Continuing Tales

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 25 of 60

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A few evenings later, Hermione made her way to the infirmary once more, having finally given in and called a meeting of what she had long ago christened in her head Team Snape. Phineas was in the dungeons watching Snape at the moment, since tonight didn't seem to be a Summons night; Hermione settled in Madam Pomfrey's office with a cup of tea as Dilys joined them in her normal portrait.

"So what's on your mind tonight?" the nurse asked quietly. "I know this isn't about your studies – which are going very well, by the way."

She smiled despite her concern. "Thanks, but no, that's not why I wanted to talk to you both. I'm getting worried about Professor Snape. More so than usual, I mean."

"Have you noticed something new?"

"Not... new, as such, no," she conceded, "but the usual things seem to be getting worse. In class, for example, he's snapping at everyone now, not just the people who annoy him most – even at the Slytherins, which he normally doesn't do. His temper is getting really bad..."

"He's snapping at you?" Dilys asked swiftly.

Hermione bit her lip and smiled ruefully. "Well, he always does in class, to be fair, or he ignores me completely. Outside lessons... sometimes, yes. In the mornings..." She hesitated and looked at Madam Pomfrey. "Do you know about..."

"The jogging? Yes, I knew you'd started running with him last year, and I assumed you would keep going as long as he allowed you to. Don't worry, Hermione, you're not doing anything wrong. It's done you both good, I think."

"Well, anyway," she continued hastily – she hoped the mediwitch didn't know everything – "he's different in the mornings as well now. He's never been a morning person, as far as I know, but it's not a question of not being talkative any more; sometimes I don't think he's actually capable of talking. He's always looked tired, but now he looks dangerously exhausted. I don't often try and talk to him, but when I do he doesn't even seem to hear me any more, and if I repeat myself until he does hear me he snaps."

Not only that, but he was really out of it some mornings; she'd seen him stumble far more often, catching his foot on tree roots or stones on a path he should know blindfold or slipping in mud that shouldn't have stopped him, his strides lacking the usual easy rhythm. And he'd been letting her take the lead a lot recently until he was following her, rather than the other way around. He just seemed so much less aware of his surroundings, which was really unlike him.

Madam Pomfrey nodded gravely and sat back in her chair, cradling her teacup in her hands. "His last check-up was on Tuesday, and he is showing far more signs of stress. He's lost weight again, his blood pressure is dangerously high, his muscle fatigue is getting worse and his reflexes and responses are nowhere near as good as they once were. Some of his other problems are improving – he does finally seem to have stopped drinking for good, at last, for example – but yes, things are getting worse. Dilys, what have you and Phineas seen recently?"

"Nothing good," the portrait reported softly. "We've noticed that he's not really eating – he tries, but he obviously has no appetite at all now and he usually just picks at his food. He's taking a lot more medication, too, potions and Muggle pills..."

"He's drinking Calming Draught a lot, I think," Hermione said. "I've smelled it on him recently. I thought the first time it was just on his clothes and that he'd just been brewing it, but we're fully stocked, and I can smell it in the mornings on his breath as well. Can you even use it like that?"

"You can, in theory, but you shouldn't," Madam Pomfrey said with a sigh. "And he knows that as well as I do. If he's really that stressed, then he's getting desperate. What else, Dilys? I know you try and watch him as much as possible now."

"His insomnia is getting worse, we think," the portrait replied. "It's hard to tell, since obviously it's dark and he's in bed, but we've noticed that normally when he sleeps he ends up curled up on his side and he doesn't seem to be doing that much now, so we think he's still awake for most of each night. The few times we're certain that he's slept, he wakes up from what seem to be quite bad nightmares after perhaps an hour."

"Occlumency is supposed to block almost all nightmares," Hermione said worriedly. "For someone as strong as he is, whatever's getting through must be horrifying..."

"By now he doesn't even try to go to bed a lot of the time. He sits up most of the night, working or brewing or reading, or goes out and walks around the castle constantly. I don't think he's had a decent stretch of sleep in weeks, and he's obviously fraying around the edges now."

"Is it related to whatever it is you're not allowed to tell us?" Hermione asked hesitantly.

"What makes you ask that?"

"Well, he's not been Summoned any more often, and there's nothing new in the paper, and Ron's heard nothing from his brothers, so I don't think anything new has happened in the war," she replied logically, before hesitating. "Besides, it's a bit convoluted but Harry told me that Hagrid told him that he overheard Professor Snape and the Headmaster having an argument after Ron was poisoned. Hagrid didn't hear much but it was something about Professor Snape not wanting to do something, or being taken for granted. I don't know."

Dilys stared through her with a remote expression, and Hermione resisted the urge to swear. "You can't even say if it's true."

"If they fought, it wasn't in the castle – well, obviously not, if Hagrid overheard them. I can't comment. But I am aware there has been a... discussion."

"Can't you tell us anything at all?" Hermione asked pleadingly. "I'm really, really worried about him."

"I know you are, my dear, and I am sorry that I can't do more. Poor Severus does need someone else to know, but I am bound by enchantments that can't be broken. I physically cannot tell you what Albus has asked of him."

"Has it got anything to do with Draco?" she asked. "Can you... nod, or something, if I guess right?"

"I can't help you, Hermione. Believe me, I want to, but I can't. The Headmaster won't tell anyone, so unless you can somehow persuade Severus to, you won't know until it happens."

"And he's not going to tell you anything." The new voice was Phineas.

"You're supposed to be watching him."

"He's fallen asleep at his desk," the Slytherin reported, a little grimly. "Or passed out, possibly. I judged it best to leave him – besides, I wanted to hear this. Carry on trying to work it out, Miss Granger, by all means, and continue trying to weasel it out of Severus. Even someone as stubborn as he is can't go on like this forever."

"Want to bet?" she retorted with a sigh. "He's spent nearly forty years refusing to open up to anyone, as far as I can tell. He doesn't trust any of us."

"I don't think that's true," Madam Pomfrey said unexpectedly. "He just doesn't think you can do anything to help. He does seem to trust you, Hermione – certainly more than he does me," she added with an edge to her voice. "After almost three decades, you'd think he would have more faith in me, but there you are. I wish I knew why."

Hermione blinked. "I thought you already knew, or I'd have said something – I worked that out a while ago. I think it's because you're a Healer. It's your job to worry about him, so he assumes that's all it is. I chose to, so he has a bit more faith in my motives. I think."

"Bah. That does sound like him, actually. If he didn't look like he'd collapse if I did it, I'd throttle him. How anyone as smart as he is can be so stupid, I really don't know," the nurse said in a tone of such utter exasperation that Hermione started giggling, echoed by Dilys' laughter; even Phineas was smiling a little.

Hermione glanced briefly at her essay as she retrieved it from the front of the classroom; next to the almost grudging 93 scrawled on the top were two words. See me. She smiled wryly to herself; even now, seeing those words in a teacher's handwriting caused an irrational flutter of panic as she automatically started worrying about what had been wrong with the homework. She knew full well that whatever Snape wanted to talk to her about had absolutely nothing to do with the assignment, since he would have said whatever he felt he needed to in the comments at the end, but still.

After the lesson she hefted her bag and went to stand in front of his desk as the rest of the class filed out, growing less subdued with every step away from the gloomy classroom until the corridor seemed to contain a riot. "You wanted to see me, sir?"

He nodded without looking up from his marking, reaching out with his free hand to pick up a sheet of parchment from the desk and holding it out to her. "Read this."

She took the parchment and scanned it quickly; it was a list of ingredients and a Potions formula, written in Snape's distinctive narrow, spiky and in this case almost unintelligible handwriting. Shifting her weight back on her heels, she read it through a couple of times, frowning; it was one of the most complicated she had ever seen, more difficult than Polyjuice or any of the potions they had brewed in their NEWT class so far.

"Could you brew this?" Snape asked the essay he was working on in a slightly distant tone of voice.

"What potion is this, sir?"

"Wolfsbane, as you had already guessed," he replied laconically, finally glancing up through the curtains of his lank black hair, his dark eyes as unreadable as ever. "Answer the question, Miss Granger."

She looked back at the parchment in her hand and bit her lip. "I don't know, sir. Maybe, if you were there to walk me through it and give me a hand if I get stuck."

"Not unsupervised?"

"I wouldn't want to risk it, sir. It's more difficult than anything I've done so far."

He nodded and sat back in his chair, sighing. "We'll have to try and find some time for you to attempt a practice run, then. God knows when."

"Why, sir?" she asked tentatively, already certain she didn't really want to hear the answer and with a feeling that she already knew, and he gave her a rather bleak look that in all honesty wasn't much different from his usual expression these days.

"Because someone else in the Order needs to be able to brew it, and I wouldn't trust anyone else with even a basic first-year potion, let alone this."

That had actually been quite a nice compliment, if you squinted, but Hermione was more interested in the first part of the sentence despite the fact that she'd been desperate for Snape to offer even a small bit of praise for her abilities for six years. "In case something happens to you, sir?" she asked, trying to find a crack in his words that might persuade him to open up a bit.

"When something happens to me," he corrected her bluntly, his eyes darkening.

"Sir?" she questioned, hoping like hell she was wrong.

"Don't be foolish, Miss Granger. You're not naïve. The chances are very good indeed that I will be dead within six months." She couldn't quite stop herself from gasping, and he actually rolled his eyes. "Your melodrama is both unnecessary and unappreciated."

"But... how do you know, sir?" she asked weakly. "Has – has something happened?"

He shook his head and shrugged, his expression one of total indifference. "I've stopped deluding myself. Quite apart from anything else, you may or may not be aware that this job is cursed. One way or another, I'll be gone at the end of the summer term, and the odds are strongly in favour of my being killed rather than being able to leave under my own steam or simply tamely returning to my previous job. Even without that... come, Miss Granger. You are well known for your intelligence; even with your limited experience of Healing, you must surely be aware of how much the human body can endure. I can't keep this up indefinitely. Sooner or later I will reach my limit, and it is more likely to be sooner than later. And, of course, I may well be caught out and revealed as a traitor to the Dark Lord." He steepled his fingers and regarded her pensively. "Whatever happens, the Order will need a replacement brewer when it does. You are more than capable of brewing the necessary Healing potions already, but the Wolfsbane is important."

Hermione stared at him in numb horror. The worst part was that he didn't seem bothered; he was discussing his own impending death as calmly as if he were discussing the weather. What the hell was it that he wasn't saying? She knew the stuff about reaching his limits was nonsense, and she wasn't convinced that the curse on his job would kill him. No, this was about whatever Dumbledore was making him do; the bleak resignation in his eyes told her very clearly that he had decided that he wouldn't survive. He had given up, and that was probably going to be what killed him. At the same time, he was a realist and he clearly hated Voldemort with every fibre of his being; if he had given up, then it meant his chances of survival actually were pretty much zero.

He sighed and gave her a rather exasperated look. "Don't look at me like that, girl. I'm not telling you anything you didn't already know; it's hardly my fault if you were refusing to admit it."

"...It shouldn't be like this," she whispered, tangling her hands in the sides of her robe to try and stop herself from trembling as her eyes started to sting. His eyes were calm and accepting; he was facing the prospect of his probably rather unpleasant and lingering death with far more courage than she was.

Snape shrugged again, his tone a little softer. "People die in wars. Better I than many others. With luck, I will die with my cover intact, and I may perhaps be able to buy a little time by doing so. There are worse ends."

"Don't you care?" she asked thickly. She knew she should use this opportunity to ask what was really going on, but she knew she couldn't actually force the words out right now.

Something nameless stirred in the depths of his eyes, but she couldn't tell what it was; he was Occluding again. "I have never attached all that much value to my life, Miss Granger. The world will certainly be no worse off if Severus Snape is no longer in it; quite the reverse, in some ways. I won't be missed."

"Yes, you will," she said very softly, daring to meet his eyes directly; he blinked, caught off guard, and for a brief moment that lasted no more than a second he looked startlingly vulnerable before the shields slammed home behind his eyes once more.

"Foolish Gryffindor," he growled, scowling at her. "It changes nothing. This is reality. Now take those instructions with you and look them over; I will try and find the time to help you brew it. And if you intend to start crying," he added warningly, "wait until you're out of my classroom or I will not be responsible for my actions. You may go."

In order to obey that final instruction, she had to leave the room at a dead run, but the first tear didn't fall until she had cleared the doorway.

After Granger had gone, Severus tried to focus on his paperwork, with limited success. It was always the same old story... he would just be getting a grip on things again, managing to sort out all his tangled thoughts and emotions and finding some stability, and then she'd do or say something – completely innocently – to ruin his attempts at control. There had been real pain in her eyes at the thought of him dying, and that small change of expression as she had turned away had been enough to stir everything up again. It didn't resurrect any long-dead hopes or anything like that, though, he was too resigned for that now; it just gave him a headache and soured his already pretty sour mood.

Some time later he was distracted from a manful struggle with the third year essays by a tap at the door and glanced up; he was still working in his classroom both because it was easier and because now he was teaching above ground it was a hell of a lot warmer up here than it was in his dungeon office. His circulation was well and truly shot by this point and he needed all the warmth he could get.

The visitor turned out to be Minerva, and he regarded his colleague warily; they hadn't really spoken since their fight back in October, not privately. He could see at a glance that she was still a little angry with him, but there was nothing new there; she had been angry with him since he was eleven. Far worse than her anger was the peculiar softness in her eyes that he hadn't seen since the last few weeks of the last war when he'd been half dead and the terrible time afterwards when he'd barely been sane.

Pretending not to have noticed – it made him horribly uncomfortable – he sat back and arched an eyebrow and inquired sardonically, "What have the little nuisances done now?"

"I'm not here to talk about the students," she said quietly, and he bit back a sigh. Of course you're not.

"Then I don't believe we have anything to discuss," he replied curtly, turning back to the pile of essays.

"Oh, stop it, Severus. You don't have to act like this all the time. Stop pretending to work and talk to me." She closed the door and crossed the room to his desk, conjuring herself a wing-backed armchair and settling down before giving him a concerned look. "You look dreadful."

"Thank you. I'm glad we had this conversation. Goodbye."

"I'm being serious. You haven't looked this bad since the last war," she told him, echoing his earlier thoughts. "There's obviously something wrong."

He gave her an apathetic look. A small part of him wanted to laugh scornfully – there was an awful lot wrong, actually – and another part wanted to ask viciously what the hell made her think it was any of her business, but mostly he just wanted her to stop talking about it and leave him alone; he felt bad enough already. "A great many things," he said tiredly, "none of which really concern you."

"Don't snarl, Severus," she chided him gently. "I'm worried about you."

You never have been before. He had far too many memories of watching bleakly as she came to the defence of her precious Gryffindors, facing down his spineless excuse for a Head of House while he waited resignedly to see what punishment he'd be left with this time. He barely felt even a twinge of bitterness any more; it had been too long ago and he had too many more immediate problems on his mind. This time, however, he kept the retort to himself and answered more quietly. "I'll do what I'm supposed to do, never fear. I always do, don't I?"

Minerva sighed. "You're not just a tool to be used. I can't help it if you feel like that, but I am worried about you, not just your job. Won't you tell me now what's going on? Albus still won't say but I know he's asked you to do something very difficult..."

"You could say that, yes," he muttered, shaking his head. It occurred to him that she was probably a little hurt at being excluded; she was probably the closest Dumbledore had to a best friend and they had been confidantes for a long time now. She wouldn't be happy that he was refusing to tell her what was going on. Join the club.

"Why don't you trust him, Severus?" she asked softly. "I know you were treated... really rather badly, when you were a student, and I have tried to make it up to you since then, you know. So has he. But it hasn't seemed to make much difference. Is there something else going on that I don't know about?"

He avoided her eyes. No point shattering her illusions. She'd be all right, Dumbledore wouldn't throw her to the wolves, but he couldn't say the same. He didn't trust the old man because the old man didn't trust him, and because he knew the Headmaster wouldn't give a damn when he died, except perhaps if he found it mildly inconvenient. His life had no importance, no value to his master. Besides, Dumbledore was a scheming, manipulative old hypocrite and nowhere near the snow-white saint that he seemed to be... but nobody else knew that, and nobody would believe him. He'd take the fall; better that the Order hate him, their pet black sheep they had never liked, than their leader that they all loved and trusted and believed in.

"I have my reasons," he answered softly after a while. "Enough, Minerva. You're not my mother. I... I appreciate your concern... but you can't help with this. Nobody can. If I thought you could, I'd have asked by now," he admitted with total honesty; he couldn't afford pride any more.

"At least talk to me about it. You really do look dreadful and this is obviously putting a lot of strain on you..."

He shook his head wearily. "Talking won't help. I'm not like that, you know I'm not, and talking never solves anything anyway. A problem shared isn't a problem halved, it's a problem doubled. There is no point in both of us worrying about it. I'll survive." But Dumbledore won't. And I don't think I want to. He swallowed and met her eyes without expression, holding her gaze until she looked away with a sigh.

"Well, I tried. You're too stubborn for your own good, you know, Severus. It's not good for you to be this alone."

As if I have a choice. If nobody wanted to spend any time with you, you got used to being on your own. That was just how life worked. He shrugged in response, turning his eyes back to his marking, and after a moment she sighed again and rose, Vanishing her chair and letting herself out.

That night, sleep was even more of a distant impossibility than it usually was. Severus let himself out of his rooms and wandered through the darkened castle – most of the students never realised that the teachers really didn't patrol the school at night very often, during peacetime at least, and that most of the time if he caught them out of bed it was an accident rather than because he was hunting troublemakers. He liked to walk around at night. He hadn't had a good time as a student, and he didn't like his job, especially now, but Hogwarts was the closest thing to a real home that he had ever known; he would never admit it, but he did love the castle.

With no specific destination in mind, he walked slowly through the shadowy corridors, listening to the near-silence. The portraits and the ghosts were all familiar with his habits and although he sometimes saw movement from the corner of his eye, they left him alone at night and wouldn't try to speak to him unless he initiated a conversation. For once, he didn't think there were any students wandering around either. It was raining, he noticed absently as he walked past a window, and he paused for a moment to watch the drops running down the outside of the glass before impulsively turning and increasing his pace, heading for one of his old haunts.

God, he hadn't been up here for years. Severus looked around as he emerged into the rain on top of the Astronomy Tower, shaking his head ruefully; other youngsters might have sneaked up here to snog, but he'd had a different idea in mind. Well aware that this was daft, he moved to the point where the railing met the outer wall and stepped up onto the rail, steadying himself against the stone of the tower's peak as he turned; reaching up, he caught the edge of the roof of the turret and jumped to pull himself up onto the roof slates, gratified to find that he could still do it. Scrabbling for purchase on the wet slate, he clawed his way up to the very peak of the roof and crouched to catch his breath, grinning for a moment despite himself. He hadn't been up here since his student days... God, almost twenty years ago.

"I really am getting old," he told himself dryly, shifting to pull his robe out of the way and kneeling at the roof's apex, steadying himself with one hand resting lightly on the slates and looking around. There wasn't much to see; the rain and the clouds hid the moon and stars, and there were no lights visible in the castle tonight. Even Hogsmeade was in darkness. It didn't matter; he could remember the view from up here in daylight, when he'd dared to stand up right on the roof's highest point and it had seemed as though he could see to the end of the world, with the whole castle spread out beneath him and the distant moors seeming to go on forever.

Closing his eyes, he leaned his head back and let the rain blow into his face as it began to soak through his clothes, feeling the wind tugging at him. Heights had never scared him, and if he fell now he did know how to fly. Whether he would do so or not... he half-smiled, licking rain off his upper lip. No, he wasn't the suicidal type. It was very tempting, sometimes, and it would certainly make matters simpler, but his sense of duty was stronger than that.

The world was different up here, clearer and yet more distant all at once. He'd always found it easier to think, here. The last time he had come up here was when he had found out that Lily had finally said yes when Potter asked her out, and he'd lain full length on the sloping roof anchored only by his arms around the steeple while he thought things through and worked it all out in his head. Now he once again had a great deal to think about, but it was rather more important now than his teenage angst had been.

His thoughts turned first to his masters, both of them. Oddly, it was Dumbledore he disliked most and served more reluctantly; that probably wouldn't have surprised any of his colleagues in the Order, but he knew they wouldn't understand why. He followed Dumbledore purely because they happened to be on the same side; he had no faith in the old man, never had, and he knew he was one of the few people to see the manipulative, ruthless and sometimes just plain petty bastard behind the twinkly-eyed facade. Voldemort, though... slowly he tugged back the wet cloth of his sleeve and looked down at the Dark Mark, clear and black against his pale skin and glistening in the rain.

This was what nobody understood about double agents; whichever side won, Severus would lose. Voldemort had been the first person in his life to ever treat him as if he was worth something, the first one to ever give him the chance to prove himself. His initiation and branding had been horrific, yes, but he'd been so proud afterwards, proud of the way he'd endured the pain, proud of his new Mark that was visible proof that he belonged somewhere. And, at first, he had been well treated, the way all of them were. He had been led gently deeper, slowly and gradually, and it had been a long time before he'd had any reason at all to hesitate and wonder if this was really what he wanted after all.

It had all been lies, of course. He had never meant anything to Voldemort, any more than any of the other Death Eaters had. But, oh, he'd known what lies to tell. The man Severus remembered had been a gifted, charismatic, compelling figure, able to judge a nervous young man in a single glance and shape his approach accordingly. Those who wanted power were allowed to taste it; those with deviant tastes were given opportunities they could only dream of; those who wanted revenge were listened to with sympathy and agreed with; those who, like Severus, wanted to be part of something greater than themselves were welcomed and made to feel valued, as though they were important.

It hadn't lasted. Nothing ever did, in his experience. The tasks asked of him grew darker, and more bloody, and the punishments grew harsher. Voldemort began to change, growing less human, less empathic, more dangerous and more unstable. Severus had finally admitted to himself that he had been wrong, and he had watched fatalistically as other people had made the same admission and tried to run away; he'd seen what had happened to them, and he'd kept his head down. He hadn't wanted a way out enough to risk it... until he found out that Lily was in danger.

That was still his worst memory. The knowledge that he had unknowingly betrayed his only friend – it didn't matter that she hadn't liked him any more; once Severus decided someone was his friend, they remained so in his eyes for ever, regardless of how they saw him – still haunted him. He'd begged Voldemort to spare her, he recalled with shame, indifferent to the fate of her husband and infant son. And that was where Voldemort had made a mistake. He had said he would try to avoid killing her. He had been honest. If he had only had the sense to lie, to promise that of course he would let her live because it was only the child he wanted, Severus would have believed him without question.

This was the truth of the strange dilemma that lay on the razor's edge he walked every day. In his way, Voldemort had been the kinder master. He had misled Severus to lure him in, certainly, but he had never explicitly lied to him that Severus could recall. There had been no emotional blackmail, only a simple system of 'obey this order and you'll get this reward; fail me and you'll get this punishment'. No misdirection, no manipulation, just simple black and white. Loyalty had been rewarded fairly and ability had been valued and nurtured; no hypocrisy, no hesitation. It was a sickening contrast to the way of life Severus led under Dumbledore. Despite the torture, despite every foul thing he'd been forced to do... he liked Voldemort more than he liked Dumbledore. At least the leader of the Death Eaters was honest about what he was, and had insanity as an excuse for some of the worst excesses.

It might be Lily that had made him change sides, but Dumbledore had failed and broken his promise and she had died. Nothing had held him to his vow. He could have gone back to the Death Eaters in truth, been valued and welcomed back to the fold. If he had, the war would be over by now. Unlike Dumbledore, Voldemort listened to him and took advantage of his information; had Severus served him loyally, the Order would have lost by now. God knows he'd had enough reasons to do it, after so many years of appalling treatment. But despite everything, Severus did have a conscience, and he knew in his heart that Voldemort was wrong. He'd just needed that final push to make him do something about it and to make him realise that he would never, ever forgive Voldemort for giving him false hope of something real, for making him feel so settled and wanted only to take it away from him.

Admittedly, he told himself wryly, blinking rain out of his eyes, it was a lot easier now that his master was a mutant half-snake who was absolutely fucking bonkers. It hadn't always been this straightforward.

Neither of his masters had any real claim on his soul now, though. Voldemort had betrayed his trust when he was eighteen, and Dumbledore had betrayed his trust when he was eleven. Neither of them had ever understood him well enough to command his loyalty, and they could have done. It wasn't difficult. All either of them had needed to do was to treat him like a human being and care what happened to him, and he would have followed either of them to Hell and back over broken glass. He snorted a soft laugh; without even trying, a seventeen year old girl had succeeded where the two most powerful and dangerous wizards in the world had failed.

It was time to stop lying to himself and really make himself think about Hermione Granger. Sighing, Severus wiped rain from his face and shifted position on the roof, carefully and slowly standing up, planting his boots either side of the peak and letting the wind tug at his now drenched clothes; this was probably going to make him ill again, but the cold was clearing his mind and he had always liked the rain.

In a way, it was almost funny. After Lily's death he'd walled himself up completely, both literally and metaphorically. He'd never been emotional but that had shattered him and he had withdrawn from the world. He'd stayed in the dark, quiet, cold place inside himself for years, avoiding everything and everyone, existing in a vacuum; and then, somehow, completely innocently and utterly ignorant of what she was doing, Hermione had somehow found a way around, under and through all his defences, working her way through his shields before he'd had a chance to realise what was going on. He still didn't understand what the fuck had happened, but that didn't mean it wasn't true. He'd realised over a year ago that he ran the risk of getting far more deeply involved than he wanted to, that she was a real and serious risk to him, but he suspected it had already been too late.

Severus didn't really know what to call it. The only thing he had to compare it to had been his doomed, obsessive, hopeless reliance on Lily, and it had been long enough and he was honest enough to acknowledge that it had been based on need and desperation. There had been nobody else in his life, and he had been younger then, less able to survive on his own. This was different, and he really didn't understand it. He supposed it must be love, of a sort, because surely nothing else could be this painful or this confusing, but how was he supposed to know? He wasn't sure any more if he had ever been in love properly, and certainly nobody had ever loved him.

Looking at it from a different angle, it didn't really matter. Even if there had been no war, no imminent death approaching – well, if there hadn't been a war he'd never have got to know her the way he had and it would have been irrelevant anyway – if things were different, he would still never dare say or do anything about it. What would be the point? Even as an ignorant teenager he had known when he was out of his depth. Pretty, intelligent young women did not end up with ugly, cold, damaged bastards like him. The world simply didn't work that way.

Ignoring all that, though, it was important that he admit to himself just how much of a hold she had over him. To be honest, without her steadfast presence at the edges of his life, he would probably have given up by now and either broke and run for it or simply stopped trying to stay alive. Whatever his reasons before, she was really the only reason he was still trying to fight. For that reason alone, she was important. And hell, she might confuse him more than anyone else ever had, and she might haunt his dreams in ways that disturbed him, and her presence might sometimes hurt, but her friendship was the best thing in his life, and she really and truly cared about him, at least a little. At least someone would mourn when he died.

Briefly he thought of Lily again, Lily as she had been the day he had first met her, the pretty little girl laughing excitedly as he proudly showed her one of the only silly little bits of magic he'd been capable of, her eyes shining with excitement and pleasure; he remembered how happy he'd been to realise that he'd made her happy, which had been completely outside his experience. He thought of Diagon Alley, that first time; he'd only ever been twice before, with his mother, and he'd been trying so painfully hard to pretend he knew it all, showing off for her and her family, so pleased with himself still.

That was the point, though. Ever since they'd first met, he had been trying to please her, trying to impress her. He couldn't remember ever allowing himself to relax and just be himself for more than perhaps half an hour at a time, constantly guarding himself in case he said or did something wrong. She had very definitely been the one in charge, and looking back now he could find scores of instances when she had taken advantage of it. Their friendship had been painfully skewed and uneven and in the long run it had probably done him more harm than good. Being that dependent on anyone and getting so little in return...

Despite that, though, he could still call up every last detail of her face, right down to the freckle above the corner of her mouth, as clear in his mind's eye as Hermione's features were now; he could draw them both with almost photographic accuracy, and had done so more than once. Severus thought for a while, trying to compare the feelings he remembered with the newer ones that preoccupied him now; his bizarre friendship with his student was certainly just as confusing as it had been with Lily, but less painful, at least most of the time. It was more equal – ironic, given how far apart they were – and he wasn't under quite so much pressure. It felt easier; more than that, it felt nicer. He had to admit that being friends with Lily had been very hard work.

Once again, inevitably, his thoughts returned to the lake and the incident that had set the course of the rest of his life. It had taken years for him to assess the events of that afternoon and the rest of that term with any kind of clarity. Now, carefully, he tried to imagine what would have happened had it been Hermione there instead of Lily, if he'd said that word under those circumstances to her. She could be vindictive when hurt, yes, but he simply couldn't see her joining in with the Marauders' bullying and cruelty no matter what he'd said; she would have gone to find a teacher and had someone stop what was happening, and then hexed him later in private, or quite possibly kicked him in the balls. Lily had absolutely broken his heart that day, and even now he didn't think he'd really recovered; he'd never dared fully trust anyone since.

Not that it really mattered. Whatever she'd said or done, no matter how harshly she'd refused his every desperate attempt to fix things, his feelings hadn't changed. The agony of her death was still with him. He still missed her, sometimes, although not as strongly as he had done, nor as frequently. Closing his eyes, he wondered pensively if he was still in love with her or not; he'd never been entirely clear. Presumably that meant he wasn't, since he did feel far more certain about Hermione even if the realisation didn't make him happy. He considered making another attempt at his Patronus and decided there was no point; it wasn't exactly a reliable method of measuring emotions, and watching it trying to take two shapes at once was rather depressing. Nostalgia was all very well, but quite simply, Lily was dead and her memory caused him more pain than joy. Hermione was alive and for reasons beyond his understanding seemed to sort of like him despite all the reasons why she shouldn't, and made him feel slightly better about himself than he thought he ever had. Disregarding all his tangled confusion and worry and doubt, he liked her, without anything else getting in the way. That was good enough for him.

It had stopped raining; Severus looked up at the clouds overhead for a moment, then sat down carefully and slid down the roof, twisting deftly to catch the edge of it as though it had only been last week since he'd done it; hanging for a moment, he dropped onto the blessedly flat solid stone and drew his wand to start drying himself off, feeling a little better. The situation might be completely hopeless, but at least he knew what he was facing, and it was something of a relief to consider that he was unlikely to survive it – no need to face the consequences. Pushing his damp hair back from his face, he let himself back into the castle, closing the door behind him and making his way down the stairs, finally tired enough to sleep.

Hermione was sitting at Madam Pomfrey's desk and absorbed in a book about skin rashes and the merits of external versus internal treatment when Snape showed up to speak to the nurse. It was quite late, approaching the time when she should be leaving her studies to go to bed, but not excessively so for the aftermath of a Summons and he didn't seem to be wounded, or at least not badly. She watched him through the office door as he spoke to the mediwitch too quietly to be heard; he was trembling and there was blood on his shirt cuff and his expression seemed odd, somehow, but he wasn't limping or anything.

Finally he turned away, ending the quiet conversation, and walked slowly through the infirmary; Hermione padded to the doorway to watch as he shrugged out of his robe on the move and tossed it onto a bed before making his way to the small bathroom off the hospital wing and closing the door behind him.

"Is he sleeping here tonight?" she asked, somewhat surprised. To her knowledge, he only did that if he passed out up here, and he usually left for his own rooms as soon as he regained consciousness.

Madam Pomfrey nodded. "I would tell you the medical reason, but to be honest I don't think there is one. He's been having a bad time of things recently, as I know you've noticed, and I believe he just doesn't want to be on his own. I haven't seen him like this since he was a teenager." She sighed, looking towards the closed door worriedly.

"He's not hurt, then?"

"Not as far as I can tell, no. I think he was made to do something unpleasant tonight, but it seems to have hit him harder than usual. He's in rather an odd mood."

"That'll make a change, then," she replied mischievously. The nurse tried to give her a look of reproach, but failed, stifling a soft laugh.

"I don't think he knows you're up here. If you'd like to finish the chapter you're on, you should probably go to bed anyway, it's getting late. You can let yourself out; I won't be up much longer once he's settled."

Nodding, she returned to the office.

Three chapters later, Hermione finally made herself stop, knowing that if she didn't she would work right through until sunrise – she'd done it many times before, losing track of time. Putting the book back on the small shelf now reserved for her, she crept to the doorway and peered into the now silent, darkened infirmary.

"He's asleep," Dilys told her from the wall in a muted whisper. "Go and check on him, if you like. He's dosed himself with something – not a sleeping potion, but he's definitely taken some sort of sedative because he went out like a light and he's too much of an insomniac for that, especially now. He won't wake until morning, which will do him the world of good."

The temptation proved too much to resist, and she tiptoed down the length of the room to look at the sleeping man by the faint light filtering around the edge of the curtains and from the dim lamp at the other end. Snape was curled into a surprisingly compact ball under the blankets, and although he was obviously dead to the world it didn't seem to be peaceful sleep; he was shivering fitfully, the near-permanent crease between his brows was if anything deeper than it was when he was awake, his eyes were moving restlessly behind closed lids and the one hand that was visible was twitching. That shouldn't be happening if he was sedated, but she knew enough about his instincts to know that if he wasn't drugged in some way he'd have woken up and attacked her by now.

She'd never seen anyone look worried in their sleep before. Even unconscious, he looked stressed, tired and unhappy and visibly under strain. Watching him for a few moments, she finally shook her head and retreated to the other end of the room, glancing up at the portrait.

"If my familiar was still here and not with my parents, I'd send him over to sleep with him," she murmured, unable to completely suppress a small smile at the mental image it invoked. Crookshanks was the perfect companion in bed; he was warm, he didn't snore or fidget and his purr was almost supernaturally good at easing nightmares and sleeplessness. He had also seemed to like Snape on the two occasions they had met – at least, the two occasions she knew about. And in her opinion Snape was frankly more in need of a hug than anyone she had ever met.

Dilys grinned. "Now there's a picture. He does like animals, actually, but I can't see him sleeping with a cat. Anyway, you should keep tonight in mind in future – how someone sleeps can tell you a surprising amount about them. Poppy can tell you more tomorrow, or whenever you next get a chance to come here for a lesson; she's made something of a hobby of categorising students based on their favoured sleeping positions. I'm quite glad Severus is up here tonight, actually; Phineas wants to see you down in the dungeons."

"Why? There can't be anything I haven't already almost got into trouble for seeing," she replied sourly, remembering last year.

"I don't know, Hermione. He's down there more often than I am and he sees more than I do. If you don't go, he'll follow you around all day tomorrow, you know."

Sighing, she gave in with bad grace, glancing briefly at her unconscious teacher once more. "Is he going to be all right?"

"I don't know. With him, it's actually a bad sign that he's asking for help, even as obliquely as he did tonight. If Severus is growing desperate enough to seek anything from anyone, despite all his independence, then he's flagging."

"You still can't tell me what he's supposed to be working on, can you?"

The portrait shook her head sadly. "No. And believe me, Hermione, in this instance ignorance is well and truly bliss. You honestly don't want to know. I wish I didn't know. Try not to think about it, if you can, and go and see what the other stubborn and irritating Slytherin in your life wants tonight."

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 25 of 60

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