than I can chew here, he told himself mockingly, studying his reflection; there wasn't exactly much to work with, after all. His eyes flicked briefly and dispassionately over his body; far too damned thin, he looked like a famine victim, or someone with anorexia. He could count his ribs, but that was just the start; he could lay his fingers in the spaces between them. His hip bones looked like they were about to slice through his skin, and his cheeks were hollow, his eyes sunken – his face looked more like a skull. And God, he really was turning yellow, between bruises; the jaundice was gaining ground as his liver struggled to cope. Too many scars, but that didn't bother him too much. He didn't have many actual injuries at the moment, and for once none of them were infected, so they could be left alone.

As for the rest... well, the less said about his appearance, the better. He stared somewhat resentfully into the eyes of his reflection and shook his head slowly. It wasn't the thinness or the liver failure that made him look like this. Too many deep lines on his face, from stress and pain and lack of sleep and a near-permanent lack of anything to smile about. Too many grey hairs – all right, only one or two, but he was only thirty seven and far too young to be going grey. Damnit, he could pass for fifty easily, probably older. And that still wasn't the worst of it. There was nothing he could do about the nose, that had been inherited from his father and he was stuck with it. Not much he could do about the teeth, either – he did clean them daily, even if nobody would believe it to look at them, and it wasn't as if he ever smiled so nobody would actually see. And the hair was probably a lost cause... he'd never been able to get it looking particularly presentable, so he'd long since given up trying, and then later he'd given up caring. He still showered daily – he wasn't a tramp – but...

Still, he could improve things a bit, at least as long as he didn't let himself think about why he was doing so. Rather grimly, he set to work. By the time he made it to bed, his gums were tender and bleeding and his scalp was sore and tingling and he already wanted a drink, but he was feeling better. No doubt it wouldn't last, and even if it did it wouldn't change anything, but it was about time he started actually looking after himself a bit. After all, nobody else was going to.

Besides, in a strange way he felt obliged to do this. His birthday present had showed him that for whatever twisted and bizarre reason, Hermione Granger actually gave a damn what happened to him and wanted him to be safe. He felt he should somehow repay her for that by making a bit more of an effort to stay alive for as long as he could manage. All right, there were other people who cared what happened to him, a little, but she was the only one he could be absolutely certain had chosen to. Poppy, Minerva, any other colleagues who might care, they all had a stake in his surviving long enough to do what was necessary, they all needed him. She didn't, not really. She'd chosen to worry about him, so he supposed the least he could do in return was try and ease her worry a little bit.

It wasn't until the first day of the new term some days later that he was able to thank her for his present, when she showed up in the dungeons as usual for their morning runs once more. Not for the first time, Severus cursed his appalling lack of social skills. He always felt so damned self-conscious whenever he tried to do something normal like thanking someone for a gift. Partly it was lack of experience, he supposed, but surely that couldn't account for all of it. The fact that it was her didn't help, either, but at least he could blame any strangeness on the ungodly early hour.

Something about her behaviour had seemed a bit strange, but it wasn't until a week had passed that he was sure he wasn't mistaken. She was definitely acting slightly differently. Nothing overt, nothing he could really put his finger on, but there was a certain hesitance about her and he was sure she was watching him more than usual. It bothered him in a way he couldn't explain. It wasn't just her, either; Weasley kept giving him funny looks in lessons, and Potter was really acting strangely – well, more so than usual, anyway. If it had just been Potter he could have put it down to overspill from that memorable fighting lesson, but if all three of them were acting strangely then he wanted to be alert to whatever they were planning now.

She broke their usual silence one morning after the warm-down, when he finally and with some reluctance picked up the bottle he'd left by the door and opened it to take a drink. "God! What on earth is that?" she asked.

He gave the bottle a look; it didn't look particularly pretty. The stuff was thick and syrupy, a not very appetising muddy brownish green, and it smelled like it had been scooped off the bottom of a pond somewhere. "A trial run. You might call it a health tonic, I suppose. If you were a masochist."

"Tell me it tastes better than it smells."

He shook his head gloomily, briefly amused by her reaction. "It tastes worse. If it does what it's supposed to, I can try adding other things to improve the taste, but there's no point yet."

"What on earth is in it?" she asked; he handed her the bottle so she could look at it more closely.

"Quite a lot of things. Including chilli extract," he replied, secretly pleased with the surprised smile that earned him. "It is supposed to be a kind of combined healing potion that will treat more than one problem at once; as you may have noticed, I do have quite a few to choose from," he added dryly, taking the bottle back and forcing another mouthful down before replacing the cap with a grimace. "Thank God for artificial sweeteners, or I wouldn't be able to keep it down."

"You can use sweeteners in potions?" she asked, surprised. "I know sugar doesn't work, but I thought..."

Realising where her mind was going, Severus' lips twitched as he fought not to smile, doing his best to try and look innocent. "Sugar doesn't work, no, but most artificial sweeteners are fine."

She gave him an utterly mischievous grin, her brown eyes sparkling with hidden laughter. "So the Wolfsbane doesn't actually need to taste that horrible?"

Just barely stopping himself from biting his lip in time, he smirked at her. "No."

To his secret delight, she started to laugh; she had a nice laugh, bright and cheerful, and it was a good feeling to realise he was the cause. "Poor Lupin! Your secret is safe with me, sir."

"Oh, I know that," he replied without thinking, which earned him another very pleased smile. Working on the basis of that unexpected success, he remarked as she turned away, "Miss Granger?"

"Yes, sir?"

"Why is Potter acting so peculiarly in Defence lessons?" he asked mildly.

He was impressed; the blush barely got started before she caught it, and if he hadn't been watching for it he wouldn't have noticed under the high colour caused by the exercise and the cold. Her eyes hardly flickered and she made no attempt to bite her lip as she replied calmly, "I really don't know, sir."

Ha. She always was a fast learner. Most people wouldn't think that her learning to lie convincingly was a good thing, of course, but he'd always thought it was one of the most useful skills you could possess. Resisting the urge to comment, he raised an eyebrow. "You're lying to me now, aren't you."

"Yes, sir," she admitted, her lips quirking into a wry smile that he appreciated.

More amused than annoyed, he grunted vaguely in response. "Fine. I probably don't want to know anyway. Advise him to be less obvious about whatever is bothering him, if you please."

"Yes, sir," she agreed, turning and making her escape before he could say anything else. He smiled wryly as he watched her leave; she was smart enough to realise he had been speaking of all three of them, not just Potter. Whatever was bothering them all, hopefully it would stop soon, before he worried himself sick wondering what was wrong and whether he had done something. He had enough sources of genuine guilt and actual threats to his sanity as it was, without driving himself mad by acting like an awkward adolescent again.

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 22 of 60

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