Continuing Tales

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 24 of 60

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February had gone past quite successfully, in Severus' opinion. His health was picking up a bit, the Trio were showing a visible improvement in the ability to look after themselves and to be less annoying, and his peculiar and nerve-wracking friendship with her seemed to be growing deeper without anyone else noticing. The war seemed to have quietened down a little, too; he'd only been punished once in the past six weeks, and not very seriously. No hunting parties, no attacks, no raids.

He had known it couldn't last, but it was still a shock to the system when everything started going to Hell again on the first of March. He didn't find out about Weasley being poisoned until after all the excitement was over; in fact, he arrived in the hospital wing to find quite a crowd of puzzled and worried staff and Gryffindors watching the boy sleeping. Including Dumbledore, which was a surprise – the old man had been avoiding him recently; they hadn't spoken privately since September, or publicly since Christmas. It didn't matter, because Severus wasn't paying attention; all his focus was on the bed, and more specifically the girl sitting beside it, gripping Weasley's hand and staring worriedly at his pale face.

Her expression sliced through him like a knife, and it was impossible to ignore, especially since his colleagues had noticed too. So had Potter, that was how obvious it was – the boy was skulking awkwardly to one side, grinning uncomfortably. Things only grew worse when Miss Brown arrived, not least because her ear-splitting shriek should have stripped the paint off the walls; her obvious jealousy and Granger's refusal to back down could have turned into an ugly fight, at which point Severus decided morosely he probably would have had to shoot himself.

Why the hell couldn't his fellow teachers talk of something else? Apparently a student being poisoned was less interesting than the endless saga of teenage angst and romance. At least his well known miserable personality gave him an excuse to growl something suitably disgusted-sounding and slink off.

Severus was trying to think rationally, but with limited success. He was almost – almost – certain that Weasley and Granger had never dated and that there was nothing between them, and he was truly certain that they weren't well matched, but... well, she'd been trying to make him jealous at Christmas, hadn't she? And he'd been trying to make her jealous ever since he'd started going out with Miss Brown. Severus had no idea what was really going on. All he was sure of was that he would have given anything to have anyone – but especially her – look at him with that much concern and fear for his safety.

You're being stupid, he told himself firmly, trying to believe it. He knew she worried about him. He was wearing the proof of her worry around his arm, and saw it in her eyes every time he was driven to seek healing in the hospital wing, felt it in her hesitant touch as she tried to help him. She would act the same way for any of her friends. Logic and reason seldom won out over jealousy and hurt, though, he knew that better than anyone, and he so didn't want to have to go through this again, watching helplessly as someone he cared about turned to another instead. It had been bad enough as an angst-ridden teenager; at thirty seven it would probably be the end of him even if only by driving him to suicide in sheer self-disgust.

When he found himself thinking that at least it wasn't Potter, he decided that enough was enough, and sternly forced everything down deep behind his walls where it belonged. He had far more important things to see to. Threading through the dark corridors, he came eventually to the door he sought and ran a finger over it; it opened for his touch and he faced a startled third year Slytherin on his way out of the common room.

"Tell Draco Malfoy that I want to see him," he said crisply.

"Yes, Professor."

With half the house as witnesses, Draco didn't dare ignore the summons; once he appeared, Severus seized his wrist, lowering his voice. "My office. Now. If you refuse I will drag you, and I don't care how that appears. Move."

Draco moved, not that he had much choice. Severus restrained himself from slamming his office door behind them, although it was a close thing, and turned to face his sullen-looking godson, holding his temper in check as best he could.

"By rights I ought to thrash you until you can't sit down for a week," he snapped. "You idiot! What on earth were you thinking?"

"I don't know what you're talking about, sir."

"Don't even try that with me or I really will give you a damned good hiding. The stunt with the necklace was bad enough, but this was pure stupidity, the sort of 'plan' I'd expect from the most moronic stone-headed Hufflepuff. There was only a very small chance that the mead would make it to Dumbledore – in fact, knowing Slughorn, there was no chance at all! And even if it had, the Headmaster knows enough about Alchemy to recognise poison!" Much to his own dismay. That would have made things so much simpler.

"I don't know what you're talking about," Draco insisted sullenly, and Severus slapped him. That earned him a shocked look; it had been years since anyone had done anything of the sort.

"Draco, you cannot act like a spoiled brat any more. This is important. You are panicking and acting without thinking, and if someone gets killed as a result, what is going to happen? You'll end up in Azkaban, and the Dark Lord won't bother to break in again just for you. Your parents will try to save you, and he'll kill them. I won't be able to protect you. You must be careful."

"You can't protect me anyway," he muttered, the mask slipping a little; the boy was terrified.

Severus shook his head. "Says who? I always have before. Despite every stupid thing you've done. I swore the Unbreakable Vow to protect you, Draco. I am doing everything in my power to find a way out of this snare we're in. You cannot afford to panic. There is still time."

"It's nothing to do with you."

"Bullshit," he replied flatly. "Apart from anything else, word of this failure is already beginning to trickle back; I'll be the one who ends up bleeding for you tomorrow, or the night after."

"I never asked you to volunteer to be my whipping boy."

"You didn't have to ask, Draco. I'm your godfather. I was there when you were born; it's the only time I've ever seen your father cry. I've known you all your life. Did you think I would abandon you now, when you need me more than ever?" he asked more softly. "You should know me better than that. Why did you go to your aunt for aid, and not me? Do you, too, believe me a traitor?"

Draco hesitated. "I... I don't know, uncle."

The address almost made him smile; it had been years since Draco called him Uncle Severus. They weren't related, of course, but that didn't matter. The Malfoys were the closest thing to family he had. He regarded his godson sadly.

"My loyalty has always been to those I care about, Draco, not to some vision of the future. Your parents know that, and I thought you did too. It is why your mother came to me in the first place; she knew I would do anything to try and keep you safe. Will you listen to me, please, and trust me at least once more?"

Draco hesitated again, looking truly vulnerable now, and finally shook his head despairingly and dropped into a chair. "I'm listening. Nothing more."

More relieved than anything, Severus took the chair opposite him, looking at him intently. "Don't panic, Draco. I know you're scared, and you should be, but things may not be as hopeless as they seem. I don't know yet. I promise you I am doing everything I can to find another way; you've known me all your life, you ought to know by now that I am good at that. Acting so rashly will do nothing except cause collateral damage that will get you into even more trouble. You cannot afford to let anyone discover what is going on; some already suspect."

"Potter and his sidekicks," Draco spat.

"Amongst others, yes. That is how obvious you are being, Draco. I know you won't tell me what you're working on, and perhaps you shouldn't, but I also know these clumsy attempts are partly to distract people from your real plan. I suspect you are working on a way to get our brethren into the castle, yes? By all means, concentrate on that. You and I both know you are not capable of murder."

"What makes you so sure of that?"

The cocky bravado almost made him smile. Even as little more than a toddler, Draco had been like this. Severus gave him a rather wry look. "Because I know you. You aren't a sociopath, Draco, and without some sort of mental damage or early trauma you don't have the darkness needed to take a life. Poisons have their uses, but as a method of assassination it is a choice made by those who cannot use other methods. You do not have it in you to kill, not yet, and if I and your parents have our way you never will."

"I don't have a choice," Draco whispered, looking frightened once more.

"There's always a choice. It's just a matter of finding out what that choice is."

"Words, uncle, it's just words. You can't help me."

"I can, and I will, even if only by taking your punishments for you. You have time, Draco. The Dark Lord does not truly want to risk losing your father's loyalty by killing you; Lucius is one of his most valued lieutenants, even now. He will wait as long as possible before taking such action, and you still have four months at least. A lot can change in that time. For now, I ask that you trust me, that you take no further rash actions. Concentrate on your plan, do not draw attention to yourself, try to have faith. Things may not be as dark as they seem."

"Whose side are you really on, uncle?" he asked in a small voice.

Idly, Severus wondered what would happen if he answered honestly. "At this precise moment, yours. There are far more than just two sides to choose from. I am doing the best I can. Bide your time and do not be foolish, that is all I ask."

Once his godson had left, Severus leaned forward and rested his aching head in his hands, wondering how much of what he had said would turn out to be lies. He would do what he could to try and save Draco, but if it came down to a choice, he couldn't see any way of choosing him. His true loyalty lay with Potter, with Potter's friend, and therefore by extension with Dumbledore – although the two loyalties were incompatible. What was going to happen at the end of the year? If he did as he was asked, and killed Dumbledore... as always, his mind flinched away from trying to imagine the horror that would follow. There had to be another way, although he'd be damned if he could see what.

Christ, I need a drink. He'd have to settle for a cigarette, though – he probably should have given those up, too, but at times like this sobriety bit hard.

Something had changed again since Ron's poisoning, Hermione reflected. She was starting to suspect that Harry might have been right about Draco just because Snape seemed so obviously worried about something – well, obvious to her, at least, although she doubted anyone else had noticed. He was getting very snappy, sometimes even with her but mostly just with the world as a whole; he spent a solid week growing increasingly nasty, before finally losing his temper completely in a training session and taking it out on Ron, his partner at the time.

Hermione watched in shock that turned to almost horror as her friend gave up any attempt at fighting back and simply began trying to defend himself; Snape looked truly furious and had obviously stopped holding back.

"We need to stop this," Harry said uneasily. "Um, any ideas how? I think I just heard Ron's nose break."

Biting her lip, she nodded slowly and concentrated; this wouldn't have been possible outside the Room of Requirement. The temperature plummeted; Snape had used this before to put a stop to things when fights got out of hand, but she asked for a stronger impact, and ice started to form on the walls as her breath turned to steam and Harry muffled a yelp next to her.

She felt bad for doing it – last night Snape had been very late back to the school and had barely been able to walk; he'd even had a seizure, which hadn't happened in a long time. His circulation was bad enough at the best of times; after such a bad Summons, this cold would be complete agony, and his hissing exhalation sounded like pain to her. But it worked; he shuddered, nearly falling over, and scrambled to his feet as his expression cleared. He still looked angry, but not as much as he had done, possibly because it was hard to look angry when you were shivering so hard your teeth chattered.

"Sorry, sir, I think I overdid it a bit," she said carefully. "I don't think Ron's good enough for that sort of fighting yet, that's all."

His lip curled as he stared down at Ron, now sitting up and wiping his bloody nose on his sleeve. The temperature began to increase again, returning to normal, but Snape's shivering didn't abate. "That is certainly true," he said finally in a cold voice that didn't sound quite right; Hermione stared at him, wondering what exactly was going on. Shaking his head, he scanned the room briefly, looking tired as some of the anger began to fade. "We're done for tonight," he said shortly, and stalked out without another word, leaving three baffled teenagers staring at one another.

"What the hell was that about?" Harry asked.

"I've no idea," she said wearily, moving over to Ron and crouching next to him, drawing her wand. "For all I know, he might have been drunk or something. He's been in a really weird mood all week. He was hurt last night, badly, but it doesn't normally do that to him. Hold still, Ron, this is going to sting."

"Okay, how's this for an idea," Ron said thickly after Hermione had healed his nose, wincing a little. "Hermione doesn't like me that way any more. She told Harry that, and Harry told me. Has anyone told Snape?"

"What?" she asked blankly.

Harry blinked. "Um. Good point."

"What is?"

"Snape's got no reason to pick on Ron. Especially not if I'm in the room for him to beat up. I reckon..." He rubbed the back of his neck and grinned wryly, looking somewhere between amused and annoyed. "Looks like he's jealous, to me."

"Rubbish," she retorted scornfully. "As if he would be. And as if you'd notice if he was."

"Okay, fine, but I was talking to Katie last week after Quidditch training. Did you know McLaggen spent nearly the whole of January serving detentions with Filch after Christmas? All set by Snape and all for no real reason. He still hasn't made it to the end of a Defence lesson without losing points for something. I reckon Ron's going to start losing points now, too."

"Come off it."


"Is that really true about Cormac?" she asked hesitantly. The older boy seemed to have finally got the hint when she had avoided him ever since term started; she hadn't even seen him in weeks, thankfully.

Harry nodded, grinning. "Yep. Ask one of the other sixth years, if you like. They're all really angry with him for costing us so many points recently – Snape's a bastard, all right, but they've got to see McLaggen far more often than they do Snape and none of them like him."

"What do I do about it?" Ron asked plaintively. "I haven't got time for detentions with everything else going on... and he can't half hit hard, for such a skinny bloke. It's not like I can tell him I'm not going out with Hermione."

"Um. Dunno." Harry looked back at her. "Any chance you could drop it into a conversation?"

"Are you barking mad? What on earth would we have to talk about for that to come up?" she asked, exasperated amusement overcoming disbelief for a moment. "Hello, Professor Snape, I'd like to talk to you about my last essay on the different types of Shield Charm, and by the way I'm not dating Ron so can you stop hitting him?"

"No wonder he always says Gryffindors don't have any subtlety, if that's the best you can come up with," he retorted, grinning.

"Oh, shut up. I think you're reading far too much into this. He's never needed a reason to pick on the two of you; he's never liked either of you. For all we know Dumbledore's ordered him to leave Harry alone so he's taking it out on Ron by proxy."

"And McLaggen?"

"Is unbelievably annoying and a total prat. Besides, didn't you tell me he nearly puked on Snape at Christmas? I'd have given him detention for that." I wish I'd seen it, though.

"Okay, fine, but it's a hell of a coincidence, isn't it? He just happens to be targeting the boys you've been linked to in some way?"

"Rubbish," she repeated firmly. "If that was true, he'd be after you as well, wouldn't he? Everyone thought we were a couple back in fourth year, and God knows he's never needed a reason to go after you for anything. Besides, I've never been out with Ron, and the whole school knows about him and Lavender, surely."

"Nice try," Harry told her mildly. "He was in the hospital wing, remember. That was pretty easy to misunderstand. Half the teachers were going aww at you worrying over Ron. I'll bet my Firebolt that I'm right; that should tell you how convinced I am."

"I don't want your Firebolt," she retorted, her mind racing as she tried to remember if Snape had been acting differently this week – the moodiness didn't count, he was often like that. It was hard to tell when he so seldom said anything. "And just because you believe something, Harry, doesn't mean it's right. Why would he be jealous of Ron?"

"Thanks," Ron said sourly, before grinning at the look on her face. "Relax, I know what you meant. I don't think he's jealous of me, specifically, just that you're close to me."

"That still doesn't explain why he's not targeting Harry. I doubt he reads Witch Weekly but he must have heard the gossip, and even the Prophet mentioned it."

"Give it time," Harry said dolefully. "He'll probably put us both in hospital, and you'll have to come and sit by our beds, and that'll make him hate us even more, and it'll turn into a complete vicious circle..."

"Shut up, Harry."

The following morning, Hermione was in a bad mood as she made her way down to the dungeons. She hadn't slept well, and she was frankly getting tired of Snape's attitude right now. Whatever was annoying him at the moment, it wasn't her fault and Ron certainly hadn't done anything to deserve a punch in the face – at least not recently. Snape himself didn't seem remotely concerned with her unusual silence and in fact didn't seem to notice, which only made her more annoyed.

Finally as they returned to the castle she broke the silence, knowing even as she said it that it was going to be a mistake. "Sir, can I ask you something?" she asked quietly, and without waiting for his usual sarcastic response she continued, "Why did you hit Ron like that, last night?"

He gave her an expressionless stare. "It was a fight. What were you expecting me to do?"

"I wasn't expecting you to break his nose, or to push so far. We're not that good yet."

"You never will be at this rate."

"I'm not stupid, sir. You went too far, and I'd like to know why. What has Ron done to make you angry?"

Snape avoided her eyes and shrugged. "I wasn't aware I needed a reason." She focused intently on the back of his neck and stared as hard as she could, knowing he could feel it and knowing he didn't like it, and finally he sighed. "Nothing. He hasn't done anything. Are you happy now?"

"Ecstatic," she replied flatly. "Is it likely to happen again?"

He shifted slightly, plainly uncomfortable. "No." Still not looking at her, he conceded stiffly, "I lost my temper."

"I noticed," she said dryly, frustrated. He was a good listener and she'd opened up to him more than once, but he never seemed to repay the favour. She had gained some insight into his world, seeing his lab and so on, but he wouldn't talk to her. Besides... she'd spent a lot of last night considering the boys' bizarre theory, and it was starting to seem a little less bizarre, but she couldn't think of a way to broach the subject that wouldn't result in her painful and lingering death. Unless...

Trying to sound lighter and less irritated, she said carefully, "Well, sir, if you could avoid beating him up quite that badly again, I'd appreciate it. I think Lavender would prefer that her boyfriend stayed more or less in one piece."

He tensed. Only very slightly, and if she hadn't been watching for a reaction she wouldn't have seen it, but he tensed. Turning, he sneered at her. "And of course one of my goals in life is to keep Miss Brown happy."

"Gryffindor Tower is quieter when she's happy," Hermione responded, carefully thinking of fog to hide the shock flooding her mind. That tiny little almost-flinch was the equivalent of a shout from anyone else. Holy shit!

"Also one of my goals in life. Was there anything else?"

"Not when you're in this mood, sir, no," she retorted, seeing the twin flickers of anger and something akin to acknowledgement in his eyes; he clearly knew he was being an unreasonable bastard right now, but at the same time he looked so tired and stressed that she was finding it difficult to stay angry, especially given that it seemed the boys had been dead right about his jealousy. "You do know you can talk to people instead of repressing everything all the time, yes?"

His eyes darkened, less with anger and more with bitterness. "You don't know what you're talking about."

"No, because you won't tell me."

"It's nothing to do with you, that's why. That is enough, Miss Granger." His tone made it clear that the conversation was over.

Sighing, Hermione gave in; she had a lot to think about now anyway. "Yes, Professor."

Her first lesson that morning was History of Magic, followed by a free period, so she had a lot of time to think. Her initial reaction was sheer adolescent giddiness, which she was secretly quite amused by; a small shrill voice in the back of her head seemed to be yelling triumphantly, He likes me! It took a little while to get past that enough to really think. She still wasn't completely certain, but it was looking more likely; jealousy did explain most of Snape's oddest behaviour, both at Slughorn's party and his anger at Ron now, and even the boys seemed to think there was something there. Dilys had assured her of it, too, but the portrait clearly had her own agenda.

She couldn't deny feeling happy at the possibility, but it didn't do much to ease her confusion. All her doubts about the advisability of her feelings still existed, and if anything were worse; the man really was damaged, after all. That would either resolve itself or it wouldn't, though; there were two important questions to consider now. Why, for a start, and also what happens now?

'Why' was a tricky question. Despite what her friends all assured her, Hermione had never really seen herself as attractive, not unless she went to hours of effort, and she knew most boys were put off by her intelligence. Admittedly for someone like Snape that was a definite positive, but still, she knew she was an obsessive bookworm – so is he, she reminded herself with a small smile, but the point still stood. And she had got on his nerves more or less constantly ever since her first Potions lesson. They did seem to be friends, most of the time, at least. She could talk to him, often more easily than she could to anyone else. What Snape got out of their weird friendship was anyone's guess, though, and she wasn't about to even try and speculate about Lily – at least not yet. Best to try and work out the rest first, if she could.

As for what happened now, well, she had absolutely no idea. Even if she decided to overlook all his problems... God knows what the school rules said about relationships between staff and students, or the laws of the wizarding world – she was of age, yes, but nobody had ever really said what that meant for a witch. Snape was a half-blood, anyway; he might hold to a more Muggle code of ethics, and the age difference would probably concern him more than it would a pureblood. She couldn't even begin to imagine the chaos if anyone found out, either, even just on a social level – and if word made it back to Voldemort, then Snape was dead. The Death Eaters weren't going to look kindly on a Mudblood-lover, especially when said Mudblood was Harry Potter's best friend.

And if you looked past all of those ridiculously huge problems, somehow, she still didn't know what happened next. Hell would freeze over before she could ever approach him under any circumstances; she'd never have the courage. And, shamefully, she wasn't entirely sure how... Viktor had approached her, not the other way around, and asking Cormac out had just been a matter of saying hello and waiting for him to stop talking about himself long enough to mention the party – his ego had done the rest for her. She and Ron had never flirted, which was probably for the best but did mean she hadn't the faintest idea how to let a man know she was interested. The things she'd heard the other girls talking about – laughing at their jokes, flicking her hair and so on – sounded pathetic even to her, and certainly wouldn't impress Snape. That was going to be a problem, though, because she doubted he would approach her. Professional ethics aside, he was such a pessimist that he would never believe it could be mutual – she hadn't, after all, and she was nowhere near as cynical and depressed as he was. Besides, she doubted he had much more experience of such things than she did; he was too impatient for games.

Knowing that she had a chance, however slim, was certainly wonderful, and she'd need to be careful not to turn completely giddy when she next saw him, but realistically nothing could happen between them without endangering him even more and pulling Hell down on them both. Even without the war, neither of them were particularly socially adept anyway. If anything, she was even more confused and fatalistic now than she had been when she had thought it was totally unrequited.

Severus' temper finally snapped the next day, and that evening he stalked to Dumbledore's office and insisted that the old man talk to him. His employer had been avoiding him, increasingly obviously, for a long time now – since the incident with the cursed necklace way back in October, in fact – and he'd had enough of it. His black mood wasn't helped by the old man insisting they go out and walk through the grounds to talk, but he supposed at least it meant Phineas and Dilys wouldn't be able to eavesdrop. It wasn't snowing or raining, at least, but damnit, it was freezing.

"What are you doing with Potter, all these evenings you are closeted together?" he asked finally, breaking the strained silence. It wasn't what he wanted to discuss, particularly, but he couldn't deny he wanted to know the answer; another training session had been missed yesterday because Potter was busy meeting with the Headmaster, and although he thought Hermione might possibly tell him eventually if he asked, he didn't want to push her into betraying a confidence.

"Why?" Dumbledore asked, clearly not going to answer. "You aren't trying to give him more detentions, Severus? The boy will soon have spent more time in detention than out."

If I could think of another cover story, I would use it, he growled silently. It wasn't easy to meet with a student – or three students – privately. Since he couldn't say that, he fell back on one of his old arguments. "He is his father over again," he said deliberately, although he no longer really believed that.

"In looks, perhaps, but his deepest nature is much more like his mother's," Dumbledore said serenely, and Severus repressed a snort. No, it isn't. He's more forgiving than either of his parents. Luckily. Although the boy did have his mother's temper – which wasn't a good thing. "I spend time with Harry because I have things to discuss with him, information I must give him before it is too late."

"Information," Severus repeated slowly. The final plan? He'd been wondering recently if Dumbledore even had one. Letting himself be killed seemed like a very poor strategy. "You trust him... you do not trust me." Even though I'm the one who's going to have to pay the price.

"It is not a question of trust. I have, as we both know, limited time. It is essential that I give the boy enough information for him to do what he needs to do."

Since when is Potter just 'the boy'? Severus wondered suspiciously, cold creeping down his spine. He really didn't like the sound of this. "And why may I not have the same information?" he asked silkily.

"I prefer not to put all of my secrets in one basket, particularly not a basket that spends so much time dangling on the arm of Lord Voldemort."

Rage blazed through him. "Which I do on your orders!" he snarled. Never thanked, rarely acknowledged, but wouldn't they all be screwed if he didn't do it?

"And you do it extremely well," the old man said patronisingly; Severus' hands curled into fists, his nails digging into his palms. "Do not think that I underestimate the constant danger in which you place yourself, Severus." Bullshit. You have no idea what I go through. You've never wanted to know. "To give Voldemort what appears to be valuable information while withholding the essentials is a job I would entrust to nobody but you." That's bullshit too. You don't have a choice. Nobody else can do it, or you'd have been rid of me a long time ago, one way or another.

Seriously angry now, he growled, "Yet you confide much more in a boy who is incapable of Occlumency, whose magic is mediocre and who has a direct connection into the Dark Lord's mind!"

"Voldemort fears that connection. Not so long ago he had one small taste of what truly sharing Harry's mind means to him. It was pain such as he has never experienced. He will not try to possess Harry again, I am sure of it. Not in that way."

Well, that's good to know... He'd had nightmares of what would happen should the Dark Lord discover that he was teaching Potter to protect himself. "I don't understand."

"Lord Voldemort's soul, maimed as it is, cannot bear close contact with a soul like Harry's. Like a tongue on frozen steel, like flesh in flame –"

"Souls?" he interrupted, wondering if the old man had gone completely crackers. "We were talking of minds!" They weren't the same thing. Severus didn't believe it was possible to possess another's soul. Corrupt it, damage it, yes, but not own it.

"In the case of Harry and Lord Voldemort, to speak of one is to speak of the other."

He stared blankly at his employer; he didn't have a clue what Dumbledore was talking about, but it didn't sound particularly sane, frankly. Don't say he's gone as mad as the Dark Lord...

Dumbledore looked around to make sure they were still alone at the edge of the forest. "After you have killed me, Severus –"

You'll abandon me to the blanket hatred of everyone I know, if my sanity – my soul – even survives it. Shaking with fury, he forced the words out through clenched teeth. "You refuse to tell me everything, yet you expect that small service of me! You take a great deal for granted, Dumbledore!" You always have. "Perhaps I have changed my mind!" Empty words; he had no choice, and they both knew it, but he was so fucking sick of this.

"You gave me your word, Severus." You don't trust my word, though, old man, do you. I can see the fear in your eyes. Even now, you don't believe I'm on your side, and there will never be anything I can do to prove myself. I will always be just a Death Eater to you.

"And while we are talking about services you owe me, I thought you agreed to keep a close eye on our young Slytherin friend?"

His temper snapped completely. "He's no friend of yours, and I owe you nothing, Dumbledore! What have you ever given me that I should repay? It is no fault of mine that so many of my House despise you! I told you in the summer that Draco will not listen to me. I told you again in October. He has no faith that I will be able to protect him, and why should he? What am I supposed to do? I am stumbling blindly in the dark, walking the razor's edge with none of the facts and no idea of the truth. After I have killed you, you say? Fine! Tell me, what happens then? The Order think me a traitor and a murderer. I get left in charge of a school filled with angry witches and wizards who hate me. If I fail to subdue them, I will be killed in turn. Meanwhile you give secret information to an underage boy with almost as many psychological problems as I have, God knows to what end – you're a fool if you think he'll do anything after your death except try to kill me. So tell me, Dumbledore, what happens?"

The old man's eyes were chips of icy blue flame. "You would be dead if not for me, Severus."

"And the world would have been far better off. I had that made very clear to me when I was sixteen. I know the precise value of my life to you, Dumbledore, don't worry about that."

Angry or not, the Headmaster couldn't look him in the eyes. Shaking with anger, Severus looked away, bile burning his throat and pressure making his head pound. "Fine," he said finally in a cold, distant voice, letting the cool darkness of his Occlumency defences quench the fire once more. "Keep your secrets. The Order will still follow you blindly, regardless – until I take that away from them. So be it. I don't know what you hope to achieve by any of this, but it is hardly anything new for me, is it? As you pointed out, I gave you my word, and I will stand by that." Unless a miracle happens and I think of a way out.

"You have no choice," Dumbledore said coldly. "The Unbreakable Vow will hold you."

Severus spat on the frozen earth at his employer's feet, because it was that or hit him. It must really wind you up that you need to rely on a Slytherin, mustn't it, old man. I'm not a Gryffindor, so obviously I can't be trusted. Has it ever occurred to you that you are every bit as prejudiced as my other master? Have you ever stopped to wonder about what this is costing me? Or are you as ignorant as you seem, and never spare a thought for the fact that I have feelings too?

"Yes," he said tiredly, leaving the retort unspoken as his anger died. "It will." Damnit. I need more than this. I can't do this alone. Turning away without another word, he walked off into the darkness, trudging through the snow towards the dungeon entrance, his shoulders slumping under the almost physical weight of everything he had been trying not to think about.

Insomnia was one of the words Severus most hated, in the entire spectrum of the English language, because almost nobody who used it ever really knew what it actually meant. People joked about it, they thought because they had difficulty sleeping one night it made them an insomniac. Witless teenagers showed off, telling people they had insomnia when in reality they stayed awake deliberately because they thought it was somehow cool to be overtired or because it gave them an excuse to be stroppy little bastards. The reality was a disease. More than almost anything else in the world, he just wanted to sleep, and he couldn't.

Sprawled on his back on his bed, he stared at the ceiling by the odd and indefinable faint light that filtered down below ground to the dungeons, his eyes itching and burning with exhaustion. His whole body felt heavy, fatigue dragging at him like a physical weight that was almost a kind of pain. The argument with Dumbledore had been a mistake, he told himself wearily; he never should have pushed for a conversation at all. He'd known how it would turn out. He had already known that Dumbledore didn't trust him and saw him as scum; he hadn't needed to hear it said yet again.

Blinking slowly, he sighed; it served him right, really. He never had learned to leave well enough alone; it was the same compulsion as picking at scabs. What good would it do him to confront reality again? He should have kept on not thinking about it.

Damn Dumbledore to hell. Would it really kill the old man to give him something, anything to cling to? Severus didn't even need hope; he had resigned himself to inevitable death a long time ago. He just didn't want to die with everyone thinking he was a traitor. Just one person on his side would have been enough, but there never had been anyone, not completely, not as far back as his memories went.

Once more, his thoughts slid back to the lab a couple of weeks ago, and that rather odd conversation with Hermione. It was the first time in a long while he'd given any thought to his parents, really...

Eileen Snape had been a distant, sad woman; even in his earliest fuzzy memories he couldn't remember ever seeing her smile without a shadow of sorrow in her face. There had been something worn down, something hopeless in her. Certainly she had never seemed to see her son as a blessing. She had never said that she loved him, either, and she hadn't been able to protect him – he didn't really remember her ever trying, but even as a small boy he had understood that it wasn't necessarily because she didn't want to but because she couldn't.

Most of his early education had come from her, but again, the harsh circumstances of their lives had shaped so much of him. His skill with the Dark Arts dated right back to when he was young; he'd learned to read using an old and quite dark spellbook and for years the only books he'd had access to were other, darker books that she had inherited from her family. They simply couldn't afford anything else. When other children had been reading stories and nursery rhymes, he had been learning about hexes and counter-curses. She'd taught him to read and write early; he'd need quick wits and intelligence to overcome the deficiencies of his upbringing. He hadn't actually used magic for a long time, although it had manifested around the time he had learned to walk, before he'd learned to speak; even then, part of him had recognised that it was better not to show it openly.

His upbringing had been a very strange blend of Muggle and magical, far more divided than that of most half-bloods. When his father was around, they lived very strictly as Muggles; only when he was absent could Eileen teach her son about magic. At the time, he had resented it, but looking back now Severus could see what an advantage such a childhood had given him; he had learned to survive in either world and to move between them far more easily than most would ever manage, learning to blend in.

Survival had been the main lesson his father had taught him, he reflected quietly. Almost all his memories of Tobias Snape were of a desperate, angry man struggling hopelessly against everything. The Snapes had been very poor; his father's people had never been rich, but they had rubbed along well enough for a time, and in his earliest memories there hadn't been much darkness. Even then, Snape Senior had been having problems with drink, and he was naturally a violent drunk, but it had been a rare occurrence.

And then the mill and the factory had closed down.

Severus smiled thinly in the darkness and shook his head. No wizard and few Muggles could possibly understand the impact that such a small thing could have; their entire neighbourhood had been destroyed. Almost everyone on the estate had worked there and now they were all unemployed; nobody could afford to commute, and in those days only the very richest families owned a car. Virtually overnight the area where he lived had gone from a low but acceptable standard of living to a horrific state of poverty.

It had broken his father. Suddenly, Tobias had become a failure, both in his job and in his duty as head of the family. If he had been less proud, he could have allowed his wife's magic to support them, but... that time and that place bred a proud people. Tobias had never been comfortable with being married to a witch, and he had quickly become bitterly resentful, taking out all his frustration and anger on her because he had no other target. Severus remembered watching truly horrifying scenes of violence with a child's resigned acceptance, and later accepting that violence being turned on him with the same resignation; there had been nothing he could have done to stop it, and even as a young boy he had recognised that crying or begging would only make it worse – that, too, was a lesson his mother had taught him.

As for why she had never used magic, either to protect herself or to defend her son... it had taken him years to work that one out. At the time he had hated her for leaving them both so vulnerable, for not helping them, for not saving him the way mothers were supposed to fight for their children. Looking back now, he knew she had never been strong, and he suspected she hadn't been well treated as a child either, and she simply hadn't had the strength and the spirit to oppose the man she must presumably have once cared about.

He supposed, now, that people would be appalled to hear him speak of his childhood, but in the context of the time and place it had been all too normal. He hadn't been the only abused child of a battered wife on the estate or even just in his street. It wasn't good, but it happened, and you either learned to survive it or you let it break you. If he was grateful for anything, it was that he hadn't turned out like his father – spiteful, petty bastard though he knew he could be, he'd never been that bad. Watching domestic violence had been normal, and being a victim of it had been normal, but he had never felt the urge to deal it out for himself, never physically abused anyone weaker than himself except at Voldemort's direct order. He wasn't a violent drunk, either; as with everything else in his life, alcohol just sent him deeper into himself.

He had no taste for rape, either, and one of the largest lies he had told the Dark Lord was his claim of impotence. Far better to endure the mockery of his fellows than to be forced to violate some poor man or woman, even if it meant he ended up taking the place of the victim on occasion. Severus wasn't sure why he'd never seen sexual assault as normal, but he remembered the first time he'd seen his father attack his mother; he couldn't have been more than three or four years old. He'd been far too young to understand what he was seeing, but even then he'd had the overwhelming feeling that it was something very, very wrong, that his father was somehow perverting something that should have been good. Where that idea had come from, he couldn't say, but he was grateful for it now. He might well be a monster, but he did still have a line that he couldn't cross.

Severus thought dispassionately of his parents as a couple, and shook his head. He had no idea why they had ever married. He knew that Tobias had known Eileen was a witch before they had wed, and he knew that she hadn't fallen pregnant until several years after the wedding, so it was a mystery to him. Given his father's attitude to magic, he couldn't see how they could ever have been in love, and certainly by the time he was old enough to remember anything they hadn't seemed to even like each other. He had learned nothing about normal human relationships and interactions from them.

And then they had died, when he was only sixteen. He didn't like thinking about that time very much. He had come home for the summer, already knowing he had lost Lily, already knowing she would never forgive him no matter how hard he tried because she didn't want to forgive him this time, and he had let himself into the house and been greeted by a cold silence, a moment of sudden fear and a truly appalling smell of decay before walking into the front room to find them both dead. In the space of a couple of weeks, his entire life had fallen apart.

The Muggle authorities had explained gently to him that there had been a gas leak, that carbon monoxide had poisoned them both. At the time, he had accepted it, too numb to do anything else; it hadn't been until some years later that he had guessed the truth. It had been a gas leak, yes, but it hadn't been an accident. He hadn't got a scrap of proof, but Severus was absolutely certain that his mother had deliberately poisoned both herself and her husband, and had done so in a way that could not be detected at a time when their son was away and could not be involved. He had suspected since adolescence that she planned to kill herself once he was old enough not to need her any more; it was a surprise that she had been brave enough to take Tobias with her, but if she hadn't done it, Severus knew he would have done. Understanding why his father had been the way he was didn't mean that he hated him any less or that he could ever have forgiven him.

He hadn't told anyone else. What would have been the point? He wasn't going to hide behind his dysfunctional childhood and use it in an attempt to justify the man he was now. Plenty of people had terrible childhoods; it wasn't a valid excuse. And if his early years had been different, he wouldn't have learned how to survive; he'd probably be dead now, and while sometimes he thought that might have been for the best, for the moment he was still needed. Not for much longer, but still, those early lessons had given him what he needed to play his story out until the end.

It didn't matter now; he let the memories slide back into the depths and stared at the ceiling once more. No, his family had never supported him. He flatly refused to think about Lily tonight; he felt bad enough as it was. The school... well, Dumbledore was as supportive now as he had ever been, which was all that needed saying. Poppy Pomfrey – she tried her best, and he appreciated that, but she wasn't involved in the war at all except for patching the holes in his worthless hide every so often. She was a Healer, that was her job, and he did like her but it wasn't what he needed. Dilys and Phineas were the closest things to allies he had, and they'd both been dead for centuries. They knew everything that had happened, though, and they were on his side. He just wished someone living was.

Of course, there was Hermione, although he tried to avoid thinking about her as much as possible because it just made his head hurt. But she didn't know the full story. He wasn't sure just how much she had been told, but she didn't know what he had done, or what he was almost certainly going to have to do. That, he admitted, was the real reason he was so frightened. He didn't want her to look at him as though he was a monster. And what would happen once Dumbledore was dead? Potter and Weasley would run to the Order, and he hoped she would have the sense to go with them and avoid Hogwarts like the plague, but he wouldn't put it past her to come back to finish her education – or possibly to revenge herself on him. And if she did... he had nightmares about what he could be forced to do to her.

It was tempting to tell her what was really happening, just so he would have someone on his side, but it wasn't fair to her. What good would it do? She couldn't help him get out of this. Adding to her worries to try and make himself feel better was just selfish, and it wouldn't affect the outcome. All things considered, it was almost a good thing that he probably wasn't going to live long enough for it to be a problem.

Enough angst, he told himself tiredly, concentrating on the cool quiet silence of his mental ocean, his thoughts calmed and slid away, his mind becoming still and blank and empty. It wasn't peace, but it was as close as he was going to get.

Morning found him in the same position, still lying on his back and staring at the ceiling. He didn't know if he had slept or not, but he probably hadn't. It didn't really matter; he was tired, but the extent of that tiredness wasn't really relevant. Time to get up, to go and get some fresh air and face the day and pretend nothing had happened.

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 24 of 60

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